How To Be An American Artist: A Cautionary Tale

The artist wanted to paint America.

Took all the canvas in the studio out to a parking lot in a plaza in a small Massachusetts town.

Laid out paints and pigments, pots of blood drawn from a cut on the wrist, blood mixed with ashes of old sheet music and legal forms, dirt in rain water, boiled down hides and hair.

Set the canvases up on easels and car hoods. Laid them flat on sidewalk and asphalt.

Screamed to the curious folks gathering to see, 

I cannot do it alone.
I fail at doing it alone.
I am crushed here doing it alone. 

Started tossing brushes at the crowd.

Seized some by the shirt and tried to pull them to the canvases. 

There was whining and the artist was rudely shoved.

The crowd whimpered at the artist,

This is your job.
Your one job.
If it crushes you that is how we are best satisfied.
We don’t know what to paint. 

Accountants of the captains of industry showed up with sharp pencils and started precision drawings on the canvases.

Penciled in numbers, made up numbers:

here is what this should look like here,
here is the right shade for this face, this hand, this heart,
this hole in the skin, this slit in the eye,
this bit of necessary damage,
this hot mistake,
this brand,
this logo, this loop,
this flag.

This is how you paint America, they told the crowd.

The crowd stepped to it glad to know the rules and filled in the colors right and tight between the perfect lines.

When they ran out of blood, they made do with the artist.

What a genius,
they said,

once the artist was dead.


Greenwich Village

at eighteen, visiting
for the first time,

summer midweek
getaway with first love,

we walked by a Tibetan
restaurant late afternoon

while an unseen trumpet player —
maybe on a low roof, perhaps

in a window one floor up —
swung a perfect version of

“Rubber Ducky,” and we started 
singing along as we 

walked and swung our linked hands
back and forth, as we almost

skipped, as we 
sped through perfect light

toward our hotel room and 
perfect night.


Harvard Square

1.
A Tarot reader
off Harvard Square
 
startled me
when she said she saw
Native spirits behind me
 
and then asked if
I had any Native blood
 
I did not speak but nodded that
indeed I did
and she nodded back
 
and said,
“Wolf Clan?”
I nodded inside
 
but not to that
 
2.
Leaving the parlor
I stopped at a 7-11
 
to buy cigarettes
a yellow pack
 
of American Spirits
which burn slower and longer
I liked the taste
 
not the package
 
3.
I smoked my way over
to Au Bon Pain and sat outside
with a coffee black
 
staring at a street performer
a living statue
a Bride
 
who’d be famous one day
 
but was not just yet
 
4.
Class was starting soon
so I got up
and crossed Mass Ave
walked to the gates
went in and learned
something
I’ve since forgotten
 
but I think the class
was on either
the psychology of religion
or the madness of crowds
 
but I could be wrong
 
5.
I quit smoking years ago
Got tired of looking at the packages
and sucking that death
 
I quit going to Harvard Square
after seeing the Tarot reader
had been promoted from
occult appropriator
to manager
of Urban Outfitters
 
Au Bon Pain
closed sometime after
The Bride
quit all that standing around
got moving and
got a little famous
 
6.
There are still crowds rushing
all around the Square
 
The gates are still there
along with keepers
who don’t bother with masks
any longer
 
7.
A different card reader
told me the other day
she couldn’t read a thing
in me
 
and I nodded inside
but not at that
 
If I learned anything at Harvard
it was how to hold myself tight
against the madness of
the marketplace
no matter how cleverly
it disguises itself
 
as wisdom

Hypnic Jerks

I have often had the dream
of falling and the startling snap
of finding myself awake, 
panting, just before
hitting the ground.

There are those who say
falling in a dream
is only fatal if you 
hit the ground in the dream,

which must mean you’ll be dead
when you wake up after impact
and not before,

which only makes sense
if you don’t think about
how anyone knows all this

if those who struck bottom
died and did not come back to tell
the rest of us.

Sleep disorder researchers
claim that instead
of it being a just-missed death
that jerks you awake 

it is instead
a sudden oxygen deprivation 
in random muscles
causing a sleep twitch
called a hypnic jerk

and that is how the startled waking
at the bottom of the fall
is created.

Hypnic jerk or narrow escape:
either way, in the aftermath
of the dream I find myself 
awake with fading memory:
rushing air around my ears.
Face up, falling from a great height.
Anticipation dashed. A longing
to slip back into sleep, just to see
where I might have landed,
what that country 
would have been like.

Perhaps the myth of it being fatal 
not to wake up from the falling dream
was created and spread by those
who feared the masses’ discovery

of solid ground waiting
to catch and cradle and exalt 
those who fly in dreams
in spite of the fear of falling;
after all, who could say 
what might come from people
with no fear of their own dreams.


