In spring of 2002 I was supposedly on sabbatical leave -- all the other obligations that had to be carried
out anyway may have served as a salutary block, and in that half year I managed in spite of everything to
write a lot. A good part of it is not included here because it's too personal or too particular. Since the
summer, traditional time of greater time, there was generally less, but still some -- the mood comes and goes,
and at times doing what I needed to nurture it felt like too much self-indulgence. I'd be a greater poet if I
were more of an ego-maniac, or at least better at self-indulgence.
This year, too, I started to post poems that I like but have not perhaps quite finished. A small step towards greater engagement, or possibility of openness to comments from people who happen on this page, read a bit and then write to me about it. It's an odd feeling but very pleasant to find out that someone somehow found the page, and read a bit, and liked it. Or not. Since 2002 is just about to end, the unfinished poems I may have posted will either be finished or come down -- but I've enjoyed the experiment, and I think I'll continue it in 2003. Presuming, of course, that I write any poetry in 2003 -- one never wants to tempt Fate.
A damned good thing that I have
promises to keep because I could
so effortlessly go mad:
give first obedience to the voices
that call me all day unless I turn from them,
sit at a huge stack of bargain vellum
busy at my many illuminations.
Clad in my black-and-white habit,
finally casting off the last sensible limits
of Elizabeth. No matter what you called me
I'd look back with the same blank,
gentle, through-seeing eyes.
Marina is the Master (my correspondent
won't let me say Mistress, she says
it's too much like Poetess).
The Master of Simile and Metaphor,
Master of Synecdoche and Metonymy,
Master of Greek words
that might as well refer to culinary processes
(as she lards and lambastes).
I stretch or confine to compass her rhythm,
I jump through hoops to see how she does it,
I trace her gymnastics from love to loss:
how can falling be soaring?
Only if you can walk on your hands,
and for just the crucial moment I can,
fingers spread to receive the floor,
the impossible calligraphy of the spine,
and legs the easy part, always obedient.
Hop-la! See what I bring home
from my Sensei of Saying:
The Master of S and M,
of Sibelan and Marina, of course,
of the whip and the clash.
Even though I was late
getting back to my class,
I'm learning so much!
It's time to put all the things I've said
through a nice quick bath of acid:
for who could have faith in words so soft,
in argument so flaccid?
Whisk off the peach fuzz, damp the echo,
bring it into nice sharp focus --
what did the poet mean to say
without the hocus-pocus?
(The hic est corpus: here's the body,
impoverished and striving.
lucky they don't require vision tests
to walk as they do for driving.)
So what does my poor Muse volunteer
as the thumbscrews start to tighten?
See the dross fading from the page,
feel the pile of ideas lighten....
I am a vibrant and beautiful woman,
I am full of thrumming desires,
even my walk is a jamming rhythm,
even my voice is warm! I am a spirit
who slips loose and soars to the ceiling,
a rainbow, a peacock, a loop-the-loop.
And here I lie on the floor of my office
doing the income tax, the instructions
leave me numb and brainless,
telephone bills and book receipts scattered
all around me, and my left elbow
printed with the chilly, painful carpet pattern.
Bridge Street is called by that name
because it flows into the crossing,
it prolongs the idea of connection
past the train tracks, up the hill through town.
And that's what I am doing too:
preparing my gentle missiles
to launch into emptiness; I work in hope
of a touch that crosses space.
For that first instant it's almost cold,
what you feel is the shock, the vacuum rush
of all other sensation out of that place
where pain is about to erupt and blossom.
The center is gone, a blister, an emptiness,
surrounded by scorched paper, crinkled skin
(red silk gone to brown, fled pigment).
You run for the aloe, you walk around
for days with that tender reminder.
And the rest of this story
is just a long cycle of scars.
Spirit is work just like ballet, or rather
just like yoga. There are absolute values
such as straighness, measures such as a wall or bar,
and there are mirrors to observe the stretch today
and then the stretch tomorrow -- you never reach
the end you might be tending to:
you never rise from the pull of gravity,
never fold wholly in half or wrap your limbs
in a perfect sphere (so perfect that before
you even see it, as you're feeling the happy Click
in every muscle and bone, you wink
right out of existence): all the daily practice
is simply Sisyphus. And if you don't do it,
then your spirit muscles simply start to ache.
My mother paints the flowers: blue irises
shading delicately here into white, there into purple
and their feathered yellow pollen-plumes;
crocuses, if she gets to them in time, the same palette;
laburnums and lupines, who almost rhyme,
lavender and like in all their fraternal shapes,
and the tiny purplish flowers of mint.
She is an expert in the greens of leaves, well versed
both in proportion and in conveying shadow,
but her true love is blue, the Virgin's garment
and the petal's tiny dream of heaven, its fervent prayer.
My mother paints the flowers, she is infinitely patient,
she steps back often, meditative, to consider
and is not averse to beginning all over: you can't
unpick a flower the way you can backtrack
up a row of knitting to fix some botched stitch!
My mother paints the flowers, she knows exactly
how they should look and she has the finest supplies,
the supplest brushes of sable and squirrel-hair.
And when she is done for the day you'd never know
that it wasn't Nature herself: the garden's more perfect
than any picture -- until the rain reveals
the tissue beneath the watercolors, or until the season changes.
I am a winter gardener: I rest
in dusty sheds with cracking
old seed packets, I plan the lines
and the intentions of plantings
that are yet to be realized.
