Miss Iraq, the first crowned
in forty years of foreign meddling,
means it when she wishes for world peace—
her cousins’ deaths
both tallied by sectarian violence in her
war-quilted, war-torn nation.
She is aware
the pageantry— pinup smiles and stiff,
cupped hands (their rotational gesture)
—will not beckon peace. Salvation
may have functioned
such ways in old, dog-eared eras. There’s evidence:
all our parched frescos or pocked statues
depicting one or another stoic god,
its crimped hand raised,
signaling for peace like a captain calling a play.
Run peace, they might have said,
or run samsara or run godhead
if peace is too transparent a trick
name for an offensive set. In Saddam City,
today, broken men train to play
the beautiful game, to execute levity
with their feet. Under Hussein’s boot,
losses on the pitch often translated
into torture—forty degrees Celsius
sessions training to kick molded concrete
futbols or hours
spent begging deliverance from within
an iron maiden’s spiked void. Those years
we call “the dark era”—when Saddam’s son,
Mr. Uday, was the face
of Iraq’s Olympic committee,
before he would become the ace of hearts
in the most-wanted card decks
coalition troops carried in their fatigues.
“Clearly recognisable” —how the Guardian
would describe Uday
Hussein in U.S.-released glamour shots—
“despite having a thick beard
and a wound that had destroyed
part of his nose and upper lip.”
On this side
of that suffering, five years since
Iraqi Freedom’s end,
Ms. Qasim will wear the red,
green and black sash,
and the U-23 team will play
for Olympic glory, despite the death
threats that may bloom into dying.
Authority’s lens abhors
beauty—its saturation in this world,
its disregard for the vacuums
men slaughter each other to create.
THE ECONOMY OF SWALLOWED KNIVES
I warn an auditorium full of children,
Do not try this at home. Then I begin
ingesting skewers. Unintentionally,
I enlist their youthful volition
into the war against waiting to grow up.
On the drive home, they pelt their parents
with salvos of Can I and Please, while fathers
being fathers, retort, When you’re grown,
paying your own bills for your own roof,
you’ll be free to live as foolhardily as your heart
desires. There: the moment of escalation—
suddenly their every waking hour becomes
a struggle to buy back their right to self-
destruction. Lemonade stands and lawn
mowing. Frozen meat pucks flipped
under sallowed arches, endless refolding
of denim. The children sprout acne and fuzz
as their piggy banks pudge. Their minds
have long since forgotten the death-defying
blade sleight that followed my disclaimer
They are teenagers. Everywhere
something else shouts This could kill you,
and, achingly, they answer Yes. They can
taste it: tattoos, cigarettes and sex—
any form of flirting with mortality.
Beneath youth’s aegis, they believe
themselves mighty, no matter how poor,
but soon enough they are adults renting
efficiencies and driving jalopies—stretching
dimes for the privilege of being grown.
See how this economy needed no help
in tailoring their malaise. What next?
Heat assignments for the middle-class
scramble to obfuscate death.
Then kids of their own. Then the rest.
I want to be a boy, you tell the man
who analyzes you. Free of desire.
He nods, light flashing
off his thin gold spectacles.
No one called the singing boys
castrati to their face. So evirato,
meaning one unmanned,
musico: one making music.
Boys aren’t free
of desire, of course—
Though not by ordinary means—
fingers pressing keyboard, lips
against a cold silver mouthpiece.
No, the singer’s body turned
to supple balsam, stretched
over the years until it forms
that frame beloved by engineers—
strength, endurance, range—
You uncross your legs, recross:
left over right. Beneath you
the vintage leather cushion sinks.
It’s the idea that they aren’t
until those clear, adolescent ribs
ascend like arches in a nave, not merely
the idea of being holy, no—
* * *
the blood and the meat. Only then
is the sacrifice complete.
Out the window a crane lifts;
the man says, waving—
all this construction.
It seems appropriate, you say.
Only then will the whole frame sing.
Become a building large enough
to contain the singer’s longing—
all his longing, all our own—
But no, what you told him
what you want
is to feel everything, desire
as the scarlet tape beneath
the plastic, what you want is
not the package unwrapped,
solid in your hands, but
pleasure in the pulling, gently
ripping off the plastic.
enough to let us watch him
grow transparent: liquid, dim
in the dusk as a cool glass bowl.
