The Beauty of a Strip Mall
is the beauty of a minor
dream turned quietly
aside at the end of the day,
the beauty of the small,
impossible ledgers recording
hope against subtraction and finally
closed with a sigh.
Every unremarkable donut shop
is somebody’s act of faith,
and somewhere between almost and
never quite, in the last miles
of aging neon and plastic
backlit signage, here
too is poetry, where the books
will someday be balanced and the future
is always a bargain, everything
ninety nine cents.
The House That Brochures Built
My finest work, to be honest —
the thousands of slick,
four-color brochures that support
my wife, myself, two sons and a home,
selling life insurance and security
bonds, selling porta-toilets
and hard cheese, selling faith,
reassurance and calm.
I’ve lit candles for clients
and prayed for their welfare
and prayed for their business,
and for years I’ve prayed for the copy
and the copy has come, well-
hacked and sweated, typing the words
that work for these artful books,
songs of myself, each one
my best shot,
none of them signed.
Third day of the hurricane
and the whole world is flooded,
neighbors huddled on rooftops,
and that’s how the father and son
arrive, in an outboard,
and the people clamber down,
stiff-legged, shivering, and with so many souls
loading the boat that the son says
I’ll get out, and he trades places
with the last ones so all are saved
this trip. The father nods,
makes a promise and heads upriver,
leaving his son behind,
surrounded by rising water,
waiting in the steady rain
for the empty boat to return.
Song of the Middle Manager
I have walked down silent corporate hallways
deep in the belly. I have worn the white shirts of fire
with muted tie, dark shoes and matching wallet.
I have eaten the cocktail wienie
at company picnics and listened to the bosses
and admired their muscular toys.
I have laughed with the eager lieutenants.
I have kissed ass and pondered.
I have watched over my unwavering people
and watched them disappear into void.
I have cleaned out my desk.
I have felt a company go under.
I have passed through the walls of yellow smoke
and emerged, squinting, on the other side
and consulted with the prophets of caffeine
charting apocalypse—who will be saved
and who will be marked as losers.
I have lost my dreams
in exchange for others smaller and stronger.
I have caught the last flight out of Omaha.
I have made my connections.
And at times, alone in the early morning,
somewhere between the parking lot
and divided office, between the checks
and daily inches of accommodation,
I have seen such beauty in the air
and paused, if only for a moment.
I have gone so far and not gone further.
I have walked through other doorways filled with light.
The Silence of God
Or maybe He never shuts up.
You tell me.
Think of supernovas and the blind
seed cracked open, ecstatic
with moisture, the utter generosity
rather than nothing.
And here come the penguins.
Is that silence? In what language?
It’s like this —
every morning God lifts
the nuclear sun in His bare hands
and remakes the world instant by instant
and not once does He say
“you owe me.”
Darwin raised his doubts. Could a caterpillar
eaten alive from the inside out
by the larvae of a parasitic
wasp be the art of God’s love? The very idea …
And yes, the God of hurricanes
and stillborns, our Lord of disease
and life-giving death.
We recognize His touch, His wicked
humor and His tenderness,
all of us
no choice and no exceptions.
So I ask God, “Am I making You up?”
And He speaks to me. “Honey,
of course you are.”
The true, the original work
comes out of the blue
and God is the blue
From Success Stories
Waiting for Money
We sleep late through the morning and make
love quietly in the middle of the day.
We’re waiting for the telephone to ring.
Someone somewhere in California is reading
our script. They’ll let us know next week, they say.
My wife says it’s like waiting for your dream
boat to ask you to the prom.
We’re living mainly on credit cards these days.
Each week, I feel the easy trigger
tighten as I sign for cash. We’re optimistic.
In New York, the air is filled with impossible money.
For the first time in years, we have all day
to be with each other. We make a date
for the Museum of Natural History
on Wednesday nights when it’s almost empty.
We study the natural defenses of the sponge,
learn where the dinosaurs went wrong, carefully follow
the moody spells of recorded shamans.
When we get home, the answering machine
sits silent. We’ll watch the late show
like insomniacs, or talk a bit, and I’ll fall asleep
remembering the dark museum, the wolves
racing through the moonlit forest, racing
all night through the deep, blue snow.
My Wife Believes in Reincarnation
I’ve never thought about money so much
since moving to New York. Brooding in silence,
I watch how the Chinese goldfish follow
their lucky noses back and forth. We need
to build up equity. Each month, half our income
disappears for rent, but with interest rates
and nothing in the bank, what can we do?
My wife reads a book on “spiritual midwifery,”
newborns blinking at the camera, wrinkled, astonished.
The goldfish stare back, mild and brainless,
happy enough in their temperate world.
