Seaford High, 1963
We were the cheerleaders of Tiger Rose.
At half time Jay, Jimmie, Mikey and me stood up
from the cold bleachers and sang our chant,
“Knock me down and take my clothes
But give me a fifth of Tiger Rose”
People turned around and wondered
what the hell it meant.
A colored man in Concord bought us the bottle
for two dollars, the Spanish lady on the label
in striped leotard, crouching forward, hands
on the ground, finger nails like claws, a flower
in her mouth. Tiger Rose. We drove to
an abandoned farmhouse under trees, the fields
like lakes of cream beneath the fat moon, and we passed
the bottle around, and the wine fiery and sticky
got into my blood, and then the lady climbed right out
of the label, came up to me, and pushed her sweet tits
against my heart, kissed me fiercely, digging her nails
in my back—not at all like it was a year later with
a beautiful girl in Laredo who for two dollars
meekly showed me how to do it.
The cheerleaders of Tiger Rose
stand up for a second round
singing the words of their chant
and the people turn again
wondering what the hell it meant.
The Other Rose
Ausonius bends over
in his Roman garden
to sniff a rose--
a bud breaks open
a flower drops its petals,
beauty ruined in an hour
Old Genius bowing to a Rose,
the Virgin in the hortus conclusus
of a thirteenth-century manuscript
Lorenzo reaches out, plucks
the flower of Ausonius
and adorns the Tuscan tongue
O desire, surfeit
with roses such as these,
contemplate the roses
the rose in Dante’s Paradise
a flower Plotinus knew
the archetypal rose of Plato
the rose I never sent to you
1995 (revised 12/07)
St. Magnus Church
In the great church at Kirkwall on Orkney
where the soft stone of round arches
fades to the color of old blood,
I found the graven monuments
of Vikings, Mariners, and Admirals,
entombed with their Good Wives
whose goodness is inscribed
in words above dire skulls
and bones carved into the stone
and ground down by Time,
worn slabs, their power to admonish
diminished by erosion,
or else increased.
I found the Explorer
lying on a massive tomb, his cold effigy,
smiling in death, a gun at his side.
I found a beautiful book under glass,
a book of names
eight hundred thirty-three names
of men, drowned when their warship
sank in Scapa Flow,
arrayed like bodies in a row on the beach.
And in that book, on the open page,
I found a familiar name,
Among all those sailors and warriors
I found a musician that day
In the great church at Kirkwall on Orkney.
The rancher told me:
My old horse, you know,
didn’t come back one night.
Next day he did.
With cuts all over his ass.
What done that, I wondered.
I look real close
and pull a tooth out of his hide.
Lion, you know, don’t kill
a big horse—they like a colt,
jump on the back,
and ride that colt,
and bite through the neck.
Horse meat is sweet, you know.
After so much mule deer,
a little like Dairy Queen.
No, lion don’t kill a grown horse.
That tooth was from an old cat.
Real worn down.
You can tell lots from a tooth.
A lion’s gotta be desperate,
to jump a horse like that.
Too old, any more, to bring down a deer.
When you’re an old lion losin’ teeth, you think,
well, maybe I can bring down an old horse.
The rancher paused and said:
I kept the tooth.
Then I said to the rancher:
Sometime soon, I think I need
to take a close look at that tooth.
The Latin word ‘human’
derives from humus.
In the Roman view
we are potting soil.
Less true, I thought,
Then Susan taught me
the use of dowsing rods
to find the dead,
our project, the grave
of a baby buried
by settlers in the hills.
Three small rocks lay
beneath a Ponderosa tree.
I, like a somnambulist,
went forward, the rods
in front of me, loosely held
and parallel, and parallel
to earth. I took a step
between the stones. The rods
turned, they crossed. Not
a simple motion.
The exertion of a force
our physics can’t explain.
This baby’s flesh is compost
older than the pine,
a century older than me.
Like the deaf man at the oracle
I ask the ancient child:
Do you move when the rods move?
Webster’s Second, or Life in the Words
What kind of book amazes me the most?
The lexicon, which stores the wordy substance
out of which all other books are made.
