Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Shadow of its Flight

One last poem, one thick smudge
across the page, one smeared fingerprint,
one more prisoner to be shoved
across the broken ground.

Somewhere a clear green sky rises;
somewhere the rain has stopped.
Somewhere bare feet step on naked wood.

"Tell them," said Jefferson Davis,
long after it was all over,
trying hopelessly to explain, "tell them
I only loved America."

A disillusioned follower, well aware
of the poisonings and absurdities,
the fifty-three Rolls Royces, told me too
that to be in the room with Bagwan Rajneesh
was to be in the presence of someone
greater than a human being.
"I still think that, it's still true," he said,
a mournful apostate, broken at the root.

A swift and skillful bird plays on the wind,
turns, rolls, and with a flourish, lands on the wire:
revealing, this close, the imbecile profile
and depthless eye of a pigeon.

The blue pulse at your temple
is the shadow of its flight.

Friday, April 29, 2011

The Pebbles of the Wrist

And what to make of that pile of rubble,
the carpals tumbled at the fingers' roots?
What storm washed them there? What mender
set to work with glue and ligament
and tethered each to each?

My fathers carried their fathers'
in leather bags for luck, rattling
like dice in a Yahtzee cup. You can cast them
like the guts of birds: you can read them
like the I Ching or the Tarot.

Where finger thumb and arm come to parley,
time tries its combinations,
the tumblers shift and click,
until finally the guess is right, the hand unfolds,
and the pebbles of the wrist lie open to the sky.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Massage Noir

A second session, and the headaches are as obscure as ever
hovering in the midrange, come-and-go, not thunderclap,
not migraines, not disabling, reassuringly bilateral. They ought
to be muscular in origin; the ill-named “tension headaches.”
But all the usual suspects have alibis. The lower traps have
confessed their petty crimes: they're going straight.

One of the wickeder, more inward scalenes, maybe. A strand
of lev scap cunningly twisted, hard to pin. Maybe
one of those outlandish muscles that only five percent
of people have? My mind roams among the more
freakish possibilities. Calf muscles. Wrist extensors.

Well. Next time I'm going to put her on her side
and see if something opens up. Interrogate
the lev scaps one at a time, where they can't
hear each other's stories. Let the SCM imagine
it's free of suspicion. Back the subscap
up against the ribcage and rough it up a little.

Sooner or later, someone's going to talk:
and when he does, these headaches
are going out of business.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Come, Tell Me How You Live

So, having no reply to give
    To what the old man said,
I cried "Come, tell me how you live!"
    And thumped him on the head.

Is it a faint smell of burnt toast, or a tang of citrus
that would rise from warm sheets in the morning?

Premonitory sadness draws me from
speculation: either would break a heart
that no repairman would touch. “You just
need a new one, man.”

No. On to the brisk day. The silver casque
settles onto my white head, and my U-lock
is couched in its rest. Laptop in my pack,
reading glasses in its pocket -- all wrapped

in proof: the yellow water-shedding stuff
given me by my daughter's partner long ago
to shield my basket's contents from the rain.

I'm ready to ride on my slightly ridiculous errantry.
Only that song, so familiar that at first
I don't realize I haven't heard it since the Fall --
the stirring of small warmths in the thicket --

the call of à l'arme! à l'arme! -- the danger
that I might take myself seriously, at last,
after all this time.

In response to this Morning Porch post.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Doppler Bird

I don't know much about birds.
I call her the doppler bird:
she begins a pure, liquid whistle,
not a bubble or a flaw in it anywhere,
and then its pitch drops, and drops,
as though she were falling, falling away from you.
Almost the comic sound
given to anvils falling in old cartoons.
But she's not going anywhere.
Right to the end, it's as loud and pure
as ever, and she reminds me
of Grace Slick, finding
somebody to love,
holding the note impossibly,
increasing the volume at the end
till you think her lungs will collapse.

And almost immediately she starts again
high on the cliff, stalked by
an immemorially frustrated coyote:
A sweet high whistle. A flute with a slider.

I hold an oiled foot in both my hands.
Hands fit with feet in dozens of ways:
they are just foreign enough
to be mutually fascinated.
Palm to sole, and fingers between toes,
heels cradled in a basket of fingers,
ankles held in thumb-straps:
everything the same and not the same.

There is a sweet spot on the sole
before the metatarsals knuckle out,
where you can nudge a thumb
as though it had lived there all its life,
and with your other hand, your mortar hand,
you push the foot down on the pestle thumb.

That's where the doppler bird begins to sing,
just there. And every thumbswidth heelward
you go, the note drops, sweet and pure,
rocking lower, flooding your ears.
No hesitation, no vibrato.

Something does collapse, then.
The toast-crusts of the spirit,
the rind of the heart, the table
of the soul's contents. What was
hard and edged softens, what was closed
opens. What happens in that
tiny space of silence? No one knows.
You might guess the doppler bird
is filling its lungs again,
returning to the top of the cliff,
but guesses miss their mark here.
No one knows what pours quietly
into that opened darkness.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Everything Twice

Rain thrashes tattered blossoms;
sparrow says everything twice.

Water sheets in the parking lot,
lens of a windshield; gutters

rush for the river,
stuttering eagerly;

crow crawls under
a pole switchbox and glares.

Indian plum
gone, serviceberry going --

rain thrashes tattered blossoms,
sparrow says everything twice.

