DENIAL

It’s not

the kiss of coffee

or the glancing touch of feathered down,

or first sunlight shared

like sections of the newspaper.

 

Yes, I’m through with that.

 

It’s not

about the sweet kingdom of cantaloupe,

or the curvature

along your foot or shoulder bone.

Our planet is flat,

 

And we shall never go to the moon.

 

It is

exactly what it is not.

The skillet sings a backward tune,

the toast unburns

and the yolk becomes it singular self

once again.

 

Please, pass the salt

 

for the wound.

Serve me up

all the reasons why we should,

and I will make an entire meal

out of veto and

 

Let’s not.

POST TRAUMA

The girls hold each other up.

Cameras blacken and turn the fire

engines quiet.

                            An ambulance stalls.

When I see the yellow tape cross the stairs

into the station, I become part of the tallest building,

steady the sun on the sidewalk. Moths rummage

the stomach. The eye strains

sand from water. Sounds

                                                 come from boys

braced against a blue mailbox.

I almost do not believe. They are whispering

about me. They are saying something

about the devil. And not a word

about the boy who dared to climb a train.

THE DOGS

The wide range converges.

The moon dilutes itself on the plate.

 

A blue shape, a coat of sorts, wears itself out.

They drift now, as if laced together,

 

into the long distance. The path to the bridge

now farther away and beyond recognition.

 

The monument of want cannot predict this mapping, and they,

running tonight, shelve the directions.

 

As though following up wood stairs, their ears move

back, swiftly, bathed in salt.

The Robert Watson Literary Prize Poem THE VOICE BEFORE

Echoes uncurl down this canyon

     like patient honey rolling. Rocks repeat

everything I say. A tree falls

               as many times as I can hear it.

 

My body in shadows—misshapen

     echoes of light thrown

through cedars and ivory birch.

               You are the body in my throat,

 

pitched into this low vein of earth,

     cast over bald stones, pierced

on tentacles of aloe, and gummed

               in their heat-split stalks.

 

What was that voice before the voice released,

     the unheard body, the naked, shivering

idea of sound? What are you now, climbing toward

               my mouth out of the canyon mouth,

 

surrounding me with screams of torn

     clover and broken shale, a body broken whole

from my teeth? I would lay out

               the prairie of my tongue, my throat,

 

but you do not want return

     as I do. You have grown too thin

in the shape of air, in the sound of yourself,

               for bodies anymore.

 

               The first sound was an emptying.

The first return, departure.

WAKING AT NIGHT

The blue river is grey at morning

and evening. There is twilight

at dawn and dusk. I lie in the dark

wondering if this quiet in me now

is a beginning or an end.

The Courtney Holley Literary Award BIG MOON OVER THE NEIGHBORHOOD

The herd is strong in me. It steers me when I think.

I feel it grunting in my stomach when I sleep.

I walk with my herd invisibly around me.

All my confusions are forms of loneliness.

 

But you keep your distance as if it were money

and smile on all roofs with superficial light.

Remote therefore happy, you swing

above the neighborhood’s dust, rumble, and gas.

 

Anyone looking up admires you.

And how we do look up, all together.

Our guts and throats silent as scared crickets,

we cease for a long moment our chewing.

The Amon Liner Poetry Award SEPTEMBER

A tropical storm grows in the Atlantic with your name.

We listen to warnings on the radio as we drive to the shore,

passing boarded-up houses and closed storefronts.

The tourists head west, crowding the highways out of town,

and we move through the empty streets faster than

we have all summer, arriving at an abandoned beach.

I watch you smoke a cigarette without using your hands,

your lips holding it in the corner of your mouth, the same way

your father smokes. You wait for what the storm brings in,

schools of baitfish and the bigger fish that eat them,

while I walk the tide line looking for unbroken shells.

When I stop and look back, I’ve wandered so far away from you

that I wonder if you have noticed. I am so far away

that it looks like the waves will eat you before I can get back,

but with each step you are still there, your hair tangled with sand.

The heron we feed returns, but the hermit who lived

in the army bunker back in the estuaries is dead, killed

by a group of drunks. We can see his boat from here,

tied to the dock, resting in the bay. I don’t know if anyone

will bring it in before the winds come. The same hounds

always ghost on my corner, but I can’t tell the difference

between instinct and anxiety. I find salvation in these mornings,

waking with you on threadbare sheets, returning to the water,

but we drift away from each other. I think it is a problem.

ARRIVING

What do they say about the land of the dead?

About the ceremony of the body?

About women in long dresses?

What do they say about the innocence of the flesh?

What about the endeavor in nature

at ease with the dance and music?

Long ago, beyond graves, are worlds in state.

