from Surfings:
Selected Poems of Will Inman

Edited by David Ray and Michael Rattee

. .


About Will Inman:

Born William Archibald McGirt, Jr, in Wilmington, North Carolina on May 4, 1923, Will Inman graduated from Duke University in 1943, worked in a shipyard during World War II, and became an activist in 1947 after summers of work in the Blue Ridge mountains. A trade union member, he was called before the Un-American Activities Committee in 1956, then moved to New York to begin life anew, working in libraries while focusing on writing in free time. In 1967 he was appointed Poet-inResidence at American University, teaching there and at Montgomery College.

Though a member of the War Resisters League and the Communist Party, Will found that organizations let ideology overtake humanitarian goals. He quit the Party but never lost his revolutionary convictions and passion for social change. He developed a vision of a living universe infinitely at work in every part, including every human psyche. Some of his poems reflect encounters with others whose messages were powerful whether expressed eloquently or not. For example, he visited with the mother of Thomas Wolfe in Asheville, North Carolina and went with her to visit her gargantuan son's grave. For Will any meeting with another was a spiritual experience. Everyone to him is Thou and he has said always that he is only another "I" in a world where giving voice to insights and celebrations puts a writer always at risk.

Before retiring in the 1980s Will Inman worked with the disabled, work reflected in his writing. His poems have appeared in innumerable publications, and he has read his work widely and led writing workshops in prisons and in shelters for the homeless. For many years, beginning in the 1970s, he directed a workshop at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson. His letters, manuscripts, and publications are collected at Duke University and at University of North Carolina-Wilmington, with links to holdings at the University of Chicago, The Poetry Center at the University of Arizona and in the hearts of his friends. The poet's latest honor is the establishment of the annual Will Inman Award for Poetry sponsored by The Tucson Poetry Festival.

from 108 Verges Unto Now


Out of the surf
I came crawling
screaming spume
                              my mother
turned me
back toward the ocean
the last wave broke
salt in my face
my feet touched light
my head in darkness swam
was blue the sky was
my face, the sun
brought me to

I never liked the forced
and only lately have preferred


Was it Beethoven who
limbered my river back to its coils?
Was it Whitman who remembered me
that oceans can't be straightened?

First I dreamt I stood surfedge
stared cold on iridescent still
blue green water, tepid waves
curled slow and low and hardly
in under hot lowhung Sun
centered down two long rows of
dead tree-trunks, branch-nubs
lifted up like scorched hands;
I awakened full of dread.
ocean and ocean and ocean and sea
and the sun fell like rotten rind
in me

(wonder why I was let live?)


With the psychoanalyst
it was the same thing
all over again.

He reached
in my camera skull
and drew out the battered film:
skin of my soul
he nailed to the door
to dry before me
hairless and raw

but I kept coming out
with other perspectives, kept
growing new films,
thin enough and not very
but always me or flavored


Down in the harbor, beyond
three bridgespans and judas years,
a Woman raises a light
stabbing my rib darkness
with seminal fire.

Traffic runs both ways
on the Bridges, tide
flows ebb and surge.

Man too has his seasons.

Was freedom only a Fad?
Was God?


In our time
eternity crawls sidewise
hermit crab in a borrowed shell
scavenging fresh hours
from between the teeth
of broken


I would steal if I could
your eyes from their sockets,
but, if you ever
sucked them back to focus,
they would see better for you
both ways, out and in.


When did I suddenly know
(my hands to the armpits in new
books, shelving for the nuclear
fissionists) all the old gods
live! Something in me
nurtures them, singly and
together they goad my glands
and shake in my shoulders and ankles
my stumps of wings.

I do not know all their names
but I who am son of
cannot deny those who gat me
still probe their vulture beaks
in my gut
while in the coil of my brain
a minotaur
gores my eyes.


When I learned that Yevtushenko
dares truth,
I wrote him a bridge of songs.

His answer was already in my reach.

I don't need to cup my ears
when my heart is the receiver
of good news.


The great fugue groaned
under a spiked tree.
Sparks sulfured its edges.

When I embraced Beethoven
after hearing his music,
he wiped his hands on my
shirt-tail, and I saw
the bloody holes.

'How could you play?'
I gaped the question.

He glared at me, then laughed and
kissed my ears.

'I couldn't hear a note,'
Beethoven whispered
with a shout.


