There are people who have been reading Lola Haskins for years. I envy them. I first met Ms. Haskins’ poetry at the Snake Nation Literary Festival in Valdosta, Georgia. She was one of about a dozen writers scheduled to read there, and when she stood up to read I didn’t know what to expect. I had been hearing an extraordinary gathering of poets and fiction writers and non-fiction writers read all morning long, and I was sure that she would be very good, but when she delivered her first poem I knew that she was like no one else there.
The great poets have an unblinking intensity that you can feel when they read aloud. For me, this feeling isn’t that different from the one you feel when someone at the center of your life tells you the most important thing they will ever tell you at a time when you most need to hear that thing.
I’ve been going to poetry readings since 1966 and I’ve heard many fine poets. But I haven’t heard this often. I’ve heard it in Donald Hall and Allen Ginsberg and Rodney Jones and Brigit Kelly; and in Valdosta, at the Snake Nation Festival, I heard it in Lola Haskins.
Right after she finished her reading that day, I bought Desire Lines, her collection of new and selected poems, and read it in the following days; and these poems confirmed what I had heard and felt at her reading. She’s a poet whose creativity, energy, and wisdom will touch you deeply. —John Guzlowski, former Poetry Editor for TheScreamOnline
L O L A H A S K I N S • T H E P O E M S
The first time you unlocked your glove compartment and showed me
your secret, I was breathless at what nestled in its box like jewelry.
Then, slowly, I grew used to what rode with us, and on clear days,
when we’d drive to the beach, I came to understand it preferred
its double dark to our light, where you were touching my breasts
under my shirt. And as we began to think more and more about
our natures (you saw me as glitter flaked off schist, to me you were
the gesso angel that brought the annunciation), I decided I was not
sorry you kept it in your car, just there, not for anything. Until
the March afternoon you took it out, laid it across your hand,
and said Have I told you I have bullets? Then the 38 turned rattler
across my path, and jealousy crept into me and I wanted it gone.
So you put it away, and it went back to sleep. And one midnight,
as we were heading home, south on 101, lights all around us, as if
we had been sent to the sky, I felt my nipple diminish as it
tightened, and I thought, because this was my first time, Yes,
I will marry you. But I didn’t say it. So you had to pull up to
my parents’ house in your red Mercedes that summer evening
and demand, Come now. But my parents and I were leaving.
You drove off, washed in the scent of gardenias at the top of
our garden. The rest of this is for the 38, because even
your ashes are forty now, and I don’t think you’re listening.
I’m sorry, .38. I was wrong. It wasn’t you he craved after all.
It was the featherless bird he became when he stepped off the rail.
And all the way down to the steel water, he must have been happy
as he never was. Oh .38, he has left us both. You were his sister,
his mother, his charm. You kept him safe as long as you could.
Django in Hang-Zhou
He is waiguo ren: foreigner. When he walks to
the market his dark head sees over theirs as if
he were a child, held on his father’s shoulders.
They point at him and stare.
He is twenty-one,
and empty as a thousand-year-old wine jug.
He is also in love, not with what is foreign
in Hang-Zhou, but with what is most himself–
the cold and ancient lake, the blue mountains,
and in spring with the puffs of dust that followed
the galloping carts of emperors. I think he was
among the watchers that lined the streets when
these trees were small.
I asked him once,
Why is it that Mandarin’s so easy for you?
Because I’m a musician, he said, which was
like the doll, that still has many dolls inside.
We used to live here, the woman says,
taking the boy’s hand.
I don’t remember, says the boy.
Were there sheep here then, too?
Oh yes, says his mother.
They used to bump our bedroom wall
at night. We thought they were visitors
at first, but when we looked out
into the dark, there were only sheep.
Were we living in a house?
asks the boy. Of course, says
his mother. And she picks up
a thick ceramic arrowhead.
And we ate off these.
When they were plates,
she adds. And we used to sit
See those bumpy lines of rock
across the beck? Those are
bronze-age fields, and once
we slid down them on a tray.
That was the morning
the sun turned the snow
almost blue. Remember?
They have walked steep slopes
to get here. The boy is tired,
spreads his arms wide.
His mother picks him up,
cradles his head against
her shoulder, and soon
he’s limp. She considers
the rubble at her feet
now she’s alone, but it’s
as speechless as the heap of
stones in the field above, that’s
Bombey’s barn on the map.
Who was Bombey? She
doesn’t know. And who was
she, baby on hip, trudging
happily along this path,
muddy no matter what the weather?
Who was she when her hair smelt
of kerosene? She looks across
the beck, senses, as if it were
her own pulse against her palm,
the curled damp of her boy’s hair–
and slowly the long days return
when what mattered was stones,
rough, pitted, the biggest
she could find. And she leans
backwards, lugs them up-slope
to the half-made wall,
and drops them one by one
like heavy mice, at the feet of
the squat man she loves. And
the boy murmurs in his sleep,
when you had feathers, Mom,
when we lived on the cliff,
before there were walls,
when we used to be a bird.
