Category Archives: Poems

IN THE WILDERNESS

 I am posting this old, old poem as Jewish worshippers enter — as part of the liturgical cycle — the fourth book of the Jewish Bible. Conventionally called Numbers, its name in Hebrew is B’Midbar, as is its first section. Roughly, “In the Wilderness.” I’m prompted to post it after reading former Senator Joseph Lieberman’s fine WSJ commentary on the need to balance freedom with law; or, more accurately, the developmental arc between the Jewish Holy Days of Passover (the gift of freedom) and Shavuot (the gift of Torah).

Near the beginning of their sojourn in the Wilderness,

the Lord sought to orient these covenanters,

to offer them some markers

against the fading certitudes of slavery.

 

He ordered Moses to count the population,

at least those of military age,

and now they had some sense of magnitude –

they were a presence

against the nothingness of their horizons . . .

 

and then He told them, through his prophet,

how to arrange themselves, in tribes,

around the tabernacle,

protecting the Kohanites and Levites.

 

And now their being in the wilderness

had both quantification and design.

 

The counting came often, as it had before:

how many of each offering each leader should bring,

and the listing of tasks assigned . . .

 

But first came the covenant and the commandments:

here was the plan against the wilderness,

the desert within.

 

Here was the design of a people’s spirit

with all the guideposts, distasteful as manna,

to keep two million souls from getting lost.

 

Later, the priests were told just how

to aim the light from the menorah,

which radiated into sacred time:

the Sabbath at its center,

the framing six days of creation

– three before, three after –

(but really no before and no after)

forever.

 

 

          –Philip K. Jason

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Earth Day (April 22, 1970)

Ten years ago, we chased

Each other down on Hudson Street,

Arm-wrestled in the White Horse

Over rounds of beer.

Ten years ago, the Beats

Were tarnished, but still visible.

We’d see them at the Cedar Bar

And tasted luster in decay.

We all had spiral notebooks then,

And littered all the avenues

With jottings toward the absolute.

We talked about Albert Camus

Each day. Each day we shed

Our mufflers, socks, devices

For rebellion. We would shed

Our skins.

                                Today, in Maryland

I check my house for crevices

And howl at the resistance

Of hard acid ground

To take my seeds

In the newspaper I read

Where kids are kneeling

In the streets and wading 

In the streams, their fingers

Rooting out, if only incrementally,

Earth’s bunions.  In fever,

This Spring, they have given

The old globe a new legend

Of itself. In an enormous ring

Of hands the earth is set.

Note: This poem, written on the occasion of the first Earth Day, found its way into print about 16 months later in the Autumn 1972 issue of Four Quarters, published by La Salle College (now University). Perhaps wisely, I never included it in any of my collections. What strikes me today, over 40 years after it was originally published, is how early I had developed the restrospective habit — in this case requiring me to look back 10 years.

In any case, the inspiration of Earth Day still moves me. It’s important to be reminded of our responsibility of stewardship.

Get outside, give thanks, and do something good for our planet. 

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When This Man Prays

When this man prays in private

          Leaving a space for silence and

                   Solitary whispers

We learn that we, too,

          Can own a space in the holy dialogue

                   Between God and his people

A one-on-one – alive, immediate, almost breathless.

And when this man sings his prayer,

          Full-voiced, impassioned,

                   With urgency and gentleness

We can feel our own voices

          Lift to the dance of language

                   Our throats and lips, our tongues,

Soaring in sorrow or celebration.

When this man’s body sways in prayer,

          Each bend and gesture a sign of love

                   Or reverential doubt

We can feel the tug on our own muscles:

          Bone and blood accepting the mitzvah

                   Of the dance . . .

And in unembarrassed wholeness

          Our bodies yield their stiffness

                   Our voices are suddenly beautiful

Our private murmurings flow free from the prison of self.

          Heart and voice and limbs

                   Ascending the ladder of longing,

We are Israel, hearing, in all our ways of being,

          Hearing at last.

published in Sources of Jewish Poetry: A Thirty-Year Shirim Retrospective. Vol. 30/2 and 31/1, 2012-13.

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After Katrina

Does Katrina mean pure as in pure hell

or is it the new nick-name for global warming?

Like Adolph, it will fall from favor

with expecting parents.

To me, it’s a bouncy-sounding name:

I see my Katrina dancing,

a farm girl from Belgium or Holland

caught up in a Brueghel painting,

in what Williams called “rollicking measures,”

her skirt twirling like a roulette wheel,

a discus thrown from Biloxi.

But under her skirt are the whirling floaters,

the human flotsam outstretched

like starfish and — spinning, spinning

into the Gulf of Mexico

and across the Atlantic waters.

Washed out of the prisons and nursing homes,

the working-class neighborhoods

(and the neighborhoods without work),

the dockside warehouses, the brothels.

the churches and schools, — and streaming now,

each a little whirlpool of abated life,

a mandala of grief.

I imagine Katrina’s energy,

her benign urge to fulfillment,

the twists and turns of her swerving hips,

and her inevitable dissolution,

and I find that energy returning now

as pinwheel corpses revolve past

the drilling platforms and steer themselves

eastward, bumping against Miami

and then out to the vast, jazzed-up sea.

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Loss

LOSS

The light house at Point Reyes

is lacking one prism

because no one can find out

how to make what has been lost.

All of us lose something,

forget how we drew flame

from one another’s hearts.

And forgetting, we stand alone

on high perches, our signals incomplete:

warning / beckoning above the craggy shore.

Searching out grasses just below the snow line,

Dall’s sheep dance on outcroppings of rock

where predators can’t follow.

What have they lost?

