I sit by the window and watch a great mythological bird go down in flames. In fact, it’s a kite the neighborhood troublemaker has set on fire. Twenty-one and still living at home, deciding when to cut through a screen and chop us into little pieces. “He wouldn’t hurt a fly,” his mother would say, as they packed our parts into black antiseptic body bags. I explain this possibility to the garbage men. I’m trying to make friends with them, unable to understand why they leave our empty cans in the middle of the driveway, then laugh as they walk away. One says, “Another name for moving air is wind, and shade is just a very large shadow”—perhaps a nice way to make me feel less eclipsed. It’s not working, it’s not working. I’m scared for children yet to be abducted, scared for the pregnant woman raped at knife point on the New Jersey Turnpike, scared for what violence does to one’s life, how it squats inside the hollow heart like a dead cricket. My son and his friends found a dead cricket, coffined it in a plastic Easter egg and buried it in the backyard. It was a kind of time capsule, they explained—a surprise for some future boy archeologist, someone much happier than us, who will live during a time when trees don’t look so depressed, and birds and dogs don’t chatter and growl like the chorus in an undiscovered Greek tragedy.
It’s so late I could cut my lights
and drive the next fifty miles
of empty interstate
flying along in a dream,
countryside alive with shapes and shadows,
but exit ramps lined
with eighteen wheelers
and truckers sleeping in their cabs
make me consider pulling into a rest stop
and closing my eyes. I’ve done it before,
parking next to a family sleeping in a Chevy,
mom and dad up front, three kids in the back,
the windows slightly misted by the sleepers’ breath.
But instead of resting, I’d smoke a cigarette,
play the radio low, and keep watch over
the wayfarers in the car next to me,
a strange paternal concern
and compassion for their well being
rising up inside me.
This was before
I had children of my own,
and had felt the sharp edge of love
and anxiety whenever I tiptoed
into darkened rooms of sleep
to study the small, peaceful faces
of my beloved darlings. Now,
the fatherly feelings are so strong
the snoring truckers are lucky
I’m not standing on the running board,
tapping on the window,
asking, Is everything okay?
But it is. Everything’s fine.
The trucks are all together, sleeping
on the gravel shoulders of exit ramps,
and the crowded rest stop I’m driving by
is a perfect oasis in the moonlight.
The way I see it, I’ve got a second wind
and on the radio an all-night country station.
Nothing for me to do on this road
but drive and give thanks:
I’ll be home by dawn.
Was with the pudgy hands of a thirteen-year-old
that I took the marble of his head
just barely balanced on his reedy neck
and with the brute tutelage
of years fighting the neighbor kids
and too the lightning of my father’s
stiff palm I leaned the boy’s head
full force into the rattly pane of glass
on the school bus and did so with the eagle of justice
screaming in my ear as he always does
for the irate and stupid I made the window sing
and bend and the skinny boy too
whose eyes grew to lakes lit by mortar fire
bleating with his glasses crooked
I’m not an animal walking in place
on the green vinyl seat looking far away
and me watching him and probably almost smiling
at the song and dance I made of the weak
and skinny boy who towering above me
became even smaller and bizarre and birdlike
pinned and beating his wings frantically
against his cage and me probably
almost smiling as is the way of the stupid
and cruel watching the weak and small
and innocent not getting away.
At the top of the stairs
I ask for her hand. O.K.
She gives it to me.
How her fist fits my palm,
A bunch of consolation.
We take our time
Down the steep carpetway
As I wish silently
That the stairs were endless.
After bedtime the child climbed on her dresser
and peeled phosphorescent stars off the sloped
gable-wall, dimming the night vault of her ceiling
like a haze or the interfering glow
of a great city, small hands anticipating
eons as they raided the playful patterns
her father had mapped for her — black holes now
where the raised thumb-stubs and ears of the Bat
had been, the feet of the Turtle, wakeful
eyes of the Mourning Dove. She stuck those paper
stars on herself. One on each foot, the backs
of her hands, navel, tip of nose and so on,
then turned on the lamp by her bed and stood close
like a child chilled after a winter bath
pressed up to an air duct or a radiator
until those paper stars absorbed more light
than they could hold. Then turned off the lamp,
walked out into the dark hallway and called.
Her father came up. He heard her breathing
as he clomped upstairs preoccupied, wrenched
out of a rented film just now taking grip
on him and the child’s mother, his day-end
bottle of beer set carefully on the stairs,
marking the trail back down into that evening
adult world — he could hear her breathing (or
really, more an anxious, breathy giggle) but
couldn’t see her, then in the hallway stopped,
mind spinning to sort the apparition
of fireflies hovering ahead, till he sensed
his daughter and heard in her breathing
the pent, grave concentration of her pose,
mapped onto the star chart of the darkness,
arms stretched high, head back, one foot slightly raised —
the Dancer, he supposed, and all his love
spun to centre with crushing force, to find her
momentarily fixed, as unchanging
as he and her mother must seem to her,
and the way the stars are; as if the stars are.
They don’t wade in so much as they are taken.
Deep in the day, in the deep of the field,
every current in the grasses whispers hurry
hurry, every yellow spreads its perfume
like a rumor, impelling them further on.
It is the way of girls. It is the sway
of their dresses in the summer trance-
light, their bare calves already far-gone
in green. What songs will they follow?
Whatever the wood warbles, whatever storm
or harm the border promises, whatever
calm. Let them go. Let them go traceless
through the high grass and into the willow-
blur, traceless across the lean blue glint
of the river, to the long dark bodies
of the conifers, and over the welcoming
threshold of nightfall.
My dolls have been put away like dead
children in a chest I will carry
with me when I marry.
I reach under my skirt to feel
a satin slip bought for this day. It is soft
as the inside of my thighs. My hair
has been nailed back with my mother’s
black hairpins to my skull. Her hands
stretched my eyes open as she twisted
braids into a tight circle at the nape
of my neck. I am to wash my own clothes
and sheets from this day on, as if
the fluids of my body were poison, as if
the little trickle of blood I believe
travels from my heart to the world were
shameful. Is not the blood of saints and
men in battle beautiful? Do Christ’s hands
not bleed into your eyes from His cross?
At night I hear myself growing and wake
to find my hands drifting of their own will
to soothe skin stretched tight
over my bones,
I am wound like the guts of a clock,
waiting for each hour to release me.
Beating his lead with the blunt
end of his axe, flattening it
in order to forget that he is
a child of death who wants to weight
his net. Until it is suddenly
done and the one who did not disappear
stands in my room, taking me
in; still lying whether I am,
and how. Just as you might ask
a fisherman returning with nothing:
So where’s the fish? And for him to reply,
without resentment, without envy:
The fish—it’s in the sea.
Then there was beauty in what clung,
vertical and multiple against a damp tombstone
where no one goes, or has gone forever,
the stone carved in another language
and the weed-life overgrown.
We knew they must know movement,
but they would not move
while being what they meant to us.
Where the headstone’s windowpane
meant to protect the crucifix and photograph
was cracked apart, we saw how
on its inward, wetter side,
the infant shells began self-generation in a line
like vowels strung inside a child’s understanding:
this belongs to this. O perfect succulence
with which interiors adhere to forms, O open mouths.
Should we have found the world more often
clinging to words describing it?
