Of course it's arbitrary for me to call anything I wrote before 1994 "old" -- but I was writing little enough in all the years previous to it that it makes emotional if not calendrical sense.
I wrote tons of poetry in middle school and high school -- except I had no good criticism and no instruction, so most of it was unprocessed and unedited drivel. (The exceptions are a couple of humorous ones, see below.) In college I had the heady experience of writing some things I thought were really good, but I didn't know what to do with that, and stayed at a rhythm of two or three poems per year for a while there. (I was also writing one per week for the student paper, as "Applebee," in 1982-83, but most of those were more funny than inspired, and I'm probably flattering myself about the "funny" part.) Arrived at grad school and attended a few of the sumemr creative writing readings in Bloomington (I got to hear Toni Morrison, Ursula LeGuin and Kurt Vonnegut among others, so as you can imagine it was quite inspiring) and for a while wrote more -- often inspired by things that came up in class (thus "He is a magician" from a lecture on Russisan Symbolism, plus an amalgam of Schmendrick from The Last Unicorn and my own frustration with myself as a writer, it seems to me now). That burst of writing ran dry, too, and in all of the academic year 1985-1986 I wrote one sorry poem. There's a rhythm of writing, getting stuck, and then breaking through and writing again which continues on various scales through many years -- the burst of poems, most of them frankly compost, in 1994 was just the next of so many.
Two snails, smirking smugly,
slid through the slippery sedge.
smartly smashed the snails,
who smirked no longer smugly,
being but smudges upon the sand.
My true love is a garbage-man,
most highly placed.
He turned to refuse when he found
so many morons college-bound.
Now, while driving his garbage-van,
he has a taste
of a life that is safe and sound,
both feet litterly on the ground.
True peace lies in a garbage-can.
Oh, what a waste!
Come into my garden, said the women.
Under my trees, come hold the wind in your hands.
Morning is born, come drink with me to its health.
Every branch is a flute, every flower the first.
Come into my garden, said the woman.
Dawn flattens into mid-morning,
mid-summer knows no darkness.
Why suffer the traffic, why waste time hurrying?
Come into my garden.
Come let me wash your hands in the fountain,
let me offer you roses
behind the high walls.
I've taken off my sandals to stand on the green lawn:
why shouldn't you too?
Come into my garden, said the evening.
So long to decide!
But before a step forward
the gate swung shut.
I am sorry, said the woman, but it's past my bedtime.
And the moonlight went into the garden.
I fell for you from my fullheight, and you
Were flowers, madness -- I was drunk wtih spring,
With you, my hero and my perfect thing.
Your names were all the magic words I knew.
And when I found the nerve to tell you so,
You softly answered that you did not care
For me or anything that we might share --
But softly, like th ewind that follows snow.
So what are you when I forget your smile?
A dream I sometimes mention to my friends
When we eat jam and crackers on my bed
ANd listen to the rain fall for a while.
It's strange that love's a story when it ends,
Blue words on pages -- were they ever said?
My windchime fell -- the string broke,
and before the light had left the afternoon
I saw through the window that it had fallen.
I went out in my shoes on the leaves and stones
where the ground and broken branches slope down,
and I peeered and squinted in teh cold grey space
for the gleam of gold on the brown.
I found it against th ewall, but crippled:
it had lost a delicate metal piece
so that, more than ever like me,
the wind could hardly make it sing.
The wind blew when I came back in,
but I was not tempted to hang the chime again,
so it lay crumpled on the table
until another time, safe for new string,
which slowly decays after days of rain.
The walls of the tunnels are stone,
and pipes or something ripple like snakes
in the dark outside the doors.
Inside, we rattle through unknown curves --
I might lose hold of any moment.
Sometimes th estations have tiled walls,
hung with maps and metal names,
and rows of torch-shaped lamps
to keep the length from seeming strange.
The metro stops near th eworking cathedral:
one ride costs as much as a slice of bread.
Birds spin down in the sunlight,
and in the domes of hollow gold
God speaks with a voice of bells.
Inside the re is deep shadow,
sweet incense opening like life,
and everything gleams with slender candles.
The holy souls are protected on the walls.
(You may kiss the glass.)
The quaint faithful all stand
in flat shoes, sharp bones in their ankles.
