Read an Excerpt
LOVE SONG (SMELT)
When I say 'you' in my poems, I mean you.
I know it’s weird: we barely met.
You must hear this all the time, being you.
That night we were at opposite ends of the long table, after the pungent
Russian condiments, the carafes of tarragon vodka,
the chafing dishes full of boiled smelts
I was a little drunk: after you left,
I ate the last smelt off your dirty plate.
There is one mind in all of us, one soul,
who parches the soil in some nations
but in others hides perpetually behind a veil;
he spills light everywhere, here he spilled
some on my tie, but it dried before dinner ended.
He is in charge of darkness also, also
in charge of crime, in charge of the imagination.
People fucking flick him off and on,
off and on, with their eyelids as they ascertain with their eyes their love’s sincerity.
He makes the stars disappear, but he makes small stars everywhere, on the hoods of cars,
in the compound eyes of skyscrapers or in the eyes of sighing lovers bored with one another.
Onto the surface of the world he stamps all plants and animals. They are not gods
but he made us worshippers of every bramble toad, black chive, we find.
In Idaho there is a desert cricket that makes a clocklike tick-tick when he flies, but he
is not a god. The only god is the sun,
our mind–master of all crickets and clocks.
How to explain my heroic courtesy? I feel that my body was inflated by a mischievous boy.
Once I was the size of a falcon, the size of a lion,
once I was not the elephant I find I am.
My pelt sags, and my master scolds me for a botched trick. I practiced it all night in my tent, so I was
somewhat sleepy. People connect me with sadness and, often, rationality. Randall Jarrell compared me
to Wallace Stevens, the American poet. I can see it in the lumbering tercets, but in my mind
I am more like Eliot, a man of Europe, a man of cultivation. Anyone so ceremonious suffers
breakdowns. I do not like the spectacular experiments with balance, the high-wire act and cones.
We elephants are images of humility, as when we undertake our melancholy migrations to die.
Did you know, though, that elephants were taught to write the Greek alphabet with their hooves?
Worn out by suffering, we lie on our great backs,
tossing grass up to heaven–as a distraction, not a prayer.
That’s not humility you see on our long final journeys:
it’s procrastination. It hurts my heavy body to lie down.
From the Hardcover edition.