• Tracing Back
  • Seeing It Through
  • The Night I Saw Saturn
  • Watching You in the Mirror
  • The Price
  • Depression Glass
  • Otma Rood
  • Vinculum
  • Visiting the Territories
  • Art & Science
  • Getting Serious
  • Mrs. Beasley's Supper
  • Design
  • On Deck
  • Red Camellia
    • Tracing Back

      In the history of reading,
      there’s many a cracked heart,
      lost letter, stopped clock, cut wrist.
      Any cursory push through poems
      or stories and you could trip
      over the drownings
      or the heap of crushed
      petticoats fluttering on the tracks.

      To the bookish, I say careful.
      What’s between two covers
      can creep beneath covers.
      Any thief worth his prize
      knows how seduction works:
      ingratiation: the innocent pull
      of words, that belly crawl
      of language. What do you
      think that first slither was
      coiling the winesap,
      so lovely, our girl was forced
      to write it down, there
      on the underside of leaves.
      Hers, to sneak past the terrible
      gates, hidden in the rustle
      of her figgy apron: the key
      to what she didn’t know yet
      but would be looking for
      in all her troubled incarnations.

      Published in The Gettysburg Review
      Pushcart Prize, 2012

      Seeing It Through

      Presto the magician
      drops his handkerchief
      and amazingly I’m looking down
      seventy years. Down
      as from the top of a winding stair
      vertigoing to the bottom
      where the child struggles to mount
      crawling on her knees that first step.
      And I want to say Wait
      I’ll come down
      carry you up
      for I need you here
      now that the banister is nearing
      its finial and I can see
      the rituals of the sky
      speeding up through the almost
      reachable skylight.

      Honey hair and the sunsuit
      Mother made from a scrap. Come.
      If I hold you high, you can touch
      the glass. Let the last contact
      be a baby’s hand. Why not?
      All things come around
      replete with rage and rattle.

      Published in Poetry

      The Night I Saw Saturn

      Crossing the Pacific, flying backward
      into perpetual night, and all night
      one light on in the plane, a young man
      beneath, scribbling. I am looking out
      the window, the glass prism that shatters
      the stars, and we at thirty thousand feet
      not flying up but seemingly across
      and headed straight toward it—Orpheus
      of the night sky—the rock that sings.

      What is he writing, that man
      who can’t sleep so doesn’t even try,
      stuck in an inner section, unable
      to indulge in a window reverie, leaning
      his head as I do against the glass?

      The night I saw Saturn was because
      I pleaded. Before I die I want to see…
      and the astronomer complied, there
      on the top of Mauna Kea, and me
      shivering in all the clothes I had
      and hanging on because I couldn’t
      see my feet, so dark it was as I set
      my eye to the metal eyepiece.
      Then, true to the pictures in my
      schoolbooks or the planetarium’s
      mockup, only luminous, radiating
      more energy into space than received
      from the sun. Ah Saturn, grandfather
      of Love, what do scientists know
      of the light that lights the pearl? Beauty’s
      absolute, cold white and burning in the sky.

      And now, this man, the only light
      in the plane, ringed by huddles of sleepers
      as if he were guardian of the oblivious
      awake for us all. How furiously
      he bends to his work. How lovely
      the light lingering on the shock of his hair
      holds him—incandescent—reflecting in rings.

      Published in The Southern Review

      Watching You in the Mirror

      Suppose I stood behind you,
      slipped my bare arms under yours
      and arced them about, making you
      into a four-armed god, all ministering
      to your fresh-from-the-shower nakedness—
      combing, deodorizing, touching
      toothpaste to your brush—while you
      concentrated on shaving, twisting
      your mouth in that funny way you do.

      Would you, compelled
      by the light streaming in the window,
      lift up one foot as if to dance—toes flexed,
      heel down—and balancing on one leg,
      glow as Shiva did in that ring of fire?

      And if I suddenly bit you
      the way I do sometimes, and you
      unable to turn, caught in the bas-
      relief of the game, how would you
      read me? I have played wife
      so well for fifteen years. Turban-
      wrapped behind you, my name, Surya,
      copper-headed daughter of the sun
      who, like my father roaring in the ether,
      loves to linger over skin, using her teeth
      to know you. The gods say death comes only
      to those who blink. Gods never blink
      or shut their eyes, but shuffle the world,
      growing tusks long with knowledge.

      Husband, I tell you, there will be no end
      to my knowing. In the reflection of my eyes,
      you shall never sleep. If necessary, I will
      gnaw each mirror you’re in, swallowing
      it down to keep you awake and inside me.

