Honeymoon Snow Permanent Press The Longing The Shoes The Color of Ineffable Silent Movie Visitation Rights Diapers for My Father After Shooting the Barbados Ram The Dream of the Rotten Daughter Letter to the Children The Waiting Room At the Holocaust Museum Trip to Delphi Apollo Comes to Floyds Knobs, Indiana The Mythological Cod
When lions mate they disappear for days,
come together six, eight times a morning.
We saw them on the ridge, he swaying over her,
she on her back fondling his ears, his mouth.
I swear she raked the mane back from his face
and he, intent on nothing but her yellow eye.
Later they’ll hunt, feed muzzle to muzzle
snarling in the kill, then lick each other clean
to hold on the tongue the blood taste
from the beloved’s face. Such petting.
Such lion love. The sky arching above them—
vast Ouranos heaving himself on top of Earth,
his old girl, glancing over his shoulder
with his bluest eye to copy what he had begun.
Published in New Letters
Let us speak of love and weather
Let us put your mother and mine
away for a while. Your dying father,
my dead one.
Let us watch
from our bedroom window how a slow
falling snow crowns all nakedness in ermine.
Do not look at me yet. Your face is flushed,
your eyes too love-soaked, too blue.
Outside is white on black
and still. The sky, deaf with stillness.
Don’t let it frighten you.
Hush. There’s time enough for that.
Be content for now to watch the maples
fill with snow, how they spread themselves,
each naked limb making itself accessible.
Published in The Georgia Review
When I think of that summer, it opens
like a pleat in cloth: lake, tree, out-
blooming itself. What deep delicious
yardage of suffering: the virginal
July we defended, all the while itching
willful and goatish. Five hundred larks
rising from the fields and all I could do
was stare at the scar on your arm—
the gold embroidery I longed to touch.
What difference that time and pharmacology
delivered too late? I loved you then
in the old way of longing. Four wars,
nine recessions, ten presidents: patches.
Each year another July flings her ribboned
hat into the ring, another summer trying to
duplicate ours. Who were we on that park
bench that defies being folded and put away?
Forget it. Are you still alive? The rest is gibberish.
Published in Poetry
PUNA COAST, HAWAII
I never walked at night
but once. The moon full.
The sea jacked crazy. And I
hanging on the one scrub palm
at cliff’s edge watching the moon
focus her telescope, her pet
beast crawling in on watery knees
then rising against the lava cliffs
only to crash and fall back
seething in a white blood
then gather himself up
like mercury home to its drop
to do it again. I tell you
I raised my arm
making of my hand an eclipse
to stop it, cap the moon
like a Mason jar, gag of wax
and a rubber ring. Might as well
string a hair across the road
to trip motorcycles—this trying
to skid the wheels, hold one idea
high and steady in your mind,
diamond hard and
patient as that palm.
Published in The Gettysburg Review
Last night the wind came down from Canada
ill-starred and wailing: a black sail flapping
loose on the axle pole. And everything
I know of misery rose in the dark
trying to yell its way out.
This poem is
about a living room and a blue chair,
about a pair of shoes, and a body
I knew better than my own, the husband’s
body my body has forgot. Nor would
I recognize or recall—if it walked
in now in those shoes I picked out for him—
the old hollows, the way our flesh must have
waked and curved to each other, how sinews
of his shoulder were attached to carve out
the place I lay my head.
This is about
what happens to what you can’t remember
because the mind’s job is to save your life—
cauterizing, cutting it out. What’s gone
is forced to wander the brain looking for
the warm spot, the open-arms spot where it
used to live. Only things remain—a chair,
a pair of empty shoes scurrying down
the neural corridors, scuffing up dust,
dropping echoes like desperate pebbles in
their wake, having nothing but a voiceless
tongue of dried leather, all frenzy and wag.
Published in Shenandoah
THE COLOR OF INEFFABLE
Yesterday on my walk, a Polyphemus moth,
dead. All color drained
but for the great dark eyes on her wings.
How could I not bring her home? She was
bleached perfection, the color of faded silk
or a brittle papyrus on which were written
the now unreadable inks and the cocoon’s mystery.
The expert says she died of starvation,
having used up all the fat
from her salad days. But he can’t explain
her lack of color or why she appeared
in the one spot between sunshine and shade
where I’d be sure to find her.
