The Poetry of Pamela Spiro Wagner

Twin Realities



…rise without sound
primes uttered like a rosary's
beaded polynomials of devotion
climbing the sky towards a god
unknowable as the dark infinity
between rational and irrational
numbers. His hair in a wild corona
framing eyes so deep-set
they seem to drown what's caught there,
knowing the hardest questions
may sometimes answer
he wanders the halls
pale and abstracted as pi,
trailing numbers in chalkdust
like the spectral footprints of a ghost
no one remembers passing there,
these incandescents of his faith
illuminating all the unsayables
as only equations can
in brief yellow chalk on a green board:
that life yearns towards binariness
that our ending is in our beginning,
that if we name as nouns
the verbs he numbers in strictest silence
our dualism's just as binary:
good or evil, pure or profane,
we only constrain what he sets free
with his meticulous 1s
his careful and perfect 0s.

--By Pamela Spiro Wagner

Based on the story of John Nash, before the
film "A Beautiful Mind" was released.

(Winner of the 2002 BBC World Service Poetry Competition)

If Wishes Were

Weeks she was well they'd say she was "on the farm."
Back at the hospital was "in the bin," loony of course, not dust

though it felt like dust, fifty years gone up in smoking-
only poems, hundreds, to show for what she might have been,

only not in this, her small failed life, where all was linked
so intimately to national disasters: guns, cold weather, Dallas

bullets, schizophrenia, o-rings-an undifferentiated all
that never should have happened it all felt her fault.

Couldn't those perverse mandarin butterflies
have stirred the air into a different turbulence, maybe

the two Kennedys or King never shot? Or, say,
the Challenger mission with all the crew jogging home

safe and sound, teacher Christa returning with her smile
to tell her class of unbelievable adventure?

If only somehow a single deadly bullet might not
have been so "magic" in 1963-that's what she dreams,

wishing between the real cigarettes and endless coffee-
or for a single o-ring not to have failed in freezing air.

--By Pamela Spiro Wagner

Solo For Two

In the grainy impossible flicker of old home movies
I still can't see: the woman within the child hidden
yet as urgent with life as the flame stored
in a shard of flint:
my sister, my twin...

At three, no one could tell us apart
and even now it is difficult as the frames age us a decade
then stop suddenly mid-summer the year before we turn thirteen
Our first word, after "mama" was "we", which meant "I":
we weren't merely similar and separate; we were, we knew,
one and the same, no more or less than identical,
the two of us occupying the same place at the same instant

If told, we wouldn't have believed
how our futures would diverge, as if surgically severed,
how we'd go separate ways singly, two shoes: one right,
the other with all the innate wrongness of sinister things,
awry, askew.

I know all this now
but can hindsight and the silliness of these doting films
bring recognition of some necessity -- a seed, a tumor growing?
Nothing I see in the slip of years reeling before me and gone
uncovers any inertial law that can't be
disobeyed. The map's directives are still hieroglyphs,

That way, mine: a path shadowed by too many failures
three cats for my human company and the heady draught
of poetry, of madness, the two not always distinguishable...

And this way, my sister's:
psychiatrist, wife, mother, and hers another muse
equally passionate, equally demanding: the dance.
Now I am watching a recent video: my twin
gauzy in a cumulus of feathers and chiffon
shrugs off the carapace of professional dignities,
raises her arms and glides, effortless, onto the polished floor
as the Viennese Waltz begins again.

--By Pamela Spiro Wagner


for my brother, with love

The boy sleeps in the dreams of the fathers.
There are stories he must make his own:
how, of his grandfather's grandfathers,
Elijah ben Solomon, the Vilna Gaon,
excommunicated Vilna's Hasidim, single-handedly
chasing Eastern Europe's Jews onto the hard edge
of the Enlightenment; how his own grandfather
lost the family name at Ellis Island
and everafter bore and passed down a surname
that resounded of Greek Orthodoxy; how that same grandfather
hawked newspapers in the dark chill of Boston winters
and learned to laugh when beaten
with his mother's broomstick, knowing
she went hungry to assure her only son a meal;
how he married the eldest daughter of a cigar-maker
and went to law school and rose in the world
as his own star -- yellow, six-pointed -- was also rising
and falling; how the boy's father,
raised in the full belly of Depression affluence,
went to Harvard and became the doctor
ben Solomon had dreamed of being; how, later,
he married outside the faith, raised his children ignorant
of Torah, Talmud and Hebrew,
and swore his son will do the same.

