Jack Foley

Orphic Sonnets 1–10, from a work in progress



I am a man who does not know himself

I am the grief that finds its way to tears

I am the poet who descends

I am the loss that cannot know the reason


I am the shadow in the deepening caves

I am the animal that roams its cage

I am the violence on the road to Wagadou

I am the star that fades into the dark


I am the annunciation that falls on deaf ears

I am the mannequin in the department store window

I am the leaf that bends into the earth

I am the storm that shakes the violent city


I am the god who has no worshippers

I am the singer who gives birth to silence





Love fails us if we seek to rescue it

I am the one who turned to see your face

I turned, you vanished quickly to the shades

I could not speak a verse to bring you back


Or follow you.

I climbed the weary road back to the earth

The people saw me, and they turned away

This, they said, is the prophet of emptiness


This the musician of silence (musicien du silence)

Shakespeare saw me and laughed out loud

Marlowe threw a drink at me, and then a knife

Rilke saw me and spat


Rats tore at my shoes as I walked, carrying my cross

Worms clung to me as I marched to the house at the end of the earth





O High Tree in the ear, O blessed calling

O vessel to be taken in ecstatic violence

O Unknown God that shatters me at midnight

O crossroads where the worlds commingle,


O final reckoning that brings me near

To the unknown darkness at the heart of life

O touch of Jehovah or is it Christ or the Unnameable

My hand extended, my heart in shambles


Undo me as you did once long before

I grew to manhood, give me words

That will not fail the unspeakable that stalks

At the edge of the wild forest, the dents-de-lions, the sycamores...


Make me the wine you sip with your infinite lips

Make me the man who suffers on the road to Damascus





(Orpheus Dream)



Like the sheep before slaughter

My hair is gone, my strength taken from me,

And I am blind


Not through betrayal but through death

The enigma that runs in our hearts like a black river

Child, bring me to the cornerstone of the temple

I cannot see but I can touch


This is the moment of my redemption

This is the time when I tear the temple down

Death-bringer to all within

Wrath the great joy of the destroyer


The innocent perish

I awaken to life, which is a dream which is a dream





The women watch me in the marketplace

As I pass by, the lonely women who wish

Not to be alone. They know my loss

And hunger. I pass by without a word.


I feel their anger whirling in the air.

They say I teach young men the love of men.

They say I cause their wanting.

I know their fury will be the end of me


Unless I choose a woman from among them.

How can I when my love was younger, fairer

Than any who remain? They hate the love

I still bear for Eurydice.

                                    My songs


Cause rivers to turn their waves to tears

And mountains to lie down among the plains.





What god of darkness rules this land of loss

What vicious hand demands that men must die.

We wither in the wind, we turn to dust

To please what foul Immortal who must laugh


At the frail antics we perform for him.

You next, he says, then you and you and you.

Men, women, children, all are food for him.

You will rule, he says, but only at my pleasure.


You are my puppets, toys my hands embrace

And I the child who tires of you soon,

Quite soon. I need another to feed my fantasy

That you have souls and life and hearts that beat.


Down to the dust you go like that lost love

You mourn for and fill up your songs

            From morning until mourning.





I dreamed I saw a creature in the desert

Who posed a riddle: What has four legs in the morning,

Two legs in the afternoon, and three legs at night?

Man, I answered, crawls as a baby, walks as a man,


Has a cane when he is old. Thats right, the creature said,

You are the answer to my riddle! You are Orpheus

But go by other names. Swellfoot the Tyrant is one.

I will not destroy your city, you will,


You will not tend the water or the earth

You will not keep the air from going foul

Under your tutelage, men will grow rich

Under your tutelage, the world will die


Eurydice is only the beginning —


My dream faded as the monster vanished,

             laughing or weeping, I could not tell, I could not tell.




(In Hell)


I am caught

in a world of ash

Fires engulfing

the sweet land



where I came to escape

the fierce winters,

the ice, the snow


Ash everywhere

that mimics snow

and a plague

that separates


human from human

soul from soul


























Fire consumes me

My head is afire

My arms burn

My fingers are aflame


Everything I touch


Water will not stop it

The hungry flames


Flare up as I sleep

Consume the bed

The pillows

Consume the lover


There is nothing

That is not fire



Author’s note: Youre probably familiar with Rimbauds famous Je est un autre I is someone else. Thats definitely the case here. There are a few connections Im aware of: Rilke, for instance, and his Sonnets to Orpheus. My friends Iván Argüelles and Neeli Cherkovski have been writing free verse sonnets, so that is probably a factor. And the Orpheus story is one Ive been close to since I was young. (Since Adelles death, its relevance was of course increased.) I was also aware that even free verse poets resort to iambic pentameter when they wish to heighten their verse, make it more elevated. Whitman: Center of equal daughters, equal sons (America). So the poems are mostly written — at least the initial ones — in a loose iambic pentameter. As the series progressed, I moved into an even looser form, something I call the ghost of a sonnet. I write in various styles but the voice in many of these poems doesn't seem to be mine — they are different from anything else Ive done. I like to think that the voice must be that of Orpheus — and this despite the fact that there are obvious autobiographical elements in some of the sonnets. My pal Jake Berry remarked, Something is speaking through you. I was a little uncertain about 6 and 7, but 8, 9, and 10 came and restored the poem to me. 10 especially: There is nothing / That is not fire.