translated by robert hass
the love life of a cat.
translated by robert hass
the love life of a cat.
The husband and wife had planned it for a long time.
The message was folded into a paper boat.
The children were all asleep. In the backyard
they put the boat in the pool. We are here. Save us.
Wandering around the Albuquerque Airport Terminal, after learning
my flight had been delayed four hours, I heard an announcement:
“If anyone in the vicinity of Gate A-4 understands any Arabic, please
come to the gate immediately.”
Well—one pauses these days. Gate A-4 was my own gate. I went there.
An older woman in full traditional Palestinian embroidered dress, just
like my grandma wore, was crumpled to the floor, wailing. “Help,”
said the flight agent. “Talk to her. What is her problem? We
told her the flight was going to be late and she did this.”
I stooped to put my arm around the woman and spoke haltingly.
“Shu-dow-a, Shu-bid-uck Habibti? Stani schway, Min fadlick, Shu-bit-
se-wee?” The minute she heard any words she knew, however poorly
used, she stopped crying. She thought the flight had been cancelled
entirely. She needed to be in El Paso for major medical treatment the
next day. I said, “No, we’re fine, you’ll get there, just later, who is
picking you up? Let’s call him.”
We called her son, I spoke with him in English. I told him I would
stay with his mother till we got on the plane and ride next to
her. She talked to him. Then we called her other sons just
for the fun of it. Then we called my dad and he and she spoke for a while
in Arabic and found out of course they had ten shared friends. Then I
thought just for the heck of it why not call some Palestinian poets I know
and let them chat with her? This all took up two hours.
She was laughing a lot by then. Telling of her life, patting my knee,
answering questions. She had pulled a sack of homemade mamool
cookies—little powdered sugar crumbly mounds stuffed with dates and
nuts—from her bag—and was offering them to all the women at the gate.
To my amazement, not a single woman declined one. It was like a
sacrament. The traveler from Argentina, the mom from California, the
lovely woman from Laredo—we were all covered with the same powdered
sugar. And smiling. There is no better cookie.
And then the airline broke out free apple juice from huge coolers and two
little girls from our flight ran around serving it and they
were covered with powdered sugar, too. And I noticed my new best friend—
by now we were holding hands—had a potted plant poking out of her bag,
some medicinal thing, with green furry leaves. Such an old country tradi-
tion. Always carry a plant. Always stay rooted to somewhere.
And I looked around that gate of late and weary ones and I thought, This
is the world I want to live in. The shared world. Not a single person in that
gate—once the crying of confusion stopped—seemed apprehensive about
any other person. They took the cookies. I wanted to hug all those other women, too.
This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.
translated by david hinton
a child carrying flowers walks toward the new year
a conductor tattooing darkness
listens to the shortest pause
hurry a lion into the cage of music
hurry stone to masquerade as a recluse
moving in parallel nights
who’s the visitor? when the days all
tip from nests and fly down roads
the book of failure grows boundless and deep
each and every moment’s a shortcut
I follow it through the meaning of the East
returning home, closing death’s door
Body is something you need in order to stay
on this planet and you only get one.
And no matter which one you get, it will not
be satisfactory. It will not be beautiful
enough, it will not be fast enough, it will
not keep on for days at a time, but will
pull you down into a sleepy swamp and
demand apples and coffee and chocolate cake.
Body is a thing you have to carry
from one day into the next. Always the
same eyebrows over the same eyes in the same
skin when you look in the mirror, and the
same creaky knee when you get up from the
floor and the same wrist under the watchband.
The changes you can make are small and
costly—better to leave it as it is.
Body is a thing that you have to leave
eventually. You know that because you have
seen others do it, others who were once like you,
living inside their pile of bones and
flesh, smiling at you, loving you,
leaning in the doorway, talking to you
for hours and then one day they
are gone. No forwarding address.
Rebuked, she turned and ran
uphill to the barn. Anger, the inner
arsonist, held a match to her brain.