And who are we to question, we
who bend our ears to listen?
* * *
Violare, you tell the man
who analyzes you,
is a beautiful word
despite its meaning.
Unlike victim, unlike vulnerable.
Castration was never, strictly speaking, desirable. Or legal. But beauty made the mutilation worthwhile, vital even, since God couldn’t exactly sing to Himself. Money made it prudent. So castrati trained to sing like angels performed His masses, played the parts of both men and women—lovers, heroes, villains—in the candelabraed courts of kings and queens. Got rich like rock stars. Were beloved.
I fell in love with the castrato known only as “the boy” (“Il Ragazzo”) at first, then as Farinelli, when I fell in love with the music of his friend” Domenico Scarlatti. A late sonata, I remember, recorded on piano: needle-like precision, needle-brilliant colors in the hoop. What I can tell you is it jumped. He jumped. Off the tracks into unrelenting dirt, showing us a glimpse of his mind, that private dark plummet of the mind we hide from
ourselves, from others, every day. Then up again: into perfect sun, the remorseless summer green of trees.
* * *
You’ve been abused, he says slowly,
taking care to look into your eyes.
Mind (your mind)
jumps, a slapped animal. Blink,
I hate that word,
I don’t want to think of myself
as a victim. A tight smile.
* * *
Snap as the bridge
slips from its perfect,
upright posture, tumbling
through the empty
wooden torso, little dowel
whose only duty is
to echo (are we doomed
to echo?) every wave that
slaps it through your hungry violin—
one thing making
another sing, because there is
no music without violence,
no sound without a chain.
And when the tumbling stops?
In your hands a newly
An endless loop, each slim sonata—split in half, a repeat at the double bar. You return to the beginning, but not näively, there’s no return without an echo of the first time. Older, sweeter sometimes, a darkening wooden cask.
* * *
[ Farinelli, born Carlo Broschi, a child in Naples,
city of cathedrals, opera, castrati ]
No one speaks the words. Silent at the table,
four of us now, a new boy clearing dishes,
first the plates—the ones Father bought in London—
then the knives and forks. The big clock strikes ten,
still Mother doesn’t say, Carlo, time for bed.
Riccardo at the head of the table—
barely a week since Father passed away—
sitting high and black as a graveyard gate,
Sofie twisting day-old daisies in her lap.
The estate, Riccardo says. Decisions.
Mother creasing her black lace handkerchief.
A pair of bankers, he begins slowly,
Brothers. They have heard of Carlo’s talents.
The large fruit bowl remains on the table,
Father’s favorite—a pair of ladies dancing,
fingers hidden in their fluttering sleeves—
two oranges huddled inside it, mute.
They believe his debut would be brilliant.
At the origin of Narrative,
Roland Barthes writes in S/Z,
Sometimes you hear the frozen river split
and yet you step onto the ice—I ask,
When can it be done, this thing? Can it be soon?
Mother staring deep into her handkerchief,
as if there is an answer there, a stitch
she can unravel with the needle’s tip.
No one makes us plunge into the river:
we walk because there is no standing still.
Then Riccardo, O you whom I adore,
how you turned to me and, smiling, said:
Little brother, let it be as you wish.
I will call on the brothers Farinello.
* * *
Desire in the text
beneath the text—
Barthes writes about a tale by Balzac,
a castrato singer parading
as a woman, baffling
as the object of desire.
(You can only tell
this tale through indirection.)
Rain. Rain. A few drops cling to the window,
drop without a sound to the sill. Wet wind
blowing in: it barely touches me. Please,
let no one touch me. Just this bed, this bandage
wrapped around my shattered mast like a sail,
the nightshirt I refuse to let them change.
Mother’s footsteps in the hall. Then her head
bent over like the Virgin. Prayers. A candle.
We’re sailing, I’m sure of it—I’m seasick,
gagging again and again into a basin—
a hand wipes my head with a cold wet towel.
* * *
To produce narrative, however,
desire must vary, must enter into a system
of equivalents and metonymies. . .
I am winding through a stonewalled garden.
Someone mowed the grass. The clover’s headless,
dew soaks my feet, my night shirt is too thin—
If only I can find the door I’ll find him
sitting on the bench he loved, composing,
whole again: Father in the shade of a tree.
A ritornello, son. You will sing it soon.
