Testimony in trials that never got heard
my lovers teeth are white geese flying above me
my lovers muscles are rope ladders under my hands
we were driving home slow
my lover and I, across the long Bay Bridge,
one February midnight, when midway
over in the far left lane, I saw a strange scene:
one small young man standing by the rail,
and in the lane itself, parked straight across
as if it could stop anything, a large young
man upon a stalled motorcycle, perfectly
relaxed as if he’d stopped at a hamburger stand;
he was wearing a peacoat and levis, and
he had his head back, roaring, you
could almost hear the laugh, it
was so real.
“Look at that fool,” I said, “in the
middle of the bridge like that,” a very
Then we heard the meaning of the noise
of metal on a concrete bridge at 50
miles an hour, and the far left lane
filled up with a big car that had a
motorcycle jammed on its front bumper, like
the whole thing would explode, the friction
sparks shot up bright orange for many feet
into the air, and the racket still sets
my teeth on edge.
When the car stopped we stopped parallel
and Wendy headed for the callbox while I
ducked across those 6 lanes like a mouse
in the bowling alley. “Are you hurt?” I said,
the middle-aged driver had the greyest black face,
“I couldn’t stop, I couldn’t stop, what happened?”
Then I remembered. “Somebody,” I said, “was on
the motorcycle.” I ran back,
one block? two blocks? the space for walking
on the bridge is maybe 18 inches, whoever
engineered this arrogance. in the dark
stiff wind it seemed I would
be pushed over the rail, would fall down
screaming onto the hard surface of
the bay, but I did not. I found the tall young man
who thought he owned the bridge, now lying on
his stomach, head cradled in his broken arm.
He had glasses on, but somewhere he had lost
most of his levis, where were they?
and his shoes. Two short cuts on his buttocks,
and that was the only mark except his thin white
seminal tubes were all strung out behind; no
child left in him; and he looked asleep.
I plucked wildly at his wrist, then put it
down; there were two long haired women
holding back the traffic just behind me
with their bare hands, the machines came
down like mad bulls, I was scared, much
more than usual, I felt easily squished
like the earthworms crawling on a busy
sidewalk after the rain; I wanted to
leave. And met the driver, walking back.
“The guy is dead.” I gripped his hand,
the wind was going to blow us off the bridge.
“Oh my God,” he said, “haven’t I had enough
trouble in my life?” He raised his head,
and for a second was enraged and yelling,
at the top of the bridge—“I was just driving
home!” His head fell down. “My God, and
now I’ve killed somebody.”
I looked down at my own peacoat and levis,
then over at the dead man’s friend, who
was bawling and blubbering, what they would
call hysteria in a woman. “It isn’t possible”
he wailed, but it was possible, it was
indeed, accomplished and unfeeling, snoring
in its peacoat, and without its levis on.
He died laughing: that’s a fact.
I had a woman waiting for me,
in her car and in the middle of the bridge,
I’m frightened, I said.
I’m afraid, he said, stay with me,
please don’t go, stay with me, be
my witness—“No,” I said, “I’ll be your
witness—later,” and I took his name
and number, “but I can’t stay with you,
I’m too frightened of the bridge, besides
I have a woman waiting
and no license—
and no tail lights—“
So I left—
as I have left so many of my lovers.
we drove home
shaking, Wendy’s face greyer
than any white person’s I have ever seen.
maybe he beat his wife, maybe he once
drove taxi, and raped a lover
of mine—how to know these things?
we do each other in, that’s a fact.
who will be my witness?
death wastes our time with drunkenness
death, who keeps us from our
he had a woman waiting for him,
I found out when I called the number
“Where is he” she said, “he’s disappeared.”
“He’ll be all right” I said, “we could
have hit the guy as easy as anybody, it
wasn’t anybody’s fault, they’ll know that,”
women so often say dumb things like that,
they teach us to be sweet and reassuring,
and say ignorant things, because we dont invent
the crime, the punishment, the bridges
that same week I looked into the mirror
and nobody was there to testify;
how clear, an unemployed queer woman
makes no witness at all,
nobody at all was there for
those two questions: what does
she do, and who is she married to?
