Category Archives: favorite poems

Favorite poems: The City in Which I Love You by Li-Young Lee


And when, in the city in which I love you,
even my most excellent song goes unanswered,
and I mount the scabbed streets,
the long shouts of avenues,
and tunnel sunken night in search of you…

That I negotiate fog, bituminous
rain ringing like teeth into the beggar’s tin,
or two men jackaling a third in some alley
weirdly lit by a couch on fire, that I
drag my extinction in search of you…

Past the guarded schoolyards, the boarded-up churches, swastikaed
synagogues, defended houses of worship, past
newspapered windows of tenements, along the violated,
the prosecuted citizenry, throughout this
storied, buttressed, scavenged, policed
city I call home, in which I am a guest…

a bruise, blue
in the muscle, you
impinge upon me.
As bone hugs the ache home, so
I’m vexed to love you, your body

the shape of returns, your hair a torso
of light, your heat
I must have, your opening
I’d eat, each moment
of that soft-finned fruit,
inverted fountain in which I don’t see me.

My tongue remembers your wounded flavor.
The vein in my neck
adores you. A sword
stands up between my hips,
my hidden fleece send forth its scent of human oil.

The shadows under my arms,
I promise, are tender, the shadows
under my face. Do not calculate,
but come, smooth other, rough sister.
Yet, how will you know me

among the captives, my hair grown long,
my blood motley, my ways trespassed upon?
In the uproar, the confusion
of accents and inflections
how will you hear me when I open my mouth?

Look for me, one of the drab population
under fissured edifices, fractured
artifices. Make my various
names flock overhead,
I will follow you.
Hew me to your beauty.

Stack in me the unaccountable fire,
bring on me the iron leaf, but tenderly.
Folded one hundred times and
creased, I’ll not crack.
Threshed to excellence, I’ll achieve you.

but in the city
in which I love you,
no one comes, no one
meets me in the brick clefts;
in the wedged dark,

no finger touches me secretly, no mouth
tastes my flawless salt,
no one wakens the honey in the cells, finds the humming
in the ribs, the rich business in the recesses;
hulls clogged, I continue laden, translated

by exhaustion and time’s appetite, my sleep abandoned
in bus stations and storefront stoops,
my insomnia erected under a sky
cross-hatched by wires, branches,
and black flights of rain. Lewd body of wind

jams me in the passageways, doors slam
like guns going off, a gun goes off, a pie plate spins
past, whizzing its thin tremolo,
a plastic bag, fat with wind, barrels by and slaps
a chain-link fence, wraps it like clung skin.

In the excavated places,
I waited for you, and I did not cry out.
In the derelict rooms, my body needed you,
and there was such flight in my breast.
During the daily assaults, I called to you,

and my voice pursued you,
even backward
to that other city
in which I saw a woman
squat in the street

beside a body,
and fan with a handkerchief flies from its face.
That woman
was not me. And
the corpse

lying there, lying there
so still it seemed with great effort, as though
his whole being was concentrating on the hole
in his forehead, so still
I expected he’d sit up any minute and laugh out loud:

that man was not me;
his wound was his, his death not mine.
and the soldier
who fired the shot, then lit a cigarette:
he was not me.

And the ones I do not see
in cities all over the world,
the ones sitting, standing, lying down, those
in prisons playing checkers with their knocked-out teeth:
they are not me. Some of them are

my age, even my height and weight;
none of them is me.
The woman who is slapped, the man who is kicked,
the ones who don’t survive,
whose names I do not know;

they are not me forever,
the ones who no longer live
in the cities in which
you are not,
the cities in which I looked for you.

The rain stops, the moon
in her breaths appears overhead.
the only sound now is a far flapping.
Over the National Bank, the flag of some republic or other
gallops like water on fire to tear itself away.

If I feel the night
move to disclosures or crescendos,
it’s only because I’m famished
for meaning; the night
merely dissolves.

And your otherness is perfect as my death.
Your otherness exhausts me,
like looking suddenly up from here
to impossible stars fading.
Everything is punished by your absence.

