Two spirits preside over most of what I’ve done in what has been genrified since 1992′s Flash Fiction:
These were my stereoptic lenses for re/viewing the South many years after the Depression/New Deal, and a country/century away from Follain’s childhood. I wrote a bunch of character/cityscape sketches around New Orleans–on Jackson Square park benches, on the Desire/Elysian Field busline, on Royal Street, in the Napolean Bar, in a Rent-a-Wreck car among the projects where the Prytaneum was envisioned, and never built.
In a way it was exorcism: to flush the narcissism of the generational McPoem diagnosed by Donald Hall. I gave up poetry’s first-person (and much abused) lyrical spotlight for fiction’s third-person invisible point of view. I hid my experience, buried my feelings in the blink of perception–tried to ‘blend into the tapestry,’ as Zbigniew Herbert characterized his unfortunate valet. Fundamentally, I wanted to import Barthes’ camera lucida to portray a culture anyone could recognize no matter how far outside it they dwelled.
Funding for this project (finally published as The Effigies) came from the North Carolina Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts. A fair sample of The Effigies can be gleaned online via the “Robert Hill Long” quote-google; since I no longer have the files in a format my Mac can digest, I won’t post any here for the time being.
However, the documentary character sketch in cityscape–as collected in that book, 50 pieces designed to be coherent in narrative tone and voice and culture –is just one of the ways I have deployed short prose.
Another strand is apocalyptic, hallucinatory, lyrical, disjunctive, and has more to do with ‘outsider art’ or ‘art brut.’ I learned it firsthand from my grandfather McKendree Robbins Long‘s late project to paint the Book of Revelations, second/third-hand from artists like Dubuffet and Rauschenberg. Here are 2 examples based on the 3D works in Fimo figures mounted on a wooden background by Victor Faccinto:
The country of the dead has grown big as the rings of Saturn though no one can see it. Not with a telescope, not with a microscope, not even through a sniper’s scope. The dead push against the surface of the dirt, grassy fingers splitting the sidewalks; they hold us up for death’s inspection. But death isn’t a star, or a virus, or the back of president’s head being blown off.
If the fear of death plumed out in the ocean sky like New Jersey soot we could fly into it with sensitive instruments and get results: 1,000 miles long, 10,000 feet deep, so many parts per billion. We could announce that the weight of the dead is melting the polar ice, and who’d blink? They fear belief in the dead worse than they fear death.
The dead are at hand before dawn in swampy outskirts where the ground trembles and stinks of coagulated gases: neon leaked from sour bars where the drinkers pack knives, scars and unkillable grudges; methane of failed chicken farms sagging back into the kudzu; acetylene of Appalachian carbide dumps, growing more flammable in the morning drizzle. To trust the dead, you’d have to wake in a dark boardinghouse where the fumes of an unlit furnace have filled the halls like the muzzy blue breath of god.
You’d have to light a match to ask who’s there.
* * *
The answer blows everything back to limbo: pet fish, blue combs, a 45 of Jan & Dean’s Dead Man’s Curve. Back among the unbaptized abortions and pre-christian poets tumble the sharkteeth the retired sailor kept to remind him how he hated the sea. Back into the whirl of Mesopotamian alphabets fly the garnets and rubies and tourmalines the landlady kept stuffed in her lingerie drawer. Back among the ghosts of Kamikaze Zeros shot down before they crashed into their target flies the snotty kid’s dinosaur-finned pink ‘58 Dodge. Back into the charnel of prehistory’s total animal kill flies the solitaire deck off your insomniac bedspread. Back across borders invisible to the living fly the snake-ribbons of blood, blood that gives voice to the used-up dead who’ll immediately surround you with their gibberish of hard luck, hard questions, fingers that brush your cheek like frozen air. You’ll have to stand in line to be admitted, holding your blown-off legs and head in blown-off arms; to pass customs here everyone has to repeat his story, in Urdu, Swahili, whatever language—it’s one nation at last, and even the stammerers and the witless get to shout and weep and drool without limit, because here there’s all the time the world doesn’t have. An eternity to admire the handstumps of Cambodian lepers describing how the soldiers torched their colony, or the charade of the Zulu boy miming the jolt of police electricity applied to his genitals; to crouch by the animals segregated by their bewilderment at being gassed, drowned, shot, skinned.
* * *
But at last you’ll rejoin your kind, the ones who huddle near the entrance that won’t let them out, taking refuge in the old time-serving stories that place and name—with longing and lethal hindsight—their complicity with death: If I hadn’t drawn the Jack of Hearts on the Biloxi steamer. If I hadn’t jumped that train in Albuquerque.
Hell is a story condemned to be repeated as soon as it’s finished: the dead stand face to face, unable to listen, unable to stop reciting their idiotic mistakes. Take your place, and the rag of your voice, and begin:
I dreamed of a golden swing, suspended from god’s eye, where I sat, made young and naked and ready to be returned to the blue ocean hole of things invisible and never to be seen, so untouchable and perfectly poised to disappear that my past life seemed like nothing more than a goodbye kiss, and all that was left to for me do was wake up and light a match to see if it was true.
Let’s say that sex is a tank and love the target. So it was your mother your father was firing at, but you survive, crawling out of the rubble of heaving flesh to join the walking wounded.
Years accrue to you, bringing small dividends: chores, hobbies, bad habits, night fears. Pennies drop into your hand for performing small miracles of evolution: tying a shoe, not hitting the cat. You learn to use speech like costume jewelry: bluff, showy but basically worthless. One year your pleasure consists of netting minnows and laying them in twigfires to watch their eyes explode, the next it’s finding a girl who’ll touch your minnowy sex long enough to make your eyelids wobble. And school? a flat-tired bus that was supposed to get you somewhere.
Your father goes out face down: business failure, heart noises, he careens around the den like a blubbering balloon, striking lampshades, drapes, the TV, all the air gone out of him. He taught you card tricks, how to pull coins out of people’s ears. In the the mirror you inherit his snake-charmer’s smile. At the grave, you imagine the insurance agent flying overhead, unloading the death premium, all this green confetti at the final parade.
In one funeral dream you speak backwards, crab-walking toward a black, still ocean whose waves are carved like fins and do not break. In another, your mother mangles lullabies, legs twisting into a wet tail that thrashes the carpet, mouth elongating into a siren wail. In the last, you’re farther north than you ever meant to go, zero-numb, watching the borealis writhe in an inhuman sky, swallowing its infinite tail.
But every day you wake face up with nothing getting obvious except that the future isn’t waiting, it’s running away.
* * *
You keep a deck of cards by the bed, draw your day’s luck: deuce of hearts, deuce of clubs. Black queen says mother dies, red queen says you inherit the house. Red king says take a job, black jack says don’t. Two aces say marry, have kids. The next time you draw them they dictate the loss of a daughter, divorce. Cards—like dreams, like words, like people—require too much interpreting.
And then every card repeats the same thing: white pills beside the swimming pool, white pills.
* * *
Down you slip along the narcotic dream-spiral: you’re the winged unicorn among trees blazed with dollar signs, where a snake hangs with the diamond of happiness between its fangs. You’re the slippery ax lying in a froth of dismembered women. You’re the snake-charmer with a telephone between his legs, talking long-distance to your children trapped in a burning TV.
The farther down you slip, the darker and windier it gets, until you’re on hands and knees in a huge tunnel, trying to dodge the objects tumbling past: golf clubs, photo albums, a Hepplewhite sideboard smashing itself as it bounces. The wind rises, lifting you bodily into a cold current of air streaming with bits of world-detritus, glass, bones of rodents and tiny fish that tear at your clothes. Higher still, near the center, you hang in a dead man’s float beneath a stream of disembodied words moving faster and faster until they form a single unbroken wail.
You grab onto anything you can hold—broken scissors, a snapped ladder-rung, a number 2 pencil you used in the third grade, a heart with a nail driven through it—but the wind blows everything away, taking not only your clothes but your hair, lips, skin, and you realize this gale is god inhaling, ingesting, the python-gut that vacuums everything. And here’s your ticket blowing into your hand, the suicide king from your father’s favorite deck, scribbled with his gambler’s will: I could be you, sucker—and you let go of it, finally you let go.
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- Some of these apocalyptic pieces derive more from experience/ observation than from the works of of other, mostly older artists. The following piece appeared in Turnrow 3.2, Summer 2004:
The space after Jesus the child prodigy and before Christ the perfected man: that’s the ellipsis. Youth: a wandering amnesia, a kind of absence…? Three periods for the lapses of biographical time, and a question mark overlooking them like a shepherd’s staff.
In the earliest icons he’s in relief, seated in a vesica piscis, an elliptical space for one. His horizontally extended arms and flattened palms balance the sharply tapered top and bottom, these extensions clearly imply the cross. And also maybe the predecessor of the cross: the intersection any life makes with the horizons of past and future, the familiar steepnesses of spirit’s sky and body’s underworld—
God’s crosshairs aligned on your heart as you drive toward another funeral, or recall, in a wan, computer-lit cubicle, a really good beach kiss.
But this Jesus appears to offer a divine shrug. The kind of shrug a son gives—unshaven, grime-headed, oniony at the kitchen door—when his parents demand to know what he’s been doing the past several days. How would he answer? I tried being human, and it killed me?
* * *
His eyeballs are uncarved, they have the glazed almond emptiness of boys I knew who got heavily stoned beneath Crystal Pier and stared too long at solar glare wavering on green Atlantic swells. The beach patrol found one naked at the uninhabited north end of the island, he had dug a sort of cave under the dunes.
He was chewing on glasswort when they drove up, with half a razor clam he was carving into his leg symbols he knew from a Led Zeppelin album. He’d lost a nice lump of hash while he slept, but sleep was just another enemy; the devil had come to him in the shape of a manta ray and a nurse shark. Atlantis, he told them, luminesced beneath his body in the black surf, all these tiny ephemeral lights, like New York City glimpsed from the moon.
He had begun to break a few weeks earlier. He stood up in the smoking area at high school and announced, “I always knew I was going to be Secretary of the Interior….” He beamed into our Marlboro-fogged faces, tears shining. The words that followed this prologue were insane, but he looked happier than anyone I had ever seen.
He had just finished the first day of his new life, handing out Children of God pamphlets in the school parking lot.
* * *
Maybe Christ’s uncarved eyeballs are rolled inward, like an epileptic’s. Maybe divinity is a series of seizures translated into fate.
