Vol. 9: Autumn 2011
Grief Was A Stone
My grandfather never told me
about his life before he came to America;
instead, we watched boxing matches, cartoons,
and cowboys & Indians on a b & w TV;
he taught me how to play cards and crack walnuts,
how to hammer a nail and saw wood;
summers, he showed me how to pick
grape leaves and ripe tomatoes from the garden.
As seasons passed, I watched his hair gray
and clothes hang loose on his body
At his funeral, my aunt told me
that he had been married once before,
his wife and infant son slaughtered
by a band of Turkish soldiers,
and for half a century he kept it hidden
protecting me and his own sorrow
until I finally could see the dead reunited,
as if time were a blanket you could pull over your head
and grief was a stone you could turn over
like a pillow that was too hot to bear.
At the rhododendron garden she shows me
her wrist with its pale white scar. The blooms
bleed behind us in red, white and pink. It’s
not muggy yet, but soon the air will grow
heavy like the dark can do, moving over
you so much so that the blade or the gun
(which she once shot out a window, straight
into the dark’s heart) seems like a pleasant
escape. But she didn’t press hard enough,
didn’t turn the gun on herself, so she
sits next to me on this wooden bench, with
our lunch of peanut butter, grapes and chips.
She tells me her pain to witness, and I
and the rhododendron lean in to listen.
All the pretty girls wear dresses in the summer—
round, white shoulders. A small, blue scarf tied just so.
But even in your infinite beauty, how could you leave me?
And no, I don’t mean how could you take that job
in New York I mean how could you leave me?
I remember my own undoing, that winter, outside
in the garden watching a tiny buzzworm push up
and out of hard, frozen soil. I too, wanted a task then—
I too, would only love that which recognized me
in my despair, which beseeched me to love it still.
So, how did your heart auscultation go?
They discovered a twelve-piece marching band inside,
all out of sync, cymbals broken, members confused,
heart murmured and tongued itself as a living wound,
a tender thing reassembling.
Self Portrait at Navy Pier
I noticed, as I always do, only the unintentional things:
a half-eaten plate of franks & beans; a dipshit kid
teasing his brother;
a portrait of the water looking more solid than land
on display in the museum & everyone musing
O, what expression of self.
I couldn’t leave you any more than I could love you.
And I’m sorry. I am.
Sunrise and sunset, that’s how my day was, you said
and all the while some leaves fell off the tree
like tiny, dropped hats,
some birds tucked their wings like gentle, dark night,
some painters dropped their brushes like rain,
some grasslands burrowed roots down like desperate, wronged hearts,
some antichrist plots the final, brutal destruction of love—
the river is a macramé of light, tender and blue.
Whatever the Past Is
Some nights, my girls circle him, glitter wands poised like spears.
They dance around their papa like a small pajamaed tribe, throw
their heads back laughing at their genius, giddy.
He is twice their size and he will kneel in front of them,
carry them on his shoulders, suspend them in his arms just so
they may swim up the steps, through the rooms of the house,
like small mermaids in a great, aquatic kingdom.
Even when they should be sleeping, he takes questions:
What is karate? Where is Australia? How do phones work?
Daddy, they say, do you even remember
what it was like before us? He cannot, he says. He won’t.
So it has been forever, as long as their lives, at least.
As they drift into their dreams, they reach their hands
up the back of his t-shirt and trace the scars
that cross his back — pale, raised cordons of skin.
He lets them- only them — touch him here.
Even their eyes closed, their breaths easy and deep
they are fearless, running along his fault lines like this.
I can hear them saying so what, so what in their sleep,
whatever the past is, they’re not scared of it.
The Hold Up
There you were collecting the week’s money
from the cigarette machine at Lenny’s when
he put the gun to your head. Sharp, but quiet.
And you, knowing this was the finale, invited
him to drink. Pulled a new bottle of Seagrams
and two shot glasses from the gold Impala.
Both of you sitting in darkness, near the alley.
Wondering if you should slip out, leave him
the damn car and save your skin, or drink on
and on. You talked of women, his time in jail.
Laughed over slim escapes, the Brooklyn mob.
Blackbirds sang above the corner market,
just hosed down for the day’s mangoes and rum.
You gave him quarters from all the machines-
pinball, jukebox, candy- in one red, plaid bag.
Threw in a carton of Camels and wished him luck,
after such a great night. I loved you for this.
Turning tragedy to story. Each plot putting
the gun down and further away. Savored
your knowing that one small connection might
alter the plan. Laughter and rich tales would
splice the ending, if you could just get there
in time. Words travelled a different alley, less
dank and narrow. Nothing gone but a bag
full of quarters, one night’s sleep and the vast
terror between a dark hunger and speech.
The South that spring was as hot as the tropics.
At dusk, mosquitoes swarmed the lit porch lights
Attached to the little houses bordering the train tracks.
With the slightest breeze, boxcar dust clung to skin.
In heat like that, during times like those,
There was no telling what anyone would do for relief.
Victoria Price and Ruby Bates, fast white girls,
Rode the rails, drank gin and spread themselves
Out like parched landscape, did whatever they could
To skirt the law. They carried a little schooling
In their heads, but had learned enough in life to know
That certain words when put together combusted.
So, they opened their mouths and whoosh!
Just like that, set nine black boys on fire.