Fates Worse Than Death
One said dying slowly.
Another said living
and barely cracked a smile.
Many said extreme pain,
torture, in all its varieties:
burning, drowning, beating, crushing, starving,
cutting the body away in small pieces,
breaking down the mind bit by bit.
Others said insanity, loneliness, paralysis,
catatonia, coma, blindness,
One said watching others
family, friends, total strangers.
In a dry white season
they tried to teach us
the reach of human cruelty–
a bloody face turned upward,
the body suspended by elbows,
electrodes on nose, nipples, testicles.
A young guard walked in,
Imagine having to live
with the knowledge.
Imagine how he sees people now
from the corners of his eyes,
how he hurries home each day,
squeezes the handle,
cracks the door.
Imagine how he holds his wife,
afraid of what his own hands might do.
At the View of a Wave
At the view of a wave or Palmetto Tree
or anything named after Hernando de Soto
his hands began to sweat.
At the smell of fish or flat land,
the sight of a single Brewer’s Blackbird,
he’d feel his face grow flush,
his stomach begin to quail.
At the first sign of rain
or high tides or crowded beaches
he’d turn the car around.
My parents never went anywhere.
At 6, I woke alone, dressed myself,
climbed aboard the white bus
and sat in one pew after another
waiting for answers few ever came to find.
My autobiography would read:
Yesterday we went nowhere
and I got yelled at;
today we went nowhere
and I got yelled at;
tomorrow we’re staying home
and the place in my room
reserved for after yelling
already awaits my arrival.
Only once, near the end, he’ll make it
all the way to Florida, to some place
called Silver Sands, Elysian Fields,
Sunset Vistas. He’ll buy the condo
with the big window overlooking
the flat back bay, and he’ll lie down
in a mail-order hammock and wonder
aloud at the strange quiet around him.
Finding the Word Grotesque on Sylvia Plath’s “Tulips”
At the top of the page, “grotesque,”
things natural becoming so,
tulips transformed to red breath
of babies, eyes, mouth, voice
of guilt, each body a pebble
to be kept in its perfect place.
It is only blood now
and like any blood it comes
out hard. Better perhaps
to have let the dogs in
to lap it up before it dried
to this crusted skin.
No weaver I wonder how this
death, the annual august
event, can be hemmed in.
Quilts are everywhere squared
with scraps of clothing, sheets,
tablecloths. What now is allowed?
A single bullet, behind the ear,
the gun in your left hand,
your wife made to watch,
your daughter in the next room.
And later your face painted
smooth, eyes thumbed shut
body perfectly dressed,
plain shirt, no tie,
ridiculous Timex still ticking.
We forget that breath comes
without our knowing why,
leaves in its own time.
We can never know how much
was planned, what intent
you meant. We read into the choice
what we most need to believe,
pocket the scraps, the leaves,
the petals we need to remember.
Savannah’s Waving Girl
40 years she stood on the bluffs,
waving, they say, to his absence
on every passing ship, awaiting
his half-promised return, everybody’s
perfect girl who waited for her guy
to come home from the sea, from the wars,
from making his business on another shore.
The perfect Penelope, putting off
every suitor with needle and thread
and faith in the constancy of man.
Maybe it was her contribution to art,
in a city known for design, a planned
city, where all the streets run
in straight lines and close around
squares where lusty invaders
could be hemmed in, let loose,
then trapped again one block up.
What could be more planned than a girl
on a cliff waving a handkerchief,
her hair and hem waving too,
a single human figure, probably a blond
in everyone’s mind, below Palmetto trees,
probably green, above sea oats,
beige of course, the moon and a collie
she trained to wake her only companions.
Or maybe she wasn’t lonely at all.
Maybe it was a greater good she served
with towel and lantern, warning ships
away from siren rocks, or inviting them in
toward safe landings, to Savannah’s streets,
ballast become cobblestone
running down to river’s edge, river watcher,
something akin to the town crier
announcing to all those waiting
for their ship to come in the presence
of strangers and all their strange potential.