Where do you find him once he stops looking at you? Under a rock, one claimed he said, with the earwigs and millipedes. In wood you split for kindling, so the pentecost talks tongues of flame from your fireplace. In this way and that, he intimated he would be everywhere, waiting. So why not as a nurse shark?
Why not as the flaring ellipses the sun writes on oily swells lapping the uninhabited north end of your island, and no patrol looking for you in the one hundred ten degree heat?
Why not as the razor clam in your hand, that carves ellipsoids into your leg as though it’s your piece of monumental stone?
* * *
Vesicant, next-door neighbor to vesica in the dictionary, is anything designed to produce innumerable blisters. A chemical warfare agent used to destroy both outer and inner tissue.
Once the vesicant is detonated—given optimal atmospheric conditions— everything at ground zero and downwind means one thing. One question and one answer for childhood, youth, old age, godhead, this life and the next. The skin and the lungs, the eyes and the throat will all know the same word at once, though the word will be insane and the speaking of it a thousand small fires.
The need to cry out then as strong as the impossibility of speech. Each blister an eyeball that sees nothing but blind pain. Or else beholding, inside itself, a tiny sea where Christ is walking away—
We have no hard data. All we have is what scientific theory affords the imagination.
And what imagination, with a shrug, gives back to its devils.
- Turnrow 3.2 also contains a fictive treatment of a document by a Texas death row inmate, Billy G. McCune: Orientation Sketch with Key, Inmate 122054, Wynne Isolation Unit, Texas Penitentiary System. Most of this piece is documentary, i.e., based on correspondence in Danny Lyon’s photo-essay Conversations with the Dead.
- Finally, the parable–sometimes tragic irony, sometimes travesty + pastiche/vaudeville (think Zbigniew Herbert or his American heir, Charles Simic)–was my training ground in short prose as a genre distinct from verse. Here are a few examples from the 1980s: “And Still Champion,” “The Three Names,” and “The Sphinx.”
AND STILL CHAMPION
Blue Buildings, 1988
Solid as a power pole planted in the canvas glare, his black torso sweats creosote. A hundred motionless suns focus on his agony, and the cries of bettors ricochet around the coliseum like locusts in the scorched weeds of August. His left jab is a live wire wrapped in black rubber, his right a ten thousand volt generator waiting to explode on the slightest human error. Night after night he takes whatever the promoters send him. Last night it was a million dollar fist, tonight a five million dollar fist. He tells himself that the face does not matter except when it offers him a lightning advantage: opponents are one color to him, the color of bruises.
* * *
Before his last title defense, he dreamed he was a utility pole alongside a hot empty highway, connected to other poles strung out to the horizon in either direction. Ahead, poles were tottering, falling over; behind, poles pulled him upright, rigid. The wind hummed across the wires. When he thinks of this dream in his dressing room his arms feel heavy, his legs wooden; his own nerves might just electrocute him at the first drop of sweat in the ring. The security guard at his door is not there to protect his solitude but to make sure he doesn’t escape. Worst is the noise of the fans, which already gnaws at the walls. Any minute now he will have to expose himself to that swarm of faces which are tiny, colorless, hungry for nothing but a fall.
THE THREE NAMES
- The Sun,1985
The name bound to an infant’s wrist at birth is simply a device for humiliation: scrawled by an arthritic claw in a hundred year old family bible; called out amid jeers in a schoolroom smelling of chalk dust and ammonia; embossed on the card which the grown man presents to doubtful strangers.
It’s the chipped white plate laid before him night after graceless night.
* * *
When the name the dead gave him dries up a man takes a new name, secret to himself, through which he approaches the ancient unspeakable longing for everlastingness. Murmuring this name, he daydreams another life made of running and sleeping on grassy slopes overrun with honeysuckle and berry vines and the sudden appeals of a meadowlark, until the name lies so deep that to overhear it casually pronounced on a commuter train erases the face of his wife, the names of his children, even his dead mother’s voice, and he is left with the endlessly wide berry-strewn slope, fragrance of vines and running water, the small shrill bell of the lark.
* * *
What overtakes a man is also a name. But all through his life it resembles an ordinary gray butterfly: it floats, unnoticed, at a window of the church where he is married. It perches on a thistle in the weedy lot where he plays tag with his children; it rests on a piece of cake during the speech given at his retirement picnic.
One day his granddaughter traps this butterfly, brings it in a jar and runs back to play. It’s an afternoon of iced tea in the lawnchair, his wife hanging bedsheets on the clothesline. He shakes the butterfly into his palm.
On the top of each wing, a tiny sun; on the underside, a moon. The wings beat no faster than his heart. Wing-dust darkens his fingerprints.
A wind rises, bearing mingled aromas of ammonia and honeysuckle, and deep in the hill behind the house he hears a pealing, muffled but huge, as though all the dead meadowlarks’ songs had been compressed into one bell beneath the earth but now the bell is in his chest, its sudden heavy clangor compressing him into one small cry that flies to his wife—who glances over the clothesline at a butterfly, tiny and gray as an ash, beating against her clean sheet.
- Flash Fiction (Rose Metal Press 2009)
It is not true that the heroes died because the sphinx was terrifying to behold or her riddle too hard. When one sauntered up, full of youth bravado, she put away her knitting needles, folded the wings behind her back and asked in a demure voice where he had been so long and whether he wanted anything to drink. At the sight of milk dripping from her full breasts, he fell into a speechless baby-gurgle and in a day or two died of thirst at her feet. Oedipus already knew whom he was going to marry: he simply wanted lion-claws and eagle-wings to impress her.
* * *
Nor is it true that the sphinx killed herself because Oedipus used her to perfect his habit of drop-dead retorts to every question. Yes, his indifference to what she might do afterward, the way he averted his eyes when he answered, these things infuriated her. But not even a myth of guilt existed yet: destroying herself before his eyes would have been pointless. Instead she assumed the formlessness of the horizon. From this vantage point she could survey the whole course of Greek tragedy degenerating into barbaric romances, situation comedies, thirty-second ads for hair replenisher.
* * *
She is still there, shawled in heat-shimmer or in a cold drizzle. Though her milk dried up centuries ago, it still gives her pleasure to watch the tiny hordes of question marks trying to approach her, like tourists. At sunset it is possible to imagine her faint, flushed smile as she savors the moment Oedipus raises the familiar knitting needles and plunges them into his eyes.
- :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::
- What follows: a random selection of flash pieces published since 1990 or so, but otherwise uncollected.
- From Peter Johnson’s anthology The Best of the Prose Poem: an International Journal (2000; available on Amazon/Kindle), “Small Clinic at Kilometer 7″ and “Doing Hatha Yoga.”
SMALL CLINIC AT KILOMETER 7
It did no good, the mercy dream. The belief that famine’s dry ocean of sand and wind could be diked by hundred pound bags of enriched flour, sugar, dried milk. The erection of surplus surgical tents across the river-border from the guerilla actions, the efficient arranging of cots, plasma drips, bandage storage, the effort to keep as many of the wounded out of the monsoon, out of the sun. No good, the slow resisting of rage, the kindly cupping of each hand in prayer while facing the shot-up outskirts of the town, as though to hold water out to a thirsty sniper, and see the rifle laid down, and water taken as a final covenant.
When the red bandannas agree to lay down their rifles for sorghum and millet, then we see the ditch just behind the treaty table. In the hands of the all-mercifuls, hard currency and flexible guarantees to whoever would lay down his flaying knife and drink the clean water flown in on white cargo jets, and promise hand over heart to employ the knife to dig seed holes.
* * *
The president’s wife toured the facility, laid a sunscreened hand on this forehead and that shoulder, five minutes were allotted for her clinic walkthrough. There were so many photojournalists trailing her, they could not help stepping on the hands of some of the stretcher cases laid in the tent aisle. They knocked over a tray of syringes and injectable vitamins onto the plank walkway, the boots on glass sounded like teeth breaking. The helicopters were landing, they had to hurry. One of them looked backwards, pulled out a wad of local cash and tossed it at a nurse, begging pardon.
* * *
Bring the boy forward now. Let Nineveh see the number of bones it will take to purchase truth. Tie him to the hood and tie the girl to the trunk and rear bumper, and drive each street of the old city’s square mile. Under your breath repeat O King of the age, these are the names of the bones only. O King of larder and pantry and silo and freezer, swollen with drugs and cowfat. Whose decrees part the air like knives part yellow fat from bone’s white.
This was your son, this your daughter, every bone of them ready to dance for gladness at a feast, to run carrying good news west and east to the farm and the fishery. What is it to sit under the high awning, on a hill bearing your title, and watch the knives flash at either end of the valley? Is it to see your word remain bright through the dust of children running? King of sweetmeat, of custard and egg and white crabmeat. If strong hurt calms, then all your children will know peace to the very bone.
DOING HATHA YOGA
Unroll the mat in the basement, tell myself OK Go and lift my bulk into the shoulder stand: aiming feet overhead till they drain white like water-lotus roots strung up to dry. Come down, evolve through a bestiary of postures: belly-up fish, cobra swelling to strike. Hover through locust, through crow, stretch my neck to a swan’s, my legs to a peacock tail; lick the salt from my graying ape-muzzle. Then relive the inventions of men: the bridge, the wheel, the plow, the shooting bow. Hold each pose for all the sweat it’s worth, flushing each image with blood. After thirty minutes, salute the sun and gratefully sink into the corpse.
* * *
Read their poems aloud, use the force and stresses gathered from a life resolved to the high, dry divide of its middle years. Don’t let them see the icy rock, the few alpine flowers you’re allotted. Walk among the seated, deer-nervous bodies, touch shoulders lightly, the old mammal reassurance: Once I sprang through lowland woods, too, and scared myself. Sit by one and say, “Show me the face you had before you were born.” Pronounce her name, and nod, and ask, “How does a mountain teach a deer to sing?” Surprise her into the utterance that will revise her into a human, a poet. But do not ask her to breathe the thin cold air you inhabit.
