In Defense of Poetry

Two Poems by Phillis Levin


Chalk and Ash

Mix me a mixture of chalk and ash, I said
          To the one who stole into my sleeping room.
If you can enter without a knock or cry,
          Then I have the right to demand
A token of your presence, some sign.

Why do you want what all will become one day?
          When death cleans the slate and levels the land,
Turning the world to chalk and ash,
          Never will darkness again meet light,
Never will light show the work of the hand.

Then make me a whistle of chalk and play
          Notes that carry my hope past all regret,
Build me a raft of ash
          And blow it across
Seas of endless blue and endless loss.

There is no song in chalk,
          No sail in ash.
But with your blood I'll mix the chalk into clay,
          And with your breath I'll make the ashes dance
Into the forms that take your breath away.

My mouth is ash, my body chalk, and I
          Have come this night to leave you what I am:
Thirst and hunger for things you want to know,
          Chalk and ashes for things you have to say.
You shall taste chalk and ash every day.

Springtime Soliloquy

"The way madness lies,"
The reasonable bird cries.
But what if the reasonable
Bird is mad? Made in heaven
We are not. Unbearable
Origins bear us up.
Another suicide
Or accident of birth
Shakes the hourglass.
April's tree outlines
The bare necessity
Of rooting oneself
Before straining
Upward. Why else fall
To our knees, supplicant
In worms and dirt,
Hands (unfolding
leaves) bearing gifts
From a land out lips
Cannot pronounce.
Is still our song,
But all the brilliant halls
Are gone. Immortal one,
Recall our savage birth
That we may find
The law of death less cruel
Than mornings spent
On loss. Drugs and sleep
Patrol the daily life,
Barring joy and grief.
Words the truth could tell
Harden into stone,
Building a castle
Of forgotten tongues.
No beast struggles
In the net more furiously
Than a creature intent
On killing the divine,
Or reaching it in arms
Too human for such love.

Two Poems by Herbert Zbigniew

Mr. Cogito Reads The Newspaper

On the first page
a report of the killing of 120 soldiers

the war lasted a long time
you could get used to it

close alongside
the news of a sensational crime
with a portrait of the murderer

the eye of Mr. Cogito
slips indifferently
over the soldiers’ hecatomb
to plunge with delight
into the description of everyday horror

a thirty-year-old farm labourer
under the stress of nervous depression
killed his wife
and two small children

it is described with precision
the course of the murder
the position of the bodies
and other details

for 120 dead
you search on a map in vain

too great a distance
covers them like a jungle

they don’t speak to the imagination
there are too many of them
the numeral zero at the end
changes them into abstraction

a subject for meditation:
the arithmetic of compassion

Mr. Cogito and the movement of thoughts

Thoughts cross the mind
says the popular expression

the popular expression
overestimates the movement of thoughts

most of them
stand motionless
in the middle of a dull landscape
of ashy hills
parched trees

sometimes they come
to the bursting river of another’s thoughts
they stand on the shore
on one leg
like hungry herons

with sadness
they remember the dried-up springs

they turn in a circle
searching for grain

they don’t cross
because they will never arrive
they don’t cross
because there is nowhere to go

they sit on stones wring their hands

under the cloudy
of the skull