I am wonderful at clearing,
apt with a rake, surprisingly
dextrous in the deerskin gardening gloves.
Even though I have to struggle
to get ten minutes in a row to spend
on my small empires of the yard,
I always come back with something:
a guilty flush, a handful of dried
freeze-burned flower stems, the whisper
of ghosts I can still appreciate,
the tell-tale crust of dirt beneath
each fingernail: oh yes I have been
mingling my substance with the cold gods
of clay, though squeamishly, only up
to the first joint of my fingers.
And there, where the earth was blasted
and cleared by that fire I never mentioned
(like the neighbor's garage in the night,
silent caligraphies of supplication,
wild and brief, into a dark indifferent sky) --
there I have prepared such a selection
of seeds! They will sprout into a mist of green,
they will swell into bloom in violet and gold
(and I'll walk by as if it's all a surprise
to me: my summer gardening
is restricted to inhaling and appreciation!).
Just wait until they begin their riot
of unsuppressed meaning, wait until you see
whose initials they will spell out there,
whose knotted monogram!
I kept to dim corners those last few months
and dressed loose and dark, so no one would notice:
and I've always been obedient and diligent,
busy at my tasks, so no one caught anything.
I didn't cry or yell, I didn't ask
anyone for help or advice (just checked
a few books, out of habit), washed up
all by myself, stayed on my feet till dawn
in spite of all the pain. I didn't nurse it,
just dried and wrapped it (the whimper paused
as it lay against my warm chest), a little bundle
of rags and sticks. I knew the place
beneath the bridge where nobody would see,
and I sent it down the river in the night,
to sink or float, to drown or to be found.
Forgive me, brief little soul,
unnamed thing that I did not dare
to recognize. I wanted a happy life,
and you know what a happy life means, in this world.
I suddenly foresaw disaster
and slammed my foot on the brake:
skittered to a stop just shy of the lights.
I avoided every unpleasantness, except
the rush of horror, the knot of shame.
So I drive away feelingjust as if
the metal crumpled and glass shattered,
the day warped into tears and awkward
explanations. Some tribute, to the guide
who turned my head, who pressed my foot in time!
I hate the way they kiss your ass
and quote your corpus in their work.
The dumb exams we have to pass!
They use you as a scourge and smirk.
You were a sexist little prick,
and sex-obsessed as well. You hid
your soul behind a skin THIS thick.
I'm glad they killed you when they did.
But when I meet you one-on-one
between the covers (mock red leather,
volume nine), you're so much fun!
We would have talked so well together...
Thank the gods that you can't reach --
you're a dead flower, a faded sin.
You're Aleksandr Sergeevich,
not "Sash," the way you could have been.
So my friend said, what sort of exorcism is this?
Too idealized: there's nobody on earth like that,
you won't get any demon to respond to it,
the only one who'd recognize himself
would be one you'd never want to try and handle --
What kind of folklorist are you?
I sighed and lowered the smoldering herbs
so my friend had to cough and take a step back.
I'm only an apprentice,
so I'm always very respectful.
But what kind of exorcism would you obey?
"I'm beset by an ordinary middle-aged demon
with just enough extra zip, compared
to your average demon, to be mildly interesting."
What kind of possession would that generate
to start with? -- A stubborn advertising jingle?
Too many cold calls from local hucksters?
I'll lower my voice next time.
I'm a passionate person, you know.
I don't deal in small change.
(You should see what I say about myself,
when no one else is looking!)
A woman I met in Karelia
taught me to say "hello," "goodbye,"
and "I love you" in her lapidary dialect.
I wrote them carefully down: I know
how my tongue and ears can promise
to recall it all entire and then betray me!
I pressed her for more, but she said,
with a grandmotherly air, that hello,
goodbye and I love you are all you'll ever
need to know: just vary the order.
At first the syllables ring like tiny bells,
you pick up the bead of each next one, squinting slightly,
and perhaps string it next to its fellow,
slowly turning order into story;
slowly a note and then another note
begin to halt in a melody.
That funny novice era when a language
is just a set of artifacts, a box of jewelry
that might turn out to suit you wonderfully.
It tempts the first tentative touches
as some speaker holds it up for us to admire,
but the beautiful fragments feel too thick and solid
ever to drink as water, ever to enter as air.
Every new religion is sharper, more severe
and more distinctive in the teeth's shape.
His turns the civilized world on its head,
his is a plague that bled across Europe
carrying the scent of old Persia,
a linear philosophy, a black and white.
Simple enough to explain: we all
carry a spark of the great light of Good,
something like the Still Small Voice,
and we'll bear it back upon our deaths,
a homing fragment of that great blaze.
Incarnation is its own form of torture
in despite of love and joy: we're torn
from bright oneness, wrapped in flesh
and sent to dwell in pain on a cramped planet
ruled by a spirit of evil whose lords and priests
compel us to worship our own suffering
until we come to see clear. Perceive
the essence: no sin is a sin so grave
as bringing another soul to the sorrowful earth,
chipping another shard from the distant Light.
We must seek and reclaim the many delights
that the good god of generosity created,
we must redeem them by finding them
and wildly snatch them back from this
dark dominion -- we must never be careless
So take what joy we can
without tumbling into the enemy's great
temptation, as our parents did before us.
The Tisza rolls slow and gracious,
its surface like glass in the windows
of a house from an earlier century,
almost smooth as the mirror
on your great-grandmother's bureau:
the mercury backing fades to green
at each beveled edge.
The Tisza is a great gradual river
framed by powerful iron railings
from the age of Maria Tereza,
it offers steep steps for making haste
and shallower staircases for strolling.
A list of numbers up the embankment
lets you measure any possible floods
and consider the things you have forgotten.
The river softly murmurs: Nem.
It moves too deliberately to fret about time.
It may let you see through to the sky,
but it makes a hundred miniscule changes.
The water is an infusion of medicinal herbs,
already from a street away
it smells of slowly flowing flowers --
like newly blooming lindens,
though they are only on the point of blooming.
You can see some of this from the tower,
that same blue of the sky, but no hint
of the depth, or the sudden ripple
from symbol to meaning,
from imagination into motion.
Truth only comes if you step closer,
if you are willing to lean and perhaps to fall...
What did they say about never stepping twice?
Once you've fished here, you're not the same.
The world never means the same things
once you've looked from the other side.
You could stand on the bank of the Tisza
(across from me, of course) and it would reflect
you perfectly, without distortion, except
for the very top of your head,
which it would softly ruffle
in dull and subtle flames.
Now that it's in pieces, several on the ground
or in the shallow water, the bridge is ugly,
awkwardly composed of prefab slabs of concrete
run through by torn-off pipes, ripped and folded,
all its beauty scattered, its devices
rudely exposed. The graceful tower
with the black supporting lyre-strings
toppled head-down into the river to one side;
it's good and wet now, after many months. Still,
says my friend, how perfectly they hit it!
Yep, I reply. Our guys are real experts.
There was no warning, not even a siren,
though people had been advised to open
all their windows, so they wouldn't break.
There wasn't really even a sound:
all the doors just suddenly blew open
in her house on Shakespeare street.
Hearing the name, I have to say again:
a clumsy prefab concerto -- a Salieri bridge
in tasteless style, from faith in a recipe.
And the dead bridge was not so old:
the morning after the bombs, at about nine-fifteen
the architect approached it with a bunch
of friends and colleagues, and wept over his Work.
I have to laugh too as she tells me this:
it can't have been so much more elegant
before they -- I mean, before we knocked it down.
But you know that what they say is true:
those who build bridges are righteous
in the sight of God, while no one can pass
dryshod over the mocking lines
of those of us who only write words.
It hasn't rained a drop since early May.
The memory of moisture is still fresh,
the grass and leaves still show a perfect green --
only the roots are slowly turning amber.
The earth has shrunk into a brittle crust,
and if you press it with a fingertip
or tread it with your heel, it disincarnates
into the finest dust -- into mere molecules.
The particles are fine enough to breathe,
they line the lungs, they pass into the blood.
My body's coated by the ancient powder,
I've turned into a statue, cool and pale
and infinitely dry. If we should meet
in some other millennium (burst shards
of what I once seemed, buried in a field --
a sudden trove of rock against the plough,
beneath the usual hardened syllables
that yielded to your practiced touch) -- you'd take
these relics for an ancient broken goddess
whose features were worn smooth, and whose
ritual significance would remain unclear.
Here they all are, heavy heads, great bunches
that spill open luxuriantly. The festive ones
are like crinolines, great fists of pigment
and perfume; the simpler ones
with their mere five petals or perhaps
ten in two layers, seem more austere
in their shameless nudity, sexual parts
spread wide in the sun for all to admire,
the various seductions, the ministrations
of the vibrating bodies of bees.
Not for nothing the air here smells of wine.
Just as my friend said about her cat,
a skinny feral girl too wild to catch
and sterilize, who had six kittens
on the balcony one afternoon
when I was there: when they're in heat
it's such a slavery, the voice tears out of them
just like the heavy scent of roses.
All they can do is roll and cry and bear it,
the whip of the galley master in their veins,
until it's done and the seed is safe again.
Having a body is so unnerving --
you feed it and bathe it and exercise it,
but it still has a will of its own,
it shrugs at the wool
and lingers beside the silk.
You put it down to sleep
and never know what might wake it
or what odd postures the night might require,
what undesired adventures.
You point it in a certain direction
(it's so good on cruise control and autopilot),
and spring to awareness only to find
that it's followed the usual route,
and you're standing a mile from where
you needed and promised to be.
And worst of all, it sits quietly
as your mind races through all kinds
of dreams that are harmless
in their very lack of corporeality --
only to race off itself in pursuit
down the same path, once you think
that you are done and safe
and back within yourself.
That gradual progress back and forth
and slowly along and along.
Thereís no way to pay attention
to the process more than intermittently,
hence all the peasant songs.
Itís thought-lulling work.
I know that what I bear in mind
has a heavy meaning, but I must
reel and reel until I discover
just what it is that it means.
It sounds so gentle, it feels
so monotonous, even the exercise
is minimal. Donít think, donít think
of me moving above the June earth
pushing my rack of spinning knives.
I work in miniature: the very tip
of a black brush made of squirrel tail.
The nib must be extra fine, the angels
as practiced as airshow jet flyers
though all I require is that they remain
safely pinned in their fine dance.
My Stylite art, my molecular mosaic.
The art of bonsai is in all the things
that you don't see, the tea powdered so fine
that it vanishes in suspension, and no one
could coax it to reveal the first thing about fate.
The secret pleasures of nanotexture:
I do not know where the next word
will land as I take each next baby step.
I can only guess how it will feel, once
you lay its wafer upon the various senses
of your tongue. What fever may still reside
in its chilled, infinitesimal complexity.