She observed her life: against her will
it survived the unwavering flame.
The barn was empty of animals.
Only a swallow tilted
near the beams, and bats
hung from the rafters
the roof sagged between.
Her breath became steady
where, years past, the farmer cooled
the big tin amphoræ of milk.
The stone trough was still
filled with water: she watched it
and received its calm.
So it is when we retreat in anger:
we think we burn alone
and there is no balm.
Then water enters, though it makes
There’s the thing I shouldn’t do
and yet, and now I have
the rest of the day to
make up for, not
undo, that can’t be done
but next time,
think more calmly,
breathe, say here’s a new
(though why would that
work, it isn’t even
hidden, hear it in there,
Because her body is winter inside a cave
because someone built
fire there and forgot to put it out
because bedtime is a castle
she’s building inside herself
with a moat
and buckets full of mist
because when you let go
tumble over cliffs and turn
into moths before hitting bottom
because their hooves leave streaks of midnight
in the sky
because stuffed rabbits
are better at keeping secrets
than stopping hands
because when the world got
shoved up inside her
she held it tight like a kegel ball
at the struggle Atlas had
carrying such a tiny thing
on his back
I want to grow old with you.
So old we pad through the supermarket
using the shopping cart as a cane that steadies us.
I’ll wait at register two in my green sweater
with threadbare elbows, smiling
because you’ve forgotten the bag of day-old pastries.
The cashier will tell me a joke about barbers as I wait.
He repeats the first line three times
but the only word I understand is barber.
Over the years we’ve caught inklings
of our shrinking frames and hunched spines.
You’re a little confused
looking for me at the wrong register with a bag
of almost-stale croissants clenched in your hand.
The first time I held your hand it felt enormous in my own.
Sasquatch, I teased you, a million years ago.
Over here, I yell, but not in a mad way.
You have a bright yellow pin on your coat that says, Shalom!
Senior Discount, you say.
But the cashier already knows us.
We’re everyone’s favorite customers.
‘i love myself.’
Tomorrow will be beautiful,
For tomorrow comes out of the lake.
You choose your ancestors our
Ancestor Ralph Ellison wrote.
Now, fellow-descendants, we endure a
Moment of charismatic indecency
And sanctimonious greed. Falsehood
Beyond shame. Our Polish Grandfather
Milosz and African American Grandmother Brooks
Endured worse than this.
Fight first, then fiddle she wrote.
Our great-grandmother Emma Lazarus
Wrote that the flame of the lamp of the
Mother of Exiles is “Imprisoned lightning.”
My fellow children of exile
And lightning, the indecency
Constructs its own statuary.
But our uncle Ernesto Cardenal
Says, sabemos que el pueblo
la derribará un día. The people
Will tear it down. Milosz says,
Beautiful and very young, meaning recent,
Are poetry and philo-sophia, meaning science,
Her ally in the service of the good . …
Their enemies, he wrote, have delivered
Themselves to destruction.
“Un dia,” and “very young” — that long
Ancestral view of time:
Inheritors, el pueblo, fellow-exiles:
All the quicker our need to
Fight and make music. As Gwendolyn
Brooks wrote, To civilize a space.
Written as an inaugural poem of protest
I was listening to a book on tape while driving
and when the author said, “Those days I delighted in everything,”
I pulled over and found a pencil and a parking ticket stub
because surely there was a passage of life where I thought
“These days I delight in everything,” right there in the
present, because they almost all feel like that now,
memory having markered only the outline while evaporating
the inner anxieties of earlier times. Did I not disparage
my body for years on end, for instance, although, in contrast
that younger one now strikes me as near-Olympian?
