Moored near the pilings beneath a former highway bridge,
I pull out the Shimanos and bait — pinfish,
greenbacks, and finger mullet — and give her
her choice. “Cast into the shade,” I remind,
“and use a light grip — like so.”
I press her hand around mine.
We whip the rod and froth the air;
we need to keep the leaders short,
and I fix them to the braided line.
“They’re made of lead, so why
don’t we call them ledders?” she asks.
I pinch the flared barbs down tight.
I ask her to whisper and put
a finger to my lips. “Shhh!”
But she is tired of instructions.
“Can’t we just fish?”
I tell her we’ll be catching dinner soon,
but hours later without a bite she is in full pout.
She puts down her rod and asks,
“Couldn’t we just get a case of crabs instead?”
“It’s a box,” I tease. “A box.”
She snorts and takes her line out.
fiddles with the lure on her hat.
I say again, “Don’t scare the fish.”
“Scare them?” she says. “Wouldn’t
pulling them in the boat do that?
Chicken is the only animal you eat before it’s born and after it’s dead.
In the food stalls it predominates, it’s everywhere —
chicken in tacos, chicken on a stick,
wings in sauce and patties between bread,
or diced and wokked in bowls
(with skin and without), pickled eggs
in the beer tent and fried ones on burgers,
omelets for the brunch crowd,
even beaks and feet (you suspect)
in the chili, corndogs, and wieners
and all those dark stains, splatters on the pavement,
each a foul witness to a gastrophobe’s bad dream.
But you can’t have it both ways; you are what you eat.
You can’t fill up and ride the Tilt-a-Whirl, so take your pick.
What are you, chicken? she taunts when you shun
the Sea Dragon, your eyes swimming with each sway.
And you begin to think maybe you are:
your words catch in your craw
as you cock your head to one side
and scratch with your left foot in the dirt.
You can almost feel your pinfeathers
rasping against your shirt.
I started, of course, from the front, the way
beginners do, concentrating upon
the trick of getting each word to resay
itself in an exotic, liquid tongue.
Huichol, nearly midway, referred to those
Indians of the Sierra Madre;
huitlacoche, corn fungus, followed close,
then javelina, easier to say,
and other palabras like ruca (crone),
vato (dude) and sonorous viaje.
At zafacón (waste basket) I was done,
and in failure put the damned thing away,
still lacking the word to name, despite my try,
the widening iris in a lovebird’s eye.
you know the sounds
the drip of the tap
the patter of rain
and the crash of waves
of the cataract
that impresses honeymooners
the trickle of streams
the splatter of a shower
in a tub
how it sometimes
hammers its code
through old pipes
or calls to us
to relax and release
and if you listen
you can hear
the hum inside the water
how in the teakettle
it becomes steam
and curls like smoke
as it gropes for words
until at last it learns the tune
and begins to whistle along
Cinderella slept in ashes near the oven
worn out as a hound
eating crow today, soup the next,
at last the red-combed rooster
whose wishbone she kept afterward
wrapped in cloth
in her apron pocket
each night beneath the kettle
she looked for lentils in the soot
and prayed to her dead mother
oh when, oh when will he come?
dreaming of rich gowns
even when her shoes
were worn out from dancing
she bided her time
waiting for the hansom coach,
a magic wand and two loaves of bread,
for doves to peck out her step-sisters’ eyes
Clustering for warmth like cigarettes in a pack
at ten thousand feet in the oyamel firs,
the monarchs gather in their butterfly biosphere
above Angangueo. Millions have made the migration
from Canada, three thousand miles riding thermals
over mountains and deserts and stuffing
themselves on Midwest milkweed.
Generations were born and died along the way,
the adults living only a few weeks,
but those methuselahs born at summer’s end
have outlived snowstorms, mudslides, and floods,
forest fires and illegal deforestation,
tailings that poison the water long after
the mines have folded and springs gone dry.
Home at last, they are like dead souls returning
on Dia de las Muertos, troops of unkillable amorists
wearing fragile sugar skulls, so many weary angelitos
puffing together in a crowded ashtray.
Snow White slept unhappily in a ray of light,
Monday’s child, a poisoned comb in her hand,
her glass coffin as snug as a chaffinch’s nest.
