Richard Jones: New Year, New Poems
One day he decided he wanted to live
in Vienna, to waste the summer musing,
maybe all of autumn, too, drinking sweet
tea in cafes and eating Sachertorte, listening
to Mozart and Brahms. He took a tour
of Freud’s house and wanted to lie down
on the famous sofa and tell the doctor
his dreams and who his mother was.
Walking the avenues in the twilight
the world became a system of symbols
he could not explain but found charming.
Sometimes he would jot foreign phrases
he would whisper for their exquisite sound.
When winter came to his narrow room,
he wrote many elegies for the Viennese light.
When I climb the stairs, dragging
all my cares behind me like a
bag of shattered glass and thorns,
I find Voltaire in my bed, sleeping,
his thick reading glasses still on,
head propped on feather pillows,
his white nightcap slightly askew,
an open book in his hands waiting
in the eerie glow of the green lamp
for an arthritic finger to turn a page.
The French have a clean conscience
and sleep as soundly as the dead
while I sit wide-awake in a red chair.
Though he’s gently snoring, I need
to talk to him, and in halting French
I ask about his life, his victories,
whispering to the dreaming writer
the way one whispers to the departed
when keeping a lonely night’s vigil.
I remind Voltaire that Dostoevsky said,
“Man is fond of counting his troubles,”
and then from my shirt pocket take
a long list written in pencil of life’s
troubles and adversities, a list of woes
which I translate into passable French
and read aloud as if I were reciting
a kindhearted and melodious poem
the sleeping old writer might love.
People don’t believe it when I tell them once
I was sentenced to six months on the chain gang.
My friends and I were sixteen. In the courtroom
that day, the hanging judge pounded his gavel,
delivered his verdict, instructed the town deputy
to take us away, but that didn’t happen because
our parents immediately stood, outraged, yelling,
all the parents in the gallery protesting the verdict,
all save my mother, who’d fainted to her knees.
The fathers stretched her out as on a church pew
and shook their fists at the old man on the bench.
Hearing this story, people say I embellish. I say no,
it all turned out alright. In something the law calls
Prayer for Judgment, the judge released us boys
with a final commandment: as long as we never
transgressed in North Carolina again, we need not
suffer condemnation or endure the harsh sentence.
I’m a witness to the truth. Still, people scoff and smirk
and like Pilate they always ask, “And what is truth?”
Segesta, Italy, 1991
I drove my Fiat onto the white ferry
and crossed the Mediterranean to Trapani
where I planned to take the winding road to Segesta.
From the little town tourists like me would board
a big shuttle bus that struggled to climb a narrow
road of switchbacks to the mountaintop temple.
Ticket in hand I crossed the parking lot
and approached the lone shuttle bus.
The sleepy driver spoke no English,
but pointed at the watch on his wrist
to tell me it was not yet time. Apparently,
the bus climbed exactly on the hour
and it was only quarter past eleven.
I was the only tourist that off-season day
so, there was nothing to do
but speak Italian, a language
I didn’t think I knew but which,
after months on the island of Favignana,
issued forth like a song from an opera.
The driver had seemed content to wait,
to sit alone in his big bus and say nothing,
but when out of the blue I began to speak,
asking, “Ciao, come ti senti oggi, amico mio?”
the driver’s eyes woke up. He cheered me on,
saying my Italian was good, surprisingly good,
molto bene, yes, yes, si, si! Inspired, emboldened,
I asked about his life, his country, his family.
I waved my hands in the Italian manner,
like a maestro who wished to emphasize
certain words that were especially important,
like motorbike or typewriter or roof garden.
When it was finally noon and time to start
the engine and drive up the mountain—
just the two of us—I sat in the front seat,
still talking, still fluttering my hands like birds.
I can still remember as though it were yesterday—
the bus climbs higher and higher,
the Tyrrhenian Sea sparkles in the distance,
and I tell the bus driver everything in Italian,
all about my life and the book I have written:
“I am a writer. I live in a house on the island.
I like to eat. I swim all day. The water is cold.
The night sky is dark with stars like salt.
The country is beautiful. I like the sky.
I very much like the sea and the sky.
Now the temple. Now I am a book of poems.”
Midnight Sonnet: 30 Below
Because the house is so cold,
I take each of the five guitars
in turn, playing one to keep it
warm, full of life and love, then
strumming and singing another
until it too is as richly mellow
as the sun—though today
the sunlight fell on white roofs
buried in snow; on the lane
all the houses are iced and frozen
and midnight-quiet and hushed—
all but mine with its joyously
amateurish exuberance, its late
ringing chords, its minor key.
Richard Jones’s most recent book of poems is Avalon (Green Linden Press, 2020). His many poetry collections include Stranger on Earth and The Blessing (both from Copper Canyon Press). A new book, Paris, is forthcoming from Tebot Bach in 2021. Editor since 1980 of the literary journal Poetry East, he curates its many anthologies, such as Origins, The Last Believer in Words, and Bliss. In 2020 he published Poetry East 100.