Sunday, December 18, 2011

Random Questions

Page 1,961 of the Random
House Unabridged Dictionary
is a world of testaceans and testicles,
the latter vulnerable, the former
protected by a bony shell. They squat
among test-tube babies and tessera,
thankfully past caring about Tesla’s coils.

If I’d been born in 1961 with
testicles, would I have married
me? And would we have divorced,
and I have lost the children? Would I,
like you, have grown testaceous,
drawn into the arched and vaulted
safe house I constructed
and now carry on my back?

What if randomness isn’t
random: testaceans deliberately
sidle up to testicles, page numbers
point, every sign leads inward,
each connection presses down?

If life is a test with 1,961 questions,
will I pass? I’d like to ask a turtle
if the shell is worth the weight.
I’d like to ask the Tester,
which tessera am I, a holy tile
in Your mosaic, or merely
a fragment of bone?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Villanelle for an Afghan Boy

This poem first appeared in the California Quarterly.

It seems my math class kills his joy.
He tucks his chin as he enters.
He’s a quiet boy.

He doesn’t try, just sits, uncoiling
lanky limbs. He won’t experiment
with polygons or graph a trapezoid.

“Math Class in Your Country” – he’d avoid
that essay choice, I was sure. One fluent
paragraph for a B. He’s such a quiet boy

that when he turned in a whole page, I rejoiced.
Then his words humbled my impertinence.
My math class didn’t kill his joy.

The Taliban came to his school with toys,
then laid out his teachers dead-center,
dead; he survived by being a quiet boy.

Sixteen of his teachers’ lives destroyed –
zero survival of dissenters.
There’s the math that killed his joy
and made him a quiet boy.

X's and O's

This poem first appeared in Bellowing Ark.

Blackberries from your ex-husband,
are never plump and juicy. He
will not cull the unripe pips, the ones
you argued about back when you were
still married. His bitter berries
bruise your tongue.

Bills always multiply,
never divide or
subtract, and the balance
loves zero.

Late at night, alone, you
fumble upward. Christ!
you cry, reaching
the big O.

Waiting at an intersection,
your lover speaks. I’m
Robin Hood, he
says. I steal from the
median if I see an endangered
plant. Sometimes I give
up looking,
he says,
and then there it is.

You draw an O in the center
square, trying to block four X’s.
You tuck the blackberries
behind the milk, hoping God
is still in the fridge, minding the


This poem first appeared in Aura Literary Arts Review.

larva (plural larvae): the immature, wingless, feeding stage of an insect
larvae: in Roman religion, the ghosts of the family dead

A Roman woman knew to place a stone
in her womb, a primitive barrier.
Did she know as well the herbs, the chants
and spells, to end unwanted life?

And later, did a tiny larva, wingless,
follow her as she swept the floor,
bathed and tended the fire, ate grapes?

Did she then cast a prayer to the sky, bake
a propitiatory loaf of bread?
And did the larvae of her making, her
personal contribution to the
family dead, did her larvae depart?

Or did it follow her still, as she swept,
as she baked and bathed and shopped
and prayed, as she wept?


This poem first appeared in NDU Presents... Survival.

“Acariciando la muerte,” collage by Luis Gonzalez Palma

Her eyes unblink of death; silver print
Kodalite glows softly, young and knowing.
Smoke rises, eight cakes, a grove of candles lit
and spent. Singed birthday cards say Siempre es grato,
her siempre a sepia crown of thorns and promise
rings. Acariciando scratched like a scar
on gray plaster – embracing, Acariciando
la muerte.
Her interrupted life has been stapled
with love to the wall. A plain oak frame,
her bounded casket, encompasses boundless grief
yet also joy. They celebrate her life, reclaim
her eight whole years, happy birthday, and I believe
their embrace, their always. My own deaths unseal
and siempre, acariciando, felicidades, I heal.

Grieving My Father

This poem first appeared in Margie: The American Journal of Poetry.

Our father died again tonight
on the island of Lesbos. A crescent
moon hung over the castle,
and the stench of a thousand
slaughtered pigs, an offering
to Demeter, wafted down
celebratory roads. On our street,
a traditional lead tablet, nailed
to the wall with forged lead
nails, curses all lawyers.

Five years ago, we rented a grave
for our father, a ruddy-faced peasant,
too red said some, blood
red. Tonight we dug for his bones,
to place him in the box
my brother built. In the shadows
cast by torches, his flesh
was still fresh, a vampire, they said,
and the whispers spread like a winter
storm. The priest brought a lead
spike and drove it through our
father’s chest. The ribs splintered
and the blood was a dry black stain.

We must pay a tithe of our harvest
for another five years to rent
his grave again. Others
sleep soundly tonight,
the vampire vanquished, but I
cry for the twice dead.

Vincent Implores Her Husband

This poem first appeared in Ship of Fools.

“Oh, God, what fun it is to be happy again, & to be writing romantic ardent nonsense to the only infant dragon-killer since Hercules wore didies.”
Edna St. Vincent Millay, letter to her lover, George Dillon, 1928

Eugen, I have met a man, a youngish
man. He is tall and slender,
with black wavy hair. He is a baby really,
an infant of twenty-one. He drawled,
“I’m George Dillon,” and he’s a poet.
What could I do but fall in love?
You will say he is too tender
for me, but what are fourteen years?
You say his lips cannot be as soft
as a young girl’s nipple, but they
are. You will like him too, Eugen, love,
I know it. You must. He admires you
already; you must meet soon.

