• A FABLE

    The boy and the father walked beside the donkey.
    The road was gray, and dust rose to its vanishing point;
    gray dust choked the leaves of the few
    asthmatic cottonwoods along the dry creekbeds.
    The sky was hot to the touch.
    "Why not ride the donkey, as it's so hot?"
    passers-by on the road suggested.
    The boy and the father whispered to each other.
    (They were more like brothers
    than they were like son and father.)
    The father got up on the donkey.
    Other passers-by, or maybe the same ones
    doubling back—the only leisure-time activity
    in that part of the world involved
    walking up and down the dusty road—
    said, "Selfish, selfish old man! Think of your boy,
    whose legs can't bear the insult
    of this road, let alone the heat's."
    They went on a ways the way they were,
    because they didn't want what scrutinized them
    with such detachment to think they were slaves
    to public opinion. Then they traded places.
    A mile later, an old woman on a porch, rocking
    and shading her eyes from a sun that seemed
    not to dwindle but instead hammered
    the sky to a thinness irreconcilable
    with the laws of nature, shouted out,
    "Worthless! Letting your old father walk!"
    So the father climbed up behind the boy,
    and they both rode the donkey.
    This incited an animal lover,
    wearing a hat like the ones you see
    in the woodblock prints of the Japanese,
    to screaming flights of invective
    for burdening the donkey with two bodies. So,
    abashed, they got down, and they carried the donkey.
    The donkey howled and evacuated in terror,
    but they carried him anyway, over the undulating road
    and across the boulder-studded arroyos.
    They came to a town and lived there for a while,
    and then moved to a larger town, and then
    to the fabled city, suspended
    on a plain between two mountain ranges.
    They lived in a room in a house in a suburb
    known for its featurelessness,
    the two of them, with the donkey.
    The father couldn't work anymore—
    the business with the donkey had broken him forever—
    so the son went out alone in the world.
    He was the one who buried the donkey,
    in the dead of night, when no one was looking.
    Later, he buried his father, too,
    but this time in daylight, in a decent graveyard.
    He didn't care about his place in the world,
    but he married a woman who did, and had children
    and prospered, in a manner of speaking.
    The tally of the generations begins with him
    and extends down the centuries
    and across the hemispheres
    and numbers C.P.A.s and bookies,
    coopers and wheelwrights,
    neurologists, embezzlers, claims adjusters,
    and linemen for the county.
    And, though diverse and ignorant
    of one another, though pressed like grapes
    through the bewildering human genotypes,
    each of them has this one thing in common—
    each knows, obscurely, unconsciously,
    without knowing how he knows, that
    only the complicated, ambiguous victories
    are worth having, those that take place
    under the sun, above
    the boulder-studded arroyo,
    with the dust, grayer than bone, rising on the road.... more »

  • Bright Copper Kettles

    Dead friends coming back to life, dead family,
    speaking languages living and dead, their minds retentive,
    their five senses intact, their footprints like a butterfly's,
    mercy shining from their comprehensive faces—... more »

  • Bright Copper Kettles

    Dead friends coming back to life, dead family,
    speaking languages living and dead, their minds retentive,
    their five senses intact, their footprints like a butterfly's,
    mercy shining from their comprehensive faces—
    this is one of my favorite things.
    I like it so much I sleep all the time.
    Moon by day and sun by night find me dispersed
    deep in the dreams where they appear.
    In fields of goldenrod, in the city of five pyramids,
    before the empress with the melting face, under
    the towering plane tree, they just show up.
    "It's all right," they seem to say. "It always was."
    They are diffident and polite.
    (Who knew the dead were so polite?)
    They don't want to scare me; their heads don't spin like weather vanes.
    They don't want to steal my body
    and possess the earth and wreak vengeance.
    They're dead, you understand, they don't exist. And, besides,
    why would they care? They're subatomic, horizontal. Think about it.
    One of them shyly offers me a pencil.
    The eyes under the eyelids dart faster and faster.
    Through the intercom of the house where for so long there was no music,
    the right Reverend Al Green is singing,
    "I could never see tomorrow.
    I was never told about the sorrow."... more »

