Essentials of Living: Michael R. Burch (Poetry+Translation)

Michael R. Burch
The Greatest of These ...
 for my mother, Christine Ena Burch
The hands that held me tremble.
The arms that lifted
Angelic flesh, now parchment,
is held together with gauze.
But her undimmed eyes still embrace me;
there infinity can be found.
I can almost believe such unfathomable love
will still reach me, underground.

Elegy for a little girl, lost 
for my mother, Christine Ena Burch, who was always a little giggly girl at heart
. . . qui laetificat juventutem meam . . .
She was the joy of my youth,
and now she is gone.
. . . requiescat in pace . . .
May she rest in peace.
. . . amen . . .

I was touched by this Latin prayer, which I discovered in a novel I read as a teenager. From what I now understand, “ad deum qui laetificat juventutem meam” means “to the God who gives joy to my youth,” but I am sticking with my original interpretation: a lament for a little girl at her funeral. The phrase can be traced back to Saint Jerome's translation of Psalm 42 in the Latin Vulgate Bible (circa 385 AD). I can’t remember exactly when I read the novel or wrote the poem, but I believe it was around my junior year of high school, age 17 or thereabouts. This was my first translation. I dedicated the poem to my mother after she died with Covid pneumonia just before Christmas.

Final Lullaby

for my mother, Christine Ena Burch


Sleep peacefully—for now your suffering’s over.
Sleep peacefully—immune to all distress,
like pebbles unaware of raging waves.
Sleep peacefully—like fields of fragrant clover
unmoved by any motion of the wind.
Sleep peacefully—like clouds untouched by earthquakes.
Sleep peacefully—like stars that never blink
and have no thoughts at all, nor need to think.
Sleep peacefully—in your eternal vault,
immaculate, past perfect, without fault.



Remembering Not to Call

a villanelle permitting mourning, for my mother, Christine Ena Burch
The hardest thing of all,
after telling her everything,
is remembering not to call.
Now the phone hanging on the wall
will never announce her ring:
the hardest thing of all
for children, however tall.
And the hardest thing this spring
will be remembering not to call
the one who was everything.
That the songbirds will nevermore sing
is the hardest thing of all
for those who once listened, in thrall,
and welcomed the message they bring,
since they won’t remember to call.
And the hardest thing this fall
will be a number with no one to ring.
No, the hardest thing of all
is remembering not to call.


Mother’s Smile

for my mother, Christine Ena Burch

There never was a fonder smile
than mother’s smile, no softer touch
than mother’s touch. So sleep awhile
and know she loves you more than “much.”
So more than “much,” much more than “all.”
Though tender words, these do not speak
of love at all, nor how we fall
and mother’s there, nor how we reach
from nightmares in the ticking night
and she is there to hold us tight.
There never was a stronger back
than father’s back, that held our weight
and lifted us when we were small
and bore us till we reached the gate,
then held our hands that first bright mile
till we could run, and did, then flew.
But, oh, a mother’s tender smile
will leap and follow after you!



Deliver Us ...
for my mother, Christine Ena Burch
The night is dark and scary—
under your bed, or upon it.
That blazing light might be a star ...
or maybe the Final Comet.
But two things are sure: your mother’s love
and your puppy’s kisses, doggonit!

The Poet's Condition
for my mother, Christine Ena Burch
The poet's condition
(bother tradition)
is whining contrition.
Supposedly sage,
his editor knows
his brain's in his toes
though he would suppose
to soon be the rage.
His readers are sure
his work's premature
or merely manure,
insipidly trite.
His mother alone
will answer the phone
(perhaps with a moan)
to hear him recite.

Our English Rose
for Christine Ena Burch
The rose is—                                 
the ornament of the earth,
the glory of nature,
the archetype of the flowers,
the blush of the meadows,
a lightning flash of beauty.
This is my translation of a Sappho epigram.


for my mother, Christine Ena Burch
Mother, I love you!
Mother, delightful,
articulate, insightful!
Angels in training,
watching over, would hover,
learning to love
from the Master: a Mother.
You learned all there was
for this planet to teach,
then extended your wings
to Love’s ultimate reach ...
And now you have soared
beyond eagles and condors
into distant elevations
only Phoenixes can conquer.
These are poems and translations pertinent to the pandemic …



Black waters—deep and dark and still.

All men have passed this way, or will.



