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No simple case of right and wrong



Selected poems



1. The salient

Just like the walls of Hadrian or Qin,

that writhe like serpents over hill and dale,

the front that parts the spirit from the world

runs through the heart of every soul on earth.

Each mind a watch-tower. No one in reserve.

No respite to the rear. We each look out

upon the soul's frontiers, debatable lands

of tussock, scarp and scree where matter mounts

a constant inward press upon the line,

seeking our reduction to dull stone,

subject to no law but entropy,

crumbling, like all minerals, into dust.


But we resist, some knowingly, most not.

We signal to each other from our posts:

our voices thread the waste and stir its grass

with gusts of song that play on measured feet.

We watch the sun, the stars, the moon wheel past,

the shadows lengthening, then growing short,

then stretched the other way like builder's line.


2. This is no simple case of right and wrong

I have a job to finish. Time grows short.

Not quite my time alone, though that may be,

but time that bears us all along its race.

The work that's held my undivided heart

now hangs upon the lip of the inane,

a path I've struck, unwinding meaning's ball,

or else a futile tangle, every day

more lost to telos, purpose and design.

No one else seems to have passed this way:

the notes I hear strike no one else's ears,

their music echoes in my head alone.

There mere tinnitus mocks the spheres' chorale,

and all I've loved appears pure vanity.

The pang is that I cannot say for sure,

must live this parallax of seer and fool

and own that either seems the case by turns.

Too late to walk it back, too soon to tell

until I cash my chips at break of day

and only then receive my tally told.


3. Rumblings

This doesn't stop with me. My vertigo

is more than just my inner ear's revolt.

The listing of the deck grows more pronounced.

The tremors underneath my feet the growl

of fixtures grinding loose from brace and stay,

a basso mutter ballast cannot hold.

Horizons grow confused as waters rise

and, plank by cleat, we slide beneath the foam.


4. Sentries: the watch

I may have years to wait, however sharp

the urgency that pinches all my nerves.

This is our part, to watch a lowering sky

fall curdled by the earth's own effluent.

Polarities reverse, low owning high

in joyless Saturnalian switcheroo.

Gibbering inarticulacy overruns

our puny barricades, our hull stove in.


All we can do is stand and note, as time

and time again the falls of Troy or Rome

get re-enacted underneath our gaze,

until we see the pattern in the craze

embrittled outward from crockery and glass

that plunge to shatter on the cobblestones:

the purity of true trajectory

as prophesied by Newton's calculus,

parabolae unsullied by the smudge

of passion's bonfires pitched in house or field.


Grave patience, graver wisdom not yet won

while tears still answer gravity's command

in fractal courses down our trembling cheeks.





vale, creator spiritus


In the end it all comes down to words,

to finding those that work, that come unbid

in waves like cold-front isobars that bunch

ahead of falling mercury whose airs

drop every sort of weather. We draw maps

and track the systems as their whorls unfold

a chaos organised retroactively:


God said 'let there be wind' and there was wind

no anemometer could gauge before

it tossed its head and rattled in the eaves.

We fly our words like pennons on its back,

like kites lent altitude by spirit-strings

whose tug distrains the moving air to lift

some banner of our hopeful disposition,

a signal leaned aloft for all to see,

semiotic sail-craft pitched across

the random gusts, else inarticulate.


The ship of meaning now got under weigh,

its keel can slice the waves' oblivion,

forgetfulness of water that will fall

as readily as lift and holds no shape

for contemplation of remembered form.

Keel and prow and rudder point a course,

direction plotted by the heavens' arc,

an argument of sextant, compass, helm

that spreads a map upon the trackless deep,

the calipers tell the legend out as miles,

chronometer the hours as longitude,

semantics turned on syntax's whirling lathe.


But now the scene dissolves in pixel-squares,

precision betrayed, identities obscured

of powers who would rather work unseen.

Twitterstorms of lingual grit and sand

clog mental intakes, thought left short of breath

as sails hang slack, the tiller's hum falls still

and rotting vegetation mats the sea.

