Poems

Man Falling Through an Elegy

Perhaps it’s not possible to think of you
and not think of the man falling
from the North Tower, on camera, his wingtips
in the air, saying nothing. Why do I tell you
this? Last night I lay down
in these ruins and listened to migrations
returning from the foothills. In this country
of war I have seen things I had not thought
I would see: a hanged bird, a blinding,
a child rubbing the pale palms
of a woman drawn by the panic
of a family horse, its body left
burning in the fields. Since you are
lost, and these are my last stories,
I can tell this one: How once,
in a foreign city, I woke in the night
to find the room, the walls, even
the sound of the wind in the rafters
no one’s, and burning. And when
I rose in a subtle panic, it happened:
I became storyless, without history
or narrative. I know it’s not good form
to say it this way, not here, but
I have such little time left, and when
I ran out into the Piazza della Francesca,
the pigeons scattering with their madness,
when the carabinieri took me
by the shoulders and stared into
my woken and underwhelming eyes,
I tried to thrash out against the scrim
of physics, tried to hold there in the cathedral
of what happens, clutching their green
wool like an anchor….And then
I whispered them the spent coin of my name.
But maybe you return to your life.
On the third day, you find yourself
in the old house, reading the news.
It is almost spring. The wind’s hands
rinse you from your body.
If someone had asked you then,
if someone had come to you in the night
like a burning thing, cupping
the ruins of your face in her hands,
and asked you your name…
But now you can’t say. You look up
from the pages of your life, exhausted
with love. You walk out to the field
and watch your father staring through
the clear eye of a horse, and you see
nothing in the wind but the emptiness
of the wind, your debt to it and its
grandeur. And the flesh says nothing.
Or maybe not. In the simplified plains
of a desert country, a horse is found
staring into a hole in the earth, its eyes
thirst-fixed, and open. The body
is no secret. What’s down there
is miles and miles of Roman
lives, wearing the gold-crafted masks
of a people they conquered. In time,
they say, even your guilt becomes a kind
of beauty, and you wear it in death.
They are beautiful, they say everything,
and they get it all wrong. I know
it doesn’t matter now, but once,
in my twenties, I found a man
on an upstate highway, thrown
from his sedan. No one was with him.
I’d never seen one before, not
like that. His face was shut
like a blossom, his lips to the road.
I think now he must have lived hours
before I got to him, because he’d tucked
his hands into his armpits and pulled up
his left leg, broken. I can’t remember
how long I stayed. Maybe
I called somebody. Maybe a patrolman
arrived and touched me on the shoulder
and told me they knew where he’d
been headed, it was fine, I could go now.
What I know is I sat there on the guardrail
watching the wind lift and let go
of his salt-and-pepper hair, a wide field
to the left of him, and tried not to think
of the clothes he’d pulled on in the dark
that morning, the stone-washed Levi’s
and thin, brown jacket, shoes
too slick to quite match them. Nor
who’d sewn that patch across the shoulder.
I could have covered him. I could have said
anything I wished, turned him into my father
fallen from a horse in upstate New York
in 1992, his memory wiped impeccable, one just
moment, and clean. I could have rolled him over
and let incompleteness enter my life.
But I only watched him hold
what he’d been, that morning, his radio
mumbling, whitetails stepping out
onto the shoulder. I only kept
the first mad ravens from his body…
It has taken me a long time to say this;
it has taken me a long time to learn the stone
child curled in the ashes of Pompeii,
his transparent hands to his face, is silent
because he is sacred, and sacred
because he is innocent, and innocent
because he is the heavy-handed vessel
of what has never been. Listen:
In the language of the faithless, my
language, to redeem is to take
back, as in the body, as in the words
a woman whispers to a man
to whom her hair is bound, their faces
flickering over the lights
of a river they will never fathom: Go
on, go on
, and he obeys.
This is not about communion,
not yet. This is not about language
stooping down in its long black boots
to seize Celan’s mother by the jowls
and crush her in the vowels of her son’s songs.
This is not about the bankruptcy of love.
Perhaps the night is not what we’ve wagered
it is: the young Mesopotamian boy
curled in his rose-oiled clothes in the hold
of a many-oared ship in the great
tomb, dressed to be ruin. Perhaps we look up,
as the doomed do, into the clear eye of a horse
and see, in the end, the words
are not enough, nor the narrative
they come from, and go right on talking.
Because perhaps our trial isn’t over.
Because the hands that scoop
our minds out are real. Like the father, like a horse’s
blindness, like the man falling in the story
behind this story, the jet fuel in the shoulders
of his work shirt, the body reteaching him
its wildness, out of madness, out of
nothing, out of rage. Because everything, everything
is song. And is holy. And has no plans
to rise. Because maybe Whitman
leans down over the soldiers fallen
at Fredericksburg and sees
what we can’t see, the whole
story, sees in their faces nothing
but the land, tannic and banished
and undeniable. He takes them
into his arms and repeats what he
knows: You are not the body. You are not
the impregnable ramparts of the spirit
where your brothers lie down
exhausted, searching. You are only this small,
unfinished thing, a wild privacy, a carol,
a song. But I don’t know. I don’t
know. Listen: it is not torture
I am talking about here
but the opposite of torture, the gift
of entering the mind of another and finding
the incredible city of brilliance
that is built there and falling to your knees
for no reason except common
wonder. I am thinking of all the mares
of our fathers bowing in the grasses
of our country and the sock of gasoline
pressed between your own lips
and lit there. I am thinking of the extinction
of one kind of language
of heaven, our own mouths and
our own fingers on the flint and of
fire, of cities of fire which we all of us
may be heir to. I am
kneeling with you before the great oak doors
of April and thinking of the one prayer
we can half begin to muster, for
clarity, for simple, worldly clarity,
the one, wild entrance
to our own home, whose thin
gate, made thinner by our presence, we
none of us may ever be
heir to, but whose key
is cut in clarity, whose anterooms,
whose vast and ample anterooms
our kind may one day enter,
when the body finds its place
beside its altar, when we have broken down
the barrier between us,
when the great thing is still nothing
but to go on, though the end
comes, indifferent
but forgiven, with the almost enduring
sweetness of its near-
redeeming singing,
though to live has cost the afterlife and all.

