Wednesday, September 29, 2004

My son died for a lie

Dear Readers,

I don't know how Tony Blair sleeps at night? So many unnecessary deaths of British, American and Iraqi soldiers and freedom fighters along with Italians, Polish, Ukranian and other troops from other nations. Did they have to die? And for what cause? A mother knows the truth. And a grieving mother knows the pain what many others like her, Iraqi mothers and American mothers are going through losing their loved ones and they feel helpless.

A grieving mother asks, "
These poor boys are being sent to Iraq to die for this government's lies. Where are the chemical and nuclear weapons they were supposed to be looking for? And if the war was about upholding the UN, why has the UN secretary general now said it is unlawful? Blair hasn't answered that either."

Blair can't answer it. Only more distractions, more polished hyperboles will be given to the public to save his seat and also to keep this sick "establishment" going, and who would wish to be at err with the new George at the helm of a new oily "world order"? Certainly Blair can't. Mother knows the truth, so she utters it with pain, "
He made secret promises to the president behind our backs, without a thought for people like Gordon, or like my daughter Maxine, deprived of her brother."

The "establishment" always will stick together, but as mother knows that
the ordinary people will not forgive him so easily, that also applies to the new George and his neocon pals.


My son died for a lie

Gordon wanted to be a soldier to defend his country

Rose Gentle

Tony Blair says we are now fighting a "new war" in Iraq. That may suit him, to distract people from questions about the "old war" there. The one which killed my son Gordon at the age of 19. Sent to Iraq with just six months training at Catterick, with inadequate protection, he was killed by a bomb in Basra in June.

Gordon wanted to be a soldier to defend his country. Not to die in a war of aggression. My family is one of nearly 70 grieving for a lost son because of this war. Two more families joined the list yesterday. Many more of our soldiers are suffering from serious injuries.

Some people say that soldiers have to expect to die or be injured when they sign up for the armed services. Maybe so. But they also have the right to expect that they will only be sent to fight for a proper cause, by a government which tells the truth.

These poor boys are being sent to Iraq to die for this government's lies. Where are the chemical and nuclear weapons they were supposed to be looking for? And if the war was about upholding the UN, why has the UN secretary general now said it is unlawful? Blair hasn't answered that either.

He said our troops would be welcomed by the Iraqis. Instead, it is all endless bloodshed and chaos there. Yet he hasn't apologised. If my children had the same regard for honesty as the prime minister, I would be ashamed.

It seems to me that Blair cares more about George Bush than about British soldiers. He made secret promises to the president behind our backs, without a thought for people like Gordon, or like my daughter Maxine, deprived of her brother.

If he cares, why doesn't he bring our troops back home before more are killed? After all, power is supposed to have been handed over to the Iraqi government. There are no more weapons of mass destruction to look for. The Iraqis should be allowed to sort out their own problems now.

Instead, I heard Geoff Hoon talking about sending more of our lads and lasses over to Iraq. That will mean more dead, more injured, to stop the government facing up to what it has done. I am working with other service families to ensure that our voice can be heard too. Many have already got in touch.

I grieve also for all the Iraqis who have died in this war. It all seems to have been completely unnecessary.

Blair may be let off the hook by Lord this and Justice that in their inquiries. The establishment will stick together. But I do not believe the ordinary people will forgive him so easily.

I want the government to be held to account. The prime minister says he wants a democracy for Iraq. If we had a proper democracy here, we would never have got into this war. And Gordon would be with us at Christmas.

· Rose Gentle is the mother of Gordon Gentle, a British soldier killed in Iraq this year.

Sentenced to Be Raped

Mukhtaran Bibi
Mukhtaran Bibi, a Pakistani woman whom a tribal council sentenced to be gang-raped.

Dear Readers,

There is nothing to be stunned about reading this news, though many of us who do not have the slightest idea on what the earth going on in distant place like Meerwala, may feel completely aghast reading how this type of utterly disgraceful event can occur in a world that boast repeatedly of its glorifying civilization. The world is so much anxious in fighting the "terrorists" who spread fear by their grotesque form of violence mostly against the innocent civilians. But there are other more deadly forms of oppressions seemingly going on for centuries, even more, in so many parts of our world, so many innocent women, men and children are suffering and dying everyday from that criminal aggressions and violence and the economic suppressions, even the governments, the law enforcement agencies in those parts of our globe just look the other way.

Read the following:

"In June 2002, the police say, members of a high-status tribe sexually abused one of Ms. Mukhtaran's brothers and then covered up their crime by falsely accusing him of having an affair with a high-status woman. The village's tribal council determined that the suitable punishment for the supposed affair was for high-status men to rape one of the boy's sisters, so the council sentenced Ms. Mukhtaran to be gang-raped.

As members of the high-status tribe danced in joy, four men stripped her naked and took turns raping her. Then they forced her to walk home naked in front of 300 villagers.

In Pakistan's conservative Muslim society, Ms. Mukhtaran's duty was now clear: she was supposed to commit suicide. "Just like other women, I initially thought of killing myself," said Ms. Mukhtaran, now 30. Her older brother, Hezoor Bux, explained: "A girl who has been raped has no honorable place in the village. Nobody respects the girl, or her parents. There's a stigma, and the only way out is suicide."

But instead of killing herself, Ms. Mukhtaran testified against her attackers and propounded the shocking idea that the shame lies in raping, rather than in being raped. The rapists are now on death row, and President Pervez Musharraf presented Ms. Mukhtaran with the equivalent of $8,300 and ordered round-the-clock police protection for her."

But the story does not end there as Nicholas Kristof observed. Mukhtaran used that money to build two schools in her village, one for the boys and one for the girls, she knew that "education is the best way to achieve social change." And she was absolutely right about that. However, as always the case, when the local media coverage faded, as it happened in Mukhtaran's case, Pervez Musharraf's government started being tardy in their promise of helping this oppressed woman. She had run out of money, she even had to buy food for the police protecting her!

"Meanwhile, villagers say that relatives of the rapists are waiting for the police to leave and then will put Ms. Mukhtaran in her place by slaughtering her and her entire family. I walked to the area where the high-status tribesmen live. They denied planning to kill Ms. Mukhtaran, but were unapologetic about her rape."

A lady whose tribe brethren were involved in this despicable crime said with satisfaction, "Mukhtaran is totally disgraced....She has no respect in society..." as if she demanded respect from the world for the gang rape that her tribes folks did!

I liked Mr. Kristof's conclusion that is both piercing and moving: "

So although I did not find Osama, I did encounter a much more ubiquitous form of evil and terror: a culture, stretching across about half the globe, that chews up women and spits them out.

We in the West could help chip away at that oppression, with health and literacy programs and by simply speaking out against it, just as we once stood up against slavery and totalitarianism. But instead of standing beside fighters like Ms. Mukhtaran, we're still sitting on the fence."

How long will the world be sitting on the fence pretending to be fighting "terrorism" while the real terror having the usual bonfire festival among the poorest of the poor, engulfing sanity while quite mockingly giving two thumbs up to world's disingenuous ignorance?


Sentenced to Be Raped


MEERWALA, Pakistan — I'm still trying to help out President Bush by tracking down Osama bin Laden. After poking through remote parts of Pakistan, asking for a tall Arab with a beard, I can't say I've earned that $25 million reward.

But I did come across someone even more extraordinary than Osama.

Usually we journalists write about rogues, but Mukhtaran Bibi could not be more altruistic or brave, as the men who gang-raped her discovered. I firmly believe that the central moral challenge of this century, equivalent to the struggles against slavery in the 19th century or against totalitarianism in the 20th, will be to address sex inequality in the third world - and it's the stories of women like Ms. Mukhtaran that convince me this is so.

The plight of women in developing countries isn't addressed much in the West, and it certainly isn't a hot topic in the presidential campaign. But it's a life-and-death matter in villages like Meerwala, a 12-hour drive southeast from Islamabad.

In June 2002, the police say, members of a high-status tribe sexually abused one of Ms. Mukhtaran's brothers and then covered up their crime by falsely accusing him of having an affair with a high-status woman. The village's tribal council determined that the suitable punishment for the supposed affair was for high-status men to rape one of the boy's sisters, so the council sentenced Ms. Mukhtaran to be gang-raped.

As members of the high-status tribe danced in joy, four men stripped her naked and took turns raping her. Then they forced her to walk home naked in front of 300 villagers.

In Pakistan's conservative Muslim society, Ms. Mukhtaran's duty was now clear: she was supposed to commit suicide. "Just like other women, I initially thought of killing myself," said Ms. Mukhtaran, now 30. Her older brother, Hezoor Bux, explained: "A girl who has been raped has no honorable place in the village. Nobody respects the girl, or her parents. There's a stigma, and the only way out is suicide."

A girl in the next village was gang-raped a week after Ms. Mukhtaran, and she took the traditional route: she swallowed a bottle of pesticide and dropped dead.

But instead of killing herself, Ms. Mukhtaran testified against her attackers and propounded the shocking idea that the shame lies in raping, rather than in being raped. The rapists are now on death row, and President Pervez Musharraf presented Ms. Mukhtaran with the equivalent of $8,300 and ordered round-the-clock police protection for her.

Ms. Mukhtaran, who had never gone to school herself, used the money to build one school in the village for girls and another for boys - because, she said, education is the best way to achieve social change. The girls' school is named for her, and she is now studying in its fourth-grade class.

"Why should I have spent the money on myself?" she asked, adding, "This way the money is helping all the girls, all the children."

I wish the story ended there. But the Pakistani government has neglected its pledge to pay the schools' operating expenses. "The government made lots of promises, but it hasn't done much," Ms. Mukhtaran said bluntly.

She has had to buy food for the police who protect her, as well as pay some school expenses. So, she said, "I've run out of money." Unless the schools can raise new funds, they may have to close.

