by Martin Burke (July 2012)
For Robert Gibbons, and in mourning for the death of the true American spirit
Already the emptiness grows and America has begun to die so that even if I
planted a tree the ground I planted it in would be useless
Summer says it is winter and I have no means to dispute this
I want it to be winter, I want there to be snow to cover those graves with that
innocence reserved for a Christ-like one gone to an unwarranted death
Perhaps this is the way the world suffered when Shelly died, or when Homer
fell into blindness and wrote no more, or when Pound gave himself to
the enemies of joy and began to live among everything he had not
You smile, bemused, at this comparison, but nature is not bemused; it is
winter, winter and white, white and growing colder
But no comparison equals a living breath, nor snow equate innocence, nor
silence say what must be said
Something is happening but I don’t know what, something needs to be said
but I don’t know what -as I said: the emptiness is growing
If I spill enough ink, if I exhaust the book of memory will I be able to say it?
If I make a book of shadows and blank spaces what will it contain?
To have always been the self you always were -a many multitude, a voice as
authentic as the voice of Isaiah (and just as necessary) Biblical
America of the old damnations however was not to your liking
The question then is: how do we make common ground with the past when
that ground has been plundered in so many names that seek to hide a
I can also say: “America I love you” but to the whores of war in the capital I
say: “Beware ye sons of bitches for the wrath of Isaiah is coming”
Yet not to hate, not to be a destroyer stalking the new history, nor to call
condemnation upon those who condemn the earth to pain
But to bring the balm of unchanging necessities to the mouths of singing
children, to make with ink a substance more enduring than shadow
What will we believe if we will not believe this? Who will we believe if we do
not believe ourselves?
What will we be if we are not the selves we are?
Yet “Destroy me if you love me” might well have been the inscription upon
your calling card as if you feared disciples would plant nothing but a
clutch of rootless trees
And we walk among them, strangers to intended fruit where prophets are
plentiful but few have authentic voices
Vines refuse to root in sullied earth, orchards are barren; this is not the
vision I hoped for, but for which, if there was but one redeeming
Yet you caution me to be neither unjust nor rash as you say: It’s true there
have been many betrayals but there is much fidelity
Even in death you are charming to the living - there is more to you than I
Thus not as disciple but as companion I make my inroads into America’s
heart: Your America, the one already old before the waters of Europe
washed into Boston harbour
So how could you not be everything you were? Vines refused but you did not
refuse, using only as much ink as was necessary to write a living
signature on a page
How does that feel -to have been There? At a Beginning? To be an essential
witness? Homer and Shelley to a nation seeking its voice, but always
yourself and only yourself and never the self that might be the self
some master would approve of
I pity the earth clutched at by rootless trees - landscape of empty orchards -
wasted fields where wheat once….yet let me not be harsh in my heart
for there is much to love
The first idea, the first fire –how they root into the roots of the mind, how
they ignite the mind!
Thus I have had visions which only an Isaiah could put into words, have
washed in the waters of Boston harbour, have laboured in the fields of
every state bordering the circling oceans
How could I not? What else was I born for? If I offer no water to parched
ground what is my worth to the earth?
At its best –and you were its best, this is the question America asks itself
through those who listen to water, earth and tree
You also a root -also a vine -seed re-planted for the season of need which
has come upon us
Yet see –I try, but the lyrical impulse fails in its intention.
You are dead –and though I’m tempted to make no distinction between living
and dead that distinction has been made
Blake would approve what you approved of and ask no more than that.
Thus there are connections and associations which have no physical equal
in the world yet without which we would be in poverty
Connections -mine with yours, yours with America - what we are talking
about here is so essential that it requires an Einstein to write its
Think of it –‘America’ (not the political America, not the moneyed America)
but the first, original fire in the mind that carried that beautiful name
Yet what was begun requires a voice, not of recapitulation, but of revelation
-a new Isaiah to move inland, making the landscape a page upon
which he writes in ink no water washes from stone
One day your country will understand my anger is caused by love. It has not
become what it set out to be –but there, there at the core, the fires
resides, and warms
This is the fire I offer you as you move among cold shadows –old fire, old
dreams, yet how startlingly new the world is in such light
We are shadows or ink – with which will we write our signature?
Let us not however be naive –there are many who would bury the vision
beneath rootless trees, who say that’s all the vision is worth, but what
is the worth of a coin citing a deity it no longer credits?
Don’t talk of contradictions –a man must be a multitude - but a coin states
the ambitions of a State
We are talking, are we not, of truth and deception, the oldest argument of
the world, the one Isaiah came to batter –the one that nailed Christ to
How then could you escape what was waiting for you?