It is the massive single-volume wordbook
that I admire--pardon me oh OED--
like Reynolds Italian-English Dictionary
whose back I broke consulting it too much
and lugging it around a decade long
to Dallas, Colorado, Germany,
and Austria, then to the States again.
All this I did for il Magnifico,
to give his Tuscan verse an English voice.
I laud the Oxford-Duden’s German-English,
one thousand six hundred ninety-six pages strong,
four hundred fifty thousand definitions.
Nor do I slight the little lexicons--
Devoto's Italian etymology
or Dudens handy Herkunfts-Wörterbuch--
not to mention Soule's small paperback
of English Synonyms, which I've employed
a hundred times to pick and choose the language
of the lines you've read--or Whitfield's book of rhymes,
which will embarrass future scholars who,
should I someday achieve renown, will find
this well-thumbed Writer’s Crutch among my books
and want to throw it in the nearest dumpster,
lest word get out that Thiem is uninventive,
a dictionary bard without a Muse,
an alphabetic hack who shows more Soule
than soul. Enough. I want to talk about
the lexicon I use the most. The first
edition of the American Heritage,
(they really ought to pay me for this plug),
famous for naughty words and lexical esprit.
See anticlimax, 3, "a sudden descent
from the impressive or significant
to the ludicrous or inconsequential.
An instance . . . 'For God, for country and for Yale.' "
Later editions, alas, delete the quote.
I like the illustrations in the margins--
each nation has a tiny map to show
its place within its region of the globe;
the lilliputian portraits of the great,
their proper names not hid in supplements
but mixed among the ordinary words;
the photograph of Isak Dinesen
(the one by Cecil Beaton) for example,
a chiaroscuro, her dress in gothic black,
the pallid face, skull-like, anorexic--
grotesque as it may seem, you'll find her name
sandwiched between diner and dinette.
Or guess whose name is wedged between the words
deflower and defoliant (Defoe).
This work is full of random poems--always
assonantal, often asinine--
and witty contiguities, such as
the pair of thumb-sized likenesses on page
four hundred forty-six (the third edition),
the first, George Eliot the novelist
(Mary Ann Evans), ugly, smiling, brilliant;
below her, lovely, young and crowned (do note
the swan-like neck) Elizabeth the Second,
the photograph by Tony Armstrong Jones.
But most of all I treasure the appendix
of Proto-Indo-European roots,
found in the back of the First and Third Editions.
They let you trace a word (e.g. pencil--
that dated tool with which your author, who
though thoroughly computer literate,
transcribes the very words you're reading) back
from Middle English, French, and Vulgar Latin
to penicillus, meaning "little tail,"
through to its Indo-European root
in pes, a prehistoric word for prick,
employed some five millennia ago
by cattle herders, peasants, braves, and shamans
who had no lexicons, who could not read,
who knew the use of copper, not of bronze,
who grazed and roamed the central Asian steppe,
whose little hoard of words, primordial
and magical, brought forth the Etymons,
semantic DNA of countless tongues,
of Anglo-Saxon, Urdu, Gaelic, Greek,
Punjabi, Lithuanian, Old Norse,
Russian, Arcadian, Marathi, French,
Bengali, Spanish, Rajasthani, Sanskrit,
Gypsy, Illyrian, Kashmiri, Zend,
and English--lingua franca to the world,
with twice the words of any other tongue
on Earth, the richest in the universe.
How the Rocky Mountains Came to Be
God stood at his bench
like a boy at work
on his first model plane
Out of matter and light
came feather and down.
When done, he spoke
—Bird, fly across
the dome of heaven!
The first bird hopped
from scarred hand
into regions of the Air.
It flew peculiar,
tail on high
head sunk down
laden with sorrows
sorrows of times to come
wings beating too hard
It fell to earth.
God started over,
scraped and gouged
a lighter skull.
Bird Number Two.
Ah, the way he flew,
Then Winter came.
He couldn’t feel
inside his brain
how Sun was in decline,
his skull too thick
for him to sense
that he must fly
to a warmer land.
When Winter came
he froze to death.
God scratched his head,
thought of something
from the Third Day,
and carved a skull
thin as pecan shell.
A new bird boldly
put wing to wind.
