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“I thought I couldn’t be surprised:
“Do you write on a computer?” someone
asks, and “Who are your favorite poets?”
and “How much do you revise?”
But when the very young woman
in the fourth row lifted her hand
and without irony inquired:
“Did you write
your Emily Dickinson poem
because you like her work,
or did you know her personally?”
I entered another territory.
Do I really look that old?”
I wanted to reply, or “Don’t
they teach you anything?”
or “What did you just say?”
The laughter that engulfed
the room was partly nervous,
partly simple hilarity.
I won’t forget
that little school, tucked
in a lovely pocket of the South,
or that girl whose face
was slowly reddening.
Surprise, like love, can catch
our better selves unawares.
“I’ve visited her house,” I said.
“I may have met her in my dreams.””
Something like soft light, something
This silence, this
pause before the machines
earlier than dawn, almost
awake consciouness remembering
consciouness – itself a dream near the surface
of things – always invisible, the ghost
moving me around:
Hello, it seems to say,
be with me, but I’m
Alone and not alone, all day
I move around, my heart knocking
I think about the perfect agreement
between our bodies, the alliance of hips –
paradise. Our veins
mapped together for awhile:
We have traveled so much
for the territory between us
and still there is a long, long way.
Is this what love is?
On my own, I talk to people.
I turn the same corners with my blood
awake in its maze.
I keep trying to say,
but that’s not what I mean.
You said you’d
never fall down
the stairs again,
so I tripped you,
to remind you
there is no way
to control your
destiny as long
as I hold you
back, and that’s
why I flew away,
giving you time
to escape until
it was time for
us to meet
again, and we
will meet again,
over and over.
On your first date, do not hand him your vagina, polished and thirsty.
Do not allow him to rub your back or your shoulders.
Do not overdrink.
When he offers to come home with you, do not think of your ex-lover’s chest.
How it peeked from behind the open neck of a pressed J. Crew buttondown.
How you still masturbate to this.
Over dessert, do not think how smooth this man’s thighs will be.
Do not think how lovely their dark will lay against your sheets.
Do not ask to touch during sleep, it smells like love
and you have a suitcase to unpack.
You have laundry and dishes and a dog to walk. You are busy. Stay busy.
Don’t muddy your days with honey whiskey.
When the boy at the club buys you a beer, yanks you hard
from your disappearing waist, remember you owe no one.
Even if he is all your favorite music.
Keep your tongue inside your mouth.
Stop his wandering hand even if it’s the only thing good in New York City tonight.
Say no. When your boss suggests you meet Nate from Accounting
who is recently divorced, say no. Say bones break. Say love is expensive.
Remind him you have a dog and no time. You’re busy.
When a friend explains, women have children at 45 these days, girl,
you’re good, smile. She is lying.
Press her rosewater skin under your nose. Press hard.
Pretend it is the skin of a newborn. Steal this moment. She won’t mind.
When Friday finally arrives and your friends leave early, let them go.
Keep your tab open. The bar has been your longest friend.
Churns out warm bodies like a factory.
When the bar closes, remember you are busy. It’s time to walk the dog.
When you dress for your first date in two years, don’t call it date. Call it friend.
Do not let him pay. Share a bottle of your favorite wine, you deserve this.
When the wine makes words slippery as butter, tell him everything you shouldn’t.
Your diagnoses, how you have no insurance.
Count for him all the men you used to escape your husband.
The time you almost got a boyfriend arrested on West 4th Street.
The tryst with a colleague. Describe the miscarriage at 13. Abortion at 25.
The train engineer you fucked in Penn Station, how his son had Leukemia.
Tell how you waited six hours at a roof party
in Brooklyn one summer just to take the drummer home.
How you ran into that drummer weeks later and couldn’t recall his name.
Carefully detail your unending appetite for drink/fuck/fight,
everything nasty you keep under your skin. Do it precise. Calm.
When he runs from this quiet grenade, find the bar.
Tell yourself you did it for his sake. Besides, you’re busy.
Smoke another cigarette. Take another honey whiskey. Let it curdle your face.
You haven’t been beautiful in years.
How astonishing it is that language can almost mean,
and frightening that it does not quite. Love, we say,
God, we say, Rome and Michiko, we write, and the words
get it all wrong. We say bread and it means according
to which nation. French has no word for home,
and we have no word for strict pleasure. A people
in northern India is dying out because their ancient
tongue has no words for endearment. I dream of lost
vocabularies that might express some of what
we no longer can. Maybe the Etruscan texts would
finally explain why the couples on their tombs
are smiling. And maybe not. When the thousands
of mysterious Sumerian tablets were translated,
they seemed to be business records. But what if they
are poems or psalms? My joy is the same as twelve
Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.
