Saturday, March 9, 2019

What Men Are Like

by Brett Rutherford


All men are like that, you know,
defensive and brave for honor's sake,
proud of their whiskered privilege,
lord of domains so clearly marked
with the smell of themselves.
They bite the back of your neck
as if they really meant to stay,
arched like that, in the impossible pose
of thrust and domination.

It is not true,
though he fight hordes to assert it,
that you are his sole affinity.
Come night, the moon sees what he is,
lost mariner in search of isles,
driven by lunar gravity
to them, those aching Others lined
on the gap-toothed fences of night.
Sirens in alleyways, dark eyes
on the brows of garbage cans—
for him, adventure is everywhere.

All men, when such a lure
compels them to go, become
what all men ever are:
arch-back, puffy-tailed tomcats.

To Cyrnus

by Brett Rutherford


     Adapted from the Greek of Theognis

My wings shall be the ones you use to fly
in passage over boundless sea and earth;
you’ll hear your name adorning many lips —
a wished-for celebrant at banquet mirth
when youths in loveliness shall bid you sound
again your flute’s melodious breath — my wings,
when you plunge darkling underground
into the melancholy house of death,
shall keep your honor bright, unperishing,
fit for undying fame in your name’s breath.
You shall be the only one of your name
to rise above the seas and shores of Greece,
sweeping from isle to isle the rocky main,
needless of horse at last, effortlessly
drawn by Muses in their violet crowns.
Thus men to come, if they still sing (or earth
and sun abide!) shall know and cherish you
because I loved and kept these letters safe.
Yes, these are my wings you fly upon.

But what is left to me, when I give you to all?
Scorned by your beauty, I burn and fall!


—Revised 2003, 2019

Life Without Siegfried



     Thoughts many years ago while hearing Georg Solti
     and The Chicago Symphony perform Act III
     Of Wagner’s
Götterdämmerung in concert

Here walks young Siegfried by the Rhine,
armed with a Ring the old gods lost,
curled in a fist, that ancient gold,
its sun-gut power crushed to grams
of portable might.
This hero, half-awake,
does not yet know himself.
He has lived among bears and evil dwarfs.
He knows not what power means,
nor in his brazen youth believes
the Rheingold curse’s warning.
As the nixies taunt him, he almost hurls
the thing into the river — let them have it;
it’s neither good for food or fighting —
but he yields instead, self-irked
to danger’s lure — his strong arms
enjoy a good battle. He savors fear
as though the its loss would soften him.

Already you are drugged, young man:
the Tarnhelm poison pours mercury
across your eyes, blinds you to envy
and to those who tread behind you.
You love the hunt, the ardent life,
trinkets are nothing to you
since you eat from trees and hunt-fire.
You are proud of your strength,
your certitude oblivious to oaths
of greed and lust that stalk invisibly.

There is a thin and tender line
between the cynic and the murderer.
One says the hero cannot be,
the other is the proof.

At the last, pathetic youth,
when your eyes are cleansed
by a traitorous cup, you see
how Love and Art are yours,
how you have given her
to fools, when you awakened her,
sent her to warm the glutton crowds,
never to grace your barren hearth.
Then at the surge, when wings of worth
flap with your just demand,
you are slain, your terminus
erupts in raven wings.

Now proud Brunnhilde,
the spiteful demi-goddess, comes,
armed with her timeless grace.
Whom have you killed? she asks
He brought the sun to your side,
you heard his songs, took me,
his freely given gift, in vain.
Come, light the pyre, indeed!
Burn all the souls in whom the hero died,
see if the withering youth in your breast
falls too, like his, when the world
envelops darkness for an age.
His loss has cost you me:
I’ll be no muse for coward bards.
All art and song I strip from you.
Birds even shall be dumb.
Life without Siegfried
must teach you what you have lost.

There burns the maiden Art:
museums blaze, books fall
as leaves, a flaming trumpet
melts, and in the wake
no hearth on earth shall glow again.

