I have carried in my coat, black wet
with rain. I stand. I clear my throat.
My coat drips. The carved door closes
on its slow brass hinge. City noises—
car horns, bicycle bells, the respiration
truck engines, the whimpering
steel in midtown taxi brakes—bend
in through the doorjamb with the wind
then drop away. The door shuts plumb: it seals
the world out like a coffin lid. A chill,
dampened and dense with the spent breath
of old Hail Marys, lifts from the smoothed
stone of the nave. I am here to pay
my own respects, but I will wait:
my eyes must grow accustomed
to church light, watery and dim.
I step in. Dark forms hunch forward
in the pews. Whispering, their heads
are bowed, their mouths pressed
to the hollows of clasped hands.
High overhead, a gathering of shades
glows in stained glass: the resurrected
mingle with the dead and martyred
in panes of blue, green, yellow, red.
Beneath them lies the golden holy
altar, holding its silence like a bell,
and there, brightly skeletal beside it,
the organ pipes: cold, chrome, quiet
but alive with a vibration tolling
out from the incarnate
source of holy sound. I turn, shivering
back into my coat. The vaulted ceiling
bends above me like an ear. It waits:
I hold my tongue. My body is my prayer.
As a girl I held the hind
legs of the small and terrified, wanted
the short-fur and the wet meat furrowing.
Wanted the soft cry of the quavering
boy at primary school, rockstone
mashed up against his tender head,
the sick milk of us poor ones sucked
clean from a Government-issued plastic bag.
At lunchtime children were lethal
and precise, a horde hurling “Ben-foot”
at she who was helpless and I
waking too-surprised to hear my own
cruel mouth taunting. Her smile some
handsome forgery of myself.
Grateful, even now,
they cannot see the bald-wire
patois of my shamdom—
Makeshift, dreaming the warmth
spent in the muscle of the living,
the girl I grew inside my head dreaming
of a real girl, dreaming.
I wanted a pearled purse so I stole it.
I wanted a real friend so I let him. Let her.
Let him. Let him. Let him.
This beauty I am eager to hoard
comes slippery on ordinary days,
comes not at all, comes never.
Yet I am a pure shelled-thing. Glistening
manmade against the wall where one
then two fingers entered
the first time,
terror dazzling the uncertainty
of pleasure. Its God as real as girlhood.
you a subtle
“touch, too, is an infinite
system of communication,” she said,
floating in the pool, and traced an arc
along the light wave surface then my arm,
“each living gesture precarious
which is the root of a latin prayer.”
Funny, isn’t it, how hard to describe
a good man? In the shower, I let
the water run hot as my blood filtering
a mirror of loss. The messenger arrived
flustered as feathers falling to the place
where feathers go to find each other. Who
is the man who makes you remark, “I have
been lucky”? How does the faucet instruct
forgiveness? Our voices spiral to meet
with too much space between. My cuticles
shine like chrome under the moment’s remains.
A demand for nakedness pools somewhere
down the drain. For what we’ve been able to
let go, and know it happens to us all.
Your curls are soaked in gold but your fingers
cling to my back & could work
a filament & needle through
the gash that leads to the decayed
rafters of a barn
hush the pigeons who coo there
one by one by
breaking their necks
The river smells of September wending
through the dry fields
a blue vein
your thumb traces along a wrist
to the source
I’ve slept with the image of your
arm on my chest
your breath collects in the tiniest
droplets on my neck
but touching myself
to your scalp’s human smell
tarnishes the mirror’s
Another woman holds
your beloved’s hands
You hold me like the blue
of an egg you’ve found
bulging from the grass
Trade your house key for
a clutch of mums
we'll put in water on the sill
Fold your ring
in the chapped hand of a man
waiting by the exit ramp
though the jingle of coins or
a bitten chicken sandwich
Turn to me & lift your hair
I’ll clasp on you a necklace
strung with the heads of snakes
for Edward Baugh
Flashing silk phantoms
from the promontory,
when seen at dark
rushing to their beds,
those lights corroding
over Navy Island,
never grow old.
In two enamel basins,
fill water to wash overripe
stars, eaten without
second guess, worm
and all, from veranda
chairs, where no guilt
brims over, whatsoever.
As frost, unknown, intimate
breath bursts hot its kind
silence. Get up, go greet
Errol Flynn’s ghost
at the empty footbridge,
leaning on the breeze.
Maroons hum out
of hills, restless as
“Even days coming
are already gone
too soon,” then return
before the river’s lustre
hides their voices
slow leaves bring
down our morning.