Meanwhile, villagers say that relatives of the rapists are waiting for the police to leave and then will put Ms. Mukhtaran in her place by slaughtering her and her entire family. I walked to the area where the high-status tribesmen live. They denied planning to kill Ms. Mukhtaran, but were unapologetic about her rape.

"Mukhtaran is totally disgraced," Taj Bibi, a matriarch in a high-status family, said with satisfaction. "She has no respect in society."

So although I did not find Osama, I did encounter a much more ubiquitous form of evil and terror: a culture, stretching across about half the globe, that chews up women and spits them out.

We in the West could help chip away at that oppression, with health and literacy programs and by simply speaking out against it, just as we once stood up against slavery and totalitarianism. But instead of standing beside fighters like Ms. Mukhtaran, we're still sitting on the fence.

Source Link:

I Will Die A Stranger -- a Poem

I Will Die A Stranger

By Mahbubul Karim (Sohel)
September 28, 2004

I will die a stranger
away from family, friends and foes
in a land where no body
knows my name, nobody cares

I will die a stranger
on a day when hurricane will
rush from Pacific, maybe from Atlantic too
a stormy day from coast to coast
there will be arctic flow
from the north dumping snow
in uncaring porches

I will die a stranger
my lifeless body will be washed
by illegal aliens fleeing economic
deprivation and meaningless wars
they will sing and pray in their exotic tongues
while their soap brushing earthly dirt
off my dirt bound corpse

I will die a stranger
I think my funeral will be attended
by a few unknown men, maybe
one or two women wearing business attire
their presence will be required
for official sacraments inscribed
in "land of free" constitution

I will die a stranger
in remarkably unremarkable day
except winter birds will be seen resting
on the lowest branches of tree
drenched from storms and snows
savoring the warmth of a sun beginning to glow
after a cold stormy day

I will die a stranger
away from poetry and oceanic waves
in a time of dry passion
and unmarked graves

Special Note: I'm resending this poem, some spelling corrections had to be taken care of. "I will Die A Stranger" was written after being inspired by Donald Justice's poem, "Variations on a Text by Vallejo" that was itself based on a Peruvian poet Cesar Vallejo's poem "Piedra Negra Sobre una piedra Blanca". Both of these poems are presented below. Thank you.

Mahbubul Karim (Sohel)

Variations on a Text by Vallejo

By Donald Justice

Me moriré en París con aguacero...

I will die in Miami in the sun,
On a day when the sun is very bright,
A day like the days I remember, a day like other days,
A day that nobody knows or remembers yet,
And the sun will be bright then on the dark glasses of strangers
And in the eyes of a few friends from my childhood
And of the surviving cousins by the graveside,
While the diggers, standing apart, in the still shade of the palms,
Rest on their shovels, and smoke,
Speaking in Spanish softly, out of respect.

I think it will be on a Sunday like today,
Except that the sun will be out, the rain will have stopped,
And the wind that today made all the little shrubs kneel down;
And I think it will be a Sunday because today,
When I took out this paper and began to write,
Never before had anything looked so blank,
My life, these words, the paper, the grey Sunday;
And my dog, quivering under a table because of the storm,
Looked up at me, not understanding,
And my son read on without speaking, and my wife slept.

Donald Justice is dead. One Sunday the sun came out,
It shone on the bay, it shone on the white buildings,
The cars moved down the street slowly as always, so many,
Some with their headlights on in spite of the sun,
And after a while the diggers with their shovels
Walked back to the graveside through the sunlight,
And one of them put his blade into the earth
To lift a few clods of dirt, the black marl of Miami,
And scattered the dirt, and spat,
Turning away abruptly, out of respect.

Piedra Negra Sobre una piedra Blanca

By Cesar Vallejo

Me moriré en París con aguacero,
un día del cual tengo ya el recuerdo.
Me moriré en París -y no me corro-
tal vez un jueves, como es hoy, de otoño.

Jueves será, porque hoy, jueves, que proso
estos versos, los húmeros me he puesto
a la mala y, jamás como hoy, me he vuelto,
con todo mi camino, a verme solo.

César Vallejo ha muerto, le pegaban
todos sin que él les haga nada;
le daban duro con un palo y duro

también con una soga; son testigos
los días jueves y los huesos húmeros,
la soledad, la lluvia, los caminos...

Translation of Vallejo's poem (from

Black Stone of a White Stone

I will die in Paris with heavy shower,
a day of which I have the memory already.
I will die in Paris - and I do not run myself
perhaps Thursday, as is today, of autumn.

Thursday will be, because today, Thursday, that proso
these verses, the húmeros I have put myself
to the bad one and, never like today, I have become,
yet my way, to see me single.

Caesar Vallejo is dead, beat to him
all without he does nothing to them;
they gave him hard with a hard wood and

also with a rope; they are witnesses
the húmeros days Thursday and bones,
the solitude, rain, the ways...

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Drifting Clouds -- a Poem

Drifting Clouds

By Mahbubul Karim (Sohel)
September 28, 2004

Still, clouds drift far above
in shifting shape of fringes
changing from white cottons
to flowing hair of princess

And the clouds drift far above
like a marching band
walking in a festive motion
of endless bland

Imagine now the land beneath
where droughts have struck potent writhe
earth has opened its cavity
like thirsty old mobile lady
pleading for water
begging for mercy
lifting hands in prayers
for sanity

Imagine now the land beneath
where floods have burst open spring heath
on river banks in levity
like a smooth serpent of pity
hissing for slaughter
writhing gramercy
holding doomsayers'
glance of clarity

Still, clouds drift far above
sometimes in frenzied thunder
drenching the land and child below
sometimes in mute timidity
tiptoeing like a new bride
in a morning glow

So High, So Low -- a Poem

So High, So Low

By Mahbubul Karim (Sohel)
September 27, 2004

It is not I
in the mirror staring
back with transient glare
nor it is the shadow
of error swinging by
mischievous flare

Break that mirror
deception, delusion
Revert error
of fleshy deduction

Who am I speaking to?
God or absolute vacuity?
Who am I pleading to?
Fraud or resolute piety?

So high
life and dream rock
side by side
in tandem tango

So low
life and dream mock
choreographed chanting
"Don't Go"

So high, so low
"Don't Go, don't go!"

Who is staring from the mirror
with glare and flare swinging?
Rock and roll dilating error
bringing back frivolous waltzing

So high, so low
Don't go, don't go!

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Humiliated and Impotent, Every Iraqi is a Hostage Now

Dear Readers,
In news you see the grim images of Western hostages captured by some part of radical insurgents. These are innocent civilians, went to Iraq in their time of desperation for finding a job, away from economic ruins of their own nations. Killing of these civilians should be condemned without hesitation. However, most news media do not show the other disturbing pictures so clearly. They never did from the beginning of this illegal war. Killings and maiming of thousands of Iraqi civilians, children, women and men, old and young, by the occupation forces' "careful precision", and by the insurgents' ill-conceived attacks. There are so many Iraqi civilians being held by the occupation forces, no one is for sure how many of them are behind the bar. Can they be called hostages? Why are there so much violence and rages among the Iraqis? Was it not predictable before the war? Jonathan Steele's article describes these issues very well.

Mahbubul Karim (Sohel
Humiliated and impotent, every Iraqi is a hostage now

The US authorities cannot let Dr Germ go - she knows too much

Jonathan Steele

They sit in their solitary cells all day, uncharged with any crime. No family member, no friend, no lawyer may visit. Their freedom depends on a callous game of Pentagon roulette. Word filters out that they are about to be released. Then word follows that - alas - it will take a bit more time.

These are America's Iraqi hostages, whose captivity in a high-security camp at Baghdad airport has already lasted for over a year. The two women scientists whose fate has been spotlighted this week belong to a larger group of Iraqi prisoners who should not have been held so long.

Their cases cannot be compared to that of the British engineer, Kenneth Bigley, or the other foreigners kidnapped by fundamentalist groups. The circumstances are different. The motivations are different. Their treatment is different.

Public humiliation by video, repeated threats of imminent death, and filmed beheadings are bestial. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the presumed perpetrator of this cruelty, claims to be acting in the name of the Iraqi resistance. In fact, he is a parasite on the occupation, seeking its cover to advance the goal of an extreme theocratic state, which few Iraqis share.

Thanks to Zarqawi and various small groups of local Islamists whom he has managed to inspire, all non-Arabs in Iraq have become potential targets. No distinction is made between those who take jobs with the occupa tion, and journalists, UN employees and aid workers, who are neutral or, in many cases, severe critics of US and British policy.

In Gaza and the West Bank, for all the chaos and confusion of authority caused by 37 years of Israeli occupation, Palestinian leaders and Palestinian society remain far-sighted, civic-minded, and secular enough to keep out these kinds of Islamist soldiers of fortune. Al-Qaida and its followers are unknown in Palestine. Foreign aid workers and western journalists have never been kidnapped. They are more likely to be killed by the Israeli army than by gunmen on the Palestinian side.

In Iraq the picture is darker. It is one more sign of the massive social and economic destabilisation caused by the invasion and its bungled aftermath that al-Qaida has found a foothold there which it has not done in Palestine. Foreign journalists who used to rent houses in Baghdad have had to retreat to better-guarded hotels. Many media organisations have reduced their teams to one reporter, and even they rarely risk leaving Baghdad. Their Iraqi interpreters and drivers are under threat. The country may become a no-go area for news.

In the mayhem of kidnappings, suicide bombs, and US air attacks, the continuing detention of a dozen Iraqi scientists may seem trivial. Thousands of other Iraqis have been arrested on suspicion of being part of the anti-American insurgency. Most are eventually let go, some after beating and torture. Only a few have been taken to court and convicted.

But the holding of Iraqi scientists, whom the Americans call high-value detainees, is significant because they, more than any other group, seem to be hostages. Taken initially into custody because it was thought they could shed light on those elusive weapons of mass destruction, it is clear they had little new to say. There were no WMD, as they always insisted.

