December 2023 Poetry Feature: Part II

New poems by our contributors CHRISTOPHER BAKKEN, CYRUS CASSELLS, JAMES RICHARDSON, CATIE ROSEMURGY

Table of Contents:

  • Christopher Bakken, “Theology at Dalabelos”
  • Cyrus Cassells, “Horsemen Watching Two Ancient Cities Burn”
  • James Richardson, “Train Dreams”
  • Catie Rosemurgy, “Diorama 1871 (say her name five times)”


*

Theology at Dalabelos
By Christopher Bakken

Early this morning a starling, just arrived from Tripoli or Tangier,
         paced an hour beneath the lemon tree.

After so long away, I am startled too, finding myself here
         another March, unsettled by the pathos

of the mandarins and the wild mustard, who are so in love
         with this place they give wholly of themselves,

both sweetness and heat. I thought to try again the vain labor
         of remaining in one place, remembering

the constant failure in me—restless attention, more the lack of it,
         like barely nuzzling the surface of a stream.

But I hunger, and am kneeling now in a patch of papoules,
         (of the tribe of legume), emerald unfurlings

with leaves bent for cupping sun: at each narrow tip
         small tendrils, like early beards, for clinging

and climbing. I will take them before the root, clipping
         the stems between thumbnail and forefinger,

eat them later with strong vinegar and good oil.
         Let’s grant each leaf one grain of salt.

Entries into the index of spring. Please find tomorrow, before
         it’s too late, some ladaniá, Cretan rockrose,

and more of the wild carrot’s scrimshaw tops, then throubi,
         down on the ridge—surly ancestor of thyme—

whose resin will still live on your hands tomorrow.
         You’ll find me climbing and clinging to a bunch

of stamnagathi, prince of all chicories, whose bitterness exceeds my own,
         I suspect, since I am the only being here

a little shy about the bees and almond blossoms—seeing how
         they throw themselves into longing headfirst,

are not ashamed, then hum the pollen onto their backs.
         And so, I walked, not stopping to gather sow-thistle,

to visit the oldest tress, who slump half-asleep between
         their soft stone terraces. They rarely speak,

but their bark has cured to an eccentric braille some can still read.
         Not me. But there, in a narrow valley of one olive’s thigh,

a single poppy seed found enough earth, hid like a secret:
         is out viewing things at last, through one blind eye.

 

HORSEMEN WATCHING TWO ANCIENT CITIES BURN
By Cyrus Cassells

In the dawn-lit underworld
Of my summer dream, we’ve taken

The agile horses from the corral;
We’ve bridled wind-ferried Rommel

And fleet, unfailing Anne of a Thousand Days,
And via some wayfarer’s compass

Cached under my closed lids, I sense
We’re at a gallop on the master-less,

Glass-green periphery of Rome,
In the ageless countryside near

The long-enduring Christian catacombs
And mast-tall cypresses 

Lining the never-say-die Appian Way—
Out of the indomitable blue, I whisper

Roger Wilco, and all at once,
We diligent horsemen hear 

A gusty fanfare, 
Then an unmistakable rumble

Arriving from the triggered,
Poppy-strewn South—

And soon we spy the transiting,
Scattering breath of irate Vesuvius

Cloaking a pair of entwined lovers,
Trapped forever in Pompeii—

We have no detectable trace
Of the embalmed couple’s propelling

Fright or back-and-forth tussles,
Only their spectacular, 

Immortalized embrace—
And now Rome—intricate matron,

Inveterate cosmos—is visible,
Marred by ascending flames 

And immoderate smoke 
Fanned every which way,

Yet our intrepid horses remain at peace—
Does this gorgon-red and prophet-

Blue hallucination mean 
We’re meant to juxtapose

Our still tenacious bond
Beside a sputtering empire’s 

Spectacular collapse—Look! 
The selvage of the looming sky,

Long-dead rider, is diva-indelible
But feral, streaked with lamp-black

Plus lush fringes of carmine—
Dear palm-reader, 

Far-seeing dream diviner, 
Gone from this flawed earth forty years

(Alas, I only claim you now
In pre-dawn dreams)—tell me,

Where is Nero’s trusty fiddle 
In this oh-so-combustible world?

 

 

Train Dreams 
By James Richardson

It’s like standing
on a fifty mile line to the City,
only sitting,

though some walk towards the front of the train
as if to get a head start on the future,

some towards the rear
as if they’ve forgotten something.

Like me, the train considers,
inbound or homebound,
a narrow range of constants

(New Brunswick Edison Metuchen)

from one angle then another

(Metuchen Edison New Brunswick)

hoping finally to grasp them.

*

For an hour we see only the backs of houses,
the yards where residents fence in

wading pools and propane tanks and tires
they don’t want people to see,

laundry and sunbathing and arguments
they don’t want people to see,

but we are not people.

They know that those with destinations
are never really living in the places
they are moving through or sitting still in
and will remember nothing.

They know that behind our tinted windows
we are television they have nothing to hide from
and will remember nothing.

They know we are the dead
who see everything, even their thoughts,
and remember everything,
but cannot return, cannot tell what we have seen.

