Robert Klein Engler

Poet ~ Writer ~ Photographer



A Note About the Poems

The relationship between music and words, and the arts that come from these two human endeavors presents the poet and the musician with some artistic challenges. These poems are a product of an attempt to meet those challenges. I have concluded that music is primarily an expression of emotion, and words are an expression of ideas. Yet there is also a place and a season where emotions and ideas overlap, and that is the place and season I want to inhabit when we say and play together. Let’s call that season autumn, when the bloom of summer and the blank of winter are suspended together in a few brilliant months. Let’s call the name of that place Limbo.

When music expresses an emotion, it is not specific in that expression. Music does not name names. Music can express what it is like to feel love or hate or excitement, but it has no specific content. Music does not say what or who is loved or what makes for excitement. Music is unspecified emotion. The music that comes from a cello seems to me to be the perfect way that the ambiguous voice in limbo can be expressed. Suspended between the violin and the bass, the cello has the perfect ambiguous tone.

Unlike the cello, words are specific. Words name names. In a sense, words carry meaning the way our body carries our identity. Words are also practical, and often worn thin by their practical use. We use words to give directions about how to drive to Phoenix, for example, but I know of no way we can give those directions using music alone.

Now, when the two art forms of music and poetry collaborate, some interesting difficulties arise. I suppose the German Lieder or the opera may be a perfect blend of words and music. I am trying for something else, however, in my series 3 by 7. I want an effect different from the effects of opera or art song. This something else may be akin to the union of lyric poetry and chamber music. In this work we are taking turns, one plays and then the other recites. This means there has to be a certain common ground, or meaning or theme to what is said and what is played.

I tried to reach that common ground by introducing an element of ambiguity into this series of poems. Although I am conscious of the sounds my words make and the iambic patterns they set up, along with some specific images of brutality in various sections of the poems, I wanted keep some meaning ambiguous so that the listener could find common ground with what is played on the cello and what is read aloud. Perhaps reoccurring images in a long poem work like reoccurring melodies in a piece of music. Likewise, ambiguity in a poem may be similar to harmony in music. It is this harmony that draws together meaning and emotion.

My other intent is to use poetic ambiguity so that the poems move from the realm of the particular to that of the universal, or from specific to general. Verbal ambiguity may also overcome some of the limitations of my own time and place and make a claim upon the future. We could be wrong about some small things, but hope to be right about the one, big thing. Likewise, we may be politically incorrect but morally correct. We could be mistaken, too, in who or how we love, but saved by the realization that it is better to love than to hate. Such ambiguity is for me the music of a voice and a cello in limbo.

The Red Ash of Longing
- Robert Klein Engler


A watering can rests next to potted mums.
They trap the leaves that curl upon the patio.
Look, there. A few hands above the horizon,
where the sky fades from deeper blue to pale,
see the hawk circle. Gliding on drafts, its silent
eye watches. Perhaps below, on the field of tan
stubble, something gray scurries from stalk
to stalk, unaware a shadow plunges from behind.

November's florescent pause of yellow and red
against a chime of bells is too compassionate
to let fall a judgment on feathers and fur.
These smallest creatures have no art but
to eat and then be eaten. So, even on this day
that gives glory to gold, they, too, may feel
the heave of the world lift upward like a heart
wound that reaches from furrows to the sky.

Such presence lifts the hawk, and covers
the mouse, then turns to open a robe of white.
It gestures to the wide crucifix of absence:
I give you now my fans of sycamore,
my gloves of maple, take this dry affection,
and the tattered flags of worn-out reaching.
The moonlight swells. He stays until he's full.
Hear him whistle, skipping down the walk.


We roll through Mississippi.
Dry colors of clay and bony trees
barricade the fields. The stones
of one life are broken to make
a roadbed for the new.

Drizzle falls almost weightlessly
into the orange light of Greenwood
Station. I am far removed, but he stays
as close as one thought to another.
Call it addiction and subtraction.

Imagine him on a beach looking out
to the slate ocean. As many years
seem ahead of him as waves.
Imagine the shawl of a snowy field
sewn with the lace of black branches.

There is a whistle, the engine groans
and then we move. Caught among
the trees like bags of Spanish moss
is the mystery of our days. It is
the same greed that blinds a whore.

We speed past black mirrors
of standing water by the roadside.
Spartacus hangs in the reflection
with the crucifix of telephone poles
set one after another.

