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?

Good Writing Habits: 32nd Post

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Not About

Poems often are about
exactly what they are not about.
This poem, for instance,
is not about the person
all those other poems were about.
Good writing habits forbid my telling
what this poem is about, but I
assure you
it is not about
what it is not about. Here
you see no mention of smooth hands,
no sly references to sex disguised
as descriptions of long train trips,
rivers slamming into bridge pilings,
or autumn trees bursting into flame,
no metaphor comparing that person’s eyes
to whatever the next best thing was.
Not even anything like a simile.
Not in this poem that is not about that.

 

 

 

 

Freaks: 30th Post

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Well, we’re all freaks, of course, one way or the other.

 

THE MAN WITH NO WRISTS

cannot twist a poppy to pluck it
nor see in a single movement
the entire surface of an apple held aloft.

He admires the resilient wrists of women
washing clothes in the river,
the blurred wrists of pear packers,

the sturdy wrists of boys playing tug-o-war.
He watches the violinist’s bow arm
dance its sexy hula,

sneaks a look at anybody’s watch
at every easy chance.
Drunk, he slobbers over his mother’s

lilac-scented translucence
until she powers a slap
to his wet cheek.

The Amazing Man with No Wrists!
I bought a ticket to see him.
In the audience a woman waved,

her arm a fluted column,
fingers swaying like palm fronds.
A man threw pity like a discus.

Where can he see his heartbeat?
I wondered, looking at my slender table
with its feast for slicing.

 

We Call Our Game ‘Knowledge’: 28th Post

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What It’s Like to Be Adopted

Ah, my pretties, there was a stillness
think of it as sphere-shaped
a ping-pong ball without the ball—
and perhaps before that grand explosions
around other emptinesses. Our stillness
collapsed, smashed itself white and blue
flew red and purple
out, we say. Flew to what
we call here and there.

Sweet ones, the pieces moved this far and
that far until
divided by now and then we called their changes
speed, their journeys time.
We call our game knowledge
as we hold hands and live its fun and terror
for, dearest listeners, each particle attracts all others
so we know of gravity, love, luminosity,
and the shifts of momentum called history.

We play here
in this tiny history
the balls we toss falling
(where we call down) like the bits
of what we do not know
flying toward the center of another
stillness
before they what we call begin
what we call again.

 

No Pain Yet: 27th Post

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Taking Comfort

Minus five degrees Fahrenheit at the gas pump
and now I’m driving
shuddering into fifteen degrees in the truck cab as the sand dunes
of grocery bags shift gently beside me.
I grip the stiff blue wavelets on the steering wheel as I surf
the ice-covered parking lot.

There’s a damp warmth where my thumb bends
and I huddle toward it without moving
the way a lover leaps in spirit at the flare of a match.
I follow it home
a thermal conductor to my warm kitchen just six blocks away.

Standing indoors I pull off lined leather gloves to see
blood in a smeared map of South America flowing
from a dark Amazon. No pain yet. No recollection
of pushing my tearable flesh against something firmer.
Only a moment’s understanding of our need to linger over wounds
for the comfort they can give us.

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

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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.

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

Eighteenth Post

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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