David, December, Rehoboth Beach

How all occasions do evoke thee
My own Lord Hamlet.  Here, beside the sea,
With only Philly Airport contrails for clouds,
I slip on icy boards and say your name aloud,
Because everything evokes thee.  Those contrails:
Your father, who mapped the moon, regaled
Me with their chemistry and their meaning.
Your Swiss cousin, who never left off keening,
Sends text messages about your mysterious life.
After all these years I've heard from your wife
Who finally wants the books you left with me.
And there's my yearly visit to the tomb
Of your mad Ophelia.  That keeps the ghost in the room.

Beyond all these, your famous sister is another thread
That keeps delaying your entry into truly dead
For every end of year my ritual is to read
Her widower's account of how he freed
Himself, a little, from the long pain of her dying.
When he said the Heart Sutra her soul went flying.

"I had a distinct feeling of a kind of expansion
Emanating from the furnace into the room 
And beyond.  Something was being released
From Eve's body and expanding into space."

For me, for your memory, no such amazing grace,
No closing mantra, no sense of you unrestless,
Over on the other shore, life and deathless.


Clear winter sunset now.

Ho! The horizon takes a roseate glow.
Pink's the sand where the whitelets flow.

Between the two, a table setting silver blue
Darkens to gray. Evoking you.


People are drawn to nothingness

Here on the coast at the end of the year
The horizon makes itself disappear
The banner planes are gone the gulls are gone
It's nothingness to which people are drawn

The sand is smooth the blue umbrellas went away
The noisy white boats that nose up and say
Ladies Night at the Bar and Grill are not missed
People are drawn to nothingness

The lifeguard stands are standing down
Calm waves make the only sound
Portugal  Africa  None wonder anymore
What lies along the other shore

Really all that's left is us
Drawn so hard to nothingness

Packs of winter scarves and coats
Black against the gray of the coast
Praising the sacred empty space
The misty mystic vacant place

People are drawn to nothingness
End of Year Poem.

    It's the old annual end-times go-round
    When the revolution goes up in flames
    And everyone flees to an assisted
    Living facility.  But not you.  Yet.
    Checks still go out to the truly needy
    Which must mean that you yourself... You're young still
    In some senile way and unprepared to
    Abandon the ramparts and call the
    Revolution ended. 

                End-time subversiveness
                Mainly involves mantras. Surreality
                Of Everyday Life remains popular.
                A far remove from Here at Senior Sylvan Retreat You Are
                Never Alone.  Alone is what I want!

        Alone I can work out another New Year --

 Reckon up lost ground, lost troops, morale issues.


My basic animal spirits are sound. 
Born lucky, raised lucky, lucky in work
And love, I pause in the hallway, steady
My mug of tea, and undergo full-body gratitude.
From a winter poem by Weldon Kees.

The room is cold, the words in the books are cold;
And the question of whether we get what we ask for
Is absurd, unanswered by the sound of an unlatched door
Rattling in wind, or the sound of snow on roofs, or glare
Of the winter sun. What we have learned is not what we were told.
I watch the snow, feel for the heartbeat that is not there.

                Ancient Medieval Modern

The high-speed train site, a substation with an epic switchgear,
Also has triple-transformers: Ancient/Medieval/Modern.  
Roman/Norman/New.      Keep digging.
Further down, something neolithic will appear.

Piling on with every mood swing...  Then, years later, turning over 
Statues, witch-marks, scratch-dial.

And now we lay down our own dedicated tracks:
Frail rail.

Brodsky Museum, St Petersburg

A life of poetic intensity

Circled by Belomorkanal smoke

And, near the Arctic, by fast-cooled chifir tea —

We want these old apartments to evoke

The depth of this, deeper than poetry,

Deeper than your bitter words that spoke

The nothingness of time and history.

That is: The bathroom stink you tried to cloak,

Sharing the bowl with two other families.

The desk display of poets who provoked

You into verse: Auden, Frost… A messy

Desk, a mid-modern aesthetic baroque

Of books and bottles and a cup of tea.

Asleep for years, these dusty rooms stoke

Unembittered hearts — too young for ennui —

Who press against the doorway to soak

In the atmosphere.  They pay the entry fee

And immediately want to stroke

The same cracked imperial walls that he

Lived sandwiched between, bitter and broke

But not broken.

Mary Gelman, NYT.
Yeatsian Meditation as Varsity Blues Parents Begin to Be Released from Prison
And no more turn aside and brood
Upon law's bitter cruelty;
For cash still rules the Ivy Leagues, 
And rules the schools almost as good; 
It rules the fate of our dim babes
And all rich dishevelled wandering spawn.
The Denial of Death in Shenandoah National Park.

