This Word Love
I will not go when she calls
even if she says I love you,
even though she swears
and promises nothing
but love love.
The light in this room
even my arm throws no shadow,
it too is consumed with light.
But this word love —
this word grows dark, grows
heavy and shakes itself, begins
to eat, to shudder and convulse
its way through this paper
until we too have dimmed in
its transparent throat and still
are riven, are glistening, hip and thigh, your
loosened hair which knows
from Poet and Critic, 1971.
To A Child
J. F. Quackenbush
for Stella March Faiello
I hope that you are beautiful
and that your eyes are green
and your hair is blonde.
I hope that you are loved
and cared for. I hope your
life as you come into it
is not a field of broken things.
I hope that you are smart
and funny, and a goddess of words
that will spill from your lips
in this language
that is the only lover I have left.
I hope that the sadness
this awfulness now that surrounds
your conception does not print
itself in your face so that you
are born hating the way only
those of us like you and I
who are children of injustice
I hope your father is a good man
and he manages to love your mother
like I did, unworthy of it as she is.
I hope that in another few decades
you are not sitting drunk and numb
dead inside and staring down at your
typing fingers from 10,000 feet above yourself
writing words like these on an empty page.
To the child I will never know,
I might have loved you; you could have
been mine. If you were a boy, your
name would be Fyodor.
I like to think I would have named you Chloe.
If you hear her say anything about me
see my name on the spine of a book
find an old letter that I’ve signed
or poem that I’ve written, don’t ask her
who I am. Just wait.
A time will come when she will look
at you, into your red rimmed eyes
after your heart has been broken
by a boy who reminds her of herself.
And when she does, your eyes, just
a little like mine, will make her
think of me, and she’ll crumble
a little at the memory of how she
came to have you and all the love
that came into the world in your
tiny infant fingers reaching for
That’s how you will know me,
in the reflection in her eyes
watching the ghost of me
drown quietly in your tears.
If I failed, Adam,
to gratify your every whim,
look me in the eye,
ask that I leave by
blue dusk to mask the flame
of my hair, your tearful shame
only witnessed by our Sculptor
as you demand He mold another.
Make certain she is formed from you
so she will never question the true
nature of her existence,
so the only resistance
you’ll encounter is in dreams,
my hands and mouth and streams
of flaming curls, your throat choking on
my name as you roll awake at dawn.
Your lips will part to call the one you’re with
but all your heart will ever howl is Lilith.
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.
I want you humanoid-reckless style,
a drink I can’t describe, with eyes
I want to wake up numb, reporting
a systematic linguistic displacement
of women as objects,
Like if I seduced you I’d dance
free of it, or feel the balance
By the way I pick at what other
birds missed. Don’t fall in love,
they want to say, coming out of
It is a gut shot. I still mutter
yes inside myself. I still
want you to drown the drudgery
Out of my days. We lay and roll
in theology and I flare up offense,
feeling like a one-woman island,
But I’ll bring the need if you bring
the fulfilling. I feel pounds of starlight
pass below me as I say no to my potential
Every time. Hey baby.
Share this suffering. Don’t hoard,
you know I am always hungry.
Because You Asked about the Line Between Prose and Poetry
Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle
That while you watched turned to pieces of snow
Riding a gradient invisible
From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.
There came a moment that you couldn’t tell.
And then they clearly flew instead of fell.
from Sentences, University of Chicago Press,1980.
As if the stone
from the head
of my room,
I’ve ever loved
And each time
Picking the Kitten
You had to hold it awhile in your hand.
It was important to look into the box
of blind fur and notice who needed you.
Not the one who chased its tail,
not the one who slept in a corner
with an air of indifference. There were
colors and markings to consider.
Which would you want to find
on your pillow? The one I took home
was warm as fever. I held her purr
in my pocket, her roughness on my
bedroom rug. I pour out this memory
the way I poured out her evening cream.
The June breeze will tell you:
the middle of things is where the juices are;
where the years bulge best with desire
though nothing worth desire can be defined—
I have known this so long and wanted to tell you.
You are the servant of something about to happen.
You were never meant to be young—a dreadful mistake
on the verge of correction.
I am only your carpet, your coat, a soft pillow,
a good place to file—those things you miss only
in their absence, like teeth, like water.
When your heart has that afternoon hurt,
breathe deeply the comfort from those you have harmed.
We have all failed in all things that matter
and excuse ourselves even better than gods.
Think of clean nights under the stars,
the way light startles the water,
other beds and hair dark on the pillow,
of what I am like with another
his hand massaging my heart,
how dangerous I am loving you better
and rocks rinsed by waves
on shores where cranes wade at dawn.
