The afternoon light lights
the room in a smudged
sheen, a foggy-eyed glow.
The dog digs at the couch,
low-growling at the mailman.
I’m spelling words with pills
spilled consolidating bottles:
yes and try and most of happy:
Maybe I’ll empty them all.
A woman I don’t know
is having a drill drill into her
skull. To get rid of the thing
requires entering the brain.
How to imagine a story
that ends with that ending?
I don’t know how to live my life,
but at least today I want to.
I plucked my soul out of its secret place,
And held it to the mirror of my eye,
To see it like a star against the sky,
A twitching body quivering in space,
A spark of passion shining on my face.
And I explored it to determine why
This awful key to my infinity
Conspires to rob me of sweet joy and grace.
And if the sign may not be fully read,
If I can comprehend but not control,
I need not gloom my days with futile dread,
Because I see a part and not the whole.
Contemplating the strange, I’m comforted
By this narcotic thought: I know my soul.
us was a thing hard to
come by. We would have to make due with
we had: these
were pills and a pencil,
blue earplugs to block out the voices
our heads, which
would tell us time passed and
these thoughts that would shine like soft lights on
our brains would
one day fade
relief. We would write in our binders,
a moment of grief. We
were deeply aware we would have to
make up for
lost time, but
when we took our pills, the
world would seem fine, seem as if it had
fine. Once we
had adequate supplies
we’d sell, but until then we decid-
ed to re-
fill. We had
determined that we would
not brood. Instead we charted out our
moods and light-
ened up our
loads. Before the rest of
time unfolds, we would like to hold on-
to this life,
feel like it’s
beating, there, deep inside
of our chests, not out of fear. We are
Admit it— you wanted the end with a serpentine greed. How to negotiate that strangling mist, the fibrous whisper? To cease to exist and to die are two different things entirely. But you knew this, didn't you? Some days you knelt on coins in those yellow hours. You lit a flame to your shadow and ate scorpions with your naked fingers. So touched by the sadness of hair in a dirty sink. The malevolent smell of soap. When instead of swallowing a fistful of white pills, you decided to shower, the palm trees nodded in agreement, a choir of crickets singing behind your swollen eyes. The masked bird turned to you with a shred of paper hanging from its beak. At dusk, hair wet and fragrant, you cupped a goat's face and kissed his trembling horns. The ghost? It fell prostrate, passed through you like a swift and generous storm.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
I have walked out in rain—and back in rain.
I have outwalked the furthest city light.
I have looked down the saddest city lane.
I have passed by the watchman on his beat
And dropped my eyes, unwilling to explain.
I have stood still and stopped the sound of feet
When far away an interrupted cry
Came over houses from another street,
But not to call me back or say good-bye;
And further still at an unearthly height,
One luminary clock against the sky
Proclaimed the time was neither wrong nor right.
I have been one acquainted with the night.
Sometimes I don’t know if I’m having a feeling
so I check my phone or squint at the window
with a serious look, like someone in a movie
or a mother thinking about how time passes.
Sometimes I’m not sure how to feel so I think
about a lot of things until I get an allergy attack.
I take my antihistamine with beer, thank you very much,
sleep like a cut under a band aid, wake up
on the stairs having missed the entire party.
It was a real blast, I can tell, for all the vases
are broken, the flowers twisted into crowns
for the young, drunk, and beautiful. I put one on
and salute the moon, the lone face over me
shining through the grates on the front door window.
You have seen me like this before, such a strange
version of the person you thought you knew.
Guess what, I’m strange to us both. It’s like
I’m not even me sometimes. Who am I? A question
for the Lord only to decide as She looks over
my résumé. Everything is different sometimes.
Sometimes there is no hand on my shoulder
but my room, my apartment, my body are containers
and I am thusly contained. How easy to forget
the obvious. The walls, blankets, sunlight, your love.
The bumper sticker says Live In The Moment! on a Jeep that cuts me off. I’m working to forget it, to let go of everything but the wheel in my hands, as a road connects two cities without forcing them to touch. When I drive by something, does it sway toward me or away? Does it slip into the past or dance nervously in place? The past suffers from anxiety too. It goes underground, emerging once in a blue moon to hiss. I hear the grass never saying a word. I hear it spreading its arms across each grave & barely catch a name. My dying wish is scattering now before every planet. I want places to look forward to. Listen: the earth is a thin voice in a headset. It’s whispering breathe... breathe... but who believes in going back?