She knew when Sun grew dim.
She knew to fly into Light.
and daubed her with Color.
God called her Bluebird.
And for her summer home
he dreamed the Rocky Mountains,
and Love threw open
the arc of his Compass
and Rapture made him weak,
too weak to frame a dwelling place
less reckless, less immense.
Night and the little church
of Saint Symphorian.
Then Time raised his scythe,
shook out his tangled locks,
brought us through another gate.
The wine of dark seas
goes straight to my head.
Out of the twisted harbor
we climb unknown cliffs--
the fallow deer of dusk
slowly browse on globules
of sweet dim light.
Like moist darkness behind
the eyes of a Greek mask
Night seeps through
the cracks of being, and we,
lost in warm breezes,
turn inland to the country,
swaying in fields of barley
that roll under our feet,
the sickle moon of summer
poised to slice through ripeness.
We reach a churchyard gate.
Among the gravestones, you cry
Let them eat my blood!
Spectres, thirsty, thronging,
blue-lipped wreckers, mermaids,
mothers, tin miners,
a baby somersaulting
through the air--raven boys,
their fairy fingers running through
the mazes of your hair.
We walk through the church door,
our life threads winding into
the sweet sharp light
of a single candle.
By the public gate
a slanting Celtic cross,
and the Saint singing
through lips petunia-petal soft
stone. Pearl of great pain.
Of obdurate matter
my kidney’s queen.
Steinreich bist Du
hat mir gesagt
der Kachel Hans
O stone, be not so!
do you not distill
my secret soul?
You force me into self-familiarity,
insist I learn anatomy,
teach me how to give tongue
to tender throb, piercing ache.
You work my breath,
make me feel, not see,
a crystalloidal Thiem
the mineral me.
as a grain of sand
the sleepy oyster
and makes it mime
the iridescence of the sea,
so you, you urolith,
(millimeters three by five,
stuck in some lower duct)
a fine excrescence of me,
this poem, I mean.
Not just catharsis, though.
Oh no. A conjuration.
Poem, work your spell,
and exorcise this scabrous jewel!
O stone, loosen now
your crampy grip,
and swimming in the torrent of my pee
through sewers and rivers and rapids
down to the cataracts that roar
and pour over the World’s edge,
fall over the lip
drop into the
[Insert photo of Jon and Ohene] caption “Jon and ‘Ohene’ taping Kwasi Dum as he recites apaee, Ghana, 1969”
Apaee in Praise of Osei Tutu, King of the Asante
From an oral recitation by Kwasi Dum
Collected and translated from the Asante by Jon Thiem and E.W. Owoahene-Akyeampong
He is the one!
All-powerful Double-edged Sword
who sliced a man in two and flung him in the river
so the water beasts got something to eat.
He is the one!
Mighty Agyetakyi Bird
you loiter at crossroads, your fists ready to strike.
Osei, we say you love war.
You say you do not love war,
but aren’t you the Mighty Agyetakyi Bird
who loiters at crossroads, your fists ready to strike?
Osei Tutu, the spinster ghost says “Thank you.”
He is the one!
You did it, you did it.
You did it, you did it.
You did it, you did it.
You killed Ankama
and his fetish, the Wind.
You killed Why-did-I-come?
You killed I-won’t-serve-you.
You killed The-Elder-who-brought-the-children.
You killed the Elder Tuko.
You are unique.
Oben Mmireku says, “Do not kill me!
I will serve your favorite wife.”
Apaee for Ohene
Ono no. Ono no.
Sasabonsam suman Praako ee!
Sasabonsam suman Praako ee!
Owoahene, whose name we are pounding out on the akwadum drum!
He is the one who taught Kofi Thiem to write apaee.
He is the one who led Kofi Dirty Man to the sacred lake of the Ashantis.
Wo ye sa ye sa. Wo ye sa ye sa.
You did it. You did it.
Ohene, death called at your door and you whispered, “I am not home.”
Ono no. Ono no.
Ohwintimpreko who plucks the ripe and the unripe.
Ahudede Paapariboafo, Bat of the Savanna who skims the river for coconuts.
