In each of my fingers is another woman.
The hairs on my head
belonged to someone else.
Their ends are split with their long history.
Sometimes my feet carry me
where Jane wanted to go, where Ann
dreamed in her tower.
I am Ellen out of her century.
The way girls bare their legs
shames my thee-saying heart.
When I speak, I hear harmonies
I do not understand.
But other ladies flow in me like blood.
Their other lives swell
the veins on the backs of my hands.
Their stories scatter like black bees
from my mouth, and return
to lie with me through the dangerous night.
If you stroke my back, it is Ann you touch,
who never felt the fingers of her king so gently,
but opens now her body against greasy bones
and lying voices at chapel.
She has come far, who used to put on
her morning petticoats atremble, in hopes
no call would come to his canopied bed
where, like a eunuch, she performed for him
acts she sang against in the dark.
And if we love each other well,
it will be her heart’s red beating you feel
against your chest, her heart
from her body which was taken away
but now returns. But if I tell you no
you must understand
that the damp and the rats and the licey hay
on which I sleep are more than I can bear.
I will not be long. Wait for me.
Speaking With Lucy (d. 1736): Her Answers
When I was eight.
Leeches. Ugh! Flat gray mouths against my stomach.
The doctor held me down.
I screamed for you.
Because you had not been born.
Because I would not grow up to say what mattered.
Because you can.
Julia Stranahan (1880-1970)
Teaching the Miccosukkee
As lately as 1917, Miccosukkee law forbade learning to
read and write. The penalty for breaking the law was
to crop the tops of the offender’s ears.
The Medicine Man at Big Cypress hates me.
He has sliced Annie's ears.
Others come now, but the children of Big Cypress
look down when they see me at the post.
With his potion of nettle and bitter oak
the Medicine Man has shriveled
the child I would have grown.
In dreams he tells me what he has done.
The Medicine Man at Big Cypress buys nothing here.
Others come, with their pigs and their dogs
and their chickens with muddy feathers.
The Medicine Man stays in his chickee,
built with none of our nails,
sharpening his knives for little ears.
They cannot keep the knowledge from him.
Let an ibis cross the swamp
five miles away, ten miles,
and he knows.
Jane Marshall (1835-1910)
Winston rides to war
I may not yet write, for you are too lately
lost, have no place now where an envelope
might find a home. Yet there is much to do.
I must wake my pen from its long dry sleep,
must walk the round words, like babies,
across the page, must nurse them for
the hard tasks which will be their lot
too soon, for they must learn, before
they are grown, how to keep a man alive.
And there are things I would have them
tell you: how our new child grows, happy
and swelling in his sisters' house.
And there are things I would have them
never say: how your bayonet sliced
my eyes today as it shone, bright
as a woman in the morning river sun
Their infant child dies
Robbie coughs blood roses in his crib.
I grease his shaking chest with salve,
but fear I can only ease his going
for hourly he slides away. The day
shines blue in the window. A little
breeze does the best it can. I mind
the child. In his wrinkled face
his death blooms slowly.
Instead of coming home, Winston visits a whorehouse.
Winston, you were wrong to dance in such a place.
Since the news came to my ears,
I have pictured you countless times,
a cavorting great bear, with her rouged
hand in yours, and she flinging up
her skirts. And that Belle standing by
the while, her fat arms folded. And then,
slurring, you turn your pockets inside out
and hand your pay to Belle's red smile
This is a reproof I do not deserve.
You may say I was not there.
You may claim that it was otherwise.
But I will tell you this:
I will withhold my bed from you,
and should you approach me there,
I will wake the children that they may see
what kind of creature they call
Father. I am sending this by Alan
He says you go to battle soon
I have grown plump and settled these months,
domestic as the white chickens that peck
outside, whose smooth eggs our children
gather in baskets. Yet I must tell you
what I have learned. Inside each egg
is a yellow scream. At night sometimes,
when all the chickens are asleep under
the moon, the eggs shriek in their shells,
wanting something. When I come
from my bed and pick them up,
they quiet, as I rock them in my skirt.
from ACROSS HER BROAD LAP SOMETHING WONDERFUL
Loving a Son
hurts, like the stars
that are always there,
even in the day sky as if,
looking up, I could see them
past your lifetime and mine.
Do you remember the night
we showed the stars to Django?
