Salt heavy—my oxen skin overrun & ringing
Sunday plum—bodies whetted & sold in the East—
fruits without flowers—the winter prostitute
steel plowed—tender how she glows
as the ocean would have me losing ear & piece—
passage through veil—each tooth in place for feast
in the haunt of our Lord—so we bend—
fever in quarters—marred as the crown comes portal
—renewed vagina—the anus a master throat—
…debts I give back despite the dead—Cyclamen
without ascent—ascending bloom in gain
to lay waste—the sun landing
on every spider
The slow mineral seep and drip
of groundwater, finding each crevice,
the cold spreading, downward—
the imagined weight of her breast,
spreading to fill my hand
(still and folded in my pocket)—
today the weather wheels its long arc above us,
rippling the lake,
stroking the turning trees,
the moving air felt, not seen—
and hardly felt.
The balance has shifted, the dose (stable for months)
off, again. Round blue pill in my palm,
what will it be today?
Is it hunger or dread, this sinking?
I want to learn to soothe myself, one mother tells me,
tucking the blanket around her sedated child.
Yes. Imagine sinking under lake water.
Feel it hold your limbs, quieting, your hair
a cloud around you, shifting
with each insistent swell
I’ve touched that dark,
felt the gliding suck of it like
a wave retreating,
pulling at the beach.
The dead woman’s muscles
spread slack from the bone
so her body pools on the bed,
from every cell. You can slip
the breathing tube easily
out of her quiet throat.
Swarms of midges billow
from the tops of the cedars in streams,
falling to hover low over the still river—
specks black against the sky,
white against the dark water.
Light filters through various thicknesses of cloud.
It had been years, but now
there is this warm shoulder
brushing mine. It won’t last.
I touch a question to her hand.
As long as they don’t bite.
Bodies glancing off our skin like snow.
In the bassinet,
the tight-wrapped child,
skin purpled in death—
wrinkled, like she was left
too long in the bath.
Where the water belongs,
dripped three times
onto the forehead
so it falls back
behind the ear, the wispy hair,
here is the new
doctrine, the child dead
before she was born,
the mother leaning
back in her chair,
my cold hands,
and the water.
I swam in the ocean once,
current dragging at my legs,
the beach a pile of boulders, waiting.
With each wave, the horizon
over my head, again,
again, and I rose
battered and freezing,
salt in my mouth,
and it was morning.
If there’s one thing nobody wants,
it’s a mare lame in both fronts.
You pinch the fetlock
arteries for the digital pulse.
You pack the shod hooves
with turpentine and sugar
to draw the soreness.
You thumb the jugular for a dose
of horse tranquilizer. You run
water for mud to cool her.
You pull the shoes with pliers,
because somebody made a mistake
nailing shoes, a big-
shouldered man, mouthy,
full of Jesus and guitar
songs and a daughter with a bad
heart and marching orders.
Listen, he talks while he’s working,
looks like he got a little carried
away. Now here’s a lesson.
Here’s a basket of lessons,
a burning cedar tree of lessons,
horsehide to hammer to a tree
of lessons you memorize.
The bony column ends in the so-
called coffin. Hoof-shaped,
it balances a whole horse.
Don’t let sand and clay
come close. Any fool knows
that half-inch spares the kingdom.
Jesus won’t tell his secret,
coffin bones like a compass south.
Coffin bones a water witch down.
Jesus boy coaxed her close to hell.
Jesus boy hammered the door
of horn and carved initials.
I’m looking for a hole
to bury a horse. She’s watching
the empty pasture:
cedars like scarecrows
where their crowns died branching.
Iron posts, ghost fence.
Hawks slide the sky
like knives slicing fat meat,
a rubbery parting of clouds.
A pond spreads flat
as wax paper downwind,
smudge of water shine.
Someone says, the pond’s low,
we need rain. Someone says,
that would be a pretty pasture
if we mowed. Those trees
break the blades. I never learned
how to fix the broken blades.
She doesn’t lie down but she
can’t walk. She’s watching
the empty pasture.
She doesn’t want to miss
crow or frog or spun web
or cross stuck with nails
for shoeing horses. All day,
hobbles to the water barrel.
