Tag Archives: revisions

What Did You Do In The War?

I wrote poems,
a lot of poems.
At the time

it seemed to many to be
an indulgence.
But now it seems

I wasn’t writing poems
as much as I was 
making bullets and 

planting seeds: bullets
for the moment, seeds
for the future.

Sometimes one poem would be
both — those were the times
I think I was at my best. 

I do not like war —
I am not one of those
whose blood sings with it.

But there were times,
I admit, when I’d look
at what I’d written

and say, there’s one
that will hurt, there’s one
that will sprout later,

and I would sit back 
and say, there. There
it is.  I mean,

why do you fight a war
except for the chance
to hear poems when it’s over?

(Which is why they killed
some of us,
you know.  It wasn’t

safe — not as dangerous
as some things, but still,
they killed some of us

not because our bullets hurt them
but because our seeds
terrified them.)

When you ask me
what I did in the war,
I tell you this: it wasn’t

as much as some did,
but it was everything 
I could do — an indulgence,

maybe, but I did it with
my hands and it took
all the strength I had

on some days, some nights,
when the firefights came close
and I thought I would or should die

but nonetheless I kept the lamp on
above the paper
 as I tried
to make a better world
 with my pen.


Revised, from 2005.

Ghost, you call me. Not the ghost, but
“Ghost”, making that my proper name, not (of course)
my Christian name, but the older kind: one

that tells something about you 
that remains true. There’s nothing new
about me being a 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.

As a kid I cringed when they told
scary stories at summer camp.
I remember that later on I laughed

at horror films, pretending bravery.
Once you’re here, you find
it’s nothing like the movies. 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 needs until after it’s been learned.

But it’s not all bad.
This is 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 the strangest 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.

So, Ghost is what you call me, and I’ll take it now 
the way I’ve 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.

Only A Minor Threat

Revised, from 1999.

he died silent on a Monday
looking into that last camera
without a smile

eyes rolling up
like a tail gunner
during a spiral
still doing his job

the reporters on hand 
either saw him blink
or didn’t see him blink
said he was either resigned
or defiant
or arrogant

not one said remorseful
not one said scared

the Friday after he died 

a jogger in Kansas City
found a 4 year old girl 

another one found
her head a day later

when several days had passed 
and no one had reported 
a four year old girl missing

a local church group
began going door to door
to identify her

refusing to call her
by the police procedural name
of baby jane doe
they renamed her “precious”
because “someone must have known her 
someone must have thought her precious”

last night

for the first time in years
I recalled the night I sang with Minor Threat
flying on crystal
maintaining barely well enough 
to pass for straight edge 
in a crowd militant for sobriety

the night irony was invented

when MacKaye handed off the mike
to what must have looked like 
just another shaven runt in the crowd

I was so thrilled to be just straight enough 
to remember the words

and that was the first one I remember
the first of those all-American moments

faced with something dangerous
and contradictory

I lunged for a safety net and tried to

to boil it all down 
to a head shake 
and a slogan


to stick a fist in the air
and shout along
with the long national hunger
for swift closure 



if we can find a way to call her precious and insist
that she must have been beloved

if we can forget that in spite of that
no one seems to have missed her

if we can forget that it is likely
that her killer knew (or even gave her) her real name 

if we can find a way to call the truck bomber
a madman and insist that he is an aberration

if we can forget that he cried
when he saw children burned in Waco

if we can forget that he nonetheless
meant to burn the kids he burned 

if we can forget that they are not just any monsters
but our very own

looking for their own versions
of the easy answers

if we can get by those sticking points fast enough
we can return to the luxury of certainty


safely tuck it all away

and say

only a minor threat
only a minor threat


From 1998. Revised.

One, two,
three, five–seven-nine,
dark brothers
at sunset:
wetsuited surfers
off the beach at Del Mar.

The bell for vespers tolls
from the seacliff mission.

Two parallel acolytes
in this year’s hot fighter jets
arc south toward
San Diego.

What is it about
the brotherhoods
that men form
that makes me want to watch them
for hours and hours?

I pose that question
to Angela, crazy plaintalker
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.
I’m buzzed and no closer to my answer
though I have heard
all of her own thoughts
about men
and their missions:

she’s told me how
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 there
that she walked away
(and it’s been a while
so she doubts it’s 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
angry all the

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

“It’s right,” she says to him. “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 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,

while somewhere in Encinitas
an angry old man waits for dinner
as pilots’ cheeks flatten in the force of the turn
and monks fall off to profane dreams
while engineers stew
before their monitor’s blue fire —

and somewhere
ecstatic Angela
builds a new world right around our ears
by challenging nervous bartenders
and refusing to be with anyone.
In the starry dark she walks the beaches
to do just what she likes,
free of strange men.


