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 the garden. 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.
I’m jotting down these lines,
having borrowed a pen from a waitress
in this roadside restaurant. Three rusty pines
prop up the sky in the windows.
My soup gets cold, which implies
I’ll eat it cold. Soon I too
will leave a tip on the table, merge
into the beehive of travelers
and board one of the ferries,
where there’s always a line to the loo
and no one knows where the captain is.
Slightly seasick, I keep on writing
of the wind-rose and lobster traps,
seagulls, if any—and there always are.
Check the air and you’ll see them
above straw hats and caps.
The sun at noon glides like a monstrous star-
fish through clouds. Others drink iced tea,
training binoculars on a tugboat.
When I finish this letter, I’ll take a gulp
from the flask you gave me for the road
in days when I was too young to care about
those on the pier who waved goodbye.
I miss them now: cousins in linen dresses,
my mother, you, boys in light summer shirts.
Life is too long. The compass needle dances.
Everything passes by. The ferry passes
by ragged yellow shores.
Sunday mornings I would reach
high into his dark closet while standing
on a chair and tiptoeing reach
higher, touching, sometimes fumbling
the soft crowns and imagine
I was in a forest, wind hymning
through pines, where the musky scent
of rain clinging to damp earth was
his scent I loved, lingering on
bands, leather, and on the inner silk
crowns where I would smell his
hair and almost think I was being
held, or climbing a tree, touching
the yellow fruit, leaves whose scent
was that of a clove in the godsome
air, as now, thinking of his fabulous
sleep, I stand on this canyon floor
and watch light slowly close
on water I’m not sure is there.
oh antic God
return to me
my mother in her thirties
leaned across the front porch
the huge pillow of her breasts
pressing against the rail
summoning me in for bed.
I am almost the dead woman’s age times two.
I can barely recall her song
the scent of her hands
though her wild hair scratches my dreams
at night. return to me, oh Lord of then
and now, my mother’s calling,
her young voice humming my name.
On 20th between Madison and Ferry
a line of municipal maples binds the community
to an orderly, serviceable beauty. Platforms
from which our sparrows and starlings
might decorate our domestic sedans,
perhaps these trees serve most to stimulate
the car wash economy. Today, they remind me:
unsatisfied with workaday species, my parents
nailed oranges to a post to attract the exotic Oriole.
When the birds arrived, I wondered if they’d flown
all the way from Baltimore, which in turn
evoked a hotel, gables lined
with black and tangerine, posh clientele
spackled by the vagaries of Maryland living.
By nine I could sigh, climb our single
red maple, which I imagined a national landmark.
Child of movies, I could see the tree even at night
as a kind of beacon, a singularity. White
sheen on the leaves’ pitchy gloss, bodily.
And I too would learn to feel glazed
as any creature accumulating light
cast from stars, hidden in a federation
of equivalent times, distant trains
carrying sugar, coal, whole families beyond
deserts, imposing ranges, shimmering coastlines
said to define the spirit of a people.
Far from the station, the pinpoint aurora,
a line of municipal maples bears its charge.
Tell me it was for the hunger
& nothing less. For hunger is to give
the body what it knows
it cannot keep. That this amber light
whittled down by another war
is all that pins my hand
to your chest.
between my arms—
You, pushing your body
into the river
only to be left
I’ll tell you how we’re wrong enough to be forgiven. How one night, after
mother, then taking a chainsaw to the kitchen table, my father went to kneel
in the bathroom until we heard his muffled cries through the walls.
And so I learned that a man, in climax, was the closest thing
Say surrender. Say alabaster. Switchblade.
Honeysuckle. Goldenrod. Say autumn.
Say autumn despite the green
in your eyes. Beauty despite
daylight. Say you’d kill for it. Unbreakable dawn
mounting in your throat.
My thrashing beneath you
like a sparrow stunned
Dusk: a blade of honey between our shadows, draining.
I wanted to disappear—so I opened the door to a stranger’s car. He was divorced. He was still alive. He was sobbing into his hands (hands that tasted like rust). The pink breast cancer ribbon on his keychain swayed in the ignition. Don’t we touch each other just to prove we are still here? I was still here once. The moon, distant & flickering, trapped itself in beads of sweat on my neck. I let the fog spill through the cracked window & cover my fangs. When I left, the Buick kept sitting there, a dumb bull in pasture, its eyes searing my shadow onto the side of suburban houses. At home, I threw myself on the bed like a torch & watched the flames gnaw through my mother’s house until the sky appeared, bloodshot & massive. How I wanted to be that sky—to hold every flying & falling at once.
Say amen. Say amend.
Say yes. Say yes
In the shower, sweating under cold water, I scrubbed & scrubbed.
In the life before this one, you could tell
two people were in love
because when they drove the pickup
over the bridge, their wings
would grow back just in time.
