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Robert Duncan

Ten Poems, 1940 to 1980

transcribed and edited by Robert J. Bertholf and James Maynard. This material is © The Literary Estate of Robert Duncan. This piece is about 12 printed pages long.

The ten buttons immediately below take you to the poems; the button on each poem takes you back to this listing.

Ten Poems: Contents

link [1.] “Drunk with love! now” (1940)
link [2.] Sorrow for a Friend’s Rejection Anger for Accusation (1947)
link [3.] A Fresh Start (1947 / 1948)
link [4.] “If swarming poetry were seen as an expanse of war” (1952)
link [5.] The Master of Mandrake Park (1955)
link [6.] “What did learned Coleridge know” (1955)
link [7.] “Now I come to speak of a powerful magic —” (1960)
link [8.] Some Terms (1973)
link [9.] Just Seeing (1980)
link [10.] “Let my verse be high and dry until” (1980)

link [1.]


Drunk with love! now
I am poisond with love.
I have been subtly poisond.
Who would have thought pain
so enduring?

The saxophone, the beat, the moon:
if I could only drift
once more toward foolishness
my angel, my angel
where have you gone? my false angel!
How I long for
even the betrayal of your arms.


Take away love,
this is the food that has poisond me:
if I had died
two months ago it would have been good.
I had faith.
Now there is no good thing


against the idea of suicide:

This is not what I want
to die in such misery.


link [2.]
Robert Duncan, Berkeley, 1947

Robert Duncan, Berkeley, 1947

Sorrow For a Friend’s Rejection
Anger for Accusation


The covenant, shaped like a silex
      glassy clear,
stood on the table. Cheap,
useful and dear
it was able, so surrounded
by more than light, to surpass
the sheer gloss of yellow painted
table top or tarnishd splendor
of stolen spoons.


Yet conversation over coffee kills;
stirrd in the cup the sugar turns,
the listener lifts his lips and shows
burns from last night’s love.
                                  A friend’s disgust
reads from the spittle upon the tongue
not love but lust to suck the marrow from his bone
He sickens over knowledge
and turns away.


Rivalry, mockery, raillery
Of all that tentative hope
I sorrow for the loss of friend
who so long kept vigil of my heart
and was often kind. I will not find
another friend to watch so painfully
my deprivation as if it were
his pain and pride to bear.


Rue, rue for my dear friend’s wreath
glorious worm that would out glare
           the fruit of love
and feed his friendship there —
has turnd.
Now that


link [3.]

A Fresh Start

      The grass crushd under ice-flow.

            This is the hushd season.
            This is the season of appearances.

Not like the sun.
The sun itself.


Then there was a great joy.
Look! Look! such youth
as never to the heart came
in youth. But I wait
for age to wear the dross away.
Such a great joy,
such a clean cut
as never a year made,
nor anger swathd,
clearing a path
for joy after wrath.

I am through! he said.
Then there was a great joy.
I have made a fresh start.
Look! Never to the heart came
such a leap up,
such a jolt out of old ways.


Here they go fresh starting,
naked in the thorny wood,
blissful fools,
wrapd round by poisond leafy stuff,
too fucking proud for words.

Here they go shrieking,
men showing themselves off,
prancing barefoot on the sandbanks of the river.
The women
curl in the deep water and uncurl.


argument :

Don’t say I can’t cast shame off,
step out of my trousers an amazed man.

Don’t say this isn’t a more lasting pleasure
than the struggle for good government
or an aesthetic standard.

Don’t say the embrace of good bodies
isn’t all that I mean
when I praise the Sun
or its princely powers.
I mean the ebullient leaping of naked bodies
when I speak of the spirit’s healing.


But the joy came
momentarily in a great ennui;
rift in heaviness of storm;
joy from a sullen body
and a thought of freedom.

Everyday to battle
the weight of increasing dumbness,
insensitivity to new ways;
the joy
— not died — but crushd,
hushd in the dross of repeated
inarticulate scorn.

Say it, say a new joy,
a fresh start, a new body.
Longing in the heart
too stark
to be denied.


argument :

I can tell the difference
between a young man’s love
and a man’s;
between a virgin’s prize
and a woman’s price;
between a woman and a man.
Don’t tell me I don’t know what I want
when I want it.

Don’t hand me that old bliss
      of the inner fire
      even if I ask for it
      and expect me, like Isaac,
      to give blessing to a false Esau
foold by mere hair.
I can tell the difference
with my eyes closed
between the real thing and a nose,
between coming
and the nostalgia of an old rose
falling away from its bud.


Out of false caresses, kindnesses
to cover wrath, love to clothe
the nakedness of hate,
gentleness to obscure
violations of the heart’s longing.