To survive by simply standing

where one is safe is a lesson

I can’t unlearn; nor how to balance

on a step so high, almost in flight,

no turning back.

I can’t get back to what we knew:

my longing stretches between two poles

(warning / beckoning)

like those near the hunter’s cabin

where animal skins, scraped clean,

stretched tight,

dry in the sun of memory

to a thin film, a lens

for a flickering beacon

lacking one prism.

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Sign Upon Your Doorposts

 It is only the content of memory that vanishes,

Often the shape remains, embracing a vacuum,

Like the faint outline of a mezuzah

Long removed from the doorpost

Of a once-Jewish home.

 

So often we have saved the candlesticks

But not the candle-lighting,

The kiddush cup but neither the blessing nor the wine.

A grandfather’s tallis bag nests in a box of heirlooms,

The shawl within yearns to embrace lost shoulders,

Its fringes seek to lasso exiled fingers.

 

We have been guests at seders

At which the exodus from Egypt is an afterthought,

 “this night” not so very different, after all,

From all the other nights when freedom

Is recalled or sought, this story only worthy

As a prototype of all the others.

 

Like players in a puppet theater, we improvise

The story of a People without The People.

Like the mezuzah casing without the parchment,

The affixing without the blessing,

And then only the outline of the casing,

Soon drown beneath fresh paint.

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When Miriam Died

When Miriam died,
her timbrel quieted,
her well left dry –
there was no fanfare.

When her brother Aaron died,
the people mourned for 30 days.

Eleazar put on his father’s priestly robes,
but no one took on Miriam’s garments
or sang her songs.

Yes, the water dried up at her death,
and the people complained again
about the folly of leaving Egypt,
but when the Lord commanded
that the words of Moses bring forth
water from the rock, he used the rod
instead and seemed to claim
the miracle as one of his own making.

Moses was left to watch Aaron
die before him, as Miriam had done, —
left alone to lead the people
through further misadventures,
and to end his quest with the generation
that had fled slavery and yet kept
gagging on the bitter gift of freedom.

Moses was left to quench his longing
in a drought – dreaming, perhaps,
of the watery place of his rescue,
when young Miriam had waited by the Nile
watching over little brother in his ark of reeds.

(Originally published in Midstream, March-April 2008)

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Crossing the Chesapeake In Winter

From this bridge that arcs
like the spine of a lover’s back,
the broad bay seems a black and white
aerial photo of farmland, silver-tipped,
the fences and walls exchanged
for the zig-zag gaps in the heaving ice,
the fields in rhomboid and trapezoid
sheets that subdue the struggling waves.
Oh what a weight this winter has placed
on this frail and fecund sea.

To see it like this,
the bay in its glacial mask,
makes one image the world of mussel and crab
as a place of secret secretions:
crystal, claw, and shell. –And ice
as the skeletal house of salt and blood.

Your tires follow the vanishing arch
raised by fog-kissed buttresses
against which ice-fields nuzzle and split,
and deep in your fingers’ flesh
the steering wheel winces
as the bridge cushions the ice
that is traveling somewhere too.

As you reach mid-bay
the channels of open water widen;
scattering ice-slabs mirror
the bleachy clouds on a darkening sky.
Below, a lone gull captains his raft of ice
beyond, the horns of distant ships
blast out their names on the frosted air.

 

from Near the Fire, © 1983 Philip K. Jason, originally published in Chesapeake Country Life

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Shenandoah Weekend

 

The snow-muffled hum of engines,
the roof-racks loaded high,
the approach to a bare place in a barren season.

 

The squeak and crunch of dry snowfall,
the firewood buried under the fresh snow,
the three rough rooms of knotty pine.

Cross-country stalkers on narrow rails,
tracks of deer and fox,
bird-hops divided by tailfeather slashes.

The strange near-silences
and the far, far leafless view,
the swell of hollow and hill.

The cowering branches in sleeves of snow,

1-885215-17-5.

The Separation by Philip K. Jason, 88 pages, perfectbound, White Noise #8,1995, $12.00; ISBN: 1-885215-17-5.

the brook running hide-and-seek
under the delicate capes of ice.

 

The coffee and burning wood,
the puddles in entranceways,
the sour steam of wet wool.

The ache of heavily-booted legs,
the deep scale gripping the lungs,
the squint of light-bludgeoned eyes.

The white crests probing the gray-white clouds,
the footprints we try not to plant,
the clean wordlessness of winter woods.

 

 
(from The Separation, © 1995 Philip K. Jason, originally published in The Willamette Journal)

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The Synagogues of Spain

In the old synagogues of Spain,
no one is praying,
no melodies of Sephardim
echo in the arches.
Dodging purse-snatchers in Seville,
we lost our way three times
before finding the unmarked building
named on the dog-eared guidebook.
The doors were closed to our questions.

And in Toledo,
we had to wonder at the name:
Synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca.
We learned of its various uses
as arsenal and warehouse
but doubted the truth of the claim
that it had been refurbished
to “its former glory.”
No matter how well restored
the Moorish plaster cast
of capitals, the gilded shells
upon four pendentives
that hold the central chapel dome;
no matter that in the Synagogue
of the Transito, Samuel Levi,
“treasurer and friend of Pedro the Cruel,”
once voiced the Hebrew still held
today in friezes and turned his head
away, perhaps, from the women’s galleries —
these places are at best museums.

In scores of churches and cathedrals
the hum of worship greets the visitor
and sounds the spirit of a culture,
but in these synagogues
the voices of the guides rehearse
some dusty facts; the racks
of postcards spin; the Jews
of Spain who didn’t burn
remain long silent.

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