Then they bow their foreheads to the stones,
and cloths on their heads, most white,
make them seem a hundred sisters.
If I calmed my face and said nothing at all,
could I seem so simple?
The priest is smooth as new soap,
his voice trained into golden-syrup richness,
as he swings smoke and incantations.
The choir sings quickly between spells,
small, in a different key, not quite together.
They are singers and perhaps believe.
The bells are complex and hang too high to see.
Do wind and sunlight stop at the cemetery?
Walking, I often doubt the streets,
but the wummer sleeps in green parks,
iron fences thickened by black paint,
and when it rains at night the pavement shines.
There must be a heart that beats in everyone,
but now I hear only traffic and birds' wings.
As madness comes down the tracks,
we watch like frightened cats,
eyes flickering from the one bright light
to the black asphalt street.
Car after car sneaks past,
each pausing after the last.
We give death another chance.
After we too creep and escape,
we hear the low, slow call behind,
see the red lights begin to dance.
I put on the name and the painted face,
with a posture and a satin dress,
and I gleam under the hot lights
beside my leading man.
His hair may really be dull black,
his voice wide adn his back straight,
and under the light his eyes look yellow,
the real eyes, I mean, the inside eyes.
We glisten with sweat we can't brush,
we present kisses to the people below --
our clothing brushes as we pass
off to the side where props change hands.
We can't touch except in the lines,
in a carefully choreographed embrace --
I couldn't try without smearing his face,
leaving a berry lip-trace across his neck,
or a gash of orange on his shoulder --
and all these pins might rip from the gown,
and my long blond-sprayed hair tumble into brown.
She said the edge of any water was a place of power,
where earth and air lift water to a lens in the sun:
put your palms flat on the water, she said, pray if you can.
After she died, I took this shore as my home,
and by morning and night I walk down steps of stone;
I lift my skirt in both hands and crouch by the sea,
where the water spins and curls, carrying shells to me.
But someone already colored the magic of this beach;
It rises in birds and Greek words, beyond my speech.
I should have stayed in the North, where I was born:
it seems my pulse is too slow for the Southern sun.
I need a greater ocean in sulk and storm,
and a thnatched house where I can run to be warm.
Trapped between gold and blue,
piercing light and sweet deception --
and before I turn back to you
I must balance the moment of indecision
and offer you only half my thought --
though I had thought not --
hoped to give you all of myself,
blooming with irony and contradiction,
bearing you angels and demons,
warm truth and shady fiction.
But my feet might slip from the edge,
follow reactions into tradition --
and so take this daylight half
for the me that is your own,
while the nighttime woman roams alone
and never visits her sister at home --
take this friendly laugh,
this nod for everything that's yours,
this brilliant nontime sky.
And it might be so, or only a lie,
that it conceals all midnight's stars.
I met him in the green midlands,
a land that seemed fair and sweet to me,
but he pined for the rhythm of the tide,
he longed to make love to the sea.
I'd lie and rest my thoughts on the treets,
but his eyes went on to the sky,
and he craved sailing on bright nylon wings
down some mountainside.
So what was death if he couldn't fall,
what desire he couldn't make clear?
Of all the songs I offered him,
not one was the tongue he wished to hear.
Every hour nourished his discontent,
summoning him to another shore --
and to myself he made me look lucky,
for all that I will is inside myself,
if it's to be won anywhere.
All except his kiss, that is,
of all his gifts the most rare.
Let's go together out in the night,
where the trees are heavy with flowers,
where the shadows lay a second darkness on your hair.
The crowns of this morning are faded,
the coins of the sun are spent and scattered
to reward its ragged troupe of birds --
but stars flicker behind a heavy stained-glass sky,
and I hear distant shawms begin to play.
Your kisses are the color of champagne,
your touch makes needles of fear under my skin.
Even if your love is no longer than an hour,
no stronger than a violet's stem,
still it is what I desire:
you must begin and end within the echo of my breath.
Green is thundering out of the ground,
drawing our shadows out behind --
the night leaves us no place to rest,
no stone that is safe from lightning,
no chain we can hold to keep from falling.
The wind has stacked me a card house of joy,
has marked you as my day to celebrate:
I settle under the weight of your name.
