Poetry

The Wedge

And in the marshy field that drinks some of
this river, legs muffed in shifting steam,
pale geese negotiate and wrangle, preen
and complain, beaks the black of a leather glove
and gauntlets already thrown down in rage.
The territory, contested mates, the page
of the pecking order struck out and reprinted.
Their foghorns sound a newly-minted
leader’s coronation, then the lot
are off again in an elegant V
that constantly shuffles its hierarchy,
which navigates the bitter winds though the squawk
of contention keeps clamoring on and on.
Make them our republic’s emblem, its callsign.

SONNET

The bridal white of Everest’s lonely peak
has felt the weight of men’s ascending tread,
and captured some, descending slow and weak,
and wrapped them close in cold, forever dead.
The corpse-light graying dust upon the moon
has borne the rocket’s color and its heat,
but cooling quickly, has returned to gloom
with Luna unremarking at our feat.
And far from dreams of ice or unlit space,
We want for warmth and shelter; never know
which structure, seed, or ever-focused face
will last the longest, make a mark, or grow.
But: When our work is sucked into the Sun,
A greater voice will answer us: “Well done.”

Christmas Crow

A bird is trapped in my house, a crow,
             a starling. I do not know birds.

And he keeps battering himself
             against the windows. Then, like any bird

in a poem or song, he sings. I want to keep him
             here, until Christmas, when I bring in the tree.

Then he will feel more at home, a pine
             or fir tree in the living room. I do not know trees.

As he hovers over the nativity, I will play him a blessing
             on the piano where he has been leaving

his shit for a month, and we will all sing to him:
             “Brich an, o schönes Morgenlicht.”

How could a bird not love Bach in German?
             All the birds like Bach, I’m assured, by other birds.

How much will he love me when, on Epiphany Sunday,
             I set him free, and like a carol, a hymn, a curse

he rises in the clipped cold and flies
              his bright shadow across the January snow?

 
 
 

Love Came Down at Christmas

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, love divine;
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and angels gave the sign.

Worship we the Godhead,
Love incarnate, love divine;
Worship we our Jesus:
But wherewith for sacred sign?

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and to all men,
Love for plea and gift and sign.

 

 

A Family Gathering

The way each face is a slightly different version
of the ones around it,
like different coins of the same currency.

Tito Luis, the nickel, with his broad nose and chiseled cheekbones.

Lolo, with his quarter-like profile,
having brought his family to liberty in America,
gazing, a bit troubled, like George Washington into the future.

And so on and so forth

till we get to the pennies, the children,
plentiful yet dissimilar to what their currency denotes,
crowded around the others,
faces upturned to all that surrounds them
in the pocket of our home.

NAPTIME

I am twin-horned, big-hooved and dewlapped;
also thick-kneed and sway-haunched.
I wander past the couch and slump
as Sleep the Stunbolt Gun
punches metal rod through brindled hide.
Slumber the Anesthetist
ensures that (strung up by knobby hocks) I am painlessly
throat-slit and exsanguinated.
Over the next few hours
the meatman busily apportions my shank, rib, and short loin
into white paper packages tied up with string.

If You Were On Fire, I Would Sing Happy Birthday

Late autumn, November-the-somethingth, how you’re supposed
to know what to do when someone says, play dead—but you don’t,

you asked for a story, but were given a body failing another

and failing at it. In my dreams, I dress you as a bird and shoot you
as soon as I free you. I want to bury you, try to bury you. I walk away.

And then, I wake up. Every time. Most of my dreams are irrational:

my teeth turn to gravel and fall out in handfuls, I run without looking
wherever I’m supposed to be going, someone tries to kill me with a steak

knife or hit me with a Honda Civic, I die holding holly berries
and come back as St. Francis. Most of my decisions have been wrong.

Or made of iron. I go to work and come home at the end of the day.

I turn off all the lights. I hold my hands between my knees, then my head
in my hands. If you were made of glass: I would know how to hurt you

without looking, even if it counted for nothing—something, at least,
inevitable: how time will never end as long as there is light, how light will

never stop fucking light to make more light. Bad planning, those dreams,
how I never planned on planning to, and then to, leave you where you fell.

The Window Shoppers

Strolling the malls, in the bauble-bright late Fifties,
My schoolmates’ parents could be nonchalant.
Not mine. Already earners in the Thirties,
They’d known the rancid tang of actual want

And window-browsing made their faces glow.
The daylong sourness on their tongues and teeth
Melted, there in the mall at Seven Corners.
Hope ringed their heads like a cigarette-smoke wreath.

Yet any actual purchase somehow came
Salted with supper-table arguments.
Grinding their teeth on loveliness, they dreamed.
Waking, they gripped the bills and scrounged the cents.

So now they have brushed platinum, ruched satin,
Rose-wreathed extravagance. The sort of waste
Their frugal heads would frown on, I have chosen.
God of abundance, let their starved souls taste.

The Man of Double Deed

There was a man of double deed,
Who sowed his garden full of seed;
When the seed began to grow,
‘Twas like a garden full of snow;
When the snow began to melt,
‘Twas like a ship without a belt;
When the ship began to sail,
‘Twas like a bird without a tail;
When the bird began to fly,
‘Twas like an eagle in the sky;
When the sky began to roar,
‘Twas like a lion at my door;
When my door began to crack,
‘Twas like a stick across my back;
When my back began to smart,
‘Twas like a penknife in my heart;
And when my heart began to bleed,
‘Twas death, and death, and death indeed.

-Anonymous / Traditional

Shaving

The razor’s wet and ragged glint
goes shining on the face it shaves.
You suck in air—aloe and mint.
The razor’s wet and ragged glint
marks your oath, takes devotion’s tint.
You say: “This ceremony saves.”
The razor’s wet and ragged glint
goes shining as it shaves.

 

 

 

 

PLAYA DE LOS COCOS

The problem with the tropics
is the problem with mankind:
there is no neat conclusion
to the analogy being presented.