Once again you've tricked my skin
with your awkward mark, your guilty delight,
and once again I prove to myself:
sometimes the only good compromise is zero.
Who was I to think that I could
negotiate? ("I'll scratch just once.")
Nothing will help but introducing
the vile opposing chemicals. Nothing
will help but a monastic resolution.
Is this a karmic sentence, warning me
that I am still too given to sensation
and should henceforth and forever shun
that questionable corner of the garden?
After all, the time when my good friend
sat on the floor of someone else's kitchen,
drunk and weeping with unanswered love,
along with my concern, didn't I envy him
because after all he was really feeling something?
It's cracks like this that let the poison in.
What I've learned from these dead white
guys who embodied the Romantic
(George and Alex and Mike) is largely
a technical matter of dots and dashes
to say what they won't let you say,
to pretend they won't let you say it,
or even to hint at something you don't know
and couldn't, a secret that some reader
might guess, led on in faith across the abyss
by your suggestion that something is there,
a bridge that's nothing but fishing wire.
Like the scaffolding of ribs around a breath
the line of dots suggests an ideal form
in the absence of substance; like a wink
or the flicker of a brow, a dash reminds us
that some words can still shock even
if merely glossed. These marks crackle
against the ionosphere, reach farther in space
than the richness and complexity of voice
(which blurs to porridge over distance).
Sailors from any country recognize
the basic signals. There are many
advantages to the system, proven
by the successes of that old -ism.
So, my dear, though I never was a Boy Scout,
at last I am prepared to pronounce
all that I've guarded and hoarded for so long.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Writing a song on purpose is like loading
a sack with potatoes. But you like meat
and potatoes, and I know that if I don't
follow the path that offers itself I'll never
come to that place where I can love you.
Because loving a man on purpose is a lot
like insisting on cod-liver oil. What if
Iím here today precisely because some stubborn
foremother preserved her scion, our precious
genetic material with just such fishy magic?
A song really wants rhyme, and I've acquired
the addresses of several on-line dictionaries.
Darling, I'm willing to work very, very hard
to be a good wife and even to sing something
under your window from time to time.
I can tell this is not the end of everything,
but no new image has presented itself:
as we walked back to the car, all the songs
that tempted my fingers skirted you
as neatly as if we had never met.
And I know how unfair that is: as you
held my hand and started to formulate
a theory about male adolescent rites of passage
I vowed that I'd still write you a song,
because you are a good man, and simple
justice demands that if I am writing songs
then one of them should be for you,
though of course justice doesn't guarantee
a song, or the breath to sing one, or anything.
I am the queen of calibration,
infinitely sensitive to weather
and subtle details of furnishing.
My clothes always fade perfectly
into what I stand beside, and I
can shuffle hints like a shabby pack
of fortune-telling cards.
Have no fear, my dear.
I know your concern like the back
of my own hand. I too have danced
on the edge of an abyss, I too
have been saved only once I grew
insubstantial. There is an address
where anyone could find me.
In this genre, with this limited selection
of characters, there's no other way
the story could take shape, and shape
is worth more than most suspect. All
the central heroes are so positive,
and the supporting cast likewise
worthy of every sympathy.
Finishing each page means aging --
the signs of minutes and hours
lurk wherever you like. I don't know
how many chapters or years,
how many gestures towards this or that
bookmark, which urge to pick it up
again, to entrust your counted days
to the nausea of stepping into an other
though verisimilar reality. And yet
the only way to stay young is to die. No day
without a line! And please read each
as if it were the last, as indeed it may be.
I swear it won't be too engaging to abandon
whenever the least demand arises, I guarantee
no tears and nothing at all confusing.
All the jokes will be worth repeating
in your own words at chic receptions,
but none of the other parts will tempt
you to retell, or to embroider.
Nothing will jostle the times you calculated
when you parceled out your heart.
The danger of shouting fire:
the F mounts into Flame,
its sound reddens the air --
already the waves of heat appear
about the lips, the fingers.
The danger of crying wolf
(that wolf is at the door!) --
swarthy word that pads the moors,
immoral powers of fur,
strength of a gathering bunch.
And speaking of the devil --
you too can hear what starts
from even half that name
(imperious) ≠ oh my fear,
I hide with a cross or bar.
If I were but credulous, and saying
could make a man take shape,
weave flesh out of the air, a being
one could both see and name,
with a mouth to answer mine.
Sheíd love a summoning spell
to bring you out of thin air --
itís better than marking time,
itís better than fainting fits --
Sheíd love a telling tale
to lure a charming prince,
a series of dizzy spells
to substantiate flesh
and its sweet soul of speech.
Like it or not, you have another body now:
a ghost body, flesh made word, name made numeric.
Spectral and electric, you pass through language.
This you is holy for it cannot sin, and is unholy
since it never repents, and demonic in its portability.
Wherever you walk it hovers (unfocused, some
sort of microwave echo, cousin of the blue glow
from television in a darkened room), it spreads
rumors and diaphonous wings. You can forget
about it, but forgetting won't make it depart.
So too, just wishing that it would do something
won't make it do that thing: it records your debts,
but laughs at its own jokes. Wanting it not to do
a thing is less hope as well. It's bound to you only
by most tenuous memories, mother's maiden name,
documents filed before you were a gleam. Perhaps
some subtle nerve or paranoia pipes to you an image
of its perceptions and experience. Nothing about it
can be described in words of just one syllable.
