Elizabeth Adams of Salem, Massachusetts for Geese; Bangalore; Consistency
Katy Didden of Columbia, Missouri for Perito Merino Glacier; String Theory: Pyramus and Thisbe; “Embrace Them All”
Melissa Mylchreest of Missoula, Montana for Outside el Hospital de Sagunto, Valencia; North Fork; Letter to an Unknown Address in the Pyrenees
Matthew James Babcock of Rexburg, Idaho for The Pull; Visions at Birch Creek; Inch
Brian Brodeur of Fairfax, Virginia for At Hank’s Canteen; House Fly; Emptying the Charcoal Grill Together
Tom Christopher of Greensboro, North Carolina for Surviving Wife of Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment Subject; Dance in the Japanese-American Internment Camp; A Soldier’s Wife Upon Finding the Dried Finger of a Sioux Child
Temple Cone of Annapolis, Maryland for Tongue and Groove; Grace; The Miracle Corner
Julie Dunlop of Albuquerque, New Mexico for Invocation for Departure of Pain as the World Outside Breaks into Light; Upon Returning to Virginia for the First Time Without You There; More Yes than All the Stars, the Sky
Brieghan Gardner of Nottingham, New Hampshire for Puffballs; Burning Paper Cranes
Jules Gibbs of Syracuse, New York for Black Walnut; Pronghorn
Garth Greenwell of Ann Arbor, Michigan for Faculty Meeting with Fly; Abundance
Emily Ruth Hazel of Astoria, New York for Poem for Elisabeth; White Sheets; At the Met
Ann Hudson of Chicago, Illinois for Washing Up; Lullaby; For an Autumn Wedding
Melissa Stein of San Francisco, California for Revolving; Ars Poetica; Clearing the Field
Natalia Treviňo of Helotes, Texas for Afterlife; Well, God; It was the Chef who finally explained
Rhett Iseman Trull of Greensboro, North Carolina for Lovers on a Walk; Study of Motion
Laura Van Prooyen of Brookfield, Illinois for Hummingbird; Orchard; Inheritance
Paula Bohince of Plum, Pennsylvania for The Language of Fish; Yarn Birds
Gillian Cummings of North White Plains, New York for Uroborus; The Dove
Rachel Dilworth of Gig Harbor, Washington for My Father and His Heron
Melina Draper of Fairbanks, Alaska for Seagull Eggs; Crooked Birch Basket; The Mask Carver’s Daughter
Robin Ekiss of San Francisco, California for Suburban Pastoral; Drought: Dry Prong, Louisiana; Back Roads
Patrick Foran of Ithaca, New York for The Bells of Jellyfish
Rae Gouirand of Davis, California for Behold
Megan Gravendyk of Monroe, Washington for absent mindedness; Cradle and All; Good Things
K.A.Hays of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania for Interlude
Elizabeth Kay of Omaha, Nebraska for Cravings; The Oak Muses; For Our Anniversary, A Poem of Where We Live
Bethany Tyler Lee of Carbondale, Illinois for Poem for My Sister, I, Being of Sound, Leave; What to Do
Debbie Lim of Annandale, New South Wales, Australia for White Egret; Blue; In a Cave
Melissa Mack of Oakland, California for At Bishop’s Ranch
Christopher Nelson of Tucson, Arizona for Christmas Song; The Seine with the Pont de la Grande Jatte
Alison Pelegrin of Covington, Louisiana for Praying with Strangers; Louisiana; The Day the Music Stopped
Anna Lena Phillips of Durham, North Carolina for Trillium-Hunting; If that mockingbird don’t sing
Brian Spears of Fort Lauderdale, Florida for Because I Didn’t Teach Her How to Drive
Tess Taylor of Brooklyn, New York for Song for El Cerrito; Elk at Tomales Bay; Crazy Quilt
Emily Tuszynska of Fairfax Virginia for Encounter; Soap Bubbles; Song
Jacqueline West of Chilton, Wisconsin for To R., Who Cries for Roadkill; Farmer’s Daughter; Long Distance
Allyson Arndt of Salem, Oregon for Farm Boy; Wedding Party
Michele Battiste of Astoria, New York for Daedalus’ Blueprint; Preparing the Unborn Child
Michael Boccardo of High Point, North Carolina for Hallowed; Wal-Mart, Aisle Five
Brian Brown of Fitzgerald, Georgia for Refuge; Family History; Dust
Samantha Buchanan of Chicago, Illinois for Window
Melisa Cahnmann Taylor of Athens, Georgia for Once I was in Love with an Old Coat; Hitting Balloons; “Ten Percent Off for a Poetic Order”
Chuck Carlise of Houston, Texas for The First Week in Catania; Walking Home Alone, 1 am
C. Doyle of Mount Saint Alban, Washington DC for The Beating; The Doll Museum; Carnival
Jacqueline Gabbitas of London, England for Beetle
Marie Gauthier of Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts for Plenitude; All Souls’
Julia Guez of Houston, Texas for Ictus; At The Edge of the Night; Funks
Valerie Linet of Shady, New York for Harvest; After Death, the Living are Left
Cath Nichols of Warrington, England for The Gift; Frog; Betula pendula, Silver Birch
Gregory W. Randall of Santa Rosa, California for Re-Entry; Woman in Her Garden; A Small Hotel
Chad Sweeney of Kalamazoo, Michigan for Asylum Lake; In the Language of Nature; Winter Proofing
Nicole Foreman Tong of Falls Church, Virginia for Pentimento; Thoughts Before Self-Portrait, 1981; Address for my Sister
Benjamin Vogt of Lincoln, Nebraska for Grandpa Anderson’s – 1959; Photograph, 1990; Coneflowers, August
Aden Neumeister of Oakland, California for The Crow
Tangent Marie Cohn (nom de plume) of Portland, Oregon for Undeserved Gifts
Rebecca Morgan Frank of Cincinnati, Ohio for Observance; Morning Song; Sea Journey
Michelle A. Galo of Hudson Falls, New York for Apple; “Somewhere”; Your songs are not my tongue
Emma Goulding of Bath, England for Moving; Smile
Tasha M. Jefferson of Canal Winchester, Ohio for The Place Where Decisions Labor
David Krump of La Crosse, Wisconsin for One Hunger Cycle; Steam for the Archive Department; The Evening We Hanged Bad Joe
Nina Lindsay of Oakland, California for My bare feet; Keeping house; New year
Elizabeth Percer of Redwood City, California for Separation; Arielle, age three; Strong Ghosts
Stephen Roger Powers of Barnesville, Georgia for Desert Blessing; A Week from Wednesday
Christina Stoddard of Nashville, Tennessee for Winter Passing; Losing my Hair at Twenty-Six; Blackberry Sage
Jennifer K. Sweeney of Kalamazoo, Michigan for Weathering; How to Grow a Mushroom; Angels Walking Through the Earth
Natalie Tilghman of Chicago, Illinois for The Curator; After Viewing ‘Prima Ballerina’ by Edgar Degas; Pupoh Vul
When my grandfather thought he might die,
he asked me to retell a story I never told him.
Do you remember?
Today, from a window, I watch
children in the park, chasing around a ball I can’t see
from here, their changes in direction both sudden and uniform –
their faces, still pale from winter,
their bodies steaming, turning
all together, one way and then
another, as they flicker
in width and depth,
like a cluster of starlings
shifting suddenly against the sky.
For my last story, I’d want
to hear about wild animals waking in their caves,
something with a beginning I don’t recognize, and an ending I can guess.
It would begin at sunrise –
laundry on a clothesline, water filling a bucket
drop by drop –
Not with geese,
but they could fly overhead,
fly through my story, unmentioned,
the quiet music of their shadows
because who hasn’t felt
their brief darkness?
I picture my grandfather walking away
from some center, imagine him squinting, discerning
the shape of what he’s walked toward,
not wanting plot now, or character,
only the reminder of flight –
Geese, clumsy and loud and still
capable of remembering,
of finding their way back.
Maybe this is the story,
maybe this is the beginning
of the story.
I tell my grandfather,
and neither of us dies.
You have been home
three days, as many weeks
as you were gone.
I try and assign some symmetry to this,
seeking to forgive all our former distances,
to press myself against you and close
all the remaining breaches.
While you were away,
whenever we spoke,
one of us was tired, or both,
waking as the other slept,
or cracking the other’s night in half
with a phone call, the receiver
blaring with city noises, fragments
of language we could not name.
Now, three days home, you speak
of the temples, tell me the lines
to them were measured
in terms of days, not distance.
In your first city,
you did not know
what the lines were,
or where they led,
but, still, you angled through
the teeming streets, slowly,
toward a little polished god
on an otherwise empty shelf.
The yard, a few acres, was cut out
of the surrounding woods.
The house disrupts the yard. Also, the quiet
chicken houses are only themselves.
The bedroom lives inside the house,
but its pale walls are cold against my palm,
which is not bedroom, or house,
or yard, or dripping woods.
I exhale the air that is guest to me.
At places, all the windows leak warmth.
- On a tour boat in El Calafate, Patagonia
One lost his hat to the wind –
it bobs on the surface of the jade-green lake
like a black gull. Clouds shift, the sound of lightning
echoes from the ice cliff, and a powder of ice
shakes loose, splashes. Two women clap and coo,
coaxing the glacier to perform, and it does feel alive –
heavy-tailed, befanged, and slow, cooling the wind
that crosses us as though it breathed. The pilot
speeds the boat to a melting berg, leans out
with gloves and pick-axe, hauling ice aboard.
He fills glass tumblers and when the wind picks up,
pours shots of whiskey on the rocks. On deck,
we raise our glasses to Perito, the Pleistocene’s
most stubborn son, and when the whiskey’s done,
while we look out at the glacier (its white forked tail
unfurling miles up Patagon peaks),
we chew a little ice between our teeth.
Scientists say the key is gravity – its arc of motion
extends beyond perception into a million cosmos
mirroring our own. If it would woo concurrency
through our dimension’s scrim, I’d shape the way
things weigh into a word, and send new worlds
a sign made from the undrawn lines of apples.
Just thinking of simultaneity, amplified to the nth degree,
totally floors me. It is like knowing the pyramids exist,
though I have never seen them, their shadow sides wearing smooth
under the sole of the millionth stealthy foot,
while in Patagonia, climbers scaling melting glaciers
free another cold jade inch for fish, and high on Mauna Loa
tourists print the tread of rubber tires onto fresh-cooled ash
as they wheel oceanwards down Earth’s volcanic spine,
and how all this is happening while I’m asleep in DC,
and somewhere else, out of reach, you’re turning in the night
towards your wife. If I could tap the wall of all for points permeable,
I’d set my ear against a seam and cull clues of alt-you,
alt-I. What’s the shape of the world where we are happy?
A place where it’s still not strange for me to rest
against the length of you, say on the dunes of a slow-
paced oasis in the mirror of whose water moves the sky,
where cloud or bird’s the winking of an eye, and where
the wave-work of mirage blurs the shape of children
racing figure-eights around the palms. In the beauty of their bodies
you can see the trace resemblance of Thisbe, who in the plot’s alt-tail,
never feared the blood-jawed lion, already fed,
but waited clear-eyed, clean-veiled, until the lion left,
and in real fields beyond the wall met Pyramus
at the tomb of Ninus, under the moonlit branches
of the white mulberry, where he sat brewing tea,
munching an apple – food of certainty, symbol for
the harmony of all dimensions layered skin to skin,
of how all things begin, and how, fearless of falling,
one who left Paradise
wriggles in again.
(Parc Georges Brassens, Paris)
Most afternoons, I’d run laps through Parc Brassens
where grows the second smallest vineyard
I have ever seen, and where those silver,
pruned-back stalks looked blunt,
strung-out on wires, and mostly dead
all winter. That was how I saw them.
That’s all I expected. Even in the cold,
I’d see a guy my age there, once a week,
playing his guitar. He’d sit next to the bench
where I’d be stretching. He rarely spoke –
just to ask if I’d like a song –
until the week before I left for good.
I was sitting at the top of a hill
about a hundred feet away from where
if you stand tiptoe you can see the Eiffel Tower.
He sat too close to me. We spoke of many things.
Then he suggested we go at it right there,
on the ground, under the sun. This is how
one lives who knows that she will die:
rolling in the arms of anyone when she can –
rolling in the arms of a musician – aware
that no one cares much what we do
in little knolls behind reedy forsythia,
in the middle of a Tuesday, in the middle
of living. And I would know now
how he felt, and the ground against me,
and whether he was rough or sweet.
And what is possible would widen every hour.
Oh, but me, I thought I was immortal.
For what it’s worth,
Spanish has no verb
“to give birth.”
mothers dan a luz, give, after
so many months in the growing dark
their burdens to the light.
Why are we made
to forget the brightness breaking,
the enormous world suddenly rent
Would we be too eager
in our remembering, rush towards
the next unexpected
on the other side?
Or would each dawn’s heft of being be
too great without the light’s
surprising palm beneath us, lifting us again?
Homestead cabins a hundred years old
nestle along the edges here, of slope, open
meadow, dry creekbed, grayed and sagging
monuments to minds that hung survival
on landscape. Whispers of who weighed
shelter over game over water, and who
lost the gamble. Great spruce trees
send boughs out low to catch those ragged
shreds of ghosts, to hold them and their rusted
rifles and send them rootward for some peace.
Snowmelt will wash through, send them to
the Flathead, to the Columbia, further west
than they’d been alive. All along the river
chalky cottonwood snags watch and bleach,
stark in the sun like old ribs where the land
burned and rotted away.
Firescars run right over the dirt two-track –
Moose, Red Bench, Wedge Canyon – big ones
that rolled through and set the land sky-bound,
seeded clouds with the charcoal of old trees.
Wander the black, choked with new lodgepole,
fireweed, Indian paintbrush, lynx, hare. See
what a good death it is?
Here is simple. Here are joy and blood-dark.
Count footsteps and watch signs, know
when winter keeps the sun below the ridge,
and the road is gone you will become beautiful,
like high wind in a blizzard, like a cow moose
when only her bones remain, scattered
around a smattered clearing in the snow.
Because you read me
Verlaine in bed and I, who never learned French
or summered in Paris or lived off wine
and olives in the mountains of Nyons,
understand. Language is a foreign thing
in the mouth, but I know
the taste and shapes of your tongue too well:
Pluie is the pout of a small kiss
while we find rhythms in drops
off the gray eaves, voici le soleil, your invitation
under a spent and empty sky.
L’aurore, the brush of a whispered
waking, peach-skin of lip and ear, and le couchant,
as we ease each other into sleep, is out of the dark
your last blurred goodnight.
Because I kept only one photograph of you with me
in this place, and it is plenty for remembering: Your profile
against pine and fence; my gasp, earlier, when after
shucking clothes in deep forest shadow and hopping sun spot to
sun spot on the moss, I dared the locals’ rope and swung. Numb,
I didn’t realize at the time but the water was shocking like
sudden love. We basked bare on pale rocks
like snakes, baking in the afternoon with only our skin
speaking. Later we arrived dry in Leyden to find your cat
and their note left to greet us: Gone to NY til Tuesday – M & D.
As your old house shifted and groaned around us
and the heat ran out of the day, we lay
in your boyhood bed, the bleached sheets streaked
with late light and tangled. There was a vast window,
and as I loved your warmth beneath me I stared, loved also
the wild field, the fruit trees, the flat dark
fringe of forest beyond, the swallows and their easy dance.
On that verge the air seemed to hum, and all in this small world to tremble.
I remember, I threw back my head,
wore the sunset like a blush.
Because it’s been eight months since you flew for Bordeaux,
and we still sign letters with “All My Love.” Because I’ve bought
Cent et Une Poemes par Paul Verlain,
and I can’t understand any of them. Because some
poet here said new love is faithfulness to the old,
but men in my bed have been nothing
more than men in my bed, and none warrant mention
or this confession. Because of my need
to give it anyway. Because I don’t know
where on the map to find you.
