Etiquette Dinner

Please take one, says your host, 
passing the basket of rolls. Before
you take it, you're supposed to unfold
your cloth napkin then fold it once more
across your lap so it resembles
a triangle, though the rectangle is
also a common and acceptable shape.
Water to your right, salad fork to
your left. All the hierarchies of silver-
and glassware, every item in its proper
place. And you're to tear off small
pieces of bread to butter sparingly—
though you prefer the ease of Lazy
Susans and all the dishes, family
style, ranged on its perimeter: one spin
to the hot pot, a quarter turn to three
pepper shrimp and crab legs, things
you need to pick up with your hands.
Don't you love the taste and smell
of sauce that lingers on your fingers,
even when all the dishes are taken away?
Only the prim little cups of tea remain,
and the crimped and folded cookies
waiting to give you your fortune.

Memory, with no strings attached

We say we know
all there is to know
about the dead.

Moths cluster around lamps
and we think their wings
make the shape of grandmother's
voice, the way she limped
when she walked;

how grandfather liked
to stand in the doorway,
waiting for evening to loosen
the knots in his blood.

Who says the fly
on the windowsill was sent
to keep an eye on their wandering?

They've been gone from this
earth so long, they should be

allowed to come and go
as they please, with no
requirement to remember
their former life
among us.



It is winter/ and we speak/ with passionate hands

—always, about the past. Always,
about histories which follow us
like wraiths out of the mist;
neediest, like ghosts and old
lovers, when the cold sets in
and strips the landscape
to the bone.

When you look at statues
in the shade, obelisks or plaques
overlaid with fleur-de-lis; or a marker
saying on such and such a date
arrived so many men— strange, wild,
picturesque
— you see with your winter eye
their color like that bronze into which
a small proportion of gold is worked

by the molder

how they tested the winds
pulling through the galleon’s rigging
by holding up their fingers before they
jumped ashore, shedding chains as they went.
Lacrustine, wrote Lafcadio Hearn of their village
on stilts in 1883, listing in the current:
a secret guarded by reeds and waste—

vicious crabs, alligators
slinking through mud, their jaws
unhinged. Chickens with one leg,
limping along.  Not even the post
ventured here, where clouds
of mosquitoes reigned and made
a sound like the boiling of
innumerable caldrons. 

Rumors persist about the deep
green of their eyes, the way
they danced with the shrimp,
their bodies supple as fresh-water
eels. 
I didn’t come by boat or ship,
and the only card game I know
is matching pairs—

but when I read that on stormy
evenings the card-dealer called out
22 as Dos paticos en laguna, I can see
the poetry in his eye: the way I learned
to describe the world. That’s
how 
all migrants and seafarers

must think: not knowing
the words in a foreign tongue—
for gale, for ice, for snow— they’ll look
for ideograms in the bodies of
whelk and birds and fish; they’ll talk
with their eyes, with their hands.

  

 

In response to Via Negativa: Blizzard.

Pilgrimage

If we traveled 
on the speed of our desire,
where would we be by now?

The moon's milky glaze on the road
leads to the sea: and every window's
antlered with light—

but if you knocked on the doors
to ask for lodgings, they might
or might not open.

Evening falls in the countryside.
A donkey brays and farmhands
round up the sheep.

We all come back
in the night to gnaw
at something.

In the middle of the field
lies the heart of a saint,
or the bones buried by the dog.

There's a name for the kind
of hunger that can't stop eating
only because the mouth is lonely.


The gods

always have best choice, first choice, 
and they're allowed to change their minds
but we can't ever be fickle— we're mere
mortals after all, and fools to invoke
some sort of urgency like the heart,
so if winter has been here forever,
how much do you think spring
will cost because from experience,
the cleaners always make a killing
once they're corporatized, though I
would so like to be a woman of more
than domestic and womanly service
and sacrifice of parts because I know
in the end, Death redeems nothing; and
still the gods always have the best
choice, a choice in weapons for war
and for marketable words; in women,
in wives, in boys they also take
pleasure in as well as animals
in the forests and fields like dogs
or oxen or pheasants or swans,
anything with a neck that can both
bend and snap; and the waterways
are littered with the afterhusks
of all the choices they made
before they changed their minds
before a previous set of choices
so now we have to talk about
resilience and climate change
and ocean rise while they keep
harping on their days of glory
when people and things knew
their place and the parties,
the parties, weren't they wild
and fabulous— though it's not
clear anymore if there was a true
before and after, because we also
got confused: and didn't Yoda say
Always two there are, no more
no less: a master and an apprentice
and we know he was talking about a Sith,
so what's up with how the gods always
have at least two sets of names, one
supposedly for use in those kingdoms
overshadowed by whitewashed palaces
against skies and seas of tourist blue,
one for that kingdom from which our
notions of legislation and law
and the virtues of the middle way
were supposedly drawn— but who
actually knows why Hercules was
Heracles, Artemis was Diana,
Mercury was Hermes, who's also
associated with Prometheus... or
am I mixing them up and being
an unreliable witness, and I say
witness for haven't they also come
interfering in my own affairs, some
cop on beat peering lewdly through
the open car window to ask if everything
was alright as I sat, right breast exposed
and feeding an infant on my lap; then
there'll be those making impossible demands
like which half of your child or dog or cat
or house or some other form of beloved
would you most wish to keep after it
has been severed in half or kidnapped
by some tyrant of darkness, but if
your hand so much as flew up to cover
your mouth in fear or alarm or made
a fist as if to strike out or protest
then god help you, they'll say, god
help you, which you know is code
for you are so so very on your own.