* * *
If you can imitate deer, you can counterfeit human: you can buy Safeway foodstuffs, crossing off your list, steering the cart with your daughter hanging on its prow. You can prepare meals for strangers as though they are the only angels you will accommodate in this life. Your daughter and the daughters of friends, pick them up, drop them off, dance, mask-making, fairy magic parties, let them develop the talent for doing without you. Read the bedtime stories with faithful inflections, as the small blue-furred monster, the flightless bird, nasal and hugely naive. None of this is to be remembered. Not a single errand or shred of altruism, none of the consolings or funny voices, not a drop of sweat. Whatever falls to you, as inspiration or work or counsel or song, will fall away through the stone cracks, it’s best to let it fall to the strange angels and animals below. What can a divide do with its ice and snow? I write on the blackboard. Resolve it into water and air, and let it go. “That’s a heroic couplet,” I point out.
* * *
Don was the name the newscasters used—I don’t know what name his mother used. I used Don when I spoke to him. My teachings were good and Don was too far gone, or else Don was straining toward a zero-degree atmosphere above my resolutions of rock and ice. Which of these wrongs accounts for the pistol cocked and tucked under his chin? If each day is bullet, he wrote, each second is a grain of black powder. His notebook was cross-wired with injunctions to purity black and tiny as Bible sentences and with vinings of insane metaphoric desire. On an empty page I wrote, We’d better make an appointment together. But he didn’t show, not as a deer or a swan or a patient student of mountains: instead, on TV, he showed me the blank face he had after he died. Oh Don, this page too, and all the moves I made on it, is another exercise that ends in prostration.
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- From Manoa, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Summer, 1997), two works: “Paradise in October” and “Golden Eagle, US 30.”
PARADISE IN OCTOBER
On the skin of everything, a cold dew.
On October’s last umbels of lace at my feet. On the black burnt-out sun of the dead crow’s eye, on the bundles of foot-sized green blades I kick through, which cut nothing but the light coming down to them. Moving my feet is my only excuse for claiming a difference.
But that reptilian Datsun truck parked in the meadow, rust-spotted, missing one eye, and its owners—the thick-sweatered, white-headed couple—the sheen of eternity is on them like a solvent. Under the only apple tree in a surround of firs, slow, with boxes and grocery sacks, picking the wormy, green-skinned windfalls—
I’m glad they found it before the November rains, and the winter’s frozen rains. Still enough flex and reach in them for the man to kick his half-full box toward another scattering of wet green globes, to stoop and glean leavings even the crows don’t want. For the woman to reach up into the low branches, as women like her have for so many hungry generations, to find the one that still clings, closest to perfection; the one that does not want to fall, but to be plucked and weighed in the palm of a desire this ancient.
* * *
And I am glad to see the tree itself: thick, healthy, and warped as a bedpost off God’s first lathe, an effort from the age when God was a student with tools and no teacher.
The only subject thinking in all that dark airlessness, trying to turn out one true object: something that could sustain itself outside the astral museum, outside the black untouchable walls of God’s thought—and God finally understanding that for the object to exist apart from the pure airlessness of thought it would require light, air, and water.
That the solution to the problem of creation would require the very things that would dissolve creation, solvents that would, on cold mornings, cling to the skin of everything, condensing and shining
on this old couple who heft their goods into the back of their truck and who will live this winter on apple sauce, stewed apples, apple pie, and count themselves lucky because their truck still runs, and their roof still holds, and their backs still bend, and their mouths can still shape laughter.
* * *
The slightest of mists rises out of the boxes and sacks in the back of the truck.
Their own breath escapes the barely-opened windows, a slight mist that rises and dissolves as they back out of the meadow.
A sign of acceptance of the old covenant between things in the world of dew and the one thing always outside that world; a signal from all things that change as the light changes to the one thing the light does not touch. That arrived before light, that will leave after all the light is gone.
* * *
The apple-gleaners are gone. And I can be gone too, fulfilling my part:
The one who came at everything the wrong way. Who asked the wrong questions, made the wrong sacrifices. Who too soon or too late saw what he should not have seen, and was driven out, and walked up and down on the earth, between remembering and forgetting, kicking through dew at sunrise and dew at nightfall, through the little transparent globes of dissolution on the skin of everything, apple-leaf and apple-bole.
I judge myself footstep by footstep, by words that will never be mine but once tasted good in my mouth.
By the dew that is cold on the skin of everything. Except the sun. Except the moon.
GOLDEN EAGLE, US 30
Like seeing death hitchhike—the long shred of your wing lifts in the smelly eddy of a cattle truck. At least there is no homelessness in your death. Even this parched strip between a human ditch, a human road.
What would you have done with a city beneath you, Euclidean idiocy of lines canceling out every sign you could read? What would you do with refuge, the confinements of legal sanctuary? In the city we fail you, you will not pass.
City or no city, whatever holds to the sky better than us we bring down. In these shallow ghost seas, short-grass remnants of the interior ocean, we can hurry through a test of what it will be to do without you, anything like you, anywhere.
The red car baits the asphalt with a fawn, then cars of every other color pass to lull you with spectacle, and when you land a black car takes you out. The loaded cattle truck comes next to claim the passageway for our appetites.
My place in this line is the chronicler’s. Another time it will be to set the bait, or to kill.
* * *
I take two parts of what you were to hang from the rearview mirror. Feathers and the quill, which is a spirit-trap, the buoyancy, the lift, those gone breath-things. I quote: I did not like where I just was, I do not want to be where I am going. Ash and chalk can talk, and death can hitchhike. Death can draw lines, and define sanctuary, and wilderness.
I have never used your name to pray with, and I’m not about to begin now. All I do is what humans do when the desert stops them, confronts them with their earlier doings. They look for a sign of forgiveness, or refuge, they look all around their feet, they glance around the sky. Or they scrabble around for something to sacrifice, and hold it up for inspection.
I’m holding it up and nothing else is looking, see? It’s just riffle and bone now, idiot gesture, smashed odor, it cannot be angel stuff. I’ve sacrificed nothing; nothing is appeased.
And the small silver car bearing one of Death’s secretaries flies on two feathers toward Idaho.
* * *
Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, all the narrow roads where human impatience raises dust—nothing answers it, nothing appeases it. The wilderness was never listening to it, or to the dead wing lifted in the right-of-way. The wind is still the wind only.
And the wind is no one’s home—
No one’s home.
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- From Seneca Review (2007), “The Midden” and “Fraternal Arsenals.”
Ivory the back of her knee, parenthesis of skin I’d bite on a dare. Like what cements the oyster to deathbed pearlescence. In the bucket lie seventy-two separated wings, calceous, tumorous, still steaming from our blunt butchery. More fall each minute. New Year’s sunset on the Cape Fear, tissues of high cirrus flaring apricot above the Eagle Island marshes. We’re shucking oysters in the sandy yard of a house whose ground-dragging live oaks were acorns in the Civil War. Now the soldiers are compost, and my oldest friend’s wife trundles platters of fritters and slaw, nickers to her horse in the darkening paddock, jaws with the dozen or so aging friends and relatives whose conversations condense in low country chill. It’s her tall bare legs going, coming in long equine strides that spear the oncoming night and me on their tines. It’s not the two dozen fresh sex pills I’ve sucked down, head tilted back, not my fiftieth year that will never come back from this sky opening black overhead like a mourner’s umbrella. Half the feasters are seventy-plus, widowed or soon to be. Tell them there’s a world with no new years? They know these dried-up rice plantations and paved-over Dutch bulb farms with both feet and each one of their kisses. The squat shoehorn knives click shell, tongue-shaped blind meat goes down where nothing answers. Underfoot, middens of oyster roasts pancaked fifty thousand years in the incommensurate respiration of sand. The unseen horse nickers back to the sexy, masterful voice at the top of those tusks that pierce my dryrot attic like flashlights—and then once more are legs, going, hefting platters empty as oyster ivory. Unanswerable desire sucks the eyes from our calcium heads. We are not acorn or oyster or horse but voices in the dark, fluent, fumbling, knives in hand, hungry for something we can never kill.
M the oldest favors a .25 caliber derringer in his pants opposite the wallet pocket: two rounds, hollow point, semiautomatic. Mugged, he’d toss the wallet to the ground, let the mugger stoop, then it’s two moves—point and click, stupid-simple as the mouse on his brokerage computer logged onto Dow, NASDAQ, Standard and Poors.
M presides over a private Merrill-Lynch investor group. For each client there’s a joke—the blind men playing golf, the disease that makes a man look bad but feel good. Good leather couches, crown molding and wainscoting, Greek statuary fragments in glassy walnut armoires. In the trunk of his Seville there’s an armory: 9 mm Glock, Colt Peacemaker, .50 caliber black powder musket, a civilianized M-16 without the rock and roll of full auto (but with 2300 feet per second velocity it can drill an 8×8 stud and ricochet off a rib into your brain).
Point and click. You go for the belly—big target, no one can stand a gut shot. Entry wounds intimate as a hickey, exit wounds like kidney surgery someone forgot to sew up. The derringer has an excellent safety: M can’t shoot himself in the ass in his computer chair or church pew. Never liked suppositories, he jokes. Factor in two Viet Nam tours—67-68, 71-72. His best portrait: bare-chested in the hooch, hoisting Kalashnikov with banana clip, a fifth of George Dickel. In his palm the derringer is a surgical instrument. Each night coming in, he removes it—keys, loose change, gun, headache powders.
* * *
The youngest, A, builds furniture in the country: an acre of perennials, cats, dogs, goats, laying hens and two peacocks. A has settled on the craftsman’s weapon: a twenty gauge shotgun for rabid raccoons, henhouse foxes, neighbors who turn into the drunk driveway at 3 a.m. and bang glossolalia at his screen door. The shotgun is parked unloaded in the guest closet, a gun his father bought him at thirteen. He blew out the chest of a pit bull that took his chickens and kept circling his yard carved out of the piney woods. At sunset on the Fourth of July he fires it. Thirty feet up in the pines, the peacocks scream. His wife calls, Time for a delicious cocktail! and pads to his woodshop, parakeet on shoulder, with a pitcher of Stoli martinis, Sicilian olives. His passion is tools—big man, sawdust hair, cascading laugh. He has more scars than M, most on his hands.
Sixteen, he stole their father’s Olds and packed this shotgun in front seat. He’d been arrested at the beach for felony possession of marijuana and intent to distribute, Don’t come after me, he wrote, I’ll blow my brains out. The note was printed carefully but taped at an ambivalent angle to the door leading into the den from the garage. When the fever came down, he parked the car and shotgun outside R’s house, walked home in the arc of a full moon and slept through breakfast as usual.
