Friday, December 24, 2010

the Total Abstinence Principal

"Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits, but lived upon the Total Abstinence Principle, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge. May that be truly said of us, and all of us! And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!"

Thursday, December 23, 2010

from the mailbag

"Aphrodite rhymes with nightie. Venus rhymes with penis. Artemis doesn't rhyme with anything. Hence the virgin goddess thing. If her name had been Regina, she wouldn't have stood a chance."

Okay. Thanks for that. Bullfinch skipped that part.

Sunday, December 05, 2010


Friday, November 26, 2010

Mr. Bones & Attendant Flights

I was thinking Bones, probably thinking
Like Henry. Happens sometimes. And I'm sure
A stewardess is falling, falling, now
A flight attendant, now a slight depression.
They talk back in patois. They have their ways.
They're violent and clinically unsound
And deader than a deaf door jamb. They're closed.
I think of them, though, waiting in the dark,
Collectedly insentient. Such bones
We use for soup, grow strong & tall 12 ways.

When I became a man, I took such bones,
Plucked free of noodles, cast them in the street,
And read my riddles, almost knew the truth,
Although a blue Imperial, false spare
& painted whitewalls, ran them down like dirt.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Dear Faithful:

Turns out my magisterium overlaps yours after all. Too bad.

Dear Dilettante:

No, "Silence, exile, and cunning" is not the same as "Don't ask, don't tell."

Dear Fellow Student:

I regret the death of Hyman Datz, who taught Johnson and Boswell. (Well, he was old enough. What I really meant was, He taught us Johnson and Boswell.) More an anecdotalist than a scholar, given to re-using notes so old, yellow, and brittle, they looked as though they had been excavated for the occasion, he still inspired students to read authors they would otherwise have ignored. The Augustans are not always an easy sell. They did not tweet; neither were they groovy. Between them Drs Datz and Chapman animated and reanimated the deserving dead. All these years later, and how I love an opportunity to say, "Sir, I have found you an argument; but I am not obliged to find you an understanding."

In grad school I first encountered Dr Datz in the Dept's main office. He said, "You're Epstein, right?" "Yes," I said. "I hear you're pretty smart," said Dr Datz. "Who wrote 'Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean'?" I told him. "Well, most people don't know that," he said. I didn't tell him my father used to recite that at the dinner table. He only knew a couple poems. That was one. I'd also have been safe if Dr Datz had asked me, "Who wrote, 'Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable, Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table,'" but that wasn't going to happen.

Monday, November 08, 2010

Be Gone

They boil, the leaves. I can't imagine why.
They've nothing to do but wait a while, be gone,
And be forgotten. Oh. I guess I can.
Imagine, then, that birdhouse over there--
Well, you can't see it now. Even the scraps
Of wood and seed and feathers have been moved,
Displaced, replaced--we bought it at a shop,
Biodegradable and peasant built.
The peasants moved to cities, some of them,
Others, their hands removed on grounds of state,
Differently accommodated. Now
The blue tits are unhouseled, and the squirrels
Have moved to that manor down the block, where lunch
Is carefully replenished, day by day,
As many days as squirrels will ever know.

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

From the mailbag

I don't understand a word you write. I used to think this was my fault, but now I think its [sic] you because you don't write very well.

Dear Anonymous: I suspect you are right. If I were you, I should stick to Great Poets, who always write clearly and simply, as though they were viewing a dead princess through pellucid water.

The child that sucketh long is shooting up,
The planet-ducted pelican of circles
Weans on an artery the genders strip;
Child of the short spark in a shapeless country
Soon sets alight a long stick from the cradle;
The horizontal cross-bones of Abaddon,
You by the cavern over the black stairs,
Rung bone and blade, the verticals of Adam,
And, manned by midnight, Jacob to the stars,

says Dylan Thomas. He's a great poet, and I'm sure you understood every word of that.

Clarity does not prove quality. Neither does difficulty. Keep in mind what Randall Jarrell said: "When you begin to read a poem you are entering a foreign country whose laws and language and life are a kind of translation of your own," and try not to judge the poem by your expectations.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Ora pro nobis, author of The Idea of a University

The beatification and canonization of someone who lived in modern times makes a silly spectacle. John Henry Newman was a talented polemicist; and given his effect on thoughtful, but somewhat weedy, young men, he must have been a charismatic figure in his way. But do you believe he worked the requisite miracles? Do you think he's specially able to intercede for you with The Virgin Mary, this author of the novels Loss and Gain and Callista?

I suspect that if we had known St Francis or St Jude or St Patrick the way men within our memory knew Newman--that is, as someone to argue politics with over a beer--we'd find their sainthood equally preposterous. Who is playing advocatus diaboli in the canonization process? Has he spoken to Chuck Kingsley and Matt Arnold yet?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Talking to Myself

So I was talking to myself. "Self," I said, "this is disappointing." "Then why do you keep sending them out?" said my self. "At your age, you still hoping to be discovered?" "What's the alternative?" I said. "Don't send them out," said my self. "Oh," I said. "I never thought of that."

