is what my sons call the flowers— purple, white, electric blue— pom-pomming bushes all along the beach town streets. I can’t correct them into hydrangeas, or I won’t. Bees ricochet in and out of the clustered petals, and my sons panic and dash and I tell them about good insects, pollination, but the truth is I want their fear-box full of bees. This morning the radio said tender age shelters. This morning the glaciers are retreating. How long now until the space-print backpack becomes district-policy clear? We’re almost to the beach, and High dangerous! my sons yell again, their joy in having spotted something beautiful, and called it what it is.
My brother, wanting to off himself, Took rope into a summer park. Rope, plus a knife For cutting it: a serrated hawkbill, Cushioned grip, with two-inch Curved, ignoble blade The manufacturers in their cruelty call A lightweight Meadowlark. Cruel because the meadowlark Is calm. They’re calm This morning. Sure, they shaggle the corn a bit, But otherwise, when they’re done, They perch on the fence in the golden sun, Heads down as if they’re sleeping.
The hurt returns as it always intended—it is tender as the inside of my thighs, it is as blue, too. O windless, wingless sky, show me your empire of loneliness, let me spring from the jaws of what tried to kill me. Let me look at your face and see a heaven worth having, all your sorry angels falling off a piano bench, laughing. Do you burn because you remember darkness? Outside the joy is clamoring. It is almost like the worst day of your life is ordinary for everyone else.
Moons on the upper visual field. I replay many springs for their ripening heat. Five limb in me: Ornate, Greased, Codling, Luna, Death’s-head. Two supernatural, three balance need. I feed on fat apples, pears: Tunnel toward center, a heaven in the core. Instinct attempts to correct with a turn toward light. My dress a brief darkness. Flits there. Another set of wings to tear. Spiral me in the silk of my tongue. Farm what is economical in me: Blood for blood, heart for snare. Scent, sweet air: My cedar, hung juniper, lavender cross: What holds the body keeps the body blesses the body’s lack. Is that not a blessing? What blooms in me: Trouble. Trouble. Trouble. So I consume. So I feed what festers. When navigating artificial light, the angle changes noticeably. Angle strict, beloved: My head a mess of moon.
When did I know that I’d have to carry it around
in order to have it when I need it, say in a pocket,
the dark itself not dark enough but needing to be
added to, handful by handful if necessary, until
the way my mother would sit all night in a room
without the lights, smoking, until she disappeared?
Where would she go, because I would go there.
In the morning, nothing but a blanket and all her
absence and the feeling in the air of happiness.
And so much loneliness, a kind of purity of being
and emptiness, no one you are or could ever be,
my mother like another me in another life, gone
where I will go, night now likely dark enough
I can be alone as I’ve never been alone before.
The Junior Minister waved a hand
toward the courtyard where, he said,
Goering’s private lion used to live.
With him we climbed Parliament’s steps,
walls pockmarked still with bullet holes.
In the conference room the Social Democrats
passed trays of petit fours and coffee.
We were perhaps insufficient, he said.
His voice, uninflected: they shipped
my father to Stalingrad. Forty days
and dead. In the room,
the transcriptionist, the translator,
and security stationed against
the wall. Some time passed.
In East Germany, he said, at least
it was always terrible. Bad luck, he said,
to be on that side of the wall. Even
the apples were poison. We were
to understand this was a little joke.
He brought the teacup to his mouth,
but did not drink. His fingernails
were tapered and very clean.
When you are the victim, he said,
it doesn’t matter who is killing you.
Ojhas are [medicine men, “the ones next to God,” religious ministers or priests who deal with the daily struggles of the village people]; this dynamic allows the village ojha to control the circulation of rumors, and he is the village member who has the power to trap daayans (witches). In some trials, the ojha reads grains of rice, burn marks on branches, and disturbances in the sand around his residence, for signs of a daayan.
certain beliefs precede his name & yet
he goes by many : dewar, bhagat,
priest. passive ear, the kind
of listener you’d give
your own face.
first, the village must [agree
that spirits exist]—some benevolent,
some deserving of fear. everyone
wants their universe
to have reason. so it must be
a woman who stole your portion
of rice, woman who smeared
your doorstep’s rangoli, woman
who looked sideways at your child.