Love seeks to speak a perfect lie,
a line all your women-to-be will gladly hear,
a grace that is almost sincere.
And so accept me as your ornament,
your spell and proof against all fright.
You are the man my chance has chosen
to slow the change of the shape of the moon,
to carry my flowers through one long night.
So here I am, I am
all unsettled and dislodged --
he should not have been so hungry
for what I didn't want him to know.
He should not have poked
into my drawer, my baskets,
he should not have pried open my locket
to look at that curl of sloe-black hair.
I spun his trust into injustice
and tried to hide him from despair.
But why should I bother to keep the peace
if peace was not my soul's desire?
And he couldn't stand to see my smile
without squirreling out the reason.
It's sad to be out-of-doors in the rainy season,
but since the deceit and fault and false were mine,
I decided quietly to go.
The other is not the man for an apartment and a car,
but a smoker and drinker of uncertain stars,
so I'll have to turn to my dear women,
now that I am unhoused.
One of them will lend me a corner to stack my books
while I shake my shoulders back --
the women love, but do not judge.
Three's always one around if I find myself alone,
to fall in love with me, to walk me home;
a lot of boy-babies got that name
in the years around when I was born,
and now they're all full-grown.
No other name's so smooth upon my tongue:
there must have been the man,
wisely framed of hips and hands,
the original Michael of all,
a silken man and tall.
They are always as sweet as oranges,
with dark hair and distressing eyes --
they calm my consumption so I can work,
they make me laugh and lean
to hear what quiet they will speak.
My art is good for their care --
they will go to trouble to get to my soul.
If I wake in the night, I know who to call:
I've learned his name before and before.
He brings me flowers and packets of tea,
he won't come to bed if my head is sore.
Michael the nth was combing my hair
and said, "What are you thinking?"
I leaned back into his lap
and said, "How handy that when we met
I was already so fond of you."
He said, "I worry about that --
you tell me such tangled things,
I always wonder what you mean."
I said, "Don't worry, it's not real life,
it's only poetry."
Don't faint, princess --
there's blood on your veil,
your leaves are yellow,
your cheeks are pale.
Your glow inside
is only the sun,
and the wind will strip you
when your clothes are done.
And the crickets fall silent,
and your birds depart --
but your laughter will echo
through all my heart.
He is a magician
trading in appearances --
he came with scarves and fanfares,
with dazzle and frivolous promises,
and all the town turned out to see.
He turned feathers into jewels,
a smile into a smoke ring,
he turned a wish into three white tulips
and gave them to me --
he bowed with a sweep of black silk,
he kissed the tips of my fingers --
I was seduced willingly.
But he cannot change the color of the sky,
nor of a single hair of mine,
he cannot make the night a minute longer.
When I woke he was sleeping with the face of a child.
He sits in my kitchen, where bread is bread,
where steam rises when the kettle sings,
he has only his hands and his head.
He came where sweet talk and fine talk led,
but I have trapped him with things.
My dear friend!
If past means lost
then you won't write --
you may go forever untraced
for such trivia as a missing address.
If missed means last,
then that's it for us,
a hopeless case.
The days and years that made our trust
have lost their voice,
have lost their chance
to haste and dust.
And of course it's maybe for the best --
if letters through space are meaningless,
if waste is just --
but I miss your face
and you can't be replaced
by love that's fast.
Stop in the shower of apple petals --
the tiny pale moon-disks
ornament the soft night of your hair,
touch and whisper your eyes closed.
Stop in the dance of falling leaves,
drying butterflies, flying hands,
of brief white stars of ice --
surprise of joy before they land.
All manner of unbound beauties
stray aching to bedeck you --
quilts or jewels, warmth and wishes --
filling still waters with beads of rain,
scattering a flash of fishes.
Your feet are so firm on the pavement,
your eyes so clear for what is fallen --
can you climb into the air,
leap like a kite unstrung?
Let laughter slip between your teeth,
evade your name with the deft slide
of a necklace of geese in the wild sky.
If you vow or dare to desire,
you may be free too far to die.
I'm so tired of wanting you--
but I can't sleep, I've been writing letters,
I've been licking envelopes, I cut my tongue.
