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Interview with Aliki

A Defense of Poetic Witness

Eva poems

Eva and Chagall

Photo by Katherine Dumas

more poetry


Aliki Barnstone

Guess What?

You're sitting in an ugly chair.
I can't guess what you want.

What I want isn't guesswork
and it's not my fault

you taunt me or you like to be irked
when I can't read your face.

Ugly words. Ugly space
between our chairs.

No one could guess what was
was beautiful. How about I take off

my dress
in my distress?

or we take a sexy digression
on another question?

as when you lower your voice
and say, “tell me what you want,

it excites me”
(though we disagree,

each in our own despair
in our own ugly chair).

We both want more.
No guesswork there.

Once I wanted space, a vastness
I could travel across.

Now we're estranged
I can't guess how to arrange my life.

Oh, c'mon! Come here!
you say, holding out your arms.

Guess what—I'm worried about harm
and whether I can make it

across the room, that ugly expanse
made plain by our gloom.

I Don't Grow Wings, I Drive my Car

I drive my car for that which is ever moving is immortal
and I keep punching the radio to find the song

to take me back, though I know it's stupid
I want to be moved by a guy who's dead,
playing his guitar like a promise of all
a man's penis can do.

I want to feel it again, right now,
a recollection of those things which our soul once beheld,
when it journeyed with God

my ass gyrating on the car seat.

Socrates says, Such madness is given by the gods for our greatest happiness,
and I see the word, “Godforsaken,” pass above me, then go by again,
like a memory or the orange planes taking off over the Strip,

over the mountains, one after another, into the same daily blue,
then gone, orange in blue vibrating, dazzling my eye, too much
like what I want, whatever it is, that won't make me happy.

The nose of a plane is phallic.
So is a nose. What does that make
the sky? Socrates doesn't say.

I don't grow wings, I drive my car,
snap my fingers, kiss the sky
beyond the windshield.

The song is the fourth kind of madness, remembering true beauty,
moonlit railroad tracks that seemed to meet when they disappeared,
shards of glass and bottle caps that we the lovers compared
to a palace mosaic of sparkling marble in never-ending halls,

because we were stoned and drove
as fast as the car would go,
windows down, pants down,
so much wind and breath,
the getting there was coming—
he receives all service from his lover, as if he were a god.

Yeah, and I got serviced, too, there on the grassy slope
between the tracks and the lake, he knelt before me,
and I pictured myself the guitar he burned
while the party went on in the cabin and the door opened
and raunchy music, laughter, and purple light fell out
with the lonely kid, who puked in the bushes.

Though experience tells me
being high stops feeling good,
still I want to want, I want to fly

as this intimacy continues and the lover comes near
the feathers begin to grow—

I don't grow wings, I drive my car
so he is in love, but he knows not with whom.
I don't grow wings, I drive my car
not knowing which love I remember.

The other souls follow after, all yearning for the upper region
but unable to reach it, and are carried round beneath,
trampling upon and colliding with one another, each striving to pass its neighbor.

So there is the greatest confusion and sweat of rivalry, wherein many are lamed,
and many wings are broken through the incompetence of the drivers.

A man on the corner of Tropicana and Maryland wears sandwich boards,
an Elvis wig and spandex, a white mask over his nose and mouth.

He is another messenger from elsewhere
(or the past) and cannot breathe our poison air.
He sways, waves his arms,
fluttering his sleeves, his sequined wings—

c'mon, c'mon, c'mon, he beckons the cars.
Topless girls, loose slots.
Video poker. Free shots.

He sees himself in his lover as in a mirror. And in the lover's presence,
like him he ceases from his pain, and in his absence,
like him he is filled with yearning such as he inspires,
and love's image, requited love, dwells within him.

* * *

We will now consider the reason why the soul loses its wings.
It is something like this.

The lovers emerge from the bedroom.
The poet takes off, wingspan wide,
into the bright page
having gotten laid.

Even believing that we have exchanged
the most binding pledges of love

making love is just a narrative we read and write once,

then urge and urge to reread and rewrite,
and seduction is an invitation to rearrange the same verbs,
lick, touch, kiss, stroke, rub the same body parts.

Because Socrates was not the last to promise the lovers
shall never again pass into darkness and the journey under the earth,
but shall live a happy life in the light as they journey together,
and because of their love shall be alike in their plumage
when they receive their wings.

