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cover of At the Forge by William HollisAT THE FORGE (2011)

By William Hollis
with photographs by Andrea Baldeck
Hardcover: 106 pages
Publisher: Hawkhurst Books
Language: English
ISBN: 978-0-9748304-9-0
Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.2 x .75 inches



WELDER AT THE FORGE

When it's a holiday, without sun, and a flurry
of snow quietly slips from a branch of fir
that edges the garden, I remember days
when now aging or dead sculptors would build
a fire in the center of a garden or in a barn
and call to ask if I wanted to come and help
melt buckets of screws and fill a bunch of molds
that had been lingering and should be dry
and just might yield a dream or two, might echo
what the bronze buddhas seem to sing
at the back of the hall when I slow and listen
and maybe pick one up and hold him in my arms.

Those were the days when, as a bucket of screws
simmered like rather scary soup, I'd pretend
to be an ancient teller of tales and chant a poem
I'd recently put together and Bernie would shout
for someone to make sure the fire was hot enough
and wouldn't forget to whisper a 'Keep going, Hollis'—
and I would get an idea, a line, a few lines for later
when those days would become a book that sang
of us crazy ones back in the 60s, a book piled in the dark
until my daughter Catherine called this morning
and asked if I couldn't pick up the tale again and tell
a new generation a bit of what has happened since.

Perhaps she's pushing me to move beyond old age
and an illness, not knowing how many pages
from those days reappeared just before I tripped
and had to settle in a chair because I refuse to let
the doctors have their way, knowing that if I keep
their knives out of my belly, I'll soon push words again;
and here I am, on a holiday that seems a waste,
wondering if these lines might give shape to all
those that wait beside my old computer upstairs:
daughters reappear in those piles and so does Bernie
though dead and not many I know these days can melt
a hunk of scrap and leave us with such a bronze delight.

A HANDFUL OF HOPE

I will reach out and take hold of this light,
this green light, now here in my hand,
in the palm of my hand just for you, for you
to see and hold as that fern breaks its tendrils
and catches the light and holds it for me,
for me to see and hold in my hand, here,
in these words where light floods for you.

I wish that I could hold a scrap of melody,
a sudden rising and a sudden turning
of the music, here on my tongue, here
where I taste the memory of your body
when we kissed and words were gone;
I wish the rising of the cello would remain
as a rhythmic echo of all that I would say.

I would even take these faltering words
and crush them with mortar and pestle
and turn them, these words, into sweet oil
with which I'd touch your heart, gently,
as I touch your face, gently, in the light
that pours through windows and floods
my heart and covers with hope this bed.

BERNIE'S MEMORIAL SERVICE

His daughter was there and read from the Bible
and was said to have become at some time, somewhere,
a preacher whom her father never heard; and so was the son,
there, briefly out of jail again, the jail he preferred,
his father said, for there he only had to lend his body
for lights-out games. And their mother giggled, wondering
what it was all about and where Bernie was when so many
old friends had gathered and so often mentioned his name
in affection and amusement, even if for some 20 years
he had not appeared on this side of the river.

But the young sculptors still followed him, across rivers
and out into flatlands where no one had ever expected
to see him; but Little Jay had waited and wandered
and found him on a lake in Jersey—and word spread,
for awhile, and a lonely blonde who sold sheets at Walmart
came quietly and prepared supper she'd never know
just who shared since she was never there except
when they were alone and waiting to see if maybe now
would be a moment when he came and everyone would smile
and remember a moment that came without pretense.

Who were the rest of us, siting in clusters at the back
of the room? A sculptor who never made it, who tried
once-a-year to attract attention, to say I'm here, waiting
to thank you for your attention; and here I was, waiting
to share laughter—but how does one share laughter
when we've waited thirty years to have one's image
dropped among bits and pieces that would say, yes,
see, it's part of the mystery that lies in the identity,
in the mystery of shapes that linger in accidental reminders
we have left that remind us of what we might have been.



cover of Heart of a Tree by William HollisHEART OF A TREE (2011)

By William Hollis
with photographs by Andrea Baldeck
Hardcover: 134 pages
Publisher: Hawkhurst Books
Language: English
ISBN: 978-0-9748304-8-3
Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.2 x .75 inches

View photos from this volume.
  • photo by Andrea Baldeck
  • photo by Andrea Baldeck
  • photo by Andrea Baldeck
  • photo by Andrea Baldeck
  • photo by Andrea Baldeck
 

SYNTAX OF DESTRUCTION

I

On an island in Budapest where the world
had come to a time without rest,
we sat and talked for an afternoon
in languages I only half understood,
if even that, certainly not Hungarian;
but in that afternoon, quietly,
we left words scattered with little hope
but with warm gestures for friends we might
or might not have met before, with whom,
for a few hours, we heard birds
quarrel in trees as passions of a river
fled by, murmuring it would be all right,
it too would be gone and repeat itself;
and when the men in dark suits passed,
I was taught to slide into silence with no change
of expression, just a bit of patience
until they too had passed and the sun
slid through trees with a sudden marking
of the end of another day where strangers
might brush with pleasure against each other.

II

I do remember, after fifty-five years,
the polished pistol I carried to work,
loaded and ready suddenly to use,
that, luckily, I never had to pull
and, when I left the army, was left
lying on a master sergeant's desk;
and there was one I pulled from my father's
underwear drawer one night as a stranger
bumped around the yard in the dark
after mother, scared, had gone looking for it
but couldn't untangle it from boxer shorts;
I had never seen it before, but the stranger
disappeared before we did more than peer
through one of the rattling windows;
and a day later, after father's return
from a business trip, the pistol disappeared,
unused, and was nowhere to be found;
with both parents dead, we searched in vain
to see if it might be pulled from a drawer
and taken home for some future use.

III

At twenty-two I often slept on a pile of hay
on a ridge while wearing a gray flannel suit
and a backpack that held a bottle of wine
and a copy of Tolstoy's War and Peace
in an edition small enough for little weight;
and on those nights as, without food,
not even a piece of warm cheese,
I watched stars and listened to silence
through blowing wind, waiting for something
to pull me to what I did not know,
which might be nothing more than a dream
or the distant sound of bells, perhaps
from one of the steeples I had seen
below me as I climbed and looked for a place
to rest, like the barn where old men
played guitars and softly sang
of those who were dead, who did not return;
and a few of us, the age of grandsons,
listened and slept little until dawn
when left to wander off on our own.

IV

I did not climb trees when I was a child,
except during those years when my father
came home from work and turned on
a radio full of serious voices who told us
that 20,000 more had been killed
in a battle fought somewhere, perhaps Africa;
and I would slam out the door and climb
to the top of a grapefruit tree where I
could shake the limbs and not hear the news,
the horror being so soberly announced
by H. V. Kaltenborn, an escape that has
not worked in the decades since I lost
the burst of energy it takes to climb;
though, as years pass, I learn
to keep the television closed in a closet
and a recording of some Irish street music
from the 16th century filling the room
instead of news—because that world
doesn't change, always more bleedings
and bodies to drive me up a grapefruit tree.

