Shannon Amidon of Hilo, Hawaii for Later they call the movers; Rueda after Keaukaha Beach; The Door to the Moon
Brian Brodeur of Fairfax, Virginia for On the Porch of P.X Rutz’s Log Cabin Ten Miles Northwest of Boulder, MT; Finding the Handwriting of a Woman I Loved in a Paperback She Left Behind Years Ago; Photograph of Jack Spicer holding a Life-Sized Plaster Bust of Jack Spicer
Brieghan Gardner of Nottingham, New Hampshire for Tornadoes; Anniversary Poem; The House in the Orchard, the Orchard in the House
K. A. Hays of Lewisburg, Pennsylvania for Of the Body Taken In
Jennifer Key of Dallas, Texas for Anniversary; Fin de Siècle; We Are Easily Reduced
David Krump of La Crosse, Wisconsin for On the Invisible City; These Have Mercy/Have Not; Striking Wings of Swallows
Dawn Lonsinger of Salt Lake City, Utah for The Sewing Birds; Susan of the Fields
Susan L. Miller of Brooklyn, New York for Leaving Cape Cod; High Seas; Undertow
Miller Oberman of Brooklyn, New York for Storm of Horses; Dunx
Rachel Richardson of Greensboro, North Carolina for Girl Gathering Mussels; Fable
Ali Shapiro of Seattle, Washington for Hull; Symptoms; Water Resistance
Jennifer K. Sweeney of Kalamazoo, Michigan for Study of Family with Buckets; Inviting the Child
Sarah Sweeney of Jamaica Plain, Michigan for Lineage; Looking at Cows; Carolina Eclogue
Lauren K. Alleyne of Geneva, New York for When the angels come; Letter to the outside; Love in A Major
Scott Cameron of Rexburg, Idaho for In a Jail in Genoa; The Songs We Keep meaning To Sing
Victoria Chang of Irvine, California for Dear P., VI; Dear P., XX
Catherine Chung of New York, New York for In Wyoming
Weston Cutter of Orange City, Iowa for Pumpernickel; And So Perhaps (After CL); Spring Prayer
Julie Dunlop of Albuquerque, New Mexico for Watching a Hindi Film Understanding Nothing
Henrietta Goodman of Missoula, Montana for Where Sadness Comes From; Clay Pigeons; The Wind I Mean
Kimi Cunningham Grant of State College, Pennsylvania for Pole Beans; Like the Hermit Thrush; Pastoral
Nicholas Gulig of Iowa City, Iowa for Chicken Coop; Married Land; Departure, the Way a Sound Arrives
Alison Pelegrin of Covington, Louisiana for Mid City Tours; Something in the Water; Stupid Praise
Anna Lena Phillips of Durham, North Carolina for Early Blackberries; Mapping; Crosses
Joshua Rivkin of San Francisco, California for The Wind; Frankenstein’s Dog; Migrant
Chad Sweeney of Kalamazoo, Michigan for Practicing to be Blind; The Second Sky over Brooklyn
Natalie Haney Tilghman of Chicago, Illinois for Uprooted
Christine Tobin of Greensboro, North Carolina for Vedran Smailovic Plays the Cello in Sarajevo
Rhett Iseman Trull of Greensboro, North Carolina for Cowboys Ride With One Hand on Their Holsters
Corinne Adams of Edinburgh, Scotland for A Long Walk to Nishi-Kokubunji; Ice-Cream melts More Quickly in Siem Reap; Hitchhike to Hiroshima –
Jenn Blair of Winterville, Georgia for Ink; A Map is Useful,; Prison Spoon
Paula Bohince of Plum, Pennsylvania for Learning to Knit; Sunday Room; The Kind Faces of Poets
Traci Brimhall of Valrico, Florida for Kingdom Come; Nocturne with Oil Riggs and Jasmine; What We Have Lost
Danielle Cadena Deulen of Salt Lake City, Utah for Tomato; Threshold
M. Ayodele Heath of Atlanta, Georgia for South Africa: 25 Exposures
Sadiqa Khan of Kingston, Ontario, Canada for Amie; Arrival
L.S. McKee of San Francisco, California for Dear Robert, An Unwritten Postcard with the Manneken Pis; Baby Ava; Apocalypse Garden
Matthew Nienow of Bellevue, Washington for How the Summer Dries; Inukshuk; An Old Curiosity
Nikoletta Nousiopoulos of Falmouth, Massachusetts for wild poppies; grief litany; motherland
Idra Novey of New York, New York for Fist and After; Memorias do Cárcere; Meanwhile the Watermelon Seed
Jennifer Perrine of Des Moines, Iowa for Mother, Self-Portrait, 2006; The Power of the Gopher Overtakes Me
Leah Makuch Plath of Holyoke, Massachusetts for Moon Phases: For my Mother as She Turns Sixty
Ursula Sagar of London, England for Do not go down to the woods today
L.J. Sysko of Wilmington, Delaware for Epithalamium
Charles Byrne of Urbana, Illinois for Sonnet for K; Tornado; Winter
Dan Disney of Parkville, Melbourne, Australia for On Regarding Kant’s Statue; Toward a Unifying Theory of Non-Coincidence; Floortalk in front of Bellotto’s ‘Ruins of the Forum, Rome’
Hillary Faith of Clayton, North Carolina for With Teeth; Breakaway; Finally, Daddy
Rebecca Morgan Frank of Cincinnati, Ohio for Upon Seeing a Life Magazine Photograph of my Grandfather’s Release from a Civilian Prison Camp in Manila, World War II; Liberation of Santo Tomas Civilian Internment Camp, Manila, 1945; Eva Curie’s Madame Curie
Scott Gallaway of Bowling Green, Ohio for Special Electric; My Daughter’s Dream; Stucco and Primary Sclerosing Cholangiti
Chrissy Kolaya of Morris, Minnesota for Night in a Prairie Town; Factors That Control Weathering; There They Stood Exactly As They Were Created
Jen Lambert of Elkhorn, Nebraska for Dormancy; Casting Off
Sandra Lim of Chicago, Illinois for Autumn; Moon; Unopened Letters
Helena Milne of Johannesburg, South Africa for words; baby
E.K.Mortenson of Stamford, Connecticut for There, Then Not; Surgeon’s Hands; Matthew 14: 25-33
S.P.Nelson of San Diego, California for Compulsion; Christmas in July; Long Island Childhood
Gregory W. Randall of Santa Rosa, California for Grace Notes; Swim lessons; Tableaux
Christina Stoddard of Nashville, Tennessee for Arrival in Bellevue; Could You Be Happy
Joey Taouk of Sydney, New South Wales, Australia for Language; Tree; The Rooster
Penelope A. Thoms of Lovettsville, Virginia for Market Day; 32 Degrees; There Are No Children Here
You say avocado, mango, Hamakua.
Then open window trade winds.
Whale song. Ocean song. You say endless
blue Pacific. Coastline. Breathe them to my ear. Twirl
the invitations down my sleep-sticky canal.
My throat opens to its own vibrations.
A hoarse Cat-a-hou-la, a swallow, then whisper: muscadine,
Mississippi, ancient gar, persimmon, stronger, more
awake, tupelo, Spanish moss, cottonmouth and
You say but poison!
Well then, volcanoes! That from me.
And more, red dirt, levee. Shell road. Riverboat. Thunder.
You Pele. Hibiscus.
I hydrangea. I say Darling, hurricane, cotton bolls, firefly.
But tropical, you reason.
I offer only rigid
You say regret, press your palm to my navel
and you have me. You know surrender
when you feel it.
We three are salty from one thing or another:
sex, sweat, the sea. When I find them asleep,
my husband and our boy, awash in mottled
sunlight, cooled by late afternoon trades,
I pour another glass. Why not? Even my hair
is splashed clean, and my muscles are limber
from loving. When my damp skin misses
their touch, I check again and measure their steady
breath. I pray over them like a chieftess. The grape
is sweet butter on my tongue. My prayer whips
the air in my mouth into clouds. My lips blow
the clouds across their dreaming brows: gardenia,
rain. One stirs, then the other. They make room
for a small river between them. I become the river.
They are the drowsing shores. Soon the tropic moon
offers herself to us. To welcome her we invite songs
from coqui frogs, and her milky light floats down
that urgent music. A blessing. In gratitude I shift
my hips and schooling menpachi glitter my center.
Ten thousand shiny eggs wait to be born.
Though he does not know magnolia
he knows the door to the moon: the tall
blank opening through which giants glide.
He’s watched all evening. He is certain
though he is nearly new, born less than sixteen
moons past. But he knows the moon.
He’s seen it many times. Tonight’s crescent shines
whiter to him than any clean bones.
He doesn’t know bones though, or sorrow,
unless it is this want in the midst of confusion.
He doesn’t know loneliness, though he lives
on the farthest rock of the most isolated
island chain in the world. He feels
a kinship with the yellow ripening star
fruit outside his screenless window. Ghosts
of honeycatchers in orchid tree blooms.
He has plumeria. Bougainvillea. Pacific sweetness
in his breath. He has whales and their black
flukes just as he had them last winter. Just
as he swam down his first slippery canal
they too came home. Just as they have
the moon it belongs to him. As they turn
and breach toward her light he also turns.
But tonight they have the vaulted
sky and he the shut door. If only
he could will it open and rush
into her radiance he knows he would be happy.
When it closes again behind a nameless form,
he cannot bear the finality, the heavy wooden
No. For this he has a father.
So the child points to the door, wordless,
urgent. He need not work so hard.
In one wingless swoop the stronger lifts
the other, softly, as not to disturb his desire.
In an instant they are through. The dark
licks their faces until they are all eyes. Last
second’s limitations are erased. Open once
was all he’d asked, all he’d ever need.
Riding some surge of air, three turkey vultures
glide a mile or so down the valley, circling
in an ascending helix—four, then five, then six.
They drift so close to the porch we can see
their perforated nostrils, their demon faces
turning to scan a clearing on the ridge.
Sometimes a prairie dog dies in the open
or a free-range Holstein calf wanders too far.
Mostly, it’s voles and field mice, other birds.
Last night, we hauled water up High Ore Road
and found a disembodied mule-deer leg
stripped of fur and flesh, canid tooth marks
scored along the bone, its hoof gnawed off.
We paused in the drought grass, nodded at each other
and walked in silence with our sloshing jugs.
Now, as the sun glints off the corrugated outhouse,
Paul tells me his grandfather, Elmer Gustav,
the hermit of the family, came here to die.
The week his test results confirmed brain cancer,
he parked on I-15, hiked up in snowshoes,
collapsed in chest-high drifts and went to sleep
on this same spot where we sit drinking coffee.
Paul says he and his father and his uncles
gathered here after the funeral in Butte
to hunt elk, trout-fish, play Euchre for quarters,
and take turns telling stories about the farm
in Northfield, Minnesota, where they all were born.
Paul goes inside, returns with a dusty tacklebox,
and shows me photographs of the cabin
before he replaced the roof, faint black-and-whites
of men in camouflage, men holding rifles
and posing as they copped shit-eating grins
beside the corpses of bucks strung up from trees.
Given the chance, I would’ve joined these men,
waking at dawn to stalk the frozen trails,
to see the steaming nostrils of a five-point elk
standing downwind, his big head bent
to sprigs of grass poking through fresh snow.
Isn’t it a kind of tribute, shooting him
and eating his flesh, letting his death nourish me
and stuffing his skull with sawdust for all to see?
Paul caps the tacklebox and goes back inside.
Combing the slopes, the turkey vultures widen
their search, hissing, their only call.
And because I want these birds to notice me
as I notice them, I peel off the gauze taped to my wrist
to reveal the gash I sustained before breakfast
when I hacked and dragged branches of lodgepole pine.
I rise and wave my arm at them, my offering,
and lick my blood, tasting the salt and iron,
to taunt them and to know what they hunger for.
It must’ve been our last summer together
when we drank beers on the roof of our two-bedroom
and took the first commuter train
to the Greater Boston Family Planning Center.
The green fluorescents made our faces flicker.
Slumped in a chair, she leaned on my chest and said
“I’m going,” and fainted, grinding her teeth.
I didn’t know what to do so I stroked her shoulder
as a nurse cracked a capsule of smelling salts.
Next day, the forecast called for rain.
We drove north up 1A to Plum Island
and walked the dunes marked Keep Off Dunes
to flush out piping plovers from the beach grass
because she said she wanted to see
something endangered before it disappeared.
We stayed on the shore and watched the storm
drag in off the Merrimac, and dropped to the sand
when lightning struck the spit off Little Neck,
clinging to each other as the squall drenched us,
the tide frothing closer up the beach,
the lighthouse staring seaward with its one good eye.
Hair greased-back, half-hidden from the camera,
he opens his mouth to kiss his own stone lips.
Did the stone kiss back? Its cold weight seems to lean
in anticipation, acquiescing to the thumb stroking
its ear, the familiar nose approaching, the living fist
squeezing its nape to grip the base of its throat.
From the look of strained affection on both faces,
anything could’ve passed between the two.
Think of those lines composed just before he died.
