Michael Helsem



...if to traverse
is to envelop,
I am held
and sung to sleep.
    - Rae Armantrout, "Covers"

i have a theory about Japanese prosody, or rather a feeling about what i know of it. i see the lines written out on a picture, & the pattern is plain: like the dots on a
domino face, in fact. or like a drumbeat
composed of one sequence of staccato beats, & then four more. . .

to me the 5-7-5-7-7 of tanka is the shape
of a stone lantern, & has that perfection.
i have written many poems in the 9-5-9-5-9 mode, & consider that one more suitable to the English language. yet this other prevails. . .
but i also do not disagree with those who find the essence of tanka in a combining of nature & human, or the volta (like a sonnet) that unites them.
this is the inside of the lantern.


a day like any other,
    but i am breathing
a terrific crackle, &
light bulbs shine with the plug pulled


    i do not fancy
some picture of myself as
    the noble lover.
it leaves me no high feeling
to beg & to be refused.


    flora mentis, talk
about matters that matter:
    over Darjeeling.
ev'ry afternoon we could
meet like this - & not get bored.

    two-dollar new rug
i've sat on for weeks & now
    notice colors of:
scarlet next to rich purple,
stripes that make my eyes water.


    plenilune, blinds drawn.
cards to be put in order
    tonight - what's the use
Phoebe called & i left it
for the machine to answer


    i've written the same
kamikaze haiku of
    bye, twelve hundred times....
half-veiled crescent, you alone
aren't part of this mockery.

    is that Jupiter
or Venus? - dualities
    warring in our eyes

how, once, beneath all the stars
i walked without any light.


    tenuous contact,
"Call me or I'll call you?" yes.
    i want more reasons
sometimes; but at other times
i don't want reasons at all.


    bitterness passes
into a marrow-ache, thence
    into black silence -
where it joins the other bricks
of your unmeant caresses.


    frozen plumes of steam
edged in gold, bars across
    the just risen sun
line of passengers waiting
patiently to board the Greyhound


    from the bus window
i glut my eyes on the grays
    & browns of the road
construction. like so much else,
i can't say why it moves me.


    ripples catching up
with the wheels of the standing
    car ahead of me -
ev'ryone uses their lights
in the middle of the day.


    desperado days
exposed to the strafing wind
    & jeers of the stars,
i am skinless or all skin
a lost foreigner in time.


    why torment me now,
smell of a wet gray street in
    downtown Vancouver?
is that how the dead learn to
love - haunted by the living?


    tea chromatograph
spreading on the napkin: not
    a pattern till done,
but mixture swirling, changing,
i must remember that. yes.


    it seems i'm never
done crying - what is it now?
    the way you stood close
without touching, as we read,
& glanced back to catch my eye,
& i stared at the damn page.


    i am carrying
a brimming mug of hot tea
    across the street to
eat my lunch in this mild sun.
it is a journey of years.


    i saw Tahoma
once before i left, rising
    over the skyline
like a rosy dream, never
visible till forsaken.


    return of the need
for amulets. squirrel scolding
    a bluejay. sitar
crinkles drift through the screen door
from me & my Darjeeling.

    nothing but green fruit
in the supermarket's bins -
    and where else is there?
rotten before it gets ripe
like us, force-grown, child-adults.


    ding, ding: the buttons
of my old herringbone coat
    going by bookshelves.
as if in answer, the clock
emits one definite grunt.


    so much yet to say
between us, but i am tired
    of this wry discourse
that plants ultimate heartache
though it pleases at the time.


    my coldest, best sleep.
bundled up, i make breakfast
    while the rabbit runs
gaily from room to room, &
back to orbit my ankles.


    in silences i
move: yours, the silence of God,
    a fish in the sea
i drift without knowing else;
in the silence of the stars


    this is the one road
the one traveler has to
    swallow the pilm of
i am only its witness
among the cacti & stones


    to wait, askingly,
is not to unfasten your
    Matterhorn seatbelt
but to breathe the smell of rain
in the morning & know it.


    hearing the wind surge
outside this thin-walled tower
    is worse than being
in it - there, i close my mind:
here, where it's so still, i can't.


    yet still i have joy
when for a single moment
    our gazes combine
without flinching, & share that
terrible knowledge we've forged.


    puddles of urine
on the patio outside
    the Library. he
has to cross hungry gazes:
they can't guess he used to be. . .
who's asked for spare change daily.


    a quarter of five.
rustlings, readyings. i sit
    without pretending
to work, & nurse my fatigue
like a thin glass chrysalis.


    only from an air
vantage can you witness the
    annulus entire

near-total obscurity
of our lives, even to us
even to those who love us


    dry leaves scrape across
smooth concrete in brilliant light
    as a few birds sing
this morning; i lean against
a pillar, out of the wind.


