Dorothy Prizes Awarded for 2013
The brick-and-siding bungalows have sun
crawling up their sides. Oh the black-eyed-
susans in the ditch. Oh the empty bag
of Cheetohs. There’s the house that copper
thieves loved for its rail-thin pipes
and vacant rooms. There, balloons
blossom from the Felicity Arms’ sign,
as if to say, live here, there’s an empty pool
still redolent of chlorine. Two bus-stop kids
wait in egg-yolk light, one longing to have
a balloon, even if it sags to the ground,
the other pulling at a sweater-string—how
long could it be? Oh the places they’ll go.
Oh the places we’ll leave. A telephone pole
gathers teddy bears and wreaths to itself.
Just down 222, a recent wreck settles in the road,
cars at odd angles. The drivers have not yet
opened their doors, but it’s possible to
fix a dislodged bumper, replace a broken
brakelight. Someone will sweep up
the shards, someone else direct traffic
onto the shoulder. A line of cars waits
patiently to clear the mess, even
as traffic backs up past the parking lot
of the Food Mart. Inside, from her
high perch, a three-year-old
in her foam-green swimsuit hurls
cereal boxes into the cart. Oh the fiber
and bran, sugar and oats. Oh her toothy grin
since her mother hasn’t noticed
and the candy aisle is next.
The only wind here is the distant whirr
of highway. In its warren, a rabbit reflexively
pulls out fur to cradle its bloody-thumb
babies. The woodstove in that ranch house
wafts the scent of pine down the cul-de-sac.
A flag, not lowered in three years, is thin
as linen and pinned by one corner
to a poplar branch. On the porch,
a woman smokes while she waits for the car.
And there’s the Pontiac, a red fox,
blazing through the trees.
There’s his mug-face through the rain
as he walks up, still singing
that classic-rock hymn: forever
yours, faithfully. His scarf askew,
his smile a half-moon on its back.
Today’s a ragtime ditty, half-speed.
She’s off to the diner for the lunch rush,
and he’ll sleep. Today’s a fried-egg sandwich,
bottomless cup of coffee, cottoned sleep,
as the late-day western sun
cuts a cloudbank into a slab of beef.
You hauled me out of bed,
all wires and tubes,
too weak to stand.
Walked with me
when I moved so
slowly you joked
we were going backward.
It was no repayment
when I helped you sling
your broken elbow,
your arm curled, wing,
in front of your body.
There’s no ledger, no balance;
we can’t speed the collagen
hardening into new bone.
I can open the blinds
before you arrive home,
give you words
(this earnest thing),
vow to walk with you,
forward or backward,
over black ice, hospital tile, fire.
The cold light of stars is the light of many trains
without passengers, many empty trains jointing night
to night, carrying nothing across the wide room of heaven.
Years turn over like soil at the furrow.
Under the sky's dry mouth, the dead knit
together their cold wings in the blank light of eternity.
A slight scrape of wings.
Dew gathers like an onlooker
on the lawn of the First National Bank.
The sky claps its flat blue hands
and says again, again—
I set my ladder against that blue
and climb into nothingness.
Once the animal-soul paced the cave of the mouth.
Now my lover has turned to smoke under my hands.
The stars do not rise like pale fish to the surface of water,
do not hang like white stones through clear water.
My hands have become strange to me—
Each morning, the light catches, the trees exhale
their birds, but the world breaks always from me—
I grow tired of the body.
Where does that wanting disperse to?
The whole earth throbs with it,
a cold fire, a blur in the rushes,
the city’s fire pit lights cooling
to a careless neon scatter—
In the dark, the mind stands large and apart
from the body, outside the sweat-threaded flesh,
the body’s hot-ash walls, outside
the clear and ordered ticking of the heart, the mind
with its words tucked away like shoes in a closet.
Night warms with the bodies of lovers,
a man’s hands, a man’s poor stumbling heart—
The lovers, whose bodies diminish
even in each other’s arms; already,
their hands fill with dust—
A kind of madness, surely, to love transience,
to taste that dust and call it water—
We trafficked in myths,
set deception’s elaborate table.
We turned our faces away.
How else to continue
when our mouths close each morning around endings,
when the ground we break is seeded already in teeth?
Night sky sewn horizon to horizon,
an intricate stitching of stars. Fireflies
repeating their bodies’ insistent question
to the dark—
How they come these summer evenings
in their thousands to flicker the branches, beaconing
the window-glass, stringing cobwebs
into eerie winter wreaths—
Night sky, and the trees that reach ever-towards it
without touching, the wood-study they make of desire,
the air spark-strewn, the small human shape
our bodies make against wet grass—
The dead own nothing.
They arrange their unworn shoes
all day in the corners, drift their scent
among empty suits and dresses of closets,
go about adorned in nothingness,
and so move without effort.
We take even their names from them.
Then what argument,
which of our hands’ small works,
what brief triumph of the body?
The clay pots, which hold our hearts?
The rope we make of grief?
Each of us, a little model of suffering,
of memory passing even before the body—
Sweet chemical haze of pesticide.
Tandem banter of crickets, whir and fall,
capework of sound. Wind skirls
an idle finger through the grasses
like the bored hand of a lover
at the edges of sleep.
Outside Tupelo, the moon
pulls a hard right toward morning.
Then the sun's slow-fired wheel spinning
like a wrecked bicycle.
Then the light,
like a childhood dream of flying—
Calling the Ants
Piqued by the regimented beauty
of the jay, its muted blue uniform, white eye marking
and invisibly darting iris
that briefly beheld, then abandoned
me for the horizontal pleasures of the cornfield,
my eye collecting its colors as remnants,
weaving a daydream of a Union soldier—
sleeve pinned to his shoulder, waving wanly in the corn,
walking backward, into the mystery—
a vision that must arise from the part of me
that wants things held together
the impulse that made me creep into the pasture
as a kid and pour my Coke onto a hay bale
to enliven it,
to see hay burn with ants, called forth from
daily labor, signaled by sugar’s
inaudible call, sweet music, with me happy to host
the feast, feeling part of the visible world’s miracles,
all those souls, my friends, eating
and dancing joyfully across my hands.
