Monthly Archives: April 2020

The Houses Where The Dead Lived

Touring the homes
of all the dead who have ever lived

Even the ones long gone
burned buried torn down vanished

Wandering halls
Opening rooms

Crossing borders to see
all the places the dead have been

Trying to learn
what it means

to remain present
after the body has gone

It is not something 
I have thought much about

until now
My friends will know me

till they’re gone
My family will pass

as I have passed
Not long now till then

Not long at least compared to 
for example those who lived

and cooked and cleaned
the palace at Knossos

who spoke to me
more than the kings did

who are called
the inhabitants by history

History forgets the cooks
and cleaners

who whisper to you
when you walk the houses

of the dead everywhere
in this world

leaving bones and soot
in piles removed

from where the kings walked
caretakers who have left more importance

behind them for us to listen to
in the ruins of the kings

than the kings
have ever done


The Grand Mask

Some say we must mask ourselves
to save ourselves and others

Others say we must unmask
to save America

and as for the world
beyond America

it can kiss 
our collective unmasked ass

Then again 
the face we know of 

America itself has
always been a mask

covering hypocrisy
with good intentions

Contradiction
is how it stays on

Putting a mask on a mask
like putting a hat on a hat

is as American as
viral pie

Ask anyone 
Ask Batman or

his predecessor in that
all-American myth of

the wealthy fighting oppression
Zorro

Ask the bleached out
Lone Ranger

They’ll sing you
the Star-Spangled Banner

through the blood
clotting in their mouths

and so many people 
masked or unmasked

will likely stand up
and sing along

as the Blue Angels
fly over trailing 

the ties for the grand mask
behind them


Bed

When your memory holds
a bed of nails
you never truly rest.

Once you think
you’re comfortable
a single adjustment

of your back
or even elbow
brings forth blood.

You get up and sit
by the window pretending
you are loved

as you try to wipe away
the red that only you
can see but which tints all.

It’s the middle of
the night. You’re trying
so hard. The bed

you wish you could use
is in the next room.
Coming from there

is a tiny sound
of sharpening. You’re alone,
or thought you were.

You don’t want to think
about who you’ve let in
to maintain the bed

while sitting up
worrying. Bleeding
isn’t supposed to be

an attractant
to anything but a shark,
or so you’ve been told,

but there you are
making tracks to the bedroom,
in case it’s anything else.

If it is a shark
you might die, but 
at least you’d forget why

it all went so 
bloody bad. How the nails
got there in the first place,

how many years you’ve been
trying to rest and just how bad
at that you have been.


Getting On My Nerves

Originally posted 2016. Revised.

Longing this morning
to trade back my boots
for the soft soles
I surrendered to get them.

I can’t feel the ground
when I walk in these.
Doctors try to tell me it’s
neuropathy from my diabetes.

They’re half right, I suspect;
certainly some shiny whiteness
is to blame and whether it’s the sugar
or the culture, it’s killing me

from the feeling parts up
to the thinking parts.
If I still had ancestors to ask about it
I would but they’re gone and they 

never knew me anyway. Maybe
it’s for the best that I’m numb
and becoming more numb the older
I get. Fewer things terrify me now.

I didn’t belong to those earlier times.
I don’t feel I belong in the ones we’re in now.
If I am afraid of anything anymore
it’s of finding a place where I truly fit in.

I still want to trade these hard boots
for the moccasins I had as a kid,
the moccasins people used to say
I should trade for the boots I wear now —

good tall boots made to hold you
separate from and untouched by earth,
the way it is these days;
even when you are put into that earth

they put you in a box
and that box goes into another box.
How is it right that even when I’m dead
I’ll have to lie forever in that tiny space?

Colonized in death as in life,
forbidden the right to return
to my own soil. It’s why I long
to trade my boots for moccasins

and walk away to find my own resting place
somewhere; if my feet burn
the whole way there, at least
that pain will be of my choosing.

Even if the grave I choose
turns out to have been dug from lies,
at least it will be mine. Any debate
over whether I belong there

will not be mine to argue.
I’ll decay and disappear 
like moccasins and boots do.
I’ll be as much of a myth one day

as I always knew I would be.
That’s the truth. I walk toward it
deliberately, my feet on fire
in boots not made for walking

or for feeling. I still feel
for now, if not as much
as I once did, which I guess 
is a bit of a blessing, anyway.


