Writers in Kyoto is proud to number the poet and scholar Mark Richardson among its members. As well as his own writings, he is widely known for his work on Robert Frost and the ongoing editorship of his letters. (For previous features on Mark’s poetry, please see his self-introduction with poems and a report of The Two Marks event.)
Poets are known for being reticent to comment on their poems, preferring to let them speak for themselves. On this occasion, however, WiK has prevailed on Mark to provide commentaries for his poems. So please don’t fail to scroll down after reading the poems to see what Mark has to say about them. This is a rare opportunity to gain insight into the mind of a contemporary poet – and on the reasons why he writes.
FOUR POEMS (Mark Richardson)
The Delicate Investigation
A jet went porpoising over
the Sinai—a happy omen,
said the Phoenicians, showing
its back above the pea-green sea
on all the scopes; and then it came
down; and maybe it was some sort
of catastrophic midair breakup
like the one Queen Caroline
began to have in 1806, or the one
Charles and Diana began to have
in 1992, before she tunneled out;
and maybe it was brought down;
and maybe some boots on the ground
heard voices in the rubble,
and tried clicking on them
in Egyptian, or Cyrillic, or XML;
and maybe the links were dead.
I wonder if jets ever crab or whale.
I know they have bellies and noses,
tails and skin; and that the day of the Lord
so cometh as a harlot in the night,
of great engine.
The Fable of the Commons
If you can hear me now, you must be safe.
I can confirm receipt of a wire transfer
In the amount of 3.8 million US dollars.
We’re ready to close. Yes, the man with the earpiece
Stepped into a phone booth and opened the spigot.
I watched him stamp his feet in the steam.
He exited the booth and waved. He wore a holster.
Then the crew arrived. They set up a greenscreen
And placed a monitor in front of me—in front of us I mean
(The man with the earpiece was back). So we watched
Ourselves. We could’ve been anywhere, but where we were
Was on a bridge. Below us, a trolley “hurtled”
Down a track toward a woman in her eighth month.
To my right, something obese manifested itself.
I couldn’t stop looking at the mustard on his shirt.
The woman on the track laid a hand across her belly
And blew us a kiss. The fat man offered me a wreath.
“I’ll be damned,” said the guy with the earpiece.
“I’ve never had a trolley problem before.”
He showed his gun and slapped me on the back.
Soldiers walked by on phantom limbs. I thanked them
For their service. The trolley swept under the bridge.
The woman’s face became a sonogram. I couldn’t stop
Laughing. No one could, out here in the commons.
The Book of Job
I woke this morning to find the elevator
I slept in under repair. I couldn’t get out of it.
I couldn’t make it go up and down
In the world. So I went back to sleep.
That event was televised, live, on eleven floors.
I had a dream: I pissed in a cup and yellow-flagged
For benzodiazepines. Then the goons arrived
With their headless states and platters.
I came to in handcuffs, with blood on my shoes.
I was at a table outside a cafe in Madrid.
A woman sat beside me. She leaned in close
And snuffed out a beetle with her cigarette.
It died with a sweet-smelling savour.
And then she bit my earlobe. Somewhere,
A nerve switched on its siren and crossed a lane.
“The Generalissimo sent me,” she said,
And produced a key. It was a happy day,
With great force and violence. We sowed tares
While waiters took siesta. All afflictions begin
From malice by the Lord’s permission, for wise and holy
Purposes. And so shall it be till the end of the world.
The Old World’s Fading
Speech hiked up its skirt in our apartment,
Shit-staining the air. I—well, I was what I was.
I became a flock of echoes, listening to myself
Behind a door, bound in baling wire,
Waiting to be choppered out and find a level.
The remains are off to the right, chickadee. See to them.
I learned to fall down hard in last week’s lesson.
I attained a state of indigo, and the bugler played tattoo.
Never leave the paperwork in your car. Never.
I am the objective correlative of what you’re reading.
Fear people who kill the spirit and, afterward,
Have nothing better to do than dine.
Who are you undermining now, in the big dig?
Spark off some methane. Beauty and truth are canary yellow—
All manner of snowjobs of yesteryears for dreaming on.
I stand so much done for, so much alive—wherever you are
In the ruck. The set’s cut loose in the Western World.
We’re losing our grips, our best boys. Let’s have a show of hands.
Funny, this people-smuggling love—fetched up in pails fresh
From the well of hate, with spreadsheets of lilies and wakes.
