On Virtue and its Seeming Reward

In Robinet Testard's miniature illustration of Ovid's  Heroides, 
the painter captures the moment shortly after 49 of Danaus's 50 
daughters have slit the throats of their sleeping husbands— 

Their beds, canopied and striped in crimson and gold,
are spread through what looks almost like a drafty
dormitory room. The floor is tiled in what could be 

pink- and green-flecked marble. Pillars and double
doors guard their enclosure. They've been forced 
into marriages of convenience with their first

cousins, for political reasons— their father 
has asked them to play along, then given 
each one a dagger for this deed on their 

wedding night. Only one of them—Hypermnestra—
spares her husband because he honors her wish 
to remain a virgin.  Each woman sits, startling pale 

feet swung over the edge of her bed, looking more 
shell-shocked than dismayed by what they've done. 
The unfilial daughter sister is handed to the courts 

by her angry father, who accuses her of faithlessness. 
And the others are condemned by the gods to an eternity 
of ceaseless labor: carrying water in perforated 

vessels, they can never fill a tub in which to wash away
their sin.  Eventually, they gain pardon, even getting
to choose new mates from the winners of some

athletic contest. But neither myth nor painting tells
how long they had to work at their futile task, or if
in the end one of them filed a workplace grievance.

I can think of several that fit the bill: excessive work-
load, bullying, toxic work environment, health and safety
hazards; defective equipment, lack of clear term limits. 

Couplets Looking Both Ways

A souvenir, you said: passing me 
             the stub of a parking ticket we 

didn't have to stick into the exit 
             machine. How often does it 

actually happen like this? — Free passage
            back into the life we try to manage

with all its awful messes and missed
            connections, its swing shifts

making us look both forward and back
            in order not to get smacked

by an eighteen-wheeler plowing down
            the road. These days I look around, 

more easily bewildered: how sorrow is profound
            though sweetness persists, even abounds.

Surviving

The day we wanted to walk to the cathedral,
it rained. I would have pointed out the stained 
glass roses, the dim alcove where the figure 
of the crucified Christ was laid prone on a table, 
one plaster foot extended so the faithful 
could seal the wound with their lips. There is 
perhaps no real lesson here—only another 
illustration of how we're made to think 
we could never offer enough atonement 
for the great audacity of being alive 
past childhood, past war, past calamity, past 
ruin. I wanted to say, I've lit enough votives
for a lifetime of several conflagrations. 
I wanted to just sit on a wooden bench,
no longer waiting for a voice to tell me
anything about how I should live
my life. I wanted to walk out into the damp 
air, believing that was enough absolution.



Dear Exile,

no matter how often I think it,
I can't stop loving the first
cold slap of water coming through
the pipes in winter, the cornhusk
smell of heat pressing down
on eyelids in summer; 
                     on my face, my skin.
Windowless nights
and how they dress
in persistent 
light—

And if I gave up, 
if I stopped desiring
the ordinary things, ordinary 
rituals we hardly thought about 
                      even as we did them—

Could I forget, completely?

Moths tuck themselves 
into drawers, where they 
work out their hidden
citzenships in scripts
of perforated silver.

The taut threads 
of the hammock loosen;
                     day loses to night,
and night again to day, 
 
Who was I 
before the earth
shook my world to pieces,
before parts of barely formed
history were buried along with beams
of a house that no longer exists?

At the Chinese restaurant 
they served coffee 
or service tea in thick white cups, 
and old men in frayed sweaters 
hunched eternally over chessboards.

Roads wound through 
mountains but at a certain juncture, 
           one could glimpse the sea.

Perhaps I am that house to which 
I can no longer return.

Even now, more than just 
the stones are forgetting me.
  

The Speed of Light

Is it the dream
or is it the poem 
that wants to return 
the cry torn from a mouth

A dream is a poem
working out the question 
for an answer you think
might never come

When is that future
when we look at the sky
and the sounds we make
arrive dressed in light

Binding

~ after Linda Pastan

I have not yet learned that lesson
of abandoning the world, of letting fall
the various claims we make on each other
as though it were our right as humans. If I 
were a tree, I might be the one that hasn't 
quite shed its overgrowth of foliage 
despite the blight worked by heat, the blasts 
fired by winter. Sometimes I feel like a small 
insistent animal pushing its head into your lap, 
circling your ankles, angling for a crumb 
of forgiveness or love. Though the moon
floats in the sky as if it's worked free 
of its own tethers, still I feel the tidal
pulse go through me as if it were 
an umbilical cord uncut. And in the dark 
I tense, anticipating the sterile blades'
descent, fearful of the moment you
might turn away, wanting nothing 
more to do with me. 

Testament

I have a form on which I am to list last wishes,
final admonishments. How to divide my worldly
goods, portion them like I might a pie or quiche—

I look around but can't imagine the absurdity
of listing every book, every bauble I ever
bought, every unworn shoe; service for tea,

anything in this life that gave however
brief a pleasure. As for the money—
mostly enough, sometimes lacking; never

the jackpot, a windfall to stun me.
I have a mortgage on a house that homes
me and mine: green trim, yard with fig tree

as dear as if this was an Eden. All on loan:
tear-studded planks, every love that shone.  

Estrangement: A Sestina

Two-and-a-half scoops of flour, salt,
the sugared bloom of yeast. I measure
out the sadness of mother’s milk,
the quiet spores simmering alive—
until the dough rises as though intention
were simple as the thought of bread.

As a child, you loved sugared bread.
First I spread toast with butter: unsalted,
as ideal backdrop; always intending
to feed more than the mouth—measures
any parent would take to grow and keep alive
the humans put in their care. Milk-faced

and squalling, immediately rooting for milk,
you came into this world. Bread
of my skin, pulled and kneaded, kept you alive
and sated. But we grew hungrier, salting
each year’s wounds to try or curb its measure—
How could we know what we intended

would fail test after test? What one intends
runs counter to another’s growing desire. Milk
the days before you count them missing, measure
being the unsmiling steward who locks up the bread
instead of handing it out, until it hardens to rock salt.
So the years have turned, and still we are alive.

I know I still keep many things alive.
Burnt toast, burnt sugar: not what I intended,
nor the gaping spaces between, salted
with the hard absence of years. I too want the milk
of contentment, the daily grace of love like bread
though I haven’t figured out why some measures

didn’t seem enough. The great immeasurables
are those that swell our hearts, that keep us alive
despite the absences: night falls over day, bread
crumbles to dust in its box. Isn’t love a form of intention,
and any kind of exchange of language the sign of milk
not completely curdled, not all diminished into salt?

I’ll eat old bread, dry bread, remembering it was intended
for sustenance in immeasurable wilderness. And I won’t milk
the heart I’ve kept alive in its stall, but sit with it in salt and ashes.

Enigma Machine

            In the quiet well of a Friday afternoon,
I carry laundry in my arms up the stairs.

            As long as the light falls without burning,
the plant by the bathroom window

           can lower its hands after a night
of praying. It takes a lifetime of work 

           to learn how to consume your portion,
and just as long to even begin to understand

           you are not what you choose to carry,
you can choose to set it down.