Selected Poetry of Eric Basso

As part of Eric Basso Week here at, we wanted to provide readers with a selection of his poems. Six different poetry collections are represented here, with the exception of his most recent collection, Umbra. This is but a small representation of his poetic output, and we encourage readers to seek out more of his poetry. Click here for a complete selection of Eric Basso’s books. – The Editors



(From Accidental Monsters)

ceremonies are a dim memory you
can get the old ones to talk of
anything but that they’d rather
make something up than admit to
what no one chooses to remember
natural cataclysms in a distant
past when the ground yawned and
cities were swallowed up behind
mammoth dust-clouds such legends
are all too easy to come by but
if you ask about the ceremonies
they tell you to look out for a
certain pebble or to read what-
ever patterns the wind makes in
the sand they would rather tell
lies than confess to what real-
ly happened and no one wants to
break the conspiracy of silence

May 30, 1976


(From The Catwalk Watch)

empty streets then shadows late in the afternoon
that rippled a footfall echoing across the pavement

after the search they returned to their homes
empty-handed-most of their wives gone to the grave
or white-haired crones rocking by the windows
with no memory of why or how their men had left them

the survivors met at a beer-stained table
under Japanese engravings that hung
in the dark of the tavern

their barman had died during
the long years of the search-
some wondered why
they had ever bothered to return

July 10, 1978


The Smoking Mirror
(From The Silent Mirror)

for Marie-José Fortis

the great conundrum — a tree falls
in a forest and no one’s there -
does it fall?  is there even a tree
a forest?  who poses the question?
answer: the woodsman leaves no tracks
the brown leaves crumble of themselves
someone has become no one

it happened so long ago
it almost slid beyond the grip
of memory — the poet saw his daughter
moving toward the door
and knew she had gone mad -
as she put her hand to the knob
he called her name and she turned
to face him: between that moment
and the next the poet had become
an old man on the verge of death
alone in a room with a phantom
“wait” he whispered loudly enough
for her to hear but already she was
staring back into an empty chamber
and when she turned away her skirts
only seemed to rustle as she walked
noiselessly into the outer hall
closing the door behind her

dilemma of what one can only ever see
in reverse — the old cities are full
of men that have stood at the snare
waiting for the last disguise to drop
and reveal the face of the prey -
they’ve watched their children die
seen their wives in a stranger’s bed
smelled the jackal’s breath at their back
but one dazed look seldom if ever strikes
full on the eye it was meant for:
the old cities’ houses have grown
thinner than a bloodless dream

I uncorked the apothecaries’ bottle
and let the devil out — he hobbled toward me
on a pair of brittle ivory crutches
doffed his jeweled turban and bowed
“I’ll make the town roofs vanish
and show you who lives where and how”
I put my hand to his silken sleeve
and we were off — the roof tiles turned to glass
then disappeared beneath our eyes: we looked
upon the living dead in their tombs
and each was standing before a mirror

and Asmodeus said  “this woman
is Claire Duchaste or Deborah Démeny
whose second name comes from a dream”
one side of the looking-glass no one sees
just what Claire sees and Deborah sees
neither Claire nor the room where Claire
stands naked on that threadbare Persian rug
yet Deborah too feels or thinks she feels
the breeze from an open window touch her body
and absentmindedly scratches her hip
at the same instant which finds Claire’s
fingers brushing a mosquito from her own
“if Claire exists and can be touched
flesh to flesh by anyone other than herself
then all is well with us” Asmodeus whispered
“but if Deborah Démeny is the real one
then we two are less than the mosquito
we are nothing” for both Claire and Deborah
lie one beyond the other’s reach -
neither can ever be of the other -
the mosquito crawls on the blind side only
and this is the place of strangers:
the blind side of an unkempt dream

let me go or bring me to the place
where I can sit and watch the thing
that happens in the dark” it was
his voice I heard his voice or mine
among the shadows on the other side

of the latticework — you poke your fingers
through the holes you come up against
the frozen smoke — I can see you there
I cannot see you no that was the lie
but I sometimes hear you breathing
or feel your teardrops falling
on my toes as they strap me in:
they’ve left me just enough of myself
to know I might at some time
pull the match from my pocket
strike with my thumbnail and tell
my story in the language of another

concessions to one fact -
that the flame sparks white
settles to an unsteady glimmer
goes out in the damp of my palm -
all I have seen will still
be less real than this blindness:
no more than a groping-place

the stairs run two directions — one to the horizontal
one to the vertical — they cross through doorways
under the shadows never meeting
carrying their bitter embassy to evaporation
and cast a silver stain upon the wall:
a mirror robbed of all images

someone peers into it
rapping his knuckles on that warm ice
as one might knock for the echo
inside an empty skull — the murderer
and the artist are one dissection of
a single face from youth to death -
the mirror alone abides without a dent
to scar the underside of its mask:
from there the light is always out
the room deserted and the staring eye
a stone interred in an upright pool

