When he appears, he looks into my eyes
With the gaze of a child missing a perfected
Will. Then, like a child, he moves suddenly—
Insisting on his own space, summoning up that

Odd power that makes us seem real to ourselves.
His life failed him. Fame, which he had in hand,
Failed him. He believed it was because he chose me.
When I catch or remember his ripped-from-pure-terror

Characters onscreen and off (murderer, father, diplomat)—
I get that he was always a version of the liability of “us.”
He comes to me alone in dreams, spinning into a glimpse
Of such blue-eyed hate it might have been love—O

I was never sure of that living kid on the lit stage,
Floating now into the twentieth year of his death.

Like This

                     -- Morituri te salutamus.
                        Los Angeles Times, 1927

Maybe it's not the city you thought
it was. Maybe its flaws, like cracks
in freeway pylons, got bigger, caught
your eye, like swastikas on concrete stacks.

Maybe lately the dull astrologies of End,
Millennium-edge rant about world death
make sense. Look. Messages the dead send
take time to arrive. When the parched breath

of the Owens River Valley guttered out,
real voices bled through the black & white.
The newspaper ad cried, We who are about
to die salute you. Unarmed, uncontrite.

Gladiators: a band of farmers, entrenched.
And how many on the Empire's side recognized
the bitter history of that Bow? Greed drenches
itself in a single element, unsurprised.

Like strippers, spotlit. Tits and asses
flash red-gold, while jets shriek above.
Rim-shot. History, like a shadow, passes
over a city impervious as a bouncer's shove

to dreams. Images tell you what's imaginable.
Here comes another ton. We bathe in
what's re-routed from the source: a fable
of endless water in a dipper made of tin.

An Octave Above Thunder

                                       ... reverberation
                              Of thunder of spring over distant mountains
                              He who was living is now dead
                              We who were living are now dying
                              With a little patience.

                                            --T. S. Eliot,
                                            "What the Thunder Said"

1

She began as we huddled, six of us,
in the cellar, raising her voice above
those towering syllables...

Never mind she cried when storm candles
flickered, glass shattered upstairs.
Reciting as if on horseback,
                   she whipped the meter,

trampling rhyme, reining in the reins
of the air with her left hand as she 
stood, the washing machine behind her
              stunned on its haunches, not spinning.

She spun the lines around each other,
her gaze fixed. I knew she'd silenced
a cacophony of distractions in her head,
              to summon what she owned, rote-bright:

                             Of man's first disobedience,
                                        and the fruit...
                              of the flower in a crannied wall
                              and one clear call...

for the child who'd risen before school assemblies:
eerie Dakota rumble that rolled yet never brought
rain breaking over the podium. Her voice rose,
                        an octave above thunder:

When I consider how my light is spent--
I thought of her light, poured willy-nilly.
in this dark world and wide: half-blind, blind,
a widening distraction Getting and spending
 we lay waste our powers...Different poem, a trick!

Her eyes singled me out as the wind slowed.
Then, reflective, I'd rather be / a Pagan
 sucked in a creed outworn / than a dullard
                         with nothing by heart.

It was midsummer, Minnesota. In the sky,
the Blind Poet blew sideways, his cape spilling
rain. They also serve! she sang, hailing
                                  closure

as I stopped hearing her. I did not want to
stand and wait. I loathed nothing so much
as the forbearance now in her voice,
              insisting that Beauty was at hand,

but not credible. I considered
how we twisted into ourselves to live.
When the storm stopped, I sat still,
                             listening.

Here were the words of the Blind Poet--
crumpled like wash for the line, to be
dried, pressed flat. Upstairs, someone called
                   my name. What sense would it ever

make to them, the unread world, the getters and spenders, 
if they could not hear what I heard,
              not feel what I felt
              nothing ruined poetry, a voice revived it,
                                              extremity.

After Skate

He glides in on his single wing, after the signs go up. After
the truck leaves with the bunkbeds, grill, broken hall mirror.
After Scout is dropped off at the shelter. After the last look,

on the dying lawn. In the backyard, where the empty pool
stands open; he pops an ollie over the cracked patterns of tile:
tidal waves in neat squares. He kneels, checking angle against

depth. He lifts off where the board once leapt and leapt: cannon-
balls, swans: endless summer. He hurtles downward, kickturning,
sparks grinding hard on gunnite. Round the bend: the kidney,

the heart. The stone path where once glowed tiki torches at
the kingdom’s ukelele gate. He rockets out of the dead lots each
day, past swingsets and shut-off sprinklers, his board struck up

from whirlwind. Nobody’s home to the ownerless: he turns
inside their names, never minds ghosts, nothing in his wake.

Related Poems

In Memory of M. B.

Here is my gift, not roses on your grave, not sticks of burning incense. You lived aloof, maintaining to the end your magnificent disdain. You drank wine, and told the wittiest jokes, and suffocated inside stifling walls. Alone you let the terrible stranger in, and stayed with her alone. Now you're gone, and nobody says a word about your troubled and exalted life. Only my voice, like a flute, will mourn at your dumb funeral feast. Oh, who would have dared believe that half-crazed I, I, sick with grief for the buried past, I, smoldering on a slow fire, having lost everything and forgotten all, would be fated to commemorate a man so full of strength and will and bright inventions, who only yesterday it seems, chatted with me, hiding the tremor of his mortal pain.

The Belladonna of Sadness

Spring in Hell and everything’s blooming.

I dreamt the worst was over but it wasn’t.

Suppose my punishment was fields of lilies sharper than razors, cutting up fields of lies.

Suppose my punishment was purity, mined and blanched.

They shunned me only because I knew I was stunning.

Then the white plague came, and their pleas were like a river.

Summer was orgiastic healing, snails snaking around wrists.

In heat, garbage festooned the sidewalks.

Old men leered at bodies they couldn’t touch

until they did. I shouldn’t have laughed but I laughed

at their flesh dozing into their spines, their bones crunching like snow.

Once I was swollen and snowblind with grief, left for dead

at the castle door. Then I robbed the castle and kissed my captor,

my sadness, learned she was not a villain. To wake up in this verdant field,

to watch the lilies flay the lambs. To enter paradise,

a woman drinks a vial of amnesia. Found in only the palest

flowers, the ones that smell like rotten meat. To summon the stinky

flower and access its truest aroma, you have to let its stigma show.

You have to let the pollen sting your eyes until you close them.

 

The Sadness of Clothes

When someone dies, the clothes are so sad. They have outlived
their usefulness and cannot get warm and full.
You talk to the clothes and explain that he is not coming back

as when he showed up immaculately dressed in slacks and plaid jacket
and had that beautiful smile on and you’d talk.
You’d go to get something and come back and he’d be gone.

You explain death to the clothes like that dream.
You tell them how much you miss the spouse
and how much you miss the pet with its little winter sweater.

You tell the worn raincoat that if you talk about it,
you will finally let grief out. The ancients etched the words
for battle and victory onto their shields and then they went out

and fought to the last breath. Words have that kind of power
you remind the clothes that remain in the drawer, arms stubbornly
folded across the chest, or slung across the backs of chairs,

or hanging inside the dark closet. Do with us what you will,
they faintly sigh, as you close the door on them.
He is gone and no one can tell us where.