I’m wading through a clearing,
knee-deep in khaki weeds and
coreopsis so yellow my eyes burn.
Over the pines a pair of buzzards
sharpen the groove
of their same circle.
find my sweaty tangles
trickish as a web.
I kick the head off the blister
of a fire ant mound to open
tunnels like cigarette burns
veining through cemented red clay.
Ants pour out like lava.
I make believe you never
gave in and quit smoking;
and I never began this insect-change,
wormholing into midlife.
I conjure a dim cellar, close dive,
where beneath lazy
ceiling fans, in the haze
of circling smoke, I don’t
have to share you.
From low clouds,
the sun’s searchlight
sweeps off westward.
Summer’s on the rise.
Ride with it.
THE HORSE THAT WAS STRUCK BY LIGHTNING
The rain was a thousand spurs.
But I was a standing stone in the field.
I know the story of the body,
eyes like fishbowls,
yellowfilmed and flycrawling,
fixed in that wild side-stare of his.
(Freak accident, no one to blame.)
I know about the tractor and the chains,
the four locked hoofs. No choice
but to drag him clear of the pines.
The bonfires. Now there’s a story.
You had to burn him three times over
to get down to bones.
* * *
After weeks, my friend,
you bring me to this sun-scorched field
with its riffling wind.
You ford the secret network
of fire ants
to find “what’s left of Bay.”
Your curiosity is clinical,
a physician’s or a cold-eyed child’s.
You take for granted my following.
I’ve known museums
where glass fields the leathered heads
of bog-horses, Neolithic jawbones.
But here I’m out of my element.
This sun goes straight to my head.
Your guilt is like onion in the grass.
It oils you like good grooming.
Unmoved in the shade of your wide-brimmed hat
you scuff your steel toe
at this boy’s fort of charred logs,
the segments of spine clean enough
to belong to anything—
dog, pig, person.
Your boot scatters dried grass and dirt
over the pods of bone.
I can’t keep my hands away.
In the buried heat of ashes
a shifting, a reviving.
I see the bloom, the luminous worm.
Struck, I turn into stone.
Hard drinking at the camp house.
Come dusk, we nudge each other
to the pond’s edge
where up from the muddy bottom
the ruddy moon, a bloated pig,
breaks the choppy surface of the pines.
Netted by mosquitoes,
half-drowned in Cabernet,
we witness the slow bloodletting.
The moon, diminished,
pale as a communion wafer,
Our far-gathering shadow,
swallows it slowly
HURRICANE: THE BRAC
The hurricane of ’32
laid bare the bones of this ironshore,
a Paleozoic mudpie of coral and mollusk
that shreds your best Nikes
yet preserves a kaleidoscope of flip-flops
borne over—they say—from Jamaica
on bottlegreen waves that sing all day.
Emerald parrots squawk from the sea-grape.
They say a magnetic band
stretches through these islands.
It holds sunset for hours—
wave upon wave of salmon and apricot.
* * *
A find—this grove of coconut palms,
white curl of sand, bleached conchs,
and one salt-rusted truck.
Two young women, coffee-dark,
lock arms around a grandmother
with dragging legs.
They sit her upright in the lip of the sea,
a doll they have to share.
They splash, singing like girls at her feet.
She includes them—no more, no less—
in the sweep of her eyes.
Old one, I’ve heard stories.
Your soles, in the tease of froth,
might wear a fabric of scars
from your climb to the bluff’s caves
across prickly pear and rock
sharp as the teeth of barracuda. …
Did, that night, the sea-become-sky
scythe clean from your arms
the one thing you carried?
The backs of my own legs grow heavy on wet sand.
The water—a good ruffled petticoat
ripped and ruined.
I see through clouds of cataracts
a hurricane of color in the sky. …
follow with the old one the waves,
the flood of magenta
that ebbs at a salt-scorched sea-grape,
child like a rag doll
snagged by a low branch.
FEEDING WITH THE WHALE SHARKS
“You touch, and they dive to the bottom.
The skin feels like this.”
Mario slaps the nonslip gunwale. “Sandpaper.
Now you know, you don’t need to touch.”
No problem, I think, then plunge,
miles from the Yucatan and its ruined cities,
into a blue sea hazed green with a sort of orange puree.
Ghostlike the sharks (the size of the flimsy boat)
emerge, then ghostlike vanish.
Dominoes, the locals call them.
Submarines, maybe, in domino-camo. …
It’s harder than I thought, maintaining distance.
One swims towards me, veers past,
remoras clinging to snout, fin, belly.
Its spots spell out a name, a story.