Dr Rihab Rashid Taha, called Dr Germ by UN weapons inspectors, was an expert in biological warfare, who consistently told them before the war that all stocks had been destroyed years earlier. Why has she not been let go? She has not been charged with any crime, and even if she were, could she not be freed on bail? Is it that the US authorities don't want her talking to the press about the biological specimens she received from American companies in the 1980s when Saddam Hussein was Washington's friend? Are they worried she might produce the receipts she has said she holds?

What of Dr Amer al-Saadi, the rocket scientist who briefly became the government's link man with the inspectors in 2002? He, too, repeatedly told them Iraq's WMD were dismantled long ago. He was the first senior Iraqi to surrender voluntarily to the US authorities in April last year, expecting to be held for brief interrogation and then let go.

Yesterday his brother, Radwan, told me he was assured last month that Amer's release had been authorised and only a few bureaucratic procedures remained. It seems he was part of the same joint Iraqi-American review process which apparently gave the green light to releasing the women scientists weeks before Kenneth Bigley's kidnappers focused on them.

Why the delay? Did Donald Rumsfeld or George Bush's election advisers get cold feet, fearing the impact of interviews that would once again highlight the fraud behind the invasion? Was the Iraqi government in favour of the release, as its justice minister suggested, but over-ruled by the Americans and denied the sovereignty it is claimed to enjoy?

What of Saddam Hussein himself? Has he, too, become a pawn in Bush's bid to retain power? Few doubt that - unlike the scientists - he is a war criminal, although technically he remains innocent until convicted. When, and if, an Iraqi court with judges chosen independently by Iraqis puts him on trial, not many tears will flow.

The issue is the timing. It was only thanks to the International Committee of the Red Cross that the former dictator appeared in court at all. On the eve of the formal transfer of sovereignty in June, it declared that as a prisoner of war he must be released, if he had not been charged. The Americans hurried to comply.

After his brief but powerful defiance from the dock they said his trial would take months to prepare. His lieutenants would be tried first in the hope they would give evidence against him. Saddam would not go back to court until 2005, if then.

Suddenly we hear his trial may take place next month. This will be the famous "October surprise". Bush will use the spotlight on Saddam as a way of trying to justify the war on Iraq and put John Kerry on the defensive. In this cynical scheme of things, America's best-known prisoner becomes a hostage of Bush's election bid.

Small wonder that Iraqis feel humiliated and impotent. They are trapped between different sets of foreigners. On one side they face the barbarity of outside Islamists, who use Iraq as the latest and most convenient terrain for jihad against America. On the other, they see the stubbornness of Bush and the arrogance of Blair, who refuse to admit that their adventure was wrong, has become a disaster, and needs to be ended. Every Iraqi is a hostage now.

Source Link:,3604,1311745,00.html

After Minor Surgery -- 18 Poems of Linda Pastan

After Minor Surgery

By Linda Pastan

this is the dress rehearsal

when the body
like a constant lover
flirts for the first time
with faithlessness

when the body
like a passenger on a long journey
hears the conductor call out
the name
of the first stop

when the body
in all its fear and cunning
makes promises to me
it knows
it cannot keep


I am Learning to Abandon the World

By Linda Pastan

I am learning to abandon the world
before it can abandon me.
Already I have given up the moon
and snow, closing my shades
against the claims of white.
And the world has taken
my father, my friends.
I have given up melodic lines of hills,
moving to a flat, tuneless landscape.
ANd every night I give my body up
limb by limb, working upwards
across bone, towards the heart.
But morning comes with small
reprieves of coffee and birdsong.
A tree outside the window
which was simply shadow moments ago
takes back its branches twig
by leafy twif.
And as I take my body back
the sun lays its warm muzzle on my lap
as if to make amends.


The Obligation to be Happy

By Linda Pastan

It is more onerous
than the rites of beauty
or housework, harder than love.
But you expect it of me casually,
the way you expect the sun
to come up, not in spite of rain
or clouds but because of them.

And so I smile, as if my own fidelity
to sadness were a hidden vice ---
that downward tug on my mouth,
my old suspicion that health
and love are brief irrelevancies,
no more than laughter in the warm dark
strangled at dawn.

Happiness. I try to hoist it
on my narrow shoulders again ---
a knapsack heavy with gold coins.
I stumble around the house,
bump into things.
Only Midas himself
would understand.


Mother Eve

By Linda Pastan

Of course she never was a child herself,
waking as she did one morning
full grown and perfect,
with only Adam, another innocent,
to love her and instruct.
There was no learning, step by step,
to walk, no bruised elbows or knees ---
no small transgressions.
There was only the round, white mound
of the moon rising,
which could neither be suckled
nor leaned against.
And perhaps the serpent spoke
in a woman's voice, mothering.
Oh, who can blame her?

When she held her own child
in her arms, what did she make
of that new animal? Did she love Cain
too little or too much, looking down
at her now flawed body as if her rib,
like Adam's, might be gone?
In the litany of naming that continued
for children instead of plants,
no daughter is mentioned.
But generations later there was Rachel,
all mother herself, who knew
that bringing forth a child in pain
is only the start. It is losing them
(and Benjamin so young)
that is the punishment.

Note: Rachel: One of the Jewish matriarchs; wife of Jacob and mother of Joseph and Benjamin. Genesis, esp. chapters 29-30, 35.


The Cossacks

By Linda Pastan

for F.
For Jews, the Cossacks are always coming.
Therefore I think the sun spot on my arm
is melanoma. Therefore I celebrate
New Year's Eve by counting
my annual dead.

My mother, when she was dying,
spoke to her visitors of books
and travel, displaying serenity
as a form of manners, though
I could tell the difference.

But when I watched you planning
for a life you knew
you'd never have, I couldn't explain
your genuine smile in the face
of disaster. Was it denial

laced with acceptance? Or was it
generations of being English--
Brontë's Lucy in Villette
living as if no fire raged
beneath her dun-colored dress.

I want to live the way you did,
preparing for next year's famine with wine
and music as if it were a ten-course banquet.
But listen: those are hoofbeats
on the frosty autumn air.


The New Dog

By Linda Pastan

Into the gravity of my life,
the serious ceremonies
of polish and paper
and pen, has come
this manic animal
whose innocent disruptions
make nonsense
of my old simplicities—
as if I needed him
to prove again that after
all the careful planning,
anything can happen.

A New Poet

By Linda Pastan

Finding a new poet
is like finding a new wildflower
out in the woods. You don't see
its name in the flower books, and
nobody you tell believes
in its odd color or the way
its leaves grow in splayed rows
down the whole length of the page. In fact
the very page smells of spilled
red wine and the mustiness of the sea
on a foggy day—the odor of truth
and of lying.
And the words are so familiar,
so strangely new, words
you almost wrote yourself, if only
in your dreams there had been a pencil
or a pen or even a paintbrush,
if only there had been a flower.



by Linda Pastan

We think of hidden in a white dress
among the folded linens and sachets
of well-kept cupboards, or just out of sight
sending jellies and notes with no address
to all the wondering Amherst neighbors.
Eccentric as New England weather
the stiff wind of her mind, stinging or gentle,
blew two half imagined lovers off.
Yet legend won't explain the sheer sanity
of vision, the serious mischief
of language, the economy of pain.



by Linda Pastan

After Adam Zagajewski
I am child to no one, mother to a few,
wife for the long haul.
On fall days I am happy
with my dying brethren, the leaves,
but in spring my head aches
from the flowery scents.
My husband fills a room with Mozart
which I turn off, embracing
the silence as if it were an empty page
waiting for me alone to fill it.
He digs in the black earth
with his bare hands. I scrub it
from the creases of his skin, longing
for the kind of perfection
that happens in books.
My house is my only heaven.
A red dog sleeps at my feet, dreaming
of the manic wings of flushed birds.
As the road shortens ahead of me
I look over my shoulder
to where it curves back
to childhood, its white line
bisecting the real and the imagined
the way the ridgepole of the spine
divides the two parts of the body, leaving
the soft belly in the center
vulnerable to anything.
As for my country, it blunders along
as well intentioned as Eve choosing
cider and windfalls, oblivious
to the famine soon to come.
I stir pots, bury my face in books, or hold
a telephone to my ear as if its cord
were the umbilicus of the world
whose voices still whisper to me
even after they have left their bodies.

The Laws of Primogeniture

by Linda Pastan

My grandson has my father's mouth
with its salty sayings
and my grandfather's crooked ear
which heard the soldiers coming.

He has the pale eyes of the cossack
who saw my great-great-grandmother
in the woods, then wouldn't stop

And see him now, pushing
his bright red firetruck towards
a future he thinks he's inventing
all by himself.



by Linda Pastan

Pierre Bonnard would enter
the museum with a tube of paint
in his pocket and a sable brush.
Then violating the sanctity
of one of his own frames
he'd add a stroke of vermilion
to the skin of a flower.
Just so I stopped you
at the door this morning
and licking my index finger, removed
an invisible crumb
from your vermilion mouth. As if
at the ritual moment of departure
I had to show you still belonged to me.
As if revision were
the purest form of love.


An Early Afterlife

by Linda Pastan

". . . a wise man in time of peace, shall make the necessary preparations for war." —Horace

Why don't we say goodbye right now
in the fallacy of perfect health
before whatever is going to happen
happens. We could perfect our parting,
like those characters in On the Beach
who said farewell in the shadow
of the bomb as we sat watching,
young and holding hands at the movies.
We could use the loving words
we otherwise might not have time to say.
We could hold each other for hours
in a quintessential dress rehearsal.

The we would just continue
for however many years were left.
The ragged things that are coming next—
arteries closing like rivers silting over,
or rampant cells stampeding us to the exit—
would be like postscripts to our lives
and wouldn't matter. And we would bask
in an early afterlife of ordinary days,
impervious to the inclement weather
already in our long-range forecast.
Nothing could touch us. We'd never
have to say goodbye again.


