"Don't ever think I fell for you, or fell over you. I didn't fall in love, I rose in it."
--Toni Morrison, Jazz
"My favorite kind of pie is cake. I have a giant umbrella that protects no one. My father is a sadist and I am my father's son. These statements are not lies but perhaps they lack a certain clarity. When one lies, one undermines trust in society--which is not my intention--but if there is a Truth out there, to be had clearly and definitively, I'm not sure I'm the kind that can get to it; and if I can get to it I'm not sure I should be the one entrusted with it. I'm a doubter. I'm suspicious of context. I have enough trouble figuring out where to put the punctuation and I type like a hundred monkeys stuck in taffy, putting the commas where I breathe and the periods where I breathe more. Most of the time I feel like I'm barking and pointing, but one of the tricks to making decent art is to address your weaknesses. If I bark, I might as well bark pretty. If I point, I might as well point whole-heartedly.
"In my town some people use the f-word. In public. As an adjective. Which is wrong. Not just because it's a verb but because it's boring, it shows a weakness not being addressed. It's worse than lying, much much worse, this muddy self-erasing noise. Jorie Graham came to Tucson a few years ago. She gave a reading and a Q&A where she was quite brilliant. No matter what stupid questions we asked, she took 20 minutes to answer each one, swerving from literary theory to art history to pop culture and tying it all up with connections we had always felt but only now could see. In one of her answers she told a story about her daughter. I want to share it here, even though it's not my story twice removed.
"The daughter is sad. I'm so sad says the daughter. Why are you sad? asks the mother. The daughter doesn't know. The days go by. The daughter isn't getting better and the mother worries, frets, paces. The mother isn't a doctor, she's a poet, so she brings home a book. I'm too sad to read says the daughter but it's not for reading, it's for figuring: it's a thesaurus. You can be as sad as you need to be says the mother but you must know what kind of sad you are. Are you sad-lonely, sad-desperate, sad-lacking-in-faith? The daughter sits at her desk and looks at the words she has written on the sheet of paper. It's not that the words are any less true than she imagined, it's not that they're smaller than she thought, but they're limited, they have boundaries, they're finite, and she's bigger than they are, surprisingly bigger and more vast than these words on the page, written in her own hand. Go figure. She starts to feel better.
"What I love about this story is the idea that truth is something you can creep up on, one word at a time; that there's some sort of alchemical math you can perform to ratchet the lens into focus. I'm not saying I do it well--and I'm certainly not claiming I'm doing it here--but that I might be able to do it eventually, practice my weak hand, mean what I mean instead of barking into the void...well...it's encouraging. Of course, there's the other camp, the one that insists that naming a thing invokes it, gives it power. I don't just mean the superstitious among us; I mean, even more inclusively, the socially smooth, the polite. Kafka (or was it Rilke) said that poetry was the axe that breaks the frozen river of the soul, but we walk on the ice as we go through our day, thin ice more often than not, and no one no one no one wants to see the rushing icy river of your soul when you're standing in line at the bank.
"How are you? Fine, and you? It's not that we don't care, it's that we're terrified that someone will actually break down and tell us. Everyone I know is in some kind of pain. Everyone. How do you like them apples? And so, another reason to lie, because we've all agreed not to tell the truth to each other, not about that. Someone put their hand in my heart and they didn't take it back out. If I died tonight, no one would notice for weeks. My father is a sadist and I am my father's son. I learned it well. Do I have the stomach for it? Do you really want to know?"
"Interview with a Policeman"
You say you want this story
in my own words,
but you won't tell it my way.
Reporters never do. If everybody's racist
that means you too.
I grab your finger,
as you jab it at my chest.
So what the mini cam caught that?
You want to know all about it, right?--
the liquor store, the black kid
who pulled his gun
at the wrong time.
You saw the dollars he fell on and bloodied.
Remember how cold it was that night,
but I was sweating.
I'd worked hard, I was through
for twenty for hours
and I wanted some brew.
When I heard a shout,
I turned and saw the clerk
with his hands in the air
saw the kid drop his gun,
as I yelled and ran from the back.
I only fired when he bent down,
picked up his gun and again dropped it.
I saw he was terrified,
saw his shoulder and head jerk to the side
as the next bullet hit.
When I dove down, he got his gun once more
and fired wildly.
Liquor poured onto the counter, the floor
onto which he fell back finally,
still firing now toward the door,
when his arm flung itself behind him,
I could hear dance music
over the sound of liquor spilling and spilling
and when I balanced on my hands
and stared at him, a cough or spasm
sent a stream of blood out of his mouth
and hit me in the face.
