I first met David Rivard at a Poets & Writers-sponsored reception where Patricia Spears Jones was being honored as the recipient of the 2017 Jackson Poetry Prize. It was a terrace soiree, replete with expensive wine, members of New York's publishing elite, and dozens of poets I'd seen previously only in photographs. The experience might have thrown me off balance but, luckily, when a friend introduced me to Rivard, the poet's instant warmth and engaging manner put me at ease. Rivard's robust yet rueful poems may tilt towards elegy but the poet himself possesses a terrific sense of humor: this is punctuated by a winsome smile and utterly mischievous laugh. Enchanted by his aura of levity and sadness, I invited him the following year to participate in a reading series I run in Rochester, NY.
During Rivard's visit, I remarked upon his ability, both in conversation and through his poems, to balance sadness with humor. His response was characteristically illuminating: "I think my sense of humor earlier in my life, maybe owing to the style of humor of my father practiced, had a lot of defensiveness in it. It was a way of avoiding vulnerability. Very male, very working class, I suppose. But it's changed over time and there's more generosity in it now. What I love and delight in is how absurd and weird life and the world so often are. For me, humor is a recognition of our bumbling along. To see life as this comedy that we are playing in is to begin to love it, and ourselves—it's the human thing." I am reminded of two poems that bracket his distinguished body of work: "Fall River" published in his debut collection Torque (1988) and "Said" from his most recent collection Standoff (2016). Both poems record nuanced exchanges between the poet and his father. The common ground they share in "Fall River" is a silence and "anger that keeps twisting / back on itself, though not before it ruins, /often, even something simple…" Decades later, in "Said," these same two men share a "lousy joke" that draws them a bit closer. Both poems frame particular moments in time with poignant clarity and grace; however, as the latter poem demonstrates, time has deepened the poet's understanding of father-son bonding the way the passage of time can improve the taste and texture of wine. Whereas "Fall River" paints a portrait of disconnection ("a love so awkward / that it explains, with unreasoning perfection, / why we still can't speak"), "Said" offers some "consolation" where "confidences" can be "exchanged" to determine whether or not there "might be love at the end." That these two men will never feel great ease together is beside the point: a tentative bridge has been built—and because Rivard's heart is so great, the poet ventures to cross it.
The discussion below was recorded on October 19, 2018. It focuses largely on matters of craft, with particular regards to Rivard's conception of sentence construction as it has evolved from his earliest work to poems he is writing for a forthcoming book. Nonetheless, because the writer and his work explore deep psychological and emotional truths, what might have resulted in dry, technical matters becomes imbued with all manner of “human things.”
Tony Leuzzi (Rail): In several of our conversations, you have expressed how important the sentence is to you, not only in your composition process but also in how you read other people's poetry. This reminds me of Frost who once said when we write poems “we go a-sentencing.” Can you talk a little bit about how the sentence is, in a way, its own form in your work?
David Rivard: One of the things I think a lot about is sentencing—the sentence is a thing, by the way. The idea of sentence sounds, what Frost calls "the sound of sense." Never write a sentence unless you know how it postures, he says. Every sentence should strike a slightly different pose. All of those ideas imply thinginess. For me, tone is intimately related to syntax. There are certain kinds of syntax that will allow you to express certain emotional states, whereas there are other kinds of syntax that will not allow you to work in that tonal value. Think of Sir Thomas Wyatt's poem “They Flee From Me”:
They flee from me that sometime did me seek
With naked foot, stalking in my chamber.
I have seen them gentle, tame, and meek,
That now are wild and do not remember
That sometime they put themself in danger
To take bread at my hand; and now they range,
Busily seeking with a continual change.
Thanked be fortune it hath been otherwise
Twenty times better; but once in special,
In thin array after a pleasant guise,
When her loose gown from her shoulders did fall,
And she me caught in her arms long and small;
Therewithall sweetly did me kiss
And softly said, “Dear heart, how like you this?”
It was no dream: I lay broad waking.
But all is turned thorough my gentleness
Into a strange fashion of forsaking;
And I have leave to go of her goodness,
And she also, to use newfangleness.
But since that I so kindly am served
I would fain know what she hath deserved.
