Selected poems

From The City


Images of a torn condition
In littered back streets linger on,
Fading beyond all recognition.
The pigeons murmur, and the dawn
Prepares another day’s edition.

Outside the high delivery doors,
The homeless shiver in their sheets
Of sodden stock quotes, baseball scores,
And wars that rage on distant streets.
They wake to hear, like cannon roars,
The gunning engines of those fleets.

With gothic mastheads on each side,
The presses roll their grinding flood
To city corners far and wide.
The morning’s misery and blood,
Tossed off in bundles neatly tied,
Hits the pavement with a thud.


The cherub faces in the mirror
Peer into the sea behind them;
A shady tender drifts between
To moor their vessels and remind them
What the damages have been
For bringing smoky visions nearer.

A drunken figure shouts “I’ll buy!”
To one who passed out long ago.
Some black-eyed joker makes a pass,
Jostles against the glowing row
Of bottled spirits in the glass,
And sees the reeling stars go by.

Pinball Paradise

Forget your hopes: the sound of bells
Has drawn you to a neon door
Where no one buys and no one sells.

One coin will take you to the shore
Where cares dissolve in colored lights.
But lest your shade be asked for more,

Take care now that your paddle fights
To keep your soul mercurial
From whirling voids and other frights.

Roll all your life into a ball;
You have eternity to kill,
And like the tally on some dial

That never-ending digits fill,
The vision of those mobile spheres,
Suspended by the player’s skill,
Consumes your moments, days and years.

From The Road


Rusting in the ragweed, the futile, fertile hubs
flung like flowerpots around it,
a car carcass rides with its twin castaways,
entranced in the exploded springs.
They watch, hushed, the long uncanny caravan,
and hear its resonant drone recede,
as bright, more than mechanical, it mounts
along the turning, climbing, visionary groove,
while daisy-starred, the dark,
around unrescuable eyes, scours the twisted frame.


Dry decaying hoses
Lie amid wild roses
Around the rusting dump.
An enigmatic dial
Registers with a smile
Those prices on the pump.

Like a prehistorical
Snake-infested oracle
The island stands today.
The concrete, tainted with oil
And dead attendants’ toil,
Keeps the weeds at bay.

We cannot hear the bell
Ring up the cost and tell
How many miles we’ve driven.
Here out in the cold
There’s nothing to be sold,
And no directions given.


Straighter than the Roman Road,
With its imperious modern air
Runs the divided throughfare.
The grassy median, newly mowed,
Is bare of any legionnaire.

The haulers push on with their load,
And in the distance disappear.
A placid power seems to steer
Each citizen’s mobile abode,
Where none hears what the others hear.

But shattering their pleasant code,
Above the drone they hear a cheer;
Blown beards beside the windows leer:
Horned helmets, chains, lewd patches sewed
To greasy leather, they are here.

A car swerves as the leaders goad
Their roaring mounts to cross too near,
And screaming off in higher gear,
They leave a trail of traffic slowed,
Scared faces, windshields splashed with beer.


Rain streaks a burro made of plaster,
And falls from the sombrero of his master.
The red roof-tile and cactus mimic
A sleepy town south of the border.
What in its day was tawdry gimmick
Gleams like the relics of a fading order.

For his dry fantasy the owner
Inherited the loser and the loner:
Road salesmen who, like ancient traders,
Sailed into any port they saw,
Victims of leaky radiators,
And many on the wrong side of the law.

But now, abandoned to the rains,
A luster to his enterprise remains,
More than the coin it paid him in.
The dust of his imagination
Has run to mud; its fruits begin
To brighten towards that sunny destination.


Haze on the hillside, early and late,
Where iron lobes reciprocate,
And industry, for all it’s worth,
Battens on this limb of earth.

By slender probe and bobbing head
The ancient veins are pricked and bled,
So that the tribe can multiply
Its clockwork dance against the sky.

Haze on the hillside, over the fields
Where morning knows what evening yields:
A smarting eye, a blood-red sun;
The hours drained empty, one by one.

Stations of the Night

The distant neon slowly scrolls
The colors of another city,
And to the singer’s doo-wah-diddy,
The traffic, lit like river boats,
Along the darkened asphalt rolls.
No break now from those tinpan notes
Until the paying of the tolls.

The city’s gone, and in a while
A raindrop on the windshield shivers.
Now falling stocks and rising rivers
Invade the beat of untuned waves.
The spirit’s numb; for many a mile,
No longer knowing what it craves,
No hand comes forth to touch the dial.

“Reach out…one-forty…scattered showers…”
The speaker stutters in confusion.
“And happiness is just an illusion…”
No longer knowing word from song,
The voices blur into the hours,
While into the weary circuits throng
The signals of more distant towers.

