ALL THE GOOD SHEPHERDS
I've had dreams
about heaven, Jesus and Mary
and all the good shepherds
in institutional white and formation—
I dreamt they were coming
toward me from a landing strip,
walking through plate glass.
Once, when wide awake,
I warned Satan off
by making the sign of the cross
in spite of my arms being pinned
to the bed.
Now, these shadows,
hands clasped behind their backs,
they pass by my windows
in daylight, in moonlight.
I have seen them
come out from behind bushes,
from the cornfield—
perhaps they have slept
in the barn on cool nights.
My theory is they are
souls of the obdurate
in repentant contemplation
for theft, murder, adultery—
for harboring evil thoughts
during hard labor, a hard life.
And these opaque penitents
are not eyelashes casting
this is purgatory,
and I am not dreaming.
WALTER AND HIS FAT WIFE I
Walter is walking toward home
with Caribbean take-out
he is the darkest shadow at dusk
and even in late October
neighbors gather close against the chill
a woman is singing gospel on her stoop
plaiting cornrows in a child's hair
Walter nods and smiles
making his way to his fat wife
already he can hear Tito Puente
coming from an apartment in the rear
imagining his wife's hips in motion
making his way up three flights of stairs
Walter is singing
she is waiting at the door
in a red dress with tiny white flowers
and kisses him lightly on the lips
he could fall to the floor
on his knees and wrap his arms
around his wife's thighs
Walter likes the wave of her breasts
against his chest when they are dancing
sometimes they don't draw the curtains at all
and anyone could look over the sill
to see Walter holding his fat wife
she keeps the glass in the windows clean
so whether it be the moon or sun
to shine on them like candle light
in their bed, she is blue-eyed and gentle
while on the first floor a man is playing the flute.
WALTER AND HIS FAT WIFE II
A hot and sticky
Friday evening in July,
and Walter is sitting
on the hood of his '84 Buick.
Everyone is waiting
for the ice cream truck—
even the old woman two tenements up
in her pink terry slippers.
Children are wrapped around the banisters
while Walter seduces his fat wife,
reaching for her heavy hips.
She allows him her fingertips
and averts her eyes.
Everyone is watching—
she is shy.
Walter is humming
something Billie Holiday
that only his wife can hear
and he doesn't take his eyes off her—
the tender way she places her hand
in the child's hand
to go into the street—
the softness of her words
to the neighbors—
the way her eyes well up
at the unkindness of men
who are laughing.
God, how Walter loves his wife
as blue glass.
WALTER AND HIS FAT WIFE III
On a cold and clear December night
Walter walks with a bounce in his step
after a drink at the Oasis
and turning down three dances.
The guys tease him—
'Walter, man, you blind in one eye?!'
He knows it's time to go home
and dance with his wife
to Viva Bob Moore.
Women are standing in their doorways
for Friday night dates or deliveries—
'Good evenin', Walter'
and he nods with one milky eye to the ground.
Walter's wife is standing in her doorway too.
He swears his breath has made it home before him.
She is fat and lovely with that smile on her face.
Placing her warm hands on both his cheeks
they close the door,
and after they have laughed
Walter breathes the scent between her breasts—
soon she closes both his lids
with gentle fingertips
and he is dreaming
in the bluest hues.
WALTER AND HIS FAT WIFE IV
Walter's lips are in continuous motion.
His mouth is full of bright ideas
and his wife's kisses.
He is working two jobs now,
saving money to take his fat wife to Lagos
to dance the Nigerian Afro-beat at The Shrine.
Rain falls like a drum roll
on Walter's umbrella.
The street—quiet under cloudy skies—
no ice cream truck, no children,
no men, no women waiting in shadows.
Bicycles are lying on their pedals.
Walter's wife is sitting by the window
in a pale yellow light.
She sees something in the emptiness
that Walter cannot feel with one eye blind—
he feels only her absence,
and there is not a thing he can do about it.
When he arrives at home
he wraps his dark arms around her,
takes his fat wife under the red blanket
where she tells him she too is blind.
Walter whispers that she is softer than her years,
that even in the dark her blue eyes follow him.
This makes her laugh at twilight.
Somewhere on a floor above the street
Walter is dusting a feather
across his wife's chest,
and she is singing Fela Kuti’s
Elizabeth Vickery Haight
HOME FROM HOSPITAL
In that silent
time before dawn,
a kookaburra sings solo
outside our courtyard.
On the windowsill
my old comb lies,
full of dog’s hair.
Time is a measurement of change.
More kookaburras sing now,
like all the canned
laughter of sit coms
played out of control.
I sit at the kitchen table
(I have measured my life
in kitchen tables)
attempting to write
a final punchline
in that silent time before dawn.
BREAKFAST NOWHERE SPECIAL
Greasy spoon breakfast
in a wintry café at dawn. We play
dark corners, coastal cities, outback
towns by the perennial park where
the war memorial stands and the homeless
drink. A bleak life with scant reward —
they’re escaping nine-to-five,
just like us. We play post bop,
progeny of Miles and Trane,
Elvin and Monk — now we’re shrinking
into our own daylight skins, mumbling
smoky echoes, androgynous Phoebe
with us, on edge, in catsuit and wig.
