A Hot January: Poems 1996-1999by Robin Morgan, Morgan
In her intensely personal and powerful sixth book of poems, Robin Morgan blends lyrical style, accomplished form, and political passion to locate her vision in the stark isolation of a self confronting love's aftermath. See more details below
In her intensely personal and powerful sixth book of poems, Robin Morgan blends lyrical style, accomplished form, and political passion to locate her vision in the stark isolation of a self confronting love's aftermath.
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A Hot January
By Robin Morgan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1999 Robin Morgan
All rights reserved.
Isn't this what she feared: herselffulfilling
prophecy: a poet
might try to make sense of it?
One definition of projection: fear's shadow
casting its conceit across a poem's sunstruck lines.
And all the while me dreading her threat:
that I, who drafted love across her body, must
someday settle for revising it as subject matter.
One definition of desire: the flesh made word.
The personal, political, poetic. If only they were rhetoric.
If only I could have fixed a border between them as she did,
she'd have been safe. I'd have been someone else.
One definition of poetry:
imaginary gardens with real toads in them.
Still, poets who are women comprehend being useful more
than using. If, being poets, we cherish language as we do our lives,
being women, we cherish lovers better than ourselves.
Poetry means refusing the choice to kill or die
The Jaguar people of the Amazon
slaughter their enemies
and use the skulls as musical instruments;
I confess to the temptation. Yet, refusing
slaughter, I play my own skull only.
But that is mine to play.
The blood jet is poetry
A poet cannot ever understand that someone else
will never understand the act of poetry committed
not in vengeance, but simply to survive.
Poetry ... is the skeleton architecture of our lives.
What was to me a daily passion renewing itself
warm as fresh bread, she shrugged away so often
that now she will not recognize authentic
understatement, such as: "I write these poems
reluctantly, my dear, to spare you
something worse: my death at your hands."
Suicide is, after all, the opposite of the poem.
"Therefore, lover-no-more, you are hereby unfleshed, absolved
of your reality, lust, cowardice, lies, of giving or receiving love,
of censoring yourself and words of mine that loved you. This is not
about you." This is about what got left behind.
A family. A landscape—black sand, white water, green stone.
Certain animals answering to names I'd given them.
A particular pair of boots. A claret ash tree ?
Then, more gradually, the loss of other things.
Pride. Sleep. Health. Weight. Hair. Bone. Time. Heart. Voice.
I must make use of myself as a found object.
The poem understands that a lover was merely the first sign,
second string, last straw. Besides, the poem knows she needs
such reassurances to believe her privacy safe from insight.
Poetry is the moment of proof.
The poem understands
[Italicized lines, respectively, by Marianne Moore, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath, Audre Lorde, Adrienne Rich, Diane Glancy, and Muriel Rukeyser.]
LEARNING CLOCK PATIENCE
No less and no more of merely
a card game than solitaire is: a means
of passing time in circles, as if
this radiance of unaccompanied suites
were evitable or sturdy as any other
house of cards, numbers ascending or
descending in assent or dissent, irony
at play in alternate red and black,
the colors of anarchy. "Of course,"
you say, and grin.
But such a sorting out of sorts exposes
categories we categorically reject:
kings, as always, bond;
aces, as usual, are hidden.
Still, the jacks seem tame. And here,
for once, queen seeks out queen.
Odd, in this unlikely setting,
where two grown women play at patience
sitting in a rain-enclosed verandah
on the tropical island where they came for sun.
A morning respite from wet weather
finds us exploring the interior
to meet ourselves in other skins gathered
at a stream—many of you and me,
some wearing babies or bruises, all of us slapping
laundry at the rocks, telling familiar
stories in a different language.
Our children are too thin.
Here, then, as in most places, diamonds
have more value than do hearts.
That evening, I wander through the open-air
tourist lounge and overhear a meeting;
the European men who own the island voice
mutual alarm: restless native men, it seems,
are wielding clubs and spades. Interests
must be protected, development must proceed,
a private army be imported wearing
submachine guns, walkie-talkies, smiles—Tourist
Police, they'll name it. Cigar-smoke laughter. Then
they notice me. I shuffle. And begin the game again.
