In America

Originally written late 1996, early 1997.

 

In America there are drive through liquor stores

and cream corn wrestling pit strip joints

I am a child of the modern vacuum

and I am eager to be American

so I listen to television news
describing huge American pistol

throwing lead into a 14 year old

his ten year old companion screaming –

we didn’t know anyone lived here

we were getting wood for a fort


his ten year old companion screaming –


I don’t want to die


into 911

The dispatcher telling him –


Sweetie, you won’t


and him replying –


I might


and the whole time

the 76 year old killer saying

I gotta right they were stealing

they were on my property

 

In America there are Elvis churches

and spy shops full of surreptitious cigarettes

I am hearing our property come to life

I am hearing the country die

They say

that the Electric chair in America doesn’t work too well

They say the mask blew up into flame and

solid citizens got to see the head of Pedro Medina burn

I bet someone somewhere said it served him right

and someone else started a drive to switch from Old Sparky to

more humane and less confrontational lethal injection

so much easier on the witnesses 
in America

 

In America there are head shops
peddling pseudo-Rastafarian hokum

and flea markets of Congressional loyalty

and it’s better to have the innocent die

or better that we become beasts to the beastly

than to let ourselves be fooled

by the modern ghosts of evil

(you can see evil in their eyes

but I’m confused: is it supposed to be all grey in there?

or should it look like Miami Beach

full of fun and pastel?

or does it look like the Everglades

full of gators and rare birds?

or does it look like me looking out?)

 

In America there are bridges
that flake until they fall

and rhyming monsters beneath them
waiting to invade the nurseries

I am a child of the modern vacuum

eager to become American

Ponce de Leon came ashore in Florida

hundreds of years ago

looking for

a Fountain of Youth

but what he really wanted was

Hooters

manatee blood

bison hide

passenger pigeon extinction

bales of weed wasted on the shore

drunken gropings resolving into violence

rootless numbers adrift on crazed ozone wind

immigrant massacres in the dark

flames leaping from the head of Pedro Medina

old man gunfiring into childhood forts

cream corn wrestling pit strip joints

drive through liquor stores

a horizon as flat as a mouth

The center was empty

when Ponce got there

the Fountain of Youth was a booby prize

and today the center is still empty

but the vacuum is filling rapidly

with mystery boxes full of cheap ripoffs of

Voudoun Santeria
Wicca Krishna Consciousness

Holy Rolling Lutheran
Catholic Buddhism

all swarming in ecumenical floods

around our true faith of
Evangelical Consumerism

and all molded by Television

into a spectacle of death

through satiation

 

I am a child of the vacuum

I am an eager American

In the absence of anything solid

I will believe whatever you tell me


Cobbler

Originally posted 2001.  Revised.

words do not come independently
to me
looking for equations to solve
or causes to exalt

instead words
work for me
like ants
in service

to something underground and distant
whose existence
is inferred
from the way the words

draw attention away from themselves
and in tandem
draw attention
toward a common end

so that
only upon reflection upon the many
do first the pattern and then the path
become clear

my trade:
make
language
over

so that to speak is
to stitch words together
and shoe meaning
with them

so that meaning and I
may walk in steady pace
across
rough ground

so when I get to where
I am bound
I can set language
aside

and set meaning free
to dip itself in cool spring water
wriggle in the grass
and be itself

this is the nature
of the way I work with words
it is not the job of a poet
it is cobbler’s work

I’ve been apprenticed to a hard master
seated at the bench each day
I must be simple before the need
and sing as I work

at each day’s end I can feel the welts raised
on my callused hands
from building these verses
I make my bed at night

knowing I have come far
knowing that
tomorrow
I will rise and set to work again

to make
language
over is
to work

as if meaning
is enough
as if work
is enough


Happy Birthday!

Happy Birthday to you
who I will not see today,
or tomorrow. Happy Birthday
to those whose birthdays will come
tomorrow, or the day after, 
who I will not see on those days.
Happy Birthday to all whose birthdays
came and went and I did not
see, have not seen since, will not see
again soon. Happy Birthday is how
I say to you that I am sorry and yet
I still feel joy in knowing that you
made your circuit and are here still.

Happy Birthday to those
I should have known but did not,
whose birthdays passed unnoticed
by me as there was no tie between us
except for the Unknown that ties us all,
that we are born and pass
and never touch one another, or 
may have touched without knowing
and it is much the same as if we lived
in different eras, on different lands.
Happy Birthday is how I say to you
that there is something in the world —
a pulse, a beat humming under all
that contains you, that I feel, that is
joy I am not familiar with but love anyway.