Where the Whitetails blend into
cattails, drawn by the salt of stillness, give-offs
from quiet botanical bodies.
Where the heart-shaped hoof and higher
leaping muscles muddy from the ginger climb
of preference to action.
The jays, little skies, excite the branches
of the nearly sunken tree. They will not relinquish
the dream of nest. How poignant
their newlywed happiness.
A groundhog skirts the scenery’s edges; the skunk’s
rockabilly forelock lifts in wind.
Insects abide in waving-goodbye
handkerchief formation, romantic as the one
she once clutched at the station, lace
beside the train, the something old from her wedding,
as her young, uniformed husband leaned
from the steps, watching her diminish.
Decades later, she swings on the porch,
smoking his pipe. She’s the garden and house alike
now, in flowered robe, a little chimney.
How sweet to chew the bit and relax into solitude,
watching the marsh’s bridal blossoming,
at peace with buds at their beginning.
It is luscious as the robes Hare Krishnas wear,
passing out daisies at the airport;
softer than a daisy’s center, offered to disembarking passengers
before they flee in taxis.
A fresh-picked peach will keep its leaf,
resembling the shaved head, slender ponytail those monks wear,
in devotion. Its fuzz will always recall the face of a boy
at fifteen, or a girl. No distinction in prettiness at that age.
Poignant the loner, lolling, or the many, spilled from school doors
as from a barrel. Who will teach them
how to live in the windy world, on ever shaking branches?
Before me, a bee nuzzles the rose pit of a peach,
attentive as a wife fussing over her beloved in a hospital bed,
turning to the blood-robed brain on an X-Ray machine,
squeezing a hand in the midst of nurses, physicians, downpour
of white petals in too beautiful April.
ANOTHER DAY COME TO A CLOSE
Another beautiful bowl of fruit
placed in my hand by the man I love.
While I sat reading on the couch,
he stood in the kitchen, carefully
carving a pineapple from its core,
first cutting through its strange
rind of spikes to cut in quarters
the heft of the fruit, then segmenting
the quarters into smaller, bite-
sized pieces, dripping with juice.
I thought of the knife’s slow repetitions,
the wet mess of the cutting board,
things I have so little patience for
—but he quietly, calmly cuts
with his knife in a way that I’ve
never mastered or dared, never
bothered or cared to learn how to do.
How he slips a blade-tip beneath
a mango’s red peel, skillfully
slicing the slick skin from the soft,
orange flesh it tries to conceal.
How his fingers look so vulnerable,
so bare beside the blade that I often
have to look away. So I’m grateful
when he, smiling, brings me
the chilled bowl of sweetness,
an offering of love. A simple gift
of his simple braveries. In the morning,
I’ll wake before him, rise into
cold air, slip quietly downstairs
where I’ll brew a pot of coffee
and bring a fresh cup to him, still
in bed, where he wakes, opening
his eyes to the uncertain day ahead.
I’ll gently coax him into the day,
thinking: My Love, be brave.
BRAUTIGAN, A PORTRAIT
Everything ends with flowers. I read this in a book and think of you,
Richard, the picture of you cradling a daffodil in your palm, holding
that flower out to me— the reader— and offering it: a gift
from a ghost. You sit, head tilted, the rims of your glasses glinting
with light. You wear your wide-brimmed hat, dark coat, moustache.
And you hold that daffodil as if it might come alive— little sea creature,
urchin, crab— some peculiar pet, brought up from the depths, some
tiny token, precious prize you’d like to share. “Do you want to hold it?”
you ask, as if you’re telling me a secret, whispering the flower
from your hand to mine. Naked flower on naked palm. “No, really,
take it.” And despite the bullet that punctuated your life, I sense
another desire: the delicate future, its ever-returning spring.
In wind, the poppies at Elliot Bay
look like butterflies, petal-winged
creatures, stem-bound and flapping
furiously for blue sky. How they pull
toward the unknown. I know that
feeling: rooted, but ready to fly.
The swift swing of summer to fall—
in the cemetery, a robin on a gravestone
turns (in a blink) to seven in one view,
seven rust-red bellies, brief flames
in the sun, amber bellies and breasts
the color of leaves. In another blink: gone.
On the river, a flock of white birds
floats like a fleet of origami boats,
each a folded note, with a message
I’ll never read, some other life
I chose not to lead. Glimpsed,
but untouchable from this shore.
And so it is: the everywhere clocks
tick toward tomorrow as a cat
crosses a room, her tail curving
like a question mark that follows
and pursues me— a subtle stalking,
like butterfly, flower, leaf, bird.
Notes Against Forgetting
You are not dead. You are that which lives
in between. The sun rises, the sun sets.
The man who visits each morning is your husband.
You are his wife. You are the darkness
that breeds light. Your daughter will come
each night to brush your hair, sing
you to sleep. You are not dead. You are
between the sun and moon, a table set
for a great feast. You will eat the light
and darkness will be a man who rarely visits.
Do not kill yourself, that is God’s duty.
You are his wife, the morning which lives
in everyone. Your daughter is the moon.
The dead rise, the dead sit down at your table.
Visit, but do not stay. You are not dead.
Brush away the world, as rock worn white
by light. You can not be killed by darkness.
Your duty is to sing. Your duty is to rise.
Do not God yourself, there is no time
for mourning. There is only dead light,
a table, a man. Only a song which rises and falls
and breeds. Sleep like the dead, your days
laid out on the table. Your husband will warn
of his coming. Your daughter, be your rock.
Set down your duties. You are alive.
You are arisen. God will brush your dark hair.
Tell Me What I Know
Tell me how this skin grows thin
as light. Tell me the story of a girl lost
in the woods. It is night or at least
darkening. Whisper her the way home,
that it will be alright. Tell me why,
when the wind lifts no name I know,
I fear it is my own, misplaced, misspoken.
Why this trace worn through the carpet
leads always to the same locked door.
