from “Giornata”

My father Bacchus wanted a daughter instead of me.
He felt the threat a son implies, and took you, my infant
virility, scarf-skin like a halo, angel of my innocence
fore-fledged. Before the ritual, there was guilt. You were
vestigial as the divot where the angel pinched my lips
in binding silence. Would I see myself in style or fit
if I encountered you, my soul, draped like a lost mitten
on a fencepost? Tattered as a moth-eaten turtleneck.
            Hood like the hood of a headsman.
If you were re- appended, would you lisp like chiffon
or crunch like corduroy? You are the macho my father’s
dream foretold—he who, in the end, was like a son to me,
whose own member circumscribed a foreshortened life
story mine was intended to resemble. My forebear, the brutal
gardener. He who conjured the corona must have foreseen
his own eclipse, and standing on ceremony, found at hand
a means to get my sex to bleed.

Title It Shotgun Wound

for Jackson Pollack

on the bar of the Cedar Tavern: the shot 
that got spilled after you'd taken several rounds,
making the oak bar report 
your vigor each time with the glass 
emptied of its mayhem. 
Before the impulse could travel its course 
to spark your hand reaching again for the glass, 
Creeley's clumsy ebullience, bounding to the bar, 
spilled the bitter dose. As he apologized, 
you were thinking there's no such thing 
as accident. A moment ago, you were ready 
to put a nickel in the Wurlitzer and dance your way 
back to Easthampton. But now, you took him 
by the shoulders, gripped him like the bathroom door 
you once ripped from its hinges because of the mirror on it. 
You wanted to discipline him, instruct him in 
the logic of charged particles, make Creeley feel 
the stray electron as he may have 
when his eyeball caught pixied windshield 
as an infant. If you had known 
that child's long months stifling tears 
for fear of aggravating the wound, 
you would have marveled how he stored his grief 
as you marveled now his standing up to your bully- 
face. Everyone thought you knew each other, 
how you looked just then in one another's arms.


Paul Green
Of course I know the story of the scorpion
and the frog. I've known Biggers all my life.
I’ve cast down my buckets where I've
stood with them, shoulder to shoulder, our bodies
bent like double helices in the fields. And
when the mob came for Dick didn’t I sit anyways
outside his quarters all night like a jailhouse lawyer,
him ignorant of the nature of his custody?
It was me who kept the townsmen at bay after he
provoked them. My cousin among them
had watched him grin and wheedle,
consort with white people carelessly, our naïve
and guileless women, at the civil gathering where
he was my ward. And later, because of me,
his offense went unanswered, un-atoned.
I know the hearts of men are governed
by the endowments of nature. Some children
are faithful. Some are made to obey.

Charles Leavell
First I had to capture the boy 
in a thicket of print.
He tried to make my happy darky
dangerous, make my darky
an idea that I couldn’t bear to swallow. So
I made him a hothouse flower, writing, His hunched
shoulders and long, sinewy arms that dangle
almost to his knees, but warned
readers that Nixon, the "Brick
Slayer," as I christened him,
had none of the charm of speech
or manner that is characteristic of so many
southern darkies. I am a gentle man.
He is very black—almost pure Negro. Withal,
I had to cleave that slate with first words, in order
to get at him, get the nature right, and I
could almost hear the stone sing
like the brick
he used to beat the white woman
who discovered him, that June day in '38,
bagging her Philco radio—as if it were
me doing the slaying.

Richard Wright
One quarter argument two
quarters confession. I engender
my experience in the characters
and they thrive; for the balance
I tracked Robert Nixon, so-called
"Brick Slayer," through rows
and columns, finding him breathing
in the margins of the Chicago Tribune.
I loved that boy like redemption
loves a sinner and saw in him
the mute pronouncements of the proletariat,
mutiny on the Potemkin. No wonder I
was reluctant to ditch the script I wrote
with Paul Green, that playwright 
accused of being a lover of the down-
trodden. Much as I wished to avoid
controversy, when Welles demanded
a Bigger without dream sequences, without
singing, for the Broadway production,
I sighed relief. I knew I had to protect
my creation from the caustic
ministrations of Southern sensibility.
By North Star or candlelight, by necessity,
I had to spirit him away.

Robert Nixon
More crucial than surveillance in the round
house of corrections called a panopticon is the being
watched the prisoner faces raising hairs on the ears.
Like the sun’s warmth on the back recognized as light,
recognized as presence. White noise.
The confinement of plain sight. The vertiginous spin
siphoning off the will to question, to doubt,
g-forces pinning back the cheeks, prisoners
reduced to images affixed by the weight of the guard's
transparent eyeball the unreasoning stump of muscle
itself imprisoned like the figures stenciled on an urn.

Atlantic City Sunday Morning

                  Plow-piled snow shrouded 
         in shadow from the abbreviating sun, snow 
frosted with the exhaust of tour buses. Pigeons shift in congress. 
                  Sun glints windshields & chrome 
         like cotton blooms in the monitors. Surveillance here is catholic. 