give him your gossip & the ojha conjures
herbs to [appease the evil] : her raving,
innocent mouth. & by that token
what is truth. the other rumors,
too, could corroborate—that bullets
pass through, his body barely
there but for the holy
in his hands.
he chants her name with fingers
pushed into his ears. just the sound
of her bangles
undoes : a single woman
on a plot of land, unbecoming.
he reads her guilt [in grains
of rice, in the light of a lamp,
using a cup which moves
and identifies]. makes a circle
around himself. white sand
between him &
the world. it’s the dead hour.
now, he shouts, arms covered
in ants, sing.
Liquid alignment of fabric and outer thigh. Slip. Which mimics the thing it’s meant to allow. Passage of air on either side of the tongue whose meat as if to thicken the likeness of substance and sound meets just that plot of upper palate behind the teeth. And yet at normal speed the very aptness loses its full bouquet. “Salomé was wearing red pumps and the palest of pale blue satin slips.” I would in my predictable girlhood have much preferred a word I took to be scented like Giverny: “Salomé was wearing red pumps and a pale blue satin chemise.” It’s taken me all this time to hear the truer difference—slip— which only wants a little lingering in the mouth to summon how it thinks about the contours of the body. So the speed of it— slip—and the lingering can resume their proper tug- of-war. The boy they’d had the wit to cast as Salomé, both nude and may-as-well-be- nude, was every inch presentable, flawless, as though one might live in the body and feel no shame. No wonder, forced to endure as they did the reek of the tidal Thames, our predecessors took this for the universal object of desire. The history of the English stage right there in the slippage between not- quite and already over and gone. And yes I get the part about predation the grooming in all of its sordid detail, I was never half so fair as this but fair enough to have been fair game. In a town with limited options. I’ve spent more than half my life trying to rid myself of aftermath so let me be enchanted now. Youth at a safe remove.
When, at the end, the children wanted
to add glitter to their valentines, I said no.
I said nope, no, no glitter, and then,
when they started to fuss, I found myself
saying something my brother’s football coach
used to bark from the sidelines when one
of his players showed signs of being
human: oh come on now, suck it up.
That’s what I said to my children.
Suck what up? my daughter asked,
and, because she is so young, I told her
I didn’t know and never mind, and she took
that for an answer. My children are so young
when I turn off the radio as the news turns
to counting the dead or naming the act,
they aren’t even suspicious. My children
are so young they cannot imagine a world
like the one they live in. Their God is still
a real God, a whole God, a God made wholly
of actions. And I think they think I work
for that God. And I know they will someday soon
see everything and they will know about
everything and they will no longer take
never mind for an answer. The valentines
would’ve been better with glitter, and my son
hurt himself on an envelope, and then, much
later, when we were eating dinner, my daughter
realized she’d forgotten one of the three
Henrys in her class. How can there be three Henrys
in one class? I said, and she said, Because there are.
And so, before bed we took everything out
again—paper and pens and stamps and scissors—
and she sat at the table with her freshly washed hair
parted smartly down the middle and wrote
WILL YOU BE MINE, HENRY T.? and she did it
so carefully, I could hardly stand to watch.
My neighbor to the left had a stroke a couple years ago. It didn’t look like he was going to make it, and then he made it. I’m watching him now from my window as he makes his slow way across his yard with some tree branches that fell in last night’s storm. Three steps. Wait. Three steps. It’s a hard slog. Watching, I want to pitch in. And we do, at such times, wanting to help. But on the other hand, it’s good to be as physical as possible in recovery. Maybe this is part of his rehab. Maybe this is doctor’s orders: DO YARDWORK. And here comes his wife across the yard anyway, to give a hand with a large branch. She’s able to quickly overtake him, and she folds into the process smoothly, no words between them that I can make out. It’s another part of what makes us human, weighing the theory of mind, watching each other struggle or perform, anticipating each other’s thoughts, as the abject hovers uncannily in the background, threatening to break through the fragile borders of the self. “What’s it like to be a bat?” we ask. The bats don’t respond. How usually, our lives unfold at the periphery of catastrophes happening to others. I’m reading, while my neighbor struggles, that the squirrel population in New England is in the midst of an unprecedented boom. A recent abundance of acorns is the reason for this surge in squirrel populations, most particularly in New Hampshire. They’re everywhere, being squirrely, squirreling acorns away. We call it “Squirrelnado” because it’s all around us, circling, and dangerous, and kind of funny. Language springs from the land, and through our imagination we become human. They’re back in the house now. We name the things we see, or they name themselves into our experience, whichever, and then we use those names for things we don’t understand, what we can’t express. Wind becomes spirit becomes ghost. Mountain becomes god. The land springs up before us. It shakes us and pushes us over.
