from Give Over, Graymalkin —
What did they portend,
the commotion and hunger,
the overnight trains
twisted in hot sheets?
What the late arrivals
and the taxis, always a taxi,
bartered and argued?
Dim light—for the best—
in those dim rooms.
They caged the cold
in winter, heat in summer.
What was the tally,
counted to waiting palms,
money lost and another
dirty stack, extracted
somehow? Enough to get by,
get along. So you got by,
got along, is that it?
How did they accrue,
faces distorted above flame?
All soon forgotten.
Rare moments better,
under the nights, a glass,
glitch of calm, answering
again failures and omissions.
The moon’s penumbras,
the village fires,
the river ruminations—
these were what you paid for,
they knew to listen
and too were forgotten.
What was a life worth,
when you finally returned,
parched all the way through?
Dark doorway and key,
hand pushing forward,
one step across to silence.
(originally published in The Southern Review)
—Corbett Tiger Reserve, Uttaranchal
At last I had shed the cooks and porters,
slipped guide and driver to get where I shouldn’t.
Leaving the road for that enticing artery of dirt,
chance greeting desire. Human world
soon mute, I followed this sharper attentiveness,
canopy of neem and pine. Elephant dung marked
the way. I kicked apart one clay-like brick.
Strawy warmth, halo of gnat, inarguable
musky perfume. Black-faced langurs swung ahead.
When I rousted the sambar buck, elk-like,
chestnut-dark, and watched its wide crown
disappear, I equally startled. Otherwise,
the quiet was exquisite, late afternoon light
angled and rich—my three shirts too many layers
for temperate winter. What I am saying,
even in the dry riverbed, studying a mishmash
of deer and boar hooves, elephant tracks deep
and large as serving plates, even as I prayed not to
find what I sought and found, I felt no fear.
My late, heavy lunch, first meat I’d taken
in weeks, jostled in my stomach. I wasn’t armed,
of course, except with weariness. Nothing
threadbare as bravery involved itself. I’m saying
that as I crouched before the wide indention
of pugmark, recent fossil fine in sand, unmarred
between rock, I felt only calm exhilaration,
a stupid, fateful surety. Life was grand, absurd.
The tiger could have me if it wanted. I wouldn’t
embarrass us with resistance. I had delivered myself,
my own meal undigested. I apologized to wife,
mother, but I’d witnessed worse fates lately.
From the spidering crux of an immense banyan,
I watched the light move and tried to listen.
And not until I had chosen to continue,
entered a head-tall blind of grass, blades enveloping,
touching, hushing me, did I feel a frisson
of panic, sweet trembling bloom, hear the drum
and bellows of heart and lungs. All the easy,
mournful luck of my life, announcing to the wild.
(originally published in Grist)
Swami Keerti Surprises Me
by Using the Word “Bullshit” on Christmas
Meditation is the only
alchemy, and “all else
in the name of alchemy
is just bullshit, occult nonsense,
He goes on to elucidate
a consciousness beyond
birth and death, but I’m stopped
by the word, pondering
translations, tonal slippage,
reminded too of the jarring
Indian use of “slut.”
As in, say: “The Mughul Emperor,
scoffing at the thought
of the prince his son’s
finely bedecked atop
spent the night before
the slaughter—that morning
when the Jumna ran red
with his ended reign—
in the imperial fort,
drinking wine and carousing
with his harem of sluts . . .”
Anyway, before I can
resolve the linguistics
and stifle a cringe,
green orbs lock on me.
It’s time to cease thinking
and purely, simply “be.”
Even his white beard radiates joy
this Christmas morning,
and, no bullshit, robed arms
spread again into the wings
of an eternal hug.
(originally published in St. Petersburg Review)
Dead Metaphor: Learning the Bicycle
Cracked knees and elbows, bloodied chins,
don’t make an archetype. There goes little Sally,
trainers off, she’s—uh-oh—going down! Ouch!
