poem-a-thon 30: at the wake

Last day of April. Ye gods, I did not think I would get here in one piece.

I’ll write a happier poem after this one I guess, but the NaPoWriMo prompt was to write a “farewell” poem, and all I could think of was Nicholas. But then it spun into thinking about his ex, who I won’t name, from whom he acquired what killed him. There are few experience more surreal and rankling than sitting at a memorial for someone with the person who was, in some indirect way, responsible for their death, and knowing that it was almost you who could have been the victim.

That’s about all I can muster to say about that. I think this will take a lot longer to fully melt and unpack.

At the Wake

The last time I saw your murderer,
it was the crowning of September.
All reddening oak and piano damper.
We met in a courtyard paved with brick,
and your murderer– he didn’t look sick.
Mouth unmoving. Beard grown thick.
I couldn’t bring myself to do it,
to spit in his eye, though we all knew it:
how he didn’t even try to push through it.
You took the bullet I dodged, in the head.
You shared his quiet murderer’s bed
and were the one who died, instead.
I want to announce this to everyone–
but we don’t discuss the bullet, the gun.
We talk of doing, not of what’s done.
He’ll pass too, one day– I want to say amen
but I unearth only grey. I’m only certain
of this: I won’t see you, or him, again.

Still Life

See? I told you I wouldn’t be gone long.

This one is kind of morose and morbid. We Write Poems wanted a piece that took something often seen as ugly and made it beautiful; I dislike getting too macabre and melancholy (god, so many good m-adjectives) with the beautification of death, I am no Baudelaire. But this was the first thing that popped into my head. There’s a reason I think we keep coming back to tragedy in our culture, and I suppose this was an attempt to pick that apart a little bit. I promise I’ll be back to my usual cheerful observational self with the next one.

This is post 1001, which has all kinds of pleasing Scheherezade undertones. That’s it for the milestones today, though.

Still Life

He froze to death, right there, on a bench under the pine
sloping westward. Police come to Jackson Square, all black gloves
and yellow tape, searching his pockets for a name. We stare

through the iron gates, thinking, out here is all pumping blood
and carrying voices, and in there is all hush and cessation.
One of his hands claws forever at the sky. There are crystals

decorating his beard. Police sip coffee and take their notes,
and we want to peer over their shoulders. We circle. The man,
posed at every angle: accusing, forlorn, merely sleeping.

We haven’t seen him before, in that rustling coat worn colorless,
those chewed-up boots. They’ll label him Unknown, lay him out
on Hart Island in earth too solid to accept a single crocus,

despite our best intentions. He is brushed with blue.
Police refuse to tell us anything, so we detach and float,
Orphean, afraid to turn away. All art is a merciless teacher

we can’t resist. It comes suddenly: a dead man grows sculptural
and sorrowful; police murmur like flies; and we drift home,
where we will hold each other in silence by the fire.

The Man from Porlock

Been pretty quiet the last few days thanks to the flu. I woke up on Tuesday morning feeling completely abysmal, and after several half-starts at work (and being sent home; my boss didn’t want to get sick), I am finally back at my parents’ on official vacation. Feeling mostly better at this point, though still a bit gross. The fever has broken and subsided into a chest cold; much easier to deal with, I think.

Last night there was a howling gale outside (which was a blizzard further north, I’m told) that kept me awake for a good hour around 4 AM. As often happens when I’m really sick — perhaps this is some kind of fever-dream effect? — I had a series of pretty fantastic lucid dreams that, in my mind’s eye, I was taking notes on to write the stories later. But I got to this half-awake point where two of the dreams were only piecemeal, and I had a definite sense of them being cleared away as rubbish to make room for other things. In honor of Coleridge, I’m personifying that memory reboot as the man from Porlock; and I am getting back at him by writing a poem about him. (There are still two stories relatively intact that I woke with this morning; I made special lucid-dream efforts to hang on to them.) The end of the world frenzy made a nice endnote to the sense of those fantasies being lost. (And the solstice, longest night bit too, I think.)