Nineteen hundred and some odd years
after Jesus and chief Pharisees discussed
pulling oxen from pits in the Holy Land,
I barrel south down 1-15 in a gray
’97 Dodge Stratus outside Shelley, Idaho.
The brass horizon hammers the sagebrush crags
of the Hell’s Half Acre lava flows
with six-thousand year old sun.
In the back seat, first daughter cruises
through two and a half. I approach thirty-one.
I belt “John Jacob Jinkleheimer Schmidt”
but can’t shake visions of her mother
and baby sister hurtled with Bernoulli and Newton
through the opal slipstream of sky
in a United Airline 737
toward Rochester, New York:
I calculate three time zones
to when they’ll arrive, wonder if
dad and grandfather will seize a lucky fist
of token years after heart attack five.
Jupiter draws the sun twelve feet
off its axis, the wobbling spin about as fast as
an Olympic one hundred-meter man.
Past the Raft River Store, I think of the pull
these bodies exert across space and time
as white-faced ibis flail across
the tattered flag of dusk, whose fireball finale ignites
The Snake River, each bend a molten shield.
World of daughters! Saviors and science say
love is all push and pull, part yield.
Albert Lyons, teamster, escaped Nez Perce slaughter
where my nearly ten-year old daughter
with borrowed Eagle Claw pole casts in
for brook trout whose quicksilver combustion
flashes like the stolen mule-train firewater
Chief Joseph drank under sky everlasting.
Blood marks the rendezvous by degrees.
Throbbing gills. The imminence of her menses,
river of no return. And western tanagers, red-
range skulls drenched in sunrise shades,
fleet incarnations of luckless Chinese
who took Nee-Me-Poo hatchets to the head.
One wonders how Albert survived. Did he too
hallucinate on air? Did he plunge hands through
the prism current for fish mirages, having
flitted through the willows from liquor-loving
braves along the bottoms? Did he crawl pari passu
with unborn daughters under war paint evening?
The savage moment bids us be women and men.
We stand by to be butchered or else stun
lacerated knees and chapped palms in a daze
on prairie shale and sage. Let the tanager blaze
of my daughter’s hair consume the whiskey sun.
Let our presence outlast the massacre of days
long enough to inhabit ghost town hotel and shack.
Too large to keep, too small to throw back.
Three daughters harvest handfuls of inchworms
in the back yard where their mother played as
a girl. Each a slim green acrobat twists, squirms,
and rappels down its fine silver essence
through the clean risk of air to be cupped in
hands, clapped in storage jars of criss-cross grass,
the clear lids of Press ‘N’ Seal cellophane
pierced with fork holes. I speed with it all past
the Dansville Foster-Wheeler plant, Cuba
Coachlight Motel, and Arkport’s Hurlbut House,
the medieval hills of Pennsylvania
and new York scrolling along faceless hours
of state highway that link my then to now.
And the world is different where I go.
And the world is different where I go
past the township of Friendship, toward Challenge,
miles from Desire and Panic. The hot orange
flare of oriole speed zigzags solo
between trees split with bronze gashes of sun.
Pale summer dapples ponds with a pollen
as this as mist. Lily pads worship light.
This is the farthest off I have felt – right
now – and the closest I have come by far.
Pinpoint gnats of citrus fire wheel and spar.
The mind snags sticky filaments. The land
clutches the same daylight that fills the jar.
I spool the emptiness around a strand
of soul. There is little we understand.
Of soul, there is little we understand
or parcel out, collect in increments,
the intervals of dusk, glide and descent.
You envision the Seneca crop planned
to perfection here like a loose grid of
stars. The Cornplanter families, one half
in slack semicircles, busily scraped
the bark from red shoots to brew emetics.
The other half stared and traced the complex
theorems of random time and space that would
one evening find spoons of beveled dogwood
and the warped shafts of handmade arrows trapped
in the hard gray mud of love’s fossil fern
where thoughts like cloud turrets form and reform.
Where thoughts like cloud turrets form and reform,
noon slants through the college café windows.
The room reels like a stock market forum.
A decade before he drives all those slow
miles to restart his life – a caravan
of native narratives interwoven
with the glimmering tableaux of their three
young girls scampering, arms upraised, to claim
chartreuse worms descending on light beams –
he sits near her and says nothing when she
breaks into his thoughts and life with a word.
He rises, wishes later he’d said more.
They leave. They meet again. Children follow.
The infinite starts and stops with hello.
The infinite starts and stops with hello.
The manner of birth confirms this to them.
First girl: born late on the Susquehanna;
tears the nipple from her mother’s full breast;
December moon and skin jaundice yellow;
stork bites; head of hair a razzmatazz flame;
a brusque nurse who stays past her shift, and a
twenty-two hour battle with little rest.
The rictus of pleasure and smile of pain
trade places after hours. Laugh becomes scream.
Dark day and white night cycle in sun-stain-
and-star-smeared circuits of dawn-soaked streams
of curtains too tattered for them to rend.
Beginning begins beginning to end.
Beginning begins beginning. To end
is to deny the circle’s open source.
Second girl: a pixie stalk of wheat-blond
that sprouts from the arid banks of the south
fork of the Teton. Sidesteps chance death twice.
One afternoon, the weekend of the Fourth,
north of the township of Sempronius,
he bolts toward the hummingbird feeder poles
across a lakeside cabin’s deck and yanks
her back before she falls into a creek’s
rocky ravine. Later, she survives an
occluded lung pipe, convalesces on
cherry popsicle sighs and gravel moans
just as ending draws the last starting line.
Just as ending draws the last starting line
another strand ravels out like the first
two. Third child: August-born, like her mother
and sister, a gaze of retrospection,
wide-eyed and sublime, drama unrehearsed.
She keeps them both searching forward rather
than back – atonal carousel laughter
and calliope grins and three stitches
laced up across a slender slash that rips
open her temple like delicate lips
promising a kiss fourteen years after.
At Tubman’s grave, the camera catches
her first steps. On moss-mad stone snail trails sketch
a glinting line or circle, which is which?
A glinting line or circle which is, which
was, and which will be intersects the arc
of days upstate near the Erie Canal
and the home of Susan B. Anthony.
The girl who will one day chase a spry batch
of girls around her house and city park
loves a terrier named Duke and enrolls
in after-school ballet, earns mad money
waitressing summers at The Bluewater.
When asked for a portrait of love and home,
she sits a little more erect, recalls
the stuffed bear from her dad, how he pulled her
in a sled after a lakefront snowfall.
The moment remains more timeless than time.
The moment remains more timeless than time,
untraceable like 1969,
when his folks bring him, as a newborn, back
from San Francisco General. Zodiac
Killer stabs a cabby. A maverick mutt,
Tasha, all morning and night, barks and trots
above their cheap crackerbox apartment.
He remembers the folklore glamor of
Buffalo Springfield’s bassist getting bent
into a hood ornament as one half
of a head-on motorbike-and-bus crash.
It takes ten years after graduation
for life to find him in another town
that delivers forever in a flash.
That delivers forever in a flash.
This extends minutes to millennia.
First night alone, after the mania
of the reception, a drunk guest bangs harsh
encores of “Chopsticks” in a no-host bar
downstairs at The Sherwood Inn. It’s not far
to the pier where they huddle in the gray
shriek of a November gale. They are kids
wrapped in college sweatshirts and hope that they
can live off whatever brummagem love
they might dump in handfuls under the lid
of a souvenir mug on a back shelf
with orphan dice, thumbtacks, and spare changes.
Earth forms as much as it rearranges.
Earth forms as much as it rearranges
us. Each lakeside autumn tree exchanges
the cutthroat blaze of monarch drapery
for a skeleton of stripped ebony.
The buzzsaw string quartets of cicadas
drown the spluttering cough of an outboard.
Seagulls grapple. Red deer ascend above
the corn. Boats get stored in dry dock. A hard
plane of gray-green ice mars the shore. It is
the blue heron’s basso lament that moves
locals to mourn the influx of resort
kitsch. Headstones bloom. Cafés fold. As strange as
the passage of days, the long age cuts short
the connection between us, whose range runs.
The connection between us, whose range runs
to the blind limit of sense, marks milestones
on the stretched strand of light: The Hofbräuhaus;
Lindisfarne; Aran; Woody’s Island; close
to breaking past Rock Springs; Promontory;
Balanced Rock; Moab; no guts, no glory
in Sturgis; lost in Blyth, if nothing else;
thunder and woodchucks at Buttermilk Falls;
Stonehenge’s blue sun-scoured palms; the Hub;
the grassy stone bowl of Old Sarum; dab
of Belgium; gig in Nagoya; beebalm
at Yellow Creek; between commitments at Bear
Lake; sunrise in Honduras sends a psalm
head to tail, the span of cosmic measure.
Head to tail, the span of cosmic measure,
plots my observations now where I’m found.
I believe there’s no isolation more
exquisite than that which courses around
Fairman’s Family Laundromat tonight.
A lone girl smokes and sits cross-legged in
parking space A18, her broken pane
hairstyle bleached the frightening opal-white
of summer lightning. Though I would say that
she has buckled Fate’s studded dog collar
around herself, I know we both spin out
of our bellies the frailest lifelines, our
hands cupped for the curious blood of what
we’re caught in as prisoner and treasure.
We’re caught in, as prisoner and treasure,
this escape and release. A memory: Cheyenne.
Midday, we pulled off to gas up the car
at a truck stop whose name I’ve forgotten.
A smog of slate rain draped saturated
murals on the ranks of boxcars, their mustard
broadsides spangled in angry comic strip
swarms of pink-orange graffiti from Rocky Top
to Los Angeles. The wheels clanked and screeched
in a way that said Gather and Always
move on – not in light years but by the inch.
And pause often en route to clear the way
for roadblocks, and for visions and lunch where
three daughters harvest handfuls of inchworms.
Three daughters harvest handfuls of inchworms,
and the world is different. Where I go,
of soul, there is little we understand.
Where thoughts like cloud turrets form and reform,
the infinite starts and stops with hello.
Beginning begins, beginning to end,
just as ending draws the last starting line,
a glinting line or circle. Which is which?
The moment remains more timeless than time
that delivers forever in a flash.
Earth forms as much as it rearranges
the connection between us, whose range runs
head to tail, the span of cosmic measure
we’re caught in as prisoner and treasure.
When Hank finds “Digging for Jesus” on PBS,
we watch as a dozen pilgrims
squeeze into the underground altar
at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.
They bow under the crossbeams
and kneel to kiss a polished silver star,
the exact spot where they think Christ was born.
Crazy what some people will believe,
says the guy at the end of the bar, snickering.
But Hank is credulous, gazing at the screen
hung under the boar’s head, his face
I don’t know why I came.
To relax, I guess, and have what the Irish call
a quiet drink, that beautiful euphemism
for getting soused but not so soused.
And here I am confessing to Hank my dream:
how I held my ex’s body underwater
and she smiled at me, guiding my hands
as I parted her ribcage, a psychic surgeon
removing one by one her lungs, her heart.
Pressing his nose against the face-smudged floor,
the semi-famous archeologist reminds us
there’s no way to know for sure if this is the place.
Under the blinking lights of the Keno machine,
I imagine the long flight home
each pilgrim will take, the stewardess
standing in the aisle to perform
her pantomime script with seat-belt buckle
and oxygen mask, and it seems true:
Before you save another, save yourself.
Though it’s caught between the storm window
and screen, I gaze up every few minutes
to check its progress, admiring
its persistence, the urgency and ease
of its clipped flight. At least the fly has the excuse
of mindlessness for living
recklessly, for coupling in a hurry, abandoning
its young in garbage bins. This thought
depresses me, then the thought
that it doesn’t depress me enough
depresses me. I can’t help watching the fly
preen its wings on the wire-mesh, proboscis
quivering, as it circles the reflection
of my face and rams its tiny head
into the glass. Crawling across
what we can see of the cumulus outside,
it seems to have finally reached the end
of sky, that blue region where
the vastness of the atmosphere
finds a frame. Thinner than India paper,
its wings blur as it rises to the pane.
Across the porch, plumes
of gristled ash spill from the drum, fine fibers
stinging our eyes as the breeze, suddenly
visible, powders the neighbors’ blue
Clumsiness, your Seventh Day
Adventist grandmother would say,
is symptomatic of the spirit’s ills –
some guilt we feel for our rented view, our week
of perfect weather on the Sound, the absurd
luxury of paddling up the cove to buy
T-shirts that read:
I got crabs at Dirty Dick’s.
And don’t these boats at dusk, this affluent
sky, make us want to kneel and lick
the porch slats, splinter our tongues
on the untreated wood?
our empties off the countertop, let us
deserve each other. Reeking smoke
and sweat, let’s lie together
on the sandy sheets, and watch the tide
flood the jetties and pilings outside
where gulls perch for the night, crying foul.
Macon County, Alabama 1974
It overwhelms, at times, my fury
alive and shivering
like a fence lined with starlings, pin-sharp behind
or filling the room, dull as this humid heat.
Pink aspirin and tonic water,
x-rays, blood slides,
to break their teeth against your case –
this acrid fruit, our whole lifetime, patiently consumed.
Signing over the cheek, the county clerk called me
I wrung my purse to a rag not to strike out
that grin: they
are washing their hands of you. Fifteen thousand for
of watching your heart wear thin as a cotton
blouse, sores tear open your skin
like a field of sinkholes.
Lucky? Lies burrow
through the walls of my past, I
cannot frame the life we missed. I’d spend every dollar
to buy back years, pull you from our weary sheets
close in your ear, Your blood is not bad –
that story hides a judgment, a brand, a flock of lies.
Manzanar, California, July 1, 1942
A slow minute, a pause, a stray breath – the mind twists
like a worm turning through a tree’s rot – MPs
grin and mime target practice, children stare wildly
between boxcar slats:
this is our country. Tonight, we lose
hours scouring the pine-board floors,
spit-shine our shoes.
Our hair glows like a can of oil. We swelter,
against the barbed wire, guard towers, the dirty wind
snarling over the land. We hold ourselves in
memorized crackle, the creak of our straight-backed
swaying, and here
we build our home.
My sister insists, if not sinless, it was no great sin,
like mistreating an animal –
they’re not Christian.
The slim finger – its skin stiff, a blackened hue –
she deems only a boyish prize. Reminds me I am
a soldier’s wife.
And kneading our bread, I recite
this advice. But faces of a woman and child rise,
puffed up, pale, before my eyes. I punch it down
to rise again. Later, I wake lost
by animals nosing my hands, the spilled pail,
as I gather the remains
to the trough. I push to
place faith in his restraint, but nightly am surprised
by the sudden white rush as he takes me from sleep,
a bare and embarrassed back to my form –
the apology that chases the release. Learn to forgive,
my sister repeats.
Is it mine to excuse? Or would that be
some quiet tuft, tucked in a prized corner of the garden,
forgiving the serpent, the tree, the god who designed
his most loved to fall?
Leopard-backed slugs glide along carpets of moonlight,
Their hidden mouths scraping algae from the soil.
It took Plato a long time to learn to call them beautiful.
He believed an ocean of sea-jellies spawned from one bell,
A trillion wasps from a golden thorn, and all creation
From a sphere seeking forms like an eye turning to the beautiful.
But the llama perched on an Andean outcrop is itself a miracle,
More taken with a patch of grass than the unbarred sky.
Its wool is the thousand-year white of glaciers, and beautiful.
Day and night, the alphabet of birds spells psalms on clouds.
We need to learn the grammar of wind to beg our peregrine Lord
To kestrel the grackles of our magpie souls beautiful.
And still I fail to revere wise men as I do turkey buzzards,
Their boiled heads peering over the Book of the Dead.
By every road, I see them bowed together, questioning the beautiful.
Perhaps the script of stars is not a language but a design,
And we ourselves are holy timber, waiting to be joined,
Tongue and groove, to raise up the house of the beautiful.
This was not your normal talk of giving up, going on
To become an astronaut, litigant, or double-agent.
Doubtless it leapt in your mind – you’d become a ballerina.
You’re 28, I said, a bit ossified, and you’d be the tallest girl.