A song, he wrote, Which I shall never sing
Has fallen asleep on my lips. Puckered or pursed,
neither figure hints at what happened next,
how long the two remained by the wainscoting,
waiting, I imagine, for the other to speak.
The problem is that he sometimes
stands up for no good reason, while his
first grade teacher leans at the board explaining
the solar system, the silent “h” or butterfly metamorphosis
and the rest of the class sits quietly
listening, or at least pretending,
until they are given some signal to stand.
But this one child, without
warning or excuse, without even knowing
he is about to do it, finds himself standing
in the middle of the room time and again,
struggling to explain as the teacher turns
to address the interruption.
She calls his parents
who call a psychiatrist whom the boy
tells that he sometimes feels
tornadoes in his legs.
He has no choice in the matter.
And we have all known
that sudden rush that seems to
spin up into the soles of the feet
out of the rolling earth itself,
spiraling through the knees and thighs
until it reaches the ribcage and one must either
stand or sing.
Most of us learn, of course, with age,
to control this urge. Otherwise,
board meetings and conference calls,
long speeches on the state of the economy could never
happen. But in the luster of those first years
before we grasp the myth
that these things matter,
most of us know for a little while
that the cords which hold us to the ground,
no more real than winds that bid us rise,
are tied with the kind of knot that vanishes
in the absence of what it was made to hold.
When we are old and especially
if you outlive me, remember
sitting here with me all these nights,
burning the ice storm’s endless offering.
All day I’ve been digging up, dividing,
replanting my grandmother’s bleeding hearts,
carried over years from garden to garden
ever since her real heart failed.
This is what we must do
with the sounds of each other’s voices,
the drifting imprint of a hundred spring nights
spent feeding these fires all blended together.
It’s not just that I’ve grown accustomed
to the shadow of your body in the chair beside me,
the way the shape of your name
fits my mouth.
But in the persistence
of such things, our whole life together
can become like a stone worn smooth and small by rain,
by repetition, so it fits in the palm of one hand.
So you can always carry it with you.
As usual, the roof is the first to go.
Then the cracks around the edges of windows
widen, imperceptibly, until wind and rain,
insects and dust move freely in and out.
The trees, too, change once left alone, grow
cluttered and tangled, and the fruit they produce
diminishes, warps and shrivels to the
unsightly apples of unkempt old age.
One tree pokes, over airy,
uncounted months, a gnarled limb
through a broken pane and into
the abandoned kitchen. There,
in smudged sunlight, a knobby, twisted,
sweetly pungent apple develops
and drops, gleaming gold,
onto the cracked blue counter.
This poem will be posted when the author provides it.
– For G.C.
Because when we embarked we stood beside
a cake tall as your average three year old
and I was too busy with the blade in my hand
and a blueprint of dismantling in my head,
determined to dissect iced trellises
of sugar and clip rose buds spun from butter,
to let your hand find its home along the hollows
a hip makes; at this embarkation I will be
less obsessed with the geometry of beauty
(my whole life I’ve tried to solve for y) ,
more meanderer than arrow, more meadow
than hedgerow, growing the way the tulips
you planted our first fall broke open, black
saucers full of evening for us to lap
in our unfolding origami of bedclothes –
that privacy that bloomed because of you.
Once and only briefly, on vacation to my parents’
azalea besotted second act in the low country,
my marriage ended under the whitewashed eaves
of a carriage house while the Saran-wrapped still life
of cocktail hour looked on – a checkerboard
of cheese and crackers, ice bucket silvered
with tributaries of condensation.
In the bath, a phalanx of tiny toiletries
awaited marching orders, but it was I who left.
Virginians, the new world had grown old,
and the family crest now flew under the banner
of Adams, our English Setter, his tail a streaming flag
and his all-knowing nose, blood rose, the needle
of a compass pointed dead South. He was
Virgil pointing us into fields foreign and flat,
sentinel of the air rent by rifle crack.
Mouth melting on the neck of fowl and buttered
biscuits, he took his bowl of water on the rocks.
My parents retired to the bar in the big house
to watch the Pocotaligo River turn buttery gold
in the setting sun like a tide of Chardonnay
poured by a benevolent God in the beginning
or middle of our lives, while I waited
on a brick cobbled patio with the good sense
to crumble – patrician outcropping of oyster shell
at the edge of backfilled rice fields.
I was already on an island of my own making
and later still would be officially banned
as bearer of unhappiness as water-logged
as night’s indigo mantle of humidity and salt
and insect hum we wore and breathed and called the air.
(Ships sailing up the James long unloaded ballast
to rise to reach Richmond.)
Lord, can anyone rescue us from ourselves?
Come dark on the levees, gators climbed
out of centuries adrift in a brackish dusk,
slapped down scaled hides and slept like slabs
with one eye moving – a yellow knifepoint
piercing the horizon. For an hour, two at most
that night I thought I belonged to no one
and to no place, blind to the way we become
our own memories’ afterthoughts:
The scrub pine and leaf slick of woods,
deer stand I climbed to read away the rain,
hay field in fall my red dog stitched behind her as she went –
until it seemed I did not remember them,
but they, in the desolation of forgotten places,
brought me into being.
Long after I would be forgiven and would forgive,
myself (after all, only a person much loved
can feel that sorry for herself), the alligators,
primitive prophets of what would come to pass,
would outlast us, too, at our end
when we watch film after film of our lives,
our faithlessness in those who loved us most,
unscroll in a language we no longer understand.
Months after hunting season, my father’s dog pulls them
from the scrubbed winter fields. Their stray bodies
borne back piecemeal – deer hock in front of the garage,
nub of horn in the barn, hoof on the back porch.
Fur scoured clean, they whiten in the underbrush
beyond the bristle of a nearby hill
and in clearings, where pockets of orchard grass
covet a chalked hip. She retrieves those
shot and left to die far past the creek’s quick song –
no easy distance for her to drag, bone by bone,
such animals back to us,
and she must climb the ridge where my horse threw me,
opened against the ground, face scraped clean,
perfectly blank, my mouth – a brilliant stain.
At the hospital, I felt the fact of my skeleton charted,
my brain stenciled on graph paper.
Yesterday, my father walked from the doctor’s office,
where we waited to hear the news,
took me in his arms,
and gathered me like splinters of his own body.
When we reach it by bicycle, how will we know?
What invisible confetti will fall to welcome us?
What will we eat in the invisible city?
Bread whose dimensions we must feel out?
Warm rice we can’t comprehend until we bump
our bottom lips and grain spills from clumsy chopsticks?
In the invisible city, what will we see?
Drywall scraps in alleyways, a dandelion now and then?
Old carts piled with bodies? Brown mice moving
between invisible bricks and boards? Forget
the cart and the yellow bodies. Forget the mice
who know well the locations of invisible butter churns
in which they will drown. What is there to mourn?
How does the invisible city characterize thistles?
Forget the invisible city. We have nothing to give
it would accept, smiling, a hobo with big teeth.
Forget the invisible city. What has it done to our lives?
Has it made us cry? Has it black feathers on sidewalk?
No fountains spouting through summer exist there.
No sailboats with busted hulls blocked up in dry-dock
hunch their humble magnificence on the shore.
No stained oak staircases, no fans propped in windows.
No dully-armored rolly-polies at war beneath stones.
No iron gates, no slouching porches, no radios at night.
Switchyard for the slow hearted
Blind trackage and empty signal face
Passage toward darkness and horizon
Developments that none can measure
Brick and grease and out there and gear
Garden of whiskey in the brakeman’s hands
Stack of creosote soaked railroad ties
Late night track remover and removal
And limit and limit and operator of horn
Coupling and discard junction, spume
And silence, halo casting worried light on
The stalled car, the escaped cow, the hobo
Wined in his glad sleep
Lithium grease and metal and loose
Noises from the transom, freight
Car in which I will be born
In which I am born, in which
I murder, yield of labor and failure
Tracts of land and tracks across land
And traction, sunlight, empty museum
Noisy heart. Have mercy.
Barn swallows slid through
open windows holding throats closed
against riverbank mud they ferried
on their tongues to suspend nests
from lime-washed rafters – adobe colonies
above the manger aisle and gutter.
They flew sorties all spring as milking cows
entered the open barn twice each day, as heifers
and dry cows settled down on slow hills
beneath pasture hickory, oak, ash.
Weeks went like this.
Then, late July. Parent swallows returned
from neighbor-fields of waist-high corn
recently doused with concentrated atrazene.
The sky grew flatter.
All the grubs the swallows gathered
were dead already or mad, flexing a pale blue
on wet field dirt. A hundred blind swallows
churned the farmyard sky to butter.
To a mute air-traffic controller, swallows called
for hours before they tired and struck
the barn’s exterior walls, like dull sickles on field rocks.
Diving for open windows
they would never find, the birds jammed their beaks
back through their scared brains.
Purblind, one swallow at sundown
wildly needled north, pulled sharp through quilts of wind
by a malicious seamstress.
Season-fat barn cats feasted on the falling
from heaven for days.
Later, a hayfork handle broke
the wasting nests. I knew no better.
Nests that thin cracked easily. Fledglings fell
to manger cement. Some fluttered bald wings,
spiraling down into the manure gutter
In a baseball glove beside the bed,
I kept six strong ones fed on zap flies
and diced nightcrawlers. I chased the swallows
away all autumn. They wouldn’t leave, stayed
into December, when they fell from the spruce,
their eyes white as lake ice.
perhaps it is the birds that buoy up the earth—
flit of red, sudden perch, beautiful clamor, air
origamied into a dark sheet of wings, a sheet
that falls upon the small hurricane of our lives
softly. The passerines dip and rise, are busy
stitching together what we daily pull apart,
each little nest of debris proof that we must prepare
ourselves to cup what is about to be born, that we
are always edging toward birth, that tenderness is
an act of making. I walk quickly, with aim, but
my eyes lift up beyond the tangle of branches,
through the mesh of appointments that clings like ivy
to my mind. I am over there, here and there, taken
by the mere stirring of space, how matter readjusts—
honey crisps thud against damp earth, leaves impersonate
gusts of wind, dresses of bunched cumulus cast
vast shadows of surprise, and at the edges of it all—
the birds gathering remainders, swallowing nectar
and seeds, their songs stretched like ropes of fire
You were famous for your stitching, could hem pants without looking,
sew a button in your sleep, conjure a wedding dress of tulle and satin
though it seemed to me you were folding water, inventing light.
I was sure that if I pared an apple down to its bony core you could darn it
back together again. Once, you helped me sew the flag of Kiribati
for my history class, waves purling beneath a delicate sun, a golden seagull
flying through a blood-red sky. You called all of us “sweetie,” taught me
that everything is mendable, that the most intricate shapes have a learnable
pattern. My mother tells me as children you loved to sleep outside
on the small rectangle of roof above the kitchen, moonlight pulsing against
your small faces, that you could hear your mother, my grandmother, scraping
her spatula through batter, the smell of warm brown butter wafting into your blankets,
that you would write words with your fingers along each other’s spines, try to guess
what was written—salamander, cookie, sister—and that you were the motherly one,
made sure the moon didn’t get too close, that no one was near the edge.
Later you played hockey, ran through the fields like a deer let out of a cage.
When your father left you were away at nursing school, learning how to insert IV lines
delicately. You washed the body of your patient; then you left, moved home, helped
to tend to your three younger sisters. You were always a devotee of empathy.
After four miscarriages, a fetus formed and formed; you were, for the first time,
in love with your insides. But at 27 weeks the doctors couldn’t stabilize your blood sugar,
said you might die, had to perform a C-section at once. Colleen was 1 pound ¾
of an ounce. You made tiny outfits from patterns for baby doll clothes and held her up
to the light in one palm. You wrapped your hands around her as if gathering cloth
and dreamed her wholeness. Now, she is twenty-four and your kidney has failed you.
Your thinned blood travels through tubes, a machine, and then back into your body
like a red thread. Uncle Harry holds your hand and stares at the map of red ribbon
between you. The openings in your arms, chest, and abdomen have been exhausted.
Now your leg looks like tattered jeans, and they plan to graft animal skin over it—a patch
for every fissure. When I was small I understood you had to take shots. I understood
very little. When we visit, you call me “sweetie,” tell me how proud the whole family is
of my poetry, say you dreamed of naked people running through fields, of ice covering
everything like an afghan. I dream that you gather my hair in your swollen hands, begin
to braid. I wake and begin the work of sewing: back-stitch words over calamity,
cinch syllables at the heart, gather us under a sun–flooded sky.
On the ferry from Martha’s Vineyard, you were
handsome in your sun-hat, the brim
crushed over your forehead so the wind
wouldn’t steal it. Light shattered on the water
so it looked like hammered silver, and the waves
buoyed the craft from stem to stern,
dunking and raising us like a seesaw. All our day
we had walked up and down the beach, pebbles
round and hard under our feet, the Sound cold,
and watched the sails of the sailboats ripple
against the bright horizon. We rode the lover’s seats
of the carousel, kissing even when the car passed
the dispenser for brass rings. Everyone else
leaped up, hooking a finger through two or three
before the flying horses glided on. In his vitrine,
the turbaned fortune-teller spun a crystal
and passed his rubber hands over tarot cards
so old they’d lost their color. The yellow ticket
he passed through the slot said It is easy to see,
hard to foresee. But it was the last hours of Sunday
by the time we were ready to leave, and nothing
was luckier than to read the same newspaper
and drink coffee, to touch hands shyly on the plank
that led into the ferry. We had no need of signs,
no future divined in a horse’s glass eye, no kites
or cold Manhattans. We were riding into the sun.
for Jess Arndt
Your new tattoo, a narwhal, rides your arm
from wrist to elbow, blowing through his hole
a spume of charcoal mist. I watch him rise
and fall, appear and disappear, trade pride
of place with the anchor on your bicep
as you slug beer from a mold-pressed mug.