On the beach I knelt down my eyes
to the curve of the small kauri
suddenly rose its deep shell around
wind blew thru the sunholes
a surf-organ prayed
and between waves     silence
took me all over by the risen


Now I have learned earth flows,
always I turn my own face
again toward the water.
In every fluid body
cross one another

Democracy never demanded
anybody be less than all
nor that any all be less than


I could not know     I could not know
I could not doubt     I could not doubt
truth crouched still between my eyes
and nothing saw and nothing smelled.


In the last retort
this wicker chair
furnishes my backside
with directions manifold,
and I don't have to go
to start


O bread your bread this bread
is all of life
this breath your breath o breath
breathes me and you
this in and out and in
this wondrous O!

                              1963, New York City

* * *

Poem For The Voice Of America

1 'Passage to More than India' (Whitman)

Christopher P hitchhiked across America
in tennis shoes and carrying
a knapsack with two changes of underwear
an extra pair of blue jeans
and a couple of shirts,
                    also a guitar
and a book of poems

was arrested in a midwest town and
thrown in jail several days,
memorized W H Auden poems
          says them still to me ...

          So now for the first time I read Auden
caring for the man this brother
befriended a brother of mine in jail
at sixteen

Chris now defends CIA in one breath
breathes me Auden with the other
well perhaps there was never a pure
never a pure
              he says, if there must be a choosing
between slaves and masters, he will choose
              but I wonder if this Christ
mastering himSelf
in jail with Auden and a guitar
will not always always
be free enough to be a slave
with us who choose
that thin line between.

2 broken fast

I remember when we fasted
Poets for Peace fasted
some hundred or more of us
with hundreds others coming and going
like Jacob's Angels
fasted in St. Marks in the Bowery
and the morning after the fast began
Saturday morning grey in the colored glass
14 January 1967
I looked and saw him
kneeling in the back pew that face
W H Auden, I whispered
nodding back towards him, he saw me call
attention to him, left quickly,
would not wait, I
murmured his name like an eureka
a luna moth caught in the porchlight
my fingers smearing the radiant scales, a
triumph, he had come to partake
of our unpartaking but I
meddled, he left quickly.

Another poet, standing out in the
portico, under the pigeons, looked at me,
thoughtful, waited for my words to beat still
beat still wings in the porchlight, waited,
finally said,
            'He didn't want to be taken
special notice of . . . we should've
let him be . . . I remember how on
November 22, 1963 ... Kennedy ... I walked,
walked ... finally came to St. Mark's here ...
expecting to see people ... in quiet ... but no one
was here ... no one ... I came in ... sat down ...
then my eyes got used to the dusk ... I saw
far down front ... one person ... one man ...
it was Auden ... we should've let him be ...'

3 stolen doorknob

First time I saw Auden was at
Marion Tanner's house in Greenwich Village.
She couldn't pay her rent, was about
to be thrown out ... she'd made a home for
derelicts ... cast-outs ... addicts ...
a hostel for the damned ...
Marion Tanner ... Edward Tanner's Aunt ...
Auntie Mame ... the original ... he denied it ...
beautiful woman ... used to see her on
Gansevoort Pier listening to Ed Blair
and the rest of us ...
                ... at her house
John Hall Wheelock read
and Muriel Rukeyser ... and
Auden ... that leprous face that Lion soul
weathered gethsemanic
somebody stole the doorknob off
Marion Tanner's front door ... and the list of
guests and poets ... scores of us read, and she
finally had to move anyway
                but that night
Rukeyser made herself stroke-vulnerable again
and Auden went down
into our Daniel's den
armed with God's teeth and hunger
and I walked home afterward
and cut off all my hair in the hot spring night.

4 The truth is not sixteen any longer

Now the Voice of America
what in hell IS the voice of America any more
Johnson and his napalm?
wants me to read to you Russians
you who willing or not gave me
and Yevtushenko who reminded Castro and us
'if Communism is the truth
we won't get there by telling lies'
O truth is so simple, so complex
there is no pure affair any more
and we are no longer sixteen or in
tennis shoes and this is an
orchestra not a guitar but we are still
in jail in church St Patrick's the Tombs
Cardinal Spellman is our keeper
and the Lion in us lies down by the Lamb
but the Lamb of God has
who takest away the sins of the world
have mercy upon us
grant us peace o what in hell any more
is the voice the voice the true voice of

* * *
Last Chant for Pablo Neruda

Our brother who turns this earth,
speak in my living tongue
with sperm and maggots and sprouting grain,
with heartbeats via angry copper and hornet moons,
with twin earthquakes in Washington and Santiago
shaking loose those dread-kin juntas' jaws
from our common flesh, North and South,
O inseminate our song with fresh joy
and our anger with refining death
and our hunger with waking bread,
you whose magic cantos struck
jewels to life in throats and ears,
O Yes, I laugh, my Brother, for all the junta fires
can only scorch your songs into our throats!

