Boy with a Gun

We shared the sidewalk,
and he, too old for lemonade stands,
his head, so resolute it shook,
his fingers,
wrapped around the plastic gun,
his voice, too guttural
for ten years old,
shouted “Pow!”
and the arm recoiled
as I walked on past his house.

I wanted to say,
that isn’t the way it is at all.
You hear the footsteps first,
the voice is soft:
“Stop or you’re dead.”
The gun seems far too small,
winking in the streetlight.
The ring comes off too slowly,
and the boy is nervous
when he whispers
keep walking.

The Family Dog

In my father’s dream
Toto the family dog
bounds up the townhouse steps two at a time.
They’d given up the dog long before.
It was just dad sleeping,
when the drink would let him sleep.

He wrote bright, fierce dreams
that Saturday, his liver gone,
the mantel clock he loved ticking it out,
the handwriting in his journal
spidery and soft.

It’s easy to see that last good wish,
the dog back full of life,
a tonic for his own small stepping,
journal in hand,
each entry ending “cognac?”.

Document the Decline

If they bend your knees just right,
with one leg beneath the other,
you will fit,
although the plot is short and shallow.

Pothunters will wonder why
you are buried under the Russian olive
and not on the hill, in the old mausoleum,
and why the sudden stopping,
the decline, the fall,
the years of neglect —
the center of commerce shifted perhaps:
a terrible epidemic,
a brutal war.

They have sunk all the ships already
and the oil has slipped away.
The bread and the books are spoiled,
the enormous library burned in the night —
not by armies — by the old postman.

You watched it light
that cheerless June, when the evenings
smelled like sage and sherry.
But there are no more good men to poison,
no more pamphlets,
just circus posters on shop shutters.
Even the topsoil doesn’t hold.

Some helpful soul
will have broken your arm to save space,
placed your viscera in a jar
painted with bluebells,
lovingly wrapped.
They will wonder why the stalks of lavender
and the hawthorn berries spilling from your right hand,
a pen with a metal nib,
and who lent the fateful blow,
the one that counted.

They will wonder why you didn’t fight.

A grad student, a coed,
will love your expressionless bones,
fill them with meaning,
construct a digital face and make its lips move.

She will imagine you
like a paper wasp
who came back to the nest
to find it gone — just a ring
like plaster on the wood,
the queen gone too, a few bodies,
and you later on the sill,
slowly, slowly,
slow with cold, in circles.


It happens I’m a little loopy about Portuguese, in song and poetry, and when it comes to song, about fado and Mariza. (For background, here)

A song of hers has been going through my head, on repeat. At least, it’s on Spotify on repeat, and so it’s been going through my head: Primavera. Spring. Archetypal fado. Listened to it a basketful of times (uma cesta cheia de vezes?) before chasing up the lyrics, then found a translation, and tweaked the translation a little. Like most love songs, the lyrics themselves don’t blow you away, but Mariza herself will, and the vocal gets in the gut like a Lisbon fish hook.

The video comes complete with a guy playing the guitarra portuguesa who looks like the Anonymous mask experiencing carnal bliss. I say that with respect.


All the love that had bound us,
as if it were wax,
was crumbling and breaking apart.
Ah, tragic spring
how I wish, how I wish
we had died that day.

And I was condemned to so much:
to live with my weeping
to live, to live, and without you.
Living, though, without forgetting
the enchantment that I lost that day.
Hard bread of loneliness —
that’s all we get,
that’s all we are given to eat.

If you keep on living,
what does it matter,
if the heart says yes or no?

All the love that had bound us,
was breaking down, crumbling,
overshadowed by dread.
No one should talk about spring.
How I wish, how I wish
we had died that day.

Lyrics based on lissber translation


The Yellowstone Supervolcano,
a giant magma chamber
below a caldera more or less
in the middle of the national park,
if it erupts,
would cover about a third of the U.S.
in a layer of ash, thick enough in parts
that plants would die,
fields become sterile,
the waterways of the Midwest poisoned.

The cold ash and not the hot lava
does the damage.
The Earth would cool,
skies get dark in day,
mass evacuation,
millions starving.

In a worst case it would be
what scientists call
an extinction level event.
But that’s the worst case:
it may never happen in our lifetimes
nor in the lives of our grandchildren.

Still, I crack open
the canvas spine of my herbarium,
position a piece of honeysuckle,
pressed for a month,
and with a thin knife
lift a leaf,
run the ball of a finger
across the wires of veins,
across each pistil thread,
infinitely patient,
infinitely fragile.

Mother Ann Lee herself survived
New England’s Dark Day.
I suspect
the flower had heard
that old saw of hers:
to do all your work
as though you had
a thousand years to live
and as you would
if you knew
you would die tomorrow.

Returning After Evacuating From a Wildfire, June 2012

The clothes go back in the closet
and the cats come home
and they speak to each other,
each to the other.

The plume still rises
on the western edge
in the one hundred and four degree heat,
and the firefighters on the line,
they speak to each other
in their shorthand speech.

