I woke up late, well after the dead
had had their café con leche.
They’d been arguing
about the world,
what it was, what it would be.
I cracked an egg to cook
when a dead child
tugged on my pajama,
“Write something pretty
about me. Please, will you?”
I could only offer her
some toasted bread.
I didn’t mean to cry,
but I was so tired
from entertaining them.
The dead sat awkward
and watched me as I apologized.
I said softly, “Please,
I want to go back to bed.”
A stark-haired woman,
more shadow than dead,
held my chin—
does she want to kiss me?
I closed my eyes and puckered up.
“Honey, you may be living,
but you’re also in my way.”
The dead laughed
as I stood helpless.
I have never heard the song of our spirit,
the anthem of sierras and savannas,
the roar of our freedom and destinies,
seem so faint.
A brook stands still.
A forest windless.
The skylarks wait in anticipation of dawn,
the night a long and relentless black.
Adam and Eve step naked into the fruitless briar.
A child walks an empty, pot-holed street,
looking for mother, looking for shelter, looking for seeds.
Screech of wild.
People run. Footsteps silent.
They yell something. The air distills, hot, silent.
The laughing man didn’t laugh. He smirked.
He smirked, and we ran into the foothills,
others hid beneath the floorboards,
others just stood in horror.
He asked for quiet so that only he may speak,
to mock, to mutilate.
I have the Midas touch,
and so you should let me touch you—he smirked.
A dancer stands still.
An organ windless.
Canvases empty of skylarks, empty of nests, empty of trees,
a sterile and toneless white.
O music of the soul that nourishes our land,
you are as faint as a night’s horizon.
I try to match your pitch, but I can hardly hear you.
I can hardly hear you, and still I sing.
I sing so that others may hear, so that others may join.
I am trying to honor the dead poet’s words.
He said, “Bicho, God never wanted us to enter Heaven one by one—
Jericho, Jericho, Jericho!—
he wanted us to knock down those gates
with a march and chorus, singing we are one.”
You sit restless in your office,
badly postured, bared by night,
staring out the window
to see if a late visitor
will step into the lamplight—
nothing to be afraid of,
just a friend who knows you’re lonely.
Cure your hearing loss. Delete.
Trouble getting it up? Delete.
Finally, the secret to my millions. Delete.
Hey, big boy—Delete. Fat? Delete. Ugly? Delete.
Slowly dying a meaningless death?
No one ever spams you with poetry,
and I think they should.
Poetry is never free,
and yet no one tries to steal it,
tries to act as if it’s just a click away—
no zipped folder containing truth.
Cure your identity loss.
Trouble believing you are real?
Finally, the secret to my multitudes.
Hello, unheard soul.
Are you still meek?
Are you still enslaved and broken?
I heard you were coming for a visit,
and as if stepping over a snail in the garden
I set some books out on the counter.
The Satanic Verses—
you’ve never heard of it—
but isn’t the cover splendid?
Mr. Rushdie’s royal name shimmers
like a gecko’s skin, the S in Salman
ready to scurry beneath the pebbles.
Joyce looks at you with Mesozoic eyes.
Did you know you are made of quarks?
Un ménage à trois pour Monsieur Mark—
probably not saucy enough to get you through Joyce’s babble.
Speaking of threes, or rather unholy threes,
I’ve summoned a conventicle of
Paz, Kinnell, and Bukowski—
but you may only pick one! I’m eager to hear
whether or not you leafed through them
as you chatted about salad dressings with my friend—
acidity and dead-eyed anchovies—
whatever helps a shallot
taste like a summer boy’s kiss
rather than death. Proust!
I also left a volume of Proust—
a cure, exquisite cure, exhausting cure.
But you won’t glance; you have no need to pry,
to peer, to interrupt your dull vast
by meddling in my threadbare life;
no illicit urge to face the eidolons
of their tortured souls, only to face your own.
I would excavate your bookshelves—
I would lurk in every margin
for scribbles, for criticisms, for intimacies—
be rapt in every dogeared page, in every highlight—
I would glean every scrap of your soul
as organized by genre, by author, by—
wait, what if you only own a single book?
