Poem America

by Martin Burke (July 2012)

For Robert Gibbons, and in mourning for the death of the true American spirit


Already the emptiness grows and America has begun to die so that even if I
     planted a tree the ground I planted it in would be useless

Summer says it is winter and I have no means to dispute this

I want it to be winter, I want there to be snow to cover those graves with that
      innocence reserved for a Christ-like one gone to an unwarranted death

Perhaps this is the way the world suffered when Shelly died, or when Homer
     fell into blindness and wrote no more, or when Pound gave himself to
     the enemies of joy and began to live among everything he had not

You smile, bemused, at this comparison, but nature is not bemused; it is
     winter, winter and white, white and growing colder

But no comparison equals a living breath, nor snow equate innocence, nor
    silence say what must be said

Something is happening but I don’t know what, something needs to be said
    but I don’t know what -as I said: the emptiness is growing

If I spill enough ink, if I exhaust the book of memory will I be able to say it?

If I make a book of shadows and blank spaces what will it contain?


To have always been the self you always were -a many multitude, a voice as
     authentic as the voice of Isaiah (and just as necessary) Biblical
     America of the old damnations however was not to your liking

The question then is: how do we make common ground with the past when
     that ground has been plundered in so many names that seek to hide a

I can also say: “America I love you” but to the whores of war in the capital I
     say:  “Beware ye sons of bitches for the wrath of Isaiah is coming”

Yet not to hate, not to be a destroyer stalking the new history, nor to call
     condemnation upon those who condemn the earth to pain

But to bring the balm of unchanging necessities to the mouths of singing
     children, to make with ink a substance more enduring than shadow
     or pain

What will we believe if we will not believe this? Who will we believe if we do
     not believe ourselves?

What will we be if we are not the selves we are?

Yet “Destroy me if you love me” might well have been the inscription upon
     your calling card as if you feared disciples would plant nothing but a

     clutch of rootless trees

And we walk among them, strangers to intended fruit where prophets are
     plentiful but few have authentic voices

Vines refuse to root in sullied earth, orchards are barren; this is not the
     vision I hoped for, but for which, if there was but one redeeming

Yet you caution me to be neither unjust nor rash as you say: It’s true there
     have been many betrayals but there is much fidelity

Even in death you are charming to the living – there is more to you than I 

Thus not as disciple but as companion I make my inroads into America’s
     heart: Your America, the one already old before the waters of Europe
     washed into Boston harbour

So how could you not be everything you were? Vines refused but you did not
     refuse, using only as much ink as was necessary to write a living
     signature on a page

How does that feel -to have been There? At a Beginning? To be an essential
     witness? Homer and Shelley to a nation seeking its voice, but always
     yourself and only yourself and never the self that might be the self
     some master would approve of

I pity the earth clutched at by rootless trees – landscape of empty orchards –
     wasted fields where wheat once….yet let me not be harsh in my heart 
     for there is much to love

The first idea, the first fire –how they root into the roots of the mind, how
     they ignite the mind!

Thus I have had visions which only an Isaiah could put into words, have
     washed in the waters of Boston harbour, have laboured in the fields of 
     every state bordering the circling oceans

How could I not? What else was I born for? If I offer no water to parched
    ground what is my worth to the earth?

At its best –and you were its best, this is the question America asks itself 
     through those who listen to water, earth and tree

You also a root -also a vine -seed re-planted for the season of need which
     has come upon us

Yet see –I try, but the lyrical impulse fails in its intention.

You are dead –and though I’m tempted to make no distinction between living
    and dead that distinction has been made

Blake would approve what you approved of and ask no more than that.

Thus there are connections and associations which have no physical equal
     in the world yet without which we would be in poverty

Connections -mine with yours, yours with America – what we are talking  
     about here is so essential that it requires an Einstein to write its

Think of it –‘America’ (not the political America, not the moneyed America)
     but the first, original fire in the mind that carried that beautiful name

Yet what was begun requires a voice, not of recapitulation, but of revelation
     -a new Isaiah to move inland, making the landscape a page upon 
      which he writes in ink no water washes from stone

One day your country will understand my anger is caused by love. It has not
     become what it set out to be –but there, there at the core, the fires
     resides, and warms

This is the fire I offer you as you move among cold shadows –old fire, old
     dreams, yet how startlingly new the world is in such light

We are shadows or ink – with which will we write our signature?


Let us not however be naive  –there are many who would bury the vision
     beneath rootless trees, who say that’s all the vision is worth, but what
     is the worth of a coin citing a deity it no longer credits?

Don’t talk of contradictions –a man must be a multitude – but a coin states
     the ambitions of a State

We are talking, are we not, of truth and deception, the oldest argument of
     the world, the one Isaiah came to batter –the one that nailed Christ to
     the tree

How then could you escape what was waiting for you?