i. I’ve pulled from my throat birdsong like tin- sheeted lullaby [its vicious cold its hoax of wings] the rest of us forest folk dark angels chafing rabbits- foot for luck thrum-necked wear the face of nothing we’ve changed the Zodiac & I have refused a little planet little sum for struggle & sailed ourselves summerlong & arbitrary as a moon grave across a vastness [we’ve left the child- ren] Named the place penni- less motherhood Named the place country of mothers Named the place anywhere but death by self- ii. infliction is a god of many faces many nothings I’m afraid I’ll never be whole I’m afraid the rope from the hardware store [screws for nails] will teach itself to knot I’ve looked up noose I’ve learned to twine but these babies now halfway pruned through the clean bathwater of childhood I promised a god I would take to the ledge & show the pinstripes the pinkening strobe- lights maybe angels chiseled at creation into the rock [around my neck] the rock in the river I would never let them see I would never let them iii. break & spend a whole life backing away from that slip— Let us fly & believe [in the wreck] their perfect hope- sealed bodies the only parachutes we need
My son wants to know
his name. What does he look like? What does
he like? My son swims
four days a week. When my son swims
underwater, he glides
between strokes. When he glides underwater, he is
an arrow aimed
at a wall. Four days a week, his coach says,
coming up for air.
My father had blue eyes, blonde hair,
though mine are brown.
My father could not speak
Spanish and wondered, How can you love
another man? We rarely touched.
When my son
is counting, I count
with him. I say, I am
your father, too. 1…2…
In Saint Petersburg, on an autumn morning,
having been allowed an early entry
to the Hermitage, my family and I wandered
the empty hallways and corridors, virtually every space
adorned with famous paintings and artwork.
There must be a term for overloading on art.
One of Caravaggio’s boys smirked at us,
his lips a red that betrayed a sloppy kiss
recently delivered, while across the room
the Virgin looked on with nothing but sorrow.
Even in museums, the drama is staged.
Bored, I left my family and, steered myself,
foolish moth, toward the light coming
from a rotunda. Before me, the empty stairs.
Ready to descend, ready to step outside
into the damp and chilly air, I felt
the centuries-old reflex kick in, that sense
of being watched. When I turned, I found
no one; instead, I was staring at The Return
of the Prodigal Son. I had studied it, written about it
as a student. But no amount of study could have
prepared me for the size of it, the darkness of it.
There, the son knelt before his father, his dirty foot
left for inspection. Something broke. As clichéd
as it sounds, something inside me broke, and
as if captured on film, I found myself slowly sinking
to my knees. The tears began without warning until soon
I was sobbing. What reflex betrays one like this?
What nerve agent did Rembrandt hide
within the dark shades of paint that he used?
What inside me had malfunctioned, had left me
kneeling and sobbing in a museum?
Prosto plakat. Prosto plakat. Osvobodi sebya
said the guard as his hands steadied my shoulders.
He stood there repeating the phrase until
I stopped crying, until I was able to rise.
I’m not crazy, nor am I a very emotional man.
For most of my life, I have been called, correctly, cold.
As a student, I catalogued the techniques, carefully
analyzed this painting for a class on the “Dutch Masters.”
Years later, having mustered the courage to tell
this ridiculous story, a friend who spoke Russian
translated the guard’s words for me: “Just cry. Just cry.
Free yourself.” But free myself from what, exactly?
You see, I want this whole thing to be something
meaningful, my falling to my knees in front of a painting
by Rembrandt, a painting inspired by a parable
of forgiveness offered by a father to his lost son.
