A Random Walk Through the Heart of the How

Apartment Life
On cold clear Sundays after parties in Flatlands
I often see faces among the flowers on my sheets.
Not the short pleasant heads of the guests
Or the tall bobbing heads of the hosts
But vast jumbles of heads
Like those in the murals of Orozco.
After one too many glasses of white wine
I slip across the border. In Flatlands
The apples are flat, the roses are flat,
Sometimes our faces feel flat. But the wine
Has the taste of the mountains—sweet
And a little green. It is ice cold
And lasts forever. The sheets ripple
Like orchids in a hot breeze. Orozco
Climbs through the window .
And begins to paint. Faces
Leap out of the sheets.
Oh, I drank too much.
I soberly pull back the covers. In a corner
Of the sheet is the signature of the artist.
Am I out of my mind? I am
And stay there all day.

The Frogs
I drift in the clouds
Unable to land or soar.
The dark room always intrudes.
The effort to strike a match
In the thick air exhausts me.
The inertia holds me back
Makes short words long
Covers the simple body scent.
Let the pure mind form in the pond
And the ripples swing wide
Distracting the frogs
From their pursuits. Let the eyes
Focus on lilies, and the arms
Drown the pads. Always in quest
Of perfection the bell rings
Out of key. I can’t touch the shell
Without kicking it. I can’t say hello
Without asking how are you.
A thousand candles cannot help
When the moon has moved on. If
I go outside I may never go inside
And the shell may lie forever on the beach
Neither immune to the spray
Nor accessible to the undertow
Nor especially peaceful. The past
Will never ebb and take this shell
With it. The moon is down
And my evenings, spent
In the fading light of old lovers,
Are fixed forever, like leaves in a book
One to a page, surrounded
By the space of their own incompleteness. I could
Move on, give the shell a gentle tap
Either way. I could immerse myself
In the smell of a thousand possibilities
Or live in one room, one room only
For now. But I want to look back,
Stand poised on the shell and dream
Of revolving on the narrow tip
Of the poor clam’s body, a beacon
Revolving on a lighthouse. I sleep
In the dark room below. If I struck a match
Would the clouds disperse? Would I land?
Would I soar with no end in sight
Or continue to drift
Harmlessly over the undistracted frogs.

Funeral for Thyself
Distracted, freshly dead, still lifelike
In the trancelike expression . . .
The half-closed eyes, the athletic smell,
The nose like an old flat-iron:
I had meaured this body very carefully
When no one wanted me, when I wanted no one.
Leaning against the bathroom wall
I would stare in the mirror over the sink,
Debating whether to have the cyst
Over the left hip removed or leave it,
The outer mark of the inner man. Why?
To know myself, and know myself well.
I lay the body in the garden
By the unpicked radishes.
The snails went wild with the scent.
Ants invaded the body but wanted out
When the air got bad, the way I did.
Crows turned the sloping forehead
Into a marble memorial. Mockingbirds
Contemplated the navel. Finally, ready
To be rid of the damned thing, I dragged it
To the pyre, pausing to admire the s-shaped spine
Protruding through the skin above the tailbone.
I tossed the match and ran. Alive,
It never acted up; who knows
What might happen how. The soul fled,
The bones contracted, then snapped,
Sizzled, burned to ash. From the hill
I saw a candle flicker, then die,
Struck by a hurricane.

Song of the North
Though not afraid
I felt the fear
Of the fur-bearing animal
Silently tracking across snow fields
In the Yukon.
The long arctic winter
Does not bury the scent
Of the animal wanted
For its fur.

The scent comes to me
With the sharp sting of the wind,
Sharp
With the smell of excitement.
At last there is nothing
And nowhere
To hide.

cruelty
and so invisible marks
invade your eyes
and often redness
the color of the sets
in “Cries and Whispers”
the sun
in Buson’s “Birds, trees, and setting sun”
the red disk in Tanguy’s “Pain”

Paintings at the Pool
Contemplating some other paintings
I can’t breathe and dive to the bottom

The green concrete wavers
So I skim over the black line

Small waves lash the sides
So I surface into the dark

There’s an unusual music
So I climb the stairs

A man is whistling with his mouth open
So I return to the top of the tower

His chin is flat like a high plain
So I exercise my best judgment and flop

He is incomprehensibly strange
So I hold my breath forever

The whistling stops
So I shake hands with the stars

It is a strangeness like a Siberian aurora
So I pass out of this world

An aurora in shades of light brown
So I swim into a wavering light

Whose waves carry me along
So I exhale

Stirring upward, downward, caught
By a collision with my own death

I float detached, mouth open
Whistling a strange tune from another world

Clouds Cover the Mark
I knew
And knowing
Let myself be taken.
Friends salvaged bluing hands
Flowing to the sun.

