Just now I bowed to the miniature window
of my Post Office box, and this voyeur
saw an empty corridor with fluorescent
lighted space beyond. Fragmentarily
glimpsed arms and hands put wonderful
things into other boxes. I have come
up empty, ever since a fellow counselor
at a long-past camp left her note for me:
“Can we talk?” I had not wanted to talk,
just grope in her shirt like a blind puppy
after milk. She preferred a relationship:
girls always complicated everything.
Older, I bent into pretzels of contrition,
using even the Book of Common prayer.
Silence can tell you all you need to know.
That empty corridor goes to infinity,
like two mirrors facing. We can’t talk.
Wounds aren’t healed by the aggressor
who inflicted them, and the aggressor
is the last to be made healthy, if at all.
The Pope sends back to Tannhaüser
his staff in bloom; however, mail is slow.
Just now I bowed to the miniature window
Letting a stone in my shoe bring me back to here, now. All this worry in my soul.
I’ve lined my throat
with the river bottom’s best
allowed my fingers to shrivel
and be taken for crawfish.
I’ve laced my eyelashes with algae.
I blink emerald.
I blink sea glass green.
I am whatever gleams
just under the surface.
Scoop at my sparkle. I’ll give you nothing
but disturbed reflection.
Bring your ear to the water
and I’ll sing you
down into my arms.
Let me show you how
to make your lungs
a home for minnows, how
to let them flicker
in and out of your mouth
like last words,
I will not be forgiven for what I’ve made
of myself. Soil recoils from my hooked kisses.
Pines turn their backs on me. My fingerprints
dot their sap; they know what I can do
with the wrap of my legs. Each summer,
when the air is crowded with want,
I set all my tongues upon you.
To quiet this body, you must answer
my tendrilled craving. All I’ve ever wanted
as to touch crevices, pry them open,
and flourish within dew-slick hollows.
How you mistake my affection.
And if I ever strangled nightengales,
it was only because I dreamed of better songs;
slender throats, overtaken and perfected.
Among black butterflies
goes a dark girl
beside a white serpent
Earth of light,
sky of earth.
She goes chained to the tremor
of a rhythm that never arrives;
she has a heart of silver,
in her right hand a dagger.
Where are you going, Siguiriya,
with a headless rhythm?
What moon will gather up
your sorrow of lime and oleander?
Earth of light,
sky of earth.
The children gaze
at a distant spot.
The lamps are put out.
Some blind girls
ask questions of the moon
and spirals of weeping
rise through the air.
The mountains gaze
at a distant spot.
that time creates
(Only the desert
fountain of desire
(Only the desert
The illusion of dawn
Only the desert
Before I leave here, I want
to hear my name change in the mouth
of another animal.
Let it take long.
He’ll want what I wanted from you—
blood at its richest,
most luminous, in that first moment
it touches the air.
Like the hunted
I need the day’s sharpness—
something alive to sift
through me and kill.
In the theater of bitters
where we sharpen,
I am your favorite actress.
The curtains sway, safe in their red light;
the props, once used, still gleam—
because even our own end loves us.
And here, stage left
I bow over you and listen
to the hot, uneven rhythm of your pulse.
It tells me you are deserving—
you accept this gift, this black collar
I tighten around your neck, this final kindness.
I used to write about God a lot. I’d wake up in the morning believing that I was original sin and responsible for every little and big death I saw around me. I used to feel like I was dying inside. I drank to pickle my black rotting soul and disinfect it from all my sins.
I used to be in love with Jesus. I wanted to touch anyone who’d touched Jesus so that Jesus would touch me. After that I loved John The Baptist but he got his head cut off and then his heart died but not before I wrapped my fist around it, squeezing it with my ink stained fingers trying to revive lust. I used to tattoo myself with stamps I’d stolen from work that read Faxed, Processed, Copy, Private & Confidential, The Blood of Christ, The Blood of Christ, The Blood of Christ.
I used to write confessions not poems. Stale week-old bread and sour cask wine drunk up in silver goblets was my only sustenance. I used to think Jesus wanted me to catch hepatitis through communion. I equated self hatred with the taste of sucking the sponge in the Holy Water.
I want to tell you that my heart is not a cyclone unless it’s the calm before the storm and even then with you in my waters it’s only a symptom of my alcoholism: it tastes like vodka.
I used to think that God didn’t let anyone love me because if there’s one thing that Christianity doesn’t teach you it’s self-responsibility.
On the outside I might be battered and windswept and nearly drowned and knocked over by forces beyond my control but
like that church that an apostle built on a rock I can’t remember his name or where the church was, see I’m already forgetting the Book, I’m closing it
now it’s time to
learn about pure love minus the affliction of inflicted guilt.
