Rexroth Poems (1960s)


Two Jazz Poems
This Night Only
The Wheel Revolves
Travelers in Erewhon
Oaxaca 1925
From The Heart’s Garden, The Garden’s Heart





State and 32nd, Cold Morning Blues

A girl in a torn chemise
Weeps by a dirty window.
Jaws are punched in the street.

A cat is sick in the gutter.
Dogs bark up nightbound alleys.
There’s nothing like the sorrow

Of the jukeboxes at dawn.
Dice girls going home.
Whores eating chop suey.

Pimps eat chile mac.
Drowsy flatfeet, ham and eggs.
Dawn of labor, dawn of life.

The awakening noises
Of the old sacrifices.
The snow blows down the bare street

Ahead of the first streetcar.
The lovers light cigarettes,
And part with burning eyes,

And go off in the daylight.

Married Blues

I didn’t want it, you wanted it.
Now you’ve got it you don’t like it.
You can’t get out of it now.

Pork and beans, diapers to wash,
Too poor for the movies, too tired to love.
There’s nothing we can do.

Hot stenographers on the subway.
The grocery boy’s got a big one.
We can’t do anything about it.

You’re only young once.
You’ve got to go when your time comes.
That’s how it is. Nobody can change it.

Guys in big cars whistle.
Freight trains moan in the night.
We can’t get away with it.

That’s the way life is.
Everybody’s in the same fix.
It will never be any different.





To Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie #1

Moonlight    now    on Malibu
The winter night    the few stars
Far away    millions    of miles
The sea    going on    and on
Forever    around    the earth
Far    and far    as your lips    are near
Filled    with the same light    as your eyes
Darling    darling    darling
The future    is long gone by
And the past    will never happen
We have    only this
Our one forever
So small    so infinite
So brief    so vast
Immortal    as our hands that touch
Deathless    as the firelit wine we drink
Almighty    as this single kiss
That has no beginning
That will never





You were a girl of satin and gauze
Now you are my mountain and waterfall companion.
Long ago I read those lines of Po Chu I
Written in his middle age.
Young as I was they touched me.
I never thought in my own middle age
I would have a beautiful young dancer
To wander with me by falling crystal waters,
Among mountains of snow and granite,
Least of all that unlike Po’s girl
She would be my very daughter.

The earth turns towards the sun.
Summer comes to the mountains.
Blue grouse drum in the red fir woods
All the bright long days.
You put blue jay and flicker feathers
In your hair.
Two and two violet green swallows
Play over the lake.
The blue birds have come back
To nest on the little island.
The swallows sip water on the wing
And play at love and dodge and swoop
Just like the swallows that swirl
Under and over the Ponte Vecchio.
Light rain crosses the lake
Hissing faintly. After the rain
There are giant puffballs with tortoise shell backs
At the edge of the meadow.
Snows of a thousand winters
Melt in the sun of one summer.
Wild cyclamen bloom by the stream.
Trout veer in the transparent current.
In the evening marmots bark in the rocks.
The Scorpion curls over the glimmering ice field.
A white crowned night sparrow sings as the moon sets.
Thunder growls far off.
Our campfire is a single light
Amongst a hundred peaks and waterfalls.
The manifold voices of falling water
Talk all night.
Wrapped in your down bag
Starlight on your cheeks and eyelids
Your breath comes and goes
In a tiny cloud in the frosty night.
Ten thousand birds sing in the sunrise.
Ten thousand years revolve without change.
All this will never be again.





May Day

Once more it is early summer,
Like an opal, in Venice.
I listen to the monks sing
Vespers in San Giorgio Maggiore.
Ten years have gone by. I am
No longer alone. My little
Daughter and I sit hand in hand,
As the falling sunlight rises
Up Palladio’s noble aisles
And shimmers in the incense.
The incense billows over
The altar. The Magnificat
Of May Day surges through the incense.
Six years ago, another May Day,
Mary played in a meadow stream,
And caught emerald green baby frogs.
Overhead then, dive bombers wrote
Monograms of death in the sky.
They are still there. Now they have
A new trick. At “He has put down
The mighty from their seat,” one
Of them breaks the sound barrier
With a shuddering belch of hate,
One omnipresent sound in
The sky of Tiepolo.
The same shave jowled apes sit at
The same round mahogany tables,
Just across those pretty mountains.
They are pushing all this pretty
Planet, Venice, and Palladio,
And you and me, and the golden
Sun, nearer and nearer to
Total death. Nothing can stop them.
Soon it will be over. But
This music, and the incense,
And the solemn columned thought,
And the poem of a virgin,
And you and me, and Venice
In the May Day evening on the
Fiery waters, we have our own
Eternity, so fleeting that they
Can never touch it, or even
Know that it has passed them by.