In the same way, there is no
subsequent comparison that
makes more sense of what’s
been stated; the world’s

already as sensuous as it can be
and as huge with palm trees
and agave bushes along each
bright road and beach.

Too hot, too hot for white men,
even if they’re sandaled
and white-hatted, even if
they’re pale with protective cream

they melt into its breezes
and its nighttime, its music
of stray and wending walkways
and swaying wood-planked bridges.

They say last night, at a dead
bistro called Los Pirates,
where we’d stood last week
listening to rushes of rocks rolling

in and out with the surf,
a cop was shot to death,
and this the second such
in as many weeks at that place.

The problem with the tropics
is the problem of taking too long
to make an off-topic point
under an impossible sun.

 

 

Waiting for the Gloom to Lift

The waves break in happy repetition
without regard for temperature or cloud cover
as if they knew their journey
would end here, in a sandy atonement
that never seems to end.
I, and all the others on the boardwalk,
stand guilty before the surf.
I need something more to make me
crest and foam with joy.

The Trail

I find the trail
the same as it has ever been,
highbush blueberry and rock,
ringed by hills,
the monsters of my boyhood nights.
Rediscovery is brought to grief
by the absence of so many.

Viburnum mist cloaks the way ahead
but the crunch of my footsteps on
last year’s leaves is all
the navigation I need.
On each side, firs compete with oaks
to see who can block the most sun.
For a time at least, the deciduous triumph
over the tall green lords of winter.

My reasons for coming here
are my reasons for being anywhere.
The present is like the head of a long line.
I’m drawn to turning it back on itself.

I find the pond where I had scooped up tadpoles,
run my fingers down the deep furrowed bark of white ash,
listen to the caw of unwelcoming crows
and the piping curiosity of chickadees.
All is as before. A forest is memory outside the head.

Ziplock

There is no hallmark card for this.
I watch you walk away from me,
further upwind, watch you pull your father
from a box, open his ziplock – watch him
slip through the cracks of your loose fist
into a wind ready to wipe lives clean,
ladle death down valleys.

I swear the ashes take a form
before they separate forever.

You told me that, for you,
he died twice. Once
was a lie we don’t understand.

This time you pull a certificate of cremation
from the tin, then photographs.
I see your face in his.

MATSUSHIMA (After Bashō)

I took a boat through two-hundred islands going nowhere in particular. At night there was wind. I walked the empty streets–no one stopped me. Then, morning and some snow. Well, here I am. I smiled and bowed. I didn’t read a newspaper or offer an opinion.

Islands piled upon other islands. “Smoke of burning leaves and pine cones drew me on,” read one translation.

The moon rose. I wandered from room to room–in each, I looked through a window. The window looked back. It was the beginning of the new year.

 

 

 

Featured Image by:  Jon Grönholm

Fiat

We have had a difficult swim through all that:
there were days when your hair was greasy,
the aureole absent, but the absence revealing
once presence, the summer will of God.

There were days when my voice was hollow,
arched with hesitance, hour of iridescence
alighting in an ash-washed room: dry bones
indicating since past gestures of grace.

Measure your time with split-pea soup
and eat a peach while you’re at it, but
what does that leave behind? After this
our exile, after this our prayerless day

show us into the blessed fruit of presence,
the bread of the womb, the visible hand,
not aura but annunciation, that which is
plain, spoken, announced.

GO’AL NEFESH (גועל נפש)

I am an honorary Jew,
for I believe in Jesus

says the white woman
who does not weep for ancestors or descendants

My grandfather was a Jew
He didn’t believe in Jesus

He fled Europe and regretted it
He felt his people must move

I am a Jew
skeptical of Jesus

I know that woman feels she owns
the burning stench
the dying

I am a Jew
Jesus was a Jew
Suffering is not unique to us

The ashes you think are yours
are not yours

Over Heard

My daughter’s dance class:
A brave octet of blue-clad torsos, all
Delicate and strung tight with snare drum ribs.
They gallop like crabs

Gone dizzy with light.
A lone piano chord sends them spinning.
We’re born from beneath a throb of human
Song. We hear sound raw,

Drink it in gulps, and
            Wheel away laughing.

            And then
      I drop a needle on Debussy, sewing vinyl tones
      Into the backdrop of cleaning and home repairs. Dear man,
      Who left the ocean for La Mer, mind lost in a scherzo
      While his fourth mistress pointed a revolver at her chest—

      It was 1904. His friends said, no, he did not play
      The piano, but attacked it, like a brother enraged,
      Lost and mad east of God’s polyphonic garden.
      In ignominy, he must bash the keys to waken me.
             Selah.

Grandmother’s mother.
She plays dominoes after breakfast with
Whoever loves life enough to visit
An old, tired woman.

She repeats herself.
Forgetfulness and age, so we all say.
Or, the wisdom to know you never hear
Everything at once.

Even the short tales
       Have to be spun twice.

Religious Music Played by an Antique Musical Box  

Would you let me tell you about the dream you had last night?
You were in a long hallway, swimming upstream, slight,
Pale women moving past, not meeting your eyes but
Muttering, blurry words, faded & slurred, the meaning shut

Behind the windbreak. & how did you feel about it?
Envious! The subtlety of those ladies!

You wish you could be so elusive, feeling as you do
That your own words always beam too bright, like new shoes,
Like the precocious kid who always knows the answer,
So clear, so concise, thus deficient & piteous, sure

To eventually be wilted like a paper flower
Under a 40,000 watt bulb.
 
Then morning comes, the kitchen & radio, the routine.
From the other room the click of an answering
Machine. (We still have an answering machine?) &
The little tape rolls, lapping up the thoughts of an

Unshaven man stationed in the outerboroughs, his prayerbook
Spread wide in his lap, the pages yellowed,

His collar yellowed, & you are heartened to consider
The physicality of them: his words, I mean, conserved
Forever on that little brown strip, written down
By a hulking specter who stands slightly shorter than

A grain of salt. But this mothering instinct some of us
Have: what does it look like?

