After Alberto Caeiro

After Alberto Caeiro (1)

I’m a shepherd grazing my flock
But it’s a flock of goats not sheep
I am therefore technically a goatherd
Though I have a few sheep
With goats there is only the milk
And then the cheese, some flesh
Goats are not picturesque as sheep are
They are not so helpless or docile
They are troublesome and contrary
Given to eating many things that are not good for them
And to biting one other aggressively and without reason
When tethered my goats become wound up in the tether
If I allow them their freedom
And follow them to where they are going
They get lost in the thickets
The secret obscure and difficult places
They somehow always manage to find
Though I know they are not looking for these places
These places find them
As a consequence of their own foolish goaty willfulness
That seems to be as indelibly a part of their nature
As talking of them seems to be a part of mine –
If, as I say, I follow their entanglements
I become drawn into their dreams
Until my beard becomes like that of a goat
Wiry and full of a certain roughness
That not even dutifully applied oils will smooth away
Goats make bad meat - nothing like mutton -
Although it is edible I would prefer almost anything else
Except coyote or cat which are worse
So I do not slaughter my goats nor sell them to one who would do so
Because it is too much trouble to find such a one
And I do not have the stomach for that sort of searching
Nor anything for which I care to trade
So that when a goat of mine grows too old to breed
I simply stop paying attention
And this goat slowly leaves the flock,
A little more absent today
Than the day before
Until finally one morning the goat is gone
Having faded entirely away
Not to be seen anywhere
But remembered faintly as a odor
Hovering over the brush and grasses
And is not missed
Goats do not make good companions
They are all mouth and their bodies seem forever to be straining
Toward something they do not find
Nor even recognize, a useless painful straining
With nothing elegant or noble about it
Perhaps their mountain ancestors expressed something of animal nobility
But the goat wedded so long to the human
Made brute by doing our bidding,
Living in our houses, feeding our children
Has very little to recommend him
His smell so unmistakable and sharp
Has accompanied me these many years
Until it has become my chief thought
And it has become as well
The smell of the plains and buttes
Even of the bushes and grasses
Even our great cities where merchants gather with their various exotic wares
Brought from abroad
Now smell of goat
Beneath the many other odors the cities contain
That are far preferable
Because they make us feel sophisticated and worthwhile
But one can’t escape even there the odor of goat
Hanging on the air, the basis for all other smells
People make fun of me because I live with goats
But I am not troubled by this
Goats are no worse than cows or pigs
In many ways they are better and easier to keep
Besides, my goats though unintelligent and unpleasant
Possess a certain goaty integrity
They do not linger
They do not dissemble
They are not insistent
They do not whine they bleat
Which is a stronger and clearer expression
One which requires no retort or response for it is already complete
Goats play out their goat destinies with a pure mute passion
That I appreciate
And although I do not love them
At least I see nothing in them worth hating
Which is more than I can say of some people
Of whom a few
Are worth at least
An indifferent sort of antipathy
And in this number I include myself
Although sometimes I am doubtful
In morning I awake full of stiffness
To look at the last stars
At the clouds gathering in the cold
And wonder
If there is something more in store for me
Than these goats
These a few sheep
But I am willing to go on as I am
Among the many ways men have devised to die while still on their feet
Goats at least are an honorable and harmless profession

After Alberto Caeiro (2)