* * *
R, the middle brother, has surrendered his claim to dead men’s guns—the 1911 Colt .45, the 1876 Winchester, the 1780 double-barreled shotgun—given them up like the men themselves: father, uncle, great uncle, grandfather, forebears who fought in the Civil War, the Revolution, Indian skirmishes in the rocky shallows of the James and Rappahannock in the 1660’s. Faces like oak leaves fallen in the waters, caught in eddies. He gives up their guns but loves the weight of something that can kill close at hand.
Each day he packs two knives. On the keychain, a penknife forged by Emil Olsson Sweden, 1911, engraved with a rune of thorns. In the other pocket he rotates a Laguiole (spear-blade like mirror-shard, deerstag handle, backspring filed with curves like a meteorologist’s dream of wind) with an Opinel that corrodes at the acid thought of tomatoes and lemons, but can slice paper, carpet, pigskin, a single hair.
Edges lie everywhere. In his roadbike saddlebag there’s an Oldtimer filched from a dresser-drawer (full of bullets and cufflinks) of his brother-in-law after the choking accident. In his own dresser drawer there’s a Finnish fishknife, a Ghurka beheading knife, several mammal-skinning knives. Does Apollo want to flay Marsyas again? He’s ready. In his car he keeps a throwing knife. When he walks the dogs in the pioneer cemetery he stops between two Douglas firs, pinches the blade and throws. Unsticks the blade, turns, repeats: twenty feet into the brain of anything. The black dog who likes to chase anything grows confused; she runs past each tree, finds nothing; at last she simply sits and pants. The white dog—deaf, nearly blind—none of this bothers her. She sniffs long-fallen stones.
Knives, R writes, are the jewels of men. The pen has a nickel barrel, an eighteen-carat gold nib. It, too, is a jewel, and his primary weapon, silent and intimate.
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- Michael Neff of Web del Sol and Del Sol Review has been a long-time supporter of my prose as well as my poetry. Here are the prose works that have appeared in Del Sol Review: “The Way I Chose” (DSR 1), and “Stop Your Sobbing” and “Color of the Heart” (DSR 4).
THE WAY I CHOSE
On two or three mountains she swallowed me. The world was simple and mountainous, it fit my knees and palms.
And after she rose and walked away with most of me inside, dissolving, the mountain held the back of my head long enough for me to forget that clouds were not all I would inherit. I slept, she let me sleep like that. Insects ate small insensible parts of me, but not the glory portion, safe in her.
* * *
Fifteen years walk from the last mountain to here: a beat-up table in the flat, grassless middle of a Willamette Valley field. A dog run, a fenced-in, treeless acre: my dog wanders it, white and alone. This seems to be the only safe place to write, depression eats so much of me at home. Eats my bones so I don’t stand, my heart so I don’t feel. Eats my liver, the old courage for ascending the snowfields of Lost Man Pass, taking the woman up there, needing nothing but her and the air, the height.
Here where the Cascades drain and subside, I understand I am not one whom mountains will inherit.
I understand that the old mountain-kind of love is a fault, as well as an edge, and to try to stay close to it is to be shaken and broken, and so removed from it as completely as the way I chose–which was as simple as waking, as walking: walking to work, walking a stroller, walking one child, then another, to school, and back. There and back, day after day, a simple inertial force, all the way down to these dry flats.
* * *
Yet it has magnified me in a way, now I am a kind of mountain to my children–gray, obdurate, slow and seemingly unchangeable. Massive and alone in the middle of the living room, in my chair under the reading lamp, emptying myself into old books. A presence whose weather is unpredictable, to be circled and approached with care.
They are still not old enough to see how easily I will break, but I am, and that breaking, if I’m lucky, is still a long way down to go yet. But when they are old enough, not even this page will show how much breaking, how much emptying and being eaten out I accomplished, to deserve that late and terrible ease in their eyes.
Which will be looking down, then, at something laid out: not like a map or a plan, but like looking at their feet, stopped in an unfamiliar field. A grassless, treeless moment, mostly fenced in–and somewhere outside its unfastened gate, a dog they can’t see, a white dog barking.
STOP YOUR SOBBING
It’s Jackie calling from New York: “Your heart,” she says, on behalf of my new underwriters: “Did you have a minor problem with your heart in 1991?”
And me thinking, Jackie, why New York? and No, I had a major heart problem in 1991, but it didn’t involve rhythms, blockages or enlargements. The fact is, Jackie, I forget, it was just a hiccup on the EKG. I tell her the name of my old New England physician–”He plays tennis with Richard Wilbur, how about that?” I say to be chatty; “Very nice,” she says, “Who is he?” and hangs up. Now she can sic a thankful insurance industry on my undependable heart.
* * *
Then B. phones from North Carolina: “This time,” he falters, “I’ve really broken her heart.” And as I push away the student poems and screw the cap on my pen, and settle into the arcs and swoops of his anguish, I imagine all those students counting on getting their poems back tomorrow, and how I will break their hearts in my tiny, ordinary way 1/by not giving back poems until Monday; 2/by giving back all the poems, but with cursory comments; or 3/by staying up all night, channeling insomnia into naked heart truths which 3a/they should never hear from any teacher, or 3b/they should always hear from every teacher, not just me, because if they hear those truths brusquely and often enough they might not end up like B. pronging every heart he gets near, or like Jackie, whose core has been reduced to old chewing gum by bureaucratic trivia, or like me: a marginal noise-maker, impossible to please, heartlessly crossing out line after line of their artless confessions.
* * *
And no matter which option I choose, no matter what B. admits and Jackie uncovers, it will be unreliable. I can already imagine the worst example–as B. details what he did, and how many times, with the woman two doors down from his family, on the carpet in her family room–and what I’ll be tempted to do to it in return: one of those sidewise comments, abrupt and slashing as a curse, about the misuse of the heart in a love poem: how it’s just another mistake, subject to gross enlargement, difficult blockages, and bad rhythms again and again and Jesus, it’s just got to stop.
COLOR OF THE HEART
The man in the plum-colored sweater squeezes lime through the cracks of his fist into a glass of tequila and grapefruit juice. The sweater was his father’s, boxed among golf shirts mailed to him on the birthday of the old man’s death. Since opening this box, he has been drinking his way toward his father’s last true size. He’s glad the sweater fits, though the plum hue reminds him of a tick fattened on dog’s blood, a tick you pry off and step on. Gold rings the sweater’s neck and wrists, light as the first downy mustache he coaxed forth at age sixteen. The only conviction he held, then, was in the pose he held for the bathroom mirror: I will never be what my father has done. What was it, but provide, and after work escape engineering blueprints in Golf Digest, in string arrangements of songs from the 40′s? His father’s meditation at age forty-six consisted of the trajectory of a Titleist, the slight fade at the end of its ascent, when it looks to slice into the woods but then drops-as though remembering an obligation-into fairway. Now the sweater’s gold wrist bands handcuff the son as much to his outlived repudiation of fatherhood as to the naked old body he turned on the hospital bed to relieve its terminal sores.
* * *
When he helped the nurse roll his father over, there was the radiation burn tucked inside a buttock the color of white butter. He shut his eyes, foolishly reminded of a beauty mark above the lips of a star brought close in movie-house dark. The burn was the color of this sweater he embraces from the inside out. But the face in the dark of his closed eyes, now, is a father’s, and its silent lips communicate the strange glory of the death-bed: how a son could stand this close to the back parts God revealed to Moses, and live. How the buttery flesh he held and beheld as it rolled, with an involuntary sigh, was his own, studied and filled and earned to the last inch. At the moment he re-covered his father’s nakedness, he saw his mother laying out the clothes in which he would continue-a slowly infolding embrace, a family story told in the night to no one until the bottle is finished, until he finds himself pulling the threads at his left wrist loose with his father’s right hand.
- From the first (no longer accessible) issue of Caffeine Destiny (1998), “Alma Botanica” (revised, retitled) and “Document 1.”
ALMA BOTANICA, AMAZON CREEK
Queen Anne’s Lace
Hello, heavy heads. They have not been listening. They do not see you bow through October toward the greater thing, because they do not bow to it. If they see you, they turn aside, for they hate to be reminded what supplication involves—they hate your hands on their ankles.
Their idols, the mirror the television the photographed acres of human skin.
Go on with your communal davenings in every direction. Go on observing the strictest rules of silence: the morning is not only human. When I walk among you, my head, too, continually down with you.
* * *
Touch shoulders, stand fast. A crow-sized wind plays your reel through the field.
Hold out all your arms, turn and quarter-turn. Pass the small wealth round. Tall is not all, smaller is safer. All who confuse their complexities with monuments or angels fall harder.
You are poor, you are many. Seeds are your eternity, the sun your coin. Pass it round, pass it round, hold fast. Lift your wealth until it breaks your arms, and then your backs. When the circle breaks, close it again, everyone sing what no one speaks:
Love does not need you to see, does not need you to move, does not even need you to live—
and the wind shall be your guarantee.
* * *
Black greens, black browns—we’re arrayed on ridges, enfilading down creeks, under a sky of bone ash and charcoal.
It’s not camouflage; it’s clan color. Harm one of us, you face us all. However many you cut down, the rest will not stoop: you have to look up. You will see how the whole sky considers our patient appeal, and your murderous evasions.
Yes, sometimes we huddle around the clearcuts, watching stacked bodies smolder after the rest were trucked away. Yes, we can be flayed, enslaved, deported. But your life is too short to encompass our advance. Maybe one night when you are driving north, the clouds will release the moon above the ridges and you will see our entire mass shift stance, and move one tree closer. The pang you feel then comes from not wanting to believe what even the dead bark of your house knows: what you always called wind and clouds is our breathing, and you do not live outside it, even as a killer.
It’s not too late for truce. Take off your shoes, wade into a creek—that’s a recognized signal. So is sleeping at our feet in a mummy bag; so is looking up and listening when you wake there. So is singing continually, under your breath, as you rise and walk further into our homeland, no idea where you’re going save that it’s oriented where our breathing began.
Word at the prompt: I was summoned to it at midnight again, up the ladder into the loft, where the last light in the new west coast house was the black glow of the screen awaiting a command.
In the ponderosa pine back of the house, the crows quietly accomodate their blacknesses to the rough black of pine branches and the smooth black of June air.