Some days I am still inside the pickup.
Some days I keep waiting.
It’s not too late. Our heads haloed
with gnats & summer too early
to leave any marks.
Your hand under my shirt as static
intensifies on the radio.
Your other hand pointing
your daddy’s revolver
to the sky. Stars falling one
by one in the cross hairs.
This means I won’t be
afraid if we’re already
here. Already more
than skin can hold. That a body
beside a body
must make a field
full of ticking. That your name
is only the sound of clocks
being set back another hour
finds our clothes
on your mother’s front porch, shed
like week-old lilies.
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.
Many of my race have lived long without the touch of
these fine things which separate us from beasts. Things
I call my own now. Having served thirty-six years as needleman
for a family far more ape than we will ever be, I rode
the moonlight train to find my free. Up here it is colder than I like,
but the gentlemen admire my frock coats above all. I taught my son this trade
and hope this picture I made will help retrieve him. Come summer I leave
this coast for Philadelphia where I hear we of color can breathe yet more free.
Tonight I stitch. The breeze off the bay smells of aria. It is almost the season for cloaks.
This, we tiptoe.
This, we flower in euphemism.
The street has swallowed itself into border. Into railroad track.
This, where the bus line ends.
This, where little boys bike across curfew and into eulogy.
This, where board-slapped windows domino into mansions.
Runaway men into joggers.
This, where Oak Park River Forest alumni rep westside,
Redlands East Valley minstrels “Gangsta Day” during spirit week.
This, where the grass and the quiet
lull mothers to sleep.
This, where your heart is not yet
a restless telephone wire shackled to the ankle
of every one you have ever loved after sunset.
This, where the news stations tell you everything you know about
what lives across your street, outside of your living room window,
at the end of your driveway.
This, deliberate. This, abrupt.
This, sloppy stitching.
Here, you are exception,
urban, and articulate.
The black friend that let them poke pencils through your kink that one time
while you curled a trembling smile, pretending not to be
token or voodoo doll,
half house, half field
a Susie Carmichael or Huxtable.
The black family in a White House
ran north and bought the plantation.
This all too familiar of being someplace but not.
You were raised on “twice as good.”
Mama left the westside when you were two.
You were raised into valley-girl accent.
Your voice lost all of its skyline until
you went to high school through metal detectors.
You were raised on ditches and division streets.
Here, where you were born before you were conceived.
Here, where your cousin lives in the basement.
Here is your first real boyfriend
the first tongue in your mouth, and first
call from the county.
Here is the splintered wall your back will know.
Here, where you are no bourgeois success story,
just lucky enough to slip through cracks and make it
to your front door each night.
Here is where your ashes will be scattered.
Here is your home 6 years from now.
Here is your home 50 years ago.
Here is your redemption skin.
Your corner store.
Your corner stone.
Here is your Gramma’s house and dusted porcelain
and stuffed bears on the living room walls.
Here, where everything grows without permission.
Here, where sunflowers rise from the potholes
each and every summer.
In the window of the drawing-room
there is a rush of white as you pass
in which the figure of your husband is,
for a moment, framed. He is watching you.
His father will come, of course,
and, although you had not planned it,
his beard will offset your lace dress,
and always it will seem that you were friends.
All morning, you had prepared the house
and now you have stepped out
to make sure that everything
is in its proper place: the railings whitened,
fresh gravel on the avenue, the glasshouse
crystal when you stand in the courtyard
expecting the carriage to arrive at any moment.
You are pleased with the day, all month it has been warm.
They say it will be one of the hottest summers
the world has ever known.
Today, your son is one year old.
Later, you will try to recall
how he felt in your arms—
the weight of him, the way he turned to you from sleep,
the exact moment when you knew he would cry
and the photograph be lost.
But it is not lost.
You stand, a well-appointed group
with an air of being pleasantly surprised.
You will come to love this photograph
and will remember how, when he had finished,
you invited the photographer inside
and how, in celebration of the day,
you drank a toast to him, and summer-time.
The sky wears black serge pants while
hemming up another pair for tomorrow
night. A bit shorter, but you won’t notice.
Some nights the blue pill brings a dream
where a young girl is trying not to cry
in the sheep pasture, stuck where her brothers
eyed the watery gap and mossy stones and sailed
to the other side. We didn’t know about E. coli
then, how our waders must have buzzed with it.
By the time I was ten, I’d pared my list of things
I was scared of down to four: the high board,
hoods and kidnappers, blue racers, and shaking
hands with Uncle John who’d lost four fingers
in the cornpicker. I pushed the scared parts of me
away, like the two finches my mother watched
nudge a dead fledgling off the edge of her deck.