What would have been the afterlife of that?
Sweet and low, sweet and low, Wind of the western sea, Low, low, breathe and blow, Wind of the western sea! Over the rolling waters go, Come from the dying moon, and blow, Blow him again to me; While my little one, while my pretty one, sleeps. Sleep and rest, sleep and rest, Father will come to thee soon; Rest, rest, on mother’s breast, Father will come to thee soon; Father will come to his babe in the nest, Silver sails all out of the west Under the silver moon: Sleep, my little one, sleep, my pretty one, sleep.
When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.
You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.
But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.
But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.
That October might have begun
pretty much like this one. Last night,
first chilly night, we shut all the windows,
the cat curled between John’s legs, I slept
with a blanket over my head. At six a.m., wrapped
in a sweater, I checked the newly dug
beds of bulbs—tulips, your favorite—
and wondered if they, and the ones I planted
on your grave, would survive the months
of frozen ground.
You were three days from bearing your tenth;
rather than risk a fall, going up and down
two steep flights, you stayed inside.
At six a.m. you may’ve been in your rocking chair,
half-listening for fights over blankets
or Pop’s return from the graveyard shift
while you folded, again, a newly washed stack
of secondhand diapers and tees.
Maybe a draft made you shiver or a pain
made you think it’s beginning.
Too soon the cold will kill the last blooms
on asters, hydrangea, Autumn Joy sedum.
Too soon another breakdown
left you in the depression that lasted
the rest of your life. Too soon Judge Grossi ruled
you were dangerous to your child’s welfare.
At fifteen I was free to leave.
But this morning, I went back to when
the cold hadn’t yet settled in,
when you were waiting for me.
His unset eyes — containing water — become expression, or color.
They cloud in changing — though the change is never marked, it
may eventually be seen.
The cloud is green
His hand is light
He watches this first finding — pulling a hand in and out of a living
His newness betokens him all color. He passes through color —
setting each resonance for light.
The sound includes experience which is remembered, though from
not remote occasions, which swell upon his passing. Looking up with
different thought filled hands.
Why then does experience comb the onlooker away from the child,
when the child includes changing eyes in every picture?
When I ride the adventures of my legs through your
or complain of bathroom spiders crawling up my ankles
as I wash blood from my thighs,
when I call to you from nightmares,
want you to be a wave pulling me out to sea,
or beg you to assure my voice is etched on glass
when I go leaving behind a sink full of winter,
I need to swallow my agony,
be told, “You are, you are a child again!”
I poke at your petals like a child,
twisting your stem until you break
and your pollen falls around you.
I gather and examine it in trembling hands.
I know that you are pure, the ideal idiot,
but I am trying to understand you
through a periscope.
I’m a lonely submarine of ripe flesh
swimming with the blind,
crusted creatures of the deep.
It was a picture I had after the war.
A bombed English church. I was too young
to know the word English or war,
but I knew the picture.
The ruined city still seemed noble.
The cathedral with its roof blown off
was not less godly. The church was the same
plus rain and sky. Birds flew in and out
of the holes God’s fist made in the walls.
All our desire for love or children
is treated like rags by the enemy.
I knew so much and sang anyway.
Like a bird who will sing until
it is brought down. When they take
away the trees, the child picks up a stick
and says, this is a tree, this the house
and the family. As we might. Through a door
of what had been a house, into the field
of rubble, walks a single lamb, tilting
its head, curious, unafraid, hungry.
This is not fantasy, this is our life.
We are the characters
who have invaded the moon,
who cannot stop their computers.
We are the gods who can unmake
the world in seven days.
Both hands are stopped at noon.
We are beginning to live forever,
in lightweight, aluminum bodies
with numbers stamped on our backs.
We dial our words like Muzak.
We hear each other through water.
The genre is dead. Invent something new.
Invent a man and a woman
naked in a garden,
invent a child that will save the world,
a man who carries his father
out of a burning city.
Invent a spool of thread
that leads a hero to safety,
invent an island on which he abandons
the woman who saved his life
with no loss of sleep over his betrayal.
Invent us as we were
before our bodies glittered
and we stopped bleeding:
invent a shepherd who kills a giant,
a girl who grows into a tree,
a woman who refuses to turn
her back on the past and is changed to salt,
a boy who steals his brother’s birthright
and becomes the head of a nation.
Invent real tears, hard love,
slow-spoken, ancient words,
difficult as a child’s
first steps across a room.
I wanted to walk outside and praise the stars,
But David, my baby son, coughed and coughed.
His comfort was more important than the stars
So I comforted and kissed him in his dark
Bedroom, but my comfort was not enough.
His mother was more important than the stars
So he cried for her breast and milk. It’s hard
For fathers to compete with mothers’ love.
In the dark, mothers illuminate like the stars!
Dull and jealous, I was the smallest part
Of the whole. I know this is stupid stuff
But I felt less important than the farthest star
As my wife fed my son in the hungry dark.
How can a father resent his son and his son’s love?
Was my comfort more important than the stars?
A selfish father, I wanted to pull apart
My comfortable wife and son. Forgive me, Rough
God, because I walked outside and praised the stars,
And thought I was more important than the stars.
for matthew z and matthew r
I remember telling the joke
about child molestation and seeing
the face of the young man
I didn’t know well enough
turn from something with light
inside of it into something like
an animal that’s had its brain
bashed in, something like that, some
sky inside him breaking
all over the table and the beers.
It’s amazing, finding out
my thoughtlessness has no bounds,
is no match for any barbarian,
that it runs wild and hard
like the Mississippi. No, the Rio Grande.
No, the Columbia. A great river
of thorns and when this stranger
stood up and muttered
something about a cigarette,
the Hazmat team
in my chest begins to cordon
off my heart, glowing
a toxic yellow,
and all I could think about
was the punch line “sexy kids,”
that was it, “sexy kids,” and all the children
I’ve cared for, wiping
their noses, rocking them to sleep,
all the nieces and nephews I love,
and how no one ever
opened me up like a can of soup
in the second grade, the man
now standing on the sidewalk, smoke smothering
his body, a ghost unable
to hold his wrists down
or make a sound like a large knee in between
two small knees, but terrifying and horrible all the same.
Errol drives me to Treasure Beach It’s an old story, the terrible storm
swerving the dark country roads the ship going down, half the sailors
I think about what you will be, your mix drowned, half swimming the
white, black, Chinese, and your father’s slate waves, spat hard onto shore
Scottish-Englishness. We cross the Black River Smashed crates, bodies
where they shipped cane sugar and molasses choking on the black sand
upstream past a sign One man stands — What is this place? A woman
for Lover’s Leap. The air stinks of sulphur in the trees, one hand raised
Errol drops me at a blue gate. Be safe This is how the Scotsmen came
behind the house, the thin beach why the black people here have red hair
of black sand, the water warm and gray Or the other story, no storm
I am deep before I know it, groundless no wrecked ship. Just the miles
the swell stops the sickness of cane fields and mulatto children named
under a crooked tree, perched on sea rocks McDonald or McArthur for
two fishermen in torn denims, smoking their fathers, who owned them
I dry in the sun. They pass, turn, come close Nothing grows at Lover’s Leap
they have rust afros, gold faces splashed with freckles where two runaways
one ripped with muscle, one with eyes cornered by their master, held hands
like razors. What you want here they say and jumped down into the clouds
Only this boy moves
between the runes of trees
on his tricycle
when an eagle swoops,
releases two arrows
from its silver wings, and melts
away faster than lightning.
