Once in a cradle in Norway folded
like Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir
as a ship in full sail transported the dead to Valhalla
Once on a mountain in Taos after making love
in my thirties the decade of turquoise and silver
After your brother walked into the Atlantic
to scatter your mothers ashes his khakis soaked
to the knees his shirtsleeves blowing
At the top of the cottage in a thunderstorm
once or twice each summer covetous of my solitude
Immediately following lunch
against circadian rhythms, once
in a bunk bed in a dormitory in the White Mountains
Once in a hollow tree in Wyoming
A snow squall blew in the guide said tie up your horses
The last night in the Katmandu guest house
where I saw a bird fly from a monk’s mouth
a consolidated sleep of East and West
Once on a horsehair mattress two feet thick
I woke up singing
as in the apocryphal story of my birth
at Temple University Hospital
On the mesa with the burrowing owls
on the mesa with the prairie dogs
Willing to be lucky
I ran the perimeter road in my sleep
entrained to the cycles of light and dark
Sometimes my dead sister visited my dreams
Once on the beach in New Jersey
after the turtles deposited their eggs
before my parents grew old, nocturnal
You sleep with a dream of summer weather,
wake to the thrum of rain—roped down by rain.
Nothing out there but drop-heavy feathers of grass
and rainy air. The plastic table on the terrace
has shed three legs on its way to the garden fence.
The mountains have had the sense to disappear.
It’s the Celtic temperament—wind, then torrents, then remorse.
Glory rising like a curtain over distant water.
Old stonehouse, having steered us through the dark,
docks in a pool of shadow all its own.
That widening crack in the gloom is like good luck.
Luck, which neither you nor tomorrow can depend on.
The black Mercedes
with the Ayn Rand
the glass bus stop
and came to rest
among a bakery’s
In the stunned silence,
fat pigeons descended
to the wreckage
and pecked at
bread and cake.
The driver slept,
head to the wheel.
The pigeons grew
rich with crumbs.
The broken glass winked.
Tonight my brother, in heavy boots, is walking
through bare rooms over my head,
opening and closing doors.
What could he be looking for in an empty house?
What could he possibly need there in heaven?
Does he remember his earth, his birthplace set to torches?
His love for me feels like spilled water
running back to its vessel.
At this hour, what is dead is restless
and what is living is burning.
Someone tell him he should sleep now.
My father keeps a light on by our bed
and readies for our journey.
He mends ten holes in the knees
of five pairs of boy’s pants.
His love for me is like sewing:
various colors and too much thread,
the stitching uneven. But the needle pierces
clean through with each stroke of his hand.
At this hour, what is dead is worried
and what is living is fugitive.
Someone tell him he should sleep now.
God, that old furnace, keeps talking
with his mouth of teeth,
a beard stained at feasts, and his breath
of gasoline, airplane, human ash.
His love for me feels like fire,
feels like doves, feels like river-water.
At this hour, what is dead is helpless, kind
and helpless. While the Lord lives.
Someone tell the Lord to leave me alone.
I’ve had enough of his love
that feels like burning and flight and running away.
In the movement toward disappearance,
She is pulled by an undertow of ecstasy.
She wakes in a room where she never fell asleep.
A thousand starlings leaf-out a bare tree.
She wakes in a dusky, tenebrous zone.
Evening on the ridges and in the mountains,
But light still spills on the valley floor.
What transport brought her here?
The shape of gravity embodies a pear on the table.
Here time is the only sovereign.
She is like an arrow slipped from its quiver.
In winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candle-light.
In summer, quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day.
I have to go to bed and see
The birds still hopping on the tree,
Or hear the grown-up people’s feet
Still going past me in the street.
And does it not seem hard to you,
When all the sky is clear and blue,
And I should like so much to play,
To have to go to bed by day?
For the father who wakes
and wakes himself, eyes full of himself
and for the one, who when the sun descends
slips into the stormy
smite flat the rotundity o’ the world.
Done in with conspiracy and murder
in his sleep (his eye-tooth finally unfixed
and tucked into a cheek for safekeeping)
he dreams of a three-armed garment
unable to wonder or comprehend
how he has come to this blurred ridge and broken—
I try to fix in my mind, his shining eyes
the terrors he shut his lips against
and his early morning utterly lucid accusation:
“I never would have believed,” he said to me
“that you would be among them.”
About this Poem
“‘King Lear’ is part of a sequence of poems that explore the intersection of reading and the construction of identity. Many of the different relationships in King Lear have resonated for me at different points in my life and by the time I wrote this poem, I had already written two other poems with this title. During the last days of his life, my father, mad with what the hospice nurse called ‘sundowner syndrome,’ made me understand the play again in a completely unexpected and heartbreaking way.”