– from Inheritance (2014)

Mahler in New York

Now when I go out, the wind pulls me
into the grave. I go out
to part the hair of a child I left behind,

and he pushes his face into my cuffs, to smell the wind.
If I carry my father with me, it is the way
a horse carries autumn in its mane.

If I remember my brother,
it is as if a buck had knelt down
in a room I was in.

I kneel, and the wind kneels down in me.
What is it to have a history, a flock
buried in the blindness of winter?

Try crawling with two violins
into the hallway of your father’s hearse.
It is filled with sparrows.

Sometimes I go to the field
and the field is bare. There is the wind,
which entrusts me;

there is a woman walking with a pail of milk,
a man who tilts his bread in the sun;
there is the black heart of a mare

in the milk—or is it the wind, the way it goes?
I don’t know about the wind, about the way
it goes. All I know is that sometimes

someone will pick up the black violin of his childhood
and start playing—that it sits there on his shoulder
like a thin gray falcon asleep in its blinders,

and that we carry each other this way
because it is the way we would like to be carried:
sometimes with mercy, sometimes without.

– from Fugue for Other Hands (2013) 

The Figure

You sit at a window and listen to your father
crossing the dark grasses of the fields

toward you, a moon soaking through his shoes as he shuffles the wind
aside, the night in his hands like an empty bridle.

How long have we been this way, you ask him.
It must be ages, the wind answers. It must be the music of the wind

turning your fingers to glass, turning the furniture of childhood
to the colors of horses, turning them away.

Your father is still crossing the acres, a light on his tongue
like a small coin from an empire that has always been ruined.

Now the dark flocks are drifting through his shoulders
with an odor of lavender, an odor of gold. Now he has turned

as though to go, but only knelt down with the heavy oars
of October on his forearms, to begin the horrible rowing.

You sit in a chair in the room. The wind lies open
on your lap like the score of a life you did not measure.

You rise. You turn back to the room and repeat what you know:
The earth is not a home. The night is not an empty bridle

in the hands of a man crossing a field with a new moon
in his old wool. We abandon the dead. We abandon them.

– from Inheritance (2014)

Testimony

If tonight the moon should arrive like a lost guide
crossing the fields with a bitter lantern in her hand,

her irides blind, her dresses mild, lie down and listen to her
find you; lie down and listen to the body become

the promise of no other, the sleeper in the garden
in its own arms, the exile in its own autumnal house.

