Orphic Sonnets 1–10, from a work in progress
ORPHIC SONNET #1
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
ORPHIC SONNET #2
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
ORPHIC SONNET #3
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
ORPHIC SONNET #4
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
ORPHIC SONNET #5
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.
Cause rivers to turn their waves to tears
And mountains to lie down among the plains.
ORPHIC SONNET #6
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.
ORPHIC SONNET #7
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. That’s 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.
ORPHIC SONNET #8
I am caught
in a world of ash
the sweet land
where I came to escape
the fierce winters,
the ice, the snow
that mimics snow
and a plague
human from human
soul from soul
ORPHIC SONNET #9
ORPHIC SONNET #10
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
Consume the lover
There is nothing
That is not fire
Author’s note: You’re probably familiar with Rimbaud’s famous “Je est un autre” — “I is someone else.” That’s definitely the case here. There are a few connections I’m 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 I’ve been close to since I was young. (Since Adelle’s 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 I’ve 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.”