The Sign of Steel

by Salgado Maranhão. Translated by Alexis Levitin.

                                for Jean Claude Elias

the scar suggests
the struggle and the slash

in the drama of the gods,
the darting of a fine-honed blade.

(one almost disbelieves,
denying what is written,

the promissory note
underscoring pain)

the scar speaks
fingerprints of steel

the blade, the ball of lead,
and what remains unsaid.

Zip Street Blues

by Salgado Maranhão. Translated by Alexis Levitin.

the rage of diesel horses
rolls
to the trotting of
the tendoned days.

strays smashed to tin
beneath  the press of tires
                                       –and beastly human beings.

(all in transit
some not yet intransigent
others already late
accompanying their bodies to the wake.)

and the afternoon roars: rust
and the breeze burns: soot.

Moviement

by Salgado Maranhão. Translated by Alexis Levitin.

now it’s another landscape
written
         on the plasma
and in the mist
                      flowing
between one’s fingers
like eager birds
                      slipping through
the wind.
now it is another scaffold
of pieces playing chess
with chance:
the city and its clouded corneas.

mornings AR-15
afternoons AK-47
delinquents among rats
and big-shots’ shit.

the city in all its to-do
gulping down hot-dogmas,
sucking mint drops of death.

Letter to Daniel G. Hoffman

by John Ridland

Dear Dan,

There are dead poets I would never dare
               to write a letter to:
“Dear Mr. Frost?” “Dear Mr. Eliot?”
               But your last book,
optimistically titled: next to last 
               words, seems to invite reply.
I’ll try no critical reading, even appreciation,
               poem by poem. That would be
fun if you were still around––not that you’re not
               around still, with this book
atop the pile of thirteen others, plus
               eight prose, and plus
some edited others: you were one hell of a
               productive poet!
Now writing you a letter seems familiar,
               since we conversed
only in letters, after one brief hello,
               introduced by Natalie Anderson
of Swarthmore College, where you
               had taught, and I a student
you could have taught if decades had not
               held us apart. So what
can I now have to say? I hope you’re happy
               in the good name
Fame’s giving you. And your next to last words
               are messages to us
from where you are––the Future Present Tense
                  where we will all
be sentenced in the same last paragraph.
               [This may continue.]
                                                Briefly your friend,
                                                                                   John Ridland

Mushrooms

by David R. Slavitt

The poison in a mushroom does it no good. 
It doesn’t know, nor does the fellow who eats it,
but he will find out.  And maybe he will tell
others about the mushroom and even describe it,
a Death Cap, say.  Others of that species
are beneficiaries, and others also,
because people will hesitate unless

they know exactly what they are doing.  The death
of the one (mushroom, I mean, not the man)
may save the others.  And what greater love
than to lay down one’s life to save another?
Or, no, that’s not necessary; take into account
the sweet revenge the mushroom anticipates
jouncing along in the basket.  Destroying Angels

could take the same satisfaction—but that is assuming
mushrooms can think and are self-aware.  Unlikely,
so we are forced to look up to a practical-joker
God who, having thought of this intricate business,
couldn’t resist.  Mushrooms seldom laugh
but He does, often, at his own cruel jokes.

Pythagoras in Crisis

by Lee Slonimsky

It’s just a mood, perhaps, but he stands stunned,
the densest woods so asymmetrical:
gnarled trunks and twisting branches, splashing sun
that here collects in pools, and there slants straight.

He likes the orderly but in a lull
the random overwhelms him.  One tree white,
the others mossy brown; a stream misshaped
by boulders, broken logs. 

                                                Woods demonstrate
confusion’s reign, if one’s astute: the loops
a swallow swoops seem odd, math-free.  He’s fooled
himself these many years with phantom rules:

to prize his abacus, to calculate,
have been his life, but now he sees it all:

stormstrewn chaos.  A maple’s sudden fall. 

Pythagoras’s Broken Abacus

by Lee Slonimsky

To disentangle chaos is his task
this morning in deep woods.  Secluded glade,
where birdsong is intense.

                                                 But overlapping calls
can’t be identified,
nor numbered, nor remembered,
and he can’t
find logic in unhinged asymmetry–

a swirl of chirps, high flutes,
doves’ coos, caws’ taunts–

the congregation’s maniacal.  Sounds
that can’t be measured: no place for his math.

He shrugs, continues on his wandering path.

Sheb Wooley

by R. T. Smith

         Don’t try to understand them, just throw and rope and brand them.

The teenaged groom leading my long-toothed
rental mare has the lope of Pete Nolan,
a savvy scout with Gil Favor’s Rawhide herd
for several seasons and portrayed with witty grit
by Sheb Wooley, who blends easily
with the decency of Eastwood’s callow Rowdy,
wry drover Jim Quince and the ornery
cook Wishbone, as they drive the beeves over
desert, through Comanche and rustlers,
tick fever, stampede, the staggers,
to far-away Sidalia to feed the eastern swells
and spend their wages on rigged roulette wheels
and women called Dallas or Dolly.

