Looking at Art - a love poem
A casual text vibrates in my hand,
“what do you think? does this work?”
And when I tap on the image included,
the bloody reds and bruised blues,
the angst ridden drips that streak down
It’s a sunset scene of a small harbor,
a few boats and waterside shacks,
but now smeared with his anger
or confusion, cool underneath.
I feel his fears in the fiery sky,
I think the thoughts painted
deep into the dark water.
One brush stroke is something
he said to me walking by the bay
late at night as the stars spun.
That blue, that’s almost black,
is a mumble or movement
as he sleeps and dreams.
But when I see it in real life,
the tight tissues in my chest
start to pull apart and expand.
The tearing, not like paper,
but like a muscle
about to get stronger.
How My Father Made it Easier for Me to Fly Back to California
It was the last time I saw my father,
and I mean that as the last time
I saw him as him,
not someone changed
by the thick trucks of morphine coursing,
chugging through his body on a roadmap of veins,
the massive city of his heart.
He was standing at the window of his hospital room
wearing the short, papery dress of his hospital gown,
Then he cinched the gown tighter at his thin waist
to accentuate the perfect shape of his basketball gut.
He put a pinky to the corner of his mouth and pursed
his lips, sleepy eyelids, one raised eyebrow,
mouthing, “Happy Birthday, Mister President” through the glass.
He blew me a kiss with a flourish of his thick hand,
then quickly turned to moon me through the slit of his gown.
We both laughed, him silently, framed by the window,
me walking into the thick humidity of a late New York summer,
as if everything was going to be alright.
Sarah and I Meet in the Middle
Here is something I do.
I'm standing on the side of a road that winds
through the hills and redwoods south
of San Francisco. I am at a place
where I can see the Pacific ocean
and as I turn and pull the scenery
into my head, I can see the coast,
San Francisco, the bay, all the way
to Mount Diablo far off in the East.
But what I do is attempt to erase the traces
of people, the geometric shapes that break
the natural scrags and swoops of the earth.
I usually start with houses and buildings,
the things close to me, the roads, diamond yellow street signs.
Then I push it out further.
Freeways erased with the dark greens of trees
or with the suede summer grass so dry
that it seems to smolder in the sharp yellow sun.
The Bay Bridge, the San Mateo Bridge smear
into the water, Alcatraz is just a rocky island.
Depending on how far I want to regress the landscape,
maybe there is a solo Ohlone canoe lunging, lunging
along the shore where the airport used to be.
I started doing this when I was probably 12 years old,
back in Orange County, New York,
when I could digest the stories of Sarah Wells,
“the first white woman to settle in Orange Country,”
and, according to the stories, my greatest grandmother.
A Sunday drive with my parents, the car paused
at a road that led off the Sarah Wells trail,
my parents discussing where this new road may lead.
I was not comfortable of their exploration
and as they seemed less sure of their route
I would start to disassemble the horse farms
and fences, the power lines, a satellite dish,
until just a dirt trail remained where the road should be.
Because I was a timid child and not a fan of the unknown
I looked to my ancestor for comfort in these moments,
my parents forcing on into the wilderness,
me, on a horse, led by these wild people
through the impossibly green forests,
surrounded by the eyes of animals
long since chased away by guns and cattle.
I found a strange peace with her these moments.
Sarah moved through this unfamiliar landscape
and survived, and thrived. She built a square
in the curvy earth, carved a way to keep living.
I would put her back in this landscape.
She was guiding a horse as it dragged a plow,
ripping roots, churning the dark dirt,
she was heaving the head of an axe
through the tight grain at the heart of cold, winter logs,
she threw seeds and pulled the feathers from fowl,
she gently slid calves from the bloody wombs
of their mothers, she breast fed and burped babies,
bumped their bottoms on the newel post
at the foot of the stairs to christen them as Bulls.
Sarah was so young when she disembarked the boat
from New York City and trusted the people who led
her into the green-shadowed landscape of Orange County.
She was young and since, from what we know,
her life until this journey was probably hard,
was the frozen mud of a sloppy mid-winter,
she stood at the head of this trail, taking in the details
of this new landscape, the shadows of the leaves
gently moving on the ground like hands polishing
the forest floor, beads of sweat just breaking on the backs
of her Munsee guides, the cattle flicking flies
with their stringy tails. She pulled in the landscape
and she did the opposite of what I do. She had to see a future.
Maybe she pulled down some of the trees to see
the first square patch of land. Maybe she heaved
the stones from the ground and stacked them
long before there were plans for the house that still stands.
Maybe she began to populate the world with her people,
her 12 children, her thousands of descendants.
Maybe, because she was braver than I,
she built and grew and towns and cities sprouted like crops,
and maybe she could even see me,
twelve years old,
staring out the back window of my parents car,
as I pull down all her hard work.
*this poem also appears on the Bull Stone House website: www.bullstonehouse.org
You fell asleep next to me,
your hand closed on my chest
except for one finger
which pointed across the room,
toward the door.
I stared at the worried brow
of your knuckle,
the ragged nail,
its moon setting in a violet sky.
