I went into one room and then I went into another.
I was in a room inside a room.
There I felt safe.
I went into one room and then I went into another.
I went into one room and then I went into another.
I was in a room inside a room.
There I felt safe.
for Judith Radstone
Next to my own skin, her pearls. My mistress
bids me wear them, warm them, until evening
when I’ll brush her hair. At six, I place them
round her cool, white throat. All day I think of her,
resting in the Yellow Room, contemplating silk
or taffeta, which gown tonight? She fans herself
whilst I work willingly, my slow heat entering
each pearl. Slack on my neck, her rope.
She’s beautiful. I dream about her
in my attic bed; picture her dancing
with tall men, puzzled by my faint, persistent scent
beneath her French perfume, her milky stones.
I dust her shoulders with a rabbit’s foot,
watch the soft blush seep through her skin
like an indolent sigh. In her looking-glass
my red lips part as though I want to speak.
Full moon. Her carriage brings her home. I see
her every movement in my head…. Undressing,
taking off her jewels, her slim hand reaching
for the case, slipping naked into bed, the way
she always does…. And I lie here awake,
knowing the pearls are cooling even now
in the room where my mistress sleeps. All night
I feel their absence and I burn.
I work a lot and live far less than I could,
but the moon is beautiful and there are
blue stars . . . . I live the chaste song of my heart.
—Garcia Lorca to Emilia Llanos Medinor,
November 25, 1920
The moon is in doubt
over whether to be
a man or a woman.
There’ve been rumors,
all manner of allegations,
bold claims and public lies:
He’s belligerent. She’s in a funk.
When he fades, the world teeters.
When she burgeons, crime blossoms.
O how the operatic impulse wavers!
Dip deep, my darling, into the blank pool.
Give up sitting dutifully at your desk. Leave
your house or apartment. Go out into the world.
It’s all right to carry a notebook but a cheap
one is best, with pages the color of weak tea
and on the front a kitten or a space ship.
Avoid any enclosed space where more than
three people are wearing turtlenecks. Beware
any snow-covered chalet with deer tracks
across the muffled tennis courts.
Not surprisingly, libraries are a good place to write.
And the perfect place in a library is near an aisle
where a child a year or two old is playing as his
mother browses the ranks of the dead.
Often he will pull books from the bottom shelf.
The title, the author’s name, the brooding photo
on the flap mean nothing. Red book on black, gray
book on brown, he builds a tower. And the higher
it gets, the wider he grins.
You who asked for advice, listen: When the tower
falls, be like that child. Laugh so loud everybody
in the world frowns and says, “Shhhh.”
Then start again.
I wanted to know what it was like before we
had voices and before we had bare fingers and before we
had minds to move us through our actions
and tears to help us over our feelings,
so I drove my daughter through the snow to meet her friend
and filled her car with suitcases and hugged her
as an animal would, pressing my forehead against her,
walking in circles, moaning, touching her cheek,
and turned my head after them as an animal would,
watching helplessly as they drove over the ruts,
her smiling face and her small hand just visible
over the giant pillows and coat hangers
as they made their turn into the empty highway.
you are a horse running alone
and he tries to tame you
compares you to an impossible highway
to a burning house
says you are blinding him
that he could never leave you
want anything but you
you dizzy him, you are unbearable
every woman before or after you
is doused in your name
you fill his mouth
his teeth ache with memory of taste
his body just a long shadow seeking yours
but you are always too intense
frightening in the way you want him
unashamed and sacrificial
he tells you that no man can live up to the one who
lives in your head
and you tried to change didn’t you?
closed your mouth more
tried to be softer
less volatile, less awake
but even when sleeping you could feel
him travelling away from you in his dreams
so what did you want to do love
split his head open?
you can’t make homes out of human beings
someone should have already told you that
and if he wants to leave
then let him leave
you are terrifying
and strange and beautiful
something not everyone knows how to love.
throws his great white shield
on the ground,
breaking thin arms of twisting branches,
and then howls
on the north side of the Black Mesa
a deep, throaty laughter.
