Like van Gogh, I Can’t Begin in Prose

By Primus St. John Primus St. John
1    Dear Milton,

      Rain. But when you are here, alone, what does it
      mean. It means psalm — that song sung to the harp.
      Like trees, we too hold on to the earth — pull and
      twang for another tongue. It (whatever it is, and
      who knows that) is a sacred song. It is strange for
      we are the ones who glorify mystery with our arms.
      We call it testament because it pries at our souls
      with many branches, and so you say with a huge
      eye, we must practice our art like the third stomach
      of a cud-chewing animal:

                     “Myrtle, Woodbine, Appletrees, Trillium,
                      here they are, the strength of your arm
                      stalls at the open gate of the stars.

                      Feel everything, trust everything!”

         We are always limited to what we ask for (so why
      not ask for wings). Therefore, desire becomes a flight
      marker. For surely we hover over what we have done
      as though we have wings — looking for signs that will
      tell us where to go, and if we have gone somewhere,
      what it means. Milton, like David of old, like David
      of old or any child, we live on the tip of that lean
      tongue of invocation with our sling, saying:

                     “I am small in this bright cataract of pine.
                      I stand on the smallest stone.
                      I am a standing prairie dog
                      praying for my song.”

         And so we have come to know: what is sacred is
      the storm, how the winds shimmer in the pool. . .
      how “brushes are frightened.”
         Milton, it is right to say:

                   “I’m lucky, I’m always lucky.”

      for though

                     “Now, somewhere, as if I were really holy,
                     I know that my savior is lonely.”

      you also know

                     “The wind has given me its child to hold —
                     riding on my shoulders with its stars.”

      Of course I’m biased; what’s a friend for! But I
      think you have done what you should have done —
      gone to the fountainhead and glorified in psalm.
         It may please you to know that out there, rain,
      too, gives in large quantities.

               Love to family,

2    Dear Love to Family,

                     “O mother, momma,
                      how can I eat this?
                      My teeth are in my grave,
                      my promises broken.”

         On that anvil called home, we beat out family. It
      is enough and lovely to learn from our own. To say,
      “Grandma Celia”. . . to say, “Davey, Davey. . . Paula,
      my Paula.”
         On that anvil called home, we are like van Gogh
      — thinking always in vivid colors that are both silent
      and raging. For without it we would have no capac-
      ity for peace — or war. We would be unable to settle
      or plan, or to love and fear tales.
         This is the center that allows us to pass among
      people — the beautiful black night with all the stars. . .

3    Dear Beautiful Black Night with All the Stars,

      Swimming in the pool it occurs to you, “I am no one
      else.” In this context, completely surrounded, every-
      thing must live.

4    Dear Everything Must Live,

      No country, no culture, no person, can give us more
      than the “rant of the ordinary life.”

5    Dear Rant of the Ordinary Life,

      What we hand to our children is our truth. As large
      as we are, it is small. Fragile in a bed, you learn
      about infirmity’s strong arms:

                     “What is it? Who’s there?”

         Your heart is the real house you breathe in. Old
      love’s fantasy is there; it has young feet:

                     “It is strange:
                      I want to weep.”

      We are never at peace. Because, all our work comes
      back. It spies on us as round as the moon:

                     “Boy, look at the moon!
                      Look at that moon!
                      It looks like it’s right
                      On top of us.”

6    Dear Right on Top of Us,

      Around us, life and death. Someone born like us —
      gone. Blackburn, like a magician’s stroke of the
      wand — gone.
         On a freighter, you stare into the water and go to
      your ancestral home. You think about small Selma,
      all the occupied zones we are, how our fingertips are
      almost like birds.
         Once, when you were a boy, you let go of the
      fence. You are still falling.

7    Dear You Are Still Falling,

      You are a cantor whose strange songs absorb
      mystery, and that is not sailing too far.

                So long. . .


Primus St. John, “Like Van Gogh, I Can’t Begin in Prose” from Communion: Poems 1976-1998. Copyright © 1999 by Primus St. John. Reprinted with the permission of Copper Canyon Press, P.O. Box 271, Port Townshend, WA 98368-0271,

Source: Communion: Poems 1976-1998 (Copper Canyon Press, 1999)

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Poet Primus St. John

POET’S REGION U.S., Northwestern

Subjects Living, Growing Old, Life Choices, The Mind, Time & Brevity, Religion, Faith & Doubt, God & the Divine, The Spiritual

 Primus  St. John


Primus St. John was born in New York City in 1939. For more than 30 years he has lived in Oregon and taught at Portland State University. He is one of the inaugurators of the national Poets in the Schools program, the editor of two anthologies, and the author of several collections of poetry, for which he has received an Oregon Book Award and a Western States Book Award. Three of these books have been collected together, along . . .

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SUBJECT Living, Growing Old, Life Choices, The Mind, Time & Brevity, Religion, Faith & Doubt, God & the Divine, The Spiritual

POET’S REGION U.S., Northwestern

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