How to Do Things with Tears

How to Do Things with Tears

by Allen Grossman


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The award-winning poet's newest book of poems is heroic and of mythic proportions, showing the compassionate side of men. How to Do Things with Tears is a book of poems brought forth by the Sighted Singer, the poet who holds the central place in Allen Grossman's newest poetic work. "This is a how-to book," Grossman explains. "The heroic singer of tradition is blind. A new singer in this present must be sighted. In this book the poet intends to say something, insofar as a poet can, about the common sadness of living and dying in the world." Like the blind bard of old, Grossman's Sighted Singer conjures visions both high and low, in mythopoetic resonances that excite the sorrows and the laughter of the gods and men.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780811214643
Publisher: New Directions Publishing Corporation
Publication date: 05/01/2001
Series: Paperbook Series , #912
Pages: 112
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.40(d)

About the Author

Allen Grossman was born in 1932 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His awards and honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Witter Brynner Prize for Poetry, and a MacArthur Fellowship. He was professor of English at Brandeis University and the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of the Humanities at the Johns Hopkins University.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

How to do things with tears

In thy springs, O Zion, are the water wheels
of my mind! The wheels beat the shining stream.
Whack. Dying. And then death. Whack. Learning. Learned.
Whack. Breathing. And breath. Whack. Gone with the wind.

I am old. The direction of time is plain:
as the daylight, never without direction,
rises in a direction, east to west,
and sets in a direction, west to east,

walking backward all night long, underground;
so, this bright water is bent on its purpose—
to find the meadow path to the shore and then
the star ("Sleepless") by which the helmsman winds

and turns. Zion of the mind! This is the way:
toward nightfall the wind shifts offshore, north by
northwest, closing the harbor to sail,
and it stiffens, raising the metal water

in the roads. The low sun darkens and freezes.
The water shines. In the raking light is
towed the great ship home, upwind, everything
furled. And, behind the great ship, I am carried,

a castaway, in the body alone,
under the gates of Erebus—the meeting
place of daylight under ground and night wind
shrieking in wires, the halliards knocking and

raveled banners streaming to the southeast
like thought drawn out, wracked and torn, when the wind
shifts and rises and the light fails in the long
schoolroom of the settingsun.What is left

to mind but remembrances of the world?
The people of the road, in tears, sit down
at the roadside and tell stories of the world.
Then they rise in tears and go up.

The mill sits in the springs. The Water wheel whacks
round: Alive. Whack. Dying. Whack. Dead. Whack. Nothing.
How then to do things with tears? —Deliver us,
Zion, from mist. Kill us in the light.

Enough rain for Agnes Walquist

(five little fits of tears)

We are all given something precious that we lose irrevocably.


It happened at midnight.
—What I possessed and lost
or what I never possessed
and have nonetheless lost,
or what in any case I
was not born possessing
but received from another's mouth:
—a smooth stone
passed in a kiss from the mouth
of a Fate into my open mouth
amidst odors of metal
and slamming doors
at the dark end of a railway car
as the train was leaning
on a curve and slowing
to stop—is lost. Lost
in that dark! —Dilectissima,
the Fate showed me two ways,
male and female. Also a third:
Gessert's midnight path
to the wild iris,
an escaped garden among
thickets of poison oak
where rolls the stony Oregon
and hears no sound
except stone on stone.


What, then, shall I give YOU?
My kiss-stone is lost.
But look! The vast world,
energetic and empty,
glows in the dark.
On the strip between the road
—gravel or macadam,
or an earthen path
(but in this case gravel)
and the settlement
or the side-hill field or forest
or other tangled right of way
for jews, gypsies, ghosts
(outcasts in any case)
there among weeds
springs up Gessert's
wild iris tenax, violet or pale yellow,
the bloom 3" to 5" across.
Gessert asks, "How in the world
did they come here?"
Then he says, "If you must
take these iris,
use a shovel. Root them
in your garden
and let them go to seed.
Gather the seed
in Fall
—October or November.
Drive out into the countryside.
Plant the seeds
on any half-sunny,
slightly eroded, roadside bank.


Sow Gessert's iris, dilectissima,
Violet or ghostly yellow,
in the wild, universal garden
named "Shadowy Agnes Walquist,"
her midnight body
from which wild iris
and lilies grow.
To whom better entrust
pure loss?
To what breasts other
than the breasts
of Agnes Walquist!
—"Agnes! (Can you hear?)
when a man dies,
or a woman dies,
the whole world of which
he is the only subject
dies without residue
(or the whole world of which
she is the only subject
dies without residue).
The world of each person,
man or woman,
is a dependency of the world
of another one.
When a man dies or a woman
the reason for confidence
with respect to any world
is diminished. (Weep! Weep!)
When the last person but one
dies, the last person,
though he continue to live,
ceases to exist!"
Agnes Walquist sighs.
Then she says,


In my sleep I say, "Agnes! I will
give you rain
from my mystery store
of rain. The dead have buried
the dead and are forever
burying the dead.
But the dead do not remember
as the living do not know
the heart." I wake
in the hour before dawn
to the huge hammer of the rain
(hammer of sex
as the poet makes it)
which thunders enough, enough, enough."
Earth shudders and springs.
The East grows bright.
And Agnes Walquist whispers,
"Thank you."