A handkerchief to tie back her hair? A cigarette break
In the back parking lot of the hospital? An antique
Map of Ohio in the glove box? I’ve always known
This place was teeming with ghosts, but I feel way more alone

Now that they’ve occupied your frame, your taste, your visage, your
Chest a message from beyond, & the distance to the farthest star in the universe
Is only the prologue. That’s only just a place to start.

I’m sure you won’t believe this but I’ve spent almost every night
For the past forty years lying so still, quiet,
Eyes closed, a riot of sound in my skull, retired
School teachers, or my dad (this is my dream now) hired

By the administration to check & see if I’m OK.
If I’ve finally completed my work. I appreciate the gesture,

But no actual help has ever yet come. My granddad
Always drowned the whelps to keep the bitch from weaning, he said
It would hurt her hunt. All of them in a canvas sack
On the dinner table before he left for the lake.

Squirming, but cozy & warm. They did not whimper.
I almost said hideous. I almost told you my real name.

kinderflauten

My feet, at the ends of my legs, do their job.
My face competently presents itself to others.

My hands do their job of grasping fruit
from my neighbor’s grove while my eyes

do their job of glancing back and forth.
My legs coordinate with my hips and feet to run

while my heart does its job of beating faster.
My teeth and jaws do their job of masticating,

and my tongue and throat do their jobs, too.
Men and women in town do their jobs.

Children don’t do their jobs. They’re lazy.
Horrible children who never work!

A child flautist approaches me slowly.
She is trying to trick me into falling asleep!

 

 

Lessons of the Eucharist

In teaching babies, one points to objects:
“Lamb.” “Food.” “Lamp.” “Spoon.”
One guides baby’s hand.

Still splotches of oatmeal smear onto chin,
drips of small drops.
The lamb sits with stitched lips.

Baby babbles, coos, and splatters what he eats.
Till one meal, with arms waving out staccato,
baby says “Foo—” and waits open-mouthed.

Discernment

I saw the upright, the one with wolfish eyes
hungering behind a window.

“Let the Lord overtake,” she said,
“him who walks securely in pretense.

For my eyes have seen the secret moments,
the hidden glances, pauses; the tics of his eyebrows.

Look—I have collected the broken lines of his speech.
I have heard his quiet thoughts.

Deliver him, I pray,
to my insight’s prediction, unaided, unabated”

Gnawing her hands, her discernment was whetted.
And I, nibbling, stopped and looked away.

 

 

 

Cigarette

When He began creating
Billows of dark clouds
I assumed His perceptions must be
The eye of the storm.

I couldn’t yet see
That the Hurricane would whip away
His baby fat and leave him
Sniffling, nose bloodied by the Wind

Now it’s easy to lose
The baby boy
In the Cloud of Smoke
As he consumes It
And It, him.

Tradition

A handing down. To us

 

from Latin trans-, over (or across or beyond), and dare, to give.
Also, to surrender

 

through traditus, traditio and traditionem. Down, say the Via Appia, or
the Appian Way, over the Alps and later by way of
French townships. Whose townspeople would say:

 

tradicion. Which becomes a word of interest out of its antiquity,
its lengthy history as a
doppelganger for treason, a handing over.

 

Which is handed down and

 

over the same Latin way—road, route, or Latin roots—except

 

via an unexpected twist taken by the French: traison.
The French being so persnickety and peculiar that way. Being

 

Gauls and ghoulish and having the gall, being also somewhat foolish,
to distinguish between up and down, or over and under, or over and

 

down in this way, as if down the road there isn’t also over the hill. Isn’t also

 

our own doubts? And how many we aren’t yet over. As if
it is always one or the other and not first
handed over before it is handed down to us

 

to doubt. Remember

 

Rahab. Who for her part is always called the harlot.
Letting down those spies from her

 

Jericho high rise. Down a length of rope,
never mind the length (the length being irrelevant):

 

and each one hand over hand.

 

Too, letting down her townsfolk. Handing them over
to the Israelites. Even those
who had admired and kissed her thighs. Or
Judas, called Iscariot, whose betrayal was a kiss.
Whose betrayal was long foretold. Some say decreed,
a handing down through time.

 

But woe to that man who betrays: for he is often found at the end

 

of his rope. And betray being betrair—be-, thoroughly, completely,
or surrounded on all sides and given over and over and from hand to hand
across all time. Which is
just down the road, being itself the end of the road.

 

And so many of us on this road without

 

so much as a rope: trair, traitor, tradere. And trado, traditio, and so
not so far beyond

 

“to surrender to.” A handing over of self
to another self, whom himself is handed down and

 

handed over.

While You Were Sleeping

Dust rises from soil and spins
centrifuge-style around nucleus
merry-go-round, mitochondrion swimming in
cytoplasm kiddy pool. One cell to two.
Two cells to trillion, hovering, electric hum.
Sparks of white-hot light from cell to cell
until phantom frame is skeletal, spinal cord wired
to corresponding nerves, numb hands not now can
feel pain, the cold, the hot.
Sinews and tendons and connective ligaments
stretched taut below capillaries with the switch
turned to ON, molten lava liquid now steadily pumped.
Celestial breath to raise the chest,
hot oxygen to carbon bond. Pupils alive,
rods and cones explode monochrome to kaleidoscope.

 
 
 
 

Featured Image: Album Artwork from Deep Breakfast, Ray Lynch’s second album and was released in 1984.

the family farm

like a horse
broken by work
like a tire
worn without tread
my father said to me
     let us go
     home

 
that year
land lay fallow
and we saw
machinery sold
my father said to me
     let us go
     home
he said to me
     i think i’m gonna be sick
     i think that i am

 
will i love like my father loved
his farm and his honest labor
when he said
     i think i’m gonna be sick
     i think that i am

 
please a prayer
to become a horse
broken by work
to become as a tire
worn without tread
to become a father
to become and to say
     let us go home

 

Letter to an Estranged Middle-Aged Son

The older I get the more I realize
the importance of getting things done
before your mother announces another

assignment to roust me from my hammock.
As you know I’ve never been much
around the house, my skills limited to

raking leaves and shoveling snow,
menial tasks I haven’t missed in years.
Probably not since you lived here.

