a beagle named Bilbo, a leash,
and a trail called Windy Run.
We ran past maples,
shagbark hickories, the mighty oaks.
We stopped to salute the fallen.
We pooped together
in last autumn’s leaves,
careful to scan the horizon
for signs of threats,
then hurriedly covered our stool
to guard our trail.
We leaped over rivers,
crossed the bouncy bridge,
and as the light began to fade,
we pushed for home in an old Corolla,
low to the ground,
tails pointed, two minds connected
by one leash,
one on the trail of the fox and the rabbit,
one on the trail
of Beef Bourguignon and Cote du Rhone.
We watched the Walking Dead,
and then curled up tight in our beds,
little pools of warmth that rippled
with dreams, existential notes
rolling through our bodies,
the Potomac reciting lines
from a pre-recorded poem
written before time was born:
words only the trout understand,
and they are far away by now.
My birthday once again comes out of nowhere
and I think of 45 degree angles, splitting a corner
in equal portions of two gorgeous halves.
I think of calves and I’m alive again,
calves on a spring morning long ago
on cobblestones beneath the dogwoods of my youth.
There are many reasons to sigh but old love
is not worth it. I would rather sip this beer
after work and scratch a good itch
to the music of my guitar. There is light streaming
everywhere this afternoon, and more reason
for love than at any time since the dawn of history.
I mean to walk, to walk through ancient Rome
right now with sunglasses on is all I can do for a good
line of tinker and tong. Tinker with that I say.
If you don’t think it’s possible, you haven’t lived.
Give the old city a chance say the sirens.
I just heard them singing, and they are great.
Make love in the back seat. Crank it up.
You know you want to.
Do it till it hurts and then slip into your favorite
boxers after a long shower. There is that novel
I’ve been waiting to undress. There are two lovers
I spent the evening with that need a little kiss.
There are my boys, walking out the door.
They don’t always need me anymore.
And I am glad. It would be never be right
for love to hold anyone back. Give them
your best line and try to make it right.
Keep God involved, and pray it’s alright.
It’s all good. It’s all right.
move with outstretched hands.
They are singing round and round
the mulberry bush, and they are happy.
They romp like children in heaven.
They play hide and seek with the saints.
They do not know that they are saints.
They believe they are their own children,
and they are drawn to the sound of their laughter,
which moves through their souls
the way light moves through leaves on Earth,
the way the mist rolls off the bayou in the autumn
and lingers in the Spanish moss.
They take us toward God.
They bake our favorite cakes.
If we daydream, we might sense them
move through us, especially when we rise
before dawn and stand in the kitchen
to prepare for our day. They pray
for us, when they feel us miss them.
They stop everything they are doing
in heaven, to pray for us.
Their smiles are forever.
They are so fine and patient and lovely,
and they wait for us. They wait
for us, with the most beautiful hands–
even time wants to hold them.
you learned to speak with her,
those first sounds you made your first poem.
There is no star she has seen
that outshines you,
and a forest of beauty rises inside your eyes
just for being you.
Step away from your creator,
and you will find yourself alive
in this world, creating back a life
you call your own,
for with the light of the stars inside your heart
you can truly be an artist:
Mothers do not question this mystery.
They move, like the angels,
between heaven and earth,
and call it home.
Dr. Quigley walked down 7th street to enter Chinatown.
Amused by the big screen televisions, he stopped
for a moment to stare at a commercial of butterflies
helping an insomniac go to sleep. Tender, sleep.
Last night he dreamt of long palatial hallways
In the hospitals for the damned, afraid to look sideways
into a room, afraid to see death,
the smell of feces in his nose.
He knew the dead were playing cards
And laughing at him, trying not to be dead.
He began to see damnation not as place,
but as time and choice, a relativity of chance:
a bag full of kittens thrown over a bridge,
a prostitute fixing her lipstick and jumping over,
a man driving by and laughing, wearing lipstick.
He awakened to oblivion, and felt happy,
his chest so deep it would not fill with air.
He remembered the coming plague
and quickened his pace to avoid sidewalk rituals,
the bump and stare of a fellow pilgrim,
the shuffle of pedestrians, cars and trucks.
Naked against the press of buildings, pavement and sky,
he roamed his inner sanctum to make peace, empty his soul.
After all, he believed the city loved him, made him beautiful.
He imagined himself a small star, a white dwarf,
a distant nebulae full of gas, and then he arrived
at Oyamel, his oasis in this capital where idealoques
come to breed: he wanted to eat grasshoppers.
Nothing would stop him from biting through the exoskeleton,
to feel the insect soften with chewing, and to chew harder
to feel the wet, gelatinous organ center flood his cheeks,
soak between his gums. O Chapulines!
You are sacred. I will light a candle for you.
Later, at home with his keyboard and his ukulele,
His skin began to seep unctuously.
Time to leach! It was never too late
To leach, always time for one more bite,
one more song, and always the same time in hell.
Dr. Quigley began to take his coffee
black, right about the time a clover
appeared on his chest.
At first he thought it was a type of stigmata.
He belonged to a tribe that did not yet exist,
and this gave him enormous satisfaction.
At night he dreamt deeply, his extended family
vacationing on cruise ships along the west coast
of California, probably Venice Beach,
and in the dream this made him happy.
The streets of the city were flooded,
and there were storms moving in the distance.
He could hear the echoes of paddles
along the shore, and the cries of seagulls.
Alone, he gazed at water flowing
beneath the stars, darkness
huddled silently in distant redwoods.
He was saddened by the last sighs of autumn
and the departures of loved ones.
He noted a direct correlation exists
between mental stability
and appreciation for the beauty of women.
For this reason, he kept a harmonica
in his pocket at all times,
and he smiled faintly while driving.
It was time to begin the work
for which he would someday be made famous,
and he wanted to have something on hand
in case they came for him,
the mist slowing his thoughts down
to the trickle of a prayer:
The next time I see the kind of light
that resembles the arc of the soul,
I will be ready–
for I am nothing without you.
Make me the water that flows
from the hands and lips
of distant hills.
Make me the shadow that moves
close to the river and weeps.
Make me hear your words
in the whisper of waves.
Make me silence,
even if it steals something deep,
something true and beautiful
from the well of my being.
Let me stay here,
let me hear one note
from the one whom I love.
In the morning it was the same:
a shot of whiskey–
no answers from the grave.
Porch. Chair. July. late afternoon.
Stillborn flag. Neighbor’s pole. Clouds
drop in. I want what everybody wants:
a drink. Fireworks. Some sex. Instead
it’s stars and stripes forever
fucked. Mother and child bike helmeted
by a strong belief in future peril.
Trees sag. Cars pass out
on the relentless boulevard. A small town
lazily dreams of its dead. Ice cream melts
in the hand of surprised child
who will grow to be appalled. The author
of this is laughing behind the sun, handing
out flyers for reelection to angels
reminding them that all employees
must wash hands.
I want to be a straw. Hollow, so
that it’s clear I have no feelings
when each letter arrives
igniting in my open palm
that what I have sucks
so someone else
can come through as an elixir
that teases as it taunts:
you can’t catch a buzz
Dr. Quigley was daydreaming again:
Le Top of the World Cafe,
his favorite Parisean hot spot
where he could hear The Carpenters 24/7.
He loved to daydream. His school days
spent lovingly watching the seasons,
leaves brushing against the windows
like distant echoes of an aria.
Now the click and ping of espresso cups
made him quiver with anxiety
as he took his seat at the public reading,
located at Busboys and Poets,
23rd & I, Northwest D.C.
He observed various groups at the tables
around him, tainted drinks of all shapes and colors
like stained glass in the faint aura
of the insane. The first poet took the stage.
Dr. Quigley watched as the room
began to metabolize liturgically,
the cadence of the ode
held for him the agony of a pasion play.
He turned to a fellow worshipper and said
I must confess, my transfiguration is
wholly linguistic in nature.
Instantly, he sensed his transgression:
His solitude made him wish for his mother.
Then, a frail, poet on the half-shell
took the stage. He listened, transformed,
as words began to fill his sails.
Elephants boarded ships for India,
a migration funded by global warming.
He wondered if he could be re-incarnated
as an idea. When it was over,
he leaned close to his neighbor and said
Trotsky opens doors to new worlds.
Are you ready to unveil yourself?
The monkeys of the world are on the march,
and they know your name.
Someday, he hoped to die for his beliefs.
It was yesterday once more.
I am full this afternoon–the treetops
lit with orange and purple, the shadows blue
and long–sledding on the earthworks
at Fort C.F. Smith. What is left of the Civil War
is hidden under the snow. The kids do not know.
Soon, they are wet and cold, pants dark and steamy,
bodies sliding down into the hollow. They are happy.
There are other boys here , and they take sides
against them. First, who has the best sled.
Then, who has the longest run, who can hit the jump.
One boy looks at me as we begin the trudge
back to the car. He says, I do not like the Earth,
and I tell him, either do I.
[photoshelter-img width=’300′ height=’471′ i_id=’I00000RsIo81qUCQ’ buy=’0′]
The windows are gone and the grass is up
to our knees as we are led to the porch.
Someone tells us over and over stop,
go back to the road, but our path remains:
we can see through the house and out to where
souls collect beside the bonfire pit. Beams
of light turn the pages on the walls. Thin
lines of poetry reach upwards and away
from the dream, but we are called to this
place, one sylllable at a time, one word
on our lips, one liturgy now broken
and another remains high above us:
look down into the dream to hear whispers
you were created to live forever.
[photoshelter-img width=’275′ height=’433′ i_id=’I0000YeN3pAO_lKk’ buy=’0′]
Vera. She taught me to see
while still in the womb,
how to read with unformed
eyes–I close them, and she is there,
a dialectic of alphabetic blood
and still in flow. She weaves letters
into puddles of light.
If she moves near you, in a dream,
her skin appears the color of Easter eggs.
She is fragile. Her lips are blue,
and there are tiny wrinkles on her ears.
She jots down notes about the future.
James. He appeared when I was shopping
at the west-side grocery in Athens, Ohio.
He said, “Hello Scott,” and kept going
down the aisle. I tried to follow him
but he had already passed the end-cap,
so I ran to the front without my cart
to cut him off, but he was out,
still there but gone, a little sprite
playing hopscotch with my soul.
He showed up a few years ago in photos
from Shenandoah National Park.
I knew it was him.
He was standing on a rock in a black suit,
and he had the look, the gaze that is long
and the eyes that change and look away,
like a season inside an iris with a storm pattern
that never settles. He likes to peel potatoes
wearing nothing but old socks.
The skin of his buttocks is wrinkled,
pressed white from sitting too long
on the old stool he brought from the barn.
He needs a haircut, his teeth are yellow,
and he quit going to church long ago,
which is why I know him.
Then there was Shol,
the one I met in San Salvador,
who came to teach me the truth
He came in the form of beauty,
a flower, la floripundia,
and at night its erotic scent
would drift into my window
and sit on my chest
until I was asleep.
Soon I was suspended over a hot
pit of black pitch and dipped
until each of my cells screamed in pain.
I could not hear them,
I felt them reach for salvation
and fail, fail as the last gurgle
of my lungs began to echo
off the walls to startle me from sleep.
Then its voice said
No, this is not a conversation.
Finish your poem.
I remember it like it was yesterday.
How we held hands and cried below a window
filled with light, branches bending the wind.
You wore your blue soul, just the way I like it,
the one with the open back, folds above the hips,
a litle string to pull and find God.
You spent the morning in the Egyptian room,
touching the black sarcophagus , flirting
with the docents, as you remained unnoticed
and passed gas among those
so long dead. So long dead.
Why did you write it this way?
There are better words.
No. These words. This soul. This exhibit. This dress.
And light. A poem without light
is like skinny dipping in the toilet:
indecent, obscene, just the way you like it.
The only way they want it.
They are left with one last image:
oscillating bars of steel and concrete.
Each back is purple from beatings,
They begin the whistles and clicks
of the insane–without tongues,
there remains a bird-like alveolar pop
in their mouths, the sound
like a playing card tapping the spokes
of a bike wheel. They press fingers
to each throat, feeling for a buzz,
much as honeybees circle augurs
in the warehouses of the damned.
Most are sent for assimilation:
they learn to write long poems
on what they think about while mating.
The keepers know when they are in heat:
they purr in soft z, the skin shimmers
hieroglyphically, their tails point
toward the smoke trails of Icarus.
One of them, a young one,
continues to have memories
of the time before the great passage:
a ballerina on a thin cobweb spun by god.
She remembers the gardens
behind the eyes of each soul:
she is sent away for genital mutilation.
Soon, she will reappear at Wal-Mart
to dust fake plants with a small broom
made in China.
Who is on your list?
Who are the people that have made the biggest impact on your life? For each of us that list is different. There will be the usual suspects like parents, teachers and coaches, but let us go a bit deeper. Who is really on that list of yours?
For me it was one of my first patients. She had bone cancer that began in her breast. Today, she may have been saved, but this was the 60’s. Her only solace was pain killers. She had such dignity and calmness. I have always remembered that. God bless her sweet soul. May she rest in peace. Her name was Jane.
You taught me how to live while dying, Jane. I was just too young to know it then.
The next one is a nurse’s aid I worked with named Betty. She was much younger than me and street smart, very kind and funny. We made an instant connection. She was the first black person I was close to. She was a single Mother and worked very hard at holding her family together. I admired Betty. She threw a baby shower for me when I was expecting our second child. Betty died too young of complications from the dreaded diabetes. I loved Betty. She held me in her arms as my Mom lay dying of a brain aneurysm. She wiped away my tears. I have never forgotten that moment. She was so fine. Thank you, Betty. I loved you.
Then there is Yvette. She too was a nurse’s aid and worked at the nursing home where my Dad was a resident. Dad was at the end of his life’s journey. I was at his side constantly. She knew I was deeply grieving, but I never told her what a comfort she was. She too was a black lady, and as she bathed my dying Dad, she began to sing the sweetest gospel song I have ever heard. It was so beautiful and serene it brought immediate beauty to the moment. She was so soft and gentle . . . her sweet words so comforting. Thank you, Yvette. You changed me. I have not been the same person since being in that room with you that miraculous day. I am sorry I never told you.
Father Steve. Yes, Father Steve, you are on my list. I would never thought it possible when first encountering you. You worked your slow magic on me and in the process changed my life. I always knew you were a holy man, but the big revelation came when you visited me in the hospital after my knee surgery. You came to see me twice and stayed both times over 30 minutes. You were so genuinely interested in my husband and I.
I can still picture you leaning against the wall, talking calmly as you were in no particular hurry. We talked about family, gardening, social events, St Charles. Always St. Charles. You described so many hopes and dreams for our church and school. You were very interested to learn I was in the very first second grade there. A lot of people found you stiff and unfriendly but from that day forward I knew different. You were a one-on-one guy! You gave me the courage to return to confession after a very long time. You had no judgment, you just “slowly brought me through it.” Thank you, Fr. Steve, for all you do for us and for giving me the courage to receive this beautiful sacrament once again. We are lucky to have Fr. Steve.