Wordplay

Heavy tongues laden
with brutal, baroque words;
I lose time among them,
must heave them to the sides
of this trail I’m forced to build.

I don’t have
the breath for this.
I don’t have
the heart to tell the language
to shorten and purify.

Not to suggest that
there is no value 
to the thicket. 
Not to suggest
that there are no spells
that work better magic through
extension and complexity.

As much beauty as I can find
from time to time

in that tangle

more can be found
in the spare land
beyond it;

I am older now,
weary from wordplay,

and what I seek most
from a journey now

is destination.


Awash

When we
get to the end
we likely won’t even notice.

We have been waiting
for so long we have forgotten
that tides often come in

slowly. If you do not
pay attention you will
find yourself far from shore

on a rock awash in danger
and it will be done
before you recognize it.

This swamp
will become lagoon and then
open ocean so gently

that we will see it
only when we are
almost drowned. 

We expect a tsunami 
but it will be erosion
that drags us fatally down.

In the end we will not only
not see it coming, we will not admit
we are in fact gone.

In fact,
let us say it:
we are in fact gone. Notice

how hard it has become
to breathe. Notice how cold
and dense the world has become.


I Voted

America
wakes me up
in the middle of the night
and wants a drink of water
in its favorite sippy cup
with the “I Voted” logo
on the side.
America
throws a tantrum
when I say it’s really dirty
and there’s fresher water
in this glass, and don’t you
want to be a big kid,
all grown up, and then
you can sleep better?
America
keeps screaming,
“I Voted! I Voted!”
so I wash the grime off the cup
and hand over the cup
and America drinks from the cup
and then I take back the cup
and sneak a sip myself from the cup
while America tucks itself back in
and falls asleep.
I stay up
a long time after
with such odd taste in my mouth,
my eyes soaked
with shame at my lack of faith
and my honest terror
of what I’ve consumed.
I go look at America sleeping,
realize again
that we can’t possibly
be family.


Not My Fault

I found a burned dog leg in our hearth.
How it got there, you and I both know;
I am sick with that fact. In fact

I’m sick with you and your whole
thirst for blood games. It does not
mean a thing that we did not know

that dog. It does not mean a thing
that I did not help you with your 
need and how you met it. All I know

is that here I am with a bit of bone
and hair fused to it and last night
this was in my arms with a squirm

and a tongue and you did not even cry
as I did when you took it from me
and took my knife and went out

to the yard to the flames. I stayed here
and sobbed. I had no part in this.
I am sick with your part in it. I am

sick that it may not be the last time
I will cry as you use my knife
on one more stray as if it were

your own. Now take this bone from me:
I have to go put the edge back on my blade,
the edge you took from me last night.


A Bitter History

A bitter history
floats stinging in my mouth,
the back of my throat tightening.

When I can finally choke down the truth
of how long and hard I have worked
to get nowhere

it sits in my core burning 
and freezing: heavy 
mistakes of ice and molten lead.

You would think I’d be used to
starting again, just cycle back to my first
bite of the apple and do the next round

differently, but I end up
here, full up with pain,
swollen in regret every time.

In my ears a different pain
demands repair
in an old song:

grow up, move on,
old man, 
old mess. Nothing 
about you is more than

temporary. A generation
of broken boys just like you
mourns itself 

while the rest of us
stand waiting for you 
to be lifted
from the earth, lifted 
off of us.


Desires

Originally written 1999.

I want to climb to you
as if you were living in a tree house
and from there look out at the world
from your level

Even though I’m afraid of heights
and would be paralyzed
and clinging like a rug to the floor up there
I would give up safety
to try and see things your way

Pinned down like that
I might have enough time
to learn you

If I could stick a pin into myself
and use it to hold my form intact until the final stitch
or set one pin in place to hold my bones tight
or use one to make holes in my skin
to receive ink for primal tattoos
that would last crudely forever and speak of things
that I will later wish were clearer and sharper
If I could feel the sharpness
of all the pins that could hold me in one place
and through these pains begin to feel things your way

I would

I would fall off a ladder
by slipping on a banana peel

I would open the door
on a cartoon cliff and stand abashed
for just a second
in a canyon of white space
like a temporary Coyote
watching your Roadrunner dust

I would even do impressions of myself
until last call at an empty comedy club —
stop me if you’ve heard this one before

What I want is for you to become a season
(I vote for late spring
so I can anticipate a full summer’s heat whenever you approach)

What I want is to open my eyes in the morning
and immediately adore what I see

(when what I see is you)

What I want is to see your own desire come toward me
and split open a fresh box of white candles
then set them all to burning

What I want has a name
(your name 
the only name)

Sometimes when I hear your name
I feel like I’m passing a church on Christmas Eve
and I want to be there
walking with a censer
among the faithful

chanting your name
the only name
your name


Those Names

Hearing names,

every one of them
formerly worn by someone 
dead, someone
killed by another, or someone
who perished from
indirect action or inaction.