Here in this small expertly crafted model
you can see the layout of the prison I will erect:
the 17,500 six-by-eight cells, the wards
for dreamers reduced to beggars to my right,
the wards for strangers who might be or become
enemies to my left. It has taken years of research
and perspiration to design and assemble
this miniature, but with your support
it should only take 12 to 18 months to build
it to functioning size. You may note the words
(Prison is for the unindoctrinated) painted
on the tiny sign at the main gate are still wet.
I finished them while waiting for you to arrive.
They are the smell of civilization in the air.
Let me direct your attentions to the barbed wire
which thickens to a virtual cyclone of fangs
above the prison. With a good fence
to draw upon I was able to create
a terrific somberness and then lie down
and look through it at the prisoners
and officers inside. I feel like this is a good time
to tell you my father, mother and closest cousin
have worked decades as correctional officers
for the State. Nonetheless when I, a black poet,
was asked to participate in the construction
of this vision, I was surprised.
During those first uninspired years I smoked
so much I would have set myself on fire
had I not been weeping most of the time.
I am told the first time my uncle was an inmate,
my father would find him cowering
in his cell like a folded rag. Between jail
he works Saturdays helping out a man
at a flea market fruit stand, my uncle Junior.
You will note the imposing guard towers
at each corner of the prison. In the yard
below them I will loose vicious, obedient dogs.
Whether you consider dogs symbols
of security or symbols of danger depends
upon whether you’re inside or outside
the fence. In our current positions
around the model you and I represent
the mulling picketers: the just and vengeful,
the holy and grief-stricken citizens.
Standing along the corridor
leading to the preliminary de-dressing area,
several savage and savaged widows will insult
the new inmates. Even a slur is a form
of welcome. I plan to have the vocalists
among the prisoners sing for the old men
who die there. Perhaps their song will soften
the picketers. The prison of the picketer,
let me remark, is a landscape of dry riverbeds,
canyons and caves. During the uninspired hours
I imagined that land as the color of brick
set to flame. Everything gets tender in fire.
I imagined the melancholy stone of the prison
with a sort of geological desire. I imagined
the rehabilitated before the parole board
spilling brightly lit jive, alive with the indecipherable,
indecipherably alive. Everything is excited
by freedom. But I don’t know. I feel like no matter how
large we build this prison, it isn’t going to save us.
Please permit me to end my presentation for now.
We might get so caught up imagining the future,
we’ll never find our way. Come. Bend over and try
moving forward while looking between your legs
to get a sense of what it feels like trying to escape.
A giant bird-
has climbed the bar:
in this paradise
there are no flowers,
no flowers at all.
When Happy Hour
becomes Last Call—
Adam in drag
we buy her gin
(an unseen deejay
scores the years
with pulsing music
of the spheres).
Now the queen has gone,
in search of love,
in search of sin.
It’s closing time.
You were not at fault.
I drain my glass
and lick the salt.
At night the doctors scoop
the marrow from my bones
with little spoons.
They map the hollowed spaces
and leave a trail
of brightly colored yarn.
The hands that hold me down
belong to a woman
I once called mother
The womb is a dark
and holy place.
Still, a scalpel on the skin
threatens whatever lies
beneath it unprotected.
The needle and the twine implant a scar,
christen this body
mended if not whole.
I like the word slattern. The kind of woman who paints her lips on with red wine and walks to the mailbox in the afternoon in a see through white slip.
Slovenly, a woman flinging her cigarette around in bed while she talks with her hands. Stray ash falling on a naked breast, like a mountain covered in snow and volcanic ash. Her cigarette butt stabbing black craters into fresh semen on the sheets. Tiny sexual Hiroshimas.
When your palm rests against mine I want to ask, what other lies do you hold flat against you?
The man who told me about war
said, it’s the only thing
that keeps us busy.
I thought of your fingers
on my back
counting the vertebrae
one by one.
The only thing?
They gather in a white room arranging flowers and singing.
I stand beside each woman as she makes choices—
a hyacinth added and shifted toward
lilac, a few nightshades around the edge
of the vase, and always two flowers taken away
for each new one added.
If this was a painting and not a dream,
I’d study its surface a long time and wonder
where the light comes from.
The frame sparks as a door
opens and the image begins
only the hands of the women are visible.
I can’t follow their movements or distinguish
the color of the blossoms whose stems
sink in vases filled with more light
than water, more light than matter,
shadow, or flesh.
Be careful, one sings to another,
and the unmistakeable pitch of glass breaking
again and again,
three times I hear it—three vases.
I’m not sure if I’ve stopped listening
or if the room is silent.
