Poems from 1994


In 1994 it hit me that I was the age my mother was when I was born, which had always been an unconscious future measuring point for me both in positive terms ("hey, I'm doing okay to defend my PhD this year, why when my mother was this age she hadn't had me yet...") and in negative, or lazy terms ("eh, I'll get to that later on... when my mother was this age she hadn't even had me yet..."). So this made me realize that if I was serious about writing poetry, if I really meant to put in the time to see what I could do if I put in the time, this was the moment. So along with the other work I was doing -- and along with the move from Oberlin to Swarthmore in August of that year, which disrupted everything for a few weeks -- I took an hour or two almost every single morning to write. Got off to a slow start -- it's hard, after letting things freeze up, to defrost them again. Kira helped by offering me the gift of one evening of free babysitting in January, and even though I took a bath rather than writing, at least I got an idea or two in the tub (since no one was saying "Mummy!"). I wrote a not-bad poem while waiting in the airport on my way to the job interview at Swarthmore, and that finally got things going. Things I learned: being on leave is very good for one's writing productivity; writing poetry takes as much energy as any other serious endeavor; when I am REALLY at work, I am a writer who produces a ton of stuff, most of which then serves as compost for a few things that really please me. During 1994 I wrote something over 400 poems; here are a few of them, in chronological order.

For a while I was putting only the not-so-blestjashchie ones on the web, out of some silly superstitious belief that I could publish some of the rest of them. Either they aren't good enough to impress the mandarins of poetry, or else (and I hope this is the case!) I have not been persistent enough. I didn't yet have tenure when I was trying to send them out -- and you know what a drag that is, if one has two kids and pretentions to security -- and it hit me at some point that all the good people in Creative Writing positions were sending out THEIR poems to get them published just the way I was doing, except that if they didn't publish them they'd perish. That took a bit of the oomph out of my efforts. But I've added more of the ones I really care for now.


I Met the Ghost of Harold Bloom

Fortunately, he was not
on the warpath after me --
I was just seeking a quick footnote;
he just wounded my writing hand
with the hem of his garment,
clattered past loudly, scattering
a few purple drops of my blood.

Oh, I can pretend I have not read
Shelley or Milton,
and I'll admit to only the merest bit
of Byron, only the funny places,
Harold, but I have read you,
I hail you by your first name
with the familiarity
of the unofficial biographer,
who flays and boils while the poor
subject rolls in his grave:

and all the sublimely sublimated verse
of your divinely emprosed theories
could not stop me.




I love them, women and men, beginners and experts --
all calmly, kindly interested,
refreshingly unself-centered,
used to being the last name on the page,
the one the story marries in its old age.
At some time, in the darkest dark
(while midnight oil flickers under a green shade)
we all have wept and renounced perfection,
left the word we could not carry across with us
with one last touch of our fingertips.
This is the key to what we share,
to the room where we all have labored.
This is the tale we can all recite.

This is what I learned first from you:
somewhere in the cracks of translation
between you and me, the lamp and the night,
it was a name I could never explain,
a word too marked by its surroundings
and I could not bring you across the water.
Not even to the beach at the water's edge,
for all your praises of the beauty of that sea.
This is the setting that lacks its gem
though from time to time I swing back to remember,
to glance -- might your shadow be following? --
and to rest my face in my hands.
The lost word keeps me humble.


I'm longing for the green stuff.
This belly swelling, demanding so much of me!
And where am I in all of it? Inside, outside?
Have I so changed in this bulging shape
that all my wishes be bent on those purpled leaves,
that madness and desire wax like the moon?

Listen! I can't climb over the high fence,
I would tumble out of balance off the wall.
You must go yourself and fetch me some,
you must bring it home and tear it for a salad.
Otherwise I'll faint and fail and fade,
I'll fall beneath the mountain that has chosen me.

I know. She terrifies me too,
that sharp nose, those sparking hooded eyes.
But if you creep at dawn, if you make no sound --
you see, she has the only thing I need.
The price does not frighten me.
If in the end we must pay with your life,
with my life, with this third life,
then I accept that price. It may be
that when the moment comes to pay,
I will be another woman entirely.
Now -- I am far from caring for her tears.



