David Starkey: Koan Americana

Copyright © 1992 by David M. Starkey

Contact dms1@noctrl.edu for permission to reprint and distribute.


Diaspora of the Senses

The Girl in the Box
The Unbearable
Marshall on the Rim
Among the Homeless at the Santa Monica Public Library, I Browse
The Fortune Teller
How to Distinguish Mosses and Liverworts from an Unexpected Glimpse of Eternity
Dancing Down from Raleigh
The King's Head
Star of Bethlehem

A Million Reasons Not to Tell the Truth

Ecce Homo
At the Zoo
The Career of Mungo Park
Trotz Alledem
The Deep South Flea Market
Eminent Domain
Killing Caterpillars
A Million Reasons Not to Tell the Truth

Studying Grace

Afternoon Tea
At The Blue Mango They Play the Saw
Cats in a Mexican Prison
Monologue of the Shaker Eldress
Tea with Ms. Welty
To an Astronomer
The Vagrant Martha's Benediction Upon Suburbia
In Praise of Happy Endings
In Heavy Fog Outside Bishopville, South Carolina

Epilogue: Koan Americana

Koan Americana

Diaspora of the Senses

The Girl in the Box

It's a clear, cool October day,
the leaves just going gold and crisp.
I like this weather.
I like the way the sun looks smaller,
the way outlines of trees
and houses are more sharply defined.
Autumn's the best season, but in my gut
there's a wet stone growing.
Layer upon slick layer's building up,
and heavy as the stone once was,
now it's heavier still. I think
of the book my wife's been reading
every night this week,
about the girl in California, kidnapped,
kept in a coffin under some maniac's
water bed. Seven years she was in there.
Sometimes he took her out
to whip her for being noisy
or to hold matches to her nipples, cuffing her
when she screamed. I imagine the girl
breathing the scent of pine,
the smell of her own urine,
listening to the man
and his family shuffling
around their mobile home,
the wife slipping the girl
a grilled cheese sandwich for dinner, watching
her chew each bite of stale bread.
And I urge my wife to finish up the book,
I want to read it, too. This new wrong
is so incredibly personal, so at war
with the autumn calm, I know
that if I can just penetrate its ugliness
for one moment, as long as it takes
a butcher bird to spit its prey upon a thorn,
I will become horribly wise,
I will understand everything.


The Unbearable

In the city of Kamakura
not far from the great Buddha
sits three-faced goddess Mercy,
matronly in her temple
above the sea and pines and seas
of TV aerials.
                     At her feet, thousands
of tiny clay figures draped in scarves
and coats against the cold:
emblems of children
miscarried, aborted,
Pushed in the mud,
cracked in two, Might-Have-Beens
crowd the paths ascending
                                         to incense
and parents' prayers, "Thank you
for bearing off the consequence
before it learned
to grow away."
                        From an open window
the smell of beef
reminds the latest bereaved couple
that they must eat,
and he thinks of a place downtown
with the music he loves.
Flutes and drums and bells.


Marshall on the Rim

He never said what made his hair turn white,
but every month his roots
betrayed the blue-black dye.
He was thirty-two, third generation
Chinese American,
had a mania for dumb riddles and asked them
constantly: Why did the banker lose his job?
Where do dead cowboys go on Saturday night?

He claimed Claims was his life, but he would stand
beside my desk, loosen his collar, and demand,
as though it were a conundrum which only I
could solve, What do these people want?
He said he couldn't afford not to succeed
this time. Eight years his junior,
I had no idea what he meant.

Neither of us had any family
to speak of, so we ate together
in the Thai and Korean restaurants up and down Vermont,
and we drank each other's health
in a variety of ill-lit neighborhood bars
where he would query tattooed, hard-eyed bartenders,
Why did the city boy put wings on a horse?
What do you get when you cross a chicken with a cow?

On Thanksgiving Eve we drove all night
from L.A. to the Grand Canyon -- turkey sandwiches
in a Denny's at 4 a.m.
                                 I remember sunrise.
Turquoise. Ocher. Gold flashing
on the thick lenses of his glasses.
Marshall in a white button-down,
puffy cheeks. The only Asian
in a wash of pale faces. His yellow hands
are antic as he gestures towards the clouds,
as though he has an audience
which understands his every riddle,
as though the sky itself could explain
why Marshall never feels the need to ask,
Who is the saddest man in the world?



Black horses charge, with teeth parted to tear,
While silly children tug hard on the reins.
They ride wide-eyed, as if racing from a snare.

Other wild creatures risen from Nightmare
Join the stampede. Bears, boars, and lions -- manes
Flying -- all charge, with teeth parted to tear.

