Help Me to Salt, Help Me to Sorrow

In the moon-fade and the sun’s puppy breath,
  in the crow’s plummeting cry,
in my broken foot and arthritic joints,
                                       memory calls me
to the earth’s opening, the graves dug, again, and again 
I, always I am left
                   to turn away
into a bat’s wing-brush of air.

That never changes . . .
  not this morning, not here

where I’ve just found
in the back of my truck, under the rubber mat, 
in a teacup’s worth of dirt, 
where it seems no seed could possibly be 
a corn kernel split to pale leaves and string-roots.

It’s a strange leap but I make it
and bend to these small harvests

because somewhere in North Carolina there was a house
  and in it, my room and my bed,
bare boards and the blood stains of a man
that in each slant rain’s worried whispers puddles to the cries of a slave, 
murdered in 1863 trying to escape.

Somewhere there was a child who slept
on the living room’s red-vinyl couch

who still matters

especially now that I can’t remember when the creek
  that bounded our family farm led to an ocean
or when a boxcar’s weather-wasted letters spelling Illinois
  meant somewhere there was an Illinois.

It’s still 1976--
the day after I’ve been seen playing tennis
  with a black boy, and it seems I will always
be held at gunpoint and beaten
as if the right punch would chunk out his name.


No, it’s 1969--
The year my mother becomes a wax paste, 
or so she looks to the child I was,

and she drips into the pink satin 
and I learned the funereal smell of carnations.
That year the moon was still made of green cheese. 
That year men first bagged and labeled that moon.

There are no years, only the past
and I still don’t know why Odell Horne 
  pulled a shotgun on my brother 
  or how the body contains so much blood.
I still don’t know why Donna Hill went to Myrtle Beach 
and three days later came back dead.

For ten years I lived with Louise Stegall,
the lover of my father, one of her four men, all buried--
  suicide, murder, drink, again murder.
It was after the second one that she sat stock still 
and silent, four years in the asylum.
Now she walks the road all day, 
picking up Cracker Jack trinkets 
  to give to children
                     brave enough to approach her.

When I was nine, the starling pecked outside her window  a whole week. 
Somebody’s gonna die, she said
and made me hug Uncle Robert’s neck 
as if I couldn’t know he’d be gone in two hours, 
as if I hadn’t learned anything about people
                                        and their vanishing.
The last time I saw her she wouldn’t look at me, 
  jerked her sweatshirt’s hood across 
her face and stepped into the ditch, 
as though there are some things even she won’t tell, 
as though I’ve never known it’s dirt and dust after all--
the earth’s sink and the worms’ castings.


With the wet leaves thick on my steps,
the evening sky bruised dull gray to black,

when I’ve spilt salt and as the saying goes the sorrow and tears, 
and the stove is cold so salt won’t burn, 
tell me my pocket of charms can counter any spell.

Tell me again the reason for my grandfather’s fingers 
afloat in the Mason jar on the fireplace mantel 
between the snuff tin and the bowl of circus peanuts. 
What about the teeth in the dresser bureau,
the sliver of back bone I wear around my neck?

Again the washed-out photo in the family album, 
Pacific wind lifting the small waves onto Coral Beach,
clicking the palm trees’ fronds.
Again my father’s rakish grin,
  his bayonet catching a scratch of sun,
his left foot propped on the stripped and bloodied body.

                            Behind him, a stack of Japanese.


Let me believe in anything.
Doesn’t the grizzled chicken dig up hoodoo hands?
Won’t the blue door frame, the basket of acorns protect me;
what about the knife in a pail of water?

When giving me the dead’s slippered feet
                                        room to room,
why not also synchronicity’s proof, 
  a wish and the tilted ears of angels?

I want to believe in the power of rosemary 
knuckled along the fence
even as the stars order themselves 
  to an unalterable and essential law.
I want the wind-whipped leaves to settle 
  and the flattened scrub to right itself,
want the loose tin in the neighbor’s shed
                                         to finish its message.

When this season in its scoured exactitude shifts closer, 
give me Devil’s Blue Boletus through the piled leaves, 
the slender green of Earth Tongue, 
phosphorescent Honey Tuft dispatched by the dead.

Their voices coming nearer, almost deciphered.

Whatever lies you have
there in that nail-clipping of time,
                                    give them to me.


