Where have all the night
The thrum of locusts, those
tin blossoms I loved
To hear ratchet and uncoil
swivel down from the cypress trees,
Are long gone, gone with the freight trains
Slogging through the humidity,
their shadowchurn over
The tarred trestles, their castanets of
wood and air and steel.
And the distant drone of the
Unspooling like bolts of muslin over the
And the faint winglisp of Japanese beetles
Coasting the open window,
up the wall,
Dizzy for that place where the light sprouts-
All of it gone, the night's
And sluiced through the oily gutters,
Into the yawning storm drains clotted
With trash and mud and drowned birds.
Gone and irretrievable, like
a few stray eyelashes
Shed by a nightswimmer
through the dark into darker water.
City of forgotten history,
where are your dead?
What locks has the rain picked? What dark
That silences your cylinders, clicks shut
Your six black moons?
So much undone and rising,
The water thighdeep and spreading
Scything the manicured lawns, jostling the
Rattling the irongates and razorwire.
Rising over the capsized dumpsters,
Over the little-league fields and playgrounds,
Over the jukeboxes and convenience stores
While the poor ride their
down like sheetrock dinghies.
And the homebound traffic
Frozen in orbit on the interstate
Where the radios warble and bleed beyond
And the light we hold onto
And the light slipping piecemeal
below the surface,
This fluid scaffolding, these ghostly constellations
Blurring out of reach beneath
It's the rain that calls me
out and the night
That anchors me here like a stone.
The night, impenetrable, a
layer of charcoal
Sheeting the bottom of a water purification
The night and the silence
The silence that we're all being swept towards.
Who will remember us? What
will I remember?
Once, when I was sixteen and
death didn't exist,
When it didn't follow me as it does now,
This thin, persistent whine behind my left
I shucked my clothes beside the tracks,
Stumbled across a soot-glazed trestle,
And listened to the pigeons rustle on the
As I spread my arms to summon the dumb-luck
And know-not-what that got me there.
I stood on the edge of some
Where trees, washed in adrenaline,
Ceased to be trees, and the single blue
That floated down in front of me,
Just out of reach, held the only light
I thought I'd ever need. When I jumped
The water was no longer
Water, but a doorway, and words a mere
Afterthought filling the room my body carved
In its headlong tumble.
If I could, I'd plunge again
into that weightlessness.
I'd shake this undertow from around my ankles
And sink to where the salamander skulls
Lisp their sandy refrains, where the leaches
Among crack pipes and tires and stray shoes.
There where the fire ants refuse
To die, their bodies rising like bubbles
Through the murky corridors.
I'd follow the water moccasins
Gather the coins tarnishing
In the gator mouths and swim to the concrete's
Where sewage and gasoline scallop the pylons,
Where the names of lovers
Are scrawled in the shadows and the homeless
To cardboard signs. If I could,
I'd hollow their words out
and drag the lost
Faces up from the depths.
But the flood's erased the shore, smeared
The messages like octopus ink.
And somewhere behind the clouds
The stars remain, igniting the dark's amnesia.
From the driveway's edge,
I watch the water
River the street,
sliding and eddying past,
Rising at the intersection where it boils
Into a gluttonous gray-foam,
Biting at the stopsigns and telephone poles,
Spitting its flotsam out, its scum and bones.
Two Mexican boys drift by
on the current
In a dead-man's float, shirtless, their
Dark as skates. Just as they pass,
They roll over onto their backs
Laughing before they hit the spot where
Begin to wheel and surf out of sight.
And all night I'll worry up
Rattlesnakes, the uncorked manholes,
The water's chemical sheen and the silence
Swimming like an endless wind beneath.
And all night I'll worry their
Out of the rain.
I could launch a thousand
Into the eye of the storm to bless them,
Fill the hulls with brand new pennies
To grant them luck. I could climb the trees
With my plastic lantern and light their
There where the leaves whisper
Into the night's tincan.
