Poetry

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.

Footnote to Augustine

We lounge at the expense of lounging
like some lazy tabby now vexed
in the shade because
the sun has moved
like hungry alabaster Narcissus drooping
to himself
like an ice-weighted Georgian
conifer
we are
pulling shoes off by the heal
leaving the untying, tying
for the you and I and we
of tomorrow.

My Friend and I

On the patio. Iron chairs. Friend of
mine whistling to a bird. Crow
flopping over. Magnolia once sapling.
Perfectionist neighbor. Sky empty
of airplanes. Clouds in sky. Strange
moon. If two moons. Waves of the
ocean. Miley the dog. Rabbit around.
Multiply. Carolina Wren. Cool wind.
Trimmed the hedge. Butterfly. Lady
bug. He or she. California fires.
Mud slides and rain.
Cold water. Washington redwoods.
Palmetto tree. Two lane roads and
highways. Pastures, cows, and horses.
Mower with flat tire. New air tank.
Shadows long. He looks at his watch.
Rusty wheelbarrow. Flower pot.
Tin bowl and ice water for the dog.

The grass tells me what to do.

To water it past thirst, so tiny pools
float on the surface. Fight off ants
that are tearing up the yard. Pinch
the child with the magnifying glass.
Lay in it in the sun, reading it books
on photosynthesis. Even when
to drop into the dirt, to let a fresh lawn
cover my body. Don’t worry about
a thing, it says. Your breath will be
waiting on the other side. Sometimes
I believe it, and find my bones freed
from anxiety. But other times I sit
inside, away from what can hurt me.
I take in oxygen. I love everything else.

The Magi

Now as at all times I can see in the mind’s eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depths of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.

 

 

 

 

 

Featured Image: Die heiligen drei Könige (The Three Magi)
Emil Nolde, (1913)
Medium: Lithograph
Dimensions: composition (irreg.): 26 1/16 x 21 1/16″ (66.2 x 53.5 cm); sheet: 28 3/8 x 22 3/4″
Printer: Westphalen, Flensburg, GermanyEdition: 300; plus several T.P.Credit:PurchaseObject number: 355.1951Copyright © Nolde Stiftung Seebüll, GermanyDepartment: Drawings and Prints

Joy to the World and to You, Brother, in the Checkout Lane at Target, Christmas Eve

Ram my knees with your red plastic cart
full of cheap plastic shit and I’ll tell us both
of the savior of all human hearts who would
rather I didn’t say shit in front of your child

and that I wouldn’t buy another pair of shoddy
child-stitched slippers for my son’s perfectly warm
feet or this hand-picked selection of organic teas
in a heart-shaped red and green basket. Go on,

ask it, why? That drummer and the sleepy town
both so little, all the wise and averaged sized men
and the seasoned sweet silver of bells might as well
remind us: we all love someone in another town

who doesn’t give one whit about the itemized list
on our credit card receipts. Once, in a fit of worry,
I wrote out every line I loved from her poems.
Bend near, man, like Santa, and I will whisper to you

the one I most wish could come true. Yes? Right? So
beautiful my cracked knee heals at the miracled
thought of her hands. And the O holy night shift arrives
while we trail each other’s tail lights through freezing rain.

Look left, twice, dear God, before you turn into traffic,
all bright red and green, rush home slowly, brother, surely.
No single treasure we own could begin to measure
the presence of a body. Its breath. Our sacred skin.

A Way of Happening

“Poetry makes nothing happen,” Auden flatly declares in “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” yet Auden goes on to suggest that poetry is nevertheless “a way of happening.” Auden is not alone in questioning poetry’s usefulness; Plato, after all, banned poets from his ideal republic. Yet perhaps poetry’s particular powers—and limits—are especially important in an iPhone culture. Personal technology caters to our every wish in order to make the world a more convenient place for us to navigate, but poetry resists the utilitarian, self-oriented posture that certain technological devices encourage. Rather than using the tools at our disposal to force the world into conformity with our wishes, perhaps we should rejoice in poetry’s delightfully non-coercive ability to lead us into greater intimacy with the truth about who and where we are.

If Auden is right that poetry is a way of happening, it is a way marked by attention, precision, care, and delight—virtues iPhones don’t generally encourage. By practicing such virtues, we might begin, as Wendell Berry writes in “In Defense of Literacy,” to learn “a language precise and articulate and lively enough to tell the truth about the world as we know it.”

Auden’s struggle in his poem centers around whether Yeats’s poems did any good: they could not prevent his own death, nor could they resolve Ireland’s ongoing political struggles, the onset of World War II, or poverty. The poem’s first section vacillates between the hope that Yeats’s life and words might live on after his death, inspiring and guiding his readers, and the apparent reality that poems don’t change anything important. On the one hand, Auden imagines Yeats’s readers chewing on his words, ruminating on them in the core of their being: “The words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living.” On the other hand, this doesn’t seem that significant “in the importance and noise of to-morrow / When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse, / And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed, / And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom.” Ultimately, there isn’t much hope that Yeats’s poems will accomplish any significant change: the stock exchange will go on humming, the poor will stay poor, we will remain isolated in our cells, and World War II will proceed unimpeded.

The second section implies that Yeats wasn’t an exceptionally special person; he was “silly like us.” And his poems haven’t changed Ireland, its madness and cloudy weather continue in spite of them (that’s definitely one thing poetry can’t do—make Ireland have sunny weather). This leads Auden to his famous statement of poetry’s futility:

For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives
In the valley of its making where executives
Would never want to tamper, flows on south
From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs,
Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives,
A way of happening, a mouth.

Poetry can’t force change, it can’t coerce anyone to do anything, it doesn’t work by the instrumental logic of cause and effect. Rather, it survives, it continues in places hidden away from business executives and politicians, places of solitude, sadness, and rawness. Yet these are the places where humans live, and thus Auden writes twice that poetry “survives”; it is “a way of happening, a mouth.” This poetic mouth contrasts with the utilitarian mouth in the first stanza: “The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day. / What instruments we have agree / The day of his death was a dark cold day.” Poetry embodies a different kind of mouth, a non-instrumental way of relating to others. So while poetry doesn’t make things happen, it is a way of happening, a way of talking and living that stands in opposition to the world of utility and force, of war and the stock exchange.