The music repeats itself, like a vain prayer
Caught in the throat of one who, terrified, strains
Forward, wide-eyed, as if racing from a snare.

The clash and rattle blaring from the fair
Spur on the riders, fled from old domains;
Spur on the mounts, their teeth parted to tear.

Above the coursers, painted prophets stare.
They see the fall of future suzerains
Who'll ride wide-eyed, as if racing from a snare.

My own child spins and spins, grasping the air,
Too young to know the roundabout of pains,
Of horses charging, teeth parted to tear,
Their riders howling, racing towards a snare.


Among the Homeless at the Santa Monica Public Library, I Browse

I want to believe they know
most anything can be patched up,
but that mediocrity is not enough.

Hence, they pursue decades
of obscure study
and publish nothing.
They read maps of the skies
under which they sleep,
and like the stars they are remote.

In the eight-hundred section
a wino lectures me on Whitman.
I sigh and offer
to trade my tie
for his bandanna, my wing tips
for his tattered tennis shoes.
Ignoring me,
he reads in a scratchy bass
from "Song of the Open Road."
Neither would be happy.
Neither can be.
That is the point.

Outside, bundles of lines
in hand, we watch the clouds
roll up from Hawaii.
All I see is rain.
Rubbing his weary eyes,
he sees locusts, angels, guns.



My two daughters chase each other
in the Laundromat, past the banks
of Speedqueens, between
the industrial Wash-o-matics.
They dart after loose buttons
and puffs of lint, gifts
they bring to me.

A hundred dollars for a used machine
and I can't come up with it.
God's benediction upon these children,
but I wish they would vanish.
I want the power to leave
at a moment's notice, the power
to tear down every single wall in my house.

I want to be as clean as fresh laundry.
I want a shell
that's hard and whorled so deep
I cannot hear the beat
and drum of poverty
like a clump of wet clothes in a dryer:
I want, I want.

I have nothing at all to give.


The Fortune Teller

One legend has it that God told Adam the world
would be consumed by fire, first, and then water.

Madame Lefaux believes the burner's already
turned to high. She cranks the air conditioner,

but leaves the curtains drawn wide open on the sky,
boiling, promising more than humidity and heat.

Her house alongside Highway 51 contains
a gallery of wonders: Babylonian

boundary stones, Ptolemy's lost charts, Tycho Brahe's
first great quadrant -- now just slightly out of kilter.

Mother Shipton looks down her wart-plagued nose, sneering
at Madame LeFaux, a failure for a thousand years.

Always the stars have crossed her when she seems to see a new
pattern: the fire of London came to her

as frost; Hiroshima was snow. The elements
are mixed forever in her mind. There's constant war

between lion and bull. "I can't quite get it straight,"
she tells a customer whose lines travel awry.

"You are a born leader of men, or else you're lost."
She wipes her brow and turns away. "Oh, dear -- oh, no."

It's hot suddenly and flames lap his legs. The sign
is clear -- or is it? "Just be careful, sir, I beg.

No, you needn't bother paying." When he's gone
she thrusts her face into the cooler air, fingering

a ball of lead. Nostradamus used to rub
this very sphere (it never turned to gold, although

it did soften) while he sat on his tripod stool
of brass, rolling his eyes. Madame Lefaux would stroke

his beard, his long silk gown. Such earthquakes he'd foresee.
Such trembling in his long thin limbs. "Hell-fire or flood?"

she'd ask, and that sweet man would always tell it right.
Those were the days -- but Michel couldn't last, he was

too intense. The world showed itself too sharply
to him, like a needle in the eye. The wheel above

revolves. He's gone. And comets flashed across the moon
last night -- bad luck again. When will it end, the whole

damned thing? She shakes her head, follows the uncharmed clouds,
and waits all afternoon for rain that does not come.



November, and the trees
have gone the color of syrup.
The air's brown, too,
and in the tin-roofed factories
sweet water burns to caramel.
From Plaquemine to Thibodaux
the sugar cane is coming in,
in trailers spread with chicken wire
pulled by tractors belching burnt umber.

Breathe in the smoke.
It fills the lungs like money.
A snootful of the ashen breeze
and the tractor drivers and loaders
and furnacemen rejoice
all down the highway to the bar,
where they reap the fruits
of some fading Ceres
who revels in her loss of bloom.

But it's seasonal,
this employment. Next month
frost will blanket the levee
and barge pilots will scrape ice
from their windshields and TVs will drone
in shotgun shacks and wind
will stir the few tall dead stalks
that the machines, heedless
in their power, have missed.


