Schubert in Florida

All that’s best of dark and brightThis is Florida, where supremely brilliant days give way to the blackest of cosmic backdrops. The intensity of light and lightlessness draws poets, among them Charlie Smith.

Schubert in Florida

When you slunk across my dream

I was listening

to Schubert, I was standing in a stairwell

in a beach town, listening to Schubert’s darkest sonata

Poetry, so much of poetry, is dream. I’ve said this – and tried to demonstrate it – constantly on this blog. Poetry is the navigation of dream, if you like — poetry takes for granted our hard-won, fugitive awareness at any daylight moment; it tells us we are not really in command of ourselves. Rather we attempt, every blessed day, to marshal our consciousness-forces with enough plausibility to make it through social life, though a public world, all the time in peril of being pulled under into our private stream of consciousness.

So not really dark and light, but a tissue of them, a dance with them, a struggle — a musical counterpoint — between them, and this tends to be poetry’s territory, the exploration and expression of the mind oscillating between something like what Freud meant by ego and id. If Schubert’s darkest work waltzes forward with deep obscure personal sorrow, sunniest Florida strains hard in the other direction, all communal sweetness and light even as the cosmic blackdrop is always there. Smith will place his speaker in that tug of war as he tries to drag himself out of a darkly persistent passion for an ex-lover and enter the light of day.

thinking of children

coming on love for the first time, of their hands,

trembling as they reach across an obscure space

to touch the beloved who has become everything

important in life

Well I’ll be damned, writes Joan Baez in a song about her long-ago lover Bob Dylan, here comes your ghost again.  In this instance, the woman the speaker can’t get over has “slunk” into his dream, prompting, on his waking, thoughts of early, cryptic, all-encompassing passion… and, implicitly,  personal amazement at the lifelong intensity of his passion for the woman who haunts his dreams.

and thought how ridiculous

and destructive this is, this irrepressible need

for the loved one, the cascade through the self

of another’s presence – 

His mature non-dreaming mind can see the crazy, damaging thing letting someone essentially crash into you and take you over represents; but obviously there’s not much to be done about it. (“Love,” wrote James Merrill, “buries itself in me, up to the hilt.” Whether he likes it or not.)

thinking of the music

picking my way through this like a man searching

tearfully for his most important possession, a man drifting

through one of the aging Florida beach towns

on an August day

Of course music, pure music, is pure dream; there’s a kind of structure, a kind of dream logic; and there’s an expressivity that is strong but inarticulable.  Dreams and music move along to some meaning, or at least both feel profoundly meaningful, and we pick our way through both because both often seem to contain not only the most important things but, in their self-contained power and beauty, some explanation, some justification, for the way we are.  

So… that “aging” town is our guy, having moved past passion to tearful acknowledgment of its weird loss/retention; and that Floridian August is the passion still somehow burning very bright – at least on the evidence of who goes slinking through one’s dreams.

who abruptly leaves the dolphin performance

and returns to his car

parked in the shade of a gumbo-limbo tree

and takes a nap

& dreams of his ex-wife crossing a sun-streaked lawn,

a fine woman who glances at him without desire

That “limbo” tree is a nice touch, since we’re arguing that all of us exist not in clarity of consciousness and then sleep, not in past and then present, but in a much more interesting state of limbo. And here the drifty confused impassioned old guy suddenly (not with forethought) leaves the bright dolphin display of the Florida beach and goes back to his Schubertian car (one assumes it’s his own radio he’s hearing when he stands in the stairwell) and takes the nap that generates the dream with which the poem begins: the lost lover never lost, always crossing the sun-streaked world of youth that his unconscious generates in the night.

as one would glance

indifferently at a stranger standing in an outdoor stairwell

in a beach town listening to Schubert playing on a car radio,

a stranger waiting almost patiently for a brief sadness

to quell and die down, so he might move on from there.