I ordered light onto a field of October corn in western Massachusetts, and broadcast into it little syllabic snows of detail: the orange flicker of a fox approaching geese dozing on the frozen pond, the ginkgo leaves blowing yellow around the whitewashed peak of the Schiefflin’s barn. Any command will do, as long as I am in Word:
Have the fox, in July haze, swim around the pond to lure its fleas onto its nose, and with a canine grin dunk its head to divest itself. Have our family remain in the yellow millhouse, content with the nearness of raspberry thickets and the tiny Romanesque library where they always seemed to be playing Barber, or Brahms…
* * *
(A few hundred yards uphill, the deer have moved out of the fir woods of Spencer Butte, they’re grazing the unmowed edges of the school soccer field, this is their accomodation with the dry summer nights. Tomorrow walking the dog up there I’ll find, every ten feet or so, their delicate handfuls of scat, dimpled and tapered like black chocolate kisses. The deer leave emblems of their understanding with our world, which provides sweet watered grass in the droughty months and retreats at night into the white of long books and the fox-quick flicker of video screens.)
* * *
…Have us wade downriver, stepping out occasionally on gravel banks, then re-enter the slow cool sorghum-colored shallows—ha ve us do that.
No thought losing our home, no thought of home or that night, or the next day’s work. Have that thoughtless, futureless ease happen, yes.
Have me set down Sarah on a gravel bank in her backpack, and lift her out to play with pebbles while I strip and walk into a deeper golden pool. Neither Seth nor Sandi will join me although the cold of six feet deep is delicious and I can see the red fins of trout fingerlings which slip between my wavery white legs—
* * *
(And here, feeding the computer’s memory in the skull of a house in western Oregon, I’m dictating disjunctions and impostures in order to survive any possibility of being wholly understood.
Which is how it should be, since there is no resurrection of the body, only an insurrections of its parts. A Sumerian alphabet of mice bones in the hay loft, a derangement of memories sprayed onto a disc of hardened silicon.
The red fingers of God’s workers move in the golden pool around the man’s ankles, rehearsing how he will be dismantled bone from bone, cell from cell.
It is good to see them there, they have not forgotten him, he will not have to reckon with any other sunderings but this transcontinental fragmentation, this gradual scatter of syllables.)
* * *
—no longer in Word.
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- From The MacGuffin (2000), “Southern Raised” and “Ikara’s Field.”
It’s strong like the thirst for heavily sugared tea—the call to be saved in the South of the flowering Judas that everywhere else is named redbud.
The humid tang of spearmint planted among lantana pulls the family out to the porch to feel the heat go dark in the pines, evaporating like after-supper sweat. The silence of heat lightning teaches the boy too tired and hot to sleep the distance between him and the last prophets to have the word direct. The whole summer night, katydids chant, He’s coming, coming; the cicadas will take it tomorrow, going off at noon like fire sirens.
At first light, there’s a titmouse at the bedroom window, Peter Peter Peter it sings. Then the tiny repetitive slam of black carpenter bees against the screen, the puffs of pollen shaken off their legs. In the south of the dogwood flowers tipped with crucifixion blood. Of the white beaches whose waves know nothing but Amen, and of sand-dollars cracked open to reveal the spirit doves. Where one word is savior, and all the rest its distorted echoes.
* * *
I was never saved, however many times I wanted to be. The last chance was early in high school: I came forward, as the evangelist urged, in a crusade among hundreds of teenage golf shirts and sun-dresses in the auditorium. The glow in my chest bones lasted as long as the walk forward with a friend to the podium. Then the Klieg lights turned on us in serious interrogation, and our alibi was no good.
After the benediction, suited assistants began separating us by age and sex in an empty fluorescent cafeteria: salvation was going to imitate a concentration camp. My friend rolled his eyes at me and we slipped out. He had stolen a pack of Winstons from his father and that, at least, proposed a world we could improvise in our own dark, with no reason to lie about anything more than how little we liked to smoke. It was what our fathers did in kitchens after midnight, serious and prayerful, as they waited for us to sneak back inside.
* * *
You can hear the children humming in the tepid gold trickle of a storm ditch behind their church, barefoot, carrying red switches they whip against the water. That’s what we have in place of cherubs in frescoes.
Inside the clapboard sanctuary, parents cool their faces with funeral home fans, mouths widening to stretch the monosyllables of the hymn they line out to. A melody that lifts and swings from side to side, like the heads, the shoulders, the hams on the way out. It is like hammock-sway. The day, they sing in a heat-flattened unison, is past, and gone.
I’m one of those squatting against the wall outside, waiting for older voices to summon us. I whip the dust with my switch. The song goes straight through whitewashed wood, you get the melody and sorrow long before the words. Our mothers smell like gardenia and flour, our fathers like golden tobacco. Jesus smells like everything and we’re so hungry. I had a tin cricket quiet in my pocket, now that church is over it’s okay to take it out. As I walk off with momma, I click it again and again. It’s long walk home; it’s a mechanical question I aim at the cypresses, and the tulip-trees, but I don’t want anything to answer.
Someone will fall here, someone small.
No golden age setting: no ocean, no cliffs, no sun at full mythic strength. Only this peeling facility set in a scattering of firs and post oaks. A few rooms with skylights and bright floor pillows, walls muraled with rainbows and clouds and plump cartoon birds. But with locks, too.
Late in the rain season, the month of mountain thaw and the brown swirl of creeks, the rag edge of a northwest town.
And a white room of instruments and medications, and a windowless examining room, a bed with rails and cranks and restraints. All of it on a rise approached by a driveway whose banked, gravelly S-curve crosses a slough.
Where someone fell, and keeps falling.
* * *
A girl this time, old enough to wander off, simpler even than others younger than her. Who needed a facility and supervision because she was so easily carried away by all she saw. Who wasn’t clear about up and down, climb and fall, near and far. So the sight of a crow swaying on a fir or the scarf of fog around the mountain five miles distant made her hand stretch out, and grasp, to rake it closer. But simplemindedness was not her first fall. Her first fall was being born.
The grains of wet sand they find in her nails and the creases of her wrists and palms might as well have been stars.
* * *
And who saw, each day the van transported her, a distance she was not permitted, a field. Not a field, in her eyes, but an emerald growing bigger as she wanders toward it. A living jewel, polished by rains and groundfogs, its edges ground by the teeth of deer.
But this time, no one else invents flight for her.
* * *
There is a father who supervises the facility, not hers. He is father to no one who needs these skylit rooms, no one contained in a syndrome, an irreversible condition. In the writing of grants and in the network of Rotary lunches and rolodex contacts he is patient, attentive, solicitous, thorough.
His own notion of flight and escape involve no one under his administration. No one in a wheelchair, no one whose mouth drools continually or emits a mixture of slurs and yelps, who rocks and hums in the sawdust under the swings.
No ocean involved, no cliffs, no sun, no wings.
When he leans on his elbows and rubs his eyelids, the desk calendar turns into white sandtraps and fast greens, the silence of the electric cart gliding under him. A labyrinth of carefully watered fairways in the high desert. He can project himself into that stillness, head down and slightly cocked, the loose prayer grip of the hands on the club, addressing the ball, composing the loft of his shot. At that moment the cicadas begin in the Ponderosa pines. In the high thin light their monotone is like a busy signal nothing gets through: not the scratch of his signature on hospital documents, not the laughter of Rotarians, nothing that moans or requires medication.
* * *
Her flight is more like a gradual and wandering beginner’s approach to a ski-jump. The attentive following of a few sprinkles of gravel kicked over the bank of the drive into the slough, her eyes following both open hands. The vision she’s closing in on, a jewel which grows more precious the larger it gets. Ten feet down the drive, it’s as big as her. Another twenty feet and it’s five times bigger. As though there for her to begin to see something about her capacities. Its very appoachability an understanding waiting to be given to her.
An understanding in which the white-throated sparrows participated, and the crows, and the bunchgrass and the grape-colored vetch, and the throaty hum of rainwater in the slough. An invitation for her to come stand on the place her eyes had grasped and transmitted throughout her arms and legs in tinglings.
That to go simply, without permission or help, would be her way to hold this thing whose appearance was enough to carry her away. To contain its immense complexity and carry it wherever she went.
* * *
Nothing else on view here across the slough names her. Not the unearthed surveyor’s stake, which lies across the jogging path; which has teethmarks, which happened to be dropped by someone’s puppy so that it points at the mountain. Not the deer hooves which also inscribe the soft shredded bark of the path. Not the small flemish landscape study of a leafless apple tree, uncultivated, willow-spindly, its last post-winter fruits thawed to a brown ooze barely contained in their leathery skins.
No museum to story her fall but the wall that grass presents to the downturned eyes. That the backlit overcast presents to the lifting up of the head when it has looked down long enough. Everything muted, subdued, damped down.
It is a public place, almost a park. No admission is required. It is not required that the joggers, the dog-walkers and geriatrics with headphones, admit anything about why they come here. What happened to her here was profoundly private.
Only later, when they lift out the small soggy body, and pass it up the steep banks, and take it away, does the quiet of the place take on the quality of museum silence.
But in this not-quite museum, no guards are necessary, for everyone who comes out of curiosity to this the field carries a guard within, silent, uniform, seemingly unmoved. Some, as they jog around the field and turn back on the three mile path back to where their cars are parked, look like they have elected to run just this far with that casual, determined jogger expression just to prove that their lives must go on, their good habits, that this is not only a place where accidents happen—
And why not? It wasn’t their daughter. Maybe it was no one’s daughter.
* * *
And I come here to speak, to dedicate a few words. To say what I see—living near the edge of the facility yard, and walking past it each day—in common words. I do not use the idioms of the rockers and hummers, the droolers, or of the grantwriters and gladhanders.
I do not use the breathless, speechless, determined aversion of the ones who run past, as though life can simply run past death.
An Anna’s hummingbird perches on the tip of a small dead fir, its preferred lookout. Occasionally it shoots straight up, and slashes this way and that in the air over the play yard. The wooden blue car-toy in the grass there is big enough for toddlers to rock in but was too small for her, I never saw her sit in it. The swings are limp on their chains. The beginning of a security fence going up where she went down.
No one else here for this dedication, but poets are used to that: speaking on behalf of someone speechless to no one listening. What I am speaking at, what I am here for, is a kind of opening.
I imagine that she is still opening over this rag edge of overcast, this corner of a rainy town.
That in her death she contains more and more of what she was not allowed to grasp alive, in the restraint of drugs and locked rooms, in the care of facilitators.
That the mountain is a green jewel inside her, polished by rains and groundfogs.
And the Anna’s hummingbird? it’s her eye now.
