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There are so many roots to the tree of anger
that sometimes the branches shatter
before they bear.
Sitting in Nedicks
the women rally before they march
discussing the problematic girls
they hire to make them free.
An almost white counterman passes
a waiting brother to serve them first
and the ladies neither notice nor reject
the slighter pleasures of their slavery.
But I who am bound by my mirror
as well as my bed
see causes in colour
as well as sex
and sit here wondering
which me will survive
all these liberations.
What’s left is footage: the hours before
parties, palm trees leaning
in the wind,
fronds blown back,
a woman’s hair. Then after:
the vacant lots,
boats washed ashore, a swamp
where graves had been. I recall
how we huddled all night in our small house,
moving between rooms,
emptying pots filled with rain.
The next day, our house—
on its cinderblocks—seemed to float
in the flooded yard: no foundation
beneath us, nothing I could see
tying us to the land.
In the water, our reflection
when I bent to touch it.
You know how you go through times in your life when you are having a hard time with your body? It’s hurting or something, or just making you angry or whatever. I’ve been kind of going through that lately. Um, not feeling so awesome, um, not feeling so well. And I’ve-i’ve been having days when I was feeling just really bad, um, what I decided to do was write a love poem in the days that start writing a love poem to my body. You know the Walt Whitman poem, “I Sing the Body Electric?” Okay, so th— I titled this “I Sing the Body Electric, Especially when My Power Is Out.” [Laughter] And um [takes a sip of water] thanks for being open to this, um, new experience.
This is my body.
I have weathervanes. They are especially sensitive to dust storms and hurricanes.
When I am nervous, my teeth chatter like a wheelbarrow collecting rain
I am rusty when I talk:
It’s the storm in me.
The doctor said some day I might not be able to walk
it’s in my blood like the iron
my mother is tough as nails,
she held herself together the day she could no longer hold my niece
"Our kneecaps are our prayer beds
everyone can walk further on their kneecaps than they can on their feet.”
This is my heartbeat
Like yours, it is a hatchet.
It can build a house or tear one down.
My mouth is a fire escape,
the words coming out don’t care that they are naked,
there is something burning in here.
When it burns,
I hold my own shell to my ear,
listen for the parade when I was seven.
The man who played the bagpipes wore a skirt
he was from Scotland;
I wanted to move there,
wanted my spine to be the spine of an unpublished book,
my faith the first and last page
the day my ribcage became monkeybars for a girl hanging on my every word
"you are not allowed to love her,"
tried to take me by the throat to teach me
I was not a boy,
I had to unlearn their prison-speak
refuse to make wishes on the star on the sheriff’s chest,
I started asking the sun about the Big Bang
the sun said, “it hurts to become.”
I carried that hurt on the tip of my tongue
and whisper “bless your heart” every chance I get
so my family tree can be sure I have not left
you do not have to leave to arrive, I am learning this slowly
So sometimes when I look in the mirror
my eyes look like the holes in the shoes of the shoe-shine man
my hands are busy on the wrong things.
Some days, I call my arms wings while my head is in the clouds
It will take me a few more years to learn flying
is not pushing away the ground
safety isn’t always safe
you can find one on every gun.
I am aiming to do better.
This is my body.
My exhaustion pipe will never pass inspection
and still my lungs know how to breathe like a burning map
every time I get lost in the curtain of her hair
you can find me by the window
following my past to a trail of blood in the snow
the night I opened my veins,
the doctor who stitched me up asked me if I did it for attention.
For the record:
If you have ever done anything for attention,
this poem is attention.
Title it with your name
it will— scour the city bridge every night you spend kicking at your shadow,
staring at the river,
it does not want to find your body doing anything but loving what it loves
love what you love
Say “this is my body,
it is no one’s but mine,
it is my nervous system
my wanting blood,
my half-tamed addictions,
my tongue tied-up like a ball of Christmas lights
if you put a star on the top of my tree, make sure it is a star that fell,
make sure it hit bottom like a tambourine
'cause all these words are stories for the staircase to the top of my lungs,
where I sing what hurts
and the echo comes back
"Bless your heart"
Bless your body.”
Bless your holy kneecaps, they are so smart
You are so full of rain,
there is so much growing,
hallelujah to your weathervanes,
hallelujah to the ache
hallelujah to your full, to the fall,
hallelujah to the grace,
and every body
and every cell
of us all.
Hay golpes en la vida, tan fuertes … Yo no sé!
