Looking for the Beautiful Things

I live in Texas now. & in the next lane over on I-10
BIG JEFF is soaring at twin-speed toward the dusk-pending horizon 

& something base & graceful has taken us over
like, if I took my hands off the wheel, we could lift into the air & become 

part of the indistinguishable wave of laughing gulls above. 
BIG JEFF says his license plate, which I first checked when I let him pass 

10 miles back because his lights behind me
were the Second Coming (or the First Coming, in his case, if we’re making 

the usual jokes about men with big trucks). 
But I don’t want to make unbecoming jokes about BIG JEFF, who is 

right now, accompanying me down this interstate 
of solitude, not leaving me behind or riding my bumper, just gliding 

beside me as if he needs someone too, as if he trusts me 
& said to himself in his blue-lit interior, Hey, I’m gonna hang on her wing.

She seems to know how to get where we’re going.
She’s probably a hellcat. No balls hanging from his tow bar, just BIG JEFF 

on his pearlescent Ford Super Duty, which has a row of three 
headlights on each side & which, I admit, I was more than annoyed by 

when he came up behind me like an astrodome 
on wheels. But Texas is home now & this is the way of things—BIG JEFF 

& NASA, tacos & trucks. The only state with more guns 
than Kentucky, the expert at the range told me before I left. I am an expert 

at beginnings, a Lone Star once again, as I have been 
in every state I’ve lived—the Bluegrass, the Garden, the Palmetto, the Bay—

each time hoping I’m closer to the beautiful things.

Denial is a Cliff We Are Driven Over

I want to believe Don West
when he writes: none of mine

ever made their living by driving slaves.
But in my grandfather’s mouth that utterance

would’ve taken on another meaning:
In the memory my mother shares,

he is flitting across Louisville
in his taxi, passing back-and-forth

like a cardinal, red-faced, proud-breasted,
delivering Black folks their dry cleaning—

had to, she tells me, as part of his route—
but once he started his second shift and turned

on the cab light, he wouldn’t accept
Black fare. I recall him reciting

the early presidents’
racist pseudoscience—American

at its liver—to rationalize his hatred
of my father, his denial

of my Blackness. That denial a peril
I survived, a cliff he could have driven me over

at any moment of my childhood. Maybe,
I want to think, because they were poor men

who labored, farmed tobacco and dug for oil,
my grandfather’s people resisted

slavery, felt a kinship with my father’s people.
Or that because my grandfather

was one of eleven mouths to feed
on their homestead—reduced to dirt

across the Great Depression—
he had a white identity to be proud of, a legacy

that didn’t join our names
in a bill of sale, but in struggle.

I search his surname and it travels
back to Germany, appears

on the deed to the house he inherited,
retired and died in, poor-white resentment

inflaming his stomach and liver.
But when I search the name I share with my father,

my only inheritance                      disappears
into the 19th century, sixth generation:

my ancestor bred
to produce 248 offspring

for his owner, from whence comes
our family name. Mr. West, here

we are different. Here, is where
my grandfather found his love for me discordant

as the voice of the dead whispering
history. Here is where we are connected,

not by class, but blood & slavery.

When I See the Stars in the Night Sky

I think of Whitney Houston    in her sequined glamour
   She’s centerstage      It’s 1988           Her head
             Thrown back against a black backdrop     She is the only thing
      glowing       So distant                        from us in the universe

    of her voice                 She is already dying       when
I hear her sing the first time          When I slip inside
   my rhinestone leotard white tights          Before a mic
              My vocal chords are still elastic                  Vibrating harpstring

    Not yet sclerotic with unlovely smoke                    and shame
    I’m drawn to Whitney like a cardinal on a branch
in winter            Beauty too bright for camouflage                 Her story
a constellation twinned with mine. I love myself 

          because of her. Our sweet lip sweat sparkling in the flame
light. I went home inside myself too. The world became so small.  
          Secrets collapsing my life into a vacuum. To burn a little longer—
Whitney, you know           no one is coming—you must        save yourself.

Related Poems

What We Own

I followed you down the switchback trail of the Grand Canyon and we slept
            in a crevice, and we own that,

and we own those moments tossing the football in front of 4073 Wyncote Road
            until the streetlights snapped on,

and we own the smoke bomb the cops threw at us and a few thousand others
            at the Jefferson Airplane concert, Akron, Ohio, 1972,

and we own the whole country we passed through, all the way to the ocean,
            where we checked into a hotel and you discovered, lying atop Gideon’s Bible,

a black film canister’s worth of weed and half-a-pack of rolling papers,
            and we smoked it, and it was good, unbelieving of our luck,

which we own, and the lunar landscape surrounding our tent in Big Bend, Texas,
            and the stars, so clear we could read by them, and did,

and we own The Godfather—Part One—on the big screen of that packed theater
            in Evanston, Illinois, and we own that fear

when were lost in the Tennessee woods, into the dark, and you followed
            some analytical instinct until we found—lo and behold—a road,

and Bob Dylan, who was ours, and Joan Baez, who was also ours, singing
            “The Times They Are A-Changing” in the War Memorial,

and watching the Indians—miracles of miracles—beat the New York Yankees
            at Yankee Stadium during the 1995 heatwave—that, too, that victory, was ours,

and I remember how quiet you sometimes were, and I asked about it, and you said it’s a feeling you
            get, you don’t know how to talk about it, and I’d like to think

we own that feeling—how we bested the myths.  We didn’t become murderer
            and victim.  We didn’t cheat on the other’s birthright.

Oh, my brother of the other world, my brother who perhaps will greet me
            when I arrive at that place prepared for by our father,

who is now joined by his own flesh and blood, which is not blood, which is not flesh, but bones and
            perhaps spirit,

which we believe in, like the moon, or the unpredictable Cleveland weather,
            or the way the snow descends on the fallen leaves,

or how the sun glazes them now, for their moment, stirred in the slight wind,
            the same wind that blew the Jerusalem dust in our faces, which we own.


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.

Cascades 501

The man sitting behind me
is telling the man sitting next to him about his heart bypass.

Outside the train’s window, the landscapes smear by—
the earnest, haphazard distillations of America. The backyards

and back sides of houses. The back lots of shops
and factories. The undersides of bridges. And then the

of actual land, which is not so much land
but the kinds of water courses and greenery that register

like luck in the mind. Dense walls of trees.
Punky little woods. The living continually out-growing

the fallen and decaying. The vines and ivies taking over
everything, proving that the force of disorder is also the force

of plenty. Then the eye dilating to the sudden
clearings—fields, meadows. The bogs that must have been left

by retreating glaciers. The creeks, the algae broth
of ponds. Then the broad silver of rivers, shiny

as turnstiles. Attrition, dispersal, growth—a system unfastened
to story, as though the green sight itself

was beyond story, was peacefully beyond any clear meaning.
But why the gust of alertness that comes

to me every time any indication of the human
passes into sight—like a mirror, like to like, even though I am

the summer backyard with the orange soccer ball resting
there, even though I am not the pick-up truck

parked in the back lot, its two doors opened
wide, and no one around to show whether it is funny

or an emergency that the truck is like that. Each thing looks 
even when it is old and broken down.

They had to open me up—the man is now telling the other
I wasn’t there to see it, but they opened me up.