Sample Poems From New to Old

The Neck of Forgiveness that Turns the Head

We sometimes forget, that for every forsaken word and given breath,
the heart can steal back on itself, like a retrograde planet,
or the bore tide, at the first pull of the moon,
reversing direction and doubling back
to the place where the two waters meet.

Or it can be like The Book of Gestures, opened and dog-eared
to the poem, " The Neck of Foregiveness That Turns The Head,"
that you keep on your nightstand to remind you of uncommon biddings,
when it barely stirs inside its bone-white cage,
hooded against the shudder of its own disposition,
in what you thought was repose or a strategic retreat into beauty.

You and I know what can’t be taken back
and what is water under the bridge,
that there are no punishments and rewards in nature,
no place for mercy or forgiveness.
People who came to Anchorage to admire the bore tide have drowned,
stuck in the mud flats and glacial silt or trying to outrun it.

Yet, sometimes it can happen skin to skin
to the rhythm of your own ragged breathing,
amid the tangled sheets, when you are a fist,
opening and closing in the dark,
clawing your way toward morning, in a suddenly unfamiliar bed.
Someone strokes your hand until it sighs and opens.
The crescent marks in your palms fade and disappear,
and you once again become an open hand
that offers to the other what neither of you can fathom,
but which will pass, at least til morning, as forgiveness.

The Auto De Fe Of A Second Language

--For Paul Celan
You lean forward, hands clasped, lips pursed,
as if about to say, Na ja, where have you been?
I have been waiting a long time for you, here,
where something or someone always intervenes.
Today it’s you—a respite from this necessary estrangement.

Something is close by, in the dream of a second language
at your bedroom window, an endangered species
that was sung to you, before it was spoken,
as if birdsong preceded the language of men;
that if you could somehow render,
it would call you to the long table of yesterday,
the now unbroken vessels.
It would lull and gesture over the table.
The slight of hand of a language can clean its own sequestered words,
Auto de fe and legerdemain as in light of the hand.
Here, we negotiate our reciprocal futures.
We make no demands, exact nothing,
not the easy pleasures but the coming things--
the unfinished listening that I love without distraction.

the chalk star above my door just means it’s a safe house
where you can refresh yourself until things blow over,
or a place to leave your contraband and bequests,
whatever’s too difficult or archaic to carry around,
roses bedight and perishables for safekeeping,
adorned or encumbered in the fineries of concealment--
balm and ballast in our unspokeness,
and the unanswered questions of like bodies.

I know you trust me,
but you don’t trust star-shaped things the way I do,
You think of zig zag shadows, burning wheels,
bent stars on empty sleeves and lapels,
or whoever hung them by their pointed wings in the forest.

We lift our heads at the same moment on distant pillows,
and remember whatever haunts its own tongue.
Although you are gone, here we are—auto de fe
as in act of trust,
still in the arms of each other’s future,
in the dream of a second language at your bedroom window
that we trust in our different ways.

Under The Tongue –For Paul Celan

I finally dug up the Calla lilies, the Rosemary and the Rue
that had gone crazy in the garden since you left.
Today I planted succulents and river stones.
I baked the figs and bought some peaches,
the first stone fruit.

Every summer I remember you as a boy,
naming the flowers as we walked out of the city.
You savored the new English words in your mouth:
“That unmatch'd form …blasted with ecstasy…”
I still see you as that boy sometimes, fifteen or so and smiling.

City Mouse you’ve called yourself, “my best friends are flaneurs.”
But most of your poems were set outside--
Hardly anything mechanical-- the odd clock, the closed up house,
wells and snow, beech trees forests,
Faux Wolfsbane in the peated moor—-- that yellow flower.
Landscapes from The Bible.
Barely covered rocks and stones in upturned earth.
You examine them as if they are encrypted.
You hold them like sea shells to your ear.

Years later when we met again you said,
“It was time for the stones to open up
and bloom beyond mere rumors.”

I keep one of your stones under my tongue,
when I walk the town some evenings, as if I know we’ll meet.
I would pass it to you, mouth to mouth in the unbaled dark,
like an almond or a fig.
You would pass it back to me: “it isn’t sealed.
Read it now, just read it.
I have tried and tried to tell you,
They have been talking to us for years.”

Empty Sleeve People: After Listening to the News From Ruwanda
and Then Reading a book of Postmodern Poetry

“A systematic disordering of the senses…the sufferings are enormous,
but one has to be strong to be a poet…”

A fierce and courageous rupturing of language,…
the reviewer on your book flap said.
fresh and dangerous possibilities,
as you map “The Everlasting No,”
the slippage of signifiers, and the collapse of meaning.
You say your words have gone transparent,
the way they work against themselves,
the way they all implode,
that there’s no “history” to speak of,
just the stories we tell ourselves, before we fall asleep.
You shake your head.
and you have no use for metaphors.

Meanwhile, the Empty Sleeve People carry around stones
that they roll in their mouths,
memories in their flapping sleeves,
of the windowless rooms where it all came out so clean.

In another room, packed and waiting for the future
words rise from the pages, shrouded like crows.
They yearn to be the footprints of vanished feet,
friends who memorized poems
that they carried under their tongues
about the pleasures of the shared and common corn,
passwords in the whisper and touch of contusion.

Then again, maybe you’re right.
A “systematic disordering of the senses.”
If they melt in your mouth or have gone transparent,
words can never join bone back to bone.

So I hope your tattoos never fade,
that the corks all come out clean,
you and your companions stay bright eyed and slender
and your desires hard as stones,
that your words slip their layered moorings and drift away
wherever your words drift away to,
that your poems stay fierce and fresh and clean.

Among Other Things, Joyce Said

Ulysses was about “ineluctable certitude
and the affirmation of the void.”
The one word everyone knows
Speaks for itself, and facts, like the body,
that hermetic organ, sealed in its own warm juices,
take on a beauty of their own.
The Big Yes and The Big No
ply their oily questions and answers,
push and pull, until tendon answers tendon,
bone answers bone,
and the wind shakes barley.

