I am obsessed with Civil War reenactments,

the heart they throw into each bloodless war
on each bloodless day beginning promptly at nine.

Fear never plagues their history as
how accustomed they are to cannon
roaring overhead every twenty minutes
on the dot from the top of every hour.

Lovely unhardened women with soft hands,
men with dirt carefully applied
each in the same place on
the breast pocket of a shiny, buttoned jacket.

There are no brothers here
on both sides of the pretty line,
but the same who vote
for democrats and republicans
or occasional libertarians,
drink Starbucks before seven a.m. roll call,

allowing the powderhorns always empty,
the canteens always full,
and the dead to fall near shade.

Oh, how we all need your water now, Aleksey
(for Russian poet Aleksey Dayen, found dead after severe dehydration at age thirty-eight)

We’re drowning in it,
pouring over our faces
yet dehydrated
with exhaustion,

Words drunk could give
fresh life to the thirsty
but grave poisoning
to minds saturated, held
captive inside ribcages swollen
and ripe with famine,
throats and exits alike,
burning for sousing
plants of lines,
sonnets, stanzas, haiku,
iambic thermometer.

Were I at Normandy,
landing on this beach
after days surrounded by water;
were I drudging through a barren
unthawed Russian tundra,
untouched blankets of snow
curled at my feet in demitasse
cups and saucers with
pinky not even extended,
there would still
not be

All the king’s horses
(for Christopher James Kranz, nineteen eighty to nineteen ninety-seven)

Blood inside eyelids
can be either vagary or reality
without much matter which;
it still is relived against his face
when my eyes in sleep
press his eyes in sleep.

How did I hold there and
pull a sixteen-year brain
apart from glass in a culvert
in a canyon
excavating for a mind

with these nursery rhymes
so close to the tongue
I could not put the pieces
together again?

Innocence faces a new Challenger

Gathering in Mrs. Cornish’s
on a Tuesday in January,
particularly cold I remember
because it seemed so warm in Florida;
they weren’t wearing jackets.

To someone beneath grades,
the rolling TV cart was a novelty
and more so in the carefully chosen
seat next to Josh, the teacher’s son,
who still aspired
to be an astronaut,
his excitement rubbing on me
like hope of the unknown,

but the only lasting memory
was a burst of white smoke,
a blaze of fire, the knowledge that
something went terribly wrong
without comprehension of O-rings,
Mrs. Cornish’s jaw falling open in
hands that frantically turned
the screen from hope’s quick eyes.

To Leland Stanford Junior’s horse,

who must have wondered why you never came
back to the stables from Florence,
why you never again rode him
through the yellow and green fields
out to Page Mill;

to your war artifacts that,
though unfeeling,
must have wondered why
no rude hands touched the weapons
and collected coins
that rusted in encasements.

A horse is sold off,
a dog is given away,
artifacts are auctioned;

a nod to the things you left behind
when typhoid took you at fifteen,
things museums would
clamber to take,
once loved, once counted,
dispersed now among countries
and cases and cabinets
before rude eyes;

separated at birth from
the collections of memory,

the way a thing is lost to us
when we are lost to it.

“The only stone you’ll find out there will be your tombstone,”

the soldiers had said,
and so he named his mine
The Tombstone,

but out past it,
however many paces a man can walk
in the blazing sun,
deep in the dry, hard clay
of sunburned and vacant
Boot Hill Cemetery,

are the boys who died
with their boots on,

the outlaws who
tell the tales in stone rubbings
and history episodes
of one hundred and ten liquor-licensed
establishments selling into the dawn;
of the Chinese who did the laundry
for the scarce women off at Schieffelin Hall
and the overpopulated gambling men
at the Bird Cage;

of the gold and silver
taken out of the ground for
four dollars a day,
bullion that replaced Mexican cattle
and how well and far the Wells Fargo
knew all the men’s names like gospel
before they were etchings,
before anyone cared to rub them.

The Nugget cried it;
The Epitaph cried it;
the town crier cried it;
the very dirt and gleaming pistols cried it,

but no brave souls
could be traced to peek from curtains
when a hot October day
in eighteen eighty-one
found shots ringing out,
echoing from homes
and stables in an obscure horseyard.

One outlaw took a gutshot
that jerked him
in his boots right from his horse;
one died instantly from buckshot
after being dragged away
by the bootstraps;

and the last,
just nineteen and shot three times,
died in slow, slow, slow agony
—so the placard reads—
despite two injections of morphine,
probably a hint of crying,
and no doubt while flooded with
the mouth of a moonshine growler
from shaking heads and frowns
and futile hands over many long hours.

I wonder in that time it took Tom McLaury
to die his slow, slow, slow death,
if they made him a little more comfortable—
if they loosened his belt,
untied his bandana—
I wonder if they removed his overcoat—

if he even died
with his boots on
at all—

if he truly earned history’s place
with his holed leather
in this ground of booted men

or if he simply stole it
like silver bullion
from a poorly guarded coach.

What kind of times are these, Adrienne Rich?

The voice silenced today
stuck in my throat
where feminist words hang
sometimes, but rarely, on
quiet palate,

where once something to say
was to shout the loudest
to war, to women, to agony,
to justice, to loss, to Auden, to being,
to dispensing knowledge freely like the bombs
or like the heavy rounds.