Since I am white and female, they believe me
harmless. They nod and let me pass.
Later, as women do in darkness, you and I
whisper and weep about it: the coral reef
blasted to sand for trinkets, the foundation
of the first high-rise hotel, men defending
men's traditions against men imposing men's progress
while women labor for both in an interior
outside of either, telling stories
to feed their children who are too thin.
You are feverish, I am chilled.
A typhoon is expected: we cannot leave.
No one can force the cards, hurry the clock.
Each must simply play with all the skill she
can remember, learn, dare, and invent.
There's love in that, though,
and in two foolish women spending more
than they have on trinkets to feed children,
helpless to return the coral to its sea-bed anyway,
outwaiting kings and jacks gone wild,
passing the stories along to other women.
You warm my hands as I bathe your hot skull.
We try to sleep. How long, how long past midnight, then,
before wind rising slaps trees against the roof,
before the first sharp rounds of thunder are exchanged,
before I reach across a sudden flare that scours these walls
to touch the lightning shadow of your nakedness—as if
whose woman's face, rain-polished, glimmered
awake to stare in through our window, finger to lips in warning,
before the house of cards blows down?
Bright, brief, and dangerous as memory:
She'd warned it could explode in my face
and blind me, shrieked it could go off
while I was holding it and leave me marked for life.
She had a repertoire of menace: how playing in the surf
could suck me under just like that, how Doberman pinschers
could rip my throat right out, how such-and-such disaster
had killed, maimed, or disfigured so-and-so. A virtuoso
of catastrophe, she'd planned my childhood as a work to last.
But now we see through a glass lightly, decades later,
grown lovers who refuse to learn they cannot
cauterize in one another that source-wound beyond reach,
fill the lack of what had never been permitted, Your gift
was my surprise: a giant-size assortment of fireworks
that legally could be bought one day only in the year.
Yes, I was afraid.
Afraid that I'd get burned, that you'd get burned, that
sparks would drench the roof so that the house
and the whole farm would burn,
barn, sheds, gates, fences, pastures, calm-eyed
goats and cattle, all consumed in one orange roar.
I even worried the package could somehow smoulder
into spontaneous combustion
so, surreptitiously (dreading your laughter)
tried to sneak it out to the garage. Fortunate error:
I happened to glance at its list of contents in passing.
The names! Such a shimmer of names!
Devised by what great unselfconscious
bard in a Hong Kong fireworks factory?
Might such names coax me, even me, out from my fear?
Starburst, Crackling Candle, Ruby Fire,
Butterfly Glimmer, Fountain of
Plumflowers, Flashing Rain ?
What kind of wordstruck animal
wears my skin, loves sounds or marks
on a page encoding an image
as much or more than its reality?
Surely not one so innocent as to believe
poetry safer than what it describes.
Wild Geese, Silver Chrysanthemums,
Peacock-Feather Fan, Flying Lamps,
Blizzard of Emeralds, Scarlet Birdwing ?
You waited eagerly, I anxiously,
for a night unclouded, moonless,
then for dusk, then for the wind to die down.
You arranged me on the front verandah steps,
then vanished through night's curtain, emerging
match-flare cupped in one glowing, disembodied hand
below a mask that brooded eyesocket shadow, cheekbone
glaze floating where your face had been.
Then high against that jeweler's display-velour
of sky you launched your first long hissing thread of light
to streak, burst, arc, plume
crimson, violet, amber dazzle
sighing down to darkness.
Storm in Heaven. Lotus Crown.
Fire-Opal Moon. Skywheel. Pearl Meteors.
Golden Hive. Flametree.
And one called simply Friendship,
and one called simply Happiness.
And one called Passionblaze.
Hours, hurling radiance at heaven
to dart, spin, crack its shining tail, bloom
peonies, fork lightning, spill waterfalls
in cascades of glitter. Sometimes the gesture
would go unrewarded: a bead of flame sputter
for an instant, plunge, ember, and wink out.
