A KNIGHT IN CROSS-SECTION
He ends, of course, with armor
like an iron cast of rivets and seams,
the shield hewn from a living tree,
his spear with its phallic handle
and hooked tip, plus the mace
spined on all sides like a stegosaur,
beneath a facemask fixed
with ram horns or a victim’s skull.
Later, undressing after battle,
we see the soft hands of servants
peeling off his stained metal webs,
then his heavy vest of toughened
leather tooled with hungry lions,
softer cloth for padding, finally
some good luck charm hung
like a clapper against the heart--
scrap of maiden gown, stag’s hoof,
perhaps a pouch of homeland soil.
Further still—the downs of hair,
strata of muscle and fat stretched
like greasy paint on a cage of bones,
enclosing what hovers on the soul:
the darkest river, clouds of organs
like angels blocking the light.
PERSEPHONE AND OEDIPUS
Tired of arguing over who wears the sadder fate,
Persephone and Oedipus decide to get drunk.
Oedipus knows this little Irish pub down the street,
a basement place with rusty swords on the wall.
He buys the first round, sips his Johnny Walker Black
and hopes she doesn’t catch his wince. But
Persephone is too busy wondering if her filmy gown
is the wrong attire for this place, her nipples
swaying like figs at the end of the bartender’s stare.
I’m tired of being a metaphor, Oedipus grumbles,
clenching his bruised knuckles around his shotglass.
Persephone nods, spine arched like a scimitar.
He stares at her then asks, Want to do some blow?
She says yes, but only if they go to the ladies’ room.
It’s cleaner in there, she says. Oedipus frowns.
I thought you said you’ve never been here before!
Persephone readjusts her gown. I haven’t, she said,
but everywhere you go, it’s the same damn story.
In our house, not once did we hear
someone say you’re welcome
in answer to thanks. Instead—“it’s all right,”
backhanded reminder of the sacrifice
this or that Dollar Store trinket
cost folks well below the poverty line.
This is a hard habit to break.
“Don’t worry, it’s fine” when you thank me
for helping you move furniture
or coming to your reading,
your wedding, your beloved’s funeral.
“Oh, it’s all right” to students
when they thank me for margin comments,
for letting them turn in assignments
half a semester late. “It’s all right”--
the door held open a few seconds longer
for the jock on crutches,
for the blue-eyed girl breathing
into the straw fixed to her wheelchair.
I want to thank the moon for tilting
in time to highlight the rain
spilling off a parked windshield,
my body for keeping itself free
so far from cancer, diabetes, suicide.
I want to thank my fear of death
for melting whenever a beautiful woman
bends to drink from a fountain.
I want to thank the crows for mating
on any windowsill but mine.
And their answer, rising in chorus
with each day’s rusty sunset:
It’s all right. It’s all right. It’s all right.
The Trouble with Hammers
The trouble with owning hammers
is that you have to store them somewhere,
on pegs or at least in a drawer
or inside an emptied out tackle box,
long after the house is built
and the circus folded like an envelope
on the backs of unfamiliar trucks,
all night from Maine to Hollywood.
I want to go by three names
like child actors and serial killers.
My father kept hammers in a drawer
and once, when he stopped by
but I was out, he nailed a two-by-four
he stole from a construction site
under the sagging cushions of my couch.
I keep my hammers in the closet
but he found them anyway. I would
like to be a hammer, I think,
and swing all day down on the heads
of thin, unsuspecting nails
even though I am not particularly
violent or unmedicated, if that matters.
It’s true, I was never any good
at math ever since that one bronze
star in fifth grade, and I know
you’re not supposed to begin a speech
or say in a poem how nervous
you are, but I think there are more nails
than people, and more hammers
than people, and I am weary of these
constant reminders that nothing
built after the pyramids
seems able to hold together for long--
not just relationships, but other things
like bookshelves, governments,
the new consensus on circumcision.
They say Man’s first tool was a hammer,
which makes sense since I can’t
imagine apes working a protractor,
much like a sextant under the wet stars.
But each time I swing, I can feel
my own head loosen from its shaft
of lacquered bone, and I know
once it flies, it will never be tight again.
