Tuesday, June 1, 2021
Airwaves lower than sound or shudder rattle cups
and doors. In her dreams, trees cling to their blood apricots
Touch one and it explodes. Her father’s vigil is crumpled
by insomnia: was that wind-shift or voices shrilling
jerked from grip. Out there, gloved hands are setting down
landmines the shape of toys. By morning, miles of window glass
After the one p.m. car bomb, the front door falls toward her father
as he pulls it open. It is another month. The child’s coat slumped
about the bent limbs, the elbows of trunk, the way it leans
against grantic rocks, gestures fortified by nutrients and hope.
back and forth, its body keeps a tempo of hunger against
the valley’s great backdrop strewn with silences.
Now a chewed-up fruit with her tooth marks. Arrows of distress
scatter like night-birds from the open mouth of falling.
Now wind whistling, a half-shout running through it.
of daylight sucked from stained-glass windows. The song like a storm
roaring between past and present, entering each singer as an anthem
of faith, emerging as dirge. Each singer an island, an orphaned
silence, filled. The nine named over and over so all remain with us. The
whispers. The moment the walls turned into paper and shook with
light. The books lying open, the dark drops. Dust bits hanging in a
slant of sun. Late light flooding the floor with color. The light making
contact splitting one irrevocable moment from the next. Now the
song as memory, as the means of counting the vanished one by one
without numbers. Arriving at nine and unable to go beyond. What is
lost, replenished by grace. Each mouth full of words incinerated, yet
carrying on. For none of the extinguished will go voiceless. Mouths
full of vespers will sing of them. A thousand songs. Faces and candles
from here to the horizon, and onward. The hymn multiplying into
a living continent of song. All will continue to sing it. All will rise.
President Obama sang in memory
of the nine people who lost their lives in the 2015 Charleston massacre.
PILGRIMAGE TO COW’s MOUTH MOUNTAIN
and Mount Everest began losing whole feet
of height to the world’s rising heat, four men walked
carrying a curtained palanquin. Hidden inside,
my grandmother sat with her clutch of sketching pencils,
against blue snows miles above touch. They climbed
toward headwaters, boulders the size of cabins.
Closed in where the Ganges River roared
down rapids. Skin of fire and body of darkness
and banks full of chestnut trees and edelweiss.
My grandmother steps into the spray. Enters
the blue hallways, the generations of song.
The skirts of her sari balloon out, then cling.
Her teeth are chattering. Thirst and cold become one.
Eyes, head, and hands in prayer. Give me the strength to live
without walls. Mica bits glitter as they fly downstream.
of its own making, not long after fires five stories tall have
swept up-canyon, a new season the size of pearls begins.
Silences spreading like hands to touch the heads of seedling
and fiddlehead nudging out by the hundreds through ceilings
of soil and ashy debris. Hours as loose as scree firming up in
leaves, there a knot of cones thrown open by heat releases
seeds ripe for sun. Currents of brightness are charged from
within. Sunlight plucks at the strings of top branches. Up
at the crown, blackened firs begin again their story of vigor,
edged with new needles. The irresistible music, tinsel-and-
chime notes. Wind nosing close to the buds to receive all the
to ash and ash alone. Sapsucker, pileated, black-backed
woodpeckers, all join the jig of genetic diversity. All build
from scratch. What do they crave? Riches. Riches hidden in
the wide-open arches rising from gray.
As if on cue, a rush of breath answers the stuff of ages,
the essentials, lands and gurgling waters awakened
by silence rising once the flames have fallen.
the tribes arriving. Sprig by sprig, the forests
unwrapping layers of light. The old and the new, shoulder
to shoulder. Ambers, reds, and greens, following
in concentric circles, working through their intricacies.
Now the wild ones, with inner eyes drawing
from the Pleistocene, are arriving with the disposition
Lines of pilgrims with the training, the shape and scents
of paths mapped out. And now the mule deer, the lions.
All along, they knew to arrive. To shift and settle into place,
in a vast machinery of rebirth—tasting the good light,
for scratchy sounds. A trilling laces the bite of air. Winks of light
catch a tiny pool of dew held in a swordfern’s hollow.
All the looseness of soil, potash, charcoal, crumbly
in grip-shaped roots steadily descending into darkness.
The air still, the breath of seedlings edging out
of slumber. Close to the treetops, inches of relearning
the shape of their burned predecessors. Faith alights
on the sooty drapes covering trees. The birds cling, flash.
Announce the sap, the squirming meats, the great bounty.
