Geoffrey O'Brien

Six Poems


"The sorrow that has come out
in your eyes, looking down,
or in your lips, tight-pressed
as if never to say something,
that sorrow you feel shame for,
and for lips and eyes
impatient to announce
where you bid be silent
or show, where you say
shut, hold back."

The book where I hid the poem
was meant for no one's eyes,
least of all yours, even if,
reading it forty years after,
I just glimpse your face
turning away angry
or disappointed into the unseeable,
only long enough to wonder
whose shame was written there,
or whose sorrow or silence.


            1. The Lost One

He fell into being
a fool, he found
odd-shaped stones
that depicted his luck
and walked
where was no shade
for sun glare
until forgetting his name
he puzzled a way back
to his home streets,
murmuring so no one
could hear, Where
is my name, I have
lost my name, and fear
I shall never find it.

            2. Working Life: The End of the Week

... The main suite crowded
as always – signs of rain
on the roof terrace – in a corner
a girl is bending forward
to write something (a phone number?)
on her foot, her instep – how curious – 
and I have my stack of magazines
to hand out at the conference – I'm feeling
social, eager to get involved with people
by smiling at them – at every point
along the corridor co-workers
are murmuring, kidding around, yawning,
consulting – it would all be fine
if dusk didn't come, if everybody
didn't finally drift toward the bus stop...

            3. To the Body Tangled in Dust

I didn't know dust could tangle
until for most of a year
the room went unswept
where someone looked into the dark
to scrape through its layers
to the other sky – 
Past unhealed gouges
with dirt in them – 
To the music of chopped-off
retorts: "Didn't you,
almost, so it's thin under it?" – 
Stray hisses layered like mica – 
There where everything
happens to the body,
or in it,
or in its presence.


He cannot exist alone
who made of world

carries at least
that much around,

arranging itself
in sudden phrases—

"I find a position" (he asserts)
"in relation to something

that exists, no matter what,
without that I can't write"—

He appears to be expounding a method
or philosophy of composition

to the young woman who administers
the previously unfamiliar poetry program

of the equally blurry institution
where he has been invited to read,

except that, wouldn't you know,
he didn't bring his manuscript—

never mind, he'll read
some older ones, from the books—

but he forgot them too—
so has nothing

but the words found in the mouth—
or not even—

they having already escaped
back into the world they are made of—

or that some element in them
made long since—


Since in this restaurant pleasure
is the appetizer and suffering
the main course, some try
to beat the system by ordering
two or three appetizers in lieu
of entree (even if the bill
comes more or less to the same);
as for dessert, if you're lucky,
it's a few moments of relative calm
before they boot you out
to clear the table for the customers
waiting impatiently by the door;
for some the accompanying drinks
really make the experience, some indeed
would rather drink than eat,
and many customers agree that
the talk before and between the courses
is what dining here is finally about;
a bit pricey, but not a bad bet;
and at any rate in this notoriously
under-served neighborhood
it doesn't have a lot of competition.


About some things it is best to be silent.
I went through being born all over again.
Until then there had been little but blur,
half-heard murmurs and half-seen bodies.

At the proper age for emerging into light and speech
I was thrust deeper into noise and darkness.
In the midst of wave-swirl my mother told stories.
That is why I am full of memorized circumstances

and know the origin of every place name
and the secret reason for each family disaster.
We were cut off from the idea
of ever landing anywhere. Her talk was shore.



      a collage of phrases found in the plays of Philip Massinger

            Act I
Marches of great princes,
prodigious meteors,
nourish strange thoughts,
excess of fervor, inward horror,
the abhorred title of incest.
Corrupting bribe begets
a treacherous issue, turned worse
than pirate in his cruelties,
the cause that forces me
to this unnatural act.

            Act II
Presuming to contend with him,
ravished with the pleasure
of the dream, mischief
stole upon me. Thy outward shape
brought a fierce war against me.
No hope of freedom, no sign
of pity in thee, city cormorants.
A glorious insultation
choked my vital spirits.
Dangers strangled in her
the use of any pleasure,
a nature not to be played with.

            Act III
World of outrage, loud enough
but to torment. I poisoned thee.
Stand upon the ruins:
panic terrors, sad disaster,
barbarous neglect,
masterpiece of mischief.
Wretched things that dare
be jealous, merciless
in your natures, suck up
a kingdom's fat. Be but rash
and violent enough,
fright others from suspicion.

            Act IV
A flatterer's poison,
in revenge to play the traitor.
Shrink from myself.
Detestation of my madness.
By a strange vapor
the elements are ransacked,
provided that the carcass
rot above the ground,
fire to warm a dead man,
damps that belch out plagues.

            Act V
Obstinate spleen. A general face
of sorrow. Desolate branch,
demolished house, utterly lost,
made shipwreck of your faith
as if it never had been. We are all
condemned, there's no evasion,
emptied with fear, torture
that witty cruelty can invent.
Life was a frenzy, vain
to labor. In death forgive me.
Hide this head among the deserts.

GEOFFREY O'BRIEN has published six collections of poetry, most recently Early Autumn (Salt, 2010). His newest book is Stolen Glimpses, Captive Shadows: Writing on Film 2002-2012 (Counterpoint), issued in conjunction with a paperback edition of his earlier book Castaways of the Image Planet: Movies, Show Business, Public Spectacle.