A Selection of Contemporary "Confessional" Poetry
Poems by Tony Hoagland
Adam and Eve
I wanted to punch her right in the mouth and that's the truth.
After all, we had gotten from the station of the flickering glances
to the station of the hungry mouths,
from the shoreline of skirts and faded jeans
to the ocean of unencumbered skin,
from the perilous mountaintop of the apartment steps
to the sanctified valley of the bed--
the candle fluttering upon the dresser top, its little yellow blade
sending up its whiff of waxy smoke,
and I could smell her readiness
like a dank cloud above a field,
when at the crucial moment, the all-important moment,
the moment standing at attention,
she held her milk white hand agitatedly
over the entrance to her body and said No,
and my brain burst into flame.
If I couldn't sink myself in her like a dark spur
or dissolve into her like a clod thrown in a river,
can I go all the way in the saying, and say
I wanted to punch her right in the face?
Am I allowed to say that,
that I wanted to punch her right in her soft face?
Or is the saying just another instance of rapaciousness,
just another way of doing what I wanted then,
by saying it?
Is a man just an animal, and is a woman not an animal?
Is the name of the animal power?
Is it true that the man wishes to see the woman
hurt with her own pleasure
and the woman wishes to see the expression on the man's face
of someone falling from great height,
that the woman thrills with the power of her weakness
and the man is astonished by the weakness of his power?
Is the sexual chase a hunt where the animal inside
drags the human down
into a jungle made of vowels,
hormonal undergrowth of sweat and hair,
or is this an obsolete idea
lodged like a fossil
in the brain of the ape
who lives inside the man?
Can the fossil be surgically removed
or dissolved, or redesigned
so the man can be a human being, like a woman?
Does the woman see the man as a house
where she might live in safety,
and does the man see the woman as a door
through which he might escape
the hated prison of himself,
and when the door is locked,
does he hate the door instead?
Does he learn to hate all doors?
I've seen rain turn into snow then back to rain,
and I've seen making love turn into fucking
then back to making love,
and no one covered up their faces out of shame,
no one rose and walked into the lonely maw of night.
But where was there, in fact, to go?
Are some things better left unsaid?
Shall I tell you her name?
Can I say it again,
that I wanted to punch her right in the face?
Until we say the truth, there can be no tenderness.
As long as there is desire, we will not be safe.
Lie Down with a Man
In those days I thought I had to
do everything I was afraid of,
so I lay down with a man.
It was one item on a list--
sleeping in the graveyard, under the full moon,
not looking away from the burned girl's stricken face,
strapping myself into the catapult
of some electric blue pill.
It was the seventies, a whole generation of us
was more than willing to chainsaw through
the branch that we were sitting on
to see what falling felt like--bump bump bump.
Knowing the worse about yourself
seemed like self-improvement then,
and suffering was adventure.
So I lay down with a man,
which I really don't remember
except that it was humorless.
Curtains fluttered in the breeze
from the radio's black grill. Van Morrison
filled up the room like astral aftershave.
I lay my mass of delusions
next to his mass of delusions
in the dark room where I struggled
with the old adversary, myself
--in the form, this time, of a body--
someplace between heaven and earth,
two things I was afraid of.
Twenty-six men trapped in a submarine
are pounding on the walls with a metal pipe,
shouting what they'll do when they get out.
Or they are rolled up in a rug in the back
of a rug truck that has wrecked.
No, it's the car pulled up next to mine in traffic
with the windows rolled down and the sound turned up
so loud it puts everything in italics: enough to make the asphalt thump
and the little leaves of shrubbery
in front of the nice brick houses quake.
I don't know what's going on inside that portable torture chamber,
but I have a bad suspicion
there's a lot of dead white people in there
on a street lit by burning police cars
where a black man is striking the head of a white one
again and again with a brick,
then lifting the skull to drink blood from the hole—
But that's what art is for, isn't it?
It's about giving expression to the indignation—
it's for taking the in out of the inhibitchin;
so maybe my ears are just a little hysterical
or maybe my fear is a little historical
and you know, I'd like to form an exploratory committee
to investigate that question—
and I'd like that committee to produce a documentary
called The Sweet Sounds of Afro-American,
but all this ugly noise is getting in the way,
and what I'm not supposed to say
is that Black for me is a country
more foreign than China or Vagina,
more alarming than going down Niagara on Viagra—
and it makes me feel stupid when I get close
like a little white dog on the edge of a big dark woods
I'm not supposed to look directly into
and there's this pounding noise
like a heartbeat full of steroids,
like a thousand schizophrenic Shakespeares
killing themselves at high volume—
this tangled roar
that has to be shut up or blown away or sealed off
or actually mentioned and entered.
Two Poems by Lisa Lewis
This is the second month of the year I turn thirty-seven.