How to Distinguish Mosses and Liverworts from an Unexpected Glimpse of Eternity

Tell yourself
Time is not the mouth
of a creeping
matted rhizome capsule,
paraphyllia abundant,
leaves serrulate and entire.
There is nothing flat
about the midrib of perpetuity,
nor does Infinity exhibit
thick transverse walls.
Count backwards
from zero to zero,
examine the cordate
for underlobes wholly inflated.
With peristome?
Without peristome?
Is there flux
or can you number the days
on one finger?
Put a microscope to the stars:
Do you see everywhere
spores spinose and reticulate?
Then clean your lens with sandpaper,
you aren't even close.


Dancing Down from Raleigh

to Charleston,
transported by the motions
of classical ballet --
grand jete, plié,
grand jete, pirouette
all the way to Fayetteville.
                the soldiers
at the fort there
looked somewhat askance
at the fine arts and taught me
several new dances
they'd learned recently
in edge-of-town
saloons. On down
                             the interstate
I did the bunnyhop to Lumberton,
the break-camp
and longways ziganka south
of the border. Oh, I ached
for the pine forests along the road --
for a bed a soft brown needles,
a roof of wind
and a stream in which to soak my feet --
but they were red-hot slippers
I wore into the Pee Dee
and beyond: no tongs
on earth could pry them
from my soles.
I followed the Cooper
to King Street, past houses
owned for centuries by lines
of crafty merchants, men
who would never understand my tread.
On the battery at last--
no, I did not dance the Charleston.
I was far too tired
to do anymore
than climb the railing
and, with a final flashy bow,
like a string of tinsel, to the sea.


The King's Head

Mrs. Smith bites into her pickled egg.
Evan Jones calls for another pint of Welsh.

Behind the bar, Jenny shakes out a smoke;
Three eager lads reach towards her with a light.

Mrs. Smith bites into her pickled egg.

After a fresh row with his wife, Harmon
Slogs in, stands trembling at the door.

Evan Jones calls for another pint of Welsh.

The Reverend Gareth Griffith shakes off rain
From his great coat and gulps his nightly Scotch.

Mrs. Smith bites into her pickled egg.

A boy runs in to fetch his Dad, but the heat
So startles him he sits and then forgets.

Evan Jones calls for another pint of Welsh.
Mrs. Smith bites into her pickled egg.


Star of Bethlehem

Helping two old friends move out
I recall why marriages fall apart

Only a few hours of day remain
And still the van is half-empty

Their faces are crisscrossed with sweat
The six packs are all gone

"Damn," she remembers, "the attic"
Bare-chested, he bangs up the ladder

"Your junk," he swears
And, grunting, hands it down

A broken toaster, a plastic rose
Moth-eaten baby clothes

Then cartons marked "xmas stuff"
A score of them at least

Lights and garlands and plastic wreathes
And ornaments! everything light

As an armful of winter wind
"Such shit," he says, aiming the last

Box straight at her. A silver star
Falls free and shatters at her feet

Her astonished eyes become my wife's
"Your spending sickens me"

I told her last Christmas Eve
Drunk on rum by the nativity scene


A Million Reasons Not to Tell the Truth

Ecce Homo

The stench of tarweed drifts upwind.
Pines shiver on the foothills.
The sun may scorch the backs
of those two boys, my cousin and me
years ago, but they know nothing
except the hunt and charge on
after their prey. Blind hate
for the rabbit and fear
of those new pellet guns make them quick
as Mercury, god of eloquence,
patron of thieves. Their bleeding
quarry dives into a one-way hole
beneath a manzanita tree, its puny balance
of life tilting towards nothing
with each hasty breath. A shaft
of sunlight shows one thorn-scratch
eye misting with red. "We'd better
kill it now," says one of the boys and
they do, the plastic butts
not kicking at all as each shot
piercing flesh makes the long feet jump,
the long soft ears quiver.
At dinner that night, the grown-ups
are drinking wine. Everyone's hands
are scrubbed, and laughter
fills the big kitchen. They boys
stand close together, like lovers,
looking out the window at the moon cracked
in pieces. Their hunger is also
loud enough to break apart the stars.


At the Zoo

The animals are breeding once again.

A nest of roseate spoonbills chirping.
Phalanger young (eyes quarter-size and blank)
Sucking hard their mother's bleeding breast,
Wild hogs nudging their piglets' dainty legs
Towards the slop: so much work to keep them
Alive, these tiny things, and yet so soon
They're grown and shipped off to another zoo;
Or, if they're weak, at night they disappear
Behind the glowing anaconda house.