V

I always knew there was somewhere else
I should have gone before a ticket
left me sitting in the sun waiting for a bus,
waiting to see if I could get
beyond the valley, the usual place
I had to go and so too rarely
got anywhere else, especially those mountains
I'd always seen fading beyond me;
perhaps it was my fault I was left waiting,
not knowing what I'd do if it didn't come,
as it often didn't in those untimely days
when not even a limping warrior could know
if he'd get home before darkness fell
and left the bus stalled on the edge of town
stinking up an unknown neighborhood,
leaving us to stumble around unlit tanks
and to mutter something about a beer
and what we'd do if we ran the buses,
and how we didn't want to be there anyway,
wherever we were in that lost valley.

VI

There was nothing left to argue about
on a final weekend with little to say;
and even her mother sighed and suggested
we find where a new path might lead
while her father slipped into dead silence;
and I wondered what a real relationship
might bring, where lead, with what feelings,
as, for years, I wandered quiet times
this side of distant wars, never sure
just what I felt, though I listened carefully,
trying to find what the syntax of destruction
might be, how I might find answers
to questions that recur with every breath,
with silence or an emotional rant
that would carry a pair of us into rich
structuring of words, ideas and feelings,
into a structural reality of poems,
that moment when the phrase she used
would echo the one I could always add
as richness to a world we would build together.

LATE LUTE

It's late, and a lute tries to pull
me from the indifference I feel
to darkness that closes down the house,
to silence the tides have left here
on the edge of a swamp I can not see,
not now, not after the sun has fallen
and we've had wine and supper.

I can not tell if the lute is old
or from the mountains of Tennessee.
It's clean and lonely as I listen,
distracted now by a few words
that suddenly begin to fall
from the edge of sleep across a page,
reaching for a bit of your awareness.

When the sun fell an hour ago
I thought I'd sit here quietly
and find rhythms of what I've passed
since I aged and settled into a chair,
six or eight books beside me,
waiting to fill the emptiness
of the heart with possibilities of hope.

Is this the lute I heard in the mountains
a half century ago, when young
and unaware of what it was
I heard? Though I must admit
I feel again the pressure from tears,
something inside that says, "Listen,
it's here, in the echo of this lute".

What's here I do not know: the heart
perhaps of what I've given a life to find
and never recognized, never pulled out
and said, with a sigh, that this was it;
it's here, even if I never know
what the it may be—a tonality that
gives answer to the longing of the heart.

WHERE MUSIC BEGINS

Professor Barnum gave me a chord
and told me to let it whisper with intensity
between five notes that Mozart
had chosen to take for an early start
to expectedly rough ends of exploration.

While Sidney Bechet on a tour through town
gave me one note and told me to see
how many ways I could play that note—
"growl it, smear it, flat it, sharp it, do anything
you want to it," he said. Just one note.

But where do I stop, I ask myself?
Just the other night, working
on a little Bach, I was aware
that it began with a single note and stopped
with a set of three, and faded away.

It's like the song I often hear
somewhere inside of me,
often just there; and I reach for it,
try to fill the room with a voice off balance,
even when I know where it should start and end.

Maybe that's what life is all about,
trying to find just where the balance is
for a sonata or wild jazz that growls,
trying to fill lingering emptiness
between where music begins and where it ends.


Cover of Poems from LettersPOEMS FROM LETTERS (2011)

By William Hollis
with photographs by Andrea Baldeck
Hardcover: 144 pages
Publisher: Hawkhurst Books
Language: English
ISBN: 978-0-9748304-7-6
Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.2 x .75 inches

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UNFINISHED ONE

An unfinished poem lies quietly here,
after it began in a whirl of interruptions,
none of which is as important as you,
and still seems full of nonsensical elisions
and semantic arrhythmias in a form
I blame on the new computer
which thinks it knows better than I
and changes whole words at will, its will,
leaving me to gasp that I didn't know,
would never have said anything like that.

The gardens are gloriously asleep
as dawn rain comes in heavy sweeps
to flush the last of heavy snow
and fog rises thickly across fields and I
think of you as the sun breaks through,
turning clouds purple and blue and rose;
and now, at a little after two, the sky
is brilliant and birds strut their stuff,
and not one leaf or one crocus
dares break through a crust of mud.

DEE DEE RAMONE DIES

Did you hear that Dee Dee Ramone
is dead at forty nine?
He's someone of whom I never heard,
but I think, I really do,
that we should weep,
now that Dee Dee Ramone is dead.

Coming soon to a poem near you,
taking off from here,
there'll be a few verses
on the death of Dee Dee Ramone
to file in a folder called, with seriousness,
"Bunch of Stuff."

It's where I've got one going right now
on fecund frogs,
which are, in their way,
as serious to the world of art
as this sad, sad news
of the death of Dee Dee Ramone.

WRITING ONE'S LIFE

A splendid idea, especially with the place you begin:
"I'm going to start writing some of my experiences,"
you said, "some words of wisdom to leave behind."
The lives you've lead, individual experiences, are special;
but my first act as editor will be to urge you, beg you to avoid
the preachy, political, Baptist CEO Father Republican stance.
Tell your story, real stories of real incidents, and it should work.
And, yes, your experiences as Baptist Father Republican CEO
and occasional ham, painter, and carver should be described
as part of what has made you into the person you are.

What makes me cautious, though, in taking this assignment
is your emphasis, right off, on "words of wisdom,"
whether Solomon's or Dad's. Hundreds of books—
good, bad, and indifferent—trace permutations of "wisdom,"
the imagined history of Solomon or Confucius.
What still is not well enough understood is how
a kid from a small town in the old, changing south
(or it could be a kid from a village in North Dakota)
manages to find words and ideas that help.
If such words did or didn't make you a better person,
which you may have been anyway, they did keep you going
and affected the directions you took. That's the story.

At any rate, here's a standard definition of 'wisdom:'
"Capacity to judge in matters relating to life and conduct;
soundness of judgment in the choice of means and ends;
or, simply, sound sense, especially in practical affairs."
The wisdom of Solomon and the wisdom of Ben Franklin,
while both practical, if one keeps a touch of humor,
reach far to illustrate the rather bumpy implications
of whatever's meant by "soundness of judgment."

As for pulling in religion, First Corinthians makes clear
a distinction between wisdom and divinity by suggesting
that wisdom is possessed by divinity but is not the same thing.
How often we've seen "men of God" or even CEOs,
with you, of course, an exception, confuse the two,
thinking how great they are because they have been
clever in the exhausting manipulation of the daily world.

What if you took the really difficult job of exploring
your experiences with certain daughters-in-law
(and other such matters and moments)? Would that
illustrate the limitations of wisdom and perhaps accentuate
the necessity for some practical guide to maneuvering
through the morass? Would this then bring you to proverbs?