I am the woman who stopped on the bridge
and this is the man who was there
our lovers teeth are white geese flying
above us, but we ourselves are
keep the women small and weak
and off the street, and off the
bridges, that’s the way, brother
one day I will leave you there,
as I have left you there before,
working for death.
we found out later
what we left him to.
Six big policemen answered the call,
all white, and no child in them.
they put the driver up against his car
and beat the hell out of him.
What did you kill that poor kid for?
you mutherfucking nigger.
that’s a fact.
Death only uses violence
when there is ant kind of resistance,
the rest of the time a slow
weardown will do.
They took him to 4 different hospitals
til they got a drunk test report to fit their
case, and held him five days in jail
without a phone call.
how many lovers have we left.
there are as many contradictions to the game,
as there are players.
a woman is talking to death,
though talk is cheap, and life takes a long time
right. He got a cheesy lawyer
who had him cop a plea, 15 to 20
instead of life
Did I say life?
the arrogant young man who thought he
owned the bridge, and fell asleep on it
died laughing: that’s a fact.
the driver sits out his time
off the street somewhere,
does he have the most vacant of
eyes, will he die laughing?
They don’t have to lynch the women anymore
death sits on my doorstep
cleaning his revolver
death cripples my feet and sends me out
to wait for the bus alone,
then comes by driving a taxi.
the woman on our block with 6 young children
has the most vacant of eyes
death sits in her bedroom, loading
they don’t have to lynch the women
very often anymore, although
they used to—the lord and his men
went through the villages at night, beating &
killing every woman caught
the European witch trials took away
an independent people; two different villages
—after the trials were through that year—
had left in them, each—
one living woman:
What were those other women up to? had they
run over someone? stopped on the wrong bridge?
did they have teeth like
any kind of geese, or children
This woman is a lesbian be careful
In the military hospital where I worked
as a nurse’s aide, the walls of the halls
were lined with howling women
waiting to deliver
or to have some parts removed.
One of the big private rooms contained
the general’s wife, who needed
a wart taken off her nose.
we were instructed to give her special attention
not because of her wart or her nose
but because of her husband, the general.
as many women as men die, and that’s a fact.
At work there was one friendly patient, already
claimed, a young woman burnt apart with X-ray,
she had long white tubes instead of openings;
rectum, bladder, vagina—I combed her hair, it
was my job, but she took care of me as if
nobody’s touch could spoil her.
ho ho death, ho death
have you seen the twinkle in the dead woman’s eye?
when you are a nurse’s aide
someone suddenly notices you
and yells about the patient’s bed,
and tears the sheets apart so you
can do it over, and over
while the patient waits
doubled over in her pain
for you to make the bed again
and no one ever looks at you,
only at what you do not do
Here, general, hold this soldier’s bed pan
for a moment, hold it for a year—
then we’ll promote you to making his bed.
we believe you wouldn’t make such messes
if you had to clean up after them.
that’s a fantasy.
this woman is a lesbian, be careful.
When I was arrested and being thrown out
of the military, the order went out: dont anybody
speak to this woman, and for those three
long months, almost nobody did: the dayroom, when
I entered it, fell silent til I had gone; they
were afraid, they knew the wind would blow
them over the rail, the cops would come,
the water would run into their lungs.
Everything I touched
was spoiled. They were my lovers, those
women, but nobody had taught us how to swim.
I drowned, I took 3 or 4 others down
when I signed the confession of what we
had done together.
No one will ever speak to me again.
I read this somewhere; I wasn’t there:
in WWII the US army had invented some floating
amphibian tanks, and took them over to
the coast of Europe to unload them,
the landing ships all drawn up in a fleet,
and everybody watching. Each tank had a
crew of 6 and there were 25 tanks.
The first went down the landing planks
and sank, the second, the third, the
fourth, the fifth, the sixth went down
and sank. They weren’t supposed
to sink, the engineers had
made a mistake. The crews looked around
wildly for the order to quit,
but none came, and in the sight of
thousands of men, each 6 crewmen
saluted his officers, battened down
his hatch in turn and drove into the
sea, and drowned, until all 25 tanks
were gone. did they have vacant
eyes, die laughing, or what? what
did they talk about, those men,
as the water came in?
was the general their lover?