Yet a utilitarian mode of relating to the world is precisely what iPhones and similar kinds of technology encourage. Jamie Smith makes this point in reference to a recent Michelob Ultra commercial “in which the world obeys the touch commands of an iPhone screen. Don’t like that car? Swipe for a different one. Wish the scenery was different? Swipe for an alternative…A way of relating to a phone has now become a way of relating to the world.” As Smith explains, the way of relating to the world that an iPhone cultivates is centered on me and my desires: “To become habituated to an iPhone is to implicitly treat the world as ‘available’ to me and at my disposal—to constitute the world as ‘at-hand’ for me, to be selected, scaled, scanned, tapped, and enjoyed.”

Poets like Auden remind us that words cannot provide an “at-hand” world to us, a world that we can manipulate to cater to our every desire. War, poverty, death—these are realities that cannot simply be swiped away by better technology. Poetry, in its blatant inability to make anything happen, reminds us that none of the technologies we rely on to make things happen can actually deliver on such a promise.

The final section of Auden’s poem reflects on what might characterize the way of happening that poetry invites us to inhabit. While the “dogs of Europe bark” and each nation is “sequestered in its hate,” the poet offers a non-coercive, free alternative: “With your unconstraining voice / Still persuade us to rejoice.” Auden particularly alludes to the way that poetry or verse is a kind of plowing: “With the farming of a verse / Make a vineyard of the curse.” “Verse” means “to turn,” and the lines of a poem, like the lines of a plow, go back and forth in an attempt to break up the fallow ground of our hearts. This verbal turning opens a “healing fountain” that teaches free men how to praise. The purpose of such versifying, Auden suggests, is to cultivate in individuals, cultures, and nations a way of being that forms an alternative to the power games of war and international finance, power games that the iPhone invites us to play and win; if we can’t swipe away war itself, we can at least swipe away uncomfortable news and distract ourselves with something more appealing.

But Yeats is dead. World War II still happens. The poor stay poor. In the face of such intractable realities, what can poetry do? Auden’s humble vision for poetry—it makes nothing happen but is rather a way of happening or a way of being that leads us toward praise, gratitude, and community—seems inadequate. How is poetry a way of being in the world? What might this way of being look like?

Richard Wilbur, a contemporary American poet, picks up such questions in an apparently simple poem, “An Event.” Wilbur’s poem describes a flock of birds that rises up from a grove of trees and flies south. This seems like a banal image, but Wilbur then meditates on the power and failure of words, on what poetry and language can and can’t do. So despite the singular title, there are actually two events in this poem: the first is that of the birds flying up from the trees, gathering in the sky, and heading south; the second is Wilbur’s poetic attempt to verbalize this reality. The poem, in many ways, is about the relationship between these two events.

The poem begins with a striking image of reversed time, of seed leaping back into the hand that sows it on the fields. Wilbur describes their motion in more detail and focuses on the paradox that while made of many individuals, the birds appear as a single drunken fingerprint traced across the sky. Yet after using these similes to describe the flock, Wilbur admits that his images are not adequate to the complexity of the real birds and the real flock. Their reality refuses “to be caught / In any singular vision of my eye / Or in the nets and cages of my thought.” Reality exceeds language, and if we think words can control the world and make it “available” to us, we will be proven wrong each time.

In fact, it is precisely this frustration with the inadequacy of words to control others that leads some people to resort to technology like iPhones, which can indeed make things happen. When circumstances don’t work out the way we’d like, we use technology to change them. And as Auden pointed out, when nations don’t do what we want them to do, we go to war to make them conform to our wishes. We want to make the world fit our desires, and when words fail to serve this purpose, we often grow frustrated with them. This is why Auden reminds his readers that poetry makes nothing happen; it operates not by force or coercion, but by sitting in our guts and reshaping our deep longings, our vision of the world and of the good. Poetry offers an alternative way of relating to people, not as avatars on a screen we control, but as irreducible, mysterious beings we will always be seeking to understand, to know, and to love rightly.

So when the birds fly from Wilbur and his images, organizing themselves not according to his metaphors but “in some formation of their own,” he responds not with frustration or anger but with delight:

Delighted with myself and with the birds,
I set them down and give them leave to be.
It is by words and the defeat of words,
Down sudden vistas of the vain attempt,
That for a flying moment one may see
By what cross-purposes the world is dreamt.  

Wilbur sets down both his words about the birds and the birds themselves, giving them leave to be. The cross-purposes between the “birds” and Wilbur’s “words”—expressed in a lovely rhyme—forms the tension in which we live. This is why we see meaning both by words and their defeat; the failure of words to fully capture and control reality is not a tragedy to be mourned but a gift to be celebrated. This means the world is greater than we can understand or imagine, and that poetry, vain though its attempts inevitably are, offers us a means of gratefully exploring or glimpsing these mysteries.

As a profoundly Christian poet, Wilbur’s delight at the “defeat of words” surely depends on the redemptive defeat of the Word. When the creating Word dreamt the world, he knew this dream would lead him to the cross where, rather than forcing his creation to obey him, his “unconstraining voice” would invite creation into greater intimacy with its triune Creator. The kenosis of this Word calls us to humble ourselves likewise and obey the command to, as Auden writes, “love your crooked neighbour / With your crooked heart.” Instead of relying on technology to make the world conform to the shape of our crooked hearts, these poets call us to reshape our hearts to conform to the image of the Word who made us. Such hearts, formed by a poetic “way of happening,” might find expression through mouths that speak “a language precise and articulate and lively enough to tell the truth about the world as we know it.”

Laundry

One day
we stop using our dryer.
I don’t know why,
my parents don’t explain.
Better not to ask.

I stand on toes,
fingers strain
to reach dry clothes
in our backyard hanging
on white twine.

The clothes feel
stiff like steel and
smell like canned sunshine.
The shirts stick upright
in the basket.

I miss soft sheets
I folded line by line
in my hands. Now I battle
to smooth and remove
pinch marks left
by wooden pins.
I fold and put away
the laundry with
my questions.

Rose 62

        he
        is
        loose
the
stain
of
the
principle
        he
color
of
rose
        of
        the
        rising
        circle
little
based
directly
on
the
cathedral
        very
        lavender
by
the
average
correlation
        of
        the
        auburn
of
the
east
central
        of
        the
        measure
reaches
hell
        adds
        older
        cyclopedias
yeoman
        the
        leaf
        of
        September
        is
        serious
the
song
believed
        by
        the
        worked
        guitar
healthy
sensation
of
sin
        being
        beautiful
under
certain
attendance
        blooms
the
rest
gigantic
        eclipsed
silver
as
the
result
of
agreement
        doctor
this
awakes
        government
        where
        it
        exists
in
agreement
with
the
heavy
        with
        him
order
like
method
of
war

Art of Retail

If retail is an art, then wholesale is a slaughter–
the shopkeeper an artist, the wholesaler a soldier.

