the lab technician asks me
as she sticks the needle in my vein,
routine physical, blood rushing
up the tube as if being chased
out of my body. Fine, I tell her
all good, really good, did some things,
saw some people, ate out, got rid of shoes
I haven’t worn in years, craved ice cream,
but had no one to go with, so I went by myself,
embarrassed ordering a mint chip cone
alone in the middle of a Saturday, got over it
when I took a bite, euphoric, no longer caring
that my son was too old to take for ice cream.
Wrote a letter to my dead mother but couldn’t
read it at her grave because we cremated her
so I read it sitting at the kitchen table,
a photo of her propped up in front of me.
“Sounds amazing,” she says, my blood still flowing
up the tube, new one now as I’d filled up the first.
Where will they send my blood, and how
do they test for all the things they test for,
and what if they discover I have one?
of a million diseases one could have, something
to confine me to bed for as many days, weekends
as I have left on this earth, or what if they find
nothing? Will I start to take pictures of my food
like a friend of mine does? He takes pictures
of what he’s about to eat so he’ll remember?
what he put in his body, so if something goes
wrong he’ll know it was the yellowtail swimming?
in lime sauce or the ginger sorbet with one proud
blackberry perched on top. He keeps files of photos
so he’ll never forget what he tasted, what filled him.
I want to taste the blood being drawn from my arm,
wonder if it would taste the same as my mother’s.
“What did you do this weekend,” she asks
forgetting she already asked. I had an ice cream cone,
I tell her, took a picture of it before it started to melt,
licked a drop of blood still warm from a new cut,
read a letter to my mother at her grave.
In my bedroom my weight is three times more
than what I’d weigh on Jupiter.
If your kitchen was on Mercury I’d be heavier by half
of you while sitting at your table.
On Uranus, a quarter of my weight is meat,
or an awareness of myself as flesh.
On Venus the light would produce a real volume around me
that would make me look happy in photographs.
This is how it is with quantity in any life. It’s a fact
that on certain planets I’d actually be able to mount
the stairs four at a time. Think of the most beautiful horse
in the world: a ridiculously beautiful golden horse,
with a shimmering coat; it would weigh no more
than an empty handbag on Mars. You need
to get real about these things.
The woodpecker drums
about the tree
a rising spiral
until even the highest smallest leaves
cannot help themselves
but shiver, then turn wild
at his bald beak
his head of stopped fire.
I like to think about the monastery
as I’m falling asleep, so that it comes
and goes in my mind like a screen saver.
I conjure the lake of the zendo,
rows of dark boats still unless
someone coughs or otherwise
ripples the calm.
I can hear the four AM slipperiness
of sleeping bags as people turn over
in their bunks. The ancient bells.
When I was first falling in love with Zen,
I burned incense called Kyonishiki,
“Kyoto Autumn Leaves,”
made by the Shoyeido Incense Company,
Kyoto, Japan. To me it smelled like
earnestness and ether, and I tried to imagine
a consciousness ignorant of me.
I just now lit a stick of it. I had to run downstairs
for some rice to hold it upright in its bowl,
which had been empty for a while,
a raku bowl with two fingerprints
in the clay. It calls up the monastery gate,
the massive door demanding I recommit myself
in the moments of both its opening
and its closing, its weight now mine,
I wanted to know what I was,
and thought I could find the truth
where the floor hurts the knee.
I understand no one I consider to be religious.
I have no idea what’s meant when someone says
they’ve been intimate with a higher power.
I seem to have been born without a god receptor.
I have fervor but seem to lack
even the basic instincts of the many seekers,
mostly men, I knew in the monastery,
sitting zazen all night,
wearing their robes to near-rags
boy-stitched back together with unmatched thread,
smoothed over their laps and tucked under,
unmoving in the long silence,
the field of grain ripening, heavy tasseled,
field of sentient beings turned toward candles,
flowers, the Buddha gleaming
like a vivid little sports car from his niche.
What is the mind that precedes
any sense we could possibly have
of ourselves, the mind of self-ignorance?
I thought that the divestiture of self
could be likened to the divestiture
of words, but I was wrong.
It’s not the same work.
One’s a transparency
and one’s an emptiness.
Kyonishiki…. Today I’m painting what Mom
calls no-colors, grays and browns,
evergreens: what’s left of the woods
when autumn’s come and gone.
And though he died, Dad’s here,
still forgetting he’s no longer
married to Annie,
that his own mother is dead,
that he no longer owns a car.
I told them not to make any trouble
or I’d send them both home.
Surprise half inch of snow.
What good are words?
And what about birches in moonlight,
Russell handing me the year’s
Shouldn’t God feel like that?
I aspire to “a self-forgetful,
perfectly useless concentration,”
as Elizabeth Bishop put it.
So who shall I say I am?
I’m a prism, an expressive temporary
sentience, a pinecone falling.
I can hear my teacher saying, No.
That misses it.
Buddha goes on sitting through the century,
leaving me alone in the front hall,
which has just been cleaned and smells of pine.
It’s not that we’re not dying.
Everything is dying.
We hear these rumors of the planet’s end
none of us will be around to watch.
It’s not that we’re not ugly.
Look at your feet, now that your shoes are off.
You could be a duck,
no, duck-billed platypus,
your feet distraction from your ugly nose.
It’s not that we’re not traveling,
But it’s not the broadback Mediterranean
carrying us against the world’s current.
It’s the imagined sea, imagined street,
the winged breakers, the waters we confuse with sky
willingly, so someone out there asks
are you flying or swimming?
That someone envies mortal happiness
like everyone on the other side, the dead
who stand in watch, who would give up their bliss,
their low tide eternity rippleless
for one day back here, alive again with us.
They know the sea and sky I’m walking on
or swimming, flying, they know it’s none of these,
this dancing-standing-still, this turning, turning,
these constant transformations of the wind
I can bring down by singing to myself,
the newborn mornings, these continuals—
Bone-spur, stirrup of veins—white colt
a tree, sapling bone again, worn to a splinter,
a steeple, the birch aground
in its ravine of leaves. Abide with me, arrive
at its skinned branches, its arms pulled
from the sapling, your wrist taut,
each ganglion a gash in the tree’s rent
trunk, a child’s hackwork, love plus love,
my palms in your fist, that
trio a trident splitting the birch, its bark
papyrus, its scars calligraphy,
a ghost story written on
winding sheets, the trunk bowing, dead is
my father, the birch reading the news
of the day aloud as if we hadn’t
heard it, the root moss lit gas,
like the veins on your ink-stained hand—
the birch all elbows, taking us in.
Why was I born if it
I want to give you
more than these words
finite as husks
or a string of barbed wire.
I want you to see
the blue knot my fist made,
cast down against this page
in sunlight so bright,
it seemed to swallow
the marks I made here.
How the chuckling shadows
of full-leafed trees
swarmed around me while I wrote,
as though winter
were some remote, impossible joke;
and how they lengthened, eventually,
like the day,
into roads straight as rods,
slabs of gold, consoling sun
on either side
denying that there ever really are
any other paths
than the one we finally take.
I want to give you
what you cannot see here,
the shadow of my body
spilling across your face
when you lie under me,
as deep and intangible
as honeysuckle or any living thing
that heaps its fragrant weight
against a fence,
trusting it, forever.