Five Poems

by Don Mager

Don Mager was born in 1942. He has published some 250 original poems and translations from Czech and German over the last 30 years, including two books: To Track The Wounded On (1986) and Glosses (1995). A song cycle "Suffer Even The Least" with music by Marc Satterwhite received its premier in April 1996. Awards include statewide competitions: The Lyricist Prize poem (1991), and the Blumenthal Award (1994). He is Co-Director of Liberal Arts and Associate Professor at Johnson C. Smith University, where he works in the fields of British medieval and Renaissance periods. He has two adult sons, and pursues interests in Renaissance, Czech and contemporary music, running, and gardening. Recent work appears in Kenyon Review, Western Humanities Review, The Cape Rock, Main Street Rag, Portland Review, and Sun Dog.

Don writes: I am committed to poetry as the large venture of recovering a beingness in the world through intense turns and returns inside and through language. This beingness is not knowable nor tellable in other arts (nor autobiography, nor philosophy) in exactly the way that poetry can know and tell. Thus, I am committed to the oeuvre, not the poem, and to the beingness not the voice or style--as reader and as writer. As both, I'm in it for the long haul. A significant ouevre, however, excites me not because of a poet's quirks or life (as voyeuristically engrossing as those can be) but because of the sustained beingness that the ouevre as it unfolds through my returns to it and invites me, as reader, to share. I have lived inside Rilke's work, for instance, for 38 years, Rich's for 30 years, Hughes's for 28, etc. I would be gratified if my oeuvre too might invite readers eventually into a significant beingness--an incommensurable place inside language in which to live for a good while.

"Dorothea" -- "Delbert" -- "The Department Chair"
"Mr. Dunkirk" -- "Doreen"


This morning a warm rain breaks the long
dry spell. In Dorothea's soft dry palm
she balances the crisp erect ginkgo sprout.
The heat has been approaching new record highs.
Not even Memorial Day yet. Yet
as she sets it down into its hole

soupy with clay-red water, the whole
morning seems ready to explode in long
stretches of memory. She breathes in, and yet
dirt and feather-fine roots cling to her palm
as if the plant does not want to let go. High
in the trees, birds spout their rain chants. Sprouts

of warbled proclamation. Shrill sprouts
of fife clatter. She shoves dirt in the hole
and tries to guess, before she dies, just how high
the tree will get. Are futures ever as long
as our pasts are, she asks and dusts her palm
off. Not even Memorial Day yet.

I haven't tied it to a stake yet
and the poor thing's drooping like brussels sprouts
in a drought . Dorothea holds up her palm
to rinse off the dirt. So, let it rain the whole
day, she thinks, make up lost time. All week long
for all I care. Her laugh, bird-like. High.

Her mother, raising her voice high,
used to say: Want only what you wish, yet
do not wish for what you want. That was so long
ago--another place. But memories sprout
as if planted last week, seeds dropped in holes,
now stretching up for the rain like palm

fronds. Dorothea rubs her soft palm.
Last week the heat had approached record highs.
Will the frond-like ginkgo take, there in its hole
beside her wet sandal and does she know yet
what she wants? Or wishes? Nothing sprouts
quicker than weeds nor survives longer.

This morning she stands for a long time rubbing her palm.
The fragile tree sprout at her foot is not very high.
The rain is light, yet steady. It slowly fills the hole.


The rain, light, steady and slow, fills the whole
sky as far as he looks out from the attic
window. Sheets of it like lead, across
the water meadow, the dike, the lake.
Damn, I'll never find that album, assuming
it's even up here, Delbert says, and leaves.

People need to keep their things distinct, leave
them in one place, no changing minds, or the whole
mess wins out, he says. But let's assume
rain gets worse, leaks into the attic,
overflows the reedy banks of the small lake,
breaks the dike, and makes Delbert very cross

just like a teacher. And when he is cross,
let's even assume like a storm thrashing leaves
from trees, upturning the placid lake
like a pail, that Delbert is wholly
capricious. But, still thinking of the attic,
unlike us, he knows not what to assume,

vexed, and wondering whether to assume
chaos is less after one dies, or more. Cross
that bridge later. Wind tears the attic
slates. He hears them tear and fall like leaves
onto the lawn outside his back porch. The whole
house may as well slide down into the lake.

Leave it in place, no changing minds, no lake.
This is the kind of joke he likes, assuming
like unsigned postcards, it is wholly
surreal--cute on the surface, but crossed
through and through with subconscious pain leaving
himself, leaving us too, to be attacked

by loss. Let us return to the attic,
look again at the water meadow and lake.
We came for what? With what will we leave?
Delbert forgets the album, assumes
it can't be found. He is still vexed and cross.
Like most things, answers vanish down holes.

Was the album, whole or in part, lost in the attic?
Was it snapshots, across the dike, taken of the lake?
Or was it old LPs, assuming any are left?

The Department Chair

It is old applause, all that is left,
that answers the department chair's announcement:
Due to this afternoon's storm, the meeting's
canceled. Everyone leaves in a hurry.
Lightning strikes. She sits at the table counting
the thunder, enjoying the empty building

alone. Each bright bolt rocks the building
trembling down the hushed corridors, leaving
the old floors gasping. By any account
this violence exceeds the announcements
on the radio. Why do folks hurry
so when they are afraid? These meetings

are what scare me--cycles of meetings
--the year built on its cycles of meetings. Build
programs from strengths, not desires, don't hurry
folk against their reluctances, but leave
space to change their minds. And never announce
a change without giving an account

why we need it. All to no account
for dark storms rumble beneath every meeting
no matter how careful she tries. I announce
my impartiality, I try to build
consensus. But mischief always strikes. Left
alone, and always scared, I hurry

to get it done. She sees no hurry
now. Only these great vast thunder bolts to count
and no urgency calling her to leave
or even slide back her chair. The meeting
never happened. More applause please. The building
loses power as the announcer

had warned, he should have also announced
that darkness is a womb where no one hurries.
All stands still, the gasping floors, the building
without lights--computers down--while she counts
slowly some perfect number and her eyes meet,
and welcome, shadows that tremble like leaves.

The storm still announces itself, end in no hurry.
The cave of the building still empty by all account.
At last she adjourns her meeting, slides back her chair. Leaves.

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