He was three, and we held him
as he liked to be held
and we said, pointing up,
See, there’s the Bear,
there’s the Swan,
and it was his first time,
the first of all the Bears
and Saucepans made of light,
something for him to keep
as the fuzz deepens on
his lip and chin, and he goes
out alone nights, carrying
the car keys-- a way to know,
looking up, what to look for,
and how it feels, held close,
when you find it.
from FORTY-FOUR AMBITIONS FOR THE PIANO
To Play Pianissimo
Does not mean silence,
the absence of moon in the day sky
Does not mean barely to speak,
the way a child's whisper
makes only warm air
on his mother's right ear.
To play pianissimo
is to carry sweet words
to the old woman in the last dark row
who cannot hear anything else,
and to lay them across her lap like a shawl.
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.
Driving Thirteenth Street, I have the sense that something has moved since yesterday. The avenues as usual count down to Main, yet when I arrive at work, I find the turn has taken me half a block to the north.
In the elevator I push three instead of four. I spend the rest of the day compensating, leaning slightly to the right to allow for the unexplained weight on my left shoulder.
When the news came, we adjusted, says the family of the man who will not come home tonight.Yes, puts in his wife. We have schedules to keep.But sometimes I slip, and cook for four. And sometimes, when I go to serve, I find the food has gone, and all my pots are full of tears.
He was born with the fingerpads of the blind.
By eight he could tell if someone
had been at the piano before him,
and how long before, and who.
Beginning Fur Elise one November afternoon,
he burst into storms of tears
because his sister had banged
her tuneless anger the night before,
and he felt the bruises still on the keys.
He was born with the ears of a dog.
He could hear his mother's skin decay,
the soft give
as her cheeks sagged just barely more.
Sometimes his face would cloud
because the moan of needles becoming
earth seemed so incomparably sad.
Or brighten. He had heard
the sun come out on the beating feathers
of birds, miles away.
He was born with his life in his hands.
Toddling, he learned the little bells
of Grieg. Then he mastered Mozart's
speech, its ache of clean and brittle
song. Then he learned to follow Bach,
crossing water from calm to flood,
up and down the stepping-stones
of the keys. He would dream
of his piano as if it were flesh.
In a room with a strange instrument
he would walk by it once or twice
brushing it, as if by accident,
with his leg, his sleeve.
The Pianist Who Keeps a Loaded Gun on Her Piano
When She Practices
The children know not to knock.
Double-sexed, I use both hands.
I tease seriously. The notes
tantalize, approach explosion,
fall back. It is the brink
that thrills when the high
walker sets her pink foot
on the rope.
The children know
I would shoot, but not at whom.
I am not certain I know myself,
only that this deep readying,
this fierce first step over air,
is worth dying for.
On Passing Forty
You with your mesmerizing eyes,
you holding a daubed cracker
between first finger and thumb,
so absurd in your huge foreign hands.
You the priest, with your obscene thoughts.
The gold water in your glass disappears,
leaving ice. And you look up.
I will not go with you.
I am happy. I have decided
my life, and it does not take place
in rooms like these.
In certain years
marriage darkens in my throat.
In certain years I am aware
of the way white hairs fall
around my face, killing the black ones
underneath. I smile too much,
and the skin deepens around my mouth.
At times like these you appear.
In the street you pause to buy a paper,
and your eyes travel my body
leaving it throbbing,
bright and pulpy as a heart.
At a party, as now, you single me,
and my fingertips shiver as though
I'd run them around your white collar,
pulled it wide, set my lips to your
bare skin. I am happy I say.
The wind gathers your black cape,
and sends it flying.
For Someone Considering Death
I told you.
Life is one big Hanon
up and down the piano,
ten fingers skipping over each other
in every conceivable way,
two hands getting stronger.
the notes are the same for everyone,
but you can choose to whisper or shout,
to fade or grow.
And haven't you noticed that some people's hands sing,
but others are midwestern on the keys,
each crescendo a secretarial swell.
Think about this.
How can you dream to play the Pathetique,
how can the moment come to look
into someone's eyes
and say The Hell With Everything, I Love You,
when you haven't done your time,
hour after hour, year after year
in that small closed room.
Six Cairns for Mary
Where the way over the moors turns
indistinct, heaps of stones serve to guide the walker
along the authorized path. No one alive remembers
who dragged them there.