The page was already written – the ink was composed of shadows at the
bidding of thirty pieces of silver
See –I grow nostalgic for something that has never been -and every poem of
Pound adjudged a crime, nor the lucidity of E.D. admitted to the
And from the empty earth citizens wait for harvest; no wonder the heart of
every prophet is prompted into utterance by dismay.
Obvious truths come begging for admission but the doors of the house of
decisions are closed and will stay closed for Judas holds the key
Yet underfoot –deeper than layers imposed on it, the earth is good and there
are traditions we have yet to discover
Eventually, and it is already upon us, a Kaddish or a canticle will define the
lives we live and even Robert Lowell will seek out the Pequod though
no one, as yet, has discovered the true Atlantis
From Ahab to Pound you can trace a line which searched for that
cartography –yet what did they find but the coordinates of deception?
Once again the contradiction makes itself known, the Kaddish become a
canticle, Leviathan abandons the waters for the inward depth of land
Politics favours the ‘expedient’, the visionary opt for a fiery landscape, the
question becomes what it always has been: ‘Which Jerusalem - and
To which you can imagine Robinson Jeffers replying: “The tower I
constructed as my defence they accused me of and condemned me to”
This tells us nothing we do not already know: that every vision has its
martyr: that fire burns the hand which holds its flame
Much that was done has been undone but must be re-done if we are to
make our books from more than shadows, shades and ghosts
History happens before it happens.
Like the Greeks we see a certain brightness in the air before the Goddess
appears -something like this stirred the Massachusetts air.
At least, that’s how I see it from this distance –but then, geography is not
necessarily my concern though every landscape invites the eye to see its flaming core
Thus if history be written from Whistler to Pollock, or from Whitman to
Pound –what would be incorrect?
There are undertows of which the surface knows nothing in which a stone
can have more history than the one who casts it into water ever knows
It comes down to listening, watching, keeping your senses alert to the air,
probing the electricity of an age, searching for the generators
As for Eliot –the more he moved away from its soil the closer he got to its
earth –though Lowell could only be himself when in patrician mode
Also Boston –but a Boston favourable to tides, amenable to whale-men, nor
indifferent to the intonations certain emigrants brought
An idea within an idea
Something more than geography though geography tells us it is here that X
marks the spot where Jeffers should have built his tower and Kerouac
comes to listen
The tide still comes from Europe but whale-men are no more and either we
light a new flame or are lost in nostalgia
So where can the tree be planted –and if something of America dies will it
ever live again? Or the Kaddish outlast the canticle? Or silence close
Whatever we love is true - the rest is superstition: as a whale-mans’ mate I
strike the gong of the sea
As you see –I give myself every liberty
I write poems for Whitman –then rewrite for Heart Crane –as if my sanction
to do so was that I also sought creation’s fire yet I require no sanction
I bring a history the State disputes but cannot refute
Ah yes –to set the spine of history tingling, to see what Heart Crane saw but
to do so without his sorrow, as if a small skiff entering a harbour was
carrying an extraordinary cargo
Once this happens everything has validity and you need no sanction to
rewrite what has been written
So what now Heart Crane –is there brotherhood between us?
Not pupil to your master-hood but brother to brother at this harbour from
which so many have departed
Harbour to harbour, landscape to landscape; the poem of one generation
falls into the lap of another who must destroy it so as to honour it and
write their own
So who was the goddess who brought the fiery ink to You?
Academics crowd your grave with useless theories –but we have other
concerns: the poem in itself, the fire as it would be
The glowing coal even ghosts and emptiness could be warmed by –this has
always been the poet’s intent –so that even if Agamemnon was a
bastard (which he was) as least Homer redeemed him with a line of
So now, brother to brother, at harbour or homestead, at what other fire will
we dry our wet clothes? The answer will be given when the fire gives
us its flame
A pool shuddered at the mention of the word.
History though it sprung a trap but poetry proved more inventive.
Commerce wrote the text of the State but a laughing juggler came down the
road from Manhattan
Now the pool shuddered like never before.
Stone followed stone to water’s epicentre –something was happening which
had not happened before –unless you presume to prophecy:
I am living in Eternity. The ways of this world are the ways
There, I’ve said it In your name and mine now that I have found my name in
the waves of Boston harbour
Shanties become carols –yet in whose name and for what purpose these
Something sacred stirring in the bones - thus not to defile nor prove
treacherous to the race envisioned at its best
Blake foreshadowing Whitman - Whitman foreshadowing so much else
The burning flame of voice as the authority of that voice – as if a new, a
necessary Isaiah of fire and word entered the tribe to answer its
As if Adam re-found Eden (the apple replaced, the damage undone)
History like a kaleidoscope brought to new configurations in which the mind
of Emily Dickinson was a necessity for which there was no other
What was it she said – ‘I will go to the garden’?
