Mudlark Poster No. 71 (2007)

Four Poems by Oliver Rice

It Is Summer on Tolstoy’s Estate | Ravaged by the Light
Or Waking on a Roof in Algiers | Of Goya, Of Prince Valiant

Oliver Rice has received the Theodore Roethke Prize, twice been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His poems have been published widely in the United States, as well as in Canada, England, Austria, Turkey, and India. His book, ON CONSENTING TO BE A MAN, will be introduced this spring by Cyberwit, a diversified publishing house in the cultural capital Allahabad, India, and will be available shortly thereafter on Amazon.

It Is Summer on Tolstoy’s Estate

He is fifty this year.
In his disequilibrium, he does not love it,
can hardly account for its expanse
of undulating fields — thousands of acres —
its villages, orchards, birchwood groves,
the worksheds, the shadows of the clouds,

poplar seeds flying in the wind,

the cawing of the crows,
fantasies of the Slav, the Tatar night,

nor quite perceive how it perpetuates itself,
provides him the privileges of minor aristocracy
under the dispensation of the Romanovs,
languid, private, willful days
in his library, at his grand piano,
among the portraits of his ancestors.

But is obligated, is attached to it,
to the serfs,
has begun to imitate their lifeways,
to grieve for their poverty and ignorance,
to despair of their psychology.

Has lately, as well, a sense
of the verges of a predicament closing.
The third great novel evades him, relentlessly.
Revolution threatens the months.
Has episodes of religious trauma,
of conjugal rancor,
of morbid revery.


Turgenev is visiting just now.

Ivan is ten years Lev’s senior.
Was early his mentor,
escorted him to Paris for enlightenment.

Both by nature, however, vain and quarrelsome,
their talents, their commotions diverging,
Lev reclusive and moralistic, Ivan urbane,
they have had occasional genuine reunions,
but most often been estranged.

Ivan, notorious womanizer, is suspected
of having compromised Lev’s married sister.

Lev, over a presumed slight of manners,
once challenged Ivan to a duel.

During an era of seventeen years,
they abandoned contact altogether.


Here, now, is the exquisite moment.

The children, the household servants,
the Countess — with an unconsenting mouth,
pregnant for the tenth time —
have assembled in the garden to observe them,
Lev and Ivan, face to face on the seesaw,

their auras,
their aging imperatives,
the shapes and tones of their discernments

hovering on the air.

Ravaged by the Light

Merton returned from a trip to New York City,
returned to Gethsemani, to matins and lauds,
saying a certain painting by van Gogh
is a “permanent victory.”

Do we understand this?

Esthetics is tediously inconstant.
The elments of the ultimate periodic table,
with their reciprocities, may be the only permanence.
Suppose, then, that Thomas spoke figuratively —
with some suggestion of hostility.

And victory? By whom? Over whom, what?

Pathetically erratic, uncouth, pious,
yearning for recognition and profit,
Vincent himself was overtaken at last in Arles,
ravaged by the light,
by his late facility, his colors,
the fields, the cypresses, the sunflowers,
discovered it was not dogma he sought
but moments of ecstatic lucidity —
none of them, by their nature, sufficient.

Suppose that Thomas, instructing the novices,
processing to the refectory for lunch,
knew what Vincent could not,
that a Sower, a Potato Eaters,
is a fragile, yes, revenge for the human condition.

Or Waking on a Roof in Algiers

Was it, is it true, Pascal —
supposing the ego in its prime
is possessed by fantasies of alterlives
in the Crimea, in the Andes,

true that the source of all human misery —
supposing the mind’s theater, day and night,
mounts scenes from an encyclopedia of being
in Sri Lanka, in Trinidad,

that the source is man’s inability to be alone
and content in his room —
supposing himself on a plane to an earnest place
beyond Timbuktu, beyond Jakarta?

Of Goya, Of Prince Valiant

Think of this bird bone on exhibit under glass.
It suggests a truth about the fragility of life.
It is touching, but —
in deference to an integrity of language —
one must not call it beautiful.

As with the dragon dish in this curio shop.

And with this painting of a homely room,
a dimity curtain lifted by a breeze.
Although its truth equivocates.


Think of the nymph Eurydice,
who is, by designation, supremely beautiful,
whose truth is spun from the the thin air of myth.

Much like Helen of Sparta.
Although her truth is humanly sullied.

Like this ballerina on point in one’s libido.


Think of this museum of torture instruments.
It states quite truthfully what it is.
But is loathsome.


Think of the iridescent eggs of the white partridge.
They are merely pretty.

Much like the Windward Island sloop at anchor.

Like this house in Provence,
hearts on its shutters,
roses climbing on the fence,
fig tree by the door.
Although its truth grows banal.

Like this photograph of a devotee
leaving petunias on Shelley’s Roman grave.


Think of this passage from the St. Matthew Passion.
It is a guise for an ultimate beauty,
despite its theological presumptions to truth.


Think of this black actor applying pink makeup,
of the Zen garden running out from this veranda,
of the poplars planted by the Gypsies at Dachau,
now sixty feet high, sighing in the wind.
These are authentic instances, but —
in deference to an integrity of language —
one must call them less beautiful than striking,
provocative for their societal implications.


Think of the Rift Valley
from high up on its eastern wall,
the dormant volcanoes, the zebras,
the Masai herdsmen in the stupefying midday heat
asleep beneath scrub acacias.
The scene is too anthropological to be beautiful.

Think of the Transantarctic Mountains,
where no rain has fallen in two million years.
Their awesome inhospitality overwhelms their beauty.

Think of Guernica.

Think of Edward Munch shrieking.

Copyright © Mudlark 2007
Mudlark Posters | Home Page