The Almanac of Last Things

by Linda Pastan

From the almanac of last things
I choose the spider lily
for the grace of its brief
blossom, though I myself
fear brevity,

but I choose The Song of Songs
because the flesh
of those pomegranates
has survived
all the frost of dogma.

I choose January with its chill
lessons of patience and despair—and
August, too sun-struck for lessons.
I choose a thimbleful of red wine
to make my heart race,

then another to help me
sleep. From the almanac
of last things I choose you,
as I have done before.
And I choose evening

because the light clinging
to the window
is at its most reflective
just as it is ready
to go out.


The News of the World

by Linda Pastan

Like weather, the news
is always changing and always
the same. On a map
of intractable borders
armies ebb and flow.
In Iowa a roof is lifted
from its house like a top hat

caught in a swirl of wind.
Quadruplets born in Akron.
In Vilnius a radish
weighing 50 pounds.
And somewhere
another city falls
to its knees.

See how the newsprint
comes off on our hands
as we wrap the orange peel
in the sports page
or fold into the comics
a dead bird

the children found
and will bury
as if it were the single
sparrow whose fall
God once promised
to note, if only
on the last page.


Carnival Evening

by Linda Pastan

Henri Rousseau, oil on canvas

Despite the enormous evening sky
spreading over most of the canvas,
its moon no more
than a tarnished coin, dull and flat,
in a devalued currency;

despite the trees, so dark themselves,
stretching upward like supplicants,
utterly leafless; despite what could be
a face, rinsed of feeling, aimed
in their direction,

the two small figures
at the bottom of this picture glow
bravely in their carnival clothes,
as if the whole darkening world
were dimming its lights for a party.


"Women on the Shore"

by Linda Pastan

The pills I take to postpone death
are killing me, and the healing
journey we pack for waits
with its broken airplane,
the malarial hum of mosquitoes.
Even the newly mowed grass
hides fault lines in the earth
which could open at any time

and swallow us.
In Edvard Munch's woodcut,
the pure geometry of color—an arctic sky,
the luminescent blues and greens of water—
surrounds the woman in black
whose head is turning to a skull.
If death is everywhere we look,
at least let's marry it to beauty.


The Last Uncle

by Linda Pastan

The last uncle is pushing off
in his funeral skiff (the usual
black limo) having locked
the doors behind him
on a whole generation.

And look, we are the elders now
with our torn scraps
of history, alone
on the mapless shore
of this raw, new century.


Meditation by the Stove

by Linda Pastan

I have banked the fires
of my body
into a small but steady blaze
here in the kitchen
where the dough has a life of its own,
breathing under its damp cloth
like a sleeping child;
where the real child plays under the table,
pretending the tablecloth is a tent,
practicing departures; where a dim
brown bird dazzled by light
has flown into the windowpane
and lies stunned on the pavement--
it was never simple, even for birds,
this business of nests.
The innocent eye sees nothing, Auden says,
repeating what the snake told Eve,
what Eve told Adam, tired of gardens,
wanting the fully lived life.
But passion happens like an accident
I could let the dough spill over the rim
of the bowl, neglecting to punch it down,
neglecting the child who waits under the table,
the mild tears already smudging her eyes.
We grow in such haphazard ways.
Today I feel wiser than the bird.
I know the window shuts me in,
that when I open it
the garden smells will make me restless.
And I have banked the fires of my body
into a small domestic flame for others
to warm their hands on for a while.

A Brief Biography of the Poet

Linda Pastan
Linda Pastan

Linda Pastan was born in New York City. She later graduated from Radcliffe College and received an MA from Brandeis University. She has won many prestigious awards for her poetry including (among others); The Dylan Thomas Award, a Pushcart Prize, the Di Castagnola Award (Poetry Society of America), the Bess Hokin Prize (Poetry Magazine), the Maurice English Award, the Charity Randall Citation of the International Poetry Forum, and the 2003 Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize. She was also received a Radcliffe College Distinguished Alumnae Award.

Many of her books were also nominated for awards such as; PM/AM and Carnival Evening for the National Book Award and The Imperfect Paradise for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

Between 1991 and 1995 Pastan served as Poet Laureate of Maryland, as well as being part of the staff of the Breadloaf Writers Conference for two decades.

She resides in Potomac, Maryland.

Bio Source:

Friday, September 24, 2004

Yesterday -- 15 Poems of W. S. Merwin


By W. S. Merwin

My friend says I was not a good son

you understand
I say yes I understand

he says I did not go
to see my parents very often you know
and I say yes I know

even when I was living in the same city he says
maybe I would go there once
a month or maybe even less
I say oh yes

he says the last time I went to see my father
I say the last time I saw my father

he says the last time I saw my father
he was asking me about my life
how I was making out and he
went into the next room
to get something to give me

oh I say
feeling again the cold
of my father's hand the last time
he says and my father turned
in the doorway and saw me
look at my wristwatch and he
said you know I would like you to stay
and talk with me

oh yes I say

but if you are busy he said
I don't want you to feel that you
have to
just because I'm here

I say nothing

he says my father
said maybe
you have important work you are doing
or maybe you should be seeing
somebody I don't want to keep you

I look out the window
my friend is older than I am
he says and I told my father it was so
and I got up and left him then
you know

though there was nowhere I had to go
and nothing I had to do



By W. S. Merwin

Why did he promise me
that we would build ourselves
an ark all by ourselves
out in back of the house
on New York Avenue
in Union City New Jersey
to the singing of the streetcars
after the story
of Noah whom nobody
believed about the waters
that would rise over everything
when I told my father
I wanted us to build
an ark of our own there
in the back yard under
the kitchen could we do that
he told me that we could
I want to I said and will we
he promised me that we would
why did he promise that
I wanted us to start then
nobody will believe us
I said that we are building
an ark because the rains
are coming and that was true
nobody ever believed
we would build an ark there
nobody would believe
that the waters were coming



By W. S. Merwin

My shoes are almost dead
And as I wait at the doors of ice
I hear the cry go up for him Caesar Caesar

But when I look out the window I see only the flatlands
And the slow vanishing of the windmills
The centuries draining the deep fields

Yet this is still my country
The thug on duty says What would you change
He looks at his watch he lifts
Emptiness out of the vases
And holds it up to examine
So it is evening
With the rain starting to fall forever

One by one he calls night out of the teeth
And at last I take up
My duty

Wheeling the president past banks of flowers
Past the feet of empty stairs
Hoping he's dead


After The Alphabets

By W. S. Merwin

I am trying to decipher the language of insects
they are the tongues of the future
their vocabularies describe buildings as food
they can instruct of dark water and the veins of trees
they can convey what they do not know
and what is known at a distance
and what nobody knows
they have terms for making music with the legs
they can recount changing in a sleep like death
they can sing with wings
the speakers are their own meaning in a grammar without horizons
they are wholly articulate
they are never important they are everything


Search Party

By W. S. Merwin

By now I know most of the faces
that will appear beside me as
long as there are still images
I know at last what I would choose
the next time if there ever was
a time again I know the days
that open in the dark like this
I do not know where Maoli is

I know the summer surfaces
of bodies and the tips of voices
like stars out of their distances
and where the music turns to noise
I know the bargains in the news
rules whole languages formulas
wisdom that I will never use
I do not know where Maoli is

I know whatever one may lose
somebody will be there who says
what it will be all right to miss
and what is verging on excess
I know the shadows of the house
routes that lead out to no traces
many of his empty places
I do not know where Maoli is

You that see now with your own eyes
all that there is as you suppose
though I could stare through broken glass
and show you where the morning goes
though I could follow to their close
the sparks of an exploding species
and see where the world ends in ice
I would not know where Maoli is


To Luck

By W. S. Merwin

In the cards and at the bend in the road
we never saw you
in the womb and in the crossfire
in the numbers
whatever you had your hand in
which was everything
we were told never to put
our faith in you
to bow to you humbly after all
because in the end there was nothing
else we could do
but not to believe in you

still we might coax you with pebbles
kept warm in the hand
or coins or the relics
of vanished animals
observances rituals
not binding upon you
who make no promises
we might do such things only
not to neglect you
and risk your disfavor
oh you who are never the same
who are secret as the day when it comes
you whom we explain
as often as we can
without understanding


Low Fields and Light

By W. S. Merwin

I think it is in Virginia, that place
That lies across the eye of my mind now
Like a gray blade set to the moon's roundness,
Like a plain of glass touching all there is.

The flat fields run out to the sea there.
There is no sand, no line. It is autumn.
The bare fields, dark between fences, run
Out to the idle gleam of the flat water.

And the fences go on out, sinking slowly,
With a cow-bird half-way, on a stunted post, watching
How the light slides through them easy as weeds
Or wind, slides over them away out near the sky.

Because even a bird can remember
The fields that were there before the slow
Spread and wash of the edging line crawled
There and covered them, a little more each year.

My father never ploughed there, nor my mother
Waited, and never knowingly I stood there
Hearing the seepage slow as growth, nor knew
When the taste of salt took over the ground.

But you would think the fields were something
To me, so long I stare out, looking
For their shapes or shadows through the matted gleam, seeing
Neither what is nor what was, but the flat light rising.


When You Go Away

By W. S. Merwin

When you go away the wind clicks around to the north
The painters work all day but at sundown the paint falls
Showing the black walls
The clock goes back to striking the same hour
That has no place in the years

And at night wrapped in the bed of ashes
In one breath I wake
It is the time when the beards of the dead get their growth
I remember that I am falling
That I am the reason
And that my words are the garment of what I shall never be
Like the tucked sleeve of a one-armed boy


The Broken

By W. S. Merwin

The spiders started out to go with the wind on its pilgrimage. At that time
They were honored among the invisibles -- more sensitive than glass, lighter
than water, purer than ice. Even the lighting spoke well of them, and it
seemed as though they could go anywhere. But as they were traveling
between cold and heat, cracks appeared in them, appeared in their limbs,
and they stopped, it seemed they had to stop, had to leave the company of
the wind for a while and stay in one place until they got better, moving
carefully, hiding, trusting to nothing. It was not long before they gave up
trying to become whole again, and instead undertook to mend the air.
Neither life nor death, they said, would slip through it any more.
After that they were numbered among the dust -- makers of ghosts.
The wind never missed them. There were still the clouds.