Ho-hum. Tears and recriminations, question
of damaged trust. Next day typically comes next,
hard lessons again, Sally or Joey faring better,
wobble here, wobble there, maybe a tree leapt
in the way, but you will them up, will them safe,
and—voilà!—no casualties. Tedious victory
indulges tedious conceit, to lead by following,
or perhaps you merely gape into the circumstance
of empty arms. Joey’s erect by himself now,
Sally’s pumping for a whole street of watchful boys.
Or worse, it’s young you on the banana seat,
clutching handlebars like a hell-raiser, risen high
and weaving straight (so to speak) into the future.
Dad’s crouched back there somewhere,
but you’ve no time to turn, no need for advice.
Either story’s the same: once we master the trick
we never forget, then it’s always kamikaze,
sayonara, always, you tired old man, good-bye.
(originally published in Iron Horse Literary Review)
Dead Metaphor: The Number Thirteen
Triskaidekaphobe, triskaidekaphile, let’s call
the whole thing off. But you can’t, can you?
Thirteenth day of every worrisome month,
thirteen rungs of the ladder you’ve no choice
but slip beneath. Black cat high-assing
thirteen steps across the fateful highway
you’ve just entered. Scratch your neck
thirteen times and feel the wooly noose.
Call it baker’s dozen of gloom and get on with it.
A relief, really, this controlling chance at work
explanation for all your considerable luck,
all bad. Perhaps with a lifetime’s practice,
ten incantations plus tongues of toad (three),
or the right number (any notion?) of runes
asymmetrical inside thirteen ecstatic candles,
you can forward the fun to your best enemy.
But no, here he is now at the head of table,
clinking crystal as you’re ushered in for the finale:
Twelve seated and you’re number guess what?
Happy 39th birthday (13 + 13 + etc. . . .) to you.
Chorus well-deserved, guy. Last Supper indeed.
(originally published in Indiana Review)
Reading Ted Hughes on the Beach,
Last Day in Spain
1. The dark ate at you. And the fear / Of being crushed.
Sky a blue sail all the way around
the cove. When I sit up, arms and calves
stuccoed with sand, I squint south
and see, distinct miles away,
the white houses of the pueblo.
2. A fistula of smouldering bitumen. / Hellish.
Volcanic mountains edge the beach,
prickly but benign. Sunday afternoon.
I watch a yellow flag flirting
toward sea just calm enough for play,
rough enough for mischief.
3. Your undertow withdrawal / Blinded and choked you.
Drowsy with lunch and wine, I rise,
stumble into surf, hold my own
then dive for cool, clear brilliance,
swim out, spin and float,
toes curled in Mediterranean air.
4. Our lives were still a raid on our own good luck.
Prostrate again and dripping,
I look up from the damp text
to admire four women, darkly tanned,
in black bikinis, biting the fullest,
most dazzling peaches I have ever seen.
from Ghost —
As you withdraw from the beloved ones,
first in mind, then abused beast of the body
following, you will find speech no longer
plausible. Suggestive turns of hip or shoulder
suffice. The night as long surmised
requires no further recompense. The sweat
of your face, your wetted hair nothing more
than a fevered baptism of exchange.
Fly, wraith. Your secrets mean nothing
to anyone now. Fly to a moon-washed city
of dust and stone. To the cemetery
locked to you, the church undiscovered,
shuttered houses murmuring as you pass.
Ghost breathes on for awhile, sorry nostalgia—
so breathe. If the heart still struggles,
you may share too that fading urgency.
Where were you going? Where you have
arrived, of course. Recognize this place
and, perhaps, weep or smile at the knowledge
you pursued. The loneliness found instead,
its barbarism and solace. There, seeker—
crevasse, mountain, flickering shore.
Dark turn of wing. The bridge where you
pause, a last bittersweet time, as you cross.
(originally published in Evansville Review)
After Three Days, Ghost’s Fever Breaks
Deep beneath wool coat and blanket,
heavy shirt, in the dream not a dream
you are Cristóbal Colón, malarial, fatal
last voyage to new world made old,
sea unconquered and unimpressed.
When God speaks you listen—his taunts,
the brutal puniness of your discovery.
Gradations of light in the shuttered cabin
signal day and night, ordinary trick
of time, theatre of shadow across closed eyes.