Later, I felt as if I'd left part of myself
stranded on that other side,
where anyplace you turn is down,
is out for money, for drugs,
or just for something new like shoes
where your own rage
destroys everything in its wake
Go on, set your pad and pencil down,
turn off the camera, the rape.
The ape in the gilded cage
looks too familiar, doesn't he
and underneath it all,
like me, you just want to forget him.
Tonight, though, for awhile you'll lie awake.
You'll hear the sound of gunshots
in someone else's neighbourhood,
then comforted, turn over in your bed
and close your eyes,
but the boy like a shark redeemed at last,
will reenter your life
by the unlocked door of sleep
to take everything but his fury back.
"What Year Was Heaven Desegregated?"
Watching the news about Diallo, my eight year-old cousin, Jake,
asks why don't they build black people
with bulletproof skin?
I tell Jake there's another planet, where humans change colors like mood rings.
You wake up Scottish, and fall asleep Chinese; enter a theatre
Persian, and exit Puerto Rican. And Earth
is a junkyard planet, where they send all the broken humans
who are stuck in one color. That
pseudo-angels in the world before this offer deals to black fetuses, to give up
their seats on the shuttle to earth, say: wait
for the next one, conditions will improve. Then Jake asks
have ghettos in the afterlife? Seven years ago
I sat in a car, an antenna filled with crack cocaine smoldering
between my lips, the smoke spreading
in my lungs, like the legs of Joseph Stalin's mom in the delivery
room. An undercover piglet hoofed up
to the window. My buddy busted an illegal u-turn, screeched
the wrong way down a one-way street.
I chucked the antenna, shoved the crack rock up my asshole.
The cops swooped in from all sides,
yanked me out. I clutched my butt cheeks like a third fist gripping
a winning lotto ticket. The cop yelled,
"White boys only come in this neighborhood for two reasons: to steal
cars and buy drugs. You already got wheels."
I ran into the burning building of my mind. I couldn't see shit.
It was filled with crack smoke. I dug
through the ashes of my conscience, till I found my educated, white
male dialect, which I stuck in my voice box
and pushed play. Officer, I'm going to be honest with you: "Blah,
blah blah." See, the sad truth is my skin
said everything he needed to know. My skin whispered into his pink
ear, "I'm white." You can't pin shit on this
pale fabric. This pasty cloth is pin resistant. Now slap my wrist,
so I can go home, take this rock out
of my ass, and smoke it. If Diallo was white, those bullets would've
bounced off his chest like spitballs. But
his execution does prove that a black man with a wallet is as dangerous
to the cops as a black man with an Uzi.
Maybe he whipped that wallet out like a grenade, hollered, "I buy,
therefore I am an American." Or maybe
he just said, "hey man, my tax money paid for two of those bullets
in that gun." Last year on vacation in DC,
little Jake wondered how come there's a Vietnam wall, Abe Lincoln's
house, a Holocaust building, but nothing
about slavery? No thousand-foot sculpture of a whip. No
giant dollar bill dipped in blood.
Is it 'cause there's no Hitler to blame it on, no donkey to stick it on?
Are they afraid the blacks will want a settlement?
I mean, if Japanese-Americans locked up in internment camps
for five years cashed out at thirty g's, what's
the price tag on a three-hundred-year session with a dominatrix
who's not pretending? And the white people
say we gave 'em February. Black History Month. But it's so much
easier to have a month than an actual
conversation. Jake, life is one big song, and we are the chorus.
Riding the subway is a chorus.
Driving the freeway is a chorus. But you gotta stay ready, 'cause you never
know when the other instruments will
drop out, and ta-dah--it's your moment in the lit spot, the barometer
of your humanity, and you'll hear the footsteps
of a hush, rushing through the theater, as you aim for the high notes
with the bow and arrow in your throat.
"Revenge of the Jagged Ambush Bug"
Please don't taunt the scrivener
unless he is plopping around in a useless plot,
then you may lampoon him at will.
Don't butter the monkeys, just don't.
And no etudes on the ballfield after eight.
Permits are required for flagellation,
keep your messianic woes to yourself.
Breathing on the bumblebees is strictly forbidden.
No muffins permitted in the aviary.
Talking dogs must keep it to a whisper.
Neither should you pee on the piglet.
You may boogie on the bridge but only lightly.
Try not to spend the summer in a state of torpor.
If you must eructate at the funeral
do so behind a bush, and make it sound
as if a rhinoceros is charging.
Do not write on the gazebo.
Do not sleep during the ranting.
Do not rant during the sleeping.
