"You're spending your life talking, writing things, getting bills through, missing what seems natural. Still, there's the mind of the widow--the affections; those you leave untouched. But you waste your own. I would point out that a human being is not a set of compartments, but an organism. Imagination, Miss; use your imagination; that's where you fail. Conceive the world as a whole."
Matilde, where are you? Down there I noticed,
under my necktie and just above the heart,
a certain pang of grief between the ribs,
you were gone that quickly.
I needed the light of your energy,
I looked around, devouring hope.
I watched the void without you that is like a house,
nothing left but tragic windows.
Out of sheer taciturnity the ceiling listens
to the fall of the ancient leafless rain,
to feathers, to whatever the night imprisoned:
so I wait for you like a lonely house
till you will see me again and live in me.
Till then my windows ache.
"You cannot save people. You can only love them."
Rain in New Jersey devouring the landscape
like those mythic dragons of another time,
another country. The train window frames it
like ink scrolls of brooding masters,
and now the shingle-roofed towns unroll
one after the other, panoramas
of domestic assurances, warm rooms,
nights with beer and TV. I'm only looking in,
and fictive homes are turning on their lamps,
and I remember mother taking me on the train
out of Manila-–I was four or five, and we sat
at the station and she said you could hear it coming,
first the thunder and then the charged heat
and full stop to stillness. We were running away
but never too far nor too long, because each time
there was nowhere far enough to go.
Her face was purple with bruises, which she hid
with paste the color of early sky. In a day or two
father would be weeping in her arms,
then we'd be home watching TV. Here you feel
the pull of perpetual motion, the blunt gunmetal
of the tracks and the empty stations, the fierce
rush towards and away from absence.
In Eliseo Subiela's Hombre Mirando al Sudeste
an alien has chosen to come to an asylum
to study the earth, and wonders why so much beauty
leaves us emptier, more solitary. And when he finds
no answers, he dies like humans do,
numb with morphine, unable to dissect
the filaments of love. Mother and I always came back
on the same train: the same fake leather seats,
the smell of condiments and rotten produce,
the landscape unreeling backwards. Thirty years later
I am still watching tracks, I try not to look back
too much, I believe beauty is a hint of storm
but it could be anything, the way the alien found it
everywhere, in Beethoven or a frozen brain–
dawn, the perfect ink of it, the nervous arrival
of familiars, and the stillness recurring without fail.
"Something Bright, Then Holes"
I used to do this, the self I was
used to do this
the selves I no longer am
Something bright, then holes
is how a girl, newly-sighted, once
described a hand. I reread
your letters, and remember
correctly: you wanted to eat
through me. Then fall asleep
with your tongue against
an organ, quiet enough
to hear it kick. Learn everything
there is to know
about loving someone
then walk away, coolly
I'm not ashamed
Love is large and monstrous
Never again will I be so blind, so ungenerous
O bright snatches of flesh, blue
and pink, then four dark furrows, four
funnels, leading into a infinite ditch
The heart, too, is porous;
I lost the water you poured into it
"It suck to be poor, and it sucks to feel that you somehow deserve to be poor. You start believing that you're poor because you're stupid and ugly. And then you start believing that you're stupid and ugly because you're Indian. And because you're Indian you start believing you're destined to be poor. It's an ugly circle and there's nothing you can do about it.
"Poverty doesn't give you strength or teach you lessons about perseverance. No, poverty only teaches you how to be poor."
--Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
" 'Listen,' he said one afternoon in the library. 'You have to read a book three times before you know it. The first time you read it for the story. The plot. The movement from scene to scene that gives the book its momentum, its rhythm. It's like riding a raft down a river. You're just paying attention to the currents. Do you understand that?'
" 'Not at all,' I said.
" 'Yes, you do,' he said.
" 'Okay, I do,' I said. I really didn't, but Gordy believed in me. He wouldn't let me give up.
" 'The second time you read a book, you read it for its history. For its knowledge of history. You think about the meaning of each word, and where that word came from. I mean, you read a novel that has the word 'spam' in it, and you know where that word comes from, right?'
" 'Spam is junk e-mail,' I said.
" 'Yes, that's what it is, but who invented the word, who first used it, and how has the meaning of the word changed since it was first used?'
" 'I don't know,' I said.
" 'Well, you have to look all that up. If you don't treat each word that seriously then you're not treating the novel seriously.'
"I thought about my sister in Montana. Maybe romance novels were absolutely serious business. My sister certainly thought they were. I suddenly understood that if every moment of a book should be taken seriously, then every moment of a life should be taken seriously as well.
" 'I draw cartoons,' I said.
" 'What's your point?' Gordy asked.
" 'I take them seriously. I use them to understand the world. I use them to make fun of the world. To make fun of people. And sometimes I draw people because they're my friends and family. And I want to honor them.'
