Jan Schreiber is a poet and critic whose work has gained a wide audience with
the publication of his recent book Sparring with the Sun, a collection
of essays on twentieth-century poets and theories of poetry. A founder of
Canto: Review of the Arts and a co-founder of the annual Symposium on
Poetry Criticism at Western State Colorado University, he is also a visiting
scholar at Brandeis University and a study group leader at the university’s
Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, with a special interest in Renaissance and
modern verse. In April 2015 he was named Poet Laureate for the town of
Brookline, Massachusetts. Previous books of poetry include Digressions, Wily
Apparitions, Bell Buoys, and two books of translations: A Stroke upon
the Sea and Sketch of a Serpent. His poems appear in both print
and on-line anthologies, including the online journal Expansive
Poetry and Music Online. Seven of his poems were set to music by
Paul Alan Levi in a song cycle called Zeno's Arrow. He has a website:
janschreiber.org. The first four
poems below are from his first major volume of verse in twenty years,
Peccadilloes (2014), which can be purchased on Amazon and at select book stores.
Now it’s full summer and the air’s alive.
We’re driving over winding island roads,
depleted by a tense and strenuous day.
Preoccupied, we mull the lawsuit and
the long estrangement of our fragile child.
Uncertainty and worry dim the scene.
Each of us has learned a role to play:
resilient, proud, good-humored in the face
of disappointment. I am slow to admit
how hard it has become to seem so steady.
Ahead of us we see a yellow truck
and in the back a clutch of teens are waving,
leaning out as the driver rounds a bend.
We can’t get close enough to make out faces.
Sometimes they disappear and we’re alone
amid the rocks and darkening trees, the cool
blue shadows blanketing the spaces. Then
the spooling road straightens again and there
they burst in view, still leaning, waving like
a circus troupe to draw the stragglers in.
Among the carney folks it’s called a tease –
something to pique the interest or allure
the casual stroller, ease him toward the main
attraction. But I think these kids have no
such aim. A summer evening, no regrets
or obligations. Being alive is all.
“I’d like to be like that,” I say aloud.
And once on open ocean, all alone,
I looked for shore as fog rose in the east
and saw no solid for the mind to seize,
and all the world a path and therefore none.
But here is road sufficient to forget
as we, complicit, ride the summer breeze
till we become the yellow truck, the piper
clad in motley, dancing on ahead
to music made of shimmering island air,
the distant voice of coves, the swaying trees
marking the random path through pathless woods,
with laughter like the loons across the water,
beneath the woven boughs that verge the water,
drawing us to the sun, still drawing us
to years we left behind and hope to know
at last for what they really were – until
the road runs out and there is only sun …
A Little Night Music
In Boston’s Top-of-the-Hub restaurant with a view of the airport
High over city lights
waiters hasten to wait
on diners driven to sate
a week of appetites.
Paté, poached salmon, wines,
coffee, a mousse: repast
But see – out past
fingers enlaced like vines
that artfully encroach –
the distant heavy planes,
lights cutting through light rains,
are making their approach.
Unhurried, they begin
a stately ritual mating
dance, and drawn to earth’s waiting
lap, they settle in.
Lovers who woo aloft
hoping that in the end
their plunge will be as soft.
Late morning: someone wakes
from restless sleep and finds
her head still aches.
A man unknown to her
berates his lack of spine,
his trop de coeur.
A potter at whose place
each separately bought
a lamp, a vase
draws from a red-hot pit
of sand a finely wrought
bowl, rotates it,
and watches colors dance.
Had he observed the grackle
near the fence
he’d think that sheen had caught
the feathers of its neck.
But he had not.
It’s done, for now – the grief,
isolation, rage, despair,
self-hate. The room is small
once more, with just a chair
and couch. The hours have ended.
Leaving their words that loomed
thick in the air, the patients
take up their lives, consumed
again in the unscripted
moment, while the one
who heard their dreadful secrets
and sat with each in the un-
empties the basket’s store
of dried tears, rights an errant
cushion, and shuts the door.
A Change of Heart
She always said the smart ones were depressed
and that her husband didn’t pass the test.
It wasn’t till he died that she felt doubt,
surprised he had the brains to blow them out.
Adam and the Animals
How did he know what he had to know to name them?
