flick, slipped between
two phrases. Slow,
you mark my page,
you urge my legs
open. Swim of the
head, the mouth
come to rest, caesura,
tip of the tuning
fork, crura humming,
vocal folds' taut bands
at my shoulder
always coaxing me back
from headlong, if I could
learn your repose,
drop a plumb line into now,
I could live forever, or rather,
not mind if I didn't.
Crossing 6th Avenue,
I felt for the first time,
my foot declining
from curb to street,
my footfall on blacktop
sounding the bedrock below,
and a cab hauled past, sun
veering off the window.
In the bulldozed field
I hurried over red
clay in clumps, upturned
trunks, roots wrenched and
dried. And Stranger,
with your pulse of gold,
as always, you walked
two beats behind.
I leaned into my haste,
the altered terrain.
and then your touch,
and your voice:
Slow down some.
I bristled, then released
my momentum back,
and for a moment settled
in the curve of your palm,
and in front of me
where I was
The Pear Tree
When did you start making pears?
What is a pear?
(she runs her fingers over one hanging
on the branch)
Mmm, yes. It began
before I could be seen,
when the great body rang,
striking, for the first time, the earth.
Over the long day, it lay in the sun,
and the birds came, and the flesh
fell away until all that was left
was the seed. Maybe it was
when the moon swelled
the seed, maybe
when the first true
Did you always know you would make pears?
I wouldn't know how not to.
What is your process?
I've learned to let the leaves
come to the branch
and when the bee is at the
blossom, I listen.
Is dormancy difficult for you?
A period of inactivity.
(The tree pauses.)
I've never had one.
What about drought?
I spread my fine root hairs and wait.
Do you ever doubt?
When the bud breaks the green wood.
Do you ever think of making apples?
What is an apple?
Could you describe the kind of pears you
(A ripe pear drops into her upturned
(after Grenville Kleiser)
It's sweet, really, how you arrange them
alphabetically, as if I could go to your
seeking precision and find something
there under, say, "M:"
Memory was busy at her heart.
You have this notion
that phrases, used correctly,
could actually do something useful.
It's right there on the cover, useful
uncomplicatedly predicated of phrases.
I want to believe you.
Browsing the chapters: Significant Phrases,
Impressive Phrases, Felicitous Phrases,
I feel your absolute, complete, unqualified
confidence that fifteen minutes a day
more effectively than an hour a day of
will equip the reader, me
for a life of clear expression.
We just need to read the phrases:
of unpenetrated mysteries
with unutterable sorrows
that are brief and shadowed
find where they fit,
and our conversation will sparkle.
you imagine we might memorize,
the perfect clothes
for our ideas
silent as the sheeted dead
unconscious as a flower
dining with a ghost.
I have to ask you,
What is your pose on perfect expression
Say any one of these phrases.
Say three in a row.
They fill the air for a moment
and then they are gone.
It is like dining with a ghost,
but in reverse:
the food is disappearing;
you can see it happening,
and you are left, across the table.
Something has been transacted.
The plate is empty. Is someone there?
Did someone say something? Did anyone hear?
Maybe in Conversational Phrases,
I could find something to say to her, now
after a long unaccustomed silence:
but who could foresee what was going
Will you have the kindness to explain?
It's a difficult and delicate matter
I hate that you fucked him in our bed.
I browse the book, every page a distraction;
what I find are my own formulations,
the consequences of an agitated mind.
Something made of language is gone
even as it's spoken.
I dreamed I was rinsing words from a sponge.
I'll show you some useful things:
a hammer, a tent, a compass,
even the paper this poem is printed on.
I swear to God
I was walking home at midnight
and had nothing but a draft of this poem
and I had to use it to clean up after my
I felt the warmth spread through the paper's
and it wasn't just an idea of warmth.
I look to you.
I entreat you.
What could you say in answer?
Tell me, "I have a secret: a whole chapter
of blank pages."
Tell me, "I had my moments when my faith
flagged. Here, look where I throw it all
away and just say "some" instead of reaching
for the loved particular: 'as quick as the
movement of some wild animal' or 'The earth
was like a frying pan or some such hissing
matter,' as much as I despised the indefinite.
Or when I just repeat myself: 'slender and
thin as a slender wire.' You get the idea,
Read the phrases aloud. Listen to that
space where one phrase ends and another
begins. Big expanse of space. That's what
I say now."
And my mother said "You won't find me
in code. Don't look for me
in the words of your child."
She, who filled our house with talk, told
Listen. If you want to know I'm there,
just make yourself quiet.
A task for you: Describe for me
how this dog arranges her limbs on the couch,
how one paw has slipped between the cushions,
and something about how her ribs expand.
Let me see the slope of her skull. Oh, and
please include how the couch is almost exactly
her color, try to show me that color,
that of the couch, and the difference between
See if you can delineate the fine articulations
of her spine--
and try to do it without asking me to look
at something else.
even your name fails you. Grenville?
I'm going to call you something else,
you don't mind do you?
Spirit of Capture, Hope, Faith.
What is there in your name,
its initial consonant cluster, its word-final
that has anything to do with you?
And so, I'm sure you won't mind
if I just call you, say, Byron or Sebastian,
or why not even my own name, Genine?
I want to ask you
Could you stand the shifting?