The bad witness and the activist meet for coffee at he center of
She is wearing a dress the color of a liar’s tears. He is wearing a frog
mask that resembles a dirty ghost.
They chat about their childhoods in the opposite-coast suburbias.
In both towns, their bedrooms smelled like paperbacks and
They each had a friend who used to prick herself with beaded safety
pins. Different young girls. Different colored pins.
Who is the activist? Who is the bad witness? Neither can remember.
If they kiss, their tongues will split into lightning forks and broken
When the bad witness was an activist, she used to chain herself to her
sister—or was it a doll?
She often forgets that she never had a sister.
At the playground, she would go up to babies and yell, “You’re not
As an activist, she believes in the reality of the world.
The bad witness gets a job as a poet-in-residence at a tattoo parlor,
but all of her poems are just one word, stop. It’s an improvement
on her pre-amnesia poems, and small enough to fit on most bodies
without unbearable pain.
Across town, classrooms are being used to stockpile invisible guns.
The frogs who sleep in the desks clamor for air, while the android
teacher thinks her memory of her past life as a science-fiction
action star is only a dream.
Years pass, and the coffee shop starts serving moonshine right into
people’s mouths. No cup needed. It’s the only way to deal with the
As the activist and the bad witness chat, one of their bodies is replaced
with a metal cage.
Now he (or she?) is only an iron structure, an enclosure of air with a
dumb whale heart, beating inside.
Neither notices the missing flesh—the almost empty construction
where a chest used to be.
Search Engine Overlord
The dystopian surface
with the one-thousand-percent cotton
lining is not enough to satiate
the present, to unmake
the water buffalo
of the past. No thumbs
needed to call off
an impractical joke.
No roof parade. No
helmet to ruin your
dismissive eyebrow slant.
Frenemy happy hour
for all. (Yum!)
Freedom zucchini fires
on the half shell. Yes to the toe jam.
Maybe to the hot sauce-prayer-
closet electioneering headache
medicine plus one. I’m trying
to be more perfect, but instead
I’m in-between and frog-ready,
complex. Play that fruitful music
lost girl et al. Some days
all of my favorite plotlines end
with a woman walking into
a roof. Freedom for all, even
you, squeaking your way back
into the corset narrative you
thought had been transformed.
Nope! Just signposts here:
the activist who lights himself
on fire becomes a favorite
art-house icon and then a parody
on the Simpsons only .0003
percent of an audience
“gets.” Our fingers hurt
from dialing other people’s
senators. Wake up, canary face!
Time for your solo.
Wrap It in a Beehive
All I want to do is stay
home, flirt with my baby
sister’s babysitter, admire
my reflection in my
mother’s butcher knife
and stuff my chowhole
with sweet potato fries,
but then there’s that ho
again, throwing down
that flaxen mane from
her window in the sky,
throwing around an
cloud of amorous vapor
which envelops the world
and makes me forget
my true bro-ness. I know
they say her heart is made
of steel, but her lips taste
like stone fruit trifle
and her armpits smell
like paces I don’t admit
to her I’ve been. (Cue
the flutes.) So when
I hear the sound of her
braids swaying in the wind,
and the squeaky rattle
of her chained-up thighs,
like old-fashioned birdsongs
wooing me with their noisy
charms, my limbs start
to scale her hair, until
my palms are rough
and my fingers are fire-
engine red, and I don’t
even mind the blisters.
Listen to What I Am Saying, Not What I Say
Try to fold your memories as if you were handling
your mother’s underwear
or as if the memories were the creases
in her face, your face.
Look at your destiny. It’s over
there, the pink dress
pedaling the tricycle—a spirit
on wheels, doing a religious wheelie
like all the other false gods who
haunt your pungent suburb.
If you are sleeping, where is
your necklace of drool?
If you are awake, why does your headache
keep sticking its tongue on the frozen pole?
If anyone is a fan of the way the past
twists its tendrils around all the knobs,
let her be the first to throw our
hosiery over the glass wall.
How long can you hold on to
a mummified cat
when the building is
Sometimes I just want to use
my own hands.
Listen to What You Cannot Hear
At six a.m., the planet craters inward
like a teenage girl, half-afraid
of a full-length mirror, and the trees
stop shaking for a millisecond,
the clams and mussels open
their shells to the passing clouds
as if to say hi, how are you and mean it.
Is this why the security guards
at the museum hide themselves under
the sculptures so it’s difficult to tell
what’s art and what’s human,
what’s cow-spotted mountain and
what’s mountain-spotted cow?
Perhaps this is why all the babies
are throwing their mashed-up carrots
in the air, why the social worker claims
she’d rather be a pre-sliced mango than a flag.
