Into every life a little ax must fall.
Every dog has its choke chain.
Every cloud has a shadow.
Better dead than fed.
He who laughs, will not last.
Sticks and stones will break you,
and then the names of things will be changed.
A stitch in time saves no one.
The darkest hour comes.
They tell me that your heart
has been found in Iowa,
pumping along Interstate 35.
Do you want it back?
When the cold comes on
this fast, it's Iowa again.
where pollen disperses
evenly on the dented Fords,
where white houses sag
by the town's corn silos,
where people in the houses
sicken on corn dust.
Auctions sell entire farms.
It's not the auctions that's upsetting
but what they sell, the ragged towel
or the armless doll, for a dollar.
I hear they've found
an eye of yours in Osceola
calling out to your mouth in Davis City.
That mouth of yours is in the bar,
the only place left in town,
slow dancing and smoking.
It's no wonder you look so pale.
Ever wish you'd done more
with your thirty years?
Seeing you last week I wonder
if you crave that sky
filled with the milky way
or the sight of Amish girls in blue
at sunset against wheat-colored prairie grass.
Here, the trees are full of gossip.
They're waiting to see what you'll do next.
La Petite Zine
Are you so tired then, Stranger? Are you so tired
that you can’t lift your arms above a whisper
or extend your hand?
Are you so tired that you accept the verdicts of salamanders
and fish bones, and the sun in the morning and the moon at night,
so tired that you think another day’s another day
and nothing in your life is new—while all around you
ideas percolate, branches break, computers go wild?
are you so tired
that you’d give up wishing for a second chance
if you could only have a day or two in the country,
sitting in an Adirondack chair with your wristwatch off
until someone calls, “Croquet, croquet. Anyone for croquet?”
Are you tired enough not to care who’s invading who,
who’s playing who, who speaks for who, who’s rising to the top,
whose cat’s got whose tongue?
Was it experiences with an early grave that did you in?
Why do you always think of yourself as half-dissolved,
wretchedly torn? Talk to us, Stranger,
tell us what we’ve forgotten about room dividers,
bottle caps, memory lapse, cufflinks, sad sacks,
and how young men/young women stand on various fire escapes
promising themselves the world
but at the same time sensing they’ll be lost in money,
houses and children. Stranger, are you tired enough
to lay down your burdens, to think of opportunities
finally as things to let slip by with no regrets,
like early morning starlings rising above green pastures,
skimming across bristlegrass and wildflowers,
heading somewhere no one knows? If so,
we’ll straighten the pictures on our guest room walls,
turn down the covers, fluff up the pillows. . . . Tap at our door,
or send us your message on the Internet’s blue waves,
and we’ll provide for you a place to rest your head.
The Gettysburg Review
Grandmother left her youngest
child, Alice, with a neighbor
on the top floor because she was moving
into another building where she could be the Super. She didn’t
want the baby in the middle of all that mess. Her husband, Blackie,
driving up and down Tenth Avenue,
delivering electrical supplies--plugs, cords, little relay boxes like
the black recorders plucked years later
from drowned airliners, a voice behind Blackie already saying,
“We’re going down, we’re going down!” The neighbor disappeared
with Alice. No note, no nothing. Just
the empty apartment. Blackie had a few more drinks near the docks
on Twelfth Avenue, near the German
freighters, talking about the Lindbergh baby. Burly men grew misty
eyed and cursed Bruno Hauptmann. The newsreel ran on and on.
After mother grew up and married the ex-
bootleg driver with the melancholy face, maybe she thought her
sister could be recovered
if she named her own daughter Alice. The baby growing into a
pigtailed girl inside my sister, who woke nights afraid she couldn’t
breathe, who sleepwalked
toward the kitchen window with the loose pane that popped out
the next morning and floated down
into the alley like a transparent soul the neighbors looked through
before it crashed near the Super sweeping up clothespins and bottle
caps. Whose hand was it in art class drew
the little house with the smoking chimney and three children
instead of two, arms and legs spread
out, spinning in the air? Who first bled through bargain cotton
panties? My sister clawing at her face, something pinching her
abdomen, twisting up an eye.
Or visionary. Or raw.
Naif. As if being abandoned in a corn field
at birth, a child of the veil, caul
over her face, weren't enough to send a woman
to the easel. Except there is no easel. No
canvas. Only a door. So she paints on the door.
"The Devil Have Folks Coming Out His Ears,
Eyes, Mouth and Butt." A deaf man leans
toward red geraniums blooming just before a frost
and he scolds them, "You fools!" Another
paints with mud and molasses--showing
the wealthy the true nature of their homes
on plaster board that they hang in their
parlors. Here's the piano cow with ivory keys
along her spine. A gray-haired Mary holding
dead Christ, painted on the lid of a flour
drum. Who has ever seen her in her age? An old man's
face on dented rusted tin has his own kind
of crumpled truth. There was a man who painted
his sofa, his floor, his lamp shades, toilet tank,
visions pouring out of his long brush like
tears. It arrives any time of life. The seeing.
The feel that is texture. The bright pinks
and greens of a fractured dawn, the dewless
smooth petals, the voice in the tree, where twin
peacocks face each other, "You will bloom forever."
grip, shell that forms only
shell, this marsh rising and falling
sea-pulse, moon-drag: news of itself
front-page effort worth its
bored with self, the drop-out
abashed at how little it confounds
insistence. I'm fed up with
lifting itself into the breeze
opinion, the sky's azure only air
curves to authoring roundness.
steps out of nature. Nothing
from the vast water that does
its tidal beginning. Look
Calibogue Sound, at the three-masted
adding ocean floor to Daufuskie Island:
sand and broken bi-valves, crackled
torn whip coral, stag-horn
sea's waste like the mind's
ideas sinking to the bottom,
into voiceless god-ground poverty.
over. Shuck and thrust. Hurled
collapse. A foothold reappearing
from tidy lawns and a porch
with tourists in peaked caps, their
binoculars tilted to a sight-line
this row of belly-wet pelicans
white-caps, profile pterodactyl,
glide precise as a hand moving over
without hesitation, instincted
course. Sucking sound. Fume-moan.
blackness. Shuddering belts,
fling: the given-up now the only
Beloit Poetry Journal
What God hath joined
let no man put—
The reasons why are now obscure.
Maybe just to bring old junk back to
a clock, a ceiling fan, my father’s
to see or hear gizmos, gone silent
whirr, light up, or sound an alarm.
There was a rude art to it, and an
The shock of a barely audible
a sudden melt; quick hardening.
Just a lad, fooling around in Dad’s
making intimate connections;
bringing strands of copper
—cleansed of dirt & grease—
together (or back together)
with a silvery ring.
Do you, wire A, take this
to be your lawful wedded weld?
As I built each bridge over troubled
pulses quickened; couples thrummed:
But Judas snuck into my make-believe
and hid in the last pew; while the
argued a slam-dunk case against
Still, I heard God’s demiurge say:
Do what fasteners may,
love & solder will be kissed away
by a distant sunder.
You may take four words
cried the Angel of Death.
(Already I was giving them grief.)
She shrugged her wings: Seasons,
Winds… Corners of the Earth…
Horsepeople of the
Not even Euclid fully understands
why Divinity favors that number.
God is nothing if not inscrutable.
Now there’s a word I’d gladly go
into that good night with, I said.
God? We gave it to Milton
Hey, he worked hard for it.
No, the word I want is nothing.
I can hear myself chanting it over
and over—through all eternity.
She smiled. Speaking of chanting,
I visited a fellow named Ginsberg
recently. He chose “howl,” “cock,”
“Moloch,” and “OMMMMMMM.”
What do the GREAT poets usually
Their immortal names! Colley Cibber…
Robert Service… Kathryn Kookewicz…
Alfie Tennyson caused an awful stir
when he insisted on adding Lord
which so irked Saint John of the
he proclaimed him blasphemous.
No, I don’t want my name.
I was never that crazy about
You don’t have to take all four.
The Zennists always complain
that we offer three too many.
Then I’ll just suck on “nothing.”
up and down the roof of my mouth
as if the stone Death punished
were no bigger than an Altoid. But,
while you’re at it, I’ll also take
She had turned on her laptop and was
like a DMV clerk checking a personal
license plate request.
Alas, it had been assigned to Thomas
Hobbes in 1679
after he took his “great leap in the
And John Donne had dibs on “forever”
(along with “ecstasy,” “bone,” and
The Dead had scavenged the lexicon,
a few nouns and verbs at a time.
They’d eaten the red meat.
Even the adjectives had been picked
Nothing was left but the parsley:
I chose: “up,” “down,” “if,” and
Just in case I awoke in a dark wood.
Why must they turn and look
Ruin everything at the last moment.
Lot’s wife... Eurydice’s lover...
Their answers only partly satisfy:
“Had to make certain she still
“Couldn’t believe the city I loved
was in flames.”
Why, steps away from sure ground,
This urge to look over our
To risk untold joy just up ahead—
For a furtive glance behind.
Their great engines fail.
playing on an empty bottle.
is an owl, or a train.
two places at once, like mine.
coming up from underground
books with his face on the cover
the sidewalk next to T-shirts
which a splotch of colored ink
form his eyes, the edge
the familiar jaw and brow.
was in transition then,
crowds that themselves
it was important, even brave,
come, the nadir of the winter,
hole of the week, Sunday
afternoon, the street all dirt
wind, corrupted snow.
is also when Horowitz
wires from microphones
from lights and roads,
could be anything, the wind,
one intended listener.
watched another river, dark,
without a name or end, flow
hundreds of thousands of birds,
complete opposite, the negative
that silent, lifeless stream of
cornfield is gone, so are the
though their descendants may
still follow that same flyway,
perhaps some stars are also
only their light survives
a memory a million years old.
reminders of how insignificant,
brief we are, I mouth
their message in words I see
disintegrate: I am alone;
these rivers meet in me.
has never been what she’s supposed to be. Someone put her in the wrong container long ago. There was a little popping noise in her ears when they finally pulled the cork. All of her dreams came out at once. Now she can’t seem to concentrate. She can only speak in tongues, and no one knows what she means. Everyone keeps asking her favors. Especially you. (It’s too much! she complains. Leave me alone!) Sometimes it drives her insane. Sometimes she wants to punish you a little. Yes, you, Love. Who else? She wants to force your head under water, your fingertips into the flames. Make you say please, please. Stop. That’s the worst of it. And to have no life of her own. To know she can do so many things she never will.
If she gazed at the sky, for example, the heavens would turn black. If she ascended into the sky, she would see you with the eyes, not of an angel, but a buzzard. Oh yes. It’s so. Cruel wishes glide over her skin like a silk scarf. She makes no bones about it. Her hatred is no secret. Neither is yours. She knows how it ends. How everything does. How she will lose her mind. Who cares? Call it what you will. Make up a story, an excuse. Yet another elaborate tale. Go ahead. She knows all your lies.
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I know this guy who turns into a fish. He does it again and again. First he’s a man, then he’s a fish, then he’s a man again. Everyone claps and cheers. Wow, they say, can you believe it? What’s the big deal? I ask them. What good is a fish? If it were me? I’d turn into a bull. Yep. That's a fact. A bull. You've got to admit, a bull is something to turn into. I do it whenever I can. No one would believe this of course. A nice lady like me. Not until they see me do it, that is. I’m something to see, too. First my feet become hooves. Then the fur grows all over my skin, and I get fat. Really fat. Fast. And I start to stink. Such an amazing stink, I could get high on it. Then the horns bust out of my forehead. The weight of them, it's amazing. I lower my neck and bellow. Next thing you know I’m charging across streets and yards, looking for a few men to spear. Usually the streets empty in a flash. No one likes hanging around with a bull these days. It’s sad how that happens. This isn’t Palermo after all. But sometimes I find a man or two. Usually it’s some cocky hapless fellows. You have to be a bull to know just how dumb some men are. They’ll start running around out there, waving their arms in the air, thinking they're so brave. They pretend their matadors or cowboys, diving in front of me. Or they try to ride me. Hah! That's when I nail them. How can I resist? I nail them again and again. The pleasure of it. It’s hard to explain. I know you’ll think I’m cruel. But ask around. You’ll see. Any skinny blonde lady would understand.
O Karma, Dharma, pudding and pie,
gimme a break before I die:
grant me wisdom, will, & wit,
purity, probity, pluck, & grit.
Trustworthy, helpful, friendly, kind,
gimme great abs and a steel-trap mind,
and forgive, Ye Gods, some humble advice --
these little blessings would suffice
to beget an earthly paradise:
make the bad people good --
and the good people nice;
and before our world goes over the brink,
teach the believers how to think.
Contingently we accept
the randomness of events—
a thought quick-lit
by dove flight
within a bluer weather
the atmosphere’s far gauzes
knitting auras of because,
supposing the small, immense
distance in pulling
The lightning flashing
precedes our being aware
the thunder later
like a mind turning over
as in talk we whisper
to ourselves in the wee hours
a hint of light in the trees
the paper on the drive
when sleepless we go out
on the gravel and pick up
the dew-wet object
a plastic wrapper full
of the sorrows of others
each a sand grain in
through the lips of shell
to be told into pearl
by the hurt that holds it—
movies seen together
then the same one seen
the train station
the goodbye wave—these
with the Eumenides—
the wrapper releasing
that as we read brings
like ours, in guises
we cannot imagine
very like a whale
Whither this weather these clouds
crowding on, following the curve
of air around the world? From almost
imaginary horizons, nearer-farther,
flat-bottomed, blue-toned, they sit
thermoclines of the upper ocean. Billowing
Camelot castles or sprouting
ineffable whales, sliding-unraveling,
they appear as if here while arising elsewhere,
updrafts of the Earth’s collective slumber.
They seem serene then storm, ramparts
from which Zeus imparts the shocking bolts—
flickering apparitions in almost-real horizons.
In blue themes of mood that suddenly whiten,
they avow transcendence, trailing skeins
of crystal-beaded rain, from under-domes
blue-blackened until cracked by the long spark
whereby the atmosphere reconciles its wish
for pure transparence with the heavy water
that falls in solid walls and encloses,
monsooning dark fits of turbulence
and gurgling the gutters. The wings of clouds
take form from our wishing, wiping clean
the dirty mind, the brooding forehead turned
earthward in August. They father and mother
our dreams of moisture, impinging in sleep
upon the distant houses of childhood,
making us praise in waking mumbles these
leaky roofs of memory whereby rain
can come through barriers of tin or shingle,
wetting us again in bed but so that we
arise in dry pajamas, grownups who
go out bare-headed and greet the shining day.
The Two Towers
The towering walls had mirrored
the Hudson River the harbor
then flickered a moment with terror.
No art of excruciating heights
had cast an italicized light about
these falling angel postures, learning
the air too late, caught on windows,
in lenses, their flight spirit-like,
yet missing a needed heart-sanctity.
Tragedy came as if special effects
in a movie. The country had seen two
jets toy-like across the Hudson’s
small stream, as if copied in
from a postcard, then humans plummeted.
Was it Lancasters over Cologne
was this Warsaw, Dresden was
this Hamburg or London was
this Hiroshima again were these
our own planes that attacked—
were these sunset chasers, aluminum
cylinders reflecting a westward horizon,
were they packed with women and men
were the jet-fueled explosions human?
The towers evolved as they fell
their papers floating about elegiac,
gull-white, for this height sacrificed—
for these left to the air by fire,
in gestures by loss made holy—
reminding of the purposes of height—
of sun-topped pyramids to the gods,
of observation towers toward a star.
These twin lacunae by the river
became eyes of the giant Albion,
who tramps his perpetual journey
invoking the bladed grass to
accompany hairs of his armpits
feeling the manyness of leaves
stiff or drooping in the fields
and the mossy scabs of worm fence
held close within vacuum by gravity—
knowing the spiritual kernel of light,
before a night passage of the congregation
Albion, restored on these shores.
Wounded but whole, aware of aging
work-broken but hopeful, gathering
himself he arose including his sisters
and wives, while a clear soprano sang
above the grieving, restoring the emotion
of belief. His vision dared to see far,
into the yearning of other women
and men, that their hurt remembering
be prayer-like, a meaning.
Tearing a tree down
I split and stack its heat.
Then strip the spirit of ice
from the dungarees of my lost leg
and huddle the flame
with the water pouch frozen
and stashed under my arm,
far below the misting snow wind
that gathers to blast the headwall.
I fall asleep in snow
and my mind retracks the trail
climbing over trees into clouds
that hide the wailing wall of Lion’s Head.
Walking from wind into silence
I stand face to face feeling the huge stone
raise itself to a summit
and swing the grappling hook
like a pendulum before letting it fly
over the bluff to strike sound.
I tie myself in knots
with the rigid rope and ascend
the rock sinking my hands into stone
whenever it opens,
draining it of old age and strength.
I pull and scrape the surface
until I reach the tree-line
and break it into gusting wind
that rips my face raw
as frost runs the length of my leg
and I lean forward shouldering the wind
that hunches me in blindness.
I bend over backwards
and fall beyond the trees
with my limbs outstretched
spinning me wildly off the edge into wind
that sucks the breath from my lungs
as it races towards the sky
leaving me stone-cold
an acrobatic snowball speeding
bursting with movement falling
into the deep freeze of forced sleep.
Delaware River ‘71
The river reveals itself in September,
its many stones like jagged teeth.
It is so shallow
there seems no place to hide
and yet, for weeks,
we have dragged the dark pools
and waded through the thinnest water
without finding her.
Barehanded like the trees
we return home
and dream what the river must know
about the last lurch
of a dying life.
Prayerless and black with expression
we are each haunted by the sight of her
asleep in her bed,
a child in the eyes of reflection,
the leaves turning to fall
the riverbank kneeling to frost
at our door.
- Gary Armstrong
The Irish Times
There are things I wouldn’t do
if you paid me. Too difficult,
dirty, dangerous. I wield a mean
chain saw, the motor spewing toxic
fumes, the blade hungry for my
bones. But something sly inside
me would rather die than pay
the price of heating oil so I’m
out in the cold, runny-nosed,
sweating under layers of old
clothes, cutting, stacking. If
I were compelled to do this job
I’d plot my escape, but
on my own I’m glad.