Poem for the End of the Year


Let me die under a true dark sky
A certified cloudless lightless sky
Far down the Atlantic let northern lights
Dip their curtains when I die
Shallow breathing on the observation field
Skyglow gone and city brightness sealed
Let me sleep at ease in the windless clear
While mourners keep their torches low 

Let me find a window in the weather
For deep sky and a circle of telescopes
And a circle of mourners riveted
To the Milky Way

There are SO many poems titled ‘Winter Night’…

But UD likes this one best, by Jon Lang.


Before we go there: My own winter night sky tonight – viewed from my back deck in Garrett Park, Maryland – is blackly clear, with a large, full, bright moon.  This cosmic clarity comes equipped, this evening, with very cold, very awakening, air.  Like all those winter night poets, I’m stirred, and I’m lifted, out here, off the earth, to something acutely articulate; something post-human, and post-humous…   Yet as it happens, I don’t know what the universe is saying — I only know I’m exposed, in my coatless, ghosty condition, to its voice.   Wallace Stevens hears something of this with similar recognition and confusion at the seashore: 

The water never formed to mind or voice,   
Like a body wholly body, fluttering
Its empty sleeves; and yet its mimic motion   
Made constant cry, caused constantly a cry,   
That was not ours although we understood,
Inhuman, of the veritable ocean.
If you’re ever going to “break through the sensual gate,” writes Cecil Day-Lewis, it’s liable to happen facing the ocean, facing the stars; but that breakthrough, though heady, will be muddled and unnerving.  Better to return, continues Day-Lewis, to sublunary reality: “Friend, let us look to earth,/ Be stubborn, act and sleep.”
Philip Larkin, in “Sad Steps,” responds in a similar way to a sublimely moonstruck night:
Lozenge of love! Medallion of art!
O wolves of memory! Immensements! No,
One shivers slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and the brightness and the plain   
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare…


Winter Night

How often we draw back, detached from the world

Like a star, and thinking the mind a pure space

Imagine our fate somehow suspended – almost

As if, like a far eye, or a small fist

Of light, we might take the whole of it, coldly, in.

But ah, what a show … for nothing really stops –

And the further we fade, the more the smallest pain

Heightens, iced to a moon’s edge. O, could we just

See! How even without us the vanishing earth

Goes on, child without mother, bearing itself

Blindly toward spring! Would we still, like gods,

Think ourselves beyond it all? Now, shrinking

Within, we only at best mimick the dead,

Who have earned with a life that richer, darker distance.

Sing it.

This is my trauma
Had it from birth
This is my trauma
Grandest on earth

My fellow poet stole it
O plagiarist! You’re bold!

But this is my trauma
To have and to hold

For UD, this has always been THE great WWI poem.

Its third stanza has become part of my mental life.


1. Prelude: The Troops

Dim, gradual thinning of the shapeless gloom
Shudders to drizzling daybreak that reveals
Disconsolate men who stamp their sodden boots
And turn dulled, sunken faces to the sky
Haggard and hopeless. They, who have beaten down
The stale despair of night, must now renew
Their desolation in the truce of dawn,
Murdering the livid hours that grope for peace.

Yet these, who cling to life with stubborn hands,
Can grin through storms of death and find a gap
In the clawed, cruel tangles of his defence.
They march from safety, and the bird-sung joy
Of grass-green thickets, to the land where all
Is ruin, and nothing blossoms but the sky
That hastens over them where they endure
Sad, smoking, flat horizons, reeking woods,
And foundered trench-lines volleying doom for doom.

O my brave brown companions, when your souls
Flock silently away, and the eyeless dead
Shame the wild beast of battle on the ridge,
Death will stand grieving in that field of war
Since your unvanquished hardihood is spent.
And through some mooned Valhalla there will pass
Battalions and battalions, scarred from hell;
The unreturning army that was youth;
The legions who have suffered and are dust.

— Siegfried Sassoon


(Most of its words and phrases
are taken from this article.)



Lightsail of artificial origin!
Non-trivial periodicity
Of the light curve! O Oumuamua:
I am in an excited state of spin.