Drinks like someone deserted,
dying. One day
a man drove the gravel
on a mission. He hammered
and talked about television
and Jesus and the whole story,
and if I keep telling this
everybody’s going to live
forever, including the ones
who don’t deserve it, not
because they floated to heaven,
black wings trimming the fat
of the sky to quick, only
because you caught me
rubbing something hard
between my palms, not
a bit for a bridle, not
a stirrup to rest my boot,
not a shovel to dig
the grave, keeping my promise,
but she’s just a horse
so she can’t be thinking
where will she go
before she falls, and she looks
like I do when what happens
to a man with a mouth and tools
for killing and a hawk
shearing the sky and a devil
slapping its tail
on hell’s open door.
The history of glass, the story of coins—
both long tales of fire and trade.
A little girl flickers away from her mother’s
tour group to rub the mummies. Lo
lichtzot, you can’t cross
back that far.
Before the forensic question,
the pipe mortar was used to siphon
food or water to the dead
in return for their faithful testimony.
Under glass, a woman lies with a dog:
all knees to chests, hands
for their pillows. We grind
our own sleep out of asphalt.
Which once we could trade
for obsidian, conches, basalt,
lifting the corners of the land’s
ancient skirt, bargaining further
away from our rest.
In the museum café people order cakes and coffees,
salads heavy with olives and cheese.
This is not how I want to be buried.
Burn me instead, record the blues
of the flame on the page of my body.
What have I done to the metaphor of fire,
thousands of years removed from its light?
George Lakoff would say, your fire is a thief
that goes on a journey. At whose end
it sells itself.
Fire is a commodity
with free will?
Except I am the thief. I took this land
a land is a cloth
took it in, to walk from one hem
to the other and then
I sold it,
can be worn and bought and sold,
to the next traveler I saw.
Seventeen, in a constant state
of non-emergency. Walking with my dog,
I’d invite neighborhood girls to join me.
During the day we would follow the trail
through the woods. At night, skirt
along the road by the edge of the forest,
lucky to see fireflies hover
over a puddle by the ‘no dumping’ sign.
This was the summer of the DC sniper,
who added a small, romantic danger
to wandering our lobbyists’ suburb.
Now when my friends mention
the sniper attacks, they talk about
how hot it was, the nervousness
in which they felt unmarked.
I think about walking by the woods,
slow-talking Kate or Priscilla,
or Priscilla’s sister. I was a coward
when it came to kissing, late to realize
if I didn’t make a move
I would never take a girl’s first blush,
run my hand into the unknown.
With every girl I kept their secrets
so well I forgot them. Whose were
their faces? The red dot of the sun
bloomed among its rolodex of clouds
as I woke alone. Each friendship
a surprise that required reconciliation
with my romantic life and the fantasy
I believed it would become.
Trickle of the almost creek,
dogs barking, back-firing
cars; I listened
to an increasing number
of lonesome smiles
letting evening come on.
The un-starred sky
telling us no one
That breath held
as the shared light
zeroed in on the two of us.
He sets a black chess
in a ceramic bowl
stirs ashes with vodka
into homemade tattoo ink
retraces the fading
the faded line
a second year
of scrawl down his leg
he knows the needle point
like pubic hair
metal to skin
where thousand mile
away slips away
by stick and poke
a strange curve
down thigh skin
inscribes a timeline
memory of her
hands guiding the needle
years that follow
this scar’s endless
drip blood and ink since
she last left
since she last
left he burns
a chess rook
royal into carbon
black ash ounce
of vodka its carrier
two years retracing
extending this thread
single cord pricked
down his left leg
a question mark
depending on the day
it’s almost noon
and she’s still in bed with a headache
the bedroom bursts with light an electrical storm rages
in the quiet space of her skull
her children move further and further away and grow
their own moons
this can’t be right
the data don’t make sense the figures seem to suggest
they’ll never come home
the shadows seem to suggest she’s alone
mother pulls the covers over her head and curls
into a molten ball
when did she become such a lump
of dense matter she starts to harden a little
god she could kill
for some water she could drink
April sets us on the scent of summer, opens up a trail
but it’s covered in mud. Buds on the branches but also mold
begins to stain the plaster walls. Patter of rainfall lulls me,
pulls me under after a week awake, weightless as I watch
the minutes flicker. We long for what comes next but never learn,
never learn to hold a moment in its wholeness, show our hand
at the table and take what comes, to know it comes regardless
so there’s hardly sense in hoping for an outcome we can live
with—unchecked wealth and recession, infinite stars expanding
to collapse, matter folding inward to absorb all light as
focused mass, a blossom that opened hours before it wilts
under frost, love and its loss. We long for each season as if
its being brings finale. We barter our lions for lambs,
empty limbs for leaves and blooms, but soon discover the pollen
slipped into the package and there’s no way of giving it back.