I keep her on the corner of my desk,
marvel at her six-inch spread, the night-
flying veins bursting like moon rays
from the center post of her body—a wonder,
a week’s worth of wonder, for seven days
is all she had. So says Professor Moth,
and he must know. But I like to think
when her allotted time was up,
she in her hour of certitude put aside
all purples and gold, all buzz of sequin
and flutter and whim, and like a queen
facing the wall of inevitable,
laid the white flag of herself down naked:
elect: the devil’s parchment, the angel’s chalk.
The professor says impossible.
But what does he know about epic queens
or poets in white? And what could he understand
about women and starve?
Published in The Gettysburg Review
One afternoon of rain and suddenly
creeks rise, babbling in the forest—
back-up singers for the silence.
A missed cue. It’s November now,
the trees, bare. A light piano of chirp
and scurry is more than enough. Trees
make eloquent speech just by how
they stand or lean in graceful habit.
Or in the case of the sycamore, gleam
like polished marble in the sun.
The towering beech, the naked poplar
speak the language of lips and the moss
that covers them. If the trees sleep now
in this storage locker of the cold,
if they seem aloof and alien strange,
it doesn’t mean that beneath the bark,
or underground where roots tangle
and hold, they’ve forgotten their promise
of smolder and juice. Look at them.
Valentino looked like that—waiting, still.
Published in The Georgia Review
I sit by a ravine dumped with November,
every leaf the color of old pennies. Ginko,
oak, maple, hackberry—no difference.
Back to the dirt factory.
Why isn’t that comfort comfort enough?
After all, one makes do: a sycamore
preens in a rag of winter sun and
each mica-studded boulder flinging light away
balls up and waits for heat. Still,
April’s promise is midget, parsley on a plate,
compared to this:
High noon and no shadow. December’s black-
white, bone-bark schematic
that snow, like Noah’s sheet, rushes in to cover,
pretending the sinkhole’s not there
or the fallen sparrow broken in a ditch. Look.
The sun’s out hunting for his children.
A once-a-week father in a blue car.
A regular Mr. Razzledazzle flashing his brights
on every lake, every puddle, every teaspoon of water
searching for the bodies. Too late too late
says my cup of tea. All the honey’s gone.
Published in Boulevard
DIAPERS FOR MY FATHER
Pads or pull-ons—that
is the question. Whether to buy
pads dangled from straps
fastened with buttons or Velcro—
pads rising like a bully’s cup
stiff as pommel with stickum backs
to stick in briefs. Or, dear God,
the whole thing rubberized,
size 38 in apple green, with
or without elastic leg. Or the kind,
I swear, with an inside pocket
to tuck a penis in—little resume
in a folder. Old mole, weeping
his one eye out at the tunnel’s end.
The clerk is nothing but patience
practiced with sympathy.
Her eyes soak up everything.
In ten minutes she’s my cotton batting,
my triple panel, triple shield—my Depends
against the hour of the mop: skeleton
with a sponge mouth dry as a grinning brick
waiting in the closet.
She carries my choices to the register,
sighing the floor with each step.
I follow, absorbed away to nothing.
How could Hamlet know what flesh is heir to?
Ask Claudius, panicky in his theft,
hiding in the garden where it all began
or behind the arras, stuffing furbelows
from Gertrude’s old court dress into his codpiece.
Or better, ask Ophelia, daughter too
of a foolish, mean-mouthed father,
who launched herself like a boat of blotters
only to be pulled babbling under the runaway stream.
Published in The Ohio Review
AFTER SHOOTING THE BARBADOS RAM
Because his neighbor’s boy wanted the horns
he whacked off the top of the head
leaving the brain in the grass—
two tablespoons of squiggle
and the brain pan
lined in ivory, empty except for the flies.
I watch because I must,
not because my grinning brother-in-law
waving his bloody knife
shoves the scene in my face—the ram
strung up by the hind legs
then slit down the middle, the insides
tumbling out into a tub. The one
undescended testicle, knuckle big and
hard as love,
flushed from its hiding place at last.
The body, the hide, adding up to nothing
but a magician’s coat emptied of its tricks.
Any two-bit fly buzzy in emerald
is more than this.
But it’s the brain I come back to,
separated from the white fibrous fingers
that cradled it, suspended it
easy in a jelly. The Dura Mater.
The enduring mother, holding—
idiot or saint—whatever she’s got.
Mama the dependable, tough as bungee straps
or a stevedore’s net, hanging on
to her freight until the final dock.
I kneel in the grass,
run my fingers over the brain’s empty casing,
think of my father, gone not even a month.
A meningioma, they said. A thickening
of the outer lining. The Dura Mater.
