The boy builds a four-throated fish
out of cardboard. The fish lips
flap, blue-taped, from a body that
carried bottles. See! He says
a large-mouth bass. I’d have smiled once
(inwardly of course) at his fine
imaginary, thought him unspoiled, amusing himself
with the trash.
Wasn’t I doing a good
job? The boy, a living sign that I could refuse
the invisible purveyors who would sell him
dopamine hits & strangling masculinity with a side
of fried sugar? The things we buy
without knowing. But this is a cool
summer, air and skin the same, enough water
the rose taller, the jasmine tendrils
longer. The soft white sky.
I ought to love it. There’s no war now
except the usual one
& death like age is just a number
that rises. I walk every morning
& the number rises. We finish our assignments
& the number rises. We reply to your message
& the number rises. We build a fire no one
may gather around. What can you swallow
with four throats
that you couldn’t swallow with one?
The same things, but smaller.
One trimmed off his own name
to hide his Irishness.
One wrote white
instead of mother’s mother was
instead of no
right designation. One dressed
like a shark, smooth suited, pressed
& pale to compensate
for parents who grew
in foreign soil
on preserved fish & sometimes stank of it.
My people were damned
successful at leaving themselves behind
rushing toward a shrinking
field of safety just inside the blade
of cooling sunlight even
as night came on.
And me, years ago when I had bad
insurance, I saw a doctor for a raft
of pains, a strange doctor
but official. She said the way I move’s all
wrong: from the edge not the center
as if I could just decide a thing & make it so
without getting too close without risking parts (belly, heart)
I couldn’t lose.
She said my problems come
from a thumb too quick
to pin something under it.
to any God that made me
Girls are takers,
Mama used to say.
I took every lesson
she gave me, learned
to swim out of my body
& abandon it.
With incense I burned pages
until a perfect eye stared back.
God drilled a hole to make us see.
See? Mine is filthy.
He, too, eyed me
each day afterschool,
clutching the line to the lure.
When I walked by
he’d catch me & groan
Oh you’ve grown so heavy.
Like his breath, his fingers
were meaty & thick.
For years I weighed myself
then I weighed myself down.
In the water, my scaled body
lay bent & murky.
Listen — Don’t believe in God
unless he admits
he was always watching.
Look back at him.
If he had my courage
he’d choose to be born
What am I begging for?
I have two mouths.
Not the storm, but the calm.
Not the flurry of attention
called to the sky.
Not the rumour of a hurricane on the horizon.
Not humidity, the mosquitoes rising
like smoke from the fields.
Not a history of revisions we call
love, or survival.
Not the children lost and discarded.
Not the borders that hostage them.
Not how we were once possible
under this tyrant
sky, the familiar sorrow of the fields.
Describe our self-importance.
This awareness that travels us like a siren.
Why the live oaks drown in brown pollen
gripping the streets.
Who else will wash this mess clean?
Laundry-damp, our houses.
Thick with spoiled food and loneliness.
In times of love and crisis, we’ve been
the most alone.
Planes take off without us.
Children flit between namesakes like wasps.
We miss what is ours while it is within reach,
along with the dim sound of thunder
in the distance, storm drains already chuffing.
Let any absence mean we are loved.
Let the rain come soon, and be done with us.
Each morning is the same
but I can’t help but look again and again:
skin smooth peony petal, vanilla-ice-
cream-cool; hair a ripple of milk pulled back
too tight (though sometimes I forget the aching);
even my eyes are eggshells. Only air where arms
should be, dimpled seams of unfinished
making I’ll never forgive, but the sling
of this sheet hugs my hips in the perfect
place that says, Hey, I can still be sexy.
Then, there are the drawers: forehead,
breasts, ribcage, stomach, my left knee—
the edges to my curves only someone else
can open—nipples, belly button, each knob
a puff of fur to touch and pull. I’m told
they’re so, so soft. Everyone wants to look
inside, and sometimes I let them
just to feel the rub and jolt, just to see
their faces when they find my secrets,
find their own. My favorite part is when
they shut me, shaking my spine so hard
I almost crack—and for a moment it feels
some part of me could change.
The absence of faith is the beginning of death.
What I call flesh is prayer bound to my bones.