Happy Birthday to those
whose birthdays I will miss because
I will not be here to see them. Happy Birthday 
to those unborn, waiting in the wings for me
to pass, or to come into a better world
than this one I am part of. Happy Birthday
to those of you I will not see again 
due to the vagaries of life and distance
and death. Happy Birthday to those
I will fail with bitterness and anger,
who will slip from or flee me, who will be
set aside or dismissed.  Happy Birthday
is how I say to them that I know
I failed you. You did not fail me.
Happy Birthday 
is how I say
that I hope you are well

and that the world keeps you, holds you
as it spins. How I say that you are missed
and that wherever I end, it will be incomplete
and emptier for not having seen you.


Dagger Of Light

I did not ask for this fight.
I did not ask to be born to this war.

Would rather have been born 
on a far mountain, living life

with my loved ones in quiet
and peace from my start to my finish.

But it seems that I am a dagger of light.
It seems that I am a dagger of light.

The night we saw the darkness start
was the night I felt my edge.

Saw that thin line of glow and knew
it was more than fire and steel.

The night the darkness closed upon us
was the night I first raised my self and said:

it seems I am a dagger of light,
I have become a dagger of light.

I did not ask for the war, the fight, the fear.
I did not ask to be born now, born here.

You find yourself
in the places you did not ask to be

and here I am shining, scarlet ivory,
one small blinding blade among many

who may live or may die, who are terrified
but cannot turn away — 

we burning, we trembling, we daggers of light;
we doomed but splendid, we daggers of light.


Phone Bank

Random atoms
brought me here this morning
last night tumbled me into a phone call
with someone I never met
who was sobbing on the other end
and thanking me for making a phone call
about something that made them think 
and feel their way past where they were at
into a space for holding others up
and there I was with random atoms
on my cheeks 
humbled for I felt I’d done so little
yet somehow it was a huge thing
and I hung up and took a breath
then made another phone call
random atoms aligning 
pulsing out
a maybe
a yes
a no
a no one’s home
I keep at it
thinking maybe 
we’re going to be OK


Ghost

Originally written circa 2005.

Ghost, you call me. Not a ghost, not the ghost, but
Ghost, making that my proper name, not (of course)
my Christian name, but the older kind:
the one that means something 
and tells something about you
that remains true. There’s nothing new

about me being Ghost, only that I’m called
by that name now, and I’m finally
comfortable with it. Back when I was just a guy,
long before I leaped off that bridge to get here, 
I used to daydream about flying
and walking through walls. I used to wish for the power

to blow through a window so everyone knows you’re there
and you don’t even have to show up.
I never had impact, and didn’t want risk,
so my fantasy became impact without risk: 
that would be the life, I thought. A good joke:
I’ve got the life I wanted, now that I don’t have a life.

I used to cringe when they told scary stories at camp.
I remember that later
I laughed at horror films, pretending bravery.
But once you’re here, you find
it’s nothing like those. It’s all so – routine.
You show up at regular times, whistle a little in a dark hallway,

provide a moment of clarity
to someone who’s used to being safe and warm.
You become a lesson no one believes in until it’s learned.
It’s not all bad. It’s a beautiful world 
when you can’t really feel it.
It takes your breath away sometimes to see the way it moves.

I spend years just standing
in front of odd, mundane things:
not sunsets, not rainbows,
but garbage trucks and fires and drive-by victims.
It’s all so beautiful, the way
disposal has become an art form. (It was my art, after all.)

Ghost is what you call me now, 
and I’ll take it the way
I have always taken it: with a bowed head.
Before, I would always
come when called because I had no place to be
other than the place I was called to.

Nothing’s really changed:
I blow through, bother you, maybe I’ll be remembered
in your children’s 
stories. Maybe we’ll see each other
one night on the landing, where
you might call me Ghost, or you might
call me imaginary. 
No matter.

I’ve always answered to either one.


Strange Claims

I wash myself
in an infusion of lavender and rosemary.
I’ve read strange claims made for that.
I am a fool for strange claims.

I bite my tongue then spit the blood
into my palm and wipe it on the bark
of an oak tree while asking it to guide
my spirit to strength. I am a fool,

they tell me, to do such things,
for expecting magic to offer anything.
I am a fool, they sneer. There are times
when I think they are right, but there are times

when I rise after suffering in darkness
full of whispers whose source I cannot name,
and at once hold a knife in a candle flame
then step outside and plunge the blade

into the earth and bring it up free of soot,
and all my fears wiped clean as well.
Then I come inside and say, it’s going to be
a good day. I’ll deal with the dark

when it returns, but now I will bathe
in rosemary and lavender
and if later on today I bleed
I will offer blood to the oak in tribute.