Hearing names

that don’t sound like yours
until one day they do and you spiral
into the center of a heap
of blood scraps. 

Forgetting you’ve heard those names

until later; sitting in front of the news
feeling nothing because
those names don’t sound like yours
until they do again

and then you turn
it off, because you don’t
want to know, because 

if you don’t know it didn’t happen.

In your sleep you are not hearing
names. In your sexing, feeding, walking,
working, voting, dancing,
you are not hearing those names.

Your life
is built on not hearing those names
even if they rhyme with yours.


Overthinking It Or Not

I read a comment 
from someone on 
an Internet post:

all you mixed-breeds are 
crazy. You shouldn’t
exist. You are mistakes.

Truth be told?
I’m crazy, and I
qualify,

yet I look so much like them
I’m sick each time
I pass the mirror.

If I’m
that much of
a genetic mess

why do I appear
so average
in the mirror? 

All the parts 
in the right place.
All the expressions

nameable. All the air
coming from my mouth
translatable. 

Those who want
me undone, who feel 
heritage should be

death sentence,
who chew trophy bones
all night and day,

see my face
in the street 
and somehow

pass me by.
I should be grateful
but then I think of those

who by accident of 
birth don’t 
pass killers’ muster

and I want to 
scream my self
into becoming 

a target. I want them
rocked back on their
heels. I want them 

to kill me and then
go home and stare
into mirrors, wondering

at the stories
they were told about
who they really are.


Anti-matter

They will blow me up
because to them, I don’t matter.

They will cut me up and down,
and to them it won’t matter.

They — who are they?
If I name them, will it matter?

Abbreviations, nicknames, designations —
none of that will matter.

This is old, bedrock-old, and so cold;
glacial ice at the heart of this matter.

They showed up here as ground-down losers.
Where they’re from, they didn’t matter.

One by one, those lost boys and girls
grew up to think they are all of matter.

The rest of us — the rest of me — insubstantial
to them; that’s the core of this matter.

To them I am a crude ghost from past conquest.
To them, I am anti-matter.

To me, I am solid and they are smoke.
To me, to us? None of them matter.

Their world will burn as ours once did.
Nothing left but the hardest matter.

I have proved, we have proved how hard we are.
In the end, what will last is all that will matter.


Spinning

In bed with the universal
I try to sleep, but it wheels
around my head

as it wheels around everyone’s head.
As if I am the pin in the center of
a garden pinwheel.  
As if each of us is a pin,
each of us believing
we are at the center.

As if. Look at it spinning.
How could it be
that we each are the center?
Surrender that. You and I will never know
that answer. We see it spin the ceiling,
the floors, the ocean of sleep
waiting for us, and we worry
that if we slip free 
it all falls apart. As if.
Look at it spinning around 
so many centers. Impossible physics,
maddening science. Either that is wrong

or we are. As if the universal
could be wrong.

As if. As if there is anywhere
to which we could fall
where the spinning would stop.


Bouquet

Originally written 2007.

1.

The brain
knows many things.
Some of them you know,
some you do not.

2.

If the brain
was a flower,
you would be
its scent.

3.

Perhaps the brain
is
flower, starving
for light, lunging out
through the eyes
for sustenance.

4.

If you plucked
your brain out
and held it to the light,
would you find a mind?

5.

The mind lives
in the brain and
hides in its petals.
The mind is the dark
among the riots of color.

6.

You sleep
and the brain corrals
the mind. They talk all night,
pretending they are
you. In the morning
you are nearly mad
from the echoes of their
conversation.

7.

Put your hands
around your mind
and know it’s not
part of the scheme
that you should understand
everything: there are things
shoring up the partners
that would terrify you
if you knew them.

8.

The brain blooms
long after you close your eyes.
The mind rises from its nooks and folds
to escape, moving past you,
playing in the meadows.

9.

The mind drifts back
in the hot late afternoon. Your head grows heavy
with pollen. You open your mouth
and bees fly in
to take their fill while the mind
avoids being stung
by the danger in the commerce.

10.

When you sleep
the mind and brain bear ideas.
You pretend they are your own fruit.
The brain laughs at you. The mind
strokes you softly, saying,
“There, there…”

11.

You are the scent.
Something plucks your brain
and you die slowly. Maybe
another brain and another mind
recall you for a while, but
you’ll certainly fade.

12.

Anything
fed long enough
on vision, scent, touch,
sound, taste will double back
on its own surety. The brain
makes you sleepy. The mind
makes you frightened. You
make yourself believe
there are reasons for everything.

13.

A night blooming flower
holds its beauty
until first light, collapsing
at the first touch of your hand,
staining your memory
with a scent you can never name.