Magnificent pears hung from the branches above.
The huntsman told to kill her spared her,
slew instead a boar in the cold northland
and carried its lungs and liver in his vest
to her wicked step-mother who ate them with cloves.
Without housekeeper and incapable of preparing a single bite,
that woman ate whatever was at hand;
she seemed to like hearts and gizzards best
although I’ve heard she was also fond of turtledove.
Young Snow slept that way much of her life
until a traveling prince saw her empty left hand
and was stunned. He put his own over her breast
and swore what he knew about undying love.
We like it when stories end right
and no one follows the queen’s command.
So be careful about what you ingest,
and always handle step-children with a kid’s glove.
Afterward the old lady danced and danced until she dropped
and sank with her iron slippers into the moat.
Snow turned to thoughts of the diamond mine
and refused to sweep or clean. She plopped
onto the dwarfs’ settee where she napped for years
peacefully, a bon-bon and a piece of poison apple still in her throat.
What’s worse than contaminated fruit?
Old Cronos devoured his own children,
Fearing that a little bird might
Throw a golden chain around its father’s neck.
Bluebeard hung his wives
By their hair in a dark closet.
Heed the premonitions, but like a fool
Wage war against heaven.
But some of you will not remember
Every word I say:
How a woman will do anything
To get out of housework.
She’ll sleep with a cross under her pillow,
Think all fairy tales end in gold.
In third grade I fell in love with my teacher,
an indecency I know, but Miss Heusinger’s eyes
opened and closed in our sunny classroom,
well, like a pupil. Aside from a single afternoon
of cleaning the chalk trays, she was a woman
whom I almost never stood near. She married,
moved away; it was her policy, I learned,
not to leave no child behind. A substitute finished the term.
That is how a heart learns to break . . . then
life repeats itself. The trouble with redundancy
is there is just too much of it.
Years later she is likely divorced,
abandoned by a man who wasn’t good enough,
or has died. But she is still one of them —
the ones we are doomed to remember —
and, call it what you will, never quite quit loving.
You may remember what your first love said
when you met, but you couldn’t see the future,
how she held it like an eraser in her uplifted hand.
my grandmother got up early
and sang to the well pump’s crank
the water sang too
the clothes she washed
came clean and hung
joyfully on the slack line
but when she snared an old hen’s ankle
with a wire hook
the soup tasted like rooster wash
happiness for her
was nothing more than
a speck of something
just beginning to appear
down the road
something no larger
than the sun’s promise
sealed like a parcel
or the prospect of a package
beneath whose lid
the new day sang
like a chorus of baby chicks
“Come in, come in,” you said when the van
pulled to the curb. “Iced tea?”
Just a cameraman and lone reporter
a long way from Dallas.
Inside it’s soft leather, a/c, pictures —
family, friends, you in uniform
with your foot upon the hub of a jet
gazing off toward the wild blue.
“Is this the street,” one asks,
“where you were caught in the tar,
where your brother rescued you?
“How far to the ranch? Your herd?”
he wonders, putting down his sweating glass.
So it’s stories and not poems they have come for:
to see where the squirrel squeezed through the soffit
and rampaged the attic all winter.
They want to see for themselves where heat lightning
struck the old bull, all the made up things:
the windmill with damaged blades, sucker rods
complaining loudly in the wind, a pond where wild ducks
might float by, barbed wire stretching to the horizon,
the trough where you baptized the dog.
There are no horses or cows,
no mules — no ranch to confess to.
The camera stays unpacked, disappointed.
It wants . . . not exactly lies but not truth either.
Imagine them you want to say,
but these are men who cannot imagine
something they’ve already seen.
And because the sky is overcast and irregular,
they can’t even trace the clouds with a finger.
They are pointless, the sky seems to say —
so you don’t have to — as you envisage
the door of an unreal barn closing.
I never think of my father as young
though the photos prove otherwise:
here posed in a sleeveless undershirt
and khakis, a teenager already three years deep
in the Army but no kid, just another
Kentucky hardballer smoking his way
down the road to Depression and World War.