Gypsy baby at the station in Brod
on the hip of your colorful mother --
I am poisoned by songs, misled by poems,
but prick up my ears for the fate you carry,
secrets you saved a thousand years
to rescue your sisters.

they see through my pallor and blue-ringed eyes
to the sky behind me.
too small to calculate race and nation,
too young to know that truth isn't truth
in a different language. Her dark eyes
hold mine shyly as she rides by,
my miniature queen, my stolen daughter --
all she can tell me is in that gaze,
all I learn is that quick passage,
Daisy-face,
Romashka.



What if I said that I wanted this?
Who wouldn't want it! What if I kissed,
if trust, if my going were not missed?
What if I closed the door to the room
in which th elight's most golden green,
if I stayed there alone -- if I dreamed a porch
on a muggy summer afternoon,
white paint, dark bushes, the heavy air
with clouds growing thicker, promising storm?
What if I dreamed a departing day
to brew me a cup of the greenest tea

What if I said that I had to go
to the chair in the garden, the peeling table
by the linden tree? What if I spoke
under seas of green flowers so rich, so fragrant
that once a man filled his room with branches
and the next morning they found him dead
of powerful sweetness





My mind and my ear plunged in hunger -- to guzzle,
My belly dug hollow as anger, to guzzle

Like the pigs you won't eat, like a nice cake,
I dreamed I sliced you with a dagger, to guzzle

Your land and your acorns, your perfumed flesh
With the slenderest teeth of an angel, I guzzle

Not real limbs, not true bites, but words
That pretend to roll dates in danger, to guzzle

Cubes of rahat lokum from my ragged pocket
With none so sweet as your lips' angle. I guzzle

A fragment. They ask what's the name on the card:
"Sibelan," S as in silly, who seduces strangers to guzzle.


When Before Sleep My Thoughts Should Drift to Crime

Two boys beat the woman senseless
a block from here, and tortured her
with a screwdriver. When I think this over
the gathering demons of my fear
leer and hunger after the body of my daughter,
falling asleep in the next room.
Where is the safety I seem to remember?

And where are the first fingers of my ten thousand Copts,
the eyes of my ten thousand Bulgars?
(They left one man in ten with one
to guide the others home.)
Where are the smoking bones of my hundreds of witches
and their thousands -- millions? -- of innocent sisters,
where are all my victims of inquisitions?
Where are the babies taken from my women
as they slaved for rice or oats or coffee or cotton?

And where is the body of that young woman
one January morning when I was fifteen
"raped and hurt and left in the snow,"
the radio said, "somewhere on the Hill."
Somewhere, my love, she is hurt and bleeding,
always leaving the imprint of her body
in the snow, where she was never found.



Performa 400

When you turn me on
my face sparkles and cracks --
cathode, neon,
my breath heaves into a steady fan.
I am tabula rasa,
you can inscribe me,
you can erase me as easily --
I never become complex, palimpsest,
I always remain subordinate;
the secrets I store away inside
are at a level too deep and simple
(only zero and one, after all)
for you to deign to reach them.
When you enter me,
nothing is happening inside
but you.

You finish your fingering meditation,
make me vomit out my tongue-baby,
set me neatly back to slee
under a plastic blanket.
Everything is put away.
Please wipe some of the clinging dust
off my face.




who came down from the mountains.
Those who never came down, or who told
their children's children they never had,
and kept to the pagan ways and names --
the deepest and simplest power (not to descend),
rumbling syllables quarried from freedom and pride.
They still think that length is a camouflage,
that no other race can utter the ancient names.
If we speak no one will ever understand,
lulled to drowsiness, no one will catch us.

The ones who had carved stones like cages
for spirit birds, unhollow above their dead --
they came down from the mountains to build fine houses in the cities.
Drawn by taxes, a script still more complicated
and beautiful, by stolen boys who after a generation
returned renamed, with a religion of bridges.
They wove the story in gold cloth, carpets,
beaten metal gates into the city --
the mountain people paid a bitter toll
to pass through, envied the riches they saw
as rightfully their own, still more betrayal.