For Someone Considering Death
I told you.
Life is one big Hanon
up and down the piano,
ten fingers skipping over each other
in every conceivable way,
two hands getting stronger.
the notes are the same for everyone,
but you can choose to whisper or shout,
to fade or grow.
And haven’t you noticed that some people’s hands sing,
but others are midwestern on the keys,
each crescendo a secretarial swell.
Think about this.
How can you dream to play the Pathetique,
how can the moment come to truly look
into someone’s eyes
and say The Hell With Everything, I Love You,
when you haven’t done your time,
hour after hour, year after year
in that small closed room.
The Landscape of the Piano
is a winter. Snow stays on the plain but melts
off the hot backs of the mountains.
We travel. Ice is everywhere and there are temples
full of strange singing. We have caravanned, looking up.
We enter a wood and vanish into the grain.
In the heart of the piano, the strung back,
there is rain slanting down in glitters
and the air between the strands of rain
sings of Birth and Love and Death
and everything other: what we are.
But oh, say the sceptics, now can it
rain in a box? Until they open it, and
their faces stream with tears.
To Play Pianissimo
Does not mean silence,
the absence of moon in the day sky
Does not mean barely to speak,
the way a child’s whisper
makes only warm air
on his mother’s right ear.
To play pianissimo
is to carry sweet words
to the old woman in the last dark row
who cannot hear anything else,
and to lay them across her lap like a shawl.
To play fortissimo
hold something back.
It is what the father does not say
that turns the son.
The fact that the summit cannot be seen
that drives the climber on.
Consider the graceless ones:
the painter who adds one more brush stroke.
the poet of least resistance
who writes past the end of his poem.
And what survives? Only the voracious:
gorse with its dark green prickles
its seeds that pop like a greedy baby’s lips
bracken whose spores in fall cause cancer
heather, tough, clumping in gangs
that turn bruised in August– tiny purple blossoms that blend
with distance as if a thumb had smudged the page.
And each of these tries to choke the rest.
I am the only one, says the heather, the gorse.
I will kill you if I can, says the bracken.
Or, nothing grows but the barest grass, stretched to near transparency,
like the features of a dancer over bone,
full of the desperate beauty of young men in concentration camps.
There are no cattle here, with their soft eyes.
Only the primitive-headed, the slope-muzzled, their blatting
the sound of words before there was language:
Herdwicks and Jacobs and Lonks,
bred to heaf to their home-grounds if they stray too far.
Summer winds blow hard over the moor.
In winter snow frenzies, swirls until all track’s lost,
like a crofter who clenches a fist at his door,
as something he does not understand pours from
his mouth. When the snow stops, the farmers go
prospecting, prod at the drifts with sticks.
Once, Moon dug out eight ewes and a wether.
The storm had lasted ten days.
One had died, but the rest had eaten each other’s wool.
What can dig, does. You can walk for hours and see only evidence:
the dark clustered droppings like full-stops gone wild. But then,
suddenly, the ground will crawl–as tens of brown scuts zigzag
into heather or between rocks. More often, you stumble
over them first, scribbles of fur and bone–blinded, starved.
Fresh from Australia, Megan went hiking, the ordinance survey
for Yorkshire, West (her uncle’s) in its see-through case
on a cord around her neck,
the way little girls have their names pinned
to their first-day-of school dresses,
thought Megan, who’d done the outback, the Rockies, and, last year, Nepal,
but said only: I’ll call you when I get to Grassington
before she set out,
cigarette dangling from one red-nailed hand, along paths never more than ten miles, she knew, from a pub.
But the moor can change, like a woman with a knife
in her handbag, who makes eyes across the room.
And no map, no piece of paper at all, no page from
the psalms, no verse from the Quran, not even James Joyce
can hold back the mist.
And the moor turned suddenly white.
And four times Megan stopped.
And four times she’d have stepped off a cliff.
A moor’s a wrong turn a blank wall
days spent staring
when I’ve been nowhere
But I come back again and again
I can’t stay gone
the mist lifted and I realized
why I was out of breath
I was at the top–
and from this top I could see other tops
purple, dark green, dark brown
and the far profiles of old women —
mountains in the distance —
and in that moment I understood
what three hundred sixty degrees meant
to my soul
and I believed I could climb
the other peaks as well
though there were valleys between
with their cities glittering like grass
and their smug Wednesday church bells
though there were A-roads between
with their worms of smoke
though there were walled pastures between
where brown-and-whites grazed,
false maps on their sides
And in that moment this was my religion:
I could keep courage in my knees
the days of walking, with nothing to show but miles
the long afternoons of up
the slash-eyed wind
the rocks to navigate by rain
even the redux mist
even the unstarred night
would not matter
And when breath came hard
as breath does I would know
I was not dying
but ascending another scale,
like the curlew for whom flight is not
enough but she must sing too.
