Jerome Rothenberg: from 'The President of Desolation'

'A Book of Mirrors'

Collage portrait of J.R. by Angus Carter


[In preparation for my next full-length book of poems, to be published by Black Widow Press in April, I’m posting here an excerpt from a still longer section from the book titled “Five Books.” To compose these five I drew from earlier poems of mine, breaking them into fragments or stanzas containing respectively the words “shadows,” “deaths,” “gods,” “dreams,” and “mirrors,” to each of which I added a newly composed coda. As a further act of retrospection and autovariation, they fit for me into the work of reclamation I have recently been engaged in. (j.r.)]



I smile into a mirror

& my face

glares back.

A father holds his babe

up to the light.

Where will it lead us?

Heaven is no place for fools.

I run my fingers

through your hair

& feel the universe

shut down.




The generals are gathering.

They stare into each other’s eyes

through mirrors.

With a display of wounds

we signal them

& turn away. I am the last

because the fire

deep inside

burns till it’s morning.



Great distances

are mine. I plot

their numbers

but I know

that every universe

contains another.

There is no end in sight

& no beginning.

The stars stay dark

in mirrors

until your fingers

counting them

have dropped away.



We look at every mirror

as a mere memento.

Mirages have arisen

& we swim in them.

I make my way by stealth.

In a house of children

no one reigns

or sleeps. The walls

start at the floor

& touch the ceiling.



Eager to break through language

& touch life

I crack my head against

a mirror.

I hack at a false body

with a stick

pushing the flames apart

until the heart appears.



I find a secret world in mirrors.

My fingernails are pale,

my steps are perpendicular.

I parachute & strut.

I seek acceleration day by day.

I am a man who swims among the drifters.

Istanbul is not my home.

I turn a page & listen.

I am as hard as nails.

My body swells from all the sounds inside it.

I show myself in dreams.



Separated by a cranny

others    more aware

stare down at us.

We have no way

to talk together,

mirror neurons that respond

only to themselves

& not to others.

A place to stand

deep in the speaker’s mind

determines speech.

The plan is self-erasing

if we wait it out,

not one of us the worse

for wear.



They were prey to


played them with zeal,

to no end

that they knew,

to declare new beginnings,

bestriding a sand dune,

vacuums a god might

transform to a cosmos,

infinity’s mirror,

a place internal to place,

a procedure a king

once devised,

divination from innards,

a rapturous babble.



A world caught in a mirror

too vast to be contained.

Infinities of mirrors.

The ones who see it

falter, their hands

break the glass.

They are the sorry mystics,

misfits from

the middle states,

we spy them

on a distant planet,

hidden from time.



Coda to A Book of Mirrors


The way a face

recalls a face

by looking past it,

looking twice

when once will do.


Reflection tells it all.


There is no better way

to measure time,

the little jesters

in the field behind you

shaking loose

the small words

clicking in their craws.


All is seen,

the mirror as a field

for memory,

your own face

foremost   a receptacle

for other faces,

old & worn.


The images not deep

but multiplied,

held on a shining surface,

we can count them

as they pass

& then return.


In a room

where all the walls

are mirrors.

you are a mirror

of yourself,

a phantom child,



The mystery of mirrors,

counted & re-counted

ten times over.


Right is left,

the wound across

your heart

favors the rise & fall

of breath,

the top & bottom

still in place.


Therefore it turns

into a game,

something to carry

with you,

the next time

the grave comes open,

& you enter

where a floor of mirrors

waits for you

& blinds you.*                           * binds you