More often, though, what was flung upward
as an act of faith gleamed in response—
a fountain brimming azure-splashed vermillion showers,
lemon-red mandalas unfurling roses to spiral
dew down flakes of fire the color breath might be,
held in lungs of sunbleached linen.
And each release of energy flashed the garden visible,
revealing an earthbound wonder: gold-eyed animals,
a horned, hoofed, ancient audience
serenely gathered at the fence-line
waiting, like us, for the next eruption
to rinse their sight with archipelagos of luminosity.
Finally, when all the winddrift splendor
had been spent, you handed me two sticks and lit them
into sparklers so I could twirl small twin suns
in nova at arms' length, one in each hand,
too busy being God to be afraid.
The audience wandered off, then.
After such thunderclaps of incandescence
the night seemed quieter than usual. Chilled,
we went indoors. Much later, after you were asleep,
I rose and, trailing shawls, sat again on the verandah steps,
watching stars brilliant with their dying, watching
light travel the way memory and metaphor does—
source forgotten past naming or wonder or tears,
knowing it's not what we see but what we miss
seeing that blinds us; not what we fear but what we risk
holding of friendship, happiness, passionblaze,
that leaves us marked for life,
knowing that every moment each of us already is burning
unconsumed, and knowing, too, how rare
even the briefest visitation of pure glory is,
before it abandons us to our familiar darkness,
where we recognize the smell of sulphur in the air.
In Memoriam Katherine Mansfield
Coming this late to everything
you left behind—
clematis, kouri, clarity's shadow
laid cool on a flush of apricot light,
flutter of hands in welcome, flutter of tui song,
lambs and young kids silver-lipped crying out
to suck green-swollen hills—sister
and stranger, only such passionflower words
on a page can unite us, only the silence we break
from and rave at, only the exile we're born to
which I meet again now, coming this late
to everything you left behind.
Unable to breathe colonial airs inside sharp-starched
pinafores, see from beneath wide-brimmed sailor
straws, wanting your hair wild as the toe-toe lewd
in the wind—was the only path out deeper down,
lit toward the nightglare of alien cities?
Was it too raw a bliss: that arch of mamaku uncurling
black tree-ferns, these steaming lakes and waterfalls, this sea
lit shimmering from below, that desert in redhaired-heather
lust, this film of rain a fragrance on the skin,
these terraced ochre stones scarped
in fantastic steps leading to no landing?
Or was it silence? Lies, fear, sidelong glances?
Well, you fled that cramped world—but gazing
backward as you ran, words at the bay until
they choked you, until in a distant country your blood
would feather penstrokes spelling scarlet pohutakawa
stamens, staining your pillow with a death.
But if you could have risked, risked anything
aloud, pealed the purest health as synonym
wrung pollen from gold kowhai bells—who
would have listened back at home?
Another might have heard, who wrote "As a woman,
I have no country. As a woman, my country
is the world." But she was plain. And older.
She heard voices. She stayed where she was—
and died of that as neatly as you died of running.
Or if you could have listened to the Maori Queen
as she sang stories in another tongue. If there had been
a place to stand, a language unbetrayed, a gesture
recognized—perhaps the words you raged unwritable,
"words without sediment," would have clung,
fine sand, volcanic, to your page. You died of it.
Their facile diagnoses to the contrary, my dear,
you suffocated from such silence.
Sister and stranger, that lack and longing
tracks me yet: we write of country matters
yet have no place to stand, nowhere
to come this late to, having left ourselves behind,
unable to breathe in exile or at home, still
babbling bright fevers for which no remedy exists,
still gasping "The little lamp—I seen it," still
as we die of it burning approximate words, not
knowing whether the gift is cure or disease
as it consumes us, knowing only the truth we cannot
find names for and, at the end, only this yearning,
as that final sigh whistles through us
and the linen is slowly drawn up
over our unblinking stare—
a drift of white, cool as a low-lying cloud:
"I seen it."
You died of it, my dear.
