Poem of the Week Archives

My heart has an Embassy

My heart has an Embassy
for Ecuador where I will seek
asylum. Earthquakes
and aftershocks undermine
my hope and my means to work
and the Americans
have wormed into my psyche
with their black knack at fear.
My heart has an Embassy
for Ecuador as rare in air
and sumptuous as the Andes,
as clear as the Equator. There
will be in it waterfalls
and jungles like salvation.
There will be friends
whom I owe nothing, no
famed bail, no knotty
knowing sexualities. My heart
has an Embassy for Ecuador
where there will be no secrets
and the truth falls down like water
from giant granites of despair.

from Correspondences

Sometimes we are led through the doorway
by a child, sometimes
by a stranger, always a matter of grace changing
the past, for if there is anything we must change
it is the past. To look back
and see another map.

Love enough to fill
a shoe, a suitcase, a bit of ink,
a painting, a child’s eyes at a chalkboard,
a bit of chalk, a bit of
bone in ash.

All that is cupped,
all that is emptied

the rush of water from a pump,
a word spelled out
on a palm.

The Work of Poets

Willie Cooper, what are you doing here, this early in your death?

To show us what we are, who live by twisting words—
Heaven is finished. A poet is anachronistic as a blacksmith.

You planted a long row and followed it. Signed your name X
for seventy years.
Poverty is not hell. Fingers cracked by frost
And lacerated by Johnson grass are not hell.

Hell is what others think we are.

You told me once, “Never worry.”
Your share of worry was as small as your share of the profits,

Mornings-after of lightning and radiator shine,
The beater Dodge you bought in late October—
By February, its engine would hang from a rafter like a ham.

You had a free place to stay, a wife
Who bore you fourteen children. Nine live still.

You live in the stripped skeleton of a shovelbill cat.

Up here in the unforgivable amnesia of libraries,
Where many poems lie dying of first-person omniscience,
The footnotes are doing their effete dance, as always.

But only one of your grandsons will sleep tonight in Kilby Prison.
The hackberry in the sand field will be there long objectifying.

Once I was embarrassed to have to read for you
A letter from Shields, your brother in Detroit,
A hick-grammared, epic lie of northern women and money.

All I want is to get one grain of the dust to remember.

I think it was your advice I followed across the oceans.
What can I do for you now?

from CHAPTER I, for Dick Higgins

Writing is inhibiting. Sighing, I sit, scribbling in ink this pidgin script. I sing with nihilistic witticism, disciplining signs with trifling gimmicks — impish hijinks which highlight stick sigils. Isn’t it glib? Isn’t it chic? I fit childish insights within rigid limits, writing schtick which might instill priggish misgivings in critics blind with hindsight. I dismiss nitpicking criticism which flirts with philistinism. I bitch; I kibitz – griping whilst criticizing dimwits, sniping whilst indicting nitwits, dismissing simplistic thinking, in which philippic wit is still illicit.

Skin

It wasn’t said. What we were, beneath the skin of our respectability. My father, a doctor, his accent learned from Indians who studied in England. My mother, a Mary Kay consultant: pink makeup kits in the living room, the paperback success story on her night table. How I dreamed of her winning the pink fur-trimmed coat, the pink Cadillac.

Unsaid, as she held my brother’s hand, going door to door to find out who had beaten him with a bag full of bottles. Her wrist a golden ribbon between the gap of coat sleeve and glove.

~

Once I woke in the morning and looked out my window to see boot prints in fresh snow. A trampled path, as though someone had taken a shortcut through our backyard, suddenly unsure which way to go. As though I’d rubbed my eyes too hard, opened them again to see dark stains on the light. An afterimage. The watermark on my grandfather’s stationery.

I went outside in my nightgown and winter boots. Stomped it out, beat my arms, did a little chicken dance of fury and shame. Paki. I wasn’t even – A word, mouthed in snow.

~

I perfected my English. That is not what I am. I wasn’t even from there, didn’t speak that language, was not dark brown like the servants, les bonnes who cleaned our house, the chauffeur, the gardener, the tailor “back home,” Bhai Aziz, Bhai Yousouf, Shiva. Did not carry the bitter scent of turmeric on my skin, the smoky rose of agarbhatti; did not glisten with the shine of almond oil and sweat. That is not what I am. That is not what I am. I perfected my English.

Thirty-Eight

Souls became the perfect distraction. We had to keep
their gowns clean. We had to buff their moods.

