Incantation of the First Order

- 1952-

Listen, no one signed up for this lullaby. 
No bleeped sheep or rosebuds or twitching stars 
will diminish the fear or save you from waking 

into the same day you dreamed of leaving
mockingbird on back order, morning bells
stuck on snoozeso you might as well  

get up and at it, pestilence be damned. 
Peril and risk having become relative,
I’ll try to couch this in positive terms:

Never! is the word of last resorts, 
Always! the fanatic’s rallying cry. 
To those inclined toward kindness, I say

Come out of your houses drumming. All others, 
beware: I have discarded my smile but not my teeth.

The Bistro Styx

She was thinner, with a mannered gauntness
as she paused just inside the double
glass doors to survey the room, silvery cape
billowing dramatically behind her.  What's this,

I thought, lifting a hand until
she nodded and started across the parquet;
that's when I saw she was dressed all in gray,
from a kittenish cashmere skirt and cowl

down to the graphite signature of her shoes.
"Sorry I'm late," she panted, though
she wasn't, sliding into the chair, her cape

tossed off in a shudder of brushed steel.
We kissed.  Then I leaned back to peruse
my blighted child, this wary aristocratic mole.



"How's business?" I asked, and hazarded
a motherly smile to keep from crying out:
Are you content to conduct your life
as a cliché and, what's worse,

an anachronism, the brooding artist's demimonde?
Near the rue Princesse they had opened 
a gallery cum souvenir shop which featured
fuzzy off-color Monets next to his acrylics, no doubt,

plus beared African drums and the occasional miniature
gargoyle from Notre Dame the Great Artist had
carved at breakfast with a pocket knife.

"Tourists love us.  The Parisians, of course"--
she blushed--"are amused, though not without
a certain admiration . . ."
                           The Chateaubriand



arrived on a bone-white plate, smug and absolute
in its fragrant crust, a black plug steaming
like the heart plucked from the chest of a worthy enemy;
one touch with her fork sent pink juices streaming.

"Admiration for what?"  Wine, a bloody
Pinot Noir, brought color to her cheeks.  "Why,
the aplomb with which we've managed
to support our Art"--meaning he'd convinced

her to pose nude for his appalling canvases,
faintly futuristic landscapes strewn
with carwrecks and bodies being chewed

by rabid cocker spaniels.  "I'd like to come by
the studio," I ventured, "and see the new stuff."
"Yes, if you wish . . ."  A delicate rebuff



before the warning: "He dresses all
in black now.  Me, he drapes in blues and carmine--
and even though I think it's kinda cute,
in company I tend toward more muted shades."

She paused and had the grace
to drop her eyes.  She did look ravishing,
spookily insubstantial, a lipstick ghost on tissue,
or as if one stood on a fifth-floor terrace

peering through a fringe of rain at Paris'
dreaming chimney pots, each sooty issue
wobbling skyward in an ecstatic oracular spiral.

"And he never thinks of food.  I wish
I didn't have to plead with him to eat. . . ."  Fruit
and cheese appeared, arrayed on leaf-green dishes.



I stuck with café crème.  "This Camembert's
so ripe," she joked, "it's practically grown hair,"
mucking a golden glob complete with parsley sprig
onto a heel of bread.  Nothing seemed to fill

her up: She swallowed, sliced into a pear,
speared each tear-shaped lavaliere
and popped the dripping mess into her pretty mouth.
Nowhere the bright tufted fields, weighted

vines and sun poured down out of the south.
"But are you happy?"  Fearing, I whispered it
quickly.  "What?  You know, Mother"--

she bit into the starry rose of a fig--
"one really should try the fruit here."
I've lost her, I thought, and called for the bill.

Adolescence II

Although it is night, I sit in the bathroom, waiting.
Sweat prickles behind my knees, the baby-breasts are alert.
Venetian blinds slice up the moon; the tiles quiver in pale strips.

Then they come, the three seal men with eyes as round
As dinner plates and eyelashes like sharpened tines.
They bring the scent of licorice. One sits in the washbowl,

One on the bathtub edge; one leans against the door.
"Can you feel it yet?" they whisper.
I don't know what to say, again. They chuckle,

Patting their sleek bodies with their hands.
"Well, maybe next time." And they rise,
Glittering like pools of ink under moonlight,

And vanish. I clutch at the ragged holes
They leave behind, here at the edge of darkness.
Night rests like a ball of fur on my tongue.

Related Poems

The Virus

Dubbed undetectable, I can’t kill
The people you touch, and I can’t
Blur your view
Of the pansies you’ve planted
Outside the window, meaning
I can’t kill the pansies, but I want to.
I want them dying, and I want
To do the killing. I want you
To heed that I’m still here
Just beneath your skin and in
Each organ
The way anger dwells in a man
Who studies the history of his nation.
If I can’t leave you
Dead, I’ll have
You vexed. Look. Look
Again: show me the color
Of your flowers now.

Fingernails

Stopped biting my nails when we started sheltering  
and the next week they scratched my daughter  
when I held her. Seldom had I ever seen nails intact  
on my troubled fingers, but now I persevered to grow  
abundant enough to touch any other person.  
We ate and uttered grace, my own thanks diminished  
by sincerity. Thank you for not being dead! 
Seven o’clock. The sunset breathes pink as a gill. 
We plead applause out open windows desperate  
to once more belong to we. Pandemic, pan demos, means all people,  
but our clapping sounds dumb cause it’s not.  
I wonder if the virus is only envoi, a final sickness following  
the first: that burst of capital scouring the earth for returns. 
How gluttonous money flies as half alive as any virus!  
Superstructural germ, does the wage like you borrow the body’s life 
until investment finally sunders people extra, mere clippings? 
The corona seems only the sun’s thin halo,  
a white keratin rim, and now they say crisis comes  
when people consume too little, so when my nails grow back 
I chew them hope hungry, cannibal of my hands,  
fearing each hangnail a door for the contaminant.  
Does such solipsism tell you I’ve suffered  
only paper cuts? It seems that being New Yorkers means  
we share only one thing. We each hear the red wound wailing  
in the air, soaking the siren red. The siren burns,  
the siren spins, but now a different return from that of ambulances  
and profits. Now spring strikes. Now the workers walk out  
of warehouses. A judge orders ten migrants unthawed  
from ice. Is something turning for the people  
called surplus? Dread of anticipation before no future.  
Stop biting your nails, says my mother  
on Skype. She tells me to save the bearded roots  
of leeks. If you plant them, new shoots  
regenerate from the trimmings.  

Shelter in Place

Schools are shuttered     everything is cancelled     and my body has become

an extension of my house     this shift is strange     but not entirely unfamiliar

the way a cardinal’s home     is a disordered stick bomb     just about captures

how I feel

        how the mother bird uses her shape     as a template to form her nest

shoving sticks together     in a fit of random engineering     randoming would be

the verb I guess     or jamming as it applies to me

                                                                                a steady state of hysteresis

in which applied pressure     changes the ensemble     in which the structure

bounces back     but not completely

                                                      I’ve been thinking

of ways to speak     to my children about fear     how to be adaptive

I want to tell them     about zebra finches     who are content in captivity

and who unlike robins     which favor mud as cement     make their nests

from anything they find     strips of paper or string     fibers from a coconut husk

I want to stress     that these elements the finches assemble     seem haphazardly

placed but behave collectively     how there’s a logic buried     deep in the mother

building her nest     which is a story of the nature of her body     as every child’s

first home     that we don’t struggle alone     as the architects of our days

that nature will continue     to amaze us      in ways we don’t expect