my lips weren’t chapped. the candles: unburned.
what if they’d stayed like that all year: whole, slender
sticks, separate & shy. what if the ants didn’t
run in slow lines across the table, didn’t crush
to dark soot beneath a stray thumb.
if I hadn’t touched the cake: unghost
the icing slipping through a fork. if I’d crammed
sugar into a plastic box instead. if I’d gone to bed
on time, if I’d showered, if I’d combed
through each strand of my wet & blackest hair.
would I have seen what I saw that night?
across my phone screen, those grains of salt
& rosemary rubbed into the roast chicken?
your hands and her hands curled
across the knife? slash, slash. cut
me up. if I hadn’t known you or that year
we plucked apples from the branch, I
would’ve laughed. chicken thigh
on a blue plate in the kitchen I’d once
loved you in. the candles lit. your hands
and her hands. flashing knife. and ants.
damn, those ants. scuttling beneath.
black as bolts. craving whatever: grease,
the hurry of lips over skin.
a single, stupid crumb.
respect me. you slim,
slimy insect I try to trap
first with a jar, but you
glint, real sly, then slide
beneath the ratty blue
rug. you slinky spasm.
make me squirm
‘til I grab the lavender
spray, lift the rug,
then spray a ferocious
cloud for minutes,
wetting your antennae
to the linoleum floor.
still, you live.
body bigger than
a nickel, pointed
like a stick of lead,
stuck beneath my
glare. Just use
your clog, my sister
texts, yet something
about your whip-
thin body I cannot
once, in a public park, I watched
the man I loved pare a fuji apple
with a knife. skins curled and fell,
lazy ribbons onto a lap. months
later, I stood at the intersection
where green trees erupted
& the park began, grief in me
whirring like a pest. o, old
love. I cannot smush you
with a shoe or douse
you in a clean scent. try to
violence you out yet still,
you stay. a silverfish atop
my bathroom floor, shiny as
scrap metal. pulsing with
the dust, & stuck.
in this poem one sec for Pearl Vision
and an optometrist who looks exactly
like an uncle who died two years ago.
He’s saying quick puff of air and hot air
balloon in the distance look through
here see it see it now? and now?
But this, this is the good part: He asks
out of the blue, out of thin, thin air—
Do you still read books? I’ve never
laid eyes on this man before. I just
moved here. Still like pond water. Like—
wait—lift the moratorium on deer too,
one brief moment—still like the ears
of the mother and her fawn behind
the privacy fence. It’s only been two
years. Of course I read books. Still.
How much time has passed in his nebula
of wings? I say yes. Yes, I read. And
get this: He smiles. He smiles and nods
and adjusts the lenses in the phoropter.
Since my lease is one year, and I won’t
ever return for my follow-up, I ask him
if he’s happy, if where he is now is
better. He chuckles but stays behind
the machine: Tell me which one is less
blurry. A or B. A or B. Here. Or here.
with a full gospel choir crooning behind him,
with twenty thousand spectators surging to their feet,
with an arena of flashbulbs flashing its approval,
and I’m spellbound, thinking it’s all so spectacular, until
the broadcast team weighs in,
and Charles Barkley says, “That wasn’t the greatest dunk,”
and Marv Albert says, “But the presentation was pretty fun,”
and I’m made to revisit what I thought I saw
as one question replaces all others—
Was it truly extraordinary? Or, by the paragon
of unimpeachable aesthetic standards by which
the annual NBA Slam Dunk Competition is adjudicated,
was it actually pedestrian, mortal, a somewhat meh occurrence
made mythic only through gimmicks and frills?
Like those little fish that eat bits of plastic
in the Pacific because they believe bits of plastic
look like microscopic food particles,
I too can be charmed by any well-made illusion.
Copperfield makes the Statue of Liberty disappear.
Penn and Teller catch bullets between their knowing teeth.
Smelling like a new vacuum cleaner, the conman in my heart
successfully hawks all his useless trinkets
to the hopeful stooge who stumbles through my brain.
Snake oil and radium ore. The furcula of a partridge.
The foot of a rabbit. I want to believe
in the marvelous, not because it feels authentic,
but because the alternative
is a world where no one dons a cape to leap over buildings.
No one turns lead to kindness.
No one sings the kraken to sleep.
In a kingdom that insists on repudiating all enchantments,
I feel catastrophic and alone. I watch the trees get older.
I watch the ice form on their branches. Last winter,
I sat in an emergency room
after my wife collapsed at work.
Her doctors asked questions but provided no answers.
They sent us home not knowing
why, or what, or if it would happen again.
You can look for an explanation, but sometimes
there’s no wand to wave, no sorcery to make anything okay.
There’s just doubt, and it rocks us toward
whatever trick of light we’ll reach for next.
I will cling to any rationale offered.
I might pray or go to a church where a priest
tells a story about transubstantiation,
hands me a chalice filled with possibility.
And I know there’s no blood in there.
I know the wine will taste like wine. Still—
I lift the cup.
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.