The table’s marred with signs of narrative,
old scratches carved in truth-serum delirium:
ELSABET or WHEN YOU SEE JOAN
TELL HER ILL WAIT FOR HER. I’m nursing
two fine bruises on my inner thigh, sore
and higher than the flesh surrounding them.
The afternoon’s gone grey, an almost-purple
mottled sky predicting storm. We’re warm inside,
but wet wool coats keep entering the bar,
umbrellas spattering rain on the tiled floor,
and I feel you turning seaward, as if a light
flashes intermittent to compel you.
Half-hook, half-boy, you drop into the deeps,
your element. You’re hauling some white whale.
I smell the salt of sea-air in your ear
when I lean in to kiss you goodbye, trailing
my seaweed hair along your jaw. I’ve got
your compass tucked against my breast, my pea-coat
buttoned up against the wind, but we both know
I’m barely covering my mermaid tail. Til Monday, then,
and don’t forget to call me, Ishmael.
The water unsettles the sand beneath,
dragging pebbles and shells under the lips
of the ripples imprinted there. A tumble
of color, bone peach almond flesh charcoal
smoke buttercup stone, and the objects scatter,
rearranged in patterns like the tubercules
of a starfish. They ray. They shape subtler
wearing away the edges of their neighbors,
all thrown down by the spume, forced and pushed,
though the water surrounds them both gentle
and powerful. Tough rubbery bubbles
of seaweed lie drooling along the shore.
They catch flotsam in their tentacles, vegetal
jellyfish, organic nets. A crust of mussels
draws lines below them, half-black, half-
pale blue silk, though they can cut you
if you walk on them. And you, wayfarer,
searching with head lowered, quick eyes
latching on to every sea-glass shard and scallop,
how do you resist the pull, the water itself
turning the spiral inside a nautilus?
You have seen the movement underneath,
that gravitational nexus. It is the call of the siren, not
a woman, but the sea itself singing. You know
how seduction happens: through the open eye.
Sunset, the barrels, the sky, everybody's trucks
have turned the color of melon flesh, the split-rail fence
around the ring and the clouds of kicked dust sift
pink sugars, orange sugars. Then a girl's horse bleats,
bucks, and she's down. The others jump down,
run to the middle of the ring and the horses blaze off.
The red mare rears up but I hang on, she rears again,
wrenches in the air. Shakes, hard, I'm down.
How they run. Shaking their sugar.
Their bellies gather and swell like clouds at dusk.
I'm on my back on the gray clay, keeping very
still, watching their shapes rise and roll.
The ground rocks and shifts around my shoulders and thighs.
Their thousands of pounds bang around my bones.
They beat the triple drum of thunder as their steel moons
strike down. It is nothing but what it is. No place to go.
Let every wire of blood charge, electrify the skin.
Not a thing touches my body but sweet pink dust.
Before I knew him, Dunx jumped the gate
into a field full of mares, put himself out to stud.
I wanted to ride him because the other kids couldn't,
bucked off and bitter before their asses touched leather.
That horse and I were bent the same green way.
When I settled on his back he stood still, trembling
puffing his breath out in furls of frost.
We ran through winter, over ice crystals growing in the dirt,
the sun hung pale and tart as a lemon.
When summer came we galloped into the bottomlands
unresisting, speed-flat through the green season.
Cicadas and snakes, kudzu, ragweed and dandelion,
we stood in the cool mud of the creek panting,
necks lathered with salted cream.
The sun swung low and gold, fierce as a wolf's eye.
The creek glittered with mica and the bright skin of frogs.
We slept in the same straw and ate from the worn
grain bin, sweet-feed, oats, corn, molasses.
I was never alone. Even when I slept he was there,
true as silver, legs strong and supple as young branches,
stomping, blowing out his nostrils in the dream
where I went out the window and angled into the night woods,
where the dark rushed, flooded with horses.
(Irish Folklore Commission, Inis Maan)
In the foreground there’s a girl in braids
from the back, her delicate part
slipping crookedly down the skull.
After tying up her hair, she has spent the morning
gathering mussels with her brother,
the sharp crescents snapping shut
at their hands’ reach. She is watching
the sea, which must be attended,
while the photographer adjusts the focus,
time and again, clicking behind her:
the braids, her brother’s jigjag teeth,
his throat lifted up for the untranslated
song. Their hands raw and blue with cold,
which will be understood in black and white
by the way they hold them against their bodies
like dead animals once loved but now
simply heavy. Then, the baskets of meat
and shell set down among the rocks. The salt-
stained shoes. Cottages braced
against the ragged moor. He has captured
just the edge of her face
and her mouth is closed, nothing to say
to him, no name, simply “Girl,
gathering mussels” for all of us later
to stroke the exposure, to marvel at her hair.
The wind had pushed the water in
all afternoon and so, though the sky
blew clear, and the smell of leaves
carried from residential streets, their car
moored itself in the restaurant parking lot
while they dallied between salads
and main course, between first toast
and second glass. They had decided
to marry. Meanwhile the wind
made the windows shake
and flattened the sunset to the sea.
He had no choice but to move his car,
and then he had no choice
but to roll up his pants
and wade back to her, candle-lit
over roast chicken. They finished their meal,
towels wrapped around his ankles
(the staff so kind, laughing, fetching
more wine). Is this what it’s going
to be like? they asked. An omen?
She pulled off her heels and descended,
holding his hand and her shoes
by their straps. They trudged the empty avenue,
lit golden, drowned, imagining
the salt-corroded engine,
the weight of ruined merchandise
to be ferried out of the shops,
finned creatures swimming
between their numb calves—
and lingering, anyway.
First I learned
to taste the water in the bilge: fresh
meant a leak from above, salt
from below. It was all
bad news, but I relished
the knowing how, the squinting
and lip-licking, the distance
of diagnosis. Now we’re slipping
under the pass, the bow unzipping
the wake, and I can taste
salt everywhere––here, pooled
in the shallow of your clavicle, here
in the forked delta of your palm.
Once, I climbed down
into the skeleton of a hull, and through
its raw teak ribs I saw light scrolling
across the black screen of water like credits
at the end of a movie starring
the reflections of stars. The next morning
the hull was swarming
with builders, glassing skin
onto the bones, shaping
the empty belly, a scene
I’d seen before—wolves, carcass—but in
reverse. If our bodies
are vessels I cannot
take you inside me. If our bodies
are water we cannot
go swimming. But still there is something
whispering back to the insistent
secret of current, a kind
of transaction, the water corroding
and holding us up, the ship-to-shore crackling
and calling, our wet footprints on the gunwales all
of course, yes, dissolving, but first
being there, and shimmering.
A woman we know gets sick
and suddenly I can’t look at your breasts,
the threat beneath each
perfect ounce of flesh. How can I take care
of what I can’t see? Too much
of a good thing and I think of you, of
salt, sweat, spit, the way this can’t
go on forever. This woman dies
and each part of you I take into my mouth
gets a goodbye kiss. Soon even breathlessness
will be terrible. A man we know says of his son,
I want to tell him I’m immortal.
I love him that much. I want to tell you
I can barely believe in our bodies,
that we’re made of water, that we trust
our skins, that we believe this dream
of insolubility, this promise: I won’t
swallow you. What is there to love
but the symptoms, flushed
cheeks, glazed eyes, frantic
feverish heart? I drag red trails
over your shoulder blades, snag your lip
on my teeth, lay my fingers
in the spaces between your ribs and try
to remember that sobbing too is a system
functioning perfectly, that longing
is nothing without loss.
if the thru-hull fittings disintegrate,
if the hoses freeze and crack,
if dry rot softens the plywood,
if the float valves stick in the bilge,
if the fiberglass delaminates,
if the fly bridge collapses
under the weight of the rain, if our hearts
break, if our lungs won’t deflate, if this desire is more
than our bodies can take––oh set off
all the rescue flares at once, oh use the life raft
to give the dog a bath, oh do a salty
load of laundry, oh clean legions
of wounds, oh gargle, oh make
the voyage anyway.
Because they are five and not two,
they have a purpose
as specific as the beachgrass
planted across the eroded dune.
The twelve year old boy carries a net
and not a toy net, to strain the low tide
of its cockleshells and conch,
of luminosities and ruin
that exist only now
in this first naming.
Sea cucumber. Mermaid’s purse.
Minnows flecking their ankles, the family
is bent unmistakably toward seeing
across the lit surface of shallows,
this fleeting permission of ocean.
The buckets fill with brief treasures,
wave-smooth stones for skipping,
all manner of shell and searoot,
each skimmed and scanned
in raised singularity.
Smallness begets smallness
as the nine year old boy’s eye catches
a glint of filament,
salvaging microbes and minerals
from the rippled sandbars, regarding
each fragment as a whole.
The toddler girl holds an empty clam,
reminisces back to when she was two
and perhaps her life has been as long
as any of the adults’ on the deck with drinks.
The mother spots a marbled patina
and the boys sieve it up to the air—
two rockcrabs seamed together in a compact link.
The mating is considered shyly, without shame,
a study of armament and flesh—
this, the one thing responsible
for their own presence.
They attend to the world as equals,
for none of them have ever stood
in this water before
with such circles
gathering at their feet.
Every month I tried to make of my body a home.
I was an hourglass
made of shell, made of bone.
I lay under the Perseids and let the stars
hold up the night.
There was me and the idea of a child.
I saw for both of us—
tule elk silent among ferns,
the sunset lying pink over a field of Dakota corn.
In the museum, we walked through a hall of Buddhas.
Granite, terra cotta, bronze.
If I could have made you like that—
I would have held the hammer,
I would have opened the stone.
Just before they remove
my grandmother’s breast
my mother drives all night
to Alabama to see her.
The sky like oil.
The houses darkening.
The next day they embrace,
drink jug wine
from plastic cups,
do not speak
of the time lost between them.
My mother looks out
at the Gulf in December, still hot
Her clothes stick to the air.
Her skin sags.
My grandmother hobbles
to the water;
my mother calls,
Now we are both old, mama.
I know she sees it—evidence
they will both die
and die unresolved
with the other.
In dreams of my mother dying
I remember her screams,
her whale eyes,
the eyes that punished
my sass-back mouth
until we grew old enough
to be honest
in our dislike for each other.
Tonight in a dusty mirror
my mother feels her breasts,
her lips stained with wine.
The crickets wail
through the screen door.
The clear moon.
in the mirror
I grope mine,
the same strange flesh,
the tender heaviness
cocked towards the flies
buzzing at their coats.
Even in the heat
they were smiling, glad
to chew the parched grass
until night, and then what?
I had never seen a cow sleep,
their idle magic slumbering
in a moonlit field,
clouds of breath drifting
like balloons past
to the sun-stripped billboards
and then gone.
One trailed me at the fence,
let his tongue slip from his jaws
and tongue my wrist,
no less bitter that
he would die sooner than me,
that we could not save
each other, his saucer eyes
an endless world.
It was like looking again
at my father, searching
his old man face for nothing
but kindness and silence.
Even the night grew too hot
from the open window of your room
where you woke every hour, roasting
in sweat, twisting like a pig on a spit.
You discovered your body then,
held yourself through summers
bringing blood, that bare thrill igniting
evenings you’d run away, picked up
by your father who smelled of sour mash
and leather, saving you from hitchhiking
into the next county, ten dollars to your name.
You said the heat made you crazy,
the way animals turned wild, faced the sky howling
through fences—they, like you,
never slept, but roamed as you did:
ferocious and hunting, the scent of your fever
dripping from dogwood. Sometimes now
you can smell the cut grass, the honeysuckle
under greedy ropes of kudzu, remember the hot hiss
of hamburger on the grill, or your parents
not yet divorced, drunk on Sunday, dancing to Aretha
played loud through an open backdoor
as you plodded home barefoot.
Sometimes there’s not enough distance,
even when you’re gone, that a passing face
on some big city street is every man
you ever fell into: tobacco breath
and going nowhere, mosquito-bitten nude
across abandoned fields littered with bottles
and dry as the drought that threatened everything.
Sometimes it’s the mirror, the face
that so distinctly reminds you of weather, soft clay,
the voices of girls you knew
with their haystack hair and cracked, country lips.
The girls you’ll run into during trips home
cradling babies and beer in a 7-11,
girls who bring you back to restroom stalls,
confiscated notes, the backseats-of-cars gossip
and those deep, lascivious accents
you’ve struggled years to drop:
You’re just like us, and don’t pretend you ain’t.
Let them bring wings.
