the rivers of it, abridged

New York City skyline at night


Fall 2009



Samuel Menashe and Philip Miller

It is a privilege and a pleasure for me, as guest editor of this issue, and of Twelve, to feature the work (in alphabetical order!) of Samuel Menashe and Philip Miller, two of my favorite poets. They have almost nothing in common. Each poet's style is so different from the other's that I'd consider it impossible to like the work of both if I didn't love and admire them both above almost all others. I guess they are, each in his entirely different way, visionaries—Menashe in the more traditional sense of writing poetry that is reflective of or inspired by the Bible and by Blake; Miller in his incisive, illuminating comprehension of everyday occurrences and people. I hope you like the poems of both of these fine writers; it is, as my experience happily confirms, possible to do so.
—M. M.

Roads Run Forever: The Poetry of Samuel Menashe

Samuel Menashe's poetry is honed out of a vast reservoir of learning, life experience and what the poet calls "warrior wisdom," distilled not only in the Second World War but in a lifetime of leading the artist's life with a sense of vocation that has tended to baffle a society whose priorities are elsewhere. The recent recipient of the Neglected Masters Award from the Poetry Foundation, Menashe is now published in the U.S. by Library of America and in the U.K. by Bloodaxe. Still active in his eighties, Menashe continues to study and delight in the world, acting out the poet's faith, "looking at the sky."
—Nicholas Birns


Tynemouth Abbey

Tynemouth Abbey
Photo by Alfred Corn

Roads run forever
Under feet forever
Falling away
Yet it may happen that you
Come to the same place again
Stay! You could not do
Anything more certain —
Here you can wait forever
And rejoice at your arrival

On the Level

Does this desk, level
With the window sill,
Uphold my level best,
Or is the bed better
For dreams that distill
Words to the letter

Railroad Flat

Looking at the sky
From my window seat
I am in a train
Sidetracked here —
Here a lifetime —
How could I know
What day was mine
To seize, let go
Where to draw the line
Between yes and no

At a Standstill

That statue, that cast
Of my solitude
Has found its niche
In this kitchen
Where I do not eat
Where the bathtub stands
Upon cat feet —
I did not advance
I cannot retreat

Curriculum Vitae


Scribe out of work
At a loss for words
Not his to begin with,
The man life passed by
Stands at the window
Biding his time


Time and again
And now once more
I climb these stairs
Unlock this door —
No name where I live
Alone in my lair
With one bone to pick
And no time to spare

Give Yourself Up

All my friends are homeless
They do not even have tents
Were I to seek a safe place
I would run nights lost
Ice pelting my face
Sent the wrong way
Whenever I ask —
Afraid to run back,
Each escape the last

Lie down below trees
Be your own guest
Give yourself up…
Under this attentive pine
Take your time at noon
The planes will drone by soon


I am entrenched
Against the snow,
Visor lowered
To blunt its blow

I am where I go

Warrior Wisdom

Do not scrutinize
A secret wound —
Avert your eyes —
Nothing's to be done
Where darkness lies
No light can come

Adam Means Earth*

I am the man
Whose name is mud
But what's in a name
To shame one who knows
Mud does not stain
Clay he's made of
Dust Adam became —
The dust he was —
Was he his name

*From Adamah, "earth" in Hebrew.

Promised Land

At the edge
Of a world
Beyond my eyes
I know Exile
Is always
Green with hope —
The river
We cannot cross
Flows forever


Open your mouth
To feed that flesh
Your teeth have bled
Tongue us out
Bone by bone
Do not allow
Man to be fed
By bread alone

"And He afflicted thee and suffered thee to hunger and fed thee with manna, which thou knewest not neither did thy fathers know, that He might make thee know that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of the Lord does man live."
                                                           —Deuteronomy VIII:3

The Shrine Whose Shape I Am

The shrine whose shape I am
Has a fringe of fire
Flames skirt my skin,

There is no Jerusalem but this
Breathed in flesh by shameless love
Built high upon the tides of blood
I believe the prophets and Blake
And like David I bless myself
With all my might

I know many hills were holy once
But now in the level lands to live
Zion ground down must become marrow
Thus in my bones I am the King's son
And through death's domain I go
Making my own procession


I would give
My liver, kidneys
Heart itself
For you to live
In perfect health
With me, your clone
Whose grafted cells
Grow marrow, bone

If all else fails
Do not reject
My skin or nails
Whatever's left
Of me for you
By a hair's breadth
Will see us through

Sunset, Central Park

A wall of windows
Ignited by the sun
Burns in one column
Of fire on the lake
Night follows day
As embers break