The cities still there in ruin. The neck of the ibex.

Walled gardens surrounded by desert.

Imagined lions guarding the gate.

All as it was before.

Worlds out of time still exist.

Worlds of achievement out of mind and remembering

just as the poem lasts.

In the concert of being present.

I have lost my lover and my youth.

I want to praise the meadow, the horse

rolling over in the river with me

as a girl underneath it. Surviving to see

the ferns in the woods, sunlight on blond hills.

And the aged apple trees

in a valley where there used to be a cabin.

Where someone lived. And where small inedible apples

grow. That the deer will eat.

DETOUR AHEAD

                      for Evie Shockley

 

One week alone on campus

spoiled us to everything real in the world

but a heightened camaraderie

quick to reach fever pitch: writers

at conference. We stopped only to eat

(on scheduled beat) and to sleep,

restless skiffs in the boathouse of dreams.

Huddling in clusters, we chatted

into the night about everything

process. (How could so much fun

be so exhausting?) I’ve left it now,

thank god: a few hours out of Raleigh,

mind unspooling the truth-serum

pontification a workshop tends to extract

from its leader. About to fall asleep

inside this numb corridor of I-95—

what the hell—I turn down

the potholed off-ramp

into the trough of Philadelphia.

Just my luck: the Phillies are at home

and I’m stalled, dead center,

inside this stadium parking crush,

bumping forward inch by maddening inch.

The radio announces that if they lose,

the Phils will have accrued 10,000 losses,

some fan’s punched gut of a stat.

I don’t care, wanting only the traffic

to open up—which, when Broad parts

its tributary mouth to kiss the wooden teeth

of this old city, it eventually does.

I’ve got Evans’ Explorations on the deck,

LaFaro’s groove pulse carrying me

through the afternoon: murals and store-

fronts and center-lane parked cars; one

homeless soul pushing the world’s shopping cart

brimming with crushed cans. Two blocks

and I’m in the land of Starbucks and sky-

scrapers. Men in suits, women in pairs

walking fast. There’s enough coffee

in my system to stun-gun an elephant.

There’s a square, a wrong turn and, for a few

lost minutes, one-way streets send me

around in circles. The route looked straight

enough on the map, a simple drive up

into pastoral green; I was hoping

Highway 611 would escort me

up its urban spine into the river-lined,

wheaty heart of rural America.

Rolling down my window to ask

an elderly couple, Am I still on Broad?

Will it take me out of the city?

the man throws me a look that says,

You know where you’re headed, white boy?

Then he nods: Just keep going straight.

I want to tell him that the same year

LaFaro recorded “Detour Ahead,”

with Evans and Motian on drums,

possibly the most synchronized trio ever,

he also played on Ornette’s Free Jazz,

that ultimate firework of an album,

before wrapping his young man’s Firebird

around a tree six months later

on New York State Route 20 outside Geneva,

which is like orchestrating

a game-ending double play

then preparing the five-star meal

that night at some hot new bistro,

sauce pans exploding into mini bonfires

of applause, then, tented by a box

of cardboard, marinated in piss and dirt,

sleeping on a grate passersby agree

to overlook. A friend’s first night in Philly,

he’s driving down Broad in a rental truck,

worried by the conspicuous absence of street-

lights, rundown buildings leaning in

like field oaks, when he comes upon a car

on fire. No one around, no police.

Windows rolled down, he takes in

the burning rubber, the crackling heat

off the pyre. Me, I’m the only white face

in a square mile, a white boy bubbled

by cool jazz, wide awake now, thank you,

absorbing as much as I can, open

to the heat, the city’s talk squabbling

with the music. Then, when the road bends,

I’m in the suburbs, just like that: the long

snake of sprawl, pod mall after pod mall.

First one township then another. Up

in the country now, a green chant

of trees, river dancing in and out of sight,

small bridges popping brief drum solos

under my tires. Pretty soon I’m in

the long, cool embrace of the Delaware Gap,

breeze washing my face, heading

northeast to 84, Evans’ “My Foolish Heart”

subsumed in light: rush of wind; tires whirring

inside a brushed snare; the day suddenly mine,

body resurrected inside moments

framed by the windshield, catching them like fish

in its porous net.

The Robert Watson Literary Prize Poem I HAVE A THEORY ABOUT REFLECTION

I cannot put my mother in the freezer and neither can I store her

in the attic nor in the bank box nor in the canister of sugar In

fact she is calling me now she is ringing in my kitchen in both

bedrooms in the upstairs office I am wearing her like a too-big

coat The coat is made of wire I shoo her away I flap my hands:

go away go away I am a match and every time we speak—and

sometimes when we do not—she strikes me Even in the bend of a

spoon I can see her reaching