Out of a state of mind and body
oppressive as a living room suite
in red mohair
or a five room stucco bungalow
replete with bath
in tile, decalcomanias
of tulips or windmills
on cupboard doors,
and hardware floors.

Out of a slavish imitation of goodness,
failing by the margin of spirit;
out of a payment of dues,
a public display for approval
or disapproval of approved or disapproved
public actions;
out of all spontaneity perishd.


argument :

When I wrap my poor spirit
and parade under poetry’s emblems,
breathing as the Muse breathes
the finer air of mind’s indolence,
don’t tell me I had not better been

naked and doing my honors
breathing my own honest breath
— faithless wretch that I am —
sating my lust when I can.

Why at my age
do I go on talking with you
when the air stifles
in this close room?
Why after twenty-eight years
do I stew in this pot of decencies
— a backwater Bohemian
watching, assenting
as the perennial doom
moves in.

Don’t hand me that old line
      of working things out
     even if I gave it you . . .


ah, mere hair!
How lovely, my demoiselle
lets fall the golden waves
to grace her fair
embitterd face.

I watch resentment where
it keeps its silent station in her eyes
and joyless pain
that waits for life to die
and brief hysteria’s revelry.

I brought these guests with me?
I meant the ebullient leaping of good bodies
when I spoke of the spirit’s healing.
I meant a jolt out of old ways.
I brought these guests with me.


Shame crushes the spring’s grass.
Flee, flee the company of shame.
Heavy as ice-flow that catches the litter
of cast-off clothes, cigarette butts,
last-week’s newspapers, coffee cups
deserted in the tell-tale room
— paraphernalia of an old cliché.
Never to cast shame off.
Never to return from the shoddy street,
but to embrace this promise I have made,
step out of my trousers to the heart’s defeat.

One thought of casting off these things
is itself the burst of joy.

Deceit stayeth the free speech

and had I one hour to live, to speak,
I would be damnd perpetually.

(1947 / 48)

link [4.]


If swarming poetry were seen as an expanse of war,
those dead, bleeding or infected there,
would be imaginary hurt or dead;
words imaginary wounds, gestures
of pretend grief, perhaps
beautiful men become real
all our soldiers here are heroes
expanding as voice expands
to body-dimensions of
expansive loss or sacrifice
And we may picture old cold in this place
as vastest cold of human waste,
unintelligible outpost of feeling,
no-man’s real land facing all alien self —
An Asia inscrutable as unrealized desire
awakening; a China patient mire
of otherness; an ideology, an enemy
necessity, an unyielding resisted
army; we may picture all
unrewarding meaningless engagement,
a Korea; expenses imagined
of blood, of order, of love, of ardure
— misty nothingness of profound intention —
sketchd out of metaphor from the actual stink.


But there is no actual stink to our noses
as we sit at dinner; writing from Pusan
a friend says “it stinks”; and Time magazine tell us
“the succulent prize” was
“the gamy carcass of an alley cat”
“headed for the cooking pot”;
where a landed elite
thronged the Beautiful {Princess} Hotel
“pay as much as $15 for a room,
$5 for a meal, 50¢ for coffee.”
in U.S. currency or checks. Yet
Time tells us the most wretched
in Pusan know
North Korean Communists are worse,
the enemy, more wretchd.
And we imagine such an evil state
by imagining out of ourselves ourselves
conquering ourselves, a relentless victory,
an unknown potential change in things,
corrupting the good meat upon the plate,
souring the wine like bad blood
and blackening the bread with mould
in U.S. currency of speech


The poet sent to praise the war
praises the violence and despair.
This is what we are fighting for.
To make real unrealities of our fear.

To force the enemy to the ground
from which he rose and crush them there.
To render wretchedness acute
and all protesting voices mute.
Christians might well as Armageddon see
this battleground of hopeless piety
to challenge such a Nothing fell
and cast from Heaven into hell.


link [5.]

The Master of Mandrake Park


is not one of the ones who is waging the war.
He grows old in the dark
preceding the day they are fighting for.

The Master of Mandrake Park
sat with his mechanical head on his knees
and laughd as the blood gushd forth
whenever it started to sneeze.

The mechanical head had to be wound up each hour
until it glowerd with spiritual power
and gave forth with ease
astonishing bursts of direful curses
and intending impending prophecies
of ordinary catastrophies.

Who hoo are you wonderful Mandrake Park?
with your weary red eyes and your hands
so dark? a tax-collector, a wandering vector,
charting and cataloguing and I.B.M. carding
a future disaster to descend on the land?