Sunday, September 12, 2010

It Appears There Are Swans on the Roof of That Office Building

The blancoed office building flaps,
covered in swans. The roof is white
with spots of orange, a flash of black
like semaphore. They’re never still.

Arrivals and departures seem
off schedule, bent by maintenance
left unperformed while bombardiers
brought down protest. Why here, why now,

why only on the roof, will be
explained in Union Halls, The Grange,
by Leda in her signet ring,
and CNN. A broken swan

comes tumbling 7 stories down.
Wide wings aflame in late-day sun
evaporate before they hit.
It’s love in dreams. The dying swan

pirouettes. Cobs and cobblers cry
to muted trumpets, shouldering
swansdown aside, startled and stuck,
lorelei high over black streets.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Poetry Proper

Issue 1 of Poetry Proper is now available at

Worth your attention, if only because Paul Maddern is co-editor and it contains 2 poems by one of my favorite poets.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

No Pruning Hooks

Assuming it survived, the vine would pull
The back fence down, assuming that it throve
And neither burned nor drowned, nor in a fit
Of fad became a vegan course for pests,
Of which this yard has plenty—all the block,
If truth be told, and what are vines, if not
A place to sit and tell the truth and beat
Our swords to silent crepitude? And if
The fence should fall, then we could see beyond
Each other, all those pests beyond the pale,
As those within, superior and still
And pulled towards peace—that is, if it survived.
And if it failed, we still could have a fence.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Night Stalker

Wet shiny stones. Of course the archer tripped.
His unnotched arrow trickled to the ground,
And he stomped off, thwarted assassin, bent,
Incompetent, and loony as a grebe.

What is the point of bad guys, if it takes
A clever chappie to be nasty? Want
Is all, he told the darkness, and the cats,
Trolling for fallen nestlings, didn't care.

I meant disaster. If I had my druthers,
The gutters would run red. Babies would wail,
Alone in their bassinets. No one would come.
It's not my fault my mum smoked and my birth

Was unattended by dark prodigy
And bungled by a bonesetter half baked.
If I had my way, I'd be home in bed,
Smiling, a bloody handprint on my quilt.

Some brainy bastard cried himself to sleep.
The saintly prayed to be released. A corps
Of engineers built dams against the day
An asteroid would wallop Crater Lake.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Cities of Literature

Dublin has just been named the 4th "city of literature" by UNESCO. (Right. The UN should be trusted on the subject of literature almost as much as the Nobel Prize people.) The first 3 were Edinburgh, Melbourne, and--get ready for it--Iowa City. Super. Dublin? No argument from me. Edinburgh? Sure--the train station is called "Waverly." Melbourne? Of course. Barry Humphries is from Melbourne. Iowa City? Let us move on, shall we?

How about London and Paris? Too obvious? How about Oxford, Mississippi, and Hannibal, Missouri, then? Or Denver. There's this world-class poet... .

Friday, July 23, 2010

An Anecdote of Middle Age

The stereo gathers no moss. It rocks
The lamp now bouncing closer to the edge;
My turntable will dump it on the floor
Unless I intervene. Why, you can think
A hundred divagating thoughts within
The couple seconds left to make the save,
Or not. There is a window to look out,
And spring is imminent. The Cyprian,
Who now wears lycra and a navel ring,
Instructs her votaries, commands the prone
Attention of the young and wish-they-were,
And favors sleeplessness by low-watt bulb.
Sequins are hers, and cottonwood like snow,
But pliable and weightless, borne by breeze,
Outside the window clearly, outside time.
I never liked that lamp much anyway,
Not much to rock by, at its shaded best,
Lava lamps having died so long ago,
Their tie-dyed coffins are as decomposed
As Toscanini by the grateful dead.
I save the lamp. You had to know I would.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Pass me the ashes. Hold the shade.

There are moods in which Horace 4.7 seems to me the most perfect poem ever written. We no longer live in a time when every schoolchild is required to translate it, but here is a famous 4-line portion 3 times rendered into English.

Damna tamen celeres reparant caelestia lunae:
nos ubi decidimus
quo pius Aeneas, quo Tullus diues et Ancus,
puluis et umbra sumus.

Her losses soon the moon supplies,
But wretched man, when once he lies
Where Priam and his sons are laid,
Is naught but ashes and a shade.

But oh, whate'er the sky-led seasons mar,
Moon upon moon rebuilds it with her beams;
Come we where Tullus and where Ancus are
And good Aeneas, we are dust and dreams.

Yet the swift moons repair Heaven's detriment:
We, soon as thrust
Where good Aeneas, Tullus, Ancus went,
What are we? dust.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Save your breath

An article in the CHE asks whether believers should pray for Christopher Hitchens. The best answer: Who gives a shit? Not Hitchens, I suspect, unless he is secretly pleased to know people are thinking about him, whoever those people might be (and whatever they might be thinking). The prayerful will do Hitchens neither good nor harm, of course; whether the additional smugness and self satisfaction engendered is good for those doing the praying is none of my business, though my opinion on the subject is pretty obvious.