The customer is a gallery, with hooks and white walls.
The bulk-buyers wield kalashnikovs.

One is a beautiful thing, surplus is monstrous.
Retailers buy wholesale. They fight on both fronts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Poem of Questions

(Following Neruda)


Is there anything more naked
Than a book’s cover?

Did we discover the cinema
In sleep’s auditorium?

If the first god was an animal
Will the last be a robot?

Will the west ever make peace
With the rest?

Why does the Statue of Liberty
Look away from America?

What do we call an era
Where wars are picnics?

Between a tree and a building
Which will breathe the longest?

Do cities know the price
Of losing interest in the moon?

Is there anything more ironic
Than a vegetarian butcher?

When oh when shall we celebrate
The death of nations?

Do policemen sleep
Dreaming of uniforms?

Is the rose more vulnerable
Than the heart?

Where is the shore
That washes off memory?

What is every face hiding
At funerals?

Ever wondered what rejections
Did to Hitler, Stalin?

What will the birds of Palestine
Tell the owl of Minerva?

Can you construct a man
From his library?

Isn’t the clearing of forests
Denuding us?

Will we ever learn desire
From the clouds?

*Behold the right-wing vanguardia, you say*

We arrive it’s Thursday the industry beckoned
to look at ripped canvases arranged amidst
old masters, to cavort amidst nudes white marble
statues Goya prints, to examine strips of color
dark + light one faint line of continuity dribbled,
to inspect bullet holes in cloth and four portraits
of disheveled mods (exiting Berlin’s Zur Wilden
Renate, or something), to admire near the Nordics
a gorgeous black textured square

In other rooms silkscreened flags hang from
the ceiling, a wire frame holds objects neatly arranged
with metal tacks, handmade paper books spin
on thin strings, prolific use is made of aerosol
and Photoshop, religious symbols photos of Dad
and a joint perched on a crowbar intrigue —
here is the soul of a young artist on display

“Those interested in a truly international art
don’t reject work within the system” ergo
available for examination are thin people in T-shirts
jackets leggings boots talking as photographers
scurry to capture the image (benevolent creatures),
past/present and contemporary/tradition smashed
together, manifestos for a melancholy-resistant
cosmopolitan art born to remain unwritten,
those who work don’t have time to pen manifestos

We race through the exhibits and it’s all nice
but let’s move, this warm glow this light
spilling out in the street crossing Av. del Libertador
running laughing quick before cars, for some reason
everything has that glow now, a sidewalk crack
electrical boxes mirrors for sale, and how
to make this part of the industry is the question.

White

My children are white.
I’m just as white.
Writing it I’m not less white.

When she was born I said,
“She is so beautiful.”  He said,
“She looks like a white baby.
She looks, white.”

As kids
we thought we could
just stop using aerosol

hairspray. We ate
sno cones, sucking
the color out first,

tanning in the yard,
pulling our straps to see
our tan lines, white.

But the white people
left the lights on,
all night every night.

Burned up everything.
Burned through what’s
underground and dug

deeper. Burned up the sky.
Burned through brightness
into brightness, leaving holes.

The sun says, “I see you,
each and every white
one of you. I see you—
cancerous, half-blind, white.”

The Poet Who Murdered His Wife

“Children trap bees
for their flowers
the world traps people
for itself”
—Gu Cheng, “The Art of Pulling Strings

Any author with an unusual death will have their life read backwards. Of course, this isn’t just true for authors. Anyone in the public eye who avoids the cancers, heart attacks, and car accidents that kill most of us will have their death overshadow their life. The Chinese modernist poet Gu Cheng, whose violent end is frequently placed at the centre of his work, is a case in point. In 1993, exiled from China and living in the isolated New Zealand community of Waiheke Island, Gu Cheng murdered his wife Xie Ye with an axe. Afterwards, he ran to his sister’s house to tell her what he had done and, in the confusion that followed, Gu Cheng hung himself. He was 37. Xie Ye was 35.

While remaining relatively obscure in the West, Gu Cheng is remembered in China as a prominent member of the so-called Misty Poets. Writing in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, the burgeoning poets group attracted an enormous following among the country’s disaffected young. Their name, menglong, meaning hazy or obscure (hence Misty Poets), was intended as a criticism by the authorities. The Misty Poets’ work was an obvious departure from pro-CCP rhetoric of previous decades, and the poets risked their personal safety by publishing. Gu’s most famous poem, “A Generation,” gives some sense of the anger, alienation, and optimism that runs through the movement’s work.

“Even with these dark eyes, a gift of the dark night
I go to seek the shining light.”

Gu would go on to write more surreal modernist verse, dramatically departing from traditional forms of Chinese poetry. Writing for the London Review of Books, Eliot Weinberger notes that, despite Gu’s limited access to Western Modernism, he recreated many of its techniques.

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—”Dee dee da dee da” (excerpt)

Eliot argues Gu’s creativity and innovation make it probable he “was the most radical poet in all of China’s 2500 years of written poetry.”

Gu is not the first significant writer to have murdered his spouse. William Burroughs and Louis Althusser both killed their wives, though in circumstances suggesting diminished responsibility. Althusser was mentally ill and Burroughs shot Joan Vollmer only after the unfortunate decision to combine generous amounts of alcohol with a game of William Tell. Whether Gu was also mentally ill is unclear. His eccentricities certainly contributed to the isolation that the couple endured in Waiheke. Gu refused to learn English in case it interfered with his ability to write in Chinese. He also had a tendency to wander around with the snipped-off end of a trouser leg on his head. When asked why, he explained that it helped protect his thoughts.

Debates over the role of an author’s life usually begin when his or her beliefs are in some way problematic. There is Heidegger’s much debated association with Nazism, Lovecraft’s racism, and Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s enthusiasm for eugenics. The question is: How do those beliefs affect the writing? If the writing is good enough it tends to be a reminder that people, and the world around them, are complex. By creating a nexus for critical thought, authors go some way towards undermining their own stereotypes. In contrast, poor writing that is bigoted typically survives as a historical artifact, not as art. Trying to assess the significance of a violent action in relation to art is far more difficult. Vicious or stupid beliefs can be swept away into the broad category of social fault, while cruelty, on its own, is individual.