I will never forget Morris. He was a patient I cared for on my unit. He was desperately ill with end stage Aids. This was in the late eighties and long before the “aids cocktail” offered today. All we could do was treat his symptoms and make him as comfortable as possible. Morris was (to our knowledge) the first patient with aids at my hospital. When I received my list of patients for the day, Morris was on it. My first thought was of him, and how I wanted to comfort him and not make him feel uncomfortable in any way. Truthfully, I was afraid. I had never actually cared for a patient with aids and it was a little frightening. Upon entering his room, I saw a young man not much older than my own son. He was thin, weak, feverish, covered with sores and was very frightened. We hit it off immediately.
He began to talk and told me he had many friends but had been abandoned by his family years ago. He broke my heart. His partner never left his side. Their devotion and love for one another was deeply touching. I was to care for Morris many times over the next couple of weeks. When he went home to be with our Lord, with his partner at his side, the room was peaceful and serene. I remember thinking that he was no longer suffering and that his life had been all too short.
Thank you. Morris, for teaching me about love and that Aids is more than a disease. It is not “that patient” down the hall, nor does one’s disease define who we are.
He was God’s child; he was perfect, and beautiful.
They hover around us and stick to our clothes. They move with rhythmic certainty, an army before dawn, moving slowly down unmarked roads. If you concentrate, turn off the headlights and dim the volume, they can be seen huddling together near the crests of bridges.
Here is what matters: they will wait forever for your response. They are the pattern on the forest floor when the first leaves decide to fall into dark green. They are the energy left inside a memory that lifts its curtain when you sigh in the late afternoon. They are what happens just before a seed opens in the soil.
They are in your hands now. They move across your skin and rest in the hollows of your body.
They like you.
They are the only ones you need.
They are waiting.
I might be taken down by a sniffle,
or a strong hand could do the job, a kiss
from the wind of creation. It’s my soul.
A stranger before birth. It is morning
on the starry banks of eternity–
we undress in the first room we made love.
You undress. I am dead. I am not born
for a long time. You are empty, vanquished,
heading home. There are excuses. I know.
We are made for them, but today let us
hold hands and pray. Forgiveness — the only
miracle we need, is on down the bend,
on the other side. Come on, let’s rub hands–
spark again, later we will learn to sin.
Your movements are watched:
They have already found you.
This is the only certainty,
and will remain the reason for poetry.
Prophets Alone in Hell, Book IV, 21-3.
All the back rubbing is over, and the poet’s hands
turn ethereal — their eyes begin to water the land
and run off into white space. They travel down
the Colorado, staring at its banks
for hours, hoping for stanza breaks that never unveil.
Their despair nearly complete: their condition —
terminal. The movement of water is sufficient for now,
its reflections the last place on earth
they can touch and find themselves
completely blameless. Lights appear as they float
near Las Vegas. At night and they huddle down
for warmth and secrecy. They intertwine like pieces
of polished driftwood, their flesh blemished and lined
with the tattoos of passages they must touch
to remember. The leader, the weakest one,
encourages silence, meditation, and the slow cadence
of the heartbeat to soothe. The latest attempt at religion —
a failure. Absent a god, they have no reason to praise.
When they stare into the water, they see nothing
but clouds that spell and ripple themselves to sleep.
Depression and loneliness begin to gnaw the strong
into silence — the lame accept death with smiles
and slow nods of agreement. The dead are pushed
off the rafts without words, the echoes
of each splash ripple up the canyon walls
and outward to space. In the vague recesses
of what is left for cognition, they want to be taken.
They lie down to fossilize and fixate on the sky,
hoping for a last glimpse of the shadows that circle
and descend to them, the only gods that deliver
anything close to salvation — a temporary presence
of physical comfort, a moment of cool air —
an absence that cannot be named.
She wore well
coming on slowly
until she allowed you
to journey her.
She wore her beauty
like a hidden treasure,
all natural and fresh.
She rarely spoke
but her eyes
held hidden messages
waiting to be revealed.
if you took the time
to unwrap and notice.
She moved gracefully
like a loose ribbon
in a dance.
She was shy
unless you were lucky
to be her love.
She was fluid
like a silk tunic.
She wore the world
like a loose garment
she would remove it
when it was time.
Dr. Quigley noticed the letters
scribbled within her body.
He wanted to dig down,
examine their origin,
curious to know why her race
marked her for this fate
on this world of ink and blood.
He had thought other worlds
escaped the bondage of form.
He had long ago grown weary
of people and eschatology.
As he began another incision,
careful to follow with a cloth
to absorb fluids,
he remembered the last time
he witnessed her body
sprawled on his bed. The sunlight
perfect, the afternoon
no different from centuries ago:
drifting sands, chaff and wheat,
caravans for spice and coffee,
a strip of moonlight to know
the right time to enter.
He rubbed her now,
with oils and perfumed herbs,
no longer able to distinguish
a difference between pleasure
and the poetry that shaped
her beauty: the lines
recited until she stopped
for breath and meaning,
exactly the way he remembered
and nothing left but silence.
for Mrs. Burns
But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.
Matthew 18: 6
If I could start over and get it right this time
I would begin by killing my kindergarten teacher,
Mrs. Burns. She was a bitch. Her gaze was hot,
and so was her hand, the one she used to spank
on the first day of school. I could not tie my shoes.
Now, just one shoelace would do. I would tie it
around her neck with a slip knot and pull it tight
till her face turned purple and her eyes popped
out of this poem, stuffed down her throat,
the apple I never gave her.
Sometimes I dream of them,
the sunny day they met
at the four-way stop
and everything changed.
The motorcycle catapulted
above its driver, finally landing
on top of him. I could see his legs,
the way they moved
the way they stopped.
The red convertible
slammed into a tree
and turned over on its side,
where two young
women lay on the ground.
One of them was talking,
telling the other, over and over,
how sorry she felt.
She held her hands up to her face.
Someone ran out of a house
and covered them.
She was screaming now.
I wanted to go home,
and later I did,
driving right through it.
The last thing I remember is playing pool,
then Christmas again,
then you are born.
All of this happened far away
from today: our galaxay
travels millions of miles each hour.
The dust is not settled
on the volcano, the solar eclipse
not lost its lips–
your name echoes
inside a locked sanctuary.
You can only read this
if you stand on another planet
and look down.
Can you see it now?
The last thing is playing pool,
then Christmas again,
then you are born.
The first thing is last,
the second just happened,
and the last is first.
We write in this direction
when we create backwards
to arrive here:
true again and there
all the time.
Dr. Quigley struggled with the idea,
but after months of debate
he went forward with the notion
that it was time to record
his most unusual observations:
Made contact with a race of aliens.
Subject was female, complained
of pain in the lower abdomen.
Diagnosed cervical cancer.
It all comes down to the cervix.
He was nearly certain of it.
He remembered his travels
after completing his last degree.
He waited for hours on the side
of Mt. Ararat for the solar eclipse,
short ring of fire, long circle of life.
In the valley below him,
he noticed a pair of goats mating
in the forced dusk of a twilight
no one else would ever believe,
his mind certain of images
no one should see.
for Ana Rina
Tonight blue light rose above us
to the fields of space itself,
to the heights where our eyes fail
and only prayers can see.
In the spaces we live
we light candles, we make stars
come alive inside of us,
and each one, one day,
became a son, a world
we orbit now in love.
We see them now
in our dreams, for in love
our path has been written
by the hand of god.
I follow your eyes upward,
and as beauty recognizes beauty,
a peace comes over me
and through me,
the only feeling that will outlast
the night, the vision
of your full eyes and your soul,
open to nature’s glory,
always my one dream of flight,
my vision of heaven.
In the silence you can hear
a strange sucking sound
like thunder. When the wind
blows in your direction
you can see them
huddled in open fields
waiting to be taken.
with dried mud,
they stand like stalagmites
made of decayed deposits
and layers of licked
salt. Heat lightening
in the distance
flicks across their foreheads,
where the absence of eye
lashes and hair follicles
creates tattoos of distant
skylines, where prophets
gaze upon them —
open eyes and mouths —
each tongue balanced
on the edge of poetics
meant for an unborn god,
on a frozen canvas
draped in darkness.
after Thomas Merton
As I pulled away slowly
feeling so holy
God knows I was feelin’ alive
And now the sun’s comin’ up
I’m ridin’ with Lady Luck
Life is on our side.
I have one little cell inside
that I can’t track down.
I hope he is the one
when the sunlight lifts
across the horizon.
I would like to see you
this way, on the tip
of my brush,
not yet on the canvas,
about to come alive
beneath breath and whisper.
But you are the one,
the one I can’t track down.
It does not matter.
I can see you
just down the road.
I can hear your voice
cut through the wind.
You are beautiful,
and life is on our side.
afraid to listen
to what I’ve become.
I hear the same tune,
the same one that echoes
when I am alone.
Do not answer this song.
I want the notes to bleed
for me, just once,
I want my thick sense to tell me
all of their names.
Let this be chamber music,
let this be the soul,
but what I hear cannot be sung ,
what I need cannot be written,
and the soul remains undone.
You were drawn out of nothingness to be here, to come to this place, and now you write alone. Alone—all mind, all spirit, all fire—nothingness was your home, now write as your mind begins to sizzle with lightening. Notice the sky is alone above you. Pale as skin, alive and terribly unknown.
Alone. You are the candle tonight. Pick up your pen. You need no one. You need nothing but the haze dropped down from the sky. Walk outside without your shirt just once, on a night full of cold blades, and then smile. Later, you can pick up the pen, but for now, just stand there and smile. If you are lucky, a wind gust will come, literally from the emptiness of space, and knock your breath back into nowhere. And if you are not so lucky, just smile, because you can be sure someone, somewhere, is inside, trying to stay warm, and they will never find it. To turn blood into starlight, the fire must come from within.
Death, yes, death will come with blue fingers, licked cool and soft to the touch, but today you will write alone and you will be happy—happy that you are alone—happy knowing that you can write even to the edge of death itself. You meet death alone, even tonight, like a distant star. Put down the pen for a moment and say hello to yours. There is no getting away and you know it. One star is yours alone, and it knows your name. Since its light died millions of years ago, it wants you to stay silent.
The stars, shining after death, already know the meaning of silence. You do not need to learn it.
via the Holland Tunnel
into the desolation of eastern New Jersey:
abandoned factories, railroad tracks,
dying towns—stop to rest
where the light enters broken
They find Gealie’s still open for bad coffee,
unfiltered Lucky Strikes, stale donuts.
They move at night,
and by day huddle in dark
hollows and rub each other’s backs.
When in doubt, they follow
alpha markers: poets know they can rut
out of season and still exchange
syllables. Words are born along the way
and held in their arms
to be unraveled later,
if they find time.
They cross the Ohio on stolen barges,
and move into the lower hills
to find cover with the deer. They understand
the dangers involved: to cross fields
unseen. Occasionally a poet dies—
they leave a line or two in the soil
to mark time and place:
language and landscape blur
under the bleating sky,
and another stanza is left
in the unnameable spaces of language.
Later, they are seen herding west
out of western Arkansas into the lower
grasslands of Oklahoma.
From our helicopters, they look like
crawling Chinese letters—their black tags
give them away. We take them down
with dart guns. They breathe close
to the ground, like puddles
of moonlight: the skin
over their ribs stretches and glistens
Our task is easy: clip thumbs
tongues, index fingers. Some schools
of thought say we should
take their feet as well,
for they could scrawl the earth
with heels and toes.
Maybe it is pointless:
with six fingers left
they could still press thoughts
into flesh. Maybe
the wind and rain
will wash away what we call
rutting, but for now,
the only language left
will be our own.
by railroad, highway, and foot bridge.
Cliffs swagger above the gorge,
moss patches smutting the granite.
A filmmaker plans a drama here.
He has entitled it River Sad.
I’m to star as the bad guy,
an elderly doper who kidnaps
a brassy young couple, drugs them,
ties the handsome blond hero
to the railroad while he ravishes
the woman in primary colors.
The man frees himself and rushes
to the cabin where the doper leers,
but a flood crushes down the gorge
and flushes everyone out to sea,
where unless we spout fins and gills
we drown in wide-screen glory.
Silly plot, but the filmmaker pays
in cash. I knot the drugged young man
to the railroad, then drag the woman
to the cabin. As we pretend
to destabilize our bodies
before the groaning camera
a diesel horn toots. Surely
the director warned the railroad
to stop all trains for the day.
We dash to the bridge and discover
only certain parts of the actor
we left writhing in his bonds.
I peer down the length of the gorge
and detect a rumble of train
retreating, satisfied, and notice
that where the river dips underground
a rope-pull ferryboat crosses
and some grinning fellow waves.
I find myself ordering today’s feature:
Peanut Butter Mocha,
the Pina Colada of coffees.
I place it on the table
alongside my plain, black spiral
and sharp number twos.
It feels awkward, diamonds on cardboard.
Hemingway would scoff, a steaming mug
of Big Buck in his weathered hand
to carry him through paragraphs.
Bishop would lean on Sumatra’s
rich and earthy flavors. Yeats might
choose Black and Tan out of spite.
Collins, Four Seasons-he was
just listening to Vivaldi
this morning while shaving.
Everyone avoids Jamaican Me Crazy,
its Hallmark name
the kiss of death.
I take one draw, through fluffy whipped cream
and leave it alone.
I think ahead to lunch,
the notebook again on the table,
and the prospect of its simple cover
perfectly complimented by the yin-yang
of a Co-jack grilled cheese.
If you are not going to write big
poems about big things, then go to hell.
Horace Navarone (1921-1945)
It all started late one night at the Met
when the poets began to rub
each other’s backs.
There were telltale signs
of lovemaking everywhere:
sticky saucers with toenail
clippings, clumps of hair
which the cats carefully removed
and placed in each corner,
ripped pages from archaic
tape and lots of tacks.
In the morning,
the curator ran to the director
to show him every messy detail.
The poets escaped, presumably,
through a broken window—
a blood track dribbled
to the floor.
The director wanted it tested—
he wanted each poet
found and tagged.
As various authorities arrived,
they noticed movement
in the sculpture garden:
one of the poets
could no longer hold its breath.
It was a heroic effort:
no longer feeling syllabic,
it tried to petrify.
They took it away for questions.
All it would say is
I’m feeling phallic and fallopian
at the same time. Pull my string.
When they did,
it said I love you mommy.
They reassigned the curator
to fiction, where he would unravel
narratives of the Left Behind series.
The director would go home
with the doll in his arms— his wife
made him sit down
Lima is a town, not unlike many others, with problems such as unemployment and the accompanying increase in crime.
