Today's poetry for today's world

Paul Merchant


Paul Merchant's Some Business of Affinity was a finalist for the 2007 Oregon Book Award in poetry.  His three other poetry books include Salt Water Island (1983), Bone from a Stag's Heart (a Poetry Book Society Recommendation in 1988) from Five Seasons Press, and Stones published by Rougemont Press (1973).  He is also the translator of four collections of modern Greek poetry: Modern Poetry in Translation 4 (Greek Issue) (1968), Eleni Vakalo’s Genealogy (Rougemont, 1971 and Interim Press, 1977), Monochords by Yannis Ritsos (Trask House Books and Five Seasons, 2007), and Twelve Poems about Cavafy, also by Ritsos (Tavern Books, 2010).


A native of Wales, Paul studied at Cambridge, the Shakespeare Institute, and the University of Athens.  He taught for many years at the University of Warwick.  Since 1996 Paul has been Director of the William Stafford Archives and co-edited, with Vincent Wixon, two collections of Stafford's prose. He is currently Special Collections Associate and William Stafford Archivist at Lewis & Clark College, Portland, Oregon.



Click on the cover to buy Some Business of Affinity.



Photo by Grace Merchant








When the library of Alexandria burned

            words of Aeschylus filled the air

                        charred flecks of papyrus


As the brilliance of Calvus dwindled to a scatter of phrases

            poems of his friend Catullus survived the sack of Rome

                        in the bung of a wine-cask


Something is recovered


                                    The shepherd boy by the Dead Sea

                        wakening the Essenes asleep in their cave

            a minor proclamation in three scripts

                                    voicing a million hieroglyphs


Time the great translator  

                        capriciously selects from a babble of tongues


            Carved figures stretch their empty hands

                                                we guess at their burden


In faded cloth

            a marriage quilt holds echoes


                        Caged near Pisa

            under a hurricane of pain and delusion

                                    that prisoner reads Confucius


                                                Poetry pouring out of him

                                                            an almost unbearable beauty



                        Cut loose, broken

            mapping from the fragments an earthly paradise                    




from Some Business of Affinity (Five Seasons Press, 2006)  








Every page of the atlas has been half erased

in a swirling cloud of dust, iron filings, blood.

A barbarian boxing, say the Greeks, when you

hit his face, he covers his face, when you hit

his belly, he covers his belly.  If both sides

want a fight, does it matter who landed the first

blow, and on what day?  In the lit corner

of our ravaged world a tree waits for spring.




– from Some Business of Affinity (Five Seasons Press, 2006) 








I dreamed a letter in one of the alphabets

so obscure its first significance was lost.

Some thought it was used to season words

of grief, as salt water lifts a funeral barge.

Others believed in the old days it guarded

that handful of expressions that told the truth.


What do we have to light the way but our own

lantern?  The others cannot help.  They know

their torches barely light the room’s corners

or even the well of shadow two steps ahead.




– from Some Business of Affinity (Five Seasons Press, 2006)  




Writer's Tip: Poetry is naturally a solitary activity, but it can be helped along by various forms

of collaboration with others.  Translation is one form of collaboration that I have found productive.

Working with other artists (visual artists and musicians especially) is another kind, and in this case

one's collaborators may be the most attentive and expectant audience that one will ever have.




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