Even the Gods couldn’t change Fate.
Zeus wept at the death of Sarpedon,
his half-human son, consoled, if Gods are consoled,
by whatever engendered the fire that turns
bone wrapped in fat to smoldering ash.

Lots of certainty for Homer who knew
his listeners would reach for their spears
when the suitors abused Penelope.
Paris, the pouter pigeon, swelled up
with the truth of his member,
the courage and morality of a gland.
Helen in the end, murmured her regrets,
which is more than most of them did.

Blazes Boynon, another puffed up pigeon.
Molly has her doubts about him
when he pats her behind like the rump
of a racehorse he is certain will win,
before the dark horse, makes it home.
She loves him, she loves him not.
What is “the word everyone knows?”

Sooner or later, we all deal with “The Big No,”
which also speaks for itself from across the abyss,
assumes the position, neck outstretched,
hisses like a goose, and eats its own children.
The rest is all hearsay and second hand experience,
what we hear on the street or read in the Freeman’s Journal
that Bloom sold ads for and carried under his arm.

Young Steven Daedelus, wet and green
the imperfect prince of a bankrupt king
sets out on the same waters
we all cross, behind our special oar,
not yet lying with our gear on our chest
slathered in pitch and oil, soon to light up
the “limb loosening” darkness.

Or is it as simple as that kidney, in the beginning of Ulysses,
a bit overcooked, sealed in its juices,
left frying in the pan.

As simple as whatever is exchanged between us at this moment,
mute as the currents of the ocean
or this hermetic vessel, sleek- hulled enough
to ride out the storm, or wait out the doldrums
while we find our seat at the rowing bench,

dip in the oars and pull, pull
til we get the thing moving again.
Until the right wind comes up
to take us out to the open sea
where we look to Orion and the Pole Star
to guide us home, to Ithaca
Or that narrow house on Eccles Street
where we lay head to foot in our feathery bed,
navigate the swells, and doubts,
from beneath the scented sheets.

The musk-blown Yes fills the room
in blowsy clouds of memory,
long perfumey breaths that shut our eyes
which is not the darkness of “limb loosening death.”
and we listen to the warm sap run
in the living tree of our marriage bed.

After Washing Her Godson’s Body, Sheyna Imagines An Answer To Grief

After The Keepers sat with you,
I rubbed “the savor of good ointments” into the coolness of your skin.
I took your hand, light as a rabbit bone, and held it on my face.

No hindrances, that’s the custom, no delays--
Your clothes would have no pockets or knots to slow you down,
no toys to take with you, as if even you knew all along
that your coming had been your leaving
and the bolt in the door had not yet been thrown.

Two years ago, I was the first to bathe you--and now this.
I was “The honor-door” who carried you from your mother
on the eighth day after your birth
toward the verge of your covenant:
the almond seed without the givens that would never issue and bloom.
The half-life of the red buds they found behind your eyes,
whose petals, flowering and fading
began dropping before you were born.

On that verge, before your eyes and ears closed,
I taught you to read your father’s face as he spoke--
held your fingers on his throat and mouth
to feel the shifts in the muscles and skin,
the rustle time and timbered pulse of his vocal chords,
breath moving through teeth and lips,
around the liquid tongue.
I cupped your ear and whispered his words as he talked.
We read backwards from your touch,
your murmurs and eyes, to what moved them.

That night I imagined you as a man and put my fingers on your face.
You told me that I was “the woman from abroad”
and Grief was like Rumplestiltskin, who asks its own riddle:
“I’m not vulnerable to fire, water, earth or air, he said.
I lack nothing and can’t be destroyed, or displaced,
just changed in size or shape to shape.
I am more than an empty space as you can see
and similar to sorrow but different.
What’s the answer to Grief?”
He took me to his beachwood forests
where birds hung by their wings
and violins were strung up in the trees.
Under fixed constellations and a posthumous moon,
he showed me the hollow spaces that separate us
from other people and things—an emptiness
he said, that cannot be answered with words
I hummed a Tombeau, the themes from Mozart’s Requiem,
and Schubert’s last quintet.

He opened a vacant ache in my throat and said
that soon no one would remember my name,
that I would become a random stone
beyond the pale of settlement,
I picked up a pebble and put it under my tongue;
I sang him the stones at the bottom of that river
we have given so many names.
Yes, there are stones that do not move at the bottom of that river.

I let his ancient hunger absorb me--
All the lavenders, greens and the mustards of my true spring,
the full scarlets of summer, until he could hold no more.
My bodice of laughter loosened, and came undone.
The colors brimmed and overflowed
and I wrapped them around both of us
and they took us in.

And when I went to say goodby to your father,
I kissed his wet eyes, and held his tears in my mouth.
I put his hands on my face, as if I were talking to you,
and gave him back the kiss.

Our Breath on the Mirror

Under the Dodgers’ cap, and khaki work shirt
the woman selling flowers by the freeway
is short, broad and full as the Goddess
of earth and death, Coatlicue, and you hear
the rattles on her ankles, her necklace
of hands, and skulls shaking
to the heart of a distant smoking drum.
The two snake heads rattle in her hands
as Coatlicue begins to dance.
With a lift of her chin Juana raises her eyebrows
offering the flowers--Guelaguetza—
to faces behind the glass that look at her,
pretend not to look at her.
Windows hum open or slide closed.
Sometimes men rush and fumble for dollar bills
as they watch the light, then lay the rose
beside them on the passenger seat.

Juana is so far from Tlacolula.
She and her brother each paid the coyote
three thousand dollars American to guide them
through the labyrinths of arroyos and barrancas
past la Migra, in their blazers with their nightscopes,
across the jagged border, to the other side

She wires a hundred and fifty a month
to her mother who pays the bills,
who makes a payment on the land in Mitla,
who saves the rest for three years to send other children
to hide under the remote pitch of the moon
from the green and infrared lights that search
for silhouettes of caravans and the dreams of caravans,
the heat of human bodies, on a backlit horizon.
They will walk with care past the listening machines
that hear their pulses surge and their mouths go dry.
They remember Elalo, Macario, and Evodio from the village
who froze to death last year in these mountains
just three miles from the highway.