Forget the wrestlers with quick-
silver torsos and Spartan shoulders,
the sheen of cornstalks like secrets
wrapped in green evening gowns,
sunsets that forgive our clichés
of spilled oxblood and lavender,
lakes where marijuana grows wild
between farm-towns called Osage
or Sioux City after the lost tribes,
teenagers swimming by moonlight.
Forget the impossible darkness
of freshly plowed soil, the heat
from the blacktop along 218,
fields of turnips and bell peppers
and petunias, each seed pulling
a different memory from the earth.
Forget too the full-breasted farm
girl blinking purple-tinted contacts
while she wipes each watermelon
at the fruit stand—just another one
wishing she were somewhere else.
The Birthdays of Ex-Lovers
How they pinball through the mind
like the combinations of outgrown lockers,
a mishmash of Virgos and Cancers
on whose soft favor we once depended --
useless now like the few syllables
bored in from foreign language classes,
the equations of elementary physics
they swore we must memorize
if we held any hope for future happiness.
But no — the world knuckles along
whether we remember or not,
hauling everyone for whom the heart once
flounced like a broadsided schooner,
for whom we raised mythologies
all sin-sweet, proud as a dead religion.
After the funeral, your hair
and skin baked to ash,
your body brought back in a gray box
with a bag of soot inside,
box and bag on a pedestal by the table,
your brother came to see you.
He asked where you were,
and when I said By the table
he thought I said On the table
and he said Here?
peeking under the lid
of an empty drinking cup,
as though we had gone
to the local Kwik Stop
for gas and fountain drinks
then decided what the hell?
and used a cardboard Pepsi cup
for our mother’s urn.
He actually thought that,
and his eyes got wide
as he stood in the dining room,
staring at that cup
and mother, oh sweet jesus
how I wanted to laugh.
How Thirteen Famous Men Performed Cunnilingus
Badly. Blame deafness,
his inability to hear the gasps
of his audience, to glean
their favored chord and tempo.
But wasn’t he always stuck
in the sonata of his own mind,
his faith in movements
so grandiose, no mere man
could play them?
II. Abraham Lincoln
With his legs hanging
over the edge of an always
too-short bed, trying
to shake off his boots
his hard-won rhythm,
that emancipating stride.
III. Jesse Owens
Note his upright stance--
all that birdbone and sinew--
as he staunchly resists
the usual sprinters’ instinct
to lean one’s face toward
the finish line, impossibly far
though he will cross it,
as always, in record time.
Like she was the goatskin sheet
on which he calligraphed
all he’d learned from taverns,
streets that smelled of lamp oil,
the brass mouths of dockworkers
with nothing else to offer.
If it works, and you’re naked,
it’s anything but plagiarism.
V. Salvador Dalí
When desert-saints kneel
before the floating rose,
when clocks melt
and even Hitler goes quiet
in his chair facing the ocean--
then, my friend, you’re
finally getting somewhere.
VI. Ben Franklin
So well, he didn’t have to
run for president just to have
his name whispered
over paper fans, between
sips from wine stems
and teacups whose steam left
honeydew on the ceiling,
beading off those still
VII. Jesus Christ
And he said:
The kingdom of heaven
is inside you
and all around you.
And she said: Shut up,
and guided him
into a better position
by tugging his uncut hair.
VIII. J.D. Salinger
Like the only safe place
in the whole world
for her—for anyone--
was there: just
behind his front teeth.
IX. Jacques Cousteau
As though his tongue
were a pearl-knife, probing
the briny shipwrecks
of less fortunate sailors,
hoping one last time
to make the headlines.
The way he made swords:
fold air over raw steel,
hammer until the sparks fly.
Fold and repeat. From time to time,
carry what you love
from the furnace mouth
and quench it in cold water.
They will tell you
but a simple mouth
can topple empires.
You only need to know,
like your own breath,
the shape and glide
of every letter.
Know, too, the lilts
that primordial yoga
of movement and repose.
Be patient, my son.