      Published in The Gettysburg Review

      The Price

      We were a process
      going nowhere, fueled
      on poetry and any old thing
      to eat. Even in the bathtub, be-
      tween slosh and fondle, we were Rich
      and Sexton, Hass and listen to this.
      Oh, but weren’t we lovely then?
      You were my delirium, my
      silver ring, my Mercury, all lithe-
      limbed stream and glitter. And I,
      young again and too much in love
      to be turned into your boulder—
      the mote in your eye.

      Today, twenty-five years later,
      the trees outside my window
      once again dandle their darlings,
      tossing in the blue air spring’s
      green adorables, knowing
      full well the coming sacrifice,
      the shriveling end. And I wonder
      if when these trees are gone,
      the future will be able to read
      the invisible ink ground into
      their pulp, pressed into their paper,
      saying After, there was blank.
      Then there was inconsolable.

      Published in The Gettysburg Review

      Depression Glass

      It must have been October, right after
      the annual hanging of the winter drapes
      and the ceremonial unrolling of the rug
      from its summer sleep behind the sofa.
      Gone were the slipcovers, leaving
      the upholstery stripped down to warm
      arms again, and the little living room
      transformed into a mother hug of all
      she labored for—the luxury of bastion
      and snug, the thick stability of thick
      pile, purchased with how many
      on-her-knees hours of scour and rag.
      The whir of the sewing machine at night,
      and all those stretched nickels.

      My sister would say this never happened,
      or if it did, it wasn’t this way, or if it was,
      I never cried, or if I did, how could I—
      so young—know what was to cry about.

      A room like that, in the Snow White
      haven of the dwarves’ house, and I
      no more than four, rowing a cardboard
      box across the rug, its flowered sea
      lapping at my hands that were my oars.
      When suddenly, there was my father
      dancing to the radio or some crazy song
      of his own making, flapping his arms
      and yawping like a great enchanted
      gull of happiness having nothing to do
      with me. Or her. And I saw as through
      the glass layers of the sea what he’d
      been before I came in my little boat
      grinding its vast engines of responsibility,
      dragging him under, changing him into
      someone other than the drowned beloved
      I’d be trying to make it up to all my life.

      Published in Prairie Schooner

      Otma Rood

      Shackled to that name, by fifteen
      she knew the rest the stars dished out
      would stack up equal: a mother-in-law
      who cooked forty years for the railroad,
      raising eight perfect kids to boot. And Joe,
      shot dead in the grocery that Friday night
      late August, figuring receipts.

      Go to Ten Mile Creek. Look there
      for what she was, mud-trailing skirts
      in her daily crash through woods,
      racketing trees with a peeled stick,
      mouthing the words she chewed on each day
      of her life to suck the bitter out—same as
      the creek hid under its breath, lugging rain
      to the long brown thirst of the Arkansas.
      Even Joe—sweeping, marking tins—knew
      how poetry can settle young on a girl
      who labeled herself cashed-in ugly
      each time she had to write a check.

      Take the turnpike east out of Tyler
      where Ten Mile still runs cold
      past Kissy Rock, then follow on foot
      to where it eddies and stalls, twisting
      back on itself to lap at the roots
      of the giant sycamore, sucking out
      the footings, the underpinnings,
      not stopping until the whole white body
      drops into its mouth at last. Do you see
      how the tree leans back and away, pulling
      at its roots the way a woman would
      who recognizes the unlucky label
      of her name on the underside of love
      and knows she has to get away, but can’t?

      Here Otma Rood must have walked
      and stopped to lean. And maybe it was here
      she saw it. A bird? Who can tell.
      A dive of color then a swoop. Or make
      it night, late August, when the wild sky,
      risking theft, unhinges all its fire.
      And she, widow now and womb pregnant
      with the only shot at freedom
      she would ever have to give a name to—

      Juanita. Proxy. Shooting star.

      Published in Shenandoah
      James Boatwright III Prize for Poetry

      Vinculum
      for Richard

      Do not look at me again like that: between us
      is too stripped down to the bare wire of what we were.

      The look, umbilical—that cord I thought discarded
      in some hospital bin fifty years ago come November.

      How strange to find it once more between us,
      still beating and so palpable we could

      cross over and enter into each other again,
      seeing our old selves through new, first eyes.

      Plucked from a drumroll of autumns, that one
      was ours—autumn of my twenty-third year, autumn

      of your final fattening, taking up all the room,
      worrying the thinning walls. The rope that seethed

      from me to you and back again—our two-
      way street—and you, little fish, hanging on

      past your lease in a time of narrowing dark,
      which you can’t possibly remember, but do.