March 1985


Villa of the Mysteries
(From Catafalques)

what I could feel on my eyes
blank spatulate tips of stone
cold against the heaviness of the lids
hands caked with coal slivers and dust
and no ointment to salve the horror
of the haunting ground below

I entered by way of the lowest gallery
was interred in the well of the underlings
stretched out on tufts the earth grows for hair
shading its worms with a bone garden
the darkness licking at my tongue
the ebb of the heart’s cage murmuring

blue mountains beyond the crumbling colonnade
calm sea and not a single sail to shatter
the monotony of the curtain in the web
my face behind a thousand fading mirrors
from the first to the last unrecognizable
open the books and the pages will fall away

the woman held a gram of stardust
in her palm the glitter of forgotten eyes
more moist and naked than her flesh
green against the hedge she was lying
on her belly arched her haunches and smiled
as though no one were there to see

none but she to peruse these antiquities
cenotaphs with turning heads the glances
of sepulchral monuments embedded in
the lawns the tiles the terraced flagstones
where lizards cooled themselves beneath willows
and dreamed the dream of the dragon’s doom

dream of the monster Blindness
that creeps through the pillared halls
stops for the echo of its breath off the walls
to tell the distance it has yet to cross
to find the bleeding core of the Villa
and wipe death’s glaze from its eyelids

Tiresias in rags sifting the volcanic ash
for buried centaurs found a hoof
tugged at the desiccated fetlock
till a flank emerged and the face
came up black its eyes the sightless rubies
he could touch but never see the blindness of

the rest of the unhealed prophets lay
four to a room with the unforgiven
the olympians and the dead messiahs
chained to their bedposts clothed
as the tree is in high summer
crowned like the goat-footed god

over cavernous noises their screams
carried far into the woods
unlocked the oblong doors to the trees
the upright tombs whose rusted hinges sighed
to find a voice through the red dust
a lying-place under the silence of the moon

this forest of women their bodies
half transformed like mermaids
made of flesh and tree bark
warms at the pale loins where
the brown moss merges with the trunk
and the sap flows into the roots

their life’s blood meanders below ground
beneath the silt and through the ocher weeds
to drench the Villa’s ancient voices in the night
and there the toothless mouth will yawn
at the blade’s edge of sleep the eyes
will roll before they open on the blackness

bard in the boreal night bearded and strange
a glass moon hangs above your stubbled head
flakes of brittle snow shuddered by wind
cry farewell to the land of the sun
that spirals over the eucalyptus tree
farewell to swamps and their slithering venoms

this is not mine but the dream of another
who has never seen my face or heard my voice
but whom the womb separated before birth
when I too was breathing water and mist
gilled for an eternity in the grotto where no sound
could reach him untranslated by these liquid depths

May 1988


 Ice Fields
(From Ghost Light)

the mule crawls under
its cart and lies there
for close to a hundred years

an old man lets half a room
to the woman he hopes will
see him into the grave

black smoke billows
from a shattered window
now there’s time to forget

if I could inch it forward
without choking on my own air
like all the others here

less left of me
to make these words
you will never read

October 4, 1993


Found Objects
(From Earthworks)

a border of black spitting snow
the last thing you see
before losing consciousness
a darkness that has no meaning
followed by disintegrating outlines
of leaves or a path beside
a crumbling house

something moves in what
a second later becomes the grass
the dream begins
but it is not your dream

a fat man in a three-piece suit
waddles in to give you the bad news
you are nothing more and a great deal
less than the faded wallpaper
whose designs you admired
in a past life

a hand emerges from the þoor
a diamond bracelet around the wrist
you’d like to hock it but can’t
summon up the nerve
to tear it away

people still walk the streets
even at the break of noon

that thump in the heat duct
is the last gasp of winter
it plunges into your veins
before you can pluck it out

you are lying there unable to move
something comes into the room
you feel its weight on your back
as the blade penetrates your rib

nothing but a small speck of sky
someone will look up to it
for an instant before
poisoning the well

April 1, 1996

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