    Jyestha, nanosec wink
or link to bodily want,
    you shimmer between
me & the mountain when it's
there; me & myself when not.


    rapt astrophagy
of clouds, then drapes, then shuttered
    eyes - yet he feels more
that soft, nocturnal pressure
the Seven shed as they pass.


    a flash to my right -
and i see in the mirror
    jutting halfway where
i had just been daydreaming
a moment before - a car.


    ghost for a morning.
no breakfast, coffee, only
    barium crystals
interminable the wait,
five minutes the procedure


    enough stillness, you
start to remember the dream
    you had this morning.
how much more must it take, for
the dream of the night before!


    sun gilds the concrete
as i step outside, hearing
    next door a child scream.
a cylinder of ashes
grins at me from the sidewalk.


    my skin inside out,
without sleep i dream - but not
    what i lack, only
of the terrible distance
that stands between star & star.


    on the doorpost, bands
of a slant-sifted sunrise
    - this laser price tag -
i know it is time to leave
by the color of the light.


    break the banded light
of overhanging trees as
    this bus, so unlike
my forest dawn-walk, evokes
its haze and its perfect poise.


    oh when you held me
after seven long hours
    of moving, thousands
of butterfly-promises
swirled round. . . & died on my lips.


    seeming so poignant,
the brightness of everything -
    and clear, like chrome-glints.
is it i begin to love,
or not having slept last night?


    stone walls caked with dust,
then the neon-bright rest'rants
    far below the street -
where preachers harangue, & the
brown bottle in a bag rules.


    sorrow-wedded joy,
mysterious dawnlight, search
    in my attic of
mem'ries. i ought to know this,
yet the road is new to me.


    a circle of stones
in the shape of a heart - on   
    the river bottom
they say it'll take up to
four years - to put out the fires


    newly sunlit, these
setback mornings, to show me
    short grass white with dew.
now i can see why my shoes
always get soaked at the toes.


    silt of memories
makes sluggish these days' flowing
    & opaque, their stream.
yet i may build with, at last,
fine-grained stone from slow-laid mud.


    i hate to see those
cluttered rooms of my peers, whose
    disorder proclaims
the unwitnessed spectacle
of a mind trapped by its tastes.


    fierce storm before dawn
invaded my dreams & then
    woke me. i checked leaks
while the windows flickered. none.
i lay back down for an hour.


    in this arena
the relief-sign; awaited
    blink of the stoplight. . .
the only forbidden word,
& only in my hearing.


    i tilt the fan back
so it doesn't blow on me;
    the rabbit likes to
crouch behind it & stretch out.
sometimes i can see her feet.


    nothing is so still
as the stillness just before
    departure - motes wait,
like poems not to be finished
in a thousand year old jar.


    ran to the bus stop,
then leaned against it & let
    my cheek touch metal.
soundless: "Soror Mystica..."
--it was thirty-nine degrees.


    quiver-tone, out of
what machine do you tonight
    emanate? music
not for humans, i like you
best, you try to sell nothing


    a scraping, as of
purposeful activity
    beyond this thick wall. . .
i keep working: i don't help,
nor do i go to get help.


    control illusion
lapses under fluorescents;
    one can just vanish
i could have kept swimming out
into the Sea of Cortez


    through the Ring of Fire,
go: it is an ocean wide,
    it is a sky deep. . .
one can slip on the sidewalk
in leather shoes & die, too.


    cat on the sidewalk
at sunrise, sitting calmly
    while cars hurtle past.
i remember carrying
my backpack down streets like this.


    each of these sticks i
bought for her, i'll burn: one by
    one, nightly, for the
nights since she has neglected
to return my last phone call.


    for months the chessboard's
unchanged: a single pawn moved
    to Queen Bishop Three

a faint squeal of brakes, across
the street the other bus comes.


    crossing the river
by that ancient viaduct
    i never look at,
nor the low river itself,
i listen to songs of love.


    no-radio dusk.
just a fan's whitenoise pulsing,
    cars i don't even
count anymore, & the scrape
when i scratch my ear, thinking.


    i roll the tuner
through snarled layers of voices
    seeking foreign news

while the rabbit in & out
of my red-bathrobe lap, jumps


    dreamlessness: only
trail across this Sahara
    is self-delusion. . .
live on stones along the way,
disinterred alabaster.


    frosted-glass windshield.
i did not recognize it
    my green childhood home.
fifteen years on, ev'rything
looks like it's three-quarter scale.


    masked, again we meet
in the room without a door.
    you are always mine
there, we talk & understand
each other completely there,

we're together   there; not here.


    before the moon rose,
sleepers & dreams mingled in
    a middle region.
then souls fled to their bodies,
& stark white ate up the rest.


    jet trail lit before
sunrise: chalk. driving, i pass
    the Crystal Palace
without being able to
look, yet closer than ever.


    bitter, yesterday,
my work had me so cursing,
    but now it's almost
sweet since i fully absorbed
the meaning of your last words.


    doctors bury their
errors - while poets hope to
    immortalize theirs
readers growing still fewer,
the flood of books more lavish


    watching the light fade
from the blue - radio hour -
    stoplight through the blinds
buzzards riding the thermals
high over the interstate


    watching wind shadows
weave on cafeteria
    tabletop of gray,
faint strands rising and swaying. . .
how sad i am this morning.


    her words fall into
my reveries of gazing
    & become jewels.
i let them slide from my hands,
knowing there will soon be more.


    and yet i think of
days i might have chosen one
    or the other, but
would never tip the balance
so rapt was i in weighing


    this day of ashes
ev'rything i see has passed
    through the same dull kiln
that melted my wrought-gold heart -
& gleams with a nail-hard glaze.


    if only books were
like the Creosote bush--no
    nat'ral enemies
i was ever enamored
of the starkest forgettings


    gingerly i tread
the bathroom beyond where
    slow epoxy sets:
a slab of fine black marble,
the found branch i painted gold.


    saw a narrow door
in an aluminum wall,
    down in the tunnels.
so thin! as if a diff'rent
design of ant shared these cells. . .


    what use to me now,
that i have conversed with crows?
    will i destroy this
knowledge without having once
found a proper use for it?







eheu, cicatricum et sceleris pudet
fratrumque. quid nos dura refugimus
   aetas? quid intactum nefasti
(Alas, the shame of crimes, & our brothers lost; such wounds! What has this crude generation turned  away from? What dark bubbles have we
      failed to embrace?)

                  - Horace, I. xxxv.

i have been writing tanka for more than twenty years, though until recently only at sporadic intervals; hence the disproportion between the previous work, which covers so long a span, & the present, which presents a self-contained unity within a relatively brief time period. i should probably note that during the time that i wrote "404", i had seen almost no tanka in English at all. (i was inspired mainly by the translations of Kenneth Rexroth.) but this did not keep me from developing my own feel for the medium. . .
i think of the junctures at syllables 5/6, 12/13, 17/18, & 24/25 as "bright cusps " or just "cusps"; & any grammatical pauses between them as "dark cusps" or
"nodes". these can be "soft" as the end of the first line ("alpha" cusp) in #2; or "hard", as the end of the first line in #1... this notion of structure also applies, of course, to unstrict tanka; for example an
enjambment one syllable short of the end of the line feels much the same in either variant.
when i decided to write exclusively in this form, i thought it would prove sufficient for any subject matter whatsoever; i hope i have not disproved this surmise in the work that follows.

    tremulous raindrops
each holding a world, fifteen
    minutes will see gone
lightningflash over the Gulf;
Popocatepetl wakes.

    my face against the
back of your neck, i can sleep;
    your love lets me sleep.
all the white nights of my years
are cured by this magic sleep.


    trouble thinking weighed
through many bitter fathoms,
    crew of bony grins;
my flag not black with honor,
my hands not clean with washing.

    lost, a poet's voice
in a sea of bright gravel
    trickles the daylight
missing among the fathoms
from the stone to the stone sky


    my toys & my games,
& the streets full of rubble;
    this perfect weather,
& the nightmare of the news
& what it isn't saying.


    suborned firewarden
pearly shroud but who need roads
    this blasted landscape
unable to imagine
the hours-ago garden


    a bare, trash-strewn field
with its crop of old placards.
    third day Ramadan.
i pierce translucent shadows,
myself by shadows transpierced.


    she moves through the cold
& the dark, between planets:
    on nameless errands

though we from here have seen her
only to dream of her gifts


    poems in the shower
arise as clear as wires
    & then i lose them
streets i miss for years, returned
to on an idle errand


    he from Tupelo
came, not to destroy the house
    but to make it rock.
a quarter-century on,
somehow it still is rocking. . .
no word more from Tupelo.


    this will be the rain
that the hurricane promised,
    destroying elsewhere
homes, while here we only think
of a modest drought ended.


    so sinuously
the motorized wheelchair threads
    this glut of tables
while i am thinking my own
labyrinth is all wrong turns


    winter be over
as a color goes lighter
    & after not long
come to feel like whispering
& wine wandered moonshadow


    windshield's sliding blur,
rustle of a steady rain;
    i remember how
kids would leave cigarettes perched
half-smoked on the edge of bricks.


    what is there to say
to the ones coming after?
    we were self-absorbed
like others, but in us this
modest fault became lethal.


    no one remembers
in this thievish, blasted land.
    a horn honks, someone
curses, you throw on your brakes
& exhaust spews over all.


    a long car-shadow
gliding into, across &
    past the long shadows
of trees, while Djuna's perfume
suffuses the warm cabin.


    a row of ghostly
palms along the Coast Highway,
    maybe a seagull
then whole swarms of them turning
like dirt specks in a stirred glass


    a mud-spattered truck
pulls up beside me. i think,
    inside i'm like that:
i carry a bit of all
the roads i've ever been on.


    no Raelian
clone child, sea & sky the same
    cold metal; shall we
dwell in rooms of fluorescents,
turning away from the words?


    these days whenever
i touch myself it's with your
    delicacy &
dwelling; & when my hands come
back to your skin, they are home.


    your fragrance lingers
in the just starting to
    become too warm morn
of hazard & desuetude,
Chinese neon & old songs


    dream of the Last Flash
& turn, not to be blinded -
    into wakefulness.
relief? ev'rything is still
suspended; not yet destroyed.


    the satellite dish
by the south ravine dully
    gleams, today idle.
i walk around till the gray
more than the chill, has soaked me.


    sky still mostly dark
this gas station bright enough
    to read by, some crows
scatter when i go in to
be the only customer.


    now this is always
smoke on the near horizon,
    whether in my verse
i describe those curling forms
or leave them to conjecture


    raven sluggishly
flies in the clear light of dawn.
    what use had you for
stars, falling or otherwise,
cold in the cold unending?


    cinnamon endure
wreck of the nightmare angels
    subfusc plenilune
or elegies that endear
dying to the creosotes


    so much beyond words,
the love that i have for you.
    list'ning to the storm
last night, as we lay curled up
together, we felt no fear. . .
it only drew us closer.


    the shrill buzz of the
edger, my pens clattering
    on aluminum. . .
sweet cool breeze, smoke throbbing from an abandoned cigarette


    not yet all dispersed,
the nidor of this burning
   & weeping echoes:
where slag has been hauled away
shall the fruit of the forge bloom?


    riddle this saffron
that withholds its angelance,
    yet still on Djuna
glints cinnamon in her hair
& crimson her full frank lips.


    the smell of lacquer
drifts above bare winter fields; bright
    my morning commute,
bright the orange cones, bright the
deejay jabber on all bands.


    niece Christmas pageant
huge downtown church, park hassle
    --if we could only
see, as i am seeing these,
the children who fill Iraq


    moon footsteps still crisp,
gray threads the dawn mirror shows:
    no gray on the moon
faded flags in cold sunlight
stirring to a soundless wind


    i dreamed that this place
had always been in the same
    hands, only they changed
their guise with that of the times;
their first faces forgotten. . .


    cold, gray, the traffic
on Sunday morning puzzling.
    i pass two dead squirrels
whose stashes now for nothing
will stay hidden winterlong.


    quietly watching
the slow ascent into light
    that's solitary
here in the Colorless Room
to ponder my nothingness


    trees' lacy shadows
punctuate the concrete bright
    with wrong November
now you're only one trick deep
one trick deep & i'm drowning


    to swarm entirely
unaware, pills on the path
    glint eBay debris
& it is as celebrants
that we shall be overwhelmed


    piercing lilac dusk,
swift flying birds at the red
    which holds us captive:
like a dream they disappear,
& the light still has not changed.


    journey of blackest
ice you render possible -
    even when i don't
believe, & argue against
in the caverns of my heart


    stupendous, fragile:
the feeling when you wake with
    her head on your chest
& suspect for the first time
you might be able to save.


    my hands are learning
tenderness, from the way you
    remain under them;
& i begin to forget
the treachery of the dead.


    did he ever sit
like this, in a place like this
    asking such questions?
where there is fog, one can think
only of the end of thought.