A Mock Interrogation
Have you ever held hands with a woman?
Yes, many times—women about to deliver, women about to have breasts removed, wombs removed, miscarriages, women having epileptic fits, having asthma, cancer, women having breast bone marrow sucked out of them by nervous or indifferent interns, women with heart condition, who were vomiting, overdosed, depressed, drunk, lonely to the point of extinction: women who had been run over, beaten up. deserted. starved. women who had been bitten by rats; and women who were happy, who were celebrating, who were dancing with me in large circles or alone, women who were climbing mountains or up and down walls, or trucks and roofs and needed a boost up, or I did; women who simply wanted to hold my hand because they liked me, some women who wanted to hold my hand because they liked me better than anyone.
These were many women?
What about kissing? Have you kissed any women?
I have kissed many women.
When was the first woman you kissed with serious feeling?
The first woman ever I kissed was Josie, who I had loved at such a distance for months. Josie was not only beautiful, she was tough and handsome too. Josie had black hair and white teeth and strong brown muscles. Then she dropped out of school unexplained. When she came back she came back for one day only, to finish the term, and there was a child in her. She was all shame, pain, and defiance. Her eyes were dark as the water under a bridge and no one would talk to her, they laughed and threw things at her. In the afternoon I walked across the front of the class and looked deep into Josie’s eyes and I picked up her chin with my hand, because I loved her, because nothing like her trouble would ever happen to me, because I hated it that she was pregnant and unhappy, and an outcast. We were thirteen.
You didn’t kiss her?
How does it feel to be thirteen and having a baby?
You didn’t actually kiss her?
Not in fact.
You have kissed other women?
Yes, many, some of the finest women I know, I have kissed. women who were lonely, women I didn’t know and didn’t want to, but kissed because that was a way to say yes we are still alive and loveable, though separate, women who recognized a loneliness in me, women who were hurt, I confess to kissing the top of a 55 year old woman’s head in the snow in boston, who was hurt more deeply than I have ever been hurt, and I wanted her as a very few people have wanted me—I wanted her and me to own and control and run the city we lived in, to staff the hospital I knew would mistreat her, to drive the transportation system that had betrayed her, to patrol the streets controlling the men who would murder or disfigure or disrupt us, not accidently with machines, but on purpose, because we are not allowed on the street alone—
Have you ever committed any indecent acts with women?
Yes, many. I am guilty of allowing suicidal women to die before my eyes or in my ears or under my hands because I thought I could do nothing, I am guilty of leaving a prostitute who held a knife to my friend’s throat because we would not sleep with her, we thought she was old and fat and ugly; I am guilty of not loving her who needed me; I regret all the women I have not slept with or comforted, who pulled themselves away from me for lack of something I had not the courage to fight for, for us, our life, our planet, our city, our meat and potatoes, our love. These are indecent acts, lacking courage, lacking a certain fire behind the eyes, which is the symbol, the raised fist, the sharing of resources, the resistance that tells death he will starve for lack of the fat of us, our extra. Yes I have committed acts of indecency with women and most of them were acts of omission. I regret them bitterly.
Bless this day oh cat our house
“I was allowed to go
3 places, growing up,” she said—
“3 places, no more.
there was a straight line from my house
to school, a straight line from my house
to church, a straight line from my house
to the corner store.”
her parents thought something might happen to her.
but nothing ever did.
my lovers teeth are white geese flying above me
my lovers muscles are rope ladders under my hands
we are the river of life and the fat of the land
death, do you tell me I cannot touch this woman?
if we use each other up
on each other
that’s a little bit less for you
a little bit less for you, ho
death, ho ho death.
Bless this day oh cat our house
help me be not such a mouse
death tells the woman to stay home
and then breaks in the window.
I read this somewhere, I wasnt there:
In feudal Europe, if a woman committed adultery
her husband would sometimes tie her
down, catch a mouse and trap it
under a cup on her bare belly, until
it gnawed itself out, now are you
afraid of mice?