There are things we do we
wouldn’t tell a soul. Too seamy,
selfish or sad. I once burned
a book, but only after I took
too long to read it. Marquis
de Sade, with all his madness—
the suffering of men, women,
tormented children. I avoid
horror stories, having suffered
enough myself. If I were
assigned to read them I
would protest, but I’d fight
for our right to own them.
There are things we leave
undone, dangling like Damocles’
sword. Too troubling, too trying.
Procrastination is a guilty art
practiced by hand-wringers,
brow furrowers, but beyond
dalliance, some jobs should be
postponed. Debriding a wound
requires scraping but left undone,
chance of gangrene and later
amputation. Burial or burning
are better quickly done, but I’m for
letting nature take its course.
What we do can make things worse.
Songs through your windows
are tires on rainy streets
already rushing to where
you need to be, like a desk
in an office where you poise
all day at a keyboard.
But there’s your bed
and a fleeting thought
of calling the boss with
some song and dance
that you can’t come in,
a euphemism for won’t.
You sing in the shower,
let the towel whisper
to your skin. A damp
breeze from an open
window coaxes you
to leave. A glance back
at your pillow, still
impressed by your
sleepy head, and it’s off
to the song of industry.
“There are only three days left,” she says.
She’s been moody, argumentative
for days, but now, she’s serious. Her
shoulders slump, dark rings around
her eyes, “Schools over in just three days.”
I remember busses full of kids throwing
their papers out, screaming from
the windows, summer a cauldron
called “freedom” and I could stew in it
forever—all the heated days on bikes
and freezing dips at Dane Street Beach
and staying up late for fireworks,
stinking of salty sweat in playgrounds
where dust was dessert after hotdogs
and beans. And she is sad—that school
will end? “Why is that bad?” I ask. “It’s
going by too fast,” she says and the fifty
years between us disappear. We are peers.
I ask you for it.
You look unhappy and surprised
but lean forward to touch my lips
with a reluctant brush of your own.
I say: "That is the worst kiss
I've had since I was seven."
The moment veers toward a smile,
we say goodnight.
A night later by Grasmere in rain
your mouth buries in my sweater,
hiding. "The worst kiss?" you say,
unwilling to part with another.
But you do. Your kissing is tireless,
expectant, as though you woke up
from walking all day through London, still
overflowing with its pleasure, and so loving
every morning we nearly miss breakfast.
The facts of our lives flow freely,
we're guides to our own arrested pasts,
wondering whether we still live there.
We do. Our last kiss
holds nothing back, except our lives,
which empty of each other as slowly
as rain dries from damp wool.
THE CLOSEST THING
(Ginsberg in Paris, Corso in Rome)
pardon me for having helped you understand
you are not made of words alone.
Roque Dalton, “Ars Poetica 1974”
Without any exaggeration, I’m still, if not the best, at least
the closest thing to what a poet should be. The more I read
these Cambridge poets the more I’m convinced of this.
These New England poets, apocalyptic crocodillions,
the whole horde of them. They do not realize that poems
are nothing without the poet. Why are Shelley, Chatterton,
Byron, Rimbaud, to name but a few, so beautiful? I’ll tell
you why, they and their works are one and the same,
the poet and his poems are a whole.
Gregory Corso, Letter to Hans, ca. May–June 1956
Heretical doctrine once, Gregory, more like gospel to me now.
To that young Jersey crocadoodle you sang at in Paris,
chanting “Marriage” to Sally and me off the Champs
poets’ lives could be thrilling but not works of art;
poems came to life solely as words on a page,
rising to no occasion beyond their own artifice.
Amherst taught me that, which I had to unteach myself.
Still, just who, what, is Corso’s wholly fused poet and poem?
To this day I’m not sure. But when I heard Beat poets live
their chattering bodies scribbled all over my skin
psychic tattoos of invisible ink, to be developed over time.
I was writing my name in the Transients’ Register
at the Paris American Express––Ginsberg’s name
lit up the page above mine! In the column where
he declared his Final Destination, Heaven,
to my chagrin I'd written, “Cap d’Antibes.”
I sent a note, hoping to meet him. He replied!
“Be there demain, à six heures, au Café Bonaparte.”
He saunters into Gay Paree’s epicenter shouting “BAGG,”
then spends the next hour telling me sonnets are poison,
pentameter’s dead! Drop, he advised, out of Amherst,
the Academic School of Uptight Verse, don't become
a Merrillian poodle or worse, a Wilburnian loon.
Go back to Homer’s pulsing hexameters, listen
to Whitman––only lines with that kind of reach
can take in any and all sensations flowing by, the deluge
of people, of bed-fellows, butcher-boys, bathers, spinster
feel him breathing America, inhaling her, exhaling her
on the smoke of his own breath. That's poetry!
the smoke of your own warm breath realized
in the chill of the air swirling around it.
I didn’t buy his scary advice, but do so now—
at least for today!
Dear Ginsberg, no question, you spread yourself thin. Yet…
even Merrill admitted, you spread yourself over the entire field
of American verse like a good, healthy layer of manure.
“Come see us in Rome,” I'd urged Corso the day he read
"Marriage," his version of J. Alfred Prufrock,
strangled by a tie on a third-degree sofa,
should I say this, should I do that—a Prufrock
ungelded, unbuttoned, word mad!
“We'll pay our respects to Ovid Catullus Keats
Shelley Byron Fellini,” I said, never dreaming
he'd actually spring for such a pilgrimage,
but by Ginsberg, he did––hunting me down in Rome
deep in the stacks of the American Academy, me
on my knees, with a catalogue drawer in my lap.
We hiked up to my rickety study, plastered like a hornets’ nest
to the old Aurelian Wall. There Corso made his mission clear:
“Bagg, I’m gonna be Shelley, so you can be Thomas
We’ll get kicked out of Yale together for mooning Bloom!
You’ll be my best buddy, you’ll write my life,
I love your two Gs.
And I promise not to live long, a little less than Shelley,
a little more than Keats, just long enough to slaughter Prose.”
For nearly a week, we hung out. On via Veneto one evening
he asked every tart on the street if she was the mom
who’d left him to a bad dad, worse fosters, an orphanage,
street crime and a prison with a library, unknown
till Ginsberg’s wandering eye for lost souls spied
Greg dealing down poems at a bistro in the Village.
Soon Corso was camped out at Harvard, alighting in Frisco,
made a fourth for Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Burroughs.
Their wildcatting books hit gushers of thick black gold.
I learned from him, from Corso, that making a poem of your life
is hot sweaty work, especially in sweltering Rome.
One morning at dawn in the Foro Romano he hurled himself,
full length, like a visionary torn from a sprawling
at the Oxford-shod feet of Lily Ross Taylor, Bryn Mawr’s
Professor of All Things Roman, salaaming his gratitude
for learning so much about bricks, baths, Caesars, and those
Vestals he surprised in the gardens of Brattle Street,
Lily tip-toed, barely breathing, past his dusty adulation.
That very midnight we drove in my Volkswagon Beetle
over the jaw-jarring stones of the Appian Way,
me steering, Corso on the back bumper, one hand
on the luggage rack, whipping those 45 horses
past the crucified slaves, flaming fifty-gallon drums,
orange faces of mini-skirted whores warming their butts.
I wish I could leave you there, Gregory, a Delphic Charioteer
losing your grip on those runaway Horses of the Sun.
Except . . . there’s one more scene to this story,
the grand finale,
perhaps meant to show you in action taking down Prose,
the Poetry Eating Dragon, or perhaps you're Percy Bysshe
Corso, outraging your way to a noble expulsion.
I did not witness what happened, but pieced it
together, like Thucydides, from eyewitness accounts.
They'd invited Corso to lunch, the Academy Fellows.
He found their scholarly in-jokes offensive,
their passion for trivia unbearable, brutish, insensitive
to the demons driving the very artists they studied,
unfeeling his need for "a young mad beautiful pope."
To exorcise their emptiness, he offered up himself
as everything they were not, climbing aboard the forty-
foot-long refectory table, toeing soup bowls aside,
strutting himself up like the Catullus Yeats imagined,
denouncing the lot for never using “masturbate”
in any of their writings, for never having slept, like him,
in the Colosseum’s character-building chill and dirt.
A burly Virgilian caught and lifted him aloft,
set him off in the Billiard Room to cool down.
Within minutes Corso was back, pounded open the doors,
hailed the Classics Prof as his personal Caesar Augustus,
knelt in prayer to be granted new life, miming thumbs up
or thumbs down, to the crowd judging him from above.
He had thrown himself on their mercy, thrown down one final
roll of the poet’s dice, turning those Fellows to Romans
holding this gladiator’s life in their bloodless, bloodthirsty
Caught in his script the scholars, chastened, voted him up,
but when he vaulted back on stage, yelling “Truth Pyre!”
they hustled him out to a cab that roared him away,
back to Paris and the acrid fame he’d earned from BOMB,
his poem cheering on the human nuclear deathwish.
Forty-four years later, his wish fulfilled, he came back to Rome
as ashes, to be buried in the Protestant Cemetery,
his prostrate headstone nestled near Shelley’s charred heart
bravely but gingerly seized from Percy's burning corpse
by Edward Trelawney, pirate manqué, on Viareggio’s beach.
Ave atque, Gregory, from we who believe but cannot commit
Roque Dalton’s “Ars Poetica,” teaching us, as you did,
poetry isn’t made from words alone, but inflicts
itself on every soul within soulshot: an Improvised
Device, whose urgency we deny to our grief.
North Dakota Quarterly
AN ANCIENT QUARREL
Within a Profession Shaken
by Cultural and Political Agitation
How would the world be luckier, Yeats' poem asked,
if the proud clan at Coole Park went under,
bankrupted by tenants threatening trouble
unless sold back the land stolen from them?
Yeats had named in his poem what Coole gave back
to Ireland: "the arts that govern men...
and gradual time's last gift, a written speech
wrought of high laughter, loveliness, and ease."
The tenants won, Coole Park was knocked down.
But Yeats' own chanted speech survives nearby:
Hear it resonate from loudspeakers hung
in that neighboring Tower fused with his life:
"image of solitary wisdom won by toil."
Thoor Ballylee cost him thirty-five pounds;
its value-added did not come from ease.
In our own time I put another question
to those who, in the next century, will
teach Yeats and all the other Great White Males
who offend––genius profiting mightily
from privileges of gender and of class,
whose poetry is punished resolutely
lest its pleasures disorient the young.
When you teach Yeats––I should say if you do––
what's vulnerable will stare you in the face:
from his escapist "Innisfree," his smug boast
that he recruited gunmen with a play,
his loony world of masks and moons and gyres,
his unrequited love of country folk,
his praise of fascists European and homegrown,
but most of all his fierce artistic pride
that consciously insults all lesser minds––
declaring men of vision rightly claim
the largest share of what their vision sees.
"I thirst for accusation," he admitted.
There is no doubt his cup runneth over.
What does this flood of accusation do
for you accusers? Something unforeseen.
When you say Yeats is arrogant and crazed
by turns––that he championed violence,
magic, the unjust torque of wealth and birth,
that he exaggerated what his friends achieved,
wrote poems alloyed with so much folly
they shrivel seething in your mind's sulfuric––
guard against excess passion in your voice.
You might be stirring forces hard to quell––
that thrill exploding in your abdomen
when a trapped quarry turns his fear on you.
You go in flailing hand to hand, frenzied
because your own survival's now at risk.
His barbarous thrusting voice impales you
deep in the place from which your war-cry soars.
Now it’s the pure joy of battle driving
your righteous censure and his bitter song––
you are Cuchulain hacking at the waves,
Yeats’ music an invulnerable tide
that keeps on singing from each mortal wound.
North Dakota Quarterly
This one wild enough to tame with enough
time, whose brown mane flicks to flame, and this one
roughed-up in the weather, winded, ruffled
and muscled, running like wind, hooves churning,
and two more, then three charging, galloping
over the blasted prairie hilltop grass-
burr-coated, mud-matted, nicked by hooves
in battle or mating's warrior moments.
The thighs tighten-a canter in the ring.
The toe tips out to turn. Your hands above
the withers hold the reins, "as glass,"
lest the horse find meaning in a jostle . . .
The usual mode of taking the wild
horses is by throwing the laso whilst
pursuing them at full speed, and dropping
a noose over their necks-so Catlin writes-
thus they are "choked down," until the horse falls
from want of breath, and lies helpless on the ground,
where it soon becomes docile and conquered.
Or "creasing." This is done by shooting them
through the gristle on the top of the neck,
which stuns them so they fall, and are secured
with the hobbles on their feet; after which
they rise again without fatal injury.
I have loved you wild enough to hurt you.
I know this now. I have been docile, conquered,
dependent. The smallest movements matter.
Catlin paints the Mandan buffalo-men
-1832, upper Missouri-
flying, a few paces from the herd,
atop horses only lightly tamed by
a hand on the animal's nose, over
its eyes, at length "to breathe in its nostrils."
Our love is furious and calm. Thus we
ride over the sweet-smelling earth neither
toward each other nor away. The horse, he writes,
yields gladly-. This one a flurry of dust.
This one nose down, tail flung, flying like foaming
water. And this one, the tame one, running
with the others, to lead them through the gate.
The Gettysburg Review
Past waffle cones, past tacos in a bag,
straw dust and grease blowing in a powder
over the center of the fairgrounds where
heavy metal thumps from Koaster Kids,
where Tilt-a-Whirl spins a small tornado
for a dollar, past the rabbit barn and
quilt show, past the dirt ring, hot-house sheds,
the horse girls tightening their cinches
and dabbing a little lipstick to their pouts,
past pickups, pig trailers, past barkers
and log-rollers and F.F.A. Parents
for Family Values, over bunting,
incumbents, a nine-piece marching band hooting,
over bean fields and woods still wild enough
for deer and small barred owls, out above
the county roads, the crossroads, the falling-
down barns, up and up, whirling, gray clouds are
flying, they are crashing together, swollen
and swelling--bumper-cars, lightning!--
then the storm.
The Southern Review
The pit of some fruit might be what I’m about
to bite on, speech lapsing to bitterness
that way. Or it might be that a cloud
is paring away from the sun, the sun striking
meaning on something that has to shine.
From a limited meter, Frost says, endless
possibilities for tune. And so I love how
do re mi becomes another nature in my book.
How Tom, Dick, and Harry are all the same
but what I sing about them different.
Tom’s little finger, let’s say, or Dick’s ear,
or that spare meadow of hair at the small
of Harry’s back. I know someone who thinks desire
merely taffies the mind’s one want, which is
to be free of want. But I don’t live in a bamboo
grove, can’t stare at the philosophical cranes
for more than a while. Clean paper only makes me
think of Tom’s name repeating itself there.
And the privacy of each face in the subway crowd
suggests that any story do might offer
is so distant from what mi has to say
that there’s no hope for the philosophical.
Someone might be speaking to someone in the dark,
a cigarette the only light between them.
Someone might be crying over a map.
Someone has just about polished a pair of shoes
to his satisfaction. I don’t know how dreams
mean, but it’s that shoe which often pulls
through to morning, the creases on its snout
like laugh-lines on a face. I think about it
while watching Harry’s face waking to its lines,
its breath and words. Its coffee and shower
and work. I remember my mother planting roses
as one way the mundane gets brought into
sacredness, though it was simply a thing she liked
to do. Dirt and rain. Leaves and thorns.
Nothing about the fascination with what’s
difficult. Nothing about how the soul, in its
limitedness, sings. Just one thing and then
another, Tom says, his tongue here and then here.
Each kiss different and yet somehow the same.
To one rose how many notes can you bring?
The Georgia Review
Astronomer to the ten Turkish moons
counted out on your fingernails.
Surveyor to the shiny silicate scar
of the childhood cut on your brow.
Geologist to the fault-line crack
your wrist has long since healed from.
Treasurer to the coin of vaccination
darkly minted on your left arm.
Farmer to the stubbled acreage
of your chin, to the nocturnal root.
Scintillas of the anatomical
on the vines, buds opening—
make me a figure
for the woken.
On the vines, buds opening—
blue, little throats.
For the woken,
this different tin sky.
Blue, little throats
speak to me in the right voice.
This different tin sky,
the playground thawing.
Speak to me in the right voice,
only clean, sweeter.
The playground thawing
into its primary colors.
Only clean, sweeter,
briary as honeysuckle,
into their primary colors
the words come: bitter, astral.
as attic webs, constellated
into their primary colors.
White, or whiter.
The words come: bitter, astral.
Make me a figure,
blue little throats,
scintillas of the anatomical.
I suspect it’s not falling that people fear, it’s rising into a blue
that breaks open
without mercy & without anesthesia.
I’ve been tempted to blindfold them, like horses led from a blazing
I’ve been tempted to smack them,
or to open the door & push them out, abandoning them right in the
But I don’t really blame them.
It’s eerie, crossing over, & the bridge sings & sways in the
All bridges hate stillness, long to break loose,
though it’s the secret ones that get to me,
the microspans between twilight & dusk; remorse & regret; slate & ash--
the smaller they are, the worse they vibrate & hum.
Vertigo or rapture of the deep:
it’s enough to bring you to your knees a hundred times a day;
I was raised Baptist, but I’m an Incrementalist now;
sometimes when I close my eyes I can feel the Holy Ghost
opening ever-narrower spaces for me to get lost in.
That’s when I remind myself of those rare riders
who fall asleep in my truck like babies in car seats--
they lean their heads back, & they’re out.
When I stop at the other side,
I like to watch them for a moment before I wake them;
I like to imagine them connecting the stars inside their bodies
or wandering through their childhood homes, amazed to find everything
so much larger than they’d remembered.
I cannot find you now, alas,
poor creature, hiding in the grass.
You’ll meet your fate next time I pass,
Omnipotent, with my machine.
Annihilation, swift and keen,
will roar and devastate this scene
So peaceful, pastoral, and still
before I came to wreak my will
on what I did not mean to kill.
I hesitate, but do not halt
the grim advance of my assault,
to blame, though it is not my fault.
What is my choice? I’m here to mow.
