the vulture eats between her meals a bottle fly, a pair of eels a rotting carcass in the ditch a taste to make your stomach hitch to tide her o'er till dinner bell a politician straight from hell putrid, lifeless, soulless lout see the vulture crunch his snout swallow his ears, his fingers, a toe spit out eyebrows, the tie must go even the vulture has her limits she vomits him out in a matter of minutes
ORPHEUS, EURYDICE, AND HERMES
She remembers she was keen, vigilant, and efficient.
She remembers that the kill was quick,
that hushed bones cracked deep inside the body.
Hovering, she was All gliding, All diving,
All futures soon to shriek
kee-ahrrr down down, kee-ahrrr!
She remembers a sting, and trying to focus
in this dark place. She whose electric glance
could track the wild tracings
of a fly two worlds away,
dazed, injured, unfocused.
She is in the dark for many futures.
Then Who-is-larger comes beside her
and pulls on her feet,
makes her feet go to him.
Pulling air with her wings she tries to escape
but Who-is-larger holds fast,
murmuring like leaves in autumn.
Together, for her feet seem fastened
to Who-is-larger now,
they move through the darkness.
The sun puts its rats through their mazes,
sucks the waves from the sea,
forces open the reluctant lilies.
Its grief a white light on all it can reach,
the sun can do nothing
Stepping from the darkness
Who-is-larger closes his eyes against the bright light.
The sun, ecstatic, covers everything instantly.
She, tilting her head, with one eye glares skyward
then turns away
blinded, focused on nothing.
Powerless, now, to reach her,
the sun, severed, floats on, grieving
blood-red at the last.
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,
—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
“Insomnia” is an inability to sleep. It is usually frustrating. Many things cause it,
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
before they what we call begin
what we call again.
The arbitrary assignment I gave myself was to write a poem about a school of little fish and to use 5 words per line/5 lines per stanza as the form. This poem was published in Whiskey Island Magazine (Summer 1989).
The School of Little Fish
They stood looking down at
the school of little fish.
I seek the black fish
said the old one for
it cures the pain of
age. I shall have the
green fish whose flesh gives
great vision claimed the learned
one. Said the pretty one
I want all the pink
fish for my collection. The
fat purple fish are mine
cried the hungry one. The
young one gathered all the
fish and threw them high,
high and they fell back
like rain on corn like
drops of lava like good
news like stones thrown from
a bridge like the arms
and legs of soldiers like
snow like memories of love
like leaves like words on
deaf ears like candy from
a piñata like little fish.
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.
let the shape
be the sound
of two violins which
as we know
or at least
I can tell you
both are played
with equal intensity
point three times
the sound of one or more
likely the shape
ten sounding oh come
let us let
a point on a line be
side a parallel
line escape its
poverty sink without
guilt to a comma or rise
beelike to more
glorious intersections why not
be a riddle
and you be
like an edible
pawn or let
twilight of ash
black birds demoted
acrobats standing low
rather let the shape
be the triangular beauty
of acknowledgment and daily
for the ratio of mass
let the horizon
into the horizon
I don’t usually explain poems, but I like readers to know that I wanted to write a poem to a heavily tattooed woman but also to address a poem to the whole Earth, and this is the result. It was published in Willow Springs (No. 37, Jan. 1996). The quoted poem at the top is copied exactly as found.
Binoculars on a Tattooed Lady
I’m Jane or
I’m not sure if I’m
Jane or not.
I feel like Jimmie
but I could feel like
Marlena. I’m green
I could be a leaf. If
I were blue I could
poem by a homeless woman
I want to worship at the fins
of those procephalic dolphins caught
at the top of their arc out of the Sea of Cortez
garrisoned in your temple.
I want to smear
on your forehead ashes
from the collection of burned lovers
in the urn on your hip.
an elbow becomes a category,
your ass a pasquinade.
Who says you don’t shoulder your burden
who burden your shoulder with that
I want to soak you like an avocado pit,
pierce your clean body
and see what grows.
This poem was published in Writ, 20th Anniversary Issue (No. 21, 1989). Though the inspiration was my love for Bermuda, I have a long-time deep affection for the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico as well, and their heartbreak and resilience are much on my mind.
After you rode there on horseback
in the flowered breeze
under trees so sweet they curled shyly
when you touched them
you felt you’d earned the right
to lope on the crest like a movie star
absurdly romantic, impossibly attractive.
The sand was talcum powder
peach-colored and toast-warm as you ran
from your horse toward the surf.
In the warm waves that tumbled finned
people and little fish like dice
there was the surprise of not knowing
where your body ended.
Farther out you could gurgle
in rubber tubes and view widescreen technicolor drama
—your spongy hand visible on center screen
pointing with newfound grace
at purple lace waving under yellow trees
and rainbow actors skimming in and out
of orange doors. Back on the beach you’d eat
sweet onions glazed in sugar and rum
shared by whispering locals
sweet and shy as the bending trees.
When you rode back, imagining
your own silhouette against the orange sky
your thin shirt open in the still-warm breeze
the longtails swooped for insects
and the frogs sang like rusty swing-sets
behind the closing credits.