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
THE WOMAN WHO GAVE UP SPEAKING
has heard enough.
The enterprise is not loyalty.
Daggers. Blood. Mermaids.
She has seen
fall like the snapped bodies
The enterprise is stolen words.
Death Before Dishonor.
Jesus. Mother. Semper Fi.
She has tried to pull the no-trick
ponies from their sunken
The enterprise is cold so
bitter the tears
before they’ve left your eyes.
She is not
Along twisted pathways
leaves reach for
the back of something
that ran by
a staring ape.
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.
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
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?
I’m sorry so many of the poems come out of the dark side. I’m trying to keep myself in the light, but that’s not when writing occurs.
The Word “Are,” for Example
Raised to be frugal with self pity,
I hesitate to complain.
Alibis run from my mouth
like ants from a flooded hill.
I went there directly from the funeral,
weary of the mourners, severe,
time-spotted, hunched like flowers graveside.
I went there wanting to speak in tongues.
I went there, where attraction divides itself
into hungry collisions and sweaty testimonials.
I met a charismatic,
pierced his ear with a sewing needle,
scrubbed his stubble with my gums,
licked his sagging pockets every one.
He said what we need is sleeping pills,
stopwatches of desire,
I killed him for his assumptions
scratched on tabs of paper in his insoles:
“all” and “never” were some of his claims.
This poem first appeared in The Centennial Review, Vol. XXXVIII, No. 2.
FIVE PEOPLE (HOMELESS)
- 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.
- 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.
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—
I keep you a secret now,
for the cans.
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.
- 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.
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.