When the last long rays of the sun
That bring with them a melancholy feeling
Run low across the fields and sky
I find myself thinking
Other times of the day I do not think so much
At least no more than I am comfortable with
For most thoughts are disturbing
And once admitted to mind will not be removed
Even when I try to replace them
With whistled tunes
Or old songs
Whose snatches of melody
That accompany my long days in a subdued fashion
Are associated with vague memories of a strange past
I am wondering how much longer it will be possible
To keep on with this tending of goats
That I have been doing for so long
That I know nothing else
All other aspects of my life
Having become a dream
I suspect a dream
Or a waking delusion
It may even be that my life as a goatherd
Here among the buttes and stones
Is also a waking delusion or a dream of a delusion
Sheep dung and goat dung are not useful for anything
They fade slowly into the soil as anything will
That is left long enough neglected
On this pitiless earth
That endures the extremes of the seasons
With an immense cruel patience  
That is pitilessly relentless
My lifeless body
Once I have let go
Of the grinding daily effort
To maintain its vitality
Will fade just as a goat turd does
Into the earth
Eventually in this dry air
Somewhere on this windswept plain
Beneath a bush
Where I might have crawled
To escape disclosure to the sky in my perishing
And no one would discover my body there
Any more than I discover the body of a goat
Whose absence from the flock I have taken no notice of
Though goats are my profession and my life
Possibly there is some better way to earn my coarse bread
Could I learn the trade I might sail out to sea
To the unreachable place
Where sky and sea meet in a flat ever-changing line
Unlike the unmoving line
Here where the plain’s bitter edge
Touches the sky that deigns to dip to meet it
It is possible also I could journey out on roads
To deliver produce or other goods
For people from one place
Forever need something available only
In another location
At some distance too far away
For them to fetch it themselves
And so must rely on others
This I could do on foot
But then the burden would be great
Even had I a cart to pull
Along behind me
Better if I could find a bullock cart
In the village that someone would trade for a goat or two
Then I might leave this life
Absent myself from this brown plain
With its sparse grasses and bits of gray stone
Scattered here and there among the ancient sheepfolds
Who then would carry on
With the godforsaken goats
And what would the goats do
Without human stewardship
Who would walk on their behalf
This distinctive pattern of steps
That I have been obligated to trace out
Coursing a design that seemed predestined
Each step following with inevitability the last
As if written out as a script
Upon and beyond the faint pathways the goats have traced
Through the ages
And it is not clear
That goats would tolerate my absence
With more or less pleasure
Than they have tolerated my presence
Nor that this desolate place
Has tolerated my presence even indifferently
Or whether it has felt it at all
As I have barely felt the presence of the goats
Nor they mine
So absorbed are they in their own goaty thoughts
Their cantankerous goaty deeds and determinations
Perhaps these lingering bitter evening thoughts
I wish to prevent
And cannot prevent
So must bear sad witness to
And give voice to
Because it is my nature
Are floating indifferent presences too,
Barely felt or known  
Perhaps this solitary life has been pressed on me
In my sleep by another
Or concocted as a scheme or joke
By a cynic nameless deity
In the long years that preceded my birth
When people relieved their days simply
In evening reveries
Spoken or sung or played out in the silences of these hills
Whose sad shadows lengthen as they swallow the landscape
Bringing anonymity and sameness    
As they did long before there were sheep and goats here
When other animals roamed these parts
Eating and being eaten
Universally peaceful in their mutual terror
Looking out into the distance
I see clusters of sheep and goats gathering
To fend off the fear they surely feel as darkness falls
They make distinctive patterns on the slopes of the hills
Like clusters of guitar notes
That solemnly vibrate
I do not think my life
Should it end soon
Say by the time the sun sets tonight
Or rises again in the morning over the hill
To the east opposite
Where the dust rises when the goats run
After one another
In their mating ruts
Or for the fighting that precedes mating
Because no grass covers the bare dirt
Is anything more than another poor instance
Of doomful destiny
Without any particular purpose
Or shred of humor  
I spend long hours standing here
Or there,
A place I can see from here
Places in which I have stood many times before
I seem to have spoken before
These very words
Whose kernels of simple intelligibility
I can only faintly grope for
And that remind me of the way the goats look at me in high summer
When there is very little water to be had
And they are expecting me to bring them water
In the old leathern sacks which are more and more heavy to carry
Uphill from the stream the older I am becoming
I do not think I will be able to keep on
For many seasons longer
With this tending of goats, foolish goats
And the sea is very far away
And that I can learn
The necessary sea-going skills
Is doubtful
Nor is there much chance I might acquire a boat
And why would anyone
Whose family possessed a small boat
That does not accommodate so many
Want to take on another hand,
Inexperienced in the ways of the sea
And advanced in years
And I doubt anyone would trade
A good bullock cart with strong wheels
So useful for a variety of tasks
And very difficult to make
For one or two mangy goats
With dispositions so troublesome
That days and nights of tending them
Are continually unpleasant and annoying

