dPress 2007 Sebastopol
40 pp hand sewn
Artwork by Bobbie Halperin
Makers of Ceremony
Gaugin could not contain his women,
their arms grown to the thickness of thighs,
grown into volumes of flesh, phosphorescent
and linear as evening in Tahiti, as this hour
now pressing into the bulk of night, where you,
given up to this room, lie naked on a sheet,
keeping watch over the dead watching, over the violets
on the sill, bluer this time and violently social.
His women crossed their ankles and died,
or spread heavy legs against black canvass
to allow reversals of light, to make ritual
of the body's soft angles, of the angry colors—
brown & green & red. Angry women,
makers of ceremony, mothers of every dying.
But what did he know of your own sweet loss,
of the child who lives, still, by the stroke
of your grief? Only that colors may speak:
Don't be afraid. Paint it as blue as you can.
Civilization is what makes you sick.
So against the blankness of desert heat
you've planted flowers. Dwarf zinnias,
nasturtiums, asters—a patch of fatal color.
I want soft hues to comfort you.
This morning in a letter I write
anger first, acceptance last,
but words couldn't find you.
So I walked the beach.
Above, through pine break
the cow bells rolled their solitary note
down cliff-side trails. I listened for their song,
found a tide-thinned bone
and wanted it complete—
strung with shells, good luck
to wear between your breasts,
to charm the body into belief.
But what we finally deny the unborn child,
the rites of birth, the rites of death,
we first deny ourselves and so our acts
become symbolic, drift without us
into clearer lives. Those Tillamook Jerseys,
slow and wet, move milk-heavy
toward an unseen barn, falling
one by one into darkness. What warmth,
what need, what dim note calls them there?
The Waiting Air
What I've held like a clutch
all these years since you left
with your father was the fear
of letting you go knowing
you would come back changed
and find me strange as well:
my look, my clothes, my hair.
Knowing the intimate motions
we made through the day
would be heavier, more thoughtful
than before. So the simple hand
to the air could not be simple or careless
again. Still I raise my hand
to see you off, to feel the wind
and bring you back again to that day
in the park where we saw the pinwheel
pod of elm spin down and you asked,
Do we have to die in heaven, too?
I said no as if I knew
and, like a shawl against some chill,
dropped my arm around you.
You shook my hug
and ran to swing, almost to the sky
and down again. Push me, momma,
higher, higher, farther, please.
I wave and laugh, push and sing.
You shout and lean against my hands,
the wind, my words,
working, shaping, changing the waiting air.
Under scrub oak and piñon pine
you spread a coat, unpack bread
and cheese, wine, a cheap red,
French, bottled the year I left
a husband and son. I raise it
to their good fortune, to all
forgotten feasts. Eight years
of marriage, of looking out windows
past barbed wire fences
bowed as the backs of old horses,
past the weedy and whittled edges
of the farm, the run-down dairy
we tried to call home. Even the trees,
seemed weary. Slate gray, wind-worn,
they managed to bloom: Jonathans,
Barletts, Elbertas, Romes. I simmered
with then in kitchen pots, took their names
for comfort, refused my own.
After dinner, we didn't talk
and pushing a chair from the table
was not a simple act, or thoughtless,
but the distance our lives divided
into, even as these grapes were lugged
to vats, even as this cheese quickened
in its skin on a foreign shelf.
Old world. Old wounds. We belong
to what we choose to remember; the rest
will find us, in time. But here, the wine
breathes, cheese sweats, you speak to me
in human terms, familiar sounds—
each syllable a risk we'll shape
deliberately towards change.
Somewhere it ended, as always
and without ceremony.
Summer, the lust bound season,
spent in its own heat.
Where was I when it slipped by
like the death of a friend of a friend,
like all the deaths I read of here,
daily & anonymous.
Up from the tangle of shrubs,
juncos in cocky black flyer's caps
now scatter the seeds
and bother the rosy finches
The day advances full of birds,
their tireless comings & goings.
Next door the widower's woodpile
blocks his view of the bay.
