Letter to S, Hospital
Just Beyond Yourself
Half a step
and the rest
There is a road
When you see
the two sides
at that far horizon
and deep in
of your own
it’s the road
how you know.
need to be.
I could easily be honest
if I were certain of the truth.
You remember the day as sunny and hot,
the car an oven, the air
rippling over the green chile fields.
I remember clouds building in the western sky
as quickly as if there’d been an explosion
out where the military tested
something big and vastly expensive
over and over.
Everyone seems so confident.
Those letters to the editor: “Get real” and
“Wake up, people!” The man from Pengilly
who keeps “loaded guns in readily accessible locations.”
I honestly don’t know why I had children
or why I sew, or garden,
except that if it’s true we’re made in God’s image
we are born to create, or to try-
though when you smile at my earnestness
I see that you’re right, I am naive.
I remember when our daughter realized
it was possible not to tell the truth.
She was three years old.
I saw something pass over her eyes, a petit mal,
leaving a kind of bright residue,
the shimmer of a most attractive lie, a fairy tale
no one had told her; yet she suddenly knew,
about a girl who never pinched a friend
however much she deserved it.
A hour passes and I’m no longer angry,
though it’s true I was.
Sunlight streams through the screen door-
a late clearing, just as you predicted.
We’re together in the kitchen,
a friendly bumping as we wash and slice
the green and red, yellow and white
ingredients, and stir them all in the kettle
until nothing is exclusively itself.
Ever since, in an act of reckless
middle-age, I broke my wrist
learning to skate, my right hand
refuses to sleep with me.
It performs the day’s tasks
stiffly, stoically; but at night
slides out from the duvet
to hollow a nest in the pillow
like an animal gone to ground
in a hole in the hedge
whose instinct says have nothing
to do with heart, lungs, legs,
the dangerous head. I dreamed of gliding
through a Breughel winter;
of sitting in smoky inns
drinking burning geneva.
My hand dreams its own dream
of escaping: a waving weed rooted
in a pool so icy and numbing
I can feel its ache
rising up my arm.
This Paper Boat
Carefully placed upon the future,
it tips from the breeze and skims away,
frail thing of words, this valentine,
so far to sail. And if you find it
caught in the reeds, its message blurred,
the thought that you are holding it
a moment is enough for me.
To improvise, first let your fingers stray
across the keys like travelers in snow:
each time you start, expect to lose your way.
You’ll find no staff to lean on, none to play
among the drifts the wind has left in rows.
To improvise, first let your fingers stray
beyond the path. Give up the need to say
which way is right, or what the dark stones show;
each time you start, expect to lose your way.
And what the stillness keeps, do not betray;
the one who listens is the one who knows.
To improvise, first let your fingers stray;
out over emptiness is where things weigh
the least. Go there, believe a current flows
each time you start: expect to lose your way
Risk is the pilgrimage that cannot stay;
the keys grow silent in their smooth repose.
To improvise, first let your fingers stray.
Each time you start, expect to lose your way.
The Snowmass Cycle
for Laure-Anne Bosselaar and Kurt Brown
The sailor dreamt of loss,
but it was I who dreamt the sailor.
I was landlocked, sea-poor.
The sailor dreamt of a woman
who stared at the sea, then tired
of it, advertised her freedom.
She said to her friend: I want
all the fire one can have
without being consumed by it.
Clearly, I dreamt the woman too.
I was surrounded by mountains
suddenly green after a long winter,
a chosen uprootedness, soul shake-up,
every day a lesson about the vastness
between ecstasy and repose.
I drank coffee called Black Forest
at the local cafe. I took long walks
and tried to love the earth
and hate its desecrations.
All the Golden Retrievers wore red
bandannas on those muttless streets.
All the birches, I think, were aspens.
I do not often remember my dreams,
or dream of dreamers in them.
To be without some of the things
you want, a wise man said,
is an indispensable part of happiness.
2. MOUNTAIN, SKY
I’ve been paying attention
to the sky again.
I’ve seen a ravine up there,
and a narrow, black gorge.
Not to worry, I tell myself,
about tricks the mind plays,
as long as you know they’re tricks.
If the rich are casually cruel
perhaps it’s because
they can stare at the sky
and never see an indictment
in the shape of clouds.
The frown, for example,
in a thunderhead. The fist.
That big mountain
I’ve been looking at—
I love how it borrows purple
from the filtered light,
Like any of us
it’s all of its appearances.