To be a good
ex/current friend for R. To be one last
inspired way to get back at R. To be relationship
advice for L. To be advice
for my mother. To be a more comfortable
hospital bed for my mother. To be
no more hospital beds. To be, in my spare time,
America for my uncle, who wants to be China
for me. To be a country of trafficless roads
& a sports car for my aunt, who likes to go
fast. To be a cyclone
of laughter when my parents say
their new coworker is like that, they can tell
because he wears pink socks, see, you don’t, so you can’t,
can’t be one of them. To be the one
my parents raised me to be—
a season from the planet
of planet-sized storms.
To be a backpack of PB&J & every
thing I know, for my brothers, who are becoming
their own storms. To be, for me, nobody,
homebody, body in bed watching TV. To go 2D
& be a painting, an amateur’s hilltop & stars,
simple decoration for the new apartment
with you. To be close, J.,
to everything that is close to you—
blue blanket, red cup, green shoes
with pink laces.
To be the blue & the red.
The green, the hot pink.
That everything's inevitable.
That fate is whatever has already happened.
The brain, which is as elemental, as sane, as the rest of the processing universe is.
In this world, I am the surest thing.
Scrunched-up arms, folded legs, lovely destitute eyes.
Please insert your spare coins.
I am filling them up.
Please insert your spare vision, your vigor, your vim.
But yet, I am a vatic one.
As vatic as the Vatican.
In the temper and the tantrum, in the well-kept arboretum
I am waiting, like an animal,
When you quietly close
the door to a room
the room is not finished.
It is resting. Temporarily.
Glad to be without you
for a while.
Now it has time to gather
its balls of gray dust,
to pitch them from corner to corner.
Now it seeps back into itself,
unruffled and proud.
Outlines grow firmer.
When you return,
you might move the stack of books,
freshen the water for the roses.
I think you could keep doing this
forever. But the blue chair looks best
with the red pillow. So you might as well
leave it that way.
and there was light. Now God says, Give them a little theatrical lighting and they’re happy, and we are. So many of us dressing each morning, testing endless combinations, becoming in our mirrors more ourselves, imagining, in an entrance, the ecstatic weight of human eyes. Now that the sun is sheering toward us, what is left but to let it close in for our close-up? Let us really feel how good it feels to be still in it, making every kind of self that can be looked at. God, did you make us to be your bright accomplices? God, here are our shining spines. Let there be no more dreams of being more than a beginning. Let it be that to be is to be backlit, and then to be only that light.
If only each line of a poem could be its true beginning. If only each moment could know every other moment and we could hold them all at once the way we wish to, the way we keep imagining we can. I don’t care what anyone says about the impossibility, for I step into the same moment again and again. I’ve lived such a blessed life, a dying friend told me as I leaned in close and caressed her face. I am writing this line, this poem’s true beginning, six years later, touching her radiant face again. Every moment is the time I followed a yellow leaf downstream when I was nine. To be, or not to be, Hamlet asked, and two centuries later, Issa’s poems were born. And yet, and yet the cancer still arrives to steal her breath, the same breath blessing all her time. Just now a purple bird flew up and startled me, and I said, Yes, yes, and raised my hands. To live lightly in the body is to live deeply in the spirit—I say her words out loud some days, holding them all at once, and follow a yellow leaf through overhanging limbs and enter my grandfather’s quiet steps along a ridge a century ago when he was young. He is being and not being, in and out of shadows, arriving wherever the next step takes him, here and here. When rain begins, he just keeps walking, drenched and smiling, emerging decades later, holy. Sometimes an echo hints from half a life ago. A driveway puddle trembles at the foster home I lived in when I was three. Good Lord, son, how did you know how to get here, the father asked when I showed up, adult, from two towns over. In the beginning was the Word, John wrote, for each word starts anew, each word startling the sky, the cells, the breath. Each word, each line, is an echo, an arrival, a blessed breath, being and not being. I don’t care about the impossibility of anything. The dawn keeps breaking for which I am awake. The prologue is the epilogue, the epilogue a leaf holding everything at once. I keep arriving where I am, born and blessed again. I lean in close to radiance: I’ve always known how to get here.
When I look out your window I see another window
I see a wedding in my brain, a stylus and a groove
a voice waving there
When I look out your window I see another window
these trees are not real they grow out of air
they fell like dust they fell
So singing is seeing and vision is music
I saw diadems and crowns, daisies and bees, ribbons, robins,
and disks of snow
sprung effects in pencil-light
When I look out your window I see another window
I see a fire and a girl, crimson hair and hazel eyes
a public in the sky
When the world comes back it will be recorded sound
that cooing shrub will be known as dickinson
the syllabic, fricative, percussive, and phatic will tear open
Out your window I see another window
I see a funeral in the air I see alabaster space
I read circumference there
Accurate like an arrow without a target
and no target in mind.
