Below is a self-portrait. A poem is written on it. The piece was created over Easter weekend 2013, a few days following open heart surgery. My state of mind and physical condition following the operation resulted in my responding to the Easter story in a personal way. Beneath the graphic, which I've uploaded in reduced size, is a copy of the poem so it can be easily read. It is dedicated to a friend, David Coughlin.
for David Coughlin
Unsteady on my legs, I gazed around, craving
wasn't in heaven, or in the drunk tank either. He was on
10th St near Ave. B, dicking Tess
behind empty milk crates in the deli while relishing
a grunted syllable too full
of life to evolve into a word. Even now
the lapsed Catholic in him loves her. She's a marsh
he tells himself, then slogs through it, the fetid
water's smell his only hope. His goal's
to find God through worldly excess. Instead, one night
in a fight outside Joe's Pizza on Rt. 9
south of here, someone fractures his skull
with a rock in shadows that others
meander through unharmed. But unharmed
isn't what he yearns for, troubled by
the grasshopper jaw's
harrowing geometry. How did
such a thing come to be
he asks one evening with his head still bandaged, as if
zoology is his biggest interest. Such episodes
don't bother us, his kids, anymore. Some of us even think
he does less harm
than many others do. He may not be
St. Augustine, but if confession
is a virtue, his every movement is an admission
he doesn't know
what he needs to know to get
where he's going. It doesn't make
a difference, though. One morning
there he goes, another National Guard guy trekking
through a sandstorm, and suddenly
in a panic
a member of his own platoon takes him out
with a bullet in the back while Abraham, as
obedient as ever, bows
before the altar, happy
to sacrifice another son to any god who asks.
Windless nights spoke to him,
water barely lapping sand, reeds still, no
willow vines rustling.
No noise at all. Nothing. Silence.
But he didn’t believe in silence.
He heard, he swore it, something.
Silence was itself a sound, he claimed, a crying-out.
Bit by whom? And why?
For him, a wind that slowed to nothing
was still wind, but with a difference, just as
a thought, fading as one falls asleep, is still a thought
but free of the artifice that judges its coherence.
Hearing as much in silence as in sound
he tapped his thigh with a finger
to keep the beat. Nobody knows
how many, if any, disciples he left behind
for Barbara Lee
"Here," he says. The smell of grilled onions
floats from the Friendly's
next to the motel. He lays
the newborn in the dumpster, then runs back
to the room. Amy, cross-legged
on the bed, is somewhere else. Her eyes
are blank. Miles
of bloody sheets. All
the roads of course come back here.
To map the infant, if you want, draw
the outline with a pencil, then fill in
the tourist spots, the hands' teeny lines
and the hair, that dark down, softer
than a spider's belly. If you
want nourishment too, cut off
the umbilical cord and buy a baguette
so you can make a sausage hoagie.
Years later, sweating profusely
as you gasp for breath
while trying to climb a stairwell,
you'll recall the taste.
-- Maybe it's too late
to ask, but nonetheless
I'd like your advice:
do you think I was right, that the child's now clean enough
I did the best I could, pulling it
from the dumpster, then wiping
the ick from its body
and face. See the little halo
around its head? It's all that's left
of the grime now, a ring
of slime-colored light. Don't turn away. Admire it.
written 10 years ago, Sept. 11, 2002
Tony, the old Italian with the throat hole
and a gadget he spoke through
told me in 1982, "They'll blow up some day," meaning
the apartments on Thompson St.
where he swore he'd smelled gas leaking
for weeks, which made him nervous, he confided, because
of Bergheim's, the building super's, story
years before about a girl who, looking
up into nonexistent water, inhaled in another country
a surprise from the shower nozzle: the Jews'
collective destiny. But that's not it, not what
we chant Kaddish for today. Evening's birds
screaming in the tulip poplars
confuse things: the amnesia
in their eyes, their misleading wings. When was it
that, at the edge
of what we thought we knew, leg hair
and other things burned, part of the rubble
of fallen towers
a day after the Broncos beat the Giants by 11 points?
Even when we mourn
fate gilds the world for us, so if we want
we can bomb a celebration in Uruzgan;
before we arrive, drums boom in the mountain courtyard, women sing.
Look at the dancers whirl and swirl.
The chickpeas taste good. And so do the olives.
Soon the twirling dancers die.
In the background, like a subtlety that it's not
too difficult to grasp: the faint sound
of a child landing on the ground, dropped from the rooftop by her mother.
Is Omar here or in a cave or somewhere else?
It's all forgotten long before notice of the dancers' deaths reaches us.
In the poplars, birds scream.
After too much seeing, there is none.
The wind woke me, my arm caught
like an eel in a net
in a tangle of Suman's graying black hair.
Looking around in the dark and listening
to the gale, I discovered
a pure language, all noise and no words.
Out of bed by then, I slipped
into my robe, then went out the back door
to the woodpile.
Above wind-thrashed trees, the moon flamed
the solar system to question its significance.
The night was cold and I could barely
keep my balance in the wind.
I went back inside.
Battered by gales, the trees
continued creaking for hours outside the window
like ideas, stiff with age, trying
to reachieve their old flexibility.
I kept thinking of the moon, with its
dead rocks and dust, an accident
of secondhand light.
of logic moved across its surface
as it burned without meaning in my mind
and the wind kept roaring, bending
the trees almost to the ground.
Unable to sleep, I wrote this.
If nobody cares, there's nothing
I can do. I love how
in spite of the wind raging everywhere
the intractable moon
Hell, if it's there, even if
barely visible & boiled so much
most people can't taste it, I
in any dish, and also
can smell its smell, no matter
how faint the aroma. What
I don't know, though,
is what a rosemary plant
in spite of me being 79 & having had
to find out. Still
that ain't no major thing
not to know.
Others things are worse. Like not recalling why
when a storm snows me in
I don't look forward
shoveling me out.
Today I should
say something, conjure
ghosts. The ghost
of language first. This syllable
a mirror, this one smoke, a third
a hand movement too quick to see, a fourth
a shell -- but where's the pea?
Oh, that's right, there is
no pea, or, for that matter, any shell!
The conjuring's what's real, nothing else. Or so
the speech-givers say.
Me, I'm no public speaker. I'm more
in telepathic junk mail, sending
this message to multiple addressees today
as I wander, lost
in a maze of Monday barbeques
in a neighborhood synonymous
with peace. No matter
what I do, though,
the artillery's thunder
drives me crazy. Soldiers
& their dying words
sprawl on the ground all around, then medics
carry them on stretchers to
a makeshift ICU where nurses, fussing
over them, inject them with serums
that help their fevered meanings
slowly grow stone cold.
Dead now, so many things lie piled
alongside each other in war's' graves & gulleys.
There are no ghosts
anymore. If there were
the nation's citizens
would never sleep, which they do.
Nonetheless, for those who still seek a specter, there's
one last chance. At
the local parade, gaze
at the marching bands, the vets in uniform, the mayor
in his open car, the majorettes
whose legs stretch clear to China
& all the while take note
of the spectacle's unearthly
forward flow --
it is itself the lone specter left,
the ghost of what we once believed passing by.
Lower your eyes. Or don't. It's up to you.