Lima, Ohio is not just a place. It is home to so many people with the good sense to be born here, and possess its wonderful midwest values and no-nonsense work ethic. No, Lima is not a place, but home to good, kind people. These are the people, the neighbors, who send meals and cards to you after learning that you are having a rough time.
Lima is a community filled with glorious wheat fields, rows and rows of sweet summer corn and the best home grown tomatoes in the land. Lima is where so many of us grew up, went to GREAT schools (mine, LCC, sends over 90% of their graduates on to college). Lima is marching bands, summer parades, lovely parks, reserviors, and farmer’s markets. Lima is home to “set up housekeeping,” raise your children and, if you are real lucky, walk in your home and look into the beautiful face of your sweetheart who you grew up with and married right here in your home, Lima.
In Mexico City, the heat rises
like the dead. Unseen but felt
in quiet corners. Tourists crowd
the streets, snapping photos of
dancing senoritas and faceless
vendors moaning behind masks of
boredom. Stray dogs trail behind,
snarling over the largest scrap of bone,
marrow still intact. In an alleyway,
behind an iron gate, a tired maid
cradles a dead fetus. A scarlet river
drains into the gutter on the street.
Bloody footprints walk away from
the scene of the crime. Skeletal
bodies reach out to foreigners,
begging for coins, water, a piece of
salvation. Mad roosters pick at their
toes mistaking them for ears of corn.
While hens lay deformed eggs.
Shells cracking, spilling spicy red
yolk hot as lava. This is not the day
of the dead as seen in postcards
for sale in hotel gift shops or flyers
nailed to wooden cantina doors.
But it may as well be.
Grandma always wore knee-high
black socks to bed. She claimed
they kept her legs warm; short,
brittle bones resembling fragile
timbers that could crack
at the slightest awkward tilt.
Every morning, I helped her discard
the sweaty socks. Slowly peel them
off like snake skin. In the process,
grains of sand seeped from her toes,
sprinkling salt from their flesh covered
shaker. I thought it odd but blamed it
on her feet which were always traveling
with no direction. In the afternoons,
I would spot her rummaging through
linen closets and dresser drawers. I
reasoned it was due to her dementia.
Meanwhile, an hourglass sitting on her
nightstand tap danced to the music
of confusion. Knowing that it was only
a matter of time before the sand
would stop spilling. And the agony
of vertigo would finally end.
While walking alone on scarlet stairs, pondering eternity, the lifespan of words, and where they go to die, I offered up a prayer to help find my muse. The song of a siren to help locate a place to crawl ashore and be eaten alive would do. I have never asked for much. Here, at this time, it was enough to feel warm, like blood sausage on a chilly night. I looked up toward blazing flames (which I mistook for the sun), and discerned a piece of paper floating along on down-swells of alternating heat and cold. I reached toward the yellowing print, and I read these words:
Poet, thinker, problem drinker, pill-taker, man of genius, manic depressive, intricate schemer, success story, he once wrote poems of great wit and beauty, but what had he done lately? Had he uttered the great words and songs he had in him? He had not. Unwritten poems were killing him. He had retreated to this place which sometimes looked like Arcadia to him and sometimes looked like hell. Here he heard the bad things being said of him by his detractors–other writers and intellectuals. He grew malicious himself but seemed not to hear what he said of others, how he slandered them. He brooded and intrigued fantastically. He was becoming one of the big-time solitaires.
Saul Bellow, Humboldt’s Gift, p. 25
Then I laughed. It was time to call Joe. Snap.
To be continued . . .
I’m sweating the outside of a soda can
and yogurt’s running down my leg.
Alan de Botton just told me the best way
to travel is to stare out train windows,
don’t even de-board, just be thought
in the half-face of a farmer pitching hay
or the child throwing a ball in the park
to no one, at least, a figure you can’t see
the way Charles Baudelaire
used to sit in airports, or so then wrote,
for hours with nowhere except in passing
to go. After jet fuel, for any reason today,
I keep bleeding through the bright holes in shadows
as if the other days didn’t count;
I’m not a showy person but gelling syrup star red
calls a kind of attention to how people often
mistake me for a desirable coat where
only a knit sweater could do the trick.
You know, it’s an education really at how
intensely persistent things fit
like we are this fruit shape or we taste
in five senses or the matter lies
in another material’s sentence we can’t describe
such as eternity’s organizing infrastructure
or how the cherry returns to the tree bud
after melting its tart skin on tongue.
I say these things to you, not because I’m forced
or informed but only to recall that
the best happens in sidewalk cracks
and by the rims of mud puddles. The sun comes out
during lunch, over siestas and cold beer it shines,
not during the office hours’ work day
that evaporates or in the face of a ticket we hold,
palm tight, but when the foot moves & mouth opens
just to enough to let the body’s earth enter
and pass in the small sweat of a sun cloud.
I watched a film tonight
about a suicide note
and thought of you, mother-
a husband’s ink-stained hands,
a hole shot through two souls.
It said, “Listen to your heart,
I will speak to you there,”
and I remember you yesterday-
making coffee with one steady hand
as the other clutched your chest,
the faint smell of smoke
wafting from the toaster.
At the time, I thought you were
simply trying to get hold
of your dangling bifocals.
The people splash
stomp through puddles with
blinding yellow Wellies
cannonball through space
spraying, sloshing, soaking
stir up mud, making opaque
all thoughts, reason
dive deep in
awkward rubber flippers
hurl rocks off bridges
drop pebbles into wells
build elaborate gutter systems to
add bubbles to baths
circle straws in glasses
add whirls to their pools
I am staring at my moat
The snow fell like a soft ode
as we drove him North on U.S. 23
toward Alpena, Michigan, our destination.
He sat in the back window seat
next to Anne and Jan.
Julie drove and eyed him in the rear view.
His body seemed small and rumpled
in the Jeep, just the way we wanted him.
We gave him Vitamin Water, XXX,
and a travel pack of Xtra Cheddar Goldfish.
We wanted him alert, pacified.
We crossed the Au Sable, then hit Greenbush,
and he said, “I am so glad
it’s winter here—I can see steam rise
from the coffee cups.” We smiled.
Of course he did, but we didn’t listen.
All of this had a purpose, you see,
we had bills to pay, we had to get out of debt,
pay off the sitter, hide the grays,
buy new shades, rotate the flywheel,
fly off—Papua New Guinea— fly
on a bright white canvas full of humping
sea-turtles, that’s right, and an army
of Howler Monkeys on the beach,
and they are doing it too—everyone
going somewhere or doing it,
but what the hell, it was Tuesday,
and we were kidnapping Billy Collins.
We passed through Harrisville,
and Billy watched a bald man with no hat
scraping the ice off his truck.
He said, “Every face I see is a snowflake.”
We looked at each other and we knew
we had him, now we understood
this was going to work.
Maybe Billy knew, too.
He seemed relieved in the back seat,
looking out the window, his soft,
childlike face without a care in the world.
Softly, he said it, over and over,
the thing about the snowflakes,
and we moved forward all the time,
heading toward the city beside the lake
where we would tie him up and make him pay
for all of it,
for everything he was doing to us.
My soul has kidnapped me and is in the driver’s seat. She looks like me but wears hot pink jeans with rhinestones and her hair flies around the steering wheel like Isadora. She flashes iridescent sparks in the twilight and smells of rosewater, sweat and coffee grounds.
“I’m the one who should drive,” I shout but she stares straight ahead. My eyes grow dim as the road passes.
“You have no right to take my car,” I say.
“Oh, is that so?” she laughs over the roar of the engine. “What are your few years of wisdom compared to my thousands? ”
I grab her belt but it burns my hand.
“Hey, you better put the seatbelt on,” she says. “You’re in for one helluva ride…”
Her laughter peals over my head as she drives by a graffitied church. “Do you know where your soul is?” Uncle Sam asks, aiming a painted finger at me. The writing on the wall fades as we race past twisted fig trees, towards a cliff. Flames lick the wheels. I grab my soul, hold down her arms, struggle to control the steering wheel. She spits at me.
“Since when does a soul spit?” I ask.
“When a body doesn’t listen,” she says and slaps me. “Wake up for Heaven’s sake! Those gates won’t stay open forever.”
I dig my nails into her hands but she laughs.
“Slow down! I can’t think,” I shout.
“You think too much,” she says.
“Take me home,” I beg, arms now wrapped around her.
“How can I? You won’t let me.” She slams her foot on the accelerator, swerves to avoid an oncoming car and crashes into metal side rails.
I hear her moan as she lies skewered on a rosebush, shredded over thorns, hot pink jeans ripped, rhinestones crushed.
“I surrender,” I say. “I surrender.”
“It’s too late,” she whispers. “Now, you must travel the road alone.”
A fog descends and the rosebush vanishes.
I thought once how Theocritus had sung
Of the sweet years, the dear and wished-for years,
Who each one in a gracious hand appears
To bear a gift for mortals, old or young.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “Sonnets from the Portugese”
I knocked many times,
but God would not let me enter.
It was the right decision.
I was not ready to see a wish
curl into little wisps of light
and come true. I was not ready
to see the tiny knuckles of your hand
reach toward mine, or hear your voice
say my name the way the wind
leaves the leaves
before you are gone.
Hot sun casts its glittery shadow
atop swaying waves
sparking corroded wires
level head plunges
beneath its white path
marathon legs grow scales and
propel fluid bricks of lake
under eager skin
heart pumps through
fish schools to reach Bird Island
where you wait
with hard arms and soft breath ready
to answer any question
I can only breathe when he sings.
He pecks at the original rind.
He creates holes for my soul.
He enters this fruit,
the landscape of my flesh
where words are rolled
If only I could allow him
to complete his work,
all would be fine.
Instead I strike stones together
to create sparks.
The words travel up my arms.
I strike them harder. I like it.
I like what I am hearing,
but they do not become wings.
I stumble into my bathroom at five, turn on the light, start the shower. When I look into the antique mirror my mother’s face stares back. What the hell?
“You’re supposed to be in bed,” I say.
“I don’t feel like sleeping.” She reveals two crooked front teeth in a raggedy smile.
I grab a washcloth and wipe the mirror but it streaks soap over my mother’s face. She grimaces. I spray Windex and wipe it clean.
“You know,” she tilts her head sideways as if examining a picture. “You’re starting to look like me.”
I lean against the sink. “Jesus, what does that mean?” I examine deep grooves along the sides of her mouth, mismatched jowls, red spider veins on her nose, a tanned hide. “How long have you been standing there, Mom?”
“I can’t get ready with you staring at me!”
“Don’t use that tone of voice with me,” she says with a frown.
“Why can’t you leave?” I ask.
“As long as you look like me I can’t leave.”
I turn out the light, but she is still there when the light goes back on.
“You know dear, you really should start using night cream. It helps save face as you age.”
“Mom, this conversation is ridiculous.”
She starts to cry. I reach out to touch her but the mirror gets in the way. “How did you get behind there anyway?”
“I’ve always been here.” She smiles.
“Go away,” I shout at the mirror.
“Don’t worry. I’ll look better after you start using cream,” she winks.
I look into a hand mirror to get a clear picture of myself but there’s my mother again. I hang it on the shower rod behind me but now hundreds of mothers stare at me …in front of me…behind me…staring from all angles…so I rip the mirror off the shower rod and throw it in the trash can.
My mother frowns, furrowed lines, memories of time spent in the sun. “You can’t get away from mirrors, but you can pretend it all isn’t happening.” Her eyes fix on the night cream.
“Will you go back to sleep if I use it?” I ask. She nods.
I unscrew the lid on the jar, dip in three fingers and slather cream over the mirror.
Watch your step.
she is merely a thinker
drained of unrealized potential
a smile on her cute, dimpled face.
She would never take
care of herself.
They were betting trifectas. This means you have to pick all three fastest horses in the right order. They already knew who would who would win and who would show, they were only worried about who would place.
“Madam Butterfly or Mary Jane’s Last Dance?” Juan asked.
“Most betters are going with Madam Butterfly but I don’t know…”
Dave looked down at his race sheet.
“…Remember Marshmallow Martini was favored in the last race–and he didn’t even place.”
“Yeah, that’s true.”
“Damn everything starting with an ‘M’ is bringing us confusion,” I say.
“Shut up and let us think,” Juan answers.
They were right. I was a terrible gambler with no knowledge of the mathematics or madness dancing like pin balls inside the minds of the addicts. They were scientists of the sport, and I was merely an admirer of the beauty.
“You go get some fresh air buddy,” Juan says. “Let us think for the last minutes we have to place this bet.”
My shadow was hovering across his race sheet like a ghost. He was scared and so was I. This was the last of our money: five thousand pesos. This was our last chance and though I couldn’t contribute anything to their discussion I certainly didn’t want to be blamed for the outcome.
I walked outside over to get closer to the track. I wanted to get a good look at the horses as they waited to make it into the stadium.
Madam Butterfly was black and very masculine, not at all feminine like her name suggests. She kicked at the dirt with her long legs, picking up sand as her jockey patted her head and kicked his heel into her chest.
I tried to find number four, Mary Jane’s Last Dance. She was golden and fantastic. One of the finest horses I’ve ever seen. Her legs were nimble and strong; longer than Madam Butterfly but looked much calmer, trotting slowly in little dance steps as her jockey smiled and spoke softly into her ear. Mary Jane’s Last Dance was worthy of earning her name, and I knew she was going to place.
I tried to find the two favorites. There was the number one horse, The Sky is the Limit off in the corner with his head down. He looked like a doctor just before surgery; complacent and confident in his capacity yet completely aware of what was required of him, not paying attention to any distractions. He was a brown stallion, and very large and it looked as if that horse was made to run like hell and do nothing else.
“Number two is going to start off strong,” Juan said. “But then he’ll be a goner and ‘il fall back at the end ‘cause he’ll have nothing left in the tank.”
“Hell yes,” he said. “The Sky’s the Limit will be spent by the time he reaches that final corner–and that short final straightway will be when Violent Storm gets into full gear and takes over the last couple lengths.”
“It’s designed for Violent Storm,” I said.
They looked at me like I was an idiot.
“What?” I said. “That short straightaway ending is designed for a horse named Violent Storm.”
“Please don’t talk,” Juan said.
I walked away to watch the horses enter the stadium. I always love it when they come out. There’s always a crazy one, with legs in the air, howling like a wolf.
“Errrrrrr,” bellowed Sugar Tequila in the corner. They were struggling to get her into the starting booth. The filly didn’t want to enter and her jockey was nearly knocked off her neck a few times. He was screaming at her, swearing in Spanish and sweating like a pig wrapped in bacon frying in the heat of the sun.
“Pinche pendejo chingona,” he said. “Vamanos–por favor Tequila–ahorita odale pues guey!”
They final got her inside and continued down the line at the starting gate. The Sky is the Limit was the next to enter. He did so with no hesitation at all; head bobbing back and forth slowly. I knew that colt was something special from the first time I laid eyes on him. Silver mane shining beneath the sweltering noonday Tijuana sun he danced leisurely onto the track. He was graceful and methodical and a vision to watch. Looking at the scoreboard the betting odds had her paying five for ten, and slightly favored over Violent Storm.
