Parable: What does so much for so little

~ after “Warning Mother” by Leonora Carrington

Only those who make mistakes
could aspire to wisdom:
           the finger singed by flame
remembers what the stove hissed
in the morning, before even a single
thread of smoke wounded
            the alarm on the ceiling.
And yet, a life spent in service
can turn one into a ghost: its slippers
shuffle in the hallway,
            stumbling over
joints of furniture, vegetables
fallen from the colander, the family
cat. Every fish
            out of water
retches with the effort to keep
safe, to remain
          alive: it splits
itself in two– even then, thinking of
how many mouths there are to feed.

A long time

             Two decades, but gone

in the blink of an eye.

Inside them, 

                       the craft

applied to what could be called

making        life: purposing empty

      space, collecting evidence.

How finally we learned

                   the elusive was its own


              Each summer, those ships

with jaunty banners and sails

slipped into the harbor; and wasps

                built their homely nests

before abandoning them again.

         How did the bull

deep in the labyrinth sustain

himself between 

each seeking?

                        Eventually, it too

must have learned the trick 

of the crimson thread we wind

around our wrists—

           How it flashes like a vein

or a capillary of ore 

that tethers one measure

to another, though the distance

              going in isn’t always 

                     the same that spirals out. 



Self-portrait of the soul, running out of time

Remembering our dead, we’re told to fill
a plate of food, pour   
                      a cup to set
on the sill or under an alcove light.
But years pass
        until the logic  
of the empty bowl with its celadon sheen 
                       seems a more
honest gesture: the shorn
branch, the broken cistern, water
                             going nowhere
but back into the ground along idle chains.
Their faces are fixed in that last
darkness— as I imagine mine
                       will be, folded
away into the first or last
layer like an artichoke. 
                     It takes a while
to get the hang of peeling apart
the armor: one leaf at a time
                   until there’s nothing
left but that small mouthful of
tenderness. After that, even the voice
            disappears. Nothing, 
after all, is inexhaustible. What I give
now— advice, a loan, a payment; 
         judgment, confidence, comfort—
teeters in that traitorous
interval of too little
and too much. Little soul, if only
                       I knew 
what it really meant to journey;
             if only I could still be here
                    for my own
rescue, for that untrammeled taste.

Safe Passage

I didn't have to leave a country
with one suitcase haphazardly
stuffed with pictures or deeds of sale.
I didn't have to cross a bridge
whose ramparts were burning at one end.
I never jumped trains rolling through
prairie grass to see sunrise on another
coast. But whose fathers did we trail
across the sea like scrolls of smoke?
Whose child was finally born
in the shadow of a great cathedral?
In the year of curfews, we hung
dark curtains across windows and learned
not to answer the door after a certain
hour; and yet we hid women passing through
to safety, bundling their babies
in soft brown blankets. Pigeons
swooped down on stones strewn with bits
of bread; then their wings blurred a dirty
blue as they took off again.

When you sit down to write, is death ever sitting beside you?

"...the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was 
no longer any sea."
~ Revelation 21: 1

Should I say Please don't come
too close, don't breathe that way

down my neck so I smell resin and smoke
from forests burning, hear the crackle

of wings as the rainforest ceiling
begins its collapse? You seem

so curious about what I might write
next, now that the world's catalog

of images has dwindled: not yet nothing,
not yet complete extinction, but well

on the way. Your cloak is the color
of worn silk or dull knives, your hair

a sad and unconditioned tangle desperate
for a brush. I was unhappy too, going

without a shower for weeks after our city
shook like a train of dominoes clicking

down and down around every block— The first
night, hard rain made moats of mud around

each cracked plywood sheet we tossed
for bedding on the ground. And then

the taps hissed like crazed snakes
so we backed away, taking our plastic

pails instead to the empty lake. Nothing
lasts; hasn't that always been your bottom

line? But these circling moths, these
thin-winged creatures with indigo bars

and copper eyes on their backs: I want
so much to cup their shine in my hands,

pin them to my hair or breast— keepsakes
I won't surrender to the ongoing blaze.


The dough will rise, 
sweetening in the pan. I pinch
my sadness into coils
dusted with powder of cassia bark,
cane syrups spun in a centrifuge until
they are the color of our skin.
Heat completes the arrangement of desire
overlaid by everything gathered
throughout history: who saw
the first clump of pink
peppercorns, knots of lemongrass,
startled deer receding
from slabs of salt still wet
with the tracing of their tongues?
Above the ashy ground,
shorthand of fiddlehead ferns.
Beneath the water where we can't go,
the sounds made by whales
crying for the mothers they
will never see again.


In stockyards, a Judas goat will lead 
      sheep to slaughter, while its own life 
is spared; with scent

                      of estrus, will lure 
            other goats out from behind rock and scrub
                          so a helicopter rifle shot

can pick them out, one by one
      by one— A little world
within itself, wrote Darwin:

                             with pools where blue-
                     footed boobies come to wade, and
                      tortoises old as boulders. Once,

a neighbor told me of the family dog
      they had to give away 
when they moved;

                 how her new humans said 
        she limped back to the house they used to own,
                    and curled up under the laurel tree

to die. What do the leaves say
      when they move like mouths
as the light changes, as little buds of jasmine

                            continue to give up scent    
                 even as a different color takes over  
                       their pale ghost bodies?

All our dead come back to us
      in dreams so we can make apology.
They hold out sheets of our tears, 

                       so much silver warming
        the grass neatly clipped where we lie down
             to live out the rest of our days.


Thief of Moons

~ after "Ladrona de Lunas," Armando Valero

Half-moon blade, mezzaluna, edge
      I rock back and forth across  
the face of a wooden board: my best
      instrument, how I tune you according to
the tides. How my breasts float like two
      new planets above your central hollow,
veiled in the colors of sunrise. I am
      sharper than rock, more subtle
than steel. The sky and its collection
      of dead stars lies quiet around my
shoulders. I've lain my spine across
      your length: a birthing chair,
intimate with my blood and fluids.
      Every child I've brought into this
world comes through the two points
      of your smile. And at night,
I rest my chin in your dead center,
      both hands ready to pluck
what light I can before it steals away. 


~ The Thomasites were a group of 600 American 
teachers who travelled in 1901 from the United States 
to the newly annexed territory of the Philippines 
on the transport ship USS Thomas.  

Are we not yet            as good as
Perfectly pleated    cutouts of girls
and boys    with red and blue lines
Haven't we lisped       all the way
down the alphabet         B is for brick
and    baseball bat    H for the hammock
we wove     for the teacher      unused
to this heat      The ship has gone
away     Good morning!    Good-bye!
Under        acacia trees     we build    
our résumés   folding       our knees    
repeating and repeating      all day