Here I am, thinking about what we just did,
and I try to feel my feathers stiffen on my shoulder blades,
see if I can flap around the kitchen on my domesticated wings,

looking for something ordinary to shine,
there on the counter, crumbs and unopened mail,
the stain of wine in a glass, images of original bliss.

(Sometimes I notice I'm left out of the dialogue.)

The poet takes off, having gotten laid.
I don't grow wings. I drive my car.

A Las Vegas Dust Storm

Out in a dust storm, no one walks the streets.
Heaven is brown with dust. No blue sky plays M.C.
and introduces the Strip to inbound planes.
Look—dust-fall on stucco, tile, pebble, parked cars,
subdivisions bleakly mounting the ruined horizon.

The wind whines, retorts, bargains, scolds,
hurls an orange cone across the freeway.
Palms shake their heads at trembling yuccas
and a warning sign spins across the asphalt.
It's failed talk you don't want to overhear.

Papers fly all around in a fit, newsprint and sex ads—
no white flags of surrender,
though so many young eucalyptus
lie defeated on tract home lawns.
The mountains disappear in a mushroom cloud

of dust, and dust swallows the sun.
Did you know the casinos took busloads
of tourists on atomic picnics? Ah, well.
Who wouldn't want to witness the test
of the ravished world and eat a sandwich?

The Lights of Las Vegas

I'm driving my daughter to the ice cream shop. She's singing along
the words of a song I listened to half my life ago.

No, this isn't a poem about the past. The full moon
that jangled my dreams a couple of days ago is waning now

and the sky is full of planes, those starloads full of people
I can't imagine—can't help imagining—who read

our valley of lights receding beneath the plane, these mercury lights
guiding me down suburban boulevards, a traffic light winking

red to green, these windows lit with televisions and reading lamps,
swimming pools' blue eyes beaming up at the busy freeway of air,

my headlights pushing aside the darknesses so I see asphalt gleam
like a moonless sea though it's only toxic oil and filth,

so I see some rooms from my car because my daughter's singing
a song called “This Flight Tonight” so I can fly off and see

the altar I made in a milk crate, the candle burning and a yellow rose,
postcards of Frida Kahlo's monkey and skull propped up

against the honeycomb of royal blue plastic. Yes, I lay on a futon
on the floor, mourning the end of—I don't want to name it.

I was alone and couldn't sleep. No, this poem isn't turning back.
Outside the rain-sloppy streets hissed a prayer to the tires

who ran over them. Inside I showered till the hot water gave out.
Have you ever tried to end the past? Made a torch of love letters?

I was free on my bed. I could invite anyone to lie down,
and maybe I did. If I slept, I dreamt my bed was outside

where dogs snarled at the chainlink fence and every bark
was a star in my ear. If I cried, the rain didn't let up all day,

all night, all day. If the sun shone, I saw the double clearly
while my dreams walked beside me. There's no self here.

There's no story here. No, this poem won't confess.
This poem is in couplets because it is not about love,

because it knows that form is the body urging
and the mind muttering make love make love make love.

I'm driving to the ice cream store with my daughter.
I see her dreamy look in the rear view mirror as she sings.

Outside the car windows the brightest constellation of stars
is called a flight path. Inside the planes the tourists spot

this valley, a light-spangled carpet unrolling to their hotels,
and they burst out, “Hey, is that the Strip? I can't believe it!”

Here in Vegas nothing is old but the mountains silently observing.
Here is the brand-new ice cream shop. See the patio of concrete tables,

the umbrellas with misting systems cooling the air, the parents
sitting on benches while the kids press their hands to strip mall windows,

yell delight when the owner of the closed toy store
throws open his doors, and all the children run inside

—my daughter, too—and we follow them into the brave new world
where we rediscover spaceships, supermen, baby dolls,

scooters, posters and bath toys and flashcards that teach the alphabet
and how to read. This poem is not retrospective.

This poem is driving home past subdivisions and houses surrounded
by walls to keep neighbor from neighbor, to keep the desert away

from automatic lawn sprinklers and drip irrigation, to block wind and fire.
This poem is half a mile from my home where all the streets are the same,

a grid of lights expanding into panic when I lose the narrative
of my driving and my star is one of millions in the galaxy on the ground,

when for a flash of mind I'm stuck in the present with no direction—
this sudden monotony, this now built of cinder block, stucco, and tile.

