The Desire to Shine Without Burning
The full moon is high above the city tonight.
It has paused between the towers of the World Trade Center,
perfectly balanced, and indifferent. The cat is asleep
on the green rug, belly-up, while trucks below
gnash their gears at the light,
breathe hard, and accelerate toward the river.
Nothing else seems to want love
or to stare at the moon with desire. The river unwinds
its length alongside the city, shining
with a mineral brilliance, when stars float
among the spilled bodies of oil. There are nights
when the sky is opaque and final, no face,
and the black water does not move at all.
Moon, blind eye opening and closing,
I am here, down here where the cat is asleep
and trucks, growling out of reach,
rattle the joints of the bridges in rage.
Couples pause between streetlamps
and go on. I can hear
their voices fall away like water,
water falling over rocks,
and I am the only one talking to the moon.
I would like to be silent, move as I was made
into darkness and back, never bargain
for love, or change before it. All things
which are serene receive light, which is a grace
given, a grace also unfolding
to receive. Fix me, let me know
how to move and stand still, to be bright
then invisible, without dying. Give me
blessing like water continually flowing
–a light not my own, not the river’s.
You wade into the water
as if you were stepping off the world.
You go far out
where I can’t follow, where water
is one color with the sky, and you
between them, going under.
Water does not exist; the night
has taken your legs. You are in the sky
with night above and below you.
Your half-body stands, turns;
you dip the bucket into the sky
and carry it back to me, brimming
with night, and you pour into my arms
the heavy night. You fill my arms
with water; I feel it cold against me
and you turn and go back to fill the bucket again.
In your high boots, your father’s boots,
you can wade into the water
and nothing can touch you. You only lose
half your body. Come back
and help me carry this basin
of darkness uphill without spilling.
When we wash ourselves in this water
we will be invisible all night.
These woods have no memory and do not end,
indistinct beyond the black tendons of pines
that twist upward into the air, holding themselves still.
Beyond, all blank and quiet now,
snow falls straight down, no wind, almost
nothing moving, and I stand here nowhere staring
into the white space of everything that happens.
Grass and weeds stick through the pond’s ice
like stubble in an open field, where once in Michigan
I stood at dusk. Black birds flew past me,
rising and falling, toward the far trees,
flew past me like a stone, or a shadow on the ground.
They seemed like something torn out of the earth,
its naked furrows broken at my feet. Behind me, windows
opened bright eyes at evening. I would not go back.
It’s nearly dark now; snow surrounds me, forms
repeat and don’t repeat, touching everything at once.
I want to stay here, like staying inside a memory
of a bad time, that is no longer painful. Now I see
how beautiful the trees always were,
the deep, responsive peace among them,
and tangled lines of cat-brier knotting
the world together, the muscular grace of hills,
and deep tracks some dog made running sideways along the ridge.
A jay, dull in snow-light, rattling branches overhead,
seems to call back every living thing I looked at
once, through a narrow window of sorrow
in a winter before he lived, when another season’s birds
threw themselves hungrily into the sky.
It was not sorrow, but rage, that slid over me like ice
then, sealing the world in perfect, silent cold.
I was still, and in me nothing moved,
yet the seasons carried me within them, turned me
back and forward again, so I moved inside the years.
This storm began over the Great Lakes and traveled east;
it was in Michigan three days ago and kept on
to this coast where every weather ends, where storms
are lost at sea. I am here. I am lost.
And if, far back in Michigan, another storm falls into evening,
may I stand in another life? I would not go back.
That jay, flying off after some new desire of his own,
has been flying ahead of me for years:
generous messenger among the downward-drifting bodies,
hurrying, though none will be saved. Don’t stop,
I am telling him. I am here; I will be there soon,
where you are going.
That winter there were no words for it at all.
Now nothing is left but objects,
the lies they tell in breaking. Insomnia
chipped sleep at the edges, until our dreams
grew sharp as glass. I marked off days
on the calendar, numbers that grew toward an ending
each time, starting over when I turned the page.
In April the ground started giving up bodies,
the half-digested snakes and rodents,
translucent wings of the largest insects.
Snow ran downhill in streams, filling the lake,
which started to move with that current,
carrying broken ice toward shore.
I remember the doe chased down by dogs
in December, who leaped from the bank in terror,
crashed through ice, went down and froze there.
The thaw brought her finally across
and bumped her against the bank, but she couldn’t
climb out, gripped by that cold that stops time,
though the sun was warming her, softening flesh.
And though we walked there without anger.
there was space for another to stand between us.
It was a slow crossing; it was a winter without words,
and the cold stayed deep in the ground until May.
They fished her out with hooks; the body came apart,
disjointing as they lifted, and they laid her down
in a wooded place, away from the beach, this time
taken under, this time no more.
Cast Iron District at Dawn
Far down the street an engine curses and starts.
The sound startles pigeons, waking to pick
crumbs in the gutter, their undisturbed hour.
Sunday: no one is going to work.
All down the wide street no one is walking.
A torn poster blown against a loft window
draws the eye upward; note
the building’s outmoded grace which survives neglect,
the high-arched windows and generous double doors.
The warehouses closed today, the rooms
where women and children sewed, bent-backed from dawn
through evening, empty for years now and dark as ever.
