Halloween Poem: “Opiate”

This nation is in the midst of an unprecedented opioid epidemic.

That being the case, it seems to ol’ UD that the Halloween poems she features this year might as well display that element of the Halloween mood which is drift, dreaminess, creepiness, trance, immobilism, morbidness… UD‘s commentary is in brackets.



Gottfried Benn (translated, Francis Golffing, 1952)


Opiate, aconite
beckoning lust and cadaver
Lernaean fields
that my soul drinks
as its elements press forward,
hear its flute-song, its cry:
“As you infuse your poison
restore the self, past itself.”

[Lethe beckons. One wants to make an end of it, to cancel consciousness, if not through death and if not through sex, then through taking one of the many poisons that get the self past itself into a condition of twilight sleep, the self “restored,” fulfilled, in stasis. (“The woman is perfected. / Her dead / Body wears the smile of accomplishment...”) Lernaean fields feature streams to the underworld, to oblivion, and one’s soul drinks that up.]

Cosmogonies, spirits
in the smoke of Hyoscine
atomizations, syntheses
of change, Heraclitean:
These are the very same rivers
but not the Ποταμοί,
opiate, showers of rain
driving past river and self.

[One wants to make an end of it and enter new worlds – cosmogonies. One wants the opiated air to summon metamorphosing spirits. Opiates offer you a way out of not merely the self, but the trivial changes of earthly life, the dull sublunary differences that after all only hasten you toward suffering and extinction. Opiates shower a cleansing rain that takes you past earthly rivers and an earthly self into “river god” (potamoi) worlds that transcend the human.]

Amphorae stand and tables
Before shades, dream-drugged,
thorn of sleep, fresh poppy calyx,
welling white to our lips:
here, too, is the threshold
from which comes a sound of flutes
and as the garlands unfold,
wine and ashes subside.

[The final stanza begins and ends with opiating wine. Amphorae for millennia have been containers for wine, and here they stand in a dark room, a dream chamber into which we’re descending via the poppy’s needle, the heroin’s hypodermic, the opiate’s white (deathly) liquid “welling … to our lips.” Again, as at the poem’s beginning, we drift toward the seductively tuneful threshold of nonexistence. The poppies open up to us draughts and draughts of their white wine until the wine itself – life itself – and death (ashes) subside. Lust and cadaver – the fever and the fret – both go up in smoke.]



Hilaire Belloc’s “Lines to a Don” meant something entirely different…

… but parts of the poem contain a curiously contemporary resonance.


… Don poor at Bed and worse at Table,
Don pinched, Don starved, Don miserable;
Don stuttering, Don with roving eyes,
Don nervous, Don of crudities;
Don clerical, Don ordinary,
Don self-absorbed and solitary;
Don here-and-there, Don epileptic;
Don puffed and empty, Don dyspeptic;
Don middle-class, Don sycophantic,
Don dull, Don brutish, Don pedantic;
Don hypocritical, Don bad,
Don furtive, Don three-quarters mad;
Don (since a man must make an end),
Don that shall never be my friend.

… Don dreadful, rasping Don and wearing,
Repulsive Don—Don past all bearing.
Don of the cold and doubtful breath,
Don despicable, Don of death;
Don nasty, skimpy, silent, level;
Don evil; Don that serves the devil.
Don ugly — that makes fifty lines…


Guess that’s what they mean by immortal verse.


Donald Trump, To His Followers

When, in disgrace with Fortune and the Times
I, with my staff, beweep my outcast state,
And trouble Kasówitz with my bootless cries,
And look upon my press and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one less apt to grope,
Chaste like him, like him with will possessed,
Desiring this man’s heart and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented best;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
(Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth) sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love at rallies such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

9/11 Again…

… and we go to poetry to make us feel and see it once more with its meanings intact.

It’s hard to write a poem about an atrocity. Many 9/11 poems are long personal narratives of the event: scenes witnessed in Lower Manhattan, the way the collapse looked from nearby windows. Some, like September Sonnet by Michael Salcman, are highly compressed lyrics in which physical descriptions also appear, but where the point is less to produce a verse record of one’s impressions than to capture, with small but heavily weighted lines, the larger fact of all of us having been immediately overwhelmed, and then permanently haunted, by the incommensurability and mystery of the battering.