The zoo is for your family, TV
Ads intone, and hordes of families
Intuit that it's so. In shorts they roam
Among the shit and bogus habitats,
Pushing strollers, holding sweaty hands.

One girl, hair curled, rubs her Whitesnake shirt
Against her man. She fawns all over him.
Her eyes glow peacock blue, or that color,
Rather, of the rumps of female baboons when,
In high estrus, they, shrieking, fly
Across their cage at anything that moves.



When I was eight, I broke
a vase Mom bought on her honeymoon.
Blood squealed
in her puffy cheeks. Trembling
she gripped my arms, "God,
what a mistake
your father and I made."

I kept stray cats in my bedroom
until they howled for food
and Mom would throw them out.
She hated crippled life.
(But in late spring I fed
the fledgling jays
fallen from our backyard elm.)

I was seventeen.
She was fifteen probably, though
she claimed to be the older one.
She'd been hanging out
at Smokers' Corner after school.
"Just a runaway with an attitude,"
she said when I asked her name.

I thought the door was locked.
Her nipples were red peppers
between my teeth and tongue.
Mom was wrapped in her house robe:
"Get out! Get out for good!"
But I couldn't stop,
I was a root pushing for air
and I was still growing.



If time, place and weather could be frozen,
we would always have it this way:
the rush-hour dying on an autumn night,
rain beating against the steamy windows
of a cramped Japanese restaurant.
A pretty but quickly fading woman
would hand us menus while pulling
children from her leg, shouting our orders
back at us over brassy videotapes
of game shows from back home.
Her chain-smoking husband would mutter
expansion plans to a bored in-law.
The children would quickly tire
of staring at us and the rain
would dust our cheeks each time a regular
plodded in for a meal. Someone dressed
as Godzilla would win a refrigerator.
In this way
                  we could forget our difficult passage
over, the hostility and almost certain
failure we daily found we could not ignore.
For a moment we would dream of another
new country, fecund and replenishing,
from whose bourne we need never desire to return.


The Career of Mungo Park

At twenty-two I left my father's farm,
My twelve brothers and sisters, and shook hands
With Sir James, who "hoped that I would brook no harm
In Africa." I hoped not, too, but sands
Covered my path, mosquitos swarmed my eyes,
And sheets of rain wrapped me with high fever.
In sham "palaces" of mud and straw, my prized
Tobacco was pinched. "Bow, filthy disbeliever,"
King after unwashed king enjoined. I smiled.
They'd killed Houghton before me -- I'd no wish
To follow. Kow-towing all the way, I reached
The Niger. I could go no further. Wild
With sickness, living on roots and boiled fish,
I turned back for Britain's dull but sheltered beach.

In ten years' time my fame declined. An ill-
Paid doctor in Scotland, father to four,
Husband to a shrew, I snatched the chance to steal
Away, liking the hiss and spit of Moors
Better than her harangues. Impressed sailors
And convicts kept me company. All died
But three, and they became jaundiced, frailer
Than the shoddiest native urn. Weak but clear-eyed,
I pushed them on to Jenn, to Timbuktu,
Vowing that we would find the Niger's mouth.
One night, came ghostly the hyena's howl.
The next day showered arrows on our canoe.
I leapt -- into the river flowing south
To the sea I'd gain in some form, fair or foul.


Trotz Alledem

His final day in Wien, she deals the cards.
They're playing Gin for pfennigs -- she's winning,
of course. She always does. He's begging her --
in her monastic room, bare but for the bed,
some shelves, a Bang and Olafsen stereo --
to come with him, home to America.
Heir (she claims) to Mozart and Hitler,
she's hesitant to run away, to lose.

"Let's change the game," he says. "Poker.
One hand. If you win, you stay. If I win..."
"All right." She cheats, but so does he. He deals,
recalls listening to the Requiem
holding hands in St. Michael's, ice cream
on the Graben, that weekend in Salzburg:
budget snapshot memories he's loathe to waste
in the brisk transactions of foreign exchange.

She shows the ace and ten of hearts. Last card
down -- he draws his flush. Her eyes are mirrors:
he sees nothing. (Years later, thousands of miles
cast off, a thousand insect species screaming,
he hears the slap of cards on wood.) Her hands,
graceful as knives, slice swiftly at the ground
despite every trick he knows. Round and red,
they fall her way: Bübe, Dame, König.


