The Wife’s Complaint


I make a point of reading English or American poetry more than translation, more than anything to find how fluent my own native language can get. Nonetheless, there are a few books in translation which are among my favorites. These include the Bible above all else, and Kenneth Rexroth’s translations, and the volume this poem is drawn from, Michael Alexander’s Earliest English Poems.

Indeed Alexander’s translations here have a great eloquence, gravity through their form, and sadness in their seriousness.  He holds to a faithfulness of form. The diction is rooted in Old English Anglo-Saxon vocabulary. And in some poems, though not here, the Old English bardic metric formula is kept. That meter has four stresses per line. At least three of them are alliterative. There is also a heavy pause between the two halves of the line, during which some propose a drum or other instrument could have been struck. The impact of this meter could hardly be more heavy and emphatic on the key words, yet it retained vitality by the flexibility of the unstressed syllables, the alternation of alliterative sounds every line, and the unremitting vigor of the subject matter. Click on this link to open The Wife’s Complaint.

Wilfred Owen’s Spring Offensive


Spring Offensive

Halted against the shade of a last hill,
They fed, and, lying easy, were at ease
And, finding comfortable chests and knees
Carelessly slept. But many there stood still
To face the stark, blank sky beyond the ridge,
Knowing their feet had come to the end of the world.

Marvelling they stood, and watched the long grass swirled
By the May breeze, murmurous with wasp and midge,
For though the summer oozed into their veins
Like the injected drug for their bones’ pains,
Sharp on their souls hung the imminent line of grass,
Fearfully flashed the sky’s mysterious glass.

Hour after hour they ponder the warm field —
And the far valley behind, where the buttercups
Had blessed with gold their slow boots coming up,
Where even the little brambles would not yield,
But clutched and clung to them like sorrowing hands;
They breathe like trees unstirred.

Till like a cold gust thrilled the little word
At which each body and its soul begird
And tighten them for battle.  No alarms
Of bugles, no high flags, no clamorous haste —
Only a lift and flare of eyes that faced
The sun, like a friend with whom their love is done.
O larger shone that smile against the sun, —
Mightier than his whose bounty these have spurned.

So, soon they topped the hill, and raced together
Over an open stretch of herb and heather
Exposed.  And instantly the whole sky burned
With fury against them; and soft sudden cups
Opened in thousands for their blood; and the green slopes
Chasmed and steepened sheer to infinite space.

Of them who running on that last high place
Leapt to swift unseen bullets, or went up
On the hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge,
Or plunged and fell away past this world’s verge,
Some say God caught them even before they fell.

But what say such as from existence’ brink
Ventured but drave too swift to sink.
The few who rushed in the body to enter hell,
And there out-fiending all its fiends and flames
With superhuman inhumanities,
Long-famous glories, immemorial shames —
And crawling slowly back, have by degrees
Regained cool peaceful air in wonder —
Why speak they not of comrades that went under?

Asher Blake’s Astrolabe Prayer


An astrolabe is a mechanism for taking measurements of the stars, it means literally, star taker, and has an elegant circular shape with precision nodes or engravings. This piece speaks to how we face the otherworldliness of Heaven in our (often insufficient) prayers, and by how Earth too can feel otherworldly. This poem fell in my lap as I first listened to a fantastic album by the Nightblooms, Star-Taker.

Astrolabe Prayer

On my knees I bend my ear so close to
the scuttling
insects, hear the tiny
mechanics of their holy travail
I have feared they entered in,
It is the world I cannot hunt or devour,
by no means overcome,
that balances me in the digital
war-room of its eye.

There are many songs in his dance in the dust
step; four dimensions spill the crackling
energy, just as sperm (and spore/seed,)
can fill a jungle.
Speak on the grinding glacier,
emote the epic course
of victory in a weary warrior’s heart.

Type your prayer, lacking carpet and collection
plate for eucharist, commune with me.
We are as wounded gods, poisoned by
our bite, smoldering creatures
hating to be cast off, but playing
at puppetry ourselves.

