Friday, April 30, 2021

Considering the End— National Poetry Month 2021


It’s over.  The end.  All kaput.  This is the last of the National Poetry Month entries for 2021.  Powerful voices for social justice dominated.  Women, Black writers, Latinx poets, refugees, some combination dominated the month.  Dead white men got the short shrift this time around and lyric verse was hard to find.  I did not set out to plan that result, but it was probably inevitable given the dramatic year we have lived through—the devastating Coronavirus pandemic, George Floyd et al murders and the Black Lives Matter movement, political division and attempted coup d’etat, climate catastrophe, continued gun violence,  immigration and refugees.  Poets have been urgent and unafraid.  They are reclaiming a place in our culture as moral visionaries and spokes persons for the oppressed.

We will close out the month with an eclectic collection of musing on aspects of the end.


Wislawa Szymorska.

Wislawa Szymborska was the 1996 Nobel Prize Lauriat in Literature.  Her work reflected the tumultuous times she lived through in her native Poland.  She survived World War II working on the railways and narrowly avoided being sent to a Nazi forced labor camp. After the war she studied and began working as an illustrator and composing poetry.  At first she was a loyal member of the Polish United Workers’ Party—Communists—even when her first book of verse was rejected because it “did not meet socialist requirements.”  However she grew estranged and disconnected from the regime.  By 1966 she had left the party and had established connections with underground dissidents.  In the ‘80’s here work was being published in the underground samizdat periodical Arka under the pseudonym Stańczykówna, as well as to the Paris-based opposition magazine Kultura. When she died at her long-time Kraków home in 2012 at the age of 88 she was mourned as national treasure.

The End and the Beginning


After every war
someone has to clean up.
Things won’t
straighten themselves up, after all.

Someone has to push the rubble
to the side of the road,
so the corpse-filled wagons
can pass.

Someone has to get mired
in scum and ashes,
sofa springs,
splintered glass,
and bloody rags.

Someone has to drag in a girder
to prop up a wall,
Someone has to glaze a window,
rehang a door.

Photogenic it’s not,
and takes years.
All the cameras have left
for another war.

We’ll need the bridges back,
and new railway stations.
Sleeves will go ragged
from rolling them up.

Someone, broom in hand,
still recalls the way it was.
Someone else listens
and nods with unsevered head.
But already there are those nearby
starting to mill about
who will find it dull.

From out of the bushes
sometimes someone still unearths
rusted-out arguments
and carries them to the garbage pile.

Those who knew
what was going on here
must make way for
those who know little.
And less than little.
And finally as little as nothing.

In the grass that has overgrown
causes and effects,
someone must be stretched out
blade of grass in his mouth
gazing at the clouds.


Wislawa Szymborska


Czeslaw Milosz.

Another Eastern European—they seem drawn to such themes—Czesław Miłosz was Lithuanian by ethnicity and a Polish citizen by accident of the map.  During World War II he was part of an underground socialist movement in Poland and was later honored as one of the Righteous Among the Nations by Israel.  After the war he rose to become Polish Minister of Culture but was soon disillusioned by Stalinism and defected to the West settling in the United States where he became a distinguished academic and continued to write poetry.  When he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980 most Poles and Lithuanians had never heard of him because his work had long been banned.  Later he was hailed as a hero.  But in death Polish right wingers threatened to disrupt his funeral because he had not publicly—although he had privatelyreconciled with Catholicism and because he had signed public statements defending the rights of Gay and Lesbians.


A Song on the End of the World


On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
No other end of the world will there be,
No other end of the world will there be.


Czesław Miłosz


John Haines.

Americans are not immune from end of time musings.  John Haines, once the Poet Laureate of Alaska, mulled on the close of a century and millennium.


A Poem for the End of the Century


I am the dreamer who remains
when all the dreams are gone,
scattered by the millennial winds
and sacked by the roadside.

The solar clock hand stopped:
confusion and fury on the street

—so much idle paper
shredded and tossed aside.

The small, dim shops of the tourist
trade are shuttered and locked ...
Nightfall, and the buyer turns away.

One more stolen fortune spent:
another century gone
with its fits and desolations—
I leave my house to the creditor wind.