- :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::
- From Zzyzzyva (1994)
LITERARY POSE IN WESTERN MASSACHUSETTS
The dust from Melville and Hawthorne’s only open-mouthed kiss still blows around the Berkshires, so by now I must have gulped or sneezed it at least once.
Maybe I had it sucked through a window screen smack into my cheeks, courtesy of my contemporary blue plastic rotating fan, where I sit on the humid couch trying to get through the discursive parts of The Situation of Poetry (Pinsky, 1976) while Dvorak New-Worlds the humid, familyless room behind me.
In 1976 I wasn’t reading this book, I was licking Julia on a narrow bed in a narrow room since licking was the only way she’d come, and she had to come first to be interested what, for others, amounted to foreplay: rubbing my back ribs, lifting off my shirt, kissing my mouth to a depth lively enough to be a faint foretaste of paradise, or aftereffect.
The situation of poetry consisted of me being alone later, biking over the waterway bridge to the beach, to Shell Island to strip and drink Rhine wine, and enter into my green steno notebook tipsy imitations of Rimbaud (trans. Schmidt), or finding an empty bench on Johnny Mercer’s Pier and try to take dictation direct from the waves, the sun, ignoring the fishermen and the fish they’d tossed on the splintery planks behind them, in panicky croakings and gaspings, to die.
* * *
And isn’t it a shame how little good those kisses have done me, especially the dust of that unknown kiss by these men famous for things other than kissing each other. And perhaps it felt wrong one way and right the other—a familiar conundrum—or wrong in both the moral way and the way of desire. But for me their kiss while irrelevant is somehow hopeful: I still lose breath at the possibility of Melville’s tongue opening Nathaniel’s lips like the monster stoving in the Puritan keel.
* * *
And if God doesn’t, both these lipless ghosts must know how much, how (let me use the great pansyntactical word of our lifetime) fucking much I’d give my right hand or leg, both eyes, this rotten, drafty mill-house—one of my sometimes sweet children? No—to be kissed into fame by a hairless old poet, an impotent and diseased novelist, a harridan or critic or even, yes, by a murderously righteous disciple, I’d take that chilly night-garden kiss if it would Jesus me.
- :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::
- A microfictive piece from 1984, published in the (defunct?) Archive:
Abandoned, strayed, homeless? None of these. The peace officers were not bad men. The killing started in the kitchen and by the second afternoon had spread across five meadows.
By a window in the county jail, the old man counted shotgun blasts. What his wife did in her cell is not known.
It took four slugs for the larger shepherds and hounds, doped and tied to a rusty chair in the back yard.
* * *
No one should keep 41 dogs and allow their ribs to show, ruled the judge.
Each had a given name: Alfie, Buster, Cookie. It wasn’t names that got dumped in the truck and driven to the incinerator.
They left the bloody rope slung over the chair. Bits of flesh curled on the hickory trunk like a black fungus.
- :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::
- From The Sun (August 1995)
THE GUITAR SHOWING MY AGE
Marriage twenty, son eighteen, daughter twelve. The guitar thirty-five, older than sex, old as the pimply end of childhood.
Years paying it off, swearing it would be the last, the only guitar. (I shouldn’t have sworn. I had infatuations with a nasty black ax-shaped solid-body screamer, and with a piece of tobacco-sunburst f-holed jazz. I even had a cinnamon-skinned Brazilian classic I used to sling over my back, and walk around town, showing off my extravagance. But these were six-month affairs.)
Others took lovers to parties: I took the guitar. Its voicings were good morning, goodnight. Quick climbs and descents along the frets kept it in shape; blues deepened its feeling. The high bent notes that took my fingerprints off were its orgasms, its cries of rage and relief. By age twenty I could hear all the guitar could do without touching it. Without getting up or even opening my eyes, I could make a whippoorwill call of thin steel, start rocks sliding into the sea, echo the small cries of a woman on the riverbank with snow hurrying down into her hair.
I began to let the guitar show off, to let it be something it wasn’t. I smuggled LSD to England in its sound hole. Let a Dutch girl fling her blouse across its strings.
* * *
It played at my marriage, and as each baby came it learned a lullaby, but mostly it lay on its back by the window, staring at clouds.
By then my work was the white silence of the computer screen: newsletters, PR brochures, fundraising appeals. Each word worth a dime, each week I produced thousands, clicking them into pay for daycare, second car, bigger house.
The guitar came out for odd rallies—left-wing Nicaraguans, right-wing Poles. Less and less often my wife said “Children, maybe tonight your father will sing for us.”
* * *
I don’t have to unlock the hardshell case to see what’s wrong: neck bowing, spruce veneer cracked fine as the skin around my eyes. The guitar needs the punishment of daily handling. It forgot more each time I shut it away, each time my hands went out to the silence of keyboard letters, to my wife’s breasts, my son’s head, my daughter’s night fears.
Maybe the music is still in my fingers, and also the thing behind the music—everything I could hear without touching the guitar. But today I don’t want to get up.
Don’t even want to open my eyes.
- :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::
- From Asheville Poetry Review (1999):
You kissed a boy with a dove, that’s where it went wrong. It should have been an old one, out of the range of deep kisses. Fill a boy with that farther-than-sky flightiness, he thinks I’m limitless.
His hands should have stayed true to wood, planing the tables and chairs tables for human uses. His mouth should have opened between a woman’s legs, that famous passion saved up to kiss her blood off their new-born’s head.
Next to his thorny flowering—his barbed spirit-quills that fanned your light among the listeners at his feet—the old teachers seemed as useless and alike as fallen locust pods. He gave listeners goose-bumps: made them wish for feathers to sprout from each thrilled pore. He had to be broken quickly then, you wanted him broken, the bird-kissed boy. So all the followers would want to be soul-kissed, like him, into the one-way flight toward you.
* * *
On days like this I hear the dove clearly, as he must have. How far back that hearing sends us, that older-than-memory sobbing, a mother saying No, no, no to all she knows you’ll do grand and wrong, and to all that follows that willfulness being done.
It has always been much closer than it sounded. Hearing it has never done any mother or son a shred of good.
* * *
And at night, up the hill, boys climb into the back of a pickup, they’ve been drinking and aim to drink more, speeding away from town, mouths open to the velocities of wind, the one thing that fills them enough. They’ve got a shotgun for stop signs and railroad crossing signs and the yellow signs that warn about curves. In dove-season, they’re killers. In summer, they’ll crawl on their bellies for a soul kiss.
Between seasons, they give rebel yells, swerving suddenly into a cornfield, running down those rows of uniform green that stand for submission to earthly order. They swerve out again, higher up the hill, where the wind can teach them what it teaches the doves: how to evade everything in the world that wants to down them, how to move faster, steeper, more suddenly, like no one before them, ever. And where they’re flying, they believe in it: no one, they believe, ever wanted to fly there as much, or as fast as they’re flying now.
- :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::
- From Sentence: a Journal of Prose Poetics, #2:
How they drag out, these servitudes.
How they stiffen in the cold interval between us—theses nailed to the page like coyote hides to a barn whipped white by a Malheur River blizzard.
How little good one of them speaking alone can do, and how little more all of them talking in turn.
A scene of erasures and effacements, self-canceling indictments, predictable contradictions, like a parliament of ants.
And then I lean closer to the page and breathe on it, and it all dies.
* * *
I prefer the spore prints of Amanita virosa laid out on black poster paper in my trailer’s kitchen thirty years back.
Of cocaine graphing jeweler’s cloth one August midnight on Justice Street in Chapel Hill.
At least the spores of the destroying angel made wheels within delicate wheels, and outside the trailer window, the birches suddenly seemed to magnetize around my casual grasp of oblivion.
At least as Gordon’s flatbed truck coasted down the long hill past the Chapel Hill police station and I stood behind the cab nearly flying, and he removed the linchpin from the steering wheel and handed it through the driver’s window up to me, and I without skipping a beat inserted the wheel into the black plunging wind, we were both laughing.
Give me the white-on-black of pure death or pure high speed, right there on the table and in the midnight wind for the taking.
Not these dried black things I’ve pulled out of my hand, like nerve-wires snipped off and stripped of their colored insulation.
This trail of dead sugar ants, on its way to a cold cup of sweetened coffee, killed by invisible aerosols.
- :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::
- From the first issue of Washington Square (2002), “Dog Fable” and “Transi.”
Before accepting their money, she took the rug behind her roadside stand, jabbed her thumb and dribbled blood in one corner of the fabric. This way, she told herself, she could sell it to hippies and be free of a pledge to her son-in-law, who kept this rug’s twin on his sickbed though he was becoming a drunk since the tractor accident.
This entered my mind after the dog died, after my need to dig the grave through wisteria roots to the proper depth rewarded me with an explosion of lumbar pain. Zoned out on muscle relaxants in bed, it is much easier to levitate the rug—loomed, aboriginal earth—back out of the dirt, free of its burden, gliding it up from the back yard’s edge through the window, retacking it to the bedroom wall like a shamanic pelt.
The pattern is a sawtooth blue-black and the two hippies, ponytails tied back (the man’s hair black, the woman’s red), lift and fold it as though accepting a pastoral blessing from the woman who squints at their van, palm extended. These two, craving and sentimental, pool a week’s cash to buy this woollen altar on which they will fuck under the Arizona stars until the future seems mapped out as clearly as the summer constellations, their bodies connected by millions of pinpoints of light.
* * *
There are no stains left from that night of mistaken soothsaying, only the hairs of my wife’s dog who slept on it the last few years. She can hardly convey his death to herself, let alone to the ex-lover who lives halfway between himself and Thorazine in some California vegetable town.
Part Lebanese, part Cain, he believes the decades of civil war in Beirut have been conducted to teach him the highest, most silent suffering. And because my wife is a Jew, he must also bear the Holocaust in his hunched neck and shoulders—not only the tons of hair and shoes buried in meadows near the crematoria, but the dirt-weight of the meadows themselves, the grass-weight, the blackened bricks. The death of the dog, their long-ago surrogate child, would unhinge him, she says; she lies awake wondering how he’ll kill himself.
So it was up to me to pinion the dog’s brindled head in my lap while the vet needled poison into its arthritic paw, and feel a spasm pass through its shoulders into my hands. And I am grateful to these pills which stop the tremor.