Many stand up alone like the cypress.
They are made of flesh, not wood,
and wonder, too. They were called
with hands open like all the rest.
To play catch, throw the ball back.

Men take a deer carcass from
an old pickup and flop it into the trunk
of a battered Cheve--four legs
stick out like an upside-down table.
Death brings the last erection.

Did you see that, from the corner
of your eye? It goes by in a flash.
In the middle of nowhere is a house
of antlers. Like the house of prayer,
a lamp for writing burns all night there.


Imagine how streetlights in the city suddenly
snap off when dawn advances into day.
That may be what dying is to a man whose
hospital breath is measured by machines.

Or does he slip into light like sunrise over
the prairie? Here, pink gradually washes
into orange and blue, while a gray mist
clings to the soft mud of February fields.

The earth's horizon emerges from a blur,
to float scattered archipelagos of farms
and groves, separate on a sea of straw.
It takes a while to find lovers in this haze.

We were as clean as flames back then,
believing that words could turn a heart,
until struck mute by beauty who walked
from class to class below a canopy of elms.

Some drank that cup, others didn't. Instead,
they watch the rose of dawn ascend across
waves of prairie, to smooth out the details
of argument, the mergers men arrange,

implements of earth, long halls we enter
and leave, and all that is said by a glance.
We believed then that to press one upon
another was a balm that cured the self.
Those bold confusions are all silent, now.
Sunrise kisses the earth with light the way
bones kiss the underground--no one
whispers who sends us here and then away.

Our past dissolves like dawn into oblivion.
We wait behind a span of rippled glass,
bright enough to read what we still want,
in rooms that open to a flood of grass.


"I have need to be baptized by You
and You are coming to me?"

--Matthew 3:14

1. Fog

The trees on campus
are breaking open to bloom.
Soon, petals will drip down
from them like tears.

Closed in now by fog,
they seem to be the only trees
in the world, and that bird,
the only bird, a voice crying

in the wilderness, then flying
into the fog like a coin dropped
into murky water, drifting
from sight, swallowed up.

The fog, with its teeth of dew
celebrates a feast today.
This world, fragile as a milky
blossom of joy, is passing away.

What far off song upholds the sun
or turns rust into iron again?
Deep and away, ghostly shapes
we hardly know, materialize.

2. Rain

It rains. Drops splash thick
and heavy like sperm on the planks,
drops as numberless as the generations,
endless as the tears of Adam.

In the street by the shelter,
the drunks are yelling at one another,
shaking their fists at the sky.
Rain for them is a scourge of nails.

Listen, the rain raps on the tin roof
like nervous fingers of bamboo.
In the language of nature this crackling
sound is also reserved for fire.

Two lovers let the rain wash
down their backs, embrace outside
and let the rain wash away their salt.
They also know the rain as fire.
It rains, drop by drop on the dust.
"This is juice," say the plants
. "No, it is blood," the animals cry.
"Still more, baptism," sings Noah.

3. Snow

They sail into the sunset
together, this Adam
and Eve from suburbia.

The Arctic is so far away--
white mountains of ice,
a white silence incomparable,
extending its white arms.

Turn me around so I
too can sail like that,
holy in one another's

arms--thy will be done--
among the palms and pyramids,
among the polar waste, even
as the bow cleaves water--

green, jade, emerald, precious
bubbles to build the walls
of a new Jerusalem.

4. Hail

This is the spirit of tears
gone too far.

Snow is a blank resignation,
and rain is sorrow still warm,

but hail, this is anger gone
cold, rolled into an icy ball.

5. Wind

comes out of the desert like a wild
horse, its mane flapping into flags.
It is dry as the eagle's song,
singing of dust and split bones.

The wind moves like an army of angels,
passing where it will, in one
window, out another, passing jars
of wine cooling like clots of blood.

John, do you miss the women
who ask about your burning beauty?
Like ashes, your prayers travel
the wind, in one ear, out the other.

6. Heat

My hunger comes back like a raven
calling to ghosts on a barren branch.
We must eat, then sleep and hunt again.
The body has its cavity for flesh.

We forget how beautifully the desert
cures meat, how startling dry
humanity is against an azure afternoon.
And in his eyes, omens of Amen!

7. Cold

I remember seeing a painting
of you, John, in the Prado.
The Renaissance artist did it
for a worldly patron who drank

wine from a cold goblet while
folding over a vellum page.
As a boy, you were as beautiful
as any Greek in his prime.