Sweet youth, sweet youth
(dilectissima mea)
Punish thy pillow.
Your kiss-stone is among the stones
the stony Oregon rolls
and hears no sound
but stone on stone.
Blond Fate, the honey-blond,
no longer knows which one
is the stone of witness.
What follows is the wearing
out to dust.
The water mill deep down
in ocean grinds out salt
(truth, troth, death).
But sweeter than the body
of a man or a woman
(sweetness of that sweetness,
song of all those songs)
is the midnight garden
of Agnes Walquist.
Her breasts are sweet.
The huge hammer is an ancient memory
of water falling into water.
There is lightening all night
on distant mountains,
strike after strike
(violet, blue, red, ghostly yellow,
And along the mountain paths,
asleep or dead,
are sprawled
nocturnal mountaineers.

Elsie Young, aged pensioner, on Purgatory Mountain


Then we came upon a woman with a black cat
on her knees. Among its many noticeable defects
one was that it was dead. Of what did the cat die?
The cat died of desire which is a relentless disposition
to solve hard problems—as one might say,
to get to the other side of the road despite the
trucks. The woman says, "Let there be nothing left out."
"But if nothing is to be left out," replies the dead cat,
"nevertheless one must not cross the road in traffic."
He has learned from his experience. As for the woman,
at the inquest traces of no fatal mistake
will be detected anywhere on her body. Dilectissima,
our business is to wander up the footpath
hand in hand, telling one another what there
is to see on Purgatory Mountain. "There's
the gate," we say. "On it everything possible


to be arrived at, and seen, by passing through any gate
is inscribed. This gate is called MORNING LIGHT.
We must agree, you and I, not to be kind to ones
who darken the way with secrecy. But to those others
who say our name and tell a good story we turn
and say in reply, 'It is well to start early, in the hour
before dawn and in the silence of seeing nothing
while things are still wrapped in their nature and night,
the limit of our eloquence, is toward the end of its patrol.'"
—The first person we met on the mountain, after the material
sun (the sun itself, not its reflection in the mind) appeared
above the horizon like the soul of water rising in the eye
of one who has thought upon water a long time, was Elsie
Young, pensioner—eyes like bright water. She arose,
brushing the dead cat from her lap, which had replied
as I have told you, about "desire", etc.—a long gab,
but now it is finished. Elsie holds a glass of water up,
the work of a lifetime, to the morning light. She says,
triumphant: "I am as a sparrow alone on a housetop."


The wind rose and Elsie Young vanished with a cry
like a leaf blown upward. —"Tell me, kid. Among all lives
which is the admirable life?" Owen Barfield asked me
that question long ago—a Steinerian, an anthroposophist,
one who KNEW. (He is dead, I presume. Shall we
see him, then, on this mountain in his rough shoes,
good for walking the uneven earth?) Owen Barfield loved
and married Alice, a woman much older than himself.
He saw what others cannot see: the inmost sentiments
of certain persons, which appeared to him like colored
scarves, or gaudy snoods or veils—fountainous red
for utter thought and, for desire, watery blue. Listen,
up here the sound of many waters speaks as a god
speaks out of his synclinal fold, feeding
willows, leathery amaranth, insatiable bamboo—and also
(their stainless 18-wheelers idling on the beach below)


among these cooling rocks the slaughtering gangs....
—Beyond the gate called MORNING LIGHT, beyond gate ZENITH,
and gate AFTERNOON there looms, mysterious and austere,
gate CREPUSCULE, high up, crowned with a gibbous moon.
See how, among dark waters, soaked through by streams,
they sit, done with the Great Work now, all four: stylish
Owen Barfield, sporting the cerulean voiles of his desire;
blushing Alice, always in her wedding gown; and Elsie,
aged pensioner, whose income's (as you know) secure.
On her lap the dead cat, overdressed as usual, in fur,
having thrown caution to the winds, stares back ha rapture
over its left shoulder, starry eyed, at Elsie Young, heroine
of the admirable life, and whispers sotto voce (under its breath),
"'Take pleasure as your guide.' But remember, feed the pet!
And always, dead or alive, my sparrow, carry a knife."

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