Beyond, children hook arms and sing
joyful songs about a dead disease.
Tell them, please, to shout. Tell me
who I am when my stranger arrives
each morning to tell me my life. He says
I am his wife. He says: table, clock,
dementia. That the world once was mine,
a map surrendered to brilliant
pins. Please, tell me your name again.
Ice, even at the poles,
will slip to sea,
bob and diminish
until it passes through gills.
Stars, giants and dwarfs alike,
blaze for millennia
but fade and collapse
Sand gives and gives again
to a swelling ocean,
ancientforests turn to ash
at a fire’s breath,
and iron corrodes with the quiet
pull of electrons.
Our bones too, my love,
will turn in the earth
until after centuries of springs
we are tilled.
But this afternoon the pond is frozen,
and the wind forgets the last of the oak leaves.
Time, that grizzled bear, hibernates.
So I ask, once again,
take my hand
and skate with me
across what ice
During the first spring mow
its sweet perfumed sting
buzzes back an old lover
and the walk we took through a park,
fingers twisting together like roots.
The next day
I pulled every petal
from her blossoming heart.
It doesn’t matter now
to either of us
Yet, I’d like to bring her here,
not to say sorry
or to reconcile,
just to sit beneath the flowers
and let the bouquet
and the bees
do the work.
If You Go
Near the end of winter there’s a place you might visit
tucked in the back acreage of an antique garden
now overgrown with bramble and brush.
Bring a walking stick
for snow cramps into the troughs
and sinks the unprepared.
Wade beyond a row of crab apples
until you arrive at circle of evergreens.
Enter where the sun slips
the most rays to the white carpet.
When you get to a large maple,
its leaves long brown beneath you,
turn east up a small hill.
At the top of the knoll three birches hold court,
branches balancing caterpillars of snow.
If you lie between them on the bluest of days
they’ll appear as a white ladder to heaven
and you can drift among the clouds
until you feel yourself rise.
But call me if you go, for I might travel with you,
if you lie quietly
and wait long enough.
In the Yard After a Storm
I placed the acorn cap in my palm
like the smallest alms bowl, held it up
to catch the last drops of rain falling
cold from the tips of shivering leaves.
But as I turned it over, let the water
trickle slowly out, it became the knob
to a trapdoor that appears only for those
who wait long enough to see its shadow
hung on mist and air. I pulled, lifted,
then looked down as if into that place
carved out in my mind like a cellar filled
with the murky jars of my worst fears,
their labels faded, but the message clear:
to know myself, I must taste each one.
Telling My Father
I found him on the porch that morning,
sipping cold coffee, watching a crow
dip down from the power line, into the pile
of black bags stuffed in the dumpster
where he pecked and snagged a can tab,
then carried it off, clamped in his beak
like the key to a room only he knew about.
My father turned to me then, taking in
the reek of my smoke, traces of last night's
eyeliner I decided not to wipe off this time.
Out latewas all he said. And then smiled,
rubbing the small of my back through the robe
for a while, before heading inside, letting
the storm door click softly shut behind him.
Later, when I stepped into the kitchen again,
I saw it waiting there on the table: a glass
of orange juice he had poured for me and left
sweating in a patch of sunlight so bright
I could not touch it at first, much less bring
to my lips that kindness I drink each day.
When I Think of the End of the World
I know I will miss that first messy bite
into an apple, burst of late summer
light on my tongue, dripping from my lips.
And opening the window that always sticks,
pushing up until it gives, inch by inch,
and then there’s air. And hearing my own name
called out on a rush hour train, turning to find
my lover’s face in the crush of faces.
We see the world only when we remember
what might disappear. Thinking of the bees,
I eat half a jar of raw honey, amber-gold
as an autumn sunset. I call my mother
and we talk about the weather, whether
the frost will kill her four o’ clocks, or not.
Just Like This
one winter day of your thirtieth year
you take a cup of tart tea
and not because it tastes good
but because it feels right
you suspect with such sipping
a mode for longevity
and perhaps in this same season
you mislay some old worry
then choose not to seek it
or miss it or feel guilt
to have lost it
so marriage seems a possibility
and careers of last century
so another trip to Italy
just seems to make sense
you might arrive here
without breaking down
without breaking through
you might just arrive here
some call it happiness
others deem it the present
though you suppose it’s
maybe life is just like this
Twenty-Third of August
I don’t know how to weave
a spider web—nor could I
but I am amazed and arrested
by the prism of light
glistening through one.
Seek what they sought;
the daily work is trusting
the voice already here.
This summer I taught myself
to love earwigs. I let myself
rest enough to listen, to trust
the bluegrass fiddler
bowing her heart
in my heart.
Today is the summer’s fruition.
Come the loss of it all.
We still light the candles.
We nod our heads to the sun on the water.
Yes, we are blessed
and we bless.
The rickety back deck
is the lotus land.
The Waiting Room at St. Catherine’s of Siena
No one wants to be here
though we find ourselves here
with a woman named Monica to the left
and another Monica waiting to the right.
Slowly, the surgeons emerge and say it went well.
I am waiting for a man named Herbie,
who has me or a taxi driver and a heart
so damaged that even the nurses wince and sigh.
In Siena, descending from the pastel duomo
Saint Catherine slipped on a step,
which is still marked with a cross.
In Siena, the marble is so soft and the city is so wrought
that it’s no wonder she fell; maybe that day
Catherine was also in need of care.
Here, one of the Monicas tells me I’m an angel
because I’m decent and have the morning to spare.
And in surgery, Herbie finds no peace
not yet ready to die
still needing to grieve for his wife
who also fell down the stairs, twelve years ago.
Born into the black death
Catherine was known for her letters, her mystical love,
and for bringing the papacy back to Rome.
Catherine was a writer who could tell Herbie:
It’s time to let her go. None of us fare well, but we fare
aside one another.
I have faith in cities like Siena
and in stories like Catherine’s
and most of all in the baby carriers
that go in empty and leave full.
In the waiting room the universe exhales.
The newborns take their first breath
in the damp January air.
