What We Did While We Made More Guns [1 ed.] 9780822983286, 9780822965237

The poems in What We Did While We Made More Guns investigate the place where economic failure meets a widening accultura

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What We Did While We Made More Guns

Pitt Poetry Series Ed Ochester, Editor

What We Did While We Made More Guns

Dorothy Barresi

University of Pittsburgh Press

Published by the University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, Pa., 15260 Copyright © 2018, Dorothy Barresi All rights reserved Manufactured in the United States of America Printed on acid-free paper 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1 ISBN 13: 978-0-8229-6523-7 ISBN 10: 0-8229-6523-2 Cover art: Michel de Broin, War of Freedom, bronze, decommissioned guns, composite materials, 24 × 32 × 24 inches, 2014. Cover design: Melissa Dias-Mandoly

for Dante, Andrew, and Caitlin & for Dorothy Disse


What Those Who Qualify Receive Property  3 Elegy for a First Husband, Cause of Death Unknown   4 What Those Who Qualify Receive   8 Penny Impromptu  9 National Public Radio   12 L.A.P.D.  13 What We Did While We Made More Guns   15 Word as Early Diagnosis   17 Girl  18 Fixx/Plot  21 The Inside World   22 Cleaning Padihershef, Who Worked in the Necropolis of Thebes   26

Skinned Aces Post-Soviet Garden, Kaliningrad   29 “Income Gap Widens as Jobs Increase”    31 What I Worry about at Night Is Not What I Worry about in the Morning   33 Pension  35 Election Noir  38 Poem for the Moment Before Bad News   39 Poem for My Father   40

Skinned Aces  43 Little Shits  44 Welles after Kane  46 The Old Soul   47 No, No—I’m Happy for You   49

Skin and Bones Skin  53 Bones  62

Pension Cut Tenderness  71 Pleasure  72 Tongue Stud  74 Privacy (Admit One)    77 Parents  79 Easter Rag  80 The New Vice President   81 August Explanation, Presidential Campaign, 2016   82 Pension Cut  84 To One Who Is Forgotten   86 Still  87 Saint Yes & No   88 Are You Here   91 Face  93 Notes  95 Acknowledgments  97


What Those Who Qualify Receive


When I was five or six I walked out on the coldest February morning’s snowcrust and for a creaking half hour: heaven. I did not break the surface, fall through. My name small in my mother’s calling— I lived a while in perfect privacy. Death, it is your own business how our preservation comes under your care from such an early age. If the walk is iced the sun clears it. I need to learn not to ask for help with every little thing. Because you are blind and have no information, I must take the lead.


Elegy for a First Husband, Cause of Death Unknown

A very brief marriage of secrets. Then we were private citizens again; the polite appearance of public cooperation— you drove me home from court along flooded roadways though I cannot place where home was, only that you took me there. It was late April in New England, the air a buzzing timeline, a haloed bioluminescence. But when had it rained? How deep had we gone into the Hall of Records to miss this particular wet shattering of wind and new-minted leaves and branches and mud littered to make every surface you drove by swerving slick? Up-cradled root balls asked some new permission of the sky. A group of grubby kids fished earthworms in knots from racing ditch water as they balanced on an iron grate, shrieking—what were their chances? We receded from them. I did not know you well. We were young. I am surprised


I had a home to go to. In the end I stepped out of your car into standing water and thanked you. My embarrassed decorum. I think I even waved as you drove away. Thirty years later, I am told you are dead. The news arrives from a great distance without sentiment or elaboration, a dry postscript to a civics lesson, more or less. Thirty years without a single word but dead passing between us. We were married once, three quick seasons of record heat and falling and freezing. There was no purity of form. No claim, no permission, no useful decorum, only the downed material of our time together. I don’t have to tell you I was half asleep the whole first half of my life. I stepped out of your car.


A pock-marked moon was beginning to show, a stone fruit, and the seasonable cold un-ripening. I was already wearing my old loneliness again, my mutant couture. Trees dripped, the bright green air begging to be breathed. I did not look where I was going—my one good pair of black shoes ruined. It was a short marriage. Nine months, no children. Lucky. I do not know why you chose me. I do not know the names of the other women you slept with, or how much scotch it took to pin your deeper secrets down. At the end of the day you did not love me—hardly a crime. I’m sorry I said I hated you for a while. You were just a little ahead of me. Rising when I had barely opened my eyes— I was a newborn, crying, almost formless thing.


You dropped me off at some apartment or another, did not wave back. Without ceremony delivered me to the life I live now. Thank you. And down the late blind drive you spun, water flashing, flaring.


