English

Syros, 1989

No woman knows the power she holds at fifteen until it’s gone.
Long, loose S of the lower back. Inchoate cheekbone,
bracelet of wrist. Soap-soft, uncertain fingertip. Dumb
curve of the bottom lip, stunned to mute by its own prettiness.

I wore a shell-pink dress with a boat neck collar, my long hair
back and up. Limbs dark from days spent propped beside
an ocean blue as eyes of boys we planned to meet.
My best friend Arianne read magazines out loud about

what men want most and whether toothpaste helps bad skin
while we sipped gin and tonics pilfered from the house
her parents kept for weekends out of Athens, though
they never came. We claimed their bougainvillea-splattered deck

with pasta feasts for twenty-five of Arianne’s close friends
and left the dishes in what once had been a sink to go out dancing.
Outside the ocean glowed, air dissolved like sugar grains
and even widows sleeping in their black nightgowns dreamed

of the boy with bedspring curls whose first kiss felt like drowning.
That summer everyone was young. In the afternoons I’d wander
down the hill to buy a peach, rothakino, the word I memorized
to ask for fruit so huge and ripe each peach I’ve eaten since

has rushed that summer back. The mythically wrinkled man
who sold them in his hut liked to repeat, rothakino?
to see me blush. Up at the house we halved the pink-gold flesh
and pondered ways to live our lives like movie plots.

Winona Ryder’s latest apple-cheeked display of angst
had, in a rage against her mother, drunk too much
and in her mother’s makeup teetered up the steeple steps
where yes, the boy with devastating patience was just waiting

to complete her. The church bell, stars, and haloed lantern
he had lit seemed so exactly right that nothing ever need
come after. So when a charmer named Alexandros held out
a lime-tipped gin and tonic at the discotheque and told me

I was beautiful, I smiled mute assent and three nights later
heard myself explain I would go all the way.
No poem could invent the naked woman I watched wade
into the moon-marked water when I made this necessary claim

until I couldn’t see her anymore. Even in her bone-white flesh
as firm as bark he’d leaned me up against “to talk” I knew
she wasn’t real to anyone but me. And that the pebble-trail
of moonlight she was trying to apprehend would steadily

elude her. It hurt, the way a hip might hit a table in an unlit room:
one quick sharp pain spread slow through the rest of the body.
Then it was over. Mosquito netting swept around the bed,
and just beyond the widened windowsill that sometimes Arianne

camped on, the ocean stayed completely still. (The next night
I would glimpse a hand-sized scorpion on that sill, and watch it
slip into the wall just seconds from her neck’s blithe contact
with the sheet.) When Ari’s older brothers stumbled in to ask

would I please join them for a drink, Alexandros’ mouth above me
yanked into a smile as if connected by a chain to the boys’ laughs.
They must have left me there to dress, though all I recollect
is how the tiles shone on every countertop and square of floor

after I cleaned that filthy house for hours. Until the sun came up.
Alexandros returned, to offer dinner and protection rights
he thought he’d earned. The boys and Ari watched while I refused,
and heard the offer quickly turn to some excuse about a girl in Athens

he had left behind. I didn’t mind. I don’t remember what I said,
or how I felt beyond relief, or why I made the bet with Arianne
that in our last remaining days of summer break I could seduce
every man named Alexandros on the island. Or what the stakes were.

This is a story about a story. In two weeks I would be sixteen.
This was always a story. I lived each moment of that August
just to tell it, though I never told. The scorpion’s quick flight,
the moonlit girl, and how I didn’t sleep all night were facts

I stored as IOUs, to be exchanged for Life, that locked-up jewel,
much later on. They were my planned escape, before I knew
that time lets fall from trap doors more than anyone would wish.
Or that a story’s true as anything. For every fact there is a sly

infinitude of truths, no less for how they contradict. I’ve left
so many versions out simply to say the word for peach,
and that my hair was long. For instance: Alexandros was deaf.
He read my lips, and clipped the edges off the adjectives

he whispered in my ear. Or this: the year that followed Syros
I would sleep with men whose names I didn’t know. A story’s true
as anything. Fifteen years old. The body still belongs to you.
Not yet a currency with which you pay your way down streets,

and after years will give up like a coat for warmth, or restlessness,
or what small muscle love becomes. You want to tell the ones
that ask for more, I’d give that too if it were mine. Maybe it never was.
Maybe I lost only those afternoons of peaches and dry heat.

But stories have no stakes, so I don’t know. And those slow,
sweet-skinned months when I assumed the moments
I’d accrued would all add up somehow to gloriously cohere,
have disappeared to one dim memory of a room

I never entered. Shadow of a boy’s face on the pillow.
Of stone-smooth hips and blindly perfect breasts I watched
with gentle, distant awe, as if my own, and not some
stranger’s gaze, were separate from, and longing to come back.

Terezin

—a transfer camp in the Czech Republic

We rode the bus out, past fields of sunflowers
that sloped for miles, hill after hill of them blooming.