The River of Bees

By W. S. Merwin

In a dream I returned to the river of bees
Five orange trees by the bridge and
Beside two mills my house
Into whose courtyard a blind man followed
The goats and stood singing
Of what was older

Soon it will be fifteen years

He was old he will have fallen into his eyes

I took my eyes
A long way to the calendars
Room after room asking how shall I live

One of the ends is made of streets
One man processions carry through it
Empty bottles their
Image of hope
It was offered to me by name

Once once and once
In the same city I was born
Asking what shall I say

He will have fallen into his mouth
Men think they are better than grass

I return to his voice rising like a forkful of hay

He was old he is not real nothing is real
Nor the noise of death drawing water

We are the echo of the future

On the door it says what to do to survive
But we were not born to survive
Only to live


My Friends

By W. S. Merwin

My friends without shields walk on the target

It is late the windows are breaking

My friends without shoes leave
What they love
Grief moves among them as a fire among
Its bells
My friends without clocks turn
On the dial they turn
They part

My friends with names like gloves set out
Bare handed as they have lived
And nobody knows them
It is they that lay the wreaths at the milestones it is their
Cups that are found at the wells
And are then chained up

My friends without feet sit by the wall
Nodding to the lame orchestra
Brotherhood it says on the decorations
My friend without eyes sits in the rain smiling
With a nest of salt in his hand

My friends without fathers or houses hear
Doors opening in the darkness
Whose halls announce

Behold the smoke has come home

My friends and I have in common
The present a wax bell in a wax belfry
This message telling of
Metals this
Hunger for the sake of hunger this owl in the heart
And these hands one
For asking one for applause

My friends with nothing leave it behind
In a box
My friends without keys go out from the jails it is night
They take the same road they miss
Each other they invent the same banner in the dark
They ask their way only of sentries too proud to breathe

At dawn the stars on their flag will vanish

The water will turn up their footprints and the day will rise
Like a monument to my
Friends the forgotten



By W. S. Merwin

By this part of the century few are left who believe

in the animals for they are not there in the carved parts

of them served on plates and the pleas from the slatted trucks

are sounds of shadows that possess no future

there is still game for the pleasure of killing

and there are pets for the children but the lives that followed

courses of their own other than ours and older

have been migrating before us some are already

far on the way and yet Peter with his gaunt cheeks

and point of white beard the face of an aged Lawrence

Peter who had lived on from another time and country

and who had seen so many things set out and vanish

still believed in heaven and said he had never once

doubted it since his childhood on the farm in the days

of the horses he had not doubted it in the worst

times of the Great War and afterward and he had come

to what he took to be a kind of earthly

model of it as he wandered south in his sixties

by that time speaking the language well enough

for them to make him out he took the smallest roads

into a world he thought was a thing of the past

with wildflowers he scarcely remembered and neighbors

working together scything the morning meadows

turning the hay before the noon meal bringing it in

by milking time husbandry and abundance

all the virtues he admired and their reward bounteous

in the eyes of a foreigner and there he remained

for the rest of his days seeing what he wanted to see

until the winter when he could no longer fork

the earth in his garden and then he gave away

his house land everything and committed himself

to a home to die in an old chateau where he lingered

for some time surrounded by those who had lost

the use of body or mind and as he lay there he told me

that the wall by his bed opened almost every day

and he saw what was really there and it was eternal life

as he recognized at once when he saw the gardens

he had made and the green fields where he had been

a child and his mother was standing there then the wall would close

and around him again were the last days of the world



By W. S. Merwin

Out of the dry days

through the dusty leaves

far across the valley

those few notes never

heard here before

one fluted phrase

floating over its

wandering secret

all at once wells up

somewhere else

and is gone before it

goes on fallen into

its own echo leaving

a hollow through the air

that is dry as before

where is it from

hardly anyone

seems to have noticed it

so far but who now

would have been listening

it is not native here

that may be the one

thing we are sure of

it came from somewhere

else perhaps alone

so keeps on calling for

no one who is here

hoping to be heard

by another of its own

unlikely origin

trying once more the same few

notes that began the song

of an oriole last heard

years ago in another

existence there

it goes again tell

no one it is here

foreign as we are

who are filling the days

with a sound of our own



By W. S. Merwin

At the last minute a word is waiting
not heard that way before and not to be
repeated or ever be remembered
one that always had been a household word
used in speaking of the ordinary
everyday recurrences of living
not newly chosen or long considered
or a matter for comment afterward
who would ever have thought it was the one
saying itself from the beginning through
all its uses and circumstances to
utter at last that meaning of its own
for which it had long been the only word
though it seems now that any word would do



By W. S. Merwin

How long ago the day is
when at last I look at it
with the time it has taken
to be there still in it
now in the transparent light
with the flight in the voices
the beginning in the leaves
everything I remember
and before it before me
present at the speed of light
in the distance that I am
who keep reaching out to it
seeing all the time faster
where it has never stirred from
before there is anything
the darkness thinking the light

A Brief Biography of the Poet

W. S. Merwin

In a career spanning five decades, W.S. Merwin, poet, translator, and environmental activist, has become one of the most widely read — and imitated — poets in America. The son of a Presbyterian minister, for whom he began writing hymns at the age of five, Merwin went to Europe as a young man and developed a love of languages that led to work as a literary translator. Over the years, his poetic voice has moved from the more formal and medieval—influenced somewhat by Robert Graves and the medieval poetry he was then translating — to a more distinctly American voice, following his two years in Boston where he got to know Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, Adrienne Rich, and Donald Hall, all of whom were breaking out of the rhetoric of the 1950s. W.S. Merwin’s recent poetry is perhaps his most personal, arising from his deeply held beliefs. He is not only profoundly anti-imperialist, pacifist, and environmentalist, but also possessed by an intimate feeling for landscape and language and the ways in which land and language interflow. His latest poems are densely imagistic, dream-like, and full of praise for the natural world.

His first book, A Mask for Janus, was published in 1952 in the Yale Younger Poets series — chosen by W.H. Auden. His book of poems The Carrier of Ladders was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1970. His other books include The Drunk in the Furnace, The Moving Target, The Lice, Flower & Hand, The Compass Flower, Feathers from the Hill, Opening the Hand, The Rain in the Trees, Travels, The Vixen, The Lost Upland, Unframed Originals, and The Folding Cliffs. His recent works include the collections of poems The River Sound and The Pupil, as well as a new translation of Dante’s Purgatorio and his critically-lauded translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He has also published a book of prose entitled The Mays of Ventador, as part of the National Geographic Directions series. Recent reissues of his books include The First Four Books of Poems, and his translations of Jean Follain’s poems Transparence of the World, and Antonio Porchia’s Voices. In 2004, Shoemaker & Hoard released The Ends of the Earth, a gathering of essays expressing the breadth of W.S. Merwin’s fascination with the natural world and the explorers who have journeyed through it; this work is Merwin’s first new prose collection in more than a decade. William Merwin’s selected poems collection will be published in spring 2005 by Copper Canyon Press and is entitled Migration: Selected Poems 1951-2001. In the fall of 2005 his next book of new poems, Present Company, will also be published by Copper Canyon Press.

In 1999, W.S. Merwin was named Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress for a jointly-held position along with poets Rita Dove and Louise Glück. Included in his numerous awards are the Pulitzer Prize, the Tanning Prize, the Bollingen Prize, and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.


“The intentions of Merwin’s poetry are as broad as the biosphere yet as intimate as a whisper. He conveys in the sweet simplicity of grounded language a sense of the self where it belongs, floating between heaven, earth, and the underground.” — The Atlantic Monthly

Biogrpahy Source:

The Foreboding -- 15 Poems of Robert Graves and an article

The Foreboding

By Robert Graves

Looking by chance in at the open window
I saw my own self seated in his chair
With gaze abstracted, furrowed forehead,
Unkempt hair.

I thought that I had suddenly come to die,
That to a cold corpse this was my farewell,
Until the pen moved slowly on the paper
And tears fell.

He had written a name, yours, in printed letters
One word on which bemusedly to pore:
No protest, no desire, your naked name,
Nothing more.

Would it be tomorrow, would it be next year?
But the vision was not false, this much I knew;
And I turned angrily from the open window
Aghast at you.

Why never a warning, either by speech or look,
That the love you cruelly gave me could not last?
Already it was too late: the bait swallowed,
The hook fast.


In The Beginning Was a Word

By Robert Graves

The difficulty was, it was
Simple, as simple as it seemed;
Needing no scrutinizing glass,
No intense light to be streamed

Upon it. It said what it said
Singly, without backthought or whim,
With all the strictness of the dead,
Past reason and past synonym.

But they, too dull to understand,
Laboriously improvised
A mystic allegory, and
A meaning at last recognized:

A revelation and a cause,
Crowding the cluttered stage again
With saints' and sinners' lies and laws
For a new everlasting reign.


Return of the Goddess Artemis

By Robert Graves

Under your Milky Way
And slow-revolving Bear,
Frogs from the alder thicket pray
In terror of your judgment day,
Loud with repentance there.

The log they crowned as king
Grew sodden, lurched and sank:
An owl floats by on silent wing,
Dark water bubbles from the spring;
They invoke you from each bank.

At dawn you shall appear,
A gaunt red-legged crane,
You whom they know too well for fear,
Lunging your beak down like a spear
To fetch them home again.