Let the wings be poems
exquisite with the give
of each iamb. Let the music
be a harmonic of steel
pan and surf, congo drum
and Cher, my godmother's
shaky soprano and the sweet
thud of flesh falling away.
Let my thousand selves sing.
Let me tug my loved ones' coats
and let them catch me
in the afternoon's solitary
star. Let the dead make way
with hallelujahs. In their rain voices,
let them whisper to me.
Let each lived moment of love
light a path from this world to the next.
O Gods, when you call me
in all the names I have worn
through with breathing,
let me answer with joy;
let me go up, let me go
dancing, ecstatic with flight.
It is magic here, outside the rule of clocks and scurry. The vast baskets of mountains overflow; the clouds clink like ice in a glass: I drink it all in, and it is enough. What a concept, contentment. Yesterday, where the creek tipples at the base of the valley, I saw a dead goat—stiff, ringed with flies, its face like a plate of leftovers. I wept, then I did not. I stood at the roadside until the wind wafted up its benediction. From this place I gift you the unoccupied air; the wobbly prancing of new calves; a sky so close the stars might be a chain-link fence you run your hands along as you amble through the night; your live and mutable body, its spark and spell and solitude. Take a minute, write back.
You wouldn’t recognize this body of mine
the odd animal it becomes
without you to answer its spark.
Here in the valley, I want nothing
but to heave the heaviness of my limbs
into the cocoon of my unmade bed
and burrow there, as if winter had come
and it was time, at last, for the long sleep.
Of course, when I think of sleep,
I think of the way our bodies tangle --
my sweat, your sweat; my toes curling
into the arch of your foot, the way
you always giggle even from the deepest of dreams.
I think of the way our dreaming tangles
with our waking-- you turning over
in sleep to tell me of your dream banquet,
or the dogs rushing along a nameless river
and me, dazed by the fact of your body
beside me, the breaths I’ve come to
measure happiness by. This
happiness itself, a flowering, a hive
of humming-- less a song, than
the memory of song from which comes all
singing. And how we sing, you and I,
our immelodic molecules dancing
their reckless abandon from lip to palm,
cheek to bellybutton, nose to nose -- choral,
harmonic, echoing even now, across this distance
their joyful yes!
In a jail in Genoa, Marco Polo is still
chanting recipes for China,
and poor Rustichello, his fellow prisoner,
is still feverishly writing the empire
he will never see except
in the mingling of words and prison walls.
The East seen through Italian eyes and translated
into French as the two men dream fireworks and rice,
the salt white skin of women with pepper-black hair,
papered dragons, papered lanterns, and papered pagodas
dancing around them red and gold with acrobats
and acrobatic alphabets, where letters take the form
of posts and lentils, pillars and trusses, spelling out
a city of one thousand stone bridges, a country of landscapes
gently brushstroked in blossoming boughs on parchment.
They believe as we must that just behind the stones
of their confinement the Gobi desert stretches
its hills and valleys into an infinity of sand and shadow
that the Mongol steppes with swaying grasses
are thundering under the heavy hooves of
short-legged ponies, that mountains of impossible
precipices, jagged and rising, thin and sinuous as silk,
drop daily into misty morning valleys where two
small farmers walk beside the lone and twisted pine,
listening to the low groan of water buffalo
and the sound of grasses dry beside
water lapping against the edges of the mind.
These are the scenes we have seen in countless movies,
scratched on the surface of Grandmother’s blue and white
porcelain. The weeping willow. The giant goldfish circling
a perfect pond. And we the weary armchair travelers
with Polo’s recipes in hand are expansively trapped
with the visions of prisons waiting for our minds to part on
They say the day William Blake’s wife lay dying
he sang to her for hours, words unwritten,
words too grossly beautiful to fit
the epic musculature of his engravings
or even his songs of sooty London.
He sang to her the careful washing of cups,
the way the front stairs spoke her coming,
the wren that hopped along the garden wall.
And as his wife lay feverish, he hymned
the half-slept nights with fevered children,
the return to bed, his hand brushing her cheek.
He sang of wife and man burning beyond
The brightness of the forests of the night.
Some day before you or I lie dying,
I hope to sing to you for hours—the songs
of walls you’ve painted, the stretching
of fabric over the couch’s antique frame,
the slow heft of children up three flights
of stairs. I hope my words will echo
your long lullabies stretching across the dark,
the slipping back to bed, our feet touching.
The mighty wind raising us words and all
up beyond the brightness of the burning night.
Each poem will be posted as the author provides it.
for Gail and Lisa
Every day the braying of cattle, the hum
and thud. Box elders dripping into our hair, our food,
wrapping the ground in a shroud of motion.
The tumbleweeds blowing by. The smell of sage.
This is how it was: every day the mountains, the sky
so wide I knew it held whatever I had lost—
what escaped me still, out there beyond the land,
How the dying insects hovered in the air,
as if air could preserve even time
the way it bleached the rabbit's skeleton and left it
lying for us to find, its tiny bones arranged in perfect order.
How it held the dust, the buzzing yellow-jackets,
the mountains—as if the world could explain the world
if only we knew how to read it. Look, it said,
at what spreads itself against the earth, and is gone.
Earth movers stand at rest beside mounds
of earth, a hundred unsent
love letters, bonewhite moon ghosting
above abandoned machinery +
desolated highway, and Dr. Max is on
latenight AM radio talking about
training dogs, how it's arbitrary, language
is loose as topsoil, one could
just as easily say pumpernickel in place of lie
down, in place of come here: makes
no difference to the dog. I've been on
the road for a dozen hours, nearly
a day, one long enactment of almost:
a zero-sum game of betweens.
I'm in Kentucky, or still Illinois, or I'm
three hours from one coast
but driving demands measurement with
different string: a thousand miles
from one idea of home, several hundred
from another. I'm half a tank of gas
from just giving up,
lying down among corn
and waiting for day.
Dr. Max is going on and on, says most things
come down to repetition, cause
and effect, call and someone will-, seek
and ye shall-, etcetera. Home's
a shirt you've loved to pieces, worn good
holes in. The bulldozer at the hill's
rocky base means nothing if you know behind
the rock the hill's heart's still wet,
that a small stream is its core, that face
is one thing but what's inside is still
being made, riverfinger by riverfinger, like
how since I was six years old
I've never been able to fold my hands-
even over a steering wheel, 2am,
past a construction site, under a sky
littered with more stars than there are
names-without an empty cup in my chest
righting itself in longing
for some watery, incantatory amen.
Every letter I didn’t write to CL before
he died hangs from a tree in my dreams and I
keep chopping but never felling the thing
because what I’d meant to say—about
that squirrel I watched get runover then
get up and run away; about the brick wall
my neighbor built all summer which then fell
in fall, and how he rebuilt it winterlong, seemed
even glad—it’s all still there, shaking in some
wind through my mind’s branches, and so
perhaps memory as wind. Today I watched
a boy help his grandmother cross a street,
watched him cross back to the corner he’d just
left, watched them wave at each other in sun-
light, and then he crossed again and they continued
on. And so perhaps distance as opened thing
which opens more, and so the letters I meant
to send mean as much now that CL’s dead as those
I did write. And so perhaps sent mail and almost
sent mail aren’t opposites but cousins, distant.
And so perhaps what’s meant means no matter
what’s read. And so perhaps I’m no fool to move
slow, avoid disturbing these addressed + stamped
unfilled envelopes, lying here unsent in sunlight.
Next door the cat's finally quiet, fed, the mewing
supressed for another day and on the way out into
another spring night I hear stereos from the next
several apartments and a woman's voice laughing,
no, crying, no, there's music where you least expect:
I could've killed that cat yesterday, bawling like
a fucking newborn while the water was boiling and
the coffee still in separate stages, grounds on one side/
water on the other, like stages of grief as described
in a book for Dummies, first denial then anger, it's
not ever how it feels but this is how I've come
to April, thinking as always of an old name I keep
remembering so I can forget it anew, she's laughing
now, I think, a TV on in the background and
the windows in the church across the street were all
removed and replaced over a month in winter +
one night after work was finished I crept up and
licked each pane of glass where new window met
old wood, licked like to seal an envelope, like to
secure the new view and if, instead of going to see
a friend who may never ask me what I really want,
I could stand in there now with the pipeorgan quiet
and looming behind me + all I know of God
reverent in the curved, shining woodwork above
I'd ask not for song or silence but for a way to know
each from each, real woman's voice from fake, light
of two candles from one flickering bulb, feel
of sleep from feel of falling to sleep, the name D__
from the word denial, go away from don't fade, holy
from April, April from the word almost, etc., amen, etc.
but what slips past the words.
Three hours bangled and sparkling.
Sitar, flute, and drums.
Not so much the bright colors, the silken shine,
the gold on the wrists, the ankles, the ears,
the throat, the nose—or even the candles
reflected in the water, or the geometric designs
of mosaics tiled on the floors—
but the flash of the eyes, the quickly hidden smile,
the clenched jaw, the furrowed brow,
the texture of the touch the hand extends,
how quickly or slowly two embrace or depart,
the language of the sounds that swell,
deepen, crash, turn, flutter
into blossoms red as the dances
that shake the screen with sequined swirls,
the neck, shoulders, hips, legs, feet, arms
each punctuating the explosion of saris
choreographed to spin and return
the grief-worn heart to joy. The nuances
of plot and script untranslated, swallowed
by the subtitles not appearing, despite
repeated attempts: menu, “on,” “play”—
and still the mooring of an understood language
refuses to appear, to offer any safe path
through the drama of love and betrayal,
the gate-locking of death, the layers
of memory and dream falling into themselves,
the many-armed deities, the painted feet and trees.
Your father hunting pheasant in the fields
behind the house, you and your brother following,
sticks in your hands, one of the barn cats
pouncing on mice in the stubbled furrows
like swells of a frozen ocean,
your father hunting grouse in the Wisconsin woods,
you and your brother old enough for shotguns slung
over your shoulders as you pass between a cliff
stratified like a book and a creek so full and fast
it’s almost a waterfall, an echo like a machine in the rock,
you and your brother like wind in a stand of leafless
birch, surprised how little force it takes to push them over,
how tall they are—twenty feet? thirty?—and the sound
of their crashing, rootless, overlapping, white poles
with blank scrolls of bark, black knots of missing branches.
The pigeons are not clay except in color.
Even after a man yells pull and the mesh
door of the cage flaps open, they squat immobile,
dull gray and sculpted in the suburban mist,
their signal to flush more private than this place—
three miles past the skeet range, doctors
in Filson coats drinking cans of beer and peeling
hundreds off a roll. To win, they drop the bird
in a circle chalked on the ground. Always,
here, he’s a boy among men, feathers warm
through his gloves, each hole a bead of blood.
Always the men shooting, talking, the words
just widening clouds of breath, and him outside
the ring, reserving judgment, waiting for a sign.
There are knobs he turns and knobs he pulls
and knobs he pushes and knobs he turns slowly
and knobs he turns quickly, a knob that changes
the speed of the propeller and a metal bar
on the floor he raises or lowers and something else
that feels like the plane is stopping, like we are not
so much flying as floating—
a bobber on a fish line, tugged by current,
as though what’s controlling us is above us,
not him in the seat beside me, one hand
on my knee, the other on the yoke,
not him rolling a cigarette, tapping ash
out the window, Sonic Youth on the headsets,
as though this is a secret
we both know but can’t share—
I could call it crosswind, the rear of the plane
swishing like the tail of a fish, or the tailwind
that makes us fast, the headwind like a wall,
or the birds we have to watch for, the towers
like needles over the flatlands of North Dakota,
or carb ice, or just mild turbulence, not even
the kind that could shake us like a ball
attached to a paddle by an elastic string,
fling us against the roof, the walls,
if we weren’t buckled in—
just that gentle
but it isn’t the wind I mean.
In this kitchen, the window at my side,
The breeze coursing in, the sound of your broom
Sweeping maples from the porch, I’m snapping
Pole beans, recalling late May, the danger of frost
Behind us, our fingers pressing seeds to the dirt.
Mid-June, the plants three inches high and quivering.
August, the last of the cicadas singing and my bare arms
Among the leaves. And then to the kitchen.
The colander brimming. My father’s voice
On the phone: Blanche them, three minutes,
Then cold water, then to a cookie sheet to freeze
Overnight. So while we’re waiting on the beans,
Darling, feel the maples bending above you,
See them lobbing their sweet debris.
And tell me: Were we made for anything less
Than this? Dirt caught in the skin’s small creases.
Pole beans lithe and cool in the hands.
The months collapsing: spring, summer, fall.
After an Iroquois Legend
Like the hermit thrush—who, brown, speckle-throated,
dull, grew tired of being ordinary
and cheated his way to the Spirit World
to seize the most beautiful of songs, and who,
upon reaching that hole in the sky
that led to all things beautiful,
had only one moment of radiance,
pure song, before that slow, terrible descent
back to the sureness of earth,
and who fled straight to the wood’s shadows,
to settle among the thickets and mountain laurel
out of shame for his treachery— we understand
the cruel weight of sin, its multitude of costs.