The wish keeps bleeding,
the words keep beading into meaning --
the days I've spent since our last meeting
keep begging to leap into your hands.
All the secrets that might have won your love
now crowd out between my teeth,
tumble in pathetic pleading.
I must mend myself instead,
wince and spit into a handkerchief.
It stings to speak,
red on my lips.
Aren't I much more lovely like this?
Oh, wouldn't you like a kiss?
I walk home at the swallow-hour
(the hour is the same in Russia or Spain --
leaves like poems cling to the past,
and the day's passion dims at last),
down paths thick with maple-keys,
down side-roads and alleys.
Bats dash crazily under the eaves,
and the young moon's shoulder is soft in the sky.
The liquid sun echoes in back windows,
and lamps are slowly lit,
and a few breaths of perfume rise
where the first lilies are hidden
deep in leaves of dusty greem.
All the houses are sweet and white
at April's end.
you begin like a peacock,
taking shape in stripes and circles and high heels,
blood shining in your skin,
hair so bright and waist so slender --
the pageant of seeming,
wrapping yourself in a shawl to spin,
to watch your reflection in admiring eyes,
all to win love from the reader,
all to be utterly seen.
But time and trouble age your face,
histroy greys your hands,
and all your luxury is stripped
to a kitchen table and an hour of itme,
to one exacting passion,
a duel in gravity's dance,
your darling opponent always the world.
So your voice rings louder,
your verse is pared down
to a shining silver bone,
to a stern electric constellation
with a breathing web between.
You cling to the pain and demand of beauty
until they pinch you into death.
All that's left is words, a few pictures --
all that's left is black and white
and the names of colors...
Before I learned your language,
before I knew the flower of your name,
I craved some flame greater than desire.
I want so much what I see in you --
balance that can only be regained
by leaping headlong into space,
and the courage to lie if the lie is true.
Black raven in the white night --
slide through the sandpaper cold.
Sing in the wind from wing to wing --
we are all too old.
We went out searching for porch chimes,
for branches and harps in the breeze,
but only one tree shook its withered leaves
in the song of a frozen sea.
We follow the tracks that run like a cat's --
we can't make out where they go.
Perhaps she is softly asleep in the snow,
soft in the sleep of the snow.
We meet across the most precious window,
panes of stained glass and strips of lead,
brilliant reds and blues whose secrets are lost,
exquisite Carolingian calligraphy --
butterfly-colored letters that spell ancient languages,
the heavy names of saints and angels.
At first, my primitive fascination
at how it creates adn propagates th eworld,
the way it transforms the light --
embodies, inspires, incarnates --
but then -- what might it hide
in a body that is already there?
What truth or straightness might catch
on the waves and bubbles in the static glass
and unravel into change?
If you lean very close, I can nearly hear your voice,
I can make out your face more clearly --
if you touch the same place in the glass, perhaps,
I'll be able to guess the warmth of your hand.
Wherever I walk, I can't walk past it --
some fever follows, blazes over me,
stops my breath wtih the threat of your name --
where did I drink it, when did it fall to me?
Like a leaf out of the sky --
but sharp as a seed, an arrow, a flame,
it strikes me out of the crowd as I pass,
the only bitter fragment of speech I catch,
and I shake, and people turn to look --
pain beats in my eyes --
the spell is too heavy to leave me alive,
and all the sidewalk tips --
I have to go inside.
Chill myself with solitude,
try to escape into sleep.
(And weep in my cold bed.)
Sava, you flow like sweet green sleep,
easy to fit my steps beside.
I always thought your name
was the name of a saint,
or of a girl whose wicked brothers
used the name as bait
to lure her gullible lover --
but Sava you carry no death for me,
nor any heavenly perfection,
only a reflected sunset.
On the embankment above your waves
I walk as if I could walk for days,
for nights with no need to rest,
and never stop -- to Serbia, to Syria,
to the walls of the wine-dark sea.
Sava, love is sharp in my heart,
and time is failing to heal --
Sava the name of my love wounds me
with every step, with every breath.
If I wrap my bodu in your green waters,
if your waves lap and lave my skin,
will you bear th epain away?
Sava, my goddes, my verdegris sister,
draw me somehow into the future,
where today's love will be long gone,
and only as sad as a story,
only as sad as a song.