ANOTHER WORLD GATHERS
I sleep in a bedroom once a horse
stable for a monastery.
The monks have all turned
& the cork trees stripped to red.
I am a weak thing. A body down,
an eaten up mosquito net.
A white candle drives out fear,
a red one drives out lust.
THIS IS WHY I NEED A GODDESS
winos, picking up empties,
their laughter of firework.
The city’s full and nuts
but I can’t hear
its usual neon,
thrum of its barges.
No, it’s quiet
and the devil blinks,
Tonight hurts. Fights.
Drops. Sleeps. It’s 3 am—
the Atlantic midnight
for a poet.
Come on, cruel finger
with your cruel
and refusing shake.
Come to me, finger
and not the bottle.
Go paint the bulge on this white
page. Write about hell
factories and cemeteries,
how they dance blurry
pieces of flames.
But instead you give me
the sea. My feet.
You throw love out
like an old sack.
A loaded mouth grinning,
a downer for dead
and night’s ripeness
inching toward wreckage
See, he’s got you too.
Finger, fix it and make it right.
Like a seeing-eye dog,
the lord will see you good.
grew legs and arms, sucked in air and named ourselves,
is who we are— bone and gut, God’s face before we invented it:
stone-like, wide mouth feeding on every element.
TEN YEARS AFTER MY MOM DIES I DANCE
The second time I learned
I could take the pain
my six-year-old niece
—with five cavities
humming in her teeth—
led me by the finger
to the foyer and told her dad
to turn up the Pretenders
—Tattooed Love Boys—
so she could shimmy with me
to the same jam
eleven times in a row
in her princess pajamas.
When she’s old enough,
I’ll tell her how
I bargained once with God
because all I knew of grief
was to lean deep
into the gas pedal
to speed down a side road
not a quarter-mile long
after scouring my gut
and fogging my retinas
with half a bottle of cheap scotch.
To those dumb enough
to take the odds against
time, the infinite always says
You lose. If you’re lucky,
time grants you a second chance,
as I was lucky
when I got to hold
the hand of my mother,
how I got to kiss that hand
before I sprawled out
on the tiles of the hallway
in the North Ward
so that the nurses
had to step over me
while I wept. Then again,
I have lived long enough
to turn on all the lights
in someone else’s kitchen
and move my hips in lovers’ time
to the same shameless
Amen sung throughout
the church our bodies
build in sway. And then
there were times all I could do
was point to the facts:
for one, we move
through the universe
at six hundred seventy
million miles per hour
even when we are lying
Oh magic, I’ve got a broken
guitar and I’m a sucker
for ruin and every night
there’s a barback
who wants to go home
early to bachata
with his favorite girl.
I can’t blame him or the children
who use spoons for drums.
And by the way, that was me
at the Metropolitan stop
on the G. I was the one
who let loose half my anguish
with an old school toprock
despite the fifty-some
strangers all around me
on the platform
waiting for the train
about to trudge again
through the city’s winter
muck. Sure, I set it off
in my zipped up three-quarter
coat when that big girl
opened the thunder in her lungs
and let out her badass
banjo version of the Jackson Five,
all of which is to say, thank you
for making me the saddest man
on a planet teeming with sadness.
The night, for example,
I twirled a mostly deaf woman
in a late-night lounge
on the Lower East Side
and listened to her whisper
a melody she was making up
to a rhythm she told me
she could feel through her chest,
how we held each other there
on a crowded floor
until the lights came up
as if we were never dancing
to the same sorrows
or even singing
a different song.
UPTOWN ODE THAT ENDS ON AN ODE TO THE MACHETE
What happens when me and Willie
run into each other on a Wednesday night
in Brooklyn? He asks, “Where we going?”
And that’s not really a question.
That’s an ancestral imperative: to hail
any yellow or gypsy that’ll stop on Franklin
and Lincoln to fly us over the bridge then
zip up the East Side where the walls
are knocking to Esther Williams or Lavoe.