And if you're going to use Dad, are you going to deal
with failures that Mother saw so clearly as years passed
and finally talked about, with sadness and love,
as he, with applause in his ears, and then she, was dying?
In all those public years, she found a wisdom
that let her survive stark truth, disillusions, and pain.
And aren't they, or your own family, or mine,
small reflections of the company, the country, the world?
This is why your individual story is important;
it may add a hint, a clue to meaningful survival.

The very word "wisdom" makes me uncomfortable:
too many people for too long have called what they had
wisdom, manifested in rules and proverbs.
The living struggle is what most interests me;
and I guess that's what I'm encouraging from you.
Perhaps 'wisdom' is really nothing more than an ability
to read the map that keeps opening up in front of us.


Cover of Venetian PassageVENETIAN PASSAGE - 72 Canti (2010)

By William Hollis
with photographs by Andrea Baldeck
Hardcover: 208 pages
Publisher: Hawkhurst Books
Language: English
ISBN: 978-0-9748304-6-9
Dimensions: 10.25 x 6.2 x .1.125 inches

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Canto 13

We still have not explored the Biennale, nor been
to the Accademia. Occasionally, when a church door
opens on a dark interior we have never seen,
we step in and stumble through unknown passages.
Even with a coin and a small light a huge canvas
behind the altar seems huge, the Virgin embarrassed.
My eyes water, my vision blurs, the back of my neck
aches to tilt and look at faces with which we're familiar:
like the old man who cleans windows in the neighborhood,
who shaves once a week, puts on a blue jacket
and disappears for the afternoon, and reappears at dusk,
with a deck of cards and a glass of red wine for a chat
with the mirrormaker in the back corner of the local;
or the small woman who slowly makes her way
up the alley, with a cane, toward the campo
and light for a table of tea with friends; she always
pauses to drop us greetings through the falling dusk.

Perhaps it's the perfect weather we've had, cool sun
every day and a clarity of air like fine-blown glass,
unmatched by any stretch of canvas or stained plaster;
perhaps it's the absence of crowds in the neighborhoods
we frequent or too much wine at lunch or the need
to walk off pasta and prosciutto. Perhaps I've seen
too many square meters of Tintorettos. At any rate,
I can't see sky from galleries of museums or churches;
but I can see it from here, from this table (a new one,
for we threw the old monster out); and we're so low
we see not only the sky but the slant of water,
red cushions in gondolas, great bombas of wine
being carried into the party palace across the street—
the only place in the world where I can imagine
living on a Main Street of water with all its traffic.

Andrea has finished practicing; the mirror maker
has just called to say that two more mirrors are ready,
and we need two peaches for breakfast; so I will change,
stretch kinks from my back, and out we'll go
to confront a world I've never really understood,
in a language I never will fully understand,

except for the feel of its passion. But then I was always
a solitary creature, scuttling down narrow alleys,
keeping close to the wall, stopping only to whisper
to cats who linger in crevices of crumbling walls
and wait and watch and occasionally demand attention.
My daughter wanted mystery, some long poem,
she said, that must have a garden full of gods,
devils we have feared, and, yes, she said, a cat
might do, if not alone, for demons are never alone.

Canto 46

As we head to bed, even if it is only something
after ten, I have to describe one more adventure.
You heard, earlier, of my resolve not to go out
and I didn't; but the outside came in. Andrea went
and got greens and then went to work at the computer.
At seven-thirty, I went to the piano and started Chopin
between sips of vodka; until, suddenly, a little after eight,
trumpets sounded from across the canal at the party palace,
and I ran to the windows and threw them open.
The same trumpeters as from the morning, now augmented
to six, still in red tights, are on the balcony as, below them,
30 or 40 gondolas begin to arrive. Eight people in each
gondola; every person, male or female, in a black cape
and golden mask. Commedia dell'arte performers welcome them
to the landing stage. I squirm with pleasure.

Suddenly, from the left, a flotilla of some 15 gondolas
with German tourists and tenors pass the mass of gondolas
with their wings of black capes. Then from the right,
the siren of an ambulance boat, and the boat, speeding
through the waters, throws great waves, comes straight
at the gondolas, which pull desperately to each side
of the canal. We're jumping up and down. I spill
my vodka. Andrea runs to get her biggest lens;
it's light enough to shoot, and I forget I'm not dressed.

The ambulance barely slows; the gondolas bounce;
the tourists shriek; the guests for the party palace pull
their black capes closer; the trumpeters keep blasting away;
the ambulance siren is wailing; the waves are splashing
against our walls, against all the walls. But the ambulance
passes, waves simmer down to a chosen few, tourists
disappear up toward the Rialto Bridge, and guests
continue to land across the canal. Of course, in black.

Damn, what a show. And we didn't have to go
anywhere to watch it. So now we're headed to bed,
though who knows what other adventures may yet take place;
perhaps the ghostly wanderer is back under the window;
for only recently I woke to hear a whispered song,
not the song of a gondolier either on key or off.

Canto 62

Saturday night it rained like the flood was coming;
but by noon on Sunday it was bright and warm
as we ate, on the terrace at the Monaco,
tiny shrimp on a bed of polenta, followed by l'orato,
the two sides of a whole fish with scales made
of mashed potatoes and served on a bright green bed
of asparagus sauce, and a splendid dry white
followed by a jar made of mint ice cream filled
with warm, molten chocolate. When the spoon broke
through the frozen mint, the chocolate flowed like lava.
All three of us got a little sun scorched and a bit tipsy.

Sunday late it rained like another flood was on the way.
Oh well, we said, it became beautiful yesterday;
so we went out wrapped up; but soon, on the terrace
at the Guggenheim, it was bright and warm; and we had
thin slices of dried raw beef served over a plate of greens
and under a scattering of parmesan, this light white
followed by tiny drops of roasted chocolate
among cookies. It was still warm when the sun
slid behind chimney pots and air chilled, but not before,
for the first time this late in the afternoon, a window
was open and bells, ringing from all over Venice,
filled the rooms. Veronica kept saying, "I don't believe it."
But then neither do I: it's just there, for us or you.

Was it yesterday we talked? We had walked for hours,
before and after lunch; and by late afternoon, my feet hurt
and I was in a daze. But I recovered and at eight we went out
to the Bacareto, our local, the one just out the back door,
and had potato gnocci that one can push against the roof
of the mouth as it disintegrates into soft flavors.
We justified our indulgences by discussing the shape
of Andrea's Venice book and stumbled home at ten
to fall into bed almost immediately with unread books.

Today we walk up and through the Rialto, where there
is no new news, sniff at piles of quivering fish,
and then go to alla Madonna for great plates of steamed
veggies with nothing but olive oil and pepper, followed

by grilled Adriatic sea creatures, followed by lemon ice
and chocolate cake. Tonight we are to dine
with an American-British journalist, living here now,
writing a book on Venice, already contracted for,
and her guest, the woman who did the biography
of Zelda a few years ago. Only the wine can I be sure of,
a Brunello, since I'll take it; but we can almost bet
on having quail eggs with prosecco.