Effaced by
ignorance and history
the boy, even now bearing the bull of the family ring
on his own right hand, the boy dreams all night
of dark-bearded, caftaned Pious Ones,
who play fiddles and lift the rafters
of the shtetl with their dancing feet. He too
plays the violin and from time to time
tuned to something plangent in his blood,
urgent, sad-voiced Hasidic melodies
haunt him into a dance: first, feet shuffling,
heavy, uncertain. Then, knees lifted,
arms flung over the broad shoulders of friends
as he flies out over the moon and shoots the sky
with light dashing off in his wake. He knows,
he knows something he cannot name, of poetry,
of music, of the strange emotional idiom
of the dance. He wonders how they were born and where
they go in the still night silences
he has not yet learned to bear.

The boy sleeps
in the dreams of the fathers and all night
wrestles his angel down the dark ladder
of the Fifth Commandment, honoring history
that is out of his hands.

--By Pamela Spiro Wagner


With silk sufficiency the cat,
that pedigreed aristocrat,
stalks her prey, the Rattus rat

amid the sun-dazed blades of green
where grackles feed on haute cuisine
of kibble meant for Josephine,

a feline who would much prefer
the tang of rodent blood and fur
while June bugs rasp and locusts chirr.

With one sure leap of grand design,
she hooks his nape and snaps his spine
'mid cabbage rose and columbine

then daintily she sniffs the gore
and drops her tribute at my door
as if I'm her conspirator.

--By Pamela Spiro Wagner


First, forget everything you have learned,
that poetry is difficult,
that it cannot be appreciated properly by the likes of you,
with your high school equivalency diploma
and steel-tipped boots,
your blue collar misunderstandings.

Do not assume there will be meanings hidden from you:
the best poems mean what they say and say it
in common language.

To read poetry requires only courage
enough to trust yourself and take a leap of faith.
The burden of proof rests
on the poem.

Treat a poem like dirt,
humus rich and heavy from the garden.
Later on it will become the fat tomatoes
and golden squash piled high upon your kitchen table.

Poetry is not a god, demanding blind
obedience to doctrine and creed.
Yet sacrifice is key --
for what is a poem if it is not language
doing holy things to the ordinary,
looking anew and making the commonplace sacred?

Read one poem a day, come high water or hell.
Someday you may open a book of poems
by choice by surprise.

When you can name 5 contemporary poets
without including Bob Dylan,
when you start exceeding your assigned quota
and don't even notice,
you must close this manual.

You can now read poetry.

--By Pamela Spiro Wagner

"To Forgive Is--
to begin
and there is so much to forgive:
for one, your parents, one and two,
out of whose dim haphazard coupling
you sprang forth roaring, indignantly alive.
For this, whatever else followed,
innocent and guilty, forgive them.
If it is day, forgive the sun
its white radiance blinding the eye;
forgive also the moon for dragging the tides,
for her secrets, her half heart of darkness;
whatever the season, forgive its various
assaults -- floods, gales, storms
of ice -- and forgive its changing;
for its vanishing act, stealing what you love
and what you hate, indifferent,
forgive time; and likewise forgive its fickle
consort, memory, which fades
the photographs of all you can't remember;
forgive forgetting, which is chaste
and kinder than you know;
forgive your age and the age you were
when happiness was afire in your blood
and joy sang hymns in the trees;
forgive, too, those trees, which have died;
and forgive death for taking them,
inexorable as God; then forgive God
His terrible grandeur, His unspeakable
Name; forgive, too, the poor devil
for a celestial fall no worse than your own.
When you have forgiven whatever is of earth,
of sky, of water, whatever is named,
whatever remains nameless,
forgive, finally, your own sorry self,
clothed in temporary flesh,
the breath and blood of you
already dying.

Dying, forgiven, now you begin.

--By Pamela Spiro Wagner