From the Embassy

By Robert Graves

I am Ambassador of Otherwhere
To the unfederated states of Here and There,
Enjoy (as the phrase is)
Extra-territorial privileges
With heres and theres I seldom come to blows
Or need, as once, to sandbag all my windows.
Then, though the Otherwherish currency
Cannot be quoted yet officially,
I meet less hindrance now with the exchange,
Nor is my garb, even, considered strange,
And shy enquiries for literature
Come in by every post, and the side door.


To an Ungentle Critic

By Robert Graves

THE GREAT sun sinks behind the town
Through a red mist of Volnay wine….
But what’s the use of setting down
That glorious blaze behind the town?
You’ll only skip the page, you’ll look
For newer pictures in this book;
You’ve read of sunsets rich as mine.

A fresh wind fills the evening air
With horrid crying of night birds….
But what reads new or curious there
When cold winds fly across the air?
You’ll only frown; you’ll turn the page,
But find no glimpse of your “New Age
Of Poetry” in my worn-out words.

Must winds that cut like blades of steel
And sunsets swimming in Volnay,
The holiest, cruellest pains I feel,
Die stillborn, because old men squeal
For something new: “Write something new:
We’ve read this poem—that one too,
And twelve more like ’em yesterday”?

No, no! my chicken, I shall scrawl
Just what I fancy as I strike it,
Fairies and Fusiliers, and all
Old broken knock-kneed thought will crawl
Across my verse in the classic way.
And, sir, be careful what you say;
There are old-fashioned folk still like it.


The Cruel Moon

By Robert Graves

THE CRUEL Moon hangs out of reach
Up above the shadowy beech.
Her face is stupid, but her eye
Is small and sharp and very sly.
Nurse says the Moon can drive you mad?
No, that’s a silly story, lad!
Though she be angry, though she would
Destroy all England if she could,
Yet think, what damage can she do
Hanging there so far from you?
Don’t heed what frightened nurses say:
Moons hang much too far away.


When I’m Killed

By Robert Graves

WHEN I’m killed, don’t think of me
Buried there in Cambrin Wood,
Nor as in Zion think of me
With the Intolerable Good.
And there’s one thing that I know well,
I’m damned if I’ll be damned to Hell!

So when I’m killed, don’t wait for me,
Walking the dim corridor;
In Heaven or Hell, don’t wait for me,
Or you must wait for evermore.
You’ll find me buried, living-dead
In these verses that you’ve read.

So when I’m killed, don’t mourn for me,
Shot, poor lad, so bold and young,
Killed and gone—don’t mourn for me.
On your lips my life is hung:
O friends and lovers, you can save
Your playfellow from the grave.


Mr. Philosopher

By Robert Graves

OLD Mr. Philosopher
Comes for Ben and Claire,
An ugly man, a tall man,
With bright-red hair.

The books that he’s written
No one can read.
“In fifty years they’ll understand:
Now there’s no need.

“All that matters now
Is getting the fun.
Come along, Ben and Claire;
Plenty to be done.”

Then old Philosopher,
Wisest man alive,
Plays at Lions and Tigers
Down along the drive—

Gambolling fiercely
Through bushes and grass,
Making monstrous mouths,
Braying like an ass,

Twisting buttercups
In his orange hair,
Hopping like a kangaroo,
Growling like a bear.

Right up to tea-time
They frolic there.
“My legs are wingle,”
Says Ben to Claire.


"Counting The Beats"

by Robert Graves

You, love, and I,
(He whispers) you and I,
And if no more than only you and I,
What care you or I?

Counting the beats,
Couting the slow heart beats,
The bleeding to death of time in slow heart beats,
Wakeful they lie.

Cloudless day,
Night, and a cloudless day,
Yet the huge storm will burst upon their heads one day
From a bitter sky.

Where shall we be,
(She whispers) where shall we be,
When death strikes home, O where then shall we be
Who were you and I?

Not there but here,
(He whispers) only here,
As we are, here, together, now and here,
Always you and I.

Counting the beats,
Counting the slow heart beats,
The bleeding to death of time in slow heart beats,
Wakeful they lie.


The Far Side Of Your Moon

By Robert Graves

The far side of your moon is black,
And glorius grows the vine;
Ask anything of me you lack,
But only what is mine.

Yours is the great wheel of the sun
And yours the unclouded sky;
Then take my stars, take every one
But wear them openly.

Walking in splendor through the plain
For all the world to see,
Since none again shall view again
The match of you and me.


The Snapped Thread

By Robert Graves

Desire, first, by a natural miracle
United bodies, united hearts, blazed beauty;
Transcended bodies, transcended hearts.

Two souls, now unalterably one
In whole love always and for ever,
Soar out of twilight, through upper air,
Let fall their sensous burden.

Is it kind, though, is it honest even,
To consort with none but spirits-
Leaving true-wedded hearts like ours
In enforced night-long separation,
Each to its random bodily inclination,
The thread of miracle snapped?


A Pinch of Salt

By Robert Graves

WHEN a dream is born in you
With a sudden clamorous pain,
When you know the dream is true
And lovely, with no flaw nor strain,
O then, be careful, or with sudden clutch
You'll hurt the delicate thing you prize so much.

Dreams are like a bird that mocks,
Flirting the feathers of his tail.
When you sieze at the salt box,
Over the hedge you'll see him sail.
Old birds are neither caught with salt nor chaff:
They watch you from the apple bough and laugh.

Poet, never chase the dream.
Laugh yourself and turn away.
Mask your hunger; let it seem
Small matter if he come or stay;
But when he nestles in your hand at last,
Close up your fingers tight and hold him fast.

Solomon's Seal

By Robert Graves

Peace is at last confirmed for us:
A double blessing, heavily priced,
Won back as we renew our maiden hearts
In a magic known to ourselves only,
Proof against furious tides of error
And bitter ironies of the self-damned:

Perfect in love now, though not sharing
The customary pillow-and our reasons
Appear shrouded in dark Egyptian dreams
That recreate us as a single being
Wholly in love with love.

Under each pyramid lies inverted
Its twin, the sister-bride to Pharaoh,
And so Solomon's sea] bears witness.

Therefore we neither plead nor threaten
As lovers do who have lost faith-
Lovers not riven together by an oath
Sworn on the very brink of birth,
Nor by the penetrative ray of need
Piercing our doubled pyramid to its bed.

All time lies knotted here in Time's caress,
And so Solomon's seal bears witness.


Child with Veteran

By Robert Graves

You were a child and I your veteran;
An age of violence lay between us,
Yet both claimed citizenship of the same
Conversing in our own soft, hidden language,
Often by signs alone.

Our eyelids closed, little by little,
And we fell chained in an enchantment
Heavier than any known or dreamed before,
Groping in darkness for each other's fingers,
Lifting them to our lips.

Here brooded power beyond comparison,
Tremendous as a thousand bee-stings
Or a great volley of steel-tipped arrows
With which to take possession of a province
That no one could deny us,
For the swift regeneration of dead souls
And the pride of those undead.


Powers Unconfessed

By Robert Graves

Diffidently, when asked who might I be,
I agreed that, yes, I ruled a small kingdom
Though, like yourself, free to wander abroad
Hatless, barefooted and incognito.

Abruptly we embraced-a strange event,
The casual passers-by taking less notice
Than had this been a chance meeting of
Nor did we argue over protocol.

You, from your queendom, answerable only
To royal virtue, not to a male code,
Knew me for supernatural, like yourself,
And fell at once head over heels in love;
As I also with you-but lamentably
Never confessed what wrathful powers attest
The Roman jealousy of my male genius.

The poetry of Robert Graves
by Robert Richman

Robert Graves

I stood beneath the wall/ And there defied them all.
—Robert Graves, in “The Assault Heroic”

At the time of his death in December 1985, at the age of ninety, on the island of Majorca, Robert Graves had long been a legendary figure in the literary world. This was due in part to his immense production: nineteen novels and short-story collections, sixty-three books of nonfiction (including translations), and fifty-six volumes of poetry. Because of this extraordinary productivity, Graves is the only serious writer of our time whose career was on a scale we associate more with the previous century than with our own.

Yet there is another and more important reason why Robert Graves became a figure of legend in the literary world of his time. This was his reputation as a rebel. Graves’s fame as a cranky individualist derives, first of all, from his well-known autobiography, Goodbye to All That, published to coincide with his departure from England in 1929. (He went to Majorca, where he remained until the Spanish Civil War caused him to leave in 1936; ten years later he returned to the island and lived out the rest of his life there.) No reader of Goodbye to All That will forget Graves’s bitter account of his youth in Edwardian England—especially the grim years at Charterhouse, the public school he attended between 1910 and 1914—or his moving portrayal of the war that devastated his generation and almost cost him his life.

Graves was part of the literary generation that was profoundly altered by the war. For some, the response took a political form. In the case of Graves, the war only confirmed what he had learned to despise at school. To him, the nastiness of the generals was a larger and more lethal version of the nastiness of his masters at Charterhouse. As he writes in Goodbye to All That: “We [the soldiers] could no longer see the war as one between trade rivals: its continuance seemed merely a sacrifice of the idealistic younger generation to the stupidity and self-protective alarm of the elder.”

Especially vile to Graves was the generals’ cynical misuse of the army’s regimental pride. His war experiences resulted in Graves’s permanent alienation from his country.

When Graves left England in 1929, however, he was fleeing something more than painful memories. He was also running away from the modern world. Poetry, he said, was his “ruling passion,” and he had come to believe that the modern world had little use for poetry, or for the myths that, in his view, it was derived from. The literary and historical works Graves began producing once he settled in Majorca—works which consistently confounded critics and scholars—were clearly conceived by Graves as a means of avenging himself on the modern world he found so loathsome.

These books were not the only strange things emanating from the island, however. Rumors of a liberated sexual atmosphere in the Graves’s household also filtered to the world beyond Majorca. It was said—correctly—that Graves shared his bed with numerous “muses.” It was also said—incorrectly—that Graves had fathered half the children born on Majorca between 1929 and 1975. So well known were Graves’s emancipated views on such matters that in the Sixties Majorca became a mecca for hippies seeking escape from conventional moral taboos. Some no doubt also came for advice on the proper consumption of hallucinogens, the use of which Graves had advocated in his Oxford Addresses on Poetry (1962).