I must go food shopping for the Victorian Christmas dinner on Sunday, and check my work email (my penance for skipping out sick three days in a row, when I’d already planned my vacation), but otherwise it will be a pretty easy day at home. I anticipate much writing! But probably I’ll just end up watching QI clips on YouTube again…

The Man from Porlock

rides in upon the howling wind and
snowflakes melted in midair like broken
promises; and with a mumbled apology

he begins collecting the fabric squares
lying on the table that didn’t find
a place in any dream, while his other hand

unwraps a migraine from its tissue
paper and presses it to your head; and
your protests fall on deaf ears

while he scoops up those kelly green
glimmers of setting and those viscous
beetles of plot, until there is nothing

but the bare kneading surface; he is
very small, the man from Porlock, as he
straddles his wet vehicle again, ready

to rise into the longest night; this
night when the world is supposed to end,
he reminds you that all that will end are

these unsewn stories set on secret planets,
wiped clean so there will be a mirror
for the grey and featureless morning

Cease-Fire

Long but interesting day, in which I got absolutely no writing done. The highlight of it, for me was seeing Thoth at Central Park; they made a documentary about him in 2002 that won the Oscar. He’s a completely unique type of performer who blends music and mysticism in a truly incredible way. But then I got home not long ago, and wanted to do something for the dVerse Armistice Day prompt. So this is my slapdash offering to write about peace making of some kind.

Let it be noted that on this theme, no poem will ever surpass, for me, Susanna Rich’s “Passover“. It aches perfectly, and is so complicated with hate and hope.

Cease-Fire

You can’t spin thread out of silence. I’ve tried,
but it slips your fingers, makes lousy stitches
when sewing up a wound. We have so many

nowadays. But I wouldn’t keep at it
if there wasn’t love at the point of the needle,
patience rounding out the eye. I’ve spilled

the blood of many with what I call healing.
You have to use a long line of words forced in
through the skin. You have to pluck feathers

off the firebird, rolling them into the thinnest
line of feeling: then you pull the edges together.
One by one. X after X. The smoke of one

shared cigarette, and the cold pavement
in October. Trinkets traded at street markets,
and the gift of a mutual touch. I would sell

Manhattan to you for a glass bead and three
syllables of forgiveness, if you would do the same.
Then we can finish each other off with

double knots, and carry on. After a while,
all stings go numb. All fiery feathers are ground
out, like tobacco embers under a boot’s heel.

The Darkroom

Thanks to everyone for the outpouring of concern regarding my vertigo incident! Everything’s been fine this week; I haven’t gone back to class yet, but I think we’ll give it a shot on Tuesday and feel it out.

Donna had a prompt asking us to write about a misnomer (and why we feel it is one), and/or to use Death Cab for Cutie lyrics as inspiration. My favorite DCFC song (and probably the only one I can sing accurately all the way through) is “I Will Follow You into the Dark”, which for my money is still one of the most bittersweet love songs to play at a funeral there is. (“Casimir Pulaski Day” by Sufjan Stevens edges it by a little bit, and Billy Joel’s “Lullaby” is a good one, though I think “I Will Follow…” owes a lot to that one, in terms of melody.) When I was a youngster, I took a photography course once, and I used to love hanging out in the darkroom playing with the chemicals. So this grew from those three threads… the Death Cab lyric in question is:

You and me, we’ve seen everything to see
from Bangkok to Calgary; and the soles of your shoes
are all worn down; the time for sleep is now,
but it’s nothing to cry about because we’ll hold each other soon
in the blackest of rooms…

And you want a good metaphor, here’s one:

If Heaven and Hell decide that they both are satisfied,
illuminate the “NO”s in their vacancy signs…

Such a unique and lyrical way to describe that fear of oblivion. Not going up, not going down, just going; and then what a simple, lovely way to reassure each other against it.