Dressed as I am, a young man once called
me names in Spanish
a woman who talks to death
is a dirty traitor
inside a hamburger joint and
dressed as I am, a young man once called me
names in Spanish
then he called me queer and slugged me.
first I thought the ceiling had fallen down
but there was the counterman making a ham
sandwich, and there was I spread out on his
For God’s sake I said when
I could talk, this guy is beating me up
can’t you call the police or something,
can’t you stop him? he looked up from
working on his sandwich, which was my
sandwich, I had ordered it. He liked
the way I looked. “There’s a pay phone
right across the street” he said.
I couldn’t listen to the Spanish language
for weeks afterward, without feeling the
most murderous of urges, the simple
association of one thing to another,
so damned simple.
The next day I went to the police station
to become an outraged citizen
Six big policemen stood in the hall,
all white and dressed as they do
they were well pleased with my story, pleased
at what had gotten beat out of me, so
I left them laughing, went home fast
and locked my door.
For several nights I fantasized the scene
again, this time grabbing a chair
and smashing it over the bastard’s head,
killing him. I called him a spic, and
killed him. my face healed. his didnt.
no child in me.
now when I remember I think:
maybe he was Josie’s baby.
all the chickens come home to roost,
all of them.
Death and disfiguration
One Christmas eve my lovers and I
we left the bar, driving home slow
there was a woman lying in the snow
by the side of the road. She was wearing
a bathrobe and no shoes, where were
her shoes? she had turned the snow
pink, under her feet. she was an Asian
woman, didn’t speak much English, but
she said a taxi driver beat her up
and raped her, throwing her out of his
what on earth was she doing there
on a street she helped to pay for
but doesn’t own?
doesn’t she know to stay home?
I am a pervert, therefore I’ve learned
to keep my hands to myself in public
but I was so drunk that night,
I actually did something loving
I took her in my arms, this woman,
until she could breathe right, and
my friends are perverts too
they touched her too
we all touched her.
“You’re going to be all right”
we lied. She started to cry
“I’m 55 years old” she said
and that said everything.
Six big policemen answered the call
no child in them.
they seemed afraid to touch her,
then grabbed her like a corpse and heaved her
on their metal stretcher into the van,
crashing and clumsy.
She was more frightened than before.
they were cold and bored.
‘don’t leave me’ she said.
‘she’ll be all right’ they said.
we left, as we have left all of our lovers
as all lovers leave all lovers
much too soon to get the real loving done.
a mock interrogation
Why did you get into the cab with him, dressed as you are?
I wanted to go somewhere.
Did you know what the cab driver might do
if you got into the cab with him?
I just wanted to go somewhere.
How many times did you
get into the cab with him?
I dont remember.
If you dont remember, how do you know it happened to you?
Hey you death
ho and ho poor death
our lovers teeth are white geese flying above us
our lovers muscles are rope ladders under our hands
even though no women yet go down to the sea in ships
except in their dreams.
only the arrogant invent a quick and meaningful end
for themselves, of their own choosing.
everyone else knows how very slow it happens
how the woman’s existence bleeds out her years,
how the child shoots up at ten and is arrested and old
how the man carries a murderous shell within him
and passes it on.
we are the fat of the land, and
we all have our list of casualties
to my lovers I bequeath
the rest of my life
I want nothing left of me for you, ho death
except some fertilizer
for the next batch of us
who do not hold hands with you
who do not embrace you
who try not to work for you
or sacrifice themselves or trust
or believe you, ho ignorant
death, how do you know
we happened to you?
wherever our meat hangs on our own bones
for our own use
your pot is so empty
death, ho death
you shall be poor
"A Woman Is Talking to Death" from Judy Grahn's The Judy Grahn Reader (Aunt Lute Press, 2009). wwwauntlute.com
You whom I could not save,
Listen to me.
Can we agree Kevlar
backpacks shouldn’t be needed
for children walking to school?
Those same children
also shouldn’t require a suit
of armor when standing
on their front lawns, or snipers
to watch their backs
as they eat at McDonalds.
They shouldn’t have to stop
to consider the speed
of a bullet or how it might
reshape their bodies. But
one winter, back in Detroit,
I had one student
who opened a door and died.
