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SHJ Issue 5
Spring 2012

[Nine Poems + Commentary]

by Jack Marshall

Setting Out

I give my hand back to its place 
         in the country of hands 
I give my legs back to the road 
My flowing sex I give to the Mother of Water 
My hair to the mountain peak 
I give my eye back to the head of the chestnut pony 
The low spark at the tip of my spine 
          I give to the backbone of stars 
My sweat I give to the cloud 
         moving toward the warm gulf stream 
The letters of my name back to the Father of Alphabets 
The dark cave under the outcrop of my forehead 
        is making way for the prowlers of the sea 
My lungs and ears and ambergris I give back to the wind 
My sputtering desire to the more steadily burning sun 
Not because it is all over 
But that it might begin

—From Gorgeous Chaos: New and Selected Poems 1965–2001 (Coffee House Press, 2002); first published in The Darkest Continent (For Now Press, 1967)


The Feeding Machine

He is shaking the tree on which you grow 
my love, shaking the tree with fury, 
and as you toss you think: it’s the play 
of the south breeze in no hurry.
He is picking you up from the earth 
my love, picking you like an apple; 
that is your flesh between his teeth, 
that’s a bayonet on his table.
He is biting into your skin 
my love, skin so soft and trusting, 
bites till your bones cave in, 
and skewers your cheeks for basting.
He is chewing you into pieces 
my love, his chewing jaw like a harrow; 
when he swallows he’ll leave no trace 
oh, and no seed for tomorrow.

—From Gorgeous Chaos: New and Selected Poems 1965–2001 (Coffee House Press, 2002); first published in Bearings (Harper & Row, 1969)



—(in memory, Morton Marcus)

Fog-shrouded February barely gone,
and with my first steps out,
a powerful scent-driven 

air’s full blossoming springtide knocks me
squarely on my knee-caps,
nearly to my knees. 

My friend has died; he appears
walking away in a sky
that had not existed before 

he occupied it
and now

empty sky, no sun,

returning a sum,
debt most
unforgiven, called in, 

totalled. In moments of crisis,
as the heart’s submerged need springs 
to the surface, new eyes 

see such a prickly pair
we were! — yoked, 
bickering brothers.

Yet how unstinting your generosity
rivaled in richness 
your full-throated rhapsody! 

If poetry is near able to say
things not heard in speech,
perhaps you’ll hear what I didn’t say—  

here, in out of the unbound 
stretch and reach and touch of
time in sound. 

Mort, we should switch places.  Have 
you noticed how those who love life least 
often live  

longest? Something’s amiss. 
Such a circus! Applause these days 
would be white noise. 

On the phone, you
could barely whisper
you were ready to go, 

though you’d breathe easier
if the world’s cries gentled for the night;
you’d be elated, you laughed, near 

healed, if drawn
out of midnight and daybreak’s light 
dawn’s pink palm opened.

—From the book-length poem, Trace, to be published in 2012

—Also appears in SHJ Issue 3, Spring 2011, in a trio of selections from the book


The Friends

They have grown steadily 
marked by an early disquiet 
that has never left them, and deepened 
by the need to be taken to heart 
as doubt of what they had 
believed would last is 
on the increase. 
                 Some nights it pulls 
their faces into lean strips 
of licorice 
        as they twist 
along the curves of drifting highways 
they will be remembered 
as disappearing on. 

Scattering as far as things can go in a self- 
propelled wind, they switch 
lines, lovers and the inherited 
compulsions they were fed on 
and feed each other 
as ambitions. 
                   Their ambitions have become 
their faces. The holes they step into now 
are in their heads. 
                        Each of their lives bears that much 
more of the chaos the friends are 
rich in. 

Last seen, they were giving themselves 
up to a beauty as punishing as it lay wholly 
outside their bodies: to enter 
is to be swollen out of this world. 
I sometimes think there is another life 
without memory or confessions 
kicking out of it. 
                       But if I had been told 
that some day the sight of a room full of loved ones 
could stir such an urge 
for a getaway,
I wouldn’t have believed it.

