Poetry

OFF ON A COMET


1.
We dawdled through our days, beach-grounded, certain of our helplessness,
of the ample generosity

of our summer fun, never doubting the discontinuity of rot gas bubbling through lake water, the buzzing trills

of cicadas in the sun-glossy grass, and the Doppler twangs of motorcycles shooting past our porches. We believed that incompletion

equaled freedom, that everything was safely nestled in nothing much—whereas, all the while, even our idlest imaginings were fixing

our fates, and our every glance, caught breath, or half-funny joke was anchored to the comet that yanked us light years beyond

our known world.

2.
We look so strange in our new reality, side by side, wearing spacesuits. Touch your plastic dome

to mine. I hear we can talk this way, without anyone knowing. Let’s let our umbilicals

entwine, and the layers of Mylar and mesh that coat our fingers compress. That will do

for love, as we hurtle these starless gaps, tanks hissing, our warped faces like atmospheres across our eyes.


NOW AND AGAIN


1.
I enter with my usual portable joys, my bags of will-anybody-believe-this?, my 4:00 a.m. truth.

This is a small house, gray-windowed, shedding shingles on our vast and rusted prairie. And here my actual life

murmurs amidst your cheek’s blond fog, and our hopes loom against their negatives in this altering

sky. Come, my love; a wind is tilting

our house. We are forgetting to clean up. Our coffee is cold. Autumn arrives in the foredawn, battleship blue.


2.
The answer is coming. Here—take cover, before we are fenced by fact.

The answer is our helplessness, our souls cindering on a planet of ash. Take this—the fool’s moon.

We have been lucky in our nights of linen and glass, our scintillant lakes, forest ensconced. But now the question

has retooled necessity. The answer is nothing. We do not believe it. But the negation has started, and it will never end.


3.
Always be polite. The knife goes on the right. Take time to make your explanations clear. We lean little things

against the wind. Here in our shingled house, we are each other’s distraction. It is so simple: a porcelain saltshaker, a moan

infused with sympathy, and the cold becomes unreal. We inhabit this endless now, where hope is how we accommodate impossible

desire. Our nights thigh-to-thigh, our shared breaths—they are all we know of beauty, though never a way

to be right.



4.
I am with you in this vast prairie. Aspen dimes quivering, this rusty grass revealing the wind

by flowing, these florations of purple and yellow, summer over. Now we both stand outside. We are points under the fast sky,

our house, behind us, emptying.

I hold your strong hand.


5.
Here are the rooms where our future seemed real. The plastic ketchup bottle in the fridge rack, our tooth brushing etiquette, that story

about swimming to New Jersey—such a hollowness in the quiet now. Such white light through the dust-silvered windows. We kept the weather out

with latches and masking tape—hopes in the guise of plain fact, while every tick dismantled our delight. Now our careful steps

make big sounds, and our breaths hiss against blank walls. Time to leave. There was never a choice. It’s been years since we asked

and were answered—by gazes at first, and inadvertent touch, by joy, and then by lives we could never lead.


6.
I am with you still

in your chapel of glass and light, if no place real, amidst this endless space of flexing grass, this ceaseless wind, these million whispering stems, this air

so cold, so sweet in my throat.


BRASS RING

1.
That night had seemed so happiness-packed it hardly made sense
to disbelieve it. So much

light. So much ambient
yearning.

2.
I am trying to accommodate the insignificance

of desire, pay my debts, lie
here.

3.
Still, I aspire. That brass ring in the bowl on the dresser top, that hollowness
in which

we were free, that pure
void.