You reside in a mirror of unmanipulable distance.
One leg of the vine outside has grown
inside the bedroom window, and I canít
crank it all the way closed
now that it is wet and cold.
I donít want to go out in the damp
darkness, not even to test whether
the raindrops are all the same size --
put off that duty to another day
when Iím dressed and properly booted.
The rain licks and drops, it speaks
its white song through the inch
of open window. Any planet will chill
if you turn it away from the sun.
Since itís not real if only in my head
I give it a fragile body (twisted thread).
Since itís not true if only on a page,
I lay it here for someone else to find,
a good-luck coin whose value resides solely
in the encounter: itís a token of currency.
First the eye, for brightness on the ground,
then the bend and careful fingers
lift it into precious metal --
I heat and mix to turn it gold.
I can strike such passion from just words!
Fire washes clean the universe,
turns it to pure light, to particles
and waves, distance and past. The stretch
of ignition, the flash of the divine:
reach, you have to let your fingertips
trust and touch, that rush and flush, I rise
like a hawk on a stream of incensed air,
I bend so beautifully, a wing of perfect
curling ash, such elegance before I expire!
I know what fire is: absolute honesty,
every fiber involved. That means: wrapped
into a single handful, fascinated and consumed.
How easy it is for me to write of fire.
I flare up all the time, and I reap red
(dubious reflection in the eyes
of the beloved interlocutor), I try to keep
one hand on the axe and the extinguisher,
I know how fast this sort of thing can spread.
I dwell here too, I am prophylactically coated
in an invisible layer of soil. Thereís the lovely
dirt of rising (horns of Venus, silver in the sun)
and the cold mud of the old insomniac soul
at midnight, as if infested by the energy
of other beings. Thoughts are modest earthworms,
ventilating seeds. What may sometimes spring
out of me, if other compass points collude,
is nonetheless not part of a heart but only
my hair, my voice, the subtly changing pageant
of my skin. Frivolity seeks paths up through the ankles,
its transient gestures bear away fermentation.
The core of fire is sunk too deep to feel from here;
from here Iím dour and doubting. My sacred caves
are thoroughly secret (decked with miraculous beasts).
Solidity, opacity: these are stolid riches,
a place where you can tread with unwavering heels.
I have less to say about air, for it is all saying:
hot or not. Only admixture of a feeling
or proposition makes pure thought visible.
Iíve learned all this flash as camouflage, so no one
would fear my burning heart in its fragile
vessel of raw clay. I treasure it
with the desperate gasp of a smothering
diver into other, denser elements: clarity
and levity are motives for traction,
let me see what I have gotten myself
too deep into, to spy an exit and clamber free.
Yet I donít trust it -- I canít set my feet on it,
though in the end everything cools into it,
evaporates into it, exudes its chilling aridity.
Dried flowers, they are dead but so pretty,
and see what sense they make?
Unincisive mirror, water always lives
in sacred time. I know what the word
ďspringĒ really means, I summon the exquisite
pain of melting, the loosening tendons,
the cracks, the thinning crust of ice.
And then the silly ripples of midsummer.
I know all these things, but I donít pause
to understand them: from a distance,
reason supposes me a northern lake
more ice than fire, and that ray oblique
but in its time voracious of the darkness.
What joy to grasp the hem of summer
after long seasons of cold and doubt.
I fall with matchless passion into a flow
that always begins for the first time
even as it echoes the myths and stories
(music is a liquid art), even as it attaches
meaning to every scattered sensation (nirvana,
losing myself in the sea of the other).
The number is two, the other always unique.
Its shadows roll in my houses: this one,
that one ≠ the sunken cities, hidden rooms
where fishes bear the sound of silver bells,
the swelling waves of some approaching storm.
Shadows. Beyond the curtain (deepest blue),
people in ships with dry feet, people in crisp
garments know nothing of it, perceive no clue.
How fast a mermaid can move ≠ itís the price
for sacrificing legs and wings. Add a tear,
and how the lines all blur, how the inky stems
bruise into new leaves, diffuse small buds....
Where was I going when I thought of this?
As long as I am living here, I can never be straight enough:
the curve will always call me, pull my arms out and down.
As long as I am living here, I can never be round enough:
the lineís desire to shoot straight as a tuned string
will always sing in my bent limbs. The bulletís faith
that this time it will fly like pure idea, untainted
by rules of physics or the material.
The stars are made of this, and what do they see?
Not hot or cold, not wet or dry, not even unmixedly
masculine or feminine. I am a mess
of elements, an unbaked essay in experience.
All that I have to offer is my life, it stumbles
and rights itself, canít keep still or move
in perpetuity. If I died and entered
the realm of the idea, you might well forget
or imagine that you had imagined me. Once Iím ideal
I wonít care at all. But now I care too much --
I chafe at all my limbs and limits,
all the boundaries without which life
and Iíd be shapeless blots, oddly convinced
that some pure and unnatural extreme
might tip the balance of one's attention.
If my ambition is to cheat unfreedom,
I canít linger in any place that might
evolve into a trap. The rusting shackle
that was a necklace must snap apart
into a wedge of fleeing geese; the muse
that hardens into a censor must turn
into a tender memory.
But each love bears its own ending,
doesnít it? Each trap its own maze of escape,
each puzzle its own flash of resolution.
I hold the answer close in my pocket
and all the clues to how it took its shape
are nothing now but metal dust
on the floor of the indifferent locksmith.
