After the loaded quiet in the garden, there were faces,
Red and sweaty, lit by flame. You listened
To them coming for you, wielding their torches
And swords, led by a man bought by silver,
Enough to refurbish the temple, sold for blood.
You could hear them over the healing
Patter of your awakened disciples who asked you to heal
Their weakened flesh so that they could face
The night with you, be alert in their blood,
Never knowing that you were distracted, listening
For the feet of the men who would slay you, they are silver-
Painted in the moonlight, sweat dripping from torch-
Heated skin. You tried to set a fire in their hearts, torch
Their false self righteousness. You wanted to heal
Their hidden wounds, the places base silver
Could not touch. You would have taken his face
In your hands, kissed him gently, listened
To his poisonous words and removed the bile from his blood.
Instead, he comes, as he was meant to, hungry for your blood,
To splash it out on a skull-named stone. The torches
Are visible now, glowing in the groved olives. Listen.
You can hear the footsteps. Your healing
Hands are by your sides and you’ve composed your face,
For them, the man who could not be bought with silver,
They are the good men to whom silver
Means nothing. Time is funny now, moving blood-
Slow, as slow as a congealing incision. Their faces
Are showing through the trees. Peter has seen the torches,
He draws his sword and makes a wound for you to heal.
The soldiers ear falls to the ground, severed. Listen.
There is silence. Shock. They will listen
If you speak now. Say something about swords, silver-
Glinting in the moonlight, they can never heal
Anything. You pick up the ear, like dried fruit, blood
Still wet, you put it back where it was. Iscariot comes into the torch-
Light. He pulls you close, whispers something, kisses your face.
The sweaty, torch-lit faces around you are silent,
For a moment, moving when the healing was done, and the blood
Flowed in the silver light. Listen. Listen. It is finished.
The criminal walked between us on the road,
With little provocation. He carried the cross
That slipped across his lacerations where the flesh fell, veil-
Like, exposing the muscles underneath, tearing
Visibly. I was impressed by this, usually they try to cut
And run at any opportunity. Maybe he’d lost too much blood
To have any go left, but he was walking well in spite of the blood,
Stumbling only occasionally. On this rough road,
Where even rested horses stumble, it was impressive. The thorn-cuts
On his forehead, someone’s sick joke, crossed
Out any of the original contempt I would have felt. The tears
Of the women trailing us didn’t hurt, their veils
Muffled the sight of them, their vision, not the sound. The veiled
Woman swooning in the heat, with elderly hands, supported by a youth was blood,
Most likely. The criminal’s mother, or aunt, something. Her voice was tear-
Clogged but mature, ululating. They kept pace with us on the road.
Admirably so, I thought, considering. The top cross-
Bar of the crucifix was visibly wearing him down, more than the beatings, cutting
Into his flayed shoulder, the tattered skin. His fingers were rimmed with small cuts
From Jupiter knows what, not providing much grip, tips slipping. I veiled
My eyes from the high sun, midday light making me cross.
And really, I’m all for games, but he’d lost so much blood
Already, he’d probably bleed out walking this road
If Aeschylus did not, inevitably, tear
The barbed flail across his back, always careful not to tear
The badly-dyed robe the criminal wore, wanting his cut
Of the money we’d get after, when we’d take it down the narrow back road
To the rag shop. It wasn’t of very high quality, no dainty veil
For some rich senator, but the colour was almost blood-
Purple, scab shaded, saleable, and his partners, me included, would be cross
If he destroyed it on the journey. The weight of the cross-
Beam had rucked the fabric down around his waist, un-torn
So far, though blood-stained. That could come out. He was sweating and blood
Mixed with it on his face, a thin veneer of red from cuts
Along his hair-line. I allowed a shop-woman to come close with her veil,
The corner of it, remaining modest, to wipe the sluice onto the road.
We crossed the road to the skull-hill, avoiding tear-stained widows
With nothing better to do, veiled against the sun and splatters of blood,
Cutting the feculent air with their tongues.