Or maybe it was all a test to see
what we would make of it, she herself
the siren tempting desperate sailors,
divine, angelic figure, only half-real,
half-god, mostly imagined
by lonely sailors, lonelier townspeople
wanting some vehicle of reunion,
and this our reader response to history
proclaiming any girl waking 40 years
on a cliff in Savannah must be lonely
for something only a man could bring her.
They’re back, as usual.
Every year they return
from somewhere we thought they’d gone,
but still they haven’t changed.
They stand above us looking down,
assured in their sense of security.
They pat us on the back, tell us
it was a good try, walk off
smug in their own success.
They never really went anywhere.
Why would they? They have it so good
here. They sleep soundly, without conscience,
or concern knocking their eyelids open,
always there, when it’s good,
somewhere else when it’s bad.
Their timing is perfect.
They always do it the easy way,
whatever it is, taxes, daycare,
credit. They don’t worry over words
like future, depth, sincerity.
They’re the keepers of petty rules,
the ones who mark your uncrossed t’s,
count syllables, are never late.
They make it hard for those who want
to live deeply, sucking at marrow,
always out of sorts by comparison.
They’re never distracted, eyes
on the prize, focus on the ball.
They’re to blame and they know it.
They just don’t care.
The ubiquitous they, the general
conspiracy. They’re working hard
at keeping you down. They’ve stacked
the deck against you. They’re the ones
who are really in control and won’t give you
a chance. They’ve been watching you.
They know what you did.
They’re all lawyers and engineers,
surgeons and benefactors.
They have rings on their fingers,
stones in their rings, places
for you to kneel. There is sawdust
in all their dreams.
They’re high maintenance
and worth it. They’re new and improved.
They’re coming soon. They may not stop
at your door, then again they may.
They’re the ones with lunatic eyes,
the calm assurance of apathy,
the unblinking certainty of Lot.
That they are out there is irrefutable.
They’re the ones smiling, saying,
“Have a nice day,”
remembering to extend a hand.
My friend calls them the K-Mart people,
my wife the living dead. They’ve got
your number. They hung up when you answered.
If they weren’t so dangerous
you’d think they were funny.
If you put them in a book
no one would believe it.
It’s us against them, and they’re winning.
We’d hate them, you say,
if they didn’t look so much like us.
My fingers grow numb from not
touching you. My hands hang
limp at my side. My breath
keeps losing itself. My lips
tremble, my mouth grows stale,
grows teeth turned inward,
begins to taste like malathion.
And that’s when I know the No is back,
the one that’s answered all my questions,
like would you go that far,
would you try, just once,
the one I’ve tried to outgrow
all my life, to slough
off like a dead skin,
the one that wakes me up at night,
moves me to the chair, makes me
stare at my own body sleeping,
the one that calls itself self-
control, but smells more like fear.
The No is back and getting comfortable.
It curls up inside my mouth,
embeds itself in my lips,
spreads across my face
like some dark blush.
It stops up my ears,
closes my eyes,
grabs me by the throat
until at last I grow a head
shaped like the No, constantly
wagging from side to side.
I asked her when she’d last played at playing,
Imagining Johnny Bench in the big game,
Janis Joplin on stage.
She didn’t know what I meant.
I mentioned children without quarters
Pretending at video games.
She said they thought it was real.
I said what about voices or characters,
Jerry Lewis’ insane play, Marilyn Monroe,
Tarzan, Ginger Rogers on the dance floor.
She said no—only her mother
Playing Judy Garland in the kitchen
And herself playing the good little girl.
Doctor or school house?
Prison or ringmaster?
She said board games and Lincoln Logs,
Jacks and bicycles.
I explained that we had no toys
So we had to pretend.
She said pretending made too much noise.
No train conductor? Bus driver?
Cowboys and Indians?
Only tag and hide and seek, she said.
Only red light, green light,
Ghost in the graveyard and war.
Only war, she said, hurling hand-grenades
At her brothers while her father looked on in silence,
And writing, where she could be anything
And everyone else the way she wanted.
