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James Ragan: California Poets Part 7, Five Poems

James Ragan

July 1st, 2024

California Poets: Part VII

James Ragan

Five Poems

The Bond


    for a brother remembering war


All day in the Veteran’s ward,

you wonder how the lark will worry

its way to a limb. After all, you say,

              even the leaves


are falling to the soft weight of flurries

in the park. Now, you speak of release,

how to free the bond between

              flesh and spirit,


how they close in as one, each

to the other, promising at the very moment

when night pre-empts the day,

              a profound light


will inspire the miraculous shock

of a mortal comeback, as if death

were simply a day of cancellation,

               a day of begging


out from the daily task of breathing,

 s’il vu plait—a day of learning back

the trust, that even truth has warts

               and wants to hide


from those who confuse it with beauty.

Truth, you say, is beauty to those

who believe all calls to war

                that lie within


the sheen of words are polished

to hide the doubt beneath. You laugh

through thoughts that some still think

               to be astonishingly true,


as in the need for gods to be imagined,

and that doubters like soldiers burn in hell

once the mind has broken. After all, you say,



can prove to be a brittle thing,

but conscience should never be. Now

the lark that visited during the cedar’s

                rust in autumn


has returned, trapped behind

the meshed screen out in the snow.

We listen, your talk pressed

               against my ear,


stethoscopic, trained to hear bones knock,

to a flutter of wings, something

in the worry of your breath,

              dying to be let out.

The Old Roman Platea


The old courtyard, dozing in a riddled mist

of azaleas below the stone stair, has found  

the nights in Rome a shade too dark for browsing, 

and prefers the regal lit barometer of a torch,

igniting the wet silk of a Tuscan moon

into trellised strips along a rafter grate,

or a jasmine vine curling about the window ledge.

In its time it might have lured DiVinci

in a Gioconda mood, smile-shy, to the haze

and seeming laughter of tumbling ash leaves

or the etched gilding of a stain-glassed sill

flowering tall into Vatican vaults.

When it wakes, it likes to round its shoulders

into each sleeve of a garden wall,

groomed with lavender and blue wisteria,

and leap, like a loitering moon, into a photograph

or a conversation for the rest of a day or year – or century.

For a Mother at the LA Mission


You tell me

                     there are days

when you’re feeling 


walking the long hedge                     

                                      blindly down

the raveled lay of road,                            

                                     your memory

gasping for breath

                              to fill

your shivering mind.

                                And walking on,

you see,

               lying in the shadows

of the moonlit pines,  

                                  the image

of a transient soul,

                            whose face you imagine

could possibly mirror

                                   your own,

gazing through the fog

                                    of rotting limbs,

groping the air

                        to strangle what remains

of a raging

                   last clear thought.

You fear

                 that you’re disappearing

through a random     

                             roll of subtractions,

afraid that nothing

                              your memory allows

in the sundering

                           of your spirit,

will survive.

                    Always the dread

of words now rambled

                                     by the false rhyming

of conflicting doubts,      

                                  of eyes dissembling

the lovely tryst

                         of images you see

as children



                           in the shallows,

dancing, colliding

                              into an embrace.

You’re holding on

                             to a ritual

of seeding the mind’s

                                    flowering grave

with moments of light

                                     for an instance

of clarity,

                and always the wish

to ease your wanting

                                to bring a face

back to a name,

                          or to a place

you can’t remember,

                                 or to a time

you recall

                 for one brief moment,

that begs

               not to be forgotten.

Not Word Enough


    for the innocent souls of Uvalde, and

    all those lost to us through racist malice


All day, I’ve waited for breath

to climb onto the tongue, not easily,

some might say with a gasping stutter,

sliding down the throat’s ribbed spine

to find the word that refuses to be spoken,

its silence wrapped like shade

in the lung’s bowl of darkness.

What could I know of nuance,

its shape or sound, elusive like the scent

of hatred, neither giving nor forgiving,

how in moments of light, when love

might have gardened the heart,

a life fades amid the dying roots

of breath? I would sooner reach out

to a crow’s beak or climb a steeple

and believe as many do

in the height and point of things,

how in merciful times a syllable’s

utterance of guilt might suffice.

All day I’ve wondered what in time

is too short a time to kneel before

a flowered grave until a death is honored.

What in time is too silent a word

to ban the triggered power that breeds

contempt for a generation’s grief?

For days I’ve wandered, searching

the riddle of letters for any assemblage

of sounds I could justify for an instance

of repentance, for any gift of redemption

I could set free from the depth of world-pity.

In a word, enough is not word enough

to silence the rage sorrowed in this song.

Mowing the Lawn


while hearing news of the siege of Kiev,

I find in the weed-high yard, neighborings

of minor gods, spreaths of all-loving


surviving my assault, my brutal loss

of reason, sonar to the brain, as I shear

the half-sheened wings off gypsy moths.


an army ant, carrying prey to its colony

bivouac, sprints about omnisciently

in the dark, Now, the mantis, self-adoring

                                   spawn of grass

prays tall for my shifting shears to stall.

I am genius around these parts.

I weed wings from the may- 

                                   fly’s skull.

Until the mowed bone of something

brittle rattles still as dice. Until

my Spaniel bares the shank

                                   of his teeth

at my slightest invasion or trespass.

In his jowls the starling I have claimed

to love has been splayed


By his bark he has lost faith in my ability

to transcend the limits of my nature.

It takes the devil, not genius,

                                   to mow a lawn.

Author Bio:

Appearing in 36 anthologies and 15 languages, James Ragan is an internationally recognized author of 10 books of poetry, including The Hunger Wall and Chanter’s Reed, and 2 plays staged in the U.S, Moscow, Beijing, Athens etc. With poems in Poetry, The Nation, Los Angeles Times, World Lit Today, and readings in 34 nations, he has performed for the U.N. Carnegie Hall, CNN, NPR, PBS, BBC and 7 Heads of State including Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985 (with Bob Dylan). Honors: 2 Litt.D’s, 2 Fulbright Grants, Emerson Poetry Prize, NEA, 9 Pushcart nominations, Swan Foundation Humanitarian Award, a Poetry Society of America citation, Bucharest Film Festival’s “Contribution to the Arts” Award. Finalist: Walt Whitman Book Award, Ohio Book Award, London’s Troubadour Int. Poetry Prize, etc. He’s the subject of the Arina Films documentary, Flowers and Roots, awarded 17 Film Festival Recognitions, and Platinum Prize at Houston’s Int. Film Festival. He Directed USC’s Professional Writing Program (25 yrs) and is Dist. Professor at Prague’s Charles U. (24 summers). President Vaclav Havel honored him as “Ambassador of the Arts” at Prague’s 1994 World PEN Congress.


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