Oh dream, why do you do me this way? 
Again, with the digging, again with the digging up.
Once more with the shovels.
Once more, the shovels full of dirt.
The vault lid. The prying. The damp boards.

Mother beside me.
Like she’s an old hat at this. 
Like all she’s got left is curiosity.
Like curiosity didn’t kill the red cat.
Such a sweet, gentle cat it was.

Here we go again, dream.
Mother, wearing her take-out-the-garbage coat.
I haven’t seen that coat in years.
The coat she wore to pick me up from school early.
She appeared at the back of the classroom, early.

Go with your mother, teacher said.
Diane, you are excused.
I was a little girl. Already a famous actress.
I looked at the other kids. I acted lucky.
Though everyone knows what an early pick-up means.

An early pick-up, dream.
What’s wrong, I asked my mother. It is early spring.
Bright sunlight. The usual birds. 
Air, teetering between bearable and unbearable.
Cold, but not cold enough to shiver.

Still, dream, I shiver. 
You know, my mother said. 
Her long garbage coat flying.
There was a wind, that day. 
A wind like a scurrying grandmother, dusting.

Look inside yourself, my mother said. 
You know why I have come for you.
And still I acted lucky. Lucky to be out.
Lucky to be out in the cold world with my mother.
I’m innocent, I wanted to say. 

A little white girl, trying out her innocence.
A white lamb, born into a cold field.
Frozen almost solid. Brought into the house. 
Warmed all night with hair dryers.
Death? I said. Smiling. Lucky.

We’re barely to the parking lot.
Barely to the car ride home.
But the classroom already feels like the distant past.
Long ago, my classmates pitying me.
Arriving at this car full of uncles.

Were they wearing suits? Death such a formal occasion.
My sister, angry-crying next to me.
Me, encountering a fragment of evil in myself.
Evilly wanting my mother to say it.
What? I asked, smiling. My lamb on full display at the fair.

He’s dead! my sister said. Hit me in the gut with her flute.
Her flute case. Her rental flute. He’s dead!
Our father.
Our father, who we were not supposed to know had been dying.
He’s dead! The flute gleaming in its red case.

Here, my mother said at home.
She’d poured us each a small glass of Pepsi
We normally couldn’t afford Pepsi.
Lucky, I acted.
He’s no longer suffering, my mother said.

Here, she said. Drink this.
The little bubbles flew. They bit my tongue.
My evil persisted. What is death? I asked.
And now, dream, once more you bring me my answer.
Dig, my mother says. Pry, she says.

I don’t want to see, dream.
The lid so damp it crumbles under my hands.
The casket just a drawerful of bones.
A drawerful. Just bones and teeth.
That one tooth he had. Crooked like mine.

Toad


The grief, when I finally contacted it 
decades later, was black, tarry, hot,
like the yarrow-edged side roads 
we walked barefoot in the summer. 

Sometimes we’d come upon a toad 
flattened by a car tire, pressed into 
the softened pitch, its arms spread out 
a little like Jesus, and it was now 

part of the surface of the road, part 
of the road’s story. Then there was 
the live toad I discovered under 
the poison leaves of the rhubarb,

hiding there among the ruby stems,
and if you ate those stems raw, 
enough of them, you’d shit yourself
for days. It isn’t easy to catch a living 

thing and hold it until it pees on you
in fear. Its skin was the dull brown 
of my father’s clothes, my grandfather’s 
clothes as he stood behind the barber’s 

chair, clipping sideburns, laying a warm 
heap of shaving cream over a bristly chin, 
sharpening his straight razor and swiping it 
over the foam-covered cheek of my father, 

who often shaved twice a day, his beard 
was so obstinate, even in the hospital bed. 
When I laid a last kiss on his young cheek, 
the scraping hurt my lips. Do you ever 

wonder, in your heart of hearts, 
if God loves you, if the angels love you, 
scowling, holding their fiery swords, 
radiating green light? If your father 

loved you, if he had room to love you, 
given his poverty and suffering, or if 
a coldness had set in, a cold-bloodedness, 
like Keats at the end, wanting a transfusion 

of the reader’s life blood so he could live 
again. Either way, they’re all safely 
underground, their gentleness or ferocity, 
their numb love, and my father’s 

tar-colored hair, and the fibers of his good 
suit softened by wood tannins, 
and grandfather’s glass eye with its 
painted-on mud-colored iris, 

maybe all that’s left of him in that walnut 
box, and Keats and his soft brown clothes, 
and the poets before and after him.
But their four-toed emissary sits 

in my hand. I feel the quickening pulse 
through its underbelly. Hooded eyes, 
molasses-tinged, unexpressive, 
the seam of its mouth glued shut.

