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.
He was the pearl she boasted, whom she lifted from clay
with a word, like God, from evidence of worms,
his beauty got neither for work, nor trade,
gift from the reach of a hand.
Had she powers, she would have sung
enchantments to the hole in the bottom of the sea,
seen all the ocean sunk, if only he
were sheltered in the sawdust of her palm –
in time, made coral of his bones, a spotless pearl
of that one eye, of his contours, cells – caskets
where we dwell – seen not
the pearl is also shell, mere stuff,
coffer we hold, jewel we mourn, account its center lost
when its roundness rolls away from us in the grass,
vanishes in the ground.
Each of them has his own room, here, his own cardboard pallet,
drawer. A mirror above a row of pipes reflects disorder’s emptiness.
Ideal Music, the shop next door, has electricity.
Sometimes late at night they can get inside, turn on lights, play records.
Once in a fit of drunken nostalgia for childhood,
for bottomless night and stars, Reggie busted out
a window over the enclosed alley between stores,
while Goose, weeping in Spanish for the cuts on Reggie’s hands,
leaned against the rain-soaked wall eaten with black mold,
a man in love. He pisses into empty beer bottles, sets
his good boots in a corner, still brushes his teeth. For him, their abandoned beauty
shop is World Navel, Jerusalem, their threesome a Sartre play – book
she’s never read – and the rooms are drawers. His mother lay him down
to sleep in a drawer, he’d told her once.
When she was a little girl she imagined a found life in household drawers,
their low ceilings, landscapes within them shut. She conquers her fear,
now, by opening, emptying. Reggie and Goose make cushions
from the contents: shreds of wallpaper, palm- size flecks of lead paint, leaking color bottles,
Styrofoam crusted with dried Chinese take-out, clothes or a lone shoe
discovered in the streets and carried back. On rainy nights they rip up these beds
for toilet paper, or shit out that broken window. Reggie’s vomit
stinks and then dries like a jack-less
telephone. These are toxins of particularity, poisons within the self.
Beyond these walls, it’s a nightmare staying alive, toxins of survival.
Goose is next door playing records. Music leaches through the walls:
Partridge Family’s Greatest Hits, Jerusalem of Gold.
An ice storm is coming.
They park near Oakland Cemetery and set out walking
toward the old, dead railroad,
embracing there, in the cold,
and she remembers a first snowflake,
a wheel, lit upon the sleeve
of her father’s overcoat, Indiana in winter.
This man’s beard is red, not gray. His mind is
not content, like her father’s, but a head beam, tearing
over tire lots and boarded up grocers,
unflagging in its search, dissatisfied with everything,
dreading what’s mechanical in human touch, un-oiled squeal
of forward movement, howling for comfort.
They baffle the rim of the buried rails with their boots,
hint of moss in the falling snow, like postcard lovers daring
the edge of a summer sea, eager
for heat to wash over them,
but heedful, also, to warning,
carriage too far, too fast, alone.
Come get your things before I put them out
in the rain, you want to say, your face
in the mirror white enough to frighten milk.
But every time you touch the phone your capillaries shrivel.
Last night the witch almost got away
clutching your daughter, sliver of silver, white-armed,
It’s too late, anymore, for latches or key codes.
You strike him to stone with a glass of hurled milk,
poke the shards, grown doughy
with so much water, through a grate under the street,
but they cling to your wet fingers like resin.
You have to shake them, shake them loose.
Now, perhaps he’ll rise severally from the sewer,
tear through the countryside with his brothers, stomp villagers.
Your shilly-shallying carries off everyone.
You clasp the phone, tell him: Don’t lie.
Your skin pricks in the super-heated air.
Her lips are white.
She’s so gullible.