Selection from THE GARDEN OF THE FUGITIVES (Texas Review Press, 2014)
THE LOST BOYS*
They’d played out the name game,
were sick to death of it.
At loose ends, woozy with too much
of the Good Life, while bittersweet
ran through the orchard,
they kept groping for each other’s hand.
The choreography was off.
Sober, they got to whittling
fast. Adam was crumbling.
And L.G., with his bloated trigger finger,
was losing his touch.
She’d have to be arrowhead-keen,
else she wouldn’t fly.
And she’d have to last—anything’s better than clay.
In no time
she had that garden pruned.
She knew where everything was,
from the freshest litter of panther kits
to the sweetest Muscadines.
Ingenious—a Mother to tuck
them in at night, to tell them stories
beginning to end!
No need for growing up. Not ever.
* * *
Who could blame Eve for getting fed up?
Particularly with that infernal puppet-show
they staged day after day:
Adam, dumb as a post,
the ideal Husband,
wearing out a dog-path,
while L.G., chuckling to himself,
dangled the strings …
They thought they held her spellbound.
Boy, were they blind-sided
when she made use of her long-handled loppers
and Adam fell, a wreck of a man, at her feet,
and L.G., unanchored,
floated higher and higher
like a hot-air balloon
and slipped from sight.
*Reprinted in VERSE DAILY, January 23, 2015
It’s for a good cause, they say,
which is enough for me at seven,
a tomboy aiming for the missionary life,
to endure the pink yank of curlers,
caged thorns of crinoline,
white gloves, ankle socks, martyrdom
for the Jaycees’ seasonal pageant
in the Raines High School Gymnasium.
The air is stale from last night’s game,
the stage gritty beneath mirror-slick Mary Janes
that blister. The grown-ups have sacrificed
my Saturday to this spot-lit night.
My schoolfriends, too public in their mother’s lipstick,
are hollow-eyed as the dead big-bowed girls
in our grandmothers’ musty albums.
I trust that I am feeding starving children.
Teeth set, back straight, for them,
I remember what the others forget:
to curtsy at the edge of the stage
where white-hot footlights put out our eyes.
I pray to be passed over.
Not me, Lord.
But I am plucked: The Adorable One,
Littlest Christmas Angel.
All eyes follow as a sweating man
takes my cotton hand and draws me center stage
for a kiss and a twenty-dollar savings bond.
Polite applause. I freeze.
Smile, he whispers. Come on, Sweetheart, smile.
He shoves the crown down, killing my curls—
tin foil crinkled over cardboard.
It scratches like thorns. And stays put.
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
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,
DAUGHTER, 14, WITH SCISSORS
She still can’t use scissors.
She sits on the edge of her bed,
holds out her wrist, blood-beaded,
a bungled bracelet. I wish I was dead—
a whisper. Like Andersen’s mermaid,
she’s bartered away her voice.
Outside in the dusk,
a bedlam of children’s noisemakers—
the tide of cicadas in summer’s trees.
She can’t cut.
While she sang from her heart
to Disney’s Little Mermaid,
the canary yellow pair for lefties
mauled paper between serrated teeth.
Wandering free, wish I could be …
To spring her from K5,
I sheared 26 pictures from old magazines:
“A—aqueduct” through “Z—zinnia.”
She can’t cut straight.
I caught her at 10,
remaking a dress and belting
with Britney: Hit me baby one more time.
She stabbed the hemline.
At her feet, two ragged arms,
a ripped turtleneck.
Right then I should have scoured
the house for sharp objects.
I curl over her
as though to reclaim her with my body,
reconnect our pulses.
She’s part of that world of Grimm,
whose spindle will have its way,
the princess seduced to a sleeping wheel.
How to play? She’s all thumbs.
Her mouth opens.
The song spins to dust on her lips.
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.
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.
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.