The following two poems were written as part of a project exploring the possibilities of employing iambic pentameter – that worn, old meter perfected by the Bard himself – in poetry of an otherwise contemporary idiom. Robert Frost deserves credit for motivating me in this exercise. Frost’s pentameter is never less than perfectly crafted, but almost invisible. His modern, New England diction is so well suited to his meter that is is only on second or third read that his iambs, and sometimes even his regular rhymes, become apparent.
In the poem titled “The Cross above Saint John’s” I flirt with iambic pentameter, but never commit to using it strictly. The story it recounts is a true one, which took place during a writing retreat in New Mexico in the summer of 2007. “Palm to Palm” is much more formally strict than the former poem; it is a sonnet that I originally wrote for my wife after a particularly sleepless night of childcare. Readers of Shakespeare will recognize the title as a phrase from Romeo and Juliet.
The Cross above St John’s
Santa Fe, 2007
There was the long, white, welded cross
Lying on the hilltop above the pines.
How had it fallen? Surely not by wind
Alone. Rust, perhaps? Then the bigger questions:
Could I pick it up? Stand it back upright?
I will make a poem of this, I thought:
Raising again the long, white, welded cross.
It proved (for crosses can admit of proof,
I learned), quite difficult to lift—
Impossible. I couldn’t even get
The transept to my shoulders so to re-
Enact the part of Simon of Cyrene.
I think I only helped to move
It further down the hill.
I reasoned with myself that this may be
Best after all: the cross, I saw, had snapped
Off from its base, as if from some intentioned
Act of bending it past breaking. Even
If I could have lifted, how to re-secure
It to its broken base? No. Let it lie.
Brown thunder-clouds were crowding afternoon.
Still I lingered, sad I could not make
A poem of it. Still its broken base—
Among some scattered granite—gaped. A cross
Belonged there once; and so I found some twine
And wrapped two boughs of Mexican scrub pine
Till they stood cruciform above the hill
Propped up in stones I gathered with my hands.
Palm to Palm
We are the two hands of the sentinel
Who paces wakeful in the windless night,
Attentive to each whimpered sigh. We know
The drying of the sleepless eyes, the light
Delirium of rising to attend
To late disturbances in humid air
And midnight panics. We are hands, I say
That grip the issued rifle of close care.
It’s years since I first chose this martial art:
To clasp and interdigitate, to match,
As best I can, your grip with mine—we part
But to extend our reach, and meet again.
The weary heat of each of us is cooled
By droplets from the other’s giving skin