The Complete J. Humbert Riddle’s Birthday Ode

J. Humbert Riddle’s Birthday Ode,
Delivered on Vacation
In the Isles, 2010

Editor’s Preface:
A new, extended version of
Perhaps Riddle’s most famous
Poem, written during a time
Of supposed sanity, and ease.

I. Claps of Thunder

I sat in a cell once, long ago,
In Athens it was, crying for that dead
Wasted body of pale Pericles… our hero.

Wine mixed
Not enough. I

Saw broken bits
Of corpses bouncing by –
Such sad women,
Such sad women – all
Pushed downstream to
The still, tepid waters of
Our port,
At Piraeus.

Wine mixed not
Enough. When

Young and bounding
Over rocks on
Star-cold sands by
The clay site at Siwa I
Stared at grimy papyrus
Scrolls, stared
At a king, a king left
Stabbed and silent by
A solemn pool,
A pool in
The dry, mythic mountains
Of perfumed Persia.

Wine mixed…

In Utica in a sparse room,
In a dead
Desert city, I
Found Cato mumbling
And mumbling about

The claps of thunder that come
Before the damp rains chill the
Silent statues the
Crowded squares of
Speckled Rome.


II. Up and Up

Once wrapped in sweat and dust,
I, at the Holy Wisdom, in
That Great City
Of Constantine threw

Picks and metal at blocks
Of marble hewn
And hewn…
Time breaking up
Time, pounding
Entire days
Of pounding, pounding
Gaps in domes where light
Bleeds through. Hands
Bloodied hands that reach
Up and up.

Fingertips lost
In pale, setting suns.

In sands, too, I
Once went marching through
Sands with burning hands
Held up before faces tattered,
Cracked with lips unable
To bleed, to kiss. Trans-
Fixed by dunes always
So shapeless, so
Changing and windswept
Like soldiers lost like
Gusts and great swords and promises
By firelight, in shadow on tent
Walls with hands held up
And crying… burning
Like thunderbolts in the sands.

Mansions made up
Of dust and sky.

Even, I, on a hill in Hastings,
Caught an arrow falling
From the sky.

The form of one Harold, bloody,
Faceless almost
By blood. A King,

With a broken church lurching
Up from the gloom
Of hills tired and tattered. Swords
Left alone, stuck
In Earth with no one near.
Whimpers and horse smells –
Mud covering teeth –
Unable to call out –
And mist. Mountains,
Of Mist… Unreal.

Then I once walked
Off course. Confused.
Down roads hidden
By the stubble of undergrowth, trees
Not casting a shade, upright
And unmoved. Darkness,
And light. A door appearing,

Turning in at an unlatched
Gate – who I do not know who –
Legs only. Silence
Tomb-like silence. Yes,

Signs of an obvious an
Excruciating sickness.
Buboes black and batched
Along hollow armpits,
Crawling up weak,
Wasted legs. Skin
Ruptured. Peeling
Back laughter
Of hollow mouths –
Voids in the void –
And macabre.

III. The Tap, Tap, Tap

In that city of passion
And poets, I mixed broken
Pigments for a shadow that
Clung to the walls, clung…
Painting and painting. Him

Dangling and hovering, him
In one hand a chisel while I
In the dark of Sixtus stare
At the impure light
Of candles at
Bare bodies born by quick,
Imperfect strokes.

An eye, quivering. The
Tap, tap, tap
Of paint dribbling
The floor. Also,

With Atahualpa once,
I and dirty and played
A game of chess one
Stormy, silent night.