And the crushing preoccupations of that same younger self
might seem magically diluted, as though a dictator
in hindsight, had only been an overboard character —
but not so. Where went the fear, dense as the sudden
dark in the woods, of being alone, or the bruise of 3:30 pm
in a silent apartment, when the disenfranchised live
only with the sunlight through the blinds, just prey
caught betwixt and between, and also heartbreak, and
again, heartbreak. I didn’t have whatever that time of life
then demanded — a book, a wedding band, a baby —
but the present, like the lie of “fair and balanced” news reporting
where creationists are granted air time with the scientists,
the present might have me believe that “in those days
I delighted in everything.” But to be … fair and balanced …
I do trust the strict part of memory, the only archivist
to have savored a passage of time and have preserved it
with the translucent green hinges licked by stamp collectors,
attaching it without hurting it, so I wanted the quote
exactly, and go back to hunt and tag those months where I
delighted in everything — then I couldn’t find the ticket stub.
I rummaged through the recycling but no luck, and I
couldn’t go back to find the passage on tape, and then I realized
I had bought the book for my husband, so I started leafing through it,
not wanting to start too far back, and not wanting
my eyes to fall on a passage in the future, the one where
she realizes that “Those days I delighted in everything,”
but it was never to happen again, just the present, from here on in.
a little fruit
a moon I want
I said lemon slope
because it’s one
of my words
the fruit &
with my book
in it the pages
against my knuckles
light like a
What kind of world
would let loose
a low orange moon
that shocks you
into being Say
all the hard things
You can die with your wig on
or you can suffer
Democracy will not come
Today, this year
Through compromise and fear.
I have as much right
As the other fellow has
On my two feet
And own the land.
I tire so of hearing people say,
Let things take their course.
Tomorrow is another day.
I do not need my freedom when I’m dead.
I cannot live on tomorrow’s bread.
Is a strong seed
In a great need.
I live here, too.
I want freedom
Just as you.
i believe in living.
i believe in the spectrum
of Beta days and Gamma people.
i believe in sunshine.
In windmills and waterfalls,
tricycles and rocking chairs;
And i believe that seeds grow into sprouts.
And sprouts grow into trees.
i believe in the magic of the hands.
And in the wisdom of the eyes.
i believe in rain and tears.
And in the blood of infinity.
i believe in life.
And i have seen the death parade
march through the torso of the earth,
sculpting mud bodies in its path
i have seen the destruction of the daylight
and seen bloodthirsty maggots
prayed to and saluted
i have seen the kind become the blind
and the blind become the bind
in one easy lesson.
i have walked on cut grass.
i have eaten crow and blunder bread
and breathed the stench of indifference
i have been locked by the lawless.
Handcuffed by the haters.
Gagged by the greedy.
And, if i know anything at all,
it’s that a wall is just a wall
and nothing more at all.
It can be broken down.
i believe in living
i believe in birth.
i believe in the sweat of love
and in the fire of truth.
And i believe that a lost ship,
steered by tired, seasick sailors,
can still be guided home to port.
Mars, oh! Do forgive.
We never meant to obstruct
Your view of Venus.
When over the flowery, sharp pasture’s
edge, unseen, the salt ocean
lifts its form—chicory and daisies
tied, released, seem hardly flowers alone
but color and the movement—or the shape
perhaps—of restlessness, whereas
the sea is circled and sways
peacefully upon its plantlike stem
Since you mention it, I think I will start that race war.
I could’ve swung either way? But now I’m definitely spending
the next 4 years converting your daughters to lesbianism;
I’m gonna eat all your guns. Swallow them lock stock and barrel
and spit bullet casings onto the dinner table;
I’ll give birth to an army of mixed-race babies.
With fathers from every continent and genders to outnumber the stars,
my legion of multiracial babies will be intersectional as fuck
and your swastikas will not be enough to save you,
because real talk, you didn’t stop the future from coming.
You just delayed our coronation.
We have the same deviant haircuts we had yesterday;
we are still getting gay-married like nobody’s business
because it’s still nobody’s business;
there’s a Muslim kid in Kansas who has already written the schematic
for the robot that will steal your job in manufacturing,
and that robot? Will also be gay, so get used to it:
we didn’t manifest the mountain by speaking its name,
the buildings here are not on your side just because
you make them spray-painted accomplices.
