The Poetry of Stones and Stars

As a poet, I often feel the urge when visiting the library to pull some slim poetry collections off the shelf and explore the words inside. I feel obligated to peruse them, since the poetry books never garner as much demand or attention as the novels they share the shelves with.

I recently discovered Stones and Stars (Dedalus Press), written by Paul Murray, an Irish Dominican priest.

Stones and Stars by Paul Murray.

In these spiritual poems—written with precise and accessible language—the author addresses universal themes of humanity and poses questions all of us consider in the course of our lives.

Here are a few short excerpts that stood out for me:

The Awareness

is my fear, this
my desire:

The naked, simple awareness
— like a flame —
of all that is not myself

the wound
of the knowledge of being.

The Question

All is silent.

Yet the question
of the void
amazes the stars.

On Living Life to the Full

When your heart is empty
and your hands are empty

you can take into your hands
the gift of the present

you can experience in your heart
the moment in its fullness.

And this you will know,
though perhaps you may not
understand it,

this you will know:

that nothing
of all you have longed for
or have sought to hold fast
can relieve you of your thirst,
your loneliness,

until you learn
to take in your hands
and raise to your lips
this cup of solitude
this chalice of the void

and drain it to the dregs.


Now, after a long night
of stillness and longing,
on my brow, in the
tiny furrows of my palm,
thin lines of dew
are forming. And what I
had despaired of so long
is here. The sun,
true to its vow, with
prophecies of light and air
wakes the horizon.
I have come through
after all. I have a new
dawn on my shoulders.

Murray, Paul. Stones and Stars. Dublin, Ireland: Dedalus Press, 2013.


Poems to Spur Reflection

While searching for some novels at Bird Library recently, I discovered a poetry collection by an author whose work I would like to share. David Ignatow’s Living Is What I Wanted: Last Poems (BOA Editions, Ltd. 1999) drew me in with its short poems, spare language and universal themes of family, advancing age and death.

I was also attracted to the small, black and white author photo to the right of the title; with his white hair, glasses and mustache, I felt an immediate affinity for David Ignatow. He seemed like a great uncle who would serve you lemonade on the porch of his house in the summer while discussing his crop of tomato plants.

The publisher’s note in the back of the book indicated Ignatow wrote most of the poems in the collection in 1996, a year before his death at age 83. He was born in 1914, raised in Brooklyn and passed away at his home in East Hampton, New York, on November 17, 1997. He wrote several poetry collections, served as a poetry editor and professor and earned numerous honors, including two Guggenheim fellowships, the Robert Frost Award and the William Carlos Williams Award.

In Living Is What I Wanted, Ignatow reflects on his life and presents truths accessible to any reader; you don’t need an MFA in creative writing or a Ph.D. in English literature to understand or appreciate these poems. The most prominent subject is death, which seems to hover like the figure in Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal; yet Ignatow does not run from death, but rather greets it head on, accepting the inevitable.   

Here are a few selections from the book:

Staying alive

Reason for living.
I don’t have any.

What is your reason for not having a reason?
Is there a difference?

Are you that sour on life?
Can I separate one from the other?

What is your strategy for staying alive?
Isn’t being oneself enough?

Is it worth living without a reason?
Do I have a say in the matter?

Would you prefer not to have been born?
Did I have a mind of my own then?

Would you rather be dead now?
Do I have a choice?

Then you are opposed to suicide?
Isn’t living hard enough?

Then to live is to be brave and on the move.
Are you telling me?

What would you recommend for others?
Can’t they make up their own minds?

Then you should be congratulated.
Have I said something exceptional?

All living is lying

All living is lying:
we are unable to say what this life is.
We speak about it in metaphors
as if it could be other
than what it is, and even of ourselves
we say we are like this or like that.

Patient we wait
so that
once dead
we’ll know perhaps just who we were,
with others thinking back on us.

Where I built my house

Does being born matter
now that I am leaving it behind? Where
is a world I can go to
other than this ground
on which I walk and where I built my house?

Am I complaining of the shortness of life?
I am, and that makes me much like everyone else.
Follow Adam, the leader, into the ground.

Into the circle

To my friends I am in good health
and voluble, but I have moved
into the circle, after many years
in sun and shadow, having walked
as does a sightseer, in no fixed direction.

Into the circle I stand looking back
on that life. I cannot leave
nor seem to want to. As though programmed
I look out in an act of living.

Presence in an empty room

I must accept aches and pains of the body
if I am to accept
my presence in the empty room,
with no motive for being
in an empty room, and so
with no motive for being. If
I can accept aches and pains,
I exist.

Ignatow, David. Living Is What I Wanted: Last Poems (American Poets Continuum). Rochester, New York: BOA Editions, Ltd., 1999.


