I can’t remember when, as a child, I first starting writing down little bits of verse. I was attracted to its freedom from the strictures of prose, and by its compression – its ability to convey much in a few words. All these years later, poetry is still mysterious to me.

While I learned to explicate poems during my formal study in school, taking them apart to explain how something works is not the same as explaining why. And I found I had little taste for dissection, which is performed on lifeless specimens, while poems are arguably the most vital and vibrant of all forms of literature. I much preferred my classes with Carolyn Kizer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet, learning to write. A few poems from that period appear here.

Like birdsong, a poem need not explain itself. If its beauty can move you, that is enough. Of the many bits of doggerel my pen has produced, here are some I still like.

I’ve written enough (non-traditional) haiku that I decided to give them their own page, which can be found here.

All poems © James Magill 

On the Mojave (1976)

there was a landfill operation
going on that summer
          dusty caterpillars squalling
          in the heat
i watched you
bony river
from the levee where my burning shoulders stood
sweat-dry in the desert air

i’d heard you were sister
          to the Nile, running north
and standing there
                              i half expected
pyramids among mesquite
and gilded barges shimmering
down your muddy throat

your water drew my body then
as now it draws my mind
to honor a patient ageless borning
in a dry, fanged land.

——— ≈ ———

The Poet Mina Loy (2020)

Said aloud
the two names run together –
An unkind metal
     …or its definition
or the nonsense refrain
of a folk song in Hindi
     or Hawai’ian.

It’s the name that always catches my eye
when the anthology’s table of contents
falls open to her page with its meager two poems
and the name becomes an earworm
…or poetry.

——— ≈ ———

Just Before It Happens (2020)

The hiker on the summit;
pebbles bounce away from the widening crack…

Two women walk on a black sand beach;
the group of men gaining…

Beerbottle lifted to a laughing mouth;
a hapless yellowjacket fallen inside…

Gas pedal floored;
train and pickup race to the crossing…

The jangling phone;
he looks up from the whirring saw blade…

She smiles as he exits the cab; 
sees his ex in the back adjusting her skirt…

The bomb maker’s sweat in the closed room;
pliers slip as the wires touch…

Tourists with cameras too close;
the glacier calves…

Hidden screws vibrate loose;
speedometer pushing 80…

Tossing the leaves;
a copperhead…

The concert;
a shooter…

A handshake;
the virus…

.… and then it happens.

——– ≈ ———

Cannibal Muse (1972)

dim electric music
strokes your eclectic body
that finds in mine a brimming cup of new
and licks it up.

——– ≈ ———

Piazza di Spagna (1973)

face washed at the public spigot,
i climbed wet
petal-strewn marble
to watch sunrise over Rome.

from gypsy sleepers stirring on the Steps
harmonica growling metallic and low 
shimmied out over the square, 
boogied up sidestreets, 
tweaking the statuary fountains and flowers
awakening to american blues.

an irish girl
with skinny knees, 
and hands that fluttered to and fro
her brogue like gloves of velvet, 
pulled on the velvet threads between us. 
summer blossomed behind her;
i leaned into dark sunshade hair.

a softblond girl with dewy smiles 
camellias in a slender hand
held out one bright bloom 
to us saying
Londonderry was burning.

——– ≈ ———

Hobo (1976)

coal car once a week
          purges the rust:
a gleaming rail underfoot
          twists out to the horizon.
I run my eyes down the ties
          like a stick along a fence,
tie up my heart in a bandanna
          and look for a pole.

——– ≈ ———

Reading Irish Poets (2021)

It’s a cold drift through rain-sagged clouds
into terrain …

    the sediment of ages laid 
    over the drenched turf and stone circles.

    like postcards of
       the western sea-cliffs,
       rain-and-wind-battered ewes on high hills,
       bullet holes in the Post Office wall:

          Images of resistance to
          force that must be resisted.

Their voices have gravity, 
    adamantine against
          time’s currents.

They are
    cold light from a shattered sky,
    a boggy squelch through the rain’s drumbeat,
    wind through dry-stacked stone walls thrust  
       from the bedrock of Eire,
       lining the boundaries
       of this field and that…

They are
    bucolic, incisive, tragic, wry
    contemplative, furious, orphic, fey…

They are
    the clamoring animus of an endurance
    more fierce than beauty can express.

