Ernest Slyman's Poetry

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Ernest Slyman

(originally appeared Ygdrasil)

The Diener

If I should die to-night
And you should come to my cold corpse and say,
Weeping and heartsick o'er my lifeless clay---
---Ben King "If I Should Die" (1857-1894)

I was the diener on duty when they brung him.
Mr Lincoln lie flat on his back and they come round,
The doctors looking upon his corpse.
The certificate been writ.
But they come look anyway,
And they eyes dark as holes in the ground,
They mouths quivering, sad somebody
Shot him and the terribles come over
Them faint. They sad hearts
Like a pack of dogs yapping
At the scent of horses.

The torn flesh too much to look upon,
And dripping on the floor,
The blood and tears.
Such savage blows took him
And slay the life from his bones.
The blood I thought was mine.

And sudden burst out his chest
A wind, a storm blew,
His soul sprang up
And lifted the room.

Swept out and rang the church bells,
Spun the weather vanes atop
The schools and broke the windows
In the theatre where it all happened.

Startled the dark, rumbled off
Through the state of Virginia,
Knocking down fence posts
And blowing out candles for miles.

The doctors knowing of such things
And not being surprised none the least,
Stepped back, momentarily courteous
In their esteem for the dead,
Closed upon him when the wind died,
Not one put on notice
At the phenomenon.
There being great mystery
Upon each dead person visited,
And why not this one?

A horrid black landscape the sinews,
And unusual works of the intestines,
Turns and twists beneath and around,
Spun through him like any creature
Caught by time or hunted.
The quarry of the mad man.

I began to ache like a dead man.
There was a fever in me,
But when I touched his hand
Cold and frost covered me
From head to foot.
The coldest fire ablaze
Inside me broke.

That world too far for me to know.
The unfolding of his flesh,
The pain of it that strange.

Later that night they come
And wake me and asked me
To stand him down.
He been embalmed, pretty quick.
Remove him to the lower quarters.
Lay him in the coffin.

He weighed about three ton.
I wrestle him from off the block.
I pulled and shoved him,
He pulled and shoved me back like the dead
Always do on account they don't like it.

His limp arms and neck, they fall back.
They curl around me.
He grunt. I carry him down the stairs.
He know me. He opened his eyes.
Look at me and say them sad soft words
In my ear that make me feel so lonely.

I dress him up. I pretty up his face.
All pink rouge, smidgen of charcoal,
Touch off his cheeks and lilac-scented
Sprinkle, daub, rub him to life.
Dress him in that Sunday black suit,
Button it up, straighten his tie,
Shine his shoes, trim his beard,
A little, not too much,
Just off the sideburns.

His ghostly stillness
In that mule-drawn wagon
Moved the country.

(originally appeared in Ygdrasil)

Halloween Night, East Village

October 1970

That night in Greenwich Village, the holy hush of 3AM,
A touch of madness in the air, I heard it for the first time
A mystical whisper from the street below---
And gazed down to see gathered in the street
The faces of ghostly luminaries,
The changing identities of vagrant dark spirits
And heard them murmuring many a charming remark--
And knew at once the most fantastic moment had come upon the Village
And fresh from the past came their brilliant visions brought,
Talking, sometimes without words, the sounds made of quiet,
Trembling in the air, sweet scented dreams and joyous the celebration
And bearing the extraordinary news of a hard-fought revolution won--
I saw Geoffrey Chaucer, Ezra Pound, Longfellow, Tennyson,
Sylvia Plath, Emily Bronte, Leo Tolstoy and Emily Dickinson,
There was Blake and Keats and Shelley and Kipling and Wells,
Could it be? The crowd that had made the wonders of a timeless age?
There Whitman and Poe and Twain and there Dickens and Melville Sapho,
And I glimpsed the likes of Thomas Mann, Jane Austin, Shakespeare,
Hemingway, Berryman, Milton, Homer, Joyce, Gertrude Stein, André Gide, Proust,
Rimbaud, Ben Jonson, Thomas Wolf, Dylan Thomas, Nathaniel Hawthorne,

Thackeray, Eugene O'Neill, Oscar Wilde, Henry Trollope, Dostoyevsky.
Was I asleep?I heard the sweet voices ring out below me in the street.

