It was a good ship, Cap’n
That we had.
You being the skipper,
We sailed easily
Round the Cape of Good Hope, and
I wondered how could there be Bad Hope?
Maybe when every wish was fulfilled.
Because that would sour the whole
Wishing would be as common as sneezes.
And sneezing leads to sickness.
And on shipboard, sickness spreads.
Then you had a spot on your lung.
So we docked so you could have it taken care of.
“No problem,” you kept saying. “No problem.”
But Problem, Cap’n.
That spot was a tumor. And the tumor was cancer.
So we were grounded.
A few years later, your body had changed.
You were still the Cap’n
But quitting smoking made you gain weight.
It’s just that we had acquired a new crew member.
And he had a lot of needs.
He was the dead spit of you.
But not a good sailor.
He got sea-sick, so we were docked.
We settled on an island
And we made a good life
And the memory of our sailing life
But you were still a Cap’n, weren’t you.
Then age hit. And then depression.
And I found you sitting right in front of the television.
I thought you might need glasses, better glasses.
But it wasn’t your sight that was the problem, was it.
It was the absence in your life of what you were seeing
Querelle is a film by Rainier Werner Fassbinder
And it is based on a novel by Jean Cocteau
And has a scene, the scene you were watching.
I had rented the film for myself, for research
For a class on representations of homosexuality.
And I thought it was the sailors in the film and their ships you were missing.
But the scene you were watching had no sailors one could see
Because both men were nearly naked as to facilitate
The sex they were having, the anal sex they were having.
And I saw you watching, rewinding and then watching again,
The images were reflected on your glasses and your mouth was open, slightly open
For what, to breathe?
In a way you hadn’t been able to? With me?
I stood very still, and
Didn’t say, “Ahoy, Cap’n” or any of our jokey affectionate tags
We liked to use to remind us of our lives board ship, on the sea,
The sea of love, The sea of life, The sea of adventure, as in
What the fuck can happen next?
Because the fuck of what can happen next
How must those Greeks have felt
four hundred years before
Backwards walking, forces by,
sucked into the old black O.
Above them a baby crying for a star.
Why didn’t hemlock change the time?
What kept the earth from cracking
when that great heart exploded?
What kept loving eyes to earth
and hope so ordinary
three days after?
Did not one of them turn,
hearing his name
touched lightly on the shoulder?
Or was it just time and time
growing cold as a corpse.
First, build a fire.
This will be difficult for you
As you have never built one.
In fact, you may not have built anything.
But it must be accomplished,
For that is Step One.
Use the wooden bed of your loved one-
Waste is sinful and she is finished with it.
Besides, if you don’t use it, someone else will.
It is shocking that you allowed her to rest for so long
What do you mean, where are the matches?
Where is your flint? Your steel?
Where are your rubbing sticks?
Stop crying and use these bones-
They are clean and smooth and will
Produce friction if used properly.
Tinder? Of course we have it.
Here is the most Holy Bible Word of God.
We worked backwards
Through the dragons and the beasts and the sealed gates,
Through the miracles, the laws, the wars, the begats,
So if you see “Word the was beginning the In,” immolate and disappear
Know you won’t be able to try again.
I praise this fire though it cannot warm me
But it will boil water which is plentiful.
Two rivers flow with sewage and the dead
But ice falls from the sky and we catch it
Like desperate children at the last snow of the world.
Don’t let the fire go out!
What are you doing listening to me?
The water is boiling and we are at Step Four.
Take off your shoe,
And ease it slowly into the water,
Being vigilant about the boiling.
It is important that it continues
As long as possible
For tannic acid and cow urine
Are unpleasant for the educated plate.
And leather stains are poisonous.
I cannot keep track of the steps anymore.
All I can tell you is that late into the process,
Late into the night, the shoe changes shape,
And develops wings
At this point, lift it from the water,
As we did, in wonderment,
And place it on a silver server from the Czar,
Dollop it with sour cream crowned with
Chives, rosemary and coriander
And eat it, yes, eat your shoe.
And wonder if delusion will enable you to eat
Your children tomorrow.
I lied to you about the silver server, the sour cream,
The chives, the rosemary, the coriander,
But that is all.
And this is what we did and had to do,
To save this city for you
To walk around in your leisure
Wearing that tangerine shirt of thick brushed silk.
