To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Round of Rattles, by and with Robert Kelly

[Robert Kelly was a poet essential to my own formative years as a poet, a time of transformations now several decades in the past. With him there was a brief time in which we struggled together with the dimensions of “deep image” as a strategy of composition developed by us along with a cohort of contemporaries in New York and elsewhere. In my own case this was the forerunner to that ethnopoetics to which I came on my own by the end of the 1960s, but looking back now I feel sure that it was Robert who was an early one and possibly the first to point me in that direction. With something of that in mind he wrote to me recently to recount a memory he had of readings of mine in which I used a Seneca Indian horn rattle to drive home my spoken performances. He enclosed with that a poem that spoke to those occasions, and I answered with a short group of prose poems that used his nouns in the manner of what Jackson Mac Low, another member of our cohort, called nuclei – a form of composition that I had used earlier in The Lorca Variations and other poems. I was aware too that today, May 7, 2011, there would be a celebration of Robert’s 75th birthday and his 50th year as a professor of poetry at Bard College. What follows, then, is Robert’s rattle poem, along with my poems in response to it. My admiration for his life and work is no less now than it was those many years ago, and my gratitude is even greater. (J.R.)]


wakes the dead.

It quacks.

I translate rocks
he said, I say pebbles,
I know ground
I know leather things
because they say.

When the eagle comes by itself
let it settle or fly off
who know what it carries in its beak
my business is to watch

watch with my rattle
watch with my mouth

with the rattle of my rattle I see everything

and when it flaps away
leaves one feather after it
I try to pick it up
but it’s only the eagle’s shadow
I try to pick its shadow up
and it turns into my shadow

and this makes me fly.

My teachers said
Fly on your shadow only
leave the machines alone
fly on your shadow
it will never fall.

Who were the dead I was waking
and why were they dead
and what were they doing
packing their valises
and tying their colorful bundles
on the day 13-Death
the only day in the year they could go

where do they go
I don’t have to know
I have to wake them
I have to let them go,
they’re waiting for me
to rattle my rattle,

go, I murmur in my ordinary
language, go home
lovely spooks,
find your way home,
ride the ringing of my rattle all the way

a sound carries

the dead ride our music
the dead ride sounds
the way I ride shadows

nothing else counts
but making sounds
and finding the way home.

home is always somewhere else

that’s why all the music we need
that’s why I rattle my rattle

when I was little boy
the radio used to say every week
only the shadow knows

only a shadow is always at home

the sun thinking its way through the clouds
makes it happen
the firelight makes it happen

we invented fire
so we could have shadows at night

the sun is a rattle that sings shadows
I belong to everything when I make noise.


for Robert Kelly


The noise of pebbles in the mouth of someone dead is next to nothing. Underneath the sun a boy is wrestling with his shadow, and his shadow with another shadow. Home is always somewhere else, a rattle and an eagle feather all that’s left. Daylight nearly over. Firelight foreshadowing the night.


Everything the night conceals from us is yet alive. Even the rocks are when they’re stuffed into a rattle and the sound they make surrounds us as the shadow of a cloud might on the way to night. Here in our final home machines like living things cast shadows also, and the year ends with a lonely rattle sound. Spooks bearing bundles run from everything like shadows where we wait and dream.


The business of the dead is spinning shadows, banging leather rattles, faking a language not their own. How good to spend a week away from home, valises packed and ready for a day out in the sun. A rattle makes a sound we love to hear, another rattle leads us where the shadows beckon, and the shadows form a single shadow under which we hide.


13-Death calls out to us. His is a music darker than a radio, so far from home, so fraught with sounds the dead might make, our fallen teachers, eagles screaming through their beaks, who make the ground shake, where we sit around a fire. Is it a rattle or a distant ringing, or a rattle that the dead can hear and join us, shadows overhead and with a lonely rattle far from home?


Ed Baker said...

He "grabbed" me, too, early on.

Especially with Kali Yuga

and then as if he knew that I was .... ready ....


The Mill of the Particulars

The Common Shore


The Loom

in 1973 (or so) when I was in Berkeley I went into that University there what UC Berkeley ? and stood in the hallway watching through the glass square in the door RK running a summer class....

what ever became of his red beard ?

He waved me a "come in". I didn't ho in and instead I went around and went north into Vancouver

good 'stuff' from both of you. thanks

Carmenisacat said...

Alas, poetry permanently outsourced to the shadow.
To the beards.
To consequences and contempt.

They are throwing muslims off of trains.

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