Something to Believe In

- 1959-

My two hunting dogs have names, but I rarely use them. As 
I go, they go: I lead; they follow, the blue-eyed one first, then
the one whose coloring—her coat, not her eyes—I sometimes 
call never-again-o-never-this-way-henceforth. Hope, ambition: 
these are not their names, though the way they run might suggest 
otherwise. Like steam off night-soaked wooden fencing when 
the sun first hits it, they rise each morning at my command. Late 
in the Iliad, Priam the king of Troy predicts his own murder—
correctly, except it won’t be by spear, as he imagines, but by 
sword thrust. He can see his corpse, sees the dogs he’s fed and 
trained so patiently pulling the corpse apart. After that, he says,
When they’re full, they’ll lie in the doorway, they’ll lap my blood. 
I say: Why shouldn’t they? Everywhere, the same people who 
mistake obedience for loyalty think somehow loyalty weighs more 
than hunger, when it doesn’t. At night, when it’s time for bed, 
we sleep together, the three of us: muscled animal, muscled animal, 
muscled animal. The dogs settle to either side of me as if each 
were the slightly folded wing of a beast from fable, part power, part 
recognition. We breathe in a loose kind of unison. Our breathing 
ripples the way oblivion does—routinely, across history’s face.

Passing

When the Famous Black Poet speaks,
I understand

that his is the same unnervingly slow 
rambling method of getting from A to B
that I hated in my father,
my father who always told me
don't shuffle.

The Famous Black Poet is
speaking of the dark river in the mind
that runs thick with the heroes of color,
Jackie R., Bessie, Billie, Mr. Paige, anyone
who knew how to sing or when to run. 
I think of my grandmother, said
to have dropped dead from the evil eye,
of my lesbian aunt who saw cancer and
a generally difficult future headed her way
in the still water
of her brother's commode.
I think of voodoo in the bottoms of soup-cans,
and I want to tell the poet that the blues
is not my name, that Alabama
is something I cannot use
in my business.

He is so like my father,
I don't ask the Famous Black Poet,
afterwards,
to remove his shoes,
knowing the inexplicable black
and pink I will find there, a cut 
gone wrong in five places.
I don't ask him to remove
his pants, since that too
is known, what has never known
a blade, all the spaces between,
where we differ .  .  .

I have spent years tugging
between my legs,
and proved nothing, really.
I wake to the sheets I kicked aside,
and examine where they've failed to mend
their own creases, resembling some silken
obstruction, something pulled
from my father's chest, a bad heart,
a lung,

the lung of the Famous Black Poet
saying nothing I want to understand. 

Leda, After the Swan

Perhaps,
in the exaggerated grace
of his weight
settling,

the wings
raised, held in
strike-or-embrace
position,

I recognized
something more
than swan, I can't say.

There was just
this barely defined
shoulder, whose feathers
came away in my hands,

and the bit of world
left beyond it, coming down

to the heat-crippled field,

ravens the precise color of
sorrow in good light, neither
black nor blue, like fallen
stitches upon it,

and the hour forever,
it seemed, half-stepping
its way elsewhere--

then
everything, I
remember, began
happening more quickly.

If a Wilderness

Then spring came:
	           branches-in-a-wind. . .

I bought a harness, I bought a bridle.
I wagered on God in a kind stranger—
kind at first; strange, then less so—
and I was right.
	      The difference between
God and luck is that luck, when it leaves,
does not go far: the idea is to believe
you could almost touch it. . . .

		          Now he's
singing, cadence of a rough sea—A way of
crossing a dark so unspecific, it seems
everywhere: isn't that what singing, once,
was for?
          I lay the harness across my lap,
the bridle beside me for the sweat—the color
and smell of it—that I couldn't, by now,
lift the leather free of, even if I wanted to.

I don't want to.