Rose Colored Glasses

Ten years, and it’s still on the
Radio. La Vie en rose
Spills out of a dozen windows
Onto the canal. A woman
And her son in a vegetable
Barge sing it. A man polishing
The prow of his gondola
Sings it while his dog wags its tail.
Children playing hopscotch sing it.
Grimy half washed clothes hang overhead.
Garbage floats in the narrow canal.
More radios join in. Across
The canal, beyond the iron windows
Of the Women’s Prison, a hundred
Pure voices of pickpockets
And prostitutes start to sing it.
It is just like being in church.
The next number is Ciao, ciao, bambina.

Sottoportico San Zaccaria

It rains on the roofs
As it rains in my poems
Under the thunder
We fit together like parts
Of a magic puzzle
Twelve winds beat the gulls from the sky
And tear the curtains
And lightning glisters
On your sweating breasts
Your face topples into dark
And the wind sounds like an army
Breaking through dry reeds
We spread our aching bodies in the window
And I can smell the odor of hay
In the female smell of Venice





You open your
Dress on the dusty
Bed where no one
Has slept for years
An owl moans on the roof
You say
My dear my
In the smoky light of the old
Oil lamp your shoulders
Belly breasts buttocks
Are all like peach blossoms
Huge stars far away far apart
Outside the cracked window pane
Immense immortal animals
Each one only an eye
You open your body
No end to the night
No end to the forest
House abandoned for a lifetime
In the forest in the night
No one will ever come
To the house
In the black world
In the country of eyes





You were a beautiful child
With troubled face, green eyelids
And black lace stockings
We met in a filthy bar
You said
“My name is Nada
I don’t want anything from you
I will not take from you
I will give you nothing”
I took you home down alleys
Splattered with moonlight and garbage and cats
To your desolate disheveled room
Your feet were dirty
The lacquer was chipped on your fingernails
We spent a week hand in hand
Wandering entranced together
Through a sweltering summer
Of guitars and gunfire and tropical leaves
And black shadows in the moonlight
A lifetime ago





Water is always the same —
Obedient to the laws
That move the sun and the other
Stars. In Japan as in
California it falls
Through the steep mountain valleys
Towards the sea. Waterfalls drop
Long musical ribbons from
The high rocks where temples perch.
Ayu in the current poise
And shift between the stones
At the edge of the bubbles.
White dwarf iris heavy with
Perfume hang over the brink.
Cedars and cypresses climb
The hillsides. Something else climbs.
Something moves reciprocally
To the tumbling water.
It ascends the rapids,
The torrents, the waterfalls,
To the last high springs.
It disperses and climbs the rain.
You cannot see it or feel it.
But if you sit by the pool
Below the waterfall, full
Of calling voices all chanting
The turmoil of peace,
It communicates itself.
It speaks in the molecules
Of your blood, in the pauses
Between your breathing. Water
Flows around and over all
Obstacles, always seeking
The lowest place. Equal and
Opposite, action and reaction,
An invisible light swarms
Upward without effort. But
Nothing can stop it. No one
Can see it. Over and around
Whatever stands in the way,
Blazing infinitesimals —
Up and out — a radiation
Into the empty darkness
Between the stars.




Rexroth read Married Blues to Duke Ellington’s “Things Ain’t What They Used To Be” on Poetry and Jazz at the Blackhawk (Fantasy, 1960). You can hear it online here.

You can hear Rexroth reading This Night Only to the original Erik Satie accompaniment here (the poem starts a little after 12 minutes into the reading).

Rexroth gives some background for The Wheel Revolves here.

Venice. I have taken the liberty of putting these three poems together, though the last one was published separately from the first two. All three probably date from or refer back to Rexroth’s 1959 visit to Venice. La vie en rose (“Life through rose-colored glasses”) is Edith Piaf’s 1946 popular song.

The Heart’s Garden, The Garden’s Heart was written in Japan.

Copyright 1963, 1966, 1967 Kenneth Rexroth. Copyright 2003 Copper Canyon Press. Reproduced by permission of Copper Canyon Press and New Directions Publishing Corp.

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