Your mother, of course, grew up on a farm
and has always liked getting things done.
But she’s getting older too. In fact,

she recently had a big operation
and I’ve pitched in beyond my skill set
despite new stents and a pacemaker.

But even though we just put away
the walker, cane and wheelchair,
all three are on alert so I believe

it’s best to let you know that
one of these days the one who’s left
will ring you up and let you know.

Concept for some pieces of art

First piece

A red telephone box, in a library
In the box a cell phone

Second piece

A telephone box made of cell phones, in a library
In the box a telegraph machine

Third piece

Two telephone boxes in a library, far apart
In each box a baby monitor

Fourth piece

A library full of books containing pictures of peoples’ faces

Fifth piece

A red telephone box, in a library
In the box a telegram
On the telegram a message:
“What hath God wrought?”
–Balaam

Sixth piece

A large telephone box, in a library
In the box a donkey

Featured image: Braunschweig University of Art Library

the coming fire

each night we see
a shifting flicker
in a house
down the street

the owner traverses
his rooms
lugging butane
and cleaning bleach
in a biohazard waste bin

the blinds are down
but he knows
that we know
he’s a chef
working silent
as a conifer’s sway

and the next dawn
he ponders sleep
after a prolonged absence,
strikes a matchstick
to a cigarette

the new warmth
catching
the thin layers
of sheet rock

Navigator

Nothing else to do, they take a drive
to nowhere in particular, but away
from the suburbs. The car, at first,
protests from its deep chill within, but
slowly, assuredly, finds comfort
in its own manufactured heat.

He takes the wheel, she navigates,
but, mile after mile of snowed-in farms
and woods, the sameness tires her,
she falls asleep, taking the map with her.
He just keeps going and going,
taking each road like a child’s game
of which hand has the candy.
Details drifted over,
the world is contours,
a hill here, gully there,
a far white undulation.

He thought his neighborhood
was under winter’s brumal thumb
but there, at least, the people
with their shovels, foggy breath, fight back.
Here, the farmers leave their fields in idle,
and trees subsume to crystal shapes.
Without human intervention, the season is the land.

It will be night soon.
More worry for his broken compass.
He nudges her arm to wake her.
The car brakes from time to time
but it’s the emptiness that must have a stop.

He wonders should he turn back.
The clouds are gray and low.
Flakes adorn the road with promise of more to come.
He’s lost.
It’s up to her, not these surrounds, to find him.
How lovely she looks,
like something newly fallen,
fresh and unconscious as the snow.

The Falling Star of the Self

When short forms are everywhere, from Facebook to Twitter, everyone fancies themselves a minor poet. Social media has provided the form, and now the content of poetry skews towards a celebration of the unadorned, defiant self.

My favorite example of this phenomenon is from John Updike, specifically his last collection of poetry, Endpoint. Assembled late in his life and published mere weeks before his own death, the collection starts out by cataloguing Updike’s recent birthdays. In “March Birthday, 2002, and After”, Updike awakens “alone and older, the storm that aged me / distilled to a skin of reminiscent snow.” Updike begins by describing this particular day in the manner of a weather report; the placid, snow-bound morning after the howling blizzard of his life. Ordinarily, a weather report would have something to offer the local community. Prepare for difficult driving conditions. Make sure to shovel your driveway. Updike’s imagery here is rich, but circular, having to do with Updike himself. This is not a weather report, but an Updike report, a final word of sorts. Having found ample time to contemplate his death, Updike relishes the opportunity to put the finishing touches on a life defined by self-reflection. Concluding “March Birthday”, Updike makes all days his own: “Birthday, death day—what day is not both?”

There’s something being said here about the confluence of experiences bound up in each 24-hour period; there’s also something being said of Updike himself. Specifically, we are told that each new dawn is an opportunity to celebrate the life of Updike, a gratuitous existential attempt to vaunt the self over all things, to make Updike the center of Updike’s own world, to have the final word.

For a long time, Endpoint was the only book of Updike’s that I owned. For this I blame David Foster Wallace, whose essay, “Certainly the End of Something or Other, One Would Sort of Have to Think”, is responsible for turning me off Updike and his work. In this scathing review of Updike’s late science-fiction novel Toward the End of Time (1997), Wallace lumps Updike with the other “Great Male Narcissists” of his generation, or—to use the Wallacian acronym—GMNs. The novel is an apocalyptic, futuristic meditation on the end of the self, of the world, whatever; for Wallace, the novel’s subject matter is beside the point. The novel flounders not because Updike is a bad sci-fi writer, or even a bad writer, but because Updike has fallen for a certain generational symptom. While the novel is indeed “clunky and self-indulgent,” Wallace is most critical of an attitude operative in Updike’s generation: the deterioration of a “brave new individualism” into “the joyless and anomic self-indulgence of the me-generation…the prospect of dying without even once having loved something more than yourself.” It was with Wallace’s critique in mind that I picked up Endpoint, and I found Wallace to be tragically correct.

This attitude has not gone away with modernists like Updike, but has bled over into the equally self-referential tendencies postmodern culture through the valuation of identity and independence. While we may now withhold judgment of others’ truths and are hesitant to totalize with our own, we still cultivate our private worlds with as much zeal as the GMNs—curating our self within the ether of the internet. So I am excited by poets who can take us—take me—outside of this interiority.

Ocean Vuong is one such poet. His first collection, Night Sky With Exit Wounds, is a profound contemplation not of the self in isolation, but the self in transaction. Vuong was born in Vietnam, the son of a Vietnamese farm girl and an American soldier, and raised in America by his mother and grandmother. Inhabiting a body that is both queer and racially complex, interior reflection for Vuong is not indulgent, but vital; what does it mean to inhabit a body that is threatened, a body that doesn’t fit common racial and sexual categories? In spite of this, Vuong, does not capitulate to the self-referential impulse. Rather, his poetry extends beyond himself, seeking to understand, to thank, and to forgive.