The longer the hours stretch and warp, the better I can disentangle the rug from the small sleekness buried in it, in the grave whose depth wrenched my back. The two young hippies struggle on its bruise-colored geometry, fixed to my wall like not-quite chloroformed butterflies. The black hairs of his neck taper down his spine to a pool at the small of his back, as if hourglassing his ten-year slide into madness. Her hair scatters across the blanket, red embers that could incinerate them both, yet smolder only enough to torment memory. The sidewinder motions they press into a few feet of Grand Canyon-rim sand testify how hard it will be to let go of anger and sanity and the dog’s life they’re going to have with each other.
* * *
The woman nods inside her shadehouse, asleep by the cookfire, dollars and quarters in her apron pocket: skin and teeth of a dog.
If she could talk from her sleep to my sickbed, I’d want to hear of the time when a dog could speak, when it could tell the sleepers of their enemies approaching and lead them to safety. I’d lie there, back mending, I could ignore the smell of mutton smoke for the sake of that dog. But this is only my drug talking and dreaming. And I can’t hold these bodies aloft another minute.
The rug lifts off the wall. There, it settles in the back of the van, which grinds away through gusts of sand, losing speed on the climb toward a darkening plateau. The rug will bear the lovers elsewhere—a blue-black pattern of recurrence and closure, a sawtoothed world owing them nothing but a place to sleep.
The dog is tired, it doesn’t care which legend it’s in. Curled on the rug above the straining engine, it whimpers and trembles, dream-palsied. Then stretches its legs out all at once, and is still.
In the dark, blue branchings.
They could be veins, they could be vines. Waking here is like understanding death by finding oneself rolled up inside a rug being transported across a body of water. It isn’t strange enough to consider afterlife consciousness, you can allow yourself to inspect the threads and inner knottings and hookings of this experience. The light strains through, as though through a kind of cheesecloth the color of skin. And so you think of sea light and sails, and how a body not thrown immediately into the sea goes rancid and cheesy.
Among the veinings and vinings, a few gold-winged transformations: I must have been very privileged when I was living.
The figure of the soul in flight from death: it should refuse to be sewn down, or hooked, laid onto linen with linseed oil, ground earth, the whiskers of a scoured pig. Think of the soul’s tongue, it is so long, the only one suitable for the nectars of light. Think how it was transformed from a blunt butcher-shop lump, a lump that stumbled through the moan and slurp of language and hunger, an instrument crude as leaf-cutting mandibles.
* * *
The tongue of the soul uncurling, when it touches the nectar, feels as though it has dipped into a bottomless vessel of drinkable light. In the center of this vessel, another vessel which knows nothing of what bears it, where it is borne, what has touched it or what will touch it ever.
A vessel like a room, which closes on itself when it is not needed, or attended to.
Which, when it closes, closes itself on another world, a world where everything that happens has happened already.
* * *
And in this world they are throwing bound women and men off the deck of a merchant ship in order to outrun another ship, a warship which, if it reaches the merchantman before the merchantman reaches the Canary Islands, will sink it along with its able bodies, the ones doing the throwing-off, and the bound bodies, of which there are still four or five hundred.
In the warship there is a room belowdeck, shuttered and curtained against the Atlantic’s summer heat, and a man sick with blood poisoning reads, through the filtered light, of a similar story among galleys in the Adriatic two thousand years earlier.
His death in a foreign port is predicted there in a dead language, a language given wholly to literature and the breeding of gentlemen.
The slaves, as they are thrown like ballast to lighten the fleeing galleys, cry out through the same dead tongue, which describes their cries as barbarous howls, as the idiot moan of cattle driven toward the butcher.
* * *
In ordinary light and heat there would have been, at this point, the swelling and bursting, the odors that make us burn the clothing we wore as witnesses. The odors and their shame that let us know why the gods permitted no gift greater than a transformation as sudden as it was incorruptible. But this is a cooler, drier dark, like a catacomb. In here the skin of possibilities shrinks drily, draws tight around the white frame of meditation. The wet interior depths of emotion leach out so slowly that death becomes a mild and gradual transitive verb.
It will be day soon.
* * *
“Dying,” they sang in falsetto, in lurid satins, “to take you away.” I was talking about the high curtains darkening the bedroom where I lay with my back out, full of codeine and tetracycline, I would not die of the cutting into my foot. I had too much stoned leisure to consider the stitchery of butterflies, and remember the hammered gold birds of a poet’s afterlife, the transmigration of souls in silk shrouds.
The lines of slaves appeared then to remind me how much I need to sleep this off.
Not only the wound in my foot—caused by a sliver of nail migrating for fifteen years throughout my heel—but the whole intransigent tumor of history. And these continual abuses of, these injuries of vision. I had too much time laid out, I had to make it harder to see, I can’t just describe how slowly and precisely the Atlantic digests the bodies it’s fed. I can’t just describe the photographs from the churches, the use of heavily oiled fruitwood to carve the exact tightening and graying of the bony sacks dried in expectation of the waters of resurrection.
And displayed in the meantime as a warning to the vanity of vanities.
I’m sorry I was not talking about the human heart in any of these vessels or rooms, or any other figure. I’m sorry, I mean, I submit my incoherence to exonerate both your dignity and your gullibility. This night might not have looked or sounded this way if yesterday’s ordinary surgical pain hadn’t been transformed into a mild and gradual hallucination—
and then the pain pills wore off, before the night did.
- :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::
- From Quarterly West (1995), “Castle Street” (revised as “Horses in the Night” below), “Inventory, Fitzgerald Lake, on the Eve of Moving West,” and “Low Wattage.”
HORSES IN THE NIGHT
Infinite riches of a little room, Christopher Marlowe wrote, soon to be stabbed through the eye in a sailor’s bar, awaiting a spy-ship to France. Card-cheat, provocateur, blinded, dead. There’s no portrait to judge the look that provoked his assassin.
Whose room was his mind? A favorite prostitute’s—lying inside bed-curtains, smelling her toast and hot cider? Or had he committed the mistake of imagining himself the room where the Metamorphoses were conceived, the heavy oil and wine of the hexameters?
Marlowe was not past using Ovid to brake the velocity of night: Lente, lente, currite nocte equina. I turn this way and that on the skin of the same horse. I was in love with that mighty line. Outside history, outside language, what do I love? Not this rented room at roads-end: the drawbridge spine arches against my window, every car that crosses groans the same stertorous monosyllable all day, all night, and November lays iron against window and skin.
The river’s name is Cape Fear, given in the 1570’s by a seasick and terrified English naturalist in his journal as Promontorium Tremendum, when his brig nearly broke up on the shoals. English debones the Latin, pares it down: two long lone sounds. I lie on a rattan divan (Malaysian for climbing palm; Persian for governing council or booklet of poems) to think it through.
This leather divan is beach-house junk from the Gilded Age: generations of salt and suntan oil and spilled drinks dictated a genteel disguise of jacquard; I bought it for a song, tore it back to the original hide.
Lying on this animal essence should ease me, salty horsehair stuffing poking through frays and ripped stitches. It’s fainting couch, after all—a horse so tame you could ride all night and not get lost.
* * *
With a foothold among the living (feet hooked in Arabic curves of cane as though in stirrups), I start to write it out. That’s when other voices close my eyes to argue behind the red shutters.
In his curtained head, one announces. In his animal hide, counters another.
It’s Marlowe against Ovid, Marsyas contesting Apollo, and they’ve had too much to drink. I want to turn off the bloody neon that tells them I’m open all hours: they want me to wait in the cold; bring them another round; rush in straight onto the knife; pull the blade from my skull and write that. Then I open my eyes and there’s just my breath in this temporary November room. Morning—the dead horse delivers me again.
Filling the bay window, a 70,000 ton oiler manned by a dozen languages offloads the gold that lubricates empire. When it’s done, they’ll head for a sailor’s bar where any blood on the floor won’t be mine. This morning, the baseboard heater is covered in dead ants, two inches near the deep. The survivors maintain a formic track over remains, and keep the line moving. It’s no different than watching joggers along the river, except the way they’re overrunning their own dead requires a longer sense of what Keats, not yet coughing up lung tissue, called the lapses of time.
INVENTORY, FITZGERALD LAKE, ON THE EVE OF MOVING WEST
This snapped wing of a freshwater clam. This mushroom the white of unearthed bone.
All the goodbye an uninhabited place can give: small alms to lift up, name, let fall. Jesus, talking himself into homelessness on earth, said Shake the dust off your feet and go.
A short walk away, the yellow house made homeless by bare walls and moving boxes. Friends pull back from last hugs, last words and looks, they have homes to get back to, and chores, and dinner. What’s left between my hands when they go is a widening space that fits nothing. That can’t be placed at my age, this gray middle where arrival looks over forever. Where leavetaking everywhere is taking arrival’s sweet time.
As though to stop me talking to myself, two blue herons circle in, settle in the rushes. For them the lake’s wide blue thoughtlessness means nothing more than rest from flight. And the lake’s own breath rises invisibly, migrant clouds made to come apart elsewhere as rain or snow. As some of what I’ve done here, and done wrong, will come apart, one way or another, in the next house I inhabit.
Home: no holding it in the hands, those bare uprooted things. Not in the boxes of books, or the boxes of bedsheets on which we seemed to glue our marriage to that green upper room overlooking the Norway maple. Not in the constricted circlings and unsettlings of the heart.
* * *
The space of an ache would say something about its real span and duration. The problem is I’m talking about a kind of hand language again, the problem is that my hands were meant to talk to someone else. The coming down of the herons was a relief, but that wasn’t the reason they came, to relieve and console. The sky never uses herons to sign goodbye.
To say of a the shell of a freshwater clam that it is a wing wrongly exalts longing. It is a shell a raccoon stepped on and scratched until the hinge broke, and ate the meat out of, and discarded.
The mushroom has nothing to do with bone, it is soft fertile tissue fulfilling the code of its spores, where they settled, as well as it can. A piece of calcium transformed into a metaphor that fits a humanized heron, and a small fungus conscripted as memento mori? And both called alms, to let me be their beggar?
As though to reflect about the moment a certain kind of homelessness becomes a settled destiny required handy props that were equal parts flight and death, angel and skeleton. A reflection neither true nor accurate: it bluffed, it begged the question. But now I’m seeing my own hand, and now I’m showing it. I stepped on the hinge of my life here, I scratched at it until it broke, I ate the meat out of it.
And now I discard it, it allows me to discard it. And all this misnaming only shows how far I am from grasping the straw weight of the problem, the iridescent emptiness. How far removed I wish I could be from these considerations. How, sooner and differently than I wanted, I will get the necessary distance.
