Raymond Oliver has published hundreds of poems in periodicals, chapbooks, and
anthologies, about a dozen essays on poetry and translation, and four books: Poems
Without Names (U. of Calif. Berkeley and Los Angeles 1970), a study of
anonymous short poems in Middle English; To Be Plain (R.L Barth 1981),
verse-translations from several languages; Raymond Oliver His Book of Hours
(out of print 2008), a collection of "triads," a form of epigrammatic lyric
invented by the author; and Beowulf: A Likeness (Yale 1990), a
reshaping and rewriting of the ancient poem. He will also have at least two
books published within the coming year: The Year of Wonders, a
first-person account in prose by Sir Gawain of his adventures that year with the
Green Knight, and Two Smart Boys, the correspondence of Raymond Oliver
and his friend David Jenness when they were young men. He lives in Berkeley with
his wife Mary Anne, but the two of them also live part-time in Tennessee to
visit with their daughter Kathryn and her children, and in France, to be among
On Dauphin Island
For miles along the lucid beach
The Gulf of Mexico unrolls,
Piecemeal, in thin, illumined scrolls
Of surf, conveying ancient speech,
The message of the sea to land.
Its rhythm, colors, form, are clear
And it repeats. I overhear,
With love, and need not understand.
Anger riffles the pages
Of your collected years―
I watch your former ages
Flashing through the tears:
The baby unaware,
The five-year-old, defiant,
The adolescent glare,
The helpless, shattered crying
Of the romantic bride;
The passion of the wife.
This story of our pride,
Illustrated to life,
Revealed, before it cooled,
Your face as beautiful.
This is no tongue to turn a compliment,
Or twist a curse too graceful to resent,
Or speak in flames grandly of heaven and hell;
Its sound is intimate, like the frying-smell
Of garlic. With liquids like a heavy wine,
It speaks of sweet-loaves, olives packed in brine,
Chestnuts and squash; its consonants are blurred,
Nasals insinuating, diphthongs slurred
With overtones, like some ignoble wish;
It is a language of linguiça, fish,
Mary, and Christ―staples on which to fatten
Both flesh and soul. Among the sons of Latin
It seems a country cousin, rich but crude;
Yet one must praise a tongue that savors food
And God with gusto: familial Portuguese,
In whose irregular moods I feel at ease.
Epitaph of Marianne Gryphius, His Brother Paul's Little Daughter
died during the Thirty Years' War
Born during flight, beset with swords and fire,
Near death from smoke, my mother's last desire,
My father's chief concern―I pressed towards birth
As violent flames destroyed my native earth.
I saw this world, and soon had said farewell,
For on one day I met all human hell.
If you account by days, my life was brief.
Not if you count how much I knew of grief.
from the German of Andreas Gryphius (1616-1664)
On the Overlook
Ganesha Park, Pomona, CA
Acrid, medicinal, and fresh as the sea,
Those dusty eucalyptus leaves hang still
Above me; poems propped against my knee,
I too am propped, against the stripped and gleaming
Bone of the trunk. A clear pneumatic drill,
Above some mumbling freeway-sounds, ascends
Transmuted by the miles of golden air.
The city’s at my feet; my vision ends
Only where haze takes over; I am twenty.
What are my prospects? How discern them? Where?
The terms, which I accept, are given, here:
Acrid, fresh, transmuted, stripped, and clear.
To the Artist as a Young Child
You stand in swirling air and meditate
A look for your snowman’s face. Of you remain
Traces of several minutes. Years are lost.
You shape him slowly, glancing up. You wait
For me, but cannot see me where I strain
Back from your future, which I slowly exhaust.
If I could open only one of those days―
December 6, 1160, Oxford?―
Locked in the Mind where all our story stays,
What would I find? A high medieval quaintness?
Tall men at altars, mantled, stony-faced,
As in Autumn’s façade? Or men with eyes
Like goggles, limbs at funny angles, braced
To hurl their wavy spears, as at Bayeux,
In linen? Parchment peasants from the books,
In skirts and puttees, tending tiny sheep,
Gesturing statically with bishop’s-crooks?
I see a snow-filled wood, not, as in Frost,
Lovely, but rough, indifferent, like Montana,
Part of the total frozen forest crossed
Only by fragile trails from far-off hamlets
To towns like Oxford there: no dreaming spires
But tufts of cottage-smoke in the early distance.
And here a clearing, where the morning fires
Reek of mere wood for heat, not roasting boar.
And from a thatched and earthy A-frame shack
A man comes forth, just for a moment pausing,
Smiling; in words like Dutch he hollers back
To make a woman laugh. I recognize him.
Through the Cancer Ward with Dr. Gottfried Benn
Necklace of tumors just below the skin:
“Palp them”, says Gottfried. “Wages not of sin
But of our bodies, which begin to rot
In life a bit, and then, in death, a lot . . .
And here, this greenish oozing clump. Don’t touch,
Just smell it. This is what we are. Not much.”
Which is like seeing food, something delicious,
A shrimp and crabmeat salad, as the viscous
Mess in our mouth that it’s about to be―
Or stomach-contents, from an autopsy.
He’s brilliant, Benn, his poems what might come
From nectar-enemas up an angel’s bum,
They’re so sublimely, perfectly vile, eructive,
And fluent. Fine; but why so damned reductive?
Words for António Raimundo de Oliveira
Your name, like Baudelaire’s grand albatross,
Could not survive out of its element;
And part of you did not survive its loss.
The change to “Tony Oliver” had rent
Your past from present, half from half, with shocks
That, shifting your articulation, bent
Both tongue and back. From warm volcanic rocks
Lush in the North Atlantic, you had come:
St. Michael’s, Azores―Islands of the Hawks.
Did the defending angel hover, dumb,
As you heaved barrels on the Boston docks?
Café in Louhans, Saône-et-Loire
It’s part of their mobility, to keep,
Indoors, their caps on, ready equally
To sit, or leave, or just keep standing free.
Their level of talk is neither high nor deep
But middle, modulating up and down
Rapidly, marked by gestures: upraised fist,
Indeed, but with a glass of wine―the gist
Of civilized humanity, of town
Not country, Latin not Germanic. Here,
Among these workers in this loud café,
The spirits of Villon and DuBellay,
Of Rabelais and Baudelaire, draw near.