Tomb of Orcabella

Michelangelo, Tomb of Guiliano de' Medici, 1520

Michelangelo's Owl

Poring over Malraux, Le Musée Imaginaire de la Sculpture Mondiale,

I discover the marble owl which serves to part the reader from her text,

where there are no words but images. It's the artist's resting place,

after so many aches and yearnings, the untouched breast, the

unsaid valentines, child after child, hewn from a Carrara quarry.

But the sculptor's poems craft a different sort of odyssey, just

while he's up on scaffolding, looking down upon the world's flat

floor, where in 1510, he drips a Jackson Pollock into life.

The words keep lulling us to madrigal and song, while the bird

of prey, settled under the growing harpy arms of Notte, Night,

Giuliano's tomb, offers what comfort might be coming.

She screeches out about forgiveness, just as we look through

a feathered maze of brow to see the heart of this man, which

is buried there below the basalt hands of the carver of the stone.

Madrigal to the Nuns of Santiago

The yellow-withered eucalyptus leaves rain down at dawn,

on the Promenade du Fer, where three young

Carmelites from La Coruña

come upon the statue and the stake

I stand before, Rosalia’s tomb.

To a distant melody of gaitá,

the mischievous wind of the night lifts

long skirts above their ankles—

I know they know I’m aware of their breathing

and their breasts, heartbeats quickening

to see a stranger at this hour, a man

who stands between them and the stone poetess

they’ve come to confess to. Even from

our distances, I feel their eyes follow me

as I pass beyond the olive hedge, into

black pines and palms of the garden below.

Each sets her lips to a taste of salt

and brushes a wisp of Andalusian hair,

as I look back and feel the burning ardor

of her vows, her search for the soul outside

Tomb of Orcabella

Along the Roman stonewall oxcart path to Insua,

we unearth a cairn from Duyo, namesake for

what breasts of San Guillermo's Hill are left,

where the tomb lies open-faced to winter winds.

Along this coast of death—Quintana dos Mortos

by the wolf's sepulchre suckling her, the witch first

drew my father out of her and breathed the cult

of sun that Pliny's fiery ankles felt, as he limped

the road to Mt. Vesuvius, to where he sketched

his map of overworld, while dreaming of

reincarnation. Phaedra brings holocaust

to herdsmen from Atlantis, screaming out when

Quasimodo buys the cliff. Today, blood tide

brings salt-cracked seals, oil-slimed petrels in,

the spill-wash terrors of this westernmost

utopos for bowmen. Home of my third birth,

half-way around the world from where

the cockle swims to burn inside my lungs,

I sing you back to life, accursed captain, muse

of all, for the wound I won't seek succor for,

I ask a pardon for the tryst of guilt and gift.

Wheat Field with Lark

A stand of salt-marsh grass swells as wind pushes past

a pond where grandfather frogs croak in dusk’s pall

over the valley—it’s both light and dark that

burst the spectrum into trillions of blues,

mottled by both burgundy and rose,

empurpled stalks of shadow’s onslaught.

All I hear is wind as it rakes clutches of fescue,

sod beneath wheat fields, and a hidden nest

from which a meadowlark alights, tonguing

foxtails, swerving up in a spiral of the fervored

dance of madness—to pierce the sky with its wings

and soak watermelon mountains with its afterlife.

And then a single plaintive crying-out

is heard—a gesture of succumbing to the night.

Hunts Point, Goats Bar, View of Rikers Island

Tis the hour of the fairy ban and spell;

the wood-tick has kept the minutes well...

Once wetlands for Joseph Rodman Drake's daybreak polings

to a ferry slip, where he wrote to his culprit fay,

his grave juts out from behind slave burying grounds,

a block from Sloan's, by a bar where isolatoes

sloe their bellies after lettuce and ribsteak runs

to Food Center Drive, to Krasdale Terminal Market.

No poets here—Longfellow Ave. is boulevard to a land

of coke, Whittier Street’s a bulkhead for sewage—

behind an air shaft in salt grass a plover sits on eggs.

You can see the Brother Islands, the prison barge,

and a girl of twelve in silk black shoes

as she waits for an Iowan trucker's coffee break.

Here the histories swim with what we eat—

from gruel, cinnabar, rum, sassafras, patty meat

for all of New York City. And every time

Joel Steinberg flirts with Bernhard Goetz at chess

in jail, in a month before months had names,

a fire combusts above one downtown laundromat,

not far from the kissing bridge, the high-meadow

fox haunts, paces from where Edgar Allan Poe sat

to curse what hope we had for the future of our race.

