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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.
The shoemaker’s wife ran preschool
With a fist made not so much of iron
But wire bristles on a wooden brush.
She made us recite and learn by rote.
Our trick was to mouth words, sound
As if we knew what we would one day
Come to know, what would dawn
On us as sure as a centipede knows
What to do with its myriad legs.
She made us settle our feet on the mud
Floor of her daub and wattle hut and she
Wielded a cane cut from wood that bit
Into the palm of the hand and left a burn
That resonated up the arm for an age
After its smart swing and crisp contact.
Worst of all was the shoe cupboard
Where the old man stored his wire
Brushes: a cold, dark, narrow place,
Replete with brushes hung on nails
Covering every square inch and said
To come alive when a child was locked
In with them so that they scrubbed
Flesh off that child’s bones. She said
We would end up there if we did not
Concentrate, so we stilled our feet
And spoke the words in the right order
For colors in a rainbow until the very
Thing took her place in front of us
Arranged in cuneiform, polished,
Brandishing a window to climb out.
Once there was a woman who laughed for years uncontrollably after a stroke.
Once there was a child who woke after surgery to find his parents were impostors.
These seagulls above the parking lot today, made of hurricane and ether, they
have flown directly out of the brain wearing little blue-gray masks, like strangers’ faces, full
of wingéd mania, like television in waiting rooms. Entertainment. Pain. The rage
of fruit trees in April, and your car, which I parked in a shadow before you died, decorated now with feathers,
with the windows unrolled
and the headlights on
and the engine still running
in the Parking Space of the Sun.
we went into a market—they call it a grocery—and you can’t imagine. fruit brilliant as magazine photos. all kinds of different oranges, grapefruits, mandarins, some tiny clementines with a blue sticker—Morocco—they’ve come so far…the eggs are painted with colors corresponding to the days of the week you’re supposed to eat them: a different color for each opportunity. i felt dizzy, the gulf between myself and this place seemed insuperable. tears welled up in my eyes, i wanted desperately to flee, to get outside so i could breathe. i wanted to explain to Phillis, the North American who had invited me, what was happening to me. i tried, but she couldn’t understand: you have to have felt it yourself: the first time. for the first time my mind had crossed over five hundred years of development at jet speed and arrived in the future, a cold future, its display cases filled with artificial snow and artificial heat. there were a thousand things i never knew existed, a panoply of brand names and gadgets for every purpose. i felt like someone from the stone age, and realized most people on the planet never know the era they’re living in, any more than they could know the quantity of living matter in this galaxy that surrounds us, or the milky complexity of the molecules in their own brains, and what’s more they don’t know that they’ll die without ever knowing. i felt terror of that gloss, of the waxed fruit, of propaganda so refined it could dilute the existence of the strange things before my eyes, other sensations: everything wanting to be used up, immediately, licked, tasted, eaten, packaged, mastered. i knew i couldn’t stand this avalanche, this brilliant swarm, for long, these rows on rows of distant faces staring out at me from cardboard boxes. i’d seen nothing singular in the place, no unique thing i could separate out from the amorphous mass of texture and sensation. i began to move closer, imagining i walked with those who have never eaten meat or tasted cow’s milk, who have never nursed except from the teat of a goat. those who have had only wildflowers to chew when the winter hunger comes. i approached closer still, imagining i walked with the salty ones, who collect their water from the public pipe. my nose began to bleed and Phillis said it was the cold; i knew that wasn’t the problem. we were near the seafood display, i moved closer. fish have always aroused in me both horror and desire. i moved closer, like a lost child feeling her way through space toward something of hers that’s hidden. i brushed the shells with my fingertips, they were smooth and delicate, but obviously artificial, made to be used once and thrown away. at first touch they might seem real, pearly, perfect, but they’re actually plastic, and they’ve never even seen any sea.
The moon is backing away from us
an inch and a half each year. That means
if you’re like me and were born
around fifty years ago the moon
was a full six feet closer to the earth.
What’s a person supposed to do?
I feel the gray cloud of consternation
travel across my face. I begin thinking
about the moon-lit past, how if you go back
far enough you can imagine the breathtaking
hugeness of the moon, prehistoric
solar eclipses when the moon covered the sun
so completely there was no corona, only
a darkness we had no word for.
And future eclipses will look like this: the moon
a small black pupil in the eye of the sun.
But these are bald facts.
What bothers me most is that someday
the moon will spiral right out of orbit
and all land-based life will die.
The moon keeps the oceans from swallowing
the shores, keeps the electromagnetic fields
in check at the polar ends of the earth.
And please don’t tell me
what I already know, that it won’t happen
for a long time. I don’t care. I’m afraid
of what will happen to the moon.
Forget us. We don’t deserve the moon.
Maybe we once did but not now
after all we’ve done. These nights
I harbor a secret pity for the moon, rolling
around alone in space without
her milky planet, her only love, a mother
who’s lost a child, a bad child,
a greedy child or maybe a grown boy
who’s murdered and raped, a mother
can’t help it, she loves that boy
anyway, and in spite of herself
she misses him, and if you sit beside her
on the padded hospital bench
outside the door to his room you can’t not
take her hand, listen to her while she
weeps, telling you how sweet he was,
how blue his eyes, and you know she’s only
romanticizing, that she’s conveniently
forgotten the bruises and booze,
the stolen car, the day he ripped
the phones from the walls, and you want
to slap her back to sanity, remind her
of the truth: he was a leech, a fuckup,
a little shit, and you almost do
until she lifts her pale puffy face, her eyes
two craters, and then you can’t help it
either, you know love when you see it,
you can feel its lunar strength, its brutal pull.
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