A Poet Of Our Climate -- 11 Poems of Katha Pollitt

A Poet Of Our Climate

By Katha Pollitt

History's gilt and grandiose opulence
he scorned from the start, that rose-and-gold-lit cloud
bashing itself perpetually overhead
to new fake marbles, spurious monuments --
and the smell of history: peonies and trenches.

Truth had no past. It was wordless as water, a fall
of shadow on stone. How he longed to approximate silence,
to see himself vanish into the hushed expanse
of snow in Ohio. Someday he would. Meanwhile,
he kept his lines short, and his vocabulary small.


Small Comfort

By Katha Pollitt

Coffee and cigarettes in a clean cafe,
forsythia lit like a damp match against
a thundery sky drunk on its own ozone,

the laundry cool and crisp and folded away
again in the lavender closet-too late to find
comfort enough in such small daily moments

of beauty, renewal, calm, too late to imagine
people would rather be happy than suffering
and inflicting suffering. We're near the end,

but O before the end, as the sparrows wing
each night to their secret nests in the elm's green dome
O let the last bus bring

love to lover, let the starveling
dog turn the corner and lope suddenly
miraculously, down its own street, home.


Integer Vitae

By Katha Pollitt

The beautiful gray dog
loping across the lawn
all afternoon for the sheer
joy of summertime,

bees at their balm, the dragonfly
asleep on a raspberry leaf—
that's how we'd live
if living were enough

innocent, single-hearted
like the mourning dove who's called
his mate in the cool dawn
from one pine for a thousand years.

These do not wake in tears
nor does deception drive them
down to the blue pond
where the beaver, prince

of chaos, who appeared
alone as if from nowhere
is tirelessly constructing
his dark palace of many rooms.



By Katha Pollitt

"Our real poems are already in us, and all we can do is dig."
-Jonathan Galassi

You knew the odds on failure from the start
that morning you first saw or thought you saw,
beneath the heatstruck plains of a second-rate country
the outline of buried cities. A thousand to one
you'd turn up nothing more than the rubbish heap
of a poor Near Eastern backwater:
a few chipped beads,
splinters of glass and pottery, broken tablets
whose secret lore, laboriously deciphered,
would prove to be only a collection of ancient grocery lists.
Still, the train moved away from the station without you.

How many lives ago
was that? How many choices?
Now that you've got your bushelful of shards
do you say, give me back my years
or wrap yourself in the distant
glitter of desert stars,
telling yourself it was foolish after all
to have dreamed of uncovering
some fluent vessel, the bronze head of a god?
Pack up your fragments. Let the simoom
flatten the digging site. Now come
the passionate midnights in the museum basement
when out of that random rubble you'll invent
the dusty market smelling of sheep and spices,
streets, palmy gardens, courtyards set with wells
to which, in the blue of evening, one by one
come strong veiled women, bearing their perfect jars.


Metaphors of Women

By Katha Pollitt

What if the moon
was never a beautiful woman?
Call it a shark shearing across black water.
An ear. A drum in a desert.
A window. A bone shoe.

What if the sea
was discovered to have no womb?
Let it be clouds, blue as the day they were born.
A ceremony of bells and questions.
A toothache. A lost twin.

What if a woman
is not the moon or the sea?
Say map of the air. Say green parabola.
Lichen and the stone that feeds it.
No rain. Rain.


To an Antartic Traveler

By Katha Pollitt

When you return from the country of Refusal,
what will you think of us? Down there. No was final,
it had a glamor: so Pavlova turns,
narcissus-pale and utterly self-consumed,
from the claque, the hothouse roses; so the ice
perfects its own reflection, cold Versailles,
and does not want you, does not want even Scott,
grinding him out of his grave--Splash! off he goes,
into the ocean, comical, Edwardian,
a valentine thrown out. Afternoons
in the pastry shop, coffee and macaroons,
gossip's two-part intricat inventions
meshed in the sugary air like Down and Across
of an endless Sunday puzzle--
what will such small temporizations mean
to you now you've travelled half the world and seen
the ego glinting at the heart of things?
Oh, I'm not worried, I know you'll come back
full of adventures, anecdotes of penguins
and the pilot who let you fly the cargo--but
you'll never be wholly ours. As a green glass bottle
is mouthed and rolled and dragged by the sea until
it forgets its life entirely--wine, flowers, candles,
the castaway's save me meticulously
printed in eleven languages--and now
it rests on the beach-house mantel
opalescent, dumb:
you'll stand at the cocktail party
among the beige plush furniture and abstracts,
and listen politely, puzzled, a foreigner
anxious to respect our customs but not quite
sure of the local dialect, while guests
hold forth on their love of travel--
and all the time you hear
the waves beat on the shore for a million years
go away go away go away
and the hostess fills your glass and offers crackers.