The page was already written – the ink was composed of shadows at the
    bidding of thirty pieces of silver

See –I grow nostalgic for something that has never been -and every poem of
     Pound adjudged a crime, nor the lucidity of E.D. admitted to the

And from the empty earth citizens wait for harvest; no wonder the heart of
     every prophet is prompted into utterance by dismay.

Obvious truths come begging for admission but the doors of the house of 
     decisions are closed and will stay closed for Judas holds the key

Yet underfoot –deeper than layers imposed on it, the earth is good and there
     are traditions we have yet to discover

Eventually, and it is already upon us, a Kaddish or a canticle will define the
     lives we live and even Robert Lowell will seek out the Pequod though
     no one, as yet, has discovered the true Atlantis

From Ahab to Pound you can trace a line which searched for that
     cartography –yet what did they find but the coordinates of deception?

Once again the contradiction makes itself known, the Kaddish become a 
     canticle, Leviathan abandons the waters for the inward depth of land

Politics favours the ‘expedient’, the visionary opt for a fiery landscape, the
     question becomes what it always has been: ‘Which Jerusalem – and

To which you can imagine Robinson Jeffers replying: “The tower I
     constructed as my defence they accused me of and condemned me to”         

This tells us nothing we do not already know: that every vision has its
     martyr: that fire burns the hand which holds its flame

Much that was done has been undone but must be re-done if we are to
     make our books from more than shadows, shades and ghosts

History happens before it happens.

Like the Greeks we see a certain brightness in the air before the Goddess
     appears -something like this stirred the Massachusetts air.

At least, that’s how I see it from this distance –but then, geography is not
     necessarily my concern though every landscape invites the eye to see its flaming core

Thus if history be written from Whistler to Pollock, or from Whitman to
     Pound –what would be incorrect?

There are undertows of which the surface knows nothing in which a stone
     can have more history than the one who casts it into water ever knows

It comes down to listening, watching, keeping your senses alert to the air,
     probing the electricity of an age, searching for the generators

As for Eliot –the more he moved away from its soil the closer he got to its 
     earth –though Lowell could only be himself when in patrician mode

Also Boston –but a Boston favourable to tides, amenable to whale-men, nor
     indifferent to the intonations certain emigrants brought

An idea within an idea

Something more than geography though geography tells us it is here that X
     marks the spot where Jeffers should have built his tower and Kerouac 
     comes to listen

The tide still comes from Europe but whale-men are no more and either we
     light a new flame or are lost in nostalgia

So where can the tree be planted –and if something of America dies will it 
     ever live again? Or the Kaddish outlast the canticle? Or silence close
     all words?

Whatever we love is true – the rest is superstition: as a whale-mans’ mate I
     strike the gong of the sea


As you see –I give myself every liberty

I write poems for Whitman –then rewrite for Heart Crane –as if my sanction
     to do so was that I also sought creation’s fire yet I require no sanction

I bring a history the State disputes but cannot refute

Ah yes –to set the spine of history tingling, to see what Heart Crane saw but
     to do so without his sorrow, as if a small skiff entering a harbour was
     carrying an extraordinary cargo

Once this happens everything has validity and you need no sanction to
    rewrite what has been written

So what now Heart Crane –is there brotherhood between us?

Not pupil to your master-hood but brother to brother at this harbour from
     which so many have departed

Harbour to harbour, landscape to landscape; the poem of one generation
     falls into the lap of another who must destroy it so as to honour it and
     write their own

So who was the goddess who brought the fiery ink to You?

Academics crowd your grave with useless theories –but we have other
     concerns: the poem in itself, the fire as it would be

The glowing coal even ghosts and emptiness could be warmed by –this has
      always been the poet’s intent –so that even  if Agamemnon was a
      bastard (which he was) as least Homer redeemed him with a line of

So now, brother to brother, at harbour or homestead, at what other fire will
     we dry our wet clothes? The answer will be given when the fire gives
     us its flame


A pool shuddered at the mention of the word.

History though it sprung a trap but poetry proved more inventive.

Commerce wrote the text of the State but a laughing juggler came down the
     road from Manhattan

Now the pool shuddered like never before.

Stone followed stone to water’s epicentre  –something was happening which
     had not happened before –unless you presume to prophecy:

          I am living in Eternity. The ways of this world are the ways
of heaven.

There, I’ve said it In your name and mine now that I have found my name in
     the waves of Boston harbour

Shanties become carols –yet in whose name and for what purpose these

Something sacred stirring in the bones – thus not to defile nor prove
     treacherous to the race envisioned at its best

Blake foreshadowing Whitman – Whitman foreshadowing so much else

The burning flame of voice as the authority of that voice – as if a new, a
     necessary Isaiah of fire and word entered the tribe to answer its

As if Adam re-found Eden (the apple replaced, the damage undone)

History like a kaleidoscope brought to new configurations in which the mind
     of Emily Dickinson was a necessity for which there was no other

What was it she said – ‘I will go to the garden’?

