Time was too long each winter. Each spring
death clung to our tongue. Just below
it milled failure and success: lambing seasons
that arrived to survive, the job
that finally paid, the art of making love
even when we felt less than whole. We knew
the Bible would fly off the table
at a moment’s drink. That the dog’s sound
sleep meant mining activity along the Big Laramie
River had not lasted past 1882. A hundred years
of lack dread-fed today. She said something
or other. He heard something something something.
We cattle-swung regret, lumbering in
from the wheat, our heads jostling side to side,
mumbling as if our mouths meant medicine.
Suicide was not an option. The pawnshop
was too far south, and we didn’t want to register
defeat. It was easier to watch documentaries
of the Civil War in the palm of the hand
to a bluegrass backdrop that said those times
of cloud cover were cruel. The Denver Mint,
too, was south. The silver had long run
out downstream from what our grandmothers hoped could be
permanent indoor plumbing. Sure, we’d grown
far enough to shit indoors, but now the smell
of a hundred years of struggle lingered
long minutes inside, crawling
up the wall. We tried to take
walks, even when it rained, the sound
on our roofs a rustle of restless regret
keeping us locked in homes whose walls
displayed photos of how we’d aged. Each smile,
given on cue, somehow meant falling through
the boards. How we thought the present was here
to stay. How our tongues held dread. How a spring
lamb, unsteady and weak, might bleat defeat.
it lay there, flopping, fish-out-of-water
and my heart trembled on the curb
the usual fisherman’s tales
a woman onlooker upset, that’s animal cruelty
flapping in air, fingers hooked
to its spiracles as its mouth gaped and shut
barbecued stingray is commonly eaten
in Southeast Asia, the flaps, or wings,
most desired for eating
my friend, the doctor, well, it’s not really torture
the lower brain, the lesser feeling
the uncertainty of recent findings
caught one once with five-foot fins
it can live a few hours out of the water, it’s fine
caught a two-to-three-hundred pounder
nociception is the ability of an organism
to identify or notice a harmful stimulus
and react by reflex to avoid it
my heart at the curb, flipping
I walked away, I could not stop
When she screamed, I thought it was a child.
Later, she would refer to this sound as a “school-girl” sound,
which is – I’ll admit – what it sounded like. But I dislike the connotation
of weakness and young womanhood, to scream like that. It probably isn’t
the sound I would make, being wiser about these things and not new
to the idea like she was. I would like to think I’d have shouted,
stood tall, clapping my hands—
thok, thok, thok
But this is just what I imagine. And anyway, even if I would have been
more butch in my choice of sound, is that some sort of judgment
on what sounds emerge from what bodies
Who sings and who sighs
Who whispers and who lisps
It was what she had wanted,
in a way, kept wishing it, and then it happened, and I should have
gone with her, but she said no, and how was I supposed to know
that she wanted me to insist—
When it happened, I thought it was a child. Then, I thought
she must be witnessing it, and how exciting to get what she wanted.
To see it like that. And I wasn’t that worried about the child.
I wasn’t even worried about her.
It was in the quiet, after, where I opened the screen and looked out
at darkness I could not see into—
that was when the fear came.
The snow could be a metaphor for whiteness.
My marriage could be a metaphor for whiteness.
Here is what won’t kill me: my non-blackness.
My what are you, anyway. My almost-whiteness.
When we carried the baby out into it the first time, so eager,
he cried as it hit his face – such coldness, such whiteness.
The latest viral video: cop tipping the wheelchair off
the curb, crosswalk looming, screen gone to whiteness.
I’ve often wondered what it would be like to die
in the snow, covered in a whiteness that feels like blues—
You undo it. You undo it, I’m sobbing, you fix it,
so I am not so alone in the face of your whiteness.
Another black body drops in the blueblack night.
At work: we have to start talking about whiteness.
Sometimes, on the mountain, I fall. Everyone far ahead
of me, my slow turns through the wide, sparkling whiteness.
I don’t want it to be personal. I don’t want it
to be my story, our story, inescapable whiteness.
I know his daughter, another body angry as I am
careening down a hallway, get your white-ass hands off me.
She worries, through tears, that our relationship
will not survive it. Her whiteness.
When I panic I feel like I’ll stop breathing. Consider
not breathing, succumbing to the bright light’s whiteness.
There is no snow left in our yard. We mourn
the losses of a changing climate. We miss its whiteness.
We never call each other’s names. I love you,
baby, as we lie down, finally, in the darkness.
