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Sample Poems by Rachel Hadas

In My Son’s Room, Not Sleeping

Punishment? Banishment? The empty room
already blushes with a hint of dawn.
Blinds pulled down can’t stanch the stealthy sun.

If there’s a clock in here, it doesn’t tick.
Hours pile into a teetering stack
of mornings trumping midnights. Week by week,

haggard from the vigil, time to pay
the tax for restoration of the fray-
ing velvet darkness thinner every day.

Ode to Sleep

O soothest Sleep, if so it please thee, close
In midst of this thine hymn my willing eyes,
wrote Keats. Sleep: the delicious,
the longed-for, the elusive.

To praise and pray for seem redundancies,
close to synonymous, yet opposite:
we praise what we have and pray for what we lack,
but also praise what we know how to cherish
because we have had it but have it no longer
(youth, health, success); and pray for what we wish
continuance of, like happiness, like life.
To assume any good thing
will go on blithely bestowing itself
feels unlucky, so we pray for it.
What prayer and praise both bracket
is blessing. And what else is sleep? It’s doubtful
whether Keats managed to close his eyes
amidst the very hymn he was composing
to the moody goddess. He must have known
a cloudy law ordains: who wants to sleep
must put down pen and paper,
notebook and notes, and yield;
drift through the door with hands left floating free
to follow a dark clue.

Side by Side

Are you asleep? Not really.
A mountain pass, a valley
unfurl before your eyes.
Galloping images seethe in your skull.

Am I awake? Not really.
I know where my arms and legs are
and that the cat’s head rests against a flank.
I can answer the phone in a flash and sound alert.

But just as in your drowsiness a sly
spark of alertness hides,
so in my readiness to leap from bed
there lurks a dim refusal.

Neolithic Figurine, Spetses Archaeological Museum

Winged, bronze, two inches tall or less;
embodied stillness brimming with repose;
you have no feet, but at your pedestal
lie a row of slim bronze objects all
like you unlabelled: skewer, spoon, and snake,
what looks to be a zipper pull; fishhook—
each clearly fashioned by a human hand
for some earthly purpose. But you stand
perpendicularly poised for flight,
arms ready to reach out and wings to beat.

Pawn-sized messenger and angel too,
your energy compressed inside of you
for two millennia, with what look to be
both tenderness and generosity
(the tiny tilted head, the earnest gaze)—
I trust you, though you haven’t any face.
Though you could fit into a toddler’s hand,
I write in the belief you understand,
and greet you, goddess, there in your glass case
upstairs in a Spetsiot captain’s house.
Where were you on this island before that?
Before, before . . . how many summers’ heat?
June, July, August: centuries go by.
From your corner can you see the sky?

Modern Greek 101

These phrases, once lodged in your memory,
Will help you find your way, I guarantee,
Through any social circumstance in Greek,
Each Scylla and Charybdis when you speak.
All will work in any situation,
Plug up gaps in any conversation,
Politely answer any salutation.
It’s surely no coincidence all four
In different ways purport to reassure.
So get your notebooks out, for here they are.

Siga-siga first: take it easy, slow
Down. Ti na kanome: what can we do?
Then pirazi: it doesn’t matter.
(See how our repertory’s getting fatter?)
Last but not least en daxi: all right, okay.
These are the crucial ones, and this is why:
Whichever of the four you chance to use
Shrugs with a weary grace you can’t refuse,
An attitude for which there is no name
In English, though we try it all the same,
Not understanding what we imitate:
Mild acquiescence in the face of Fate,
Not dialectical and not dramatic,
But unassuming, formulaic, phatic.

One boiling morning I remarked, “It’s hot.”
The aproned landlord shrugged: “It matters not.”
“What a pretty evening,” I once said.
“What can we do?” a black-clad crone replied.
Reverse these scraps of dialogue: you too
Can answer anything that’s said to you—
Though said is not the word so much as sung:
A whole philosophy rolls off the tongue.