Because of him
we have to sell our cattle
that rake snow for stubble.
Having lived his whole life
in a few weeks,
slow and pensive he walks away,
dragging his silver-stream shield
and over the ground,
he keeps walking slowly away
there ought to be a place to go
when you can’t sleep
or you’re tired of getting drunk
and the grass doesn’t work anymore,
and I don’t mean to go
to hash or cocaine,
I mean a place to go to besides
the death that’s waiting
or to a love that doesn’t work
there ought to be a place to go
when you can’t sleep
besides to a tv set or to a movie
or to buy a newspaper
or to read a novel.
it’s not having that place to go to
that creates the people now in madhouses
and the suicides.
I suppose what most people do
when there isn’t any place to go
is to go to some place or to something
that hardly satisfies them,
and this ritual tends to sandpaper them
down to where they can somehow continue even
those faces you see every day on the streets
were not created
hope: be kind to them:
they have not
This version is how the poem appears in The People Look Like Flowers At Last (2007). Here is an earlier manuscript.
Two wandering across the porcelain
Siberia, one alone on the window sill,
four across the ceiling’s senseless field
of pale yellow, one negotiating folds
in a towel: tiny, bronze-colored, antennae
‘strongly elbowed,’ crawling over Antony
and Cleopatra, face down, unsurprised,
one dead in the mountainous bar of soap.
Sub-family Formicinae (a single
segment behind the thorax), the sickle
moons of their abdomens, one trapped in bubbles
(I soak in the tub); with no clear purpose
they come in by the baseboard, do not bite,
crush bloodless beneath a finger. Peterson’s
calls them ‘social creatures,’ yet what grim
society: identical pilgrims,
seed-like, brittle, pausing on the path
only three seconds to touch another’s
face, some hoisting the papery carcasses
of their dead in their jaws, which open and close
like the clasp of a necklace. ‘Mating occurs
in flight’— what better way? Weightless, reckless
rapture: the winged queen and her mate, quantum
passion spiraling near the kumquat,
and then the queen sheds her wings, plants
the pearl-like larvae in their cribs of sand:
more anvil-headed, creeping attentions
to follow cracks in the tile, the lip of the tub,
and one starting across the mirror now, doubled.
The giant water bug can lug
His eggs upon his back.
He gives them extra care up there
And guards them from attack.
The mother glues them to the dad,
And on his way they stay.
But does he ever get a card
Or gift on Father’s Day?
Today I became King
of the Court w/out a diamond-
encrusted crown thrust upon
my sweaty head. Instead
my markings of royalty
were the t-shirt draping
my body like a robe soaked
in champagne & the pain
in my right knee — a sign
of a battle endured, my will
tested & bested by none
as the ball flew off my hands
as swift as an arrow toward
the heart of a target — my fingers
ringless yet feeling like gold.
Just as a blue tip of a compass needle
stills to north, you stare at a pencil
with sharpened point, a small soapstone
bear with a tiny chunk of turquoise
tied to its back, the random pattern
of straw flecked in an adobe wall;
you peruse the silver poplar branches,
the spaces between branches, and as
a cursor blinks, situate at the edge
of loss—the axolotl was last sighted
in Xochimilco over twenty years ago;
a jaguar meanders through tawny
brush in the Gila Wilderness—
and, as the cursor blinks, you guess
it’s a bit of line that arcs—a parsec
made visible—and as you sit,
the imperfections that mark you
attune you to a small emptied flask
tossed to the roadside and the x,
never brewed, that throbs in your veins.
I asked for much; I received much.
I asked for much; I received little, I received
next to nothing.
And between? A few umbrellas opened indoors.
A pair of shoes by mistake on the kitchen table.
O wrong, wrong—it was my nature. I was
hard-hearted, remote. I was
selfish, rigid to the point of tyranny.
But I was always that person, even in early childhood.
Small, dark-haired, dreaded by the other children.