“If you were a star,” you said, “you’d be called Forgive me.”
To which I smiled (you couldn’t see me) and said,
“Or Forgive me not.”
You said “Beware the ides of March on days we’re distant
from bees and flowers.”
“Not if the bees in the mouth don’t sting,” I said,
“and the air we move is a monk’s in a meditative year.”
“Are we the plants or the particles,
the planets or the elements?” you asked,
“and our touchless touching, vector-dependent sex,
and the honey mouth, are they
the silences that waggle the tune
on our foraging routes?”
“When I say honey,” I clarified,
“I’m asking you whose pollen you contain.
We’re no snowflake symmetry
yet to each pollen grain its aperture:
porous, colpate, yet blanketing the earth
as crystals might, and light isn’t refused.”
“And when I say honey,” you said
“I grip my sweetness on your life,
on stigma and anthophile,
and the soporific folded on its synchronous river
that doesn’t intend to dissect my paradise.”
“O captive my captive, we lost and what did love gain,”
I asked, “I haven’t fallen from where I haven’t been,
or exited what I didn’t enter.”
“Seen or unseen,” you said, “I’ll live in your mouth.
We have an extra room. The children like it there,
mead in it their stories and playdough.”
“As if a child is the cosmic dust that made me,
and I’m the suffix, its -ide.”
“And within that child a child.”
“And within that another.”
I awake to you. A burning building.
The alarm is my own. Internal alarm, clock alarm,
then coming through your very walls. The alarm
is of you. I call first with my mouth. Then with my phone.
No one. Then maybe someone. Then yes, a fire fighter, or two, is coming.
Outside, the children gather and gawk. Cover their ears from the blare.
They are clothed in their footed pajamas. We are all awake now. Even you,
the burning building.
I’m leaving, I say. I look them each in the eyes, the mouths, the chests.
I look at their footed feet.
I’m leaving you burning. The children can walk. The children can follow.
The building burns now behind me. You burn,
behind me. The alarm
Screams. No. No.
There is a field between us.
Now you are calling.
And now beseeching.
Behind me the children are a trail of children. Some following. Some clinging.
And now you, my home, my building, burn and burn.
There is a mountain between us.
And now you are ringing.
And now you are singing.
I look back. Back to you, burning building.
You are a glowing dancer, you are a façade on sparkling display.
Now a child. Or two. Or three. Pilgrim children. Between me
Up until this sore minute, you could turn the key, pivot away.
But mine is the only medicine now
wherever you go or follow.
The past is so far away, but it flickers,
then cleaves the night. The bones
of the past splinter between our teeth.
This is our life, love. Why did I think
it would be anything less than too much
of everything? I know you remember that cheap motel
on the coast where we drank red wine,
the sea flashing its gold scales as sun
soaked our skin. You said, This must be
what people mean when they say
I could die now. Now
we’re so much closer
to death than we were then. Who isn’t crushed,
stubbed out beneath a clumsy heel?
Who hasn’t stood at the open window,
sleepless, for the solace of the damp air?
I had to get old to carry both buckets
yoked on my shoulders. Sweet
and bitter waters I drink from.
Let me know you, ox you.
I want your scent in my hair.
I want your jokes.
Hang your kisses on all my branches, please.
Sink your fingers into the darkness of my fur.
“...because in the dying world it was set burning.”
We are not making love but
all night long we hug each other.
Your face under my chin is two brown
thoughts with no right name, but opens to
eyes when my beard is brushing you.
The last line of the album playing
is Joan Armatrading’s existential stuff,
we had fun while it lasted.
You inch your head up toward mine
where your eyes brighten, intense,
as though I were observer and you
a doppled source. In the blue light
in the air we suddenly leave our selves
and watch two salt-starved bodies
lick the sweat from each others’ lips.
When the one mosquito in the night
comes toward our breathing, the pitch
of its buzz turns higher
till it’s fat like this blue room
and burning on both of us;
now it dies like a siren passing
down a street, the color of blood.
I pull the blanket over our heads
about to despair because I think
everything intense is dying, but you,
you, even asleep, hold onto all
you think I am, more than I think,
so intensely you can feel me
hugging back where I have gone.
Snow glints and softens
a pig's slaughter.
Mama refuses another
agrees to another drink.
On the wall—a carpet with peonies,
their purple mouths
suck me into sleep.
I've been bedded.
from across the wall,
Mama says no-no-no
to more drink.
