Keith Waldrop

Potential Random

for Barbara Guest


" deep sleep, the mind may come
closest to perfecting rational thought.
We have no reason for asserting the
opposite, except that when we wake we
do not remember our idea.

Immanuel Kant


settle down
make a stop

the alighting of birds

through a place
wandering women

pinched off from a piece of clay

a kind of earth or soil

asphalt in the third millenium

unconscious recipient of mercy

caulking for Noah's ark
the basket in which Moses was placed

and the Nile

dependent on water
set up camp

(watch me disappear)

filled with terror

be quiet




Many books have been destroyed, carelessly or by design. 
Lost, burnt, forgotten, volumes drop out of existence, along
with—more easily disposed of—proofs never pulled, unpub-
lished manuscripts, notes for books, plans and proposals for
things to be written, collected, put into books. The number of
projects unaccomplished in history must be enormous.

     And much larger, almost infinite, the realm of projects
unattempted, never started, what no one ever thought to

     My doctrine would derive, not from wisdom concealed
by anxious arhats in caves beneath impassable Himalayas, nor
from a chain of unwritten instruction passed guru-wise down
centuries. It would remain in a world beneath notice, too
obvious to be considered. Thus, secret. 

     The world as it lies open here, waiting for me to fail.

     I do not need to know your real name.

     This much seems obvious, that as we move along the
path, slowly but certainly the path replaces us. And also,
just as strands in the vitreous humour cloud the visual field,
words stray, making our thought opaque.




Ship is in danger, ship
must be repaired, but ship must
continue afloat as long as we continue
crossing the dangerous waters.


These events take place in order that they may be


Egypt is memory, captivity in Egypt
is memory. Ship of the
North with its
anchor from the South, it rides above
the Ur-Fish. 


From many names for God come
many gods. If you believe in any,
you may know how the body could be glorified.


And if you will rise with that
withered arm...


Names of things
can never enter Heaven.


Turn now, together with your body—turn
past the five windows, past
your pride in the dark image and your
body turning.


Waking, doomsday for some dream.


Words perish, like the word for oyster. Words
are a great retreat—they are
like strips of existing or like
sea-shells echoing words.



A view of the landscape.


A view of the river, of
bathers along the bank.


Now a view of the view, a
sheer perspective.


He is sent away, so
begins to exist.


Homeward bound taxi: rather hazy idea.

top (or truth)

Surely he'll find something to
say on the silliness of opera.

bottom (or beauty)



Stand here, where without too great a turn, my eyes meet
your eyes mirrored. And my eyes in the mirror, your eyes. 

     Whatever's to either side of us runs out of the frame and
is lost. What's behind us is lost behind us.

     Reduced to picture, we can appreciate our picture,
reversed but right side up. Our lines of sight are straightfor-
ward—the surface glassy, clear.

     Simple and astonishing, the location of bodies, grandly
irregular in the smooth surrounding echo.




wicked at first
tore their clothes
refusing to speak
took off their sandals


I know not what


ready by tomorrow
gashed themselves
exactly at midnight
freely lamented


I know not whither






What is seen then, as the center, is not the center, but only
light feeding into the center.

Devastation, ritual of covenant accompanied by darkness.

Wash your clothes.

Shave off your hair.

Bathe yourself in water.

All space becomes neutral.

Uncaulked and unprovisioned, we reach shore.

Something must be done about darkness before we can live
in this light.

Cold air and warm air twinkle the starlight, Nobody's
mother tongue.





At the mouth of the stream, there is a mysterious
A mountain on the island.
The trees there bear (no Tree-of-Life) precious stones.
A place of desires.

I crouch down in my torn clothes.
Bloodstained cloak.
I cut off my hair and howl.
Slain man wallowing in his blood.

They are so terrified they forget to call for mourners.
The other side of death. 
They mourn with astonishing frequency.
A razor from beyond the Euphrates.

She saunters under quick green trees, angels falling
around her.
Chinks in the rational.
Song turns into lamentation.
Canopy of darkness.

Soldiers offer strawberry coral.
The dark is slippery.
Shapeless logs, sacred stones, then images.





The shapes of things rise up against me—cube, pyramid,
cone—actual, ideal—and threaten to trip me up, obstruct
me, box me in.


They lie in wait. They spring from my own eyes.


I take them all, straight-lined or curved, reducing each to a
circle—closed, each circle, by a movement of my hand.




No counting the
number of the dead, the number
of those who will die.

Kant thought Earth had at one time, like Saturn, a ring.
Composed of watery vapors, it encircled the world in beauty,
to be regarded and appreciated by Earth's inhabitants.