Madam Butterfly was paying thirty to one and Mary Jane’s Last Dance was thirty-seven to one. I didn’t know who we wanted, but I knew Mary Jane’s Last Dance was going to get it. I knew we would make a lot of money on the trifecta if we won. Winning: that’s all that mattered.
All the horses were in and ready to go. I looked back but couldn’t see Dave or Juan. Everybody was standing up and ready for the final race of the day. Almost all the money was on Violent Storm and The Sky is the Limit and rightly so. These two took off strong in the number one and two positions, inching ahead of the pack and then pulling further ahead after the first corner. They passed my position flying so fast it looked like their feet barely touched the dust.
There was no way anyone was going to catch them and The Sky is the Limit looked like he was pushing so hard he was trying to launch himself into space. But then his head started shaking lower to the ground and more violent. I was watching the jumbotron to get a better view and Violent Storm was making up ground fast as they made it around the final turn.
In the pack there were two horses fighting for third. They were trying to get ahead and both decided to go for the inside at the same time. The horses’ legs buckled in slow motion and “agggghhhh,” swept through the crowd like a broom rubbing across the faces of the patrons grabbing their mouths and chests.
An accident took down a couple horses, tossing anorexic jockeys through the air like rag dolls. They landed on the track and were immediately smacked like a piñata, horses somehow managing to continue as if their bodies were nothing but shadows.
The two favorites crossed the finish line and I didn’t even have a chance to see who won. The whole pack was fighting to place, five horses jockeying for one position on the platform. They crossed the finish line in a furious cloud of dust, whipping the horses with madness and hatred.
I sat back complacent and waited for the scoreboard. After a few seconds, number eight, Violent Storm, was posted in the highest position as the winner.
“Wooooooooo,” roared through the crowd.
“Yeeeaaaahhhhh,” I screamed.
Number two, flashed in red lights in the place spot right beneath number eight. The Sky is the Limit did it. They were right and I knew it would be awhile before the final number was posted. Everyone was waiting, frozen faces and no more shouting. A few women were laughing and a man drinking next to me tore up his ticket and threw it up into the air. His face looked sick and I had to turn away. I ran up the steps looking for my friends. We came to Mexico with twenty thousand pesos and this bet could double that if all went well.
“Come on Madam Butterfly sweetie–come on number seven–come on Madam Butterfly, come on girl…,” Dave said.
“Why is it taking so long?” Juan asked.
Juan wiped the sweat from his face. He was red like a lobster, sun burnt so bad he was glistening, looking quickly back and forth between the screen and the heavens like a demented lunatic. He was praying and pinching his cheeks, lips moving; saying nothing. Something had to happen.
Number 7 flashed across the screen in the place spot.
“Goddamnit,” Dave said.
“Ayyyyaaaaayyyyy,” Juan said, “Noooooooooo…”
Juan sunk back to his seat in silence. Dave pounded his chest like a gorilla. Now we had no money for tequila, only a little beer and tacos and weed. No heroin, only sunshine and senoritas and promises of better trifectas. I decided to brighten the mood and break the silence. This sadness is madness and we should have planed this trip better.
“Same old story–mañana, mañana, mañana–but I would have went with Mary Jane’s Last Dance.“
The flowers left by the spot
where he jumped have dried,
his memory unable to keep them
alive. The cards are dog-eared,
ribbons have begun to untie
themselves. I do not know him,
why he chose to jump. All I see
whenever I look down are swans
curling their wings as if carrying
something precious. And the river,
folding itself in the shape of a mouth;
waiting for answers to be given.
From the kitchen I watch
the view turning into a scene
from a Wordsworth poem:
Serene sky, pearly clouds.
The chestnut tree outside
my block rocking in the breeze.
I prepare a bottle for my baby
son and carry on watching the scene.
A group of girls wait
at the bus stop across the road.
They cannot see me watching,
noticing the slow swell in their
bellies. Soon the vapour
will thicken, start to kick.
Their mouths will dribble rain
in their sleep one night
and the sound of erupting thunder
will echo across neighbourhoods.
like music boxes
at night, filling
streets with the sound
Stray cats dash
under the protection
of parked cars; commuters
watch their newspaper
the downpour and think
of their childhood – times
when they stood outside
and tasted each drop
on their tongue, rolled
around in the newly formed
rivulets. Their adult
skin remembers those times,
weeps with the thought of loss.
After your cremation the sky
lights like a kerosene lantern.
By that glare, Rick and I loot
your desk, finding scissors and paste,
tweezers, eye drops, toothbrush, pens
with ink in six colors. At last
the mother lode: a drawer full
of cream letterhead stationery
embossed with logo and address
of the company you founded
and ran in secret. Treeline,
you called it. Rick and I divide
the stationery, planning to run
the business in your absence
although we don’t know what products
or services you sold, or to whom.
The air tastes sooty and greasy.
A strong wind billow from the south.
Rick’s uneasy. He wants to box
everything in this dusty office
and sell it by the pound for scrap.
I turn and look into your eyes.
In your long black velvet coat
you seem as sturdy as a prism
of basalt. I hadn’t understood
that allowing your ashes to rise
up the chimney into the ether
would allow you to reconstitute.
As you smile your little viper smile
your shadow so intensifies
that Rick and I fall through the floor
and crash-land ten feet below.
When we peer through the hole you made
you’re laughing down from a height
much greater than we’d expect,
and you occlude the light the sky
had generated in your honor.
When I joke about your obsession
with mushrooms and orchids you gaze
with inhuman flicker candid
as a reptile’s. The Sunday light
refracted by your smile hurts
the churchgoing crowd you despise,
and like me they regard you
from the corners of their eyes as if
afraid some curse will apply.
Some claim you sleep under toadstools.
Some even whisper that the pink
of the lady slipper tempts you
to a devilish sort of excess.
Yet you’re harmless as the flora
you admire, excepting the toxic
amanita, the flesh of which
is tough and white as your thighs.
Why are we sighing over books
when a short walk away the sea
exhales a thousand shades of gray?
The cottage can’t hold us all.
One bedroom looks so haunted
with four-poster bed and quilt
indented by invisible corpse
that no one wants to enter it.
And the kitchen fumes with propane,
causing headaches, and the parlor
offers a shelf of best-sellers
from the Fifties, plus board games
missing half the playing pieces.
So why slouch around indoors
quoting Derrida at each other
when we could bend ourselves to the wind
and walk as far as the lighthouse,
scouring the tide-line for shells?
Tom, Jared, Kate, Nancy, George–
come on, someone walk with me.
Despite the resetting of clocks
to Standard Time and the wind-shift
to the east the air’s bright enough
to open your pores and fill you
with legends of shipwreck and drowning.
We all could use the exercise.
Remember that Derrida’s theories
killed him because he sat too long
over his brazen French grammar.
So let’s step out and brave the world–
and if the cloudy light should strike
the sea at just the right angle
we’ll see around the curve of the world
to France, where Derrida’s buried
in the rubble of Marx and Kant.
Seed worms have become scarcer.
This autumn I’ve dug up so few
I fear the war can’t continue.
The seed worms are the males. Often
people expect the females
to carry the eggs, but because
they’re so highly explosive
the males tote them underground,
so deep that if they explode
by accident the earth whispers
rather than erupts. The worms
are parasitic. They penetrate
without pain, reside in the heart
where they sample the blood flow
and alter behavior. The crimes
they prevent by inducing stupor
go unrecorded. Only when war
breaks out do the worms perform
public service. The eggs become
the subtlest form of hand grenade.
Sprinkling them on the enemy
produces shocking results.
We no longer use artillery
or train recruits to fire rifles
but pepper worm eggs from above,
from helicopters. But the lack
of seed worms this season compels
hiatus to our favorite war.
Today we have to hunker down
at the polls and elect a new
and younger commander-in-chief.
A worm’s already in his heart,
already in all our hearts.
The blood-thirst of the worm becomes
our own hunger, and we live
and die by it. The dry weather
rustles like money, and the bones
of our exploded enemies
lie gloating wherever they fell.
First we unseal his mausoleum
and toss him in the back of a truck.
Packed in ice, he arrives in New York
safely. In a lab in New Hampshire
we apply electrodes and spark
his pickled heart. Lifting his dome,
we massage his brain. Spiders
have nested here but scamper away
in the blue fluorescent glare.
Lenin opens his eyes. They’re glass
but see us anyway, his spirit
returning in a long gray tide.
He coughs up a clot of Russian
and thanks us in brittle English.
Having conquered death he’s ready
to run for U.S. President.
Reborn here, he’s a citizen
and eligible. His huge forehead
intimidates all conservatives.
His love of violence impresses
liberals, transvestites, religious
of every persuasion. Stalking
on rigid and upright dogma
across the nation, he advocates
bulldozing all those institutions
that coddle inept intellects
and let women dress like men.
He advises selling our parks
and forests to private enterprise
and shooting bankers and realtors
in front of their cringing families.
On Election Day he pockets
a mandate to run the nation
as he pleases. But his structure
quickly decays. We can’t prevent
liquefaction although we pack
his pores with canning wax. He sighs
and implodes. We package the mess
in a freezer bag and declare
a week of national mourning.
The Smithsonian will preserve
his remains until a new era
requires a strong man and attempts
a fresh reanimation, perhaps
by pouring him into a mold.
We’re glad we tried, his expression
rumpled as ancient papyrus
and his glass gaze big as the sea’s.
Naked on the Common
Convicted of infamous libel
I’m forced to stand naked, shivering
on the Common where the east wind
fumbles in leafless English elms
and commuters clutch leather cases
as they elbow to the subway.
The cold seems more impossible
than the libel I published to prove
you conspired against the dignity
if not the life of the senator
who fathered your favorite child.
The poor creature sported antlers,
complicating birth, but surgery
resolved his headgear. The senator
paid the hospital bill and tipped
the surgeon with a new Mercedes.
The article I published claimed
that sex with the senator triggered
a fatal earthquake in China
and helped melt the Greenland icecap.
The senator couldn’t sue me,
his public persona too grim
to place before a jury. But you
with your weepy blonde cunning
demanded a criminal case,
regardless of established law.
A panel of judges sentenced me
to spend twenty-four hours naked
in the stocks. Dusk falls. No one
notices how blue I’ve become,
how eerie the early snowfall
looks in the blurring lamplight.
At last you stalk past grinning
like a brush fire. You testified
in court that I, not the senator,
fathered that pitiful child.
But no one did. You reproduced
finding no male ripe enough
to please you, and none brave enough
to get so close to the grimace
with which you wither the world.
Bobby’s mind is convoluted.
From dark corners, specters
chase monkeys. Black bananas
grow mold. Subconscious urges
embrace the dark foreboding things.
Rationality is a weak twin sister;
proud and pretentious, it lives in
the dirt. Ivory towers are made
of mud. Napoleon leads the
light brigade. Impotence is
a tacit king. Ah, but the sun
a shining while it’s starting
to snow. The snow delights
my hedonistic eyes. Look!
The snow is green.
A Nazi youth corps has broken through our lines and captured our flags, including the French flag and the German and Italian flags we had previously captured. We flee south with the remaining flags. In a previous episode Hitler had been trying to kill us personally but our elevator got stuck between floors, leaving him shouting hysterically just above us and pounding helplessly on the locked door. As we flee south we run into the young King Hussein moving north. He had previously been allied with the Nazis but is now allied with us. Farther south we meet up with Queen Farah. We promise her to look after the king and also to bring Condoleezza Rice in safely. Just as I say this she arrives and there is much relief. I continue south and am told by Ehud, my commanding officer, that I am being put in charge of Camp Qui Vive because my mom and dad will be staying there for the weekend. I am to relieve Gen. Darnell Worthington, the first black general in the U.S. Army. I arrive by jeep and spot him right away. He is to be my deputy now. I ask him to brief me. He starts talking very fast and I wonder if I should be writing everything down and even search my pockets for a pencil. I tell him that I am really not qualified to take charge of the camp. He puts me in the hands of Col. Babcock, his chief of staff. At this point I wake up, wondering immediately if I can use any of this material. It is as I am considering this that I decide to call the general Darnell Worthington, thinking of Denzel Washington, whom I saw in the news talking about the screen writers strike, though in the dream the general is white. There is no Col. Babcock in the dream. I put him there because Babcock strikes me as a nice name for a colonel and once I have the name I need the character. Because I have made up these names in the margin of the dream, so to speak, just as I wake, I consider them an integral part of the dream.
The dream is so vivid that I go downstairs to write it down. It is 5:30 a.m. As I am transcribing it I decide to call Hussein’s wife Farah, though I know that this is the name of the Shah’s wife. Or perhaps this was already her name in the dream. I can’t be sure anymore. In any case I am thinking of Farrah Fawcett. I call the camp Qui Vive after Jeb Stuart’s camp in winter ’61. The elevator comes from my old building in the Bronx. I don’t know what Hussein is doing in the dream. He looks very young and has his familiar mustache, though slightly thinner than in later years, and is probably wearing his red checkered keffiyeh. Condoleezza Rice is in the area talking to Olmert and Abu Mazen. Ehud is Ehud Barak. The road south is the road from French Hill to Ramot in Jerusalem, which actually runs along an east-west axis. I call it south because this seems a more appropriate direction for a retreat.
Dreams are a wonderful mystery. I rarely analyze them. I prefer to record them and leave the mystery intact. The dream transpires in an imaginary dimension of the world that can only be entered in sleep. If you attempt to resurrect this world in a waking state it loses its magic. If you imagine yourself acting in such a resurrected world you find that you have passed into the realm of fantasy, which has its own attractions but, paradoxically, none of the reality of the dream, for a dream, like a hallucination, is real on its own terms while a fantasy is merely willed. In a dream the world is given, and though we inhabit it as constructs of our own minds we act in it as we might act in the real world. Of course, when we are in a dream world we do not know that we are dreaming and there is nothing about this world to suggest that it is not real until we are awake. Were we not to awaken we might dwell there permanently, albeit on somewhat different terms, under a different kind of harmony, and live a life no less satisfactory, and perhaps more interesting, than our own.
Within the dream world everything proceeds with a certain logic and our minds operate along familiar lines: we think and feel just as we often do in the waking state – we reflect, we have insights, we engage in introspection, we are aware of belonging to ourselves, and we believe that we are freely exercising our wills when we are in fact being borne along. In this last sense, and again paradoxically, the dream is very much like life. In the real world too we are borne along, not by the forces that actuate our dreams but by the forces that rule our lives, though many would say they are identical. Say then that life is like a dream, not in its transience but in the way in which we are locked into ourselves and compelled to be what we are. In life we are the prisoners of ourselves just as we are the prisoners of our dreams.
