“Can Poetry Matter?,” “A Brown Study” and “Away from It All”

by Michael Schiffman

Can Poetry Matter?

(New York City, March 2017)

Left the wine importer's tasting,

denied a restorative cup of joe,

I passed out on a Manhattan subway platform.

The ambulance drivers lugged me

me up to the street, where I signed and was

allowed to go. Before wine the arid years

in the men's tailored clothing business.

Sauntered into fabric show rooms

muttering, "life is short, art is long."

Stacks of swathes on black velvet boards.

Culling, culling, day and night, in pursuit

of the inane: a quest to entice profit

from fashion's cryptic charms. How I endured

that work I will never know. I had embraced

meaninglessness, and then I memorized poems:

"O the mind, mind has mountains: cliffs of fall

Frightful, sheer, no man-fathomed."

And soon I scripted lines that were my own:

I have one body. It harbors one soul.

A reclusive word stands watch between the two.

I listen for it in the tribal chirping

of sparrows, in the magpie's seamless mimicry.

No different from anyone else,

my colorless life the simplest privilege.

Under mounds of clutter I stammer my name.

A voice then echoes, "mother."

A Brown Study

Released from a narrow band of ice

by the bright, not quite sunlit, light,

a drop of water rolls slowly

down the nearly flat, rubber roof.

Having little else to do, my attention

is poised for this show. I watch as the water

makes a straight, shiny line on its way

to the gutter, and then—in my mind's eye—

down the spout to a leaf trammeled drain,

eventually to seep onto the street,

perhaps to reach the sewer and from there

to lose itself in a more fitting home—the river,

where sycamores stand at intervals

of their own rooting. Thick trunks, winter

bleached, leafless. They grow taller than neighboring

trees hung with vines like shaggy, greying hair,

a ghastly, appalling muddle. But life

holds fast. A single swan drifts with the murky

current, its arched neck graceful, decorous.

On the far side a heron crouches, then stands,

revealing all of itself before lifting off

to head upstream. Above me a small gaggle

of geese honk and land in divine disarray.

Virtually nothing to remark on

on this winter walk, but delight in looking,

reprieve for witnessing the waning of a day.

Away from It All

I see the skeleton, but not the stream.

To the south the rivers are swollen and brown.

This is not my country. I do not know

how or why these waters rise and fall.

In spite of disappointment the morning

light still floods the bedroom. Cranky sinews

that rack the body also tarnish the mind.

One day death will fine me, then cease to care.

We are in France. Two plus hours north

of Toulouse. The Aveyron, land of gorges

and rushing water. Our gite lies at the base

of one such gorge. The late summer sun takes

its time in reaching us and then departs

tout de suite. Our hosts reside in the house next

to ours. No others in this sunken place,

but three resident cats, one old and missing

an eye. They play upon our hearts. We wander

the countryside: fortress towns, Cathar strongholds,

churches and cathedrals, many sights all

equally compelling. The birthplace, too,

of Toulouse-Lautrec, that poor, licentious,

aristocratic cripple. Dining is more simple

than imposing. Confit of duck a common theme,

the wines delightfully off beat. What's worse,

I wonder why I'm here, away from my

pointed and pointless routines, still struggling

to put the pieces of my life together.

Once, many years ago, an Irish fishing

guide parsed the Immaculate Conception

for me. Did I know how Jesus arrived?

He arrived by rocket from outer space.

How had I forgotten this travelogue moment?

It's made everything so clear.

About the Author

Michael Schiffman

I am a senior poet residing in Reading, Pa., one of our country's poorest cities. I live in the downtown and am confronted daily by the facts of poverty and its running mate, racism. These facts color what I write, even if not always overtly. I attended Dartmouth College (B.A.) and Columbia University (M.A.). My last job of eighteen years was as a wine salesman/manager/educator. I've had my poems appear in half a dozen publications. I've "sort of" educated myself attending summer workshops (Bread Loaf, Skidmore, U Va., and the Vermont College of Fine Arts).