Elegy for Old Masters

Sam Hamill

Elegy for Old Masters

Suddenly old and once again sleepless,
I rise in the night and slip outside
and climb the steep narrow steps to my terrace
to gaze up again at the southern skies.
I’ve learned to find the Southern Cross
and the Three Marias, but all the rest
remain a distant bafflement of barely dancing lights
on a moonless night in Buenós Aires.

Those who loved and taught me long ago,
those who spoke of solidarity and struggle,
are mostly dead and gone, their bodies
burned or buried — sad-eyed Rexroth,
who loved wandering in the mountains,
became a mountain; Levertov, my dear Denise,
who often spoke of revolutionary love,
is another faint light in the heavens;

Tom McGrath, who grinned and said his poems
were either tactical or strategic, raised
his weary voice and head in wild Irish joy
even as he lay dying in his hospital bed;
and brother Carruth, so troubled in his long life,
found serenity in the end through poems
for his beautiful wife and proclaimed with a laugh
that he was becoming the Dalai Lama.

These skies are a little brighter tonight
because they trod this battered earth and felt
the sufferings and modest joys of others
and turned their full heart-songs against
the killing machine that is our nation.

But where are our revolutionary poets
today?  Poetry’s become a minor industry,
literature a business run by bureaucrats.

Every poet is a teacher, technique the winery sea
in which ideas drown.  Who shall please
the Guggenheims, the Lanais and MacArthurs
and suddenly be declared a genius?
Money and ambition are poisons in the well
at which true Muses drink.  Poetry becomes
a commodity peddled by the well-fed dogs
of corporate duplicity.  No one makes a sacrifice.

I long to hear once more old Etheridge
say a poem, grin, and break into a chorus
of “Willow Weep for Me,” and tell my prison class,
“Write only that one poem you would die for,
the poem that frees you from your chains,
and learn to love not the song, but the singing.”
I would die to hear June Jordan’s cancer-stricken voice
ask me again to publish her Collected Poems.

We were warriors for peace in a world of wars
that never ended, wars against the poor, against women,
wars for bananas, sugar, copper, gold, silver, oil.
I learned democracy from the noble Iroquois,
and walked the sacred path of the Navajo, the Hopi
whose history has been erased along with their faces,
names, and holy places.  Viva Zapatistas!
Whatever our crimes, we did not rent or sell our souls.

Now, toward dawn, I think of those whom I so loved
on this long wakeful night alone, my journey
almost over.  High overhead, the mysterious stars
pass by in silence.  A soft wind rustles the leaves
of trees along Calle Gorritti.  I go back down the steps
and into the house, pour my wine and raise my toast:
Salutations! old friends, my guiding lights.  It is
almost the end of night, almost time for me to sleep.