The Denial of Death in Shenandoah National Park

Cold air, barred owls, and the smell of smoke:

Only a little data here, to evoke

The August woods off the balcony.

Woods that always prompt philosophy.

As when I read, in Becker, a phrase like

“Immunity bath,’ meaning cultic rites

That cleanse the cultist of the dread of death

(Page 12) and sometimes even of its sight.

Or anti-vaxers who, with dying breath,

Admit they thought their breath would never end.

“Consciousness of death is the primary

Repression, not sexuality.” Mend

Your dread by bacchanal, or by fairy

Story, and you’ll still get badly scarred.

A death-accepter, say Kierkegaard,

Knows this is merely where the fun begins:

The wisest owls unbarred spin and spin

Out of smoke mythic immortality.

Take, among those I love, N., P., and D.

N. strode in to save Detroit, then broke down

At the vastness of it. P. circles round

The earth’s atrocities, repairing souls.

D., who must perceive the very world, stole

His life through abstraction. Hard led

By dread, N. is struggling, D. dead.

From the balcony again the smell of smoke —

Of our own ashy end an easy token.

Haiku: Summer, Cicadas

The world chants in the trees

And I fall asleep

Looking at fireflies


You like to think the stars are dripping while
You sleep.  You like to think you'll snap awake
And step out on the deck, and in a while,
Your eyes ready, clusters will constellate
And then start dripping, just over the oak:
A weathered black and white Jackson Pollock
Whose silvers slap the cosmic curtain.

Like to think?  No - you're actually certain
That when you're not looking the universe
Loses its straight face and gets to mugging
Peeing its pants giggling and shrugging...
Stable?  Who said stable?  Metastable
Maybe and that's only maybe. Unstable
Is just as likely. Don't sleep too lightly.


It is the responsibility of the dead to be forgotten, wrote Saul Bellow somewhere. Can’t find the quote. Maybe I made it up. Anyway, it seemed a clever way to introduce…

… a set of thoughts on the British poet laureate’s poem about Prince Philip. As in: It is the responsibility of laureate-induced poems to be forgotten. Compelled into existence by one’s acceptance of a public position, compelled to praise the high-born to a large audience, these are so unlikely to be non-piffle. Yet – as with Philip’s surprisingly moving brief funeral – this particular poem is surprisingly good. I’m not going to argue it’s all that good, but as an example of its type, it’s way better than it should have been.

The tone throughout is non-heroic, casually musing; the poet avoids grandiosity for a man who, while physically imposing and genetically way royal (his DNA was used to verify that remains found in a Russian forest belonged to the slaughtered Romanovs), seems in fact to have had a spartan and self-effacing disposition. The poem will feature little direct reference to Philip; rather, in a series of natural metaphors, it will evoke his wartime generation.

The weather in the window this morning
is snow, unseasonal singular flakes,
a slow winter’s final shiver.

He has died in April, and his singularity as the sovereign’s husband will, as the poem begins, be evoked through the singularity of the unseasonal snow. His long life and long physical decline is nicely captured in a slow winter’s final shiver.

On such an occasion
to presume to eulogise one man is to pipe up
for a whole generation – that crew whose survival
was always the stuff of minor miracle,
who came ashore in orange-crate coracles,
fought ingenious wars, finagled triumphs at sea
with flaming decoy boats, and side-stepped torpedoes.

Unusually self-referential, this official eulogy will ask questions about eulogies for the sort of person Philip was. So marked for life was he by his wartime experience, it makes more sense to remember him in his collective military identity than in his singularity. His funeral ritual (designed by Philip himself) was overwhelmingly a military affair.

Indeed looked at in its entirety, Philip’s survival, much less his longevity, does seem a minor miracle – smuggled out of Greece (in an orange crate!) during the Greco-Turkish War when he was eighteen months old, he went on to “finagle” (to use the poet’s wonderfully non-heroic word) modes of survival under punishing battle conditions.

Husbands to duty, they unrolled their plans
across billiard tables and vehicle bonnets,
regrouped at breakfast. What their secrets were
was everyone’s guess and nobody’s business.
Great-grandfathers from birth, in time they became
both inner core and outer case
in a family heirloom of nesting dolls.
Like evidence of early man their boot-prints stand
in the hardened earth of rose-beds and borders.