I am a fool for strange claims.
I am a fool for thinking more of magic
than of psychology or philosophy,
yet no one can tell me

that this old coin my mother gave me
when first I left home did not keep me safe
as she promised it would, that I am not 
here because of this token, this talisman

I have carried to wars foreign
and domestic and come out better
than when I left  — yet I am a fool,
they sneer, a fool for believing

strange claims. No matter.
It’s a terrible world and to get through
I do as I do, have done, and will do. 
One day,
I know I will fall in the dark

and there I will stay, rolling the coin
in my fingers, saying just this: 
I kept the faith,
Mama. I never let go
till I had nothing left.
It was not the magic that failed.


The Peonies

Originally written in 1999.

In the year I turned thirty nine
the peonies did not die
quite the same way
as the peonies always had before 

In the year I was thirty-eight
the fragile man I was then
looked at the peonies
in the backyard

The progress of the year 
seemed so fast 
I thought about how quickly
those pink and white heads

would droop and drop their petals
fade and decay
I feared that if the year of thirty-eight 
continued this pace into

my years of forty forty-one forty-two and beyond
every thing I had learned
by putting myself together 
would come undone

But then in the year
I was thirty nine
I learned that in remembering
the scent of peony

the heat of their pink
the regal ice of their white
in all these memories
there was enough of youth to make

my mortality irrelevant
I learned that thirty nine was an opening and not
an end and I realized the sweetness
of the peony was the product of youth spent lavishly

secure in the knowledge that not only
would the dark strength of the leaves and roots last
the cool shade below the leaves would last and refresh
and their roots that hold so lightly to the earth

would leave their legacy anyway after the year’s efforts
were spent and dried and gone
In the year I was thirty-nine
the peonies died but did not die as they had before

and I rejoiced at how
once the blooms and the leaves were gone
and the grey strong winter had buried their bones
the actual plants in the fullness of their beings

always rose again
from the poor soil
along the garage
It was the year that I opened my eyes

my nose and my throat to the world
the year I passed through fear
to let my seams bulge and stretch
the year my senses saved me from falling apart


Vespers

Originally written 1999.

One, two, three,
five, seven, nine, eleven
dark brothers at sunset:
wet-suited surfers
off the beach at Del Mar,
while the bell for Vespers tolls
from the sea-cliff mission
and two
parallel acolytes
in F-14 Tomcats
arc south toward
San Diego. 

What is it about
the brotherhoods
that men form
that makes me watch them
for hours and hours?
I pose that question

to Angela, houseless plain-talker
from the Encinitas streets,
while we sit in a booth
and mull over her fabulous life
in this bar called
“The Saloon”.

Two hours pass 
and I’m no closer
to my answer

but I have heard
all of hers
about men and their missions.

She’s told me that once
she was a clerk typist
and then she was an engineer
but the boys at the Atlas-Titan plant
made it so hard for her
to hold a job
that she walked away
(it’s been a while
so she doubts  the job is still there)
so now instead of gliding toward the stars with the boys
she lives with a man who’s a hundred years old
and tonight she’ll be damned if she’s going home again
because he is so
damned
angry
all the time.

In the booth across the aisle
two women are kissing.
Angela flashes a smile
full of surprisingly white
wild woman teeth
at the bartender, who is watching them
and squirming.

“It’s right,” she says.
“It’s right. Leave them alone.
Couples in love ought to kiss.
Everyone here is just fine. 
Everyone ought to do just
what they like.”

I get up to leave and ask her if I
can take her somewhere.
She thanks me but says she never
gets into a car with a strange man.

Back in Rancho Santa Fe, in my
expense account movie star’s
hotel room, I open the window to let
the night breeze bring me
the scent of camellias.

Downstairs,
other businessmen are
drinking Scotch
and pounding veranda tables
for emphasis.
Somewhere
an angry old man 
waits for dinner.
Pilots’ cheeks flatten 
in the force of the turn
and monks fall off 
to profane dreams
while engineers stew 
before flatscreen blue fire —

as elsewhere,
ecstatic Angela
builds a new world
around our ears,
challenging nervous bartenders
and refusing to be with anyone.
In starry dark she walks the beach
just as she likes, learning to be free
of strange men.


Elegy (1996)

Originally written in 1996.

These days they build
new doors out of balsa,
nearly out of butter, hollowcored, empty;
we are losing the thrill of opening doors.

No longer do we wish or try to push hard.
The clunk of brass latches falling into place is fading from memory.
We are forgetting the comfort that bubbled within us
once resistance was overcome.

We have disembodied ourselves.
Already unable to remain entranced
with the sounds of our lovers for long,
the day may be coming when each of us

will fail to recognize a brother, a sister;
soon, we may no longer know
anything our senses tell us.
The question rings out:

how can we sleep knowing
in the soles of our feet,
in the ledges of our ears,
that we are feeling less each day?