The prow, bereft of purpose, sports green scum.


What modern dove's descent might shift the ash

that muffles all the glowing coals beneath?

What tongues of flame, inspired by stirred air,

might not take root against the gathering dark

on heads now bowed and nodding on sleep's edge?

Let lightnings blast and thunderclaps up-roar.

Let old bones feel those changes in the air

and post-Edenic rheumatism twinge

with throbs recalling long-forgotten joy.


We can invoke whatever gods we please

but cannot pleat the weathers of the soul

to suit our wish, however urgently

we need them to unlock the sky once more.

Like Hamlet should we dread what dreams may come?

The nightmares that have been thus far unleashed

should ease us of all worry on that score.

Hell is being emptied. Fugitives

now thrum our streets in muscle-car displays

or explosive blooms in desert, jungle or town.

They manage funds and legislate with glee

and pay-for-play fat-texta signature,

to make our world that little more like home.


Our very sense of what it is to act

has fallen tangled in the broad malaise.

Ask not what we must do but what must cease:

what leverage and dominance to yield,

security relinquish to the fates

that call our dooms in fact and any event,

and learn the grace to live with what will come.


'That's all?' you ask, with reason, I concede.

Well, not exactly. I've little in the way

of up-and-at-'em practical advice.

Do no harm. Look out for those you see.

Before, behind, to left and right, up, down.

What more can will, however good, achieve?

We're negotiating straits, an enge stede,1

narrows, anguish, angst, angustia,2

anxious with angina of the soul,

the circulation of the spirit pent

in channels choked with its own precipitates:

the matter of the mind that's sought to seize

at its advantage, the race to heap and hoard,

the beggar-my-neighbour accumulation stakes.


Materialism's earthbound faculties

have shackled, bound and caged all upward thought.

Until we shed those weights that slug our minds,

we'll merely drive our mine-shafts further down,

contracting and compressing what we are

to black-hole densities that suck the light

from sky and mind alike. Such wakefulness

and poise as we can muster will serve best.

Better at least than thrashing in the nets

of circumstance, appalled and terrified,

which seems our sole default since Adam fouled

the lines of being in existential knots.


In that beginning was the Word that spoke

this world and all it holds, including us.

Now we must somehow find the words that name

a different world than this we've improvised

on demiurgic follies of what works.

Fair songs to spread fair skies above our heads,

weather reports that do much more than guess:

summonses that sculpt the winds and waves

to dance for beauty's sake and comfort's sigh,

meteorology of heaven's climes.


1 Old English, 'narrow place'

2 Latin, 'constriction'



Robert DiNapoliRobert DiNapoli is a scholar, translator and essayist whose poems and essays have appeared in Arena Magazine and PN Review. His book A Far Light (2016) translates and comments on Beowulf. The poems of his forthcoming Engelboc (2019) explore alignments between language, memory and the evolution of spiritual sensibilities.

Topic tags: Robert DiNapoli, poetry



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Existing comments

Hooray! Iambic pentameter. Thank you, thank you, thank you. And so much in those lines. To be read and re-read and enjoyed. They manage funds and legislate with glee and pay-for-play fat-texta signature, How apt. Thank you, Mr Di Napoli and thank you ES.

Frank | 23 May 2019  

Bravo, Robert!

John RD | 23 May 2019  

These are impressive poems by Robert DiNapoli . About ageing, about communication, about the disintegrating world around us - so much is here. Thank you. Tony Kevin.

Tony Kevin | 25 May 2019  

Thanks so much, everyone! It is hugely tonic to know a poem has found a reader. Or three. I'm much obliged.

Bob DiNapoli | 01 June 2019  

Lovely poem, and it's a pleasure to hear someone speak the best words for what so many of us must be feeling in these times. I look forward to picking up Engelboc.

Sara McCurry | 30 August 2019  

. . . or four! Thanks very much, Sara.

Robert DiNapoli | 12 September 2019  

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