Not being stupid
I took what was offered: the job
was waiting and I did it
with sand and mirrors, in glitter
while I paced. I waited, I fell
in love with waiting
covered in jewels washed
in from the sea. Summer
kept me in sugared fruits,
shiny shells, mother-of-pearl.
My job was undressing
the sea, what it wanted, shovel
and droplet turned sun to roving dots.
Waiting threw its necklace back,
was work, was softened glass.
I dug a shallow wide hole in the yard
for a tree that might grow or an animal’s grave.
Dog in the hole, white fur and fill dirt.
Better to bury it. It was my birthday.
A dogwood in winter has berries the birds like.
A winter rose in the window. A sugar
rose. We will take it in the snow. We’ll fill
a hollow log with heated rocks.
It is my birthday. It keeps on, it occurs.
For my birthday I am given a window.
By you I am given. A view, a gift, a tree, a dog,
a stone. Everything I have I give to winter.
Flood deeps the shallows.
The rivers get covered.
We difficult our dinners.
In times of hunger, if only
a rock on which to perch.
In sleep we choose a dream:
lure a gull and water lock it,
meet a boy and get feet.
“Like syntactical pinwheels, Ginsburg’s word choice disorients then reorients the reader in a new, slightly off-kilter universe. Like a perennial Alice through the looking glass, for the speaker, seeing the world, let alone being in the world is not a habit. The speaker sees the world in its particularity: birds animate cables; light, dust and shadow are caught in the dearth of a moment. Ginsburg’s vision—embracing everything and refusing nothing—gives the collection its spine.” ~ Review by Amy Pence, online at The Rumpus
GINGIVITIS, NOTES ON FEAR
I hesitate invoking that doubled emptiness: open—
my daughter’s mouth in the bathroom mirror—
not her first vanity but first blood inkling
she tastes & smoothes with her tongue. She turns
her chin this way & that, anticipating her future: new
bones replacing the fallen. If the body survives,
it repairs itself: two pillars—wider, stronger
forming new words: adolescent declarations
brushing past seasoned gums
What is the tongue- span
between trauma & terror?
Incident & accident?
Think on these things.
There is so much to fear. How will we fear it all?
& now my second-born, my son: If I don’t
brush, he says, a disease will attack my gums.
When God says, “Meet me tomorrow
at the corner of Seventh Day & Salvation
just as the sun before nightfall strikes
the fender of a red hatchback parked
outside Worldwide Washateria,” you
fitted in a dress the color of cloud-cover
& hold a feathered hat
to your delicate hair, newly picked &
haloed with a small brim. &
like a fleck of Antique Black in a gallon
of European White, you make everything
like itself, which means you
eloquently than the lampposts
boasting their specters of light,
or the woman
clutching her daughter’s shirt
above a basket, the sedative twilight
of the gods trapped momentarily
in the pane, which separate
steadfast against the wind picking up,
the men desiring your attention,
the traffic held
in the ceaseless straight ahead.
Concrete barriers, a few
lopsided cones, abiding
are all that separate
onward & stalled, here & gone.
Not even this poem
can move you, or change
the motion of your scarf—
that furious red flag—
or the stilts—your legs.
do not mutter or
complain or ask directions.
Why don’t you?
Your autograph haunts
the covers of books
I know who I am I know who I am I know who I am
lyrics layering air:
Describe the sound of His voice.
To walk the black, wired bars
is to follow a sound
so peculiar you
the ink gone out.
2- 3- 1- 2- 3- 1- 2- 3- 1-
Your stilts on the ground.
Channeling the collection’s muse—jazz composer and pianist Mary Lou Williams—Hemming the Water speaks to the futility of trying to mend or straighten a life that is constantly changing. Here the spiritual and the secular comingle in a “Fierce fragmentation, lonely tune.” Often mimicking fairy tales or ancient fables, Yona Harvey inhabits, challenges, and explores the many facets of the female self—as daughter, mother, sister, wife, and artist—both on a personal level (“To describe my body walking I must go back / to my mother’s body walking”) and on a cultural level (“A woman weighs the price of beauty—”).
from Ambivalence and Other Conundrums (Omnidawn, Fall 2013)
Beckoned by the things you’d go back for but can’t, you push on, dragging the past behind like a vestigial tail, out of use but undeniably a living part of you, the thing, really, by which you define yourself: lizardo, can-kicker, backward-glancer tripping over a ripple in the road.