In winter’s spider-eyed light strung through steam grates, the tunnels turn feral.
This is the other city, the dark one
of hidden passages, runaways and orphaned days

and like me it sleeps in broken buildings
and smells of a sad suicide from the fifteenth century, and like me
it has smoked three things on the mold-furred walls

which are the only altars 
of those who’ve dropped through holes in the sidewalk
to descend to these steam tunnels rung by slick rung.

This city shambles room to room.
Drawn to the easy sound of sleep,
it knows the pattern night pens on tender skin,

knows your darkest secrets and tells
no one except the sycamore
which rips from its skin with shame.

It wants absolution,
taps your sins on water pipes to shudder out of faucets,
ties them to the tail feathers of soot-mottled birds

who beat up from the concrete-lipped curb,
falter over cars, stutter
then catch an oily gust and wheel into the scalded sky.

It claims to be blind though it might have a thousand eyes,
screams obscenities from 13th and University and pisses in alleys.
Sometimes it drinks too much. Sometimes it begs for more.

It hides tents among trees in the park by the sluggish river
this red-eyed thing blinking from storm grates.
It is a window breaking.

Other people’s blood in its veins, skin on fire,
smack, crack, meth, strychnine and scouring powder sold as speed,
some drug or another telling it die, you must die. But it doesn’t die.

Step around it on your way to the theater.
It crawls through your bedroom window, a warm bed and in the morning
the smell of coffee and bacon spitting in grease. That’s all it wants.
Aching hands in underwear drawers,
snagged silks.
You are its worst nightmare.

Coiled cable, blood and razor-wire, shredded muscle and blue bone,
cold nights, the city under the city
is where you’ll find me. Though not now.

Now it is heat-hazed summer and sunset
and I whisper the four-syllable name of the stranger
I should have become and disappear through the back door 

of the Villa Inn where the cook paces the few feet
between the makeline and the ovens
muttering Chimbukee     Chimbukee     Chimbukee

It’s been nine years since he’s known the burned light
of his own country or a woman’s name churned in sea foam, nine years
since he’s clung to flesh which smells of rosemary and dried tomatoes.

He checks his billfold, thick with this week’s pay. Let’s go
he says to me, pointing toward his apartment across the alley.
Let’s go Super Ju. Party. Party, he says

then reaches his swollen hands deep into his pants
past the flour-grubbed belt line 
and with a hard twist adjusts his truss.

We call him Chris though that’s not his name
and I think to myself, Homer, Odysseus,
the blood-blue sea, the sun in its relentless veracity

be damned to hell and back. Sweating pizza drivers, me sleeping
in my truck or if it’s winter in empty buildings and the steam tunnels,
and every weekend the parking lot filling up with dope dealers

with their out-of-state plates
and hookers dropped off by their pimps
and the homeless who stumble

from the boarded buildings and doorways to this oiled kaleidoscope
under the warehouses’ dark windows—
the broken, fish-line-strung and eye-level hooked—

this grease-barrel and sour dumpster-stinking,
trash-can-blaze, busted bottles, pissed on pissed off
fuck you fuck you kill strong-armed ambulance scream, parking lot

and Chris saying Chimbukee     Chimbukee     Chimbukee
cussing us, Scata. Malaka American. Sto dyavolo malaka,
Pizza malaka. Deliver,Chris yells but slow night

no orders, no tips so we yell back, You malaka. 
Give us pizzas. To krima sto lemo sou,Chris says
Greek which to us means nothing.

and just outside the fish-net stockinged, stiletto-heeled
Star, Joy, Princess. Joy, I think, and am too tired to think anything else
when she tells me she swings, asks if I have something,

anything, coke, smack, speed, rock. At least some pot. Come on. Hook me up, she says.
Then the teams. Salt & Sugar. Salt & Pepper. Nilla & Chocolate
with their matching tattoos, Comedy & Tragedy. Happy one day, Dead the next.

          Angel, Love Boat, Crystal.
          I got first degree      I got MG
          Blue ludes, 8-Balls, rocks, the dealers yell.

          Quiver & Shiver     Come 
          get my stash        I got the stuff          
          Tongo & Cash

Lot of Candy Man & Sweet Stuff.
Slick the Stick, a pimp caught up in his own rhyme.
Lover Boy & Philly Boy. Wanna-be’s and gonna-be’s: