Big I, little i

From time to time I like to go back in the vaults and dig up poems I have long since filed away and forgotten about because for one reason or another they just weren’t up to snuff. (Not being good enough for a “real” publication doesn’t necessarily disqualify a poem from inclusion in this blog, I think. Especially since poetry isn’t the central focus here, just an important source of data.)

Here’s one I wrote maybe eight years ago. I was musing on the fact that so many unrelated languages the world over contain a word for “mother” that begins with the m-sound, if not in fact the syllable “ma.” Mothers and infants speak a truly universal language, it seemed to me – something rarely acknowledged by male thinkers down through the millennia, for whom a universal language was to be sought in the distant past, future, or (for shamanistic peoples) in visionary trance or dream.

The result didn’t strike me as especially authentic, but I still feel it has a few good lines.

The Philosopher Considers Her Breasts

Even with the mind’s dark mirror wiped clean
The merest suggestion of a touch can prompt them to make their concise points, ah
They’re all the proof I need that self-consciousness precedes individuation
Just as a toddler can speak unhampered by syntax
Can extrapolate from breast – Ma – to smile
& simply double it to invent the world
Everything the male thinkers imagined they could exclude
Eliminate all supposed redundancies & take what’s left
Be it only a shadow in the depths of a cave
They’ll cover it with hand prints
Conjure a spirit game bristling with arrows
(Here come for instance the one-breasted Amazons)

But look how even the driest of abstractions tend to divide by a sort of mitosis
You can’t elevate the host without humbling the guest
Big I little i what begins with eye
What begins with lips & tongue & helpless cries
The thousand-mile journey of a kiss that still cannot encompass a single waist

Then let these roles retain their provisional status
Their essential shimmer
& see how entranced they become, my learned lovers
When I have them whisper into my nipples their own pet names

Here’s another odd one, dating from five or six years ago. It was sparked by a particularly vivid dream, and influenced by my study of Noh dance years before.

Monsieur Butterfly

Not the princess bride but the aging dragon’s nurse, ripe and firm as an Asian peach, she demands fealty from my dream-double, a type of Updike hero who’d let himself be slayed before he’d commit to any entangling plot, the threat of happily-ever-after dispelled by a painless death.

Her tears – a trick of shadows – failing to revive me, she lets the open fan fall like a useless wing, plucks a halberd from the wall, this spurned-yet-loyal caricature sprung from god knows what corner of my sleeping brain.

In plain view, no intervening curtain, she kneels for the costume change, girds her loins like a man and places the no-longer-fitting mask of a maiden at my side to keep my ghost – a hollow hungry thing – from worming free, pinned by the sightless epicanthic slits.

Traveler, my tale is yours. Be careful where you sleep.

And here at last is a poem based on a conscious experience. I had the misfortune some twelve years ago of attending the funeral of a sixteen-year-old girl. The immediate family wasn’t at all religious, but they had hired this fire-and-brimstone preacher, who hadn’t even known the deceased, to deliver the eulogy – I think to placate the grandparents, or something. It was hard not to imagine how the deceased, whom I had known fairly well, might have felt about such an imposition. This came out of that. I can’t remember now exactly why I excluded it from Capturing the Hive. (Actually, I can’t remember much of anything. I just had to go click on my own website to get the title of that manuscript, which I worked on for years. Christ Almighty!)

Memorial Service

Can you believe
how many songs have been committed to stone
& none to the water that wears it down?
How many lines get lifted from the surf–
& none from the living ocean?
I was the dead girl who lay in the coffin
with her corona of hair cut short.
I wasn’t listening to that stranger
whose hands held their fire,
whose teeth trapped dust.
But when the women one
by one stood up to testify
I heard the first rumor of rain.
It was as if I’d awakened precipitously
in the night, forehead filled
with mist & the dreams
still crowding close.
I push them back

& blink, remembering–
recalling my role. I was
the nice guy who never refused
to buy a six-pack for a teenage drunk
(even though that night it had been
someone else’s turn) & now
I’m sitting in the back with my feet
tucked under my chair, alert
to the slow dripping of grief & the ripped
tissue cradled by uncertain fingers.

A song can sag
on the page, consigned
to some abstract solar kingdom
more inviolable than a tomb.
A river can lie down behind levees,
drained and channeled to hold
the flood in check. Who then
will bear witness to the current,
the profligate flow?
She was always so full of spirit, says
the neighbor lady. It’s hard
to believe.

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