— César Vallejo
They sniffed us out of the holes with the animals
they had programmed and there are blows in life so
powerful we just don’t know and there were trenches
and there was water and it poured in through our mouths
and out of our ears and there were things we saw in the
sand at that moment of sinking: mountains and daisies
and tulips and rivers and the bodies of the people we
had been and the bodies of the people we had loved
and we felt hooks coming through the trenches and we
felt hooks coming through the sand and I saw hooks coming
through my child’s clothes and I wanted him to know that they
would never be able to scoop us out of the sand but of course
it wasn’t true they had scooped us out of the sand and our
mouths were so full of dirt it is what they do when you’re
dead and they made us spit and they beat us until our mouths
were empty and they paid us for constructing the mountain and
it was me and L and we looked for S and we looked for J and J
and we looked for O and we looked for R and we looked for J
and S in the holes in which the bodies of those we loved were
hiding or dying or sinking or stealing some shelter some little
worm’s worth of cover to keep their bodies from dissolving
into the maniac murmurs of this impossible carcass economy
Seawater stiffens cloth long after it’s dried.
As pain after it’s ended stays in the body:
A woman moves her hands oddly
because her grandfather passed through
a place he never spoke of. Making
instead the old jokes with angled fingers.
Call one thing another’s name long enough,
it will answer. Call pain seawater, tree, it will answer.
Call it a tree whose shape of branches happened.
Call what branching happened a man
whose job it was to break fingers or lose his own.
Call fingers angled like branches what peel and cut apples,
to give to a girl who eats them in silence, looking.
Call her afterward tree, call her seawater angled by silence.
The white woman across the aisle from me says, “Look,
look at all the history, that house
on the hill there is over two hundred years old,”
as she points out the window past me
into what she has been taught. I have learned
little more about American history during my few days
back East than what I expected and far less
of what we should all know of the tribal stories
whose architecture is 15,000 years older
than the corners of the house that sits
museumed on the hill. “Walden Pond,”
the woman on the train asks, “Did you see Walden Pond?”
and I don’t have a cruel enough heart to break
her own by telling her there are five Walden Ponds
on my little reservation out West
and at least a hundred more surrounding Spokane,
the city I pretend to call my home. “Listen,”
I could have told her. “I don’t give a shit
about Walden. I know the Indians were living stories
around that pond before Walden’s grandparents were born
and before his grandparents’ grandparents were born.
I’m tired of hearing about Don-fucking-Henley saving it, too,
because that’s redundant. If Don Henley’s brothers and sisters
and mothers and fathers hadn’t come here in the first place
then nothing would need to be saved.”
But I didn’t say a word to the woman about Walden
Pond because she smiled so much and seemed delighted
that I thought to bring her an orange juice
back from the food car. I respect elders
of every color. All I really did was eat
my tasteless sandwich, drink my Diet Pepsi
and nod my head whenever the woman pointed out
another little piece of her country’s history
while I, as all Indians have done
since this war began, made plans
for what I would do and say the next time
somebody from the enemy thought I was one of their own.
So far the house is still standing.
So far the hairline cracks wandering the plaster
still debate, in Socratic unhurt, what constitutes a good life.
An almost readable language.
Like the radio heard while travelling in. A foreign country—
you know that something important has happened, but not what.
you come back to me in a memory
of frantic morning primping,
a hurricane of flat-ironed hair and unironed pants.
the bathroom mirror still fogged
by your shower and breath as you squintingly apply eyeliner, shouting
“time check!” every few minutes.
you are always late.
it takes some time to trace the memories
of women i have loved and not deserved
before i get to your name and face,
two words instead mean the essence of you.
i have never been good with time.
i have never been good with months or years.
i looked after those hands with unblinking dedication.
sleepless tuesday mornings, i wonder
who it is that now attends
to the ticking of your clocks.
One condition of work-release is daily to confess
my obsessions, which I then write in disco glitter,
one gluey blossom across my permanent record.
When I eat too much of the local fruit, it gives me
clairvoyance. But I forget to write down the predictions,
instead crush cherry pits into a fine powder, chop
the powder into lines with an expired credit card.
The homeless give me quarters. Union rules require
at least one mention of the weather here. My flight
leaves on an inexact date in the nebulous future,
arrives late afternoon, two days before our first kiss.
I pay the airline $25 extra to lose my dignity between
here and Chicago. At the airport you buy it back.
When I walk to the market to buy more cherries,
a parade of kittens follows, marching in formation,
singing precise and bawdy cadence about prostitutes
and crack houses. They change the names to protect
the innocent. Signs say this mile of interstate is paved
with the bones of the great mastodons, and kept clean
by the well-meaning gentlemen of the Kiwanis Club.
Vacationers from further south sit in the lobby
watching guests from the north put on
one-act plays. On even-numbered days, only, of course.
Registered letters from the clerk of the court inform me
that it won’t violate my probation to drag you across
state lines as long as I promise to return you by 8 p.m.,
mostly whole. The desk clerk is also the milkman
is the town orthodontist. Instead of leaving Bibles
at bedside, Gideons leave individual soaps printed
with couplets from the Song of Songs, or corkscrews.
I did not catch last night’s plays, but promised to attend
this evening’s performance. I play a slightly amplified
version of myself, with one line: Wish you were here.
It’s a song and dance number. Everyone applauds.
So, I thought,
as the door was unlocked
and the landlord disappeared (no,
he actually disappeared)
and I got to examine the room
in its gray corner:
the narrow bed, sheets
the color of old aspirin.
Maybe all this had occurred
somewhere inside me
was just about to.
Is there a choice?
even a difference? Familiar,
familiar but not
yet remembered …
The small narrow bed.
I had often wondered
where I would find it, and
what it would look like.
It was so awful
I couldn’t speak. Then
maybe you ought to lie down for a minute, I heard myself
thinking. I mean
if you are having that much trouble
functioning. And when
was the last time
with genuine sorrow
and longing to change
you got on your knees?
I could get some work done
here, I shrugged;
I had done it before.
I would work without cease.
Oh, I would stay awake
if only from horror
at the thought of waking
up here. Ma,
a voice spoke from the darkness
in the back seat where
a long thin man lay,
on his chest,
while they cruised slowly up and down
straining to make out the numbers
over unlighted doors,
the midnight doctor’s;
in his hurt mind
he was already merging
with a black Mississippi
of mercy, the sweat pouring off him
as though he’d been doused
with a bucket of ice water
as he lay sleeping. “I saw the light,”
they kept screaming. “Do
I saw the light!”
Ma — there ain’t no light
I don’t see no light.
— Dayton, Ohio
You must understand this: my son
called me after his first firefight,
distraught that he had taken life
when I had taught him to cherish it.
He called me, said he felt weird
and needed to talk to somebody.
Who better than the father who
carried him in a backpack, read
him a bedtime story each night,
and would always love him?
I’m here, I said. Tell me about it.
He did, and I listened, offering
mmm-hmms and yesses and words
of comfort when his voice caught.
Afterward he felt better and returned
to his duties in this dubious war.
Meanwhile, I was relieved he had
survived another day of the insanity.
On his second tour his vehicle hit a
roadside bomb. Bleeding from his
eyes because of a concussion, he flew
to the military hospital in Germany and
later came home. Again I was relieved.
Today, on the first leg of his third trip
to the Twilight Zone we’ve made of
your home, he called. I was glad to hear
his voice. Glad every damn time, ever
terrified your experience will be mine.
Later, when NPR broadcast a wailing
Iraqi father who’d lost two sons in this
chaos, I thought of you for the first time,
wondered if you were that father. It was
purely chance that your son aimed at mine
and mine squeezed off an auto burst first.
Two—no, three fathers in agony because
our leaders are all fools. Still, someone
should recognize your pain. I do, sir,
and so does my son, himself a father.
We are both sorry for your loss.
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I appointed myself the guardian of this breath.
This man, nearly a stranger to me in eulogy,
rasping and gurgling his final days
while I sat at the head of his bed reading
(a good tribute)
and my grandmother smoothed his quilt
and asked if I was ready,
and if I was strong.
When she left to wash the same dishes again
(how important it is to be useful,
how important it is to be needed);
I apologized to him
for her speaking over his head
as if he were not there.
Hours pass, and positions change,
our bodies follow the hands of the clock,
chairs in the house stops on the dial.
We rotate from his bed,
to couch and kitchen and bedroom—.
across the room,
I heard it—
He’s quiet now.
I said, after a longer pause
than I have ever admitted,
these three times I told.
And his son said
We walked to his father’s hospital bed,
He pressed his fingers to his father’s silent throat
feeling for the rubbery tube of the carotid,
opened his own mouth—
—bright, upright, lungs full,
teeth a decrepit grey fence
with its gate swung open—
And I spoke again to the shape of his ear:
Didn’t mean to scare you.
Even though I knew he couldn’t hear.
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