You are excited by external torques…
Curved sheet, hollow cone or ellipsoidal,
Part of the vast unbound population,
Are you alien, probe, mineral, Orc?

“[R]eality itself remains very dear. One wants glimpses of …

… the real,” wrote Harold Brodkey, days before he died, in his memoir This Wild Darkness: The Story of My Death. In Saul Bellow’s novel, Herzog, his main character desperately wants to

live in an inspired condition, to know truth, to be free, to love another, to consummate existence, to abide with death in clarity of consciousness – without which, racing and conniving to evade death, the spirit holds its breath and hopes to be immortal because it does not live …

And in his poem, Note to Reality, Tony Hoagland, who has died, says much the same thing as Bellow and Brodkey, though in the wandering pastiche of poetry:

Without even knowing it, I have
believed in you for a long time.

When I looked at my blood under a microscope
I could see truth multiplying over and over.

—Not police sirens, nor history books, not stage-three lymphoma
persuaded me

but your honeycombs and beetles; the dry blond fascicles of grass
thrust up above the January snow.
Your postcards of Picasso and Matisse,
from the museum series on European masters.

When my friend died on the way to the hospital
it was not his death that so amazed me

but that the driver of the cab
did not insist upon the fare.

Quotation marks: what should we put inside them?

Shall I say “I” “have been hurt” “by” “you,” you neglectful monster?

I speak now because experience has shown me
that my mind will never be clear for long.

I am more thick-skinned and male, more selfish, jealous, and afraid
than ever in my life.

“For my heart is tangled in thy nets;
my soul enmeshed in cataracts of time…”

The breeze so cool today, the sky smeared with bluish grays and whites.

The parade for the slain police officer
goes past the bakery

and the smell of fresh bread
makes the mourners salivate against their will.


Nothing concentrates the mind like life-threatening illness; or so you’d think, but like most of us the poet’s “mind will never be clear for long,” so he must “speak now,” when his mind clears enough for him to write a poem. He addresses a love/hate note directly to what UD has always, in her own private lingo, called Mama Reality, that thing Bellow and Brodkey yearn toward, dream of, want to wake themselves from their dream of, so they can enter “clarity of consciousness” and leave the half-life their fear of death has settled them into.

Having overcome, for the moment, his customary half-awareness, the poet now sees that he has long “believed in you” – or he has at least believed in those manifestations of Mama Reality that involve the sheer pulsating amorally-triumphant proliferation of nature: cancerous blood cells overcoming the immune system; high grass overcoming January snow. Not abstractions, or even loud alarms, but the particularity of beetles (dung beetles, featured in Kafka’s Metamorphosis, represent another natural force that feeds on death) and honeycombs “persuade” the poet that reality exists, that life is not sheer dream, evasion, longing. Life is mad, often sweet and beautiful, but uncertainly meaningful, proliferation, as in the honeycombs, or in the piles of postcards of their work that the prolific artist-bees Picasso and Matisse generate.


And now we shift to a little narrative, a little memory, still in the key of morbidity and uncertain meaning:

When my friend died on the way to the hospital
it was not his death that so amazed me

but that the driver of the cab
did not insist upon the fare.

I note for the record, Reality, that to be grounded in you is to be hopelessly grounded in life – so much so, that once he died my friend was instantly less real to me than an anonymous, gratuitous, cabbie. That gratuitous gesture – not insisting on the fare – is all of us blindly driving forward to the next event, veering right away from the face of death. So here the poet is back to thinking about our customary half-sleep, our mainly unclarified consciousness:

Quotation marks: what should we put inside them?

Shall I say “I” “have been hurt” “by” “you,” you neglectful monster?

Why have you abandoned me to unreality, to the distancing abstractions of quotation marks rather than the direct expression that, as Herzog says, would allow me “to know truth”? You’re monstrously guilty of neglecting my yearning to be close to you; and at this late date I’m terribly ill – terribly hurt by your amoral proliferating processes – and I’m therefore very angry with you.

