Poetry Feature: Six Poems

We are pleased to publish for the first time a selection of six poems by Jeff Gundy, author of the award-winning Spoken Among the Trees (University of Akron Press 2007) and four other poetry collections. In these poems the worlds of popular culture—suggested by references to Ronald Reagan, Jerry Garcia, Bob Dylan—intersect with poetic forms inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke and Georg Trakl to create a meditative collage. The homage to these Austrian poets is perhaps a nod to the fruits of Gundy’s Fulbright Lectureship at the University of Salzburg in 2008. In the final poem, "Biblipgraphical Lament," Gundy plays with the ways in which Stanley Hauerwas's glosses on John Howard Yoder inspire his own meditations.

Of these poems Gundy says: “I find myself trying to be mindful of so many things at once: the need to reckon somehow the almost unspeakable intersections, griefs and privileges of ordinary American life, to pay attention and homage to the ten thousand things of this world, to honor and to resist. At the same time, the language makes its own demands. As it is read and said, the poem should somehow give pleasure in its sounds, its shapes, its images, even as perhaps it troubles. And all this happens, of course, in the stew-pot of my particular set of history, traditions, commitments and obsessions.”

The poems are both playful and edgy—not entirely at ease in the world. Gundy nudges his readers to attend to the contradictory images they daily imbibe as members of a media culture. In this way his poems are deeply Anabaptist, searching for wholeness—although preferring honesty to false piety—in the midst of a life permeated with the profane.

-- A. H.

Quarry Hollow: Rules and Intimations

Three days without news of the campaign is as good as a stiff martini just before dinner, as a long walk in the sunshine, as a long lazy morning in bed with your sweetie.

Remember the steep volcanic paths to the black sand beaches of the Azores, the white cliffs at Duino, the treacherous limestone scraps and spalls that lead to the floor of the quarry.

And heavy dew and the crying of many crows somewhere off toward the sun, and why the rotted hammock causes thoughts of beauty.

Consider the tree almost killed by bagworms, and lost nights in tiny basement taverns on Steingasse, and irrevocable human disasters in MacMansions and third-floor walkups.

And men who have read Rilke and men who haven’t agreeing to tolerate a certain number of shattered buildings, screams, and splintered enemy children so that sunny afternoons on islands may proceed undisturbed.

And the tall maple, its massed clusters of seedpods, its plan to bomb the whole neighborhood again, gently, despite the sparse rewards last time.

Get up, put the book away, walk into the quarry and across its scrabbly floor until your bones warm a little in the sunshine.

On the Birthday of Ronald Reagan and My Mother-in-Law, I Mourn Jerry Garcia

Water loose, raw and smelly all over town again, nearly as much as the last big flood, then it turned sharp and snowed a little and I frittered away the day finding clips from Youtube to reinforce my bitter lectures on the Cold War.

I walked home, switched computers, browsed and brooded some more, found Jerry Garcia plump and old in cut-off shorts, singing a heartbreaking “Peggy-O.”

For a moment I rested in the old dream that sad lovely songs on the folly of war will make us stop killing each other.

Will you marry me, pretty Peggy-O? If you will marry me, I’ll set your cities free . . .Jerry’s gray hair blows in the wind. He looks nearly dead, and he is.

Reagan insisted that once the Russians knuckled under and found Jesus we could all be pals.

My mother-in-law, still living in blurry and complicated comfort in a condo in Surrey, BC, resembles him in ways that shall not be detailed here.

The snow stopped, and the streets began to freeze.

If ever I return, pretty Peggy-O . . . If ever I return, your cities I must burn, and destroy all the ladies in the aree-o.

Reagan remained the leader of the so-called free world well after his dementia had begun to show. The Dead played thousands of shows, good recordings of hundreds online now for free. Jerry did not live a pure life.

After the somber, shimmery guitar solo, his weary tenor returned to lift the last notes. Sweet William, he is dead . . . and buried in the Lousiana country-o.

And then our neighbors’ blind basset hound Herald stepped out, and proclaimed the need for attention to small things moving in the soggy chilly night.

Three for Trakl

Like a field mouse burrowing, the woman
searches in her gray bag for the slippers

she left beside the bed. Like searching Trakl
for a line without desolation and beauty:

rotten branches, holy brother, gentle lyre-play.
The left-handed women are quiet today,

writing carefully in their small notebooks,
recording the three dreams they dreamt

while rain spattered and trembled in the downspouts.
Madness, lonely, dying. Ruin, darkness, stars.

Against all logic, Trakl is unusually translatable.
He was mad in that peculiar modern way:

aware that disaster was bearing down, escape
was impossible, and beauty and God

were as useless as trenches and machine guns.
Her face is floating through the waters.

Red wine, ether, veronal: precious and insufficient.
Her hair is waving in bare branches. What garden,

what sister, what mountain could deflect
or distract him? Like a wound her mouth is open.

His life a limping journey toward one doorway,
toward a vast room heaped with the stinks and groans

of empire burst and collapsed through the flesh
of farmers and schoolboys. Heal us, they surely begged,

help us. He had some rags, his hands, water. He knew
the proper doses and protocols for opium, ether, veronal,

he could see the neat rows of bottles on shelves in Vienna,
far away, so clear. He had nothing, some odd lines

from his own poems, fragments of Grete’s piano
echoing in rooms he would not enter again.