Öbut the language of my prayer is still so musical
(even in words that no one any longer knows
how to pronounce): the relic of a vocative,
the lost words ďthouĒ and ďthee,Ē soulís informality
that our age lumps into a single ball,
so that a child or dog is thickly ďyou,Ē
even a lover might as well be plural,
hidden by a mask of massing faces.
Under my breath I hum the absent liturgy, I still
recall the psalms. It isnít worship, anything pious;
itís more a requiem, mourning for a Ghost
and speaking peaceful rest.
No one lives in here now -- the space is empty
as a deconsecrated temple, used for chamber
music concerts and recitals. The former jewels
of the windows are fading, admitting
bleached daylight. There is nothing
but resonant walls, a fragile cellulose
buttressed by aging language. Soon Iíll be
a bibliographic rarity.
Nature teaches me all that I need
to judge my own duration and importance.
It even offers, after autumn rains
dragged north from distant hurricanes, examples
of monoprints. The shadow of a leaf,
blurred at one edge. The leaf itself is gone,
and in a few more days the sidewalk too
will fade back to its usual dull grey.
Here, see the subtle outline of my veins.
No matter how it hurts to lie beneath
the tumbling water, as my pigments run,
the eventual image says nothing of pain
but many brief things about the fleeting
beauty of a snapshot, a daguerrotype.
What other Being could I desire, Queen of the Beasts?
My teeth and claws part of the breathtaking
beauty of necessity, all fearful harmony.
So sleek and fleet, sharp to spring into pursuit
...but first so utterly relaxed as I sprawl at rest
on a fallen tree -- a meter or more from the baking
earth, to allow the furnace heat from my skin
to dissipate in ripples of atmosphere.
At rest, I am a rounded image about to burst
into music (heavily drummed). And see, I rise and fly
at the call of temptation to chase a succulent bull.
They scatter in panic, no one wants to collide,
to die, to change. There is no better Being,
save only that I live among beings who are not
so swift or so attentive, and besides
being the Lion, I must be my own cage.
Dark, bitter and delicious:
a color between chocolate and soot.
Everyone else loves you in moderation,
but I canít afford to indulge --
you make my pulse race,
my body turns fragile and rattles,
you make my thoughts pound all night,
wave upon wave, the walls of my heart
thin to seashell and to eggshell,
the fine lines of the arteries
crack into fractures, welling bruises.
I only tip forward into sleep
enough to dream that I am sleeping.
In the morning Iím a wreck,
I tremble till the sparks wear off my lips
and the stimulant drains, grain by grain
out of my blood, and the crowds desist.
Then I start to imagine again
that you wouldnít do any harm,
that it might even be kind of fun.
The woman leaned into the wall
in faith that sheíd slowly get through,
and under her powerful hands
(way too slowly for people to see)
the particles melted to clay,
it puddled just next to her touch,
like pushing into wet cement.
It wasnít like drywall or lath,
but like meteor showers of Braille
that parted about her whole body.
For an hour -- for a part of a year --
she pressed in unstinting. Her shape
and posture grew steeper and sore.
The pages of space in the wall
turned one at a time, or by two;
from behind she was only two heels.
How can miracles process so long?
"Iím coming," she said from the wall,
but no one was there to reply
of any who saw her begin.
The labyrinth closed on itself,
the wall had gone complex and thick,
its sediments dried back to rock.
Her prints stopped just under the paint
on the side where sheíd hoped to emerge.
There I guess at them, each perfect whorl
like a knot in old wood, secretly.
My girlfriend says she also often dreams
of an extra room. Do you have one too
that opens at the point where you thought
the house ended, the stairs ran dry, and life
pressed you but offered no clearings?
An unsuspected room, a kind of third story.
And yet as I pass through the door
it makes perfect sense, I suddenly
have always known that it was here, its walls
bright white. At first it doesnít seem
so redolent of that basement, or Kirillov
in his cupboard, its sides trimmed to
exactly the petty dimensions of my days.
How can I return to it if I can only
find it by accident? How can I lie down
to sleep or dream and seek it, if its furniture
demonstratively includes no bed? How
can I wake from inside and count it out
so that its presence, for even one moment,
means anything but the pit of my own wishes?
The walls draw in, tight as an argument
too many times rehearsed, those inflamed
sleepless nights when I lay on the wooden floor
in America, dark tunnel from a darker womb
and no sign of light at the end
(that those who have returned speak of),
no air left to my shortening breath --
Passion always ripens into irony --
I know, because I am a grown-up
and the muscle in my heart is strong,
the beat of time never hesitates
as I tread the high (voltage) wire.
I want to believe the world alive
and all organically interwoven.
I want to feel my soul as a garden
of herbs -- even when itís rife with rue.
As I struggle up and down the waves
of perpetual emotion, each provokes (and must)
some ponderance, some utterance.
Of course there are times I wish
it was all mechanical, a plodding watch
or set of dials that could be adjusted
and calibrated, so Iíd only care in measure.
But I am obliged to be thus, for I hold
the near-sighted girl with long braids
and the cheap fountain pen, sheís poor
but honest, and my job is not to let her fade.
There are so many kinds of love. I
practice all of them. How indeed could I hope
to fly if I didnít leap from the cliff?
How can I be a great clown
if I canít risk a spectacular pratfall?
(Of course the people shake their heads
instead of looking at all impressed.
I canít bear to watch the video.)
I soldier up the Ziggurat,
gesturing and intoning, though aware
all the way that lightning will not strike.
