He was shoveling sand
at the edge of the water, his heavy black glasses
glittered with rain:
“Don’t you see how much like a woman I am?”
His throat was wrapped in water,
and the water flowered with milt.
Shoveler, are you eating the earth?
Earth eating you?
what I have to have
to live in this country.
And he, as calm as calm, though he was dead:
“Oh,—milt,—and we’re all of us milt.”
And who has seen the moon, who has not seen
Her rise from out the chamber of the deep,
Flushed and grand and naked, as from the chamber
Of finished bridegroom, seen her rise and throw
Confession of delight upon the wave,
Littering the waves with her own superscription
Of bliss, till all her lambent beauty shakes towards us
Spread out and known at last, and we are sure
That beauty is a thing beyond the grave,
That perfect, bright experience never falls
To nothingness, and time will dim the moon
Sooner than our full consummation here
In this odd life will tarnish or pass away.
You might come here Sunday on a whim.
Say your life broke down. The last good kiss
you had was years ago. You walk these streets
laid out by the insane, past hotels
that didn’t last, bars that did, the tortured try
of local drivers to accelerate their lives.
Only churches are kept up. The jail
turned 70 this year. The only prisoner
is always in, not knowing what he’s done.
The principal supporting business now
is rage. Hatred of the various grays
the mountain sends, hatred of the mill,
The Silver Bill repeal, the best liked girls
who leave each year for Butte. One good
restaurant and bars can’t wipe the boredom out.
The 1907 boom, eight going silver mines,
a dance floor built on springs—
all memory resolves itself in gaze,
in panoramic green you know the cattle eat
or two stacks high above the town,
two dead kilns, the huge mill in collapse
for fifty years that won’t fall finally down.
Isn’t this your life? That ancient kiss
still burning out your eyes? Isn’t this defeat
so accurate, the church bell simply seems
a pure announcement: ring and no one comes?
Don’t empty houses ring? Are magnesium
and scorn sufficient to support a town,
not just Philipsburg, but towns
of towering blondes, good jazz and booze
the world will never let you have
until the town you came from dies inside?
Say no to yourself. The old man, twenty
when the jail was built, still laughs
although his lips collapse. Someday soon,
he says, I’ll go to sleep and not wake up.
You tell him no. You’re talking to yourself.
The car that brought you here still runs.
The money you buy lunch with,
no matter where it’s mined, is silver
and the girl who serves your food
is slender and her red hair lights the wall.
Again the white blanket
The fierce teeth
of steel-framed snowshoes
bite the trail open.
Where the hardwoods stand
and rarely bend
the wind blows hard
an explosion of snow
like flour dusting
the baker in a shop
long since shuttered.
In this our post-shame century
we will reclaim
the old nouns
If it rains
we’ll say oh
If she falls
out of love
with you you’ll carry
your love on a gold plate
to the forest and bury it
in the Indian graveyard.
Pioneers do not
The sweet knees
of oxen have pressed
a path for me.
A lone chickadee
sings in the snow.
as if out of air
but surely they come
bearing what news
from the troposphere.
The sky’s shifted
and Capricorns abandon
themselves to a Sagittarian
line. I like
this weird axis.
In 23,000 years
it will become again
the same sky
the Babylonians scanned.
When fiber-optic, sky blue hair became the fashion, my father began the
monthly ritual of shaving his head. It was August, and we were still living in the
Projects without a refrigerator. The sound of my mother fluttering through the
rosaries in another room reminded me of the flies I'd learned to trap in mid-
flight and bring to my ear.
"Vecchio finally died," my father said, bending to lace his old boots. "You
want to come help me?"
My grandparents lived in a green-shingled house on the last street before
the Jones & Laughlin coke furnaces, the Baltimore & Ohio switching yard, and
the sliding banks of the Monongahela. The night was skunk-dark. The spade
waited off to the side.
Before I could see it, I could smell the box on the porch.
We walked down the tight alley between the houses to get to the back yard
where fireflies pushed through the heat like slow aircraft and tomato plants hung
bandaged to iron poles. My father tore and chewed a creamy yellow flower from
After a few minutes of digging, he said, "Throw him in."
I lifted the cardboard box above my head, so I could watch the old white
cat tumble down, a quarter moon in the pit of the sky.
Who knows whether the sea heals or corrodes?
The wading, wintered pack-beasts of the feet
slough off, in spring, the dead rind of the shoes’
leather detention, the big toe’s yellow horn
shines with a natural polish, and the whole
person seems to profit. The opposite appears
when dead sharks wash up along the beach
for no known reason. What is more built
for winning than the swept-back teeth,
water-finished fins, and pure bad eyes
these old, efficient forms of appetite
are dressed in? Yet it looks as if the sea
digested what is wished of them with viral ease
and threw up what was left to stink and dry.
If this shows how the sea approaches life
in its propensity to feed as animal entire,
then sharks are comforts, feet are terrified,
but they vacation in the mystery and why not?
Who knows whether the sea heals or corrodes?:
what the sun burns up of it, the moon puts back.
I spent what light Saturday sent sweating
And learned to cuss cutting grass for women
Kind enough to say they couldn’t tell the damned
Difference between their mowed lawns
And their vacuumed carpets just before
Handing over a five-dollar bill rolled tighter
Than a joint and asking me in to change
A few light bulbs. I called those women old
Because they wouldn’t move out of a chair
Without my help or walk without a hand
At the base of their backs. I called them
Old, and they must have been; they’re all dead
Now, dead and in the earth I once tended.
The loneliest people have the earth to love
And not one friend their own age—only
Mothers to baby them and big sisters to boss
Them around, women they want to please
And pray for the chance to say please to.
I don’t do that kind of work anymore. My job
Is to look at the childhood I hated and say
I once had something to do with my hands.