* * *

My Father In Hurried Flashes

in spring and summer, he rose early, trousers,
shirtless, only filmy BVDs over his pale chest.
spoke with chickens and pigeons as he fed them.
the breed dog shadowed him, eyes turned up, adoring.
the man noticed tomatoes and okra blooming, corn
stalking straight and tall, no tassel yet,
pole beans curved vines around the stalks. he
cocked his ear at a mockingbird in the pear trees.
a black and gold garden spider wrote lightning
letters down a wide web atop the grape vines,
white and purple scuppernongs.
                                                     my father hummed
to himself in the garden. or whistled. Mrs C,
next door, said it was to make folks think he
was happy. but Dad had sung tenor in two quartets,
one spiritual they'd sung at five hundred
funerals; the other, The Rat Poison Quartet, for
           he married for appearances, i imagine,
but his mother held on with barbwire tongue. my
mother's soul was scored to marrow by the ancient
                  the man had vision. he laid roads all
through swamp country in eastern North Carolina,
arched two bridges over islanding rivers.
could sell hinges off the gates of hell. he never
learned to say Negro. he hated snakes. when i
began to bring the creatures home, he knew I was
devil possessed. he taught me wild plants, where
to look for Venus flytraps, and to keep an eye
open skywards for shooting stars.
                                                         his God had a
fetish for sin and carried threats of fire. we
were much alike but believed differently: he died
grieving for my sins. i live, mulling his.

* * *

s t r e t c h i n g s

i've known only a few leaves, green or brazen
no leaf i haven't known, fallen or fresh

small stones and one or two hoofs
no stones, no hoofs, i've not leaped and travelled on

some faces i've known, many faces, at best a few
not a single face i have not looked out from

i've never approached a star, never,
not a star but i've burned inside

none of these have i known, and each
i've known as i know myself

we are all entirely kin, perfectly apart,
our separate mysteries sustain

we forever outreach closeness, nurturing our common
uniqueness for the grinding down

all that is is forever in each of us
our sameness and our difference forever we try to kill

we lay down roads and starways to and from ourselves
no distance we won't pursue to get here.

* * *

A Trek of Waking

               1 bereft

the hummingbird has flown away,
her rainbows shrivel down dry mountains
writhe edges wasted clouds
i stretch my neck, raise my head
over the rim of this nest i peer out, i
hear no wings down this wind

i cannot fly

that breakthrust of wind carries no nectar
i fill myself on my mother's betrayal
i grow fat with distance she feeds me
this nest is too small for my aloneness
i grow flight on rage, such wings
will take me fierce from lostness

                2 dark waves

just as i flutter my wings, lift myself
to nest-edge, she returns
singing full of darkness,
black rainbows puncture her eyes from in,
she feeds me with hovering, she
flies away

i frenzy myself, i fatten air
with small humming,
i fly

i have never seen a mountain
but i'm swollen with stone
i soar over the desert
bereft as moon,
far away earth rises in great dark waves
i lean my beak into a yellow flower
i am filled with sun

               3 suck fire

what dark waves dissolve in me
i'm swifter than my mother's betrayal
i lean my longest flight down petals of sun
i suck that fire
mountains in me grow such wings.
bees, watching,
go back and count their hexagons.

i spit sweet lava down the eyes of god.
now what i see
kneads its beak dark into my breastbone
and drinks my glory dry

               4 peace with curses

i shall build my nest
on a stalk of lightning
shall lay my eggs in a black cloud
i shall teach my wings
the ways of whirlwinds
my feathers shall stink of sulfur
you will know better
than to come to me for rainbows
any peace i bring to the world
will be feathered with curses
i wreak all this distance
i catch my foot on another space
i leap down the abyss of my own throat
my dreams root me under

               5 roots in mud

oh dark and risen waves of earth
i surf your sullen soaring rage
i drink your molten copper wage
i count how much my life is worth

i sink my thirst in rushing blood
what bitter honey steeps that sun
such liberation is begun
that reckons lotus roots in mud

               6 rainbows

i have turned around her distance
i have changed her betrayal to reach
i have rebuilt rainbows to hold my breathing
they're as black as dawn
as bloody as noon
they root in the bellstone of god
they sing in the honeycomb
they wake in the eyes of hurt peoples
they arch over wasted cities

wordless, they cry enough!
wordless, they chant joy!
wordless, they call my name
at the root of every reborn instant
wordless, they call divided nations
to the councils of one healing fire
wordless, they teach us a new dance
wordless, they fill our eyes with knowing
like a lizard, they start low
like a bird they fly high
like a human they touch earth again
like a mother they grow more
out of ourselves forever