Place Of The Skull
Last night you held the cup and said the wine
Was part of you, whispering over it, your blood
Racing at the thought of what was coming, the die
Rolling underneath your hanging feet, your back
Raw from the hooked flails, ingraining with the wood,
Splinters from the board you hung against, your skull
Aching from thirst. You are above the skull-
Place, this large domed rock, thirsting for wine,
Offered a sponge soaked in vinegar. The olive-woods
Are a long way off, splashed out like blood
Against the smudged horizon, the sky on your back
Drying your welts. Yes, you know you must die,
You know that redemption is not cheap, and dying
For these creatures is a fair exchange, their skulls
Guard a great potential, a hint of it, calling you back
To them, their lovely entireties, as varied as wine.
But you wish for less pain, less copious blood,
For grace without suffering, saplings that grow into woods
Without fertilizing rot, if flame could live without wood,
If that Pentecost could burn in them without you dying.
Death was invented to perfect immortality, spilled blood,
Yours, the only redemption, the door. You hadn’t expected skull-
Splitting pain, but you can accept the refinement, wine
Comes from crushed grapes, blood from the holes in your back.
Your lungs hurt, aching. The furrows on your back
Are weeping. Bonding with the rough-hewn wood,
And gravity is crushing you, turning you to wine.
You love them all, all of them that ever were, enough to die,
You love the ones that will be, and wont, the hanged skull
Lolling next to you, coughing up thick ropes of blood,
The woman at your feet, weeping, fingering the blood-
Soaked wood, your blood, without knowing it, your back
Aches from the whip and you love the man who wielded it. Your skull
Aches, aches from so much love. You see them as they are, real wood
In a forest of shadows. But sacrifice implies that someone must die
For life to outlast it, and you, only you, can pay that cost. You are the wine.
You died on a Friday, blood slicking the wood, your skull hung down,
Back slumped against the crosspiece under a red sky. Your back dripped wine.
I hold my offices above the vast sprawl of Judea, judge
To Jews and citizens alike, pouring out my libations to Zeus, while the people
Slaughter lambs on the threshold of their temple. I cross
The room to the window and look out onto the flood-wash
Near the killing-fields, barren save for raised split beams, the place of the skull.
My wife tosses in the night, thrashing in her ill-made dreams,
They came again last night, she said, the image of my basin filled, dream-
Vivid, with fresh blood. It pools and scintillates beside my judgement
Seat, waiting for my fingers. I lather, rinse and she could see my skull
Staring up at her from the surface of the gore, the swath of people
Around me, seeing nothing. The sky is dark now, early, but will not be washed
By early rain. My rooms are wide, and empty, now. I cross
To my throne, rest my head and ponder…nothing. Cross
Again to the window. The plaza is silent, dark, dream-
Eerie, as though even the market was holding its breath. The wash-
Holes are free from women and lepers, I’d judge
That the earth was rendered desolate, her people
Lightning blasted from the soil, save that something must be left, a skull,
Femur, a foot in a thong. But there is nothing. Silence. My skull
Throbs as pressure builds behind my eyes, I cross
My hands over my face, my heart beating, beating, and some strange loud people
Fill my mind with yesterdays voices, shrieking up at me, dream-
Like, calling for the one I would not choose. I am meant to judge
This rabble, this vast, unquiet crowd, whose accusations wash
Away sanity, the semblance of it, their fists, raised and clawing, wash
Away all talk of guilt or innocence, prying the decisions from me, skull-
Greedy. And how did I do this, who moved my hand? How can I judge
Anything, or anyone, much less this bleeding man across
From me, the one so dry-eyed calm, as an oasis in a dream
Who looks at me through a filter of blood and says, these are my people,
They know not what they do.’ Who made everything, the people
Yelling, shouting near me, the illusion of my choice, wash
Quietly away and cease to matter, less real than day-dreams,
Less solid than mist. Lacking the undeniable reality of the skulls,
The bones collected in piles, yellowed, reddish-black, off-white beneath the crosses
Gathered on the hillside. And he looked at me, so quiet. They said they want a judge.
The people set a man across from me, unwashed, blood-stinking, a dream-
Turned-nightmare man, skull visible beneath his thorns, And I was not the judge.
