Jerome Rothenberg The Case for Memory (ten excerpts)

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The Case for Memory

I was amok & fearless
twice deceived
for which I sought out
in a tree. Too carelessly
I reached for love
& beaten down
I found you
in a froth or frenzy
spent my days around
the pan yards.
I would ask no help from those
whose trust is weak
but I would buy the latest
& the least.
I live for something practical
— the case for memory —
I set one foot into the space
the others leave abandoned.
Not your lord or slave
I meet you
in an equal clash of wills
& face you down.
I only touch the ground
on Sundays

The Burning House

It was always dark.
The red hole’s
wetness threatened
the lost sheep.
Sharp exchanges
were not clearly heard.
Rivers did
not flow.
You did not defend
your brother.
We ascend
toward progress.
I scratch fire &
remove it from your throat.
I run out of
distant shadows
now that no one
tries to stop
the passage from a city
that is drowning.
You must dodge
the summer fire
to free your soul.
You cannot stand
back of the burning
house from which
strangers emerge
like wolves
to run you down.

Where God Is Light

The lost in hell
among the rat-faced

I am with them.
Standing at the tunnel’s mouth
the water underneath
I see the figures floating
raised in air
then pitched into the vortex.
Here where god is light
a brown globe
hangs above
a burning hell.
Eyes turn right.
Hieronymus (my namesake)
let me lift this picture
from your hands.
I cherish walking in your circles.
Do you think the light is wet?
Forget it little father
& go home.
Return the keys to management.
When someone asks
if you believe in god
turn cautious.
There are now angels everywhere.
Never look back.

I Have Paid the Price & Lost

God of the universe
you issue from my mouth.
I watch you dying.
Muscles like flowers gather
at your throat.
You shake a wrist at me.
Your watchband comes apart
& freezes.
I can see you with a babe
propped on your lap
or else a lamb.
Old man with blisters
working against time
you plunge a knife
into my book.
The babe limp as a doll
tilts forward
A man in chains
on a woman’s breast.
Feet walk
without a body.
I have paid the price & lost.
And you?
Have you watched them play
the game of tribute?
And have you failed to pay
& won?

A Real Man

Mangled fingers
push the stones aside.
The scars run deep.
Hate suits
the human face
far better
than a mask
The price of happiness
is wisdom.
Stones that interfere
with speech
will interfere with sleep
no longer.
Soon he wipes away
the stain.
The motor seems outrageous.
Back & forth
he walks.
I watch the fathers
throwing caution to the winds.
My body hovers
in an air
the man can hold forever
in his sights.
I do not trust his way
of dealing.
He & I
are brothers
for this moment
Watch his fingers closing.
He is a real man
when he murders
is he not?

A Cruel Nirvana

Half dead
is still alive
& half alive is too.
So keep it rolling
I declare.
The others mingle in a room
atop the city
where a fire burns.
They sing.
I sing among them.
Then I push my way through
with my thumbs.
I eke a living
from a stone.
Hard knocks are bound to follow.
I can hear
a water song
close by my ear
& track it
where it leads me.
It is summer
but the trees
are dead.
They vanish with
our fallen friends.
The eye in torment
brings them down
each mind a little world
a cruel nirvana.

The Fire Deep Inside

My penis in the shape
of my own heart
rests on the pillows.                               
(F. Picabia)
I taste a liquor never brewed
out of your lips.
The generals are gathering.
They stare into each other’s eyes
through mirrors.
With a display of wounds
we signal them
& turn away. I am the last
because the fire
deep inside
burns till it’s morning.
Poetry is made in bed
for some for me
the call of life is stronger.
I walk & see my shadow
hanging upside down
with yours. The way
your mouth says I
is just like mine.
I multiply
the little portion
that your fingers
I cannot comprehend
the way men kill
or laugh. I will not
vouch for them.
There is a space to burrow in
under the covers.
The way he wants to kiss
while vomiting
is part of life. The way
he calls on death
trumpets his own.

I Prefer a Poem with Spaces

I like to crack my words
between my teeth.
I tie my hair back
in a knot
& little care
how well it suits me.
The unearthing of a coin
under the streets
leaves us all shrieking.
I can pretend to think all thoughts
at once.
Seldom for me
is frequent
for my friends.
I prefer a poem with spaces
to a block of prose.
I do not mention roses.                          (G. Stein)
The thrill of climbing
makes me wring my hands
in glee.
You see me
& you
look away.
You ask me to be cautious.
I can reply to you
if time allows
if not I can stand still.
A poor girl reaches out her hand
but I have nothing left
for her not rhyme
nor reason.
We are all feckless
when it comes to love --
still more to justice.

A Town Called Meter

There is a town called meter
north of Spain.
In it the dead still live
& I have seen them,
who am hungrier than them
not angrier.
I stand among them
with my forged
credentials, calling
on the rest to follow
suit. A bunch of drifters
rubs against me
men with iron spoons
gouging my heart.
I stumble after them
into a town square
sunk below sea level
hard & dry.
A gay parade
files past me
inching up the steps.
I stop a while
my feet in broken flight
over the stones.
The night flows from my eye
the day holds back.
I learn to mimic birds
caught in the brambles.
I have a stark
letting my heart keep time,
my throat in rapture
crying out to you:
the mask! the mask!
in perfect rhythm.

I Can’t Say Who I Am

I can’t say who I am                              (A. Baraka)
but go for it
& speak
as if I knew it.
Time is half the story
so is death.
I run from shadows
to avoid old people
maddened by God.
I follow animals
whose eyes at night
mirror my face.
Seeing myself asleep
I touch my arm.
I celebrate
new forms of sex.
I am frantic
knowing that nobody
has a way out
or a face
more marked than
I was not
born live.                                                    
(J. Holzer)
The case for memory
grows weaker
day by day.
The more I know myself
the less I am.
I hold on to a name
because it suits me
but the voice behind it
never was my own.

Language belongs to the saint children.
They speak and I have the power to translate.

María Sabina

The foregoing are from a 100-poem series, A Book of Witness, published by New Directions in 2003. Under the title The Case for Memory they appeared with several other excerpts in a limited edition with screen printed illustrations by Ian Tyson, published by Granary Books in 2001.

This material is © Jerome Rothenberg

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