Nearest portion of
grief as through
the breath I missed
my father lastly let go.
Alone with voices, a traveling
cycle, circling in dexterity
to open my silence, pain,
all that can be witnessed
from distance’s oval
My mother turns her
head to me, often, listens, likes the vocal contrast of my nonspeaking.
More worded braids than sentences of sequential obfuscation⎯
tragedy in heirloom
made by hand: sound isn’t wandered here,
here it was said
I awaken to feel
for the floor I’d forgotten
held me cold holds
my forthcoming death
Trane’s Tunji plays in
my ear, in my eye
a swell begins to
my feet around this home,
one of myriad physiognomies.
my parents follow me,
raise me, reach for me when
an hour is dark and my face
is abrupt in absence.
curtains fall into vertical
silver expression in
the metal beak
wandering is where I
needed to go what
I needed to do. Behind me
now was need looking forward
as introduction to prophecy or
what roams from home to home,
a hidden documentation
in the whole of my parents’
, or hasn’t yet, yet
what’s to come, I’m
before me, alight light,
lit afar, focused, soft in
the hand, solid. From
where I’ve gone I’ve
this home a silence of
history’s going, going
away from me, these breaths
and mirror’s interpretive
phased in fraction’s
what’s coming into
this light and theory of
follows, finding me alone in the usual space: window-near, tableau
explication calls my following and voice confirmation.
My father arrives, though dead, smiling to the west of me to follow
his example of authentic correspondence. Alive now, both of us,
though my death’s been predicted in the disbelief of my behavior.
We need an alternative social geography to promote tolerance & perspective
historical reference to celebrate
the power of place
to understand the past & illuminate the present
There are two primary methods of doing research and deeper investigation on a place or a subject. First, there is physically going to the location, spending time there and talking with others who have been there.
The second method is to read previous essays, stories and other writings about the location, author or subject in question. As a longtime journalist as well as poet, I have spent many years doing both.
Both methods of research performed in tandem enable a writer to achieve deeper knowledge and move towards being an authority on the topic. I have an equal love for both the physical research, what some call “pounding the pavement,” and the voracious reading that comes from the other method of research.
In conjunction with both methods of research, the spirit behind my poetry and prose is guided by geography, public history and respect. Respect to my elders and those who came before me. This ties in especially to geography and history. As Susan Schulten writes: “geography grounds events in space and history grounds them in time. Every space has a story.”
Multiple stories. Every landscape is a palimpsest with generations of stories. I try and record as many of them as I can. At the same time, the idea is to inspire others to do the same.
Mapping a human tomorrow refers to the possibilities of a more enlightened world. The historical references are meant to show where we have been. The reminders are also there so we do not forget.
Rewriting memories is attaching stories
the spirit of location
generations of oral histories
collections of public memories
Anchoring experiences to Place
A scheme of arrangements, a utilitarian framework
A city of emotional landmarks
Mapping a human tomorrow
Back in 2001, I was interviewing the poet Lewis MacAdams, the founder of the Friends of the Los Angeles River, at his house and he showed me a book that had been very influential to him. It was Investigative Poetry, by Ed Sanders.
MacAdams let me borrow it under the condition that I would return it soon. Like MacAdams, the key concepts espoused by Sanders stayed with me. The subtitle explains the work further: “that poetry should again assume responsibility for the description of history.”
Sanders advocates for ideas like, “presenting data on the page,” and “story wheels as ‘memory gardens.’” In later works like America: A History in Verse: Volume 1, 1900-1939 and 1968: A History in Verse, he uses these techniques to record historic events in verse. I have always been driven by a similar impulse, and for this reason, I have always connected to Sanders’ work.
The Nicaraguan poet Ernesto Cardenal writes “documentary poetry” kindred to Sanders in books like, Zero Hour and Other Documentary Poems. The poetry scholar Robert Pring-Mill writes about Cardenal’s poetry in the book’s “Introduction” stating: “These poems demand more than just an alert response, because the poet wishes to prod us beyond thought and into action: his texts are never just concerned to document and understand reality, but also to help change it… But the data have to be recorded before reality can be reshaped, and the reshaping lies beyond the poems themselves: the changes for which the poet yearns lie in the future.”
I follow the template set forth by Sanders and Cardenal. The many years I have worked as a journalist further reinforce my urge to record historical narratives. As Cardenal’s quote correctly notes, reality needs to be recorded before it can be reshaped and therefore “investigative poetry,” and the closely related “documentary poetry,” are critical actions for mapping a human tomorrow.