Monthly Archives: November 2012

When I was nineteen years old…

Summers at Home: Texas

I would come down from my room every morning,
half-past four and the sun still gone,
hidden behind the live oaks that rose
like twisted hands among the graves
in the yard across the street.

New graves for a new town,
the oldest stone set loosely embedded
twenty years ago in the hot sandy ground.
The whole place smelled like cats
and their scabrous digging.

When I went there the mosquitoes
would not leave me alone,
settling their hard angular bodies like thorns
on the backs of my knees, taking my blood
and leaving their poisons.

I never went in the morning.
I preferred the garage.

I left my book and yesterday’s paper
on the floor beside my mother’s crippled dog
and took up the plastic handle of a broom
that suited my purpose.

The open-plan kitchen was walled off
by a sliding wooden baby gate.
I stepped over it, setting the plastic rod
beside my ankle to ease what came next.

The dog my father rescued and whom
he would not be rid of lunged
at me from malformed legs.
Even in the dark her fur was golden
and unbearably luxurious,
her teeth were very sharp.
She bit the rod and not my ankle.

This trick almost always worked.

She was very nearly a Chow.
She had that blunt bearish face
and the proper black tongue.
She was the right length,
but her legs were dwarfish,
though beautifully clawed.

Before I worked out the trick of this
she tore my ankles ragged
every time I entered to make up dinner
or fetch mother some tea.
She could hardly go herself.

I had learned a long time ago
not to cry out at blood.

I left her worrying the punctured broomstick,
preferring that noise to expanding my anklet of scars,
and brought my breakfast of ham and sliced apples
to eat while I worked.

My mother’s blind dog sat waiting on his fused haunches,
a parody of the noble keeshond,
though loyal enough.

He rose when I joined him
and rabbit hopped to the locked door.

The third dog followed, my brief-loved
mid-sized terrier who hated the smell
of every woman past menopause.
He never even tried to bite anyone but them.
Twenty years old and fertile, he liked me well enough.

I was not disgusted by the pustulent swatch
of hairless flesh that striped his tan back.
I would even scratch the modified yeast infection
which eventually killed him.

His mouth stretched, his back leg wild with thumping,
as a yellow curd burst skin and surfaced.
It clung to my nails.

Hand wiped on shorts, my bowl full of breakfast,
my book and the paper; I slid into the garage.

I have never been a stable sleeper,
so rising was easy. Just as well, really.
The sun rose hot and relatively early.
Past nine o’clock the heat outside
would be nearly unendurable.

It was difficult enough to slap on my skates at eleven
and go do my job, carrying platters of drinks
and hamburgers to the fat, slug-like people
who sat in their trucks, the air conditioning
failing to dry their moist, slimed skins.

A day of this and I would sweat
enough to fill several literal buckets.

Their thin, flesh-buried lips would glisten and bead
with the hot blast that came
when they opened their windows.

There was a bare lamp in my office,
my moldy box of read books
disguising my notebooks,
bare concrete, stored cloth-Muffled furniture,
a dog blanket, three cases of sun-boiled soda,
a window, my father’s gym-quality elliptical.
This was my home.

I ate the apples, the ham. I let the dogs lick the bowl.
Outside was everything I had ever hated,
in flesh or in symbolic form.

I read the comics, the thin-sheet of art,
one or two of the editorials.
At four-forty-five I set down to work.

I was alternating the work of Heinlein and Jeffers,
returning over and over again to that poem about hawks.
At first, I thought it was about my mother.
I found out something different half-way through
a story about alien puppet-masters.
That made me stop.

I spent three hours a day pedaling in stirrups,
my legs aching, dripping, running nowhere,
my thumbprints yellowing the pages
I turned as I worked, leaving them damp.

I had to be careful with the books I was reading
or sketching out my verses in.
My mother’s dog loved me very much,
so much indeed that he wanted me inside of him.

A book of mine, smelling so strongly
of myself at my best, was irresistible.

If they were knocked from their shelf in my room
while I shuffled hamburgers
I would come home to find them torn apart,
spines gnawed, broken as hinges,
their pages torn out.

Sometimes the chow would get them,
though she never left her room
and I knew enough to never leave them in the kitchen.
It took more time than you would have thought
for me to figure it out.

Teeth

Wisdom

Nana will never lose her molars.
She told me after breakfast
while her white mug of acid coffee cooled in her hands,
her elbows longing for but carefully not touching
either the black oak edge of the table or the blue plastic table mat.

Her teeth are all her own and nearly perfect.
Strong cream tablets, edged with the yellow
found at the petal-rims of spent buttercups,
with a small clean space between each one.

Not at all like my own teeth
which are more like my Popie’s,
weak and prone to breakage, cavities;
my eye-teeth translucent beside the solid opaque
of the false centre incisors, bought to replace the two
knocked out by the shovel. I never found them after
on the straw-strewn barn floor.
Fifty years between our ages and her mouth is younger.