A poem from, roughly, 2002. Slightly revised.

Monday night bar in Union Square,
loud enough to allow for intimacy.
You have been here for hours when a co-worker
who is also the woman you’ve been seeing,
who has also been sitting across from you all this time,
rises from the table and turns toward the door.

You catch a glimpse
of a tattoo on her back, 
visible between the shirt and the belt;
it stretches from hipcrest to hipcrest
as if she has sprouted 
low-slung wings.

She leaves the bar,
moving away from the sound of your voice
out into the night.
You suspect she’s thinking that 
though your words, like stones,
were clearly born in fire, 

you have tumbled them too long between
your water heart and your earth tongue;
made them cool and gleaming and edgeless; 
you took and tossed
the once-burning words at her
and it felt like hail in July.

How will she ever rise
when you keep burying her 
under such a tumble
of dead things?
Inside her a stone is growing
where you once were.

She is gone,
but you drink for another hour. 
On your own cab ride home,
you begin to plot a new path 
toward her heart.
Your dreams burn and spin all night.

Next day,
you wake at 6 AM.

There have been many things 
in your life that were 
seen once or many times 
and unremembered 
until they were needed —
ripple on a lakebed, 
patch of wrinkled layers in old stone,
some tree gnarled into a twist waiting
until they could give meaning 
to something else. 

Her face last night.

You hear secret voices,
voices heard solely in the body, 
saying that
revelation exists 
in a simple trace of 
transcendence – even inside 
the skin and eyes 
of someone you think you know.

Before now, you certainly
would not have called out to God
when thinking of her. 
Now your brain slides into that way of being — 
now you say, alone in your bedroom,
what you have learned: 

it exists, 
it certainly exists,
a way of living, 
a holy space
that only another body
can make real —

because you will not call it 
‘being in God’,
you will call it 
‘being in love’. 

You have never felt like this 
before work before –
ready to pray all the way up to the 
forty-fifth floor.

By Tuesday noon 
you have run back down 
forty-five floors,
you’ve learned thousands 
of new names for God, 
crying them all 
as you run from thunder, 
fleeing stone 
and powder 
and shock.

The running itself is a kind of prayer
that she is running too
or watching this happen from elsewhere, 
one hand on her mouth, tears 
leaving trails in the white, 
awful dust on her cheeks.

Your running is a prayer
that she can fly.

You kick over the television at 9:30 PM.

You have not spoken for hours,
staring at the phone,
waiting for it to ring, waiting.

You close all the blinds
while waiting,
waiting for the phone to ring, waiting.

You wish you could drink but everything tastes like suicide. 
A pill forms in your hand while you wait,
wait for the phone, waiting.

A pill washes down
past the scratch and raw breath of your coughing. 
A pill makes you lucid in the face of delusion
long enough to realize
that someone really is at the door, it’s your landlord, just arrived, 
all the roads closed, been waiting for hours in the lines,

checking up on all of his tenants, tells you
the towers are gone,
the towers for the cell phones are gone, 
no calls coming in or out, no calls, 
all those hours waiting, 

air filled with voices in tears, 
in arrest, in thrombosis, in embolism, 
waiting, waiting,

with crush injuries, 
burns, inhalations, rages, fevers,
blames and names and hatreds,
silences and understandings,

moments gone with
all the bodies newly torn, flung, 
sundered, crushed, and cindered;
all the memories

and the bearers of the memories 
waiting to get through, 
hoping to reinflate, 
to reanimate, to be reborn:

you’re still 

Wednesday, driving north from the city
before dawn toward New England
to stay with friends. It’s mid September,
nearly time for the leaves to come off the trees
in one last burst of flame. 
The day looks like it is going to be perfect.

You are trying to remember yesterday morning’s dream of her,
how it felt to rest in the moment of knowing she could leave you.

You linger on one small moment of it:
the moment of not caring where she was, 
as long as she was out there somewhere, 
as long as she was happy. 

You called it love then, 
but now you know it was God. 
that moment of being
without attachment to the result 
was something you could call God; 

a name you could hang 
on the moment,
a name you’ll cling to 
though it has become hard to say because
it does not include enough syllables 
to describe the fact

that you didn’t bother
to bring your cell phone with you this morning,
that you did not leave
a message on hers before you left.

At a rest stop outside Waterbury
you pull over.
Maybe you fall asleep. 
It isn’t important ?
what matters is that 
suddenly all around you
the earth is pushing up geodes
by the thousands.
You pick one up and it cracks in your hands,
spilling oceans of ancient, limed water,
soaking your hands with salt and 
the flakes of 
long concealed

She is suddenly there,
watching you weep, 
and as she rises from the ground 
she tells you:

keep moving

there are more names 
for God 
than any of us ever 
could have 

You Live Here

revised. originally posted 11/19/2020.

Last night you lay awake terrified
by the sound of this country honking
its changes, ripping the night.

So harsh, that sound of your illusions
soaring, diminishing, flying away.
You stayed up polishing weapons. At dawn

when you raised the living room blinds, what was
on the ground below the window? One cardinal,
three chickadees, two mourning doves;

all pecking, scratching, cooing. Far less noise
than the night before. This is your country
in daylight. You live here;

you are expected
to put up your sword
and feed those birds.

If (Mother Of Moons)

revised, original post 2016.

If a window opens in a wall
where there has never been a window, and
you are standing there at that moment
and watch it open.

If a second or so before that
you fuzz out and cannot afterward describe how it happened,
since no bricks appear to have been displaced
by the appearance of the window.

If no sound accompanied
the appearance of the window, yet
you do not show amazement
or fear upon the opening of the new window.

If the opening of the new window
seems as normal to you as the breathing of your newborn;
you hold your newborn up to the window
to let them see the moon.

If you hold the moon up to the newborn window
and let it shine, shine, shine;
if you look out the window
and observe a maze of walls, windows, light from other moons.

If you recognize that none of the walls and windows
look anything like your own and
the light from the other moons
changes you.

If you then begin to call yourself
Mother of Moons, though
you have always been this 
yet are naming this for the first time.

If you go out 
to seek other windowless walls and
you stand in front of them
until they change —

then every examined wall
shall become a window
and all the windows
shall spring open at once.

Las Lloronas

A very old poem, a popular Duende Project piece, and one for Bastille Day and all of us who suspect we might need to protect ourselves against predators very, very soon.

 years of watching

 nature shows

 and I still can’t answer this question:


 given the opportunity

 will a predator

 kill two at once?


 imagine: somewhere

 in central america

 a jaguar is striving for a personal best


 and prays (in whatever way

 that big cats pray) that the kinkajous

 fooling about on the forest floor


 will stay still long enough

 for him to take both with one

 velvet razor swipe


 but he is thwarted when

 one sees him waiting and lets out

 a quavering cry


 (this is why they call the kinkajou

 la llorona

 the weeping woman)


 and when the two

 scratch their way up a tree

 leaving the jaguar behind to curse


 (in whatever way jaguars curse)

 they weep with joy and perhaps

 snicker at the loser below


 imagine at night that las lloronas

 the weeping women

 honey bears of the canopy


 tell stories to each other

 of all the death they’ve avoided

 at the jaws and paws of would-be overachievers


 pausing now and then to whisper

 of the ones who fell alone

 and unwarned


 there is strength in numbers

 they tell each other

 the jaguars can only kill us when we forget that


 so can a predator

 kill more than one at one time?

 las lloronas say si


 but only

 when we
 let it happen 


Link to a Duende Project recording of the piece with Steven Lanning-Cafaro on guitar: Las Lloronas   


originally posted 2/19/2019.  revised.

Wouldn’t you love the look of barnwood
in your home?

Wide boards dented
from hooves and heavy boots, or (more likely)
from chains dragged and slammed upon them
in industrial furniture mills until they meet
a mythic standard for anything made to look
as if it once had harder, honest use. 

Wouldnt you love the smell of incense
in your home?

in the nostrils
of your pampered guests
in your barnwood home

instead of perfuming the temples
in praise of Lakshmi and Shiva,
rising from soft flame. 

Wouldn’t you love a dreamcatcher
in your home?

The Assiniboine net
framed perfectly on the charcoal wall
over the bookcase; centered, empty of ghosts
as far as you know; 
merely there to let folks know
you appreciate authenticity,
found some on that last trip out West,

and brought it into your perfumed,
barnwood home.

Wouldn’t you love sleeping 
in your home?

Lying at night on the cotton sheets, on the
bamboo pillow.
Your partner
a shadow on the other side,
more memory 
than solid figure in the dark.

Wishing they’d wake up
and touch you.
You wish on invisible stars
for that to happen.

You cannot wait 
for the day to begin
and fill the barnwood house with light
so you can dismiss bad dreams
in a puff of smoke

while looking
at the pretty things
you truly own.

Morning Departure

Old poem, heavily revised.  Late 90s, perhaps?

Dew burdening a distant lawn.
Sudden crow drops from grey sky.
Chilly air gooses our flesh.

Last hardy songbird on the wire.
An old dog on point.
Yellow grain waving.

The city is so far away 
we have forgotten
it exists.