A coffee table one with glossy photos
of empty beachside homes, askew-nonchalant,
the ocean, as seen through a large panoramic window,
a pop of color on the ceramic surface.
What if that’s all you left for me?
A bee landed on my sill and died,
an apostasy of her celestial calling.
I had just made a pale stroke on a canvas.
To the bee it could have been a strange Echinacea,
but perhaps it was also a delusion undone.
The stars call upon me like the marking:
Poet, enter through this window.
Ah, unfathomable past,
where have you hidden my brothers?
I imagine waking as one of them
in Babel, in Uqbar, in Macondo,
waking in a panic at the void ahead—
waking without the true language
to be spoken by our daughters.
As I pass a mirror
I hear a brother call my name—
my name a synonym for his—
and I call back to the glass
only for it to be a prayer unto myself.
I am somewhat just an innuendo without
a metaphor for myself.
I’ve acquired plenty of metaphors for other things.
(Time a redwood,
war a mandala,
a child Jehovah.)
But is there a body referring to my body?
If not, there is hope
that I am not two men, one dreaming the other;
and if I discover a complementarity
what word can merge these men into one?
Brothers, where did you search
to find your noms de plume?
A river poet answers, “the mist.”
A mountain poet answers, “the pines.”
The great poet closes his mouth and smiles.
I consult the encyclopedia for my name,
and as I skim I realize
I am no longer seeing words but etyms—
great ideas reduced by entropy—
and that I’m not a reader
lost in an infinite library,
but one of its innumerable phonemes.
the first vowel
of my lost name
sits on a leaf
A girl making
a cigar licks
this precious leaf,
and the vowel
yearns to ignite
upon her lips—
she cannot help
but speak my name.
The foreman comes
her without cause.
This is the story of my mother—told simply.
As for my father, that is well-written
in tapestries of spoils and war.
You can corrupt yourself
in the labyrinth of footnotes and appendices,
but he is as simple as a word: blood.
how did you hide the weapon for so long?
Did you know that when it strikes
men become unknown like me?
And now I’m starting to believe
this dark matter of yours is simply
the void coagulating with perdite souls—
and will this be your opus?
I’m embarrassed to admit
I cried at my infinitesimal part.
I will be feeble soon,
barely apt or breathing
during afternoon naps;
and then I will truly be unsung
like you, my indecisive friend.
for my mother
They were not brown like us.
They were brittle and craggily—
like fallen trees—
trees without roots,
supine, rotten from neglect.
They stare. They stare.
I see the mirage of golden rooms
in their mahogany eyes.
but I still see the sunlight in their skin.
for my father
The worker’s hand reaches.
Blood dark soil crumbles
from its palm.
The hand reaches for a virginal berry.
Time freezes as the stem snaps.
As he wipes away his sweat,
the broken flesh stains his forehead.
The worker’s hand reaches.
for my lover
Don’t be terrified
by how the chocolate bubbles in the pot—
how it purrs of dying in your sleep.
Don’t be terrified
how smoothly it pours
like skin that’s never suffered.
Don’t be terrified
that it tastes like a mouth
of nicotine that kisses well.
Ah, it kisses well.
Please don’t tremble
as I drizzle it hot upon your stomach.
It will cool Edenic,
be sweet forbidden on your lips.
I am a violin—
but isn’t it odd that I lack strings?
I don’t need them to make my song.
The rosewood sings itself—
burns of Stravinsky in the candle flame—
suspends its notes like solitudes of stars—
yes, I am the wood of violins,
but without the ache of strings—
and still my brown skin sings.
We were once black furred wolves,
fleeing through pines
toward winter’s dark mouth,
mocking the wooden ravens
who clod through snow
to hide from constellations.
Danger haunted each pine,
but we were drunk on moonlight,
taunting the eyes that stalked us.
In a pale clearing,
you asked, Wouldn’t it be romantic
to die beneath the stars?
But morning came before death.
We woke in a treeless acre,
knowing this was not our promised land.
Excerpt from A Place Where Runaways Hide. Purchase.