Ah, when they came at last down from the mountains
filled with righteousness and new technologies,
the ones who had never listened, who had
tuned the radio dial past those songs
with a shrug, had ignored the toothless old men
drinking against the scriptures in corner bars
and muttering about politics and guns --
their children were crushed beneath wheels
heavier than rhetoric, their men were slain,
their women were made vessels for those
who said they would never come
down from the mountains.


Visiting

Nela, I came to your house
bringing pink tulips on the brink of spring.
Light is your daughter.
Once I told my lover
that path from the tram past the chapel,
and he said there was no such place,
he laughed.

Beautiful southern face, so familiar, familial,
I learned the secret of your teeth
(one for each child),
I puzzled out your jeweled script
and met your friend, the dancer
who came back from the edge of death
with a circus umbrella.

Nela, once I left too soon
and walked to kill time by a different way
through a marvelous monastery garden

I had never suspected behind that wall.
Shuffling my pictures of the past.
As they say:
the sugar comes last.
(We learn to taste.)




Things do what you'd expect.
Cupboard doors flap, bags of beans and seeds
split sprouting, scattering counter space.
The fridge becomes a steam table,
the eggs suddenly incubated, cracking,
radishes and onions race leaves to the light,
a thousand rice shoots in the flooding sink.
My hair gets a little wild.

And when the air settles,
the visiting dignitary is safely gone
and the floor an even layer of dusty leaves,
trampled crumbs and soup-stained recipes,
the children in the corner uncover their faces
to look up at me, blinking
frightened eyes.


Materialism


Terrorist

Before the walls cracked through
and bodies began to slip
out of our splendid modern dungeon,
I was made for this purpose -- abandoned
fatherless by my shamed unnamed mother
and raised a faithful animal, a prize rat

Here in my circle of Southeastern Europe
I learned and prepared my trade:
poisons on the tips of umbrellas,
dark sultry accents -- it may sound funny
but it's no mean trick to fool the American in bed
that breathy passion would be stimulated
by details about atomic submarines.

The radiation never frightens me --
what do I need with these genes,
if I look back to that dim house of childhood,
those other crop-head creatures, too dull
to think or talk, that only hungry intelligence,
only my sharpness saved me --
I would never breed beasts for that hall.
That is my shred of truth, that frees me
never to hesitate, power in every lie.

And now that the castle lies in ruins
the bats too flee across its borders, but I
stand tall and shaped, ready for the mission
that will end our story with a bang. I have been
to North Korea. I have been to Yugoslavia.
Security. The great snake rears up
once more and stretches its thick neck
across my body, born and bred to bear
the ultimate scaling weight.



I know my face, the cheekbones ever sharper
in the water of the spring, looking more and more
like my grandmother, who died in an odor of idolatry,
cutting six-armed stars on the top of each loaf,
wheel of the demoness, tribute to the old ways.

I know my hands, nails short and ragged
with digging roots, with carrying branches
to the cell before the snow begins, making
a second wall between my hard-fought peace
and the wishes, hungry beasts of the woods.

No, I no longer know what my body looks like;
I never bathe, I must accumulate that hard virtue.
The rusty brown of the shapeless pungent shirt
hides my skin, the sores, the metal rings with which
I hopefully mortify this stubborn flesh.

I know my sex even now when the monthly
shower of female shame has ceased, driven back
by my discipline of hunger, my harsh crusts:
Brother Jehan still thunders when he visits
on the holiest days, to bring me the host

which is the only sweetness I still taste,
my only hope in this driest dust; his eyes
rimmed with red, he hisses in my ear that
the fiend is curled between my shrunken breasts,
this body washed in sins more than I can confess.



My husband dreamed: banners, horses,
coarse men, dust rising. But I didn't believe,
I combed and braided her long hair
and scolded when he told her brothers
that if she tried to leave here with soldiers
they should drown her. My own girl!
Try to leave here with soldiers!

No, it was his doing, that fear of ruin
in God's name that drove her to flee
our house and appear in city after city --
and for all we searched and asked
and wept, her letter only reached us
over the untilled fields long after she had
raised her standard, cropped her hair. The sign

of a crown, again those voices. And now
her dreams and her bones are smoke,
now only her heart still runs with blood
at the bottom of the Seine -- what good is it
that we have been made noble, and that
in the male and the female line? It bodes
no great progeny, this lily, the name of a Maid.