Tell me if you know my name,
whose face I wear, whose stored-up
anger fades to a tentative smile.

I am the one who touches fire,
who rakes the leaves to watch them burn,
and who says once more to himself
on this calm evening of earth:

Awake! The stars are out,
mist is on the water,
and tomorrow the sun will return.


—John Haines


Robert Creeley.

The gifted poet Robert Creeley probably had better days than when he wrote this.  Actually folks were rather fond of him.

The End


When I know what people think of me

I am plunged into my loneliness.  The grey


hat bought earlier sickens.

I have no purpose no longer distinguishable.


A feeling like being choked

enters my throat.


—Robert Creeley


Jan Heller Levi.

And finally, there is love.  Yes, it too has to end.  Often sloppily.  Or does it Jan Heller Levi wonders….

Waiting for This Story to End Before I Begin Another


All my stories are about being left,

all yours about leaving. So we should have known.

Should have known to leave well enough alone;

we knew, and we didn’t. You said let’s put

our cards on the table, your card

was your body, the table my bed, where we didn’t

get till 4 am, so tired from wanting

what we shouldn’t that when we finally found our heads,

we’d lost our minds. Love, I wanted to call you

so fast. But so slow you could taste each

letter licked into your particular and rose-like ear.

L, love, for let’s wait. O, for oh no, let’s not. V

for the precious v between your deep breasts

(and the virtue of your fingers

in the voluptuous center of me.)


Okay, E for enough.


Dawn broke, or shattered. Once we’ve made

the promises, it’s hard to add the prefix if. . . .

But not so wrong to try.

That means taking a lot of walks,

which neither of us is good at,

for different reasons, and nights up till 2

arguing whose reasons are better.

Time and numbers count a lot in this. 13

years my marriage. 5 years you my friend.

4th of July weekend when something that begins

in mist, by mistake (whose?), means too much

has to end. I think we need an abacus to get our love

on course, and one of us to oil the shining rods

so we can keep the crazy beads clicking,

clicking. It wasn’t a question

of a perfect fit. Theoretically,

it should be enough to say I left a man

for a woman (90% of the world is content

to leave it at that. Oh, lazy world) and when the woman

lost her nerve, I left

for greater concerns: when words like autonomy

were useful, I used them, I confess. So I get

what I deserve: a studio apartment he paid the rent on;

bookshelves up to the ceiling she drove

the screws for. And a skylight I sleep alone

beneath, and two shiny quarters in my pocket

to call one, then the other, or to call one


twice. Once, twice, I threatened to leave him—

remember? Now that I’ve done it, he says

he doesn’t. I’m in a phonebooth at the corner of Bank

and Greenwich; not a booth, exactly,

but two sheets of glass to shiver between.

This is called being street-smart: dialing

a number that you know won’t be answered,

but the message you leave leaves proof that you tried.

And this, my two dearly beloveds, is this called

hedging your bets? I fish out my other

coin, turn it over in my fingers, press

it into the slot. Hold it there. Let it drop.


—Jan Heller Levi

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Penultimate Poems, Two More from Jerry Pendergast--—National Poetry Month 2021

Jerry Pendergast.

National Poetry Month is winding down but today for the first time we are featuring a living poet for the second time.  Chicago poet Jerry Pendergast’s consideration of the revolutionary singer/poet/god father of rap Gil Scott Heron appeared earlier.  But I still have two more strong efforts in my file that I cannot pass up passing on.

Sadako Sasaki was a Japanese girl who was a victim of the Atomic bombing of Hiroshima when she was two years old. Though severely irradiated, she survived for another ten years, becoming one of the most widely known hibakushabomb-affected person. She is remembered through the story of the one thousand origami cranes she tried to fold before her death.

Sadako Sasaki shortly before her death from radiation poisoning. 

Open Letter to Sadako Sasaki


The August that you were 2

a large hunk of metal with a tail

called Little Boy

hit your city

tossed you out of your bedroom window

three days before Fat Man

hit Nagasaki.


But you lived to run

fastest in your school

when you were 10.


Lived to feel your blood turn pale

Legs turn purple.

Fold paper cranes

before your last meal

with family and friends

by your hospital bed,

The October you were 12.

and I was 7 months.


