Robert Cording

‘Advent Stanzas’ by Robert Cording

four crowsI.
Are we always creating you, as Rilke said,
Trying, on our best days,
To make possible your coming-into-existence?

Or are you merely a story told in the dark,
A child’s drawing of barn and star?

Each year you are born again. It is no remedy

For what we go on doing to each other,
For history’s blind repetitions of hate and reprisal.

Here I am again, huddled in hope. For what
Do I wait? – I know you only as something missing,
And loved beyond reason.

As a word in my mouth I cannot embody.

On the snow-dusted field this morning – an etching
Of mouse tracks declares the frenzy of its hunger.

The plodding dawn sun rises to another day’s
One warm hour. I’m walking to the iced-in local pond

Where my neighbors have sat through the night
Waiting for something to find their jigged lure.

The sky is paste white. Each bush and tree keeps
Its cold counsel. I’m walking head-on into a wind

That forces my breath back into my mouth.
Like rags of black cloth, crows drape a dead oak.

When I pass under them, their cries rip a seam
In the morning. Last week a life long friend told me,

There’s no such thing as happiness. It’s ten years
Since he found his son, then a nineteen-year old

Of extraordinary grace and goodness, curled up
In his dormitory room, unable to rise, to free

Himself of a division that made him manic and
Depressed, and still his son struggles from day to day,

The one partial remedy a dismal haze of drugs.
My friend hopes these days for very little – a stretch of

Hours, a string of a few days when nothing in his son’s life
Goes terribly wrong. This is the season of sad stories:

The crippling accident, the layoffs at the factory,
The family without a car, without a house, without money

For presents. The sadder the human drama, the greater
Our hope, or so the television news makes it seem

With its soap-opera stories of tragedy followed up
With ones of good will – images of Santas’ pots filling up

At the malls, truckloads of presents collected for the shelters,
Or the family posed with their special-needs child

In front of a fully equipped van given by the local dealership.
This is the season to keep the less fortunate in sight,

To believe that generosity will be generously repaid.
We’ve strung colored lights on our houses and trees,

And lit candles in the windows to hold back the dark.
For what do we hope? – That our candles will lead you

To our needs? That your gift of light will light
These darkest nights of the year? That our belief

In our own righteousness will be vindicated?
The prophet Amos knew the burden of our coming.

The day of the Lord is darkness, he said, darkness, not light,
As if someone went into a house and rested a hand against a wall,

And was bitten by a snake. Amos knew the shame of
What we fail, over and over, to do, the always burning

Image of what might be. Saint Paul, too, saw
The whole creation groaning for redemption.
And will you intercede with sighs too deep for words
Because you love us in our weakness, because

You love always, suddenly and completely, what is
In front of you, whether it is a lake or leper.

Because you come again and again to destroy the God
We keep making in our own image. Will we learn

To pray: May our hearts be broken open. Will we learn
To prepare a space in which you might come forth,
In which, like a bolt of winter solstice light,
You might enter the opening in the stones, lighting

Our dark tumulus from beginning to end?

All last night the tatter of sleet, ice descending,
Each tree sheathed in ice, and then, deeper
Into the night, the shattering cracks and fall
Of branches being pruned by gusts of wind.

It is the first morning after the longest night,
Dawn colorless, the sun still cloud-silvered.
Four crows break the early stillness, an apocalypse
Of raucous squawks. My miniature four horsemen

Take and eat whatever they can in the field
Outside my door: a deer’s leg my dog has dragged
Home. Above them, the flinty sun has at last fired
A blue patch of sky, and suddenly each ice-transfigured

Trees shines. Each needle of pine, each branch
Of ash, throws off sparks of light. Once,
A rabbi saw a spark of goodness trapped inside
Each evil, the very source of life for that evil –

A contradiction not to be understood, but suffered,
The rabbi explained, though the one who prays
And studies Torah will be able to release that spark,
And evil, having lost its life-giving source, will cease.

