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Ode to Dogs
I am tired of hearing about dogs
used as metaphors for the uncivilized.
Imagine a world in which humans
possessed at least twenty times
as many olfactory receptors,
able to distinguish the tang of cancer
rising musk-like from the bedsheets
next to a smoldering ash tray,
able to detect that one drop of blood
in every five quarts of water,
to know what you did last night
no matter how many times
you soap-scrubbed the evidence.
It does not take savagery
but more love than we can muster
to lick the hand you’ve sniffed,
to love despite the perfume of sins
we wear each day like a halo.
After My Step-Brother Gets Shot and Killed by Cops in Milwaukee
The day after she sees her son
dragged from the street like roadkill,
my step-mother returns to work.
My father tries to stop her,
afraid she might end up serving
the same men they saw on the news,
implacable Confederate statues
finally granted an excuse to open
their holsters – but right now,
she’d rather hear the cash register
than her own heartbeat.
And so for hours, she fills bags
with sandwiches plumed in lettuce
and tiny cauldrons of broth,
black forks with brittle tines,
white napkins that stain so easily,
pausing sometimes to dab her eyes
or silence a buzzing phone.
Strangers ask if she’s all right.
Just something I’m dealing with,
she says, then takes what they give
and returns what they’re owed.
Climate Protesters Throw Soup Over Van Gogh's "Sunflowers"
For hours, I’ve been arguing
with a friend who believes teachers
are on a crusade to make children
use litter boxes when I hear
about sunflowers bathed in soup
to protest the use of fossil fuels.
Last night, I kept picturing
my brother’s gaze before he died,
like he could see the whole
hospital ward melting, wavelengths
collapsing into pinheads
the way time does when you fly
fast enough. I don’t know how
to keep you safe. Turns out
Van Gogh made several paintings
of sunflowers in pale vases,
petals drooping like golden rain,
like he felt he’d missed something.
Sometimes, it’s easy to forget
what the earth makes of our bones,
way down deep in vaults
that never get locked. One day,
there will be no one left to explain
how clay yields yellow ochre
and the hair of wild beasts
can be bristled into brushwork,
how dust can be squeezed into stars.
The Man With Half an Ear Gets His Hair Cut
The blond, plump-faced hairdresser
describes the hickeys she found
on her boyfriend’s neck and chest,
knows they’re not from her,
asks me what I think she should do.
As I try to answer, her hands
tug my skull in different directions
beneath the whirl of razor and
the crisp wet snipping of scissors.
All day, she’s been tattooing
scorn and rage into other people’s
bangs and sideburns, and now,
for fifteen minutes, it’s my turn.
Then she touches my right ear,
the tip where the flesh never formed—
just the blueprinted pipe dream
of my parents’ DNA—asks Does it hurt
when I press here? This is not
the first nor the five hundredth time
I’ve been asked about my missing half-ear:
car accidents, knife fights,
once someone asked if it was true
that my own father shot it off.
But this one is new, I realize, this one
I’ve never been asked before—
not until this spurned hairdresser
distracted and tugging my scalp
like the rip cord of a parachute.
I tell her no, it’s like scar tissue, trust me,
I barely even feel it. She nods. Good.
I was afraid I was hurting you.
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 says,
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 less 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.