This is just a fragment of what I remember
of my childhood, and a rollercoaster
I never dared ride, and some daisies,
and ghouls, thousands of ghouls
dancing on our graves. I mean rules,
thousands of rules digging our graves.
That's much better, that's approaching
the gazebo and deliberately, fiercely
writing on it, words that will cauterize
the delicate, the wan and sickly passerby:
Marcus Aurelius is a horse's ass.
There, now I can die with my boots on.
"The War Next Door"
I thought I saw some victims of the last war bandaged and
limping through the forest beside my house. I thought I recognized
some of them, but I wasn't sure. It was kind of a hazy dream
from which I tried to wake myself, but they were still there,
bloody, some of them on crutches, some lacking limbs. This sad
parade went on for hours. I couldn't leave the window. Finally,
I opened the door. "Where are you going?" I shouted. "We're
just trying to escape," one of them shouted back. "But the war's
over," I said. "No it's not," one said. All the news reports had
said it had been over for days. I didn't know who to trust. It's
best to just ignore them, I told myself. They'll go away. So I
went into the living room and picked up a magazine. There was a
picture of a dead man. He had just passed my house. And another
dead man I recognized. I ran back in the kitchen and looked out.
A group of them were headed my way. I opened the door. "Why
didn't you fight with us?" they said. "I didn't know who the
enemy was, honest, I didn't," I said. "That's a fine answer. I
never did figure it out myself," one of them said. The others looked
at him as if he were crazy. "The other side was the enemy, obviously,
the ones with the beady eyes," said another. "They were mean,"
another said, "terrible." "One was very kind to me, cradled me
in his arms," said one. "Well, you're all dead now. A lot of
good that will do you," I said. "We're just gaining our strength
back," one of them said. I shut the door and went back in the
living room. I heard scratches at the window at first, but then
they faded off. I heard a bugle in the distance, then the roar of
a cannon. I still don't know which side I was on.
"A Christian Country"
God slumbers in a back alley
With a gin bottle in His hand.
Come on, God, get up and fight
Like a man.
"How to Speak to the Dead"
This is how it works: They talk. You listen.
Let them go on at length about the harp lessons
and the cataloging of their regrets. Then, let them
begin their questions; most often they ask about the
minutia of the earth. They will ask you to detail
the habits of grass and trees. They will ask you to
tell them about the current cycle of cicadas:
the red eyes, the husks, the sacrament that is sleep.
Tell them of your latest visit to the psychiatrist.
Tell them how he diagnosed what you experience
to be a form of complicated grief. Over their brittle
laughter, protest: No, listen. I paid for that. Tell them
your husband left last winter. They knew that too.
Expect their shrugs. Allow them to continue:
Can you tell us again how it feels to be cold?
Can you remind us of the colors the leaves make
in autumn? How does it feel to want? Tell them about
that dream last night about the invasion. No, the one about
the fire. How there was a fire in the shape of men
marching the streets, how the bystanders threw themselves
headlong into the pageant, their burning hands destroying
all they touched until there was nothing left in the world
but you and ash. Ask them if death is like that.
They'll say: Nothing gone stays gone here; you are never
alone in death. Listen, they'll say, that's the worst part of all.
"Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World"
The morning air is all awash with angels
--Richard Wilbur, "Love Calls Us to the Things of This World"
The eyes open to a blue telephone
In the bathroom of this five-star hotel.
I wonder whom I should call? A plumber,
Proctologist, urologist, or priest?
Who is blessed among us and most deserves
The first call? I choose my father because
He's astounded by bathroom telephones.
I dial home. My mother answers. "Hey, Ma,"
I say, "Can I talk to Poppa?" She gasps,
And then I remember that my father
Has been dead for nearly a year. "Shit, Mom,"
I say. "I forgot he's dead. I'm sorry--
How did I forget?" "It's okay," she says.
"I made him a cup of instant coffee
This morning and left it on the table--
Like I have for, what, twenty-seven years--
And I didn't realize my mistake
Until this afternoon." My mother laughs
At the angels who wait for us to pause
During the most ordinary of days
And sing our praise to forgetfulness
Before they slap our souls with their cold wings.
Those angels burden and unbalance us.
Those fucking angels ride us piggyback.
Those angels, forever falling, snare us
And haul us, prey and praying, into dust.
Sadness, though your beard may be fake,
your anonymity is quite real,
whispered the dying man to his nurse,
raising his arms for his last sponge bath.
Early renderings had no vanishing point.
Painters dream in oil.
Dreams, like canaries,
are sent down into our mineshafts
to discover how long we might survive,
the dreamers, like secretaries,
are sent home in sneakers,
carrying their pumps.