There is a danger of holding artists up to a different moral standard than everyone else. Most of us are fortunate enough not to have our work evaluated in relation to the worst things we’ve done. This is partly because artistic fame results in the scrutiny of private life. It’s also partly because of the closer-to-the bone relationship we have with art: it is a commodity that affects us more deeply than most others. In other words, very few of us care if the postman is a bastard so long as the mail arrives on time. We simply want the mail. And while art shouldn’t be read as a purity test for the intentions of the artist, it’s disingenuous to pretend that life and work can always be comfortably separated. Texts aren’t impersonal objects, and this is readily apparent in Gu’s own work. His poetry, however surreal, frequently touches on everyday life and his own experiences.  There is an abundance of natural and rural imagery, his family having been “sent down” to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution.

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“Mouth of the River”, excerpt

The attention Gu and Xie’s deaths attracted in China was bolstered by the recent publication of their book, Ying’er: the Kingdom of Girls. While presented as fiction, Ying’er is a thinly veiled account of Gu’s life on Waiheke. Xie is listed as a co-author, but in reality contributed only a small portion of the text. The theme of Ying’er is Gu’s relationship with Xie Ye and his girlfriend Li Ying, all of whom were living together on the island. Gu and Li had met when she was still a student. They continued to exchange letters after he moved away until, in 1989, Li Ying managed to acquire a New Zealand visa, claiming political asylum after the Tiananmen massacre.

Unsurprisingly, the accounts of how and why Li Ying came to live with the couple are contradictory. Li Ying herself wrote a book called Heartbroken on Waiheke which included her disappointment with their shared primitive house and simple lifestyle. Li also wrote that she had been unaware Gu expected a sexual relationship. This was, according to Gu’s sister, contradicted by Xie. Li, she claimed, had shared Gu’s dream of a “kingdom of girls” from the beginning.

The role that Xie Ye played in Li Ying’s arrival is unclear. Anne-Marie Brady, who befriended Xie and Gu on Waiheke, paints a portrait of surprising intimacy between the two women, punctured by the perhaps inevitable squabbles and moments of jealousy. Some of that jealousy was from Gu himself who was envious of the two women’s relationship. Nevertheless, Li’s presence on the island appears to have been entirely arranged by Gu.

However, Weinberger suggests somewhat darker motives. He encountered the couple when they were living in Berlin on Gu’s DAAD (a German academic exchange service) fellowship, writing:

“Xie Ye gazed at him adoringly the whole time, and both of them radiated an innocent sweetness. I felt I was in the presence of one of those crazy mountain sages of Chinese tradition.

Somewhere in the evening, Gu Cheng left for the bathroom, and as soon as he was out of sight, Xie Ye turned to me smiling and said: ‘I hope he dies.’

Xie Ye, Weinberger writes, said that she had accepted Li Ying in the hope that the young woman would replace her as Gu’s wife. The reasoning was Gu’s jealousy, which extended even to their young son, Sam. Sam had been given into the care of a Maori woman named Poko after Gu confessed to having violent impulses toward his son. Brady also describes Xie’s distress over being separated from Sam. She highlights a passage addressed to him that Xie contributed to Ying’er:

“In the face of such ugliness and suffering, my fragility is no different from yours. How I wish you didn’t know such unbearable sadness in me. You have just turned three and we have nothing but each other.

Though Xie had begun an affair in Berlin and seemed to have been considering leaving Gu, her hope of regaining custody of Sam kept Xie from escaping Waiheke. Despite his own history, Gu Cheng was unable to tolerate Xie’s new partner. By then Li Ying had left Gu for a middle-aged martial arts instructor, and afraid that Xie would leave him as well, Gu’s behaviour became increasingly erratic. By his own admission, he had tried to strangle her while they were in Berlin. After the couple’s return to Waiheke, Gu refused to let Xie go anywhere on her own. Xie attempted to remove Sam from school in order to flee, but was prevented by the principal. Without legal custody of Sam, she chose to remain on the island. Shortly after she risked running away with their son, Gu murdered Xie.

Gu’s history of brutal domestic abuse makes appreciating his poetry uncomfortable. In the absence of biographical details, however, his work is original, eloquent, and provocative. The question is, whether to try and bridge that gap between art and life? Eliot argues that, “When you forget about Gu Cheng, you can begin to read him.” And it is true that poems like the sardonic “A Banner” are best read without considering Gu’s personal history.

“Death is relatively minor procedure

just a small excision of life

it doesn’t even leave a scar

 

And after the procedure the patient is remarkably calm”

“A Banner” was written over a decade before Gu murdered Xie and it makes little sense to leap backwards through time and interrogate the poem. The injunction to “forget the life”, however, requires something impossible: refusing to acknowledge what we already know.

There is no straightforward response to the problem of biography. Our home, as readers, may be in the ambiguous division between life and art. Gu was a brilliant poet who murdered Xie Ye, two disparate but connected components of the same life. And that tension, for his readers, should be difficult.

Sources

Sea of Dreams: The Selected Writings of Gu Cheng. Translated by Joseph R. Allen. New Directions Books, 2005.

Anne-Marie Brady. Dead in Exile: The Life and Death of Gu Cheng and Xie Ye. China Information. Vol XI, No.4 (Spring 1997)

Eliot Weinberger. Next Stop, Forbidden City. London Review of Books. Vol. 27 No.12, 23 June 2005. http://www.lrb.co.uk/v27/n12/eliot-weinberger/next-stop-forbidden-city

Graffiti Guy

When I had no paper, I took to the walls.
As pens were denied me, I came upon
an old spray can with paint still in it.

No, that wasn’t it. When no movie star
would give me a second glance, I launched
my face into ordinary people.

I couldn’t afford the Ritz. I lived
at home with my mother. When my
mother died, I had only myself for assurance.

Spray can in hand, I splattered my name
across walls. I couldn’t sing
like Ray Charles. I talked tough.

I couldn’t write my own name on a check.
I pointed to it on the side wall of the Laundromat,
on the front door of the cheap chicken place.

When I had no comeback, I took a bullet
in my left thigh. Not a drop of blue blood
but an ocean of red. Same as my spray paint.

Red on the bridge. Red on the church steps
Yeah, that’s me on the stop sign. Funny
choice, seeing as how I never could stop.

