Two Poems by James Richardson

From For Now

June 9, 2020  By James Richardson

“Not the Ocean?”

Landlocked here
in Princeton—haven’t seen
the ocean in a year.

Is it still there?

The footage
last night on the news looked…
maybe archival?
And the rumors
are terrible—

no sharks, no whales,
the reefs bleached
to a sterile paleness,
and an eighth continent,
of polystyrene and acrylic,
replacing the Pacific.

Are you sure?

Those white, anonymous
filets they sell me
in old-style paper
might be from farms,
fish libraries, alt-lakes,

and the last
oyster I sipped
from its little
rocky basin—
did it have just
the weak-with-Arctic
-icemelt, hydrocarbon
tang of this
bad year of ocean?
Maybe a relic?

I could ask my Brooklynites
who ride the elevated F
to look up from their phones,
but it’s hard
to tell the harbor’s distant blue
through those tiny, glaring windows
from simulation—could they be sure

it was real, it was now?

I’ve searched
the papers, but the things
these days that pass unsaid
are world-size. I might be
the last to know
what Matthew Arnold long ago
the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar
of the Sea of Faith retreating
down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world
maybe withdrawn
into a subduction zone?

Could you swear, have you checked?
I mean, within the hour?

As easily as you wake,
your round eyes dry,
and blink,
it could be gone,
since even its superstorms

and rogue waves, seen
in proportion, are a slick
on an eight-thousand-mile
sphere of rock,
a ball rolled through wet grass
into hot sun.

Once I was surer

what was what—the word
under my feet, the sky, the stars,
and from the shore,
Relax, my mother called,
lie back and put your arms out straight
and it will hold you



All energy, to that engineer,
the Soul, is the same.

Today’s illumination might have come,
way back, from either love or pain—

no whiff, when the light flicked on,
of coal, or falling water, or uranium.


From For Now by James Richardson. Used with permission from Copper Canyon Press. Copyright © 2020.

James Richardson
James Richardson’s recent collections include During (Copper Canyon, 2016), which received the the Poetry Society of America’s Alice Fay Di Castagnola Award as the best book in progress; By the Numbers: Poems and Aphorisms (Copper Canyon, 2010), a Publishers Weekly “Best Book of 2010” and a finalist for the National Book Award; Interglacial: New and Selected Poems and Aphorisms (Copper Canyon, 2004), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; and Vectors: Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays (Copper Canyon, 2001). Richardson’s poems, microlyrics, aphorisms, and ten-second essays appear in The New Yorker, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, The Nation, The American Poetry Review, AGNI, The Yale Review, Poetry Daily, Great American Prose Poems, and Geary’s Guide to the World’s Great Aphorists. His work also appears in Short Flights, Short Circuits: Aphorisms, Fragments and Literary Anomalies, and several Pushcart Prize and Best American Poetry anthologies. Born in Florida and raised in the suburbs of New York, he has taught at the University of Virginia, Harvard, Columbia, and since 1980, Princeton. He lives in New Jersey with his wife and first reader, the scholar-critic Constance W. Hassett. They have two daughters, one an editor and poet, one a professor of criminal justice.

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