Saturday, August 24, 2013

J. Kates

J. Kates, a poet, literary translator and the co-director of Zephyr Press, is the author of three chapbooks of his own poetry, the full length collection The Briar Patch: Selected Poems & Translations (Hobblebush Books, 2012), and a dozen books of translation from French and Russian. A former president of the American Literary Translators Association, he has also collaborated on four books of Latin American poetry.

Woman of the High Plains

The ground boils here, but slowly —
not like the water in my pot
stripping a cooked chicken to bone
and soup, separable
identities. It takes,

they say, nine years or more
for a man to render down
to broth, and then his skeleton
can be picked out and thrown away.
My husband, now,

would pinch the soil each spring
and taste it for the planting,
knowing what it needed
until it needed him.

for Paul W. Kates

Father, I hang here
waiting for the sword you will not wield
to be turned again
against one of the two of us.

Before it comes, just this:
I too have a chamber over a gate
where I cry and cry your name
for my long exile and yours,
for the years together in the same city
never speaking to each other.

The first messenger will say
that you have won the field
but you will ask after me
and get no answer.

The second messenger will speak the truth.
May all your enemies and those who rise against you
be as I am:
loving you
and a witness to your love
even as I hang here
by my long hair.

The Faucet

I am not so easily turned off.
All night the hot syllable of my name
will tap at irregular intervals
onto the cold and ringing porcelain
of your most private room.

Twist until the clean metal
burns bruises into your sleepless hand.
I have found a way
to keep the water running
one tear at a time.


I know a scoter from a coot,
a common eider from a king.
I know what song the mute swan sings
(I'll bet you know it isn't mute).
I know a harrier on the wing
and followed one one afternoon

in mid-October through the mud
and bitter milkweed of the moor
until I lost it in the air
and lost myself on lower ground
while rainclouds gathered overhead
around an early rising moon.

I knew I wasn't far from home.
I knew I wasn't really lost.
Less than a mile from the coast
(I didn't know it at the time)
the county road is paved and posted
and when the wind is blowing west

the rain will hold off for a while.
Somewhere to the east you waited —
you didn't know I would be late.
I climbed up on a little hill
to try to get my bearings straight,
then started off the way I guessed.

I would have liked you at my side.
You know how to interpret clues
and find the things I always lose
or unintentionally hide.
You know the lore I could have used
if looking did me any good.

Three kinds of heather, two of pine,
a dogfish and a basking shark,
a fritillary and a monarch
catch all the light the sun can shine
but fade to darkness in the dark.
I stumbled home. I knew I could.

New Jersey

From an island I have descended
(no other word for it)
by way of Boston to New Jersey,
the roads so numerous and interlaced
a map can't hold them all
and everywhere I go, I'm lost.

You got me into this.
When I look up into the sky
I am used to saying Aldebaran,
Via Galactica, Mars,
Draco, Cassiopeia,
while you look up and say "stars,"

but you know your way around.
"That's where my uncle fell to his death.
"That's where my ex-husband lives.
"That's where I was born,
you say to me. Elizabeth,
 Edison, The Ironbound.

                  Domestic Archaeology

                  Wide, garish roses promised nothing,
                  but where they peeled, revealing
                  classical blue ruins underneath,
                  I made a start, stripping out urns
                  and pilasters, shadowy temples highlighted in white.

                  Here and there I'd scraped through
                  to another level, a less
                  sophisticated culture — glimmers of bronze
                  dulled now to indifferent brown
                  but still suggestive — and so continued

                  until I'd laid all bare,
                  a dry antique skin somebody once loved
                  and somebody else buried. Oh, I confess,
                  I lifted that layer carefully, imagining
                  a young couple in their new house

                  making a start, beginning a civilization
                  with nothing to build on or scrape off,
                  nothing but lathed ribbing and horsehair,
                  the clean, dusty plaster of these walls
                  and a tin bucket of home-made paste.


 The Music Box     

 Another one of those hard-cases flicks.
 The moral ambiguity of ex-Nazis
 and their ignorant children. At the exit
 a thickish woman with a silver cane
 blocked my way, asked me to explain
 the final scene her imperfect English
 couldn't keep up with. I was born
 in Munich, 1914, brought up after the War.
 She held my arm, encouraged by courtesy,
 and continued, with the glittering eye
 of an old sailor. And all these things are true,
 true — and worse.  All of it I saw.
 I come to this country fifteen years ago
 when my daughter married an American.
 She wore a gold medallion at her throat,
 a thick coat. I shivered in the cold.
 A delicate lid lifted of itself,
 the same small figures dancing round and round
 (And all these things are true, true — and worse)
 while tiny hammers pinged out tinny notes
 turning me mechanical to the refrain
 of my inhuman brain:Well, and you? And you?

 But two months earlier, on the Moscow train,
 I sat beside a soldier my own age,
 clearly Vietnamese, who smiled brightly
 and recognized in me the foreigner
 I know I am, and asked where I was from.
 America, I said. He buried his head
 deep inside the hollows of his hands
 and did not look at me, or speak again.


The Ax-Murderer's Daughter

The ax-murderer’s daughter
got a brand-new yellow tutu
and satin slippers
for her eighth birthday.

And today is Every-Other-Saturday:
time to visit with her mother
where he lives ever since the accident
she was too young to remember

How she hates the long drive,
the iron doors and corridors,
the dirty little room where three bored men
watch her mother talking to him,
two girls fidgeting.

What is she supposed to think
about the stranger she's supposed to love
for her mother's sake and Jesus'?

She will stop visiting when she goes away to college
but write faithfully every month.

He will learn about her own two children, her divorce,
her move out of state, her new home.

She will give instructions to the chief of police
(there is always talk of budget-cutting,
of letting the safe ones out)
if ever he shows up in town:
Shoot on sight.

But today she will dance for him
in the dirty metal room to canned music
borrowed from her teacher.
She will wear her yellow tutu and satin slippers,
her mother, sister watching
and three bored guards.

And he will watch her, too, saying afterwards,
my little girl.
                  That's my little girl.

           The Uses of Poetry
           for Larry Joseph

           Don't tell me poetry makes nothing happen.
           I had your verse in front of me, was reading,
           to be precise, about a black boy bleeding
           in Detroit, the poem "I Think About Thigpen
           Again," my country window thrown wide open
           to the October wind because I needed
           air and daylight, when like a double-beaded
           black bullet a single hornet flew right in.
           Out here, people pack their handguns, too,
           but, given the odds, I'm far more apt to die
           by being stung than being shot. What do I do,
           who love all innocent creatures? The hornet shook
           its iridescent wings and settled down. I
           whopped it dead with your compassionate book.

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