Yet you do go on, determined to get to where your dreams can expand to fill the space of their container, the wild sky just beyond your mind. It’s a shame to be cynical here, in only paragraph two, but necessary for the sake of the truth, which, dressed as the obvious, is counting on you.
You can go back. But only after you have read this far—the beginning only matters from a certain distance.
Two pigeons meet in the park and fight over a bit of bread and have no bearing on any of this. You can follow them into the night: they coo like horny machines outside some apartment window, but instead your mother is dead and you are too busy digging a tunnel back to childhood with a spoon.
Sip by sip, life becomes tolerable, then pleasant, then milky—as soft and gregarious as a lamb. The promises you made seem as silly and unimportant, old pieces of paper crumpled at the bottom of your bag. You are asleep before you realize, and there was no cow blocking the path toward your dreams, which carried you all the way to morning, when life intervened again, a fact smack in the face.
Now the long day stands before you, with its thousands of gnats horroring every possible path.
You had promised yourself, years and years ago, never to drink alone, like your father drank. Then you thought one or two might be ok. Then, after many drinks, many evenings spent stewing in your sour juices, the sin you’d committed seemed so far in the past an apology wouldn’t matter. So now all the evenings roll in this way, moist and comforting, hugging you how you always needed to be hugged.
Maybe age will set in like this too, so slowly you won’t have to notice, except for a few acidic moments that will be easy to black out. Hopefully death will be like entering a dream half-awake, half in control, just enough to slip into the swampy drama.
There is no real accounting for what you owe. Even those who cry and lament and rage when you die will die too, their echoes far too faint to trace to a source. For now, sleep well. Not even happiness feels this good.
WHAT YOU LOVE
Well, you’ve got to do something. On the one hand, the options are limitless. On the other, obviously, most options are unavailable to you. Those that are are obscured by the black hopelessness of possibility.
How many times did you tell yourself you knew what you wanted?
Some people are able to follow a single desire like a rope tied off just beyond the horizon. Some, annoyingly, will even say it’s a curse; of course it isn’t. How justified is our hatred of the blesséd and their blessings.
It’s good to have a hobby. I read books about jazz while listening to albums in the evening, after work, once the kids are in bed. My wife thinks it’s noise but puts up with it, barely. I can’t decide whether to go on or off my diet: indulge or withhold, sew happiness while I can or fortify my character…a hobby offers at least the illusion of a still point toward which one’s compass needle is trained.
A calling in life is just another decision, meaningless in the grand scheme, of which there isn’t one; no one is calling. The one who feels called is pushing against the great, indifferent weight which falls like an ocean on everyone’s shoulders—thankfully we are all in this together.
You must follow your heart, though all hearts are heading to the same place, a place for hearts only.
It takes 10,000 hours of repetition to achieve mastery, but don’t think about that or you’ll never start; all mountains rise slowly, perhaps a little too slowly, into the one sky.
Mary Lou Buschi
James Allen Hall
Shannon Elizabeth Hardwick
Victoria Lynne McCoy
Molly Rose Quinn
William Kelley Woolfitt
—In your bed, I lie
open to all the ways you have me: husked, sown, ruined.
You hover above, right hand burgeoning like a mushroom,
white, trembling. Outside the pine seeds slip from their cones,
plummet toward the ground. After you strike, I don’t try
to articulate the awful lull; instead, I close my eyes, blood-
banked, soldered, and consider how we classify seeds
not unlike love: by exodus, by arrival. Flowers, too,
with their explosions and repose. I’ve seen their exit wounds,
their hard births in the soil. I’ve seen myself here before,
between your fist and our sheets. Still, I unfold for you,
ask you to unshut all my parts, not just the soft ones, ask
if this is the point in a marriage when open means defeat.