Mr Mandrake Park is chillingly bland.
He holds his wet right hand in his wet left hand
and sits with his mechanical head on his knees
which answers his ventral request
with a sneeze.


The moon is riding crooked in the air.
Her rays whirl round like burning hair.

Mr Mandrake Park has man-like eyes
that shine like stars in winter skies.
Who is he, Rider, houded and hairyd,
driven apace by the hovering shadows
to Mister Mandrake Park’s white face?

He carries a War as a cloak round his humpd back.
He carries reports, clackety clack.
Who is the Master crooked as a root
with his cry
like a hymnis solemnis rippd from old wood?


Lady MacMandrake Park
lies a-bed at night in the dark.

What does the clock count
half pest sick?
The air in her bed chamber
is thick as her man’s member
and rises in a wind
like a walking stick.

Lady MacMandrake Park is ill
at ease, she watches her shadow
rise from her side
and silently glide
to the darkening window
where it leans on the sill.

What does the clock strike?
Almost past saving.
Old Doctor Shinbone
lets in the winter wind
to howl at her bedclothes
licking her extremities
chilling her enormities
yessing her nose.


link [6.]

What did learned Coleridge know
in the fastness of his heart
that turnd him from the spirit world
to the years of ceaseless talk?

Who followd after Christabel
and waited at the door?
What brightness of the air would come
if he wrote more?

An angelic doctor stood guard
against the bright bright rain,
and gave him opium to ease
      immortal pain.


Apex of the M 6 (Fall 1997): 141-142.

link [7.]

Now I come to speak of a powerful magic —
     the ground of the good
I picture as whole, healthy, holy.
     Little I know of it,
men draw back or set evil against the thot of it,
     seek sickness or leave love’s way
least they be caught in the nets, those goods

For this ground endures and is in everything.
     In the good, God
walks like a happy man in his garden
     talking with friends.
It is the magic calld happiness Olson said
     we were to practice,
Perhaps. But I see the Man in the magic good ground
     carrying his first
burden of that art, enduring wholeness like a cross
     climbing upward against
crowds with those crowds on his back. Wholeness?
     What a tragic
good appetite! I’m glad I’m not that hero who will
     carry your monkey
or dragon on his soul, bow’d down under the load
     the spine was built
like a cathedral vault to carry

     damnation so —   For I hear
this magician knew no other way, no quick
     trick of hand or sleighting
to cure faulty making, no transformation —
     For on his side there was only truth
— wholeness — that includes today
     such a worm of scaly deeds and deaths
it is no wonder men    no longer
undertake that work but
     feed the form of the dragon    This seed

these teeth are a field of fighting men.
     This poet embracing the void
shooting shit into the black blood
     sleeps coild in the dragon head
evil to evil.


link [8.]

Some Terms             Dec. 1, 1973

re, res, real, realm, reality from thing, thingness, object, objective realize, to establish the
thingness. One aspect of the work of art or poem or creation is to realize what is thought and felt. The reality of the poem is a language reality. Its things are words.
Hence any poem has for each given reader (including the poet writing as reader) just that reality he finds in the words in their orders.

The only immediate res of the poem are its sounds. The sounding of the poem in turn mediates a potential realm of meanings.

act, actual, actualize, actuality.
     There was actually a chair there. Tho I did not see it; tho I did not believe there was
one; I was not sure there was on . . .
     I actually saw a chair there. Tho there was no chair there. Tho I did not think I saw a chair there.
     I actually thot I saw. I actually thot “I saw” I actually thot to see.
     I pretended I thot I saw. I actually pretended I but imagined I pretended.
     We strive to bring into the actual what is real to us.

link [9.]

Just Seeing       Sept. 27, 1980

takes over    everywhere    before names
this taking over of sand hillock and slope
as naming takes over as seeing takes over
this green spreading upreaching thick
     fingers from their green light branching
into deep rose, into ruddy profusions

takes over from the grey ash dead colonies
     lovely the debris    the profusion the waste
here — over there too — the flowering begins
     the sea pink-before-scarlet openings
when the sun comes thru cloud cover
     there will be bees, the mass will be busy
     coming to fruit — but lovely this grey
light — the deeper grey of the old colonies
     burnd by the sun — the living thick
     members taking over    thriving

where a secret water runs
they spread out to    ripen

link [10.]

Let my verse be high and dry until
your mind flows in its own waters.
Let my rimes flow then into a rivering
until the feeling fires     I mean

the whole to shine! It is a song of praise
in which the wound into its river runs
and winding shines from time to time,
dark and daylight glimmering

with hints of an ever happening rime.
It is a painting of the ephemeral
where what we took to be water glares
and in the heart of a solar mirror flares.


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