But nothing meaningful has presented itself. Even now,
after so much time has passed, I have no clue
what any of this means. I still haven’t figured out
whether or not I am the lost son or the found.
A young man learns to shoot & dies in the mud an ocean away from home, a rifle in his fingers & the sky dripping from his heart. Next to him a friend watches his final breath slip ragged into the ditch, a thing the friend will carry back to America— wound, souvenir, backstory. He’ll teach literature to young people for 40 years. He’ll coach his daughters’ softball teams. Root for Red Wings & Lions & Tigers. Dance well. Love generously. He’ll be quick with a joke & firm with handshakes. He’ll rarely talk about the war. If asked he’ll tell you instead his favorite story: Odysseus escaping from the Cyclops with a bad pun & good wine & a sharp stick. It’s about buying time & making do, he’ll say. It’s about doing what it takes to get home, & you see he has been talking about the war all along. We all want the same thing from this world: Call me nobody. Let me live.
Here on my lap, in a small plastic bag,
my share of your ashes. Let me not squander
them. Your family blindsided me with this gift.
We want to honor your bond they said at the end
of your service, which took place, as you'd
arranged, in a restaurant at the harbor,
an old two-story boathouse made of dark
wood. Some of us sat on the balcony, on black
leather bar stools, staring at rows of docked boats.
Both your husbands showed up and got along.
And of course your impossibly handsome son.
After lunch, a slideshow and testimonials,
your family left to toss their share of you
onto the ocean, along with some flowers.
You were the girlfriend I practiced kissing
with in sixth grade during zero-sleep
sleepovers. You were the pretty one.
In middle school I lived on diet Coke and
your sexual reconnaissance reports. In this
telling of our story your father never hits
you or calls you a whore. Always gentle
with me, he taught me to ride a bike after
everyone said I was too klutzy to learn.
In this version we're not afraid of our bodies.
In this fiction, birth control is easy to obtain,
and never fails. You still dive under a stall
divider in a restroom at the beach to free me
after I get too drunk to unlock the door. You still
reveal the esoteric mysteries of tampons. You
still learn Farsi and French from boyfriends
as your life ignites. In high school I still guide you
safely out of the stadium when you start yelling
that the football looks amazing as it shatters
into a million shimmering pieces, as you
loudly admit that you just dropped acid.
We lived to be sixty. Then poof, you vanished.
I can't snort you, or dump you out over my head,
coating myself in your dust like some hapless cartoon
character who's just blown herself up, yet remains
unscathed, as is the way in cartoons. In this version,
I remain in place for a while. Did you have a good
journey? I'm still lagging behind, barking up all
the wrong trees, whipping out my scimitar far
in advance of what the occasion demands. As I
drive home from your memorial, you fizz in
my head like a distant radio station. What
can I do to bridge this chasm between us?
In this fiction, I roll down the window, drive
uncharacteristically fast. I tear your baggie
open with my teeth and release you at 85
miles an hour, music cranked up full blast.
There once was a planet who was both sick and beautiful. Chemicals rode through her that she did not put there. Animals drowned in her eyeballs that she did not put there— animals she could not warn against falling in because she was of them, not separable from them. Define sick, the atmosphere asked. So she tried: she made a whale on fire somehow still swimming and alive. See? she said. Like that, kind of. But the atmosphere did not understand this, so the planet progressed in her argument. She talked about the skin that snakes shed, about satellites that circled her like suitors forever yet never said a word. She talked about the shyness of large things, how a blueberry dominates the tongue that it dies on. She talked and talked and the atmosphere started nodding— you could call this a revolution, or just therapy. Meanwhile the whale spent the rest of his life burning (etc., etc., he sang a few songs). When he finally died his body, continuing to burn steadily, drifted down to the ocean floor. And although the planet had long since forgotten him—he was merely one of her many examples—he became a kind of god in the eyes of the fish that saw him as he fell. Or not a god exactly, but at least something inexplicable. Something strange and worth briefly turning your face toward.
for Kenneka Jenkins and her mother
What is it about my mother’s face, a bright burn
when I think back, her teeth, her immaculate teeth
that I seldom saw or knew, her hair like braided
black liquorice. I am thinking of my mother’s face,
because she is like the mother in the news whose
daughter was found dead, frozen inside a hotel freezer.