In response to this Morning Porch post.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Easter Falls on ANZAC Day

The criss cross leaves, against
the dark but paler sky
seen through the waving leaded glass

(installed in nineteen thirteen,
before those ANZACs had heard
the name Gallipoli)

A wind comes through them
and they come to a boil all at once,
the leaves, bubbling like a ramen pot;

and behind them the clouds are breaking,
and pools of light collect like the
ovals of olive oil

my son (just that age)
pours in to make the noodles
heartier. Tell me

that just this once
it doesn't have to happen again.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Matching Grant

The sun glows faintly through the clouds like a coin at the bottom of a fountain.

-- Dave Bonta, Morning Porch

. . . the color of plums, of Bordeaux,
of things that have lain a while in the clarifying

-- Luisa Igloria, “Mandorla”

It seems that Spring won't come
until I find forgiveness,
that the God of Cartwheels and Extravagance
is withholding his bounty:
that Spring is a sort of matching grant.

I'm the one responsible for the morning frosts,
the endless rains. The homeless man
who's lain on his side for forty days without food
is in no mood
to make me pretty prophecies. Not while the rain goes on.

Roll up the stinking blankets and begin again. Say the prayers
until you mean them. Take some comfort in knowing
that nothing comes clear, water or wine, without
having “lain a while in the clarifying dark.”

Forgiving injury is hard enough, but harder still
is to forgive the people we have injured
for being injured by us.

So fill the dusty offering bowls.
Stumble through the liturgy. Fumble
through the flyspecked pecha. Give us this day --

No, that's not right. Wrong God. Or is it?
Give us this day --

And finally the sun appears, wavering,
like a coin at the bottom of a fountain.

I think today we'll fill the bowls with wine
even if their cheap alloys dissolve. Why
call them offerings if you're not willing to give them?

Give us this day --
That can't be right. Until the summit
of enlightenment is reached I take refuge
in the Buddha, the Dharma, and in
something unintelligible.

I drop a sun, a bright penny,
into each bowl of wine.

Please forgive me.
Please give us this day.

Friday, April 22, 2011


I don't really know why this itch
to listen to the dead, and speak to the unborn.
I could come up with reasons, but I think
they'd float away on the first stiff breeze.

Imagine our horror when Praxiteles
shows up one day with his studio crew
and sets them painting Adonis and Aphrodite
with floozy lips and baby blues.

I have been so long with the dead that the living
seem over-colored and fake: Marmaduke doggies
overturning end tables in the sickroom.
They're a breeding nuisance, and the unborn

don't promise better. Some professor,
inked all over with tattoos, will explain
the occult meaning of our poems.
“You're not to imagine,”

she'll say, “that they're really, like,
having crushes on each other.”
Nope. Not us. Hold still: I've got some lipstick
and a tube of cobalt somewhere in my coat.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


Stark Street goes feral for a few moments.
East from 60th Avenue she climbs
up the shoulder of Mt Tabor,
curving up in a cutting, shimmying north,

and then bucking south, before becoming
prim again, a straight Gresham thoroughfare,
smoothing her skirts: butter
wouldn't melt in her mouth.

But when she goes wild on the hill, all bets are off.
Thickets of invasives everywhere. The slopes too steep
for proper lawns: blackberry strangles the shrubbery;
ivy throttles the trees.

Martha points out to me
the massive stems of dead clematis,
dangling like Richard of York's head
from the city gate.

Are they left there for a warning? I ask
She answers no, when they're that big
it's too dangerous to pull the vines down. You don't know
what's up there that will come down with them.

So you cut them at the roots and leave them there,
more like thick and stranded rope than branches,
gray as the sinews of an ox
freeze-dried on the Oregon trail. They sway

and shiver and twist, and do little grisly dances
in the Spring rain. The war goes on: York roses,
Lancaster roses, lickspittle playwrights, virgin queens,
white skeletons twined with the living wood.

in response to this Morning Porch post.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Seasons (More on Trill & Mordent)

In the Woodrat podcast, Dave put his finger on it, the thing possibly I like best about Luisa Igloria's poetry: you don't know what's going to happen next. And again, it's not because of any legerdemain, any withholding. You never think, “Oh, I see, she kept this back so it would come as a surprise at the end.” It's just that the poems keep thinking, right up to the end.

“The Four Seasons of Life,” a meditation on a series of old lithographs, has these marvelous lines: “I was eighteen. I did not know what -- or even that -- / I could become.” But it's the Middle Age section I come back to, again and again. It worries me. “I am trying to learn how to leave my body,” she says, and I don't know why. And, you know, my life work is to bring people back to their bodies.

She goes on, immediately, “Much more difficult, to manage each / return.” Well, yeah. That I could have told her. We climb in a little more painfully, each time. A little more disquietude, a little stronger sense of loss.

Then suddenly -- you never know, with Luisa, when she's suddenly going to stomp on the accelerator like this:
. . . I don't wish to desert the world,
not yet. Fear and desire, because I want to see
what face, what image, etched in reverse
on a metal plate and lowered into the acid bath,
rises to proof on paper.

That's simply gorgeous poetry, no matter how you take it. There isn't poetry better than that. I don't even notice at first that my Buddhist sensibilities ought to be outraged. All about seeing the self? -- worse, a representation of the self?

