LETTER IN EXCHANGE FOR
Painting all the spines of the books blue,
for example. Tasting me so absolutely
as to know the monsoon of my sickness.
Licking my lips clean of disturbance
while hunting for the trees I want
at every window, that wanton green.
What if, in reciprocation, you gave me
every song you wrote for other women?
Only, be correct, change their hair to dark.
Wrapping a belt around the waist of all
clouds floating in my chemistry. Being
beautiful. Being exquisitely beautiful.
For example, not being a cloud floating
in my chemistry. For example, not misting
away, a ghostly disturbance in the atmosphere.
APOLOGY TO THE NARROW MOMENT
But my body is a narrow hull
of birds regretting the sky. Inside
you is a chasm of thrown things.
But my secret is a pond drifted
over with leaves, winter-cold
and reflecting my hands only.
But my yearning is a spray of stars
arrowing out of my fingertips,
falling on the dark lawn by the party.
But my nights are a thousand faces
turning away, sipping their drinks,
looking at someone they’ve just recognized.
How snow and distance equal absence the page untouched
the page a white blankness the way ink recedes from these
cold vistas its absence a kind of reverence how the moon
is also an absence untouched as if he knew it was beyond
mere wood mere blade how burdened the humans are
in their boats their roads and towpaths how there is always
something happening in the middle distance how there are
always mountains always rivers how the birds are a trick of
perspective some with wingspan like a temple’s curved roof
some reduced to black nicks in the empty sky how I too
have seen foxes in a grove under moon under stars though
mine breathed but carried no fire how I’ve longed for that
dark blue winter evening the night a pendulum the night
a fulcrum the year tips then slides across while in the sky
the stars light up as hundreds of foxes coalesce in the field
make their way toward a tree how they’re gathered there
in the winter night like candles how he must have known
the name of this how in this language we call them a leash
we call them the earth
(This poem references New Year’s Eve Foxfires at the Changing Tree, the 118th print of a series titled One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, by the 19th century woodblock printer Utagawa Hiroshige.)
[A PRAYER FOR OUR MORTALITY]
To begin think of wind river sand silk the various strands
currents how falling moving how leaving can be exactly
that benign a cessation of resistance a species of quiet
abnegation think then of a flame on its wick flickering
in the drift of air stubborn and still alight holding on
in the draft that sifts through a summer screen the leaves
greenly afire on their piers their waxy wicks the sleeve’s
small collapse against your arm in the breeze think
of the current of time how it too swirls eddies and then
abates as sticky afternoon slips into sticky dusk itself
slipping into moonrise into full dark think of the lit window
and you candled there you inside the moving the breaking
heart of this thing think of the glass doing its invisible best
the shell the egg of your dwelling the way it cradles you
how soft the body’s flesh how there are two of you
the unformed fetal you asleep innocent as weather and
the you that paces in all that yolk light the light that spills
thick and angular through screen and glass the light
that falls across the trimmed the orderly lawn the way
your shadow hushes the crickets afraid there in the sudden
dark the way it releases them as you vanish into song
How a groove is a prayer for a needle and a hollow
is a prayer for birds, how music fills a space
and makes you aware of emptiness,
somewhere my brother is
not where my brother is
supposed to be. I tell the sky how
and the sky replies in sunlight on the river
meaning walk the bottom wearing this
and you will know the answer.
I ask the bus dispatcher if she can ask the drivers
to ask the passengers and for once
there is no music to my holding,
just an approximation of silence and nothing
preceded by a click. I am sitting with the phone to my ear
and then I am standing with the phone to my ear
noticing my indentation in the couch disappear
maybe the way things do in my brother’s memory.
Now the sky is doing that
thing where it throws some of its light
down in lines like pikes
or stilts, as if to say climb up here
and you can see over the trees
all the way to the ocean, the mountains,
so many beautiful places
full of music and nothing and waiting,
and you can walk on this river
sizzling beneath you like a fuse,
sparks of light on the water.
