Creation Story

In one version a drunken angel shapes us from river mud.
In another the tou-tou bird sings daylight into being.
In another we fall backward from the sky into the earth’s net.
The other day goldenrod.
The other day red on the tests; her cancer like sumac, back
             again, inching down the ravine.
It’s October. A kind of paradise.
Gold hills, black walnuts, a flurry of gulls on open water.
Pasture thistle, evening primrose. Crows.
The other day at the sink a plate shattered in my hand.
Her husband has waited all these years for her to die
            so he could marry her sister.
In another version he marries her best friend.
In another she lives, knows everything, but says nothing.
The chaplain told her years ago, in her first fear,
             that death for a person of faith was just a beginning.
In one version the god of violence eats everything.
In another the life god sells us down the river.
The beginning of what?
The other day the ash tree lost its leaves in a single afternoon.
What's coming is January, the lake iced finally over.
What’s coming is this much light through a hole this small.
I gave my students this assignment: Tell your entire life—
             birth to death—in five lines, like that poem we read.
You can see where this is going.
From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State.
And she feels like a woman she saw one day, stooped and tying
             her shoes on an escalator.
Absorbed like that but on deadline.
In another version they talk everything over and agree—about
             the sister, about whether they have bodies in heaven.
The other day the sun in its box of sky, a going away gift.
In one version I told them to make the rhyme ABABA; in another
In Texas, an artist has cast every bone in the human body
             into chromium, and will bury one in every country
             until he runs out of countries.
Shiva destroys the world, then gives birth to it.
Lingam and Yoni, male and female.
“From my mother,” one student wrote, “I inherited an estate.”
“When I died,” wrote another, “I went somewhere. Who knows?”
At the lake’s edge the sumac god descends the hill, disappears
             into water, then climbs out the other side.
In one version, saw-toothed sunflower, closed gentian, asters—
             autumn flowers that must have been there when God
             raised his voice.
In one version a Japanese girl falls through the ice and is resurrected
             as an island.
Everything must have been there: the plate, the cancer, the little
             scimitar scar I’m working on, my student’s dead mother,
             black flak, the speck, the mass, the caul, crows in the ash.
In one version nobody dies.
In another, everyone.

Three Angels

     after Paul Klee

There are not enough shoes
in heaven
no matter what the song says—

which means feet will be
rationed soon
because God says so.

It was the curse of Midas
to know
what happened next,

however limited
however gold.
It was the curse of Jeremiah

to prophesy for the Lord
and regret it
even as he spoke, knowing

Damascus would burn
then Marathon,
Kabul, Jerusalem. Oh God

who taketh away the world,
who among us
could have declined heaven

even when we knew? Only
the meek
are blessed, the sorrowful—

only the secondary,
the poor and pocketless

without laces and aglets,
heels and soles,
eyelets and tongues.

Blessed are those who weep.
the hangdog, the hungry,

the angry, the upper
and lower,
the strapped, the welted.

Blessed those who have
no feet
for they shall see God’s

handiwork. Blessed be God
for whom
the word for world is shoe.

Yellow Landscape

I’m walking through goldenrod
in new shoes, shoes I got for a song—
like the one I’m singing now
that pleases the cicadas, the one
that would make Schubert cry.
And I love the way the ash
is the first tree always
to turn, throw its hands
in the air and say shoot me
like a tourist on the subway;
or the way Napoleon’s troops
burned the flag rather
than surrender it, then
drank the ashes in brandy.
It didn’t matter. It was still
the same black feather
on the tongue, they were still
the same superior forces.
So I’m singing for the ash
and the cottonwood, then
for the cowardly willow,
for crows dying in their steeples,
for shirts I should have never thrown out—
the ones with destinations on their chests;
I'm singing swansongs and torch songs,
songs of the Chinese Coffin-pullers,
of men standing on one leg,
of the birch outside my window
abducted by bag worms. The tree
has wriggled one green leaf free
and waves it goodbye like a hankie,
waves I’m all right, I’ll be home,
don’t worry. And I’ve got leaves
in my pocket for company
and I’m walking through the sunflowers
and chicory of the autumnal Midwest,
and I’m singing for my occasional friends—
two Labradors—who come bounding up
and I’m singing for the kid
paid to walk them but who’s always late,
singing because I don’t like dogs much,
but these two include me as if
I were still inclusionable.
This isn’t regret,
but relief that again this year                        
we will give up the Chateaux
with a minimum of bloodshed.
And the younger dog fetches
cottonwood leaves, carries them
soft-lipped in his mouth
the way I would if I were a dog,
by instinct. And I’m singing
because who else but a dog
could be so happy at finding me here?
And I’m singing because yesterday
I needed something to hold,
and he laid his gold head in my hands.