You have woken. But no one has woken. You are changed,
but the light of change is bitter, the changing

is the threshold into winter. Traveler, rememberer, sleeper,
tonight, as you slumber where the dead are, if the moon’s hands

should discover you through fire, lie down
and listen to her hold you, the moon who has been away

so long now, the lost moon with her silver lips
and whisper, her body half in winter,

half in wool. Look at her, look at her, that drifter.
And if no one, if nothing comes to know you, if no song

comes to prove it isn’t over, tell yourself, in the moon’s
arms, she is no one; tell yourself, as you lose

love, it is after, that you alone are the bearer
in that changed place, you alone who have woken, and have

opened, you alone who can so love
what you are now and the vanishing that carries it away.

– from The Crossing (2018)

Odysseus

Think of the moment before the moment.
Before recognition. Before the nurse saw
the boar’s scar coursing down his thigh
where the world had first entered him
in the forests of childhood. Before
Penelope. Before his battle for her heart.
Think of his moment alone on the beach,
his sailors running up to the village
where girls stood wringing spices
from their hair. Think of the gods saying to him
you do not have to praise ruin anymore;
you do not have to praise what is lost.
How you imagine him is how you enter things.
He is kneeling. Or he is weeping. Or he is turning
toward the sea again, thinking of the great deeds
of the hopeless. Think of him lifting the sands
and touching them to his tongue, to see
if it is real. If it is home. If it is time. Think of the moment
before he knew he had stepped out of the myths
and into his life. Whether that means to you
that he would sing, or mourn, or be lessened.
And his patience when he rose up again
and took himself the long way
toward his kingdom, not knowing
if it had all changed, or if love
had lasted, or if anything can last.
Think of him as though he were your life,
as though you had sat waiting at a loom
for long, dark years, weaving and unweaving
what you are. Think of your life returning to you
with eyes that had seen death. And whether
you would look away if you saw him
pausing a moment among the gardens
and the horses, listening to the song
of each thing, the common things he had forgotten.
Think of him hearing your voice again,
hiding his face in his hands
as he listened, hearing a music
of losses and joys, pestilence
and bounty, a beauty that had prepared
a place for him. And whether you would have him
be changed by that, or return
to what he was, or become
what he had come this way to become.

– from The Crossing (2018)

Letter

Tonight, as you walk out
into the stars, or the forest, or the city,
look up
as you must have looked
before love came,
before love went,
before ash was ash.
Look at them: the city’s
mists, the winters.
And the moon’s glass
you must have held once
in beginning.
That new moon
you must have touched once
in the waters,
saying change me, change
me, change me
. All I want
is to be more of what I am.

– from The Crossing (2018)

Grace

You’ve seen them in the deep sleep
of the season: figures sitting in a garden,
light on their faces as you enter.
Has it been years? It’s been years.
You lie in the light of morning, thinking
the heart is birds under a river, dark
as all the dresses you’ve never mended
of the ones you didn’t allow to love you.
And yet, Issa wrote, And yet.
And yet there is music in me: In the asylum
at Arles, Van Gogh wrote to his brother
the only words he could muster
for the fire that had overwhelmed his life.
And then he wandered out to remake the stars.
Look at the lindens casting their shadows
on the canvases. Look at you
looking at them, looking
at the wind, believing
someone will come back in a long
silk dress, her body like music
you once moved through.
Look at the sycamores
brushing against the panes
of the locked ward, the master turning away
to touch his ear in the shadows.
Look at him holding
his body, knowing
what the wind might be, and that it isn’t.
I am in it, he wrote, with all my heart.
Let us close our eyes to the magnitude
and open them. Let us walk out
through the garden where our ghosts are
and stand awhile in the dark arms
of the cypresses, listening to them
as they ask us to outlast them.
The heart is built like horses
in the lemon groves, walking to us
through the tallest stalks at evening.
Look at them. They were wild,
once; they will stand.
They are burying their tremendous heads
in our chests again, whinnying
for the open road through foliage,
their rolling shoulders woken
in moonlight—and proving, proving,
as the lost do, that immensity
will only dare to come to you
when surrender is ready in your hands.

– from The Crossing (2018)

The Great Questions Were Never Ours

But whole lives have been wasted on them. Whether
ten-thousand angels can dance on the head

of a pin, or twenty. Whether the body
writhing on the torturer’s table, its twisted hymns

trembling the throne-room, is the crack in the Empire’s
magnificence, or its eyes have seen God.