Truth to my dog: saying,
the patience is all with her.
Even my beard, fuzzy
ball around my face frustrates me,
but she reclines like a prodigy matured.

Yes, I am taken in my prayers,
I say Sunny, to thrift, to knit
all the little hills we rove,
the rain-rivened, alien hemmed
fields. Like a paper astrolable
I am taken to the contemplation
in my prayers.

They are not even a hill
of beans. My folded hands
are flightless bent-nosed
paper aeroplanes a child throws.
I hold not the power of displacement
in an ant’s possession,
for he exerts all his being
making home,
where I have less in this plaster
cut, these closets that cloak me,
offer me a day.

Loss unless the backbone has been ghosted.
I lie along the skirt, the fringe
of a creative mastermind
in common, like a doodle of a cat
on a napkin’s back.
God, turn me over.

Flip me in your hand like the life of Samson.
Seven zones and locks, seven
dams and docks.
If we can heart lie,
how much can we bear the silver sheen
in wing when we glorify.

Sir Thomas Wyatt’s Psalm 38


(I have for readability modernized Wyatt’s poem, primarily changing spelling and archaic diction.)

Sir Thomas Wyatt (1503?-1542) was a courtier in the time of Henry VIII. Some historians believe that Wyatt fell in love with the woman King Henry also desired to marry, and that this may have been one of the reasons for his two imprisonments. Wyatt’s life was spared, and he lived to be an ambassador to France, Spain, and Italy.

Wyatt imported many verse forms from continental Europe, helping establish the sonnet in England.  Though not published until 1557, fifteen years after his death, he was the most represented poet in Tottel’s Miscellany, with 96 poems. That volume was the first anthology of English poetry.

Wyatt made versions, perhaps too loose to be called translations, of the seven “Penitential Psalms”. They are Psalms 6, 32, 38, 51, 102, 130, 143. All of Wyatt’s versions employ terza rima, which is an interlocking rhyme scheme aba bcb cdc etc. In this Psalm 38 the rhyme pattern may have been useful to express instability and the desire for constancy.

This link opens to the KJV translation of the same psalm, made a bit later, at the turn of the 17th century, [Psalm 38 in the King James Bible.] Wyatt’s is a good distance from the original text. His version is 50% longer than the more literal King James Version. But Hebrew is a very concise language, and Psalm 38 in the KJV is more than 300% longer, by word count, than the original.

Sir Thomas Wyatt’s Version of David’s Psalm 38

O Lord, as I have thee both prayed and pray,
Although in thee be no alteration,
But that we men, like as our selves we say
Measuring thy Justice, by our mutation,
Chastise me not (oh lord) in thy furor
Nor me correct, in wrathful castigation.
For that thy arrows, or fear, or Terror
Of sword, of sickness, of famine, of fire
Sticks deep in me, I (lo) from my error
Am plucked up, as horse out of the mire
With stroke of spur; such is thy hand on me
That in my flesh, for terror of thy ire
Is not one point of firm stability
Nor in my bones, there is no steadfastness:
Such is my dread of mutability
For that I know my fearful wickedness.
For why? my sins above my head are bound
Like heavy weights, that do my force oppress
Under the which I stoop, and bow to the ground
As willow plant, hailed by violence;
And of my flesh, each not well cured wound
That is festered by folly and negligence,
By secret lust, hath rankled under skin
Not duly cured, by my penitence.
Perceiving thus the tyranny of sin
That with weight, hath humbled and depressed
My pride by grudging of the worm within
That never dies, I live without rest
So are my entrails infected with fevered sores
Feeding my harm, that have my wellness oppressed
That in my flesh, is left no health therefore.
So wondrous great has been my vexation
That it forced my heart to cry and roar.
O lord you know the tears of my lamentation
Cannot express my heart’s inward restraints.
My heart pants, my force I feel it quail,
My sight, my eyes, my look decays and faints,
And when my enemies did me most assail
My friends most sure, wherein I set most trust—
My own virtues—soonest then did fail
And stood apart. Reason and wit unjust
As kin unkind, were farthest gone at need.
So had they place their venom out to thrust
That sought my death by naughty word and deed.
Their tongues reproach, their wit did fraud apply
And I like one deaf and dumb with no lead,
Going without heed abroad, nor has to reply
Not one word again. Knowing that from your hand
These things proceed, and thou lord shalt repay
My trust in that where I stick and stand,
Yet have I had, great cause to dread and fear
That you would give my foes the upper hand.
For in my fall they showed such pleasant cheer,
That therefore, I always in the lash
Abide the stroke, and with me everywhere
I bear my fault, that greatly does abash
My doleful cheer; for I my fault confess,
And my desert does all my comfort dash.
In the mean while my enemies still increase
And my provokers hereby do augment,
That without cause to hurt me do not cease.
In evil for good against me they be bent
And hinder shall, my good present of grace.
Lo now my God, that sees my whole entente,
My lord, I am thou knowest in what case.
Forsake me not, be not far from me gone
Haste to help, haste lord, and haste apace,
O lord, the lord, of all my health alone.