When I finally open my door and walk out
Into the field, every inch of my skin seems touched
By light. So much light cannot be looked at:
My eyelids slam down like a blind.

All morning I drag limbs into a pile. By noon,
The trees and field have lost their shine. I douse
The pile of wood with gas, and set it aflame,
Watching the sparks disappear in the sky.

This is the night we have given for your birth.

After the cherished hymns, the prayers, the story
Of the one who will become peacemaker,
Healer of the sick, the one who feeds
The hungry and raises the dead,

We light small candles and stand in the dark

Of the church, hoping for the peace
A child knows, hoping to forget career, mortgage,
Money, hoping even to turn quietly away

From the blind, reductive selves inside us.

We are a picture a child might draw
As we sing Silent Night, Holy Night.
Yet, while each of us tries to inhabit the moment
That is passing, you seem to live in-between
The words we fill with our longing.

The time has come
To admit I believe in the simple astonishment
Of a newborn.

And also to say plainly, as Pascal knew, that you will live
In agony even to the end of the world,

Your will failing to be done on earth
As it is in heaven.

Come, o come Emmanuel,

I am a ghost waiting to be made flesh by love
I am too imperfect to bear.

– Robert Cording, ‘Advent Stanzas’, in The Best American Spiritual Writing 2005 (ed. Philip Zaleski; Boston/New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005), 18–22.

‘Staying Awake’, by Robert Cording

I’ve spent one third of my life asleep,
I read, and so I considered
how the drag and suck of Everyday
conspires against my waking—
jobs, meetings, grocery shopping,
house repairs and mortgages.

After I’d added on the dread of everything
I should have done but didn’t, or did,
and had things turn out the very way
I’d feared, I just wanted to lie back
and dream, but I made myself sit up
in my chair, which brought to mind

my grandmother who liked to tell me
at family dinners, if I didn’t sit up
straight, I’d become a hunch-back
as an old man, and now I was one,
at least in part, my shoulders slumping
forward, too heavy to hold up.

By then I was living in the past,
those dinners when all my grandparents
were alive, and my great-grandparents
on my mother’s side and all my aunts
and uncles. I was saying their names—
Anna, Henry, Eleanor, Emma, George—

when, of course, I fell asleep and dreamed
that someone was whispering,
Wake up! Wake up! in a room
that the afternoon sun had warmed,
but now was running out of light.
And still I did not wake up.

– Robert Cording, ‘Staying Awake’, in Walking with Ruskin: Poems (Fort Lee: Cavankerry, 2010), 7–8.

‘April Peepers, Flaubert, and Springsteen’, by Robert Cording

Now that the sun’s hanging around longer,
These first warm evenings bring
The peepers up out of the muck, aroused
By temperatures and a ferocious desire
To peep and trill a hundred times a minute,
Nearly six thousand times a night,
Each wet, shining body a muscle of need
That says faster, louder, faster, louder.

Life, life to have erections, that’s what it’s
All about—that’s Flaubert ringing
In my old ears, some drained chamber
Of the heart pumping again, interrupting
My bookish evening. I should tie myself
To my chair or stopper my ears. But I’m up
And answering my sirens’ call, overcome
By some need to be outside, to be
Part of this great spring upheaval.

In the dark amid their chorus, I hold
A flashlight on a peeper that pulses
Under its skin, its entire body a trill reaching
Toward a silent female, and now I’m calling
To my wife to come out, to hurry,
And when she finds me, I swear I feel as if
I’m shining like something that has come up
From deep under the earth, and singing

It ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.

– Robert Cording, ‘April Peepers, Flaubert, and Springsteen’ in Love Poems and Other Messages for Bruce Springsteen (ed. Bosveld Jennifer; Columbus: Pudding House Publications, 2009), 64.

‘Much Laughter’, by Robert Cording

Boswell’s only note after an evening with Dr. Johnson.