I kick hard to catch up, my hands reach;
I’m driven to read.
The fish, Buick-grille mouth inhaling plankton,
the fish goes about its business.
Perhaps they hungered as I do,
the ancient ones of Chauvet, Lascaux, Altamira,
when, submerged in the otherworld of caves,
they felt pulled toward the impossible skin of the stone.
Palms flat, palpating the wall’s membrane
for shoulder of bison,
horn of ibex, haunch of cave bear,
they knew what I am only now learning—
the one language, a language of signs,
to tell by hand of this longing.
It took charcoal and hand-bloodying ochre
to midwife deer and mammoth, horse and lion.
And the rock remembered. …
Our species—no sooner birthed than left to ourselves,
to our own imaginations.
The fish in my dreams keeps the shape of my hands.
Palms working across gill slits,
down the vast ridged arc of the whale shark’s flank,
I feed myself the gritty Braille of the spots.
I sucker on; we circumnavigate the world.
I read to fathom that unbroken life.
Men drowning dream of flight.
Their bones thin into stems of cattails,
their arms leaf out. Beneath the swamp
water’s skin of sky, believing
in the rising of their changed bodies,
they mistake for storm-stripped crowns
the labyrinth of roots. At rest
within the bottomland forests they felled,
they grieve us back into the world.
From the stumps of the Tensas, an uprush—
a dream? Beneath the oar
beat of my wings,
a child, sprawled on a mud flat,
its eyes reflecting my yellow eyes …
a dog, its leathered carcass hung
by floodwaters in a scrub oak. North,
towards the smell of swamp decay
and the sharp sweet lily, the rumor of a mate,
I turn the sky aside,
row to this diminished wood.
No red wolf’s song, no panther’s rip.
Only the rumor—they speak it, the living men
who disguise themselves as trees
and whisper in tree-tongue.
Like the cypresses, they stalk the river.
From them, I have learned to be sly.
Quieter now, I tear into rot-soft Tupelo
and rake the crawling meat.
My shadow falls over water ash
and buttonbush, swamp rose
and lizard’s tail, heron and hawk,
the banded water snake,
swarms of frogs small as horseflies,
and men dreaming that I am God.
The rumor of a mate carries me.
The blades of my wings
feather the sky, fan out the sun.
What stopped us en route
to Moesgaard Museum’s
Amazing Bog Man
was unspectacular—an unearthed grave:
the skeleton of a dog
whose human had taken pains
to fix its limbs as if it slept mid-chase.
The bones were Stone Age bones
from a dolmen that crouched in sea-fog
overlooking Aarhus Bay.
A good dog—surely guard or guide—
to be honored by ceremony.
Grauballe Man was a length of twisted jerky
that took our appetite.
A shock, the tannin-hennaed hair,
blood poured into the gullet
of some thirsty god
biding its time in that soggy underworld …
“I miss Hector,” our daughter said
of our Lab, back in the States.
* * *
After ten years I’d forgotten
that skeleton already ancient
when Iron Age Grauballe began his curing—
until, still unbalanced from the fall
of New York’s towers, I watched on TV
teams searching for anything human.
I focused on the dogs
stumbling atop the debris,
mouthing what we have no stomach for.
On our walks—Hector’s and mine—
now gunmetal evenings
smother too early the sun,
I recall survivors’ accounts of tidal waves—
of looking up bewildered, mistaking
for a dark arcing cloud
the scythe that was the sea.
I sometimes stop on these walks,
bend my head to his
and whisper for no good reason
“Good dog.” And his breath
is a warm and fishy fog.
Nights, he lays his head
like a twitching brick on our feet,
Their time near, Delta women with no use
for doctors know to gather dauber nests
for a silty tea to ease their child
into this world. To heal the navel,
a poultice, rust-brown, like raw clay,
that dries brittle—
a shard some keep and treasure.
Summer’s end, my daughter leaves home.
As in the weeks before her birth, I clean
everything in sight—even the porch screens
of our century-old house. Unhinged,
hauled outdoors for their first scrub-down
in years, they reveal, clotting the channels
that anchor our floor-to-ceiling louvers,
clumped fingers of mud dauber nests.
I hack at them with a screwdriver.
I never saw the wasps at work,
welding their nests into these grooves,
toting stunned spiders
to cradleboards where larvae hatched and fed.
On hands and knees, I sweep
catacombs crumbling with leggy remains—
wasp or prey?
The nest-dust salts my eyes,
grits my tongue.
that’s what it’s like to be
now she’s 18.
In this no-gravity
my bones are bird-bones.
I see the strangest thing.
