MORE THAN THIS
MORE THAN THIS
Upon the black hole Cygnus X-1 that wobbles
as if boffed by an invisible companion,
upon a silk stocking the color of bees
rolling itself up down a leg, upon the soft dip
over the clavicles, which accept only tongued kisses,
upon the tongue that slowly drifts
into the other’s mouth and chats
there with her opposite number,
gravity exerts the precise force needed.
In the wings of the Eskimo curlew
flapping through the thin air of the Andes,
in the sacral vertebrae of the widow
who stoops at the window to peer
behind the drawn blind, in the saggy skin
under the eyes of the woman
who is in love with a man incapable
of love, who lives on in the heaviness
of emotional isolation, in the lavish
cascade of urine the rhino releases,
in the mouthwater of the child who waits
in shriek position for the dentist,
in the scradged skin dangling in shreds
from the children who lurched toward
the Nakashima River screaming, as if this were
the single aria they had ever rehearsed, gravity
shudders at its mathematical immensity.
As long as two kvetches remain alive,
because inside each is self-hatred so hardened
not even nonexistence can abide them,
as long as the hummingbird strikes
the air seventy-four times per second,
as long as the mound of earth remains heaped
beside the rectangular hole waiting to be filled,
gravity cannot be said to impose its will.
If the pilot ejects one second too late,
if the condemned man shrinks at seeing
the trapdoor give way, if the man who stands
with fire at his back and a baby in his arms
hears the near neighbors cry,
“Drop her! Don’t worry! We’ll catch her,”
if the juggler gets behind in her count
and the bright object flies past the spot
where the other hand was to snatch it,
gravity cannot pause to rectify matters.
When a deer kenning us stands immobile,
and for one moment we know we exist
entirely within her thoughts, when cichlid fry,
sensing danger, empty their air bladders
and drop to the river bottom like pebbles,
when the snow goes and millions of leaves
reveal themselves pressed down over the contours
of earth to create her hibernation mask,
when a person in a military cemetery
among grave markers that spread to all the horizons
understands that all of existence has been destroyed
again and again, when depression after mania
causes clock hands to stick and days to crawl,
when the full moon’s light creeps across a sleeper
calling to her atavistic soul, when a soldier,
who has always known life is imperfect,
is wheeled to another hopeless attempt
at surgery—but, this time, resolves
to sleep and not wake again until such time
as time begins again—then gravity
grips us to the earth, and crosses its fingers.
In the case of the last ancient trees at Ypres
still turning out their terrified wood,
in the case of the concertina wire
hurled out in exuberant spirals and set down
between rich and poor, in the case of the howls
that fly off the earth through madhouse windows,
in the case of the word “heavenly”
when we remind ourselves that earth,
too, was a heavenly body once,
in the case of the numeral keys
totting up the number of humans
humans have killed, in the case of the man
who strays into a gravitational field where
the differential between the force on the scalp
and the force on the foot sole will stretch him
into an alimentary canal thin as a thread,
in the case of the child who has upset
his ink bottle while doing homework
and quickly snaps both arms down
to halt the lateral gush of the black juices,
gravity, if it could, would recuse itself.
All the new thinking is about loss.
In this it resembles all the old thinking.
The idea, for example, that each particular erases
the luminous clarity of a general idea. That the clown-
faced woodpecker probing the dead sculpted trunk
of that black birch is, by his presence,
some tragic falling off from a first world
of undivided light. Or the other notion that,
because there is in this world no one thing
to which the bramble of blackberry corresponds,
a word is elegy to what it signifies.
We talked about it late last night and in the voice
of my friend, there was a thin wire of grief, a tone
almost querulous. After a while I understood that,
talking this way, everything dissolves: justice,
pine, hair, woman, you and I. There was a woman
I made love to and I remembered how, holding
her small shoulders in my hands sometimes,
I felt a violent wonder at her presence
like a thirst for salt, for my childhood river
with its island willows, silly music from the pleasure boat,
muddy places where we caught the little orange-silver fish
called pumpkinseed. It hardly had to do with her.
Longing, we say, because desire is full
of endless distances. I must have been the same to her.
