Mercy, Mercy, Me

Crips, Bloods, and butterflies.
   A sunflower somehow planted
in the alley. Its broken neck.
   Maybe memory is all the home
you get. And rage, where you
   first learn how fragile the axis
upon which everything tilts.
   But to say you’ve come to terms
with a city that’s never loved you
   might be overstating things a bit.
All you know is there was once
   a walk-up where now sits a lot,
vacant, and rats in deep grass
   hide themselves from the day.
That one apartment fire
   set back in ’76—one the streets
called arson to collect a claim—
   could not do, ultimately, what
the city itself did, left to its own dank
   devices, some sixteen years later.
Rebellions, said some. Riots,
   said the rest. In any case, flames;
and the home you knew, ash.
   It’s not an actual memory, but
you remember it still: a rust-
   bottomed Datsun handed down,
then stolen. Stripped, recovered,
   and built back from bolts.
Driving away in May. 1992.
   What’s left of that life quivers
in the rearview—the world on fire,
   and half your head with it.

Variation on a Theme by Elizabeth Bishop

Start with loss. Lose everything. Then lose it all again.  
Lose a good woman on a bad day. Find a better woman, 
then lose five friends chasing her. Learn to lose as if 
your life depended on it. Learn that your life depends on it.
Learn it like karate, like riding a bike. Learn it, master it.
Lose money, lose time, lose your natural mind.
Get left behind, then learn to leave others. Lose and
lose again. Measure a father’s coffin against a cousin’s 
crashing T-cells. Kiss your sister through prison glass.  
Know why your woman’s not answering her phone.
Lose sleep. Lose religion. Lose your wallet in El Segundo.  
Open your window. Listen: the last slow notes
of a Donny Hathaway song. A child crying. Listen:  
A drunk man is cussing out the moon. He sounds like 
your dead uncle, who, before he left, lost a leg 
to sugar. Shame. Learn what’s given can be taken; 
what can be taken, will. This you can bet on without 
losing. Sure as nightfall and an empty bed. Lose
and lose again. Lose until it’s second nature. Losing
farther, losing faster. Lean out your open window, listen:
The child is laughing now. No, it’s the drunk man again
in the street, losing his voice, suffering each invisible star. 


On Metaphor

In back of daddy’s closet, 
behind the cold and loaded 
pistol, I find a cedar box 
of snapshots—his company 
in camouflage, waving rifles,
reefer, and middle fingers 
at the photographer. At you.  
And at me. And here, 
the full-lipped redbone
he left in the world without
a goodbye. Here, a strange
boy with my father’s forehead,
same sullen eyes. Flip the photo: 
a stranger’s name and dates 
that don’t add, scrawled as if
rushed, as if a fugitive’s note
slipped quick to the future.
When my mother walks in,
I shove the box to the back
of the shelf, say nothing
of the redbone or the boy.
I hand her, instead, the pistol.
A .45, I believe. Its cold barrel
swelling in the room’s bum
light. When she angles it,
just so, I think I see my father
reflected in the steel. Wait, no—
Not my father. It’s me.


Dolores, Maybe

I’ve never spoken to anyone about this.  Until now, until you.

I slept once in a field beyond the riverbank,
a flock of nightjars watching over me.

That was the summer a farmer found his daughter
hanging in the hayloft, and wished, for the first time,
he had not touched her so.

I wish I could say we were close—the girl and I,
I mean—but I only knew her to wave hello,

and walked her, once, halfway up the road
before turning finally into my grandmother’s yard.

This was Ontario, California. 1983.
Which is to say, there was no river.
And I wouldn’t know a nightjar if it bit me.

But the girl was real. And the day they found her, that was real.

And the dress she wore, same as on our walk—
periwinkle, she called it; I called it blue,
blue with bright yellow flowers all over

—the dress and the flowers, they too were real.

And on our walk, I remember, we cut through the rail yard, 
and came upon a dead coyote lying near the tracks.

A frail and dusty heap of regret, he was companion to no one.

We stared at him for some time, our shadows stretched long and covering the animal.
She said something I’d remember for years, about loneliness,

but have long forgotten, the way I’ve forgotten—
though I can see her face as if she were standing right here—her very name.

Let’s call her Dolores, from dolor. Spanish for anguish.

And whatever the sky, however lovely that afternoon, 
I remember mostly the wind, 
how a breeze unraveled what was left of a braid, 

and when I tried to brush from Dolores’s brow 
a few loose strands, how she flinched,
how she ran the rest of the way home,

how I never saw her after that,
except when they carried her from the barn—her periwinkle dress,
her blue legs and arms, and the fields 
ablaze with daisies.

I spent the rest of that summer in the rail yard 
with my dead coyote, watching trains loaded and leaving.

All summer long, I’d pelt him with stones.
All summer long, I’d use the stones to spell the girl’s name—
Dolores, maybe—in the dirt.

All summer long, fire ants crawled over and between each letter—
her name, now, its own small town.

A season of heat and heavy rains washed my coyote to nothing.  
Only teeth and a few stubborn bones 

that refused, finally, to go down.

Weeks into autumn, someone found the father
hanged from the same groaning tie-beams,
the hayloft black with bottle flies.

But that was 1983. Ontario, California.  
Which is to say, the bottle flies are dead. So, too, the ants.  
And neither field nor barn is where I left it.

I’ve never spoken to anyone about this. Until now, until you.

I gathered a handful of my coyote’s bones, his teeth,
and strung them all on fishing wire—
a talisman to ward off anguish. A talisman I hold out to you now.

Please. Come closer. Take this from my hand.



Related Poems

from Notes on the Shape of Absence

We trace the dust lines left behind from the appliances, fumble for the brick foundations between the steel beams, peer at serrated stairlines where the wall paints stopped. Reincarnated. Tenement apartments become dance spaces without barres or mirrors, in the dank basement of a bank on Market Street, in anonymous green-carpeted rooms on Mott Street.