The bus was filled with old people.
Women held loaves of freshly baked bread on their laps.
Men slept in their seats wearing work clothes.

You stared out the window beside me.
Your eyes were so hard that you might have been watching the glass.

Fields and fields of sunflowers.

Arriving we slowed on the cobblestone walkway.
Graves looked like boxes, or houses from high up.

On a bench teenage lovers slouched in toward each other.
Their backs formed a shape like a seashell.
You didn’t want to go inside.

But the rooms sang. Song like breath, blown
through spaces in skin.

The beds were wide boards stacked up high on the walls.
The glass on the door to the toilet was broken.
I imagined nothing.

You wore your black sweater and those dark sunglasses.
You didn’t look at me.

The rooms were empty, and the courtyard was empty,
and the sunlight on cobblestone could have been water,
and I think even when we are here we are not here.

The courtyard was crowded with absence.
The tunnel was crowded with light.
Like a throat. Like a—

In a book I read how at its mouth they played music,
some last piece by Wagner or Mozart or Strauss.

I don’t know why. I don’t know
who walked through the tunnel or who played or what
finally they could have wanted. I don’t know where the soul goes.

Your hair looked like wheat. It was gleaming.

Nearby on the hillside a gallows leaned slightly.
What has time asked of it? Nights. Windstorms.

Your hair looked like fire, or honey.
You didn’t look at me.

Grass twisted up wild, lit gold all around us.
We could have been lost somewhere, in those funny hills.

And the ride back—I don’t remember.
Why was I alone? It was night, then. It was still morning.

But the fields were filled with dead sunflowers.
Blooms darkened to brown, the stalks bowed.
And the tips dried to husks that for miles kept reaching.
Those dreamless sloped fields of traveling husks.

My Father’s Unhappiness

At night in the swept yellow gleam of the kitchen
I sit with my father and watch while he eats

I will offer a secret or ask for a story
it must be the milk glass that won’t

let him speak he stares hard at me hard I stare
back at him please it’s my heart my eyes

promise him he won’t believe he says
you cannot never will know what I need

is the throat of the dark past the deck
is the memory death spits on children being born

is the one that once challenged regret and it won
so regret like a god became jealous

My father’s unhappiness is a curse. Is a gift.

is the blue sleeve of the long afternoon
the locked space in the gut of the whale

is the trailing of air down the stairs in the mornings
the front door swung open hey folks he will call

is the weight of love lasting love calls for this lasting
love fills up the milk glass says here’s what you need

I say drink it he spits I say sorry he leaves
I say love you he says it right back oh the air

and right now he is sleeping slow burn by my mother
their bed always wider and white onto white

Inheritance. I hold you like a bird. Your bones in my fingers.
Bird bones, buried in the yard.

Philtrum

/ˈfɪltrəm/ 1. the vertical groove on the surface of the upper lip, below the nose.

I.

Paper boat, rift
in the water.

Deft bluff
of a thumb.

Misplaced teardrop,
left to dry.

Cool cleft
of the river bed.

II.

Before we are born, the angel of God comes to the womb
and teaches us everything. How the lung books in scorpions
let them breathe, the nature of a galaxy's greed.
Whole memories and the words for each piece of the world.

Then birth. And the angel returns as our mothers
begin to suffer, silences cells as our mothers beg.
Push, someone urges, and almost, while inside
the angel traces a finger from the nose to the top lip, so when

we enter our lives, all we were taught is forgotten.

III.

Inside my mother I knew the shape and history of the tundra.
I knew the sound of mollusks as they fidget into pearls.

I knew how the color blue was made,
and why the ocean didn’t trust it.

I knew the shy longings of salamanders. I knew the symphonies
that turtles heard, in some afternoon dreams.

I knew each dream of death and its fish shape, its lopped
and odorless trace. Sometimes I played them like dominoes.

Sometimes I marched the future onto windowsills, propped certain
summers like painted soldiers, to protect the imaginary street.

Sometimes I sang Frank Sinatra into the thought of seedpods.
I hummed my mother’s lullabies into the thought

of morning glories, then I whistled
into the thought of them dying as the day wore on.

I poured time into the thought of milk saucers, and lapped it.
I swallowed the thought of rocks.

IV.

Envelope
for the kiss.

Spoon
of scent.

It culls
the breath

from lovers,

lulls
them in.

V.

When I knew everything, those few wrong days
that waited sleepless in the future

—walking home from the neuro-oncologist’s, or
--------the blunt surprise taste of an older boy’s thumb—

those days furled into the days surrounding to become
a single conch shell, glassy and earlobe pink.

I held the thought of this shell and listened to its sea sound,
the combers simmering into sun from the salt surface of sea.

VI.

Only the angel regretted it, taking the knowledge back.
I didn’t want to keep what I had learned.

Nor did I want to lose it. But I did not mumble Wait,
in that language an angel understands.

And I did not feel bereft when the knowledge left me,
when forgetfulness filled into oxygen, pulling the veins.

