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Jerome Rothenberg

Four poems

three poems from A Book of Witness [new poems]


The Last Friend

The day the last friend
we sit alone.
A visitor
from outer space
tries hard
to summon us.
Someone says
I fish around for answers
but the questions
still won’t come.
I take the small vial
from your pocket
sniff it & near die.
The police are negligent
at best.
Nor is there room for angels
The storms drift in from Mexico
where once we roamed.
The way your chest
moves up & down
when breathing
is a clear response.
I want some reassurance:
that even when I die
the world goes on.


I am Mad by Turns

When I close my eyes
I see them.
Never more & never clearer
than they were
before your heart broke.
I am mad by turns.
Those who lead me to the trough
can never
make me drink.
The time shines like a signal
from my wrist.
Every pattern you observe
will disappear
even those the stars make
in their long sleep.
Is that enough to please us?
I am moved to say it
moved too that Blackburn died so young
& Armand now.
I am waiting for everyone
to die.
For this the just man
spews but holds
his ground.
His strength too distant
to return    his hands
two pools of sweat.
He must resemble someone
I saw walking backwards
once    & up a flight of stairs
a tray of food
in gentle balance
letting go
& hurtling
to his death among
the thorns.


More Than Stars

You did it
made me cry
in hemorrhage.
You were on my mind.
I ran to you
& bones broke.
I who was finger mad
now learned to live
Unglued I sucked the wind
into my glottis.
I could be split in two
not whole
the rage emptied my scrotum
& I sagged.
You signaled from the car
ahead of me.
The screen lit up
with buttons
that were more than stars.
An egg escaped.
It could have happened
all at once
but I
was ready.
I embraced a cat
& spattered.
How I do love to touch
that ancient keyboard
wet from sleep.
None of you asked my name
& I kept silent
balanced on a dime.
I would delude them all
by dialing backward.
The time is near
I told them.
Nobody living will escape.


for Robert Duncan

I was given a poem in the dream ... a poem I read out loud ... where I could feel the words coming in bursts but couldn’t salvage them ... I only knew the poem’s name was ‘seedings’ & that it followed after a performance of ‘cokboy’ in which I had to improvise the final lines, unable to remember what they were. ... Between poems I made a comment about Duncan’s peculiar way of reading, knowing he was dead but seeing him sitting in the audience & nodding at me when I started reading.


Now in the dream
I read aloud
the poem of seedings,
like the last time I saw you,
& how it opens me
to further words, new
as I see you sitting there,
old friend,
alive, to hear my stammer
like your own,
that mark of poetry upon
each poet’s tongue,
I call the listeners to hear
in us, while laughing,
at some other poem I read before,
obsessive words
we all can nod our heads to,
but I could not find
the ending,
not for all the years of reading it
aloud, & heard somebody say
— not you but somebody —
time is the thief of language
(meaning tongues)
like that the cat gets hold of


shadow of George Oppen,
having lost
his words, the shadow of a poet
he’d become,
or Blackburn speaking of it
first: I’ve lost
my verbs & nouns,
my alphabets
& birthdays,
who am no kind of man without
those seedings,
the pain obliterating all
or else the mind
retreating from itself,
like Williams in his old age
— & no flight of small
cheeping birds —
but ‘No. my hands
are tongue-tied . You have ... made
a record in my heart
(Blackburn records it)
or my mother or my brother looking
much like you did, Paul,
the mouth become a hole
the language jammed into our cavities
— cancer aphasia alzheimers —
the poets punished for their poetry,
sharing their punishment with other beings
or what happens
when the mind & body — little
sad machine —
starts shutting down


the cat is death,
the thief of language,
meaning tongues,
enough to construct a mythos on
at last   old male cat
comes in thru his window
to talk to him
although it finds him voiceless,
waving kindly to my son
who stands outside
— hi, Paul —
the tape is turning, sends
my own voice back to me
he must have placed with care
there on the reel
to mark our visit —
& this was twenty years ago
& more now   a time no cat
could possibly survive
during which time the deaths have come
reality by that thrown back
into the cat’s mind,
where all reality resides
till death disrupts it
& erases world & time at once
your time & mine, Paul,
as it erases words,
stares out at you
so big   it trembles
on your screen,
ascends your vertebrae,
gone into dust by now,
poor spook,
our voices on the tape
already gone for you
although you labored to engrave it,
lugging that big old box around
— from reel to reel
to still more real —
when there was a world to live in
& the words to know it by
quickly came into mind & hand,
— no   there is no memory
among the dead
& even when you write them down
it isn’t I who speak
these words   but you
& only for a time


