Saturday, July 10, 2004


--It's from your mother-- she says, handing him the oddly shaped brown parcel. Wrapped around with twine, the upper right hand corner is awash in brightly colored stamps. Part of the return address is covered with stamps as well. He rolls his eyes; they share a grin.

The morning after the first time they'd slept together, he'd told her about his mother.

--She's crazy, you know?-- He moved his forefinger in a circle against his right temple. --No, I mean it, really nuts! -- but he'd grinned as he said this and they never discussed it further.

Six months later, she's moved in with him, notices the packages that come irregularly for him, always covered in stamps as if his mother had never learned to use a post office. The woman leaves the parcels on his desk; soon, they disappear. No discussions.

This time a package has arrived on a Saturday, unusual, as they are both home.

Curiosity has finally gotten the best of her.

-- What does she send you? --

-- Junk. Just crazy stuff, see? -- He hands her the open box and she pulls out the contents. A can opener. A Christmas tree ornament made of brass and shaped like a horn. She laughs when he puts it to his mouth and blows; no sound emerges. There is a pair of child's socks, red. A Swiss milk chocolate bar. She wrinkles her nose. --I hate milk chocolate! -- A cheap fountain pen without a nib. A tattered pamphlet - Socialism and Your Health: What Are Your Rights? The copyright is 1947. Photocopies of completed tax forms for 1976 and 1977. As far as they can tell, they are not his mother's tax forms. A wind-up oven timer. They take turns setting off the bell, giggling. Reach for more.

A bag of red, green and blue balloons. A small flag. --French?-- she asks. He frowns, squints, turns it upside down, then sideways. --Mmmm, Dutch. Maybe.-- Tosses it aside. A fold-out map of the United Arab Emirates. They glance at one another, perplexed. A dusty red net sack of old Hannukah gelt. --More milk chocolate.-- she mutters.

There is an orange and black butterfly - dead - encased in a tiny glass jar that says Gerber in raised letters. He shakes it, sets it down.

A stained and colorful waxed paper wrapper. --Imbiss? What's Imbiss?-- she asks, reading the wrapper. --Like a hot dog stand. In Germany. -- he shrugs.

A heavy red ball, smooth, and larger than a baseball. He tosses it to the woman; they play catch for a moment.

--Bocce ball. Kinda like bowling, I think.--

--She plays bocce ball?--

--No, she just has bocce balls. And now, so do we.--

At the bottom of the box a letter and photograph. The photo is of the man as a child; five or six years old, wearing white shorts. He is sitting on the end of a dock. The water is unusually blue, his skin brown. An orange glare fills the top left of the Polaroid as if the camera were facing into the sun when the picture was taken. It's slightly overexposed. The boy's near-black curls are tinged with red, his right arm encased in plaster from wrist to shoulder, and he is scowling.

--That you?-- she asks. He nods without taking his eyes off the photograph. She realizes she has never seen a photo of him as a child, and wonders why.

--How'd you break your arm?-- She persists.

-- I don't remember.--

--Oh, come on. Look at the size of that cast!--

--No, really, I probably fell or something. I was a klutzy kid. --

He tears open the letter. Huge block letters slanting extremely to the left, double-spaced in blue ink.


The woman stands on tiptoe, her delicate hands balanced on his shoulders so she can see better.


He turns to her finally, his brown eyes strangely distant. Then, after a moment, a broad grin breaks over his face. He crumples the letter in one large hand, with the other reaches for her, kisses her.

--I told you she was crazy.-- he whispers into her neck.

--And you need a shave.--

In the shadows of their bedroom he is more passionate than usual, almost angry, and the low animal groan that accompanies his climax is anguished. The woman tastes salt and realizes with a start that he is crying. She reaches for him, cradles his damp head in her pale arms, murmurs in his ear, shushing him like a lost child.

(April 1997)

Monday, July 05, 2004

Questions for a Man Who Butchered His Family (for Ramon Salcedo)

What did you say to your daughter, Ramon,
when her mother
bled on your hands?
When her sisters
were ripped apart,
left red and untidy
among hamburger wrappers and
Tecate cans in the trash?