Nothing about the food, the wine, the subjects
Of that night’s passions. Nothing even about
The weather – rain most likely, the damp seeping
Under doors. Just those two words for a night
When everything else slipped into the vacancies
Of the unrecorded. That’s all that’s left. We know
Now the more complete story that Boswell chose
Not to tell: the good doctor’s wearied martyr’s gaze
As he walked the alleyways where the poor remained
Poor, the blind, blind, where the only lesson learned
From suffering was how much better it would be
Not to suffer. We know, too, that Johnson wanted
About this time to rest in God and yet could not
Imagine how to surrender himself to a future
He couldn’t anticipate; he couldn’t help but believe,
To his dismay, that all life needed to go wrong was
The hope it would go right. Too many could not see
How evil fouled the gears of the century’s benign God.
He was headed for another breakdown; Mrs. Thrale
Had already been secretly entrusted with a padlock
And chain to restrain his fits when the time came.
But on this particular evening, happiness must have
Arrived when he least expected it. A few hours
When everyone’s burdens were shouldered, when
There was no tomorrow sprouting its thousand forms
Of grief and humiliation and defeat. Just jokes
And small talk, and wine sweetened with oranges
And sugar tumbling down the doctor’s throat.
A night, perhaps, when all the timorous and beaten
Faces suddenly brightened in their common temple
Of laughter. A night when even a stray black dog
Might have been allowed to lick clean a patron’s
Greasy hands and warm its flea-bitten belly
Near the fire. A night caught in the genius and irony
Of Boswell’s two words – what they left unsaid
And what they say, the simple phrase like a pardon
After our sins have been listened to one by one,
And there is nothing left to remember but “much
Laughter” after another day on earth is done.

– Robert Cording, Common Life: Poems (Fort Lee: CavanKerry Press, 2006), 93–94.

‘After A Mockingbird’, by Robert Cording

At my open window—the lurching runs

Of mews and whistles, mechanical arias,
Whirligigs of a robin’s snatched cheerily, cheerily, cheerily.

Too much, too much
Isn’t music, but this mocking-
Bird will not get down from its high perch,

Will not quit calling out, there’s no milk, no milk, no milk;
The car needs gas, the car needs gas;
Hurry, hurry, hurry; that tie? that tie? that tie?

Until the bird seems legion,
And mockingbirds look down
From the lilac’s every branch, dismantling me

One moment at a time. Yet after
It flies off, no more than the briefest incarnation,

I step away from my desk,
From the hallway clock ticking off the silence,

And, at the window, sunlight shouts in the grass,
Irises guzzle clear blue air down their throats,
The lilac’s purple honeycombs buzz with sweetness.

– Robert Cording, Common Life: Poems (Fort Lee: CavanKerry Press, 2006), 88.

‘My Uncle’s Parrot’, by Robert Cording

It’s the voice I hear, the one that comes
When my talk suddenly becomes preachy,
And my class of freshmen begin to nod
Their heads in assent as I’m delivering
Some grand moral claim for Wordsworth’s
Leech-gatherer, or declaring there is a way
To live out our lives hopeful and happy.
Or it comes when my wife, stepping
From a bath, her neck and belly and legs
Diamonded in the bathroom light, stands
Before me like some St. Agnes Eve vision,
And I believe that, yes, our bodies are
For climbing that ladder from pleasure
To pleasure upwards to the sublime.
Or when I see on the late night news
How a whole town, businesses included,
Turns out to re-erect a block of
Tornado-tossed houses and think we could
Learn to live in just that state of love,
The beginning of what could be
Endlessly multiplying loaves and fish.
Or even when late at night, alone,
Reading a good book and listening to
Vivaldi’s oboes, a cup of tea warming
My hands, I suddenly think, then and there,
That everything in my life has only had
The illusion of significance, that
The truth is absolute meaninglessness.
At all those times and more, I hear
The point-blank voice of my uncle’s parrot
Say, bullshit, the only word he could
Ever teach it, though the parrot possessed
An unerring sense of timing,
A pitch-perfect ear for the exact moment
In the conversation when its shrill trumpet
Was required: bullshit, it blared again
And again with the authority of a god
Who knew, as Pascal said, how to keep faith
And doubt off balance as he went on
Balancing both sides of every equation.