Is prayer, then, the proper attitude
for the mind that longs to be freely blown,
but which gets snagged on the barb
called world, that
tooth-ache, the actual? What prayer

would I build? And to whom?
Where are you
in the cities in which I love you,
the cities daily risen to work and to money,
to the magnificent miles and the gold coasts?

Morning comes to this city vacant of you.
Pages and windows flare, and you are not there.
Someone sweeps his portion of sidewalk,
wakens the drunk, slumped like laundry,
and you are gone.

You are not in the wind
which someone notes in the margins of a book.
You are gone out of the small fires in abandoned lots
where human figures huddle,
each aspiring to its own ghost.

Between brick walls, in a space no wider than my face,
a leafless sapling stands in mud.
In its branches, a nest of raw mouths
gaping and cheeping, scrawny fires that must eat.
My hunger for you is no less than theirs.

At the gates of the city in which I love you,
the sea hauls the sun on its back,
strikes the land, which rebukes it.
what ardor in its sliding heft,
a flameless friction on the rocks.

Like the sea, I am recommended by my orphaning.
Noisy with telegrams not received,
quarrelsome with aliases,
intricate with misguided journeys,
by my expulsions have I come to love you.

Straight from my father’s wrath,
and long from my mother’s womb,
late in this century and on a Wednesday morning,
bearing the mark of one who’s experienced
neither heaven nor hell,

my birthplace vanished, my citizenship earned,
in league with stones of the earth, I
enter, without retreat or help from history,
the days of no day, my earth
of no earth, I re-enter

the city in which I love you.
And I never believed that the multitude
of dreams and many words were vain.


Li-Young Lee (1957 – ) is an American poet born in Indonesia to Chinese parents. More about him here.



Favorite Poems: The Tobacco Shop by Fernando Pessoa (writing as Álvaro de Campos)

(translated from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith)


I’m nothing.
I’ll always be nothing.
I can’t want to be something.
But I have in me all the dreams of the world.


Windows of my room,
The room of one of the world’s millions nobody knows
(And if they knew me, what would they know?),
You open onto the mystery of a street continually crossed by people,
A street inaccessible to any and every thought,
Real, impossibly real, certain, unknowingly certain,
With the mystery of things beneath the stones and beings,
With death making the walls damp and the hair of men white,
With Destiny driving the wagon of everything down the road of nothing.


Today I’m defeated, as if I’d learned the truth.
Today I’m lucid, as if I were about to die
And had no greater kinship with things
Than to say farewell, this building and this side of the street becoming
A row of train cars, with the whistle for departure
Blowing in my head
And my nerves jolting and bones creaking as we pull out.


Today I’m bewildered, like a man who wondered and discovered and forgot.
Today I’m torn between the loyalty I owe
To the outward reality of the Tobacco Shop across the street
And to the inward reality of my feeling that everything’s a dream.


I failed in everything.
Since I had no ambition, perhaps I failed in nothing.
I left the education I was given,
Climbing down from the window at the back of the house.
I went to the country with big plans.
But all I found was grass and trees,
And when there were people they were just like the others.
I step back from the window and sit in a chair. What should I think about?


How should I know what I’ll be, I who don’t know what I am?
Be what I think? But I think of being so many things!
And there are so many who think of being the same thing that we can’t all be it!
Genius? At this moment
A hundred thousand brains are dreaming they’re geniuses like me,
And it may be that history won’t remember even one,
All of their imagined conquests amounting to so much dung.
No, I don’t believe in me.
Insane asylums are full of lunatics with certainties!
Am I, who have no certainties, more right or less right?
No, not even me . . .
In how many garrets and non-garrets of the world
Are self-convinced geniuses at this moment dreaming?
How many lofty and noble and lucid aspirations
–Yes, truly lofty and noble and lucid
And perhaps even attainable–
Will never see the light of day or find a sympathetic ear?
The world is for those born to conquer it,
Not for those who dream they can conquer it, even if they’re right.
I’ve done more in dreams than Napoleon.