I lie in bed a long time before
Into sleep, listening to a helicopter
Circling the city, to the silence that lifts
Like a broken buoy inside its whop.
With my eyes closed I can almost imagine
The faint sound of its spotlight sliding
Over the water, over the mirrored facades
Of the skyscrapers. A sound as precise
As a broom sweeping the linoleum floor
Of the barbershop at closing time
When the barber is alone.
He finishes, removes his smock
And stands smoking, watching the news
On an old television. The gray dusk
Has softened the lines on his face,
Just as it's softened the chrome chairs
Behind him and the headlights of the cars
On the interstate going nowhere now
And the curses of their drivers. Soon
They're pushing the doors open with their
The water and the night pouring through,
Indistinguishable, filling the floorboards
In one funneling gasp, the way grain
Swirls and spills from a silo
Into the sunlight and dust of summer.
Although they never describe it as such
To the bystanders and reporters.
It happened so fast, they say, shivering.
It happened so fast. . .I hardly remember
And the barber, believing their words
Are already rain and broken glass,
Clicks off the set and turns to the window,
Watching the drops weave and thread
The letters of his name, his face blank
As he stares past everything
Trying to remember what it is he's lost.
What could I say that he won't already understand
When he finds himself standing alone
In the dark, listening to the wind come
And again, the rain running off
The awning, the sound of water rising?
A dream of flood in the midst
The water goes where it wants
and I follow it
Through the drowned streets and alleys,
Through greased cavernous canals of parking
Through unhinged doors and shattered windows,
Up elevator shafts and down hallways.
Telephone lines fishtail
Dead letters ride up
out of the blue breath of mailboxes.
In a hospital basement, cages
bob like lobster traps,
The shaved pink bellies of rats bloating
Against the wire mesh, the bright tips
Of unsheathed syringes
snicking a code against steel and glass.
Somewhere a lone cello floats
Across a playground of my childhood,
As if the world had never known its music,
As if it had never been anything else
But an empty boat. It docks against
The top of a swingset where crows roost,
Lifting their faces into the wind.
What I remember is water and
No water, the earth spongy
as I kneel beneath
The swing, beside the hole scooped out
Long ago by my gliding feet.
There in a shallow pool tadpoles
Squirm in the mudsuck, hundreds of black
Commas I cup in my hands and carry
To the bank of the swollen creek.
I wait a long time for the
cries of their kind
To rise from the rocks and crushed grass.
Dawn, and the first sunlight
Mustard-pale and seeping
Through the last of the broken storm bands
Scudding west like a fleet of ashy rafts.
I open the window and the morning air's
Steeped with the smell of mold,
Sewage, rotting fish, and something
Unidentifiable: thousands of mosquito eggs
Taking root in the mud, perhaps,
Or the musky scent of night crawlers writhing
In blind ecstasy on the sidewalk and in
I could say, now is the
time to start over.
I could say, now is the time to pick
up the pieces and move forward,
But some good soul says it
and means it
When the smoky rasp of a chainsaw
Flares up and ricochets
Through the narrow spaces between homes,
And then the deep, intermittent
Chortle of a generator and pump, and the
Of an outboard in the distance
Ferrying people and pets and supplies.
I want to say, this is
the music of beginning again,
When a face on the news stops me.
It's a Mexican man I've seen
Perhaps slinking in the long sheetmetal
Shadow of the day labor office off Shepherd,
Standing now on the steps of his house,
The street swollen with water and debris.
He's holding a fishing net
And scooping up a muddy wedding dress
Billowing in the backwash of the bayou.
He stands holding it for
a long time,
Watching the water empty out
Of its lace skirt and bodice. He doesn't
Not even when the reporter thrusts
The microphone beneath his chin.