And no less because they shake no
nations: A man stands on the Ponte Vecchio,

casting his hat on the waters. He watches
the black silk hatband curl out onto the current,

glistening. Should he return to her? Can anything
return? The bridegroom in the ruins. The daughter

by the deathbed. Whether to mourn, whether
to shine. Whether the house in the twisting arms of the fire

is burning, simply burning, or the world is the song
forgiveness would sing, had it the words. Words,

words, words, the sweet Prince
sang, when he was asked what was the matter. Whether

to say them, neighbors, or be them. To sing
or be the song. Come, my brothers

and sisters. It is late. An Empire is dying. Look out
into the summer plums, the sea again.

We stand for years at the edge
of a field, waiting for our lives to return to us

like a woman in a blue, silk dress, staring into the trees.
Look at her: she has been dancing. She has flowers

in her hair, a dance card in her waistband.
The difference between the long lament of exile

and the astonishing art of losing
is whether she will feel the tender, hesitant hand on her shoulder

as diminishment or a thing she has no name for
when it comes again to gather her into the dance.

– from The Crossing (2018)

The Joy That Tends Toward Unbecoming

Say five men carry a sixth from the birches.
He is thin from his night inside the river.
Someone has pushed his wrists through his belt
so it seems he has been out gathering blue flowers.

Someone is shouting the richer gospels.
I remember a woman leaning on the window,
thinking death had loosed its bird in the house.
I remember the bird fell on the third day

and I had to line my hands with a nest of old straw.
That night they found a boy in the square
like a foal, smelling of onion grass.
Someone had let a black swan

into the barn where the boy was kept
and in the moonlight we saw dark plumage in his fists.
Say you were the wild gift, how it had quarreled
and come near. Say you had been torn.

– from Fugue for Other Hands (2013)

October

This is the season in which the lambs begin
to die, in which the boy in his red and blue plaid

shirt gets down on his wrists and his knees to crawl
into the moorland at night and spread a cross of pumice

on their foreheads, in which he reads to them a hymn
like a freighter burning with a cargo of ripened fruit

because in the morning he will have to kill them.
Because in the morning he will wake to find his father

standing in the hall like a horse with a lamp in its mouth
and he will have to wade into a river with only that silence

in his arms, and he will harm them. Because every year
I watch him stand at the threshold of a season and begin

to call them, to hold the ruined bodies of the dead
with only a dim chord of flame between his lips

and to touch them, to touch them
and to be with them, to touch them

and to sing with them, the way a child
touches everything, with the hand of his murderer.

– from Fugue for Other Hands (2013)

Tattoo

All night I’ve listened to the voice of a dead singer
from Memphis, Tennessee, who jumped up my stairs with a carnation

over each ear, once, and showed me his frail entrance wound
trembling over his eye like a hive; who convinced me

the voice of Christ is only the tenor of every slave who forgot
to be your father, then said he’d watched his family

carry a stallion from their house, in summer, while it burned
through a Mississippi night, and would I listen more.

I have always wanted to climb inside his voice and paint a huntress
up there, like a tribe I must come from. I have always wanted to sleep

with the nails of Christ in my mouth and suck whatever word
he didn’t draw from them, then bury them with his blue hair

in a constant orchard; I have wanted to eat that fruit again.

But tonight I only want to crawl down there with you, brother,
into the water, because I have been listening to your voice and all

its yellow locusts sifting through the trees I planted by hand,
alone, in these fields. Because I was the one who took those blossoms

from your ears, and laid them out on the wooden table. Because I remember
how you placed the river like a whetstone in your throat, and fell,

and the water has washed off the word you carried on your shoulder
and did not want.

– from Fugue for Other Hands (2013)

Hymn

Nec vitia nostra nec remedia pati possumus
– Livy

We are like strangers in the wild places. We watch
the deer swinging the intricate velvet from its antlers, never knowing
we are only as immense as what we shed in the dance.

The bride and bridegroom stand at the altar. Each thing
learned in mercy has as river in it. It holds the cargo
of a thousand crafts of fire that went down at evening.

We can neither endure our misfortunes nor face
the remedies needed to cure them. The fawns move
through the forest, and we move through the ruins of the dance.

Like Job, the mourner lays his head on the cold oak
of the table. His heart is a hundred calla lilies
under the muck of the river, opening before evening.

We think there is another shore. We stand with the new life
like a mooring rope across our shoulders, never guessing
that the staying is the freightage of the dance.

Orpheus turned to see his Eurydice gone. The Furies tore him
into pieces. The sun, he said, I will worship the sun.
But something in his ruin cried out for evening, evening, evening.

The wrens build at dusk. Friends, I love their moss-dressed
nests twisting in the pitch of the rafters, for they have taught me
that the ruins of the dance are the dance.