VASA CLARKE

[je suis un philosophe]

No shortages of thoughts on living well;
Ask five, and you’ll get ten or twenty views,
Suggesting that it’s best to work like hell,
Love brightly, to keep up with local news,

To live, to settle down somewhere and raise
A child or two, be friendly, and inspire;
Yet I would gladly set myself ablaze
If I could warm one person at my fire,

For Bentham and his cohort weren’t all wrong.
What Mill and Singer added to
Is proper but too long,

And even Kant’s imperatives agree
That precepts I’ve been long devoted to
Are absent from his base philosophy.


Jesse Beams (1898-1977)

Here was his desk, they say, and over by
The windowsill, he once sat in this chair;
Here was the mirror where he’d look and sigh
And run his comb through greyed and thinning hair.

Of those he taught, some still recall his face.
This building bears a plaque in modest size,
A textbook with his photograph, a space
To list the winners of the Lewis Prize.

The centrifuge was his long-cherished child
And inspiration. Now, contrarily,
With students, he was courteous and mild,

Well-loved by candidates for high degree,
While undergrads, aghast, their faces wild
Threw up their hands and pled for clemency.


Thoughts on a Career

Come off it, then! What is your future plan?
You’re in good health — your future’s gleaming bright.
Do tell me, are you now a businessman
Who makes great piles and does cocaine at night?

No, sir. I aim to live beneath a bridge
And hike to Florida when it gets cold;
Beneath the arches, I will make my home
And pass my days alone, till I grow old.


Thursday evening, 7:34 PM

A minute’s time would tell you all about
The facts upon the ground, the commonplace,
What details we’ve extracted of the case
And what we know with context and without.

We think that she arrived here all alone
But heaven knows if that was always true
Few linger in the shadow of the stone
If they have something somewhere else to do.

Alone or not, her tracks led to the mire
And for a time she knelt upon the harsh
Quick-yielding soil where the grass grows higher
That hides the murky edges of the marsh.

And then, whatever truth or help she found,
She stood, took ten great steps, and swiftly drowned.


Not Published but Failing

Nobody heard him, the poor man,
But still he lay wailing;
I was much more unskilled than you thought
And not published but failing.

Poor chap, he always loved Larkin
And now he’s rotten;
There might still be some hope for him
In W. H. Auden.

Oh no, no, no, it was too bad always
(Still the poor one lay wailing)
I was much too unskilled all my life
And not published but failing.


Sham el-Nessim

The messenger on the old horse
Had travelled for many a mile
And spoke with a tremulous voice
Worn down by the natural course
Of those who have travelled awhile
And his cheeks were a pale shade of green
As he stood where we used to rejoice
Bearing witness to what he had seen.

From the platform of old in the square
This friend said of how he had come
To get home from the capital;
Upheaval and terror were there
And the governor’s office is numb
For what has so lately occurred
To one who had spoken to all
In the name of the updated Word.

By the end, when the sunlight ran out
And the screaming had faltered and died
On the lips of the child who had grown
What was left gave no lingering doubt,
The perfection of what was implied
Of the wise and ineffable plan:
He has come to take charge of His own,
And He’s clothed in the skin of a man.


For Another Time

Without an epigram or clever quip
The patron of the lost encircled me,
Drew me aloft, above the narrow sea
And set me down upon the landing strip.

We toured historic houses in a row,
A couple shops, a fairground in the sun,
Some back roads where the young at heart could run,
The cold beach with its wicked undertow.

Those days still haunt my recollections yet
Despite how long I try, with books, to cope
As Lear or Tamerlane or Aurangzeb:

And how could I successfully forget
The hours that would later give me hope
When everything of mine was at low ebb?


Five Sonnets on Chinese Philosophy

Kongzi

No matter where the student cares to go
The lack of virtue is quite clearly there:
The eight-line dance usurped, the storehouse bare
And old belief entirely laid low.

This way may not be permanent, although
The path is ancient and in disrepair.
Take courage with your teaching, and prepare
For after it is my right time to go.

Do not lament so over-much for me
While others can receive your help as well.
These words will pass along from sea to sea
Long ages after death has tolled its knell:
My future is to be used constantly
As Heaven rings the clapper of a bell.

Mozi

The king who treasures that which is his own
Above all others is a shame to see,
Displays the sin of partiality
And certainly is not fit for the throne.

When peasant farmers grimace with a groan
From Chang Jiang to the distant land of Qi
Relief lies not in ritual piety
But with the care of others — this is known.

This is the greatest theory proposed,
To raise the just as servants of the crown.
Let any who dissent to know their fate:

As those, to us, so bitterly opposed
They shall be crushed, and publicly brought down
In order to bring glory to the state.

Zhuangzi

The details are more complicated than
A story of a minnow or a bird,
A man who walks on air, a sound unheard,
A dreaming butterfly, a mortal man.

Storm-tossed — and lost — I think you know as well
As I that disputation is obscene,
And mad debate about what phrases mean
Is no field for a wise man to excel.