You Wake in the Shaded Room

to the clock-radio voice, gentle guide who takes your arm
and leads you with such comfortable authority from sleep,
though your dream was a hole in the roof,
          and you wandered the rubble, calling names
          in the merciless damn light
of dream, of waking, too. You want a vague moment, to be quiet gray,
a luxury in-between the skull and consciousness where you lie
under blankets with your sweet one, where shadows stroke your brow,
just as soon you'll stroke your daughter's. Time for school.
          The sun between the blinds
          builds city-states made of dust,
then draws an airborne graph to illustrate the news, some kind of math
you never learned but somehow go on using to calculate the odds,
          the odds of what you fear to say.
Happenstance, happenstance, you chant,
          a charm for the daily. The dog thumping good morning on the kitchen floor.
The annoying cat. The click, click, click that lights the stove. Your surprise.
Your daughter's already awake, and stands naked in the doorway
          when you turn around

On the Eastern Seaboard with Diane DiPrima

Our conversation is in a car because in Greek metaphor
means transport.

We drive the wrong way up a one-way street because we are
too happy to obey the signs.

We pull a U-turn because breath is a U turning and we keep going,
avoiding fatal accident.

We talk about our Calvinist inheritance because we've returned
to our birthplace in the East, though ours were not a people of God,

settled in the devil's territories,
and we witness
The Wonders of the Invisible World,

more snarled with unintelligible circumstances
than any we have hitherto encountered.

We're stopped by the reborn cops that Cotton Mather
sent after us in our previous lives.

They shout out, Put your hands up! Way up!
and interrogate: Why don't you take Jesus as your savior?

And Diane rounds her fingers
into the reasoning mudra, patiently explains:

to evoke is to call forth something that stays outside yourself
whereas to invoke is to take it inside through the crown.

Then she winks as if they were in the know.
And then they let us go.

I say Jesus was a rabbi who thought his word was so smart,
he didn't have to love his mama.

Diane says I'm hungry because the bright body holds the ravenous mind
to her breast while the spirit broods over, flashing her wings.

We order to go. Diane sips milk from a transparent plastic glass,
touches her prayer beads made of shining Chinese coral.

Santosha, santosha chants
the airflow around the windows.

I step on the gas, Ahhh! and we merge
onto the highway, speeding toward Providence.

The Storm

I am a girl standing at the screen door
waiting waiting for the cows to come home
mary had a little lamb little lamb
the clouds are a train filling up the blue

with speed and steam the sky is green
the cows glisten on the hill to the tune
of rain of rain my whispered song of Ohs
and all the children laugh and play

I think they're a bunch of fools
jumping jumping rope before the bell
I'd bring a little lamb to school
as sun rises filling up a tree with grins

of white teeth strike me down if I lie
to the choir of rain the organ keys of grass
strike me if I stare if I dare keep looking
at lightning racing racing toward me

his white fire hair his wild rose of thorns
wings flame from his shoulderblades and heels
his feet dance on a meadow of bright nails
he smashes the window glass of sky

and strikes me and fills me with his white heat
it doesn't hurt doesn't hurt except the skin
burning beneath the cross around my neck
I am smart and sometimes break the rules

the moon rises huge as the mountains' mouth
now the moon and I dance cheek to cheek
my skin of light against his skin of light
wet grass is lightning under my bare feet

I am a girl standing at the screen door
I smell summer's vapor for rainshine
his fleece was white as snow
so is the scar below my collarbone

Emily Dickinson in Las Vegas

Throngs who would
not prize them, know
those holy circum-
stances which your
dear eyes have
sought for mine
                     —Emily Dickinson

I don't know me
mirrored in your dear eyes
even when my prized pen
wanders across the desert page
and throngs of birds are
letters to you, their wings

brief imprints on red mountains,
casinos, and resorts that draw
prized throngs to where sun's
big as God's eye—who
knows I seek your
dear eyes, those holy circum-

stances rhymes with dances
can you see an alpha-
bet linking arms by chance,
spinning across world's high-
gloss floor to spell it new
they have changed eyes

who would not prize them
would not want like me
to read your eyes, dear,
the letters, the whys
blooming in fast-motion
on your lens, the throngs

mirrored there among the growling
cars, the freeway's wild
dogs, chaos so bright
the throng's mesmerized—even the moon
sees the night city
the eye of the black pyramid

shooting megawatts into space, prizes
for throngs—the jets' contrails
announce the sequined bride
the groom's throat surgeon-scarred
the ruby tongue stuttering
what God has brought together

in ten rented minutes—holy
the wedding chapel—let no
one tear asunder—say
I love you, common words
and seek me uniquely—making
love hits the jackpot

ask your throbbing Scripture
how to follow the letter
the chance spirit, how
to read what your dear
eyes have sought for mine
in Las Vegas or the meadows

throngs pray to be chosen
in the jasper-walled casino
Lord and Lady Luck stand knowing
holy circumstances, the slots' electronic
music chanting bing bing bingo
luring hope for the prize