*

It is an hour of warehouses and stadiums
with parking lots the size of counties, empty,
tidal rivers not quite the right color
turnpike sunsets, strangely gorgeous,
not quite the right color,
refineries abandoned factories the backs of cities,
a dream so tedious
we sometimes fall asleep in it

*

I used to dream, at home or on the train,
of missing my train,
but there are always more trains.

I would touch my pockets as the train pulled out
for wallet, phone, ticket,
fearing I might be no one
Though why did I get on the train
if not to be no one?

I dreamed that riding home late
I might drowse and miss my stop
and once or twice I did, but worst of all

was the dream that on the last train home,
when sometimes I am the only passenger,
the doors would not open
and I would go on forever in the darkness.

*

I know that more and more my dreams repeat and repeat,
each time saying This was a dream
once, but this time is different, this time is real.
I know with every repetition
they are less and less dream, more and more memory.

I doze on the train and come to in the tunnel,
passing once more beneath the darkness of the river.
I can’t remember if I am leaving the city or entering,
emerging into morning or more darkness
so long ago it was that the ferryman took my ticket.

*

One day the doors won’t open and I will go on and on,
but worst of all the dream in which I glimpse you
out there in the cold early dark of the Meadowlands
struggling through acid marsh, lost lost lost,
you who above all fear being lost,
and I can’t call out, can’t stop the train, can’t go back
to find you. in the world of the living,
the world of the dead, whichever world it was,
can’t lead you back to my world, whichever world it is.

*

On winter mornings that are still night
crowds thicken on the platform
shivering, strangely clean, not speaking,
their breath a very slow smoke,
not looking at anyone, as if fearful
they might have known each other an hour ago
when all sleep was the same vast sleep
that goes on and on whether we are there or not,
all dreams the same vast dream.

*

One time the door will not open and I will go on and on,
and once we will pass each other
never to see each other again,
though odds are not today,
which seems too ordinary to be the day.

*

I doze and come to among commuters truants tourists dazed
or musing or reading
a hundred lights in our heads, a hundred shades of restless patience,

a hundred worlds amazingly systematic and intricate
but not quite corresponding to anything real,
like last year’s timetable.

Each of us thinks without thinking
that those others who have so little to do with us,
compared to us,

are young or old, pushy or friendly or strange, harried
or calm, vivid or plain,
or really just unnecessarily detailed,

but when the PA squawks
New York Penn Station, final stop,
we are sure, we are very sure, we are unanimous

that this is where we wanted to go, and we get off.

 


Diorama 1871 (say her name five times)

By Catie Rosemurgy

Jane never had to worry. She didn’t have to do something good so the story would be about her. She just had to make a break for it whenever the grass beneath her feet began to smolder.

She just had to start a fire and disappear into the silent bubble of her own surprise.

Jane could reappear whenever it suited her on a gold and green hill downwind of the smoke, picking someone else’s apples. Oh, Jane,

you started out as a tree. Now it’s disconcerting how you seem to enlarge rather than approach.

There’s a barn and a well in the background. You are a shaky outline, Jane, a rough sketch,
a shape emerging. One by one, all the bad things you make happen fill in around you

on the page. Even as your lover turns to smoke in the house behind you, you wait on the steps,
welcome the fire back into your home. Eventually a ring of cool green

will form around the charred beams. The two of you will lie down in the new grass and apply it like a custom poultice to your ruddy cheeks.                                          

Most of the time you aren’t real, Jane, but the damage you inflict always is.

 

 

Christopher Bakken is the author of three books of poetry—most recently Eternity & Oranges (Pitt Poetry)—as well as the culinary memoir, Honey, Olives, Octopus: Adventures at the Greek Table. He is Director of Writing Workshops in Greece: Thessaloniki & Thasos and he teaches at Allegheny College.

Cyrus Cassells was the 2021-2022 Poet Laureate of Texas. Among his honors: a 2023 Civitella-Rainieri Foundation fellowship; a 2022 Academy of American Poets Laureate fellowship to administer his statewide Juneteenth poetry project; a 2019 Guggenheim fellowship; the National Poetry Series; a Lambda Literary Award; two NEA grants; a Pushcart Prize; and the William Carlos Williams Award. Still Life with Children: Selected Poems of Francesc Parcerisas, translated from the Catalan, was awarded the Texas Institute of Letters’ Soeurette Diehl Fraser Award for Best Translated Book of 2018 and 2019. To The Cypress Again and Again: Tribute to Salvador Espriu, combining translations, poetry, and memoir in homage to Catalan Spain’s most revered 20th century writer, was published in March 2023. His ninth book, Is There Room for Another Horse on Your Horse Ranch?, a finalist for the National Poetry Series, is due out in March 2024 from Four Way Books.

James Richardson (www.aboutjamesrichardson.com) is most recently the author of For Now (Copper Canyon, 2020). Also: During (Castagnola Prize of the PSA), By the Numbers (NBA finalist), Interglacial (NBCC finalist), and Vectors: Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays.

Catie Rosemurgy is the author of two books of poems, My Favorite Apocalypse and The Stranger Manual, both from Graywolf Press. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Pew Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Rona Jaffe Foundation. She lives in Philadelphia and teaches at the College of New Jersey.

December 2023 Poetry Feature: Part II

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