The Delicate Investigation
When a Russian Airbus A321-200 crashed in the Sinai last Halloween, I happened to be reading Edward J. Trelawny’s Recollections of the Last Days of Shelley and Byron. The aviation talk interested me (I heard consultants use it on TV): the jet was said to have been “porpoising” (flying along a sine wave), and to have suffered some kind of “catastrophic midair breakup.” This was before it was clear that a bomb had done it. The Phoenicians used to ply the waters off the Sinai, and the antagonisms in that part of the world are usually said to be “ancient” (as if that explains them). The scandal involving Queen Caroline comes up in Trelawny’s book. That was the first I ever heard of it, so I read the article about it at Wikipedia. The 1806 affair brought to mind the scandal (and the conspiracy mongering) to do with Princess Diana. The inquiry into Queen Caroline’s indiscretions was called “The Delicate Investigation” (some of it was clandestine). I expected the investigation in the Sinai to be both delicate and clandestine. The poem may seem callous (244 people died in the crash). My attention was on the way people talk about jets. I wanted an old, obsolete sense for “engine” at the end, which I remembered from reading Shakespeare. I borrowed a phrase from 1 Thessalonians 5 in order to use it.
The Fable of the Commons
Years ago I registered a dot-com domain name. I’ve never used it, but one result of the registration is that I inadvertently get “copied” on emails sent to and from a law firm in Texas that uses the same domain name. (How can this happen?) Most of the email I get concerns arrangements to kennel dogs in Houston. But occasionally a serious piece of business reaches me, as did the news of a large wire transfer. (I’ve written the firm several times about the email problem; no one ever replies.) So that was my given—the wire transfer. I seem always to require something given. I wrote the first three lines and went from there, thinking of it as one end of a conversation with an unknown party (in Houston, say). I’d just listened to two talks at edge.org. In the first, the philosopher Joshua Greene discusses the fable (or parable) of the commons. That reminded me of another thought experiment moral philosophers use, which Greene also treats in a talk at edge.org: the “trolley problem,” in its several variations, one of which involves a “fat man” on a bridge. I don’t know how greenscreens work, but having seen what comes of them on TV and in movies, I decided to put one in. The result: some of what’s said to happen doesn’t; some of it’s unreal (I mean, even inside the poem).
The Book of Job
I was reading James Tate’s Return to the City of White Donkeys (2004) when I wrote this. I wanted to try something in his line, but he’s much more subtle. Certain details in the first paragraph match the building I live in. What followed I made up, with a few phrases adapted from the book of Job. I don’t remember what led me to wake up in Franco’s Spain, but it seemed right. I could say it was because Federico García Lorca (the surrealist poet) was killed by the nationalists there in 1936, but that would be a lie. I haven’t read Lorca in twenty years and couldn’t say from memory a single line of his. Nor do I know why Ephesians 5:1-2 came to mind: “Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children; And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling savour.” What’s sacrificed here is a spanish fly, which is a type of beetle (I had to find that out at Wikipedia). I used “spanish fly” first, then chose the more generic term.
The Old World’s Fading
A nightmare gave me the opening. The week I had the nightmare, I watched Last Days in Vietnam (a documentary produced for Frontline), with its footage of the evacuation of the US Embassy in Saigon in 1975. I’d seen that footage on the news when I was thirteen. The first two lines in the second paragraph derive from a remark made in Japanese (by someone else) that I ran through Google Translate and edited. I often do that. As for never leaving the paperwork in the car: that’s generally good advice. I heard it in an episode of Vince Gilligan’s Better Call Saul (a spinoff of Breaking Bad). The next paragraph I wrote (again) with scripture in mind (Luke 12:4-5), and also a defunct term from literary criticism. I’d noted somewhere that whereas Americans speak of “human trafficking,” the British often say “people-smuggling.” That difference seemed worth marking. The title I take from a line in “Brother,” by the Kinks (from their 1977 album Sleepwalker). Those familiar with the song know how it begins: “The world’s going crazy and nobody gives a damn anymore.”
Why do I write poems of any kind? I want to make from the stuff that passes through my head—nightmares, bad memories, songs, headlines, editorial pages—something that won’t bore you when I put it on a page. I hope there’s fun in it, no matter how strange. I’m unaware of having anything to express. As is evident from what I say above, I need things given me if I’m to get underway. I’m satisfied when the result harmonizes with some odd mood I’m in, which writing seems to redeem, if only by yielding a return. To say so is to say nothing new.
I started writing poems of the kind you see here in 2014, after I read a book my friend Mark Scott had mentioned to me several times: Making Your Own Days: the Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry, by Kenneth Koch (a poet and friend of John Ashbery and the late Frank O’Hara). It is a very good book. Almost nothing I ever wrote before reading it interests me now. One thing more. “The Old World’s Fading” is part of a book Mark Scott and I wrote together, Poems of Two Friends. WiK kindly invited us to read from it at the Gael last June. The other three poems I wrote more recently.