      And it comes to me: that look must be what love is,
      which is why we’ll not speak of it nor hunt it down

      in each other’s eyes again, for you’re too worldly
      to admit, without wincing, what happened happened.

      And I, too conscious of my failed attempts
      to fire into language what’s beyond words, could not

      bear it. Which leaves me holding the bag once more
      of foolish thoughts. I know, I know, the universe

      has neither edge nor center nor crown, but I want
      to think that past Andromeda and out beyond

      a million swirling disks of unnamed stars, that cord
      we knew, that ghost of an eye-beam floating between us,

      arcs in space, lit up like the George Washington Bridge
      pulsing with traffic, even after both stanchions are gone.

      Published in The Georgia Review

      Visiting the Territories

      Come, brush the clay
      from what’s left of your good suit
      and lie down here with me.
      In the splinters
      of what you are, in the marrow’s residue,
      surely there are traces of your bride.
      Don’t be afraid. Make believe I’m asking
      you to dance. You always loved to dance.
      Show ’em how it’s done in Brooklyn, you’d say,
      whirling me out to the ends of your fingers,
      pulling me back.
      Now I’m pulling you
      back, not to redraw the lines or rummage
      in the ragbag of our forever after,
      but because I need you. Come.
      Our first apartment, a high-rise called
      The Dakota, remember? A big joke
      for two New York City big shots like us
      who couldn’t find the Dakotas on a map
      if we had to. Birdland, that we knew, Basie,
      Embers East, Oscar Peterson, and Dinah un-
      dressing the blues in pink. Dizzy, healing
      the world with his horn, holding the whole
      damn ball in his cheeks. Who’d not reconvene
      his dust to remember that?
      Come. Apt. 4-C.
      Five-and-ten-store dishes and all we own—
      a mattress, Scrabble, and a window fan
      rattling its dark inklings. Maybe if you lay
      down next to me the artless bones, I could find
      the true history of the Dakotas before the broken
      treaties, the Badlands, and what happened next.

      Published in The Gettysburg Review

      Art & Science

      In chemistry, what’s severed
      looks to latch on to any other
      severed thing: orphaned electrons
      zizzing in your wires race to embrace,
      swirl a DC-do-ing, re-form their rings.
      Chemistry likes adherence, every tick
      its tock. Split an atom. What a noise!

      Then is it not passing strange
      when molecules into proteins make
      and muster into muscle, teeth, bone, knee,
      that when this vast multitude jostling
      under skin wakes, it wants to be alone?

      What did Greta Garbo have on me?

      Outside my window the great poplar
      tosses her leaves hand to hand like
      so much change as if she were rooted
      to a corner waiting for a bus. How antsy
      she is for all this autumn fuss to be over.
      Who knows but that November rains
      whet the appetite for cold: the annual
      jettison of gold to stripped-down shudder
      and pause. The air holds its breath. Listen.
      One red dot on a bare branch, singing.
      In here, the violin’s one note at a time.

      Published in Poetry

      Getting Serious

      Today I started looking for my soul.
      Yesterday it was my keys. Last week,
      my brain which I couldn’t find, it being out
      looking for me, now that I’m getting so old.

      First I thought my soul would have gone
      back to Greece where she grew so tall and straight
      she thought she was a column. Or back to camp,
      being forever twelve and underdeveloped.
      Perhaps, being careless, I left her during the 70s
      in bed with God knows whom. Or could be
      I buried her with my mother—my head not being right—
      but that was my heart.

      So I went to where I know
      I saw her last. Radio City Music Hall.
      I’m six, my feet barely brushing the floor,
      and the Rockettes start shuffling out, long-
      legged and perfect as paper dolls kicking up
      down in a wave. One body with seventy-two knees
      chugging like pistons going back in a forever mirror,
      same as in Coney Island’s Fun House or on Mama’s can
      of Dutch Cleanser. And my heart flexed in me, a sail,
      and I swear I saw it flying out of my chest
      spiriting away my giddy soul, ears plugged and tied
      to the mast: I can’t hear you I can’t hear you.

      Published in Ploughshares
      Best of American Poetry, 2009

      Mrs. Beasley’s Supper
      “Woman Sees Jesus in Microwave Oven”
      —supermarket tabloid

      She never considered herself
      worthy. But there He was—
      no bigger than a dashboard doll
      riding the revolving plate.
      Redeemer. Pin of the pinwheel.
      The groaning axis of this world
      lit up and acquiescent
      as the potato He sat on—
      all eyes shooting out His love.

