Scott C. Smith

'Mother Forehead Cradle Sky,' a renga poem with a note on procedures

Photo by Jacob Cook: An image of the Milky Way behind Mt. Whitney.
Photo by Jacob Cook: An image of the Milky Way behind Mt. Whitney.

Mother Forehead Cradle Sky


A renga “conversation” among Hafez-e Shirazi, José Lezama Lima, Paul Celan, and Jerome Rothenberg.


Between two rivers

Shiraz is a city built

on a holy site.


And the size of a loud laugh,

are already remembered;


All poets are Jews.

Constellation of Canis,

roads mirrored earthwards,


Neither the mother language

into the water silence


A rose that isn’t

the beloved’s face is worthless;

a spring that is not


Who pulled up flowers nightly

to weigh nocturnal water.


Dwarf-light that also

roaming in the orbit of

stelae and cradles.


Whose leader was the arch babe

chewing at his mother’s breast


Was a pilgrim’s thirst

ever quenched by a mirage?

Nothing in this well


Tremendous drought, blaze of sun:

I go towards my forgiveness


Pilgrim-staffs, there too,

the south, nightfiber-near like

unsepulchered words,


The pink pale sky of Paris

that held no constellations


In love the moon’s worth

only a barley seed, the

Pleiades’ just two.


Shepherd’s forehead while he sleeps.

Herd together, stumble, goats;


Of a tree, of one.

And of the woods around it.

The woods untrodden,


Out of the shadow of the

white café was not “the tree”


Kill me, then give my

blood to beggars like mother’s

milk to quench their thirst.


But the dog bitten by the light

by shadow, by tail and head;



continents, heartinents, swam,

the mother-flower,


Babe in womb is goat, feeble

bird, is shadow of a babe


A thousand birds and

a hundred roses will grow.

Under the cypress


So it bites the light and the

fruit, the wood and the shadow,


Carnival brood of

martenstars in the abyss

nib-, nib-, nibbled, bled.


Wind’s hand on the brow of space,

stars half close their blue eyelids.


Laughing, rose replied:

Tears must thread your eyelashes

wine from this jeweled cup;


That cradle somnambulant

with concise keys and soft flames.


Of the one-letter,

of the hard, tiny word-heap,

of the unarmed eye,


Beggar with one hand on a

cane, the other with a scroll


Asked beachcombers for

a pearl which is outside the

shell of space and time.


A child who inhaled all the

tenacious dew from the sky,



ignition points in the sky,

crests under fire,


The armies of drunk artists

spread out through the forests


When came this cosmic

tankard? When he enameled

the vault of the sky.


A tokonoma hollow

set my forehead into its place.


Existence, a phase

stripped bare. No reply — the thorn

climbs up through cradles.


It from your voice & cradle

it that ancient & dark word





I learned of the renga collaborative form at Boise High School in the early 1980s while having tremendous fun writing “communal poetry” with two close friends for our wonderful English teacher Ruth Vinz.


The original source for me was John Cage’s “Themes and Variations.”


Cage wrote: “Traditionally renga is written by a group of poets finding themselves of an evening together and having nothing better to do. Successive lines are written by different poets. Each poet tries to make his line as distant in possible meanings from the preceding line as he can take it.”


I also found the 1971 book “Renga: A Chain of Poems” by Octavio Paz, Charles Tomlinson, Edoardo Sanguineti, and Jacques Roubaud in four languages. From that I learned the traditional Japanese form involves a group of poets passing a series of 5-7-5 syllable “kaminoku” and 7-7 syllable “shimonoku” back and forth.


I’ve used renga here to read and bring together four poets I’m interested in. I chose four poems (or sets of poems if needed), then tried to find sets of words to fit the syllable constraint.


In “Mother Forehead Cradle Sky,” I had been reading Hafez around the same time as I’d discovered José Lezama Lima through Jerome Rothenberg’s and Pierre Joris’s “Selections” series. Paul Celan was another poet in the series.


The sequence is Hafez — Lezama Lima — Celan — Rothenberg.


As the renga grew, I would look for and appropriate lines that not only fit the constraint but if possible also resonated with what had come before. I allowed myself to combine lines from separate poems by the same poet if necessary.


Some examples of “resonance”:


water silence > spring > nocturnal water

cradles > babe & mother > mother’s milk > cradle somnambulant

Canis > constellations > Pleiades > dog bitten by light > bites the light > Martenstars in the abyss > nib-, nib-, nibbled

shepherd’s forehead > goats > babe in womb is goat


For Hafez, I pulled 5-7-5 lines from translations I found at the Los Angeles Public Library by Thomas Rain Crowe (2001), Peter Avery and John Heath-Stubbs (2003), and Robert Bly (2008).


All the Lezama-Lima 7-7 lines came from “Selections,” including the poems “Thoughts in Havana,” “Insular Night: Invisible Gardens,” “Fifes, Epiphany, Goats,” and “Pavilion of Nothingness.”


Most of Celan’s 5-7-5 contributions came from “Selections,” including “And with the Book from Tarussa,” “The Syllable Pain,” and “Leap Centuries.” Another set of Celan translations, “Glottal Stop,” provided lines from “In the Most Remote.”


Rothenberg’s 7-7 lines came from “A Letter to Paul Celan,” “The Burning Babe,” “Wick,” “In the Shadow of the 1000 Buddhas,” “Autobiography 1997,” “In the Dark Wood, Khurbn,” and his translation of Lorca’s “Night.”