The sea is my best role, unlike a river
it is the same forever, even if you can't
step into it for fear of cold fingers of oil,
of powerful undertow. The sea is
model for the eyes, it rolls and softens
into translucent beauty the jaggedest glass

broken from those bottles with messages --
ah, you think, cast towards the rocks
and the flashes of lighthouses, bottles
bob unharmed right past every reef,
every risk? No, in truth they break into joyful
sprays of green or blue-white, like a mist

of water on the rocks below the coasts
where I would have been born, neither loch
nor lough, nor even Golden Gate, I watch,
I want to catch the revolutions, the hours
and the waves shatter the jar around me
like that bottle, with its message, remember,

that I'm trying to charm you out of? the fortune
that instead of a future cries help I am trapped
in a Chinese cookie factory, I am half-mad,
a prisoner in the GULag, my poems forgotten,
my unhardened hands mocked by the other
zeks, my gentle charity gets only uncomprehending

stares if not a kick in the teeth, where the bottle
is broken on the rocks, where it has cracked
frozen into northern ice, where the message
emerged untorn but the ink has softened
and the paper loosened to fibers, it is all now part
of the endless heartless sea, as we have dissolved.


She Could Have

She could have wished me bronze,
so the sun could call my severity
forth into flashes of music, settling
through time into peace and green.
She could have wished me marble --

Or any coarser stone, standing wet
or dry, streaked by rain and birds,
a tiny spark left at the core
maybe to sense through peeling eyes
how rain wept over my ivy garments.

No, she could even have cast me
cold into the sea, to rise as weed or seal,
to swim from her coast forever
from the memory of my offense --
even to trumpet to polar suns

a prayer for her forgiveness.
She could have frozen my imperfection,
perfected me so from petty motion....

But here I lie, crombling dirt
at the bottom of her garden, my hands
hollowed by ants, my belly pierced
and grown through by thistles, bound
and divided by stems, the roots and worms
that slowly sever me my new veins,
and only thyme flowering from blurred lips.




We meet here every Wednesday evening
after the kids or cats are fed
and lie drowsy on their way to sleep,
after the spouses and other partners
are safely installed in front of lengthy
television series -- we light th

Some of us are so arrogant, ah, and some
hide first behind smiles and the gleam
of averted eyes, before parting bright
unrouged lips to utter such sharpness
that love itself staggers, and songs fly
into beautiful shards -- the season when
ploughs lie and looms stand idle....

Some of us are famous critics, though
we all love to dip pens into icy ink
and trace a caricature. Our bosses suffer,
our neighbors blush in their bathtubs
and wonder why the buzz in their ears;
our feet twinkle over fresh graves.

But mostly, yes, we piece together songs
that our children's children will hear
with breath caught in shortness, ecstasy
of that leap over ancestors' heads, the magic
that like second sight skips a generation --
children with our same flaming red hair.

This is the very year of green and light! We meet
in the evening, when I am more tired
than even morning's first breaths,
my pages and pages without coffee
in a green lantern on the windowsill.
Enclosing the space for two clenched fists,
yes, it's big enough inside only for me and
these spirits of passionate weariness.



Mouth dripping rusty spit, joints
refusing to reconnect, blood crackles
where each one should have bent --
I know what has happened: my worth
(which was considerable, as a dancer
and a prostitute) is ruined by the rack;
my mistress is reimbursed, now truth
has pulled from my body like a fingernail,
recalcitrant. That truth proved,
thank the gods, to be hidden less deep
than the fat under the skin of my back.
And I know: now I am useless, now
my mistress shakes her head but holds
tight to the money, gold drachmas. I am
to be executed. One last cut, snap
through this jelly of pain.

Born free,
I might have sat above the cavern, I might
have chewed dark harsh leaves (to foam,
but not with red) so that the truth
springing from my mouth would leave me
staggering still recoverable, teeth and tongue
intact for clearer utterance of verses
others would seek and puzzle over.
And my body veiled in the white of mystery
would be worth so much more unpierced,
unviolated, not inhabited by men.