LETTER TO YASHA IN MY THIRD PERIOD AP LANG CLASS MORNING AFTER THAT GIRL SHE LIKES BLOCKED HER ON INSTAGRAM by Mamie Morgan
There must be something that can fix me,
you say, but in sixteen years nothing has. Lexapro, Oleptro,
Thiopropazate. Eighth grade, Hal Stoddard chased me
into the Rosewood Lane cul-de-sac by the butt end of his BB gun
yelling, C’mon piggypiggy, open up you whale,
while I recited every word that had ever made me want to stay alive:
supine, rocking chair, sherbet, mother, diphthong,
Halloween carnival, far-off longed-for spinsterdom. I don’t know what to say
that the grown folks you don’t listen to haven’t
already said. Celexa, Paxil, Luvox, not every day will suck. I’ve a pit bull
and a brick home and there comes an age people stop
minding you much, leave you well enough alone. Hal came back of course,
brandishing a bouquet of carnations, asked
could I play H-O-R-S-E in Ben Nixon’s driveway some four houses down.
Asked if I’d like to see John Lennon in concert
come summer. Of course I did. Lennon’s dead, he laughed, you stupid cunt,
and allowed that basketball to roll into the arms
of woods we, as smaller children, sometimes hid together in.
Who knows why I’m about to tell you this, that years
later just before the doctor opened me up to take what was no longer alive
out, last thing I saw before the drugs set in
was a poster of tulips in a Dutch paddock he kept taped to the ceiling.
Just after, though I was long grown, my mother drew
a warm bath, put me in it, fed me oysters and albariño in silence. Some things
fall away like a tilt of roadway to unearth twenty years
of soon-to-flower field just before you. I mean that. My mother let me
stutter the word oyster until I fell into a soft wing
of sleep. There are still entire minutes, Yasha, Yasha, I like to imagine,
had the baby lived, there would come some word
so loved by her she’d sometimes travel the earth by train or foot or tippy-toe
repeating it, just repeating it.
after Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Riding with Death
They made me with bones,
white, yellow, brown & dusty bones,
heavy & hollow, broken & shuttered,
they made me with bones
no one has ever claimed,
bones no one will ever bury,
they blew through my hollow bones,
they hummed the saddest song
as they snapped bones
to make them fit into my skeleton,
they tied my clavicles with deer sinew
& whittled tree limbs to fix my legs,
they nailed sea shells on my skull
with heavy & black maguey thorns,
they plastered my rib cage with black clay,
they unwrapped my vertebrae
from a bundle of banana leaves
they baked over a layer of charcoal,
they assembled my crumbling bones
with their long, sluggish hands
like one assembles marimba bars,
they mixed dirt & crushed charcoal
to paint my bones, they woke me up
when they poured handfuls of desert
sand into my empty mouth,
I tasted the dirt,
coarse & rough,
against my jade teeth,
I felt hungry & thirsty,
I learned to cry,
I didn’t stop until they gave me
a bowl of corn mash
to ease my thirst & hunger;
Raining this morning & the foothills are dusted
with the gray light that comes with bad weather.
Even through the water’s falling sound
the train makes itself heard across the city
like church bells at midnight. What beautiful moaning
loudness becomes when it’s forced to stretch itself
across a distance. Like the way my lover’s song greets me
from upstairs, where he’s singing in my shower—
even across our short reach, his voice sounds truer
than when he sings & I am near him. Listening
to him croon through the water’s heavy moving,
I’m certain Eurydice was pleased
when Orpheus looked back too soon.
How happy it is to die twice
when your reward is your lover’s real voice
reaching you across wind & water & time.
How relieving to realize he is more himself
without you than when you are spread out
naked below him, your hair tangled in his palms
& his song diluted from your sating his longing.
What is constant across all love
is the inevitability of its end.
One of us will grow bored
or one of us will die, & knowing this it seems
Eurydice was best to leave love early.
Wait too long & he’ll stop
singing even from a distance. Go
now! Run from your love! May your absent
touch be the bells he hears clanging out from the steeple
into the gray night that slows into morning,
where the train will try to out-moan the wind,
where he will liken this moaning to the way
you sounded beneath him. He will pick up his lust
like a lyre & sing your name trying to reach you
wherever you are. & wherever you are
you will hear his song haunting the air like mist.
Listen to how entirely he loves you, for the first time.