Kokote Kwaako, Bush Pig of Acherensua who empties the palm wine pot in one gulp.
Black Cobra Siako who will not eat frogs but never goes hungry.
Bird of the Desert Kyenkyeboafo who brings foo foo from the clouds so the women may eat.
Ohene, you bring foo foo from the clouds so the women may eat.
Ono no. Ono no.
Obrofotefo the Interpreter whose speech is like a net.
Ohene, we say you love words.
You say, you do not love words.
But are you not the Obrofotefo
whose speech is like a net?
The ancestor who could not read says thank you.
For E.W. Owoahene-Akyeampong
(translated from the Italian of Lorenzo de’ Medici, 1449-1492)
Fled is the time of year that turned the flowers
Into ripe apples, long since gathered in.
The leaves no longer cleaving to the boughs,
Lie strewn throughout the woods, now much less dense,
And rustle should a hunter pass that way,
A few of whom will sound like many more.
Though the wild beast conceals her wandering tracks,
She cannot cross those brittle leaves unheard.
Among the leafless trees, the verdant laurel
Stands alongside the fragrant Cyprian myrtle,
And firs rise green against the alpine whiteness,
And bend their branches loaded down with snow.
The cypress hides within itself some birds.
The robust pine does battle with the winds,
And lowly junipers keep prickly leaves
Yet spare the hand that plucks them carefully.
On some mild, sunny slope the olive seems
Now white, now green, according to the wind:
So nature in the olive tree sustains
The greenery that fails in other leaves.
Already with much toil the migrant birds
Have led their weary families beyond
The sea, and on the way had shown them Tritons
And Nereids and other prodigies.
The Night, who battled for supremacy
And won, consigns to jail the short-lived Day:
Through cloudless heavens bound by ceaseless flames
She blithely lead the starry wain around.
And Night won’t come until that other golden
Beautiful wain descends beneath the sea.
Menaced by cold Orion’s knife, bright Phoebus
Dares not display to us his splendid face.
Not far behind the blazing wain of Night
Go wakefulness and sharp anxiety,
Then potent sleep—who yet must many times
Be overthrown by these tenacious cares--
And soothing dreams that stealthily beguile
The mind oppressed by great adversities:
Dreaming of health and wealth consoles the one
Who’s sick and destitute when he awakes.
Wretched is he who, stung by sweet desire
That longed-for day has promised to fulfill,
Lies sleepless through the long-enduring night
And ardently awaits for dawn to come!
And though in wakefulness or even sleep
He may exclude sad thoughts and welcome glad,
And though he shuts his eyes to cheat the time,
Yet night will seem to him a hundred years.
Wretched is he who finds himself at sea,
Far from the shore on such an endless night
When wind disrupts his blinded vessel’s course
And the sea shakes and raves with savage roars.
Although invoked by many prayers and vows,
Aurora tarries with her ancient mate.
The sailor watches avidly, and sadly
Reckons, the sluggish steps of tardy Night.
How different, how opposite, the fate
Of happy lovers during winter’s frost,
For whom the nights seem all too bright and brief,
While day drags on too gloomy and too long.
The song birds, clad anew in winter’s plumes
Against the time of ice and bitter cold,
Have laid aside their songs, whose drift, if gay
Or dolorous, I never seem to catch.
And from afar the honking cranes imprint
The skies with lovely, variegated shapes--
The one behind extends its neck to reach
The empty tracks the crane ahead has made.
And once the flock attains the sunny plains,
One bird stand guard, the others rest, asleep.
A thousand kinds of many-colored fowl
Cover the fields and float across the lakes.
And often will the eagle slowly glide
Above the water, menacing the throng:
The cranes rise up as one and drive it hence
Before a blast of loudly beating wings,
But should one crane forsake the feathered flock,
The agile eagle quickly swoops it up:
The victim is deceived if it believes
That it is borne to Jove like Ganymede.
Zephyr has fled to cheerful Cyprian meadows
And dances, leisurely, with Flora there.
Here, Aquilon and Boreas disturb
And agitate the tranquil, golden air.
The babbling stream, made crystalline by ice,
Now lies in rest, all weary and serene.
A hard pellucid wave immures the fish
The same way golden amber holds a fly.
