Sample Poems by Claire Keyes
Poem in Which Many Plates Are Broken
Armies massed for the invasion of Iraq
and a tremble of fear across the region
fail to deter us as we gather inside a taverna
in Santorini. Didn't we sail into its caldera,
finding a harbor at the foot of precipitous cliffs?
Perched on top, a town tracing its heritage
to Minoan Crete, a taverna, percussive music,
even a Zorba in his workman shoes and dark pants.
He rises from his table to join three men stooped over
two guitars, a bouzouki. There's heaviness in his feet
and legs as he dances the hunger of his life, slowly
spinning, turned by forces outside his control.
He is Achilles, desolation in his hero-heart:
his beloved friend slain. Terrible loss travels
through his trunk and limbs, his feet attacking the floor,
the music turning him faster and faster until we think
he must break. Achilles broke, his heart touched
by Priam's grief over his son murdered and defiled.
Something moved in the depths of the hero
and Achilles reached out.
Our dancer gestures, white handkerchief unfurled:
come, join. We surprise ourselves, rising
to place a hand on a shoulder, like comfort-or trouble,
everyone forming the line that winds in and out,
everyone connected although we don't notice it
most of the time, as if what's happening in your soul,
your country could have nothing to do with traveler
swho watch aghast as waiters fling plates onto the floor
and they shatter, fragments flying.
In the flow of traffic, I follow the drama
of red-winged blackbirds harassing a crow,
that sacker of nests. How splendid the torment
as they dart in low above the marshes
to peck his rump.
I slow down, shift to the right lane, following
the scuffling birds as if they were an augury
Homer would describe in assiduous detail:
how they foretell his hero's destiny, the clash
between peoples, Troy reduced to a smoldering ruin.
Blackbirds flash scarlet epaulets; the crow banks and turns,
flummoxed. A truck looms up, blocking my view.
It's the summer of the rig exploding
in the Gulf of Mexico, of pelicans and turtles
coated with sludge, flames shooting into the sky,
the ocean coursed by rivers of oil and beaches blackened
by wave after wave of this man-made mess.
And still I drive.
We live dangerously. Drive dangerously.
I want to stop the car, get out and follow the blackbirds,
find out what they know
about the sanctity of nests.
The Sounds Loneliness Makes
Not that he needed to tell us he was lonely.
Not that he wasn't welcome to use the bedroom
that was my brother's grown up, enlisted.
But those nights I'd lie awake
hearing Uncle Red's footsteps as he climbed the stairs.
Was he drunk again? Then the thud of his shoes
as he dropped them, the fierce wooziness
of his snores.
Childless, he had been fatherly
when all we knew of father was distance. Giving
when all we knew was stricture. Summers,
he drove us to the beach, one arm on the wheel,
the other edging towards Aunt Jo's knee, stopping
for the hair of the dog that bit him.
So I never said anything of my fear
that he would push open my door, fall on top of my bed.
Thinking, I don't know what.
To protect him? To protect myself from saying?
Then he didn't come home. One night, two:
found in an alley in the South End.
My father identified his body at the morgue.
when he got home. Just the tightness of his jaw,
a look that said, Don't ask.
When gods walked the earth
in the guise of beggars, tramps were safe,
tramps were holy. Come, sit close by the fire,
eat of this lamb roasting on the coals.
Is that light we see reflected in your eyes
Helios himself taking the measure
of our hospitality?
No gods here in Salem, just street people,
caps pulled over their ears, collars turned up
on the rarest days in June. Not even Alan Bates
in that French movie walking bare-assed down the street
just men who urinate in the parking garage stair-well.
A winter ago, park benches slicked with ice,
one used the dumpster behind "Bill and Bob's
Roast Beef" for a bed, spending the night cuddled up
in the trash, his body a stiff curl like the corpse I found once,
a yellow jacket in the silled begonia.
A man hugs the edge of the sidewalk, the side
closest to inside, as if he might fall off
if he came too close to the curb, losing
whatever he carries in the bag swinging from his fist.
I skirt him, make sure not to draw his attention, provoke
his curse, or his spit. Leaving him to trudge behind,
I hear his babble. Is he Athena in the guise of Mentor,
ready with the best of advice? Is she
with the shopping bags, lovely Artemis
skillful in running?