Norman, it seems, is getting around.
Reports are coming in from everywhere.
No longer content with crying on barstools,
throwing up on doorsteps, sniffing the bottoms
of cantaloupe in the Park ‘n Shop,
he’s been seen at the mall watching girls
half his age, groaning out loud,
throwing French fries in their untouchable
hair. He’s been seen in fast food drive throughs
pounding his horn, sending his meat back
a second time, refusing to lower
his electric windows. One woman spotted him
in K-Mart trying on the right foot
of every shoe they make. Another saw him at Mr. C’s
Fried Chicken, face embalmed in grease,
fists gripping his own barbaric legs.
A local expert on Norman says
he spreads most when the economy is down,
sneaking into bedrooms and boardrooms,
churches and city halls. In some parts of town
Norman has taken over the bodies
of every man around. Even some of the women
have started to look like Norman.
The police have opened a hotline to track
the sightings of Norman, set up roadblocks
to quarantine, appointed a task force to discuss
what can be done about Norman’s epidemic proportions.
Unfortunately, there’s no easy cure,
no pill to take to rid yourself
of Norman, no exorcism to chase him away.
Once infected, you can only wait
for Norman to pass, hopefully quickly,
hopefully quietly, hopefully
before the news reaches your hands.
A found poem after Michael O’Sullivan
It’s hard to look at Norman’s works
squirming with anguished life in every corner,
misanthropic dark Metropolis,
socially surreal, nightmarish, familiar.
Crucifixion, perverse altarpiece
to selfishness, itching with discontent,
hypocrisy, soul-dead solitude.
Little Nazi with a limp and sneer.
Pathetic self-defeatist, sucking
cigarettes, booze, almost anything
that offers a moment’s warm respite.
Sterile cup overbrimming
with alien pulchritude, pining,
moaning, sipping the syrup of self-pity.
Twitching paranoiac in the hairsuit
of his own skin, obsessed with coffins,
real and metaphoric, corpses.
Company man, obvious, plastic,
predictable, asexual, trampling through
the mutilated garden of his own back yard.
Life a nasty, brutish, short business
from womb to grave, joyless copulation,
slavish servitude. Part-time barber,
security guard, nightstick. Emaciated thinkers,
lovers, parents, there to change the channel,
wag the finger before your face,
strip away any hope of happiness.
Love and the Daughter
There is little you’d take as truth from him,
but this pounding death seems impossible
to imagine even from one who dreams voices
into walls, eyes in every pane of glass.
In the season of dogwoods and judas trees
your father calls to tell you Stuart is dead —
a heart attack brought on by morphine
taken to treat the phantom pains of a lost leg.
The ghost of your image moves mourning
before the door, spring’s tender green
turning in panic behind you. Your anger,
inconsolable, will not unknit itself.
What you mourn is not the loss of life,
but a world of childhoods, your own, your brother’s
strapped to his iron chair, your mother’s innocence
sacrificed to angers that would not go away.
I want to pick the howls from your tongue,
bring down your fists on these faces
looking up from memory’s dark pools,
open your eyes to spring’s season of crying.
At night, in the mirror, sometimes you see
his face, unsoothed, your own, clenched tight,
my half-wanted hands easing you back to me,
spooning away anger like tears unwilling to cry.
The first time my stepson cried
without his mother’s hands
to brush the pain away
I came to him quickly
without thinking. I touched him
with almost a space between
my flesh and his, the way
a woman, aging and overweight,
steps off a curb as if the path
beneath her might not be real.
And then, he leaned into me,
and my whole body changed
into something I had not known
existed, and what was once
no part of me began
to keep the ticking
of our two wrists as one.
Every boy, too skinny,
with a buzz cut and cheap,
worn-out shoes, with clothes
clearly not bought but handed
down, cautious and curious,
hands keeping the safe distance
of looking at everything,
reminds me of the self I was
and can never cease to be.
Every time I see that unchanging
shadow I want to go up to him
and shake him by the shoulders and say,
“Boy, don’t believe them.