      Fixed to His purpose
      under last week’s gravy-
      spattering of stars, He spun
      in slow motion, weeping out
      her guilt, unknotting then knotting
      the long thread of her shame
      into the hair shirt of His Passion.

      She crumpled at the knee.

      What did she care of wattage
      or rebate from Sears?
      She pressed both hands to the glass.
      He pressed His to His heart
      the way He must have in the womb,
      lighting the dark squeeze
      of infinite space. Homunculus.
      Bullion. Fishhook of God
      zapped in the humming electrons
      of the two million years it took
      to make Him. And the eighty years
      of pink rollers and patience
      it took to bring Him home.

      Born blind and spun dizzy,
      we stumble into empty space,
      clutching the paper tail of the donkey,
      groping for connection, then hoot
      at where the others end up—
      dangled from a lampshade
      or out the door. Another headline
      for laughs at the checkout.
      Another ballerina twirling
      on a jewel box, one more joke,
      one more rubber chicken from God.

      That night—lipsticked
      and all fluttery—Mrs. Beasley
      put on her best blue dress,
      popped a paper daisy in a vase,
      then fished out the bottle of Muscatel
      to savor a sip with her chop
      and baked potato. Who’s not blessed?

      Published in Boulevard

      Design

      As of last inspection, all my ghosts
      are present and accounted for
      and, it appears, happy
      as if the terrible airlessness
      agreed with them. When I ache to connect
      they seem amused at my foolishness,
      stuck as I am in the old game of breathing.

      Time is the culprit, flapping about me,
      demanding to be used. While they,
      on the other side of that door,
      have traveled far beyond
      the stopped watch dangling off the bone.

      They ride a bigger clock. Earth’s
      round and around, pony on a track.
      The Jurassic, washed away
      by the Cretaceous, the Miocene
      by the Pliocene. Each age, each century,
      sloshed off in the grand soak and swirl
      of spinning cycles. While I, peering out
      the narrow windows of my sight,
      know only one year at a time: one more
      ragged spring hosed down and drained away.

      Oh House of Shining Windows that is the sky,
      of course they are happy. The stuff
      that was Mama, soldier of scour and rag,
      made Queen in the royal army of clean-up.
      While the pit bull that was my father,
      runs, vindicated at last, snarling,
      nipping at the heels of thunder, pulling down rain.

      Published in Shenandoah

      On Deck

      April in Georgia and the dogwood
      droops peevish. Ten in the morning,
      95 in the shade, and the pond—
      where a friend swears he once saw
      a beaver slap his tail—gags on mud.

      But weather or not, new shoots
      of kudzu inching across the ground
      look for a sapling to mount, while
      birds, as if demented, keep up
      their eggy songs of love. Funny
      how wooing goes on no matter what.
      Or where. Just yesterday, never
      mind the UV rays taking advantage
      of peepholes in the ozone, we walked
      our flesh outside—me with my droop
      and advancing state of crepiness, and he,
      formerly known as sweet young thing,
      bifocaled now and balding. Think old—
      Adam and his girl come home
      lugging their baggage and their deaths
      but still hand-in-hand courageous
      despite their once-upon-a-time bitter
      dish of apple crumble, only to face
      on their return to nakedness
      the white oak’s shudder and groan,
      the April poplar turning away its leaves.
      Damn sun suckers! Little Puritans!

      Maybe in November, when light’s
      absence squeezes the day from both ends
      and all last-ditch efforts of October’s
      in-your-face glitterings are flattened underfoot,
      those leaves will look back, not on their spring
      but on their final frippery, and what smug
      joy it was. That defiance. That withering HA!

      Published in The Georgia Review

      Red Camellia

      The bush has reaped her reward:
      she cannot hold up her arms. A salute
      to her location at the corner of the house
      where the sun is beguiled to stop all day,
      and the wasp tending its cells under
      the shed roof swoons at the riot of red
      multiplying in its compound eyes.

      March has finally given way,
      and spring in Georgia, primed
      with lascivious plumpings,
      has sent word: we’ve little time.
      The camellia has waited all year
      locked in her thin verticals
      for the sun’s first hot speech.
      Now she answers—one voice
      blowing from two-hundred mouths.

      Love, I want to talk camellia talk,
      quick, before summer’s endless
      conscription in a green uniform—
      that stifling march into fall.
      Speak to me. Be my sun, my day star.
      Look into my eyes until I’m lost to sight,
      then juice me up red and barbarous:
      a phalanx of redcoats, a four-alarm fire.
      I’m tired of pork roasts and ease
      in an easy chair. Bring me one more
      season. A reason. Bring it in your hands.

      Published in The Georgia Review

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