I heard the words bursting from deep within, it trickled up out of their bones,
Sometimes so faint I felt as though a book had opened the words like
stonesHurled their cries up, and I knew at once the difference between the dreamer
And the dream. The art and the artist and the beauty they made and born,
The great art and the heroic deed marching through the street,
And all were joyous singing and mouthing the words
To the new beginning and the victory of the Timeless Age,
And all looked quaint and friendly, such lovely ghosts and their bright faces
Of Geoffrey Chaucer, Ezra Pound, Longfellow, Tennyson,
Sylvia Plath, Emily Bronte, Leo Tolstoy and Emily Dickinson,
There was Blake and Keats and Shelley and Kipling and Wells,
There Whitman and Poe and Twain and there Dickens and Melville Sapho,
Thomas Mann, Jane Austin, Shakespeare, Hemingway,
Berryman, Milton, Homer, Joyce, Gertrude Stein, André Gide, Proust,
Rimbaud, Ben Jonson, Thomas Wolf, Dylan Thomas, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Thackeray,
Eugene O'Neill, Oscar Wilde, Henry Trollope, Dostoyevsky. Was I asleep?
I heard the sweet voices ring out below me in the street.
I heard the words bursting from deep within, it trickled up out of their bones,
Glowed down on the freckled streets of the East Village,
Where the holy minutes burst with excitement,
And from the soft shimmering white puddles of their loud,
Outbursts sudden upon the city, brilliant shone bright,
Flamed up across the century, loose like some wild animal caged,
The joy sped through us all and the streets rang out with loud holy desires,
The Great Age sprang up from the streets

And called round the city, tapping on windows,
Rapping on doors, crying out the news of an age born
Of yesterday, so long ago, yet mysterious and unborn,
Come upon them now and burning down in the cool light,
The night and its merriment suddenly exploded in their skulls,
Bright red flames flickered up in their eyes,
Their wild ghoulish souls leaped forth
And shimmered up in the shop windows
And the dark sang with them, as they wandered the streets
All night, all night these souls of darkness knocking on doors,
Turning knobs, waking us, looking into our faces,
Their bright ghostly round faces turning dim,
And asking for so little, only that they we join them.

The East Village set flying, and the dark mad streets
Crying, the pale clouds of souls creeping
Up the sides of tall buildings, fumbling
For the primitive voice that would bear
The perfect cool touch to wake the past,
The wild fierce vast tenderness
Like the sudden rumble of a train in our bones.
Blasting our ears with the astonishment of great joys,
The mad fits and the frenzied outbursts so dark
And the dead animal joys,
Scurrying through the dark mad streets,
Mistaking the dark of a time for drunken fools,--
The bliss of victory running through our veins,
The fiery faces of drunken mirth, the rocking
Of the streets, back and forth, the power
That came from us like dream we could never remember,
A vision of a world awakened and the ghostly lights of the holy city,
A city in which we all lived secretly, now sudden
Burst upon us, never to be forgotten again,
Flickering inside us, now flung out, fallen
Like the leaves, the gentle eyed streets
Singing to us. Come from us, the wild beasts of the night,
From our mouths came the wild peacocks cries,
The rippling streets of sleep cool beneath us, swirling,
The frenzied flashing lights of our dreaming souls,
Our shadows wild and bending down to stir the streets,
Awake, awake. We were all suddenly standing in the street,
Screaming for mercy, the joy unbearable, biting our flesh,
All of us dizzy, a hundred-feet tall black beasts with long legs,
Kicking and dancing, calling, each of us dizzy and our animal faces
Sang, we drank the night air. The spectacular flickering red suns
Of tomorrow ran through us, licking the dampness of our souls,
And the ghoulish pleasures, the furious whispers
Drubbing us with enticements, the long breathless moments,
Waiting for the great moment to come,
The hideous sidewalks clacking out their passions
And gone the years and their extraordinary appetites for lust and solitude,
The loud brash little known dreams and melancholy visions
A hundred thousand stark and subtle awakenings
The loose limbering dance of time, and its schizophrenic rhapsody
And mindless bliss, tempered by profound wakefulness,
And the absence of insomnia and the apparitions of MacDougal Street,
The pale minutes and their mystical night music—
The firestorms of nocturnal provocative thoughts and temperamental fancies,
Each dressed in silk and wildly calling us into the fire
Which understood us like nothing else,
It was marveling about us, the beautiful and delicate faces
And so sweet and deep the meadows of our eyes,
The darting downward, joyously sang along the hard
Backs of the wild streets, calling from their strange countries,
Gurgling in the streets like magical springs,
Fountains of the wet intensely felt nothings so wet and delicious,
The fragile charms that splashed us, the world shimmering
Up in their tiny faces, the wide perceptions, the everywhere
Of their smiles, the forever of their bright eyes,
The soft petals that found their way into our flesh,
Cool as red roses, the sweet fragrance of rivers,
Streams bearing the last whispers that saved us,
Redeemed us, forced us to see through the days,
And the many wild frail touches
That made us fearful of the smallest things.
The streets dizzy, the once lazy, dark yawning boulevards,
Now the mad drunken streets
Rising and the streets stumbling forth--
The joys of the celebration explosive, intriguing,
Faintly disturbing, the rebirth of the city,
Each of us calling, bending down, lifting up the streets,
Shaking them like old rugs, the days flying off,
The first wave of fear and sin gone, driven out,
Back into the dark past.
The bright faces of a thousand dead poets streaked
With joy and their loud tumultuous cries
Bright red flames flickered up in their eyes,
Their wild ghoulish souls leaped forth,
And shimmered up in the shop windows
And the dark sang with them, as they wandered the streets
All night, all night these souls of darkness knocking on doors,
Turning knobs, waking us, looking into our faces,
Their bright ghostly round faces turning dim,
And asking for so little, only that they we join them.