All my prayers begin as songs from my bones
and end with blood instead of amen.
How I wish I began every request with amen,
like when I ask God to let doubt pass from me.
Amen. Oh God. let this sea of doubt pass from me,
for I’ve tried walking on water & almost drowned.
In Noah’s ark, a lost name is replaced with drowned.
In Ghana, anyone who drowns is without a name.
What is the value of a life without a name
to those who believe in what they can only see?
To those who believe in what they can only see,
the absence of faith is the beginning of death.
We are building a house
small in the woods,
refuge from disquiet
or vague boredom.
It must weather distance,
the hurt of proximity.
We do not mean to,
though we are so good
at breaking, scavenging
old bone and feather, stalks of
the hour of their heads.
You are boss, and look boss,
hammer and spackle knife
and blue hair, plastering.
At a window you like the way
open sounds, so you mouth it
until the word too becomes
some thing to occupy.
You can’t take it with you,
and the house won’t stay
when you’re gone.
Wind is saying this,
the way wind likes to say things,
likes the door swinging,
petals over the floor,
then floor, then house,
then whatever was before.
DREAMING OF THE GOVERNOR AND THE MAYOR PLUNGING INTO THE RIVER
Perhaps conjoined at the ankle
by a concrete block, like the tails
of Pisces. Yes, let them embrace
the East River together in early
morning so they may be blessed
at last by the light of a new day
rising beautifully without them.
MY DAD’S BIRTHDAY IS WRONG ON HIS BIRTH CERTIFICATE BECAUSE HIS PARENTS COULDN’T AFFORD TO PAY FOR IT WHEN HE WAS BORN
Officially my dad was born
June 3rd, 1957— that’s what all
of his documents, signed and notarized
claim in both countries that claim him—
though unofficially, hearsay,
there’s no proof that he entered the world
on April 11th, 1957: photos can be
doctored and both parents dead,
only the scowl on his face when it’s
brought up can serve as testament
to those fifty-four unaccounted days.
There is being born into poverty
and then there is not being born
because of poverty. One must pay
to come into existence and my dad’s
existence was delayed two months
because his parents could not.
There is something unforgivable
about being denied time, about
being made to feel as though you need
to catch up to yourself, make up
what’s been lost— no, what’s been taken.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary
I do not like dwelling on the past,
especially one inherited so heavily
and without consent; but I can’t help
but think of how being a dollar short
seems to be a family trait, of how
my grandparents split, fell apart
like dead trees in a storm, of how
my dad grew up to meet my mom
and repeat that cycle, unintentionally,
but intentions don’t matter when you’re left
indebted to the wreckage—
of how things could have been different
of how things could have been different.
with apologies to my brother, 11 months clean
The boy who cried sunlight, summer rain,
bird-in-the-bush, in the hand, who cried
fiddleheads, brook trout, berries in the field
by the chicken house, again and again
who cried lilacs, from each bloom
a hit of nectar and nothing to fear—
he’d pretended for so long the all clear
while something hungry paced the room
that even when of true wolflessness
he made a bouquet so pretty and perfumed
nobody in her right mind could presume
it wasn’t flowers, I called it beast,
saw in the gold-dusted mouth of each bud
a dogtooth sharp enough to draw blood.
EPITHALAMIUM WITH PAPER BELL
I was there on the day my mother married—
I’ve seen photographs of her in her borrowed
dress, bodice of a taller friend wrinkled
at her waist, slack satin pooling at her feet.
Her forehead shines above a startled smile,
and my sudden stepfather, in a rented tux
of powder blue, just looks glad. There I am,
too, tucked between them on my final day
of being five years old. I don’t remember
the ceremony or the reception, the kind I’d
later love when my mother’s younger brothers
wed their first or second wives at the Elks club
or the VFW, center of the room cleared
for a dance floor, tables pushed to the walls
and spread with crockpots of cabbage rolls,
spam salad spooned into hotdog buns.
Beer bottles and ashtrays. Uncles with their
sleeves rolled up, Red Wings buffed of mud.