After Alberto Caeiro (3)

Suddenly the sun
That has been absent
Behind clouds and mists these long winter days
Bursts forth
Warming me and my goats finally
After such a long time of bitter cold
Sun so different
In the morning noon and evening
In summer, in winter
And whose nighttime absence
Brings a powerful silence
Who could replace or produce
This special pleasure
Of warmth
Suddenly after much cold
That inhabits even the spaces between
The coarsely woven fabric of my coat and shirt
Even the spaces
Within the flesh of the muscles
And the spleen and lungs
That grow brittle in the cold
A penetrating warmth finally invades  
Opening the whole of the landscape
To the soft wide sky
As a book that has been closed
Suddenly when dropped from a shelf falls open
And begins its tale of distant worlds
That come closer
As the words of the book speak
The sky
That has been pressing down on me
Seems to become friendly
It caresses me
So that even my thoughts
Fall open as the book that has fallen open
From the shelf
Words of my heart begin to stir
And the ground begins to speak
Advancing in the light
Toward me and my goats
With disarming intimacy
The feeling of the approach
Of soil and sky
Is so immediate I smile
And the beginnings of the smile upon my lips
Cracks them after the night’s cold dryness
Bringing a few spots of blood
Which are warm and tasty
The goats begin to frolic
Not so much out of joy
For I have seen them in moods that are close to joy
When they have from time to time
Found special things to eat
But simply because
The strong sun has awakened in them another form of life
Different from the nighttime life
Different from the winter life
The warmth has dissolved their dreams
Which for so long had unfolded painfully
Satisfying their wintry nature
As a lion’s nature is satisfied
By the pursuit and slaughter of an animal
The sun’s warmth
Has brought to them a crisis of brightness
In which their small uncertain black eyes
Blink wildly around in all directions
The tiny vacant pinpoint holes at their centers
Fill with desire beyond object, beyond image
And this disturbs them terribly
They begin to butt one another violently
Simply to express this objectless disturbance
That their crude dreams have failed to account for
And there is desperation in their sharp movements
Their stabbing horns
Go in deeper
With the sun’s softening warmth
That removes the hard tension of cold from the body
Releasing the flesh to flow like water in springtime
When it has first been unlocked from the snow and ice
And runs merrily down
The rivulets and cracks in rockfaces  
My flowing flesh
That had been frozen in me
Releases floods of memory
Of days
Of warm sun  
And bright worlds
That equally flowed like honey
But when I try to offer my thought
To honeyed memory
It can’t hold purchase  
As sunbeams
That glance off bushes without adhering
And off the dark coats
Of the goats
And the light coats
Of the few sheep
So that their colors
Seem more vivid to the eye
Sharp and closely etched
Though some certain amount
Of sunlight is also absorbed by them
And so too my memories
Which by and large are not happy ones
Glance away from my mind
Though some few are absorbed
So that I can see myself
Poor goatherd
Reflected in the mirror,
The aura, of goat
Which has swallowed
All of the past
In its crude relentless presence
In the presence of goats
The carrying of water
The seeing, hearing, smelling, the wonder
Of goats
Their moods sins and intimate confusions and passions
And if I have ever had a sense of another life
Beyond a devotion to goats
It has dissolved
And the past is no longer personal
It is an elemental inchoate goat-haunted myth
That slowly melts in the day’s warmth
Becoming indistinct from the present moment of goat
As memory and perception blur
Mixing my human destiny
With goat fate
Goat image, goat smell, and sensibility
This long brown plain
With its mounded hills, its colorless bushes
Persistent grasses, scattered stones
Dry stream bed below
Whose white gravel gleams like silver
Against the sun’s relentless stare
All so satisfying, so barren
So utterly complete without urge
Shining brightly
Under the sun’s pitiless
Inquiring gaze
Heat waves wiggle up from the soil
Whose earth-moist aroma
Penetrates the goat odor finally
Hot pungent earth-smell, dank and musty
That causes the small ground-scurrying animals to sit up
Wherever they happen to be  
Making themselves heedlessly vulnerable
But for me there is no pleasant reverie
For I must fetch feed for the goats,
Grain to supplement the grasses and bushes
They gnaw on so constantly
It is no wonder they suffer as they do
From painful teeth and bleeding lips
Yes the sun’s warmth is good
But it is also a cause of some anxiety
For perhaps the pleasantness of the day
That transforms this place into a worthwhile visitors’ spot
Will bring some person to these hills
In search of wildflowers
One who does not know
There are no flowers here
Except very small ones
That come late in the season
And are within days entirely eaten by the goats
So that each year there are fewer of them
Just as there are fewer goats each year
And each year less of me