The illusion of freedom lies at the heart of the human experience. We live with it as comfortably as the blind live without light. It is our condition. We know no other and are not equipped to know another. Consciousness does not make fine distinctions. It embraces the whole and calls everything within its sphere the self. It is in a sense coterminous with the self, inseparable from the self, and yet not the self, just as a mirror image is not the thing it reflects. When the mind has a thought consciousness is conscious of it and simultaneously throws it back on the mind as a datum of consciousness. Consciousness and the data of consciousness are coterminous too, so that when the mind conspires with itself to create an illusion, consciousness is deceived as well. The mind works behind a veil. It throws out thoughts from a dark place that come back to it in the purest light. If an image is tarnished it averts its eyes.
The mind protects us from ourselves. It stands guard over us in our waking hours just as it does in our sleep. It will not let us perceive ourselves as we are. It hides us from ourselves so well that we think that what we are is what we see. When we are moved to think a thought, want an orange or a woman, or perform for company we think we are free, for these urges, and even counterurges, are experienced as unmediated expressions of a will. In fact they only express habits of thought and social reflexes, all the unseen connections of the unconscious mind, and the imperatives of our nature. The will is the loudest voice. It reflects the balance of things behind the veil.
In the dream we slip behind the veil. Here too the world is given, but in the dream the world is my representation and as I enter it I am drawn further and further into myself. This is the final frontier. At each turn in the road a world vaster than all the universe opens itself to me. I am there. I think. I feel. Do I dare to step across the line and lose myself in the country of the dream? Do I dare to be free?
The road to Ramot, mirrored in my dream, is the road to such a country. What was going on there? Who were these people? What was this world of unexplored possibilities, opening doors I’d never imagined? And a war being fought and the enemy approaching and Denzel and Babcock and myself sorting out the chain of command and Queen Farah perhaps inviting me to tea and nothing holding true anymore. I see the camp now. It is full of activity, vehicles and men in constant motion. It must be winter because the ground is muddy. What will I find there? What lies beyond? It feels a little like my life.
These lived elusive times,
our spans derived depths of brine,
tear lakes together in puddles,
so magnificent as their aquatic flowers blooming
Only so many meteors might fall
until the ocean belches
more that it whispers
when waved winds acquire
Chance’s coach reigns white horses,
shape-shifters, meant to tweak convention,
to distress the requiem
of shadowy literary forms
for Henry R. Schepp (1908-2001)
If you had been beside me, sleepless
or chilled by the sudden violence
of the winds, maybe you’d have walked
here with me, or come after
to see what kept me standing in the night–
you’d see nothing. Only, what
dissolves: dark to dawn, shore to wave,
wings to fog, branch to light:
the vague design that doesn’t come
from me, yet holds me
to it, just as you might, another time.
David St. John, from “Until the Sea is Dead”
Strike a match, the century is almost over. The dead
sit up in their chairs; willows fan out to listen.
Rocking chairs creak: a long awaited sigh
moves across the porches of the world.
People are ready for travel: empty seats wait
for everyone at J.F.K. International. . .
I worked three jobs and still had no money:
there is no time or place
for love. I stood staring for hours
at death: heads of corpses, wheelbarrows of ash
nodding toward the waiting Earth.
My grandchildren sleep inside of me.
I will never forget my Mother’s
sense of humor. I will never
You were stoned and beaten
in New York’s Lower East Side,
a young Jewish immigrant
only eight years old.
You walked home, wiped away the blood
and sat down to read with your brothers,
who shared with you
the truth of the written word . . .
I loved her brown eyes and dark Irish hair. Sometimes
I swear I could see the moon
rise in her skin. We met
because I was selling shoes
in Akron, Ohio, and she loved shoes.
I could count on her coming to the store
at least once a week. I swear, the first time I saw her
my heart was lost forever.
Anyway, she must have had an eye for me, too,
for she invited me to play bridge
one Saturday night with another couple. Would you believe
that both this couple and she
didn’t know a thing about bridge?
So I spent the rest of the night teaching them
to play bridge, and I fell in love.
My oldest brother, Red, told me years later
that he knew we would get married
the day he found us
on opposite sides of the living room
sitting on davenports, each of lost in a book.
The air around us is heavy
like a fine mist of oil, and smells
like a kettle
of soup left on the stove
since early morning. Church bells
rinse the trunks
and branches of the sycamores:
a congregation of leaves
left on the ground.
The presence of God
is everywhere, like the unseen
language of a dream: people
cut roses and pick
tomatoes: a young couple washes
a dog in a baby pool. A black widow
is busy at work on its web
which blooms between the gutters
of a two-story colonial
and a young red maple. Every natural
is a state of mind: the sky’s ability
to sing throbbing down
through the branches
and out from the lips
of the grass.
You are late, strike a match,
the century is almost over. Newborn children
stop crying on cue: even the guns
are quiet, the air around them moving
through the leaves
like hands sifting through grain.
You unloaded boxcars of watermelons
in Akron, Ohio, sometimes earning a dollar a day
and sometimes soup and bread.
You never complained: you dressed in rags . . .
The century watched as you turned sixteen
and stepped on a train bound for Chicago, Illinois,
unloaded a shipload of Canadian whiskey
and a stranger handed you a hundred-dollar bill.
In America, he told you, no one can touch you
if you have money.
Imagine the looks on our faces
when the drill sergeant told us to grab a bridle
and go get ourselves a horse.
Most of us were from the city
and had never ridden a horse. A few of the braver men
ventured over the fence and started chasing horses.
Most guys ended up with a mouth full of dust
and a lot of laughter in their ears. Before long, however,
most of us were out there too, chasing horses around.
We were a sight to see.
Did you know we were the last
of the cavalry? After us,
the army phased us out for good.
What the hell. Everything ends sometime.
I suppose it’s like that when we pass away.
We are each given a bridle and told to go out
and pick a horse. Anyway, it probably doesn’t matter:
riding horses is hard work.
The light appears to bounce off the rooftops
and the blue jays begin to dart and screech
as the sun rises and burns
away the stars. I think
I can see her watering carnations
beside the house, her feet
covered by a puddle of grass,
her legs set off by a backdrop
of marigolds. Across the ocean,
in Africa, I board a plane with orders
for the allies to invade Sicily.
Never again would I feel myself
to be such a part of the breadth
of the world, never again would the memory
of that light bring so much:
this small town with robins and marigolds,
her words in my pocket a game of chance
only time would unfold.
Strike a match, the century is almost over.
The gray whales
from Alaska to California
change their songs — everyone begins to drink
black coffee and read Chaucer, forgive
each other’s sins, and ride bareback to mountain cabins
without running water.
The ships that left the United States on their way
to North Africa
were packed with soldiers.
The worst place to be was below deck, sometimes up to five
decks below the surface. Down there,
you could count on getting killed
if the ship was hit by a German submarine. I can remember
placing my hand on the metal, the ship’s side:
you could feel the water rushing by, the sheet metal here
less than an inch thick. I will never forget that.
It scared the hell out of all of us.
We spent most of our time
gambling: huge crap games that went
into the thousands of dollars. The winners
would run immediately to the chaplain
and give him their money
in case they were killed.
We come here, ship after ship,
die on these shores, and still
we are left without answers.
Why do we pray?
We ask, again and again,
if we find ourselves dead
on this hill, beneath these stars,
how long will we sleep?
You will sleep beneath a black moon:
I will take you in my arms and breathe
into your eyes. You must believe
there is a rhythm, a sequence
you must follow: your home
which is never far: your body
a little puddle filled
I believe in asking questions.
A person who doesn’t think about the world
is going to end up in trouble.
It has always been this way.
Is the world a frightening place to you?
it was to me, when I was your age.
I’m old now. I’ve outlived everybody.
I remember when I was a drill sergeant
in charge of the firing range
a young soldier ran up to me
and stuck the barrel of his rifle
right in my face. I grabbed it, moved it out of the way,
and it fired, shattering the drum of my left ear.
I was so god damned mad
I nearly killed him. What the hell.
That was a long time ago.
I can hear all right. I like to sit here
and look out my window,
wonder why everyone is in such a hurry.
I can’t complain. I have everything I need.
Believe it, burn a candle — sing — the century
is almost over.
The painters have cleaned their brushes;
the guitars are in tune. Now, it is time
for dancing, for anything
we haven’t done before,
for everything we’ll do again.
for Ana Rina
Time was once a fluttering bird
inside your body, a flicker
that sends the love in your eyes
the unwritten commands that make
you a mother.
apart from you now, in beds
warm with their own little
When they dream
you can sense them in your own
guarded sleep, for your love
has built invisible threads of starlight
which the angels use to safely guide
every wish you hold for them
to their waiting souls.
Trouble with you,
you were always afraid of dying,
always afraid to let go.
Remember, the dance floors
are vast in paradise.
The first time you heard the word
you could feel its reality
like the first time you heard the word
and suddenly everything
became uniquely finite.
A shame to be spoiled by words,
to let words be spoiled by shame.
Death is a nursery story.
There is a lesson at the end.
Lift your shaking arm and shave.
My soul cries out for every undiscovered dog
who still crawls toward birth
in the sexual water
in which we swim, breathe, dream.
Kay Nina (b. 1939) Soul Dog Soul Fish
Dogfish in the shade of the stream,
tails and scales: here
in this dream of water,
water ladled under the body
like a puddle of memory
we swim through to return
to our lives.
But we are afraid to return
to this swamp of graves.
We are afraid to remember
the crawling dog-spirit
at rest with its nose
on the edge of the sea
after eons of gill-song.
How easy it must be
to feed the dog, feed the fish,
move your hand over the water
or drop your donation
in the basket.
You can nibble and bark,
tow the line guard the house:
Hallelujah brother dogfish!
Dogfish has his mind on simpler things
this evening, enough
of all the lawn mowers
and sprinklers, he thinks,
this suburb needs a paint job.
It’s time to go caving.
Look at dogfish!!
He’s in the caves, brother!!
Dogfish is in the caves!!
Neolithic drawings of fat
wounded animals graze
through his hungry mind,
and Jesus bides his time
next to a fire only heaven
can put out. Dogfish thinks,
Brother, this fire is too warm.
I need to get wet
and chew bones.
Still hungry, Dogfish jumps
in his ’63 MG convertible
only to catch Jesus and Santa Claus
in the rear-view mirror
directing a chorus of tight-lipped
sea monkeys through the gospel
Take a Lap around Mt. Sinai.
And just when you think
this crazy gill brother’s done it all,
Dogfish goes back home
with his tail between his fins
and has a beer and a smoke.
He’s trying to sort it all out:
charcoal grill, baseball, Buddhism.
The Olympics come and go
and Dogfish loves the synchronized
swimming — underwater breath
barks. What intrigues him
is the image of Buddha
at the bottom of his favorite
aquarium, head bobbing open
letting out air. Dogfish thinks,
Buddha should have a gold medal.
He’s been down there longer
than anybody I know.
He leans over the aquarium
and hears each bubble-bark
as it pops: yah-blup, yah-blup.
There is an unmistakable
gill glory on this muzzle
as he barks this song
he knows too well:
scales on the doghouse wall.
and unfastens the curtains of memory
where everything lies down
in the grass and finds the sky
refracted and human:
pictures we see
more than clouds,
lives we inhabit
more than atmosphere
where reflected sunlight
from a nearby star
holds us down,
the weight of lingering grief
in the jet stream,
words on the lips
of the dying
like unsheltered open wells
enters me like the still
light of a pond
at rest in my mind:
you ripple through
the room, the pebbles
I toss from my eyes
to set your image in motion
have lost their origin,
and move over the landscape
of your country
to the shore,
where the waves bend the light
in your eyes to a whisper
only beauty can hear. Darkness
follows, now moonlight
the canvas your words bring
to life: dewdrops from a star
you drop not by note
in this poem.
There is the church, the trees, the cars
moving by: he can see the things
that matter little to him now.
The light on his face
gives him an ageless appearance:
he has been alive in each decade
of this century, and looking back,
he says, is like looking into the shapes
and forms of himself
he can now hardly recognize.
As he talks, his hand sometimes
caresses the top of his head,
smoothing out the hair that remains,
and sometimes he closes his eyes
and tilts his head back,
the memories rushing in so strongly
there are no words left
to bear them, no words
to frame them, and it is here
that we embrace and part —
I am left with the image
of light on his face,
his closed eyes heavy
with the years inside them.
or stop my life from turning
into a tumbler of fear.
The cops wait for me
in the driveway, the phone
is tapped — I might as well
flip on a turban
and stretch my thoughts
back through the centuries,
where only the symphony moves
forward, somehow reaching
for God: I have seen one hundred
ways to die and chosen none —
the bourbon on my lips
looking for your kiss
that remains an elusive memory —
sunk in living room pet dander
and stale air.
when a broom falls
a couch slides
at the moments that pelt us
the screams bangs shouts
We are the ones who can’t see
the brevity of the storm-
only wince blurrily as we
and wait for it to all be over.
We are not the
family portrait people, not the
Christmas letter writers.
We are the ones trying to
notice that when the light hits us all
we look beautiful
Then Billy expanded on it
with a bass line he thumped out
on an old wooden telephone pole.
And Johnny joined in, strumming out
a rhythm on the telephone lines
stretched across the black velvet sky.
Jerry did us proud with a screaming solo
wrung out of the wrought iron
fences lining the cul de sac.
And I, for my part, sang some maximum
rhythm and blues dredged up from
somewhere deep inside a dark night of the soul,
My voice joining with the band, a siren’s song,
summoning the demons of rock and roll
to seduce heaven’s horniest angels from their hymns.
You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you – no one.
There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.
Come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose. Don’t write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance. So rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty – describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember.
If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is not poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attentions to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance.
And if out of this turning-within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it.
So, dear Sir, I can’t give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it. Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take the destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and must find everything in himself and in Nature, to whom his whole life is devoted.
You should have seen the faces of the onlookers
as I tried to bring the bird back to life.
I figured this was my chance to make something
of myself: a life-changing chance to give life.
After all, this was Easter week: I knew M street
could survive another resurrection.
First, I rubbed its torso down the length
of its beauty, careful not to disturb the feathers.
I noticed how my fingers could not sense
death: like a lover, sometimes they are the last to know.
Then, I pulled its claws and let go —
I watched them delicately spring back
into place — rigor mortis
had not set — it sets, like the light we tender
as ours, but here, on this patch of sidewalk,
I let go of my desire and watched its colors
fade — the same light in the same way
that will someday claim mine.
that cannot be described.
Down the road, there is a group
of words huddled together
near the railroad tracks.
They are about to make love.
They have no problem with infinity,
and either do I.
Come on, let’s go!
J. Spanos (1933-2009) Crossroads of the Infinite
Of all the places
I was given to love,
there is a place made of water
where I return
every time language fails.
I remember to stay here
a little longer
than the rest of the Earth.
I like the way the leaves
glide, as if the current
is holding its breath.
Some words take longer than others
to surface, and this one
is worth the wait.
