Throughout this course,
we’ll study the American
landscape of our yard, coiled line
of the garden hose,
muddy furrows in the grass
awaiting our analysis,
what’s called close reading
of the ground. And somewhere
something will yip in pain
perhaps, a paw caught in a wire,
or else the furred and oily
yowling of desire.
And flickering beyond the fence,
we’ll see the slatted lives
of strangers. The light
above a neighbor’s porch
will be a test of how we tolerate
of uncertainty, a glow
that’s argument to shadow.
Or if not that, we’ll write an essay
on the stutter of the bulb,
the little glimmering that goes
before the absolute of night.
The whales can’t hear each other calling
in the noise-cluttered sea: they beach themselves.
I saw one once— heaved onto the sand with kelp
stuck to its blue-gray skin.
Heavy and immobile
it lay like a great sadness.
And it was hard to breathe with all the stink.
Its elliptical black eyes had stilled, were mostly dry,
and barnacles clustered on its back
like tiny brown volcanoes.
Imagining the other whales, their roving weight,
their blue-black webbing of the deep,
I stopped knowing how to measure my own grief.
And this one, large and dead on the sand
with its unimaginable five-hundred-pound heart.
The grapefruit in the Florida orchard
has ripened into a globe in Hartford
for him to look at, not to eat.
If he had a tin can he would beat
it as a drummer in a band beats
his drum and steadily with a swish
and sometimes a gong. It’s his wish
to escape from gray walls and sky
into a Denmark of the inner eye
or a bullring south of the border
or a sky espied from the trenches
of a battlefield in Flanders. Wenches
wander into his wonderland. Order
is disorder squared. We are nowhere
else but here, yet live we do in metaphor
like that elegant square-shouldered matador.
Each morning, before the sun rises
over the bay of Villefranche-sur-Mer
on the Côte d’Azur, cruise ships drop anchor
so that motor launches from shore
can nurse alongside. All afternoon we studied
les structures où nous sommes l’objet, structures
in which we are the object—le soleil
me dérange, le Côte d’Azur nous manque—
while the pompiers angled their Bombardiers
down to the sea, skimming its surface
like pelicans and rising, filled
with water to drop on inland, inaccessible
wildfires. Once, a swimmer was found face down
in a tree like the unfledged robin I saw
flung to the ground, rowing
its pink shoulders as if in the middle
of the butterfly stroke, rising a moment
above water. Oiseau is the shortest word
in French to use all five vowels: “the soul
and tie of every word,” which Dante named
auieo. All through December, a ladybug circles
high around the kitchen walls looking for
spring, the way we search for a word that will hold
all vows and avowals: eunoia, Greek
for “beautiful thinking,” because the world’s
a magic slate, sleight of hand—now
you see it, now you don’t—not exactly
a slight, although in Elizabethan English, “nothing”
was pronounced “noting.” In the Bodleian Library
at Oxford, letters of the alphabet hang
from the ceiling like the teats
of the wolf that suckled Romulus
and Remus, but their alibi
keeps changing, slate gray like the sea’s
massage: You were more in me than I was
in me. . . . You remained within while I
went outside. Hard to say
whether it was Augustine
speaking to God or my mother
talking to me. Gulls ink the sky
with view, while waves throw themselves
on the mercy of the shore.
A Criticism of Life: for Andrews Wanning
So there stood Matthew Arnold and this girl
With the cliffs of England crumbling away behind them,
And he said to her, 'Try to be true to me,
And I'll do the same for you, for things are bad
All over, etc., etc.'
Well now, I knew this girl. It's true she had read
Sophocles in a fairly good translation
And caught that bitter allusion to the sea,
But all the time he was talking she had in mind
The notion of what his whiskers would feel like
On the back of her neck. She told me later on
That after a while she got to looking out
At the lights across the channel, and really felt sad,
Thinking of all the wine and enormous beds
And blandishments in French and the perfumes.
And then she got really angry. To have been brought
All the way down from London, and then be addressed
As a sort of mournful cosmic last resort
Is really tough on a girl, and she was pretty.
Anyway, she watched him pace the room
And finger his watch-chain and seem to sweat a bit,
And then she said one or two unprintable things.
But you mustn't judge her by that. What I mean to say is,
She's really all right. I still see her once in a while
And she always treats me right. We have a drink
And I give her a good time, and perhaps it's a year
Before I see her again, but there she is,
Running to fat, but dependable as they come.
And sometimes I bring her a bottle of Nuit d' Amour.
I love a white v-neck t-shirt
on you: two cotton strips racing
to a point they both arrived at: there
vigor barely contained, flaming hair,
collarless, fenced-in skin that shines.
Cool drop of hem, soft & lived-in,
so unlike my father, to bed you go,
flushed with fur in a rabbit’s burrow
or nest for a flightless bird, brooding.
Let me be that endangered species,
huddled in the vessel of the inverted
triangle: gaped mouth of a great white
fish on the verge of striking, poised
to devour & feed on skin, on all.