Poetry

Poetry

The first word

(The Amharas of Ethiopia name their babies the first word spoken by the mother after she gives birth.)


Just what should she do, this mother?
Practice Patricia or Rosalie
until there’s nothing else upon
Her tongue? Spout Mike until she cannot
Pronounce another word for boy?

Exhausted, she stifles “Blackjack!”
And other exclamations for joy,
Afraid, suddenly, she’ll utter
“Icewater” or “gelato,” or one
Great profane whoop of “Jesus Christ!”

And we might wonder what father
Is doing, whether he is present,
Staying close to coach from the wings
Of this incredible theater,
Reminding mother what’s scripted.

Look, he’s forming a name with lips
And tongue, shaping that child for her voice.
Nearby, someone holds the baby
Through the nostalgia of second thoughts.
The room is a quiet of cries.

The future, a brush of air, flies
Up the throat. At once, apprehension.
Then mother hears herself begin,
Pronouncing syllables carefully,
Speaking clearly to be certain.









Fallujah (11/8/04)

On lines near maple’s blaze I pin our flowered sheets.
Spilled gold speaks, crisp, under my feet.
Above: bare branches, birdsong, blue.

Today in your streets our blasts of heavy metal boom,
drown out all calls: to arms, to prayer.
And I am so ashamed. Brave Sister,

Are you still standing, hanging out white linen, black robe,
putting on the line what is clean, lifting it
into whatever sun shines there today?



". . . and our hearts are restless . . ."

Pontificating to the very last,
I speak my feeble voice to the void,
Caught by the lure Abba-Mater has cast.

Though wise ones shun a loud iconoclast,
Titanic times demand one must be heard,
Pontificating to the very last.

The time for kissing rings of power is past,
Emoluments I sought I now avoid,
Caught by the lure Abba-Mater has cast.

I am gill-caught, like Peter, in a net,
And I’ve betrayed, and wept, whimpering guilt,
And still pontificated to the last.

Jahweh has set sheer longing in the soul,
Nostalgia’s gravity, pure restlessness,
Dangling the lure Mater-Abba has cast.

The requiem the mighty Mozart sought
Is always there, not here; and for this while,
Pontificating to the very last,
I take the lure Mater-Abba has cast.









Daredevil

Sunday afternoons, she rolled off her stockings
to cross beams girding my grandfather’s barn.
She was fifteen and longed for something in the dark
leafy boughs she couldn’t quite reach. Balancing
on a hand-hewn rafter was nothing more
than stepping out on a limb and the humid hour
held its breath, the twittering sparrows fell silent.
Dust shivered suspended as she passed through
shafts of light austere as a coronation. This
was before she coiled her braids under a covering
and took her place in a kitchen with its slick checkered
floor and the tick of a clock she had to rewind.
For one immortal summer, girders hung
taut as strings her steady feet could strum.

Tattooists

Are these Christian tattooists
in the paper any stranger—Simon Stylites spent
a life standing on a stone pillar, sixty feet up—
did not come down for cramps or winter rain.

Could I survive the Sacred Heart with “Hail, Mary,
Full of Grace” across my arm, or
the crucifixion in three colors
against my sternum between my breasts.
Needles to skin over
soft tissue is less painful,
but flesh is grass and sags—
art lasts best close to bone.

No stranger than hair shirts,
hundreds of needles for hours, for days, even years,
to get the complete St. Michael on my shoulder to the writhing,
twisting dragon down my leg.
Or my whole life to get the Last Supper
with Stations of the Cross, and the proper text—
Jesus’ words in red—
covering every inch of skin, eyelids,
lips, nose, between fingers and toes,
while invisible capillaries
under the skin carry the images
molecule by molecule
into the living catacombs of bone.