But like the hermit thrush, who, still shy, sings
from the thick quarters of saplings, from where
it cannot be seen, at times we just can’t keep ourselves
from crooning, jubilant, even with our various treasons,
even from dark and lonesome spaces,
our voices sweet and matchless,
insisting, over and again: we can be forgiven.
My first spring in a real city I see the worn blue hills
Of my youth as never before, as my father sees them,
Has always seen them. With a sense of need,
A pull at the chest almost like heaviness
But more like thirst, and I remember
Those evenings on your family’s farm, when dusk
Pressed in and you and I chased the Holsteins out to pasture,
Watched them scatter toward the spires
Of hemlocks shaping the horizon.
We couldn’t see then that our wants would take us
To faraway places, that what lay beyond that ridge
Was not an end but an invitation.
We only knew how honest the everyday was:
The rhythm of the herd, its milkings and feedings.
The early rising. That the days would grow shorter,
One by one, and that nothing at all could be done about it.
We were eleven. And still believed,
Like that shepherd in Marlowe’s poem,
That a life could be charted and promised;
Like our fathers, kneeling, fists full of dirt,
That this land could give us all we ever wanted.
Earlier this morning
the morning was a pollinated wind
dusting yellow through
the pine trees, the deep and measured
thump of fence posts entering
the ground. Putting down my hammer
I thought of you, not far from here
but too far, attempting in your tiny room
to speak correctly of the weather.
How can I explain to you politely
there’s no way out for us. We’re stuck
up until our knees, our eyelids.
I don’t have an explanation.
When it rains there are no excuses
and still the water falls on every surface
evenly. It covers everything
I’ve planted. It sinks in thoroughly,
like a cloud shadow, like rain.
When I place the water in my mouth
it’s not to call it closer, or to name it safely
after my name. What is there to say
that you and I have not imagined
growing past us in the upper dark?
I do not count upon arrivals.
At least for now the afternoon is clearing.
The fence I’m building
will keep the foxes out, the wind
that either is or isn’t in us,
and failing utterance, reminds us we are here.
With winter near and having come this far together
already from a great and ruined distance
through into an orchard
overrun, in the seeding state we watched
as one the apples breaking
off the branches, the sunlight catching separately
their mottled colors blazoned
although alone upon the barely blemished surface
of the skin — and what was left of us
in aftermath we knew
was caused, because we saw
and heard at once that surface
glaring fiercely, to press a different sentence
past the outline of that light.
But when the wind in blind indifference
took both our hands and bound them,
our sight and sound completely
starved, we turned around and carried
on our backs that fruit in leather bags.
Years found us — and through the fog that was
the water turning slowly
into air we crossed a silver river
with the vagrant voices of the others there
behind us ringing hungry
visions in our heads — and so it was
in a named and savage land we settled having found
our bodies gathered terribly
around a fire, the unfinished edges of that light
a limit, although we knew
by then and suffered fair to say it for ourselves,
of death, in a white dress dancing,
she dances slow — and the air-locked emptiness fixed love
to rage within our minds, offered freely into snow.
It’s almost three o’clock and I am sitting
on the porch steps emptying
the gravel from my boots.
Summer like a lover. Middlewestern.
And the farm dog panting in the shadow
of an oak tree on the lawn.
In the middle of the afternoon I shake
the soil out into the soil
and it’s the place I come from
when there are no more paths to cut
into the garden through the dandelions,
or stones to scatter
on the driveway. Dead weeds drying
darker in the heat. I cannot describe the reason
there are letters we should have sent and didn’t
and this is one of them. Strange
how we apologize in postcards
from an island
or that the photographs of cities
you have lived in
lined against the wall
can look you in the eye until you close
completely. In a house where you are wintered.
That late summer on the porch steps
I understood September by its reddening.
The fields had finished. The garden
no longer capable of basil,
straw covered. I should have called and told you that
it doesn’t matter much the weather
we are reaching in. This winter
if we can keep the sunlight on the hoarfrost.
If it is possible. The branches of the burr oak
brightened and bent down.
We could live like this: gleaning barley
from the edges of a field
or waking up too early in a city
and falling back
asleep. We could gather fragments
in our hands, say the garden has endured.
Let us. Promise
to be good. We’re finally feeling older.
And this too is another way
to say your face is partially shadowed
in the porch light. Where the early fern
is curling. The quiet after church bells
where it is possible
to listen. Look,
it’s the middle of the afternoon
and I have no idea at all
if we will make it. Even as it rains
when I am walking
into a field that doesn’t need
the water. Or if the day is going out
and the axe I use
to split the pine in half is not
the axe my father left behind him
leaning on the wall.
By the time you get here
the furrows will have flooded
and I cannot remember
the feeling of having ever scattered
in the first place, in the violence of alone
that we are planting.
It’s almost midnight
and the city hasn’t darkened yet.
The wind is dripping. I’ve had to kill
the basil. At the edges of the yard
the window light turns black
against the fence line
and continues. Almost midnight
when the crickets finish
ticking. The kind of shadow
green you’d cover clover
to keep the weeds from feeling grown.
In the piece of sky between the pines
the sound a day dissolves is not a quiet
I can accept without the map
I’ve made of how the beds were ordered
to keep the groundwork strong.
Soon the whitetails will be starving.
A cold October circling
the days it takes to leave a home
when I have written down from memory
the names of streets
I’d like to live
and a wooden walking bridge above a river
in Wisconsin. There are no more towns I want
to drive alone to. There are no more towns.
It’s getting difficult to say it
before I go into my house
where the weather I cannot forget
is happening. Because we close
into our rooms
our rooms return us
to the window. We close again
and the garden grows into the forest
and I am not afraid.
Marching band in the street, flock
of green parrots wild in the palm trees’ fruit,
and only my son looks up, double honks
a bird call on his plastic trumpet.
A tour guide, his job to point,
my father could have moved the crowd
to notice. He befriended random people,
even at red lights where he’d roll down
the window to chit chat and give a peace sign
to jay walkers who ignored him.
In the hatchback on the way home
after a day of city tours, his hand gestured
out of habit to Bayou St. John, called
by the Indians Tchoupic for its muddy water.
No such thing as a day of rest—
we ghost hunted after the good luck of rain,
listening for whispers in cemeteries
and elsewhere, and it’s true, the steam rising
from the streets really does seem to call
your name. Bring your daughter to work day,
this time a plantation tour, he used
his hobo charm on cooks
with white skin and period dress.
They heaped us with loaves of bread,
bounty enough to share, and so
we took the ground streets home—
Canal St. to Carrollton, our escort
a drum line of grit and dragged feet.
Verboten, casual, Katrina-slash-this-is-the-writer’s-life poem,
another rule breaker best abandoned. At sea.
Overboard in a wine bottle, in a milk jug float.
The words swim down and I packrat them all.
Anything else would feel like choosing between my sons
who aren’t twins exactly, but enough alike
that their lost teeth, first locks of hair morph
to make a mumbo jumbo in my jewelry box.
I’d look up from the writing of this poem
but for the hex: voodoo doll on my desk
courtesy of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure club.
The greats have their subjects: love, sex, death.
I have mine: hurricane Katrina, Mardi Gras,
time passes me by with moonscape, owl, and merlot.
Editors pass me by—Alison, it’s hard to get excited
about Katrina poems as there are so many.
So quick to write me off. They should give thanks.
I could be the quack who sends a soul food
curtail sonnet, or exercise bulimic sister-in-law haiku.
A poem a day about my children their muddy feet
stuck in boots, rattle of pocket treasures in the dryer.
My darlings, who believe that sea glass could be
Poseidon’s knuckle bones, a yarn I came up with
to keep them busy while I draft my Deep South
Canterbury Tales called “Something in the Water.”
Up at five to sift the oyster flesh of my brain
for pearls of words. Kids at the door, begging,
May we PLEASE have some breakfast! Yesterday,
mind ablaze, I wrote about this man with a mole
in the center of his forehead that I took
for a bullet hole—he even dragged a zombie leg—
and thought it was a great way to spend my time.
New Orleans, August 29, 2009
One last Katrina poem, the final praise for what I hated.
I quit. No more a guard dog of damaged goods
chained in the yard, drinking from tadpole puddles,
dragging my doom and gloom down happy streets.
I swear. No more damaged goods, watchdog groups,
or Katrina’s white flags on the cemetery lawn.
No dragging doom and gloom down happy streets
mistaking blue tarps in shreds for battered prayer flags.
Katrina’s white flags on the cemetery lawn
in perfect lines marking the day and marking the dead—
consider them prayer flags, like blue tarps in shreds
announcing our surrender to the waterline.
No more Jazz funerals or second line umbrellas, ok?
No more picking the scab, pressing in secret a bruise,
announcing our surrender to the waterline.
Katrina’s footprint in the garage, let it fade.
Pick away at it—sweep up the muck and move on.
The world was just a dream of molded halls
and welcome mats, Katrina’s footprint in the garage.
Ancient history to you, but always yesterday to me.
It was just a dream—the hallway, its ghost of mold,
crisscrossed downed power lines, and makeshift boats.
Yesterday feels like ancient history, the last page
in my notebook. I write the lines and my hand shakes.
The last Katrina poem. Stupid praise for what I hated.
Years after I first mistook the elder trees
for poison ivy, my younger brother laughs
as I shrink back again from the jagged leaves.
Crossing the creek bed
on the log by the old road bridge: rusting nails
and the ones I called dragonflies at age five,
black wings, blue-green bodies shining like a thread.
Edge of the neighbor’s
land, we step from woods into brambles thick with
leaves we lift aside for the few ripe berries.
Soon I can’t see him but his singing travels—
blackberry picking”—voice turning baritone
over the thicket’s thorns and shed white flowers,
fruit no one else eats but the birds. He must set
out by his lonesome
every day in the late afternoon, humming,
to wade through canes that score his legs with scarlet—
what does he think about as evening comes down?
“Make way for the guide!”
We head uphill toward supper, him in the lead:
dimming woods where the creek keeps on eddying,
dark snaky water opaque now, damselflies
gone in the twilight.
He offers me his hand as I cross, then, one
big hand covering his bowl of berries, jumps
from high bank to low, lands solid, and no, he
doesn’t spill any.
Every spring my grandmother must have found them,
muted red, marching from deep in the forest
toward their pink house: trillium,
migrating as slowly as she spread her garden
back from her husband’s daylilies, rallying
sunlight, toward dense bamboo. Was she
surprised as I am to find them each year?
I follow their trail through bushy azalea
and privet shade. On either side, countless
snowdrops, and her favorites, the variegated
hostas. As she planted, she scribbled
each variety’s name and location
on typing paper, the flaps of old catalogues,
circles and chicken-scratch the family
hardly can read. Which map is the last one?
No one can tell. Still I’m walking her paths,
looking to one side, the other: invasive
ivy, pots half-full with rainwater, then,
by the hollowed live oak, a single stalk
with leaves the size of my hand, its petals
darker than old blood, deeper than new.
I kneel in the leaf mold and see, in sepals,
the pointed inner flower she saw
when she knelt with her trowel, leaned close
to let the petals cool her lips.
In her absence, the planted and wild
converge, stirring what lies between
her inscrutable circles: trillium,
returning, unstoppable red.
Late September and the first sungold tomatoes
have come, bright orange and sweet as the packet
promised in June. Hybrids, I say, but worth the compromise.
We’re filling and pouring, yellow plastic watering can
and rusty tin bucket. My love wants to know:
Why are the sungolds any better
than GMOs? I give it my best: the seasons of tries
made over by hand, subtle adjustments for color,
taste; the number of feet each family of plants
requires to avoid cross-pollination; the hoped-for surprise
of variation—how can this effort
not entice us? No, the hybrid won’t come back true;
pollen, incapable of faithfulness, is always
afield. Still, setting the best conditions, looking
for something fine, refines hope: the hybridizer’s intrusion
helps the story along. But he has gone stubborn
and cannot be convinced of romance.
Drops shake the nasturtiums’ yellow petals;
I want to crouch down among the sungolds, the volunteer
black-eyed Susans, hide in the verdure
compost has made, but I stay, interrupted, interrupting,
both of us furrowing our brows at the new zinnias.
It’s true I’d been seduced: in high school biology
we read of Mendel crossing pea plants
for a glimpse of their methods, the flowers’ colors shifting
in gradually discernible patterns. Who could remain impassive,
objective? For dissection, everyone chose their own animal
from the catalogue—a mink, a squid—like ordering prizes
from the fundraiser book but these had once been alive, the mammals
pre-skinned to disguise that fact. I appealed; while they poked with razors,
I diagrammed corn stalks, cross-sections projected
onto the dirty classroom floor from slides, color-coded cells
so spacious inside, it seemed they were offering up
all of their secrets, which they were not.
That year a new cat, mottled calico, showed up in my parents’ yard
and was coaxed to eat, me cooing ten feet away, then five,
before she made the barn loft hers and allowed me to feed her
from the hole where the ladder came up. If I stood
on a middle rung with only head and shoulders
showing, she’d let me stroke her back, even purr,
her half-tail waving its curtal radius. No chance
she’d be spayed. When she had kittens, I recited
the crosses, reverent, as if I could speak them
to Mendel himself: one with a whole tail, one with half,
another with half, and one with none. The kittens were skittish
and wilder than she was, climbing the skinny sweetgum
back of the barn to escape me. Two were given
to neighbors, one snatched by a hawk; the one left
had half a tail. The triumph of that.
