In a Strange Land: 36th Post

Cloister ladies

Along with many of my closest friends and friends I don’t know yet, I often feel like I’m living in a landscape made hostile by the decisions, sometimes mere whims, of others over whom I have no control and with whom I doubt I could have a conversation that would include any meaningful mutual understanding. I wrote this poem many years ago, and enjoyed the self-imposed task of inventing a language and grammar to make it work, while also expressing the humor, homesickness, fear, and isolation that so often pushes one to put pen to paper or finger to keyboard. It still feels true to me, so I share it today.

I’ve recited this poem at readings many times over the years, and it takes some rehearsal but is always fun to say aloud. To get you started, I’ll tell you that the speaker is a human writer living on another planet.

HIS LAND OF ROOMS

Please, come in.
Don’t be shy, take a seat.  Or,
I should say, extend your nemdops and lower your fleegrong’n.
—The candles?  Well, no, not for heat.  Does it bother you?  Sometimes,
for atmosphere,
—well, yes, they do use oxygen.  Never mind.
So, Pargffen, I hope this will be the first of many
—In English.  I plan to read in English.
(I cannot.  I will not.  I tried some lines:
fentonn reb fleedeep miss’rab soor
   nempebb, pebb nggit Pargffeen ho’or
The damned apostrophes are to be squeaked.
Insupportable.)  Shall we go on?
I’d like to begin with one of my early works that
—Yes, I understand your position on ownership.
I don’t own these words; I merely arrange them.
Shall I continue?  (This habit they have,
of putting reensamsam in their slomgrong’ni,
I should have expressly forbid it.)  All right.
This piece is called “Land of Rooms”
and I suppose I’d best explain a word or two:
Humans begin their lives as small, dependent creatures called children, who live in
“childhood.”
“Insomnia” is an inability to sleep.  It is usually frustrating.  Many things cause it,
believe me.
Let’s see, do you know what a “mistake” is?
—I thought not.  (Why did I pick this one to read?)
It means doing something wrong, unintentionally.
Sometimes you get to try again.
I think you’ll understand the rest.  Wait,
do you know “silence”?  (No,   no,   no,   no.)
Silence is the absence of sound.  As if your dapgrong’ni stopped working.
—But that’s possible to imagine, isn’t it?  Listen,
silence is sometimes very pleasant.  Humans find it restful,
which, as you know, we like.  Now, let’s proceed.
—Yes, Hjǽm?  —Ahh.
The idea is that I will read and you will listen
or rather, p’liff with your dapgrong’ni,
and at the end, if you enjoyed it,
you will applaud.  —Umm, you could wave your dapgrong’ni,
or push one rarpeen against the other until a sound comes out.  —Oh,
I had no idea.  Well,
how might you show approval then?  Perhaps you could just
nod your bogrong’n.  (Can we settle on it, please?)  Shall I just begin?
—Yes, I have, actually, tried to.  Describing this place
has been…challenging, shall we say.
—No, I’m not ready to read that piece; it’s not right yet.  (Never again.
I shall never do this again.)  —You must believe me when I say it’s a slow process.
No telling when I’ll be ready to share that one.  Please,
please can we go on?  (Oh no, it’s nearly ffenzod’nǿth time.
I should have chosen another day.)  I say,
would you prefer that we do this another time?
—Pardon me, I forgot.  (All time one ocean
and all that, god damn this place, even if it is,
by hell, all places.)  I’ll just read
while you zod’nǿthne, if that’s all right.
—No, no, I’m not unhappy; please don’t think that.
(I know what they do to unhappy aliens, by god.)  And neither is my poem.
Suppose we do this:
you’ll zod’nǿthne; I’ll read,
you’ll applaud—somehow; I’ll go back to my quarters and work,
and then sleep.
I shall sleep while you zod’nǿthne.  In the same time.

Look. No, Really. Look: 35th Post

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Bird and Tree

There, again.  See?  A small darting thing
with sharp edges and a wide brim
went into the dark arms of the tall one that whispers
constantly, its mouths dangling from tiny handles.

The small one calls out, bragging—or
pleading—
its brim tucked away,
dagger mouth waving in the air.

It builds a little jail and stabs at it, then
goes in search of a prisoner.

The tall one waits.  Where are its eyes?

We Eat the Seeds: 31st Post

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This poem first appeared in The Centennial Review, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2.

 

FIVE PEOPLE (HOMELESS)

  1. Sally, Inauguration Eve

This dirt gone?—white.  I am
and Everyone says He’ll do the job
Give us hope but I was
wearing wool A-line skirts with
the very clouds above for shirts
last time, when my opinion
meant something.  Click click
my tiny Italians on polished
boardroom floors Gentlemen,
I said I fail to see I
did fail to imagine this cardboard
throwing its brown cast on me.