(from Departure From Normal)

Wild Man of Letters

Last night I dreamed I was Jack Kerouac, wild man of letters.
The High Holy Lord of beat,
A one-eyed Buddha of a boozed out beat generation,
Cool courageous hip sex fiend, adulterer, cheat,
The enigmatic freudian zealot hipster fool,
The three-day wonder who lasted forever,
Head full of Zen, and I could fly.
A two-headed junky God
Who drank down a bottle of rye,
That beautiful long gone marijuana dope King
Whose talent markedly declined,
Who once heard the english language sing
The tortured, antic meditations of my mind,
And plundered it like a city, raped the women,
Stole the banks and jewelry stores blind,
And felt no pity for mankind,
Taking nothing that was not already mine.
(Originally appeared in It's A Bunny)

Marriage License

The words in their new suits and tie,
The tender words in high heels,
The Mad men of a perfectly mad sentence,
The clever words, the reckless words,
The sad words in black leather jackets and gloves,
The small print words that stand on the corner,
Painted faces like prostitutes,
The books on a shelf like rows of old houses,
Dark brothels in which words
Conduct business, the words with their hands out,
Words with their bellies full of sadness,
Words that jump off high buildings
And words that give off a lovely light,
Words breaking their words.

(from The Free Cuisenart)

Elegy For The Old General

The minutes had come round,
They had drilled like platoons,
Marching up and down
The parade ground,
And scarce few had paused to weep
He had died peacefully in his sleep.

The holy terror didn't shock him anymore,
And since retirement,
He'd lived off the fat of his contradictions,
And kept in the bank a safe deposit of blood and gore
(The last vestiges of his crumbled down convictions).

The minutes of his military life marched past in single file
And at his orders, they rallied to his side,
Filling him with dread,
Fought bravely against the powerful doubts
That came suddenly in his head.

He relished the four o'clock mock-executions,
The miraculous births and deaths of striking elocutions
Which sprang forth from the distraught down trodden poor
None of whom were worth fighting for.

He choose to ignore the educational institutions,
Where raving mad radicals concocted
Their strange behavior and clever revolutions.
He found exciting the folly and the fighting
Of small minds at war.

He loved the wild look
That came over his face at six o'clock,
When he read from his biography.

He would sit in his rocking chair and rock,
Smoking a cigar, and when dark had begun to fall
Outside, he would gaze over his shoulder at the clock,
And it was the only time he smiled,
When he cried so loud the neighbors could hear
'There's no hope for Oscar Wilde.'