You put your foot down then – Just because you can’t! –
And when you lifted your leg, blue jeans and bare feet
In mock-pirouette, I imagined a column at Delphi,
One under the east eave of the temple to Apollo,
A thread binding heaven to the mountains below.
In the silence, sunstreaks slanted down clouds.
Then you came before me, neither sibyl nor dream,
But a woman, nubile, like the statues those mysterious
Sculptors made from marble diaphanous as ribbon.
If you had asked, I would have bought you shoes.
At the unclaimed baggage shop
in Scottsboro, Alabama,
women who aren’t ashamed
buy what’s lost in the heavens:
shoes stamped with the memory of feet,
dreams of houses, stenciled in blue ink,
rings that never got to be married,
red suitcases with nothing inside.
Sometimes a scuffle starts
over a prayer shawl or a child’s dress.
A voice awakens to pain.
Then the quiet mends itself back.
In one dust-splotched corner,
wishbone crutches hang from the pegboard,
wheelchairs in stacks,
their leather backs so very straight.
There’s a case of false arms,
each laid palm up, palm open
as if to receive a handshake
or a piece of bread.
No one ever comes to claim those,
the clerk admits, no one ever comes.
I see them in airports, rising
from seats marked with the sign of the lame
and stepping through glass doors
that part of their own accord.
Oh, Morpheus, bring us the rain
that washes our sleep
Invite the night to break open
into a thousand dreams
Drift down the fragrant petals
sweet with forget
Float us in your melodies,
Quiet our very veins
with dim stars strung like lace
Come, Thanatos, with your many-ribboned song
So many horses in your field ready to carry this chariot away
The birds are singing black songs of light
woven of long nights letting go into dawn
The kernels from ripe ears have filled out
into their own stalks rising to the sun
We see the young man and the boy
come from the beyond. The fire is burning
Thanatos, we shiver as we break
away from this sun.
Hold us as we linger
in this in-between
Reach out your hands, dressed in the hands of ones we love
again and again until we can see them, feel them, let go into their embrace
Hypnos, fresh air, sweet song, arrive
like springtime drifting into our coldest hours
when we have given up all hope of returning
to peace and have forgotten the sweet green
unfurling from branches bare, wet with so many snows.
Morpheus= God of Dreams in Greek mythology, son of Hypnos
Thanatos= God of Death in Greek mythology, brother of Hypnos
Hypnos= God of Sleep in Greek mythology, father of Morpheus, brother of Hypnos
Morphine was named after Morpheus in 1805 by Friedrich Wilhelm Sertũrner.
This poem was written after witnessing morphine quell severe pre-death pain.
for Grandmother – Kathleen Large Ringley of Appalachia – 1914-2008
The fireflies are back this summer, but not you.
Or are they lightning bugs?
It is the way of wings to carry the bright.
How they blink back the night.
Last year, this time, you touched the other side
flying back to us, soft-winged.
The owl saw it all
perched on that branch
between yes and goodbye
rooted in ocean, solitary, why.
The fireflies, just as uncatchable,
small hands opening as wings themselves,
clasping at the brightness
the yellow glow here – there –
That night in July so thick with darting stars
blinking prayers shimmering the trees in light
I’d rather learn from one bird how to sing
than teach ten thousand stars how not to dance
All the songs are weaving together
(front porch, back porch,
mountain fog, train whistle’s curve)
The way the kitchen bloomed.
All the words left unstitched,
spooling the past like a precious yarn.
The songs are waking up the night
the way dreaming ears find rain.
Crazy quilt where all colors collide
and become the most definite yes.
More yes than all the stars, the sky.
Dance on, old truths that brave the night.
Bird-student watches, continues to learn.
And death i think is no parenthesis
It is, perhaps, an ellipsis …
or, a colon:
the preparation for something else.
of punctuation entirely?
the trick of finding what you didn’t lose
(existing’s tricky, but to live’s a gift)
the teachable imposture of always
arriving at the place you never left
To your funeral I did not wear
cornflower blue of sky sung with stormsong.
Nor the deep orange of trumpetvine green.
Neither the bright red of geraniums
nor the soft pink of rose petal sweet.
Not the mixed purples of petunias
nor tulips’ bright gold or pear-blossom white.
Nor any colors, petals at all.
Except the ones lining my throat, my lungs,
right down to my toes, my clothes black
as the night you passed, black
as the slow snap of the coffin’s lid’s close.
Everyone here, but you.
(Grey, sun-rain chasing
mountain fog into mist)
– all the pews full –
but beauty is more now than dying’s when
You, now with wings
sing the alphabet into stars
into buds that keep blooming
on a rosebush by the fence
separating now from dying’s when
Untangle the knot that doesn’t want to let go
into resounding patchworks
echoing colors mix-matching
into intimate and remote, complete and undo
Roll out the dough that has been rising
and remembers the warm shape of sure hands
as firm in their knowing
as the wings of the owl, already flown
or does some littler bird than eyes can learn
look up to silence and completely sing?
and if grass forgets to grow
does it simply murmur its green?
the stitch in a yellow dress’s hem
is more smile than anybody’s reach
what is reach but what if on fire
and fire is more yes than forgetting’s sigh
listen to the no hiding in why
paint all the whispers instead of the sky
and if a you or a me trips over discern
return to the heart of the throat of the bird
who sings his little and completely learns
look up, breathe, let the sound unfurl
*italicized lines by e.e.cummings
They grow clustered in damp
half-darkness, prized for their smooth,
delicate white flesh. Left alone long, though,
they turn beneath the skin to dry, brown
dust sponges that exhale, at the lightest touch,
thick, ochre clouds of spore,
sudden smoke rings that vanish
before they’re fully formed;
like ghosts or vampires, unable
to die in the usual way, they’re
dead, in a sense, already. So there’s no
slow decline, no waiting, no protracted
process of decay; they simply
shift from a state in which they exist,
separately, as themselves,
to one where they don’t.
It was not so much
that we minded them,
strewn across every surface
in the house, teetering on the windowsills,
lined up across the back of the desk,
dangling from the beams, collecting dust.
We liked them.
It was just that
we needed something
to burn before the twigs,
and not a scrap of paper
remained in the house that hadn’t
been squared, quartered,
shaped for flight.
They burned fantastically,
each pointed wing closing,
collapsing into ash. The long necks,
unlocked from their bodies, curled
downward. For once, just
before they vanished, they
moved as though alive.
All the squirrels want to put their lips
to your nut meat – even your enemies
adore you, you brute,
you killer of: lilacs; potatoes; mountain laurel;
tulips; prana; free will.
Every part seeps poison
like a jugloned queen:
crotch, bole, burl, leaf, root,
your manly garlands that flutter
to earth, your womanly fruit.
Dust descends from your miasmal mean,
feminine sex dropping small bombs, staining
river stones a bruised brown. They’ll turn you
into cabinet, dulcimer, polish, war paint, a secret
agent in explosives and ice cream.
Way up in your head, obscured
in your canopy of feathery dendrite,
there’s a boy eating peaches, inventing
a new, anti-Whitmanian botany –
he’s the reason I love you, the reason
I don’t wither in your company.
After the competition, published in Stone Canoe.
There I was, ready to die with boredom, and you –
you came to comfort me, sending through my arm
as you landed there a kind of pleasure that really
it’s indecent to feel in public, among all these people
fascinated, apparently, taking such copious notes.
How can I care what they’re saying when you ride,
balancing with your delicate wings, so brazen
the hairs of my arm, and in such an ecstasy!
No one before has traced precisely that path
along the thinner vein of my wrist, yet you take
such delight there, rubbing your hands together,
or rearing back and prancing like a mare, while
beneath you subterranean my blood must roar
and thrum you like a lyre. Watching you polish
your black helmet already gleaming, sensing
already some scent in the stale air tempts you,
I shudder almost with a reflex of dismay –
then force myself to think of our differences of scale,
how for you already in these minutes we’ve lived
whole lifetimes together, a marvel of constancy,
really, and I forgive you, your brief form diving
now so gracefully away, air’s blank currents
folding seamlessly behind you. Still, abandoned here
to drown in the drone of serious voices, suffering
new extremities of detachment, how can I keep
from resenting what I’ve loved, when so inimitably
it flies off effortless to multiply its delights?
Absolute white out, snow not falling but seething.
For five minutes, ten, a foot from my window
the world goes blank: trees, buildings, the scavenging
birds, all of them swallowed in the bright blind storm.
I lay my head to the glass. When it ends, ground
and air retreating to their separate spheres, the shapes
of the known world taking up again their tasks,
I slide the large window open, I dip my face
into the cold light cast up brilliant from the snow.
As I step out, trudging into the calm clear
pure world, from the bag in my hand I cast a new layer
of seed, the seed I laid that morning buried now, invisible
to the birds who will scratch and scratch for it,
who hide in the dry reeds breaking through the drifts.
I think of them flocking to it, abundance, abundance,
the world revealing rare to them inscrutable
benevolence. Inside again, I watch dozens of them
churning snow gone gray now with their droppings,
my face at the window a mere fact of the landscape,
innocuous, until sudden as a single organism
they snap to, freeze, then lift to the neighboring trees,
the weight of their wings a low groan in the air.
I lie down, free for a moment from all avarice
save the eye’s, and wait silent as first singly
then in pairs, then all together again pouring
they claim a place on the moment’s habitable ground,
the high sun glinting unthinking from their wings.
In the alchemy of afternoon
September light invites
itself into our kitchen.
The herbs you planted months ago
are growing confidently now
on the window sill, beside
the green bananas. In a tin planter
rich with another state’s soil,
tiny, overlapping leaves
reach upward, eager for attention –
our overlapping lives
still in conversation with each other
as I stand here at the sink
holding a glass under a stream
of liquid sun. And as I tip
the water out, pouring slowly over
this fragrant, clustered life
that sprouted from nothing, I wonder
what you will season with basil,
wonder how you are seasoning
now, imagine you laughing
By the time you arrive,
the bananas will be ripe
and ready to share.
It’s been awhile; the sunlight
has been missing you.
It fills up your room first
even when you’re gone.
White sheets wouldn’t have to be
the symbol for desperate surrender,
sterile-smelling hospitals, love
growing cold – not if we remembered
back to that first new night
when our sheets still smelled
of laundry soap – not if we
remembered how, before that, they hung
drying on the backyard clotheslines,
snapping in the wind, filling
with the memory of lilacs
while we chased each other
up and down the rows
and hid between them – not if
we remembered how they felt
almost weightless, thin cotton cool
against our bare skin – not
if we remembered them rumpled,
a week since washing,
with the sun benignly falling
into their wrinkles and creases,
laying down one wide ribbon of light
across your warm body,
your still-beating heart.
If I were a vessel to be poured out,
a small, curved flask with a handle
and a delicate spout, I’d like to age
like Roman glass, growing more brilliant
with the weight of time.
None of this dull crumbling away –
instead, to become iridescent,
a shimmer of green and pink and gold.
I’d like to be found
by careful fingers, to be considered
still a thing of wonder,
not yet empty, my memories
worth preserving. I’d like to be something
that would make you linger longer
in front of the display case.
Something you would want to hold.
My aunt stands at the sink, and soon
may not know the word for it, and soon
may not know how to wash her hands.
My son stands tiptoe on a stool
and can barely trail his fingertips
through the silver rope of water.
He sees the water, and loves it
for what it is. Each time he sees it
it is almost new. He can’t imagine
where water goes. He can’t imagine
it goes anywhere without him.
When he leaves the room, the room vanishes.
My aunt stands inside the vanishing room.
They are bitter, these thorns
I press into your heart. They say
yes, you must fall asleep in the lonely dark.
You will learn to live without me
and better. These are the things
the thorns say, the thorns say. Now sleep.
This is the season when you face
the trees in their radiance and say,
I am not afraid of the cold, though I know
it is coming. In the cities the bridges
are raising to let the sailboats into the boatyards
before ice fringes the water’s edge.
The autumn world is unburdening itself
of sweetcorn and kale, apples and onions,
pumpkins on the spiny vine. Overhead
flies a vee of geese, zippering the blue sky.
Autumn is surge and reluctance,
sparkle and early dark, and it will be enough.
This winter you will lie down together
to watch the snows drift over the streets,
the lake, this field. When the frost
is on the grasses they may hiss in the cold,
but they will glitter like light on water.
You will walk in abundance in any season.
Waves pull back their shimmer and sanderlings
follow, trotting skitskitskit round the hem,
beaks poking at bubbles, airholes, the worm
of foam along the gleam’s edge. I toss a shell
with all the force I can muster, watch it arc
against the green-gray, edge over edge
in the sun. Everything clear for those seconds,
clear and air, resolved to a single point
revolving in the crash and glow,
uninhabitable but there, the fact
of caring. Belonging. That freedom. Noise
and voice buzz in and it’s sky-water-bird again,
but this time I’ve got something with me,
in me, unassailable as breath.
Bereft! Because of this or that.
Caught strangely, hooked in the chest.
Anatomized, wept. Kept keening
in this room or that. Adrift;
as if left lonely on some leaky
skiff and bound to wrack or ruin.
Fore, aft: mantas, jellys, sharks,
not sustenance, nor company. Just this:
what if to be left were gift? The luck
to shuck the shell, emerge
virginal. Without what’s gone,
what’s birth? Explorers
make their reports in foam
or frost then perish, leaving behind
fresh colonies. Here’s mine.
The yellow pail sits
on a white stoop. The wallpaint
is peeling a little, vertically,
the curls catch the shadows, bluish,
like a shadow on milk, a little cat
laps at it, no wait, it’s just a shadow
on the wall, and the cat is across the field,
bounding after a dun-grey mouse
with a long tail, a tail easy enough to pounce on,
but the mouse wedges itself between the blades
of the plow and the cat goes mad
with frustration, thrusting one paw
then the other between those rusted
blades, batting at the mouse,
which has pressed itself
nearly flat against the ground
and if you were close you’d see it
trembling, really shaking, nosetip
to tail, as the cat does its thing,
then hears a hollow bell’s clankclank
and bounds away home, leaving the mouse
to a few more days of mouseness,
and leaps onto the porch and waits
for its meal, which it always gets
soon after the ringing of the bell.
It’s like that day after day, scraps
on a plate, white edged in green
ivy, a ring of ivy green and blue.
The sun catches a particular corner
of the porch and lights up the cracks
between the boards, splinters,
what’s fallen between, under the house
there are centuries of millipedes
and such, wide awake in the dark,
and below, more life stuffed into the soil
that supports those who live in the house,
which they built from the ground, or their
grandparents; there are cows stamped onto
the glasses on the breakfastable, the legs
are unsteady and the glasses rattle a bit,
the plates, the eggs slide, their suns
getting runny – in the middle of the table
is a bunch of hydrangeas, bruise-purple
and tired, we rake our hands through them,
through these days, quiet with sun
and cracks in the earth and wheat
the color of our hair and burnt cheeks
and a solitude we take for granted, here
against the paint-blue sky speckled
with a tree or two on this, our land,
our gift, our four corners, what we work
and long for and reinvent,
year after year – I feel a little sorry
for the cat, who can’t get everything
he wants, everything he runs after,
for the mouse who lives a life of hiding,
for the long blades of grass that fall beneath
the plow. I clear the field, pull together
some love and forgetting and mulch it
into the rich soil, a miracle it gives back,
sun or rain it finds a way, I’ve never
understood that, the constancy – oh I know
that’s not true but I want it – to depend
on an earth giving forth torrents of wheat
and masses of flowers and taut gleaming
crops, an earth steady under your feet,
always, from the day you hide
beneath your mother’s apron to the day
you tie those strings around your waist
to the day they flutter on the clothesline
with no one to wear them.
What is growing there could be
called a garden. Rocks subduing trees.
Rusted bleaked edging. Forgotten bulbs
that surfaced, to burn. Potted oregano left to break
through a plastic pot, for drink.
Bird seed germing to weed.
Hidden sage that shunted the heather.
Jaundiced bottle-brush and plumbago
seco. A laughing resin frog,
tipped by wind in the one rain we had that year.