In the Optometrist's Waiting Room

After Elizabeth Bishop

In Las Vegas, Nevada
I took my daughter with me
to pick up my new glasses.
We sat together and waited
for my name to be called.
It was spring. It stayed light
late. A man in white pants,
long legs crossed at the knees,
lounged near the plate glass store front,
the sun on his content face.
My daughter picked up Time
(she could read only a few words)
and, before I saw which magazine
she held, she carefully
studied the photograph:
a naked boy lying in bed,
shot from the side
so the viewer can see his right arm
blown off, the stub of his shoulder
bandaged, the skin of his torso
burned, a terrifying chaos
of black and white and gray,
nothing like the color of skin.
He rests his right cheek on the pillow
and his eyes meet the lens.
A woman in a black hijab
stands in the left wing of the frame,
head bowed, looking down at him.
“Mommy, what's this?”
my daughter asked.

Suddenly, from inside me
came an oh of pain
—my voice, in my chest—
which I suppressed to protect
my girl and I explained the boy
lost his arms to a bomb in the war.
“But Mommy, what's this—
on his stomach?” and I explained
that (that uncolor, that mass) was
his skin where he had been burned.
I kept talking—measured, maternal—
my hand on her forehead. She tilted
her head back a bit to meet my gaze
and despite all my effort of thought
she was the boy,
her matchless skin was his.
“Please, don't look anymore,” I said,
and our hands together closed Time,
placed it on top of the pile. I noted
the cover photo of the smiling dictator
surrounded by red margins and type,
the date, April 14, 2003.

I said to myself two days ago
she turned six years old.
I was saying it to stop
the sensation that the desert sun
cast in slants across the window
was bursting shards and fire.
But I felt: she is an I,
she is a Zoë,
she is one of them.
Why should my child be one, too?
I could hardly bear to see
the image developing in her mind
as she sat beside me, her exposed knees
resting on the chair cushions,
there in the friendly eye doctor's office
where posters show beautifully
bespectacled families smiling
and placards politely request you sign in.
I knew our strange feeling for a stranger
was familiar, and would happen again.
Why shouldn't my daughter be me
or her or the boy or anyone?
Shouldn't our similarities—
knees, eyes, the family hands
I held in my lap, or even Time
and that appalling burned skin—
hold us all together
and make us all just one?

“C'mon,” I said, “Let's try on glasses for fun.”
And we modeled the luxury frames,
faces grinning together in clean mirrors.
The magnanimous doctor came out
to chat and encourage
while his assistants handed us more
options and offered opinions.
“We're all so silly,” I said to Zoë,
“you don't need glasses to see.”

The technician carried my new frames
in a tray. I looked out the store window
at the boulevard, my vision restored to 20-20.
The waiting room was too air-conditioned
and whirled with the cars rolling by
in bright wave after wave flashing light.

Then I was back in it.
The war was reported over. Outside
in Las Vegas, Nevada
were sun, no clouds, and hot asphalt,
and it was still the twenty-first
of April, 2003.

Elegy for a Lover Of Horses

I will not forget the light of the horses.
—Pablo Neruda

(for Elvie Dublin)

Her horses came to us and laid their heavy heads
          on our shoulders and we slow-danced,
looked into their polished and enormous eyes
          and floated on the lakes of their eyes.

Bitter vegetable horse smell.
          Sun gleamed in the gaps between the slats of her barn,
studded the interior with topaz,
          changed hay from melancholy to yellow.

“Two things I wanted to know,” she said,
          “the human psyche and the animal.”
And she held the colt, one arm about his neck
          one hand on his forehead.

“Yes, baby,” she said. “Yes, darling I know.”
          Her horses circled inside the barn in a dance
of blood and rhythm, amber muscles flickering,
          hooves crushing mist.