Sadness, you are so Japanese: snow
on just one side of the leaf
that has not yet dropped.
Snow of all snow
and of every lost chance,
last insects walking in fear across glass,
zeppelin beacons pulsing through the fog.
Snow as illegible as the cardboard
held by the man who can't spell
how hungry he is,
kneeling frozen at the fountain
to sail a small boat
folded from his last dollar.
Seen from deep orbit, hearts
wink white with loneliness.
A mother pulls her daughter by her arm.
A little girl pulls her doll by its hair.
Inside the space capsule after splashdown:
nothing. Not even a note.
The hospitals they have built
just for people like us to die in
are built entirely of corridors,
which they keep empty,
except for a grinding light.
Outside, the snow falls without making a sound.
And still the dogs scatter.
"The Dark Sooner"
Then came the darker sooner,
came the later lower.
We were no longer a sweeter-here
happily-ever-after. We were after ever.
We were farther and further.
More was the word we used for harder.
Lost was our standard-bearer.
Our gods were fallen faster,
and fallen larger.
The day was duller, duller
was disaster. Our charge was error.
Instead of leader we had louder,
instead of lover, never. And over this river
broke the winter's black weather.
As though touching her
might make him known to himself
as though his hand moving
over her body might find who
he is, as though he lay inside her, a country
his hand's traveling uncovered
as though such a country arose
continually up out of her
to meet his hand's setting forth and setting forth.
And the places on her body have no names.
And she is what's immense about the night.
And their clothes on the floor are arranged
the mind is its own beautiful prisoner.
Mind looked long at the sticky moon
opening in dusk her new wings
then decently hanged himself,one afternoon.
The last thing he saw was you
naked amid unnaked things,
your flesh,a succinct wandlike animal,
a little strolling with the futile purr
of blood;your sex squeaked like a billiard-cue
chalking itself,as not to make an error,
with twists spontaneously methodical.
He suddenly tasted worms windows and roses
he laughed,and closed his eyes as a girl closes
her left hand upon a mirror.
--e. e. cummings
Meeting poets I am disconcerted sometimes
by the colour of their socks
the suspicion of a wig
the wasp in the voice
and an air, sometimes, of dankness.
Best to meet in poems:
cool speckled shells
in which one hears
a sad but distant sea.
--Eunice de Souza
Tonight, you recite Ghalib from memory;
because poetry, like blood, must come from the heart.
Taking a sip from your glass after every couplet,
the scotch rhyming perfectly the melancholy on your tongue.
You cling to nostalgia like an empty mirror,
to the scent of this language that withers like flowers.
You gather pain the way the sky gathers,
pinprick by slow pinprick, the stars.
Somewhere between question and answer
the feeling dissolves. The need to sing becomes
the struggle not to fall. And you arrange
your ruins into one last gesture,
knowing the Beloved will not heed your call,
knowing she will prove false, like God, or the Moon.
You write to me from Delhi,
speak of summer blackouts,
of how, disconnected from the machines,
you thought of Ghalib--
the bomb blast of his grief
leaving the city in ruins--
and how the history of loss
could be written on a feather.
When the power returned
you turned the lights off,
lit a candle to see
the darkness a little better,
and still the shadows
were not the same.
"Madness", Ghalib writes, "is never without its reasons;
surely there is something that the veil is meant to protect"
And I think of all the years we have spent
listening to these ghazals, the verses
falling from our lips like pieces of exquisite glass
from broken window frames;
shaping our mouths to his sadness,
unbuttoning our collars to let his words stain
the rubbed language of our songs.
What have we been hiding from,
my friend? What longing is this inside us
that we disguise in a dead man's clothes
"I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight"
One must wear jeweled ice in dry plains
to will the distant mountains to glass.
The city from where no news can come
is now so visible in its curfewed night
that the worst is precise:
From Zero Bridge
a shadow chased by searchlights is running
away to find its body. On the edge
of the Cantonment, where Gupkar Road ends,
it shrinks almost into nothing, is
nothing by Interrogation gates
so it can slip, unseen, into the cells:
Drippings from a suspended burning tire
are falling on the back of a prisoner,
the naked boy screaming, "I know nothing."
The shadow slips out, beckons Console Me,
and somehow there, across five hundred miles,
I'm sheened in moonlight, in emptied Srinagar,
but without any assurance for him.
On Residency Road, by Mir Pan House,
undheard we speak: "I know those words by heart
(you once said them by chance): In autumn
when the wind blows sheer ice, the chinar leaves
fall in clusters--
one by one, otherwise."
