Now at the moth hour

Bright moon-pearl in the shimmering waters
This river has been a constant thread through-
out my life   How many times have I strolled
back and forth across its bridges? With and
without purpose
                         and in or out of love
Days when I have counted the cormorants
lolling on the iron barges moored mid-stream
listened to the raucous cry of gulls and
quietly aged   Anglers are casting their flies
from the end of the pier   Never once have
I seen a single fish pulled from the depths
Now at the moth hour as the strands of day-
light unravel   an ev’ning star appears
Dust gently settles
                         on all ends of things

John Lyons


For we are old

The small talk has dried up   for we are old
Many have gone and those who remain have
all but forgotten their youth when the world
was full of promise   It’s true that some still
cling to the past
                        but their narratives are
worn threadbare in the telling   Among them
the most lucid are those who remember
their first love    and that sweet sensation of
lips touching lips as eyes met and one hand
grasped another    how together they strolled
down to the river and watched in silence
the water’s timeless flow  Wisdom comes at
a price and it seems that almost always
what is learned comes too late
                                          and we are old

John Lyons

The politics of poverty

The politics of poverty

Not all saints are friends
           not all friends are saints
and words are easier
           than any actions
but there is a sense
           of what it is to be human
and to love and care
           for another and for others
and this prohibits
           all violations of the body
in every sense
           of the word

Life pared back
           to its essentials
stripped of excess
           and lived from
the very core of being
           Vanity is a citadel
that must be torn down
           duty brought to task
the politics of poverty
           offends us all
who would care to be
            ruler of this realm
of destitution :
           my kingdom for a horse
diamonds and sapphires
           in the mud

John Lyons

Landscape with man

I met Alejandro Oliveros in March 1977 in Caracas, Venezuela. A poet of great kindness, Alejandro was an ardent adherent to the poetics of Ezra Pound, and despite the tropical climate, his mode of dress was a kind of homage to Pound. The poem below, from Espacios (1974) owes much to Pound’s imagism.

Landscape with man

In the grounds of the park
A gardener collects leaves and trash
With his broom. Tired. Weathered
Face his hands hardened.

To one side between the leaning trees
The river runs. Narrow. Bone dry.

The man advances a few steps
Observes the clouds
Against the pink summer sky.

Uneven shapes hint at
The neighbouring mountains. Crops
and fields turn yellow.

Night descends. The gardener gathers
His tools and walks off. The wind blows.

Alejandro Oliveros
(trans. John Lyons)


Notes from an abandoned poem

Notes from an abandoned poem

In poetry
              as in all other arts
the medium
              really is the message
Four notes on the piano
              a sonic cultural landscape
instantly recognisable
              can ferry the mind
back and forth
              as in its simplicity
it evokes and moves

              and satisfies

Harmony and rhythm
              are our touchstones
the palpability of the keys
              because art is hands-on
percussive shapes
              and sounds and colours
and textures drawn
              from inside ourselves
from that insatiable appetite
              for beauty and truth
for love and for life

The fields around Arles
              alive with light
the cloisters of St Trophime
              the arches of St Hilaire

the ruins at Ventadorn
              where stone hangs
upon stone

              Mt Segur where the wind
and the rain vie for space
              and Pound’s final
penitent perception
               ‘to be men not destroyers’

John Lyons

To Ithaca and beyond

To Ithaca and beyond

Beware of metaphor
              beware of symbol
beware of slack simile
              that will fill your pages
to no good purpose

No one thing is like another
              and the truth is irreducible
to fragments
              just as love and beauty
are whole
              in and of themselves

Clarity is not a virtue
              it is the cornerstone
a sine qua non :
              the lark that soars
in the summer air
              the nightingale
the thrush that drinks
              from the garden pool—
these are not ciphers
              and they stand for nothing
but themselves
              their lives are their
intrinsic celebration

The beauty of truth
              and the truth of beauty
were what drove Keats
              and Shelley to poetry
the musical phrase
              that sustains the fancy
as they called it