Then a loud whistle
and a bang like dry thunder.
In a blink the boy sees
his house roof sink.
Feels his ears ripped off.
The blast puffs up a fawn smoke
bigger than a mountain cloud.
The slow begonias rattle
their scarlet like confetti.
the trees and ricochets.
Wires and pipes snap
at the roots, quiver.
The whirling smoke packed
with bricks and cement,
chicken feathers and nigella seeds.
When the cloud begins
to settle on the ground,
the boy makes out buckled iron rods.
White soot descends
and he finds himself dressed
like an apprentice baker.
disappear: one by one by one the darling scented rushes sink back into melt. In the dream stream, the boat glides past too quick, and there is no chance to gather the loveliest of the dream-rushes. No less satisfying was the old sheep: so many knitting needles, dozens and dozens all pierced into a ball of worsted, and there was never ever any telling of just what, even in dream, it might be that the old sheep was knitting.
For years, I dreamt of the child who, when I reached out to her, turned into a sheet of paper, and so, in waking hours, I wrote and wrote and wrote and my friends consoled me: see, you have book babies; this, while I looked on at other women who knit bibs and booties, so many booties, such small socks.
When Alice steals away and consoles the Duchess’s baby, it metamorphoses into a pig and runs away from her, runs away. That is ever so much a better-known story than the one of dream-rushes or too many knitting needles. (How ever did Alice ever console herself? Did her friends say, Oh, just think now you’ll have truffles!?)
Odysseus’s mother wonders how her son, a mere mortal, made it over Oceanus to the land where lives sink back into melt. She says that he must have had a good boat; he tries to embrace her, but like a soul she flits about and away. When Odysseus asks why Mother, why not stay still and let us embrace, she says, Son, it’s because I no longer have sinew, no longer have bones.
My little baby, who I will name a weaver of spools and not of dreams, with mortal limbs—not quite sinew, not quite bone—paddles a rowboat inside of me, and I stay, in those moments, ever-so-still so that she may reach out to me. The midwife says that what I’m feeling is called quickening. Scientists say that she is dreaming—practicing for this life, I like to think, where, in her nursery, there will be a machine projecting fake moonbeams and fake stars and fake shadows and fake birds and fake clouds to storm over her.
In early morning when the sun
is vague and birds are furious
names of children float
like smoke through the empty room:
Ariadne, dark as seal skin
Ian, fair-skinned baby
Marina Terrence Alex John
after dinner pulled back from
talk of war and morals
their names glow like light
around a candle —
Jack, my rampant youngest son
Celia, my daughter who sings
but no children call from other rooms
no soft faces turn to kiss
each guest goodnight
or whisper that stars are a giant’s eyes
there is only the slow still wait
through the opaque night
for morning and more names.
After you left me forever,
I was broken into pieces,
and all the pieces flung into the river.
Then the legs crawled ashore
and aimlessly wandered the dusty cow-track.
They became, for a while, a simple roadside shrine:
A tiny table set up between the thighs
held a dusty candle, weed-and-fieldflower chains
placed reverently there by children and old women.
My knees were hung with tin triangular medals
to cure all forms of hysterical disease.
After I died forever in the river,
my torso floated, bloated in the stream,
catching on logs or stones among the eddies.
White water foamed around it, then dislodged it;
after a whirlwind trip, it bumped ashore.
A grizzled old man who scavenged along the banks
had already rescued my arms and put them by,
knowing everything has its uses, sooner or later.
When he found my torso, he called it his canoe,
and, using my arms as paddles,
he rowed me up and down the scummy river.
When catfish nibbled my fingers he scooped them up
and blessed his reusable bait.
Clumsy but serviceable, that canoe!
The trail of blood that was its wake
attracted the carp and eels, and the river turtle,
easily landed, dazed by my tasty red.
A young lad found my head among the rushes
and placed it on a dry stone.
He carefully combed my hair with a bit of shell
and set small offerings before it
which the birds and rats obligingly stole at night,
so it seemed I ate.
And the breeze wound through my mouth and empty sockets
so my lungs would sigh, and my dead tongue mutter.
Attached to my throat like a sacred necklace
was a circlet of small snails.
Soon the villagers came to consult my oracular head
with its waterweed crown.
Seers found occupation, interpreting sighs,
and their papyrus rolls accumulated.
Meanwhile, young boys retrieved my eyes
they used for marbles in a simple game
till somebody’s pretty sister snatched at them
and set them, for luck, in her bridal diadem.
Poor girl! When her future groom caught sight of her,
all eyes, he crossed himself in horror,
and stumbled away in haste
through her dowered meadows.
What then of my heart and organs,
my sacred slit
which loved you best of all?
They were caught in a fisherman’s net
and tossed at night into a pen for swine.
But they shone so by moonlight that the sows stampeded,
trampled one another in fear, to get away.
And the fisherman’s wife, who had thirteen living children
and was contemptuous of holy love,
raked the rest of me onto the compost heap.
Then in their various places and helpful functions,
the altar, oracle, offal, canoe and oars
learned the wild rumor of your return.
The altar leapt up, and ran to the canoe,
scattering candle grease and wilted grasses.
Arms sprang to their sockets, blind hands with nibbled nails
groped their way, aided by loud lamentation,
to the bed of the bride, snatched up those unlucky eyes
from her discarded veil and diadem,
and rammed them home. Oh, what a bright day it was!
This empty body danced on the riverbank.
Hollow, it called and searched among the fields
for those parts that steamed and simmered in the sun,
and never would have found them.
But then your great voice rang out under the skies
my name!—and all those private names
for the parts and places that had loved you best.
And they stirred in their nest of hay and dung.
The distraught old ladies chasing their lost altar,
and the seers pursuing my skull, their lost employment,
and the tumbling boys, who wanted the magic marbles,
and the runaway groom, and the fisherman’s thirteen children
set up such a clamor, with their cries of “Miracle!”
that our two bodies met like a thunderclap
in midday—right at the corner of that wretched field
with its broken fenceposts and startled, skinny cattle.
We fell in a heap on the compost heap
and all our loving parts made love at once,
while the bystanders cheered and prayed and hid their eyes
and then went decently about their business.
And here it is, moonlight again; we’ve bathed in the river
and are sweet and wholesome once more.
We kneel side by side in the sand;
we worship each other in whispers.
But the inner parts remember fermenting hay,
the comfortable odor of dung, the animal incense,
and passion, its bloody labor,
its birth and rebirth and decay.