I never changed. Inside the glass, the abstract
tide of fortune turned
from high to low overnight.
Was it the sea? Responding, maybe,
to celestial force? To be safe,
I prayed. I tried to be a better person.
Soon it seemed to me that what began as terror
and matured into moral narcissism
might have become in fact
actual human growth. Maybe
this is what my friends meant, taking my hand,
telling me they understood
the abuse, the incredible shit I accepted,
implying (so I once thought) I was a little sick
to give so much for so little.
Whereas they meant I was good (clasping my hand intensely)—
a good friend and person, not a creature of pathos.
I was not pathetic! I was writ large,
like a queen or a saint.
Well, it all makes for interesting conjecture.
And it occurs to me that what is crucial is to believe
in effort, to believe some good will come of simply trying,
a good completely untainted by the corrupt initiating impulse
to persuade or seduce—
What are we without this?
Whirling in the dark universe,
alone, afraid, unable to influence fate—
What do we have really?
Sad tricks with ladders and shoes,
tricks with salt, impurely motivated recurring
attempts to build character.
What do we have to appease the great forces?
And I think in the end this was the question
that destroyed Agamemnon, there on the beach,
the Greek ships at the ready, the sea
invisible beyond the serene harbor, the future
lethal, unstable: he was a fool, thinking
it could be controlled. He should have said
I have nothing, I am at your mercy.
Complex amaryllis — two-faced,
multiflorus, wrath-spathed ball of
ire — grows flagrantly unfragrant.
Pulp-fiery the take-no-prisoners
Haemanthus. Bully! Bully!
Bully the bloodflower! (Blood-
thirsty suffice it to suffuse.)
Transfuse the lily-livered,
the raging un-aromatic, the
arrogant blood-rivering spleen.
He waltzes into the lane
’cross the free-throw line,
fakes a drive, pivots,
floats from the asphalt turf
in an arc of black light,
and sinks two into the chains.
One on one he fakes
down the main, passes
into the free lane
and hits the chains.
A sniff in the fallen air—
he stuffs it through the chains
“traveling” someone calls—
and he laughs, stepping
to a silent beat, gliding
as he sinks two into the chains.
the little burn
in an odd spot
he can neither see
nor reach; after
over him like
reading his billion
of insight, cures
crawling through him
so many surgeries
a wrong move
leaves him leaking
like overripe fruit;
after the mountain
aster and ice
the Four North
shrink to a room
where voices grow
hushed as if
at some holy
place, and even
in the kindest
eye there lurks
to which he’s been
even the instinct
to eat are gone,
and he has become
a collection of quiet
tics and twitches
as if something
of his riddled
bones, the carious
maze of his brain;
as the last day
glaciers into his room,
glass and chrome
ed it seems
he lives inside
a diamond, he breaks
into a wide
smile, as if joy
were the animal
in him, blind,
up from God
knows where to stand
on distances, gazing
dead into the sun.
1. INSIDE FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF A TREE
Beautiful women in smoky blue culottes
lying around on fluffy pink pillows
beneath windows onto charming views,
sea views, seasonal leaves and trees.
Inside is outside and outside inside.
Smell of saltwater swimming in the room.
2. OUTSIDE FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF A ROCKING CHAIR
Shadow of lighthouse along the beach.
Whales spotted every day lately
though winter’s two months yet.
The evening is as warm as an interior.
Silverlight lagoonlight, snorkeling light.
And a line of joggers against last light.
Blue smoke snaking up the pink sky.
The turquoise pool rose up to meet us,
its slide a silver afterthought down which
we plunged, screaming, into a mirage of bubbles.
We did not exist beyond the gaze of a boy.
Shaking water off our limbs, we lifted
up from ladder rungs across the fern-cool
lip of rim. Afternoon. Oiled and sated,
we sunbathed, rose and paraded the concrete,
danced to the low beat of “Duke of Earl”.