He stands staring at the dress,
And before I can speak I'm gone with him
To the place where he last remembers it,
Unzippered and crumpled at
the bottom of a skiff
Shored where the cattails bow along the
A half-mile down river from the wedding
The stars never so close and
silent as this,
As he and his new wife swim, the water
So black and warm against their bodies the
Seems to be springing forth
For the first time out of the dark,
Out of their footprints pressed in silt,
Out of the willlowroots and stones and snakegrass.
And when I study his face
And close my eyes now, I can see the rowing
Back, the oars rising and dripping
Like wet wings. I can feel the hot blisters
On my hands and welcome them.
I can hear the music that floods the night
And blesses the boat, and there is
No reason to speak, no reason to say anything.
--originally published in Blackbird,
November 2004 (3.2)
When I dare at last to imagine
I see a farmer wandering his
not knowing what to do, finally,
the day out in the barn's
dreaming of the family dog
deep into a neighboring county
and abandoned by the side
of the road.
Weeks later a boy finds it
in a ditch- -
timid and gimp, a halo of
festering between its swollen
and wormy flanks-and he coaxes
into some pines, tethers it
with a tentstake
and a chain as the late summer
spirals and drapes over the
a mirage the dog slavers and
Consider the boy's amusement
as he imagines the animal
jerking the light
down and the ruckus of bells
and catapult from the treetop
the canopy rent like a piņata,
and circus peanuts, coins
and fluttering dollar bills.
The real possibilities are
The dog as a parable of pain
Hunger as some small iridescent
thing at work
inside the animal, hovering
around its heart
the way a lone dragonfly skirts
the dry pond crater,
dismantling the day-light
from dust, dust unbuckled
By now, the dog's given up,
and the boy
watches its tongue loll in
the pine needles,
the heave and fall of its
stomach, its eyes
following birdflight in and
out of the shade.
Restless for something he
he imagines the music he might
if he thumped the dog's belly
like a drum.
Imagines its eyes are the
color of iron.
Imagines the unimaginable
and does it,
the tire tool and the belly
and the dog's caterwaul is
not like music
at all and when night comes
dulcifies nothing, the dog's
is just a body, is not paltry,
is not glorified.
What hunger is this that haunts
that haunts the man sleeping
in the shade?
Watch as the dragonfly dips
into his open mouth
and keeps going, a blur between
bone and sinew,
a wet thread collapsing soft
caverns of flesh,
gone to where his body is
honed by sleeves of sunlight,
to where the boy ceases to
be and the man wakes.
He knows what flits through
keeps the time with its thrumming,
carrying him away from himself
into himself, to where the
dog roves in the shadows--
ravenous, luminous--its tail
in the heat, a winnowing
sliver of light.
--originally published in
Poetry, November 2004
Gospel Coming Down From The Mountain
In the winter of 1980, when
Was bulldozed over, the crows strutted into
To roost in the trees along Beaver Creek
And spar over the trash bins on State Street.
The mountain shone a pale
The color of a crushed crocus,
the dying skin of a god
Who turned his back on our
town, the double-wides
Sinking in a field of mud, the dim housing
With Christmas lights twittering in windows,
Scrawling the sour smoke of whatever might
Defeat smelled like a lumbering
It sounded like the dozens
of rusty caws that swung
Down through branches, through telephone
And television antennas
The day Little Jimmy Jenkins
and his ilk, white-robed,
A few of the men playing instruments,
Zig-zagged towards City Hall.
I saw it from the second floor
of my elementary school
After someone shouted Parade! and
the windows filled
With waving, giggling third graders.
Rutherford tried to shoo us
Back to our desks, then finally gave up,
wrote freedom on the board
And smoothed out the front of her dress,
For the clangs and squeaks,
for the thin
Backs of the men and their sharp, shiny
To whittle away in the winter wind.
That winter, when the wind
tumbled down the dark,
took it all inside me--
The mountain looming in my
Covered in ice, its light waning
From within, daub of leafrot and foxfire
Black branches clicking like turnstiles--
And the crows in the pines
behind the Piggly Wiggly
Speaking in tongues, spread-winged and gaff-eyed
When they kited down through snow to the
And Jimmy Jenkins, and Mrs.