I meet my obligations, though
it seems it’s better not to know
Who pays what price, when duty’s bound
to overrun and conquer ground,
scattering victims all around;
And prudent, surely, not to rue
what can’t be helped, except if you
desert, or do not follow through.
Iambs and Trochees
Were I to tell you what I truly think,
whether in prose or verse, in sign or rhyme,
aloud through words, or silently in ink,
all in a rush, or halting, over time;
Were I to lay all out: my heart, my head,
my deepest mind, my terrors, my conceit;
bundle and send them, to your care consigned;
for your eyes only, naked at your feet;
Were I to do this, and were you to say:
I see; I understand. It’s as I dreamed.
There is another being here who may
be just like me. If this were as it seemed,
and we held nothing back, would each possess
new life, or one more lease on loneliness?
You need to write it till you get it right.
That is your job; what you were born to do.
It might not take a lifetime, but it might.
Sure, it’s a burden sometimes, but it’s light:
you make the rules, which then apply to you.
That’s how you write it till you get it right,
Having that goal, keeping it plain in sight,
yet easing up, or off, since that works too.
It might not take a lifetime, but it might.
At times the task’s a breeze, at times it’s tight
going, a maze, where every problem’s new
and you just need to write to get it right,
Write on, Hell take the cost, by day, by night,
alone, unknown, and yes, the perks are few,
but though it takes a lifetime (and it might),
What’s better than commitment to a fight
that brings your best out, focused on what’s true?
You have one purpose: Write it till it’s right.
It might not take a lifetime. But it might.
the inventory came with the baby
1 three piece outdoor set
4 turkish Napkins
2 pair of socks
2 pair of shoes
2 liberty bodices
2 pair knickers
2 Jersey suits
1 pair rubber pants
1 pair mitts
it filled up the space
below the statement
I will receive James into my home
feed, clothe and look after him
and bring him up
as I would a child of my own
below this and below the
was the familiar scratched
signature of my mother
who has always kept her word
Caught in the Net
I sit on Dean's porch
listen to him talk
about the trips upstate
to the cabin
as he tells it
I can smell the wood
hear water dripping
after the rain shower
here on the porch
by the road to Boston
as the birds call
I watch clouds
creep over from the mountains
the laughter is real
the wine cool
full of life
and the sounds
of life in a foreign land
then I talk about Liverpool
about the back streets
the two-up two-down
where families live
Clubmore and Tuebrook
that raise a smile
stinking of refuse
the poverty of politics
the power of football
rivalries and belonging
the Americans nod
“same the world over then”
and they talk about the tenements
and the politics of war
later we talk about
Dean’s tree house
and the album he named after it
laugh and drink some more
but New England
is gone too soon
I long for the old one
I wish I could stay
Western Poetry Magazine
Somewhere near, a fruit bat is
grooming its flared
downy ear, while all the ears of corn in Iowa
are boosting their silky tufts skyward.
on a sunny afternoon, an insect
resembling a large ant, with orange fur
covering its abdomen and thorax,
makes a dash for the ditch
across the asphalt.
Late at night, after their owners
are asleep, all the earrings
in La Honda, California dream
of Grizzly Ryder, who lost part of an ear
when thirst drew him down
to Bear Gulch Creek.
Like a tireless ear, the blue
canyon funnels a whistling gust
of wind, and again the old desert nods.
In a sea of information, the sporting
dolphins may be thinking that a human ear,
like a small pink leaf, might make
a loving keepsake,
Tucked under the brains
of all living bipeds, there are
tiny paired drums, drumming,
phones of France, there persists
a rumor that one of their ancestors
touched the ear
of Vincent Van Gogh.
Greatest Hits: 1965-2000
"I wake up like a stray dog
belonging to no one."
Some days I don't want wisdom,
don't want art, just need to have someone near
to hear my silences, my large and little
noise. Never asked to be alone.
I'd take something as shallow as affection,
someone to ask me anything. Someone
to love me a chance to answer. I mean give me
a chance to give. A poet I was
wrote that when a love dies you carry
a heavy rock until you can't
anymore, and then mark where
you set it down. This is called
"Carrying the Stone." What a poet does
is carry his mark. I've said we draw nectar
from the fractures but I know
that's a lie. All love is one love
is another. I don't want all love,
I want hers. But I'd take anything
as deep as her hands dipped in my shallows.
If someone touches you are not alone.
Take wisdom. I need someone near.
Greatest Hits: 1965-2000
When I went to India
my guru said "squash."
So I came home, learned
my neighbor's handle,
and traded an old car for a plot of ground.
Stan was his name, or Stosh.
He said for your dead-beat Chevy
you get one season.
I dug and I hoed
and dropped the seed in rows.
I planted crookneck, hubbard and spaghetti;
planted the colorful turban,
the acorn, the butternut and pattypan.
They were my village, and to keep it democratic,
next to the exotic delicata
I planted a family of zucchini.
Now the growing season's almost done,
and old Stan complains his Chevy won't start.
Each crisp morning, when I hear him cranking,
I climb to my window and look out over
the unruly jumble of squash shape and squash color
arriving in the sun
and have all I need: a life
of the spirit, and art.
Greatest Hits: 1965-2000
I don't know how they hand out incarnations,
but somebody got shafted with this one:
to be a handsome man without much brains,
bad heart, no money or position
in America in the depths of the cold war--
might as well be celery garnish or
a goldfish a kid's plopped in a vase
on the kitchen radiator. I guess
some feckless soul in Nirvana's holding tank
thumbing Brahmin mug shots must have finked
out the wrong guy, or maybe flunked
a Rorschach test, or just tumbled, drunk,
off some cosmic platform when the character
and fate of Edward Donlon roared
into him like a train and snuffed his bliss,
and set him on a life of accidents.
Or maybe that poor soul had a plan--
for, looking back on it, you can
follow his life's pattern as easily
as a glassed-in grid map of the BMT
after the graffiti's been scrubbed off.
And even if Donlon's life force got stuffed
into the hard luck carcass of a New York dick
with slattern wife, two whelps, and a thick
skull, he always dressed with style, strutted
his beat as if he knew where he was headed--
whether to the altar or the bar,
or down to the basement to wallop Eddie Jr.
In fact, right up to the Saturday he holstered
his service revolver, climbed the stairs
and locked the bedroom door
I doubt a single soul living on the block
thought anything was wrong--no shock
considering the cornice I grew up in--
Flushing, Queens--a post-war way station
of fenced-in postage stamp back yards,
row houses, unpithed hearts and T.V. dinners,
where the infirm of the hordes escaping Brooklyn
were culled on their stampede to the Island.
This was the true ground zero or ground nil
of scotch and casseroles--a lukewarm hell.
Our whole block hadn't enough prana
to incarnate an underfed amoeba.
There was Charlie Cast who b.b.'d passing cars;
Michael Stiefel, the owl-faced science nerd;
Leo Sarkissian of the pus-wet face,
Lu Anne Piazza, goosed by Jamie Wallace,
tough guy, who explained it all to us
on the front stoop after Donlon died--
(it being both sex and suicide).
He sucked his middle finger, cocked his thumb
and fired, moaning, a-bing-a-bang-and-a-boom.
It was just one dusk in an eternity
of fireflies and casual cruelty.
Even the Police Force looked the other way
pretending accident, so wife Joan
could get the full-dress funeral and pension.
But because Donlon lived next door and died
a wall from my bedroom, and because I wed
his daughter, Maureen, at age ten,
in a giggling ceremony in the basement
where my kid brother played best man
in his communion suit, and because
I got dubbed Ed Jr.'s godfather and because
my father's spirochettic sperm embalmed
me safely unmade till after Vietnam
and because my lover's brother hadn't yet
hanged himself, and her tumor brooded
in secret, and because no one had ever been
or ever would be lost, Edward Donlon's
suicide shattered some trajectory--
like the arc of the Pensy Pinky
rubber ball you imagine already homered
out of sight as you step up to the sewer
with a broomstick. Foul it off, it's gone.
We called it a Hindu--a do-over--when the sun
blinked, the physical world wobbled free
an instant, and no one saw or could agree
on what they'd seen. The moment
Donlon opened fire into his open
mouth, when his incarnation exploded
into ether, or fumes, or light, or spumes of blood--
I think I was the only one to see.
I didn't see it then, exactly,
And I was far from the only ghoul
to replay that scene in prurient detail--
The coifed, spiffy corpse sprawled on the floor,
the wife and children petrified downstairs,
and later Joan, at the wake, soused,
muttering, "I didn't think he had the guts."
And Eddie Jr. damaged as his father
saying to me, "I guess now you're my father."
No, what I saw developed slow
as a blond negative, slow
as a spectral x-ray of the splashy death,
the hum-drum life, and walleted beneath
Donlon's sharkskin suit, two secrets,
maybe the only valuables he kept,
and kept him separate from the sordid facts
he could not Hindu. The first was comic:
a rumor snaking through his drunken wake--
he wasn't a real cop: despite the gun
and badge and funeral and pension,
his fragile heart had failed the physical
and so he'd played cop as a transit mole--
a subway sleuth deployed underground to prowl
the detritus. And Donlon was not born
with a bad heart. That was the second
secret, second sight that cleaved him
from himself: a drunken night in the infinite
regression of lives before my birth that led
to his being next door, and that night led
to a car accident that killed his first
born daughter, Colleen, and nicked his heart
so that it wobbled, blinked. And this
is what I saw--Donlon wandering
the flotsamed, numbed unconscious of Flushing,
Queens, dressed to kill, searching
for the snuffed out essence my godson
was conceived in the upper world to clothe again.
The Laurel Review
Blunt rusted haft of
portending fracture, or
the slipping in
between the rock face
and primordial life
before the sinew clamps.
In the ur-
version, I slept while
in boots and wetsuits
contended against dawn
to braille-read fate in
the shells’ rheumy whorls.
Other texts diverge,
we returned triumphant,
to find the beach house
wives and children
vanished without trace.
I dreamt of holding fast
to all I knew.
But memory’s a muscle
Here’s the dilemma: The adolescent boy
rocking on the toilet seat, arms
around his concave chest to numb his
and focus on his immediate need to
between medicine cabinet mirror or
which to smash and how to gouge each
this boy, although he hums, although a
blood-red, wells up behind squinched
can never meet the man who wants to
though the man exists, speaks now in
haunting his tortured self from long
The dilemma? How to
in self-renewing present, let the man
calm the boy’s wrists, whisper ‘accord’
into the ear of the continuum.
Moments at a time perhaps, they join.
Then the glass shatters, blood spurts.
And who has broken the mirror or the
The boy, despairing? The man arriving
thirty years too late? No. I accuse
the forward rush and press of language,
applied like a shard of glass to the
I accuse myself for rhyming the
I accuse you, who thought to remain
Reader, consisting only of eyes and
and a fan of fingers probing a bound
You, Listener, I accuse;
though you are restless, caught perhaps
in bonds of collegiality or love
or trapped in auditorium folding chair.
You breathe with me; you yield to
into the scene, calmed by this voice—
this promise the boy lives—veiling
and sanctifying gore. Now you are
perched on the crest of porcelain
between worlds. Speak, my Reader;
you are no longer dark. Lift
a glinting fragment off the tile,
pinch between forefinger and thumb,
slice vertically along the bluish line
up toward the heart, toward God
whom I accuse—God whose name
is Blossoming in Blood, He who confers
on every incarnation implacable need
to wrap numb arms around torso,
and yet to be released into unknowing.
The dilemma: within is contained All,
but what’s needed to say All—
the loaf-warm palate, teeth,
the eel-like muscle of the tongue,
produces without meaning the word
I accuse and stand accused of harboring
such sense as vouchsafes boy and man
forever separate. I accuse
the stream of time and self-fulfilling
of abandoning this boy who rocks
endlessly on the brink of blossoming,
the hum rising in pitch as he curls
gurgling down the scale as he lurches
to Original Unbeing,
All-Encompassing Wholly Ceaseless Pain.
Wild & Whirling Words
Each morning the shining
ball lifts over the ridge
to warm my Subaru
where I dwell, where I live it up
in the between while
not to hurt the way
falling leaves surround
a wholeness of life,
not to see
fringes of the ocean
other than fresh and old,
not to sift the grains
of wheat and sand we are given
overly carelessly. My smile
is too much backed by consciousness
for me ever to die.
So much for gravity!
hums the hummingbird
eyeing my eye.
to adjust the hover-buckle
to the task,
loyally to repair
with all the other bees at work
on the starflower.
American Poetry Review
the only animal that runs toward fire
to save, to gawk, to liven up the night,
cancels with fire the quick networks of borders.
I celebrate, with your permission, the borders
of human beings, the profiles lifting and turning
in drivers' seats, the parallels that bend
and meet at the tear ducts of the eye.
No longer frightened of fontanels,
I touch the soft craters of the mind cap
and root my nose gratefully in whorls
of babies' ears. I celebrate the skin,
the curves of women, the straight hips of men,
my hand with its own life
and tiny Pavlovian memories
of cusps in the arms of chairs and handkerchiefs
drawn like cold brooks through the fingers.
I sing the damaged hands of les Eyzies,
triangles in tempera of the holy.
As over the hump of windowsill more evening
crawls, I contemplate full moons
of countdown, after nine of which we come
with hanks of cord trailing from our bellies.
I celebrate, with your permission, the bellies,
the treasure kegs of aging males,
big bodies coming out of showers,
and the taut ramparts of little girls.
The approaching sine curve of an elbow
gazed at and touched by a pregnant woman,
I gaze at, and also touch, then sing
the double string between the eyes of lovers.
Faces, known and unknown, delineate
like the moon suddenly in breaks of cloud.
all the beloved faces, all, MOAB,
and tickle the cittern for the cloud as well.
I wave as if positioned for goodbye
and, at the same time, for hello
in the borderless shadow of the lingam.
American Poetry Review
In Memory of Benjamin Linder,
After a while with eyes
lifting slowly from the page,
one sees genera and kingdoms,
animal, vegetable, mineral.
see the hair on my arm, fur
Twilight answers from its back.
I stand up in my room, yes,
to learn more than I know
from the news given away
by unfelt strokes of radar,
the voice of this
standing with bent head
under the stars.
On my wall the blue-
green cataracted eye, the planet poster,
hangs from its pin.
And so I ask again,
How much land, which land, does a man need?
Wherever green is worn?
Or blue and white, red,
Yes, when the little O,
this earth, wears the rainbow
raggedly, each man,
After a while with eyes
returning slowly to the page--
yesterday's, today's--I say the names: Linder,
Schwerner, Goodman, Chaney, Rachel Corrie,
our land with all its names.
Loyalty, New and Selected Poems,
Off The Grid Press, 2006
The assembly here tonight’s franchise is
For writers of all shapes and sizes
And styles in turn to take the floor,
Unleashing their divine furor.
So far so good; yet one deplores
Those narcissistic troubadours
Who sieze the chance – once off the shelves -
To freely talk about themselves,
As id and ego unify
To boost their buzzword; i.e. ‘I’!
“The sweetest syllable we’ve got”,
They say, “I use it quite a lot
To show how sensitive I’m being,
How wise I am, sincere, far-seeing!
Observe with what wry self-conceit
I spread my dreams beneath your feet,
Or how old memories I revisit,
In terms so touchingly exquisite.
A ‘specialness’ all mine,
taboo To uncouth scribblers like you!”
And yet this guff, to our surprise, is
Awarded literary prizes!
Enough! That mirror’s self-deceptive
That shows an object so….subjective;
This meeting needs to put in hand
A rule to get the ‘I’ word banned
Or, if too stern a turnabout,
At least let’s have it rationed out;
“Each work to use no more than twice
This egotistical device!”
And I would reason,if I may,
Yet more to poets here today:
If Homer hymned the Trojan fall
- An epic - with no eyes at all.
And Milton, with no eyes likewise,
Lost and regained a paradise,
So serious bards should rise above
These tedious tokens of self-love,
And firmly for all time eschew
Such ‘look-at-me’ as déjà vu.
But this bold plan, I prophesy
Is doomed to failure…..Aie, aie, aie!!!
Epitaph for an Ideal
He was a man whom some thought cold,
Yet some considered over bold;
Though nonetheless they must admit,
However they resented it,
That all the while one private whim
Persistently remained with him
– Half admirable, if half absurd –
Come rain or shine, to Keep his Word.
By which he did not mean what we
Might mean, of rent and guarantee
And such, but meant with all his soul
Something you cannot pigeonhole,
That One Great Word which every man
Was pledged to as his life began.
It was a Sacred Word, he said;
And through the storm-tossed life he led
He held it sure; he held it still
Despite the stours of good and ill
That strew whatever path we tread
Beyond that far-off fountainhead.
To Keep the Word, to Hold the Line,
To love the high, the true, the fine;
To guard them with tenacity
From all malign mendacity;
This was his grail, the shibboleth
He’d sworn to carry till his death;
Though round him, as he kept that word,
Today’s diseased and rampant herd
Might bay their estuary vowels,
And vomit or discharge their bowels
On his deserted trampled shroud,
Then, gross in triumph, roar aloud.
But where some might repine and groan
To find themselves so much alone,
And, weary, let the standard fall
– We’re only human after all –
Through his dark night he has not slept:
He Held the Line…..his Word was Kept.
From that wild shore, beyond the Caribees,
Where howler-monkeys shriek from ceiba trees
Hung with lianas – camouflaged retreat
For humming-bird or flaunting parakeet
– Lunges the phallic thrust of Yucatan,
Home once to god-obsessed barbaric man.
Half-crumbled ruins here identify
Famed Chichen-Itza, Uxmal, Lamanai,
Or, deeper in, Copan, Tikal, Tulum,
All captive in that rankly verdant gloom
Where orchids twine through tangled ferns, shikar
Haunts for tarantula and jaguar.
Down stifling trails where iguanas creep
Carved vestiges of vast constructions peep
Through thickets where, beside some shaggy mound
That sepulchres lost outworks underground,
Tall lattices of stonework still outsoar
The ravelled nests of toucan or macaw,
To crest worn temples on a stepped foundation
The Maya raised in praise of Procreation.
