These poems were written by John Stoss in, I believe, 1973 or 4, in Fayetteville, Arkansas. I found them recently in manuscript and have posted them here without his permission, relying on his good will, which he has always had in abundance, to grant me permission to show them in this venue-- I believe it is their first publication. (John, if you see this, email me.)

John had been a student in the MFA program at UofA until he, like many others, had had enough of the silliness and quit. About that time (I don't remember the exact sequence of events) the English Department moved from Old Main, the oldest and handsomest building on campus, to a brand new atrocity they called the Communications Building (the name was later changed to Kimpel Hall). For a short time John had an office in the new building and lived there. These poems came out of that period.

Cold Building Poems

by John Stoss

Poems influenced by Han Shan. I call mine the Cold Building Poems. Han Shan called his the Cold Mountain Poems. My poems are inspired by the communications building.


If this was a beautiful mountain
I'd relish the resentment of others
who would once a year take an excursion up the side
one hand on the rope and the other on the rock
confident as if a great hand underneath
that holds it up will not lose the tight grip.
But as I sit in this stiff chair
I realize no one is coming up here
they will not cross the fences as if there were any
not cast into the deep pools if there were any
not even roll down the windows for a breath
no backpackers sit around the fire and sing
and I could listen.
This is a beautiful building
also said to be the tallest
I could be up here for a very long time
the walls will never peel the paint
scientists saw to that, it is brighter
than the ordinary white, it sparkles
like an iceberg, if it were a mountain
when we came here it would always be clear
shading our eyes with first one hand
then the other.


Some would ask why I came here.
I might reply so I could break my chainwatch
and you would laugh and ask me again
and this time it's to find a mirror.
No matter how many times you asked
I could give an answer.
Eventually if you listened to me long enough
I would have you seeing two moons
and you would eat them for oysters
I would have you chasing the horsesteps
of a sun too fast for you in the sky
I would have you come to a fork
in the road and go both ways
I would have you climb a ladder
and have the myth go with you in a kerchief.
And that is why it is not safe to ask questions.


I hear the most beautiful voice I have every heard
where is it coming from? over there
maybe from over there
no, it comes from within me
like a shadow greeting a diving bird,
I'm huddled, I've been fishing for years
not even making the slightest movement of an oar
wondering if that someone tried to rope the moon
for support if they climbed up here.
Still I remember the beautiful voice
just before the slip—the wind came up
with the blossoms of flowers instead of snow
sent whoever is behind the beautiful voice
scattered like the leaf off no tree
or like the die off the table.
All it takes is a sneeze at the wrong time
and you've got a hundred chains attached
to every part of the body like rats biting
and you're the friar they imprisoned
and escaping
no matter how suffocating the cage.
That's why I came up here I guess
to free myself a little
The path to heaven through the snowstorm
can't be discerned from the falling light
the harness is broken
at least up here no one will find me.


If I cup my hands
no springs will run into them
If I reach my hands up
no mothers or lovers will take them
Now I reach through the mist
the unknown touches them lovingly
I am hoping to lose my balance
walking the wall and handcuffed
to the knowledge I am looking for.
Everything thickens to a mountainous mist
there is the smell of a fart
nevertheless I enjoy it
it makes me breathe again as if I've just come to
it makes me smile and laugh as if there's a joke
no matter whose it is
it could be a new sign of rain is coming
and yet it might be the old drought
whose moisture has tips of spears.
I cup my hands
and it earthquakes
I cup my hands
and everything is invisible
I fall until I know only a thought can save me
I grab one and hang on like a pendulum.
At the moment of complete stopping
I remember everyone I ever knew
I cup my hands.


It is so quiet that the moon
hovers overhead to sing like a bird
and a fish sleeps that also
has loaned its fins to the moon
of course to help get it across the night.
But, then, in this organized quiet
(remember where I am and nowhere else)
something lets out a howl no one recognizes
animals all across my sloping world
start, the ears stand up and so does the hair
the eyes shift the nose twitches the heart
tries to stop beating for long moments.
It's a long time before the animals relax
a long time before I can go back
to my typing which never did stop.
It howls again and I leap up and run
but there's nowhere to hide, nowhere, no
where, but the howl goes on and louder
and all the ears have pinched themselves
all they can, I can take down the weapon,
I go from scene to scene as if I'm an actor
I fly from tree to tree as if I'm part bird
I swim from stream to stream as if part fish and Indian
I catch the howler from behind as if I'm a lucky bear
I crush the head as if I've an eagle claw
I bite its throat like a bat
I eat it like an animal that wandered into the desert hungry
I sit here licking my lips.