Her horses came to us and asked us to lay our ears
          against the warm slope of their necks and listen to the calm
pulsing within them. The sun came in
          the barn door without even knocking,

then burnished the horse's flanks orange and childlike drew
          a star at the tip of each ear.
Winter bit us with diamond teeth.
          Now planes take off into mountains,

one a minute, with the upswing of a metronome.
          I walk in desert dust, sharing glassy sun with hotels,
past cypress, pine, and Joshua trees, past ranches
          with pick-ups and SUVs shining in driveways.

She comes toward me as slowly the horses approach
          and nod their heads over the fence,
as if she's invited them to me,
          she from the light of horses departed.

You Hate Windchimes—

an illness ringing under your skin,
                      the past's awful music
                          silencing your appetite,
      a daily waking too early,

         and you walk from room
to room and insist,
      I still have a body,
                   while the wind goes on
         adamant: listen

to your bones clink,
clink, clink
         far away from you, somewhere
in dusty air. Your isolated ear hears
despite you.

                      And you feel what
you're bid,
                          can't help yourself, when
you taste trauma in your spit
and you smell what happened then,

someone trying
                                in vain to make
home and garden
the same five notes randomly played.

A Body Politic

When you don't eat all day,
the empty wind fuses
with your exquisite anger,
moans in your lonely gut.

If all you see appears ill-lit
and you stumble a bit,
you haven't lost your verve
because you are upset

and not dressed in rags
like the child as deserving
as you who held out
her hand in Katmandu.

You are hungry enough
to watch your anxious
cells in combat. And if
fasting makes you sleepless

you'll be depleted yet
nourished luxuriously
by a reserve of fat,
and you'll get up

unsteady, not yet ready
to seek the vengeance
your seething body
wants to exact.

Photo Op

I have a headache in this photograph
though I am gazing upward like a saint
in rapture, listening to God's blurry words
written with cigarette smoke, ornate deadly font.

Okay, so I hold a lily in one hand
and an apple balances on the other palm,
but it was for effect, so forget
you saw the poet with the lily and the apple

even as a joke. My picture
needs some underlying fear.
As if in prayer, my hands are folded
on newspapers and magazines

arrayed across the table as if in disarray,
a bit out of focus, yet working
on you just the same. Notice
the open-mouthed head stilled above me

on the TV, the frames within the frame
that inform you, the orange terror alert
and the headline ticker scrolling along
the bottom of the screen—

news, weather, stock prices, pollen count—
everything fit for you to know,
familiar and alarming.
See, in this shot my pen is poised just so

and in my expression you might detect
I'm a bit proud to say, ouch, my head
hurts from looking at God knows what—
the emblems dovetailed with feelings so deftly,

we can't help the tears or wanting to kiss
the icon or the idol, can't help anything at all—
the composition is crowded with too much:
radiant graininess where I dusted for evidence

of the maker's fingerprints, the extreme wide angle
revealing my background, halos inlaid
around the masses pressing toward heaven,
though their feet tread on the heads

of the wretched who carry their few worldly goods
in a cloth sack, and a thin baby,
or pull on the hand of the knock-kneed child
who stares you down no matter where you stand—

you'll find them here, in the bottom corner,
turned away at the border, where smoke rises,
whether from the fire of war or holy incense,
impossible to tell, there's too much damned noise.

Take a Deep Breath

Of course, you are afraid to breathe—of what
enters you if you inhale fully—smoke
seeps from the car beside you. When you stop

for red you slyly observe the couple breathes
together. Cigarettes punctuate their speech,
their bodies slouched against the gray interior.

The cars idling ahead of you exhale
too much. The sun is filtered by exhaust,
exhausting you. You think of what is next

to do and squeeze the steering wheel and hold
your breath, aghast you can't help that you find
the gasses lovely, belly-dancing there,

beckoning and winking and wriggling
on asphalt between puffing, lustful cars
that sit expectant on their fat asses, drunk

on our velocity, oh holy god—
what if you felt your body and what if
you took a breath, the living form of it

inside you, and you felt the ghosts of cars
inside you, too, the giant neon guitar
outside the Hard Rock Café on the corner

of Paradise twanging amid your ribs,
and all the splendor of inanimate
objects left you just as they entered you.

What if the couple enclosed in the car
were no longer ugly to you and all
the oxygen coursing in our blood

made you love them for an instant, made them
perhaps glance over at you, perhaps not.
The light changes to green, adorned with halos

of toxins. You look down at your splayed legs,
admire them, too. A pity you're impelled
to take a breath, step gentle on the gas.