Related Poems

The Silver Thread

The fern gathers where the water seldom goes
unless the storms swell this world of wise choices,
the loud trickle of clear tongues of the stream
licking the edges of rock, while up ahead a curve
hides tomorrow from our crystal ball, the thing
we are afraid to admit we have, the guarantee
we hide from faith. In the woods our dog is lost
from time to time, until suddenly we hear her paws
inside winter’s death becoming the yearly promise
of new undergrowth, her careless paws that beg
each day for the next bowl of treats, true faith
in what love yields. The rain stops not long after
it threatens to soak us with cold and chills, the trees
open to the gradual break of blue inside the gray,
turning the clouds naked and white under the sun,
the stream disappears under a bridge made by men
so trucks can crawl back and forth over this road
of dirt with its one row of grass, where our tongues
make a silver thread finding its way past the fear.

Again

Because I love you, and beneath the dying stars
I have become the delicate piston threading itself through your chest,

I want to tell you a story I shouldn’t but will and in the meantime neglect, Love,
the discordant melody spilling from my ears but attend,

instead, to this tale, for a river burns inside my mouth
and it wants both purgation and to eternally sip your thousand drippings;

and in the story is a dog and unnamed it leads to less heartbreak,
so name him Max, and in the story are neighborhood kids

who spin a yarn about Max like I’m singing to you, except they tell a child,
a boy who only moments earlier had been wending through sticker bushes

to pick juicy rubies, whose chin was, in fact, stained with them,
and combining in their story the big kids make

the boy who shall remain unnamed believe Max to be sick and rabid,
and say his limp and regular smell of piss are just two signs,

but the worst of it, they say, is that he’ll likely find you in the night,
and the big kids do not giggle, and the boy does not giggle,

but lets the final berries in his hand drop into the overgrowth
at his feet, and if I spoke the dream of the unnamed boy

I fear my tongue would turn an arm of fire so I won’t, but
know inside the boy’s head grew a fire beneath the same stars

as you and I, Love, your leg between mine, the fine hairs
on your upper thigh nearly glistening in the night, and the boy,

the night, the incalculable mysteries as he sleeps with a stuffed animal
tucked beneath his chin and rolls tight against his brother

in their shared bed, who rolls away, and you know by now
there is no salve to quell his mind’s roaring machinery

and I shouldn’t tell you, but I will,
the unnamed boy

on the third night of the dreams which harden his soft face
puts on pants and a sweatshirt and quietly takes the spade from the den

and more quietly leaves his house where upstairs his father lies dreamless,
and his mother bends her body into his,

and beneath these same stars, Love, which often, when I study them,
seem to recede like so many of the lies of light,

the boy walks to the yard where Max lives attached to a steel cable
spanning the lawn, and the boy brings hot dogs which he learned

from Tom & Jerry, and nearly urinating in his pants he tosses them
toward the quiet and crippled thing limping across the lawn,

the cable whispering above the dew-slick grass, and Max whimpers,
and the boy sees a wolf where stands this ratty

and sad and groveling dog and beneath these very stars
Max raises his head to look at the unnamed boy

with one glaucous eye nearly glued shut
and the other wet from the cool breeze and wheezing

Max catches the gaze of the boy who sees,
at last, the raw skin on the dog’s flanks, the quiver

of his spindly legs, and as Max bends his nose
to the franks the boy watches him struggle

to snatch the meat with his gums, and bringing the shovel down
he bends to lift the meat to Max’s toothless mouth,

and rubs the length of his throat and chin,
Max arching his neck with his eyes closed, now,

and licking the boy’s round face, until the boy unchains the dog,
and stands, taking slow steps backward through the wet grass and feels,

for the first time in days, the breath in his lungs, which is cool,
and a little damp, spilling over his small lips, and he feels,

again, his feet beneath him, and the earth beneath them, and starlings
singing the morning in, and the somber movement of beetles

chewing the leaves of the white birch, glinting in the dark, and he notices,
Darling, an upturned nest beneath the tree, and flips it looking for the blue eggs

of robins, but finds none, and placing a rumpled crimson feather in his mouth
slips the spindly thicket into another tree, which he climbs

to watch the first hint of light glancing above the fields, and the boy
eventually returns to his thorny fruit bush where an occasional prick

leaves on his arm or leg a spot of blood the color of these raspberries
and tasting of salt, and filling his upturned shirt with them he beams

that he could pull from the earth that which might make you smile,
Love, which you’ll find in the fridge, on the bottom shelf, behind the milk,

in the bowl you made with your own lovely hands.