Spiral Trace

Poems by Jack Marshall

Finalist for the Northern California Book Award

“[Marshall] understands that all worlds, the material and the spiritual, are one, and that the neighborhoods and cities that no longer exist can be conjured by memory and reanimated by art.”—San Francisco Chronicle

June 2013
240 pages
Paperback Original

ISBN: 978-1-56689-327-5.



A treatise on aging provokes a searing examination of a modern world defined by an eroding environment and hawkish, endless war. Offering a tribute to the insights gained in the dénouement of his life, this is beautifully minimalist poetry that shines a light on the possibilities of renewal by calling on art to provide “a wake-up to being.”


“Jack Marshall’s Spiral Trace is a late-life (“Having reached an age/ closing in/ on the limits of change”) masterpiece of great wisdom and large aperture. Spiral Trace, published in the poet’s seventy-eighth year…enables Marshall to catch an extremely varied range of incoming perceptions. Haunted by historical drama, Marshall goes zero to sixty from lyrical riffs of gorgeous sweetness…to straight-talk the woes at large of the human condition.”—Northern California Book Awards

“[Marshall] understands that all worlds, the material and the spiritual, are one, and that the neighborhoods and cities that no longer exist can be conjured by memory and reanimated by art.” San Francisco Chronicle

“Marshall’s ability to move from the astronomic to the microscopic in a matter of a few syllables presents the book’s most uncanny accomplishment: it reads brilliantly, like a mind at work, one as much at home invoking the ‘Kabbalah’s magical / algebra’ as describing Arabic calligraphy as ‘writing / on the run, scimitar hooks on a wave, / fire leaping forward.’” Booklist

Spiral Trace explores the contemporary world in all its vainglory in a rush of language, sometimes somber or lyrical, more often racy, slangy, humorous. . . . [A] perfect poem for and of the times.” Berkeley Daily Planet

“Quickly moving from the greater issues of the day to personal events and insights and back again, with even quicker changes in mood and attack, from lament to slangy humor, Marshall employs a supple three-line stanza. . . . There’re jeremiads about the state of the world, war, ecological disaster, the strange distraction and indifference of whole endangered populations, side by side with tender eulogies for departed friends.” Berkeley Daily Planet, “Jack Marshall reads from Spiral Trace” 

“Jack Marshall is one of our unheralded masters, which Spiral Trace demonstrates on almost every page. Very few poets can combine statement and lyricism as well as he can. His fine ear is always evident in his packed three line stanzas—the sound of words finding and gracing sense, permitting the overtly political, and helping to color his broad sympathies. This is a terrific book, and Marshall is an American treasure.” —Stephen Dunn

“Jack Marshall’s poetry, which combines the personal and the political in a unique way, is both hard and beautiful. He has reached the age where memory comes flooding in but he refuses self-pity by virtue of his brilliant language, and his use of form. Most of all by a sheer love of live. An extraordinary poet.” —Gerald Stern


1 —

Shadows not yet
their darkest, clouds
no longer white,

squabbling birds twitter
on the branch
for turns at the feeder;

dipping white moth wings
above the last blossoms,

Light, air,

no procession slow
as clouds turns so stately
taffy…There goes

a hefty baguette lapped after
by goose-necked, omnivorous monkey-
lipped Mick Jagger,

tongue-loop on the rise, as winking
sunset is an eye
dimming, shrinking

to a mote you see go by
that bids your lid
blink, and spy

fading light’s
future in fading

as when the eye
takes in too much
light to see;

like having a cloud for a sty
you try
to see

through sunset’s last hour,
silken light on a silo
gathering splendor.

Sometimes it can take all day
to put self-absorption away
before beginning the day…

And though I am not choosing
to go where I cannot see,
I am losing.

We are like morphing clouds
who hold our shape
no more than a mood;

now shrill crickets that tick
fig-seed clusters thick
in testicular sacs,

now the soft feel
of wrinkled firmness
in the ripe fig’s heel.

Here we go the lilac way
the close of day goes
down, a lava flow.

Polluted pink above hills,
granular citron above pink,
darkening blueness above it all

the spark bringing days
to a burnished boil.


2 —

This is the silhouette hour; edges,
fractal filigree
on the horizon’s ledge;

the sharper the outline,
the dimmer
the horizon.

Then a flash –
sunset-breasted finch across the trellis –
holds you astonished,

as when a window
on what had closed in a life
opens and looking through

oncoming violet light lulls
a lingering stare.
After seventy, the self’s fuel,

running out, falls out of love
with itself into a new stammering
grammar of grief,

with less reason
left for self-

as you sense there
is no other side: crossing
over is being over.

To see that bearing
down is to see deeper
jungle in the clearing.

No escape, only lulls
in summer warming
cluster-bomb shrapnel.

A mouth that says “the soul”
hasn’t said a thing
about the real

news, our need’s
fix that famishes
what it feeds:

bloated with visual

gore, keeping jobs
reporting everyone else
losing theirs to techies in Punjab.

Are movies
effects different
from news;

how can their images
in the mind
not merge?

I’m not claiming anything no-
body doesn’t
already know.

Do I repeat you?
Then two
of us do.

From Mumbai speaks the other
side of the planet.
There too, no cure

in the great planetary sausage machine.
Wherever there’s geography
grief grinds out television.