               7 waking

hold, then! let the grab unfold
then fold to, fraught with bitter coil
that drives the blood and shapes the toil
and leaves the broke wave bent and cold

o touch that broken sightless half
with risen pulse, with secret wing
stroke singing back into the thing
and love the woken voice of self

down steepest arch, round swollen gulf
our eyes drink space and fill our range
we do not count what we exchange
we shake away our grief, and laugh

               8 new nest, new sound

it's never so simple as this
we must grow new skin, new bone, new eyes
to see old was never not new, under.
our hearts must know their beating
deeper than our names

we must build a new nest
and a new sound

* * *


1 in my ears milk is still milk

she beckons me to the window
down second avenue a jackhammer breaks pavement

                       Herr, lehre doch mich
(make me to know the measure)
she's not very good at the piano
her hands break resonance
                       lengthen and widen, she says
                       let your diaphragm support your voice
beckons me to the window
listen! she says, what do you hear?
                      i hear a hackhammer,
i tell her
her blue eyes break across my face
listen! she tells me, listen under the noise
inside my ears milk is still milk
                      nectar is not yet honey in my throat
let's sing the Brahms, i beg you
which Brahms?
from the Requiem: the baritone solo: do you have it?
yes. all right. here.
are you ready?
(make me to know the measure of my
                      days on earth, to consider my frailty)
Jim Agee used to stand right there
and sing this
                      James Agee loved Brahms?
he loved that solo
                      he was a baritone?
(to consider my frailty, that I must
what do you hear, Son?
                      i don't hear anything
yes .... and what does it sound like?
inside my ears, nectar is not yet honey

2 matthias alexander in free space

                      i'm stretched on a body-long table
                      learning use of my self
lengthen and widen, says Frank Ottiwell
you're no longer on this table are you ready?
you're floating in space
now, rise!
                      i'm clumsy,
i mutter to myself
                      i'm a lump on this table: but Frank
                      leads energies through me,
                      space inside me is not separate
                      from space outside me, we
                      flow together, my limbs are currents
                      in an ongoing magnetic field
what do you hear? Gladys asks me
what does nothing sound like?
                      i can't hear anything,
i insist
that's right, she assures me, and what
does it sound like? that not anything,
that no-hum?
her eyes break across my blindness
                      frozen waves seeing me, cutting
                      with birthing pain, teaching me to see,
                      to hear
(show me the measure of my days on earth
to contemplate my weakness
that i must die)
                      Tom Wolfe and Jim Agee sat right there
                      they'd sit for hours on that sofa
                      drinking and talking into the night
what'd they talk about, Gladys?
                     oh, Son, i don't remember....everything!
they were on fire with what they knew
                     their writing they both were southerners
                     who were more than southerners
lengthen and widen,
she says,
you move free in space, you're
taller than you know
(that i must perish)

3 with perfect sweetness, fury

(o then what do i want for?)
                      Julia Wolfe does not tell me i'm
                      sleeping in Ben's tubercular bed
                      in the Old Kentucky Home
She shows me her photograph album
Tom Wolfe's young face, angry outthrust lower lip
and the face following Beethoven's
all those decades sooner, woke fresh inside him
Jim Agee's fury! fury! fury!
sounding Emerson's sweetness in the midst of the crowd
independent in the jackhammer's jaws
                      Tom was the only one in our family
                      who made a living without working
his mother bends to pull grass off his Asheville grave
pulls hair off the body of the fallen giant
honey working with worms in the heart of the skull
                      (for the righteous souls are in the hands of
                      pain nor grief shall nigh them come)
mothers speak together on the telephone
Julia Wolfe and Delia Inman, lengthen and
from livingroom Wilmington to
pay telephone in the Asheville dark hall, from'
North Carolina to New York City
listen! what do you hear, Son?
                      they sat on this sofa and talked for hours
made a living without working
in the jackhammer
                      down pistonrods of that terrible locomotive
                      silence of fury
                      (make me to know)
(that i must perish)
                      yogurt in arms of milk
                      her hands on the piano, her fingers
               break on the ribs of Brahms
                      (my hope is in Thee)
(all flesh is as grass Judy Leibowitz
lengthen and widen Frank from New York to
San Francisco in free space flower thereof
decayeth we shall not all)
                      Michael McClure et resurrexit!
                      under Frank Ottiwell's alexander hands
                      Beethoven's outthrust lip
                      in the face of young Tom Wolfe
                      (the leaf withereth, but they
                      shall come rejoicing)
Gladys is dead, Judy calls me
her heart went into fibrillation
jackhammer down the street nectar in teeth of bees
                      aumsound in the jaws of Brahms
                      (all flesh withereth like grass shall
                      not all sleep)
for hours on that sofa, talking
(trumpet shall sound, and the dead
                      shall all be raised)