Tomorrow we may look at a few paintings by Veronese,
though I hope to stay in for a half day. In the evening
we go for drinks at Palazzo Barbaro, where the piano nobile
is now owned by a motorcycle king, where Henry James
wrote and Sargent painted and film makers film.
The gradually de-blooded American family who bought it
in the 1850s now have only the attics, but Henry wrote
in those rather elegant attics. Thursday is Murano,
Burano, and Torcello by private boat, with something
to eat worth describing, I'd bet, at al Ponte del Diavolo.

It is so good to be able to talk. Now I can just play
with words and try, in part, to give some picture of how
this small part of our life is passed through on the way
somewhere, and send you love and cheers, with a burp or two.

Well, I was just about to turn away from this canto,
to concentrate on an afternoon when the sky began
to close with Veronese colors streaking toward infinity
and echoes of gondolieri singing slightly off key,
fading as we sit in a window on the canal
and sip prosecco and rejoice, in murmurs,
at this fantastic substitute for television, and hear,
suddenly, the clear tones of choral music and the voice
of an American soprano, whom we do not know
except as the soprano who lives just across from us,
whose voice, on many afternoons, chases scales up
as Andrea chases them down on her flute;
and gondolieri who pole traghetti back and forth
call "Basta, basta!" because they want a melody,
not preparations for something not yet heard.

Cover of With the SelfWITH THE SELF (2009)

Poems by William Hollis
with photographs by Andrea Baldeck
Hardcover: 118 pages
Publisher: Hawkhurst Books
Language: English
ISBN: 978-0-9748304-4-5
Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.2 x .75 inches
(Boxed set: includes WITH OTHERS)

View photos from this volume.


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ONE LAST SONG

What little trace I leave.
I look back down the sand
and see the sea has left
no evidence except
a bone that's washed aside.

I thought I'd left a scent
on a path across the dune,
but winds blew through and left
unstable slopes to nowhere,
where no one comes to stay.

Is this what death is all
about, this eagerness
to pull words together,
to find a verbal music
in one last song to sing?

A snake will scar the sand
and then a wind and wave
will leave the headland bare
and even these bones will blanch
in the sun and wash away.

VERBAL OBSESSION

Words are like the tools we use to clean a house,
or fail to use and let a house disintegrate
and let the dust obscure reflections on a wall,
a sudden glitter of light that reminds us of stars.

These words are often pushed into closets, forgotten,
seldom opened, until obsessions pull them out
and push around a mop or broom and leave the room
with comfort of a well-used word, a rhythmic dusting.

There's nothing good or bad about a group of words;
it's how they're used to reach the dark cavities
of the room where geckos leave neat little piles of shit.
It's what we've got left to clean away the trash.

We push the words this way or that and leave a path
with sets of rhythmic swipes in a moment of obsession.

—based on Helene's obsessions

DARK ROOM WITH BACH

I wish I'd been there when Bach received a challenge
without a smile, and, returning to his known keys,
turned those notes to a celebration of the heart.
It would have been a challenge to my keyed-up heart
to have stood in a dark corner of that small house
and waited for notes to rise in affirmation,
even as his children cried in another room
and he must have wondered if another would die
as they often did before their fingers could reach
keys where he taught affirmation to those who lived.

No, I'm in another room now without the keys,
with Bach in a book here beside the open door
where birds fly in and make tentative sounds
with a flutter of wings, a call of confusion,
and a windy search for another open door.
Had I been in a room with Bach, I'd not be here,
not now, not after I tried when two hundred years
were all that separated us and I was old
enough to have spent many evenings in dark rooms
listening to keyboards or flutes and pulling music
from shelves to see if I couldn't find my way through
a tangling order of notes to the bursting heart.

Someone gives me a handful of words, perhaps five,
and, a little like Bach I hope, I let them flow
to a form, a rhythm, a dark verbal image,
a burst of light, an echo of a song once heard
on a flooded back ally in Venice, a song
probably in none of the books already made,
a song from an old man whose days were now numbered,
winding down, dropping tone by tone with harsh regrets
until there came a moment when last unheard notes
splashed and disappeared and only silence lingered.
I hope, in whatever strange form I've found myself,
that there's a rising of light, a moment when Bach,
in the deep solemnity of his time, might pause
and place his hands on these words and turn them over.


Cover of With OthersWITH OTHERS (2009)

Poems by William Hollis
with photographs by Andrea Baldeck
Hardcover: 122 pages
Publisher: Hawkhurst Books
Language: English
ISBN: 978-0-9748304-5-2
Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.2 x .75 inches
(Boxed set: includes WITH THE SELF)

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24

I'm the old one now, pulling these words
to piles that clutter notebooks and the bright
screen of my computer, to finally end
in a vague sonnet form, printed and passed
to you, in hopes that you will see a song,
a set of songs, a painting, a small structure
that grows out of the ordinary to say
there's nothing ordinary in the way they live,
in tears and laughter they've only hinted at,
in stories I can only imagine, as I have here,
in life they've let me glimpse at a busy counter,
when winter storms beat at a rattling window
and they share a hug with a mug of hot coffee
and let me see reflections of their world.

MEMORY PAINTINGS

Are memories really sad?
Or do they simply exist
as paintings in a gallery,
to be looked at and enjoyed
until lights are turned off?

They'll still exist, if forgotten,
with other memories,
waiting until someone
gets around to turning on lights
again, even if briefly.

Perhaps a poem or a letter,
a story, even a Bach
partita, is that — without life
until re-seen or heard
or touched with a hesitant finger.

There's a small cluster of us
in this rattling world who can
be sad or happy, eager
or disappointed, as we gather
piles of memories of encounters.

Yes, memories are drawings
or lines of verse packed
away in a protected drawer,
in a night dark and beautiful,
full of fright and exhilaration.

SONNET FOR PALAZZO BARBARO

It is there that steps go up,
sharply up and turning,
and afterwards come down, turning
in the opposite direction,
stones worn almost to a trough
where thousands of feet
have worn a way for hundreds of years
up and down a daily routine;

and we are there for an afternoon
of cheap wine and compliments
and a stroll through the library
where Henry James wrote,
though now, the owner sighs, the Tiepolo ceiling
is shattered
like so much else in the fall of what lies beyond
a rising of the stair;

in an exhaustive turning through the afternoon
talk scatters dust
of upper rooms where copies of paintings
by famous painters
make the family look discouragingly proper
and rather sad
as if exhausted by a century of climbing
up and down the turning stair,

little by little carving an apartment
from one floor or another,
each time having to climb higher among rafters,
to a last small window of light.