Salcman begins by folding his poem into Auden’s 1st September 1939, which has emerged as the pre-9/11 poem, with its coincidence of month and theme as Auden assumes the full dread of war having broken out again in Europe.


September Sonnet

Auden was right – our buildings grope
the sky for certainty but are dumb
and blind. In the fierce limbus of my eye
the plummeting birds burn still,
asbestos rains and twisted steel
falls in a broth of jet fuel,
cable wrap and mineral dust;
it bathes the snouts of corpse-hunting
dogs and spatters our helmeted Nimrods.
Who stoked these fires while we slept?
Who blew on the embers
Filling September with regret,
and who will be consoled if irony dies
a thousand deaths? Not you or I.


Buildings grope the sky, wrote Auden, and Salcman, struck by the same wretched irony of our high bright-edged monuments suddenly cringing as the sky goes blank and the world senseless, echoes the earlier poet. More broadly, importing Auden lends this poem historical resonance; and Salcman’s use throughout of simple beautifully balanced lyrical lines (Who stoked these fires while we slept?), lines that read like translations from Greek tragedies, sharpens our sense of the infinite profundity of events that can never be fully assimilated.

In the fierce limbus of my eye
the plummeting birds burn still,
asbestos rains and twisted steel
falls in a broth of jet fuel,
cable wrap and mineral dust;

Beautiful stuff here, conveying our inability to make memories of 9/11 stop. The falling objects persist on the edge of vision. The mind’s eye keeps seeing the “broth” (such a well-chosen word, with rich, witchy associations) of jet fuel, and the “mineral dust” (a great phrase, conjuring with horrific concision the organic particles in the air) also stays with us.

These lines remind me of a passage in James Merrill’s Santorini: Stopping the Leak, when the poet talks about what he calls his “psychic incontinence,” his uncontrollable tendency to summon to his mind, and somehow to have to account for, image after image after image:

churning down the optic sluice
… Faces young, old
… all random, ravenous images

… avid for inwardness

… The warm spate bears me on, helpless…

The event comes back to us unbidden, iconic elements of the awful day that want us to take them in, to do something with them.

And notice Salcman’s fantastic use of a kind of loose assonance: limbus, plummeting; birds, burn; falls, broth. It gives the poem an elegance, a sheer verbal beauty, at obvious odds with its subject matter, and this you could say conveys a sly sort of human triumph over the deathliness of the event. We are still to be found on the edge of the scene, generating beauty and even meaning out of it.

The dust

bathes the snouts of corpse-hunting
dogs and spatters our helmeted Nimrods.

Nothing of the horror is avoided here; and yet once again the combination of sheer verbal beauty (bathes) and ancient reference (Nimrod – the Biblical precursor of the New York City Fire Department) heightens – aestheticizes – the horror in a way that lets us retain the horror and at the same time somewhat transcend it.

who will be consoled if irony dies
a thousand deaths?

These lines bring us back to Auden:

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages…

Ironic because almost comically at odds with, resistant to, the powerful darkness everywhere, our various points of light, our places of rebellion and affirmation in the face of atrocity, include things like poetry. Poetry brings harmony and form and powerful subjective utterance to a stuporous world.


That time of year thou may’st in me behold
When orange hairs, or none, or few, do hang
Upon this brow which lately raged against the polls.
But now bare silent Tweets! where late my Twitter sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day,
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by-and-by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see’st the glowing of such ire
That on the ashes of my pride doth lie,
The reality-show whereon it must expire
Consumes that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceivest, which makes my spite more strong,
To love that well which I must leave ere long.

Remorse for Intemperate Speech

I ranted to the knave and fool,
I acted the obscenest tool,
To transform the polls.
Fit audience I found, but Clinton rules
The voter rolls.

I sought my betters: though in each
Fine manners, liberal speech,
Turn hatred into sport.
Nothing said or done can reach
My sadistic heart.

From a penthouse have I come.
Great pride, great rooms,
Maimed me at the start.
I carry to my bronzéd tomb
A sadistic heart.

The Darkling Campaign

La Bedlam Sans Merci

“Doth Roger Ailes avail thee, Donald Trump,
Alone and madly floundering?
Your edge has withered in the race,
And no birds sing.

Yet – Roger Ailes? Art thou that
Haggard and that woe-begone?
This pig’s ignominy is full,
And the damage done.