XII. Sigmund Freud
Martha, it could be
that my tongue
is the equivalent of a flaccid
spoon with which I am
trying to tunnel my way
back into that un-
attainable place of psycho-
If so, Martha,
I couldn’t care less.
XIII. The Buddha
Her left thigh to his
right cheek. Her right
thigh to his left cheek.
Your legs are roads,
he said. She asked
which he meant to follow.
The middle path, he said,
and began to hum.
La Petite Credo
That we are sustained by so simple an act as breathing.
That compared to the thumb and forefinger, the key seems pitifully small, no matter how perfectly its teeth move the lock.
That the molecules separating us are almost entirely empty space.
That my bones will outlive the mayfly but the trees on the mountain will outlive us both.
That the boy palming a basketball can live long and well without Shakespeare, Ovid, or Homer.
That all the birds Adam named could be renamed without one change in plumage.
That most lovely of all are the mourners at dusk.
That there are engagement rings in drains, bullets in drywall, willow seeds beneath the concrete.
That the sunlight dampening your child’s shoulderblades will always be just eight minutes old.
That the first time you see a moving wheel means just as much as the first time you make love.
That fish see the shadow of our boats and are not impressed.
That what you call the scent of lemon may be to me the riot of blood, the tang of salt. Still, there are lemons.
That during the day, storms will darken the sky but at night, they will brighten it.
That every invention was born from a yearning for something that did not yet exist.
That divorce, too, is beautiful.
That tomorrow, somewhere in a crowded city, an umbrella will open with a sound like a billowing sail.
Poetry refers to something you have not done--
in this case, a kind of primal square dance
for which at least one partner is required.
Poetry is just something you’re born with,
the loss of which is a big deal in most cultures
predating the Suffragettes, when girls
were prodded before their wedding nights
to make sure they were still full of poetry,
whole anthologies clamoring to get out.
The word for poetry derives from the Latin
for maiden, meaning someone with their hymen
intact, the implication being that the loss
of poetry will leave you forever broken,
though obviously for our species to continue
many of us will have to sacrifice our verse.
Long ago, poets were closer to the gods
and wore fine robes and drank wine all day.
There are also stories of poets being sacrificed
to spare their village from dragons or drought,
like they could perform a kind of miracle
just by existing—then, not. When I was a kid,
nuns assured me that the Poet Mary never once
became prose though in statues she’s always
smiling, like she knows something we don’t.
Poetry keeps wine and milk from spoiling
and has prevented countless deaths
since its invention in 1892. It works
by heating substances to just a bit
below the boiling point—not enough
to curdle but still hot enough to kill off
most of the bacteria that can hurt you.
Some health nuts blame poetry for disease,
saying a natural vocabulary is better,
though modern doctors disagree.
Other foods saved by poetry include juice,
syrup, vinegar, and canned foods.
Poetry was invented by Louis Pasteur
who lost three children to typhoid.
While working on a vaccine for rabies,
he once impressed onlookers
by extracting saliva from a crazed dog
without armoring his hands.
He also made a vaccine for anthrax
though some accuse him of plagiarism.
The poetry process involves lots
of pipes and vats and rapid cooling.
Poetry doesn’t seem all that complicated
to us, more like common sense,
but our ancestors didn’t have it
which is why so many of them died,
young and beautiful and always afraid.
Poetry is known for opposing mainstream opinions,
especially those routinely taught in classrooms.
Poetry has a personal objection to pornography,
not to mention condoms—things that get in the way.
Its name has been used as a euphemism, a punchline,
though rarely in a flattering or non-satirical light.
Poetry believes in the sanctity of the Vatican--
that is, it believes in something that doesn’t exist.
Most voters agree that Poetry needs medication
but argue over the best form of experimental therapy.
In regards to energy production, Poetry espouses
a simple platform: drill now, drill everywhere.
Poetry boasts a minority of vocal supporters,
hard-liners in a war fought entirely in their minds.
Though many have predicted Poetry’s decline,
it seems to thrive off panic and economic strife.
It has also been criticized for the way it grieves:
the swaddled stillborn driven home before burial,
its tearful caressing of what you and I would
simply dress, box up, and quarantine underfoot.