What Those Who Qualify Receive

When Jesus dies each year, I like the part about the curtain being “rent.” The mystical storm tearing itself agonizingly, thrillingly open, but parting, too, like curtains at a theater so plot can begin to take. Maybe that’s the point: in the end, when the darkness opens, we get a little peek.


Penny Impromptu

Dallas owns Kennedy, Kennedy owns grassy knoll, motorcade, and Bay of Pigs. Jackie owns her share of Jack. Also Blackjack, her dashing decadent father’s nickname, and, if I remember correctly, the name of the riderless horse leading her husband’s catafalque. Oswald owns book depository, but not book. No one owns book in sum total. When I was a little girl I never stopped reading. I loved it more than anything in the world, more than my muttering parents, my brothers and sister, I loved burrowing into tunnels words lit inside me until every sentence I read seemed also to say, you will always be alone, which in its pleasure, terrified me. Of course Oswald owns I’m just a patsy. And O! when Ruby plugged him on tv, but we all can agree Ruby owns Oswald, while having to share Jack with President & Mrs. K, Nicholson, Nicklaus, O’Lantern, and Sprat. My father owns Do I look like I had a good game? after every round of golf he ever played. My mother owns I’m so ashamed of my stomach. Onassis owns yacht. Yeats owns Horseman, pass by, though he didn’t and never does in anyone’s lifetime. Have you seen the new penny? All rosy charm, with E Pluribus Unum shield more bright collector’s kitsch than currency. Can we all get along, can we owned Rodney King, sweet man. He drowned a little drunk in his backyard pool. Jackie didn’t love Onassis. Hypothetically, then, Onassis owns I’m just a patsy, too, but mumbled in Greek, perhaps,


drinking alone and dribbling cigar-stink down his shirt on the deck of the Christina, far out at sea, which he practically owned. And didn’t his daughter Christina die young of heart wreck? Never quite pretty, desperate for a man who didn’t love her money. Didn’t cheat. And her stepmother the most beautiful woman in the world—I know that must have hurt her. Marlon Brando’s son shot and killed his sister’s lover, but Brando owns I could have been a contender, and, for what it’s worth now, he owns Brando, which used to mean languor’s sexual power. Meadowlark Lemon owns neither meadowlark nor lemon but it calms me to say his name, two white-tipped wings in a meadow scented by lemons. Manson owns Tate. Polanski and a lot of Catholic priests own child rape. That’s a cheap shot; I own it. And Memphis owns Martin Luther King, but Martin Luther King owns mountain top, which he climbs never-endingly with Moses in their workout room in heaven. The moral arc of the Universe is long, but it bends toward justice. When I say that I feel heavy iron furniture move inside me. Michael Jackson was light on his feet. Owns botched nose job. And moonwalk (along with Neil Armstrong), and that skin condition he had that owns and subtracts race, and Propofol— a word no one but surgeons and highly trained


obliterators of pain should know. “What do you want me to do, cut the fat out of you?” my mom said once when I was ten or eleven, sobbing away, plump in my little bed. I wish I didn’t own that. I would have preferred a noninvasive procedure, wave a magic wand, perhaps, but we get what we get, and the jukebox brain keeps spinning our greatest hits forever. Lincoln, for instance. There is a debate in my mind about whether jolie-laide Lincoln (as portrayed in the 1909 penny profile by artist Victor David Brenner), immortally wounded Lincoln, noble Lincoln, deserves to fully own Emancipation Proclamation since it came so late in his going and involved more pragmatism than crusade, more meaning than freedom. He unequivocally owns, however, the doomed adorable penny, old and new, and certainly log cabin, Gettysburg, four score, and Willy, a child-sized proper noun owning vast, unendurable grief. “Woman,” the President is said to have warned his despairing wife, “master yourself,” and he pointed out the window to a state asylum. Surprisingly plain Mary Todd Lincoln, committed shopper, owns clothes horse. She long outlived her husband whose funeral parade provided Jackie a template.


National Public Radio Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? —Matthew 10:29

After the torture segment— a certain method, all politics aside, produces the most actionable intelligence true or false— bird biology. .