Just one finger unbent and separate,
one rib floating away
from the chest of your fist,
the first move you make
when you let something go.
*this poem originally appeared in the January, 2000 issue of Whirligig magazine.
The bars closed.
Neon losing its spark, the bartenders face
is a sun gone cold in the dark.
The friends we were with
coupled off to grunt their small deaths
from one another. We ended up
in his room drunk and smoking,
cross-legged on the floor as we passed
the pipe back and forth and blew blue
smoke which circled our heads
like diaphanous turbans.
We nodded in unison to the song
swirling slowly around the room.
He looked up through the dark curtain
of his dred-locks. He wanted to see
the tattoo on my back recalling
a lucid moment and conversation
we had earlier in the evening.
I knew he was gay, but told myself
I had come here to talk about music, his band.
I stood and took off my shirt, turned around.
I felt him behind me and when he touched
it, I flinched, my shoulder twitching
the way muscle moves under a horse’s skin,
a quick shiver. He said he liked the tattoo
and as I turned back around, spinning slowly
with the earth, he never let go
of my shoulder. I ended up in his arms.
His face was all that was in front of me.
I closed my eyes, maybe searched for a sign to drop
out of the blue-black and bruised sky behind my eyelids,
a star, a word, a red can of cola. His lips touched mine
and I turned again,
turned the way those fossilized footprints show man turned
at the edge on the Ngorongo Crater more than a million years ago.
He stood in the warm volcanic ash staring at the Serengeti, perhaps the sun
slowly rising behind Kilimanjaro, reflecting off Lake Manyara,
then he turned and walked back down into the valley, a cradle of land,
leaving nothing but his footprints and the rest of the world behind.
*this poem originally appeared in the January, 2000 issue of Whirligig magazine.
It’s the pills that keep him on the ground,
settling in his feet like the steel weights of a barbell, holding him here with us when that’s the last place
he wants to be. Do we really know him
or is he just a foggy shadow of himself,
the silver outline rain leaves around the dark bark of trees? I wonder what’s it’s like without the pills.
“How do you feel now?” I ask since he’s been off them for three days. “How do you feel now?”
he asks back. “Do you feel different, I mean?”
“I just don’t feel like I do now, which is...”
he smiles at me and bounces in his seat.
“...giddy.” And I wonder why would anyone
not want to feel giddy. Why would anyone want
to take these weights and wear them in their shoes?
Later we’re hiking and and I’m talking
about a bird I saw that must have been massacred
by a cat, the explosion of feathers in the dirt, the blood, the gristle still attached to delicate, airy bones.
He was quiet through the story
and when I ask the stupid question,
“What are you thinking about?”
he humors me.
I was picturing what you were saying in my head
and then I thought of a dead bird in right !eld
during a little-league game when I was a kid.
It was covered with bees and when the game ended
we all took turns trying to hit the bird with a baseball. I was thinking about the sound the bees made.
But I wanted it to go further, I wanted to see some break.
Don’t we all want to be stunned into silence
with the mad words of what goes on in the mind
of people who are supposed to be taking pills but aren’t? I wanted the bees to swirl up in front of him, to make beautiful kaleidoscopic shapes that spin and shake
and evaporate revealing "owers and vines crawling
and curling and big magnolia blossoms of fireworks
and sparks and long trails into the woods, into a meadow across the rocks and ravines, down to the sea
and that’s where I’d find him.
He’d be poking pink anemones
in tidal pools, chasing the pelicans,
running, leaping and popping
like hot grease in a pan, like spoons clacking in a jugband,
like surf exploding at the sand,
like jazz rhythms and #ngers snapping,
like his foot that is tapping
as you talk to him and he is already
miles ahead of poor, little, grounded you, a speck far below,
a tiny voice barely audible over the beautiful music in his head. He’s not crazy. He makes connections. Art is connections.
At school he’s supposed to sti"e
his giddy, happy self and sit.
He’s supposed to sit.
He’s supposed to sit and listen to interesting facts but not do anything with those facts.
Those facts are supposed to die in black graphite on a white lined page with no doodles
or stray thoughts around them, no ribbon of color pulled by a breeze like the tail of a kite...
No blue sky, no yellow birds, no clear blue life, no blood red death, just weights that sit
in his shoes and hooks to hold him
on the hard, cold, soul-sucking ground.
She’s dancing again.
The see-through skin of her hand, bulging with knots of blue veins, is clawed against her chest,
her other arm out holding
a hand no longer there
as she spins across the room,
La de da de da de da de da.
And I can only hope
that because she was bent,
rooting around in the garden
for so long yesterday, her hunched back is too sore to bend over, take me by my front feet,
and make me waddle
around the room
on two legs.
I hate that.
Maybe tomorrow I will escape.
I will walk to the street corner,
the one from where she always calls me back, and try to resist her dry, airy whistle,
I’ll just run, rise above
the gut she gave me
and !y like a wolf,
rip down the road
toward freedom, toward
an open "eld, a forest,
the cool, moss-covered country
they show on television.
I’ll run and howl,
leap over logs and stone walls
on all four of my beautiful feet.