But I remember so much, the way her hands dismantled bread,
the thing her father said that hurt her, what
she dreamed. There are moments when the body is as numinous
as words, days that are the good flesh continuing.
Such tenderness, those afternoons and evenings,
saying blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.
Can I come in? I saw you slip away.
Hors d’oeuvres depress you, don’t they? They do me.
And cocktails, jokes … such dutiful abandon.
Where the faithful observe immovable feasts
– boat races, birthdays, marriages, martyrdoms –
we’re summoned to our lonely ceremonies any time:
B minor, the mouldiness of an old encyclopedia,
the tinny sun snapping off the playground swings,
these are, though we can’t know this, scheduled
to arrive that minute of the hour, hour of the day,
day of every year. Again, regular as brickwork
comes the time the nurse jots on your chart
before she pulls the sheet across your face. Just so
the past falls open anywhere – even sitting here with you.
Sorry. You remind me of a girl I knew.
I met her at a party much like this, but younger, louder,
the bass so fat, the night so sticky you could drown.
We shouted at each other over soul
and cold beer in the crowded kitchen and l, at least,
was halfway to a kiss when she slipped
her arm around her friend.
I worked at liking him and it took work,
and it never got any easier being harmless,
but we danced that night like a three-way game of chess
and sang to Curtis Mayfield pumped so loud
that when I drove them home they could hardly
whisper to invite me up.
Their black walls smirked with Jesus on black velvet
– Jesus, Elvis, Mexican skeletons, big-eyed Virgins,
Rodin’s hands clasped in chocolate prayer –
an attitude of décor, not like this room of yours.
A bottle opened – tequila with a cringe of worm –
and she watched me.
Lighting a meltdown of Paschal candles
she watched me. He poured the drinks rasping
We’re seriously into cultural detritus. At which, at last,
she smiled. Ice cubes cracked. The worm sank in my glass.
And all that long year we were joined at the hip.
I never heard them laugh. They had,
instead, this tic of scratching quotes in the air –
like frightened mimes inside their box of style,
that first class carriage from whose bright window
I watched the suburbs of my life recede.
Exactly one year on she let me kiss her – once –
her mouth wine-chilled, my tongue a clumsy guest,
and after that the invitations dwindled.
By Christmas we were strangers. It was chance
I heard about the crash. He died at once.
Black ice and rain they said. No news of her.
I can’t remember why I didn’t write.
Perhaps I thought she’d sold the flat and left.
Some nights midway to sleep I’m six years old.
Downstairs it’s New Year’s Eve. Drink and shrieks.
But my mother’s lit the luminous plastic Jesus
to watch me through the night, which is why
I’ve got my pillow wrapped around my head.
I never hear the door. And when she speaks,
her thick-tongued anger rearing like a beast
I feel my hot piss spreading through the sheets.
But when I wake, grown up, it’s only sweat.
But if I dream I bleed. A briar crown,
a fist prised open wide, a steadied nail,
a hammer swinging down – the past falls open
Ash Wednesday evening.
Driving by, I saw her lights were on.
I noticed both their names still on the buzzer
and when I rang I heard her voice. Come in –
her nose was broken, her front teeth gone,
a rosary was twisted round her fists –
– Come in. I’ve been saying a novena.
Inside, each crucifix and candle shone,
transfigured in her chrysalis of grief.
She spoke about the crash, how she’d been driving,
how they had to cut her from the wreck…
and then she slipped and called me by his name.
Of those next hours I remember most
the silences between her sobs, the rain
against the skylight slowly weakening
to silence, silence brimming into sleep and dawn.
Then, having lain at last all night beside her,
having searched at last that black-walled room,
the last unopened chamber of my heart,
and found there neither pity nor desire
but an assortment of religious kitsch,
I inched my arm from under her and left.
Since then, the calmest voice contains her cry
just within the range of human hearing
and where I’ve hoped to hear my name gasped out
from cradle, love bed, death bed, there instead
I catch her voice, her broken lisp, his name.
Since then, each night contains all others,
nested mirror-within-mirror, stretching back from then
to here and now, this party, this room, this bed,
where, in another life, we might have kissed.