Marianne Moore’s Elephants


by Marianne Moore

Uplifted and waved till immobilized
wistaria-like, the opposing opposed
mouse-gray twined proboscises’ trunk formed by two
trunks, fights itself to a spiraled inter-nosed

deadlock of dyke-enforced massiveness. It’s a
knock-down drag-out fight that asks no quarter? Just
a pastime, as when the trunk rains on itself
the pool it siphoned up; or when–since each must

provide his forty-pound bough dinner–he broke
the leafy branches. These templars of Tooth,
these matched intensities, take master care of
master tools. One, sleeping with the calm of youth,

at full length in the half-dry sun-flecked stream-bed,
rests his hunting-horn-curled trunk on shallowed stone.
The sloping hollow of the sleeper’s body
cradles the gently breathing eminence’s prone

mahout, asleep like a lifeless six-foot
frog, so feather light the elephant’s stiff
ear’s unconscious of the crossed feet’s weight. And the
defenseless human thing sleeps as if

incised with hard wrinkles, embossed with wide ears,
invincibly tusked, made safe by magic hairs!
As if, as if, it is all ifs; we are at
much unease. But magic’s masterpiece is theirs–

Houdini’s serenity quelling his fears.
Elephant-ear-witnesses-to-be of hymns
and glorias, these ministrants all gray or
gray with white on legs or trunk, are a pilgrims’

pattern of revery not reverence–a
religious procession without any priests,
the centuries-old carefullest unrehearsed
play. Blessed by Buddha’s Tooth, the obedient beasts

themselves as toothed temples blessing the street, see
the white elephant carrying the cushion that
carries the casket that carries the Tooth.
Amenable to what, matched with him, are gnat

trustees, he does not step on them as the white-
canopied blue-cushioned Tooth is augustly
and slowly returned to the shrine. Though white is
the color of worship and of mourning, he

is not here to worship and he is too wise
to mourn–a life prisoner but reconciled.
With trunk tucked up compactly–the elephant’s
sign of defeat–he resisted, but is the child

of reason now. His straight trunk seems to say: when
what we hoped for came to nothing, we revived.
As loss could not ever alter Socrates’
tranquillity, equanimity’s contrived

by the elephant. With the Socrates of
animals as with Sophocles the Bee, on whose
tombstone a hive was incised, sweetness tinctures
his gravity. His held-up fore-leg for use

as a stair, to be climbed or descended with
the aid of his ear, expounds the brotherhood
of creatures to man the encroacher, by the
small word with the dot, meaning know–the verb bud.

These knowers “arouse the feeling that they are
allied to man” and can change roles with their trustees.
Hardship makes the soldier; then teachableness
makes him the philosopher–as Socrates,

prudently testing the suspicious thing, knew
the wisest is he who’s not sure that he knows.
Who rides on a tiger can never dismount;
asleep on an elephant, that is repose.