"Rizwan, it's you, Rizwan, it's you," I cry out
as he steps closer, the sleeves of his phiren torn.
"Each night put Kashmir in your dreams," he says,
then touches me, his hands crusted with snow,
whispers, "I have been cold a long, long time."
"Don't tell my father I have died," he says,
and I follow him through blood on the road
and hundreds of pairs of shoes the mourners
left behind, as they ran from the funeral,
victims of the firing. From windows we hear
grieving mothers, and snow begins to fall
on us, like ash. Black on edges of flames,
it cannot extinguish the neighborhoods,
the homes set ablze by midnight soldiers.
Kashmir is burning:
By that dazzling light
we see men removing statues from temples.
We beg them, "Who will protect us if you leave?"
They don't answer, they just disappear
on the road to the plains, clutching the gods.
I won't tell your father you have died, Rizwan,
but where has your shadow fallen, like cloth
on the tomb of which saint, or the body
of which unburied boy in the mountains,
bullet-torn, like you, his blood sheer rubies
on Himalayan snow?
I've tied a knot
with green thread at Shah Hamdan, to be
untied only when the atrocities
are stunned by your jeweled return, but no news
escapes the curfew, nothing of your shadow,
and I'm back, five hundred miles, taking off
my ice, the mountains granite again as I see
men coming from those Abodes of Snow
with gods asleep like children in their arms.
--Agha Shahid Ali
cracks in the buildings are filled with battered moonlight.
The whole shadow of Man is only as big as his hat.
It lies at his feet like a circle for a doll to stand on,
and he makes an inverted pin, the point magnetized to the moon.
He does not see the moon; he observes only her vast properties,
feeling the queer light on his hands, neither warm nor cold,
of a temperature impossible to record in thermometers.
But when the Man-Moth
pays his rare, although occasional, visits to the surface,
the moon looks rather different to him. He emerges
from an opening under the edge of one of the sidewalks
and nervously begins to scale the faces of the buildings.
He thinks the moon is a small hole at the top of the sky,
proving the sky quite useless for protection.
He trembles, but must investigate as high as he can climb.
Up the façades,
his shadow dragging like a photographer's cloth behind him,
he climbs fearfully, thinking that this time he will manage
to push his small head through that round clean opening
and be forced through, as from a tube, in black scrolls on the light.
(Man, standing below him, has no such illusions.)
But what the Man-Moth fears most he must do, although
he fails, of course, and falls back scared but quite unhurt.
Then he returns
to the pale subways of cement he calls his home. He flits,
he flutters, and cannot get aboard the silent trains
fast enough to suit him. The doors close swiftly.
The Man-Moth always seats himself facing the wrong way
and the train starts at once at its full, terrible speed,
without a shift in gears or a gradation of any sort.
He cannot tell the rate at which he travels backwards.
Each night he must
be carried through artificial tunnels and dream recurrent dreams.
Just as the ties recur beneath his train, these underlie
his rushing brain. He does not look out the window,
for the third rail, the unbroken draught of poison,
runs there beside him. He regards it as a disease
he has inherited the susceptibility to. He has to keep
his hands in his pockets, as others must wear mufflers.
If you catch him,
hold up a flashlight to his eye. It's all dark pupil,
an entire night itself, whose haired horizon tightens
as he stares back, and closes up the eye. Then from the lids
one tear, his only possession, like the bee's sting, slips.
Slyly he palms it, and if you're not paying attention
he'll swallow it. However, if you watch, he'll hand it over,
cool as from underground springs and pure enough to drink.
In the early evening rain
I leave the vault
and walk into the city
of lamentations, and stand.
I think it is September, September.
Where are you, Josephine?
It is one minute until you must appear,
draped in a grass-green serape,
shorter than most people,
more beautiful, baleful...
pressing a hand to my forehead,
slipping into my famished pocket
the elixir, the silver needle.
"Child on Top of a Greenhouse"
The wind billowing out the seat of my britches,
My feet crackling splinters of glass and dried putty,
The half-grown chrysanthemums staring up like accusers,
Up through the streaked glass, flashing with sunlight,
A few white clouds all rushing eastward,
A line of elms plunging and tossing like horses,
And everyone, everyone pointing up and shouting!
Cannas shiny as slag,
Whole beds of bloom pitched on a pile,
Carnations, verbenas, cosmos,
Molds, weeds, dead leaves,
With bleached veins
Twined like fine hair,
Each clump in the shape of a pot;
But one tulip on top,
One swaggering head
Over the dying, the newly dead.