By the Schuylkill in October
The dim boathouse is empty
but for six pairs of shoes.
Shirtless boys in gliding sculls
move the dark green glass, laughing.
Hands welting on old oar grips,
they never let on.
Not even their nipples
They drive the ring-necked duck
from the river’s long face,
sunset leaves from the tulip poplar
in their wake, a night full of stars.
Tender things gather behind them.
They steady their sweep
and hasten on, five to a boat
as the coxswain calls
with a father’s voice, a grandfather’s,
a voice of oil and pepper,
scratchy beards on their cheeks,
chapped hands on their shoulders.
Through the sprinkler’s veil,
the cheek of light that forms has no face.
Caught leaping through
the pins and needles,
the shattered rainbow,
slick like sea lions,
like we’ve just been
born in the imagination,
we stretch away from what’s familiar,
our skinny limbed action
lithe with the smoke of unknowing.
What worlds the body knows
as it passes through the curtain:
on one side dull, on the other, lit and shining.
We slip the yoke of speech
and all the camera captures
is a silhouette filled with fire.
I wake to catch the floating life:
haze easing things
into green anchorage.
This is the time
I most think
the grass will talk,
all things softened:
the daffodil’s crimped trumpet,
the cut heartwood stacked,
the stink bug’s shell
and cracked apple’s seed,
the knife edge of all that is not you
dulled, blurred, suspended
in white mist.
Before the sun
burns the vapor off
we might come up and say
what we couldn’t bring ourselves to say
Work currently withheld
Morning Monster Chase with Mayzie, 3, and Leilah, 2
Amidst the screaming and running away,
the crazed flash of hair and limbs, amidst the crashing into walls
but before the strawberry mini-wheats and peanut butter toast,
Mayzie, now three, tells me that should I slow down
(as her dad is wont to do on occasion, not yet 20 minutes awake),
the morning monster, green and pointed, whom we both made up
(breath like a locker room), the morning monster will,
in no uncertain terms, punch me in the penis.
I can't tell you how awake I am now, knowing that
in this age of the mommy supreme, in our household
where these girls wake up and instantly call for my wife,
even refer to me as mommy when they want comfort and goldfish--
in this house where the songs announce again and again
that when the monkeys fall from the bed and bump their heads
it is mommy who calls the doctor and the doctor said
when bringing home a baby bumblebee,
it is mommy who will be so proud of me--
in this hostile environment of bullying by omission,
my daughter, I am relieved to report, still has her daddy's best interests at heart.
She loves me. And I am saved.
At times, I believe there is nothing
so pure on this planet as the voice
of John Denver, whose music
has rescued me this evening
from the talons of the political circus
wrapped around my every recent breath.
Why can't earnestness run for Congress?
His opponent, the sound of a fiddle on fire?
A campaign run by nothing less
than the Shenandoah river standing
on two strong blue-jeaned legs
tossing coins and making wishes.
Imagine a piece of solid wheat,
fresh from the field this morning,
taking the podium for the first debate,
a sliver of mountained Colorado the second.
The cry of a peacock in heat, our honorable
Secretary of State. Can you imagine the smell
of your mother's homemade Lobster salad
presiding over the Supreme Court, giving the verdict,
sentencing all of us to our rooms, a place
we should have stayed perhaps a little longer,
curled under a featherbed, learning what it means
to do something right, practicing speaking
the truth day in and day out:
Sunshine on my shoulders makes me happy.
Sunshine in my eyes can make me cry.
Work currently withheld
Under the stunted pomegranate tree,
The oldest woman on Webster Street
Spends her days alone
In the small garden behind our building.
She misses home, refuses to learn English,
Will be evicted soon.
This morning she is up before the sun.
Seated on the stone bench
Beside the succulents,
Dawn settles on her like a shawl.
They painted her on vases,
Her fingers red from prying
Open the gates of heaven
So the sun could pass through to rise.
I join her in the garden.
The first rays of the sun
Invite the spider webs into morning
Piece by silvery piece.
She turns, looks at me through cloudy eyes,
Regarding my face the way
The nearly deaf regard
The symphony of crickets,
Which is not so different
From the way the dead
Regard the living,
Their fingers turning red,
As they pry open
The bolted brass gates of their home.
The Green Piano
A Fine Romance
Another Fine Romance
South from Chicago I pass men working under lights,
silhouettes in the mist of their jackhammers. Some instinct
to pray for their safety addles even miles away
as I turn into a gas station. Waiting for the chug
and clunk of the nozzle to cease, I notice the pumps are topped
with planters sprouting plastic vines, leaves speckled with
acrylic dew. One leaf seems to have fallen against
the curb, but there is something in the living that makes us
recognize one another—a phenomenon I once heard
called biophilia, our innate love of regarding
that which is alive. This concept explains koi ponds,
bird watching, and how much I loved looking at you
even in the absence of touch. Or it explains nothing—
after all it can’t tell me why I want to carry the moth
from the concrete to the grass or my fear of touching her,
why her battering, though feeble, makes me start
and draw back. When I lift her, she clings to my fingers
with brown legs seamed in fur and I think I look
into a wise and mournful face, rather than
an evolutionary trick of camouflage.
I set her down beyond the glare and she lifts her wings
making a little steeple then lets them fall. They are pale
and downy, tapering into streamers that furl away
from her snowy body. She must be at the end of her life
and may just struggle back to the station’s glare,
but what can I do? How strange to praise the dust
she scattered on my palms and stranger to still to praise
the jackhammer mist set alit, trailing in a darkening sky.
Work currently withheld
The house holds no more words.
Every one from a to zygote,
even the World Book Encyclopedias
(a graduation gift circa ’62),
long since carted to Carolina
for my parents’ grand retirement
that will not come to pass.
On the porch my father lies flushed
and dreaming back to boyhood
or war, when soldiers crushed heroin
with their hands and smoked it.
He refused, but now wears a patch
more potent than opium behind one ear.
