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.
The bell’s emptied space
has no name. I would like
to call it my never-born.
I’m there and the metal clapper
and bowl are asleep.
My never-born is awake,
I don’t want to reach
for him. I don’t want to fall
from the rope’s fray or draw
nothing from the naming. I call,
can you hear me? All parts
of the bell rouse differently.
in deepest dream, says,
breathe me back, breathe
me back. My matted lungs
search for air—the bowl
wakes dazed. Hush now,
it drones, your hurt music.
me, dark-circle-eyed in the curve’s
continuum and orbit.
My unborn speaks
from inside his name, his last
Carry me in the bell, betrayer.
In the apogee of your voice
to my voice.
LETTER IN EXCHANGE FOR
Painting all the spines of the books blue,
for example. Tasting me so absolutely
as to know the monsoon of my sickness.
Licking my lips clean of disturbance
while hunting for the trees I want
at every window, that wanton green.
What if, in reciprocation, you gave me
every song you wrote for other women?
Only, be correct, change their hair to dark.
Wrapping a belt around the waist of all
clouds floating in my chemistry. Being
beautiful. Being exquisitely beautiful.
For example, not being a cloud floating
in my chemistry. For example, not misting
away, a ghostly disturbance in the atmosphere.
APOLOGY TO THE NARROW MOMENT
But my body is a narrow hull
of birds regretting the sky. Inside
you is a chasm of thrown things.
But my secret is a pond drifted
over with leaves, winter-cold
and reflecting my hands only.
But my yearning is a spray of stars
arrowing out of my fingertips,
falling on the dark lawn by the party.
But my nights are a thousand faces
turning away, sipping their drinks,
looking at someone they’ve just recognized.
How snow and distance equal absence the page untouched
the page a white blankness the way ink recedes from these
cold vistas its absence a kind of reverence how the moon
is also an absence untouched as if he knew it was beyond
mere wood mere blade how burdened the humans are
in their boats their roads and towpaths how there is always
something happening in the middle distance how there are
always mountains always rivers how the birds are a trick of
perspective some with wingspan like a temple’s curved roof
some reduced to black nicks in the empty sky how I too
have seen foxes in a grove under moon under stars though
mine breathed but carried no fire how I’ve longed for that
dark blue winter evening the night a pendulum the night
a fulcrum the year tips then slides across while in the sky
the stars light up as hundreds of foxes coalesce in the field
make their way toward a tree how they’re gathered there
in the winter night like candles how he must have known
the name of this how in this language we call them a leash
we call them the earth
(This poem references New Year’s Eve Foxfires at the Changing Tree, the 118th print of a series titled One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, by the 19th century woodblock printer Utagawa Hiroshige.)
[A PRAYER FOR OUR MORTALITY]
To begin think of wind river sand silk the various strands
currents how falling moving how leaving can be exactly
that benign a cessation of resistance a species of quiet
abnegation think then of a flame on its wick flickering
in the drift of air stubborn and still alight holding on
in the draft that sifts through a summer screen the leaves
greenly afire on their piers their waxy wicks the sleeve’s
small collapse against your arm in the breeze think
of the current of time how it too swirls eddies and then
abates as sticky afternoon slips into sticky dusk itself
slipping into moonrise into full dark think of the lit window
and you candled there you inside the moving the breaking
heart of this thing think of the glass doing its invisible best
the shell the egg of your dwelling the way it cradles you
how soft the body’s flesh how there are two of you
the unformed fetal you asleep innocent as weather and
the you that paces in all that yolk light the light that spills
thick and angular through screen and glass the light
that falls across the trimmed the orderly lawn the way
your shadow hushes the crickets afraid there in the sudden
dark the way it releases them as you vanish into song
How a groove is a prayer for a needle and a hollow
is a prayer for birds, how music fills a space
and makes you aware of emptiness,
somewhere my brother is
not where my brother is
supposed to be. I tell the sky how
and the sky replies in sunlight on the river
meaning walk the bottom wearing this
and you will know the answer.
I ask the bus dispatcher if she can ask the drivers
to ask the passengers and for once
there is no music to my holding,
just an approximation of silence and nothing
preceded by a click. I am sitting with the phone to my ear
and then I am standing with the phone to my ear
noticing my indentation in the couch disappear
maybe the way things do in my brother’s memory.
Now the sky is doing that
thing where it throws some of its light
down in lines like pikes
or stilts, as if to say climb up here
and you can see over the trees
all the way to the ocean, the mountains,
so many beautiful places
full of music and nothing and waiting,
and you can walk on this river
sizzling beneath you like a fuse,
sparks of light on the water.