There are some ironies, to be sure, in Graves’s posture as a rebel. For one thing, although the content of many of his books is unconventional, the writing itself isn’t. The poems are in fact written in a traditional style. His prosody might even be described as conservative. In Goodbye to All That, he attempted to account for his dual literary nature by pointing to his family history. His father’s side of the family, he said, was cold, rational, and “anti-sentimental to the point of insolence,” while his mother’s side was gentle, “gemütlich,” “noble and patient.”

Another irony is that Graves in his own life craved guidance. This is nowhere better seen than in his thirteen-year association with the American poet Laura Riding. In the early Twenties, Riding was affiliated with John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate, and with their Fugitive group, which espoused regionalism in literature. Ransom used the occasion of a review in The Fugitive of Graves’s On English Poetry to praise the English poet for his ability to express his “charming personality … without embarrassment in prosodical verse,” something certain unnamed “brilliant minds” (i.e., Pound and Eliot) were, in Ransom’s view, unable to do. At Ransom’s urging Graves initiated a correspondence with Riding in 1924. Two years later she arrived in England and moved into Graves’s house. Graves’s growing attachment to Riding resulted in his separation in 1929 from his first wife, Nancy Nicholson.

The Graves–Riding partnership was a curious one, to say the least. Judging from Martin Seymour-Smith’s biography of Graves, [1] it could easily be characterized by the title of one of Graves’s poems: “Sick Love.” For Graves, Riding was, variously, the incarnation of an ancient Mediterranean moon goddess, the embodiment of the perfection of poetry itself, and a feminist advocating the overthrow of male-dominated society. Whatever role she played, she demanded, and received, total fealty from her subject. The Graves–Riding bond involved far more than Graves’s relinquishing the household to her, or submitting his poems to her for approval, or accepting a subordinate role in their “joint” literary endeavors—all of which he did. The fact is, she treated him, as Tom Matthews, an American writer who stayed with the couple in 1932, observed, “like a dog. There was no prettier way to put it.” Matthews, whose testimony is recorded in Seymour-Smith’s book, wrote that Graves

seemed in a constant swivet of anxiety to please her, to forestall her every wish, like a small boy dancing attendance on a rich aunt of uncertain temper. … Since I admired him and looked up to him as a dedicated poet and a professional writer, his subservience to her and her contemptuous bearing towards him troubled and embarrassed me … she was not so much his mistress as his master.
So enthralled was Graves with Riding that he even emulated her in a (pre-Majorca) 1929 suicide attempt, undertaken because she loved a third party (one Geoffrey Phibbs) and Phibbs loved Nancy Nicholson. Graves leapt from a third-story window after Riding had jumped from the floor above. (This had been preceded by Riding’s drinking Lysol, to no effect.) Graves escaped unscathed; Riding suffered a compound fracture of the spine. According to Seymour-Smith, the police’s grilling of Graves after this incident was “one of the experiences that made him want to leave England.”

The sources of Graves’s idealization of and submission to Laura Riding are well documented in the recently published Robert Graves: The Assault Heroic, 1895–1926 by Richard Perceval Graves, the first installment of a proposed three-volume biography of Graves by his nephew. [2] This volume, which is based on heretofore unreleased family letters, diaries, and extracts from a memoir of Robert by Perceval Graves’s father, is a biographical undertaking of a different kind from Seymour-Smith’s. Seymour-Smith’s narrative is a more or less objective rendering of events. Perceval Graves’s book, on the other hand, is a chronology of Robert’s shifting psychological states. As a means of understanding the poetry, this approach leaves much to be desired. But it is invaluable for comprehending the childhood sources of Graves’s bizarre behavior toward Riding. One is certainly given a sense, by both Seymour-Smith and Graves himself in Goodbye to All That, of the moralistic tenor of the Graves family household. “We learned to be strong moralists, and spent much of our time on self-examination and good resolutions,” writes Graves in Goodbye to All That.

But the revelations in those two volumes pale in comparison to what Perceval Graves divulges. It appears the demand for moral perfection in the Graves home was constant and shrill. The letters Robert’s mother wrote to her children at school are the best evidence of this. These letters, none of which are quoted, “were so emotional and intense,” writes Perceval Graves,

that as I read them more than seventy years later I cannot help feeling terribly sad that my father’s generation of the family were subjected to such intense moral pressure. So often, Amy [Graves’s mother] seems to be equating personal worth with the almost impossibly saintly behavior and self-sacrifice which she was accustomed to demand of herself. Any falling short of the highest ideals is greeted with a terrible sorrow, all the more devastating for being couched in such loving language.
The mania for purity pervaded every aspect of the children’s lives. According to Perceval Graves, Robert’s father would become enraged when he saw “a corner of a page folded down to mark a place, or—still worse—a book left open and face down.” The attempt to make the children morally spotless, Graves says in Goodbye to All That, gave him and his siblings “no hint of [the world’s] dirtiness and intrigue and lustfulness.” As Perceval Graves says about this remark: “the very words Robert chooses to describe this show the extent to which he had been affected by [his mother’s] moralizing.” The result is that it was “very hard,” according to Perceval Graves, “For [Robert] to come to terms with the world as it really is.”

This puts the matter too benignly, however. What Graves was left with was a truly disabling horror of reality, particularly sexual reality. The disgust Graves expresses in Goodbye to All That at the soldiers’ custom of picking up local girls offers some indication of this, as does his reaction to a girl’s advances in a Brussels pension in 1913: “I was so frightened,” he said, “I could have killed her.” Seymour-Smith observes that “physical desire and the sexual act, the ‘thing,’ is what terrifies [Graves].”

Graves’s craving for purity was undoubtedly one source of his poetry, in which he creates a timeless realm beyond history. (In Poetic Unreason, his Oxford thesis that was published in 1925, Graves describes poetry as something as “remote and unrealizable an ideal as perfection.”) It also helps one understand Graves’s taste for Laura Riding’s poetry, the principal feature of which is her self-chastisement for not having attained the requisite flawlessness.

Graves’s craving for purity also sheds light on his attraction first to Nancy Nicholson—a feminist crusader—and then to Riding. In both cases, Graves tried to escape the world’s “dirtiness and intrigue and lustfulness” by submitting himself to someone he invested with redemptive, cleansing powers. (So numinous a realm did Riding inhabit that after a point in their relationship she refused to sleep with him.) Riding’s “unquiet nature and propensity to criticize,” says Seymour-Smith, “was something that Graves was no doubt unconsciously seeking out.” Perhaps it is not all that surprising that Graves, who went to such lengths to spurn what he deemed to be the suffocating moralism of England, became involved with strong-minded women like Nicholson and Riding. The fact is, in England or out, Graves could never escape the stern moralism of family, school, or military; he took it with him wherever he went.

Randall Jarrell believed that Graves’s poetry, along with the theory of poetry he constructed around it, was a sublimation of his life with Laura Riding. There is little reason to disagree. At the heart of Graves’s theory is the idea that all “true” poetry is an invocation of the Mother-Goddess who ruled the world up to the thirteenth century B.C. What Mother-Goddess? you might ask. Well, Graves claimed to have discovered evidence of an ancient matriarchal cult while reading for Hercules, My Shipmate (1945), a retelling of the travels of Jason and the Argonauts. With clues taken from Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough and other anthropological works, Graves concluded that the Mother-Goddess had been ousted by thirteenth-century B.C. invaders of what is now Greece. These invaders installed in her place the Olympian gods. The legacy of this momentous shift in spiritual power is Western civilization as we know it, with its (in Graves’s view) undue emphasis on rationality and order, and distrust of magic and myths—indeed, all forms of “poetic unreason.”

The White Goddess: A Historical Grammar of Poetic Myth, Graves’s 1948 study of Britain’s own dethroned Goddess and her connection to the Mediterranean one, is without a doubt the author at his crankiest. In the words of the critic Douglas Day, the book is “a curious blend of fact and fancy, an often impenetrable wilderness of cryptology, obscure learning, and apparently non sequitur reasoning brought to bear on the thesis that has its roots partly in historic fact, partly in generally accepted anthropological hypotheses, and partly in pure poetic intuition.” Suffice to say that Graves’s attempt to prove the existence of this matriarchal religion— which involved him in readings of medieval Welsh poems, analyses of secret Druidic alphabets, musings on ancient tree-worship, and correlations between Greek and Celtic myth—was fervently rejected by anthropologists and literary critics alike. But this never shook Graves’s confidence, for The White Goddess was in his eyes a document of faith. And its debunking by “rational” critics—who (Graves would assert) are products of a patriarchal society and therefore on a covert search-and-destroy mission for every contemporary manifestation of the Goddess—only served to intensify his devotion. It was the same kind of devotion he had evinced for Riding, who appears to have been for Graves a rare embodiment of the long-lost Goddess.

Poetry, an invocation of this beleaguered antique Muse, was, according to Graves, the most meaningful writing a Goddess-worshiper could undertake. As a result, Graves was quite candid about the ancillary role his books of nonfiction and historical fiction played in his life. These volumes, Graves said, were the “show dogs I breed and sell to support the cat.” This does not mean,however, that Graves ever passed up the chance to use these books as a means of correcting the false history propagated by various anti-Goddess forces. In Wife to Mr. Milton (1943), for example, the English poet is portrayed as a ranting Puritan and his wife Marie as the epitome of charm. (The reverse is closer to the truth.) Hercules, My Shipmate, the British title of which is The Golden Fleece, argues that the triumphs of Jason and the Argonauts in the Mediterranean, and their recapture of the fleece, occurred because Jason had been blessed by the White Goddess. Homer’s Daughter (1955), takes off from Samuel Butler’s conviction that the Odyssey was written not by Homer but by the woman who calls herself Nausicaa in the story. Not surprisingly, the books written before Graves’s mythological “discovery”—I, Claudius (1934), Claudius the God (1935), Count Belisarius (1938), and King Jesus (1943)—show a deep need for some redeeming force. Throughout these popular historical novels is Graves’s preoccupation with the unhappy fate of a pure soul in a corrupt and lustful world.