The point of dawn: to restore redness
to her faded roses, petals soft as cheeks
and stems thick with prophylactic thorns
colored like drained blood, demons at bay.

They whisper she was not yet dead, buried
but reaching with blunted fingers, shroud
gnawed ragged around her chin, ready
to bring to the rest of her children

the same soft death as the babe she bore
underground, the odd knocks. They say
they should have dug her deeper;
her girlfriends shake their heads, retelling

dreams where she came calling names, wailing
until they screamed and ran. They say
this wound will untangle the longing
of a blundering spirit, pointing larger

the way through lacerated skin, each point
caresses deeply (roses that crowned
even our prophet!), each thorn opens
a lantern spark in the rotting traps of flesh.



Catching that moment -- the violence
of my not desiring. His golden heels,
his powerful tuning fingers, the lust of gods
to change and define. While I was the echo
of his sister, her rows of bestial breasts,
wild nourishment, I had moved deep
into Her secrets, everything he strove
to rub aside and silence. My defiance --
in the end my only freedom was to freeze,
to echo not a Goddess but the trees.
To become an eternal present, wrapped
in living bark no flesh could pierce, never
more run with the dogs, knife at my belt,
to savor on my palm the sharp edge
of punishment -- any who would creep
close to see me unclad, bathing in Her pool...

Like stepping out of a sauna when the heat
gets to be too great, when the pounding
of fire and blood cannot be stilled in sweat --
into the ice-chip stars, the tall black night.
So supercharged with life, even as I stop
in the shadow, the chador, my naked skin
exhales excess, the steam streams up
around me like wings, like becoming
like branches and leaves.




Pigeons

I heard your voice on the radio this morning
through a blur of static, almost buried
by the nice English translator's accent.
The local announcer couldn't pronounce the name
of your besieged city. Your words flew out
like pigeons, wings singed, from a great fire.

All the times the bombs and guns speak and I
do nothing, turn in my warm bed, full of grief
and helpless wish for no surrender, intervention
from nature, if the gods and nations stay silent.
All the prayers run against double windows
or shatter at a shot into dry clay chips.

I send my words like pigeons, they bear messages
that only someone who knows the gentle commands
could lure and unfasten and understand.
Their bodies are weighted with stones,
the tiny poems rolled around their legs
are lumps of lead.




Why are they asking? Diluted
by the Andean flutes of your music,
I dimly believe in that distant season,
holding to faith as the heating bills rise.

This year we will burn the very soles
of our shoes, why are they asking, as if
they didn't know! Four days of forced
silence, not solitude but cold, and still

I try to grope my way back to the mad riches
I had to abandon underground, back
from the altitudes of children, I shoulder
the pick and pack, bend and squint

at the jagged rock edges, wondering where
was that vein of fire I dreamed of chipping
while the flutes pour water, while demons
laugh at me through each window of mica.



Oh not like that! It has to curve
exactly, it must be the result of craft
and mastery, you know you can't hope
to find a thing so perfect by chance.

The string of twined sinews, the saddle
of finished leather, the garb of furs
according to season, we hunt and trap
the excellent things our Lady offers,

we track down men when we need them
and pay the toll for their service with tiny
wrapped packages of sons. We don't flinch,
you know, to mention that, we look

with pride at our tall daughters, give them
all our treasures of love, full unhalved
lullabies and round loaves to nourish them.
They grow to study our hard proud history

of speed and freedom, they learn to find
our roads by the wind. They learn to ride
and stand and to shoot these long bows --
oh not like that! That breast must be cut off.



Snappy as whips -- okay, Mr. Joe!
Each tiny crackle and crick, a stroke
of the pitchy crop, each measured step.
Should I put on the flashy pink sequins
or the black unitard, a slick top-hat
or a Dolly Parton wig? Should I tumble
or lurch round the ring on the horse's back
with only my smile unwavering? All to risk
falling into the lion's mouth, catching
my left elbow in the net, being skewered
by the clown.

But I bow through every terror!
They bark and roar, even the big cats
buzz with a hungry feline interest
as they pose on their cardboard pedestals.
The ringmaster is my example, his accent
and the instrument in his hand (pointing,
fattening, citing if needed the Irish, my own
flesh and bone). My turn, Mr. Joe! You've yawned
your grin to the warm noise of the crowd,
you've gestured towards the flying money, you
have already done every trick I rehearsed. But
You must announce me now!