Sometimes I feel I’m on an island
in the lake of lost connections,
where insects buzz and hum
their electric song,
and the metronomical blink
of the cursor’s eye is a beacon
to the shore beyond. I keep
starting and restarting letters
to people I once knew, but I feel
brittle and strange, and can’t find
the right words, or at least
the ones I need. Autumn tightens
its crisp band of air like a tourniquet,
and the man-size sunflower across
the alleyway from my back door
dries on its stalk and becomes
a ghost. The cats sleep closer
now that it is cool, their bodies
heavy and round, the oddity
of their cat thoughts self-contained.
In the morning on the bus
I see the same woman every day
outside the Shell station, wheeling
her grocery cart that holds only
a green street sign reading “Emily Way”;
and the man who clasps a plum-
colored Igloo lunch cooler
with such formality, chest level,
using both hands palms up, as if
offering up his own heart. I wear
my anonymity like a scar and consider
it an excuse for voyeurism.
On the way home, behind the coffee
shop, I pass the skeletons of a sparrow,
licked clean over the course of a week
by clusters of black ants, whose
nervous, rippling activity reminded
me of television static. Now
the bare, delicate architecture
of the bird is almost fetal—tiny
skull compact as a cowry shell,
the empty curl of the ribcage,
the vertebrae of the spine linked
together with the intricate precision
of an expensive bracelet.
All evening long I keep checking
on the praying mantis
who came to perch on the lid
of the trash can. I am lost
between one thing and another,
and can’t remember which. Absinthe
green, with its backwards-pointing
knees rising in stiff peaks,
it swivels around its triangular wedge
of a head to gaze at me
with black pinpoints of eyes
each time I step out my back door
onto the stoop, and it seems as if
she is saying to me, Have you ever
eaten a pomegranate? I buy one
from the Big Bear grocery
on the corner, and the seeds
are brilliant, clear as rubies nested
in the fleshy concave hollows
of pulp. And as I pluck them out
one by one to eat, each one
leaves behind an emptiness, each
one making me more a thief.
Lee Ann Roripaugh
from Year of the Snake, Southern Illinois University Press, 2004.
Not Fire, Not Ice
She steps from her dress and the room
begins with her. How we’ve traveled
to this, all touches roadways. When we
say each other’s name we whisper,
and when we say each other’s name
outside it begins to rain, thunderless.
Who doesn’t adore and long for timpanic
clarity? Clap of demarcation, boom
to mark a storm’s debut, peal and crack
announcing one thing’s start and another’s
end, but we’re different storms—we’ll kiss
until we’re without lines. Outside a mist
graces down from nearby hills +
clouds drop like loosened shrouds:
there’s no telling where the rain begins
or ends, how far. The questions we’ll
eventually ask ourselves will start with how
but will have no answers. She steps
from her dress and the room begins
and ends with her, and perhaps all hearts
are imperfectly cast spells, perhaps desire’s
a map with directions but no town names.
These are numberless pages we flip, these
kisses and whispered names we busy
our lips with, but the story we touch
is the only real story while outside rain
seethes, comes pouring in spurts and fits
and no one will know till long after it’s passed
exactly how the storm began or ended,
what caused it to so edgelessly come or go
Listen. It’s morning. Soon I’ll see your hand reach
for my watch, the water will agitate in the kettle,
but listen. Traffic. I want your dreams first. And
to slide my leg beneath yours before the day opens.
Wait. We slept late. You’ll be moody, the phone
will ring, someone wanting something. Let me put
my hands in your hair. Who I was last night I would
be again. This is how the future holds me, how depression
wakes with us; my body shelters it. Let me
put my head on your breast. I know nothing lasts.
I would try to hold you back, not out of meanness
but fear. Oh my practical, my worldly-wise. You
know how the body falters, falls in on itself. Tell me
that we will never want from each other what we
cannot have. Lie. It’s morning.
with thanks to april-is
There, next to me in bed, her small hand on mine,
the other one tucked in her blanket, the one I keep
trimming, the one growing smaller, I think she
looks diminished, all watery and loose, but I am
disheveled, not a proper mother, my hair frazzled
like some painter stroked red where my head
should be; we’re a pair, bedded by flu, but since
she’s only four, she doesn’t understand, knows
only the TV is on, and we’re coughing together,
and no one’s going anywhere. One of her hands
is larger than the other one; there’s a name for that
sort of limb discrepancy, but who cares? Right now,
she couldn’t pronounce it even if I could recall it,
but she unwinds her fingers from the blanket holes
they slept in and puts that hand on my face. Too big
for her age, this hand cups the bone beside my eye.
"You’re hot again, mama," she says, but her eyes
are pleased. “What am I gonna do with you?” She
taps my brow. Everything is an arrow from the bow
of this moment. I take her two hands and kiss them.
I haven’t been this gloriously sick in many years.
Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust. The men were silent and they did not move often. And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men — to feel whether this time the men would break. The women studied the men’s faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained.
from The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
75th anniversary of its publication is today