Twelve Gates

Strict and bound 
as an analog watch, 
Aristotelian narrative 
calls for a probable
necessary sequence. 

It is suicide season.
The calendar taunts 
with year three’s death dance. 

Dialysate swills 
in my abdomen. 
Long arrows of surgery 
nudge under my ribs
            trace my hipbones 
                        garland my navel. 

Along my lower back 
divots of biopsy
freckle into sickles 
when I bend over. 

Driving over the city bridge 
quirk or quark humming
            I might be spared.

My grandmother loved
singing O What a Beautiful City 
as she sorted her pills.

The anesthetic mask
shatters linear discipline:

            Trotting the deep path by mosslight, 
            son is a dark-haired universe 
            in the crook of my right arm. 
            Five pound blood-hum
            prayer and verse ripping 
            my skull pure off.
            Time has me scalped
            kissing the whorls of my brain 
            with frank red lips. 

Rolling up from surgery
I look down to my wrist
where someone has clasped 
my watch on loosely.

Poor Lazarus

Live long enough
and salt pork, beans,
yearling colts, honey and butter,
            something will turn into a wedge
            to bend your will.

Missionaries call for my sons to send off to school,
each season when the corn is green.
I tuck them into the rows
farthest to the north of my cabin.
Keep them busy with the threshing as I whisper
their true names into the ears we consume,
            but I leave a path to them
            like a snake
            by slithering away through the sparse harvest.

Frost breaks under my mare’s hooves
when I ride to sign my name at the Neosho mission.
My sons and nephews
traded to industrial school in the north
            for the release of seven barrels of winter rations.

This commerce—
makes me brother to dragons, companion to owls.

Riding away from the mission,
I call to my sister’s youngest child,
            the only one
            still too young for school,
            come over here and ride with your old uncle.

The boy clambers up behind me,
bare toe notched into the girth for warmth and purchase.
My boots quiver along the sides of the horse’s flanks
            as I endeavor to slip them into the stirrups
            that frame the ground below in jerky patches.

Child, I keep repeating, Nephew.
The horse dances nervously,
sensing my frenzy.
To his credit,
            the boy
            keeps a steady hand on the reins.

Passive Voice

I use a trick to teach students
how to avoid passive voice.

Circle the verbs.
Imagine inserting “by zombies”
after each one.

Have the words been claimed
by the flesh-hungry undead?
If so, passive voice.

I wonder if these
sixth graders will recollect,
on summer vacation,
as they stretch their legs
on the way home
from Yellowstone or Yosemite
and the byway’s historical marker
beckons them to the
site of an Indian village—

Where trouble was brewing.
Where, after further hostilities, the army was directed to enter.
Where the village was razed after the skirmish occurred.
Where most were women and children.

Riveted bramble of passive verbs
etched in wood—
stripped hands
breaking up from the dry ground
to pinch the meat
of their young red tongues.

Wars of Attrition

Mapping out territory
in 1984—
            my older cousin
                        ditched me
in the scrub brush behind our granny’s house

locked in a dog crate, five years old,
                        howling.

Nine years ago, I taught her oldest child
how to write her name
on the back of a grocery list.

            My hand huge over her crayon
            clamped fist.

Paper plastered across her boxy little torso
like a peace treaty
            as she galloped through the living room.

I was teaching seventh grade when my cousin died,
sugar gumming up her system
            like a glinting trail of dried snot.

Unable to focus,
            my mind
                        flitted over the Cascades
                        past a lake full of tree trunks
                        poking up like rotten molars

landed in Eastern Washington
                        next to my grandmother’s backyard—
                        next to my cousin’s red curls.

A map is not a neutral document,
            one of my students parroted
            bubble eyed.

And I muttered
            that’s right
                        correct.

Related Poems

Cross/Bite

                                                 I was born into this world sideways.
                                 Doctor said,
                                                 surgery, to break my face
                           set it right again
                                                 as if breaking were simple.
      Wet places my lips have been:
                                                 all the boys I've kissed—
             so many caves I've licked
                                                 saliva & sweat
            holy water on my tongue.
                                                 I grind my teeth at night
wake to white sand in my mouth:
                                                 nocturnal silt, gritty loam.
              My jaws pop when I talk
                                                 but if I had the surgery, went cosmetic?
Oh, the typewriter in my bones—
                                                  yes, I would miss that click/clack the most.

To Be Continued:

The partial mastectomy took a long time to execute
And left a huge raggedy scar
Healing from that partial mastectomy took even longer
And devolved into a psychological chasm 2 times the depth
And breadth of the physical scar from the mastectomy that was raggedy
And huge
Metastatic reactivation of the breast cancer requiring partial mastectomy
That left a huge raggedy scar in the first place now pounds
To pieces
A wound head-set fifty times more implacable and more intractable
Than the psychological chasm produced by the healing process
That was twice as enormously damaging as the surgery
Which left a huge raggedy scar

And so I go
on

Afternoon at MacDowell

On a windy summer day the well-dressed
trustees occupy the first row
under the yellow and white striped canopy.
Their drive for capital is over,
and for a while this refuge is secure.

Thin after your second surgery, you wear
the gray summer suit we bought eight 
years ago for momentous occasions
in warm weather. My hands rest in my lap,
under the fine cotton shawl embroidered
with mirrors that we bargained for last fall
in Bombay, unaware of your sickness.

The legs of our chairs poke holes
in the lawn. The sun goes in and out
of the grand clouds, making the air alive
with golden light, and then, as if heaven’s
spirits had fallen, everything’s somber again.

After music and poetry we walk to the car. 
I believe in the miracles of art, but what
prodigy will keep you safe beside me, 
fumbling with the radio while you drive
to find late innings of a Red Sox game?