The floods of time and folly
bear off the Ring, while gods
who thought themselves undying
turn to dust in an eye-blink.
Now humankind will worship
a wimp’s god, a bloody thorn,
a bleating lamb, a sigil.

Go to the forest black, go where
no church steeple blights horizon.
Stand there, and on a breeze you hear
Brunnhilde’s hymn
changelessly resung:
to have lived, or died,
in the love of the human best
is great, and answerless.



Moving Day

by Brett Rutherford

Sometimes it takes a farewell
to get the earth to yield its promises.
Say an adieu to barren trees,
pack your belongings up in trunks
and packages — and then it starts.
A house in a better neighborhood
no sooner leased than a sun
rekindles every root with nascent spring —

the pigeons hop in mating dance
as if their talons burned from it;
squirrels unfold their nests of leaves
and clamber down to forage seeds;
and through the vast transparency
of paths I see again
the smooth white legs of runners
outdistancing the Spring.

And yet it’s always so.
I move to a place because I think
I will love it, but then I know
I am mistaken. Trees fall,
friends die, the loved do not
love back sufficiently.
I choose a new place because I think
I will love it, but then I know
that age and entropy are the same
everywhere. Too many times
moved ends in invisibility.
This time may be the end of me.

Look at those crocuses, those gold
tipped stalks intent on daffodiling!
Witch-hazel, forsythia, cornelian cherry
teasing with early blossoms!
Windows thrown open, faces
beautiful to behold regard me.

A passing cars’s boom stereo
plays Mahler’s Second Symphony
as it dopplers on by. But here it is:
the moving truck is here. Boxes
encase my every breathing word.
The books have gone to sleep,
all nestled dark with their brethren,
the kitchen disassembled.

Why is the old place so beautiful now?
It is always thus:
When Love must yield
to parting words, she
turns her fairest cheek to kiss.


The Return of Richard Nixon

by Brett Rutherford

Confront them. Wing them away
in a one-way helicopter.
Damn it if they don’t come back
like termites or carpenter ants!

After a “decent interval”
the scoundrel Nixon came back.
He was on the best-seller list,
dashing about the talk shows
a flutter of paper wings
on a rumpled dark suit.

He mingled among diplomats,
pressed the hands of potentates,
showed teeth
behind the wrinkled dough
of a smile,

his head-on gaze at the cameras
said, “You see, I am not crazy.
I could have pushed that button.
But I didn’t.”
He fund-raised for candidates.
He stood in the reception line
and people told their children
as though they met a Borgia,
some Pharaoh of Egypt,
or the dreaded Torquemada,
and lived to tell the tale.

The mirror
made no mistake.
The only reflection he had,
like an old cloth coat,
that skin was hard,
stayed where it was pulled,
that blood coagulated,
vision receded, friends
said they would call
but did not. He heard,
when he walked the golf course
the mocking caddies parroting
“Not a crook. Not a crook.
Not a crook.”

Still, there was talk,
when he rose each day
and put on the requisite tie
and the American flag pin.
They said he wasn’t too old to serve.
The ink of the pardon was dry.
People just don’t remember.
They liked him in China.

I shuddered each time
I saw his face on the news,
and I called out in anger:
America,
don’t give a snake
a leg to stand on.

The Virgin Mary, After One View of the Kama Sutra



by Brett Rutherford

     after the painting by Campin

Flemish Maria has been up all night
reading the sweet books her lover procured,
unruly books with their naughty pictures
of men, and of maids, and of beasts and bees,
verdigris-colored lawns and turquoise skies.
Her nurse concealed them in sewing basket
past the ever-watchful eyes of parents.
She’s read all night, and studied positions
as shown in an otherwise unreadable
quarto that Hans procured from India
(he would explain everything, he told her).
Now night’s dim candlelight has been extinguished
to barter for study in morning's rays.