It’s good that the rich
have to die,
a peasant saying goes,
otherwise they’d live forever.
Here in this rented house,
high up, I understand.
I’m one of the rich
for a while. The earth feels
mine and the air I breathe
is rarefied, if thin.
Dusk now is making its last claim.
I love the confluence
of dark mountain, dark sky.
Soon I won’t know the beginning
from the end.
Those empty celebrations of the half-believer
along for the ride.
Those secret words repeated in mirrors—
someone’s personal fog.
A man’s heart ransomed for comfort
or a few extra bucks, his soul in rags.
I have been him and him and him.
Was it nobility or senility
when my old grandmother tried to drown
artificial flowers in the bathtub?
Can only saints carry the load
without talking about the burden?
I want to lean into life,
catch the faintest perfume.
In every boy child an old man is dying.
By middle age
he begins to stink, complain.
I want to have gifts for him
when we finally meet.
I want him to go out like an ancient
by what is his, desiring nothing.
4. DELINEATION AT DUSK
A lost hour, and that animal lassitude
after a vanished afternoon.
Outside: joggers, cyclists.
Motion, the great purifier, is theirs.
If this were Europe someone in a tower
might be ringing a bell.
People hearing it would know
similar truths, might even know
exactly who they are.
It’s getting near drinking time.
It’s getting near getting near;
a person alone conjures rules
or can liquefy, fall apart.
That woman with the bouffant—
chewing gum, waiting for the bus—
someone thinks she’s beautiful.
It’s beautiful someone does.
The sky’s murmuring, the storm
that calls you up,
makes promises, never comes.
Somewhere else, no doubt,
a happy man slicing a tomato,
a woman with a measuring cup.
Somewhere else: the foreclosure
of a feeling or a promise,
followed by silence or shouts.
Here, the slow dance of contingency,
an afternoon connected to an evening
by a slender wish. Sometimes absence
makes the heart grow sluggish
and desire only one person, or one thing.
I am closing the curtains.
I am helping the night.
A few days ago I stopped looking
at the photographs
clustered on the wall, nudes,
which had become dull to me,
like a tourist’s collection of smooth rocks.
I turned away from the view
and conjured a plague of starlings.
Oh how they darkened the landscape.
Surely such beauty had been waiting for its elegy.
I felt like crushing a rhododendron.
Now and again I feel the astonishment
of being alive like this, in this body,
the ventricles and the small bones
in the hand, the intricacies of digestion ….
When the radio said parents in California
gave birth to another child
so that their older child might have
a bone-marrow transplant and live,
I found myself weeping
for such complicated beauty.
How wonderful the radio
and its distant, human voices.
The rain now is quite without consequence
I suppose I’ve come to the limits
of my paltry resources, this hankering
for people and for massive disturbance,
then high pressure,
the sequence that’s been promised for days.
I will long to be alone
when my friends arrive.
6. THE BODY WIDENS
The body widens, and people are welcomed
into it, many at a time. This must be
what happens when we learn to be generous
when we’re not in love, or otherwise charmed.
I’ve been examining yesterday’s ashes. I’ve visited
my own candleless altar. Little by little,
the old selfish parts of me are loosening.
I have a plan for becoming lean: to use
all my fat in service of expansion. Have women
always known this? Loveliness and fear
when they open and let in and give away?
The mountains here pierce the sky,
and the sky, bountiful, closes in around them.
7. A NEW MOUTH
Give me a new mouth; I want to talk.
I’ve been watching the spider mend its web.
I think I’ve learned something
about architecture from a swallow.
Excuse me while I separate the nettles
from the flowers, while I put my nose
to the black moist smell of earth
and come up smiling. Somewhere in the world
is the secret name
for God, many-lettered, unpronounceable.
There’s a speakable grace
in the fields and even in the cities.
The grapes ripen, someone refuses to become
a machine. And yet I want to talk
about the worn-out husks of men and women
returning from the factories,
the venereal streets, the bruise history
passes down to its forlorn children.
I need a new mouth to acknowledge
that piety will keep us small, imprisoned,
that it’s all right to be ridiculous
and sway first to the left, then to the right,
in order to find our balance.
I’ve been watching
an evening star quiver. I’ve been trying
to identify the word before its utterance.
Give me a new mouth and I’ll be
a guardian against forgetfulness.
I’ve noticed the wind doesn’t discriminate
between sycamore and cypress.
I want to find the cool, precise language
for how passion gives rise to passion.
The wind gone. I can hear my breathing.
