It’s a life rumble, there’s no room to be had,
most of the time you’re either hoarding or wasting
and you’ve lost that star someplace, the bright one
you were supposed to steer by, but I’m not judging,
I’ve just been thinking about you, how you navigate and how
we used to read frank o hara and envy his walking down
seventh avenue, it was so simple for him, all those newsstands,
but I’m winding along myself now, the fall air blue-hearted
and full of grudge, and there’s always that strange woe
in my head, and you say oh, it’s everywhere now, but I’m telling you
we can’t keep going on like this, failing everything we plotted
so hard to keep, and it’s not that we can’t find our voices for it
it’s just that the maps are no good anymore, too many thieves
and no retribution. What I mean is I am not as ready as I was before,
there are so many poems to burn that I can’t tell one from another.
Sometimes I sing for hours, only one song, only in parts,
and last night I sharpened a box of pencils, slow, like dreaming.
Do you remember what those wood shavings smell like,
the curls, sometimes forlorn, sometimes confused,
and the pencils themselves, do you hear what I’m saying,
long, yellow, number and style pressed on their eager flanks
but then all that naked lead honed and grinning in the lamplight,
you wind up thinking they would just as soon be killing something.
He fed the feral cats who turned the porch into a round-house
with their joy and scurry. He sat with the poem, which he hoped
might redeem something, and where he tried to find an opening
that would possibly release him for an instant or even an hour.
The poem did not come easily. The brick-colored sky as the mountains
burned, the haze, the febrile snow of ash, this city, which beggared
all cities because at its heart it was not one of them. Its rivers
were the boulevards, its freeways scored the flood plain from foothill
to ocean, its center would not hold because there was no center.
The orange cat danced his wild circle, the black cat lifted a balletic paw,
the gray yowled pitifully because it was the only language he had
ever learned. Later there were skunks and raccoons. They fled down
the cemented flood canals as their highways. Drought and flame drove
them to the easy life of dumpsters and gardens. Now he found himself
standing at one end of the earth. And now he stood alone at the end
of something more than the earth, for where had all his love vanished?
His disasters and jubilations? The brash, the timorous, the wisdom
and folly? How far in time and space? The poem did not come easily,
as if it knew its own work was to raise circumstance to something
that was his, something that did not lie beyond his own direction.
If he said death, the poem would say life forever, for whatever rightly
came to the poem would be snatched from the furnaces of mortal ruin.
He suddenly believed this. The ash fell upon the streets in silence,
the clouds could only be the breath of fire, the yard became his bastion
in the metropolis. This was what the poem seemed to tell him. It was
nothing he did not already know. But in the poem now, nothing could
be touched or altered. This would be the poem’s secret happiness.
A poem put to breath never stuttered or stalled. A poem can be loved
if it takes you back to gambol among that mottled crowd of your past
selves, to admire or judge them, but this poem, if he really listened to it,
only wanted him to shed those selves. He did not come to this easily.
It wanted him. It wanted him fevered and naked, lustful, narcotized,
burning, remanded to its own artful desires, which he saw as the gestures
from another world. It was the world he had always been searching for.
first there must be cages, they must not be too large
but they must be sturdy, steel and wire, and they
must come from someplace, be made by men and women,
maybe in the factories of Illinois or perhaps Shanghai,
and then they arrive on black-hulled ships and bright trains,
and the whistling semi-trailers we pass on the interstates,
and they must be unloaded, they must be put into place,
and later the children must come, and the children are easier,
they are like those rare butterflies that migrate north each year,
the children cost us nothing and must only be set apart
from their mothers and fathers who also are easily divided
by remand and are disappeared back into whatever gloom
they risked everything to flee, always carrying nothing,
never dreaming that the children would be taken from them
and put into cages, because the children are the easiest to put
into the cages, and then everything can be complete, every
bargain sealed, you can breathe painlessly now, see the photo
of the young girl, is she four, five, her swollen fingers gripping
the wire mesh of her cage, her eyes looking into the camera
beyond any metric of terror or despair or destruction and
she is our unqualified proof that we will be safe again, that
it is our liberty that will triumph, our license and privilege
maintained, our dreams calm again, and all the time it was
so simple, we only needed the steel cages, and then again,
so simple, we only needed to put the children in them.