I want to reach you—
in that city where the snow
only shimmers silver
for a few hours. It has taken
seventeen years. This trip,
these characters patterned
in black ink, curves catching
on the page like hinges,
this weave of letters fraying
like the lines on my palm,
all broken paths. Outside,
no snow. Just the slow pull
of brown on the hills, umber
dulling to a bruise until the city
is just a memory of stained teeth,
the burn of white marble
to dusk, cows standing
on the edges like a dust
cloud gaining weight
after days of no rain. Asleep
in the hot berth, my parents
sway in a dance, the silence
broken by scrape of tin, hiss
of tea, and underneath,
the constant clatter of wheels
beating steel tracks over and over:
to the city of white marble,
to the city of goats, tobacco
fields, city of dead hands,
a mantra of my grandmother’s—
her teeth eaten away
by betel leaves—the story
of how Shah Jahan had cut off
all the workers’ hands
after they built the Taj, so they
could never build again. I dreamt
of those hands for weeks before
the trip, weeks even before I
stepped off the plane, thousands
of useless dead flowers drying
to sienna, silent in their fall.
Every night, days before, I dreamt
those hands climbing over the iron
gate of my grandparents’ house, over
grate and spikes, some caught
in the groove between its sharpened
teeth, others biting where
they pinched my skin.
Not with your tribe’s spears i write
for they are dull
but with my nails
words without walls
For you i have inscribed
weaving the sun’s rays
to your latticed window.
To tell me you accept
The tribe’s traditions and prescriptions
is a concession
to being buried alive
The noble inch or two
over your skin
shall curve a bottomless night
into your flesh
It pains me
to see the tribe dwell
in you sprawling
in your college seat not unlike
who thought she was
a lottery ticket won
at home. A woman
in her twenties
sitting before some tent
shrouded with robes and veils
carrying the spindle
but does not spin.
To hear you talk
about a cloak
the clan’s man bought
to hear you boast
and chip off the old oak tree.
The Sheik’s voice in your voice
My kingdom does not claim
dowries of cows and cattle
thus the Tribe rejects me
For you are their legitimate child
I am the one disavowed
You belong to lords of virgin lands
I to seasons bleeding flames
How long will they keep raping you on your wedding night?
I took a break from writing about the dead
and drinking from writing about the dead
to walk around my childhood neighborhood.
Everything’s for rent. Or for sale, for ten
times the amount it’s worth.
Palm trees are planted in front of a mural
of palm trees under the Ocean Park Bridge.
In the painting, the metal horses of a carousel are breaking
free and running down the beach. Why didn’t I leave
my initials in cement
in front of my parent’s apartment in the eighties?
Nikki had the right idea in ’79.
I walk by a basketball court, where men play
under the florescent butts of night’s cigarette.
I could have been any of their wives,
at home, filling different rooms in different houses
with hopeful wombs. Agreeing on paint color
samples with their mothers in mind.
I’ll bet their wives let their cats go out
hunting at night like premonitions of future sons.
They will worry, stare out the front window,
pray that privilege doesn’t bring home bad news
like some wilted head of a black girl in nascent jaws.
To say nothing of the owl who’s been here for years. I hear him
when I’m trying to write about the deaths I’ve admired.
I hear him when the clothed me no longer recognizes
the naked. I hear him while writing and shitting and sleeping
where my mother’s seven guitars sleep.
I hear him in my parent’s house,
their walls covered in my many faces,
traces of decades of complacence.
My childhood neighborhood is a shrine to my success,
and I’m a car with a bomb inside, ready
to pull up in front of it and stop
Just after my wife’s miscarriage (her second
in four months), I was sitting in an empty
classroom exchanging notes with my friend,
a budding Joyce scholar with steelrimmed
glasses, when, lapsed Irish Catholic that he was,
he surprised me by asking what I thought now
of God’s ways toward man. It was spring,
such spring as came to the flintbacked Chenango
Valley thirty years ago, the full force of Siberia
behind each blast of wind. Once more my poor wife
was in the local four-room hospital, recovering.
The sun was going down, the room’s pinewood panels
all but swallowing the gelid light, when, suddenly,
I surprised not only myself but my colleague
by raising my middle finger up to heaven, quid
pro quo, the hardly grand defiant gesture a variant
on Vanni Fucci’s figs, shocking not only my friend
but in truth the gesture’s perpetrator too. I was 24,
and, in spite of having pored over the Confessions
& that Catholic Tractate called the Summa, was sure
I’d seen enough of God’s erstwhile ways toward man.
That summer, under a pulsing midnight sky
shimmering with Van Gogh stars, in a creaking,
cedarscented cabin off Lake George, having lied
to the gentrified owner of the boys’ camp
that indeed I knew wilderness & lakes and could,
if need be, lead a whole fleet of canoes down
the turbulent whitewater passages of the Fulton Chain
(I who had last been in a rowboat with my parents
at the age of six), my wife and I made love, trying
not to disturb whosever headboard & waterglass
lie just beyond the paperthin partition at our feet.