The Darkroom

always had enough light to see by, for me:
it’s how I used to imagine twilight on Mars,
landscapes painted in dry blood

it crunches underfoot with clothespins
and swelters like a sulfur spring
and black curtains waiting to begin the show

rising action: images blossoming on paper,
morning glories until the stop bath
caught them in half-breathed black-and-white–

and falling action: your face resolving,
crying vinegar, dangling from the line
until it dried into the memory of a smile

even though you always hated it in here,
tugged at my gloved hands to draw me
out into the meadows thick with broom

squinting after you and letting you pose
with your laughter turned towards the sun
as I snapped shot after shot

so that now, when you’re gone, when there’s
not even a headstone to mark the spot,
I can keep the confetti of those days

glossy prayer flags with a mantra
that shows teeth over and over, whose reality
is reduced to dimming shades of red

and if I do slip into a blindness the color of
closed eyelids, at least I’ll have stayed
in here, cocooning away time with time

Four-Letter Word

Last night I got caught in a sudden severe thunderstorm, and was running through city streets in the rain. I forgot how unbelievably fun that can be. (Well, ok, except this one time – on my birthday some years ago, when we went in to the city to see Mirrormask - it happened, and I lost my flip-flop in a flooded intersection, and so I was sloshing through a foot of probably-typhoidic water with one shoe… that was less fun.)

Also, I recently discovered that we have roof access in our building. I sat up there a good long while (pre-storm) writing, and reading Patti Smith, and watching the sunset. Some excellent ideas in my journal.

But this one is, more or less, for Donna’s Poetry Mix Tape prompt about taking something serious, personifying it, and making it lighthearted. I didn’t get nearly as light as I thought I would – maybe it has a bit of black humor under the surface – and the metaphor is a common one (maybe I’ll follow up with a lighthearted one about trite metaphors), but I think it still works. For the last stanza, I went back and forth on the choice of “manacle” and “hand” for a good twenty minutes; I still feel like something better could have been chosen.

Four-Letter Word

We pass it back and forth like loose change,
nickels softened with caresses and bite marks
to check for silver. And I’ve done my share:

I’ve pressed it into palms and slipped it
underneath tongues, I’ve balanced it upon
closed eyelids and squirreled it away.

It’s a free market with floating currency,
and no one keeps their ledgers. After a while
you’ve committed counterfeit so many times

that you can’t tell anymore who you’ve paid
and who you owe. Every syllable with a face
stamped on the obverse, a heart on the back.

I keep my stash in a leather pouch at my hip
so I can draw out each time it was given,
flip it over my fingers for the memory

spoken in some darkened bedroom or pressed
against a nightclub wall. We decimalise,
we devalue. The market will correct itself.

Eventually, we’ll be rich as Weimar Germans
wheeling our barrows down to the river,
who takes all the four-letter words it can get:

but I’ll save just one. I’ll work it into a manacle
the perfect size to slip into the sentence, “I–
–you“, loop a hand whose shape is yet unknown.

Walking Home at Nine-Fifteen A.M.

This wasn’t at all what I set out to write, though I don’t think that it was a happy surprise or anything; it just is what it is. Dverse was talking about the triversen, a form popular among the American Imagists like WCW and Wallace Stevens. While I don’t think this is a particularly faithful version of the form (and I certainly didn’t go the route of incorporating some Japanese aesthetic sensibilities), I tried to keep at least some of the conceits, structurally. There’s alliteration, tercets, discrete units of phrase; the senses are all touched in; the theme is about a failure of vocabulary, and the walk of shame.

Oh, hell, I don’t know. I’m going to drink more herbal tea.

Walking Home at Nine-Fifteen A.M.

I need a name for that tickle in your nose
when a star jelly scent wafts from your fingers
and you’re sure that everyone can smell it.

And I need a name for that unknown itch
climbing scattershot from hip bone to rib bone,
pink footprints where your nails rake it.

I need a name for that horsetail rain,
tangling down, battering your umbrella apart,
building ghosts with familiar faces.