AUTOPSY OF A SHADOW
The letters in the cabinet I carved for a girl who gave me the sea
in bits glass bits frosted white near the vase under shadows that lifted
from the portrait each evening at five sometimes seven by the East-
facing window swaddled baby oil painting one eye peeled white like a blister
down the blue-flaking hall frying onions salt fat I remember fingernails
shed a Spring much later petals loquats that April had its way with
the mind gathering attachments the materials even then the singleness
of a toy feeling the grip of many hands yes my pulse even then
accumulating a past forgotten bastard dialects my ancestors died
trying to unlearn or redeem in marsh-water winters next to Newark
& The Passaic the ghosts of natives who traded for crosses Dad said
traded into cages of the worst kind the mind back at doors of buildings
of our beginnings on Evergreen Street now & to this day flag-poles
the color of old keys the smell somehow of tidal water sun-tan lotion
the one room two died in granny Anna’s black-banana arm wheezing
single engine plane passing nothing they could do when they came
with white wagon mea culpa Mama said & sat knitting in the new length of light
on the lawn the women I remember whispering honey into strollers
hauntedly I thought as I walked twenty-two alone wanting to be Thomas
Paine accruing waxwings in the center of town the statue tomb girls
spinning colorful ropes such small half-circles worlds my head among
objects both living & dead among my head so many capacities the two-
stories the one-floor the bedroom in back the front the yard to yard
these rooms that will outlast you I told Louisa once in spite
just ruined geometries over which clouds pass & alterations of light
Note: Several phrases and fragments herein are refracted from the work of George Oppen.
AMONG HALF GODS
Say drip chambers, veins. But there is no English equivalent
or how brothers say goodbye
to each other
while a parent’s fine hair falls out
with the strings of crickets, the autumn of the brownout
along the Eastern seaboard. No word for
The Year of the Folgers Can Full of Shit By the Bed.
I could say Jesus is a raindrop on the rail
on E. 17th Street—say: he is
a field nurse wheeling blown ends
to build a pyre
somewhere never caught on film—
the flesh smoking slowly
before it catches, a dampened
December will still mean nothing in that switchblade pool hall
in Holmesburg, Philadelphia.
The way I pray
has everything to do with those prime numbers
separating into pockets; how some memories cannot
or touch. From the back window,
you could see orange coal-cars, rusted blues, the ones
with hardened shit took-on
in the farm valleys,
& ones with messages scribbled
in black. Like Wishes are horses. Like Freedom. Like Fuck
When we whispered into the bourbon
there, it told us eternity—
but it was a species like any other, half-god
among half-gods. And I say god, but I mean I hope
our bodies keep the trees awake forever. Or I mean
if I could cup in my hands
what I don’t know about
the body or the soul, I would want it to look
like Laramie, WY seen from above, its sagebrush sprouting
around mesas half-erected by Time, & tilting
West, & farther west, & west
& west: into the great deserts of light.
But there is only one way to say Thanatos—
it belongs to the snows
filling up the hands of statues, & all the remembered
dents of breasts in tall vanilla grass,
& how my father said I am not afraid
of Ezekiel’s valley, watching old men
walk the gravel in the park
the spring we could not revive the hydrangeas.
It’s the cig smoke made him weep. It was his mama’s face
I think, returned
into the liberated dark. And how could I want any end
but this? To die
as stars do
in a hand-cut lake: obsidian disk.
Note: Yuputka describes the sensation of “walking through the woods at night, or a phantom crawling on one’s skin” in Ulwan, a language spoken by indigenous Nicaraguans.
Salt heavy—my oxen skin overrun & ringing
Sunday plum—bodies whetted & sold in the East—
fruits without flowers—the winter prostitute
steel plowed—tender how she glows
as the ocean would have me losing ear & piece—
passage through veil—each tooth in place for feast
in the haunt of our Lord—so we bend—
fever in quarters—marred as the crown comes portal
—renewed vagina—the anus a master throat—
…debts I give back despite the dead—Cyclamen
without ascent—ascending bloom in gain
to lay waste—the sun landing
on every spider
The slow mineral seep and drip
of groundwater, finding each crevice,
the cold spreading, downward—
the imagined weight of her breast,
spreading to fill my hand
(still and folded in my pocket)—
today the weather wheels its long arc above us,
rippling the lake,
stroking the turning trees,
the moving air felt, not seen—
and hardly felt.
The balance has shifted, the dose (stable for months)
off, again. Round blue pill in my palm,
what will it be today?
Is it hunger or dread, this sinking?
I want to learn to soothe myself, one mother tells me,
tucking the blanket around her sedated child.
