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