Beyond the porch screens, bug-picked
and spider-laced, the hills of Virginia
march into a future we can’t see,
just as birdsong insists on daylight
long after it’s gone. The lilies father planted
to flower the season of my wedding
open their awful mouths—
the first just yesterday and by today
two turned trumpet. There is no silencing
their dreadful fanfare. Why must they persist
when each pink tongue only says the same thing?
The more that open, the sooner he’ll be gone.
No neat bales tally the end of winter’s ledger.
Instead, my father’s dog, an arabesque
in white, whirls in the haze grown two feet tall.
The setter who always points his target
cannot find his master. Late afternoons hereafter
we’ll see what we’ve been navigating in the dark.
Indoors, a pointer patterned in green toile’s
the only thing that hunts. It holds its point
on grouse, mid-flap, aloft on curtains, walls,
or bedspread folded at my father’s feet this year.
Too soon he will be scattered far from here
in another field with neither dog nor me.
But here in branching dusk his dog alights,
content to flush whatever birds bed down.
He sees no absence where none yet exists,
and so he stalks the grass as he was taught
while in my father’s room small rabbits dart
and pheasants burst repeatedly then fly.
Work currently withheld
Women grease a watermelon with Crisco. Men divide
into teams, dive into the deep end, and wrestle it out
of the water. Each year, the rules are the same:
to win requires the shell cracked on concrete.
We were children. We toed the edge. When one of our fathers
heaved it up, out, with enough force to shatter it,
we scooped the fruit to our mouths, competed to spit seeds farthest. Little bullets.
Josh Roberts was bravest, the first to peel the water wings
off his skinny arms, climb the high dive ladder, cannonball
into the bright water. He said that at the bottom, he’d seen a Ferris wheel
like the one at the state fair, except the seats were rusted, filled
with skeletons of those who’d lived in our houses before us.
Their bones, he swore, were clothed in algae; water snakes
threaded the eye sockets. And some of us believed
him, because we did not know better. We did not yet know
from all those seeds we spat, those rinds chucked over the fence to rot,
wild vines would shoot up, grow heavy with melon. We could not
yet know that another summer, Josh Roberts would be caught
in the guardhouse, pressing his lips to a boy who was not
drowning. By then, we would not speak of below, but beyond:
an ocean. Another country of bullets, real ones, where
Josh is now. And again I am here, at summer’s center,
to witness another year: whole, floating; and all of us
circling to touch it, and it slipping from our hands,
spinning in the water; and Josh, not here; and another boy
in the guard chair. He is twirling a whistle in spirals
on his finger. It glints silver in the July light, like a little galaxy,
like a Ferris wheel, like a child cannonballing into the next year
and the next. And I am watching. And I am waiting
for the pause, the melon in that moment of suspension:
lifted from the water, before it shatters, and the flies
descend, and we scoop it up, and fill our mouths
with its summer; I don’t know why I’ve come back,
except to stand here, and witness what we’ve broken, and break,
and will it to be beautiful, to feed.
After she scythed
the last of the corn, and shucked
the husks; after the fields were sold
and stitched with the new seed,
the kind that could sleep under
a chemical rain, and live—
my grandmother moved
into our house in the suburbs;
she lay down in the room
at the top of the stairs where all the women
went to be born and die and give
birth and help each other die.
And the next summer, after
a mall built of granite and marble
and glass rose in the empty field
across the freeway,
I was paid a wage to pin thin cotton
to the waists of mannequins.
Once, there was a man who loved me
best when he could cover me
in a white sheet and whisper,
Such small bones…
I know the earth is not a woman’s body,
but I swear, I’ve seen both diminish
a little more each day.
[What then is there left at day’s end]
but a dooropening to a small
scrap of lawn in Ohio,
enough yarn and a needle to flash
silver in the last light, to gather
Long after she’s forgotten
where she is, or who, her hands remember
how to knit row upon row
so a blanket, shapeless and vast
as a river, spills across her lap
and onto her feet and runs through the rooms
of her house and over her small patch
of grass. Long after words…
when words failed, and after, when…
here, she’s left one hundred
skeins of yarn. Spools of thread.
I will stitch this story:
we were here, we have loved one another—
in the brightest colors you can imagine.
for David and Mavis
It is just the three of us
in this world, which is scary
but right. No filled room
replaces the scarcity of bodies
here. We will start crowding
our house with books,
little clay jars ready for content.
Then, spider webs and dust:
gauzy whirligigs and statues of
Mary. Our dog is large
and takes up two person seats.
You are broad-shouldered and 6’ tall.
(Since our wedding I’ve gained weight
too.) We make up for the missing;
yet their ghosts manage to choke us
Newfound Star System
Let’s not leave it.
We spent this morning with
your head between my legs
and this afternoon I questioned
why we’d ever do anything else.
We held hands in the art museum
and laughed at the pocketless
pool table, the broom held by a balloon.
Without irony, you whispered I’m proud
of you, tore down the rotting carport
to see the supermoon. I know I’m not
supposed to say, but I dreamt of kissing
my gradeschool crush, him blond
and six-foot-two, but knew—you know
how it’s more about what you feel during?—
that I needed to marry you. That made his
long awaited kisses stupid darts.
Why I’m Scared to Listen to Beethoven
for DMM and Louis CK
Là où il y a le désespoir, que je mette l'espérance.
Today is about hope: we walked our puppy
to the city fair, praying she wouldn’t growl or bite.
She didn’t. A dozen strangers laid hands
on her and gushed. A little celebrity, she ate it up.
But each new joy sits at the wake of grief.
For years, you traveled 40 minutes
back and forth to work
with no radio and no phone.
I thought about how just for a few
seasons, when I worked at a knife shop
in a better part of town, I would listen
to classical music in the car—the only
station that didn’t yell in the morning.
All I could do was think. Even the happiest
arrangements sent me down. I saw
my family float away on a little island,
only they weren’t moving; it was always me.
I felt the kick to the chest of putting down
our girl dog—Patches—the vet saying it’ll be
one to the lungs and the second will stop her
heart. My face crumpled,
the wailing a surprise.
