Hotbed 66

- 1957-

They tell me that she spent her days staring at the eyes of peonies, the fragile skin of day lilies, the open mouths of daffodils, the waxy and waning winks and pinks of peace lilies. I’m telling you this woman knew flowers. They say she was driving to work when she saw him, or did they say she was delivering a bouquet of fresh cut flowers to someone on their birthday, or had just come from the door of some sweet couple’s fiftieth anniversary? I can’t remember all of that right now. All I can think about is what she must have known about flowers before this moment began. I know she was a woman out on the road driving and paying very close attention to the world around her. She was also a woman who did not look away when she saw his soup-bowl haircut pass by one lane over. Was his upside-down empty vase of a neck the giveaway? In the car that was not going too fast and not going too slow. In the car that had a backseat. Was the backseat where he put the gun that he had just used to kill the nine praying sunflowers of Mother Emanuel? Or was the gun there in the front seat with him? By then, back in Charleston the nine passion flowers were slumped on the basement floor inside the church. The nine calla lilies had been snapped in two. She saw his funny haircut and quickly recognized him as the one who had just taken the lives of the nine human beings, in mid and full bloom, who had welcomed him, called him son, invited him to sit and be with them in the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost. Ten fragrant gardenias had welcomed him to their circle and the flower lady was the one who recognized the long flowerless vase of his neck and made the call. What did she say on that phone? Hello. I’m calling to report a sighting. That young man you are looking for . . . who shot up that church . . . he’s here on the highway with me . . . a black Hyundai. I know it’s him, he’s covered, head to toe, in pollen. 

Left

   Eenee Menee Mainee Mo!
       —Rudyard Kipling, "A Counting-Out Song,"
in Land and Sea Tales for Scouts and Guides, 1923

           The woman with cheerleading legs
has been left for dead. She hot paces a roof,
four days, three nights, her leaping fingers,
helium arms rise & fall, pulling at the week-
old baby in the bassinet, pointing to the eighty-
two-year-old grandmother, fanning & raspy
in the New Orleans Saints folding chair.

                      Eenee Menee Mainee Mo!

           Three times a day the helicopter flies
by in a low crawl. The grandmother insists on
not being helpless, so she waves a white hand-
kerchief that she puts on and takes off her head
toward the cameraman and the pilot who
remembers well the art of his mirrored-eyed
posture in his low-flying helicopter: Bong Son,
Dong Ha, Pleiku, Chu Lai. He makes a slow
Vietcong dip & dive, a move known in Rescue
as the Observation Pass.

           The roof is surrounded by broken-levee
water. The people are dark but not broken. Starv-
ing, abandoned, dehydrated, brown & cumulous,
but not broken. The four-hundred-year-old
anniversary of observation begins, again—

                      Eenee Menee Mainee Mo!
                      Catch a—

The woman with pom-pom legs waves
her uneven homemade sign:

                      Pleas Help  Pleas

and even if the e has been left off the Pleas e

do you know simply 
by looking at her
that it has been left off
because she can't spell
(and therefore is not worth saving)
or was it because the water was rising so fast
there wasn't time?

                      Eenee Menee Mainee Mo!
                      Catch a— a—

           The low-flying helicopter does not know
the answer. It catches all this on patriotic tape,
but does not land, and does not drop dictionary,
or ladder.

           Regulations require an e be at the end
of any Pleas e before any national response
can be taken.

           Therefore, it takes four days before
the national council of observers will consider
dropping one bottle of water, or one case
of dehydrated baby formula, on the roof
where the e has rolled off into the flood,

                      (but obviously not splashed
loud enough)

where four days later not the mother,
not the baby girl,
but the determined hanky waver,
whom they were both named for,
(and after) has now been covered up
with a green plastic window awning,
pushed over to the side
right where the missing e was last seen.

                      My mother said to pick
                      The very best one!

What else would you call it,
Mr. Every-Child-Left-Behind.

Anyone you know
ever left off or put on
an e by mistake?

Potato   Po tato e

           In the future observation helicopters
will leave the well-observed South and fly
in Kanye-West-Was-Finally-Right formation.
They will arrive over burning San Diego.