He's lit an early fire;
smoke shifts into trees beyond—
and words no longer belong,
like summer or birds,
to what they once defined.
Yet the images linger,
the mourning they rely on.
The first cold wind is down
from the mountains where the season
has long since turned, pushing
the deer before it, forcing a winter song:
Names be with us.
Wind, grieve gently over our heads.
Red Hills & Bones
The March tulips bloom
cruel and lovely every year—
you were the winter
child, too late to choose.
Through doubt, then tests,
and finally fever,
It was spring and your brother
laughed loud in the greening sun
while you curled—a question
When you let go, I rose
from sleep as branches lift
with the release of snow.
Your weight had no bearing
and gravity was gone.
By morning, blood like sunrise
lit the sheets.
Losing you was harder
than what truth I can
tell you now; that grief
was real, daughter.
Ten years it's taken
to deliver you here
to this page, to a house
too small for you.
Outside this window,
clematis climbs the ladder
of summer, eager and blue,
beside it the sweet white
irony of baby's breath.
I planted both for you,
to learn love without its object.
Now, I give you up to memory,
the tulips' empty stalks.
Joan Bourne, 1946-2000
and the luxury of grieving is gone.
Time holds the fact of us
leaning into each other
as the sun dropped over Ios—
your arm on my shoulder
in the photo. The backdrop,
bougainvillea and white washed arches,
fact into artifact into artifice,
a weary rocession. You died.
I say it now, and notice these
willed transitions, as if the poem
were itself a death
to indulge and finally
divest oneself of. To end
on a preposition expecting more.
Now we are framed by irises,
transparent too. What light are we
that breaks as briefly as the flash
on film? As bright?
I've little left to lose
but years and your scent
held for a while in the scarf
you wore that night half blown
on ouzo and gossip, goat bells
ringing the old stars in.
What we wanted was beyond us—
now I love desire
for its own sweet distance.
I lift my glass—
another year starts tomorrow.
these mornings of the grey streaked sky,
clouds breaking up, light breaking in.
Even the blackened branches against the day
do not move, but splay themselves needy
and itching for weather. This is the calligrapher
of doubt who scribes the white between the lines.
Not easy, this heart, these hands together again.
Some days, it's heart in hand; others, hand over heart.
Neither satisfies. Needy couple, they. One looking
for love, the other for work; both wanting it honest
and hard, not easy, not free, but clear. Not easy
this season between winter and spring. Literal
and dry, absent of irony. The bones on the mat
of lawn simply lie, white and bare. Even the dog
won't tend them in this off season, season without name,
season without ease or anger. Be still.
Dance the space between the steps; it is not stillness.
Hear the music between the notes; it is not silence.
Read the white between the lines; it's not empty.
Here to gather. Breathe, stare, blink. This stillness
is motion, this silence is music, the white space sings.
Flowers: Memorial Day
They are the beautiful dying gift
we bring our beautiful dead,
their numbers etched in marble,
molded in bronze under their names.
We read them now like books
on the shelf above our bed
whose titles bring back a scene
or two, more clearly than the face,
the voice, the way he flicked ashes
from a cigarette, the way she wiped
a plate or slurred a phrase.
Children run among the graves
finding this a fine place to play,
their parents quiet
for once, like at the table
just before grace, leaving them
strangely to their noisy games.
Theirs is the sweet irony
of cut iris, stems sucking water
from coffee cans and plastic cups,
not yet knowing the absence of roots,
the numbered hours, the weightlessness
of a name in stone on a sunlit day.
Sonnets for Seasons & Friends
Geology was our excuse to drink:
that class depressed us, rocks gray with names
mythology would love. We needed blame
to fall beyond us, something cold to think
past Vietnam, those friends already sinking
in its wake. How much of us was claimed
by bitterness? By loss? The winter came
as no surprise that year; the snow was zinc
white and deep. We drifted with it. Lost
into deliberate lives and men, we learned
to hide. And now the shock of ice along
the Spit recalls that winter night we most
believed our lives would change. But cold still burns,
snow pelts the beach, & luck seems rightly wrong.
