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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.
For Ed Hall
Wash hands of him, rip collar,
band one arm in black.
Every year say kaddish, and press
a stone into the ground.
You saw his stumble on the down
step – a Mobile city bus –
two years old, but already wearing his father’s
sins – indistinct, sleepy, immobile
with Norman Rockwell crack,
his mother’s rage, “Get your black
ass up,” what the world will say
if he falls – dreaming – of red hair and freckles,
promises exed. Of course,
she turns on him, tears that calendar
from the wall, pops his woolgathering
the fisherman and his wife
An old joke: three Natives sitting on a riverbank
discover – washed up – a brass lamp. When they rub
its tarnished sides, poof!
pops a genie with three wishes to give away.
One man pines for home, the Dakotas,
and vanishes instantly; the second the Carolinas,
his tribe – and he’s gone – kaboom!
The last, none too bright – a Navajo –
this is a joke about Navajos –
asks, ’Geez, I sure miss those guys, innit?
I wish they were back here.’
That water should yield vain magic we accept
because, perhaps, like searchers in fairy tales,
we have already what light we long for
shut up within us. The fisherman’s wife, held close
in her father’s house, deems
poverty a curse, dreams
watering flowers with a garden hose,
then a tower and blue-jacketed courtiers
toting her jewels on a cushioned platter.
This wife’s lackey spouse, ordered about by everyone,
we side with him, share his embarrassment
having to ask a fish for a penis
for his wife, although she takes him to bed, after.
She must be King, Emperor, Pope, God –
while with each turn of fortune
she grows more dissatisfied. We understand
she in penury is like God to begin with.
And we wonder, as with the genie, how it is
an enchanted fish (for certainly it, too, is like God),
can help others, but not itself,
or why the wife sends the fisherman with her questions.
It’s not like she doesn’t have the balls.
When I was a child I felt bad for God.
I pictured him alone in watery depths, like Jonah,
scribbling the Law. In my father’s library
gray-green tides rose and grew black with prayer;
I didn’t have it, what you need to piss on a wall.
Shut-mouthed, I copied out rules for myself.
When I grew up, I built my house by the ravine
between electrical towers
and the McDonough penitentiary.
The fisherman’s wife turns on a wish toward her poor hut.
I barely knew my mother.
What does wind represent? I ask the class.
They are reading Jean Toomer.
‘Freedom,’ one says, and as I write it on the board,
my puerile self awakens
leaping in a backyard clearing,
nearly swept away, but not quite,
in the heavy winds before that tornado, so long ago.
An aborted bath,
a child naked and dripping –
pajamas tossed down stairs, blanket, candles –
she’s tucked up clean and safe in the surrounding alarm,
The morning’s palm fronds fan under a crucifix.
Then why not say so? I ask the students –
‘Change is coming!’ A rallying cry.
‘It’s poetry,’ they let me know. ‘And code.’
Language and politics,
they’ve got that right,
and are right without knowing
the lies I told at school next day,
and the next year in another classroom
half a continent away, Providential lies,
lies that change nothing in the straitened
confounded landscape, lies
that make me the center of the story,
important for five minutes.
Rough as a dog’s embarrassed cough,
the catch in his throat is his name.
His love, at eighteen already botched by time,
flimsy talk, street-smart posture,
her name is song, arpeggio
declined. We peep around the pages
for an entry point, with eyebrows raised
in prurient curiosity, compromised
just in looking, no longer free to judge.
Beauty and sorrow joined – they’re not what you think.
He can’t fake monstrous
salacity well enough to convince even himself.
Pedestrian lover, salvaging the moment
he lost to narrative inevitability, to art,
despite unworthy objects, in the end
admits he is only, and lately,
We stand at the river, honeyed land before us,
half listening to promises
and threats from our ventriloquist hatchet-god.
Those who remember shoulder to stone,
tumble of horses under the flood –
these ones are dead.
Manna grows from their bones.
We, first to hear, must rout
golden cities of the plain,
empty the land of them, claim
home we yearn for above all things,
home we have never known,
say to those cringing under our swords
your hectares are mine because they are mine,
given to me
lest desire become contagion.
But we prove stiff-necked
and argumentative, trade in feeling,
know pity – how one loss ravages community –
crave human faces, human
hearts, human company, cups raised together,
touch of hands,
and in this choice, we are ruined.
Late afternoon, dry leaves on the hustle,
sky like newspaper bleached
of language, clouds heavy as message bubbles
from an unfinished
conversation, its author dead, she who rang
a bell for supper, steam rising
from wash on the line, home-sewn dresses gone stiff there
among the diapers, rags that must be used
and used again,
if, indeed, we can say, with ourselves
as less-hampered evidence,
she – buried in the scents of house and field,
child-rearing, petty dictates – perhaps well-intentioned,
perhaps a a hoof in the small of the back – one
reading of the world and its meanings
untried, in a workroom that never was,
with pennies earned, but not remunerated,
may or may not have owned
in silence, a construct.