In another he kneels in front of several Chevrolets,
smirking as if he’d spent the whole evening
chasing moonshine with his loony pals
and trying to embrace the night’s fat ass.
I never think of my father as old either.
Dead at sixty-two, he was smileless
long before the hospital, durably stern
and disapproving as if he suspected everyone
had been pissing off the porch.
I want to hear nothing but silence,
and plenty of it, he scolded all my youth.
He has likely had his fill of it now.
I think of my father forever somewhere
in the middle of middle age, burning
between flame and frost like Dantean hell,
his heart the equator of a world
he could not hold together or a polar ice cap,
an imaginary line, geographically absent
and remembered, whenever I think of him,
only in a poem, frowning. Sometimes
not even the memory of happiness will do.
In the fifth grade while the rest of us
craved baseball and candy,
Glenn fell in love. During recess
he kissed a girl behind the trees;
she had begun to grow breasts,
though he was too young to do much about that
or them. He was enchanted instead by her name
and wrote Sue again and again
on book covers; he daydreamed about marriage
in history and math. He even scratched
her name on a mesquite’s skin with a fork
he swiped from his lunchroom tray.
Then in what passed for passion in those days,
he fashioned the heads of kitchen matches
into a tattoo on his wrist.
She gave off more heat than light.
Unimpressed by the blisters that
spelled her irrevocably into a scar,
she kissed another boy on the school bus home.
Glenn cried when he heard. He tried not to,
but he did. First heartbreak is always sad;
still he sensed how much worse
it might have been. Then he called himself lucky,
so lucky he hadn't fallen for Elizabeth.
The season of reindeer and carols,
Of glazed slush that thaws, then gathers against the curb.
The crosstown malls are jammed, but here
Below an idling downtown building
I peer alone through a security grate
At a drugstore version of Christmas –
St. Nick riding a new shaver
Jollily down a slope of cotton toward
Depilatories and shampoos and throw-away cameras
Meant to catch that special face beneath the tree,
Its beatific Chinese grin fixed long
beyond the contraption that flashed it.
Tags dangle from every notion and cologne,
Each product a potential present. I read
The names and think of absent friends,
The unexpected gifts that fell upon us
Once like love. I tell my dead mother
I'll be home this year for sure and pass
Unnoticed from this sad display to another
On a street where now not even Santa knows my name.
Both night and day are black and filled with climatic noise,
The isobar a dim clue on heartbreak’s stormy map;
A man tires of toys, may kiss his wife into the moon
While stars seen solely in darkness fall into his lap.
But sometimes out of pain only adversity comes.
Without notice its unrepentant forecast unfurls,
And west becomes east as it passes through our center,
Its flesh like the rounded circumference of a girl
Or a squall named for a woman whose cyclonic love
Is a watercolor, a framed barometric print.
Your fragrant swirl bails out the world every time it floods.
Moment after moment like the first moment is meant
For the dark. I sleep in your wake, feeling sorry for
Everyone who isn’t me and the someone who is.
A hammered medallion,
the moon hangs above a place
the wind and water want back.
Night here sings of the forge,
and sounds of the anvil echo
along the canyon walls —
it plays like a stone fiddle
in a month of short days.
Just another big bang theory,
a lesson in circumference.
And see the stars, how they splinter
like sparks from the hearth?
It is where God struck his tarnished coin
before he beat the daylights out of the land.
In this landscape they have meteors for eyes,
not blazing but ones that have hit earth and cooled.
Heads up like heavy lanterns, they stand and gaze
at you, improvising thought, tails churning flies.
One skull seems not enough. This outcrop they graze
is as blank as frostscrawl or loaves of bread.
All doubt fades before hooves and horn, is not fooled
by the sounds of wind, wind on wheat, on grasses.
They smile, but they do not need your curving lens;
there is nowhere for them to go, won't say cheese.
They browse but are not led, ignore what passes,
are the negative your shot snaps. And their prints
pucker and pleat, gather, wander where they please,
trail to water, the sky they fell from like lead.
Summer knows more than one trick. Leaning
against a rock beneath an unnatural sky,
you spread your blanket before you in picnic,
eat berries and cream, and watch water fall
from parchment cliffs onto the otter camps below.