If nothing else, I can chase
my shadow under the trees,
or follow the cardinals note
by note through the underbrush.
They know where they are going —
I do not need to understand.
I can see the hole they cut
into the Earth. At night,
it looks like a pool of black
water where ghosts swim
on their backs, long strokes
that stretch moonlight
into wavering fingertip threads.
They are afraid of the water.
I can see them huddle along
the edges for warmth.
They take the little of me
that remains and change
into a game the dead
play on vacation.
I see them blowing rings
with my breath.
I hate them. I want to
stop them, but I cannot stay.
They have nothing to say.
I see you making love.
I cover you with everything
I have. I cover you
with my silence,
and when you move,
you sing together a music
that holds me here,
where your notes and your key
echo my desire
to be human, to linger.
I turn you lovingly
into living sculpture,
warm to the touch.
I measure you carefully,
your flesh in my hands like clay.
I never learned the difference.
I do not remember my origin.
I know one constant: look forward
into the void.
I wish I held a string in my hand
and could follow it back
to its origin,
but I might not like what I find —
I know only two letters by heart:
alpha and omega.
I would rather stare forward
and travel into the places
where a language is never born.
Here I begin, each time
I open my eyes.
I want to whisper
to tips of trees as twilight
recedes and ripples
into memory: the first time
I touched atmosphere
and created color.
No one was there,
but I can still see the way
the leaves turned in my arms
as I pressed again
into the language of vein and cell:
I never let them down,
never lose my touch.
Early July, a breezy afternoon,
and I am outside looking at flowers.
As I remember
now, beneath this bubbling splash
of rain, I tried to step
into your tiny blue
eyes, to touch the sharp needles
of the pine trees beside the porch,
taste the green perfume
and watch the kaleidoscope
inside your eyes twinkle
as I strain to part clouds.
I can almost hear you speak
a wish, a whisper,
a wisp wholly human,
but I am not permitted
to remain — I move
out of range,
I sleep on the edge
where your dreams
are born, where the light
is your alone.
Look at me
passing over your madness,
water and grass
so much of what I love
I forget to shine.
I become a snowflake
that cannot find its way South,
my life for a moment
alive in a wordless flame,
the constellations writing
the only words I believe,
Spring dropping its weight
into the medium
my life becomes.
There is only one element
left to find, but I cannot
remember its name.
I have no lips. Smile for me.
It is not too late.
F. Lystrander (1168-1224) Metaphysical Elements of Praise
I cannot remember the world.
I hear the sounds of a guitar
echo from the walls of houses.
Colors from the market
sift through my body,
smells of coffee and warm
carnations satiate my spirit.
I know the world is not mine.
There are no doorways
I can open. I have nothing
to sell: my thoughts
have no meaning here
Dust falls on cobblestones
and shadows take flight
into hands the valley
will never touch.
I am lonely without the world.
only in the scarves of memory,
I appear in an open courtyard
fated, fickle, formless.
I show them everything
and change nothing.
I scratch a quill on parchment
that will someday open unborn
flesh. I know you:
instruments where instinct
cannot hide. I see
how so much dust in the air
never reminds you of a final
flicker of breath. I move
hands until they wither
into fingers on new hands
writing old words
on new parchment
in a dead language. A new tongue
is all I need to move rocks
and wait for praise.
I know where echoes sleep.
True, the toil to carry language
is theirs alone: syllables weigh
the most just before they find time
I know when they are ready.
The air is heavy before rain,
before wind opens her lips
one last time.
I look for the last place on Earth.
Go ahead. Try to find answers.
Look in the hollows,
look in the sadness of my eyes.
If you know where they are born,
you do not need me.
I will understand.
I have patient hands.
I wanted you to continue,
fly through my body,
find your home in my breath.
Our existence is fragile.
Yours is made of tender air, blown kisses
that find a home beneath your wings.
Your shadow on the ground
is all the proof I need,
and now, without you,
I will warm your body,
even in death.
I have certain limits:
I cannot pass through solids.
Imagine the mess inside flesh,
the damage I would do, the unexpected
revelations as cells burn for me.
I mistake each cry for help
as a song. Inspiration is pure
when its origin is forgotten,
taken for praise. Think of a dam,
pools of heat that rise unseen
next to trees, boulders, torsos.
At night I trickle back to nothing,
each particle of my being moves
through blades of grass and up
the trunks of trees that lift me
into the open sky
where I rise
above everything I touch
and call it day.
I sculpted your body.
Each wrinkle felt my lips,
each blemish felt the brush
of my hands.
My fingers made a rosary
of your body.
When they placed you
in the ground, I pressed
my eyes into the soil.
I wanted to see
the hidden language
where flesh is born.
I wanted to hear
my name, where no one
not even me.
I saw you wash your hands
in the open. You tried not to look
at them. The clouds that day
spelled forever in every tongue.
My happiness was complete.
Today, I could see
through flesh, and nothing
made by human hands
would stop me.
I began to sing
as I passed through clouds,
and I could see every pair
of eyes turn toward heaven.
When metal and blood
came together at last,
I began to hear your words
soak the ground.
I entered the earth
at last, the hidden places
opened up before my name,
and even death smiled.
“A human being is part of a whole, called by us the “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest – a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.”
Albert Einstein, What I Believe, 1930
. . . and this question from Nick (four years old): Where do the colors go at night? Suddenly, everything you thought you believed begins to unravel. You find yourself, after a long journey, finally standing in the center of where you have always been: inside a poem, finally alive, no longer seeking, but finding. Language will take you where you want to go if you simply listen. Hollis Summers, professor and writer from Athens, Ohio, once said, “A poem is everything I know about being alive.” Alive, the writer must learn to live in a room full of darkness searching for colors that only come when spring arrives. Alive, the writer must ask the questions that language itself may not be capable of answering. Alive, the writer becomes a conduit for answers to questions that may never have been asked in the first place.
Is there really a place where the colors go at night? Is God hungry? Are you strong enough to kill that monster? I have been listening to these questions, and I do not have all the answers. I tell him the colors are tired after a long day of delighting our eyes. He wants to know about delight. I tell him de light is good. He wants to know what we should give God to eat. I tell him milk is a great place to start, because it is white, the color of God, and they make it all the time, even in our sleep. He wants to know about killing monsters. I tell him the biggest, scariest monsters fall hard when you use language they do not recognize. I tell him this is how we dream in color. I tell him this is what I know about being alive. I tell him this is poetry. . .
Try to remember
History records many open windows
And only one constant: light.
L. Astorelle (d. 578) The Mystery of Light
I let paint move where it wants-
within reason there are many rooms.
Later, my hand will slow into shadow,
determined to lift the life of object
into substance. I want to add notes,
if I could, but they do not let me.
It is not time. The leaves catch little
of me that remains here, and later,
rain will fall. Happiness comes
and goes–I need
sleep, and sweetly, soon.
Slanted, I stretch across the open
window–the child is almost born.
The mother is flushed with screaming
blood. The hands follow me
into darkness, where god waits-
they know what to do.
No one is outside. Here,
with water, clay jars, linens and milk,
there is time for one last look
at the stars, then I am finished.
They torture me slowly, of course,
with a knife that is blunt on one side.
My screams stop at the moment
I become animal, still gurgling
after my head is gone. The windows,
covered. The chanting, goes on.
Without thinking, I curved
love into a ribcage, little
by little settling into form
and measureable language.
I knew time would lift
hidden designs to a suitable fate.
As I walked on sand,
I thought of wet
grass, distant stars,
and oil, soft gurgle
of hidden elements
that wait, sometimes,
forever. Eyes, I know,
find all the answers,
and lips, lips
never tell the truth.
I was her only salvation,
inside her skull,
the miracle, mirror, masquerade.
Now she will touch mortality
for the rest of human existence,
and I will touch water and soil
before I pass beyond the visible,
before I reach the unseen,
where other worlds wait
to be born
and no words exist
for this, or anything else
that hides in darkness
I made sure the fields were warm
and shadows beneath the foliage
cool to touch. In the open,
I could hear vultures
cry out with meaty beaks.
It was a good day for killing,
and from what I understand,
a certain glee engulfed the survivors.
I remember one, wiping his mouth
on his sleeve after it was over,
and then he stared at the sky
for a long time. Our eyes met
somewhere miles beyond
the horizon, and I was unhappy
when he looked away to kiss
I stretched out my arms
to meet a weary traveler.
I knew he was ready.
I saw his face through the open
window, and his eyes
never left mine. It was
time: I could see
clouds move in his
iris, and each one spelled
a different word
We bring our children to the cocktail hour
with a battalion of toys—
blocks, books, board games, binoculars.
We want things to keep them occupied
so there will be opportunity to talk.
They play quietly on the floor near the fireplace,
orange glow on soft cheeks.
We sip sweet manhattans,
nibble herbed chevre on toast points,
discuss the charm of our new president and how
he will make American life more dignified.
There is debate about remodeling,
a battery of opinions on music,
strategically planned trips and a recent
version of Macbeth on stage.
Children hold camp as we retreat
further into banality, a jungle
of language our only defense
against the stealth determination of Death,
who waits to ambush us all.
I never thought of it as dark-
confused, cynical, leery perhaps.
But dark? Dark is burnt toast, a scar, charcoal,
I admit to embracing wickedness some days-
basking in bitterness, apathy, judgment.
now that seems more appropriate.
I like to teeter on the cliff
above the valley of oblivion-
write things down that won’t
make sense to anyone
not even me.
Better to be on edge
than in the dark.
From here I could jump
over to the camp of optimism, odes, the overt.
In order to uncover epiphanies
for art, they told Dr. Quigley
the spoon must be shiny
and clean, so they gave him a new one.
He began to ladle the air
in the room and then lift it
to his eyes
to see which colors appeared.
Certain rooms are full of red,
maybe a spoonful if you are lucky.
He wondered the house for days,
looking for red, but he only found blue.
He scooped the air again and found darkness
which he brought to his lips
to sip for the first time.
There is no reason
to believe this. Some never do.
Fine. He has seen light fall
in chunks around them as
they sit on frozen chairs
and wait. They never hear the flutter
of wings near the ceiling,
they never see his spoon swirl
with a trace of feathers.
Dr. Quigley is not surprised.
Who could question the flight
of birds in a room full
of so many
unsettled brush strokes?
Look just past your doubt,
where, even in the dark,
all colors merge and become
nameless, free from blame:
here, up to his waist
in his favorite lake, in a room
with too many mysteries to name,
the colors on the water
are the only words
he needs to hear.
lo venni in luogo d’ogni luce muto;
The stench of wet coal, politicians
. . . . . . . . . . e and. . . . . n, their wrists bound to
Standing bare bum,
Faces smeared on their rumps,
wide eye on flat buttock,
Bush hanging for beard,
Addressing crowds through their arse-holes,
Addressing the multitudes in the ooze,
newts, water-slugs, water-maggots,
And with them. . . . . . . r,
a scrupulously clean table-napkin
Tucked under his penis,
and. . . . . . . . . . . m
Who disliked colioquial language,
stiff-starched, but soiled, collars
circumscribing his legs,
The pimply and hairy skin
pushing over the collar’s edge,
Profiteers drinking blood sweetened with sh-t,
And behind them. . . . . . f and the financiers
lashing them with steel wires.
And the betrayers of language
. . . . . . n and the press gang
And those who had lied for hire;
the perverts, the perverters of language,
the perverts, who have set money-lust
Before the pleasures of the senses;
howling, as of a hen-yard in a printing-house,
the clatter of presses,
the blowing of dry dust and stray paper,
fretor, sweat, the stench of stale oranges,
dung, last cess-pool of the universe,
mysterium, acid of sulphur,
the pusillanimous, raging;
plunging jewels in mud,
and howling to find them unstained;
sadic mothers driving their daughters to bed with decrepitude,
sows eating their litters,
and here the placard ΕΙΚΩΝ ΓΗΣ,
and here: THE PERSONNEL CHANGES,
melting like dirty wax,
decayed candles, the bums sinking lower,
faces submerged under hams,
And in the ooze under them,
reversed, foot-palm to foot-palm,
hand-palm to hand-palm, the agents provocateurs
The murderers of Pearse and MacDonagh,
Captain H. the chief torturer;
The petrified turd that was Verres,
bigots, Calvin and St. Clement of Alexandria!
black-beetles, burrowing into the sh-t,
The soil a decrepitude, the ooze full of morsels,
lost contours, erosions.
Above the hell-rot
the great arse-hole,
broken with piles,
greasy as sky over Westminster,
the invisible, many English,
the place lacking in interest,
last squalor, utter decrepitude,
the vice-crusaders, fahrting through silk,
waving the Christian symbols,
. . . . . . . . frigging a tin penny whistle,
Flies carrying news, harpies dripping sh-t through the air.
The slough of unamiable liars,
bog of stupidities,
malevolent stupidities, and stupidities,
the soil living pus, full of vermin,
dead maggots begetting live maggots,
usurers squeezing crab-lice, pandars to authori
pets-de-loup, sitting on piles of stone books,
obscuring the texts with philology,
hiding them under their persons,
the air without refuge of silence,
the drift of lice, teething,
and above it the mouthing of orators,
the arse-belching of preachers.
the corruptio, fretor, fungus,
liquid animals, melted ossifications,
slow rot, fretid combustion,
chewed cigar-butts, without dignity, without tragedy
. . . . .m Episcopus, waving a condom full of black-beetles,
monopolists, obstructors of knowledge.
obstructors of distribution.
“The imperfect is our paradise.”
I was only thinking when I wrote the poem-
you know the one
observing the sand shifting on the beach, clouds
caressing waves at the horizon.
You could really hear
the surf, feel its freshwater breeze, see
North Point’s green tip across the bay.
Months have passed and no one
has appreciated that piece like you.
It was enough for me too
until this morning
reading his poem about carnations-
about a poem about carnations,
pristine bowl cupping perfect blossoms-
when I realized that
the beach, though beautiful
to do with the loneliness I felt that day-
the way I wanted to run
across water, hop onto
uncertain clouds and ride
away from the shore
where all expectations of me
hollow wind through stone fort
near isolated elm.
Hazel eyes are vessels
skimming wine-dark seas beneath.
A gale wind fills them
With sleepless nights and dream.
An ordinary mouth
Made remarkable when closed
House gnashed, yellowed teeth
And a coated tongue
Wet with unspeakable rain
While just below the lower lip
a spit of dark hair
is island to the nose
whose flared nostrils and clenched jaw
over deserted farmland’s forehead
whose old rows
weather well-stayed feet of crows’
Hands fold into churches’ people
on left knee
as posture bends by gravity
Of books in dim light.
Worn brown shoes
Kicked in. Slammed shut
As legs in worn jeans
Sense their good luck
In being able
To stagger away
From five o’clock shadows
We are two limbs of tangled driftwood – spin
and stumble through the narrow rivers, twist
in faster currents, drown in driven mists
of falling water. Rocks are closer, lichened
river sandstone, loosened, stumbles free.