You stood on the hummock and tied the rope
To the overhanging branch of the yew, leaves silver
In the moonlight, the lady herself, a coin
Hanging bright in the sky. Your last meal of bread
And sour wine is heavy in your gut. It feels death-
Like, pallid, the sodden roots of a tree
Gone soft with rot, never flowering. A tree
Too spoilt to ever be hewn into planks. The rope
Is tight around your neck, your sweet death
Is not that far away. You paid for it in silver,
Heavy slugs imprinted with the face of a king. New bread
Is not sweeter if bought with a higher coin.
Gold isn’t brighter when purchased with blood, and coins
Cannot free you from every prison. This tree,
For example, is a prison itself, lacking the bars. No bread
Can satiate this hunger, the only remedy is this rope,
Tight on your larynx. The hemp glows silver
In the distant light from the stars. You taste death
On your tongue, not yours. Some other, greater death
That you bought, and sold. It sets in your stomach, a coin
Cast from lead, weighing you down. The darkling silver
In the bag on your belt is merely painted base. This tree
Is the only real thing around, and also the rope
Rough as it is, itching, brand-new. The fibers smell of bread.
It’s the same color, the color of the crust of bread,
A new loaf, broken down the middle, portending death,
Some gross death, aided by the thin mercy of rope
Purchased with bright, blood-stained coin.
And now, what do you have? You own this tree,
The field surrounding it, bought with the silver,
Gore-spattered and filthy, the tarnishing silver
You got for your lord. No one will sell their bread
To you, not in this village, not for that cost, you bought the tree,
The barren plot of bone-scarred earth it stands upon, full of death
That is waiting for you. Place that blackening salt-coin
Underneath your tong for passage. Step off of the rise, into the rope.
The tree sways under the weight that hangs from strong,
New rope that smells of fresh bread. Silver coins spill
Out in moonlight, packed with death.
It’s hardly morning and already it is strange. The streets were empty,
Unusual even this early on the day after Sabbath. There were no soldiers
In the market holding their watch, no chattering women opening shop. The sky
Still held that weird dark colour and the deep, impenetrable quiet
That covered the streets like a cloak, combined with that red
Sunrise made my work-day journey seem all the longer. I could see the rot
That lines the roads to the garden cemetery, home itself to contained rot
Made palatable, or nearly so, by the blank faces of stone, empty
Seeming, disguising their forms, those slipping pools of red
And black, the glimpse of meat falling from bone, and there are soldiers
Here, guarding what? Nothing that I can see in this quiet
Warrants their attention, just plants in need of weeding, the sky
Calling for rain it won’t receive. There is a pool near the tombs, the sky
Reflected in it, a strange, idiot eye, looking away from the rot
That spreads down here, taking up the mountainside. The wrong kind of quiet,
Spreading, growing like the tendrils of some ill-made plant. Empty,
The town was so empty this morning. Yesterday as well. If these soldiers
Were not here, I would believe the world already putrefying, falling into red
Meat-slurry, all those bodies in Judea staring up, eyeless, at that red
Morning, waiting for me to plant them. Waiting, looking at the sky
For some kind of answer and finding nothing. Not the false order of the soldiers,
Certainly not the God they buried Friday night, that rotting
Meat pretending to Godhood they took down, as empty
As the rest of us after the last breath. But oh, this awful quiet
It seeps into the cracks, drowning me. This spreading, somehow vivid quiet,
Not peaceful, has the feel of a growing thing, growing red
And gaining force, preparing. Something ready to fill the empty
Hole we call the world, a living body for the grave. And yes, this awful sky
Frightens me badly. This thing that grows, inevitable as the rot
That festers under stones, but stronger. Implacably light. The soldiers,
Stirring slightly in their sleep, look up, as I do at the crack. The soldiers,
Flailing for a moment by the wall of the tomb, and oh, that quiet,
That awful light. The light, solid, somehow real, burns the rot
To fertile dust, and the scent that gathers with it, flavoured red
And rich as flesh, live flesh, good and terrible to eat. The sky
Tears across its hinges, letting in another light. I am trembling, so empty.
The soldiers, slumped over, head-cracked and healed, guard a split-hole,
Empty of rot. The sky is so bright, tinged redder than blood; the air, so quiet.
In this dark place where light
Is alien and the air smells of life’s
Opposite, the stench of rot was growing
In gaseous billows, the white bone
Rising up through loose, liquefying flesh.
In this black grave carved into hill-earth,
This is the way of it, as it is throughout earth,
Every thing falling, flailing from light,
Falling into this nacreous ruin of flesh,
In this place where there is no life
Save for the roaches scuttling on bones
And the thing beneath the rancid sheet, growing
Mould, the stench of old blood growing
Sour, attacking the things that clean the earth
With tooth and proboscis, leaving only bone,
These things that live with no use for light
And scatter at the slightest hint of life,
Fearing nothing more than breathing flesh.
And yes, something is stirring in this flesh,
Something other than the stench of growing
Rot, the slight ticking beneath the cloth, a life-
Like stirring, alien to this desolate earth.
There is the sudden scent of crushed roses, light
And delicate, as far from liquefying bone
As the grave is from sunlight and the vast bones
Of dinosaurs are divorced from sweet flesh.
And now a sudden, bizarre light
Spreads out from under the winding sheet, growing
In intensity, scattering insects, sounding like rent earth,
And the thing beneath the sheet breathes life,
The smell of rot and scent of roses are subsumed in life,
And the small sound of muscle rejoining bone,
Of ligaments rebinding, wounds filling, recovering as earth
Does after winter passes. The firming flesh
Inhales, the blinding light, the healing light is growing,
The great door cracking, crumbling. Let there be light.
The light feeds the growing life encased in earth, the flesh
Cleaving onto bone, the smell of desert roses, the sacred breath.
Fathers and Sons
When you had seen one hundred summers, you took your knife,
Glinting, ready to smear with the bright blood
Of the first get of your life, the cause of wife-laughter, your son
The singular branch of your near-extinct tree.
There he is, leaf without blemish, branch without thorn,
Proving you, at last, not desolate waste but live ram.
And you are stubborn also, animal like, you ram
Your way to the burnt place of the knife,
Ready to pierce him, his translucent skin, your thorn,
Glinting, driven by the voice you hear at night, calling blood
For burnt offering, for taste of flesh scorched to a tree,
And you, bitter, embittered, you wanted a son.
You prayed. You fasted. He promised a son,
Promised you children, a nation, he gave you a ram,
A sacrifice, to burn, to feed a tree’s
Roots with the life of your body, your knife
Sharp against the bare throat of that boy, drawing blood
Quick as the opening, the slit from a thorn.
This is your grievance, your argument, the thorn
In your side. He, who you trusted, asked for your son,
Asked for this when he promised a nation of blood
That you would foster, spread like the seed of a ram,
Flocking everywhere, unafraid, never knowing the knife,
Growing, living, always under those spreading trees.
And what is it, with Gods and their trees?
A method for blood-letting, trees and their thorns,
Feeding sons, or threatening, to the immoral knives
Of innumerable damned. Abraham, Abraham, your son,
You pile him onto an altar of twigs meant for a ram’s
Slaughter. You will do it, he asked. Let the blood
Flow down, let it feed indebted earth, the blood
That would stain the thin grain of that tree,
Hewn and gathered, your child is the ram,
Flawless and perfect, set aside, not yours. Thorns
Binding, piercing that skin, the flesh of your son,
Who was leant you, who lies there awaiting the knife.
You took your only son up there, bound to the hewn slats
Of a tree, ready to smear with blood. You took your knife
And bent to him, just barely glimpsing the ram caught in thorns.
You slipped through
the blood-dewed lips
of her vulva, flesh-parting
head brushed by dark wire-hairs,
your open mouth catching
her skin on your way out,
as though you were eating.
You left behind placenta,
veined, frightening in light,
so terribly nourishing.
It followed soon after, drawn
by the luminous cord your human
father severed a few minutes
before rubbing your flanks free
He settled you to suckle.
Your brain was still forming;
how much could you know?
Seedlike, you had all of the world
in those pink folds,
waiting to grow.
A few decades away
from that hay-filled cave,
after the slack-jawed hymns
of the shepherds had scattered
their vibrations a few miles
past the sun, you knew
the feel of birth again.
Your body, veined, made frightening
in light, so terribly nourishing,
shrugged off on that tree.
All of the universe held
in the folds of your nail-split palms,
seedlike, already unfurling,
ready to grow in the flesh you
sloughed off. Waiting to breathe when
your father cuts the numinous cord.
The Vine and The Branches
They came with the office,
leather wingbacks in cracked cadmium yellow
upholstery smelling strongly of leather
and the in-ground sweat of many people,
bracketing the bookcase containing many
and varied works of God and psychology.
Love is a Choice was the title of the book
I was reading that day after work,
sitting with my father as he drew his sermon from air.
My waitresses uniform riding high up the cleft of my ass,
my thighs sticking, open pored, sweating,
to the bright yellow cover of that smelly old chair,
I read what I could in the bright light of evening.
Dad typed away hard on the keyboard
of the computer he made for himself out of parts
scrounged barely functioning from the hospital dumpster.
He was always good at creating a purpose
for the waste that he found.
We hardly spoke then,
I was young and constantly aching-
and not just from working eight hour shifts
on an ankle that would later turn out to be broken.
All my words rushed inward, filling my centre.
There was no surplus left to fill my mouth.
I read what I could in silence punctuated
by the hymns and new wave synth pop
he let fly under-breath, the chorus to the Cars-
Just what I needed.
Five in the evening and the room was still baking,
the corrugated roof slow to release the bright Texas sun.
Sharon, the plump pompadoured secretary,
had checked out early- just as well, really.
There was work to be done.
The first thread of red spread on the horizon-
blood caught in the quick of the world’s fingernail-
and the patients were coming.
I closed my book and got up from the chair.
I took Sharon’s place in the small low-walled cubicle
by the plywood front door.
I lifted my foot up, blue-black and throbbing
from too long toting hamburgers to trucks,
to the soft white people crouched in the cabs,
rolling on skates from the kitchen, my tray fully laden.
I rolled my sock up over the bulge
pretending that the pressure was enough
to do any good.
The light door opened while I was examining
the source of the nauseating throb.
The man who entered was short, curled over,
crouching. I could see light flyaway hair,
a scanty crown.
He knew my father well enough
to slide in through the door, and close it behind him.
I lowered my foot and laid out a well-thumbed
deck of solitaire in the smear where my heel
had scuffed the deal,
placing kings and aces without cheating.
I won three games out of four
before he called me.
I slid the cards into their pack and grunted
at the shock of standing.
It was always worst at first-
pain responds favorably to being ignored
and waitresses, ministers, people who live by serving,
are rarely insured.
I opened the door.
My father was standing over the blond man
hunched in my chair.
Dad was gathering up a white bag full of rattling
orange bottles that he found, who knows how or where,
for the use of the poor.
The man in my chair was bleeding all over it,
blood seeping from the foul yellow-edged lesions
that made his skin more a series of interruptions
than any proper covering.
His green shirt, his blue jeans stank
with the sweet odor of seepage,
rot from the disease a needle he depressed
years ago squirted into his veins,
mingled with the drink of forgetting.
‘Now Lyle, remember the dosage.
Take the cocktail three times daily-
no skipping doses.
‘When you run out, come back and see me.
I should have more for you by the end of the month.’
Lyle smiled with a mouth empty of all but grey gums.
The hand he held for shaking
was a Dantesque tree branch-
bleeding and speaking in a suicides tongue.
The yellow leather he vacated held the shape,
the stench of his whiplash body in fluids
which veined out and frayed
in the cracks of the skin stretched and ageing.
The ghost of a man who was dying
lingering after the body
had passed through the door.
When Lyle was gone completely,
a mirage of the street, a shadow wavering,
Dad turned to me, tired, his round shoulders sagging.