I can get around it, of course, I'm a clever boy, I can get around anything. I could say, it's not necessarily her face, it's just a face, it's intelligibility itself she's talking about. But I know better. It's Luisa's face we're talking about here, it's her becoming, the becoming she didn't even know could happen. And here again the word humane is the first word that comes to my mind. A kind of humanity and tenderness toward herself, as both vessel and burden. It's beguiling, of course, but it's also right, and whatever I think that pulls me away from understanding its rightness is, necessarily, wrong.

The poem ends by suggesting, wishing, mulling over the possibility that “there might be more than this world, / stenciled by the window-frame.” And of course there is, because she's describing a picture, but the description itself is a picture and the Luisa picturing it is a picture (rising to proof) and that's the world that there might be more than. But not yet. “Lord, take away my sins, but not yet.”


. . . God in my mouth
As if I did but only chew his name,
And in my heart the strong and swelling evil
Of my conception.
-- Measure for Measure

I have been thinking about rancor.
About the petulant anger of
those of us, used to having, once denied.

I have been thinking of
the turning points of my life:
all of them a stumbling through

a white sheet of flame,
an opacity of anger, to come to
unexpected places beyond.

I am unused to anger, I began
and realized the lie as soon as spoken.
I am old in anger, old in resentment.

What then? What next? I sift through
a scanty toolbox: plastic screwdrivers,
hammers made of chalk,

Chalklines of sugar floss.
Shantideva says the same thing
your grandmother did:

count to ten. And Thich Nhat Hanh
advised a method of confession
that I can't bring to mind.

I tried to write, to inquire,
to apologize, and found myself
iterating my grievances again,

like Thomas Jefferson ticking off the sins
of George the Third, uglifying
what ought to be the most beautiful poem

of democracy. “A decent respect
to the opinions of mankind...”
Maybe that's the problem.

If you are the water ouzel
swim now. Catch the sun, carry it underwater,
wrap it in cold weeds.

Strip off your skin and turn it
inside out, make it a bag for holding
memories. Think.

Now cross, skinless and shivering.
Cross that scrawl of charcoal
on the coarse cement.

Vomit this morning's breakfast,
yesterday's dinner. Let the bile
in your sinuses kiss the coming tears.

It is always something simple, in the end.
Kneel, and press your forehead
against the sand-flecked concrete.

To desire and not to have:
that's all it ever is. That's all it ever is.
Put your skin back on, boy.

Swim back and bring out the sun.
Shake the water out of your wings;
say the shortest prayer you know.

Now we can begin.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Outside the Walls

That's what I want to be. One fish
in the numberless fish of the snow.
-- Chase Twichell

Easter is the resurrection: the renewal
of the blood sacrifice, the enshrinement
of killing the innocent to protect the guilty.
Oh yes, we're all on board. Wash while
you sing the alphabet song: wash while
you sing the cathedral program.
You'll never be clean. Not if you strip
the flesh from your fingers: the stain
is in the marrow bone. And in spite of that
we call this Friday good.

This is my last visit to the church,
my dears. Thank you for letting me in.
Thank you for letting me gaze
at your strange and bloody pictures.
I will never tell the truth again. You've won.
I am going to live outside the walls:
I always have, I always will. Still, thank you:
thank you for letting me sit in an alien pew;
thank you for letting me pretend, a while.

Monday, April 18, 2011

What To Tell Her

She came to me
diffident but insistent,
as the dead do,
filled with the urgency to speak.

Would you please
she said, but then worked silently,
internally, like a modern dishwasher
on some fancy setting
for a while.

The last time I saw you,
I said, lest things grow awkward,
was bad times. Goblins
sorting organs in the basement.
I'm glad we're done with that.

Would you tell her,

she finally said. It's always words.
It's funny, the dead
don't care about things anymore.
It's only the words, the words
they're desperate to get right.

Would you tell her I'm sorry, I'm sorry
that I loved her so much.
It was the only thing I could do.

I could tell her that,

I said. But it's only
what any of us would tell our kids,
if we could,
if they could hear it.
I don't think you came
all this way to say just that.

She laughed, suddenly,
so that the curtain stirred.
Ah, you're like her father:
she said, not nearly
so soft and drifty as you seem.

I know what I think
you should tell her,
I said.
Tell her you could only protect her
from the things
you could protect yourself from.

She was silent a while.
You don't quite understand yet,
she said, and neither does she.
But say that for now, say that for now.
It's difficult working from this side,
you know: everything's backwards.
It's like trying to back up a U-Haul trailer.

But tell her
-- and suddenly
she was fierce -- tell her I love her.
She backed away, as they do, without moving.
Not the messenger you would have chosen,
I know
, I said, and we both laughed.
You take what you can get, she said,
and vanished.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Infusion of Red

Your scissors work their way around my ears,
munching my hair like lettuce: thin crunches
that, when the cold steel lays flat
to the temporal bone, sound exactly like
the crackling cartilage under my thumbs
when I work on a difficult shoulder.