Back on the road, I know no strings were there with me,
no hounds, no tiny shrinking family. Yet the highway,
alone, the reel of haunts, the ticker of quotes—
Little Brother at the Altar
Autumn we buried father.
Then winter spread its filigree
of frost over our eyes.
Now my brother walks the halls
locking windows, closing doors
left ajar, says they’ll let the cold in—
as if a ghost could slip like a draft
back into the house.
We stave off the days with routine:
a cup of tea warms the inside
is something my mother says
and she settles into the upholstery’s
worn flowers and hummingbirds
as steam gathers above the pot,
beads the windowpane in condensation.
Beneath the mantle my brother,
face to embers, blows red
into the hearth, his cheeks
flush with sudden heat.
And I want this for him:
a little warmth at the end of the day.
Because he forgets he breathes life
into things too, that he provides
beyond the stretch from porch-step
to curb-side bin, the sink piled
with dishes—those little acts
we ask of him. And I know
how he leans against this moment—
he and I transfixed—waiting
for the glowing burst to jolt us
back to our living room, back
to our daily manner. Outside
the wind picks up just below
a whistle, and we listen
as trunks bend to that music.
And so Begins, in Slow Motion, the Care of Him
Love set you going like a fat gold watch
After all that measured breath and surge,
the hours of nothing, then something,
then more terrible pause, and, finally,
out of the fluid-filled clutch
he’s ferried—stern and perfect—
to the other side.
What made me subterranean
those first days was more
than fatigue, strained muscle.
Flashed between sleep, his gaze
pulled me down and under.
His neck more fragile
than the stem of a flower. In a dream
I wore oversized shoes and shuffled
around the source of a radiant light;
my face warmed by it,
weary also of its proximity.
I shift between cords and machines,
struggle to sit up, gathering him,
his fluff and shock of black hair.
The nurse makes a show of her arms
explaining the cross-cradle hold
while I fumble with my gown.
I notice his fists, the size of large seeds
and once latched they unfurl, release.
I lay him down as if he’s made of music
in a world infected by silence.
I untuck the felt corner of his swaddle
exposing his barrel chest that rises
steady as the clap of moth wings.
I unwrap his skinny bowed legs, his toes—
small beads on the end of a spoon.
I peel the right tab of the diaper,
then the left—slowly—
to dampen the velcro sound.
With one hand I hold his ankles together
lifting him—where did I learn this?—
to pull the diaper out with the other.
The afternoon mimics the night.
The night a disfigured portrait of days.
Morning comes, pardons us
from immeasurable stars and sky.
A protest in his cry. The child eats.
The child sleeps or does not sleep.
Red numbers drift from the clock.
The child eats. The child empties.
Once the wheel begins to slide forward
there's no pause in the cycle
only slight variations to the course.
I stand by. Ready to nurse. Ready to sway.
FOG, LAND’S END
Love for the particle, particulate,
for the whiteness, yes, enveloping,
love, and for the rickety steps
where I climbed with my good red dog,
the dirt clumped, kicked up
along the wood ladder to another plateau
of trail. For vision kaleidoscoped,
for pie chart, love for the particulate, the bridge
just poking its orange prow from cloud.
Pieces of sea. Nothing to be taken in
full-mouthed, nothing laquered
but particulate, held in the hand, this air
like bread I inhale wetly, the animal’s
breath steaming. Lift me, throw
me down. Stroke me with your million pearls.
Anne Bradstreet Crosses the Atlantic
I know you below deck with the other Puritan wives,
your hands working the Bible after lightning
nearly split the mast, and the crew pitched
your impeccable linens to the sea to trail and sink
with all things weak to a flame’s suggestion. At your feet,
a woman delivers a stillborn you would have wanted
to wrap in the crisp apology of a sheet, and you mourn
the cloth dear as the godliness that drove you all ashore
at Yarmouth to scrub your neckties one final time
before setting your mind on the wilderness.
You’re ill and bone-chilled. Still small-pox frail.
You do not write anything down. News filters below
of the soundings that found no ground. A whale
that would not yield, and spouted as the ship passed
within a stone’s cast. A drifting fir log entombed
in a century of barnacles. A pigeon onto the ship’s wet
heaving and setting. Then news of ground at eighty fathoms,
a fine grey sand. News of a garden smell. You are
just off shore. Even now you tack from the subdivision
of the night toward my kitchen window. Stack
of dishes to dry, my children to fold into their beds,
but enter and we won’t call the poem domestic—
you’re no one’s mother yet, and almost the poet,
both of us far from home in this kitchen,
no ground, your husband astep on deck spotting
some green shore, and mine down the hill
at the bar like a pin on a map of a place I visited.
The Horizon Is Where All Points Meet
I still don't know if I am a falcon, or a storm, or a great song.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
A scalloped-out blue shell. The sky’s sliced
by the hawk on the scour, the little
sun, shadows the creatures
hide in, under leaf, against the rock’s
dull cold. What’s the difference
between the tree stoic against the cloudfront
and the arcing trace the early moon makes?
I do not know what the leaves will take,
their wrist-skin upturned to wind. I do
not know what anger will come. Nothing beyond
what small self I have, resolute as stones
bedded under the river current. I am no
longer feeling but all feeling, the softness
in me the softness in others and inside
the center faulted. Cracked ribcage to
collar. The afterstorm atmosphere
emptied of anything held by the bone-
bare tree, sycamore mottled, each twig
unleafed by their dream of spring. Each
of us in a perfect unloveliness we all
know but do not mention. No one
should be afraid, the stars say wheeling
out their hard separation, unwilled
in their staying, in their one small pin-
pierce that holds all the dark nothing away.
The day is nearly complete.