Past cherry colas, hot-dogs, Dreamsicles,
we came to the counter where bees staggered
into root beer cups and drowned. We gobbled
cotton candy torches, sweet as furtive kisses,
shared on benches beneath summer shadows.
Cherry. Elm. Sycamore. We spread our chenille
blankets across grass, pressed radios to our ears,
mouthing the old words, then loosened
thin bikini straps and rubbed baby oil with iodine
across sunburned shoulders, tossing a glance
through the chain link at an improbable world.
Panic attacks your pain-porous skin?
Imagine the layers of onion, Sufi-circling
and circling until there is no tear-making body.
If the issue is anorexia, taking starvation’s
dark spirit-flight, or anhedonia, running from
the skin’s having fun, consider the mushroom’s
fleshy erection, and the pumpkins, earth goddesses
and rotund Buddhas sprawled by compost’s funky aerosol.
For social phobia, desensitize among the rows
of corn’s parade, ticker tape leaves and Rasta tassels
that wind-strut and bring on the crows’ hop and rap.
Too much affect: meditate on potatoes, taciturn
as overturned stones. Too little: visualize the hanging
tomatoes’ insides, the soft hearts, sentimental ornaments.
From the lettuce there is common sense for narcissism:
acceptance as side dish, garnish for a meaty sandwich.
If that leaf isn’t the dose, there’s always the soil
people shovel and level, rake and make wishful with seed,
feed leftovers from the compost’s vegan sewer,
the soil that wants for nothing and yields and yields.
Today we both wore blue sweaters.
Yours was like a memory of snow,
collected in a small wood bowl,
& presented at dusk to a choir
of young, soprano cats.
My sweater was more like
hopscotch, across a field
of ripe berries. Or perhaps,
in a past life, it was
the raincoat of an old man
who kept a love letter
in the left pocket, never sent,
till one day he drove his car
into the ocean. Words like kiss
& plum glowed in the belly
of an unfamous fish.
How I wish I could give you
some of its smallest bones, press
them in pairs along the lines
in your hands, tell you why
you are unhappy.
I sit and meditate—my dog licks her paws
on the red-brown sofa
so many things somehow
it all is reduced to numbers letters figures
without faces or names only jagged lines
across the miles half-shadows
going into shadow-shadow then destruction the infinite light
here and there cannot be overcome
it is the first drop of ink
It is pleasant, very pleasant, to sit at a wooden booth
surrounded by parrots, wheels, right-turning conch shells,
the victory banner and the endless knot,
the lotus, the treasure vase, the golden fishes—
is this not so? Is it not pleasant
to sip Tsingtao beer, or Zhujiang, or Yanjing,
and tap your fingers on the bamboo mats?
After we’ve drunk enough, there will be Buddhist Delight,
Mongolian beef side dishes, a whole host of sauces,
even some pizza and chicken wings if children are present,
as well as the small ice-cream machine, lotus paste, pears,
smiles and bows all around. It is pleasant, is it not,
to linger outside the door that opens to the parking lot
of this small strip mall beside this secondary road
and look upon the scattered cars all come to rest here
like boats in China, floating on a quiet evening tide.
We must not look for poetry in poems.
You must not skirt the issue wearing skirts.
You must not duck the bullet using ducks.
You must not face the music with your face.
Headbutting, don’t use your head. Or your butt.
You must not use a house to build a home,
and never look for poetry in poems.
In fact, inject giraffes into your poems.
Let loose the circus monkeys in their skirts.
Explain the nest of wood is not a home
at all, but a blind for shooting wild ducks.
Grab the shotgun by its metrical butt;
aim at your Muse’s quacking, Pringled face.
It’s good we’re talking like this, face to face.
There should be more headbutting over poems.
Citing an 80s brand has its cost but
honors the teenage me, always in skirts,
showing my sister how to Be the Duck
with a potato-chip beak. Take me home,
Mr. Revell. Or make yourself at home
in my postbellum, Reconstruction face—
my gray eyes, my rebel ears, all my ducks
in the row of a defeated mouth. Poems
were once civil. But war has torn my skirts
off at the first ruffle, baring my butt
or as termed in verse, my luminous butt.