In the crowded park on summer afternoons, we admire
the children of others: toddlers squatting in the sand
and ignoring the giant, assuming faces above them.
Everything we’ve tried to create together
has failed, except our life together.
Our arms are empty. We must have faith.
My wife believes in reincarnation. In the nature shows
on television, galaxies of bright spores float
through darkness. I kiss her shoulders.
“That’s how I think of our souls,” she tells me.
“Millions ascending, life after life.”
I turn off the set. She adds, “This child
is simply waiting for its own sweet time.”
After love, I leave her sleeping and take
my shower, washing off her lotions and oils,
the fragrances, our sweat. I towel myself dry, feeling
the warm air on my body from the open window.
Ferns tremble in the breeze moving
through the dark apartment. Someone calls
from the street. Tiny souls, the millions streaming
lavishly through space, through time,
simple and perfect, like snow.
My son cries and I stumble
over to the dark crib
to pick him up and he hangs
on my neck, dependent,
and love twists deep inside me,
the good knife
working at the pointless
tangle of old roots and fear,
my baffled heart prized
open by small
and normal degrees …
we waste our lives,
lavishly, with so little
thought, and then
Working in a troubled office, you develop
a fine ear for door slams, like the managerial
“Now see here!” — righteous and swift.
But you also distinguish the other kind,
still forceful but touched with a miserable hint
of reluctance that says, “I truly hate
to do this, but I’m your boss.”
Sitting at my desk, heart pounding,
almost in tears, I listen to our supervisor
talking rapidly next door. I put my ear to the wall,
and I hear Pat say, “Well, I figured …”
Full moon, October. I lie awake
half dreaming, drifting, and I see myself
making the rounds at the office, saying
goodbye, hugging each person in turn.
“You’ve done a good job. Be proud.”
Then immediately another image:
I’m sitting tailor fashion on my desk,
literally in burlap and ashes, head lowered,
my collar open, cool air on my neck.
A broad ax rises. I lower my head some more,
and the ax slices easily through my neck.
I feel my head tip forward
and fall, blood washing my chest,
soaking my shirt.
Startled, I lie in the dark. I’ve seen,
I think, what I needed to see:
that I’ll never work again for anyone else,
not with my heart, not with faith,
and I close my eyes, falling asleep
and sleep like the dead until morning.
Packing the Books
Another chapter. Eleven years of a New York
education, and we’re moving away.
I cull out the unreadable books, asking
what a man truly needs at forty five.
I’ve forgotten what little I understood
of Hegel and Locke, whole kingdoms
of plants, the meanings of quarks,
the Five Good Roman Emperors,
math, the novels of Proust,
and a rolling thunder of conjugations
in four different languages, even my own.
I save the poetry for last. Rows of aging
paperbacks with cracked spines,
yellowing pages. I look at the margins,
the furious comments, words underscored
two, three times, exclamation points … Oh what
was I trying to love?
In the middle of life, I see myself still waiting
outside a library deep in the woods.
I stare through the window: tier after tier
of books bound in white leather, and I understand
now that the books are empty, nothing
but soft, blank pages. I press my hands
to the cold glass. This is my heart,
this silent building in the dark fir trees,
and the lights are left burning all night long.
From The Glass Children
The Pale Fish in Limestone Caves
Keep mainly to themselves, leading
The quiet life down there,
Free from distraction.
Full-grown, they are slightly larger
Than your little finger and hang
Silent in the pools, their icy fins
Barely feathering the clear water polished
Through so many miles of pure stone
It is almost not water.
And they have no stars, no vague seasons,
No light flooding the amazed chambers
Clustered with stalactites, rotting jewelry,
Roses, molars, staircases of wrinkled ivory
And sugar-pink, two-ton wedding cakes
Collapsing with a flurry of wings and centaurs
To disturb them so they are blind.
Their eyes rest like moist pearls
In their milky faces, and each creature
Will regard the other as a secret, gently,
As they reproduce with a pale shuddering
Their perfect lives.
The Illustrations of Andreas Vesalius
He takes a breath
And peels the compliant
Skin from the back of his hand
To show us clearly
The elastic engine of ligaments
And bone inside, the soft
Rein of tendons
Working the fingers.
It’s high noon. He stands
Naked on a limestone ledge
Near Padua, assuming
A classic posture of renaissance
Sculpture, the broken viaducts
Stuttering across the valley
Behind him. We don’t understand,
So he peels the skin back
The deep sympathy of flexor
With extensor muscle, layers
Rendered in logical detail,
Intellect consuming the beautiful
Elements of the man by exact degrees,
As if blasted by surgeons.