LETTER TO YASHA IN MY THIRD PERIOD AP LANG CLASS MORNING AFTER THAT GIRL SHE LIKES BLOCKED HER ON INSTAGRAM by Mamie Morgan
There must be something that can fix me,
you say, but in sixteen years nothing has. Lexapro, Oleptro,
Thiopropazate. Eighth grade, Hal Stoddard chased me
into the Rosewood Lane cul-de-sac by the butt end of his BB gun
yelling, C’mon piggypiggy, open up you whale,
while I recited every word that had ever made me want to stay alive:
supine, rocking chair, sherbet, mother, diphthong,
Halloween carnival, far-off longed-for spinsterdom. I don’t know what to say
that the grown folks you don’t listen to haven’t
already said. Celexa, Paxil, Luvox, not every day will suck. I’ve a pit bull
and a brick home and there comes an age people stop
minding you much, leave you well enough alone. Hal came back of course,
brandishing a bouquet of carnations, asked
could I play H-O-R-S-E in Ben Nixon’s driveway some four houses down.
Asked if I’d like to see John Lennon in concert
come summer. Of course I did. Lennon’s dead, he laughed, you stupid cunt,
and allowed that basketball to roll into the arms
of woods we, as smaller children, sometimes hid together in.
Who knows why I’m about to tell you this, that years
later just before the doctor opened me up to take what was no longer alive
out, last thing I saw before the drugs set in
was a poster of tulips in a Dutch paddock he kept taped to the ceiling.
Just after, though I was long grown, my mother drew
a warm bath, put me in it, fed me oysters and albariño in silence. Some things
fall away like a tilt of roadway to unearth twenty years
of soon-to-flower field just before you. I mean that. My mother let me
stutter the word oyster until I fell into a soft wing
of sleep. There are still entire minutes, Yasha, Yasha, I like to imagine,
had the baby lived, there would come some word
so loved by her she’d sometimes travel the earth by train or foot or tippy-toe
repeating it, just repeating it.
after Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Riding with Death
They made me with bones,
white, yellow, brown & dusty bones,
heavy & hollow, broken & shuttered,
they made me with bones
no one has ever claimed,
bones no one will ever bury,
they blew through my hollow bones,
they hummed the saddest song
as they snapped bones
to make them fit into my skeleton,
they tied my clavicles with deer sinew
& whittled tree limbs to fix my legs,
they nailed sea shells on my skull
with heavy & black maguey thorns,
they plastered my rib cage with black clay,
they unwrapped my vertebrae
from a bundle of banana leaves
they baked over a layer of charcoal,
they assembled my crumbling bones
with their long, sluggish hands
like one assembles marimba bars,
they mixed dirt & crushed charcoal
to paint my bones, they woke me up
when they poured handfuls of desert
sand into my empty mouth,
I tasted the dirt,
coarse & rough,
against my jade teeth,
I felt hungry & thirsty,
I learned to cry,
I didn’t stop until they gave me
a bowl of corn mash
to ease my thirst & hunger;
Raining this morning & the foothills are dusted
with the gray light that comes with bad weather.
Even through the water’s falling sound
the train makes itself heard across the city
like church bells at midnight. What beautiful moaning
loudness becomes when it’s forced to stretch itself
across a distance. Like the way my lover’s song greets me
from upstairs, where he’s singing in my shower—
even across our short reach, his voice sounds truer
than when he sings & I am near him. Listening
to him croon through the water’s heavy moving,
I’m certain Eurydice was pleased
when Orpheus looked back too soon.
How happy it is to die twice
when your reward is your lover’s real voice
reaching you across wind & water & time.
How relieving to realize he is more himself
without you than when you are spread out
naked below him, your hair tangled in his palms
& his song diluted from your sating his longing.
What is constant across all love
is the inevitability of its end.
One of us will grow bored
or one of us will die, & knowing this it seems
Eurydice was best to leave love early.
Wait too long & he’ll stop
singing even from a distance. Go
now! Run from your love! May your absent
touch be the bells he hears clanging out from the steeple
into the gray night that slows into morning,
where the train will try to out-moan the wind,
where he will liken this moaning to the way
you sounded beneath him. He will pick up his lust
like a lyre & sing your name trying to reach you
wherever you are. & wherever you are
you will hear his song haunting the air like mist.
Listen to how entirely he loves you, for the first time.
I’m hardly alone—
like most men, I’ll gaze
at anything to avoid looking
inward. Like a stream
reflects what surrounds
but never the face of
itself. I mean force, I mean—
forget it. Let’s cast ourselves
into a pond: a still surface
standing forever without
a break. Let’s freeze at
the tipping point when you
leave me, here in the heart
of this song. At least
metaphors have my back;
at least the swallows outside
my window sound really into
each other. I hope they fly
so far south, they don’t
remember a thing.