—From Gorgeous Chaos: New and Selected Poems 1965–2001 (Coffee House Press, 2002); first published in Bits of Thirst (Cedar Creek Press, 1972)



Each man to his forced march; this is mine. 
In the end everything runs out, runs 
under the wheels—a bandage unwinding 
on the centerline. Sometimes when my ribs clang 
like a metal signpost at the edge of town, 
and so much of the dark I cannot shut out 
crawls with me into my sleeping bag, 
I try to think where the owl goes. 
For years now, my life has taken 
no sharp turns, no climb, no detour, 
but moves in neutral 
down this smooth tar lane, one way.
The towns, en route, the festooned, blazing towns, 
are they dreams in my sleep, vanished 
on waking? Even so, watching that white line 
grow thin and luminous at night, 
I feel the moon’s hub unhinge from center 
and roll awry.

—From Gorgeous Chaos: New and Selected Poems 1965–2001 (Coffee House Press, 2002); first published in The Darkest Continent (For Now Press, 1967)


Requiem for Renee

Dawn draws sleepless, raw eyes 
to a day where the dark stays all day, 
and late September leaves dance on 
their own graves. 

Renee is no more. 
Though she calls 
and cries for Mother 
Morphine, it’s the drug calling 
“Come to me who am 
painless, boundless, endless...” 
The anger of the terminally ill 
against those caring for but unable 
to ease them, and their final litany: 
“I don’t care anymore.” 
I give her a sip of ginger ale 
to moisten her lips. 

“Excuse me,” she murmurs when she burps. 
And what about the dread in her eyes 
when the storm knocks 
out the house’s power? 

Near the end, when things are clear 
but unrepairable, 
what we had hoped to forestall 
we wish would hurry. We wait 

with such patience, you could say we wait 
with abandon...and what we have abandoned 
is time, no more 
now than what’s already over. 

In all of autumn’s fading, rotting, falling— 
a single death is a footnote, if that. 
But the larger is not more real 
than the small; in death, scale falls away. 

Now her leaving brings the unapproachable 
nearer, more near to the threshold 
of the corridor of corridors 
we had not prepared any feelings for.

—From The Steel Veil (Coffe House Press, 2008)


Her Flag

On one of our long, wearing walks 
down the dirt path fronting the length 
and breadth of our patch of ocean, 
back from Sunset 
Nursery—me only half-kiddingly griping, 
sorely hobbling on 
                    the ankle sprained 
at racquetball three months before, 
and she, heartily, as is her way, more than half- 
mockingly laughing me silly, laughing our loony 
heads off ... As good as it gets. 

While kvetching, I’m schlepping a sack of compost soil; 
Naomi cradles and shades a potted, dancing-doll-legged 
cymbidium orchid in her arms, white fluttering 
blossoms, delectable yellow centers, edged 
shell-pink membrane translucent as a newborn’s 
eyelid, her open hand shields; the same hand 
at the mom-and-pop grocery will pick the battered 
bruised fruit and vegetables because no one else will. 

With our swaying matching swag and all her gangling 
angles softened with delight, each curl and petal—part 
vein, part flame—in range of the ocean’s terrestrial 
    We have bought, she and I, a piece 
                                            of the same action.

—From Gorgeous Chaos: New and Selected Poems 1965–2001 (Coffee House Press, 2002); first published in Millenium Fever (Coffee House Press, 1996)