Mary Attends a Ball (1830)
Our candles shine plain as servant girls
before the moon, who wears the whitest dress
tonight. And all our India muslins,
and all our fine combs of filigree,
and all our long feathers
cannot rival how she flies.
And when the gentlemen roam the hall
there comes a moment each forgets
the face or name of her he seeks.
And when memory returns, each thinks
himself wrong, it was someone else
he hunted, with such white fever.
Mary in Love (1832)
If Mr. Peake stands booted on Ingleton Hill
and his big mare stamps beside him
whose rein's a hard dry catch in his palm,
and if the day spreads her fields,
yellow as head powders at his feet,
and he is thinking which are ripe
and which not, then I would go to him
in the little wind which stirs his hair
and creeps among the folds of his stock
just before, all around,
the gold seed wisps begin to sway.
Mary, Waking (1833)
Well, Mrs. Peake, he says. And smiles.
And when he's shut the door I rise
and put on my new dress, habit of wife,
gray as the feathers of doves
that peck at the bright litters
of corn someone strews for them
by the barn, whose stones weigh
heavier than hearts, more
than any man can heft alone.
His Breakfast Plate/The Litter of Mr. Peake (1835)
Yellow smears upon a white ground.
Two greasy commas that remain of chops.
A knife thrust through the fork's tines.
And, over all, the scattered dots of crumbs
brushed from his hands as,
pig shine on his lips, he turns to go.
Mary's Duties (1836)
He is rid away to the tenant farms
and I take up my pen to list
the shakings out and openings.
And my thin letters lean as sails
that, though driven, cannot arrive.
May the ninth, I write.
And: Mrs. Ferguson.
Unbutton the bed pillows
and plump them to the air.
Then: Take the curtains down
and with your broom unseat
the spiders' webs. Open
the windows and leave them
wide and here the thread trails
off, among the cottages
with their spring festoons of eggs
pricked with pins and blown,
fragile as the blacksmith's daughter
dreaming in the sun, who lifts
her skirts above her white knees.
I pull back behind a hedge.
Let her not meet me, with my dry pen.
The Very Reverend Charles Easton (1836)
Thursday last Mary Peake fell off her horse
and lit upon her ear.
She never spoke again, died in half an hour,
the child still in her.
This night the cat got to her corps,
et off bits of her nose and chin.
The rest took wind,
and is now in all our mouths.
from THE RIM BENDERS
Perhaps the most critical moment in the construction
of a grand piano is that in which the strip of wood which will be
the final casing of the instrument must be matched to the curve
of the frame.
They have twelve minutes to marry
the thin edge to its curve.
There is great pressure. Fine wood
does not wish to bend. Let us
lean with them into this poem.
And if we fail, the set glue
leaves gaps, sharp mistakes
of air we will always see.
But how can we not try? These are
the twelve minutes of our lives.
Winnowing the True
Imitation pearls drawn across the teeth
feel smooth. Dyed fur resists when blown.
When out for butter, shun bright yellow.
A knot that moves on its branch is not a knot.
A word thrown over the shoulder is not a discussion.
A brick is not a personal flotation device.
A father will cover his sleeping son
but leave his dreams alone.
A jeweler will cut the extra face and risk the gem.
A Master will tell you he plays, a little.
Matanzas Beach, near St. Augustine, was named to commemorate Pedro Menendez’1565 slaughter of Hugonauts there.. Menendez justified the murders by saying it was not Frenchmen he had killed, but heretics.
A rod jammed into the sand
the thin line from its tip to the sea
and him down the beach
picking up broken angels' wings
with a boy's faith
in what swims in deep water
when suddenly, raptly, his rod bends
and he pounds towards it,
towards what is silver and struggles
in every boy and
flushed, he reels it in.
What next, he never thought. It leaps
and gasps in his hands.
Django in Hang-Zhou
He is waiguo ren: foreigner. When he walks to
the market his dark head sees over theirs as if
he were a child, held on his father’s shoulders.
They point at him and stare.
He is twenty-one,
and empty as a thousand-years old wine jug.
He is also in love, not with what is foreign
in Hang-Zhou, but with what is most himself--
the cold and ancient lake, the blue mountains,
and in spring with the puffs of dust that followed
the galloping carts of emperors. I think he was
among the watchers that lined the streets when
these trees were small.
I asked him once,
Why is it that Mandarin’s so easy for you?
