and steamer trunk,
wardrobe of ash—
in undertakers’ suits,
conferring in the bush—
Tier after tier,
in the city of the dead.
In those early years, before there was a garden,
we rented rooms to 2 college girls from Thailand.
They had first names with only one syllable,
which they taught me to write in their script.
Back then, perhaps our city was a destination:
little strip of airport in the hills, the sudden drop
at the end of the tarmac. Breathtaking view of one
road snaking up from the coast. Fog near noon, rain
half the year; postcards framed with pine
and sunflowers. They ate meals with us, dated
local boys. I watched them work on their hair
with rollers, play vinyl records on the turntable,
do their own manicures. Modern in miniskirts,
yet they creased in perfect folds the pleats
of silk-threaded costumes, adjusted gold
headdresses and ten curved brass points
over their fingers. What made me think
of them today, as I pulled sweaters
out of the dryer, picking off the little
balls of lint with my thumb and forefinger?
Inside an envelope of rain, a city sleeps
or stirs, making labyrinths, going about its
business. Has it known another fate than to be
a city teeming inside an envelope of rain?
An envelope of rain is still an enclosure,
whether it is mist that barely falls or a torrent.
Living inside, you cultivate belief in color:
saffron and juniper, even the drab of olive—
And even surrounded by dry dust, groves of olives flourish;
stands of cypress establish hardscrabble existence, root
footholds in landscapes of rock. You don’t see the enclosure:
where I’ve dug in my heels, cultivating this thing I love.
The sorcerer’s voice calls out in darkness:
Hold your head steady, as if the apple were not
about to fall in clean halves to the ground, as if
its shine and crimson were not once again the target
for arrows and knives aimed from a distance— as if
their whistling, as they ribbon the air, were done
in good sport, not from deliberation. You don’t
always see who it is that raises an arm, the moment
the string draws back, taut to its full extension.
Behind you, the plank of painted wood is nicked
with a tally of misses, a history of lucky evasions.
A monkey on a leash claps brass cymbals and cycles
in its rhinestone tutu. For authentic spectacle,
the audience has paid. And from watching and waiting,
you know how to spring the blade loose
from its cage, how to send dark warnings
with only your eyes; how it takes one flick
of the wrist to release its lethal intention.
Alembic: an apparatus used in distillation;
something that refines or transmutes as if by distillation
Time’s a flask, narrow at the waist or neck
depending on who swings the apparatus— Who gives
the order to intercept the ordinary citizen
on his way to or from work, salvage the journalist
called to witness; open fire on the NGO convoy
in pickup trucks loaded with rice, canned goods,
medical supplies, used clothing? In hamlets live
the poor and dispossessed, the ones whose farms
swelled, flooded; and drowning, made way for dams
in the government’s new hydroelectric project.
Their votes don’t count. Or do they? Their number
slight, equivalent to the powdered ash that falls
from wings of bodies that nightly hurl themselves
into the lantern’s crucible of trembled light.
“The Marigold that goes to bed wi’ the sun,
And with him rises weeping; these are flowers
Of middle summer.
— Winter’s Tale, act iv, sc. 4 (105)
Whatever it is you continue to refuse
comes back— like these small heads
of marigold, with their leaves of narrow
green, each head populated in colors
that remind you of the sun. And you ask
repeatedly, turning the full-grown
question, no longer a bud, in hesitant
hands: What if—? Will I—? Should
I take up the task that never quite
got done, yet nightly slid its curl
of reminder under the tongue, yellowed
the tea and peppered the salad acrid
with its whips of green? No other way
to go except the way of the sun,
which sets and rises but cannot,
in the end, judge how the hours
are accounted for. The increments
move always forward. And each
small, dry fingernail that drops
from the gold corolla flares
with the bite of ginger, the thick
turmeric paste of expectation:
apothecary smell of labors put off
for too long that now need tending.
A woman throws up in a crowded bus.
Within minutes, the men in hazmat suits descend.
Fear of contagion panics escalations of distress.
A mother claps a hand upon a baby’s mouth; breathless
she’s crushed by bodies in the street, their frenzied blend
caused by a woman throwing up in a crowded bus.
Meanwhile in Texas, one recovered nurse
gives statements to the press. Daily unpinned,
fear of contagion panics escalations of distress.
I listen on the radio for reports on body counts.
My daughter asks how disease transfers, blood to blood—
What danger is posed by throwing up in a crowded bus?
A radio report recreates conditions— let’s say, a virus
lurking in a monkey’s blood: let’s say the hunter nicked
his hand. Days later: swollen glands, nausea; night sweats.
Cities teem with airports, rivers, bridges. How to adjust
the portals and vents? No current wisdom provides defense.
Watch as a woman throws up in a crowded bus.
Watch the fear of contagion escalate beyond distress.
And give me the not-quite-gold,
the earring found on the sidewalk
without its clasp, the little sip
of coffee left in a paper cup—
Give me the bit role with no
speaking parts so I can be near
the ones whose hearts sing as if
at the point of breaking—
Give me the ache of light
that licks the undersides
of leaves just before dusk,
that dot of butter in the tea—
Give me even that brief
moment of rending, visceral
shudder after the god has grazed
the hills in his passing—
What are you supposed to feel
when asked to preside over
a ceremony— to move
or be moved
or preparation just
after coffee and toast,
the ride on the trolley
or train, identical hands
zipping up jackets
and straightening ties,
touching a button or collar
or badge, folding a newspaper
under an arm, shielding the eyes
from the too-bright sun?
Here is the guard,
ceremonially robed in black,
bearing the silver sword
and golden mace
across the threshold
of a hall bathed just
yesterday with the blood
of assault. And the reporter
notes how the heads
of the houses of Parliament,
more accustomed to disagreement,
break ranks across the aisle
to shake hands, to touch—
circumstance urgent enough to prise
hearts from their catacombs.
“Art too is just a way of living.” – Rainer Maria Rilke
And I am the coin surrendered to the mouth of the machine, the ticket that the chain will perforate, indifferent to how or where. I am the payment collected in advance for a carnival ride that ends before it even begins. Here I am again, among the tents where strays and midgets sit, where the natives polish the foreman’s shoes; where the sad girls in torn tutus comb through their high wire repertoire of dreams. Not even the camel knows how narrow the door. Not even the needle knows the jaundice in the eye. Line up, line up for the rations and the dinner bell. Remember, as they ladle out the dregs, what it is that feeds you.