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.
don’t be shy. I know you have been watching me as you would a salmon tailing up the river—I
recognize that white glint in your eye. Don’t hide—come closer to me with your awkward,
lovely gait, and nuzzle my ears with a low growl; come and feel slowly, with your sharp bear
claw, a woman’s tender spine reverberate. It is all right, I like you warm-blooded. I’m sure such
gentle heat can’t compare to any winter coat. So stir before solitude floods your skin and don’t
go hibernating, leaving me awake, searching for your
stars at the sea,
(I see you don’t dare hug my shoulders. You fear denting bone, but you underestimate me.
Underneath this spring dress dappled with grass sap, I keep a thousand layers of skin petals, and
over it, an amphibian film of toxic spit. Though surely, if handled well, medicinal—like
everything else in this world. Press your finger-claw through my hand, convince yourself that
I’m not made of glass—see how we are both omnivores of rugged meat. No need to hold back
Coach Mac told us
as we sweltered on the sideline
and the freshmen practiced tackling
how the heat drove snakes
into the cool steel tubes
on his father’s construction sites in Burma,
taipans coiled inside the rifled hollows,
vipers slunk down the silvery lengths;
how when the chatting workers
tipped the tubes upright
the snake inside would slide out, puddle
below the rim, confounded
by the brightness of the world;
how a dart, two lunging pricks
could end a man where he loafed,
slouching on one leg,
sipping shwe yin aye and asking the score
of the White Angels match;
how they called them five-step kraits
because the forklift operator
was dead before the sixth;
how after that day, his father
made him stay in the foreman’s tent
and the workers only picked up tubes
in pairs—one crouched, ready to lift,
one gripping a shovel at the other lip,
poised to thrust down,
sever skin and spine.
—Thing to get
a rich interior life.
I understand this
I’ve gotten intimate
about my wreck. Everyone’s
about sex, but
what about his body, prone,
on the bathroom floor?
Wouldn’t sleep in our bed
out of guilt—maybe
a need to be alone
with suffering. I
lay singly but didn’t
talk about it. That ritual which has
What was inside me
was not yet
barrenness, but your basic
but weedy, weeds ripe
for the yanking out—
a tract of fertile metaphor.
—Stinging nettle, bristly
oxtongue, panic grass /
How should I fill my days
now that I’m admitting
I’ve got nothing?
Look into the world,
the world suggests. Forget
the obvious comparisons
between plants and
clouds spill over a real place
But who cares
what you call the outside
if the inside is shorn clear—
wanted: a width, a girth. vessel me, burden me, break me into bearing:
take this sluice to be swollen, worn, heavy in gait, o
give me a heft to hold, his or her own I am, owing surrender:
the deed to a bastard house I lost—
there is no one to ask to bear with me
our unborn. who is our? it takes a plural to produce
the thing that’s gone— what we?
who were you anyway?
Say hi to California for me. Say hi to lovely weather.
I hear your movie is a good one. Your movie is a winner.
Say good morning to the good girl beside you. Say hello
to good decisions. The bread and the toast it becomes.
The sweet unction of jam and the dull knife that spreads it.
There are ratings for content and there are ratings
for effectiveness. Give this breakfast a thumbs-up, give this
daily bread an M for Mature. You are no longer the man
who wakes in his own sick. You are a clean and gleaming
example of the benefits of benefits, the outcome of income.
Hello car, hello driveway, my goodness it’s been
forever since we gridlocked together, since we were caught
in a pattern and sidelined. Hello burning vehicle. Hello
tire smoke. Use your turn signal when passing. Politeness
is a virtue is a virtuous man. LA is a town and LA is a set
piece for noir and incest. I hear you bought all
the orange groves. I hear you’re a pipeline and a girl
with a fresh nose job goodbye goodbye. You inhale
and she inhales the good day the good idea
and the smog isn’t smog it’s potential.
WHO SAYS SORRY
The habit of sealing up sweetness,
of saving but never
tasting, isn’t lost
when the drones disperse,
and the queen
is left to starve.
These uncapped frames
with ready-made cells
say there are six sides
to every argument
and there are six arguments
for abandoning your home,
but each can be built
upon and expanded.
Even when the chemicals
in our body smooth and the horizon blues
there’s still a synapse
or two that crackles
that prefers the look
of honey in a jar
left to darken unopened,
the comb floating
like a ruin.