‘I didn’t want to see that dentist
but he was a friend of your Popie’s
and you know how loyal he is.’
She sips with distraction. I know she can’t taste it,
though the smell of grounds thrice used, steeped,
and added to over days triggers my tears.
‘Nothing was paining me, but business was slow
so I agreed to let him check.’

She smiles at me in that flirty way she has,
eyes deep-blue and kittenish
beneath lowered auburn-lashed lids.

‘He checked me up, alright.
Did everything he could to pad the bill.
Picked over and between each one, finding nothing,
so he looked further in.

‘He ordered up x-rays, which were new then
and seemed somehow luxurious. We couldn’t afford it,
but I said yes anyway. Who could ever resist
a look into their own head?’

I could, but I don’t tell her that.
I remember the look of my jaw ten years
after the unmended shattering.
Spidery, cracked, seeping infection
that could have killed me,
if there hadn’t been a warning agony.

‘When he fixed the plates to the light
and saw my wisdom teeth,
he laughed with something almost joy.
Could hardly wait to pull them. I said no.
Couldn’t see any harm in them, they just sat there,
hidden and planted, rooted in tight.

‘Dan said yes. It was the fifties.
There was nothing more to it.’

Nana puts the mug down,
rubs one unconscious hand
down the brief length of her jaw.

‘I went under easily. Ether, you know.
Such beautiful dreams after a breath from the cone.
I woke halfway through to an agonized wrenching.
A snapping sound I remember clearly
though they said I couldn’t have.

‘I surfaced again some time later,
in a clean white room, a surgical room, like my father’s.
My jaw ached but I was otherwise comfortable.
The dentist came in, clean also, though for the first time
I noticed his gnawed, blood-rimed fingers.
They had been in my mouth.

‘He did not apologize. To me at least.
He might have said something to Dan,
though I tend to think not because he still tried to bill me.’

She grins then, exposing her rarely seen predatory edge.
‘He didn’t get away with it. He did tell me this.

‘”Mrs Pope, don’t ever let anyone near your mouth again.
The roots of your teeth are wound round your jaw.
Your wisdom teeth are linked to the main nerves in your cheeks.
If they were pulled you would feel a great deal of pain,
and your face would be paralyzed.”
No apology from him, though his forehead was sweating.’

Nana looks at her nails, long and so beautiful,
edges the shade of her teeth and nearly unbreakable.
My own fray easily as paper, tear to the quicks.

‘I wanted to sue him. I wanted it as badly as a cat wants meat.
But your Popie said no and we didn’t.
That wasn’t the way things happened, then.
I wasn’t badly hurt. The man was Dan’s friend.
It was the fifties.’

Thinking about death…

Dust

In the moment that the air solidifies to aspic,
gelatinous and clear, and you are suspended like an olive in it,
held between the leap and plummet while the Jeepney
sends its old gears stuttering to a halt,
you have time to contemplate death.

When Gilgamesh sought Utnapishtim at the end of the earth
(the literal end, where time never landed)
the living mummy stroked his beard
and mouthed his words around halves of a broken kola nut.

The life that you are seeking you will never find.
When the gods created man they allotted to him death,
but life they retained in their own keeping.
You shall eat dust.

All the hero fled with was the story.

You have never heard of Samaria,
of Wild Men who feast on mud,
of gods or the hero-kings who serve them.
At seven years old you are flying through air,
three inches from the bullet.

The age of reason has struck at last,
its shock wave spreading like a knife through raw liver,
the colour and texture of the flesh which streaks from the shoulder
of the sack-dressed woman who loved you enough
to thrust you from your seat on the over-crowded bench.

One minute she was stroking your hair,
murmuring over the odd light colour.
Then there was air.

Even this aspic cannot suspend you;
the mass of all this gathered death is not greater than your own.
You sink, and hit the boards resonating
with the thump and shudder of tires over limbs.

Your wide brown eyes are a centimetre
from the oval rainbow
of a single lost fish scale
which swells to encompass your world.

Hell is but a House of Dust and mud is all that fills the hunger.
This is the taste which you hold in your mouth
while the stench of cold sweat plugs your nostrils,
the sweetish rot which seeps
from the ancient pores of the farmer
who let his new-bought chickens fly
to cage your weak body in his shield of bones.

He breathes his scant white beard into his mouth
and gnaws the rough strands.
In the vein-pulse of the rib-racked chest against your cheek
you can feel his heart improbably beating.

The secret of life comes through his heart,
the story you gained from this terrible sinking.
When the gods created man they allotted to him death.
Your life they retained in their own keeping.
In time, you shall be dust.

‘Woodcock’ is not a dirty word.

Woodcock

The first I’d ever seen, and alien
to my concept of the citified world.
I saw it sprawled in the sidewalk
beside the Jury Inn,
Swindon’s bleak ornament.

Its blunt wings were closed,
framing the body in the shape of a heart.
The dark breast torn from bones
that were tooth-scraped and splintered,
the vitals plucked from their stems and guy wires
by a muzzle red painted with blood.

The fox did not kill it,
it died by the road.

