Tervuren, Hit Not Hit

Late summer in Belgium,
Dad with a job offer from the British school
and enough money up front
for two rooms in a hotel in Tervuren.
We killed time before the term began:
on the terrace, drinking Trappiste from glasses
big as fish bowls;
at the Africa museum
against the reflecting display
of disembodied heads strung with fiber,
impenetrable and stern;
doodling lists on napkins, the way a kid will.

I spy with my little eye
something beginning with S, Mark said,
and I said, “shopgirl? squid? Sayers?”
because we’d been reading The Nine Tailors
and Irish stories.
“Soul cages?” I said.
And then Dad, sensing we were bored,
started in with his three jellyfish song, slurring.
It still feels like merriment
and could have been,
until roughhousing, I shut my brother’s foot
in the bathroom door, and Daddy raged, shouting
I will not have a sadist for a son!
smacking me across the face.

But when we went down for dinner
in the little bistro
he had recovered,
and even put his hand on my arm
before the bread arrived:
ramekins of cold butter,
crust that cut the gums /
and the black-shirted busboy
grunting like a docker —
the whole thing so vague and threatening
I put my head down
like the cup of a flower
closing in the dark.

Aperture

When you constrain freedom, it will take flight and land on a windowsill.
Ai Weiwei

It was a lighthouse first,
graywacke iced with the shit of seabirds,
guiding ships away, steering them clear.
the very opposite of keeping and holding.

What we notice about prisons,
even this one in San Francisco Bay,
are not walls, but everywhere windows,
cracked spectacularly,
small and thick as paperback books.

And then fissures, pierced stone,
elaborate grates in the floors of gun galleries.
We cannot build a wall without needing to puncture it,
to make the windowsills
on which freedoms perch.

There are jails, we know
and there are prisoners,
but always there is an opening,
a cracked glass too wide for despots,
and through it, sweet and punishment,
the shape-thought of a gull in the fog,
the blade of its cry
so sharp it cannot be held,
not even in the heart.

Collared Dove

Released to play, my brother and I
kicked a football
against the wayside chapel
that stood at the end of the driveway
of our new apartment block
in a distant suburb of Brussels:
a rural town of chicory fields.
At night, the lights from brothels
along its one road,
framed in new windows,
kept us awake.

But in the morning, school out,
we kicked the ball against the Madonna,
thinking no one here
would need her comfort:
here was the new building,
the red lights,
in the evening, new plaster.
The car ran well; the ball,
with each kick, made a satisfying bounce.

But then a different thud
against the window,
and Mr. Klinsmann walked
around the corner, as though
he had been there all the time,
picked up the bird
that had hit the glass
and paused,

cupped his thumb and finger
around its throat
and twisted, like a cap, its neck.
Stuff came out the other end,
the neck drooping on his knuckle.
Es ist besser so.
It’s better this way, he said,
the gray neck softer than the Belgian sky
against his thumb.
Kinder, he added,
shaking his head —
and I thought at the time
he had just mispronounced
the English word,

because it was hard
it was hard to imagine
it was hard to imagine ourselves
that kind.

Aston Quay

I go down to the Liffey
to think of girls.
Not because the English
called her Anna Liffey,
unable to pronounce her Irish name,
not even because she begins
in the mountains,
hill dark girl,
her feet in pig shit
in the Wicklow bog.

Not even because every life
is an unfinished life
every one emptying, always emptying,
every one again leaking
up from the mud

but because I have never mastered either,
neither girl nor water,
but at least I can see,
from Bachelors Walk or Aston Quay,
bridges, hard bridges,
open for her,
and on her skin
unscrolling to the sea,
the rain in Dublin paint
her margins silver.

Soufflé

When I was a kid
in love with a girl
I took a bus to New York City
and there remember
only two things
she didn’t thrill by stepping
in the room.

It dumped eight inches of rain
into the Holland Tunnel.
And then safe in her
New Jersey home,
in an empty kitchen,
I made a soufflé
with whatever was about —
whatever.

There was some cheese.
People came and went.
Some flour.
Her parents were divorcing.
Some butter, all abandoned:
the refrigerator
was a time capsule,
a locker of remembered love.

Everyone ignored me,
and that was just.
It was she, only she, anyway.
The soufflé had a crust,
sweet-strange as a metaphor.

I sat at the kitchen table,
the rain dry,
the roads winding unimportantly,
and ate the whole perfect
thing.

Father’s Day

My parents used to sit on the balcony
on Menorca in the mid-day heat
eating Spanish olives
and tossing the pits over.
We called it suntan lotion
and not sun block in those days,
and when we ran out we used olive oil,
coating our English arms with it
until they glistened
like plucked chicken wings.

Each afternoon my father made the same joke:
how years later a whole grove
of olive trees would spring up
below our rented rooms,
against the stucco and the wrought iron,
in the red dirt.

He was wrong, of course.
No trees grew,
nothing stayed:
not the smell of my mother’s oil paints
when she painted in the cove,
not the depressions we left on the sand.

What grew was this olive,
the one I draw from my mouth
long after my parents are gone.
This one, gray-green,
cured, no longer bitter.
This one,
purple-black, pitched,
its small flesh wrapping
an undegradable stone,
launched over the railing
among the goldfinches
in the Scots Pine.