Impossible to sit still. Chilly rain, October,
the furnace balky in this borrowed house,

brown bitter fluids spilling from the radiators.
We huddle at the stove, put on our jackets,

make futile phone calls. All over Salzburg

bronze plaques on walls hold Trakl’s poems
up to the rain, the sunshine, the Föhn wind

that still kicks up in autumn, bearing dust
and melancholy. We are safe for now,

but we talk of furnaces we have known,
leaks and failures, bitter nights

and blunders. The empire creaks and groans,
pumps straining at nothing, pipes cold.

-Passages in italics are from The Poems of Georg Trakl, tr. Margitt Lehbert, 2007.

Autobiography with Blonde on Blonde

The ragman drew circles on everything, but St. John dragged
his feet through them all, saying In the beginning was the Word!

until time shuddered like a bus with bad brakes and my dad
rubbed his face and sat down at the kitchen table, his farmer tan

glowing. It had been a windy day, and the brutal stench
of Hillman’s hogs wafted through the screens. I whacked Kathy

on the back of the head just to hear her howl. It worked.
Then they drove me off to college, where I learned

that the not-yet has already happened, if you squint at it
just right. I am, I said, said Neil Diamond, and we had

to agree with that. Then the president explained that those
unwilling to kill for peace might once have been good people,

but godless communist drugs had made them into trolls
and orcs. We knew he was an idiot--we were elves and hobbits--

and decided to set off for Mordor to destroy the Ring
right after dinner. But somebody put on Blonde on Blonde again,

and it was just like the night to play tricks, and we could hardly
root out the fascist pigs while Louise and her lover were so entwined.

We walked down beside the dam instead, tried to lose ourselves
in the scant woods. I never got to Memphis or to Mobile.

The hard rain was already falling, but the sun still shone like glory
some of those afternoons, with classes over and the long night ahead

and water roaring down the spillway like the great I AM.

Interior Archeology

There’s the old photograph of the CPS camp in the mountains,
the barracks snow-frosted, pines clutching the slope. The men

must be inside around the stove arguing about Caesar
and Jesus, or out splitting wood, or escaped on the daily freight

that hauls coal through the eastern desert to the smoky cities.
The men carry We will not kill like the mark of some

un-American beast, marking them as weak and strong at once.
Now I own so many books that they keep falling off the table,

right in the middle of the distant, inexcusable news.
I have hardened my heart only a little, said that agitator Jeffers.

What happened to the life I lived in the forest, when I knew
how to make snares and where to find the salt lick?

We walked together then, happy or not. When we killed
something big everybody feasted, told stories, then

made love all night. When we lost someone we closed up
the circle and kept going. How did we forget so much?

Bibliographical Lament

“I assured them that John Howard Yoder rarely saw the need to read philosophy and, I suspect, he never read Wittgenstein.”
—Stanley Hauerwas

Why am I reading what Hauerwas says he said about Yoder?
I can’t stop. Just this morning I’ve read what Ehud Barak said
about “peace push fantasies,” what some fan said about Lebron,

what nyceve said about what Paul Krugman said about Wall Street,
what Merv said about adultery as a social construct, and what

Phyllis said back. Here I am a week before school, dreaming
of heroic compositions at the last minute, triumphant expositions
under the gun, lucid and lyrical explications laid down like

paving stones fitted snug and tight onto the patio. Instead this,
more like a heap of broken stone thrown into the creek bank

to keep it from washing away completely. It’s all close, though,
I can feel it: one more thunderstorm, one more turkey buzzard
to soar straight at my office window and tip away just in time,

one more cup of coffee or chunk of dark chocolate or trip to check
the mail. It’s time to shelve the summer reading. There will be

no quiz and no final exam. I have many notes and passages
underlined in pencil, many names: Oscar Wilde, Harold Bloom,
Jackson Browne. Jackson Browne? There’s no way to explain.

Last night I googled “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”
for no special reason, got out my guitar and sang it twice

before I went to bed. I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’,
I sang, But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’.
I don’t suppose
Yoder saw the need to sing old Dylan songs. While Dylan

was singing I met a young woman whose body was burning,
Yoder was saying things like Insights which are not contradictory

to the truth of the Word incarnate are not denied but affirmed and
subsumed within the confession of Christ.
I don’t claim to know
the Word. I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it.
I see the need to paint the kitchen, now that my wife has
explained it to me. As I scribbled this I paused to read

four emails and the online headlines. Credit is in a crisis,
but the heat is expected to break. There was music, there were
voices in the hall. I made coffee, poured a cup and drank it.

I met a young girl and she gave me a rainbow. I wondered
should I water my spider plant. I wondered will I ever catch up.

I wondered what I should read next. Beyond my window,
the high branches passed on, precisely, every gesture
that the wind gave them, and the rain held off all morning.

About the Author

Jeff Gundy

Jeff Gundy graduated from Goshen College in 1975, and did his masters and doctoral work at Indiana University. His 13th book, Wind Farm: Landscape with Stories and Towers, is new from Dos Madres Press; earlier books include Without a Plea (2019) and Abandoned Homeland (2016), both poems, and Songs from an Empty Cage: Poetry, Mystery, Anabaptism, and Peace (essays, 2013). His awards and honors include a 2008 Fulbright lectureship at the University of Salzburg, six Ohio Arts Council Excellence Awards, and Bechtel, Yoder, and Menno Simons lectureships, as well as two C. Henry Smith Peace Lectureships, and he was named Ohio Poet of the Year in 2015 for Somewhere Near Defiance. His poems and essays appear in Georgia Review, The Sun, Kenyon Review, Forklift, Ohio, Christian Century, Image, Cincinnati Review, Terrain, and many other journals. After many years teaching at Bluffton University, he was named Distinguished Poet in Residence and Professor Emeritus of English in 2021.