Country music

When in our purest form
we sang the songs of rain to a hard blessed sky,
and what poured down was our predestined selves
compelling us to praise, to drown, or swim, or else.

Oh, there were hours of song and of prophesied drink,
and the vessels of my heart grew weary of such things.

What dog barks at a well-off man, he asked.
I did not live
among the poorest of the poor to give ye comfort.
I brought ye here to earn a wage
from a rich man who would despise ye.

For He gave us Classic Rockabilly on a clobbered portable radio
when we had no chance but to climb the razor fences
and drag our punctured bellies across the stretched quilts of our mothers,
stitched together with the stripped threads of all they owned.

Yea, the fowl will stand beside the sated dogs, between the children
and the irreproachable young men who wore the mark of
Yeezus on their T-shirts,
their blood still dripping from their well-accomplished hands.
They will watch us with care and they will covet each of the moments
we stand without handcuffs.

Oh, there were hours of song, hours of watered down prayers,
and the vessels of my heart grew weary,
my heart grew weary.

***

My father sat with me to watch Hee-Haw on Saturday nights,
I think he thought I would want to learn the ways of the fiddle
or at least appreciate Roy Clark’s excellent banjo playing.
Instead I learned the violent prose of Labatt 50 ale and Player’s tobacco
in the same room.

He taught me to be hungry with my hands.

Supper was served at 7 p.m. sharp
on fold-up tin TV trays with milk glass rust stains,
and the main course was a bowl of Chef Boyardee beef ravioli
and buttered sliced bread,
and dessert was a tin of fruit cocktail
(with only one cherry, maybe) served in a Dixie cup.
We sat in front of the television screen,
our sock feet folded in front of us,
and a dish towel to cover our shirts,
and we listened to Buck and Roy
and I wondered why
the women who walked by the front door on their way to Bingo or Bridge
or to movies at the downtown theater,
all wore pink or blue nylon scarves
over their hair,
and why they all looked like Jackie Onassis
on their way to an important soiree,
and wore the same perfume my mother preferred
before she left

and then Minnie Pearl would say something outrageous and I forgot the loneliness
until another lady walked past the doorway and I wondered if
she could see the holes in my socks
or notice that my father was reaching for another beer.

Soft brick window wells

do they still hold sleepovers
behind the textile plant,
on those burned-out chesterfields and
the la-z-boys with the brown foam
spilling out of the arms,

and do the bricks still smell like homemade
Portuguese wine
and wet takeout cartons

are the psalms still written on the plywood windows,
random angry verbs and treatises on
Vietnamese honey bees, and
big-G Gods and little-g goddamn ex-wives,
it’s all there, Mister Tinn, a written history
of living drunk on lower Caraway Street

but do you know what it is,
what it really is,
it’s all hidden in the uncomplicated folds of
the fabric of her skirt
like laurel leaves
under my fingers
that certain shade of green
and that certain breath she held
when she saw me approach her
and then

leave
and I’m

flicking cigarette butts into
coffee cans and soft brick window wells
clotted with three years worth of dead leaves
and I’m hoping
maybe something will ignite

and hey, there’s the new kid Carlos explaining again
the harmony of Samdhana yoga
to those with no fucking flexibility, he says
there was too much oneness between the sangria and his breath
when he tried his Yin posture on his teacher and her husband
swore he would beat the living shit out of him
if he tried that kind of

harmony
again

so do you think maybe he’s old enough
to end up dying here
with the rest of us

damages

these
there
are the scars she said a fleshybrown
hook on her belly a rage of adjectives against her
skin by hand under shirt under skirt look
here where the skin broke
at the damages she tolerates
for not knowing
his rages against the surface part of her,
the retractable blade
went here, look, touch these damages
they are only torn fabric silk and muscle bleeding
dye and plasma, dying
you hear a different meaning
from the language she has given you

The one before last

Your hands are still old frayed cloth,
hardly ever warm,
unadorned by rings or polish, but scratched up
from your cat Saint-Mary
whom nobody likes, but you’re too attached
to the rough animals that hurt you.
I ignore her when I visit you,
but still insist on serving the tea.

