Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Mountain Outhouse: 1996

(with apologies to Hayden Carruth)

Doing everything right
was easier on the first nights,
choosing the site least attractive
to bears, hanging the food

over a tree, digging a small latrine.
By the third night it wore on me,
sweating and aching, the younger,
more outdoorsy hikers passing me by,

their colors competing with the
mountain flowers. I camped close
to a state parks cabin, introduced
myself to the renters, asked if, at night,

in the rain, would they mind my using
the outhouse? They said don't. Might
frighten them to hear me out there.
And that was fine. I camped

where I camped, went where
I went. I’d been lonely
since that terrible day
Ronald Reagan got elected.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Acting Poetry

We sat on the floor of the college’s workshop theater. The acting instructor spoke about mannerisms, filling the room effortlessly with a soothingly quiet voice. He said muscle memories would lock pieces of our faces, our shoulders, our necks -- the way we reach to pick up a phone, a newspaper, a love letter -- into unconscious habits. Acting, he said, is a study of these mannerisms. Good acting starts with the ability to release one’s own mannerisms so the actor can embody the character.

I wish I had pursued that training 30 years ago. The stretching, the voice exercises, the tai chi and yoga over a long period – each practice a particle of the whole over time, each exercise accumulating in a basket full of skills so that a body can hobble across the stage as a defeated king one day and answer the phone as a nerdy teenager expecting a call the next. But the lessons of that class didn’t go to waste completely. So much of what I think about poetry, I learned in that class.

I don’t want to be limited by my own voice. I want to be open to as many voices as I can be open to. So, like an actor, I practice with different forms as a way to open myself to a variety of voices, different vocabularies, different rhythms and tones and movements. I have written a sestina that is just awful, but the very complicated puzzle of a form loosened up something in my language engine, a discovery that I gladly cannibalized for another poem. I’ve also revised poems into various forms, then combined them, grabbing bits from the sonnet sequence, other bits from a draft written on an obscure Welsh form – all because of the discoveries I made in those exercises. This one, however, came without those exercises.


The Actress

She is on her back, knees up,
feet on the floor, the house lights up,
behind a black steel grid ceiling,
and she is pretending to melt.

Start at brow. Feel the brow soften
like snow-thaw, a puddle forming
below, glistening above, now the eyes,
yes. Don’t forget to breathe. The jaw…

Her habits puddled on the floor, she
rolls onto her knees, her feet,

tale to the sky, head to the floor,
she rises slowly, vertebrae by vertebrae,
from the tail-bone to the neck.

Because she does this, day after day, year
after year, she will release the muscle
memory that makes her who she is,
the way her throat pinched in on itself,

when she squeaked “I’m a little busy now,”
or her fingers clenched, then stretched
to keep from clenching at her sister’s
wedding. All she was is gone now.

She is ready to answer the cell like you,
on the third “We will we will rock you.”
She is ready to roll her eyes and growl, low
and smoky: “You focking have a lotta’ nerve

you know that? A focking lotta’ nerve.”

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Best Practices for Throwing Stones....

Best Practices for Throwing Stones at Women Protesting
the Legalization of Marital Rape

1 Choosing the stone

Crouch in the sun. Close
your eyes and dream of frying bread.
Sweep the ground with your palm.
Gather dust.
Hold and caress the dust.


Whatever hardness meets your hand, grasp it.
Whatever softness meets your hand, taste it.
Spit it out.
Do this for 800 years,
until you know,
and the world also knows,
you are stone and dust.


2 Protecting the stone

No one sees the stone but you
and those who share your bread.

3 Teaching the stone

There are three words the stone should know:
Dog. Whore. Infidel.
The stone should know these words well.

4 Aiming the stone

Aim for the mouth.
Either she will choke and be silent,
or she will swallow the stone, vomit bread for you,
and be silent.

5 Throwing the stone

Think of blood, of bread,
of shadowy hatred.
Think of wind racing
over a field of poppies.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Necessary Artifice

First time she told the story,
how they sent the children
to harvest
too early
after the crop-
duster, she spoke
in the kitchen
to friends.
She said, this
is where
these freckles
came from, how
my skin peeled. This
is how my sister
almost died. The
surprised her
Her friends
signed up
for La Causa, and
her friends invited
five more friends
to their own kitchens,
each of whom invited
five more friends.

She knew the tears
would come
the second time,
and the third time.

By the time
she told the story
to the housewives in
Los Angeles
in their living rooms
over coffee
and union wine,
she wasn’t crying
any more
so she used
a pin
in her bandanna
and jabbed
the tears
from her eyes. Over
and over, time
and time
again, her sister
almost died:
the vomiting
and blood told
with pin-wet

A necessary artifice,
without which nothing
gets done.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Ellen’s Cat

The cat was last seen in the lot behind the duplex.
The cat was missing, could be dead.
Probably dead.
The lot behind the duplex: summer hot,
grass, sourweed, dandelions, broken bottles.

Somewhere else a moon ripples in the bay,
but the cat is not there, not even remembered there,
some time else..

No one ever found the cat.

Thirty years ago. Long decomposed now, the cat.
Long debriefed until the subject changed, the
moon covered with clouds and days. Ellen

who loved the cat as much because no one else did,
only remembers sometimes.

I only remember Ellen sometimes.

This is how memories decompose:

Worms and fleas and bugs wiggle through them,
for the nourish-me-now, and the bits wiggle inside
them, and the nourish-me-now creates gas

outside the worms,
inside the memory.
The memory swells

as if ready to float over the grass and sourweed.
Float now, not stalk, not slink.

Not hunting. Not hunted.


Sunday, April 12, 2009

The Tuning Fork

She holds the tuning fork with thumb and finger,
glass of wine, glass of silence, two tines and a stem,

lifts it with a flair, eyes the color in the gap,
cracks it sharp on the table,

holds it so lightly, a living, sleeping thing,
gently dares to touch it to the wood.

The haunted wood hums an overtone,
calls the room to prayer,

calls the air to prayer.

She plucks the string. I cringe:
Wire aspiring for the pitch.

He doesn’t notice
her shoulders,
or if he does, he doesn’t
how they hunch, rigid,
like her arms. He only shouts

Your’re choking the neck!”
She exchanges the tension in her wrist
for a former slackness in her jaw. “Better.

Now again.”

It is Bach, and he loves his Bach.
Is is his daughter.

You’ve heard this song before.
You know how it ends --
how the perfect note can’t be pure again --
but a tune has to close once it begins. If

I do not complete the tune you’ll gasp for air,
your mouth, open and shut, open and shut,

spitting: No! No! No! No! Like this! Like this!
Your fist will shatter the glass on the table.

As far as I know he never hit her.

The seawall

The child runs because
a child runs, (“Catch me, catch me
before I fall!”) because
running is what the child does.

The laws

of gravity cycle through--
and the laws of laughter.
The mother,
after the child, she runs

to catch him before
the seawall comes.
This is what the mother does
again and again
until she tires of the routine.

Then the mother lets the child to fall,
onto the mud near the waves,
near the crabs. What the child does:

runs and falls, runs and cries.

Blood on those grapes

I had a sign. He had a cleaver,

and it comes to me now, so large –
as big as a head, a big, sweating,

sculpted head screaming some
distorted sentence --

This immigrant butcher
could handle it like a scalpel.

He spoke
in Russian. I did not speak

in Russian.
My sign said “There’s blood

on those grapes,” His knife said
“I did not come here for this, for

the likes of you.” He was
only trying to live. We

were only trying to protect
the living.