My mother is this mourning mother who begged
the staff to search for her daughter, but was denied.
Black mothers are often seen pleading for their children,
shown stern and wailing, held back somehow by police
or caution tape—
a black mother just wants to see her baby’s body.
a black mother just wants to cover her baby’s body
with a sheet on the street. A black mother
leaves the coffin open for all the world to see,
and my mother is no different. She is worried
about seeing the last minutes of me: pre-ghost,
stumbling alone through empty hotel hallways
failing to find balance, searching for a friend,
a center, anyone, to help me home. Yes.
I’ve gotten into a van with strangers.
I’ve taken drugs with people that did not care
how hard or fast I smoked or blew.
But what did I know of Hayden? What did I know
of that poem besides my mother’s hands, her fist,
her prayers and premonitions? What did I know
of her disembodied voice hovering over the seams
of my life like the vatic song the whip-poor-will
makes when it can sense a soul dispersing?
Still. My mother wants to know where I am,
who I am with, and when will I land.
I get frustrated by her insistence on my safety
and survival. What a shame I am. I’m sorry, mom.
Some say Black love is different. Once,
I asked my mother why she always yelled
at me when I was little. She said I never listened
to her when she spoke to me in hushed tones
like a white mother would, meaning soft volume
is a privilege. Yeah, that’s right. I am using a stereotype
to say a louder thing. I am saying my mother
was screaming when she lost me in the mall once.
I keep hearing that voice everywhere I go.
I follow my name. The music of her rage sustains me.
we won’t tell you where it lies, as in time we might need the minor intimacy of that secret. just creatures, heavy with hope & begging against the grave song inside our living, we have agreed his death is the one cold chord we refuse to endure from the sorry endlessness of the blues. & if ever we fail to bear the rate at which we feel the world pining for the body of our boy, we can conjure that mole—the small brown presence of it tucked where only tenderness would think to look—& recall when it seemed nothing about our child could drift beyond the terrible certainty of love’s reach.
Within me, the sipped, iced bourbon enacts the sense of a slow, April rain blurring and nurturing a landscape. Decades I’ve been pipe-dreaming of finding a life as concise as a wartime telegram. Ultimately, I’ve ended up compiling an archive of miscommunication and the faded receipts of secondary disgraces. In third grade, a friend’s uncle stole the two dollars from my pocket as I slept on their couch, and later he must’ve hurried into the night toward a flat in the nearby building where a newly minted narcotic promised to evict the misgivings from all riled souls. I told no one of the theft, letting the emptiness become my government, my friend’s mother counting her food stamps while we walked the late-morning blocks to a bustling grocery, within which she eventually smacked the hopeful face of my friend as he reached again for too costly a thing.
turns out there are more planets than stars more places to land than to be burned I have always been in love with last chances especially now that they really do seem like last chances the trill of it all upending what’s left of my head after we explode are you ready to ascend in the morning I will take you on the wing
for my grandfather We don’t have heirlooms. Haven’t owned things long enough. We’re hoarding us in our stories. Like October 26—the Oklahoma Quick Stop gas at 90¢ and, in 158 more days, Passion of the Christ in a wildlife refuge with Rabbits foot and Black Capped birds—when Edgar Whetstone shoots himself. Like August 4, 1919. Like Ada Willis births the boy conceived with Boy gone somewhere. Like her prayers and circa 10 years past and Mr. Charlie saying, Edgar reads (you call that clean?) but please, girl, coloreds don’t become doctors. Like Edgar trashed his books. Like served, discharged. Like funeral director close to doctor as it got. Formaldehyde wrecked him like Time to get up out the South Detroit inspect dynamics burn a house down torch the county jail. Like now, October. Like I found, searching the internet, one shot of the asylum’s blurry hall empty but for an organ’s pipes. I saw Edgar deluding hymns rousing the two of us in Rock of Ages followed by Philippians 1:21—to die is gain. No way to prove the claim, you die in dream, you die for real. Our family still hanged from trees. Like if they ever fall, no one will hear it someday for a while.