You would like to believe that the Virgin of Guadalupe
covered them with her shawl, that the Naguals
came to them in their sleep
and told them that the storm would pass,
brought them posole and steaming champurrado.
You would like to believe that their tears froze like pearls,
that they died in a fairy tale
like the ice princess or Grimm’s little match girl.
Perhaps freezing to death is like falling asleep.
Huddle together, M’ijos, six hands,
six arms and legs, entwined,
three hearts, thick, and slow, and beating.

What are you dreaming Juana, out there by the freeway?
Are you rocking in a hammock years from now
in your own jalapa in Mitla?
You braid flowers and colored ribbons
into your granddaughter’s hair for The Day of the Dead
The smell of the Cempasuchil, the Marigolds
and the smoking copal, remind you of roses and oranges,
the gray faces of the gavachos in their shiny cars
stony and silent as the hieroglyphs of the old ones
in Monte Alban and Tule.

The Camazotz call your name Juana,
from their dream gardens and the church bells ring in
the cold winds of the north that bring the spirits of the dead.
Your mother and father are coming across the River Chiconaupan
the day after tomorrow, El Dia de Los Muertos.
They will need gifts and traveler’s provisions.
Lay the path of orange marigolds from the door to the alter.
Scatter breadcrumbs and flower seeds for the birds
which are the souls of small children.
The alter is perfect-- gladiolas, chrysathemums.
Stalks of corn, bamboo and sugarcane arch across time
and the cycles of the souls’ resurrections.
Don’t forget-- Abuela liked Chapulines, fried grasshoppers,
and Abuelo Joselito liked his mescal.
Leave them a glass of water.
They have journeyed far and they are thirsty.
Candles, yes, lots of Candles to light their way.
Go to the Cemetery and clear the weeds.
See that the graves are swept clean.

Put the sugar skulls, with their maraschino eyes
and syrupy smiles next to the old pictures:
Gran Tio Chuy, fuerte y formal
as he stares into the camera.
The Angelitos, the dead little children lie posed
in their parents arms: Refugia, at two years old
on Tia Cecilia’s lap in a white dress
holds a cross to the camera in her cold, tiny hands.
Arrange their favorite foods, the seven moles,
home-made mescal and candied pumpkin,
fresh baked “bread of the dead.”
The alter is perfect.
Nothing must be touched by anyone.
The spirits of the children will return on November first,
the adults the day after.
They cannot eat but will kiss the food,
take in the aromas and moisture of the preparations.
When they are satisfied they will look for you
to leave behind their good will and their blessings.

And the gavachos will come as well,
two thousand miles from el otro lado, how strange
with all their gear and their money, rushing,
taking pictures, que raro.
When they smile they seem sad and hungry.
Remember when one-- sin verguenza, shameless,
even wanted to buy the shawl you were wrapped in,
and the blanket you were sitting on at the cemetery.

The tour buses and the shiny rented cars rumble
out of the dusty night into Tlacalula.
Gavachos with video cameras at the windows
film The Day Of The Dead.
When you look at them, the flesh melts off their bones.
Allegados, son iguales.
Having arrived, they are all equal,
like the figures in Posada’s drawings,
Skeletons in shorts, with cameras around their necks,
take pictures of each other.
Donde esta la bathroom?
Skeletons bargaining for rugs and black pottery.
Ask her if the dyes are natural or artificial.

skeleton children, loud and unmannered
maniosos y malcriados, grabby and badly behaved,
skeletons full of coming and going
taking with them little pieces of your village
to put on their walls and mantles.

Lights explode beside the people at the graves,
The red eyes of the cameras glow
like the eyes of the Camazotz in the night
who come to steal people’s dreams.
The skeletons covet it all, the sugar sweet holidays,
the rituals, they look south of the border,
to have maraschino cherries for eyes,
necklaces of marigolds and syrupy smiles,
to have their souls become bread of the dead
for the Gods to feast on.
But their pleasures last as long as the marzipan skull
that melts on the tongue and is gone.

Do not mind them Juana.
They desire what the dollars cannot buy,
not the charms or the pictures of the Virgen
to put on their walls or their refrigerators.
They also want to stop the rush of time.
We are all skeletons in a Posada drawing
all on our way, coming and going to Bone Town.
We all borrow hunt and gather,
and dance to faraway drums,
whiten our faces with rice powder as we try
to commemorate ourselves and those we love,
to see our breath on the mirror.
Guelagetza: a Zapotec offering, a gift to share or reciprocate.
La Migra: US Immigration Service.
Al otro lado: to the other side.
M’ijos: Mi hijos, i.e. my children
Naguals: Mythical Mexican Trickster animals
Champurrado: hot drink made of corn and chocolate.
Jalapa: open air palm roofed house.
Copal: incense made of resin.
Camazotz: Olmec diety associated with night , death, and sacrifice
See that their graves are kept clean: a blues line. From Blind Lemon Jefferson?
Posada: Mexican artist/cartoonist and satirist famous for popularizing the Calaveras, depictions of the skeletons of Day of the Dead
Sin Verguenza: shameless one
Breath on the mirror: Popol Vuh
Ofrenda: offering

Let’s Get Lost: An Altar For Uncle Joe

“Let’s get lost, let them send out alarms
And though they’ll think us rather rude
Let’s tell the world we’re in that crazy mood.”
--Chet Baker

I put out the photograph—a Jewish Chet Baker,
hair slicked up in a pompadour;
stone gray eyes, a soul patch like Dizzy’s,
to protect your precious embouchure.
You lean on the fender of that Buick Invicta
with the overdrive and the dynaflow transmission.
My mother, said you had bedroom eyes
and a cat-that-ate-the-canary smile.
let’s go for a ride, Sheyna.
Let’s get lost.

Where do I put your perfect pitch,
the photo Tony Bennett autographed--
To the best horn player in Philly.
I’ll hang your hip fedora with the feather in the band
and your pork pie hat on this music stand.