No matter.
Wave the stumps all night.
A weary gaze can’t be dredged
From a manless face:
The head’s been stolen.

Try crying though.
A face felt
Won’t be forgotten.

Coast
Even when this fishing adventure
And only this one
Is the one that matters.

High on ice planes
Cracked granite slabs
The fog sinks down.
Clouds, snowberries,
Blueberries that find moisture,
Exert themselves only a little
In the rarified atmosphere
A little only.

Yes, the Atlantic blasts
Its way between two red rocks,
Blows holy hell out of the fog.

Pelicans dive
From whichever coast they live on.

The Wrecking Crew
Far from any coast
In my little courtyard
The cinnamon trees are blue
And reach up to the moon
No one is allowed to visit
No one is allowed to look
The hyssops wouldn’t like it

In the little courtyard
I can always dance the fandango
Pick my fill of fenugreek
Or make a salad

A long time ago
The gray dark city was ripe
With the smell of cloves,
The sound of lilac
Blooming in the wind

That’s why
If anyone knew
That in my little courtyard
Only the willow has eyes
And the moon is the color of mint
They would never leave:
The hyssops wouldn’t like it

Note: Previously published (2008) in a chapbook put together by a group of high school students as a fundraiser to buy backpacks for less-advantaged children. Limited distribution.

the crab
all day i remember uncompleted dreams
and think about cancer

days have.
no relation.
to each other.

night have.
no relation.
to days.

i can’t meditate
my back hurts
all night
i dream uncompleted days.
have no relation.
to red shell.
white meat.

Student at Saigon State
     for Jon Dash
So why not just surrender
To moments of disorder
That poke at rolling hoops
Without manners;
You sacrificed your legs
To the next generation:
Ice has made a quiet street?

Remember the scene
When school let out?
Whoever lost his balance
Had to lie paralyzed forever;
Bricks will never again speak
Or the distance across the breeze.

You will collect enough blindfolds
To hitch to a friend’s back,
Forever point out truths
That glide like tender words on a train.

Why are so many students out of school?
It is the quiet perspective
Of a break in the rules of the game,
A time when promises lag.
The sky says hello to the horizon
In a greeting of exquisite sighs,
Blue puffs of hi’s and bleary-eyed nods.

Sleighbells attune your ears
To the silence of smugness,
For you have the one, the two, the three and the
Time it takes to read unchallenged by spring.
You are sure of your own resurrection.

Student at Ho Chi Minh State
But I have surrendered
To photos in the War Remnants Museum
Legless children, legged heads,
Half-faces. Agent Orange, I suppose.

They are on the streets too,
The people in the pictures.
We have sacrificed our legs
To the next generation.
An exhibit of beautiful children’s paintings
For peace draws the crowd away from the captured
American tanks and fighter planes.

Why were so many students out of school?
In America they were not, or rather
Only the poor ones, and it was the same
In Vietnam, I imagine,
A quiet perspective
Of a break in the rules of the game,
A time when those of us who could
Saved our skin, and those who couldn’t
Were sent home in body bags.

Every day I eat noodle soup for breakfast
As if I cannot get enough. Gathering
In the experience is something I cannot quite do yet,
As if what was, was too far in the past
And what is, too close to the present.

I can say that
By the time it takes to read the history of this war
Unchallenged by spring I will be as sure
Of my own resurrection as the other side is
Of theirs.

in the silence
     for diane
all that is
is contained

all that is contained
is
silence

in this witness
your moon
is marital

your lips
very thin
your eyes

i’m writing to you
i’m writing to you
right now

in this night
this day
i am confused

on this road
on the street
i do not know
which way to go

simple
simple seems best
on your lips
on your eye

i am writing
to you

The Causes of Death
In another life
When I sat with a Korean son
At the height of his glory
On the soft sofa
Smoking clove cigarettes.
“The Furbish lousewort must
Defy the power of Maine.
The world beyond
Its world must stop
So another world, beyond
Both worlds can continue,”
I argued.

A dam broke. Cities
For a hundred miles were dark. Species vanished
Of unnatural causes—”natural causes,”
He argued. “The snail darter
And the lousewort mustn’t die
Either way,” I said.

We fought with words, then guns.
Kim Chong the whatever once rode the red
Banners of the north.
Today the body lies
In state, but no one knows
Where, in what state,
Decomposing like everything.