           The fires there will be put out so well.
The people there will wait in a civilized manner.
And they will receive foie gras and free massage
for all their trouble, while there houses don't
flood, but instead burn calmly to the ground.

The grandmothers were right
about everything.

           People who outlived bullwhips & Bull
Connor, historically afraid of water and routinely
fed to crocodiles, left in the sun on the sticky tar-
heat of roofs to roast like pigs, surrounded by
forty feet of churning water, in the summer
of 2005, while the richest country in the world
played the old observation game, studied
the situation: wondered by committee what to do;
counted, in private, by long historical division;
speculated whether or not some people are surely
born ready, accustomed to flood, famine, fear.

                      My mother said to pick
                      The very best one
                      And you are not   it!

           After all, it was only po' New Orleans,
old bastard city of funny spellers. Nonswimmers
with squeeze-box accordion accents. Who would
be left alive to care?

The Condoleezza Suite [Excerpt]

Concerto no. 7: Condoleezza {working out} at the Watergate

Condoleezza rises at four, 
stepping on the treadmill. 

Her long fingers brace the two slim handles
of accommodating steel. 

She steadies her sleepy legs for the long day ahead. 
She doesn't get very far. 

Her knees buckle wanting back 
last night's dream. 

                                 [dream #9]

She is fifteen and leaning forward from the bench, 
playing Mozart's piano concerto in D minor, alone, 
before the gawking, disbelieving, applauding crowd. 

                                 not [dream #2]

She is nine, and not in the church that explodes into dust, 
the heart pine floor giving way beneath her friend Denise, 
rocketing her up into the air like a jack-in-the-box
of a Black girl, wrapped in a Dixie cross.

She ups the speed on the treadmill, remembering, 
she has to be three times as good. 

Don't mix up your dreams Condi. 

She runs faster, back to the right, finally hitting her stride. 
Mozart returns to her side. 

She is fifteen again, all smiles, and relocated
to the peaks of the Rocky Mountains, 

where she and the Steinway
are the only Black people in the room.

Cattails

One woman drives across five states just to see her. The woman being driven to has no idea anyone's headed her way. The driving woman crosses three bridges & seven lakes just to get to her door. She stops along the highway, wades into the soggy ground, cuts down coral-eyed cattails, carries them to her car as if they might be sherbet orange, long-stemmed, Confederate roses, sheared for Sherman himself. For two days she drives toward the woman in Kentucky, sleeping in rest areas with her seat lowered all the way back, doors locked. When she reaches the state line it's misting. The tired pedal-to-the-metal woman finally calls ahead. I'm here, she says. Who's this? The woman being driven to, who has never checked her oil, asks. The driving woman reminds her of the recent writing workshop where they shared love for all things out-of-doors and lyrical. Come, have lunch with me, the driving woman invites. They eat spinach salads with different kinds of dressing. They talk about driving, the third thing they both love and how fast clouds can change from state line to state line. The didn't-know-she-was-coming woman stares at she who has just arrived. She tries to read the mighty spinach leaves in her bowl, privately marveling at the driving woman's muscled spontaneity. She can hardly believe this almost stranger has made it across five states just to have lunch with her. She wonders where this mad driving woman will sleep tonight. She is of two driving minds. One convertible. One hardtop. The driving woman shows her pictures of her children. Beautiful, the other does not say. Before long words run out of petrol. The woman who is home, but without pictures of her own, announces she must go. The driving woman frets & flames, May I walk you to your car? They walk. The driver changes two lanes in third gear, fast. The trunk opens. The Mario Andretti look-alike fills the other woman's arms with sable-sheared cattails. Five feet high & badly in need of sunlight & proudly stolen from across five states. The woman with no children of her own pulls their twenty pounds in close, resting them over her Peter-Panning heart. Her lungs empty out, then fill, then fill again with the surge of birth & surprise. For two years, until their velvet bodies begin (and end) to fall to pieces, every time the driven-to woman passes the bouquet of them, there, in the vase by the front door, she is reminded of what falling in love, without permission, smells like. Each time she reaches for her keys, she recalls what you must be willing to turn into for love: spiny oyster mushroom, damson, salt marsh, cedar, creosote, new bud of pomegranate, Aegean sage blue sea, fig, blueberry, marigold, leaf fall, fogs eye, dusty miller, thief-of-the-night.