Jasmine’s lazy curvature along the iron
fence: the garden’s uniform
wilt with sun-blaze off stone. Even
the black-eyed Susans’ resilience
is questionable: leaves blighted
with holes. The lawn peppered with fire
ants and upturned in mounds. Such
a mistake to let the burrowers in,
the striped snake with a movement
that stills one—quick muscle
on the ground. But there they are
attending to the day unwearied
with the weight of all that has to be
done under this tropical heat’s increasing
cloud-collective: grey-blue-purple sky
that folds and releases, a warning,
an equilibrium of particles. Rain
is one good thing. If it’s the only portion
of love the day offers, then it’s just enough
to keep me tending this plot
of sand-rusted earth. The live oaks, here
all along, stir with the wind and I give
myself over to let some small thriving in.
Town Gossip, 1994
But we were strange girls, girls thrown together
in mismatched clothes, shaved sideburns, that Arab last name.
My father got letters: Please don’t drop the girls off early.
There’s no one here to watch them.
Kids asked, what do you mean, your mom’s not here?
Wolves without her—
unkempt in the eyes of our teachers
—Sarah hoards the week’s lunch money in her desk
because she is too scared
to hand it to the cafeteria cashier.
Those days we’d ride our bikes down Highway-1
to the hotel where our mother last stayed
and we’d loop the lot for hours, sawing paths between the bumpers
for no reason really other than that door was briefly hers.
Our guidance counselor
is excellent with children from divorced families.
We stole the bitten-eared tabby
from the neighbors,
mined playground rocks,
pocketed mom’s old lipstick tubes.
Mariam is outspoken in class, but we worry her peers pick on her
for the wig she wears. She spends recess on the blacktop.
Leaf-strung hair, crabapple girls. We climbed the arthritic tree
outside our dentist’s office, clutched there until sundown.
Ruth wears men’s overcoats to school.
Do they belong to you?
On I-65 South
When headlights skim over you, you’re just a girl
in a hiked-up skirt somewhere in Kentucky.
A pebble stuck in your shoe.
Your mother instructs from the dark, wave,
so you stretch in the Volvo’s spotlight,
hair wrung over your face as a semi whips by.
Your heart, a fawn’s new footfalls.
All those times you stood in the driveway,
waving to your mother as the same lights
rescinded into the night.
A birthday candle you can’t blow out.
Then a car pulls over, the man glancing at you quickly
enough to still be considered polite. Your mother says,
Nashville. He nods. His voice swallowed by the passing cars.
Your heart climbs to its feet.
You tug your skirt down and put your jacket back on.
The miles stretch ahead, wind shoves you.
Spark, it’s saying, speck.
Your mother’s black sleeves are the lace of the forest
hemming the highway. Scuff of dead leaves,
road-scrape. Somewhere before Nashville,
moonlight clears a meadow
where a family of deer have been running,
running as long as they remember,
their long legs step into the light
and steam is rising off the velvet of their backs.
New Mother, 1984
I’ve sat in the dark all day. The blinds sealed
like eyelids. I draw the baby closer
to feel the warmth I held inside me all those
months. That light. I don’t know why the baby
becomes a pendulum, my rocking arms mechanical,
brass, her cradled weight knocking the seconds over,
the day’s small dominoes and the hours they clatter
toward, and I hear my husband’s footsteps
at the end of it all, metronomic file
up the porch then the slammed door,
the baby crying when he tries to hold her.
I shouldn’t talk like this, shouldn’t hollow
out these hours to crawl inside, shouldn’t
press the hungry mouth to my chest
when she can taste it—dread
that floats around us like pollen,
in the floorboards and watered with my steps,
until stalks tower and point, until she is lost
in the field her mother endlessly combs.
No, sweet girl, don’t drink in your inheritance,
this grief you can wear like a locket and open often,
this grief that will wring your hair over
its knuckles and pull up the dark roots.
The purpling heart, some edible thing.
Work currently withheld
Self Portrait with Crow and Thorn Necklace
No one notices at first the petals of blood
flecked from her neck, a few little pricks.
Or the nails clawing her throat, her Jesus choker,
crown of thorns pulled down past her crown
and squeezing. Ignore the shadow animals,
crow caws off canvas, and colorless landscape.
Ignore the body’s continental drift and notion
of how it feels to be whole, unbroken.
Stillness is important just now with this chest
cracked and scratched, jagged as an egg shell.
Frida, if we move, we’ll pull ourselves apart
at the grooves of the body’s saddest song.
We’ll shatter the cage of our chests and let
the birds we tended tiptoe to the edge. Don’t
fall apart on me tonight. Dignity is needed
for a piecemeal saint shedding relics: a door
adornment warning off spirits that is more
than a painting, it’s a window. You might
consider us captured by the frame. My dear,
we’ve created a new world for us from air.
—after Frida Kahlo
Torching the Ground Hornets
Throwing a stick for the dog or mowing lawn,
that’s when I find them, hornets in a traffic buzz
hovering around holes we call the ground’s mouth.
I cut squares from spare metal screens and haul
the hose over. It’s reverse Drano: the ground coughs
the bees up to whine against the mesh as they drown.
Kneeling there, I am young again, play-chasing
the boy who’s name I forget. Not his straw-rough hair.
Not the fit of his foot in the hole when he
fell over. His name I forget. Not the groundswell
of bees and the hive emptying out to attack him.
Not the beard of bees curled around his lips,
his popsicle-stained lips. Now, I kink the flood,
let puddles swallow the cavity, and roll the hose
back to the house, knowing I should smoke
them out, knowing I should think of pollination,
of saving the colony to help seed my garden. I never
do. I drown the hives I find. I broom down old nests
for the boy’s father, who after the burial, walked
slung-shouldered, with lighter fluid and a torch
out to the field. For the father of the nameless boy
who sent bees wheezing like stuck tires, filled
the night sky with small stars that blinked out quickly.
One then another until the ground grew silent.
Word from the Nursing Home
On a night as dark and unremarkable as this,
her body no longer will do. So she leaves it
for stars, for the car ferry stitching the inlet
with water rings. She leaves it to scale waves
that brush back a beach pinned with driftwood
and alewife bones. She barely notices
that she can wade a half mile before the water
flushes her nightshift, past her knees. By then
she’s a buoy at the center of the channel,
swaying with the tide, water like blacktop
around her. What’s the moon if not a wafer
she holds on her tongue before she swallows?