‘We had better get started. I need to get home.’
I fetched the clean rags from the hidden cabinet,
he fetched the bleach from the jug by the door.
We kneeled together, my wounded leg aching,
and left the leather upholstery a little lighter, a little softer,
than it had ever been before.
I cannot write about you yet, my brother.
Golden son our mother loves-
your red-rimmed eyes are always brimming,
have been brimming over since infancy
with what you leave unsaid.
Sorrow makes your lapis pupils vivid,
makes cracks along the forehead and jaw-line
of your kouros’ armored mask.
Each breath you clutch for enhances your beauty.
The body you tend well, fashion into a bulwark,
the muscles that bunch and slide beneath your skin,
has finally learned enough to darken
into a shield of bronze age leather.
When you were a child, doing what we do now,
a day at the beach, parched in afternoon sun-
your translucent flesh shone for a moment
with the light coming through it
before reddening suddenly and sloughing to wounds.
When the pus dried into bubbles and puckers,
our mother peeled away the layers in strips
which she piled in a flurry of leather
on the light green-colored coverlet
of her teak four-posted bed.
I watched your tearing face come loose in her hands.
Forehead, nose, eye-orbits, your lips in flakes,
bleeding drops onto the tongue you remain so careful with-
so cautious with words, you let nothing slip.
You trained your skin to darkness
through long exposure to the rays
of the miles-away, implacable sunlight of Kansas.
Building that bridge with your sweat in the cracks
with those other boys and men who laughed when you bled.
You studied theology in your room for an hour each night,
letting scorched layers accrue, ignoring the itching-
knowing at last the value of scabs.
Sitting here beside you, so close
our bodies are nearly touching,
I claw into the sand with my chewed nails
and tell you nothing you haven’t in some way
The sea and your eyes are matching in color.
Your tongue, finally loosened, and your eyes are red.
Your skin has hardened, a sheath like a kouros
tempered by long centuries spent buried in sand.
Cracked, with edges fractured, a fine nose gone-
It is no less beautiful for injury.
I still have no idea what comfort to give.
I will not peel the armor that keeps you connected,
times shifting mask.
Only, know this my broken, well-loved brother:
you are not wasted.
Skin suppurates, it bleeds, dries, dying,
and then it scabs.
The kouros that survive being buried
are all the more valued
once time has put an end to dying.
We savor their cracks.
Through the Back Door
We’ve all had our moments.
You, my dignified master,
left off singing a moment and ran
past the thunderfaced custodian of Apollo
who imagined she could stop you
with nothing but a look
and the tag-end of a velvet rope.
I picture you white-haired, straight-backed,
hurtling those stairs to dive snout-first
into that water, to drown,
in the sweetness of dedication,
all those whose hubris is great enough
to imagine they could bottle-up God.
I picture you snorting and blowing, horse-like,
mouthing the promise as it is fulfilled.
I see your eyes cast wide and gleaming
as mine were six years ago,
when five minutes after I bribed
the sleek Vatican guard with twenty euros
and the promise of my travel-rank company
for at least two meals, he hid me
in a Medici-era broom-closet, whose floor
was edged with serpentine marble.
I crouched among the dusty brooms,
the rags which smell the same everywhere,
of lemon and rot, waiting till the building
had sloughed museum-husk and returned to church.
I crouched in a red silk long-sleeved smock,
corduroy trousers, Birkenstocks, my long braid
and the funk of a week without showering.
He led me to the altar and left me to make my vow.
Michelangelo soared above my head,
a sonnet about the Castilian Springs
beat its rhythm through my veins.
I touched my greased forehead
to the embroidered space beneath the cross.
Twenty minutes after to sprawl on the tiles,
a floor so warped it’s cool waves rose
to meet the small of my back, a treasure
straight above my head that I yearned to match
and was ready to struggle for.
The willingness to follow traditional forms
is prerequisite to poetry. The need
to reach that moment of sweetness,
to cross every barrier, no matter the cost,
including the formal, is the necessary blood.
Now that we have drunk from the same fountain,
let us both sing some songs about that.
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.
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.’
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.
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.