Whitman once made a hospital his home.
Emily built a prison of her skirts.
Tigers roamed the sad veldt of Stevens’s face.
That was the old landscape. All the new poems
map the two dimensions of cartoon ducks.
We’re young and green. We’re braces of mallards,
not barrels of fish. Shoot if you must but
Donald, we’re with you. Trying to save poems,
we settle and frame their ramshackle homes.
What is form? Turning art to artifice,
trading pelts for a more durable skirt.
Even urban ducklings deserve a home.
Make way. In the modern: Make way, Buttface.
A poem is coming through, lifting her skirt.
Before balance, before counting, before
The record glistens and the needle slides,
Grating, into the overture, there is the end
Of weight, the leaning into nothing and then
A caught breath, the record listens, the needle slides
Over slowly, and all at once around us a woman’s voice
Stretches weightless, leaning into nothing.
Like a clothesline, the taut chorus: oh, hilarious
Oh baby, all around us, over slowly, a woman’s voice
Gathers above the pick me up, pick me up
And the desperate put, put me down. First the tightrope,
Then the light foot, and the taunting chorus
Pick me up, pick me up. Oh, oh baby.
The slippery floor shimmers and spins like a record while
The light is swinging footloose on its rope
Out of time. The shadows
Slip, shimmering black, and spin across the floor,
Then turn back and pick up again. Oh seedpod stuck for just
One moment on the cattail, out of time, out of shadows,
Downy cheek against a beard: oh scratches
On the record, oh baby, oh measure
Oh strange balance that grips us
On this side of the world.
Then it was the future, though what’s arrived
isn’t what we had in mind, all chrome and
cybernetics, when we set up exhibits
in the cafeteria for the judges
to review what we’d made of our hypotheses.
The class skeptic (he later refused to sign
anyone’s yearbook, calling it a sentimental
degradation of language) chloroformed mice,
weighing the bodies before and after
to catch the weight of the soul,
wanting to prove the invisible
real as a bagful of nails. A girl
who knew it all made cookies from euglena,
a one-celled compromise between animal and plant,
she had cultured in a flask.
We’re smart enough, she concluded,
to survive our mistakes, showing photos of farmland,
poisoned, gouged, eroded. No one believed
he really had built it when a kid no one knew
showed up with an atom smasher, confirming that
the tiniest particles could be changed
into something even harder to break.
And one whose mother had cancer (hard to admit now,
it was me) distilled the tar of cigarettes
to paint it on the backs of shaven mice.
She wanted to know what it took,
a little vial of sure malignancy,
to prove a daily intake smaller
than a single aspirin could finish
something as large as a life. I thought of this
because, today, the dusky seaside sparrow
became extinct. It may never be as famous
as the pterodactyl or the dodo,
but the last one died today, a resident
of Walt Disney World where now its tissue samples
lie frozen, in case someday we learn to clone
one from a few cells. Like those instant dinosaurs
that come in a gelatin capsule—just add water
and they inflate. One other thing this
brings to mind. The euglena girl won first prize
both for science and, I think, in retrospect, for hope.
The pioneers and the indians
disagree about a lot of things
for example, the pioneer says that
when you meet a bear in the woods
you should yell at him and if that
doesn’t work, you should fell him
The indians say that you should
whisper to him softly and call him by
No one’s bothered to ask the bear
what he thinks
I am trying to decipher the language of insects
they are the tongues of the future
their vocabularies describe buildings as food
they can instruct of dark water and the veins of trees
they can convey what they do not know
and what is known at a distance
and what nobody knows
they have terms for making music with the legs
they can recount changing in a sleep like death
they can sing with wings
the speakers are their own meaning in a grammar without horizons
they are wholly articulate
they are never important they are everything
It is cold enough for rain
to coagulate and fall in heavy drops.