In the great black Adirondack stillness, as we lay
there on our sagging mattress, my wife & I gazed out
through the broken roof into a sky that seemed
somehow to look back down on us, and in that place,
that holy place, she must have conceived again,
for nine months later in a New York hospital she
brought forth a son, a little buddha-bellied
rumplestiltskin runt of a man who burned
to face the sun, the fact of his being there
both terrifying & lifting me at once, this son,
this gift, whom I still look upon with joy & awe. Worst,
best, just last year, this same son, grown
to manhood now, knelt before a marble altar to vow
everything he had to the same God I had had my own
erstwhile dealings with. How does one bargain
with a God like this, who, quid pro quo, ups
the ante each time He answers one sign with another?
a century past
is like looking
at your own
until someone else
with a stranger’s eye
looks close and says
When our semi-conductor
Raised his baton, we sat there
Gaping at Marche Militaire,
Our mouth-opening number.
It seemed faintly familiar
(We’d rehearsed it all that winter),
But we attacked in such a blur,
No army anywhere
On its stomach or all fours
Could have squeezed through our crossfire.
I played cornet, seventh chair,
Out of seven, my embouchure
A glorified Bronx cheer
Through that three-keyed keyhole stopper
And neighborhood window-slammer
Where mildew fought for air
At every exhausted corner,
My fingering still unsure
After scaling it for a year
Except on the spit-valve lever.
Each straight-faced mother and father
Retested his moral fiber
Against our traps and slurs
And the inadvertent whickers
Paradiddled by our snares,
And when the brass bulled forth
A blare fit to horn over
Jericho two bars sooner
Than Joshua’s harsh measures,
They still had the nerve to stare.
By the last lost chord, our director
Looked older and soberer.
No doubt, in his mind’s ear
Some band somewhere
In some music of some Sphere
Was striking a note as pure
As the wishes of Franz Schubert,
But meanwhile here we were:
A lesson in everything minor,
Decomposing our first composer.
I remember a performance
of Antigone in which she
threw herself on the floor of
the universe and picked up
a piece of dust. Is that
the particle? It startled me.
Was it Scripted? Directed?
Driven? I am a girl, Antigone.
I have a sister. We love
each other terribly. I am a woman
of property. The milk of the footlights.
The folds of the curtain. I remember
a performance of Antigone. She stooped.
There was a wild particle.
It was glorified by my distance.
I heard the hooves of the dust.
The ticking of the script
calibrating oblivion. I saw
the particle hanging
and Antigone needed something
to do with her hands
and she did it.
Not a study or a den, but El Florida
as my mother called it, a pretty name
for the room with the prettiest view
of the lipstick-red hibiscus puckered up
against the windows, the tepid breeze
laden with the brown-sugar scent
of loquats drifting in from the yard.
Not a sunroom, but where the sun
both rose and set, all day the shadows
of banana trees fan-dancing across
the floor, and if it rained, it rained
the loudest, like marbles plunking
across the roof under constant threat
of coconuts ready to fall from the sky.
Not a sitting room, but El Florida where
I sat alone for hours with butterflies
frozen on the polyester curtains
and faces of Lladró figurines: sad angels,
clowns, and princesses with eyes glazed
blue and gray, gazing from behind
the glass doors of the wall cabinet.
Not a TV room, but where I watched
Creature Feature as a boy, clinging
to my brother, safe from vampires
in the same sofa where I fell in love
with Clint Eastwood and my Abuelo
watching westerns, or pitying women
crying in telenovelas with my Abuela.
Not a family room, but the room where
my father twirled his hair while listening
to 8-tracks of Elvis, and read Nietzsche
and Kant a few months before he died,
where my mother learned to dance alone
as she swept, and I learned Salsa pressed
against my Tía Julia’s enormous breasts.
At the edge of the city, in the company
of crickets, beside the empty clothesline,
telephone wires and the moon, tonight
my life is an old friend sitting with me
not in the living room, but in the light
of El Florida, as quiet and necessary
as any star shining above it.
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.
I only have a moment so let me tell you the shortest story,
about arriving at a long loved place, the house of friends in Maine,
their lawn of wildflowers, their grandfather clock and candid
portraits, their gabled attic rooms, and woodstove in the kitchen,
all accessories of the genuine summer years before, when I was
their son’s girlfriend and tied an apron behind my neck, beneath
my braids, and took from their garden the harvest for a dinner
I would make alone and serve at their big table with the gladness
of the found, and loved. The eggplant shone like polished wood,
the tomatoes smelled like their furred collars, the dozen zucchini
lined up on the counter like placid troops with the onions, their
minions, and I even remember the garlic, each clove from its airmail
envelope brought to the cutting board, ready for my instruction.