There’s a nice subtle evocation here of the soft touchy feely world we’ve become, in which only faint ancient traces of “hardened” boot-prints indicate the bygone, born old (great-grandfathers from birth), men among whom Philip belonged; the patriarchs (this is the poem’s title) who kept their thoughts and feelings to themselves and (in the phrase everyone attaches to Philip) just got on with it.

They were sons of a zodiac out of sync
with the solar year, but turned their minds
to the day’s big science and heavy questions.
To study their hands at rest was to picture maps
showing hachured valleys and indigo streams, schemes
of old campaigns and reconnaissance missions.
Last of the great avuncular magicians
they kept their best tricks for the grand finale:
Disproving Immortality and Disappearing Entirely.

Relentlessly and ingeniously pragmatic, men like Philip spent their post-crate lives fashioning further escapes, further solutions to a world always perilously out of sync, until the very veins in their hands became strategic maps of (to use Graham Greene’s title) ways of escape. Their final Houdini maneuver, of course, was the whole slipping the surly bonds of earth thing.

The major oaks in the wood start tuning up
and skies to come will deliver their tributes.
But for now, a cold April’s closing moments
parachute slowly home, so by mid-afternoon
snow is recast as seed heads and thistledown.

The poem concludes with a return to the present, to a continued observation of a singular April day in which enormous sturdy old trees (this one in particular) whistle their elegy, to be joined in time by tears of rain. Enormous sturdy old Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (thus the poet’s thistle-homage – thistle being the Scottish national emblem) has done his final magic trick, leaving a world “recast” for the better by his having been here — winter turns to spring, the world regenerates itself, and the prickly thistle (Philip was notoriously prickly) is now thistledown, the feathery white top of the thistle, which will disperse in the wind and scatter its seeds.

Really, take whatever position you want on patriarchs, royalty, Philip, blahblah – this is on its own terms a more than respectable poem, a clever finagled triumph.


Found it! The rule for the dead is that they should be forgotten. Ravelstein.

Song of America’s Most Prominent Republican.

Double, double toil and trouble
Ginsburg was a body double
Rothschild did a fire make
Parkland massacre’s a fake
Spawn of Newt and and scourge of Hogg

Neo-fascist demagogue
Vampire bat with blind-worm’s sting
Not a human but a thing
Ginsburg was a body double
Double, double toil and trouble.

UD Writes an Inaugural Letter from DJT to President Biden.

Of course DJT hasn’t written an inaugural letter, to be read by his successor. This is one of many departures from tradition for which DJT will fail to be remembered.

Already a Chicago Tribune writer has tried his hand at a satirical inaugural letter. UD offers a letter in the form of a poem – a poem in which DJT shows remarkable literary culture.



They say you’re giving the place a deep clean.

Good call.  I wish I could explain how I

Soiled the great gift of the presidency.

Didn’t want to! I swear I didn’t mean

To leave it like this: a moral pigsty.

But of course I know you don’t believe me.

Consider, though, how human beings lean

Toward self-destruction.  Don’t believe me?  Try

Kafka.  Cioran.  Freud.  Dostoevsky.

From a review of an odd film I’ve seen:

“The film focuses on psycho-bi-

ological forces that make you your own enemy.

The lust for chaos; the lust to demean …

To demean yourself!  You self-glorify,

But in a sick way.  But only outwardly.

The hunger for colossal failure in

The drive for success; and for death in any

Vigilant and violent hypochondry.”

Raskolnikov skulks away; the final scene

A shabby nothing as I hiss goodbye.

Some day you’ll find a way to pity me.


UPDATE: He did write a letter after all.

Probably a lot like the one I wrote.

Former Ontario Finance Minister Sings His Christmas Song.

Sing along.

You’re as cold as ice!
You sacrifice
When you’re asked.
You always heed advice
You always pay the price,
I know.

I’ve skipped out before
It happens all the time. I’m closing the door
To leave the cold behind. I’m warm in St Bart
But posting each day
Fake Canadian tweets
Makes you think I stayed.

You’re as cold as ice!
But peons must sacrifice. 
I’m in paradise
And your taxes pay the price
Ho ho.

Faithful Readers Know that at the End of Every Year UD Provides, with Commentary…

… an uplifting New Year poem full of wholesome wisdom.

Nah. Google New Year and you’ll get a zillion pages of those. No one with half a brain comes to University Diaries in search of uplift. Here’s this year’s year-end poem, which appeared in 2002.


By Philip Levine


You can hate the sea as it floods

the shingle, draws back, swims up,

again; it goes on night and day

all your life, and when your life

is over it’s still going. A young priest

sat by my bed and asked, did I know

what Cardinal Newman said

about the sea. This merry little chap

with his round pink hands entwined

told me I should change my life.