What are the stars if not the distant lights
of a city? The waves rough her up but never
tip her over, her light blinking on, her light
disappearing. When we arrive, they’ll tell me
she’s under this sheet. They’ll say she’s gone.
But I’ll watch for her in the green flash between
sunset and the dark, trace her riding bareback
on the Pegasus set of stars, heading home.
Drowning the Marigold
If every diary is a prayer, leave them clasped
as palms. If everything I say is divided
like a coin—half true, half foul—
know that when I drowned the marigold
my brother planted for my mother,
it was spiteful though I called it accident.
Know that I wanted the bees to live forever
in our barn slats, that I still wake wanting
to watch my father and uncle, home from farming,
eat sandwiches on rye. I want to keep the hate
I felt for that grassy flavor, though I love it now,
as I do so many tastes, not so much acquired
as surrendered to. I’d trade red wine
and bitter beers, the darkest chocolate, for those
childhoods I keep polished as coins in the satchel
of my chest: dew climbing my feet as I
walk to the sapling I planted and weep,
so fretful of its survival I’m tempted to pull
it from the earth, its dirt-thick roots
the matted hair on a newborn’s skull.
Remember how you led me out
of the crowded party at your parents’ house?
We walked to where ocean leaked into marsh
beneath narrow fingers of moonlight.
Already our bodies knew each other the way boat
sees its home in coast—not lust, but its cousin—
for we never left the warm boundary waters of kissing.
Splashing, sun-soaked, sleepy-eyed strangers
by anyone’s accounting, we stopped numbering kisses, naming them instead—hula hoop, elevator, in the dark shed.
We can’t have that week back. If someone offered it,
small print erased from some nostalgia sweepstakes,
whole enchilada of butterfly gardens and ferry rides,
dice thrown beneath mating dragonflies, our lips
two slip-slant rhymes, we’d smile, shrug, walk away—
not out of lack, or slack, or the flack we’d be given
by our current mates—but for some other ache.
Our necks weren’t made to look back.
I almost never say your name. Even now when it cleaves
my lungs like pollen, it never sheds its silvery skin—
sweet cough, light-fed dust, unborn flower in my chest.
Song for Stevens
I’m unsure which undoes me more—
her whisper-meow when she mimes herself;
her duck-quack when she wakes.
Perhaps the polish of her yodeling
yowl that flings blame’s net at me. It’s all
of course and more, her tongue a clapper,
her mouth a bell punctuating
this rumination, reminding me no love
poem alliterates as well as her green eyes
with her goddamn perfect face.
If given seven slides of calico hides,
I’d know which side was hers. If blindfolded
and handed seven cats, I’d know her by shape.
In my dreams, she’s seven kinds
of claw and scruff as I carry her
across streams, cafeterias, wind farms,
basements, through culverts, old houses,
down drain pipes, up ladders, in barns,
on buses…you see now.
She is always one half of metaphor.
She asks no forgiveness for mice
on the step, baby rabbit I tried saving
in our long ago days
when she still roamed outdoors;
I kept her in all night. At dawn
she caught that rabbit too stupid to scram.
It’s not hip to admit I trace the white lake
pooling on her stomach. When she paces
the apartment like it’s a labyrinth,
I know she seeks the string
that leads to freedom—and if I could
I would return her to a life of killing
songbirds, rabbits, mice, hopefully
maybe finally bugs lurking in the tub.
I’d give her a fencepost on which to perch
like a gargoyle-prince, muscles yawning
like silk, sleek tongue scraping
the moon’s deep bowl of cream—let me kiss
dirt from her prowling paws, my queen
my heartbreak, my cat, my cat, my cat.
Each time he jumps
from Harvard Bridge, I expect the fall
to last the eternity of a Tuesday afternoon,
his body not in plummet
but in orbit, celestial, something I interpret
for rain, for seasons.
Nights he lets me see his wrists,
burnished and welted red from the chains.
We never speak of the hurt.
Instead, I think of the time, hung
by his ankles above Times Square,
he hatched himself
from a straitjacket, how I expected
wet wings instead of arms:
the place closest to pain shines.
And now the poised musculature
of his thighs unstitches the water.
You are an aperture,
I want to tell him,
though of what I am not sure.
Fear? In furtive agony he nears
the other world. And now he surfaces—
chainless--to applause and a thicket of gasps,
this world eager as usual to peer
into such a vanishing. He glistens
on the bank of the Charles, preening himself
dry with a towel. And a tender wreath
of blisters blooms around his ankles.
Poem in Which Elephants Are Stupendous
After his parents moved to the U.S.
three years ago, Nathan, who is now eight,
began coming to tutoring. For help with English,
his mother said, glancing away, the blue
current of Texas sky rushing away
through the windows behind her. Now, Nathan hands me
his homework—a sentence for each vocabulary word.
It is humble to play with Legos,
he has written, and I do not know how to correct him,
because yes, one of the definitions is simple,
and he’s right. He doesn’t understand why
tremorisn’t a verb, or why he can’t say I am
tremoring at the tornado, though I know
exactly what he means, and I am, too.
Because that is what fear does—it shakes
all our nouns into verbs so that we seism,
we twister, we cyclone. Have you ever had
kimchi, he asks, when he is supposed to be
reading about sinking cities, his hair untamed,
his thick lenses full of his eyes.
I help him pronounce the names of the cities
and he says Baton Rouge exactly the way
it is spelled, a beautiful woman with ruby cheeks
tossing a flame-lit baton in the air.
I have never had kimchi. He writes garlic
for me in Korean, though he can’t remember
cabbageor ginger anymore. For the rest
of the hour we fit words into sentences
like Legos into buildings. This one here. No, here.
Elephants are stupendous, he has written,
and I realize all my life I have used stupendous wrong
because it is not just causing astonishment;
it means causing astonishment due to size or greatness,
so fingers are not stupendous, and neither
are hummingbirds. But language is. And before it
Nathan and I tremor, and I am humble to help him,
because it is not humble at all.