  • Enlightenment

    "It's all empty, empty,"
    he said to himself.
    "The sex and drugs. The violence, especially."
    So he went down into the world to exercise his virtue,

    thinking maybe that would help.
    He taught a little kid to build a kite.
    He found a cure,
    and then he found a cure

    for his cure.
    He gave a woman at the mercy of the weather
    his umbrella, even though
    icy rain fell and he had pneumonia.
    He settled a revolution in Spain.

    Nothing worked.
    The world happens, the world changes,
    the world, it is written here,
    in the next line,
    is only its own membrane—

    and, oh yes, your compassionate nature,
    your compassion for our kind.... more »

  • Imaginary Number

    The mountain that remains when the universe is destroyed
    is not big and is not small.
    Big and small are

    comparative categories, and to what
    could the mountain that remains when the universe is destroyed
    be compared?

    Consciousness observes and is appeased.
    The soul scrambles across the screes.
    The soul,

    like the square root of minus 1,
    is an impossibility that has its uses.... more »

  • Imaginary Number

    The mountain that remains when the universe is destroyed
    is not big and is not small.
    Big and small are... more »

  • Life of Savage

    I've been excited about him as an individual.
    I've met him as a person, emerging from his own shadow.
    Indeed it is remarkable.
    Indeed it is to be remarked of my friend Savage that... more »

  • Life of Savage

    I've been excited about him as an individual.
    I've met him as a person, emerging from his own shadow.
    Indeed it is remarkable.
    Indeed it is to be remarked of my friend Savage that
    the desolation of hopes not merely deferred
    but by impracticability brutalized
    little marred his genial spirit.
    How such a one, so circumstanced by parentage—
    the mother crippled by disappointment; the father by rotgut and Percodan—
    as to blight his prospects, and blacken with untimely frost the buds
    of those ambitions justly excited
    by manifest powers, graces, and propensities,
    should nonetheless display
    discrimination not inferior to those we deem wise,
    sympathy judicious and above reproach,
    is cause for a wonder neither cynicism can besmirch nor incredulity subvert.
    In and out of juvie, jacking cars at fifteen,
    snorting lines of Adderall, his nostrils stained blue,
    kicked out, taken back, kicked out,
    busted, paroled, busted again,
    straining to reach the shiny object fallen through the grate,
    tantalizing, just beyond his fingers,
    finding and losing God,
    thinking as he rakes the leaves of the linden tree
    outside the sublet bungalow
    that eating, sleeping, dying are what it's all about,
    nothing else, maybe a few sunsets,
    forget about sex.... more »

  • MADE IN THE TROPICS

    Bobby Culture ("full of roots and culture")
    and Ranking Joe ("Man Make You Widdle
    Pon Your Toe") shift down
    in the gloaming, snap off
    their helmets, kill their engines, park
    one thousand cubic centimeters
    of steeled precision Japanese art.
    Their bands drive up
    in fur-trimmed vans, unload and unwrap
    the hundred-watt speakers, thousand-watt amps,
    mikes and mike stands,
    guitars, cymbals, steel cans,
    at the Blue Room Lawn on Gun Hill Road
    by the Bronx Botanical Gardens.
    The sun over Jersey
    kicks and drops
    into the next of its ready-made slots,
    and, like a dark lotion
    from a pitcher poured, night fills
    the concrete hollows, and the grass
    cools in the projects,
    the glowing lakes contract
    around their artificial islands,
    the gardens breathe
    easier in the dwindling fever
    of today's unbearable summer.
    They say the tropics
    are moving north,
    the skull-cap of ice melting
    from both the pole now pointed
    toward the sun
    and the one pointing away.
    But what they say is hardly heard here,
    where the cooling brickwork
    engine-red Edwardian
    railroad flats empty
    of their tenants, who gather
    in twos and threes, float down
    from the stations,
    and congregate at the Blue Room Lawn
    to celebrate Independence
    Day in Jamaica.
    The bass line fires up.
    From Savanna-La-Mar to Gun Hill Road
    the backwash of reggae spirals
    to its perch, ripples
    and flares its solar wings
    along the upended moving limbs
    as if a chain were passed through every wrist,
    as if a chain were tied from hip to hip.
    The sun does what it does because the earth tilts.... more »