“I like my life,” I said. “Holidays

are stressful in my line of work,” he said.

Within the week he was going off

to Carmel to watch the sea come on

and on and on as Newman wrote.

“I hate the sea,” I said, and I did

at that moment, the way the waves

go on and on without a care.

In silence we watched the night

Spread from the corners of the room.

“You should change your life,”

he repeated. I asked had he been

reading Rilke. The man in the next bed,

a retired landscaper from Chowchilla,

let out a great groan and rolled over

to face the blank wall. I felt bad

for the little priest: both of us

he called “my sons” were failing

him, slipping gracelessly from our lives

to abandon him to face eternity

as it came on and on and on.


So a little anecdote, a wee life narrative, from Philip Levine, a Jewish guy who spent some life-endangered time in a shared hospital room entered into one early evening by a cheer-spreading (but not really) priest. Those of us who know Matthew Arnold’s famous Dover Beach may read Levine’s first lines as a kind of modern affectless highly concentrated summary of that angsty Victorian verse. Both poets consider the seeming pointlessness of life, nicely visually captured by the eternal in and out of ocean waves expiring on the shore:

[T]he grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin…

Every day a little death; then, for no particular reason, even maybe stupidly, a gulp of air and another plunge back to the brine, only to dissolve yet again. One More New Botched Beginning. Levine even takes the word shingles from Arnold, who laments

the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world

Naked because these fragile piles of sea stones have been abandoned again and again on the shore by the always-retreating, always-betraying waves of “new” existence. In Levine, you hate the sea as it “floods the shingle,” dousing it with possibility, and then – (Lucy: football; Sisphyus: rock; etc. etc. etc. ) – stranding it. And then the ultimate insult: Not enough that life is drear; there’s the insult of life – even crappy life – “still going” when “your life is over.”

So with that general statement done, Levine proceeds to his story. The visiting priest asks Levine (this seems an autobiographical poem) if he knows what Arnold’s fellow Victorian, the great Catholic poet John Henry Cardinal Newman said about the sea. The poem never says exactly what that was, but take it that the priest might have had this in mind:

[My conversion] was like coming into port after a rough sea; and my happiness on that score remains to this day without interruption.

But Newman spoke too soon; he experienced very serious depressions in his later years, and wrote one of the most-cited poems about that condition. And here’s a sample of his late-in-life prose.

I have so depressing a feeling that I have done nothing through my long life, and especially that now I am doing nothing at all. … What am I? my time is out. I am passé. I may have done something in my day—but I can do nothing now. It is the turn of others. … It is enough for me to prepare for death, for, as it would appear, nothing else awaits me—there is nothing else to do.

The merry priest tells Levine to change his life – consider conversion, one imagines, in order to be happier, and situated in a meaningful deathless world – but Levine replies that he likes his life, bitter existential betrayal and all. The priest then complains that holidays like New Year’s Eve are “stressful” for priests – presumably because everyone’s miserably reflecting on their lives the way Levine (who has the double whammy of illness and end of year to get him going) is. So the priest himself ain’t so jolly, having to gad about from drear hospital room to drear hospital room attempting to spread cheer. In fact he needs a break and is off to the biblically and californically rich “Carmel” to decompress.

The priest is now silent; together he and Levine watch the night “spread from the corners of the room.” They are being engulfed by metaphysical darkness… The priest can only repeat himself: The poet should change his life. “I asked had he been reading Rilke,” Levine sardonically responds. Rilke’s famous sonnet, Archaic Torso of Apollo, ends with that imperative: You must change your life. But it seems unlikely that the priest would be quoting Rilke’s erotic, non-religious, hyper-aesthetic poem; it seems likely that Levine is having a little fun with the little priest.

Not that we’ve ever left it, but the poem ends with a big thudding return to godless modernity, with the retired landscaper in the next bed (he’s given up trying to alter the earth), who hails from a town with a random unartful name, groaning with emptiness (“blank wall”) and defeat. And who does the poet feel bad for? The priest, with his absurd “my sons” designation (he’s much younger, one presumes, than either of these old sick men) and his disappointment that these two sinners seem to be failing big time at eternal life. Not only are they dying without grace (“gracelessly”); they are, more problematically, robbing the priest of his much-needed certainty of their salvation – hence his need to retreat to Carmel and deal with his stress.

Darkest of all is the priest’s own peculiar metaphysical fate, meted out in the last two lines: Salvific eternity itself may present to our sublunary minds as another hideous Sisyphean tableau, the chilling endlessness of … endlessness.

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