You would think a cottonwood tree in Spring,
throwing down wisps of white and gray.
I sweep it up afterwards. Barely enough
to line a mouse's nest. My son's thick brown stuff
fills the dustpan: he could fit out
every bird and rodent in Portland. Or

you might think
of the frayed cuffs of a gray silk shirt
useless now for going out, but still
sweet enough to toy with absently
when the afternoon sun is vanishing
behind laid courses of cloud. Or --

listen, the truth is
no one's going to think of it all.
Get a shower, man. Wipe down your table.
Think of all you ever knew or dreamed
about working a guarded sacrum:
How with one hand on the ribs,
and one palm cradling the iliac crest,
you will gently, gently begin to rock
the whole frame. Casting off at last.

The same wind that takes
the cottonwood floss over the fence
and that builds Marpa's tower of cloud
to hide the sun, the same wind that
fills the sails of that bloody stubborn bark
easing slowly down the skids into the water:
the very same wind is carrying

in sly hidden packets of transparent air
the crimson, the scarlet, the ruby
screaming red into your blood.
Breathe deep. Be an old man: be a
wicked impossible infusion of red
into the pale world.

In response to this Morning Porch post.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Sometimes Nothing Happens

Sometimes life comes softly to rest
against the pilings, like gleaming
bronze leaf litter, nudging with
the spent wakes of outing boats,
the whole slough a teapot open to the sky
steeping last year's alder leaves.

Sometimes the herons pause, and
turn their slow reptilian heads,
actors with huge presence,
about to roll out their lines:
but they think better of it,
and take one deliberate step instead.

Sometimes the sky breaks into
the banners of angelic armies,
frayed by centuries of jealousy,
where Lucifer and Gabriel have stood
with gloves upraised for twice ten thousand years
that they will never dare throw down.

Friday, April 15, 2011


Little Bighorn, Bitterroot, Helena, the sticks:
The vicious-minded pony who threw you again and again,
The horses that stood on your chest, the father
who rifled your store of best friends for his wives.
Big sky,
maybe, but not enough room. Time to pack up and go.

Between the deltoid and the pecs
of the Continental Divide
Is a ranch where you and your friends spent the summer
in a teepee, pretending to be the blowsy barmaid
on Gunsmoke, not quite clear maybe
on what that was code for. Pouring drinks
for thirsty men seemed like it might be fun.

Time to pack up and go.
From here, everything flows to Gulf, everything
turns muddy and dirty at last. So you struggle up
and over the shoulder, and look at the wide country
where everything flows clean to the Columbia,
to the Oregon Country, the green trees and the gentle rain.

It was all long ago: the Divide has sunk beneath
the horizon, and Hood stands as far east
as any of us will go. My dearest wanderer
between the mountains and the sea, it marks you,
it makes me reach for the doorpost, it calls me
in dream and memory, that tilt of the world,
that opening of the sky, that taste of
the bitter root of things,
that sudden extraordinary sweetness.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

When We Meet

There are so many things I don't know.
I don't know if, when we meet, it will be
within the bounds of decorum
to scoop you against my chest and hold you
for the space of seven heartbeats.

I don't even really know
if the joy will hold that long,
if the leaves' quick gesturings,
refracted through a foreign window
and brought back in a buck-basket
(dumped out on a muddy bank,
to the mirth of all beholders)
will mean then what they mean now.

I don't know how to call back
that wandering truant to the nest,
and I don't know if I should.
But I know that if I press my palms together,
and open them slowly, light flares up, like
a stray drop of butter burning on the stove.


Trill & Mordent, Luisa A. Igloria

I read “Braid” for the fifth time, wondering the while if there's some key to it, something quite simple that makes all its difficulty easy. I'm still sometimes too easily deterred from modern poetry. Twenty years of peremptory dismissal leave one vulnerable. “Have you ever known a schoolmaster,” asks Stephen Maturin, “who was decent company?” The habit of authority, it corrodes your heart. I've read old poems, that I understand to the bones, over and over. I expect poems to yield to me, and I get cranky when they don't.

I called Luisa humane, and Dave said, yes, like a renaissance humanist, interested in everything. Which was true enough, yes, but not what I meant, no. I meant she's humane as Martha is humane: she accepts that we are twined together, that we're in a social fabric that only stretches so far. The opposite of American individualism. Not a self first, but a daughter, a wife, a mother first, and only a self when time and stress permit. That's what makes her so radical and so healing. She's not from here. She's from somewhere else.

Whatever “Braid” is about, it's about togetherness, about being twined with others. It's about gravity, which is, after all, nothing more nor less than mutual attraction writ large. And about the way we lay in next to each other, not mooshed, but parallel, like the ribs of grosgrain ribbon, like the atoms she has read about “which like to sit next to each other.”

. . . the equal effects of
the heart's turning toward the same gravity, that spiralling and marvelous together.

The poem seems more and more important as I handle it and turn it back and forth -- more for what it doesn't say than what it does. She's not afraid. Nothing about all this packing in together frightens her. She is not in the slightest afraid of annihilation. I try, and fail, to think of another contemporary poet who does not twin annihilation and love. A twinning that I already know I'll never find anywhere in Luisa's work. She doesn't want to love anyone to death. She wants to cook them dinner. That's what I meant by “humane.”

I've been reading this book for two days. I page back and subtract the front matter: in that time I've read thirteen pages. I'll never finish within a week. So far there's been precisely one poem, “South,” that I needed to read only once. The rest of them demanded several readings. It's strange, because she's not an obscure poet, as we moderns reckon these things. She's not trying to make anything difficult. But she has a metonymic habit of mind. She lays out, say, the “accidentals” -- the trills and mordents, musical notes that “change the pitch with just the slightest touch of dissonance”-- and then the random D.C. shootings, and then an oblique move towards a love that is an impulse “to discover which room in her body / houses the accidental sound of a tuning fork / struck and echoing in the middle of her life.” She doesn't say how these things are related. She doesn't even say they are related. They're just in the same poem.