After Alberto Caeiro (4)

When will I die?
And does it matter
Is it even sensible
This question of when?
The goats do not think such things
They do not question, laugh, or cry
They have no need to do so
As I must
So it may be that goats do not die
Because to think of dying
Which is not possible to do
Except as a groping, urging one onward
In time
Is to die
And not to think
Of dying
To have no such word, no such thought, no such question
No such emotion or lack of emotion
Associated with such a thought or word
Is not to die, so goats do not die?
And if as it may be
My own thought of death
Is a self-reflexive impasse
A waiting room at the frontiers of thought
Full of benches and walls
Constructed from confusion
A reflex of the language I speak
A crude local dialect
And therefore not really a thought of death at all
But simply an expression of fear, my own fear
Or perhaps a fear I have received from the goats
Who have no other means of expressing fear
Save through me
Or is if not that then possibly my dialect itself
Expressing its locale and limit
Then it is possible I too do not die

After Alberto Caeiro (5)

From this hilltop
I can see the sun
Setting to the west
Becoming a blazing red ball
That flattens and resolves into a thin red line
That enflames the clouds
Enrobing them in yellow
As my life is enrobed in goat
Summer evenings are peaceful
The goats are quiet
In the dying of the light
Darkness comforts them as it does me
And they do not much mind the cold
That still comes with the darkness
Since they do not know it as cold
But only live it as sensation
The only possible sensation
And not even known as that
They cannot therefore complain of the cold
It does not matter to them
And it is possible that the cold
Does not exist for them
Surely it does not
But for me the cold
That seeps
Into the corners of my soul
Even this time of year
Brings strong bitterness
For it makes me remember the winter cold
That I cannot let go of
That has become my chief thought
Accompanying all other thoughts
That come to mind
The defining feature of my life
Shape of my mood and temperament
Cause of the curses I fling upward to the sky
Against a God I seem not to believe in
Yet persistently blame
Even without naming Him
Or acknowledging Him
For the wound that is my life
This God
That in my resistance and despair
Lives more fully
Than He ever has
In prayers and observances
In the choirs of churches
In thinking
In sensation
In the emotion
Of being here among goats
Dumb undying aromatic stubborn goats
That will never go away
That do not die and do not know
They have been born
Here among the silences of spaces darkened and lit
And too seldom warmed
By the sun
That seems to want to go and return
Without cease and without ever once
Stopping its relentless movement
This God lives and quietly fails
To console
Other than in
Listening to these words
I have been speaking
It turns out to Him
Not to you, dear reader,
He Who unlike you
Does not mock
Or judge for good or ill
But only
Without sighing or bitterness
And without explicit response
But with a totality of covering absence
And equanimous clarity
Causes the words to echo
So that my heart hears them
And is comforted
More than a person could comfort
More than a goat

This poem appears in Norman Fischer, Questions/Places/Voices/Seasons (San Diego, CA: Singing Horse Press, 2009).