He hated civilian life. It was cruel, harsh punishment.
He felt exiled. He peeled an orange with his knife,
Drank too much, beat his wife.

At odd moments, interviewed by the press,
He commended the Romans for their brutality,
Loathed the Chinese plurality.

He preferred his shame stirred, not mixed,
And worried about his complexion,
Which appeared upon inspection
Pale, drab. His eyebrows, bushy, somewhat untidy.

He was opposed to nuclear disarmament.
Peace was not so high and mighty,
He believed the Japanese were sons of bitches
Who burned their sirloin steaks like witches.

And at his funeral, the rifles fired off,
The military minutes marched round
And at his graveside gave pause,
The trumpets shrill sad cry boasted
Of his many victories, without mention
Of his many flaws.

(originally appeared in Grape Poetry)

This Be The Second Verse

In the most terrible, tender voices, the years call,
And come one by one so slowly,
As a slipper of ivy climbs the garden wall,
We lay down one evening as children and wake sixty-three,
Gray temples, deaf as an oyster, licorice on our breath---
And before we wash our face, we're seventy-one,
The long hard life is all but done,
All but rendered us unto multitudes of the unknown dead,
But for the subtle haunting of our children,
We would never have such frolic and fun,
Watching them get their own fill of dread.

(from Green Cart)

The Literary Life

My heart is Geoffrey Chaucer of England,
My liver, it is Anatole France,
My spleen, Francis Bacon,
My soul is Charles-Pierre Baudelaire,
My bones are made of several men and women,
Among them Jane Austen, Emily Bronte,
Charles Dickens, Ben Johnson,
William Makepeace Thackeray, James Joyce,
And my eyes are Henry David Thoreau,
My ears Elizabethan sonnets,
My intestines a drama by Ibsen,
And my brain is nobody,
Obscure and anonymous,
It lives in a little hole at the end of a road,
And sometimes the queerest thoughts
Come to visit.

(from Grape Poetry)

At Yeats' Graveside

Now pompous the minutes like holy monarchs
Parade past the evening clock.
The last stark moments of the day
Have come to call, and in the distance, fall
The footsteps of time's footsoldiers deep along the rock.

The best impulses have all struck their marks--
And the fresh hours of night's making,
And dark's world quietly quaking
Upon the body's pale and solemn undertaking
Insure the long journey's safekeeping,
Arriving at the worlds our dreams are seeking.

Scarce has been overheard
The voice of reason speaking.
There has always come the sense of the absurd
Into the last thoughts of the day,
Which fill the body up with clay.
The old stale dark time sleeping
And the hours weeping
And keeping us far away.

(from Grape Poetry)

Come Bitter Tones

Come bitter tones and late the dark bones
Of the day shall soon have their fill
Of us. That during so dull a mystery
So rich uncertain sublime history,
And emptiness like a terrible joy
Come round and touch each hand--
Stubborn steadfast all tomorrows destroy
And lay the afterlife's Holy Land
Upon our face. A look that passes from
One generation to the next, the blessed dumb
Expression that holds flesh so still
It cannot rest.

(from Sauce*Box)

The Night Watchman

The delicate hands of the clock
Bear such pleasures of a physical nature,
The hour and the minutes and their passion come upon him
And touch his and lick his face and hands and feet
As one might expect from strangers.
And vanish inside him bite by bite,
Amused by the appetites of the hours ordinary and extraordinary,
Pleased they should find him so appealing,
His flesh and blood made of the same stuff as time,
Light-headed, dizzy, drunken and foolish--
Dumbstruck by the minutes of a winter evening,
The mad merry minutes of an perfectly ordinary life,
The clock is a stranger who has entered the room,
Every room in the world without permission
And ravaged someone with its tender kisses,
Hugged them around the waist, the tightening
Of the noose, the tweaked cheek, nibbled ear, the smoothed toes
Taking the pulse of everyone by counting thoughts,
Subtracting the number of careless thoughts
From the thoughtful thoughts,
Which over the years number in the thousands
And shimmer up like empty streets in the faces of old clocks
On the sides of the buildings he faintly notices
Them as he makes his rounds and come to pass
Through the hour like a city of many doors,
Secret passageways through some lost world---
What time has come that he must gasp
And shout and murmur of sad or solemn joy?
The hotel orgasms he can hear them
As he passes up and down the stairs,
They glow in the dark
And leap up inside,
And when he turns they fly like bats out of his hair.
They bristle in the night air
And their shadows along the night sky
Remark half-hearted of his joy and his despair,
Chatter their tender blissful chatter
And blithely all time a part he feels shall disappear,
Dismiss the hours who are more human
For their passing, and more pleasurable
For having drawn him so near.
(From Speaking From The Breast)