But some of us were wounded in a way that made our days
need crutches. We were invalids in the pale hospital hours

of our kitchens. No one had warned us that our children
would leave and we were bereft, holding up the bedclothes

of their childhood and breathing deep the pink lambs
of their voice. We had no choice but to seal the poets’ trap

of sugared words and meet at the ocean. Bravely, we tried
reciting them without sounding desperate. That our souls

were grazing on the hill behind us no longer mattered.
We wanted to lure our wandering children home.

The words we used had the thin syrup of our loneliness
in their veins. In this way, we learned that words also have souls,

and when the souls of our words escaped, there was a glitter
frosting the ocean, and briefly, we had managed to sugar its tide.

1 Corinthians 13

How long do we wait for love?
Long ago, we rowed on a pond.
Our oars left the moon broken—
our gestures ruining the surface.
Our parents wanted us to marry.
Beyond the roses where we lay,
men who loved men grew wounds.
When do we start to forget our age?
Your husband and I look the same.
All day, your mother confuses us
as her dementia grows stronger.
Your boys yell: Red Rover!
We whisper your sister’s name
like librarians; at last on the list,
her heart clapping in her rib cage,
having stopped now six times,
the pumps opened by balloons,
we await her new heart cut
out from the chest of a stranger.
Your old house settles in its bones,
pleased by how we are arranged.
Our shadow grows like an obituary.
One of us says: “It is getting so dark.”
Your children end their game.
Trees stiffen into scrapbooks.
The sky’s shelves fill with stars.

Everything Good between Men and Women

has been written in mud and butter
and barbecue sauce. The walls and
the floors used to be gorgeous.
The socks off-white and a near match.
The quince with fire blight
but we get two pints of jelly
in the end. Long walks strengthen
the back. You with a fever blister
and myself with a sty. Eyes
have we and we are forever prey
to each other’s teeth. The torrents
go over us. Thunder has not harmed
anyone we know. The river coursing
through us is dirty and deep. The left
hand protects the rhythm. Watch
your head. No fires should be
unattended. Especially when wind. Each
receives a free swiss army knife.
The first few tongues are clearly
preparatory. The impression
made by yours I carry to my grave. It is
just so sad so creepy so beautiful.
Bless it. We have so little time
to learn, so much… The river
courses dirty and deep. Cover the lettuce.
Call it a night. O soul. Flow on. Instead.

Suddenly,

I live in a room named East
on the map of the West   at the edge

near the door cedars and alders
mix and tower,
full of ravens   first thing each morning,
whose song is
                           a sharpness

 
we quarrelled so
                               over the genius
of the heart
                           whose voice is capable

 
they come on horseback
in the middle of the night,
two of them,   with a horse for me,
and we ride,   bareback
clinging to the white manes,
at the edge of the sea-splash,

 
burst open,

 
                            to divine
the hidden and forgotten source,
who is transparent
where the moon drops out of the fog
to bathe,
but not to us

 
the retied heart
                            where the wind glitters

                                                                      for Ellen Tallman

from Homer: War Music

    Under the curve the keel makes
Where it sweeps upright to the painted beak
Achilles’ heroes placed their gilded oars,
Set twelve carved thwarts across them,
Surfaced this stage with wolf- and beaver-fleece
Amid whose stirring nap Patroclus lay,
The damaged statue of a prince awaiting transportation.
    Near it Achilles sat, Odysseus beside,
And women brought them food.
    ‘Patroclus liked to eat,’ Achilles said,
‘And you cooked well, Patroclus, didn’t you?
Particularly well that summer when
My cousin Ajax and king Nestor drove
Up from the Pel’ponnesus crying “wife”
And “theft” and “war” and “please” and –
What is this “eat of yours Odysseus?
If you were telling me: He’s dead, your father; well,
I might eat a bit; troubled, it’s true; but eat
Like any fool who came God knows how many mist
And danger mixed sea miles to repossess fair Helen.
    I know you, Ithaca: you think:
Achilles will fight better if ne feeds.
Don’t be so sure.
    I do not care about his gifts. I do not care, Odysseus,
Do not care.
    Patroclus was my life’s sole love.
The only living thing that called
Love out of me.

    At night I usedto dream of how, when he came home to
      Greece,
He’d tell them of my death – for I must die – and show my son,
This house, for instance, or that stone beside the stream,
My long green meadows stretching through the light,
So clear it seems to magnify …’

    And here Achilles, loved by God,
Was led by Sleep to sleep beside the stage,
And king Odysseus goes off as close to tears
As he will ever be.