We Are All In This Together

but not in the way 
some folks mean it
with all color slipping off of others
and all sexuality of others draining away
All accents homogenized
All devolving into shapeless 
and nameless love targets to shoot at
and miss and miss again
because they have become
invisible 

We are all in this together

but not in the way 
some folks mean it
with a nod and a banged up
pot and spoon put to use every night
promptly at the same time to turn the heads
of the weary endangered folks
dying in droves to keep 
some folks
from dying in hordes

All in this together

though there are some folks who want
more of us together than seems reasonable right now
but they’ve got the right skin to make them
more audible and the perfect copper-jacketed
megaphones to amplify themselves in front of
the perfect places to be heard that some other folks
can’t even get near on a good day

and these are not good days

I don’t know who this “we” is
that is supposed to be in this together
No “we” I’ve ever seen 
No “we” I know of that is different from
the “we” someone has always insisted “we”
need to think of
whenever “they”
need us


Flowerpot

A painted clay flowerpot
broken, replaced by one of plain
red ceramic, replaced with 
a thick plastic one
that is then forgotten
or abandoned during a move
across town, which is then replaced with 
a discarded pickle bucket;
so goes the cycle.

Every year we plant the same small
selection of annuals
in this year’s pot of choice
or necessity. Every year’s 
a tradedown,
but we try to maintain 
the traditional facade,

which is why I’m drilling holes
in the bottom of this year’s pickle bucket
and picturing the flowers — petunias
or pansies or whatever looks good 
in the store when we go —
spilling over the sides in glory.
Maybe this year

we’ll measure up  — even after
downscaling, even after 
the shrunk-budgeting. Maybe 
this year, at last, it will look

like the pictures
on the seed packages.
Like all the pictures
we’ve ever seen.


3:30 PM

slippery
as a day getting away
from you

you look up and
it’s 3:30 PM

how did this happen
when there’s so much time available
just to watch the clock

it is possible that
the clock is dreaming you
and it’s the same time all the time

always 3:30 PM
and the day isn’t slippery at all
instead it sticks

is stuck and 
that means no one’s
getting away with anything

except for memory
which is sliding down
the road away from you

all you’re going to recall
of this is how 3:30 PM
keeps trying to kill you

staking you to a dull moment
and making you believe
there will be a tomorrow

different from today
less sticky 
you’ll seize that moment

and though it will wriggle
like an eel to escape
you will win and 3:30 PM

will do your bidding evermore
never again sneak up on you
never again offer such dread

you swear you will never be unproductive
at 3:30 PM ever again
once you get past today


Bipolar Nights

To sit up all night
crying because no one asked you 
what you meant by something you said
that was thrown away by the listeners
in the flow of conversation

is to lie down in a field knowing
that you may look like a corpse
but since no one sees you out there
no one comes to see
if you are still alive.

To sit up all night
wondering why no one gets
any of your subtlety
when you metaphorically
gesture at your temple with a finger gun

then laugh it off as a joke
is to live in a ghost town
and one day fall into an old well,
breaking your self against the rock walls,
screaming for anyone other than a ghost to come.

To sit up all night
pretending to love yourself no matter
what you are or have been in the hope
that anyone seeing your effort will offer
to love you without condition

is to rise to the surface sputtering and choking
ten feet from shore, already beginning to sink again
but telling yourself the rising will continue until you
are high above the water in full flight
toward the stars.


The Black Snake

Standing in the marsh,
worried that the black snake
may strike here.

In the city, understanding
how the black snake owns me,
shaking at the prospect of doing without.

On the road ahead of
the black snake’s fangs,
driving on nothing but poison and fear.

In the bank built of
black snake scales,
the money hissing in the vaults.

In the home of homes, here is
God above dressed in greasy robes,
black snake in his pocket.

I start a fire in the clearing
where the black snake rises and sways
just beyond the light.

A wash of calm: I realize
I can learn to eat without
the black snake, I suppose.

Starve myself a while to starve it.
The black snake starves without us
as much as we starve without the black snake.

Look: black snake bones
under the moon, white as 
a belief drained of its blood.

Listen: that’s not the black snake
hissing. Wind, perhaps. Water,
maybe. The sun, of course, is silent.

Taste and smell: no oil
on the tongue, no musk
of the black snake.

Feel the earth agreeing
with the departure of the black snake,
gone back underground now.

How clearly we can see now.
How easily we move on from this — 
upright. Not on our bellies. 


The Wrath Of Long-Forbidden Gods

A man — call him 
Steve or, you know,
any name at all —
pulls his car, his home now
for months,

into a concealed space behind
the abandoned
machine shop where
he once worked.

Gets out to piss
on the wall between
the empty dumpsters
that somehow were never removed
after the place closed.

Stands for a minute after that
under the still-cold spring moon.

In another minute
he will spread a sleeping bag out
in his backseat.
Will use a plastic bag full of clothes
as a pillow.