I see a fox cub on thy brow,
Its orange fades and lies askew;
And on thy cheeks a fading rose
Fast withereth too.”


“I face a lady in debate,
Full competent in policy
Her hair is blond, her foot is light,
And she will wipe the floor with me.

I have been lullèd all asleep,
I have been dreaming — woe betide!—
And now I must ascend the stage
By cold Hill’s side.

My campaign staff it spoke to me
With horrid warning gapèd wide,
And I awoke and found me here,
By cold Hill’s side.

Thus desperately I turn to Ailes,
Thus sad and madly floundering,
Though the edge is withered from the race,
And no birds sing.”

The Constancy of Cruelty

Of all the denunciations of Donald Trump, UD finds most eloquent Senator Susan Collins’ set of reflections on his cruelty.

UD likes in particular one phrase Collins uses — his constant stream of cruel comments — because it is rather poetic and also quite simple. It assumes – correctly – that Collins does not need to define cruelty; it takes for granted the fact that all of us recognize cruelty when it occurs – in speech, in action – because we are all vulnerable human beings who have ourselves, in the course of our lives, suffered cruelty. We know intimately, deeply, historically, how it feels to be the object of someone else’s cruelty. That feeling never goes away.

(We have all inflicted cruelty too, and, if we are decent people, our recognition of our capacity to be cruel in the way of Donald Trump provokes things like shame, apology, and reflection on why we behaved that way.)

There is indeed something obscenely, intimately knowing in the way Trump stimulates Americans – even feeds them – with his cruelty, and makes his cruelty theirs. Commentators talk about the “nihilism” of Trump’s tea party followers, but don’t people really mean their cruelty? Trump leads them into a thrillingly disinhibited realm of communal disgust, horror, and violence – SHOOT THE BITCH – and the reason people attach “nihilism” to this is that, when you actually examine it, there’s nothing there. Nothing political. (This explains why his followers don’t mind that Trump also is a political black hole.) What’s there is inchoate inner rage, exteriorized into pleasurable cruelty by a charismatic sadist. (Pleasurable vindictive cruelty, as when Eliza Doolittle, having hurt Henry Higgins very badly, says triumphantly Ive got a little of my own back, anyhow.)


In his poem, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” William E. Stafford notices how easy it is for human beings to give up the struggle to understand one another:

If you don’t know the kind of person I am
and I don’t know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the
and following the wrong god home we may miss
our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break …

That nihilistic shrug says I’ve tried to understand you – really understand you – but it’s too difficult or threatening or something so I’m going to betray you and my better self by letting the fragile human intercourse between us, our tentative conversations in the direction of mutual comprehension, break. I’m going to retreat to “a pattern that others made,” to regress to whatever my parochial upbringing might have been in regard to people outside my circle.

Cruelty, the root of cruelty, says the poet, is willful blindness to the vulnerability and complexity of the human beings around you. It’s the decision to shrug off the moral imperative to be careful what you do and say with vulnerable and complex people:

… I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the

This makes me think of Trump’s “Second Amendment people’ dog whistle the other day, his knowing what was occurring but deciding not to “recognize” it as it got transmitted to a fragile and complicated social world. He shrugged and “fooled” people rather than considering the darkness into which, with his careless words, he led them.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to
the signals we give — yes or no, or maybe —
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

Yeatsian Trump

The Don

We would be ignorant as The Don
That has looked down
And called us old and ugly clowns
Fat short grotesque buffoons
We love the withered man who saw
Past our pathetic ruse
And recognized our love of self-abuse
The girls freak out when The Don comes
And calls them animals and scum
We would be ignorant as The Don
Who upright stood loosing a gob of spit upon
Our raised expectant faces
We would be — for no knowledge is worth a straw —
Ignorant and wanton as The Don

English Professors for Kaine

[Senator Tim] Kaine quotes W.B. Yeats a lot … most recently when talking about the Syrian refugee crisis where he pleaded that ISIS was the enemy not the refugees.

… “Yeats wrote [The Second Coming] after World War I, surveying the wreckage … [A]nd he expressed a real concern about the state of society at the time because what he noticed was … ‘the best lack all conviction and the worst are filled with passionate intensity.'”

Haiku. (Trumper Warning)

We haven’t seen a
personality like his.
Privileged bully.


Mark Kirk, Senator, Illinois.

Geoffrey Hill, A Poet, Has Died.