It's what the man I learned Old English poetry from, Fred Robinson, would have called an appositive style. Plunk things down next to each other, without defining their connection, and see what happens. Old Germanic poetry is full of it, and also full of interlace structures: the two seem to go together. But it doesn't make for quick reading.

There's no hurry. I'll be reading these poems the rest of my life. Thirteen pages, and I already know that.

I first met Luisa with irritation. She'd written a poem in the Morning Porch comments, fine, what hast thou to do with me? And then Dave was reposting them on Via Negativa. For a long time I didn't read them. Christ, I have enough to do, to keep up with my friends. I skipped them and went on.

But after a while, he'd been doing over and over -- and I trust his judgment so much -- I thought, you know, if Dave thinks I need to read this poetry, he's bound to be either right or interestingly wrong. So I read one, and my heart turned over. I was an instant convert. I took to reading the Morning Porch, and waiting to see what Luisa would do with this one. It was magical. It' still magical.

Others on Trill & Mordent: Kristin Berkey Abbott, Dave Bonta

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Natural History

The rain, a thick boxer who never goes down,
sucks air for another round. The dirty gray sky

is a tarp tied down on a pickup load
of stained mattresses and plastic toys: the scraps

may flutter but nothing's coming loose. Maybe
there's work in Oregon. Maybe not.

A thrash in the river, like a snag but moving
slowly into shore, something huge

but invisible: a sea lion, or a sturgeon
striking at a school of -- something, that

spatters the water like black coins. Time
was we would gone down to the water

hoping to see wonders. Today we hunch
our shoulders and back off to the spine of the levee:

anything that hunts small helpless running things
is no friend of ours.

In response, not very obviously, to this Morning Porch post

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

A Stab At It

I don't want to be a poet, as it's reckoned.
Don't want interviews. Don't want “A Life,”
prim or dirty. My life is just a life.
I don't want to drone, and be the spill
that yet more flies cluster to, flies of
“am I good enough?” or “will they want me now?”

(You'll never be good enough, they'll never want you.
Say “screw them!” and get on.)

Only, when the fog snags in the doug firs
over across the river there, like the veil
of an exasperated bride, shrugged off
and dragged across the caterer's table, catching on
the prickly knobs of condiment containers --

No, start again. When the silvered fog threads
through the clotted awkward limbs of douglas firs,
and radio towers lift their slender necks to heaven,
their single crimson eyes gazing right at God's --

No, not quite it. When that white gauze coils,
spotted with bright dots of blood, and climbs
the West Hills to the tune of rain that never stops,
to the sough of wind that never steadies --

Well, closer. But you see, I like to take a stab it it.
That's all.

Monday, April 11, 2011


It shouldn't take long to disassemble.
The temporal bone, where time lives;
the ethmoid, of its self-same kind;
the occiput,
with its handy knob for hanging hats --

a simple screwdriver, wielded well,
will do the job. A tap or two, and the parietals
should come in half like walnut shells,
and all the thoughts dash frantic round the room,
like dogs after weeks of rain
let out into the yard.

My frontal bone,with its eye-ridge
(don't tell me the proto-Germans
never tried it out with Neanderthals)
should pop open
like the hatchback of a Honda. And my jaw,
should any Hebrew hero lack for arms,
is stashed there like a rifle in its rack.

And finally, having scooped
the pulpy stuff of cleverness away,
you'll come to the almond
amygdala, gleaming, and inlaid
with rage and desire like parquetry
or gold enameling, and hidden under that,
only glasswork made by tender hands:
fragile bowls of sky or midnight blue.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Spring Comes Home

Fog and the sound of water in ditches.
A flicker stitching her call on the sky.
Spring comes home in the morning like a drunken wife
you were afraid was not coming home at all.

In response to this Morning Porch post.

More on Lockward's Temptation by Water

This is not a review, by the way. I don't write reviews. I can't get that magisterial tone. Or rather, I can get it all too easily, so I prefer not to put myself in the way of temptation. Nothing could be sillier than someone who knows as little about contemporary poetry as I do making pronouncements about it.

You know, to tell the truth, I am often horrified by Lockward's poems. I'm afraid she'll write one about me, and it will be called “To a Potato,” and I will have to find a small space to crawl into and die.
Bit of a bother, actually, and rather dull on your own,
always in need of enhancement.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph defend us. You know you're in trouble even before the anathema:
You are a fat, dirty spud, a misshapen blob
of starch, carbohydrates, and useless calories,
disreputable nightshade, consort to blight and famine.

The Potato has a second coming in this book:
The Jesus Potato
. . .
She envies women the signs in their munchibles
The St Petersburg woman who saw Jesus in a potato
chip, crisp wafer preserved like a relic, but salted.

It's things like “but salted,” at the end of that line, that prevent me from being an atheist. I simply don't believe that a merely human mind could come up with something so clever, unexpected, and right. More things in heaven and earth.

