there are galaxies
above what used to be the soft spots
at the top of our heads
we elongate our necks
at an angle
trying to take in
all that neon-filled fullness
of the light-splattered cosmos
it scares me — that I don’t know
what you’re searching for
me, the same old — a flickering
of some sort, a disjointed piece of wire
just as I used to compete
with my father, pointing out night planes
in place of dead stars
I pick you up
& you are a child made of longing
clasped to my neck. Iridescent,
lovely, your inestimable tantrums,
I carry you back & forth
from the underworlds
where your giggles echo,
grow into howls.
Your alphabet wraps itself
like a tourniquet
around my tongue.
Speak now, the static says.
A half-dressed woman named Truth
tells me she is a radio.
I’m going to ignore happiness
I’m going to undo myself
I pick you up
& the naked trees lean
into the ocean where you arrived,
shaking chains & freedom
from your head.
No metaphor would pull you
out of your cage.
Light keens for the dead.
& I’m troubled
by my own blind touch.
Did the ocean release
my neck? Did the opal waves
blow our cries to shore?
You don’t feel anything
in the middle of the night.
ANOTHER WOMAN’S COAT
Alone with snowfall & pockets
of silence beneath shining streetlamps,
I pull her coat closer, finding spaces
in its arms. These seams do not belong
to me. And I won’t know this yet –
slipping down snowy Remsen. I stop
on the promenade, I’m solitary again
& stare at the city edging
the East River. Air blowing stings,
stinging, I pull the hood down,
burrow inside her wordless
flesh. Alive from dancing
with friends, & the music
of that. Pulled over me
like an eyelid of glitter.
As much as Manhattan
glares, can its insect
windows make me out
here on the other side?
Gatsby’s green heart
of a wish. Or whatever
was above me
that looked at my mouth
& said, Yes, it’s enough, isn’t it?
in snow that needles
like fire, I’ll walk,
a Siamese with ten shadows,
amongst dense brownstones.
Heart, what telescope do you inscribe?
Snow light growing the shadows
of sycamores & fire hydrants
into giants. The bare pine seller
stands. The streetlights change
for nothing. When I get to my door
I’ll reach for a key
that opens & returns me
to myself like a rune. Then I see
I’m wearing a coat
that isn’t mine. Her syllables
& smiles & the wit of another
woman’s neck lingering
in the lining. Sweetness
& irony & how you couldn’t
tell, in the dark, you could wear
something so intimate
& otherwise? Hearing her
hands & breasts & ribs
murmur inside of the down.
The feathers you now
warm with your own
as the music we shared
as we danced,
the holiday like flecks
of tinsel caught under
the god’s tongue. Julie,
I hope you’ll forgive
me for wanting to
verse your instrument,
& how, when Brooklyn
wasn’t looking, I made
angels against the air,
our skin, like words slipped back
beyond midnight & knowing
I have no other way
to bear my life, you
laugh at the café
where we meet
& tell me
when we give
our coats back
that the dance
was so lovely
your legs hurt
in the morning.
Zero degrees again. Midwest winters confuse loving with not leaving.
Yes we are made of drifts. Yes we are made of degrees on a map of discontent.
Breath of blood history, breath of aromatic bitters]
Example: I left my home full of salt and chrome and church manners. Moved away,
where I willed the memory of glaciers to silt me downriver again.
Dogwood, devil’s food, breath of divinity with almonds]
Vacant hills of snow: fugue season, no permits given.
Under each fallow mound I idle and thaw. GOODY’S BODY SHOP: PAINT REPAIRS PARTS
Folly, fork in the road, breath of sod]
They swim up in the sun, the sleepers, the root-fish,
sow rain into beds, they evaporate.
Hickory breath, hymnals, breath of leather, breath of sorghum]
Rivulet the dark with what do I remember: stop for an ache,
quarry-side: peer into its deep gunmetal eye: hello, loaded chamber.
Jam breath, cherries jubilee, gin breath of bathhouse row]
Pews lined end-to-end with legs like piano keys break into rafts
or into song. They glide and steam. PINE BLUFF ARSENAL EXIT 2 MILES CLOSED
Lotus breath, bobcat laugh, breath of lone oak]
No one told me not to: I yelled down backwaters that echo.
Mud face named, catfish alien, puppy-hushed. What did swim up.