" 'So you take your cartoons as seriously as you take books?'
" 'Yeah, I do,' I said. 'That's kind of pathetic, isn't it?'
" 'No, not at all,' Gordy said. 'If you're good at it, and you love it, and it helps you navigate the river of the world, then it can't be wrong.'
"Wow, this dude was a poet. My cartoons weren't just good for giggles; they were also good for poetry. Funny poetry, but poetry nonetheless. It was seriously funny stuff.
" 'But don't take anything too seriously, either,' Gordy said.
"The little dork could read minds, too. He was like some kind of Star Wars alien creature with invisible tentacles that sucked your thoughts out of your brain.
" 'You read a book for the story, for each of its words,' Gordy said, 'and you draw your cartoons for the story, for each of the words and images. And, yeah, you need to take that seriously, but you should also read and draw because really good books and cartoons give you a boner.'
"I was shocked:
" 'Did you just say books should give me a boner?'
" 'Yes, I did.'
" 'Are you serious?'
" 'Yeah...Don't you get excited about books?'
" 'I don't think you're supposed to get that excited about books.'
" 'You should get a boner! You have to get a boner!' Gordy shouted. 'Come on!'
"We ran into the Reardan High School Library.
" 'Look at all these books,' he said.
" 'There aren't that many,' I said. It was a small library in a small high school in a small town.
" 'There are three hundred four thousand and twelve books here,' Gordy said. 'I know that because I counted them.'
" 'Okay, now you're officially a freak,' I said.
" 'Yes, it's a small library. It's a tiny one. But if you read one of these books a day, it would still take you almost ten years to finish.'
" 'What's your point?'
" 'The world, even the smallest parts of it, is filled with things you don't know.'
"Wow. That was a huge idea.
"Any town, even one as small as Reardan, was a place of mystery. And that meant that Wellpinit, that smaller, Indian town, was also a place of mystery.
" 'Okay, so it's like each of these books is a mystery. Every book is a mystery. And if you read all the books ever written, it's like you've read one giant mystery. And no matter how much you learn, you just keep on learning there is so much more you need to learn.'
" 'Yes, yes, yes, yes,' Gordy said. 'Now doesn't that give you a boner?'
" 'I am rock hard,' I said.
" 'Well, I don't mean boner in the sexual sense,' Gordy said. 'I don't think you should run through life with a real erect penis. But you should approach each book--you should approach life--with the real possibility that you might get a metaphorical boner at any point.'
" 'A metaphorical boner!' I shouted. 'What the heck is a metaphorical boner?'
" 'When I say boner, I really mean joy,' he said.
" 'Then why didn't you say joy? You didn't have to say boner. Whenever I think about boners, I get confused.'
" 'Boner is funnier. And more joyful.' "
"When anybody, no matter how old they are, loses a parent, I think it hurts the same as if you were only five years old, you know? I think all of us are always five years old in the presence and absence of our parents."
" 'You can do it,' Coach said.
" 'I can do it.'
" 'You can do it.'
" 'I can do it.'
"Do you understand how amazing it is to hear that from an adult? Do you know how amazing it is to hear that from anybody? It's one of the simplest sentences in the world, just four words, but they're the four hugest words in the world when they're put together."
"Acts of Disappearance"
It was a world where a moose
could pull a squirrel out of his hat,
children disappeared down holes,
and the lake outside your window
could suddenly go missing.
You sip your coffee and ponder:
Freud said, when we look at the sea,
something like the sea opens in us--
which might explain Scully
drowning in himself or the night
Bobby didn't make it home, and why
I feel like a slick of mud.
Freud was talking about God,
not wax-winged punks shooting up
in a three-story walk-up, not a boy
building a fort--the hammer, the needle,
the report driven hellward.
It was a trick no one showed you--
how one could turn a lung into a lake,
a boy into air, carp on their sides,
the prevalence of sinkholes.
They keep asking for more;
the sea, of course, is not endless,
it only feels that way.
Like nights we knelt on the dirt floor
of a dugout, leaned our heads back,
eyes twitching gone, and popped nitrous
canisters into the communion shapes
of our mouths, slipped inside where
everything seemed to be falling snow,
ice, the time split between chasing flies
through a darkened park and sprawling
in a sycamore bark--how clean that abyss
we drifted in, like dew, more like pollen,
on our skins; and, beneath, a want
for touch, a kiss, a return. Like nothing,
back then, to break an arm latching on
to the bumper of an Impala, or settling back
as the car took us as far as the salted bridge,
before letting the ride go with a mitten
caught behind the chrome waving
from the other side of the river. Like this,
you said, sliding a needle, watching
dope plunge, the body's rush and tow
until you felt something like an angel
hovering above, but it was only pigeon
feathers deviling the air. Those friends
are gone: some dead, dying, locked up
or jailed in themselves; and when I see
some kids running in the heat of a taillight
swirling behind them, I remember we
wanted only to quiet our bodies, their
unnatural hum, a vague pull inward,
some thin furrows gliding over the snow.
