Nancy Willard, who was the first recipient of a Newbery Medal for a volume of poetry, displays her versatility in these companion collections.
Divided into five sections, Water Walker blends the mundane with the mystical. From sleeping fish to Marco Polo to a tortoise who dispenses unique advice to a bride on her wedding day, these poems integrate fables, nursery rhymes, hymns, and songs.
In 19 Masks for the Naked Poet, the human soul reveals itself, as we remove the disguises that bind (and blind) us to everyday life. Fanciful images of nature—dozing bees, green lions—infuse this collection. Doors become mirrors and husbands float above their marital beds as Willard explores themes of family, love, spirituality, politics, and immortality. Her “poet” experiences everything from the sacred to the profane, from photographing his heart to meeting God in creations that are enchanting and surreal.
This ebook includes illustrations by Regina Shekerjian.
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About the Author
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Water Walker and 19 Masks for the Naked Poet
By Nancy Willard
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 Nancy Willard
All rights reserved.
A Wreath to the Fish
Who is this fish, still wearing its wealth,
flat on my drainboard, dead asleep,
its suit of mail proof only against the stream?
What is it to live in a stream,
to dwell forever in a tunnel of cold,
never to leave your shining birthsuit,
never to spend your inheritance of thin coins?
And who is the stream, who lolls all day
in an unmade bed, living on nothing but weather,
singing, a little mad in the head,
opening her apron to shells, carcasses, crabs,
eyeglasses, the lines of fishermen begging for
news from the interior—oh, who are these lines
that link a big sky to a small stream
that go down for great things:
the cold muscle of the trout,
the shining scrawl of the eel in a difficult passage,
hooked—but who is this hook, this cunning
and faithful fanatic who will not let go
but holds the false bait and the true worm alike
and tears the fish, yet gives it up to the basket
in which it will ride to the kitchen
of someone important, perhaps the Pope
who rejoices that his cook has found such a fish
and blesses it and eats it and rises, saying,
"Children, what is it to live in the stream,
day after day, and come at last to the table,
transfigured with spices and herbs,
a little martyr, a little miracle;
children, children, who is this fish?"
The Feast of St. Tortoise
The day of her wedding, she crouches in the kitchen
and talks to the tortoise. He is older than she,
one of the family but celibate, reserved,
having taken holy orders in chapels of damp earth.
She admires his head, cobbled in ivory coins.
She touches his cowl, tender as chamois.
She praises his toadstool legs, his decisive beak,
and the raised ornament of his kindness
as he offers himself for a table
or a gameboard of fretted lacquer:
each hexagon fences a mound
into which a star has fallen so deeply
the whole field is on fire.
Let no guest go hungry.
She sets out a plate of lettuce chopped
into ruffles, the cool cheek
of an apple parceled and peeled.
This is for you, old friend.
He flippers forth. The bright worm of his tail
wags after him.
Psalm to the Newt
Look at the newt. He is worth watching.
The small stars of his hands sign the water.
His fingers thread beads of water on strands of water.
On the canopy of seaweed, he knits his proverbs:
Behold the newt—a weak arm may stir great secrets.
His arms, thin as threads, part curtains of water.
He is a rock to the snail and a snare to the worm.
His back raises an island: sad, a used tire.
The grainy dark of his skin glistens.
To the snails he brings the wet bark of trees.
Old shovel-head, guardian of patience,
you break through the silver roof
of the parliament of water
in the tiny pond of the aquarium.
You who sharpen your tail on the sunrise,
in your livery of cold flames you greet us,
in your vest buttoned with embers you greet us.
You turn on us, slowly, your hooded eyes.
Are you trying to change into something else
or change us into clouds,
shadowy behind glass as the lost gods?
The frog who works out
in the clean gym of the water
has neglected his arms.
Flexed, they are skinny as worms.
It's his legs he cares for,
muscles in baggy pants.
What charm when he extends
the ribbed fans of his feet,
as if a spider sat on a breath,
testing the weight of it.