Silence has its own roar or, not-roar,
just as Rothko wrote “I don’t express myself
in my paintings. I express my not-self.”
A poem that expresses the not-self.
Everything but the self.
The meadow’s veil of fog, but is veil self-referential?
Already, dawn, the not-birds alert to what silence has to offer.
The fog, one of Rothko’s shapes,
hanging there in the not-self, humming.
Mikel, before he died, loved Rothko most.
When he could still think, he put his mind
to those sorts of judgments.
If I pull the fog away like theater curtains, what then?
Sadness shapes the landscape.
The arrow of myself thwacks the nearest tree.
Fog steps closer like a perpetrator or a god.
Oh. I’m weeping.
Tears feed the silence like a mother drops
into her baby not-bird’s open beak
some sweet but dangerous morsel.
Of course I don’t know what
happens to us: if we survive in the
hands of love; if Cal, if Simone
and all the trembling answers
those questions entail; whether
by time or by disease or by
an atom bomb right in the eye. Is it
possible death could be thrilling
and fun? And after could there be
something somewhere and what
will we do if we see each other
there? Will the same songs stay stuck
in our heads? Will medicine
succeed in making life so long
we will beg for medicine to end it?
One cannot lock eyes with a bird,
its eyes vacant as ball bearings, but
mustn’t there be some recognition
in everything? Some fury, some
questioning? If one phrase could echo
throughout eternity, would the ear
on the other side return
a word? But what am I asking?
Will I ever see a whale, and will his size
compared to mine be a true
form of knowledge? Loneliness
has depths writing fails to fathom.
I could be clearer, say more, but
it wouldn’t mean as much. Mother
will I ever find you again? Is fear
of spiders fair? Is a power
above minding the scales, be it
science or gods or the weather,
and can they be tipped toward
balance from here? Is beauty more
than another form of pleasure?
What, which, when, how is better?
A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe,
“The fact has not created in me
A sense of obligation.”
There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away,
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears a Human soul.
Scrolling through the at-the-limit list of names, I’m caught unaware: my phone displays a friend I’ll never be able to call again. Now that all that’s left of her are memories I can’t delete her entry, it seems too final, as if it would erase our entire past together. Phones are democratic: jumbled together are lovers and colleagues, name after name in alphabetical order. It was she who finally convinced me to get a phone; the day my friend and I went to buy it is still a vivid memory: I was having one of those lapses of memory; not long before, he and I had spent the night together. We run into him on the street; both he and my friend expect an introduction, but I’ve forgotten his name. I’ve now forgotten so many boys; only their names remain, stored in my phone’s memory. Those I can delete, but not my friend’s. It’s as if all that remains of our friend- ship is this metonymy of her name on a SIM-card full of memories and names.
We could say that Rembrandt was a greater painter than Kandinsky. We could not say that Rembrandt was three and a half times better than Kandinsky. . . . We could say, "I have more pain than I had yesterday." When we tried to say, "I have nine dols of pain," we found we were talking nonsense.
- Leshan and Morgenau This is the pain you could fit in a tea ball. This is the pain you could pack in a pipe – a plug of pungent shag-cut pain, a pain to roll between the thumb and the forefinger. Here: this pain you could pour down the city sewers, where it would harden, and swell, and crack those tubes like the flex of a city-wide snake, and still you would wake and there would be more for the pouring. Some pain believes its only true measure is litigation. For other pain, the glint of the lamp in a single called-forth tear is enough. Some pain requires just one mouth, at an ear. Another pain requires the Transatlantic Cable. No ruled lines exist by which to gauge its growth (my pain at three years old. . . at five. . . ) and yet if we follow the chronolinear path of Rembrandt's face self-imaged over forty years - a human cell in the nurturing murk of his signature thick-laid paint – we see the look-by-look development, through early swank and rollick, of a kind of pain so comfortable it's worn, at the last, like a favorite robe, that's frayed by now, and intimate with the frailties of its body, and has an easy fit that the showiest cloak of office never could. In 1658, the gaze is equally into himself, and out to the world-at-large – they've reached a balance of apportioned disappointment – and the meltflesh under the eyes is the sallow of chicken skin, recorded with a faithfulness, with really a painterly tenderness, that lifts this understanding of pain into something so accommodating, "love" is the word that seems to apply to these mournfully basso bloodpan reds and tankard-bottom browns. Today in the library stacks, the open face of a woman above this opened book of Rembrandt reproductions might be something like the moon he looked to, thinking it shared in his sadness. What's her pain? her ohm, her acreage, her baker's dozen, of actual on-your-knees-in-the-abattoir misery? I don't know. I'm not writing this pretending that I know. What I can say is that the chill disc of the stethoscope is known to announce an increment of pain not inappropriate to being blurted forth along the city wall by a corps of regalia' d trumpeters. Who's to say what a "unit" of pain is? On a marshy slope beyond the final outpost, Rembrandt stares at the moon, and stares at the moon, until the background drumming-in of the ocean and the other assorted sounds of the Amsterdam night, and then the Amsterdam dawn, are one with his forlornness, and the mood fades into a next day, and a woman here in Kansas turns to face the sky: she's late for her appointment. She's due for another daily injection of nine c.c.'s of undiluted dol.
