Not Having Learned to Breathe in Water

I've always been afraid
of getting in any water that looks
like it will definitely go over

my head. Until third grade,
I used to be afraid to even stand
in the shower and let water run

over my head and face. Close your eyes,
I was instructed. But what does it mean
to fear drowning even on solid ground?

Nevertheless I tried learning to swim
once. The group instructor at the Y
gave us foam noodles and showed us

how to kick off. The first few times
she'd lead us down to the middle
of one lane then turn back around.

I can say I learned at least
how to float. But holding on to a rubber
board and trying to propel my body across

that deep, it's like I forgot how to breathe.
I stood up in a panic. The rest of the class
was learning to turn their heads: one

side first, then the other. On the far
end, children in bright suits jumped in,
paddling and stroking without fear.

Home Economics

Where I grew up I was taught save
everything for soup or sauce: fins, bones,
the heads of shrimp for their orange fat—
dripping sweetbreads of the slaughtered
animal to bulk up a meal, spread like a blanket
over many days with sizzling onions and
wild lime juice. There are whole towns who've
perfected the art of chiseling lace
out of watermelon rinds, roasting rice
wafers to string with thread and float
from windows on feast days— feast being less about
tables groaning with the weight of food
and more about yoking endless hunger to
the ceremonies of using every part: every inch
of skin, every sinew; each chalky eyeball swimming
in its papery bowl, as sweet as everything else
milked from another body in the world for you.


what does one do               with ruin 

who is ordained to bring

order to the land & seasons

to flowering i am no king

languishing at the border of life &

death waiting for

an elixir of bird-song or magic

no bottomless wellspring am i

gladness ready to pay off

tithe collectors in the morning

what does one feed the furnace

always eager to devour to shreds

leashed dogs no less heartsick

than those without


The mind is large: an auditorium
that could shelter whole neighborhoods
unhomed by a natural disaster. Or maybe it is
some kind of ancient labyrinth
whose blueprint could only be memorized
by touching each object along the way
and reciting their names in order. Then,
weeks or months afterwards, one
finally steps into the center and comes
face-to-face with the creature
that sat so long in the dark waiting
for your arrival. It asks you
what you've brought besides that filthy
ball of string which used to be red
but now looks caked with mud. Wouldn't you
like to know, you say, handing it to him
and taking his place in the center as it moves
toward the opening in the hedge.

Ambiguous Loss, Uncertain Grief

Among the many varieties of grief, I come
across ambiguous loss, also sometimes known

as uncertain grief: hanging about in a doorway,
unsure of whether to come in or stay outside,

just on the porch. When I ask what he
wants, he says I'm not sure or I don't

really know. So tell me the news
you've brought, I say. And he clears

his throat half a dozen times
and tries to begin, but can't seem

to form the words. In the half-light
he looks like a child who might have lost

his way but is too embarrassed or scared
to admit it. Then he turns, and he looks

much older— a five o'clock shadow
on his chin and around his mouth.

He reminds me of the cousin who came
knocking one night, crazed with the grief

of not knowing if any of his family
had made it out of their house in a land-

slide, after an earthquake. In such
a situation, it's natural to think

of the very worst possible thing that could
happen. And even if it proves not to be true,

the terrible swing from one moment's hope
to the next moment's stomach-churning panic

is the only thing that registers. Tell me,
I say again; I'd rather know. Wouldn't you

prefer the clarity of such a loss, such a grief,
rather than being kept in the limbo preceding it?

Flora of the Tropics

In our wild gardens, we grew
no apples goldening in late light,
no pears or plums. What animals
nosed their way into our simple plots
tore pages from tightly bound greens,
leaving fiddlehead ferns
to sleep undisturbed by the shed.
If any star fell into the belly
of an apple, we did not hear
about it. We did not cut its flesh
crosswise to find a sign about
our origins and fall, our
banishment. In the smudged fields,
tubers marbled patiently, waiting for us
to pull them up and out of the earth
like babies. What crescents crowned their
arrival! And of the air, roots of orchids
spoke to each other in their own
vernacular. Of flood, we knew nothing
until galleons pushed their way into
the channels. Of grasses, we knew
which could bind and which could forge
canopies to repel rain. How are we
blind and how misled when we've coaxed
stones into terraces leading to the gods?
Laid end to end, they would make more
than a girdle for this earth.

The bee has drunk too much

of its own fevered dream and almost
doesn't find its way back to the hive.
Who told it to gorge on flowers of
fermented lime, to drink past the limits
of necessity? Every bristle that brushed
against bursting tendrils, dark gold
and orange, comes back freighted
with so much more than it went out
to find. But there's still the problem
of getting past the sentinels
who wait to tear off its legs,
punishment for straying too far, perhaps
too long; for making the daily drone
a drudgery even more wedded to certain
death. In my own life, how many times
have I taken that kind of risk, the kind
that leads from these little cells sticky
with the rind of industry, where comb is one
letter away from tomb? I never wobbled
when I walked, though sometimes I turned
morose and cried or spoke of secrets.

Self Portrait: Evening, Lighting a Fire

I want to remember what word 
to use for rain that falls

through a curtain of sunlight; what
word to use for rain that makes one

sound when pouring on balconies, and
another for when it reminds you of eggs

beaten to a cloudy texture in the bowl.
Is there a word for loneliness in the shape

of a blade, and another for when it is
the whetstone you could press your whole

self against, because the world has not
stopped delivering wounds? Emerson wrote:

We were put into our bodies, as fire
is put into
a pan, to be carried about.

So then, if we are more than rain or
the absence of rain; if we are, as he says,

not the conveyance whether made of tin
or of beaten copper but the fire itself,

made of it, then let the damp, sputtering
sequence of days not be impediment. Let

the body sway in the world as a metal rod
ready to conduct flame, or feeling.

November: A Concordance

Rain again; and regrets. Or shadows.

Waking to rain you thought
you heard someone playing the piano.

Once, you read that strings
tuned to the same note
are called unisons—

Unison: as in to strike with one
accord. As birds in the rushes rise,

an arrow assembling from many parts.