Poetry of Robert Fisher
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Speaking a Rare Language

Rare Books

In Memory of Francesca Buccheri

I am as little as Sicily,
And the stone bear beside me
As big as Canada.
The carved rock throbs with power,
And the Inuit letters are a spell
From the time when
Animals still spoke to men.

Yet, do my smiling sons and their wives,
Do my grown grandchildren behind their cameras,
Squinting in the glare of snow,
Know that when I was a little girl,
In winter in my village near Siracusa,
I shivered at the howling of wolves
Under the full moon,
Wolves sweeping in packs
Down from the mountains,
Hunting sheep in the cold night?

February 21st, 2010


For Nisa and Her Son

It happens sometimes
That God sends his angel
Gliding down into the night
To deposit in our arms a child,
And the angel says
Your son speaks a rare language.
He speaks to us in Heaven every day,
With his eyes mostly and a few words.

He is yours because he is the blossom
Of a flower that blooms once
In a thousand years, and you heard
That blossom drop in a brook
Swollen by a rainstorm
Deep in the mountains.

You made yourself as small as an elf,
And built a boat of leaves
And caulked it with resins.
With the blossom on board
You steered with an oar made of a twig
And glued to it a seed pod.
You steered around sharp rocks
And carried your boat around waterfalls.

The journey is very long,
And you pray God to keep breath in you
Till you reach a sheltered sea.
You will beach the boat on an island
That only you know of.
Your son will build a house of timber and stone,
With a wide hearth to bake flatbread
And fish from his nets.
You will sing ever so softly to him,
And his gift to you will be his quiet gaze,
Which is your holy book
Whose meaning only you can read.

March 10th, 2010

When I pour out my heart,
My very life’s breath,
Into my flute at dusk,
In the north in Ratanakiri,
And in the far west, in Pursat,
The elephants hear me and weep.

For it is at dusk that she walks by,
On the footpath between the paddies,
The breeze wafting the perfume
From her lustrous hair, unbraided, loose,
Her skirt tight about her hips, swaying.

She lives in a fine timber house,
Her father’s fields unfold to the hills.
What bride price can I bring
A few skinny fowl, a battered flute?

Her father will not weigh my heart
Or investigate my blameless soul.
No monk will be tying our wrists together,
No guests will feast at our wedding.

Only the elephants in remote Ratanakiri and Pursat
Have the Buddha nature
And the tears drop from their tusks.

March 23rd, 2010

In the Year Zero I was ten,
Standing in a pit of bound men,
Men groaning and women screaming,
As I clubbed them, singing
Of Pol Pot Our Father.
I am forbidden to weep
As I swing my club.

At night the dead gather round my bed,
Silent, pointing to their wounds.
They brush past me
In corridors of my school,
They sit in the last row of the classroom.
I teach children to sing of
Rice seedlings, green and full of hope.
We sing of mothers’ love
And birds of bright plumage.

I can see the chain of my rebirths,
Cascading like a creek in Tibet,
Then as a great river, ever so slowly
Winding into a foreign land,
To a delta as big as Cambodia,
An archipelago
Where fresh water meets the salt sea.

March 24th, 2010


It is May and the bees snuggle
Into the meadowsweet
And slumber in its earthy perfume.
I plait the tender twigs into garlands
And give them to my friends.
We embrace the sun with open arms
And the grass is cool against our feet.

It is a lifetime later,
Again May and open windows.
I have woven a garland,
Woven my children into a crown,
And they circle my brow
And whisper “Our queen, our mother.”

May 22nd, 2010


For Marina

It is May and the bees snuggle
Into the meadowsweet
And slumber in its earthy perfume.
I plait the tender twigs into garlands
And give them to my friends.
We embrace the sun with open arms
And the grass is cool against our feet.

It is a lifetime later,
Again May and open windows.
I have woven a garland,
Woven my children into a crown,
And they circle my brow
And whisper “Our queen, our mother.”

May 22nd, 2010


The Summons

My mother on her hospice bed sees them,
But we don’t: the three priestesses
Swathed in white like African women
With faces etched deep by the sun.

They are obeying some summons
And beckon to my mother.
They will guide her to a destination
Quite unlike the Heaven of the catechism:
No Beatific Vision, but something
Equally ineffable.

Summonses just happen,
The way rain happens, or
The way the Sun blesses comets
With their fiery tails.
Many are never summoned,
Just anaesthetized.

But my mother sees the priestesses
And they smile, the eldest coaxing
My mother’s body to sit up,
So she may clasp the waiting hand.

August 27th, 2010


My arms are charged with words,
Their weight is too much for me.
I stagger and they fall like streams of stars.
On a table I spread out my flawed stars:
The barbed words, the phrases that wounded,
The speeches soaked in foolishness.
I sort some into a pile “reparable”,
For these I apologize to the living.
Another pile “beyond repair” I weep over
And will weep over as long as the Earth spins:
Who knows, maybe the dead will hear my broadcast
And feel less restless.

In a circle six miles across
The bees bumble through space,
Collect pollen and head for home.
But the hive has moved three inches,
And the entrance, one bee in width,
Is not where it should be.
All the bees swarm there;
Days later they find the entrance
And exhausted stumbled in in single file.