Poem of Roots and Spores

Veined, my limbs long for the dream of undulation as jellyfish, for a latticework of mangroves in which to play at hiding and being found. They crave the dusk that settles beneath closed lids, respite from the moon’s floodlight parading like a noisy wheel, a carousel on repeat, a steel drum. Cool lengthening in moist earth, pearl tooth of a radish manufacturing roots. Once, after a storm, I reached behind the cauterized stump of a tree and found a cascade of brown scalloped fins. They were beautiful as all fruiting bodies are that grow from lightning: a burst of cells, a frantic multiplying as answer to the threat of their obliteration.

Poem with a line from Ilya Kaminsky

What is silence? Something of the sky in us.
A rift that opens, so two not speaking

can step through to find a street
still blunted by rain, part

of a fence leaning against another
part that isn't broken. There's no need

to point out what needs to be done.
Once, on a mountain road wide enough

for only one vehicle, two
met in the middle, unable

to proceed. I don't know how each
made its way to its destination:

if passengers got down from the bus,
shouldered their belongings and made

the trek to town on foot. It's not
so easy to return to the beginning

when something keeps nudging you
forward. A stone thrown over the edge

falls for a long time, and you strain
your ears to hear the sound it makes.

In Retrograde

A week ago I spent a whole day
in the same building: only moving through
three floors, carrying papers to class
then to a meeting. The tiny brass bell
on my belt-clipped key fob made its usual
tinkly sound, but I never noticed how
my car key got detached or where
it must have fallen. Not until I made
my way to the parking garage and tried
unsuccessfully to pull the driver's side
door of my car open did I realize
it was lost. By then it was dark,
since we'd just come off Daylight
Saving Time. A nearly full
moon was in the sky, reminding me
of how I'd overheard some people talking
about Mercury being in retrograde: which
is to say that the planet, observed
from Earth, seems to be moving in
reverse direction. If you believe
what's mostly an optical illusion, this
apparently causes spasms of misfortune:
as if the swift messenger of the gods
himself has tripped; and, limping,
is unable to convey messages of good
fortune or the souls of the dead
to the underworld. Maybe the universe
is peeved at the inconvenience—
its favorite courier lagging behind,
bungling deliveries. So it becomes
the favorite scapegoat for everything
that goes wrong: the refrigerator's busted
light bulb, the broken-off engagement,
the check that bounces. The yelling
match, the slammed doors, the tears
and fast-food bingeing. The nerve
snapping at the slightest hint
you too must somehow be at fault.

 

Poem in which Prometheus Considers Battery-powered Tea Lights and Forests Burning

A world ablaze: I wanted that
too, but not in the manner of
a raging California brush fire.
Not like the man who drives
into town for his high school
reunion, then spends two days
driving along the Calaveras road,
setting pieces of fast-food paper
wrappers on fire with a cigarette
lighter before chucking them
out the window just to see
what happens. By ablaze
I meant the mind leaping
out of the darkness of its
miserable self-containment
to see how, if heated metals
bent toward the same task,
a bridge might arc over
the yawning gorge. I meant
there was danger, but also
promise of beauty; of ships
that humans could build and fill
with provisions so they might move
forward out of calamity instead of
perishing in the current.
By ablaze, I meant the dance
girls in the village learned
when they were young, balancing
three votive candles, each stuck
inside a glass: one on the head,
the other two carried on each open
palm. The gold flicker on their faces:
something a tea light could never
reproduce. I love the quiet
blue flame of a stove's pilot
light, the brilliant sparks
before molten glass twists into
a clear vessel with an awestruck
mouth. I've walked into cathedrals
just to gaze at rows of lit
tapers in rows above the metal
box, ready to accept a coin or
slip of paper with petitions
for the world not to end in violent
conflagration, but burn as in glow,
as in the Latin ardere, which is
also the root of ardent.