They named a moutain after you down there.
Blank and shining, unclimable,
no different from a hundred nameless others,
it did not change as you called it from the helicopter
it was your name that changed
spinning away from you round and around and around
as children repeat a word
endlessly until at last it comes up pure
nonsense, hilarious. It smashed
and lay, a shattered mirror
smiling meaninglessly up at you from the unmarked snow.

More lasting than bronze is the monument I have raised
boasted Horace, not accurately, and yet
what else would we have him think? Or you,
that day you wrote yourself on the world itself
and as the pilot veered away forever
saw mist drift over your mountain almost immediately
and your name stayed behind
a testament of sorts, a proof of something
though only in the end white chalk
invisibly scribbled on a white tabula rasa.


Lives of the Nineteenth Century Poetesses

By Katha Pollitt

As girls they were awkward and peculiar,
wept in church or refused to go at all.
their mothers saw right away,
no man would marry them.
So they must live at the sufferance of others,
timid and queer, as governesses out of Chekhov,
malnourished on theology,
boiled eggs and tea,
but given to outbursts of cries
that embarrass everyone.

After the final quarrel,
the grand renunciation,
they retire upstairs to the attic,
or to the small room in the cheap off-season hotel,
and write, "Today I burned all your letters," or
"I dreamed the magnolia blazed like an avenging angel,
and when I woke, I knew I was in Hell."

No one is surprised when they die young,
having left their savings to a wastrel nephew,
to be remembered for a handful of minor but perfect lyrics,
a passion for jam or charades,
and a letter still preserved in the family archives:
"I send you here with the papers of your aunt,
who died last Tuesday in the odor of sanctity,
although a little troubled in her mind
by her habit, much disapproved of by the ignorant,
of writing down the secrets of her heart."


Abandoned Poem

By Katha Pollitt

It's awful how they look at you
Consumptive, all eyes in their white beds,
Coughing delicately into their handkerchiefs,
And feebly hissing,
"Don't leave us here, you bastard.
This is your fault."
What can you do but agree?

It's no use to harden your heart,
no use to explain why you had to save yourself,
still less to confess
how happy you are without them,
how already you see yourself under the trees in the park.
You read the paper;
you eat a ham sandwich,
then shake out the crumbs for the pigeons,
and walk on, savoring the mild autumnal air
of your new country,
the kingdom of health and silence.


A Walk

By Katha Pollitt

When I go for a walk
and see they're tearing down
some old red plush Rialto
for an office building,
and suddenly realize,
this was where Mama and I saw "Lovers of Terruelle"
three times in a single sitting,
and the drugstore where we went afterwards for ice creams, gone, too,
and Mama's gone,
and my ten-year-old self.

I admire more than ever,
the ancient Chinese poets,
who were comforted in exile
by thoughts of the transience of life,
how, yesterday, for instance,
quince bloomed in the emperor's courtyard,
but today wild geese fly south over ruined towers,
or, O full moon,
that shone on our scholarly wine parties,
do you see us now,
scattered on distant shores?
A melancholy restraint
is surely the proper approach to take in this world.
And so I walk on, recalling Soon Chee-Chee,
who, when old and full of sadness, wrote merely,
"A cool day,
a fine fall."



By Katha Pollitt

Dreaming of our golden boulevards and temples,
our painted palaces set in torch-lit gardens,
our spires and minarets, our emerald harbor,
you won't want to hear about the city we knew,
the narrow neighborhoods of low white houses,
where workmen come home for lunch and an afternoon nap,
old women in sweat-stained, penitental black
ease thier backaches gratefully against doorways,
and the widow who keeps the corner grocery
anxiously watches her child dragging his toy,
who was sickly from birth, and everyone knows
must die soon.