My bed smells of valenky.
Without taking its eyes off me
licks its grey paw as if sharpening a knife.
Mama yells yes to another drink.
Mama's breasts are too big to fit into packed morning buses.
I would grow into a real person.
But on a certain day
is slaughtered, mama whispers yes
yes yes yes
to more drink,
I'm vanishing into the peonies’ throats,
peonies smell of valenky,
of pig’s blood
on the snow.
Clock’s hands leave a strange ski track.
Was he mute a while,
or all tears. Did he raise
his hands to his ears so
he could scream scream
scream. Did he eat only
with his fists. Did he eat
as if something inside of him
would never be fed. Did he
arch his back and hammer
his heels into the floor
the minute there was
something he sought.
And did you feel yourself
caught there, wanting
to let go, to run, to
be called back to wherever
your two tangled souls
had sprung from. Did you ever
feel as though something
were rising up inside you.
A fire-white ghost. Did you
feel pity. And for whom.
When the pickup truck, with its side mirror,
almost took out my arm, the driver’s grin
reflected back; it was just a horror
show that was never going to happen,
don’t protest, don’t bother with the police
for my benefit, he gave me a smile—
he too was startled, redness in his face—
when I thought I was going, a short while,
to get myself killed: it wasn’t anger
when he bared his teeth, as if to caution
calm down, all good, no one died, ni[ght, neighbor]—
no sense getting all pissed, the commotion
of the past is the past; I was so dim,
he never saw me—of course, I saw him.
You and your friend stood
on the corner of the liquor store
as I left Champa Garden,
takeout in hand, on the phone
with Ashley who said,
That was your tough voice.
I never heard your tough voice before.
I gave you boys a quick nod,
walked E 21st past dark houses.
Before I could reach the lights
on Park, you criss-crossed
your hands around me,
like a friend and I’d hoped
that you were Seng,
the boy I’d kissed on First Friday
in October. He paid for my lunch
at that restaurant, split the leftovers.
But that was a long time ago
and we hadn’t spoken since,
so I dropped to my knees
to loosen myself from your grip,
my back to the ground, I kicked
and screamed but nobody
in the neighborhood heard me,
only Ashley on the other line,
in Birmingham, where they say
How are you? to strangers
not what I said in my tough voice
but what I last texted Seng,
no response. You didn’t get on top,
you hovered. My elbows banged
the sidewalk. I threw
the takeout at you and saw
your face. Young. More scared
of me than I was of you.
Hands on my ankles, I thought
you’d take me or rape me.
Instead you acted like a man
who slipped out of my bed
and promised to call:
You said nothing.
Not even what you wanted.
to the memory of Denis Johnson
The stranger bites into an orange
and places the rind between us
on the park bench.
It becomes a small raft of fire.
I came here to admire
the iron-lit indifference
of the geese on the pond.
The summers here
are a circuit in parallel
with everything I cannot say,
wrote the inventor
before he was hanged
from the bridge
this park is named after.
His entire life devoted
to capturing inextinguishable light
in a teardrop of enamel.
He was hanged for touching
the forehead of another man
in the wrong century.
The only thing invented
by the man I lost yesterday
was his last step into a final
set of parenthesis.
I came here to watch the geese
and think of him.
The stranger and I
share the orange rind
as an ashtray.
He lights my cigarette
and the shadows of our hands
touch on the ground.
His left leg is amputated
below the knee
and the bell tower rings
above the town.
I tell him my name
and he says nothing.
With the charred end of a stick
something shaped like a child
on the other side of the pond
draws a door on a concrete wall
and I wonder where the dead
wait in line to be born.
(for my sisters)
I still don’t know how he knew
I was running. My mouth was open,
or those boys were barking that loud;
not that I hadn’t been chased
by dogs. There’s a moment when
you can’t tell from which angle
it’s coming, and the air is a red drum,
and the trees lean away from you,
and the ground is wet. Lonnie drove
truck nights, and grew strawberries
in our backyard, which were small,
but sweet. You could taste his hands
in the dirt, which the mouth learns
to read as green and sweet. My mother
made him liver and onions; we ate fish
Fridays and I wasn’t allowed milk. He’s why
I like my eggs runny. I still don’t understand
anything about engines. I can’t remember
why those boys were after me. Maybe
it makes sense why a Rottweiler
would break a fence. Lonnie stood
with his shotgun out front. Sometimes
he wouldn’t come home, or he’d walk
into the house with his shirt bloody.