You say, sit down and warm up those slippers I gave you
Christmas last year
or the one before last.
Did I knit you that scarf, do you keep yourself warm,
do you remember that war,
no, you were too young for that war,
that was the year we left home to come here.
I remember that year better than
the one before last,
will you drink all your tea,
you’re a good boy
for remembering me.

You’re an old lady now
(you call yourself that),
filled with all sorts of living
that others can’t hear.
Do you still alphabetize your grocery list,
and grow rosemary in your kitchen?
Do you still draw those pictures
of the beach from before the war?
Your sister died then
and your mother did, too.
You loved that place, sadness and all

and then you disappear in front of me,
far away into the years as you watch
the sea wash over the sand,
when you were not the last one
left to listen for it.

Have I told you about when I was a girl,
you ask. Yes, you have,
and many times to the same sad end.
But I listen, you see, and I think Mary does too
because she stops biting into the slippers you made me
the year before last, and she watches
you with her cultured cat eyes.

For a while I disappear with you and we walk the beach
and feel the salt as it bites into our pores
and I press a smudged rag into
the flesh of my boots
and wipe away the sand
with the shoe polish you keep
beside the wooden box of milk bottles by the door,
and I hear the high laughter of girls,
all the sisters,
gone now,
all gone.

and then the air is dull again
with Lemon Pledge and cat food
and a motorcycle drives by
and I am still here and
you are still counting the rocks in the sand
and we are separated by the decades again.

Come visit me again, you say.
You know I will when I can, I say.
I know your hands are old frayed cloth
and are finer every day, like antique lace.
Mine are growing more finite and painful.
I wonder if you will still remember me once the tea is all drunk
and the years gather more space between us.
Will the beach still be there for you
when we are finished with this wander,
and will you remember to bring my slippers
for when I visit?
You still smell the sea,
but I will always smell the rosemary
growing in your kitchen.

1967 lawn chair

My living thoughts of you
still follow me through the bramble
of crumpled bits of paper
where all the words
I write to explain you to me
falter in mid-stroke.
I cannot breathe
in the dust
of yesterday,
where you still live,
where I still pay rent.

There is a mean toll
for crossing that border
and re-walking all those miles,
climbing over the rubble,
pissing on all those tracks,
spitting out all that brine,
but that’s how it was,
that’s how it was
running away from your home

and wrapping my ass in
the given-up geometry of a
1967 lawn chair outside one
fleabag or another,
and I’m down
to the minimum dietary requirement
of crumbled corn chips and
leftover beer
discovered like a treasure
on top of the toilet tank
beside the drunken sketch of Angry Yahweh,
and that last viable cigarette butt
beside the fresh hole in the mattress

no I cannot breathe any more.

I trudge back to you every night,
my bruised eyes and
gravel-bitten feet kick up
dark puddles, dripping what’s left
of me onto crumpled bits of paper

and all my living thoughts of you
run on ahead and wait
for me to catch up.

A place for departing saints

I watched the widowed mother

pause on the steps of

Matilde of the Sacred Heart,

a sight in black and white

posed in a black polyester dress,

maneuvering

cautiously down

cracked white concrete,

and I studied her

 

studying my children

across the street

in the

catholic park,

riding their bicycles and hiding

behind summer trees and sharing

their lovely laughter,

 

and it gave her

and it gave me

and it gave us

a précis of her new world.

 

she considered the words

spoken in

the privileged language

of prayer,

still, inside, chanting, inside,

in an idiotic, monotone

 

an old rubric

gutted by a god

prone to soliloquies

 

and

she hailed a cab

for someplace else.

Our usual fable

We wash the bone mud
from our torsos,
and if there is a word for this,
it is sorrow.

We see the frustration
in the lean faces of our children,
the dirt griming their arms,
the hollowness griming their bellies.

You and I will fumble with 
our usual fable:
this will pass
and it will pass soon
and it will pass as we sleep
and the land will turn green again
and the sun will turn warm again
and the fields will grow thick again
and we will rest all our doubts,
but yes, this will pass.

