Living in history
Under the hanging tree
one hundred years and nearly dead now
where light catches slivers of vertical swing,
we almost hear the whinny of horses,
almost feel the prickle of sweat
on the backs of our arms, claw at invisible knots
chafing our windpipes.
We sift ancient dirt with our teenage sons
beside us, scraping for arrowheads.
Their careful, carved planes whisper
of a past we cannot quite decipher,
its commonplace crimes.
We are too raw, too credulous to do more than guess
how Natives foraged here and danced before the hunt.
Their painted bodies and the grim
Jim Crow south, its dry tongue,
and marching women stifled
in hand-sewn banners:
these are stories to us. The city’s tall shadows
mirror the land in reverse, her buildings
chasms of imagined lives on the ground,
our survivors’ shame,
found stones in our pockets.
“The moon is no door,” Plath warns us
of madness. First wife in the attic,
under key, whose golem pleasures
will not be reasoned to silence,
frightens God and man.
They deal – brother, uncle, father, lawyer –
trade her to profit all around.
How their masculine shoulders
quake in merriment!
They shake on the dowry,
slap one another on the back,
seal their fate with hers.
Humanity leaps to the tune of that laughter.
She studies fire, hones the murderous urge,
loveless satisfies gravity’s sentence.
No new wife born of bone
to acquiesce can measure
ties that bind evil to dust, can curb man-
kind with a civil tongue.
Lilith in the attic eats barbeque, yet:
sets your barn, your goods, your household stuff,
your crazed children aflame.
For her and for Rochester, born the same,
dust and breath, there is no escape, no past, no door.
All time is present time.
Her lust is consummate.
Ravine 6, Potiphar’s Wife
Barely urban, bored with the house,
its dry settling and tick of mantis wings,
she, little schooled but with much to think of –
what colors must be mixed and cushions sewn
to brighten a dark bedchamber, darker night –
while he snores under the great weight of his belly –
her beloved, lamp of nations, reviews accounts:
pastures, tenants, grains and wools,
payments in cloth, gold sent from the king,
domestics – himself, one wife – she
tallies in silence the bricks of slavery – auditor, architect,
never a choice; in another century she might have faculty,
forum for the mind, a place fit for geometry.
Instead, childless, near forty, she can ponder no further
angles with what means are to hand;
to have this boy, comely and wise in youth,
trace his form with her fingertips, taste his words,
so measured, so few in her mouth;
for him she will tremble; while he, boasting to an audience
of one, himself, taking pleasure in knowledge, not in flesh
of her desire – to fulfill it would end it,
even when she enters nearly naked his counting cell
to deal in pledges, hold his lists to the light,
snatch his veil, he demurs, protests, flees.
Then the mob comes for him.
She holds out his rag in evidence.
Town gossips witness – street trial, cuff and drag –
climax for a story’s end broken too soon.
Idly, now, she may mock him, in conscience force
his aspect if not regard. Dissatisfied with the nothing
that comes next, follow-up to spent passion,
she studies dark triangles
between everybody’s legs.
She stands with us in judgment of the law.
Between pumped-in rivers,
shoots of plastic palm, of orchid
buried in shredded cardboard,
green Earth under glass
requiring neither decay nor death
desire – endless – determines
help from harm, fair from foul,
Before that fatal first bite
she does not understand
what she is ready to do,
can not measure a good God
against a scoundrel.
For it is He still in those days,
He who constructs set-up, no-win,
hardening hearts on purpose,
who plants yearning and defeat
together in the same rut.
We like to think since that long-ago
betrayal, S/He has evolved, like to think
the puzzling name promises,
“I will become,” not that low-rent pledge,
“I’ll be there,”
like Michael Jackson song.
Not yet concerned with justice,
only obedience, primitive king,
human weakness is foil
to displays of power
and the garden a swindle from the start.
Willing to pluck freedom,
love the binding force,
for so she is made,
not guessing what suffering she might gain
in exchange for choice,
not knowing, quite, what suffering is,
she does eat.
Anna Davidson Rosenberg Prize 2017 Finalist
When you enter (Ki tavo)
you see them, living in tents,
their lifetimes’ wages vanished
in a flash of fire. They haul water
from the leaden, asbestos rivers to wash garments,
bathe children and wounds, boil for rice.
Perhaps until now you did not understand chance,
its delicate character. You studied Victorian novels and acne,
holding a mirror to your back.
Decades tumble inward with all their plans and furnishings
you want to say to your young self,
that girl wrapped in reflected light.
Instead, you pass without her noticing
into the displacement camps, into heat-blasted rubble,
into contingencies as they are really lived,
the weight of promise the yoke
that sets you free.