——– ≈ ———

sunday morning (2023)
Herodotus and espresso 
on the back deck,
crema, steam and dreams
of empire
titmouse flirts with the feeder
yes no yes
scattering seed on the railing, the watering can
color returns; cardinal and geranium,
bears in the hill’s thick green
close and distant
all of us greet the rising light
me me 

Morning Shastra (1976)

eggs on a plate
light sleet
    rattles fenders in the parkinglot
no coffee today, stomach burns
“if meaning is not everywhere
it is nowhere”

waitress tumbles tips
into a styrofoam cup
ballpoint “cindy” on the side
    from the way she mutters
    there’s no love in it.

cold falls through
the swinging door;
    change tables to dodge the draft
sleet becomes rain sky like sludge

what the hell.
“his miracle is
when he is hungry he eats,
weary, sleeps”

——– ≈ ———

Airport (1972)

warm stalagmites 
in caverns of glass
we huddle, 
mounds of blistered baggage
clutching the promise
of destination,
awaiting the drone
of ascension

——– ≈ ———

Laundromat, 10 pm (1977)

“you drink like a kid”
she said
brownbag pushing her head back
    xeno nodding at
    my unfamiliar contrition
across the room a blackman in surplus
    emptied a doubleload dryer
    flicking cloth tubes
        into neat rectangles
“oh look” she cried
    swinging wide the glass
    groping in the black snow
        at the curb
    like the scavenger she was
xeno passed me the bag with a grunt
    as she returned with a pirate cat that later gave me
“Fullmoon we’ll call him
    i useta follow that stuff”
“do not dye in machines”
    i read aloud
when she got it
    she laughed at me like a scavenger
me like the kid i was

——– ≈ ———

(untitled) (1972) 

river sighs
    cut by rocks
slow wheeling leaf pool
deer stand watching on
    the wild shore
        i cannot cross

——— ≈ ———

Antique glass doorknob,
Pittsboro, NC fleamarket, 1972 

a century’s suspended
within the smoothly gleaming face
     my dumb obscuring fingers numb to 
          southern guns
          and tattered lace 
its bright enigmas glow there 
          deep within the prismed glass,
          with shadows that await a hand 
to seize and turn the past

——— ≈ ——–

Pacem Per Musica (2015)
(for the Semiquincentennial of the Civil War)

Amidst the cannon’s roar they strove
Brothers, by honor now opposed.
Yet in each breast without surcease
The same sweet music heartened each.
Where triumphs war when strife may be
Yet vanquished by mere melody?

——– ≈ ———

Okinawa, 1959 (1972)

i were children
                    far far ago
          on an island
          emerging from
    blade of japanese & bleed of american
          for mystery
                    of a little boys.
we was a conqueror
                    darting through paddies
                    the green deaths
          of snake and un-
                    exploded shells
sweet balancing seacliffs rose
                    to our feet
                    and caverns
          blazingly dark
we singing
          arms wide in the grass
                    my Neverland

——— ≈ ———

 Watching How the Universe Works (2020)

A succession of scientists, constrained to soundbites
numbs with numbers too vast for comprehension
as a CGI asteroid hurtles toward earth
and the orchestra swells in ominous tones

Until a reassuring astronomer or astrophysicist
from some institute or another, who has just terrorized us
with what could happen, smiles

And says it will miss us – this time –
    then a quick cut to commercial.

Leaving me to ponder the trivial:
    why he chose that shirt for the camera,
    the florid hand gestures of a colleague,
    the distracting gloss of the cosmologist’s lipstick,
    another’s geeky glasses

And then the starfield and music are back
and I thrill once again to the fearful romance
    of ‘galaxy’, ‘black hole’, ‘star.’

——— ≈ ———

(untitled) (1976) 

snowfall crackles
    sparrow dodges flakes
lamp dies
          melt lines the window

——– ≈ ———

The Argument (2021)

her thunder
his lightning
their rain

——– ≈ ———

(untitled) (2022)

watching mama and cubs
our yard: the bear-way freeway

——– ≈ ———

Guitar (1972)

chords tumble off 
          like honeybees
folding back the petals
          of the ear


Poetry is a fireplace in summer, or a fan in winter.

– Basho

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