--No Tokens, October 2014

WHAT NEXT

Now they tell us that we have destroyed our world
with our fires and our feasts, but isn’t that what
we have always feared? Isn’t that what our priests
have always muttered in incense smoke and cave
dark from one time to the next? Isn’t that the worry
on our doctors’ faces? The answering sweatiness
on our finger tips? Our mute and sacred knowing?
We keep changing the words, but the meaning
soaks through: That shadow on your lung, your filth,
your shame—you dared to think that you
were loved, but joy must have its revenge.
Tonight, on this stone lip, the fire smoldering
at my back, the valley is endlessly grass-
and hemlock-green, the hunger implacable:
that herd of aurochs which grazes there,
those bounding elk, the trout, the tiger’s
arched teeth—Could we possibly want
a different world? So now they are building
bomb shelters along the volcano’s verdant flanks,
and you and I can sit side by side in climate
control, play checkers, read books, drink water
from tanks. But anyone who has lived
though a tornado knows that the sky
afterward will be just as blue and shimmering-
white. The landscape might be littered
with washing machines, coffee cups, shredded
pinups, and drenched, broken-back couches,
but the air will be filled with infinitely various
bird song, and red-stemmed weeds
will still be standing by the flattened corn.
The question is: What is the meaning of our fear
when we have always seen this coming?
The question is: When the sentence ends,
what’s next? Those are the pages of my daughter’s
diary blowing in the wind, that riffling, that noise
like a brook tumbling with sighs. We live
in a world of floating sorrow and false hope
—Who can deny that? Work, work, work!
It’s never too late! But no, no, no! You can’t!
Give it back! That weak hand, that rattling
cough—Did you think that you alone would make
it through? We hurry to the charred field, and let
loose our silver balloons, only to come home
and find that mice have colonized the library,
that squirrels rule the world between the rafters,
and spiders fog the corners with complicated
thought. What I am saying is that it has always
been too late. Can’t you feel that beating
in your Cro-Magnon heart? Our shovels?
Why not just throw them into the hole and see
if we can hear them hit the bottom? Our augers?
They spin freely in a darkness that is really
a variety of not being there at all. All we can do
is wait and listen to the jay cock clicking his talons
atop the radio, loosing his liquid clinks, his frayed
and lonesome cry. Our silver balloons have detected
a rumbling in the bedrock just like the old furnace
shuddering off—So hurry! the scientists shout.
We still have time! But I am so tired of living
in this space suit, in this little room, under this sky
that is lower every day. The ants are streaming
out of the mud, mad with yearning, and I am too,
so you have to get out of my way. What good
are our bricks and our water tanks and our inflated
skulls? I long to feel my smallest hairs stirring
in a warm breeze. You know that cool itchiness
when you lie down in grass? How you can tell
the shade has shifted with your eyes closed?
That’s the sort of thing I mean. There’s simply
nothing wrong with it. But the nature of winter
is changing. Soon the lowlands will return
to the sea, and you too will be forced to change.
I know, I know—my extremities tremble
in the night, but I derive such solace from
my cigarettes. And after we are gone,
the sun will still make that incandescent
gleam in the crack across the window glass,
and the sky will still be rose and gold—so why
all the sorrow? Why not just kayak the Piazza
San Marco, surf the Hague? Would that be such
a disaster? My daughter had been so happy
in her double-think. You should have seen her,
hunched by TV light, pen in her mouth, diary
on her knee. Then the soldiers arrived, and that
commenced our season of sacrifice. Have you
ever noticed how, after a point, living means life
subtracted piecemeal? As if less really was more,
as if there actually was a world on the other side
of zero. Those lip clicks in the gloaming, that
meniscus of thigh against thigh—we weren’t
supposed to do that, but we did it all, and it was
glory, it was blue becoming purple at the peak
of an autumn sky, it was sand-soled feet along
the beach in August, it was café chatter
and a stroll down Broadway with hotdogs
in our hands. Maybe it is good my memory is going,
now that I am in this other light. The beds are all
unmade in the roof-stripped trailers, and the kids
are banging pots they have picked from the litter,
and in the winter those washer tops will make crazy
sleds—Are you surprised? Some of you will remember
nothing else. After all, my own good times
were spent in the company of still-young women
who had seen the stiff legs of their neighbors
protrude from the backs of flatbed trucks.
Now scientists can measure that sound, and save
whole villages from showers of ignescent geology.
So, of course, I am with you in this room—
Is there really any choice? But, oh, how I long
to be out on our savage earth! Do you remember
how we used to laugh across our heaped meats?
How we whirlpooled our wine in candlelight?
Who would have thought our love could become
so complicated! It’s true: We had to lie to live.
And even then there was that booming beyond
our voices, that drone of basement machinery.
Every grandmother, at bedtime, writes footnotes
to the commandments. All of this is true, and yet
I never want to forget that night on the barge
when we were lying on the splintered deck,
and the sky was so dizzy with stars the earth
seemed to tilt, and we clutched each other
to keep from rolling off. Or that hissing
of razor grass as the morning turned from stillness
to storm. Or even that grosbeak, right now,
this minute, at the squirrel-proof feeder.
What is that pale green winking in the summer
night but desire? That peeping in the woods
beside the stream? That gray glow? That traffic
noise? Our hunger makes the clouds hum—
we beings of fin and wing, of mandible and foot
and mitochondrion. Consider the enormity
of our assault upon the earth. Consider that life
is nothing if not this endless elaboration
of possibility. Perhaps we shall endure
an era of justice, safety and canned food,
but soon the killing will begin again,
and the teenagers will gather on city stoops
with their smooth cheeks and their avid lips.
They will eat crow. Their teeth will spill
from their gums. And what will they have
to blame but their lives? We are all among
the mastodons as they thump the dust
with their tree stump feet. They are mourning.
They are laying their trunks upon the earth,
listening for those long gone. Goodbye,
I tell you. I have had my allotment. So now
I must lie on my belly in this most remote
of recesses, my oil lamp casting a yellow
glow hardly larger than my head. And I must
remember the curve of their trunks, the weight
of their shoulders, their tusks. All alone
in the dark, I blow pigment through a reed
onto stone: This—my memory, what remains.
This—my fading trace.