1. Just like in true life
The wild geese approaching treason, now federated along one keep
May we find a rafter
2. I like the way you don’t
go into the cabin
That is how I like it: methodically, mythically, my accidents are protests,
are my only protests, they are never accidents
3. We even misprism the past
Turn our waltz on the face of another
To turn on
To turn against
Opposite statements that express the same, sometimes, or binary like the lines:
Man is something to be overcome, what you you done to overcome him
Just how far can you push the heroic guy to being evil
and how far can you push the villain to being somebody you can
Floodtide beneath you, I see you face to face
4. Check out your mind
Masquerading with dawn
It was invented by the press
Press harder (press not push)
The bell, the liquor, the deck of card crisp hardships surfacing as clovers and nights at his club getting low, if they ask you to sell them, don’t
On the Corner, (side 1) try
Thinking of one thing and doing another
4. Repeat: But we are
Only getting rich in order to repeat these trips
5. But we are getting rich in order…
So neither group can be understood except in relation to the other
as excuses for true stories—
It’s just that his passion costumes his thoughts,
not just his past
Not just a fat vacation Sunday
Also an emaciated smoke break
Also broken into images of smoke,
the way smoke moves
or factory chimney
your vandalised memory
to get rich
Someone has to work there and believe it into disappearance
6. Wealth: I am farmers/I am a thief.
Fame money/anonymous fame/factory farmed/black thief/by black I mean/
Buy black I mean
We are what sells
Thinking to ourselves:
Something in me wishes this wasn’t my poem—
That emotion is glory or—
7. Compliments: The only one I want is (the) speechless/
ness, (he) nestled in me bold and hip like a broken risk
8. Peaty Greene, Casius X (who’s that) Jack Johnson, Blind Tom Wiggans, Bama the Village Poet, Gregor Samson, Fred Hampton, Josephine Baker, Lester Young, will you give up your death for me? Teach me why I am a destiny
9. If you think about me, and you ain’t gonna do no revolutionary act, forget about me, I don’t want myself on your mind
10. Anyway, innocence. Man is something to be overcome, what have you done to overcome him. Digitally pacing the stage as his future and his past, a full body holograph of Tupac Shakur. But then when he got shot no bitches came out, no music, nothin’. Just some critics’ unphased mumblings: man you were marvelous but your co-star the gun was a bit over the top
11. Rehearsal for God Bless the Child.
I wanna get it right
Let’s start with ‘rich relations’
Green sides of goldsides
I immediately had to get a drum instructor a trumpet teacher and a sword twirling coach. Get your silence together. Hope is final
12. Super soul/supra soul/hip hop’s egoless self-agrandisement is the next
toll/phase on the free/way, high/way, autoroute, or space between proof and privacy in loose weather
13.The man you love is walking home in Hollywood. 5 or 6 police cars come up, about 8 cops around. You fit the description, you always fit the description, you fit the description of a robbery in the area. A black guy, wearing jeans, 5’8,” the whole thing
14. He had dreams of really hitting it big with his stereo store
He’d play samples of Caetano Veloso singing 9 out of ten movie stars make me cry, I’m alive!, or— One thing leads to another, but the kid is not my son or god bless the child that’s got his own
A kid said you could chew road tar
if you got it before it cooled,
black globule with a just-forming skin.
He said it was better than cigarettes.
He said he had a taste for it.
On the same road, a squirrel
was doing the Watusi to free itself
from its crushed hindquarters.
A man on a bicycle stomped on its head,
then wiped his shoe on the grass.
It was autumn, the adult word for fall.
In school we saw a film called Reproduction.
The little snake-father poked his head
into the slippery future,
and a girl with a burned tongue was conceived.
Now the child is a runny-nosed stranger
you’ve finally decided to share your seat with,
and the whole thing keeps heaving into the dark.
The child sleeps unsweetly hunched against you,
your side is slowly stinging, he has wet himself,
so you do not move at all. I know you.
You sit awake, baffling about a quirky faith,
and do not shift until morning. This is why
you are blessed, I think, and usually chosen.
—A simple child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?
I met a little cottage girl:
She was eight years old, she said;
Her hair was thick with many a curl
That clustered round her head.
She had a rustic, woodland air,
And she was wildly clad:
Her eyes were fair, and very fair;
—Her beauty made me glad.
“Sisters and brothers, little maid,
How many may you be?”
“How many? Seven in all,” she said,
And wondering looked at me.
“And where are they? I pray you tell.”
She answered, “Seven are we;
And two of us at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea.
“Two of us in the churchyard lie,
My sister and my brother;
And, in the churchyard cottage, I
Dwell near them with my mother.”
“You say that two at Conway dwell,
And two are gone to sea,
Yet ye are seven! I pray you tell,
Sweet maid, how this may be.”
Then did the little maid reply,
“Seven boys and girls are we;
Two of us in the churchyard lie,
Beneath the churchyard tree.”
“You run about, my little maid,
Your limbs they are alive;
If two are in the churchyard laid,
Then ye are only five.”
“Their graves are green, they may be seen,”
The little maid replied,
“Twelve steps or more from my mother’s door,
And they are side by side.
“My stockings there I often knit,
My kerchief there I hem;
And there upon the ground I sit,
And sing a song to them.
“And often after sunset, sir,
When it is light and fair,
I take my little porringer,
And eat my supper there.
“The first that died was sister Jane;
In bed she moaning lay,
Till God released her of her pain;
And then she went away.
“So in the churchyard she was laid;
And, when the grass was dry,
Together round her grave we played,
My brother John and I.
“And when the ground was white with snow
And I could run and slide,
My brother John was forced to go,
And he lies by her side.”
“How many are you, then,” said I,
“If they two are in heaven?”
Quick was the little maid’s reply,
“O master! we are seven.”
“But they are dead; those two are dead!
Their spirits are in heaven!”
‘Twas throwing words away; for still
The little maid would have her will,
And said, “Nay, we are seven!”
|for Etta Silver (1913–2013)
This is where the poem holds its breath,
and the people sway with the truth of it,
This is where the book closes and the clock
opens to song so the snow geese murmur
This is where the geese fly unabashedly out,
This is where tumult, this is where prophecy.
This is where the poem enters silence,
whose pages are aflame with life, whose
And this is where the poem holds its breath,
This is where it leaps wild about the child,
and the universe splits open for one poem—
About this poem:
“Etta Silver read and loved poetry all her life. I loved her and she loved me. Her grandson, my friend, asked me to write a poem for her funeral. Inspired by Etta, and having just seen the snow geese fly out of the Bosque del Apache in southern New Mexico and heard the silence after they’d gone, I did.”
weren’t built to let the sunlight in.
They were large to let the germs out.
When polio, which sounds like the first dactyl
of a jump rope song, was on the rage,
you did not swim in public waters.
The awful thing was an iron lung.
We lined up in our underwear to get the shot.
Some kids fainted, we all were stung.
My cousin Speed sat in a vat
of ice cubes until his scarlet fever waned,
but from then on his heart was not the same.
My friend’s girlfriend was murdered in a hayfield
by two guys from Springfield.
Linda got a bad thing in her blood.
Everybody’s grandmother died.
Three times, I believe, Bobby shot his mother.
Rat poison took a beloved local bowler.
A famous singer sent condolences.
In the large second floor corner room
of my 4th grade class the windows were open.
Snow, in fat, well-fed flakes
floats in where they and the chalk-motes meet.
And the white rat powder, too, sifts down
into a box of oatmeal
on the shelf below.
Trees, women and children
are all the same thing: Background.
Voices, affections, brightness, joy,
this knowledge that finally here we all are.
Indeed. Me and my ten fingers.
Now the sun isn’t horrendous like a cheek that’s ready:
it isn’t a piece of clothing or a speechless flashlight.