So page by page we proceed
Without hesitation as the unbound
Body becomes articulate, skin
Billowing behind him like a tent.
“I am burning,” I can hear him saying
Quietly like a lover, repeating the words.
“I am burning,” and his body
Opens like a charm.
The Last Days of Heaven
I see so many of us
Wandering down to the end
Of an ocean pier at dawn, after
The party, the men in their yellow uniforms,
The ladies in brushed silk. The sea is calm.
Overhead, the Japanese lanterns sway
Simply in the breeze, their blue
Green pastel lights
Still burning, and we pause, all of us,
Looking up for a moment
At the clouds across the eastern sky,
Clouds upon pale clouds, and we hear
Huge, distant voices calling to one another
Like faint music, the sound rising and falling on the wind,
A few notes, sometimes a phrase,
Then nothing …
I believe in conclusions, in a final
Whiteness absorbing the unequal flesh,
Our lives turning beautifully away
From the dim,
Reductive beasts inside us.
I remember the lion,
The enormous peacocks bristling
On the palace lawn, and the ox
Raging, wild-eyed, swinging the beard of wolves
Hanging at his throat, desire
Frozen in a moment of blood and speed,
And the moment fades, effective and resolved.
I believe we’re approaching the essence
Of pure idea, all the lost energies of the world
Released formally in the mind. It becomes
A kind of grieving at last,
The beginning of peace as we congregate
In our brilliant white rooms, cool
And exhausted, like angels starving on sugar.
In New York the Women are Dreaming
In New York, yes, the women are dreaming.
In the lacework of hallways, hesitant with pearls,
In the violets of evening, one night reaching to the next,
In the amber water of Victorian aquariums,
Under glass, asleep in the Hotel of Stars
The women are dreaming and beginning to dream.
And in cold steel driving Manhattan, the women are dreaming,
In black granite and the city’s hunger
And all the food that feeds it, in the power
Forced on its aging body, dying and ascending,
The women are dreaming. They’re dreaming
In the long weight of the physical buildings,
In masculine iron weeping in tunnels,
Dreaming in concrete, in the crumbling legs
Of archaic bridges, in the midnight freeways
The woman are dreaming and gathering their dreams.
They’re dreaming in boilers buried underground,
In blue, untouchable voltage, in warm routers and switches,
In green waves of traffic surging by minutes,
In crowds emerging from the steaming subways,
In the child half-carried down the steps,
Looking back up at the sky in wonder.
They’re dreaming in money, in the glittering,
Delicate conduits of trust, the precise
Twinklings of magnetic data,
In platinum bars stacked in freezers,
In the severed heads floating through hallways
Of the mild, organic corporations,
The women are dreaming and changing their dreams.
In the hands of the butcher, the women are dreaming.
In the subtle reasoning of fat, in the carcass
Drained and lightened, in the broad, clean breasts
And flying shoulders, in the moist
Sawdust of bone and teeth, in the milk of the vein
Split open, in the tongues of cattle
Loose and pendulous, organs of the earth,
Of the lamb, of the life we feed on,
The woman are dreaming.
In the broken body, in the frozen nerve
Of the doctors, the women are dreaming.
In the snowy white rooms, in the shoulders of men
Bending over the patient, in scalpel and response,
In needle and clamp, in blood
Foraging through the gauze,
In the lost collections of Quaaludes and Valium,
In Bentatrax, in Tri-Barbs and Nidar,
In Placidyl, in Lotusate and Seconal
and the government of Thorazine,
The women are dreaming and trying to dream.
In the shoes of the dead, the women are dreaming,
In death’s double song, in the coffins of men
And coffins of women, the women are dreaming,
Fitful and stubborn, in the buildings burning
All night in East Brooklyn, South Bronx and Harlem.
They’re dreaming in the neon smeared on the asphalt,
In screaming hallways, in the iron cold darkness,
In twelve men taking turns
In a vacant lot, fire burning in a steel drum.
In the brain of the rapist the women are dreaming
And dreaming to breathe.
The women are dreaming at sea, underwater,
In the dark hulls of ships steaming in moonlight,
In planes and buses approaching the city.
They’re dreaming in Central Park at sunrise,
In the streetlights still burning, in the lovers
Coming home, dreaming as he takes off his shirt
And kneels, kissing her legs and belly, so carefully,
Sliding his hands up under her dress, loosening
The fabric and she draws him up, and with them
The women are dreaming and almost awake.
They’re dreaming in the bright wreckage of god
And goddess burning, dreaming the dawn
As they stand on the towers of Manhattan,
Their free, white dresses
Floating in the wind, and their eyes are open
And they’re dreaming of a world returning and alive,
Dreaming of the world and dreaming of women.