Seeds burst against the roof above us. You say you’re the worst
kind of flower. I say I am no better; I say I am the vine
climbing up your leg as you hack away.
TIME LAPSE OF A YOUNG WOMAN
At low angle
my body resembles
fire-struck. A box
dumb and splayed.
The skin above
my eye twitches—
Every three minutes
a windmill stutters.
To be a woman
is to be unfoldable—
a box and
All the gods’ spears
tear: through: me.
Underneath the old trains,
between railroad joints.
A dull box
on the roadside
shudders in the wind.
From a ditch
As in: let me snarl, let me knot.
In the sky the last scar is a woman, cut
open before morning.
Javiercito, you’re leaving me tomorrow
when our tortilla-and-milk breaths will whisper
te amo. When I’ll pray the sun won’t devour
your northbound steps. I’m giving you this conch
swallowed with this delta’s waves
and the sound of sand absorbing.
Hold it to your ear. I’m tired
of my children leaving. My love for you shatters windows
with birds. Javiercito, let your shadow return,
alone, or with sons, but soon. Call me mamá,
not Abuelita. All my children learned the names of seasons
from songs. Tonight, leaves fall.
There’s no autumn here. When you mist
into tomorrow’s dawns, at the shore
of somewhere, listen to this conch.
Don’t lose me.
Skin pale and pocked with moles,
your names pulled from Slavic litanies,
were strong enough for farm work, had the taste
of whole milk: Bertha, Elsie, Hannah,
in your kitchens, I sat on wooden chairs,
one eye looking out for the coal-grayed cats
come up from the mouse-paradise cellar, the other
on the glass jars of oils and herbs—
twisted alien forms floating and preserved
like the saints to whom you’d pray
to make me fatter, to cure rashes,
never a prayer for a child of your own,
or at least none answered.
In your houses, I was all brash New World—
wanting peanut butter and Dr. Pepper,
my summer shorts a shock of orange
against the dust and pickled wallpaper,
all American lust for plastic and new-made,
distaste in my mouth for the crackling
polka record, the girdles waving on the line
like Polish mother-ghosts, or spirits
of your younger selves, the selves I couldn’t see
who spoke love and energy in another
tongue, danced on bunion-less feet,
hair crimped with flowers. What I’d find—
long locks of waving auburn—
wrapped in tissue, after you’d all died.
Even with that bird-weight memory
in my hand, I mocked you—
your porcupine kisses, the haunted
player piano, witch herbs, deaf ears—
with a laughter that made my father frown.
Dear Aunts, the Pope is dead,
the old country prospers
tentatively after a thousand years
of tanks. Dear Aunts, we left
the Saint Joseph buried in the yard.
Forgive us our forgetting,
forgive me my blonde youth
burning like your yesterday at the table.
Know I will be you some day—
my face will turn
as foreign as a century.
A small child will sit in my kitchen,
smelling of grass and citrus,
the food I’ve served her untouched,
for fear she might cross over
the invisible line between us.
At the party I would stand as a statue, offering guests talking points
about the Roman Ideal and that famous grace.
There is more.
I’d quell ambitions, have the armies stop fighting, ask for less.
I wish someone would put me in a category: patrician, miserable; that I had a baby,
was winged & self-assured, or that Corinth’s art filled my walls, or bookshelves, or lawn.
I wish for our Mediterranean’s return, for perpetual wind, heavier limbs, silence.
All this is not to ignore the stew in the slow cooker, the man napping,
or the horse we keep in a painting on the wall. This bath—
a luxury of Epsom and steam;
these conditions have already been met.
These are the facts: Rome fell before I was born.
It should be enough that I love my hair as a Roman, and that, like a Roman, I am.
There will always be the haunt of possibility and a golden era.
No one will ask to see this list.