What might we learn about ourselves from the birds of the air? Pulling a little Jesus out of the hat! Or Saint Francis? One of those beards. In drought, bird fights bird for every scorched seed ginned from the hull. The rites of scarcity are held most sacred in scarcity, science shows, and, BTW, birds aren’t sky jewelry. More: SS officers in the evolutionary doll-eyed army of slicked backs and hard beaks. Science shows. But in times of extremity? True extremity? Juba, Aleppo, Fukushima, Flint— forget Aristophanes. Hitchcock got it almost right. One love bird eats the other love bird, then eats the little girl. 12


We are waylaid and slaughtered for our beauty. We rattle palm fronds, siren the sick limb in any airless night cut it off. We kick high. Correct clocks and the poor on the stoop in their Nike shower shoes cursing intractabilities: a still boy (who muttering to himself all morning paced the center divide, palsied, rope-burned by exhaust) cooperates fully at our feet. We are the fuck that matters. We protect sightlines. We serve sightlines: here lies. We jack conviction (smile). Consent Decree: all inconsolable people look the same— wrung hair eaten face tears. Consent Decree: all inconsolable people sound the same— like supernatural whale cries off the shiftless Pacific plying April’s migration routes north. Why do they home here? Instinct, why if not to save themselves and blue the air and the hour of kicked-down doors and the body camera turns us on if only it showed our faces we are that beautiful. We afterward Los Angeles. We marry a jury of our peers. Your Honor, 13

even when he walked backwards then kneeled as instructed with his hands on the back of his head as instructed and lying prone as instructed kept his hands on the back of his head as instructed face eating the burning tar I was afraid as instructed for my life. No one is perfect here. We jack the need that fucks us up. We bruise wrists. We kick drink one wife one husband at a time. We are transparent our faces no longer appear in the mirrors that shave us or put on our makeup. Call us carefully. Red sirens skin night’s feedback loop; a service revolver is only as good as its lawyer. In San Pedro Crenshaw Montecito Heights El Sereno the Valley of the Shadow of the Deathward Mall and the All Night Plasma Drop-In Centers we trouble slaughter. We carry your eviction. We are on your hands, let it be on your head our beauty when we come riding toeing the line.


What We Did While We Made More Guns

Prayed. Dug mass graves. Raped the daughters of the enemy, who, in their terror, turned back into swans. Placed war orphans in loving homes. Pinned honorifics to field-dressed shadows, recruited hommes noirs to fill empty jail cells and swans with their coruscating metallic cries to lend comic grace to memorial fountains. The exchange of gifts, the games, the tilts, the jousts the masques, proceeded without irony. The year’s cotillion was elegantly attended by debutantes in a glowing orange and red silk tent before an amputated audience of officers, some crying, some propped on tiny keepsake pillows. We prayed. Prayed for peace through victory. Sang the old hymns— It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, oh Lord. . . . Planted winter wheat. Let it rot, the alcohol smell sweet and scouring. Planted corn. Ate the mice that overran the field instead, blood and small hides


in our cupped hands, and purpose, our hair dripping as though we had just stepped from a bath with our beloved. The dead we have with us always. Livestock were fed broken chocolate bars to fatten provisions quickly. Guts ruined, they bellowed all night but we were sleeping only two or three hours now, there was so much to do— tunnels to torch, missile silos to polish with our hair. Cops and students of political science orated like gods in parking lots decorated with thousands of yellow ribbons, red searchlights scalded the possible flight paths of our urgency, everyone useful, finally, everyone making corrections to sacrifice, beauty to conviction. Paying prisoners of war one bucket of water for the truth. Two if it wasn’t any good.


Word as Early Diagnosis

Gouged eye and broken socket word. Crusted rope of dog shit in the yard word, choking bone, a thing to never say, never think, my good father says when I hear it for the first time at four or five or it hears me trying to unthink a never-thing lodged inside a deeper me, close-coiled now, obsessive whisper from the oily nest where my prayers also live. And if I am nervous, which is often, and when I feel ashamed, it rises swaying to my fast mind. I am small for my age. I am always crying or running out into the street. Both hands covering my mouth.



The first thirteen-year-old girl drafted straight from neuroses to tiger cage huddles knees tucked to chest against Mekong rats and the floating terror, the skin-skein of her fingers a peeling white effulgence, her cowardice profound, almost quixotic. She gives up everything, doctrine, dates, location of senior officers, brave GI’s whose lives depend from hooks, now, because of her. Above all, she gives up her future stake in pain (bamboo shoved under burning quick as depicted by Time), praying, Please God, do not let them run out of older brothers to send, crossing herself then, ashamed under safe Ohio bedcovers as a midnight siren beats down Copley Blvd staving her heart to colder mettle. If Jane Fonda in sexy confident communist p.j.’s scares her, so be it. If Beth Mancino, feral Kali of her sixth grade class—creator, destroyer, revealer of truths about sex and beauty—scares her, so be it. If her own distant and thus tantalizing mother’s married sadness scares her most of all, so be it, so be it.


She indemnifies herself. Becomes gladly a girl of nothing, guileless as sleep.