Who in the corps of carp
or the schools of fantails
and angelfish, jewels
of the first water,
can match his leaps?
Thrown together in a tank, a litter of lobsters
looks for the way back. When I hurry past, they wave
their taped claws—discreet, like the beaks of birds—
as if I were a door through which they could pass
to deep water, taking their leave of Atlantic shrimp in tins,
smoked oysters, caviar from the Caspian Sea.
My flight is late, and theirs will never arrive.
Their jet eyes pin regret on a watery map.
Moonstalkers, tidekeepers, robots of deep currents,
in whom indigo deepens to midnight when you give up
the ghost, forgive me. I won't forget the shoals of you,
the scrabbling heaps, the sick adrift, light lapping the dead
like a field of samurai in full armor,
your greaves freckled with ashes,
your corselets plated with moonlight,
your antennae still whipping
bubbles of pumped air.
Life at Sea: The Naming of Fish
Stand among fish and admire the angels,
the Marble Angel, like grillwork on a sad house
sunk in the suburbs of New Orleans,
and the Black Angel, little undertaker of the waters,
and the Gold Angel, new-minted, and the Silver Angel
that tumbles from God's purse and hides
Silver Dollars in the pockets of water,
their eyes in love with the shyness of pearls.
Schooled in silence, the catfish do not consider
you. Glass Cats, Green Cats: whiskered gentlemen,
they paddle to their clubs
in small expensive suits of woven jade.
The Gold Convict does not take flight,
though like a note in a bottle
it has lived its pale life in hiding.
What do we know of their risings and settings?
The Red Oscar wears twilight.
The Black Lyre Tail heads north,
a velvet arrow happily cutting the waves.
In the last tank, the Blue Betta
unfurls his fins, his silk bathrobe.
Like a lively invalid, he admires the tassels,
puts it on, takes it off, on, off,
and glides among branches of hornwort
under the mauve leaves of the purple krinkle.
He does not close his eyes when the sun falls
slow as a snail through the sky, and new moons
and old moons wish on the Moon Platys,
and the stars show us something familiar:
archer, lyre, hunter, dipper, fish.
Poem Made of Water
Praise to my text, Water, which taught me writing,
and praise to the five keepers of the text,
water in Ocean, water in River, water in Lake,
water in cupped hands, water in Tears. Praise
for River, who says: Travel to the source,
poling your raft of words, mindful of currents,
avoiding confusion, delighting in danger
when its spines sparkle, yet keeping
your craft upright, your sentence alive.
You have been sentenced to life.
Praise for Ocean and her generous lesson,
that a great poem changes from generation to generation,
that any reader may find his treasure there
and even the landlocked heart wants to travel.
Praise for that heart, for its tides,
for tiny pools winking in rocks
like poems which make much of small matters:
five snails, two limpets, a closely watched
minnow, his spine a zipper,
and a white stone wearing the handprints of dead coral.
Praise for Tears, which are faithful to grief
not by urns but by understatement.
Praise for thirst, for order in the eye and in the ear
and in the heart, and for water in cupped hands,
for the poem that slakes thirst
and the poem that wakes it.
Praise for Lake, which bustles with swimmers at noon.
I have been one, busy under the light,
piling rocks into castles, not seeing
my work under the ruffled water.
And later—the lake still sleepy in the last light—
the castle squats like the rough draft of a prayer,
disguised as a castle, which tells me
to peer into the dark and interpret shapes in the ooze:
the row boat rising like a beak, the oil drum rusting,
the pop bottles fisted in weeds, every sunken
thing still, without purpose, dreamed over
till the fisherman's net brings up —
what? a bronze mask? a torso of softest marble?
Go deep. Save, sift, pack, lose, find again.
Come back as snow, rain, tears, crest and foam.
Come back to baptize, heal, drown.
Come back as Water. Come back as Poem.
A Psalm for Running Water
Running water, you are remembered and called.