I’ll skip the food; you never were much of an eater.
Where do I put the reds and whites
the uppers, downers and all arounders,
the theme-song of the man with the golden arm
your custom-made Benge that Aunt Katie Rose
the Fishtown beauty from Kensingtown
bent over your head, and where do I put
whatever else it was that took you out of the life?
Where do I put the punch-clock job you took
with the City Department of Weights and Measures;
your heart attack, those last years, greasing the skids
in No Man’s Land, you called it, watching daytime TV.

I wind up your old metronome and play
the thick seventy eight-- your solo at nineteen,
on “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company C,”
The Andrews Sisters and the Glen Miller Band.

Then some bebop, Miles Davis, Clifford Brown.
The metronome ticks a hundred and twenty beats a minute,
sixteenth notes flying all over the room
at twice the normal rate of a human heart,
the sound of your fist beating on the door that night
when you staggered through the house
into the bathroom crying, Sheyna, Sheyna
and then the drop of dead weight.
My father cursed and put you on the couch.
My mother grabbed the pills from your trumpet case
while the sirens moaned to a stop outside.
The red and white lights flashed in the dark
and the neighbors came out to watch.

If the smoke from my yarzeit candle could curl back in time,
I’d find that Buick Invicta and drive it back to the sixties,
park it with the motor running outside your house.
Let’s go for a ride Uncle Joe.
We’d drive straight through, coast to coast,
scat singing to Bob Wills’ okey padokey Texas swing
and drink bad coffee from styrofoam cups.

We’d come into L.A. through palm tree corridors,
The sway of second winds and start-over dreams.
When the sun went down we’d head for Central Avenue
and I’d drop you at The Club Alabam with Charlie Mingus,
Buddy Collette, and their west coast sound.
Your embouchure will come back in no time.

But truth be told, you didn’t have it in you.
You would wish me well,
kiss me on the lips the way men in our family do.
I’d take you to the after- hours club across the river

where the hipster skeletons lean at the bar,
close their eyes, sitting in, laying out,
snapping their fingers, bone against bone.
Let’s Get Lost.

you flutter the keys of your trumpet,
blow in the mouthpiece to clear the valves,
close your eyes, count out the bars
jump into the circle of fifths,
and take your solo again.

embouchure: the lip strength of a trumpet player
Yarzeit Candle: candle lit on the yearly anniversary of a Jewish death.

Empty Sleeve People

“A systematic disordering of the senses…
The sufferings are enormous, but one
Has to be strong to be a poet…”

A fierce and courageous rupturing of language,…
the reviewer on your book flap said.
fresh and dangerous possibilities,
as you map “The Everlasting No,”
the slippage of signifiers, and the collapse of meaning.
You say your words have gone transparent,
the way they work against themselves,
the way they all implode,
that there’s no “history” to speak of,
just the stories we tell ourselves, before we fall asleep.
You shake your head.
and you have no use for metaphors.

Meanwhile, the Empty Sleeve People carry around stones
that they roll in their mouths,
memories in their flapping sleeves,
of the windowless rooms where it all came out so clean.

In another room, packed and waiting for the future
words rise from the pages, shrouded like crows.
They yearn to be the footprints of vanished feet,
friends who memorized poems
that they carried under their tongues
about the pleasures of the shared and common corn,
passwords in the whisper and touch of contusion.

Then again, maybe you’re right.
A “systematic disordering of the senses.”
If they melt in your mouth or have gone transparent,
words can never join bone back to bone.

So I hope your tattoos never fade,
that the corks all come out clean,
you and your companions stay bright eyed and slender
and your desires hard as stones,
that your words slip their layered moorings and drift away
wherever your words drift away to,
that your poems stay fierce and fresh and clean.

Bahala Na: Delano 1965

“Fiction is history… or it is nothing. But it is also more than that; it stands on firmer ground… whereas history is based …on second hand impression.
– Joseph Conrad

At night on Main Street—red lights
string muted rubies in the Tule fog,
histories of Three Card Monte, Acey Deucy, in Mochi’s Bar,
shy visits to Lola’s place behind the Starlight bowling alley,
cock fights, and knife fights retold in Tagalog and Pidgin English,
Escrima dreams, Bahala na, whatever happens, happens.
Lucky Lucay, Julian Balidoy, Rudy Sulite, Angel Cabales,
winners of purple hearts, silver stars and government commendations,
those scouts, point men, and coast watchers,
those slick haired boys who jitterbugged in pre-war Manila,
who dove for oysters with goggles made from glass bottle bottoms,
in the lagoons of Cebu and Mindanao,
who led G.I.’s from Texas and South Philadelphia
through the bamboo jungles.

Now they walk toward vanishing points and perimeters,
pruning shears slung over their shoulders instead of carbines.
The straw boss can’t get their names right.
Asparagus knives and Texas shorties
in hands as hard as the soles of your shoes.
They water gardens of winter squash and bitter melon.
Men without women, behind the barracks in the labor camp,
cook adobu in outdoor kitchens in Earlimart and Delano,
field pack the ladyfingers, ribeiras and flaming reds.
It’s piece work, Little Rudy-- pick them and pack them fast,
then nail the lugs shut and swamp them
into cold storage, reefer trucks, to go south over Tejon Pass
through Castaic Junction into another valley.
Angel Cabales could hammer the fruit crates shut
faster than the machine that killed John Henry,
the seeds still warm, the flesh of the fruit still trembling.

Now in winter, in the thick Tule fog
They walk the picket lines in army surplus parkas,
outside the entrance to the Di Giorgio Ranch.
Anting Anting tatoos fade on their calves and chests.
Blood tugs from their limbs back to their hearts.
They huddle around fires in fifty gallon barrels,
remembering their women, they dream
histories of Lapu Lapu, the warrior king,
who killed Magellan in his armor, in the shallows,
with a fire-hardened wooden stick and a bow and arrow.

During the strike, I hung around the edges of their fires,
warmed my hands, darkened my face over the smoking drums,
installing in my silent ear the braveries of others.
Now I try and reconstruct it all, try to get it right,
But I was a boy looking at the world of men
through his thick horn rimmed glasses.