And I am absurdly capable of happiness:
when it hits all I can say is hey,
Iím so happy. Because I burn in faith
that if you embody a thing in words,
then in some place
and in some way it lives forever.
And worse than that naÔvetť, I know
no daring leap or finely honed verb
of balance will let me live forever.
All that will remain are these
mere jests, where I swoop and fly,
crash and burn,
where I nod and say, "I know."
I have two parallel attacks,
one from each flank. Each works
to distract from the otherís potential
speciousness; each enrolls deception
to advance my brighter talents
of undermining and destruction.
The first is rectitude, tall
and slender: who would want
such a monsoon of feeling! Even
if the package somehow fit
though a standard mail slot. No,
itís no, even if it might not be no.
Mix vinegar into every explanation
and recollection ≠ itís what wine
always becomes, it does the job.
The second is gaucherie, shorter
but shapely: I must look such
a cosmic idiot. If anyone besides me
saw they too would reach across
and say, ne nado, just stop it ≠ force
down the hand that reaches. What ever
happened to the obligations
of dignity, recumbent upon me? I shake
the shoulders of its corpse.
The two chat and gently spar, civil
and banal as diplomats, while out back
this and that undesirable
are lining up against the wall....
So I become a teacup full of storm.
But once the air comes clear
and the dead leaves swept out
(clean sand scattered over the blots),
see what a peaceful consequence!
A single yellow blossom
with all its thorns deposed,
safe to place in a crystal vase
as a harmless centerpiece.
It was to have been red,
but Iíve been hard at work, see,
and all its blood is flown and fled.
Iíve always run, Iíve always leapt,
Iíve always flushed. My dreams
have been loud and splendid.
Iíve always sweated and let myself
get out of breath when I danced.
If I could fly, Iíd make a great
big bird of prey, one that would
land with a joyous squawk.
It took me a long time to learn
to pretend to be of average size.
We all have our own gifts, donít we?
Iím just clattering with them,
like a Balkan bride in her necklace
of threaded coins. And the hardest
gift for me to give is this, in spite
of all my taste and all my practice:
donít worry, I wonít try to give you anything.
Everything is little
when youíre talking to a child:
little eyes, little feet,
a miniscule attention span
and hair too short to tangle.
No wonder the first names sprout
extra diminutive syllables, to fatten
them so they wonít slide loose from their
proper place in a sentence. Even the years
you have been alive are nothing: two,
three -- born a blink ago. And what will
stick later in your memory from all of today,
what little tremor left from things I thought
or felt or said near you in passing?
All I might predict is a guess based
on who I once was, the umbilical trace
of memory back to an equally miniscule
but very different self, one that now has
no need of supplemental syllables, nor
expects gentle voices. Your small fate,
itís as if a shadow cast by some wise light
has started at the teeny feet and rolls
slowly on and up, gradually. I canít
foresee how far it might eventually reach,
or how much its direction might
evolve, how much I could inspire
or ought to push, or am I just
kidding myself? How many seconds,
how many minutes will evolve, from this
original slight slip in its degree.
It really is less than half --
all of possibility, distilled to a sip.
That little curve of lemon rind
(reminder of a wry smile).
I have my moments of romance
with sugar and cream, but not here
and not today. I can take its searing plain.
If all you getís so little, you can still
shake awake all your senses,
savor it with tightened fists.
This word flowers into all sorts
of wonderful sounds. That word
holds a fatal pattern in the dregs,
it tends to mean The End.
The man in the park has a name, a story,
and a body exquisitely carved from stone.
Iíve known him here for several years:
his clothes so lifelike, the sharply creased
trousers, the gentle folds of his cravat,
the subtle hint (incised) of spectacles.
Iíve always had a thing for intellectuals.
During the long evenings of last summer
I often sat in his company, a good book
lying open in my lap, perhaps one written
by a friend of his, or one he had once wittily
reviewed. He was a master of the turn of phrase.
The sculptor like the memoirists made him
benevolent, and left him a hint of sparkle.
And as I moved into his vague, unseeing gaze
thereíd be that moment where our eyes met
and he admitted me. Iíd smile at knowing
a secret: the small unauthorized story that was
mine, bred and brewed from words of his
I shared, as if we were tied by a bond
of love and friendship, pleasure and respect.
Now of course itís winter, and I cut
the corner on my way to work. Itís cold
and dark falls early. I see him (still not ďitĒ)
standing at a distance, unbowed under his weight
of tarnished snow, looking in the direction
in which he has always looked. Iíd raise a hand,
but of course heíd neither see me nor reply.
Itís funny what you can imagine
about someone who might still have been alive.
If you were a bottomless box of chocolates,
wouldnít you want to lock down the top?
Exactly that: perfectly sculpted truffles
with fillings of bitter cocoa or buzzing coffee.
Everyone reaches for a piece, and the sweet
must become so blasť: no one resists,
everyone is a piranha, a lamprey, greedy fingers
and thoughtless teeth, no one distinguishes
one bite, one aroma from the next. If I step
aside and treat the lid as if it were closed,
I suspect that in the jostling and the haste
(to seize one taste!) no one would notice.
What is this theater of self-rapt
sorrowful navel-gazing? Call a halt,
please, to the sad subscription. My ministers
are leaving momentarily for Italy,
for Chile, Massachusetts and Japan,
to seek more robust entertainment. Send in
some madrigals, summon my fiddlers three.