Four Poems

Four of my poems were recently published on the website Albany Poets. And for my contribution to National Poetry Month, I have posted the poems here, along with some relevant images.

Centro Bus

Centro Bus

Taking the Bus

The blind man in the blue striped shirt
stands in front of the bus stop,
clutching a red and white
walking stick in his right hand.
He smiles as the bus’s tires roll to a stop
and the door swings open with a whooshing sound.
He climbs inside and takes a seat,
just another passenger in another vehicle
crawling along the congested thoroughfare
on this Wednesday morning commute.

Fall Trees

Fall Trees

Falling Leaf

The golden maple leaf
fell to the ground
in front of my feet,
making a slapping sound.
It greeted me
on this frosty November morning,
reminding me that one day
I too will lie on the ground,
and others will pass by
without stopping
or looking down.

Florida box turtle. Photo by Jonathan Zander (Digon3).

Florida box turtle. Photo by Jonathan Zander (Digon3).

Hard Shell

What goes through the mind of a turtle
When it’s sprawled on its back and can’t roll over?
Does it panic as its legs squirm in the air?
Does it stick out its tongue and try to scream for help?
Does it curse its maker as it writhes on the asphalt,
With the sun scorching its belly?
How long does it wait before giving up and accepting fate?

No. This turtle does not think.
It lacks the capacity to reason.
Instincts fire as it battles to survive:
“Get off your shell. Roll over. On your feet.”
It rocks from side to side as it labors to turn over.
It strains, twists and kicks … but fails.

And no one will intervene—
There’s no Tom Sawyer kid with a hickory stick,
Skipping along and flipping the turtle over.
No semi truck rumbles down the road,
Stirring up a blast of air and setting the turtle upright.

It struggles alone, refusing to quit
As it attempts to conquer physics.
The turtle keeps working
Until the sun desiccates its flesh
And it releases a final breath—
A low croak that goes unheard along the deserted road.
The turtle is gone and no one witnessed the fight.

Woman walking along Genesee Street in Syracuse, New York. I snapped this photo a few years ago while standing on the front porch of my apartment building, while testing out my new Canon DSLR.

Woman walking along Genesee Street in Syracuse, New York. I snapped this photo a few years ago while standing on the front porch of my apartment building, while testing out my new DSLR.


An old woman hunched over,
looking down at the sidewalk,
adjusting her knit hat.
She limps forward,
shuffling along,
riddled with pain.
Her face reveals
the hurt she endures.
She receives no aid,
no intercession from human or heaven.
I pass her on the sidewalk,
and I say a quick prayer
that her suffering wanes.
It may not do any good,
but I send the thought aloft
and hope someone is listening.
The woman crosses the street
and fades out of sight.
I then hear an inner voice say,
“You were there,
you could have helped her.”


An Assortment of Prose and Poetry

I haven’t had a chance to blog in a while, as I have been busy with video projects in my full-time job and a long-term writing project in my off-hours. But I wanted to point out that a couple of my stories have been published online. The first is an essay that was originally published in a Chicken Soup for the Soul anthology; it’s now posted in the Life Tips section of Medium. You can read it here.

The second story is a fantasy flash fiction piece that was originally published in the magazine The Literary Hatchet. I recently received an email from the editor of Sub-saharan Magazine, an online magazine dedicated to publishing speculative fiction with an African flavor. It was a nice surprise, having someone from across the globe read something I had written and want to use it. The editor asked if he could re-publish the story and change the characters’ names to African names so the piece would be consistent with the magazine’s mission. I said sure and the story is now online. You can read it here.

Now switching gears, I would like to mention I’ve been reading some poems by Samuel Menashe (1925-2011).

Samuel Menashe

Samuel Menashe

He was a master of compact, precise poems that leave an impact; it seems Menashe never wasted a word or wrote more than was needed to produce the desired effect. I’ve been scanning through the website Poem Hunter to read some of his works. Here are a few I found memorable:

The Living End

Before long the end
Of the beginning
Begins to bend
To the beginning
Of the end you live
With some misgivings
About what you did.



For what I did
And did not do
And do without
In my old age
Rue, not rage
Against that night
We go into,
Sets me straight
On what to do
Before I die—
Sit in the shade,
Look at the sky


Here Now

Now and again
I am here now
And now is when
I’m here again


I need to check out a Menashe book from the library to really probe his work; online skimming doesn’t do justice to a poet of his magnitude. Reading Menashe also brought back warm memories of when I discovered two of my all-time favorite poems—both great examples of brevity and wit. They are Langston Hughes’ Suicide’s Note and Dorothy Parker’s Resumé, and I think they resemble Menashe’s style.