I’ve held more humanities against my hypothetical breast than Christ.
I’ve secretly invented philosophies such as Kant never wrote.
But I am, and perhaps will always be, the man in the garret,
Even though I don’t live in one.
I’ll always be the one who wasn’t born for that;
I’ll always be merely the one who had qualities;
I’ll always be the one who waited for a door to open in a wall without doors
And sang the song of the Infinite in a chicken coop
And heard the voice of God in a covered well.
Believe in me? No, not in anything.
Let Nature pour over my seething head
Its sun, its rain, and the wind that finds my hair,
And let the rest come if it will or must, or let it not come.
Cardiac slaves of the stars,
We conquered the whole world before getting out of bed,
But we woke up and it’s hazy,
We got up and it’s alien,
We went outside and it’s the entire earth
Plus the solar system and the Milky Way and the Indefinite.


(Eat your chocolates, little girl,
Eat your chocolates!
Believe me, there’s no metaphysics on earth like chocolates,
And all religions put together teach no more than the candy shop.
Eat, dirty little girl, eat!
If only I could eat chocolates with the same truth as you!
But I think and, removing the silver paper that’s tinfoil,
I throw it on the ground, as I’ve thrown out life.)


But at least, from my bitterness over what I’ll never be,
There remains the hasty writing of these verses,
A broken gateway to the Impossible.
But at least I confer on myself a contempt without tears,
Noble at least in the sweeping gesture by which I fling
The dirty laundry that’s me–with no list–into the stream of things,
And I stay at home, shirtless.


(O my consoler, who doesn’t exist and therefore consoles,
Be you a Greek goddess, conceived as a living statue,
Or a patrician woman of Rome, impossibly noble and dire,
Or a princess of the troubadours, all charm and grace,
Or an eighteenth-century marchioness, decollete and aloof,
Or a famous courtesan from our parent’s generation,
Or something modern, I can’t quite imagine what–
Whatever all of this is, whatever you are, if you can inspire, then inspire me!
My heart is a poured-out bucket.
In the same way invokers of spirits invoke spirits, I invoke
My own self and find nothing.
I go to the window and see the street with absolute clarity.
I see the shops, I see the sidewalks, I see the passing cars,
I see the clothed living beings who pass each other.
I see the dogs that also exist,
And all of this weighs on me like a sentence of exile,
And all of this is foreign, like everything else.)


I’ve lived, studied, loved, and even believed,
And today there’s not a beggar I don’t envy just because he isn’t me.
I look at the tatters and sores and falsehood of each one,
And I think: perhaps you never lived or studied or loved or believed
(For it’s possible to do all of this without having done any of it);
Perhaps you’ve merely existed, as when a lizard has its tail cut off
And the tail keeps on twitching, without the lizard.
I made of myself what I was no good at making,
And what I could have made of myself I didn’t.
I put on the wrong costume
And was immediately taken for someone I wasn’t, and I said nothing and was lost.
When I went to take off the mask,
It was stuck to my face.
When I got it off and saw myself in the mirror,
I had already grown old.
I was drunk and no longer knew how to wear the costume hat I hadn’t taken off.
I threw out the mask and slept in the closet
Like a dog tolerated by the management
Because it’s harmless,
And I’ll write down this story to prove I’m sublime.


Musical essence of my useless verses,
If only I could look at you as something I had made
Instead of always looking at the Tobacco Shop across the street,
Trampling on my consciousness of existing,
Like a rug a drunkard stumbles on
Or a doormat stolen by gypsies and it’s not worth a thing.


But the Tobacco Shop Owner has come to the door and is standing there.
I look at him with the discomfort of a half-twisted neck
Compounded by the discomfort of a half-grasping soul.
He will die and I will die.
He’ll leave his signboard, I’ll leave my poems.
His sign will also eventually die, and so will my poems.
Eventually the street where the sign was will die,
And so will the language in which my poems were written.
Then the whirling planet where all of this happened will die.


On other planets of other solar systems something like people
Will continue to make things like poems and to live under things like signs,
Always one thing facing the other,
Always one thing as useless as the other,
Always the impossible as stupid as reality,
Always the inner mystery as true as the mystery sleeping on the surface.
Always this thing or always that, or neither one thing nor the other.


But a man has entered the Tobacco Shop (to buy tobacco?),
And plausible reality suddenly hits me.
I half rise from my chair–energetic, convinced, human–
And will try to write these verses in which I say the opposite.