“For my heart is tangled in thy nets;
my soul enmeshed in cataracts of time…”

Here is another quotation. The poet draws upon biblical? Romantic? poetic traditions in another form of complaint: I can make this pretty if you like, but the obdurate outraging fact is my powerless implication in your unaccountable story of killing proliferation.

And now we end with brief present-time (real-time?) orientation:

The breeze so cool today, the sky smeared with bluish grays and whites.

The parade for the slain police officer
goes past the bakery

and the smell of fresh bread
makes the mourners salivate against their will.

Well, smeared. ‘Fraid we’re not making much progress out of unclarity, though, as with our response to all those Picassos, we retain aesthetic – painterly – responsiveness to the world. The earlier police siren, alarming us to danger, is now the accomplished death of the police officer; and, as in the narrative of the cab, reality seems to be that thing that hastens us on to the next fresh event, even in the immediate face of death. Rather than mourning, the paraders salivate at the smell of fresh bread.


It is an interesting question, you know – the extent to which our superior human consciousness can really lift us into a realm significantly higher than that of worker bees, enmeshed in cataracts and compelled – against our will – always to freshen and sweeten and proliferate our world until those compulsions turn morbid.

Ol’ Justice Buzzard

Ol’ Justice Buzzard
Had only just uttered
A word to his prisoners two;
But then on a dare
The courtroom was bare!
So Buzzard he tore off and flew.

This iambic pentameter is TOTALLY Wallace Stevens.

Moons can have moons and they are called moonmoons.


Autumn Refrain

The skreak and skritter of evening gone
And grackles gone and sorrows of the sun,
The sorrows of sun, too, gone . . . the moon and moon,
The yellow moon of words about the nightingale
In measureless measures, not a bird for me
But the name of a bird and the name of a nameless air
I have never – shall never hear. And yet beneath

The stillness of everything gone, and being still,
Being and sitting still, something resides,
Some skreaking and skrittering residuum,
And grates these evasions of the nightingale
Though I have never – shall never hear that bird.
And the stillness is in the key, all of it is,
The stillness is all in the key of that desolate sound.


If you’d like more poetic thought on the moon, the full moon, and nothing but the moon, there’s also T S Eliot’s Rhapsody on a Windy Night (for full depressive effect, listen to Jeremy Irons or Tom O’Bedlam recite this poem), and Sylvia Plath’s The Moon and the Yew Tree (go here for UD‘s analysis of the Plath).

Theme of them all? Shall we sum it up?


“[P]rose is principally an ethical project, while poetry is amoral…”

When UD got to the word “amorality” in the famous anonymous op-ed, she was pleased. She loves the word amoral, its soft letters smoothly rolling out, and inside it love itself – amor, folded equally beautifully inside the famously beautiful word sycamore.


The root of the problem is the president’s amorality
Anyone who works with him knows he is not moored…


The long soft Os
You moored in your prose…

Although everyone knows
Amoral: poetry, moral: prose

When eye and ear encountered those
Something poetic interposed

(Moored, and the Moor himself arose
Root, The Name of the Rose)

Amid constitutional throes
Aesthetic repose


When something poetic interposes, we fly above morality. For his poem, “A Spring Song,” Donald Davie chooses as epigraph a phrase from Pope:

“stooped to truth and moralized his song”

Truth is what we’re moored in; art frees us. Here’s Davie’s poem.


Spring pricks a little. I get out the maps.
Time to demoralize my song, high time.
Vernal a little. Primavera. First
Green, first truth and last.
High time, high time.

A high old time we had of it last summer?
I overstate. But getting out the maps…
Look! Up the valley of the Brenne,
Louise de la Vallière… Syntax collapses.
High time for that, high time.

To Château-Renault, the tannery town whose marquis
Rooke and James Butler whipped in Vigo Bay
Or so the song says, an amoral song
Like Ronsard’s where we go today
Perhaps, perhaps tomorrow.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and… Get well!
Philip’s black-sailed familiar, avaunt
Or some word as ridiculous, the whole
Diction kit begins to fall apart.
High time it did, high time.

