Various and Sundry Poetry

initiation

You don't need a sweat lodge stripping your secrets bare. You don't need a hailstorm drilling you hellward. You don't need the hands of a priest, the call of the wild, a mikvah, a marriage, a set of inscrutable symbols branded on your skin. You don't need your past tossed into the fire, or a drum beaten to oblivion. You don't need grief. You don't need drowning. You don't need silence. You don't need a fist squeezing your throat breathless. You don't need to flay yourself before your jurors, a moment of truth before your god, your story guillotined before the riotous pleasure of a taunting crowd. No. You need the great splintering yawn of love. A touch that fractures you from the meagerness you keep believing you deserve. A kiss that springs you from your long-paid penitence. You need the blood-striped bulbs of the amarylis. The sugar from an orange sliced into eighths. You need that bead of sweetness on your tongue, a brief but poignant reminder you have not scraped your heart for nothing. There is a song stirring in the distance, like when the palms sway in Hawaii in a late afternoon rain that brings a twinkle of windchimes. It is coming for you, slow but impeccably sure. It is carrying new words, a language you haven't yet learned but which will - when it arrives - feel like it's lived inside of you forever. It has. The beginning has already begun. Your mouth has memorized those syllables. Your cheeks are blushing with that music. While you've been away, fighting your nameless, ageless war, your whole body has been tuning itself to sing.

close to the bone

Last week's snow is almost gone. We've run out of butter and are down to the last banana. The orchid is managing on the windowsill with the weak winter light. The dryer has buzzed its final load, and clean sheets have been stretched over the guest bed. The dog has lost interest in her ragdoll toy and is lying with her head, limp, beside the couch throw. The house is still save the whisper of heat rising from the vents, and I am looking at you looking out the kitchen window, an empty cup in your hands. And here it is again, that swell of love in my chest, so close to the bone it feels like my whole body could break. But then a breath swoops in and my lungs inflate and I don't break at all. Instead, that one breath floats me next to you, and my hand reaches for your shoulder until it lands, softly, on that branch, and we stand parallel, our gaze pointed somewhere further than this yard and the band of trees at its edge. Somewhere further than these neighbors, this street, this town with its Italian delis and Friday night football and park geese clustering the playground. We watch as morning fills the sky. We watch as the sky fills with us.

broken little bird

I mean you, bird. Wings at half-mast, legs awkward as marionettes, the cold slowing your movements across the busy highway. I mean you, bird, hesitating before the lucky find of a castoff meal left in the wake of the lunchtime rush. You, who can't quite believe good fortune could still be yours, a sustained current of warm wind, a nest-in-waiting from the town park's burgeoning trees. You who have married yourself to slim pickings, to underwhelm, to the quiet, reliable despair of longing. I mean you, bird. Eyes cast to the underpinnings of pavement, distrustful of your own weight and whether even this stone-solid patch could hold you. You, with your fists curled under, preserving some imagined ration of comfort, your back against a wall-less wall. I mean you, bird, feathers bristling with messy, irreconcilable fear, throat flattened, lungs a feeding frenzy of air. This is not the time, bird, to offer the sky your acrobatic heroics, spinning extravagant spirals into that endless blue. Nor is this an invitation for surrender and abandon, flinging untethered muscles into the deep heart of your aching, to make a display of your exposure and pain. Consider, instead, the small, earthly intimacies. The flex of your neck at rest. Your eyes adjusting, incrementally, to the dark. Your shadow, bundling itself up like it always does, intent on keeping you close. You are a broken little bird and flight is not your ally just now. You are a broken little bird but you are not dying. You are not gone.

what she meant to say

It wasn't the poem she wrote. Those lines were ornament, a pantomime, a jazz-hands metaphor. It's what she meant to say. About the give of the couch when you hold someone in their astonishment and grief. About the sharp taste of bourbon on the tip of the tongue when the truth comes out, and how that one motion plucks you off the pedestal of your own feigned innocence. About a Tuesday mid-winter and another rash of snow coming, and about lying in the dark and feeling the breath of the one you love while the night sky dimples with clouds. What she meant to say was something about patience and about company, and about the quiet, drifty warmth that falls to her shoulders out of nowhere - a shared roll halved by butter, the sleepy glances from the dog, the silhouette of branches on the back deck that make a jagged frame of the moon - when she knows, for certain, she is not lost. What she meant to say is tucked under, like wool socks in the weave of an heirloom blanket. Hidden but felt. Elusive but known. She recognizes its particular softness, the warmth of it, bowed down at the knees, making a promise to her skin.