Close to Death

We sped for hours to the hospital.
“I feel weak,” I said to my alarmed father
who looked at me with fearful love, as if
I were vanishing there into my thinness.
How many times we talked and talked on drives.
We didn't have so much to say this trip.
I leaned my head against the frozen window.
The day was gray—across the snowy plains,
a plot of light. I thought it was not death's
bright body as they say. What was to stop me
from going inside the gray? Those were also
the wrong words. “I” would no longer be,
so could not “go.” Could vague become more vague?
I asked myself: if I can't eat, can't drink,
how will I live? The answer was too clear
there in the roadside diner where my dad
had stopped for coffee and I saw the people
eating and drinking their colorful meals,
the eggs glowing with grease, ketchup a poppy
adorning the white plates alongside hands
that held up sunny vials of orange juice
like hope, replete with anti-oxidants.
They were swallowing the good nutrients,
and I wished I could, too—how ordinary!
I saw formal beauty is normality:
think of regular features, regular meals,
regular heartbeat. If the body were
ordinary, the self might live and be
                             And therefore I donned
a hospital gown, became a patient,
a no one observed under a spotlight.
The doctor said, “No doubt she is too thin,”
when they wrapped the blood pressure cuff around
my arm twice, then stuck me with a cold IV.
I watched my father's face as I was wheeled
away, remembered my child's expression.
But could I will my body to live for them?
I lay alone, cold on the narrow gurney,
and close to death, as if one could be close
to nothing, to the ceiling's nothing, or walls,
or mortar between bricks. The nurse came in,
smiling, my anesthesia on a tray.
“You'll be awake but you'll feel no pain.
You'll forget it all.” And then I went under
to float awhile on Lethe, and I wondered
on which bank would I land, recalling what?

When I Think of the Hand

of god I think
of my little daughter's hands
imitating her father

pressing pain from my back
with familial oil
then affliction slips

from my shoulders
disappears in the underworld
are you better now? she asks

as if she were mother
her hand pushes hair from my forehead
and heat runs though my body

and it encircles the three of us
as if we were in safe hands
as if as if as if

the hand of god were to reach
from the big nothing where the galaxies end
and pull the bombs back

and squeeze them in his fist
and fling a new star up into the ether
before the bombs hit land

before the wedding party disperses
its festive clothes aflame
a little brain among the grasses

a child's shoe lost in Baghdad
wanders inconsolable
looking for its mate

as if the soul
could petition for the wholeness
of its flesh

Days of 2003

Here's a minute of my jubilation before the blue dwindles
and falls to the flowers of the desert willow
and falls onto the boulders on the mountain summit.
She'd been riding her bike in the park, tracing a helix
on the sidewalk that runs through the grass, a fiction
of a lawn, really, a little heaven made by sprinklers.
Her index finger is hooked in the collar of her princess t-shirt.
She smiles at me, off-guard, just for an instant
before losing patience and running from the camera,
climbing on a swing, stretching her strong legs to the sky,
before we get in the car to go home for dinner,
before I think, “count your blessings,” and am ashamed.
As if we were chosen. Here's a picture of my daughter
just before the sun sinks, igniting fires along the borders
of a purple cloud. Here's a day, and our ordinary luck.

A Field of War

“One Tree,” encaustic on panel, 36 x 24, 2002,
by Felicia Van Bork

One tulip tree
lets out a few spring buds,
unfurling new green flags.

One white-barked sycamore
seems reticent,
a leafless ghost.

One tree in winter,
one in spring, two trees
together passing time,

making your logic that goes
from A to Z then to I and Y
or K and B simply

because the letters are pretty
or begin a name or a question
or recall two trees,

sentries before the barn
in a field where you grew up,
where the woods on the horizon

are rich impasto, a tangle
of fleshy lights and smells
of the land waking up.

The small barn door in the right corner
is open, revealing purple
gloom and enough brightness

to invite you inside. The door's shadow
draws you in
to what is not in the picture.

* * *

You and your first love have stolen away
and lie on a blanket spread on hay.
We've come, he says, to think.

So you think what to think. Light caught
in the cracks between the slats is wax beads
dripping down a candle.