How do I not break you, our throes violent,
austere? Commingled boughs are bent –
I could snap in half, take part of you with me.
But water makes us softer – we are blending,
a blur of bark and heartwood, older, harder –
our sharper edges smoothed, severe refining.
Even pebbles once were upstream boulders.
The knotted whorl left over in the widening
estuary rests holy, polished, pure.
Being a Marigold
Being a marigold, I should flower long,
but blossoms dwindle, shiver back to bud-
shape over and over. I am willful, strong –
I arch my back and stretch my roots in mud,
the sweat of summer does not make me weep.
Spider mites and spittle bugs consume
my orange and golden plumes; my lifeblood seeps –
it’s so much harder than I thought to bloom.
In fall I tan, turn stiff and brittle; sisters
with their plantlets wonder, pity, will
I never loose my seeds, children scattered
beneath me? I am weary, tired, kill
the time by counting all the fallen splinters
of my flowers, like prayers, scattered into winter.
The sun is relentless-
trying to pry open
my clenched eyes to
the opportunites of the day, but
I hold fast
looking down, the crown of my head
its only point
of contact, determination
repelling its rays for
some unknown hero with
lassos a far-away storm cloud,
tugging at it
like a leashed dog
who wants to linger
under a maple.
I pull it close to me,
its dark beauty my
though it has flowers to feed
rivers to fill.
I need it more-
the staticity of its pent-up drops
as I savor the sour taste
I let sit, thickly, on
my dry tongue.
I know this cloud will not
hold its water forever, but if
I can stay here beneath it-
spoiled child with black balloon-
it could eventually
provide me a fine
You might be the ladder
I was looking for,
the unsettled image
rising out of a black line
on the sea. Stand there, try
to ignore the wave tips
wonder who placed the lock
on the highest rung, the one for
God. I need you
to be in this tower. It is quiet
a place for poets. The air moves
just a little, enough to feel the lights
hinder a grey sky
from becoming real. So much for the eye
on the horizon
filled with dashes of orange and red
brush strokes–the last to see Pompeii–
you have been here forever,
here you will stay.
I see your profile on the jacket cover and can imagine
you in bed smoking,
talking about daffodils
as they lean toward the window eavesdropping with their
earhorn blooms, wondering what poets find
so interesting about them, how we spend time
gazing into their sun-bright petals
marvel at the way their short-lived beauty is
indispensable in spring.
I laugh when you say you would plant
some in my hair if they would grow, that
together our shine would be unrivaled.
As it is I never wear yellow, my fair skin made sallow
against its magnificent glow.
But you will put them there-find an unusual
link between my asymmetric smile and their Greek name,
make a witty comment about how we both
break through frozen ground to stand
blazing for a few weeks before giving way to
blooms with real stamina like echinacea or day lilies.
For now you sink down beneath care-free sheets
staring up at the chipped ceiling, smiling because
you are in no rush to get anywhere and ask me
to bring you a cup of coffee on
my way out.
like a piece of furniture
dragging me from one room to the next to see
which corner I would fit into,
muttering about impossible measurements,
where you might shave off an inch here or there to
get a perfect fit. Eventually you quit
leaving me in the middle of the largest wall-
prisoner awaiting firing squad-
neither in your way nor
out of it.
She said she
felt trapped inside herself, as if she
was really someone
else who needed to get out, or else.
I listened for a long time, kept feeding her
drinks to get to the bottom of it.
I told her go see a priest and she said she
had tried and failed, she
ended up in bed with him, or she
thought it happened a long time ago when she
was little and everything
seemed. She seemed
angry suddenly, with me, and I
told her that I had to try
and help, after all, I was her
great grandfather’s sister’s
niece, and I knew
about it, in fact, I told her, I knew
someone who knew someone
who knows, therefore I know,
I am an expert
a priest, I said. She said she
felt trapped inside, as if she
was inside, as if she
said she, she said.
I can’t remember, baby,
What colours were your eyes;
I never came so near to
You to realize
Their deep intricacies.
I met you once, remember,
And you mistook me for
Another–but I tremble
When I recall that your
Body looked so young for eyes of such deep loss, such deep remorse.
Remembering that meeting
And how your passion took
The breath from me, I know your bleeding
Death must be a dark mistake
Numb hands stole from a book.
Baby, bodies fumble
Through agonies of self
And others who dissemble
Life and identity: they halve
Our love. But can dead hatred help?
You sang of a dead baby
A simple lullaby.
You sang to a small body
Of life. How could you die?
You told us to remember. Why?
Who did she resemble?
We will never know.
Our sweet baby fresh and new,
A babe so innocent and pure–
Not even a breath could alter you.
Why was your visit so short?
We couldn’t wait to hold you,
we were so ready
to enfold and unfold you.
A little room readied with
gingham and lace.
It is nearly time,
everything is in place.
Most likely eyes of brown or green,
sable curls waiting
to be stroked and cleaned.
So much love waiting here
for you–so wanted.
Did you feel it?
Do you feel it?
Once we meet you,
will we be able to play?
Why did God send you?
And take you away?
I. Painter, Maker, Musician
No poem is ever completed
No dance knows the perfect
Beat of his heart when the dancer’s feet are toeless and so
But we go on, we go on and act
We go on and act
Now that the circle is drawn
Now that the circle is drawn
You can see the dim outlines of dawn
You can see the dim outlines of lawns and a dawn
On the horizon of our faces
And each who follows will follow a line and trace
anew a new shape whatever the line he retraces.
Each who follows will follow,
will follow a line and trace anew,
and trace anew a new shape–
whatever the line he retraces:
Mountain, or ocean, or fire, or the sky’s grey arc:
he will wield a palette of possible poems.
into a word. They said
I might not be happy
with the choice, for it sticks:
there is no going back.
As I write this, I still do not know
its name, but I need to write-
after all, we forget invitations
and go places we are not welcome:
dead fingers, held in place
with the same wires hidden inside
to make a fake tree look real
but cold: there is no disguise
for death, and frigid fingers hold
nothing–no secrets, nothing–
and this is the easy part:
the dead know where the rain
is born, they know the last
word breathes life into the first–
but all I have is the promise
of a word that is still not here
and may never arrive
in time–in fact, I hope it stays
right there in hell.
My heart throbs.
It could be thick supermarket coffee or
thoughts of you following me down aisle three
where I catch my hungry reflection in the freezer door.
There is a twofer on waffles.
Maybe you prefer pancakes-
a slippery square of butter sliding right of center
real maple syrup rivers running, a taste too pure for me.
They make pancakes for the microwave now.
I wonder if you would like those.
Your wife probably makes them from scratch though
I like to think she cheats
a bit with Bisquick.
I can see you after breakfast in bed,
the scar above your left ear dark
against the hotel’s crisp white pillowcase
a drippy grin on your mouth.
We’ve met just this once because
she might cut corners in the kitchen but
that’s as far as it goes.
I don’t know how I will ever see pancakes the same again-
a billowy short stack looking just like the pillows,
the syrup your brown skin
and that pat, buttery smile.
A fine flower
knows no hour of discolor
no shaky state on distasteful soil
her only toil to be fragrant
with supple round petals
softly reaching upward
against the ashen sky.
She walked up to him.
He could tell she liked him.
Let’s hold one another
and feel the music.
Let’s see where it takes us,
she said, as we moved
to the rhythm
slowly feeling its pulse.
You smell delicious,
she whispered in his ear.
You are yummy too.
The music continued.
Was anyone else around?
Well, were they?
Did it matter?
She moved closer into him.
He did too.
so meant for one another.
She pulled back and looked deep
into his beautiful green eyes.
You are the most beautiful
man I have ever known.
You are, she said.
How did I get so lucky
to be dancing with you?
I wish the music could
last forever, he thought,
as he felt her soft cheek
against his rough cheek.
Words were not needed
We both thought the dance
would be wonderful.
And for forty one years,
it has been.
This sweet, sometimes fast,
always together dance,
Roads go on forever
in our minds, in the country
we were born to
and love, each rise bringing us
back, each curve bending
along the slow edge
of memory, where we find the roots
of every un-harvested field
we ever walked, where we discover
each other in tall summer
grass, searching in the fading light
for answers we would never find:
the trees too far away to touch,
the miles too long to remember.
I saw a naked boy in the street
asking for money from passing cars.
He reminded me of death:
covered in dust,
looking for what the living
would give up.
The kids on the bus
threw candy at him
when the pieces hit him
in the face,
as he scrambled
to pick them up
from the dirt.
The kids on the bus
and I was afraid,
knowing that death,
has no shame.
Before he passed out of sight
I noticed the boy
was not laughing.
He was looking for more.
so this pen can move with the pulse
of my vision
and somehow not falter
in blood or in time
and be willing to say it:
say it like it should be said.
Sip slowly this bottle,
say its name
and no longer be a fool,
say Cotes du Rhone
and still be far from Paris,
and to want you, to want you here
with each sip,
seems a wish beyond wishing.
this rat, clean it
for once, give it
a manicure, crop
like a boxer puppy, leave it
to bathe in a shower stall
with scented perfumes
its hairs, paint
its nails, whiten
its teeth, give it
a sexy name:
Misty, Candice, Bridget:
botox lips sown shut.
How much fun is it to work outside in the dirt?
Now, I am not talking about a little dirt … here and there. Oh no. The kind of get down dirty I refer to is slogging around in the dirt, becoming literally covered from head to toe, including hair, shoes, face and all parts in between. The soil and filth about which I, and others (you know who you are), refer.
Oh the pure joy of it! Could there be anything better for us grime-loving earth lovers of dirt? I really don’t think so. I like it best when it is not too wet, nor too dry, but somewhere in between. It can be loose, not too tightly packed, but not sand.
Yes! To be in that abject manner of impurity, so dirty you don’t want to stop, come in the house and clean up; yet not dirty enough to have satisfied the filth that is you. Some onlookers may stare, most likely thinking, “Now, how did she get so dirty?” To us dirt lovers, we take not a notice. We prod dirtily ahead knowing that we are in one heavenly state of uncleanliness.
I am soiled, stained, and yes, muddy. That is the mantra of the dirt lover. Dirty, yet joyful, content in the knowledge that they are doing exactly what they have been born to do. Their destiny fulfilled, their sense of raw defilement satiated. How much fun is it to work outside in the dirt? Just about the closest thing to heaven here on earth and every grimy, filthy, mud hole in between.
Find me on a slow whining saxophone
in a small dim lit bar
where the walls are midnight green.
Take that one step down
eat Burtha’s mussels
call Mr. McCoy;
he’s looking for a fat lady with a typewriter.
Charles will be there on most Friday nights
playin’ his crazy guitar.
We’ll drink a few steins
roll backgammon dice
and watch people
mezmerized by the music.
I took Mary Lou there a long time ago . . .
she didn’t like it
reminded her of Pittsburgh.
I happen to like Pittsburgh.
There is so much sadness moving
out over the water.
So much desire. The waves
try to bring it back
and fail. The clouds
catch onto it, change shape,
and glide on. It moves down
the coast, finds fresh
water, and spawns.
Desire takes it out to sea.
Huge chunks of it break
off the glaciers
in Alaska: they never travel far.
We buy tickets
and try to see it,
but never arrive in time.
There is so much
to embrace, so much
to disregard: we sleep,
work, watch movies:
talk about money.
We mow the lawn
or bake cookies.
We are afraid
to sit still
or be silent.
Fuchsia, the color of being self-satisfied and over-easy. And gold, like the robe tassels of Nigist MaKeda of Sheba, empress. Sometimes eyes are dark purple like spilled wine and I tremble. Yes, that is you, an olive- drab demeanor, the yellow-plum humor of a lingering bruise. Around your head, concord-grape colored thoughts so loud you wear a hat to hold in the noise. And when you don’t, and the neighbors call the police you simply turn up the green to mute it; fingers, the bronze color of Incan spear tips, caught in the cookie jar. That is you, a sly tropical breeze of violet, aquamarine and sunshine; you, so fuchsia, you seek out birds before they seek you.
There are decades between us
now. Even echoes
quietly fade outside
to find shadows
beneath the trees,
watch strangers pass
I think of you
as I sift through a song,
but you are not
the notes that dance
in the branches with a flash
of red, or the bit of silence
that warms itself
on a leaf,
here in my hand–you are alone
in a window
on the second floor.
I can see you move the curtain
back, and there
at last, the red
sweater is visible,
just for a moment,
before you move away.
You must do something,
and I understand.
I will be you, in a few more
stanzas, and we both know
the poem ends
You can blink and imagine
the motion of a belly dancer,
the executioner’s eyes,
or the haze of distance, if you like.
I didn’t want to say
blue: there is so much
we hand out anyway:
our bodies, credit card
on the telephone. Pick it up
and already your name is carried
out by the tide
to a distant country,
where bananas and camarones
are sold at the intersections.
But this was going to be a poem
about the sea,
the way the dark
shadows across the water
warm by belly
back into song.
Nothing is impossible for words.
Give a child a coin
and you can hear the “gracias”
slip in and out of you
like a knife: words
here will never be as strong
as the empty hand in the street.
Faces in the rain
pressed like wet leaves
against your window
all dreams are possible.
You will never find it
if you try,
but know that if you walked out
to look around for a while
it would be happy.
This is language written in crystal
formations, icy lines, cold logic,
and when it catches light
its stanzas change:
it moves into an ode,
or gathers a new voice for a moment:
something that should not be said–
even here, with all this quiet
Come over here:
it likes to see and feel
your warm breath,
but not too close,
not now, you might change it
into something else, something
darker, with another tone:
the poem you must find alone.
for Peg Mosel
Start with the curve of his cheek
that points the way to his eyes-
two black coals that steal light
from heaven with every blink
and lead us home.
Now, he jumps and skips
in place, each step closer
to what he knows is just one bounce
from eternity, or at least enough
to make a well-trained boxer jealous.
He leans into his smile
with just the right amount
of tease: holding back a little
means he loves you a lot.
Soon, he learns to draw flowers,
his fingers holding chalk
meant for Picasso in another time.
Here, he is ours, for now,
his art like rose petals
just behind my eyes
that move slightly in the breeze
when the dream that sleeps
there, for him alone,
begins to stir.
They move in shadows
and voices beyond us who do not
speak or hear this language:
the silence the earth
wakes up to in whisper:
the stories of humpbacks
who call to each other
in the dark blue, luring us
softly down, where our dreams
intermingle with the shape
of the water, the pull
of the moon: our need
to be here
stronger than our need
Notes of the mundane
chime in my brain
while the poem waits.
Hope is the last pick-up line
I have, dawn’s drum.
I can hear it in the house,
Salvador’s rain tapping
the rooftops of old stanzas.
Books line the shelves
unopened, little heart beats
They won’t listen.
They have already been
where the rain is going,
and I don’t know
how to stop it.