[The tui is a bird native to New Zealand/Aotearoa; kouri, toe-toe, mamaku, pohulakawa, and kowhai are native flora. The first quote is from Virginia Woolf, other images and quotes are from Mansfield.]
THE COOL WEB
(In respectful dissent with Robert Graves)
Children are loud to wail how real the nightmare
how mute with menace shadows glide the floor,
brazen to call on spirits, faeries, angels
unsummoned by adults who scorn such spells.
Adults have silence to delude our bedtime hell,
and silence to muzzle our menial noon.
We censor shrieks uncivil in shrill pain.
We strangle melody we dare not sing.
There's a cool web of silence winds us in,
retreat from too much fear or too much joy.
We moderate our meanings to appease:
articulating silence through our lies.
But if we broke the truth, the troth, the chains
and gags, the hush, then we would break a dawn
dispelling ghosts that walked where we, undead,
might name ourselves mere mortal angels, yet still
cry praise. For only the revenant unspeakable, unsaid,
will stalk, haunt, rise in the throat, and kill.
THE FARMER'S WIFE
I'm not who you think I am
leaning against the kitchen doorframe
twisting this stained apron in scarred hands.
I was bleeding from something.
Maybe the blackberry thorns
where I went picking for jam. Maybe rescuing
that newborn kid caught in the brambles,
fleeceflakes puffed on the barbs where she'd spun
and spun to free herself, only getting trapped deeper.
I'm not who the neighbors think I am
when they come with carrotcake and I serve them tea
and they talk about the weather and sports
and the market price of wool and I smile and nod.
To them I smell of onions and bleach, and even
after a bath, of the pigsty I shoveled out and hosed
all morning, my one satisfaction: bringing order
to chaos, gleam to dullness, freshness to whatever reeks.
When I smell myself, I smell something burning.
I'm not who the farmer thinks I am, either. I used to fear
insects. Now I see them as makers of honey and silk. I'd like
to make honey or silk. I used to love someone, maybe this farmer
I watch now, out checking the stock, peering to see
if the pasture's greened up again after the rains, turning
homeward. I should set out the bottle, the matches, the smokes,
turn off the music. I don't want a fight. When I'm all by myself,
I play Bach on the stereo—the Passions, Saint Matthew, Saint John.
I hate God, though.
Only those people who never went farming think farming's
about growing things. Mostly farmers kill things. Mine,
who says little, says you just have to, and sets possum traps,
lays rabbit poison, strews rat bait, scatters slug pellets, sprinkles
insecticides, fungicides, herbicides, chloroforms, collects
loppers and mowers, weed-eaters, spray guns. My farmer is skilled
in the use of such tools and techniques. I'm not.
But I'm learning you just have to be. Maybe
I'm not who I think I am, too.
"The lie is the child of silence."
—Ursula K. Le Guin
"When it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry."
Hello, I'm not here.
A silencer makes the weapon more effective.
What means consent, is golden, equals death?
Observe a moment of, hold your, speak
only when, don't ask don't, neither
confirm nor, you have the right to remain.
I can't take your call right now.
Tell me about the silent partners, the strong
silent types, those who suffer in silence,
those who are seen and not heard.
Talk about unspoken rules,
Let's hear it
for the cruel,
silence of god.
Leave your name, the time and date, and where you can be reached.
I am the cloud across the sun, the faint chill wind
that makes you reach for a sweater while at lunch.
;It's always midnight when mimes and trappists
sound each other out.
In New Guinea, every one of the Dani people speaks
eight languages, tells stories in which wordplay
on a single pun lasts for two hours. Indonesia is imposing
a uniform mainland tongue. This erasure is named
I'll get back to you when I can.
I will have left by then,
bearing a word in my mouth
like a coin, for the passage.
Odysseus, Kafka knew, might have escaped
from the sirens' singing,
but from their silence, never.
Poetry is the art of the impossible.
Wait for the signal before you speak.
Excerpted from A Hot January by Robin Morgan. Copyright © 1999 Robin Morgan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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