Three Poems by Michael Schmidt
Why is his sacrifice
More suitable than mine?
I give the grain I’ve sown
And he, sheep from his flock.
Mine is a laboured gift,
His a giving back.
It is not what I give —
Rather, my shape you despise.
You light his flame to see
A body nicely formed
For sitting on a hill
Above a bleating flock
And playing on a reed
A parody of praise.
You make my flame slow
And smokier than light.
My arms and legs are scarred
From moving in sharp grass.
I am no idol for
The god who made the snake
Or the abhorrent tree.
My praise is in the field
If beauty’s not my tithe,
But only what I do,
If what I am attracts
No more than a slow flame,
I know what I can kill
To draw your eye to me.
…And kisses on the rowan tree
The scarlet ulcers of the unseen Christ.
Sergei Esenin, ‘Autumn’ (translated by Geoffrey Thurley)
In the big round stove they’re burning up the trees.
It’s hot all day in the tall kitchen. Outside
It’s freezing, it’s sunless as if a shadow was cast
By the ghosts of the trees that are burning, and the stove
Stays glowing all day, even when nobody’s by.
They are burning the trees. All over mother Russia
The forests burn. Her face
Is darkened with smoke and labour, is grimed with soot.
They are not big trees but thin sticks of birch they’re burning,
The graceful wings of pine and spruce, the blood-berried rowan.
Also, poor Yorick
Out loud they cry, when they come back above ground,
A cheerful judder, then the chattering jaws —
Chorus of teacups clattering on a tray —
Barefoot, with the worms and roots still on them,
The puddles cool between their metatarsals.
Sunrise and shadow light sweep through their ribbing.
Seeing how they can be, again articulated,
Human as bones are when vertical and jaunty,
His heart is moved: how beautiful, he says,
And grasps then what it must mean to be human
Returning rested from the afterlife
Into the lovely dew of resurrection.
The skulls howl out their joy, and all are grinning,
Popping their knuckles, counting their vertebrae,
And now they dance alone and now join hands,
And as they dance there, in their ribs and rigging
In each grey skeleton a robin perches
Plumping its feathers, pulsing out its song
Red, and their twittering is blood and music.
— Never has he witnessed a scene so vital,
The dance of life the scripture guaranteed.
Faster as shadows shorten and noon rises
The skeletons spin and conga into the air
Making a cloud, a halo on the sun.
He takes his spade and sets it on his shoulder.
He’s old. Until now he has known regret.
He’s buried his grandparents and his parents,
His kings and queens, his brothers and his friends,
His lovers, all of them, the flesh turned food
And nothing, the bone bearing
In its chalk wholeness so much love and light.
From his own graveyard, with the dead departed,
One unfamiliar skeleton stands up
Tall, gracious, folding his fingers over
Two holes, and where his hurt feet strike on stone
Sparks from the rusty nails, and in his side
A spear, perch for a phoenix. Jesus Christ
Risen in this garden, and the wounds,
Or the bones that keep the marks of wounds are singing.
It’s noon, there are no shadows. This is true.
He raised them and himself is rising up.
The place is empty now, the judgement over.
Later in the day the Prince arrives,
Stepping from his book as from a carriage
Drawn up among the holes in which the dead
Waited, and from which they are all flown.
Anxious, a bit deranged, he finds occasion
To hold a conversation with a skull.
Is it a skull or a stone that looks like a skull?
The heads are all gone to heaven, Jesus too,
Even the sexton put off his flesh and followed,
Ophelia was already on her star.
Poor prince, alone with just a book of ballads,
With just his plot nothing can save him from.
About the Author:
Michael Schmidt OBE FRSL is the founder and editorial and managing director of Carcanet Press Limited, the general editor of PN Review, and Professor of Poetry at the University of Glasgow. He is currently a writer in residence at St John’s College, Cambridge, and a visiting professor at the University of Bolton.