Imagine nothing belongs in the house but white daisies
catching the autumn light
on the dining room table:
This is the reason
we are in love, she says,
as she walks over to her favorite painting:
an aesthetic invitation
to go sailing
and have lunch near the water.
Imagine there is more here than art
taking shape from her desire:
there is a room full of birds
flying in circles
near the ceiling, a forest
where the echoes of a chain saw splinter
the kitchen’s perfunctory order.
Imagine she closes the door and draws water
for her evening bath. Her husband
goes out and returns
with cold milk, white eggs:
she thanks him, they kiss–
they watch their son read
about a train chugging up a mountain
loaded with fruit and bread.
Imagine, outside, their daughter builds
mud pies and talks to dogs and toads.
Imagine that soon, only moonlight
will find them,
only darkness will know
Carefully, like giving a balloon
to a child. You can tell them
all you want: hold on tightly,
don’t let go,
but the result
is the same: someone on the way
to heaven, someone lost
in the clouds,
someone barely visible,
a dot now
in memory, someone gone.
What does salvation cost,
he thinks to himself,
how long does it take
There are deep craters
in the eyes of some patients.
Places you do not want to go.
Call out the darkness,
he remembers, give it color.
Close your eyes tight
watch the blood swirl
out of the iris and form
a kaleidoscope of cells
in your mind. Give it a name.
Name it the last thing you remember
as true. Call this
the color of the sky.
Once I finally arrived, I nodded
to the Doug Firs – hello, hello, hello –
descended to the dock, dropped a cooler
and a fishing pole next to the seat cushion
and shoved off. The high half moon meant it was late,
but I needed to be in the middle of something
without moving lips, without expensive shoes, without hands
always reaching to shaft, shake or take.
I rowed for a while and the yellow highway lines
disappeared beneath lily pads. All the cosmopolitan humans
starved for nakedness and assimilation swirled under
whirlpools oars made. Even your latest fuck you!
broke over the bow as a small-mouth bass jumped in the distance.
Have your city windowed in muslin draperies.
Have your big-dollar tabs and high-browed intimacies.
Here, singing bullfrogs
make more love and money between passing clouds
than your old-time decorative storefronts ever will.
So, I’m alone with two oars and a fishing pole –
some beer and night
not needing to be coaxed
from her clothes. Alone in a boat that floats over
what’s real and wet and alarmingly close
to what I’ve always wanted to get away from: you, so
small-town big dream, so awkward, unrefined,
apologetic. But now, under this sky, I think I really can
learn to love from where I’ve come. I think
I mean it
this time, stars. No shit.
I am not talking about Joseph Bastow, the man who now lives in a house made of stone somewhere in Michigan and frequently writes for this site. I am talking about the Writer (Actually the Poet, but that is the subject of another story), who was born in the house that you see here.
Unlike human beings, Joe had a mother who was made of the most intensely beautiful ink, and a father who was made of languge not of this earth. Shortly after their wedding, which took place on a blank page in Heaven, they bought this house. Soon, little baby Joe was born. His mother nursed him with the alphabet. They were very happy. It is a sweet house, no stones or bones, and there are lots of beautiful activities that occur inside. Come on, don’t be shy. Let’s take a peek.
If you look through one of the front-door windows, you will see Joe as he sits near the fireplace. He strokes his beard, stares at the flames, waits for the magic to come back to his pen. Occasionally he walks around and runs his hand along the wall, and then he scratches his nose and beard. When he does so, he catches the faint smell of graham cracker and candy cherries on his fingers. He smiles and sits down again, for the smell, you see, has begun to help him to write once more. He touches the pen to the paper, and he writes for an hour or so, but to him it is complete rubbish. He wants to find that voice again. It is a voice he knows well, but he is reluctant to give in to it, almost as if he is tied to a leash of his own creation.
Even for a truly ascetic monk, sometimes it is difficult to have faith, and it is no different for Joe. As he questions his faith and all of its multitudinous structures and formalities, he becomes one of the most religious people I know, especially when he writes. So after abandoning the voice for long enough, he returns to the objects of his faith and finds the neighborhood around him dripping with the sweet ink of the voice:
Angels plug in Christmas
tree lights across the street. Baby Jesus is
a cardboard cut-out in Mary’s arms
suction cupped on your front
door. Inside, carolers bleat . . .
There, in the language of object juxtaposed with veneration, he finds reason to praise. Maybe he has not recognized it himself, but in finding the voice at all, he elevates us, and gives us, the most fleeting of all, reason to praise.
Reason to praise. Maybe this is why I have frequently called him a religious man. Outward appearance, here, means nothing. Only in the infinite spaces inside the unseen, where the eternals wait to be called forth, does the writer find himself and, simultaneously, elevates the spirit of humanity. Joe does this in a house made of his own faith. He built it himself, with his pen.
Some people never begin.
Note: the most fleeting of all is a reference to poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
All the neighborhood hounds
begin to howl. I swear
I was about to tell you
what happens when we see
beauty, but the notes
seemed to tame me
as I went along
framed by things.
I could stop here,
but this poem
is a dog. Lift you hand.
He won’t bite, but you may
lifting your leg and stepping
into the canvas.
Now we are getting somewhere.
There are two squash
on the windowsill, and three leaves
falling above them
tickled by light. It’s true,
to be real: this poem is a dog.
Someone actually says,
It’s amazing what can happen
with a brush stroke
and an appetite for beauty.
You become curious, desperate,
and step forward for a better look.
There, out in the courtyard,
below the window in this painting
of squash in sunlight,
a dog walks an obedient old man
from puddle to shadow
after a rain. The air is fresh
and cool. Steam rises
from the asphalt.
It would be nice
to call this beauty,
but the dog and the man
and you’re alone
with your squash.
Remember me when I walked on this Earth
I will remember the stars in your smile and the moon who circled your laughter
Remember me when I was here, loving you so much that we both knew we had something special
I will remember the notes I heard in your words every time you picked up the phone and heard my voice
Remember all the fun we had, the crazy things we did, said and thought
I will remember we could do no wrong-even the trees would bow to see us together
Remember how we both struggled to be “left-handed,” with all of our right brains so fully engaged
I will remember on the left side of time I will always find the right side of your soul
Remember how summer began with “Let it be so,” and so it began, and how we loved it
I will remember how a simple day of water and sun could last as long as your words in my heart
Remember my opinionated kindness with a side portion of “festering wound”
I will remember how time changed you into a work of art on a canvas made of pure spirit
Remember that angels do exist and they came in the form of two little boys
I will remember the sun rose with your heart that day and chased the dark away forever
Remember that I am always with you and only a flick away
I will remember your words in my heart are written with the ink of love
Remember me when I walked, danced, ran, clucked and loved upon this Earth
I will remember how you always changed God into a verb and never kept this secret to yourself
Lines of Italics by J. Scott Mosel
Poets are in constant artistic motion, moving backward in time to go forward with words. The poet is a crustacean, a crab in heat, and is equally comfortable on both land and sea. We all need to become crabs. If you cannot accomplish this, just go catch some crabs, nurture them, and you will feel better. If you are not willing, or able, to go there, here are some guidelines to ponder when you consider crabs and poetry:
1. Consider the integrity and movement of the line.
Lines of poetry can and should be able to stand alone and hold intrinsic meaning. Certainly some lines are better than others, but it’s the same with crabs, so what the hell. For example, if you look at “Insinuating Revival,” written by Joe Bastow, you come across this line: “the chimney — you want me.” A good line of poetry moves a poem and carries some rhythmical pattern forward for both reader and writer.
A great line of poetry, like this one, stands alone, and creates intrinsic meaning of its own nature. First, you have the obvious phallic nature of the chimney, combined with the sexual overtones of “blowing smoke up” from the preceding line. However, this is then combined with a classic second movement–similar to the movements of a classical piece–“you want me,” and combined with the chimney, creates a line that resonates long after leaving it behind, especially for the patient and careful reader.
2. Use language that re-mythologizes the everyday world.
As previously noted in the post in “Myth and the Poetry of Creation,” good poetry hits the world head on and creates a new mythology of experience. A dog barking annoyingly in the distance can become something much more significant to the eye and language of the poet. In this way, all of experience is open to this re-mythologizing of the world. It is important to note that the poet is not engaged in the act of recognition and framing of the world–no, far from it. The poet, here, is engaged in actually creating a new segment of the universe. The willingness to go to this place, experience it somehow in a mindful way and then return with a means to communicate a new truth is the life-work of the artist.
3. Remain infatuated with the tangible and in love with the unknown.
The poet begins with the objects of the world. Some call it the palette, the medium. The world grabs us by the tail, to borrow slightly from Yevtushenko, and infatuation nestles in to do its work. A lot of good poetry is written at this interchange–object, infatuation, language–and there will be more incredible poetry written at this level. However, there are those who are willing to take the great leap–most do it without knowledge of it–into the unknown, into love itself: “For this momentary light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to what is seen but to what is unseen; for what is seen is transitory, but what is unseen is eternal” (2 Corinthians 4:17-8). The act of creation is an act of love, and to create something that lasts, something eternal–something which outlives the creator–this is the real poetry. Poetry that returns to the eternals to make sense of modern living is essential right now. Infatuations are exciting, but ultimately puerile in nature. Think high school romance, and you are there.
We have had enough of this drivel in poetry lately. The unknown, the unseen, what we crave–the poet must fall in love with this other, this mystery, and be willing to fall in love with that part of the self where the unknown intrinsically lives, and waits, for language to breathe life into it. Language is the birth-mother of the unknown.
A dangerous thing, poetry–
the occasional timeout
is proof, just listen:
you can hear the bad ones
mumbling softly, rebelliously–
I will not say bone, I will not say stone,
Until the mother-poet comes to let them out.
She always takes what she will:
misplaced syllable here, alveolar click there–
like death, she waits,
disguised as the young mother,
bringing even the old to the breast
to taste their own demise.
Look for her, at times, in the spaces
the squirrels leave inside your brain
yes, the soft hole is what they want,
for outside it is raining again,
and down below, well,
there are rivers to travel
with just the right orchestral feeling
to make it all seem so swell.
Have you remembered
to click for her?
The squirrels will love you for it,
and when you feel them staring
at the barely visible zipper
around your neckline,
remember to sing a carol or two
and drink a glass of wine,
remember not to touch it,
even though you need to–
so desperate is your desire–
remember not to say it,
for above you they are waiting,
they are listening closely
for any sign of weakness:
is not what goes in,
but what comes out.
He is tired of letting it all
get away from him.
He stares at his book on the shelf,
admires something in his hand,
and he lets go:
if you were a fly on the wall
you would not see the warts
on the backs of his hands,
but Dr. Quiqley believes in them,
he knows what they mean.
He is concerned about the world,
and he is tired of writing books
no one reads, not even his mother.
He walks the streets,
and the women he sees
are all beautiful to him:
if they only knew, he thinks,
I love even the fat ones
with varicose veins! I love them!
The Golden Rule is no thump
in the book for Dr. Quigley,
he is concerned about people.
When he looks in the mirror,
he sees decay,
after all, he studied it; he knows
his eyes are eggshells
stamped with cracked
scroll dust, thin lines leading
to the place where Adam lay
down on the ground,
his bloody rib
Dr. Quigley moved away
Lately, he decided to eat
Korma, Vandalu, and Naan
have a way of lifting the soul
of a man and then some:
warmth enters the room
to illuminate figures
dancing together near the kitchen
window: their bodies
painted blue, almost a ripe
nudity, eyes swollen
sifting angel dust
caught his attention
in the end,
a translucent layer just enough
to spell heaven
with his finger,
or at least a place
where he could believe
in the eschatology of things:
he had never had a view
of the universe
that was entirely satisfying.
A flummoxed Dr. Quigley
crawls inside a smell.
Vanilla, he believes,
is a good place to begin,
the long dark bean
reminds him of the trails
he walked when young,
cool and dark
beneath the viridian
glow of foliage and sky.
He believes he can find God
if he can cross the rivers
inside his mind:
there are answers
there, he knows,
in the slow water
near the sandbanks.
If you could see him there,
he just scratched
his head, his finger
just a centimeter away
from the water
that covers his brain:
and a smell
he cannot name.
They are tired. The day was meaningless, full of thoughtless transactions, stolen newspapers and wasted smiles. The police were called and people were taken away. Coffee was consumed in quiet corners.
November. A perfect day. Staring at the swollen sky, the poets dreamt of stoplights in space. It was time to hope for one and to believe with reverent abandon. Intelligence in a vacuum. Everything depended on the ability of a thought inside the skull to exist at the same time as a beam of light in another galaxy from another sun, in a future so distant even the breath our children, passed through unborn lips to unborn lips, may not reach. Probably should not. Really, should not.
Well, it must reach this infinite place and then go on past the infinite to come back to us again as light and touch this coneflower in the poet’s hands. Imagine a true appreciation so great that a petal is suddenly glowing not with sunlight, but with thought itself: linguistic neurons.
Well, here you are, if you are there. They, the ones who go here, just came back. Now go write down what they say. A perfect day. The way. . .
. . . And there is whale song in your ears. Unlikely as it may seem, we should study their songs and learn not to take from them but give in to this music, add meaningful notes, and discover how to think of language as something beyond the cerebral, the communicative, the citation on experience. The ancient act of symbol, movement of stars and the act of creation, even procreation, speak beyond the limits of perception. Language can be the spleen of experience, our minds sifting through the images we take and create, antiquity itself juxtaposed with our present lives in this constant interchange. Think, antiquity my lineage, my beauty, my poem, and the spleen begins to filter: I give you the color blue, and you give me
the curved outline of earth adjusted with prayer;
I give you my anxious heartbeat, and you give me
my father’s eyes lit by green leaves and sawdust;
I give you cold whale song, and you give me
a wee word in the tide of baptismal water, the ocean, birth.
We were born for exploitation and exchange, born to art, wed to creation. A sacrament of touching pen to paper is not a taking but simply beingness, synthesis, song.
There are people who can turn a system upside down. They are artists really, working on the palette of the American landscape.
The concept of a free refill at a fast food joint comes to my mind. Here is how it works. The establishment offers a free refill. Only some people take them up on it. The rest are timid and lame for not even taking this simple freedom as their own. However, out on the fringes of fast food artistry, there are consumer artists who take it to a whole new level. They return weeks later with the same cup, and simply request what is theirs: A free refill, only delayed. Possibly months have passed: a new war has started, people have died, a new cancer has begun to fester and then be cured.
The poet works with the same delayed refill as a starting point. Life is lived and then memory begins to work its games with the mind. The poet, when filling the palette, is essentially asking for a refill of experience. Emotion refilled in tranquility. Take it now, they say. No, the poet says, I will be back in few months. I need to walk my dog. Welcome a new child into the world. Stare at a cloud. Catch a fish. Later, when it is time to ask for the refill, the words are charged with the flavors of time itself.