Friezed courtyards angled on an astral grid
Once clustered round this central pyramid;
Colossal works, aligned and built in fear
Of deviation from the solar year
To overawe terrestrial life, begun
Long, long ago, by edict of the sun.
Still from the top, vertiginously steep,
Prodigious flights of steps in one great sweep
Descend, with rough-hewn reptiles on each side
As guardians, who in monstrous writhings glide
Downward, transforming at the plaza floor
To feathered serpents, whose wide-open maw
Frames an anthropomorphic talisman:
Quetzalcoatl – sky god – Kukulcan!
To Him, at dawn, all pious Mayans pray:
‘Lord, let the sun come up again today!’
– Aware omission of this obligation
Invites catastrophe, annihilation
Of all that lies beneath the golden disk
– A stake too high to justify the risk.
Yet plenitude of sun commands a price
– Aridity – which human sacrifice
Alone can pay, so prisoners are marched
Across the intervening compound, parched
By burning rays, toward the towering pile
And dragged submissive up the stairway, while
The people gather, avid, in the square
Like famished termites as their lords prepare
The baneful rite exacted by the rule
Of life-reviving god of rain – Chac-Mool!
Step back in time, restore the status quo:
See priests above, a multitude below
Scanning the high-plumed celebrants, who fling
Down rush-plait matting, fit for priestly king
Alone to tread, when to the beat of drums
He in the guise of Huitzil’pochtli comes
– The Mayan war god – from an inner shrine
Where hieroglyphic calendars define
Celestial omens, never disobeyed.
His girdle hung with skulls, his breastplate jade,
The jaguar’s spotted pelt across his back
Spattered with symbols of the zodiac,
The crown of quetzal feathers on his head
Grimly displayed to be a thing of dread,
He like his suppliants knows that human pain
Alone makes rain to fall, the sun regain
His empire, an indemnity they choose
To render brutal gods their brutal dues.
This hierophant with catatonic eyes
Surveys the altar where the scapegoat lies
And, spurred by powers above - now locked in strife
- To conjure new life from the death of life,
He, less than god himself, yet more than man,
Plunges a blade of black obsidian
To split the sternum, tear the lungs apart,
And from the living carcase rip the heart
With ritual motion. Then the impassive priest
Holds up the grisly trophy to the east;
A sacral offering….raw….pulsating….red.
The victim twitches….bleeding….not yet dead,
Till an attendant from the altar tears
The corpse, and hurls it headlong down the stairs,
While acolytes chant mantras to the skies.
And from the horde below a roar replies,
Repeating and repeating the refrain:
‘Great Lord of Plenty, Chac-Mool, bring us rain!
Herons are bigger than egrets, though they have the same long legs.
My father said one with an eight-foot wingspan flew over his boat.
I would like to be shadowed by something that big. It would seem
like poetry, just out of reach, moving and making a bare flush
of wings, and I would think of it long after, the way it was heading
away from me. My longing would not be satisfied even if I could
grab its scrawny legs in my hand, even if it nuzzled up to me.
I would be looking up the origin of heron with my free hand, and
when I read Greek, to creak, and Old High German, to scream,
I would wait for it to begin, but it would not say anything to me
in this boat which I am not in, but at my desk hoping for the heron,
a big one, as I said, so I can say, “Wow, look at that!” as if I were
getting up a circus. Out there are herons white and blue, not really
blue but smoky, with wings bigger than their bodies, dipping and
standing motionless beside lakes and rivers. Out there are universes
expanding until the space between atoms is too far to do anyone
any good. Thus, somewhere this minute one heron is calculating
the distance between his beak and a fish, the way it shifts. It is
as if he travels in space until heron and fish are swallowed into
each other. There is no heron at my desk. In fact, the absence
of heron is how I would define my study: no heron on the ceiling,
no heron on the floor, no heron on the wall, so that of course
I think of nothing but heron, how it floats its weight on one leg,
for example, flying that way even when it’s not.
Calling early, I wake you
from deep inside a dream;
It’s weird, Dad, you say,
you just came into my room
with an alarm clock and a doll
and you were wearing dark glasses.
I used to think I could never be
as memorable to you
as my own vivid Dad to me,
but now there I am in Chicago,
in your dreams, and such
good things I am bringing you.
-Michael Dennis Browne
Things I Can’t Tell You
Carnegie Mellon Univ. Press
In a Bar in Chicago
I’m eating in The Winds, waiting
for my son to come home
from work, and let me in.
It’s a mighty steak they’ve given me,
the special, huge as a country.
I chew and chew.
Up there on the screen, our leader
announcing the start of a war,
and yes, we have our “game face” on,
and yes, we’re going to “take them out,”
and yes, we’re talking “surgical strike,”
and yes, we learn soon, the Oscars
will go on next week, but “muted”
(the speculation is “less jewelry”).
Dark in Chicago, dawn in Baghdad.
I’m waiting to see my boy. (I support my boy.)
The way home, says a young soldier
(somebody’s son), lies through Baghdad,
“we’ve a job to do,” he says,
“it’s time to rally behind the policy,”
a citizen (somebody’s Dad), stopped
on a sunlit street, says.
Abraham, Father of Faith, could it have been
what you thought was God’s voice, commanding you,
then only with Isaac bound, the Divine hand
dragging down your wrist
to halt the war on your boy?
And Sarah, what of Sarah? Did the two,
did the three of you, speak again, ever,
of that or anything else again, ever?
Dark in Chicago.
This steak goes on and on.
“Here I am.”
He should be home soon.
-Michael Dennis Browne
Things I Can’t Tell You
Carnegie Mellon Univ. Press
For George McGovern
I was sad to see his belly break up into stars,
to hear the wind under his eyes, so many
rivers streaming out of his face.
I rode out into the foothills looking for him.
I passed sagebrush grievers silently scraping the soil;
I saw the dry soil of stars in the air.
There were too many stories
spread across the sky for me
to be able to tell one from the other,
though sometimes I can still chop away
at the sky or, being human, pan
for even a little gleam of story.
I didn’t want anyone to know the miles on me;
I’d rather they thought the stains were wounds,
not rust (rust itself being a kind of wound).
Riding brought back the old times, when waves
of hair once roared across our heads
(you could hear the ocean in our brains).
Now throw me off, old lion, and your mane
be cast about the sun to light us
anywhere we may yet dare wander.
October 21, 2012
Brush Creek, WY
-Michael Dennis Browne
Carnegie Mellon Univ. Press (2014)
. . . as if on a winter's night you sit feasting with your ealdormen and
thegns, a single sparrow should fly swiftly into the hall, and coming in
at one door, instantly fly out through another. . . . Somewhat like this
appears the life of man; but of what follows or what went before, we are
--Bede, Ecclesiastical History
But what if the bird flies from fields
through the doorway, the shade of the hall
and into high rafters, pauses to nest,
to feed its young, then takes wing again
in dusky heights of the loft, past
timbers, the hanging bats, toward
light at the other end, exit
from its brief stay here
where men have feasted and sung
and lain down to sleep on their robes,
and flutters into a wall
it cannot see? Like the sparrow
in my garage on Monday, taking refuge
in the dim cave while thunder raged.
It woke to the shadow of man, flew
toward light, beat wings and beak
on the vision of green and shade,
and the glass did not break.
Sometimes the soul stands pressed to a place
it can see through, face and both palms against
the undiminished light, naming distant
leaves and fruits it thinks it knew --
but cannot go beyond.
-- T. Alan Broughton
Ballad of the Comely Woman
As I walked out one day
I met on my path a woman
ugly as sin and walking a dog.
She stopped me and said, "Young man,
would you lie with me here
in this field where we're alone,
only my dog as companion?"
The dog went chasing a squirrel.
I placed a hand most gently
on her arm and said, "Old woman,
I've a wife and loving son
dearer to me than my life.
I could not betray such presences."
"Then," she said, "how like you this?"
and stepping to me her limbs grew slim,
her bare breasts brushed my chest.
O love, more than my hair stood on end,
and the grass looked so very green
I could not resist lying down
with her beneath me. "What if,"
I said between our kisses, "you change
again?" "I'm always the same," she said,
and therewith I was left with my face
in the sod and my own restless heart.
--T. Alan Broughton
Beloit Poetry Journal
Making a Mask
Fourteen years ago I held you as you bawled
against the light of birth, first heave of lungs,
but put myself into your hands, born
into a wholly new life. Now on my back
I lie on the floor, you hover above my face,
applying wet strips of plaster to make
a mask for school. How will I breathe?
I ask as water drips across my ears,
alarmed how my lips will soon be sealed.
Quiet, you murmur, you’ll ruin it. Still
as a coffined body, hands folded
on my chest, I try to stare at the ceiling
but can’t resist watching your pursed lips,
frown of imagination trying to see
what you hope to make. Close your eyes,
you say as the strip descends. Straws
in my mouth, I am sealed, buried alive,
trying to believe you are still out there,
working in the light.
Nothing is left but the muffled scuff
as you pace, waiting for me to dry,
sludge shrinking while my face hardens,
skin pinched in the plaster grip. I trust
your shuffling near my stretched body,
the mutter as you order yourself.
Your fingers move gently on the edge,
testing the line between bare skin
and dead impression of my life.
What border have I slipped across,
and is your touch enough to bring me back?
In the tightening I feel my bones rise
through withering flesh, and I cannot suck
enough air through these straws, fear
how flesh is turning to parchment, hands
will never unclasp, our bronzed dog
will be clamped to my armored feet.
I remember how I would sneak
into the room where my father napped,
huge chest rising and falling slowly,
lips puffing in and out, to stand and hold
my breath for fear of waking the giant
I did not know because he was gone
beyond me now. Just tall enough
to reach his face, I held my fingers
close to his mouth, knowing even then
that if I ceased to feel air brushing
across the tips I should scream away
such sleep, should break the spell
that held us in the opaque and shrouded
afternoon, fearing the day when nothing
I could say would wake him.
I sleep. The silence in my mind
when panic leaves is darkness of a cave
before some child with a torch lurches in
or falls to discover paintings on the wall,
naked men clad in skins of reindeer, heads
of buffaloes, and dancing as if they became
dead creatures they wore. If I come back
from this place you send me to,
will I ever be myself again, or will you,
as the aborigine fears, have captured
my soul in plaster, leaving me to wander
in the semblance of myself? Who was I?
Lying now in congealing darkness,
I slip down into that dream beyond
the stone or house or leafless tree we know,
as deep as space where it bends back
on its first explosion, beyond even that
to silence without a name. If some spirit
is in the mask, larval, ghost to be carried
with us day by day, then who looks out
through our own eyes, pretending to be?
The soul must have a place to rest, body
to identify when it returns each evening.
Done! you cry, plucking me back into light,
tearing the carapace of who I was
from my new-wet face. I stare at the ceiling
beyond you to sunlight dappling leaves
on plaster, kaleidoscopic shards the breeze
shifts into restless shapes. All color is gone
for a moment when I turn, blast of pure light
from the window, and I rise from the floor,
gasping as if I dove for leagues into
the cold detritus of eons. You laugh,
hold a mirror to show splotched white
in my hair, cheeks of a mannequin
powdered with a story I’d lived. I smile,
cracking the petrified skin, shattering
numbness, and you laugh again
as we see each other for the first time
in hours, trapped between dread and joy.
All afternoon we paint the blank impression,
making my form into your creation, transforming
this death mask into a household god wild
with colors, and then, forming our own procession,
we prance raucously to your mother’s study
and burst the silence of her thought, parading
the fierce countenance of a man I was
or might have been, holding above us
a fragment snatched from time, moving
so quickly from sound to moving sound.
--T. Alan Broughton
old road dreaming me back home
through coastal plain into the Gulf
stunted pines along the roadside
dripping wth dark into night puddles
arcade of pecan trees into infinity
through which my memory roams
like spider webs over wounds
these bare branches over my eyes
maybe souls do flow into and out of the world--
that crow over corn stubble, scythe of light
off the truck’s chrome, swish of an icy
mare’s tail over the December sky
(from Coming to Rest, LSU Press, 2006
nightingale still burning”
Mirza Ghalib, translated by W.S. Merwin
Baghdad, April 8, 2003
Four years younger than mine,
her daughter lies under the rubble.
She stands at the edge of it,
watching the men lifting one stone,
another, till out of the crater
they gently lift somebody’s
body, a body she now
sees is female. She tries to recall
what her daughter was wearing,
but no scrap of clothing remains
on it. Whose body is it? She sees
no face. She sees no head.
At the edge of the crater she stands
while they swaddle the body in blankets
a neighbor has brought. Through
the blasted streets she calls
a name that gets lost
in the rattle of gunfire, a name
no one hears as they pull
from the rubble her daughter’s
head, hair twisted round like
a root-wad, not blonde
like my daughter’s, not waking
up as my daughter will be, being safe
on this morning in Texas, beginning
to brush her hair after her shower,
her face in the mirror as perfect as
always I see it, the fair skin
she wishes had South Asian
dusk in it, not Southern
sun from the fields of her mother’s
line, as she examines
the scar on her temple,
the chin she believes looks
not quite smooth
enough, while her fingers
scroll over its surface
as if they are translating
Urdu, word after
unsteady word of a ghazal
that she must recite
today, all the while fearing
her voice will fail
even as she tries
to fill up the silence
with Ghalib’s desire
to see, lost in the blaze
of the mirror
that holds her,
the face of the Beloved.
-Kathryn Stripling Byer
(from Coming to Rest, LSU Press, 2006)
where we played Fort Apache
Cow pies baked
in the dog day
heat while we picked
what our mother
had promised she’d turn
thorny hells, we risked an arm.
Then a leg. Half a torso
we stood stubborn as martyrs
we pulled our mortal flesh free,
not to spill what
By then it was noon
and so hot we lost faith
and walked home,
displaying our blackberries
domed in the pot
the way church deacons hoisted
while we sang Gloria Patri.
The gnats smelled us coming
and haloed our heads,
when we reached the backyard
where splayed in the cool dirt
they’d dug under lantana bushes
our daddy’s hounds
snored like the back pews each Sunday
- Kathryn Stripling Byer
Bill “Bojangles” Robinson (1878-1949), U.S. tap dancer and actor
. . .
noted for his ability to run backwards . . .
set the world's record of 8.2 seconds for the 75-yard backward
International Dictionary of 20th Century Biography
Bang of the pistol they burst backwards
out of the blocks but strangely becalmed –
the runners seem to be reaching, rearing
in place, having no purchase, no power –
it is all on the balls of the feet, all air
being chopped, being clutched, claimed –
save for one, who is stepping, is seeking
and finding a sequence, a pattern that
pulls him, that takes him ahead of the
pack, and it’s Bojangles up by a yard,
now by two, he is free, he is flying –
see him cresting the tape – he is dancing
During World War II, the Allies so feared the possibility
of a German bomb that they sent Moe Berg,
a baseball catcher, linguist and spy, to attend
a scientific lecture that the Nazi government
allowed the physicist Werner Heisenberg to give in
Zurich in 1944. Berg was instructed to carry a
pistol and shoot Heisenberg dead if he gave any
hint that he was working on an atomic bomb.
New York Times, March 21, 2000
I hear he’s got some kind of knuckleball, too.
Indeterminacy as a function of uncertainty.
Or the converse. Count is three and two.
Come on, come on, stop kicking the mound.
Two on, last of the ninth . . . S-matrix theory?
What the hell happened to his curve ball?
I remember Hugo Ball’s fast ball, it was
a farm team, the Zurich Zephyrs – they had
this rookie named Joyce, utility outfielder,
always singing in the showers . . . Shoot him.
Shoot him if he even breathes a word about
fission. Or was it fishing? Now the wind-up,
here it comes, low and outside, no, I could
feel the bat all perfume no and my heart was
going like mad and no I said no I won’t No
Vincent Brothers Review
Watching the Clock
A convicted killer whose execution was
botched last year was never in any pain
and appeared to be straining to see a clock, not grimacing as some
said, the warden told a panel reviewing Florida's lethal injection
But the condemned man's lawyer said his client was clearly
suffering, and he
mocked the notion that the inmate was looking at a clock.
– Associated Press, January 30, 2007
At the center of each galaxy waits
that mysterious, unfathomable abyss –
black hole of unimaginable proportions
from which no illumination can escape,
into which ultimately everything falls
and yet there is no way of entering,
only a threshold to be crossed –
the event horizon, against which
each image, each body remains fixed
forever. The hands of the clock,
as they approach that boundary, freeze
immutably, and the prisoner, strapped
to the board with his arms spread out,
is transfigured for eternity, along with
the warden and his phone, the attorney,
the reporters, the witnesses – all shown
together, as it is written in Revelation,
along with “heaven, the earth, and . . .
the sea, and the things which are therein,
that there should be time no longer.”
Loch Raven Review
- after New Orleans flood
In this plain box of a house,
the tiny dresses are lined up in case
I ever have another baby.
The rack goes from one end of the room
to the other, dozens of little outfits,
pink smocked dresses with green stitches,
a red and blue play dress
with bloomers to match,
the white sun suits, a yellow sun dress,
three ducks embroidered on the front,
and four dresses different sizes,
all exactly alike, all blue, so soft
I could not leave them in the store.
I just didn't have the heart for it. After all
someday I might have another baby.
But now there is a warning.
In a land of empty houses, It's
time to pick them up from their hangers
and carry them next door,
someone will need them.
Oh. No one is there to collect them.
Perhaps every hour on the hour someone
will come. No lights are on. Who will I give them to,
little dresses hanging on hangers like dreams.
No one is home. What shall I do with
these beautiful things I've saved?
In this land where
no birds are singing, my only visitor is
my friend Jan, back
from the dead carrying an empty
photo album for our future.
How does, how does, how does it work
so, little valve stretching messily open, as wide as possible,
all directions at once, sucking air, sucking blood, sucking
how? On the screen I see the part of me that always
loves my life, never tires
of what it takes, this in-and-out, this open-and-shut
in the dark chest of me,
tireless, without muscle or bone, all flex and flux and blind
will, little mouth widening, opening and opening and,
shut, shuddering anemone entirely of darkness, sea creature
of the spangled and sparkling sea, down, down where light
When the technician stoops, flips a switch, the most
unpopular kid in the class
stands offstage with a metal sheet, shaking it while Lear raves. So
this is the house where love lives, a tin shed in a windstorm, tin
shed at the sea's edge, the land's edge,
waters wild and steady, wild and steady, wild.
