Poems by Richard Jones

RICHARD JONES is the author of seven books of poems from Copper Canyon Press. His most recent volume is "The Correct Spelling & Exact Meaning" (2010). A professor at DePaul University in Chicago, he is the editor of the literary journal "Poetry East."











This would be a wonderful night

for sleeping, except for the pillow.

One might as well rest one’s head

on a sack of rocks. And the window—

the curtains are pretty much worthless:

the moon shines in like a searchlight.

I don’t mind the thin blanket, moth-eaten

and full of holes, nor the staticky music

of mice running inside the walls all night.

But the two men in suits and dark hats,

whispering together, conspiring in the

corner, do bother me. I lie listening

as the two dark strangers blindly rifle

through the drawers of the antique dresser,

the floorboards creaking as they move

about the room in their heavy shoes,

their hands and faces blue in the moonlight.

Closing my eyes and turning away,

I remember my mother’s admonitions,

her stern voice velvet from years of smoking,

the blue clouds that poured from her lips

telling me always to be polite, be polite.

So I rise from bed, turn on the light,

introduce myself, offer to mix drinks,

and seeing their worried countenance,

invite them to sit with me at the table

and tell their story.






He lay in bed all night

waiting for the sun,

but around four or five

birds started singing

in an arcane language.

The black windows

turned gray. He got up,

dressed in the dark,

boiled yesterday’s

coffee in a gray pan,

then drank the black cup

quickly, as if he were

drinking a deadly potion

or some healing elixir.

Whatever the alchemy,

suddenly he could see

he didn’t need anything,

could leave everything

and take nothing.

Under a kitchen light

that hung straight down

like a plumb line, he

inspected the contents

of a small bag open

on the round table,

then zipped the bag

and put it on his shoulder.

He switched off the light,

shut and locked the door.

The dark shape of the car

waited in blue shadows.

He stood on the cold porch;

the light had not yet come.

He tried to see in the gloom.

With a handful of leaves

he wiped heavy dew

from the silver windshield.

Inside, he looked inside

the glove compartment,

rummaged around

as if he might find old

maps with forests,

mountains, castles,

all the starry heavens.

He sat for a moment,

listening. The dark trees

were like insane people

there was so much

singing inside them.

He could have turned

the key in the ignition,

but the keys rested

in his hand, and his hands

rested lightly in his lap,

palms up, open,

as when staying at home,

sitting on a pillow,

he meditated on the way to truth.





         “the city in the clouds”


I wanted to go up to the mountaintop

and see the ancient temple of Venus.

In early darkness

I left the whitewashed house

locals called “The Fisherman’s Hut,”

where on a cliff by the sea

I’d tried to discover

the best way of doing the work.

I took the morning ferry

from the island of Favignana

to the west coast of Sicily,

standing on the open deck

like Odysseus

sailing between Scylla and Charybdis.

When the ferry docked at Trapani,

I drove my tiny Fiat

across the ferry’s lowered ramp,

and ventured forth, map in hand, expectant.


The narrow roads

soon rose steeply toward clouds.

As I navigated the switchbacks

and climbed through the forest,

I envisioned the goddess of love,

the temple’s torch-illumined altars;

but when I reached the mountaintop

I found only tiny Erice,

a gray town of cloistered stone,

secluded and sheltered

high on the wooded peak.

I was, at first, disappointed.

I followed the signs

that guided me to the car lot

in a pine wood outside the town walls

and then walked with my bag to the hotel,

passing under the stone arch.

Medieval castles with walls and towers

protected the heights


and where the temple long ago reigned

I found only the abandoned shell

of a disused convent.

But as I slowly ascended

silent marble streets

free of the noise of cars

and deserted even of pedestrians,

I discovered the emptiness

and peace to be a gift.


All that winter

a chill rain fell endlessly.

The hotel’s sole resident

and the only tourist in town,

my footsteps echoed

down labyrinths

of cold, chiseled,

cobblestone passageways.

I searched out small, unheated chapels

where I could kneel

and on rainy afternoons

I sipped coffee in a warm café,

happily sketching the bell tower

or mapping Erice’s maze of streets in my journal

so I might learn the place by heart.