The Deep South Flea Market

My girls go nuts, "Daddy, kitty cat drapes!"
The world is almost theirs, my few dollars
In hot small hands and -- presto -- bleached Barbies,
Muddy Wudmups, The Chipmunks Greatest Hits.
I turn for an instant, and they're swept up
By a carload of Pentecostal wives (tongues aflame)
Who flit like a flock of starlings from worn out
Washer-Dryers to $15.00 art.
The girls are dropped in sagging sofas -- plopped
Down half asleep -- to watch slipping pictures
On black and white screens. Our plumbing's bad --
I get the pipe I need. In the check-out mirror:
My heirs, signs of the dismantling future:



We travel purposefully to jolt like drunkards
into this: the brief ferry ride,
the orange Shinto shrine
lapped by the insidious sea.
Beyond the paper lanterns
and colorful bales of something
named in foreign words,
an empty trail ascends
towards whatever summit we ascribe
to our wandering. Americans,
we expect bandits behind every rock,
but not even the woodland creatures
will stir.
             Out of breath on top, I find
The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse
is at last redundant. Perfect stillness,
then wind through the pines, and fog
over the tiny, perfect, uninhabitable islands.
There is need for neither beer
nor smoke to ward off ill health.
Yet even as we grasp the wisdom
of the hermit sage, we renounce it
in the airy cable car ride down
after the uncertain climb up.



When I was young, I'd stay awake
The night before we were to fly.
I studied maps with a penlight,
Plotting the likely route we'd taken,
Charting the details of our flight.

But when the plane had cleared the ground,
I'd drowse until the journey's end.
I never cared for what occurred
Beyond imagination's bounds:
My dreams expired just when they stirred.

So now I never fly at all;
I know too well how the land lies.
Instead, I hunker in my dreams
And learn where dusk becomes nightfall
And blur the sense of "is" and "seems."



From my window I can see the pastel
post-modern corporate headquarters
of Wang International, and the houses
of poor Mexican families across
the street. I'm an insurance man.
Nights, I have scrutinized the Labor Code,
but the thrill of the business world
didn't last long. I can't sit still
for five minutes together, but I am rooted
in this life by what must pass anywhere
for plenty.
                 The typewriter
worries me on weekends.

My rural university's required poetry
course was taught by a man
who had published in all the best reviews
for thirteen years and had one thin
collection to show for it.
In class his skeletal hands trembled
as he scanned Rape of the Lock
on the blackboard. He stuttered
when replying to our stupid questions,
yet a more world-weary doodler
was never found in all the 18th century.
A nervous sort, he might be an artist,
but he would never be much
of a breadwinner. The cover
of his book showed a Rococo clock --
Cupid fingering Psyche's chin
                    The light shifts.
I clasp my hands and wait
for the self-destructiveness to pass.
It always does, then I remember
I have food and warmth,
and, somewhere, friends. We each shelter
our interests as best we can.
Down on the street, the homeless shriek
and push their shopping carts to the sea.


Eminent Domain

At night, our bed becomes a battle zone --
Not when we're making love, but after, when
We've gone to sleep. We'd rather be alone,

With room to sprawl, than bound together in
The net of blankets, fighting for small space.
You say that sharing isn't something men

And women like to do: you're right. We face
Each other smiling in the day, but deep
In blackness we elbow and kick. This place,

Once warm, is cold concrete, hard as our sleep.
Like governments, we annex all we touch,
Hoarding an inch of sheet like dear-bought keep.

Both of us claim the right to claim too much,
Although we wake with nothing in our clutch.


Killing Caterpillars

And suddenly they're everywhere:
perched on the swing,
slithering down the slide,
mobbed on our doorstep
as though we'd asked to feed
another hungry clan.

The first wave, white and yellow,
is (almost) cuddly, more nuisance
than harm. But days later
a spiked and languid second string
springs up, stinging hell
out of the kids.

I break a dead tree branch
and slice off heads, plaster
legs to limb. The carnage spreads
around the house. "Daddy,"
remembering what they've been taught,
"you've got to stop."

I listen hard,
knowing someday soon
they'll change,
look inward and emerge
wingéd, beautiful, mortal.


A Million Reasons Not to Tell the Truth

On homecoming day I'm raking up,
watching traffic inch
towards the greedy stadium.
Magnolia leaves
have covered my lawn for so long
the grass has turned to dust.
I lift a plastic sack and turn
to see a busload of Tennessee Volunteers
waving bright orange flags. They stare,

as I once stared from the all-night bus
that runs from Alice Springs to Adelaide.
In Aborigine homelands we waited
for the only two black passengers,
a grandmother and granddaughter,
to drag their bags of store-bought food
down the aisle -- faces from classroom
movies surrounded the bus,
Hunter/Gatherers. A camera

with a red circle-and-slash over it
was painted on the side of a building.
Yet I wanted badly to take a shot.
It was the worst place I had ever seen.
The houses had no doors, the windows,
no glass. Abandoned cars,
at least a hundred of them,
littered the place like leaves.
White dust coated everything. "Oouf,"

the woman next to me said, barely
under her breath, as the two went by,
"They do stink, don't they?"
Here's what I did:
it was a scorching afternoon,
the air conditioner was broken,
and they did stink, we all did.
I nodded and said as loudly as she had,
"Yeah. They do."