Already the weather is warming in southeast Texas, rushing
The weeks along; the trees have to work to keep up. One day
I'll look over my head and the elm will be leafed out,
And then it will be summer. And probably I'll be working
On my birthday, probably teaching a couple of classes,
And I'll say to myself, it's just as well, who needs to think about
Turning thirty-seven, and I'll go back to my regular life,
Smiling and talking to students in the hallway,
Breaking a sweat on the short walk from the door
To the parked car, rolling all the windows down
But not without glancing at the sky for storm clouds,
Because a storm will be breaking every day then after noon,
Lasting about an hour, and subsiding back to sun. You learn
Such things about the weather when you've lived in a place
For a while. Or maybe it's really what some people say,
It's like that everywhere; I haven't been anywhere near
Everywhere, and maybe I'll never make it.
But there were years when I liked to search out danger,
Late nights I learned each secret worn-out cars
Bouncing through the ruts of logging roads could take me to.
I learned about love like that; the full moon pierced
The windshield like a spike and I knew it was love
When the strong, agile boy above me sighed
And pushed deeper inside me. I knew it was love
When I didn't want to close my eyes. I learned about trouble
And I knew it was trouble when I dropped out of high school
My senior year and took to prowling the roads with boys;
We took to shooting heroin under the spring sky,
We'd lie back together in the roadside grass and all let go
Of our suffering, we were having a hard time growing up,
It felt good to do a terrible thing together.
No one could find us there. No one was looking.
We would've counted the stars, but that was work.
Instead we talked about loving one another, and I guess
You'd say it was the heroin talking, but we thought we felt it,
We were free together, we knew how we were when no one
Could know us because we were doing evil. I took myself
Far from those foothills the first chance I could.
I didn't find out what became of my friends, it looked like
Some of them were headed for prison; I loved them once
But I wouldn't love them now, and I didn't want to
Think about mixing love and trouble, the trick I learned
And never gave up; I just got older, and stopped
Getting into the trouble of the young; I discovered
The trouble of the older.
This is the second month
Of the year I turn thirty-seven. Already the little fists
Of leaves are forming inside the knotted ends of twigs
All over Houston. The cold weather is over. This winter
Again there was no freeze. And tonight it's very late,
And it's Sunday, and no cars pass on the big road
By the house, but out there in the night
Some kids about seventeen are doing terrible things
They'll get by with, and grow out of, and remember
The way they'll remember what love felt like at first,
Before it stopped being the surest path to ruination,
Before it had done the worst it could and passed away.
And to them it's as if those who lived this life before them
Moved with the jerky speeded-up gestures of characters
In old-fashioned movies, their expressions intense
And exaggerated; they roll their eyes and loll their tongues
When the heroin hits their blood. It's as if the beauty
Of evil lives only in the present, where the drop of dope
Clinging to the tip of the stainless steel point
Catches the light like dew; and it doesn't matter
That the light falls from a streetlamp with a short in it,
And the impatient boy with the syringe in his hand
Will touch the drop back into the spoon
So as not to waste it. It's his instinct telling him
How much it means to live this now, before he knows
Better, while he still has a chance to survive it.
It's the moon over his head with its polished horns
That would slip through his skin if he touched them.
It's the trees leaping to life in his blood, greenness
Unfurling so hard it almost bursts his heart.
I had no business there in the first place—
I'm putting on weight—but the counter help was all smiles,
Having survived the lunch hour crunch. My husband and I
Ordered burgers and fries; I was in front, so I chose
A seat on the far side, back to the window.
I picked off two thin rings of onion; the fries were limp.
Something about the car, maybe, both of us
Interested, me a little bitchy, so it was almost the way you turn
Instinctively, say from a spider web in a darkened hall,
How I looked across the restaurant and found her face,
Left cheekbone swollen to a baseball, the same eye blackened,
Heavy make-up, front tooth out in a jack-o-lantern grin
As she tried to look friendly to the young waitress
Her husband motioned over. He rested one hand
On his wife's shoulder, solicitous, the other waving
A lit cigarette, a small man, dark-haired, now laughing aloud,
Glancing at the uncombed head of his beaten wife again
Turning her back to the room, though not crowded,
All suddenly staring, reading the last few hours
Of those lives in a horror of recognition.
She cupped her hand shading the side of her face,
You could see lumps of vertebrae through her t-shirt,
And he kept on talking, smiling at her, with a slight tilt
Of his head, as if saying poor baby, something happened to her,
Good thing I'm here to take care of her, a car wreck,
A bad one, a smash-up, and all of us looked
And knew better. At the table with them was a little girl.
The man, the woman, the five-year-old daughter—
Even the man and the beaten woman had the same features,
As people do who have lived together for years. I couldn't see
The child's face. He was jotting a note on a small pad,
The waitress's name, as if to write a letter praising
Her fine service, and she smiled through her horror, she
Hardly more than sixteen, with clear pale skin. Next to us
A woman in permed hair and suit rose to leave, lunch untouched,
With her daughter. She carried a leather legal-sized folder.
We left soon after, heads turned, not looking,
Because sometime the man and woman would go
Home to the privacy of a city apartment, no neighbors
Home all day to hear, but first I said, in the restaurant,
Across the room where he couldn't hear, If I had a gun
I'd blow his brains out, and I thought of that moment
Familiar from movies, the round black hole in the forehead
Opening, the back of the skull blowing out frame by frame
Like a baseball smashing a window, but no one near
Would've even been bloodied because no one was standing anywhere
Near him, his hand on the beaten woman's shoulder
Might as well've been yards from his body.
I was taught not to write about this. But my teacher,
A man with a reputation who hoped I would make
Good, never knew that I, too, have been hit in the face by a man.
He knew only my clumsy efforts to cast what happened
Into "characters," and he loved the beauty in poetry.
Maybe what I had written was awkward. Maybe my teacher
Guessed what happened and forbade me writing it
For some good reason, he cared for me, or he feared
He too might've slapped my face, because I, like the character
In that first effort, was bitching to the heavens and a redneck
Boyfriend, and we argued outdoors, near a stack of light wood
Used to kindle the stove like everyone has
In the foothills of North Carolina. That day I railed
Like a caricature of a bitching redneck woman,
Hands on hips, sometimes a clenched fist, I was
Bitching, I think, as he planned some stupid thing
I hated, like fishing, pitching horseshoes, driving
To visit his mother on Sundays, her tiny house
Tangled in dirt roads, where she sat in the kitchen dipping snuff.
Whatever he wanted to do was harmless,
But so was my shrieking, my furious pleading, an endless loop
Inside my head rolling I want to be rid of him, and he slapped me
Across my open mouth, I felt myself shut up and staggered,
Because he was a large man, and I was a large woman,
He had to make sure he hit me pretty hard,
Both of us strong and made as hell, early
One Saturday morning, when he wanted to do what he wanted to do
And I wanted to keep him from it. He slapped me
Twice, open-handed, knocking me, open-handed, to my knees,
In kindling, so my knees were scraped bloody and my hand
Closed on a foot and a half of inch-thick pine, and I stumbled up,
Swinging, my eyes popping wide, till I brought it down
Hard across his shoulder, I saw how the rage on his face
Flashed to fear, just that quick, a second, or less,
And he turned to run but he made the wrong choice,
If he'd gone to the road I wouldn've followed, but he ran
Inside my "duplex" apartment, an old country house
Cut in two. So I cornered him upstairs and knocked him out.
It was simple. He fell so hard, I thought I've killed him;
I was throwing my clothes in a paper bag when I heard him
Sobbing. In the bathroom mirror I found the black eye and lop-sided lip,
And it seemed as I might still take it back, the last ten minutes,
The chase, the beating, the high-pitched screaming,
The stubborn need to go fishing. But the make-up I disdained
In those years—I had just turned twenty—didn't do much
To cover the bruises. His face was clear. The knot on his head
Stopped swelling under ice. It was easy to tell him
To get the hell out and only regret it every other minute
Since there were no children, no marriage, even,
And I was young and believed I had proven
I was strong. I had beaten a man to his knees.
Months later I would go to college and stay safely there for years,
Not letting on to anyone the terrible things I'd done, until I wrote
That clumsy poem with the unbelievable characters, and now I've tried
To do it again, this time with different characters, I've defied
My teacher, who meant for me to learn to write well,
Who meant for the world to think well of me,
And I am not sorry. If he asked why I would say
I had to do it, and that lie would be like the lie of living
Without telling, till one day seeing the beaten face,
What scared me most, the missing tooth, the tangled hair, the vertebrae,
The daughter. There is no use thinking what it means
About me to say this: I am not sorry. I might have killed
That man. I might have blown his brains out.
Poems by Greg Orr
I remember him falling beside me,
the dark stain already seeping across his parka hood.
I remember screaming and running the half mile to our house.
I remember hiding in my room.
I remember that it was hard to breathe
and that I kept the door shut in terror that someone would enter.
I remember pressing my knuckles into my eyes.
I remember looking out the window once
at where an ambulance had backed up
over the lawn to the front door.
I remember someone hung from a tree near the barn
the deer we'd killed just before I shot my brother.
I remember toward evening someone came with soup.
I slurped it down, unable to look up.
In the bowl, among the vegetable chunks,
pale shapes of the alphabet bobbed at random
or lay in the shallow spoon.
Gathering the Bones Together
for Peter Orr
When all the rooms of the house
fill with smoke, it’s not enough
to say an angel is sleeping on the chimney.
1. a night in the barn
The deer carcass hangs from a rafter.
Wrapped in blankets, a boy keeps watch
from a pile of loose hay. Then he sleeps
and dreams about a death that is coming:
Inside him, there are small bones
scattered in a field among burdocks and dead grass.
He will spend his life walking there,
gathering the bones together.
Pigeons rustle in the eaves.
At his feet, the German shepherd
snaps its jaws in its sleep.
A father and his four sons
run down a slope toward
a deer they just killed.
The father and two sons carry
rifles. They laugh, jostle,
and chatter together.
A gun goes off
and the youngest brother
falls to the ground.
A boy with a rifle
stands beside him,
I crouch in the corner of my room,
staring into the glass well
of my hands; far down
I see him drowning in air.
Outside, leaves shaped like mouths
make a black pool
under a tree. Snails glide
there, little death-swans.
Something has covered the chimney
and the whole house fills with smoke.
I go outside and look up at the roof,
but I can’t see anything.
I go back inside. Everyone weeps,
walking from room to room.
Their eyes ache. This smoke
turns people into shadows.
Even after it is gone
and the tears are gone,
we will smell it in pillows
when we lie down to sleep.
He lives in a house of black glass.
Sometimes I visit him, and we talk.
My father says he is dead,
but what does that mean?
Last night I found a child
sleeping on a nest of bones.
He had a red, leaf-shaped
scar on his cheek.
I lifted him up
and carried him with me,
though I didn’t know where I was going.
6. the journey
Each night, I knelt on a marble slab
and scrubbed at the blood.
I scrubbed for years and still it was there.
But tonight the bones in my feet
begin to burn. I stand up
and start walking, and the slab
appears under my feet with each step,
a white road only as long as your body.
7. the distance
The winter I was eight, a horse
slipped on the ice, breaking its leg.
Father took a rifle, a can of gasoline.
I stood by the road at dusk and watched
the carcass burning in the far pasture.
I was twelve when I killed him;
I felt my own bones wrench from my body.
Now I am twenty-seven and walk
beside this river, looking for them.
They have become a bridge
that arches toward the other shore.
Gregory Orr, “Gathering the Bones Together” from The Caged Owl: New and Selected Poems (2002: Copper Canyon Press, 2002). www.coppercanyonpress.org
Source: The Caged Owl: New and Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2002)
Poems by Sharon Olds
Sex Without Love
How do they do it, the ones who make love
without love? Beautiful as dancers,
gliding over each other like ice-skaters
over the ice, fingers hooked
inside each other's bodies, faces
red as steak, wine, wet as the
children at birth whose mothers are going to
give them away. How do they come to the
come to the come to the God come to the
still waters, and not love
the one who came there with them, light
rising slowly as steam off their joined
skin? These are the true religious,
the purists, the pros, the ones who will not
accept a false Messiah, love the
priest instead of the God. They do not
mistake the lover for their own pleasure,
they are like great runners: they know they are alone
with the road surface, the cold, the wind,
the fit of their shoes, their over-all cardio-
vascular health--just factors, like the partner
in the bed, and not the truth, which is the
single body alone in the universe
against its own best time.
After we flew across the country we
got in bed, laid our bodies
delicately together, like maps laid
face to face, East to West, my
San Francisco against your New York, your
Fire Island against my Sonoma, my
New Orleans deep in your Texas, your Idaho
bright on my Great Lakes, my Kansas
burning against your Kansas your Kansas
burning against my Kansas, your Eastern
Standard Time pressing into my
Pacific Time, my Mountain Time
beating against your Central Time, your
sun rising swiftly from the right my
sun rising swiftly from the left your
moon rising slowly from the left my
moon rising slowly from the right until
all four bodies of the sky
burn above us, sealing us together,
all our cities twin cities,
all our states united, one
nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
I Go Back to May 1937
I see them standing at the formal gates of their colleges,
I see my father strolling out
under the ochre sandstone arch, the
red tiles glinting like bent
plates of blood behind his head, I
see my mother with a few light books at her hip
standing at the pillar made of tiny bricks with the
wrought-iron gate still open behind her, its
sword-tips black in the May air,
they are about to graduate, they are about to get married,
they are kids, they are dumb, all they know is they are
innocent, they would never hurt anybody.
I want to go up to them and say Stop,
don't do it—she's the wrong woman,
he's the wrong man, you are going to do things
you cannot imagine you would ever do,
you are going to do bad things to children,
you are going to suffer in ways you never heard of,
you are going to want to die. I want to go
up to them there in the late May sunlight and say it,
her hungry pretty blank face turning to me,
her pitiful beautiful untouched body,
his arrogant handsome blind face turning to me,
his pitiful beautiful untouched body,
but I don't do it. I want to live. I
take them up like the male and female
paper dolls and bang them together
at the hips like chips of flint as if to
strike sparks from them, I say
Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it.
What is the Earth?
The earth is a homeless person. Or
the earth's home is the atmosphere.
Or the atmosphere is the earth's clothing,
layers of it, the earth wears all of it,
the earth is a homeless person.
Or the atmosphere is the earth's cocoon,
which it spun itself, the earth is a larvum.
Or the atmosphere is the earth's skin—
earth, and atmostphere, one
homeless one. Or its orbit is the earth's
home, or the path of the orbit just
a path, the earth, a homeless person.
Or the gutter of the earth's orbit is a circle
of hell, the circle of the homeless. But the earth
has a place, around the fire, the hearth
of our star, the earth is at home, the earth
is home to the homeless. For food, and warmth,
and shelter, and health, they have earth and fire
and air and water, for home they have
the elements they are made of, as if
each homeless one were an earth, made
of milk and grain, like Ceres, and one
could eat oneself—as if the human
were a god, who could eat the earth, a god
When I got to the airport I rushed up to the desk,
bought a ticket, ten minutes later
they told me the flight was cancelled, the doctors
had said my father would not live through the night
and the flight was cancelled. A young man
with a dark brown moustache told me
another airline had a nonstop
leaving in seven minutes. See that
elevator over there, well go
down to the first floor, make a right, you'll
see a yellow bus, get off at the
second Pan Am terminal, I
ran, I who have no sense of direction
raced exactly where he'd told me, a fish
slipping upstream deftly against
the flow of the river. I jumped off that bus with those
bags I had thrown everything into
in five minutes, and ran, the bags
wagged me from side to side as if
to prove I was under the claims of the material,
I ran up to a man with a flower on his breast,
I who always go to the end of the line, I said
Help me. He looked at my ticket, he said
Make a left and then a right, go up the moving stairs and then
run. I lumbered up the moving stairs,
at the top I saw the corridor,
and then I took a deep breath, I said
goodbye to my body, goodbye to comfort,
I used my legs and heart as if I would
gladly use them up for this,
to touch him again in this life. I ran, and the
bags banged against me, wheeled and coursed
in skewed orbits, I have seen pictures of
women running, their belongings tied
in scarves grasped in their fists, I blessed my
long legs he gave me, my strong
heart I abandoned to its own purpose,
I ran to Gate 17 and they were
just lifting the thick white
lozenge of the door to fit it into
the socket of the plane. Like the one who is not
too rich, I turned sideways and
slipped through the needle's eye, and then
I walked down the aisle toward my father. The jet
was full, and people's hair was shining, they were
smiling, the interior of the plane was filled with a
mist of gold endorphin light,
I wept as people weep when they enter heaven,
in massive relief. We lifted up
gently from one tip of the continent
and did not stop until we set down lightly on the
other edge, I walked into his room
and watched his chest rise slowly
and sink again, all night
I watched him breathe.
The Connoisseuse of Slugs
When I was a connoisseuse of slugs
I would part the ivy leaves, and look for the
naked jelly of those gold bodies,
translucent strangers glistening along the
stones, slowly, their gelatinous bodies
at my mercy. Made mostly of water, they would shrivel
to nothing if they were sprinkled with salt,
but I was not interested in that. What I liked
was to draw aside the ivy, breathe the
odor of the wall, and stand there in silence
until the slug forgot I was there
and sent its antennae up out of its
head, the glimmering umber horns
rising like telescopes, until finally the
sensitive knobs would pop out the
ends, delicate and intimate. Years later,
when I first saw a naked man,
I gasped with pleasure to see that quiet
mystery reenacted, the slow
elegant being coming out of hiding and
gleaming in the dark air, eager and so
trusting you could weep.
High School Senior
For seventeen years, her breath in the house
at night, puff, puff, like summer
cumulus above her bed,
and her scalp smelling of apricots
—this being who had formed within me,
squatted like a bright tree-frog in the dark,
like an eohippus she had come out of history
slowly, through me, into the daylight,
I had the daily sight of her,
like food or air she was there, like a mother.
I say "college," but I feel as if I cannot tell
the difference between her leaving for college
and our parting forever—I try to see
this house without her, without her pure
depth of feeling, without her creek-brown
hair, her daedal hands with their tapered
fingers, her pupils dark as the mourning cloak's
wing, but I can't. Seventeen years
ago, in this room, she moved inside me,
I looked at the river, I could not imagine
my life with her. I gazed across the street,
and saw, in the icy winter sun,
a column of steam rush up away from the earth.
There are creatures whose children float away
at birth, and those who throat-feed their young
for weeks and never see them again. My daughter
is free and she is in me—no, my love
of her is in me, moving in my heart,
changing chambers, like something poured
from hand to hand, to be weighed and then reweighed.
Take the I Out
But I love the I, steel I-beam
that my father sold. They poured the pig iron
into the mold, and it fed out slowly,
a bending jelly in the bath, and it hardened,
Bessemer, blister, crucible, alloy, and he
marketed it, and bought bourbon, and Cream
of Wheat, its curl of butter right
in the middle of its forehead, he paid for our dresses
with his metal sweat, sweet in the morning
and sour in the evening. I love the I,
frail between its flitches, its hard ground
and hard sky, it soars between them
like the soul that rushes, back and forth,
between the mother and father. What if they had loved each other,
how would it have felt to be the strut
joining the floor and roof of the truss?
I have seen, on his shirt-cardboard, years
in her desk, the night they made me, the penciled
slope of her temperature rising, and on
the peak of the hill, first soldier to reach
the crest, the Roman numeral I—
I, I, I, I,
girders of identity, head on,
embedded in the poem. I love the I
for its premise of existence—our I—when I was
born, part gelid, I lay with you
on the cooling table, we were all there, a
forest of felled iron. The I is a pine,
resinous, flammable root to crown,
which throws its cones as far as it can in a fire.
Then dirt scared me, because of the dirt
he had put on her face. And her training bra
scared me—the newspapers, morning and evening,
kept saying it, training bra,
as if the cups of it had been calling
the breasts up—he buried her in it,
perhaps he had never bothered to take it
off. They found her underpants
in a garbage can. And I feared the word
eczema, like my acne and like
the X in the paper which marked her body,
as if he had killed her for not being flawless.
I feared his name, Burton Abbott,
the first name that was a last name,
as if he were not someone specific.
It was nothing one could learn from his face.
His face was dull and ordinary,
it took away what I’d thought I could count on
about evil. He looked thin and lonely,
it was horrifying, he looked almost humble.
I felt awe that dirt was so impersonal,
and pity for the training bra,
pity and terror of eczema.
And I could not sit on my mother’s electric
blanket anymore, I began to have a
fear of electricity—
the good people, the parents, were going to
fry him to death. This was what
his parents had been telling us:
Burton Abbott, Burton Abbott,
death to the person, death to the home planet.
The worst thing was to think of her,
of what it had been to be her, alive,
to be walked, alive, into that cabin,
to look into those eyes, and see the human
When I eat crab, slide the rosy
rubbery claw across my tongue
I think of my mother. She'd drive down
to the edge of the Bay, tiny woman in a
huge car, she'd ask the crab-man to
crack it for her. She'd stand and wait as the
pliers broke those chalky homes, wild-
red and knobby, those cartilage wrists, the
thin orange roof of the back.
I'd come home, and find her at the table
crisply unhousing the parts, laying the
fierce shell on one side, the
soft body on the other. She gave us
lots, because we loved it so much,
so there was always enough, a mound of crab like a
cross between breast-milk and meat. The back
even had the shape of a perfect
ruined breast, upright flakes
white as the flesh of a chrysanthemum, but the
best part was the claw, she'd slide it
out so slowly the tip was unbroken,
scarlet bulb of the feeler—it was such a
kick to easily eat that weapon,
wreck its delicate hooked pulp between
palate and tongue. She loved to feed us
and all she gave us was fresh, she was willing to
grasp shell, membrane, stem, to go
close to dirt and salt to feed us,
the way she had gone near our father himself
to give us life. I look back and
see us dripping at the table, feeding, her
row of pink eaters, the platter of flawless
limp claws, I look back further and
see her in the kitchen, shelling flesh, her
small hands curled—she is like a
fish-hawk, wild, tearing the meat
deftly, living out her life of fear and desire.
When the Dean said we could not cross campus
until the students gave up the buildings,
we lay down, in the street,
we said the cops will enter this gate
over us. Lying back on the cobbles,
I saw the buildings of New York City
from dirt level, they soared up
and stopped, chopped off--above them, the sky,
the night air over the island.
The mounted police moved, near us,
while we sang, and then I began to count,
12, 13, 14, 15,
I counted again, 15, 16, one
month since the day on that deserted beach,
17, 18, my mouth fell open,
my hair on the street,
if my period did not come tonight
I was pregnant. I could see the sole of a cop's
shoe, the gelding's belly, its genitals--
if they took me to Women's Detention and did
the exam on me, the speculum,
the fingers--I gazed into the horse's tail
like a comet-train. All week, I had
thought about getting arrested, half-longed
to give myself away. On the tar--
one brain in my head, another,
in the making, near the base of my tail--
I looked at the steel arc of the horse's
shoe, the curve of its belly, the cop's
nightstick, the buildings streaming up
away from the earth. I knew I should get up
and leave, but I lay there looking at the space
above us, until it turned deep blue and then
ashy, colorless, Give me this one
night, I thought, and I'll give this child
the rest of my life, the horse's heads,
this time, drooping, dipping, until
they slept in a circle around my body and my daughter
When I got to his marker, I sat on it,
like sitting on the edge of someone's bed
and I rubbed the smooth, speckled granite.
I took some tears from my jaw and neck
and started to wash a corner of his stone.
Then a black and amber ant
ran out onto the granite, and off it,
and another ant hauled a dead
ant onto the stone, leaving it, and not coming back.
Ants ran down into the grooves of his name
and dates, down into the oval track of the
first name's O, middle name's O,
the short O of his last name,
and down into the hyphen between
his birth and death--little trough of his life.
Soft bugs appeared on my shoes,
like grains of pollen, I let them move on me,
I rinsed a dark fleck of mica,
and down inside the engraved letters
the first dots of lichen were appearing
like stars in early evening.
I saw the speedwell on the ground with its horns,
the coiled ferns, copper-beech blossoms, each
petal like that disc of matter which
swayed, on the last day, on his tongue.
Tamarack, Western hemlock,
manzanita, water birch
with its scored bark,
I put my arms around a trunk and squeezed it,
then I lay down on my father's grave.
The sun shone down on me, the powerful
ants walked on me. When I woke,
my cheek was crumbly, yellowish
with a mustard plaster of earth. Only
at the last minute did I think of his body
actually under me, the can of
bone, ash, soft as a goosedown
pillow that bursts in bed with the lovers.
When I kissed his stone it was not enough,
when I licked it my tongue went dry a moment, I
ate his dust, I tasted my dirt host.
I have heard about the civilized,
the marriages run on talk, elegant and honest, rational. But you and I are
savages. You come in with a bag,
hold it out to me in silence.
I know Moo Shu Pork when I smell it
and understand the message: I have
pleased you greatly last night. We sit
quietly, side by side, to eat,
the long pancakes dangling and spilling,
fragrant sauce dripping out,
and glance at each other askance, wordless,
the corners of our eyes clear as spear points
laid along the sill to show
a friend sits with a friend here.
When Mother divorced you, we were glad. She took it and
took it in silence, all those years and then
kicked you out, suddenly, and her
kids loved it. Then you were fired, and we
grinned inside, the way people grinned when
Nixon's helicopter lifted off the South
Lawn for the last time. We were tickled
to think of your office taken away,
your secretaries taken away,
your lunches with three double bourbons,
your pencils, your reams of paper. Would they take your
suits back, too, those dark
carcasses hung in your closet, and the black
noses of your shoes with their large pores?
She had taught us to take it, to hate you and take it
until we pricked with her for your
annihilation, Father. Now I
pass the bums in doorways, the white
slugs of their bodies gleaming through slits in their
suits of compressed silt, the stained
flippers of their hands, the underwater
fire of their eyes, ships gone down with the
lanterns lit, and I wonder who took it and
took it from them in silence until they had
given it all away and had nothing
left but this.
The Space Heater
On the then-below-zero day, it was on,
near the patients' chair, the old heater
kept by the analyst's couch, at the end,
like the infant's headstone that was added near the foot
of my father's grave. And it was hot, with the almost
laughing satire of a fire's heat,
the little coils like hairs in Hell.
And it was making a group of sick noises--
I wanted the doctor to turn it off
but I couldn't seem to ask, so I just
stared, but it did not budge. The doctor
turned his heavy, soft palm
outward, toward me, inviting me to speak, I
said, "If you're cold-are you cold? But if it's on
for me..." He held his palm out toward me,
I tried to ask, but I only muttered,
but he said, "Of course," as if I had asked,
and he stood up and approached the heater, and then
stood on one foot, and threw himself
toward the wall with one hand, and with the other hand
reached down, behind the couch, to pull
the plug out. I looked away,
I had not known he would have to bend
like that. And I was so moved, that he
would act undignified, to help me,
that I cried, not trying to stop, but as if
the moans made sentences which bore
some human message. If he would cast himself toward the
outlet for me, as if bending with me in my old
shame and horror, then I would rest
on his art-and the heater purred, like a creature
or the familiar of a creature, or the child of a familiar,
the father of a child, the spirit of a father,
the healing of a spirit, the vision of healing,
the heat of vision, the power of heat,
the pleasure of power.
The Daughter Goes to Camp
In the taxi alone, home from the airport,
I could not believe you were gone. My palm kept
creeping over the smooth plastic
to find your strong meaty little hand and
squeeze it, find your narrow thigh in the
noble ribbing of the corduroy,
straight and regular as anything in nature, to
find the slack cool cheek of a
child in the heat of a summer morning—
nothing, nothing, waves of bawling
hitting me in hot flashes like some
change of life, some boiling wave
rising in me toward your body, toward
where it should have been on the seat, your
brow curved like a cereal bowl, your
eyes dark with massed crystals like the
magnified scales of a butterfly's wing, the
delicate feelers of your limp hair,
floods of blood rising in my face as I
tried to reassemble the hot
gritty molecules in the car, to
make you appear like a holograph
on the back seat, pull you out of nothing
as I once did—but you were really gone,
the cab glossy as a slit caul out of
which you had slipped, the air glittering
electric with escape as it does in the room at a birth.
I pull the bed slowly open, I
open the lips of the bed, get
the stack of fresh underpants
out of the suitcase—peach, white,
cherry, quince, pussy willow, I
choose a color and put them on,
I travel with the stack for the stack's caress,
dry and soft. I enter the soft
birth-lips of the bed, take off my
glasses, and the cabbage-roses on the curtain
blur to Keats's peonies, the
ochre willow holds a cloud
the way a skeleton holds flesh
and it passes, does not hold it.
The bed fits me like a walnut shell its
meat, my hands touch the upper corners,
the lower, my feet. It is so silent
I hear the choirs of wild silence, the
maenads of the atoms. Is this what it feels like
to have a mother? The sheets are heavy
cream, whipped. Ah, here is my mother,
or rather here she is not, so this is
paradise. But surely that
was paradise, when her Jell-O nipple was the
size of my own fist, in front of my
face—out of its humped runkles those
several springs of milk, so fierce
almost fearsome. What did I think
in that brain gridded for thought, its cups
loaded with languageless rennet? And at night,
when they timed me, four hours of screaming, not a
minute more, four, those quatrains of
icy yell, then the cold tap water
to get me over my shameless hunger,
what was it like to be there when that
hunger was driven into my structure at such
heat it alloyed that iron? Where have I
been while this person is leading my life
with her patience, will and order? In the garden;
on the bee and under the bee; in the
crown gathering cumulus and
flensing it from the boughs, weeping a
rehearsal for the rotting and casting off of our
flesh, the year we slowly throw it
off like clothing by the bed covers of our lover, and dive under.