In the course of time, from the action of a comet or other
cause, the waters composing that ring were loosed and fell
upon Earth and in that deluge the greater part of a sinful
mankind perished.

Lost thereby, for the survivors, which is to say, for us: the
sight of that ring in the upper air, the most exquisite view
from the surface of Paradise or a young planet—our rainbow
a faint reminder of the glory lost.

           At the center of every
           system is a flaming

           Bright sun between
           grapevine and fig tree.

           By coincidence,
           sun and moon
           are exactly the same size.

           Celestial phenomena—there are
           so many stars—merge along
           my line of sight.

           Directly before my eye descends
           a spider—slowly, a ways
           away, just down to eye-level.

           Earth spins in the
           sun's corona. 

           High countries in the
           dust, and also
           elephants, alas.

           A hundred miles of
           umbra over un-
           counted acres of tundra.

           I try to find some
           sense in which behind is
           not in back of.

           It suggests the
           idea of a bird.

           Monstrous colors on
           certain things.

           Monstrous things in
           uncertain colors.

           One has to choose between
           and what life contains.

           Sunspots freeze in place.

           Traveling some current, the
           road imponderable.

           Wastrel and hangman
           thrive in the conquered

           What have I ever wanted to
           say, but
           how at this moment



He walks in darkness, sits in darkness, dwells. Darkness
falls, clouds, covers.

     Or clouds of insects. 

     Or extinguishing a lamp. 

     After so many years, it ought to be infinite, but it never
is and car lights glide so easily across his ceiling. 

     Neither cornlands, nor well-kept vineyards, only...

     He cannot decide whether it's better to regard the soul as
asleep or to take what seems like dream to be the waking

     Scattered objects must have something to tell. Between
the stars, between the positive particles, there is said to be
"nothing"—can he hold this? 

     Delicate arms, bare, a hopeless gesture.

     He cannot decide if cosmic fire creates the universe or
ignites as executioner. The bitten line is broken, resembling
lightning in a mediocre sky. 

     He cannot decide whether it is a friend in a dream speak-
ing to him of danger, or a dangerous dream instructing him
to act for the sake of the hypnotist. 

     His face darkens, with the darkness of delight.

     He dreams a costume dream. What colors are latent in
his darkness?

     He does know that there are other shadows—uncertain-
ties, headlights, fires on the beach at Nice, the horror of
being chosen.

     At moments life is so transparent that everything seems
real, seems anyway familiar, distantly, like the aging face of
someone he last saw young.

     He cannot tell if his dream—so quickly forgotten—roused
this storm in his soul, or if anxiety springs from his being
awake, alert, dreamless. 

     ...sallow throng beside dismal pool...

     A very high and concave roof. He cannot decide where
reason ends, associating as he does darkness with creation.

     Between now and now, was time—will time be—empty?

     What runs in the dark, or in daylight from stone to stone,
sudden as spasm, a streak of blood? 

     Sheer throb relaxes into the mirror opposite, hard to fol-
low, complex but quite complete. Losing certain colors might
impoverish his visual life, but he realizes that a flaw in the
numerical system would weaken the structure of the world.

     With sunrise comes battle.

     How is it, sensitive to signs of the times, he finds it so
hard to decipher headlines? 

     And in what body would he like to be raised? 

     He is no more present to himself than objects in his
view—the journey, long for so short a life, promising agate,
chalcedony. He attends to changing expression, flickers of
shadow, to keep his thought from running inward to inward

     He cannot decide whether to change the subject.

     He sings English and understands it is not always possi-
ble to make clear distinctions.

     Sees no cause, he, to do no otherwise. 

     He considers movement, perhaps in the sense of change,
honing the sword. 

     He cannot decide whether to describe his death in terms
of hunger and sundown—or like a new-born babe, in the
course of its disaster.

     There have been some more overwhelmed than he with
shame, with pity and terror—the east ablaze, the city's
spires afire. 

     He cannot decide if the experiment is local, all life com-
posed on this periphery, or if along the wall of stars there's
by chance another creature—farther than faintest signals—




Now a warm wind riffles
the leaves, ransacks the neighborhood.


You will not wake up for me.


In a certain chord, by the western loop of
Ermine Street, tomorrow
is well known, speckling as it does
flagstone and flag, slim white hands.


The street ripples, roars. Take
it all away, lay it among
the scarcely remembered.


As we stroll, a thick crust
underfoot and perfectly firm, beautiful
eyes and
teeth flashing.


Moss may
edge the brook, tree-shaded
streets sleep, shadow-damaged, under
a late sun.


Snakes hate summer and are
revived by rain.