EVEN THE NEWS
When Napoleon wrote
to Josephine, “Am returning in three days. Don’t wash,”
he wanted her
concentrated, the sweet and the rank
in the crevices
of her underarms, the accumulations
dabbed over days
in negotiation with the stiffer perfume of her crotch,
which we call musk, which we describe as animalic,
acknowledging our flirtation
with the fecal and fecund,
the way we sniff, wrinkle our noses, and sniff again.
this aroma we’ve hunted musk deer, killed muskrats,
dried organs, ground them, tinctured the grains
and then anointed
our bodies with the complex
scent that attracts and repels
Napoleon couldn’t know
this battlefield missive
would be passed on and repeated
in varying shades of admiration and disgust,
or that one day he’d be a synonym for a man
overcompensating. He was of average height for the period.
Upon Napoleon’s death,
the attending doctor cut off the corpse’s penis
and gave it to a priest in Corsica
like a relic,
which, improperly preserved, shrank
and thinned to a leather shoelace,
redolent of sandalwood,
tying us together
by what repels and binds.
Tomorrow there will be a better tomorrow
if we go to bed early if we say our prayers
there will be a cessation to this still weather
but not a tornado. Tomorrow the sprinklers
will click against the drought
during appointed times and the small pines
will stand stranded in red clay.
The bubble skylights of Walmart will aim
their security cameras to the heavens.
There will be cleanups on aisles five and six.
There will be returns. The hideous apings of sex
from our neighbors carrying across the asphalt
are not like our hideous apings of sex spilling over
the window frames. Ours call the world into new focus.
Tomorrow we will make promises. We will say our prayers.
We will go to a church recognized suitably Christian.
A hat will be passed though no one wears hats anymore.
If our prayers have answers they aren’t these children
bicycling in aimless circles in the parking lot, singing
the song of the summer. Someone like you. Someone like you.
The number of nights I’ve spent alone crowd
the grass like fallen green apples. They are years
spotted, bruised, and wasting. Not a spell or a season,
but a lifetime—a good life with a brick house,
libraries, a surprise party for my thirty-third
birthday, leather boots, Fela Kuti, and mercy dressed
in my mother’s terry cloth robe. I forget
the three meals I’ve eaten most days. Another
hunger gnaws at my restlessness.
Beside you, I am a ring or a moon, or you
are a ring or a moon. Or we are one planet
with moonlike names for the places our bodies
have yet to touch: Sea of Clouds, Sea of Ex-loves,
Sea of Rib Cage, Sea of Seas of Patience, Sea of Long
Islands, Sea of Ohio, Sea that has Become Known.
Awake, I recall the choreography—my arm
numb, turning to one side. Last night
you dreamt of saddled horses from a carousel
gorging on autumn apples. You say there was plenty,
and I believe you. I make my body a long neck
to reach for your face. The first time we kissed
was on a street corner waiting for the light
to change. We stepped from the curb
and rowed the air with our sleek bones,
the bones you hold me with now
in the almost-dawn. Inches from us
in a puddle on the floor is a flannel shirt—
the one she said brought out your eyes.
A touch is enough to let me know
you have not forgotten her. Forgiven her.
I wear a gown that ties in the back; this is how
I am sure I am sick. The nurse can’t be more
than a few years older than I, smiling
as if we’re friends while I grip closed
the gape of my frock. Laying down
on the narrow carriage, I think
it’s a bit like a grotesque sleepover,
me in my nightdress and the nurse
telling jokes, fetching me a blanket
to throw over my knees. I think
these things because I am young
enough to have slumber parties,
still young enough to feel entitled
to ease. And the nurse waves
to a technician behind the glass—a boy,
I mean a man—who coolly asks
what I’d like to listen to, the way a boy does
on a date, scanning the car radio,
or at a party where he knows everyone
will sing along, but I say nothing
as I slide in, arms by my side
as if I were slipping into the sleeve of a sleeping bag
and it were simply my friends whispering
in the next room, trying not to disturb me.
Deneb in the Swan; Altair in the Eagle; Vega in the Lyre—he brought home a woman
at three in the morning and told me to get out of bed and go sit on the front porch.
I listened to her having an orgasm—
a chord, a jazz chord: three thirds on top of the root.
It bugs me when people try to analyze jazz as an intellectual theorem. It’s not—it’s feeling.
Vega, in the Lyre of Orpheus, a double-double that looks like two stars but is four,
two and two. Diminished or augmented. The sheets were stained in the morning when I was
let back in the house. So I bought my own mattress and put it in another room. Lyric: one
strum over four strings vibrating simultaneously. One afternoon I took a walk
down the street to buy a half gallon of milk. When I came home I found him
with a new woman. Both were naked in my bed, on my mattress,
under my covers in my room that was separate from his. Of the first magnitude
or brighter or darker.