What did you say to your daughter, Ramon,
when your blade
opened her throat?
When she choked "Papa!"
while her childhood seeped
and rust-colored
over her blue jeans,
her sneakers,
and across the six o'clock news?

What will you say to your daughter, Ramon,
to Carmenina, who did not die?

(February 1990)

Memory Fragment: Scotland

Do you remember on the bus, you said
you'd seen swans on the beach
between Mallaig and Garramore;
when we reached the hostel
you made me walk back
six miles along the cracked
black basalt of the beach
just to find them.

You did not believe me
when I told you
I'd never seen a Scottish swan
nor did I think swans would
swim in the ocean.
But you were beautiful
in your conviction,
and I hoped you would prove me wrong.

Love Poem, San Francisco, 1986

He is still your man though
body wasted,
propped up, a
stick figure against
cotton balls
in this antiseptic room.

You try to ignore the
white nurse-things,
masked and gloved, who
in turn
do not notice you;
or the icy doctor-things, who
speak to the wall,
the curtain,
the clipboard, but
never to you.

But disease
does not diminish a history together
and, as they leave you
shake open the paper sack,
withdraw the
red and gold 'Niner's cap you
bought yesterday on
Market and Castro,
and later
had lined with felt.

The cap is too big yet
he insists upon wearing it.
Tenderly you
set the cap on his
nearly hairless scalp.
Cradling this
bird-thin man in your
still-healthy arms,
you kiss his cracked mouth.

(February 1990)

Sunday, July 04, 2004

What You Didn't Know When I Met You

You didn't know when I met you
how my eyes followed you,
how, in my mind,
my hands were already at your hips,
dancing a slow dance to me,
how they
moved along your pale arms
to your shoulders,
the back of your neck.

You didn't know when I met you
how I would smell you
on my fingers
when I rubbed my palm across
the short brush of your
soft brown hair,
how I would spend hours
crouched in the shampoo aisle,
capping and uncapping,
searching for your scent.

You didn't know when I met you
that I
didn't want to know you,
didn't want the empty place
filled again,
didn't want to dream of
your mouth against mine,
your tiny hands
opening my thighs, and
burning there.

You didn't know when I met you
that I knew I'd someday tell you --

I wish you did not know.

(February 1990)

Challenger Flight 53

Not understanding that
tin boxes
fueled by fire are
less real than
wings of wax and feather,
like Daedelus, we
left you
too long
flying toward the sun.


Icarus, tell me --
if we
die in the heavens
will we
reach the gods any faster?

(june 1990)

Saturday, July 03, 2004

Women in a Brothel, 1893 (Toulouse-Lautrec)

They are not young, fixed
'round a table heavy with
dark, bitter wine and young men
there but no longer there
seeking distant intimacy with
women who are young
but not young

loose, soft curls become tight
faded buns, breasts no longer round
in the palms of arrogant men
but shapeless, sore, melting in the
tired folds of skin beneath their arms,
memory etched like lacework along
the corners of mouths and eyes,
expressionless, they gaze
not at each other, but at

corseted girls with red lips,
all new blossoms
soon becoming
blackened, powdered roses
slipping unnoticed from
between the pages of a
diary read by a stranger.

(June 1994)


This is a poem for my friend Steve
whose thin arms and long fingers have
healed me when others could not see
that I needed to be touched, have
steeled me through grief and
physical humiliation, for months
your hands the only hands I trusted, who
forgave me my passion for Burger King
and science fiction, Dylan Thomas and
picnics among midnight grave markers
and who accepted without condition
other passions less easily pushed away.

No, you are not always perfect in
your angry self-centeredness and
dark vulnerability, fingertips stained
sepia with too-sweet espresso, smelling
of whole clove garlic, runner's musk,
writer's sweat, but imperfect still
you have always understood that
there are those of us in the world
who cannot speak without stumbling
over the untied laces of our tongues, so
instead I write this for you, Esteban,
whom I have loved,
but never taken into my bed.