Beware of death
              and those who espouse
death and those who
              condone death and those
who promote death

Pound’s late lament
              that he betrayed Dante
that he tried to make
              a paradiso terrestre
from the very muck
              of civilization
and that he failed
              to disown death

Admission at last
              that the cycle must be reset
that the ship must again
              be hauled down to the shore
to set forth once more
              upon the ungodly sea
so that Helen may be returned
              to her rightful home
and the golden fleece
              to its rightful place

John Lyons

Lorine Niedecker

Lorine Niedecker

Lorine Niedecker was born in 1903 in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, and lived in this wilderness area for most of her life. Her isolation from other writers and the beauty of her natural surroundings had a profound impact on her work. Niedecker chose to write in seclusion, and many of her closest relatives and neighbors were unaware that she was a poet. She had a brief relationship with the poet Louis Zukofsky in New York, but apart from that she continued to live in relative obscurity. In later years she was befriended by the British poet, Basil Bunting, the author of Briggflats, and one-time disciple of Ezra Pound; but for much of her life she lived in poverty, earning her living as a cleaning lady in a Fort Atkinson hospital. Since her death on 31 December 1970, her reputation as one of the most significant American poets of the 20th century has grown enormously. At the core of her writing are terse observations of her rural environment: the birds, trees, water and marshland that surrounded her.

For a selection of Lorine Niedecker’s poems see


John Lyons

Le Minier, L’Aveyron

Le MinierHere is a poem written many years ago when I was travelling in Central America researching my doctoral thesis. I remember showing it to Ernesto Cardenal while I was staying in his commune in Solentiname, on one of the islands in the south of Nicaragua’s Great Lake. He told me then that it reminded him of Ezra Pound’s poem “Provincia deserta” and that indeed – in addition to my own experience – was the inspiration.

Le Minier is a very small village close to Le Viala du Tarn and not too far from the town of Roquefort, famous for its sheep’s cheese. Once a thriving mining community, nowadays the principal activity in the region is rearing sheep. In the time when I used to visit the village, many of the houses were in disrepair or in the process of being renovated as second homes for families who lived in Montpellier or other cities in the Languedoc.

Ezra Pound’s poem begins:

AT Rochecoart,
Where the hills part
                    in three ways,
And three valleys, full of winding roads,
Fork out to south and north,
There is a place of trees … gray with lichen.
I have walked there
            thinking of old days.

This morning I awoke thinking of old days, and of the days that lie ahead. I still remember the sound of the sheep bells at dusk when the shepherd would drive the flock down the hill, through a narrow street, past the house where I was staying. The form of my poem was intended in part to suggest that descent.

Le Minier, L’Aveyron

The river flows beneath the old bridge,
swollen by recent storm rains, polishing
the stepping stones in the bed, racing down the weir.
In the square a memorial stone
            Le Minier
at war with Germany. On the slopes
that run up from the square are their deserted houses,
some still with roof, but mainly caved in,
By the memorial the little chapel built by the names
on the stone,
                 perhaps helped by their fathers.
Room for sixty or more on the worn benches
though now at eight o’clock, before the sun
has broken the hill top, only
         a handful of women dressed in black hear a mass
   said by the frail priest who cannot shave so early in
the morning.
            Few returned to the village
and their young soon left for the cities
               where they could bury themselves in life.
   Now a few come back in retirement,
back to the village
                     so suited for dying.
At night the sheep come down from the hills
for shelter, the shepherd’s stick
   keeping the pace steady, the anxious dog
                                   guarding the rear:
through the narrow paths
                                 for shelter.
The copper mine is finished,
   no work. Perhaps a few women making gloves
at home, making lace for tourists.
   Summer visitors arrive like a transfusion,
     but the blood seeps out through the cracked
walls, gushes from broken window frames.
     You may see a young couple kissing passionately
by the river, pledging
                              a life
                                     of love
together. How can you tell if the next year
      will not see them miles                                      
lives apart.