* The biblical Book of Esther tells the story of the clever fifth-century orphan girl who hides her Jewish identity, joins a harem, beautifies herself (six months of myrrh, six of sweet odors and balms), causing Xerxes, who held all Jews captive, to fall hard for secret Esther and crown her Queen of Persia. At this point Esther’s lie is just a plot device. Opportunity costs in foregone honor and loyalty keep secret Esther lavishly alive. But when credible evidence high on the threat spectrum is made known to her, she must tell her human truth to save her people, which she does—a bloody triumph requiring the cooperation of the gentiles, the surprising forbearance and magnanimity of her formerly deceived (still besotted?) king, and the slaughter of 75,000 soldiers, who are Esther’s subjects, if not her people. “If I perish, I perish,” she famously says. In the end, she must have felt loved, felt truly assimilated into God’s great grace to score the win as she did. For the record, the word “God” appears nowhere in the Book of Esther, making it unique.

* Kali is the consort of Lord Shiva, on whose body she stands. Her foot on his back quells, in some small measure, her anger.

* At the Down-Turn Shopping Mall the compensatory systems for social defeat


establish an Armed Forces Recruiting Center right next door to the cut-rate fashion house Forever 21. A girl enlists easily here. No one running his dirty hopes all over her. No joking Maybe you’re a dyke after all? Smiling then in souvenir photos for the world’s refreshment, gendering immutable terror and destruction, her pregnancy just visible under baggy fatigues, she walks a sobbing Sunni naked at the end of a leash.



If I say I grew up a few minutes outside of Bath, Ohio, where my brother Chuck once told me he knew—glancingly, in long-ago grade school— the first boy Jeffrey Dahmer ever murdered, grown into a handsome teenager jogging past Dahmer’s fine clapboard family home at the same time each afternoon because he had put himself on a regimen à la Jim Fixx, who had not yet run himself into a famously healthy death in his forties, product of a hidden condition, while the boy killer watched, took note of the handsome teen’s habits, clocked him, planned when he might best be taken then took him, the final matter of murder unflowering in that Bath attic, you will understand, perhaps, why I am careful never to walk my dog at precisely the same time each day as we submit ourselves to the shining cul-de-sacs and winsomely arranged arteries of this subdivision where I have lived for twelve years of late afternoons, dawns, etc., with my husband and two sons, who chuckle fondly at my elaborate random design for foiling the next patient god’s work schedule because they believe in sunny probability while I am stuck with plot no matter how often I read that walking each day protects the heart’s future or discover my first victim was actually a hitchhiker no one I love now admits remembering, not even my brother.


The Inside World for Evelyn McClave

Future times face us. The times following them are further in the future, but all future times follow the present. This is why the weeks to follow will be the same as the weeks ahead.

Is the economy sound again? You bet. More cops on the beat, more granite counter tops. “I order Amazon Prime directly from inside my head.” Interest rates falling through the roof— historically low. China makes the best drones, bar none. Sandra Bland, 28 years old, is ordered face down in the dirt forever because she is found dead in her cell. So budget potholes in upright municipalities are filled by routine traffic stops.

In the year of our Lord, 1961, Michael Rockefeller, 23-year-old scion of Nelson son of Standard Oil, disappears forever and ever in the Dutch colony of New Guinea where he had gone to buy sacred Asmat death totems— bisj—and shields and canoes to hang on his remote father’s exquisite taste in the Museum of Primitive Art, Fifth Ave., NYC, first art museum in recorded history to put penis sheathes on white display columns under glass. One theory: drowned in the complex shallows of southwestern New Guinea. Another theory: speared, opened anus to brain stem, beheaded, bled, dismembered, cooked, eaten as meat plain and as meat mixed with sago, then ash from the cooking fire mixed with blood, a final delicacy, and hair scraped from the skull to be worn inside small leather pouches around tribal elders’ necks.


One theory endorsed by the Rockefeller family, the other by the progeny of the Asmat tribesmen of Otsjanep village who conducted business with the missing man.

There is no tick-tock on the dead. No algorithm for predicting how long they might force themselves to stay interested in anything we say or do on earth. In truth, there is very little chemistry left between us. We support them 100 percent in the ground. They issue gag orders through the dirt in their mouths; we endorse life insurance checks. The dead, like housing starts and the GDP, are on the bubble. First one rises, then the other.