In the dream not a dream you are Christ,
wasted features stained to damp sheet,
relic for fortune hunters. Breath, heartbeat,
pulse in wounded hands and feet.
Hour, instant, distorted flash of longing—
woman’s warm thigh against your own,
hand on your face, the home you left
again and again—why?—until no map
could guide you back. Hour, instant, flash—
childhood bicycle, your brother, angry,
skull of horns and the ceaseless parade,
all coffins. When you reach across the dark
for water, the table rattles, the bowl is dry.
Rebelling bones, bag of flesh, chameleon
tongue licking blood clean from lips.
Exactly now, or then, the tomb of the body
relents, just a little. Another eternity.
You sit upright, dragging an altar of rags.
Now or then, you decide to stand,
and some time or other do so. Mummy,
priest of patches, shuffle to windows.
Dare yourself to unlatch them. What day?
Sure enough, there the brick archway
of the courtyard, shattered sculptures.
A miracle of fire risen in the east, cool wind,
palms straining toward their hosannas.
(originally published in Prairie Schooner)
Ghost Awakes with a Hangover,
Assigns Away His Last Earthly Possessions
To die, be born, and die again.
What would you celebrate,
what would laughter commend?
That you’re alive? Well, not quite.
How brief vows of forever,
sacrificed to tawdry morning.
But you taught the body again
to bow and obey, poured your poison
like honeyed tea. Thy will
and testament, Ghost. Speak.
Take this cup from me. It is yours.
Take these sandals and the tired dust,
this rope of leather for a belt.
Take this coat that warmed me,
these bent fingers that reached for you
and the eye that saw your beauty.
This mouth, and every word said
and unsaid to the night.
(originally published in Smartish Pace)
from The Martini Diet —
The Black Pigs
They live days rooting fenced fields,
quiet, predestined days of grunt or squeal,
stiff-gallop after the afternoon train
then fall again to idleness or reflection.
In early evening, before the kestrel
arrives to commence its solitary rituals,
I amble over rail tracks to join them,
expound my theories on the dead and briefly
living. They are patient, practical pigs
and pass me in ragged file, a few twisting
magnificent stubbled snouts to scent
my arguments through rungs of fencing.
Soon enough, it is back to burrowing
dust and scraggy creekbed for whatever
unlikely insight might avail itself
until those last blessèd months of acorn
before the knife. Philosophy a pig can use.
For me, it is back for a hot scrub,
a secular sacrament. The cotton of bread
weighted with thin slices of my hosts,
striated, beautiful, darker than the wine,
trimmed neatly but not excessively
by the Saturday pork-monger who wishes
for me always a good week. The ribbon
of fat is thick and white, the brined flesh
an indulgent perfection. I lick fingers
clean of this wildly expensive grease
then ruin them for another bite,
teeth cutting easily the encasing crust,
rendering the meat delicately into strips.
I mouth the grape’s blood, consider
my porcine brothers small in the distance.
When the hawk arrives from the west,
holding, fluttering, limned and hungry
against a fading bow of dusk, another day
is nearly lost forever, very nearly.
(originally published in Alimentum)
Apologia to the Blue Tit
We rise, drop our faces
in cold water, and face the prospects
of a day like the last one from which we
have not recovered.
Your preposterous death I contained
entirely in my palm, gave meaning
that meant nothing. Your name no longer
tolerated humor. My hand trembled,
the arm, the body itself from the folds
of its nightly deviations. Soft lemon
of breast no wider than a fingertip.
Each dead wing I lifted and let drop.
Uncurled small talons, let grip air again.
You were still warm with a memory
of life, it occurred to me, and I held
your head—your azure cap, the dark line
of broken nape—carefully in a crucible
of bone and flesh, tendon, blood.
When a car turned down the long drive,
stuttering, gray, operated by a stranger,
why did I lower you in embarrassment,
study a sky promising plenty more trouble?
Why nod a greeting I didn’t believe,
caught red-handed in my inspection
of beauty discarded and already rotting?
I laid you in a shaded knot of pine,
spears of cut grass as your pyre,
resumed the timely errands of the day.
(originally published in Briar Cliff Review,
River Styx, and Best American Poetry 2006)