Years later I’m standing before a roomful of young writers in a high school in Texas. I’ve asked them to locate an image in a poem we’d just read—their heads at this moment are bowed to the page. After some back & forth about the grass & a styrofoam cup, a girl raises her hand & asks, Does it matter? I smile—it is as if the universe balanced on those three words & we’ve landed in the unanswerable. I have to admit that no, it doesn’t, not really, matter, if rain is an image or rain is an idea or rain is a sound in our heads. But, I whisper, leaning in close, to get through the next forty-seven minutes we might have to pretend it does.
Then it was always
for now, later
And then years of now
passed, and it grew later
and later. Trapped
in the shrinking
the confused sardine
was unhappy. It
leapt, and banged its head
again. And afterward
they said shall we
repeat the experiment.
And it said
later for that.
Huge crystalline cylinders emerge from the water
Where do they come from the King gushes these talking fish
Show me at once
We see the writer buried under a collapsing mountain of scribbled-over
While ink blurts from an overturned bottle
Speech is silver the King mutters
They discover a fabulous ancient city
Flag of smoke
Where we turned to look
Skulls, bats, stars, spirals, lightning bolts
Words spoken in anger
Flowers for sarcasm
The sequence continued to work in references to the brevity of life
Garlands of flowers
Stars signaling physical impact
They discover a fabulous ancient city
Under the water
None of the inhabitants
‘Be reasonable . . . ‘
Increasingly faint trace of inked
In Seattle, in 1982, my mother beholds this man
boarding the bus, the one she’s already
turning into my father. His style (if you can
call it that): disarming disregard—a loud
Hawaiian-print shirt and knee-high tube socks
that reach up the deep tone of his legs,
toward the dizzying orange of running shorts.
Outside, the gray city blocks lurch
past wet windows, as he starts his shy sway
down the aisle. Months will pass
before he shatters his ankle during a Navy drill,
the service discharging him back into the everyday
teeth of the world. Two of four kids will arrive
before he meets the friend who teaches him
the art of rooing and, soon after, the crack pipe—
the attention it takes to manage either
without destroying the hands. The air brakes gasp
as he approaches my mother’s row,
each failed rehab and jail sentence still
decades off in the distance. So much waits
in the fabulous folds of tomorrow.
And my mother, who will take twenty years
to burn out her love for him, hesitates a moment
before making room beside her—the striking
brown face, poised above her head, smiling.
My mother will blame all that happens,
both good and bad, on this smile, which glows now,
ready to consume half of everything it gives.
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.
One day someone will fold our blankets
and send them to the cleaners
to scrub the last grain of salt from them,
will open our letters and sort them out by date
instead of by how often they’ve been read.
One day someone will rearrange the room’s furniture
like chessmen at the start of a new game,
will open the old shoebox
where we hoard pyjama-buttons,
not-quite-dead batteries and hunger.
One day the ache will return to our backs
from the weight of hotel room keys
and the receptionist’s suspicion
as he hands over the TV remote control.
Others’ pity will set out after us
like the moon after some wandering child.
The snow falls, picks itself up, dusts itself off
a sparrow flying like a leaf back up to its tree
The future does a backbend toward you, it’s
what you can almost see, scrimmed
in the clouds which crowd the sky, elbowing, laughing
After that I see space and its influence in a bucket of spinning water
and two calcium atoms shoot forth, twinned photons traveling
back to back, arms unlaced, perfect
swimmers in the lit dusk
Where are they going?
First, to Holland, then
to calcium-kiss her bones
And in Holland the streets are made of water, the dolls & dogs gather
round lit picnic tables like happy rags
The body is in the root cellar
When snow falls our dead gather close to our bones
because the cold’s ghost has come back to haunt the cold & the body,
too, is a happy rag
Tree, take a photograph of her thought, you can do it
with photosynthesis: silhouettes of seals appear, a swarmed planet and its satellites, a
celestial atlas that breaks when tapped (it’s glass)
Some giraffes, some elephants, a lion scatter
in the clearing; in the clearing
the leaves of the world turn toward the light as do the letters of the word
the words are beautiful not for their accuracy but for their dream:
words-are-arrows that loop between no-man’s-land and the wetlands, soft
flints flying toward their target
—words bird the zone—
when home was adopted as mother
area was given here
[a future of] all surface, no border
I was working in a bookstore and as an antidote to the twin torment of exhaustion and boredom, one day I went with a friend on a walking tour. We made it as far as Berlin and there I met the man I would move with to a boarding house, then to furnished rooms in the flat of a civil servant, and from there one morning in January to the Registry to be married. Afterward we moved to a studio apartment and two years later to the school where boys returning from the war would remove their collars and sew them back on with red thread to demonstrate the end of their allegiance to the cruel and fastidious past. Everyone wanted to be launched into a place from which you could look back and ask whether the red was also meant to enact spilled blood. You could say so, but only if you want to insist that history’s minutia is best read as allegory. The fact is, history didn’t exist then. Each day was a twenty-four hour stand-still on a bridge from which we discretely looked into the distance, hoping to catch sight of the future. It’s near where you’re standing now. One day we were lying in the sun dressed in nothing but our skin when a camera came by and devoured us.
