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When you enter (ki tavo)
You see them on the news, living in tents,
their lifetimes’ earnings vanished
in a flash of fire. They haul water
from the leaden, asbestos rivers to wash,
bathe wounds, boil rice.
Perhaps till now
you did not understand chance,
its delicate character. You studied
Victorian novels and acne,
holding a mirror to your back.
with all their floor plans and furnishings
you want to say to your young self,
that dream-swept girl
wrapped in reflecting light.
Instead, you pass without her noticing,
into the refugee camps, into heat-blasted rubble,
into contingencies as they are really lived,
the weight of promise the yoke
that sets you free.
Landscape with scarred trees
A brickyard thrived here once, a factory and farms, families.
Relics from abandoned lives, a disused well, an empty cattle trough,
tacky plastic toys made in 1950s Japan with neither memory nor voice
carry the marks of experience. An image, like an object or a person,
may be made to work. A machine may recognize love.
Once a year, the City comes with trucks to plow down brush,
keep the man-holes clear, put in a new layer of cover on the trails,
tearing at trees, so many marked already by storm, ill-planned trials
at logging, poison ground water. There are survivors, burnt beautiful,
black and gray.
We walk among these mute stories at the pace and pitch of intimates,
our feet dislodging shards of broken tile. This terrain speaks:
leavings of animals, water dredging up for recycle submerged shoes,
lost tires. We speak: what grows here that may be eaten safely, epigrams,
tales of Baltimore.
One time, you discovered a rowboat. Crane-like, silver, the sky behind you,
you find with your camera a world hidden from me. I see you, as you
cannot see yourself. “Ah, Bukowski,” I remind you, a horned tree,
naked now, in autumn, the flesh of its root blushing red as a blood orange.
You laugh, but neither of us knows what to say after that.
The Human Office
Lift your chin in sunlight,
turn south, leave it behind.
At night, they say, he beats the newborn for crying.
Bound to everyone – contracted to chance –
a dark parking lot, keen blade, rough bomb
knotted beneath a bumper –
to those who know you by proximity
asleep, apartment building in flames,
or intimately, sidewalk daughters,
braids swinging under a winter sun,
car behind, swerving, bottoming over a curb,
the fine grain of their skin,
a steel wink.
You carry other people like sharks in a handbag,
risking with every choice the hard slap of betrayal.
Strapped to your hip, they crumble
like that lawn spreader, beat to bits with a mallet,
duty, or love, become
the pistol he held to your head.
Jacob and Esau
Brothers meet as enemies on the field,
joined by yearning, not prayer,
neither by will; they cast their weapons
to the sands, howl dry-eyed in each other’s arms
with voices of infants, sham lachryma for parity.
Soldiers and traders, tacticians
ever respecting the sword that takes from behind,
they compete for blessings, tarry with strangers;
let love lie fallow, perhaps in twin-talk, subliminal.
Content to barter birthright for a bowl
of lentils, tomorrow’s fulfillment today,
even in the womb their mother’s torment,
what really happens between them
we cannot tell. Is it with justice they remember?
With forgiveness? Shame?
Do messengers pass among shifting piles of earth?
Maybe they square off, square it, not with one another
but with the duality in their own hearts.
Clan tenderness binds them, embracing,
hung together by the feet.
“Art in Public Space” and “Landscape with scarred trees”
Buttons were the first things I searched for after she died.
Two dollars my mother paid me to sort and match,
thread sets together from a feathered spool,
confront the meagerness, the mind-numbing repeat,
two days of it, breakfast to bedtime.
She handed over money with the usual regret.
“Always in the moon,” she said.
“You didn’t even try.” I was a big-time dreamer
born on the wrong day.
Every year, now, I grow more ashamed.
It is like you are dead, or would be so
if only you’d – shut up. You know
it never really was what it was.
It must have taken a lot of chewing to choke that sinew down –
you were built for racing,
not talking – a boy who paused so long between speeches
I’d forget his Low Country burr
between them – I’d have to learn you all over again. I think you are
Count losses, girl –
a drawer full of buttons,
and a boy swallowed up by the man he has become –
cloud sky over South Carolina
pierced with one hundred gray sunbeams.
There goes a state prison convoy of six white vans.
Somebody sings. Somebody cries.
Above Hukte Ajaw’s court where the air stinks
of rotting flesh and rubber, darkest night of the year,
the sky is potent with cold.
Our astronomers fix the time of sacrifice,
time for the judge’s sharp whistles, the slam
as the ball, stuffed with the brains of the dead,
ricochets against sloping stone.
Once through the ring is all there is.
You’ve practiced your whole life for this loser’s joke –
costumed, absurdly masked, belt packed
with home-spun rags. Childless, you ape pregnancy,
waddling wide-legged, teasing your tongue
in the scent of sausages and fried maize, challenging
to laughter the chit-chat of families with no son or daughter
in the center, prattle of people with nothing,
in this moment, to lose. The regent is planted
on his dais, legs firm and upright like two pillars.
His flags wilt on the arms behind him
in the only world that matters, the only world
you know. And when his minions have cut
your heart from your body, the steam of it rising
in the mythic air as they pass it from mouth to mouth,
when your skull has rolled down the chiseled steps,
the crowd cheered and scuttled to their dim hovels, turned on television,
the forest stretches its vines to cover those who loved you,
who carved your name on a rock.
Tiresias in his youth is an uneasy figure.
Blunt and showy, with one sun-dark eye,
mask pitched together for a sage part, he casts stones
where none can read them; he files sharp
the horns of mercy.
The Janitor summons us from a squat on the playground.
You should have heard our lot, speaking Greek.
He tenders a prophecy, and demonstrates with a clean cut.
What’s left rises to the air in a scatter of feathers.
Stare at him straight, you’re dead.