He lifts up the manuscript, freshly inked—
a simple tune, andante. Just a scale
branching out like a tree designed to branch,
until it doesn’t, snapped without a reason.
Silence in the cooling air. Now it’s dusk.
Father looking up at me from shadows:
Son, what are you holding in your fist?
You’re used to thinking of yourself
as strong. Sit-ups, pull-ups, runs—
discipline your muscles, rid
your body of itself.
In the mirror everything looks the same.
One lock of hair, still damp, slides down my head.
Push it back. We must be perfect, he and I,
perfectly natural, calm, and gracious.
I move my lips: he smiles back instantly,
as if he’s worried I will find him out,
crying and clinging to the post of his bed.
Everything looks the same, I whisper to him.
My voice. Nothing will happen to my voice.
He is silent. In the glassy depths of his eyes
a flash—something silver twitching—a fish?
Tiny, iridescent. Fire in the pool.
* * *
You have always wanted
to be strong—
not one who needs.
Twilight: Mother spoons honey in my tea.
Alone in my room, one window open.
You’re just a boy, she says.
Though we both know
that’s the point—this hole we’ll never speak of,
my softness like a fruit. When all the other
glass bells smash, only I will stay unbroken.
A boy. Always a boy. Il Ragazzo.
we’ve been coring apples
with the conviction of inmates.
A train sings somewhere close,
steps off the tracks & lands
in my palm. The apples spill
like people out of taxis – red-faced
& round. My hand is too small
to hold you. Or the train.
We’re fragile as jellyfish,
as little boys who mock
the creatures in their glass tanks.
Today the apples are animal hearts
& we carve them.
Your hands are sticky.
Your hands touch my face.
Your hands threaten to destroy
an adequate day & make it
transcendent. The sky seeps with light.
I’ve been here before, but before
it was dark & here we are,
in the morning.
This blue-green robin’s egg
cracked, now, and left
in the porch nest—impossibly
light in my palm. Somehow
the chick knew to press its beak
against the egg’s surrounding walls.
In darkness, it must have followed
sound—the thunder clap,
its mother’s song, the dog—each
driving its first and final fissure
of the shell. But how did it trust
that leaving one world would,
in fact, reveal another? I listen
to the wind and hear
Whoever said black eyes don’t show up
on black guys, need a knuckle mountain
to the mouth. Everything with the exception
of a beatdown stays in Vegas. Who in our
crew of bachelors & back stabbers should’ve
been held over the banister of our Bellagio
suite? A groomsman doesn’t have to sleep
with the bride to deserve the skin caving in
around a pupil, which in itself is nothing
but a cave. Not because a woman can’t bat
what’s already bloated shut should she not
be hit in the face, but because she’s mother
to outrage, who could give birth to fury
at the drop of a velour top hat. My father,
whose best man was his sturdy older brother,
has always said go for the nose, but failed
to explain why. From context I figured if
a bridge is destroyed then all voyages cease,
meaning oxygen cannot commute as usual.
Not the suits we played, but the tuxedos
we wore to your wedding were so stark grey
we could’ve headed to a funeral following
the reception. Inside the stretch limousine
to the strip club we practiced our rapture,
nerve-sweating as if minutes away from
clasping a hand over a fist over a crotch,
as you quivered your vows with a tie chain’s
grin. Ritual unions have got me in trouble
again. If lovers divorce is the wedding party
expected to remain friends with the yolk
that’s been broken? Does the sunset begin
to spill all over the rest of the meal? Brother,
forgive me, for these may be questions
of immunity posed too soon. A widowed
blow withdrawn too late for a target’s pardon.
Or maybe it shouldn’t have been asked at all.
ODE ON MY UPSPEAK
“A lot of these really flamboyant things you hear are cute, and girls are supposed to be cute, but they’re not just using them because they’re girls. They’re using them to achieve some kind of interactional and stylistic end.” – Penny Eckert, New York Times
I admire its belligerent uncertainty, like:
I’ll know if I know when I please. Pointed
indecision as auto-prick that sticks my sentence-tip.
When my tongue spring-toes into a run, I vault
across silences sucking this tick like perpetual mint—
surprised but satisfied. I want all my action
rising, okay? While we’re at it, I dig my umms,
impervious little monks who squat
in well-spaced rows, their insistent vibrato
a hypno-chant that spins my speech to incantation.