Graves’s rewriting of the past was not his only means of demonstrating his obeisance to Riding and the White Goddess. It can also be seen in his refusal to develop original plots or psychologically persuasive characters. Judging from these novels, at least, it would appear that the muse tolerated from her vassal no extra-poetic invention. “There is one story and one story only,” goes the first line of Graves’s well-known poem “To Juan at the Winter Solstice,” and Graves seems to have believed this with all his heart. As entertaining as many of these novels are—I, Claudius, King Jesus, and Count Belisarius are certainly good reads—all have an extremely short imaginative reach.

Most of Graves’s nonfiction is similarly scarred. The underlying assumption of both The Greek Myths (1955) and The Hebrew Myths (1964) is the suppression of the various manifestations of the Goddess in antiquity. Graves’s literary criticism, the bulk of which is collected in The Crowning Privilege (1955), has the same narrow focus. Many of the essays seek to expose the rational impulse that has helped undermine “true” poetry throughout the centuries. As one would expect, Graves detests the poetry of Eliot, Pound, and Stevens. In his view, the motives of these modernist poets are critical, not creative.

Perhaps the most important contribution Graves makes in his criticism is his advocacy of the plain style. In a letter from 1920, Graves declared that he wanted to be “able to write … with as much economy of words & simplicity of expression as possible.” Whatever the other defects of his prose, his loyalty to this principle was unwavering.

The one book that does survive as a prose classic is Goodbye to All That. Graves’s autobiography, which was revised thoroughly in 1957—the original edition was written hastily and poorly—is without a doubt his most important book. It captures the spirit of rebellion—of a young man’s bursting free of the shackles of his elders—in a way that few other books of our time do. In the very first pages, Graves writes:

About this business of being a gentleman: I paid so heavily for the fourteen years of my gentleman’s education that I feel entitled, now and then, to get some sort of return.
This refreshingly heady swagger continues to the end of the book.

Nevertheless, posterity will remember Graves best not as a novelist, mythographer, or biographical legend, but as a poet. Graves himself insisted on this, and his critics have obliged. But even if they are right to focus principally on the poetry—for it is the part of Graves’s oeuvre that has the greatest claim on our attention—many have been inclined to make extravagant and faulty judgments of it. Jarrell declared “To Juan at the Winter Solstice” to be one of the century’s greatest poems. Martin Seymour-Smith referred to Graves as “the foremost English-language love poet of this century—and probably of the two preceding ones, too.” And Perceval Graves writes that his uncle “has come to be regarded as one of the finest poets of the twentieth century.”

These claims are unwarranted. Reading through the 1975 edition of Graves’s Collected Poems, one is struck by how fine some of them are. But one is also struck by how much the verse sinks from the weight of the “one story and one story only,” especially the later poems. What impairs the majority of the poems, however, is not the presence of the Goddess theme so much as its treatment. For in a way, Graves is correct: good poetry is on some level an invocation of the Muse, if the Muse is indeed the embodiment of poetic intuition. The bulk of Graves’s verse is marred because he persists in addressing the Muse directly instead of allowing the poem to invoke her implicitly. If Graves had not been so often compelled to be literal—that is, anti-symbolical and anti-metaphorical— he probably would have been freer to take on a wider range of emotional and thematic concerns in his verse. As it is, too large a percentage of his poems are like “In Her Praise”:

This they know well: the Goddess yet abides.
Though each new lovely woman whom she rides,
Straddling her neck a year or two or three,
Should sink beneath such weight of majesty
And, groping back to humankind, gainsay
The headlong power that whitened all her way
With a broad track of trefoil—leaving you,
Her chosen lover, ever again thrust through
With daggers, your purse rifled, your rings gone—
Nevertheless they call you to live on
To parley with the pure, oracular dead,
To hear the wild pack whimpering overhead,
To watch the moon tugging at her cold tides.
Woman is mortal woman. She abides.

On the level of language and technique, this poem is unobjectionable. What undoes “In Her Praise” is its content. By discussing his conception of the Goddess, rather than presenting his emotional response to her, Graves diminishes the poem’s effectiveness, and he shuts out those readers who do not share his almost religious devotion to her.

“To Juan at the Winter Solstice,” the poem Randall Jarrell thought so much of, is a much better poem, if not a great one. It works as well as it does because its charged, resonant language redeems the “one story and one story only”:

There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.
Is it of trees you tell, their months and virtues,
Or strange beasts that beset you,
Of birds that croak at you the Triple will?
Or of the Zodiac and how slow it turns
Below the Boreal Crown,
Prison of all true kings that ever reigned?
Water to water, ark again to ark,
From woman back to woman:
So each new victim treads unfalteringly
The never altered circuit of his fate,
Bringing twelve peers as witness
Both to his starry rise and starry fall.
Or is it of the Virgin’s silver beauty,
All fish below the thighs?
She in her left hand bears a leafy quince;
When with her right she crooks a finger, smiling,
How may the King hold back?
Royally then he barters life for love. …

“On Portents,” another fine poem, also survives the Goddess/Riding theme, not only because of its superb language and technique, but also because the female figure in the poem is more generalized than in “To Juan at the Winter Solstice.” The fact that “she” could refer to any anyone is crucial to the success of the poem:

If strange things happen where she is,
So that men say that graves open
And the dead walk, or that futurity
Becomes a womb and the unborn are shed,
Such portents are not to be wondered at,
Being tourbillions in Time made
By the strong pulling of her bladed mind
Through that ever-reluctant element.

“A Love Story” works well because in it Graves sketches a symbolic landscape—rare for him—which gives the reader an equally rare chance to get extra-literal sense of the poet’s internal emotional state:

The full moon easterly rising, furious,
Against a winter sky ragged with red;
The hedges high in snow, and owls raving—
Solemnities not easy to withstand:
A shiver wakes the spine. …

Much more common is Graves’s literalism, which spoils many of his love poems. “Three Times in Love,” “Crucibles of Love,” and “Depth of Love” are almost entirely devoid of imagery. What one is left with are dry arguments that squeeze most of the inspiring passion out of the poem. Typical in this respect is “The Falcon Woman,” in which love’s power is depleted by Graves’s purely intellectual apprehension of it:

It is hard to be a man
Whose word is his bond
In love with such a woman,
When he builds on a promise
She lightly let fall
In carelessness of spirit.
The more sternly he asks her
To stand by that promise
The faster she flies.

“The Visitation,” on the other hand, succeeds because it is invigorated by an image of a living presence: “Your slender body seems a shaft of moonlight / Against the door as it gently closes. …”

To my mind, Graves’s best poems are the early ones, the majority of which predate his post-Thirties absorption in the Goddess. “Like Snow,” “The Pier Glass,” “Love in Barrenness,” “The Terraced Valley,” and “The Cool Web” are some of the best among them. “The Cool Web,” in particular—in which the poet expresses his gratefulness for the protection from reality that language affords—is exquisitely written. It is also compelling for the way it seems to set the stage for the later poems—the poems in which Graves seeks similar protection from a fallen world in the cold arms of an abstract Goddess:

Children are dumb to say how hot the day is,
How hot the scent is of the summer rose,
How dreadful the black wastes of evening sky,
How dreadful the tall soldiers drumming by.

But we have speech, to chill the angry day,
And speech, to dull the rose’s cruel scent.
We spell away the overhanging night,
We spell away the soldiers and the fright.

There’s a cool web of language winds us in,
Retreat from too much joy or too much fear:
We grow sea-green at last and coldly die
In brininess and volubility.
But if we let our tongues lose self-possession,
Throwing off language and its watery clasp
Before our death, instead of when death comes,
Facing the wide glare of the children’s day,
Facing the rose, the dark sky and the drums,
We shall go mad no doubt and die that way.

Robert Graves never let his tongue “lose self-possession,” but his worship of the Goddess prevented him from securing major status as a poet, largely because it led him to adopt an anti-metaphorical, anti-symbolical stance toward poetry. (He once characterized this in a letter as his habit of discussing things “truthfully and factually.”) The limited imaginative range of his work—the “one story and one story only”—obviously owes everything to her as well.

As reductive as it was, Graves’s fixation seems to have been derived from the terror of reality instilled in him as a child. Laura Riding only exacerbated an existing condition. Reading through Graves’s poems, one finds oneself aching for a dose of the hated world the poet seeks protection from—even that portion of reality which is no more than “dirtiness and intrigue and lustfulness.”

It is the element of “real” emotion that gives the poem “Through Nightmare” its hint of greatness. Like “On Portents,” the poem is generalized enough to make the reader wonder if Graves is perhaps addressing himself, especially in the final stanza. If “Through Nightmare” is indeed Graves’s confession of his timorousness in the face of the nightmare of the modern world, the poem could easily serve as his epitaph, and as a kind of lament for the unfulfilled promise of this enormously gifted, and tragically tormented, writer:

Never be disenchanted of
That place you sometimes dream yourself into,
Lying at large remove beyond all dream,
Or those you find there, though but seldom
In their company seated—
the untameable, the live, the gentle.
Have you not known them? Whom? They carry
Time looped so river-wise about their house
There’s no way in by history’s road
To name or number them.
In your sleepy eyes I read the journey
Of which disjointedly you tell; which stirs
My loving admiration, that you should travel
Through nightmare to a lost and moated land,
Who are timorous by nature.

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  1. Robert Graves: His Life and Work, by Martin Seymour-Smith (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1982). Go back to the text.
  2. Robert Graves: The Assault Heroic, 1895–1926, by Richard Perceval Graves (Viking, 1987). Go back to the text.