Song in My Heart

If there’s pee on the seat it’s my pee,
battery’s dead I killed it, canary at the bottom
of the cage I bury it, like God tromping the sky
in his undershirt carrying his brass spittoon,
raging and sobbing in his Hush Puppy house
slippers with the backs broke down, no Mrs.
God to make him reasonable as he gets out
the straight razor to slice the hair off his face,
using the Black Sea as a mirror when everyone
knows the Black Sea is a terrible mirror,
like God is a terrible simile for me but like
God with his mirror, I use it.

Self-Portrait with Sylvia Plath’s Braid

Some women make a pilgrimage to visit it
in the Indiana library charged to keep it safe.

I didn’t drive to it; I dreamed it, the thick braid
roped over my hands, heavier than lead.

My own hair was long for years.
Then I became obsessed with chopping it off,

and I did, clear up to my ears. If hair is beauty
then I am no longer beautiful.

Sylvia was beautiful, wasn’t she?
And like all of us, didn’t she wield her beauty

like a weapon? And then she married,
and laid it down, and when she was betrayed

and took it up again it was a word-weapon,
a poem-sword. In the dream I fasten

her braid to my own hair, at my nape.
I walk outside with it, through the world

of men, swinging it behind me like a tail.

Related Poems

Relic

An atlas
on the underside of my dream.

My half-shut eyelid—
a black wing.

I dipped sharp quills
in the night’s mouth—

moths swarmed
from my throat.

I pulled a feather blanket
over my skeleton
and woke—

a map of America
flapping in the dark.

Once I dreamt
of inheriting this—

my mother
who still follows crows
through the field,

my sister’s small hand
tucked inside hers,

me on her breast
in a burial quilt.

Pleasure Principle

For Joan Retallack

Of course it’s not easy to believe in your own dream. The working of instinct near water. Not orchards. Not apples or pears. Not nowadays. I don't know how psychoanalysis has no hesitation on how dark the night can get. The world, which is unfinished, occupying more and more of the sky.


Emotion as unpleasurable tension, the high passage of the moon. The laundry. Sensitivity won't do it. Therefore and quite often we lie down in stubbled fields. The voice of the cicada. Tells nothing.


Any day lies thick in the garden I propose to enter. Then fills with secret rivers that darkness feeds on. Lapsed sense of history. No massacre. The cicadas relentlessly.


It doesn't matter if your feet are small. When you're asleep. The fruit trees enormous. A motor idles in the foreground. If, with quicker travel, things did indeed turn out according to one's wildest. If a child could be born from something not a mother.


The circumstance that the wife occupies the inner room and rarely if ever comes out is called the pleasure principle. In certain societies. Suddenly made clear by the cicadas. The meaning of life, absolutely. Distinguished from the now moonless garden.


And hooded with fabric like mirrors not in use. And like appearance refusing itself. A pleasure that cannot be felt as such to transcend becoming strange.


An orchard in the foreground. With beginnings of unease immediately behind.

Night Falls Like a Button

from your grandmother’s coat. You worry with your thumb the stranger’s page. Aging spine of the black sky, night-burps of the sleeping computer. Don’t listen to the judgment of your scraped knees. Night anchors in your belly button, your pubic hair. Stars snore safely, for years. Your smile in the early dark is a paraphrase of Mars. Your smile in the deep dark is an anagram of Jupiter. My worst simile is that I’m fancy like a piece of salami wearing a tuxedo. Waiting with a cone of gelato. Your smile in the dreaming dark is an umbrella for all the going, gone, & yet to come. Orioles come for the oranges you’ve placed in the arms of the architect. Which birds will you pull into orbit tomorrow? You try to sew the night onto your own coat, but it won’t stay. Too much memory weather, werewolf migration. You itch for the window’s shore. You row, the growing light rearranging your voice, the rain your lunatic photographer.