Nor is it the answer heard by our knees,
nor the task of touching the frontiers with the whitest part of our eyes.
The Sun has already become truth, lucidity, stability.
You converse with the mountain,
you trade the mountain for a heart:
then you can go on, weightless, going away.
The fish’s eye, if we come to the river,
is precisely the image of happiness God sets up for us,
the passionate kiss that breaks our bones.
Indeed. Finally, it’s life. Oh, what egg-like beauty
in this ample gift the Valley spreads before us,
this limitation we can lean our heads against
so as to hear the greatest music, that of the distant planets.
Hurry, let’s all
get close around the bonfire.
Your hands made of petals and mine of bark,
these delicious improvisations we show each other,
are good—for burning, for keeping faith in tomorrow,
so that our talk can go on ignoring our clothes.
I don’t notice our clothes. Do you?
Dressed up in three-hundred burlap suits,
wrapped in my roughest heaviest get-up,
I maintain a dawn-like dignity and brag of how much I know about nakedness.
Sometimes I’m so lachrymose I forget I was there
with my darling—I call her my darling to make her
more anonymous, so she can’t take up all the space
in my brain. But please, can I continue, or must I
look away from such openness, those spools of light
bringing red and fine threads of silver to her brunette hair?
Or is she an instant, a car ride, a little post-it, last month’s
no particular town? Can we shine a little first? First
there was a dust storm that made everyone invisible,
then a thunderstorm where each drop of rain painted a ringlet
on the road like haze around the moon. I’d already
deserted what crumbled there. The mind loves blackouts
more than those dusty bins of grain at the general store,
or the little hand-shovel you’d use to fill muslin sacks
with feed for animals you’d later bring to slaughter.
Then they were cementing over the childcare center.
the shell of state offices were still standing:
buried in the rubble, well there was no rubble…
Are we all so kinetic that on the highway
we’re always communicating? We’re cacophonic,
colossally bored, it takes many simultaneous tasks
to keep our souls busy. The breeze makes the ash leaves blur,
they’re almost silver in the light, like confederate money.
Or I’m driving by the Chinese Pistache, the lacebark elm,
brushing my teeth, taking notes for a morning meeting:
is there no one here to calm me? I don’t remember
the whippoorwill, the leaf brown male, if I ever knew one.
I can’t decide how this parallels our current situation:
So I take a few minutes’ cigarette to see how this
razes all of us. Have you ever been lax, insufficient, prolix?
Weren’t you ever particularly sorry? This may be entirely
personal, but once I was driven, exemplar, sheltered
from earthly business—now I keep burying and eclipsing,
more obscuring, suppressing with murmurs what’s under duress.
There are places where the eye can starve,
But not here. Here, for example, is
The Piazza Navona, & here is his narrow room
Overlooking the Steps & the crowds of sunbathing
Tourists. And here is the Protestant Cemetery
Where Keats & Joseph Severn join hands
Forever under a little shawl of grass
And where Keats’ name isn’t even on
His gravestone, because it is on Severn’s,
And Joseph Severn’s infant son is buried
Two modest, grassy steps behind them both.
But you’d have to know the story–how bedridden
Keats wanted the inscription to be
Simple, & unbearable: “Here lies one
Whose name is writ in water.” On a warm day,
I stood here with my two oldest friends.
I thought, then, that the three of us would be
Indissoluble at the end, & also that
We would all die, of course. And not die.
And maybe we should have joined hands at that
Moment. We didn’t. All we did was follow
A lame man in a rumpled suit who climbed
A slight incline of graves blurring into
The passing marble of other graves to visit
The vacant home of whatever is not left
Of Shelley & Trelawney. That walk uphill must
Be hard if you can’t walk. At the top, the man
Wheezed for breath; sweat beaded his face,
And his wife wore a look of concern so
Habitual it seemed more like the way
Our bodies, someday, will have to wear stone.
Later that night, the three of us strolled,
Our arms around each other, through the Via
Del Corso & toward the Piazza di Espagna
As each street grew quieter until
Finally we heard nothing at the end
Except the occasional scrape of our own steps,
And so we said good-bye. Among such friends,
Who never allowed anything, still alive,
To die, I’d almost forgotten that what
Most people leave behind them disappears.
Three days later, staying alone in a cheap
Hotel in Naples, I noticed a child’s smeared
Fingerprints on a bannister. It
Had been indifferently preserved beneath
A patina of varnish applied, I guessed, after
The last war. It seemed I could almost hear
His shout, years later, on that street. But this
Is speculation, & no doubt the simplest fact
Could shame me. Perhaps the child was from
Calabria, & went back to it with
A mother who failed to find work, & perhaps
The child died there, twenty years ago,
Of malaria. It was so common then—
The children crying to the doctors for quinine.
It was so common you did not expect an aria,
And not much on a gravestone, either—although
His name is on it, & weathered stone still wears
His name—not the way a girl might wear
The too large, faded blue workshirt of
A lover as she walks thoughtfully through
The Via Fratelli to buy bread, shrimp,
And wine for the evening meal with candles &
The laughter of her friends, & later the sweet
Enkindling of desire; but something else, something
Cut simply in stone by hand & meant to last
Because of the way a name, any name,
Is empty. And not empty. And almost enough.
As a feral thing would. As a dead leaf
whose crunch she herself hears, whose
buggy interior floods the sidewalk. Beamy
the world, yet a blank all the same.
Where you’ve tucked your pen into your notes,
I tuck my fingernail, burned and cursed and
shut tight my eyes. I tuck my feet up like a girl.
In this corner, warm milk fall of light something
far from revealing its bone-blank eyes, that is,
the eyes downcast in every portrait, shaded
the ribbon a bright blue furl across the gaze,
the peculiar mother, her arm around a naked toddler
the fall of light. Betrays nothing. The book in
hand, betrays. As a feral thing would,
I shred its binding and burn through it for warmth.
Mira, like a white goddess, is translating
so my left ear is a cave near Kotor
where the sea lashes and rakes
the iron darkness inside
the black mountains. Young and old, the poets
are letting us know this sweltering night,
under a bridge near a river outside
Karver Bookstore at the beginning of July,
belongs to them. They clear away debris
about politicians and personal suffering,
these gladiators of desire
and doubt, whose candor has roiled
me like a child shaking stolen beer to foam
the genie of the moment out of
its bottle. The poets’ truth-wrought poems dragging it
out of me, that confession—that I didn’t have children
probably because in some clear corner I knew I would have left them
to join these poets half a world away who, in their language
that is able to break stones, have broken me open
like a melon. Instead of children, I leave my small dog, quivering
as I touched her on the nose, to let her know it’s
me, the one who is always leaving her, yes
I’m going, and for her I have no language with
which to reassure her I’m coming
back, no—what’s the use to pretend I’m
a good mistress to her, she who would never
leave me, she who looks for me everywhere
I am not, until I return. I should feel guilty
but the Montenegrin poets have taken false guilt off
the table. I’ve been swallowed by a cosmic
sneer, with an entire country behind it where
each day it occurs to them how many are still missing
in that recent past of war and havoc. Nothing to do
but shut the gate behind me
and not look back where my scent
even now is fading from the grass. Nostalgia
for myself won’t be tolerated here. I’m just a beast
who, if my dog were a person, would give me a pat
on the head and say something stupid like: Good dog.