These walls do not have genders and they all think you suck.
Even the earth found common cause with us
the way you trample us both,
oh yeah: there will be signs, and rainbow-colored drum circles,
and folks arguing ideology until even I want to punch them
but I won’t, because they’re my family,
in that blood-of-the-covenant sense.
If you’ve never loved someone like that
you cannot outwaltz us, we have all the good dancers anyway.
I’ll confess I don’t know if I’m alive right now;
I haven’t heard my heart beat in days,
I keep holding my breath for the moment the plane goes down
and I have to save enough oxygen to get my friends through.
But I finally found the argument against suicide and it’s us.
We’re the effigies that haunt America’s nights harder
the longer they spend burning us,
we are scaring the shit out of people by spreading,
by refusing to die: what are we but a fire?
We know everything we do is so the kids after us
will be able to follow something towards safety;
what can I call us but lighthouse,
of course I’m terrified. Of course I’m a shroud.
And of course it’s not fair but rest assured,
anxious America, you brought your fists to a glitter fight.
This is a taco truck rally and all you have is cole slaw.
You cannot deport our minds; we won’t
hold funerals for our potential. We have always been
what makes America great.
Courtesy of C.A., from The Seattle Review of Books
I had the idea of sitting still
while others rushed by.
I had the thought of a shop
that still sells records.
A letter in the mailbox.
The way that book felt in my hands.
I was always elsewhere.
How is it to have a body today,
to walk in this city, to run?
I wanted to eat an apple so precisely
the tree would make another
exactly like it, then lie
in the gadgetless grass.
I kept texting the precipice,
which kept not answering,
my phone auto-making
I had the idea. Put down the phone.
Earth, leaves, storm, water, vine.
The gorgeous art of breathing.
I had the idea — the hope
of friending you without electricity.
Of what could be made among the lampposts
with only our voices and hands.
Toward what island-home am I moving,
not wanting to marry, not wanting
too much of that emptiness at evening,
as when I walked through a field at dusk
and felt wide in the night.
And it was again the evening that drew me
back to the field where I was most alone,
compassed by stems and ruts,
no light of the fixed stars, no flashing in the eyes,
only heather pared by dry air, shedding
a small feathered radiance when I looked away,
an expanse whose deep sleep seemed an unending
warren I had been given, to carry out such tasks—
that I might find nothing dead.
And it was again the evening that drew me
back to the field where I could sense no boundary—
the smell of dry earth, cool arch of my neck, the darkness
entirely within myself.
And when I shut my eyes there was no one.
Only weeds in drifts of stillness, only
stalks and gliding sky.
Come, black anchor, let us not be harmed.
The deer leafing in the dark.
The old man at the table, unable to remember.
The children whose hunger is just hunger,
and never desire.
I once believed in heavenly clarity—
do you know how good it feels to sing
of certainty, the wild apricot
of the heart orange, large, full of reach
at day’s unlatch?
Inside the mouth, certainty
is a fruit breaking apart.
That is how good it feels:
We would have despised anyone
to keep our song.
People are putting up storm windows now,
Or were, this morning, until the heavy rain
Drove them indoors. So, coming home at noon,
I saw storm windows lying on the ground,
Frame-full of rain; through the water and glass
I saw the crushed grass, how it seemed to stream
Away in lines like seaweed on the tide
Or blades of wheat leaning under the wind.
The ripple and splash of rain on the blurred glass
Seemed that it briefly said, as I walked by,
Something I should have liked to say to you,
Something … the dry grass bent under the pane
Brimful of bouncing water … something of
A swaying clarity which blindly echoes
This lonely afternoon of memories
And missed desires, while the wintry rain
(Unspeakable, the distance in the mind!)
Runs on the standing windows and away.
Nautical astronomy is defined simply as:
The science of locating oneself at sea.
