Poems selected from
the following books:

Formal Application (1982)
Unposted Letters (1985)
The Day Before (1989)
Search Patterns
(1996)
The Readiness: Poems
from the Cape
(1996)

Poems on this page:

Formal Application
Delinquent Elegies
Shortening the War
Essential Questions
The Metaphor
Technical Imperative
Teaching
The Dead
What I Mean to Tell
Evening
Love Poem
At the End
The Readiness
How You Start to Know
Sons and Poetry

 

all poems
copyright Donald Baker

used by permission

 

 


Magazine
Winter/Spring 2000

Some Selected Poems
by Donald Baker



Formal Application

I shall begin by learning to throw
the knife, first at trees, until it sticks
in the trunk and quivers every time;

next from a chair, using only wrist
and fingers, at a thing on the ground,
a fresh ant hill or a fallen leaf;

then at a moving object, perhaps
a pine cone swinging on twine, until
I pot it at least twice in three tries.

Meanwhile, I shall be teaching the birds
that the skinny fellow in sneakers
is a source of suet and bread crumbs,

first putting them on a shingle nailed
to a pine tree, next scattering them
on the needles, closer and closer

to my seat, until the proper bird,
a towhee, I think, in black and rust
and gray, takes tossed crumbs six feet away.

Finally, I shall coordinate
conditioned reflex and functional
form and qualify as Modern Man.

You see the splash of blood and feathers
and the blade pinning it to the tree?
It's called an "Audubon Crucifix."

The phrase has pleasing (even pious)
connotations, like Arbeit Macht Frie,
"Molotov Cocktail," and Enola Gay.

—Don Baker, from Formal Application, 1982

 

Delinquent Elegies

for Keith Douglas (1920-1944)

John Smith (1923-1944)

My friend, John Smith, a usual man,
urging his bomber from the earth,
heard his life end in a loud bang
and took fire with his last breath.

Our engines idled through the necessary pause,
until his passion was extinguished.
Then the others of the squadron rose
into the morning, over John Smith's ashes,

bombed, and at noon returned, most of them,
to the hut where, with one dropping eye,
the colonel drew the obvious lesson:
how not to fly.

No day could have been more ordinary
So much was burning in that bad time
that no one troubled to sing an elegy
for John Smith and his crew of nine.

That was almost forty years ago.
Now in the evening on our TV
the shining bombers climb and show
us how it was, is, and again will be,

while here, where only a desk lamp burns,
I rake old anguish to make my truth
and record at last some ordinary rhymes,
a late song for a long-dead youth.

My friend, John Smith, who, in the Second War,
blew up and burned, one among many,
a clownish hero, killed by error,
as smart as most, as brave as any.

 

Ed Jones (1922-1944)

Ed Jones from Alabama,
a tall lieutenant in O'Connor's crew,
with an unpleasant smack stepped into a propeller.
No one could tell us wheter he'd
stumbled or simply had enough of the flak and fighters.
No matter: most of his head lay puddled
at one end of a sudden corpse
in fleece and leather,
and nevermore would Jones the navigator
level a bubble-octant at a star.

We died by hundreds,
burnt over Schweinfurt, ditched in the North Atlantic,
reduced to a DFC,
a packet of letters in a drawer at home,
no less ignominiously scared or despairing,
nineteen or twenty-two,
than Jones, who sprawled in brains and gristle,
flat on the flight line behind the BOQ,
in a bloody dawn framed in a gray scud,
a young man some disliked, some loved.

Here, now, Jones hangs abstract,
delight and horror dreamed in flamboyant line,
sun-red, fog-gray, blood-black,
recollected, reconstructed,
sheer design,
a galleried geometry of tongue and breath—
an instance, madam, for your delectation,
of the "supreme fiction,"
the end of things,
the paradoxical apocalypse of poetry;

the banal transformation, breath to death;
a Tuscaloosan drawl, long fingers holding a heart flush,
blind hungers that flew, fucked, and got drunk
the way we all did (the Blue Moon in Algiers)—
abruptly spilled;
and wondrous metamorphosis,
a winged image that lets down gently now
through icy years, and taxies into line, and cuts the engines,
here, where Jones continually collapses,
crushed and beautiful.

 

Bill Williams (b. 1922)

Bill Williams, bombardier,
Flew once and disappeared,
not on a mission,
but in the middle of the night.
Major Grimes said nothing
but looked grim,
breaking Bill’s replacement in.
The joke among the crews
was D.O.F.—
Died (not of Flight) of Fright.
But some of us suspected
Bill was less scared than wise:
Dortmund, Kassel, Schweinfurt
lay ahead,
and those guys
in the Focke-Wulfs,
defending their own skies,
were too much, even for the Major—
who burned heroically
with all his crew
one cloudless morning
over Regensburg.
Bill Williams would be sixty, now,
my age,
is probably alive somewhere,
grandfather, suburbanite,
respected lawyer—who knows,
mayor.
George Grimes is still the Major,
still a hero,
still twenty-eight,
still dead.
Bill Williams, as I said,
flew once
and woke up early.
The rest of us
woke when we died—
or twenty, thirty years later,
half-comprehending what we did.

