Give & take is how the great sun sets
& the moon rises, how beloved Venus
glows there as if she never came too close
to the sun, & as if Mercury is not a hunk
of metal fused by indescribable brightness.
Indeed, give & take is how our planet
moves & breathes, & we at the top
of the food chain hardly even notice,
waiting for horses to tell us about a wave.
Those who love the winds of time
know one another the way horses know
first by smell, or by the same way trees
breathe pheromones in the air to signal
rain or a pest arriving from a distance.
We have forgotten how to listen
to planetary clues—water blooms
with algae, or, you’re forgetting, Mercury
in the horizon is first to carry news.
I sit here, thinking like a poet, asking,
Why is there water & oil under earth,
& does nature always have a reason?
Liquid tonnage balances the planet.
Tectonic plates glide over each other
or buckle, raising earth. I stand here,
promising ghosts who came before,
who know weight of a sledgehammer
anchoring one’s shadow to the floor.
Remember those days we stood together
in Washington Square by the fountain
where the Lakota taught us the true
spirit of water? The medicine man
held a prayer stick made of antlers
& plumes of goose & raven feathers,
months before the pipeline leaked oil
into wetlands, mucking up Dakota’s
wildlife & threatening tributaries.
It hurts me to say, but I feel Flint,
Michigan, where water flows yellow
& old lead pipes leach bitter residue
continuing to steal true hard futures
of those not yet born, where my cousin
Beatrice died years ago of breast cancer.
I wonder if she revisited Bogalusa’s
twilit days when we were teenagers,
& I read “No, no, not night” to her.
Do all poet’s love a Beatrice, I wonder,
we sing to even after she’s gone?
Somehow, it’s true, the green is worn down,
even as spring turns to summer & oaks
are all leaving & cardinals are singing
but I know what terrible beauty’s to come.
Last night I walked in the dark under Venus
past woods on the right & the left,
where something was watching me think.
Fear rides the eluding hippocampus,
& dare comes as mountain lion, viper,
malady unknown to humans, as polio,
which came for the poor & the rich—
for beauty, hobo, merchant, or future
president of these United States of
America, as FDR, held tall at a podium
by an iron brace, a big smile, & witty
silver tongue on early fireside radio.
I miss those bygone days I never knew,
this melancholia for an America buried deep
in the gut, an idea my father taught me.
Wasn’t it Baudelaire who suggested a poet
has no allegiance but to the work of art?
No country besides the heart? It’s hard
to shake the feeling of place you carry
inside you, even when the truth comes clear
as looking in a room of mirrors of the mind.
My face is in a chrome rearview mirror,
& I see the road ahead & behind too.
I’m still on my way to Warm Springs,
Georgia, where FDR built a retreat
for those afflicted by polio—no blacks
allowed—before our soldiers fought
under the same flag. Now, how far is it
from where they shot Ahmaud Arbery
in early light? I smell Christmas pines.
True, not much has changed, maybe,
when we shed light on those deep southern
minds, when two grab rifles as if to chase
a deer paused for a drink of water. Look,
the clay has gone red. How do we restore
justice at a time like this when men in masks
wait in a line that wraps around a gun shop?
The future looks grim. In today’s NY Times
I read a letter to the left—a call to arms.
I am blessed not be angry at some hot-
blooded fortuneteller still half-lost,
gazing up toward the cosmos, dumb-
struck by this monstrous hourglass.
One stares up like a large red rooster
as a hawk circles overhead, swirling down,
& the prey cannot take its eyes off
the bloody circling hawk. Forgive me
for this damn red rose in my lapel.
I’ve never been one for red roses, but
Hitler would paint their heads lilting up
& down from the stems. Imagine the world
had Vienna not told him to give up
on true art. Instead, think of Lee Miller’s
photograph as she bathes in the dictator’s tub,
taken while he burned in a garden outside a bunker.
She staged his portrait behind her, a white marble
nude on the vanity, her muddy boots on the mat.