– Robert Cording, Common Life: Poems (Fort Lee: CavanKerry Press, 2006), 43–4.

‘Christmas Soccer Game, 1915’, by Robert Cording

I suppose what made it possible
Was that no one expected more
Than a day of unhurried hours, better
Food, some free time to reread old letters,
Write new ones. Small Christmas trees
With candles lined both sides of the trenches
And marked the two days’ truce.

Who can explain it? – one minute troops
Are sitting in mud, the next raising themselves
Out of the trenches, as if all they needed
Was a soccer ball to remind them
Of who they were. Imagine a Scotsman
Heading the ball into the air and catching it
On his instep, then flicking it across

The frosted grass to a German smoking
A cigarette who smiles and settles the ball,
Then boots it back. Soon a few soldiers
From both sides circle around the Scotsman
And the ball moves quickly back and forth,
Left foot, right foot, all of the men rocking
From side to side, the ball, the cold,

Making good neighbors of them all.
A game’s begun, a real match without referees,
Attack and counterattacks, the ball crossing
From side to side, a match played,
We can imagine, as if it were all that mattered,
As if the game’s sudden fizzes of beauty –
Three crisp passes or two perfect triangles

Laying end to end and pointing to the goal –
Could erase what they had learned
To live with. Laughing, out of breath, dizzy
With the speed of the ball skipping over
The frozen earth, did they recognize themselves
For a short while in each other? History says
Only that they exchanged chocolate and cigarettes,

Relaxed in the last ransomed sunlight.
When the night came and they had retreated
To their own sides, some of the men
Wrote about the soccer game as if they had to
Ensure the day had really happened. It did.
We have the letters, though none of them says
How, in the next short hours, they needed,

For their own well-being, to forget everything
That had happened that Christmas day.
It was cold, the long rows of candles must have
Seemed so small in the dark. Restless, awake
In the trenches, the men, I suppose,
Already knew what tomorrow would bring,
How it would be judged by the lost and missing.

– Robert Cording, Common Life: Poems (Fort Lee: CavanKerry Press, 2006), 39–40.

‘Parable of the Moth’, by Robert Cording

Consider this: a moth flies into a man’s ear
One ordinary evening of unnoticed pleasures.

When the moth beats its wings, all the winds
Of earth gather in his ear, roar like nothing
He has ever heard. He shakes and shakes
His head, has his wife dig deep into his ear
With a Q-tip, but the roar will not cease.
It seems as if all the doors and windows
Of his house have blown away at once—
The strange play of circumstances over which
He never had control, but which he could ignore
Until the evening disappeared as if he had
Never lived it. His body no longer
Seems his own; he screams in pain to drown
Out the wind inside his ear, and curses God,
Who, hours ago, was a benign generalization
In a world going along well enough.

On the way to the hospital, his wife stops
The car, tells her husband to get out,
To sit in the grass. There are no car lights,
No streetlights, no moon. She takes
A flashlight from the glove compartment
And holds it beside his ear and, unbelievably,
The moth flies towards the light. His eyes
Are wet. He feels as if he’s suddenly a pilgrim
On the shore of an unexpected world.
When he lies back in the grass, he is a boy
Again. His wife is shining the flashlight
Into the sky and there is only the silence
He has never heard, and the small road
Of light going somewhere he has never been.

– Robert Cording, Common Life: Poems (Fort Lee: CavanKerry Press, 2006), 29–30.

‘Peregrine Falcon, New York City’, by Robert Cording

On the 65th floor where he wrote
Advertising copy, joking about
The erotic thrall of words that had
No purpose other than to make
Far too many buy far too much,
He stood one afternoon face to face
With a falcon that veered on the blade
Of its wings and plummeted, then
Swerved to a halt, wings hovering.