I think about those opening two lines, how the sentence structure moves through the elaborated metaphor, projecting a certain kind of dismay and whininess—a heterosexual guy who is upset because women are no longer attracted to him now that he has fallen out of favor. He's baffled by the whole thing. Later in the poem, in the second stanza, the overall tone is excitement as he remembers being in bed with a certain woman, and the syntax circles into a wonderful question, in her voice: "Dear heart, how like you this?" It's one of the great sexy lines in English. The next stanza's tonal value is completely different. "It was no dream: I lay broad waking." It's the kind of thing a person says to himself when he's not sure what's really happened. It's so naked and vulnerable. I love that the syntax is somehow capable of communicating this. In the middle of this short sentence there's a colon, a caesura that holds for a beat. After Wyatt's death, his editor "fixed" the poem by replacing the colon with a comma and the word "for"—and it completely ruined the line. "For" is a word that creates logical relationship, cause and effect; with the word "for" the line is all about feeling. Without "for," the two phrases in that line bump against each other, creating this silence and vulnerability that is embedded in the tone. The reader is drawn into that caesura. It creates a kind of space. It's full of longing and truthfulness. There's a sincerity to it. And the rest of the stanza moves from there into an anger that's complex, genuine. It's not "nice," but it is true.
I'm very aware of the sentence. I learned a lot from Frost about the timing of sentences and syntax being related to the expression of certain kinds of feeling in a poem. I also learned that the dramatic structure of a poem is really the story of the timing of the sentences and the arrangement of pieces within the poem. You don't say certain things at certain moments: you wait. In Frost's "Out, Out—" a poem in which a boy gets his hand sawed off at the end of the day, there are moments of weird, bitter humor in some of the phrasing as he's describing what happens, that sort of rueful thing that Frost can do, which is part of his magic. In the last quarter of the poem, the boy says to his sister, "'Don't let him cut my hand off— / The doctor, when he comes. Don't let him, sister!'" Frost follows this up with: "So. But the hand was gone already." From this point on, the sentences change. They become much shorter. Rhythmically, you can just feel a spirit ebbing from the boy's life, and then he dies. Then there's this uptake at the very end where Frost says "And they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs." My students almost always misread that poem as deeply cynical, or indifferent at best. I tell them to think about why Frost is using the word "affairs." He could have used another word. What are these people, the boy's family, going to do? What are their affairs? Part of what comes next involves having to wash the boy's body and bury him. They have to dig the grave. There's a kind of holiness to all that. Moreover, how does the boy get his hand cut off? The sister came into the barn and announced "Supper." The boy turned toward her voice. That's when he loses his hand. I ask the students how they think the sister feels. How do those who worked him so hard feel? Early in the poem, Frost writes: "Call it a day, I wished they might have said," to give him the time "a boy counts so much when saved from work." There's guilt. That is part of their affairs. That is a weight they're going to have to carry. It's not simply the indifference brought about by rural labor. The poem's sentences convey all of this information; the varying syntax energizes these tones. Frost believed we say more through tone than through anything we say directly. He also said that if you can manipulate sentences this way, you're the greater artist. Which I guess is Frost's way of praising Frost!
Rail: Who are some other writers whose sentences you've studied and whose maneuvers resonated with you?
Rivard: Robert Creeley for sure. I really began to understand the relationship between enjambment and how line breaks function through him. He does this thing in a lot of his poems where he sets up a short line that is often radically enjambed, and you hear him breaking into those very short lines with a lot of punctuation, a lot of commas, periods, dashes. Enjambment produces speed. In one sense, then, he's creating momentum down the page; but with his frequent punctuation, he's deliberately retarding and cutting into that momentum. This creates psychological tension. As Creeley himself once said: "I grow tensions like flowers." And you feel that on a physical level in his language. Language is not very imagistic in Creeley, but it is rhythmically expressive. In one his great poems, "Bresson's Movies," he writes:
A movie of Robert
Bresson's showed a yacht,
at evening on the Seine,
all its lights on, watched by two young, seemingly
poor people, on a bridge adjacent…
and it goes on from there. He talks about two movies, you know, one of which is a movie about Lancelot. He begins describing the movie, and then the language starts to stutter, it clots, and almost comes to a stop. He says of Lancelot:
dazed, bleeding, both he
and his horse are,
trying to get back to
the castle, itself of
no great size. It
moved me, that
life was after all
like that. You are
in the woods, with
a horse, bleeding…
Stuttering: that's what Creeley does best. There is a kind of vulnerability in this awkwardness. In the parlance of the 60s, Thom Gunn once said, "Creeley is kind of trippy." I think Gunn meant this in two ways: first, that there's an intentional awkwardness in the flow of the language; and second, that Creeley's an improviser. The lines seem as if they are being invented in front of you, and he's very interested in this improvisational, intuitive track that's being thrown out there. He wants to see where it will all go. Perhaps has no idea where it will go. Out of all this enjambment, "Bresson's Movies" resolves so beautifully. He counterpoints the enjambment by coming out of the stuttering to make, in the final line, the following claim:
Rail: It's the only fully unenjambed line in the poem.