In mid-summer, I could not guess
which of the tiny heirloom zinnias would be red,
magenta, orange, and which the paler colors
I like less—could not thin out even one.
The seeds pushed the potting soil aside
with their paired leaves, their hundreds, and he,
faithfully following instructions, planted them all
in the small space, close, too close. Now with the sungolds
and the leggy, half-grown zinnias, we disagree, and which
is more important, stopping, or proving myself
stubborn as he is?—really, it’s all about knowing when to stop
meddling, my mathematician, my logical. Romanced
by the changes (one with no tail, two with half a tail,
one with a whole, boring tail) we forget our own: having shaped
these plants, we must tend them as we tend
each other, tentatively, give water, give room,
climb the steps to the house and open the door,
leave the garden to win the argument.
My grandfather in a field by the river
of sailboats flecked with silver.
Close your eyes.
He turns my shoulders. Tell me
when the sound is the same in both ears.
This is what I never understood.
Wind sweeps every field, one kind of music
What have I forgotten
becomes what do I love enough to miss.
My student asks, What happens to the dog?
The novel never mentions him again
floating on the ice with the stranger
found by Walton’s ship headed north.
A boy in the front row, wiry as his glasses
hates movies when there are mistakes.
A girl in the front row, dyed black hair
over her eyes, says it doesn’t matter.
Others nod and mumble their agreement.
The dog disappears into the blizzard
of pages, his mangy fur, his ribs like teeth,
preserved in the silent, white cold.
My students want to hear what I think.
I don’t know. Maybe he’s taken in, fed scraps,
patted or kicked like any member of the crew.
Maybe they leave him.
The bell rings. They gather their books
and wander into florescent hallways, still
fifteen, drifting, afraid of being left behind,
wanting at least to be named.
You don’t own this place, or any other.
You live in a house that is not yours, and work ground that is not yours; believe
one day your real self will arrive, and open the barn door of your heart,
push it all the way in, weathered wood and rusted hinges, held wide.
Sparrows will live in the heat of the rafters, mice from night fields will gather
under bales and below loose boards, rusted farm tools
will gleam new in moonlight.
So you hunker down, settle in the familiar shape of yourself.
You wait. And work.
At day you clean trees of fruit, overalls of dirt and sweat and dried blood
from where a knife once scored your hand and covered
small ravines of your palm like clay washed down in rain.
You don’t own your blood, and still it keeps close.
You don’t own your hands, these trees, this day.
At first you thought you could leave. Another season is another chance
somewhere else. Orange groves or pear orchards, figs or almonds, stone fruit
in the morning sun or melons like green rain clouds.
There was always a place where you were not known, where the fruit
believed in your arrival, ripened. They blazed in the sun and you held
their heat in your hand, then let go.
Cherries and apples gleaned, crated, sent. Everyone gone. Now you delay,
like a window. Like a field for the weather. You,
the placeholder, the lesser, the rubbing against – what is the soul but this?
Then you are afraid. Afraid, your real self will arrive, and say here, Here I am,
the true one, and you’d be sent back, across a border, an ocean, a river
where you’d be asked what do you want here? why have you returned?
where have you been?
You own no tongue to answer.
You’d enter a small country, an island dictatorship. Nothing left
to look for, you’d listen to the fan at the window,
the electric radio, and the shiny, tailfin cars passing below.
You’d live another life. You’d live another life.
But this does not happen.
After you walk through the bare fields, after you let the bark of the trees
grate against your open palm, after you stand at the window of the old house
looking at your reflection, or the field of reflection
you’re afraid there is no other self.
You’re stuck with what you have. You know it.
The door of the heart will not open in, to a barn or a room
in which a person or animal can safely live or sleep or dream or talk.
You know this because you want, and keep working.
The closed door of your heart will open out, to a field, always a field, harrowed by feet
and water and wind, the turning of crops, and workers, and days.
All night the snow falls—
bronze fire of leaf mulch whitens in the gutter,
these tulip spears along the house
surprised to still be here, a rake
on the lawn erased. All night
the bare trees fill with snow,
a white foliage, thin along the brittle
branches, intricate spiderworks.
I think of a veil over the sleeping
angel of death,
face like an abandoned quarry.
At the Institute for the Blind,
the patients learn to live into what's coming.
Still sighted, for now, but with the awful knowledge,
they wear patches to blot out the sun
and practice fording avenues,
gripping onto the robes of some invisible guide.
They study the face bones of loved ones,
touch and memorize and cry,
then go silent beyond the crying.
I'm devoted to nothing like their devotion
The world will end, I’m afraid,
and there will be a last snow
for me, for you,
a final white bloom in the maples,
an astonished silence in the streets,
the streets we loved or ignored, no
need to revise the past now that it's over,
and though there is no angel of death,
and extinction, I think, is individual,
we practice for it at the center of our living
In the first sky over Brooklyn, the sky
whose shape holds to the shape of the city
inversely to buildings and ferryboats,
weather filling alleys and undercoats
of bridges, this low sky above the park grass
flutters with kites. Not amber leaves
of sugar maples, but kites flashing golden
when they turn—when the wind swells
and turns them toward us. And far above,
a higher air, white, of its own atmosphere—
of a rarified white wind—a second sky
is deepened and defined by one red kite.
Of a simple design, a red diamond
kicks in the air, a line ripples and ties its movements
to each of us—so the wind
that moves the red kite moves the eye!
The red kite must exist in that priest
who stops his bicycle on the path to look up—
and in those school girls lying on their backs,
and in the worker resting beside his shovel.
This is what it means to be in Brooklyn!
Its bagel shops and Synagogues and brownstones,
its bridges partitioning space. We are of it.
And it is nothing if not us. It is us.
Now the metallic peach of the last sun
underlights the belly of that airplane,
the swallows shake upwards from their trees—
and the red kite yanks suddenly free!
The kite’s owner runs after, I can’t gather the Arabic
he is shouting—regardless, it’s ours now,
it’s everyone’s kite who sees it climb
red into the second sky over Brooklyn.
The potatoes were ready for harvest
when the Germans set up a post office
in her house. She jumped every time
they stamped a letter, imagining fire
falling from a sky scarred scarlet.
Soldiers spoke the language of breaking
dishes, shattering glasses. They eyed
silverware, family jewels, gold pins
in her hair. That day, the soldier with
no arm and sad eyes made her change
his blood-stained bandages, unwrap
a stinking wound, the kind that never
really heals. Later, Papa found her—
dirt fingerprints on her arm, skirt up
around her waist like she hadn’t
finished dressing—in the field,
uprooted potatoes bruised black.
A good arrangement, Papa said about
marrying the man, who spoke Italian
with jagged edges. In New York,
glass towers scratch the sky and people
wouldn’t know what happened
during the War. She wanted to stay
on the mountain with her family,
insieme, tending potatoes. But Papa
gifted her with cuttings of his best
tubers, promising potatoes can grow
roots almost anywhere, endure
foreign soil, survive in America.
He played half for belief and half for beauty,
played the Adagio that survived the bombing
of Dresden, notes blood soaked long before
they filled the crater of a Balkan storefront
where 22 people died waiting for bread.
The song seemed a more reasonable response than another
mortar, so wearing his good suit, the one for performances
at the hall in the center of town that no longer stood,
he sat on the market corner
blackened from a shell
only a day before--his formal tails
brushing the rubble left of a sidewalk--
and rubbed his hair-strung bow across
polished maple wood and metal
tightened beneath calloused fingers.
For 22 days he played each death
amid glass, and concrete, and twisted baking pans.
There was no statue, no grave markers, no clutch of flowers laid,
no ceremony in a city bereft of mosque, cathedral,
library, city hall, all equally and utterly destroyed.
Albinoni’s G minor curled into the square
and mourned for those that died and those
that did not. For 22 days shelling continued
though nothing touched him,
and he played the beauty of life without fear,
in the graveyard of sidewalk on Vase Miskina Street.
He played at an ordinary door
in what used to be an ordinary city. Words had lit bonfires
between people, so he played without words: the slow stringing
in the low sweeping bell tones that moved
toward a middle note, a capture of movement,
the burn and stink of the place: a daily Janazah Prayer
the only thing to do. A lower register beneath the ear,
in rubble and tatters, the dip of his hand and chin,
the swell of chest rising with notes, he moved inside the notes,
fingers carrying the weight, the moment absorbed
in sound, a city six centuries old carried into hell,
a cello, the only instrument left.
He’s four and a half with no idea of the factory
in his future: the assembly line, glue
for the labels, and in the corner the bin
glass, bottles broken
before the end of the line. His job: emptying
its shiny blue shards back into the mixer
where flame will melt them, start them
over. He’ll go home with cuts
across his knuckles and now
and then a stray sharp
edge on his clothes that will scratch his
wife, high school sweetheart, who will leave one day
for no good reason he can find, though soon enough he’ll blame
the they who must have told her
to take their daughter, too, so they might study
the unbroken mathematics
of her curls. Likewise,
because he is too close
to decoding its blue-vine message,
she will take their never-used china, finely detailed
plates and bowls which he’ll replace
with his father’s baseball trophies. Never mind visitors
frowning at their presence in a dining room.
Never mind that by then no one will remember
Elizabeth City’s greatest minor league shortstop:
number three, heart of the diamond,
heart of all primes.
But right now he’s four and full
of Christmas dinner. His father’s got ten good years
stroke that ends his
game. His brothers and cousins, in front
of the tree, build Lincoln Log houses, none of them
lost yet to war. And outside, alone
in his new boots and cowboy hat,
his dad having buckled around his hips
the double-pistol holster he begged Santa for all year,
all he knows is trust and order, falling
to the ground, guns in the air,
shooting the blue sky to pieces.
Every week I make the journey—
Up at dawn
through one crowded station
to the next, transfer again,
translate my still groggy
expression, my torpid steps.
From the station, winding through
old, tucked in neighborhoods,
houses, still struck, after two years
by the comforting smells of
grilled fish breakfasts
as they usher me down the street
in a wake of woken moments.
Through the forests;
my favourite part,
a vacuum of birdsong,
a soft welcome for sore feet,
I fall through the cracks
to find rest there, transformed.
Ice, and rain, mud
or trees fiercely parade their colours,
or gently, spring snows of pink and white;
I have trudged, traversed, tromped
through the respite
of all seasons, and all
earth-splendor of their cast.
The square field
backed by multi-story buildings
where cabbage flowers nestle
plump and neat and self-satisfied,
prevailing through every season,
preside over the other come-and-go
Down one rusted step, down two,
palms out, up near my ears,
guided by some fading apparition
of the forest;
as my parents might take my hands,
to steady me.
Up one flight of stone stairs, up four,
past bright-eyed orderlies,
bleary-eyed surgeons preparing for
another day of “oh please, just let me
fix this one, just this one, and this one;
just let get home in time
to tuck in my kids.”
I sit and talk with my friend
about his memories of school
50 years ago, just after the war;
of school lunches, the poorness of
the students, toes numb and pink
from afternoons of skating in
homemade geta ice skates and tabi.
We talk about films, solar systems,
and politics too, of course,
but these things seem so narrow
It is much better to reminisce of pounding
New Years mochi, of sliding down
a snowy mountain at twilight
that it took most of the school day
just to climb up—
And I feel the brush of
old worlds unchanged
and changing, and changed
and they taste familiar
so I pull them under my skin
to keep them warm.
A jeans-and-blouse girl buys two
local dusty girls, raggle-taggle street girls,
an ice-cream each—
(they’ve been tugging
at her shirt since she came round the corner).
They skip beside her now
faces malleable, expectant
(not to be confused with hopeful)
as she leads them to the ice-cream stand,
the scalloped red awning and grimy white
cold-box, long a source of wonder.
They press small hands,
sharp faces to the glass,
peering at the frozen rainbows underneath.
The girl, all brisk and business
pays for their ice-creams and leaves
them to the magic of choosing.
The ice-cream vendor hands them
each a cone, towering with the closest
thing to snow they have ever seen—
pink, white, sweet scoops in twos
(they got the flavours “generosity”
With a lilting sidewalk amble
that belongs only to muddy hungry
street-smart little girls
they make their way over to two older
cohorts, who are selling postcards
to big confused tourist-hearts;
stretching out sticky brown
and pink and white hands,
they offer their friends each
a sugary lick of
thermos of coffee, and
whiskey for the thermos of coffee,
(will leave out novel to make room,
We painted birds and good-luck charms
onto our scruffy sneakers,
bound for to carry us home,
(but perhaps not so much to keep us warm).
I promised I’d care for you,
my sparrow friend.
But we both were misjudged—
you underestimated, and I
and with what centripetal strength
you bore me up—
In awe and vertigo I clung to you.
With strangers, friends in cars, in trucks,
stumbling towards our surprise Christmas-day
gifts of music, a warm bed,
Of running hand in hand, a step ahead of
the dusk flickering-on of street lanterns,
breathless and laughing too loud in the still streets,
of the taste of much speculated-upon snowflakes,
of thousand-year-old flames and hot sweet dumplings.