How can we sleep knowing
that all what of we move through daily
without giving it  attention
is becoming irrelevant?

How can we sleep knowing
that the ocean is rising,
that the waves at our feet
will take us regardless of

our ignorance of them? We will all find salt water inside us,
eventually; but how can we sleep knowing
that while it may not taste of bitter and blood,
it will still smother?

How can one sleep
without wanting to open
everything available
right up to that final moment?


Becoming A Man

Indeed, I am sorry 
to have been 
what I refuse to name,

but then again, without that name,
I can refuse to admit
what I am

and if what I am
can remain unnamed
long enough

it can disappear as if
it never existed;
if it never existed

I may be something
else again and I will take
that name and become

that man, so I refuse
the name I do not want
and it floats away

to land on another man,
one I can safely abhor
because he could not refuse it

when it was hung upon him.
Somehow
my refusal endured

and stood up
and was honored and
buttressed and coddled

and my preferred name
became my own. I became
a man who refused

his true name and 
when they call it after me
in the streets or the courts

or the legislature, I can turn
and say again
that’s not me, I would never.

Secure in saying
whatever I want
to my accusers, 

even to the point
of scolding myself
when I recall what I was

in dead night while staring 
at the red movie behind
my eyes, scolding, saying

no, 
I never, no,
I am not.


Two Video Channels

Two video channels
working on the cable box
this morning — old school
R&B, or rap
barely five minutes old?
I would tell you
it’s hard to choose

but I am not lying, not
this morning at least,
when I say

ten seconds into
one video and I am
on that remote as if it were
a life raft to reverse
course back to the 
brand new mumble
I can’t understand, because

mouthing the words
and pretending I’ve got
every nuance, every hiccup
of timing, every inflection down 
in the song I’ve known for forty years

feels too much
like accepting that I am
already long dead.


Haunt Song

You have refused to acknowledge
that you are the guitar,
and that the guitar is broken.

The missing pieces somehow
still right there in your body —
the dead end hand, the wilted neck,

the scrambled music within
that clots and clogs
when you attempt to let it flow.

Ghosts, but not ghosts.
Solid flesh that nevertheless has still
vanished. A haunt song playing

loud and obvious, yet no one
believes you when you
tell them what you can hear

or when you say: this is not
me, this broken guitar of
a man you’re seeing.

You’re wrong, of course.
You are as much your damage
as you are not.

You could try playing
what you hear: that haunt song.
See what comes from that

that might be the melody you were
once again or might be
some song nearly brand new, or some

admixture — one ingredient
dominating, then the other;
harmony and melody swapping

primacy. Whatever: you
are the broken guitar trying
to play. Still making music

while you can, whether
haunt song or anthem. There is surely
at least one note left.


Translating

Morning.

I’m terrified
of myself.

Last night
I dreamed again
of lead and steel
speaking truth to power,
speaking directly to its faces
and those visions
won’t leave my head
now that I’m awake.
I thought I’d forgotten

that language. 
It’s so ancient, so 

differently civilized.
It hurts my tongue
a little (although a little
less each
subsequent time I test
it against the edge

of the moment, even when 
I can taste blood after).
I am remembering
how to use it
to call up those
ancestors long gone,
those once

so fluent in it
that while there must have been mornings
when they must have risen
to similar terror,

they still raised their voices
of lead and steel
and spoke
deadly truth to their 
enemies

because to hold it back
was to die.

Morning.
I’m awake.
Afraid but compensating,
getting used to 

forming thoughts
from dreams,

translating.


The Path Without

I have learned to walk
the Path Without.

For years now
my body has scolded, “Student,

do what you are told.”
I’ve resisted for a long time and

my stubborn frame
has backed me up

but no more. Now I walk 
the Path Without.

A path without 
a place to rest. Without

peace, without 
freedom from pain.

My body scolded. 
I whimpered and yes, surrendered,

but not without a struggle.
Now I walk the Path Without.

Without the chops I once had
that made my living sing. Without

the skills I once had
that led me through love and art.

My body tells me this is
a lesson I must learn,

but I feel dumbed down, numbed
and muted, unenlightened

by being made to walk
the Path Without. What,

I ask my body, is it
that I am here to learn

in this stunting class you offer now?
My body says, you are learning

how to be diminished in one place
as you grow in others. Learning

that wholeness is not 
a flawless circle but sometime

is a process of living through
a twinge of pain, a bad footing,

over and over until you begin
walking again as you first did

long ago – a step followed by a fall
following a long slide down an incline

This is the Path Without. Slow down,
my body says. Do what you are told.