O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper,
as grand as ripe barley lithe under the wind’s labor.
Her breasts are six white oxen loaded with bolts
of long-fibered Egyptian cotton. My love is a hundred
pitchers of honey. Shiploads of thuya are what
my body wants to say to your body. Giraffes are this
desire in the dark. Perhaps the spiral Minoan script
is not laguage but a map. What we feel most has
no name but amber, archers, cinnamon, horses, and birds.
Before you ask about my lightning mouth,
understand, I might have been a summer,
though I told like a hand,
though I told like a hammer.
and my demons never were ironic.
I was too possible, like death, like the world isn’t.
Lethargic warrior, you didn’t want an other,
you wanted a desert.
Before you ask about the love-struck bell,
think of all the stairs we had to climb,
the heaviness of iron, but how
once we got it going,
we left the ground, we flew.
Time made me soft around the edges, fog-throated,
an October patois, and though I betrayed you
I never was untrue.
Before you ask about the mercury and needles
understand, I’m talking about weather, how
the wind is always moving on
and snow becomes
salt, burning in my hands.
Your angels were faithless, lines of light dividing
air and dust. Transparent—you, the future,
most of all, your disappointment.
Before you ask what I mean by disappointment
understand, those were butter days,
of heat and sweet corn,
nights of loose horses running through us,
the shine of their silken knees.
I FROM THE NURSERY
When I was born, you waited
behind a pile of linen in the nursery,
and when we were alone, you lay down
on top of me, pressing
the bile of desolation into every pore.
And from that day on
everything under the sun and moon
made me sad — even the yellow
wooden beads that slid and spun
along a spindle on my crib.
You taught me to exist without gratitude.
You ruined my manners toward God:
“We’re here simply to wait for death;
the pleasures of earth are overrated.”
I only appeared to belong to my mother,
to live among blocks and cotton undershirts
with snaps; among red tin lunch boxes
and report cards in ugly brown slipcases.
I was already yours — the anti-urge,
the mutilator of souls.
Elavil, Ludiomil, Doxepin,
Norpramin, Prozac, Lithium, Xanax,
Wellbutrin, Parnate, Nardil, Zoloft.
The coated ones smell sweet or have
no smell; the powdery ones smell
like the chemistry lab at school
that made me hold my breath.
3 SUGGESTION FROM A FRIEND
You wouldn’t be so depressed
if you really believed in God.
Often I go to bed as soon after dinner
as seems adult
(I mean I try to wait for dark)
in order to push away
from the massive pain in sleep’s
frail wicker coracle.
5 ONCE THERE WAS LIGHT
Once, in my early thirties, I saw
that I was a speck of light in the great
river of light that undulates through time.
I was floating with the whole
human family. We were all colors — those
who are living now, those who have died,
those who are not yet born. For a few
moments I floated, completely calm,
and I no longer hated having to exist.
Like a crow who smells hot blood
you came flying to pull me out
of the glowing stream.
“I’ll hold you up. I never let my dear
ones drown!” After that, I wept for days.
6 IN AND OUT
The dog searches until he finds me
upstairs, lies down with a clatter
of elbows, puts his head on my foot.
Sometimes the sound of his breathing
saves my life — in and out, in
and out; a pause, a long sigh… .
A piece of burned meat
wears my clothes, speaks
in my voice, dispatches obligations
haltingly, or not at all.
It is tired of trying
to be stouthearted, tired
We move on to the monoamine
oxidase inhibitors. Day and night
I feel as if I had drunk six cups
of coffee, but the pain stops
abruptly. With the wonder
and bitterness of someone pardoned
for a crime she did not commit
I come back to marriage and friends,
to pink fringed hollyhocks; come back
to my desk, books, and chair.
Pharmaceutical wonders are at work
but I believe only in this moment
of well-being. Unholy ghost,
you are certain to come again.
Coarse, mean, you’ll put your feet
on the coffee table, lean back,
and turn me into someone who can’t
take the trouble to speak; someone
who can’t sleep, or who does nothing
but sleep; can’t read, or call
for an appointment for help.
There is nothing I can do
against your coming.
When I awake, I am still with thee.
9 WOOD THRUSH
High on Nardil and June light
I wake at four,
waiting greedily for the first
note of the wood thrush. Easeful air
presses through the screen
with the wild, complex song
of the bird, and I am overcome
by ordinary contentment.
What hurt me so terribly
all my life until this moment?
How I love the small, swiftly
beating heart of the bird
singing in the great maples;
its bright, unequivocal eye.