Poetry | March 01, 2002

Featuring the Poems:


And What If I Spoke of Despair

…perhaps a huge silence

might interrupt this sadness

of never understanding ourselves

and of threatening ourselves with death.

—Pablo Neruda


And what if I spoke of despair—who doesn’t

feel it? Who doesn’t know the way it seizes,

leaving us limp, deafened by the slosh

of our own blood, rushing

through the narrow, personal

channels of grief. It’s beauty

that brings it on, calls it out from the wings

for one more song. Rain

pooled on a fallen oak leaf, reflecting

the pale cloudy sky, dark canopy

of foliage not yet fallen. Or the red moon

in September, so large you have to pull over

at the top of Bayona and stare, like a photo

of a lover in his uniform, not yet gone;

or your own self, as a child,

on that day your family stayed

at the sea, watching the sun drift down,

lazy as a beach ball, and you fell asleep with sand

in the crack of your smooth behind.

That’s when you can’t deny it. Water. Air.

They’re still here, like a mother’s palms,

sweeping hair off our brow, her scent

swirling around us. But now your own

car is pumping poison, delivering its fair

share of destruction. We’ve created a salmon

with the red, white, and blue shining on one side.

Frog genes spliced into tomatoes—as if

the tomato hasn’t been humiliated enough.

I heard a man argue that genetic

engineering was more dangerous

than a nuclear bomb. Should I be thankful

he was alarmed by one threat, or worried

he’d gotten used to the other? Maybe I can’t

offer you any more than you can offer me—

but what if I stopped on the trail, with shreds

of manzanita bark lying in russet scrolls

and yellow bay leaves, little lanterns

in the dim afternoon, and cradled despair

in my arms, the way I held my own babies

after they’d fallen asleep, when there was no

reason to hold them, only

I didn’t want to put them down.


Be Still My Heart

Ariel’s Song

We were a pair. Me stomping off

on those redwood rounds that shifted

in the winter floods—my Kmart sneakers

and turquoise jacket with holes

in the pockets. Keys, toothbrush, drugs

burrowed in the lining like mice.


And you—standing on the patio in your Birkenstocks

and naturally curly hair, screaming

Don’t leave. I love you.

like you were a movie star and we were

going to wind up together at the end of the reel

with rain streaming down.


Only there was no rain and I wasn’t

your lover. Only a soul that God

had forgotten to attach, slipped off

like a poorly sewn button.

For all my two hundred and eighty pounds,

I had no more substance than a sliver of plastic.


Until I met you. And even then

you’d be sitting there smiling, your mouth

going on. I understood as much

as a frog listening to opera.

Trust was still a foreign country

like names we can’t pronounce til there’s a war.

But when you put your arms around me, I thought

Kill me now, Lord.


I figured you’d be glad to get rid of me—

this charity case who didn’t know

the names of any feminist poets,

who had crooked teeth and the waterlogged

skin that comes from too much white bread and Top Ramen.

I figured you’d be glad your Pygmalion experiment had failed

and you could go back to helping all those thin women

in J. Crew clothes who ate sushi

and floated off on guided meditations.


I never imagined you’d act like that, hollering

so all the neighbors could hear, crying and carrying on

for one more chance. I shook each slice

of tree in its lopsided bed of chips

and stood poised

on the last wobbly redwood round

like an elephant on a stool, or someone on a ledge

thirty stories up above the traffic, balancing.

Then, slowly, I pivoted,

executing the first of many

death-defying pirouettes.


Gate C 22

At gate C 22 in the Portland airport

a man in a broad-band leather hat kissed

a woman arriving from Orange County.

They kissed and kissed and kissed. Long after


the other passengers clicked the handles of their carry-ons

and wheeled briskly toward short-term parking,

the couple stood there, arms wrapped around each other

like satin ribbons tying up a gift. And kissing.


Like she’d just staggered off the boat at Ellis Island,

like she’d been released from ICU, snapped

out of a coma, survived bone cancer, made it down

from Annapurna in only the clothes she was wearing.


Neither of them was young. His beard was gray.

She carried a few extra pounds you could imagine

she kept saying she had to lose. But they kissed lavish

kisses like the ocean in the early morning


of a calm day at Big Sur, the way it gathers

and swells, taking each rock slowly

in its mouth, sucking it under, swallowing it

again and again. We were all watching—


the passengers waiting for the delayed flight to San José,

the stewardesses, the pilots, the aproned woman icing

Cinnabons, the guy selling sunglasses. We couldn’t

look away. We could taste the kisses, crushed


in our mouths like the liquid centers of chocolate cordials.

But the best part was his face. When he drew back

and looked at her, his smile soft with wonder, almost

as though he were a mother still


opened from giving birth, like your mother

must have looked at you,

no matter what happened after—

if she beat you, or left you, or you’re lonely now—


you once lay there, the vernix

not yet wiped off and someone gazing at you

like you were the first sunrise seen from the earth.

The whole wing of the airport hushed,


each of us trying to slip into that woman’s middle-aged body,

her plaid bermuda shorts, sleeveless blouse,

little gold hoop earrings, glasses,

all of us, tilting our heads up.


3 A.M. Feeding

Zeke whines softly and nudges

my door. In the wash of moonlight

his black face gleams level with mine,

the large jaw politely closed, the eyes wide open.

His expression never varies, but I know

what he wants. Yesterday he found a nest

of kittens on the side of the road

and though I can’t hear them mewing, he can.

I’m too old for this, I think

as I throw on a robe and heat a cup of milk

in the microwave. My mother’s in the hospital.

I have to fly back East. What am I doing

saving cats the world has too many of anyway?


The scraps of fur are up, trembling

on their skinny legs. It’s all they can do

to hold up the balloons of their heads.

Their eyes are oozing, swollen shut.

Two take the dropper, but the smallest

doesn’t want to eat at all, opens

her mouth only to cry. Her tongue

is the size of a baby’s thumbnail, and almost

as thin. I pry apart the tiny splinter teeth

and squirt a little milk, most of which

leaks back out. Meanwhile


Zeke is in the zone, nabbing

each one as it wobbles, blindly

into his sphere. He’s serene as a massive

star, culling stray bits of matter

as they wander into his gravitational field.

One at a time, he pins them with a tender

paw and sets about their baths

with his huge, dry tongue.


He’s been at it all day, trotting

back and forth, a zealous waiter,

anxious to bring whatever’s required—

another bottle of wine? more coffee? perhaps

the cheesecake or crème brûlée? Like

Nureyev, Mother Teresa, Stephen King,

he’s found what he was born for.


As I top off the last kitten, Zeke

goes at the bottoms of the others, as their mother

would do, urging them to deliver,

licking up the miniature pees and poops.

And when they’re all finally settled

in the great warm arc of his body, he sighs

and lets his eyelids drift down with satisfaction.


I shuffle back to bed with a prayer:

Let me be Zeke. Let me rush

to each moment with his devotion,

eager to lick even the ass of life.

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