High time and a long time yet, my love!
Get out that blessed map.
Ageing, you take your glasses off to read it.
Stooping to truth, we potter to Montoire.
High time, my love. High time and a long time yet.


Spring pricks because the dude is old and way unspringlike; the whole poem is an ironic Spring Song, a sour, self-mocking meditation on the increasing failure of the yearly regreening project, and the unavoidable oncomingness of his dissolution/silence (syntax collapses; diction kit begins to fall apart).

Meanwhile – ahem! – let’s de-moralize our song – that is, let’s use poetry for what it’s always been – a way to sidestep and postpone, beautifully, sinuously, the ugly obdurate boring truth of death. “First / Green, first truth and last.” Obvious truth: We’re born; we die.

So, shit. Have a high time while you can; haul out the maps and travel the Loire Valley.

But it was precisely his wife’s act there, last summer, of getting out a map – such a simple, ordinary gesture – that shatteringly disclosed for the poet the truth of their both being very old. “Ageing, you take your glasses off to read it.”

So, fuck. I just did it. I stooped to truth.

Okay, so sometimes one stoops. But one ought not stop. Let’s not stop at truth. Let’s keep traveling and keep singing the amoral song, the song that doesn’t say anything but truthlessly, ruthlessly, ecstatically, sings.

Merrily we roll along, so where do we go tomorrow? Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow fuck I did it again, let my truthy mind creep in a petty pace to the last syllable and dusty death. James Merrill made the same point, although in the last stanza of his poem, “Santorini: Stopping the Leak,” it’s not singing but dancing:

Here, finally, music that would take Satie
Twenty-five hundred years to reinvent
Put naked immaturity through paces
Of a grave dance – as if catastrophe
Could long be lulled by slim waists and shy faces…


As if!


Shake it off! There. Back to the amoral song and dance. High time, my love. High time, and a long time yet.

Two comments about the pathetic goings-on at The Nation magazine.

When the poetry editors of The Nation virtuously publish an amateurish but super-woke poem, only to discover that the poem stumbled across several trip wires of political correctness; when these editors… then jointly write a letter oozing bathos and career anxiety and begging forgiveness from their critics; when the poet himself publishes a statement of his own — a missive falling somewhere [among] an apology, a Hail Mary pass, and a suicide note; and when all of this is accepted in the houses of the holy as one of the regrettable but minor incidents that take place along the path toward greater justice, something is dying.

From an essay about how you make the world safe for Jordan Peterson.


The second comment is from Grace Schulman, a terrific poet, and poetry editor of The Nation for thirty-five years.

Last month, the magazine published a poem by Anders Carlson-Wee. The poet is white. His poem, “How-To,” draws on black vernacular.

Following a vicious backlash against the poem on social media, the poetry editors, Stephanie Burt and Carmen Giménez Smith, apologized for publishing it in the first place: “We made a serious mistake by choosing to publish the poem ‘How-To.’ We are sorry for the pain we have caused to the many communities affected by this poem,” they wrote in an apology longer than the actual poem. The poet apologized, too, saying, “I am sorry for the pain I caused.”

I was deeply disturbed by this episode, which touches on a value that is precious to me and to a free society: the freedom to write and to publish views that may be offensive to some readers.

… As Katha Pollitt, a columnist for The Nation, put it, the magazine’s apology for Mr. Carlson-Wee’s work was “craven” and “looks like a letter from re-education camp.”

“Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross accused of stealing $120 million, stuffing pockets with free Sweet’N Low packets”

Sweet and Low, Sweet and Low,
Grab it to put in your tea.
Grab it from a restaurant
And it will be free!
Over the grifting waters go,
Come from the Commerce desk, and loot
Loot repeatedly;
While the SEC, my little pretty, sleeps.

Found Poetry.


Speech Therapy for the Dead.

One wants to write a poem with that title.

Poet Donald Hall…

has died. UD thanks Van, a reader, for telling her. She will expand this post with some comments on Hall.