(March 1990)

Groceries: Prose Poem

Long days followed by muted prism flickering night, never really dark unless the deadest of winter, heaping fist sized rocks of coal on a choking fire at three A.M. in his salmon-from-too-many-washings military issue underwear, the tea growing cold, the cream congealed at the top, a pity really because he'd had to fight for that half-pint of yellow cream, the thick-tongued grocer insisting that there wasn't enough, never enough, should've ordered ahead, hard to get real cream these days, all the rationing, the locals order ahead one pint at a time, didn't he know? Where was he from anyway? He'd never been 'round to this market before -- oh, wait, yes the beard, the silver in your hair threw me, I see, the butcher's boy, gone how long? Ah, yes, a very long time. you 've changed, you see -- the cream? No, we'll start an account straight away, no bother really -- the grocer hesitates -- your wife, you see, well, I -- such a pity, no, no, I understand, still too soon to talk about it, no, you're absolutely right, none of my business really -- he says handing the parcel over thinking such a pity such a pity, watching the man in soldier blue wool, much too warm for this dangle-your-feet-in-the-bay-day, duffel bag hugging one raised shoulder, rifle embracing the other, boots worn unevenly as he tends to walk on the outsides of his feet -- soldier-duck, soldier-duck, quackless furry soldier-duck! -- standing behind him steaming from the bath while he shaves, runs a finger along his spine, making him arch suddenly, nicking himself, face lathered, pants undone, a dab of white tissue on his chin -- a little boy dressed like daddy, playing soldier, serving his God and his country -- he throws her on the bathmat, laughing, now they are both half-lathered and she late for work -- remember -- he calls out -- to pick up the cream and bread -- has she heard? Has she heard? His hand on the round brass lock now -- don't go in, don't go in! -- the orange tree they'd planted in the front yard together, dry, dead, mummified fruit litters the yard, surrounding windows planked over -- their neighbor, the trolley driver, of course, always so helpful -- amazing that the key still works, that the door still opens to this place without life, the rifle clanking to the wooden floor, duffel bag sliding down, he stands in front of the dark empty ice-box, grief rolling wet down his dusty, ruddy cheeks, icebox empty save for a small glass bottle, crusted with the remains of cream long soured, and a loaf of stone-hardened bread.


Because you had no quarrel
with the King, because
he feared the small stone sentinels of
Bretagne, leaving you to
speak your ancient language
or perhaps it was
only because
Robespierre at last understood
that your people were not French...

Your people were erased.

Ninety thousand bodies
littered the Channel,
drifted ashore for months.

Genocide is never tidy.


Two hundred years after,
they wave the Tricolore over your dead,
beckon the world to watch.

(Bastille Day, 1989)

Dead Languages

They say Calum has
most of his teeth, though
his hair has gone to snow.
Mornings he spends
gathering mussels and
watching loaded ferries
leave for the Kyle.

Afternoons it's lager
cadged from the boys. He
always lets the
amber go to his head.
Most times when he's
drunk to much he
falls into Gaelic and back,
tells his stories in a
hybrid tongue.

The younger men laugh.
They don't speak the
language of Skye anymore, it's
of no use in London
or Glasgow
or the States.
They goad Calum,
thinking him a daft Highlander
fill his mug again but
soon Calum will
no longer come 'round here
to be
ridiculed by younger men.

(March 1990)

For Ana

Oddly comforting the thought of
his arm
locked safe 'round your belly
in sleep, a
layer of warm salt
damp where
the slow curve of your hip
spoons into his, the
symphony of
your breath
against the pillow, his
on the back of your neck.

(June 1994)

Oklahoma City, Not Long After

Often the story takes place in
the car on the way to her mother's house
-- some Christian holiday --
bouquet on the back seat or
perhaps a loaf of fresh bread -- she's
a wonderful baker and
loves her mother --
right hand draped over
the steering wheel, the
whiteness of her knuckles the
only indication of unspoken awareness --
a bright spot on the upholstery where a
child's car seat is
no longer.

