The longest night
arrives as if everything were normal,
as if this street of dreams, bathed in shadow,
is meant for us to enter, enchanted,
to find a place of comfort here, to pray
to a starless sky, blanketed in the absence
It’s better this way, easier to forget
the day’s list of tragedies, the deaths
of old friends, the plague besieging us,
each alone in a curtained room,
trying to breathe.
We are Johah in the belly of the whale.
We are Job, enduring a biblical sequence
of tortures. We are the martyred Messiah’s
procession of saints and centuries, crucified
A lightless universe is ours now,
a dubious grace freely given
by the gods who take pleasure
in human pain. We try not to remember
nights spangled with sequined stars.
Is this a blessing or a punishment,
this quilt of death, this musty breath
that sucks us up like the mouth
of a New York subway, stinking
of human decay? We wait until a roaring train
arrives to carry us, masked and dying, jolting
to whatever lies beyond the too-bright lights.
There are times when it’s better not to see.
The scent of fear infects our breath,
our animal smell, crowded as we are
on a blue planet, shrouded in a coverlet
knit from the horrors of a discarded day,
spinning on the dark side of the moon.
Medusa Crashes the Party
I know why
you won’t look me in the eye.
It’s not the glare from the golden scales
that substitute for a woman’s skin,
nor my hair of hissing serpents.
I do not own a comb nor flowing
robes of silk, for my body
owns itself, in case you hadn’t noticed.
Kings and revelers, I arrive at your feast
to turn you into stone. You richly deserve it.
You have impoverished the many
and favored the few.
Children shiver in cages while
their mothers weep, and many a father
has died with a knee on their neck.
My eyes tell the truth,
which is what you fear most.
So drink your wine, partiers,
and eat your meat and fruit,
smell the rot which hangs in the air
like the plague you deny. Sing
your bawdy songs of pleasure
while peasants die in your fields,
poisoned by your villainous smoke. I will
blow it back in your cretinous faces,
while your limbs petrify, heavy
with their own evil.
Don’t look away. It’s too late for that.
One of you will die each time a serpent
uncoils as one of my beauteous tresses,
each moment that our eyes meet
across the distance of your luxurious lawns,
your rose garden of decaying blooms.
At nine, I used to sit at the kitchen table
in the early morning, reading the cereal box
while slurping Cheerios, then switching to
Nancy Drew, hungry for stories to enter me
like magic, like those that come to me today
in the coded mysteries of la bella lingua.
Now, I have abandoned books in English
for those in the language of my nonno,
which rises before me like the Duomo in Milan,
Bernini’s saints in Vatican Square, or coins
tossed in the Trevi Fountain. I swim the river of verbs,
migrate to the garden of gender, pick my way
through the toxic forest of pronouns.
Today, I rediscover The Little World of Don Camillo.
A simple parish priest despairs of the hippies
who have invaded the village. Slipping into church,
he talks with Jesus on the Cross, lamenting
long-haired youth and Communists. Jesus looks down,
reminds him that during his short life on earth,
He, too, was a hippie.
Then, tired of hunting words in three dictionaries,
I slip between the sheets of a Harmony romance,
a variation on Pride and Prejudice, with idioms
for flirtation and underwear, with vowels
bright as sequins on a cocktail dress. The couple
plays verbal tennis until the eventual climax,
a bedroom scene worthy of any bodice-ripper,
involving consenting adults in a five-star hotel
or a Gothic castle in the moonlight.
These books are my friends, unlike
the dreaded grammar texts or verb workbooks,
which betray me at every opportunity. These books
whisper to me at night, gossip about sentimental plots,
distant lovers and Christ crucified, bloom inside me
like a field of Tuscan poppies.
The right word hides in a swamp,
surrounded by toads with throats
pulsing red like lost syllables,
or curls up like the hedgehog in the boxwoods
behind the garage which guards the tools
that drill into meaning or saw into raw phenomena,
leaving a trail of blood behind the rhododendron.
And up in the attic the bats write on angled ceilings
with the juices they drank from a victim’s neck.
Basement vowels creep like mice,
nibbling an old notebook full of dead paragraphs,
or like dryer lint that clings to the dark sleeve
of a Russian novel, a fabled remnant.
The cellar steps groan from the weight of consonants,
out of the lips of ghosts who never realize that
the stairs beneath their feet are speaking in tongues.
An old carpet lies rolled at the edge of nowhere,
concealing not Cleopatra but the diphthongs
of silent sopranos vocalizing up the chimney where,
on the roof, dead reindeer resurrect themselves
with blinking noses that defy the tyranny of winter-
studded stars to light ancient carols for warm-bedded
children dreaming of plums and toys.
And the darkness inside a pair of snow-shawled
boots spews a crush of pink peonies or
a spray of sand from a beach in Miami that screams
Save Me! into the mouth of the ever-encroaching sea.
And the distant thunder of cracking icebergs answers
in an unknown language, pulling words from the bowels
of the tundra, sending them to the plains of Argentina
and the caves of Seville, where flamenco dancers
tuck them into guitars and decolletage.
The search resumes tomorrow, when the sun
will rise like a giant cauliflower in a broccoli sky.
Lines and Spaces
All morning, I have been telephoning abroad,
talking of politics, plagues and our vain efforts
to control any of it. Our languages are clumsy,
knit together with dropped stitches, our voices
warming to distant communion. I swear
one day I’ll visit Bordeaux and Berlin, see my niece
in Madrid, drive to family in the hills of Lancashire,
drink coffee again with cousins in Bergamo.
I will renew my passport, subject myself
to the ocean of airline indignities,
arrive exhausted at a changeover airport
bursting with more lines, security checks,
immigration, full-body x-rays, human chaos.
I’ve read of hijackings, the mass mayhem of guns,
and nations’ sovereignty. Wars have been fought
and tribes separated by tyrants, flags planted to claim
an arbitrary patch of earth, a different alphabet.
Elephants have crossed the Alps for this.
Islands and glaciers have merged, emerged
and disappeared into seas of fish and plastic.
Here’s a photo taken from space
of something not owned, miles beyond
gravity and greed. Globed blues and greens
shimmer through the cosmos, a topography
not of our making, turning slow on its axis, sea and land
a pas-de-deux to the inaudible music of the spheres.
Who wants anything less would do well
not to mend walls but lower them, stone by stone,
open meadows to whoever’s feet leads them there
to speak to their neighbors and sheep, to swap recipes,
books, hived honey, to share a sunset that drops
a purple cloak on our communal home.