  • Memoir

    Orwell says somewhere that no one ever writes the real story of their life.
    The real story of a life is the story of its humiliations.
    If I wrote that story now—
    radioactive to the end of time—
    people, I swear, your eyes would fall out, you couldn't peel
    the gloves fast enough
    from your hands scorched by the firestorms of that shame.
    Your poor hands. Your poor eyes
    to see me weeping in my room
    or boring the tall blonde to death.
    Once I accused the innocent.
    Once I bowed and prayed to the guilty.
    I still wince at what I once said to the devastated widow.
    And one October afternoon, under a locust tree
    whose blackened pods were falling and making
    illuminating patterns on the pathway,
    I was seized by joy,
    and someone saw me there,
    and that was the worst of all,
    lacerating and unforgettable.... more »

  • Road Trip

    I could complain. I've done it before.
    I could explain. I could say, for instance, that
    I'm sick of being slaughtered in my life's mountain passes,
    covering my own long retreat,
    the rear guard of my own brutal defeat—
    dysentery and frostbite and snipers,
    the mules freezing to death,
    blizzards whipping the famished fires until they expire,
    the pathetic mosquito notes of my horn . . .
    But, instead, for once, I'm keeping quiet, and maybe tomorrow
    or maybe the day after or maybe the day after that
    I'm just going to drive away down the coast
    and not come back.
    I haven't told anyone, and I won't.
    I won't dim with words the radiance of my gesture.
    And besides, the ones who care have guessed already.
    Looking at them looking at me, I know they know
    when they turn their backs I'll go.
    The secrets I was planning to floor them with?
    They're already packed in my trunk, in straw,
    in a reinforced casket.
    The bitter but herbal and medicinal truths I concocted
    to revive them with?
    Tomorrow or the day after or the day after that,
    on the volcano beaches fringed with black sand
    and heaped with tangled beds of kelp,
    by the obsidian tide pools that cradle the ribbed limpet
    and the rockbound star,
    I'll scatter those truths to the sea breezes,
    and float the secrets on the waters that the moon
    reels in and plays out,
    reels in and plays out,
    with a little votive candle burning on their casket,
    and then I'll just be there, in the sunset's coppery sheen,
    in the dawn pearled by discrete, oblong, intimate clouds
    that move without desire or motive.
    Look at the clouds. Look how close they are.... more »

  • Survivor

    We hold it against you that you survived.
    People better than you are dead,
    but you still punch the clock.
    Your body has wizened but has not bled

    its substance out on the killing floor
    or flatlined in intensive care
    or vanished after school
    or stepped off the ledge in despair.

    Of all those you started with,
    only you are still around;
    only you have not been listed with
    the defeated and the drowned.

    So how could you ever win our respect?-
    you, who had the sense to duck,
    you, with your strength almost intact
    and all your good luck.... more »

  • Sequence

    1. HELL

    You'd have to be as crazy as Dante to get those down,
    the infernal hatreds.
    Shoot them. Shoot them where they live
    and then skip town.

    Or stay and re-engineer
    the decrepit social contraption
    to distill the 200-proof
    elixir of fear

    and torture the...the what
    from the what? And didn't I promise,
    under threat of self-intubation,
    not to envision this

    corridor, coal-tar black,
    that narrows down and in
    to a shattering claustrophobia attack
    before opening out

    to the lake of frozen shit
    where the gruesome figure is discerned?
    Turn around, go home.
    Just to look at it is to become it.