None of this should be feared.
You have a right to everything.”
On the Days I Am Not My Father
I don’t yell. I don’t hold inside
the day’s supply of frustrations.
My hands stay open all day.
I don’t wake tired and sore,
dazed from senseless, panicking
dreams. On the days I am not
my father I hold my son
when he cries, let him touch my face
without flinching, lie down with him
until he falls asleep, realize
that just because he has a sharp tongue,
just because he’s sometimes mean,
just because he is smarter than me
doesn’t mean he’ll become my father.
On the days I am not my father
holding you is enough until
holding you is no longer enough
for either of us. I listen well.
I let things go unfinished,
in an order I didn’t plan.
My mouth is relaxed. My teeth
don’t hurt. My face stays
a healthy shade of pink all day.
On the days I am not my father
I don’t fill the silence with my own
irrational rants. I don’t resent
the voices of others. I don’t make fun
of you to make myself feel better.
On the days I am not my father
I don’t care who wins
or loses. The news can’t ruin
my day. I water plants.
I cook. I laugh at myself.
I can imagine living without
my beard, with my hair cut,
without the fear of looking
too much like my father. On the days
I am not my father I romp
and play, I don’t compare myself
with everyone else, the night
is always long enough, I like
how much I am like my father.
Nothing in His Life Became Him as Well
After William Shakespeare and Lyle Lovett
The hardest part of dying is having no time
to practice. Aging, you can get used to:
each morning a little more tired
than the last, muscles more sore,
chest more full of phlegm, each day
filled with fewer faces from your childhood.
But when the time really comes,
how will you know how to do it well,
without mess, delay, or regret.
What makes it good anyway?
The chin held high, eyes looking
forward to the light, hands not sweating
but clapping, or maybe a mind
full of sorrow, resistance, anger
at leaving what has taken your life to build,
what was never yours anyway — to have
but not to hold. Some people kill themselves
with the lives they lead, others with the lives they don’t.
You only have two choices really.
You can get busy living
or you can get busy dying.
Personally, I’d prefer to have
a pimiento cheese sandwich
and stop worrying about which one I’m doing.
Poem for Chopper
When the axe-murderer comes
I don’t want to be in the shower,
some nude erection of a psycho’s wet dream.
I don’t want to be bathing
or using the toilet, or cleaning
the toilet, or doing anything
with the toilet. I don’t want to be
in the kitchen, doing dishes,
slathering mayonnaise on cold chicken,
scooping out seeds from a split
skull of cantaloupe.
When the axe-murderer comes
I don’t want to have my head
in the refrigerator, or under the hood,
or buried in the pages of anything less
than Paradise Lost. I don’t want to be
reading recipes or cutting coupons
or doing anything routine.
I don’t want to be naked,
changing clothes, my disappointing
image split in two. I wouldn’t mind
making love but I wouldn’t want
to involve anyone else in this.
When the axe murderer comes
let my head be not cloven
by abstract thought, or mean ones,
or little ones. Let me not be drunk
or drinking or maybe just having
the one drink that gives the axe
a sense of wavering. Let my locks
be sound, my hinges unbendable,
all my panes out of reach. Let me not
be doing nothing on a bad day
with my shoes on the wrong feet.
When the axe-murderer comes
I want to be dressed in white
wearing my glasses, smoking
the first cigarette I’ve had in years.
I want to be singing a song
in my head and hear the lines
go their separate ways.
I’d like to be writing a good poem,
getting down a last few words.
I’d like to be tragically disturbed
from the best work I’d ever have done.
When the axe-murderer comes
I’ll try to make him laugh.
I’ll fall to my knees in prayer.
I’ll ask him to join me. I’ll ask him
what his mother would think.
When the axe-murderer comes,
I want it to be symmetrical and artistic,
straight down the middle, one eye,
one ear, one nostril to either side.
I want him to remember me
as the one he almost couldn’t kill,
whose eyes were too beautiful,
hands too much like his own,
whose mouth spoke so sweetly
he couldn’t bear to say stop.