When we left, my mother didn’t want
money. Not that we would have gone,
but that other woman didn’t even invite us
to the funeral. Man, I bet Yvette’s children
have children. Lord knows what’s happened
to Chrissy now that she’s too old to dance.
Translation of Marigloria Palma
Pensive light. Light
with folded hands, a shrug
of song in the shoulders.
Light that sullies the sea’s
Sunday best, the foam
moving blind over it.
I’ve lost the waistline
of my violet mountains
in the sky’s mouth.
El Yunque is an ancient flute;
Blue swallow, blue choke.
Here lives San Juan.
There’s a light that might
save you in the gold
pigeon coop, its womb
made of glass. Here
the rays of the sun
keep growing towards
the dense eyes
of blank harmony.
from the balcony I watch
the living death of the sun
high above the shoulders
of the stricken minute.
To the sound of trumpets
I defend my feeling
from the grey bite
And the day grows through me
like a magic tree
from nothing to nothing—
grows and sings,
fills up with promises
Everything is just twilight.
I make this light
because I love it.
It’s mine because we are,
eye to eye,
We are twilight, luz mía,
Luz de manos cerradas
y hombros de canto breve.
Luz que ensucia al mar
su camisón de fiesta.
Anda ciega la espuma.
Mis montañas violetas
han perdido su talle
en la boca del cielo.
El Yunque es flauta histórica;
Salto en retrospectiva.
Bocado azul que ahoga.
Acá vive San Juan.
Hay luz que salva
en palomar de oro
su vientre hecho de vidrio.
Aquí siguen creciendo
las espigas del sol
para los ojos densos
de la blanca armonía.
desde el balcón yo miro
la muertevida del sol
alto sobre los hombros
del fenecido instante.
A trompetazos de alma
defiendo mi emoción
de la mordida gris
Y crece el día por mí
como mágico árbol
de la nada a la nada.
Crece y canta,
y se llena de promesas
Todo es sólo twilight.
De leyes físicas.
Yo hago esta luz
porque la amo.
Es mía porque somos,
de mirada a mirada,
Somos twilight, luz mía,
I’ve lost something and I can’t describe
what it is
and what if that’s my job
to say how empty an absence is
like rolling 2 gears together
and maybe teeth are missing in one
or maybe trying to grind
two stones that are
polished and smoothed
I’ve always liked
a little grit
but sand in my shoes
or in my hair
is like shattering
a glass in carpet
and using a broom to
get it out
I can’t describe
what it’s like to
sit on opposite ends
of a park bench and
not know how
to get any closer
I miss so many things
and I’ve looked through my piggy
bank and only found pennies
a pile of things that are
almost completely worthless
a shoebox full of sporks
a well with a bucket and a rope
that’s too short
sometimes in my room
it’s so dark that if I wake
up I won’t know if it’s morning or night
imagine being someplace you know
so well but are lost and don’t have any idea
how to get out
the rule is, put your right hand out
lay it on the wall, and follow
sometimes the rules don’t apply to all of us
I don’t want to sleep here again tonight
(from Negro Mountain)
Get your bearings.
No shape in my gap, not
now. From now
on, it goes
this is allied to “the negro
character” it’s far
from original—I’d only get
to where we came out of the mountains and
hit the sea. And view
the old coast too, from
the road, the route described
by its indentations—“One bay
after another”—until the road turned inland
in such. Far
be it from me. One’s
close to nothing.
though, to the coast—
hath an unknowne bottome, like the Bay
of Portugall,” some-
one else had been made
As if someone blew against the back of my neck,
I writhed up, becoming a wind myself,
and I flowed out the window of my bedroom.
Maybe I also emitted a moan over the croaking
of the frogs that night. Then I raised my arms
to the clouds, rooting my feet deep in the soil.
A stretch, I called it.
Now—pure nature in the night,
too sway-of-the-trees wise to worry about men—
I opened my nightgown but offered nothing
to anyone. This is for me, I said aloud to the night.
People would have laughed had they seen me
out their windows, naked but for my nightgown
flapping: I was small but the conviction of my stance
would’ve made me seem immense, framed
through their windows. Without my clothes
I was a world of possibility, more than a desire.
I, knowing better, I ought to mind my place,
I ought to walk like a lady,
I ought to demure myself to make him feel stronger,
I ought to mourn him when
he is gone. But every word I spoke to the wind
carried to him the scent of his regrets.
Every word blew through the night,
a breeze of my indifference.