All truth is relative, and those who take
An earthly side will never be okay.
Not in this time. Not in this modern place —

Look to the mountains, see each upturned face,
Let go, be new, open your eyes, awake
And live the one good life, the inner Way.

Han Feizi

Discerning what ideals your rivals prize
Is foremost in one’s handy bag of tricks;
Allowing yours to come out isn’t wise
And might just get you killed in politics.

When you know how to motivate a king
Controlling him becomes quite trivial.
A royal puppet is the saddest thing
And others care about him not at all.

The common folk take censure and reward
As Mozi said, and that is maybe right.
But anyone your level or above
You should not trust. Keep ready your swift sword,
Do not sleep deeply in your bed tonight
And rid your mind of Universal Love.

Zhaozhou Congshen

The students of the East and of the West
Once loudly quarrelled on the qualities
Of someone’s cat, and swore like men possessed,
Which put the temple rather ill at ease.

When Master Nanquan heard of all this strife,
He took the cat, and with a hollow laugh
Declared, “speak now, and I shall spare its life!”
None could, and so he tore the cat in half.

Late in the evening Zhaozhou had returned
And, having heard the problem end to end,
Removed his shoe, and wore it like a hat

Which made it clear all that the sage had learned.
Thus Nanquan said: “Ah, Zhaozhou, my young friend!
If you were there, you would have saved the cat.”


Underhill

They laugh like us, they know the things we feel,
At games of chance, they’ve got a certain knack;
They toy with us, they wander, and they steal —
(Try not to catch them, or you won’t come back.)

We hold ourselves to honor their convention
At doorways or outside the faerie-mounds,
And hear, with slowly rising apprehension
The low and distant baying of the hounds.

We’ve had our near escapes, and fallen short
A time or two, but at the end of all
Midsummer dawns, and our frail spirits lift.

There is still time before our curtain-call:
Hold back the smiling children of the Court
With salt, cold iron, and the truesight gift.


Thomas Learmouth

You ask me where I’ve been. I cannot lie,
There’s many things that I may never know.
The pale queen of the hills came riding by
All in green silk, her breath as cold as snow.

With speech as light and free as it was coarse
Though I could figure some of what she meant
She had me join her on her milk-white horse —
None would refuse. With heavy heart, I went.

Upon that horse’s back, we rode above
The bloody sea, the dark and gaping maw
Of horrors that lie far beyond my ken,

Removed from all I know or think to love.
And it was seven years before I saw
My cherished home of Ercildoune again.


The Visions of Zosimos

Upon the Fifteen Steps, my eyes betrayed
A little man of blood, who turned to me
And said, in his weak voice, “Be not afraid
Of any that has been, or soon shall be:

For I am Ion of the Inner Truth,
Survivor of a force impossible,
And I have more of knowing in my tooth
Than any king might have within his skull.

Now send me back in care of seraphim
Who live upon the fire’s deadly heat.
Dismember me, and tear me limb from limb
So that I lose the roughness of the street.

Behold! This world of flesh, you shall not miss!”
And I awoke, afraid, and thought of this.


An Ode to Ben Sasse (with apologies to Robert Frost)

Two votes diverged about personhood
And sorry I could not tender both
And be one senator, long I stood
And thought of one as hard as I could
Till to go for another I’d be quite loath

Then cast the other vote, just as fair
At least, that’s what all my donors claim
For it was more than their purse would bear;
And next, we went for Obamacare
Since, one or the other, ’twas all the same.

Oh, those that I left for another day,
The votes that I just could not take back!
Our party line may well delay,
Until they’re hit with some exposé
Of Trump or another damn Russia hack.

I shall be telling this solemnly,
Somewhere kicking it with Mike Pence:
Two votes diverged on the floor, and we—
We cast the one more cowardly,
And that has made all the difference.


Marcellus Wright (with apologies to E. A. Robinson)

Because he was an architect, and thus
Obtained celebrity as some men might,
I would not have you think Marcellus Wright
Was any less a fool than all of us;
For when he learnt the sacred and profane
Delusions of Ms. Eddy, heretic,
He saw in her a healing of the sick
Through Heaven, or some gimmick of the brain.

And after he converted all his kin,
His wife and son, the ones who knew him best,
He then compounded the infernal sin
That he bore burning righteous in his chest
By joining with the church. He raised his brows,
And prayed, and then designed another house.


An Orange Idiot Foresees His Impeachment (with apologies to W. B. Yeats)

I know that I shall meet my doom
Sometime upon the Senate floor;
Those I must fear, I know not whom,
Those I must trust, I do abhor.
My country is the borough Queens,
My countrymen a certain few,
A certain few, the men of means
Who love me ’cause Dad paid them to.
No call to action made me run,
No public men, no strident voice;
The tapes of what I do for fun
Had left me with no other choice.
To disunite, to feed upon
The nation’s fear, I play my role;
I am Mogilevich’s pawn,
I am a cancer of the soul.

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