    2. PURGATORY, THE FILM

    He was chronically out of work, why we don't know.
    She was the second born of a set
    of estranged identical twins. They met,
    hooked up, and moved in with her mother,
    who managed a motel on Skyline Drive.
    But always it was the other,
    the firstborn, the bad twin, the runaway,
    he imagined in the shadow
    of the "Vacancy" sign
    or watching through the window
    below the dripping eaves
    while they made love or slept.
    The body is relaxed and at rest,
    the mind is relaxed in its nest,
    so the self that is and is not
    itself rises and leaves
    to peek over the horizon, where it sees
    all its psychokinetic possibilities
    resolving into shapely fictions.
    She was brave, nurturing, kind.
    She was evil. She was out of her mind.
    She was a junkie trading sex for a fix,
    a chief executive, an aviatrix.
    She was an angel
    to the blinded and the lamed,
    the less-than-upright, the infra dig.
    And she was even a failure.
    She went to L.A. to make it big
    and crept back home injured and ashamed.


    3. PURGATORY, THE SEQUEL

    They put him in jail, why we don't know.
    They stamped him "Postponed."
    But he didn't mind.
    The screws were almost kind.
    He had leisure to get his muscles toned,

    mental space to regret his crimes,
    and when he wasn't fabricating license plates
    he was free
    to remember the beauty
    that not once but a thousand times

    escaped him forever, and escapes me, too:
    ghosts of a mist drifting
    across the face of the stars,
    Jupiter triangulating
    with the crescent moon and Mars,
    prismatic fracturings in a drop of dew...


    4. HEAVEN

    There's drought on the mountain.
    Wildfires scour the hills.
    So the mammal crawls down the desiccated rills
    searching for the fountain,

    which it finds, believe it or not,
    or sort of finds. A thin silver sliver
    rises from an underground river
    and makes a few of the hot

    rocks steam and the pebbles hiss.
    Soon the mammal will drink,
    but it has first
    to stop and think
    its reflexive, impeccable thought:
    that thinking comes down to this—
    mystery, longing, thirst.... more »

  • Sequence

    1. HELL

    You'd have to be as crazy as Dante to get those down,
    the infernal hatreds.
    Shoot them. Shoot them where they live... more »

  • The Descent of Man

    My failure to evolve has been causing me a lot of grief lately.
    I can't walk on my knuckles through the acres of shattered glass in the streets.
    I get lost in the arcades. My feet stink at the soirees.
    The hills have been bulldozed from whence cameth my help.
    The halfway houses where I met my kind dreaming of flickering lights in the woods
    are shuttered I don't know why.
    "Try,' say the good people who bring me my food,
    "to make your secret anguish your secret weapon.
    Otherwise, your immortality will be
    an exhibit in a vitrine at the local museum, a picture in a book."
    But I can't get the hang of it. The heavy instructions fall from my hands.
    It takes so long for the human to become a human!
    He affrights civilizations with his cry. At his approach,
    the mountains retreat. A great wind crashes the garden party.
    Manipulate singly neither his consummation nor his despair
    but the two together like curettes
    and peel back the pitch-black integuments
    to discover the penciled-in figure on the painted-over mural of time,
    sitting on the sketch of a boulder below
    his aching sunrise, his moody, disappointed sunset.... more »

  • Three Persons

    That slow person you left behind when, finally,
    you mastered the world, and scaled the heights you now command,
    where is he while you
    walk around the shaved lawn in your plus fours,... more »