I discovered him via his memorial poem addressed to Gillian Rose, one of UD’s heroines. Hill uses her early death, her complex and botched love life, and her lifelong commitment to justice as idea and act, as a way into a restatement of his own “bleak ontology,” his lengthy depressive struggle to love a broken world and the souls that inhabit it. The long poem’s first stanza introduces you to its themes and its emotional attitude:

I have a question to ask for the form’s sake:
how that small happy boy in the seaside
photographs became the unstable man,
hobbyist of his own rage, engrafting it
on a stock of compliance, of hurt women.
You do not need to answer the question
or challenge imposture.
Whatever the protocol I should still construe.

One of the greatest challenges is to love one’s own particular soul, to figure out (but you can’t figure it out; you ask only “for the form’s sake” — not to mention that you’re asking someone not in a position to answer) your fallenness from primal joy in a fully satisfying natural world all the way down to obscure shaky neurotic rage in a world of hurt. The poet anticipates Rose telling him he’s full of shit, he’s posing the question in the wrong way (“challenge imposture”), but however she might take his opening gambit here, he intends to continue (“I should still construe.”).

There is a kind of sanity that hates weddings
but bears an intelligence of grief
in its own kind. There are achievements
that carry failure on their back, blindness
not as in Brueghel, but unfathomably

Here Hill sketches Rose’s particular sensibility, her radical rejection of traditional, constraining rituals like weddings, yet her higher “weddedness” to humanity via her compassionate understanding of our weakness and pathos. All ontologizing is bleak (“grief,” “failure,” “blindness”), but humanity’s highest seers have the capacity to carry this comprehensive failure on their backs and achieve remarkable degrees of lucidity.

You asked not to be
cheated of old age. No kidding, it is an
unlovely parley, although you
could have subdued it and set it to work,
met it without embracing. Edna
with her prosthetic jaw and nose
prevails over these exchanges.

In her last book, written as she was close to death, Rose featured brief sketches of acquaintances who had managed to survive into old age even with profound impairments. Edna was one of these — a very old woman whose face had been disfigured by disease but who still sought out a life of passion and intensity. The poet acknowledges that if Rose had been more lucky, if she had not gotten a fatal cancer in her forties, she would have found a similar way to make “unlovely” old age work for her.

Your anger against me might have been wrath
concerning the just city. Or poetry’s
assumption of rule. Or its rôle
as wicked governor. This abdication
of self-censure indeed hauls it
within your long range of contempt,

unlike metaphysics which you had time for,
re-wedded to the city, a salutation
to Pallas, goddess of all polemics,
to Phocion’s wife — who shall be nameless —
in Poussin’s painting, gathering the disgraced
ashes of her husband. As you rightly said,
not some mere infinite love, a finite act
of political justice.

Here Hill touches on the perennial poetry/philosophy tussle. It was metaphysics, Rose believed, that brought us to the clarity and courage that prompts actual real-world acts of political justice, while poetry could ventilate all it liked about “some mere infinite love,” but was always secondary to the world of polemic. She would see Hill as a complacent poet, someone who assumed the “rule” of poetry over philosophy, and she would find his attitude infuriating.

If there is a healing of broken love it is not
as dyslexia’s broken, learning to read signs.
In broken love you read the signs too late
although they are met with everywhere

Yes. See Gore Vidal on Edmund Wilson’s response to his young wife’s sudden death: ‘[T]he inevitable epitaph: “After she was dead, I loved her.” That is the story of every life — and death.’

So it continues,
the work, lurching on broken springs
or having to be dug out or jump-started
or welded together out of two wrecks
or donated to a good cause, like to the homeless

in the city that is not just, has never
known justice, except sporadically

Love’s Work was the title of Rose’s final memoir, and though I don’t recall her using Hill’s jalopy metaphor, she described an authentic life as a persistent messy headlong agon in the direction of unachievable justice, with the whiny retro business at the opening of Hill’s poem an unforgivable waste of time.

The odds are heavy-set against us all
though medics call the chances symbiosis
in their brusque insolent manner that denies
self-knowledge as the sufferer

Justice is ever in abeyance; and as for our own individual fate – the odds are heavy-set against us. When she was hit with her illness, one of Rose’s doctors told her, “You are living in symbiosis with the disease.” And Hill alludes to this comment in these lines, chiding medicine for trying to deny her her agon, her condition of higher understanding deriving precisely from lucid suffering, from a sense, if you like, of the “unjustness” of her fate.