What’s under the ground
is what governs the weather.
Plates below that shifted, crashed.
Made mountains, lead winds
and rain to stop at one side. Drown another.
The sun is not the cause
though we might think it.
We could leave what grows
to the will of the ancient plates,
the smoldering center of it all, to drought and ice,
to random blossoming. In early warm
months, it does not seem so deliberate.
Promising pale leaves. Bursts of green buttons.
Garnish for our plates. Edibles, for seasoning.
We can pretend it was divided fair.
Stay inside. Draw the shades. Wait.
Doves do not forget the path from winter,
but return to seed rations, small nibbles.
for my grandmother and her daughter, Raquenel y Raquenel
In your orange, plastered room
Abuelita, by your chair near the open
door, the paint had split, rusted in places, cracked
in the heat. When you die, I asked, who will take care of Raque?
At ten, I knew grandparents died – and your daughter,
I knew was not right. Angled teeth.
Down’s-happy smile. The mind of a two
year old. An adult, my aunt, would never live alone.
She’d laugh at my navel when I walked in your house,
Say “Hollito? Hollito?” poking, pretending to pinch
a small hole in my belly – always squinting, she looked
Chinese to me. My little girls’ shoes fit her soft
bent feet. My forgotten dolls
became her babies.
“oi, oi, oi, she’d coo them, play
in the next room while we talked.
I worried about the logistics. We lived in the States.
And there was cooking to do. I knew at the store
you needed money. You had to know how to count.
Reading would be necessary. Cars could run you over.
When I learned things in my American school,
I tried to teach her in Mexico, though she was thirty.
Numbers. How letters made the sounds
of Pi-po, the clown, Que sal-ga Pi-po!
But she would laugh, offer me a doll.
Pinch its belly. Point to my shoes and say, Mine?
Mi Zapato? Quieres Coca?
I always arrived with shoes.
How you wanted a daughter, Abuelita,
in your life of drinking husband, two maids,
and darling-tough boys: you had wanted a soft girl,
in cotton. She’d spoon eggs into flour,
Spread masa on the folds of dry husks –
She’d know when steam compotes fruit,
how meats could season into gifts for the mouth.
And, at night, while men would drink, or go away,
you and your daughter could whisper, near a window
where the mountains would silhouette the sky.
But instead, you had a third son, who died,
and you swaddled him for the photo in his satin-baby box,
and you looked for a daughter in another place –
On the pavement, you met a beggar giving
away two children: a boy and a girl.
I will take your child, you said. And Raque was yours, Raquenel.
A girl you named her after yourself,
her black, shimmery hair, skin, clean
as the new milk was that was still streaming
from the birth-death of your son.
But your three brothers, all doctors, told you
Raque was not right. No. Take her back!
Something about alcohol, the street, the mother –
They said Leave her on the street! Dejala!
I asked you, why you kept her.
And you said you already loved her when you knew.
You answered my question who would care for her.
Pues, Diostito, you said.
And my brain heard all of the combinations of your answer:
Well, God, Then, God,
Good God. Three answers. One sentence.
In your orange painted room, we hardly felt
the heat’s hold of the air. You knew
how few fans were needed, how with some doors open,
you could keep from overheating.
How to make a good sauce.
You can’t throw everything at once.
You have to wait. Work in layers.
First you let the onions cook alone in the oil.
And you listen. Crush the garlic
that will be used. Add it at the right time.
They’ll take each other’s flavors,
if each is added separately.
And they create layers within the liquid. Simmering.
Like two people in a good marriage.
Each layer encases the other
and it works out, immersed
in the combinations
all the way down the throat.
Electric down the avenue, they spark us
as they pass. Street lamps pop, a tire swing
spins like a yo-yo letting out. Their stop and go
is a discotheque in Florence, their to and fro a night swim,
naked. Sprinkler heads rise
like a chorus line lifting its hats, time zones shift, the tide
swindles free of the moon. Their laughter’s
as sure as a sawed-off muffler. Their whisper
is a corset untying. Phone lines cross like puppet strings tangling,
someone drops a china plate, a widow returns
to her v-necked reds. Bark peels, satellites blink,
ants carry their queen to a new hill.
She is his country, he is her map. Stars jump
from their constellations, mist touches down
in the desert, every clam in Charleston unhinges.
They are a Russian ballet, a rock ’n’ roll ballad, a book
we cannot put down. All the fireflies glow at once,
a riderless bike switches gears, cats and dogs follow them
like a piper. But they don’t even notice our uncoverings,
salutings. Or that behind them, the rain has begun to hiss
on pavement still warm in the wake of their desire.
When they do look up to see the world, they will find us
tigered and jazzed, played as we are
by their brass band love. They will find us hauntingly beautiful,
bent as we are in the lens of their passion.
City after city. After awhile all the rooftops
and industrial plants and baseballs next to gutters
are the same.
you forget where you first tasted s’mores,
where you slept the worst, where you earned nicknames
you’ve left behind. Little Cricket:
who called you that?
You’ve forgotten the streets
where the Exxon stations stayed open all night.
Weren’t there always small cafes
and fields of horses just outside of town,
where every woman walking her dog was an important part
of your education, your study of motion:
how loneliness feels good
sometimes, how walking away
is nevertheless stepping forward?
Hanna, drawing chalk poinsettias on the sidewalk,
once said, Pursue Joy Now and sounded solid,
like the TV emergency signal.
You get the feeling she fears nothing,
which can’t be true, but it’s nice to believe in,
especially now that you’re alone
on the side of the road, engine still, no white towel
tied to the side mirror.
Ducks skid, landing on the lake behind you,
the lake the city dug when it cut the highway through.
Some boys in a convertible whistle as they pass
and it’s almost enough
to be noticed by fleeting strangers, to be
waiting for a storm or a ranger signaling
from the fire tower across the bypass.
It’s almost enough to know
that Hanna, twelve years your senior,
is moving to San Francisco; with wind in her hair
she will do what she loves.
You wonder, in the day’s late light,
how many more cities
you’ll sleep, rent, believe in
before you fall into a final love,
sign a final contract, lock the door behind you
and never make it home.
It’s the sound of sirens that prompts you
to get off the side of the road
back into traffic,
to smooth the creases of the map and join
the flatbed trucks, the horses’ tails
swishing through the slits of trailers,
the station wagons hauling their families
before a banner of exhaust.
When she crawls into our bed
I feel her quick heart
irregular and fast, too fast
to be my daughter’s
whose ribs I feel when I hold her close
to keep her for as many hours
as I can before her heart
defies us both, before
she’s a blur at the throat
of the rose of Sharon. Before
just a nodding flower
tells me she was here.
This is not our first time in the orchard. Not
the first time our daughters run from us
among the trees. We are not here so much for the apples as to be
where we’ve been before. Where,
with your father, we once gathered bushels of fruit
and you pulled the girls in the wagon while he rested
on a crate between rows.
The night your father died
you drew a bath and invited me into the water.
A candle flickered behind you in the mirror
streaked with steam. That night
your response was flesh, and when your shoulder
pressed against my mouth, I remember thinking you
would be easy to bite and bruise.
Your mother can’t say how she was born
her mother having bled through
and the woman who raised her thinking it best
to starch her own mouth shut.
Still your mother grew in spite of
spring days spent pinning bleached sheets
out on the line in a town
where god and windows shone clean and clean and no one
used too many words or dug deeper
than what was required to set an onion, and still
she planted herself in this house, in this yard
where she crept as a child behind the coop to see blood
and bodies of headless chickens.
And you grew in this house, in this yard
where you crept as a child behind the coop and imagined
the blood and your mother watching, silent.
Now you’ve come back to this town with your daughter
who you named for what had been lost, and listen
to your mother sing out the name of her mother.
The language of fish is silence, yet
I speak it, here on the banks of a lake struck dumb
by sunshine. Laying aside my pole, the coffee can of writhing
dirt, I say hello to a ghost.
In the drift of clouds, in cloudy
water, in the torque and muscle of rainbow trout –
the ones my father and I
would wait for – I hear him answer.
Conversation easy as a line
unreeling, soft as the curl and shimmer of bodies
beneath. Same as how we’d speak when he
was living: wordlessly,
gesturing toward the tugging bobber. Those same fish
must be here, or their children are,
as I am. This lake blessing us with continuance,
as when a dog bounds into weeds
down shore, for a stick grown slick with play.
My father alive once more in the dog’s happiness, in the girl
who adores him, in the ripples love makes,
riding out and out forever.
My grandmother had an answer
for yarn scraps leftover from the mittens,
tasseled caps, pom-pom’ed booties
she’d endlessly knit.
Pulling the stubby remnants from the pockets
of her housedress, she’d knot them
without looking. Rocking and talking grown-up
talk with guests, her worn hands
worked quietly for her grandchildren.
Tied swiftly, the soft flock flew down
to outstretched fingers: loops
for wings, littler loops for tail feathers.
Gifts no child or time can unravel.
Now, decades later, watching migratory swifts
swoop and perform their ballet
in the field, I see only her talent, her splendid
wrists, the yarn birds she made us,
gliding to the grateful earth.
Starkness: in the dogwood a robin’s nest
the bottom of which has become unwoven from the top
so that, looking up, you saw a frayed O
and through it the dusk of the sky
before a night when it would snow. It made you think
of the shadowed ceiling of a church and white
candles burning and what it feels like when the body
is trying to teach the mind stillness. There is an O
in Buddhist calligraphy that has the quality of being
finished and unfinished, as if endings and beginnings
only brush each other lightly, or as if a break
runs through perfection making it more
luminous. The dragon swallowing its tail
in alchemical texts is similar but not the same.
Seeing the nest, you paused, then walked down the path
to the laundry room where your clothes had stopped
tumbling in rough circles. You wanted to remember
how your life had come to this point, but you couldn’t
so you folded. The brief heat of dried cloth.
The solace taken, in winter, from something worn,
warmed, freshened. The open space at the center.
The gesture. The open space that surrounds.
The night before we found the dove in the road,
I had been reading about Cambodian refugee camps,
how the survivors tended bean plants
in the square yard plots outside their huts
and walked two miles daily to haul water from a well,
the tendrils curling around bamboo stakes and up
over the thatched roofs otherwise dry as tinder in that season.
Nothing we are given to do, our jobs, our hobbies,
could seem to touch that daily effort, life out of spare dirt,
and I would’ve prayed to be able to save something,
if only my words weren’t caught up in something else.
But there they were, the next night, this mourning dove
stunned on the pavement and a mottled tomcat
slinking near the curb, either the culprit
or an arrival like us, drawn by the scent or the strings
of that moment, ready to pounce, first or again.
We got out of the car. It was just after sunset.
The dove hopped. She tried to get away.
Rich caught her from above, pinning her wings,
one visibly thinned, the other whole but ruffled,
no blood we could see as we wrapped her in my flannel jacket,
the gray plaid cloth nubby from washings become a nest
of folds on my lap, only her small dun head emerging,
her black eyes blinking up in the faltering light,
as the world hushed to soft, brown-feathered wakefulness,
and I held her, we pulled away.
The doctor is particular with his quest
outside the office. No desire to chase
a lost buck-fifty, a size-slick suit or a size-
slick body, second home on any “cape” or “islands,”
sweeter dreams, better mileage, or Zen enlightenment.
Yet how he seeks, each day, a ligature of light
and legs and flight stilled for an instant
that can become as long as he is left to his devices
of quiet, study, and the estuary
freshening and salted: the great heron
glimpsed on the car ride in, or the return.
What is it with the doctor and his bird,
whose neck is a highway ess seen from such distance
traveling, you have the means for arrival
that the velocity it holds looks soft and slow?
Life moves faster than a dream, as fast as snow.
His body isn’t blue, but a teardrop swath of ash
poised, unsleeping in the reeds. He is fishing
perpetually, it seems, even at rest.
Some work is the work of a life, it is the living.
Why this bird, whose voice the Guide transcribes as frahhhnnk
when it builds from the white-scraggled chest and “dagger-like”
bill? Wings longer than a man is tall,
or shelved, Whitman’s “braced in the beams,” Old man
with your yellow eye, what don’t you see
he looks like an orator who carries his speech heart-first,
who is taking a breath to deliver it, but contents himself
to listen. The floor under water is always ceding.
More days than not, the doctor finds the
break in shrubs, where he slows to view the toppled cottonwood
straddling the mudbed’s candlefish and herring,
shows nothing, the surprise of feathers huddled against rain
not waiting there. But the road home is the same
as this that now leads to patients, to daily care
of a body and what swims below the surface,
what grounds it, or sends it – startling – to air.
And he knows the rain-grained light of the dinner hour
will turn the estuary the hues of his bird, then long,
like a shadow; holds the promise of presence
once again, of the heavens momentarily
among us, if we bother to watch out for them.
For Alvin Amason
“One time, me and my boy,” and so it starts. I picture myself and you, small son,
though the story is not mine, along the shore, stiff breeze churning wave tops
into frothy sips, swirling back to center, “we went hunting seagull eggs, for fun …”
It was my art teacher, and his son, eight, who went looking, making stops
along an unfamiliar mainland coast, not his Kodiac Island home,
and here the seagulls turned out meaner, gusting, swooping in drops
and dives, pelting them with crap, their shrieks sharp against the moan
of the sea, trying to protect their young, their hidden nests.
Two hunters, scrupulous, arms over heads, casing out young clutches: one
two, no more than three – eggs more likely to be eggs. They’d test
them to be sure, place them in a coffee can of brine.
Those that sink, take home; those that float, return to rest –
already more bird, less egg; less yolk, more spine,
(a Tlingit Elder said she took those; she liked the crunchy baby beaks,
somewhat like a salmon nose.) Whether by choice or by design,
you and I will only know this story as a story, from the one who speaks
of how a seagull’s nest, buried under tufts of grass and sand, is hard to find, a feather
often the only sign, somewhere near the Arctic on a northern beach
where the sun sets on the water, and a father and his son walk together.
for Geraldine Charlie
First time, senses heightened.
I have never touched
birch bark before
never felt spruce root,
wet or dry. Hands dumb,
I do not know
how it twists and winds
around, how as I split,
the root must turn
at each black dot, or break.
Cut basket pattern, score bark with awl.
Fold. Tack. Sew. Red willow,
please bend, ply, around the mouth,
sewn with more spruce root
from a straight, tall tree.
Not just any old tree,
she says, Elder whose easy hands
know the way.
Look for one next spring, she tells me,
(Me! Gathering spruce roots!)
In the end, it is a body
I have known intimately
and for a long time.
for Alvin Amason and Glenn Simpson
Before you make your ladles, gather round me,
I call you, students, gather here beside me,
look at the spoons I’ve gotten on my travels,
each one made by someone’s hands, imagined,
carved, of red cedar, alder, driftwood, birch.
One dipped in seal oil, saturated, used
and loved; another carved out deep, to scoop;
for scraping, this one, with the cross-grain strong.
One’s for soup, one’s for berries; here, this one
could be in a museum; the handle, is
a raven’s head, a stone held in its beak.
There is great art within a simple spoon.
Concave, convex. Avoid the pith. A lot
is learned with this, what seems a simple task.
Now this one here, I bought on Hooper Bay;
the man, a Yupik native, told me this yarn
through his son, interpreting his tongue,
that in his youth so many years ago –
his son was many years my senior, yet
still not old – he said that in his youth
he had carved masks. In fact, he’d carved some for
the local shaman. Once he went with him
as helper, on a journey to the edge
of the cold Bering sea, wide, frozen, still.
The shaman kept the village healthy, mind,
body, and soul. And so this carver saw him
put on a suit of seal or elk or moose
gut – yes, a suit of gut, to enter water,
and stay dry. He, the helper, dug the hole,
if digging is the word; he broke the hole
in ice, the snow already scraped: there
the shaman entered. And was gone, fifteen
minutes, or so it seemed. The mask he’d donned
to speak to spirits of the seals, to find
out why there were so few to feed the tribe.
He went to where they lived, in spirit form,
who knows how long his journey really took.