Because I’m a musician, he said, which was
like the doll, that still has many dolls inside.
She wove notes into her braids.
Her mother did not notice.
She drew numbers on her fingerpads.
Her mother said, wash your hands.
She curled strings into clefs.
They were gone when she came home.
She tried to sing with her fingers.
Her mother said stop that jittering,
Her mother said Look, you can't eat
pianos. She said oh yes I can. But
beets and roast and corn were set before
her. There was no music in that house.
Spell for a Poet Getting On
May your hipbones never die.
May you hear the ruckus of mountains
in the Kansas of your age, and when
you go deaf, may you go wildly deaf.
May the neighbors arrive, bringing entire aviaries.
When the last of your hair is gone, may families
lovelier than you can guess colonize
the balds of your head.
May your thumbstick grow leaves.
May the nipples of your breasts drip wine.
And when, leaning into the grass, you watch
the inky sun vanish into the flat page
of the sea, may you join your lawn chair,
each of you content
that nothing is wise forever.
from DESIRE LINES
This is how we sleep:
On our backs, with pillows covering our chests, heavy as dirt
On our sides, like wistful spoons
Clenched, knees in-tucked, arms folded
Wide, like sprawling-rooted lotuses
In Iowa on top of pictures of Hawaii, huge white flowers on blue
In New York on black satin
In China on straw.
This is how our dreams arrive:
As hot yellow taxicabs
As sudden blazing steam, we who have been pots on a stove,
looking only at our own lids
As uninvited insects, all at once on our tongues.
O hairdresser, auditor, hard-knuckled puller of crab traps, you who
think poetry was school, you who believe you never had
a flying thought,
She tries it on, like a dress.
She decides it doesn’t fit
and starts to take it off.
Her skin comes, too.
The egrets like whitecaps on the plowed fields
The treeline across the long way arched
as a blanket over a sleeper's hip,
and over the road, the bahia where the cattle feed
And the pale moon, still there because she cannot
bear to leave the soft slope of the pond
where they sat as the man's fingers moved lightly
across her wrist, although he has turned and walked
away, and is even now thinking of someone else, the sun,
more beautiful in her flame clothes.
And the pond itself, where desire's secret fish swim,
their spread tails swaying in the shadowed light
as now, under the clodded earth of fields something
stirs as if stroked and seeds open, release
and easily, and this is how it is and no one is thinking
of the young woman in the blue print dress,
how one leg twisted under her and her mouth turned
red as he slammed her against the wall, desiring her
more than he has ever wanted anything and they fell
together on the unmade bed, she tearing at his clothes,
and this was opening too.
She’s driving Past cheap flashes of motels past
the off-price shopping malls where she doesn't pause
because she knows she can never spend enough
the way she knows that there aren't roads enough but
that's different and she still dreams to travel every one
until she passes every house with a light left on
every upstairs where a mother lies awake at three
then four for the son who said he'd be home early tonight
every gas station where a boy hoses rainbows away
every onramp where a stubbled hitcher squats
looking like someone escaped every treeless street
of crewcut lawns where clouds of twelve year olds
buzz after school where someone knifed a kitten
and stuffed it in a wall She wants to pass by every house
where people have blossomed beyond themselves
She likes interstates because they blur but
she likes the dirt roads too where they've sold
the pines for pulp and abandoned what was left
to creeping ferns She likes the live-oaked streets
of Oxford Mississippi likes the midwest for the courage
of its corn likes Maine for its dissolving rocks along
the coast She’ll tell you the subject is roads the dips
the potholes the cliffs the curves the blasted-out interstates
that make liars of mountains But somewhere there’s
a long car with hooded lights looking to pull in her drive.
She thinks if she doesn't stop moving, she can't be found.
When the first 126 miles of Pennsylvania interstate
were opened in 1940, postcards were printed with airbrushed
moons and the potholes airbrushed out, thereby making
the perfect road.
And why not? It's smooth travelling we want, why pretend otherwise? And here’s a night thought. When we set off for Newfoundland, is it the fjord at Gros Morn that grabs our breath or the road under us, the way we can think it goes on forever?
Do old highways have afterlives? Is there somewhere a glowing 301 lined with neon the way satin lines a skirt, an eternal 301 whose motels shine with finny cars outside each room, whose swimming pools teem with little boys and their shy sisters in new one-piece suits?