I’m hardly alone—
like most men, I’ll gaze
at anything to avoid looking
inward. Like a stream
reflects what surrounds
but never the face of
itself. I mean force, I mean—
forget it. Let’s cast ourselves
into a pond: a still surface
standing forever without
a break. Let’s freeze at
the tipping point when you
leave me, here in the heart
of this song. At least
metaphors have my back;
at least the swallows outside
my window sound really into
each other. I hope they fly
so far south, they don’t
remember a thing.
Stupidly. Like a dog,
flood, like a vole
the hawk lifts screaming
to its first and last
Each want sired
want and I
was drowning in it—
but kept my head
above the choking
to choke more.
A dog, I said,
or rat pressing
lever unto death.
May we all die wanting
and getting it.
Time was too long each winter. Each spring
death clung to our tongue. Just below
it milled failure and success: lambing seasons
that arrived to survive, the job
that finally paid, the art of making love
even when we felt less than whole. We knew
the Bible would fly off the table
at a moment’s drink. That the dog’s sound
sleep meant mining activity along the Big Laramie
River had not lasted past 1882. A hundred years
of lack dread-fed today. She said something
or other. He heard something something something.
We cattle-swung regret, lumbering in
from the wheat, our heads jostling side to side,
mumbling as if our mouths meant medicine.
Suicide was not an option. The pawnshop
was too far south, and we didn’t want to register
defeat. It was easier to watch documentaries
of the Civil War in the palm of the hand
to a bluegrass backdrop that said those times
of cloud cover were cruel. The Denver Mint,
too, was south. The silver had long run
out downstream from what our grandmothers hoped could be
permanent indoor plumbing. Sure, we’d grown
far enough to shit indoors, but now the smell
of a hundred years of struggle lingered
long minutes inside, crawling
up the wall. We tried to take
walks, even when it rained, the sound
on our roofs a rustle of restless regret
keeping us locked in homes whose walls
displayed photos of how we’d aged. Each smile,
given on cue, somehow meant falling through
the boards. How we thought the present was here
to stay. How our tongues held dread. How a spring
lamb, unsteady and weak, might bleat defeat.
it lay there, flopping, fish-out-of-water
and my heart trembled on the curb
the usual fisherman’s tales
a woman onlooker upset, that’s animal cruelty
flapping in air, fingers hooked
to its spiracles as its mouth gaped and shut
barbecued stingray is commonly eaten
in Southeast Asia, the flaps, or wings,
most desired for eating
my friend, the doctor, well, it’s not really torture
the lower brain, the lesser feeling
the uncertainty of recent findings
caught one once with five-foot fins
it can live a few hours out of the water, it’s fine
caught a two-to-three-hundred pounder
nociception is the ability of an organism
to identify or notice a harmful stimulus
and react by reflex to avoid it
my heart at the curb, flipping
I walked away, I could not stop
When she screamed, I thought it was a child.
Later, she would refer to this sound as a “school-girl” sound,
which is – I’ll admit – what it sounded like. But I dislike the connotation
of weakness and young womanhood, to scream like that. It probably isn’t
the sound I would make, being wiser about these things and not new
to the idea like she was. I would like to think I’d have shouted,
stood tall, clapping my hands—
thok, thok, thok
But this is just what I imagine. And anyway, even if I would have been
more butch in my choice of sound, is that some sort of judgment
on what sounds emerge from what bodies
Who sings and who sighs
Who whispers and who lisps
It was what she had wanted,
in a way, kept wishing it, and then it happened, and I should have
gone with her, but she said no, and how was I supposed to know
that she wanted me to insist—
When it happened, I thought it was a child. Then, I thought
she must be witnessing it, and how exciting to get what she wanted.
To see it like that. And I wasn’t that worried about the child.
I wasn’t even worried about her.
It was in the quiet, after, where I opened the screen and looked out
at darkness I could not see into—
that was when the fear came.
The snow could be a metaphor for whiteness.
My marriage could be a metaphor for whiteness.
Here is what won’t kill me: my non-blackness.
My what are you, anyway. My almost-whiteness.
When we carried the baby out into it the first time, so eager,
he cried as it hit his face – such coldness, such whiteness.
The latest viral video: cop tipping the wheelchair off
the curb, crosswalk looming, screen gone to whiteness.
I’ve often wondered what it would be like to die
in the snow, covered in a whiteness that feels like blues—
You undo it. You undo it, I’m sobbing, you fix it,
so I am not so alone in the face of your whiteness.