Breaking over quiet,
Distant peaks. The
Pound, pound of rain
Working on patchwork pavements
Nearby. While I

Stole his queen while the fire
Snapped nearby. I
Slipping pieces to my
Ripped pocket. The

Tap, tap of rain
Outside. Tap like

When walking
Down back alleys in
That tattered town of London.
Seeing a man –
Up against a wall,
Leaning with a broken sign swinging –

A stranger first I thought,
A man out on the sun,
And rain. Yet,

When the light hit right I saw
A beloved, immortal face
Whistling such a sweet tune,
Whistling such a sweet tune through
Puddles oozing up
Cracked, uncovered feet.
“Dah-ta,” “Dah-ta,”
Floating like magic
Through the air.
Symphonies we cannot hear.
Tapping and tapping feet in tune.

Until, on a cold day at Whitehall I
Eyed an executioner
Masked, thinking of
A dull blade, a
Late night fire in forgotten
Forests. Then,
That Stuart of Two Shirts strutting
Out from chipped, sanctified crowns and
Sighing, sighing…

As the crowd gasps,
As the crowd gasps.

IV. Snow-Quiet Vienna

Once with Samuel too
In a town ringing
I went…
Towards sounds of fire raging,
Soft ash falling
And falling, churches
I thought too holy to burn,
Burn. Dreams
In that nether world
Of stuff of mists of mirrors. London
Burns, while you
Sleep. Yes,

In a savage land
I walked through days
Of rains and fogs.
Ceaseless wet.
Mud so thick
You sink and sank.

Guards more wild than rivers
We thought to subdue, so
Extreme our dreams
In lands without borders.

I also remember
Last speaking with Mozart.
Time and Death
In noxious rooms.
Silent sounds of
Marching music. While
White and limp
Fingers strum notes to
A death never to
Die. Unable

A body bloated cannot fit
A pale shirt on. Yes,

Dying candles that
Flicker in the winter chill
Let in from a window we forgot
To close. Such
Troubled days such
Rising and sitting, rising
And sitting. Moving
Like shadows on walls in
Snow-quiet Vienna. Songs

Written in the night.
A flourish of pens
By fires of ember
And coal.

V. Hands Held

Then on hot days
Of summer, nailing
I nailed bent pieces of broken
Plywood. The shaggy beard
Of Whitman hovering
Nearby. I

Would talk of atoms of
Assumptions of sweet sweat
Billowing on frail
Foreheads. Old hands of a poet,
Gnarled. Brutish. Yes,
Knew and knowing,
Seen and held.

Boot-soles I follow. A
Great pulse of life.

As with Hughes, on
Days of delivered dishes.
Sitting and eating. A
Round table of riches –
Herbs, spices,
My plate holding
Wrinkled bits of paper so
Carefully kept from view.

I have known rivers I

Been everywhere and nowhere. In
Solemn and sad services
In pale November.
Tears against deadened walls.
Silent sepulchers.
Churches caught and coughing as
I speak up and say a
Song of an older man who
Vanished like a word never
Quite spoken, but heard half
Heard behind a wall I still
Can’t find. I who

Tap my feet to
Drums distant and
Voices that lift deep
Thoughts so heavy
Heavy for times both new,
And old…

Frontiers gone through,
Washed away like time
Through a sieve of half
Forgotten years as we all
Sit with silent, hard hands

VI. For You

In Worcester too
On nights once in
Cell-like rooms, thinking
Of paved roads long
After rains in the mid-day
Of mountains of
Bright sun-light on
Wet leaves that glisten, glisten like

Silence. Silence.
Silence tapping a wooden
Walking stick so gently
Against tar-black pavement that is
A tap

Of creeping boot-soles creeping
Against the firm flesh
Of hands rubbing against
Life and a
Tap tap
Of places down roads taken
Past towns I once drank in
By surging streams and hikes
I waited by tall trees with
A walking stick in hand for
You. Waiting

And watching out…
For you.

One thought on “The Complete J. Humbert Riddle’s Birthday Ode

  1. Mary January 17, 2016 / 5:50 pm

    Hi Matt…I will have to delink this one, as there is a limit of one poem per person on Sunday. Perhaps you can share this next week. You can delete this comment as well. I just wanted to let you know.


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