And in this very slight story, a decade later, I came by myself,
having been dropped by the airport cab, and waited for the family
to arrive home from work. I walked into the lawn, waist-high
in the swaying, purple lupines, the subject of June’s afternoon light
as I had never been addressed—a displaced young woman with
cropped hair, no place to which I wished to return, and no one
to gather me in his arms. That day the lupines received me,
and I was in love with them, because they were all I had left,
and in that same manner I have loved much of the world since then,
and who is to say there is more of a reason, or more to love?
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.
in memoriam Cecil Young
I am addicted to words, constantly ferret them away
in anticipation. You cannot accuse me of not being prepared.
I am ready for anything. I can create an image faster than
just about anyone. And so, the crows blurring the tree line;
the sky’s light dimming and shifting; the Pacific cold and
impatient as ever: this is just the way I feel. Nothing more.
I could gussy up those crows, transform them
into something more formal, more Latinate, could use
the exact genus Corvus, but I won’t. Not today.
Like any addict, I, too, have limits. And I have written
too many elegies already. The Living have become
jealous of the amount I have written for the Dead.
So, leave the crows perched along the tree line
watching over us. Leave them be. The setting sun?
Leave it be. For God’s sake, what could be easier
in a poem about death than a setting sun? Leave it be.
Words cannot always help you, the old poet had taught
me, cannot always be there for you no matter how you
store them away with sharpened forethought.
Not the courier in his leather sandals, his legs dark and dirty
from the long race across the desert. Not the carrier
pigeon arriving with the news of another dead Caesar
and the request you present yourself. Nothing like that.
The telephone rings. Early one morning, the telephone rings
and the voice is your mother’s voice. No fanfare. Your
father’s brother is dead. He died that morning. And your tongue
went silent. Like any other minor poet, you could not find
the best words, the appropriate words. Leave it be now.
You let your mother talk and talk to fill the silence. Leave it be.
All of your practiced precision, all of the words saved up
for a poem, can do nothing to remedy that now.
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.
A campesino looked at the air
And told me:
With hurricanes it’s not the wind
or the noise or the water.
I’ll tell you he said:
it’s the mangoes, avocados
Green plantains and bananas
flying into town like projectiles.
How would your family
feel if they had to tell
The generations that you
got killed by a flying
Death by drowning has honor
If the wind picked you up
and slammed you
Against a mountain boulder
This would not carry shame
to suffer a mango smashing
or a plantain hitting your
Temple at 70 miles per hour
is the ultimate disgrace.
The campesino takes off his hat—
As a sign of respect
toward the fury of the wind
Don’t worry about the noise
Don’t worry about the water
Don’t worry about the wind—
If you are going out
beware of mangoes
And all such beautiful
“Carrie says I should make my connections into a poem.” —Dennis Etzel Jr.
Sawed you there, through you there, girl whom I name
Carrie, shine of sun on bonnet-handle at that Walgreens
on 28th. A Friday night. It looked like you came straight
from fighting something that looked like lightning.
You were all scorched up. Tired look but with a residue
of glow, not in the family way, as they used to say,
and as I still do, since I venerate the old, but filled
to the heart with stars. Looking light years away, the way
you operated that Redbox: how can a girl seem so far
from Earth while at a Redbox? I was the girl in the super-
looking supermarket hat, with ashen face and hair of flax,
heart of gold and such. You didn’t see me staring, not seeing
much of anything. Magician seeking magician’s assistant,
my craigslist ad would say: I will saw through you any day.
When I received the call I was in a store in Missoula, Montana.
A store stocked with sparkling ephemera: glass fauna, tiny belfry bulbs,
winter white birch and stump-lamps brandishing light cones,
little shelves and branches hung with drops of ice and round silver baubles.
I loved the store: it was cavernous, dark with wood and burlap,
a ruddy brick loft with lithographs and monographs on birds or bracelets.
The store-owner, Fran, was away that day otherwise
I would have stayed in there a little longer.
She was a comforting friend—
she had impeccable taste, manifested in her put-together garments,
she also had a warming patient smile.
I didn’t stay long, I didn’t linger;
though linger is absolutely the wrong word,
more like I didn’t stumble around there for hours.
(I would stumble around in that store for a full year.)
If she had been behind the counter I would have turned to her in bewilderment.
You see I had picked up my ringing cell phone while browsing
(I usually keep it off in stores),
and my father said, there’s something I have to tell you.
I don’t want you to find out any other way. I am leaving my job.
They want me to resign.
Fran had met my father the week before—
he wanted to see downtown, the campus, get to know Montana—
he had done research on the education opportunities.
He was interested in outreach.
People all over met him and found him to be a kindhearted man.
I had set up meetings, he was here to meet educators, mathematicians—
more spirited people—I told him—than Bostonians.
I told him the West was a magical place. He agreed.
Later he would tell me that this was his last best day, a strange pun on the Last Best Place.