I can hear the lateness of the hour
by what isn’t moving.
Woodrun Slope. Snowmass Village.
These are winter names, and it’s summer.
The water from the mountains
rushes down man-made gullies.
Serious phantoms with their black tears
are out tonight.
I’m close—my other delusion goes—
to the heart of things.
A young man with a young man’s itch
would rise and go out prowling.
Tomorrow I’ll choose a mountain
that’s a hill, take the slowest horse
at the Lazy-7, slow and old,
sure to know its trail.
I knew a man who said he could dominate
solitude. In other ways, too,
he was a fool.
Once I wanted to be
one of those fabulous strangers
who appear and disappear.
Now I arrive only by invitation,
stay long enough to earn my fare.
Outside my window, clouds from the west
erasing the stars.
A coyote howling its singular news.
At whatever pace,
isn’t there an imperative to live?
Before a person dies he should experience
the double fire,
of what he wants and shouldn’t have.
Her husband lifeless
in chair facing
TV, whole days
mute, her own mind,
shot. And it won’t
get any better. Absolutely
nothing to look
forward to, she says
to whom if
Wearing two identical
left shoes. No one
believes I don’t
dye my hair, she remarks
for the umpteenth
time. Point taken, I’m
grayer than my
in the mirror I see
her face, her small
Five states north, he
he hears behind
voice: she must
be down on the
floor, the phone
in one hand
rakes the carpet.
green case on the nightstand
glasses on a Redskins lanyard
green glasses case
containing one hearing aid
minus its battery on the nightstand
glasses on a Redskins lanyard
in the green grass
under one of many bird feeders
in the backyard thronging
with blurred mute birds
Occasional muculent chortling
or choking and steady
beep of the EKG.
be a good person,
to that? How
is it true
I have to
go now? For her, the
occasion of my
more. Who is my
mother now I am
So take her hand, walking in
the garden: an animal moment of warmth
she won’t recall after our sit. Voracious
starlings ride a swinging cage of suet.
That signal enthusiasm in her eyes
muddles with torment. Choose whatever
you will and the disease
still wins. Like a heavy shawl,
the shadow of cloud drags across
mountains on the horizon. Maybe I’ve
misread her expression.
To plunge into love as into a sidewalk.
Came awake as though I were a siren going off.
The ugliness of putting food in my
mouth, my belly gurgling
like so many horseleeches. And so
days-to-come will crack open without you,
dropping their yolk over places you walked.
And the white lowly primrose will foam
wild like some scrap of your happiness
refusing to abandon me. Blah blah. The
mirror in the shrine is memory. All
you lived adjusts now and is lived back
in me here on earth. A flock of geese
sifts through the barrow pit. Postpuke
acid sears my throat.
To find the present breaking itself
loose from the sequence of events, bolting
through gaps in the corral of context and
carrying its befuddled rider
into an expanding plain of brumous outlines.
Dashing a lot of well-planned plans, I slipped on some melting ice this weekend falling right on my back and down a set of stairs. I’m in pain and trying my best to move as little as possible. I will eventually have to move to see if this pain is just soreness that I can overcome with some stretching and mild painkillers.
But in lying here in immobile self-pity I am thinking about a Twitter thread I read the other day in which a woman considered how her therapist asked her how she planned to reward herself for accomplishing something the woman should have done/needed to do anyway. This tweet received a tremendous response from people saying that they struggle with the same thing – beating themselves up for achieving less than perfection rather than rewarding themselves when they’d done something (well or not), regardless of whether that something was required.
I’m conflicted about this. I think most of us are too hard on ourselves a lot of the time and don’t stop to take a breath and think, awake with a moment of self-awareness, that we’ve done something – whatever it is. I think that would be enough. Someone responded to the tweet: “It’s called inherent self-worth”. I think they may have meant that someone who has inherent self-worth will reward him/herself. But I really believe that a true sense of grounded, inherent self-worth is reward enough itself. Why are we being pushed in a direction that we should be rewarded for everything we do? This is the other side of my conflict about this. Sure, I think people should set goals and perhaps reward themselves when they reach them or hit milestones or sometimes even when they fail because they tried. But rewarding yourself for every single thing seems like a bridge too far. Where is the line? And what is a ‘reward’ anyway? (A lot of people, in fairness, did not even know what a ‘reward’ might look like.) As I said, taking a moment to identify a job well done or getting something done that I’d been putting off – living in a quiet moment of self-awareness – should be enough.
What more does a person need? Does anyone have thoughts on this?