And sometimes the story will
take place when he jogs
in the dry morning the flat streets
of the city, past
a small playground
more silent than past Saturdays.

Then again one day
the story may take place in the
abrupt pause in conversation
as you wheel a shopping cart past
clusters of women in
aisles where
clouds of disposable diapers nest
-- useless to you now --
near toilet paper and paper towels

Sometimes the story takes place
miles outside the city where
a street dweller digging for bottles to
turn in for five cents each
trips over a bright plastic
Big Wheel,
front wheel melted and charred,
grotesquely orange and yellow in
a sea of decaying suburbia.

(June 1995)

Thursday, July 01, 2004

Revelation to a Friend After Too Much Wine

It is easy for you to say that beauty does not matter, you who could have graced the frescoes with your face, your saint-like face. No, I don't think you can ever understand that in our world of forced perfection, I have not ever found a place to just be plain. It is always easy for the beautiful ones to feign disbelief in the power of their faces, their eyes and voices, their bearing, when you know and I know that at that crucial point when a choice needed to be made -- shall we be friends, shall we be lovers? -- I chose the former, because I knew for you there hadn't been a question, and for me to have chosen otherwise so many years ago would have meant losing all of you as I have lost so many others. I know too that this is the one strength you do not have, because you never questioned that someone would want you as a lover. You have never made that choice; it is always made for you the moment you see a woman -- for I have seen it happen time and again -- there she is, the one you desire, and it is set in your mind when you approach her, the implication is clear: you do not have friendship on your mind. I do not mean to sound critical, my friend, but try to see me as I really am for once, as others see me. You seemed surprised when I told you that I'd wanted you so long ago. Why? Because you could never have conceived of wanting me in return, the thought never crossed your mind. I understand because it is something I have experienced many times, but the wall is wearing thin or perhaps I have grown tired of bracing it with cold hands and tired shoulders...No, don't panic -- those feelings for you are all but dead; I killed them myself, stood over them with a sword and watched them bleed to death, but the pile of corpses is a heavy one, and the smell of dead emotions has grown vile, and I can no longer tolerate this solitude, this physical detachment from others of my kind. I am sorry, my friend, that I can no longer live up to your expectations. I am not brave. I am tired, and alone, and I need more than you can ever offer me.

(November 1992)

Saturday, April 24, 2004

Word Exercises

First set of words
:: blind :: black :: invisible :: grave ::
:: desert :: mouth :: curious :: clocks ::

There are no clocks in the desert. If one dies here, one if forever caught between seconds, the minute hand never moves past the moment of last breath. You did not know, or perhaps you didn't remember the last time you died on the sands. Your grave will be invisible. It is curious that you felt no pain when you died. Blind, your lips filled with sand, your mouth set forever in a question, your skin black and peeling, drying on your bones. Who are you? I would never have seen you at all had I not fallen beside you to die as well. My boot crushed your bare skull. My impertinence has robbed you of your sleep. I take care to cover your pale bones before I sleep myself. Forgive me, old king. There is no one to wrap my body.


Second set of words:
:: aluminum : first :: sweater :: whisper : baby ::
:: chemical :: list :: fortune :: dread :: memory ::

The first sweater she'd ever owned was hand-made, pulled together from the ruins of older sweaters, her mother never one to waste wool, always thrifty like that. When the baby screamed, the acrid chemical smell sifting through the thin diapers, she replaced it with another much-used cotton diaper.

-- Rinse and boil, it'll last another fifteen years --

Her mother's one concession to modern technology an aluminum baseball bat for the boy. She'd spent a fortune on it, money well spent, certain aluminum would outlast pine. Older now, the young man dreaded the memory. It was no use explaining to her that no Major Leaguer would stoop to an aluminum bat. He withstood season after season of whispers and giggles until he grew old enough to buy himself a Louisville Slugger.

A list of meant-wells that grows with the years, but in the end the childrens' need for material equality outweighs a mother's love.