By now he’s got it all down to science,

but before he starts
he thinks for minute about
a phrase that’s been in his mind
for weeks now:

the wrath of long-forbidden gods.

Shakes it off, or tries to.

Steve — if that’s his name —
has better things, more practical things
to do right now and after all,
this is America and we have
plenty of new things to worry about
without invoking old ones.

He shivers. It’s normal to shiver,
he reminds himself. It’s dark
and cold for April. You don’t 
need to imagine disinherited entities
to feel the need to shiver,
and the monstrous wings 
he sees
skidding across the face
of the moon 
tonight

must just be clouds
transformed by

his hunger and loneliness;

after all, this is America. So

he shakes it off, 
or tries to.


Now That It Has Stopped Mattering I Have Begun To Care

I command my mind
to dream me into a country
where I can love
and be loved
less casually than people
typically do in America,
land of the quick in and out;

a place of no backstories needed,
a place where I could walk barefoot
in good soil or even mud and anyone
who finds the tracks will know
who has passed by.

In daylight my reputation’s
like a story tied to my heels,
trailing in the dirt behind me
to change my actual tracks
to indistinct traces, leaves
all passers-by asking 
if I’ve been here or not. 

You know I have a tale for them 
if it comes up, a tale for everything 
that might come up.

If someone could love me
as I want to be loved,
I wouldn’t need all these fables…
now that it has 
stopped mattering, though,
strangely I’ve begun to care
about the difference between
dreaming and not dreaming, 
or about my stories 
versus my truths;

I command myself to weld them
together, now that all has stopped;
to give me a dream and a life beyond 
the American one, the quick in and out,
the get it and be on your way — after all,

there’s nowhere to go.


A Plant

Grown averse to contact,
to being in the presence of.

People have always believed
me to be animal but in fact

I’m mostly plant. 
Call me stick in the mud.

More and more I just want
my own pot to bliss in.

Everyone else can just
dig my fruit and shade from

the other side of the room.
No regular need to interact, really.

If I need you, though,
I’ll need you acutely and quickly.

So: don’t go far, I think.
But don’t come close.

I’m as confused as you are
about this language I’m currrently using

in which every word’s a boomerang
coming back upon itself.

Plant, animal.
Aloof, needy.

I don’t understand it all myself
but that’s why I’m an artist: a plant

growing in a medium
without which I would die;

I’d droop, wilt, sag, fail.
And then I’d be brittle. 

So: don’t touch but give a little water,
a little sun.

You can have the fruit.
Sit by me and talk,

but no touch — offer care without
embrace. It will be

a breeze in 
my leaves.


The Sitcom

It’s like the whole country 
is at a sitcom
eighth grade dance. 

We’ve reached the moment
when the music goes
from fast to slow

and we have to try to adapt
to less of what
we’ve been used to,

except instead 
of sudden, awkward proximity
and clumsy touch,

we have to twirl 
independently of 
one another,

seeking intimacy
while praying
like mad that

music, lights,
and screen itself
do not fade into the credits.


One More White Riot

All I have to do is look at pictures of them
standing with wide mouths and flags and guns
while cameras take it all in

and I can smell them as clearly as if
I’d found them playing greasy cards in a sod house
on the old prairie; a little body stench, a little dirt;

on their clothing the stink of blood — maybe
pig, maybe chicken, maybe human; over all a fetid reek
of flesh burning upwind of here in a village overrun

with pioneer spirit. All I have to do is see their faces
and there is at once no need to learn their names:
all of them no doubt answer to some variant 

of Custer, Columbus, Jefferson Davis,
or Nathan Bedford Forrest; and damn glad of it, too,
even if they can’t tell you much

of who those people were. I can
smell them from here through the screen,

through all my multi-purpose masks,

through the swelling odor of my own anger
and fear. They smell like the land I live on
without living in it, like an age old paleface shivaree.

It’s time to hide my face, I think,
to shield my breathing from them, yes;
but also to give myself a certain license 

to move toward them
if they dare to claim
their right to deal us out.


Guitar Lesson

A hard lesson
from my guitar tonight:

my left hand’s become
a bald-faced lie

at which my
right hand cringes, 

but it does not demand
the truth.

A body divided against itself
cannot sing.

I grind my teeth
and pick up the guitar again, 

ask it at last to tell me
anything about what’s true?

I manage a chord, a small
simple chord, struck weakly but precisely;

start to recall, now,
what I know will actually heal

a damaged body; the willingness
to go through pain on the way

to the body’s rightful music.
I try again. I listen,

correct myself,
grind, chase the truth.