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Poetry by Karen Rigby, Taylor Stoehr, and William Stafford

Norma Desmond Descending
the Staircase as Salome

                                                Sunset Boulevard, 1950

The heart’s declensions beat against
the newsreel storm. The beaded shawl ropes
through my arms. The script

would have you believe grief muscled
into me: asked for, and given
the head of a saint.

When the klieg lights sear my skin
I don’t remember the body
bloating in the pool

or the Black Maria nosing down my drive.
I don’t remember that I shot Joe Gillis—
only the blue flute singing.

In that Kohl-rimmed prime
I could live forever
raising my own hand to my neck,

each time surprised by its cool pulse.
I calculate seductions stair by stair.
Between the keyless room

and the city that loved me
no one speaks as if my crossing
were the deposition of a god.

Blood winters in my veins.
The hammered air burns
lonely as bones turning in sleep.


Joined Up at Fifteen

Joined up at fifteen,
at eighty I’ve served my time.
A fellow I met near home
answered all my questions
by pointing to tombs
under the pines.

The cottage roof has fallen,
pheasants roost on the crossbeam,
rabbits use old dogholes to get in.
Wild grain has sprouted in the yard
and mallow chokes the well.

I’d harvest some grain to boil,
add mallow to the pail
for soup, bivouac style,
but who would share my meal?

I stare out the Eastern portal
while hot tears fall.

Anon (from the Yueh-fu,
Western Han, 206 B.C.E-8 C.E.)


The King of Yüeh

When the King returned from the sacking of Wu
his warriors rode home in rich brocades.
Courtly ladies filled the Spring Palace like flowers,
where partridges now spread their wings.

Li Po


Dispatches from the Front

A fresh horse every ten leagues,
whip swinging again after five,
the general’s dispatches arrive:

Tartar troops surround Chin-ch’uan,
snow falling in the mountains,
beacon fires out, ominous sky.

Wang Wei


Waiting for the Ambassador

Hemmed in by a wilderness of mountains,
the citadel lies halfway up an alpine vale.

Battlements loom in the foggy dawn,
above the pass the moon grows pale.

Our ambassador has gone to witness
the beheading of the rebel leader.

I’ve waited all night by the watchfire,
smoke in my eyes, cheeks like old leather.

Tu Fu


The sparrows are as reckless as ever.
They don’t care whether they fall.
I watch their wings this winter—
vigorous birds, but a crumbling wall.

Elgin, Illinois
                                                            December 31, 1945

Deep Listening

The taut wire hums before it breaks,
like the city in the morning
or late, when the lights go out.
And the chain on the bridge gate—
before it snaps, one link turns over
slowly, and creaks.

I watch an oak whose top
has forgotten the ground under the leaves.
At the final swing of the axe
the high branches glisten,
whisper, then lean
with surging recognition
to an old friend.

I turn to you
and listen.

Berkeley, California
                                                            March 12, 1946

“You dropped into my morning…”

You dropped into my morning a sound;
It lay without breaking,
like a mushroom,
And grew at noon,
or when touched a cold window
or hand or word.

And it rose in the evening
like a balloon through mist
And rolled and shattered to nothing,
at sleep, on the throat, on the tongue.

And they all rose, every one,
All slow, not one lasted.
The lone walker by lakes
The look over the snow
The place where the trees leaned down
All the wide home.

When I touched them they broke;
While I watched them they all went away.

Berkeley, California
                                                            March 30, 1946

Karen Rigby’s “Norma Desmond Descending the Staircase as Salome” is included in the chapbook Savage Machinery, published October, 2008 by Finishing Line Press.

Taylor Stoehr’s I Hear My Gate Slam, translations from Classical Chinese poets of the T’ang Dynasty, was published in 2007 by Pressed Wafer.  Ask the Wolf, his translations from medieval French of convict-poet François Villon, was published by Unicorn Press in 2006.  He teaches in the English department of the University of Massachusetts in Boston.

Poet and activist William Stafford spent much of WWII as a conscientious objector, making use of his exile in a work camp by writing poetry and committing himself to his cause. Poet Fred Marchant, one of the first marine officers in the Vietnam War to be honorably discharged on the basis of his objection to the war, edited the early poems of Stafford, many of which were written during his internment, in Another World Instead (Graywolf Press, 2008).

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