What is most notable is the way some of the faithful have reacted. The author, Carlin Romano, quotes, "If you don't die a excruciatingly painful death, I suspect you will have months of incredible and terrible agony. Sort of like reading your articles, but not nearly as bad. You are a nasty and hateful man." Most of the community of believers will not have phrased their feelings so bluntly, but you know that a good many are smacking their lips over the notion that Their God still can deliver personal retribution. More sad than disgusting, or more disgusting than sad?

Friday, June 25, 2010

In the Cemetery of the Alexandrians

This is one of the first poems I ever wrote. It appeared in a student magazine called Foothills.

Beneath this slab of exegesis
the liver is gone, gone is the heart.
Applaud the marble Master's thesis
that shades the worms who eat the art.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Two Traditional Exercises

1. The Same, Only Different

Roses bloom today, and then
Tomorrow roses bloom again.
Cut the grass, then rest: you find
New grass with roses intertwined.
Grass must be great, and roses strong,
To bloom and flourish, thriving long
After the gardener, planted, made
Under the grass, a thinning shade.
Yes, that rose is rose is rose;
Every blade of grass that grows
Is Grass. When you have tilled your plot,
Girls will be, though you are not,
Some with your shape, some with your name,
Some fit for love. Just not the same.

2. First & Last

Dead the first is pretty dead.
You'll be pretty, dead a while.
You watch the service with a smile,
It seems so quaint. The dead, you say,
Must have enjoyed their hymns today.
That ought to help them get ahead,
First through the gate, well on their way,
Or not so well. She's mighty dead,
You said this time. Some time, instead,
Of her, it will be me. Your style
Is going live. You mean to stay.
Dead the last is pretty dead.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

from the mailbag

Q: Do you understand your own poems?

A: Sometimes. The ones dictated to me by angelic presences in tie-dyed t-shirts and hot pants often elude my full comprehension. Does it matter? About Browning's Sordello Tennyson is said to have remarked that there were only two lines in the poem which he could understand: "Who will may hear Sordello's story told" and "Who would has heard Sordello's story told," and both of them were lies.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Dear Anonymous critic:

"More cowbell" doesn't count as a critique. If you'd been first with it, or even seventh, maybe, but now? It's like writing, "I think you should adjust your line breaks." Try something different. Perhaps your next anonymous letter could begin, "If the river were whiskey and you were a diving duck... ."

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Never the Twain

Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of Mark Twain's death, a good time to remember a great writer.

Twain always disappoints. He never outgrew his need to shock or clown or impress, an amusing thing in a Dave Barry-style humor columnist, but something a novelist cannot afford. The collapse of Huck Finn as it moves towards its conclusion is only the most famous example; every one of his books exhibits the same deficiencies. I tend to like Life on the Mississippi best because it is frankly a collection of sketches.

Not every novelist needs to be Henry James, but think how much good a touch of Mr James would have done Mr Clemens.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Surprise, Surprise

From a long time ago. This appeared in Poetry Ink.

They say that at the house right down the street,
the one looks much like ours, they ran a brothel.
Actually, a whorehouse is what they say,
a word that people like, when they can manage
to poke it somehow into the conversation.

I haven't pictured anyone who lived there,
although I've tried, no woman who might be
the siren of our cul-de-sac. The cops
led two kids and a chocolate lab away.
I hadn't seen a one of them before.

At my house we were busy with the closets--
you take this, no I want that--mementos
of incidents we couldn't quite remember,
except of you, young in your wedding dress.

Friday, April 09, 2010

from the mailbag

I see you have a Facebook page now & you use it. Wouldn't you be better off spending all that time practicing poetry? It needs it.

No doubt. But Facebook inspires me, and I learn so much from it. Did you know there are people out there--even poet-people--with thousands of friends? It's like having phone books for friends. Did you know that when you ask people to befriend you, they might reply, "And you are who?" thus proving that the predicate nominative is still alive and well.

You know people only find there way here because you wrote that 1 pome with friction in the title right?

I have mentioned this before. I'm just happy my peeps are happy. If I have facilitated frottage, I'll just have to live with that.

Dear RHE, Did you know that it is not the medeival ages anymore?

So have I heard, and do in part believe it.

RHE, your ugly and ur mother dresses you funny.

Dear Mr Justice Scalia,

There is no need to personalize this.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Here It Is

Here is a list of what I can't remember--
I'm kidding, of course. No, wait. Here is a list.
What time it was. How old I was. Who came
And what she brought. The capital of Chi.
The publication dates of What's-His-Name
And when I hit him. All the horses' men.
Pringles & Funyuns. All the rabbi's girls.
The Queen of Hearts and Blackjack Mulligan.

To few of these have I been reconciled.
I shall not steal your money, and your wife
Is safe if I'm awake. A coral reef,
Teeming with spirits, angelfish and clowns--
Did I see that, or was it someone's book,
Lost in the fires of '71, the last
Post just before the world grew up and left,
The bitter end of something bittersweet?

Friday, January 01, 2010

Dryden says, Happy New Year

All, all of a piece throughout;
Thy chase had a beast in view;
Thy wars brought nothing about;
Thy lovers were all untrue.
'Tis well an old age is out,
And time to begin a new.