At Hamilton Elementary we watched every Mercury launch
between the Pledge of Allegiance and our ration of morning milk
on the battered TV that janitor Geiss always lugged into our room,
trailing a whiff of the Lucky Strikes that somehow kept him going
in the humble boiler-room office he liked to call his very own
Mission Control. The entire class would count down together
until the launch-tower fell away, the rocket-booster fuel igniting
with the kind of brilliant firepower that in those days never failed
to lift our skittish hearts into our throats. We were suckers
for anything astronautical--the suits, the helmets, the very idea
of leaving the outmoded Earth behind us for a while. We'd come
to live for the chance of escaping the pull of preadolescent gravity.
So who among us would have believed we'd peter out
so quickly, even before Apollo? We ho-hummed our way through most of
although Ed White's tethered space walk brought us briefly back.
The way he floated outside that capsule, doing exactly what,
we weren't sure, led Sci-Fi Rosenberg to say maybe he'd grow up
to be the first Jew on Mars. Benny the Ball kept asking when
do Current Events become History, and then would there be a test?
I made a brazen grab for Debbie Fuller's hand. I really didn't know
what I was doing either, but I might have been floating too,
until Mr. Geiss told us all to knock off the funny stuff, to show
a little respect--as if White could possibly look down right at us
and refuse to clamber back inside until he had our full attention.
Geiss was a Big-Picture guy: he saw the whole country being tested,
and this was the kind of lapse in judgment we simply couldn't afford
if we were going to beat those single-minded Russians to the Moon.
Movies of the Space
Race," published in Margie
How suddenly it happens--
the poem quits the lopsided house
where it was born,
walks out the front door
onto the avenue of a page,
and ends up in a public square.
How sad its forsaking
the home's dark sureties,
the privacy of a stairwell,
the sound of its father's voice.
It has chosen to leave
on a summer’s Sunday afternoon,
when everyone is out for a promenade--
a foot-cruise as the locals say--
the women under their parasols,
the men waving their walking sticks.
How discourteous of them to stop
and turn their barbered heads
to stare at the creature as it hastens by,
all queer and hairless,
a fly circling its ears,
a song buried deep in its baggy pants.
We hit the train we are
sorry it was a mistake.
We hit those refugees sorry
We hit the bridge there were
people we couldn't see.
We hit the water supply not
a mistake but we are sorry.
We hit the embassy sorry
We hit the wrong country it
In the past we have also hit
the wrong things a passenger plane a school.
This time the reasons for
hitting what we were trying to hit were good.
We were trying to stop the
terrible things being done to innocent people.
Things got worse for those
people after we started which proves we were right.
But of course we cannot
think about what is right or what is wrong.
They call us smart but bombs
are not made to think.
We are sorry there were
mistakes but we ourselves make no mistakes.
We only follow orders. We do
what we're told.
LIKE HER BODY THE WORLD
hit and hit and hit and hit
getting up and trying to get
now one part is hitting
another part wounding its flesh
slicing its own veins
breaking its bones
but wait we are coming help
is on the way
now we are hitting the part
that is hitting the part
now someone else is helping
the part we hit
now it is arm against arm
hand against hand
now it is eye against eye no
one can see
now it is ear against ear
there is no mouth
where is the up to get up to
where is the body
where are the parts have the
parts all fallen apart
we are part of the body we
we thought we lived outside
like a brain in a jar
we thought we were pure like
thought with nothing to lose
but we are losing too we are
besides we were never that
brain we were only a part
we thought we would never
fall but we are falling
falling and falling and
falling hitting the air
falling hitting ourself our
meanwhile the body the world
will try to get up
or else the body the world
will lie down will lie down
FROM THE SKY
Snow is expected to fall
from the sky.
Boston Globe, March
Snow will fall from the sky
Snow will turn to rain
Rain will fill our streams
The earth will turn again
Snow will turn to rain
Blossoms will fill the trees
The earth will turn again
Petals will fill the air
Blossoms will fill the trees
Petals will fall like snow
Petals will fill the air
Green will fill the trees
Petals will fall like snow
Petals will fall to earth
Green will fill the trees
Where air was, leaves will be
Petals will fall to earth
Leaves will fall from trees
Where air was, leaves will be
Leaves, where there was snow
Leaves will fall from trees
Colors will brighten the air
Leaves, where there was snow
Leaves will fall to earth
Colors will brighten the air
Like hair and blood and skin
Leaves will fall to earth
Where we will fall from our lives
Like hair and blood and skin
Leaves will turn to earth
Where we will fall from our lives
Where we were, air will be
Leaves will turn to earth
Rain will fill our streams
Where we were, air will be
Snow will fall from the sky
From Everlasting all this came to pass.
Now, Christ come and gone, the world merely transformed,
you and I continuing the muddle of our days,
imagine with me how dark the sky those years
when all the prophets’ words looked toward this birth.
The sky was not this mornings’ bluest blue.
If I could only find my image for that blue,
this language all reducible to miracle.
Instead, my poor syllables re-tell what you know.
A simple girl, she thought the angel was a bird,
and turning to it, violated by the words announced,
questioned at first her own virginity.
Then she saw it: my sky, your sky.
And so she put on the sun, the stars, the moon
and all the planets and wore them for herself,
a fourteen-year-old, crowned and terrified.
Because we knew we were nearing the end
of our long term together, my parents and I,
this last year of their moment on earth,
watched television all day, drawing us closer.
It was our camp fire when I visited.
Morning: the news of last night’s murders in Detroit.
Noon: the latest on the morning’s death count.
Evening: after 4:30 dinner, more bodies piling up.
Of course, I was bored. Boredom was a balm
to watching them descend the long hill I’m still climbing.
We talked about my son,16: his car scoping out heights of the night.
Because he was theirs they loved him—the comfort of lineage.
And after they both died, while I cleaned the apartment,
I kept the television on without ceasing.
I prayed the kaleidoscope of color would bring back
that ravening, the hollow in my chest
I grew up with, always starved for more from them.
Dying betrayed that hunger, leaving me everything
in trust. Television worked: clamor and flash,
childhood in fast-forward, not the numb question of immortality.
NEW ENGLAND REVIEW
Beyond the window he stares out, oblivious
I’ve come back, my father is entering the afterworld.
I am still here, working Dad’s “senior residence,”
occasional nurse, valet, waiter and errand boy,
a pint of cherry ice cream leaking a slow drip in my hand.
Out there, they are together in a first snow,
my father and mother, she nine months dead,
two tiny figures walking backward to Paradise.
This is before my sister and her madness, the war,
before I appear, then relatives demanding bed and board for years.
Snow dots his top hat; it mists her wedding veil.
Snow is all they know, and darkness for the blizzards
to fall across these decades they walk away from now.
Soon in their backward amble they will enter
the gates, swung open for them, and begin to shed their clothes,
flinging everything skyward as their new bodies come together.
Consider this: a moth flies into a mans ear
One ordinary evening of unnoticed pleasures.
When the moth beats its wings, all the winds
Of earth gather in his ear, roar like nothing
He has ever heard. He shakes and shakes
His head, has his wife dig deep into his ear
With a Q-tip, but the roar will not cease.
It seems as if all the doors and windows
Of his house have blown away at once
The strange play of circumstances over which
He never had control, but which he could ignore
Until the evening disappeared as if he had
Never lived it. His body no longer
Seems his own; he screams in pain to drown
Out the wind inside his ear, and curses God,
Who, hours ago, was a benign generalization
In a world going along well enough.
On the way to the hospital, his wife stops
The car, tells her husband to get out,
To sit in the grass. There are no car lights,
No streetlights, no moon. She takes
A flashlight from the glove compartment
And holds it beside his ear and, unbelievably,
The moth flies towards the light. His eyes
Are wet. He feels as if hes suddenly a pilgrim
On the shore of an unexpected world.
When he lies back in the grass, he is a boy
Again. His wife is shining the flashlight
Into the sky and there is only the silence
He has never heard, and the small road
Of light going somewhere he has never been.
Ode to Ordinariness
Our little ration of things gone right, god of all that is
Too humdrum for our notice, you carry out
Your work under our noses, predictable as the weather.
When I open the door for todays paper,
There you are, unseen as always, in the manic circles
Of a neighbors setter that tosses a sunny
Cloud of goldfinches into the air and gives the giggles
To a first grader two doors down, waiting
Inside this mornings teakettle mist and her fathers coat
Covering her shoulders. And now the sky
Is turning blue over the city and the yellow bus rolls up
And the girl disappears in her seat, her father
Left waving to a window where the sun flares, suspended
For a moment while he continues to shout
Last minute consolations for both of them: Ill be waiting
In this same spot when you come back at three.
And youre there with the mail, the usual bills and a letter
From a friend (whose marriage fell apart
A year ago), who writes now about what stays the same:
Still teaching and writing about X, playing
Some decent tennis; with a robin (what else) in the noonday
Sun that scurries a few feet, stops, then tilts
Its head and holds steady in the great alertness and purpose
Of its hunger. With the men eating lunch
Outside Linemaster Switch who soak up the good will
Of this first warm day of spring and dream
Of getting in a little fishing in Maine. And you are in
A conversation overheard at the supermarket
Thank God the doctors caught it so soonand in the face of
The wife who knew that just this once,
And only for now, her husband had passed through the eye
Of Fates needle. Our little god of reprieves,
Of the breathing spaces between living and dying, between
Disasters and raptures, you grant us the luxury
Of your dailiness, the nothing much we come to count on.
We praise you: for the safe return of the school bus, for
Everyone home for supper. Praise to recurrence
And status quo, to the sun returning like a second chance
After this evenings shower, and for sparks
Of rain igniting the rooftops of the Rogers Corporation
Where chimney swifts that left with the sun
Have come back, soaring and banking now in the evenings
Tints of yellow and orange. And praise for
The moon rising like a clockface and for the small triangle
Of shadowed flesh where Ive unbuttoned
My wifes blouse and for the identical feelings I first felt
Leaning to kiss that exact spot twenty years
Ago. Praise for these last hours before sleep when we count
Back through the day, and pick up a book
Weve read over and over again because each time it is
So familiar, so strangely different and new.
April, Peepers, Flaubert, and Springsteen
Now that the suns hanging around longer,
these first warm evenings bring
the peepers up out of the muck, aroused
by temperatures and a ferocious desire
to peep and trill a hundred times a minute,
nearly six thousand times a night,
each wet, shining body a muscle of need
that says faster, louder, faster, louder.
Life, life to have erections, thats what its
all aboutthats Flaubert ringing
in my old ears, some drained chamber
of the heart pumping again, interrupting
my bookish evening. I should tie myself
to my chair or stopper my ears. But Im up
and answering my sirens call, overcome
by some need to be outside, to be
part of this great spring upheaval.
In the dark amid their chorus, I hold
a flashlight on a peeper that pulses
under its skin, its entire body a trill reaching
toward a silent female, and now Im calling
to my wife to come out, to hurry,
and when she finds me, I swear I feel as if
Im shining like something that has come up
from deep under the earth, and singing
It aint no sin to be glad youre alive.
No more rambles on the rocky shore
with chances to chase a black-backed gull,
munch on clam shells, pee in fireweed.
No more jaunts to the top of the mountain
for scary bear scat or discarded deer offal
to roll and wallow in.
And weirdest of all, no more tail-chasing,
mouth-watering fawns and savory gray squirrels
way too fast to put out after.
Now a blind eye, deaf ear,
now the stiff back and bad hips,
now with their teeth slowly dropping out
the one desire left
to lick and sniff (hey, you smell good)
and lie in the sun, usually parallel,
sometimes perpendicular, but always,
if possible, touching each other
as though in heaven or just about to be.
Chautauqua Literary Journal
When I threw my eye-glasses out the window
of the car going sixty miles an hour,
I knew my Irish luck had caught the blight.
A scrap of paper on the dashboard
(notes for a poem) had blown toward freedom,
but grabbing it I somehow caught my hand
on the frames and whipped them into late
afternoon traffic as if I’d been practicing
that split-second, commanding move all my life.
What style, like a cripple throwing away a crutch
after a miracle-worker’s touch,
if only I could have claimed intent!
I managed to navigate through a landscape
of soft-focus photography and slow
to a stop at the side of the road
before dashing back like a man fleeing
a car about to explode, playing out
a scene from some cineplex’s blockbuster.
But how would I find my glasses
without my glasses on?
A flash answered,
and when the cars began to pass
in safer intervals, I went out to see
how smithereened my wire-rims and lenses were.
As if set down on that blacktop just the way
I set them each night on my nightstand,
they lay there on their back, not only in one piece,
but also, as my quick check revealed before
I slipped them back on, in all ways intact--
unbroken, unscratched, unbent, unruffled--
absolutely and impossibly none the worse
for their highspeed flight, violent landing,
and dangerous--no, suicidal--place of rest.
As stunned by the glasses’ wholeness
as I had been by their exit, I laughed
all the way home, reading the clear signs.
I should throw myself out the window
more often, fly end over end into space
and onto the path of the moving world,
trust to nothing I can name,
believe in outcomes on the other side
of sight, how any loss can be a form of plenty--
better even than twenty-twenty.
we sit in the hollow ground
where every broken leaf betrays the wind
and tread lightly back into childhood
inventing menageries of the mind
where an owl blinks in the shadows
and the sky's luminous with legends
and a flood of burn from earlier suns
bird-eyed glimpses of the shore
reveal that special place where we're alone
in a climate of deep water
the sea eloquent with waves
where all colors are the same and every sound's
the silver language of the mute
we were the children of the future
singing songs of thanksgiving
although the words were strange in our mouths
until memory bathed us
and light stretched one wing
and some alien blessing was on its way
older than water a light rising from loss
extinguishing the dark
we built a roof with our hands
wove walls to stop the wind
each with its kingdom
and the doors
open to the sun
we wove a cage of wishes
arcing against time
the moon chalked its zeros
as we merged unencumbered
until the sun dusted the earth with gold
where every leaf was mute
the shell of oblivion tight
and the circle made perfect
since I have learned not to kill them
things have been easier
though I prefer my ghosts
to inhabit the dark
if they come by day
I'll leave all the doors open
I watch them mouthing secrets
smiling as if there were two heavens
I recall simple equations in the heart's circumference
each sum exquisitely fixed in my memory
women in sweet and sudden rages
for fear the future comes when they're not looking
children claustrophobic in their skins
fanning out like fish bones
younglings piercing love's delicate membrane
to taste the fleshy center
friends in the gray solfeggio of autumn
and the ritual smile
in their company the hours pass
until a spill of sun a sweep of shade
and under the ashen stars
my dead are growing old
Alsop Review Anthology
THE MOON INSIDE
Women know how to wait.
They smell the dust,
listen to light bulbs dim
and guard the children
pale with dreaming.
They hear danger
tapping along walls,
and edges of the city
bruising the landscape.
Down long corridors
they whisper to each other
of alarm bells
and balanced crosses,
of shrouded eyes and empty stars
while the moon inside them
takes a slow, silver breath.
She keeps pulling him up
from the bottom of the Red River
in stop action or slow motion
and replays the splash
blooming around his hips.
She corrects his dive,
restores the promise
of his form, each movement
clear in the instant of falling.
The moment reversed,
she reels him up
to where he's still
sitting on the bank.
Now, mother covers her scalp
with hair torn by its roots.
Screams sucked back into her mouth
become soft syllables again.
Her shredded clothes re-woven.
The table set for his return.
As the body's laid out,
she stands at attention
waiting for the clearest light
and then sharpens her instruments.
First, the eyes removed
to see what was seen,
ears probed to hear what was heard
then the heart dissected
to find what was missing.
It takes time to cut tenderly
into the bone and sinew
of the past,
each knife stroke
a loving incision.
There is no entrance.
When the body's exposed,
she climbs inside,
pulls closed the flaps of skin
and slowly heals herself.
In her kitchen, she knows
each blunted blade, worn handle, broken tip,
the past compressed in steel.
Along with sacramental noise of cups knocking,
lips smacking, she hears carving knives and cleavers
splitting days into edible proportions.
Skillful at the cutting board, she pays her
vegetable tithes to the crock pot, the salad,
the wok, slices and slices into the heart of things.
Familiar knives carve her into chunks served up
for family supper. From the scraps and bones
she makes a broth and feeds herself.
She lay sprawled on the table
between a pitcher of milk
and stained napkin. A giant
sponge swept her crumbling parts
over the edge. Before dis-
appearing into the dust pan,
she remembered how simple
life had been between the curved
fork and serrated knife.
Nineteen-thirty was a long,
cold childhood wedged into a scar
and food that filled half
the cupboard. She'd lick
the pencil stump and make her lists.
Each item considered, written, erased,
re-written according to what jingled
in the broken tea pot.
At six o'clock, she always
listened to the news and groaned,
her body a vast burial ground for
victims of plagues, revolutions,
wars, each groan another corpse.
She stood ironing, every stroke
a preparation for the burial,
a straightening of limbs,
a smoothing of features,
a final act of love.
a convention of women facing out
into the lens
in 1997 picnics birthdays
all swimming to the surface
of the acid bath
a procession of cardboard moments
poorly focused with here and there
an empty space
like a prediction
Southern California Poetry Anthology
WALKING MY SON HOME FROM PRESCHOOL
St. Julien de Peyrolas, France
From the hilltop village we circle
down through dust, disappearing
into grape vines just budding
green through gnarled wood.
I hold his hand stumble-bumble.
We edge to the roadside for the nearly
imaginary cars, mirages
of dust wisps and tire-crunch.
We pick wildflowers looping along ledges,
edges. We are tiny shoots ourselves,
back and forth across the road,
connecting delicate colors.
The French he’s heard all morning
buried in the odd corner of his brain
reserved for animal sounds. We can hear
a horse miles away, clearing its throat.
The world refuses to be uppercase
under the perfect noon sun, the huge blue
cloudless parentheses. We are random
commas heading home, refusing to subordinate.
