You’ve Given Me A Place To Start
I didn’t think of Dante
when I read your letter,
but now it seems to me
I’m sitting in the only circle
of a very small hell,
and if there is a god
who condemned me to this,
he also must be very small.
When I was a boy,
living in a city far from here,
a cat whose name I can’t remember
would step in summer
when the sun could rise no higher
out onto the fire escape,
sitting nearly shadowless
for longer than my patience
would let me watch.
I want someone
who’s taken risks
with love, who’d be
as glad as I am
to have these lines
you left me with:
There is out there
a heat that if we let it
will burn us clean.
The first bus of the morning
screams into gear, pulls slowly
into traffic, a beast
stretching itself to start the day.
At the red light beneath my window,
as a few raindrops hit the pane
above the one I’m looking through,
the driver turns his wipers on
and the thick gray clouds
spread out above this city
release the drunk and vengeful man
they’ve been holding back
since last night. He beats
his fists against the glass, trembles
my entire building when he screams.
I want to feel his rage
against my skin, so I head
downstairs, my shorts
pockets, my shirt
as well, in sandals
that if I left right now to search for you
would not survive to the end of my block.
I walk the garden path
till I’m standing at the south end,
soaking wet and watching
the water in the fountain
dance its welcome
to the water from the sky.
The winter I was seventeen,
Kristin pushed me down
into this fountain’s center, her face
framed by trees I climbed
when I was eight and nine and ten.
“Do you trust me?” she asked.
I nodded. She smiled,
bent between my legs,
and as she fumbled my zipper open
nothing, nothing as I
hardened against her tongue
came to me of the man
pushing himself between my teeth,
pouring into me
out of who he was
who he was,
and then who I was
to a point in me
I kept for myself
as long as I could,
until, in answer
to a summons
I’d only half believed
the world contained,
it rose up out of me,
white against the white
flakes just starting to fill
the quiet air around us,
and it was,
You’d Better Finish Knitting: A Ghazal
So I’ve decided to embrace his death,
the way, before, I did not embrace his death.
I slam the phone down on his mother’s voice.
I won’t allow her to deface his death.
One by one, the cars behind the hearse
pull out, slow runners forced to race his death.
Autumn leaves sweep the air above our heads.
Few fall. That we’re still here amazes death.
They put their brother in the ground and leave.
“Revenge,” his sister says, “replaces death.”
Sun-bleached on the sand, bones stripped of flesh.
The tide rises, recedes, displaces death.
A moment comes when what has ripened falls.
Your hunger is a hole that chases death.
I’ve kissed a woman young enough to be
my daughter. Age receded. Face this, death!
Snow accumulates and melts, gives way
to each fruit in season. Come, taste this death.
I’m never more alive than when I come.
Only true surrender erases death.
No other path will lead you to the end.
Each step, if you are fearless, praises death.
They’ll tell you Richard’s words besmirch this page,
but virgin white will not efface his death.
Because I Can’t Not Know What He Saw
—remembering a photograph from Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking
This month, Harper’s “Readings” brings
from the people of Boro in eastern India
a list of verbs impossible in English:
khonsay, to pick an object up with care;
dasa, not to place a fishing instrument;
asusu, to feel unknown in a new place.
Some sound like Yiddish curses:
“You should ur,” dig soil like a swine,
or “May your children gobray,”
fall in a well unknowingly.
I want that kind of verb
for the way whoever-it-was
pulled the woman’s robe
up over her head,
for how the men
the man who did this to her
forced to watch—brother,
father, husband, son,
neighbor—for how each of them
invades my sleep;
and for the way I felt
when I first saw it,
what I feel now
the way I kept taking Iris Chang’s
The Rape of Nanking off the shelf
and crouching in the corner
of Borders’ lower level
to stare, and to stare—
for that too I want a verb;
and I want a verb as well,
and it’s not rape,
though certainly he raped her,
for the sword hilt rising
from between her parted thighs,
and for the way I hate myself
for hoping she was already dead
when he buried his blade in her.