To call them not with names uniquely theirs
but common words, as if one sound could tame them?
It seems he trusted that if something bears
a word, its fellow will show up again
some day, to catch a speaker unawares
and prove a likeness. Things have thingness when
they may recur unbid to mind or sight
and call their labels forth from other men.
But he was wild, untutored, penny-bright
and new to tongue. How many suns rose high
in all those skies before he saw the light
and gave them sudden being: “sun” and “sky”?
He started with the wonders he could see.
Some late descendant, blocked and wondering why,
looked inward, found “desire,” “perplexity”—
feelings that swirled until they were defined.
Ur-diagnostician, did you guess that we
would turn your swift surmises into mind?
From my dim room I see a balcony
covered with vines that filter sun and air.
And there’s a table with a waiting chair
facing the snow-capped mountains and the sea.
Bird songs are sounding from a nearby grove
where orange trees blossom, scenting the light breeze.
The balcony invites me, when I please,
into a sensuous aerie fit for Jove.
But something holds me back, so near the door.
Perhaps the view’s not all that I assume.
Perhaps the wind’s too sharp, the sun too bright …
This is contentment I can settle for:
always to wait here in my sheltered room,
always a breath away from my delight.
Your Idea of Heaven
The people have profound and thought-worn faces.
They all have lived in cosmopolitan places,
pursuing life at superhuman paces.
In art and science they have led the way.
Wisdom shines forth in everything they say,
and none of them give you the time of day.
Song of the Golden Bowl
In what imaginary galaxy
are they assembled—rare and passing gifts
of earth, broken or crushed or burnt to ash?
And to what hell in time are they consigned—
the instants when in rage or carelessness
someone destroyed a lovely, hard-won thing?
The mind’s desire has no ecology.
Some losses new delights cannot revoke.
Yes, art is long, destruction brief; its flash
reduces years of thought and pain to smoke.
Today’s enchantment is tomorrow’s dust.
Luck hovers at the artisan’s deft hand
and luck protects the work—or failing just
an eyelid’s blink, lets glass revert to sand.
Published in Edge City Review, 2000
The Rake’s Progress
Branch, frond, fingers, ribs of fish
but man-made, stronger, regular, its form
less lovely, simpler, ready to possess,
briefly as words, everything in its path.
Its studied imperfection leaves behind
much on the first stroke; still it can recoup.
It never gathers all it grasps, and yet,
subtly responsive, its cold claws collect
whatever earth puts forth, stuttering over
stones, adjusting to contingency,
heaping up what once was beautiful
in pass after pass over uneven ground.
Published in Wily Apparitions, 1992
Now Winter Nights Enlarge
When did you last observe me? I am growing
sullen and coherent in this place
and see too much. Outside the house the rain
began without foreboding. It is late.
Now in your speech
I hear the wordless energy of change,
the bodied silence that completes belief.
The temperature has fallen in the night.
The wind is up.
There is nowhere to walk but in the weather.
Last night I watched your forehead as you slept.
Judge if I have no certainty of loss.
Judge. It is snowing now all through the house.
Published in Wily Apparitions, 1992
Men Working in Trees
Perched in arboreal retrofits
our cousins ape our cousins long removed
and, stripped to their imperfect wits,
outstrip with wits the wingéd,
clawed, and hooved.
A bucket head on jointed neck
nuzzles the elm, invades its leafy maze,
while fragile fingers hold in check
the technosaurine tendency to graze.
Alive amid such artifacts
some mind has planned excision of these boughs
to make a tunnel that subtracts
green disarray and adds black wires in rows.
The network pierces hills and weaves
through miles and miles of absent leaves
and with the speech of these old monkeys hums.
Published in Wily Apparitions, 1992
Night Piece for Anna
Still in the waning light
as orange clouds marbleize
what was a silver sky
and pines at water’s edge
darken to silhouette,
still are you leaning there
to capture with your brush
the nuances of glowing
alive yet to your eye.
Below you on the ledge,
warmth fading from the air,
the old cat stares at dusk
watching the dark shapes massing.
What spirit aids the unknowing
witnesses of the storm,
helpless against all harm,
whose alert eyes still trap
the fading light and keep
watch and do not weep
their short day’s passing?
Published in Bell Buoys, 1999