It was the front
door to his house, but
it could have been any door,
and the bullet could have written
any name. The shooter
was thirteen years old
and was aiming
at someone else. But
a bullet doesn’t care
about “aim,” it doesn’t
the innocent and the innocent,
and how was the bullet
supposed to know this
child would open the door
at the exact wrong moment
because his friend
was outside and screaming
for help. Did I say
I had “one” student who
opened a door and died?
There were many.
The classroom of grief
had far more seats
than the classroom for math
though every student
in the classroom for math
could count the names
of the dead.
A kid opens a door. The bullet
couldn’t possibly know,
nor could the gun, because
“guns don't kill people,” they don’t
have minds to decide
such things, they don’t choose
or have a conscience,
and when a man doesn’t
have a conscience, we call him
a psychopath. This is how
we know what type of assault rifle
a man can be,
and how we discover
the hell that thrums inside
each of them. Today,
shooting with dead
kids everywhere. It was a school,
a movie theater, a parking lot.
is full of doors.
And you, whom I cannot save,
you may open a door
and enter a meadow, or a eulogy.
And if the latter, you will be
mourned, then buried
There will be
monuments of legislation,
little flowers made
from red tape.
What should we do? we’ll ask
again. The earth will close
like a door above you.
What should we do?
And that click you hear?
That’s just our voices,
the deadbolt of discourse
sliding into place.
Copyright © 2016 by Matthew Olzmann. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on January 5, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.
This is the key to the kingdom, rustproof
nickel silver, cut in the hardware aisle
by a man in uniform on a rotating steel
carbide blade, a vice securing the blank,
the key’s rounded bow a medallion of sun
with a hole punched through to hang
on its galactic ring. Weightless in the palm,
the shoulder is sharp to mark the exact
depth of engagement. A jagged range
of peaks garnish the shaft, align
with wards in the pin tumbler keyway
and unlock the door, swung open to reveal
the kingdom. Of rain, of infancy, kingdom
of clapboard, concealed carry, of the night shift
at Frito-Lay, nuclear gerontology at Los Alamos,
L-shaped couches, tributaries of heroin up
the Mississippi basin, of prison writing workshops,
kingdom of arugula, of a slaughtered pee wee team
invoking the mercy rule, peaches and asters, of
helicopter cinematography, a girl blowing bubbles
over the river, of a poet unable to sustain
the Blakean conviction that all subjectivities,
predator and prey, are holy, that police are,
a coyote stalking the pinnacles, bald eagle at the zoo.
In that kingdom there is a state, “the state
with the prettiest name,” land of flowers
on the conquistador’s tongue, the state of
brackish water, coastline and glade, made
habitable by sugar and central air, porn mecca
with oranges, flakka zombie flail, grandchildren
lollygagging in manatee exhibits, space exploration
over a red tide choking the cape east of the polis
where a dance club pulses until a man
enucleates its love. If blinded by hatred
of those unlike himself, or by hatred of himself,
the stem that anchors the thorn is the same.
In that state there is a city, initiating its morning
thaw, flag over the courthouse at half mast,
a hollow sidewalk yawning to accept boxes of granola,
olives, wheels of manchego slid down into the deli’s
larder, newspapers slung at stoops from the window
of a crawling minivan, women in yoga pants
clutching Lululemon mats like scrolls, diesel exhaust,
certified nurses in scrubs streaming into the hospital
where a man bleeds from a hole in his still
uncertain future and a woman veers into labor,
the ovaries in the fetus in her womb already freighted
with all the egg cells her child will possess.
Over that city there is a forecast, severe weather,
a storm that hangs like a decaying gourd from twine
in the kingdom’s portico, gourd of a variety present
in the New World before Columbus, the exact moment
of its breaking impossible to predict but certain
to arrive when its curved neck can no longer
sustain the weight of its own rot and snaps, drops,
blows open nutty white flesh on steps below,
gale force and hail wrung out of the jet stream’s
trough and bulge contact zones, over grasslands then
south to the city where white men confuse any threat
to their absolute power as a form of persecution.
In that storm there is a house, its roofline lashed
by rain that courses down asphalt shingles
to decorative gables, slides over dormers,
pools in gutters then runs down downspouts
onto the saturated lawn, water wrapping the house
like a body in muslin. A house in old Colonial style
but thrown off by additions in the back, interior walls
subtracted for flow, a decade-by-decade replacement
of hardwood floors, fixtures, the chimney sealed up,
molting over generations each original element
like the ship of Theseus, this poem of slow violence
with bodies that change in a form that remains.