Gathering of Wanderers coverGATHERING OF WANDERERS (2008)

Poems by William Hollis,
with photographs by Andrea Baldeck
Hardcover: 144 pages
Publisher: Hawkhurst Books
Language: English
ISBN: 978-0-9748304-3-8
Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.2 x .75 inches

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GATHERING STORMS

My memory is full of islands and those
who wander and come to rest, for a while at rest,
here where a sea rolls in, around and on
to somewhere else where others wander

or come to rest, for a short while at rest
until these tides build up and winds blow in
and we gather in the harbor, waiting for something,
waiting for what we are not sure could be,

a party at the bar, a tide that rises faster
or winds that rise with echoes of other worlds,
laughter washed with tears, a falling palm,
one less to age and fall across the dock

as we gather close to tell tales breathlessly
like approaching storms and the wanderers we are.

LIPS THIN AND BLUE

For years, with lips thin and blue, she brought
our coffee, decaf and black, without asking,
pulled a sweater close and tried to smile,
sometimes eager to exchange a hug, sometimes
not even aware, after shoving mugs and turning,
that we were still there, still in need of omelets,
as if she feared we might see the bruised eye,
a chilled drip of sweat at the neck of her sweater.

We were told she had a boyfriend, one of the cooks
who scowled over hot splashes of oil, whose face
would appear at a serving window with a curt number;
and occasionally she mentioned grandchildren, one or two,
though she turned to another customer if asked how many.
She’d worked for the boss for thirty years, she said,
in a diner here or there, in small towns that shrank
and now on a highway where traffic heads away.

I asked if she too wanted to take off in another
direction, to get away; but she only frowned
and turned and told one of the boys to bring a tray
of mugs and make sure that they were clean.
And then this morning she seems to be waiting for us;
the coffee is poured, with extra napkins and water.
At first we don’t notice, a moment of hesitation,
at which she flinches, until suddenly we see.

She’s done her hair, short and neat, and no sweater;
she waits while we look and express surprise
and pleasure; and then she comes and gives us hugs;
and for a moment I think, I really think, she’ll burst
with a story, something about her boyfriend, her family,
her leaving town; but all she does is hug us
and giggle and tell us she isn’t on the counter;
and so we finish breakfast, puzzled, but with pleasure.

RIDING A SILVER CAR

He rides a silver car as if it is a horse
and pauses while cresting a hill to wonder
if there could be one more adventure left,
another city, another girl to love,
to photograph, to imagine anything
might be, might lead him from a mourning stall
and set him on a trail away from heartache.

We never know what story he may have
on brief returns, a tale that differs daily,
a passionate involvement with a model
who’s lost her way, a titled friend driven
by family quarrels, an exhibition in a gallery
where hunger is the motif of the owner
and circling wagons circumvent attack.

We call each other with excited whispers,
“Have you heard he’s driven back to town?
Have you seen him yet? Will he come for lunch?
What happened to the girl with whom he swam,
he said, before they crossed the mountains?”
We’re the ones with the curious twist
that envies him as he rides into the night.

Lilith & The Blues book coverLILITH & THE BLUES
(2008)

Poems by William Hollis,
with photographs by Andrea Baldeck
Hardcover: 124 pages
Publisher: Hawkhurst Books
Language: English
ISBN: 978-0-9748304-2-1
Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.2 x .75 inches

View photos from this volume.

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MOMENTS WITH LILITH

1.

She’s there as I fall asleep in a chair
and my book falls shut and slips to the floor
with a slam, and I wake and call out, perhaps
with her name or with a moan of sorrow
or touch of laughter; but no one’s there,
not even the inevitable she
I always thought would be close enough
to hear and respond with an owl’s voice.

I’m caught somewhere between a cry
and a laugh, in the moment it takes to catch
my breath, in the moment it takes
to remember the book that slid away,
a moment to find that the sun is bright
and gold and falling beyond the window.

 

2.

I rise to open the door, but no door is there;
I reach to catch the door, but there isn’t any door.
My hand abruptly closes on itself,
fingers against palm, with no weight of the door,
no holding back night or opening to light,
just a sudden shift of a world that jars me awake,
a sudden shift of dreams I’d almost had
that might have shown me what the answer is.

I reach to pull the door, but no door is there;
there isn’t any door and my hand closes,
my fingers bite the palm and I wake
and wonder what it’s all about, this life,
this moving in and out a door that may
be only a figment of the imagination.

 

3.

No? What is there to explain? I can only describe:
There is somewhere out there, in vast plains of space,
a group of identical women, all of whom look
like someone sculpted by a favorite, aging artist.
They all look down and around and fail to focus
until I come and stand very still just in front of one;
and if I’m not careful, she’ll suddenly look up,
catch my eye, and hold hard to the twist of the moment.

If I should have to say something else, I’d simply say
that perhaps as we wander through inner freedoms,
we’ll meet one of those wonderful figures,
and then go off in a different direction,
up and down another set of stars, out there,
somewhere out there, a long way away.

 

4.

What’s her voice? What’s the tone, the accent,
the burr in the voice I hear when I hear her voice —
Katie’s voice, from the east coast of England,
elegant and touched by waves of the North Sea;
or the edgy, sharp and brittle voice of Debra,
twisted to pain by the Russian/Jewish diaspora,
a voice schooled in the Bronx with a decade in Tuscany?

If fathers of the tribe threw her out of Isaiah,
whether in elegant tones of King James or flat
earnest drawls of the Great Plains in an account
that makes sense in a dull, conditional way,
what am I supposed to hear when I hear owls
full of painful warnings and a cave of dragons
that whir an uproar of curses across the night?

 

5.

We let her fall until the wind
has caught her wings and brought her round,
and she settles on a sandy knoll,
a moment’s rest, a time for us
to turn away and breathe relief.

Is she there long enough to wander
the palace Isaiah knew, out there
where dunes move slowly across earth
and horizons change and inevitably
the path drops into a crevasse?

Is it her ghost we hear now,
the lingering echo of her power?
We let her fall, but still she’s here;
such power isn’t so easily dropped.

 

6.

Distant cousins board their windows against Lilith
and if I didn’t make something of that, she’d know
that I was ill.
She knows I watched for hurricanes
when I was young, saw the force that pulled a tree
and thrust it through a neighbor’s window; and all hell
broke loose; and all dogs barked and police arrived;
and I jumped up and down on the sofa by the window
so hard I peed in my pants to see what a force of awe
a temper like that might unleash.
The scream of wind
as it folds a garbage can around a grapefruit tree
is nothing compared to the voice that brings a curse
from god and wraps it all around a careless poet.

So here’s to the namer of storms who remembers
the force of that woman when he wakes at night.

 

7.

I often awake to a sound of many bells
that, for a moment, I think are echoes of
her voice, bells that call from towers beyond
the woods, across fields where owls still hunt,
bells that call the hour in cities we know,
knowing the names of bells that mark the hour,
and not knowing, until recently, that she
will speak in tones of bells that wake us
in the night, in moments when I wake to hear
her voice, the pull of her voice, an ache she knows,
a cry she utters when lingering sun
goes down and she is left to fly among
towers, ringing bells and calling us
to remember her, to remember her voice.