Because my mother loved pocketbooks
I come alive at the opening click or close of a metal clasp.
And sometimes, unexpectedly, a faux crocodile handle makes me weep.
Breathy clearing of throat, a smooth arm, heels on pavement, she lingers, sound tattoos.
I go to the thrift store to feel for bobby pins caught in the pocket seam
of a camel hair coat.
I hinge a satin handbag in the crease of my arm. I buy a little change purse with its
curled and fitted snap.
My mother bought this for me. This was my mother’s.
I buy and then I buy and then, another day, I buy something else.
In Paris she had a dog, Bijou, and when they fled Paris in 1942 they left the dog behind.
When my mother died on February 9, 1983, she left me.
Now, thirty years later and I am exactly her age.
I tell my husband I will probably die by the end of today and all day he says, Are you
getting close, Sweetheart? And late in the afternoon, he asks if he should buy enough filet
of sole for two.
From a blue velvet clutch I take out a mirror and behold my lips in the small rectangle.
Put on something nice. Let him splurge and take you out for dinner, my mother whispers
on the glass.
We once worked as clerks
scanning moth-balled pages
into the clouds, all memories
outsourced except the fuzzy
childhood bits when
I was an undersized girl with a tic,
they numbed me with botox
I was a skinsuit
of dumb expression, just fingerprints
over my shamed
all I wanted was snow
to snuff the sun blades to shadow spokes,
muffle the drum of freeways, erase
the old realism
but this smart snow erases
nothing, seeps everywhere,
the search engine is inside us,
the world is our display
and now every industry
has dumped whole cubicles, desktops,
fax machines into developing
worlds where they stack
them as walls against
what disputed territory
we asked the old spy who drank
with Russians to gather information
the old-fashioned way,
now we have snow sensors,
so you can go spelunking
in anyone’s mind,
let me borrow your child
thoughts, it’s benign surveillance,
I can burrow inside, find a cave
pool with rock-colored flounder,
and find you, half-transparent
When people say they miss me,
I think how much I miss me too,
Me, the old me, the great me,
Lover of three women in one day,
Modest me, the best me, friend
To waiters and bartenders, hearty
Laugher and name rememberer,
Proud me, handsome and hirsute
In soccer shoes and shorts
On the ball fields behind MIT,
Strong me in a weightbelt at the gym,
Mutual sweat dripper in and out
Of the sauna, furtive observer
Of the coeducated and scantily clad,
Speedy me, cyclist of rivers,
Goose and peregrine falcon
Counter, all season venturer,
Chatterer-up of corner cops,
Groundskeepers, mothers with strollers,
Outwitter of panhandlers and bill
Collectors, avoider of levies, excises,
Me in a taxi in the rain,
Pressing my luck all the way home.
That’s me at the dice table, baby,
Betting come, little Joe, and yo,
Blowing the coals, laying thunder,
My foot on top a fifty dollar chip
Some drunk spilled on the floor,
Dishonest me, evener of scores,
Eager accepter of the extra change,
Hotel towel pilferer, coffee spoon
Lifter, fervent retailer of others’
Humor, blackhearted gossiper,
Poisoner at the well, dweller
In unsavory detail, delighted sayer
Of the vulgar, off course belier
Of the true me, empiric builder
Newly haircutted, stickerer-up
For pals, jam unpriser, medic
To the self-inflicted, attorney
To the self-indicted, petty accountant
And keeper of the double books,
Great divider of the universe
And all its forms of existence
Into its relationship to me,
Fellow trembler to the future,
Thin air gawker, apprehender
Of the frameless door.
Above the blond prairies,
the sky is all color and water.
The future moves
from one part to another.
This is a note
in a tender sequence
that I call love,
trying to include you,
but it is not love.
It is music, or time.
To explain the pleasure I take
in loneliness, I speak of privacy,
but privacy is the house around it.
You could look inside,
as through a neighbor’s window
at night, not as a spy
but curious and friendly.
You might think
it was a still life you saw.
Somewhere, the ocean
crashes back and forth
like so much broken glass,
but nothing breaks.
it is quite powerless.
Irises have rooted
all along the fence,
and the barbed berry-vines
Unpruned and broken,
the abandoned orchard
reverts to the smaller,
harder fruits, wormy and tart.
In the stippled shade,
the fallen pears move
with the soft bodies of wasps,
and cows breathe in
the licorice silage.
It is silent
where the future is.
No longer needed there,
love is folded away in a drawer
like something newly washed.
In the window,
the color of the pears intensifies,
and the fern’s sporadic dust
darkens the keys of the piano.
Clouds containing light
spill out my sadness.
They have no sadness of their own.
The timeless trash of the sea
means nothing to me—
its roaring descant,
its multiple concussions.
I love painting more than poetry.
You were my birthday present; you came to the door—no one else was home, you said “let’s celebrate.” We dropped acid and went to the friend with the nocturnal monkey-like animal and made love for hours….