Rutherford wiping chalk
From her hands, and my parents whispering
About the black and white couple who moved
in down the street.
Winter wind on my neck, flashback
Of the past, it all whorls inside me--
Downtown, bells and the jostle of bright
Shopping at JCPenneys with
When the battered Job Corps bus sputtered
And a line of black men filed off,
Dirty and exhausted from
Construction the whole day, dynamiting
And bulldozing a hole that would become,
The Lee Tunnel off Highway 81.
What comes back are their
And how they hung their heads when their
The one they called Mr. J. D., seethed at
Perk up you bunch of goddamn
sissy fusses and wipe off
Your grubby hands before you touch anything.
And maybe this is a story
told best by hands:
The sales clerk twisting her pencil; my
Clutching her purse, squeezing my arm
Tighter and tighter; the security guard
The handle of his blackjack.
Each man's hands with their
fingerprints and palmprints,
Their sheen of salt and oil, reaching out
The hem of a silk negligee, to stroke the
collar of a wool coat.
And one hand ghosting against
the warm glass,
The white light of the jewelry counter,
Reminded me of a bird,
its delicate hinges and slender bones.
Defeat brindles on the crows'
In the thick scumble of pines.
It shakes itself from the
green needles, a poison
Tunneling through snow,
through a mizzle of sleet.
It's the knifelight in the
water moccasin's eye.
It's an absence, a presence, siltslide and
Where the rhododendron roots fray mid-air.
Gauze and black sticks, halo
of coal dust,
It drowns the poor in the backwater,
the whiskeylight of winter.
Defeat unscrolls like a scrawl
It slurs and spiders in the dark: fractured
Blistering like headlights on icy asphalt.
I remember my grandmother--a
A kind woman, a staunch Christian--
Looking out the picture window
in her apartment
On the hill, a little tatter of Kleenex
In her fist, her lips pursed as she looked
On the rooftops of the projects,
the mildewed brick
And scraps of tarpaper lifting in the wind.
She turned to me and said,
The coloreds ruin everything they touch.
She said, You watch who you make
friends with, you hear?
And I did hear, and heard
again, a little later,
When she asked me over my cheese and juice,
Do you think if you died tonight you'd
go to Heaven?
Later, when I lay in bed fearing
I couldn't even imagine, I gave God a body
And a name, and tried to pray:
I'm an honest boy, Hoss.
My heart is clay, Hoss.
O please Hoss, hollow me out before they
Who is it that saunters there
on State Street, holding his hat
With one chalky hand, flashing his polished
flask in the other?
Brother Defeat in his swank
sprouting like a little flame.
Brother Defeat in his starched
shirt and his tie
Snug in its Windsor knot,
His skin cloyed with the scent of rotting
Heading down to the corner
of Has Been & Never Will Be,
Where Sisyphus --
on his milk crate, polyester shoulders
Worn down to a sheen, pants too tight and
Like a bad dream--
his broken accordion,
Busking for gum wrappers and pocket lint.
Of all his busted instruments,
he loves the accordion
The most, loves its duct-tape suture and
Fingered out on the whalebone buttons,
Loves the mice shit rattling around inside
Brother Defeat leans against
the lamp post, tapping his foot
And stroking his white beard, tossing cashews
to the crows
As Sisyphus, eyes shut tight,
feels the mountain
Crumbling on his back, feels the night
Sweat through his three-piece suit,
And leans into his wheezing
skeleton of song.
Because I wanted to believe
I took the mountain inside me.
Because I believed it couldn't
I thought it wouldn't betray me.
It's the oldest story I know
But now a hole unfurls through
it, through you,
Hoss, to the golf course and the country
And now you're nothing but
the lost geography
Of the soul, not the place but the ideal
of the place,
Some old longing, unattainable.