Yes. Imagine sinking under lake water.
Feel it hold your limbs, quieting, your hair
a cloud around you, shifting
with each insistent swell
I’ve touched that dark,
felt the gliding suck of it like
a wave retreating,
pulling at the beach.
The dead woman’s muscles
spread slack from the bone
so her body pools on the bed,
from every cell. You can slip
the breathing tube easily
out of her quiet throat.
Swarms of midges billow
from the tops of the cedars in streams,
falling to hover low over the still river—
specks black against the sky,
white against the dark water.
Light filters through various thicknesses of cloud.
It had been years, but now
there is this warm shoulder
brushing mine. It won’t last.
I touch a question to her hand.
As long as they don’t bite.
Bodies glancing off our skin like snow.
In the bassinet,
the tight-wrapped child,
skin purpled in death—
wrinkled, like she was left
too long in the bath.
Where the water belongs,
dripped three times
onto the forehead
so it falls back
behind the ear, the wispy hair,
here is the new
doctrine, the child dead
before she was born,
the mother leaning
back in her chair,
my cold hands,
and the water.
I swam in the ocean once,
current dragging at my legs,
the beach a pile of boulders, waiting.
With each wave, the horizon
over my head, again,
again, and I rose
battered and freezing,
salt in my mouth,
and it was morning.
If there’s one thing nobody wants,
it’s a mare lame in both fronts.
You pinch the fetlock
arteries for the digital pulse.
You pack the shod hooves
with turpentine and sugar
to draw the soreness.
You thumb the jugular for a dose
of horse tranquilizer. You run
water for mud to cool her.
You pull the shoes with pliers,
because somebody made a mistake
nailing shoes, a big-
shouldered man, mouthy,
full of Jesus and guitar
songs and a daughter with a bad
heart and marching orders.
Listen, he talks while he’s working,
looks like he got a little carried
away. Now here’s a lesson.
Here’s a basket of lessons,
a burning cedar tree of lessons,
horsehide to hammer to a tree
of lessons you memorize.
The bony column ends in the so-
called coffin. Hoof-shaped,
it balances a whole horse.
Don’t let sand and clay
come close. Any fool knows
that half-inch spares the kingdom.
Jesus won’t tell his secret,
coffin bones like a compass south.
Coffin bones a water witch down.
Jesus boy coaxed her close to hell.
Jesus boy hammered the door
of horn and carved initials.
I’m looking for a hole
to bury a horse. She’s watching
the empty pasture:
cedars like scarecrows
where their crowns died branching.
Iron posts, ghost fence.
Hawks slide the sky
like knives slicing fat meat,
a rubbery parting of clouds.
A pond spreads flat
as wax paper downwind,
smudge of water shine.
Someone says, the pond’s low,
we need rain. Someone says,
that would be a pretty pasture
if we mowed. Those trees
break the blades. I never learned
how to fix the broken blades.
She doesn’t lie down but she
can’t walk. She’s watching
the empty pasture.
She doesn’t want to miss
crow or frog or spun web
or cross stuck with nails
for shoeing horses. All day,
hobbles to the water barrel.
Drinks like someone deserted,
dying. One day
a man drove the gravel
on a mission. He hammered
and talked about television
and Jesus and the whole story,
and if I keep telling this
everybody’s going to live
forever, including the ones
who don’t deserve it, not
because they floated to heaven,
black wings trimming the fat
of the sky to quick, only
because you caught me
rubbing something hard
between my palms, not
a bit for a bridle, not
a stirrup to rest my boot,
not a shovel to dig
the grave, keeping my promise,
but she’s just a horse
so she can’t be thinking
where will she go
before she falls, and she looks
like I do when what happens
to a man with a mouth and tools
for killing and a hawk
shearing the sky and a devil
slapping its tail
on hell’s open door.
The history of glass, the story of coins—
both long tales of fire and trade.
A little girl flickers away from her mother’s
tour group to rub the mummies. Lo
lichtzot, you can’t cross
back that far.
Before the forensic question,
the pipe mortar was used to siphon
food or water to the dead
in return for their faithful testimony.
Under glass, a woman lies with a dog:
all knees to chests, hands
for their pillows. We grind
our own sleep out of asphalt.
Which once we could trade
for obsidian, conches, basalt,
lifting the corners of the land’s
ancient skirt, bargaining further
away from our rest.
In the museum café people order cakes and coffees,
salads heavy with olives and cheese.
This is not how I want to be buried.
Burn me instead, record the blues
of the flame on the page of my body.
