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,
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.
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.
When you turn me on
my face sparkles and cracks --
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
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.
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,
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
These words replace desire.
Consumption of time and self:
I'd gotten to the point where I
couldn't go into a shop
without buying a dozen tributes
to my urges, my identity.
This poem represents a cookie
(roughly a crescent) with dried cranberries
and a drizzle of lemon icing
on one side -- for dipping in coffee
or crunching in rhythm along the sidewalk.
I don't even especially care for
biscotti, but that counter in the restaurant
covered with bottles of olive oil, shades
of herbal vinegar! Those salads to the left,
little sacks of herbed and unherbed
goat cheese, those tortes and cheesecakes
in the middle, those calories, those prices!
No, better trade hunger for
inspiration, hope for that sleek
Another verse might be a dress
of black sand-sueded silk, short-sleeved
with gathers above the buttoned pockets.
The dress lives in the window
of a store with glass-bead earrings
and a display of cotton tights
in every hue -- from putty to berry!
Or worse yet, the strand of iolite shapes
in neatly sequential rounded order
which calls to me, wants to lie on my chest,
to rise and fall with my breath,
to trap the eyes of lovers.
And yes, this one replaces sex
on an afternoon when it's quicker
to whistle my pen and get back
to serious work (if the pen
is a metaphorical...),
or if the hormonal flush is just
that, a notch in the moon's wheel
right before a twinge in one ovary
as I stretch reminds me of that small clock.
Or finally, what if desire lights
on some young stranger passing
outside my office window?
No, clearly, words are far better
than the disastrous consequences of
indulgence: the disordered family,
bouncing checks and monthly panic,
dripping bed, over-bedecked
body swelling and overfed --
the carnival of every satisfaction,
bloating, that I must try to fear
before, in case, lest balance be lost!
Here is a poem for you, my dear.
You have no idea
how much it cost.
To Boris (1923)
We're living in the final house
on the edge of a village at the very edge
of the city. Beyond us -- fields and hills,
uncultivated woods where our neighbors
graze goats and geese. I write to you from there.
My day is a strictly patterned dance
between the hotplate and the well.
I do the mending in the morning
when the light is good, the washing
in time to hang it all out in the sun.
I rise early and stir ground coffee
into boiling water in the copper pot
I bought in 1912 in Feodosia: did I think
that from Tatar hands it would accompany me
so far west, almost to Germany?
Between strong muddy sips I write:
sketching ahead the shapes of inspiration
or gently polishing, testing each word
until on the hundredth try it no longer
cries out "This is not my name!"
For now I am working well, though
as always I am never satisfied.
Winter looms ahead and terrifies me:
my blackened hands feeding coal to the stove,
my daughter's French lessons, my husband's lungs....
But my notebook fattens -- letters among the drafts.
Evenings I read, replenishing
the riches squandered in the daytime.
For now nature rejoices with me
in its same making, without conscience.
Yesterday suddenly the pear tree below the well
rose up before me all in bloom, aweful --
all the world evaporated in its pallor.
I froze still,
I called it by your name.
Everything springs from roundness:
the silkworm travels the endless circle
of the top of the cup, leaving soft evidence.
The weaver loops thread and doubles back;
the dye is purple in its pot.
My friend found the wrapped bale at the store
with eyes and then hands: "Come look at this!"
Blinded by the sueded raspberry luster
I forgot to buy matching thread, and wound
ordinary black mercerized cotton
from a plastic spool, edging the square of cloth
with tiny bites of stitch to keep it sound.
Now with the knot tied at the other end
and bound entirely, I must press away
where my sewing fingers pinched
a pattern of half-petal creases. And the world,
if you spin it, blurs into a pattern still
more beautiful, east becoming west, arteries
slipping into veins, iron into sea:
needle and blood all around.
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.
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.
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.