Tonight a skin of ice will grow
over the bones of the smallest bush,
making it droop like the wrist
of someone carrying a heavy suitcase. This moving on,
from season to season, is exhausting
and violent, the break from the Berlin Wall
of winter especially. Like a frostbitten
hand coming to life, I color
first with warmth,
then with pain. Thawing, letting
the great powers go
their own way, in rivers and in flesh,
frightens me, as this day
warns me of an icy night.
Each year I am astonished
at the havoc wrought
on other lives: fathers
made tiny by cancer;
a mother swollen around
a bad heart “brought on by aggravation.”
To suffer is to do something new
yet always the same—
a change of life
from the sexual dread. Some women
wish they were men, some men
wish they were dead; still,
there is coin in suffering . . .
It makes us rich
as Croesus in his golden tears,
and we are rarely hated for it.
This coin I store in a purse
made of my mother’s
milk and flesh, which God says I must not mix.
I use it instead to seek pleasure.
Walking around with this thing in me
all day, this loving cup
full of jelly, waiting for you
to come home—seven o’clock,
eight o’clock, eight-thirty . . .
What could be more important
than love? I can’t imagine; you can.
Not a good day, not about to get better.
The bird comes complete
with heart, liver, and neck-bone
wrapped chastely in white paper.
the legs are hard to separate.
Inside, wax paper sticks to the ribs.
I reach like a vet delivering pigs,
or a boy finger-fucking a virgin.
Air the same sweet
temperature inside the house
as outside the house.
Stepping up from the cellar
with an armful of sheets,
I listen for the dirge of flies
under the chittering birds,
both painfully loud. There is a stridency
that’s stubborn in a life
grown by inches: the fat
little fingers of buds bursting;
ugly ducklings; the slow war
of day against night.
As I pin the swelling sheets
with clothespins damp and too
narrow at the mouth, I wonder how
flies know to come out
to feed the birds, and feast themselves
on the new stillborn, this stubborn
great chain of being.
translated by robert hass
Even with insects—
some can sing,
While spoon-feeding him with one hand
she holds his hand with her other hand,
or rather lets it rest on top of his,
which is permanently clenched shut.
When he turns his head away, she reaches
around and puts in the spoonful blind.
He will not accept the next morsel
until he has completely chewed this one.
His bright squint tells her he finds
the shrimp she has just put in delicious.
Next to the voice and touch of those we love,
food may be our last pleasure on earth—
a man on death row takes his T-bone
in small bites and swishes each sip
of the jug wine around in his mouth,
tomorrow will be too late for them to jolt
this supper out of him. She strokes
his head very slowly, as if to cheer up
each separate discomfited hair sticking up
from its root in his stricken brain.
Standing behind him, she presses
her check to his, kisses his jowl,
and his eyes seem to stop seeing
and do nothing but emit light.
Could heaven be a time, after we are dead,
of remembering the knowledge
flesh had from flesh? The flesh
of his face is hard, perhaps
from years spent facing down others
until they fell back, and harder
from years of being himself faced down
and falling back in his turn, and harder still
from all the while frowning
and beaming and worrying and shouting
and probably letting go in rages.
His face softens into a kind
of quizzical wince, as if one
of the other animals were working at
getting the knack of the human smile.
When picking up a cookie he uses
both thumbtips to grip it
and push it against an index finger
to secure it so that he can lift it.
She takes him then to the bathroom,
where she lowers his pants and removes
the wet diaper and holds the spout of the bottle
to his old penis until he pisses all he can,
then puts on the fresh diaper and pulls up his pants.
When they come out, she is facing him,
walking backwards in front of him
and holding his hands, pulling him
when he stops, reminding him to step
when he forgets and starts to pitch forward.
She is leading her old father into the future
as far as they can go, and she is walking
him back into her childhood, where she stood
in bare feet on the toes of his shoes
and they foxtrotted on this same rug.
I watch them closely: she could be teaching him
the last steps that one day she may teach me.
At this moment, he glints and shines,
as if it will be only a small dislocation
for him to pass from this paradise into the next.