Rivard: Yes, even saying the line now—I'm thrilled by it. There's this release from all that self-conscious awareness, that tension. I feel the deep generosity in Creeley saying it, some kind of forgiveness in it.
Rail: I do see the influence of Creeley in Standoff, particularly in your poem "Swerver," where you write:
at 16 you think yourself
of the inner-life for sure,
tho you’re allowed
an occasional glimpse of the world
and how it looks
to others—10,000 colors
in the skin of an apple,
and not one of them red or green—
and the future might
open for a moment
in spite of all
your evil speculations…
While these lines do not stutter like Creeley's, insofar as you do not routinely retard line flow with heavy punctuation, there is a conspicuous enjambment to them that is heightened by the ample and often surprising wonders the world affords by such "occasional glimpses" at it. Moreover, the sentence never fully recovers from the parenthetical phrase encased by dashes: "name one," presumably one of the 10,000 colors—reveals that the "you" in this poem cannot entirely leave behind what he has glimpsed and return to the "inner-life" referenced several lines above.
Rivard: There is something typical of my work in this passage, an unfolding quality where narration and thought are bound up with each other—it's Creeley-like in that it wants the flow and unpredictability of consciousness. The way the lines form and dissolve and re-form constantly. The poem is about the life of a particular woman, but it wants to see that life from both the inside and outside, subjectively and objectively. And simultaneously it wants to register the speaker's presence too, his feelings and thoughts.
What I've learned so much from Creeley and others, like [George] Oppen and Ted Berrigan, Fanny Howe, many others—what I've got in common with them is this desire for "simultaneity," a sense of being both "here" and "there," everywhere at once. I wish my work were as inventive and original as theirs, but I seem to keep bumping up against the limits of language in regard to simultaneity. Maybe I need to bump up against those limits. That is one reason why I like Louise Glück's work so much, the ways in which she keeps registering the limits of language in relation to consciousness. She keeps banging into them, banging.
In some of my new poems, like "By Then," there's some Creeley influence in the phrasing and lineation. But the pacing is more influenced by Glück, I think. Something that has to do with sentence length having a more restricted range of periodicity than I usually work with. The sentence in these new poems doesn't open up to elaborate syntax in the ways my work has been known for. I feel like I'm trying to slow the poem down and invite some silence into it. I'm trying to drill deeper into the moment of feeling, and the silence around the sentence is a way of creating a background against which the feeling will stand out in stronger ways. The silence between sentences is a big part of the rhythm the poem is working out. When I wrote the first two sentences of "By Then," I heard that rhythmic value so distinctly:
By then I was leaving,
and the deer in the meadow had stopped paying me
their mind. I was alone
as I’d always been
but twice as deep for knowing it
Rail: You taught with Charles Simic for ten years. Might his influence be a part of this change?
Rivard: I don't think there's a huge amount of Simic in me. But I love the way he thinks about poems. I don't… I mean… no: you might be right about this now that I'm thinking about it. There's something really clarifying about his syntax. He hears himself really well, like the way he measures his phrases in relation to an image—things just drop into place so deftly. I think that Simic, like Glück, like Creeley, really writes poems that are designed to be spoken, or heard on the page as speech. What's on the page is a score for a voice.
Rail: And his use of silence and space resonates with what you were just saying about your new poems.
Rivard: Simic says poetry is a lot like comedy, it's all about pacing: "Form is 'timing'—the exact amount of silence necessary between words and images to make them meaningful. The stand-up comedians know all about that."