After the Exile

“The exile of words has begun.”
–Bei Dao

 

 

Still they are messengers, gray
like the wall they’re up against,
gray as the night in which they
must travel by necessity, by
starlight, which wavers in its old
age, just now finding the one
flower along the sidewalk crack,
just now, suddenly, enough light
for the words to get through, for
the words to be thoroughly through.

 

 

 

 

Featured Image: “Music – A Sequence of Ten Cloud Photographs, No. 1, Alfred Stieglitz (American, Hoboken, New Jersey 1864–1946 New York), 1922

A Young, Cool Stephen Hawking Standing With His Bride

We go about our daily lives understanding
almost nothing about the world: her arms,

the black and white flowers, heavenly bodies
in the sky. This is my brief history

of happiness: someone loved me once,
though my body was already learning

the grave – the flesh, the stench
of my mouth in the morning when I spoke

of the so-called fixed stars attest to this.
In the photo leaning, I’m falling, the gravity

of the situation impossible to measure,
the lace of her dress barely brushing

my dark-suited arm, the vein of hands.

ESSO—SO—SO—SO

Regardless of the course title, I try to read a poem aloud at the beginning of every class I teach. Some of my college freshmen love this, but most probably don’t. Like me at their age, they do not carry poetry around in their heads to help them make sense of what is happening around them. Yet.

By the third week of any given semester, I can note eyes rolling as I continue to insist on this ritual. But not all eyes are rolling, and in every class a handful of students jot down the name of the poet and poem before leaning in to engage with the words I send their way.

I like to insist that the carefully selected rhetorical devices within poetry have a place in our rhetoric as we compose, say, an argumentative essay in a college writing course. At the beginning of each semester, our first order of business is to re-imagine the word “argument.” We confront visions of dichotomous debate and replace them with a stance that would imply an intense search for clarity. And this stance often looks very much like that posture of the students, leaning in to receive and learn from the poetic phrasing offered at the beginning of each class.

But more importantly, well beyond the college writing classroom, I hope that through these poetry readings, I’m offering my students tools for their engagement with life—not only their outward articulation of feelings and observations, but also their inward understanding of who they are. Poetry offers clarity in the ongoing dialogue we have with ourselves.

I don’t often go into great depth or explanation about the opening poems, and I don’t usually allow them to lead into lengthy class discussions. A Garfield poster which hung in one of my high school classrooms comes to mind: Garfield is walking around with stacks of books tied to his head, arms, chest, legs, and feet. Above him, in that bubbly Garfield font, it reads, “I’m learning by osmosis.” I tend to believe that poetry is powerful enough that mere exposure to it has potency. I simply read the poem aloud to my students once, maybe twice, trusting that it will do the work and that a few students will think—no, they will realize, to borrow from Mary Oliver, “…that it was all the time words that you yourself, out of your own heart had been saying.”

There are a few poems, however, that I do allow to take up a larger portion of our class time, like Elizabeth Bishop’s “Filling Station.” First, I have the students read it alone. Then I have a few read it aloud. Then I share a recording of Bishop reading it. We talk about the poem’s rhythms, the arrangement of the words, and the speaker’s investigation of arrangements at the filling station. The students pull out alliteration and repetition of sounds, words, and images. We imagine the intentionality behind lines like, “…so that they softly say: / ESSO—SO—SO—SO…” We discuss how a new level of accuracy is reached through the decisions of detail within the poem than if the speaker had simply said, “Today I went to a dirty filling station.” The sharing of details opens a more thorough understanding of the situation. Facts are embedded in the pondering. Through a poetic imagining, we are brought closer to the truth of what is actually going on.

And then there’s that beautiful last line that we feel so kindly reaching out to us, “Somebody loves us all.”

When I play the recording of Bishop reading this poem for my classes, I am always tempted to skip her passing comments before and after. In the beginning she says, “This one will have to be changed, as you’ll see, somehow, I don’t know how, at the end, but I’ll read it the way it is now.” And then right after she reads the last line, “Somebody loves us all,” she says in passing, “I’m afraid that’s a wasted… (ha) no… (ha).” It’s not completely clear what she’s talking about, but you get enough of a sense to gather that she feels a bit silly about the end, particularly that last line. Perhaps as silly as someone might feel if, while arranging oil cans at an “all quite thoroughly dirty” filling station, she realizes she is taking the time to arrange the cans “so that they softly say: / ESSO—SO—SO—SO.”

Maybe Bishop didn’t like the way the last line or stanza sounded. Maybe it felt too clean. But I like it, and I need it to end just as it does. In the last two stanzas, there is a shift in focus. The speaker goes from describing the scene to wondering why it strikes her. What is she to make of it? “Why, oh why, the doily?” The answer to these questions, or at least the answer she manages to muster at the time, means everything. For me, her answer, to borrow a phrase from Christian Wiman, “brings a storm of peace.”

My familiarity with this poem has come from my determination to share it. I share it because of how it builds to that last stanza, that last line. And exposing it to others exposes it to me. Repeatedly. Carrying poetry around in my head helps me make sense of what is happening around me, and it is a welcome companion in my pursuits of clarity. So why, oh why, Bishop’s “Filling Station?”

“Oh, but it is dirty!”

When I realized my husband and I would need to separate and I would need to make a new home for my two daughters and myself, I knew I would have to find or create or claim or proclaim or reclaim beauty within dirty circumstances. I could not imagine this being possible. Beauty? In this mess? Nothing was clean or bright. All imaginings came covered in a “disturbing, over-all black translucency.” My thinking became crowded with questions like, “How does this work? How do I do this? Where do we live? On what do we sleep? And then what?” But I began searching for right choices, imagining options I could not see, and, day by day, I found answers to those questions. I found a safe apartment, and I got a good deal on two twin beds and one full. And my landlord, soft to my situation, offered me two weeks rent-free to prepare the place before moving in. I spent hours alone cleaning and planning and thinking, “What do I have to work with? What do I still need?”

Friends offered me sheets and towels. Neighbors offered me pots and pans. A parent from my daughters’ school brought me boxes and boxes of art supplies she’d found at a rummage sale, all practically new. My two brothers drove a moving van eight hours turned ten from Nashville, TN, to deliver some of my late grandmother’s furniture, which had been waiting in storage for someone to need. Also in the moving van were generous gifts from my mother. Soaps and chip clips for me, socks and fresh slippers for my girls. Why the soaps? Why the fresh slippers? Why, oh why, the chip clips?

