A friend, a chef,
uses the same secret ingredient
in anything they make, and all they make
are acclaimed masterpieces.
Naturally, they have told no one what they use
and just as naturally we try to guess,
as much for the game of it
as for the gossip or theft
since no one believes that using any one substance
is all it would take to replicate any of their dishes.
We suspect they are in fact
using some magic for their results
as opposed to a tangible spice for what else could explain
the signature spell of their food
from first course to last bite of dessert?
I will not say we are transformed by it,
instead will say we are transported.
So we needle and wheedle and bug them: tell us,
we say. Don’t try to laugh it off and say
it’s all about the love, either; we can tell it’s more.
We know esoteric when we taste it. This is
esoterica. You got your hands on something
and we will leave you to your own use of it
once we too have it on our hands,
even if it’s blood. So tell us. All we want
is the flavor. If it demands a sacrifice or a torture
we already know you took that pain, and thank you
for that — but it’s over. Why should anyone else suffer?
Newly added to the ritual:
hanging freshly washed
air-dried masks on
the back of the front door
so it’s easy to grab one on the way out.
You stack them in a certain order: on top
the favorite, then back up to the favorite,
back up to the back up, fancy dress, then last resort.
There they hang, playing their role,
reminding you of a danger
out there that you can’t see coming;
here is armor,
a hook full of cotton prayer. You’ll see them
the second you lift your favorite hat
from the neighboring hook and say to yourself,
“can’t forget this,” and then go on your way.
It’s now as much a part of your ritual
as clipping your knife to a pocket, tucking
pepper gel into a hoodie. Those
also sit close to the door when not in use,
reminding you of where you live
before you get out into it.
The phone, with its camera
and list of emergency contacts.
The car keys with the panic button
and the handy bottle of sanitizer.
The wallet that these days
offers no help at all.
Police have just announced
their symbolism will change
from blue to purple
in an effort to connect more deeply
with the bruised people
Elsewhere, bankers dress down
to tout the green hue of money.
Get you some, it’s good for the planet,
they say, as they bury heaps of their own
in the holes left from others
working the black seams of the earth.
Don’t have a color of your own?
Someone’s out there with a straitjacket
that’s perfect for you. If you don’t see it on the rack,
ask. It’s likely in the back, the mythic back
where all the good stuff is held in secret,
the back you never see.
They keep changing their colors, you keep yearning
for your own. “Kaleidoscope” doesn’t really cut it
as a description of their colorway world. “Rainbow”
holds it all but they bought that too.
Out in the hot light of broad daylight
they try to leash you to their vision.
Makes you long for something
easier on the eyes.
Makes you long for the simplicity
of black and white.
They have something for that, too.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
That was never a border
until Someone made it one
in your name whether you cared
or not. Once it was there
you were expected to agree
with it and with all that it took
to keep it a border, from a wall
to a law. You were expected to be
fine with how those coming this way
were kept out, no matter how badly
the starved or sickened or died of thirst
or bullets. You were expected to forget
about their children and those cages and
those tinfoil blankets and how illness took them
and takes them and how Someone
takes them and trades them out
to terror homes and no one will find them
but they get to stay here since they’ve vanished
already and for Someone that counts as compassion
even as they call bottles of water left for future crossers
on this side of that made-up line
a form of treason. You are expected to forget
all Someone did there in favor of new outrages
upon which to focus your outlaw compassion —
but, do not forget. Do not forget that
Someone started there and
what you see there will be done over and over
here there and everywhere until you are unable
to focus and you surrender just as Someone
is waiting for you to do.
Now we are at remarkable.
Passed intriguing and interesting
long ago. Deep into ourselves
we’ve gone and look at the time:
how we marvel at the long run,
at how we fascinate ourselves with ourselves.
Around the corner is obsession.
Around the corner is a track that will take us
off into the trees on the hills above the lake
on the down side of the road. There will be
no turning back once we’re there.
We took this route not expecting we’d be
so into ourselves that we’d be unable to see
others. That we’d be stuck on a road
between drowning and tumbling over rocks
and have to follow it right to the end
into whatever abattoir might be sitting there.
If you sniff the wind, you can tell
how close we’re getting. You’ll call it
perfume, of course. In your head it will smell
like the colors of the flag. Like an eagle
not tearing at your back.
the words alone
a weak response
to the moment.
Of course it’s about
to happen again.
I am tired
of saying it.
I’ve been so tied
to repeating those words
for so long
that my hand
has gone dead
for much beyond
cutting sad food and
that would work now
will have to move
An army raised
in the land of
out in the streets —
massed like bristles
in a new broom
an urgent cleansing
in progress —
shaking off dust
sound of layers of filth
beginning to shift
what was built from dirt
cannot stand —
new broom wrecking all