To say that she came into me,
from another world, is not true.
Nothing comes into the universe
and nothing leaves it.
My mother—I mean my daughter did not
enter me. She began to exist
inside me—she appeared within me.
And my mother did not enter me.
When she lay down, to pray, on me,
she was always ferociously courteous,
fastidious with Puritan fastidiousness,
but the barrier of my skin failed, the barrier of my
body fell, the barrier of my spirit.
She aroused and magnetized my skin, I wanted
ardently to please her, I would say to her
what she wanted to hear, as if I were hers.
I served her willingly, and then
became very much like her, fiercely
out for myself.
When my daughter was in me, I felt I had
a soul in me. But it was born with her.
But when she cried, one night, such pure crying,
I said I will take care of you, I will
put you first. I will not ever
have a daughter the way she had me,
I will not ever swim in you
the way my mother swam in me and I
felt myself swum in. I will never know anyone
again the way I knew my mother,
the gates of the human fallen.
She was four, he was one, it was raining, we had colds,
we had been in the apartment two weeks straight,
I grabbed her to keep her from shoving him over on his
face, again, and when I had her wrist
in my grasp I compressed it, fiercely, for a couple
of seconds, to make an impression on her,
to hurt her, our beloved firstborn, I even almost
savored the stinging sensation of the squeezing,
the expression, into her, of my anger,
"Never, never, again," the righteous
chant accompanying the clasp. It happened very
fast-grab, crush, crush,
crush, release--and at the first extra
force, she swung her head, as if checking
who this was, and looked at me,
and saw me--yes, this was her mom,
her mom was doing this. Her dark,
deeply open eyes took me
in, she knew me, in the shock of the moment
she learned me. This was her mother, one of the
two whom she most loved, the two
who loved her most, near the source of love
We played dolls in that house where Father staggered with the
Thanksgiving knife, where Mother wept at noon into her one ounce of
cottage cheese, praying for the strength not to
kill herself. We kneeled over the
rubber bodies, gave them baths
carefully, scrubbed their little
orange hands, wrapped them up tight,
said goodnight, never spoke of the
woman like a gaping wound
weeping on the stairs, the man like a stuck
buffalo, baffled, stunned, dragging
arrows in his side. As if we had made a
pact of silence and safety, we kneeled and
dressed those tiny torsos with their elegant
belly-buttons and minuscule holes
high on the buttock to pee through and all that
darkness in their open mouths, so that I
have not been able to forgive you for giving your
daughter away, letting her go at
eight as if you took Molly Ann or
Tiny Tears and held her head
under the water in the bathinette
until no bubbles rose, or threw her
dark rosy body on the fire that
burned in that house where you and I
barely survived, sister, where we
swore to be protectors.
A Week Later
A week later, I said to a friend: I don't
think I could ever write about it.
Maybe in a year I could write something.
There is something in me maybe someday
to be written; now it is folded, and folded,
and folded, like a note in school. And in my dream
someone was playing jacks, and in the air there was a
huge, thrown, tilted jack
on fire. And when I woke up, I found myself
counting the days since I had last seen
my husband-only two years, and some weeks,
and hours. We had signed the papers and come down to the
ground floor of the Chrysler Building,
the intact beauty of its lobby around us
like a king's tomb, on the ceiling the little
painted plane, in the mural, flying. And it
entered my strictured heart, this morning,
slightly, shyly as if warily,
untamed, a greater sense of the sweetness
and plenty of his ongoing life,
unknown to me, unseen by me,
unheard, untouched-but known, seen,
heard, touched. And it came to me,
for moments at a time, moment after moment,
to be glad for him that he is with the one
he feels was meant for him. And I thought of my
mother, minutes from her death, eighty-five
years from her birth, the almost warbler
bones of her shoulder under my hand, the
eggshell skull, as she lay in some peace
in the clean sheets, and I could tell her the best
of my poor, partial love, I could sing her
out with it, I saw the luck
and luxury of that hour.
Japanese-American Farmhouse, California, 1942
Everything has been taken that anyone
thought worth taking. The stairs are tilted,
scattered with sycamore leaves curled
like ammonites in inland rock.
Wood shows through the paint on the frame
and the door is open--an empty room,
sunlight on the floor. All that is left
on the porch is the hollow cylinder
of an Albert's Quick Oats cardboard box
and a sewing machine. Its extraterrestrial
head is bowed, its scrolled neck
glistens. I was born, that day, near there,
in wartime, of ignorant people.
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