The storm held back another day. Along
the beach the peeps and plovers fed and preened.
I walked and watched ‘til watching seemed a screen,
a blind within the brightening drift of spring.
A killdeer frets the water; gulls belong
to one another now, and so they scream
with fresh intention, feeding still on need,
affection's hungry mate. The old squaw's song
is tireless on the bay; I thought of you
again today and wondered at the bond
that heedless in its caring, carries on.
The loons are changing plumage, though a few,
uncertain in the course the season's found,
find habit's heart still claiming most what's gone.
Here spring's a constant. Daffodils persist
for weeks and green, like heat, oppresses. Rain
again. Three days now it's played that same
toccata. Lonely for the season's shift,
some variance of light or tone, I listen
to Vivaldi's Four. So much is changed
by repetition: music, faces, names,
those summer hills we hiked. Though we resist,
each change requires its loss. When overcast
some days I think I even miss the dust.
But memory lives on borrowed colors. What
we need most to believe about the past
will turn in season, bright or dark, adjust
itself to shade, to light, as bloom, as root.
Across the Juan de Fuca Strait, northeast
and out of nothing, Baker stuns the thin
blue air. How odd the mountain first should bring
the art to mind: impossible to see
it free of Hokusai, or you, your lean
collages, strong and spare, where color swings
its object open like a door. I think
of loves we share—shades of green, Matisse,
the rituals of food. Yet separate arts
define our separate lives. A heron keels
across the Sound. We are absorbed by these
inventions, puzzling mountains into parts
until a suddenness of vision yields
a wholeness up: relinquished we are blessed.
A Vile Cheer
Four boys in a red car,
out of school
in the sun & green heat
of spring. I think they
really meant no harm,
though what I saw in them,
even at a distance was a shining
darkness, moonlight on metal.
I held my breath. Slowly
it passed, red & low to the ground,
then, "PIG!" It might have been cunt
or spic or nigger or queer—
that rasping growl,
that vile cheer.
I swerved in the bright light of May,
sure my neighbor—a quiet man who'd
spent the morning chopping wood—
sure he must have heard. I didn't turn,
I was that afraid of pity.
Inside again, I washed my hair,
changed my clothes and looked
at last into the mirror. It came to me
then—what I should have yelled
or thrown or gestured back.
Days later, hiking with a friend
and hidden, I cried and felt a sadness for us all
who use the world to our own abuse,
who rename it to destroy what little trust
we've come to share. Those small and careless
daily hurts undo us in the end.
Those boys were children still
out for fun in fine weather
but I find no comfort there
or here. Their shadows stalk me still
and seal a cool and deepening fear.
The Mae West In Me
Well, I was walking along like no big deal, like I shopped
Krydell's all the time. But I felt that purple bag smoothing
my thigh and heard that tissue paper whispering chic, chic, chic,
all the way. So I was in a pretty mind when I saw those boys
perched, loaded for game. I knew they'd seen me coming
and were laying plans, too. I slipped my bag to the other arm
see, so Krydell's would be eye high when I passed and they'd
think I had money and pull and might keep shut.
Next thing I know it's Hey baby, sooey, sooey! and I felt like somebody's
private parade. My mind shut down, but I kept working it, ‘cause
I knew I'd have occasion to tell this story someday, though this
was headed to no good end. Suddenly some smoldering Mae West
miracle of a voice caught and turned me round to say, "Hey boys,
know what I've got in this bag? One nasty little red silk peignoir. I bet
you don't even know what a painwhar is, yeah? Well why don't you just
look it up. Peignoir, boys, understand? Just look it up."
Well, they didn't have time or mind to say much then. They started
talking low and soft and I saw my word mobbing their lips, knew
they were working hard to say something big. But mostly, they were
praying they could hold onto that sweet piece I'd tossed them
long enough to look it up: and I just kept on walking thinking
Amen, boys, amen.
Children dance before they hear the music
When I was five
I danced for the camera's
bright bar light, white curls
and a blue poodle skirt
so it would fly straight out
and encircle me like a plate.