When I finally brought the girls over to the apartment, it wasn’t ready. There was still a lot of work to do, but they could sense what I hoped it would become for them, for us. I was relieved by their excitement to join in and help with the planning and placement of things.

They both brought special items from the house they knew they wanted to have at the apartment: stuffed animals, certain books and toys, decorations for their room. Olivia included in her stash a straw cowboy hat which she wore as she toured the place for the first time. She let me know we needed hooks, “Lots of hooks, Mom. For hats and jackets and backpacks.”  She was very right. Mae brought a banner she’d made me for Mother’s Day earlier in the year. It had the word “Love” written in red with a thick, fat paintbrush. The “o” of “Love” was replaced with a red print of her left hand.

Together we debated where the banner should go. My room? The girls’ room? The hallway? No. Above the fireplace mantel, the first thing you see when you walk in the door? Yes. So that it can softly say to anyone who enters, “Somebody loves us all.”

Repetitions

1.

I wake up that morning and say to her, “I never loved you.” This is so she’ll hate me and revise our six months as lies: every instance I’d said I loved her would be like crumbs or lice she’d comb out of my hair. If she disbelieves me, it’d be because she wanted it another way, not that it was untrue. She’d be a buoy. No, a seagull on a buoy.

2.

I wake up that morning and say to her, “I don’t love you anymore.” I can’t explain when it was enough, such that we were no longer or farther from the other’s reach. I trace back to where I last saw my keys, whether teaspoons or tablespoons, what quotient or what remains I failed to carry. But hours are in gradations of light, the violet a single bird breaks, inexplicably, with first or final note.

For her, each of the six previous months will be angled, obtuse and widening into days, then hours and so on until tense moments resolve into a precise arc, a smooth blade that, when put to chop, is blunt.

Sometimes our paths cross by accident; we appear to the other gradually in sight but suddenly in recognition. I turn away, feel her watching my limbless body.

3.

I wake up that morning and say to her, “I love you; that’s why I can’t, anymore.” The syllogism goes like this: I love you; I love another; I can’t love both; I love another more;

not another person, only that the person could be you. But this possibility isn’t like how I could say this green blouse would look great on you knowing she’d try it on to please me.

She thought we’d discover together how we might be together; I could believe in waiting till the day of to decide whether we were staying in, or going to her sister’s party. Even what we thought about the afterlife. But I could not believe in closing my eyes to be touched in a place I didn’t know about, or could be touched that way. What kind of love is that? she’d ask.

In loving a possibility, I love neither her nor her; I’m all limbs and without conclusion.

4.

I wake up that morning and say to her, “I love you. I can’t.” There is no conjunction but the temporal: there will be tomorrow whether she or I like it or not. When one’s imagination fails, we fail.

She wanted to imagine together like the menu and dinner we made for a party of ten, to tell each other what to do like the day lights the undersides of magnolia leaves, to see for each other what we saw each in the others’ absence, what is doubly seen in our retelling: the squirrel crossing on telephone wires from one jacaranda to another, the heron who has returned. The world could be twice-told and repeated.

The jacaranda blossoms bloom and scatter. The bees follow to the ground. Like snow, they smudge brown into the concrete underfoot. A layer of violet fills up the windshield of a blue Oldsmobile that hasn’t been moved in days.

 

Grief

The morning started heavy.
Words unspoken gave him a false hope.

His breath arrested dry as
I heard it sharp and saw the sky
Leave his eyes.

The way we trekked to the kitchen
Mimicked a march down a cellar.

I placed him, like clay, at our grey wood table.
He cupped the coffee I gave, like an elixir,
The body slightly folding with a sip.

The caffeine chased the numbness in his blood.

The Great Glass Sea

I found you in a basket of mallow skating across the great glass sea. You were Moses. You were any story. You grew to love stories and so I wrote. With each sentence your eyes deepened pillars of light spread out over water. The mountains shed their people lakeside. They brought you roots, hands black from the snow. You ate and your light grew. As winter thickened around us, the whalers came ashore fewer. They dragged their boats behind them. You asked for each of their stories and urged the lot to save their oil.

An Unfortunate Remark

The old couple sits in recliners
after dinner the way old couples do
and she’s tells him what she saw
in the yard that first warm day
and it’s crocuses  and daffodils 
no tulips yet but she knows 
tulips will pop any day 
and he listens because there 
might be a quiz but then

she sees the gun in his lap 
and she asks why it’s there
and he says it’s in case 
she repeats the remark 
she made the night before 
because this time he’ll shoot 
the words out of the air 
quicker than a pheasant
in hunting season and 

blood will splatter 
on the ceiling and walls 
because this time she won’t 
put a hole in his heart as she 
did last night and maybe 
the two of them can return 
to who they were before 
she spoke and he survived,
hanging on to life.

At 2am

five tiny toes press
against my lower back

the ones who lost their sock
in the nightly tumble

dreamers seeking warmth
under an old fashioned quilt.

Together we float
away from shore

from visions
in glitter and glory

for some more intoxicating
than a quiet night

or a simple raft
in a wordless sea.

Condensation of possibilities
the impressive pieces of life

form above us on a starry ceiling
temptation to open my mouth

and taste.
Again they press

the persistent five
pulling me back inside

the me I love most
the one not swimming

but content to drift
into the open storm

little hands and feet
tucked below my ribcage

a wooden boat
of unspeakable joy

that somehow always
remains dry.

Alizarin Crimson

When it’s on your fingers, thick as paste, think blood, think Christ, think Judas, think your own life liquid seeping from the gash on the top of your head. Apply it to any canvas: paper, a photograph, a half-submerged memory you grasp at, then stab it with the spear of your mind.

It’s the color of flags flown in parades of summer days, the waitress’s name-tag color and maybe even her lipstick, if she put some on that day; it’s madder, really, than any mosquito that can’t get into your pants, it’s a lonely fire hydrant wanting even to be pissed on; it’s lake algae and horror-movie goop, a clown’s costume, the true ruby slippered way home.

Put it on your fingers. Rub it around. Let it seep into your fingerprints. Everyone needs blood on their hands.

If a Tree Falls in the Forest and I’m the Only One There

Mark died on Monday
so he probably won’t read this
because I don’t know if he still exists.
Rachael showed me a picture
of you but I’m six years old
at the Monroe, Wisconsin Pizza Hut
coloring a slice of pizza
in the kid menu – purple cheese,
blue pepperoni –
you’re not here. Mom is talking to
Brian like you never existed.
I have a son now. His name is
Atticus, like in that book.
He’s got crooked teeth, dirty toes,
no object permanence.
When he falls asleep
I wonder if I still exist.
I’m writing him a fairy tale
so I need a Big Bad Wolf – and
the preacher kissed your wife
on Good Friday while his boys were at school,
and they didn’t exist.
Now we don’t talk anymore because
you don’t exist
and I don’t know if you ever did.

