Poetry | March 01, 2000
Winner of the 1999 Editor’s Prize in Poetry
The women in this family play pinochle,
smoke, toss back salted nuts with the dregs
of their drinks. Ethel, Gladys, Esther,
Vesta, Effie—names you can’t imagine
anyone being named again. One says
Richard, would you like more to eat?
The men are out back still taking turns
grinding the ice-cream maker, their biceps
swollen and warm from crushing the ice
to slush. One by one, even the laughter
of these ghosts becomes less audible.
You want to ask them in, to tell them stories
by flashlight to make them want to stay.
You could begin with anything, anything,
the smallest thing that ever made you want your life.
The air after rain. The sounds of lovers
making love, tea, toast, and nevertheless
going about their days. It has something
to do with gravity. One moment you’re walking
at the edge of a street, when your brother
is taken from your hand. You go your whole life
thinking, Why him and not me? You wake
and are no longer young. Traffic is still insidious,
but now the hours come apart like soft-boiled eggs.
You spoon the round bellies out, pour on Tabasco,
grind fresh pepper, eating the moments so they
sizzle in your mouth, so they burn as they go down.
It takes a kind of courage, sometimes, just to say it.
Whole days spent otherwise have proven this to me.
Step forward, and the wind braces you on all sides.
III. Ghost Story
In the tent, we point the flashlights toward the roofs
of our mouths and flick the switch. Like wax heads
from Grauman’s Chinese Theater my best friends become
two terrifying African death masks. We shiver; the rain
falls harder through the maples and our friend tells us
how his father tore open his knees running home from school,
went swimming anyway, and heard eerie muffled voices
coming from the docks; how he moved toward them,
and they pulled him from the water, pointing at a spot
now teeming with shark fins. I pull the scratchy blanket
around my neck, and another says that his great-grandmother’s body
was kept uncovered in his mother’s childhood living room for days
before her funeral; and one night his mother watched through tears
as her bedroom door dissolved, her grandmother walked in
and kissed her, only, on the temple, the way she always did.
IV. Fender Strat with Wah-Wah, Fuzz Box, and Whammy Bar
A smeared note swells and scatters
like a voice inside a cave, tugging
the vibrato till the sound divides
like an egg yolk dropped in broth;
inside you now, swirling like a geyser
trapped in earth before the whole thing
blows apart. As if the spirit world will
talk back, the more you face the amp
and lean into yourself. You think,
there are so many ways to pray. This being,
of course, another lining up of hands,
the way to take the vagrant silence in yourself
and make it deafening. Now it is the whole house
breaking in the sound of surf, the echoes
rattling the bookshelves, even without the sound.
V. One Underworld
My seventeenth summer, sweating all day
long in the underbelly of a local Y, breathing in
a boiler room’s dry furnace heat.
The sun-scorched janitor tells me
how the whores in Vietnam
unclasped their necklaces and moved them
bead by bead
inside your ass; and when you came
pulled out that headless rattlesnake so fast
that your body would explode.
And something then would silver
in your mind, and napalm would spill
its orange acid from the trees. And everything,
for that one moment, would be still
and perfect and impossible to bear.
VI. My Mother’s Bed on Fire
First there were just a few zeros
singed perfectly like nihilist monograms
in her elegant nightclothes. Full moons
blackened at their edge. A nightstand;
the ashtray by her bed overflowing
with a pile of broken doll fingers
with lipstick at the ends where
the life-force had been sucked away.
When it finally happened, we were lucky:
She woke up.
And the insurance covered everything.
Now it’s the best room in the house.
We joke about it now; call it her Pleasure Dome.
When I talk about visiting, she says: Bring
your girlfriend, honey, and you can sleep in it!
VII. Taking a Shower with My Father
After I dislocated my shoulder the second time
I stood in the shower of a local Y with my father,
onion-bellied men lathering themselves,
lemon meringue froth running off their bodies,
inching across the tile and down the drain.
When he saw me unable to wash myself,
he spread a cloud of soap across my back.
He said, The guys are going to think
we’re queer, ha! Let them! And I’m the one
getting nervous, eyeing the doorway,
calming myself with thoughts of the house
he had in Michigan with his second wife.
When I had nightmares there, no matter what,
he’d open the coverlet like a storm-cellar door
in tornado season, still half asleep, to let me in.
VIII. The Temple
Before they even knew what
it could do to you, they pulled back
my mother’s lovely midnight hair,
a moon and its reflection rising
at each temple, two strong men
pinned her down, put electrodes there,
a pincher here—cold metal on teeth
on tongue—and fired up the furnace
to her brain: the shock, electricity,
shrugging through her body, oh, oh,
she told me she heard the woman in the bed
beside her moan, as if on fire, already bending
at the knees. She still hears the woman screaming
sometimes at night, the screaming wakes her
and she says to herself, My God, it’s me!
By your thirtieth year they say it
should manifest. If not, in most cases,
you have been spared.
But there are exceptions.
Even two years outside my third decade
the dormant, snaky coil of DNA
might hiss itself
awake, snap its distorted spine
and strike. But my mother says: Honey
as long as you can point to
a reason you feel a certain way
you don’t have what I have. And even now
I am afraid I feel the alarm about to go off in me,
the harried beating in my neck's
carotid artery, the green branching veins
inside my wrists. See now, if you can’t feel it here,
the second hand ticking its true course,
a heart preset to detonate.
Sometimes you have nothing left to say, and still
you keep on muttering like a set of wind-up teeth.
Other days, your eyes just glide across the words
like a catamaran. What is it that makes this
the moment you rise into yourself, a set of overalls
that ripple into being? You watch your love hug
what seems to be a beaten horse, just like Raskolnikov.
But when you look later, she wants to console a tree.
She can be so dramatic! Even the Russian men playing dominoes
in Golden Gate Park look on and’ scratch their heads.
It’s just another fish wrapped in aluminum, they seem to say.
Someone grown heavy with the world, not ready yet to speak.
When my mother woke up from her coma,
the first words to escape her were, I’m hungry!
What if each moment opened up for you like this?
After so much buildup, who should
arrive but the little Thai delivery man
with the white walrus moustache, the one
you always overtip because he is so old
and still delivering dumplings, chicken with lemon grass
on a rainy Friday night. The strangers
you’ve opened your doors to!
How many times have you held off sleep
just to think again of an idling car
where you could fall in love.
Or the jukebox in your favorite bar,
how it shoots sparkling pink and green
soda pop though its veins. You can never fill
yourself enough with your beloved, you think,
and it seems almost impossible to die.
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