In the late spring of 1985,
we met in the weedy lot of the Orchid Pavilion Nursery
for a little ritual purification.
Everyone came, all the half-brothers and half-sisters,
the children not yet born,
and men so old they were young again.
We sat beside the aqueduct, and gold cans of beer
floated down to us
like the lines of poems.
The end of the twentieth century hung over
us like a cartoon anvil, but the breeze
that day was a knife so sharp
you couldn’t feel it cutting pieces off of you.
But then, when it’s sunny, no one remembers
how quickly a century turns over.
Our mothers always said that living and dying
ran on the same business model,
that one hand washed the other.
But how to tell that to the rat whose whiskers
will be bound into the brush
that inks these very lines about him?
No, there’s no use pretending the tears our mothers wept
over newborn babies and the dead
were even the same species of water.
4. Feral children are fatty, complex and rigid. When you captured the two children, you had to brush the knots out of their hair then scrape the comb free of hard butter. Descent and serration. No. I don’t want to ask primal questions.
5. Kamala slips over the garden wall with her sister and runs, on all fours, towards the complex horizon between Midnapure and its surrounding belt of sal. The humanimal mode is one of pure anxiety attached to the presence of the body. Two panicked children strain against the gelatin envelope of the township, producing, through distension, a frightening shape. The animals see an opaque, milky membrane bulging with life and retreat, as you would, to the inner world. I am speaking for you in January. It is raining. Amniotic, compelled to emerge, the girls are nevertheless re-absorbed. I imagine them back in their cots illuminated by kerosene lanterns. I illuminate them in the colony—the cluster of residences, including the Home—around St. John’s. No. Though I’ve been there, it’s impossible for me to visualize retrieval. Chronologies only record the bad days, the attempted escapes.
d. I was almost to the gate. I was almost to the gate when a hand reached out and pulled me backwards by my hair, opening my mouth to an O. The next day, I woke up with a raw throat. The cook gave me salt in warm water. I waited until she was gone and then I bit it. I bit my own arm and ate it. Here is my belly, frosted with meat. Here are my eyes, bobbling in a tin.
6. It’s Palm Sunday and Kamala, with the other orphans in a dark, glittery crocodile, walks from Home to church. Her two arms extend stiffly from her body to train them, to extend. Unbound, her elbows and wrists would flex then supinate like two peeled claws. Wrapped, she is a swerve, a crooked yet regulated mark. This is corrective therapy; the fascia hardening over a lifetime then split in order to re-set it, educate the nerves.
e. The cook fed us meats of many kinds. I joined my belly to the belly of the next girl. It was pink and we opened our beaks for meat. It was wet and we licked the dictionary off each other’s faces.
7. Is this the humanimal question? No, it’s a disc, transferring light from corner to corner of the girl’s eye. Like an animal tapetum. The way at night an animal. Animal eyes, glinting, in the room where he kept her, his girl, deep in the Home.
47. I want to make a dark mirror out of writing: one child facing the other, like Dora and little Hans. I want to write, for example, about the violence done to my father’s body as a child. In this re-telling, India is blue, green, black and yellow like the actual, reflective surface of a mercury globe. I pour the mercury into a shallow box to see it: my father’s right leg, linear and hard as the bone it contains, and silver. There are scooped out places where the flesh is missing, shiny, as they would be regardless of race. A scar is memory. Memory is wrong. The wrong face appears in the wrong memory. A face, for example, condenses on the surface of the mirror in the bathroom when I stop writing to wash my face. Hands on the basin, I look up, and see it: the distinct image of an owlgirl. Her eyes protrude, her tongue is sticking out, and she has horns, wings and feet. Talons. I look into her eyes and see his. Writing makes a mirror between the two children who perceive each other. In a physical world, the mirror is a slice of dark space. How do you break a space? No. Tell me a story set in a different time, in a different place. Because I’m scared. I’m scared of the child I’m making.
48. They dragged her from a dark room and put her in a sheet. They broke her legs then re-set them. Both children, the wolfgirls, were given a fine yellow powder to clean their kidneys but their bodies, having adapted to animal ways of excreting meat, could not cope with this technology. Red worms came out of their bodies and the younger girl died. Kamala mourned the death of her sister with, as Joseph wrote, “an affection.” There, in a dark room deep in the Home. Many rooms are dark in India to kill the sun. In Midnapure, I stood in that room, and blinked. When my vision adjusted, I saw a picture of Jesus above a bed, positioned yet dusty on a faded turquoise wall. Many walls in India are turquoise, which is a color the human soul soaks up in an architecture not even knowing it was thirsty. I was thirsty and a girl of about eight, Joseph’s great-granddaughter, brought me tea. I sat on the edge of the bed and tried to focus upon the memory available to me in the room, but there was no experience. When I opened my eyes, I observed Jesus once again, the blood pouring from his open chest, the heart, and onto, it seemed, the floor, in drips.
The only legend I have ever loved is
the story of a daughter lost in hell.
And found and rescued there.
Love and blackmail are the gist of it.
Ceres and Persephone the names.
And the best thing about the legend is
I can enter it anywhere. And have.
As a child in exile in
a city of fogs and strange consonants,
I read it first and at first I was
an exiled child in the crackling dusk of
the underworld, the stars blighted. Later
I walked out in a summer twilight
searching for my daughter at bed-time.
When she came running I was ready
to make any bargain to keep her.
I carried her back past whitebeams
and wasps and honey-scented buddleias.
But I was Ceres then and I knew
winter was in store for every leaf
on every tree on that road.
Was inescapable for each one we passed.
And for me.
It is winter
and the stars are hidden.
I climb the stairs and stand where I can see
my child asleep beside her teen magazines,
her can of Coke, her plate of uncut fruit.
The pomegranate! How did I forget it?
She could have come home and been safe
and ended the story and all
our heart-broken searching but she reached
out a hand and plucked a pomegranate.
She put out her hand and pulled down
the French sound for apple and
the noise of stone and the proof
that even in the place of death,
at the heart of legend, in the midst
of rocks full of unshed tears
ready to be diamonds by the time
the story was told, a child can be
hungry. I could warn her. There is still a chance.
The rain is cold. The road is flint-coloured.
The suburb has cars and cable television.
The veiled stars are above ground.
It is another world. But what else
can a mother give her daughter but such
beautiful rifts in time?
If I defer the grief I will diminish the gift.
The legend will be hers as well as mine.
She will enter it. As I have.
She will wake up. She will hold
the papery flushed skin in her hand.
And to her lips. I will say nothing.
My mother scraped the name Patricia Ann from the ruins
of her discarded Delta, thinking it would offer me shield
and shelter, that leering men would skulk away at the slap
of it. Her hands on the hips of Alabama, she went for flat
and functional, then siphoned each syllable of drama,
repeatedly crushing it with her broad, practical tongue
until it sounded like an instruction to God, not a name.
She wanted a child of pressed head and knocking knees,
a trip-up in the doubledutch swing, a starched pinafore
and peppermint-in-the-sour-pickle kinda child, stiff-laced
and unshakably fixed on salvation. Her Patricia Ann
would never idly throat the Lord’s name or wear one
of those thin, sparkled skirts that flirted with her knees.