She turns left,
away from the sunrise.
Autumn does this –

turns a body
to face the cold
as astringent,

as protection,
to build immunity
for what’s coming;

she says, “I know it’s early
but we ought to think about
heading back.”

I swallow hard, disbelieving.
The rhythm of this day
slows down, swaps

waltz time for
funeral march.
I can’t think of what to say.

We will have to be
on the road
for hours. She is

right in that way, 
but I can’t imagine
leaving this place

that’s glowing
beneath a halo of almost icy

Looking across the fields
for a tree with fruit that,
once eaten, 

will let me hold my knowledge of her
after we’ve left
this perfect place –

but she knows that story,
gets a jump
on its ending:

“You can always come back,”
she says, brushing something
from her eyes.

“You.” Not “We.”

She is wrong. I’ll never be back:
I know what a sword
looks like

and there’s one now,
burning its way up
over the horizon.

Forensic Love Song

Originally posted, 2008. Revised.


“the answer is always in the body”
— heard in passing; a line from a TV crime show

licked and prodded,
it still refuses to express
a secret

in the dark, lit blue,
misted with laden rain,
our signatures revealed:
clouds on our still skin

the mottled shapes
of shared blood can be read
as a novel: here the plot
is thick, here thicker;

here is a second theme;
here, the pooling, the co-mingling,
so confusing to the outsider

though we understand
what has happened here

cooling happens
at a predictable rate
once all factors are accounted for

something unknown to science
must be holding all this heat

the answers
are always in the body

the body is always

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.

Sitting Around

Originally posted 2012. Revised.

Mostly, people are sitting around waiting for it.

It’s not going to be like a tsunami, or a war.

No one wants to admit that we peaked at Lascaux.  

No one wants to admit that we were pretty much at our apex right before the first grain was planted, the first lamb was tamed…that it started to fail with the first surveyor who confidently said “this plot’s yours, this plot’s not.”  

No one wants to admit that we were OK about the God thing right up to the moment we shook God loose from a particular geography, the one outside the hut door.  

Get up every morning, yawn, stretch…hello, God.  Turn another direction, there’s another God.  Say hi to that one, too.  

It kept them small.

No one wants to admit we knew something back then we don’t know now, and we don’t even know what it is that we knew.  

I have some friends — oh, I cannot call them that as it’s untrue now and will be even more so after this —there are people I know  who are activists.  

They think they’re doing something.  They think…I like them because they move now that everyone’s mostly sitting.  

But do they do what’s needed?  No one can do what’s needed now.  Not on anything but a small scale, no matter how grandly they practice.  

Because when it comes, it won’t be much different than it is now —a slew of abandoned houses, a lot of rootless people. They’ll leave because their wallets betrayed them; they’ll leave looking for work; they’ll leave looking for food.  

The lawns will recall their heritage and swallow houses while making jungly noises.

We don’t know what we’ve lost.

We peaked at Lascaux; all those hunter-gatherers knew it.

We sit waiting for what’s coming.

We ought to be moving though it won’t come as tsunami or war, not at first.


It will be as it is now. 


Originally posted 2014. Revised.

This God the atheists
do not believe in

is nothing like the Ones I know
who have always been

as numerous as leaves,
slippery as free mercury,

devoid of faces, disinclined
to interfere even when implored

as they are yoked to larger purposes
than we can know — purposes

they serve as surely 
as we do our own. 

Omnipotence, they laugh,
is a child’s dream — 

what God of Sound Mind
would desire that

considering how much
needs doing in the universe?

Having spoken they turn back
to their 
appointed tasks,

not caring much at all
whether or not we follow.


Originally posted 2012. Revised.

There are facts
which are known to be facts
through deep apprehension of their truth

long before they come true. For instance,
there’s no evidence yet
for the truth of my conviction

that I shall never return to Venice;
that how it vanished, slowly,
as I stared back at it

from the stern of the motoscafi 
that took me to the airport for the trip home
will be my permanent last memory of the city.

It’s not yet a fact
that I will never see Venice again,
but I know it to be true as solidly

as I know anything.
It’s as true as the scar in my foot
from the time I stepped

on broken Murano glass.  As true
as the view of Ezra Pound’s grave
and the smell of the nearby crematorium

on San Michele.  As true
as the Albanian refugees
begging wordlessly on bridges. 

Someday you will be able to say
that I visited Venice
just once in my life,

that it left a scar upon me
I can feel
whenever I walk.  

Every step I’ve taken since I left
has carried me farther
away from Venice. 

This won’t be a fact for years yet,
only blooming fully as such
on the day I die.

But I know a fact
when I conceal one,
and daily I do my best

to conceal from myself
this thing I know to be
unalterably true:

that I will not return 
to Venice, not in this life,
not in this body, not in this form.