THE FOLLOWING eight poems are from Uproar, Brooks Haxton's series of antiphonies to Psalms, forthcoming in 2004 from Knopf, which has just released the paperback of his most recent collection, Nakedness, Death, and the Number Zero. Haxtonís other books include The Lay of Eleanor and Irene (Backcountry, 1985), Dominion (Knopf, 1986), Traveling Company (Knopf, 1989), Dead Reckoning (Story Line Press, 1989), and The Sun at Night (Knopf, 1997). He has published three books of translations, including an anthology of Greek lyrics and epigrams, Dances for Flute and Thunder, and Fragments by Heraclitus, both available from Viking. His rendition of Selected Poems by Victor Hugo was released last year by Penguin Classics. He has been awarded fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts,Guggenheim Foundation, NEA, Washington DC Council for the Arts, and the Ingram Merrill Foundation. He teaches in the writing programs at Syracuse University and Warren Wilson College. Born in Greenville, Mississippi, he is the son of the novelist Ellen Douglas and the composer Kenneth Haxton.
In the preface to Uproar Haxton says about Psalmsóand religious scriptures in generaló"Not to believe in any of them seems gratuitous. I might as well choose not to believe in Bach's cello suites, or in the imagination that informs them, or in the connection between music and the cosmos where it occurs. Being is beyond belief.... Another way of saying this is that my poems are lies. One lie is to say that I believe in God. Another is to say that I do not. To step back from these warring impulses and to say I do not know feels almost true, this near truth being to my mind again a lie.... The faiths I have inherited, and the attendant doubts, are mine, and I am theirs, whether we choose each other or not."
Every Death Is Magic from the Enemy to Be Avenged
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
When fever burned the last light out of my daughterís eyes,
I swore to find and kill the ones to blame. Men
must mount the long boat in the dark with spears.
At dawn, where the flowering spicebush hid my scent,
I crouched. A young wife, newborn slung across her chest,
came first for springwater. She stooped. My god,
for vengeance, spoke her secret name inside my ear. Her god
stepped back with no scream, his right hand at his mouth,
the knuckles clenched between the pointed teeth.
I am like a pelican of the wilderness: I am like an owl
of the desert. I watch, and am as a sparrow alone
upon the housetop. Psalm 102
The pelican in scripture is unclean. It pukes dead fish
onto the hatchlings, and it roosts alone, like Satan
on the Tree of Life. Nobody told me. I liked pelicans.
I liked owls, too. I used to lie awake and listen,
wanting to become an owl, to fly, to see through darkness,
turn my head, and look straight back behind me. I was
happy, as kids go, but I did not belong in human form.
Sparrows peck grain from fresh dung. In this world rich
means filthy. Leopardi, in his high Romantic musings
on the sparrow, does not say the poet is a shitbird, just
that, singing by himself, he acts like one, and wishes
he could feel more like one, unashamed to do so. Here,
the preacher (burning in his bones with fever, puking
half-digested fish, and hooting, sleepless in the ruins
like the baleful dead) cries: O Lord, take me not away.
My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Ö I
will declare thy name unto my brethren.Ö Psalm 22
OK. Letís not call what ditched us God:
ghu, the root in Sanskrit, means not God,
but only the calling thereupon. Letís call God
Fun. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word
was Fun. Fun created man in his own image.
The fool hath said in his heart, There is no Fun.
Letís call the House of God the Funhouse. Fun
derives, according to Dr. Onions (may he
with his Johnson rest in peace), from fond,
or foolish. God, in this prime sense, is fond
of us, and we, if all goes well, of him. Letís
call God luck. There is no luck in scripture.
Chance gets mentioned several times, my favorite
being, Time and chance happeneth to them all;
but luck is the unspoken name. King David
to the harp and sackbut sings, in paraphrase, My luck?
Gimme a fucking break! With my luck, how do I know?
I made sackcloth also my garment; and I became a proverb
to them. They that sit in the gate speak against me; and
I was the song of drunkards. Psalm 69
I made sackcloth my garment once, by cutting
arm and neck holes into a burlap bag.
A croker sack they called it. Sackdragger
they called the man who dragged a croker sack
between the cotton rows to pick. He dragged
a gunnysack behind him in the ditch
collecting empties. Him they chose
the Likeliest to Sack Seed in the feed store,
or to suck seed. He was your daddy. He sacked
groceries part-time, and they jeered:
you sorry sack of shit. Sackcloth,
which Job sewed upon his skin, was goat hair.
God who clothed the heavens with such blackness
said, I make sackcloth their covering.
Isaiah understood. God had him speak a word
in season to the weary. Speak, Isaiah, now, to me.
Before the stars like green figs in a windstorm
drop, the sun is black as sackcloth, and the moon
becomes as blood. My soul is weary. Speak,
Isaiah. Sing. I was a scholar as a boy:
I cut the neck and arm holes into the burlap,
pulled it on, and cinched it with a hank of rope:
what I have done from then till now is itch.
The righteous shall rejoice when he seeth the vengeance;
he shall wash his feet in the blood of the wicked. Psalm 58
It was the fortieth year since Buchenwald: two thousand
Jewish refugees in Sudan starved while Reagan visited
the graves of Nazis. CBS paid off Westmoreland
for their rude disclosure of his lies and crimes:
he had killed thirty of the enemy, letís not forget,
for every one lost us: he was owed something.
That year, though, no terrorist could touch Godís work
in Mexico and north of Bogota: an earthquake here,
volcano there, and numbers do not signify the dead,
each corpse incomprehensible as to the widow Klinghoffer
her Leon, shot, dumped overboard as if to make a point.
Westmoreland said, the Viet Cong could be indentified
from the attacking aircraft as all personnel in uniform
below. Their uniform, he told us, was the native dress.
The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon
by night. Psalm 121
On a hillside scattered with temples broken
under the dogday sun, my friend and I drank
local wine at nightfall and ate grapeleaves
in goat-yogurt glaze. The living grape vines
bore fruit overhead. Beyond our balcony,
beyond the Turkish rooftops, an old moon
touched Venus at one tip. This vintage,
he said, would melt pig iron. But I wondered,
were we drunk enough, and he said no. I took him,
staggering and laughing, in my arms, and soon,
with snow at nightfall easing off,
another old moon slid into the hill
behind my dead friendís house. He loved
that smear of light cast back on it from earth.
I Want to Pray
In the hidden part thou shalt make me to know
wisdom. Psalm 51
That young man
firing his Kalashnikov
into the playground
has been made to know
the hidden part.
Me, I want to pray.
Iím on my knees.
But all I am is screaming
I donít know what for. Maybe
the best God can do is pay no mind.
Thou hast made us drink the wine of astonishment.
The wine of astonishment
is house wine at my house.
The whiskey of it is a sauce
we savor. The cocaine
of thy judgment also
is rock crystal, blow
to blow the mitral valve.
Truly is the heroin
of thine excellency said
to be deep brown, shit
pure enough to stop the heart.