Little did we know we would have to fight a very public battle.
And apparently from the rumors and from the strange
treatment he received prior to his termination,
there was a plot in place.
We, as a family, felt the public ridicule.
And as an Asian family, we felt the acute Asian shame. It was a dark,
disastrous cloud hanging, hanging, hanging.
My father would be would be publicly shamed
and we were shocked at the racist narratives—
allegations—a greedy brown man—
mismanaging, mismanaging, mismanaging
One public interest story to release venom—
to tease out real feelings from strangers.
Blog comments were aggressive: the Indian was a con,
a snake-oil man.
You just have to give them a scenario
in which they can invest—in which to place those hard-to-place feelings.
White people bury their resentments beneath their liberalism.
We knew he hadn’t done anything wrong—we knew this was bogus.
Like I said, I was getting ready for the holidays,
I played hooky that Tuesday excited to wrap gifts;
I wanted to decorate the house.
This was my first house.
My husband was out looking at Christmas trees.
Albeit I am a Hindu, trees are an awful lot of fun.
And this planning was quickly thwarted with the difficult—
my family was falling apart—
the droop in my life felt permanent.
I was more than 2,000 miles from my father, but the way he spoke
at the moment of the call becalmed me—
I felt anchored to his side—
I will stay there for as long as it takes.
Before this moment I was in a terrific mood.
I wanted to don the table
with the kind of candles that beckoned, pulling you into an aesthetic presence
fully-fabricated and lit, and yet looked like it came from snow.
I had been in Missoula for many months,
I had come from Brooklyn, where I had lived for twelve years.
Now I was ready to escape.
Having been born and raised outside of Boston,
without the opportunities say someone like Robert Lowell had.
I knew I was not of that ilk nor was my father—we now realize.
Boston was indeed for the rich—with its stodgy colonial identity,
with its ridiculous Brahmans—
its oddly cultureless stance
even with Harvard as its mirror.
(Even with Cal as front & center literati.)
Even so, I was pleased, I was unhurried in my new life, I was, I was.
I could feel how I stood, I could feel the rising happiness—of the belly, not the gut.
I was consumed with the bliss of poetry,
so much poetry around me, everything with poetry.
I said and understood, the workshop will be my ideology,
my intentional community, front and center—with bells.
My family was overjoyed with the way our lives
were working together—
my father was comfortable, my mother pleased,
a professorship and presidential position
at a college, he was the first South-Asian president.
He had come to America with very little and now had something.
As you can see, there is an immigrant narrative here.
When he first arrived, he made very little money as a visiting professor so he worked
security at night at the Museum of Fine Arts. He kept thinking his colleague, Bruce,
was calling him bastard, when he was calling him buster.
It took him months to realize this. He first had to confront Bruce.
The sequence of his first major purchases and acquisitions, which took several months:
a suitcase and a rug, then he found a dentist’s chair for the living room.
He bought the Bob Dylan album that had “Blowing in the Wind,” because it really
sounded Hindu—it sounded like it came from the Rig Veda.
For many years I would say he was a model minority—he aspired to being
rewarded for his good work by white people.
We agreed, all was well— I had made my way to where I had wanted to be,
living a poet’s life and it felt extraordinary—
all of the birch-stump lamps lighting up inside, this was a kind of bliss.
I had arrived where I loved in absolute terms.
Where I could love the poetics of if, then & thou. The luminous…
And yet poetry haunts with its suggestion that terrible things are true and stick, as Rilke says:
I am much too small in this world, yet not small enough/to be to you just object
and thing/dark and smart.
The sun was hidden behind the darkest cloud.
I said what is happening to my father?
In response, my husband’s back gave out,
he could not walk without whimpering, there was whimpering in the night
and I wasn’t sure which one of us it was.
What was happening to my ableness?
We had failure, heaps of failure in our hands.
The world had recast itself in such a way that I had to address the power behind it.
I kept saying strange things to people like no one is exempt from suffering.
I felt like a tiny bird with sinking feet.
There are assertions about difference
That I had not wanted to make in the past, but now did.
Where was I? Who was I?
My father was told he had to watch his back
and then they took everything away from him.
To take away his dignity with so many untruths. Do I have to watch my back too?
What did I think I could have? I wasn’t even sure if I had it here.
People hadn’t seen me as me, I started to feel it. Those glass birds
and the birch lamps were a kind of privilege
only others could have—not “others” in the sense in which I was other.
I started to see how money worked the room: when we had it, when we didn’t.
Imagine, we were so close
to the soaring sky, and imagine how we fell.
How we knew falling wouldn’t end us,
fall right here, fall right there, cry out, oh blustering self,
it can’t be as bad as you think.
I said let’s remember how to do it so it won’t hurt
this time or the next.