When they weren’t twirling girlfriends
with spaghetti straps and long-long hair,
pulling them close for the slow tunes,
they lifted me into their arms so I could hug
their whiskered necks. There’d have been
a deejay and gallons of milk mixed with Kahlua,
a dollar dance, man after man paying to twirl
my mother a little, money for the honeymoon,
one night in a cabin at Portage Lake then back
to the shoe factory. But I only remember
the paper bell I found taped to a table that night,
miracle the way I could close its feathers so
easily, conceal the whole voluminous thing
between two half-bells of card, then open it
as swiftly as lungs can fill with breath.
Like hands that part to reveal what I’d
wished for bent at the bedside, what I’d seen
in my head and whispered into the dark.
I could almost have believed I heard it ringing,
that tissue bell, marvelous flat nothing
come to song. I kept it a long time, precious—
and then I guess I lost it. I guess we all did.
Young walruses, we all must adapt! For example,
some of your ancestors gouged the world
with four tusks, but you can grow only two.
It’s hard to say what evolution plans for your kind,
but if given a choice,
you should put in a request for thumbs.
Anyway, congratulations! You’re entering
a world that’s increasingly hostile and cruel
and full of people who’ll never take you seriously
though that will be a mistake on their end.
You are more tenacious than they know.
You’ll be a fierce and loyal defender
of those you love. You will fight polar bears
when they attack your friends and sometimes you’ll win.
Of course, odds always favor the polar bear,
but that’s not the point. The point is courage.
The point is bravery. The point is you are all fighters
even when the fight in which you find yourself
ensures unpleasant things will happen to you.
For example, the bear will gnaw apart your skull
or neck until you stop that persistent twitching;
it will eat your skin, all of it, then blubber, then muscle,
then the tears of your loved ones, in that order;
it will savor every bite, and you will just
suffer and suffer until the emptiness can wash over you.
The good news is: things change!
For example: the environment.
Climate change, indeed, is bad for you,
but it’s worse for polar bears whose conservation status
is now listed as “vulnerable” which is one step removed
from “endangered” which is one step removed
from “extinct” which is a synonym
for Hooray! None of you get eaten!
I suppose this will make some people sad.
Even now, they’re posting pictures
of disconsolate polar bears on melting ice floes
drifting toward a well-deserved oblivion.
They say, We need to stop this!
They say, We need to do something, now!
These people are not your friends.
One cannot be on both Team Walrus and Team Polar Bear
at the same time. I’m not saying these people are evil;
I’m saying, it’s time to choose a side.
I’m saying sharpen your tusks, young calves;
your enemies are devious. You need to train
yourself to do what they won’t expect.
For example: use computers, invest
in renewable energies, read Zbigniew Herbert.
Unrelatedly: your whiskers make you appear
to have mustaches, which, seeing as you’re
not even toddlers, is remarkably unsettling.
Babies that look like grown men freak me out.
Like those medieval paintings by so-called masters
where they’d make the face of little baby Jesus
look like an ancient constipated banker.
If that’s what God really looks like,
it’s no wonder we’ve done what we’ve done to the Earth.
Maybe you can repair what we spent lifetimes taking apart.
Replace some screws. Oil some hinges.
This might sound impossible, but have you ever
looked at yourselves? Seriously—take a quick look
and tell me how a walrus face is possible;
everything about it defies the laws of physics.
You will exist beyond the reach of nature.
You will learn to slow your own heartbeat to preserve oxygen
while diving to depths of over 900 feet.
You will stay awake for up to three consecutive days
while swimming on the open sea.
And when the ocean is too rough—
so terrible with longing, so ruptured with heartache—
you’ll find a small island of stone or ice offering refuge.
It will be difficult to climb from the water,
but because there’s hope for us all,
you will hoist yourself up,
using only your front teeth to drag your body
onto the shore.
Renaud com richchande thurgh a roghe greve
And alle the rabel in a res, ryght at his heles.