An office of computers clicked
Behind him. Below, the silence
Of the miniature lunch time crowds
And toy-like taxis drifting without
Resolve to the will of others.
This bird’s been brought in, he thought,
To clean up the city’s dirty problems
Of too many pigeons. It’s a hired beak.

Still he remained at the tinted glass
Windows, watching as the falcon
Gave with such purpose its self
To the air that carried it, its sheer falls
Breaking the mirrored self-reflections
Of glass office towers. He chided
Himself: this is how the gods come
To deliver a message or a taunt,
And, for a moment, the falcon
Seemed to wait for his response,
The air articulate with a kind of
Wonder and terror. Then it was gone.

He waited at the glass until he felt
The diminishment of whatever
Had unsettled him. And though
The thin edge of the falcon’s wings
Had opened the slightest fissure in him
And he’d wandered far in thought,
He already felt himself turning back
To words for an ad, the falcon’s power
Surely a fit emblem for something.

– Robert Cording, Common Life: Poems (Fort Lee: CavanKerry Press, 2006), 11–12.

‘Luther and the Devil’, by Robert Cording

Over the coming six or seven weeks, I’d like to share some poems, one a week, probably on Wednesdays, from Robert Cording’s very rich collection of work published as Common Life: Poems.

Here’s the first:

‘Luther and the Devil’, by Robert Cording

When I began to lecture on the Psalms and I was sitting
in the refectory after we had sung matins, studying and
writing my notes, the Devil came and thudded three times
in the storage chamber as if dragging a bushel away.
— Martin Luther

Someone once remarked the medieval air
Was so thick with demons, a needle dropped
Randomly from heaven would have to pierce
One or two on its way down. These days
We’re more likely to believe in poltergeists
Than the heavy-footed, skulking Adversary
Who shows up in Luther’s little story.

Now, when Milton’s Satan of obdurate pride
And stedfast hate can be understood in terms
Of sibling rivalry, how quaint that path
Through the Psalms seems; likewise, the soul
Disturbed by the racket of a jealous Devil
Who needs to be wherever God is. Who believes
That figure of a bushel being dragged away?

Yet we catch certainly a glimmer of Luther’s
Pain over the sure step gone astray,
The barbed hours to come when nothing satisfies,
When that dull thudding in the storage chamber
Seems everywhere, centerless, and there is
No escape from the tightly spiralled Nautilus
Of the self that endures by choosing blindly.

And so perhaps we can come to understand again
Why, when Luther turns back to the Psalms
And his writing, he looks hard for the Devil
Harbored in his words, having learned too often
How that old Adversary shows up each time
The soul comes close to letting itself be found,
His soft mouth whispering one more illusory solace.

– Robert Cording, Common Life: Poems (Fort Lee: CavanKerry Press, 2006), 9–10.

‘Mozart’s Starling’, by Robert Cording

A little fool lies here
Whom I hold dear—
—Mozart, lines of a poem for his pet starling

None of his friends understood.
A poem for a bird?—
and a funeral, and the ridiculous
request that they dress in formal attire.

But when Mozart whistled a yet-to-be
fragment of a piano concerto
in the marketplace, the bird
may have sang it back to him—

the starling appears in his diary
of expenses, May 27, 1784,
along with a transcription of its song.
What fun they must have had,

he whistling a melody, the bird,
a virtuoso mimic, echoing it back,
interspersed among its clicks
and slurs and high-pitched squeals.

Music to Mozart’s ears,
that dear bird who sang incessantly
for the duration of its three
short years in Mozart’s company.

His little fool was wise indeed—
it could hear a squeaking door,
a teapot letting off its steam,
a woman crying or rain pinging

in metal buckets and gurgling
in gutters, even a horse’s snort
or Mozart scratching notes,
and sing it back until Mozart, too,

could hear the cockeyed,
nonstop music in the incidental
bits and pieces of the world going by,
the exuberant excess of it all.

— Robert Cording, ‘Mozart’s Starling’.