attention as a form of ethics [excerpt]

We are mired in matter until we are not
            — Ralph Lemon

I thought we were an archipelago 
each felt under our own finessed and gilded wing 
let’s make an assumption 
let’s make an assumption that            the lake has a bottom 
let’s make an assumption       that everyone will mourn 
let’s sack a hundred greenbacks 
for the sake of acknowledging they mean something 
what does it mean to have worth? 
who would dream to drain a lake? 
I spent my days staring into the eye of the Baltic 
it’s because I am also a body of water 
it’s not that onerous  
I’ve built a muscle memory  
it’s not that heavy 
let’s talk about erasure I mean 
that’s easy 
start with a word that you don’t like 
start with a people you didn’t know 
start with a neighborhood, rank 
start with any miasma dispersed 
let’s talk about burden 
let’s talk about burden for the weight 
it lends us 
let’s talk about supplication 
about my palms — uplift, patience 

let’s celebrate our substance  
subsistence in  
amber rivulets of stilllife 
constellations how you molded me  
country how we became it 
the longitude is a contested border  
my longest muscle I named  familiar 

Related Poems

Archipelago

If you really see the Caribbean archipelago, you will see yourself,
the vivid scattered islands stirring to awakening in a sea of reverie and nightmare,
the goldening light lifting green foliage out of darkness into its illumination
and the surrounding blue immensity brooding an unknown creaturing of what can live only in depth

If you hear the Caribbean archipelago, you will hear it talking to you in tongues
of the original tribes of the Americas, Africa, Europe, Asia; you will hear quarrelling, then a blur
and you will hear the simultaneous translation of these languages into the first language,
the sea talking to itself because in the beginning and the end there is no other

If you truly see the Caribbean archipelago, it will become clear
how the fragmented, brittle arc of islands, resisting the onsurge of ocean, makes the sea the sea;
how the ocean, reaching around breached rock, trying to rejoin itself, makes islands islands;
how they both therefore define each other, how they refine your understanding of the selfhood
into an acceptance of the necessary oneness of the known and the unknown

If you can be the Caribbean archipelago, acknowledging that your littoral shape is never final,
that it shifts with your awareness that below the sublunary rise-and-ebb there is an undertow,
a contrary flow that draws you down, deepening to where the separate i-lands reach
beyond the scattered stones of their selves, growing down back into one bedrock, into the original
ground from which the sea, the ocean, the self-dismembered yet defining archipelago rise into their being,
if you can be this, be yond it, you will miracle into impossibility, you will see
how to be broken and yet whole.

Hands

Out here the surf rewrites our silences.
This smell of ocean may never leave me;
our humble life or the sea a dark page

I am trying to turn: Today my mother’s words
sound final. And perhaps this is her first true thing.
Her hands have not been her hands

since she was twelve,
motherless and shucking whatever the sea
could offer, each day orphaned in the tide

of her own necessity—where the men-o-war
ballooned, wearing her face, her anchor of a heart
reaching, mooring for any blasted thing:

sea-roach and black-haired kelp, jeweled perch
or a drop of pearl made with her smallest self,
her night-prayers a hushed word of thanks.

But out here the salt-depths refuse tragedy.
This hand-me-down life burns sufficiently tragic—
here what was cannibal masters the colonial

curse, carved our own language of the macabre,
sucking on the thumb of our own disparity. Holding
her spliff in the wind, she probes and squalls,

trying to remember the face of her own mother,
our island or some strange word she once found
amongst the filth of sailors whose beds she made,

whose shoes she shined, whose guns
she cleaned, while the white bullet of America
ricocheted in her brain. Still that face she can’t recall

made her chew her fingernails, scratch the day down
to its blood, the rusty sunset of this wonder,
this smashed archipelago. Our wild sea-grape kingdom

overrun, gold and belonging in all its glory
to no one. How being twelve-fingered she took her father’s
fishing line to the deviation, and starved

of blood what grew savage and unwanted. Pulled
until they shriveled away, two hungry mouths
askance and blooming, reminding her

that she was still woman                    always multiplying
as life’s little nubs and dreams came bucking up
in her disjointed. How on the god-teeth

she cut this life, offered her hands and vessel
to be made wide, made purposeful,
her body opalescent with all our clamoring,

our bloodline of what once lived
and will live and live again.
In the sea’s one voice she hears her answer.

Beneath her gravid belly
my gliding hull
a conger eel.

My Father as Cartographer

In dim light now, his eyes
   straining to survey
the territory: here is the country
   of Loss, its colony Grief;
the great continent Desire
   and its borderland Regret;

vast, unfathomable water
   an archipelago—the tiny islands
of Joy, untethered, set adrift.
   At the bottom of the map
his legend and cartouche,
   the measures of distance, key

to the symbols marking each
   known land. What’s missing
is the traveler’s warning
   at the margins: a dragon—
its serpentine signature—monstrous
   as a two-faced daughter.