 

8.

She carries a serpent in her arms
and strokes its head and holds it out
for us to see, a show and tell
that leaves the class confused and scared.
She’s the only one like that,
beautiful and full of pain,
unwilling to play the game and fraught
with something the others never know.

I try to talk with her and feel
we might have a song to share,
might understand the pain
that pulls us from an empty dance;
but then one day she isn’t there,
not even her name is called in class.

 

9.

I see her at the stove when I know
she should be flying with her owls.
Perhaps she’ll look hard at the pot
and the dish will be ready to serve.
I wonder if Lilith stands at the stove
and stirs the broth of a chicken,
watching a bit of her own blood
enrich the pot and give it life.

I wonder if she sings for children,
sings in a low voice, hoarse
and edged with tears. Is it she
I wake at night and hear call,
in a voice that calls for me to rise, to come
and accept the hugs of what will be?

 

10.

The triple barking of Cerberus is still,
relentless wrappings of moon and stars
spin out to give sleep to the night.
Owls of Lilith settle and wait to see
what might come from fog that swirls at sea.

No child should wander on a night like this;
doors and windows should be closed and locked,
candles lit, and someone should play the flute,
play loudly as darkness pulls us close.
We should sing despite a heavy fog.

Heavy winds come, owls begin to cry,
candles flicker as winds rattle the window;
something sad and beautiful whispers
of failing growth in a garden’s last breath.

 

GETTING IT RIGHT

We never seem to get it right —
there’re some things we never get right.
We push up and down the hills —
more slowly as years accumulate,
more slowly wondering why not even love
forgives us the horror of what’s been done,
of what we’re doing still — a thousand here
ten thousand there, or even one or two.

The one who died because he was black,
the one who hung until he was dead....
“I loved him,” I cry. “It wasn’t I.”
I cry and try to climb another hill.
But it was done. As long as any one can do it
to another, I’ll carry the pain.
We have to carry the pain,
otherwise we’d never get it right.

We can learn to love in spite of it all —
in spite of what others may do,
in spite of what we ourselves could do
if we’d not been taught to love
by Minnie who held us in her arms to teach us love
and Kitty who folded us into one family;
and yet we seem unable to get it right —
some things we just never seem to get right.

 

AT THE EXXON

I forgot to mention a poem that happened at the local
Exxon, yesterday, when poems happened at every turn,
and it felt as if I were in a movie, though, actually,
the prelude or preface, or whatever it might be titled,
happened the night before when Deming called after 10
to read her story, her letter, or whatever it was.

I listened, heard and felt it with total attention, as usual,
though it was late for a phone call — but that’s Deming,
who depends on my total attention and immersion,
for that’s how I am — and she tells a wonderful story
about getting lost, trying to visit someone
in the suburban confusion of our neighborhood.

It was a letter, or it was a story, actually two in one;
and I felt only two jarring words in the five pages
she read — but visualized a different form
with each sentence, each thought a separate line,
as someone might do a poem; but she disagreed,
and I, for that’s how I am, didn’t press my view.

The main thing is, it’s a cliff-hanger, it really is,
all the way through, my story, and beautiful too,
that I’ll call ‘At The Exxon’ or something that will hint
at complexities of life this far out of town
where many of us have spent much of life getting lost
and trying to find ourselves once again, as you know.

That’s why I needed to wake up this morning
and turn that call from Deming into a poem or story,
even though a meddling fool to whom I told the story
took my perfectly good account and like some editor
turned it into a poem, though I’m quite happy to say
he doesn’t know what really happened at the Exxon.

(found in a letter from Helene)

Poem Chanting Tower coverPOEM-CHANTING TOWER
A Tribute to Xue Tao
(2007)

Poems by William Hollis
Hardcover: 104 pages
Publisher: Hawkhurst Books
Language: English
ISBN: 0-9748304-1-0
Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.2 x .75 inches


Author's Note:
‘Poem-Chanting Tower’ was the name of the house that Xue Tao, courtesan and poet, built at her retirement in 810 a.d. on the banks of the Brocade River, just a few hundred yards downriver from the house of Tu Fu, China’s most famous poet.

The poems in this volume gathered words slowly over a quarter of a century even as they looked back to Xue Tao’s 9th century or to my years in Vermont or to more recent years when I decided to encounter more vividly an ancient world where I wake at night and find myself.

 

POEM-CHANTING TOWER
A Presentation for Xue Tao

1

I can not imagine the years
when generals sat smiling at your song
or scholars came a great distance
to ask a favor

years later
when it was no longer necessary
for you to rise in the middle of the night
to comfort an official
dropped by the latest turn of government
I stood watching
from the shadow of an arbor
as you sat in the sun
and brushed poems
on slips of bright paper

and I was there
when young poets brought scrolls
with small perfect poems
though I was not among the pretty ones
who played golden lutes
but a gray one
with breath too short to finish a line

when you came close and listened
the very air trembled
and lilies burst open
with a shudder
and flooded the garden with perfume
as rich and haunting as the musk
in the scarf you wound about my shoulders

I keep it still
in a box with these poems
that were for you

when all the world was a landscape
fading from the scroll that hung in a corner
lit only by the turning of the stars

 

2

after the emissaries had left
tall strangers
with red hair
who came from beyond the mountains
to see for themselves
a woman who had brushed more eloquently
than any man

after they had mounted their horses
amid a clatter of drums
and the shrill sounding of flutes
and there was again silence in the courtyard
and dust settled
and birds sang again in the garden

after such tribute
after such a stir on the banks of the river
how can you see these inadequate words
that leave a slight trail of ink
as the brush lifts
and moves on

how can you hear the suppressed song
that centers time
on this white expanse
how can you know what I feel
as I wait here
at the end of the corridor
where morning sun
bright across the sheen of this paper
pushes back at my brush

 

3

I do not remember when it happened
a time of illness
a time when all friends seemed distant
seemed to have sailed away
and there in the mountains beyond the river
there was the silence of my own breath

was it a dream
or did you come to me in the night
slipping into that chilled room
like silver moonlight
falling through a window

and did you unwrap the scarves from your hair
and let fall that hair
and let fall the robes
that I have only seen since
in dusty cases that line the corridor

I felt the touch of your hand
a small hand
that had stained letters
with a brushed eloquence
and I lifted myself to hear your voice
and the voice of the golden crane
but the only sound was the echo of your steps
falling away into the past

 

4

for a moment I fight for breath
fight to remind myself
that it has been a thousand years
that I am alone in a room without light
that you are somewhere else
a part of memory
a part of some tattered painting
never seen
only imagined as I write this
pretending / wishing to be there
in the Poem-Chanting Tower
on the banks of the Brocade River
where willows make lace of the afternoon sun
and small bright birds
fly in at the open window
as you hold a hand to your mouth and laugh
at the letters that have just arrived
from an old poet