Drifting, dozing, dreaming
through dazzling sun-towers
and tarantella snow dances;
we speak languages upon languages
baroque and jumbled in our heads
into a cacophony of golden ornaments—
and when the holidays come again,
I hang them on the empty places
that your wing-strokes,
your bright piano notes, and
your voice might still echo there.
But with it, you bind up molecules
sing me a world.
Love is many things.
But mainly you
bringing me your days,
the small details,
the odd note
which is also the right note.
The misspelled road sign,
the Braeburn apple whose body
is gnarled as a green pepper,
the jaw-less mailbox down your road,
full of small mouths who mistook
hunger for abandonment--
--rusted metal for sky.
Your words tell of the pang
of being infinite but dusty, unsprung
flying off to every country,
scattered and amazed salt
bound up again and again
into the one sheaf
constrained and quietly
rereading an old book
in the corner of a room.
After your letter is folded,
I tuck it in my pocket,
and watch evening
settling down the hills.
I think you know this place.
The familiar disappointment.
Persistent lump of gratefulness.
some. But it never forewarns of impending
horse shoes nailed over stable doors,
or fans in upstairs windows set to low—
and it refuses to number the red velvet
lined offering plates stacked up in church foyers
or count how many holes there are in hornet’s
nests clung up under picnic shelters.
Knowing the correct exit helps,
but does not reveal
the ratio of egg to flour in her biscuits
or the reason for the bruise on her right arm.
Thin blue lines guide and don’t explain
how minnows navigate
the murk of Powder river
or why the Crazy Woman creek
splits away from it so fierce and final,
weeping as she carts
the weight of her own songs away.
The name of the ridge
The elevation of the peak
The number in the town.
are not the knowledge
I need, or the reason
for the shadows that flicker
under Cottonwoods like candle flame.
These dotted lines say nothing
The way it grows. Spreads.
Here what quickens is pidgin
is promise, is indecipherable, save for
an errant startling letter, a hot itinerant
quickly tearing off its veil.
The map is unforgiving. It lets bitter roots
of mountains grow up, and carves canyons
cars fall off. It mentions Cape Disappointment,
but misses the slight sadness that always seems
to settle like a thin film of dust over houses
and driveways and ragged basketball nets.
I spill chocolate cookie crumbs
on Hoover’s boyhood home,
searching for the ridge where evening
first settles, and clumsy tongued, half-
hinged hymns pour in the open window
of a moment. The moment is a blur
that interrupts blindness. It startles us, then
quickly vanishes even as it remains—a bur
caught between blanket and back, the irritant
that companions us whose bones
are brittle pressed leaves, stuck between
bound books and unraveling sky.
Washed and washed
in the mouth of the murderer, perjurer, liar,
Mouth of the rapist and thief.
Washed and washed in the mouth
of the disappointed, mouth of loathing.
Mouth of venom, mouth of jeers.
Mouth full of silent reproach
and ground down prayer.
Mouth of peeling wallpaper dented hood, old coin.
Mouth of the last good summer and the son and the father.
Mouth of the brother and drunk.
Mouth of the confessor confider and priest.
Washed and washed in soap and water
Scratched on plate and spoon and counter
Thinned between the teeth of the man
who bit off his wife’s ear, molested his daughter,
strangled the baby. Mouth of confusion
Mouth of Christ. Washed and washed
in the soap and the spittle and the anger and hope.
That summer the world waited for the execution,
but the prisoner hadn’t healed yet. That summer
I read the gospels backwards waiting for God
to become mortal or at least return to a moment
when creation felt full of promise. That summer
my father held my hand as we crossed the icefields
and looked into a glacier’s deepening blue,
a blue hiding the bodies of mastodons, a blue
that grew lonely watching the world change,
a blue that existed on earth as it did in heaven,
a blue that insisted It is better to be wild
than be good. I felt a new cold and an old temptation
and put my hand in the fissure to feel the remains
of water older than time. Somewhere my father
watched the calving of an iceberg that plunged
into the sea. Somewhere a man muttered
the Lord’s prayer as a doctor tied off his arm
to make his vein stand against his flesh. The news
reported it was almost over. I touched the vanishing
wilderness for the first time, grateful and unsaved.
On the pier two men made angry by heat
and hunger argue over bait and lures.
I envy them their quarrel,
because in a good fight or a great love,
two people become one body, all grapple
and sweat and groan.
Let’s call it chaos. Let’s call it delirium,
this city where lights from oil rigs dapple the ocean.
This city built between mountains
and the sea, city of conquistadors, city pillaged and razed.
I came here to escape the narrowing future,
and I found seagulls circling jetties.
I found lemon trees staked against the wind,
dimes in a fountain struck by sunlight. On this coast
once fraught with pirates
I wander insisting on jasmine, the east insisting
on tomorrow. On this coast, waves recite elegies
when they mean to praise.
One for the pilgrim lost in a wilderness of sand and wine
who blinded himself to become a prophet. One
for the serpent crushed
beneath the Virgin Mary’s stone foot. One for the hunter
who entered the darkness and returned
holding live birds.
For a year now, I have tried to master peace.
I journeyed, prayed, learned a new hunger,
but now I realize the awful quiet in my heart
is not the peace I was promised, but the hush
that falls over the forest when threat is near.
Everywhere I traveled I saw danger,
signs that said Beware: Bear country.
Nothing rustled the bushes, but vultures
waited in dead branches. Signs said
Do not disturb the prayers tied to trees,
but the limbs were empty. The world
tries to warn me that I am more
or less than the earth under my fingernails.
I am greater than or equal to the startled blue
of morning. I hurt the way blue hurts.
And I am tired the way the river is tired
of pretending it feels nothing. I want instead
to be like the rain which hides itself
in everything it touches. Sometimes I confuse
my body with the locked door of an abandoned house.
And sometimes I sing when I mean to weep,
and weep when I try to say I keep a lock
of your hair in my wallet. I thought if I could
forget the past, I would need no afterlife.
But now I see we are the sum of our departures,
and we are also what we have lost.
Blind, my great-grandmother lives
alone, her century
spent in rooms where she took first steps.
There is no telling
of time in this house, no clocks.
Our talking is the ticking
of needles, skeins of yarn.
Her soft hands instruct me wordlessly.
When I drop a stitch,
she unravels the line and pats my arm.
The zinnias on her housedress
bloom, as in Spring,
petals floury from the bread
she’s made, by feel, and buttered for me.
Next time, she promises,
I’ll teach you how to bake it. As if
Eternity was inside her kitchen, the knit
and pearl of our stitches.
Sheets boiled with lavender, the hard bed.
Handmade eye-pillow filled with Great Northerns.
Cactus to the ceiling, orange corsages.
No embarrassment, a calm
that is the opposite of ambition, I think.
Mind like a diary unlocked on the dresser, pages lifting in breeze.
Like those vivid flowers.
Amethyst on a chain: external heart.
Heirlooms in a shallow basket I can look at
without regret, or regard and weep, kneeling, beside.
A water glass, my eyeglasses, arms open
in a waiting embrace. Sleeping on my husband’s chest,
his undershirt dryer-warm, arresting as a cloud
in a black-and-white photograph.
In church, where we sang for an hour, my family
stood with the other families.
I wanted to live there, in that hour of praise and wonder
and singing, low to the ground,
to look up and see birds flying, or a horse’s curved leg,
or God, fixed like the stars.
I wanted stars, I wanted the kind faces of poets,
to be filled with a spirit, to live in that windowed hour.
I wanted the windows blazing, all of us inside it—
the milky beveled house, the singing.
I wanted the long table of bells, biggest to smallest, to be
ringing, to love the people who rang them.
Go back to the garden—the green
scent of unripe tomatoes, a nightshade,
a cousin to belladonna, the extract
dropped into the eyes of courtly women to dilate
their beauty. You are too young
to know this. Still, your pupils widen
in the shade of the plant—the black dots of your eyes
unfurling like fists into palms.
You are calm, though
your father screams from somewhere behind you
from outside the garden, but he sounds so close
it’s as if he rests his lips on the edge
of your ear lobe. You are distracted
brushing the fine green hairs on the stem
of the tomato plant, breathing in its sharp scent.
You rub mud over your slack limbs
to hide, to become, again, unshaped, to stop
(the lie unraveling over the earth) this conclusion
following you minute to minute. This is how
you learned to till the earth with the rake
of your fingers. This desire to inter yourself—
return to a seed, a small dot deep in
the flesh, to be inside the green, translucent fruit,
its thin skin, it’s seeds like distant stars, eyes
not yet burdened with opening. No.
No—opening is never a burden. You have only
seen what you wanted to see, heard
what you wanted to hear. What you fear
most is that your ruined garden isn’t true—
that somewhere the wheat ascends, the delphinium
blooms, and you have walked through your life
eyes closed and so, never saw it. Fear your own tongue’s
bitterness. Fear your glut of sadness so deeply you rise
up from the valley—from the shadows of the garden—
open your eyes wide, hear your father singing.
Orange blossoms and glass
crush beneath your feet—you stride steady
as a thoroughbred. Your cousin beside you—
black hair an electric grid, his shoulder
bones beneath the thin white tee.
The older boys walk ahead, spreading out like
heat on the wide streets. One struts first,
chest swelling with darkness, the quick jab
of his eyes, black—blacker than black like if you
looked too long at his face, you’d be gone—is the one
who pulls out a gun. L.A. is close enough
to be a dream, sunken in a haze of smoke, dusk
weighs down. It was getting dark, and he was mad,
but moved coolly—arm like a pendulum,
swinging the gun. He started whistling, aiming up
at the streetlights, into the windows of houses
and you knew what he was up to—didn’t want
to be that kind of man. You slowed down,
dropped to the back of the crowd. Your cousin’s eyes
said don’t be weak, then how do I leave this,
but you were already turning away when that boy shot
out the first light, then the next, the next—glass
exploding high above you—sheer fireworks.
As you ran, you were surprised by how fast
your body carried you—the sudden sweetness
of the air—the sound of the gunshots getting
farther away. That’s what I remember about L.A.,
you tell me, staring into the lines of your well-worn
palms—the scent of orange blossoms, like the scent of
the spirit, and the sound of streetlights going out and out—
Arrival in Johannesburg airport:
So many White faces,
I must be in the wrong country.
That is, till I see
the baggage handlers, who all look
just like me.
STANDARD TIP IS 5 RAND!
the airport sign says, ONLY TIP THOSE
WEARING ORANGE VESTS!
Ahhh, Zulu is a sound
for sore ears: Soft. Percussive.
when spoken. For example,
ngqongqoza, has two
clicks & means
to knock. Ngqongqosha has two,
too & means to carry a child
on one’s shoulders.
To stand so tall,
yet balance so much:
a woman's work.
Such bright scarves sing
as they are beaten
against the rocks.
Yebo, Mr. Cow,
Are you coming or going
down this dirt road?
End of the day,
25 kilometres home: Left,
Right. Left. Right. Left…
Night here is so dark
I can’t even see
my own skin.
The skyline's teeth
will swallow your eyes!
the sangoma sez.
As he flaps among the clouds,
the shrike's magical tail
kisses the acacia trees.
This Xhosa girl is taught
not to look
me in the eye,
Oh, but when she sings
I feel the floor
Where have all the diamonds
gone? Certainly not
on her black hands.
When he leaves for the mines,
the moon is full. It will fill again
before he returns.
BIGGER! STRONGER! LONGER!
the witchdoctor's promise—
This woman with bare breasts
looks like she has
something to say:
I will not die
is greener than
& would not leave.
Tea time for one
means work time
for the other.
Another expired goldmine,
another horizon of ghetto:
WELCOME TO SOWETO
Radio deejays transmit
in eleven different languages:
What a wild dial!
With my 2 left feet,
can you teach me
the latest township dance?
just like it sounds:
EUROP ANS ONLY
The letters on this bench
have faded from use.
Zulu lightning show:
How does the sky rumble so
& not fall apart?
Named for apartheid's architect,
Verwoerd Ave. still runs
through the heart
Do you remember us? Tweed trousers, holes
in sequined cardigans, quaint glamour sifted
from the Clothing-by-the-Pound, we found
ten dollars in a pocket once and watched a matinee,
left bread and roses! stickers on the screens
of bank machines. The bus hauled us home
from that suburb where blackberries
grew in the lanes. In Chinatown, three women waltzing
to a ghettoblaster took our hands, their toothless
sways so lilting graceful that I nearly missed
the half-moon blooming in the crook
of a lamppost. Later, the men in our lives would ask
were you lovers? And we would say no, which was true,
because they didn’t mean, of everything. Not like that.
In an ancient
grain pit on Honshu, they find
a stash of rice, blackened, and one
Something inside the tough
and waiting coat it wore through thousands
of spring rains
For this: a shoot,
a stem, the green hardens
to bark, then a bloom
He leans into it, squeezing out
the arc of piss while the mechanical
pump of his bladder is silent,
and there is only the sound, sublime
or embarrassing, of water hitting water.