At a mall’s super-sized TV wall, we stop;
the scene: an Afghan wedding
smart-bombed while we shop,

bride and groom in mangled embrace,
cut to twenty sets flashing
candy-colored toothpaste.

3 —

Hello, hello, I am returning
the human phone call
concerning being

here, in a continuum
passing in the near-
silent hum.

Great! – In sunlight,
about sunlight! How great!

A periwinkle’s petals
shrink-wrap the blue
sky at eye level,

then nearly dozing, comes
a moment that steadies
space on a stem.

Sky’s light from the inner core,
in the blinding kiln,
reflects a silicone mirror,

as if the sun’s heat
turns your insides

Only on the way
down does the sun
make my day,

as in a grove of trees, a stroll
will smell of pharmacy
eucalyptus, sage, menthol.

Though some hope of delight has
to make a crack in the darkness,
and sometimes does,

when the sun goes
and darkness grows,
you want more than what the day shows;

more than what grows dim
with age, and we steadily
fade from;

each day’s necessity
calling for what’s no longer
possible for tomorrow’s urgency.

Long day, light’s great swill
now approaches an hour
when all colors are still,

and sunset’s ghost eyes
from opposite windows.

From the claret-
edged horizon-rimmed

drink the blue infinite
creation’s heat,

and the eye
that holds you,
lets go.

4 —

Here’s a narrative you
won’t find
in the news:

In my weekly call to Renee, I tell her
lobsters in Maine used to
cost a dollar; she answers,

“Mr. Used To
died a long time ago.”
That was ten years ago.

The dead we remember as beams
of light come into our life
gathered in a lens. We are that lens.

In mom’s and Aunt Becky’s eyes,
Renee said near the end,
a look told her, in ways

without word or signal,
“On the stairway of days
you climb, there is no handrail,

unlike us who have no need
of hand, or rail, or days,
and when you call, pay you no heed.”

I heed; they accelerate –
faces sucked into the sky –
speck, smudge, mote –,

and with them,
the world of sight and sound
crossing gravity’s barrier in

a blur over the horizon
arc, sinking in,
erasing all outline

but what sundown
makes silhouettes
of cut-out tin,

and a light not only for eyes
appears and weighs
on us.

Is there a presence,
in trees, shadows, living creatures,
of those absent? Absence,

our second world? And with eyes
barely brushed
by what’s left to see

of those gone who seem
never to have been real,
but, as we will be, dreamed?


5 —

Bent barbed bloom
beside the archway:
black sunflower in ruin….

I’m tickled it’s called
“black” for its deeply purple
seeds and petals. Could well

be title for this poem:
Black Sunflower, words so
at odds delight when

they bind and interweave
and make sunlight visible
laughter from leaf to leaf,

and the mini-trampolines between tree
limbs, silver-threaded
pulsing mandalas on a breeze.

Does that make art
therapy? Maybe;
maybe not.

But imagine a fuller life
than you
actually live

can make you
feel better
about going to die.

Eventual loss,
flowing back to
present choices

we make, is what made
Hart Crane, so alive
to opposites unreconciled

in himself, retire in
the sea and survive
all coffins.

Dour, drunken William Faulkner had
no other way
to caress the world

than his furious,
breakneck time-
stopping prose.

And Rothko: “To steal
for yourself a place
on the rich man’s wall,”

and make a place
out of forms that will not stay
in place:

radiance about to go wild,
about to explode.

Pollock was never splashier
than when hitting the tree. Art,
upping the ante, is not more

than wishful thinking made
for running the whole way
on your hands at incredible speed,

and melodies that vanish
before they’ve been
caught as wishes.

As earthworms seeking a mate
overcome for a time
their dread of light,

what’s called forth holds
more shocks too
fast to see motion’s goal,

which you can’t see
until you’ve said
what speaking will free,

that everything spoken
stems from the not yet, the
not spoken

which points
to no speech,

and the unmeaning of the said,
and the meaning of the unsaid,

at last to a taste
for less
than least.

9 —

Wearing away
uneasy days,

close your eyes; gray matter turns
dark with what brain cells
of a lifetime have earned…

and between
two blinks of a bobolink,
a future plucked clean.

We are clods, schooled
by a god-
damn knave who makes the rules

and breaks them. Where
is the Assembly of Elder Experts
with oversight of the Supreme Leader

when you need them? If I could,
I would
brush God

with the tar
of living he has created
so far,

like the heart which heeds
its own needs;

no name
takes him

no doubt
draws him

nor the bellow and rancid heat
of panicked animals we
herd and eat.

Our eyes do not meet
eyes of the animals
we eat.

No plea or prayer
could the mind

for such a heart; no kiss
for such a humankind
as this,

spawned from a herd of cells

Time to share in a long soul-
kiss – bone by bone – for each limb
to be whole.

Age is no thaw;
you don’t get to go
but in the raw

from under the butterfly parasol into
the full bitter measure
of catabolic winds you have yet to know,

or, in fever, when you bathe
in the warm amniotic
waters of birth.

Recovered, you feel your powers in part
shrunken: on one lung, one kidney,
half a heart.

Old age: hour
of the truth of poultrymen,
and the hen’s last feather.

Toothless, one-eyed, in rags,
piss-stained, homeless,
grinning hag