—Don Baker, from Unposted Letters, 1985

Shortening the War

Recently, purely by chance,
Ive read three or four articles
on Hiroshima,
how right it was, and logical
to have dropped it—
not the city, I mean, but The Bomb.
It shortened the war
and saved lives.

The people who write the articles
on dropping The Bomb
are Ex-infantrymen,
grateful to Hiroshima
for saving their lives.
Who can blame them?
And Political Thinkers,
whose profession it has become
to prove that not only dropping
but brandishing bombs
shortens war
and saves life.
Their logic, too, I admire.

Come to think of it,
my life was probably saved
by Hiroshima.
Mine, and Ben Wolfe's, and Sweet's,
and Naiden's, and Harry Holt's,
and Pevey's, and Rasmussen's,
and the gunners'—
Nettles, Makowski, Jeffries, Sinderman—
the whole crew had their lives saved,
in a flash, as it were,
with a million others.
How do I feel about that?
Am I grateful?

Sure.
Thanks, Hiroshima.

And Nagasaki.
Don't forget Nagasaki.
Hurrah.
Hurrah for Nagasaki.
Another million lives saved.
The war shortened some more.
What a short war it became.
How few people it killed.
Thanks, Nagasaki.

Now, thinking it over,
I wonder exactly who
died for me and my crew?
Perhaps a small Japanese girl,
black-haired and bow-legged,
holding grandfather's hand.
There she stood, pointing up
at a tiny cross
that gleamed in the sky.
And a brilliant light came.
And she, with grandfather,
died.
For me and my crew.
Thanks, small Japanese girl.

We might shorten another war
by dropping The Bomb.
The idea must be good
with all those approving articles.
Drop The Bomb on a city,
lay down some lives,
shorten a war
and save others.
Pick a city,
Political Thinker,
purely by chance—
your own, if you like.
Or Washington.
Or Boston, perhaps,
where my granddaughter lives.

—Don Baker, from The Day Before, 1989

 

How You Start to Know

A tremor in your wrist, a bump
less steady in your heart.
You close your eyes and see
a woman in an apron paring apples,
a man shoveling snow.
While up ahead, on the white road
that curves to the horizon,
a fox terrier leaps for a stick,
and a boy whose face
you think you can remember
stands beside a bicycle and beckons.

—Don Baker, from The Day Before, 1989

 

Essential Questions

My job is to get up in the morning
and start writing poems.
It's at least as useful
as getting up in the morning
and starting to sell Cap'n Crunch.
I put on my jeans and sneakers,
eat two eggs over and a bran muffin,
and sit down at the living room window
with a cup of tea.

Vic Sammartino drives by
on his way to work.
He waves.
His busy smile expresses superiority and disdain,
because he thinks I am doing nothing.
He reminds me of the chairman of my department,
who prefers publishing scholars.
He'd better be careful.
Look what happened when they called Hitler
a lazy slob.

Meanwhile, I rake my imagination
for something to write about.
Am I an alcholic?
Will my kidneys last out the year?
Are these the essential questions?
Are they fit subject for poetry?
What is fit subject for poetry?
How can I tell?
Do I care?
So one inspiration leads to another
down the labyrinthine ways
of the poet's mind.

Mike Donovan's daughter walks by,
off to the municipal pool,
In what appears to be a bikini.
She doesn't wave.
No doubt her illiterate father
has poisoned her mind against poets.
She reminds me of high school summers,
girls named "Priscilla" and Leona,"
who float on my minds eye
like rubber dolls in a bathtub.

Perhaps I should have been Gaius Valerius Catullus,
lounging at poolside,
composing a poem for Patty Donovan,
"voluptuous virgin," phrases like that.
In Latin.
It's no good.
If my wife ever had it translated,
she'd kill me.

Bradford Dunbar goes by, the corporate lawyer,
jogging.
He pretends to look at this watch,
then runs as hard as he can to intimidate me.
He thinks I'm a failure
and out of shape.
OK, Dunbar, I know you see me.
Lickspittle capitalist lackey!
He sprints to catch up with Donovan's daughter,
who blows him a kiss
as he passes.
They don't fool me.
He's not her uncle.

Maybe I should have been Pablo Neruda,
hiding out in the Rockies,
writing a political poem,
"Letter from the Extreme Left,"
that would sweep the country.
I see Reagan, Haig, and Bradford Dunbar,
in Adidas and jogging shorts,
fleeing to Argentina.
They are arrested by Cuban police.
Poets wreck all the nuclear energy plants,
and I win the Nobel Prize.