“Why wait for the dam to break?”
I had asked his father,
Sitting on the soft sofa, smoking
Clove cigarettes. Through the streets
Of the eastern society I carried the corpse,
Already half gone. The smile remained.
He should have come to my side:
That other side was doomed.
Or was it? The last Krakatoa gone,
I listened to my footsteps disappear
In the driving rain.

them
across a blue-lined page
a hand shapes small crooked blue words

through long brown curly hair
a hand firmly pushes

across a hardwood floor
feet shape geometric designs

on a forehead
muscles tense

The Armor of Inevitability
I want to enter the city.
Because I will not charm the doorman
He will not let me in. I want only
To walk the streets and feel
The thick red air enfold me.
I don’t want to light lamps
Or laugh. He doesn’t listen.
I cannot move my tongue
Like the others though I would jump
Over the wall if I could.
The others smile and ply
The man with metal wit. I
Neither sing nor dance.

Outside the city
The encroaching jungle calls
In the twilight. I know
What the city is like at night
How life means nothing. The others
Toss roses to thieves, joke
With killers. Only my hands
Protect me, and my deep-set eyes.
I wear no helmet. The city
Calls to me in a long
Frightened howl. On the shiny black rails
She rattles her ruined body.

I stand before the gates and dig
Into my guts for a torch
To melt the lock, for a spike
To batter the oak, for a bomb
To burst the hinges. I can find
No words for the stubborn gateman. I cry
into the moat and hear the tears
Drop like hot rivets through the ice.
The moon, until now patient,
leaves. Everywhere in the darkness
The others try to stop
The fast-flowing tears. They coax me
To say the magic word so I can enter.
Stubborn child, they say, stop!
Is there more?

Joy and Sorrow
Because only patience exists
In the sounds of knees
Rubbing at night
Toes scraping in small shoes
Razorblades rusting
Under dirty pillows

There is little to say
The land needs an owner
Winter is near
I have worn myself out

Dirty Snow
What there is, though,
Is mountain
Stream
Stopped sinks
Rain.
Sky
Heavy heart, sea.
Om
There is om.

The Elegance of Wolves
No peace here. My den is dry,
My jaw firm, I desire the boy.
His bridle is loose.
I force it with a laugh.
Fine remembrance. Wearily
I pull him to the den
Mustering my elegance
I restrain him
With his own harness.

They call for branding.
I exhort my innocence
From the silent weather. Still,
I am afraid, stir
The kettles. A certain spirit comes,
Cadaverous, resilient, groping.
Truly the boy cries for me.
A drumroll of indifference
Mustered from the elegance of wolves.

I pass him in the night.
His wares are simple: pots
Rugs, vases, knives, hats, lace—
Fraying in the wind.
Driving to market
Is delicate in consequence;
No time to pick jasmine
Or nod to other boys. Yet
He pulls his cart, laughing.

When I return,
I rearrange my idealism,
Stumbling,
Sit down and register my years:
Severe, unencouraging, emphatic.
In growing cold,
The blood cannot spill over the table
So lies there
Like wax.

We embrace in the hot wax. The ineffable kettle,
No longer simmering,
Boils over onto the bone floor. Doors,
Opening and closing,
Overflow with water. Ridgepoles
Collapse. What was lost
Is regained,
Realigned in a flow of violence.
The blinds draw taut.

Only the sun is forceful
In its remembrance.

Order in the West
Late afternoon.
A blood red disk rises
To shape this sadness. Nosebleed,
A squat mountain stabbing the now.
Cascades cut my tongue.
Mother tells invisible beads, dying
In the wild west. The moon
Is confused. I greet my double,
A black face staring
Up from blue sheets. The sun finally
Sets. Order reigns.

The Pet Shop
Even in a tank, where a single fish swims
Back and forth, the fish is without color
And always alone. Its nose is blunt
From hitting the glass and its gills
Frayed but the water rushes in and out
Anyway as the fish moves back and forth
Under the gray algae. If the sun comes out
The owner counts his rabbits
And goes for a walk. The lone fish
Breaks the surface now and then
With its blunt nose but gasps even more.
Its frayed tail swipes back and forth
But always misses. It is a single fish
With large goggle eyes that always look
About to burst with the strain of swimming.
When the sun goes down
The owner locks the door and goes home.
A thousand children have asked him
A thousand questions and he feels good
About answering them all. His wife is ready
With the net of darkness. She kisses his hair
And strips the scum from his arms. The single fish
Grows frantic at night and dives and dives
To the bottom of the tank. The man
Waves his clean arms and frantically pokes his nose
Above the covers as his wife straddles him
On the cold white sheets. In the morning
He gulps his coffee and runs to the shop.
A thousand rabbits crowd against the window
Sniffing the glass. The single fish
Swims back and forth under the gray algae
Gasping for breath but holding on
To its cold life.