You breathe in the blanket,
the hay, his white embroidered shirt
his prudish mom washed,

and you find not
one thought
because you've smoked pot

and made love not war.
The war is on
nearly as long as you can remember

You lie together, eye to eye in the barn,
thinking what to think.
The development they'll build

after they tear down this barn
where you lounge stoned and newly fucked
will be called Sycamore Knolls,

yet they've bulldozed the old and stately trees,
and they lie on the ground, limbs curled in
to their trunks. Outside, bulldozers stand at ease,

alone with the barn in acres of mud, red clay
that sticks to the bottoms of your shoes
and accrues and weighs you down as you trudge.

* * *

Now your shoes and his shoes are mudcaked,
stuck with hay, hastily untied, kicked-off, askew,
filled with ghosts of you, the vandals

who pulled up all the surveyors' stakes
in the field that despite you will be
houses and driveways on streets

named for what they destroyed to build:
Sycamore, Meadowbluff, Fair Oak.
They destroy the village to save it.

That's what they say.
His devout and patriotic mother checks
the odometer before lending him the Beetle

that's too small for sex
but here you are, lying in her altar boy's arms,
his sperm swimming inside you, futilely.

In a year they'll draw his birthday in the lottery,
his number come up, high or low. You don't know
by then they won't call more men.

He's just a boy,
the prettiest boy you've known, so far,
and your fingers stroke his temple

and the corner of his eye with no crow's feet.
You feel yourself in time and you can't think.
You won't think how to keep his face perfect

as a funerary portrait
made of translucent layers
of pigment and beeswax,

the encaustic startlingly young, like the flesh you touch
infused with his cobalt gaze,
his injunction to think.

You want him like this—his eyes moving
with his hand from your hair to your hip,
drawing you in

to a danger not pictured
and words winging with the swallows
up high in the skeletal rafters of the barn.

Freeway Love Poem

Tonight these lines talk to me and you.
I don't know what will come next. Listen

to quiet and to the sad, waning moon
covered in dreary veils. I understand

her lonely countenance, her gravity,
there above the billboards' come-ons,

the woman lounging in a black lace bra
before a platter of sushi, and ready

to share her fleshy feast, the illumined
icons of the Wheel of Fortune, promises

of riches and luck for all the unlucky
speeding crazily across

each others' lanes, desperate for their exit,
regardless, regardless.

Oh, I know better than to converse
with the moon or call it a she,

claim to understand its expression,
which is just craters on a sphere of stone.

Because I'm in a vehicle flashing along
the utopian freeway to a new tenor

of thought. The radio's off. And I listen
to something I call myself

when I should be erasing I, should be
shutting those voids, the moon's eyes.

I love you. You question
whether the soul has a mate.

I take the back way home,
to the extent there is a back way,

still some dark spaces,
where shadows

of horses rock on desert dust under
only a few streetlights in a city

that shines brighter than the moon, my love,
where nature barely exists in our racing

minds, where epiphany is a projection
onto a gray screen or billboard maybe,

biochemistry or a fluke of genetic
inheritance. Yet I love you, though love

is dumb. Dum de dum dum. Doomed and loony
old moon (I mean me). I'm too sensitive

to sounds, which I adore and make me mad.
I can hear what you're not saying. Say it,

damn it. Because, as the saying goes,
to close the distance between us,

I'm driving too fast, driving to the end
of my poem or the road

home (as if there were one), though
I want no end, no closure.

I listen for you to come close, your soul
to speak out of nothing or things I see—

supermarkets and full parking lots
below the persistent moon

that keeps following along.
I can almost feel you in my breath,

my solitary breath, boxed in by glass.


“I Don’t Grow Wings, I Drive my Car”: Quotations are from Plato’s Phaedrus, translated by Harold North Fowler.

“Guess What?”: One of the projects that the Dutch furniture designer, Gerard Vollenbrock, assigns his students is to design an ugly chair.

“On the Eastern Seaboard with Diane di Prima”: Quotation is from Cotton Mather’s “Wonders of the Invisible World.” In the yogic tradition, Santosha (contentment) is one of the five Niyamas (rules of conduct).

“A Field of War: “We had to destroy the village to save it,” is an infamous quotation of an unnamed Army officer, in 1968, during the Tet offensive. It may refer to the massacre at My Lai.

“They’ll draw his birthday in the lottery.”: During the Vietnam War, in 1969, the Selective Service reinstituted the lottery, in which the birthdays of all men born in a given year were drawn. The lottery determined the order in which men were called to report for induction into the military, so the lower the number the more likely a man was to be called. The last lottery was held on February 2, 1972, for men born in 1953, and who would have been called in 1973. However, no new draft orders were issued after 1972.