 

  1. This Red Scarf

White clothes mean sticks in the arm
but if you stay clean sheets
one night or two.  On the lake bank there were
white trees!  I had ice skates.
They had no leaves so the light came through.
The Polish girls wore scarves tied under their chins.
I was no Polack but see, I tie this scarf
tight and keep my head down
watching for ice.  You fall here
no boys laugh or help you up.
But if they stick you
they help you up real nice.

 

  1. Richard

I’m used to being in charge
so this will be about you.
I want you to know I appreciate the aluminum cans
so neatly stacked beside the trash can.
I see you see me take them, see you hurrying
to meet my six o’clock pickup daily.
I admire your scheduling abilities:
kitchen scraps to the chickens before work,
the soft globs of their droppings to the compost heap
before dark; the garden weeded Saturday mornings,
fruit plucked and distributed to neighbors in the afternoon.
I would have hired you in the old days—
kept an eye on you, as they say—
recommended you.
I keep you a secret now,
for the cans.

 

  1. K.L.

What’s left of this planet is my home.
Birds are not afraid of me, curled in this bush,
unless I jerk my legs, dreaming
I fly with them over the roofs
and across the highways.
We eat the seeds that drop
and peck at the not-ripe pears,
scattering when the farmer comes
to nail his straw-filled savior to a post.

 

  1. When I Was One of the People

All these things I shall tell you are true.

When I was a warrior my skin flowed yellow, red and green

like the sashes of the old ones.

When I was a warrior I devoured the night

and spit stars at the immaculate moon.

When I was a warrior my courage rode in front of me,

a blind slave stolen from an enemy camp.

When I was a warrior the wind and I embraced with great joy

and we brought forth spring, summer, fall

and the weaver child, winter.

When I was a warrior I kept sadness behind my eyes, mute as light.

When I was a warrior I could swell until the earth was inside me,

feverish and bloody,

and I could sweat until the earth was healed

and I could bleed until the earth was whole.

I am the owl and the darkness now.

I am the hawk and the light.

I am the crack in the clouds now.

I am the wind in the night.

 

Anything to Grab Onto: 26th Post

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Lament

–for my mother

The time

everyone else

had left the party but the music was still throbbing

and Stefan

two languages

away from me

had my blouse half undone–

that’s the light

I mean

orange

smelling of alcohol

dangerous with its promise of brilliant regret

The time

I jumped

heavily clothed into the water

for lifesaving practice

and the water

pulsed

above me

reflections subdividing like amoebas–

that’s the distance

I mean

deeper than

my arm’s length

resonant with resistance

The time

I climbed

on Trinidad Head

alone on black wet rock

shocked

by the sudden

brawl

of ocean too close–

that’s the texture

I mean

where anything to grab onto

is life

even if it tears your flesh like a cat’s claw

Cast & Wait: 25th Post

Statue sm

 

Fishing the Coast

The spatulate surf heaves
against the arc of rocks, exploding to opalescence.
Boulders the size of house trailers stack and sway
as the surf recedes,
returns,
pulls away, returns.

Four men cast about for meaning and find it
in remaining upright in the roar, in slipping
a silvery bite of food out sideways, in failing to see
the faces of loved ones in the clouds overhead
or the foam below.
They fish. They merely fish.

To catch is to eat is to live long enough
for their bones to barnacle up with salt,
their dreams to crab against what they know:
that you need strong arms,
good line, patience,
time, and sadness you swallow

like a shard of mirror,
hunger you feel like the pleats in a man’s pants
bravely failing to accomplish anything.
The men cast and wait, cast and wait.
Cast again and wait, not planning
to forgive anyone.

Wanting to Shout: 24th Post

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Being quiet has its advantages as well as its ability to kill one.

 

I Want to Shout that My Hurt Is Greater than Yours but I Mustn’t

Locked in the apartment she rented this morning
she wrote on a calendar cover: This is because,
She could smell the last tenants in the flattened areas of the carpet,
in the air in the nightstand drawer.

In the Central Valley a foreman hands out long hoes.
Drive by: look to see if workers bend to the cabbages and garlic.
Imagine the turnips’ moist bodies, soothed in dirt.
Drive by: crop dusters rise and dip and roll away just behind you.

The body stretched, running away.
The body shapely against angular gravel.
The body in the center of my memory.

In the Central Valley rows of stakes
with seedlings lashed to them. You drive and drive,
relieved to see the quick curve in the rows where you think
a tractor driver may have swerved to miss a rabbit.

Cupping a two-month supply of Prozac in her left hand
she walked from bed to couch
and back to bed. No, I would do that.
I imagine she does it.

The body tossed in the field for owls or coyotes.
I suppose that’s where you put it.
The body still on the gravel in my memory.

In the Central Valley almond trees seem neat and classic as penny loafers.
I hit a hawk, even after swerving.
A hundred miles later when I had to stop for gas
its body and wings were still there, fanned out across the truck grill.

I drove past parked trucks: TNT Reddaway, Dole, Reliance,
CWX, U-Haul. She was my lover’s most recent ex-lover.
I let the 5 a.m. red sun burn a hole in my sight,
only to see I’d made a perfect black backdrop for my thoughts.