But they still tell the story in Mochi’s bar
of Angel Cabales in the Giumarra cold storage,
fighting his way through five Anglos
and laying them out cold
with a twenty two inch bamboo escrima stick.
Rudy Sulite, Julian Balidoy, Lucky Lukay,
those slick haired island boys who carried
their silver stars and faded purple hearts
in beat-up wicker suitcases from labor camp to labor camp,
are as real, now, as this poem,
which stand on firmer ground than history.

The Delano Grape Strike was started by the primarily Filipino Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee. Cesar Chavez and his farmworker association joined the strike shortly after, and the rest is history.
Escrima: Filipino Martial Art.
Anting Anting: Religious/Good luck charms.
Texas shorties: Short handled hoes.
Bahala Na: As God wills; also used to mean one will meet any challenge; the motto of
One of the units of Pilipino soldiers that was part of the American army during WW II.

Miles And The Radish Man

At the after-hours club on Fast Fifty-Ninth Street,
All us hipsters dressed to the nines,
Sitting in, laying out,
The burning in our pulses, cooling each time
We bring thumb and third finger together,
The language of cool, congealing,
Having said it, frozen, in the mouth,
No longer, really, what it is.

Backstage we kiss each other’s necks,
Whisper in each other’s ears,
Feign, juke, posture, test
The limits of range, velocity and will,
The flex and strength.

We sniff each other for clues.
Is that a Bessin or a silver Benge?
Where did you get that custom-made mute,
That secret sauce to lubricate your valves?
Where did you learn how to breathe like that?
Are those special exercises for your fingers?
Do you have something under your tongue?

We meditate on our drinks,
Search our cloudy auguries, wide-eyed--
For the edge on the one leg up,
Beyond what the fingers can be trained to manage,
Beyond musical memory, and perfect pitch.

He came in, “too square for the hipsters
Too hip for the squares,”
Eating salted radishes from a paper bag,
Overgrown college boy-- those horn-rimmed glasses,
Thick as the bottoms of a soda pop bottle,
Hair slicked back in a pompadour
With “just a little dab will do ya.”
Everybody teased him hard,
White boy this and college boy that.

They talked about Schoenberg and Ravel
Who Miles said were hip before it was hip to be gone:
Imagine Stravinsky on bebop, “Rites of Spring,”
Stone-age Russian tribal music,
Blood rites and human sacrifice.
Those long, pulsing figures not chaotic as you think
If you count them from a distance there’s a pattern underneath.

Imagine Erik Satie playing “Straight No Chaser.”
The spaces between the notes and riffs, as music too,
Like architecture is the music of space,
As much if not more than the thing itself.

He chorded out places to play in that Miles said
Were like the Milky Way or the human heart.

Love And The Laws Of Thermodynamics

“First Chaos came, and then broad-bosomed earth,
the everlasting seat of all that is. And then came Love.
--Hesiod 725 B.C.E.

So I think about you and me
and the movement of the planets,
whether love can be destroyed
or only changed from shape to shape.
The First Law Of Thermodynamics.

We were a planetary conjunction,
two vibrating rocks in the muted chill of space,
or were we pulled together by a force
that Hesiod might call love,
though I’m not sure Plato would,
before we went retrograde and resumed our orbits,
inscribing arcs through the heavenly bodies.
The Second Law of Thermodynamics

Now you and I exchange cards on the holidays,
talk about going through the old photos
after all these years, dividing them up,
how we should go out to dinner shouldn’t we?

But we aren’t planets that conjoin now and then,
or perpetual motion machines of the second kind.
And Hesiod’s love may be just pressure and gravity,
the sigh of a distant prime mover
From the corner of infinite regress.

The Third Law Of Thermodynamics.
Energy can’t be created or destroyed
just changed from shape to shape.

But Quantum Physics strikes the exception
and maybe love can implode and vanish
after posing its last, bare question.

Transformational Grammars

I used to think I was just a half step behind
When I believed in a lost language.
I imagined people sang before they spoke,
That song preceded logos and birdsong
Preceded the language of men.
I loved to watch the flocks of starlings in Echo Park
Explode in unison from the bushes of daybreak
And wheel across the sky.
Words meant exactly what they pointed to.
I imagined a lost language, some ur-lingua franca,
That when found, it would repair us all.

I had read that Comanches were understood
When they signed to deaf students at the Gauladette school;
That the Iroquois could talk to the animals.
Aborigines in Australia had songs that were maps
Keyed to sacred landmarks in the wilderness;
That the letters of the Hebrew alphabet
Corresponded to the Tarot’s twenty two Major Arcana.
Each letter was a number, a concept, a story
Aleph was an ox,
ust turn the letter upside down.
Beth-le-hem, the house of bread.
If we could just utter
The perfect name and number of God…

After all--the Celts sailed up the Mississippi,
Left their runes and Ogham writing on Pawnee war shields
One hundred years before the current era.
Lilly, floating in an isolation tank, dreamed
dolphins with songs sewn shut in their throat.
People talked to plants and flowers in Findhorn.
Remember how big they would grow.
I knew If I could just create a space somewhere
Between birdsong and the cry of an animal
The night visitors would come and talk to me.
Hush and listen, I would say to myself
And the spellbound may finally speak,

Not in tongues, or the chill of foreign language,
Not in fragments but in complete sentences.
They would recite The Histories,
Animal, vegetable and mineral.

We would rescue ourselves from “cold hell and thicket,”
Learn to use our breath, to project our voice
And use it like an instrument, as all musicians
Are trying to duplicate the human voice.

But what if the histories are nothing
But second hand experience, what passes
Between people is smoke from different fires,
Rumors of dying suns shuffled and replaced?
If the Iroquois talked to the animals
It was only in Longfellow’s dreams.
And I know the Comanches broke their horses
In four feet of water and sometimes beat them.

If I used to be a half step behind
Now things have really gotten away from me.
I feel like a snake handler
Shaking my upraised arms and talking in tongues.