Rail: One of the things I have noticed about your presentation style is the way in which your banter before reading a poem is delivered and timed as if it might be part of the poem itself. I'm often surprised when you finally begin reading a new poem because only then do I realize your off-the-cuff remarks aren't actually part of that poem.
Rivard: That's really interesting. Sometimes I go into a reading and say to myself, "I'm not going to say anything tonight, just read the poems." But then, inevitably, I start talking. There were times early in my career when I was so nervous about the performance aspect of reading that it was always a relief to talk in between. I don't feel that way anymore. Nowadays, the banter in between the poems is a way of refreshing the poems themselves. It's a way I can enter them from weird, unfamiliar angles because I'm saying stuff that I haven't necessarily said in a prior reading. I don't always introduce the poems in the same way.
Rail: Insightful—I like the notion of refreshing poems insofar as you are, in way, reframing them based on whatever introductory banter you resort to before you read them. But there's this other element that I found fascinating: your banter often felt like the language of the poem itself.
Rivard: I've worked hard for a long time to get my poems to the point where they sound spoken, or at least like the way I speak. I want them to be heard in the way that conversations are heard. The poems so often want to address something or someone. They're meant to be listened to. They assume they are being listened to. I would like all of this to feel as natural as possible. At the same time, I know I am creating something artificial. I begin "By Then" by saying something that sounds a little idiomatic: "By then, the deer had stopped paying me their mind." The actual idiom is a different. "Don't pay any mind to that" is closer to what we actually say. But that's not what I say. I've reshaped the idiom. So the sentence feels like speech, but it's heightened or more angular, and it has a little dramatic pressure.
Rail: The observation is based on the perspective of the deer, which is already unusual. When you first read that line, I tripped over the "their." Yes, deer is the plural of deer, but when you first said "the deer" I was initially thinking of one deer, not several. I was expecting "paying me it's mind."
Rivard: I wrote that poem the last day I was in the cabin in Brooklin, Maine that I stay in during the summer. As you're talking, I realize it wasn't simply plural deer; there were plural times, too. The deer were in the field the entire time I was there, all two months. By saying they weren't paying me their mind that day, I was subtly referencing all of the other times during which they did seem to be paying attention to me. The line creates a perspective from the point of view of the deer. I'm really interested in altering perspective from point to point in a poem, I don't like the perspective to be singular or stationary. Sometimes I ask my students this question: what does the scene or image you're depicting look like from a perspective different from the speaker's, what's it look like from the point of view of another character, or maybe even from that of an inanimate object? What does this guy look like from the point of view of the deer, and what would the deer say about him? You know, you don't have to literally write "The deer then said…" I don't mean it like that; though personally I can imagine a sentient deer, one who might be a lot more articulate than me! A deer with a tongue and a brain sharper than mine. But I think it's useful on an imaginative level to think about seeing yourself from another perspective. Your imagination is untethered by the question.
Rail: What kind of sentences would a deer utter?
Rivard: It would be a different sentence than either you or I are capable of uttering. So just on that level alone it's going to be useful as an imaginative exercise. Usually, my students just look at me like "come on," or "whatever!" Every once in awhile, someone runs with it. One of my former students, Mark Gosztyla, who is a wonderful poet, showed me a poem once about trout fishing in a glacial stream in Alaska—you know, fly-fishing in green-colored waders in this rushing, cold gray water—and the scene was rendered in such a flat, objective way, kind of dull. I said, "what's this guy look like from the point of view of the trout, try to see him that way." And, in some bit of metaphorical transformation, when he revised the poem he turned the speaker into an olive in a slushy martini. It was so brilliant, the scene kind of lit up in this expressively funny way, and it told us something about the speaker that actually was important in terms of character, because this guy was not terrifically interested in trout fishing and would likely have been much happier with a martini in his hand. I like it when language reveals by surprise, when something leaps out that you didn't know you had inside you. When something comes at you from an odd angle.
Rail: It appears a moment or instance of language is what jumpstarts you into a poem.