the summons

Show up. Be messy. Take care. Face forward. Admit what you don't know. Admit what you do. Wash behind your ears. Paint your toes on the back porch. Roast marshmallows. Talk to yourself on the long drive. Sip slowly. Stand up. Move your legs. Breathe deeply. Discover a wrong turn. Turn around. Lift your chin. Accept help. Say thank you. Stay warm. Keep your grip light but firm. Fall. Get up. Again and again and again.

synonyms

Don't say you haven't written a thing.
There was that recipe for your father's crepes.
Your signature on the check that paid the water bill.
Your poor penmanship that made your phone number look indecipherable
to the woman who might have offered you a job.
The thank-you note. The birthday card.
The loops on a steamy bathroom mirror.
The jackhammering of a near-empty pen on looseleaf.
The doodle during the Musak that kept you on hold with the bank.


In the seat of wordlessness, you nevertheless pantomime,
your eyes cartwheeling wildly, and even in the great kiss
that broke you in half and made you whole, you were making
an additional effort
with your hands,
and the synonyms for happiness and gratitude
careened out of your pores until the air was thick
with your fog-tinted love songs.
So you see.


When you say
you haven't written,
we both know
you're lying.
The world has become populated
with your poetry.
The words are all over
your face.

New York Love List

in honor of Sherry Richert Belul and http://thenewblack-friday.com/
(written in collaboration with Amy Tingle Williamson of www.bravegirlsart.com)

1. I love how even after the show ended, I was still singing.
2. I love that High Line is a writing metaphor.
3. I love how the view of the skyscrapers is less about outside than inside.
4. I love that every sidewalk square is a new discovery.
5. I love that in the midst of Times Square, and the chaos of holiday shoppers, your hand reaches to take mine.
6. I love the sound your boots make as we walk to Columbus Circle.
7. I love the improbable collisions, the small serendipities, the unexpected gifts that come just because you walked another block, or took the next subway, or waited for the tourists to pass before you crossed the street.
8. I love the constellations above Grand Central Station.
9. I love the maze of Central Park, and how I want to go there with you, now, and get lost.
10. I love the way my heart pulses in my fingertips when I share my favorite skyline with you.

For you are wild and have earned your freedom

for Jen Gray

The water has made a war of this beach.
I walk, after the storm, past a graveyard of shells,
a skeleton of a horseshoe crab that lost the battle
even before the first cloud gathered off-shore. The sand
is a scatter of color - pale yellows, half-pinks, a rake a rust,
a blue plastic boat, a small white shovel abandoned when
a frantic mother called the kids to safety. You would tell me
this is the time to dance, among this ruin and beauty, this
funny cast of characters upended and cast off and orphaned.
You would tell me I am most welcome here, my brokenness
a friend to all who are wounded. You would show me
the glinty fragment of joy winking from my shoulder blades.
You would hold your hand out to the roiling waves and say,
"These are your teachers," and then point to me
and say, "And you are theirs."
The water has made a war of this beach but I am
here anyway, just like you showed me, here
in my messy little glory.
For I am wild and have earned my freedom.
For I am free and have earned my wildness.

She said, Sail hard

She said, the waves are going to be brutal.
She said, your boat will be ill-equipped.
She said, the ocean will not be a friend,
a goddess, a metaphor.
Sail hard.
I am looking at my thin arms.
I am considering that chaos
Just beyond the sandbar.
And clear as ice, I see
this journey is not for the faint-hearted,
the weak-kneed, the foal-limbed.
The roar of that wind, even now, before entry.
The barrel of that water.
I look at her with questions blinking from my eyelids,
salt already on my lashes.
How? How?
She doesn’t answer, only places a thumb against my cheek
to catch the first tear.
The slight pressure on that bone –
it is enough.
It is a compass.
It is the beginning of the first stroke.

toward firelight

It isn’t enough to find your gaze across mine over coffee and know we’d shared a sweet and heavy sleep the night before as the equinox wrote itself in the fallen leaves and the rustle of air on the back deck. It isn’t enough to have poured you that second cup, to have delivered fresh warmth to your lips, to see the knob of your throat rise and fall a few degrees and feel the small luxury of this stolen moment before the day unwound its threads. It isn’t enough that just yesterday, I cried good tears into your neck, telling you the truth about some long-buried thing. This hunger begets hunger. I cannot stop the great uncoiling of desire, the way our bodies keep disrobing their old masks, how we have returned to obliterate history through this clear-eyed, antidotal love. It isn’t enough to swallow that medicine whole. Like a moth, I am flinging myself irreverently toward firelight. I'll never know how close we are to dying, but I won’t stop until everything burns.

