Here, she said, put this on your head.
She handed me a hat.
You ’bout as white as your dad,
and you gone stay like that.
Aunt Sugar rolled her nylons down
around each bony ankle,
and I rolled down my white knee socks
letting my thin legs dangle,
circling them just above water
and silver backs of minnows
flitting here then there between
the sun spots and the shadows.
This is how you hold the pole
to cast the line out straight.
Now put that worm on your hook,
throw it out and wait.
She sat spitting tobacco juice
into a coffee cup.
Hunkered down when she felt the bite,
jerked the pole straight up
reeling and tugging hard at the fish
that wriggled and tried to fight back.
A flounder, she said, and you can tell
’cause one of its sides is black.
The other side is white, she said.
It landed with a thump.
I stood there watching that fish flip-flop,
switch sides with every jump.
Waterlike, with a little water
Still visible swirled in the bottom:
Cupped vitreous measure
Here in my hand.
Seemingly solid, a liquid
Sagging over centuries
As in the rippled panes
Of old buildings, a viscid
Trace of time’s
Nearly invisible. Deceptive,
Clear, breakable—the splinters
And fragments drawing blood
From the unwary.
Ancestral totem substance:
My one grandfather
Cleaning store windows
With squeegee and bucket,
The other serving amber
Whiskey and clear gin over the counter,
His son my father
An optician, beveling lenses
On a stone wheel. The water
Dripping to cool the wheel
Fell milky in a pale
Sludge under the bench
Into a galvanized bucket
It was my job to empty,
Sloshing the ponderous
Blank mud into the toilet.
Six o’clock: the kitchen bulbs which blister
Your dark, your housewives starting to nose
Out each other’s day, the claustrophobia
Of your back gardens varicose
With shrubs, make an ugly sister
Of you suburbia.
How long ago did the glass in your windows subtly
Silver into mirrors which again
And again show the same woman
Shriek at a child? Which multiply
A dish, a brush, ash,
The gape of a fish.
In the kitchen, the gape of a child in the cot?
You swelled so that when you tried
The silver slipper on your foot
It pinched your instep and the common
Hurt which touched you made
No creature of the streets will feel the touch
Of a wand turning the wet sinews
Of fruit suddenly to a coach,
While this rat without leather reins
Or a whip or britches continues
Sliming your drains.
No magic here. Yet you encroach until
The shy countryside, fooled
By your plainness falls, then rises
From your bed changed, schooled
Forever by your skill,
Midnight and your metamorphosis
Is now complete, although the mind
Which spinstered you might still miss
Your mystery now, might still fail
To see your power defined
By this detail.
By this creature drowsing now in every house—
The same lion who tore stripes
Once off zebras. Who now sleeps,
Small beside the coals. And may,
On a red letter day,
Catch a mouse.
her nose to the ground,
a rusty shadow
neither hunting nor playing.
One stood; sat; lay down; stood again.
One never moved,
except to turn her head a little as we walked.
Finally we drew too close,
and they vanished.
The woods took them back as if they had never been.
I wish I had thought to put my face to the grass.
But we kept walking,
speaking as strangers do when becoming friends.
There is more and more I tell no one,
strangers nor loves.
This slips into the heart
without hurry, as if it had never been.
And yet, among the trees, something has changed.
Something looks back from the trees,
and knows me for who I am.
When I lay my head in my mother’s lap
I think how day hides the stars,
the way I lay hidden once, waiting
inside my mother’s singing to herself. And I remember
how she carried me on her back
between home and the kindergarten,
once each morning and once each afternoon.
I don’t know what my mother’s thinking.
When my son lays his head in my lap, I wonder:
Do his father’s kisses keep his father’s worries
from becoming his? I think, Dear God, and remember
there are stars we haven’t heard from yet:
They have so far to arrive. Amen,
I think, and I feel almost comforted.
I’ve no idea what my child is thinking.
Between two unknowns, I live my life.
Between my mother’s hopes, older than I am
by coming before me, and my child’s wishes, older than I am
by outliving me. And what’s it like?
Is it a door, and good-bye on either side?
A window, and eternity on either side?
Yes, and a little singing between two great rests.
the unthinkable prospect
of a world in which I am left
to my own devices
which are few and as soon
as the batteries die useless
first order of business
I draw a map in the sand
mark where I stand as the capital
of civilization within me the
detailed blueprints of the pyramids
and the concept of zero
beyond me the finite frontier
the many miles of undeveloped
shoreline with spectacular views of a
sea filled with intricately depicted
monsters I have a lot to do before
I introduce the new world
to art and astronomy and industry
medicine and technology
ethics politics democracy
by a show of hands we shall elect
which tree to burn in the first fire
Play the one about the family of the ducks
where the ducks go down to the river
and one of them thinks the water will be cold
but then they jump in anyway
and like it and splash around.
No, I must play the one
about the nervous man from Palestine in row 14
with a brown bag in his lap
in which a gun is hidden in a sandwich.
Play the one about the handsome man and woman
standing on the steps of her apartment
and how the darkness and her perfume and the beating of their hearts
conjoin to make them feel
like leaping from the edge of chance—
No, I should play the one about
the hard rectangle of the credit card
hidden in the man’s back pocket
and how the woman spent an hour
plucking out her brows, and how her perfume
was made from the destruction of a hundred flowers.
Then play the one about the flower industry
in which the migrant workers curse their own infected hands
from tossing sheaves of roses and carnations
into the back of the refrigerated trucks.
No, I must play the one about the single yellow daffodil
standing on my kitchen table
whose cut stem draws the water upwards
so the plant is flushed with the conviction
that the water has been sent
to find and raise it up
from somewhere so deep inside the earth
not even flowers can remember.