Another World Series in the record books, 
and bereft now of baseball for the next six 
winter months, I’m ready for grief counseling. Is this why 
they come to mind, those sleek Young Turks (actually 
Italians) who played as if they were royally born 
to it? I see their jet-black T-shirts emblazoned 
with Panthers in gold script on the back and black pants worn 
loose that billowed in the summer air. On 
weekends they were rumored to play, the benches along 
the foul lines filled up long 
before they appeared in Seth Low Park 
where we kids used to choose up softball games in the black- 
top outfield. Sandy Koufax, my classmate at Lafayette High, 
and not yet the fireball southpaw he’d soon be, 
lived a few blocks away. Playing ball was our break-away 
to the diamond where there was no time. There we practiced 
the magic of plucking a feather-stitched 
sphere as from a flying stem. Besides, the thrilling game 
they promised was made more seductive by the imminent 
whiff of possible menace. For we’d seen them, 
when behind in the score and their high-stakes bet 
in danger of being lost, create a pretext— 
a brushed back batter, a bumped runner—for an all- 
out bat-swinging assault on their rivals. 
                                                   And an umpire, paid to call 
balls and strikes, who called against them, risked bodily harm. 
When, as usual, regally late, they came 
through the gate at the far corner of left field, their black 
outfits set against the outfield’s flat black 
asphalt top, they filed in, shimmering like heatwaves raised 
as if wraiths from a further dimension in the distant haze. 
Dragging duffel bags full of bats and gloves in a slow laze, 
they shuffled, blinking, against the bright sunlight, as if hung- 
over, looking weary, vexed, even from that distance. And strung 
out behind them, their gorgeous girlfriends and wives, 
some pregnant, though all much too voluptuous to be wives 
for the child-bearing years of the rest of their lives. 
Here came Paradise in pairs: two lips, 
two eyes, two breasts, two hips. 
The crowd on the benches made room for them, but 
it was on their lovers’ laps they sat. 
And we forgave them all their faults: 
their arrogance, their tempers, their hangovers, and being late. 
They’d shown up! And with such beauties, besides! 
Nine innings...nine lives, 
in which to look forward to them, sleek as their namesakes 
in midday, moving with midnight 
reflexes and fluid grace. 
Afterward, we’d feel we could face 
coming back into time for the sake 
of being able to look forward to leaving again. Tall 
blue sky. Bright sun overhead. The coin is tossed. Called. 
                                                                       “Play ball!”

—First published in Gorgeous Chaos: New and Selected Poems 1965–2001 (Coffe House Press, 2002)


A Gift

For a long time now I have not been able to listen 
to Dinu Lipatti’s slender, ascetic fingertips 
pressing ever so gently firm on the piano keys 

in his last recorded transcription of Bach’s Cantata 
“Jesus bleibet meine Freude” given to me 
by George Oppen the year he died. 

                                                     It is too sad to hear 
that severe, geometrically measured stroll of the soul 
healthily light-stepping into heaven, 

and has become sadder with each loved one’s death: 
the slow, spare, stately pace wrenching the heart 
with its graceful ascendancy over grief, 

and staring as if straight into the face of God 
either everywhere or nowhere, leaving us 
nothing to say, nothing to hear as luminous 

and meltingly tender as the air 
fills with silence, and the heart with loss.

—From Gorgeous Chaos: New and Selected Poems 1965–2001 (Coffee House Press, 2002); first published in Sesame (Coffee House Press, 1993)


Serious Play:
Commentary by Jack Marshall

The poems included here are from early work (“Hitch-Hiker,” “Feeding Machine”) to most recent (“Requiem for Renee,” “Totalled”) and deal with my responses to pressures of personal, political, and planetary events which in my seventh decade I feel more urgently than ever. At a certain age, one begins falling out of love with oneself and can better see what feelings and experiences we share with others; not only with other people, but other sentient beings as well. I have tried to make the writing a running account, precise perception—propelled. To get the details and feelings of experience as accurately as I can in a propulsive music to express the immediacy of being alive. Sometimes the poem is not limited to reportage, but is an attempt to surprise or provoke some new expression or feeling into awareness wherein the moment is the heart of time.


End Bug Issue 5

Jack Marshall

Photo of Jack Marshall

is an important American poet, Guggenheim Fellow, and author of numerous collections. Two of his more recent, From Baghdad to Brooklyn: Growing Up in a Jewish-Arab Family in Midcentury America, and Gorgeous Chaos: New and Selected Poems 1965-2001, are available from Coffee House Press.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury