Avoiding Etna

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Avoiding Etna

My companions have gone up Etna today
to hike the rough black lava
on the rim of the volcano,
while I stand sun-struck in the libreria
among shelves of Italian books
and the women who sell them.

They are all aflutter,
like sparrows pecking flung seeds.
At home among the motes and tomes,
they float from mystery to romance,
then on to history. The world
is their bookshelf. They climb ladders
to reach the anterooms of paradise,
then look back, as if this communion
could save me too.

When tonight we retire to our beds,
they to sagging quilts and cold-creamed faces,
I to my tourist hotel on the cliff,
we will snore like whiskered cats
or like the rhythmic ondine waters below,
with their diadem of sand and wave.
Far from Etna’s steamy belch, we’ll dream
of books in tidy rows or lying dog-eared
on the nightstand wailing of human foibles,
our eyes star-burned in the spiraling dark.

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What Dreams May Come

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What Dreams May Come

When my dreams remember me
they will find me hunched over a desk
scribbling with inky hands.

They will hear the creaking pedal
of an old piano groaning
between treble glitter and bass thud.

They will smell skin without perfumes,
rub un-redeemably curly hair, sniff
backdoor lavender on hands

that chiseled words across a page
and chopped garlic for a sauce
from which ideas would flap

and crow like strange birds.
My dreams will net students
wearing casual smiles and reading

Jane Eyre and Cyrano
under duress. I’ll watch my shadow
lengthen among the grasses.

I’ve always wanted to be tall,
and now I have outgrown myself,
stretching across the years, leaving

behind a music that vanished
as soon as it was real, a few poems
in which I have poured myself out

like oil on torn lettuce. I will have gone
to join a man who arrived like a comet
but stayed tangled in my hair.

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Languages

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Languages

I have swallowed the seed of languages.
It grows in me like the tree
my mother promised me
when I swallowed the pips
in the orange juice.

Little words sprout like aliens,
spawning a jungle around themselves.
I will not speak English
in this country of sun and stone,

where the scent of tanned leather
bursts from the shops, and pasta
blooms inky black
with the blood of the squid.

On the tongue,
each day begins with bright vowels
buttering the dark crusty bread
of consonants.
Chew, savor, speak.

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Meteor Shower

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Meteor Shower

Maybe tonight
it will be visible.
Last night,
cloud.
The night before,
a too-bright moon.

According to gurus,
enamored of the present,
desire is the villain
inside us,
always wanting more
of ‒ what?
Light, motion,
white-hot explosions
over suburban chimneys
and tendrilled forsythia,
beyond seeds, rain, the maples
guarding cement curbs.
Above locked offices,
abandoned barns,
hands touching, or lips, or champagne, or children asleep.

Maybe tonight,
the detritus of the past
will hurtle through consciousness,
old comets dusting
the sky at its darkest. Listen:

the moment calls us

to
watch

and

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Poem, where will you go?

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Poem, where will you go?

The reddish leaves fall,
meeting the first frost
the way noun meets verb,
neither on tree nor ground
but somewhere in between,
the moment of mystery
in which all fates collide.

Poem, you will soar today
in the last upwinds of a gray sky
then weather yourself
into crushed gold on grass,
where all flesh finishes.
You do what you can
with what life hands you,

tell the same stories
in different words, syntax
surprising you with dinner
at breakfast, with sandals
in winter. You make the best
of tired adjectives, send off
adverbs to deal with depression,
and settle into a porridge
of something greater than yourself

which becomes communion
for those who sup ‒
the commuter on train or plane,
the nun in a convent in Kansas,
the accountant whose bedside lamp
flickers into the blackest hours,
the nursing mother in need of
sustenance at dawn.

You evolve as book, as sacrament,
a holy chrism for the bodies
of saints and sinners, for minds
seeking holidays and wine
and a cloud to ride on. Poem,
your words are as old as Rome,
as bright as the glaciers melting
in the Arctic, as dark as the last
crow on the cradle.

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River

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River

Each year is another bend in the river.
Only the opposite shore is visible.

The water reflects sky, cloud, boat,
pleated by small exhalations of wind.

Once a year we meet
the cousins from another country.

We concoct magical reunions
oceans from reality.

The course of the water eludes
sight and sense, forces us to imagine

what lies beyond.
We know somehow

the future drifts in the river,
its serpentine hands, its Medusa-hair

coiling through the valleys,
far from the tranquil pier.

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Flamenco

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Flamenco

The best dancers are not
the slender young women
with lipstick and scarlet ruffles,
nor the young men who fancy themselves
latent toreadors stamping faster and harder
than rain on a cave roof.

The best dancers are
the leather-faced old women,
black-shawled, with castanets and fans,
strong as bulls, barrel-chested,
big-breasted, with heavy legs, fleshy
arms, and kohl-penciled eyes
dark as dying planets.

Their grandchildren have picked our pockets
on the buses near the Alhambra,
and now we pay to see them dance
in the caves of Granada. They lift their skirts
behind them to show clicking heels,
calves marbled with ropey veins.

The tourists are herded after the show
into a night of cobbled streets
and white-washed hotels, leaving the gypsies
with hands burning from synchronized clapping,
their ancient guitars silent. They drive home
to paint-peeled caravans in the field
beyond the mountain. Before sleep,

the grandmother sifts her hennaed hair
from tortoise-shell combs, spreads it out
on the pillowed moon. But first,
she counts the coins she earned tonight.
Her feet have turned to rock.
She never dreams.

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god is

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god is

a pitiable thing,
a rabbit limping in the garden,
collapsing into the sedum.

god is a reminder
of what heaven forgot–
what?

god is the space under the stairs
where one hides from tornadoes,
or bombs in wartime.

god is the trampled leaf,
the frosted nub of bud,
alive and dying all at once.

god is a mirage in the desert,
where the camel comes to drink
and finds nothing but sand.

god is a way of being alone,
of reading a poem while dreading
the distance ahead.

god is the footprint one follows
to find the old aunt, the dead uncle
in the photograph.

god is the Acheron boatman
who ferries passengers
into the flaming dark.

I have waited all summer
to don the dress I adore,
the one with the yellow flowers
spelling g-d.

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Conjecture

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Conjecture

What if sun and moon
were to collide in space,
spawning sparks of gold and silver,
little gods and goddesses falling to earth
to make everything right?

The rich would turn their pockets inside out
for an old man shivering in a basement flat.
He needs warmth and bread,
but wants only his wife back. He has saved
her blue sweater from the hospital,
keeps it under his pillow, smells it
when he is too cold to sleep.

What if the eight women bombed yesterday
while gathering wood could return,
scarved and gossiping, arms full of twigs?
What if their broken children could be sewn up
like dolls, resurrected clean and desert-pink,
arms and legs where God put them, shrapnel
vanishing like light to bless an invisible sky?

What if truth popped like firecrackers
from the eyes of politicians, if bankers
ate of a golden fruit that made them
un-Midas their vast incredible coffers
for hospitals? What if the poor
had homes, shoes, books?

What if the four seasons
could follow a gentle sequence:
snow, blossom, leaf and warmth,
moderating all desire? Even if death
remains inevitable–what if
chrysanthemums of joy could fold us up
from our sickbeds as we slept, suck out
all breath before we knew what was happening,
to leave the living gasping in surprise, not grief,
holding a white flower to the heart?

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Ash Tree Elegy

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Ash Tree Elegy

Ashes to ashes,

the children’s rhyme

no small irony here.

The emerald ash borer

has chewed its way

into the hearts

of trunks

lining Midwest

suburban streets.

A parade of death,

orange township trucks

bring graceless

euthanasia

to a dying breed.

Hearing the arrival

of saws and chippers,

we remember

the elms.

Tomorrow,

there will be

too much sun.

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