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Poems by James Schevill

by James Schevill

Spring Leaves at Night

A leaf always turns its upper surface

to the sky, so that it may receive

the dew at night, wrote Leonardo in his notebooks.

As dark lowers, I try to perceive

invisible grace, as spring leaves

dance wind-blown, turn to the sky.

Perhaps Leonardo meant,

We turn, we turn to reach the right time,

we turn to reach the dancing place.

A Poet Meditates on Politics

"Politics is too practical and dirty.

It can never burn with poetry.

At the root of political power lies

Always the practical force of obscenity,

And obscenity has no part in poetry."

So a political friend argues with passion.

I must divorce poetry from politics,

Escape the slick art of compromising deals

Shining in my eyes like a polished sink.

Retreating into the safe pasture of private vision,

I hear the confidential voice of President Johnson

Mouthing the functions of his Vice-President:

"Whoever, I want his pecker to be in my pocket."

Must poetry give up a pocket full of peckers?

Ignore obscene instructions, change them into

Sentimental words, arcane private yearnings?

Johnson scorned the Organization of American States

Saying, "It couldn’t pour piss out of a boot

If instructions were written on the heel."

Can poetry catch the vindictive, humorous

Tone of American tragedy? Can I read

Deeply again power’s putrid manipulations,

Discover in the politician’s secret acts

The brilliant cosmic hooks of profane language?

Living in Suspect Terrain

A hell of a big country,

As Charles Olson observed.

Geography stifles us,

I live in suspect terrain,

meaning no one knows the

shifting land on which I live,

no one knows where it comes from.

Geologists only know this changing

land comes from an unknown elsewhere.

Elsewhere in Berkeley, having felt many jolts,

I do not think of it as earthquake country.

At night, though, staring at the moving sky,

evening star soaring near the moon,

I feel land slowly moving beneath me;

I yearn for the art of conquering movement

which means to me the language of poetry.

Living on the Pacific Plate in suspect terrain,

my body floats like an island in time,

an animal trough in explosive territory,

yet the excitement of superhuman force

grinding deep in the earth’s split plates

reminds me of the voice’s natural flow

searching after nightfall for the great dawn rhythms

while living in the danger of suspect terrain.

My Memorial Service

No one will sing a Mass for me.

No one will sing a Kaddish for the dead.

During the long days of my death

Nothing will be sung, nothing said.

But perhaps on such a dying day

If the weather is lovely, mild, and green,

Mathilde, my wife, will go for a walk

To Montmartre with her friend, Pauline.

She will come to decorate my grave

With the special wreath of immortality,

And whisper with a sigh, “Poor man!”

And wipe a momentary tear from her eye.

By then it’s a shame that I’ll be living

Too high off the earth on my immortal seat;

I won’t be able to reach down and find

A foot-rest for my darling’s tired feet.

Oh my sweet, fat child, please know that you

Won’t have to walk all the way home that day.

At the glittering barrier gate separating us

A coach will be ready to ease your way.

Rock Angels of the Fireman's Crusade

As early trains clacked,

clattered through the

desert in the old west,

firemen’s sooty faces

saw through coal-black eyes

a tiny tree struggling out of rock.

Passing word down the line,

every fireman on daily trains

began to throw a bucket of water

on the green struggle,

shouting, “Come on, angel,

sprout your tree wings!”

Flourishing in the firemen’s crusade,

the tree began a symbiotic clash,

challenging its rock prison

to enduring, fatal marriage.

With triumphant shouts, the firemen

built a fence around rock and tree

honoring desert marriages,

every thunderstorm revealing

difficult rock angels of endurance.


Sitting under a wind-blown palm tree in Tucson

in hot sun by the empty hotel pool—

still recovering from severe bronchitis—

I read Mark Halliday’s new book of poems,

Selfwolf, and wonder if w are all partly selfwolves

dreaming of triumph over our animal natures…

Mark’s book is published by the University of Chicago Press,

and my uncle, Ferdinand Schevill, a Renaissance Historian,

was a founding professor at the university,

who preferred teaching undergraduates only

because they were the most susceptible to learning.

As he taught the mysterious stretch of European history,

he liked to challenge students by pouncing on the word,

progress, with glee of a comic selfwolf.

“You believe in the progress of European history?”

he pounced, nearsighted eyes twinkling behind thick glasses.

“Progress is like a dog forever worrying a bone.

Although the dream of progress grows fervently in Europe,

the process of war continues with grinding repetition

although the dream of progress never stops,

and man awakes from his dream to worry the bone again,

howling like a wolf in the lost pages of history.”

On the lobby telephone, a woman says loudly,

“Happy Valentine’s Day! I love you.

We’re leaving for Mexico tomorrow.”

and I sit here, far away from my California home,

reading Mark’s book and wondering if we are all

partial selfwolves seeking love’s communion with strangers,

traveling incessantly in our self-centered disguises

on the edge of nationalistic wars that always threaten,

and howling with hope inside our search for unity.



Jazz-Drift, beat of night

blues riding on the black voice,

floating chips of tone grating blood,

syncopated, eager beat of jumping beans,

trumpets, saxophones flaring,

exploding high, pounding through separations:

What did I do

to be so black and blue?

My black woman’s face shines like the sun.

Lipstick and powder sure can’t help he none.

When asked what makes a blues singer,

Henry Townsend laughed and said, “Trouble,

that’s right. That’s the one word solution. Trouble.”


You’ve got to rhyme it up a little,

get words short and close in sound

like “ground” and “down,” “town” and “now,”

let ‘em flow through your ear

till you get a swinging, tight sound;

when your voice aches like the words

then you got yourself the blues!


If you’ve got a tight, aching

three or four lines,

you’ve got the right resistance,

cool, unwavering repetition:

Times is so tough, can’t even get a dime,

Yes, times is so tough, can’t even get a dime.

Times don’t get better, I’m going to lose my mind.

Looking at Old Tombstones in a New England Graveyard

-Descartes had a epitaph from Horace inscribed on his grave:

“Who has hidden himself well has lived well.”

To hide yourself well.

In the grave. Beneath winter.

Is it the same as hiding in life?

To conquer death

Through metaphysical miracles

“I think therefore I am.”

How long have I been thinking?

How long have you been

Hiding yourself so well?

I drop a key into your well

And hear it echo eternally

In your hidden depths.

Are you living well?

Did you die well?

Your well sparkles

Blankly in the sun.


Madness, as Foucault defines it, is

Delirium, derived from lira, a furrow.

Moving out of the furrow, away from reason,

Is madness. With Pound locked in St. Elizabeth’s,

Williams dreamt of his friend wearing the beast face

In Cocteau’s film Beauty and the Beast.

If I find myself stuck in the furrow

How do I wear the hairy beast face?

At night I practice before the mirror.

See, beauty, are you coming to rescue me?

Beware of the electric landscape vibrating

In my mad eyes. I will kill to see.