A malingering moon watches
over us,
and the baby studies the
cracked face through the worn curtains
in her room.
There is music downstairs
to accompany our fable:
I have my father’s old guitar and
you tap a pencil
on the kitchen table to 
the plink of wash water in
the beaten feed bucket.

You sing indistinguishable words,
soft enough
to be a prayer and perhaps that’s what it is,
you say it is,
but it fades into hushes until we
can barely hear the sounds you meant for God.
We take turns wrapping our hands
around each other’s fists, 
and then we rest them on the gathered tablecloth,
my guitar on my knee,
Sally on your lap,
and I thank God we cannot see each other’s eyes
because I know there is resignation in them
and I know there are ashes in them
where a fire once burned,
but the fire has burned away 
and I cannot see that in you again,
I will not see that in you again,
and yes, this will pass.

We take each other to our rest
in our crumpled bed, with its heavy iron posts
that flake with rust
that you wash away with a dry rag
every morning,
and you sweep away the dirt that falls
out of my cuffs and pockets 
every night.
We will pray about love
to each other
and we will pray about love
for each other
until sleep takes us
and it will.
Like the days before it,
this one has finally passed.

Cinder block field

We laid beside the fractured cinder blocks
we found in the field behind
the slaughterhouse
and we
watched the onioned sunset
that began
orange, no, tangerine, no, scarlet, no,

just a moment,
it’s changing again, just
another color
we invented
that no one
will see again or believe was real.

The grass has become tall
in the meantime and
the weeds
have been reaching for our blanket
and the ants are confused
by the quiet thoroughfare of our veins.

Your face,
as serious as the hovering gray
tapestry of clouds,
and as pale
as the milkweed seeds that
have paused
on your breast 

and we have stopped
blinking.

The ground has become dark and
our blanket is the same inferior color
as the
rooftop of this ruined sky
and we are gone, so gone
in the nothing color of goodbye
that no one will witness
again.

The middle of a very rainy afternoon

We heard the baritone command of the rain 
— it was a cello’s thrum, a wordless play —
upon the stone cobbles beneath shoe-less hooves.
We clouded together under the canopy
of a delicatessen and waited for the pastrami
to invite us inside, but it was typically mute
(as pastrami will be), and so we waited.

We had no umbrella,
and my suit was freshly laundered
and Dee’s hairstylist was profoundly anti-weather,
so we watched the sky and the gray passers-by,
and waited for a change:
perhaps a burr of sunlight,
or a morsel of blue above the Grand Theatre 
or William’s Mercantile?
But none availed itself to us.

My wristwatch was impatient,
for I had an appointment to somewhere,
and Dee was terribly afraid of catching
pneumonia or heart-faintness,
and the Delicatessen was about to close.
We would be stranded! in the middle of the city,
perhaps savaged by the wageless poor
that roamed the alleys behind the
dry-cleaning establishment.

The music of the rain no longer entertained us,
and our bones shuddered in the dampness.
Dee’s glasses were misted by her anxious tears,
and I longed for a cup of Earl Grey, strongly brewed,
and in a civilized setting. 
I sighted a taxi-cab passing by,
Off Duty, it suggested, and I waved,
and the attendant waved his finger back at me
— a charming fellow — but he still drove away.

And now here we wait, Dee and I,
impervious to this foul weather:
more resilient than most, and braver than many.
The afternoon has fallen upon us in a very hard way,
but my suit is still unassailable
and Dee’s curls still hold most successfully.

We will wait until our moral victory is assured
should the rain ever stop for a moment or two
or until the umbrella shop next door
re-opens its doors to us before
close of business today.
Still we hear the baritone command of the rain 
— it is a cello’s thrum, a wordless play —
upon the stone cobbles beneath shoe-less hooves.

The yellow-leafed tree

The veil between dreams

My eyes abide the blighted light
of the yellow-leafed tree.
Please set my stone here
and let us both rest.
But please stop and listen —
I know you can hear it,
the grief in my spirit,

and you see the fraying of my days,
my finite breaths
fading away.

I still lean into old memories,
away from you,
away from who
I wanted to be.

I did not expect to be loved so well.