And that Jesus, you poured
water over him as a dove hovered
above in a golden splendor,
not unlike the light from goblets.

You remember, don't you,
the water was cold, like your cell,
with its damp straw and odor
of trapped waste and rot.

It seems anyone who ever got close
to that carpenter met a cruel end
and suffered a baptism in blood.
You remember, John, the cold blade.

8. Storms

The boy with red hair
at the poetry reading brings
a storm to my heart.
Can you hear it?

Were he to dance, and ask
for my head on a plate,
they could give it to him,
still talking.

9. Lightning

comes from the east
and shines unto the west.
I stand by the screen door
and seconds later
hear the crack of thunder.

Is the sky going to split open--
will we see behind it
the nothing
that makes the world?

10. Sunlight

When I look at old men now
I see phantoms--silver outlines
of their hard beauty at eighteen.
I see, also, this tired world,
dusty with the scabs of winter.
Was it not young once too, when
the animals first got their names?

John announces the promise
to Israel, yet he is hesitant.
Can you bear it, angels of glory,
clicking the air like insect wings?
What does he see in the desert light:
tanks, like scorpions in the sand,
a dancing girl with all her charms,
earrings jangling in the sun,
or a room decorated with curios
of glass, all eating light, patient,
like obsidian cooled in the sea?

Not used, but admired, that is one
way to hold on--let me drink then,
for my thirst, the beauty I know.
On the mantle, a clock decides--
tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock, every
silence opens room for judgment.
Hosanna! All this ends in fire.

The Red Ash of Longing


Some mornings the edge of the bed is
the edge of a cliff. How easy it is to fall
into the blank obscurity of a day.

Putting on black socks, he pauses,
and remembers being young.
Who at twenty-one sums up betrayals?

The locomotive of his soul strains against
a hill of days--boxcars, coal cars--
clang, clang, clang knocks the crossing bell.

Stand back! Old man going out!

Some mornings the edge of the bed is
the edge of a cliff that tries to fool us
the way clowns fool children with balloons.

Imagine a young man comes into his life,
out of the blue, like the Sumerians
came with their wedge of language.

How serious would they stroll together
through the city of June sunlight, then?
Who cares if graves fill up tomorrow.

Today, every glance is a marriage.

Some mornings the edge of the bed is
the edge of a cliff where the homeless
walk aimlessly in the subway,

back and forth, then looking wide-eyed,
to pause close by the platform's edge.
Out of reach, a penny shines in muck.

Counterfeit wisdom is easy to come by
down here--for wired adolescents it's
no big deal--the end of America, or
what's-his-name who hangs upon his cross.


The snowy field of what could have been
is the last landscape. It stretches to a row
of brush and trees, then up to the canvas
sky, awash with fog against a base of indigo.

Tan and black branches are slashed by a pallet
knife across the crust of snow. A dab of dry
red reflects among the weave, perhaps to offset
the cold, open space the artist has designed.

At dawn, sunlight filters between the stand
and colors pink a patch of snow. Ice crystals
blaze like the fire of diamonds--the hand
that paints the silence paints as well the stars.

All this remains before me blank: my days,
my work, the long heartache and then the draw
to press my head upon his breast and hear
his heart beat, warm together in his holy thaw.

3 x 7

poems for voice and cello

Robert Klein Engler

VOICE: there was a noise, and behold a rattling; and the bones came together

--Ezekiel 37:7

CELLO: Ernest Bloch--Prayer


The voice in limbo is the cello’s voice.
It hangs on melodies like a midnight moon.
Imagination makes the child in limbo real,
to soak within the juice of possibility, patient,
not to know this world, but the world to come.
Some say there is a mist of shelter there,
whose only light is love, and that is rarified.

Would they have grown rather in a time of war,
or be tossed like a dry leaf in winds of politics?
That dead baby the Afghans throw like a rag
doll into the back of a pickup truck, or the boy
whose hands were chopped off in Sierra Leone
by drug crazed revolutionaries, they may wish
to join these infants in the syrup dark.

The babes in limbo billow in a foam,
floating without care, no work to lose,
nor trumpet flesh that sounds the night.
They need not give an offering without stain.
Perhaps when we are called with them to live
again it will be like the blind who see for
once the waving trees but think them men.