In recounting a tryst with another young man behind a baseball dugout in “Because It’s Summer”, Vuong describes a sexual experience not in terms of self-gratification, but of gratitude: “…but you don’t / deserve it: the boy & / his loneliness the boy who finds you / beautiful only because you’re not / a mirror.” Vuong’s lines are fragmentary, trapping words that evoke desperation and hope: deserve, loneliness, beautiful, mirror. Rather than using sexuality as a means to assert the self or resolve a crisis of identity, Vuong’s taut syntax transforms the experience into an undeserved grace. Vuong understands both himself and his partner to be selves in isolation. Inhabiting queer bodies, both boys have found each other in loneliness, and find each other beautiful because they are not “a mirror,” not the same. While they share a kind of loneliness, they inhabit different selves.

This experience of both sameness and difference calls Vuong out of himself, and for this inversion Vuong has no response but a fervent stream of “thank you thank you thank you… because that’s what you say / when a stranger steps out of summer / & offers you another hour to live.” Rather than celebrating or bemoaning the self, Vuong celebrates the other, recognizing how his needs are met by the body and companionship of another. Here Vuong does not celebrate self-reliance, but surrender, a surrender evoked in the brevity of the lines themselves as they cascade in small rivulets down the page.

This exteriorizing of the self through the other is replicated in a poem about Vuong’s relationship with his father, ‘To My Father / To My Future Son’. In this particular poem, Vuong imagines himself as both father and son, inhabiting the difference and sameness that characterized “Because It’s Summer”: “Look, my eyes are not / your eyes. / You move through me like rain / heard / from another country.” These lines manage to address both Vuong’s American father and Vuong’s unborn son—perhaps never to be born. Both figures move through Vuong “like rain,” familiar and close, and yet infinitely distant, “heard from another country.” There is intimacy, “you move through me,” and rupture “my eyes are not / your eyes.” Vuong’s suggestion to his father and son, across these paradoxes, is again to refuse the impulse to seize, to possess, and control: “If you are given my body, put it down.” Vuong’s father is to release the body of his son, and Vuong himself, as a possible father, is to operate as a body separate from that of his son. This is not a celebration of the singular self, but a chastening reminder that there is more to the self than singularity.

These complex relationships remain a permanent problem for Vuong, but this does not keep him from offering an answer. Responding to these complexities, and chastening the self, is the role of poetry. In the closing lines of “For My Father”, Vuong writes, “Turn back & find the book I left / for us, filled / with all the colors of the sky forgotten by gravediggers. / Use it. / Use it to prove how the stars / were always what we knew / they were: the exit wounds / of every misfired word.” Vuong’s “book,” his own poetry, is a means to gently dissect and understand the complex of relationships that constitute the self.

The poetry collection serves as a kind of key, filled with “colors… forgotten,” words that illuminate and teach. These words are not docile things, however; they are sharp and dangerous. Words are inherently relational, disclosing meaning only in plurality, in the context of other words. Because all words are neighbors, one “misfired” word can transform the truth of the entire sentence. This same relationality applies to the language we offer in service of ourselves and of the other.

In Vuong’s eponymous metaphor, our descriptions are like falling stars that emerge, fast and aflame, from the inscrutable darkness of space. These descriptions can serve us by imposing categories in language, but they can also do harm to the self for the exact same reason, cutting off alternative identities, revealing new truths at the expense of others. This is how language leaves “exit wounds” when “misfired” from the self. Faulty descriptions can do much harm, and are never made in a vacuum.

The metaphor is complex and rich, but the lesson is clear: selves are understood in descriptions, in language, and in relationship. Knowing this, Vuong calls his reader to risk the harm of language to know others as well as themselves. The self, if indeed a complex of relationships that are not easily described, requires extensive work, humility, and others to grasp. There is the risk of harm in the exchange, but the beauty of language draws us on our journey of understanding.

For Vuong, poetry is not a matter of asserting the self, but a matter of meeting other selves across the natural distances that exist between us. When such meetings occur, as in “Because It’s Summer”, our obligation is gratitude, not control. The words we offer in service of our self-description to others tear out of us like falling stars, motes of light in the darkness of the self, making us vulnerable. In watching for these stars, Vuong‘s poetry is turned outwards. It is an expression gratitude for the sight and touch of the other, bearing wounds with words in search of intimacy.

This poetry is a repudiation of Updike’s type of poetry with its attempt to have the last word, and to have it by himself, unshared. Where Updike would know himself through himself, Vuong seeks to know himself through others.

Vuong’s poetry emerges as a beautiful and gracious offering, seeking empathy while eschewing a self-referential impulse. In the first line of his opening poem, “Threshold”, Vuong writes that “In the body, where everything has a price, / I was a beggar.” Maybe this is the self we need to reimagine today. Not as kings, shaping our relationships and identities to suite us, but as supplicants, kneeling in the streets for a little communion, a little bread.

Nimrodel

There’d be no songs if we weren’t sacrificed.
We’re all just scraps of tulle—pale girls with doom
across our foreheads like a set of gems,
all willowed, pale, and miserable in trees
or caves or cities hidden in the rocks.

My story as it’s sung today is this:
I was once a woman, now a river.
I had a lover and we ran away.
I got lost and he set sail alone.

I fell asleep in flowers, dozed into
my destiny as love went down in froths
of glory in the sea a world away.
Such passive, simple marching into fame
so great I absolutely had to die.

I was diaphanous already.
I finally caught the echo of my name
from salty dying lips that wouldn’t speak
again. Too storied for this slender neck,
too heavy for this scrap of tulle. And so
these tatters float along this muddy bank,
dissolved into its time-resisting stream.

My echo’s trapped somewhere beneath the rocks
and it sounds better than I ever did,
ungathered there. Go ahead and sing.

 

 

 

 

Featured image by: Anders Linden

Waiting for Gabriel

I keep forgetting the native in nativity
And wait expectant instead for the fulfilled prophecies
Of Norman Rockwell, the revelations of Frank Capra,
For Bing Crosby to wake me to a December
So very unlike my own.