One of my favorite poems so far is “When Pigs Flee.” There's something of a punk Blake about Lockward. She runs amok. This celebration of the porcine body, and of the escape from bondage, is very Blakean, both in its thoroughgoing radicalism, and its location squarely within Christianity. At the same time that she is blasting church and piety, her language goes inevitably to sin (though never, so far, to redemption.) Her escaped hog is more gleeful at trampling convention than any merely feral animal could ever be. I'd set a video montage of “When Pigs Flee” to Joan Jett singing “I love Rock n Roll.” You can't be a bad girl without someone to call you one.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

The New Dental Plan

Closeup on the maple trash caught
in the ‘L’s of the new stairway –
fresh lumber already mildewed.

A squirrel skitters down the oak
enraged by a cat; a witch sulks
in the crawlspace. We are all

going to live under the house,
and keep our teeth sharp
by biting our names in the maple bark.

In response to this Morning Porch post.

The Lesson of Loss: Temptation by Water

Facebook Post yesterday:

My three poetry books arrived today, turning a Friday that was acting altogether like a Friday into a kinder, gentler day, something say in the Wednesday line. Diane Lockward, Luisa Igloria, and William Trowbridge. (Ren Powell I'm getting through a different channel.) Read the first section of Temptation by Water, and it has a massage poem in it!

And I went on with a comment:

True, it's titled "Why I Won't Have a Full-Body Massage," but of course the reasons why one will and won't are generally the same identical list, and the poem is one of those rich self-subversions we moderns specialize in. Lockward is a rather scary poet. Nothing chummy. We're here to do a poem, bucko, and don't forget it. I adore her.

So. Here goes.
Leaving in Pieces

One morning I awoke
And found myself married
to a bald man.

And I settle in comfortably for one of those rueful contemplations of mortality, and how the speaker loves her husband just as much (more than ever), and the compensations of wisdom and deepening intimacy. Oops.
The hairless head was yellowish-white
and shiny as a peeled clove of garlic.
I saw its imperfections --
wens and protrusions, moles and warts,
pimples and wedges of bone.

You're not supposed to actually describe that sort of thing. You're supposed to make a graceful gesture in that direction and move along. This is like the moment in a skating routine when a spin has gone on so long that you find yourself holding your breath. Surely she has to come out of it now?

But she doesn't. She buys a dog with lustrous hair, as a replacement. And then she she pulls her arms in closer to her body and, impossibly, spins faster: she matter-of-factly takes the dog into her bed, moves the husband to the doghouse, and listens to him howl.

It's brilliant, it's over the top, and it made me laugh aloud. And if Lockward actually has a bald husband, I really, really don't want to know it.
We hardly minded the howls
of our poor bald dog as he absorbed
the lesson of loss
and made mournful noise
throughout the night.

Why I Won't Have a Full-Body Massage

This doughy flesh
does not want a stranger's fingers
kneading it.

Well, of course, I have to respond to the massage poem. The speaker, here, doesn't want a massage like Mark Antony doesn't want to praise Caesar. The poem ends:
on fire again, all sparks and flames,
each muscle burning and rising
towards the familiarity of tender hands
kneading it.

But it's not simple. (I may be a tyro Lockward reader, but I'm already versed enough to know that.) Her body really does not want the massage, at the same time as it does, and this ambivlence is as central to massage, as I understand it, as it is to this poem.
This sorry sack of skin refuses
a stranger's gaze, my naked, dimpled sins
exposed . . .

The struggle is so clever here. Don't look at me, say the words, because I'm ugly. But the speaker is stripping herself, exposing the sin of her imperfect body, to the reader. After all, nobody forced her to write the poem. She could have kept all this to herself. She wants to be seen by a stranger: she wants not to be seen by a stranger. So do we all.

And the threat of a perfectly successful massage runs through the poem. The flesh made completely healthy, the body put into perfect balance: it all threatens annihilation. Pressure points, / points at which I might capitulate.

(Yes, yes, I know, to a massage person pressure points is wrong here, she means either trigger points or acupressure points, but we're poetry people right now, not massage people.)

What happens if you capitulate? The speaker doesn't say, but she's damned if she's going to do it.

This fear of being washed away by bliss and well-being is deep. I can't help but think of the people who resist meditation because they don't want their identities to go away. Oh my dear, my dear, if only we were really at risk! No experienced meditator can hear of that anxiety without a smile. And likewise massage. Things do release. Moments of pleasure and tenderness do arise. But there are tensions under tensions, shames under shames, lonelinesses under lonelinesses. You never come to the end of it, not in this world. Massage is always incomplete and unsatisfying: that's its nature. That's what it's for. Not to be bliss, but to raise the question of bliss, to keep it in play.

Without Words For It

Christ. I don't think a single short poem has ever done both to me at the same first reading: make me burst into laughter and burst into tears.
Infinitives remained behind,
still valued for the way they carried on, as in
to get out of bed.

See other posts on reading Temptation by Water by Dave Bonta and Kristin Berkey-Abbott. And my next installment here.

Friday, April 08, 2011

A Word to the Pudgy Kid

If I could go back through all the rainy mornings
to Larkspur Loop where birches dangled catkins
and laced their ghostly shoes against the sky
to find that pudgy troubled boy at work
on smudgy maps of mountain-studded lands
and marshes wherein dwell unnaméd horrors,
what would I say?