Another book, the holy one, adorns
the tabletop, but hers, she must conceal
by veiling its more lurid reds in silk.
She dreams of a Bengali gazebo,
how two bronze-banded arms might hold her tight
while two others watch through a latticework,
chestnut-brown eyes upon her nakedness
while she pretends to be none the wiser:
O Eros, what a great game thou art!

To catch the light she kneels; her elbow leans
on velvet cushioning, quite unaware
of how the in-folds and out-turns of gown
have lured two peeping, immaterial ghosts.
First, Gabriel: a beardless, mincing boy,
a winged beauty, but no match for her.
The astral eunuch flaps in like a sparrow
for a chat with the studious maiden.

He tells her what God has in mind. “Why me?”
She can’t imagine why she was chosen.
Her protests will not help— though she is not
a virgin, really-- she has promised, sworn
to flee with her gentle ravisher.

“His name is Hans. He is not remotely
angelic. Odd teeth and a broken nose.
Why not choose that blond, Angelica, who
all but asks for it with a haughty name?”

But the angel babbles on about it —
his speech was memorized, anyway.
He says she’ll be an unwitting mother,
warm hen to an invisible rooster,
then, a mother of one whose destiny
was written in stars and a prophecy.

“No, no,” she says, “I want no part of this.
Hans would never forgive me; how could
he raise a son he did not recognize?”
Down comes Maria’s second visitor.
This one does not negotiate consent:
the ghost streaks down like molten mercury.
The tiny cross he rides like arrow-bolt,
aimed straight at her womb, a battering ram.

This missile is Christ in miniature,
prefigured end already there in seed,
for her, a birth unasked-for, All-Mother-
of-Dead-Son her immortal agony.

Her eyes turn again to the outlawed book.
If she pretends she never heard angel,
that nothing but a gadfly descended,
that a picture is worth a thousands words
of that indecipherable Sanksrit.
She sighs and thinks: That’s Hans on top, and me
on the bottom. Those chestnut eyes behind
the open latticework: watch over us!

Congress in Recess

Reform, like
Zeno’s arrow,
never comes:
before the halfway measure
must come the quarter measure,
before it
the hemi-demi-semi measure,
before it the intention,
never mind the will.
Lacking the single push of empathy,
the bowstring is unreleased;
indeed, it was never pulled.
The fat hand, weighted
with golden rings,
the bribed wrist,
the obligated arm
the withered loins
Medusa-paralyzed.
Fear no arrows from this
sclerotic body.
Congress is in recess.
Congress has been in recess
for longer than anyone
can count.

2009, rev. 2019

The Autumn Fungus


The autumn is full of spores.
They make me forget
bad food, asbestos air,
the unburied corpses
upon the battlefield.
Their mushroom heads
pop up like babies,
their fruiting bodies
fragrant and sensual.
Chilled now,
the brown-and-purple fuligo
no longer creeps
from its fixed place
at rotting tree-root,
but elegant umbrellas,
gray and brown and red-capped
from their own marching line
along the tracery of root-rot,
athwart the squirrel’s
doomed acorn burials.
Shelf fungus drills
into the anguished bark
of the street’s last-standing
copper beech patriarch.
My keen ears make out
the chitter-chit of termites,
the acid-song of carpenter ants,
running a food-race
with their fungal cousins;
my eyes are keen enough to see
that even mushrooms have their mold
inhabitants, that fringe
of Richard-Nixon five o’clock
shadow lining their edges,
black aspergillis, the rot
that dares not speak its name.
Mycophiles delight? The feast
of insects, faery furniture?
I am in no hurry to dine
on any of my chlorophyll-free
kindred. Too soon, I know
their business will be
the digestion of me.


At the Top of the World

by Brett Rutherford


The mountain is not the object of climbing.
Nor does the act of climbing suffice.
To climb is to achieve the height
     from which, alone,
you can describe the overarching beauty
of a curved horizon filled with summits.
It is not the triumph of reaching a top,
but the sudden, dizzying knowledge
that what you scale is but a hair
on the bristled beard of the cosmos.