And you know Willie daps up Orlando
and I say What’s good! and it don’t take
three minutes for me and Will to jump
on the dance floor or post up at the bar
sipping on Barrilito or to tap on my glass
a corny cáscara with a butterknife
like I’m Tito Puente but I have no clue
I really sound like a ’78 Gremlin
dragging its tailpipe the length of 119th,
which is to say, it don’t take long
for Willie and me to be all in. And that’s when
out of nowhere in the middle of the room’s boom-
braddah macumba candombe bámbula
this Puerto Rican leans over and says to me
real slow, “Everybody is trying to get
home.” And I’m like, “Aw fuck.” because
I’m on 1st Ave between 115th and 116th
not even invested in the full swerve yet.
It’s not even five past midnight and Will
is dropping science like that. Allow me
to translate: There are neighborhoods in America
where a man says one simple sentence
and out flow the first seventeen discrete meanings
of home. If you haven’t been broken by the ocean,
if your own weeping doesn’t split you down
into equal weathers: monsoon, say, and gossip,
if you can’t stand at the front door
of an ancestral house and see a black saint
staring down at you, no name, no judgment,
if you haven’t listened to the town drunks
laughing underneath a tree they planted
so they wouldn’t forget your pain, then your story
must have a whole other set of secrets.
You must know what it’s like to expect
an invitation. You might not know what it’s like
to wonder if someone is even waiting
for you to return. Your idea of home
might not contain ways to call blood cousins
from another time zone or just shout
from the middle of the road. There are those of us
descended from peasants who never had to travel
too far to visit the smiths who craft knives
from hilt to tip, who cook blades
that split the wood or carve the rind
from flesh. I once went to visit the men
who make the machetes of the Philippines.
There was a time, I didn’t care where
those knives came from, how the men and women
stoked the embers and dropped their mallets
with a millimeter’s precision. When I was young,
I thought hard was the mad-dog you could send
across a crowded bar. I thought hard
was how deep you roll or how nasty the steel
you bring. In some neighborhoods of America,
hard is turning down the fire just enough,
so you could kiss the knife and make it ring.
Then I remembered: Mama wasn’t gone but safe, in her bed, turning in sleep. It was I who went away—from Chopin in the bones, palms heavy with dates like dark purple fingers reaching toward sand, toward fruit sickly sweet outside Mama’s bedroom window turned mine, her girlhood unloosed in mine, on the ground, rotting yellow. But skyward: a salted moon, a brittle sound, a bed of headstone with its high- pitched calling like a night animal hunting, no, a night animal hunted, in distress and calling, but the mama’s turned deaf—no, the mama’s the one yowling in the night shrub, taken, only the predator’s not the barn-owl. The predator’s prickling gooseflesh of the chest turned to full-fledged breasts and shared with boys, too early to understand how it would haunt into her parent years… into a time her children would come searching for her in bed like the icehouse in town before it closed, the ice inside too cold and melted too quickly into a time she knows will be coming when her children search in other beds and find instead a field, where the road dead ends into the basin, nothing but high grass lit by a pale streetlight… Mama would turn on the music, sometimes she played her flute and I would dance. Growing up I heard stories of Mama’s life but it never occurred to me she was alive for anyone but me, her daughter. I understand now how she needed me—no, how she made music of me and I was rescuing her from dark rooms and nights darkly lit, the slapping hands and terrible hands and the history of genes that replicate themselves in the smallest versions of ourselves: we play a piece of music listening, not for time, though time is constant, but for something deep in the belly… for Mama, who couldn’t keep us from aching, no—who gave us song as gesture for pain.
September 13th, a bright diamond-shaped light appeared in the sky
above all of central New Mexico
I’ve found the warmth Mama left in her bed
when she rose to watch the sun making pink sheets
of clouds through her window.
The balloon is risen above earth’s atmosphere
collecting celestial gamma rays
where our imperfect sight cannot reach
and then the sun is too bright;
she closes her eyes, and I can tell
she’s imagining herself in that unmanned
balloon. I want to say the instrument is already
in you, cosmic & infinitesimal… but she moves
her face behind a curtain, the moment arrives
and is gone. That light, her light,
while it was rising, lent meaning to the sky.
So we continue—the birds with their funny
pointed beaks, their ancient flapping. A child
born to rescue us. In Sunday mass
I would fix my gaze on Mary in her blues,
Mary prone at his bloody feet as I sang we will soar
but God must have known what I meant.
It’s not as if the sky is empty for me now—
even on the coldest mornings
in New Mexico, they rise
as lanterns in our land of enchantment
they rise, in jewel-tones or flag
stripes, in the oldest human-carrying
flight, with their chambers of air, they rise, burning
air into their bright billows.
My favorite resembles a sparrow.