it's this:

Today I will begin the day disheveled, unkempt, askew, two left feet and wrong angles, a few cards shy of a full deck, a fraction, a decimal point, a marginal error, an unremarkable percentage. And it won’t matter, it won’t, because it doesn’t matter, not really, not in the grand scheme, the bigger picture, the whole kit ‘n caboodle, not in the way that anyone will remember, and not really in a way that I will either, and it’s not out of ignorance or avoidance or the inability or unwillingness to face reality. It’s this: I am happy. And that changes everything.

that red

Let me be the one to see it first,
fresh out of the shower, hair still plastered
on your neck, the one to watch the slip
of the towel, the walk across the bedroom in bare feet,
the one who sees you pause before the open closet,
rifle through the obvious safe choices, the softer cottons, the knee-lengths,
the carefully belted and collared, the PTA dresses, which no one
would discuss under their breath, which the grocery clerks have seen you in
on late-afternoon runs for ice cream, the ones something has been dropped
or wiped on, a pearl of chocolate chip, a dim trickle of mud from picking up the mess
in the front yard, a fuzz of irreversible rust from the faucet in the guest bathroom.
Let me be the one, casual, unnoticed, as you comb fingertips through color
and distraction and habit and land on that red, and pause and consider and do that
slow turn inside, the giddy question you already know the answer to.
Let me see you saying that kind of yes, that kind of dress, that first brush
of fabric against your collarbone, the unfolding past torso, past hip,
past history, past I'm-not-the-kind-of-person-who-
and let me be the one to see you pirouette in front of the full-
length mirror to birth a microscopic joy on your lips that blooms and blooms
until the room spins with it, and I, too, spinning, falling into that red and that you
who is that red. You are that red. You are
that red.

we are, I am certain

It is not quite four o’clock on the morning
the yellow light coming in that one corner window
from a wayward porch down the block and crickets
still in the throes of their nocturnal chorus. But this reedy hour
is thick with promise, and here the night is broken into two halves:
question and answer, your arm reaching around my shoulders,
fingertips calling my name until my lips find themselves waking
at the rim of your collarbone. And here is where I lose track of the picture,
the narrative slipping from the room like a silk gown,
like the underwear you coax from my hips and nudge to the edge
of the bed, to the floor. We are, I am certain, a single body then,
one long muscle emptied of its muscle, leaning toward the other
as if in prayer, with no one, not even God, as our witness.

 

underneath this city

The  New York subway tunnels in July hold
an indescribable heat.

We woke early on Sunday. You reached
for me, or I for you, I can’t remember which.

I don’t know these lines well yet. I am a fish
wriggling my way upstream.

You brought coffee, strong and hot, lay it
gently on the nightstand.

I keep thinking about the time that it will feel
like I’ve lived here forever.

Whenever our gaze collides, I am certain I could swim
in your eyes
forever.

A small window of good fortune: the late night train
arriving without a wait.

I go to sleep wrapping arms around you,
even when you’re not there.

Underneath this city, another city.

Love, humming through the tracks.

sweetest relief


It’s not just that she gets me, I wrote
to Jeanette, who lives in Phoenix,
on the way down to New York, in a text message
on the Peter Pan bus with spotty reception,
next to Abby, who has lived on the Upper West Side
for five years and was complaining about the lack
of signage at the Springfield terminal.
Jeanette had written to say, damn I miss you,
and then “what have you been up to?” which is not an easy
thing to explain on the tiny keyboard of a mobile phone.
“Love, baby,” I wrote back. “I feel like I found
a needle in a haystack.” I hoped I wasn’t inadvertently rubbing it in –
I knew Jeanette had been in her own stew of second-guessing,
something gone sour these past months, but I
couldn’t help it. I was gushing. “So lucky,”
I continued. Jeanette wrote back,
“That made me teary.” And then, “It’s no small thing”
and “So very rare,” and I said yes , it was. “But it’s not just
that she gets me,” I tapped on as the bus pulled into Hartford
and I saw the line at the terminal, bare shoulders shiny
from the heat, couples bearing weekend luggage and taking
drowsy pulls from water bottles. I felt, suddenly, quite gluttonous,
full of bright, buttery love for the whole world. “It’s that she likes me,”
I wrote, even though there was no way to do the italics. But Jeanette
is a smart cookie. “Grab hold of it and let it take you,” I read
and the bus pulled out with something between a sigh and squeal
and a moan. “Yes,” I wrote back, because there was nothing left to say.
The air conditioning kicked on again, the sweetest relief,
and we all settled back in our seats, bags stowed,
as the bus made the turn to the highway heading west,
then south, New York on the near horizon, so close
I could almost see her hands stretching toward me,
beckoning.