See now the range of upthrust pyramids
on which you perch, a giddy rider
on the hump of a thousand-mile camel,
a speck on the Andes’ anaconda.
Blue peaks, pure snow, kingdom-encompassing
rainbows, stark shadows as lambent sun
inks fold on fold of airbrush color
upon the distant ranks of staggered hills —
all this you spy, and something more:

upon each mountaintop
     is the form of another climber,
your brother who stands, regards you,
     eye-to-eye your equal.
Or sometimes, in condor solitude,
you find the spike and banner
left by a climber who has come and gone —
sometimes a peak is vacant, but, lo!
     Gaze down vertiginous, and
     a figure is scaling upward towards you.
Is it the same for all who struggle
     out of the shadows into the sun?

You cannot turn back, belong no more
     to the settled valleys,
where they see only your shadow
     and fear it: to them
you are a spectre now, a name
that induces a shudder.

Down there, they hone
     their knives and swords,
covet their neighbors’ acres.
Their cannons spark
     this way           that way
in the distant gorges,
their river-hugging cities
engulfed in flames
as each invades the other.

Could you go down and tell them?
No! Thin air and star-glory,
cloud-food and fog
are now your homeland.
On what goes on below,
crusaders on horseback,
earth-drilling rape of the mantle,
the belching sulfurous fires,
the gods and their mountains
look down in scorn.

2018 revision



Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Wotan Meets Siegfried

by Brett Rutherford


You, Wanderer,
     graybeard and granite-skinned,
          obdurate in wind, leaning
          upon an ancient staff:
what storm
brews now inside
those stony silences?
You loved
     a woman once, a son
     sprung from her easily —
     through him, a son again.
Is that him,
     now climbing the crag
     to goat heights,
     his golden locks
     a laugh
     at your receding gray?
Who are you
     anyway, the stripling asks,
     under that hat?
     Why is its brim so wide,
     why does it droop
     across your face like that?

You answer
     uneasily, It is the way
     of travelers to bend
     a hat against the wind.

He spies
     your missing eye,
     your need to defend
     a sightless side.
     Somebody else whose way
     you blocked, no doubt
     he plucked it out?

Taunting,
     the young man edges
     to pass,
     barred by
     your swifter arm,
     your staff of ash.

You know him now,
     Siegfried, son of Sigmund;
     you say: The eye I lost
     is one of the ones you use
     to see the one I have left
.

He is not much for riddles.
He breaks your staff.
He pushes you aside
like an inconvenient boulder.
You have nothing to tell him
he cares to hear about.
Even with ravens to help,
you never saw anything coming.
Entropy scorns the immortal.

On Rhyming Poetry


by Brett Rutherford

     A parody of Barbara Holland’s “Black Sabbat”,
     upon the occasion of being forced
     to listen to doggerel)

Thou shalt not suffer a rhyme
     to live;
thou shalt not suffer a rhyme.

for rhymes are tedious
merely in their existence.

Four hundred years ago you
     bored us on the page,
now in this steel-stitched century
     you tease us!

Often I have been aware of you,
of your comings and goings
     at the end of the line,
but it was not until I saw
     the pack of you,
a word-snarl of mouthing lips,
bloated with overscanning,
count-fingering, thumbs in the heart
of a rhyming dictionary —
drinking the blood of a line
that was good by accident
in the gray wet light of high school ...

until I saw you fawning before
that goat-headed one
to whom you pledged Art
on pain of strangulation —

Desist! No more. Some poems
may walk the railroad track of verse,
but do not call your hammered-rhyming
thing a Poem. Begone, gadfly! Shut up,
you sledgehammer-pile-driving woodpecker!

What Men Are Like

by Brett Rutherford All men are like that, you know, defensive and brave for honor's sake, proud of their whiskered privilege, l...