And I wait patient for a Christmas morning
Swaddled in the immaculate magic
Of newly delivered snow.

One year, I’d asked for a spaceship and received a 2nd hand globe instead.
I wept beneath the pine tree, glass spheres poised above my head,
Surrounded by the crinkled wrapping
Of a gift, already opened.

Every year after, I asked for snow.

Flaking wasn’t an indication of weakness or weathering.
Flaking was weather itself:
Tokens tufts of cloud exchanged when heaven flirted with earth

And enveloped it.
Our mobile homes would morph to chateaus.
Our graveyard of cars would grow into a garden:
Celestial topiaries, sidewalks sheened in silver.
Our neighbor’s rusted gate would shimmer in pearls burst from their oysters,
Their zoo of statuary, haunted by heavenly ghosts.

But the snow never came.

The neighbors were peddlers and sold the treasures
On display behind those bars:
Broken butterflies, bird-bombed cherubs,
Plaster Greek-revival reconstructions,
A sailor with an outstretched arm and no lantern left,
And, all year-round, a life-sized crèche,
Wrought in water-proof plastic.

Baby Jesus had been the first to sell
While Madonna, an ass, a few wise men remained
To stare at the ground
Where the baby had laid.

My parents said he was on vacation,
Away visiting family like the rest of us.

When he didn’t return, I prayed for snow instead,
But that didn’t descend either.

The stars came caged in latent trees;
We kept a dying evergreen in our living room to forget.

But this year,
The winter was even warmer than usual.
After stopping home in January,
The tropical storms had come and passed.

And when driving by the neighbors,
I noticed that the emporium remained.
The statues were stripped of all garish decoration
And mottled with mold like marble:
Archaeological angels in waiting.

Bacteria spermed bread in my mother’s oven.
Eczema had risen on the persimmon’s limbs.
But I was half-way home.

And as I bit the rim of sourdough
And gripped the grate of budding branches,
I remembered hearing how
He’d been born in the spring anyway.

Darkened Not Completely Dark & Water to Live Water to Die

Darkened Not Completely Dark

for John Taggart

If we could hear the voice
would it matter
or know the naming of the names
gathered tight then unfurled
like snow between pines
here ground here fowl here fish
and here vault what a sky
brooding it’s enough
to watch the clouds clap
and boil to see the
skin of the river wrinkle
or the feathers on the wrens
lift and fall
to hear the whirr of the wind chase
after days ice cold and stealing branches
to eat oranges for breakfast
and rub sage brush
into ashes or resin
between palms
sticky the root
of the berry bush
is a murmur
under soil formed then reformed
to know or dig after
the sound is something
but to feel
the spirit hovering
before calling like light
is the bell is the light

 

 

Water to Live Water to Die

Except that–
this is not a metaphysical choice
this is gut
‘and out of your bellies shall flow
rivers of living water’
this is about the body
body holds spirit here
sings the unserious
blood

Slipped and Sunk

Where did you learn your gentleness?
I would like to know

Dearly, I would.

Were there hands?
I hope there were kind hands.
Of dirt and branches, perhaps
And cool fog.
You wouldn’t think these hands
Could be so soft.

Were you held?
How did you learn to be held?
I hope you learn
A little more, and again,
The swish and fall
Of settling into

Warmth not your own
Though a little bit yours,

Too, rich with nearness.

Were there voices?
I hope they sang to you sometimes
And asked that you sing, too.
I hope they said
You are light, you are so light
Until you slipped and sunk

Through the coarse black
And into the grace

That resided, yours, in the deeper black.

The forgotten package

In a real, dark night of the soul, it is always three o’clock in the morning. – F. Scott Fitzgerald

Billow bright, our faces flung open—
Cracked from the top down for a pair of words;
A ditch full of grace, caked in worlds,
sloughing off mortification in a curious smack of soul.

It’s all right, I say, as you steal lungs for your own
inhaling. Sometimes, you can’t arrest morning like a criminal. It’s a
slow burn—a gap for tending.

What is Your Desiderata

Could be miss you could be mask.
Is it next time yet? Round comes the boy
saying let’s eat the whole thing more.

Only: sound fennels its ripened nut
and clings from inside, shows
me how to spine to the sun I seek.

Inside the pharmacy door —
soap to odor the shelves, bottles to
quiver each time the sky hums. Their

names are cartwheel, are artery are sugar-
in-the-mouth. Does the boy have to come
round? His name must only be desire now.

Boy, what is your must, your utterly? Why
pebble my pane with your yellow when it
takes all of my blood just to daughter you.

Methods of Prayer

Sometimes it is best when you sit
and speak nothing, pray nothing, but be still.
Yet such actions contradict much
you have absorbed about prayer, against your will.

You learned the yes, Jesus tag
to affirm prayers of others. Times are rare
when you’ve muttered it, shyness shuts
your mouth, reservedness cuts off your air.

You return to silence again,
earplugs a necessity to shut out
any noise. Oh, to be alone
as you can. To be still. To subdue doubt.

Survival Accents

Seasons in our state are covert, though
certain trees shed. We’d see a difference in color
on leaves, and those would be the ones to drop.
One Halloween we chose to let stay
on the stove a pot with one hellraiser clove-
studded blood orange wading in leftover
cider and cinnamon bark to slowly spice

the rooms for weeks. Letting its blend
age and vapor to fragrance was a way to savor
named waste. We drank what we could
of those days: oily hours dwelled in wide-armed,
possessed of shy loves, thickening and
sometimes recognized. The rest is ether. Run
over pots would plume to break window spells.

We were left to gather
fruit and sun-dried spice. It was up to us
to boil the mixture and survive whatever
scent lingered. Past what papers cared cover,
we mattered. Car fires flashed on screens, fuming
that year a burned flavor. News tuned into what
we’d long known, made their little bread off our

bodies, ground. Months of this had us feeling too spent
for marches, at times, even to weep. Most smoke
was the law’s. Most fire. Our gatherings were gassed.
Vigils of ours were lit and left. Though we could believe,
we couldn’t. We were given the more we could take none of.
Holidays, we strung through. On some, we worked.
On some, raised hell in the name of us.