EIGHT FAMOUS DRINKERS

Tu Fu wrote the original poem
or copied one that was known
long before I moved to the Ompompanusic River
where Ned and I chilled bottles of wine in shallows
while arguing about what music
should drift from the shack
to make cheap wine taste better

the first to arrive for an afternoon party
was always John Chang
sitting on an old farm horse as if riding a boat
eyes glazed and rolling
with those banal poems he liked to chant
until he would stumble into the shallow well
and sleep there until dinner

then Joe Yang wandered about bragging
of the three gallons he needed before going to court
and broke out salivating
at the memory of a cart-load of wine-yeast
he had seen on the road
and regretted that he had never been transferred
to a post in the wine country

meanwhile Tom Hanks staggered about
drinking like a whale swallowing a hundred streams at once
to support his happiness
bragging that he had spent all his inheritance
ten thousand a day
and now loves only the wise
and can do without the worthy

everyone stopped for a moment to watch the Hugh boy
join us on the river
a handsome free and easy kid
weaving a bit
who lifted his cup and gazed at blue skies
with the whites of his eyes
and sparkled like a jade tree facing a brisk wind

in real contrast Surry Chin walked about
with great solemnity and bowed to each of us
before he set up an embroidered Buddha
in front of whom he fasted
in spite of gay music that drifted about
for once he’s drunk
he loves just to sit and meditate

then Lee Poe
who after a single drink will write a hundred poems
and fall asleep in a wine shop down river
arrived late with an excuse
that heavenly voices had summoned him
since he was as we should know
an immortal of the wine

Chuck Sue after drinking three cups
showed his work as master of cursive calligraphy
wielding his brush across paper
like mist or clouds that drift
until with enthusiasm he threw off his cap
and exposed his bald pate
right in front of all of us

finally Joe Shoer
after an hour of silence
and five dippers of our best cheap wine
came to life and stumbled upright
and with a noble discourse and earthy lecture
startled us all into laughter
with words only famous drinkers can inspire

 

            (based on a poem by Tu Fu)

IN THE STUDIO

among debris and dust
the shriveled gloves her mother wore
a box of yellow teeth
glittering virgins from a sunnier place
and scrawled quotations from a favored poet
she piles the heads her fingers make
her heart has seen
her nightmares give

she smiles and smiles
and piles the bones about the heads
with teeth her uncle left
with dreams and angry tears
with all those withered faces
grimaced in glass
with memories reflected from the case
with footsteps dying down the corridor

she piles the heads
beside a photograph her daughter sent
and smiles at a fist of clay
and lets her fingers push at eyes
‘you can not see behind their dusty glass
you only see your dusty face’
it all begins and ends among debris
among the boxes full of time and tears


Dark Encounter in Mid Air coverDARK ENCOUNTER IN MID AIR (2006)

Poems by William Hollis,
with photographs by Andrea Baldeck
Hardcover: 340 pages
Publisher: University Press of Florida (July 2004)
Language: English
ISBN: 0974830402
Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.2 x 1.0 inches

 

 


THIRTEEN BY THIRTEEN BY THIRTEEN

5.

I have heard the cello of Bach fill the noisy streets
or a chapel where dirt floors absorbed the vibrations
and nothing but the sound disturbed the late afternoon;
and one night, Yo-Yo Ma borrowed a student’s cello,
casually tuned, and played with such a perfection
that waiters paused and kept the hard dishes from rattling.

And afterwards, the student seemed so afraid to play
his own instrument that he sat through Mozart, staring
beyond the maze of that large room, unable to move
his arms in the embrace that gives life to such music.
I have heard deep in the voice of Bach’s cello something
I have never understood, some movement toward a place
I shall never know where all languages become one.

TIPPERARY

I used to sing ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’;
but that’s a long time ago, back where shadows fall
and echoes reverberate through lagoons and hills
that rise higher and higher toward the setting sun,
against hills of cloud that change as colors change,
oranges and reds and purples that roll to black.

With a smell of swamp rising at the falling of dark,
with cicadas creating their own crescendo,
and a grunt of frogs, an echoing bay of gators,
and a rumbling fall of the sea, the waters spread
with an iridescence across sand, the last light
breaks into a thousand shards of memory.

It’s a long way from where I’ve been to here,
and the memories accumulate like dreams
in the echoing spaces of night, like gators
and frogs and the beat of something more distant,
an ominous rumbling from out there, beyond
the fireflies, beyond phosphorescence in the surf.

It’s a long way for a little kid who cried
and laughed and didn’t know he wasn’t supposed
to live, and did and finally learns to laugh,
but not to cry except when storm clouds clash
above his head and bolts of lightning light the sky
and, damn, but it’s a pretty sight to see.

Oh, how I love to watch the sunlight come
across the face of someone I hardly know,
one who tries to hide behind a floppy hat,
a modulated voice, manners determined by
a job, a hurt, a frantic measure of reserve --
until it’s there, breaking from the edge of a cloud.

I’ve never known just where it is, where was,
the place we sang about when I was 12.
No one could tell me, no one tried;
it was just a song to bring us all together,
like the Yellow Brick Road that made me laugh,
the empty places in the prayers they said in church.

It’s Tipperary, wherever that may be,
it’s what we sang about with voices thin, off key,
a long time before I remembered what I’ve found
to fill my heart and poems; and now we’re there,
the path leads down to the sea, once again to the sea
and sounds that rise in the night with urgency.

HANDS
Series One

1.

The hands I’ve come to know,
the hands that touch the keys,
that touch the flesh, the hands
held up against the light
translucent like the moon,
like hands that clutch at books,
at pens that drag the words
across the page, that hit
the keys and mar the screen,
these hands grow stiff with time
and clutch a heavy rose;
now scarred by sharp thorns,
they hesitate and waver,
still gentle though impatient.

2.

The hand of a child will reach
for the brightness of a fire,
will reach to touch a flame
that dances against the night;
the hand of a child must touch
a flame that spits and sputters;
the hand of a child withdraws
with sudden pain, a clutch,
surprised by something new,
so lovely in the air
so painful in the hand
that only tears will cool,
like ice, a burn on the hand
and scars on memory.

4.

She held a glass of wine
as pale as her slender hand,
caressing each of her words
as if it were a lover
who spoke of a distant past
so gently one had to strain
to hear and almost touch
the other hand that lay
so still upon the table
it might have been a flower
sent by an old admirer
who sat across the room,
waiting to see if this hand
would suddenly withdraw.

5.

As the hand slips down the body
and touches unseen places,
it moves like light and wind
across a rising hill
and slips to the near edge
and pauses, briefly poised,
before it slips the field
and sweeps down to the river,
a hawk on downdraft sweeping
that caws in pleasure, pauses,
lifted by the wind,
a hand, deciding which key,
hesitates and stirs
and suddenly descends.