You feel the shudder of exhausted wind
(which is nothing itself) unravel in the hayfields
where the dog star waits for night, winking unseen
like a battery gone bad overhead.
When you read about places like this, you recall
the blonde who got sick in your truck,
its old gearbox groaning and bracing itself
against boulders in the washed-out road. Strapped
in her seat belt, she rinsed her mouth, eyes closed,
with the last swallow in the pint. You forgave
the frostbite in her dizzying kiss and thought
this is how things are just before they come apart.
But because life is a place that recurs over time,
you remember her too in the smell of hot metal
and burning oil, in the once upon a time
when her lips were the open cylinder of a gun,
and when you wash yourself in the stream, just where
it narrows into a pool like your constricting heart,
you hear the lies she spoke all August,
aloud again as the dragonflies skim and dunk,
and you try to cleanse yourself in the blood of want.
a man owes something to his dreams
waking in the strange night or shivering in a stream,
he is blind beyond the curve where the hyacinth gathers
and the river becomes a boring stretch of road
its curve is the like the curve of her leg
and when in sleep you swim
the long shadow upstream to her
and away from the sneer of fish
you become something orchestral
the water trembles
as you dance in the oyster wash
and waves crack
like broken sidewalk around you
before day comes
and you resort to common life again
this morning when I opened my dream box,
all there was was the moon
His need is to forget the small talk of love,
the whispered forevers that do not last,
the barbed-wire confessional of commitment
that always gets pushed against,
the endearments and promises,
things larger than either heart intended.
It's part of growing up, his twice-married father consoles,
as if words and straight shots assured some healing,
but even a schoolboy knows
that things really are darkest
just before they go completely black.
And the rest, there to remind
that people who can't bear to be alone
frequently are — the papier-mache drunk at the rail,
tawdry waitresses, the spastic dancers who make him grin.
It is a registry of the ungainly and unloved,
those whose hides never proved tough enough,
who drink like fish wishing to be salmon,
to spawn once more before they spoil and die.
But we are all out of water, and the whiskey
is a long way from its source. Though
it distills our longing, it goes down hard,
topples us like slaughterhouse steers
until done and bewildered,
and no brighter than when we started,
we head back home nearly believing
it has been enough tonight
simply to beat first light back to the barn.
This place is punishment for our oldest sin,
but it’s not a bad spot to end: the Wilmington
frames the azaleas and statuary, and avenues of oaks
draped with long moss provide reprieve
from the ragged field and oystershell roads.
Since it is still a place where journeys mostly cease,
we should accept its glad tidings as we go,
the cheery bon voyage, the good fortune its name commends.
It’s not as though we’re bound somewhere else or on vacation;
death may be a new undertaking, but it’s not a new business
for which we should be wished “good luck in your new location.”
It is, as we’ve always known, where the leather pays the toll;
it is where after the war Muir stalled on his thousand-mile walk
from Indiana to the Keys.
Blind for a month,
he discovered things in the darkness, saw how his life must change.
And what he saw, he saw again where the salt marsh
gave way to plantation and then these graves.
Waiting for money, he found himself
amid thickets of sparkleberry and for five nights
took his rest among the speechless dead
where he first dreamed the West.
Money isn’t everything, but it sure keeps the kids in touch.
An e-mail from one reminds about a birthday soon;
Things are good, he says;
he’s working part-time, but cash is tight,
and by the way he has just quit school.
Like God, he needs money, always has.
And like his mother spends it.
He prefers to disobey both
and, still a teen, talks out of both sides of his ass.
But I too have been known not to listen to their advice.
So I sign the check and lick the flap,
offer congratulations for another year gone.
In time another holiday will roll around;
I’ll hear from him again before the seasons are done.
What should a man with no standing write?
Get your GED? Stay clean? Have fun?
There’s not much I can tell him for fact
he doesn’t already know except that
your class reunions won’t likely be much fun.
“Dear,” she said,
“if one of us were to die,
I think I’d move home to Mother.”
And the compliments passed
hand to hand like combat
or family silver.
She raised a sorry kid, he
got promoted, hit Big Spring
hard on business, sent back a card
from the motel.
“Having wonderful time,”
“Wish you were her.”