Your statue holds a metal crane

In your raised arms

Standing on stone structure

taller than an Olympic Podium.

hollow in the middle

in Hiroshima Peace Park

Dedicated in 1958.


I see you sculpted in metal

in Seattle Peace Park

Dedicated Hiroshima Day 1990

You raise a crane in right hand.

Leaning forward, left hand pulled back

as if you were taking a stride.

Someone hung a string of paper cranes,

a rainbow of colors

on your shoulder.


If I were a sculptor

A track meet medal

would drape your neck

that a lump grew on

when you were 11.

I mentally place Olympic rings

and a question mark

among the flowers.




My first Summer Games memory

is from Rome 1960

Long jumpers

landing in sand.

I wonder now

if a jumper's imprint

is like one left by a vaporized body

if the stadium were ground zero.

for a nuclear attack.

You would have been 17.

I wonder, would you have been there?


I remember Tokyo 1964

October, the month you died

Gary Gubner from NYU

Arms raised in completed clean and jerk

Shot-put sailing from his shoulder.


I imagine you at age 21

running in the same stadium.

If I were a painter

I would portray you

in a lighter, shadowy image

on a track with opponents and team mates.

A crane flying above the shot put.


If I could paint a portrait of

of Mexico City, Summer Games 1968

I would shadow you in

as I imagine you at age 25.

Wearing a medal

made of iron shrapnel

Glass from a shattered window

and hint of blood,

and an eye of a gunned down marcher

in the middle.


You approach the podium

Where Tommie Smith, John Carlos

and Peter Norman stand.

All of you wear

Olympic Project for Human Rights buttons.





quake, tsunami

power plant explosion

images on my TV screen.


I see a young girl

running through streets

Near Fukushima

Another near Chernobyl

Are T-cells growing inside their bodies?

Can any kind of treatment defeat them?

Is your spirit with them?


Will they be nameless

because these disasters

were from sort of

accidental explosions?


—Jerry Pendergast

Music, especially jazz often inspires Pendergast.  In this verse it is the soundtrack to a mundane task and a haunting reminder of a terrible tragedy and injustice.

An urban laundromat.



Steady piano

and bass

Low range

quiet intensity

like humming or droning

before the first verse of a hymn

Drums intensify abruptly.

tenor sax starts dirge.

Tune called ALABAMA

on the radio

I sort my laundry.

Piano descending in pitch.

short pauses


lightly hitting symbols

A whole note pause.

Sax dirge returns

I lift my laundry sack

over my shoulder.




At the matt next door I wonder

“should I wash my loads clean and bright

with Blue Cheer

or Blue Tide?”

Or do I need another cleanser?

Sax and drum flurry

still playing inside me

Something vocal from the drummer

don't think it has

 any words

I load the machines

Proud that no one

burns or bombs churches

in my neighborhood.

Why can’t the drummer’s chant

have words?

I pour in the soap, see

two young Women

folding a sheet

I feel some pride

That no one walks around

with sheets over heads

in my neighborhood, and that

I live on the Civil War’s

Winning side.

Why can’t the drummers chant

Why ca’ ca’ can’t the drummer’s chant

have words?




My cross hall neighbors

Unlock their door when I lock mine.

We greet

One is a girl I guess to be 9 or 10

Looks like she’s been crying.

Not sure what’s making her sad.

“Could anyone hear

the four girls cry

or shout?”

I wonder

while pouring in fabric softener

Or did the explosion

silence them instantly?

Leave a scream somewhere

Between the gut

and the throat

of Addie or Denise?

Carole or Cynthia?

The DJ’s voice

quoting Dr. King

“They had something to say

to us all”

Blends in

with the drum and sax


Were there any words

I wonder

stuck in the chest

or the throats

of friends or family?




A black woman

I guess about age 30

enters the laundry matt

The manager focuses on her

from his office.

I sling my laundry

clean and dry

over my shoulder

Sound of the sax and drums

saturate my blood stream

I trade greetings

with cross hall neighbor

He turns

Opens detergent

I push door to exit.

I tell myself it’s good

to live close to a laundry matt.

And I tell myself it’s good

that no church explodes

or burns

in my neighborhood.


—Jerry Pendergast