The tough mother who never quits—
who quit. Took up weaving in her boredom,
knitting her own cells into a pile of pillows
then turned, the way milk turns,
the way any mother left alone in the dark
might turn, a pillow in her hands.
They said it was slow growing, decades maybe,
but now, having reached the pons, the bulb
at the base of the brain—.
Look, they said, how the brain struggles
in a narrowed, pinched-in space, rummages
for what it can no longer remember:
the old triggers fired off easy as pop-guns
for ninety years—pump, pump, breathe.
I kneel over the ram’s motherless brain
the way I bent over him, holding the hand
that for sixty-two years refused mine,
singing the song he never sang for me.
The crusted mouth. The lolling tongue.
The eyes unable to close
because the brain had forgotten how.
The breath still so sweet.
Published in New Letters
THE DREAM OF THE ROTTEN DAUGHTER
On the night of the day
she buried her mother
her father turned to her
from the grip of an old
photograph, her six-year
dead daddy, swiveled his
bullet head, nailing her
to him with a bloodshot
sniggery eye, then stuck
out his tongue. She woke up
the title of this poem
before she wrote it, there
on the point of that red
wad where he’d honed it all
those years, slipping it in
between her ribs when she
least expected. It was
his label for her from
the time of the big bed
Sunday mornings, and she
between them pretending
oblivion, a balled-
up cuddle to bridge their
unbridgeable gap. Or
(speak truth, oh rotten one)
usurp the I’m-here-first
of that furious eye.
Old news, old news. Tell it
another way. Make it
a Halloween story,
Poe story—ghouls, spiders,
cellars and foul air. Two
dolls in their boxes, laid
side by side like people
bewitched in an iron sleep
and a ghost with a blood
eye and a butcher’s tongue
who cut his way into
his daughter’s dream to say
of the newly dead, Boo!
I won. I’ve got her now.
Published in Field
LETTER TO THE CHILDREN
In the new cold of late September
the prongs of Queen Anne’s lace that held
their doilies up like jewels
rise then stiffen, crushing toward center,
making wooden enclosures to die in
like the ones the Celts built to hold their enemies
then set aflame. The goldenrod leans,
licks at their cages. And all that’s left of daisies
are burnt-out eyes.
I walk these back fields
past the swish of cattails in their silver
grasses, the old ones
showing the woolly lining of their suede jackets
while the thistle, dried to gray,
bends her trembling head
and spills her seed.
It is the time—the great lying-in of Autumn—
and I am walking its wards.
And I remembr it was now, late September
then on into the deep gully of fall—when the hackberry
groans and the black oak strains in its sockets, the winds
pushing in the long forest corridors—
that I too was born and gave birth.
And you are all Autumn’s children, all
given to sadness amid great stirrings,
for you were rocked to sleep in the knowledge
of loss and saw in the reflection outside your window,
beyond the bars of your reach, your own face
beckoning from the burning promise
that little by little disappeared. What can I give you
for your birthdays this year, you who are the match
and the flaming jewel, whose birthright consumes itself
in the face of your desire?
If you were here with me now
walking down this day’s death,
I would try to show you two things: how the last light
plays itself out over the thistle’s labors,
over the wild cherry heavy with fruit, as if comfort
lay in what it had made. And how that black bird
with flame at his shoulders
teeters for balance on a swaying weed.
Winner of the Cecil Hemley Memorial Award
Poetry Society of America
THE WAITING ROOM
To speak of crucial
in a life of the merely interesting,
to have a yen for it, a calling you might say,
is to be perpetually involved
in the act of naming. And yet, when I went
to the one place where crucial happened
not once but over and over again,
I gagged on my own silence.
There is ash at Birkenau
under your every step. It hisses in the long
uncut grasses growing out of its mouths.
Nothing but this sibilance is left, this ocean
of wind-tortured tongues. The air
not big enough to hold it.
Never mind sixty years of museums
and memorials, vigils and eternal lights.
Never mind that everything to be said
has been said. My obligation was to translate.
The singed grass demanded it.
Birkenau means Place of Birches—
the grove in the meadow next to which
Crematorium IV was built and fired up to run
twenty-four hours a day, so busy gassing
and burning there’d be a back-up
waiting to go in.
Imagine the humiliations of the flesh
fumbling to cover up in that waiting room
of white trees, those totems of eyes. Imagine
your mother, her sparse patch. The unopened
pink purse that is your daughter. Then now,
with the wind up and the whipping grasses
wild at your knees, before the dogs come,
hurry write the choke of terror.