I'd say hang on. You'll find your people;
they'll find you. You'll find your work.
Mike Ribka, who makes your life a misery,
he's going to stock shelves at the local mall
till his heart gives out at fifty. The boys
who fly around the track now will forget,
go fat and feeble, and waddle from garage
to door, while you ride in the rain,
in your prime when they are old.
Those muscles you craved -- not showy
bulging biceps, but cables curling
shoulder to elbow? You'll get them
without ever seeing a gym,
from walking your fists up oiled spines,
and planing hamstrings with your ulna-blades.
You'll be pudgy forever, poor kid! But strong
as an ox, and indefatigable.

Your eyes will be
blue as paint and full of mischief:
you're fated to be loved and understood.
Your longing to write of heroes far away
will dwindle. Because gods
and goddesses are coming to this world,
here, the world of green beans and potatoes,
to be friends and lovers, heralds from countries
much stranger and farther
than Koshtra Pivrarcha or the coasts of Demonland.

The poets are coming. Just wait it out.
The world is not going to be made of Tolkien
and stashed Playboys forever. The shame
is going to unravel, the straw will spin to gold,
and this earth, here, will be the miracle. Hang on.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Easter Egg Heads

Illustration from

"I'm ashamed to admit I don't even know where this is," said Martha, handing me the quarter.

I had to turn it this way and that to read it. "The Marianas. They're Micronesian Islands," I said absently, omitting to mention that I had had no idea that we had hung on to them after the war, and was in fact startled. We still own Saipan? I stared at obverse picture. There was a bay, and a canoe, and birds, and... "What the hell is that? A buried anchor?"

Martha took it back from me. "No, no, it's a, you know... like an Easter egg head."

"A what?" We both started laughing, and couldn't stop for some time.

But she was right: it's called a latte, no relation to the beverage. A standing pillar with a stone cap on top. Like an Easter Island head. Kind of. No eggs, though.

A Poem whose Title I'll put in the Body of the Post

You Can Say Fuck to Me

You can say fuck to me.
You can say fuck this bloody life of delicate children
You can whisper about fucking the way it was
When the moon came down to breathe on your shoulder
You can say how the fuck did it come to this
that your breasts don't match and what you buy
for sixty grand is a piece of paper
you never wanted to see. Fuck.

You can say fuck it's so beautiful
even if it's only what you saw
in what I saw in what he saw
when all we saw was the words:
what's not fucking beautiful there?

You can say fuck me knowing you don't mean it;
You can say fuck you knowing you do.
Who cares, fuck! We, you and I,
we've been around the block;
we know what things cost.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Oh My Sweet Darlings

Rain again. The fat daffodil buds
sag on their stalks: and this one --
her broken neck, still in its ace bandage,
beaten into the mud -- opened too soon.
Oh my sweet darlings
it has not been
an easy Spring for any of us.

In response to this Morning Porch entry.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011


The porch is sleek with blown rain. Just past dawn
I glimpse a northern harrier over the wrack:
a long-tailed accipiter, a pale cross.

What brought her here from Sauvie's Island?
She flies straight and stubborn as an oared galley
looking to ram the recycling center,

At the last minute climbing over and vanishing,
dark at last, a quick black score against the sky.

Accipiter, accepter, one who takes, receives, or grasps:
my offering is a catch of the throat, of splayed toes
on cold painted wood, the wrinkling forehead

of a gray-muzzled ape, glad to wake to
an uncertain Spring, glad to rise on one knuckled fist
from a warm nest, and to see a messenger

on an unknown errand from an island of farms
south to the rain-worn marshes.

In response to this Morning Porch post.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Out of Sorts

I have no idea how these people can stand to go on talking. This is wrong! They say, and they gather a big flock of people to bleat “Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!” together. And this is supposed to be a conversation.

No matter how wrong it is, and how many people agree with you, it's not a conversation. A conversation happens when you try to talk with one of the wrong people, or at least to imagine their point of view. A conversation happens when you figure out a time that you did the same kind of thing for the same kind of reason. A conversation happens, basically, when people discover that they're mistaken about something. Otherwise, it's just a bunch of primates getting together to fuss and make a lot of noise, like crows gathering for the night.

I find it increasingly difficult to talk to most people. Their moral vocabulary is so limited, and they have such black-and-white views. For them there are only two moral categories: right and wrong. It's a stretch for them even to get so far as to distinguish between “wrong” and “should be illegal.” When you get to something like “wrong but not as bad as the alternatives” they get panicky, and long before you get to “wrong but only because it injures your own heart” you've lost them completely. They want to be back in the comfort of the flock, bleating “Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!” together again.

The depth of ignorance displayed is staggering. A person asks, as if it was the most reasonable, answerable question in the world, “don't you think the Koran's effect on the world has been mostly negative?” The ignorance that makes it possible to ask such a question shocks me. We're talking about the foundational document of thousands of critically important institutions and scores of states, a document without which whole literatures and arts would not exist. In each and every case, you would have to investigate to find out -- what would probably have replaced it? Zoroastrianism? Byzantine Christianity? Some other cult? Would it have been better or worse, and in which ways? Where would world culture have gone under these other systems? Where would we be if, just for instance, arabic civilization had not preserved so much of Classical mathematics and natural philosophy? Would medicine as we know it even exist, without Galen and Avicenna? The questions are endless: I could fill pages with them. And each one would be rife with imponderables. Someone-- and this is a college professor we're talking about -- calmly undertaking to evaluate such a thing as a yes or no question in a Facebook comment thread makes me unhappy and nervous. Maybe civilization has ended, after all, but we've been too polite to mention it.