The canvas disappears, the dream recedes,
and somewhere my future takes a long pause,
I’ve decided to let you stay
under our bed, the floor —
not the space between
mattress and metal frame.
Take your hand out
from under my pillow, please.
And take your sheets too.
Drag them under. Make pretend ghosts.
I can’t have you rattling the bed springs
so keep still, keep quiet.
Mistake yourself for shadows.
Learn the lullabies of lint.
I will do right by you:
crumbs brushed off my sheets,
white chocolate chip, I think,
or the corners of crackers.
Count on the occasional dropped grape,
a peach pit with fine yellow hairs,
wet where my tongue has been,
a taste you might remember.
I’ve heard some men can survive
on dust mites alone for weeks at a time.
There’s a magnifying glass on the nightstand,
in case it comes to that.
Outside the dream
I heard your voice and rose.
Sat in the light
between fog and the gate,
waiting to be taken.
Touch me without knowing
how you’ll hold on, you said.
Feel my hands move across yours
and into this lightning
we’ll quicken, like gods.
I have never been pretty,
never skinny, obedient or pleasing.
I fail each time I plant an idea —
to be lovely, to be sweet — but this year,
on a south-facing patio, I have managed
to grow a crop of healthy apologies,
full and robust, strong and believable.
Out of each clay pot springs a perfect
green woman with straight gold hair.
These are the “say-it-like-you-mean-it”
variety, the six-foot relentless beauties,
the mammoth self-reproaching blossoms.
I water them faithfully,
guard against birds and beetles.
I give the first mature flower to my mother,
who says she likes daisies better, the next one
to my lover, who says he prefers violets
that know how to curtsy.
By August, I have too many metaphors
for remorse. I make breads, sauces, jellies.
I leave humble bouquets on neighbors’ porches.
No one comes to the door. No one likes to see
a woman with arms full of burdens.
No one wants to watch me
pick seeds out of my sorry teeth.
He slid the stiff blade up to my ear:
this should have been thirst, a cheapening act.
But I lacked,
as usual, the crucial disbelief. Sticky, cold,
wet in my mouth, wrists bound by his belt,
like the boy in a briny night pool, he who found
body, yet still somehow swam with an unknown joy.
What happened, happened once. So now it’s best
in memory—an orange he sliced: the skin
unbroken, then the knife, the chilled wedge
lifted to my mouth, his mouth, the thin
membrane between us, the exquisite orange,
tongue, orange, my nakedness and his,
the way he pushed me up against the fridge—
Now I get to feel his hands again, the kiss
that didn’t last, but sent some neural twin
flashing wildly through the cortex. Love’s
merciless, the way it travels in
and keeps emitting light. Beside the stove
we ate an orange. And there were purple flowers
on the table. And we still had hours.
I keep a note
a friend left in a book of photos:
lavender light over the snow flats –
and I wonder if he used it in a poem,
or if seeing, if the pleasure, was enough?
Now that you and I aren’t lovers,
I notice how the light at times
will race up your obedient body,
and reveal the flame I looked for –
the life I said I saw,
and hoped would be enough.
(Hear the poem read by D. A. Powell)
Let me be the first to say
that I know the name for everything
and if I don’t I’ll make them up:
dukkha, naufragio, talinhaga.
Just like the young
whose hearts give no shame,
I love the excesses of beauty,
there is never enough sunlight
in the world I will live in,
never enough room for love.
I fear none of us will last long enough
to prove what I’ve always suspected,
that the sky is a membrane
in an angel’s skull,
trees talk to each other at night,
ice is water in a state of silence,
the embryo listens to everything we say.
I am afraid for the child skipping rope
on the corner of my street,
the girl on the train with flowers in her hair,
the man whose memory is entirely
in Spanish. I am more afraid of losing consciousness
when I go to sleep, or that in my sleep
I will grow old and forget how desire
once drove me mad with wakefulness.
Just like the perfect seasons
they will die
and I will die
and you will die also;
no one knows who will go first,
and this is the source
of all my grief.
is a system of posture for wood.
A way of not falling down
for twigs that happens
to benefit birds. I don’t know.
I’m staring at a tree,
at yellow leaves
threshed by wind and want you
reading this to be staring
at the same tree. I could
cut it down and laminate it
or ask you to live with me
on the stairs with the window
keeping an eye on the maple
but I think your real life
would miss you. The story
here is that all morning
I’ve thought of the statement
that art is about loneliness
while watching golden leaves
By ones or in bunches
they tumble and hang
for a moment like a dress
in the dryer.
At the laundromat
you’ve seen the arms
thrown out to catch the shirt
flying the other way.
Just as you’ve stood
at the bottom of a gray sky
in a pile of leaves
trying to lick them
back into place.