And what was the mountain Yaeko painted?
It was the voice of the air.
And she painted it with oils whose faint cloud blue
stayed on her hands at night.
She would tie up her hair first, as if a wind were coming
as it did the day their group
made its way up Mount Miwa, and the wind
crossed her face with black feathers
as if something were shaking out of her, to reappear
calmly on the pond far below.
And what was the mountain Yaeko painted?
It was the glow that remains when all
the other lights have dimmed.
And she painted it for Hiroshi because he would not remember
how she looked that autumn afternoon,
when he said, seeing her alone, Why don’t you walk up with us?
because he would not remember
how, as they climbed the steep path, her hair came loose, and
flew across her face.
And what was the mountain Yaeko painted?
It was the skein of the sea.
And she sat on the cold train all day with the painting in her lap.
Finally, in the Tokyo dark, she arrived.
There is a character in Japanese whose radical is silk, and it means
the deepest love a woman can have for a man.
It means connection, as by unbreakable thread, and its meaning
does not admit bodily touch.
And it ends at the pointed tip of the brush, the wet gray finish of
the character, as the hand falls to rest.
Towards the end, his left hand became paralyzed,
and during that period he wrote a beautiful piece for the left hand alone.
-Mrs. Frederick Converse
It sings clearest which is nearest sleep.
The halfway child, humming to himself.
The old woman, thinned to a piano string,
who remembers suddenly the flash of green
she saw when she was six, and not again.
Of the remaining hands the right dances
in the air. The left holds still.
This is a piece for the left hand.
He was born with the fingerpads of the blind.
By eight he could tell if someone
had been at the piano before him,
and how long before, and who.
Beginning Fur Elise one November afternoon,
he burst into storms of tears
because his sister had banged
her tuneless anger the night before,
and he felt the bruises still on the keys.
He was born with the ears of a dog.
He could hear his mother’s skin decay,
the soft give
as her cheeks sagged just barely more.
Sometimes his face would cloud
because the moan of needles becoming
earth seemed so incomparably sad.
Or brighten. He had heard
the sun come out on the beating feathers
of birds, miles away.
He was born with his life in his hands.
Toddling, he learned the little bells
of Grieg. Then he mastered Mozart’s
speech, its ache of clean and brittle
song. Then he learned to follow Bach,
crossing water from calm to flood,
up and down the stepping-stones
of the keys. He would dream
of his piano as if it were flesh.
In a room with a strange instrument
he would walk by it once or twice
brushing it, as if by accident,
with his leg, his sleeve.
My breath, mysterious to me
The long weathers of my arms
My eyes flecked like broken leaves
The crook of my elbow The secret
field under the curve of my hair:
All to be divided between you
so that when you who came from
my body start down our road
when the air is heavy and the
frogs are singing from the swamp
because it has rained or is about
to rain, I will be there.
But in the end — and you cannot
help this, every generation does
the same– you will drive me out.
I will be a rustling in the trees then
as if something had just flown. I
will be the skin that stills the standing
water. And when dusk falls, I will be
a firefly, blinking green. For I can
never stop being amazed at your beauty,
my music-limbed boy, my woman who
loves numbers in her soul. But wait.
My love for you is hundreds of lanterns
searching the dark. In the gathering night,
look around. I will be all the fireflies.
Daddy, who is to say you have flown too far
You can’t be seen any more behind the moon’s extravaganza
You are somewhere they haven’t named yet
but I think it does have a name, maybe dark sky mountain,
the one you started climbing when you rose from the room
and your body became wrinkles and weighed less by
the heft of your soul And all of us felt your breath going
away Even the name-tagged nurses in their doubting suits
knew there was no point in turning you in bed any more
because you were the same on the other side
When I was a child I left churches forever because I decided
they might blow down and besides, I didn’t trust their priests,
who couldn’t tell me what was true but knew only
to talk and talk as if the heat out of their mouths
would brand belief on my skin like so many roses
I think you’re past the tree line on that mountain by now
Daddy, and onto the balding ground which is more beautiful
than anything you could have told me before this moment,
holding me on your lap on one of the rare evenings you
were home Though you did used to sing: Blue Sky Day,
early, when your chest hairs would glitter as if it had rained
during the night And all those mornings on the way to school,
I watched your lips in the rear view mirror and made mine
the same And they came in their hundreds in the end —
to mourn you, yes, but also to see if you might have left
any of your tongue behind And when they saw you had,
they folded the paper very small, and put it in the breast pockets
of their suits I am holding to you now Daddy, writing
those poems when you were younger than my son, and bent
over your leather-bound book which asked only the highest
of you, and I think of the pilot your friend, who fell in flames
over Germany, and how gorgeously you sent him down.