My misguided words fret on the blank wall
Where once was my mother,
While not far away she patiently awaits me.

September 5th, 2010


Wearing her glasses but with eyes shut
She could be asleep over her crossword puzzle,
But mother is a cicada’s shell,
Like a great nation hollowed out by thievery.

The year she was born her brother died,
And lo! she was a twin
And everyone said the new brother replaced the lost one,
Just as God replaced Job’s sons.

She married into madness,
And the madness in the first and second generation
Surfaced as misery and artistic vision.
One grandson never leaves his room,
And his delusions never leave him.
Another copes but lacks the language of warmth
And thus lives alone
Parched for intimacy.
Another covers his body with tattoos
And his face with rings.
He monologues staring at the floor,
His eyes sad with prison life.
Another with hearing loss mumbles
And was unlucky with women.
He drinks to drown his pain.

We have lost our center,
We have lost our common sense,
We have lost our toughness.
Will be blown like cicada shells
To the four winds?

September 5th, 2010

The birch is asleep under the moon,
But will waken on the morrow
Because it enjoys playing
With the sunlight and wind.

The spices are asleep in their cabinet,
But dream of blending into one color in the mortar.
They live to surprise the nose and tongue.

The books are asleep,
But in the moments before sleep
They smiled at the thoughts they had in store,
The graceful phrases to delight the eye and ear.

My heart is asleep.
But keeps pumping for the joy it feels
At waking next to you,
At watching you make coffee
And talk of your dreams,
At the mystery of how inert matter
Learned to love and caress.

September 5th, 2010


My son, looking forward
Into endless adventures,
Said to his love,
“I will take you to Sweden!”
But I have had to take his journey myself,
And report to the universe,
Where he is dispersed,
Including my heart:

“The boats in Stockholm
Are restless colts tethered
And pawing the waves,
Eager to leap out of the corral
And be galloping up the fairway
Into the midnight sun.

“I toasted you with champagne
On a pebbly shore in the canted light
And waved to the heeling yachts.
Everywhere the smell of dill and roe.”

Sometimes it seems I am marooned on an island,
And then skimming the horizon is a schooner.
On board is a grizzled captain and able-bodied seamen,
A ship’s doctor, food and water.
My shouts do not carry
And I cannot light the bonfire in time.
It sails past with you asleep in your berth,
It sails past with the daughter I never had,
It sails past not knowing my yearning and loss,
Leaving me to my vigil at the beacon.

July 4th, 2010


For Michael


The sun, by my side, envelopes me in his fiery halo,
Sunbeams and shadows rippling across my face,
And we breathe air bathed in blazes.
I am your father, he tells me, both of us on the same journey.
“Once I was a blue star, and the first creatures to see me
Huddled in the sea to husband my meager light.
But now, here I am in middle age, bloated, jaundiced, feverish.
I am your lethal father, for one day, not long from now,
I will boil away your seas and the winds will foam into the black void.
I will gorge on you to feed my red belly,
I will gobble comets, and Jupiter will add to my girth.
My end — for eons I have seen it befall others —
I will cool into a cinder that has consumed its children,
I will be that swart star.
Our fate, yours and mine, is writ in the stars.


There they are, below my window, looking up at me —
Everyone I ever loved,
The living in front, the ghosts behind,
Among the latter, my mother
Shouting she has made sandwiches and has advice for me,
But I say I’m not hungry, and besides,
This is not a trip to college in Missouri —
Advice is not much use where I’m headed.
The trip to Missouri seems like yesterday,
Yet just now I have sent my son off to college —
With one line of advice and no sandwiches.

My library is on the platform, too,
Looking battered and forlorn, waiting
To be crated up and sent to bookless Africa,
Where they say the young still love to hold books in their hands.
This is a new life for the books,
But they feel like a barge of stolen bicycles destined for Nigeria.
This is the last thing books teach me:
They are a vanishing era, their knowledge and values ignored, or thought obsolete.
Some volunteers will read to me on the journey,
Their eyes passing over the miles of print,
The kindness in their voices
Will be the finest accomplishment of mankind.

October 23rd, 2010

One day my son will take me
From the terracotta pot,
And with the care the dawn takes
Bending light into red and purple,
Will gently unwind the papyrus.
Putting a loupe to his eye he will squint
At the broken lines and faded ink:
[…] the strap of her summer dress
slid off her moonlit shoulder […]

[…] the sultry air throbbed
As my friend and I brought our long fingers
down on the ivory keys […]
My old father, listening, took his eyes off
the portal to death for a moment,
and saw in the same humid air
the tsar’s shimmering yacht off Riga,
the pale, delicate tsarevich waving, too.
[…] sailing to St. Petersburg […]
[…] careful not to fall on the gravel paths
of Tsarskoye Selo […]

My son will fill in the lacunae
With his own invention,
Repairing me like a damaged Sphinx.

[…] why, my old friend, are we never at home
in this world?
[…] and my friend told me gravity holds us down
on a twirling rock […]
I stepped out of the seawater of
my mother’s womb […]
The laughter of late night and the burn of vodka […]

Here my son unwinds the end of the scroll:
[…] her hand slipped from mine and her voice was altered.

November 16th, 2010