Inspiration, Prairie

He felt it coming over the horizon,
nowhere and always there
on the prairie
like writing itself.

It came like a storm
and he ran,
swallowed by the corn /
he remembered Meriwether Lewis
had said, in the plains
sometimes it seemed
you were out of sight of land.

It was a race to the desk,
to the single room,
and once there
only one
of three things happened:

It passed through you
like a lover and left
an imprint on the sheets.
You moved over her form,
the needle of a phonograph.

Or she was just up,
halfway out the door,
and you pulled her back
smelling of smoke, resisting,
to sit in your lap.

Or last, the room simpering
as though she had left it,
left forever and just before,
for a packet steamer
and the unrecoverable tide.

I compare you favorably but inadvisably to the moon

Out your window
a tiny fingernail of moon,
that far dead thing,
pale as a side street
movie screen,
burnished silver of old watch
orphaned under cigar box lid,
lit by the gloss
of magazine and candle wax /
reflected light:
the thing itself dried up:
a buoy, salt-rimed
so long untethered
even gulls slip ignorant over.
I want to conduct life
from my bed, you say.
You have a cough
but you are still able.
A feather ticked loose
from the pillow
dances along your arm.
You do, I say.
You are not so old as that.

Sewing a Kayak

The best kayaks
in the world
were sewn by the wives
of Inuit hunters,
because a single bad stitch
meant the loss
of husband and hunter and food
and warmth and simple honor.

But what does it mean for a poet
to write a bad poem?

Do we sit with our children
at the dinner table,
wife sullen, the kids,
their eyes burning shame,
because they know
there was a poor word.
Everyone was talking about it.
A dull metaphor sank the boat.
The house melted.
For want of a syllable
we lay on the ice.

And in the drawer,
as though we could hide it,
a stinking
sunk poem.

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.

Burrow Poem

They say the ermine will kill
even when it isn’t hungry,
slipping through dry corn
like a wisp, a flicker of light
from a passing car, and then quick
at the back of the neck.
The local mastiffs stay in the barn.

And they say the ermine makes its home
sometimes in the den of its prey,
jealous of the memory
of the poor beast’s comfort,
decorating the place
with the skin and fur
of its targets.

But it may be misunderstood.
It’s in a state of perpetual
metamorphosis, after all,
and over the years my words, too,
have changed color in the snow,
marked by cinders from railyard fires.
They’ve also rubbed their teeth sharp,
but against the strop of better writers.
So now I send them out in the dark.

When they don’t come back
I imagine them warm
in the burrows of skulls,
shuffling insomniac
to the mouth of the den,
the arctic night
dressing itself in silk,
hiding the moon for camouflage.

Blackchins

Lately, two black-chinned hummingbirds
have taken over the giant hyssop
we grow on the balcony —
grown for them, it’s true
and for the bumblebees that come in July,
more vulnerable despite their size.

It used to be that only the broad-tailed hummers
fed at the purple flutes of the flowers
but they are mostly gone,
chased off by these smaller bellicose birds
who fight even among themselves,
smacking their pale chests together
in the air.

When one of the old kind appeared,
its scarlet throat flashing in the sun,
our cat swatted it from the blossoms:
it died slowly,
the red on its throat fading to gray
as though it had been a pulse of life.

It is almost August now.
The horizon stretches east,
an expanse of dark plain,
and the morning gleams from the patio
like wedding china.

But it is false summer:
when I look at these new birds,
at the cat patrolling the boards,
my heart clenches in a fist.

I’m not going to say this twice (but if I do I’m going to add more birds)

Be sure in your art.
By all means be tapped out, hard up,
on-your-beam-ends poor if you are,
but when you dance,
dance mansions, parks, chestnut trees
with pale pyramid flowers.
Flex an arm: banknotes
flutter from your fingers
like swallows. Mint motion.

Even your journals grant
principalities to princes.
The huge coffered door of your hall
bends and groans with the press
of secretaries and goatherds
clutching spice boxes,
ranch hands with gold watches,
bluebird navies, teak-timbered ships.
Go out to the harbor this morning
and swing your ideas against
their sides. Send them on their way.

Be nervous if you must,
flop-sweat stopped
like a drowned bottle,
but your hands when they draw,
draw water from rock —
white pelicans,
the most self-absorbed things in the sky,
wheel and rest at your feet,
canyons open,
the horizon duplicates itself
infinitely,
dark for the pearls of stars.

Lack faith if you do,
but your voice, when you sing along,
peals from Spanish mission towers,
beams creak with the weight of bells,
dun valleys fill and green,
dwarf pines whistle and whisper.
Keep your head down:
vesper sparrows have made a nest
in your faithless hair.

It has always been that way.
The monks have gathered for Matins
and the abbot is on the stair.
He has your arms and eyes, your hands.
And the old voice —
the one we put together
from sewn leather, trail dust,
sage, salt, wind whipped,
like a prayer —
lifts, hums, moves
the whole goddamn building
from the rafters to the crypt.

Copyright © 2019 Lilibug Publishing.

Poetics, Advice

You will learn that words
will survive nuclear winter
by eating cockroaches
but that your best idea is frost
on a warm finger:
it never loved you.

From Patrick Lane
you learn to raise words
like sticks and bright embers,
from Maya Angelou you learn
cadence.
You learn humility and rage
from Mary Oliver and Adrienne Rich,
balls-out bold from Whitman and Ginsberg.

You will learn that you have cataracts
where Annie Dillard has eyes,
that you come to speak poem
the way you found your physical voice:
imitate, emulate, absorb,

until your pores sweat words like garlic,
until your head hums a chorus
of sanskrit crickets,
leaf-blade swords, chariot whispers,
parrots the color of pomegranates
and lime.

You will learn
that syllables eat like cats:
rarely when you want them to
and never what you have.

They want to eat doubt
and wild moss pink from your hands;
when you have fresh mangoes
they will want the salt and dead skin
from the corners of your mouth,

and when you have given up,
drained and dry,
they will run their
sandpaper tongues along the edges
of your sleeping thoughts.