Nickel, new roads, breath of soffit and tornado]
Lampshade sun: loaded barrel chest: mountains
knuckle the sky. The river cracked slate and chalk.
Phantom breath and pantomime, breath of empty frames]
Jesus of Billboards and Hearts’ Doors. KING BISCUIT TIME. My
itinerant bridge of blue mud and mosquitoes, interstate of homeless lights.
Ridgeback and breath of rice fields, breath of accents]
Hunger-nested, I swarm, I hive, in fault lines, in
golden meat, on the backs of wild boar, in the rough of diamonds.
Terrace breath, breath of taffy, tree swing breath of currents]
Ferry across the lake to the island with the cliffs. Let turkey vultures
eat the gift of my violence.
Velvet breath, breath of grease, breath of fire]
Darlin’, what’ll ya have? Fingers licked clean.
Can you pay for what you’ve taken? Not even close.
Xiphoid breath of bone tongue, breath of shoal]
By what shore my hands have emptied me. No pennies
and no receipts. At what tables I swam and fed.
Zodiac breath, zenith, breath of weather, teeth, and grammar]
The log that fell into the river went for a long swim into a hidden country where logs were the dominant culture and the trees wept as they saw their barky cousins floating home.
My wife loves trees
When a branch breaks on 72nd Street.
I don’t care whether trees come and go like soldiers in formation and lie down like one of the wounded in a futile war.
My wife likes plants too.
She puts an orchid on the windowsill.
I bought it for her for Mother’s Day.
She is not my mother.
I want her to be happy.
When we walk down Madison Avenue to the St. Regis Hotel for our Sunday tea sandwiches, I will pretend that I am a tree and hold her with my leafy hand like we are nature’s thrill.
Get David Lawrence’ Lane Changes at Four Way Books
On a stone wall, no one around I stole my mom’s mink stole
I stare the doe in the face self-reflection in a lap pool
March, my month, cold I want this to be the last awful
cake white on white of winter
my mother sends daffodils in an open courtyard
that are chives unblooming I wait for Jane Kenyon—
thunder over the meadow we hide how much we love
will you allow yourself this so as to appear merely happy
Old Style Russian, March 19, 1805 I am like a railroad tycoon
Lise dies, Prince Nikolay is born with a stack in my hands
How you felt in 6 PM sun— my hood
somewhere makes the view a circle
how remarkable the green isn’t lurid it’s just
if she and her dog were near mossy
would I ever, if not now, be ready for her visit
Reflex. Automatic. My son with that look when I slapped him.
Something in the genes, the violence of pathways reenacting:
biologies of caterwaul of bottle-fights of fists into the wall.
I saw Mother with her twin colossals jug-drunk dancing jigs. Her laugh,
big or bigger, her three sheets to the wind—My Father’s hands like blackened mitts.
I wanted none of it—that phonograph. The crankpin, that turntable
that played the groove over and over. I put the toys away. A ball,
a holstered gun. Things to tell me I was having fun.
Wasps keep circling
the shutters, long stalks
of grass dangling
from thin back legs,
and when they crawl between the slats
into the small dark,
they bring their greeny materials
There is nothing here
you can’t leave. Despite
all your kind diligence,
the actual time, the slow
and loving duration of our attentions,
there is nothing in this world
we can’t abandon.
We are human.
The movements of wasps
are terrible, hovering
jabbing through the air.
I watch them at their task—
how they build
and build again
Our bodies are urns full of rain,
spilling during the harvest. The elders
speak of clemency. The army marches on.
We watch them across the ocean,
speak their undead name in our sleep.
Some of the sisters still make mosques
in abandoned lots. They auction their gold
for Allah’s ninety-nine names, while
the neighborhood boys hawk the spires
for cocaine. In the hour of the blizzard,
the devout speak of owls rising from
fossil. When they bathe, they hear
children’s voices in the pipes, open their
mouths wide to catch that scalding
song. Their wombs are empty now.
They name the trees in the projects for
Hagar. Snow fills the minaret and they wait
to arrive, finally, shaking, to god.
Even in the most inhospitable circumstances there is always time for a cup of tea.
Say you live in a cup with a hole blasted in its side in a blasted landscape, by a blasted tree
and an empty barrel. You can still park your worn down shoes side by side
at the door and steep your questions in hot water. Since you are a man of letters
I imagine you have many. As steam brushes your cheeks you may read the leaves.