Our flesh hums through each other’s fingers.
We don’t worry about French words
for this or that. Or English words,
or words in general.
- Jim Daniels
from Poetry East and Having a Little Talk with Capital P Poetry
With random regularity, funeral processions
slipped down Ryan Road , past Eight Mile, crossing
from Detroit through Warren , my city—
Nine Mile Road, Ten Mile Road—
out to a black cemetery somewhere—
I knew not a soul who might be buried there.
Shiny cars full of somber black faces rarely looked
over at us as we stopped to stare from our ball field
near Ryan and Eight, our border community
on alert, inhaling suspicion among the weeds
on our crooked home-made diamond. Sneezing.
Ghost runners from the ’67 riots
occupied empty bases, and right field
was an automatic out—we set weeds on fire
to try it ourselves.
Their long lines coasted through
our red lights that could not stop the dead.
I wondered why only black people died.
The earth was flat and went on forever.
Then Tony Bruno hit one all the way
onto Ryan Road . Darlene Sparks died
in a fire down the street and we found out
where they buried white people.
Eddie Wakowski stole a bottle of whiskey
from a cabinet in Mankewitz’s funeral home.
I joined altar boys, accompanying the priest
to the cemetery where he sprinkled holy water,
then slipped us each a few bucks in Mankewitz’s limo.
I am riding in a long line of cars with little metal flags
and we are forever driving past factories
with their security cameras and guard posts
where our fathers disappeared. Where they
washed their hands at enormous cement
sinks, scrubbing off grease with perfumed sand,
drying their faces with rough dollar bills.
I worked at a liquor store on Ryan between Eight
and Nine. We sold pints to workers black and white.
Lunch-box sized. We cashed checks for whites only.
The earth was square. Nobody wanted
to fall off. Why not pretend to lose the ball in the weeds,
send the runner back to second, save a run?
A couple of weeks after we get robbed by two black guys
with guns who make us lick the cement floor and beg
for our lives, a car veers out of a funeral procession
into the tiny parking lot of Mestrovich’s party store and out steps
a woman in immaculate dress and an enormous stunning hat.
She’s yanking the arm of a tiny frightened girl. The wooden screen
smacks behind them as they rush in. The girl’s gotta
go. Can she use our bathroom?
No customer ever uses our bathroom. White
or black. Girl’s squirming. She’s going to go somewhere
soon. Bruno Mestrovich closes his eyes and opens them,
his door swinging shut, then open. Yes, he says.
Go with the man, the woman says, though I am
a boy in all this. Though I have soiled myself
over a gun. The girl takes my hand, and I lead
her into the back. Then, after, I take her back, her escort
across the border. Outside, the procession is long gone.
But the woman knows the way.
The girl’s wet hand squeezed mine.
I got paid in cash, a brown envelope labeled
with my name. Bruno died of leukemia six months
after selling the store to an Arab family. The world
is a sponge and we are all drops of moisture.
This was after 1967, when Detroit burned and Warren
watered its own houses and we spoke in the clipped angry voice
of helicopters spilling soldiers onto the streets,
and processions of moving vans headed down Ryan
toward new distant suburbs. Weeds erupted out
of control. The cover came off the ball. Our bats
splintered, and we swore. A bowling alley landed
on our ball field and we learned
to pay our money and bowl.
I loved Darlene Sanders like the eighth grader I was.
She had marked my neck with a kiss I’d been bitten, Smitten.
The funerals continue to this day, down Ryan and out
to the distant wherever—I have still not been there.
I held my glove in my hand ready to catch anything.
I held the bat in my hand ready to swing away.
I had held a black girl’s tiny hand. I spun the globe.
from In Line for the Exterminator
YOU BRING OUT THE BORING WHITE GUY IN ME
the Ward Cleaver in me. The Pat Boone
in me. The K-Mart in me. The Slurpee
in me. The boiled hot dog in me. The mac
and cheese in me. The Tang in me.
You bring out the Hamburger Helper
in me. You bring out the Twinkie
in me. The Cheese Whiz in me.
You bring out the bowling trophy
in me. The student council in me.
The parliamentary procedure in me.
The missionary position in me.
You bring out the canned vegetables
in me. The Jello in me. The training
wheels in me. You bring out
the lawn edger in me. The fast-food
drive-thru window in me. The Valu
Meal in me. You bring out the white
briefs in me. You bring out
the cheap beer and weak coffee
in me. You bring out the 15%
tip chart in me. The sad overweight
weekend golfer in me. You bring out
the ex-smoker in me. The jumper
cables in the trunk with flares
and the red flag to tie to the window
in me. You bring out the Tony Orlando
in me. The canned situation comedy
laughter in me. The elevator music
in me. You bring out the medley
of TV commercial jingles in me.
The Up with People in me.
I've come to a complete stop
at the Stop sign. I've got
my emergency flashers on.
My doors are locked, baby,
but I'm waiting for you.
from Revolt of the Crash-Test Dummies
From the dusty road under acacia trees
the house looks like a dream rising in the sharp
clean colors from the common green, passive sea
of unremarkable land, no surprises. She lifts the tarp
and gathers gently the bruised peaches, their water
so near the skin like a blister, the childishness
of their tender peel how little it takes to scar
them. She fills baskets, planting fruit in a nest
of fresh damp straw, while she counts out
a song that turns into words; a song that feels
as old as the indigo sky and the stoic brick house
teetering like an unsettled boat in the open field
in the middle of nothing; a body with no context,
just the language of loss haunting as a low country hex.
I wouldn't want to confuse the realm of art
With the realm of life, but it's hard to hear this quartet
Without comparing it to a conversation
Of the quiet kind, where no one tries to win out
Over the others, where each is eager instead
To share in the task of moving the theme along
From the opening statement to the final bar.
A conversation too good, no doubt, to be common
Here in the realm of salesmen trolling for customers,
Office-holders for votes, preachers for converts.
Many good people among these good talkers,
But none engaged like the voices of the quartet
In resisting the plots time hatches to make them unequal,
To set them at odds, to pull them asunder.
I love the movement where the cello is occupied
With repeating a single phrase while the others
Strike out on their own, three separate journeys
That seem to suggest each prefers, after all,
The pain and pleasure of playing solo. But no.
Each near the end swerves back to the path
Their friend has been plodding, and he receives them
As if he never once suspected their loyalty.
Would I be moved if I thought the music
Belonged to a world remote from this one,
If it didn't seem instead to be making the point
That conversation like this is available
For those who are ardent enough and patient?
And for those who aren't, there's still a chance
To join a silent quartet of listeners
Glad for whatever they can bring to the music
And for whatever they can take away.
The Cincinnati Review
I really don’t mind but that the
dolls are so fragile—
wire and fabric with plastic heads,
hands and shoes.
My favorite the one with the dull
a present from my godmother who last
had a breast removed and the same
breast built again.
The doll wore a red skirt, which I
long ago lost,
but her bloomers can pass as shorts.
When her legs
unraveled she sat in my father’s
dresser with his change
and his comb and the bills for months
one Saturday, I begged him to fix her
and he sutured
the felt-skin to the doll’s bones,
synched it into her shoes
with a manicure tool and some
Our neighbor, Mr. VandeLoo, built the
house for me.
There are only two like it—the other
He’s dead now. We paid him forty
It was made of plain wood so I
for hours, gluing the wooden siding
lip over ridge and affixing
hundreds of cracker-sized cedar
shingles to the roof.
I peeled bit prints out of wallpaper
books and used
the pinking shears to make curtains,
hung on toothpicks,
for the windows my father cut from
the walls with a jigsaw.
On Easter Sunday my niece was pleased
by our similar
dresses, hers pink and mine blue,
both long and flowered.
And I took her to the park though I
was buckled with cramps
and gave her chocolate before dinner.
But when she asked
about the house I told her softly no,
and no I said
to the thumb-sized toilet and frosted
sink, the pewter
apples and silverware, the wooden
the blank-paged books, the brass
greening on the mantle over an
No to the gingham bunkbeds, to the
false-doored china hutch
and no to the yellow-haired delicate
doll, though I know
she would gladly be broken again to
The Grolier Poetry
MATTHEW 6: 19-21
Hold off awhile, moth and
rust and thieves—for I love
this world, my heart is
here, where a body breathes.
I’ve seen such treasures, even
of your making: night’s wool,
the frayed holes light comes
through. Burnt sky cracking
the corroded ocean Octobers
the sun goes. Thieves have
taken grief, and the thing
one hated most. So keep
your work up elsewhere, leave
me my store. The young
geologist radioed THIS
before St. Helens sank
him, seized in a dream:
treasure of rupture and force.
What does one fear if not a
loss? How do days in the next
world pass? Nothing to tend,
nothing you’re up against.
No moth, no rust. O Lord let
there be thieves among the angels.
So near, the tide cracks. We are four
birds on the bank above. We watch
worry for the man moving
rap up the beach. He has lost
nothing, has gripped each rock
roundly and swung. We nose
among the pilings, gathering words
share, here, here—
are lonely birds.
tide so near the treaded belts
near to swimming the excavator
to sea. Mid-afternoon, it
forward into the devil’s froth,
back. The boulder in its jaw
counterweight. Speak with
your eyes, bird says to bird.
words in my mouth are rocks
the edge of this fidgeting world.
swim in the devil’s broth.
man at his lever lifts himself
with the bucket, lifts himself
the machine high up—
sand washes in under the treads.
something stable to rest on.
nothing is lost, that way.
- Geri Doran
Lest the wolves loose their whistles
and shopkeepers inquire,
keep moving; though your knees flush
red as two chapped apples,
keep moving, head up,
past the beggar's cold cup,
past fires banked under chestnuts
and the trumpeting kiosk's
tales of odyssey and heartbreak
until, turning a corner, you stand
by a window of canaries
bright as a thousand
I made it home early, only to get
stalled in the driveway, swaying
at the wheel like a blind pianist caught in a tune
meant for more than two hands playing.
The words were easy, crooned
by a young girl dying to feel alive, to discover
a pain majestic enough
to live by. I turned the air-conditioning off,
leaned back to float on a film of sweat,
and listened to her sentiment:
Baby, where did our love go? -a lament
I greedily took in
without a clue who my lover
might be, or where to start looking.
Just when hope withers, a reprieve is granted.
The door opens onto a street like in the movies,
clean of people, of cats; except it is your street
you are leaving. Reprieve has been granted,
"provisionally" -a fretful word.
The windows you have closed behind
you are turning pink, doing what they do
every dawn. Here it's gray; the door
to the taxicab waits. This suitcase,
the saddest object in the world.
Well, the world's open. And now through
the windshield the sky begins to blush,
as you did when your mother told you
what it took to be a woman in this life.
(All three poems, above, first appeared in the Mississippi
Review, Vol. 23, No. 3, 1995. They subsequently appeared
in Mother Love, W.W. Norton, New York,© 1995 by Rita
Dove. Reprinted by permission of the author. All rights
In seventeen hundred, a much hated sultan
visited us twice, finally
dying of headaches in the south harbor.
Ever since, visitors have come to the island.
They bring their dogs and children.
The ferry boat with a red cross
freshly painted on it
lifts in uneven drafts of smoke and steam
devising the mustard horizon
that is grotesque with purple thunderheads.
In the rising winds the angry sea birds
circle the trafficking winter ghosts
who are electric like the locusts at Patmos.
They are gathering sage in improvised slings
along the hillsides,
they are the lightning strikes scattering wild cats
from the bone yard:
here, since the war, fertilizer trucks
have idled much like the island itself.
We blame the wild cats who have eaten
all the jeweled yellow snakes of the island.
When sufficiently distant, the outhouses have a sweetness
A darker congregation, we think the last days
began when they stripped the postage stamps
of their lies and romance.
The chaff of the hillsides
rises like a cramp, defeating a paring of moon . . . its
hot, modest conjunction of planets . . .
And with this sudden hard rain
the bells on the ferry boat
begin a long elicit angelus.
Two small Turkish boys run out into the storm--
here, by superstition,
they must laugh and sing--like condemned lovers,
ashen and kneeling,
who are being washed
by their dead grandmothers' grandmothers.
American Poetry Review
I used to write poems in one sitting while Nick slept.
I printed them out so he could read them
as soon as he woke up. He tried to write about my shoulder once—
I saw a few lines on the back blank cover of my phonebook—
but he never finished. Or maybe it wasn’t my shoulder?
I was always threatened and jealous of Nick’s friend Donna,
and Nick could never make me feel better.
Once he spent a whole day shopping with her
at Lancome and Clinique counters,
helping her pick out which lipstick suited her best,
and he didn’t get why I thought that was sexual.
Nick was a sucker for a pretty face (not always mine)
and it’s a miracle that we even got married
because though he was sweet, he fucked up a lot in those days.
And though I was sweet, I was basically a lunatic.
One night Nick went out with his friend Howard at 6,
promising he’d bring me back dinner in about an hour.
He showed up past midnight—no food—and I was so mad
I couldn’t speak. I had to work the next morning.
Nick was in grad school, so he could sleep in.
The spice rack smashed to the floor.
We were sure it was my anger that softened
the plaster and loosened the nails.
Curry powder splattered onto the six squares of linoleum
in my tiny studio kitchen and stained it yellow.
I stepped on glass slivers and rosemary twigs
until I moved out
so we could get married.
How sweetly disappeared the silky distraction
of her clothes, and before that the delicacy
with which she stepped out of her shoes.
Can one ever unlearn what one knows?
In post-coital calm I was at home
in the great, minor world
of flesh, languor, and whispery talk.
Soon, I knew, the slow surge of dawn
would give way to rush hour and chores.
It would be hard to ignore the ugliness --
the already brutal century,
the cold, spireless malls - everything the mind
lets in after lovemaking has run its course,
when even a breast that excited you so
is merely companionable, a place to rest your hand.
At The Institute for the Study of Liquidities
he's assigned a leaky faucet.
But the constant flow of the incontinent faucet
begins to flood him with emotions.
He is, after all, a man of science, not some
melancholy plumber with a monkey wrench.
It is best, he thinks, to think of ice, which is
somewhat like water, but not quite so liquid.
He writes a research paper entitled, Flux:
Water when chilled sufficiently loses its desire. Water
subjected to low temperatures, left out in the cold, as
it were, loses its emotional liquidity; even as tears
shed from sad dreams turn to crust at the corners of
our eyes; abandoned to the dark by the unconscious
sleeper. So water finds its bone, and comes to ice, as
does the sleeper's tears to crust. . . .
But what about the faucet? sighs the director, It's still leaking. . . .
The Literary Review
How many languages there are to learn,
I’m thinking as I watch the composer
who sits in front of me, reading the score.
With movements almost imperceptible,
he’s counting out a time I just can’t feel.
I hear the cello’s scratchy-throat lament,
the piano’s frantic exultation, but
he knows the something deeper underneath
to which my untrained ear is innocent.
It’s like the Inuits’ countless words for ice:
like salogok, the black young film so thin
it can’t support the weight of a single man;
eyechektakok: a crack that opens and closes
or pulsates with a rhythm of its own.
The Maori have a thousand names for red
that cause our crimson, henna, madder-rose
to pale. I wonder if they have a word
for how the female cardinal’s beak echoes
exactly back the color of her male:
that near-fluorescent, flash alizarin.
I’m thinking about a language to express
the many shades and grace-notes of alone:
the winter night a cold Procrustean trick’s
been played upon you and your bed’s grown huge;
the single candle flickers and it’s you.
But then there are the mornings when the sun’s
so bright it’s all you want for company;
the Friday evenings blasting out The Stones
and dancing like you did at seventeen.
party begins, good morning, like a tiger, a lullaby on the dirge-cusp,
and is gorgeous, not ever sitting one minute, not a moment insouciant,
and absolutely lagging badly in the calm department, carrying life around
in an iron hand-cart-with-peony, and a thousand people a second attend,
drinking elixirs, essence-of-nutrient-flavor, no-fat-bubbled-up-juices,
and all of the guests as troubled and as lithe as cats
and as lonely as any human dog. And all of them talking
rare-specimen-of-horticulture-talk and sparrow-gabble.
They have matches in their pockets and two books: Faust, translated
by the neighborhood Buddha, the tricky one, and another book I forget.
They talk love language in couplets, in near-tears, in the soft sounds
called love sounds that I love; beautiful sheets they wear, beautiful laundry.
There’s a child with an old greenish-metal elephant that was a valentine;
another child has some marbles shiny with good-bye, but no one is thinking
of going yet; it’s only afternoon, maybe it’s later but just. Listen, the last time
you kissed me, yesterday, did you think you had me then? You had me then.
You had me like this party I’m having, this immaculate tinsel, this irony,
this Homeric tradition with salt, this disorder, this groveling, this splaying
and rapture; sweetheart, the silence will be awful when we die and leave.
GRAVITY AND WAGGERY
Yes. And let’s x out homicidal tendencies and crazies
calling in phone booths, but let’s incorporate
drollery, not the head-to-side kind but serious buffoon-like
looks and attitudes toward, for example, birch trees. It is October.
"Those trees are going yellow!"
Further, let’s be dominated calmly by
decorousness as in my friend's
straight-up-and-down back while pouring tea
and parceling out in tiny doses, like lump sugar
or medicine, gossip: who hopped onto what, or whom.
Such is the rocky shoreline of existence, and we should take our sox off.
As for gratefulness, for spasms of exult and very wet, ah, for sheen
mirroring what happens where the bed is, let’s be grave, robbing death
with sex. I would offer up summer woods serious: the great
pleasure of the night and the very next night
and the dog coming along thinking
it’s a little walk just for him, the guiltless, little, winning dog
a replica of Wag, the illustrious leader who would not, would not at all
have death be his subject when there was so much to do
and bound about for, nor did politics interest him in any way.