--Green Mountains Review, June 2009


THINGS JUST COME

So it’s nothing but four a.m. from here to that beach pavilion. You know what I’m talking about: that mauve weather, those stains on the suitcase, those swarming light-bees.
Brace yourself. That’s what passes for justice in these parts. And the worst thing is you have to build it yourself, entirely out of hearsay, and you can never get it to balance.
Vole-like me, I just tunnel under the eye beams, and hope none of this gets real. It’s hard to breathe sometimes, hard to make an acre for yourself, even in the abandoned territories.
Of course, it is all utterly shocking in retrospect.
And that’s where the pavilion comes in: sticks and bright cloth in the salt breeze, white birds dotting the blue. There are times when I feel I am there already, despite the smell.
We conceive of it otherwise—so what else are we going to do?
As it happens, I put those poles up against the wall myself. Those fissures? I don’t know why I never noticed them. It’s as if my hand were the glove and the hand inside the glove simultaneously.
What I’m talking about are those varieties of phantasm you have no choice but to live with—if you call this a life, that is.
And that’s exactly how it happened, I’m afraid.
Those shudders humming the walls, those flagstones heaving, and every prospect becoming a dust of its constituent parts—at least that’s how it was the last time.
The truth is that I am the one placing the rope around my own neck, and the one standing on the rickety platform, starting the motors. There’s no one else here.
Do you think this is a war? Is this what it is actually like? I keep talking to people, and they keep telling me it hasn’t even started yet.
You know: that yellowish sugar cube, those rusty flecks on the porcelain, that taste like a form of stinging dust. But maybe we shouldn’t be talking like this.
Not now.
Nothing can be excluded, which is one reason it tends to be so violent out there on the dance floor, and the sheets get all roped up and musty.
You keep on hoping because there is simply nothing else you can do. The alternative is to zero the remaining minutes, to take that path all the way down—a sort of auto-digestion, come to think of it.
That’s how it is anyway. It won’t stop.
And all of us here in the boxcar can smell the salt. Cool beams touch our shoulders and cheeks. We can all hear the flapping, the open noises. And it never gets any easier.