He was the only one who knew, and of
what he found he did not speak to him,
his helper; or perhaps, his helper, nor
his helper’s son, to me.
see here, the whorl? It is the weakest part,
the heartwood, also called the pith. The sap
flows through the center of the tree. It’s weak.
So, try to carve around it, please. Beware
of tricky burls and knots. Carve with the grain.
This is the adze. Here, crooked knives, and here
a piece of fresh cut alder, still alive.
This sucker’s still alive.
At this early hour, does anyone else see
the garbage man waltzing
with the unburdened can,
the red blush on his cheek
from the taillights
in the darkened street?
Sidewalked into memory,
the sod rampant
with wild thyme, your soft voice
echoing its confirmation
into the answering machine.
Home: the happy error that is mine
alone behind the blinds.
Before the sun rises
and burns to ash its atmosphere
a world away, another day
is almost here: in the backyard,
a gardener takes her spade
to the mineral dirt, sparing
the seeds of certain apples
because wanting to exist is enough
for fruit. The sleep of birds
won’t be disturbed
by the broker
making his morning run,
tallying his own indifference.
Are you awake, your body
lengthened by shadows,
when he passes under your window,
daydreaming of figures?
Ritual for leaving
and loving what is left behind:
his footfall on the pavement,
moon that throws its last light
against the back of the house,
hemlock by the driveway,
creaking like the door it will become,
boiler that whispers its steam in the walls:
next door, the plumber who tends you
also holds his infant son in his arms
like a length of pipe,
as tenderly as he knows how.
We still keep the Spanish superstitions,
wishing for ourselves
no Saturday without rain, no girl without love.
We sit on the porch waiting for suitors
or storms. The creek bed is bone-dry in spring,
unlike last winter, when you waded in
up to your thighs. Fish swam
between the polished knobs of your knees,
stones rubbed clean of their markings.
Afternoons now, boys come
to paw the dirt and pace outside.
How we make them wait,
and quiet them with kisses. At night,
the rain rings in our ears,
winds swing the door off its hinges,
making no apologies.
I am learning to live with words,
whose forbearance is their beauty:
as if water needs water,
as if clouds need rivers
to remind themselves how to flow.
At the dinner table, men burn with stories of their dead fathers.
Women smolder, marvel at their ability to die,
and be resurrected in the mouths of their sons.
One tells how he met his father’s ghost,
stumbling out of another world,
smoking a pipe. He was nine, nervous, all boy –
all eyes, thinking with the ends of his feet.
The dead man’s face hung out behind the woodshed,
hovered like a storm cloud, spitting rain,
the living luck of it in the boy’s lungs, dull and flat,
the way roads are and how they carry.
The wicked quick of first-world sense made him disappear,
or maybe it was dust kicked into the clear November air
by a boy running scared
in the road by himself, his father in his mouth.
This comes as no surprise to us. We took the long way home:
too much, the stretch of highway going forward, too long,
the daylight in the hours of this late season. In Scranton,
the car wound down around The Largest Junkyard in the World.
Light lost by nightfall, we saw only the shadowed mound,
hounded by the husks of cars, haunted by the giving up of drivers.
The echo was enough: our car coughed, held its breath
as children do passing cemeteries. The car stalled, coughed again;
the car husks, eaten away by rust, called from the hill – again,
the car coughed and was still. For a moment, we were dead
on the road in the dark – then jump-started – in motion again,
knowing what it is to move, what it is to move away.
sign answers to the always echoed
question – where are we?
Below the metallic lace of the surface
their mouths are tucked
inside their bodies like seeds.
They flower and contract over and over
as if to keep time tethered to beauty –
I mean to move with such grace,
to gather air in the hull of my lungs,
to billow open as a basin, be receptive.
Where the sun is strongest, they bloom –
egg yolk, lion’s mane, wasp, box, moon,
blue button – seem to emerge from nowhere,
write light into the dark churchyard of seas.
Like the silk eyes of pansies & our mouths,
their eyes are spots, dark gaping deliberations;
they feel the folds of warmth press inward.
They appear mere physical ghosts, nets
of nerves, but look: jellyfish sense the net coming,
pulsate toward illumination.
And my mind gestates just thinking of them
swarming in bays, the water swelling with the sheer
bright curtain of congregation, each jelly
delicate and domed as the brain, pulsing.
It is not that I forget
I know I should call you back
It is different when I boil the eggs too long
or leave the bathroom light on
It is not that I do not remember
It is separate from the times
I am in the grocery store
that it is early june
and you were born when the leaves were off the trees
It is not that I forget
I know that I should talk to you
discuss the day
and its lost opportunities
and other idle chatter
It is not that I do not remember
I remember kissing you
at the base of an evergreen
rain sliding off ruby bark and emerald arbor veins
your lips were soft and damp
the flavor in my mouth
and bursting forth
of roadside cherries – scarlet eggs nestled in green plastic baskets –
your shoulders smelled
Of campfires –
Dry split cedar
In the drenched palm of early winter
When you are older,
Rocking your own cradle to the cadence of a still fall night
And the moon highlights the alders off the deck –
When the chickens are tucked into the coop and the
Sweet smell of fresh hay is crisp in the night
When the multitude of stars makes you reckless and small
And there are no crickets to accompany you
That is the moment it does not matter
If you hear the whistle of the train or not.
Your breath in white before you and the wet grass
Promise change even without the solid steam engine
You are in your element.
Rocking, just rocking
With the cloudless sky your only confidant –
The quiet geraniums your only witness
This is your time.
Acknowledge the sky
Take comfort in the movement of the porch rocker
you are your own mother now
allow yourself the space to laugh brashly
at your own misgivings.
Challenge autumn in its red dress.
Martha makes ‘good things’,
Knows how to fold fitted sheets so they come out square
Makes beautiful pastel sugar cookies on a daily basis
Yet maintains a slender figure
and refurbishes everything.
I want to take relationships that have worn thin or broken up
and make them new again
With just elbow grease – and a fresh coat of paint
I want to put ‘junk shop finds’ on pretty emotional displays –
Give myself a new life
with nothing more than brass fittings
I want new hardware and
to make me new again.
Mostly I want my life Glossy – like her magazine
all soft colors and opaque lighting
all evened up and unwrinkled.
A space of years smelling of new paint.
Maybe it takes no work at all – no craftsmanship to know
That all Martha really does is
that a dresser with sticky drawers –
even one in light green
even with brand new crystal knobs
even with apples artistically displayed
in an upside down glass
on the lip of its painstakingly renovated top – So clever –
Is still just a dresser with sticky drawers
They push off, the fleet of seals,
shoving back waves and lunging under,
their bald heads flinging white tongues
towards the shales where, like dark islands,
they plug the cove, the glassy volcanoes
of their backs running over with the sun’s spit,
its crude heat, each tail and head arced
from the torso, the gulls hovering like specters,
scanning for whelks, snatching one up until
the tide breathes back towards fullness,
the water climbing the seals’ ribs, the spines.
Now they become pure tone, pouring
their slug-shapes into a larger churning, licking
the sun of late morning into the veins,
taking into their gestures the fickleness
and the sway towards ruin in which they move -
their clownish faces, their look of fools.
There, you see it; the warmth of instinct, of flesh
and submersion; their panting another form of bliss.
In the grey hours of December,
I buy mangoes,
try to suck the shine from their flesh.
All winter I taste old death – dry
meat, raisins, hard
seeds. I crave the flavors
of the womb – wet fruit, young
calf, milk heavy
with cream, the warm flesh
of a fresh kill. From the bright swirl
of creation, we all
arrive, sticky as cut fruit. Little
wonder we slaughter the lamb each
spring, our throats dry
with the taste of the grave, hungry
to savor life at its beginning.
It is a question of slowness,
of maintaining one’s movement
long after the impulse has
Perhaps it was a bird
that stirred this lust in us,
and in that instant we rushed
headlong toward it, until finally,
we stretched our branches,
reaching the exact spot
where the bird had hovered, once,
Shall we be satisfied with this?
It is a question of nearness
In our desires, neither time
Winter in Nebraska
The dark comes early,
and stays long,
stretches its gray fingers
through the morning
and into the afternoon.
Ice nests along our roofline,
forcing itself into the corners of the ceiling.
have carved a bluff
into the snow along our driveway.
My skin is chapped,
raw to the touch.
We have been cold all year.
Spring in Nebraska
Iris reach long
green arms through the soil,
handkerchiefs in the breeze.
The sun’s rays, still soft
as dogwood petals,
tease my cheeks,
toward the garden,
where you are
turning the soil,
softening the earth,
or simple offerings.
Summer in Nebraska
The spring flowers have died.
Now, there’s only heat
and dry grass,
ground that hardens
and crusts over
hours after the late evening
storm that darkened our windows,
shook the elms
and the dreams of our children.
The air is heavy here,
I am smaller now,
denser, explosive as
a dying star,
a summer storm.
Touch me and watch the heavens erupt.
Autumn in Nebraska
The neighbor’s tree, a rusty red,
sprinkles leaves like garnets
across our lawn.
They crackle under the feet
of our children.
Against the chill,
I pull on the sweater you offer.
It brushes over my arms,
encircles my waist,
kisses my wrists
as the air begins to stir.
The afternoon is crisp
Dry leaves flutter
in the breeze
Universe, vast universe,
my heart is vaster. ~ Carlos Drummond de Andrade
Brier, do not ask why we buy wine in jugs. Don’t ask
where the dogs go when we reach the bottom
of each bottle, don’t ask how they have more than once eaten
tacos, chocolate, cigarette butts, and I won’t ask why
you left the work of your hands, quit signing,
why you sell me drop necklaces and soft stone rings. I won’t tell
you how I hate that you stopped listening, loathe to think
that what goes on our ears is more important than the sounds
you shape for people’s eyes. Brier, we have spilled our love
on the tablecloth, and I, for one, will not clean it
this time. Still, you may call when our mother will not feed
your son, or feeds him too much, or when you again cannot live
with a man you see only in the careless grace
of computer light. When no one who believes in a center
can find it. Brier, I will tell you what it means to sleep
with my phone in hand, to sit at my plate and talk to the mums
and roses he sent, to act as though distance is imaginary,
like the white blank at the edges of a map. To know what is close
is only different because you can touch it. I want you to know
how my roommate broke a bottle in her own hand, how I couldn’t find
the shards under the serrated ridges of skin, how I wrapped her fingers
in a black towel and held it in my lap. I want you to know
about the wine and blood drying on our porch. But Brier,
what I cannot say – what I do not know – is how we keep loving
a world that spills from our hands like so many beads of glass.
to the space heater, one dog, who barks her love to the landlord,
who will not sleep
to the car’s back seat, a boy who leans his head out
just to hear the sound of distance
to the barstool, bleeding its foam, one cousin, equal parts
clamor and man
to the guest bedroom, one sister (your choice), and to the Army, one father,
to the sheer white curtains, all the daughters
I don’t have
to a master key, my husband, his bag of stones and loss – plus a cellist
with hands of water
to my headstone, a picnic, a man and woman who will not share
to the earth, a thousand tumors, everything that loves itself
enough to grow
and to the music outside my window, a word like passerby,
my eardrums, my complaints,
my mockingbird heart.
In case of fire:
Open the ’98 Cabernet.
Eat the dark
chocolate cherries and put
on your wedding
dress for the second time.
that photos only tether
forget to think
that what fits must be
lovely. Ask yourself
which child will wail
and drop and which will creep
away on its own. Know
that the tabby sees its spot
beneath the stairs
as a different kind of escape,
and you cannot come
along. You must leave
through the big door.
Understand that all doors
are big doors, and that to exit
and to leave are not the same:
every exit ends
a scene, but to leave
you must mean it.
Take the terrier and hand
her to a fireman.
Give him a novel, the one
with the longest title –
he can read by the light
of the house. Save
everyone but yourself. Save
only what you have not been.
Otherworldly, celibate –
oh, manicured object – you’re some
righteous sect’s uncharred lamp wick
She holds the wick of her neck in place
as she steps slowly down the canal.
I cannot help but watch: how she stops
to nail an invisible fish and pincers
my heart. In this morning’s grey gloom
she is a pale rag dropped
by the water’s edge then moves off
into bird again. Whenever I see an egret
I want to ask how it keeps so white
after days spent sifting through mud
and stormwater. She is like a snip of paper,
a perfect template, all colour chanted out.
Column of precision, she knows just how
to disturb her world: each gesture an example
of economy, each day a bead of attention.
In the mandibles of pause, I’ll imagine
a place where egrets are common as water:
in public parks and suburban gardens –
city streets even. Some nights I dream
all the earth’s candles; blazing
their thousands on temple floors,
swung in lanterns, set loose on paper boats
in the darkness. They could be lit souls
of lost egrets.
All night they burn.
By morning there is nothing to confess.
Not sky or water, those vast places.
I am thinking of a gassy flame,
its small hood wanting
for oxygen. Or blood
that’s clocked the body once.
Tattoo’s slow memory
stitch. O colour of bruise.
Or the soul’s shadow,
if such a thing as a soul exists.
Most of the time she keeps to herself,
ruminating in plums. Or a chow’s tongue.
Sometimes a leg of raw lamb
has a bluish skin, glossing the muscle.
Never one for deliberate attention,
she is calm as a nun.
Intake of breath, she draws in
sip by sip, colouring
the tips of fingers and noses
when we meet our end.
In a cave is being
inside the earth’s own body.
At the top, a hole drops
its thick spine of light
Here, deep beneath the elder tree
air hangs a chamber
with giant roots like a woman’s hair
let down in secret.
A cave is cool as calcium.
This world ruled by drip and echo,
shaped by its own
slow clockwork of rain,
trickle and seep
of limestone. Examine the bead
from its stalactite end: see water’s industry
Rarely is a cave singular: think
honeycomb of bone
or the broke-open stump
endlessly riddled by termite love –
Some say a cave
takes you closer to death,
what’s left when the bright world ceases to exist.
And true, the only life in a cave
is where the outside breaks through:
Stand at the giant mouth,
see swiftlets against sky.
Take a torch and shine it up: a grey carpet
of sleeping bats stir.
But go deep into a cave
a stone garden starts to grow bit by bit
around you. Soft knobs and stalks
of limestone mushroom
and stalactites (those tapered fruits of gravity)
catch your heart as you
Tread even deeper
and you encounter frozen falls
of stopped glitter, all weird burgeonings
named like stone flowers: anthodite, boxwork, dogtooth spur
or un-earthly treasure: cave pearl, moon milk,
shawl and flowstone.
Now feel its cool call –
the rare air loves
your skin to marble, lit walls
reveal whole galaxies of stars.
So when you pass
a green pool, soft and depthless,
it invites the plunge
forgetting breath and all you had
for the slow drift back,
back to that lightless place where memory
People have been taking leave of your life
for a long time you tell yourself
in the morning, beginning a new poem.
So you are not surprised in the dream
that the man in the hotel, seen and seen again,
with whom you dance in slow circles
does not belong to you, that he will not stay.
Yet you wake on your back in the dark,
our body weighted with dusk, clutch
your stomach with one hand, touch the other
to the soft nest below, and keen with grief.
Out in the world, birds are behaving
as birds do, chittering for dawn.
Geese are crossing high over open fields,
necks craned, soft egg drop bodies aloft behind.
A crane stands, leg pivot-deep at the lakeshore,
isolate gaze fixed. Some mornings you
go out too and walk through air,
dim and cool, and the suspended moon
still visible holds all questions, concedes
the answer to none.
Once, walking in the hills among the oaks
you saw a soft grey rain fall up from a hillock
of long gold grass under a gnarled buckeye.
Like snowfall in its loose and moving pointillism,
only quicker and with little tufts of sound –
wing flash, shift of dry leaves.
The whole flock now hidden away
in the tree as it had been in the grass, visible,
perhaps, to each other, no two on the same branch.
Steam wisps from the mules as they muscle
the sleigh through snow-flocked oaks.
In heavy blankets and heavier
concerns, I am so far from childhood
that the moon is not
a face, an orb of cheese, the bad eye
of God, a bright nickel for Christ
wavering between guilt and redemption.