But I had to say the branches extended their arms,
there was a house attached to them—
we found ourselves languishing, then needing
It was the turning of the year and then another one.
And the showy, extravagant people capped themselves
on the tops of mountain ash—
we came out to clear them away.
Paradise lies beneath the feet of your mother. A verse I’ve heard recited so frequently I do not know if it is scripture or hadith.
Hadith, meaning traditions of the prophet, are always accompanied by a careful oral lineage of who said what to whom, and who heard who say they heard what. Usually back to one of the prophet’s wives who heard the prophet say it.
The veil also between what you want to see and cannot see, what you wish to have heard but did not hear.
In butoh the dancers are rendered in white smoke, ghosts traversing the stage-as-womb, moving so slowly you do not even know they are there.
If paradise lies beneath the feet of my mother then how will I find my way inside unless she admits me.
Now I look at each face, each body, as it moves around the subway platform, down the stairs and around the platform, onto trains, off of them.
After my aunt Chand-mumani’s death I thought of them each as flames, in each the body is combusting, burning up the fuel of the soul.
Michelle after giving birth walked around the city imagining everyone glistening, bordered in amniotic grit.
But is it really like Fanny writes, the body only a car the soul is driving.
Or something of us sunk into the matter of the body, part of us actually flesh, inseparable from it and upon death, truly dispersed, smoke.
The body of the prophet’s wife always between us. Who said what.
In which case there really is something to grieve at death: that the soul is wind, not immortal.
A middle-aged woman, in the seat in front of me on the train, wearing a green puffy winter jacket. Her hair, though pulled back, frizzy and unkempt.
It’s the unkempt I feel tenderness towards.
Have always felt about myself a messiness, an awkwardness, an ugliness.
As a child, such an envy of birds, of graceful slopes, of muscular boys.
In the train rushing above ground at125th Street. Thinking about stumbling.
House by house, walking down this street or the other one. Going into the library, going into the school.
Where every middle-aged woman is my mother.
Waiting to be trusted with the truth.
I have nearly as much silver in my hair as she does.
Any pronoun here can be misread. He can mean you can mean I.
An odd list of things I want to do in the next five years: study butoh. Write an autobiography. Go back toParis. Get lost somewhere I haven’t been.
Also begin to say it.
Marco and I moved to Marble Hill in the summer of 2006.
Let me tell you a story about a city that floats onto the ocean. Opposite of Atlantis which fell into the sea or Cascadia which threatens to rise back out of it.
Marble Hill, a real hill, perched at the northernmost tip ofManhattanIsland, a promontory out into the conjunction of the Hudson River andSpuyten Duyvil Creek.
The wind is an instrument, its own section of the sky orchestra.
Today I read of a Turkish mullah who is canceling 800 different hadith regarding treatment of women found now or believed at least to be untrue.
Untrue is it.
Untrue the laws that were graven in fire or graven in stone.
Says the Quran, “This is the Book. In it there is no doubt.”
All for a belief that a human animal is a wicked one and requires a law.
Which requires if not actual violence then at least the threat of it.
At least fury.
Here in Marble Hill you are where you aren’t.
Orchestral the river that curves and curves north of the island.
Ships bound for the upper east side fromAlbanyhave a harder and harder time negotiating the torturous and twisting Spuyten Duyvil.
So a canal is blasted through and what was once the northern tip ofManhattanbecame an island.
Walking across one of the bridges inParisI came to a place called Les Mauvaises Garçons. Being afraid to enter I crossed the street to another tavern.
I stayed for three hours.
Radiant with traffic, the streets do not remember the gone.
The pillar at the Place de Bastille does not put back brick or bar.
Ten miles out of Chartres nothing but grain across and gray above a dark raven emerges screaming from the fields.
These thoughts are nothing, following one after the other.
Somali lesbians scheduled for their execution. Two boys in Iran convicted of drunken and lewd behavior and hanged for it. Boys. 16 and 18. There was video footage of the actual hanging on the internet.
I watched it myself.
“You wear your fingers down copying sacred texts,” sang Lalla, “but still the rage inside you has no way to leave.”
The Arabic line “This is the Book. In it there is no doubt” can also be read as “This is, no doubt, the Book . . . ”
Dear mother, there is a folder of my loose poems lost somewhere during the summer of 2006 when I traveled between Pennsylvania, New York City, Virginia, Maine, and your house in Buffalo. There was a letter inside the folder to you.
Though I’ve looked and looked and failed to find it, I am sure it is still in the house in Buffalo somewhere. An envelope with a folder inside. Inside the folder loose poems. Tucked into poems, there was a letter.
The veil between what you want to see and what you cannot see.
Emily Dickinson sent her first letter to Thomas Higginson unsigned. She included with the unsigned letter a smaller sealed envelope in which there was a calling card upon which she had written her name.