School of Visual Arts

The drought of March has not yet come.

Mouthfuls of succulent city ash and snow

flake down to the awning of a gun shop

across the street from where I slump

into a cat-eaten worsted old professor’s chair

on wheels, to catch my breath

after another affair of the heart.

Love’s caught off guard again—the pleasure

on one boy’s moustached face as he reads

out loud a poem about his trip to Warsaw,

a placard in the green arms of a ghetto girl,

saying Welcome to Poland, William, to

a boy who’s never fled the Bronx but

nearly flawlessly enunciates the German words

inscribed above the gates of Birkenau.

The cat in the classroom’s long gone,

so are the ambiguities of youth.

What’s left is what I know of what’s to come

for each of these pock-marked perfect faces,

for the part of me that rises with the ash,

when snowfall stops and the drought begins.

On Wig Hill

Frost would’ve lingered at every golden spider’s web

to calculate the lyrical cost of each fly.

I’m far too busy for that today

what with two four-and-a-half year olds

across the road in an old stone house,

licking their lips of peanut butter

discussing the fraudulent walk of Fred Astaire,

a black tabby with a white-tipped spear

of a tail he always thrusts at skunks.

In the rain, the two girls’ slender green

bodies are as slick as new ponies, stilt-

walking away from Moms for the first

time. The hum of bullfrogs reminds me

of the other stuff this world is made of,

an uncle who pumps air into a bicycle

tire, shinnies a tree to Curtis Mayfield,

an exuberant aunt who presses flowers

and waters the Labrador before any of us

can even begin to speak. Silencio.

For what is there to say, in any case,

that can’t be said by this picture in the rain?

Eclogue (Guinea Hogs)

No witches' kitchen here, but a clear crisp wind off Narragansett Bay.

Sure, there's one old nanny goat chewing poison ivy, trying to butt

a Manx cat who paws at dangling beans of an acacia tree.

Behind cranberry bogs, a 1790's woodshed, on the day a calf

named Cain is born with an H between his eyes, two guinea hogs

dry-heave in the muck by the corn crib. When the high-boot farmer

tries to part Mick from his grub, all hell breaks loose upon

the calm of three centuries, pissed into humus by these

survivors of the Gold Coast slave trade. The pigs' suck hole

is fed by scraps: milk snakes, blood pudding, molasses, old

dried scalps—all stuff to bloat out fatback, lard, chitterlings

for another desolate snow. Brillo-haired, black as shot, the twins

look to a pike where mother's slung for supper, a gleam in

their eyes as the dead one cracks a smile, and oozes a curdled fart.

The Porch at Tiverton

Before the feast of Lupercal, we meet on Pompey's porch,

shadows of bedrock mottling up through floorboards where

as kids we'd spelunk down to an aunt's room, to spy

on her powderings after a noontime shower. Still, I can

smell the breath of a priest-grandfather's whiskey

on the verandah which opens onto stucco bird baths,

puttis spitting a paste of rotten flowers to the wind. We'd hide

in the forsythia from Iroquois—he'd speak so softly not even

a leaf would spill from its etched place in the grass. Now

my brother, grown past what I've settled for, sits with a glass

of Evian, pronouncing every word from the mouth

of his namesake Antony, who swears three times he's come

not to bury a king but to stake claim on Cleopatra's throne.

But where Romans would stutter, Mark makes sexy gestures

with his throat, to lure a brother-in-law listening to

Eddy Palmieri in the next room back to his wicker chair

to hear what toccata he gives to what comes before the end.

In dreams, he says, the passage sings from back to start,

the lull of a tongue that loves no magic but what can be

found in Brutus. But now, with a hundred orioles as audience,

it flows from his heart like tree-steeped nectar of the gods.


The hardwood floor is grained with worker ants,

busily molding a hill out of my chewed-up poems.

Sleepily, I sniff for coffee and descend a bunk bed,

swim across the pure-white porch where a storm

brews—clouds now re-arrange themselves for

dog-day's summer. Out in the sugar maples,

a flock of fifteen magpies feeds on the remains

of a bedbug's casein wings—their song at once

the old refrain of Lisbon fishermen, already out

on the water with their nets, off the shell beach

down at Fogland, beyond the farmer's cache

of World War Two balloons and mines, where

I watched my daughter watch a cormorant

begin to fly at dusk. As thoughts flood my brain

as yet unbroken, this song becomes an operatic

joke to sing all frostbite out the ears, back along

some sensate path to the other body. I'm so happy

I try to go back to sleep, to return to the dream

of Dr. Moreau’s hyena-men, the island where

a bear-boy's tears have nowhere to go except

to form a puddle which could travel to the sea.

The Forty Elms, Tompkins Square Park

I stand against a railing as a shiver

trebles down its length, to rankle

the heart of this European park.

A black squirrel ferrets out nuts

for summer's love, just beyond

the semi-circled benches, daffodils,

the forty elms that shade these

turgid, cold, and hungry listeners.

When the hag shakes her missal

and shouts out Pilate's name, or wails

the Jews beyond the garden gate,

a sodden, deep-drawn boo comes up

collectively from all the crowd.

And they simply wait, scratch

at fleas or giggle, till the ham

sandwiches and coffee come.

The slippery elms above them

open their arms—for just a single

second—to consecrate the union

of these words, the bread and wine,

the forty gathered penitents.

Dream of Glienickebrücke

This was the woods of wolf and owl I searched a lifetime for.

Steps from the bridge and tollbooth for spies from Sophia,

an elf invites me to a dinner of thin beet soup.

Inside the precious Disney castle, lost somewhere

among green weeds of the Berlin Rastafarians,

we make a bonfire of roasted rabbit, and delight

in folktales of the 1970s, about idealists

on both sides of the river who are dying to realize

their dreams. I'm twenty-one: what spooks me most

aren't the black-brow ghosts who schmooze in our midst,

but rather the frost which gathers on old slate

windowsills, while outside music beats in threes.

Quickly we chew down our meat and head for

the open fields that have not yet been claimed by the flies.

At Kleist's Grave

In a leaf-rot cul-de-sac, I find the mossy tombstone,

words written beside still waters: Nun, unsterblichkeit,

bist du ganz mein... but what I hear is a drumming from

some cannibal-anarchist ready to eat red carnage,

three black wrens and a lake snail sound asleep,

just footsteps from the Berliner Ruder-club where

single sculls quietly lap towards the Wannsee

and our army base. First, I strew a couple of red roses

across his stone. Then, blood-mosquitoes, dusk, arrive:

pale yellow lights paint out Schinkel's pastorales,

where lutes do the love song of sister and brother.

Young ferns sprout—I take no comfort in the dream

of the touch of what the gods inherited from us, the sodden

wings we wear to fly below to reach our final resting place.

*Now, undyingness, you are all mine...


A peacock crows three times, raising its voice

to the northern wind which curls around a sword of hill

and drives a Queen of China tree, root-bound, down

into some underground flow of pumice.

By the linden tree of pancakes, an orangutan

bakes pumpernickel bread, where each undoing is a golden rule,

for all the knittle-versing and forbidden fruit.

This is Schlaraffenland, where what's in-between

grows backwards or inwards upside-down,

where even the black swans moo.

A horned god from Palmyra cackles sunset in

as Jersey cows jump subway tracks to the moon.

Jack-a-knapes sing like tractor trailer trucks

and the day's end—it comes none too soon.

Buchenwald Landscape

Eerie silence of the woods. One lone yellow birch,

whose seed fell after the mass graves were turned,

grows as lank and tall as the forest of firs

that shadows it. At the gates, the temperature

drops ten degrees; when the mist parts at noon,

you can be sure you see settlements below

in the towns of Ettersberg and Ramsla.

Surely then if anyone had peered at the sky

they would have known! If some old queen

or Bulgar Jew cries out and nobody hears...

how well do you know there was no sound?

Kilns pour black lather into Nephele's clouds—

droplets of something with a human smell

soak my overcoat and send me shivering home.

St. Francis in the Desert (after Bellini)

An ass waits patiently for the burden of kindling

that still remains inside of Prospero's cell

while the saint kneels under ciel-bleu skies.

Poor forked things that we are, we wait for the light

before going about our chores. Under an arbor of grapes,

St. Francis lifts oranges, bones, skull, a map

of heaven, and books that need to be buried.

Renunciation is nothing: learning to speak

with forty thousand tongues is what no four-

legged mule can hope to learn. In another picture

it's the tiny frigate-bird that does the moral bidding

of the church; here, however, where every vein

of leaf is gloss on all the lives of Nostradamus, it's

in the signature that we find footprints of the living.


for Tristan Spill

In a dark upholstered room, crammed with encyclopedias of love,

Bellini's angels take the flights of cranes as some sort of music

of the spheres. Nothing hallowed makes its way from Byzantine

moss-green hills to castle-moat blacks of the lowlands,

where the sodden poor suck dirt: it's only for viewers like us,

in the Frick, that the little bird sticks out her neck for a

plit, plit, plit of clear water from Siena's streams.

This one detail is all I could make of the fumbled parable

of St. Francis in reverie, his idiomatic languages

for berserks, a five-tiered kingdom all for ocelots who

watch the sans-culottes as they roast alive for practicing

black arts. So it's the bird and her silhouette that linger

in my consciousness: the soundless craint of this bittern

is the hoof beat of an angel after it's given up its wings.

In a Garden of the Ukraine

Here in New York, late-century, dusk again, drunk

on whispering, my chores done, half of play time’s bargain paid,

I sit, deep in violets, watching a strawberry half-Siamese

bathe in a sandbox, while water-soaked Sabbath candles

dance or spit to keep burning. The silhouette of a girl

slants along the window’s latticework—she doesn’t want dark

or bedtime to descend. Now I’m out: looking in.

A tenor sax blows Coltrane in the wind, a calliope sea

of ice cream trucks on Avenue A. I make peace with what’s

so irrepressible—this cat’s muddy, earth-wormed paw

across my page: sign here. But nothing stops. I sweep

the flagstones free from falling blooms of mulberry

once more, before returning to the matter of this poem.

On the Death by Immolation of Norman Morrison

The building might've been Bentham's panegyric,

where we can spy into McNamara's mirror

as he cleans his teeth. Pentagon City, gray dry

day, seed clouds, November, 1965, dusk settling

on a parking lot at five. The Potomac's lips

are cracked, resisting a well of thin black ice.

For a moment you can just hear some stranger

murmuring, some old song from Misneh Torah,

Corinthians, a Quaker diatribe for the Sioux.

He's everybody's after-image, nondescript,

till he bursts into flame: in a blue snow suit, Emily—

heroine now to every My Lai mother—

eighteen months beyond first birth, drops

to the grass, unharmed, beside her father's frame.

Boy, Ozarks

This photo's now hung alone atop my desk

for eleven years—all the years I've missed you—

to stun each day beyond the last

I look to his ox-brown eyes, which are full

of salt-cake tears, and try to imagine

how he feels. Before him, blurred by close-up focus,

an Aunt Jemima syrup flask, blurred too the

mammy's motherly smile, right

out of Little Black Sambo. Cowlick spirals

the auburn hair into flutes of fire,

Appaloosa-blonde the dirt-quartz

quarries and oceans of molybdenum hill.

He sits with his head in one hand,

already the aged and tragic fool

all of us try to dismiss with rage.

What grounds this image is the absence

of everything else—the black O of the sky

in sour milk that we whisper

the cracked conch shell back to.

One thin scar cataracts the bony forehead,

where jingles enter after dark.

The pencil-light eyebrows accentuate

the loss of grip he's managed after six,

seven, when his cursive writing

starts to shadow the orderly blue.

Every time I look away, that same

bewildering myriad of stars appears:

the tiny fingers are those of a child

in love with what's possible,

even every bruise which flouts

his skull—another door to screen shut.

Unravaged nose, lips unkissed by other girls

or boys or men, I'm drawn to the point of

pain upon the forehead, where music pulls

at sprouts of hair while the sob begins to swell.

Carpaccio's Dream of St. Ursula

It begins with a thousand skinny virgins stranded on a river boat,

outside ramparts of Cologne: what parts him from his reverie

is how he resolves the story of the saint who's led

them there: bed-ridden, waiting for an angel

with a quill to come with provender, to scatter

the earth with dew. The first still life of the world

hangs in the boudoir: stained-glass pentagrams

quiver out dusk—the Pentateuch—where

the saint is ill and has to write to each of her beloved:

onwards to the holy tomb, my quails, where incense

burns in chalices for love, what I want for you,

now that my soul returns to dust, a touch

of color for my lips as I kerosene the lamp and ape

at vespers, a last gold madrigal of the painted word.

© 1997