It’s the tv camera of herself
saying to herself,
“Focus. This is
real now. This is really. . “
What is the news again?
Two months later, looking out the window
of the gift shop where she’s working,
a small boy’s walk takes on a temporary halt
as he regains his balance
in the Christmas crowd, and she turns
with recognizing breath and hurries
to the bathroom swallowing and then running
water over grief.
And now: a tightening in the chest when old men
bend against the hour.
(Those last two years that aged him backwards
to an alien, mute child, when they were over,
she grasped at the final news, squeezing it
It doesn’t matter
It doesn’t matter.
I slowed it down
the parade of fuzzy light
from the window
to the oiled floor
its milky tautness held me drowsy
And the little specks of dust
wandering like shoppers
up and down the galaxy.
I slowed it down
until not even the dust moved
And I could not even
clap my hands.
only the sound of the forest building
up and falling back down again falling
down and building back up
again an animal starts
in the brush
The morning rain changed everything
and now the mayfly ponds are filled
with winter’s clouds and babies.
Mothers stand nearby and laugh at soggy shoes —
for one day of the year at least we’re charmed.
But everywhere, reminders of the process,
brown phantoms haunting this green picnic,
anachronous as old men at a love in, they scrape
along the tops of tender grasses
and are gathered by the winds to mother’s feet,
now enraptured with her newborn buds.
No matter how quiet I make myself
I cannot disappear in this forest.
There is glowing in the dark—
A low-browed animal in Olduvai Gorge
stares at the eyed night
and blows repeatedly on the spark
of her own name.
Inside her warming brow is exhilaration
as from a particular fever.
Suddenly she feels the surface of the earth.
When both of us were twelve
we went to see the silent King of Kings
upon a sheet across the altar
of a nameless church —
the one that gave us half a Bible
with Jesus’ words in red
printed on that thin important paper.
(We held a page to light and read it
back to front at once).
It was directly after that I had my first real change of heart.
Outside, the sky had turned to crimson
and trees began to look like metaphors of greed.
Soon we were walking faster than we realized,
in step with our own breaths.
I turned to find your face to break the spell
but saw a shadow there
and then a nightmare canter caught my body
and I ran with you behind me, running
from the fear’s edge spreading stain.
We flung ourselves upon your mother’s porch,
the sky had dried to brittle black.
We laughed —
like winter’s dying branches crack.
From Oregon, you wrote that you had seen him
nailed across a million living trees.
And still you fled him,
on your knees this time,
his robes dissolving in the greening rain
that blurs this edge of death.
My older heart still wonders,
which is better?
Doomed and silent in his shades of grey
or cut with typeface edge in red
in shapes that look the same
from back to front, held to the light
by secret-seeking children,
scared to death?
The mother being dead, the girl-child coming
home in dark, to this house,
A hard lump in the throat of night.
Her father driving, automatic
as his gear box, as his beam light
draped in black silk.
The night is like a black dress,
rhinestones unstrung, falling.
Swallowing the dark, the house sits
like a mourner with the word,
and girl-child goes straight to bed
but lies knot-wise in tree, the blankets tucked
all wrong by father’s
large, lost hands.
Sleep, that weeping aunt
and girl-child sees her mother
in a city of stone.
There is an errand all
dressed up - a bouquet
of pale flowers. There
is something of importance
to be done.
A dream stick rattles on the fence.
And she awakens truly
silent now, her open mouth is filled
with night’s wet earth.
Her father’s come to put her in his bed -
and girl-child feels the house lay its long gasp to rest
and fill itself with sighs
Observe: how we grow up and say good-bye,
unwieldy in our rented trucks.
It’s never been more obvious:
the randomness, in spite of offspring, checkbooks,
thickening in the middle.
Was this the promise that kept me alive
when I was a child?
Lord, it’s really neither flesh nor bone,
but involuntary, eddying motion
trickling from a dynamo
that’s running some far city.
You walk into the lungs of night
coughing like somebody’s father,
the cab light takes your picture.
In six hours the dawn will find your face
and lose it, bone by bone,
Do not pass behind me or
That painful-sweet certainty
Strokes my spine
With idle fingers
Then quickly draws a magic circle
The interior of which we must not go.
When did I step from the game of it?