   into flickering
shadow, into flickering
    cold & hard to keep
from filling our eyes with dreams
of the way it used to be


    the perfectly dark
planet uses a thousand-
    winded rain for song
you are not this whispering
yet it tells all my chill dreams


    crazed by distances
crazed by wakefulness he prays
    to a bare light bulb
what past catastrophe wells
like bitter tears from the walls
what eldritch torture regime


    there are two consents:
one, in accompanying
    (solemn or in jest)
to bed; the other, coaxed by
a small spring, the bud opens.


    bemused by silence,
not the absence of feeling,
    Djuna, if i knew
a better song than this one
i'd gently wake you, singing.


    white roses in fog.
the terror of the given,
    a rock to sit on.
and bougainvillea glowing
in the crepuscular green.


    the cicala void
stalks these nights in white satin
    swiftly, a gray noon
clasped in their brittle flutter
i ride in, all windows wide.


    is it the badness
of the air, kills words in flight?
    red & blue flicker
through my forming poem pierces;
this music about no one.


    the dog's reproachful
eyes follow me who did not
    slowly or swiftly
steal away her owners, or
her sense of hearing, either


    no one brakes for me.
my ease is an illusion
    among the whirlings,
for they heed not, & i have
only to stumble to die.


    of skin against skin
one cannot properly speak,
    any more than the
feeling of seeing from a
mountaintop the Milky Way.


    today i will make
tea, as slowly as if i
    didn't have to work;
i will listen to records;
i will not check my email.


    i love this hour.
autumn dawn, the wait almost
    immaterial. . .
a pellucid blue traversed
only by train-spooked grackles.


    boulders & cactus
farther down the slope, i walk
    to the dripping gate
looking back, even the house
has softened shape a little.


    Dark Imperium
its people don't know don't care
    to know what it does
in their name in my dense shades
i go out driving at night


    and the sweet of the
burning time - is the knowing
    of sheer righteousness
a boy clutches his toy gun
destined to be found melted


    swimming pool cover
turquoise, full of leaves: tadpoles
    flee from your shadow. . .
eight thousand suns have returned,
but not once more that darkness.


    fugitive colors,
that caught my eye for a time,
    sunset on your skin.

but i have all the albums
without - a record player


    Phoebe Lamia
question always to remain
    a sweven tells me
silent words glint the silken
caught in all the traps of earth


    pale cerulean skies
now empty of promises -
    the stop & go cars
do not know me, these old songs
of desire do not know me.


    cradled to warm both
hands, a warm green mug. silence.
    silent emptiness,
& noiselessly the blood finds
its myriad pathways home.


    sky & sea the same
bring sand to the sand mother
    potholes to the moon
if all things were turned to smoke
the nostrils could still discern.


    that glittering place
remembered in midnight wind
    & the stars that die
again in my head rain sound
longer than words & less vain


    twenty years later,
the East Side pad where i played
    chess with my fellow
anarchist musketeers - now's
a Banana Republic.


    mahogany cup,
some few faint stains on the white.
    habits of feeling
& knowing too much craft, clash
with a sound of hissing rain.


    birds chattering &
looping, madly, while somewhere
    a car alarm peals.
i listen, trying to tell
the true spring from El Nino.


    don't think we are here
aided by the gods, making
    whatever we like:
WE ARE BESIEGED, it is much
just to have finished one thing.


    gold on the gold leaves,
to beautify my sorrow.
    i who have never
walked mine-ridden lands or known
the sharper edge of the blade


    the Age demanded
real-life Ozzy on TV;
    the Age demanded
book-a-year bards whose hardbacks
get remaindered six months new


    it starts brightening
even before the thunder
    has all crumbled away -
unveiled, a trickle that was
there all along & unheard.


    ghosts in the ghosts, mort-
mainline a crepuscular
    foreglow or know-how
we teach each other Lethe
on her hundred year old bed.


    a chatter of choughs.
and the sun no direction.
    the wall tells stories
of shadows now fluttering
upon their delight no more.


    these oceans to cross,
i will never cross again.
    songs of teenage angst,
epic, the smallest empire;
the wide world burning beyond.


    the stillborn worlds whirl
unwitnessed, the day without
    shadows pullulates
with drivers out on the roads,
& my bemused honor stirs.


equinox: all the past ones
    hover in this coolth
suddenly; all the people
i used to be, am not now.


    moon leave me with time
for wandering these shadows
    there are whispers from
i am strange as they & fall
the thousand year long going


404 Copyright Michael Helsem 2003.



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  .In the Time of the Fall of the Towers Copyright Michael Helsem 2003.