"Problems with Windows"
Leave them closed, clear of curtains,
inevitably a sparrow ends itself
on the glass. You must imagine
how sudden everything is
for the sparrow keening away from a jay:
There's somewhere to go,
rectangle of light, glint, reflection,
then nothing. The bird
doesn't hear the thud of its skull,
twitch of its neck; that's for the air.
Leave them open long enough,
sparrows simply fly in. This one
must've tired of the heat beneath
the elms where young couples
grope in the shade under each
other's shirts before it shuttled
through the museum window hexed
with iron bars, and perched on
a light above Caravaggio's boy
holding a fruit basket, the way he looks
alone, almost burdened.
We had windows like that in a kitchen
I once worked, above a table
where we boned and skinned cases
of chickens that bobbed and thawed
in a sink, floating there, headless, wingless,
as if the birds had never been birds.
Shit can fly in, Franky would say, closing
the window, heat, and chickens in on us.
Franky, who was skinny but dangerous,
who lived by the river, had a knack for it
and, like Caravaggio, a penchant for blades.
You see, you had to break them open,
yank out the sternum, knife between
rib and tendon, leave no shard, then mallet
the meat until you could make out
the grain of wood beneath.
Nothing catastrophic happened.
The sparrow didn't crap on the painting
nor try to end itself in the shaft of light
behind the boy's head. It shuttled
room to room, passed Bernini's Apollo,
above the armless statues in the portico,
and out a window at the other end,
though such a rush, it felt torn;
which is to say, it filled me with memory.
Sometimes I look at a painting and forget
what to live for: the histories
perpetuated in the face of the boy,
or for the aloneness, the jitteringly nervous
suspension of a bird. I don't know
if Franky ended the way everyone thought.
The thing I remember is his eyes:
if they looked at you, shit was going down,
and if he stood still long enough,
they trembled like two dark pools.
And I imagine if you looked in the eye
of that sparrow, you would see the same
and a window of blue reflected
and curved and vulnerable
over its surface. Of course, to do so,
you'd first have to capture it, learn how to
hold a thing without crushing it.
In the museum of the perverse,
in Mütter's turn-of-the-century
collection of elephantic scrotums,
cumuli of colon, gray hearts
conjoined and floating in jars,
they have a child drying
in an exhibit case, strung by
wire, drawn by wrist, like
he's levitating. What wasted
him was not clear, for years,
only that he grew rapidly old,
but tacked and splayed as if
being converted or slaughtered,
arms flung like that, how could
Christ or Icarus not come to mind;
yet cured, aged thin, the grain of bone
seems carved, Etruscan or, older,
the size of ones sunk in bogs,
woven in glaciers; though posed
like the dead in the tombs of Fayum,
you have to face them, have to
wait for a pure gaze, a figment
of soul, an image exact enough
the next world will know him.
Somehow the body keeps us
looking beyond form, keeps us
marveling over its hollows: empty
skull, depressed sockets--absences
we tend to, as we tend to narrative:
ash, grind, leaf, until he's only
a child again, selfsame--Look,
he's riding a bicycle, no-hands.
No, he's trying to hug the air.
"Painting of a Cart"
It's like some ancient machine brought from storage, another age,
and if it weren't selling imported flowers, you'd think the cart was
something you'd throw a few bodies on and haul through town,
regular enough its wheels warn of pestilence, poverty, reliable
as a church tower; and if you close your eyes and forgive the blossoms
the old stench might come wafting back, like a distant field feculent
and Dutch, spreading as the cart makes its way down the rancid
alleys, an odor thick as myrrh, slowly rising to a window, a kitchen
where you imagine you are chopping parsley, obliterating the leaves
into a stain of green; how you say to yourself, the wood, the knife knock,
the delinquent kids dragging a cart, clobbering the stones smooth with
their tiny hooves, how could this have ever been so lovely?
"All Things End in Fragrance"
Out the window, starlings
fidget in the wasted eaves
of a bar burned down last summer.
They pilfer, figure,
charred wire, booth cushion,
anything light enough
to haul by beak, wedge high
between blackened 2 x 4.
a bed for the dying
or just born--
The birds shuttle,
their feathers taking on
what they inhabit,
the way, Dear Witness, the silk
in your shirts took asafetida,
mustard oil burning
in a skillet, as this letter
makeshift and late
the leaden face of broken type,
a shape which, for now, says
Stay. Live here awhile
before rising into some other sorrow.