James Cervantes: The Headlong Future

Selected by Carolyn Forche as the 1987 Capricorn Poetry Prize Winner

Copyright © 1990 by James Cervantes

For permission to reprint contact James Cervantes at cervantes.james@gmail.com.

Published by New Rivers Press

for Alexis and Anastasia


Shallow Music
For Comfort
This Season
One Anchor
The Fires in Oil Drums
Elegy for the Oldest Son
Make the Turtle Whole
In a Brown Study, or "Violet"
Sometimes Our Angels Emerge from a Base of Fire
Elusiveness, and Rescue


Out of Fever
The Children at the Windows
Learnig with Felt Fingers
Gulf Coast Blues
Autumn Mid-Week
The Long Dream of a Life


The Headlong Future
Novel Scattered in a Quarry
The Sun Intent Upon This Earth: West Dover, VT, 1774 & 1974
The Old Man Dreams
The Proxy
Garden of Antiquities
The Infinite Pianos
The Reality Executive
The Following is True if the Poincare Conjecture is True
In Lieu of an Ars Poetica


Prime Norton
Why Micky Came in a Dream
Poems for the Dog Star
The Owl or the Cage, The Courtyard or Summer
Music of the Tethered Man
A Place That is the Same Elsewhere


Shallow Music

Forgetfulness is the pool
with no buoyancy.
I have come that far in it.
There is neither night
nor twilight, but an obscure

row of days
like the questions
that lift
from a sleepy mouth.

"What happened?"
"Was it a wild throw
into the trees?"

Let us have
and the radio on it,
the honey light
and cellophane
of shallow music.

Through streaked windows:
a large slow branch,
the neighbor's
emerald lawn. A voice
comes up the stairs
and turns a homey corner

"Do I love that?"

The mirror across the room
holds a crescent of hair,
a nose, and an eye's dark well.
I do not feel the hand
that surfaces to confirm,
nor the one that comes
to stroke the hair,
to push me down with love.

For Comfort

Too late, the light is like talcum on the hills,
the morning rush like last night's crowd
at the stadium, two miles away
and spilling into the neighborhood.
Thus I touch the world, saying "too late"
when I mean "probe," when I fool myself
into "probe" and mean "mirror." The hills
are just a clock, and the light
its intimate hands. I am jealous
of them for being there, for
making me take this way to them.
It makes me a bus
from the airport by the sea
going to a house by the sea.
For comfort, I condemn
everyone to be that bus,
to grasp anything
that resembles home.

This Season

"Et le printemps m'a apporte l'affreux rire de l'idiot "
-Rimbaud, A Season In Hell

It was a romance with brick: each brick an island, a dome, reefs
and archipelagos of porous brick, and between them the gray
mortar, like low-slung clouds within the rise and fall of brick.
Then, abruptly, like the crack of a frozen lake, the fluid yard
found its boundaries.
    Every doorway had its crazy niche, locked thighs that crumbled
in spring's sweaty dew; every window its tableau, with full-
bodied death crushing a maiden's breasts, his tongue driving into
    At last the trees obscure the street. The city is crazed with
renovation. All night I hear jackhammers, sludge-pumps, the slap
of lumber, trowels rasping. Stairways cover the old cliffs. One
crisp morning the blue-print rises, dovecote within dovecote,
beautiful graph through which the laughter rattles.

One Anchor

A man rises with his thoughts
like slant-light
through hemlock and spruce, a screen
through which a distant highway
comes as sea-sound,
then the tin trumpets
of seabirds, who are just children
a few houses down, playing
so they all touch somehow. The roof
overhead collapses into the next
through shadow, the white siding of each house
still more blue-gray than the glaring separateness
of a few hours from now. But already
a woman has found
sun on a soft-edged dais
between him and the children, has removed
a watch he puts on, has slipped off rings
he now replaces, and lets go this small gold mound
where her hand relaxes and curls. He is lost
and drowsy in the light of oleanders in a glowing vase,
the conversation between closed eyes
and bones surrendered to the earth. He receives
this body which floats to him
on different nights, for the houses look
as if he'd just placed them: pure titanium on ultramarine.
He's made her all one color.
The pale bands
of jewelry vanish
into triangles of sand, lapses of sky
that lead where roads are ocean-bound,
where neither of them lives
but where they grope for a place,
their hands one anchor.
My bride is distant
along diagonals of www. Her white dress
burns out the little sticks
of a country icon, and the dress
and a window's lights battle at burning.
I am unfocused, uncomfortable
in a line of chairs along a wall.
The back of my neck
rubs splinters of cedar,
vaguely needing this comfort. Not needed,
the fireplace roars. I send an occasional song
and she answers with a word
that arrives hollow within her voice.
I leave it before me, turning to see
who comes down the line: her thin double,
glowing and aged, and whose hair
is both blond and gray. Her lips
brush each face on the line, and as she nears,
her whispering dress mocks that of my bride. I am kissed
on the mouth. She, mother of the bride,
leans forward again, drains me,
each kiss no longer
but claiming like fire. Her face
withdraws but does not leave. It's the cabin
that recedes, the window
a pale blue space, a young bride its cloud.
This hand in mine
is wet in a cold stream, is a third bride
who comes down a formality of rock and water,
flowered crown first, her frothy white dress
smoothed by the current. I am snagged
with her, cold as water,
and the kiss is long.

The Fires in Oil Drums

In winter, the fires in oil drums
are like the crone's voice
repeating a child's complaint.