Country Crow

When cars approach at ten over, ten under,
I think: stay with the carrion at this edible
consistency or do my flap-away-and-wait?

The zoom is monotonous, all buzz and swoosh,
a rhythm I live with, my murder and me.
And I’ve heard we’re confused for starlings,

for grackles, though how? No speckles. No
iridescent heads. We’re bigger, more mythical.
Some say majestic! Maybe, from a distance,

but on the fat branch of this fencerow mulberry
it’s merely watch and wait. Some dull days
I never stretch my wings, just hop from crotch

to pavement and back again, and back again,
a little bluish viscera streaming from my beak.
You’d never know it but the hawk’s no bigger.

The search light of his shadow casting those
wide circles over roadways, over fields means
he’ll soon have live meat. Me, I get what

gets itself hit. Then in between I doze and dream
I’m small enough to ride a bowing cattail, slurring
a scratchy terrr-eee, an oak-a-lee. Flashing

my red and yellow chevrons, luminescent
in the summer sun, I’m catching someone’s eye.

A Present from Frank Sinatra to You on My Birthday

Our summers were spent in the New South, autumn in
the biosphere, winter in a woodstove sand sullying
the hologram, blessing via a twenty-nine cent stamp.
Bleeding through my beloved stocking cap. At the camp
they hired a bloodhound to find my brother but because
the days were cartoons then their sleuth walked on his
back legs, wore a long raincoat and barked with a Bronx pull.
But he was aloof and rarely spoke at all, it was like dealing
with a real dog, responding as he did only to food and booze,
unable to clean the gunk from his own eyes. It’s not as if he was
crying. I’m fearful of what he thought of me when I was
laughing. Sworn statement, ink pad. Maybe he’s never lost
a brother like mine. The pop machine in the lobby ate my second-

to-last, and last, dollar bills, that’s what started me crying. My lessons
almost never get learned. Some people pass out from lack
of sugar, some too much. Some heroin withdrawal, some smacked
in the head with a police stick. Someone’s mother held my head
in her palm and dabbed my brow with the damp strands of a mop
and who could have planned that? My keys a trembling kitten under
the Coke machine, the red glow a falling all over my coat, all over
everyone’s coat. I have many hopes. Urgent: open at once.
One of them is thinking of becoming a nurse in the Third World.
One of them is sinking in the graveyard near my first wife’s house.
Nobody new’s gone down since 1920, it’s like people have renounced
death there, they’re done with that shit. All they do now is start
up cover bands, tracing the outline of each other’s hearts

with fat, innocent fingers, invisible aortas on every thinned white t-shirt.
You’ll find them fishing off the pier using nostalgic cane poles
just as the sun, in sinking low, shines forth its silvery cold
notes. I have many coats and everyone loves to wear them.
Joey can have his dreams, I’ll hound the defiled hem
of the deep. What do you need to sleep? I barely believe
in God but Kathy and I have begun to pray for what you need.
“New York just isn’t your town,” the cop whispered with his hand,
but when I see the picture of my brother standing on the hood
of his derby car I realize it’s worth it. We look at it together,
we hold it under our faces so we can drop tears all over
his face and hold him real close and have feelings we never knew
existed. Could you sign right here, Sir? Blink if you can hear me,

Sir. But I never did mind the dying, it was the funeral home I couldn’t stand.

Endless

I slip beneath the surface in January, so cold
the water steams from the pool into the air

like effervescent waves—

you could blow them with a breath and watch
as they take shape and sail above till they become

indeterminate from cloud.

I wish that in their airborne steam I could have a seat,
could breathe myself across borders and oceans,

breathe myself into a new skin

different than what I am now: a man, watching pool waves
lick sandstone siding, remembering

the boy who sifted grains

with his steps to join Moussa by the great road
where Toyota trucks rushed through town like zephyrs—

but now only a man, waiting

in suburbia for the myth of life to return and take him up
in its cloud one last time.

Trees Painted White

after John Sloan’s “The Picnic Grounds”

When asked, the painter said it was a device
to enable visitors to stroll about at night.
His picnickers flirt—three women circling a man—
their white stockings mimic the striped trees.

Lime in the whitewash choked the bugs,
halted their march upward to the delicate leaves
the way you’d splash your cottage walls,
confuse the critters aiming for your thatch.

When we were children in Arizona we puzzled
why the citrus groves were cloaked in white.
Reflects the sun, we were told, retards the growth,
late frost otherwise nips the unattended buds.

Dafne shrieked, ran pell mell away from lust
as her shrewd guardians transformed her into a tree.
Apollo, unable to snatch her in time, rested against
the laurel trunk, a white heat still reflected there.

 

 

 

Featured Image:
The Picnic Grounds, John French Sloan, 60,96 x 91,44 cm
Gallery: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA

Announcement

Rose-breasted grosbeak, feeder visitor,
it’s mother’s day and I’m marrying and adopting
in one giant late-middle-age swoop.
Can your male spring plumage top that?
Yours is a rare beauty, rarely encountered
by guests who assemble on the porch.
Mine is a concocted, complicated adornment,
catching others in social contracts
they might have sidestepped indefinitely.
And your sudden appearance makes me
enormously happy because I know
we have attracted you from the woods
without intending to entrap.

Remembering

First, too much play would cause the crotch-tab to
Break off; the thumb was often the next part
To crack when holding weapons stressed its glue—
And last, the band which joined the hips to heart
Snapped. Then I’d have two halves of G.I. Joe.
I find a bag of partial figures, toys
Which waited twenty years for me to grow
Until tonight, when I, no longer boy,

Now lay them out in pieces to be pressed
Back whole. I find the hook between the legs,
And, using a screwdriver’s tip, I thread
A gleaming ring from hook to spine. A chest
Can hold that all in place. I dust the face,
Commence the reattachment of the head.

Join the Navy: Ask Me about It

The bunting looks emaciated,
hanging there with stars above
and stripes dangling. Two desks
leer across a gap too wide
for puberty to negotiate.