In The City of Motherhood

In the city of Motherhood, night falls on the clean empty streets.
The skies have hung their stars in the east.
The children have gone to bed, and the mothers are everywhere.
They have mowed the grass and picked tomatoes.
They have listened to their hearts and gone out
Into the night and straightened the crooked streets
And put them all in a row
And one night last year they painted the moon
A lovely orange, for all are artists,
And some are temperamental about their work,
And all are constantly giving birth to the present,
Reworking it so that things work out,
Or giving birth to the past, working at their craft,
Smoothing the rough edges of a time.

None of them have spoken so much as word
About their disappointments,
Which sprung out of them so long ago,
And in those bewildering first minutes,
Secretly occurred to them, perhaps naturally gave
So tenderly of the great prophetic pronouncements
Which have greatly influenced us all.

Their talents considerable and well-known and recognized--
Making order out of disorder, which is their primary concern,
Always, finally, or outright as though it took nothing from them,
Madly loving the human race, which came from them,
Arising out of their loneliness, but mostly because they saw
In us something no one else did. Or could these visionaries,
Wielding us like batons before the orchestra of our passions,
Their sweet music stirring us to great deeds and flagrant outbreaks
Of inspiration, which they created on a moment's notice
So as not to be bored.

The happy hours began centuries ago
And have not ceased their natural merry dispositions.
Contemporary motherhood the modern city
And old motherhood the old city torn down
And long past maternal motherhood city which had many excellent photographs
Taken and much has been written of their extravagance and greatness,
And the grandmotherhood city with its cobbled streets
And the great grandmotherhood with its red clay country roads.

All live in the city of Motherhood in one large house,
And there are maple trees in the yard, and children playing about the neighborhood
And every child, son and daughter resembles their mother,
And the city of Motherhood is mother of man.

The mothers are all busy making and remaking the world,
And they are multiplying, subtracting and dividing the common good,
And being extraordinary, such rare unforgettable people,
They can create out of nothing everything we would ever want,
And do each day exactly what is needed,
Dripping with the words that turn us into moral people,
Straightening our bones, shocking us with the truth,
Which is always on their lips,
And all they say is one long tender love story,
One after the other, for they cherish love,
Regard it with great reverence. They excite love
With their good graces and sweet joy,
Sometimes mistaking perfect strangers for their children.

(originally appeared in Sparks)

Metropolitan Museum

Quietly passing through the rooms,
suddenly lost, cast apart
from the company of great works of art---
Civilization assumes an air of mystery.
Talk of art's illustrious history,
though pale and illusory
bears no malice of mind---
the human race's saving grace
glutton for joy and misery,
so cold the art, so cruel and blind
for centuries. Long the overcrowded mad house of the earth,
drunken, loud, sweet melancholy and so full of mirth,
so savagely seized by labor of its birth.

(originally appeared The Thinker)


What has gone old, lost,
So long forgot and put aside,
Trembled up like a green meadow,
And has come tender by my side.
When I recall your voice--
Your smile--the coming forth of blooms
Round the world, how they trimmed
The cobbled streets of the heart's capitol.
A sky there was in your cheeks,
So breathless that day we wed.
Your mouth a land bursting,
Laughter that rang like wild birds,
Lit on things, the tiniest blade
Of grass in the vast hemisphere
Of a soul and sang sweetly.
Your face that curious country
That one only hears about.
The far hills and the little wood
And thatched the nests of sparrows,
The many merry houses they built,
The steep slopes of anthills. Look!
The butterflies, wasps and bees
Tickled the air, all in spring day
Till your life it turned quietly away
And shut my heart like a book.
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