* * *
The name of the mushroom is destroying angel.
The name of any language of privation could be destroying angel. Or it could be the ache space, or it could be Home.
Whichever it is, it makes the same small white sound under the breath. When I whisper it enough times I can hear it in my chest like a wing, a wing made of bone. Wherever I close my eyes, it’s flying.
He created a small pulse of light as he moved, a flash between mirrors in the childrens’ bathroom, sparked by the night-light.
About the same wattage he would emit as a ghost, he thought.
The thought slipped upstairs, to the loft in starlight. It lay down on thick sand-colored carpet, shadowless, and told him how his light would be rendered in paint. It was centuries old, a candle-stub—Caravaggio, La Tour—, a face studying its paralyzed flame at close range. The face was his grown child, the thought said in night-light language. What does that mean? he asked, but the thought had already left the room for one faint star or another.
He could light a candle, if he wanted, and study his children asleep in their rooms. At his veiled light, they would not wake, but he might see them frown with the incomprehensibility he felt in the dark, reduced to ever weaker intensities of light while they slept.
* * *
The night-light lit another room in his head: his white arms swirling chest-deep surf on a moonless night, turning the black water a luminous green. A million plankton joined into an apparition the size of a human wing. He churned through black, unbreaking swells, walking backward, writing a passage through water with bits of live time, none bigger than a millisecond. He worried abstractly about barracudas or sharks keying in on the bioluminescence, but he had not even the tiniest open wound. He churned along, watching the green wake fade.
And now coincidence has carried him this far, into a few fitful flashings on the way to pee. Into the recurring colors of sand and bone, which mean the bleachings of afterexistence, the leaching away of light-emitting movement. Coincidence has written his books, and diapered both babies, and walked his wife heavily away from her mother’s open grave which was so wet the coffin floated, and mortgaged the house which at this moment belongs to moonlight. Coincidence reminds him of these idiocies, as he rouses himself from the loft carpet and descends among the few static, unreflecting lights scattered around the downstairs. The three greens of the wall phone in its recharging cradle, the digital blue of clocks in microwave and VCR, the red period of the switched-off cable-converter box, all emblems of the middle-class dream of commonality that consumes his work.
* * *
Upstairs again, the amber of the computer screen, and the cursory white of the explanation feeding back into his eyes—
Small amounts of light, and they move.
- :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::
- From Calapooya Collage, early 90s:
FOR THE ANNIVERSARY OF ANY THURSDAY OF CESAR VALLEJO’S LIFE
- :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::
- Bruce Holland Rogers and I have written a handful of pieces together, using the “I’ll write a sentence, then you write a sentence” model. Following are three of them: “Flood,” “Paper Boats,” and “The Smallest Thing.” Here’s what Bruce had to say to the editors of VerbSap about our meeting/collaboration: “Robert and I met on the pages of the W. W. Norton anthology Flash Fiction. Really. We had never met, but when our stories appeared in Flash Fiction separated only by Heinrich Böll, we began to have a conversation. (Böll added nothing. He was already dead.) Eventually, we began to write stories by each adding one sentence to what we had, passing the manuscripts back and forth.”
- From The Clackamas Review, 2006:
They met because they had both come to the same spot along the river to see how far the flood waters had risen. She was standing with an unfilled sandbag in one hand, as though it were a big purse the contents of which she had just thrown, one by one, into the muddy swirls. He said God made sinner love the river so that they’d build their homes in the paths of judgment. It wasn’t meant as a pick-up, but he had used worse lines than that. She didn’t encourage him, but she did watch to see which house he returned to.
He turned into a gravel driveway that wound through firs up to a small cedar-shingled confection, trapezoidal roof and windows, some of them stained glass—she’d noticed it soon after moving there, and remembered thinking, That’s no home, it’s some kind of chapel, or personal ark.
That night, the river breached the wall of sandbags. It spread across the gravelly flood plain like a silver-backed herd, and fed in the low meadows. And part of it wandered onto the road connecting their homes to the rest of the county, and turned toward her house. As though browsing, unafraid of humans.
She came outside with a flashlight to watch it, to breathe slow breaths of surrender. Her light caught flash of red among the trees—his jacket—and she went to stand beside him. “I never get used to seeing water do this,” she confessed—and immediately regretted it. It sounded too much like she was intimating words she had read or heard some actor say. But he barely nodded, knee-deep in chest waders, one palm held above the river as if to soothe it.
- From the online journal VerbSap, “Paper Boats” and “The Smallest Things.”
This wasn’t the story he wanted to tell. Another story about the great crab, the way it worked its pincers into love’s original body. He wanted instead to tell about yeast, how it swells the loaf and fills the kitchen with its breath. His mother never baked such bread—her idea of a kitchen was strictly cans, jars, packaged preparations. What kind of love was that? He needs to know because now he’s lost her. At the moment all he can remember is how, once a week or so, she’d hand him a bag of bread heels and stale bagels and send him across the road to their waterway dock, where it was his job to bait the crab trap.
One of his first memories is of an orange-tipped claw pinching his finger. “Hush,” she told him when he bawled. “Wait.” As her condition worsened, he’d found himself having to prick her finger for blood tests, and then having to withdraw syringes full of her blood, because she was too weak to be driven to the lab. He never had to tell her to hush when he gave her the afternoon shot of Demerol.
He lays the pen down for now and goes into the kitchen. The real kitchen, not the kitchen of memory. He slices a seeded roll in half. Real bread, not the bread of memory. And he stands beside the sink, now, chewing. A relief, to feel the tiny black seeds lodge between his teeth. Poppy is for dreams, or the end of dreams. Where his back yard falls away into arroyo and chaparral, he can see dozens of California poppies, waving small claws at the burnt edge of his lawn.
Crabs were free for the taking. With cabbage and rice, crabs made a meal that he could start cooking even before she came home from work. He’d half fill the kettle with water and set it to boiling. Later, it would be his job to carry the shells down to the water and throw them in. Shells weren’t for the garbage. “Everything goes back,” she liked to say. If the shells were still wet, they would plop into the water like bones. But sometimes he’d forget until morning, and overnight the shells would have dried light and airy. They sailed like paper boats. Or like the fragments of bone among her ashes. When he had scattered her over the water, wind had blown her ashes back into his face, dusting his lips.
THE SMALLEST THINGS
He sits at the breakfast table, warming his hands with the coffee cup and trying to remember a dream. He doesn’t hear her question the first time she asks it.
The dream had been about flying, he thinks. Or swimming. The sensation of weightlessness. On other nights through the years he has dreamed of rising like a balloon to drift just above the power lines. Sometimes he has dreamed of breathing water, of dozing at the bottom of a pool. Was last night’s dream like that? He remembers weightlessness, but no definite images, no story.
She has to ask a second time, and he says, “I’ve already seen them.”
“Not this morning, you haven’t.”
“No, really,” he says, “I saw them flying above the oxbow, I got up early like you said you had to.”
She says, “Come look again,” and turns toward the stairway, one hand extended. The stairs will creak and remind the bones of his body that one day he will be old. But he sets down his coffee on the City/Regional section of the newspaper, and starts up after her.
“Do you remember what you dreamed last night?” he asks.
She doesn’t answer, doesn’t turn. She has lost the sash of her white robe. She’s using a strip of red cloth instead. The smallest things can make him sad. In the photograph the nurses made of the stillborn girl, they had put a tiny red cap on her head—like they did for living babies, to keep them from losing body heat. The front brim was pushed back enough to reveal a tiny widow’s peak of fine, nearly white hair.
The upstairs ceiling slopes with the roof. One side is fitted with a scuttle that he has opened exactly once to watch the stars. At the other end, she opens the window and leans out into the rain. He stands beside her. A few cormorants still roost, black fruit in the bare trees. The rest are circling the river. “Do you ever get tired of life in houses?” she asks. “What would you give to be able to dive out of the air, right into the water, and under?” The fine rain beads on her black hair, it does not penetrate.
He wants to touch her, but doesn’t. He leans closer, but not too close. “I like the house,” he says, watching the spiraling birds. “I like having a refuge.”
“I dreamed something about a house,” she says. “Not this house.”
He waits for more. He keeps waiting.
The last cormorants are taking to the air. They turn greater and greater circles until the birds in the widest circle break off, a dozen at a time, and fly off to the west, towards the sea.
West is the direction of ending, of forgetting. In what sense can a forgotten dream be said to exist? A dream not remembered in the first hour after waking will be gone, irretrievable.
A God who knew all of our thoughts, a God who looked over our dreaming shoulders, He would remember. All dreams, and all daughters scarcely more than dreams now, would be known to God.
- :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: :: ::
- Here’s an orphan work from the end of the 70s, published in The Sun in 1980. It was written for my brother Anderson after he recovered from a devastating fall off a cliff in western North Carolina.
Another September, brother: the ironweed stiffens, a rag of mist flutters from its stem, torn from the gray quilt thrown over Grandfather Mountain. A redtailed hawk hunts its shadow in the overcast.
It’s true that I wandered, that I slept in the uncollected water of the fields, letting delicate ice lock onto my feet. Listen, the bell of a primitive church pealed this each day–already past, past and gone–and I would wake up haunted as the whitehaired thistle. Yes, I forgot you too, I let everything go but the spiders mending my hand to the grass. Where the fallen fences pointed I would trail through a splendor of straw and dusk, following the firefly’s curve of thoughtlessness.
When I fell and the blood came up at last, I thought nothing of laying my wounds to the earth and letting it heal over me. And when they pried me from the gorge to reset all the bones I’d broken like promises to god, I shrank from my body until it thinned to nothing more than old chicory, the blue face swinging on its cracked stalk….
I came to, but remembering myself is still a hard cold thing. The house squats over me like a huge stuffed animal, it numbs the need to survive; the fog reaches through the open window to swaddle my face in damp cotton. But if I start to yield, the hawk wings nailed to the barn say Don’t love forgetfulness so well–so I breathe an obscure white promise to you that renews itself as soon as it vanishes.
Come here soon, I’m ready to lean on you a while. I know I don’t say it so good, but you’re family, you know what to believe: after a fall like that, a man can squint into standing water and see many faces besides his own. Listen, just now a meadowlark sways on the rusty ironweed, brother, he’s looking right through me, repealing all the deaths I saved up until now.
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