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SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

[Three Poems + Commentary]

by Jack Marshall


“Hitler bought off Pius XIII’s Vatican
with a tithe from German taxes
of one billion.

Each year the Pontiff sent
birthday greetings to the Fuhrer:
‘Warmest congratulations with fervent

prayers for you in the name
of the bishops and diocese in Germany
sent on their altars to heaven.’”

The orchestra at Buchenwald, the French
woman singing Tosca; fiddlers playing
for their lives by an open trench;

Robert Desnos reading good fortunes
from the palms of Jews
in line to the ovens.

Poetry had better see through the doors
of boxcars, or else not play
on the tracks anymore.

No more songs
to the balcony;
the balcony is closed. So long...

And to the new King of the Poetry Slam
I say, I’ll see your Poetry Slam,
and raise you Islam.

O how many lands I’ll never set
foot in! How many girls I’ll never lay
eyes on! OK then, if not

in the same bed,
then in the same

Handsome young man eyes
two pretty young girls
on the street, passing by:

“You girls married?” “We’re not
even legal!”
“You got

to be kidding! You gotta
be out there so someone come
on to ya!”

—From Spiral Trace (Coffee House, June 2013)
—[An earlier version of this poem appears in Issue 3 of SHJ.]



Now a violet iris bends
from the waist
back in a breeze, then up, a wand

tracing a finger
along a curving figurine, following
her death from cancer,

like the cold water
taste buds
soak up, and just after.

What I saw
in sleep was no dream but replay
of evening news:

a slaughterhouse’s concrete
floor, downer cow trying to rise,
blasted by pressurized jet

from a water cannon,
the hose aimed, engulfing
its breath like a dragon

full force at mouth and nose—
on its feet. I want the hose

turned to jet
on the man
aiming it.

But isn’t rage guilt
for my part
in the kill?

Aren’t we graves
of the animals
we have

eaten? And that smell, rank
lab rats in the hall
on my way to the office, the stink

growing stronger the higher
the stairs I bounded: caged,
matted hair, squealing terror.

From the open window crack
I’m crouching at, my pumped
Red Ryder aimed at the black

cat on the fence. Squeeze trigger;
cat drops. From behind, a smack:
“How you like it?” says my mother.

Either the world will save
you by drawing you
out of yourself,

or its hypocrisy
will drive
you crazy.

Save the whales! Save the ocean!
Save the birds! Save the world
in your spare time!

—From Spiral Trace (Coffee House, June 2013)



—(in memory, Morton Marcus)

Fog-shrouded February barely gone,
and with my first steps out,
a powerful scent-driven

blossoming springtide knocks me
squarely on my knee-caps,
nearly to my knees.

My friend has died; he appears
walking away in a sky
not there before

he occupied it
and now

empty sky, no sun,

returning a sum,
debt most
unforgiven, called in,

totaled. In moments of crisis,
as heart’s submerged need springs
to surface, new eyes

see such a prickly pair
we were—yoked,
bickering brothers.

Yet how unstinting his generosity
rivaled in richness
his full-throated rhapsody!

If poetry is near able to say
what’s not heard in speech,
perhaps he’ll hear what I didn’t say—

here, in out of the unbound
stretch and reach and touch of
time in sound.

Mort, we should switch places. Have
you noticed how those who love life least
often live

longest? Such a circus!
Applause these days
would be white noise.

On the phone, you
could barely whisper
you were ready to go,

though you’d breathe easier
if the world’s cries gentled for the night.
You’d be elated, you laughed, near

healed, if drawn
out of midnight and daybreak’s gray light,
dawn’s pink palm opened.

—From Spiral Trace (Coffee House, June 2013)
—[Earlier versions entitled “TOTALLED” appear in Issues 3 and 5 of SHJ.]


On Poems from Spiral Trace:
Commentary by Jack Marshall

In Spiral Trace, an ongoing sequence of independent, interlinked poems (as in the three sections included here), I wanted to catch the feelings, thoughts, perceptions that were occurring and shifting as I was in my early 70s: the death of family and friends, the gradual realization one is growing old, the deadly repetitions of history, with always the living textures of changing seasons and present weather, and fueled by Bush’s war on Iraq, a dread that we were being bullied into disaster. The powerful and greedy were at it again: making wars of conquest disguised as liberation, and that mindset sold through mass media to us as necessary for our safety, while the recession had people scrambling for jobs, paying debts and mortgages, caring for families, to make much protest. And also the bad faith we practice, consciously or not, in preserving our comforts and privileges. If I could get details of disaster right, it would give some satisfaction to the urge for precision, at least to me. Once begun, I did not know where the poems would go or what they’d come up with, but a good part of the fun was the open, free-handed terza rima triplet I was drawn to, more or less followed with assonance, slant and half-rhyme, etc., which would give a shape and musical form to the details navigating by sound to their often unsuspected meanings. Hard fun. The poem spiralled in and out of its own control. At times, content created form, at others form created new, unintended, unknown, content. It is this unseen, unforeseen content that most interested me, that I had not come to yet.


SHJ Issue 8
Fall 2013

Jack Marshall

Born in Brooklyn to Arabic-Jewish parents who emigrated from Syria and Iraq during the first Depression, Marshall is the author of a prose memoir, From Baghdad to Brooklyn (Coffee House Press, 2005), and thirteen books of poetry which have been given a Guggenheim Fellowship, the PEN Center Poetry Award, two Northern California Book Awards, and a finalist nomination from the National Book Critics Circle Award.

Spiral Trace (Coffee House, June 2013) is a book-length sequence of 86 independent, linked poems dealing with personal, political, and planetary concerns at this historical time.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury