If I Die Before You

If I Die Before You If I die before you do not let the men with the paper hearts make you cry, do not believe their fearful smiles or their well-intentioned lies, do not let them wear for me the empty mourning of pressed blacks, do not let them furnish my soul with...

The Prodigal

The Prodigal First, though not foremost, they didn't understand my passion for the antique: the blue china cup with hairline cracks like veins, or the bust of an unknown woman, scarred by neglect and seawater, were to them only broken or useless. They thought the...

Little Lovers

  Little Lovers Two sparrows built their nest in my thoughts last spring. Little lovers, I asked, have you no place to rest, has the forest become so desolate and bare that you cannot find a stout oak for your nest? “The winter was long,” they chirped, as they...

The First Day of Spring

    The First Day of Spring To some the first day of spring was cruel in its remembrance of lost love; their sorrowful souls rose up like morning mist to see their rejected hearts from above. At the foot of the path lilac surprised them, and threatened to...

August Moon

August Moon   You sat with your legs apart, fanning yourself; on your face beads of sweat glistened in the light. You wanted to wait until dark to make love, but the sultry day had turned into a sultry night. You were hoping for a breeze and complained that the...


Travelogue 1   The idea of home always perplexed me. Is it necessarily the place we were born? Or can it be the streets of a city we loved, where the soles of our shoes were most worn? I should have missed Paris with its crowded museums, late-night cafes, its...

Gare de l’Est

Gare de l’Est I stood before the train station today and watched as a multitude of people fled from themselves to the city’s splendor and decay; I had not seen so many overcome with dread. Some were lost inside themselves, hopeless and blind they fixed their eyes on...

Time: Act One, Scene One

Time: Act One, Scene One   Along a narrow strip of wet road the gods are trying to slow creation down, but eternity, like a snake, keeps snapping its head wildly around. The sky is consumed in whirlpools, and creation chokes back dark clouds. Existence is compact...


The Preface from What Have I Done, If I Haven’t Loved

The readiness is all. ~ Shakespeare

Essentially I am a metaphysical poet, which has always kept me out of step with modern poetry trends. That is to say, I am interested in expressing the experience of dissolving identity, while the primary focus of the contemporary poet—it seems to me—is in defining his or her identity. The few readers that the present-day poet finds, generally identify with the poet’s politics, gender choices, race, or opinions and beliefs.

In my youth I wrote quite a few poems that, to my knowledge, are now lost. I once wrote a sonnet a day for 54 days because I read somewhere that Ezra Pound had recommended it as an exercise, but in the end I felt that the sonnet’s tight form pushed me toward abstraction. William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience were important to me in those early years because I began to see that I could write lyrics that had a richer story and a wider arc by using ballad meter with its abab or abcb rhyme scheme. Blake led me to read the other romantics, particularly Wordsworth and Coleridge, who were both masters of the English ballad.

Lorca was also a revelation in those early years. So many of the great English-speaking poets lived either in England or New England, where the weather is drab and cold. Lorca showed me how to be a poet of the sun and the heat and consequently of the California landscape, which in many ways resembles the Spanish landscape. The Girl in the Green Dress and many of the Divan poems are good examples of how the California climate became a backdrop for some of my poems. I’ve always liked the idea of a poem having a season attached to it.

Most of the poems in this book were written to be read to friends. I don’t want to disparage William Carlos Williams and E. E. Cummings who took some pains to make their poems look unusual on the page; it just wasn’t something that inspired me. For me, a poem on the page should give an indication about how it should be read aloud. For a time, maybe three months, I experimented with odd forms, but, as it happened, all but two of those poems, Apple Picking and Farewell, were lost. Both those poems have a clear debt to Williams.

In my middle years I was a great traveler, so many of my poems are set in Paris or London or Saint Petersburg or Venice or Athens. Wanderlust is a theme that makes an appearance in many of my poems, but it found its most palpable expression in The Prodigal, Jet Lag, and Travelogue 1.

The Divan poems were an experiment in speaking for a group; about half the poems are ‘we’ poems and half are ‘I’ poems. At the time I thought it was important to chronicle the many different kinds of love, so those poems got mixed up with the poems that were exploring group consciousness. The name comes from the meaning of ‘divan,’ which can mean both a group of poems as well as a society or council of people.

The poems in Letters to Humanity are the most philosophic in nature and the most recent. I finished a number of them just before the publication of this book and plan to write more in the future. In these poems questions are asked and resolved, not with ideas, but with images. They are more complex than the other poems and less linear. They meander and sometimes add different ideas to the mix, as if a second voice had entered.

I have always envisioned that poetry, like philosophy and other art forms, is a discussion through the ages. Homer can tell us a story, and Euripides can tell us the same story with a different theme and point of view. Wallace Stevens wrote a poem about a jar on a hill in Tennessee that is thought to be his response to Keats’ Ode on a Grecian Urn, written a century earlier. My influences are all over the map. The Goddess is a modern response to La Belle Dame sans Merci a ballad by John Keats, and Travelogue 1 can be read as a tribute to Elizabeth Bishop, who wrote many travel poems. We don’t write new poems to try to outshine or belittle the old ones, but to add a new voice to the mix.

Despite being a professional bookseller, I still feel that the best way to enjoy poetry is to hear poems read aloud. With that in mind I have released and will continue to release audio versions of these poems read by me and some of my friends. I also encourage others, if they find a poem here that inspires them, to make a recording and share it, or just to read it to a friend.

Poetry in any society is always in danger of being lost or relegated to social commentary or to an expression of anger or indignation. Poetry is hard and worthwhile because it means using language to transform—not just chronicle—experience. One of Rilke’s friends said of him that ‘he remained a poet even when he was washing his hands.’ What this means to me is that he had learned to transform the mundane events of his life into art, or, when that wasn’t possible, into the expectation of art. This kind of readiness make us not only betters poets, but also more spontaneous, and, hopefully, more humane and generous men and women.


California  2024