There was a bruise on her thigh
the size of my eager young thumb,
the shape and color of a cat’s serving of
Neapolitan ice cream.
It was not my intention to cause her such a harm,
but it was the mark of my drowning eagerness for her,
a thoughtless expression of my wretched rawness.
I did kiss her quick,
a slight sweep upon her hip,
my lips a light touch upon her caramel skin.
She did not flinch or brush me away,
and in her eyes I saw a reflection of myself:
ragged, thin, braced against a cracked nighttime window
framing my narrow frame into a surprising self-portrait.
And I, unexpected, delivered her no preach of the affection
she had overwhelmed in me.
She poured over my every pore,
and my thirst for her was abated, though my heart was dispirited
that I caused her even this unintentional harm.
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.
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
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
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
so do you think maybe he’s old enough
to end up dying here
with the rest of us
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
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,
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.
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
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
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.
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,
cracked white concrete,
and I studied her
studying my children
across the street
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
the privileged language
still, inside, chanting, inside,
in an idiotic, monotone
an old rubric
gutted by a god
prone to soliloquies
she hailed a cab
for someplace else.
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
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,
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
and you sweep away the dirt that falls
out of my cuffs and pockets
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.
We laid beside the fractured cinder blocks
we found in the field behind
watched the onioned sunset
orange, no, tangerine, no, scarlet, no,
just a moment,
it’s changing again, just
that no one
will see again or believe was real.
The grass has become tall
in the meantime and
have been reaching for our blanket
and the ants are confused
by the quiet thoroughfare of our veins.
as serious as the hovering gray
tapestry of clouds,
and as pale
as the milkweed seeds that
on your breast
and we have stopped
The ground has become dark and
our blanket is the same inferior color
rooftop of this ruined sky
and we are gone, so gone
in the nothing color of goodbye
that no one will witness