  • Three Persons

    That slow person you left behind when, finally,
    you mastered the world, and scaled the heights you now command,
    where is he while you
    walk around the shaved lawn in your plus fours,
    organizing with an electric clipboard
    your big push to tomorrow?
    Oh, I've come across him, yes I have, more than once,
    coaxing his battered grocery cart down the freeway meridian.
    Others see in you sundry mythic types distinguished
    not just in themselves but by the stories
    we put them in, with beginnings, ends, surprises:
    the baby Oedipus on the hillside with his broken feet
    or the dog whose barking saves the grandmother
    flailing in the millpond beyond the weir,
    dragged down by her woolen skirt.
    He doesn't see you as a story, though.
    He feels you as his atmosphere. When your sun shines,
    he chortles. When your barometric pressure drops
    and the thunderheads gather,
    he huddles under the overpass and writes me long letters with
    the stubby little pencils he steals from the public library.
    He asks me to look out for you.... more »

  • Thunderstruck

    The house collapsed and I was crushed under the rubble,
    pulverized, but here I am,
    walking around as if I were alive — 

    the swain,
    with an oxeye daisy in my buttonhole,
    the bitter voluptuary, never satisfied,
    the three-legged dog,
    the giant under the tiny parasol at
    the Fontaine-de-Vaucluse,
    the only Abyssinian in the choir of the
    Abyssinian Baptist Church.

    (Somebody must have done a self-portrait of me.)

    Just amazing. I think I could wrap my arms all the way around
    the 24,901-miles-circumferenced Earth.... more »

  • The Long Meadow

    Near the end of one of the old poems, the son of righteousness,
    the source of virtue and civility,
    on whose back the kingdom is carried
    as on the back of the tortoise the earth is carried,
    passes into the next world.
    The wood is dark. The wood is dark,
    and on the other side of the wood the sea is shallow, warm, endless.
    In and around it, there is no threat of life—
    so little is the atmosphere charged with possibility that
    he might as well be wading through a flooded basement.
    He wades for what seems like forever,
    and never stops to rest in the shade of the metal raintrees
    springing out of the water at fixed intervals.
    Time, though endless, is also short,
    so he wades on, until he walks out of the sea and into the mountains,
    where he burns on the windward slopes and freezes in the valleys.
    After unendurable struggles,
    he finally arrives at the celestial realm.
    The god waits there for him. The god invites him to enter.
    But looking through the glowing portal,
    he sees on that happy plain not those he thinks wait eagerly for him—
    his beloved, his brothers, his companions in war and exile,
    all long since dead and gone—
    but, sitting pretty and enjoying the gorgeous sunset,
    his cousin and bitter enemy, the cause of that war, that exile,
    whose arrogance and vicious indolence
    plunged the world into grief.
    The god informs him that, yes, those he loved have been carried down
    the river of fire. Their thirst for justice
    offended the cosmic powers, who are jealous of justice.
    In their place in the celestial realm, called Alaukika in the ancient texts,
    the breaker of faith is now glorified.
    He, at least, acted in keeping with his nature.
    Who has not felt a little of the despair the son of righteousness now feels,
    staring wildly around him?
    The god watches, not without compassion and a certain wonder.
    This is the final illusion,
    the one to which all the others lead.
    He has to pierce through it himself, without divine assistance.
    He will take a long time about it,
    with only his dog to keep him company,
    the mongrel dog, celebrated down the millennia,
    who has waded with him,
    shivered and burned with him,
    and never abandoned him to his loneliness.
    That dog bears a slight resemblance to my dog,
    a skinny, restless, needy, overprotective mutt,
    who was rescued from a crack house by Suzanne.
    On weekends, and when I can shake free during the week,
    I take her to the Long Meadow, in Prospect Park, where dogs
    are allowed off the leash in the early morning.
    She's gray-muzzled and old now, but you can't tell that by the way she runs.... more »

  • THE REAPPEARED

    Long after we stopped remembering, word of him
    drifts back from the coast
    to let us know he's still hanging on

    in someone else's place and time,
    living in a shed in their ivy-choked gardens -
    his head shaved, his altered face,

    the skin in patches under his eyes.
    Supposedly though he's still tender and wise;
    and having found out it's the same there as here -

    the heat breaking out of its sack,
    the stars wobbling on their black thrones -
    he's made up his mind to never come back.