Rivard: That's almost always been true for me. I like to start with a magnetic bit of language that somehow feels as if it emerges from the moment in which I sit down to write, and that other language begins to join with. Even if the bit of language that I start with comes from a notebook, I somehow feel that I've chosen it because it has something to do with how I'm feeling that day, or where I am. That's especially true of these new poems. Two summers ago, when I started many of them, I was drafting everything on an old Royal manual typewriter. I decided that everything would be written on that Royal, and that I'd make a draft and not look at it again until the end of summer. Just immersing myself in the day-to-day flow of making, with as little self-consciousness as possible. I also decided that I might be writing this stuff just for myself, without ever planning to publish it. Writing the poems on a manual typewriter slowed things down. I couldn't do things I would normally do on a computer, like copying a phrase, moving it over, down the page to remake the sentence that way. Instead, it was like, "Okay, this is the way it's coming out, I'm locked into this syntax from the beginning." On a laptop, I normally revise syntax as I'm deploying it—it's a process that induces a lot of self-consciousness and elaboration, density.
Rail: I'm imagining this restriction meant you had more discreet, substantively different drafts.
Rivard: Yes. I'd write a draft, and the next day I'd try to use a very different line length, just as a reaction to the last thing I had done. Or I'd decide that I was going to write a poem made entirely of questions, or one that used only declarative sentences. There were always simple formal restrictions like that. "Write a poem in which the lines are always enjambed, and the enjambments always run counter to phrasal units." Or "write a poem that's unpunctuated and that uses a Janus-faced phrase or word to collage together bits of language."
But part of the reason for using the old typewriter was connected to my wanting to slow down the process. I knew working in this way would have that effect. I've always loved speed and movement in poetry, the quickness of thought, the immediacy of perception. I still do. But I'm more and more interested in what can't be said, and in what I don't know, those feelings that are hiding in me and that have to be gotten to indirectly. I'm sick of explaining what can't be explained. Like in these lines from "By Then":
I kept thinking a good cry
will take care of everything
day by day
skinnier but filled
somehow despite it all
There's a silence between the two parts of this sentence, a silence in that dash. That silence doesn't tie together the two feelings, and it doesn't use one feeling to explain the other—it doesn't create logical relationship between the feelings—it lets the feelings complicate each other. The syntax of the two parts is less elaborate, simpler, than I might have allowed in my work previously, but it still "vibrates." There's a vulnerability in the way those two parts vibrate against each other. It's not a "confessional" vulnerability. You're not getting the complete view, the supposed "facts" of the life. It's not "revealing" in that way. There's actually a privacy that's being maintained, a solitude. It's an "autobiography of the emotions." I think that's the way that Robert Bresson talked about what he was trying to do in his movies.
As I say "vibrate" I think of one of my favorite painters, Philip Guston. There was this point in the 60s where Guston was transitioning from being this avatar of abstract expressionism into someone who actually incorporated the figure into his work. His work got very "cartoony." He went to Florida for about a year and all he did was draw a single line on a sheet of paper over and over again in different media. Sometimes he'd draw two lines. That's all. In a way, it was an incredible act of simplification, returning him to the roots of drawing. I'd like to get to that myself. I'm not quite sure how to do it with language. What would the equivalent be of somebody going into a studio day after day and painting a single line, and then painting another line and seeing how the two lines actually work against each other?
Rail: You've published six books of poems and are working towards a seventh. Whether intended or otherwise, each of these books naturally has its own life and its own stylistic autonomy. No matter what the separateness or differences there might be between each of these books, what—on a sentence level—might be continuous throughout all of them?
Rivard: Up until now, I've been interested in elaborated syntaxes, a lot of activity in the way the line cuts into the sentence. But your strength is your weakness. You go to it over and over again, and you get locked into what it can do. I always tell my students: "Diversify: do the thing you don't know how to do; try to do it a lot; see what happens; even if you do it badly, something good might come out of it." On the other hand, I have a friend who says as a writer, you're like a crab who is born with a slightly larger claw. Your job is to ignore the weak claw and strengthen the strong claw, make it as big as possible. I just don't believe that.
So I think sometime around finishing my second book, Wise Poison, I started getting annoyed at this elaborateness of syntax. I felt as if a different syntax would allow me to be more present in the poems. I didn't know what that meant exactly, and I still don't. I'm not sure I want to know. There are writers like Fanny Howe, for instance, who are very complex poets but feel very much in the moment when they're making the poem. In a very different way, Glück is too. I feel like for the last twenty years ort so I've been chasing some sort of "presence" in my work, the sound of presence. There's something mysterious about its working out, it keeps changing from poem to poem. Syntax can be the most physical thing about language; so if you change it, you can change your way of being in the poem. Maybe it's like working an entirely different set of muscles? I don't know—there's so much about it I don't understand. These days, this not knowing, my ignorance about what I might be able to do, makes me really happy. It might be the only way I can see something new about myself.