The angel grazed a finger across my face,
soothing a groove into the plain of skin. That

was what I wanted: to be touched.

Mountaineer

He had spent so many useless hours with others.
-----------------------------------Ingeborg Bachmann

I see flowers
in dead space
where banana’s grow
thirty five late nights
clouds fall, sickness longs
I swap freedoms for moneys
…either way, soon I return
to morning, sober like a spider
where a mere fud cannot reach me

Heaven

—for Hilary

The idea of heaven has its attractions, I’ll admit.
Yet, what paradises we conjure to fill the picture
amount, it seems, to little more than recompense
for what, when closely examined, is a lousy deal.

As for the place that’s been slated for ropier members
of the species, the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch
intimate that death’s not required for admission:
it’s us, here, in all the tangled weirdness of our being.

The view south from Cape Point could be said to mimic
what one imagines any worthy heaven might hope to be:
serenely empty, no sign of angels or ‘the faithful’,
no gold-plated bric-a-brac or a glad-handing divinity.

That heaven has no usable synonyms suggests to me
that nothing more perfectly represents it than a blank page,
a pen held in abeyance from gravity, and a mind emptied
of all its idiosyncratic obsessions and waiting only

for something resembling a salt-laden onshore wind.

A cup of tea

The rain arrives at three, soft first,
then urgent, persistent, steady.
A cup of tea’s his last resort
who’s coughed for over half an hour
trying to clear his lungs of phlegm.
It hurts his chest, his neck, his head.

He goes downstairs. A faulty gutter
drips outside, keeping time.
He makes a note: it must be fixed.
The steaming tea relieves his pain,
the coughing slows until at last
his breathing settles down again.

Enveloped by the quiet you find
in early hours, he tries to read.
The world is flying through the dark,
houses, trees and mountain tops,
late lovers down the street who bend
to weave a future in their ark.

Floating behind the broken cloud,
the teasing moon plays hide and seek.
How long to wait, he wonders, for
clear understanding to appear…
the skill of living devoid of fear
of being gone, no longer here.

Untitled

-----------L’étonnant est qu’un autre puisse parfois y détecter
-------------------------ces choses qui ne sont pas dans les mots.
---------------------------------------------------LORAND GASPAR

I happen to be the one who wrote
The words that you now read.
You happen to be the one who reads
The words that I once wrote.

I’ve never owned even one of them,
Not when I wrote, not now;
And sitting in the lamp’s warm glow
Not one of them’s your own.

The day I chanced to write them out
It rained from dark to dark.
The day you’ve chanced to pick them up
The weather’s what it is:

Great cloudless skies, pale blue to eyes,
Strong rain or threats of snow;
Cool winds that swirl around the house,
Or calm, birdsong and heat.

For years I’ve wondered at your shape,
Your hands, your face, your lips,
Your body’s brimming blocks and planes,
The puzzle of your hips.

I’ve longed to smash the glass and reach
Right through and touch and hold
The you that’s you, utterly embrace,
If only for a minute.

But there is no way of knowing who
You are or where you live,
And the only place we have to meet
Is among these graveyard stones,

Where as my fingers chance to move
A music starts and rolls,
And we are written into being,
Art’s verisimilitude.

Intermezzo

—i.m. Don Maclennan 1929–2009

In the middle of contemplating the strangeness of what
you might call ‘being conscious of self and world’,
I thought to ask what your ideas on the matter were,
imagining I’d find you asleep in the garden, your face
shaded by a battered old hat perched at
an odd angle, a book of Seferis half-open in your lap.

The photograph I have of you sitting in a striped deckchair
reminds me of just such a post-prandial afternoon
one spring when food and wine had all but overtaken speech
and intermittent conversation catalogued the losses
that accumulate: lovers; certainty; the strengths
we need to solve the singular puzzles of a sheer rock-face.

Bashō got it right. Examined up close, our anchors of love,
faith and joy, are fleeting, unfixed, more air
than anything else. Nothing’s ever the same as it was
a moment ago, before you read the lines you wrote.
Everything requires remaking and renewal.
That the centre doesn’t hold doesn’t matter—it never did.

In the line of sight

Now, in this moment, this now in which your eyes
follow the dark lines of language—grey geese or
great cranes lifted on steady wings and into flight
across a continent for the warm shores of the south—

this now in which your eyes are carried downriver
with flow and tide, over water, through bend and lock,
are carried under bridges and falling branches—
the low, certain sound of an engine echoing

across reflected clouds to the bank and back again—
are carried down until at last, through lingering mists,
estuary, wide-open mouth and the slow curves
of coastline that disappear north and south

appear in this only moment, this now in which
your eyes, looking all about, head over the nameless
ocean until only water in every direction is again sky,
until only occasional ships and low, passing clouds

are all that break the swells and line of horizon,
this now when there is no longer going back to when
there wasn’t this, this now, where you were before
beginning, standing alone in the heat of morning

on a bank and following lines, struck blind.