The Babel of their crackling choirs
Topples to a voice that rails at sin,
And as its gospel, homing in,
Extolls His Everlasting Love,
A devilish breathless accent fires
Its disembodied chant above
The somnolence of humming tires.

But soon the raucous preacher fades
Into the ethereal congregation,
Where none now holds the clearer station,
But all by all are electrified.
Inscrutable, the spirit trades
Its high-beam with the souls inside
The double-starred and drifting shades.


Through greasy miles of cinder blocks
That flank the road and, box by box,
Unpack its weird anatomy,
Sail shades of mufflers, brakes and shocks.

A billboard piston on the fly
With neon spark plug flashes by.
Chasing its lost rim, maybe,
A giant tire rolls through the sky.

Like illustrated magic runes,
Bizarrely captioned bold cartoons
Dissect the fruits of industry
Under the streetlights’ amber moons.

Whereby the ever-literal heart
Construes a world so blown apart,
Not even the heaviest battery
Can make the silent engine start.

And multiply them ten times ten,
Not all the horsepower or men
In fired-up forge or factory
Can make the bruised core sound again.

From Old World Sonnets


What music in the courtly souls of men
Makes goddesses and stone a builder’s bliss?
Athena soars from her Acropolis;
Our Lady plies her ark along the Seine.
We viewed her from a nearer window then:
The bateaux-mouches rode under with a hiss,
And nightly lit the curtains. Is it this
That lures me to her precinct once again?
We were imperfect builders in those years;
The weight of stone was more than I could carry;
Although no common lady in my eyes,
Your self-born mind was never meant to marry.
But she bears on our spirits in a guise
That builds a reminiscence without tears.


Out of the hordes that look for Rome in Rome,
And little trace of Rome in Rome can see,
I climb to where, with cold stone under me,
My throbbing eyes can bring some vision home.
I lie, and ruins, marble, concrete, chrome,
Jumble the eras of my reverie,
As great night builds a growing canopy
That overshadows every lesser dome.
Too solid, like its builders, was this city.
On all that fights with time, time has no pity.
But in its ancient bed, dark and diurnal,
The Tiber rolls, while high above the leaves
A Grecian race of swallows swirls and weaves,
In fleeting eddies, all that is eternal.


Und der Haifisch, der hat Zähne, To C. S.
Und die trägt er im Gesicht…
Threepenny Opera

As Europe’s demon slipped into the grave,
The tempest in these regions reached its height.
Now, in the angles of the floodlit night,
The future lingers like a frozen wave.
Our side is neon, pink-haired youth who crave
More welfare, swearing they will never fight.
Some cherish it, this Babylon the Bright,
While others can see nothing left to save.
The other side is silence. What’s the power
We feel in it, my friend? Is it the loss
A weary singer might feel in the dawn
When “Mack the Knife” has captured half the town?
We linger at the window, and across
The shark’s teeth shines the giant broadcast tower.


My speech again, but curiously new.
Another bright armada has been sunk;
The streets are all West Indian and punk.
The stage is lit, and standing in the queue,
I pay to hear their famous actress do
Our accent wrong. Back in my rented bunk,
The Bristol man below me blithers, drunk,
About the “niggers” and the dirty loo.
Still, little can annoy me here; I walk
Through St. James Park, and stopping bowlered men,
Imbibe directions from their tuneful talk;
I trace the Elgin centaurs’ marble veins,
And over water more sealike than Seine,
The sparking sinews of the lighted trains.


Gray cables glide like penciled curves across
A wash of oil; from scraps a bargeman flings,
The brackish surface breaks in fleeting rings,
Where isolated seagulls wheel and toss.
Our old world’s gone, and with each new one’s loss,
A cold and heartless wind, returning, brings
The unendurability of things
Into this river’s rank and rhymeless dross.
Under the mass of what one can’t retrieve,
The old ecstatic numbers sound naive,
As if, to fructify a waste of time,
One’s wishes could compel the world to rhyme,
Or were less earthly than the things that die
Beneath this alien, untransfigured sky.

The bridge is lit; our urban shadows warm
Their vagrant limbs around a blazing drum,
Too far to hear the automotive hum
That harps upon the steely rainbow form.
Across the Palisades, in lurid swarm,
Forged in the fire of some mysterium,
Belying all the waste from which they come,
The clouds evolve their slow and silent storm.
In spite of every overarching sense,
The world remains impenetrably dense.
Yet in its eye the troubled spirit lives,
And straining to the strands of sense it gives,
Longs to glide homeward to a perfect fall,
Where nothing but the sound remains at all.

Some of these poems appeared previously in Grand Street, Partisan Review, and Ars Interpres.

© 1982-2002 Alan Shaw