So that's that.
What more can one do in a morning?
I get up with my notes,
go into my study,
and sit down at my typewriter.
It needs a new ribbon.
Well, it always takes few days
to think through and polish a poem.
It's twenty after eleven.
Let's call it noon.
Let's mix a martini,
and contemplate politics, love,
and the essential questions.

—Don Baker, from Unposted Letters, 1985

 

Sons and Poetry

Sometimes I can't reach the poem
I need, and overhead the sun
climbs past noon into a long-ago
sky. It's August, Grandpa's attic,
and I'm reading Tom Swift. Listen.
You can hear the hens and Homer's
new heifer, and if you knelt up
on the quilt chest you could peek down
at Grandpa slapping white paint
across the shingles. My name is not
mine, there's no granite in Pine Grove
Cemetery, and they won't build
the motel on Parker's River
for sixty years. In a minute,
the Cannibals raging below,
I'll take off with Mr. Damon,
Mary, and Ned, and close the book
on us all back safe in Shopton.
When I wake up, all our years hang
in dust in a slant of sunlight.
Nothing disappears. The slap slap
of a paint brush props up this line,
and, when I shave, Grandpa's eyes
watch mine through yours in the mirror.
On Grandma's featherbed I dream
the son who'll help you paint some day
between wars, the grandson who
won't ever come to life except
in these thirteen words. If I could,
I'd trade eggs for milk, walk only
that sandy path behind the house
where the berries grew. I'd read it all
into pages we'd choose together,
you, me, Grandpa, and that boy we'll
never become, hot afternoon,
flood tide in the river, a book
of love and loss noone could ever close.

—Don Baker, from A Day Before, 1989

 

The Metaphor

My wife and I give a party.
We invite a few of our old friends
and other professors and spouses.
They stand or sit in our living room,
drinking gin, while the stereo
plays old jazz. By a quarter to seven
the noise of voices begins to rise
and my wife is smiling.

I compliment George on a paper he's published.
I ask about Tony's children.
I joke with practically everyone.
Then I relax near the piano.
I talk a long time with Christina,
George's wife, with whom, years ago,
I shared a damned good affair.
Like George, she has slumped and fattened.
I see by her eyebrow she notes my new teeth.
But, when we turn from each other,
her knee teases mine, as it used to do,
and, drenched in the whiskey of lost love,
I remember her passionate whispers.

Later I see her chatting with Tony
and George in front of the picture window.
They laugh together and speak
with the easy gestures and touches of old friends.
The last light of September
is falling over their shoulders.
Their lifted glasses reflect the candles
that light, now, the table of canapes.
Suddenly a clarinet swings from the stereo,
and, in a glimpse like a snapshot,
they stop, stand without moving.
They seem fragile, balanced precariously.

How to say it now?
A kiss has ended?
The hands of a watch have frozen?
No.
The metaphor won't come quite right.
It may be that I'm not a poet.
But something conclusive has shortened my breath
and turned my friends to glass on a shelf.

Perhaps, after all, Christina, Tony, and George
are the perfect metaphor.
Perhaps they represent time perceptible,
as we all collapse into comical futures.
Perhaps this is the last party we shall ever give
at which, while I watch, my heart twenty years back,
Christina, Tony, and George
will stand together exactly like that,
drinking gin in a failing light.

Look.
My wife is still coming and going,
not thinking my morbid thoughts.
Beneath her gray hair
her eyes shine with friendliness and amusement.
She warms our guests with her merry face.
When she passes, winking at me,
I must force myself not to reach for her hand.
I will not look again at the three at the window.
I am drunk enough to be happy and free of that future.
To hell with their poem.
To hell with its metaphor.
To hell with the meaning life.

—Don Baker, from Unposted Letters, 1985

 

Technical Imperative

No camps, no ovens,
nothing as crude
as botulism or firestorm.

You understand:
clean ruins
and no survivors.

A clenched glove
with a hand in it
laid on a desk.

—Don Baker, from Unposted Letters, 1985

 

Teaching

Teach them techniques, that's what
they want, how to do this, how
to do that. So they can get
money, applause. Pace up and down,
turn on the big voice, show them that
techniques, that trick, how to
disappear into the Talk Show.

I still talk too much, teacher's
disease, lecturitis, remember? I
never listened, not even to you.
The outside of you, sure, the skin
of your belly, I knew like my
neighborhood, eyes shut. While you
shut the noise out, window by window.

Some days are better than others.
It's all accidental, you wake,
your mind clogged, or something clicks
under your tongue, your talk turns
faces human, vulnerable.
You could teach that, the way
to enter, that technique, if you
could dazzle those others voices,
their fathers, out of their heads.