That peak which stops fierce Coro’s wind from harming
The noble flower, grown to honor, wealth
And ruling power in Morello’s lap,
Now wreathes his head , already white, with mist.
Cascading down that haughty head, the hoary
Locks cover up his shoulders. Stiff with ice,
The shaggy beard conceals his hairy chest.
The eyes and nose become a fount, then freeze.
Moist Noto sets upon his head the cloudy
Garland that circles round his lofty temples.
Then alpine Boreas drives the crown away
To leave the ancient head all white and bare.
Noto, on damp malignant wings, brings back
The fog, and clothes the mountain once again.
Laden or light, Morello thus in wrath
Threatens the plain by turns with snow and rain.
The hot and murky Auster takes his leave
Of Ethiopia, and in the salty
Tyrrhenian waves he slakes his thirsty sponges.
Worn out and wrapped in water-bloated clouds,
He barely makes his destined resting place
Before he squeezes both his spongy fists.
To meet the friendly rains, rejoicing streams
Now issue freely from their ancient caves.
Their temples graced with fluvial leaves and weeds,
The rivers render Father Ocean thanks,
And sound in joy their hoarse and twisted horns.
The proud and swollen belly swells the more--
Their wrath, which has been building up for days
Against the frightened banks, now finds a vent.
The frothing stream has breached the hostile dike
And spurns the bounds of ancient riverbeds.
Not by protracted routes or winding paths
That look like serpents’ ample coils do they,
The rivers, make their way to their old sire.
Far, distant rivers let their waves converge,
And each one tells the other, like a friend,
The news and customs of his native land,
And so together, with outlandish voices,
They search, in vain, for their lost estuaries.
When a wide-reaching, swollen stream is forced
Inside a gorge enclosed by mountain flanks,
Its vicious waters, troubled, braking, hiss,
And mixed with mud give off a yellow hue.
Raging against the narrow valley’s rocks,
The torrent tumbles boulder over boulder,
And swirls the foaming waves, and wildly quakes:
The herdsman, peering down secure, yet fears.
Such mournful quakings wrack the wretched earth
Deep down inside her scorched and hollow bowels,
And through her narrow mouth she tosses forth
A fount of flame and steamy smoke whose roar
Appalls the ear, whose sight affrights the eye.
Nearby, Volterra, high and fast, still fears
That sound, and fears her foaming, troubled springs,
And when their smoke is higher, looks for rain.
Likewise distressed, the full ferocious torrent
Rages, and, swollen, mauls the hostile banks,
But once stretched out upon the spacious plain
He barely can be heard and seems content,
Unsure if he descends or flows upstream,
He who made a shore of distant peaks.
Laden with alpine loot, with limbs and trunks,
The victor now draws near the peaceful lake.
The frightened peasant woman barely has
Time to free the creatures from their stall;
She takes her wailing baby in his crib;
Her older daughter follows, shoulders heavy
With heaps of homespun wool and linen cloth;
The other household goods all float about;
The pigs and panic-stricken oxen swim;
Later, the flock of sheep will not be shorn.
One member of the family has retreated
Onto the rooftop of the house, from where
He sees go under all their meager wealth,
Their toil, their hope. So much he fears for his
Own life, he cannot grieve or speak aloud.
Within his heavy breast his heart fears death,
And takes no count of things, however dear:
The greater care thus drives all others out.
The green, familiar banks no longer curb
The happy fish, who have more ample room,
Their just and ancient wish to see new shores,
Somewhat appeased, but not fulfilled. And this
New pleasure leads them gladly forth to see
Great ruins and the wrecks of monuments.
They thrill to see the walls beneath the waves,
Ramparts that even now they dare not trust.
End of Part I of Ambra
To Posidippus of Pela
Your epigrams, delicate as papyrus,
longer lived than marble, where they were etched,
than the great Library where they were kept.
It was no Trojan Horse that helped your work
sneak through the Gate of Fame. It was a corpse.
Your poems, Posidippus, were applied
as wrappings to preserve a mummy’s skin--
the body disappeared, your words survive.
Now, little Poem, go do your part--
carry on the embalmer’s art.