George reckons she’s a guy, and Jean-Paul
is writing her into a suite. We’re
coming down over beans and bacon,
tipping whisky into our tea when
the guy’s not looking. Shades hide our eyes
where smoke and stage lights leave
bleeding tracks. Our next stop
is regional, a cultural centre built
for ballet and opera now needing
funds. As always, cash is popular.
‘Yeah! Salt peanuts!’ Paul sings
a la Dizzy, and we all laugh.
We want the world to know
we were cooking last night,
we were someone up there. Now, here,
paradiddling in a drear city dawn,
we hang out to keep
the dream drumming.
As I exit, I walk by my books in
the uni library. There is a shorter
way but I choose to hear my old
words whispering off the shelf
‘in the swarm of human speech’,
as Duncan said. On the road home,
in the safe bubble of my Japanese
car, I take the tunnel and in the
humming dark inexplicably think
of my White Russian friend naked
on his Ducati, whooping loudly in
his flight across the desert,
ejaculating in ecstasy on his fuel
tank. Those were the days, my
friend. Now, my tunnel breaks into
sunlight. The poet I visited today
said, Even the poems are chatty
now, and he was right: at the red
traffic light lyrical lines come to
mind and I hurry to write them
down. The lights change and my
pen dries out. Diesel fumes invade
my thoughts as I drive so I turn the
volume up on ABC fm to drown
my annoyance. That motel has
been there for decades. I remember
the one-eyed mother, baby in a cot,
offering me her love, or something
masquerading as that, in dusky
afternoon light, a room rented after
fleeing her husband, the sound of
peak hour traffic slowing as it
banked for the suburbs. I’m in a
dream world when the car behind
me toots, and I’m on the road
again. Her name has gone but her
glass eye remains and her baby’s sweet snuffling. I turn ABC
off and tune into a pop music
station. Get out of your own head,
I advise myself. It’s not safe there,
the past is corrosive. At home I
park and leave the bubble of car
and poem with its own centrifugal
MAKING BLOOM WHILE THE SUN SHINES
Which skin enriched the earth before
carrot shavings and potato peelings?
I wouldn’t have accepted those lines
as poetry before Ted Berrigan and James Tate.
Through the concrete driveway
a thistle fights for light, in
a solar-powered syntax
reminiscent of Roethke. I’m not
ashamed of my past, body
flaking daily, skin lining my poems.
Others prefer no ‘I’ in their poetry.
Let them read Ogden Nash. Once again
I’ve been wondering what poetry is
and who called it that in the first place.
Bottle brush bush is happy now,
head above parapet, making bloom
while the sun shines. That’s how it is,
individual utterance in the tribal context.
‘Take care,’ Mother said;
‘Take risks,’ the writer wrote.
Driving down the highway
this morning when
out of the corner of my eye
I see my friend standing
by the bus stop outside the shopping centre
a short walk from his home,
standing like he’s forgotten something,
his thin frame and gaunt face
at odds with the sunshine
and the smart young things waiting
for their bus, dressed to
the nines, ‘taking care of business’.
He stands on the curb
in faded fawn polo neck shirt
a breeze gently flapping
his slacks, white whiskers
ruffled, wispy hair a mess.
As I speed by
on the far side of the highway,
a puzzled hand goes to his forehead
and he takes an awkward step.
Have A Nice Day
Driving to the shopping centre,
Bukovski rambling in my ear,
I’m glad to be sober
and anonymous. When I was
young, all hormones and energy,
my poetic was all about
rebellion and getting a fuck.
Today I step from my Toyota, head
full of Buk, and grab a trolley, swearing
at its bent wheels. That’ll help,
my brain pipes up, sarcastic
as ever. The old desire
to be listened to comes back
and I’m impatient at each counter,
waiting for this, waiting for that.
They employ machines now,
not people. Just key in
your late mother’s hat size
and, voila, the money is out
of your account and into theirs,
Messrs Coles and Woolies. Warmly
I remember Sandy’s décolletage
with the metal in her nose, tongue
and ears. Where is she today?
At the scrap metal yard?
This machine doesn’t rock my world.
It doesn’t have Sandy’s knowing smile,
asking sweetly through banded teeth,
Any fly bys? It’s a drive-by, fly by,
bye-bye whirled. Who’ll enjoy
fly bys on my funeral plan?
Buk’s buggered my mood, but he’s gone
and I’m still here, shopping, so
who’s to complain. The machine
says, Have a nice day with
an American twang and I
kick the trolley straight again.
In memory of Dorothy Porter (1954-2008)
Dear Dorothy – grey clouds are
apt today here in summertime.
Your body is still above ground.
To end novels is one thing: planned,
edited. Not life. My wife is
inside the hospital now where
they are scanning her breasts.
