Poetry | June 01, 2000

Featuring the poems:

  • Chorus
  • Separation
  • Puzzle at 30,000 Feet
  • Matchflame of the Ego, Moth
  • Departed Cordelia


a man in Canada has the aurora borealis all rigged up


he tells the radio reporter that he engineers

and records sound in the universe


the northern lights clamor down at him

they hurl what he calls “hissing whistlers” at the earth


he says the chorus always sings to him in the wilderness

a cacophony of swooping colored wings


and maybe you do have to be in the right place

at the right time to hear what is being sung to you


for my painter friend Werner that was his bedroom

the night his apartment building in New York City burned


in those slowed-down moments when the smoke was thick as Jell-O

he knelt on the floor to get more air


but the smoke was coming up from between the boards

and he could not breathe


he said he heard a voice tell him

he could lie down then with his pet cat in his arms


there was nothing to fear and dying would be all right

or said the voice he could stand on his cold windowsill


five stories up from the street and dive across an eight-foot gap


headfirst through a plate glass window

dive into a lit portal in the building next door still holding his cat


and that is what he did

he jumped across back into our world


where he can tell us this story

and show us his shoulders scarred with his choice to live


and mostly we do want to live

it may be that no one is truly safe but it does not matter


the chorus is singing


and the songs they sizzled and hummed over the radio

brought the deep calm of Quetico to me again


when the sky rippled with lines of phosphorescent laundry

and voices on the wind sang arias so beautifully


voices of my grandmothers and great-grandmothers before them

when they reached over to me singing don’t be afraid


and all those hosannas swam together

into the one music that sounds within everything



There are blows in life so violent . . . I cannot answer!



After it, I live alone

across the country. All the photographs

of him turned face down

under piles of folded clothes. An astrologer

reads my planets to me over the phone,

very late, moths sputtering at the lit window.

She says here Saturn squaring Saturn

means everything is changing. She says

look it’s all at the top of the chart go into the world

and make a life. I hang up thinking

a life is full of pain and it is hard to know

what we need. Hard even to inhabit our own bodies

each night, hard that morning comes again

no matter what. On the best days I remember

to be kind. My father calls more often,

worried, he asks are you safe

do you have friends? His voice warm at my ear.

I reassure him. I am swimming I say

you know floating. I can barely form the words.

All statements seem questions, all tenses changed.

I am, I was. When I try to picture my husband

everything suffers, I see him swaying

in the living room, my mail in messy stacks,

dust thickening, the house, a shrine

to what is lost. The three cats search and search

but never find me, The old gray tom sleeps more

each day, nose between his forelegs. How long

can this burn and still leave me alive.

How late can it get and the phone still rings

a voice dropping words

into my answering machine. A recording

of rushed intensity, projection,

oh I can see him. He speaks

to a whirr of blank air. And I push my hands

deeper into my pockets and stand there listening,

repeating: not now, not you.


Puzzle at 30,000 Feet

When the insurance salesman seated next to me breaks

my concentration pointing out a circular irrigation pattern

below in Kansas, giant green polka dots against the brown,


I’m grateful. And stuck on a term for malt liquor yeast, ten letters:

(blank)(blank) E (blank) N (blank) RU (blank)(blank).I’m getting

a headache. It had been easy before that, sort of. I needed


a five-letter word for right now and filled in TODAY.

Then a four-letter constellation animal and BEAR didn’t work

because 71 down is TORK for one of the Monkees.


But I stared out the window a minute, then wrote URSA.

The insurance salesman can tell me the number of the interstate

we’re both flying over, but he doesn’t know the parts of the eye


or the author Saki’s real name. The interstate looks like yarn,

far-flung, tangled in the hills. 79 across wants an apt family name

in The Wizard of Oz, GALE. Mr. Curious-Next-To-Me says


ask me another. My heart is weightless, cut free, hurtling

through space. Mr. Curious begs ask me again. He gets the four-letter

Kansas town IOLA, no problem. Deep summer swoons Kansas.


I’m far from my beloved but beloved nonetheless. I say all right then

four letters for happiness, five letters meaning joyous hymn.


Matchflame of the Ego, Moth

that is love.
         Remember the cautionary tale
of how to kill a frog? If you put him in boiling water,
he will jump right out. But if you surround him
with water of a comfortable temperature and gradually
heat it to boiling, he won't notice what's happening
and he'll die.
              Merciless nature.
                               After twelve years
with my husband I couldn't tell you what
it was like to live with him, now that I have left him
and moved far away. I stripped my touch and taste
from the rooms of our house. I don't recall
one thing about the journey westward except
the speed of travel, reaching the end of the road
too soon. Not one tear the whole trip but now
so many mornings on my hands and knees.
Etched glass of the spirit, stone
that is love.
         The only picture of February that endures
is the last evening I slept in the house:
my husband returning home from work at dusk
to find me bathing, coming in to talk
then heating water in the kettle and saucepan, pouring
the boiling liquid into the far end of the tub.


Departed Cordelia

My father said, You are a spirit. Where did you die?

and we were equally alive. I thought to correct him

but he was not in his perfect mind.


My answer, to myself: still, still, far wide,

wide of the mark, wide of this world and time.

My father said, You are a spirit. Where did you die?


and I kissed him as he slept, wild-haired, sliding

down in the chair. My kiss would be his medicine

if he was in his perfect mind.


We met again in prison, he and I. For a while

his memory cleared. I wept that he knew my name,

my father who’d raved, Spirit, where did you die?


From the beginning my heart held my words aside

and he sent me with France, to battle, to the storm.

He was not in his perfect mind.


I left forever. I’m dead as earth. I gravely

flowered, a rose in the rain, a dark bowl of flame.

My father said, You are a spirit. Where did you die?


but he was not in his perfect mind.

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