Wednesday, April 21, 2004

Tour of Duty

His pack loaded heavy, boots crunching dry mountain soil, the young soldier is sweating. All in brown and green, no more than eighteen, umber eyes a little too bright. Black hair matted down by grease and dust, he marches out of time at the back of the line. Clumsy, clumsy, stopping so often to shift the weight of his pack that soon the rest of the patrol has forgotten the bright-eyed young soldier.

His attention strays back and forth from the voices of the dead children he can hear; they are trapped beneath the ground. He can hear the whisper of the papery skin against bone, hear them call out "Have you seen our ball? We have lost our ball." Being a thoughtful young man, he takes the time to look around the dry scrub for their ball, thinking perhaps he should tell his captain but it occurs to him that he is suddenly alone, suddenly lost, and he looks south over the mountains toward the distant valleys of the neighboring land and he thinks that perhaps he'd better go look for the dead childrens' ball there, and he sets off across the highlands with his pack.

He is perfectly happy although he has a very long way to walk, and his pack grows heavier and heavier. He really doesn't think his captain will mind his looking for the ball, because, after all, when his captain had sprouted wings, taking to roosting above the rough barracks, the young soldier had politely not commented. He'd noticed that his bunk mates were ignoring it as well, even when the captain had taken to singing laments all night as he stretched his new wings on the sheet metal roof of the barracks, even when they all became aware that the captain was singing with his mouth tightly closed...

These things the soldier thought as he climbed further and further down out of the mountains. He still looks for the ball although he is certain no longer why or whom it is for and it is then he realizes that his heavy pack has become a whirling mist of spiders, all in different colors, all singing the same laments that the winged officer had sung, the words floating in the air above him, encased in prism bubbles, bursting to become more and more spider-things.

The boy soldier screams, pulling at the straps of the pack-turned-rainbow-singing-spider-nest, runs headlong breathing hard into the valley, into a blazing field of carnations. Red and white and laced and tall, he runs straight at them, hears them cry out "Save us, save us, save us! We are locked here by our deep roots, and cannot free ourselves!" The powdery sweet scent of the flowers, their tears turning into black beetles at his feet -- now he knows why he has come here, what the purpose of his long journey has been. He rips out the flowers with his bare hands, the roots coming loose in moist earthen clumps, the sticky green staining his brown hands, hundreds upon hundreds upon thousands of flower voices to be...stilled.

He works fast, and though it is now icy black night he removes his clothing so as to work even faster, and faster, and faster he pulls up the flowers. Thin delicate pointed leaves stick in his hair, scratch his eyes, his genitals. His blistered and sticky hands bleed, his lips are green and split because his hands not being fast enough he begins to pull up red carnations with his teeth as well. Faster and faster and faster until at last --

There are no more voices.

The thin brown shivering soldier stands naked on a bed of glorious red and pink and white. His work finished, he carefully rolls his clothing into a neat ball, a pillow for his head. The soldier curls himself among the fragrant ruins, the carnations he has freed, and sleeps a peaceful sleep, not once thinking of the winged officer singing mournfully atop the barracks many miles to the north.

First Day of School

It is not a dog, not like any dog the child has ever seen. She almost trips over it, hidden in the tall feather-tipped weeds that grow close to the curb. Small and orange-red, enormous ears tipped with black, the animal looks to be asleep.

The child hesitates. She is forever bringing home wounded animals: rabbits, broken-winged birds, a snapping turtle trailing red gore where its right hind leg should have been, a black racer snake bent oddly near the middle, rats, muskrats, a mallard duck filled with buckshot that flapped wildly in circles before hitting the bay. She has even -- in her naivete -- brought home sea creatures. Blue crabs and sand crabs, a newborn stingray, eels, a tiny shark that swam spasmodically in her red plastic pail for two hours before floating belly-up to the top.

Most times the child's father has done the right thing, the humane thing: breaking a neck, crushing a frail skull, dropping gasoline-soaked cotton balls into a tightly closed jar. Each time sighing, feeling his daughter's tears like quick jabs of a dagger. Each time admonishing her not to bring home animals. Each time having to explain why. Once giving in, letting her sleep with the orphaned possum she'd found, no bigger than a child's thumb, naked and pink, wrapped in a red flannel shirt. Waking to the sound of the girl crying in the next room because the possum had died in the night.