Nor am I the son I’d hoped to become,
but, Mother, here we are side by side
nonetheless, and all we haven’t said
not coming between us.
until their boat has passed beneath the bridge
to ask for her hand.
Even though the ferryman has seen this many times,
he is touched by the moment’s gravity, so he turns his eyes
to the sunlight inscribing the water:
Nor is it about this:
a woman climbs the railing of the bridge
to climb out of her life.
The railing burnished by a century’s anonymous hands.
Wish I could be funny again, like the old me,
wild child with food and music on the mind,
because I am worn out with bringing
nothing but needs to the hands of the Lord
beginning that day I packed the kids in the car
for a head start against The Hurricane.
Five hours north to the nearest hotel room,
tears the whole way, like we knew what was coming,
like we were going to be the ones prying apart
the automatic doors of the Winn Dixie
to float out unfrozen frozen food.
Oh Refugees, oh my stranded sisters
and brothers, we never looked away
from the television set our campfire.
We ate out until the money ran out,
then choked down charity – peanut butter,
peanut butter, peanut butter, bread.
I swam in the hotel pool, drawling
reminisces in the company of peers,
anything to keep my head above water
in the bible belt, where they don’t sell beer
on Sundays. Bellyaching, praying with strangers –
it became my life’s work. Didn’t want the job,
but there I was, scratching out words, taking notes,
while my children, their foot soles filthy black,
played rescue helicopter with their Trojan Army
on the rooftop of the unmade bed.
The state with the prettiest name,
and with parishes: Evangeline, Rapides, Avoyelles,
Tangipahoa, which in Choctaw means “corncob people.”
Fantastical sinking state, of a boot the heel-toe-heel
invisible, one football field a day drowned
to sop the Mississippi’s mighty slop
(as pretty names go, in second place).
State snake-in-the-mailbox, and cane fields
lined with rails and jails, and two-seater churches.
Throw me something mister state. Coonass central,
but don’t you say it. And don’t spell Cajun with a K.
More fictional than the jackalope our postcard:
alligator chomping on a wet-T hottie’s rump.
There hasn’t been a gator death in years,
but our license plates speak the truth –
Sportsman’s Paradise – for noodlers, nutria trappers,
boar wrestlers, ruff riders, on land and at sea.
Frequent in this land are freak show fishing holes
where monster catfish breach for kibbles.
(No scales, you know. And those barbs sting.)
What’s not sinking here leans. Power lines
sag like jump ropes. Porches slope.
Unless nailed down a rocking chair will drift
in the blue-roof state. Katrina rigged,
stagnant-minded state, with horns locked
in hoop skirt times where – look away, kudzu! –
where the rebel flag’s a favorite window dressing
and tattoo. Stomping ground of Civil War
rememberers, their gray coats muddying
the healing greens of Jean Lafitte.
State of roughneck uncles missing fingers,
their wedding bands on stubs instead.
Every other man a parrain, or a convict
on work release, like the mower who steered
his tractor clear of purple highway flowers.
Can he read? Does he know someone wrote back?
One word spray painted on the overpass – Thanx.
New Orleans, August 29, 2007
No jazz today. Word hurries down Treme,
Down sidewalks and porches – at Armstrong Park
The band set out, and they refuse to play.
No dirge. Rolling slow, the meter maid way,
Pal’s Pink Suit Steppers and the Carnival Sharks
Won’t jazz today. Word hurries down Treme –
A brass band coming, their groove astray,
Show shine, trumpet shine, but no ‘Closer Walk.’
They hold their instruments and do not play.
Mock funeral for one year ago today –
Pine box for Katrina cut loose to the dark,
Then Dixieland jazz in the streets of Treme.
This year we can’t make the blues go away.
We’ve been down so long that music feels like work.
Black sash for the marshal – we can’t play.
Word hurries down Treme. No jazz today.
We can’t lift our eyes from the water mark.
We’re calling, Lord, who hardly ever pray.
The band set out, and they refused to play.
They grow down in the bottom, where the deer
lie down in grass and leave their bodies’ echoes
on the ground. Each year, the trillium send
three leaves and then three petals into the air.
We headed down the bank, past thorns and stones
that hold the bridge upright. My brother swung
along the creek, and brushed past three-leaved stems,
red-veined – “You’ll catch poison ivy,” I called.
“It’s elder, Annie, it’s a tree,” he said,
and swooped past me – loped along in twilight,
shadows dismantled by his boots. I followed,
elder. Where the creek bends to the hollow,
we ducked into a deer-track, left the creek
night-talking. Silky grass swallowed our footsteps
and branches snatched at our eyes. The narrow path
came wider by the clearing. “This is where
the deer sleep, right?” he whispered. “In the day,
yes,” I said. But when deer bark in the night,
it looks like this: our eyes, kept closed against branches,
opened slowly to shimmering white,
petal sleeves that lit themselves and flared
over dark leaves. Like stars (whose light is both
wailed call and calm response) they leapt
into the moonlight as we breathed
the barest scent of pepper from their petals
and walked between green leaf, white sepal,
careful that our feet did not catch fire.
- “Hush, Little Baby,” trad.
Ella came up behind my desk chair, stretched
her front paws up to pad my back, and made
her curious purr-meow, which I wish
I understood. But this time she’d brought
her toy mouse, trailing its lavender thread –
carried it in her mouth and dropped it
behind me. The word she wanted was “Play.”
Brilliant, I thought; then, Is this what she always
wants, when she reaches up to me
in what I hope is affection? But she does not say,
won’t offer clues besides the mouse
and the sound of hello, please, a question. What’s
the question? The mouse – its answer? –
is often lost, batted under the fridge, the couch.
Part of its purpose is to be lost
then found. To have to use always the object
as word and real thing – she must long only
for the symbol to jump out
fluttering: not always obedient, but available.
Oh, Ella, without that word, what can I do for you
but lift up the couch to see if it’s hiding there;
and if it’s gone, go out and buy you
new words, a ring of them, diamonds shining?
She’s graduating, so I make the trip –
no rental car; my daughter will chauffeur
me for the week. The streets are rainy-slick,
the town not quite rebuilt from storm surge,
wind, and federal neglect. Empty storefronts,
plywood windows, half her graduating class
moved on, dropped out. Lost. I have to trust
that she won’t kill us, won’t try to pass
a semi on a hill, won’t jump the tracks
like her dad used to, won’t spin on wet cement
or tumble us into a ditch. I strap
myself into the seat, say prayers I meant
to say before my plane took off, before
it landed. Now it’s time for terror.
I understand the look of terror Mom
had when I fishtailed my Bonneville
on the frontage road, beside a canyon
of a ditch, she beside me, green-gilled
and furious. My daughter doesn’t spin
her tires, but we lean into every turn.
Every stoplight a drag race – she wins
a lucky few, loses most. I yearn
for control, a car seat I could strap her
into, the keys, some Dramamine. I’m kidding
some – my queasiness from the words
my mother said one day while laughing:
One day, you’ll have one just like you, and then,
like mothers everywhere, I’ll be revenged.
Somehow I always knew my mom’s revenge
would come to pass. My daughter glances right,
changes lanes mid-intersection. You win
Mom, I say to myself. Later that night
I’ll sit with my ex-wife, her lover,
a step-son I haven’t seen in ten years,
his wife, their kids, neighbors, a brother-
in-law; a life I left behind in search
of somewhere I belonged, Our daughter –
somehow it seems odd to share her now,
although we always have – poses with her
relatives. She’s in her cap and gown.
I’ve never figured out just when to know
it’s time to stand aside and watch her go.
I used to hate its working-class bungalows, grid planning,
power-lines sawing hillsides. It ashamed me
the way my parents did for not making more money.
Now looks like a Diebenkorn.
Now I want even the bad wood siding
in our living room, and my mother’s aging
books on modern Indian thought. I want her singing,
tanpura in the sunlight. I want fox-weed burrs
in rail trestles, eucalyptus-smell, the endangered frogs in the gully.
I want lemongrass and a lemon tree.
On San Pablo, polyester collectibles, a folk-song store, the
“All-Button Emporium: Open 10-4 only Saturday’s.”
How did love lodge in these? It could be a trick
the heart plays, but it’s also in how the light
is forgiving, and glazes
even the traffic islands. December here only
yellows our gingkoes, reddens maples.
A stream smells rich under the house.
For Christmas, Joanna and I sometimes steal
persimmons from neighbors’ yards.
We eat stewed plums, fennel, rosemary.
Ten years on I discover
that though my body’s been elsewhere
I have always fallen in love here,
among blackberry brambles and pickups.
Tonight it happened again:
We drove a bad car to the beach.
The scrub pine was a Japanese print. In the real sky, the moon
slid through clouds that were cinder-colored.
Wild and preserved together,
milkweed-white rears upturned,
nimbler female elk
bow into rustling foxtails.
Males muscle over the slopes,
As they feed, their mantles quiver.
Bush-sized antlers clamber open
steep as the slopes of the gorges.
Each set of antlers twitch,
sensory, delicate –
yet when one elk rears,
squaring to look at us
its antlers and gaze hold suddenly motionless.
Further out, the skeleton.
What seems to be tar-paper
is hide. In an uneven, heart-shaped cavern,
a coccyx curls.
call to mind redwood stumps.
Yellowing ribs fan open,
emptied wholly of organs.
Near scrub brush, the skull:
the protrusion of mandible,
the few small teeth.
Almost bare, except
for the strip of flesh that clings
to a divot between its eyes. A few tufts
spring from the drying scalp.
The eye’s rim sags,
flat as a bicycle tire.
The form is sinking away,
but its mask is also here,
a covering, the disguise
that must also reveal a creature.
The skin loosens, becoming other,
but hovering here I felt
the force detaching from it
also regarding me,
with a seriousness, with a grace.
The bones suggested the force
and perhaps the force inflects
the broken half-song
I have repeated the whole long walk out:
O carcass of the elk
beast transformed into parts,
you’re being remade, remade.
The earth is harvesting you.
The earth absorbs your body
into its change:
Your life and all your stories
have always belonged to it.
Our grandma taught her nine-patch and strip-piecing,
to hem and measure, how a fabric falls.
My sister took it in, and came out a maker:
She garners fabrics, hoards a jumble-pile.
She’s skilled enough to half-ignore geometry,
to spread out winter evenings
and ignore us: Obbligato with the treadle’s whir, she’ll lean
into a tag-sale apron, Japanese cottons,
cambrics dyed one summer in the yard.
She likes unevenness, asymmetry,
found fabric. She plans a bit, then works by instinct
basting light to dark, canary yellow
to edge an emerald stripe. We watch
her battened coverlets grow wider,
expanding outward on a cloud of instinct,
her expression almost revenant
as she rips, re-hems, and irons, mouth
full of pins, cloth billowing around her.
Tonight she sliced our mother’s raw silk saris.
Dark silken ribbons bloomed and I admired
her fierce concentration to resettle
scraps at staggered angles,
the way she destroys each thing she’s salvaged
to harvest it as an exploding star.
We turn the car around to stare again
at the tattered bit of a leg,
the tail tuft of the baby skunk
you watched waddle along the culvert
yesterday, its little body
rocking side to side in clumsy, pudgy joy,
seeing the strands of black transform
from a possible feather, painlessly lost
to a visceral and indelible clue.
The ditch is thick with prairie roses,
white cockle, wild daisies,
and the bloodless pieces look only like
a child’s toy tossed down after playful battle,
the hero of its own tiny realm
where tires are a sudden speeding border,
a division through what is ours.
This is not our victory, not its loss.
This is one more June morning
when fresh sheets wave on the neighbor’s line,
calves that will fatten and be shipped off
lie for now in the grass of the farmer’s front lawn,
and I hold your hand across the armrest,
breathing the same momentary air.
When was it
the catch in your heart
beneath the thick canvas coat
or the stained red sweater
you always wore
pulled over a cotton shirt
was it before
calving, after you’d picked
the fresh carts of rock,
after you split the stack
of kindling by hand
with the hatchet
shooing me inside
to the seat
where I watched you,
scorn-bitten, through the window
over the margin of my textbook,
noting the fat puffs of your breath
that wandered loosely
up to the blue night.
Your flopped stocking cap,
your rubbery boots,
your bare hands knobbed
like vegetable roots.
Your workhorse back
tied blind to the plow.
trapped by doctor’s orders,
you dig shamefacedly in the closet
offering the hats and gloves
that I wave off
as I rush outdoors
and now it is your eyes
that watch me
from the window,
my shovel easy as a pendulum
as I toss the white weight
into the darkness,
the rhythm of my heart
smooth and warm.
I will be you for a while.
You are still speaking.
I’ve put down the phone
and its lucent numbers that spell
the magic charm that ties me to you,
twitches your fingers, opens the line
so that your laugh’s low thrum
echoes across striated hours,
across states and streets
I’ve never seen.
Inside, your words go on
and on, like the small lives
dancing inside snow globes
where miniature villagers are forever
tucking children into bed as the flakes
gently fall. You do not die
with a button’s click. And,
all the same, you leave.
No proof preserves you
in the jar of a heart,
no typeset evidence creased
in the seam of a pocket
supports your claim
or gives you breath.
Only faith. And I choose
that you are still speaking.
You speak quietly to me,
a voice of wind through grain
across acres of time.
The brown sugar of your eyes
melts under a furrowed brow.
A strand of wheat
stands sentry to a silent tongue.
Your chest, lean and bare, glistens,
the sweet smell of Timothy Hay
on your skin.
A clover breeze is
caught in my barley hair.
That broad sweeping Stetson dips,
hiding dark, smiling eyes.
An audience of fence posts
holds its breath.
We wade in an
ocean of grain.
Old knuckles respond like well-oiled hinges,
playing lilting Northern jigs.
Ale flows in liters from unwatched taps.
Farming women, eyes full of mischief,
lift earth-toned skirts and dance wildly to
music that pulses like blood through Celtic veins.
The silver notes of the flute
are heard over beating drums and
the clacking of antique spoons.
Competitive clogs stomp eight beat counts a piece.
Dancers spin through another round on the tired inn floor;
their lighthearted cheers are carried
through the window behind the bar
where a quiet dawn breaks over the MacNamara Mountains,
brilliant tangerine in a violet sky.
Whispering voices float down from the
fairy palace courtyards, falling silently
into sleeping blossoms.
Miniature stain-skinned beings
trip the light fantastic over Salmon Berry leaves,
bending and swaying in the opal moonlight.
Laughter spills out of violet Foxglove blooms,
coating the soft earth with dew.
Silvery moondust is sprinkled on
children’s heavy eyelids
as the fairies tiptoe into nightfall.
I know why they call me bird woman
Look at my baby, how neatly she folds
up in my arms and disappears
Look at my arms, their tendons and angles,
how they hook the air, hang on
I move like waking: now a clumsy tilt too close
to architecture, now a faded remnant
of Daedalus’ blueprint, imperfect
My baby’s reach from fingertip to fingertip
promises outdistancing, grace, what I can’t teach her
We sleep entwined
Look how I fold around her
Her limbs under mine, are mine
Copperheads, fanatics, power tools
in disrepair, the one who tortures
bugs (though you might try it
once, a small stab at easy cruelty,
and for that I’ll wish on you
a minor emotional trauma) all easy
to avoid. Check for patterns, twitches,
rust, glints. Worth your dread
are the tricky evils, the devil’s small
scratches along a spine, provoking
an itch impossible to pinpoint,
more difficult to name. Even symptoms
are misleading, often mistaken
for vision or defense. I can only warn
you that faith won’t save you,
nor a finely-wired intellect, nor
the broad, enlightened upbringing
we have planned. This family has a mediocre
relationship with chance, but good
enough. You’ll be that blessed.
I find you asleep on the futon again, curled
like a comma or a pause
in the afternoon’s breath.
Outside, a pewter sky riddled with holes
broods between the moss-colored curtains
above your head. I have seen you
like this before, limbs swathed in a nebula of sheets,
blankets teased from their unyielding ledges.