No, I do not come with a beaten suitcase
stuffed with outdated medical journals
to later cut & paste into fantastic animals
& creatures longing for an anti-world
after WWI. Love, go & ask the new Kiki
on our city block. This isn’t my suitcase.
Look at all the unusual paraphernalia.
Here’s a treasure, but these pictures
are scary. I think this is Max Ernst’s.
Remember the ballet of birds & sea monster
costumes by his familiar, Dorothea Tanning?
Before they met playing chess, she painted
a self-portrait partially nude, Birthday, 1942,
where she’s about to shed the chimera
of her dress, royal purple silk & gold sleeves,
her skirt made of sea grass. A winged monkey
at her feet. She gazes toward some somber room,
about to walk through many opening doors behind her.
When the circus rolled into a city or town
on greased wheels of hilarity, taboo, brag,
& the forbidden, wagons groaned, & sideshows
drew us in: a bearded lady, an armless
man who penned fancy notes with his toes
for fifty cents, a boy with angel feathers
on his chest. Now I wonder what viruses
other than the common cold marched in
as elephants & monkeys stepped to a drumbeat.
It could be the magician relies heavily
on the one he saws in half, lady in red
born from a flaming torch who floats now
before our eyes. He spins her for the crowd
who watches close to catch the slight of hand.
She laughs as he lowers her into the box.
Surely, she’s the distraction from the secrets
he performs & she keeps, a magical mystery tour,
of sorts, but, the world wants to be deceived.
The smallest circus you’ll ever see is the princess
in a tutu on a white stallion, the saddest clown
& his granddaughter, a high-wire walker,
& the mermaid in a tall glass bowl. The whole
town has to get a look, men & women pushing
boys & girls aside. The sheriff & the preacher
elbow their way in, & a throng of old sailors
pass a flask, conjuring obscene tales of sirens
sunning on rocks in sea mist, & origin of pox.
When giant battleships rolled down a river
to dock, fellas in dress blues drunk on piss
& pep pills would shake hands with gals
parading themselves on the piers,
in short dresses, their curls fashioned
with hairpins & false hope. But love
couldn’t last a week when ships pulled out,
so the trick, a two-handed handshake—
one on the elbow to check for bad blood.
Nero plays his big long yellow ivory comb
& a piece of paper stamped with tiny blue
& red stars. Look out! He has his smartphone
again, which is a hundred times smarter
than he is, clutching it like a hamburger.
Now, he looks as if in deep thought. Lord,
please help us. He’s getting ready to undercut
any decree before him, to enact a new tax break
for the rich. Ladies, he has that look in his eyes.
The Emperor fell for pueri delicati, sweet delights,
& took a eunuch bride, Poppaea’s look alike,
to atone the murder of his wife embalmed in spices,
acacia, thyme, lavender, cedar, rose & mint.
On their wedding day, the mistress of the wardrobe
dressed the Empress in delicate orange leather slippers
& a gown made of fine threads carried out of China
on the Silk Road. Upon his death, Nero’s child bride
gave him a ring depicting the Rape of Proserpina.
Eunuch or royal pony held in an emperor’s arms
he wasn’t Marco Polo returning from China
declaring more than noodles made into pasta.
Pardon me, L, for getting us on a crooked path.
But since we’re in Italy now, these hard days,
I’d rather think of Dante’s Inferno—the City
of Man. Muddy or dusty, depending on the sky,
my feet ache in these boots on this lost road, but
pain will never force fumes of hades into the gut.
‘Sef, walk lightly there undisturbed by shades,
even if a little cockeyed now. I’ll walk beside you,
if I may. I keep a photograph I took of you standing
on a lookout of Castle Malaspina where Dante
stood in exile to think as he wrote the cantos. Below
the quarry Michelangelo mined for stone carved
into the giant slayer. Look, Dante places Moses
in the first circle. Now, Papa says there is no hell.
May this give rest to those dying, still aware.