Next Life

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 1 of 22 in the series Alternate Histories

 

The skull whose name was smoke spoke
worm words. Its missing teeth hissed
from the gizzard of an owl.
How odd, I thought, to be a skull
& haunt a body from within!
The air smelled of rotting
leaves; it was October.
Icy feathers began to form
on the edges of grass blades—
the only kind of next life
that made sense to me, stoned as I was.
My gut gurgled polyphonically.
I considered fear as if from a great height.

Leaving

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 2 of 22 in the series Alternate Histories

 

A falling leaf
reversed course
& flew.
It sailed up
over the trees
& didn’t stop until
it reached a forest
inside a cloud
in Panama.
You were left
with a double loss:
of the leaf it wasn’t
& of the bird it was.
On the ground
where the leaf
would’ve settled,
some rustling animal
vanishes
into a wrinkle
of wind.

The Last Lion in Pennsylvania (Version 2)

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 3 of 22 in the series Alternate Histories

 

The last lion in Pennsylvania
was never found.
Black-&-yellow
beetles smuggled her
underground; trees took
her up. Her ears became—
among other things—leaves,
& her roar was reborn in
the tops of tall pines.
She ran in the sap.
But she traveled, too,
into the ravenous
stomachs of the deer,
who were no longer
the wary creatures
she used to stalk.
Through them, she explored
a growing emptiness,
a desert with trees…


(See Version 1.)

Sensei

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 4 of 22 in the series Alternate Histories

 

My teacher resembles a flightless bird:
the sky, to him, is an open book
written in a foreign tongue,
his enormous eyes are no bigger
than his three stomachs & when
he sticks his head in the sand, it isn’t
to evade the truth but to remember it
by being alone with his terrors.

The Origin of the Ear

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 5 of 22 in the series Alternate Histories

 

Once upon a time, the ear was a flower that bloomed every day & by night bore dream-fruit. Helix & antihelix fused & swelled like the fat lip of an orchid. Deep in the ovule, a complex apparatus of drum & cocclea translated sounds into fertile seeds. Words had wings, & notes would fly from a saxophone like golden bees.

What happened? Why are we stuck now with these passive receptacles, this garbage in & garbage out? I blame the first tongue that found a way to get around not being forked. Once language knew how to feed on the ready sugar of lies, who needed nectar? Ears are for hearing, we said. Which is why nobody listens anymore except for the truly deaf.

Medusa, Bodhisattva

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 6 of 22 in the series Alternate Histories

 

The Medusa of legend
actually started out as
a bodhisattva-in-training.
Like Avalokiteśvara
with eleven faces,
she aspired to sprout
a forest of little headlets
atop her head, so as never
to fail to meet a believer’s
imploring gaze.
But she felt compassion
for the stone-workers,
& worried how men
would render her
in relief carvings on cave walls
or chisel her in the round
from soft marble.
She was stirred by the hiss
of insense sticks, the censer
a-bristle: it sounded
like bliss, that extinction.
If the goal was to end
the cycle of rebirth,
she reasoned, why not
reincarnate as something
utterly immune to desire?
Let the others say
they’d forestall nirvana
until every blade of grass
attained liberation.
Medusa vowed not
to leave a stone
unturned.

Air: A Grievance

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 7 of 22 in the series Alternate Histories

 

Air wasn’t always as light as it is nowadays. When I was a kid, standing upright took real effort, & walking, we felt like Moses parting the Red Sea. The air was a physical presence & our lungs were made of sturdy leather. We had to work for every breath — not like you kids today who can buy cheap bottled air at any gas station. Bones were so dense & muscles so hard from the constant struggle, it was impossible to kill anyone unless you used a lead bullet or sharpened a blade for hours. The sky reached all the way to the ground if there weren’t any trees or buildings nearby to prop it up. We took all our holidays by the shore & dove into the water to escape the sky’s tyranny, savoring as long as we could the illusion of lightness.

Valediction

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 8 of 22 in the series Alternate Histories

 

We didn’t say goodbye
with our hands but
with naked branches.
(And anyway it was
more of a hello.)
You undid me the way
a fire plays a harp,
the strings singing as
they snap. (Each note
can only sound once:
an excellent discipline!)
They are still together,
your smoke & my fog.
(I feed them wood.)

Project

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 9 of 22 in the series Alternate Histories

 

Gray, ugly, already starting
to crumble. What the project’s
planners had meant it to say
was: The future is here.
What the residents heard:
You do not belong.
Fortunately, it was possible
to pry the windows open.
On any given night,
you could stand on the street
& watch the litter sail out:
Happy Meal bags, cigarette butts
leaving trails of sparks,
yesterday’s paper.
This year-round autumn
blanketed the courtyard,
& was only swept aside
when the police needed
to outline in chalk
another occupant who’d vanished
through the one good door.

Iconoclasm

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 10 of 22 in the series Alternate Histories

 

We took the book at its word: idols were bad. Down came the asherim with all their blank leaves marked up by larvae. Then the high places had to be brought low & paved over, & the flesh had to be mortified with whips & hairshirts. We found we still itched in unaccountable ways, but the book couldn’t be wrong — everyone knows that worship & degradation are poles apart. Desperate now, we tore pages from the book & chewed them into a paste which we applied as an unguent to all the burning places. Such cooling relief! The book emptied like a chrysalis until nothing was left but the cow hide. When the wind caught it at just the right angle, you could hear it moan.