Just today on the street
I thought I heard hatred in the contour
of a vowel
a wife leaning into her husband, lowered
Did you see him, there, that one with
the purple towel?
I tried to track it, in the falling intonation,
the twisted arc of her sigh.
And I had just seen him too and what I mainly
was a luxury of skin, a graceful body walking
except for his dog, and he had tied a cloth
around his hips so it sloped to a knot,
which I have since slipped open over and
just to watch it fall. And it was private;
I had no one to tell, so he remained for
But I felt, even as I passed him,
the urge to assign some words.
And I can bring this before you now,
this detail: his puppy tumbling,
five steps for every one of his, the leash
I had to admire the precision
of the draping, the assertion of his long
through the cloth's steep gap.
I could have just received it, but gorgeous
and sweep and oh and
I think I actually drew in a breath.
And when I got further down the street
and saw them leaning in, I knew why.
And I wanted to tell the woman
It wasn't a towel. Have you ever
seen a towel that size?
Or would a towel hang with such elegance?
And, could a towel come to so fine a knot?
But she she denied you
your promise; she did not pursue
the right word,
as if the imprecision put her at a wanted
distance from him,
and her husband listened and nodded as if
I wanted to tell her no it wasn't a towel,
But I didn't even want to name it.
Sometimes I wish for no language;
I want my whole job to be seeing.
But let's say the word is sarong.
Now we're in the marketplace;
we're off his thigh,
in a bright noisy store, packed with racks,
all one price.
And if I do say sarong,
I'll say it mainly for the pleasure of feeling
my tongue arch along my palate. And I'll
that what I saw is already in the past
the second I try to put a word on it anyway.
But she didn't even give him that.
Maybe she didn't like the idea of
his valent body,
the confusion of signifiers.
Skirt with no shirt, and then the sigh.
And still they stopped walking
to lean into each other.
I took the permission of the street
to stand there next to them,
nothing to do but listen,
long enough to hear her skid
to the end of her sentiment
and her sigh said, That's no son of mine.
I imagine you were happy
in your dream of precision.
I am touched by your faith in the alphabet.
And you're long gone
and I address you here, what's left of you,
in your binding.
There is some use in that, isn't there?
Just the idea of your book was enough
to make someone buy it new in 1918.
And then again, eighty years later, I could
and I admit it was mainly an amusement,
but I was curious.
I want to believe you; can you show me again
the part about how ideas can be clothed?
And I'll show you how it's all drag,
the moment it passes from thought to form.
Look, you know I loved finding meadow
when my lips grazed the surface of her skin
where her jaw meets her throat
and I know I loved
how having a word for it right there
let me tell her this, let me whisper it
where my mouth was
and bring her into the sun-bending grass
in the darkness of our bed.
And I have heard you, you tell me,
speaking in a garden at a memorial for
a friend, younger than her mother was when
she gave birth to her, whose numerous tumors
crowded the cavities of her body and wrapped
her aorta, diminishing her before her own
two daughters' eyes. And I have seen you
visit her there on her couch and you thought
she's a leaf blown against a sheet of
glass, and somehow thinking that made
it more manageable.
And yes, she told her mother, "I want Genine
to do something."
And I took that to mean, "I want Genine
to say something."
And yes, I made sure when I spoke
to the group gathered in the sloping shade
that I said radiant when I related
of her dancing down her narrow street
because wouldn't her mother want for that
as long as it took to say the word--
for the sun to be blasting all its light
on her daughter
now that she couldn't wet her child's mouth
with water drawn through a thin straw?
And didn't you listen with me
when an M.I.T. syntactician
told the tale of a dying warrior chief
who possessed a word capable of killing,
and needed to pass it on before he died.
He gathered the children of the village
around his bed and gave them each a baby
then told them
"Now, crush it in your hand."
And all but one snapped the fine bones
easily. And that one received the word
because he could manage its power.
And I was soaked in that belief.
And I wanted to be that child.
And the coat check clerk told me,
"Describe it and you can have it back."
So, It's not as if I don't see your point.
But in your stockpile of expression,
can I find a way to get the gist
of this white peach I'm eating?
And for example, most of what I say is
on my dog, and she seems fine.
And what about there,
right at the end
of my mother's life,
when she finally
when she stopped
loading her breaths
and we exchanged breath
from my birth
when what I did was gasp
for air with no words available.
And you say,
See, there? See the child trade breaths
with her mother, and then when the one stops,
the other waits, and when nothing comes,
watch how the child takes her first breath
And haven't I taken a word on my tongue
and held it there waiting
for a breath to come carry it away?
You know I want to find a way to capture
the grace of his stride,
the exact quality of light on his skin.
I want to go back onto the street
and find the moment frozen there
so I can get it all down, better
I want to see my own face in seeing
and disappear into the telling
so that you can see through me.
And even better if I'm glass
and if what you see is slightly more,
if there's a little distortion, more heat.
Note: The title of this poem comes
from the book Fifteen Thousand Useful Phrases
by Grenville Kleiser: "A practical handbook
of pertinent expressions, striking similies,
literary, commercial, conversational, and
oratorical terms, for the embellishment
of speech and literature, and the improvement
of the vocabulary of those persons who read,
write, and speak English." (New York: Funk
& Wagnalls, 4th ed., 1918)