Outside, old woman and child
were mobbed, hands touching them
as though they had been absent for years.
When the bus pulled away, my seat-mate
pulled out her camera, thrust
it out the window and clicked.
"My husband will never believe it,"
she said. "Filthy. Absolutely filthy."
My hands are covered with dust,

under the nails, in the lines
of my palms, as I toss out another bag
for the garbage man. Then I'm back
sweating in my autumn clothes,
the teeth of the rake
scraping ground and clawing
at the reticulum of exposed roots,
casually tearing up
a patch of tiny, stubborn flowers.


Studying Grace

Afternoon Tea

Tonight, I am thinking of the failure of the Beach Boys.
I am remembering albums like Surf's Up and Smiley Smile,
songs like "Take Good Care of Your Feet, Pete"
and "She's Goin' Bald" and "Vegetables."
Overgrown beards, the wrong drugs,
silly flowered shirts, ukuleles instead of sitars:
lukewarm psychedelia souring in the coastal sun.
And I am recalling a concert in my college town
shortly after Reagan's election -- the group revamped,
packing them in. Good Times like a Woody barreling
down Topanga Canyon with brakes shot to hell.
                                                                         I'm dour
by nature, I know. I listen to crabby T.S. Eliot
recite Four Quartets as I drive to work.
I wait patiently for things to fail.
But sometimes I wish I could, like Bugs Bunny,
step from this plummeting shack just before it slams
into the ground. I'd take my wife's hand
and we'd smile at disaster averted for once
and walk into our Southern garden. All our friends
and all our imagined friends would be there
amid well-tended boxes of aromatic herbs.
The china and crystal would be new.
Our furniture would receive unfeigned compliments
for its simple taste and elegance. On stage,
The Beach Boys would be playing new numbers
they could believe in and sing with pride.
After a romantic slow dance, they'd finish
with a rocker, something shaking like nothing before.


At The Blue Mango They Play the Saw

It's an American tune, yes, but pitched
All wrong, as though the teeth had ripped a stitch

In the song's familiar texture. Unready
For redirected sound, some folks already

Have decided to ignore the alternate
Possibilities a wrong note can generate.

They sip their espressos, light cigarettes,
Argue over matters they'll soon forget.

The crazy, curving thing bends low under
His cunning hand. He bows madly, plunders

Our always ripe sense of the absurd. Eyes closed,
We might be flying over a presupposed

Landscape which casually becomes so strange
We must rethink old axioms, disarrange

The solacing order we took for granted.
Ah, but the sweet piano theme descanted

Above the numinous saw's wild caprice,
The slap of the bass, the banjo's thrum increased:

This is joyful music, to adumbrate
A world we can't possess, only create.


Cats in a Mexican Prison

We save our scraps of tortillas
although the least of us
are as skinny as the weakest tom.
The fat guard laughs, "Stupid.
Give it to me if you're not hungry."
Prudently, we smile.
Our bellies hurt, but still we scrimp
on slop, and in the evening,
when light stabs
through the bougainvillea
at shards of glass
buried atop the high adobe walls,
we feed our favorites
until they are strong enough
once more to scramble up
and out of jail,
into the warm cobblestoned city
where lovers promenade around the square
beneath church bells ringing,
ringing out beneath the softening sky.


Monologue of the Shaker Eldress

Four floors and forty rooms I have alone,
Though a hundred fifty years ago brethren,
Like bees, hummed through this house. Outside, new-mown
Hay was stacked neatly in the barn. Orphan
Children helped with the crops, were fed in turn.
No one or thing was waste: scraps of cloth
Became a quilt, spent candle wax was burned
In candles newly molded -- a pledge of troth
To the Lord --, the farm dog's daily bed was made
With shavings from the furniture. Dear God,
Your hands must have guided the hands that formed
Those chairs, smooth as summer evenings, inlaid
With brass as glowing as Your heart. I'm awed
Still, after decades, at work You performed.

But there's no awe in the greedy voices
Of collectors as they snap up auction lots.
And tourists sneer at the difficult choices
You gave to us. They think that celibates
Can't know Heaven, when in fact it is they
Who'll never hear the music we have heard.
Their kingdom is a place that always pays,
And the beastly grunt of sex is their sole Word.
"Leave sinners to their fate," Mother Ann wrote.
"Strive for the purest prayer." I offer up
The scent of herbs -- spearmint, sweet cecily,
And sage -- as my devotion. Their balm floats
Skyward, as one day soon will I outstrip
The world -- my whirling flight God's gift to me.


Tea with Ms. Welty

The china is as one thought it would be --
simple, elegant and put to use.
The parlor, bay windows open, is profuse
with late spring flowers' scent. The Ph.D.
students press her on issues of ambiguity,
although she'd said she can't abide abstruse
questions. She breathes the scent of gladiolus,
demurs, serves pie (Ms. Caball's recipe).

"I'd rather talk of people that have gone:
Virginia, Violeta and Vashta
Fontaine. Each wore a 'V' on her sweater
and pulled her hair back in a huge chignon.
Oh, how I loved them, though I was bashful--
they were in the Jackson Social Register."


To an Astronomer

I remember our youthful exuberant atheism,
how we baited clean-cut Christian youth
with their subastral inconsistencies.
Far-sighted and well-read,
we loved to watch them squirm.

But I wonder now, were we lovers
of truth, or only jealous
of their easy rapture? I know
you will point to rows of figures
and say, "Look, fool, but it all adds up.
The stars aren't any more miraculous
because they astonish us." Perhaps.

Still, as I pass these black and empty nights
I find my older self distrustful
of fact, in love with the nebulous,
wherever it may be. Stooping light-headed
among the tomatoes and squash exploding
like supernovas in my summer garden,
I am clearly bound to the empyrean earth.


The Vagrant Martha's Benediction Upon Suburbia

Let nothing you disturb,
this Sunday morning. Let quiet
continue its sway over the brick
and pastel homes, the screened-
in porches soon to be set
for brunch, the plump tomatoes
so easily picked, the boy
up early mowing his father's lawn,
the pumped-up balding man
walking his corgis and his wife
pushing the baby stroller.
Hush. Let the papers lie
on the driveways, wrapped in plastic
against the unlikely event
of rain. The news can wait,
my news, from beyond
the dividing road, beneath
the jeopardous interstate. My news
will keep. In this placid hour,
I pluck the pink and white
crepe myrtle blooms and strew them
in my path like Vesta, goddess
of both private and public hearth.


In Praise of Happy Endings

Let Orson Welles grumble into eternity.
I understand the studio's changing
the end of The Magnificent Ambersons.
What a picture that makes,
Joseph Cotton and Agnes Moorehead
strolling arm-in-arm into the camera,
beaming because things have, improbably,
come out all right.
                           And hurray
for Bulwer Lytton, that rank sentimentalist
who persuaded Dickens to banish the shadow
between Estella and Pip.
They deserve their moon-lit moment
in the ruined garden.
                               I'd write the conclusion
myself to several tales I wish had finished well.
Adam Clayton Powell would give up drink
and sell his home in Bimini,
and proudly clasp hands with Martin Luther King
as they marched, triumphant, from Harlem
to the South.
                    Delmore Schwartz
would wash the sickness from himself
as though it were a coat of grime.
He'd work intently at his desk.
At the great parties held in his honor
each guest would feel at home.
I am unknotting the wrong rat's nest.
There's someone else -- a poet,
a light-skinned black man, too --
whose likely course I'd like to shift.
My sister, his wife,
endures drunken fits of spite.
She reaches out
to the ledges on which he's stood
waiting to be begged, "Please come back in."
I swear I don't know what to do.
I call. I write.
I visit when I can.
And he drinks vodka and quotes Baudelaire.
He claims to have no theory of fiction at all.



Cowboy's slouching cool
in the theater,
flicking his lighter,
when the strings rise up
in "Desperado."
The serrated wheel
feels right
against his thumb,
like a sliver
of fieldstone
before it skips the skin
of a farm pond.
He remembers the broth
she'd serve on Sundays,
so hot it burned
his tongue, cornflowers
shedding petals
on the kitchen table.
There are only men
in this dark, coughing
impatiently, but Cowboy
is holding her hand
beneath the acacia tree
in early evening,
the very air so sweet
it smells like fresh cologne.



On that day when the clover blooms
and you're crossing your old high school
football field with a boom-box playing Hendrix
through one speaker only and the phase
isn't coming through and two juniors
look down at you from the bleachers
because it's not their music and it's not
your music either, not by a decade,
then perhaps it's time
to press STOP and scale
the highest structure in town,
a water tower labeled "Roseville,"
and look down yourself
and re-think just what the hell has happened.