    It's all the same; and on its verge
    the borderless ocean scrawls and scrawls
    reiterations which repeat

    that it's all the same,
    and he can fall into it and never change -
    resurface, and simply swim away.... more »

  • Trailing Clouds of Glory

    Even though I'm an immigrant,
    the angel with the flaming sword seems fine with me.
    He unhooks the velvet rope. He ushers me into the club.
    Some activity in the mosh pit, a banquet here, a panhandler there,
    a gray curtain drawn down over the infinitely curving lunette,
    Jupiter in its crescent phase, huge,
    a vista of a waterfall, with a rainbow in the spray,
    a few desultory orgies, a billboard
    of the snub-nosed electric car of the future—
    the inside is exactly the same as the outside,
    down to the m.c. in the yellow spats.
    So why the angel with the flaming sword
    bringing in the sheep and waving away the goats,
    and the men with the binoculars,
    elbows resting on the roll bars of jeeps,
    peering into the desert? There is a border,
    but it is not fixed, it wavers, it shimmies, it rises
    and plunges into the unimaginable seventh dimension
    before erupting in a field of Dakota corn. On the F train
    to Manhattan yesterday, I sat across
    from a family threesome Guatemalan by the look of them—
    delicate and archaic and Mayan—
    and obviously undocumented to the bone.
    They didn't seem anxious. The mother was
    laughing and squabbling with the daughter
    over a knockoff smart phone on which they were playing a
    video game together. The boy, maybe three,
    disdained their ruckus. I recognized the scowl on his face,
    the retrospective, maskless rage of inception.
    He looked just like my son when my son came out of his mother
    after thirty hours of labor—the head squashed,
    the lips swollen, the skin empurpled and hideous
    with blood and afterbirth. Out of the inflamed tunnel
    and into the cold room of harsh sounds.
    He looked right at me with his bleared eyes.
    He had a voice like Richard Burton's.
    He had an impressive command of the major English texts.
    I will do such things, what they are yet I know not,
    but they shall be the terrors of the earth, he said.
    The child, he said, is father of the man.... more »

  • VERY SIMPLE AND LIKE A SONG

    That furrow in the hill once must have been
    a notch in a sheer cliff.
    The land is all changed around here,
    due to the work of wind and water,
    but not so much that we can't think back
    to what it must have been:
    on the plateau beyond what must have been the cliff,
    endless animal herds mollified in the sun,
    kneeling and browsing,
    and the lazy embankments descending to the watercourse
    strewn with a little yellow flower, now extinct,
    which must have resembled the celandine.
    We talk in the presumptive,
    but we know we can declare this much:
    They were afraid,
    so they climbed down the notch to this place,
    more protected by far then than now.
    What were they afraid of? Not
    the animals but the fact of the animals,
    that the animals existed,
    that they themselves existed,
    that everything existed when it might as well not have —
    which was their one and only revelation,
    which they would come back to again and again
    down the hundred and fifty thousand years
    and never get more than an inch farther with it than they were now,
    when all they felt was terror.
    So they climbed down here and hid.
    And, then, they taught themselves to bury their dead.
    They felt the pressure of the nothingness around them,
    and at this place they began the digging of graves,
    with their flaked hand axes.
    One so took to the pressure and the feeling of it
    he would teach himself to manufacture
    surplus dead to feed the graves.
    One female taught herself to whisper.
    They would someday become
    Euripides, Heloise, Saladin,
    Swedenborg, Nell Gywnn, Mencius,
    Gandhi and Mandela,
    the Pankhursts, Captain Beefheart, Dr. Dre,
    and one Terry Butler,
    who shook Joe Turner's hand
    in a bar in Kansas City,
    and shook the hand of Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
    All the while, the fear
    lived right beside them,
    and the sound effects accompanying it were drums drumming,
    so insistent, and so convenient that they
    convinced themselves that everything was fine
    as long as the drums were drumming,
    that only when the drums stopped would they be required to worry.... more »