Take your time. The wind is aroused and the clouds are either massing or clearing.
You have lost everything but not what makes you human. I don’t mean your coat and tie.
The forebears have gathered. The clocks have split open. Clock hands lie on the ground
like bent utensils. The forebears emerged through the rock. They are ruins. Dissevered.
Parallel faces frozen in profile. The forebears are listening. And there you stand
(I almost missed you), memory’s king, an ant among giants, hands tucked in your
pockets, downcast, with a stone for a shadow, waiting for whispers, husbanding
wisdom, at home at last in an old stone Eden. Whose face does the rock face bear
and repeat, each and every — your face, God face, Jew face, membranous blessing.
What do you know
of the former
He lives in another
city or speaks
in the guise
of an owl, he appears
in the guise of a scrawl.
In a series of paintings—
your two selves
and played by
a bunch of characters.
You are close and you
are friends and you recede
endlessly from one
It means you,
singular, string beads.
You make a lot
of bracelets. They grow
up your arm,
static of the
(plural) used to make
creeps across the lines in my palm. He erects a house
with a tree in the front yard and a dog running the length
of the lawn. Yesterday he fashioned a weapon
from sharpened sticks and twine to protect what he owns,
though I hold no one else and there’s no room for expansion.
Once I thought an itchy palm foretold a windfall
but now it’s him mowing the lawn or taking the dog for a walk.
Sometimes I whisper secrets and he thinks it’s the wind
and zips his jacket, tucks his head down. Friends ask to see
my hand and wonder at the world I’ve created, but it’s really
what someone else created when I relinquished control.
IN THE PLACE OF BEST INTENTIONS
As this is not the land of ice packs
and regenerations, of spent glue guns
or antiseptic counters—since shy
reminders filter through the streets all night
(mountain streams that city fountains sip)
absconding with old disappointments—
because the powerlines are wet with flames
that spill their music into shallow halls
devoid of short-term motives, I am lost
and cannot say what may have led me here
to watch the girls unwrapping fiberboard
from miles of burlap while the waitresses
tattoo their angry daisies on my arms.
What is this place that leaves me so unmoved?
A hat I’d never worn or wanted worn
is now my prized possession; tissues packed
into abandoned zipper pockets breed—
I had forgotten that the small glass cups
were hidden in my socks and that my hands
were laced with fine red scratches
long before the advent of arrival. Now I feel
the heat of my illusion dim to tremble,
a dull intrusion into some romantic
basement of unknowable books. And so
forgive me if the water left for tea
is steeped in silt and valentines; forgive
the unexpected token undisclosed.
Last night I thought I wanted tragedy,
a chance to wick away the morning’s
donut, bagel, muffin, scorn. But to span
the gap from night to night, from night
to some hello, is more than I can yet
achieve: a phone that rings without response
and without end or empathy.
Belief is a raft tossed out on a thirsty plain.
Were I that lonesome, I’d never have left.
ON THE MARGINS OF THE PORTABLE COUNTRY
The making of ideology, of how stories learn,
ends in bone. Thus, facts without lives are trouble.
Even squall, the art of, must learn to scramble hours
as the scribblers do; and so some argument electric
in its innocence arrives to silver fictions
out of mauve and maudlin discipline.
All worthy hearts embark. But who returns
from such a journey—who could tent beneath
that zoo and cairn with time’s fool law
and still press on unscathed? (The lathe, the nick,
the cutting tree remembering the cutting.)
On the margins of the portable country,
a stranger compendium lands its craft
of pleasure and scorn, a balloon
in love with a wood, a turtle fallen
from the subjunctive into the academy.
I’ve started marking up a manual of dangers.
You have not all been selected.
IN THE WAKE OF AVOIDABLE TRAGEDY
What little remains is clear: it is over.
The first and the last having gone
and returned, come and returned,
we have learned to welcome those
who make the place feel welcoming.
A guitar in the corner hoards the light,
says: you, in a collapsing world,
your eyes such sharp, undarkened things.
From Without Compass (c) 2014 by Benjamin Miller.
Reprinted with permission of Four Way Books. All rights reserved.
“In the Wake of Avoidable Tragedy” was first published in The Greensboro Review.