-- No more, honey, please. Sometimes they just die. It's natural. Everybody dies, baby -- wiping her nose on his blue cotton shirt sleeve.

Today is the first day of school. She is dressed in green plaid, Gordon plaid they call it, the crisp pleats barely covering the scraped, scabby knees. One blue sock hangs about her black and white saddle shoes, the other creeps toward mid-shin. She carries her lunch in a brown paper bag, a liverwurst sandwich, an apple, two Oreo cookies. She doesn't have a lunchbox.

She does have a new bookbag, though, blue vinyl with silver snaps. Her father brought it from the small pharmacy near the fishing pier where he works tending bar. There aren't any books inside yet, just a pencil and a notebook. A special notebook with gray, newsprint pages, and thick blue lines separated in the center by pink dotted lines. This year they will learn cursive. No more awkward baby block letters.

The child likes the walk to school. She doesn't follow the road; instead she follows the footpath through the tall weeds and scrubby, short pine trees. She's good at avoiding sticker-burrs and the thorny wild roses; she loves the yellow and white daisies, the fiery red black-eyed Susans, the buttercups, the poppies and wild spearmint. Sometimes she pulls up the wild onions, brushes off the soil and bites off the ends. They're easy to spot; the tops are pointy, like the round and pointy spire of the Greek Orthodox church in the city across the bridge.

She sings when she walks through the weeds, sometimes songs she's learned from the nuns who teach in her school.

-- O come, o come, Emmanuel...and ransom captive Israel --

She's not sure who Emmanuel is, thinks he might be the same as Jesus, but isn't sure, but she likes the song. Sometimes she sings the dirty songs that she hears the older children singing. She rarely gets them right, though and never sings them at home.

She's singing when she sees the animal laying in the weeds, its head flung back, small brown eyes open. The girl stands over the animal, hugging her bookbag close to her body, then carefully crouches beside it. She sets her bag with the special notebook and pencil beside her, places the brown bag on top. She sucks in her breath, teeth catching her lower lip -- the animal is still alive, thought just barely so. And it dawns on the child that this is a fox, a red fox, although she has never see a real fox before. Her father told her that there were no foxes left on the island. There aren't any deer left, either.

But this fox isn't dead. It stares up at her with moist, dark eyes. Blinks once, twice. She sees that its head is thrown back at an unnatural angle, its mouth open, The thin, delicate pink tongue - crusted with bloody foam - hangs onto the ground. The girl reaches out, strokes its silky coat, feels the animal trembling beneath her chubby seven-year-old hand.

-- I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry -- she says in a whisper to the fox. -- I'm sorry someone did this to you, I'm sorry you hurt --

A black ant crawls irreverently across the fox's eyelid; the animal gives a short, weak bark.

-- Daddy says everything dies. He says it's supposed to happen -- She's crying, her nose running, drips clear snot on the dusty orange fur. She stands up, walks off into the pines trees, and returns a moment later carrying a rock that's much too big for her. It's as big as half a loaf of bread, flat and gray. She hefts the rock above the dying fox, says -- Everything dies, Daddy said so -- but she is crying very hard now as she drops the rock onto the fox's head.

It's the last fox on the island, and now she's killed it.

She stands crying for a few more moments, then hears the school bell ringing in the distance and Sister Carmela calling for the children to hurry inside.

-- I'm sorry, I'm sorry -- She wipes her nose on her freshly-pleated skirt, stoops to retrieve her lunch and bookbag. There is a little blood on the blue vinyl. Not very much. The little girl thinks for a long minute, then lays the blue bag atop the rock and the dead fox. She gathers an armful of pine needles and branches, works fast to cover the bag and the fox. Soon there is nothing to see but a mound of dry pine needles.

She gets to school late, and very dirty, smelling of pine tar and earth. Sister Carmela chastises her and send her off to wash up. Later she'll tell her father that she lost the blue vinyl bookbag. The next day he will buy her another.