I was sympathetic to language, but often it shrugged me and kept other lovers. I crawled through the commas of Romanticism and rejected the rhythms, though sometimes at night I could feel a little sad. I could emerge now into a new kind of style, but the market is already flooded and my people have lost faith in things meant to land a clear yes or no. It’s good to welcome a stranger into the house. Introduce her to everyone sitting at the table and wash your hands before you serve her, lest the residue of other meals affect your affections. “If something is beautiful we do not even experience pain as pain.” (A man said that.) “I think I owe all words to my friends.” (I said that.) “We speak to one another in circles alone with ourselves.” (He said that, too.) That’s why we go to war. We’ve gotten too big to be friends with everyone and so I like to feel the fellowship of the person next to me shooting out across a foreign plain. The streams of light on the horizon are something I share with him and this is also a feeling of love. I spoke to his widow and touched his dog. I told his daughter how his last breath was Homeric and spoke of nothing but returning home.
If many remedies are prescribed
for an illness, you may be certain
that the illness has no cure.
A. P. CHEKHOV
The Cherry Orchard
1 FROM THE NURSERY When I was born, you waited behind a pile of linen in the nursery, and when we were alone, you lay down on top of me, pressing the bile of desolation into every pore. And from that day on everything under the sun and moon made me sad—even the yellow wooden beads that slid and spun along a spindle on my crib. You taught me to exist without gratitude. You ruined my manners toward God: "We're here simply to wait for death; the pleasures of earth are overrated." I only appeared to belong to my mother, to live among blocks and cotton undershirts with snaps; among red tin lunch boxes and report cards in ugly brown slipcases. I was already yours—the anti-urge, the mutilator of souls. 2 BOTTLES Elavil, Ludiomil, Doxepin, Norpramin, Prozac, Lithium, Xanax, Wellbutrin, Parnate, Nardil, Zoloft. The coated ones smell sweet or have no smell; the powdery ones smell like the chemistry lab at school that made me hold my breath. 3 SUGGESTION FROM A FRIEND You wouldn't be so depressed if you really believed in God. 4 OFTEN Often I go to bed as soon after dinner as seems adult (I mean I try to wait for dark) in order to push away from the massive pain in sleep's frail wicker coracle. 5 ONCE THERE WAS LIGHT Once, in my early thirties, I saw that I was a speck of light in the great river of light that undulates through time. I was floating with the whole human family. We were all colors—those who are living now, those who have died, those who are not yet born. For a few moments I floated, completely calm, and I no longer hated having to exist. Like a crow who smells hot blood you came flying to pull me out of the glowing stream. "I'll hold you up. I never let my dear ones drown!" After that, I wept for days. 6 IN AND OUT The dog searches until he finds me upstairs, lies down with a clatter of elbows, puts his head on my foot. Sometimes the sound of his breathing saves my life—in and out, in and out; a pause, a long sigh. . . . 7 PARDON A piece of burned meat wears my clothes, speaks in my voice, dispatches obligations haltingly, or not at all. It is tired of trying to be stouthearted, tired beyond measure. We move on to the monoamine oxidase inhibitors. Day and night I feel as if I had drunk six cups of coffee, but the pain stops abruptly. With the wonder and bitterness of someone pardoned for a crime she did not commit I come back to marriage and friends, to pink fringed hollyhocks; come back to my desk, books, and chair. 8 CREDO Pharmaceutical wonders are at work but I believe only in this moment of well-being. Unholy ghost, you are certain to come again. Coarse, mean, you'll put your feet on the coffee table, lean back, and turn me into someone who can't take the trouble to speak; someone who can't sleep, or who does nothing but sleep; can't read, or call for an appointment for help. There is nothing I can do against your coming. When I awake, I am still with thee. 9 WOOD THRUSH High on Nardil and June light I wake at four, waiting greedily for the first note of the wood thrush. Easeful air presses through the screen with the wild, complex song of the bird, and I am overcome by ordinary contentment. What hurt me so terribly all my life until this moment? How I love the small, swiftly beating heart of the bird singing in the great maples; its bright, unequivocal eye.