Write a poem for the dead & leave a place for all the dead to enter. ... Consider their words as seeds or treat the dead themselves as seeds ... & see a cat’s face as the face of death. ... Go into the cat’s mind ... an apotheosis of Cat. ... Directive: since the cat is living there, attend to how it stalks, the way it moves through space & time.

but death abolishes
all space & time —
like Gertrude’s Oakland,
like the cat’s mind,
where no there is
& the world appears as constant pulses,
present running into present
only   void of past
& future
so the cat becomes a number
lying on its side,
the cat becomes a distant echo,
one who vanishes
without a word,
the ocean convulsing to the sound of cat,
the way the world convulsed
& dreamt itself,
the dream became our lives,
by which we marked the world’s
beginnings & will mark
its end   so simple
that there is no world to prove
beyond us   as the cat’s world
ends when cat goes
into death, takes with it
what must be memory of garden,
crooked stems & whiteveined lilies
on black stalks,
& does the poem exist
when there is no one there
to hear it,
when the poet’s throat is emptied
of his verbs & nouns,
lost brother walking on
some lonely ridge
holy tears,
too far into his death
to call it back
the birds around him in the thousands,
the gulls above the bridge
so many cries   such fast desires,
cold birds outside his window
his own skin at the world’s edge,
crying for his gods
                  / October almost
5 in the afternoon
the words so easily disposed
between myself & you
that I would quote us into life
dear Paul   would trust
the rest to follow
shortly, into life


a poem of seedings,
in the traces of

others who have gone before,
from life to life,
those tied to us as friends or kin
we look for in the empty field
& wonder   where
or in what form
they vanished
who were here just yesterday,
still in the mind
we set a place for them,
a house with swollen rooms
& in each room
a solitary dreamer
sits there   face obscured
by sunlight
Is this your mother?
someone asks
or she who took her own life
twice   the first dose
not enough
so that she woke up laughing
in her bitterness   or she
whose father drove her
to her death,
the poet who survived her
shaken, broken
& the other poet’s wife,
also so young,
whose photographs surround the room
where I once stayed,
still stay in memory   but
feel it
disappearing too
or dwindling
cut & broken in
until we can make a covenant
with death   we let it
follow us
the walls come tumbling down,
leaving no margin for
our distant lives

6 / Death Thoughts


While Thinking of Those Already Dead

since the world was different when they died,
how would they recognize it now?
it is for this reason that it is better that the dead
stay dead   their confusion would only alarm us
who remain alive & sometimes have to think
about the dead & what to say to them
to set things straight


Eternal Question

I wonder sometimes what the last word will be
spoken or heard before I die,
& I feel a great sadness not to know it
in advance, or ever know it



if there is nothing after death,
then there was nothing before death,
& life is the greatest illusion after all,
the way you fell for it
& I did,
there will be nothing behind us when we die


                     o these are wounds of love
                       these precious eyes

those who have lived a life of poetry
will die
         & meet the poets
it will be five o’clock
the blanket on the bed will fall away
the fat man will absorb the shock
love brings him   & now
unlike the others in the tunnel
he will forget to crouch
forget the dead who stand before him
blow their words like knives
over his head   beware   beware
the car door opens & a relentless squad
enters the imagination
in which   as in a sylvan clearing
poets mill around a thorn bush
for those who lived a life of poetry
to stare upon   to take the hands of
in their own & touch with lips
so dark the sun can barely reach them
old friends gone beforehand
let me call them one last time
by name    by seeding them
into the poem its body dark with soil
among whom a new fellow comes
the lately fallen ghost
who took her own life    fell
until no sky remained between
the soil & her
depression of the spirit raging
like the hungry ghost
inside her    throws her down
bones throbbing
makes her to feel her tongue
jammed down her throat
hermaphroditic in the shadow of
the phallic altar
there is god (she says) & man
& there are monsters
leading the way to death    among the friends
who wait her presence
those who have lived a life of poetry
whom we will only see once
in that final moment when we join them
before the chill sets in
the bliss of language lost to us
forever    drifting
like mindless phantoms
empty voices
without our verbs & nouns

‘Seedings’ first appeared in Seedings and Other Poems, New Directions, 1996.

Photo of Jerome Rothenberg

Jerome Rothenberg is an internationally known poet with over sixty books of poetry and numerous assemblages of traditional and contemporary poetry such as Technicians of the Sacred and Shaking the Pumpkin.

Founder of the movement called ethnopoetics, his most recent book of poems is A Paraduse of Poets, his tenth from New Directions, and his latest anthology is A Book of the Book: Some Works & Projections about the Book & Writing (Granary Books, 2000).

The two-volume Poems for the Millennium, co-edited with Pierre Joris, appeared in 1995 and 1998, and he and Joris are currently translating the collected poetry of Pablo Picasso for Exact Change Press in Cambridge.

Photograph copyright © 2000 Nina Subin

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