What dream has stirred the river running
beneath your throat, unearthed the filament
of delicate glass beading your temple?
I brush a pearl of down
from the angled harp of your jutting shoulder.
Feathers, five or six, unfurl their tiny sails,
wafting toward the carpet’s cool, still surface.
I remember another day, the sky full of doors, your
soul leaning in so close I could hear the sigh of hinges
as we opened each one. Together our skin hummed,
sunlight ladling the walls in halos of brass.
Trumpets swelled our throats in a single symphony.
Soon I will join you here, folded
like the wing of a page. But first I drift closer
to the open window, my eye pressed
against the chilled glass,
heavenward, and I marvel
at the clouds, their shorn edges vanishing, dimming, huddled
like a palm around the gilded pulse of something sacred.
Tonight the parking lot is packed, cars idling like the soft
low of cattle bowing their heads. Because we slip
between double doors and dodge the greeter cinched
in a blue vest, her thin lips tight as a tugged seam,
her left hand wrangling bodies bordering the return
desk, while the other pats the four-car
collision of her hair, she never notices us among expectant
housewives and military buzz-cuts, why we walk so close,
two men roaming aisle five. Nearby, a woman poured
into yellow spandex, bellowing
for her son’s attention, his Kool-Aid red fingers lassoed
in the ringlets of his sister’s hair, saddles us with a hard
second stare before rejoining the shuffling
herd of families, mouths moving, sandals snapping
heels like fly swatters. Just as I sidestep a cyclone
of teenagers weaving around a flock of blue-haired ladies,
you bend to a shampoo bottle. My eyes chase
the rope of muscle curving up your calf, the unwinding
knot of sinew I stroke almost every evening as it vanishes
into your bent knee. I nearly lean forward now, arm extended,
fingers spread like a fan, forgetting where
we live, when a couple rounds the corner as I draw
back and watch you rise to say, Honey,
do we have enough of this at home? The couple stops
mid-stride, his eyes narrowed, her mouth matching the harsh
ovals of her shades, while we wait ten eternities
for the endless stampede of faggot, queer, sissy to plow
our ears, the four of us like statuary, measuring
what has been said and what hasn’t. In sneakers
and loose shorts, tattered at the cuffs, wrinkled t-shirts
with the worn initials of sports teams branded
across our chests, we are not what they expect.
It would be easy to unleash the spectacle
in me, the heated duel among our lips they trust
is about to erupt. I take your hand instead,
hinging it to mine, two men bound
under the applause of a thousand fluorescent bulbs,
moving past and through them as they silently part,
gaping at their own empty palms lowered
into the graves of their pockets.
I will not banish the window today.
I will leave it wide
open and I will not think about
anything leaving. Today
is not a day to think of such things,
with its sun shining over everything
like it has something to show me. With
the birches and ash able to
stand so tall under the weight
they are holding up. It is comforting
to know that some things can.
It is comforting to see
the cornfields undressed and so naked.
I cannot read shame in their empty furrows.
in someplace could perhaps
learn from their candidness.
It is strange to see the cars out on the highway
and stranger yet to see them
coming back from these places.
This is just a window that I am looking out
I think it must be everything.
We would talk more but I am afraid you
might lose your chest. And your feet –
mommy, you may lose your feet. You’d be
left with bones and empty shoes,
so instead we lie in bed and watch out the window.
The trees appear to you as blue hands.
Your blue hands? No, your eyes like a few moments only no!
Shhh, Mother, the trees seem to me sewing
machines laying down patches of a quilt we’ve almost finished.
The wind blowing out
from my childhood like a power cord.
Remember the vole in the powdered milk? you ask. Must have
turned to concrete in its belly. The horses, the ferrets? The old
couple up the hill that gave you cookies?
Yes, Mother, yes, I know they are dead now like their parents.
Samantha, you say, death is dusty from neglect. The war
was shorter than expected and the
funeral parlors are sure to have sales.
In a hospital bed my mother spoke in
moans that made sentences. She sounded like yellow jackets
and though there was a lot of running around
hunting for dictionaries, we found that
not one of us could translate bee.
This kept us preoccupied and so
we were unaware that someone’d flipped to
the next page of the story. Knock, knock.
In came the carpenters with their hammers and
stethoscopes to build a dead body,
and Mom was left in her bed sheets, naked.
She was a little collection of shed hair, you know,
of nail clippings and earwax. There was
really nothing then we could do
but give away all of her, every blue finger.
The house will be ready on your return.
You know, the one we picked
in the build-your-own-log-cabin brochure.
Its christened and secret location
fallow as cotton fields on pebbled ridges
above Williamson’s Mill,
where no one yet lives, except us,
in dreams, and crickets
in their trill timelessness.
All the dirty-fingernail years working,
jobs in gas stations and fried-chicken joints,
sure we’d find time and money
to build our hideaway,
far from the nuisance of streetlights.
Instead it’s come to this separation
neither of us can bear, but both of us
have conceded, half-assed.
There are bobcat tracks, owl scat,
all around the homesite where
someday we’ll make a life, call in
for Chinese on occasion, but mostly,
just wait for luck to bring us
to the meadows, and the time
we’ll cherish cobalt blue vases
full of wildflowers on our kitchen table.
You were the guardian of genealogies
Who purged old albums and battled mildew,
Pillaged clippings from family bibles,
And swooped down like a vulture
As each new death to take all
You could carry, sure no one else would care.
That was the strange world
Of so many funerals ago,
Bathed in its mucous membrane of sepia,
Forever frozen. It was your salvation,
Guarding the transgressions and inconsistencies,
Sweet minutiae of the past.
All the stars that gave light and direction
Made you shine in the end.
What vanishings they’ve recorded
in scrapbooks gone to worms,
all over the floors of the secret libraries.
Every grandmother’s letter
a glistening crown
on the checkerboard surface of memory.
Pictures of the faithful in Mystic, Georgia,
ancestors in starched Sunday clothes
at the Royal Singing Convention,
lifting acapella praises, Baptist rain dances
to their hardscabble God,
for high cotton and sweet corn.
Postcards of confederate memorials,
old rebs in courthouse yards
like gray ghosts at the last salute.
They’ll forever inhabit these
parched and pebbled fields of memory,
their music riding the wind.
In the salt of their dust
I find the words
to all the sweet psalms yet sung.
I loved to scoop its pockets, finger
keys, coins, tokens for foreign trains, hardened
rectangles of gum. Soured from spills,
toughened by crowds, car trunks, rain. Shame
I don’t know where the coat’s
gone now. Maybe it still rests on a bench,
zipper sticking in the same, predictable
places, tears widening in its lining.
I might have learned opera if I’d spent more time
with a tweed vest, but it’s my own students’
fleece now, their flutter of white papers in open
totes. I see myself wanting to try me on, lay
this aging coat down in university grass
as if it were the first time again with prosody,
or Simone de Beauvoir. It’s the intercourse
of desire and learning I’m talking about,
wanting to touch an old coat’s interior satin,
its tired opalescence ignited by purpose, loose
morals, loneliness, narcissism, love,
greed. On strong, wooden hangers, attracting
lint from their surface, I attended
to so many old coats I didn’t know I, too,
could become one. A struggle at the end
of hemmed sleeves to keep hands to myself.
The five year old boy hits helium
-filled metal balloons weighted by plastic clips-
sends each one skirting the cold grocery tile
past windows of dead fish, past my beaming f
five month old son. The boy
never tires of bullying the balloon and my son
never tires of the show, hearty gut laughter
exploding from his tiny boy mouth.
Punch the balloon,
jump, laugh; punch
the balloon, jump, laugh
and they go on until it’s time
for mothers to pay for their eggs, milk,
and, in my case, a metallic balloon I hit
for a fizzled giggle on the stroller ride
home, for my son who falls asleep
after noon’s excitement.
Espresso Royale, Athens GA 2008
I rhymed for a discount
on a latte but the barista forgot
the posting, stared, blind spot
for ice and price, the amount
didn’t matter, metrics were off,
overly sentimental, cliché.
The anticipation of it. Café
customers dizzy at the trough
of espresso, low expectations
for wireless, punch in their punch
cards, promise of a touch
of sweetness and free publications.
But nothing is free, only ten percent
off today, Georgia in June,
and maybe because I’m a Jew
I think of assassination attempts
reading bumper sticker headlines,
saying yes! to scones and change.
Don’t it make your red states
blue? We can lose as verse lines
slack in shape, too many hot
poolside days. I stole from Shakespeare,
Ginsberg. I ordered in dimeter,
said I’d pay for humor with a shot
of vanilla. Tough to barter
in America, enough to read
menus with whistling steam
noising the background. To order
poetry is harder than you’d think.
A young father leans to hold his tiny son’s hand on the jagged gray
of Piazza Duomo. With his free hand, he tosses breadcrumbs to the lava rocks
hoping to entice a pigeon close. The boy (his eyes wide & wildly interested)
grins so hard my cheeks throb watching him. He can’t be more than three.
The man speaks very quickly (or so it seems to me) & any hopes I have
for eavesdropping fall away. Ci sono, he says, waving his hand forward,
& after a flourish of rises and falls, a presto! I can’t pickup enough to make any sense.
The boy must hear his father but his glance never reaches up to meet him. Instead
it shoots between three pigeons who’ve noticed the crumbled bread – two brown-backed,
just darker & rustier-red than his father’s khakis, & one speckled gray bird just beyond them.
They edge toward the crumbs, but hesitate (they’ve been chased around these stones
by creatures this boy’s size before). The man points to the brown-backs, but all I catch
is questo – “this one.” The speckled bird has had enough waiting. He ambles forward
(beak-lead, piston-like stutter) & plucks a crumb from the boy’s shoe, then scuttles away.
The boy pulls his hand free & throws both arms into the air. His eyes threatening to leap
from their sockets, he opens his mouth, pauses, then lets out the whoop of a toddler.
“Aaaaah!” It drowns out his father, & for a moment even the hum of motorini up the street –
not a word in any language at all. It’s the first thing I’ve understood clearly all day.
Dark clouds of black & blue-violet sail slowly above damp-water oak branches, heavy with
satisfied leaves. They clear & cover spaces overhead
the curtains blowing by an open window – sliding & hiding stars that shine almost too
brightly for a rainy August night,
thick with eye-level mist & steady buzzing of crickets. There is electricity in this quiet
& I think I understand why my forbears looked upward for their God; why heaven was soft music
& high white clouds & light; & how comforting it must have been, believing that the skies
acknowledged their tiny kneeling bodies.
I close my eyes on this wet-brick sidewalk, breathing rhythms to my footfalls as if pacing to run.
My heaven is stillness of midnight, dark like shadows on this purple ink sky; & God is the air
the instant before the first drop of rain falls smoothly to waiting ground – awkward & graceful –
the first touch preceding a cloudburst, the last look preceding a kiss.
There is no time but this night & the sidewalk under my feet.
There is no heaven but this sky & the darkness & motion & silent music below.
There is no light but these shadows & the poetry of droplets falling from breeze-blown leaves.
What can I do if I can’t salvage these moments?
Where can I look if not into this photograph night?
What am I now if the breeze on my skin falls away?
If I awake to yellow sunrise & all these things are swept clean –
burned through like summer storm clouds & dew –
like the clarity of half-sleep, disappearing in hollow daylight?
I open my eyes on the slow-hanging sky & breathe deeply, to save it somehow, somewhere
in the un-named places
where poems begin but never end, & the only words I have left are “I know” – where it is
not the sky I am reaching for at all,
but a rise of sleeping breath to observe this small standing self; a hint of warm air on my face
& neck, suggesting itself
as the scent of moist earth suggests rain; as dark damp grass & dew suggest nightfall &
moonlight & release;
& the thick air whispers that there is nothing (nothing) more important than now.
The breeze is cool & it shivers me out of myself, back to the empty sidewalk – the moment
somehow dangling, suspending in the misty summer air.
Seconds pass into seconds like an endless ceremony of cool breath & grassy hills, old growth
fields & water.
This night is a cadence, not a god –
A choir of drumbeats & thirsting mouths.
This night is the thumping, pounding rhythm of sky falling on grass & Amish brick.
A reminder, a gesture, a kiss from some sleeping window,
Seeking me out among all midnights, all sidewalks, all faces,
coming to tell me, “yes, you are here, & I know.”
for my grandfather
He helds his hands out. Punishment fell in strokes
across each palm. No sound in the room but breath
(his own?) and leather smacking on skin.
Body was less and less body to him;
he stood outside it; couldn’t tell whose blood
the priest’s strap drew. He was already gone,
Tullamore Children’s Home disappearing
as he slipped out the window and jumped the hedge.
The dogs beginning to bark. The stream in view.
He was already on the other side
when the leather struck down the last time.
The boy who left the room with his hands ripped up
was not the boy who tore into turf for pay;
the weeping boy was not the boy
who labored. But one kept the other alive.
The stone dolls, excavated from a tomb,
are eyeless, armless, heavy for a child
to hold. Not like the dolls that lined the room
my sister and I shared, their bodies light
and bendable, their eyelids mobile, hair
so real it tangled with our own at night.
But what we learned from them was only life –
we never pressed our cheeks to death like girls
who played with stone dolls did. The doctor’s knife
could not have caught my sister more off-guard
or left me less alone; I had my dolls.
Though, soon, they lay on tables in the yard
with price tags. Even then they looked alive,
survivors with no sickness to survive.
Pretty eyes, he said to you,
let’s get tickets
let’s get two
let’s get on the tilt-a-whirl
then watch the house of mirrors swirl
Pretty lips, he said to me,
let’s get tickets
let’s get three
let’s get on the zipper wheel
then watch the house of mirrors reel
Pretty here and pretty there!
Aren’t we such
a pretty pair?
Pick a pretty, make a pass
(just be careful of the glass)
Pretty that and pretty this!
Come in closer
for a kiss
(now we’re double, now we’re half)
and watch the house of mirrors laugh
Shocked to find, where the soap dish
normally stands, a beetle
on its back, dead. I shouted
– ashamed, unqualified in my ferocity,
but, God, unstinted.
A ground beetle, rain beetle.
What was it about this bug, red
as black cherries, one wing visible
and pasted to a slurry of soap smearing
the porcelain, one leg
hard as wire pointing to the heavens,
that scared – yes, scared – me this way?
Was it the sleep in my eyes (we called them
sleepy-bugs growing up)? The simple
disgust of finding a beetle in my soap?
The wondering how it got there? Was it
the knowledge that a thunder storm
follows a rain beetle’s death, or just the fact
that this one had come inside, had cast-off
the undergrowth, the safety in stones,
and looked instead for a place warm,
humid and alien?
I knew at conception – I
blinked, felt twinned – as
you know at once
by your parched tongue
that the persimmon
you’ve bitten into isn’t ripe.
Some days our boy’s
clamped to my breast.
December in Yarmouth:
we crouch on the rocks
of the breakwater
listening to the seashells
click at the water’s edge
jostled by the ocean.
The beach teems with periwinkles
How to go?
Seashells splinter underfoot.
Home: just a block away,
a one-hundred-year-old building spews smoke.
Within minutes the roof is engulfed
with flames, bricks hurtling
from the cracked veneer.
Firefighters from twelve towns respond.
Four businesses and three apartments burn.
Within days the fire is deemed
suspicious, the gutted husk razed.
One week till Christmas,
all the houses are limned by lights.
Firetrucks! Out toddler cries.
He loves the snow, even
when he falls face first.
In the midst of a nor’easter
we trundle, he a red bob
in a sea of white.
He waves and calls Thankyou!
to every car that eases by,
points at each icicle
stretching from the eaves,
laughs at the wind’s toss
of snow, the daub
of snow on his nose.
These fall days rife with ghosts,
he’s all apple, my apple, rosy
and full of tart no’s and yodel-o’s.
Out, out, he cries each morning,
so we bundle up, and he barrels
through phalanxes of leaves –
they crumple beneath his feet
like letters from the dead,
unearthed too late, or too soon
for his reading, letters sent
to ones uncaring or careless
or dead now too, that they
should end as mulch.