Toes on the whiskery
noses of the seals, I do not doubt your teeth
at my back, your scorn and betrayal, I infer
your nods and winks to the media moguls
and judges in the crowd. She eats rats,
you mouth the words.

I straighten each
joint of my spine with pride's plumb to form
a target of full dignity. Try to compensate
for not having perfect pitch. To move
in spite of myself to the same song.



This is the dullest part: I can chunk an accompaniment
for my beloved native voice, so why should I descend
into the sacred caves of apprenticeship, especially
with picky teachers who insist on different language,
on an instrument with seven strings? It was these two
who put me off before, made me bow off into silence,

and now here they are again, unyielding muses
and harsh mistresses. If my finger slips the one calls me
a swallower of emptiness, the other nods kindly
but looks into the distance, I see her dark eyes glazing
over into boredom. In a moment I'll cease to exist,
in a moment they'll forget my interruption

in their conversation, I'll have to turn back down
the path that seems the only opening forward. But no --
this is the dullest part and so I am a suitably dull pupil,
blurring wide in dimness, I will scrape and scrape away
at surfaces of words, I will stop for the hundredth time
to retune the strings that wound my hands, that slip

at the first chance back into falseness. I will stop
for the thousandth time my wondering shrug each time
no lightning strikes when I sit at their feet, my legs
uncomfortably crossed, my bones unsuited to tutelage
and spine unbending, I know the only way I can coerce
any aid from them is to be determined as they have been.



In this pool, friend, we all have our hair down,
we all look and weigh the same. Each sister a hunter,
each sister the game. You are all my twins,
and you especially, breasts focused sharp
at the dual poles of my heart.

In this game, friend, we all play the same pieces,
we all deal from the same deck, the same chair
where we stretch out and lure one another
with the same goods, no one from outside
could tell our bodies apart.

In this breath, friend, I warn you and console:
I could steal you from her or her from you,
I could steal you from yourself. My mirror,
I don't want your soul. I want the scars
where our hips split -- to smart.




Prince of nettles, leading your cow
on a soft rope, you spied out the grass
in every green corner, nothing wasted
as long as you were wakeful, on the job.

Lord too of three rooms, one stove
of baked mud-bricks, still ruler of a past
you kept like some sacred priest, the fear
of everything else flat in nuclear holocaust?

But no one would know to look at you:
ordinary guy, the layers of history (bullets
and gibbets, knives and terrible songs)
deep under the handsome hair, keeping

that whiff of the country even in town,
even in the restaurant where you looked
at me with those old spiced eyes, where
you offered me beans but no bacon.

They asked me later was that your name
and I said it was not. Clothed in my lie,
how will you find your way home, how can
they ask after your status in the hospital?



I guess I'm stuck hiding out here until spring --
my mother weeping, the cops printing signs
"Last seen with so-and-so," that blurry picture
among the other maidens, where the faces
are all so lovely, flowers, all just the same.

And is it my fault if I play along to survive,
if I swallow his stories, his praise and gifts,
garnet bracelets, the legal lies of marriage
and changing names -- what these guys
won't turn out to want to do to you! Take you

from the brightest riches to sooty rags, to sing
the praises and demands of nothing, of death
that makes everyone flatly equal? Make you
complicit in your own rape and kidnapping,
in being taken from light to a dark spidery place

where no one will talk unless you feed them
first on blood. My own is best, futile fertility
in the childless darkness, and little good will it do
since this man is brother to the powers that be.
How can I gather enough love to get out of here?

I cling to whispered prayers from the above-ground,
my guide is the star in an apple cut sideways.
Will they remember me if I make it out? Or
will they clothe me in this story from now on,
batter and accuse till they force me back down?


Among the Statues

I gather their stories, tiny shards
from the edge of the frozen tunics, I work
to follow the blank whites of their eyes.

And if your heroine or hero weighs in
at half a ton, even a shard of their story
will be ponderous -- echoing marble Latin.