— “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” by anonymous
but what is the fox to think, duck-tumbling through green with all the dogs baying at his heels, of the scene unfolding across a hill inside stone walls much higher than the fences the fox can leap, inside the curtains and sheets sweetened with lavender, sweetened with words and hands touching: a man and a woman and the frightful truth that what you give is what you get but only if you’re one of the people in the story, only if that’s how you’re seen. a fox isn’t a person, a fox isn’t given, a fox has to get all on its own: a rabbit, a den, a mouthful of feathers because hunger is a gag in the throat, an acid turn in the belly; hunger is wanting and wanting and when someone does give a fox, it is not the soft part of a bird, not the thing the fox wants but some lines in a poem: a fox is gotten, a fox is given to someone else but only after the fox is dead and only to remind the man in the bed of the wager he made against the fishbone sliver of his life, and no one kisses the fox three times because a fox doesn’t know about kisses—
but a fox knows about fucking, a fox knows about a pull, a pull, an arch and bite and everyone in the fox’s poem knows about that, too—
but the fox isn’t a person no matter the name that’s offered; what good are names if the ink’s half-flayed and no one is who they’re supposed to be, not even the knight? were it otherwise, a fox might turn and fight, a fox might have some kind of agreement, like the man in the bed with another man’s wife (though they’re not fucking, only kissing and that only a little too), but this is not that version. the man in the bed is going to give those kisses right back to the man who is chasing the fox and trying to give a gift of a redbrush tail that no longer hides gold eyes, that no longer follows four fast feet, and it would be a handsome gift—all this soft amber of running, living, warming—but it’s not a gift, it’s a threat, like the horses chasing the fox, too, there behind the dogs, and the fox has tasted horse once. the fox found a dead one and all over its sleek hide the smudge of men and metal, but the bones broke easily enough and the sun-sour meat tasted like life and monsieur reynard doesn’t know what a promise between men has to do with foxes—just the same as a boar doesn’t know, just the same as the hart, both already hunted, both already still and spitted, and no one has to know, do they, to end up dead for it, to end up caught, to end up peeled bare, to end up in someone else’s mouth? and the fox doesn’t know this isn’t to do with food or fur because for the fox it is, and for the man in the bed it’s about keeping clean, which is also about keeping uncaught, keeping unbloodied, and for the woman taking his hand, it’s about finding out where the nail catches the skin and can peel it back—how much comes free in one piece? and for the man on the horse (all these men on all these horses) it’s a game to be played. the man on the horse lost his head to the game and picked it up and walked away, and a fox doesn’t know such a thing is possible because such a thing is not possible in this poem—at least for foxes in this poem—which is old, old, old enough that the pigments have scraped themselves thin. all the blood and the robes that were once real stones, once real things—
it’s the green that lasts least, all this green so lush and growing and false, though there is nothing truer than some shoot’s first twining and nothing truer than the ease of it crushing underfoot; it is not the province of a fox to follow these stems and roots. a fox follows low cuts between leaf and branch and the twisting trails toward warmth and blood. a fox only runs and pants against the pack’s closing howl and lunge—
inside the room the lady has a gift to save a man’s life if only he accepts and he’ll accept because if he doesn’t—
no one brings such a gift to a fox, to a body so desperate, no one brings water for the tongue dry and lolling, no one brings a soft green cloth to dab away fear’s white foam and bind up the soft underbelly, and no one asks as the strength fails in one limb and another and no one opens a door, breaks a fence, moves a stone—but what bargain wouldn’t this fox make right now right now, what wouldn’t he exchange—
what wouldn’t the boar, what wouldn’t the doe, what wouldn’t anyone trade to keep feeling the drum under the feet, that feeling of beating alive alive just the same as the heart?
I ducked down a side street when I saw the red and blue lights coming from the police cruisers blocking the Burnside Bridge. My big brother, Joel, trailed after me and asked, What’re you doing? I told him I’d never seen so many cops before; the only policeman I’d encountered was the one who visited our middle school to talk about the dangers of illegal drugs. They aren’t interested in us, Joel said. He took me by the wrist, led me out of the alley, and told me, We just have to make it past them to the river. Then all we have to do is swim.
The streets were wet and slick from rain and reflected the light of the moon. Ahead of us, the Burnside Bridge was drawn, halting passage across the Willamette River to the west side of the city. Officers milled around the cruisers, assault rifles slung over their shoulders, sipping from Styrofoam cups. We were close enough to hear the chirp of the walkie-talkies. A crackled voice said, Please be advised. An officer responded, Ten-four.