I imagined myself a pretty
piece of cake. I imagined
I was the ballerina
who danced in my jewelry box:
lift the lid and she'd pop
ten hut and spin and spin
to the Blue Danube waltz.
A petit four in perfect form
icing the silvered glass.
But later, watching home movies,
she wasn't what I saw. The poodle skirt
and saddle shoes, yellow curls,
all were true, but the girl's body
was awkward and lewd.
Hands on hips, I Jack LaLaned.
Pelvic thrust, turn, thrust again.
In & out, forward & back.
Where had I learned to dance like that?
My friend Ali did a Reno stint,
pony dancing above the heads
of tourists, gamblers, geeks.
Said the best girls made it to the stage;
fifteen years of ballet just to earn tassels
and the right to dance bare breasted in a cage.
She's thirty four and she's not dancing anymore.
Evan is six. It's summer, mid-sandwiches
and pop, when the rain starts, drops
like sand through a sieve. He puts his food
back on his plate, stops, stands, begins to strip.
He's out the door and dancing, naked in the rain.
Arms outspread, he's spinning, spinning
head back, face up, tip-toed turning
shivering, giggling, jiggling, a perfect eight.
Thunder booms—I should call him in.
Instead, I strip and run to dance
before the rain is done, to dance
naked without music with my
dancing, laughing son.
where the jester hides
in him, just behind the breastbone,
close to the heart, caged by ribs.
He says, "Sometimes he's crazy.
Sometimes he just has to get out."
In class the clown is summoned
by questions my son can't answer,
a cute genie whose immature magic
makes the teacher scowl
and classmates titter.
At home he is messenger
of affections too large to contain
in this nine year old frame
whose child has yet
to turn against himself.
And so, I beseech you
little fool, big buffoon,
come out. Turn your cartwheels,
sing, juggle, dance and fart.
Make us laugh your expense
and guard this boy's untutored heart.
Among the cattails and willows
at the edge of the pond, their dank
repository of song, the frogs are making
music at the moon hidden beneath
a scum of cloud. Their notes
are ambitious; it's early spring,
the nights still cold enough
to demand attention.
Why should we listen
who spend our lives inside?
Why walk out under a veiled
light, to note our own silence
against this rough cut sound?
Still, I step out. At the creak
of my weight on the deck,
the frog song stops. We
learn each other's presence
in this absence of sound. We
wait it out: ten seconds, twenty
until one brave bull trumpets,
once, twice, and then two
more and the night is full
again of their muscled music
large enough to make me small,
cold enough to tighten my nipples
against the wind.
Bark and bugle, burp and bellow,
banter boast bemoan their slick
slippery song of spawning stick
and ooze of mounting frenzied
fucking frogs among the suck
of mud and frond and mucoused moss:
we must, we must, we must.
I turn—obligingly, they stop
until the door clicks shut.
And I forget the words
for the poem I had thought
to write, the one about love
and silence and frog song
late and long into the night.
Sunday at St. Andrews
How baroque my Protestant
hands, lying still, folded,
useless in my lap as dead doves,
soft, smothered in the folds
of my dress.
How conspicuous their stillness
here among these other hands
that fly from lips to heart,
from forehead to chest
right then left,
then back again, effortlessly
as if these bodies were trees
and the priest's words an ornate wind
that moves them limb by limb
through gold-leafed light
under the glassy gaze of saints.
And how thick my Protestant lips
as I mouth God's word—
is she counting my mistakes
this woman kneeling next to me—
whose every word is right on cue,
around whose hand a rosary
is wrapped like brass knuckles.
Here, the history of holy conscription
rattles in the offering plate,
the pure ones on parade. Alone
in the pew, the smell of my guilt
grows stronger as they return
from the holy sip, orderly, penitent
forgiven and cleansed,
relief as palpable
as rain. And yet at service's
end we shake on it, walk out
into the clear cool day. But even
here, the ordinary has been sacrificed:
traffic lights blink like stained glass,
urge caution, command us stop and
suddenly I accelerate hoping to be caught
ticketed and retained: a chance to plead guilty,
to pay big and drive home clean.
