I’ve been told
that people in the army
do more by 7:00 am
than I do
in an entire day
but if I wake
at 6:59 am
and turn to you
to trace the outline of your lips
I will have done enough
and killed no one
in the process.
I am driving a back road
where there are still farms,
fenced cattle, tobacco barns.
I can’t describe my grief,
unless it’s like marching
into a lost war, folding clothes by numbers,
waiting in rank for breakfast
beneath the steamy electric lights
before dawn, crawling in a cave
that hasn’t been mapped.
I round a curve and see two birds
flapping in the road.
One has been hit
by a car, and its mate
flutters just above,
wild to inspire
its fallen partner’s flight.
When Anna was ill,
I would have seen her as the fallen bird,
injured in the road, as I hovered,
watching her struggles,
urging her to fly on broken wings.
But now she is gone,
with our marathon conversations,
her startling questions.
And I don’t know
which of those two birds
— for my grandparents
His scent still lingered in the black heat
of his darkroom, where he spent decades
developing his meticulous world
of insects and flowers.
Boxes of slides
lay piled on top of one another.
Holding one to the lamplight,
I entered a different universe,
where moths silently cling to the stems
In the bedroom
we found tie clips in the shape of airplanes
and then the slender, fragile model planes
he had built from scratch and hand-painted
bright blue with yellow emblems on the wings.
And in every drawer,
countless notes she had written to him.
He must have saved them all,
each one wedding the mundane to a private world
only the lovers themselves could know:
Hard-boiled eggs on the stove. I believe in you.
to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.
This morning as I walked along the lakeshore,
I fell in love with a wren
and later in the day with a mouse
the cat had dropped under the dining room table.
In the shadows of an autumn evening,
I fell for a seamstress
still at her machine in the tailor’s window,
and later for a bowl of broth,
steam rising like smoke from a naval battle.
This is the best kind of love, I thought,
without recompense, without gifts,
or unkind words, without suspicion,
or silence on the telephone.
The love of the chestnut,
the jazz cap and one hand on the wheel.
No lust, no slam of the door—
the love of the miniature orange tree,
the clean white shirt, the hot evening shower,
the highway that cuts across Florida.
No waiting, no huffiness, or rancor—
just a twinge every now and then
for the wren who had built her nest
on a low branch overhanging the water
and for the dead mouse,
still dressed in its light brown suit.
But my heart is always propped up
in a field on its tripod,
ready for the next arrow.
After I carried the mouse by the tail
to a pile of leaves in the woods,
I found myself standing at the bathroom sink
gazing down affectionately at the soap,
so patient and soluble
so at home in its pale green soap dish.
I could feel myself falling again
as I felt its turning in my wet hands
and caught the scent of lavender and stone.
I wanted you to be the first to know - Harper & Row
has agreed to publish my collected letters to you.
The tentative title is Exorcist in the Gym of Futility.
Unfortunately I never mailed the best one,
which certainly was one of a kind.
A mutual friend told me that when I quit drinking,
I surrendered my identity in your eyes.
Now I’m just like everybody else, and it’s so funny,
the way monogamy is funny, the way
someone falling down in the street is funny.
I entered a revolving door and emerged
as a human being. When you think of me
is my face electronically blurred?
I remember your collarbone, forming the tiniest
satellite dish in the universe, your smile
as the place where parallel lines inevitably crossed.
Now dinosaurs freeze to death on your shoulder.
I remember your eyes: fifty attack dogs on a single leash,
how I once held the soft audience of your hand.
I’ve been ignored by prettier women than you,
but none who carried the heavy pitchers of silence
so far, without spilling a drop.
Last night my neighbor was looking a little enlightened,
you know, the way bodies do
after spending the afternoon having sex
on an old couch while responsible people are suffering
with their clothes on in cubicles and libraries.
He had that look vegetables get
in really nice grocery stores where the tomatoes aren’t just red
they’re goddamn red!
He was like that. Like a glowing, off-the-vine Roma
sitting in his living room picking pineapple off a Hawaiian pizza
and telling me about his father who was a real mother
fucker. I ask him if he still loved his dad, or if he loved him more
now that he is dead. Sure, he says, I love anything that’s dead.
Someone’s hand floats up onto the beach
while the body is still lost below the current, a vase of lilacs
turned brown, the black archipelago of mourners marching
up the hill. My neighbor is there to greet each of them
with a box of chocolates and a barbershop quartet in the background.
When my father died, he says opening a beer, he was no longer
my father. He was no longer a man. It’s easy to love things
when they’re powerless, like children and goldfish.
This is the way with enlightened people. They say things
that are so infuriatingly simple when the world is not.
So I put down my Pepsi and pull out the big card.
What about Hitler? I ask. You can’t love Hitler!
My neighbor puts a piece of pineapple on his tongue like a sacrament,
sucks the juice out of it, chews it up, then turns
his head slow like a cloud and says I can love anybody I feel like loving.
And I say that’s ridiculous.
And he says what’s ridiculous is that you don’t. And there he is again,
shining in the grocery store, pulling the bow off
the heart-shaped candies and putting one softly into his father’s mouth.
You know the parlor trick.
wrap your arms around your own body
and from the back it looks like
someone is embracing you
her hands grasping your shirt
her fingernails teasing your neck
from the front it is another story
you never looked so alone
your crossed elbows and screwy grin
you could be waiting for a tailor
to fit you with a straight jacket
one that would hold you really tight.
The world is a beautiful place The world is a beautiful place Oh the world is a beautiful place and its various segregations Yes the world is the best place of all mortician
to be born into
if you don’t mind happiness
not always being
so very much fun
if you don’t mind a touch of hell
now and then
just when everything is fine
because even in heaven
they don’t sing
all the time
to be born into
if you don’t mind some people dying
all the time
or maybe only starving
some of the time
which isn’t half bad
if it isn’t you
to be born into
if you don’t much mind
a few dead minds
in the higher places
or a bomb or two
now and then
in your upturned faces
or such other improprieties
as our Name Brand society
is prey to
with its men of distinction
and its men of extinction
and its priests
and other patrolmen
and congressional investigations
and other constipations
that our fool flesh
is heir to
for a lot of such things as
making the fun scene
and making the love scene
and making the sad scene
and singing low songs and having inspirations
and walking around
looking at everything
and smelling flowers
and goosing statues
and even thinking
and kissing people and
making babies and wearing pants
and waving hats and
and going swimming in rivers
in the middle of the summer
and just generally
‘living it up’
but then right in the middle of it
comes the smiling
The world is a beautiful place
The world is a beautiful place
Oh the world is a beautiful place
and its various segregations
Yes the world is the best place of all
Two girls discover
the secret of life
in a sudden line of
I who don’t know the
the line. They
(through a third person)
they had found it
but not what it was
what line it was. No doubt
by now, more than a week
later, they have forgotten
the line, the name of
the poem. I love them
for finding what
I can’t find,
and for loving me
for the line I wrote,
and for forgetting it
a thousand times, till death
finds them, they may
discover it again, in other
happenings. And for
wanting to know it,
assuming there is
such a secret, yes,
most of all.