Where once you would have agreed
there was a need for so much anger,
we might have also agreed there’d
be a time to cease.

Those times never came
in your days,
but still there came
the ceasing.

The only thing left
remaining and true and unscathed
is how my voice sticks now
in my throat
when it tries to speak
of peace.

Her hands were strands of baroque pearls

not completely round or oval
—some pearlers throw back—

but I remember as a child
how the years had softened them,
how she was tissue paper to the elements,
soaking only enough water to weaken
but never to tear through,
the repeated absorbency finding her strengthened
and crinklier, more stiffened each time she dried.

My grandmother was not
a pearl to throw back;
she was the luxury of the mollusk’s mouth
displayed on a lush pillow in a clam’s
bed of rocks.

of stomach cancer,
I only saw her iridescence
sparkling, lasting, polishing itself,
twisting itself in the light
to show off its lustrous fire.

Her hands were softer then
than ever,
the luscious ivory of aragonite and calcite
arranged in a matrix around
some foreign object irritating the mollusk’s center.
Her hands were the last to be thrown back,
squeezing, bracing, firing, twisting in the light
to show off their iridescence,
to cling to the lush pillow even after
the cancer had tainted the rest
of the gem’s final breaths.

If Sydney Carton hadn’t gone to the guillotine,

I might not have been a punk rocker;
I might have believed in love or god or goodness
more than politics.

If Jekyll had prevailed,
I might have known more from science;
the bigwigs could point fingers,
but the yays could outvote the nays.

If Mr. Rochester had married Blanche,
I might have understood how the hierarchy works;
we orphans had no real chance in fairytales
against the monarchies, aristocracies,
democracies, atrocities, two cities.

If Valjean had only told the truth
a little sooner and not to Marius,
or if Javert had given up the chase
before it consumed him,
I might not have been an atheist.

It might have been a far, far worse thing I’d done
than I had ever done.

The absurdity of April Fool’s

Thou shalt not bear false witness
was carved in stone I’ve never seen,
but a younger me
believed my mother when she regurgitated it,
ingraining deep seeds in my impressionable soil
that it was not right to lie,
save for one day of the year;

and the day we have built around it
—the day we condone lying as humor—
was for the April Fish
at the end of France’s sixteenth century.
Poisson d’avril
these foolish men were called,
in reference to young spring fish readily caught
with easy and cheap bait,
those men who wouldn’t acknowledge
the introductory Gregorian calendar
newly claiming January the birth of each year
and renouncing April’s false start.

These holdout men,
these spring-fish men,
were made fools
sent on fools’ errands,
publicly humiliated, ridiculed, taunted;
paper fish notes were pinned to their backs;
some were pranked, some were beaten,
some were made to stand trial,
but nothing humorous spoke in the singling out
where no lies were jested to conceal earned mocking.

The joke
—so history might have it—
was that those rural souls
where news traveled slowest,
who took years to learn that this day
of April was not anymore the sprout
of the new year, or those
who thought January too cold to start anew
in rejection of the winter first,
were outed
with brutality
that we still occasion.

This day of spring,
when even the Christians falsely break a stone,
was brought to us colonists
centuries after France’s Ninth Charles,
when our nations were again at war,
as France and England and America often were;
and we found it appropriate to
laugh and lie about everything
involving it, even then,
to kick the misfortune of others like a
sign upon the back, the continuation of which
we still profess two hundred fifty years later.

Someone laughs a ritualized solemnity next to me now.
I don’t know if he’s lying on this particular day
because I don’t know him when he’s telling the truth,
yet when he laughs
that apparently his was an April Fish endeavor,
I don’t think of my mother
telling me it is not right to lie,

I think instead of France’s Ninth Charles
flogging a fish farmer who did not hear
in the slow news of his day
that the spring
would no longer afford a year’s beginning
but rather his winter of the first
would be not only colder but tainted
with the red of ridicule and the
scaly butt of humor’s fins.

But what if Sally Hemings actually loved him

through thirty-eight years and six bastards,
his earthly good looks,
his quiet manner?

Who could not
when he played the violin,
wrote with fortitude,
could dance,
wasn’t from filthy Philadelphia,
and was so blissfully quiet?

In his forties still with virility,
bet he made a handsome lot
even with an embarrassing lisp,
and mind you
nowhere were we promised happiness,
only granted the pursuit of it.

What if Sally could love that
even as he owned more of her
than we’ll ever today know?

But it was a quiet manner,
for he was a quiet man;

and his wife was dead
but his promise to her that
he’d never again marry
was not.

His strings
of heart and wood,
of horsehair and puppetry;
his words;
his pen;
his violin
were not.

Of all the Arthurs, you were king
(for Arthur Laurents, nineteen seventeen to two thousand eleven)

Drawing your sword from stone,
cloaked in fine French blacklisted armor
when America’s son fell
to the dark night and they expelled
all stones from reach.

But the roses are coming up roses;
if nothing else blooms at all
you’ll still be a Jet all the way,

where America’s son shall reclaim
a kingdom of inherent birthright
along the dimmed lights
of the Great White Way,

and Excalibur shall finally
be your reward
mightier than
the pen.

No comments:

Post a Comment