Another black body drops in the blueblack night.
At work: we have to start talking about whiteness.
Sometimes, on the mountain, I fall. Everyone far ahead
of me, my slow turns through the wide, sparkling whiteness.
I don’t want it to be personal. I don’t want it
to be my story, our story, inescapable whiteness.
I know his daughter, another body angry as I am
careening down a hallway, get your white-ass hands off me.
She worries, through tears, that our relationship
will not survive it. Her whiteness.
When I panic I feel like I’ll stop breathing. Consider
not breathing, succumbing to the bright light’s whiteness.
There is no snow left in our yard. We mourn
the losses of a changing climate. We miss its whiteness.
We never call each other’s names. I love you,
baby, as we lie down, finally, in the darkness.
AUTOPSY OF A SHADOW
The letters in the cabinet I carved for a girl who gave me the sea
in bits glass bits frosted white near the vase under shadows that lifted
from the portrait each evening at five sometimes seven by the East-
facing window swaddled baby oil painting one eye peeled white like a blister
down the blue-flaking hall frying onions salt fat I remember fingernails
shed a Spring much later petals loquats that April had its way with
the mind gathering attachments the materials even then the singleness
of a toy feeling the grip of many hands yes my pulse even then
accumulating a past forgotten bastard dialects my ancestors died
trying to unlearn or redeem in marsh-water winters next to Newark
& The Passaic the ghosts of natives who traded for crosses Dad said
traded into cages of the worst kind the mind back at doors of buildings
of our beginnings on Evergreen Street now & to this day flag-poles
the color of old keys the smell somehow of tidal water sun-tan lotion
the one room two died in granny Anna’s black-banana arm wheezing
single engine plane passing nothing they could do when they came
with white wagon mea culpa Mama said & sat knitting in the new length of light
on the lawn the women I remember whispering honey into strollers
hauntedly I thought as I walked twenty-two alone wanting to be Thomas
Paine accruing waxwings in the center of town the statue tomb girls
spinning colorful ropes such small half-circles worlds my head among
objects both living & dead among my head so many capacities the two-
stories the one-floor the bedroom in back the front the yard to yard
these rooms that will outlast you I told Louisa once in spite
just ruined geometries over which clouds pass & alterations of light
Note: Several phrases and fragments herein are refracted from the work of George Oppen.
AMONG HALF GODS
Say drip chambers, veins. But there is no English equivalent
or how brothers say goodbye
to each other
while a parent’s fine hair falls out
with the strings of crickets, the autumn of the brownout
along the Eastern seaboard. No word for
The Year of the Folgers Can Full of Shit By the Bed.
I could say Jesus is a raindrop on the rail
on E. 17th Street—say: he is
a field nurse wheeling blown ends
to build a pyre
somewhere never caught on film—
the flesh smoking slowly
before it catches, a dampened
December will still mean nothing in that switchblade pool hall
in Holmesburg, Philadelphia.
The way I pray
has everything to do with those prime numbers
separating into pockets; how some memories cannot
or touch. From the back window,
you could see orange coal-cars, rusted blues, the ones
with hardened shit took-on
in the farm valleys,
& ones with messages scribbled
in black. Like Wishes are horses. Like Freedom. Like Fuck
When we whispered into the bourbon
there, it told us eternity—
but it was a species like any other, half-god
among half-gods. And I say god, but I mean I hope
our bodies keep the trees awake forever. Or I mean
if I could cup in my hands
what I don’t know about
the body or the soul, I would want it to look
like Laramie, WY seen from above, its sagebrush sprouting
around mesas half-erected by Time, & tilting
West, & farther west, & west
& west: into the great deserts of light.
But there is only one way to say Thanatos—
it belongs to the snows
filling up the hands of statues, & all the remembered
dents of breasts in tall vanilla grass,
& how my father said I am not afraid
of Ezekiel’s valley, watching old men
walk the gravel in the park
the spring we could not revive the hydrangeas.
It’s the cig smoke made him weep. It was his mama’s face
I think, returned
into the liberated dark. And how could I want any end
but this? To die
as stars do
in a hand-cut lake: obsidian disk.
Note: Yuputka describes the sensation of “walking through the woods at night, or a phantom crawling on one’s skin” in Ulwan, a language spoken by indigenous Nicaraguans.