There again, and again it will be said, and then re-said again, Eden striking
the prophetic mind to utterance
A gong clanging water-waves, the Pequod responding, even Heart Crane in
You see this in Whitman –behind the landscape he describes a landscape he
does not, as if some mysteries were too precious to be told so what am
I telling you?
I am telling you I wrote a poem I attribute it to him – a common fire we
gather about which says:
Good to arrive at, better to depart from.
I have found such a one in this continent.
It said: welcome. It said: discover me.
The geography I discover is myself
We are an experiment of time, an adventure of history
Which will yet astound history –therefore nothing goes unnoticed.
This is not a time for a voice to be silent.
Thus I shape my guts, my soul, my soil.
The history I will shape is the history I will write.
Infinity can begin anywhere.
Anywhere begins somewhere.
Why then should I not begin from where I am?
Why should I not begin with who I am?
People were shocked when I wrote my lines.
Which were not poetry according to the standard accepted model.
But a new continent needs new models as expansive as the land.
You think that is astounding?
I can tell you something more astounding.
What if I told you that you could possess the good of the sun and the earth?
What if I told you that there were millions of suns?
What if I told you that you need only spend a day and a night with me
And that you would then possess the origin of all the poems of the world?
What if I told you that you would see all this not with the eyes of the past,
Not with my eyes, but with your own unfiltered vision!
Give me the splendid silent sun with all his beams full dazzling
And I will give it to you.
If I cannot give what is mine to give –what gift have I to give?
I would give a gift to every man, to every woman.
I would say that they are my brothers, my sisters;
That what articulates the beat of my heart articulates the beats of their hearts.
There is, I think, no other truth worth knowing.
Did Whitman come to Boston? I do not know nor need to know such ‘facts’
I know that certain maps are useless and misleading; that Ahab’s heart is
the charter of the world we occupy
Not always so but hopefully so - yet Muddy Waters singing the blues and no
one listening way back in the Nineteen Fifties
Now new nomads enter history to the soundtrack of Patti Smith;, Enron falls, John Galt weeps
So whose country now Robert Frost –whose country when the bell buoy off
Nantucket clangs as the Pequod passes by?
No –not even bright snow could comfort me at this moment yet by all my
human need I call on you to stand before me
A shadow replies – I spatter it with ink
Brother, forgive my discursions and rant
I am apt to say what I should not yet have made prophecies to harbour and
homestead: And the ground shall live again…dispute ye not for I come
with the words of Isaiah
I also dream of morning in America such as Blake and Whitman did –where
if Christ forgives Judas then we must forgive our erstwhile brothers
Will we bring them to Boston common? Show them the inheritance that is
theirs for the taking?
The lights in the harbour are switched on - if we be given grace we will arrive
Therefore let us make the first of many canticles, let us sing the naked earth
in its full beauty, let us agree that there will be no wasted words in
singing the body electric of woman and man
We have assembled on a righteous hillside –we are a multitude not a mass,
we have parted many waters, we have given ancient gods their new
Easier now to crush the statues than to crush the vision or wipe from
history the expectations of its poets, or say that Jerusalem or Athens
has not entered the mind of every man where some have called it
So, sweet seeker, who shall we seek? –what healing bring to desolation?
Poetry and hope –as if some new verse had been pronounced over the earth;
it comes with healing waters to desolated trees
America dies but America lives
A shadow forecasts light; the waters bring Blake to new generations whose
mouths speak afresh: blessed be everything that is human to the full
Perhaps Boston was the ground the Buddha sought
And yet in sunshine or February snow the issue remains simple: –to give
due praise, to sing and mourn, to let one equal the other –that ghosts
may not need a tainted ink to write their state
Yet now, again, the puritan mind condemns the voice which questions the
prohibitions as if the Patriot Act served a need too sinister to be
Trust the people? No government has, no government will, yet masters
beware: Amherst stirs a
million minds, heresy has its believers
A ship enters Boston – I am on the quayside anxious to learn its history,
eager to write its name in my book, speaking to sailors, speaking to
voyagers so that they may become part of my uninhibited mind
Even so, there are destroyers stalking the world with a purpose as old as my
purpose is, so history –where does it begin -with Adam or Antigone?
Whatever past I choose will name my future. Let the ‘dream-insight’ ignite
Whitman begat me but no system binds me -so now which Jerusalem, and
I spatter ink upon the ghosts who occupy this page
Martin Burke is an Irish-born poet and playwright living in Belgium from where he has published twelve books of poetry in the USA, UK, Ireland, & Belgium; and is associated with the magazine The Green Door -www.thegreendoor.net
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