Lee Oser

Four Poems

Babylon Revisited Again

Some nights a charm awakes that bluesy haunt,
That ritzy joint
Where fortune never ceases

And beauty smiles, whoever she is,
No haloed wife,
But high-heeled, captivating, lost for life.


Two Suicides

For S.B. and R.W.

When we were small, we stumbled onto flowers.
Stung by honeybees, we watched the soft flesh swell,
Astonished at how beauty causes pain.

And then the world’s wide cicatrix,
The wound that history inflicts
And loving memories cannot fix,
No art can heal or hide.

Fresh anger twists my living side
And my defeated voice cries out
And seeks the ruined garden maze
And haunts the turns where souls reside
Amongst the thorns–if only a bewildered butterfly, or two,
Oblivious to the world outside:
Male and female, Gentile and Jew.


My Hometown

For David Bromwich

Nixon’s dog Checkers is buried in the Bide-a-Wee Pet Cemetery in Wantagh, New York.

America died with Nixon, you say,
The westward movement famed and long foretold:
It died to the strains of “Shenandoah.”

Go, haunt landfills like an oceanless gull,
Climb monuments, catch whiff of cold campaigns,
Steer by the Constitution, wear stilts like

Uncle Sam, purchase a surveyor’s chain
And stakes, a transit or theodolite,
And ride into the everlasting hills.

But you who laugh at Tricky Dick, pay heed:
Go down to Gettysburg and ask the dead,
Would they prepare to charge with bayonets–

To die for Wall Street and the Welfare State?
The land was ours before we were the land’s.
What do we know about their sacrifice?

Don’t tell us they were pawns, the honored dead,
Though you may win at chess, or wince at Checkers:
“A little cocker spaniel dog sent all the way

From Texas. Black and white spotted.” And I–
Johnny Reb with a folksong in his heart–
I marched from my hometown and took up art.


In the Time of Blue Shadows

Though we no doubt seem arrogant to you,
We needed arrogance to rule. Our fathers,
Great men of fortune, masters of the West,
Conspired with holy priests to liberate
And raise each babbling race. Religion never
Drank the wine of such impassioned eloquence
As when it praised our missionary saints
With ceremonious feast days and sweet hymns.
Our hearts, like toys of wax, did melt to hear
Of martyrs burning with the will of God,
And kings whose galleons roved like golden bees
To fertilize the western desert-wastes.
And when we were most proud of what we knew,
Something that lit the ruins in its wake
Dismantled our world picture row by row.
First a plague, confounding rich and poor,
Unpeopled half the realm. Then pilgrims brought
Report–the doings of an uncouth rabble,
Incited by a semi-literate fool
Who entertained the mob with blasphemy.
We hung the man. It might have been a farce,
But that he prophesied the whole event–
A trick of retrospect, though passing strange–
And left disciples to repeat his words,
Which named our sins (for so he said they were),
As being our true essence and effect.

Like soldiers who, inured to the blank north,
Can only shun the touch of spring, repulsed
By its trite joys, we turned our backs on home.
Past and future failed, a faded mirage,
Blue shadows and the dull voracious suck
Of breath, as our long march elsewhere began.
Who led the way? Companions at whose graves
We saw the sky was just a sky of air,
The air above the rocks God never made,
Nor dome nor crystal sphere–for that, much thanks.
Our violent history, emptied like the skin
Shed by a snake, we might have then sloughed off,
Content to travel with all mortal things;
But busy conscience and unsmiling pride
So rare an instrument of guilt devised
We cried to hear the pitiable dead,
Victims and vanquished, clamor for the fall
Of fine imperial marble, smooth-polished,
And fluted pillars that they’d raised, and died
To raise, reflected in white fountains set
To rival the cold splendor of the sun.

Did we believe catastrophe would cease,
The stars forsake their hunger for revenge,
Relieve our debts, and, crowning all with love,
Bow to our bright influence? Or, ripe for ruin,
Mowed down like devils in the final act,
Did we conceive this symmetry of tears?
The search for freedom in necessity
Yields just enough to overlook the catch,
Which never fails. What life illuminates
Is death. What death illuminates is life.
The hours have nothing in their hands to help
An old man cradling a past regret.
No more of consolations, desolations.
Say of me he left one afternoon,
Commenting on the weather and the crowds,
And met his end as freely as a boy
Might stop the hurry-skurry of an ant.


LEE OSER's most recent book is a novel, The Oracles Fell Silent, published by Wiseblood Books in 2014. Over the years, his poems have appeared in National Review, Literary Imagination, Southwest Review, Commonweal, Spiritus, and other publications. He teaches Religion and Literature at the College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, MA. Since 2010, he has been Secretary of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers.