Tomb of Orcabella
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.
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.
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.