That first warm day of fantasy,
Wallowing in spring,
Wandering into the center,
Wet with sweat and rain.
But it had been one awful winter
And drowning in the melt seemed less like dying
Than surviving all those frozen nights,
My visible breath the only sign of life.
N.B.: The ability to rationalize does not mean
we are rational.
And we’re here again.
What is this stubborn smallness
That makes me turn to you, my eyes
Spending every drop my stomach
Can wring out—none
Of it going to dissolve the secret
I drove past your road yesterday, pretending to go to the pond,
and then went to the pond, so I’d have a destination.
Volition was the cause, the volition of the heart,
and then the momentum of desire. and
the internal combustion engine made it all so easy.
The pond was still and blue.
No water birds flew nearby or tried to land on the frozen surface.
Smarter than me, they’d gone South.
And I wondered if birds know longing as they fly.
Do they know of their enviable freedom?
Do they covet my coat and car?
But as I write this now,
I realize—there were no birds,
only the idea of them caught me
As powerfully as the hope of you
catches me, again and again,
As I plummet, unaware of my enviable freedom,
to the frozen ground.
Nothing will bring you to my bed.
Its white square shape,
the quilts, the comforter,
the several pillows, the me.
Years of friendship have filled my head
with your voice,
so in the dark I can call to you
and you come,
spilling your absence over my body.
When have you been wittier or more loving?
It’s only the yearning of skin for skin,
and neck for warm breath
that lulls me awake—all night.
So here is morning and I’m alive and moving
pen across paper,
using my art to keep my heart from cracking
as it hits this cold, white surface
where years of my passion
have clung to the neck of language,
the most look-away lover of them all,
ever lustful for my reader, you.
At last, the raft is still,
stalled in sloshy backwater, black water, deep with foliage
swaying beneath the mercurial surface of this impassable night.
Wrapped in the twisted sail, the sleeper hears a woman’s breathing,
deep and strange, alligator lungs exhaling foul winds
across the oil slick moonlight has made
of the liquidy skin that keeps her together, barely.
The urgent singing of a rescue buoy—
And the sleeper hears the woman speaking above her
by a lighthouse—no, a floodlight—rescue?
Words like lumps of clay, wet—what language?
Oh, English, but dumbly needing a steady tongue to shape it—
The voice, now, that’s so familiar, and echoes near enough
for any sleeper to expect warm breath against her ear,
but none comes—no survivors?
It must be that microsecond behind real time where casualties live
Or die—she chooses that, out of emptiness of spirit and waits for re-immersion.
Light gone—oh good—the raft can’t hold her weight and sinks
with its crew of one, into the glowering, inky flow that follows
a tributary to an estuary to a channel to an eddy…
But eons later runs aground on a bright-lit beach,
Moon-sized eyes everywhere.
Donde estamos? Admiral? Am I alive?
The animal need to expel bad water and take in good takes her
lurching to the chrome shore of a shiny pond, where she slowly looks upward—
O, the creatures of this land resemble me, except
this female’s face is marked with half an “x”—
from eye, crosswise to underneath her nose,
A foot-long tattoo, tribal mark, looking all the world like a child’s skinscrape from contact with a sidewalk.
Some pathetic magic, my own face starts to hurt and swell,
Now it’s throbbing up the memory of disembodies voices talking
about a “her” and “she” in trouble, needing help…
and then the cold recall of a wet towel pressed against my face.
I back away from my new twin, our faces growing smaller
in the—I know everything now—bathroom mirror.
No escaping in the bedroom—the sun’s dried up the swamp,
Hard edges reign amidst the mess—the lamp I never turned off,
The phone lolls off the cradle, where I left it—
flotsam awash with jettisoned clothes and bedsheets.
I beg the bed and sleep to take me, but it won’t come.
An entire evening of my life is missing,
And no tide, rain, laughter, smell—not a shred of memory’s light to guide it home.
I’ve shipwrecked on my father’s shores, alone,
as he was, on his father’s shores.
The sea remembers all of us—
Drunken sailors who love it on the rocks.
I forgot the book on consciousness
So I’m left with being awake,
The demure and uncomfortable
Oaktown girl with her boyfriend’s
White, and at the moment,
Guarded languidly by their uncoiffed poodle.