In our search for a likeness
we have come to these endless stoops
where men and women are hunched

over the red domes, fallen
like the stone finials behind them.
We see her features

scattered among them -- brother, cousin,
the child...but our hope
is the white parabola above each fire,

where there is no threshold
for warmth, just ice
in the lungs, as when one

turns from the drum for the door.
Now smoke complicates dusk
in the east, and evening

is a cafe on the dog-leg
of a twisted summer; under
its close roof

is a nakedness that drinks
the after-image of fire.

Elegy for the Oldest Son

"But this isn't a rebellion," the colonel said. "It's a poor dead musician."
-Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Writes To The Colonel
How stupid to startle the family
from the threshold of sleep, to shatter
one's own face in a window
with night behind it. The moment
has the heaviness of lacquer --
these wraiths in nightgowns and goosebumps,
and then her voice, low and solitary.

Why do shoes fit tightly
on these occasions? One is carried
to exhaustion on concrete, surprised
by the train whistle, the pungent ballast,
a coach brought to one
like a notch in roulette. Into the seat,
into a half-sleep, night left ajar
and the hard black cases
pressing into their thighs. Later, in the suit
of concerts and death,
he would pierce the first formal silence
and the other would follow, hearing
how she came to him with a gesture of grace
so like the dusting of her skirts; how the wet-nurse
became "mama," moulding little mouths
to her breasts. Mama had a way with secrets,
a way to turn them into orange blossoms,
and the wet nurse would press them
into the leaves of her simple dreams,
injuring him in this double affection. Often,
they stare into the bell of the trumpet,
into a vortex of night and trains,
until one or the other
makes his reflection on its rim.

Make the Turtle Whole

"There is the sense of neurotic coherence"
-Frank O'Hara, "Ode On Causality"
When he's sick, she gets sick,
but before that, neighbors heard
his voice, like the hammers
of a dead piano, beating down breath
on her, and before that, acacia blossoms
floated down the aqueduct, with pink toes
dappling them, and hands with cigarettes
writing them down, imagining Balzac or Zola
fishing with their pinkies, as they did
prior to this, two hard at the game, crayons
of the past melting in the same bed,
where the brass turtle on a square of marble
bore its flute and incense and rattled
to the edge, useless evermore, though the same
had happened in the beginning, when in passion
he struck his heel on the turtle's back,
bled on carpet and her white calves, then
licked them clean and made the turtle whole.

In a Brown Study, or "Violet"

Once again I misread. "Be violet,"
I thought he said. Well, he must be sick and drinking,
the piss-color, amber, bronze, mahogany,
the strongest things
kept at the height of his shoulder.
For he has no doubt been pushed
into a chair of those colors. By fever, by draining
three fingers of scotch, by the window
whose pale wash trembles with children. What is
one tremble? Half of it? "Here, take my daughter,"
says someone of the woman
watching the children. Maybe that.
What is glass
but what undresses her and is not jealous.
The intermediary, hearing grapes
fall to the floor, is obligated to hear rain.
Maybe that is violet.

Sometimes Our Angels Emerge from a Base of Fire

Through the plate glass, the blue shadows
of her pink flesh
travel over her
like huge Luna moths,
or like the dark curls
at the base of fire, which suddenly,
but with complete transition, become pale
This is the angel he reaches for
in the smoke from a broiler, numerous flies
buzzing through the smoke and around him,
two doors off their hinges.
                       The meat cooks
and he must remake the house
in these odors, in light that clings
as for a man in the south, whose angel
is born of creosote and magnolias, and travels swiftly
to anvil-shaped clouds. Our man,
for whom my map has no home, must finish
the cookout, must see the afternoon
through to night, put everyone to bed, then press
the heels of his palms into his eyes.

Elusiveness, and Rescue

Somewhere on the hard finish of this shell,
deep in the tightest curls
toward beginning, is the evening light
like afterthoughts on beginning: traffic as mirage,
complex, disregarded for one fluid line, the closed car.

"Are we going back," she asks.
"Is there darkness back," he asks, for that was the start,
and it is like two arrows repeating, demonstrating.

So the room is dark,
and though they are not
alabaster models, this body
can see that body -- just enough,
like opposite walls in the last curve out,
the shell losing hollowness.

The spiral
is inside itself,
spiraling to know itself,
or known through a sudden cross-section
at a daylight cafe, where there is nothing
on the table, and no one across.


You lean toward the city
        and crane
around one of its tilting steps, like a spectator
who looks too closely and overshoots, losing a familiar
figure in the city's bas relief.

She would urge you
to leave that glint of ocean
that appears through parted boards, to look
around for her presence.
              So small is emotion
you see only promise in its rack,
her figure a small flame
dancing on a ramp of dank boards,
enthralled in the byway whose scent is algae,
remnants of tissue,
the mussel's faint breath.
                  You waver
between two levels: the last
which steps into water, and the lowest
trickles of crepuscular shops, where you enter, translucent
as wax or shell, a slave darkness
          its proprietor lost
as you are lost in the final slump of waterfront,
snug in a wing's hard crook,
            the shell curve
            that leads heart after sight.


These Antipodes call to one's mind
old recollections of childish doubt and wonder.
Only the other day I looked forward to this airy barrier
as a definite point in our journey homewards;
but now I find it, and all such resting places for the imagination,
are like shadows, which a man moving onwards cannot catch.

-from Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle

Out of Fever

The dogs do not move today
and the tallest trees are limp.
There's a white film on the broad leaves
of the cottonwood that a boy
wipes with one finger. His sister
has a fever and will not rise today.

He notices other clear
green streaks and thinks that maybe
these are his sister's, and runs
to the faucet. His brow has become wet
and he washes that too.

Only the screen doors are closed.
He looks in. His mother
is strangely blurred by the screen
but the cloth she carries
is luminous and drops large
slow drops. For two days

the boy spends his time like this,
like the clouds that are just
out there. He will not enter the room
where snakes startle his sister
and there are so many days and nights
in a short time. His sister
looks new when she wakes.

The Children at the Windows

Lawrence, you astound me,
like the lawn busy with uniforms,
white against green, like a spring snow.

I saw you hug the great thigh
of a nurse who went on talking above you.
At night, you are above her,
a little moon-face
that has slipped through the window. Perhaps

then you are shared by the other children,
who are this sound of loons
and peepers
from the flooded meadow.

Is it morning?
No, it's the birth
of stone and iron. You begin twelve years
into your life, a smooth face
like a rose that leans, sobbing
on the massive shoulder of a wall.


We go single-file
into the woods, a whisper of boots
and frost behind me. There's a flutter
when we pass the gravestones, and another
over a spill of bricks
from the tower's doorway. Lawrence
has his hand in my back pocket
all the way up the spiral stairs.
We spread into the light
and are a next in the battlements,
a circle of eyes. Except
there is a double face,
pale and round, bearded and burned. Lawrence

is the only one who's afraid,
frozen, his mouth
like one sculpted for water, from which
birds explode, echoing down stairs
and tumbling into the valley.


Leaves in their fires colors
are suspended along the path.

One is a gift for a girl
whose hand goes to meet it,
and there's a cut
somewhere inside
as she balls it up
in her fist, then kneels
to place her palm
to its palm.

The boy with black hair
against olive skin is next to her
collecting blood-leaves, and another
saves pale alder.

A stranger walks
through the kneeling children.
He is like that rock
loaded with quartz, another light
in the blue-green thicket.


The girls are round
where they shouldn't be,
say the nurses: it's an extension
of the illness.

Those full hips and new breasts
are now pads on the floors
of the rooms with drains.

They are still surprised.

What the boys take
through the tiny windows
is what they should have.

It is why a dozen
nurses and doors
sound alike when they meet

this morning.
The shining body
of a girl winds down

Through the meadow, a stream
of dark boys behind her, and then
the nurses, large and slow

like snowflakes
that fall into water,
or the shirts falling
about the girl.


A woman was replaced by her brother.
She gutted the rooms
they entered together. There's metal

in her throat and skull, like a gong
that sounds in the room
where she calls the brother.

The children are silenced. Downstairs, her head
is cocked like a bird at attention, and his name
is out there in silence, beyond

the children's silence. It makes a tour
of drawing rooms, finds nothing,
and returns during the rustle
of lunch, when they are just lifting
spoons and forks, and putting them down again.


She's in her dress of red flowers;
he in loose gray trousers and a white shirt
open against a white chest. Their mouths move
as slowly as her fan. Under the bench
are a newspaper and a sandwich that fell
through the slats in a morning shower.

The water-colorist is looking
above them at the green dome
of the shade tree, dipping her brush
into a little well between thin lips.
Her Cupid's-bow is green and cracked
and all about her are small crushed cups.

At the feet of a man whose head
shakes No, there's a boy who wants to tell
something he has memorized, and promises
to tell only half. He's talking and singing
under a fist, yanking at a cuff.
The man topples in silence and even
the boy's running cannot be heard.


Once there was a river entrance
for supplies, and a manacled wonder
standing at the bow.
He could only see
what was ahead of him, where water
met the lawn, water lapping
and the grass lapping back, like hair
in a bath. The he would rise with the lawn
to the shoulders of the house.

It fell down around him
and came up again in stone.
The house is a room
he's walking out of, a stocking foot
and a skeletal foot, shoes and a sock
in his hands. His right elbow
holds his pants to his waist; this woman
is pulling a belt
from a large brown envelope.

He feels he should kiss her
and feels it is wrong. She makes him
sit down and finish his shoes.
He thinks he should have the key
but they are already in the corridor
and are jostled by a boy
counting stairs through twelve. The man
looks in his hand for a kev
or an address,
then drifts across the lawn.


Yesterday, a toad was sacrificed in the hall.
Lawrence believed it would get up again.
He also believes any number
is a permutation of his birth-date,
and that the clock celebrates
only twice a day. He is here now
in the gown he hates, having pulled me
by the sleeve to wait with him. There are leaves

tapcd in the hall, a light by the clock
and one at each iron door. The year
is approaching snow, the arrival
of Lawrence's parents. He's my child now
and is allowed an opcn door
through which he passes,
then climbs into a night
from which someone else
will take him.

Learning with Felt Fingers

The doctor has inoculated you
with a mild version of the disease.
He turns away like the assassin
in your dreams, and the smell of the classroom
comes back: chewing gum and the pure sweat
of children instead of cordite. It's simple
and stupid how it hinges on one word: shot. You reel back

but the movement is small
and fluttery, like the butterfly
in front of a cloud in the stereoscope.
You take its colors for reality. For a whole day
trees and stones stand out, nothing has been built

flush and exact, your toes
are small melons on dirt
which is like the granules of snow
in a creche; large fingers
advance on your lips.

Just when you come back to yourself,
when you feel wood at your elbow
and a hate for ceramic dogs, you see your mother
fall to her knees and hear a new voice. You smile
before you cry with her, as if you'd brushed
a dusty velvet curtain.

Gulf Coast Blues

The boy kicks gravel in his drive
and up pops a scallop shell. Grave

shadows of cumulus turn it gray,
but in the sun, country-western,

gospel, and violin love music
mix like rusty wire and vanish

like a fuse of laden air.
You can almost see a fish drying,

a woman's leg drying, the smoke
from a stack and from a barbeque.

Saturday morning's first beers
sweat in all those right hands

while the left ones power-steer.
You do see the woman's bare leg

and foot stuck out the window,
so still, and the dune grass

bending over, turning silver,
like some new revolving world.

Autumn Mid-Week

The field gathers
and goes in here.
Slipping latitudes
cast doubt on the nearest tree,
in leaf now or always.

Grass is burned to the river,
but I follow smoke from another fire.
It floats over fences that enclose
the house, a clay pot, the seed.

There are no corners.
The dimness called "home"
refuses to turn, goes on out of season,

sticks with the next indefinite step.


It was called "Blue River."

A crow
captures the field,
noises are disowned, color
bled out.

My climb
out of frost into a tree
brings no reason for looking out.
Thinking is in that time
of apples, arboreal happiness.

It was called "Blue River."
And at Blue River
the water was slow, muddy
in the same way that night comes.

The Long Dream of a Life

Frost came but twice
and even the rains were scarce.
A patch of goldenrod
grew in the watery shadows
beneath his window. Letters,
reams of letters were carried
down the walk from the portico,
his tunnel through the ochre winter.

He scraped at his beard
and was shamed by the dry skin
that adhered to ink, that fell on the word "sorry."

To whom was he writing?
Someone distant, all distant,
his letters borne over the horizon.
Orion was closer. The garden
was as distant, the time from seed to harvest
the same as letter and answer.

"Sorry for the long delay. I
was busy. I was otherwise occupied.
The linden felt something today
and dropped some of its leaves."

The "I" and "thou."
Last night he dreamt the "I"
gone to the station to wish "thou" goodbye.
The station was bunker, a squared hole
from which the train would emerge.
He broke down and climbed
into someone's lap.

The temptation
was to give dream its lead,
let it decorate, lose "you" in "they."
He even waved. The window fogged
and the garden called him --
its watering, its shade
a whisper of mountain life.

It seemed flat, pressed
between thick sheets of cellophane,
only the grass at his feet
rising to inhabit the world.


Full, though not at flood,
the river lifted him,
brought him closer to the canopy
next to fulfilled banks. The dense hardwood
was not his symmetry and always seemed low,
as if to push one into a picnic.

Sprawled, he'd shared a passive feast,
lost nothing on the cleared ground
beneath a day-long shade, he and Pasqual
brimming with aspen, snowfield, and ptarmigan
while the two women rowed, trolling
at the edge of the sun-struck channel.

He tossed a rock into the livid green
and relished the sparks disturbed from its slowness.
A gust of wind turned the leaves, bleached the sky.
The ground rushed into the sudden calm, sealed them
in a vacuum with deadwood, leaves, the women's
scented clothes. But Pasqual and the women
spoke to him from outside.

He couldn't answer. His mouth was full of bark
from the stick that held his jaws apart.


A girl in crinoline
watched over him and he worked backward
to delve into the bundle
in her lap. Both of them
were photographed before a carpet
hung on the line; her hair, parted in the middle,
made the same dark pyramid as her skirts.
And beneath those skirts
her legs broke out in a shallow sweat,
teased by the knife-edged crinoline. In her care
the baby went bump. Sunlight crept across the yard,
releasing the dank smell of carpet.


The unseen orchestra played all night,
but as the sky is stripped at daybreak,
so the fundamentals
fell from his hearing. He heard
the secondary orchestra, the crystal gears,
wolf-tone engaged with harmonic. His arms,
the seen body, reached and grasped
while he slept, not wanting to wake
to that vast recessional.
So the night opened and curled,
revealing its silver spine.
he entered and dove
but did not feel, instead
was stained by darkness. Rising,
he struck a crystal pipe
that rang dully, then stumbled
and the whole night rang.


Dear Claire, a late summer & I must get out.
Anything but yellow air! A kettle
boiling in the kitchen, that's what I find
almost everywhere. Last night, when I got off the train,
the grass by the tracks was burning. The smoke
hung low around the station, but sort of boiled
at the tunnel. Little red lights
flickered here & there. Everyone
was busy & getting further away,
as if chasing something into a tunnel.
And then, Claire, there were two shots --
a nickel-plated revolver. I'd swear that gun
rose out of the tracks, or from the shiny wheels
that were now shrieking -- a glint taking shape.
But there was no one. Down by the tunnel
water hissed & steam rose quickly.
What was it, Claire? I walked home
annoyed by the crickets who knew nothing.
I know what you're thinking, but now I'll hallucinate
those fields before you & your Canadian air. The day
is gaining weight & I must leave you
for my blessed, though shallow, nap.


A Goodyear blimp sputtered across the sky.
There was a lie about the flash in Nevada.
Overhead, a year to the day
from one of those events, B-29's
flew in a V-formation. The pavement was hot
and the parade uncomfortable
even in khaki shorts. He burned his fingers
on the general's green convertible.

He wished for water
in that miasma of tar and oil.
He wished for the coolness of the slim blond in white.
On the long walk home,
he lay on the first lawn, used it up,
then ran into the plumber's supply
and drank long draughts from the fountain
in a maze of enameled steel, all white,
all with chromium stubs that drew gallons, columns
of transparent water, and he was filled with ice
whose needles begged exit from his flesh.


(two voices)

                          He poled north,
stashed the pole and paddled through the narrows.
In this I see my life. Lunch in an eddy
nosed in, bow and stern in crevices.
                            And in the eddies --
they splashed, imitating motion -- I see the possibilities
seized honestly by the senses -- the boat
knocked against the rocks -- the body,
used in that realm, then put back
as what I see now.
       He rocked free, lost ground,
but paddles into a view of aspen. Equivalents
for what was forgotten, and what was forgotten -- stunted spruce
now on a hillock with its skirt of shale -- as sweet
as the possibilities
           that wave as I wave at them.
He slept in the boat he would leave,
                       They are there too
dreamt the smooth round faces
                  in elegant confusion with the seized
drifting over inches of clear water.


Both terror and aesthetics no doubt fuel memory
to spear night and time to that
morning thirty (standard) years before,
but in what form, combination, interplay?

-Marq Dyeth, in Stars In My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, Samuel R. Delany

The Headlong Future

The home of Judge Roy Bean,
the crypts at Queretaro,
the Concord meeting house,

they all breathe the same air,
that of a barely remembered rain
or the invisible cloud
after a scattered pile of leaves.

It is air
not used to exhalations,
but one that breathes into us
and breathes into us
a long slow intake of breath. Now

does not exist, nor then,
and we continue breathing in. Take
it says, and we do, until we topple
into the headlong future

that never was
but is with the next breath.

Novel Scattered in a Quarry

There are the names
painted on sloping strata,
white tears sliding toward rainwater.

The beads have collected
where sky is the final pit.
There are the holes drilled for dynamite,
abandoned premonitions.

Now you see forest on the edge,
threatening to spill over, isometrics
that raise your head. Up there is a
rusted crane, and below,
a steel worm.

Gaze into the pond. It is full
of false endings, full of those names.
One is trying to meet its wavering mate,
a backwards cousin.
You are the third party.

You can't make them meet.
The parts like their distance
and there is already completion.
They make sense when you go away.

The Sun Intent Upon This Earth: West Dover, VT, 1774 & 1974

Like the hand of her husband pressing,
it goes beneath the earth, turns to straw
the deep white roots. Over the creekbed

come those who watch from the yellowing trees,
watch as she and the girl break down a length of berm
and bury the man. She is watched, this girl
who is the last to shrink within her shadow.

Now someone comes to the maples,
the ferns in their shade, and the evenly spaced
piles of rock -- a background like raw canvas.

He fumbles in haste to take the photograph,
that frame in which rock and leaf-shadow
go tunneling into the lamp, unremarkable, and he sees
what he did not see: the broad, flat face of a woman; a girl

who'd lived long in her best dress -- here like a dull goblet
with its residue of wine. Both of them dull and still,
aware of him in their hated sun.


Though the lenses spilled in haste,
cast their quick parallax and half-rang
before hiding in the moss,

he finds them as if displayed, not his own,
and squats to stare
at their versions of sky: the only sky
in the afternoon of woods, the last thing he can see

a muddy finch darting from a branch. The clear way
is the path, where nothing brushes him, where the tilt is forward
and water left or right. The flat is sudden, almost up,
and light leaks into the darkness.
                         A tiny red sun
wobbles on the asphalt.


"No one is awake in the drafty camp of the dead."
-John Haines
Where the dead grass on a hill
resembles sand or a nude,
where a strip of sunlight
comes through stormclouds, no one
leaves the house on its bright edge
or the house across the way in evening:
here is the place to walk with a friend,
to feel both the sun and the cool damp air.

"The devil is getting married."
"Ha, well then, it's a short ceremony.
It's raining."

Odd that it should touch him first,
then me, that split second magnified.
We live at neither house, but are trespassing
equidistant from both, so that perhaps
both owners are on the phone to each other.

Something about their being on the phone
brings on the feeling of night. Distance grows,
the night rolls within itself. Shadows, like dark bars,
cross their yellow windows. We are lost to them, but
       tonight they will lock
every door and window,
call ahead and say, "They were headed your way."

In fact, we have turned around. We are leaving
this sensuous rump of a hill, clearing it
of ourselves so that it will wake as a mere roll
in the aspect of houses, something for the wind
to try its hand at. Under the clear sky
someone will wake, see the grass lean, and lean after us.

The Old Man Dreams

Two bodies lie by a pond that has two shores: one that seems
casual, with roots, twigs, and leaves that slip under the surface;
the other formal, its fine gravel raked in sinuous lines, the
terminus of a narrow road. The bodies are of two kinds -- wood
and flesh -- and they lie on the casual shore staring at the forest
umbrella. A carriage comes by the road, stops, and two men step
down. They crush around the pond and arrive at the bodies. The
first man pulls a handmirror from his vest and holds it before the
fleshy nostrils. The second man simply lifts the dummy by its
hinged arms and legs, but stops momentarily while the first man
breezily passes the mirror before the wooden nostrils. The
dummy is propped in the corner of a seat, then both men slowly
and clumsily haul the heavier body, laying it on the floor
between the seats. The ride is bumpy. The ventriloquist does not
move, but the dummy time and again drops its jaw, rolls its eyes,
and bangs the seat with its heels.

The Proxy

The bulb swings and his melon shadow weighs on the first old
man he's thrown to the floor. In the silence, while spectators
stare through dust pounded from the planks, I hear what sounds
like seeds sifting and settling in the defeated husk.

One then another contestant takes him on, but it's the same as
before: the shriveled bodies hurling themselves at each other, no
striking with arms or legs, just the thud of trunk against leathery
trunk. With his third victory, he makes the slightest
acknowledgment of my presence, a mere turn that causes all the
spectators to cheer me and begin slapping my back.

I am surprised and embarrassed by this pride that makes me look
for him. My comforts call now like waves of heat, drawing me
from the sulphurous room. He is gone, but again there is that
sound as of a gourd lightly handled.

Garden of Antiquities

Here is the road that has always run on only one side of the
woods. On the right, the east, are the woods, and on the left is
the caretaker's house. The caretaker is asleep in his boat on the
pond just inside the woods. He is visible from just about any
spot on the road.

From the boat, looking west, the fields are endless. There is a
slight rise toward infinity, but since the whole horizon does this,
the imagined dip to the pond becomes physical.

A dotted line across the average middle of the pond would reveal
a slice of darkness to the east. It is toward that darkness that a
man walks purposefully, having stopped at the caretaker's house
for directions, and who now unbelievably misses the caretaker on
the pond.

He stops at a hut, enters, and sees a crude shelf on which there
is a doll with half-closed eyes and crazed porcelain flesh, though
its body feels like a stuffed bird. He dusts it off and takes it with
him, continuing his walk until he comes to a road that has
always run on only one side of the woods.

The Infinite Pianos

When the wind finally stopped
I saw how high the grass had grown.

That didn't matter -- it was the piano
that was different, better, and fit in
now between plain and sky.

Its colorless notes
loved that corridor. They stole
blue, green, or sometimes ochre
from distant southern hills.

When company came,
we lay in the grass
away from the house, the barn, and the sheds.
where there was plenty of piano room,

and every note
in the middle octaves sounded.

Nights fell with a dampened piano,
dawns broke with endless runs.

There was no end to the octaves,
no end up or down, and side by side
infinite pianos dimpled the sky.

The Reality Executive

He had us follow him and we hid behind the hedge. He
whispered: "I want you to consider what's in front of your

There were bees, vertical files of ants, and the odor of decay.
Through the hedge, we saw a shimmering field, tiny cars that
whooshed beyond it, palm trees behind the cars, and a white
horizon past them.

There was a man in the field and his legs and khaki pants
undulated with the shimmering field. The far palms rattled, the
field got hotter and seemed to lap against the cars, like an ocean
against a causeway.

The man walked like a hunter and the hedge followed him,
dragging its roots, magnifying the odor of decay. The bees fled,
the ants rummaged in the sweet uprooted place.

Meanwhile, the man raised a rifle and lowered his head to the
sights. He moved as if along a slot, sliding behind and in front of
shrubs, then shot and hit a bell, the bullet striking like a

The bell rang on into the night, when the field was brilliant with
lights and crowds shuffled about. Then he appeared, offering us a
plaster duck that he carried in white gloves. Its chalky bill flaked
orange, grew soft, and fell off. The body followed: a soft but
resistant oval, a mass of feathers, then many small feathers caught
by the wind and scattered among the fields.

The Following Is True if the Poincare Conjecture Is True

All epigraphs are taken from an article by James Gleick which appeared in the October 12, 1986 edition of The New York Times.


In topology, a coffee cup is equivalent to a doughnut because one can be continuously deformed into the other, with the cup's handle becoming the doughnut's hole. But both are different from a sphere because no amount of stretching creates or removes a hole.
It's December and I sit in the office
trying unsuccessfully to begin the series
based on topology and attempts to prove
the Poincare conjecture. I realize
in staring at the calendar
that it's been five years
since I last spoke with you in person.
The same goes for James A., who writes long,
single-spaced, unparagraphed letters
about $99 airfares from NYC to Belgium,
or Jody, who writes from St. Ives,
tells me who's been there, and includes
the fishing report, and Greg's Christmas letter
is about a translation project in Portland,
and comes with Volume 4, Number 1,
of a magazine I've never seen, but which he
we spawned somehow. I can't figure out
what he's talking about. It simply looks
familiar, like another strand of memory,
as if he's presented one space more
than the three I can visualize. Or, I've imagined
one of you sitting here in the cane chair,
lifting a cup from the polished burl, and you
have imagined me sitting in whatever chair,
lifting from a table what I must.

The 80-year struggle to settle the Poincare conjecture testifies to the fantastic complexity that arises in exploring spaces of more than the three we can visualize. It has also shown again and again that whole realms of mathematics can be opened up by attempts to prove the obvious.
No matter what the ruler
laid on the map says,
they are all equally distant. It is the same
from the desert to the granite
underpinnings of Brooklyn, from this
volcanic rim to the other, from the fishing grounds
off St. Ives back to the desert.

One smells the natural abundance
of azaleas and rhododendrons,
another the predominant tang of evergreens,
another orange blossoms and jacaranda, foxglove
and hawthorn for another, and for one
a bitter geranium that bends to no wind
this side of a sooty window.

They wake to the ocean
shoving rocks around, the conversation
between wind and mild rain,
the quiet of a desert whose sounds
are small and hidden, and the street's
amplification of motors.

Nonetheless, one day the light
is nearly the same everywhere.
The effect is to make the distance
from windows to the ordinary sights
exactly what it should be, equal
to the stone wall from here, or to the naked
winter elm with its loaded branch.

-- features such as curvature or holes are only apparent from an outside vantage point in the third dimension. An observer confined to the surface just sees two dimensions, [which raises] a problem: How can he tell what kind of shape his surface is taking?
Camellias bloom
around the little cul-de-sac,
as if the neighbors had agreed
some years ago. I see no others

until the short-cut,
where they bloom in deeper,
darker yards, and the air
along the street is cool.

I could drive on
but turn where I work, where camellias
once again appear, though whiter
and ganged up like clouds. They sway

and send perfume somewhere.
The breeze that moves them
might reach you tomorrow. It may
ripple up the slopes

through aspen groves, appear to
rest, then return as the room
that seems suddenly cleared.

-- physicists in the post-Einstein era, trying to understand the structure of spacetime have realized that space can be curved in higher dimensions -- impossible to visualize, and not easy to calculate with, either.
We live
with one page of the calendar
and an hour
is a coupling of voices,
much like the random lighting
of lamps below a plane:

seeing them
links them, and the darkness
with them as well.

How does one arrive
here so happy? If you take
the little round lights
and turn them, they are the same.

They have no flat places
so you might set them down.
This is why
people look at us, you there, me here.

We carry the same thing
and it is all we can do to

The final part of the early papers [Rourke's] -- with the most crucial logic -- seemed most vague. "I don't know how to answer that," Rourke said. "I had the feeling when I was writing it that I was putting the same amount of detail everywhere. Anyway, I think now it's just a question of letting it sink into people's subconscious -- More and more of it will sink in, until it's obvious."
The whole thing is somewhat easier now,
addressing you, and not talking to the idea.

This morning the day arrived
like a pale yellow plate
over the industrial end of town,
and the cold smell of leaves
slipped over the transom.

It was all that was required
to cause a break, to have me observe
that the digital clock and courthouse chimes
didn't match, and that it was time to begin.

The "Perspectives" section
of the paper almost cancelled
the Poincare conjecture --
something about "Radiation
Equivalent Man."

It was another idea, like a shelf of smoke
above a little town, tucked in and battling winter.

"We're living in a three-dimensional world and we don't know what it is because we've never been to infinity," Rourke said. "There's no reason to think of sitting inside of something. You have to think in terms of what it is, in itself."
It is like leaving toys
in the little yellow house,
built for a mother-in-law
and now rented in six-month spells.

It is barely visible from uphill,
like a dime-store amethyst
suspended in a green nap,
nestled in the grid
of gray and buff streets,
with the model railroad
going, cutting almost center
in the town growing up.

It is of growing up
that we speak, gaining conviction
from the aerial view. This spring
is the one of blackened tulips,
limbs cracking under snow.
Will you take
another six-month lease,
or sit longer on this hill?

This summer
is the one of fires held back,
the one of spontaneous roses.

In Lieu of an Ars Poetica

I've cut the string. The kite levitates. It hangs right in there at 2
o'clock, its red vibrant against the blue sky.

The birch bends beneath it. We are all in the wind and my link
with the kite is strong. I can't bear to look down. My body feels
the gusts and I become very aware of my ribs. The kite is
motionless but I sense its minute pulse, its love with the wind.

Sal, my neighbor, comes out in the late afternoon and feels the
air around me. No strings, Sal. No fishline, no radio-control.
The damned kite just hangs there.

Almost evening, the sky a cobalt blue and the red kite with a
halo. Sal has binoculars and is examining the kite for ailerons.

Let Sal demonstrate wonder: I am as buoyant as the kite. There's
the bodiless voice of my neighbor, and myself, an ethereal
witness, totally satisfied, thankful I have no hands to caress the

Sal says I have a martini in my hand. Thanks, Sal. I lift it
without looking at it, feel a tingle at my lips, then with one
hearty gulp toast the kite. The feeling is impossible, like an ice
cube floating in air.

It is evening and only I can see the kite, that diamond shape
where there are no stars. In the morning there are no stars, and
no kite. But there is space for another.


The windows in space/time:
where an "event" is the window from the accessible past
into the inaccessible future, and to the side --
the walls, if you will, of this largest of rooms --
are the inaccessible past and likewise
inaccessible future. The present, then,
is like a blind brother to the event,
and they are separated only by the sheerest membrane.

-description of a graphic representation in Scientific American

Prime Norton

"How does Norton transform the flat 2-D dragons into well-rounded Domains of Attraction?"
-from an article in Omni
Norton does it with his heart
he travels ridges and sineclines

alluvial plains all topography
that will lay down

and rise with the sleep
in Norton's heart

in Norton's heart
the dragon's graze

move their flat mouths
sideways do no harm

lying down flat
dragon after dragon

with feet on kindred dragon
until something else

well-rounded though not a sphere
rises and Norton

is in his heart.

Why Mickey Came in a Dream

It came around
when the mouse came around

180° on the flood
bloated and dark waters

seeping into the grave
by the flood ceremoniously

gathered in a countryside
the bowed frail eccentrics

were sketched on the countryside
like the trees themselves

pencil lines against a sail
booted up full and brooding

without ship come to stand
as sail of small horizons

mourners all shades of gray
but for the bobbing mouse

jet black from a pen
in the hand of the dead a gush

then ink in the waters

Poems for the Dog Star

The jade knife wakes and hums
on Lu Chou's ebony table.

Lu Chou, asleep,
hurries in an elevator

to meet the dream woman
who becomes flesh and is destroyed

by the Ch-in sun.
The jade knife, leaving its place
in the spectrum, relays

to Lu Chou's parting eyes a blue line
that pierces the window: Lu Chou

cast into the black world
whose shell is light.


A cicada impaled on a sparrow's beak
does its thousand rattles
to rival the calls of the fledglings who eat it.

The old man
thinks the cicada is inside
and the bird outside, both alive,
though the cicada is not where it should be.

This effects his day.

All day he turns his ear
to the beginning of any sound: the trowel
in his wife's hand at the garden,
the turning of the cock for water.

Can the sun
make such a sound,
warming the dry leaf into a dish?

It is the quiet
that concerns him now,
the quiet broken by his daughter,

who is even now
close enough to be heard
but must come nearer; who, with the mother,
stands just the other side
of his ear and stares

into the smoking hole
of the evening's first meteor.


He yearns for the night porch
and its droning silence,
where the large family
is safely contained and seems
an afterthought in the thin house.

He remembers blue stick-figures
completed by the movement
of males in heavy snow,
the night pushed out, the chrysalis
worked to brittleness, a body
breaking into night
even as the jerky figures
pulled snow over the world of Lu Chou.


The woman who is not here
inhales the scent of blossoms
that explode with the train's speed.
       From the space
between two coaches, she sees again
a configuration of lake, volcano,
and heavily flowered shore.
It is the image of each day
       and once again
she expects the interminable green,
the lianas and their variegated darkness. This time
       the flowers lash
at the tight little city, a knot
that contracts, then unravels,
revealing at its center a sad horse
that turns in fences of tin:
       one last night,
she thinks, and the train climbs,
slowing on the flank of a cone
that is the twin of another,
       and on the lake
she imagines a plume of smoke
from the locomotive. Fire joins fire
in the water, like the red pistil
of an enormous flower
       that dips into itself.


In Lu Chou's childhood, the executioner
would play with two small helmets,
tiny bowls, really, sewn from the hind
found on the mountain. In them,
the sky had been reduced
to twelve large stars.
The pomegranite
had more; none in the orange
whose empty rind lay beside him.

But when, in his forgetfulness,
he turned inside-out one spangled shell,
the seeds of light were as his charges,

halved, halved again,

faster than the axe, invisible
in the double hood of night.

The Owl or the Cage, the Courtyard or Summer

I could begin with the owl or the cage,
the courtyard or summer,
though summer encompassed them all,
pumping its long days and short nights
into the blood, until one begged
for a longer night. Like summer,
the tall grasses and weedy elms
swallowed almost all the courtyard contained,
shone through the overgrowth, and whose black
In that one cage, the Great Gray lived
its unnatural life, turning and peering
in its extended night, waiting for the clicks of the wheel
and the great chimney of the courtyard --
to lift, if it can, past the second floor,
the third floor, and the vents and ducts
of the science building, to discover
night's walls rushing past the stars.

Music of the Tethered Man

Neptune in the third house
sends me to the shoe closet

where with mutability
three dozen pairs

mix and speak
the ages of one man

none are worn and all
are silent on the floor

perhaps gravity pulls
more at the hair than

those anchors as no medium
was there no substance

was there
save the silent aging

ma and pa unavailable
even through the telescope

radio laser or thought
just that dandelions

were available and breath
could imitate a daily occurrence

scatter the seed cluster
but mostly for naught

impermeable at the bottom line
like this enormous room

stainless detailed
though a strange world

that is the same
pulled inside out

distant always distant fire
fire I do not know

though the record says it is
and is why

I am perfection
waxen wings and all


override override
I cannot think what I have done

for that would cancel it
just around a synapse

and barefoot in my suit
I am related

coming in the bubble

for a moment I know
and am close

damn the black pouch

the equidistant stars
scattered such

the umbilical
gleams in communal light

two kites myself
and The Silver Shout

O lyrical tonnage
I think

and your etched lines swell
cold house deploying

the dangerous fin
the communicator

garbles garbles what I think
relays clicks

not knowing I skid in thought
crossings junctions

that would melt
beneath attention's hot tip

yet begin to whisper
for that attention

little beds little nests
who can't abide forgetfulness

their own blackness
I the visitor

who hums through a way-station
music of the tethered man

who sings in the helmet
who thinks

the planet


so in summer

a tilted ring
round a clump of juniper

and the juniper
riding a hill

I add my weight
down slips the ring

pulsing through the fair grass
the juniper plucked

from the dissembling hill
pony planet

spinning on my visor
a late and outsize companion

appears the planet
like a lost ruby falling

from her breast to her navel
then the bowl of stars arrested

in their fall from me
Silver Shout ghost of woman

yes a mother ship
sings a crystal rim

held and stroked
the deepest burgundy

dashed and a robe
on my robe of blackness

real stars not sequins
a secret flesh

unfeeling silent
forever denying itself


before the ageless cityscape
exactly skyblue silk

and silvery cloth
the shirt and short pants

flapping on the lover
at an eastside window

sun-dogs and river-stars
wake of a hover-craft

blend in the cataracts of an octogenarian

swirl on the planet
that was younger with her

older with him and I
met them both

can look from The Silver Shout
to her recognition

there in the spray
by the river the boat

lifts its prow
raises its hull of air and water

of fire twin stars
gliding downriver


Mercury in the ninth house
I think and near Perseus

I see the crystalline
layers of trines

this tied to this and that
the sharp breath of winter

stealing breath
like the moment of hoarfrost

and with its sound

A Place That Is the Same Elsewhere

I don't know what this has to do
with another unfinished thing,
but I saw in a dream the last
of a series of homes. It came
stripped of 200 years of history,
a red dusty road going to the end
of its course as it does in real life;
its banks, because it seemed a dry bed,
were contoured as they are now -- peopled,
built upon, littered with the future.
I traveled with a shadow-person, as is
often the case in dreams, playing cars
with real cars which shouldn't have been there,
but which he, fleshed now as a stranger,
wanted to move from atop a bank
into the dusty road with the strength
and expediency of dreams.

In the switching yard of dreams,
I accepted this research as a magnesium flare
shadow-person did not see. I had
the road to myself now, followed it,
ate up history, and came to the houses
that were as they are now: endangered,
but also blessed, by a window. In time,
among the jokes, the deaths, and affairs
of those who live there, I will say,
because I am caught with them,
I had a dream about this place.

About the author:

James Cervantes has taught composition and creative writing at Northern Arizona University, University of Iowa, and Arizona State University. He is presently teaching at California State University-Sacramento. His background includes service in the U.S. Airforce Orchestra as a cellist, work as a landscaper, a psychiatric aide, and a director of a non-profit organization. He is the author of two previous collections of poetry: The Fires in Oil Drums (San Pedro Press, St. David, AZ, 1980) and The Year Is Approaching Snow (W.E. Hoffstadt & Sons, Syracuse, NY, 1981). Cervantes' sources of magic include microclimates, astrophysics, chaos, the mesas of the Southwest, and poetry itself.

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