Physician of clover and souls; hock, glove
and slipper of stones.
Stitch thyme and buttercup to my boots.
Make me tread the psalm and sign of water
falling, when I am going the other way,
climbing the mountain for a clear view of home.
After winter's weeding and the fire's gap in the woods,
first ferns, trillium, watercress,
this vivid text, Water, shows your hand.
The trees stand so spare a child may write them.
You, Water, sing them like an old score,
settled, pitched soft and fresh,
and wash our wounds when we fall.
A hundred Baptists, hand in hand,
rise and fall in your body and rise again,
praising the Lord, Whose hand, I think, wears you.
For all this and more my great-grandmother
thumped out of bed on Easter and tramped
over gorse and thorn and wild thistle
to the water smiling through her husband's field.
She capped some in a cruet;
the wink of God,
the quick motion of ourselves in time,
In Praise of Unwashed Feet
Because I can walk over hot coals,
because I can make doctors turn green
and shoe salesmen avert their eyes,
because I have added yet another use
to the hundred and one uses of Old Dutch Cleanser;
because they tell me the secrets of miners and small boys,
because they keep me in good standing and continual grace
in the ashes and dust of the last rites,
because they carry my great bulk without complaint,
because they don't smell;
because it's taken me years
to grow my own shoes, like the quaint signatures of truth,
because they are hard and gentle as lion's pads,
pard's paw, mule's hoof and cock's toes,
because they can't make poems or arguments
but speak in an aching tongue or not at all
and come home at night encrusted with stones,
calluses, grass, all that the head forgets
and the foot knows.
A Hardware Store As Proof of the Existence of God
I praise the brightness of hammers pointing east
like the steel woodpeckers of the future,
and dozens of hinges opening brass wings,
and six new rakes shyly fanning their toes,
and bins of hooks glittering into bees,
and a rack of wrenches like the long bones of horses,
and mailboxes sowing rows of silver chapels,
and a company of plungers waiting for God
to claim their thin legs in their big shoes
and put them on and walk away laughing.
In a world not perfect but not bad either
let there be glue, glaze, gum, and grabs,
caulk also, and hooks, shackles, cables, and slips,
and signs so spare a child may read them,
Men, Women, In, Out, No Parking, Beware the Dog.
In the right hands, they can work wonders.
Missionaries Among the Heathen
Elder wakefield regrets his Walkman
which the stewardess has taken away; is it still
in the bag that did not fit under the seat?
Will it arrive when he does?
Elder Bullock studies French. Elder Smith
sleeps his way into childhood.
Was he twenty when he sat down? His face
relaxes, he is nine, it is the time of crickets,
of gulls wheeling over bunchgrass and sage,
of the thrilling stillness of snakes,
of his father blowing the coals to full flame
on the new barbecue under the heavenly steaks
from the shopping malls of the blessed
where everyone is blond, one way or another.
A voice in the sky says, "We are flying
over Kansas. It is three o'clock in New York
and raining ..." Elder Bullock twists
the delicate stem of his watch and remembers
the real time: twelve o'clock in Salt Lake City.
The kind lady presents Elder Smith with a tray.
Though he says grace, the food looks no better.
The lettuce does not rise to the occasion.
In the plastic tray a tiny corral
keeps a dead hamburger from flying home to God.
Ah, the sad peas, the grains of rice
that might have been laid by anemic ants.
Ah, the shining pastures of salt,
the fields already white for harvest,
and so many reaping what they did not sow.
Over Chicago he bows his head.
Beyond the window, ghostly beasts float
on plains of glass. Above Providence
they darken. Above Newark they weep
themselves into weather. What is the real time?
He takes the word of God
from its expensive leather case.
The Unspeakable Telephone
"My father, he always adored the telephone.
He loved to call weather and time. These days
if you have a phone, you can talk to anything.
And once we were walking the beach together
at Provincetown, on the wettest day of the season,
the waves burst like bombs at our feet,
I was certain the sky was falling,
and my father said, 'Look! A telephone!'