Suicide’s Note

The calm,
Cool face of the river
Asked me for a kiss.



Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.


That’s it for now. I hope to come back to the blog more frequently, but alas I make no promises. Happy reading and creating.


John Horder: A Sense Of Being

I discovered a gem of a short poetry book while roaming through Syracuse University’s Bird Library in search of a Nick Hornby novel (which I was unable to find).

The book, A Sense of Being by John Horder, was published in 1968 as part of the Phoenix Living Poet Series. The book runs 40 pages and I was able to read the entire work during my lunch hour.

A Sense of Being by John Horder.

A Sense of Being by John Horder.

I couldn’t find any biographical information about Horder online, but I consider his spare, philosophical poems very moving. They made me stop and reflect on my own life and ponder the points Horder raised in his text. And that to me seems like the purpose of good poetry—to remind the reader that time is passing and our existence is fleeting.

Here are a few of my favorite selections from the book.

A Sense of Being

There is nothing in me to assure me of my being.
That is why I so often think
About my heart beating.
Nothing to do with the fear of it stopping.
It’s just it’s so hard to imagine it – beating –
Just as it’s so hard to imagine that I derive from something
That actually works. Something that lives and breathes.
Something that has a sense of its own being.
Oh, it’s so very hard to imagine these things,
And I’ve always been told I was imaginative by nature.

Imagine: a tree has roots: it knows where it springs from.
We have parents. But the orphan and the murderer have one
thing in common.
Something vital in each of them has been wiped out.
It’s hard to explain exactly what. It’s something
A word or a glance from a parent may have set in motion
Or not. It’s not that this gives a child a sense of itself
Just like that. Nothing as simple as that.
But it can be the basis. Something to start from, something
that grows
And will eventually determine who and what he’s to be
Or not to be, as the case may be. Whether he is, or is not.


In A Time When I Was Nothing

In a time when I was nothing
I was strangely surprised to see
My name in The Times Literary Supplement.

In a time when I was nothing
There was an emptiness both inside and outside of me
And I felt no thing substantially.

In a time when I was nothing
It was most difficult to separate past from present
And the present moment held no sway.

In a time when I was nothing
There seemed no end to this state of non-being
The bottom had been kicked away from everything.

After a long time being nothing
There came at long last a dim realization
That one day I might eventually become something.

In the time when I was no one
There was simply nothing left to give anyone
And I found myself cut off from everyone.

In the time when I was no one
I knew no man, no woman
And that was when my sense of self began.


Everyman’s Vietnam

Our whole lives are designed as a means of escape
From the psychic forces that are deep down within.
We do anything rather than reckon with them.

Rather naively, we make call after call
Upon the telephone, in order to try exorcise them.
These forces which if submerged, first malinger, spit out
then wear our selves thin.

We cram our lives full to the brim with work.
We come home late, too tired even to speak to our wives.
We get drunk, which only makes our ulcers more peptic,

And still these forces won’t leave us alone.
Still they will never allow us a moment of rest.
Still we give them no real means of expression.

We don’t reckon with these forces.
They are demons.
They will run us to the grave

Unless we turn them to the good.
We underestimate their power.
Most of the time, we don’t even acknowledge that
they’re there.

More fool us.


Not Far Of

Eternity is not far off:
On a clear day
I feel it to be
Just out of sight.

The folly of men
Is there purposefully ignoring
What is so painfully obvious
On a clear day.

Horder, John. A Sense of Being. Phoenix Living Poet Series. London: Chatto & Windus/The Hogarth Press, 1968. Print.


Sandburg Serendipity

While roaming through the stacks on the fifth floor of E.S. Bird Library at Syracuse University—in search of J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey—I came across a green, hardcover volume of Chicago Poems by Carl Sandburg.

Chicago Poems by Carl Sandburg.

Chicago Poems by Carl Sandburg.

I pulled the book off the shelf and cracked it open, turning randomly to page 116. There I found the poem Under the Harvest Moon. Sandburg’s words seem fitting as classes at SU resume and summer gives way to fall.

My favorite part of the poem is the phrase, “flagrant crimson lurks in the dusk of the wild red leaves.”

I thought I would share the text of the poem with you, and I hope you find the words as meaningful as I did.

Under the Harvest Moon

UNDER the harvest moon,
When the soft silver
Drips shimmering
Over the garden nights,
Death, the gray mocker,
Comes and whispers to you
As a beautiful friend
Who remembers.

Under the summer roses
When the flagrant crimson
Lurks in the dusk
Of the wild red leaves,
Love, with little hands,
Comes and touches you
With a thousand memories,
And asks you
Beautiful, unanswerable questions.

Sandburg, Carl. Chicago Poems. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1916.