The trees reach for him
with gaunt arms – do they grieve
their lost pages? – cracking as they
bend – but however they beseech,
puckish unassailable he
merely scuttles away, his ripeness
the only song he hears.
Poetry measures itself foot by foot like fabric,
adorning every arm’s length
with bells, sequins, beads, musicality.
Each ictus an accent, a detail, sensuous,
inviting us to roll the words around in our mouths,
phrase by phrase, aerating the sounds between our teeth,
vanilla, plum, smoke and berry.
In medicine, an ictus signals a collapse of rhythm.
Brain and heart tapping the face of a human watch,
tip, tap, tapping,
all three hands standing dangerously still
for a second, ten past ten,
quivering after a convulsion or a stroke.
In poetry, one ictus out of place adulterates
the meter of a sonnet,
so poets labor over each word,
doctoring every syllable and line
break, as if laboring
over life and death, face only millimeters
from the page of verse they pen
for hours, unblinking,
as if getting this one piece right, one caesura,
one rhyme could right the universe too,
curing the condition we inherit from our mother and father
who suffer and age
into sickness, dying without finding the right word,
leaving us alone and meek,
crying over photographs, brimming
with grief and whiskey,
a charge: If we find the right word,
we can live past the ictus,
past the aneurysm,
past the stroke.
Who wants a human watch
to keep time?
Hands fragile and thin as wings of a dragonfly,
battery so short-lived and small,
paint chipping and falling from a face
which can only count seconds,
minutes, hours and days for so long.
The urnlike face of poetry is forever,
if we find the right words. After all,
mothers and fathers and twentysomethings
die all the time, unknown
unless they have written a verse
which, ictus by ictus, could outlive tuberculosis,
year by year, sustaining
one who has found a way to write
death’s name in water,
The Next Keats, inevitably
immortal as the first.
“When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty – that is all
Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.’”
Bottle in hand, big belly moon stumbles home.
La noche, the night, slips into la madrugada’s robe.
Across the street, a racket. Daily,
the fruteria re-stocks
all of the empty shelves,
bushel baskets brimming with summer,
dirt-covered spinach and strawberries and squash.
Tomatoes and onions overfill a plastic pony,
a circus of red and yellow teeming with life
teeters and tumbles
from a fraying sheet of plywood,
bending beneath the weight of plenty,
spilling on to the asphalt in a pool,
a puddle of grease and oil
hemorrhaging from the bowels of an ancient blue farm truck,
a rusting cornucopia,
sputtering miraculously from the campo to the ciudad
every day at dawn.
I have no reason to be awake, but I am.
I am awake reading Cortázar, After the Party.
At the edge of night,
I am waiting for the sun,
reading a book about twilight.
My arms are as empty as the shelves of the fruteria in autumn.
No kale or chard,
no yams, no leeks, or onions,
no garlic, no pumpkins or honey,
I have no reason to stay
even a second longer in any bed,
when my love is sleeping somewhere else.
Malbec only a grape, unblessed by the soil of Mendoza,
the air of the Andes only air, unholy.
Sex, espresso and cigars fail to contend with my fatigue.
Stereo speakers atremble,
The 7th Symphony in A Major rollicks through the house
like a herd of boys or rabbits bounding through grass,
innocent until a bacchanalian theme attempts to pin me against a wall
with kisses I cannot misconstrue, then coyly retreats into a corner,
demure, only a variation of the brass and passion,
military, but short-lived, that would pin anyone to a wall.
When I cannot be seduced by the build,
vivace, kisses, trumpets and a drum, and do not succumb to the torment of withdrawal,
recapitulation, eyes, strings and a flute –
all of the instruments of Beethoven’s genius –
then I am funky.
Soon, waking with a start, the way you start when you dream
you are falling out of an airplane or a tree,
only to find yourself in the very middle of a queen-sized bed,
I crave chocolate-covered alfajores. Walking down the street, past a café on Beruti,
I see a bird, bread in mouth, fly soundlessly from the sidewalk to the sky,
over the head and shoulders of an imp angel child in a white summer dress
who startles the way children startle when they get just what they want for Christmas.
Hands akimbo in wonder, the girl smiles a smile that makes me want a little girl
who smiles that way, as she says, ¡Qué lindo viento me da la paloma!
Then I am no longer funky. Malbec is malbec, the blood of transubstantiation.
The Andes, white and blue, the body, the spine.
Sex, espresso, and cigars revive.
Eroica, eroica, pastoral pastoral, the seventh is the seventh, and the ninth is joy
found exactly where I last lay it down like the keys I thought I had lost,
only forgot on a shelf in the pantry, looking for something to eat.
This is the house of joy
Beneath a roof of broken limbs
And bowed heads –
The dried stalks of sunflowers after a full season of giving
To this moment’s home
Built for stars to see inside
No windows, no doors a few pieces
Of wood –more wind than walls
A skeleton of joy
Harvests hang from the rafters
Beams of sunlight patch the ground
Here you almost disappear into autumn
As you whirl in a circle dance
Around and around the earth
Blowing closer than ever
To the ground of ground.
with memories of holidays
the easy timbre of his voice
the blue chair
worn beige in the seat
one lazy eye
and his complete delight
when he played the trumpet
or penciled in letters of a crossword.
Days of the body’s unbuilding
itself – the scaffolding of the body undone at last
the veil lifted in hourless days
of hand-holding while he labored to die
the heaviness of breath revealing
a silent something
working to be unburdened.
After death, the living are left
with blue-gray days returning to grocery shopping
lawn-mowing phone messages and offices
where we are distracted slower
Something in us turns
towards a great quiet field
where our minds want to wander
where our eyes can’t quite adjust
to the light.
I would bring you flowers, sweet-scented stock,
curly-petalled peas, white and mauve.
Here are gawky, blowsy hollyhocks.
I have for you egg-cups of orange blossom.
Cornflowers, sky blue, I give to you,
red, red geraniums and periwinkle stars.
Speedwell, my lovely, blue sky, red earth, bright sea.
Today you are stylish, and precise as iris,
tomorrow you might skitter farm tracks
in your white and yellow frock,
kick up the dust. You will sprawl in wheat
happy as mayweed. Let me spin you around
wrist on wrist, swing low. Let us come up
smelling of grass and bark and rain and snow.
You are modest and cosy as moss,
soft as new leaves.
with the neat lines on your back
full, dark eyes, and hands held like
a cleric or matron, elbows akimbo,
frog with your damp skin and unblinking
stare, your submerged thighs and toes,
each fold of your fat legs so
well-formed, so well tucked, so –
just-so. Palm-sized paperweight frog,
chubby as a baby but still-limbed,
water-swaddled. Patient frog
in the shadow of the rock,
stay, and be mine.
I should like to show you the silver birch:
its smoothness – soft white bark glowing
like the underside of tin foil; its roughness –
bark scars splitting, sloughing sheets of dead skin,
small strands left flapping like hang nails. Red.
The colours, the rasping texture of it.
I should like to show you the silver birch’s
catkins: first, hard buds like elongated
fir cones, then all soft movement and air
wriggling like lambs’ tails. The leaves too.
The leaves, they move like glitter with silvery flips
always catching the light. A storm will turn
the whole tree silver. I’d like to show you
this silver birch, the one I see when I
look up from my bed. The way that branch cuts
the window frame, the bigness of it; how
close it is, leaves more numerous than stars.
There is no limit to what I should like to tell you
about the silver birch, but there is a limit
to what can be said. Find yourself a silver birch,
then you will know everything.
The rooms are again full with you.
Air no longer circulates so freely
around an arm chair or a sofa
or the lingerie cabinet. The warmth
of an October fire’s enhanced
by your body stretched out beside me
on the couch. After long absence,
there’s a sense of background noise,
constant chatter, plans, an end to echoes.
So much so that when you lift from me,
desiring the heights of ceilings,
I’m so aware of your absent heaviness
that I grab your sleeve, hold into you
tenuous as a kite.
The mail’s unopened.
Groceries in plastic bags
lean over themselves
on granite counters.
A briefcase collapses
on a barstool.
The kitchen’s stuffy
with all its windows still shut.
You’re out in the garden,
still in office clothes,
inspecting the progress
of tomatoes, mourning
a lettuce that’s bolted,
egging on paper wasps –
daring them to eat
all those fake, yellow ladybugs
that leave gaps in the basil.
When, at last, you enter
the kitchen, the pockets
of your linen jacket swell
with sugar snap peas,
and your pants smell
of rosemary, so much so
the cat vacates her indent
on the couch
and pads across the floor
to lick your legs,
A narrow balcony, two salt-worn deck chairs,
a foot stool with an ashtray, an iron railing
capped with a repetition of waves. And
beyond this: fragrant clusters of a Bradford
pear in bloom, the snap of international flags,
sounds of a city bus slowing for passengers,
snippets of pedestrian conversation, a tangle
of masts, the bay water jagged and chipped,
thin dashes of sail, a flotilla of clouds with
sea-green undersides. Caillebotte might’ve
painted us here, leaning over the railings in our
bathrobes, or Sisley applying a few specks
of jet-black across a patch of pale blue sky,
which suggest starlings migrating to the next
eucalyptus tree. This is what we want –
a small hotel, a morning slowly stretching
into afternoon, just enough images, just
enough splashes of seaside color to confuse
what day, what year, or even what town we’re in.
Water below water in aluminum sleeves,
dimpled, dented, hammered thin,
fish flicker the panes of pearl and jade,
myriad lily pads rippling,
no circumference but the muddy wreck
of life, greenblack and blackgreen,
surface on surface sliding, the ruffled buoyant
swans, spent milkweed in the dapple-dim,
goldenrods suspended under ash bark,
sky weightless on water, black mercury
clouds, the shapes of distance sand roots intimate
with leaf fall, the mind of nature is beautiful,
reflected in the surface, of light crossing
in shattering orbits, turtle like a green moon,
deer and the ghost of deer come together
to drink. Wind across the lake enters in
among the trees.
Montara Lighthouse, California
foam out across the beach,
squawk and call
to the reflective rock,
the iridescent anemone,
oysters in crevices
of silky water – one
pulls a starfish loose and runs with it.
To reach into sand is to reach
into pure gold;
I can see it in that three-year-old glee!
In gurgles and squeals
the words spill out from him
naturally, as terns feed or
clumps of beachgrass
inseparable from his scrawny
wrists and knees
gushes over tide pools,
withdraws. Another has formed a
lasso from that mess of kelp –
some wreckage of the unconscious
made suddenly visible.
Now the game
of taunting waves –
now the game of burial,
the feet, then the legs,
hide and seek
of the body –
And the poet’s game
waves of green obsidian
fracture in ringlets
around the unmoving rock island,
a blooming made from rupture:
white pulsing star, black water.
I would call out to that breaking
in the first words that made the water and the rock
but I’ve forgotten them –
unless watching is a word
in that language. Look at this girl,
her eye patch
decorated with sequins,
despite the sad colorless
hand-me-down suit –
how like stone she is,
like barnacled stone
and just as old –
to remain so still
is itself a kind of motion,
removed from her brothers
on the sea-worn cypress log,
she narrows her one good eye
to watch for infinity.
Our summer chairs are stacked in the garage,
a salting of white sand from South Haven,
and in the orchard the bees pay homage
to the sweet rot of apples, while the blind raven
of the year lifts from the fence to the wire
then banks wide and drags the last light south.
A death-bloom in the sumac shakes the fire
from its leaves, and our porch sags like a mouth.
Your tricycle tips on its bent back wheel
under Grandmother’s expiring roses.
The corn fields fold like a funeral meal
over everything when October closes.
I can’t explain, son, the winters here are wild.
But God’s a part of everything. Now get inside, child.
My city is a hotbed of newly fallen crows
whose musculatures magnet to sidewalks.
They unfurl themselves into carbon dying.
Before crows, magnolia petals and the slow mechanics
of Grandmother’s wound body. Is this
the way history goes; a solitary turn
to make sense of the litany of things left?
Before this scene read, things lost to a flood,
perhaps it was the simple revelry of rising water:
two women climbing through windows, catching
drapery on their way out. Was there
joy, a rare laughter, the enviable task of sharing
without worry of anchor? Rain fell
in an empty town. That does not mean she was
a frail, ghastly flower. What I knew
of this morning, I knew with certainty:
I was the mass inhabiting my body. There
was something leading me under the blanket
of two dueling horizons. What does the earth sink into?
Its weight. Without the presence of voices,
who answers for the urging to pair things: one two?
Before the crows, no wall of glass, or forecast
of broken operations. No calculus,
cartography, or old sky gone dark. Still, my city stops
at an aftermath of could be,
strange summations beginning with crow.
Count backward with bone and age.
Given the practice to call things gone, how shall
I speak of the line which neatly remains?
To give up the tide of one
time means grounding the boat.
Daughter born. Died. Recovered I
and kept going. Doing
little destroys. All
that’s left is
everything. The titanic
lost. The small
O the shape,
the sound. Hollow
in my mouth
a space that can’t be-
Forget about smoking weed
with those soccer boys
near the Methodist Church
while I said Hail Marys
and kept watch. Shifted my weight
from hip to hip as if to ask, Is this attractive?
Waited for feedback
from the shadows. Forget Mom and Dad,
you’d say, They’re some kind of crazy.
We repacked bags with the seasons. Kept them
buried at the bottom of our closets.
Clothing and essentials in case.
Thought one morning I’d find you
long gone. I would have forgiven you
since ours was a house of exit strategies.
And when, in my fifteenth year, you watched
my slight frame get smaller
as the car pulled away
from the boarding school parking lot,
I knew what you knew: the difference
between not speaking and letting something go
unspoken, between what actually happened
and those mythologies we tell our husbands.
We don’t say the institution’s name.
We say, Mom wigged out. We can’t
say, That was the year dad tried to swallow life
by its pistol end. I say, You’re such a bitch
when I mean Remember.
You were there.
You walked beside me each day.
The food is on the table. Turkey tanned
to a cowboy boot luster, potatoes mashed
and mounded in a bowl whose lip is lined
with blue flowers linked by grey vines faded
from washing. Everyone’s heads have turned
to elongate the table’s view – a last supper twisted
toward a horizon where the Christmas tree, crowned
by a window, sets into itself half inclined.
Each belly cries. Each pair of eyes admonished
by Aunt Photographer. Look up. You’re wined
and dined for the older folks who’ve pined
to see your faces, your lives, lightly framed
in this moment’s flash. Parents are moved,
press their children’s heads up from the table,
hide their hunger by rubbing lightly wrinkled
hands atop their laps. They’ll hold the image
as long as need be, seconds away from grace.
Before construction started my parents put
a blueprint on the kitchen table asking me
which room I’d like. Then my father fashioned
three sets of miniature ceilings out of cardboard –
using an X-Acto knife to make the angles –
and with my back against a wall he placed
them one by one above my head like half
formed continental hats I’d made in grade school.
Beneath each one I saw what it’d be like
lying awake at night on my bed, mapping out
the contours of the house that would protect
and then cast me out to a world of eight foot
ceilings flat and lacking this affection.
He said I had my choice since I was older
than my sister. It was the first time, twelve
years old and wanting to follow him, I saw
the architecture of my thoughts in form.
I felt the smooth lines above me as I reached
toward them, I felt the warmth of breath
and the heat of my face nuzzled in the safe
enclosure of that space. I felt the perfect shape
we made and see it now, again, through half
covered bones and missing doors, tall masts
of two by fours as scaffolding across
the sidewalk. I see the corner of that window,
set back and rising on the sill of one in front,
pushing light into the shadow of my home.
Monarchs fall upon the bulbous stamens,
give form to silent, passing origins
of place that two then three remember – they fuse
their rusty hues into the petals. No breeze
or passing drizzle from low autumn clouds
unfolds these watchful wings, clasped vertical
like paper hands in prayer – the dorsal fin
of faith carving through the darkened season.
Like finials they ride the stems, complete
designs beyond immediate perception.
But even the hushed roots of last year’s growth
anticipate such ending as they push
apart the soil’s mossy flesh in spring.
Until today the blooms were anything.