One by one the calves
go down to dust, stretched
by ropes between two horses,
pulled by the ligament of fear
toward a human smell.
Is it the angled limb
that brings to mind the martyrs
at Meteora, ankles & elbows bound,
stretched between heaven and earth,
heads wrenched sideways and back,
as if in ecstasy? Did they smell
God in all this blood?
How lovingly their torments are preserved,
their dying moments burned in muted colors
across the chapel walls as if to prove
ownership prevails and is all.
The calf's throaty bawl,
the thick incense of iron and hair,
bring me back to branding time,
to the delicate flame, smoke and flesh
melting in air. Lazy 7K, left hip
and he's one of ours: branded,
dehorned, vaccinated, castrated.
We watch him struggle, stagger,
jump away to join the others
huddled at the gate, shriven sinners.
I can't pretend I didn't like those days—
the men spitting & swearing, the horses sweating,
heat and leather, spurs and shit and sage.
But how strange the memory
that heels, then drags,
you through dirt.
Were those bells I heard in Greece
or the ringing of rowels across
the monastery floor?
And, don't we all martyr ourselves
to a time and place not of our making?
In truth, those saints seemed quaint,
their deaths a parody of Divine.
Maybe Christ is just a good ole boy
sitting on the fence, counting heads,
marking time, one of a dying breed,
like the rest of us, hoping for an early
spring, a herd worth hauling to the sales ring,
and the sweet incense of burning flesh—
nothing more than the past, like us, he won't let die.
are about heat:
in the curve that aligns
shoulder and neck
where the sweat begins;
at the ticklish flank
where the hair whorls
and the skin thins;
at the velvet juncture
of girth and foreleg;
in the crease behind
the backturned ear;
in the sweet big breath
that wants yours
and smells your cheek.
And they are about earth:
mud packed into perfect V's
of the frog; three-quarter moon
prints down the familiar track
to the willow tree where in summer
they find shade, each other,
and head to tail flick and shudder
the flies away; the flat dusting
place where they clunk down
to roll, leggy bodies like beetles aback,
then up again on all fours
they shake the dust about themselves,
the storm from which they'll emerge
absolved of all disgrace.
They are about wind:
in which they stand tail to
and head down, enduring & durable,
because they know how to move
the air; because they know
how the wind forms itself
around them, and their bodies
are the shape that shelter takes.
A nagging summer wind
pushed us after berries,
drunk in their own juice.
Birds fretted the creek-side brush,
and we lost ourselves awhile
in their noises, in the work of hands,
the rhythm of berries falling,
slowly filling buckets with their purple plop.
Our eyes learned a new obsession,
fingers risked themselves, unthinking,
for the plumpest. A pinch of thigh,
a pout, a blue kiss. Even the snakes
that startled the grass at our feet
couldn't disturb that hour of work,
a gift from no one we simply took
in the guiltless greed of plenty.
plays in the swelling shade.
Vertigo consumes lacewing and gnat
and all day I have been thinking
of the light on Whidbey Island.
Still in the sink,
last night's dishes and a bit
of bone from the lamb
seasoned with garlic and rosemary.
Spices linger in the curtains
like memory or the migraine's aura.
The weather intemperate.
Mountains rise like the backs
of whales, and from this distance
I imagine barnacles and the rough
smell of the ocean's edge.
Tide flats. Crab husk. Blue heron
in a bluer haze.
The tide wakens the blood,
draws the gull's eye to the snail.
The moon quickens in its shell.
On the Day Before You Returned
a flock of sparrows startled
the tree beyond my bedroom door.
I was alone.
I thought of your hands,
heavy over a cup of tea,
steam sifting, then lost,
a rush of wings denying shape.
So memory fails as love fails,
at the heart of things most common.
And your voice. Will it fly too
with the sparrows?
after Li Ch'ing- chao
The peonies droop in early heat.
By noon, their petals heap the ground.