Language of the End
I like to fancy
The slow unregarded dawns
That cry through the wastes of brick
Overlooking the lovely London trees.
In the hushed noon
My beloved breathes and sighs
Across miles of stony desolation
Beyond the downs
Until her fading little smile
Can barely shake the clouds
For one last remembrance of the whole
Wanly ecstatic struggle.
We are exiles with the same yearnings
The same dust in our souls
Who together hunger
For the silence of distant solitude
And manly woods in which to lose
The shadows we call our own.
I do not know
Where to bury the leaves that gather
On her muted gestures. Somewhere
A paradise of unclashing skies is watching
Over us. Consoled
By a jealous pride I look back
To days when the symbol
Of our garnered emotions was
A single, starkly hollow leaf
And her simple temper
Could cast out all the Thoreaus
Of our souls.
This grievous alienation hurts
And though our love no longer withers
In idolatry’s ebb no heather will ever bloom again.
Still her sharp strokes trouble me
The way her suddenness once sent me
Reeling into loneliness.
As the tern returns to Canada
Year after year
Breathlessly will I follow her every manner
Until
No miracle short of death able
To split my hopes
Her mouth once again spreads
Its ephemeral blush on my privacy.

The Most Famous Solution
Perhaps it’s not yet the end,
So settling affairs
Planning a way out
Lets us avoid the plunge
Into the big red swimming pool
Near the off-ramp to the stars

Or so it seems.
There is of course no such place
Though we like to think so
Our affairs contradict the book
In all ways save one

Our fastidious thoughts
About the book we want to write
By the light of the golden age.
All the sharp edges are round
The snow yellow

As in a holiday
Nothing is lost on the inhabitants,
Like having a good time
Or planning affairs with the exactness
Of a how-to book,

With the exactness of a how-to book
Romance still exists
But only in the mind
Settling affairs
Planning a way out

The Rubber Bands
We go about our business
Like chocolate melting on an old bucket
So many seeds being plucked from an orange
We know this is our way
This jostling of arms crying out to encircle us
This passing fancy for elderly telephone operators.
And whenever the old man on the corner
The one whose teeth clack like the stretching of fat rubber bands
Whose Buick has a gray spot on the dashboard
Whenever he signals us with his flabby arms
Stretching his fingers to the sky with real finesse
We try to grow old
As soon as possible
To disguise our profusion of doubts
And sundry imperfections
However good our leaky memories may still be

Beyond the Breaking Point of the Surf
Who we are
Is nothing to erase the newspapers about,
Nothing to staple to briefs destined for Superior Court
On long nights in front of justice in fine print
Too blurry to read. Justice.
The word itself strikes a light
When all else falls,
When letters cross in the mails
And nails lie about, rusting
In the unused sunlight

mannerisms
     for steve barth
to hell with justice!
i’m listening to druckman’s “windows”
though steve told me to
the music of melted sand
though my friend steven told me and
moreover on a toolbox
or was it a sandbox
told me to wakeup
or and if it was a streetcorner
awake during an opaque morning
doing the usual when before breakfast

oh not that steve
has anything over over is it over me
yet i somehow manage to recapture his
shall we say white lingering or maybe
but only when behind his eyes shine
it’s really i’d have to say his confusion to
well to put it bluntly i so much admire his
well
his sort of sandiness

The Cossack
It’s quite true:
I like to whisper.

I found you at home
Holding a man claiming to be Don Cossack
Trying to steal your scimitar
And smuggle a boar’s carcass inside his vest.

Is all this ridiculous?
I suppose so;
But every time I try to fill your glass with sherry
I get disgusted
And firmly kiss you on the mouth
As if I were smashing my knuckles to bits
On some local but grand ideal of life.

It’s not true
I like to whisper a lot:
He killed two deer
And said he’d marry you.

(After the story by Tolstoy.)

The Fourth Option
There is one sure way
To change my evil ways
One way
To grow new hair and make new friends
There is a way
To beauty, love, and easy money
There must be a way
To win the hearts of small dark girls
Should be a way
To vanish when friends aren’t enough
When cooking doesn’t help and burglars are everywhere
There should be some way

Could be a way
I sometimes think
To tell the people everywhere to go away
Say bye-bye I’m off to Florida
Won’t be back for years yet still come back in years
And find it all the same
There might be a way

The way of the goat
Who eats what he can and eats the cans as well
There very well could be a way
Is only one way, to be sure
There is a way to

The Heart of the How
In which the how unfolds
Like a rose
Blooming in spring
And the why
Faces the mirror
And examines its silence.
The how belongs
To the wisdom of every who
In every where at every when
But the why is a bird
Of a different feather.
The why blooms
Now and then
In exotic forests
Or in coffee shops.
It is indiscriminate
But knows better
Than not to be.
The why is the stamen
Of the how flower:
At the heart or the how
Is a floral why.
The why is the one
We want and the one
We rarely get.
The how’s up for grabs
On every corner
But is never grabbed.
The how is the heart
Of most matters
But the Why is the heart
Of the how.