We kept the air
of our homes, then, tinged
with festivity we tried—
had—despite everything.
A reminder to return to.

We kept breathing
the bitter to live.

Precipice Lake

When my water bottle rolled off
the slab and into the lake, I hesitated
to snatch it out,
and in that moment the breeze took it
silently away from shore,
sailing over the clear green depths.

I thought of returning to my pack
for a trekking pole, but the bottle
was well out of reach. I thought of heaving
a large rock just beyond it
to splash the bottle back to shore,
but I was no Ajax—
the bottle was beyond my range.

So I settled for watching it bob and curtsy
further and further from where I stood
and toward the cliffs, a headwall
that met the lake like a granite curtain,
naturally white but water-streaked with velvet lichen.

The precipice was ribboned with a quiet fall
that dropped from the remnant glacier above
and disappeared with a noiseless splash
as if content to be consumed
by a dark embrace of crystal calm.

And as I watched my fading bottle glint
to the center and beyond, bound for the foot
of those sheer cliffs where there would be
no recollection, I thought of you,
who one day clattered into a cult
before we were well aware,
and even now are drifting toward
the other, unapproachable side.

—Sequoia National Park

Featured Image by: Mark Venner. See more of Mark’ work at Mark Venner Photography. 

Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward

Let mans Soule be a Spheare, and then, in this,
The intelligence that moves, devotion is,
And as the other Spheares, by being growne
Subject to forraigne motion, lose their owne,
And being by others hurried every day,
Scarce in a yeare their naturall forme obey:
Pleasure or businesse, so, our Soules admit
For their first mover, and are whirld by it.
Hence is’t, that I am carryed towards the West
This day, when my Soules forme bends toward the East.
There I should see a Sunne, by rising set,
And by that setting endlesse day beget;
But that Christ on this Crosse, did rise and fall,
Sinne had eternally benighted all.
Yet dare I’almost be glad, I do not see
That spectacle of too much weight for mee.
Who sees Gods face, that is selfe life, must dye;
What a death were it then to see God dye?
It made his owne Lieutenant Nature shrinke,
It made his footstoole crack, and the Sunne winke.
Could I behold those hands which span the Poles,
And tune all spheares at once peirc’d with those holes?
Could I behold that endlesse height which is
Zenith to us, and our Antipodes,
Humbled below us? or that blood which is
The seat of all our Soules, if not of his,
Made durt of dust, or that flesh which was worne
By God, for his apparell, rag’d, and torne?
If on these things I durst not looke, durst I
Upon his miserable mother cast mine eye,
Who was Gods partner here, and furnish’d thus
Halfe of that Sacrifice, which ransom’d us?
Though these things, as I ride, be from mine eye,
They’are present yet unto my memory,
For that looks towards them; and thou look’st towards mee,
O Saviour, as thou hang’st upon the tree;
I turne my backe to thee, but to receive
Corrections, till thy mercies bid thee leave.
O thinke mee worth thine anger, punish mee,
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine Image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may’st know mee, and I’ll turne my face.

 

 

 

 

Featured Image: Christ on a Cross, El Greco, 1610, Spain

Not so good

The woman from New York
told me that in New York
you could be nothing too special
because there were so many clever people
genuises around every corner
you were never quite as good as you thought you were.

I got the feeling she was trying to make a point
telling me I was not as good as I thought I was
but what she didn’t know
was that I knew I was no good
and I had always known that.

 

 

 

Featured Image: Album artwork from Svarte Greiner’s album Black Tie

Estuary & Wasteland

estuary

her breath, a full length
for every bay, the raft
of lashed boards

and fabric drag

skirting through eelgrass
a thin towel, one lung

pressed on volume

flounders. the fluke muddied
under green golden marine in
summer, her feet , the winded

waves

 

Wasteland
Via Cavafy

fossilized dreams, this land
cityscaped by want and

flat roads. a cornered mind
escapes from the sea. years

of streets seeded by ships. houses
full with wool and ruins. seams

and meals edge this world

 

 

Dear M,

Dear M,

“The secret name is the gesture that restores the creature to the unexpressed.” – from Profanations by Giorgio Agamben

I am writing you as early as now, hoping this letter finds you well, because I might not get to you on time. When you create something that lasts, something meant to outlast you, then you die a little. And you’ve already created and recreated so many immortal objects that at this point you are close to bleeding out. Tell me, is it worth it? Is it worth pouring so much of yourself into those clunky lightboxes trapping miniature worlds that should have only existed in your mind? Are your books, devised from the variable clay of what haunts you and what ails you, worth it? You should know that only a few can read your books the way they should be read. You should know that most people who read your books do so because they are looking for themselves in your words. The same is true for what’s on your canvasses. You think your paintings, your poems, your stories to be extensions and iterations of yourself. They’re not. They are parts of you, irreplaceable parts of the splendid machinery that’s keeping you alive. They are pulsing with the demons you have yet to exorcise. Because you are crudely fashioned out of the sleepless finite and because you don’t have that many threads to begin with, you shall soon be irretrievably broken.

Know this. I found a cracked piece of brick in a construction site once. It was loneliness, and it was beautiful. It was named after you. I’ll show it to you if I get the chance to meet you in person.

Imagine the composure of immovable objects, the calcified ones that refuse to rot. Imagine their conceit when magnified on a slide exposure where they are cut open, scrutinized, backlit, made to appear bigger than life, all their lines seamless in their branching out, seamless yet irretrievably broken—like you. Syntax can only take you far enough, then you shall someday stutter, become bereft of words, of manifold symphonies and colors and textures you haven’t really lived and understood.