Published in The Southern Review
AT THE HOLOCAUST MUSEUM
Like Dante, we too are led
down. The elevator that swooped us up
and spewed us out, leaves us—
clusters of strangers—to the inexorable power
of no way to go but with each other
and the relentless spiral of design.
We shuffle, slow as sludge
in a drain, winding to the bottom.
We gawk, not in disbelief but believing
this has little to do with us—our comfort
in the face of explanations that explain
nothing, the old jackboot footage
of rantings, book burnings, and the car
that waits for us, rattling with ghosts
on its siding, and the glass case
big as Germany, knee-deep in human hair.
We grow quiet. We have crawled
into our eyes. There is nothing
but what we see. And at base bottom,
what’s to see but the dredged-up bottom
of ourselves that belongs only to ourselves
and the moving tide of each other.
We crowd in to look. The eye is hungry—
a dog dragging its belly through streets,
sniffing out its own vomit, not getting enough:
the experiments, the ovens, and all their
tattooed histories fidgeting in smoke
that rose like bubbles in a fish tank
to dissipate in air. Fingers pluck
at our sleeves. Gold teeth hiss
in their case. What do they want of us,
we who can give nothing, reduced to nothing
but dumb pupils staring at evidence—
the starved and naked dead, the bulldozers,
the British soldier throwing up in his hand?
We press to the TV monitors, mob in,
fit our bodies together like multiple births
in the womb, wanting the heat of each other,
the terrible softness beneath clothes.
Excuse me, Pardon, and the knot of us
slips a little, loosens to make room.
In the smallest of voices, Sorry we say
as if, battered back to three again,
all we have is what Mother said was good.
Pinkie in a dike. Bandaid on a gusher.
But what else do we know to do
at the end of another century that retrospect
will narrow to a slit, if this Holocaust—
this boulder big as Everest—isn’t big enough
to change the tide that ran through it?
Published in The North American Review
TRIP TO DELPHI
Lately, I’ve begun to look
like my father. Dead and gone,
the man has sent his genes ahead
to do his dirty work. Baleful eye
in the bathroom mirror, the curse
of the House. And so I’ve come
not to the holy city of Byzantium
but to the best I can manage—Delphi,
named for the real thing, Indiana,
home of the Wabash, the professional
choice in swine equipment, Hillinger’s
and the IGA. Delphi, where girls
grow up to be auxiliaries
shuffling behind the fire truck
in the parade.
But I remember
the other Delphi—Omphalos of the World—
how twenty years ago I lay on my back
among cypress, the sky opening above me
consenting to be read at last. All columns
up again reaching to touch it. Funny
how the brain works to put things back.
The rubble around me—cracked slabs
and steps where girls once walked
leading the procession, pieces of
pediment and pedestal, each one
white as a Dover Cliff. Oh peerless
dumping ground to hold such trash!
Hunks of marble big as giants’ teeth
and strewn about as if the golden cup of
Zeus itself had fallen off its nightstand,
shattering the ineffable bridge.
But what’s the bridge between
all that and this Family Dollar Store
in Delphi, Indiana, where I’ve ended up?
This temple consecrated to toothpaste,
batteries and bargain underwear. Empty
but for me and the thin-lipped guardian of
the till, priestess on a stool, breathing in
the vapors of advanced righteousness. Oh Harpy
of the tollgate, agent of the family curse,
do not look at me so. In the twin auguries
of your eyes, double and doubly I am
my father’s daughter. Each crumbling face
witness to the other, split in half
and shattered by the bifocal line.
Published in Poetry
APOLLO COMES TO FLOYDS KNOB, INDIANA
Only the lover is éntheos, says Plato.
Only the lover is full of god.
Everywhere is green—forest green,
moss, jungle, viridian. All Indiana
down to the Ohio, pushing against fences,
swelling with juice. A fat lady
taking up two seats on the airplane.
We used to be forest here
before the urge for acreage and the axe,
pickled beets and church on Sunday.
Forest, before there was a Sunday.
Even before God took off for Italy
to have His portrait painted.
And this year, despite what you’ve
read in the Kroger check-out line,
the news for the turn of the millennium
isn’t who flicked whom sideways
but that we’re being rained on,
flooded, snaked out. Green is in!
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d?
Mister, they’re eating up the house.
I tell you, Papa’s coming home.
He’s fed up writing prescriptions
and orders for the medium indifferent.
He’s bought himself a bank of clouds,
some killer luggage, and a watering can.
And no kicking the tires or shivering
prayer in a booth is going to stop him.