I wonder if the starlings are caught up
In the confusion of the bramble bushes
Or confounded by an excess of light that keeps them
From finding their way home by the stars.
What can you tell me, any little scrap will do?

If We’re Headed South

“Next time, if there is a next time, ‘I want to go north to look for
“the source of the chill in my bones.’”
(Jack Spicer)

If we’re headed south,
Let’s steer clear of Chiapas.
I don’t want to be a tourist
in the middle of a third world revolution,
or point video cameras into brown faces,
or buy a week of someone’s life
for “shave and a hair cut two bits” and a Hershey bar
to wear around my neck for good luck and ethnic color.
I don’t want somebody else’s medicine bag.
I need to pack my own Ju Ju.

I can’t bargain for pesos with people
whose kids are sucking on stones, then marvel
at the green moon rising over Monte Alban,
or imagine the ritual ballgames at Palenque
through somebody else’s allotropic mushrooms.
I don’t want folks selling me magic, hand-woven carpets
when San Cristobal de las Casas is filled with Indians
in tiger-striped camouflage and automatic weapons.

Rusty knights, and conquistadors came through these parts once,
dragging their stinking armor,
bright-eyed, lean, unbidden men,
looking for lost cities to name for their king,
hairless savages to parade through the halls of a frozen castle,
or initiate into some ritual auto da fe.
They stuffed gold and jewels into their mouths,
until their stomachs swelled and bloated,
and they fell where they stood,
gorged and stupored, next to their horses.
Rusty knights and conquistadors dragging their stinking armor.

Lord Elgin took half the Acropolis to London
to protect it from Turkish cannon, he said.
Two bits for the Elgin Marble.
Chief Joseph’s eagle headdress could be in a museum,
with his Winchester repeater, in its deerskin beaded scabbard.
Everyone wants to bring home a souvenir,
a pre-Colombian fragment, a splinter from the true cross,

a heart in a jar of olive oil,
a ring of ears or a shriveled finger,
a video tape of a vacation to Sea World,
Graceland, or Big Rock Candy Mountain.

But we all carry stones under our tongues,
a grain of sand under the hard shells of our lives.
Even birds of no color don’t fly without shadows.
I want to travel as light as I can, collecting
what fits in my pocket or rocks in the lap of memory,
with tears I can cry without regret,
laughter without sharp edges that doesn’t leave
a bad taste in my mouth or stick to someone else’s face.
I want to suck the stones I carry under my tongue
smooth and polished into mementos that I can toss,
with all the muted lullabies into the lap of evening.

History’s Middens

Deep in the catacombs, under the Vatican,
beneath the pomp and velvet circumstance,
They say the hearts of saints are preserved.
Sybils suspended in reliquary jars
turn shriveled faces to the wall,
eyes refumed with laurel smoke,
burning flesh of rank goat,
the living god of Pythias,
his voice from their lips to my ear--
This place is not for you, they whisper.
Careful with the holy middens,
all this plundered beauty hoarded
in the smoking name of love.

Teak and mahogany, petrified bodies,
of dark skinned, desert fathers,
maps of Lemuria, Atlantis and Mu,
the real spear of Longinus,
the flayed skins of Druids,
a hundred scalps of a hundred Ishis,
Montezuma’s headdress, his foreskin inscribed
in formulas for the female circumcision of the moon,
the street names and census of the city of God,
records of communications across the species,
treasures of the Knights Templar raked
from the burning ruins of their castle,
death rolls of the Cathars, and the Albigensians,
The Solitary Bird of No Significant Color,
sketched by St John of the Cross,
Sor Juana’s De La Cruz’s unpublished heresies.

Your theorems are here, Hypatia
on an Alexandrian scroll mapping
the zones of your geometry,
the pleasure of the numbers and the Mixolydian mode,
before the history of your final passion was rewritten
in the brittle chronicles of John, Bishop of Nikiu--
…her Satanic wiles…
…beguiled the people…
…even the governor…
...her heresy… dark magic…
…the people brought her through the streets until she died.
No annals of retelling can accommodate
the extinction of a species.

In March of the holiday they call Lent,
in the fourth year of Cyril’s episcopate,
while the Cedars of Lebanon burn and smolder,
the Nitrian Guards, sweating in their armor
beat Isodurus, your husband
with the flat sides of their swords,
then pull down the curtain to your study—
an astrolabe, an escritorium, your scrolls,
defiled revelation, in a barren room,
the rattle and echo of weapons,
suspended sunbeams in the haze of light.
No jeweled-eyes to pry out of beatific faces,
no silver chalices or gold vessels, not even
a tremor of a magic spell made flesh.
Then vulgar Latin mixed with Greek,
Those stiff necked pagans, just like the Jews,
up to their tricks again.

All the sibyls have been hunted one by one,
smoked out of their temples and groves,
The Cumaen, the Delphic, Erithean,
All the ten sisters, run to ground,
in the bedlam of extinction.
Flatiron shadows and Latin prayers,
are pressed into their mouths,
where thick fingers pry out the hexameters,
when the temples of revelation are shut down
by those who must redeem themselves in blood,
flay contritions hung before the portals to the sun.

the Patriarch Cyril’s Nitrian Monks,
pull you from your carriage,
drag you to their church called Caesareum
where they spread you like a star
on their auto da fe,
to search you for the burning words,
abominations under your tongue, an incantation,
the first song of the Sibyl,
the name of the ash grove where
What---? you meet their Beelzebub,
dance with the Lord of the Flies,
commune and couple with incubi,
eat babies? None of those things,
No contraband in the darkness but ignorance.

They will scrape the flesh from your living bone
with ostrakois, pottery shards, oyster shells.
You must hide in the zones of your geometry
between the infinite points of a straight line
that you imagine extending into space.
Become some fugitive star in the Milky Way
where their hot eyes and fingers can’t find you.

How far can a pain stretch, Hypatia?
You spin out like a top,
and the stars are running --
all those heavenly bodies in the constellations’ drift.
a star for each heart burning up,
burning out, a perpetually dissolving fellowship,
a heart for every sun.