This is a poem in three parts.
This part, the middle part, is about others,
about your two best hometown friends,
both of them fucked-up beyond the place
where fuck-ups lead to any rich trove
of revelation. This part is about Sal,
the Chicano kid who loved the Stones
and the Dolls, blew up after band practice
to stay awake and talk talk
talk about music, his passion,
arguing over who played the baddest, sloppiest
leads -- Keith or Johnny -- and singing Iggy
so loud the neighbors in the duplex
called the police three times a night.
This part is about Sal coming back from an afternoon
at the lake, drunk, the driver drunk, the kid
in the back seat drunk and -- you know it's coming,
the scene right out of a MADD commercial --
the darkness, the parked car on the shoulder, the swerve,
the red and blue lights, the hospital,
the cousins in the waiting room, mom in tears,
dad smoking outside, talking about boxing,
talking about baseball, talking about stupid taxes,
talking about anything but Sal up there
with the skin on his cranium peeled back
and the surgeon removing the useless parts
of his brain with a delicate scalpel.
This part is about Sal in the wheelchair at home,
getting fat on ice cream -- his personality
that of a twelve-year old, "Michael Jordan
is bad, man" -- and staring at the TV
and blinking, blinking, the bits of glass
still in his eye--and smiling
about nothing.

This part is about Mike, the calm one,
the one who would drink a twelve-pack
and drive for hours, perfectly, the one
who would encourage you to keep writing,
"Man, you're the best writer I know," the shy one
there in the corner of the kitchen, returning
to the keg every fifteen minutes
and not showing a trace of jealousy
when the girl he's been talking to all night suddenly
slurps the tongue of someone who just walked in,
a guy she doesn't really know. This second part
is about voices in the next room and shadows
following cars for miles and networks
of spies and dark reasons for the rising
of the sun. This is about disease
walking into Mike's apartment
on his twenty-fifth birthday like the friend
of a friend you can't treat rudely.
This is about pills and no sleep
and daily fear
and self control and clinical madness.

The last part is about you.

But the part you get isn't a big one.

Up there on your water tower, looking down
on the town of 24,347 -- on the mini-marts and
Dairy Queens and rows of clean new cars
and the used furniture store and the gray
stone City Hall with its green dome and inert
flag--you might as well be a tuft of cumulus
cloud, distant and transient,
for all the good you are.
You might as well have nothing
at all to do with the two lives which begged, "Take
care of me, define me," because your hands
like clouds
                 are immaterial
forgive me, my friends
                 they try to hold
I was not there
                 slips through.


In Heavy Fog Outside Bishopville, South Carolina,

I held the slippery secret of life
between my thumb and forefinger.

Don't ask me now what the secret was;
it shot too quickly back into the swamp

and stands of pine. I only know
it had to do with the beauty of light suffused

in unexpected ways, with the power of the imagination
to people empty space,

with Heaven and Earth
and the gap between.

Oh, I can't say I was happy
those few strange moments on the Interstate.

But I know I was at peace.


Epilogue: Koan Americana

Koan Americana

          The master said, "George Washington slept here. How much shall I charge?"
          The disciple answered, "As much as the market will allow."
          The master took out his wallet and began counting twenties into the disciple's hand. "More?" asked the master. The disciple nodded. "And still more?" The disciple continued to nod until his master's wallet was empty.
          Then the master asked, "But what if I tell you now that George Washington did not sleep here, that I am perpetuating a hoax?"
          Disappointed, the disciple began to give the money back.
          "No," said the master. "Take all this. Take all this and much more."
          At that moment, the disciple was enlightened.


Published in the United States by
Colonial Press
1237 Stevens Road S. E.
Bessemer, AL 35023


Grateful acknowledgment is made to the editors of the following magazines where some of these poems originally appeared:

Apalachee Quarterly, Beloit Poetry Journal, Bellowing Ark, The Cape Rock, Chariton Review, Chattahoochee Review, Cimarron Review, Crazyquilt Literary Quarterly, Cutbank, The Greensboro Review, Gulf Stream Magazine, Hawaii Review, Hellas, High Plains Literary Review, Jacaranda Review, Kansas Quarterly, The Laurel Review, The MacGuffin, Mankato Poetry Review, The Nebraska Review, Negative Capability, New Mexico Humanities Review, Pearl, Pivot, Poet Lore, Puerto Del Sol, River City, Riverwind, South Carolina Review, Tar River Poetry, Wind, and Writers' Forum.

Library of Congress Catalog Number:

ISBN Number: 0-938991-89-2

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