What is your source language? Do you know that in the second book of Herodotus’ Histories, the pharaoh Psammetichus set two infants to be raised in a linguistic deprivation tank so that whatever first word they uttered would supposedly be from mankind’s true source language? The first word that was said was “bekos.” It was a Turkish word for bread. Imagine a long-dead civilization screaming one word that echoes throughout eternity, long long after the pyramids they built were buried in layers upon layers of sand. Imagine slave builders with their hands scarred and callused by ropes used to hoist boulders high enough in the air for their otherwise stunted gods to reach. Stunted by inbreeding, their gods are cloistered in the desert shade. All these years, the builders have been crying out different words for hunger. Too many, too many, too many make-believe vessels bound for make-believe seas. Every time you close your eyes, you see all these, don’t you?

And just because the amateur boatmen predict an absence of wind does not mean you should believe them. It is always the unschooled and the savage ones who end up with bigger ships, with more oarsmen. The amateur boatmen are adept at taking measurements, too. But they cannot deduce, can rely mainly on equilibrium achieved through, let’s say, a cantilever beam. They may or may not recognize the point where the water begins and the sunken island ends. Although this is only a reenactment, you should never forget how it all started, how your Congo River once dissected the earth to grow one civilization each per riverbank.

Remember what has become of Jose of Mexico, who grew up to become the illusionist of Baghdad. He is now trembling in his pulpit of magic that preaches invisibility. Remember the radium girls whose death throes were mistaken for their drawl in the vernacular. Remember how you used to stare long enough at a figure, a form not quite there until you ultimately see something, or believe that you have seen something. You are born in the realm of Forms. Remember, remember the allegory of the cave.

There’s still time. Come on. Speak out in the language of the present. Everything else is just white noise. Grasp the tender neck of your formless god, twist it to throttle out its secrets. If you can only see and smell and hold whatever it is that’s inside of what you are worshipping, you wouldn’t have loved it that much. You can then slit the throat of your formless god. In its death, you’ll find peace.

Walk with me sometime. I’ll show you my Arcadia. I’ll show you how I stole the stories from the paintings in your gallery. I’ll show you a map of my island. I’ll show you where in my island I keep my nine dogs to guide me to the underworld. How they tame their feral handlers. I’ll show you the strange horses of my creation myths. I’ll show you the rough beasts of summer languishing among the trees, their horns silvery in the dwindling afternoon sunlight. I’ll show you the harbor where my makeshift lifeboat is secured in its moorings. I’ll show you my roomful of machines. Then I’ll tell you about this universe of small towns strung together, each town unique in its placement in the braceleted whole, of heresies that make people retain their natural shapes, of world without end without end without end.

The epistolary piece “Dear M,” is the first poem in her forthcoming book, Black Arcadia (University of the Philippines Press, 2016). 

Featured Image by: Evan Tetreault

Vague Demons

It comes upon me to clean my bedroom, to put
away the clothes on the headboard, the lingerie on the dresser,
and last night’s shoes lying underneath my small table.

It is good, I say aloud, to clean
this disordered order and pick up the things I’ve left
like crumbs or footsteps or shadows behind me.

I pick up the clothes but find other clothes underneath and other clothes
beneath those clothes so I turn to the lingerie but it has multiplied too,
each filmy thing leading to another and another.

I do not look at the shoes lying under my small table and I
slowly back out of the bedroom and close the door behind me.

Ash Wednesday

You’d think by now I’d know it’s not
The mixing of drink, but the absence
Of water that makes the head ring,
Unsnoozably, mornings like these.

Consequence of Fat Tuesday, or not,
I need help and hope the forgiver
Doesn’t tire of Lord Lord from my lips,
When my body is miles away.

No matter. A moment makes its own shape,
Owns its own needs. Coffee’s a mercy.
Advil, too. What loss there is
Is cause enough to mark a cross

On the forehead each morning,
Each evening to burn the temple down.

First

holding you down
my arms wrapped tight around your body
like plastic wrap, like cocoon silk
my fingers over your eyes, in your ears

smearing my lipstick all over
your body, my lips
bright red bloody streaks
in the dark, marking my territory
marking you mine.

 

 

 

Featured Image:
Artist: Claes Oldenburg (1929-)
Title: Various Positions of Giant Lipstick to Replace the Fountain of Eros, Piccadilly Circus, London
Date: 1966
Medium: Crayon and watercolor on paper
Dimensions: Sheet: 15 × 22 in. (38.1 × 55.9 cm)
Credit line:Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Gift of The American Contemporary Art Foundation, Inc., Leonard A. Lauder, President
Accession number: 2002.36
Rights and Reproductions Information: © Claes Oldenburg

Eriugena in the Desert, or, The Swiffer

The Swiffer glides, exactly as advertised,
Smoothly around the floor. I am in awe,
Or an infomercial. Beneath the bureau, surprised,
The dust bunnies have been busy,

And run like Auden’s years around the room.
Where does it come from, this trash
That, before I view it on the broom,
I have not seen, though born in my very home?

The Swiffer drags to the middle of the bare
Judicial tiles a specimen. I stoop and there,
Drawn in lines of long dark hair,
Is myself, in bits, disintegrating slowly in an

Endless crematorium, and all round in piles,
The rest of me: a hair, a lash, a million
Million discarded cells on the tiles
In an intricate heap. I am there, spun in webs

As delicate as a spider’s, but more useless,
A necessary decadence of a creation
That crowns itself not with happiness,
But with knowledge, just as in sweeping

The dust from my floor
I see and know myself more.

Hospitality

One ‘yes’ and our doors blew open
into sleepless nights,
emergency room visits,
social worker calls,
and milky white spit-up
on every shirt, couch, and rug we own.

Some days neglecting hospitality
seems wise. My arms are thin,
too weak to carry, too tired
to comfort all the needs grown
within these walls.

When I first held you, your legs
stiffened like boards against
my stomach, your head jerked tense
on my shoulder, and you breathed
in hiccoughs, air jostling the flimsy flaps
in your throat. Now I press my hand
on your back. Your frame softens,
molded to the contours of mine, falls
heavy against my chest in sleep.
You breathe deeply and I
am not unaware.