Jerome Rothenberg Poems

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The thieves, the thieves, the lovely thieves are no more.

When a wind blows
in from the sea, a door
swings open & light
white as Hell
nearly blinds us.
Night begins later,
the skin on my fingers
flakes off. A rank wind
shakes the ladders
we climb on,
the earth more distant,
for which we still
hunger, the sea
filling up with our tears,
our voices lost
in the wind.
Thieves who scour
our shores at evening,
whose voices sound under
our windows, whose tears
hide our pain,
cry out with one voice,
past shadows & windows.
One voice for
earth & one voice
for water,
& thieves dressed
like thieves,
a Hell like
no other, a house
overlooking the sea,
on a night
when coins
ring & death
has a voice,
like a thief’s voice,
earth returning
to earth,
then to water,
a voice
thieves dissemble
in dreams.
Thieves & a sea
& a chimney
down which thieves
clamber. More
thieves in the snow,
skin & hair
growing white.
A shadow that thieves
spill like blood,
like the voice
from a stone,
the voice
of the dying.
Thieves & voices,
shore, wind, & sea,
tears & eyes,
fingers spinning
a thread,
in fear of the sky
& the earth,
of thieves
lost at sea,
a grave
& a stone
left for thieves
where thieves

[From The Jigoki Zoshi Hells: A Book of Variations, Argotist online, 2010]


now the serpent:

I will bring back
their taskmasters
crazy & mad

will meet them
deep in the valley
& be subdued

separated in life
uncircumcised, needy
shoes stowed away

how naked they come
my fathers
my fathers

angry & trembling
the serpents
you have destroyed

their faces remembered
small in your eyes,
shut down, soiled

see a light
take shape in the pit,
someone killed

torn in pieces
a terror, a god,
go down deeper

[From “14 Stations” in Gematria Complete, Marick Press, 2009]


for Clayton Eshleman

Words imprinted on a sign
by Goya         glowing
white against a surface
nearly white:
the sleep of reason
that produces monsters.

He is sitting on a chair
his head slumped
resting on his arms
or on the marble table,
pencil set aside,
his night coat open
thighs exposed.
All things that fly at night
fly past him.
Wings that brush an ear,
an ear concealed,
a memory beginning
in the house of sleep.
His is a world where owls
live in palm trees,
where a shadow in the sky
is like a magpie,
white & black are colors
only in the mind,
the cat you didn’t murder
springs to life,
a whistle whirling in a cup,
gone & foregone,
a chasm bright with eyes.
There is a cave in Spain,
a fecal underworld,
where bats are swarming
among bulls,
the blackness ending in a wall
his hands rub up against,
a blind man in a painted world,
amok & monstrous
banging on a rock.

[From “50 Caprichos after Goya” in Concealments & Caprichos, Black Widow Press, 2010]


Warm days hanging
over San Diego,

where streets
slide into murky
canyons. What
is this but
home & what
is home
but a misnomer?
Pisces has shifted
into Aries.

bumps shadowing
the server’s
arms are no
concern to anyone
yet called to our
attention show
a strain, a fearsomeness
hard to conceal.
The times are never right.
A skin of air is over
everything. The sun
flows like a liquid,
all the universe we see
has never happened.
There is no truth to time
except for birthdays.
In a city under siege
a ceremony
gathers, scattering
the birds.
We live forever
in the instant,
in the house we share.
A groom & bride
are figures,
smaller than a thumb
& little reckoning
how short
the passage between
death & life.

[From “A Book of Concealments” in Concealments & Caprichos, Black Widow Press, 2010]

Four Medieval Scenes, for Robert Duncan


Jesus at a wedding
waits for us

monkeys with chains around their legs
surround him

dishes of squabs on table

the strangers come to wash his feet,
tra la they sing

a boy perched at a window
plays a trumpet

cherries & pears along the floor

a single fly

a skull rests at his feet,
a bird over his head


sage & holy
she is sharpening a long stick

while on a swing
a babe sails by

the sky fills up with
warriors on goats & boars

a sleeping dog

a dish of fruit

a castled landscape


a man called john,
much like the others,
stands barefoot near a lake
with swans & boats

I turn away from him
& wait,
another year inside my head,
another cycle

then see him, crying
from his cauldron,
sad turks surround him,
warts on their noses

pouring water on his head


the priest’s hand underneath
the bishop’s robe

against the rump, the flesh
envelops him & hides

whatever floats around the dancing
twitching jesus

on his altar: heads & hands
tacked onto space

a hand holding a switch
a hand that points

a head propped on a pedestal
a head in mid-air

separated from the crown,
the spear, the rattling dice

under the dancer’s feet
a robe in flames


[From Retrievals: Uncollected & New Poems, Junction Press, 2010]

This material is © Jerome Rothenberg
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