An inch, half-inch,
before surface, my hands,
out-reaching, mirror themselves.
Each arm sprouts a twin.
And for a split-second
I’m Alice grazing
her looking-glass self.
Breaking through quicksilver,
I choke on air as she did
when slickly born.
I turn—just glimpse her,
I flutter at the glass.
But the mirror heals,
ANTS IN AUGUST
On my brick patio
in the middle of morning
a cockroach, lacquered, buzzard-black,
hops on its back like
water flicked on a red-hot griddle,
a Holy Roller in a fit of ecstasy.
I find it dead—well,
dead enough. (One wing’s askew.)
And rivers of ants
tiny as dirt are teasing it apart.
What a frenzy over this Gulliver!
What a tug-of-war over relics!
My bricks picked clean—
if not for the imperceptible tremors
of zealots gone underground
to feed in dark earth
their fat blind queen.
HAWKS AND JAYS (1)
Late August downpours
leave bad luck, streets
of shattered mirrors.
Broken asphalt reflects
the edgy shut-down of summer:
clouds on the skids,
the moss-slick underlimbs of oaks,
a stream of birds (a Chinese Dragon Kite),
the moon a pallid dewclaw,
and one hawk shearing the sky’s stale blue—
the same hawk maybe that sat itself
in our backyard’s Bradford Pear,
full-flowering in May,
and gutted that fat blue jay,
working its talons like crochet hooks.
HAWKS AND JAYS (2)
Still, heat grips.
Wave after wave, a fall of city rain—
our neighbor’s sprinkler.
The hawks won’t leave the neighborhood—
the pair that sobbed summer-long
for prey, white throats,
white underwings, slashing
the drought-stricken, strictly blue sky.
Who-we? He-you. Jays chased
the rising, falling, funereal vibrato.
birdbath water stagnant overnight,
azaleas and twelve-foot viburnums
boiled by whiteflies down to sticks.
snipped the snaking jasmine.
Its sticky milk bled out.
All summer I pictured talons
clamped around panting half-feathered
chicks, their small sharp beaks
unhinged as though for feeding.
Behind our parents’ redbrick rancher
where they will live forever,
my brother and I skirt the tree-fringed field
where we as children flew kites.
November sun tilts towards evening,
kindles the chinaberry trees and rolled hay bales,
deepens deer tracks and the churned dirt
of wild hogs rooting.
Steve points through pines to a weed-choked rise,
cemetery abandoned two centuries back,
markers long rotted.
He’s into green; he wants to feed the earth.
I comb the sky for buzzards,
spot three, narrowing their orbit.
“A good day to die.”
For me, smoke signals, a scattering,
here in our many footprints.
Photograph of a Young Soldier, WWI
They’ve inverted a soup bowl on his head.
They’ve bibbed him
for his protection
with his very own gas-mask-in-a-bag.
The square sack hangs crooked
and swollen on his chest.
On his face, a slapped-dumb look.
His country is asking this?
Lungs still good, still fresh
off the farm,
he labors to breathe
the frigid air of France,
a stale crust.
Tinned horsemeat to chew—
not what he’s used to.
He is ending all wars.
Well, all right.
In the ashen print
my grandfather’s blue eyes
wear coins of white light;
his fingernails glow.
Now, years after his early death
(pneumonia in mustard-burnt lungs),
the gas mask hangs
like a chrysalis
or the mask of an alien
from an early horror film
in my paneled den.
THE GARDEN OF THE FUGITIVES
They never reached the Nuceria Gate.
Last prayers sputtered out here,
with this mime show, shapes blind as grubs
inside a glass mausoleum.
Doomed to try not to die, the Ash People
hold out for ruah, a magic kiss, resurrection.
Why not? Living things are drawn to them.
A snail follows the arc of a small child’s skull.
A lizard stalks a mother’s back.
Birdlime streaks the arm of a man
who never stopped pulling himself to his feet.
I breathe into the glass.
Nearby a vineyard: the whining of bees
reminds me of home.
Eight hours I’ve wandered this ghost town.
The dust of the dead plasters
my sweat to my skin.
Where are they?
A last-minute tourist is out of breath.
I nod. He aims his Pentax.
Poor souls, we are no saviors.
At the horizon, a bruise-purple lump:
Or the sighing of dust in the vines? …
Summers in Louisiana,
cicadas sing themselves out of body,
slit their own backs, escape with wings of glass.
Come morning, brown shells, common curiosities,
cling to cannas, tree trunks, blades of liriope.
Like Hansel’s crumbs they litter the sidewalk—
as if there were a prayer for a way home.