When Colin Powell spoke at the UN about the invasion of Iraq, workers were asked to hang a black drape over Picasso’s Guernica.
Which would have otherwise been in the background, surrounding him, as he spoke.
There is a body and a boy between you and utterance, the boy you were who could never speak.
Bright red bracelet of time.
“Fury,” is how Galway Kinnell explained Dickinson’s intent in writing her poems.
Poetry and fury in the time of war. Civil War for her.
What is my war? Not the one you think.
I won’t say.
Constant state, sure as the white noise on the television after the station has gone off the air.
But who goes off the air any more.
And whose air.
Come to Marble Hill then.
Each night sleep is pierced by someone outside gunning their car engine over and over again before driving off.
A car alarm or two.
There is a streetlight outside the window that shines into the bedroom, bright as the moon but more orange.
Orange like the saffron scarf I wore to Tokudo.—”leaving home.” When Ansho became a monk and took a new name.
The day I sat down next to a young man with a sweet smile. A gardener. Name of Marco.
The train runs the next block over. We are on the second floor so hear it if we really pay attention.
By now its rumble on the tracks, the chiming when the doors are about to close, are on the order of background noise.
I have not yet learned how to sleep through the night.
Marble Hill was an island for twenty years before the Spuyten Duyvil Creek, still running, underground below 228th Street, was filled in and joined to the mainland.
The city itself, my life, that first butoh performance I saw.
A man with such slow and intense movements, so internal.
You hardly knew he had moved at all and suddenly he was all the way across the stage, contorted, holding a glass bowl aloft in which a fish swam.
None of which you had even noticed was on the stage.
As I write this, a car alarm. The train.
Now I see it: a few years
To play around while being
By the taller ones, the ones
With the money
And more muscle, however
Tender or indifferent
They might be at being
Parents; then off to school
And the years of struggle
With authority while learning
Violent gobs of things one didn’t
Want to know, with a few tender
And tough teachers thrown in
Who taught what one wanted
And needed to know; then time
To go out and make one’s own
Money (on the day or in
The night-shift), playing around
A little longer (“Seed-time,”
“Salad days”) with some
Young “discretionary income”
Before procreation (which
Brings one quickly, too quickly,
Into play with some variation
Of settling down); then,
Most often for most, the despised
Job (though some work their way
Around this with work of real
Delight, life’s work, with the deepest
Pleasures of mastery); then years
Spent, forgotten, in the middle decades
Of repair, creation, money
Gathered and spent making the family
Happen, as one’s own children busily
Work their way into and through
The cycle themselves,
Comic and tragic to see, with some
Fine moments playing with them;
Then, through no inherent virtue
Of one’s own, but only because
The oldest ones are busy falling
Off the edge of the planet,
The years of governing,
Of being the dreaded authority
One’s self; then the recognition
(Often requiring a stiff drink) that it
Will all soon be ending for one’s self,
But not before Alzheimer’s comes
For some, as Alzheimer’s comes
For my father-in-law now (who
Has forgotten not only who
Shakespeare is but that he taught
Shakespeare for thirty years,
And who sings and dances amidst
The forgotten in the place
To which he’s been taken); then
An ever-deepening sense of time
And how the end might really happen,
To really submit, bend, and go
(Raging against that night is really
An adolescent’s idiot game).
Time soon to take my place
In the long line of my ancestors
(Whose names I mostly never knew
Or have recently forgotten)
Who took their place, spirit poised
In mature humility (or as jackasses
Braying against the inevitable)
Before me, having been moved
By time through time, having done
The time and their times.
“Nearer my god to thee” I sing
On the deck of my personal Titanic,
An agnostic vessel in the mind.
Born alone, die alone—and sad, though
Vastly accompanied, to see
The sadness in the loved ones
To be left behind, and one more
Moment of wondering what,
If anything, comes next. . .
Never to have been completely
Certain what I was doing
Alive, but having stayed aloft
Amidst an almost sinister doubt.
I say to my children
Don’t be afraid, be buoyed
—In its void the world is always
Falling apart, entropy its law
—I tell them those who build
And master are the ones invariably
Merry: Give and take quarter,
Create good meals within the slaughter,
A place for repose and laughter
In the consoling beds of being tender,
I tell them now, my son, my daughter.
A house just like his mother’s,
But made of words.
Everything he could remember
Parrots and a bowl
Of peaches, and the bright rug
His grandmother wove.
Only ghosts patrol.
And did I mention
Strawberry jam and toast?
Did I mention
That everyone he loved
Lives there now,
In that poem
He called “My Mother’s House?”
Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, exposed to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th’ press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
The visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.
I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet;
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save homespun cloth i’ th’ house I find.
In this array ‘mongst vulgars may’st thou roam.
In critic’s hands beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known;
If for thy father asked, say thou hadst none;
And for thy mother, she alas is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.