Mail-Order Planets

In 1981, Eris’s spacious face hadn’t been discovered
yet, my mother hadn’t taken a day off from Fort Ben
yet, & Pluto was still a planet. One of nine celestial
bodies snapped into drummed orbits around the Sun
like the orthodontic rubber bands no one in Carriage House
had. I hid my gaps by not smiling, imagining an astronaut
future as sharp & fixed as a dentist’s smile—236 miles
above Earth where up & down are instructions instead
of directions. Behind a mirrored visor, the singing inside
my American-flagged extravehicular mobility unit
so robust it could keep a black boy from Indiana breathing
in outer space. We didn’t have any solar system models
at PS113, so I had to get my own. I dove into dumpsters
searching for cans & bottles under the OJ cartons & maggots
fat in swallows of juice. I dug through frozen dinner boxes
& apple cores shaped like moldy infinities, then foraged
the iced-out underpass—M&MKim painted in moon-
eyed red, then X-ed out with black paint by the time
the frost went away. I hunted the ice- & tire-clogged creek
where I would have spun the bottle with Cynthia
from science class if I wasn’t chicken. The A&P paid
by the pound & I dragged sacks stuffed with sand-filled
Schlitz & Tab cans around back where the braceface
sweating on the scale knew my game & paid me anyway.
Three months of collecting & I had enough money
to order our system from the back of a Star Trek comic—
all nine planets in adjustable orbits & Earth’s majesty
anchoring the third lane. The kid in the ad was as excited
as I was—waiting for the mailman every day after mailing
five wrinkled bills—but the solar system never came.

& Later,

—after “Trumpet,” Jean-Michel Basquiat


the broken sprawl & crawl
of Basquiat’s paints, the thin cleft

          of villainous pigments wrapping 

each frame like the syntax
          in somebody else’s relaxed

explanation of lateness: what had
          happened was.
Below blackened

crowns, below words crossed out
to remind of what is underneath:

          potholes, ashy elbows, & breath

that, in the cold, comes out in red light

& complaint shapes— 3 lines
          from the horn’s mouth
in the habit of tardy remunerations.

All of that 3-triggered agitation,

all that angry-fingered fruition   

like Indianapolis’s 3-skyscrapered smile
when the sun goes down & even

the colors themselves start talking

          in the same suspicious idiom
          as a brass instrument—

thin throat like a fist,

          flat declinations of pastors
& teachers at Christmas in the inner city.

Shoulders back & heads up when
playing in holiday choir of hungry

          paints, chins covered
in red scribbles in all of the songs.

Strange Celestial Roads

There’s a father sleeping it off in every master bedroom 
     of the cul-de-sac the morning after, so Saturday
morning is a snooze. The moon is still out, eyeballing
     the quiet street like Sun Ra did his Arkestra. Somebody
has to be a father figure for all of those musical notes.
     No school busses to huff after, no mothers yelling
their children onward. The only weekend noise is us,
     kicking rocks—so bored we can’t even hear each other—
on a celestial swirl of asphalt that will be a playground
     one day. We stand, right feet extended in unison like foos
men, rock after rock arcing at sorry angles toward
     the open bar that hopes to dangle four swings. Some
rocks go through, some miss as we balance on concrete
    meant to backstop hop scotch & echo knock knock jokes.
Not somebody’s father, finally up & at ‘em, yelling,
    You got to be kidding me, after he opens the property tax
bill. Maybe these bars were placed here for some other,
    future kids to be dragged away from by big ears
or red necks toward the unavoidable arguments, fist-to-face
     noises & the bleating saxophones that come after. 

Central Avenue Beach

 

—Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, 2016

 

1.

Just off of Highway 12, Sandburg’s signature
of time & eternity: the muggy marshes

& thick forests of the mind, sand that sings
its memory of glaciers & the glaciers before

them. 14,000 years of them. After
the Potawatomi got marched away & before

the steel makers’ smokestacks & the abandoned
Bailly Nuclear Plant cupped this lakeshore

like hands around a beach party’s last
dry match: Lake Michigan’s wide-brimmed

posture as close to an ocean as the scrub
brush, gulls, & rocks around here will get.  

 

2.

Every town around here
has a Central Avenue, complete
with blustery flags & home-
cooked meals. Blank storefronts
& churches next to other churches—
lake light filtering through
their stained glass windows
most sunny afternoons after 3pm.
Steeples, one after another,
like the Great Lakes’ waves
trying to blink constant sand
out of wet eyes. & at night, all  
of the avenue lights up. No street
lights, but stars & moon blinking
in agitated water while the industrial
lights on the fringes dim like blank
faces traced in constellations.

 

3.

Listen to the Sand
     Hill Cranes folding
into the dim fringes

of themselves
     like prayer hands.
Listen to the yellow

warblers clustered
     up in the middle
of knotted branches

like a hungry chorus
     in these perfectly
paused trees. Even

at night, the birds
     grab sand-swirled air
with nonchalant wings.

 

4.

In the day or at night, central is centrālis in Latin & means exactly
what the warblers, trees, & restless dunes think it means: ruffles
of sand between the angry human fist & the equally angry
human face of industry, deregulations & pollutants as uninvited
as the sea lamprey wiggling through the locks & canals.

 

5.

After the canals & their creaking locks
     & the oxidized ships & their bleary horns,

the sun edges the blue between cuffed waves
     & unrepentant shore. After gravity’s

insoluble gears pull all of this water away
     from Central Avenue & back to the center

& the fish swim away from shore through
     the gills of noises & sediment in that sideways

way fish do. In a lake this big, it’s possible
     to swim in circles all day & get no further

from the moon than this parade of whitecaps
     on the edges of the dunes. The same

frustrated tendencies of circle, these waves.
     The same cornered ingenuity, this great lake.

These dunes, always on the mainline’s wet
     cusp—polished, brocaded & fabulous.