And the poor sad Subject, worn away
to shreds and tendons! Some compliment --
to disembody what weíd so admired. Pack
the playwright off to a workshop, and be sure
thereís plenty of wine. The Subject?
Free to wander, now that the Stage is struck.
There are no feathers in my bed
yet my nerves seem to remember,
and the scars I hide under my jacket
(over the blades that are tellingly named)
reopen to flowing wounds, to living
corridors as I drift to sleep
and memory wakes and aches...
Not that I'd ever used them much.
It was easy to talk me into the operation,
and the leftover muscles have already
almost atrophied. Everything they said
is true: I can buy clothes off the rack,
and as long as the phantoms are drowsing
and I'm not feeling anything to speak of
itís a great treat to sleep on my back.
I try to approach reality with due skepticism,
to observe the poetics of ice through time: when to trust
it with my weight, when to skate fast, when to sit
out the rain that might yet melt it, when to wait
for a boat. The partial map suggests that there are islands
I have not yet guessed, and traditional paths -- the shepherd
will never follow the fisherman, or the peddler of tales.
Who is a cheerful drunk and who a secret master:
even the fish and the sheep complicate into species,
and each bush has its particular virtue.
Jakobson, that inveterate flirt, confessed
that a new face blossoms about each tongue,
and so knowledge makes us several.
Ignorance of the law is no excuse. My regard
for this land might easily tempt me to overstep,
to hasten, to outspend. My pockets are already ragged
from flinging out words and rewards. Pause
to lie back and deliberate on the darkening sky.
Does everything real take up space? Or leave a trace
(like hemlines and the stock market, or solar flares) --
do the things Iíve said leave a mark on my voice?
Iíll try to stroll slowly as the stars come to light
over this place. Consult the shifting chart of signs.
I am just sophisticated enough to see
that there are endless levels of infinity,
some big and swift, some denser,
some straight and some that coil.
Spatial infinity differs from temporal,
cellular from molecular, astral
from terrestrial, karmic from practical.
And even so, to understand the toppled
figure eight, those eternal rings
traced out by skate, I can only imagine
using known images: all the eras
from the dawn of time? The lines
on your palm, hairs on your head?
Some lifespanís count of breaths
or heartbeats? Genetic plenitude, linguistic?
And despite the super scores
I used to get on math tests, or the grades
they'd give me before I fled the subject,
Iím still convicted in my soul and body
(with their limited numerical variety)
that if you take away a handful
of possibilities from an endless number,
then it will fall that many short of infinity.
Such a damned humanist.
Itís such a feast for the lover of details:
finely carved amber, reassembled vases,
even Roman sewing-needles, amazingly
identical to one youíd hold today. Whatever
I may come here to remember, it tells me
that some things have been long the same --
love and lyrics, and the tricks of combing
hair, the human fondness for adornment.
Hereís the armor a body wore: chainmail,
a breastplate, greaves and gauntlets. I donít know
enough about the purposes of battle
to do more than guess at the shape
they must have combined to defend,
the way all the details would flow together
or overlap, combine into an imperial whole.
But the protected body itself we all must
imagine: all that survives is approximate,
the two dimensions of a painting,
the three of a gravestone sculpture,
or the no- and all-dimensionality
of someoneís loving or forensic description.
You know you canít keep a body in
a museum: only a mummy, or a skeleton.
Weíve adopted the European habit:
a printed cardboard dreamscape, scored
with tiny doors, each one concealing
its perfect little wafer of milk chocolate.
Every morning the baby gets up,
lets me dress and diaper her, breakfasts
obediently, her thoughts fixed on the reward,
the single sweet Iíll let her pry loose.
Fine to anticipate until the Man arrives
in a flurry of gifts and greetings. But what
will she do, what will I do in January
when each new day brings nothing closer?
Hair may be the most changeable
of all our attributes and accomplishments:
from short slowly to long, or abruptly back,
from clean to dirty and ditto, from loose
to neatly bound in the trimeter of braids.
And what a change as I lean back in the tub;
it doesnít feel stiff until the water loosens it
and turns it into mermaid hair:
itís kelp, itís nets, itís a school of eels!
And hangs in straight submission as I rise
like some steaming Venus, and vanishes
into the censorship of heavy towels.
No matter how full of waves, no matter
how freshly combed, it canít flow
in the air. Itís just a vestige of my life
in another element.
Let me adjust the limbs: one arm up here
with its fan of nerves, the shadow
of each joint hidden in the shifting
wooden disks. Iíll try not to stress
this wrist, not to scratch or snag the edges
that may not yet be completely finished.
Can the arm hold this gesture for a moment,
or does it stretch the secret spring too far?
Can I even say I or You or He,
conducting movements with my pen,
pretending that I am the artist here?
I should switch pronouns, after too much
coffee and too little sleep. But I still wait
patiently to get the lightís response
as it skims polished skin, burnishing
what disks of wood shape onto paper.
After a blow that shatters us to sand,
soft heat persuades us to gather back together.
The artist reaches towards the fire, turns,
returns us to the gentle flame. (This is a song
of waking to find oneself in the midst of change.)
As our skin thins and refines, we lose
the last impediments to light. Breath trembles
at the first touch of atmosphere, the measure
that issues music into a bright plume, sufficient
to fulfill each vessel, tune each flue.
Does light fly or flow? Or flare -- put there
in a moment of curiosity, as we turn
in faith to see straight through. The artist
judges the new glow as we cool in truth,
as we grow firm in absolute translucence.
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