It was imagination with some magic
my language my locution grand
a pagan Mary hung with buoyant paper flowers
I felt the wind that could have been
I felt the wavy blue the sky
dazzling the wind pressure
out there in the chicory and heaven
Masaccio the unadorned
I stood in the trees and pleasure
without a molecule of sorrow
in my body’s architecture
O candlepower sun
that lit me in the open places
sere abandoned heat and lizards
on the walls of the aggrandized rich
the rich in fear in sleepless fear
the murderous high-cheeked Slavs
I remembered history meaning
in the years of pick-a-war
which bakery did I patronize
I cannot find it in the flash
Limitless trade abetting churches
in the plunder love of rape
as technology on the autostrada
It was a moment in my breathing
In Giotto’s Day of Judgment
Jesus in a circle in the center
archangels like petals round the circle
the apostles on a line of thrones
the saved in the upper parts the
human godly waiting to be judged
opposite a grey hell on the right
so tormented so yes ridiculous
it was a moment without vertigo
so hot with views with trees
the rolling land measured off and rolling
the leggy vineyards big dark bees
the lights north to the city
The American Poetry Review
Amadou Diallo was killed at 1153 Wheeler Avenue on February 4,
1999 by four NYPD officers dressed in civvies. Forty-one shots were fired, and nineteen hit their mark.
In 1948, I didn’t know we had all been sliced
into races. Wheeler was my block, 1145
the two-story walk-up where my family lived.
I didn’t know it was the Soundview section
of the Bronx or that the Bronx wasn’t Brookline.
There was no yellow crime-scene tape, only yellow
and white chalk marks on the gray sidewalk.
1145 kicked like a nightstick when Amadou died
a few potsy-steps from Bruckner: on a clear winter
midnight, memory couldn’t help him survive.
I want to speak of his crime: how he stood in that red-
brick doorway and couldn’t find his tongue, how he knew
no words would help him, that nothing he could say
in the blinding light of four drawn guns would sound like
I am a man, and this is where I belong.
The War Moves On
At Prek Phnou a Cambodian cries,
cradling his slain child in his arms:
she was more beautiful in his eyes
than sacred temples saved from bombs.
In the middle of traffic hurtling from one
shelled zone to another, he crouches,
searches her stunned face — bone
of forehead, lips and tongue, lashes —
understands nothing: finds nothing
to haunt her murderers with, no tally
of specific crimes. Memories of wings
flushed from sky blinds, belly-
flash of expensive fighters homing
towards his home, burnt flesh,
flashbacks of rapes and maimings,
can not help him through this death.
She was untouched — so perfect, he thought
she would go free, would learn peace,
joy of self, could not be lost.
He thought she would outlive his grief.
He kneels with her in the shattered street,
in the center of traffic — numb to the war
hustling on, to its dream of straight
lines slashed through jungles and starved
babies blistering highways like wounds.
The war moves on but he stays
at Prek Phnou — one of the marooned —
stranded, death-bound, in its maze.
from the notes of General Mordechai Gur,
liberator of the Old City of Jerusalem
The soldiers were still trembling.
We had reached the area of the Wall
and few would approach further. Everyone
was on edge, believer and unbeliever.
Then I saw a man — he stood apart,
in the right-hand corner. He was not moving
but seemed glued to the stones: it was as if
he had grown up with the Wall, as if he
and the old stones were brothers. His hands
were laid on the stones, his palms flat to them,
the fingers spread and rigid. No part of him moved —
not his hands, nor his head, nor his hair — his body
would not relinquish its embrace. The sky
above the Wall did not change but deepened
its presence, and the ground beneath his feet
remained in place. I could see he was at prayer,
that he was praying, but it appeared to be more
a long drinking: he was drinking from the stones,
he was breathing them. I could see that he, too,
was stunned into silence and immobility.
I say “he, too,” because I was as motionless
as he: I could not take my eyes from him.
I, too, was being held; I, too, could feel the wash
of centuries flood over me; I, too, felt the pounding
of the Jewish heart reaching into the heart of the stone.
- Charles Fishman
“Wheeler Avenue,” “The War Moves On,” and “Touching HaKotel” from In the Path of Lightning: Selected Poems (Time Being Books, 2012). Reprinted by permission of Charles Fishman and Time Being Books.
The opals the shopclerk tweezed
between her lacquered nails
flashed with such agitation
I knew the young fiancés
could never afford any stone
she floated before their eyes.
Even her jeweler’s terms
to describe shifting auroral
patterns seemed neon buzz
meant more to dazzle unlikely
prospects than define
infinite illusory depths:
fan harlequins, peacock
tails, chaff and straw,
a mackerel sky roiling
with rarest sunset reds—
“much like Napoleon’s gift
to Josephine, The Burning
of Troy.” Then sizing them up,
she let the boy hold
a boulder opal from a Queensland
field (even the name,
Jundah, jumped with fire
from her tongue): She explained
the hidden veins beneath
the outback scrub the dozers
had to peel away like skin,
the mullock heaps, the pickaxed
scars, the faint hopes
sparking with each chisel
blow, till that shard chanced
to split, and the dust-light
shuddered into fire: two carats
cut to the rough contours
of the underlying iron-
stone which cupped the glaze,
so thin the brown rock
bled through in part like a bruise.
Still, from where I stood
nearby, I glimpsed a myriad
of splintered lights charging
that tiny dollop in his
callused palm. How useless,
I thought, my staring into
its frozen turbulence.
What smoldering conquests of mine
could match what he was now
imagining captured in that blaze?
For burning such as his,
I once laid waste
a citadel, spent all I had.
New England Review
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before:
Guy walks into a bar with a duck down his pants,
Says, One for me and one for my friend here.
Barkeep says, That’s no friend, that’s my wife.
Guy walks into a bar with a duck down his pants.
A priest, a rabbi, and a minister
Say, Barkeep, that’s no duck, that’s proof
Of the existence of God.
A priest, a rabbi, and a minister
Put together can’t tell one good joke.
God knows this
But He cannot forgive them for it.
Wherever two or more are gathered in a joke,
There is love, He says. We hear this
But we cannot forgive Him for it.
Suddenly, crashing through the saloon doors,
There is love. And just as He’d said, we know it
By its blonde hair and dead babies.
Suddenly, crashing through the saloon doors,
What’s black and white and re(a)d all over.
By its blonde hair and dead babies,
He says, Barkeep, thou shalt know thy duck.
What’s black and white comes crashing through the door.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
from Lip (Eastern Washington University Press, 2009)
NOW YOU SEE IT
Am I wrong, or were you
the galoot who bitter, blighter,
scatter were. Were the dark
that dawned, that hit, that had me
rue the day, then duck, then hide,
then turn away. The bowls
of my hands made a seashell,
cracked, you could hear the ocean
run through, shell game,
shell shock, after-, electro-, -treat,
I mean wheat, shock of
copper where the penny’s
nicked, your molars
human size but otherwise
exactly like a mastodon’s.
from Lip (Eastern Washington University Press 2009)
The crucifix bent nearly parallel
to earth, the plastic cherubs poised, mid-lim-
bo, under each arm of the cross’s T
were meant to make the unseen visible:
X marks the spot where Jesus called our Jim-
bo home, and were erected solemnly,
in prayer, while semis shuddered half a mile
away and small things moved inside the berm
grass. They were not then the sorry junk we see,
ephemera nodding toward eternity,
til nodding off completely, once and for all.
The highway is a public place and we,
a people dying for a sign. Simple-
ton angels posed in imbecile poses: some-
one thought they’d keep the lost one company,
like giving to a fussy child a doll
to help it sleep, to dream the pleasant dreams
of the oblivious. And look! a teddy
bear for Baby, wreath for Mom, and twistied
to the fence they raised when Junior jumped
the overpass, helium balloons.
This crap from Wal-Mart could outlast us all,
which in our grief is no small com-
fort, since death lasts so much longer, and has no form.
from Lip (Eastern Washington University Press, 2009)
My life began in a closet
among empty skins and dusty hats
while sucking pieces of stolen sugar
Outside the moon tiptoed across the roof
to denounce the beginning of my excessiveness
backtracked into the fragility of my adventure
Curiosity drove me down the staircase
but I slipped on the twelfth step and fell
and all the doors opened dumb eyes
to stare impudently at my nakedness
As I ran beneath the indifferent sky
clutching a filthy package of fear in my hands
a yellow star fell from above and struck my breast
and all the eyes turned away in shame
Then they grabbed me and locked me in a box
dragged me a hundred times over the earth
in metaphorical disgrace
while they threw stones at each other
and burned all the stars in a giant furnace
Every day they came to touch me
put their fingers in my mouth
and paint me black and blue
But through a crack in the wall
I saw a tree the shape of a leaf
and one morning a bird flew into my head
I loved that bird so much
that while my blue-eyed master
looked at the sun and was blind
I opened the cage and hid my heart
in a yellow feather
HERE & ELSEWHERE
The Six Gallery Press
How will it happen
the final exitus
will it be violent
will it hurt
or will it be quiet
full of silence
Will the sordid images
that have haunted us
be suddenly erased
or will they be replayed
in virtual reality
Will we fall
or will we rise
or simply pass through
as one goes through
an open door
to enter a room
Perhaps it will be
from the little box
where it all started
among empty skins
But this time it will be
the final escape
from the great cunt
and this time
without any gurgling
Will the stolen sugar be
as sweet as the first time
and what of the moon
tiptoeing on the roof
will she smile upon us
or remain indifferent
Will there be words
left to describe what
is taking place
words and silences
or will there be only
cries and whispers
HERE & ELSEWHERE
The Six Gallery Press
WORDS OUT OF A BAD DREAM
and if we were to die
unexpectedly while waiting
before the moment came
desire wasted in words
hands barely touching
and if we were to die
one morning in the midst of a dream
an unfinished nightmare
leaving our body cold
at the edge of an afternoon
without an afterward
would they stare at our empty eyes
would they whisper among the stones
invent reasons for our absence
follow our memory while questioning the sky
their steps disturbed by the fallen leaves
or a cloud hiding the sun
would they fumble for umbrellas
and what of the dull horse
dragging us to our place
among millions of unfinished moments
HERE & ELSEWHERE
The Six Gallery Press
Once, years after your death, I dreamt
you were alive and that I'd found you
living once more in the old apartment.
But I had taken a woman up there
to make love to in the empty rooms.
I was angry at you who'd borne and loved me
and because of whom I believe in heaven.
I regretted your return from the dead
and said to myself almost bitterly,
"For godsakes, what was the big rush,
couldn't she wait one more day?"
And just so daily somewhere Messiah
is shunned like a beggar at the door because
someone has something he wants to finish
or just something better to do, something
her prefers not to put off forever
--some little pleasure so deeply wished
that Heaven's coming has to seem bad luck
or worse, God's intruding selfishness!
But you always turned Messiah away
with a penny and a cake for his trouble
--because wash had to be done, because
who could let dinner boil over and burn,
because everything had to be festive for
your husband, your daughters, your son.
The New Republic
THE LIFE AND LETTERS
He got taken quick. Then he hung around.
And anyway, he never really wanted
to be anywhere he was--so why not?
Then from out there and for years the prodigal
wrote back to them--indolent letters, lying
about jobs, a wife he found, kids they had.
Things he used to hear people talking about.
He never even bothered to make it up.
Or tried to keep his stories straight.
His wife? A harem of hair colors.
Kids fizzed up like bugs, then fizzled out.
Well, that's the way his life was, in pieces.
Sometimes his head flashed on something fat
and beautiful. He watched it shoot by.
Then he listened for the crash.
Mostly, he was in the dark, drifting.
And, within limits, less of a chump.
He walked away from a lot of stuff.
There were some things he did. This and that.
Lucky, real dirty work never came looking.
Once he dumped a woman. Later she dumped him back.
That's how the game was played out there, where he was.
So that was that.
Well, just say he was down on his luck.
Or starting now to get it together.
Or he was taking things one day at a time.
Sure, one day at a time--for years on end.
One more also-ran playing out the string.
Or, staring straight ahead, out of the blue
he'd tell whoever was drinking alongside him,
Don't look back, champ, your crap could be gaining.
To which--years later--he took to adding,
And don't look up--you could be overtaking
the next guy's you-know-what...(Solo guffaws.)
So, what did they think of him, out there?
Joke. Embarrassment. Eyesore. Take your pick.
But how could it matter what anyone said
in that rasping, hissing, clanging tongue of theirs?
To tell the truth, since he'd first come to their country
he hadn't heard a thing that stuck to his bones.
Then every once in a while he sat down and wrote.
His words returned--in another's hand:
everyday things people put in their letters,
and howlers only a mother would believe,
and reassuring fluff about the weather,
as if sun were sun, and his rain, like theirs,
could fill the cistern and make green things grow.
And here they were, grinning back at him,
every pitiful, dumb phrase he wrote,
copied over like a holy scripture
in his mother's homespun penmanship
that made his snarled, uncontrollable scrawl
round and plain and easy to read.
Her ABCs were good enough to eat
--bits of dough she'd squeezed, patted, baked
slowly in the little oven of her hands
and strung into necklaces of script.
But if he read those letters at all,
his eyes scribbled some glare before he fed
the page, balled up, to the dark, muttering
demon of trash chained in the corner,
when, drunk or stoned, he plummeted straight down
--with the bulb he never extinguished burning
above his swollen, already aging face.
And then. And then. And then.
And then no letter came back.
And soon no letter went forward.
Why listen now to people talking?
The demon settled into self-consumption.
And everything was still.
Dust silted over the phantom children
he'd never wanted anyhow;
at the end of its rainbow his wife's hair
came to rest on red--forever;
their house faded in the manuscripts.
Though old now, he was still a son
--though no one's son. A promise, then,
without witnesses anywhere to say
if the promise had been kept or not kept.
But didn't he, having no lands, no house,
no wife, no child, no works, didn't he know
what he had done with his heritage?
Then let their silence mute the judgment,
hush the accusation against him!
And now this little corner where he sat
need be no worse than any other
little corner of the universe.
And then one day a witness came forward
--from an old pair of pants, from the pocket.
An old piece of paper.
Smudged with the dregs of big numbers.
And under their blur, in palest blue
--blue of the veins of a vanished wrist--
his mother's hand at its homework
was being true to the words it found.
But there, between the words, in the smeared void
he saw his sentence spelled out.
Of his waste life: pain. Of falsity: pain.
It was a lash. A lifeline. His lifeline
--flung out to him, laid on his hands, in his hand.
With a pencil stub he traced the faint line
of her letters across the yellowed page.
As faithfully as she, as patiently
--as if he need never reach their end
and the words might now become his life--he wrote.
He wrote the date. He wrote, "Dear Son." He wrote, "We're glad
the children all are well again and getting A's."
He wrote, "We're also happy that you like your job..."
He, too, was happy. He, too, was glad. He wrote.
The New Yorker
THE LITTLE CHILDREN OF HAMELIN
Pewter, then silver, the palest gold, an almost
silence we almost could hear, dawn led us out.
So light a sound had lifted us from our pillows.
And to hear it clearer, there at the end
of our hearing where it licked at our ears,
we crept softly away from the sleeping town.
What was it singing, ringing, piping, saying?
One more, one step more, and all that we always
were overhearing at last would speak to us
--where the world, whispering whispering, was.
Like a reed, hollow green tender heaven-high,
he played, and the world sang out of his mouth
in flowers; crocus and columbine and daisy
and rose the iris the lilac the lily blew
and scattered and flew, arrows we chased after
in the light in the wind into the world
until we had no names left to call them only
our shouts and cries that burst from his mouth and bloomed.
The stones in the road clattered and clay laughed.
We are little children. Our parents say.
And everything happens. Sun brightens the sky.
We play. They call us in to supper. We sleep.
We wake to promises they made to us.
Today we'll visit Auntie. Tomorrow we pick
flowers in the field. One day, we shall go to school.
And always through the porridges and pennies,
the playthings and pettings, a question scurries
out of sight down small black holes in our dreams.
What do they need us for? What use are children?
--so easy to overlook and leave behind,
too weak to draw a dogcart up a hill,
who own nothing, to whom nothing is owed.
Let them say they wanted us, we don't believe
in grownups' love, but in the mercy of their whims.
We knew the sweetness of power, it knew us.
The road coursed along, coursed through us, like song,
smoothing our way. All the words in the world, every
thing, all that our parents held aloof, became
the tune's single word. Because we had nothing,
we who had nothing else, now had the word.
We were his children, and he was our champion.
And so we followed him, column and tongue
of sunshine and sound, of revelation,
to know how high how deep how far life could lead.
And nothing nothing resisted our song.
A mile or two gone by and we understood
the one we followed in the golden tatters and
the green patches of a roaming tree, he knew,
though it was strange and jolly, a single tune
he piped to himself alone over and over
--lonely as we should be had we never been born.
How sad for him--his only playmate was a song!
And so we trooped along and kept him company,
and knew then that not everything is made clear:
secret within each secret a darkness keeps mum.
On the last hill we looked back a last time,
and saw a town shining beside its silver stream.
So that was our village, where we'd always been!
See, we exclaimed to ourselves, to each other,
there in the tiny streets, those little people
so much smaller than we are, those must be
our parents--just see them circle and stamp
their heavy feet as if battering down the dirt
of a grave into place. And spring aloft again!
Look, their heavy pockets are leaping up, too!
Are they dancing their dismay, having seen us
go marching away? Or skipping about in joy
since we are all the little coin they had to pay?
Look now! like living things the gold swollen
inside their pockets grows bigger as they leap!
Within a wall of wind a well of water rose
enclosing a void where one unbearable noise
was a crowd of voices roaring all at once.
The dark tongue drew us up into its song.
And there we floated while the sweetest voice sang,
"Only you can save them--say you will save them!
Even now they think of you and say, 'We were deaf,
heard nothing, not the piping, or the patter and
chatter of our babies leaving, going away,
and kept our coins because we were afraid to die.
They knew better than we the right way to live.
We'll follow our children and be like children, too'
--for what you left behind you gave away,
and what you shall refuse to claim is more and more
abundance you bestow. A world so abounding
is a world of innocence and a world
without death." Oh yes, we will, we shouted,
but tell us, How much must we give away?
"Everything," the voice sang, "everything. And yourselves.
And at the last you yourselves will be given,"
sang the voice fading, letting us down, "away."
Mouth a darkness, pipe a cracked bone wheezing
bloody spittle to the ground his back was that bent
down, mound of rotting rags like a walking grave
--an old man led us, piping himself into
the earth, and we his raggletaggle funeral.
