The mammogram technician looked
at your chart when you flinched;
and she said That hurt, huh? And yet
you went and had four kids?
You did not know exactly how
to answer— How do you say What
is such pain compared to the one
that begins as a syllable in the gut
and stretches into the one breath you know
will burn you and carry you to the last.
How do they stand
steadfast in weather,
unbending with time?
They don’t respond
to any distraction,
don’t fret or smile
or frown. When they need
to be still, they keep
still. How is it
part of such
They keep a straight
the unvaried beat
and line. I can’t
imagine what goes on
in their minds, what
it takes not to flinch
in even the slightest
while I keep stumbling
from one desire to
another: though more way-
ward, I, sentinel too,
of the same tomb.
Tonight I read of the tricycle driver who played dead
for over an hour. After police sprayed him and another man
with a rain of bullets, he lay still, knowing he’d been hurt,
but somehow knowing too he wasn’t gone yet. When his limbs
twitched, onlookers thought it a miracle. Such gravity,
so near at hand. To crawl back into the carapace
and wear it again. Not like armor, but like a shirt—
ordinary but for the fact of bloodstains drying.
In response to Via Negativa: Specific gravity.
For my birthday, my friend gave me
the stone head of a Buddha
brought back from her travels
to Nepal and India. My first,
she said, wrapping it in yards
of bubble wrap then hefting all
25 pounds of it into a box.
At home, I found a place for it
in one corner of the deck, next to
the patio set and green canvas umbrella.
Setting shallow terracotta pots of herbs
around it, I wondered where it once held
court: if it sat in a bamboo grove or nameless
village temple, its carved fingers curled,
touching. Its eyes don’t give anything away.
It doesn’t say what blasted the rest
of its anatomy, what saved it from complete
ruin in order for the soft bloom of green
to spread like the shadow of a milkweed
butterfly across the high cheekbones.
In response to an entry from the Morning Porch.
Lying here in the darkness, I let the days
obliterate me— I let the rooms
empty themselves of their contents
a little more each day and fill my hands
with the perfume from peeled oranges,
with the residues of salt. The great harp
that twanged in the summer gardens
has long ceased vibrating. Rain fills
the cisterns to the brim. All that has cause
to happen is happening. It is impossible
to turn back the clocks, to give the dead
bird its blasted wing. Why not start
anywhere and make that the beginning.
Why not keep going through the numbered
pages. Why not address that letter
to eternity; why not come back
and pick up where you left off
the last time you were here.
~ after Borges
In response to Via Negativa: Night music.
A whisper carries a long way.
That’s why we are taught
to confide only in what
cannot make reflections.
There is no such thing
as an empty field—
The wind tests its blades
when you least expect it.
Do you love your country?
When did you last see
your little boy?
The blindfold fills
your head with cricket
sounds. Somewhere close
to your cheek, you know
a cigarette smolders.
Someone asks if it’s true
about the size of a water-
melon and a human head.
In response to Via Negativa: Killing field.
This is the street
that yesterday had a four-
way intersection. The side
roads ferry a flotilla
of migrant ducks.
The students are happy
that classes have been canceled;
they get to wear their cute
raincoats and wellies
in jellybean colors;
and the coffee shop
is still open, serving cups
of coffee and soup.
Meanwhile if you parked
in a lot that historically
swells with more than six
inches of water, don’t be
surprised to find your car
either submerged or carried
away. I stay indoors
in my house on this island,
and you stay in yours. Meanwhile
the mailman wades with his bag
of letters, his parcels
that he wraps in plastic
before leaving them at the door.
Meanwhile, we listen to the news.
We know it must be really bad
if the Navy moves its fleet
out to the open sea.
In response to Via Negativa: Rainy season.
Do you know those squares crammed
with letters where you have to find
hidden words— across, up, down, diagonally,
in reverse? The first one your eye lights on
supposedly tells of your most scintillating
trait. But I doubt you’ll find (1) second
language speaker (2) foreign born (3) rice-
eater (4) linked to endemic infections
(5) I thought you were the maid or (6)
I hope your family isn’t in the path
of the latest hurricane. In fact,
there are no words over five
letters. You won’t be able to talk
about catastrophe, the feudal
agrarian economy, or who owns
the Spratly Islands. But there are
other words, words waiting
like mines in a field for you
to touch them, and then they implode:
Hinge. Home. Ginger flower. Monsoon.
In the car, driving
between errands, I practice
talking to the air. I pretend
the stop light is a sentinel
requiring a password.
It changes frequently, sometimes
from block to block in the same
day. It does not care
whether I cleaned the toilet
or if, at my age, I have read
all of Swann’s Way
or Ulysses or the great
classics of western philosophy.
It does not want to know
if I went to church on Sunday;
or if I handed fruit or a dollar bill
to the man holding up a Please help,
anything will do sign
at the intersection of City Hall
and Granby. It does not say
whether what I throw with my voice
is caught in a basket on the other end;
who I’m speaking with, or whether
I am a fool driving around in circles,
driving across the bridge,
driving farther into the country
where every hour is a gradual
purpling that shades into winter.
Should I worry about the messes
left behind, about who will pick up
after? I peer through the dusty,
bird-poop spattered windshield.
Should I write down instructions
in a notebook, should I leave
these somewhere they will be
impossible to miss? In the old
stories, the gods or saints decide
one day to go on a meander that lasts
decades. They never ask anyone’s
permission, they never think
of details like rent or taxes
or child support. They come back
when they’re finally tired
or bored or have run out
of places to conquer.
Unlike them, I’m no one
important: so I practice talking
my way through passage,
every opportunity I can.
In response to Via Negativa: Homeless.
Opaque surface, mirror to only
rain and the necks of boats
made to look like swans—
I had never seen
such birds themselves
threading the glossy mud
beneath the arms of willows,
never seen their pristine
white galvanizing the fog—
What they say
about this place is myth
if not marketing—
The deer, their salt
craving, the way form
the same beneath a changing
surface. The gold bands once worn
by women around their necks,
their forearms; the floating rib
a gold conjecture: like opulence,
embellishment, the empty space
filled suddenly with riches
not even anticipated. Today the water
is thigh-high: theoretically, no one
could really fall out of a boat and drown.
But every limit has its soft elastic,
its emergency exit. The merest idea
inked out, improvised, is charming.
But what do I really know,
having left a long time ago?
In response to Via Negativa: Mute.