--Agni, October 2010

NOT YET

Not summer yet, but a summer breeze stirring the sparse hair on my legs while, at a higher reach of the sky, a raft of silver and gray rides a steady wind over the low, wooded hill.
In a week or two, when their leaves are full-grown, the trees on that hill will blend into an undulant rug, but for now each is distinct—dark at its center, like a candle flame; yellow-green around the edges.
I am looking out on thousands of trees—thousands upon thousands. I don’t know why this so amazes me now.
I have always thought of this valley as a relaxed hand, palm up, open to the sky. There is a farmhouse on the other side, two silos and a ruined barn.
Spike-beaked puff of chipmunk-brown and sand-white: Carolina wren making pebbly whistles and piercing, seesaw tweedles from the quince bush beside the house. Such senseless repetition: Is it joy? Or fury? Or fear?
Eight brown cows munch tufty grass in a sloping field. As I write, a white-faced calf has shambled over to its mother, lowered its head between her legs, and lifted its thick, prehensile lips.
Where the leaves fail and the ancient locust reaches toward the sky with a handful of bare branches, a brown kestrel awaits her storm-gray, brick-colored mate.
Several times since I’ve been sitting here, he’s flown screeching across the valley to give her—talon to beak—a splay-legged grasshopper or limp vole, which she, in turn, ferries to their nestlings, squeaking invisibly in a neighboring tree.
The peepers have started, although it is still full light, and cars unroll their hoarse roars along the road.
Only a little time has passed, but now the sky is gray from horizon to horizon, and inside the clouds night is slowly gathering.
What I most feel, in this place, this instant, alone, is gratitude—which, with a force of emotion that surprises me, I long for someone to receive. I’m not sure why: So that my love may be returned to me as love? So that I may not be as senseless as the wren?
I do not believe in God. I never have. I can’t.
High against the deepening gray, a great blue heron gathers air beneath its bent, broad wings; stick legs and twig feet drifting uselessly behind.
The female kestrel is still waiting. Where is her mate?
The sociable crows. The barn swallows tossing themselves into swoops, barrel rolls and dives.
A solitary goose, honking sporadically as it hurries west to east.
So fast.
It is all so fast: this coming, this slipping away.

--Agni, October 2010


SWEET NOTHING

Did that perfect word ever pass
between us, not just erasing
space: the two of us walking
the same suburban dark
between illuminated interiors,
the same stars winking behind
power lines, breath mingling
in the same transpiration
of mown grass; not merely
making memory a library
where we blow dust
off volumes and, shoulders
touching, turn pages laden
with little deaths, point
and whisper “Yes,”
and “Oh,” and “Of course;”
was there ever a word
that could mold soft places
to our palms, and fold
our pelvises into petals
on the same moist
rose, while keeping
you always that woman
whose glance might say “No”
or “Yes,” and me that man
whose hand has yet to lift
your dress; was there ever
such a collaboration of teeth
and tongue and breath;
was there ever such a word
on our lips?

--Green Mountains Review, June 2009


COTTAGE

You must learn to live on air, my darlings.
Here is a stripe of ash for your tongues,
and a sour drop of sorrel wine.
Taste my hand:
That’s the sweetness of splintered wood.

The termite is buried in the jay, and the jay
in Puss’s needled jaw, and Puss in the wolf.
Hunger is the law.

You must learn to peel off your filth
and let it drift on forest chill.
Pick at the sores on your lips and your hands
and turn them into earth.
Here, give me your pain.
I can take it
as I take your cloaks.

Hope is a fire that consumes the brain.
Emptiness on water is called a boat.
Love is what keeps you from everything you want.
Your hunger is an affront.

Slide between branches, my darlings.
Clothe yourselves in rain.
Walk upon grass till it no longer bends.
Come back to me in springtime
on the path that never ends.

Tears are what blind us. Memory is death.
Your father has gone before you.
He waits
in a golden meadow with his axe.

--Agni/​Online, Summer 2008


BIOLOGY

Is this happiness or oyster-life?
This flexing of muscular torso-foot
joy’s wonder? This sifting of silt
from food in the shifting chill-dark?
If, in my mind, there is a life of flight
in the light beyond the over-swirl,
must I unfix my lips from this rock
to be right? Or is my apex to worry
quartz against my shell?