Asher Blake’s Brazilian Idyll


Brazilian Idyll

oh Brazil,
oh coastland Tropicalia…
loose eyes are helpless.
I hold them with my eyes closed.
Closed by your clinging arms
like jungle vines,
my mouth filled with whatever
you call me, you drive
your jeep swaying
with our friends like wedding canopies
headed to the sea.

Left over microwaves are in the skirts
of the Manhattan girls.
The glass was dropped with ice,
dimpled with flossing ice and gin.
Hills leap at their untilled skin.
A morsel of advice:
his drink and your crushed body
beneath the music
leaves a habit dry, nerves for good.

Rented rooms fueled
with birdseed, with grains
of sun. Their text messages
could have been our text messages.
They culminate in doors, in depth interviews,
and your pregnant aphorisms that began
more often when I left.
The cosmos rubbed the mother
and father of fat,
eden, age, against my sheaths
of hair, shampoos me with its suds,
all over, rinses, yields
me, your woman, fresh words,
tongue, upon your trembling, twining, fingers.
Speak your mind.
What the Heavens can make you’ll see.

Linton Johnson’s If I Woz A Top Notch Poet


This is performance poetry that lives or dies by the tongue. Johnson’s reflections are perfectly sharp and honed to be light and substantial at the same time.  His sound really is sublime, and he makes his Jamaican patois an asset, not only a statement, in several places. This poem shows his complex multi-dimensionality as a grown person; not just bragging or rotting in simple envy, but from humility striking out in a restive claim to greatness that he can deliver on.  But Johnson is a serious and honored poet.  See another one of his poems, a more serious one, here .  Experience more jaw dropping British performance poetry here.

Linton Johnson’s New Crass Massakah


The following poem was written by Johnson as a memorial for a 1981 London house fire that took the lives of 13 young people at a party in New Cross, London. There was an outcry because of suspicions of race motivated arson, white indifference, and a police cover up.

New Crass Massakah
by Linton Kwesi Johnson

first di comin
an di goin
in an out af di pawty

di dubbin
an di rubbin
and di rackin to di riddim

di dancin
and di scankin
an di pawty really swingin

den di crash
an di bang
an di flames staat fit rang

di heat
an di smoke
an di people staat fi choke

di screamin
and di cryin
and di diein in di fyah…

The author here, Linton Kwesi Johnson, is a Jamaican born poet and Reggae/Dub musician. He moved to London around the age of 11 and developed a strong political consciousness as a black youth and immigrant from a former colony. In his verse he brings significant boldness to race issues. Even as a boy he joined the British Black Panthers, and organized a poetry workshop in its ranks. Over the decades he has attained success in England, Europe, and Jamaica, for his writing and recordings.

This poem is remarkable for its even-handedness, skillful change of tone, its gravity, musicality, the immediacy of description, and its tonal and syllabic control. It is like a dub track in reducing the entire experience to a few elements in the palette. Johnson brings effects to mind through smooth and artful cycles. He foregoes attempting to create a full symphony by an arrangement of small aural effects, but does create big effects inside the reader’s mind while remaining technically small. And that is a dub choice. After all, Mozart or Albert King could create a really big dramatic sound with a few notes, but dub riddims keep the modest sound and still make a big impact.

I wrote a poem recently inspired by a dub toast, which is a spoken rap over a dub beat. The speaker though is not a DJ, but a sound engineer, like King Tubby, (pictured above,) or Scientist. This poem I have written is nothing compared to Johnson’s serious work of actual craftsmanship, I include it though hoping it is not worse than nothing at all. Click on this link to read Spinning Chester.  Admittedly, the poem does not reflect Jamaican speech patterns, patois or standard, in the street or on the mic. The diction reflects my own sense of song lyric, my own writing style, but it is embroidered on the theme of the dub toast.
(Linton Johnson pictured below.)

Linton Johnson