WHAT HE THOUGHT

We were supposed to do a job in Italy
and, full of our feeling for ourselves (our sense
of being Poets from America) we went
from Rome to Fano, met
the Mayor, mulled a couple
matters over. "What does this
'flat drink?' mean?" somebody asked. "What means
'cheap date'?" (Nothing we then said
could lessen that last mystery). Among Italian writers

we could recognize our counterparts: the academic,
the apologist, the arrogant, the amorous,
the brazen and the glib. And there was one administrator
The Conservative), in suit of regulation gray, who
like a good tour guide, with measured pace and
uninflected tone, narrated sights and histories
the hired van hauled us past.
Of all he was most politic--
and least poetic-- so it seemed.
Our last few days in Rome I found
a book of poems this unprepossessing one had written:
it was there in the pensione room (a room he'd recommended)
where it must have been abandoned by
the German visitor (was there a bus of them?) to whom
he had inscribed and dated it a month before. I couldn't
read Italian either, so I put the book
back in the wardrobe's dark. We last Americans

were due to leave
tomorrow. For our parting evening then
our host chose something in a family restaurant,
and there we sat and chatted, sat and chewed, till,
sensible it was our last big chance to be Poetic, make
our mark, one of us asked

"What's poetry?
Is it the fruits and vegetables
and marketplace at Campo dei Fiori

or the statue there?" Because I was
the glib one, I identified the answer
instantly, I didn't have to think-- "The truth
is both, it's both!" I blurted out. But that
was easy. That was easiest
to say. What followed taught me something
about difficulty,

for our underestimated host spoke out
all of a sudden, with a rising passion, and he said:

The statue represents
Giordano Bruno, brought
to be burned in the public square
because of his offence against authority, which was to say
the Church. His crime was his belief
the universe does not revolve around
the human being: God is no
fixed point or central government
but rather is poured in waves, through
all things: all things
move. "If God is not the soul itself,
he is the soul OF THE SOUL of the world." Such was
his heresy. The day they brought him forth to die

they feared he might incite the crowd (the man
was famous for his eloquence). And so his captors
placed upon his face
an iron mask
in which he could not speak.

That is how they burned him.
That is how he died,
without a word,
in front of everyone. And poetry--

(we'd all put down our forks by now, to listen to
the man in gray; he went on softly)-- poetry

is what he thought, but did not say.


"What He Thought" is the first poem in Heather McHugh's collection of new and selected poems Hinge & Sign: Poems 1968 - 1993, published by Wesleyan/UPNE, 1994. Book Orders: 1-800-421-1561.

Here's a short poem addressed to God or man (ah, the lower case)-- or both, perhaps, as in so much of Dickinson. (In saying so I mean no presumption: she's the cat's meow, the bee's knees... I have a kneeler's feeler, at best...):

FAST

If he's the rock, then I'm the water.
If he's the water, I'm the wind.
If he's the wind, I must be moonshine

driven in wavelengths to rock.

The three poems that follow--two dark and one light--are to be found in a new collection, UPGRADED TO SERIOUS, simultaneously released in the US (Copper Canyon Press) and Canada (House of Anansi) in September 2009.

FASTENER

One as is as another as.
One with is with another with, and one

against's against all others. Of the ofs on earth
just one alone is chosen. So the man

can't help his fastening on many
(since the likes of him like

look-alikes)... When the star-shower crosses
the carnival sky, then the blues of the crowd try to

glisten, to match it; and two who work late
in the butcher-house touch, reaching

just the same moment
for glue and for hatchet.

NOT TO BE DWELLED ON

Self-interest must have cropped up even there,
the day I hoisted three instead of
the normally-called-for two
spadefuls of loam onto

the coffin of my friend.

Why shovel more than anybody else?
What did I think I'd prove? More love
(mud in her eye)? More will to work
(her father what, a shirker?) Christ, what arm or leg

would I not give, to get
that gesture back. She cannot
die again; and I do nothing but relive.

DOMESTIQUE

Surfaces to scrape or wipe,
a screwdriver to be applied
to slime-encrusted soles, and then

there are the spattered hallways, wadded bedding--
and, in quantities astounding (in the corners,
under furniture, behind the curtains)

fluff and dander spread by curs
the breeder called non-shedding...
It's a dog's life I myself must lead,

day in, day out--with never a Sunday edition--
while they lie around on their couches like poets,
and ponder the human condition.