At certain stretches are there not ghosts? The headless girl who drove a wild Mercedes under a truck? The nurse, who flew white-capped for a moment across the on-ramp as her car door flapped like a mouth that keeps saying "uh" "uh" "uh"? Or the man who swayed into six lanes of traffic one black night as if he were dancing, and met the lights in the second lane?
And why should freeways not slide between cities like great fish while lines of cars and semis and helmetless cyclists sit on their backs? Why do you believe this is not true? Because your parents told you it is you who move? What did you expect them to say?
What is a pothole after all but a place where the earth protests, where it shifts and shifts again, until it shakes itself loose, like a prisoner working off a gag? And why should we not shut that pothole up, stuff it full of asphalt, airbrush it gone if it tries to get into the picture?
And if the moon says no? Well, we can put it in anyway, dress it up like a woman who does not want a wedding but must wear brocade white as ice with a train that drags like stones because her mother wants that and she is too afraid, has never stopped being afraid, dies in her bed at eighty-three, having seen the pinched lines around her mother's mouth, as it disapproved the daughter's choice of shrouds? The moon says no? Put it in.
My friends, my fellow Americans, when you go to bed at night, can you change lanes smoothly, without swerves? Are you aware of the speeding car that does not appear in your rear view? Of the unmarked policemen on your either side? I tell you, search your souls. Have you ever
truly brought freeways into your life?
When the interstate highway system was designed,
engineers divided the country into a grid, and on the basis
of public hearings and studies, drew "desire lines" joining
the places where people wanted to go.
There is a line which the wind can erase between
one set of lights on the desert
There is a line in the air between San Francisco and the pink sky
over the Gulf of Mexico where Tampa Bay
flows into rivers.
There is a line through Pennsylvania, which heaves and buckles
as though it cannot bear to be touched.
There is a Friday night line of flame stretching
from Cleveland to anywhere.
There is a line through Nevada so lonely
no one has found it.
There is a line between the city and the mountains-
any city, any mountains- and, as it climbs,
the long valleys become flutes.
There is a line drawn over ruts, and the tough grasses
that overgrew things cast off in desperation: the child's
music box, the tablecloths, the bones.
There is a line made of paper. If words touch it,
the line will spark from the end, and burn.
End. And burn.
and finally……………………..unpublished………I don’t have too much around right now but……
Every person needs a poem to be her secret. She can tuck it behind the nylons in her dresser drawer. She can breathe it into her pillow, just before she falls asleep. She can save it in a milk-white jar.
She can lozenge it under her tongue. She can hide it in the folds of her computer. She can wear it in a holster beneath her silk dress. She can insert it deep into her body.
Every person needs a poem: so the insects of radiation cannot flay her; to ricochet the bullet into the sniper’s chest where he crouches across the parking lot; so she will have a home though she sleeps in a box on the street.
Every person needs a secret she will not tell anyone but water: the morning rain; a mountain tarn, black as if the earth were alone in the universe; an aching river with its clear impediments; the bath water she has run herself and sits in until she, who was cold to the bone, is warm.
Teachers Below the Wrist
My hands used to flutter above the crib when I was small
but I didn’t understand they were mine.
When I was three or four, they taught me how red felt when
it was wet-- different from yellow
not the same as blue. The squiggles I made on damp paper were
what they were trying to say
but I tried to eat them I was that stupid . When I was four, they
held a book to my face
and I thought they’d done their work But no They sent me
basketballs to fall through
my brother’s too-big circles held my brushes so their tips
could wash the hills
When I was twelve they begged for keys to run up and down,
still as deer and gently but no, my mother said,
no. When I was grown and gave them ivory they were awkward
as boys in love But then
they began to fill the dusk with notes and the birds would
sing along lined at the windows
And now they are teaching me how all engineering fails
Their fingers vacate the palms
They drop cups pens poems They recover in the afternoons
but more slowly every day
O teachers Don’t go I was just beginning to understand .
The Uses of Horticulture
The azalea doesn’t know the word pink, but
lives it every day, hot as the inside of an ear.
Its branches never heard of pruning shears
yet fall in half when their flowers fade.
The bare sticks do not know their name
but the tiny leaves that creep up their sides
tell them it over and over, like beads.
Every thrown stone falls.
But there is a moment first
as it hangs in the air
the blurred hand that
tossed it will not come
again, thinks the stone
as it flies.