It all started a couple months earlier, with a single pothole on Ankeny Avenue. Then there was one on Morrison Street and another in Old Town. Every weekend, our dad picked us up and we crossed the river to stay at his apartment in the west side of the city, and each time we went there—whether we were going to the nickel arcade or on our way to browse books at Powell’s—we spotted more cavities in the streets.
Joel said, Every week it’s worse. But nobody made a big deal about it. In an interview on the evening news, a city council member said, This is just the routine erosion of infrastructure.
Crews were dispatched to make repairs. They came in white-paneled trucks and shoveled fresh asphalt, but for each pothole they patched, more appeared.
The last time we were with our dad, we got frozen yogurt from This Is Culture. We were walking up the street, cones in hand, when a Loomis Fargo truck hummed by. I doubt we’d even remember that truck if it weren’t for what happened next. One of its wheels sank. The truck slumped and came to a stop. The driver punched the gas, and the wheel spun, climbing just a little before the asphalt crumbled and the wheel slid back into the rut. The driver hit the gas again. The engine whined. Black smoke rose, stinking of burned rubber. The tire blew and the naked wheel dropped into the pothole. Then the ground gave way and the front half of the armored truck sank into a growing opening in the street. The driver clambered out the rear door and fled to solid ground.
Let’s get you home to your mom, our dad said.
We crossed the bridge back to the east side of the city. As soon as we walked into the house, we told our mom what had happened. She said she knew we were worried, and that Dad could stay with us for a while if he wanted. In that moment, I imagined all of us back together, like whatever had come between them could be forgiven and forgotten, but our dad shook his head. He assured us the whole thing was just a freak accident. It’ll be okay, he said.
We’d never heard of the Shanghai Tunnels, but once the Loomis Fargo trunk sank into the street, they were on the news all the time. Reporters opened trapdoors and pried open manholes. Beneath the west side of the city was a vast maze, pathways that led to openings along the Willamette River.
Some thought that the tunnels were just an outdated means of transporting goods to and from docked ships, but rumor had it that young men had once been dragged through the tunnels and sold as slaves to ships bound for Shanghai. Whatever the tunnels had been used for didn’t matter much now. The streets were sinking into them either way.
Even so, people carried on as if what was happening wasn’t happening. The city tried to reinforce the tunnels with lumber buttresses, but the streets just crumbled around them, leaving standing ribs of wood and asphalt. They tried to pump concrete into the tunnels, but the trucks were too heavy to drive around the west side. They parked on the Burnside Bridge, long tubes leading out of the mixers, burping cement. Then Big Pink, the tallest building in the city, fell. Forty-two floors worth of shattered glass and twisted metal collapsed into the tunnels, countless bodies buried in the wreckage. The city placed an evacuation order, but not everyone made it to safety before more buildings came down: the Overton Towers, the Wilkins-Spaniel Center, and the Harrison Tower Apartments, where on weekends we lived with our dad.
Our mother couldn’t turn away from the TV after that. He should’ve stayed, she said, speaking to footage of the wreckage on the screen. Joel told her, He might be okay, but our mother shook her head. We hadn’t heard from him in days, but I wanted to believe what Joel believed: that our dad was still beneath the rubble waiting to be rescued.
He was right about the police; they didn’t even notice us walk past when we made our way to the river. We knelt by the bank and dipped our hands into the water. I said, It’s cold. Joel told me, We’ll get used to it. Then we waded into the river together.
We were only waist deep when the current swept us away from each other. I struggled to swim, but I was quickly pulled under, stuck in the current, suspended between the river bottom and the air above it. It was like flying, though I couldn’t breathe. I saw nothing but darkness punctuated with pops of light. I was sure I would drown, and right as my lungs went empty and my throat filled with water, I felt a tug around my neck.
When I resurfaced, Joel had me by the collar and was pulling me back ashore. You’re okay, he said. You’re okay, you’re okay. He got me out of the water and onto the bank. We were far downriver from where we’d started, the police lights no longer in sight. I coughed up the water I’d swallowed and began to sob. Our dad was beneath the debris on the west side, dying or already dead. I wanted to believe there was something we could do, but we couldn’t save him. We’d barely been able to save ourselves.
Joel put his arm around me and said, Don’t cry. Then we sat there, cold and wet on the bank of the river, and watched the city buckle in the distance.