I forget my manners

We’re not ready for this yet, me entering the house
as if I’ve been living here for ages, putting my feet
on the coffee table, helping myself to cold club soda
and crackers from the pantry, a wedge of Reggiano.
This is not the script we’d been writing, the long emails
and two-hour phone calls, breathing new words
into the room, breathing new hearts
into our hearts. There was talk, briefly, about an attic room
rental, something tidy like that, but no, we said, that feels
like not the track we want to ride on and too soon and all of that
careful footstepping you do when you’re realize
you are in fresh territory, a foreign country you actually
might want to move to, so you make the right agreements and take
precautions against a premature and overzealous desire,
keeping your affections confined to the page and the phone
and the bedroom.

But then, I can’t help it, I forget my manners,
see the new push mower on the front porch
and make a beeline, and like some scrubby new spouse
begin the zigzags on the lawn, already overdue for a trim, and don’t
think twice. Later, even worse, I spot the weeds, unruly and ecstatic,
and spend the last light of the day bent double at the hips, pulling,
returning the garden to the garden.

Though maybe I have broken no rules at all.
Maybe this is another betrothal.
The promise of level grass and liberated boxwood.
A summer evening singing with mosquitoes.
A reason to come in after the work is done,
sit together, drink cold water, kiss and hold hands
start again, say hello.

a gaze so steady

I know only this: The hot sidewalk on the Lower East Side on a Friday afternoon did not bear down. Nor did the long, congested walk to the subway or stifle of those tunnels. Nor did the weight of the backpack or the foolishness of the turquoise sandals or the mistake of the missed stop which added another trip in the reverse direction. Nor did the converging avenues of chaos of the city or the whamming pace of its natives or the menu at the deli that left me dizzy. None of it could touch the halo of good fortune twinkling under the day's grey sky. I know only this: To be loved in the way you love. Her face peering back at mine, a gaze so steady I thought I had found the secret to end all war.

And so.


Why you drive on narrow back roads that take you hours longer to get home. Why you stop and take photos of crumbling things, rusted hooks and broken latches, and fields dried out from the parched summer passing through New England. Why you spend 10 minutes looking out the window before you open the door. Why you write down the phone number of the man selling the vintage car you can’t afford. Why you hover in close to memorize that exact shade of orange. Why you don’t mind waiting for the bus that arrives 30 minutes late to take you to the big city. Why the stranger sitting next to you comforts you with silence. Why the air conditioning no longer chills you. Why the sudden swell of July humidity no longer levels you. Why you stay webbed in conversation with a woman who wants to tell you the long story of her father. Why you look her in the eye. Why you put a hand on her arm. Why you sit in the sun afterward and count your million blessings. Why you pause at a kitchen counter across the water in New Jersey and smell cinnamon in the air, and close your eyes and hear an airplane passing through on the way to someone’s next big adventure and believe yourself there, too. Why a single key reminds you you aren’t lost. Why a touch in the middle of the night feels like a promise. Why your love keeps ballooning, filling with air, as if it could live on it forever.

all the way in

The path to the river is a loose coil of dirt, almost catastrophic, but still, we are bent on descent, eyes on the prize of the view and wet feet and a round stone or two we would not skip but instead pocket for the keepsake box on the dresser, next to a small basket of coins. And because some angel is overseeing these proceedings, knows the answer before we have even asked the question, I look at her legs instead of the path, imagine my hands parting, slipping again, as they did this morning, the warm pocket of her. I want that kind of trust in everything. The water doesn't disappoint, summer in full swing, and my only thought is legs and hands, swimming all the way in.

meeting the world

When silence becomes words. When words become a sentence. When a sentence becomes a letter stamped and sealed in an envelope. When that letter becomes an invitation, and an invitation becomes departure, and departure becomes arrival. When arrival becomes the first hello and the first hello becomes the second. When the second hello becomes a kitchen stripped of all theatrics and artifice. When a stripped kitchen becomes flesh and flesh becomes bone and bone becomes the beginning of everything that’s real. And when everything that’s real becomes love and love becomes more love and more love becomes a hum skimming above and below each breath. And when breath becomes peace and peace becomes hope and hope becomes awake and awake becomes meeting the world as if you had never been so alive.