Sheep Meadow

French spoken
across the snow
on Sheep Meadow
evokes a very rich hour
of the Duke of Berry…
three men traversing
a field of snow —
one of them alone —
hedged by trees
on the south side
where the towers
of the city rise…
one of those hours
in early afternoon
when nothing happens
but time makes room


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

Salt and Pepper

Here and there
White hairs appear
On my chest —
Age seasons me
Gives me zest —
I am a sage
In the making
Sprinkled, shaking

A Poet of Our Commonality: The Poetry of Philip Miller

The poems of Philip Miller, concerned as they often are with endings and with death, can be discomforting except that they are — if you wait just an instant, until the next word takes you in a different direction — often funny. Miller is Beckett-like in that way, although the characters in his poems are not abstract everymen but "normal" people, such as you and I, that you will instantly recognize. How Miller gets so close to each of us from his uniquely refractive perspective is what makes his poems so enchanting. The familiarity he shows towards his poems' characters breeds not contempt but a new perception of our deepest everyday concerns. There's something in his poems for every one of us because they deal incisively with — or they reveal — what we all have in common.
—M. M.

In Our Reverie

The dog is staring into space.
He is not running, barking, sleeping.
Once in awhile he snaps at a gnat or fly,
but soon returns to what looks like reverie.
Even when I call him and his ears prick up,
his head cocks, he's quickly back
to his brown study. I think in my pride
he can't be thinking existential thoughts about
the dumb design of things that makes the appetite
remain when taste begins to wane or the hum
of a gnat as loud as a gunshot to a dog's fine ears,
like his nose, the wet black one that now senses —
breaking his attention —
that the cat prowls in the garden.
My dog turns his wide eyes to an enemy
with whom he's learned to co-exist
(though still feels like chasing)
for reasons he may think are all
my fault. Now he watches me
watch him, his pale master,
whom he sometimes imitates, who imitates him
when I bark out his name
or on long afternoons like this one
when he catches me staring into space
like a dog, as if both of us in our reverie
see everything and nothing at the same time.


I'm minding Mother now,
for the first time,
making breakfasts,
dispensing medicine.

It's her mind, you see,
confusing time
and space, forgetting
what she just said

a second after,
and it's hard to make her mind
as it was to make me mind.
The child keeps coming back

weeping, curling up her nose,
her mind set on a tantrum,
her eyes glancing at me
to catch my reaction

— though sometimes her mind
returns almost intact,
as if it remembers part
of what's no longer there.

Then she looks daggers
at the window as if bits
of her mind were out there,
and she might pull them back

inside her glare.
"It isn't fair" is what
she'd say if she could
say what's on her mind,

if she could search and find —
in her right mind —
the words she wants,
now playing hide and seek.

This minding's tough,
being mother to Mother,
watching the unwinding
of her memory like a tape

that fades in places,
then snaps, her mind's
thread lost, stopping dead
her attempt to connect

one moment to the next,
face to name, her mind
back to its depths.
Then she's half-blind,

shrieking with anger,
and then I mind this
playing parent to parent,
trying to comfort

my first comforter,
but one who won't be
saved from her unminding
toward pure dream

and from her dismay
at waking to the strangest
dream: her own son trying
to mind, and minding.

My Death

waits outside my door
like a half-starved dog,
a strange old stray,
who, having followed me home,
wanders around the yard,
innocently enough,
though marking his territory.
Sometimes he whines at the door
to be let in. He wants to find
where I sit in my cozy living room,
curl up by the fire,
and cast me long, penetrating glances.
Yesterday he dug up an old bone,
left it on the mat for me to find.
Last night I could hear him,
baying at the moon.
Oh, he seems friendly enough.
When I pass by, he wags his tail
or whimpers a little
when I leave him outside.
This morning I find him sleeping
under our old apple tree,
comfortable as if he were here to stay.
I know if he hangs around long enough,
one day he will show me his teeth.

Flood Waters

We were watching flood waters
of a once small river, dark,
unending churn of water and debris,
bend after bend, but toward no end,
dismembered tree limbs, black
slabs of bark, root-headed monsters
rushing past with rafters, floorboards,
chips of brick and tile, shingles, shakes,
orange crates; half of a cow carcass,
a wire coop, one whole door,
knocker still attached.

And, of course, we looked for bodies,
alive or floating —drowned-dead,
that's what we once said —
and we looked twice at every spinning
tree trunk and shit-colored glob,
the black-bristled rat that dived
into the roiling, rocking soup
of every detritus water could loose.
"Look," you yelled, and a doghouse
rolled by … "Sans dog," I said,
but later a little mongrel, wet
and slick with stinking mud,
headed straight for us, yelping,
and I watched you catch him up
in your arms, like some river
sprite, an omen of watery
rebirth, staining your pink blouse
with river mud, his clay-red tongue
licking your face with love
as if you were the goddess of shelter,
the keeper of the warm, dry bed.