You won't want to know how we lived,
the hot sun, the horse-traders
cheating each other out of boredom,
in the brothel, the prostitutes curling each others hair,
while the madam limps upstairs to feed the canary,
or the young louts, smoking in bare cafes
where old men play dominoes for glasses of cognac.
And how can we blame you?
We, too, were in love with something we never could name.
We never could let ourselves say
that the way the harbor flashed like bronze at sunset,
or the hill towns swam in the twilight like green stars,
were only tricks of the light and meant nothing.
We, too, believed that a moment would surely come
when our lives would stand hard and pure,
like marble statues.
And because we were, after all, only a poor city,
a city like others,
of sailors' bars and sunflowers,
we gave ourselves up to be only a name,
an image of temples and spires and jeweled gardens,
for which reason, we are envied of all peoples,
and even now could not say,
what life would have to be
for us to have chosen it.



By Katha Pollitt

The boy who scribbled
"Smash the state" in icing
on his wedding cake
has two kids and a co-op
reads, although pretends not to,
the Living section,
and hopes for tenure.
Everything's changed since we played
Capture the red flag, between Harvard Yard and the river.
Which of us dreamed that history,
who grinds men up like meat,
would make us her next meal?
But here we are
in a kind of post-imperial, permanent February,
with offices and apartments,
Faulk latecomers out of a Stendhal novel,
our brave ambitions run out into sand,
into resaurants and movies,
to lie at the Cape,
where the major source of amusement
is watching middle-aged Freudians
snub only younger Marxist historians.
And yet, if it's true,
as I've read, that the starving body eats itself,
it's true, too, it eats the heart last.
We've lost our moment of grandeur,
but, come on, admit it,
aren't we happier?
And so, let's welcome the child
already beginning, who'll laugh,
but not cruelly, I hope,
at our comfy nostalgias,
and praise, friends, praise
this marriage of friends and lovers
made in a dark time.

A Brief Bio of Katha Pollitt

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From The Nation (http://www.thenation.com/directory/bios/bio.mhtml?id=22)

Columnist Katha Pollitt is well known for her sharp and provocative analyses of popular culture and politics. Her "Subject to Debate" column, which The Washington Post called "the best place to go for original thinking on the left," began in January 1994 and appears every other week in The Nation; it is frequently reprinted in newspapers across the country. Pollitt counts Susan Sontag, Gloria Steinem and Naomi Wolf among her many vocal fans and Camille Paglia--who wrote recently that she hopes Pollitt "burns in hell" for her analysis of Katie Roiphe's The Morning After--among her critics.

A superb stylist, Pollitt can always be relied on for her wit and her keen sense of both the ridiculous and the sublime. In the past her Nationessays have targeted "family values," surrogate mothers and "difference feminism," among other topics. More recently, her column has tackled teenage motherhood, welfare "dependency," abortion's place in health care reform, the Million Man March, the French strikes of fall 1995 and Shakespeare in the canon.

Pollitt has been contributing to The Nation since 1980. Her 1992 essay on the culture wars, "Why We Read: Canon to the Right of Me..." won the National Magazine Award for essays and criticism. Also in 1992, she won the Whiting Foundation Writing Award; in 1993 her essay "Why Do We Romanticize the Fetus?" won the Maggie Award from the Planned Parenthood Federation of America.

For her poetry, Pollitt has received a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Guggenheim Fellowship. Her 1982 book Antarctic Travellerwon the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her poems have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Grand Street, Yale Review, Poetryand Antaeus.

Pollitt has also written essays for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, The New Republic, Harper's, Mirabella, Ms., Glamour, Mother Jones, and The New York Times.She has appeared on NPR's Fresh Airand All Things Considered, Charlie Rose, The McLaughlin Group, CNN, Dateline NBCand the BBC.

A collection of her writings, Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism,was published by Knopf in 1994. In February 2001, Random House will publish Subject to Debate: Sense and Dissents on Women, Politics, and Culture.Born in New York City, she was educated at Harvard and the Columbia School of the Arts and has taught poetry at Barnard College and the 92nd Street Y.