And I need a name for that undone tongue,
still full of the salt of last night’s mistake,
that clings to your palate and can’t forget.

I need a name for that shuddering subway
and its quilt of noise, and its silent knowledge,
when everyone can tell what you are.

And I need a name for that nearness,
after you’ve shut the truth in your cedar chest
but its edges still show through your skin.

Lacuna

I’m feeling a bit like a wobbly gyroscope lately, poetically; when I’m level, I feel level, and confident in my writing. Everything feels like it holds together and pops as it should. But then I shift and spit out some lame half-assed poem that doesn’t have anywhere near the emotional resonance and linguistic derring-do I’m looking for. (Like, not even close.) NaPoWriMo is great if you need motivation to write more, but I don’t think I need that; I need motivation to write better. I’m thinking of taking some time off from prompts, keeping my new work postings down, and just going with the flow in terms of fresh drafts.

Thinking about all of this because of this one I just trotted out for Donna‘s prompt, based off a poem by Marie Howe. Now, I know I can’t hold a candle to Marie Howe; and I know the prompt (to talk about someone deceased/lost with the lens of missed details) is a tough one; and I am fortunate to have not lost many close people. But I still feel that for the subject of this poem, I didn’t do justice to what I feel and remember and think about her passing. I don’t really know what the solution is to that, and as happens frequently, I’m caught up in this idea that by writing a lot, I’m sacrificing the potential for honest-to-goodness deep thought.

A while back I said I thought I had plateau’d with my poetry; then I distracted myself with challenges, submissions, Curio, etc. Now that thought is rolling around again, and I want to deal with it head-on this time.

Lacuna

The worst part of outlasting is that you start questioning
your own memory. Nobody tells you that: they make TV movies
about morphine drips and white-gloved doctors saying things like

you can let go now, and all the relatives under grey skies
hugging each other. I wish they talked about four or five years
down the line, when these horrible moments strike you, some

Tuesday afternoon, and you realize that you can’t remember
how tall she was, exactly, or the precise wood grain of her hair
curtaining her ears. I know one time we freestyled in the cafe,

early morning, the world still sunless; but I have forgotten all of
our rhymes. There was the summer afternoon when we poured
two cups of Burundi coffee, which we held under our noses

and in our mouths until we were sure it had been changed into
blackberry juice with some tongued alchemy; but maybe that
wasn’t her at all. Memories play tricks: it is the last thing

they do before they walk out the door. The only one that stays
burned deep in me is the photo of her car, with the windshield
viciously inhaled and scattered around the road. It prowls

through nightmares, while the rest is hearsay, half-dreamed
in watercolor. Last time I held onto a mouthful of coffee, it stayed
black and bitter; lately, all of my words have had lonely endings.

Redolence

Four poems in one day. Oof. I think that’s all I’m going to squeeze out of myself for the day. This one is for the We Write Poems prompt of “humankind”, which went in a different direction than I expected (as I think they intended with their choice of theme). Ended up thinking about raw biological human things. Sometimes I think about stuff like this, and I try to come up with ways to verbalize them, and fail pretty significantly. This is one of the better results.

Redolence

I’ve given up on signatures, photographs,
and other things that have a tendency to change.
If there is going to be some mark on this world

that was my fault, I want it to be something
three-dimensional and unbounded by words. If only
it were possible to take the aroma, just one

low ruffled note of it, and paint it onto everything
that’s mine. Underneath the fugue of body washes
and deodorants, pomegranate and spiked lime,

stripped of coffee grounds and raw sweat–
there it is, lingering along the crooked inside of my
right elbow. They say this is the spot where

you smell the most like yourself. I’d say,
for me, it has the subsiding warmth of something
nearly cooled from baking, with lean meat,

butter and nutmeg. It has additive properties,
while sorrow turns it bitter-burnt. A hazelnut stamp
built from flecks of chemical biology– that is

what I’d want to press into books, shirts,
piano keys, harp strings, anything people want for
remembering me– real remembering– after I go.