There again, and again it will be said, and then re-said again, Eden striking
     the prophetic mind to utterance

A gong clanging water-waves, the Pequod responding, even Heart Crane in
     his wounds

You see this in Whitman –behind the landscape he describes a landscape he
     does not, as if some mysteries were too precious to be told so what am
     I telling you?       

I am telling you I wrote a poem I attribute it to him – a common fire we
    gather about which says:


Good to arrive at, better to depart from.
I have found such a one in this continent.
It said: welcome. It said: discover me.
The geography I discover is myself

We are an experiment of time, an adventure of history
Which will yet astound history –therefore nothing goes unnoticed.

This is not a time for a voice to be silent.
Thus I shape my guts, my soul, my soil.
The history I will shape is the history I will write.

Infinity can begin anywhere.
Anywhere begins somewhere.
Why then should I not begin from where I am?
Why should I not begin with who I am?


People were shocked when I wrote my lines.
Which were not poetry according to the standard accepted model.
But a new continent needs new models as expansive as the land.
You think that is astounding?
I can tell you something more astounding.
What if I told you that you could possess the good of the sun and the earth?
What if I told you that there were millions of suns?
What if I told you that you need only spend a day and a night with me
And that you would then possess the origin of all the poems of the world?
What if I told you that you would see all this not with the eyes of the past,
Not with my eyes, but with your own unfiltered vision!


Give me the splendid silent sun with all his beams full dazzling
And I will give it to you.
If I cannot give what is mine to give –what gift have I to give?
I would give a gift to every man, to every woman.
I would say that they are my brothers, my sisters;
That what articulates the beat of my heart articulates the beats of their hearts.

There is, I think, no other truth worth knowing.


Did Whitman come to Boston? I do not know nor need to know such ‘facts’

I know that certain maps are useless and misleading; that Ahab’s heart is
     the charter of the world we occupy

Self-evident truths? 

Not always so but hopefully so – yet Muddy Waters singing the blues and no
     one listening way back in the Nineteen Fifties

Now new nomads enter history to the soundtrack of Patti Smith;, Enron falls, John Galt weeps

So whose country now Robert Frost –whose country when the bell buoy off
     Nantucket clangs as the Pequod passes by?

No –not even bright snow could comfort me at this moment yet by all my 
     human need I call on you to stand before me

A shadow replies – I spatter it with ink


Brother, forgive my discursions and rant

I am apt to say what I should not yet have made prophecies to harbour and 
     homestead: And the ground shall live again…dispute ye not for I come
     with the words of Isaiah

I also dream of morning in America such as Blake and Whitman did –where
     if Christ forgives Judas then we must forgive our erstwhile brothers

Will we bring them to Boston common? Show them the inheritance that is
     theirs for the taking?

The lights in the harbour are switched on – if we be given grace we will arrive

Therefore let us make the first of many canticles, let us sing the naked earth
     in its full beauty, let us agree that there will be no wasted words in
     singing the body electric of woman and man

We have assembled on a righteous hillside –we are a multitude not a mass, 
     we have parted many waters, we have given ancient gods their new

Easier now to crush the statues than to crush the vision or wipe from
     history the expectations of its poets, or say that Jerusalem or Athens
     has not entered the mind of every man where some have called it 

So, sweet seeker, who shall we seek? –what healing bring to desolation?

Poetry and hope –as if some new verse had been pronounced over the earth;
     it comes with healing waters to desolated trees

America dies but America lives

A shadow forecasts light; the waters bring Blake to new generations whose
     mouths speak afresh: blessed be everything that is human to the full


Perhaps Boston was the ground the Buddha sought

And yet in sunshine or February snow the issue remains simple: –to give
      due praise, to sing and mourn, to let one equal the other –that ghosts
      may not need a tainted ink to write their state

Yet now, again, the puritan mind condemns the voice which questions the
     prohibitions as if the Patriot Act served a need too sinister to be


Trust the people? No government has, no government will, yet masters
     beware: Amherst stirs a 
     million minds, heresy has its believers

A ship enters Boston – I am on the quayside anxious to learn its history, 
     eager to write its name in my book, speaking to sailors, speaking to
     voyagers so that they may become part of my uninhibited mind

Even so, there are destroyers stalking the world with a purpose as old as my
    purpose is, so history –where does it begin -with Adam or Antigone?

Whatever past I choose will name my future. Let the ‘dream-insight’ ignite

Whitman begat me but no system binds me -so now which Jerusalem, and

I spatter ink upon the ghosts who occupy this page

Martin Burke is an Irish-born poet and playwright living in Belgium from where he has published twelve books of poetry in the USA, UK, Ireland, & Belgium; and is associated with the magazine The Green Door -www.thegreendoor.net

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