From cornices cameras oscillate like raven-heads 
                  nestled along palisades. Cameras mind entrances,
                       pedestrians, traffic, 
          the landscape from land's end to Baccarat Boulevard. I tend
the security station, notice briefly among these half-dozen screens, 
                  a phantom looping through the busy breeze-way & out 

         of view. Unseasonable sparrows mating? Something 
clutched like a gambler's fist, keening a halo from daylight 
                  folded across the corridor like gift-wrap. 
        Little tumbleweed, if you are sparrows, you are bishops
of risk wrestling toward pain's bursaries. Jake and angel I believe 

                    I could have conjured that woman now entering 
          the asphalt current to protect you. Mira! she might be saying. But
she'd be speaking to me. Waving her cashier's apron against traffic,
                    through the street like a banner out to where 
          her good deed is witnessed. Out to where I interpret her behavior 

as censure. As if the pixels of light depicting the world she is framed in
                   were impastoed by me to the monitor's glass canvass (to
                        be arranged 
         according to the obligation of my anonymous nobility), 
what good could I do 
                  to alter the facts of the world as it hustles around her? 
                       What odds 

         do those birds stand to chance anyway? 
Prevention is akin to greed. Say recovery 
                   and a sermon salts the air. Consider the postcards here 
         on the counter beside me. They'll do no more than carry the
             word of their 
senders, speak pictures: Jersey's domed capital looks like a junkyard 

                   of church bells, a reliquary of Sundays 
          wracked and laid to rest. Noble martyr, Trenton fears no law
of diminishing returns, says it "makes, 
                   the world takes:" Another prays the next wet pebble 
         be the one that makes a beach. Paydirt. We should be so lucky. 

Related Poems

No More Fire Here: A Sestina

O’ King build me more templar
more handsome and muscular.
Build me a chest made of barley fire.
Set it ablaze each morning for sunlight.
Build me legs quick as a chariot,
light as a doe’s, strong as a current runs through a river. It

must all mean something if I am the third son of my father. It
must all mean something if my body is a ravaged temple.
What does it mean if his body is a ravaged temple? Wretched chariots
we carry burdened with copper and birch bark inside muscled
and fatty hearts. Siken wrote about bodies being possessed by light,
I should have known those antlers were never copper but always fire.

Your tongue always tasted of fire.
The ash of it.
The lie of it. But one hundred legs of running men leaves me light
around the temples.
I have a weakness for muscular.
I have a brain full of char rioting

in an underwater circus. I hold my breath as his chariot
is unplugged from the wall. The immediate silence. No more fire
here. I wanted you to be muscular
and fit, healthy as an ox. The attraction I feel for it.
We can only build the most modest of temples
when all we have is moonlight.

Moonlit / chariot / racing toward a temple
fire / The idea of it / muscular

I’ve always loved Absalom, not because he’s handsome and muscular
but because he had the King’s heart. Let there be light.
Let it / arrive in a horse-drawn carriage.
Let it arrive as fire.
O’ King build my body a temple,

make my heart more corpuscular than muscular. Make me a chariot
light of ire.
It's so lonely and cold inside this scalpel-ruined templum.

My father washes his hands.

Lava soap of grease-cutting, 

Industrial, heavenly clean. 

Lather up work, the rituals. 

Off grime and dirt. Off day’s

Everything, children and the 

Wife who crawls on all fours. 

Water down the drain’s flower,

Metallic mouth wherein flows

My father’s love’s absolution.

From the Country Notebooks

after Brigit Pegeen Kelly


Once upon a time, my father was offered a shovel
and ten minutes alone with the prized stallion—Just don’t
kill him.    Once upon a time, I asked about the apple-
knotted scar on my father’s back shoulder, as he dressed
for work: That’s from when Sammy tried to kill me.
Remember?    Once upon a time, my father accepted a shovel
and the problem of answering violence without loosing
too much blood from Sammy’s chestnut body, nervous
in the stable.    Once upon a time, I watched my father dare
to ride Sammy, who had only known breeding—: things
went fine, until his muzzle grazed a live wire that sent him
bucking, first with and then without the weight of my father
perched on his saddled back. Every witness there
broke open into a song called laughter.    Once upon a time,
my father couldn’t trust himself to spill just the blood
owed, and so chose torture’s slow ember over a quick-
flamed revenge:—for one long week, Sammy submitted
to the pull of hunger, easing his desire through
the narrow stall bars for a mouthful of sweet oats,
and then the shovel’s handle came down like lightning
across his beautiful face. My father did this
twice each day, despite the wounded wonder delivered
upon both creatures.    Once, Sammy escaped
and it took a lifetime to corral again the full force
of that gallop—to gather back the spirit and grace
of that temporary, hot-hearted freedom.



My mother said I should not do it,
but all night I turned the horses loose.
The farmhouse slept, the coyotes hunted noisily.
I was a boy then, my chest its own field flowered by restlessness.
How many ropes to corral a herd?
I had none but a stubborn concern with steady hands
and the darkness of the summer wind which moved right through me
the way the coyotes moved through the woods with voices
that seemed to mourn the moonlit limits of this release
and those who had prayed for release before me.
I pulled each horse through the opened barn doors,
all night out into the pasture with little resistance, all night my hands
buried in manes as if I were descending into a new understanding,
all night my path a way toward recovery.
And then carrying its own kind of clemency, against
the tall forest of sharp pines, the morning came,
and inside me was the deep-pitched presence a howl builds
at the lonely center of its bawl, before the throat
remembers again that other sweet mercy, silence.
The light climbed into the pasture.
The coyotes were crying and then were not.
And the pasture was—I could see as I led
the last warm body to field—full of memory and motion.