THE STRICKEN AND THE STILL
i.m.: R. S. Thomas, 1913-2000
The poet photographed deplorably—
A stern old codger, country clergyman,
Stubbornly Welsh and fiercely Anglican—
In every portrait he scowls bitterly.
Oh, how he raged against modernity!
Refrigerators were decried in sermons;
Machines he saw as little more than vermin,
Distractions from our spirituality.
But the harsh music of the balding hills
Flowed freely, unencumbered, in his lines:
He caught the cadence of the health, the ills,
Of those who tilled the earth or delved the mines.
He moved among the stricken and the still,
Attuned to more celestial designs.
FOR SIR JOHN BETJEMAN, 1906-1984
John Betjeman was the Poet Laureate
Of Britain in the nineteen seventies—
Tweedy, avuncular, known for his ease
With journalists, his flawless etiquette.
Perhaps at some point you’ll have heard his name,
But have no real feeling for his verse;
Widespread acclaim can often be a curse;
His genius was submerged beneath his fame.
I came across a gathering of songs,
Settings for words that he penned years ago:
So many haunting lines I didn’t know;
Each witticism right where it belongs.
His oeuvre resonates as few things can—
Enough to make me wish I’d met the man.
PASSING A STOREFRONT CHURCH
A storefront mission in the Tenderloin,
Whose battered sign proclaims “Cristo Viene,”
Exacts no tears. (Indeed, I have not any;
My soul cannot be purchased with that coin.)
Here, twilight’s perched uneasily between
This holiness of dubious repute
And gaggles of bedraggled prostitutes,
The oldest of them barely seventeen.
Then there’s a bundled figure in the doorway
So indistinct it’s neither man nor woman—
Although we recognize it must be human—
Once pliant flesh deformed by long decay.
The shuttle turns a corner, and the night
Engulfs for good this dreary scrap of light.
Raised in New Jersey, Robert Lavett Smith has lived since 1987 in San Francisco, where for the past sixteen years he has worked as a Special Education Paraprofessional. He has studied with Charles Simic and the late Galway Kinnell. He is the author of several chapbooks and three full-length poetry collections, the most recent of which is The Widower Considers Candles (Full Court Press, 2014). He has recently been working on an new collection of sonnets—his second foray into the form—which is entitled Sturgeon Moon, and which will hopefully be published by Full Court Press at the end of the year.