Psychebabble (or, When I die I want to be made into a nice chest of drawers; or, There’s no man speaks better Latin)

Nothing is speaking to human consciousness:
not the gusts of Olympus blustering our brains;
not the gush of the Ganges bubbling our bodies;
not the snowflake stars dusting the black, or the silences between them, no—
we are just talking to ourselves—

Mother: What, Dan?
Me: Nuthin, I was just talkin to meself.
Mother: Well shur ya couldn’t talk to a nicer fella.
(Well, mothers are supposed to love their sons,
and I suppose most of them do.)

No—we are just talking to ourselves,
our brains rustling: crown of thoughts
a crown of leaves, branches spreading in our heads,
rooting down in the dumb limbs,
spine-trunk, root-nerve, sap-blood, leaves
greening and browning and new buds blooming,
fruits and seeds,
breezes the branches make themselves
by growing (a flung violin makes music too),
and “Timmmmburrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr”!—

Ah the mouths we all are
Tongue-soft and tooth-hard
Spit-shined and enamelled
But red raw and rotten
Suckling and snapping
Laughing and grinding
Talking to ourselves
(Fill it and fill it—
I’m teaching myself Latin!
But there’s always a hole in the middle)


I thought one of the pictures which inspired this poem might contribute something to its enjoyment. Can you see which girl is the Rose?
I thought one of the pictures which inspired this poem might contribute something to its enjoyment. Can you tell which girl is the Rose?

Fading into the photograph some of your classmates,
No less important, no less alive, but not you—you stand out,
A sullen rose, having a bad day in 1936, or that’s just how
You look. No less hopeful for it, a whole kaleidoscope of life
Spirals out from the black-and-white school picture,
The market streets alive with sensory richness, Galway alleyways
Leading each to different lives. Perhaps you became a nun,
The school selling it well, perhaps a nurse, living by the hospital,
Perhaps a corpse hours after this was taken, the sullenness sickness.

What became of you? And why is the became more than you are
This 1930s day? Just a rose, unpruned, a flame on film, ready to bloom
Like a camera’s flash or to fade like your friends
Into the drear background. Why? Because I cannot know,
Because the narrative act of lining you all up
And saving this second forever sets suspense—what happened next?
And next, and next, and after that, and then? What happened?

What is happening, forever now, frame-sized, is you standing,
And standing out—your cardigan maybe blue, your eyes as well,
Hair light and easy on your well-held head—and looking out,
Out at lives coming, possibilities, the schooling done, the ticket
To America, to India, to some escape from your life back then,
From discipline and rules and drudgery, from poverty and fools
And from, oh from, the stings and thorns that are coming,
As surely for you as for your fellows, the failures, the regrets,
That what ifs and the if onlys, the sullenness of a girl
Deepening into the well-worn despair of womanhood,
The children and the husband and the house, the parents
Sickening and needing care, the bills, the aches, the worries,
All the things that go along with any joys, joys of parenthood
And love, if such you knew, joys of shelter and of family,
All the joys that sit around a grief, expectant diners
Waiting for a feast, the servants lined around the board,
The silver shining and the linen laid, the wine all ready,
Just to be uncorked, the dishes coming in, set down with care,
The lids lifted, and the horror underneath. Ah, had they but been empty,
Then what care? But the rotted flesh, the shattered bone,
The food of monsters set out like a kill—
And all your ravenous fellows tucking in.

What pains you saw, what joys, what black-and-whites,
Will not be known. Only this lonesome rose will grow and die,
And only she will ever know the world she found,
And what she made of it, and what she left.


[A storm arises at the port of Aulis, preventing the Greek fleet from sailing for Troy. Their leader Agamemnon consults the seer Calchas for advise on calming the storm.]

I watch my father. The timely winds of Thrace
Augur hope for those who love him,
Hope that he might not depart us at his brother’s whim.
I see him hear with ashen face
The council of the Seer—is it good
News, no leaving? Or a solution to the storm,
The suggestion of some warm
Libation maybe, wine or blood?

He looks at me—I do not know that face.
Is it one they know who meet
Him in war? With halting pace
Unknown before to striding, kingly feet
He’s moving to the Altar.
Ah! Some god will be appeased,
The clouds will clear and father will go east,
Leaving love behind for slaughter.

He calls to me, the men are quiet.
I do not like their silence or their eyes,
Following me to father. What insight
Can they hope from our goodbyes?

The wind starts whipping harder,
Screaming louder as I reach
Him, screaming round the Praying
Stone, screaming, screaming.
Yes wise wind! Increase! Be greater
Than men’s rashness—keep them beached.

We are embracing. “Ah father,
Do not go to Troy—
Ahhh! Father!”
No! It can’t be…
But my blood is really spilling,
Without me tamely splashing,
And all the men are watching
As the screaming moans to nothing.

The Serpent

Listing the good deeds of Hitler
To an audience of Jews!
It seems fair to say my sister,
Vicky, was somewhat confused.

We always found her in some temple,
Just like Christ at twelve years old—
Her certainty was just as simple,
Though her father was no god.

“He loved Blondie till he killed her,
And he could be nice to kids
(Those he didn’t send to war,
Those he didn’t class as Yids).”

He would stagger up the steps,
Left or right, my room or hers…
Can’t say that it mattered which—
Hearing’s bad as being heard.

“We just need some understanding.”
“There must be some clear defense.”
“I know we can still absolve him.”
“Maybe his love can make sense.”

I tried to tell her that a victim
Doesn’t need to wait for that,
But she got stuck inside the garden
Trying to put the apple back.


When you were seven you wrote your first poem,
A child given to word and image
By the necessity of your parents’ work, alone
In the world of nature from a young age,
But without the coldness of the abandoned,
For you felt yourself beloved of every creature,
Of the woods and of the snow, and your absent
Parents loved you too, and your poems procured
The services of the mountain and the river
As foster parents, the protective shadow
Of Urey as your father, and the gentle song of the Etto, giver-
Of-life, as your mother. The will to borrow
Such parents was a blessing, and you knew a bliss
In early years, although your poems could sing a common sadness:

“The snow falls ponderously in the valley
Around the fruitless evergreens
In the great shadowcoat of the Urey
Where the soft Etto is first seen
To rise magically out of rock,
Ages before the oar and dock;
It wonders “What can they mean,
These unfalling things that strive any way
But down?”, and drifts with snowslow wings
Upon their movements and their tracks,
Whitening the land, papering cracks,
And having no more knowledge than a day.”

You spent your youth in that wild neighbourhood,
Observing the tragedy of insect life
And the romance of snow falling on the woods
In the Etto Valley. The blunt knife
Of the sun above the Urey never showed
Itself a force of heat, only of light,
And it helped the frozen blank blanket of snow
To pervade your natural wanderings with the sight
Only of eternal waste and coldness.
But the Etto and its woodlands would break
The influence of the sky and brush the wilderness
With moving colour—“a water-snake
On ice will writhe and hiss
Until it melts the whiteness with its kiss.”


Some day the boy, a boy no longer,
Will think of him, long dead, his grandfather.
Today they sit enveloped by my sight
In this fog of future. The old man and I
May share these thoughts of teleologic bent,
But the boy has only popcorn and contentment.
His thought lies in the future. But some day
He might remember this café,
Its stillness and the old man’s voice
Telling him things I have no need to write.
Anticipating this place in future thought,
The old man shares his presence with great art,
Each gesture so deliberate, each look
So wise, like the author of some living book,
A scribe of torah, knowing no new testament,
But hoping, praying, willing some fulfilment.