All alone on the beach it stood,
like a flower on a stem, no shelter at all,
not even the convenience of a directory.
My father said, 'Let us ring for a taxi.'
I said, 'It won't work, not way out here.
Father, you're eighty-two,
even a cold at your age can be fatal.'
But he never listened, he plucked the receiver
and pushed in a dime and dialed.
The coastguard was blowing hundreds of whistles.
How many boats went down in that storm?
'Let's go!' I shouted. 'The phone is broken.'
Just then the receiver gurgled,
and my father smiled and raised his head.
'I can hear perfectly.'"
Coming to the Depot
They are just married, and is he surprised,
he who rode this train with one bag and a beer
and silence when he wanted it and his own speech.
He stares at his wife.
Where did all these bags come from?
What's in them? She is taking out
shampoos, conditioners, creams,
wiping the bottles and muttering,
"Ziploc bags. You forgot the Ziploc bags."
Now she is combing her hair,
feeling for rollers, curlers, and pins.
He says, "We're coming into the depot."
"You mean station," she says. "Not depot."
"Depot," he says. She smiles.
"Where I come from you would never hear that."
"Depot," he says. "Depot."
"I heard that once in a movie," she says.
Feather clips chained to the gold clips
on her ears, sharp rings on both hands,
her hands waving, the nail polish drying,
and a woman who was once beautiful
lurches down the aisle fighting
a diaper bag and a baby,
everyone is eating chicken or chewing gum,
and beyond the window, the milkweed blows.
It's twilight. I was a seed once, he thinks.
I was a seed. It was that easy.
In the Stretch Limousine
"Climb in," said a voice, and I stepped down
into a velvet pit so dark and vast
I fell into the left hand of God, a place with no
lights, yet hammered and hemmed in light.
On the horizon the driver shadowed the faint helm
of the moon and gathered the night around him.
"Push that button to your left," he called,
and I did, and the floor cracked open like a grave,
as if the spirits wanted to look
me over before sending up a bottle of gin,
half empty, and three dirty glasses.
"Try the phone," he called, and I did.
I could hardly hear him. I believed he could not hear me.
When I said, "Where are we?" the phone went dead.
Finally I caught his voice, so far off
he might have been crossing Africa,
watching delicate horned beasts unfold
a single sentence: "You want the stars?"
The roof lifted itself like an animal waking,
and a page turned in the Book of Life.
When everything stopped and I climbed out,
he said no more to me than I would say
to a star that was falling to earth
the day it was born and finally made it home.
Here, said the spirit,
is the Diamond Planet:
Shall I change you into a diamond?
No? Then let us proceed
to the Red Planet
rocks too young to know
lichens. There's plenty
of room. Stay as long
as you like. You don't like?
Then let us go forth to
the Planet of Mists,
the veiled bride,
the pleasures of losing and finding,
the refinement of symbols.
She's all yours.
I see you looking at that blue planet.
It's mostly water.
The land's crowded with
creatures. You have mists
but they rain, diamonds
but they cost. You have
only one moon.
You have camels and babies and cigars
but everything grows up
or wears out.
And on clear nights
you have the stars
without having them.
How beautifully the child I carry on my back
teaches me to become a horse.
How quickly I learn to stay
between shafts, blinders, and whips,
bearing the plough
and the wagon loaded with hay,
or to break out of trot and run
till we're flying through cold streams.
He who kicks my commands
knows I am ten times his size
and that I am servant to small hands.
It is in mowed fields I move best,
watching the barn grow toward me,
the child quiet, his sleep piled like hay
on my back as we slip over the dark hill
and I carry the sun away.
Excerpted from Water Walker and 19 Masks for the Naked Poet by Nancy Willard. Copyright © 1989 Nancy Willard. 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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Table of Contents
I Water Walker,
II The Road,
III The Garden,
V Saints Lose Back (The Poems Behind the Headlines),
19 Masks for the Naked Poet,
About the Author,