The Leveler
The nature of Nature
is bitter survival
from Winter’s bleak fury
till Spring’s brief revival.
The weak implore Fate;
bold men ravish, dishevel her ...
till both are cut down
by mere ticks of the Leveler.


Less Heroic Couplets: Dark Cloud, Silver Lining
from “Love in the Time of the Coronavirus”
Every corona has a silver lining:
I’m too far away to hear your whining,
and despite my stormy demeanor,
my hands have never been cleaner!


This World's Joy
anonymous Middle English poem, circa 1300
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch
Winter awakens all my care
as leafless trees grow bare.
For now my sighs are fraught
whenever it enters my thought:
regarding this world's joy,
how everything comes to naught.
Wynter wakeneth al my care,
Nou this leves waxeth bare.
Ofte y sike ant mourne sare
When hit cometh in my thoht
Of this worldes joie, hou hit goth al to noht.


“This World’s Joy” or “Wynter wakeneth al my care” is one of the earliest surviving winter poems in English literature and an early rhyming poem as well.  Edward Bliss Reed dated the poem to around 1310, around 30 years before the birth of Geoffrey Chaucer, and said it was thought to have been composed in Leominster, Herefordshire. I elected to translate the first stanza as a poem in its own right.


Ech day me comëth tydinges thre
(anonymous Middle English lyric, circa the 13th to 14th century AD)
loose translation/interpretation by Michael R. Burch
Each day I’m plagued by three doles,
These gargantuan weights on my soul:
First, that I must somehow exit this fen.
Second, because I cannot know when.
And yet it’s the third that torments me so:
Having no way to know where the hell I will go!
Ech day me comëth tydinges thre,
For wel swithë sore ben he:
The on is that Ich shal hennë,
That other that Ich not whennë,
The thriddë is my mestë carë,
That Ich not whider Ich shal farë.



Update of "A Litany in Time of Plague"
THE PLAGUE has come again
To darken lives of men
and women, girls and boys;
Death proves their bodies toys
Too frail to even cry.
I am sick, I must die.
    Lord, have mercy on us!
Fat cats, what use is wealth?
You cannot buy good health!
Physicians cannot heal
Themselves, to Death must kneel.
Nuns’ prayers mount to the sky.
I am sick, I must die.
    Lord, have mercy on us!
Beauty’s brightest flower?
Devoured in an hour.
Kings, Queens and Presidents
Are fearful residents
Of manors boarded high.
I am sick, I must die.
    Lord, have mercy on us!
We have no means to save
Our children from the grave.
Though cure-alls line our shelves,
We cannot save ourselves.
"Come, come!" the sad bells cry.
I am sick, I must die.
    Lord, have mercy on us!
These are poems I call “iffy” haiku because they don’t obey all the rules about haiku.

iffy coronavirus haiku #1

plagued by the Plague
i plague the goldfish
with my verse

yet another iffy coronavirus haiku #2

hang their heads
embarrassed by their coronas
homework: yet another iffy coronavirus haiku #3
dim bulb overhead,
my silent companion:
still imitating the noonday sun?
yet another iffy coronavirus haiku #4
spring fling—
children string flowers
into their face masks
yet another iffy coronavirus haiku #5
the Thought counts:
our lips and fingers
insulated by plexiglass ...
yet another iffy coronavirus haiku #6
masks, masks
and not a straw to drink ...


These are other haiku I wrote during the pandemic, thinking of my mother’s love and how I was unable to visit her while she was under quarantine, from which she would not emerge alive.

Crushed grapes
surrender such sweetness:
a mother’s compassion.
My footprints
so faint in the snow?
Ah yes, you lifted me.
An emu feather
still falling?
So quickly you rushed to my rescue.
The eagle sees farther
from its greater height—
our ancestors’ wisdom
The sun warms
a solitary stone.
Let us abandon no one.

This final poem is for all the mothers who lost children, some of them elderly children, but children nonetheless.

Mightier than Atlas,
she shoulders the weight
of one fallen star.


(The poems: Poet’s Condition, Mother’s Smile and Final Lullaby were first published in the February-2021 edition of Borderless journal, Singapore. Editor)

BIO: Michael R. Burch's poems have been published by hundreds of literary journals, taught in high schools and colleges, translated into fourteen languages, incorporated into three plays and two operas, and set to music by seventeen composers.

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