And now that she is at rest, poor woman,
now that the sky’s ritual errancies have tried
to sack her house and failed, and fled,
Justine is alone again. A black kerchief
tied across her eyes, she measures in darkness
ground coffee beans strong as rocket fuel
on a digital scale, pours steaming water in circles
to bloom the beans. When the brew is rich
and viscous, she glides to her typewriter and writes
“In that house there is only this room.”
She removes her sword from the wall
and cuts the blindfold from her eyes.
In that room there is a bed, Justine’s bed,
tucked with hospital corners, quilt spread
tight as a drum skin and depicting a black cross
side to side, toe to head, marking the kingdom’s
epicenter in crosshairs beneath which she nightly
slept. The bed is empty. Justine is gone. She drags
her sword through thick woods, alive with new
perceptual acuity, hacking at brambles, hoverflies
mobbing her head as she reaches the brook, blade
glinting with orange flecks of sunset as she writes
the word “retribution” in the sky, leaving tracers
in her vision like a sparkler on the Fourth of July.
On the bed Justine left behind, there is a book
bound in leather, the one that wrote her into allegory
long before statues in her honor were erected
in civil squares, dog eared at the passage in which
she is still an ideal, standing blind in train tracks
with a falcon on her shoulder. Before she sees
the locomotive, she hears the bell, bell, bell,
feels the ties tremble, and then the engine’s
pistons announcing the arrival of freight: an eight
ton Bearcat armored personnel vehicle, assault rifles,
Kevlar helmets, pilotless surveillance drone, hounds of hell,
bomb-disarming robots and 400 sworn officers of the law.
In the final pages of that book there is a flowering plant,
blue false indigo, native to America, growing wild
at the border of the forest where Justine now stands,
its roots described as woody, black, unkillable, branching
underground in a rhizomatic hydra of power belonging
to no one, to all, its genus derived from the Greek,
bapto, as in dip, immerse, baptize, and make new
from criminal soil. In writing, the plant is motionless,
an image that flickers in the mind and recedes again
into the grammar of its making, but in the wind
that wraps Justine just now, the plant is stereoscopic,
grey-green leaves waving, violet flowers in riot.
In that plant there is a sap that goes blue
on contact with oxygen. It contains a toxin.
Toxic blue dye comes alive as Justine slices
into the hairless stem. Silken weapon, it beads
then streams toward her heels, a blue
the Greeks could not see, blue of the ribbon
holding back Washington’s hair, blue robin egg
hidden in the nest, blue of the officer’s uniform
the moment before he raises his firearm, Neptune’s
blue glow, blue of her birth certificate and a darker
blue passport embossed with the kingdom’s gold eagle,
one talon for the olive branch, one for the arrows.
In that blue there is a belief
that the kingdom’s dome has been sealed
from within, that the exceptions have devoured
the rule, that the watchers need watched
and the charges dismissed, that the presumption
of safety has been put on permanent layaway
for those not born into it, a presumption replaced
with this color that cuts, as it has, as it must,
both ways. Justine’s eyes ache. The sky
is bright with exhortation. She fills each vial
like an inkwell, clambers over monster ferns,
and heads to the city to face the king.
Belief in the blue, in its cruel illusion
of habeas corpus, of “You may have a body.”
Blue in the sap, in its toxin of last resort.
Sap in the plant, blue false indigo,
its deep and communal roots. Plant
in the book where Justine’s an ideal.
Book on the bed in the room she fled
for the city, where if you stand, if you run,
if you resist or comply, where if your pants
are low or high, where to be visible is to hang
in the balance. Bed in the room, room in the house
where she cut the kerchief from her eyes.
House in a storm mistaking its temporary
strength as permanent weather, storm in the city
where Justine follows a river of others
into the tear gas plume. City in the state
with the prettiest name, state in the kingdom
that forgot its key and kicked in the door.
Copyright © 2016 by Ted Mathys. Originally published in Poem-a-Day on November 30, 2016, by the Academy of American Poets.