—inscribed in Gary Snyder, Turtle Island (Casa de los Niños discard library)
Handwritten, it goes without saying, this inscription to an unnamed lover goes on for three pages before arriving at a final sorrow at the lover’s loss—”today we are with different lovers”—but no regrets. Was it ever sent? Ever read? One thing is sure: it was inscribed and meant. Such passion cannot be shrugged off until it can. I found the book in Casa de los Niños on Prince and Mountain, thrift shop stuffed with this stuff, the stuffing escaping the chewed-on animals packed in the discount bin. Pick six for a buck. Doll heads are free. They stare at your future, our future, maybe, lover, if we ever come together.
Dear future lover, every time it feels like forever when it’s new: bright colors, fabric softener, calliopes that were once terrifying softening into daylight as it fades. You know, your lovers surely number more than mine; that’s fine, but when I fall, it’s Ditch Witch hitting electric line, the whole world alive and lit in amperes for a moment. It might be gone again a nanosecond later, the body aching with or for or from the jolt; & perhaps it’s fever dream; & who cares where it comes from as long as it’s fast and seems like it might last until we’re rusting into dust? We are always dying for the future. Otherwise it couldn’t ever come. That it might split ever’s seams apart, that it might bring down the lights until forever’s in the mirror, and the book is given up for thrift: it doesn’t matter. Maybe this book was never sent. I can imagine that, an inscription toward the future. Maybe the lover’s dead. Maybe the lover’s lover’s dead. Maybe we all are like those who had their laughs recorded into tracks for television shows years before, who continue to laugh now a lifetime a lifeline a phone-a-friend later, disembodied, at jokes that are no longer funny. Perhaps they never were.
We are all in wires eventually, reduced to what we said, or didn’t say, and what we wrote or didn’t write, who we loved or didn’t love, or loved and lost and never told it except writing in or to a book. We are all discarded, discordant, confusingly, and so I salute your bravery, book inscriber. Your heart is big enough for both of us, so that there is no room for mockery in me. Anyone willing to strip themselves this bare this fast this way deserves our breathlessness and our hearts’ attention. Let us spend an hour, then longer, in contemplation. If you open, open all the way, or as much as you can bear, or else there’s nothing here at all.
The inscription goes on to quote from Duras’s The Lover, then “I cried when I was with you this time more than twenty years later…it was the reason for life and yet I knew it would end.”
A codex is a door, future lover. You can put whatever through it for a reader you imagine coming to your words in a day, a decade, a daze of centuries, entries in a future book. Codices have histories. They are leafed, spined, embodied, read by future lovers I imagine in bodices in just this kind of light at night. The future is a mystery, lover, a memory. The scent of wisteria coming up from somewhere.
Or: a codex is a hole through which we might not communicate, but instead be transformed entirely, through which we might descend without notice or equipment and not want or be able to return.
But she has been there before, has a suite
in fact, where she can swan and collapse
on a series of fainting couches: velveteen,
plush, gem-colored. In 1913, during the
production of A Good Little Devil, Lillian
collapsed from anemia. She took delight in
suffering for art. Although not a religious
man, Sartre was fascinated by suffering
as well, said Hell is other people and meant it.
Some like to suffer and some try to eliminate
desire. Buddha, God bless him, had a great
idea: whatever is subject to change is subject to
suffering. But let’s face it, he was fat and sat
around in his underwear, while we delight
in changing our wardrobes. You, terrible
in your solitude. Me, ruined and desperate
in my cowboy shirt with the pearly buttons
and significant stitching. We can suffer with
the best of them, Lil, effortlessly working off
our karma as the drunken father breaks down
the wooden door, or we roam, dying, through
the streets of Montmartre. I am no stranger
to love and I am not waiting for you, because
I believe we will be reborn, because I believe
everything, and I believe that we will meet
again and suffer together again. The future
belongs to China and yet I want to learn
French. This, too, is another kind of suffering.
Once, at a truck stop, I ate an entire banana
cream pie and half a pound of bacon, which
is a kind of suffering for some, but I felt
fucking great. You know this, you must know
this. We are lovely and full of desire, we die
so many times and come back here, to cross
paths. I didn’t fall off the roof, I was pushed.
I want neither revenge nor relief. I crave no
rescue. What I want, Lillian, is to be gigantic
and perfectly lit, to be with you again, carnal
in our reincarnation. The future will find us
handsome taikonauts in a small ship spinning
out of control, flawed by love and plunging
realistically toward the heart of a hellish sun.
In the future we will suffer together in outer
space and eat crème brûlée out of a silver tube.
The novelty never wears off, Lil. It never does.
Spring is not so very promising as it is the thing
that looking back was fire, promising:
ignition, aspiration; it was not under my thumb.
Now when I pretend a future it is the moment
he holds the thing I say new-born,
delicate, sure to begin moving but
I am burned out of it like the melody underneath
(still not under my thumb)—
was he ambiguous, amphibian?
Underneath, his voice, the many ways
he gathers oxygen; it will not stop raining
until the buds push through the brittle trees.
If they fail we will not survive,
washed and washed with rain, will we?
No,we are not there yet.
She is pushing me two ways until
I am inside the paradox, the many lungs,
and they’re at it again, gathering oxygen;
no wonder I am wrung out
holding out for the promise of
something secret, after—