She’d be a nurse or a third-grade teacher or a postal drone,
jobs requiring alarm-clock discipline and sensible shoes.
My four downbeats were music enough for a vapid life
of butcher-shop sawdust and fatback as cuisine, for Raid
spritzed into the writhing pockets of a Murphy bed.
No crinkled consonants or muted hiss would summon me.
My daddy detested borders. One look at my mother’s
watery belly, and he insisted, as much as he could insist
with her, on the name Jimi Savannah, seeking to bless me
with the blues-bathed moniker of a ball breaker, the name
of a grown gal in a snug red sheath and unlaced All-Stars.
He wanted to shoot muscle through whatever I was called,
arm each syllable with tiny weaponry so no one would
mistake me for anything other than a tricky whisperer
with a switchblade in my shoe. I was bound to be all legs,
a bladed debutante hooked on Lucky Strikes and sugar.
When I sent up prayers, God’s boy would giggle and consider.
Daddy didn’t want me to be anybody’s surefire factory,
nobody’s callback or seized rhythm, so he conjured
a name so odd and hot even a boy could claim it. And yes,
he was prepared for the look my mother gave him when
he first mouthed his choice, the look that said, That’s it,
you done lost your goddamned mind. She did that thing
she does where she grows two full inches with righteous,
and he decided to just whisper Love you, Jimi Savannah
whenever we were alone, re- and rechristening me the seed
of Otis, conjuring his own religion and naming it me.
Mr. Horowitz clutches a bag of dried apricots to his chest. Although the sun is shining, there will probably be a storm. Electricity will be lost. Possibly forever. When this happens the very nervous family will be the last to starve. Because of the apricots. “Unless,” says Mrs. Horowitz, “the authorities confiscate the apricots.” Mr. Horowitz clutches the bag of dried apricots tighter. He should’ve bought two bags. One for the authorities and one for his very nervous family. Mrs. Horowitz would dead bolt the front door to keep the authorities out, but it is already bolted. Already dead. She doesn’t like that phrase. Dead bolt. It reminds her of getting shot before you even have a chance to run. “Everyone should have at least a chance to run,” says Mrs. Horowitz. “Don’t you agree, Mr. Horowitz?” Mrs. Horowitz always refers to her husband as Mr. Horowitz should they ever one day become strangers to each other. Mr. Horowitz agrees. When the authorities come they should give the Horowitzs a chance to run before they shoot them for the apricots. Eli Horowitz, their very nervous son, rushes in with his knitting. “Do not rush,” says Mr. Horowitz, “you will fall and you will die.” Eli wanted ice skates for his birthday. “We are not a family who ice skates!” shouts Mrs. Horowitz. She is not angry. She is a mother who simply does not wish to outlive her only son. Mrs. Horowitz gathers her very nervous son up in her arms, and gently explains that families who ice skate become the ice they slip on. The cracks they fall through. The frost that bites them. “We have survived this long to become our own demise?” asks Mrs. Horowitz. “No,” whispers Eli, “we have not.” Mr. Horowitz removes one dried apricot from the bag and nervously begins to pet it when Mrs. Horowitz suddenly gasps. She thinks she may have forgotten to buy milk. Without milk they will choke on the apricots. Eli rushes to the freezer with his knitting. There is milk. The whole freezer is stuffed with milk. Eli removes a frozen half pint and glides it across the kitchen table. It is like the milk is skating. He wishes he were milk. Brave milk. He throws the half pint on the floor and stomps on it. Now the milk is crushed. Now the milk is dead. Now the Horowitzs are that much closer to choking. Mr. and Mrs. Horowitz are dumbfounded. Their very nervous son might be a maniac. He is eight. God is punishing them for being survivors. God has given them a maniac for a son. All they ask is that they not starve, and now their only son is killing milk. Who will marry their maniac? No one. Who will mother their grandchildren? There will be no grandchildren. All they ask is that there is something left of them when they are shot for the apricots, but now their only son is a maniac who will give them no grandchildren. Mr. Horowitz considers leaving Eli behind when he and Mrs. Horowitz run for their lives.
After a while I thought of it this way:
It was a town underneath a mountain
crowned by snow and every year a river
rushed through, enveloping the dusk
in a noise everyone knew signaled spring—
a small town, known for a kind of calico,
made there, strong and unglazed,
a makeshift of cotton in which the actual
unseparated husks still remained and
could be found if you looked behind
the coarse daisies and the red-billed bird
with swept-back wings always trying to
arrive safely on the inch or so of cotton it
might have occupied if anyone had offered it.
And if you ask me now what happened to it—
the town that is—the answer is of course
there was no town, it never actually
existed, and the calico, the glazed cotton
on which a bird never landed is not gone,
because it never was, never once, but then
how to explain that sometimes I can hear
the river in those first days of April, making
its way through the dusk, having learned
to speak the way I once spoke, saying
as if I didn’t love you,
as if I wouldn’t have died for you.
as if it were a scene made-up by the mind,
that is not mine, but is a made place,
that is mine, it is so near to the heart,
an eternal pasture folded in all thought
so that there is a hall therein
that is a made place, created by light
wherefrom the shadows that are forms fall.
Wherefrom fall all architectures I am
I say are likenesses of the First Beloved
whose flowers are flames lit to the Lady.
She it is Queen Under The Hill
whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words
that is a field folded.
It is only a dream of the grass blowing
east against the source of the sun
in an hour before the sun’s going down
whose secret we see in a children’s game
of ring a round of roses told.
Often I am permitted to return to a meadow
as if it were a given property of the mind
that certain bounds hold against chaos,
that is a place of first permission,
everlasting omen of what is.
In Worcester, Massachusetts,
I went with Aunt Consuelo
to keep her dentist’s appointment
and sat and waited for her
in the dentist’s waiting room.
It was winter. It got dark
early. The waiting room
was full of grown-up people,
arctics and overcoats,
lamps and magazines.
My aunt was inside
what seemed like a long time
and while I waited I read
the National Geographic
(I could read) and carefully
studied the photographs:
the inside of a volcano,
black, and full of ashes;
then it was spilling over
in rivulets of fire.
Osa and Martin Johnson
dressed in riding breeches,
laced boots, and pith helmets.
A dead man slung on a pole
— “Long Pig,” the caption said.
Babies with pointed heads
wound round and round with string;
black, naked women with necks
wound round and round with wire
like the necks of light bulbs.
Their breasts were horrifying.
I read it right straight through.
I was too shy to stop.
And then I looked at the cover:
the yellow margins, the date.
Suddenly, from inside,
came an oh! of pain
— Aunt Consuelo’s voice —
not very loud or long.
I wasn’t at all surprised;
even then I knew she was
a foolish, timid woman.
I might have been embarrassed,
but wasn’t. What took me
completely by surprise
was that it was me:
my voice, in my mouth.
Without thinking at all
I was my foolish aunt,
I — we — were falling, falling,
our eyes glued to the cover
of the National Geographic,
I said to myself: three days
and you’ll be seven years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation of falling off
the round, turning world.
into cold, blue-black space.
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
Why should you be one, too?
I scarcely dared to look
to see what it was I was.
I gave a sidelong glance
— I couldn’t look any higher —
at shadowy gray knees,
trousers and skirts and boots
and different pairs of hands
lying under the lamps.