Attende: we shall be all natural—
Our dog will not look like an 18th-century lord,
Our clothes will be cotton fibre,
Our shoes fitted to our soles,
Our hips and groins draped
As if Victorian women dressed us,
Exhausted from panting horses
And skirting Rubenesque piano legs.
Our gestures shaped by Spode,
Now flitting about Shenango,
We nibble at the vegan lasagna
And talk of bread and circuses.
And now I remember how often
I insulate myself with these
Scraps of assumptions
I square with judgments,
Sewing a quilt for a bed I cannot forsake!
And what am I doing now?
I’m napping and dreaming this, even this,
A milli-second behind
What could be a day of flight,
From the sweet splooj of quivering blooms!
Dear Michael, I didn’t call you back
Because I didn’t have any more ideas.
No, I don’t know how you become an actor,
Except that: you stand in a space and pretend something
And people watch you—
The audience, yes, the audience is important.
People must watch or what you’re doing isn’t “acting” per se,
More like living, more like trying to get through a moment,
Giving form to passing nothingness,
Trying to break inertia or change its state,
Since inertia can be not moving
Or moving and not stopping.
Because when acting, one is embodying an action,
Which means you’re part of a story which has Forward Movement—
As I feel my life moving sideways oozing even,
The act of acting seeming unusually incomprehensible
O, I am lying
And it is such a bad thing
To lie to one’s students.
In fact, my life is rushing into Old Age
And the Eventual Inert-ness that will be.
And you will hear of this
Or maybe you’ll even be there at the memorial,
And speak about my letter to you
About acting, and how I couldn’t help you
Any more than I had
Because I had no more ideas,
Other than: You stand in a space
And pretend something
And people watch you—
And the something is an emotion
Or a need,
And you embody it
So as not to be inert,
And the audience watches—
Which is strange since the word “audience” means “listeners,”
Which brings me to something else
I know about acting,
Is that you make people listen
With their eyes
With their ears,
And you try to keep them from leaving you—
In the space
Where you are pretending—
So, don’t give up trying to be an actor.
I always liked watching you speak,
And listening to you move,
And your voice on my answering machine
Keeping me there,
In my kitchen,
Smiling at at black box
That held tiny you
In a pretend space
Filled with the mimetic ephemerality
Of your young and hopeful
The Mother of All meetings
In a pre-Georgian tunnel,
As lonely as a recently vacated heart,
Called for the lighting of lamps
Of another era, never made
To illuminate these strange silhouettes:
Of-a-certain-age women in secular uniform
Worn with expectations,
Wrinkled with the stress of holding a shape,
Unable to cover the failure of energy.
And the sore jaw’s stress on the visage
From the chomping and the chewing of agenda
And the spitting out of bony truths,
Leaving a silent stack of them on the lip of each plate
As if the smallest of angels had been cannibalized.
A woman and a dragon
A bottle with a blue cap
A cave with orange walls
A tray of test tubes
An elf fixes my car
Bubbles like gold nuggets
A green stripe
Three thugs in a toilet
Two glass-shiny wooden tables
A naked woman lifting her hair
A victrola with a brass handle
A man shouting
A knee full of young girl
Strange fast music
A terrible realization
A bell ringing with a buzz
A door opening in
A door opening out
An adjusting of eyeglasses
A moment full of waiting
Bones in a metal tray
Where are the eyes?
A ring on the other hand
An oar out of the water
A boy asleep on the subway
Welcome star to this ancient attitude
Next by someone hums into the large end of a funnel
And I set my mouth to be interrupted
I could read him like a river
Now we crack bones together.
Welcome star to these ancient bones
which have been stars and shit
When Indians dances three shows a night
in arcade summer, you headed for the cowboy bar
and proved your manhood
picking up the best girl in the place
and later, in the dark, warming her
with her own spirit line until
only boys spoke ill of you,
(Why would they remember how your fathers
loved the deer they took from honest hunger).
But when you’d broken nearly every redbone in your body,
riding bulls in unknown rodeos,
the mountain winds from California
brought wagons full of beads and silver trinkets
symbols of your poverty.
So is it any wonder that you shaved your hair
short as a deer and hated
all the rich ones wearing leather, speaking medicine
they'd read in books,
their ribs intact, their manhood never pounded
on a black bull’s back, whose testicles
in turn have been constricted
by a rope and bell?