I love how they punctuate, bead-like,
my vocal fry, that holey string to which I cling.
Its creak makes me speak like a crumb-scraper
savoring the linen tablecloth. I lick
the conversation down and shake
each glottal rattle at the sky, my diphthong
kernels popping in a thrum that sets me singing
like an optimist—I’ve got nowhere to go but up
to the roof of a high rising terminal.
Oh my voice, you are a wing tethered to a gender
like a brick—or a period—and you jump regardless.
I Want to Walk to McDonald’s Forever, Friend
I want to wade there with you on a snow day,
wheeze-winded & teary. I want to smash the ice
in your lashes, then let the oily steam breathe us
back to running blood. Or I want to walk there
in crop tops we’ll swap in the lime fluorescent
of the slime-tiled john so we can walk home as one
another. I want to wooze in your menthol-cherry
aura as we find every flickering arch in the city.
Delicate licker of grease-dipped French tips,
send me a Rite-Aid valentine that says be my bitch
& I’ll be yours. No take-backs, no joke, no jinx
when I answered that trick crush question with you,
you who then flipped & tramped the whole year solo.
But I swear on my mamaw’s spine we can walk
it all back with Big Macs & a thousand half-hug pats.
Please let’s just meet on the mouth of straw,
suck it up, crush only our cups, & let the year drip down
the sewer slats as we walk back & back & back.
DEATH OF A CHILD
This is how a child dies:
little by little. His breath
curdles. His hands
heavy on their branches.
I can’t explain it.
I can’t explain it.
On the walk back to the car
even the stones in the yards
are burning. Far overhead
in the dead orchard of space
a star explodes
and then collapses
into a black door.
This is the afterlife, but
I’m not dead. I’m just
here in this field.
The lambs I curled like twins
and lay into their boats. I stuffed their ears
with the wooly sound of sleep.
The pigs I showered with white carnations.
The cows I placed cut branches over, green parasols
fluttering on the stems. All the dead
becalmed in their vessels, sent onto the river.
The river was a murmur of many boats drifting.
Petals in the eddies, creak of prow against stern…
The parade grew large between the banks.
Then there were only boats, boats
and the sound of water beneath them.
Before the insects start to grind their million bodies,
before impulse scatters the deer into the trees,
there’s a rest.
The dawn and the day observe each other.
The herd begins to move over the field, one shared dream
of grass and wind.
The small stones of their hooves in the stony field.
I’ve exhausted my cruelty.
I’ve arrived at myself again.
The sun builds a slow house inside my house,
touching the stilled curtains, the bottoms of cups
left out on the table.
FOR ITS BLUE FLICKERING
If you take cobalt as a simple salt
and dissolve it—if you dip a small metal loop
in such a solution and place it in a standard
flame, it burns a brilliant blue,
the flame itself bluer than the richest of skies
in summer. I wanted to be that blue.
And so, I claimed that element as my own,
imagined that fire could make of me
something bluer than the bluest of blues.
But what does an eighteen-year-old boy know
of the blues? All I knew then of cobalt
was its stable isotope. I had no knowledge
of the radioactive one with its gamma rays
used for decades to treat cancer. I had yet
to be exposed to such a thing. I was hot
for cobalt, for its blue flickering. Chemistry
can be such an odd thing. When a teacher of mine
offered up that faggots doused in certain chemicals
burned blue, I saw it as a sign; how can we
not see such things as signs, as omens?
Blue the waters of the Caribbean Sea,
blue the skies over the high deserts,
and blue the passages I found in old Greek texts
that surprised my prudish sense
of what men could do with men. It always
came back to blue. But boyish ideas are just that.
They seem for all the world to be fixed things,
when all they are is merely fleeting. In the end,
my make up was none other than anthracite,
something cold, dark, and difficult to ignite.
It is dense, only semi-lustrous, and hardly
noticeable. One dreams in cobalt, but one lives
in anthracite. Yes, the analogy is that basic.
Anthracite, one of earth’s studies in difficulty:
once lit it burns and burns. Caught somewhere
between ordinary coal and extraordinary graphite,
anthracite surprises when it burns. It isn’t flashy—
it produces a short, blue, and smokeless flame
that reminds one of the heart more than the sky.
PORTRAIT IN AZURE AND TWINE UNRAVELLING
Sometimes what attracts us is nothing more
than a marker of what is wrong with us.