My arms are dark against their flanks
of shining white, my plush and paint
not worn away by centuries and retellings --

ah, I must have stories as well, easy ones
that would still float in salt water, with arms
that could not crush a lover so simply --

but I fear such lightless, it might indeed ride
on my body like fluttering cloth, without it flesh
would shrivel to a dropped leaf, but I fear turning

to offer my grief to the serious visitors
who nod behind lorgnettes, who applaud
borrowed names and tragic masks, but who

and who, I ask, would pause for my song,
merely mortal, such a high-pitched bird
its echoes would fade at once in the hollow halls?




Up from the grave of sleep: somewhere
under the rust and blankets, a set of lines
tightened like wires through darkness,

a clutch of names, each one a magic word
to repeat through the echoing halls of water
and streets, down to the piteous queen of hell.

This time sleep waited in buckets and waves,
sleep sloshed at me and I raised my head,
shook its drops from my ears, reached again

to retrieve the thinning lines, tangling with
the weed of beginning dream. No. Morning
found me stranded on plum flannel

and not even a swollen corpse in my grip:
the hero of this story drifted irremediable
after I let him fall from the cliffs into sleep, sleep.

And my lady sits at her window, stitching
and glancing out over the enameled water.
That traveler will not be returning home.



Yseult


Lady I know your name by how it hooks my eye,
a fish lured to its own sharpened bone.
That sap-branch redness still lurks at the roots
of my dim hair, green urge to healing
still slim in the bones of my hands, in the veins
not delicate, but musical and strong.

I understand your lovers though better than I
know you. Lady send your swallow
with one hair in its beak, I'll tighten and tune it
in the sixth slot of highest honor, I'll sing
with your guidance of that matter, suspecting the face
that shimmers through your folded garments.



How can we know she is a goddess?
She has no childhood in any of the stories:
she rose like the foam of the sea, bloomed
like a sudden rose from the Celtic tangle
of weed-carved stone, unbound. She has kin
but no mother, a serving woman whose name
echoes another goddess, but no woman friend.

Instead we listen to the hero's childhood
conceived in glamour, sister's son of a king.
The wing of his dark hair, instinct already
drawing his flight toward her kingdom.
How can we find her traces in nothing? --
echoes of footsteps back before she walked
around the turn in the hall, into his sick room.



I could have killed you when I measured the piece of broken sword metal I drew from your flesh -- but I did not.

I could have withheld my healing herbs in just grief for my mighty kinsman -- but I did not.

I could have brought you to the brink of health and then, sure you were aware and awake, told you what I did as I killed you in revenge -- but I did not.
I could have mocked your sagging manhood -- but I did not.

Who do you think brewed that potion, who else in seven kingdoms had the skill? I only told Béroul that I did not know, that it was the fault of my servant, who paid with her virginity at its moment of greatest value. Wagner could not believe that a woman of such virtues would entrap her suitor's envoy.

Your desire for me is my gift to you.

I must have wanted grief and loss to pierce me again and again.



Wings of that voyage over the sea,
wind lifts our hair of two sacred colors,
casting up its worship in white foam.

Yes, in this moment of wide blue freedom
I cease to care for grandeur, I would rather
swim with the fish than ride the royal horse.

At home I hesitated, the eyes of my sisters
were upon us, and the wounded captive
harped in his coracle -- sacred, untouchable

except with the green fingers of healing.
But now you stand tall and anonymous.
Call the captain, he can marry us.



True servant of the king, your flesh rose against your honor
that fatal once, broke the ring of flowers and conferred
a hero's curse, gift of sterility that would wind her desire

in a tight time-circle, so every planet would only shift
her back into your arms, so every voice would only recall
your own, so every delight was to you and not for children.

What did you say to the lady, what promise she was too proud
to reproach you with later -- once she saw that the heir
dared not wound his lord, dared not confess his possession.

She was already addicted to reading, to this story, your own
language of petals or shavings in the stream that passed
beneath her window, called again to dance around that Maypole.