Before you know it, Sycamores will be
sawing through your floorboards. A Cedar
big as a myth will rise in your toilet.
And more White Pine, Scotch Pine, Loblolly
than you can count will crash out of your
closets, demanding your furniture back.
With no more TV’s, PC’s, plug-ins for
your little mouse, who knows what else?
You lose your job. Your son becomes
an English major, and your wife
of thirty-two years decides to throw away
all her clothes and frisk in a Laurel tree
naked, insisting she’ll not come down
until you learn Greek and climb up,
stripped, hot and hard again with love,
singing Orea Orea. Beautiful, beautiful.
You’re kidding you say. My wife,
Secretary of the Bridge Club, flashing
her puckered thighs and beckoning
like the Lorelei, bewitched in varicose
and droop? Mister, just climb up.
Take your belly and bald head and climb
if only because she is ridiculous—
an old hen playing chickie on a balcony,
asking only that you rise like the Cypress
from your knees and clutch her to you
in all her bravery and redeeming foolishness.
Cradle her face the way you would
a crystal cup you could drink from
forever. Then hurl yourself for once
into your heart’s voice. The leaves around
your head will whisper what you need to say.
Published in Boulevard
The Mythological Cod
Soft-finned and waiting,
she feeds under arctic ice
or zigzags down the lacy
edges of Norway. Nereid
of no fat, stretched sleek
up to five, six feet long
cutting through the waters
of the north. Gadus morhua.
The Cod. Sensitive eyes,
antifreeze in the blood,
and a cargo of four million
eggs to deliver. A lovesick
bundle of white flakes packed
tight as parachute, tight
as Mae West in a long
green shimmer with amber
leopard spots down the sides,
long white belly and a stripe.
And from her lower jaw, a fleshy
tentacle, a humming dingle-
dangle packed with sensors,
so she’ll know you’re there.
You warm thing.
Mistress Quickly sensed
the what’s what behind
the codpiece—that fancy
bag to hold the bag
Mister Marvelous rides on,
rests on like a pasha. Sack,
reticule, pouch: scrotum.
That pair of maracas,
that holy treasure trove
of Russian dolls.
in spring. The male
bobbing and weaving
then swimming by her side
synchronized to her rhythm
oblivious to nets or a boat’s
bottom-cast of shadow, its cage
of lowered strings. How light
the translucent bones in their
flesh of white leaves. How sweet
the rites of urgency, the rush
to release, Oh Oh, together—
tumble of eggs in a baste
of cloudy milt.
Grandma in the cloud
of her dementia, standing by
the stove rolling codfish balls
for the soup, bending to hear
the kiss of each dropped splash.
And how it occurred to her then
to fess up about Grandpa. Done.
Done as a dead fish.
by tide and curved as a codpiece,
Cape Cod, named for the fish
that once thrived there, still
lifts an arm, cocks a wrist,
beckons like the Lorelei
to the sea, all the while
hooking like a miser’s arm
around treasure. So Capt. Godnold
who named it must have thought,
weighing anchor amid a storm
of Cod—the sacred fish
Christ multiplied to feed
the lucky. A Cod in every pot.
Fish & Chips on Sundays. Enough
to walk on, to pave with scales
the royal road back to England.
A kingdom’s purse.
A man’s purse.
The Stradivarius behind his zipper
or tasseled flap. Rose-tipped
shy or knocking the rhumba
to get out. Broker in a three-
piece suit, standing too close
in the subway, with a fishy stare.
Wanna ride this deep-sea pole?
Cod. Imperial in a crown of hair
or ashy pale as my father’s
when he died.
Enough of that.
Did you know, Cod have
white livers and a vibrating
bone inside the head that
lays down like rings in a tree,
layers to remember? The books say
if you make Cod’s head chowder,
better cut away the lips
or put a penny in the pot
for luck, there being other ways
Once upon a time,
before a place to stand stood
on the face of the deep, the sea,
wrapped in its great sheets
of water, rolled over on its back
and had a dream. And the earth
heaved with it, the sky purpling
with blushing. And all the gods
pacing in their dressing rooms
stopped to polish up their lines.
You know this dream—
how the sea in its soggy sleep
rose, streaming with wet,
knocking the four winds off
their pegs to whizz and bang
against the walls of heaven.
And how Death sank to his knees
and shook in the confines
of his silhouette, for under
the racing eyelids of the sea
swelling as if to break and
singing in the hammock of its aching,
Death saw the dream of the turning wheel.
And hurtling from the teeming depths,
an arc of liquid fire—the Cod.
Published in The Southern Review