I knew that nothing stranger
had ever happened, that nothing
stranger could ever happen.
Why should I be my aunt,
or me, or anyone?
What similarities —
boots, hands, the family voice
I felt in my throat, or even
the National Geographic
and those awful hanging breasts —
held us all together
or made us all just one?
How — I didn’t know any
word for it — how “unlikely”. . .
How had I come to be here,
like them, and overhear
a cry of pain that could have
got loud and worse but hadn’t?
The waiting room was bright
and too hot. It was sliding
beneath a big black wave,
another, and another.
Then I was back in it.
The War was on. Outside,
in Worcester, Massachusetts,
were night and slush and cold,
and it was still the fifth
of February, 1918.
Maybe the world will not be saved.
It will not be saved. Its commerce, its
every case also
moves into its geology
and then that geology moves
into some great exit of slowing
clocks and the history of saved light.
Listen, I’m not crazy. I want you to save
something for me. If someone says
something false, I will tell that person
“you are false” because I am full
of exaggerations and energy
and also because sunlight scatters
across this lake and just one beam
is enough to make my body insane.
The world will not be saved by despair
so we should spend it all on joy, right?
I despair. Does he despair? The desperate
characters walk onto the stage.
The stage a lake the lake a self I staged
The lake the self I staged.
They sing off key like me. There is no
harmony but when the children clap their
little hands, well, neither is there simile.
I washed the dishes; I folded the laundry.
I wanted to walk around this lake
like an innocent.
About this Poem:
“I wrote this poem thinking about geologic time—the vastness of it compared to human time and human culture. I probably also had in mind Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress” (Had we but world enough, and time). So, I guess the poem is about time. Love and time and not ever having enough of either one.”
A personal lens: glass bending rays
That gave one that day’s news
Saying each and every day,
Just remember you are standing
On a planet that’s evolving.
How beautiful, she thought, what distance does
For water, the view from above or afar.
In last night’s dream, they were back again
At the beginning. She was a child
And he was a child.
A plane lit down and left her there.
Cold whitening the white sky whiter.
Then a scalpel cut her open for all the world
To be a sea.
One day the children played
in the kitchen.
in the cellar.
in the yard.
The yard looked like
an island in the sea.
The children forgot their
when a girl taught them
folded paper boats.
Late afternoon, whispering, they lay
in a sandbox.
on the sidewalk.
in the grass.
Each knew the others had
brothers, sisters, dogs.
They traded blood oaths that foretold
at what cost.
I have more love than ever.
Our kids have kids soon to have kids.
I need them. I need everyone
to come over to the house,
sleep on the floor, on the couches
in the front room. I need noise,
too many people in too small a space,
I need dancing, the spilling of drinks,
the loud pronouncements
over music, the verbal sparring,
the broken dishes, the wealth.
I need it all flying apart.
My friends to slam against me,
to hold me, to say they love me.
I need mornings to ask for favors
and forgiveness. I need to give,
have all my emotions rattled,
my family to be greedy,
to keep coming, to keep asking
and taking. I need no resolution,
just the constant turmoil of living.
Give me the bottom of the river,
all the unadorned, unfinished,
unpraised moments, one good turn
on the luxuriant wheel.
The wind is fitful now:
soot piles in the corners
of new buildings,
gulls stumble out of place
in ragged branches
to skim against a rise
of pond water.
The children watch, breathless
with the birds.
They feel an emanation
from this shuddering place.
This winter evening
the sky cracks with cardinal color
and we sit in cooing wonder
like dwarves at the Venetian court
must have done —
amazed at Tiepolo’s sunshot ceilings;
like us, they were fickle,
aware of smaller inconstancy.
But the dazzle above, enclosing
seems fit or made for this
fragment of belief.
Sometimes we would get hungry for the neighborhood.
Walk up the sidewalk towards Chestnut Street.
Speak to the Rev holding the light-skinned baby,
ask his son to come put a new inner tube on my bike.
Cross Ludlow, past the mailbox on the corner,
Risqué Video, Dino’s Pizza, and the Emerald Laundromat.
The fruit trucks tucked into 44th Street on the left,
house eyes shut with boards, fringes of children.
Once we went into a store sunk into the street,
owned by a Cambodian woman. She sold everything,
from evening gowns to soup. Over to Walnut and 45th,
where the Muslim cat sells this chicken wrapped in pita,
draped in cucumber sauce. The pregnant woman
behind the counter writes our order out in Arabic.
We grab a juice from the freezer, some chips,
eye the bean and sweet potato pies.
Back into the hot breath of West Philly, sun is setting.
The sky is smeared squash, tangerines in a glaze.
Three girls and one boy jump doubledutch. A white man
hustles from the video store with a black plastic bag.
We look for money in the street, steal flowers
from the church lawn. The shit stain from the wino
is still on our step. Mr. Jim is washing a car for cash.
John is cleaning his rims to Buju Banton.
Noel is talking sweetly to the big blue-eyed woman.
Linda, on her way to the restaurant. The sister
in the wheelchair buzzes by with her headphones on.
One night, a man was shot and killed on this block,
right outside our thick wood door. But not today.
Today is one of those days to come home from walking
in the world, leave the windows open, start a pot of
black beans. Smoke some Alice Coltrane. Cut up
some fruit, toenails. Hold on to the moment
as if time is taking your blood pressure.
Only teaching on Tuesdays, book-worming
in pajamas fresh from the washer each morning,
I hog a whole house on Boston’s
“hardly passionate Marlborough Street,”
where even the man
scavenging filth in the back alley trash cans,
has two children, a beach wagon, a helpmate,
and is “a young Republican.”
I have a nine months’ daughter,
young enough to be my granddaughter.
Like the sun she rises in her flame-flamingo infants’ wear.
These are the tranquilized Fifties,
and I am forty. Ought I to regret my seedtime?
I was a fire-breathing Catholic C.O.,
and made my manic statement,
telling off the state and president, and then
sat waiting sentence in the bull pen
beside a negro boy with curlicues
of marijuana in his hair.
Given a year,
I walked on the roof of the West Street Jail, a short
enclosure like my school soccer court,
and saw the Hudson River once a day
through sooty clothesline entanglements
and bleaching khaki tenements.
Strolling, I yammered metaphysics with Abramowitz,
a jaundice-yellow (“it’s really tan”)
and fly-weight pacifist,
he wore rope shoes and preferred fallen fruit.
He tried to convert Bioff and Brown,
the Hollywood pimps, to his diet.
Hairy, muscular, suburban,
wearing chocolate double-breasted suits,
they blew their tops and beat him black and blue.
I was so out of things, I’d never heard
of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“Are you a C.O.?” I asked a fellow jailbird.
“No,” he answered, “I’m a J.W.”
He taught me the “hospital tuck,”
and pointed out the T-shirted back
of Murder Incorporated’s Czar Lepke,
there piling towels on a rack,
or dawdling off to his little segregated cell full
of things forbidden to the common man:
a portable radio, a dresser, two toy American
flags tied together with a ribbon of Easter palm.
Flabby, bald, lobotomized,
he drifted in a sheepish calm,
where no agonizing reappraisal
jarred his concentration on the electric chair
hanging like an oasis in his air
of lost connections. . . .