Swimming in January
Because, like every new lover,
I want to enter the underworld
and take you with me, I lead you
into the sea in January – naked into a sea
that flows round our calves and knees
like green fire: deeper and deeper –
feet off the shingle now – gulping half air,
half salt-water, drifting almost to the edge
where there’s no returning
before we strike back
to the beach – past windsurfers
sealed in rubber wet-suits, struggling
to lift orange sails, past wading birds
dipping yellow beaks into a film
of mirrored cloud – emerge,
white legs moving like sticks over
oil-blackened sand, at the breakwater
where we draped clothes and towels,
rubbing each other back to life.
She leaned over the sink
her weight on her toes
and applied lipstick
in quick certain strokes
the way a man signs
his hundredth autograph
of the morning.
She tested a convictionless smile
as the lipstick retracted
like a red eel.
All day she left her mark
on everything she kissed,
even the air,
like intoxicating news
whispered from ear to ear:
He left it all to me.
The Anatomy of the Heart
This is not an attack, as they say. It is a broken heart.
Ask me if you can die from a broken heart
and I will tell you, Yes,
if I could speak that word.
If they ask can you die from broken land
I would also say, Yes.
There is the beating thread of connection
in this place where we have felt our great love
though others have hated our presence
and stolen our land
sent us away
to the streets
and yet how magnificent the world has been
in other places I have seen.
You can understand why your heart could let you down,
would leave you to fall,
would even close itself
where the arteries all meet
like great rivers.
They want to travel
out into the world of the body
with beautiful waters,
to larger seas.
How fragile it all is now
inside this speeding, lighted, screaming
machine, the roadway a path for possibility
for myself who always knew the fragility of the
That was what I suffered in the tender organ.
It is the sacrificed in the stories I have never believed
or wanted to hear, oh the beautiful heart, in love,
or forlorn, most vulnerable, most venerable.
It is only broken.
It is only a broken heart,
I want to say.
just beyond me,
a swerve in the light,
and a passing blur
like a peregrine
from a cliff edge,
sometimes a darkness,
a pushing away,
a not wanting,
often a digging in,
a head down
against a coal face
a breathing close
and at the same time
a fight for breath.
Many times, a someone
I do not recognize,
a wondering if,
a hand in mine,
pulling me on,
above all, an invitation,
and always in the end
a lovely and difficult surprise,
like silk torn in two,
a rested view from
a high window,
by real love,
and like love,
an edge and then
for the necessary
but as yet
Always a death,
the passing by
of a grave
on the way
to somewhere else,
my hat dipping
slowly in calm respect,
above the grave
yes, happy birdsong,
then not birdsong,
not quite heard,
deep in the chest;
most of all,
a sense of great migration
a needing to leave,
a wanting to cross.
Then, that good day,
standing on the threshold
between this world
and the next,
like the crest of a pass,
and the path
going over, through cloud,
about to descend
to the promised land,
the flurry of wind telling me
I’m about to free myself
of an upward way,
my vision a notch in the sky
and above the lark song
filling the living, breathing world,
with its own anticipation,
its own way looking back
at me, and through me,
and like me, always
found in a new light,
always ready to be
Work for the Night is Coming
On the road out of town past the old quarry
I watched a light rain darkening the ledges
blocked and carded by the drill’s bit
twenty years back. Within those stiff lines,
places half-stained with damp, the rock face
opened to a deeper grain – the probable drift
of the entire ridge outlined for a moment
by the rain’s discoloring. Then all turned dim –
grass holding to the seams, redbud scattered
across the cliff, dark pool of water
rimmed with broken stones, where rain, now
falling steadily, left no lasting patterns.
Some like the mountains, some like the seashore,
Jean-Paul Belmondo says
to the camera in the opening scene.
Some like to sleep face up,
some like to sleep on their stomachs,
I am thinking here in bed–
some take the shape of murder victims
flat on their backs all night,
others float face down on the dark waters.
Then there are those like me
who prefer to sleep on their sides,
knees brought up to the chest,
head resting on a crooked arm
and a soft fist touching the chin,
which is the way I would like to be buried,
curled up in a coffin
in a fresh pair of cotton pajamas,
a down pillow under my weighty head.
After a lifetime of watchfulness
and nervous vigilance,
I will be more than ready for sleep,
so never mind the dark suit,
the ridiculous tie
and the pale limp hands crossed on the chest.
Lower me down in my slumber,
tucked into myself
like the oldest fetus on earth,
and while the cows look over the stone wall
of the cemetery, let me rest here
in my earthy little bedroom,
my lashes glazed with ice,
the roots of trees inching nearer,
and no dreams to frighten me anymore.
Image (c) S Donaghy
My History As
In my history, I was bones eating paper
or I was paper eating bones. Semantics.
I lived in a narrow house;
I lived with a man who said
You fucked up your own life, who said
I could never love someone so heavy.
The place was brick on brick
with iron grates covering the windows—
rowhouse cage, South Philly. I was learning
how some of us are made to be carrion birds,
& some of us are made to be circled.
Somewhere in this education
I stopped eating. Held up my hands
to see if my bones would glow in the dark.
My boat name could have been
HMS Floating, Though Barely.
Meanwhile I had a passion for cartography.
Not leaving, just coloring the maps.
I covered all the walls with white paint, whiter paint, spiraling out— a weather
system curling over water.
I always drew the compass rose flat.
I was metal-blue, I was running my mouth
like a bathtub tap. A bone picked clean of particulates.
Everything has some particular science.
By its nature, a vulture can’t
be a common field crow, for instance.
Look at the wings, look at that hard
mouth, look at the feet.
When I tell my history, I can’t leave out
how I hit that man in the jaw,
how I wasn’t good at mercy,
how eating nothing but white pills & white air
made me unchartable—
I can’t skip to the end just to say
well it was fragile & I smashed it
& everything’s over, well now I know things
that make me unlikely.
What am I supposed to say: I’m free?
I learned to counter like a torn edge
frayed from the damp. That’s how I left it.
Leaving the river, leaving
wet tracks arrowed in the brush.