So my mouth opens and shuts,
the days revolve, people in,
people out. Nobody enters
as you did. Stays, as you do.
I keep talking, keep talking, keep
watching the door. If you could
visit, even, this room, come in,
take a chair, demonstrate silence.

—Don Baker, from Formal Application, 1982


The Dead

He phones you at night and tells you his wife
is dead. Jesus, you say, I'm sorry. But
the phrase
lies numb on the floor. You remember her face,
still girlish with the daring of those days.
But you'll never recover what you craved, the two
of you, that first night, whispering, listening,
the gin
ripe in your heads, her children still awake,
a hunger
as cold now as her corpse. He tells you the dates,
the disease, his jargon dropping like rain
outside the motel curtains on Sunday afternoon,
the bottle empty, her lips tight with conscience,
voices beyond the wall, steps in the corridor,
an argument over what name to use, which car.
Now he laments her suffering, lingers on symptoms,
her debilitation. God, think of kissing the teeth
where her tongue once worked lovingly, fondling
the bone where her skin and hair once sloped
so vulnerably. And when you wrestle her over,
no pulse,
no juice, just rattles and clinks like mallets
on a busted xylophone. Yes, this is what
the western wind doth blow you now, this the hind
with naked foot stalking in your chambers,
both of you old men, solaced by words and numbers.
He apologizes for calling late: I had to tell you,
he says, you're an old friend. Imagine him watching
a tape of that year: her body bone-pale in the light
from the bathroom, wife and old friend at hard
labor.
A space in the air, somebody called it, when
something
without price dies. No bracelet of bright hair
spied
anywhere. He gives you a day, a time, a place.
You say you'll be there. But you know you won't.

—Don Baker, from Search Patterns, 1996

 

What I Mean to Tell
from "An Old Man's Garden of Verses"

They say it's like that western river
cleaving a gorgeous channel through rock,
or like August in Massachusetts,
ripening peaches to a precise sweetness.
They're right, each in his own love or fear.
Whatever map or basket you pick up,
something confusion can only call
"prayer" ripens morning by morning
and flows west with the impartial sun,
engraving those black glyphs in white stone,
nourishing our slow caravan almost forever.

—Don Baker, from Search Patterns, 1996

 

Evening

Suddenly it goes cold, night
coming up from the sea. All evening
we've talked, often in silence.
I've been an envious man, never
prizing my own, wanting that
better poem, that lovelier woman.
Now I envy children their
timeless hours, simple, like these.
When you lean towards me, the last light
stresses your eyes, those lines
at your mouth I've tried to lie
out of mirrors, write out of life.
That artifice makes its own
fear: that you live only in
me, in the dark behind closed
eyelids, the wish of my breath.
No more illusion. My poems
go ragged with age, moving only
with pain, all quieter, patient,
waiting for something else, now, not
the easy praise of the tongue.
Still, their grave compulsion goes
on, slides in like the flood.
I touch your fingers, the wind
gathers, rushes up from the cold
edge of the sea, the dark, year
after year. If we had twenty
more. Ten. To talk in silence,
keep telling more truth,
start loving again, knowing how.

—Don Baker, from Unposted Letters, 1985

 

Love Poem

All you have to do is
arrange them in a kind
of square, the words,
on a page of paper,

big square for big words,
little square for little,
and when her eye lights
upon them, the new squares,

if she's the right woman,
and they're the right words,
all those old sonnets
you can forget forever.

—Don Baker, from The Readiness: Poems from the Cape, 1996

 

At the End

of a dull, prodigal day
when flurries of fine snow
dispel the hurry of the afternoon

and scattered grains of shadow
promise an indolence of darkness
there again is a mother's signal

a sizzle of frying onions
and a father's countersign
the clump and jingle on the back stairs.

The tired brain, vulnerable as a wound,
that sifts all day the ore
of expectations and falls back

dismayed again at nightfall,
looks not for god-forsaken silver
but the half-forgotten testament

of sound, odor, trivial gesture,
the quick kiss on the cheek,
the past ticking quietly again.

Whatever in their particular warps
the sensualist insinuates
or the parson decrees

salvation is neither flesh nor soul
but snow stamped off on a doormat
a plate steaming between fork and knife

the stuff of psalm and metaphor
profound without a seal or signature
a wreath on a house in morning.

—Don Baker, from Search Patterns, 1996

 

The Readiness

Waiting under the motionless pines
by the dark of the moon,
I can taste the color of autumn.
A bough creaks,
and the grove is at once
full of the rustle of needles.
It is wind welling up from the sea.
When the trees begin to move
and stars signal through the branches,
we seem on the edge of a revelation.
Now among the trees
a gathering of dark strangers
turns towards an intruder,
and I realize
it is my heartbeat they hear.
Suddenly I am unafraid
and start forward to meet them.

—Don Baker, from The Readiness: Poems from the Cape, 1996

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