Like Medici come to Paris bearing her recipes
for wonderful spinach, like Maria Antonia
pinked back to Marie Antoinette, the language
should not be so very different, the girl
should still be the same being, formalized as queen?
Like Anna from Kiev who signed her royal name
in a different script, all fingerprinted with
the names of the holy monks who designed it.
Those characters are silent now, we cannot guess
how she pronounced them. Of course,
Cornwall or Wales are not Paris, but did you miss
the famous Irish horses?
You went from q to p, is that right, my lady?
Caer... Tinta... cariad, anwyl gariad.



The tall mast casts no shadow
and the deck is bare, your regal tent
with its rolls and bales of soft cloth
is cleared away. The truth is flat
as the sun this morning, proud face.

The story is over here, lady, you walking
to the feminine mystique of that grim keep.
There is no immortality. You still lie
slender in the grave of that bed
the king upon you like a fallen tree.



Who will sing the song of long despair
when royalty is no consolation? Not even
a daughter or son for distraction, since fate chose
your darling as the land's next lord, and he chose
to squander all his karma on love.

In your cold stone room, hung in vain
with wisdom and historical tapestries,
what goddesses do you pray to, my goddess
trapped in mere Phaedra's bones, illegally
lusting after stepson or nephew?

While your hands never drop the five stamens
of love's blossom, motherhood of words --
is it better to call without response
or to know what suede and velvet you miss
and snatch touches of it, quick drunken breaths?



Pigs in the woods: the flesh is sweetest
when fed on nuts and windfall apples, though
you scrape the soil bare, only knobby roots
remain. The farmers let you rove half wild
because you stink near the house, they always
know where to find you, they grant you freedom
for a season, it's an economic calculation.
And gaunt or not, eyes huge in hollow faces
or tiny in rolls of fat, they slaughter you to make
a feast for family, they sing the old songs, you pigs.
At the bottom of the fields, beside the garden
where the green onions grew best -- I saw
the cement indentation long dry where you watered
in the days of the farm's greatest expansion.



Accustomed to duplicity, at last he packed his lust
in leather pilgrim's bags and bore it away, you heard
through some dream that he had clad it in marriage
to a bride his opposite, white moon for his darkness.
We call the marriage a sham, the lady a pale duplicate
only like enough to bear your name. Am I sorry for her?

No, red lady, you hated her with such fire, betrayed
and wedded, homebreaker, she plotted to drive
you from the hearth of his heart. You cursed his desire
and betrayal, there was nothing to do but hasten him
to his gory end -- in her entrails too you read
the coming of death -- mocking his lack of boldness

beside the stream's drops, it is not love, it's pain so sharp
that the story cannot continue, oh I'll slam my door
on the fingers that write this before you can say
that you want a divorce, that I can keep the car....



And green medieval repose, the lady boarded the final ship
this time deep-lined by passion and sleeplessness
to claim his body at last, casting aside legitimacy
and her husband's snowy age.

for an only son, realizing at last that it was I,
his long-haired boy, dolphin of his delight, denied
for years by fear and honor and sword-sharp vows.
The omens and prohibitions were scattered around
so thick, even if his wife had not unfolded her pain
in a lie about black sails no one could have come
unhindered through such traps and obstacles.

So that other "she" spoke, knowing the shape
of the necessary wound just as perfectly
as if I myself had taught her, and the heart burst
that had never once faltered in his hero's leaps,
my acrobat fell into the dark sea at her feet
leaving no last word for me that her lips might sully.
The scrap of paper in my hand bearing his address.

Thy lips are warm. I am a skilled interpreter, I know
when the story comes time to end, I close the book
and lay my ear down on your silent chest, where
the bodhran is still that once accompanied my song.
I leave the stage, not caring that this last audience
hates me worse than any death, that I have stolen
from her every fate except a bitter sainthood.
Of course there's no applause, of course I don't return
to bow. I pull off this mask and tread the air.



Walking the green swards in pale slippers, thin ghost
behind the plump sopranos who sing you, wrap me
in the color of your eyes, my mist over the sea cliffs!

One more step into the temptation of this dance and I
will place my weight on nothingness, tumble into
the same sea that brought him to you, as if to the isles

of western undying where your people came in time,
reduced to potatoes and jaunty pianos, kiss me
say the green bumper stickers. The goddess shakes

her head and maybe smiles, turns to whisper corrections
to the romantics who insist that love is death
and death is love.



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