Housetops glitter a long-forgotten
flame, a frightful dream. But do not
ever dream of ghosts: they will undo
your remembering.


Lateen shades, lace curtains, rich
tumuli, the stillest city
swarms with hurry.


Our restless fingers, so they
stand. Throbbing
silence, darkening room.


Irrelevant, my own attire blood-
stained and ragged, what
nightmare sleeping or
awake, prying the bolted scuttle.


Otherwise, no signal for fear.


No sea-sickness in heaven.


Reality, Aristotle says, is not
a daytime serial. 


Then comes Love's
army, disemboweled, Love's own
cavalry, guts
hanging from the saddle.


Adventures on my pillow and
below the snow-line. 


A fierce pride
blazes at any
hint of earthly pleasure.




tall grain
food for the dead

a contest with uncleanness
detestable things



wallow in ashes
wail aloud

covering cherub

ideas of death




An aging house, well yes he
understands that—but suddenly
down it falls.


And he is in a garden.


And there are animals.


And he is in a garden and
there are trees.


And there are stones on


And, well, he walks
up and down on them.


But this is
the Hebrew and, not
a conjunction, merely some un-
translatable particle.


Cenotaph (there is no
body here).


(Somehow I can't imagine
digging a separate grave for the heart.)


And everything is cast
down—plants, animals,
garden, stones, fire, Tyre
with its river called
Litany—along with himself.


The living organism, he
hears, is a
symbol of the psyche.


Thinking is inward seeing.
So Wittgenstein thought, and also


Die, well yes he knows he
has to, but thinks of it as being
killed—or killing.


As if at a distance—he
lives, not in
life, but across from it.


And it comes to pass.


And he tries to distinguish
life and its contents.


And they wheel around him, the cars, as
if he were standing still.



Three lists remain: The first
is a list of the living,

who are now dead. The second records
the saints and martyrs, those

who laid down their lives to
be with Jesus. They fly to Him,

to miss the long repose.
The third list

is a list of the dead.




The days fan out, free and fragmentary, leaving him
night—night folded around him and also inevitable unfolding

     He is not absolutely sure the heavenly bodies are capable
of desire. 

     Low decorative screens that he adores for their design
conceal household gods and other holy objects.

     He thinks of Moses, prepared to slay the death-angel. 

     Or Pisgah. 

     Love, in its mountain ranges. 


     In earlier travels, he saw red windblown sand. 

     He has been told that the number of stars in the sky,
whatever it is, is just the right number.

     Also, that before he goes away again, he should file a
change of address. There is no bravery more stubborn than
this: the dead lie where they fall.

     But note, he does not tell us, or even himself, everything. 
And, besides, this world lasts only so long as it lacks bal-
ance—the veer preserves us. 

     Passing regiments, glittering steel, outcurving flame,
incoherent pollen. Note also, this poem is quite impersonal.

     Hints reach him that stars of an earlier generation,
crumbled to dust, haunt all the corridors. 

     Loath to part from his early life—or its aftertaste—trail-
ing thus through nothing to nothing. 

     Cascades of unbound hair. 

     Ineffable cushions. 

     He can never manage to distinguish death's three weap-
ons: a song, a dance, and whatever is absolutely pointless. 

     Hills surround abscissa, ordinate, simplest functions, the
light too strong for more intricate patterns.

     And among these secular representations, uncomfortable

     In the shadow of the house, the tree. Then distant shots,
a hollow roar. Traditional bonfires blaze on hilltops. Wrecked
cafés across rainfilled streets. Glass-littered sidewalks. 

     This room, this door, this valley open on all sides, quick
with the terror of choosing. 

     ...eyeless sockets... hair...

     He cannot keep in mind how any thought left to itself,
any autonomous act of the brain, is terrible—destruction if
awake—asleep, a revelation—or even how the ligature of
bones runs fast as lightning in the night.

     His dream no longer upsets him—outlying barrows, cold,
clustered, as if there really were a god of the cold—until he
notices it is in color. 

     He cannot decide whether to wish for day or to wish for a
day's return or to wish for a decision.

     The last moment, here, now, reflected, sliding to its
fade—he looks forward to it, such as it was. 

     He has been spared, on more than one occasion, unrea-
sonable happiness.




blob-like clouds
a pagan or a foreign hairstyle


I adapt this to the apprehension of humankind.


a circle or something that can be rolled
light-years from the center
inner rim of the disc of clouds
heavily processed inside stars
the wheel of a chariot
the central cluster
a round thistle
five billion years
wheel at the cistern


And also to the understanding of angels.


tightly packed stars
dwelling place of demons
dust warmed by the stars
haunt of jackals
the surrounding gas
without inhabitant