Thank you, my friend, for showing me your things –
you have exquisite taste – but let’s rejoin your guests
who must by now be wondering where you’ve gone.
Bad things are going to happen.
Your tomatoes will grow a fungus
and your cat will get run over.
Someone will leave the bag with the ice cream
melting in the car and throw
your blue cashmere sweater in the drier.
Your husband will sleep
with a girl your daughter’s age, her breasts spilling
out of her blouse. Or your wife
will remember she’s a lesbian
and leave you for the woman next door. The other cat–
the one you never really liked–will contract a disease
that requires you to pry open its feverish mouth
every four hours. Your parents will die.
No matter how many vitamins you take,
how much Pilates, you’ll lose your keys,
your hair and your memory. If your daughter
doesn’t plug her heart
into every live socket she passes,
you’ll come home to find your son has emptied
the refrigerator, dragged it to the curb,
and called the used appliance store for a pick up–drug money.
There’s a Buddhist story of a woman chased by a tiger.
When she comes to a cliff, she sees a sturdy vine
and climbs half way down. But there’s also a tiger below.
And two mice–one white, one black–scurry out
and begin to gnaw at the vine. At this point
she notices a wild strawberry growing from a crevice.
She looks up, down, at the mice.
Then she eats the strawberry.
So here’s the view, the breeze, the pulse
in your throat. Your wallet will be stolen, you’ll get fat,
slip on the bathroom tiles of a foreign hotel
and crack your hip. You’ll be lonely.
Oh taste how sweet and tart
the red juice is, how the tiny seeds
crunch between your teeth.
Sometimes I wish I were still out
on the back porch, drinking jet fuel
with the boys, getting louder and louder
as the empty cans drop out of our paws
like booster rockets falling back to Earth
and we soar up into the summer stars.
Summer. The big sky river rushes overhead,
bearing asteroids and mist, blind fish
and old space suits with skeletons inside.
On Earth, men celebrate their hairiness,
and it is good, a way of letting life
out of the box, uncapping the bottle
to let the effervescence gush
through the narrow, usually constricted neck.
And now the crickets plug in their appliances
in unison, and then the fireflies flash
dots and dashes in the grass, like punctuation
for the labyrinthine, untrue tales of sex
someone is telling in the dark, though
no one really hears. We gaze into the night
as if remembering the bright unbroken planet
we once came from, to which we will never
be permitted to return. We are amazed how hurt we are.
We would give anything for what we have.
– New Orleans, November 1910
Four weeks have passed since I left, and still
I must write to you of no work. I’ve worn down
the soles and walked through the tightness
of my new shoes calling upon the merchants,
their offices bustling. All the while I kept thinking
my plain English and good writing would secure
for me some modest position. Though I dress each day
in my best, hands covered with the lace gloves
you crocheted –no one needs a girl. How flat
the word sounds, and heavy. My purse thins.
I spend foolishly to make an appearance of quiet
industry, to mask the desperation that tightens
my throat. I sit watching –
though I pretend not to notice – the dark maids
ambling by with their white charges. Do I deceive
anyone? Were they to see my hands, brown
as your dear face, they’d know I’m not quite
what I pretend to be. I walk these streets
a white woman, or so I think, until I catch the eyes
of some stranger upon me, and I must lower mine,
a negress again. There are enough things here
to remind me who I am. Mules lumbering through
the crowded streets send me into reverie, their footfall
the sound of a pointer and chalk hitting the blackboard
at school, only louder. Then there are women, clicking
their tongues in conversation, carrying their loads
on their heads. Their husky voices, the wash pots
and irons of the laundresses call to me.
I thought not to do the work I once did, back bending
and domestic; my schooling a gift – even those half days
at picking time, listening to Miss J–. How
I’d come to know words, the recitations I practiced
to sound like her, lilting, my sentences curling up
or trailing off at the ends. I read my books until
I nearly broke their spines, and in the cotton field,
I repeated whole sections I’d learned by heart,
spelling each word in my head to make a picture
I could see, as well as a weight I could feel
in my mouth. So now, even as I write this
and think of you at home, Goodbye
is the waving map of your palm, is
a stone on my tongue.