All men have names. It is their knot untied.
We make our name stand out by deeds and
warp our spirit on the way--those in limbo
never savor this or the pepper of philosophy.
They cannot say the word that draws them
down nor do they know the other name
that is the nameless want within our heart.

Even on the busy street in broad daylight
he hears that long ago name return.
They would have shot him, too if they could.
Others were shot because their life did not fit
a theory, like weeding the gardens of Babylon.
Little girls were killed, with just a rifle butt
to the face that compressed it like a pillow.

Every murderer believes this is the only world.
Yet we are all brave today, stepping head first
into the faithful autumn light. That man who
carries the blister of names and robes of smoke
will always love who would abandon him.
Try to understand the mystery of his hand--
the promise to be numberless as grains of sand.

CELLO: Bach Allemande (2nd Suite)


Out on the porch he sees the boiling clouds.
Lightning on the horizon cracks open the sky.
The gnarled tree leaps into a silhouette,
as a gravel rain drums on the tile roof.
It was a dry year farming, then heat came
to choke what barely could reach above the soil.
Now, this rain that rakes the land comes too late.

He gave away his youth to work the wilderness.
His neighbor, rich in livestock and families,
tends his bulls, heifers, corn, and orchards.
He walked next to him once to hear the bells
of the eternal and saw the abyss of eyes.
Listen to the rain fall like the tingling of steel.
Listen to the wind rove like the rush of wings.

There is such a puzzle in our field of bones.
Whose hand was this, whose thigh, whose rib,
and knuckle wrapped with a rusted ring?
This skull may have worn mink, that one straw.
They thought they saw out there history’s horizon,
but it was fire and horsemen and flashing swords.
The flesh blows away like smoke from a window.

“Music is my life. I bent my bones old for it,”
says the cellist. “Music is a rose perfume,
or the invisible vapor of beauty that burns
blood from the soil with flames of silk.”
How late it is for the marriage of duets,
like two blooms before the eye. Which one?
A wind will strip the petals from them all.

The river surges with its argument of mud.
A melody cascades across the strings
and gathers up the dross, to flush away.
Our hope remains a hallow point, the void
we carry even when full, a gift of nothing
that sent Abraham out into a foreign land,
then on to Mount Mariah with a load of wood.

Long drapes of night draw out across the sky.
Sometime, way in the dark future, he may hold
his hands open like a vessel around the fog
of November and say by twilight, “He held me
with his bulk and loved me, and now, these leaves
are trailed on the walk by the angel of death,
who kisses with autumn incense on his breath.”

CELLO: Ad-lib


You may look up and west from Argyle Street
and see the dark bellies of the jets as they
follow a glide path to land at O’Hare Field.
They are far enough away to be silent,
sliding down on the oil of wind, coming in
low with their human weight and cargos.
Engines lift them from winter to wasteland.

Dmitri Shostakovich said his many symphonies
were tombstones, a testimony to those
silent dead sacrificed to all the ideologies
let loose in the world like mysterious storms.
Stalin signs papers and men fall into graves.
Love did not rescue them and love does not turn
the heart of one we miss in flight as far as China.

With these bodies, men will always be human.
Would you rather have your life back or a song?
The music of our machines drowns out the music
of tenderness, or the silence before the bullet
smacks. The black scrawl of signatures swirl
and then the past evaporates. Stones flake to soil.
We weigh so much until we weightlessly fall.

The boys in rehab, lounging along the sidewalk
of Argyle talk and talk and talk, yet the lull
that fills their wanting is seldom spoken.
Who tells how they are linked to the high jets
the way quick fingers make the cello sing?
They just get up and move on, muffled as snails,
leaving blank the tombstones of cold cement.

While he waits, the hours deepen and he feels
that peace in the heart moves like the silence
of reading. Even today the wind of ideology
ushers in dry baptisms, and when longing tosses
the leaves of the soul, or a thistle wind rages,
letters grow into the vacancy. To carry our
body upward is to carry the stone of its pain.

The absent lover leaves behind a ghostly shape
like clouds the jets fly beyond. He remembers,
together in his room, they talked, then assassins
came. Now, there is a symphony that fills the air
and a hush, too, then the silence of God drafting
our furious story above the world--with white
wings like paper and black wings like words.

CELLO: Bach Prelude (1st Suite)

Click on the link below to download a Robert Klein Engler chapbook, which includes the poem, 6322 South Bell: A Poem of Jubilee.