Karl Kirchwey

Three Poems
February 25, 2024 Kirchwey Karl



i.m. John Hollander (1929-2013)


I dropped a sprig of laurel into your grave
by now ten years ago, laurel that I
had been given by Aeolus, King of
the winds on the island of Stromboli.


Ten years you have bided your changes,
that hurrying voice, that confidential eye,
and the helpless, helpless upwelling of knowledge.
Tell me: what is the view from eternity?


The train ran elevated to Cypress Hills,
the tenements’ iron cornices spooling by
in a passage of garlands as in ancient festivals,
a running frieze of swags. But after the J,


it was car parts like shattered body armor
on the off-ramp from the Jackie Robinson Parkway,
beer cans and cigarette packs and underwear,
in a passage from elegy to irony.


I put my hand (your grave was still unmarked)
on the earth where I thought your heart would be.
Then I sat on the marble steps of a cracked
mausoleum and read your poems aloud. Nearby,


a mockingbird listened from a cypress.
Once in Tribeca at a gallery,
you bestrode the world like a haggard colossus,
awaiting all comers, wagging your head bearishly,


and I will always think of you like that.
I know I interested you only intermittently:
the miracle was, the holy fool could write.
Neither of us understood it, really.


“I have major griefs,” you said toward the end,
“and minor griefs. Now it is time for me
to lie down and think about them.” Restless friend,
peace to your thoughts, then, on this summer day.


July 21, 2023


Roman Morning


      (Palazzo Mattei di Giove)


A woman stands beside an open window
talking on her iPhone,
and on a roof in the Roman
morning, green weeds glow


around a travertine volute.
The old glass wavers,
and the painted sphinxes on the shutters
wrought up with birds and blistered fruit


listen blank-eyed while something ends,
as far as I can tell.
In the street outside, a gull
laughs, and then silence mends


around the sound of children’s voices.
The polished marble floor
leads through rooms opening off each other
like a series of choices,


and the breasted sphinxes frown
at a dozing Cupid,
among shelves of books unread
for years by anyone.




Mutabor: Villars


Lead, speed or bouldering: the arts are three.
I watch him as he climbs, his body mantling
on the void as he clings to the overhang.
His dusted fingers shape his thoughts, and he


finds sloper, volume, jug, crimp, pinch, a style
by which to work his rise. It is his passion.
Later, he and I turn on the television,
and gradually, behind the inverted wall


built in a resort town for the contest’s purpose,
begins to open out the mountainscape—
fortress, cathedral, yellow tooth, sheer drop—
that I have carried with me fifty years,


leading my eye in the upward reflex
I woke to every day when I lived there,
august, unreachable, unspeaking theater
of stone by which I learned speech, no mere crux


of intellect to solve, but by its silence
extorting language from me. I wrote Thorn
to tear the blush of feeling. I wrote Horn
to end the world when at last the world ends,


I wrote Chisel to break the many-colored
dome and Hook to draw out the still-unwoken most
vulnerable part of myself, till at last
the mountain, in its weird blue ice-lights, replied


Make yourself transparent so I can see you,
brooding as it was over its own vast lap
where out of the Cretaceous it had roused up,
and words were real as things, words were things too!


I did not think, in the mountains: I sang.
My mouth was full of stones. There was a time,
though by now long ago, when I became
portion of that around me. Mountains were a feeling;


I felt all that I saw, and from solitude
came the conviction of being not alone,
so that, like the glacier of the Tsanfleuron,
the self retreated; melting, something purified


from self, steep as falling and slow as healing,
I’m sure of it. But not these words at all:
different words. I can repeat the spell
but not the rapture. I am here watching


my son at bouldering in his own day.
He does not care if I am not what I have been,
or that these mountains will not rise from their lean
crouch to skip like rams. He muses limberly


awhile, then suddenly erupts into
a nonchalant and transverse gibbon’s leap,
a lover’s clasp, a lizard’s scrabbling dip,
finger-hold, toe-hold, wedged knee, wedged elbow,


self-correcting, self-forgiving, powder light,
tending upward, worthy of himself.
I cheer his body’s coiled imperative
in a stone forum ringed by no regret.



Notes and sources
The International Federation of Sport Climbing (IFSC) World Cup took place in the resort town of Villars in French Switzerland  from July 1-3, 2021.


“words real as things”: cf. Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, III.114


“portion of that around me” and “The mountains were a feeling”: cf. Byron, III. 72
“the sense of being least alone”: cf. Byron, III.90


The glacier of the Tsanfleuron, on the mountain called the Diablerets in the Vaudoise Alps, has retreated significantly in forty-three years because of climate change, as is visible by comparing the detailed Swiss topographical maps issued in 1969 and 2012.


“Skip like rams”: Psalms 114.4


“I am not what I have been”: cf. Byron III.111


“worthy of himself”: cf. Wordsworth The Prelude I. 350

Karl Kirchwey is the author of seven books of poems. His eighth, Good Apothecary, is forthcoming from Northwestern University Press in 2025. Sections of his ongoing long poem Mutabor have appeared in journals since 2011. He teaches in the MFA programs in Creative Writing and in Literary Translation at Boston University.