I also recall Sheb as a country guitar
picker with  a novelty gift who hit it
almost rich in ’58 with “Purple People Eater,”
which as a boy I loved to caterwaul and yodel.
He also gave us Hee-Haw’s theme,
“White Lightning” and “Hoot Owl Boogie,”
but I liked him more as a wrangler, puncher,
scrappy cowpoke with tooled boots and kerchief,
the battered hat and a knack with a rifle,
just like the riders of the Purple Sage.  I admired
the way he sat the saddle and dismounted
at a gallop, a stunt he’d picked up riding rodeo
and managed without breaking a sweat.

Pete was lean and sideburned, quick with a quip
or pistol, the one I wanted to mimic
on Uncle Ike’s pasture nag Cinder, who walked
in her sleep and woke to buck me every time
I sneaked a halter on and scrambled aboard,
headed, I guess, to Dry Gulch or
some flooded gorge with swollen steers floating.

And while I’m drifting into rider’s reverie,
full of prime time fantasies – beans
and coffee, mouth harp whine, sidewinder or stars
wheeling to the growl of a famished panther –
the groom tilts back his Hokies cap, hands me
the reins and asks, “Need a leg up, mister?”
his superior grin fenced with braces
brighter than Mexican spurs.

In honor of Sheb and his cadre of savvy buckaroos,
the whole history I missed and yearned for,
not to mention sweaty Stetsons and home-plaited lariats,
I grab the horn, throw a leg over the cantle,
then point my Colt index finger to squeeze
the trigger, like any badlands jasper inclined
to keep his thoughts from strangers
but still mulish to have the last word.

Slapping the animal’s croup with braid-leather,
I hit the trail, growling, Head em up, move em out,
with two hours of freedom and a fistful
of Aleve ahead.  I can nearly hear Frankie Laine’s
raucous theme, its whip cracking percussion.

Now I don’t care who hears me laughing,
content for the moment to be a yodeling fool
on scout for water with old Pete Nolan, Sheb Wooley,
whatever alias will suffer my company,
the pair of us easy on spirited ponies
traipsing across the dusty prairie, happy, so happy,
to be galloping saddle trash again.

Sergeant John Ordway’s Journal, Last Entry

by R. T. Smith

Captain Lewis now dead by some assassin’s
hand, all the clouds blow ashen and black,
but I remember storming snow, wild artichokes,
prickley pear and how the lark woodpecker flew,
the black horn antelope and dog stew delicious
in the bleak times.  Gass, Shannon, the Fields
brothers all cussing some Mandan weather
god, our Captain Clark by turns taciturn or
shaken with laughter.  The undiscovered
country opened for us, but not without labor,
fevers worse than this, mutiny in the wilderness,
our need to learn quickly how to forgive.
We found time daily to praise our Maker.
Ghost weed grew on the shore, feathered
native men danced, and the keel boat foundered.
Venison or thin broth, I doled the rations daily.
Cruzet’s fiddle by the round fire warmed us
after the maps were almost lost.  The bird girl
saved us often.  Bratton, Labiche, York –
every soul equal at work and celebration.
Nightly I dreamed of my beloved betrothed
Gracy Walker and wished the ordeal over,
yet it was a thrill, despite the rattling snakes,
silver-tip bears like monsters.  Looking back,
I am satisfied I saw enough for one mortal,
man, especially the devilish mosquitoes.
Red sky at morning, currents like a whirling
dervish – the trials of Odysseus with no goddess
close at hand.  We survived by Clark’s dead
reckoning and chance, which Captain Lewis
insisted was just another word for providence.
Once was enough for me, cold faces of compass
and pocket watch – what’s time but a shiftier
form of distance?  There was no passageway
by water.  We had to settle for survival, science
and wonder.  Finally home, I married, savored
after lovemaking the taste of my wife’ shoulder.
Four years hence she was lost while with child.
Since then, phantoms and voices in the mist.
What best do I remember from the journey?

Taste of fresh meat after hunger, and high over
the swollen river a sky salt-white with herons.
Maybe they were angels going where Gracy
now abides and I hope to be bound very soon,
if our Maker will allow me this one last mercy.

Summoning Japan

by Elaine Terranova

Instruction, what I sought. Not from the beginning as would require study, reading, deep thought, the string of something you follow until it’s exhausted, but no, only scatter shot. Knowing by looking around corners. Stepping like a spy along the emperor’s Hall of Nightingales. Steps even barefoot he can hear as he sleeps.

             armed guards assemble
             in the dark antechamber…
             a lost kitten’s tread

And after the cancer was cut out of my breast, after treatment, equally intrusive, this I wanted, to be far, far away.

Shin meaning new, Shinjuku. The grid of high buildings. The American hotel with its Japanese breakfasts. Windows where light breaks. Where I watch the subway riders at evening spew out from underground like erupting lava. 

