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Poem-a-Day

Chekhov

CHEKHOV

They say you may have caught
tuberculosis from the peasants
who came to your estate to be

seen by you. Hearing them coughing
in the hall you put down your pen
and rose from your desk. Short

of breath they had traveled all
night to arrive by dawn, drawn
by rumors of your kindness.

Warming the stethoscope
in your hands while the old farmer
bared his chest, your character

stood patiently on the doorstep,
holding a letter of introduction
you had yet to write. The longer

you spent away from the story
the harder it would be to finish it
but the hall was long, the line

out the door and you would turn
none away, knowing how far
they had come, how it must

have comforted them
to have someone listen
to their lungs and say it

sounded better than it sounded,
inhaling their sighs of relief,
saying, softly, “Next.”
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The Bird

THE BIRD

The bird that hit my windshield
kept flying into me while I carried her
up into the mountains her body
was going flatter and flatter
under the wheels of big rigs gunning
it for Billings in Sheridan a town
named after a man who spent
his retirement killing Indians
I squeegeed her blood off the wind
shield the better to see where I was
going by the time we hit Yellowstone
she had burrowed into my heart
we made camp together made supper
what I ate sustained her the fire
we made together warmed her wings
when I sang she sang also I felt
guiltless as Sheridan coming home
from the Plains his stars doubled
in the mirror the moment before
he took all his clothes off
covered his wife’s mouth
with his it wasn’t until I lay down
under stars spinning from wine
that the bird wanted out
I ached all over broke
into a sweat I thought for sure
I would die it was only after I had
fallen asleep that she found her way
out the way a bird will find its way
out of a house it has flown through
a broken window into
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Sunflowers

SUNFLOWERS

Mecca of sunflowers,
devastated revenants,
all keeled over
the same wound -

if I could stop this train I would
walk amongst you,
lifting your heavy faces,
whispering sympathies.

Nightfall would find me
kneeling before the least of you,
and together we'd endure
the darkest hours.
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The Crutches at Lourdes

THE CRUTCHES AT LOURDES

They came here two by two, carrying their pilgrim
between them, asking one another in snide whispers

ahead and behind the foot, "Where does he think he's going?"
or, "How quickly she moves today, as if she didn't need us."

Left standing by the thousand now in the cool of the grotto,
they remember how ungratefully the lame heaved them here,

how thankless the miraculously cured were towards they
who carried them miles and years and never once complained

about being stuffed in an armpit all their lives. The canes
are even more morose: they have no companion to keep them

company when night falls and the healed have gone off weeping
under their own power. The only way these crutches stand

a chance to walk again is if a pilgrim who comes here is
not only not healed, but suffers more and more the lower

he lowers himself into the waters his daughters
claimed would cure him, so that he goes from merely

crippled to totally lame and, to go home, has to take up a pair
of crutches and leave behind his beloved swan-head cane.
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First Night in France

FIRST NIGHT IN FRANCE

Pulling apart the pullet
I bought at market
by pointing because
I don't know French.
Stem of my wine glass
smeared with oil.
Across the rooftops,
clay chimney pots
and laundry airing.
That time of evening
when women wearing
one earring
turn to their husbands
and smile.
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At Nijinsky's Grave

AT NIJINSKY'S GRAVE

Two pair of ballet slippers,
one pink, one blue,
for the only part of you
that cannot dance now

that you are dead.
I prefer that picture of you
in Les Orientales,
in cap and bells,

holding delicately by their stems
invisible flowers.
Death hates dancing,
but out of respect for you

turned your grave into
a low-ceilinged ballroom,
the floor of packed dirt
lit by a chandelier

of white roots but you’ve
yet to arrive, for that part
of you that still dances can’t
breathe underground,

like how, when Pollock died,
a little girl at the funeral said,
“He’s not down there,
he’s in the woods.”
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When Poetry Could Get You Killed

WHEN POETRY COULD GET YOU KILLED

I like to pound on the typewriter
and pretend I’m hearing
gunshots in an almond orchard,
the bullets unbuttoning
the poet’s white shirt.

I spend a lot of time wishing
we lived in an age when writing
poems could get you killed
instead of getting you
a tenure-track job.

But then I think of Lorca
leaning on the shovel,
breathless in the sunlight,
up to his waist in his own grave,
almond blossoms in his hair.
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The Tree