I would like to walk
in your woods. There I would find
the last of the early mushrooms—
coral and morel.
I could fill my skirt, dry them
on strings above the cold stove.
In a late summer wind
they would make rasping music.
I am losing my voice
to hear yours. You have been gone
too long and already the peonies
after Li Ch'ing-chao
it isn't possible to love
what one refuses to know
Louise Glück "Rainy Morning"
is a way to leave.
What moves the grass
when we are still?
I am standing,
waiting to be moved.
Look at me.
I want to touch your hand
and not know it.
I want to lie down
in the grass
and hear it move
I want your hand
to move over me,
wind over grass.
But beneath the field
a door is opening.
is a way to love.
Touch my hand.
When the snow came,
heavy and early, some fruit
still clung to trees, apples mostly,
undesirable in their wrinkled
bird pocked skins, worm scarred.
But the snow covered them
like a lover's hand cupped lightly
over the curve of another's. And so
made them beautiful again.
In the sun they were planets
in a chartable universe,
shedding light and reflective.
At night, they swam the dark
currents, and sometimes
would bulge the skin of moonlight
like a trout heaving water against air.
The fruit grew heavier in their frozen
form and all around them the branches
bent, broke free, or hung by threads of bark—
the tree made awkward by their tenacity.
But apples held as if this
cold beauty was it and all.
Who's to know?
Who's to know what beauty,
grace, or favor can be granted
by the weight of early snow?
After three days, the weather broke.
Limbs sprung free and dropped
their leaves, penitent now, after
all their foolish longing. But the apples,
the apples, they refused to release.
And though it snowed again,
nothing made them what
they once had been.
Later, when the season
left little choice, the birds found
them hanging in their brown skins
and took up where they'd left
off in fall. Perhaps they found
them sweeter, too, tempered by ice.
Take the r out of heart,
feel the heat. Kiss the flame.
Step into the fire. Get burned.
Take the he out of heart,
make art. Easier to see
than love; harder to make.
Take the her out of heart,
there's where you're at.
At the mercy of the moment,
fully present, attending—
at the end, at a glance.
Take the ear out of heart
and you won't hear
the consonance of h & t
when they meet without
vowels to interfere:
the sound the finger
and thumb make
around the candle's flame
to snuff it out.
Take the eat out of heart,
you'll starve in the whir
of the h & the r as they huddle
over their empty plate
and can't tell you
where it hurts.
Hear her art,
her try, her start
this too parsed heart.
Impromptu for Sarn
All morning at the piano
I think of nothing but
the uncontrollable notes
breaking out of reach.
Outside my neighbor whistles,
improvising a garden
beyond the steps
near the backyard fence
where last summer's scraps
of leaves and vines remind me
that Beethoven's Adieu
pays homage to such things.
I have grown a garden
with awkward hands,
thinned cabbages, tossed
unruly lettuce to the garbage bin
and felt in each the weight
of loss, the slightest sound.
Between each measure
I remember my son,
that each note has its own distinction,
how music becomes music
when nothing is played:
then I move as pure, transparent form,
abstract as the thumb's mute motion
towards the hand's correctness.
Pausing under a tree
my mother muddled pluralities:
quince or quinces?
talking through heat and summer
with its scent of readiness
and fruit. We filled our blouses
and, sunk in orchard grass,
it could have been Africa
we held in our arms,
a continent never crossed.
We split the fruit, scooped
the seeds, and I wanted to be
in her woman's body,
to feel myself unfold
flesh into flesh.
But I thought words
would fail us then,
so I loved the summer
for its obvious greed and pinned
Napoleon above my bed—
not for the man but the horse,
coiled and carved like a tree.
Late in summer, beneath the elms,
false love, first sex. I wanted
to think of exotic lands
but shadows were light
I could not see until this morning
when light lifted the grass
and horses lipped plums half seriously,
the word came back, a taste forgotten—
quince. Her hands thickening
the fruit with honey, our elbows
touching over the sink,
trusting at last that common silence
from which we'll begin again.