MIRA LONGS TO BE MORE THAN A BRIDE
The sound of your footsteps
is waterfall. Why not thrust
off these bangles then? You
are already music & in your hands, I am
wordless sound in your worldless sound. Note this
concert of veils lifting & fires
crossing. A palanquin came
to witness how my head adorned
by marigold can bow, can summon
deep golden fetters of dawn – how night consorts
with day to disappear, how we alone burn for the fire
of being: we two will know what pulse
clinks our breaths as twins
in a mother’s pouch, both their own
& not own
– our original
I shall wear the moon
or your heartbeat
around my wrist.
WHEN PROMISE DISAPPEARS, MIRA SPEAKS TO THE THORNS
Sorrow: may you be known
by your other names – black
orchid, a scar burst, a thorn
at your jaw, the underbelly
of true joy.
Sorrow: were you to have a season, should you be
a head lodged against a doe-like shoulder & my bountiful
raven hair? Sorrow: may you fall
between autumn & winter or extreme
beauty & extreme quiet or
extreme bliss & extreme plenty, between
a burnt rose & its thorns –
or ideally between Sunday & Sunday, a day of day deleted. After raptures,
beloved-talk, a smile
in early light, how easy a heart betrays,
how each & every nerve
re-speaks splendors – lost. So we turn
back to the same dilemma, joy more slippery
in the hand & somehow
& in each
season sorrow standing
for your shoulder – perched
to draw blood.
HER HANDS ARE A FURNACE
warmed by the light of God or maybe her dark mother
fed her coals for breakfast in youth, hoping
to kindle the child’s black meat into diamond.
Wayfarers scout the country to enclose
her hands, these oracles of heat. She sears
migrants with warm shelter. She simmers
their cold burn with hope, imparts companions.
Her hands are a furnace, he says & shies
away. He wants to lead
her to the coldest chamber in his American home,
envelop her sun-spackled wrists from the homeland
in his brown palms. He seeks
to teach his nerves how warmth is spread.
When he clasps her hands, he too imagines
he is planted on stone floors, underneath a flat
roof, sun puncturing sizzle after monsoon rains.
His palms are soft, uncarved, she discerns. It is not easy being
a holder of heat, a foreigner to fevered belonging.
She curtains her eyes, trained to hide the smoldering.
I stared through noon-shaded glass to see
how we are measured against our tasks.
My father and other men made sacraments
of sweat, days measured in squares of dirt, lengths
of wood, packets of seed. And tomato plants,
doghouses, leaf piles rose before them. Summoned
to apprenticeship, I labored and dreamed labor’s end,
my small hands once again soft fields.
In a city where I had never been, I had no math
to total the worth of the money in my pocket.
So I passed a woman kneeling on the sidewalk
as if she was a statue, monument to unending want.
Or I handed her all I carried and continued
down an alley echoed by strange words, smells
of fried meat, trees thick with unnamed fruit
bending over stucco walls to shade the ground,
the air cool with the symmetry that once came
after a day of building forms, pouring concrete,
when we turned from work’s closed world
and felt day settle across our shoulders,
our shadows skimming mud our feet dragged through.
In front of a Chinese restaurant, two boys,
skinny in their starched uniforms, faces lashed
by acne, stood with automatic rifles heavy
over their shoulders, protection for tourists
intent on moo shu pork or egg drop soup.
Their hands wove against the air as they talked,
illustrating stories of girls and back alley fights,
motion filled with the careless grace I saw
in the stride of a carpenter returning to work
after lunch, who walked from the elevator
on the unfinished slab of the fifth floor.
Minutes later he forgot to hook his safety line,
leaned back and kept falling, and I saw him
step again from the elevator, a moment
that deepened and widened until it was
something to be held, a coin, a bone
polished to the dull sheen of ivory,
as though a moment could be held inside an object,
sealed by something less changeable than language.
Shadows laid a dark weight across
suddenly unforgiving ground. Breath snarled knots
I knew from working with my father.
