A man tips back his chair, all evening.
Years later, the ladder of small indentations
still marks the floor. Walking across it, then stopping.
Rarely are what is spoken and what is meant the same.
Mostly the mouth says one thing, the thighs and knees
say another, the floor hears a third.
Yet within us,
objects and longings are not different.
They twist on the stem of the heart, like ripening grapes.
The shoes put on each time
left first, then right.
The morning potion’s teaspoon
of sweetness stirred always
for seven circlings — no fewer, no more—
into the cracked blue cup.
Touching the pocket for wallet,
before closing the door.
How did we come
to believe these small rituals’ promise,
that we are today the selves we yesterday knew,
tomorrow will be?
How intimate and unthinking,
the way the toothbrush is shaken dry after use,
the part we wash first in the bath.
Which habits we learned from others
and which are ours alone we may never know.
Unbearable to acknowledge
how much they are themselves our fated life.
Open the traveling suitcase—
There the beloved red sweater,
bright tangle of necklace, earrings of amber.
Each confirming: I chose these, I.
But habit is different: it chooses.
And we, its good horse,
opening our mouths at even the sight of the bit.
Waking This Morning Dreamless After Long Sleep
But with this sentence:
‘Use your failures for paper.’
Meaning, I understood,
the backs of failed poems, but also my life.
Whose far side I begin now to enter —
A book imprinted without seeming reason,
each blank day bearing on its reverse, in random order,
the mad-set type of another.
December 12, 1960. April 4, 1981. 13th of August, 1974 —
Certain words bleed through to the unwritten pages.
To call this memory offers no solace.
‘Even in sleep, the heavy millstones turning.’
I do not know where the words come from,
what the millstones,
where the turning may lead.
I, a woman forty-five, beginning to gray at the temples,
putting pages of ruined paper
into a basket, pulling them out again.
what falls away with ease.
Not only the heavy apple,
but also the dried brown strands
of autumn iris from their core.
To let your body
love this world
that gave itself to your care
in all of its ripeness,
and will take itself from you
in equal ripeness and ease,
is also harvest.
And however sharply
you are tested —
this sorrow, that great love —
it too will leave on that clean knife.
You work with what you are given,
the red clay of grief,
the black clay of stubbornness going on after.
Clay that tastes of care or carelessness,
clay that smells of the bottoms of rivers or dust.
Each thought is a life you have lived or failed to live,
each word is a dish you have eaten or left on the table.
There are honeys so bitter
no one would willingly choose to take them.
The clay takes them: honey of weariness, honey of vanity,
honey of cruelty, fear.
This rebus—slip and stubbornness,
bottom of river, my own consumed life—
when will I learn to read it
plainly, slowly, uncolored by hope or desire?
Not to understand it, only to see.
As water given sugar sweetens, given salt grows salty,
we become our choices.
Each yes, each no continues,
this one a ladder, that one an anvil or cup.
The ladder leans into its darkness.
The anvil leans into its silence.
The cup sits empty.
How can I enter this question the clay has asked?
For Horses, Horseflies
We know nothing of the lives of others.
Under the surface, what strange desires,
what rages, weaknesses, fears.
Sometimes it breaks into our daily paper
and we shake our heads in wonder –
“Who would behave in such a way” we ask.
Unspoken the thought, “Let me not be tested.”
Unspoken the thought, “Let me not be known.”
Under the surface, something that whispers
“Anything can be done.”
For horses, horseflies. For humans, shame.
The heart’s reasons
even the hardest
its whip-marks and sadness
and must be forgiven.
As the drought-starved
the drought-starved lion
who finally takes her,
enters willingly then
the life she cannot refuse,
and is lion, is fed,
and does not remember the other.
So few grains of happiness
measured against all the dark
and still the scales balance.
The world asks of us
only the strength we have and we give it.
Then it asks more, and we give it.