--Poetry, July-August 2008


From YELLOW VALLEY


1. Uz

Help yourself to the blond fields, to the tractor rattle.
A querulous jay was placed on that fire-stripped oak
just for you. Likewise, the clouds were inflated
and that jet trail scratched across the empty blue
this very morning. Do you like the hint of woodsmoke?
And those telephone poles at the horizon?
Nice touches, I think. They make it all true.
Listen to that ragged cock’s crow—that was my idea.
Doesn’t it bring everything into balance?
And those shovels—if you dig under any rock,
you will find we have created mysteries:
bits of bone and bead that don’t belong,
hieroglyphs in languages more than dead,
idols to a very cleverly conceived array of gods,
if I do say so myself. You could spend a lifetime
decoding the suggestions we have left behind,
and I assure you it would be worth it.
Of course, we have taken signs off some
of the roads, and made the odd stair step
uneven. And one day, when you least expect it,
you will find that leaf-covered body
in the woods, dent in the skull, underwear
around the neck. But absolutely nothing
has been left to chance. There is no randomness
here, nothing less than eighty-seven percent
meaningful. Every dragonfly and hailstone
has been calibrated precisely to your taste.

5. Song of Songs

Sixty years after, and it was all the same:
There, the low stone wall where she sat and wept.
And there, the hibiscus flowers rocking outside
the kitchen door, the mimosa blushing in the fog,
and even the piano, although its keys were pillowed in dust,
and made sounds like coins rolling down a pipe.
Sixty years of nightmares had made no difference:
The one in which she buried him alive,
the whole village standing around the rain-slick pit,
indifferent, saying nothing, watching;
the one in which he slit her mother’s throat.
He had played Chopin for her, and brought her handfuls of coal.
You must read Seneca, he had said, when you are older.
And Marcus Aurelius. His evergreen uniform,
his cropped blond hair, the commanding officer who shouted,
Put out your lights or I will shoot through your windows.
Her dolls had been sent back to Düsseldorf,
the dining room chairs burnt in the fireplace.
Henri, her brother’s classmate, shot in the woods,
driven through the village in the back of a truck,
never blinking, even as his head bounced against
the metal bed. And leaflets dropping from the sky
(possessing one was death; she had hundreds),
pink and green tracer bullets rising into rumbling black.
There had been other men, other deaths, children,
a city of glass and ash, a house under an enormous maple.
But still, she had sat on the floor in the room over the garage
while he played Chopin, sunlight glinting in the hairs on his hands.


10. Promises

When you don’t know what the words mean,
are you saying anything at all? So that’s one way
of looking at it: All our solemnity was foolish,
and our fear. Only the sunlight was real,
and our fantastically orange eyes, our furled wings.
And so we launched ourselves into the air,
believing our falling was flight. And so we hit
the road, trusting our phrasebooks and our maps.
Does it matter that the hills we tapped across
with our sticks and boots were not in fact France,
that the chapels were only vats of coolness and shadow?
That’s another way of looking at it: trust and belief.
We stumbled through the impossible sounds
in our little books, and we were given rooms,
we were welcomed into echoing spaces and served
plates of exotic meat. And so there we were,
grinding up the gravel road with a black dog
on our flatbed. And so I set a cup of coffee
on the floor beside your pillow. And so: Your eyes
orange in the sunrise. Purple blossoms scattered
in bitterness. Block of loneliness. Infant laughter.
And so: just this morning, your glance across
the croissants, our knees touching under the table.
The black dog is gone now, but still the dust rises.
And still that wind in our hair—although
perhaps it never meant we were falling. Perhaps
we have stayed true to our dim promises all along,
because the words were never more than ghosts
we had to bring to life by living.