Rail: Your rejection of your friend's theory about strengthening the already-strong claw instead of developing the weaker claw reminds me a bit of something a visual artist once told me: if you want to get at some surprises in your work and see some interesting things happen, try to use instruments in a way where you have less control over them—such as using your non-dominant hand to paint a person, or closing your eyes while drawing as house. As a result, your line work will be truer, less-mediated, and more immediate.
Rivard: Yes, because by hindering your facility the resulting work is less open to willful manipulation. Facility is part of the problem. You spend your life trying to get better and stronger and have more skill—and you do. Mastery. But then you have to give up mastery if you want to become more than a master.
Something is at stake for me on some deeply personal level in all this—I don't know how to talk about it, but it has to do with acceptance and freedom, being who I am without shame or attachment. Something is working itself out. "A writing problem is always a life problem," Grace Paley said. It's never just about form or technique or style. It's funny, Tomaz Salamun, who is one of my favorite poets and who was a dear friend, used to say to me, "David, you are so sane and calm." I didn't think it was totally a compliment! More like, "You've got a lot of control there, buddy!" I think he was trying to tell me that too much of my early work was coming from parts of my self that were highly conscious, and that I needed to write in a way that allowed the feelings and images to be less controlled, less arranged. Don't pretend to understand what isn't understandable—that was one thing he might have been saying to me. It all fits with something else that Grace said, "you don't write about what you know, you write about what you don't know about what you know."
Rail: I think of Picasso and the master modernists in general. One of the most important innovations in modernist art was the return to the primitive. They had taken technique as far as they could go and turned back to a primal rawness that was unsophisticated and sophisticated at the same time.
Rivard: Yes, and as I mentioned earlier, Guston did something similar. When he emerged from all of his experimentation in 1967 and had a show of recent paintings at the Marlborough Gallery in New York, The New York Times reviewer, Hilton Kramer, who was a conservative critic, said that Guston was "a mandarin pretending to be a stumblebum." That was the headline, as if somehow the work was this fabricated thing, some decision merely about style or presentation. But it wasn't. It was a demonstration of how engaged Guston had been in his spiritual struggle. He was trying to strip all of the authority away from himself so he could expose something that had not been exposed before. I feel a great sympathy for that.
Rail: That's a scary thing, isn't it? You have to allow your ego to drop away.
Rivard: It's enormously difficult. You build a career on a certain image, an aesthetic image. People think they know you and they think they know what you're doing. And so do you. That's what we mean by "self-image." And then—if you're lucky, maybe—you just lose it. Or it's taken away from you, maybe by forces beyond your control. Or it happens as part of some larger set of losses. For me, all of these changes in my work reached a critical point about five years ago, after my father's death; and that slow taking apart and re-making has continued alongside a terrible break with one of my closest friends, and the end of my long marriage. I think I'm on this path and it's going to take a while to kind of really strip things down and do the work, but it will have to happen in both my writing and my life. I don't think I've gotten there yet. Long way to go.
Tiny wild strawberries in the
uncut grass—more of a tartness
that vibrates the tongue
than a flavor—how can I quiet
my mind if there isn’t any
stillness in them? There is
the story I keep telling
myself, & there is the story
I might hear were I to listen,
if I could just stand there silent.
And another thing
I have waited for a long time
is the galloping of hooves
at night, OK?
Well, born with a brain,
die with a brain, but a certain
miracle seems to survive regardless—
beach plums—the rosa
rugosa wear mercurochrome
on their lapels. A heavy bush
of them curling like a wave
full of the scent of soul-heat:
sunlight siphons it from the earth
like a pump, just as it did
behind my grandfather’s shack,
wherever that marsh was exactly
whoever I was when I was
that boy who could have written
this poem already if he’d wanted to.
It’s so hard to keep track of it all
if your brain is embarrassed
by having been born in a body.
So, thank you. Thank you
for making my heart beat faster.