6.

His hand descended slowly
with globs of paint on brushes,
a green that ran and splattered,
leaving fingers like canvas
or like another brush
that dipped and pulled the paint
across an earlier brown
of a landscape that never was
from a touch some force had made
before the hand was lifted
to say, 'It’s done at last;
they’re on their own;' and now
the hand has paused and rested
and, finished, pulled away.

7.

My mother’s hand went still
in the middle of the day,
went still and limp and cool;
the puffy veins relaxed;
at last her hand accepted
a stillness she had earned
and did not reach for mine
to offer comfort, food,
a touch of encouragement;
it lay upon the bed
and did not seem to wait
for burial or tears;
a hand at rest at last,
as I had rested there.

8.

They’re on a ceiling high
beyond my touch, two hands,
iconic hands, that reach
and fail to touch, withdrawn
in fear or anticipation,
a hand that holds back,
that wants so much to touch
and hold, to come together
up there, so far up there
that as a boy I thought
I had not seen it clearly,
the hands that reach, the distance
of a Roman afternoon
with sweaty awkward hands.

10.

That’s why the hands smear paint,
push images down a page,
while plundering the day
of anything that helps,
a touch of memory,
the flesh that held them close,
those hands like instruments
that labor with a hope
of something more, an echo
for someone else to hear
another time, when we
are nothing more than marks
upon a page, on walls,
reflected in an eye.

12.

A Buddha’s hand, detached,
a piece of bronze broken,
Rodin’s piece of marble,
a hand that reaches up,
that once I thought banal,
the hand of Christ that bleeds,
the one that Arlene made
to fend the lurking world,
the hands we’ve held and loved,
those frail or full of strength,
these are the hands I’ve known,
the hands that I remember
and place upon the page
with the pressure of a hand.

A YOUNG POET’S DUENDE

I.

Young and restless in a way I thought
would surely change as I found my way home,
I wandered through hills of Andalusia,
into caves where, alone in a baggy suit,
unable to speak the language, I sat among
gypsies and waited for something to happen, waited
for more than just the spattering of a foot,
a quick tap on the back of a battered guitar.

“Go there,” a girl had said on the run from somewhere
to somewhere else with a name I never knew,
pulling her hand from any touch I might
have wanted to give.  “Go there,” she said again
as winds blew her across a river and away,
leaving only an hour’s memory, a voice
that still carries an edge of pain I can not imagine.
“Go there,” the voice was saying as I waited.

It was only the tap of a foot at first, the scrape
of a finger on the table, and silence, a lot of silence
that pulled the heart I’d never really known.
I was there in a white-washed room, in a cave,
with a family without smiles, with walls that closed
as suddenly a voice rose from rubble and silence,
rose and filled the room with unbearable pain,
a cry as old as the world, a cry never to end.

But it did, in a splutter unkeyed from the strings
or the heel of a boot striking the stone with a blow,
a shatter of blows, and another voice that edged
all memory of my brief twenty years;
and then a silence that left me blinking, that lingered
forever or for a minute, until a woman in black,
old and heavy, with eyes that seemed not to see,
moved slowly from shadows until she burst the light.

And then a child, an old man, their voices on edge,
guitars blurring the air with crescendos and slaps....
I have no memory how long I held my breath,
how long the rise, how long the silence that followed,
until, quietly, out of that silence, all body, tight
and slender, arched like a bow, a piercing arrow
moved, without moving, moved on the sounds
that burst from the stones, that rose from the dead.

And again I have no memory how long he held
that fire of sound, until his feet exploded,
the room exploded, the voices of old and young
filled the cave, the night, the clear night under stars
that crossed and glittered from pole to pole, echoed
from other caves, with other voices rising in the call
to go there, now, to go there, to be there
in all the painful nights that linger, in all the nights.

II.

In darkness before dawn on the streets of Seville, on corners
by themselves, old ones cried to the dark, a lingering cry
that pulled me to hear, my heart beating from awkward
attempts to dance their dances in a bar crowded with generals
and whores and a pair of Danes much taller than us all.

The dark figures who huddled on corners did not approach;
the time for begging was gone, the dying night was theirs
to lament without dance, with songs unlike any I’d heard,
full of gutturals and tears and even a scream of pain, voices
that broke the aching silence of early dawn and denied the sun.

And every morning, stumbling back to the hotel with too much
to drink, too full of wonder at a world that spun me round
and round with awkward pretentions of what it was to dance
all night in a flannel suit that smelled of sweat and travel,
I’d grow sober on the sounds the gypsies made, and sad.

One morning, returning with an old dancer from London,
who was, I’m told, famous, who had pulled me to the stage
and pushed me beyond whatever it was I didn’t know,
I suddenly wanted to be alone, wanted to slip into shadows
and listen to the harsh flaying of the deep songs at dawn.

No one will see, I thought, as I slid down a crumbling wall
and rested against pillows of stone.  The old ones were silent,
waiting I suppose for some release, until a child approached
with a gesture of acceptance and lifted and led me to the group
where sounds of voices, low and rhythmic, bid me welcome.

I’ve never told the story.  It seems unreal, a drunken dream,
something read in a book left behind in another life.
But there I was among voices I’d come to love and fear,
voices that slowly picked a beat and rose,
one and then another, in a wail beyond all regrets.

I left that day, walking out of the city with a pack
on my back and dreams and memories for a lifetime.
Never again have the voices carried me so far, so high,
never again have I been so at one with a human cry,
never again would I know all it was I could not know.

III.

Sitting in an upper balcony as the lights went dim,
I tried to imagine the caves  of Andalusia, the streets
of Seville, the fire in the foot or the voice; but this
was New York City and a theatre full of the well-dressed.

Guitar players in black arranged themselves in chairs;
clusters of women in bright dresses, perfectly tailored,
swished out and took poses with laughter and gestures;
young men in black tights rippled muscles and strutted.

It had been a full-moon evening; the theatre was warm
and comfortable; and the guitars began, together and apart,
promising, inviting the young women to move and throw
themselves, suddenly, unexpectedly, into harsh flurries of sound.

The young men turned their backs and cracked their boots,
tight assed and arrogant; and someone wailed, her voice
rising in remembrance of what had happened when she,
on another occasion, was young and dressed in red.

There was a pause and we applauded as the dancers shifted
to another round of gestures with perfection. The carefully trained
could do no less; the gifted even pushed to the edge;
the audience expected no less.  And this was what they got.

I drifted, perhaps with too much wine, and felt my heel
lift and fall with a click that brought a hiss from my companion;
I strained to hold still, to be attentive, to forget what pulls,
what still, years later, splits the night with a bitter song.

Harsh songs still wake from sleep with a cry like those
from the streets of Seville. And yet I must admit
it was a beautiful evening, well reviewed in the Times,
though I can’t remember just who the dancers were.