Poetry

Recent poems

 

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.

 

 

This Trip

 

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

of something

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

His masterpieces,

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.

 

 

Night Song

 

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 …

How easily

we waste our lives,

lavishly, with so little

thought, and then

such tiny

socks.

 

 

October Layoffs

I

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.”

 

II

 

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 …”

 

III

 

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

Farther, revealing

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.

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