Out of the quarrel with others we make rhetoric; out of the quarrel with ourselves we make poetry.
PSALM OF BIRDS AND BIRTHDAYS
(for Marjorie Evasco)
You hold a small bird to your breast.
You who have mothered and know how
it is to nurse a second fluttering heart,
to let your body make space for another
as if it were the most natural thing
now shape your sure hand lightly into wing;
a gesture of compassion, like prayer, as free
of hesitant desire as the hatchling knows of fear
and what must surely come, one cloudless day
in unmistaken whispers. This is Hope:
the clear eye fixed beyond the narrow frame,
the fragile talon poised on no more firm foundation
than this flesh, the ruffled down sufficient and at trust.
I, a weak father, lack the language and the innocence
to call down angels. Once I found a fallen nestling
whose parents’ unschooled artistry did not after all
withstand the previous evening’s storm. Blind,
leathery and clawing, ants come already to plunder,
I scooped it (not untenderly) to shade, covered
it with leaves. Was the decent thing to have kept vigil
or leave quietly? My daughter, 4, knows that goldfish
go to heaven when they go, but more to the point,
that they don’t come back. She leans on my arm, asks
me never to die, her small heart strong enough to love
and not tire. What do we do to earn our time on earth?
From OTHER THINGS AND OTHER POEMS (Brutal, Croatia: 2012)
“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow”— Amana Colony, Iowa, Sept 14.
To buy a potted plant is to admit both faithlessness and need. To water the plant, perhaps daily, perhaps once in a while when you remember and the leaves start to droop, is as close to love as it gets.
Other things mean other things.
To light a lamp is to hide darkness in the same closet as sleep, along with silence, desire, and yesterday's obsessions. To read a book is to marry two solitudes, the way a conversation erases and erects, words prepare for wordlessness, a cloud for its own absence, and snow undresses for spring.
The bedroom is where you left it, although the creases and humps on the sheets no longer share your outline and worldview. In that way, they are like the children you never had time for.
A cooking pot asks the difficult questions: what will burn and for how long and to what end.
TV comes from the devil who comes from god who comes and goes as he pleases. To hide the remote control in someone's house is clearly a sin, but to take the wrong umbrella home is merely human.
The phone is too white to be taunting you. The door you shut stays shut. The night is reason enough for tomorrow, whatever you believe.
Remember, the car keys will be there after the dance. Walls hold peace as much as distance. A kettle is not reason enough for tears.
The correct answer to a mirror is always, yes.
SO MANY WAYS OUR FATHERS MARK US
(for kirpal and christopher)
so many ways our fathers mark us
each syllable of bone, phrasing of flesh, but also
the skin we put on, a way of letting our fathers speak
through and for us, with each other
always a hair's breadth away from refusal
and later the heft and weight of language
oar and rudder on the palate, finding our own
stained grammar in the wood-ash of their passing,
heaving the smoking axes on our tongues
as the shadowy wings behind our mothers,
reminders also that memory turns to seed
in beatings and beratings, in carefully counted cane-strokes
which sting on my thigh twenty years after their fading
he may tell you the names of angsana, balsam, cherry blossom
he may teach you the meaning of bereft
you may never become him
though you spend your life running to catch up
already he is in the distance, waving with his arms
(which you think beckon you forward): go elsewhere
each year you reach less to kiss him
there is less fur to tug at, and more snow
each year he takes one more step into the storehouse of images
he takes his place among the harried shopkeepers, the angels
and fallen kings, the sleeping heroes and carpenters
often we mark our fathers down
we put down the book and he is there
eyes on an elsewhere outside of you
only when you nudge the door open on an empty room
do you truly hear him
the dust whispers it; your footsteps form the vowels
every day you relearn his name
as you clear your throat to speak
WHEN THE BARBARIANS ARRIVE
lay out the dead, but do not mourn them overmuch.
a mild sentimentality is proper. nostalgia will be expected on demand.
cremate: conserve land, regret no secrets. prepare ashes for those with cameras.
hide your best furniture. tear down monuments. first to go are statues with arms outstretched in victory, and then anything with lions.
it is safer to consort with loss, to know the ground yet suggest no mysteries.
have at hand servants good with numbers. err in their favour between schemes.
keep all receipts out of sight. as soon as is proper, embrace their laws and decline all credit for your own.
confound their historians. give up the wrong recipe for ketupat, for otak.
lay claim to the tongue of roots, the provenance of trees. when the chiku blooms, tell them it is linden. when linden, tell them it is ginko.
recommend laxatives as love potions. attribute pain to the passage of hard feelings. there will be a surge
of interest in soothsaying. do not tell them how it will end, or when. progress, while difficult, is always being made.
on no account acknowledge what your folktales imply.
never deal in the dark unless you can see the whites of their eyes. when they speak of god
bow your head to veil piety, shame, laughter, or indifference.
dress your children like their long-dead elders. marry your daughters to them.
soon you will attend the same funerals.
From WHEN THE BARBARIANS ARRIVE (ARC, UK: 2012)