I pried the bird off with sticks
and carried it to a row of bushes. Those stiff
angry-looking hedges they force to grow behind some gas stations.

 

Moving, Listening, Leaning: 22nd Post

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These 3 haiku were published in Haiku Zasshi Zo (June 1989). The photo is from a cornfield after harvesting by both humans and assorted undomesticated animals.

 

haiku for changing places

1.
moving through the fog
the wary fox approaches
a sunlit hillside

2.
in the hot stone flute
a listening woman walks
where the wind spirals

3.
fleshless cornstalks lean
like cartoon figures begging
in brown unison

No One Duck Has to Carry the Melody: 21st Post

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This poem, like the ones in my First Post and Third Post, appeared in Phoebe: A Journal of Literary Arts (Vol. 24, No. 2) and was a finalist for the Grege Grummer Award in Poetry.

 

THE CHARM BRACELET PERSONAL FLOTATION DEVICE

1

Integrated Functional Responsive Capability

Lack Thereof

This above all This above all This
Above all Don’t show me that Bass beer I used to
Hate someone named Bass
The ducks were
Chuckling a Beethoven scherzo I tell you
Why isn’t there a verb to describe
The way squirrels move All those
Handsome boys
Like leaves
Blowing around campus I was supposed to be
Here an hour
Ago This above all See the ecologists
With their bags of silver bullets What’s
It like having such big hands Since when
Does pleasant weather make you lose Those
Radio collars on bears make me
Cry The
Ducks were helping each other
No one duck
Had to carry the melody The refundability
Of the bullets was a job bill for the home-
Less This above all Do they look alike or
Don’t they
What happened before Do I need
To do something I began to
Cry about the
Pattern of bricks so the nice man gave me
Pills to kill bacteria This
Above all The
View of calf muscles pleased me I was not
In control All the churches
Need repair like the envelope of my skin

2

Pardon Me: Is My Hair Pouring Out or Shooting In?

The urban raccoon padded over this cement
Before it hardened That crow
Looks enormous
On the bare branches by the river Hang on
Hang on I hugged the bus stop tree Whitey
The carriage horse are you retired yet Was
It like a
Spongy forest floor or something
From a B movie I heard the male klipspringer
Never moves more
Than sixteen and a half feet from its mate
This above all She used to laugh
At people who
Wore watches The breeze lifts
A shoulder feather like a wand The raccoon washes
French fries in a parking lot puddle Fortunately
Many things are none of my business
I don’t want
The raccoon to hear domestic
Violence This above all Whitey get up Which is
Funny nothing or everything The girl had
A beautiful bottom The man had chemicals
The collar lay on a cage of bones
You don’t know
Me well enough to This above all This above
All He had the gall to ask if there was a
Difference
Each sport must have its own
Vocabulary I carried a coat with me
All day but I could not put it
On my crescendoing skin I need to know
If this is important

Eighteenth Post

Piano Keys sm

This poem was published in the journal Tyuonyi in 1992. “Tyuonyi” is a Keresan word (and Keresan is a family of American Indian languages) meaning “the meeting place” as well as the name of a major prehistoric ruin in northern New Mexico.

Passacaglia

let the shape
be the sound
of two violins which
as we know
or at least
I can tell you
is if
both are played
with equal intensity
only one
point three times
the sound of one or more
likely the shape
should be
doubled requiring
ten sounding oh come
let us let
a point on a line be
side a parallel
line escape its
apprenticeship in
poverty sink without
guilt to a comma or rise
beelike to more
glorious intersections why not
let me
be a riddle
and you be
consolation
like an edible
pawn or let
the falling
twilight of ash
groves succeed
daylight without
apology with
black birds demoted
acrobats standing low
rather let the shape
be the triangular beauty
of acknowledgment and daily
without regard
for the ratio of mass
to velocity
let the horizon
disappear
into the horizon

Fourteenth Post

Fire Scorched Trees sm

This photo is of fire-scorched trees in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area, northern Minnesota. This poem was published in Denver Quarterly (Vol. 27, No. 3, Winter 1993). The placement of ‘only’ is one of the keys to meaning.

Lightning

To tell the truth

or

How analysis of the effects of disturbances can be reduced

to the calculation of an impulse response

 

I only want

Let time be the set of integers.

Binary fat fish near the

sheep-colored edge of a continent

Eighteen hundred thunderstorms are

now.

I want only

The map is not bijective.

The boy with three coats on

Who sifts through out dumpster at dusk

A suitable forgetting factor can be

determined

by monitoring the excitation of the

process.

I only have

Seventy-five hundred volts here to go

there.

A tribe of plastic squaws from Hong Kong

Within the fetters of long, straight skirts

Feedforward eliminates measured

disturbance.

I have only

The sound waves of air

heated to fifteen thousand degrees

Celsius.

The catachrestic nouns of my thirties

The profile of her lips in blue mountains