Ravel was heralded as a genius, a master
of Impressionism, for his use of highly repetitive
structures, his rhythmic and repetitive structures.
Who can deny the beauty of Bolero? Not me.
As a child, I asked my mother to listen to me
while I practiced words like cobalt, each one more
and more odd for their sounds, their structures,
something I was still figuring out. “Grant us
Peace,” we repeated at Mass. Everything was repetitive.
And that is how it started, me trying to master
the language, the very words, fearful they would master
me, instead. Azure, sinecure, the long u had me
so early, and then the hard t one finds in repetitive,
substantive, titillation. I always needed more and more
words. Debussy once described Ravel as a man just like us,
one who understands that repetition structures
the way we move through the world, structures
our very breath, breath being that thing necessary to master
song, language, the natural world around us.
The first time I took a lover, she took time to watch me
sitting on the edge of the bed mouthing the word more.
After four hours, she dressed and called me repetitive,
told me the fun of it had ended, had become repetitive.
Memory, even when about something painful, structures
our worlds, structures our hearts and minds and more.
Within years of writing Bolero, Ravel could no longer master
music. He even lost the ability to use language. Imagine me
hearing this story. We were still new to each other, not yet us
but still a me and you. When Ravel left this world, left us,
you told me, many thought him mad and madly repetitive
pouring the same cup of water over and over. “Listen to me,”
you said. “Music is more than the simple structures
one need master.” I chose language instead of music to master,
all 171,000 words in the English language and more.
This morning, you caught me mouthing something other than more.
Ravel was not a man like us. Really. I just needed a new word to master.
My love, I’m repetitive. I sit here saying: “structures, structures, structures.”
TIME SURE FLIES WHEN YOU’RE NOT LIVING UP TO YOUR POTENTIAL
So, everything failed. The jabbed-iron trees flamed out
in spectacular failure along the ragged range. Forecast
failed. The pollster that glistered turned huckster. And
the memory of that ex who called you petit bouchon
failed to reassure that you once loved wreckful and reckless
and in a foreign tongue. All around you now Florida fails pinkly
and by voracious flora. The lizard who burned or drowned
hot-tubbing in your hot coffee failed perfectly, curled into
an eternal question mark, little fingers clenched, dukes up.
If death is the body’s failure, it is also its final fuck you.
Which has to count for something. Which has to be a win.
LIGHTNING SUSPECTED IN DEATHS OF HORSES
I want to take you to the black-mud spring pasture
where six horses fell and did not get back up.
I don’t know if they were dark or dappled—
I wasn’t there. I read it in a newspaper in Vermont,
sitting at the counter of a diner that no longer
exists. Lightning Suspected in Deaths of Horses—
small article in a bottom corner, not much
more information than that. It struck me—
I’m not trying to be funny—I carried
that headline around until it became a slogan
although I’m not sure what I’d been sold.
Maybe this: the sky opens, you kneel
and beg its mercy and it doesn’t make
one lick of difference. Or, light appears
and your life is transformed. Finally getting
exactly what you’ve asked for all along:
a shift in luck, sudden brilliance, your body
lit, electric, your own enough to let it go.
Not-knowing, the last of the last times slipped past
us like small ships—no memory of the last
hand within hand, the last curving against
curve, the last naming, the last receptor clasping
and unclasping—the last trace
of us traveling from spine to mind, axons
to dendrites—a relay of loss.
If we took every fish and scattered them equidistant
across the waters, there’d be less than one
minnow for every Olympic-sized swimming pool of sea.
There are many ways to describe loneliness. There are not
enough ways for light to travel through water.
There are approximately three million wrecks
beneath the seas. Imagine if a ship knew it’d be her last
sail, how deliberately she would’ve gripped
the salt winds, how tentative her bow,
how, peering within, she’d marvel at all that shine
and shining—all that light inside of her,
all those seafarers calling her name.
Once, we learned that humans know more about the surface
of Mars than the seabed. If we were anything
together, we were cosmologists—how much easier
it is to look up, where space can’t
flood out the planets, not even the ones light-years
away. Once, I told you that if I could be anything,
I’d be diving, I’d be a trace against the seafloor, tendering.
Note: The poet would like to thank the writer of the article “If the Ocean Was Transparent: The See-Through Sea” for the scientific facts that inspired this poem.