The meat which remained
looked nothing like even the dark meat of chicken.
There was a stringy vitality there
that brought to my mind a cows skinned haunches.

Rapid twitch muscles our Sunday dinners
could never equal- even if they had not spent
their brief lives hormone pumped,
locked in high cages.

Beside these tatters the fox left,
even a ducks breast looks insubstantial as water.
We humans forget the high cost of flight.
The strenuous, ungraceful glory
of beating down air.

I picked the body up, one-handed,
surprised by the weight it had
after a third was subtracted
by the teeth of a fox
and its back skinned bald by car grill.

Its small head lolled loose on its short thick neck,
the long flesh-toned beak pressed against my arm,
a sword that would not fall.

I ran my finger over blood-groove,
tracing the length of spear-bone
to the delicate, down-soft hollow of the throat,
the armored nest of all lost songs
and thought, ‘I cannot leave you naked
by the side of the road.’

Books in one hand, I held the corpse in my other,
making the treck up the hill that leads to the library,
looking for a place green enough to take my burden.

I am used to seeming mad
in this place where gentleness is madness
and nature is something to be mown down by cars.

I set it beside the roan tree
which roots beside the theater
and has not been knocked down yet.

I left it there, wingspread,
the empty pocket which held a heart once
open to the morning air,
ready for night to come on soft feet and cover
the sight of the fox resuming its meal.

What I got from the National Gallery

Corpus

It is terrible to look at,
in the manner of all things
composed of an undeniable genius.

Look at the way the flesh of the dangling hands
is gouged and gray-gangrenous
around the pucker left by nails,
the way those thick, rounded thorns
penetrate the slit skin of the forehead,
fitting as smoothly as a sword in a scabbard,
raising it up.

The face was taken from a corpse,
a legitimate dead man-
not hard to find in Italy, then.

I wondered, for a moment,
if the artist had mutilated real flesh-
slamming the crown down, scraping bone
to get just that look.

So tell me why the Putti are smiling,
their sly cherubic faces turned out
from the body they are supposed to be raising.

Their colour is too good for this work,
expression too overtly sexual
beneath their light curls.

They thrust their blushed buttocks from the frame,
their long, thorn-like genitalia indecently covered,
framing their burden.

The only things erect about this corpse
are the nipples, round as beryl globes
and fringed with dark hairs
that I have never seen on this body.

Dark hairs scatter the chest,
a feminine curling
towards the curved pubic bone
where the painting cuts off,
before I can tell if what was removed
has risen or not.

The sensuality doesn’t bother me.
God made the flesh for feeling,
He has flooded me like that,
through points and round swellings,
through injurious love.
I am not disgusted by sincerity.

But I hate what this painting
is sincerely about.

The slit in his ribs,
like my own slit, though higher up,
has ripe labial folds.
It was made to receive spears;
it is not the product of a thrust.

His breasts are like mine were
at the dawn-edge of puberty,
when the nipples rose before the globes.

The angels do not exist, there,
to raise Him up.
Crivelli has caught them, ungirt,
in the moment of lowering.

Their looks, to a man, might be inviting.
Their eager smiles say, ‘See what we do to Him,
down on the earth.”

Another from my latest series

Christmas II

Shirley lay in the bed
in her prim, backless robe,
surrounded by the breath of other mothers
and the milky scent of babies.
Her own newest child lay beside her, as wrinkled
as an apple past its prime, but active
and large in the bassinet.
It waved one hand,
inchoate and curled, at its mother
as she filled in the cards.

The labor had been easy;
as painful as the last one, but over fast.
Tom was at home with the girls-
she could trust him that far-
and though she missed him she reveled
in the eerie half-silence of the room she shared
with five other girls.

There was no need for pretense here.
The other mothers on the ward burbled softly,
to each other and their fresh spawn.
A smile from Shirley was all they required.
They left her alone.

She loved a night without drunk-talk,
a night without wariness, or a visit from her in-laws.
She did not have to worry
about red-headed Janet, her little, lying
five-year-old girl who said such things
about her Granpy. Lisping him, ‘wicked’.

Shirley did not worry about the way
Joyce shied away from treats or touching,
the way she gnawed on bloodied nails,
chipping her milk-teeth.
She did not have to think
about where the money would come from,
this month, or how they would afford
both beer and food.

She thought about her brand-new baby,
so perfect, so quiet, the round apple-head
dusted with soft black hair.

She lay her fourth-decade ear
across that five-day-old chest
and heard the stuttering beat of that small heart,
already terribly flawed.

Shirley breathed in the scent of vomit and Pine-Sol
and thought about the ache between her legs.
Her Presbyterian ethic had leeched to her marrow,
always incapable of enjoying a vacation,
she wondered when she would
be well enough to work again.

Shirley filled in Christmas cards,
her neat secretary’s hand, architectural as printing,
scribing out five names after ‘Love’.
Tom, Shirley, Janet, Joyce and our new baby, Lilly.

The letters were all stamped and mailed
before she found the body cold.

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