Eugen, darling, my cavalier, you must
write George at once and invite him to
Steepletop. Invite him to stay with us.
He has taken a job in Chicago, poor
boy, so far from his Kentucky, too far
from New York for weekends. You must
convince him that I love him.
How could I not? Eugen, we must
show him the pool we built, and the
blueberry pasture. I will sit on his bed
and feed him an omelet, then we three will
drink coffee on the terrace, and be silly
and wise, like children.

Eugen, tell him I need him here. Tell him
I have written twenty-six sonnets. Put them
in your letter. I wrote them for him, but
two of the sonnets are for you, Eugen; you
must tell him so. Tell him we will
wash dishes and fire off our guns. Tell him
we will write beautiful sonnets, terrible
sonnets, and the poems will last,
whatever comes of love.
Tell him to come, Eugen.

How to Die

This poem first appeared in the Wisconsin Review.
[This poem has indents, which I can't figure out how to insert here!]

My father taught me first.
His fingers
weak, he instructed
my aunt step by step how
to replace the frayed
cord on the television.
That night,
he walked step by
step, we never knew
how, into the backyard and
pulled the trigger

Keith taught me next. He
apologized as his thin hand
lifted to wipe the spittle from
his chin. He worried the doctors
were ignoring the man in the
next bed. I tried to tell him
it was all right to die. My words
twisted in circles as his fingers
stroked the back of my hand. He
held tight until New Year’s Day.

My mother taught me last.
In a coma, not a Hollywood
coma, she waved her arms
in circles and talked to the angels,
arguing her way into
She backed out of
the tunnel when my brother
wailed, lingered a last few
hours though we daughters
begged her death-rattling husk
to let go.

Chambers Dictionary

This poem first appeared in Eclipse: A Literary Journal.
[This poem has indents, but I can't remember how to make them show up!]

Because it had a hard green cover,
even though it was tiny, only
two and a half by three inches,
and because my father had carried
it, read it, held it in his breast
pocket for four years, the hard cover
wearing a little at the edges,
and because he had given it to me,
a rare gift,
and because words were our blood
bond, his PhD in structures
of personal cognitive dictionaries,
my inherited trust in the alchemy
of who and why,
and because at seventeen I put it in a box
and sent it to Denver with my college-
bound books,
and because the post office lost the box,
though I looked and asked and wrote,
and he forgave, more he didn’t need
to forgive
because he understood,

since I was alone a thousand miles
from home for the first time
and although or because I didn’t miss home
since or because he wrote me letters
about reading Piaget, grading freshman
(I was a freshman) papers while watching
the Cubs beat the Yankees or Gary
Player win the Masters,
or perhaps because during World War II,
at my age, he memorized the tiny
dictionary, word by word, abacus
to zymurgy,
and because he played with the words
in his diary, with the haughty expression,
of one about to sneeze,
the diary I am now publishing,
and because words are the thread I hold,
the yarn I unravel to knit
twenty-six years (he died in 1982), the dictionary
is as pliable and green
as if I held it still,
and perhaps or because or since or although

they are both lost,
they are both gone,
they are both here.


This poem was first published in the Wisconsin Review.

My daughter lives inland, three thousand
miles away, and I sit by the shore
and skim stones. I remember an early morning
she sat beside me here. We walked on the sand,
all four feet bare, hers for the first time.
She ran in and out of the waves, laughing,
and I named the shells for her. Soon her soles
softened in the brine, and the mussel shards
stung her toes. We turned back, the wind
behind us now, and I carried her. My shoulders
blocked her from the icy breeze, though it blew
chill against my nape. Later I showed
her how to pick a smooth stone, how
to toss it with a light flick of wrist.


This poem was first published in Bellowing Ark, under the title "The Dance."

Years earlier, we had waltzed
all night at Octoberfest,
Keith’s dancer’s thigh wedged
between my legs as he
whirled me breathless.
We ate breakfast at a Pancake
House at 5 am. Gesturing
with his fork, he
explained the fundamental
difference between us. I liked
people, he said, and he didn’t.

I spent my fortieth birthday
on a stone bench, facing the
gray waters of English Bay,
a block from St. Vincent’s Hospital
where Keith lay dying. I
thought of the man who loved
too much to like anyone. I heard
his voice, not hoarse with death,
but bright with annoyance,
scolding, tossing criticisms
like Mardi Gras beads. I felt
again his arm wrapped
around my torso, lean
muscle guiding my hips
in wrought iron spirals
around a wooden floor.

Snake Skin

This poem first appeared in the Limestone Dust Poetry Festival Anthology, and was later anthologied in the Best of the Austin Poetry Festival Anthology.

Oddly, it begins
in the fingertips, the compulsion
to fit thousands of tiny pieces
into jigsaw puzzles, to place
jacks on queens, to masturbate
everything toward something.
When the fingers are raw
it moves up the arms like a year-long
heart attack and only when it reaches
the valves do you recognize it
and weep. The molting

continues toward genital
experiment, organic stupidity,
coitus more painful than
guilt, stripping layer by layer,
a scalpel that peels to the
amoral bone. And at last,

the feet move, step from the old
skin, naked on glass, tread
one step. And the spine straightens
and the arms swing and the hands
tingle and the head throws back
and hopes

maybe the old you
will become just a memory
handbag, a tote that with luck
will be left to the Salvation Army
in a couple of years.