A steady rhythm: rainy
windy night. Sleep ends
earlier than desired.
I take what little I’ve received
This is who I am today, I guess.
I try to explain it to
my body. My body responds
with pain and upset.
I take what I receive
My body and I agree
that I am nearly too old for this.
I’m losing my strength and my grasp.
My body is losing the will
to restore. Early to bed and
staggeringly early to rise
make this man
long to sleep forever
but the body resists, refuses
to approach the inevitable unknown.
I must take what I am given
This is who I will be today, I guess:
a weakened man up far too early,
working far too hard for too little,
waiting out steady rain, strong winds,
a beating being drummed
upon the walls of my house.
The guitars my country of old men loves to hear
support the binary my country of old men adores.
They must have either six or twelve strings,
must be either acoustic or electric.
My country of old men mostly loves only songs
that are played on guitars. If there are
mandolins or banjos in the song they must be
there only as adjunct to guitars. Ukuleles
have their place among the acceptable
for their chiming and their cute faces; they look like
infant guitars to the old men and who would take
such candy from babies? They’ll surely outgrow them.
A bass guitar is acceptable; this is why it is called
a guitar. Any other instrument with strings
is inferior to guitar and should be at best
relegated to guitar support, say the old men
of my country. This is why no one around here
recognizes any kind of cuatro or knows what a saz is,
why no one has ever heard a vihuela, a charango,
a guitarra de Lisboa.
Those who play such dangerous instruments
keep to themselves around here for fear of
my country of old men. You have to spin the dials
a long time on secret radios to hear any of them played.
It’s as if the old men
know this would be
a different country if everyone
heard those sounds.
Revised from 8/28/2020.
In first light I see
the black cat waiting for her food
below her perch in the kitchen window.
“Jump up, beautiful girl — you
can do it!”
She leaps up light,
lands heavy, settles in
to treats and wet food. The calico
does the same for her bowl across the room;
they are, for the moment, content.
I allow myself a weak smile
before I start the coffee,
before the scent fills the kitchen,
before I look out the front windows,
before I take a breath
of the Stench out there
and ask the daily questions:
dare I turn on the television,
open my mail, think of how things
might be getting better or worse?
Dare I count the dead? Dare I count
sneers and curses? Dare I measure or note
the indifference of the alleged good majority
and call them out as the source of this smell?
It’s taken me far too long to call this as I sense this:
that it is not behavior seen or anger heard
nearly as much as it is an odor that chokes me,
makes everything taste less healthy;
odor so thick it coats my skin,
distorts my touch; a pale Stench
from a host of dark graves;
blood so soaked into our soil
that it stains every foundation
and leaks into the roots
of every tree and blade of grass.
In spite of how I choke upon the Stench
the cats seem to ignore it, are purring and happy,
falling back to sleep in their favorite spots
before I pour my first cup of coffee. I suck it down
and here I am again, wondering if today is the day
that I will suffocate at last.
One cat sneezes. I look up to see
the calico stretching. She wheezes a bit.
Might be the Stench,
might be simpler than that.
I’m sure it’s simpler than that.
My love is still asleep still in the next room.
All I want is for her to live through this
and thrive again, breathe clean again.
For myself? All I ask
is that I live long enough
to help clear the air.
You hold tightly to the belief
that there is only one being inside you.
How you will survive?
Your fear strangles you
whenever you hear a voice
that comes from within you,
a voice you do not recognize
that seems to know you. You say
it is just self-distortion, a mad memory.
Learned books have long said
it is vital to bring all beings within us
together under one name. Bah —
do not surrender your life
to learned books. Suppose instead
that you are a shell, a community,
and you long ago locked your doors
to the others. You’ve become the hermit
on the edge of their town,
the one they tell stories about.
Have you heard any of them? Maybe they
are curious or furious, as frightened of you
as you are of them? You should at least
crack open your door and listen. Ask them
to tell you their names and what they know
of you. Offer them a small meal
if they agree to come sit before the fire
in your hermitage. Don’t talk. Don’t
argue with them. Call them by their
names as you thank them
each in turn for what you learn.
Once they leave, not long before dawn,
you will sit by the coals until you fall well-asleep
for the first time in a long, long time.
The lights going out,
the body count,
the murderous twitching
of hollering masses.
etc.; a terrifying
traditional list of plagues
and calamities; nothing
at pictures of small, cute, furry.
All you want
is to put your arms around
a baby alpaca.
That’s also a tradition:
putting your trust in the belief
that the New World
will save you from the Old.
Days ago, a wren flew into my parents’ house
when my dad left the front door open.
The bird flew confused from room to room
and never once sang.
I chased it down, caught it under a towel
on top of the living room curtains
and took it back outdoors where it sat
for a second on the front walk railing
before flying away. Today
I saw one outside the dining room window there
and it sang, over and over. Neither
my snoozing father nor my deaf mother heard.
I do not know if this was
the same bird, but I hope it was.
I will imagine it was
until the last of our days in that house
when the rooms will be emptied
of the aged furniture
and those curtains will come down;
until the carpets are gone as they are both gone
and I lock the door behind me;
until all that will be left
will be memories of myths
of birdsong, gratitude, and escape.
waking again surprised to be
still alive this far out to sea
so far from the shore
and grounded living
awake same time daily
then fall right back to sleep
upon seeing and feeling
the same old drift
you have to wonder
if this started with Columbus
thirty five days into his voyage
not knowing the next day
would change all forever
you have to wonder how
he expressed his hope
to his men and to himself
that they would land somewhere full of plunder
and how many today
are rolling their hands
over and over against each other
with the same hope
that the new world on
the other side of this long drift
will offer them good luck and fortune
(no matter who else dies for it)
once this rotten ship
scrapes bottom upon
a yet unknown shore
If I were the last postal worker on earth
there would be too much left to deliver. Instead
I’d make a deep pile of all the unread letters
and bury myself in its dead center.