The building’s familiar shape held, lights
the shape of tears burning over each empty floor,
leaving us to weigh what we had to give
a job willing to consume us so completely.
Now the curved road into the city bends,
my eyes narrow against the light from buildings
I saw rising under the priestly dominion
of cranes, shadows climbing without language
or thought to gleam like small coins that tumble
into hands that hesitate, then close
to save the counting for later.
We spent her sixteenth, my seventeenth summer perched on a porch, talking out our love
for her man. I had little language. She was luculent. We worked back through wrong things, arriving
before him. Her mouth opened, black as a movie reel—I do not want to project. She storyboards:
her babysitter, ages seven to ten. He tells her not to tell. Years—her body becoming another body—pass.
She tells. There is a trial, but—
She finishes her cigarette. She is not asking questions. I cradle what she offers: a still shot
of suffering’s root, how survival begins with the seed’s rupture, soft flesh pressing through dirt—
these are not her words. I was raped, she says. And she sits, finishing
Our conversation moves on.
After Without Sanctuary, a collection of lynching postcards
Neither the number of photos, eighty-one, nor the races inscribed beside—all Black except
a few Italians—but the grain itself grates on my eyes. I came looking for lolling tongues, an
thing cut and weighed for my righteous mouth. Instead, their faces barely break from sepia
half their names absent from the weathered photos. Even the archived light of the one burnt
has lessened. I could walk away, white man that I am. I wouldn’t have to walk far. Embers
and cool in the hearth. I could sweep out the ashes, the teeth and chips of bone. Speak
to our neighbors one more day.
I learned from my mother which words were unspeakable, a lesson my older brother
promptly untaught. Dick. Shit. Fuck. I don’t remember where I first heard the banned word
for blackness, at what age it found its way into my mouth. Perhaps I asked at six, when dad explained
Dr. King and the end of segregation. Maybe not until, as a hirsute sixteen-year-old, I explored the world
with my mouth. Alcohol. Opium. Pussy. Amazing how rarely we white boys heard the word no
after our parents wore its power thin—that syllable paired with a fist or a badge became as precious
as a bag of pills. We baited each other like bears into the liquored dawn. I slurred because I knew
it was not right.
Sometimes you have enough–
the cob, the pen twining
their necks to hearts,
all that fidelity.
The dank pond by the council
flats, like it’s bloody Windermere.
You only wanted to wreck
that love-shape they were making.
After, you sat, sad Zeus, and held
the one you’d caught,
stroking its feathered throat
as if to make it sing.
or how to tame a brushfire
or how you get on his last nerve
& juke on it
or how he breathes while he dreams
of a mouth full
or how the war was won
when you got him limp
or how his eyes shut up
& bottom lip caught ‘tween teeth
or how you spell your name
or how to own his hands
maybe one palming a nipple
or what elastic was made for
or how to see him certain of tongue
& clumsy with his skin
or what makes those nameless muscles
clench, trying to save it for later
or the hymn written across his veins
or how he hopes the world ends
or his favorite kind of Sunday
or when he knew
he’d kill a nigga
for your sway
TWERKING AS A RADICAL ACT OF HEALING
when your song plays, steal your body
back out the gut of that brute/nigga/beast/boy.
sweat the bile off, unlearn the word acid,
dance until the only thing you’re sure of is the ache
in your thighs & your name as a metaphor for steam.
bend your knees because you want to,
not for any god or dirty nails in your shoulder.
go down knowing there is still a sky
to rise towards. give your scars to the strobe lights,
let them wash you in lightning, wait for whatever
kind of salvation a basement brings. twerk
& ain’t that the best prayer?
tonight, you left his ghost at home, left a note
for him to pack his ghost-shit & leave
by the time the sun soars in your honor. honey, you’re here
& that’s it’s own psalm. don’t let nobody look at you
& not know they looking at the risen. this how you write
free all over your bones & for the first time
you know free doesn’t mean how his hands mistook you
for somebody’s water, but how you were made to be
like wind, like a hawk, like a doe mid leap,
like a storm, like a child, like a song.