Here: iron grilles locked against storefronts,
the newsstand’s shuttered front denies responsibility
and the long street never turns to look back.
It is a sinister hour after all. In doorways
men are waking who begrudge the couples upstairs
their morning sleep. Still, morning unaware
comes with its blue light into the city,
a bloodless sky whose light arrives modestly,
evenly, in every corner with a true innocence
that does not discriminate. The air is cool,
smell of the sea nearby, the expectation of gulls.
Trees in the park shake their leafless branches
tenderly, and the sunken amphitheater
around the fountain, and the stones arranged
in their lovely diagonals, invite you. This hour
belongs to no one. Its peacefulness disturbs you
because it is uncommitted, like the dream
in which only you survive the holocaust,
like your own future which you will make out of streets,
buildings, forgotten faces, faces not yet imagined.
The Holiday Suicides
It is the week before Thanksgiving.
From my office window I see the lights
come on at 4:00, up and down Second Avenue.
It has to do with the year ending,
this earlier darkness, these celebrations.
A line in the News says crisis centers
are training new volunteers
for the Christmas season. Everything
is ready for them. The weapons
are in drugstores and kitchen drawers.
Most of the things you own can be weapons;
even your own car will take you there
if you close the doors and keep driving
in the same place. The hospital attendants
with their beautiful white hands are on duty
and there are places in the ground
where no one is buried yet, that will take you in.
Lights go up in store windows; on the street
you pass people who don’t yet know
they will decide to die. You
may be one of them—it may switch on in you
suddenly, what you are going to give yourself
this year. And there are always
the last-minute adventurers who put it off for weeks
and have to get drunk and smash their cars
in the last hours before midnight on New Year’s.
In some countries they burn everything
when the year ends, to make a space for the new.
This has to do with the darkness
that keeps coming earlier through December,
and that imperceptible, frightening change
when it stops diminishing your days.
You get used to the encroachment of night—
it seems like a cheat when it turns
just when you start to give in to it. You’ve had
to give up so much just to get this far.
Then you may get drunk with it
and start giving away things you really need.
Your family, your possessions, all want you
to care for them. It seems everything
is asking too much; there are still
cold months ahead, and no one is taking this
seriously. People who try to advise you
are worried themselves. They’ve noticed bridges
are higher than they thought, and more beautiful.
It all has to do with the first big snowfall
when everything stops and the large drifts cover
the dirty and broken things, and everyone stays
in bed all morning, and lets it fall.
From the hollows under rocks, from the hidden
seed in the ground, from grasses that kept,
secretly, their small fire near the roots,
this rain is taking everything away. Boats,
fences, the undersides of shingles, feel
the rain slide through the cracks, finding
and taking the hoarded warmth. And not only
wood and earth, but bodies chill, giving up
the memory of their last embraces, like leaves
caught in the fork of a tree, held by the wish
to be covered. Rain pulls the leaves down
and lifts the footprints under windows.
It rains until the gutters fill and start to break
away from eaves, until the low ground
floods and animals are scared from their dens.
When you wake and hear a rain like this,
give up. Confess where you have hidden your desires.
Let the rain take the fire away.
Not the Atlantic
This poem is not about the Atlantic, but it is nearby,
so close it can hear the boats offshore, and the waves
falling over, the white-bellied terns crying over their nests.
So close we can see it whenever we want to, which is not often,
and never for long, because if anything is interesting,
it’s not the Atlantic. Flat, and too wide to measure,
with a color that really belongs to the sky, there’s nothing
there to make the mind hold still. And when the poem learns
the truth about waves, how they travel light, like rumors,
and nothing goes with them, the poem is ready to give up!
It says the Atlantic is too cold to go into right now
and it stays there at the edge with whatever it finds there: wooden
pulleys and bottles, a dogfish dead in the sand, smooth stones,
and beach grass bent over in wind. An injured gull
picks seaweed for insects, and below this hill the Atlantic
left years ago, a girl urges a white horse across the rim of
exploding breakers, their blonde manes waving and running behind.
But still, none of this is about the Atlantic,
because the Atlantic is impossible; because it is about things
being here, but not about the things themselves. And we’re here
at the edge, where things we can name are discarded
and sand bars trip waves to collapse at our feet. On this shore
which is not the Atlantic, with these nearby birds who are not
the Atlantic, as sand is not, or water, or any other words.
And if not the Atlantic, then none of these: grass, fire, hill,
and we are not here in this poem and no objects are near us.
The marsh hawk flies low, hunting
nests in the grass. I strip
plum branches hurriedly, charged
as if that wing’s shadow touched me,
spread like a fierce, transforming angel
on the ground. Nobody wants to be saved!
Hurry, the storm is coming.
thunder is hungry for anything free.
My house has thin boards and it tries to fly
away when the wind comes to lift it.
Wasps sing in religious fury
over the door. Golden, bit by
sun-fire, all day they have been stinging
the ripe plums.
Now they fold their wings
in the tight places under eaves.
Their hard jaws
make wood houses paper; purple nectar
falls slowly, in heavy drops like wine.
Paper houses, sustenance of fruit,
the purple welts swelling
under my skin, venomous kisses,
as I fall through the guarded
entrance into the other life.