I’d find a way to breathe through mounds of junk.
I’d go tearing through the backlog trying to find
enough food and clothing to survive
in the packages. Of course,
someone out there would be waiting for me
to bring them what they wanted, what they needed,
what they’d been waiting for; longing to hear
from someone, yearning for the sound
of the lid coming down hard on the box
or the sight of the red flag raised upon its side.
I’d have no choice. No room for any of that.
Call me selfish or insane, but if I were
the last postal worker on earth
I’d have to stop being a postal worker at once
in the face of the mountain of need
that had fallen upon me. I know
I’d have to revert to relying on myself
for the most basic needs,
ones I’m not sure I can meet even now
as I wait for the mail carrier to come
and bring me, with no malice of their own,
nothing but dread, temptation,
and the searing murder of, once again,
not one damn love letter.
Into excruciating detail we go.
We approach any fire focused on the embers at the edge.
We can describe the craquelure of each coal.
We can say whatever we want of shades and gradations
as long as we don’t speak of how close we are to being consumed.
Into excruciating detail we go.
We see haze and make up numbers to explain its depth.
We see smoke and metaphor it as dragon, as mushroom, as column.
We can say whatever we want of thickness and color and height
as long as we don’t choke on the constant approach of disaster.
Into excruciating detail we go.
We smell every singe on each hair currently on fire.
We speak of sweet and sour and acrid and my God, no words.
We can say whatever we want about the length of any given flame
as long as we ignore how bright and how hot we have become.
Start the day by greeting
all the creatures in the house: the people, cats,
ferret, fish; the ones in the walls
and the ones in the cracks;
the ones who come out at night
and the ones who sometimes scurry past
at daybreak; the ones we do not even know
are there who would chill us into screaming
if we could see them.
This day brings so much to deal with.
Every day brings so much to deal with.
Start with acknowledgement of all the good and terror
that lives within our walls. Take that as your banner
when facing the burning world beyond them.
Birds don’t sing
for freedom they already have.
for what they desire.
Imprison someone long enough
and they will learn to sing.
Prisoners who can hear birds
will offer cage songs in response.
Any prisoner who learns
how to sing cage songs
will eventually learn
how to make them beautiful.
The warden wants to keep them
from being free.
They will take
the cage songs from the singers,
sell them to the world,
call them freedom songs.
All those freedom songs began
as cage songs rising
in the throats of those
who have been locked down.
Listen to them, the warden says.
Listen to them singing like birds.
The warden might be telling the truth
but you would have to ask a prisoner
to be certain, and no one
wants that to happen. After all
your own chains
might be at risk.
You might feel
a powerful need to sing.
Most mornings —
hell, every morning —
are for staring straight up
at those dots
stuck like pinholes
into the clouds, dots
growing larger against
the once-blessed sky.
Waiting all day
and long into the night,
shielding ourselves from
all those shoes
I keep catching tiny movements
in corners of the house. I look more closely
and find…nothing. But I’m sure of what I saw.
Something is here that stays only enough out of sight
to be elusive and yet comes into view often enough
to make it impossible to ignore.
Perhaps I’m losing my mind from seeing
all the demons we always knew were there
in the outside world coming out from under rocks
and crawling out of the garbage. Then again,
I’m assuming bad intent here. Maybe these are
benevolent? Then why hide? I could use a friend.
Maybe they came here
to hide from the demons
only to find me, and that is why they hide.
All I know for sure is that I’m getting used
to the idea of the unseen appearing in corners
I never used to look at
and in spite of myself, I’m beginning to think
that it might not be safer to keep my eyes closed,
but it might be more comfortable in the short run.
Originally posted 9/5/2011. Revised.
The rude elements
dressed your dirt-blessed hand.
Do not apologize for it.
Make the rich,
the distastefully clean,
shake it. Make them see you:
tired, aging too fast,
forearms threaded strong
from work. Force them
to see your clothes: how thin the fabric
on your jeans, the patches,
Give them a moment
to take it all in,
then smack them. Seize their throats
and impress upon them
the everlasting schedule
of your simplified days —
each day you rise, sup,
work, sup, work, sup,
a routine broken
only by the time you steal back
to make a home, make children,
bounce the baby on your greasy knee.
None of the dirt you carry makes you
unclean. All of it was borne to make them
what they are. You deserve this anger
as you count pennies,
You’re more glue
for this shiny cracked country
than any glitter-fed celebrity
or squinting dollar-breeding usurer;
make it known. Grab them one and all
by their hands and at the very least,
make them shake yours — show them
that honest tan under your grime.
If their fear is a likely result,
it may be the wedge
to open the doors
they’ve kept barred for so long.
Who better than you
to open them? Only your shoulder,
so long pressed to their wheels,
can possibly burst those locks.
There is a fluid inside
at least some stars,
I’m certain. I can feel it.
I can feel it falling onto me
from on high on clear nights
with no moon. I raise my head,
startled by a drop
from the dark above. Can feel
nothing on my skin afterward
but the pinpoint of impact shines
for a few seconds and I am
temporarily celestial as well.
Once back inside
when I fall into darkness again
I stare at that once star-bright spot
and remind myself that all I need
is to go back out there and lie down
(perhaps forever) naked under the sky
and eventually I shall become
a pointillist testament to an odd hope
that might be based in illusion but
then again, there I would be to silently refute
the doubters from death as I could not
from within my life, saying
look, I did shine; look, I am shining now —
whether from the soaking of stars
or the drenching of the sun, I shine.
I told you of the liquid in the stars
and here I am: proof.