Through the open door we spot
feet atop one desk, ankles
crossed for emphasis. The navy
goes to sea, out to sea, far away
to sea, but the tides don’t reach
this dusty office, don’t ebb and leave
bony, pebbled décor to sport
in ripples along the carpet.

We won’t join the navy today.
We won’t join the navy tomorrow.
We’ll join when the icecaps melt
and these desks buoy on gray chop
and the ankles uncross themselves
and the latent seaman, happy
at last, swims upright and salutes.

 

 

 

Featured photo by: Bryan Schutmaat

In the Year of the Simultaneous Savior

I played the boy Christ
who received royal gifts
from three magi. I posed
as the son of a shepherd,
quaking in angelic spotlight.
The cold air cradled me.
I waited for the cues.
Just for one night, I wanted
to stretch out in snow so rare
when the first slivers fell,
my belief an instant held up
in praise of a small, infant song.

Accidental Discovery

Over the last few years
your days have been filled with tumultuousness;
random accidents, you claim.
To me, seemingly unforgiveable,
made fouler by the dark mead of disillusion.

What was I supposed to think—?
the man, the smell,
the bottle, the flowers from Michigan:
none have meaning beyond their chance grouping.

Loving you has been like capturing a switchblade,

unexpectedly, with arteries and veins.

Somewhere

a storm-drummed dock,
        tongue-swirled scotch,
        the sea’s salted singe
make a clean bed
        in a white room
        on a bright hall
recede to the point
        where lightning
        and horizon
        crash.

Mission to Play

Jabari Parker Heeds N.B. A.’s Call,
Bypassing Formal Mormon Mission
 ‑NYT Headline, 6/25/14

 

Six feet, eight inches of Sweet Jesus
dribbled into your home in living color,
a hallelujah of slam dunks and triple-doubles,
three-point plays proselytizing as much as any
white-shirt-wearing, door-knocking, man on a mandated mission
to get you off your inherited holey couch and onto a pew
chiseled from his great-grandfather’s conversion
a hundred years ago in Tonga. It’s a live ball, so listen
to the hymn of whistling referees,
their black-and-white thinking almost ready
to pivot into eternity. The game clock keeps ticking,
and ESPN cameras zoom in
waiting for the NBA’s MVP play
of faith to jump-start
a new, rowdy crowd
ready to crash
the boards.

You are Sitting in the Kitchen, Only a Witness

On the table, the man cleans a gun.
A boy aside—pajamas and a ragged rabbit,
stuffed and sewn button eyes.

The boy begins to cry, though he can’t name
a reason yet. The man hands the boy
a cloth and swabs and oil can. Grunts instruction.

This kind of man cuts away all color
from his life, restrained fever in monochrome,
blind to all his accidents.

This kind of boy falls less in love
With what can be imagined. His clothes grow
smaller every day, slinking off his frame.

The double-barrel’s obtuse ends,
the laid out elements—all lead-ready, clean.
And from here things move fast.

Shriek of metal on metal, a clack together.
The man’s voice a trigger squeezed, the boy’s desire
something like a dove. A hammer and a shell.

Now past the clumsiness of destiny
and onto brighter things: swilled chirps
of crickets in the field, under summer stars,

gloved and silken silhouettes, overgrown grass
popping seed. What noises shape our small sobriety?
Strung serendipities no one can explain.

 

 

 

  • Featured Image:

Interior View of Walker Evans’s Apartment at 441 East 92nd Street Showing Kitchen Area, New York City

Artist: Walker Evans (American, St. Louis, Missouri 1903–1975 New Haven, Connecticut)
Date: 1930s–50s
Medium: Gelatin silver print
Dimensions: 9.5 x 12.1 cm (3 3/4 x 4 3/4 in. )
Classification: Photographs
Credit Line: Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift, through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 1996
Accession Number: 1996.166.48
Rights and Reproduction: © Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

1963 –

We never knew love lives
          or monkey shines.

We never got around to hammering
          out the details.

We were told to
          watch our mouths,

          unless our mouths
          were somehow televised.

          There were better ways to go blind.

We were your sweet, sweet bippy.

          A failed zero
          population.

I was twelve or so when I got the news
          that Manson had his sights

          set on our little town
          should he get paroled.

It was hard to trust anyone.

The DayGlo babysitter’s letter
          of resignation

          had each “i” dotted
          with a long-lashed
          eye of Fatima.
 
 
 
 
Featured Image: Diagonal of Personal Ecstasy (the Diagonal of May 25, 1963, to Constantin Brancusi)

To Contest A Parking Citation

Driving this way doesn’t bring up
any nostalgic feelings, doesn’t take
me back to a room I’d like to be in,
it doesn’t give me something new
to obsess over, it isn’t beautiful.
It’s no constituent to the duration
of loved intervals vacating the
grass-green hills pigeonholed in
the painting in my closet. It isn’t that
great or bad. It’s mostly not anything you
could live in, or think about, or want.

 

Photo by: Agnes Thor

Sustainability

(Laryx lyallis)

A few weeks after my mother died,
I dreamed that she was waiting for me
in a ravine of spring-green larches.
There was no worry in her eyes, and
she sat there with her knees drawn up,
content to be in the filtered sunlight.
Funny, because she never lived
among larch trees—my mom grew up
on an orange grove and raised us
in the Douglas fir. I do not live
among them either, apart from my rare
visits to the North Cascades. But when
I’m here, as now I am, sitting barefoot
on Cutthroat Pass among amber larches
bathing every bowl and basin,
I have a sense that she’s okay,
and that I am too, born to witness what
I can within this green and golden world
which still persists, with or without us—
but mostly with us, I’ve come to believe.
Things and people pass away,
but that’s when they become themselves.
There’s a new heaven, a new earth,
around and about us—and not much
different from the better parts of the old.
We don’t live there very often,
but when we do, eternity
ignites in a moment, light in the larches
that shines. And shines.

—Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest

Iconography

I start on the coffee table with a sledge hammer
Turning it to splinters big as porcupine quills.

I dismantle all the blankets thread by thread,
Unravelling back and forth like a dog chasing the afternoon.

With the string and the splinters I make a forest
Of conifers and banyans and jungle vines.

The bathroom sink falls next.
Water flows from the wall and wanders through the trees
Like the rivers of Eden.

The rivers pool beside the bookshelves.
I take down all the books and shred every page
To make a beach of clean white paper.

I smash the window and poke its shards into the ceiling,
Where, star-like, they reflect the pink evening sky

Blowing in above the undulating trees.