So much for hearing I thought
in the midst of one of those
moments of sparrow-like sadness
tho no self-respecting sparrow
would agree as apparently I had
to take up with Hardy’s lessons
in sorrow having to put on tweed
camp clothes & set out for a solitary
tramp in wind-blown-rain not desperate
so much as stoic while forlorn
all that religion of an old-timey sort
proud of every passing thought
like a prisoner who mistakes his cell
for a throne when in fact
what I had wanted most of all
was for her to tell me the truth
about the photo of Sid’s truck
parked as I’d thought it had been
in Kelvington Saskatchewan for so long
that’s the water tower in the background
as common as wheat on the Sask horizon
but no one small-town sings
of the greenness in green eyes anymore
do they & because the eyes
are a borderline not to be crossed sometimes
someone has to tremble
on the other side of a table & you
you on your side have to sit there
doing nothing but watch & listen
don’t ask me how it’s done
I’m the last person to come to for advice
it got torpedoed anyway my plan
so as best I could I just sat there silent
because when a ghost returns
to the neighborhood a little emaciated
and pawing through a pocketbook
for some object she can’t think of
the name for your chemistry alters
often almost imperceptibly & without
at all understanding exactly how
you let yourself become the one loved
the one loved enough to be told then
that for years after her sister had died
her mother went on buying toys
appropriate to the age her sister had been
at her death gifts that
had to be accepted so no I did not
get up & offer her my coat & anyway
she wasn’t cold & it wouldn’t have
stopped her trembling & it’s true
what you owe someone sometimes
is the space to feel
what they feel now & then when frightened
brave naked a little more real.
Laughter is Close
Laughter is close, even if just
of middle-school girls,
their juicy, eye-rolling, malicious
down the street (like a tiny pink slug
in a pigeon’s beak), hotting up
the air—why pretend
you can’t hear? Laughter,
the only eternity
that’s real. Laughter
and its toothy
lift off, even
when toxic. “Save me”
is what’s written
on the faces of so many
“save me” & “fuck you.”
So the ancient Tibetan masters
teach, focused as they are
both by the attar of sage burning
and the wailing of toddlers
by a septic tank—
a thousand years dead,
but still dreaming
they’re fast asleep
in their boyhood beds.
Walk Me Out
Inside of this accidentally
on purpose caught I know
in my heart it is morning
dew on my loafers that
wets me when I have
something to say I have
never heard because
I have not had a chance
to say it yet. Not yet.
There are certain eyes
you cannot fool, extreme
in their dreams of
staring down magnified
grass blades, greeny rich
shoots pushing up
through broken tarmac,
the vast invulnerabilities
of grass fought against
by the kindest of eyes but
eyes that talk trash & make
mistakes nonetheless. It
is morning, & it unfolds
like a letter from a father
to his startled, out-of-touch
daughter. She has everything
that anger has, anger
with its cold, bright view,
a roomful of windows
nailed shut—the rent due,
and late. What I have is a bird
this morning, a finch,
I have this finch, singing,
not the slow squeaking
of the hinged door to
its cage as it is sprung,
freed. The door will open
soon I feel sure. I’m just
not into waiting actually.
wades in a wide bowl in the garden,
the water cooled by the bowl’s thick stone
dark & clean & earthly
like water that dried mushrooms have soaked in,
a calming, almost
personal transparency that coats the bird’s feathers
and that she takes with her to a branch,
where she shakes her short, square-tipped tail
and flies off inside a spray
of iridescent droplets in the noonish air,
‘each drop a petty tricolor’
in the solstice heat building out of June,
that moment of July
when a video of the long line
of refrigerated freight cars
stuffed with black body bags
in an insurgent-controlled Ukrainian
train depot surfaces
in the newsfeed all of a sudden, on that sunny, bacon-fat
morning two days after the intangible day
an airliner full of human bodies
disintegrates at altitude
in the sky
over cornfields and sunflowers
in the Donetsk Oblest.
The starling doesn’t use words.
She offers no indictment or consolation, no answer:
just resting—flying off—
in the available
atmosphere or solution,
whether shimmering, cool water
or air full of pagan heat.
The investigators wear haz-mat suits
of white Tyvek & goggles
dark & shiny as the pupils of salmon
buried to their chins in crushed ice.
A single heartbeat
one heartbeat ends the past