When I write something like this post, I'm usually a little physically under the weather: in fact the very earliest symptom of a viral infection that I get -- before I'm aware of any physical symptoms -- is a tendency to carp and blame and find fault, in my writing. I am, at any rate, short of sleep. I've spent this afternoon dozing at whiles in bed, listening to the rain tapping, reading the last chapters of a biography of Wodehouse. (Almost always a melancholy thing, reading the last chapters of the biography of someone modern. You already know it's not going to end well, and there's generally twenty or thirty pages of depressing medical history to wade through.) Crows complaining outside, justifiably, of the interminable rain. Perhaps I'll doze again.


As eggs move down the oviduct
they’re smeared with calcium gel;
before they can be untucked
they will be sealed with shell.
A hermetic, airless nativity:
all birds are born in captivity.

In response to this Morning Porch post.

Sunday, April 03, 2011


Circumcise, therefore, the foreskin of your heart,
You quoted from Deuteronomy.
And no wonder you feel ghostlike, you said,
when the convenant at the root
of the three great monotheisms,
which you can't accept and yet
can't leave alone, concerns
a body part that you don't even have.

And I said -- made stupid by anger --
are you really all that anxious to join
the genital mutilation club?
I don't think it will fix being a ghost.

I don't think it ever worked for that.
I hear you, but the whole
business, even
watered down to a bris, is a piece
of self-defeating self-ghostery
if I ever saw one.

And you said “Am I speaking Klingon?”
And that was that. No conversation to ensue.
Fair enough. It's not my faith,
not my gender, not my business.

One does soon start to speak Klingon
when one picks up the terms of another's faith.
I've seen it often enough, the bizarreries
of karma misconstrued as justice,
or selflessness as nihilism; it might be better
if we all just bit our tongues. But

this I am passionate about, this business
of ghosts. Once out of your body
you will do no good: no pope, no holy lama,
no blood-ritual however tender the part
to be torn, can change the ghosting
into something good.

And it's not so hard to lie down naked
and let a servant touch you humbly
(I'm lying, it's the hardest thing of all)
And know that you are nothing, nothing
but some scraps of flesh, until that
homeless, wandering thing,
is called back by the oiled hands,
the lavender or sandalwood,
of some quite ordinary creature:
and the scraps themselves begin to talk
or possibly to wail: ghost made flesh,
or flesh made ghost, it doesn't matter,
never mattered, never will.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

My Poem-a-Day

There are several NaPoWriMo, or poem-a-day, sites, for people who are celebrating National Poetry Month by drafting a poem every day. I've been very kindly invited to participate in some of them, but I don't think I'm going to. I know I don't have time to read that many poems: I may not have time to read the poems I already know that my favorite bloggers are going to produce. April gets kind of nuts.

I'll be going along as a freelancer, or a fellow-traveler. I'm not doing it as a discipline. I have lots of anxieties, but the one about not producing enough poetry has not yet bitten me. I don't think I should write more poems. Probably I should write fewer.

But I like writing poems, and I like the way everybody gets a little wacky and loose when they have to write that much, and I don't want to miss the party completely. So I'm in, more or less. Happy April!

The other April poetry thing I'm doing is the Via Negativa book club. It will be tremendous fun, and I'm looking forward to it very much.

Advice from the County Extension

Consider the Eater of Hope
How he lingers in the dark threads
of water in the cracks of old concrete

How he crawls head down, like a nuthatch
on the trunk of the world, searching
for plans and little grubs

How his translucent eyelids
flutter pinkly in the midday sun
that causes him such pain.

Consider how he edges backward
along mildewed porch railings,
inviting memories to take his place.

He prepares a honey stick
for termite mounds and
hairstyles that don't work out:

No one has ever claimed
he is not clever with his hands.
A pamphlet from the county extension

advises not leaving your laptop open
with affectionate emails displayed;
not kissing in public,

and not reaching to stroke the
delicate involutions
of the ears of the stranger

sitting in the seat
in front of yours, who
is reading Middlemarch on the bus:

once the attention of an Eater
has been attracted, they say,
it is very hard to shake.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Egg Thieves

Snow for April 1, fine, but I want something crazier: egg thief in a tree, yellow dwarf for a sun, a message in lights from every false god. -- Dave Bonta, Morning Porch

There are so many egg thieves.
It may be how we began
our own career of rapine,
and we still like to start our day
with a stolen Icarus or two,
some children of flight, yoked
to our gratification.

Something crazier?
A yellow dwarf for a sun,
who only hints at evening
of her rage for destruction,
how she intends to swell, and redden,
and snatch us from the nest.
Not now, but soon; soon,
as she reckons it.

Gods are never false. You can hear them
intoning the lines of Polonius:
... as the night the day
thou canst not then be false to any man.

So there.” And then they hawk and spit,
a bit of April snowfall for a joke.

Still, there's always someone
cracked enough to climb
the legs of Tonans, trembling in the dark.
Crawl up and hide behind his eyes,
(after leaving a terror-pile
of steaming scat behind), thinking
that in the morning, when the marketplace is full,
he'll think of something -- something,
somehow, for his god to say.