What have I done to the metaphor of fire,
thousands of years removed from its light?
George Lakoff would say, your fire is a thief
that goes on a journey. At whose end
it sells itself.
Fire is a commodity
with free will?
Except I am the thief. I took this land
a land is a cloth
took it in, to walk from one hem
to the other and then
I sold it,
can be worn and bought and sold,
to the next traveler I saw.
Seventeen, in a constant state
of non-emergency. Walking with my dog,
I’d invite neighborhood girls to join me.
During the day we would follow the trail
through the woods. At night, skirt
along the road by the edge of the forest,
lucky to see fireflies hover
over a puddle by the ‘no dumping’ sign.
This was the summer of the DC sniper,
who added a small, romantic danger
to wandering our lobbyists’ suburb.
Now when my friends mention
the sniper attacks, they talk about
how hot it was, the nervousness
in which they felt unmarked.
I think about walking by the woods,
slow-talking Kate or Priscilla,
or Priscilla’s sister. I was a coward
when it came to kissing, late to realize
if I didn’t make a move
I would never take a girl’s first blush,
run my hand into the unknown.
With every girl I kept their secrets
so well I forgot them. Whose were
their faces? The red dot of the sun
bloomed among its rolodex of clouds
as I woke alone. Each friendship
a surprise that required reconciliation
with my romantic life and the fantasy
I believed it would become.
Trickle of the almost creek,
dogs barking, back-firing
cars; I listened
to an increasing number
of lonesome smiles
letting evening come on.
The un-starred sky
telling us no one
That breath held
as the shared light
zeroed in on the two of us.
He sets a black chess
in a ceramic bowl
stirs ashes with vodka
into homemade tattoo ink
retraces the fading
the faded line
a second year
of scrawl down his leg
he knows the needle point
like pubic hair
metal to skin
where thousand mile
away slips away
by stick and poke
a strange curve
down thigh skin
inscribes a timeline
memory of her
hands guiding the needle
years that follow
this scar’s endless
drip blood and ink since
she last left
since she last
left he burns
a chess rook
royal into carbon
black ash ounce
of vodka its carrier
two years retracing
extending this thread
single cord pricked
down his left leg
a question mark
depending on the day
it’s almost noon
and she’s still in bed with a headache
the bedroom bursts with light an electrical storm rages
in the quiet space of her skull
her children move further and further away and grow
their own moons
this can’t be right
the data don’t make sense the figures seem to suggest
they’ll never come home
the shadows seem to suggest she’s alone
mother pulls the covers over her head and curls
into a molten ball
when did she become such a lump
of dense matter she starts to harden a little
god she could kill
for some water she could drink
April sets us on the scent of summer, opens up a trail
but it’s covered in mud. Buds on the branches but also mold
begins to stain the plaster walls. Patter of rainfall lulls me,
pulls me under after a week awake, weightless as I watch
the minutes flicker. We long for what comes next but never learn,
never learn to hold a moment in its wholeness, show our hand
at the table and take what comes, to know it comes regardless
so there’s hardly sense in hoping for an outcome we can live
with—unchecked wealth and recession, infinite stars expanding
to collapse, matter folding inward to absorb all light as
focused mass, a blossom that opened hours before it wilts
under frost, love and its loss. We long for each season as if
its being brings finale. We barter our lions for lambs,
empty limbs for leaves and blooms, but soon discover the pollen
slipped into the package and there’s no way of giving it back.
ANOTHER WORLD GATHERS
I sleep in a bedroom once a horse
stable for a monastery.
The monks have all turned
& the cork trees stripped to red.
I am a weak thing. A body down,
an eaten up mosquito net.
A white candle drives out fear,
a red one drives out lust.
THIS IS WHY I NEED A GODDESS
winos, picking up empties,
their laughter of firework.
The city’s full and nuts
but I can’t hear
its usual neon,
thrum of its barges.
No, it’s quiet
and the devil blinks,
Tonight hurts. Fights.
Drops. Sleeps. It’s 3 am—
the Atlantic midnight
for a poet.
Come on, cruel finger
with your cruel
and refusing shake.
Come to me, finger
and not the bottle.
Go paint the bulge on this white
page. Write about hell
factories and cemeteries,
how they dance blurry
pieces of flames.
But instead you give me
the sea. My feet.
You throw love out
like an old sack.
A loaded mouth grinning,
a downer for dead
and night’s ripeness
inching toward wreckage
See, he’s got you too.
Finger, fix it and make it right.
Like a seeing-eye dog,
the lord will see you good.