Helpless, compelled, we clung to his suffering,
knowing a thing so horrible must be holy.
Sometimes, wanted to comfort, and dared not touch;
sometimes, tootled on our toy pipes to please him;
or ran ahead, howling, taunting, Old man! Old man!
Catch us if you can!--adding our children's mite to
whatever power it was had marked him for its own
and danced a mad jig now on his miserable flesh.
Life could lead as far as deep as he had crept
--then left him good as dead, and still he lived:
Complete. Real. Past help, hurting. Alone. Accursed.
Powerful with what rejoiced, destroying him.
From this final milepost every step must start.
We vowed to carry him with us everywhere
we went, and felt on our heads blessing descend.
Suddenly the pipe was still, piper was gone.
In the place of his mouth a river squirmed, squealed
--one endless rat of one million rats drowning
and drowned: Rat River, cobbled with sleek rat backs
and wet rat bellies, where little rat feet slipped,
and caught in the thatch of rat whiskers and tails.
Black bubbles boiled up gleaming and looked at us.
White foam raged and gnawed at the night for breath.
Abandoned by music, and frightened to death
by death, then and there we'd have turned and run home,
but the wind at our backs brought us happy sounds
of children who scraped our bowls and rolled our hoops
and called our pets--laughing, golden children grown
from gold coins our parents hoarded when we left.
"You can, you can, come over here, come over here,
if you are light enough, slight enough, faint enough..."
little voices were calling out, and calling out
from over the squealing river, "I'm lonely here!"
--runaway children, abandoned and lost children,
stolen children, and strays, and foundlings, and poor waifs
sold to be someone's slaves were calling out to us;
and the ghost children we children would never have
from the distant shore were singing, "Please play with me!"
But when we crossed to them, we found no place at all,
no children there, but voices saying, voices singing,
You can, you can, be music too, be music too,
forever, and forevermore. And so, and so, we were.
If on a summer's night, unable to sleep,
you throw open a window to the starry sky,
and the softest air from far off enters your head,
and life is wide with possibility again,
before returning to the sweetness of your bed
and the charmed oblivion of your dreaming,
remember us lost on night's farthest shore,
and linger on a little while at your window
to hum, though faint and broken, this story you hear.
Buy yourself back, father, mother, you can,
you can, for the price of a song, you can,
from death--and take us in, feel us, feel
us, give us a home here in your breath!
The Paris Review
Last night the wind came down from Canada
ill-starred and wailing: a black sail flapping
loose on the axle pole. And everything
I know of misery rose in the dark
trying to yell its way out.
This poem is
about a living room and a blue chair,
about a pair of shoes, and a body
I knew better than my own, the husband's
body my body has forgot. Nor would
I recognize or recall--if it walked
in now in those shoes I picked out for him--
the old hollows, the way our flesh must have
waked and curved to each other, how sinews
of his shoulder were attached to carve out
the place I lay my head.
This is about
what happens to what you can't remember
because the mind's job is to save your life--
cauterizing, cutting it out. What's gone
is forced to wander the brain looking for
the warm spot, the open-arms spot where it
used to live. Only things remain--a chair,
a pair of empty shoes scurrying down
the neural corridors, scuffing up dust,
dropping echoes like desperate pebbles in
their wake, having nothing but a voiceless
tongue of dried leather, all frenzy and wag.
Come in the silent acting in a dream now wayfarer
come back from that deepest paradise
where all that haven’t breath the breathless mouth
may summon: Tell us all about your journey fishing::
barbels: stony teeth in the throat: aching shoulders:
and what Florida locals call tailing (the drifting fleece)—
drum underneath the flutter—: fecund
with slender parasites: beauty’s flesh::
tasting of waters you taste and you say light dyed.
- Carol Frost
The little boy,
fifty years ago, thinks that his cereal
from Battle Creek,
Michigan, is somehow the serial
he likes to be
scared by at Saturday matinees,
and the cowboys’
checkered tablecloth is the same
as the Ralston
cereal box with its red and white squares.
Words flicker and
gallop like Gun Battlers of Grim Creek—
reappear, black hats, white hats,
white puffs of
smoke, rifle fire, pistol fire.
The herd tumbles
over the bank. Heard they robbed the bank!
Words have little
smells, tastes. Saw horses. Sea horses. Shoe trees.
Shoo fly. Button
your fly. Defense stamps. Offense, fence.
invisible. Hot dog. Dogfight. Planes. Cross the plains.
hanger. Pea. Pee. P. Polite. Light pole.
ex-little boy learns that in Battle Creek
they turned to the
breakfast cereal business,
nuts, early in the twentieth century
because the demand
for animal feed was diminishing.
That’s what makes
him remember cereal and serial,
etc., and how one
thing leads to another.
The grown man
thinks now that maybe he has lost something,
that maybe now
he’s so sure of his words, that they mean
what they mean,
that they are those same things,
that he’s lost the
feel, the texture, the little aromas
Baseball, bowl, bowel. He doesn’t really hear
the words, because
they always mean something.
So the man goes
around saying train, traaain,
aviary. He walks his dog
and says tree,
three, three tree houses, mouse.
He is so happy! He
wraps his tongue
around the words.
He tastes them. People look at him.
He gets out of his
car and says look, walk, watch,
wind, windshield wiper.
He gets back into
his car and turns on the wipers,
which scuff and
squeal because it isn’t raining.
He remembers the
little song of the windshield wipers.
saduffa. More and more comes back.
He is a little boy
again, sitting between his parents,
makes no sense to him. Pamphlet. Ambassador.
He loves them.
Superintendent. Arbitrary. He’s going home.
You think he’s
likely to function well in this world?
You think he will?
Would you bet your beans on him?
The cop is
probably walking toward him right now.
He’ll have trouble
understanding anything seriously.
Serially. See? Certainly. Central. Circle. Creek. Cereal.
The Gettysburg Review
When my daughter’s pit bull Lilith
began dragging me toward a line of cedars
bordering the field, I gripped her leash
in both hands and leaned back
as though water-skiing, letting
her take all my weight more slowly
across those dips and swells of grass
toward whatever back there
was moving fast and keeping to
the trees, buffeting branches,
haunch of a big dog I thought I saw,
or a jogger, until a black bear
went galloping down the tree line.
Suddenly oxygen-deprived, I saw things
as through thick glass in the August heat
that had dropped its deep-sea diver's
helmet over me and was starting
to knot the source of air.
Then the sirens, adding their wail
to the cicadas, taking the curse off
the fireplug dog yapping and leaping
as if to offer us up as prime morsels,
her purple tongue flagging,
and taking me back forty or fifty years
to the kind of misery that made
our mother wring her hands--My boys
are so wild! Even a bear foraging
among the motels and gas stations
at the city's edge might approximate
human misery at seven o'clock
on a Sunday morning--a quart of
maple walnut or a bag of chips
at the Zipmart, say--and
a solid citizen out walking a dog
might root for the bear as it drove
to a chainlink fence it never even
paused to puzzle out, but took it
as a teen-aged felon would,
one crash in the yaupon
and crepe myrtle and gone.
The Laurel Review
A fuzzy burr above my head, you woke me,
escaped I thought from the dream place
into this February night, the moonlight
ringing outside like iron on the snow.
Then you were buzzing around my skull,
maybe sensing brainfold heat escaping
through the faults a truck gave me
when I was nine and dashing for home
after Tommy Hendry’s mother caught us
lowering her son two stories
in a rope and crate arrangement.
You’re months early, and must have
thawed out of the stovewood I brought in
yesterday. But who are you, puzzling
yourself in the dark about me, struggling
through my forearm’s undergrowth?
Not a junebug strumming as though
its bald music is a ticket to the light,
but one of those other summer screen lives
that seem impromptu, assembled for
one evening, put together of whatever
detritus is lying around--
bits of cornshock, seedcoat, petal, twig.
Are there eyespots on your wings that
make you look like the local anchorwoman,
or red eyes blinking in the dark
so you seem an escapee from a gospel’s
illuminated margin? No matter.
Be a cranial effusion or winged crustacean
soul hatched from a glaucous web
down in the cauldron of the marsh, be one
of whatever this dark makes possible,
a welcome traveler of the synapses
between leaps of being.
In three months time it will seem
as though you bought
a 99-cent ticket to the Big Top:
a small green vehicle with orange
circus hubcaps will appear
in your garden, and send out of
every exit pattypans
yellow and green, clearing your fence
in their ruffs
and frills, and still more
clowns of the vegetable kingdom
will brave thistles in striped, edible hats
dangled with a marigold
here and there for keeping bugs away,
the whole troupe freckled
variously and sniffing the day lilies
with zucchini beezers and golden honkers,
not a nose in sight, but impossible blue
hubbard shoes fleeing up the paths
on their lifelines.
He hammered his heart until it was ready,
smeared some ointment where it was meant
to be and where it wasn't, laved it on his breath,
his child's favorite soap pipe, his eyes, his teeth,
the belly he'd sooner not have, the spooned meat
for the dog that had to come with him.
He flexed the bald soles of his bottommost bones,
his toes curling in as though afraid
of what was coming, then accepting the burden.
He did the required elongations, the rotations
his training manual forgot, readied his suspensions
of disbelief at what he was about to do,
steeled his eye and the muscles he could reach,
said his kneeldown prayers and faretheewells
and set off, as if a gun had told him, Go.
When, in Naples, estranged
from his paternal Rome,
Caravaggio dreamed the boy
he killed back onto the tip
of his blade, his sword bending
again under the boy's sudden weight,
he worked all night, with oils
and dread, and self-love, which is the eye
at the center of our grief, altering
the lines of the lips, darkening each hair
on the beard, and swirling his gaze
into the giant's eyes, until his own face
bloomed like an exiled flower
from the stalk of Goliath's neck,
loose veins dangling like roots, and when
he had finished, two brushes drying
on a windowsill, the city
blushing with an early dawn
below, he could hear
the sellers' carts being wheeled
into the marketplace, he could sense
himself, each painted atom,
in a mound of fruit spilled into the street,
the arc of his life, for the first time
in months, cast out beyond his fear,
so that he knew there might be
some small portion
of pleasure, even in the dying,
some sweetness. Then,
because the murderer inherits
the sins of the murdered one,
or because of exile and arrogance,
all those miles to Rome, like the stations
of the cross, because of anxiety,
or the fruit sellers, outside, calling forth,
greedily, their own portions
of the day, the most famous
painter on earth felt his death
warrant flutter like a flag above the Rome
inside of him, and when he turned
back to the painting, when he stared
into the spotlight of his face, his head swinging
in David's hand, like a lantern,
as if it might guide them, fearless,
through the valley of their myth,
he felt the self evaporate,
the way a reflection is absorbed
into a stained-glass window,
so that he could pray not for pardon
or forgiveness, but for the boy he killed
to be called forth into the frame,
into David's face, made tender
by the slaying, resurrection light
all along his skin, so that he
could ask with humility,
and for more than himself: of sins,
are all our paintings made?
The Marlboro Review
Among the daffodils, setting for a Greek tragedy:
behind the old parsonage, Ted roots out nettles,
mulches strawberries. Apple blossoms promise
cookers and eaters. He toils to develop a play:
a man runs down a hare which he sells to a butcher,
obtains cash to purchase red roses for his mistress,
or he watches a raven in an oak, undecided
to use his shotgun to shoot the bird or himself.
Sylvia pegs nappies to the line, dreams of spikes,
blood on the moon. A chorus moans judgement:
interns watch a post mortem through plate glass.
-Christopher T. George
The Poetry Kit
Guernica by Picasso
Even after all these years, the women are still screaming,
fingers transmuted into sausages or sardines
that won't stop the babies from falling.
Body parts mix with those of bull and stallion:
eyes flared, hooves, horns, teeth, faces ripped in two.
The bellows of animals become human.
-Christopher T. George
(the poetry) Worm
(To my uncle, Douglas R. Matchett, 1915-2007)
You desired to make me your receptacle
for all you knew. No child of your own,
you meant to pass to me your lifetime’s
knowledge of history, flora, and fauna.
So you introduced to me by its Latin name,
a rare speckled orchid on St. Aldhelm’s Head,
by the side of the hermit’s ruined chapel.
Named the swirling birds, cormorants, auks,
as we hiked along Beeny Cliff, the waters
below us twinkling with a million suns.
You prepared the strains of knowledge
like skeins of wool at a spinning wheel,
sheep’s wool caught in clifftop barbed wire.
We slid down the shale to Kimmeridge Bay
seeking fossil ammonites and trilobites,
the world’s wisdom in a raptosaur’s tooth.
-Christopher T. George
(the poetry) Worm
I never understood the words
Take, eat. . . until
Joan brought to the hospital
a sprig of basil, and Jean,
who hadn’t eaten
more than a daily mouthful,
keeping her eyes closed,
put her hand on Joan’s
and drew the basil close.
Breathed it in, smiled,
paused—then, guiding the basil
into her mouth, ate.
Ate all of Greece,
Corfu especially, and Crete.
Ate goat cheese and a crust
of bread, the dust
of ruins and wild thyme.
Kissed her dead husband’s
living mouth, wrapped
around her body
a wide shawl
from Oaxaca’s market.
Wrote in her journal.
for those made homeless
by war, said
something in Italian,
in Spanish, in German.
Said light. Remembered
merriment and evening wine.
Uncorked new bottles
she’d made from dandelions
gathered in fields
thick with sun. Walked
outside at night to watch
the slow, sudden comet
arc between the cedars.
Made her way to the garden
to harvest beans.
Sat quietly with friends.
Set the table, mended socks,
tended whatever needed
tending—for of such
is the kingdom of heaven.
And wasn’t it heaven
and earth entire
she swallowed? One leaf.
Absolute and momentary.
Leaf of final emptiness
leaf of open windows
and self-watchful passion.
Leaf of Antares, Arcturus,
lamplight and fountain.
One leaf, she took.
One leaf, she breathed.
One leaf, she was. . .
published in The Georgia Review
It's late afternoon, winter, the ache of evening coming on,
As if someone had told me, You're in Texas now, that long dark state--
Keep driving. And I'd like to say a little something here
About the protocols of dying, the fineness of final lines and so on.
But no one knows the rules. Laws, yes, no end of laws,
From dognapping to murder in the last degree. I refuse the blindfold,
But not the cigarette. Why go on with arguments and evidence?
Let's just agree the whole thing's richly confused, and leave it at
No dream of foghorns will lift the dreams of fog.
And there's no danger in small men with big ideas, or women so deep
They must have false bottoms, like a spy's suitcase. Off they float
On a raft of wrong opinions, soreheads in the backwater.
Fact: in dolphins, only one side of the brain sleeps at a time.
Fact: oysters can change their sex at will, though that's not why
Known as bivalves. Fact: weasels suck eggs better than your grandma
I could live on slops and oxygen, if I had to. I could quote you
Chapter and verse from a Tijuana Bible. I keep my pencils
Lined up in an ammo belt, and my blaspheming tongue in cheek.
In light of my wrecked childhood, would you say I was born
From a deviled egg? Those infant years of swamp fever and shame--
Diapers of burlap, lullaby of blues, nipple like a shotgun shell . . .
I'm not the type to go barefoot in the ferns, or find myself
Run off by slanders and stampedes. And I never send back,
Whatever the address, any letters postmarked from Venus.
In the private history of heartbreak, lovers get laid away
Like linen in a cedar chest. I've been around the butcher's block
A few times myself. Love's here and not here, like neon at noon.
In secret, I add everything up, the sublime and felonious,
A dim sum of circumstance at a moveable feast. And always an answer
Swanks out, raised to a ravishing level, like four-inch heels on a
In the Church of Lost Souls, we've been promised a heaven of
Hibiscus and flamingoes, not this perpetual hell in the hinterlands.
Baptized in gin, we confess our grievous virtues to the universe.
That's why two martinis bring the sunset down, and then
A stupor of stars, and then the moon like a doctor in his white coat,
At the hour of mercy, in a night no man can put asunder.
The Gettysburg Review
what keeps us company is not
here the bare space
cat was is simply
where if there was a voice
in a corner
of the world it’s gone
something then hung up
wants to cross an absolutely empty
field at midnight probably not even you
if you were
here gangs of crows hover
shadows never mind the abandoned
by the roadside
spiked with wishes stars blackened
to repair and orphanages
of skinless small you’s crying
motherless each in our air-tight
capsules zipped the cities of time are full
taxi drivers where do they go
they’re not talking or listening
radio grid to the score keeper
churches won’t do
or the stock market’s
stranglehold on the soul’s economy
no company coming
to share the jug wine
single self bless itself
it can but
maybe it doesn’t have to
breaths meet one sighing out
plate sometimes at the tip
there are three
than three the night sky’s diagrams
faceted than black
revolving a single player strikes
out the doorbell
rings and there’s no one only an extremely
something or someone
what, change a few bucks
to save the
world spin it
three bases glittering towards home wherever
is such complicated
stretch between us doubled then tripled
in a cat’s
to point flashing what if the cab driver really
where we’re going
of space hum with so many different
fields mysterious dark
matter vast plateaus of cold
hot bristling spheres flying
here only wait
over the hard packed
between empty triangles
ocean and we’re in it occasionally
warm dragging mountainous swell comes
nowhere if there is actually
place how can there
or an end
the wave doesn’t know
dangling feet elegantly lifts us
nearer towards where
The baby is glue, the
baby is a drug,
for she makes us hungry and delirious.
Have you seen the
uncles shake their faces like monkeys, lips floppy and moist, saliva
boring need to be loved.
The eyes of the baby are lucky nickels in a row. But your age has
your sadness a woolen sari.
You are full of stirs and folds, whips and dark layers.
How might you approach the baby? Not with desire, arms before you
like Mighty Mouse.
Nor with entitlement, scary eyebrows, or castle armaments of teeth.
Make yourself small. The baby is an Alice in Wonderland door, tiny
beneath the hedges.
She is naked, skin like whipped sugar, fingers pink fiddleheads.
Remember that shoe store Happy Feet and Smiling
Remember when the names for little things weren't sickening?
Touch that fantastic little foot. The baby is an implant, a fresh
She will take. She will take you away with her.