Donald Hall loped through poems, rather like the laconic farmer he was, loping through fields of New Hampshire hay. His strongest emotions appear in the volume Without, an extended effort to understand his condition of rage and loss after the leukemia and death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon (“pain vomit neuropathy morphine nightmare”), but this condition of being too overwhelmed for tempering commas and capitals does not produce his best poetry, UD thinks. His strength was in all that laconic loping through life, in an earthy egoistic uprightness that kept him going until 89. In his calm long stretchy verbal reach, he was the anti-Rilke.

He was most himself in poems like “Closings,” in which he brought his characteristic precise observation, empathy, and conversational simplicity to the violent suicide of a close friend and fellow poet, Liam Rector. In nine stanzas of short-lined free verse, he moves from Rector’s flamboyant physical appearance (“Liam the dandy/ loved Brooks Brothers shirts, double-breasted / suits, bespoke shoes, and linen jackets.”) to his membership in the community of too-soon-dead poets (“T.S. Eliot turned old and frail at sixty, pale, preparing for death. / Then poets of new generations / died — Frank O’Hara first, then Jim Wright / with throat cancer in a Bronx hospice, / Sylvia Plath beside the oven, / Thom Gunn of an overdose…”), to memories, now that Rector’s life has “closed,” of his very open intensity during most of his life (“erupting with gusto / as he improvised his outrageous, / cheerful, inventive obscenities.”).

As he moves toward the end of his in memoriam, Hall notes that when Hall became an important cultural voice in America, Rector sent him a list of projects he might undertake, including

“Urge poets to commit suicide.”
His whole life he spoke of suicide
lightly …

Lightly, and like a lot of people who get very debilitatingly sick, practically. It was a solution to intolerability.

Hall closes where he opened, with Rector’s flamboyance – a flamboyance he expressed to the very end, dandily dressed and dancing with his wife.

[O]n August fifteenth Liam pulled
the shotgun’s trigger. The night before,
wearing a tux over a yellow
silk shirt, he danced with Tree once again,
before bed and the morning’s murder.
He left Tree alone and desolate
but without anger. Tree knew Liam
did what he planned and needed to do.

It is a blunt and matter-of-fact conclusion to a poem that urges, in the case of suicides like this one, an acceptance of the integrity of the choice.


And by the way, all you have to do is read Rector’s wonderful “This Summer” to see why he and Hall were buddies. There’s the laconic morbid material:

I roar out of the Farber Clinic

(how splendid to have cancer in Boston
and fall heir to the astute care
available here)

in the silver sports car I sport
during this debacle…

Sport/debacle: great stuff. You see Rector jauntily/dreadfully keeping his head above water through the worst… He smokes tons of marijuana through chemo and radiation, and praises it highly – lightens the pain, clarifies things. The praise brings on several stanzas of unabashed delight at the memory of his hippie summers of love past – the joints, the music – and somehow the awareness that he delightedly lived that free life makes death okay.

This summer
I have conversed with death every minute

and found out I have the talent
to submit, to leave, even to flee…


In a wonderful phrase, he describes his existence as

a late century life afloat on a sea of loans.

And then he ends the poem brilliantly, hilariously, with his sixteen year old daughter’s prim dismissal of the drug that has meant as much to him in his youthful exultation as in his aging agony:

[I] hear over the telephone my sixteen-year-old
daughter in Virginia saying she now thinks

she will never ever smoke marijuana
because it is, after all,
just another “gateway drug.”

This is laugh out loud stuff if you ask old UD; and since Rector has, earlier in the poem, written about the gates of heaven —

I think I may die without god,
my single comic integrity

that I have remained
an atheist in the foxhole,
though I am ready

to roar through the gates
if there are gates.

— we get the terrific payoff of those two kinds of gates – one doubted, profound, mysterious, beckoning; the other flat as a pancake.

Mother Goose Rhyme

Martin Shkreli, Pharma Bro’ –
How does your karma grow?
With Retrophin and Daraprim
And seven long years in a row.

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