They burn your body at Cinaron, the charnel farm,
where the keepers of the bone yard
rake the coals and your charred remains
looking for melted gold in the ashes.

I look for you in the hollows,
the shards of second hand experience.
I rake through middens and the rumors of middens,
puzzling the fragments and conflictions
as I try to imagine your face,
to retrieve the fragments of that star that has imploded
into the stuff that this poem is made of.

The Tenth Muse

The conditions of the solitary bird are five
The first, that it fly to the highest point;
The second, that it does not suffer for company
not even of its own kind;
The third, that it aims its beak to the skies;
The fourth, that it does not have a definite color,
The fifth, that it sings very softly.
These are the qualities the contemplative soul must possess.
it must sing softly for its beloved.
--- from “Sayings of Light and Love,” Saint John of the Cross

Sor Juana de la Cruz--the New World Phoenix,
the Tenth Muse the Spanish called her,
a hundred and fifty years before Zorro’s
old California Fandango, not at her lectern
staring out, framed, from the Mexican Baroque
in the portrait by Miguel Cabrera,
but pressing her lips on the stone sundial
of the convent of San Jeronimo, writing sonnets
by the floating gardens of Tenotchitlan.
“Shadow of joy, illusion of enchantment…she wrote,
My arms, my breast, have lost you forever,
but you are a prisoner of my fantasy.”
Carnations bloomed in her palms, her face
glows in a wimpled ring around the moon.

At seven in her grandfather’s library,
Juana cropped her hair to four fingers breadth.
She promised herself she’d learn Latin
before it grew in, because “ a head
shouldn’t be adorned with hair and naked of learning .”
The ceiling spread into the sky,
in a thrumming, rush and beat, the letters,
words fluttered from the page.
Books flushed from the shelves wheeling
in veronicas that became stars,
constellations, distilled into “rivers of shining milk,”
“Que las estrellas compogan las silabas,” she later wrote.
“May syllables be composed by the stars.”

Let me disabuse you of the myths.
Before the cloistered nunnery she moved like a galleon
through the whispers and currents of the Viceroy’s court,
where the young men flirted through mirrored
conceits and gambits, the emblems of gesture.
Serious attachments, lovers, another woman—
Yes--perhaps, but the muse of mind was her consort,
her most beloved.

Birds of indefinite color can hide in the light,
but what would the daughter of a good family do,
who wants more than to breed or glitter?

The Marquise de Mancera, the Viceroy’s wife,
ransoms your future, Juana,
a nuptial dowry to mother church,
three thousand gold pesos of manumission,
and you are pregnant with yourself.
The daughter of unborn years,
nestles in San Jeronimo’s gardens,
as free as a woman can be in those days
with the immaculate cord of conception still
wrapped around her waist.

At twenty you read between the lines
of John of Nikiu’s brittle chronicle,
the apochryphal version of Hypatia’s death,
as I read between the lines of your sonnets.
You do not imagine the Archbishop ten years from now,
pressing his seal into the puddling wax,
or hear his purple silk glove drop.

For now no shorn and barefoot sisters under starlight
circling in confession, no thorn scourge.
Your cloister is not a place of hair-shirts, bread and water.
The lay sisters gather like swans in your parlor.
They dance their fathers’ golden pesos
to the gigue and pavan, of your harpsichord.
You have three servants, four thousand books,
telescopes, jeweled seashells, the avis rara’s colored feathers,
you run the convent treasury, make wise personal investments.

The light refracts into fourteen rays
as your parlor revolves into facets of polyphony
that split and shift like Pelastrina’s crystal descants,
to become one of your poems,
that touches us like the phases of the moon
in the voice of the Canto Jondo.
You imagine throwing lemons in a pond
and turning it to silver, a mirrored stillness,
that you read and translate, and transpose into music
in the parlor of your imagination.

Cloistered tapping in the catacombs, Juana,
currents of whispers over stone, after the vespers.
Love under will.
Your songs will be muted under glass in the catacombs,
sealed like the sibyl’s voice in jars of olive oil and honey,
for daughters of unborn years.

the Viceroy leaves, and without his protection,
they pin you in the twin lights of fiat and auto da fe
and run you to ground, for sins of the imagination.

Antonio Miranda, your confessor, betrays you,
makes public your private letters,
leaves you in the crossfire of pomp and circumstance,
in the light you can’t hide from,
a light you can’t hide in any longer.
Why should it matter? How could we know
the census of the City of God?
If Christ ever laughed or smiled?
if he washed his disciples’ feet, for pure love’s sake,
the love that does not seek cause and effect,
or, as you argued, for the love of humanity?
Are the gifts of divine love the gifts he does not grant us--
negative benefactions? What merit to the Archbishop’s
pious exactions? Thalamus or Agape,
The evening or the morning star.

No Juana, to have the stars compose sonnets,
to bathe them in rivers of shining milk as you do,
is not a gift of God, but the devil’s temptation.
Abandon the prideful sitting rooms, they tell you,
the four thousand books, the gigues and pavans.
They hunt you like the colored bird and wrap
your words around your neck.

You press against the walls, Juana
as the adobe and the stones close in
to squeeze your days and your hours.
You write a silence finally, a voice between the lines,
where none of the Bishop’s violet eyes can follow.
You compress your world into poems you can hide in,
acorns in the convent garden, loaded with the future,
the children of your unborn years.

Canto jondo: The “Deep Song,” Predecessor to Flamenco


Green, how I would love you green
Giant stars of frost
Come with the shadow fish of darkness
That open the way to the dawn
(Garcia Lorca, “Ballad of the Sleepwalker”)

A small man, eyes moist like a girl,
with shadows wrapped around his waist.
I used to roll his words in my mouth
with the taste of wine and olives
From Jerez de La Frontera and suck them clean.
I hid them under my tongue.
after Spain had eaten her own children.