15. Eternal Return

We have set up our rickety slings of aluminum and strap,
but the parade is not coming: the shouters, the vulvic dancers,
the somersaulting dogs—nothing but phantasms of memory
and hope. And everywhere around us the wreckage of our erased
life: paper palms wilting over ruptured hull spines, police cars
in twisted pylons, faux emeralds glinting along evacuated boulevards.
All this, and still: our beers in their foam overcoats, our feet up,
flip-flops in the dust, our tremors of anticipation and yearning.
We know, we know, we know, we know—No one has to tell us.
The Persian howlers have been driven off, the goddesses and kings,
the cello thumpers and public masturbators—all equal exactly
to the shadows of dust motes, the scent of obliteration, the exhortations
of rain-pelted butterflies. We have been found insubstantial,
flattened by a global fist, our poetry redacted to prepositions
by a committee of the forgetful, our dreams retooled for maximum
productivity, then junked. When it comes, it will be the desert
of Nothing-doing! It will be the vacuum of Stop-I-said! We will be
forbidden to return to our domestic romps. But still we ride
on our straps above the pavement, still we toot our paper horns.
All of our waiting, all of our yearning won’t budge an electron,
and yet here we are: millions of us, expectant, eyes open.


16. Idolatry

Death was entirely obsolete those nights
we lay down in the fields and felt the sun’s
heat coming back out of the dark earth.
There were so many stars we had to invent
new constellations. God, too. And sin.
One could discuss such things until the candles
guttered and the darkness was complete.
But if you noticed the scent rising from beneath
her shirt, the unidentifiable finch in the mimosa,
even the lean, French hooligan zipping his moped
back into town, and, of course, the flighty wind
in the fig leaves—Well, disbelief was not denial then,
it was life. You could be forgiven anything
merely for the slope between belly and pelvis,
or for bringing out the next bottle of wine.
And so we would lie on our backs in that glossy hay
looking up into all those stars. We never knew
what was going to happen next. We seemed so small,
and the odor of rose—even when it was the soap—
or the lacewings shuttling over the mown fields,
or that glance you just couldn’t make sense of—
It was all what Simone Weil called prayer.
Unconscious, but wholly sincere. The casual
crushing of an ant. Gasp into a pillow. Sunlight
in a water glass. Loneliness under the eaves. Shadows
lunging under an orange sky. We gave our lives to it.


18. Dust and Ashes

I am going to give you everything, and then
I am going to take it away, beginning with this morning
of steam in the yellow valley. It is already half over,
isn’t it? The crows’ raucous yammer from the oak
by the frog pond; that will be the first thing to disappear,
because I have given it to you so often, not just wherever
I have gathered two or three trees, but glancing off
the brick flanks of airshafts, and in the narrow zone
between blue snow and dank sky. You value it
at nothing, so you let it slip by, and soon it will be lost.
The sunlight on bleached grass, the reflected heat
on your cheeks, the mustiness of crushed limestone
—these will last longer, but the day will come
when you think of them no more. And so you will help me,
as you always have. I have given you the entire valley,
but you want only the girl latching the pigeon coops.
I have given you the whole girl, but you want only
her bitten nails as she pushes in the rusty hooks,
and those strands of hennaed hair caught at her lips’ edge.
You have rejected almost everything. You have never
had a choice. You are a spider building a web in the wind;
all of your gossamer explorations anchor on moving air.
Soon it will be worse. One, drunk, fell backwards
into the bath, and lay there a day, never shifting
his open eyes, even when the super broke down
his door. Another simply tore off on a motorcycle:
A post card from Sri Lanka. Nothing more.
There have been others. And there will be more
than you can count. I shall surround you with strange
alphabets. The speech of check-out clerks will become
a rippling across lips and eyes. And when you speak,
you will be shunned. You will be the farmer’s mad
spaniel turning circles in the cow parsley, pursued
by his own deformed yowl. The sun will have done
with blood and gold. One by one the stars will fall
from the sky (I shall grant you such beauty)
and you will awake in the night that follows night,
alone with the beast you should never have become,
wanting all you have wasted and I have taken away.
One bottle will contain bitterness, another fear—
all the rest, nausea and pain. Yet, even these
you will want. And I shall take them away.


--Missouri Review, Winter 2008

Selected Works

FICTION
Conjunctions: 60, 2013; Best American Short Stories 2014
Conjunctions 55, 2010
POETRY
From Various Journals
ESSAYS
Teachers & Writers Magazine, Nov.-Dec. 2000
HISTORY
Selection from ORPHAN TRAINS: The Story of Charles Loring Brace and the Children He Saved and Failed