Everything seems to be beneath many telephone wires
that stretch like a great lazy yawn
The judge is tapping his fingers like a mallet
he says I will come to order and stand
he is about to ask the jury for a verdict
he is about to pass sentence
he is about to say I pronounce you man and wife
but right in the middle of the thunderous applause
I step out of this body
and leave it behind as if it is a bug shell.
I like it up here but why must it be this quiet
my parrot hasn't said a word in years but
now he starts to wisecrack about
a burglar coming up the backstairs
about an ocean that was raised by a long rain
and it too is coming up the backstairs
about an oil spill that is coming up the backstairs
the parrot will not shut up and I haven't
the strength to take down the weapon
my dead father (it says again) is creeping up
now I am creeping up
that's what happens to you
when you step out the shell.


They're telling me
all I need is a good handshake
and someone's hand slipped through
and took ahold of the heart.
I've seen what happens to people
who put premium on friendship
their fingers crippled from shaking hands
arms twisted from the wrestling matches
pegs replacing parts given to each other.
I would rather have everyone for enemies.
I want to be high above the cries of the born
high above the moans of the dead
waving to everyone without them waving back
like a flag on a pirate ship.


The wind never stops blowing through the caves
tunes play up the side of the mountain
the stream does not flow upward but the sound does.
I look for her even though she has become her clothes.
Once knowledge and love had much to do with each other
but that was then and now is now, if it is true
is that why the dark and the light are always flirting
at dawn and dusk exchanging shortlasting vows?


I stare down through the glasses at the people
they're looking up, pointing, what are they saying?
If Han Shan were here he'd say the moon
looks like the sun and the sun looks like the moon.
If we have come to this the changes are our own.
Were we afraid the old used up all the stories?
We wanted to shine the old moon with a new emery cloth?
Since they are mine I like to hear the new stories
although I crave the ones I heard when I was in my youth
how the moon grows a cooler version of peach blossoms
then the sun grows.
I know the moon has garlic
I pick it and put it in the tea
when delusion sets in I take a bite
right in the middle of swallowing
and even that, I think, is a delusion.


No one wept
the day of the scare and the boss left forever.
Alone at last
I spent the week sharpening pencils to the nub
wadding paper and rubbing my hands together
the swivel chair rocked as the mice squeaked.
Now I throw open the window and shout down, why
give up the current of your brain in exchange
for the static of coins jingling in the fingers?
One of them plays a card with my picture on it
another takes it with a trump
One of them takes a drink from a bottle with my picture on it
and gags as he passes it on
One of them prays to a god with my image
and I reply: if you want
to spend an altered time with an employer to earn time
or make a past you dare not think about too much
what's the use? The world is divided into
you with a past who can't get rid of it
and you without who can't find one. And that's why
I'm in this cold building that trembles like a great hall
awaiting the monster to trail in puddles of seaweed
or at least a darkness to lock us in like a child in a cellar
even though we know full well what's coming is neither.
We are cheerful out of our armor and praise our lives
banging the cups and then silent we wait for the abstract entrance.


    The howl has turned into a wail and that's how they came upon me
    poking with the stick as if I was a snake. I eat their food
    they give me a wife, he is also a male, a crippled idiot
    who groans a lot and is glad to have me. Sex turns out to be
    our only common expression, it's during the act that he changes
    places with me, he runs away, I'm punished for the leaving
    they will not give me another mate. I start chanting
    and eventually write in the air and sky with smoke and clouds
    the bird's voice is the best ink of all. By the river I see myself
    and dive for it but I'm always gone, this brings on tears
    I carry on for days and then they beat me
    bury me in caves overnight and put me on a rope
    with a vicious dog by day. Once a girl put her arms around me
    she sang and I tried it too, she tutors me. I want to make love
    but she only laughs and rubs her fingers along the tons of warts

that run up and down the body like a mountain range. Look here,
I would say if I could, you don't know what you're missing.
She laughs and says there's someone like you but more handsome.
I remember myself at moments: shouting into caves or over cliffs
and that's how I think I'm going to get away, but not true, one day
she takes me in both hands, I turn into a flower, then I turn back
into myself who has been meditating over the humming typewriter
just like a bee I heard when the magic moment came, and I am looking
through the window, I think about the poor idiot who must have
gone back to being himself trying to catch glimpses
in the fires burning through bones and flesh. Someday he will
see and ask why am I so ugly? Is it to write these poems?


Lavender Ink