Haunting Myself

It's the lull of the moment
makes my mind fall off the track
of, say, watering the roses.
The odor of lush verdure
and damp earth
has brought back to mind
a few ghosts as they might appear
looking back at me. Uncle Harry,
his White Owl smoking a wreath
around his red face, grins widely,
holds up his Miller's.
Aunt Clare shakes her head,
looks from the corner of her eye.
Her garden scissors sing
into the bright summer air
as she trims the privet hedge.
Its chalk-white blooms
smell sweet as baby powder —
all this in the moment it takes
for me to refresh a tiger lily,
revive a pot of marigolds
in that second I leave my mind's
motor humming, let myself
be transported so I might be
in two places at once.
Something small
and commonplace intervenes
and defies the laws of physics,
lets time and space collapse,
brings me face to face
with the ghost of what I was.
There I am sixty years ago …
a kid running through some green
summer afternoon in a big
hurry getting one place
to another, then suddenly
stopping, and in the lull
of the moment, looking back
as he tries to remember something.

Lost in His Collections

He's poring over his collections,
peering through a magnifying glass
at a row of identical busts of Stalin
or of pretty Luxembourg Grand Duchess Charlotte,
in pale green, violet, carmine rose, and black.
He licks hinges, tweezers stamps
inside an album, pauses, glances outside
at vermilion leaves of late September,
records a spicebush swallowtail, a painted lady,
a monarch floating amber-winged through air,
alive with inert gases — krypton, helium, argon —
he would capture in stoppered bottles
if he could, would have a piece of every
particle of world, each atom labeled
in separate compartments.
And now he turns to coins,
to the faces of old czars and caesars,
studying their cruel bronze mouths.
His favorite bears Nero's faint impression,
but still the fat cheeks, the crooked nose,
and he's lost in his collections
when his father peeks in,
sees him bent over like an old jeweler,
stares as his son turns and squints
one huge eyeball through his glass.


Now that we are prepared to leave
we want to stay.
Our minds will remain all day
on Grandmother's old davenport,
though if we prepared to stay,
we'd want to be away.
We are never one place — look how the houses
scoot past, the trees, the fields of corn —
for we are always about to reach the other,
places we can't quite forget:
the little white house, every curtain drawn,
in the strange Ohio town —
or was it Illinois? —
yard weeded and tidy and green,
and those blue mountains beyond
(which must have been in Tennessee)
or the sudden skyscrapers in a row;
Columbus, Pittsburgh, New York —
enchanting spires lost in the clouds,
and then the half-remembered digs
of off-the-interstate motels
with beige easy chairs and striped divans;
pale prop pictures of ancient lyres and urns,
detours in between
where we're going and where we've been.
For we are always of two minds
(traveling as we do with our own ghosts)
and of two countries:
the familiar one where we land
and this other.

Losing My Mind

There it goes, another piece of it —
a name or old address,
the color of Grandpa's eyes,
even my mother's birthdate,
a hundred years ago or so.
It's her death day I remember,
the garden gone to seed,
a golden, sinking sun.
That memory will not dislocate
or the surprised look on her face
the day she lost her mind,
that look will be the last to fade
as my mind finally goes;
too many pieces missing
from the puzzle of my life
to put it back together.
Then the world will be a dream,
each sound, sight, and smell,
the touch of human flesh,
as when I first saw light of day.


Samuel Menashe served in the U.S. Army infantry in World War II and then studied in London and at the Sorbonne, where he received a Doctorat d'Université. His first collection of poetry, The Many Named Beloved, was published in London in 1961; subsequent collections include The Niche Narrows (2000). In 2004, he received the Poetry Foundation's first Neglected Masters Award, designed to bring renewed critical attention to the work of an under-recognized, significant American poet; the award included the publication of his most recent collection, New and Selected Poems (Library of America, 2005; published in England, with DVD, by Bloodaxe Books, 2009). He lives in New York City.


Philip Miller's poetry has appeared in BigCityLit, Chelsea, Gargoyle, Georgia Review, Pivot, Poetry, Poetry Wales, Rattapallax, and Seam (U.K.). His books include Hard Freeze (BookMark Press) and Branches Snapping (Helicon Nine Editions). His sixth book of poems, The Casablanca Fan, was recently published by Spartan Press. He coedited (with Gloria Vando) the anthology A Chance of a Ghost. He co-founded and for many years directed the Riverfront Series in Kansas City. He now lives in Mount Union, Pa., where he is a contributing editor of BigCityLit and editor of The Same.



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