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.
I disagree with you about the nature of love
and by extension about art or rather
the role of form in art for while abstraction
can delight the senses it is not sustainable
or repeatable and what humans need is more
like a glass of water not only upon waking
but one at lunchtime and one later on
in the evening repeating like a clock
that doesn’t need winding but ticks along
uninspired unexploding with no mystery at all
that is simply there in its place so I suppose
I also disagree with you about life and its
purpose I mean can you imagine if breath
or pulse were to have an ecstatic epiphany no
there is no ecstasy no explosion no light
piercing darkness once and for all but just
this steady lighting of the lamps of progress
and of moving on and yes it’s predictable
and that’s not only its chief characteristic
but its crowning virtue so make your art
in form that iterates generally and gently
rather than in spasms that hate themselves
and in doing so you will find the love that
plods dully on and it will bear that weight
in you of course I say all this and want
to mean it but in fact I live in urgent sadness
When the pastor spits
while sputtering any
variation of God’s name.
When the swing of preacher’s
head streams sweat into the pews.
capture both spit and sweat
in the elder mothers’ hats.
Use it either as holy water
or anointing oil.)
When you realize the song
on the organ has looped.
When someone says catch
the spirit, as if the altar
is lined with bear traps.
When the AC gives out
when you realize
it was never on.
When sister Bernice’s baby
cries to see mother shuffle
feet like stomping a snake.
When sister Ruth steps on
your new white Nikes.
When the youth minister
runs out the front door.
There are casualties in faith
If you become drunk
on the wine of sweat
and singing and prophecy
enough that the red
text of Gospels bleeds
indistinguishable from black,
from the white space,
from the thick air. Run
Shout to the Lord.
Sing to Him a new song.
PSALM FOR GOING DOWN
Is this not praise? To relearn
speech with thighs
pressed to each ear, practice
the shapes of each soundless
letter against opening of flesh.
Is this how Adam formed
the first alphabet? Was this
the origin of speaking
in tongues? Jesus, I know you
too would open your mouth
and men would rise, would speak
into an opening and
a man would come
forth. I am resurrected
at each little death. I will not
deny the evidence of spirit,
a tongue of fire
descending onto head
SAME OAKS, SAME YEAR
My cousin kept me and his little brother
saved me from our uncle’s
pit bull, then spent seven years
in prison for his set.
Every other word
he said was
Uncle Nagee showed us
how to make a BB rattle
inside a squirrel.
Two small holes,
enter and exit.
All summer I wondered
what leaves the body?
If the Neuse River was gin,
we would’ve drunk to its bottom,
its two-million-year-old currents,
shad, sunfish, redhorse, yellow lance.
All the blood from the Tuscarora War.
We would have drunk it all,
aunts and uncles would have led us in Big Bill Broonzy’s
“When I Been Drinking,”
until everything inside us began to dance
and we all joined in,
silt around our ankles,
everyone kicking sand.