Their Tranquil Lives

Oh lost world of Gustav Klimt,
the jeweled and doe-eyed women
swam the walls and ceilings
of pre-Holocaust Vienna’s
ornate opera. Women’s compliance
did not need to be stated,
was pink and white
and not hidden by drapes.

World War I had not yet happened.
The city was a beaker spilling over
with bits of gold applied
which one could drink
or pour into, carefully
lavish and lucky.

Outside the window apples
shone in their dappled garden.
The women had proud
names, and pregnancies.
They rose like mermaids through
their tranquil lives,
upward and passionate.
The insides of their wrists
were white and still unmarked,
smoothed with kisses:

Vienna before History—
Each morning was a waking: pond
drenched in light; the path,
perfumed with little flowers, stitched
white butterflies and the painter-god
creating first-words; a mosaic
of forbidden.

As if memory
would tapestry forever
voyeur-painter’s studios, light-
drenched: the livid golden hair
and modeled arms and bracelets lifting:
perfect breasts; rounded nutcracker
thighs and, ready for the
taking, the ripe fruit.

As if the comet,
pleasure, would never
burn itself to ash; the dross,
once-glorious color
seeping , leaching, thinly
staining Europe.
Oh much punished and
lost worlds of Gustav
Klimt, while you stroked
undertone rose-ochre tints
to flesh, your century,
demented, waited
for its urgent re-inventions;
voice-over, take-over
newsreel/newsprint narratives:
blunt black- and- white.

-Kathleen Spivack,
Winner, Allen Ginsberg Memorial Poetry Award



The sea is forever running out, she said—
where does it run to?
The waves made frothy scallops on the shore:
she might try to hold each one in her eye
but another, lace upon lace, came to undo
what she so carefully wove.
She had been waiting for so long she had forgotten
the answer to the yearning she was working for.
Who can remember the difficult embroidery
when each day’s blue-green tapestry unfolds:
a field, flung out, upon which to emblazon
a coat-of-arms?
“A life. My life.” the words,
whispered aloud, were ludicrous.
The quick lizards skittered and the reeds
crackled with auguries:
“Forget, forget,” murmured the waves,
stitching themselves round her ankles.
Caressing her, they undid the pattern.

-Kathleen Spivack,
(originally published, Agni)


Playing Ping Pong with Elizabeth Bishop; a Sestina.

On Monday mornings in your apartment we faced
each other across the net, two poets
having a go at ping pong. Your arthritic hands
gripped the paddle. Determined, you played
against my energy and youth, a tricky game
in which I held myself back, wanting you to win,

not to succumb to your age, or defeat: always to win.
You grinned with delight at the speed of the game,
pressing in for the slow shots, gingerly played
as the ball dripped casually over the edge of the net, handling
your aching body and keeping the poetic
plonk of the white ball going. Wheezing, your face

was childlike. “Please call me Elizabeth.” But I couldn’t quite face
that. You were “Miss Bishop.” Elizabeth Bishop, Poet,
as in “Miss Bishop’s too noble-O.” Even with one hand
behind your back, whatever smallest edge you had you played
to advantage as if seeing angles were a game
and as if there were only one way of recording, one way to win

that canceled all other alternatives. You so easily won
friends, admirers, yet always at play
was your encircled suffering, lack of love hinted, gamely
ignored; the poems and stories in which pain was handled
so far back behind the eyes that the poetry
stood for itself, was really poetry, not pain. You faced

it only obliquely. Once, showing me a photo, the face
of yourself as a baby, small, stubborn, not at all “poetic,”
protesting abandonment in crumpled white lace, your hands
tightly folded as if your dear life, even then, was not a game,
as if you sensed you had something dark to play
out, a despairing intelligence behind that winning

little person. But it was late now. You were winded,
fighting arthritis, the ball. I found myself mentally playing
both sides of the table, cheering your game
so much more than my own. Did I hold back? Did I hand
you the final point? The match? No, you won on your poems
alone. Your austere inward face

was wickedly triumphant, handing me the paddle. “Shall we play
again?” Lunch was waiting, talk of books and poetry. But facing
winter noons in Cambridge, we started another game.

-Kathleen Spivack,
(Originally read at memorial service, PSA. published in PSA Bulletin; elswhere.)


The Frost Farm in Derry, New Hampshire

Robert Frost, your homestead in Derry, New
Hampshire is a mess:
the orchard out back has been cut down;
the ground has been stripped of its topsoil

and is an auto wrecking yard.
In the moonlight the subsoil glitters like Christmas
with cracked windshields; discarded tires
wreathe the mounds where apple trees once stood.

Route 28 passes right out front.
I lay awake, acquainted all one night
with the upstairs front bedroom
where you listened to the breathing of your children

in nineteen oh seven.
Now diesel trucks and souped-up cars shift gears
by the front door. They are more deafening than rain.
There is a trailer camp across the way

where you used to do all that meeting and passing.
The brook’s a brown polluted stink.
It’s impossible to get hired help;
and they’ve torn out your kitchen to make it

workable. They have moved in a fellow
who says he is a poet.
But who knows? This poet has a wife
who isn’t in the least a silken tent

nor he. Living on food stamps, they are
substantial human beings
who don’t know a damn thing
about farming.

A tramp came to the door today,
some bearded hippie from out west named Patrick,
who thinks you’re the greatest.
This fellow hitchhiked all the way from Montana

to see this place where you lived and worked.
Now Patrick, the poet and the wife
are sitting in the green remodeled kitchen
in what used to be your farmhouse

and rapping (that’s the word
they use these days) about you,
Robert Frost, you lousy farmer,
who sold this farm and got out of New Hampshire

the minute your grandfather’s will said you could.
The farm’s so mean and poor no one could make it pay
so you did what you could do best which was to write,
(and some of the walls you mended are still standing.)

When you finally sold the Derry farm you wrote:
“It shall be no trespassing/ If I come again some spring
In the gray disguise of years/Seeking ache of memory here.”
The new owner auctioned the topsoil to make the down paymen;;

later he sold to the auto wrecking yard. That’s progress,
I guess. But you were so paradoxical
you were to look back on that hen scratching
in Derry as in an idyll

in a long line of insanities and death.
(“What but design of darkness to appall?”)
The first child died and was buried in the snow
but four slept still in a safe white whisper.

I should be telling you this in perfect metrics:
an approximation of the heart will have to do.
To suffer so much and still to go on writing
was either famous Frost perversity or courage.

Years later, after you wife had died,
she sent you back with her ashes to scatter them.
You drove up to the door on the highway home
and found the farm scarred by strangers, irretrievably.

And you turned away with the ashes past the house,
past the broken glass, the wreckage, the ruined fields,
and walked out on New Hampshire for the second time,
to sleep in America forever.

-Kathleen Spivack,
(Originally published, Paris Review)

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