Your name came in like the tinkle of a bell,
like the beauty of your face that I noticed and then forgot:
I had no place to keep it, nothing to give it meaning.
For weeks I was cool as your first kiss,
that reminded me of ice cream.
(Again the fatal epithet of sweetness.)
ANd thank goodness, now, no one else has your name,
each time someone speaks it it frets me,
sharp as the sweet grin of a new moon,MBR> sharper than the teeth of dragons.
So when we meet you leave me in ribbons.
Damn you and all your meanings!
If only I could repeat it often enough,
reduce you to a senseless sequence of phonemes --
so the letters would fly apart like beads from a broken string,
and I'd never stoop to collect them, to decipher their secret.
The water is ready to boil,
the sunlight resting on steam.
a twist of your raspberry blood,
brewing, to spin a red thread.
We have words waiting --
eyes resting on the branches outside,
the heroic gleam of the snow
softened to gold in my kitchen.
We have a conversation.
And, my dear, there is no more to life than this.
You hesitate and stir your tea,
I warm my cheek against my cup,
while time ticks through your heart.
The afternoon remains as a mosaic,
lit by the same sun that preserved your summer,
your childhood, or the loves we now discuss.
Dried delicately by the sun, tiny flowers
lie like ghosts in a paper pouch,
a little box on the kitchen shelf,
until water rushes in, drowns them,
until our words and leisure revive
a steaming semblance of life.
The past cannot die without your death.
Let me heal you with more tea.
Today I'm psychically tired,
only habits to glue me together.
My alternate selves are walking around
on their own separate business --
flashing around corners as I approach,
coming dangerously close.
The enticement of rejoining,
returning to lost possibilities,
but the fear:
if we meet I might be the weaker,
I might be the one to disappear.
One I is not sitting inside
but dancing down bright paths
between the patches of melting snow.
One I rocks by an open window,
stringing, knitting, stitching, making,
instead of trying to fit into this reality.
And oh, today, when you knocked and looked in
the I that was born ten years --
eight years? -- later
leapt up to throw herself
into your arms.
Or the you that was born ten years before
opened his arms to the strength
of her -- my? -- flying desire?
In my dream a soldier grabbed my child
and dashed its brains out against the wall.
They dragged us from the safety of the cellar,
blinking at the fires of our neighbors' houses --
I was too numb to speak, too numb to wail.
The first horror shakes us, the second
provokes our anger, the third
finds us already just as horrible.
At first I shuddered at the stages,
cringed to glance at th eimages.
Then I thought, the people who did these things
must be moral beasts and corpses.
My hands began to hunger for a gun.
For weeks now I am carrying around with me
the shriek, the spurt of blood
as they sawed a man in two.
He might have been my husband or my brother.
Give me a chance, the act in me is ready,
well-learned and memorized, the coldness
I had to build to silence that scream
will shield me from your scream.
Could it be -- in my dream --
I grab my child
and dash its brains out against the wall.
One morning when no one was looking
a flowering, blooming tree limb riped away
and crashed to the ground in our yard.
WHile a baby robin lay dead on the pavement
its mother sat for hours on a power line,
calling, calling -- or was she mourning
the unexpected topple of her world?
The cliché of sorrowful ritual
is trite only until it happens to me.
And you, observing from the height of camera lenses,
do you see us as exotic or as similar,
as symbolic animals or abstract symbols?
Do we make you count your blessings?
All you whose husbands were shot by thieves,
whose wives were raped, whose children
were stolen or crushed by trains --
that fate that struck at your incomprehensibly
has now come to rest in our city.
The bombs are flying and taking us all
away, away, away.
So many adoptions
tight threads of relations.
The places that draw me
are doors that don't open.
I speak, love and marry,
but I can't be Croatian --
by my own definition.
My letters to editors,
justify a connection.
I spin wheels in protest,
I shout into emptiness --
How can I embody anything
if I can't influence one event?
Oh, I have done no more than stroll
beside the bottle-green sea
that's now metaphorized to waves
of fires and graves.
I only feel a profound frustration,
none of the cracks sprouting down the basement wall.
No counting the whiz to figure when it will fall.
I have a blind spot in this eye.
It lies along the side.
Silent fire inside.
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