THE TREE

Left the city before the first sirens.
Crossed the bridge. Crossed the valley,
its blossoming orchards and dormant crosses.
Was lifted gently up against the judgment
of the streams, too low and shallow,
like invalids in their beds in the spring.
Paid my fee. Left keys, phone, everything
identifying me and started up the path
to Mirror Lake, snaking through flocks
of hikers, their languages distinctly different
as the calls of birds. Beyond the lake:
no one, the trail narrowing, the light
floating up the sheer cliffs, leaving
the valley in shadow. A branch held
a blue flannel shirt out for me.
It gave me a chill, being offered clothes
clear out there, but it was nothing compared
to the chill a dead oak gave me like a ring
last worn by the dead. I stopped
as if commanded, having never seen
a tree tremble like that tree was
trembling, the tambourines of its dead
leaves rattling in a breeze that didn’t stir
those of any other tree. The thing
that spooked me about the leaves
was how perfect they were, as if
they were trying to pass for living leaves.
They betrayed the tree, like yellow stars
sewn into clothing or the word a refugee
can’t pronounce. But it was not they
that were trembling, but the tree. Still
as it stood, it seemed to be shivering,
and I felt I was witnessing the earth
fearing for herself. It was nothing
like our fear of terror or the warming
of the planet, but a wordless, secret fear
that I was never meant to see, but because
human fear is the only fear I’ve known,
I must use a metaphor to describe how
I felt: like a boy who, hearing a strange
sound, mounts a flight of stairs and sees,
through the keyhole, his father weeping,
and knows that what has always been so
certain will never be certain again.
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N Judah

N JUDAH

after putting his earrings in
the man with the pinstriped pants
and the white lily
begins crying

when we reach his stop
he can't carry everything
he has off the train
he has to come back
for the last grim-mouthed
suitcase
wiping his face
with the backs of his hand
his earrings dangling
long and silver

no one rises to help him
he leaves the lily
on the seat it looks
at all of us in unison
makes us all turn
quiet like a gift you get
from an uncle you thought
didn't love anyone
a few days after Christmas
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Poisoning Ants

POISONING ANTS

Here's how it works: thinking it a new source
Of food, the scouts bring the stuff back
To the Queen. Entering her chamber,
They humble themselves before her,
The poison in their jaws. They are already dying,
But mistake how they feel for the feeling
Of finally having been allowed to come
Before the Queen, who, for some reason,
I imagine lying on a plush velvet bed,
Surrounded by those she has come to trust,
The ones with the most beautiful abdomens.
Of these scouts she is rightly wary,
Suspicious of what they have brought her
The way a human queen would be
Suspicious of the lukewarm meal
An unfamiliar servant sets before her.
She gestures and one approaches, shy
And proud to have been the one chosen.
From his mouth to hers passes the delectable
Nectar he has brought her from afar,
Unlike anything she has ever tasted. Later,
After her body has been eaten, after
They have died by the thousands,
His corpse is indistinguishable from all
The others. But it was he, of all those dead
Who were nothing to her, who she loved.
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Poem for Thomas Merton

Poem for Thomas Merton

“Do not think yourself better because you burn up friends and enemies with long-range missiles without ever seeing what you have done.”

The fan was manufactured for you.
Even as it blew on the bodies of innumerable
sleepers it was dreaming of you.
All night it hawked its noise
into the ears of others but yours was the name
it chanted. It was as if it was hunting you,
though it never took a single step.

Instead, in the quiet Kentucky night your death
came to the door, a telegram the cold
and color of snow. Crossing the sea,
folded over itself in the hold, it had obsessed
over what it had to say to you, over your name
scrawled languidly in a monk’s quiet hand.
It knocked with its fist of pulp and postage

on the heavy oaken doors of the Abbey,
waking the Brother in the guard house
out of sitting sleep, who thought nothing
of it when an envelope floated in. And when
you opened it at dawn, your fingers
still swollen and dinged from woodcutting,
and saw your name scrawled there

how could you have not answered the call?
Your last night at Gethsemane you lay
awake in your hermitage, grinning
like your Brothers in the grass. Your robes
swept their graves as you passed
on your way into the dark chapel,
to bring yourself one last time before the icons’

familiar flaws, the nick in Our Lady’s forehead,
the patch of plaster missing from Christ’s side.
Did you really believe you would ever kneel
in that chapel again? Or, serving Mass
to your friends at the hermitage, whispering
their first names as you offered them bread
and wine, did you know your death

was a thin man with a face of blades
standing in a bathroom in Thailand?
While you bathed he fanned you,
clothed in blue voltage woven by turbines
miles up river, where maybe a girl
was even then picking her steps carefully
along the bank, carrying a basket of laundry

above the painless dismemberment
of the waters. When you took hold
of the fan’s spine your every atom
flashed impossibly bright, then dimmed.
The first man who tried to touch you
was shocked an inch from your flesh.
They had to let your numinous power

ebb out into the childish bathwater.
Someone called the State Department
(“Good, now we don’t have to shoot him.”).
And you, who had written of the roar
of bombers flying over your hermitage,
your body was borne home with the bodies
of the latest wave to fall in the war.
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Pigeon-Man: 16th Street BART Station

If love is two distinct natures
approaching but never
disappearing into one another
(that would be something else)
entirely, then all that is required
is a measure of millet
seed in the palm of a man
blurred by birds, their weight
on his thighs and arms all
he needs to know himself
needed, while they know only that
what they are used to finding
grain by grain on the ground
has been gathered together
and raised up.
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