I light up a cigarette as I think about writing them,
And in that cigarette I savor a freedom from all thought.
My eyes follow the smoke as if it were my own trail
And I enjoy, for a sensitive and fitting moment,
A liberation from all speculation
And an awareness that metaphysics is a consequence of not feeling very well.
Then I lean back in the chair
And keep smoking.
As long as Destiny permits, I’ll keep smoking.


(If I married my washwoman’s daughter
Perhaps I would be happy.)
I get up from the chair. I go to the window.


The man has come out of the Tobacco Shop (putting change into his pocket?).
Ah, I know him: it’s unmetaphysical Esteves.
(The Tobacco Shop Owner has come to the door.)
As if by divine instinct, Esteves turns around and sees me.
He waves hello, I shout back “Hello, Esteves!” and the universe
Falls back into place without ideals or hopes, and the Owner of the Tobacco Shop



about Fernando Pessoa

Favorite Poems: “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats

(Listen to Benedict Cumberbatch reciting it.)



My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
**My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
**One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk:
‘Tis not through envy of thy happy lot,
**But being too happy in thine happiness,—
****That thou, light-winged Dryad of the trees,
**********In some melodious plot
**Of beechen green, and shadows numberless,
****Singest of summer in full-throated ease.


O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been
**Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth,
Tasting of Flora and the country green,
**Dance, and Provencal song, and sunburnt mirth!
O for a beaker full of the warm South,
**Full of the true, the blushful Hippocrene,
****With beaded bubbles winking at the brim,
**********And purple-stained mouth;
**That I might drink, and leave the world unseen,
****And with thee fade away into the forest dim:


Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
**What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
**Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
**Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
****Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
**********And leaden-eyed despairs,
**Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
****Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.


Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
**Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
**Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
**And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
****Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;
**********But here there is no light,
**Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
****Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.


I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
**Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmed darkness, guess each sweet
**Wherewith the seasonable month endows
The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
**White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
****Fast fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
**********And mid-May’s eldest child,
**The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,
****The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.


Darkling I listen; and, for many a time
**I have been half in love with easeful Death,
Call’d him soft names in many a mused rhyme,
**To take into the air my quiet breath;
Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
**To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
****While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
**********In such an ecstasy!
**Still wouldst thou sing, and I have ears in vain—
****To thy high requiem become a sod.


Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
**No hungry generations tread thee down;
The voice I hear this passing night was heard
**In ancient days by emperor and clown:
Perhaps the self-same song that found a path
**Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home,
****She stood in tears amid the alien corn;
**********The same that oft-times hath
**Charm’d magic casements, opening on the foam
****Of perilous seas, in faery lands forlorn.


Forlorn! the very word is like a bell
**To toil me back from thee to my sole self!
Adieu! the fancy cannot cheat so well
**As she is fam’d to do, deceiving elf.
Adieu! adieu! thy plaintive anthem fades
**Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
****Up the hill-side; and now ‘tis buried deep
**********In the next valley-glades:
**Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
****Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?

Favorite Poems: The Jars by Paul Celan

(translated by Pierre Joris)


At the long table of time
God’s jars are boozing.
They guzzle the eyes of the seeing and the eyes of the blind,
the hearts of the ruling shadows,
the hollow cheek of evening.
They are the mightiest of boozers:
they raise to their lips the empty as well as the full
and don’t spill over like you or I.


original German poem



Favorite Poems: The Black Messengers (Los Heraldos Negros) by César Vallejo

(translated by Rachel Benson)

There are some blows in life so hard… I don’t know!
Blows that seem to come from God’s hatred; as if before them,
the backwash of all suffering
were welling into my soul…I don’t know!

They are few, but they are… They open dark furrows
in the toughest faces and the strongest backs.
Perhaps they are the colts of barbarous attilas;
or the black messengers sent us by Death.

They are the grave downfall of the soul’s Christs,
of some adorable faith that Destiny curses.
Those bloody blows are the crackling
of bread heating for us at the oven door.

And man… Poor… poor man! He turns his head
the way we do when a hand is clapped on our shoulder;
he turns his crazed eyes, and all living
is damned up in that glance, like a puddle of guilt.

There are some blows in life so hard… I don’t know!


read the poem in the original Spanish