In the corner of his fountain, the faces
of the long-traveled reflect disappointedly.
You have been here. You have seen it—
this statue tucked in the wings of a square,
how the cherubic boy grins,
the baby fat folds of his groin
knowing only one pleasure of release.
Or two, if you believe the stories of that dark,
vulnerable night when a toddler
roaming through unmanned alleys
doused the initial fire of a saboteur’s fuse.
Thereby saving a city from burning.
Thereby locked in his eternal, resuscitating gesture.
How easy the legends of survival unfold.
Enemies retreating from a sleeping city.
To some he has a name. To most he has none—
they drag on to dinner where pots of mussels
pile and tremble like liverish moons.
How close is the river? Someone asks
while the birds are at every table
and scattering—their wings splitting
like cells that might stop a body,
their wings like the first rip and burst
of air that could burn down houses in one’s sleep.
Though you are gone, you have seen it—
the mind fierce against destruction,
the heart somehow eternal
even as cities fail and bodies disappoint.
Writhing on the living room floor
your fists tear like blossoms, your fingers
beginning to spread as you reach
for your mother, the light of her hair
against the evening burn of the cul-de-sac.
How you fuss already at the body’s limits,
the mouth’s incompetence to express any desire—
your every discomfort interpreted as hunger.
She swabs the curled wound of your belly button,
the last of her blood oozing from you
as you begin to discern the blurry, electric world
of humans, of shapes and machines purring
all night in the city to warm you, to feed you.
Soon enough the city’s layered lullaby will amplify,
and you will feel it vibrate at the edges of the self
removed and nearly alone, though not now,
not now little halo of coppered light.
In the gullies between mountains, the old women
will survive when the swaying cellar steps
when the earth slips its vertebrae beneath us.
When the gods come back to play.
remember anything or nothing of survival,
while their arthritic hands
wipe clean the years’ snow of dust
from their careful jars, rows of gemstones
from the red dirt of their gardens.
Shelves of leaves
applauding in storm. For them, the green seems to unfold
from nothingness. How little you know
of saving yourself, you remind yourself,
how little you know of building a thing. Of growing a thing.
How adept you’ve become at contemplating
absence. Potential for disappearance,
to never have a thing again. Someone reminds you,
suffering can never be overtaken by pleasure,
they are unequal, separate things.
This fear you wake to, has always been.
Learn to sculpt what life you can,
breaking your back against the limitless space.
It’s a hot wind every day at noon
and the girls come up from slinging buckets
of muddy water on the furrows,
the low slung look of tired arms
and a quiet in their faces that says
they don’t talk even to each other
while they work. I’d worry,
but worry never made anything
but worry grow, and nothing can be done
but bring water up to drench
this garden, where we’ve planted
every vegetable imaginable.
There’s a jungle rising there
& a hunger in their look,
which is why we took to driving early
evening, slow along the road, to think
how easy leaving would be, my girls
watching the ditch water, wondering at the sky
caught there, the birds drowning
in the still reflection, the muddy water
slowly drying up all summer, but that garden
won’t water itself, so we turn back
just before the turnoff to the town
and when that green hits our eyes
it’s like a storm, each day washing us over.
We hardly look to where their mama’s
buried, but it’s like we never look away.
This is why we stay. To see the green fists
of tomatoes streak red, the slow flame
of taught skin pressing out from the core,
to feel the warmth of their dusty bodies,
the plumpness, leaning close to take
in the hot earth smell, until the day we begin
plucking them, perfect, from the vine.
My girls and I each pick the best one we can find
and thinking nothing better could be said,
leave them, like three lit coals, three fat tongues
or still-warm hearts, beating at the mouth
of their mother’s grave.
Inukshuk—A stone landmark in the shape of a man,
used in the Inuit culture as a directional marker
that signifies safety, hope and friendship.
We may know time as a stone,
smooth and round, made so by
water that keeps returning
to itself, water like the forgetful
grandmother retracing her footsteps,
Her voice is the water.
It fills her children and their children
swallow her stories and smile,
lips wet, her repeated words tracing
a circle in their minds and if
this is really the tundra, the land
that belongs to The People,
it is empty— —of trees
and buildings: things to walk
towards, to measure the shape
But one doesn’t have
to reach a tree to know that
something has been passed
and that empty space is sometimes
lonely. The People figured that if
time is a stone, it might be stacked
in the shape of a person,
in the capacity of a human,
that we might see our grandmother’s
face in our daughter’s, might know
that grandmother has rolled
over and looked up from a body
that is five—and seventy—years old.
Red would want to walk along Fisherman’s Wharf
and recall the first time he had seen the shrunken heads
in the back of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, and seeing them again,
would gather up the years between like discarded clothes
in need of washing and wonder aloud how a head
once so full of seeing, how a mouth that had tasted
the finest meat or the sweetest words, how the caves
of the ears could be reduced to a state of dried fruit
and locked in a glass case. He loved to know
what of a body could last, his own body seeming intent
on disappearance—our great grandfather
having known nearly a century before us—
so we listened with wonder and skepticism, nodding
as he talked of a silver ferry called Kalakala,
thinking only to appease him but thinking also
that his mind had become lost on the way
to his tongue. After all he was 97, and soon shriveled
into sleep, and was placed in a case of earth
and only then did we find the silver ferry come back
from Alaska, docked in Lake Union, where he had first seen it,
and his curiosity became ours to tell—in a story where
we return like king salmon to the tacky aisles of souvenirs,
not being able to resist a known origin, a glass case
like a silvered pool, where, when we bend down expecting
to see the faces of the long dead, we see our own.
orange heads drug themselves
like pitted addicts
child-sized hands summon
the hiss off broken roots
an old woman’s hair creases
under a rose babushka
by the garden door
in her weathered hands
in a dome of fragrance
those little faces sneer
suffocated in palms
she scrambles for loose string
ties the poppies
into a crown, but
poppies tremble out
Memory gets lost
with church bells
and poppy drone
kills the ears
there were never
any children here
there never was a moon is what i’m telling myself
this is a lie sometimes a lie makes the heart lie down
it’s the tired dog inside us lets go, so to breathe
there never was a stone i stepped on that wasn’t as hollow as
the moon, disappearing all the hard and white
objects of the earth do not belong to me i abandon them
i walked away and cried until my body also walked
away i did not chase or fight or shoot
i let the crazy animal get away locked
my face in a steel cage never was there a time
i told my hands they were lovely and i
Someone said star of terror I will not get out.
I pose a knife for peeling apples
making an empty orchard of my life.
Under balconies we endure prophecy
declare what the pond sings is bitter lime & not enough.
Even the wheelbarrow calls back, the crow.
It will take more than tree bark & white scape
more than earth on the darkest, backward edges.
It is you breaking bones on the run. I see through you.
The blow came from behind,
cracked his nose and various colors
thudded in his eye.
His hands cupped
the blood and no one called
the police. What mattered was ice
But who was it,
people said, didn’t someone
report it? What they wanted,
as we did,
was some Before
to explain it, the clarity
of some consequence
we could squarely call
At night we flinch at wind
against the window and scribble
in the air. Dear stranger,
of justice, ferrying
over the night-lake.
So lush here, Graciliano, this lizard island
where you were imprisoned.
Every night the lightening
strikes more jackfruits
out of the trees
and the air sugars
with their smell
as they shatter
into the jungle that’s flowered over
the stifling cells you were locked in
none of your prosecutors
As for your inmates,
their bones grow lighter
in a lost grave,
but anyone can tell you where
the cobras nest, which trails
lead to beaches and to the trees
where the monkeys feed.
When I go on here about paradise,
I mean no disrespect.
I say it for the flicker of lizards
on my windowsill
and the night smell
for this much wildness
just sixty miles from Rio.
to erase everything that’s not green
or dengue fever, mosquito
On Tuesday, new prisoners arrive.
In late fall, when leaves clog the gutters and their last colors go out like stars, new prisoners arrive.
As another plane pitches upward and a red finch drops for landing.
As fleets of school children go forth in pursuit of blue candy.
At three a.m., when dogs shift position on the bed and stir their owners who look out and find it’s snowing.
In the hour when I call my sister and she empties the dishwasher, new prisoners.
In the hour when drivers flick on their headlights and flowers close and fireflies get stuck in jars.
In the hour when I call no one, read nothing, and somehow the hour is gone.
In the sweltering city, where a friend brings a watermelon and we spit its seeds onto the roof of the museum next door and the world seems repairable and temporarily right, new prisoners arrive.
In the last photograph of my mother,
the borders are blurred into a vignette,
and though it’s a twenty-first century
print, she’s tinted herself with sepia.
Still, her leopard-spot outfit gasps, golden
sheen of glitter bright in the fading light,
drawing my eye from her half-fallen face,
the places the aneurysm kissed so hard
her muscles buckled. From this safe distance,
I can trace the undone bow of her mouth,
left side of her lips a loose string dangling,
toy on a slack tether. Though they were made
only through the phone, I can see now how
her apologies were formed, the struggle
to shape the words at all, drop of spittle
weeping down her chin, how she would knuckle
its thin thread as she spoke. In this picture,
the last one she sent, her gaze won’t let me
resent any longer the missing years,
the ones that brought her into this soft skin,
this hair gone white, the ones that carried her
to this stoop on a house I’ve never known,
steps where she’s perched like a pigeon, tiny
and grey, ready to wing its long way home.
Or perhaps it’s the power of Kenny Loggins,
who’s still alright and pleading on the radio
just to let him be, that makes me wiggle, jostle
my fists, churn my head with animatronic
splendor, while you stare, equal parts schoolboy smitten
by the odd workings of rodent grace and farmer
reaching for fumigant. We’re still in our blackest
suits, and even as you join in too, skittering
around our bedroom floor and waggling your tailless
end at the empty air, we’re both shaking with great
unsteady, slurping sobs, unable to forget
our daughter going in the ground, hers the power
of the gopher now, to leave as her sign this dirt
mound, this square tunnel in the earth, this bygone dance
burrowing into our subterranean dark.
Rusted train trestles cut a swath of steel through
the grasping branches.
She leads me into blackberries
nestled amid heavy-leaved bushes that reach
tendrils around our ankles.
We wade into the green, stray from tracks overgrown
with bending dandelions and pluck the rich black
I see her at my age. She is the crescent moon, blonde curls and blue jeans,
berries overflowing the milk pail clutched
with purple-stained fingers
that mirror mine.
She is a fine sliver in the sky.
For me she wears yellow
and her belly swells like the moon
as I push relentlessly outward
inexorable as time.
I draw upon her strength to grow then
She spins cobwebs of lace, body curved as if in prayer
over the cold iron of the sewing machine
whose needle flashes through the rhythmic humming.
I lie awake, listening.
In this way, my First Communion comes before incense and wooden pews:
I commune here first as my mother sews
salvation and forgiveness into white muslin
and makes angel wings of lace-capped sleeves.
We, her children, burn hot as suns
consuming the embers of time.
At night we slumber in the shadow of our dreams, and she is the full moon
luminous from our reflected glow,
an oasis from the day’s turmoil,
a quenching stillness of cool water.
It is the new moon time.
My mother weaves stories from the fabric of her life
and wraps them around us.
She is the wise-woman
grown into her skin and her words.
Her wisdom is filtered through time and alternately sweet and bitter
on our tongues.
I submerge myself in this deep water;
she soaks into my skin.
My mother holds the sons and daughters
of her sons and daughters
with hands that plucked blackberries.
I understand her through the memories
that beat moth-wings against my mind,
scattering the dust of her life and mine.
They blend together.
Do not go down to the woods today,
Although they’re lovely, dark and deep.
You know exactly what lies that way
And you have promises to keep
And other, safer games to play
And other arms to charm your sleep.
Do not jump into the rabbit hole
Or wander through the wardrobe door.
You’re far too old for the title role
And anyway, the plot’s a bore:
The queen of hearts is off her head,
The dormouse just goes back to bed,
The lion reigns – the witch is dead,
The children sleep at home once more
And all is as it was before.
Do not go gentle into that
good night; don’t follow the moonlit stream,
For when the day comes, harsh and bright,
The potion’s spent – it’s not a dream.
Then every elf and fairy sprite
And every flower of delight
Will fade like fireflies out of sight.
Don’t rage against that dying light;
You’ll know at once what’s wrong, what’s right,
In morning’s fiercer, braver beam.
When you look out of a window,
square and sad some day in the future—
because we know sadness visits
think about these circles instead:
the one we make as a group
today to witness you give
rings to each other, making
the promise that you will,
your mouths, your lips
forming circles as you say
I do, champagne glass rims,
the circle of a garter, blue,
round layers of cake,
stacked like love
upon love upon love
and there is no end in a circle,
we know, we see, what we smell
from childhood, something baking,
mother’s perfume, a Christmas tree,
swirls in our minds, round and round
from birth to death with marriage
like a shining diamond in the middle.
So remember this day and what you
promised—to be his hero, if you can,
in small ways like bubbles in a beer,
like a dollop of cream on his coffee,
every day, and the little circles
add up, like bubbles in her bath,
like bracelets bangling,
like the doorknob turning
each night and saying, honey,
now and today
and forever, I am home.