Poetry’s its own agon that allows us
to recognize devastation as the rift
between power and powerlessness. But when I
say poetry I mean something impossible
to be described, except by adding lines
to lines that are sufficient as themselves.

Hill concludes with a pitch for his art as itself a powerful agon in its lyric measuring of our vulnerability. Yet unlike Rose’s lucid metaphysics (she attacked those she considered obscurantists, like Jacques Derrida), poetry can only enact itself endlessly, can only mysteriously elaborate itself. Like a coastal shelf.


[Trumper Warning]

Sunset and racist star,
And one last tweet for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too yuge for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the GOP
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho’ from out the bourne of our white race
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my God’s caucasian face
When I have crost the bar.

It just came to me.

The poet at Donald Trump’s inauguration will be Frederick Seidel.

A.V. Christie, a poet who died last month at age 53…

… wrote dreamy enigmatic poetry, “elliptical” poetry a fellow poet called it. A steady eye for nature and a sense of poetic and thematic history kept her work from untethered surreality, as in this poem:


I was conceived in the cruelest month
in whatever spring California could muster.
A little rain — with some more likely.
And the buckeyes were they yet on the ground?
Damn my father’s smooth stone eyes,
other prevailing enticements and what Eliot called
the female stench. Damn the oaks,
their histrionics, struggling in the fog.
Spiderwebs lay in the grass, misted
and looking like misspent galaxies.
I cry into and out of this moment.
Pound told Eliot: strike this and this.
What was weak got dropped, and the poem
stood stronger without it.


You see what she does in this brief lyric, which amounts to a brief for brief lyrics. She begins and ends with T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, a long poem but not too long, since Ezra Pound edited away “what was weak” in it. So this is first of all let’s say a comment on Christie’s own poetic philosophy, in which your slender lyric results from a “strengthening” process of winnowing down to what really matters, to only those images and observations that really carry substance.

This sounds quite positive, poetically and existentially – the strong poem emerges from principled and strategic winnowing, and the strong self emerges from a similar process of self-definition that takes place after one’s birth into undifferentiated being.

Yet the body of the poem – a series of reflections on her conception, and on her attitude toward having been given life – is darker. California’s spring is cruel because it is arid, not rainy; she herself represents, by implication, merely what her parents could “muster.” The early-blooming buckeye tree had maybe, at the time of her conception, already dropped its toxic beautiful fruit, a fruit compared to her father’s seductive toxic eyes (Damn my father’s smooth stone eyes), enticing her mother into sex. Her mother’s “female stench” – a phrase Pound successfully persuaded Eliot to drop from his poem – in turn enticed her father.

(And why was Pound against female stench? Because the entire passage of which it was a part was unsuccessfully derivative of Alexander Pope. Again the idea that poetically or existentially the imperative is to go forward – note the punning title of Christie’s poem – as a radically self-fashioned being.)

So damn him and damn her, mindlessly conceiving the poet; damn the two of them, their erotic “histrionics,” their “struggling in the fog.” Damn the death already implicit in his stone eyes and in her stench.

Stephen Dedalus, imagining his own conception, perceives the same mordant morbid fogbound struggle:

Wombed in sin darkness I was … made not begotten. By them, the man with my voice and my eyes and a ghostwoman with ashes on her breath. They clasped and sundered, did the coupler’s will.

And now the poet’s parents lie back, post-coital, still entwined, their world-projection misspent:

Spiderwebs lay in the grass, misted
and looking like misspent galaxies.
I cry into and out of this moment.

On the simplest level, the poet will ultimately cry forth from the womb out of this moment. But she is also damning the moment, crying into it, feeling herself to be, let’s say, the “misspent” product of a damnable coupling.

Pound told Eliot: strike this and this.
What was weak got dropped, and the poem
stood stronger without it.

These lines now have an uglier, better never to have been born, spin: The poet herself might well have been edited out by a “better craftsman” of the sort Pound represented.

In this reading, the brief lyric she has written amounts to an argument for, a reflection of, a brief or maybe even nonexistent life. This is Eliot’s Waste Land of rapes and abortions, stripped even of what Richard Ellmann calls the poem’s “neo-Christian hope.”

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