In La Taverna Camborio on the Alameda,
Lorca introduced me to famous whores
and Flamenco singers of great prominence and regard.
The guitarist, Manuel Velez, El Nino De Huelva
touched my cheek and said
in another life I might have been a gypsy.
Pastora Pavan kissed me full on the lips
and put his hand where hip meets waist.
I was very young, and I twisted in my embarrassment
but did not pull away.
The second time, I returned the kiss.
They showed me how to drip absinthe into the water.
It turned smoky, and the sugar on the filigreed,
silver spoon caught fire and melted
into the green clouds of wormwood, anis and mint.
An aftertaste of veronica, coriander and lotus flowers.
The shadows in the room loosened.
I was swaying over the deepness of a cistern,
perched on the edge of a wound.

I went to the piano and played Tarrega and De Falla.
It has turned green, I whispered to Lorca.
Manuel Velez played a Carcelera,
the lament of one unjustly imprisoned.
and then accompanied Pastora Pavon
who sang a Siquiriyas.
Comb your hair with my combs
My combs are made of cinnamon.
I played the piano for the traveling theatre.
Que Va. Federico, What a perfection of ability
She sight-reads the music impeccably.

Bunuel had his eye on me,
but he was loud and I didn’t care for his swagger.
And Dali--If you look at his painting
“Le Fer Verte” in the Figueras museum
you’ll see a young woman playing a green piano.

That year In Cadiz, we watched the old woman
win the dance contest, simply by lifting her arms,
tossing her head and stamping her foot.

The old woman read Lorca’s fortune in the cards that night:
She shook her head, Que va, I see nothing of importance,
She told Federico and turned away
The next day Pastora Pavon pressed her:
A man is lying on a couch in a darkened parlor.
Pieces of turquoise are on his eyes.
Words are melting in his mouth.

Garcia Lorca Becomes His Own Poem

The red cross on the Sergeant’s lapel,
is a vein in a bull’s neck, quivering.
The sound of the Civil Guards’ rifles,
staggered, blue steel genuflections.
He winced in the headlights, extended his hands
to fend off the bullets.

Four in the morning, in a shallow pit
on the road between Viznar and Alfacar
along side Dioscoro Galindo Gonzales
a lame school teacher,
and two anarchist bullfighters,
a bucket of quick lime as an afterthought.
The Guards picked up their spent cartridges,
flicked their cigarettes at the grave.
Sparks flew as they spit and walked away.
It’s a shallow grave to swim out of, Federico,
white faced and streaked vermilion.
But after the Civil War, in nineteen thirty eight,
in the Tavern of the Green Piano
after hours, when the doors are locked and closed
Manuel Velez will play and sing a Carcelera,
a llanto, the lament of one unjustly imprisoned.
Pastora Pavon, La Nina De Las Peines
“The Girl Of the Combs” will sing Ay Carmela,
how the gypsies pulled Lorca from the shallows
before the quick lime burned his pale skin clean,
his body paltry and undone, the brevity of bone.
They lay him on a cooling board,
washed him with spikenard oil and jasmine.
They placed chips of turquoise on his eyes,
Gypsies in their passion-gardens wove necklaces
of dried marigolds and tiny apples.
they sewed his songs shut in the mouths of lizards,
braided shadows into his hair.

They scattered breadcrumbs and flower seeds,
called the birds, to flutter around his eyes.
They buried him standing upright,
where the willows “grow on the tongues of rivers,”
Down by the cottonwoods,
So his bones would settle to mark
The remote pitch of the starlight,
His green and point blank moon.

Falling In Love Through His Ears

“Some time in the early morning, Michael Smith, a twenty year old factory worker
jumped, fell or was pushed from the overpass onto The John C. Lodge.
He died shortly after being taken to Mercy General Hospital. ”
--The Detroit Free Press

Fishtown kid, always wiping his nose.
eating two-for-a-dollar burgers at White Castle,
unloading bumpers from frozen boxcars.
He was already sitting in with some serious players.
We teased him about his baby face,
how he looked like Chet Baker, and still didn’t shave,
Little Honey Head, too young to legally drink.

I know what I’m doing, he’d smile--, I’m just chippin,’
like the song goes--“ain’t nobody’s business but my own.”
He would come home, change, have a taste, then
practice in his room for hours, playing along
with Charlie Parker, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young,
woodshedding with the elders, he used to say.

He had an old bootleg tape of the 1957 date—
Lester’s solo to Billy Holiday when she sings--
He wears high draped pants, stripes are really yellow,
and when he starts in to love me he’s so fine and mellow.
When Lester played, you could hear the words,
when Holiday sang, she phrased like a horn player.
Prez and Lady Day-- they renamed each other.

No romance to the high life, Little Mike, Billy would tell you.
Using is like living in an iron lung.
Prez was living on sips of buttermilk and Cracker Jack,
gin and a sherry chaser, just fired from Birdland.
The only one who had to sit for the whole session,
but he jumped up to take a thirty nine second solo
that had the sound men in tears.

He was behind Billy, holding his saxophone almost horizontal,
rocking the lover he never made love to in the lap of memories
that went back twenty years to when they first did the song,
pouring the honey of those old used to be’s into Billy’s waiting ears.
“What A Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Ain’t misbehavin,”
“I Get a Kick Out if You.”

She swayed a barely visible descant of counterpoint,
gestures, on top of his lines, phrasing
behind the beat, pausing in the curves between the notes.
She nodded the pleasure of inevitable yes’s
with little shakes of her head: it doesn’t get any better than this,
but more will never be enough.
Then she sipped a breath, wet her lips slowly, and took her turn.
Three years since they’d seen each other.
No romance to the high life.
Lester would be gone in a year and Billy two months later.

Mike played the solo until he could turn it inside out,
until he could find it in the dark,
hear the catch in its breath, its syncopated heartbeat,
as it shifted, arched, and coasted to its finish,
The unconsumated finality of things.

if I could have been there when they found him
fingers barely twitching and his eyes still open,
before the sirens, and strangers’ voices,
maybe I could have hummed Lester’s solo in his ears.
Little Honey Head, he wanted it all, when more was not enough,
And he was like a woman:
He fell in love through his ears.