The thought of staying on

in a place so desolate

and quiet

seemed reasonable,

and one day I spoke with the innkeeper.

The hotel had all I could want—

a well-appointed library,

a parlor and fireplace,

and a spartan room

I found elegant and restful.

When it rained,

I could lie in bed listening

to cataracts arcing

from terracotta roofs above

to the empty-of-love streets of stone.



When at last the rain and mist and clouds

blew away from the mountaintop,

the clear sky sparkled, the sea below shined,

and from my window

I could see

all the way to the Egadi Islands—

Marettimo, Levanzo,

and butterfly-shaped, wind-blown Favignana,

the sunny island from whence I’d come,

its one small mountain

silhouetted on the far horizon,

sheep grazing on the parched hillsides.

And clinging to edge of a sunbaked, limestone cliff,

the empty whitewashed house I’d left behind,

the oleander-scented courtyard,

the bead curtain

hanging in the open doorway,

and inside,

my reading glasses waiting

atop the lines of a poem:

      …sad and lonely

the man and woman

turned toward home,

where they would

touch each other

gently and with respect,

then with increasing

passion and need,

healing each other simply

with their love.





At dusk I carry

a brown ceramic bowl

of drowsy bees

through the town square,

down narrow streets

to an empty house,

where I somehow open

the door with my elbow,

and once inside

shrug off my coat,

holding the bowl

first in one hand

then the other hand,

before climbing stairs

to a whitewashed room

with a wooden chair

and table where

at the stroke of midnight

I stand by an iron bed,

place the murmuring bowl

of drowsy bees

on a soft down pillow,

and with freed hands

light two tall candles

and sit all night

at a spartan table

with pen and paper

and write a book of poems

called Honey.





The Light



If, sitting on the long sofa

under the big front window,

I should say, “I’m sad,”

my wife will ask, “Why?”

Then we will sit in silence

for a couple of minutes

while I think about it,

this sadness, which arrives

from nowhere, the way

the sun unexpectedly

shines from behind a cloud.

In the stillness I ponder

the warm light that’s traveled

ninety-three million miles

to be here, its journey

through space and time; then

I think of my slow progress

when I drive across the country

with wife and three children

in a red van, luggage piled

and precariously roped on top.

To survive long trips like that,

we exit the endless, glaring

treadmill of the interstate

and search back roads for motels

to rest for the night. We swim

in tiny heated swimming pools.

We eat fried chicken, stay up

watching tv until late, fall

asleep on top of one another.

Road trips like that take days,

but light from the sun arrives

in eight quick minutes,

pouring through the pines’ highest branches

and rushing through the brilliant

glass of the big front window

to dapple the oak

of our living-room floor.

The light

helps me see myself

reflected in my wife’s green eyes—

very small,

yet clearly shining.

When finally with a shrug

I tell her, “I don’t know—

I don’t know why I’m sad,”

she doesn’t say a word.

Rather, so I may feel her warmth,

as I feel the warmth of the sun,

she moves a little closer on the sofa.



Small Talk



Night comes

and I could weep for gratitude

as I climb the stairs,

shrug off my coat,

and hang it

on the doorknob

of the bedroom door.

I drape a red silk scarf

over the bedside lamp

and sit in the old chair

with the broken springs,

pulling off my shoes,

rubbing my tired feet.

At the open window

a breeze ruffles the curtains,

reminding me

this is the time I live for,

listening to my wife,

who lies in bed,

propped on her pillow,

half asleep,

welcoming me home,

talking a little bit

about things that happened

during the day—

the children,

or what she’s been reading—

nothing extraordinary,

just small talk.

When it’s late

and she’s weary,

my wife tends to whisper,

a soft rustling sound,

like the word susurrus,

as if at day’s end

she were telling

secrets, confiding

in me, her trusted

friend and husband who,

slightly deaf in one ear,

doesn’t always hear—

curtains lifting

and falling

in the red lamplight—

every word,

or follow exactly

what she’s saying

and who couldn’t

repeat verbatim,

line by line like a poem,

the pleasantries,

the kindnesses,

the lovely dreamlike

things she says.