Brings me back to reality, if I
ever left it. Light rain falls. I lean on a railing
and watch the river ripple. In the halls
of academe and in the literary press, they'll speak
of your writing as 'her work,' complete,
reading meaning into its inconclusiveness.
Friends will file away
your ironic smile with your titles.
Rain falls heavier now, hailstones
ping off cars below. My mind shrugs:
questions of mortality are
stale. If we could rewrite
your final pages, we would,
STARDUST MEMORIES, SEPTEMBER 16, 2001
Our dog is a huge mutt combo, Shepherd and Rottie.
with the jaws of a wolf, a manic prance.
Ninety-two pounds of him, he leaps on our bed,
leans to slurp, bares his teeth in a hound-grin,
then chases a cat and barks like an a posthorn.
But in this morning's sunlight he lays playing dead
on the comforter, paws drawn up, wanting the touch of my hands
to rub his stomach, massage his great ribcage, stroke
the side of his face at perfect rest, eyes half-closed.
Here, now, he is quiescent, wants only this peace,
craves my touch, my whisper and kiss on the side of his wolf-face.
And in this moment he passes into me the sweetest of losses,
perfect forgetfulness of what I have lately seen.
He casts from me the unpurgeable sight:
a mobile of Hell hanging in my vision, of a city burning,
daymares of death spinning from the sky.
He is all Present, our Hound of Heaven, time beyond time,
and I hear only his breathing, my own stopped,
and in the background on the jazz station, Torme eternal,
singing "Stardust" that rains down life upon us,
Eternity the feast of Here.
THE HOUSE OF THE SPIRITS
(ON LEARNING SHE IS MOVING FROM THE HOUSE WE LIVED IN)
First me, then our sons, now you.
The first day we were there I left
to buy new knobs for all the bedroom doors–
for Ben, our three-year-old son, immured himself
cackling in his brand-new room, and I, with
the instincts of a housebreaker,
had to use a screwdriver to pick the lock.
Five years beyond that marriage house, memories
still flood the spaces.
They fall like grand pianos in a shipwreck.
Boilers crash into the prow,
harps jangle and steam scalds.
The fall was bottomed long ago. Serene now,
the hulk rests in the silt, destined for the bottom
by its makers’ arrogance.
Fish swim through it, past extinguished chandeliers.
Life continues somehow, at its own depth.
Hawthorne blessed the pure emotion, dreaded a life
where perfect good or evil are in short supply.
Impurity was everywhere, secrets—mine, ours—buckled the walls,
concealed like whiskey bottles in a briefcase,
breakable as locks on bedroom doors.
“I hope,” Ben says, “no one ever lives there again,”
and my mind runs to riot as it always has.
In medieval Europe villages sat emptied by the Plague.
Houses where no one would ever live again
were unprotected from starving dogs and feral cats,
doors swung back and forth while the winds
blew through the empty space.
Ben can dream. I can nightmare.
We will both be disappointed.
I do not believe in curses upon houses.
No Unholy Spirits will penetrate the brickwork.
No Anne Boleyn will wander the downstairs hall
carrying her severed head across the ratty carpet.
You will leave and strangers will live in the house
that was a house of strangers.
The house will look like grade schools we attended,
turned from reality to a place we could not believe
ever contained what happened there.
(Columbus Circle, 1998)
True I swear it: in the middle of New York at rush hour
the strangest of intimacies never gets itself going
because one is insane to offer and the other is too sane for comfort
so all that comes are rationalizations for why it was not a Good Idea.
I am in the Circle, walking north on a winter evening from my job
for my weekly visit to my shrink so I can tell a few truths
a few lies a few things still not sorted out
and then there is this woman, maybe early middle age,
blond hair poking under her winter coat hood,
not at all unpleasant to look at, and she says
in a very demure voice
"Pardon me, would you like to come up to my apartment
and relax for a little while?"
Of course I am shocked like Captain Renault who finds
gambling going on here so I ask her to repeat it
and she does, but of course (of course!) I back away
and say "No, no, sorry, I really can't"
and she nods and I turn and walk away bemused
thinking "What in the hell was that about, I'm no great beauty,
why me," the rationalizations start: Maybe she is an escort
too old for the out-call business anymore, or maybe she trusts me,
I have one of those faces women can trust,
because how could she know I won't go up there and
do a Joseph Kallinger on her uterus,
and how do I know she doesn't have a friend in the house
waiting to steal my wallet and my clothes,
emasculate anything my wife left over,
stick a shank in me and leave me for dead,
and how do I know she isn't a pro in search of an easy mark
and do I have SO LONELY I WOULD BANG A KEYHOLE all over me?
Goddamn bitch how dare you read me so easily?
and by the time I pass Lincoln Stationers my head has taken me
to all those places, inside her, nipples in my mouth,
or her friend's auto-knife held to my throat
gulping with terror
and I wonder why people don't think I'm a risk taker
I am not because strange women not even holding swords
make for a lousy system of love
but I have perhaps turned my back for the hundredth time
on what might have been a gift
Hard to say which it is when you've got my imagination isn't it?