4 inside my heart milk turns yogurt

Brahms storms through German fields
eyes turned inward         arms directing
that terrible engine those pistons that fierce steam
fury fury fury riding those tongues
jackhammer in blood he stood right there
and sang
(shall come rejoicing, o
make me to know
we shall not all sleep)
listen! what do you -- ?
jackhammer meditates under the banyan tree
                      lengthen and widen, direct
                      that energy: it does not
                      start with your toes nor end
                      with your head you
                      do not cease with your limits your
                      lights the galaxies of god
lengthen (rejoicing)
                      your body is free in space you
(the measure of my days
                      on earth) (to consider) you
(must perish)
(then what do i wait for?)
                      (the trumpet?) jackhammer in the aumsound
                      listen! (for we shall all be raised
let your diaphragm support your voice, Son
(to consider my frailty, that i
come rejoicing!)
                      now milk turns yogurt in the tongue
                      nectar comes honey
                      fury in the face of human pain o who
                      shall console?
(make me to know)
listen! Son, what do you hear?
jackhammer in my ribs
aumsound in my blood
trumpet fury joyous in my tongue

(measure of my days on earth)
(to consider)

* * *


the universe grows in chaos, thrives
on organic balance.
                                 balance surfs on raging currents
serene winds are pregnant with hurricanes,
no wonder the greeks named god first a tempest
every malevolence carries an unborn blessing.

spit on god, father a volcano, piss on god, mother a flood
curse god, brother an earthquake, thank god, sister a plague

stir soil, bring earth green, dance to birdsongs climb a rainbow
kneel to an iris, smell bliss, wake a sleeping turtle, rhyme
mountain with oceanwave

weigh connections by the ounce. eat, never get lost
don't forget where you came from, you'll get there soon enough.

be careful whom you thank
be grateful to scorpions and swans.

* * *
night manager, marshall home for men

he works among bored old men
with love in his eyes
                                 but when unfairly pushed
he can spark anger, his patience runs deep.
once, when I fell in the dimly lit hall,
he answered the alarm-call someone pressed:
he helped me carefully to my feet, my ribs
hurt, bruised.
                        he calls down each dorm
time for meds, ministers to each man with pills
with a dollop of water.
                                      and he oversees meals
when needed, serves coffee w/cream packets,
calls each man in med-lines by name, personal greeting
for each, he lets us know each one counts, we count on him.
he does not treat us as if our days remain few.
to him, every day is charged with eternity, he
will not waste us.
                            we don't want to waste him: our lives
cross, legs, ribs and fingers growing older in a season together

Will Inman on writing:

"I write when I have a stretch of free time and am not too exhausted to feel what I'm writing about. Most often, it is at night but might be any time of day I'm awake. Since I now work from 11 p.m. 7 a.m. five nights a week, some of my writing is done in the early morning hours. I write to help heal the world and to make survival worth it. I write from none to a dozen poems a week, usually several pages a week, sometimes many more."


"A poem must not just editorialize, it must evoke. It must get inside me with the experience so that the part of me that thinks can say yes! to the flutter between my ribs. Without that flutter, that visceral recognition, to hell with it."


"I don't see poetry as a function of products but as a process of dynamic relationship with Reality, with my own disparate parts, with other people, with god."


"You can talk about having a knack for writing poetry or whether there's a science to it, but I think you have to look at it person by person by person. Everyone is different. I think everybody has something to say, and if you can talk you can write poetry. Now, having said that, I will say that those that are most gifted in poetry have two things. First of all, they have a relationship and a responsibility to the world and to the universe. And secondly they are in touch with their unconscious. And finding a way to put those two together so that you have vision is what makes the difference between greatness and humdrum writing. But everybody writes some humdrum, so don't be afraid, don't put yourself in a category. Keep making discoveries. Find out what you knew you didn't know you knew."

Surfings: The Selected Poems of Will Inman
the only book of his still in print, is available from Howling Dog Press
P.O. Box 853
Berthoud, CO 80513-0853

Presented by Howling Dog Press and
Light and Dust Anthology of Poetry

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