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  • Excerpts from The Pocket Oracle, and: Never complain, and: Don’t be bad by being totally good, and: Believe your heart, and: Understand yourself, and: Don’t enjoy the sound of your own voice, and: Immediately find the good in everything
  • Sharon Dolin (bio)

Excerpts from The Pocket Oracle

(inspired by Baltasar Gracián)

Never complain

of slights received—or flaws »

      this the hardest advice:     now not to sing of stings narrows »

but of compliments, broad favors.

      Nor of gossip—which battens     on another’s flaws to brilliantine your raptor’s feathers.

      Complain » & you may     bring upon yourself more disdain.

Refrain from feeding on the dead

      as on the living     or watch the gray hairs start to show. Sing praise alone » [End Page 67]

      clap loudest from the wings     so that the lines say nothing your face holds

      up » as though     you were (almost) young. [End Page 68]

Don’t be bad by being totally good

To fail to be enraged      (too smart     to be embittered)     as long as to rise »      release »      forgive . . .

To be fair     if you never felt the surge of envy never

swooned in jealousy »      who     would you be.      Birds quicklymock scarecrows.     Be movable

in your feelings »      & timely »     no esprit          d’escalier. Quip

what you would say     in tripping          down » then go your way in self-aplomb.

         You went akilter     at a slight?

Be bothered »          as by a gnat that lands          on your sleeve » then brush it off. [End Page 69]

Believe your heart

Though your dictates are caught in a vise Though your throat’s closed up     & you stand there nictating »

heart’s another word for kishkes which is wiser than a hunch.     It is your private oracle.

Consult it in the midst of a crowd. Heed it in the salt of a letdown.     Chagrin’s for those deaf

to their own inner timpani as the street gralla wails through the air.     If someone won’t return a call »

serve yourself a demitasse & anis de flavigny.     Let no self-doubt interpose. [End Page 70]

Understand yourself

Draw yourself with a speculum of words:     peer into where          worms writhe     into a caduceus          of diagnosis.

If your head dizzies     like the tops children spin          in the plaza » sit still     in the café’s passenger          seat & let the day drive you     with its chiaroscuric charms.

If your temperament be cloudy »     in the afternoon » watch it pass          with the sea’s breezes.     Smudge your face of briny tears »          remember celestial blue behind     even the stars. [End Page 71]

Don’t enjoy the sound of your own voice

Prattle on & your voice becomes a sonic mirror

your hot breath clouds over.

Self-congratulatory is a debtor’s sign » Owe nothing.

Wearing your ribbons » your laurel crown you’ll strut

like Gogol’s liveried nose in gold brocade & buckskin breeches.

Let others primp » rattle on. Your deeds »

bespoke as your new boots kick up their heels

without your speeches. [End Page 72]

Immediately find the good in everything

You’ve tried on brooding » days when all you see

is error » enmity’s runoff. If you grub for muck

you breed misery      & bad luck. How you see changes everything:

Do a bee-dance for the sweet               & drop

the bitter viper »

figure-eight’s the upright sign for infinity

& symmetry’s the dance of your reciprocal glance

with the one who schadenfreuded you. Practice looking for the good & like the sun     your gaze »

your honest probing will raise virtue      to the surface

(as spangled orange koi feed on the light)

          mostly. [End Page 73]

Sharon Dolin

Meet the Author
Photo by T. S. Ellis

“As a poet and aphorist, I believe in happy accidents. By chance, I found The Pocket Oracle and Art of Prudence, translated by Jeremy Robbins (London: Penguin Books, 2011), a book of aphorisms by the seventeenth-century Spanish writer Baltasar Gracián, at the local bookstore near where I teach in Barcelona, Spain. Having just completed work on my sixth book, Manual for Living, whose title section borrows from a contemporary adaptation of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, I decided to try my hand at more ‘advice poems,’ this time using Gracián’s somewhat Machiavellian bits of guidance fashioned...


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pp. 67-74
Launched on MUSE
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