Once, God was the land without
And those at one with the land
Were at one with God, and
work was not work
But a type of prayer, the sun warm on your
The breeze blowing right through you
As your soul stepped out and
ran ahead a little
Through the high grasses, through the tangled
Of woodbine and buckthorn, through the pines
Beyond the rimrock, and the mountain,
Which was the slow revelation
of time itself.
Each thing the soul passed
through left its outline,
Left its impression, like a wet feather
plastered on glass.
It's one truth I know older
But it's been mapped, cut up, divvied out
So many times, it's worth
nothing more now
Than the broken Christmas ornament
Strewn across the sidewalk as it begins
And Sisyphus shuffles back
onto the bus
For the long ride back to the Get By.
It's too late for him now,
but for a moment
Let me become part of each thing he knows--
Part of the snow planing down,
Into waves of static. Part of the gold glass
in the gutter,
The faint light locked behind each piece.
Part of the stray dog trotting
around the corner
And its teats trotting in the air beneath
Part of the sighs the mountain
And will not fling back.
Part of the sky that unfurls
when he cradles
His head in his hands. Part of the crows
that strut there.
Part of the watch ticking
in his pocket and growing louder,
Time no longer contained but
unbridled, one end of his-
Story folding over onto the other,
Endlessly, the way each thin
flame of a fire
Lays down on the next, until what's left
Is the color of defeat, and
I don't know what set the
crows going, shovel-thump
Or shotgun, or perhaps the kiss of flint
in the backs of their minds,
The way the snow kissed the asphalt, and
the asphalt snuffed it out.
I don't know what it was,
but one evening they disappeared.
Not for good at first, but they ended up
Where they were for a reason:
at Carter's Crossing,
On the hill behind the construction company,
the dead burr oak
Alive now with their shifting and preening,
their smoky skirls.
Fire on the mountain, fire
in the heart
And all those eyes flecked with gold
As Little Jimmy, and the one
they called Mr. J.D.,
And Red the security guard from the store,
Stumbled from a pick-up, tossing the tarp
off the back
Where Sisyphus was bound and gagged
For a watch lifted from beneath the glass.
They only meant to teach him
a lesson, they said,
Until the shotgun was fumbled,
Down, into the blue-black whump and nightsuck--
And this is where the story
swirls and drifts, where I lose my place
For the watch has quit ticking and the men
have stepped into the trees
As if stepping backstage, another act done,
the theater dark and quiet
And filling with snow.
Sisyphus is curled where the
spotlight once was, his mask
Peeled back to the face of a man, the wound
beneath his eye
A wilted flower he's already become,
Just as he's become the clods
of dirt that dribbled
Down his back, and the sound of cars siphoning
from one side
To the next, the sweep and bounce of their
A man becoming something
And iridescent, like the neck of a crow
in a family of crows,
Or their measured slap of wings,
one, then another,
Then all of them lifting through the molten
smalt of memory,
Undulating, as if each bird was of one mind,
was a single feather
On some larger bird,
of flight one more time.
One by one, the men vanished
into the landscape,
And the children returned
to their desks,
Only to cradle their heads in their arms
And drift, for good, out of the story into
And laughter echoing through the corridor.
How can I get it right? How
can I push the pieces
Back into place now that the classroom has
And dead leaves flutter in
the coat closet,
Now that all the textbooks have filled with
Tonight, my remembering is
Than a record of my forgetting, and the
boy is where
I left him, alone, a blurry face at the
Waving now to the white men,
comical in their pointy hats,
Now to the black men on the bus, their heads
Bowed, their shoulders slumped to the arc
of the sledge.
I am him and not him, trembling
in the air
Around his body as the snow
Exhausts its options against the glass.
I am him and not him, the
crows long gone,
The day's lesson done and streaked across
A word that weighed nothing more than the
Mrs. Rutherford coughed into,
Until the cough, or the memory of the cough,
I remember, all the truth has become,
A warm mist where a body once
--forthcoming in Painted
Bride Quarterly, Fall 2005