The map is wet, but usable.
In the vast water, the stars see themselves,
And in the sky, boats find their direction.
It is a kinship of depths and black-greens.
We do not sail on the seas–any of us.
All our lives we sail in between them.
I saw then the white-eyed man
leaning in to see if I was ready
yet to go where he has been waiting
to take me. I saw then the gnawing
sounds my faith has been making
and I saw too that the shape it sings
in is the color of cast-iron mountains
I drove so long to find I forgot I had
been looking for them, for the you
I once knew and the you that was born
waiting for me to find you. I have been
twisting and turning across these lifetimes
where forgetting me is what you do
so you don’t have to look at yourself. I saw
that I would drown in a creek carved out
of a field our incarnations forged the first path
through to those mountains. I invited you to stroll
with me there again for the first time, to pause
and sprawl in the grass while I read to you
the poem you hadn’t known you’d been waiting
to hear. I read until you finally slept
and all your jagged syntaxes softened into rest.
You’re always driving so far from me towards
the me I worry, without you, is eternity. I lay there,
awake, keeping watch while you snored.
I waited, as I always seem to, for you
to wake up and come back to me.
A meadow’s an ocean with wild waves of wheat
Thunder’s a drummer that’s keeping storm’s beat
A bus is a puppy that runs down the street
A desk is a robot with round, metal feet
A metaphor’s a window that changes our view,
A gift to unwrap something old made brand new
Let the aroma of need
waft across the river to New Jersey:
all the snow and hills,
a sky that moves and moves.
I saw a rose in the clouds,
I saw happiness on fire.
One day I will write you a letter
after I have gathered enough words
I have heard
pop! pop! pop!
like little soap bubbles escaping
the animated mouths
of the women who share
pieces of gossip like bombones
in la lavandería every Sunday
One day I will write you a letter
after I have gathered enough words
that blossom without thorns
in painted mouths, in someone else’s countries…
In my corner, I listen to how voices ring
without the sting of bofetadas
and how they undulate above
gushing water and swirling clothes
in machines that vibrate in la lavandería
One day, I will write you a letter
after I have gathered enough words
and enough courage
to let them ring in my mute dreams
until they sing to me: Write us. Así.
In your childhood tongue. Recóbranos. Recover us.
At that time, I will be able to return without fear
to la lavandería with my bags of clothes
and enough words and surrender myself to the bubbles.
Never let me go, says the piano,
then the five syllables are repeated
a little lower, maybe more sadly,
or with more acceptance that this plaint
is endless, fruitless, but it is the plaint
of love forever, whatever else changes,
and the five notes always sound different
the way the lover constantly is finding
new ways to ask what can’t be answered.
The piano takes a break to think it over
all around the keyboard, as if it is free
to take a walk, anywhere away from
those five notes, but no, it’s been walking
towards them. Never let me go,
it says cheerfully, tenderly, without reproach,
as if it knows that saying so is its true calling.
It would be neat if with the New Year
I could leave my loneliness behind with the old year.
My leathery loneliness an old pair of work boots
my dog vigorously head-shakes back and forth in its jaws,
chews on for hours every day in my front yard—
rain, sun, snow, or wind
in bare feet, pondering my poem,
I’d look out my window and see that dirty pair of boots in the yard.
But my happiness depends so much on wearing those boots.
At the end of my day
while I’m in a chair listening to a Mexican corrido
I stare at my boots appreciating:
all the wrong roads we’ve taken, all the drug and whiskey houses
we’ve visited, and as the Mexican singer wails his pain,
I smile at my boots, understanding every note in his voice,
and strangers, when they see my boots rocking back and forth on my
keeping beat to the song, see how
my boots are scuffed, tooth-marked, worn-soled.
I keep wearing them because they fit so good
and I need them, especially when I love so hard,
where I go up those boulder strewn trails,
where flowers crack rocks in their defiant love for the light.