The thank-you signs are out
and the kids approach
with their piggy banks.
On the news at nine we take the toll
and speak to each other, each to each.

But there’s one thing
that doesn’t go away, one thing
that doesn’t curl in the heat:
when the sun wasn’t yet
a red ball in the smoke,
when we got the call
and we spoke to each other,
you and me, and took the photograph
and not the clock
and took the brooch
and not your letters in a box
tied sometime in our third
(or was it the fourth?) year
when we were younger, proud,
full of piss and vinegar:
pride enough to slay
a world of dragons,
nest or night awake,
but not this.

The smoke rose, the letters lay
like wounded partisans
whispering to each other.
Each to the other.

Cleaning Birdhouse

We are always children, really.
Every animal death is the death of love —
not dependent love,
not mom or dad, however deep,
but the first one we knew ourselves
separate and complete,
that made us separate and complete,
and so in an awful unexpected way
the death of us.

The schoolyard girl, the girl with the bangs,
the unborn twin, the boy down the block,
the collie at Christmas.
No one loved for us, none loved as we did.

The day after I put it up
house wrens built their nest
in the new birdbox,
ferrying sweetgrass and sprigs of sumac
through a hole in the neat shiplap.

It was a fine bright thing:
white pine and brass catches,
one wall and the roof hinged at the top
for cleaning out.

But at the end of summer,
cleaning it out, I stopped,
grabbed the shovel from the shed,
dug a foot-deep pit on the ridge,
above the cottonwood and the creek,
and buried the old nest there.

I drove to town in my middle age
with a well, a wound in my throat,
an organ of need, twig, and skin
wanting all of it again,
the gaping breath and the whole bone,
sure that I could not be,
after all, just a part of this.

That by now I must be hardened off,
complete as flight,
not running edgeless
into the rest of the world,

and not undone by the fledgling
left dead in the nest
his perfect unwrapped
new-brown feathers
a miniature of grief.

What I Remember About Winning the Race

Although I said to myself I wanted nothing more
than to break the tape,
to be the first one over the line
in the ninety-degree heat of Castroville,
Artichoke Capital of the World,
in fact, a runner doesn’t break the tape at all.
It wasn’t even a tape.
It may have been a length of string
the two who were given the job
at the last minute saying,
“I thought you had it!”
“You said you did.”
“The gun’s gone off…we better think of something.”

And so it was a chalk line someone had in a bag
hurriedly stretched,
not broken but pushed through,
pulled away from their hands, one end dropped,
the string gathered, balled up,
stuffed into a knapsack at the end of the day.

Although I said I wanted nothing more
than to come in first,
the light popping in John’s eyes,
my winner’s knock-kneed unmuscled stagger,
I did nothing more than hurt and retch,
stretched on the cold tile of the men’s room floor,
breathing unusual breaths,
my breath coming in short gasps
and no teammate
no concerned official knocking at the door
(there was another race I’m sure) —
alone in the men’s room
my hands gripping the sink,
puking over my knuckles:
the touch and temperature of victory.

The Gulls on Alcatraz

They’ll eat anything,
the Western Gulls on Alcatraz,
so sometimes you can find
on the rocks at the base of the island
or on the cracked and splintered yard
where the cons worked out
tennis balls and bright yellow golf balls
the birds brought over and dropped,
thinking they were mussels or oysters,
some kind of unfamiliar shellfish
the fall would break
and not the crap we lose or toss out,
all things finding their way
to the sea as they do.

And I understand their confusion
when the balls hit the ground and bounce
high in the air, intact and inedible.

I also have made it this far,
tired from looking,
the junk of another world in my jaws

and I also recover,
beat away again across the flat bay,
sure that tomorrow,
on this same slipshod ground,
out of the deep cerulean blue
a bird will land,
the moon in his mouth
and his whole head
shot through with light.

Cave Painting

Putting aside the fact that they are old,
which is, admittedly,
like putting aside the divinity of a god
or the black of a crow,
we understand the paintings in the Chauvet Cave
because we have been children,
because we lay awake in summer,
possessed by what we wanted and what we owned.

‘We’ll go horse riding on the beach,’
my father promised,
and I never slept, hearing the relentless
gravel pulsing of the sea,
seeing my pinto, as though he were there
— and me, straight-backed,
moving the spirited thing
with the pressure of my heel.

If I could, I also would have
ground stones to powder,
mixed fat and spit,
sketched the thin-legged horses,
their necks impossibly arched,
posed static, because they were mine.

And then, in bed,
under whatever rushes hid and warmed us,
watched the obsessive fire
trace their red and ochre lines.

But the Ensenada pony,
when I tried to ride him,
mostly stood
— tired, malnourished —
until I pulled him reluctant
to the edge of the water
uncontent and untransformed /
the dark shapes of trawlers inching
like beetles on the horizon:

paintable ships, but knowing now
how only shipwrecked sailors paint,
how only starving hunters paint.

Copyright © 2018 Lilibug Publishing.