To think, all these people live here, here, where I’d never have seen them if I hadn’t come.
             leaving the airport
             Tokyo Road traffic jam—
             at my back, Fuji

On the bus that has transported me, traffic never lessening, I study the white lace antimacassars which protect the passenger seats. For cleanliness, as well, the driver wears white gloves. As do taxi drivers, I will learn, and even operators of department store elevators, the latter, pretty young women, whose beanies and Brownie-style uniforms are a smiting red.

And I find myself twenty-one hours later than the east coast of America. I’m only three hours off, plus a day, which is lost forever.

In Tokyo, I will venture onto the subway platforms where guards shoehorn you in at rush hour. Each ku or neighborhood has its own pattern of tones that rings when you arrive, a lovely reception, like a programmed wind chime.

I will stop at Harajuku, the “in” neighborhood. Clothing verging on the pornographic, cut-out nipples and crotches. Omotesando, wide Parisian boulevard, that intoxicating name. Takeshita-dori, smoky alley leading to a flea market. I wander off to a nearby garden.
             overpowering
             to walk beside the full moon,
             fenced-in jasmine’s scent

Another day’s outing. Fantastic kimonos hang in glass cases in Oeno Park museum, robin’s egg or raspberry, embroidered with birds and flowers. Grand, not a size for women. Later I’ll see like ones in the kabuki worn by players of mighty men, under their angry, cross-eyed stares. Kabuki players, it is said, act with the pupils of their eyes.

On the tour I take, Mayumi is our guide: My (pointing to herself), you (pointing to her charges), me (back to herself). She can give statistics on how many Japanese have western-style toilets. Facts: how Japanese wives control the family finances, how much allowance they allot to their businessmen husbands to drink and entertain themselves each month.

Our bus takes us to a shrine. 
             in my photo
             the stillness of stone lanterns—
             passersby in mid-step

I watch. I see what to do. First, purify yourself with holy water: Using the long-handled wooden spoon, cleanse left hand, right hand, pour water in left palm to rinse the mouth. Gather around the incense burner, which is like a black, cast iron head on the ground. Bend, waft fumes, which are pleasant if a bit overwhelming, from its orifices toward the part of your body which needs divine aid. I draw them to my chest and cough, cough out my natural breath as I breathe in sweet smoke.
             a sip of holy water…
             lost in the smoke of incense
             unanswered wishes

After, you can take a paper fortune—you’re allowed to throw it back and try again—or leave a paper prayer.

All around, unfamiliar trees that bear the familiar odor of camphor.

Instruction now on how to enter the wooden pavilion: First, take off shoes. Don’t step with them onto the clean wooden platform or people will come with a mop immediately to wipe away your footprint. Approach. Bow twice. Clap hands to get the attention of the kami (god of the river, mountain, agricultural crop) who protects the premises. Make your request: Health, once more, health. Again bow twice, back away.

At a temple you don’t have to clap because the image or statue is already visible. It awaits you. You needn’t attract its attention as in a shrine to call it out.

Shrines on streets, in parks, on temple grounds. Cedar trees are good for building them.
             off a busy street
             red cloth strung along a line—
             clothes for the kami

The tour bus next day takes us to Nikko Toshu-go, the Shogun’s shrine, a five-story pagoda. Each Chinese tower on the second level, presided over by a guardian figure. The one on the left is saying ah, indicating birth. The one on the right, mmm or om, for death. Ah and om, which stand as well for the drum of birth and the bell of death and for the first and last letters of the sacred Sanskrit alphabet. The Hall of 36 Poets nearby is protected by mythical beasts, the tapir who eats nightmares and Ran, a phoenix-like bird with a lifespan of 360 years.

The Tokagawa Shogun’s crest is upside down because perfection will attract evil spirits.
             Nikko morning mist
             and you can barely make out
             bright-eyed snow monkeys

On a ferry to Hakone, Myumi tells us Lake Ashi is very deep. The bodies of the drowned never rise to the surface because of water pressure and the impenetrable hard mud.

Is it here that in a temple garden, a pine has taken on the shape of a treasure ship? It began as bonsai, which can last for centuries, but then was planted so it found feet in the earth and will die sooner.

Elsewhere, under clear-weather clouds, we enter gardens where even the dirt is swept.
             poor flowering pear
             shivers in a lacy shawl…
             fool of the false spring

So many sights. So many vehicles transporting us. Wooden houses, paper windows. Loose, fluid. All of it could collapse and be gone in the morning, beds, doors, walls. I come from more solid housings and furnishings. They wait to receive me, firm and in place even if it is a matter of doubt—will I sit or stand, might I change my mind?

But sometime I must return home. Folded within myself, the knowledge that I have come from my life, desiring new sky and moss, new mountain water to gaze at. Her waist smaller than mine has ever been, the pretty ocarina player in the park repeating over and over with great optimism Brahms’ Variations on a Theme of Paganini, who could heal me, or the vague smoke of the incense burner I wafted over my breast. A paper prayer I left. A paper fortune I took away.