By 1961 Dutch officials were eager to rid themselves of New Guinea. It was the final ungovernable colony on which they had built a bloody, 300-year shipping empire beginning with spices and ending with a fluid combination of appeasement, repulsion, and deception employed to move inventory—a colonial fire sale, if you will. To that end, they had long denied the widespread, ongoing practice of headhunting. In diary entries Michael Rockefeller, dutiful son, insisted on one point of pride: he was buying only sacred items made for use, not for sale. 23

Joseph Kennedy is said to be the first American Roman Catholic powerful enough to buy a presidential election. Rose Kennedy, mother of his nine children, attended Mass daily and is said to have prayed during intercourse. “Cannibalism” is not the Asmat word for the sacred reciprocal violence that feeds every part of the eater reaching all the way back to his aggrieved dead ancestors and forward to the future gods they serve to breed new boy warriors. After his narrow win, JFK’s advisors immediately advocated a policy of self-determination, that is, giving New Guinea to Indonesia to appease the Communists and keep Sukarno away from the Eastern Bloc.

Because it is often said that prior to 1961 the Asmat of Otsjanep were “untouched by the outside world,” we might also posit that they were touched by the inside world the moment Michael Rockefeller landed with his steel ax heads and iron nails to barter for sacred goods. A theory is floated. Money is tendered. People give us food for thought. Bombs make us tick. (“A very pleasant way to die,” Gen. Leslie Groves testified to a full Senate hearing on the schedule-clearing nuclear liberation of Japan in 1946.) A man’s head is a seed to be eaten. Once it is roasted, it is sometimes put on the dead man’s penis.


But remember this: No matter how authentic, how sacred the ritual of Michael Rockefeller’s theoretical death, it was real eating, anthropologists say. The Asmat were hungry. They had no agriculture, no large mammals raised for food to sustain them. No subcutaneous reserves, they wore a lean and hungry look. They were defenseless in that one respect: if a white man could fly to New Guinea, he was certainly good to eat. And meat is meat.


Cleaning Padihershef, Who Worked in the Necropolis of Thebes Salt-drift at the sewn lips. Twenty centuries’ worth. How close is death? The conservator dabs her own saliva onto a cotton swab to clean it. Not enough burn to open the mummy’s stitches; nonetheless, preservation, the appearance of ancient steadfastness— one more activity for the living while the past changes nature. The pond-edge of each iced, forlorn eye opened. After a fashion.


Skinned Aces

Post-Soviet Garden, Kaliningrad June 2017

Cucumbers for pickling, two rows. Tool shed, eight planks missing and a roof-skin of lavender and gray lichen. Inchling potatoes, turnips, eggplant. Five cabbage, each tight, bright head served on a platter of larger, darker leaves. Here and there, a beet shouldering up: gruff, unpaired thing. Three rooks, very loud. This is always the way with rooks. One life is never enough; still, work drags. Onions. One stinging row. Dead telephone vines looped through an iron fence’s broken design. One clay saucer emitting a froth of mosquitoes from an inch of stinking rainwater; in attendance, a work glove bent stiff to the lip. No Party reps, mystics—mad or otherwise—no secret lovers of Stalin or counterrevolutionaries from the dung collective spreading the common good. No Decembrists, capitalists, Bolsheviks, fifth column. No descendent of the glorious space dog, Laika. You’d think she was the only space dog, Laika, who died within hours of her launch, a one-way mission. There was Belka and Strelka, Pchyolk, Mushka, Chernushka, Zvyozdochka, Veterok, Ugolyok—strays trained to lie down in smaller and smaller cages sometimes for twenty days at a time on earth.


One wheelbarrow, banked. One amber cat conducting surveillance from the weeds, only its ticking tail objectively alive. Three old sovok rose bushes— red, of course. One black hose. Two axe handles, unpolished, set waiting against the shed. Two mole holes for gassing. One anthill, tiny extinct volcano.


“Income Gap Widens as Jobs Increase” Los Angeles Times, August 12, 2014

Dark sky advocates, calibrating each night’s spectral density, find current levels wanting. I am stirred/shaken by the news. My bafflement quells porch lights: I couldn’t generate enough light to make a Chia Pet grow. And so we do our part, each in our own way, extracting mutual funds of light (panic) from existing accounts (hope). Oh, green stain (Ireland) my forebears pub-crawled from, my newest pair of stacked heels (China) smell like amplified goat droppings but only the moment I get them home, hack the indelible price tag off. My new vodka, Absolut Powerlessness. Thomas Edison, afraid of the dark century that spake in tongues and burning, slept by candlelight when he was young. Later, invented our flood-lit graveyard shifts, the up-blooded black bellows of American exhaustion. Some night I want to sneak up to my computer and ask the dark screen, Who’s the tough guy now? but it’s always on. Insect glow, hum in the cranial hive. Crystal skulls? Licked into shape by the omnipotent industry of God’s great, abrading cow tongue. If I had a crystal skull I’d pawn it. 31

Often, shopping the sales at South Coast Plaza, I come home sadder by one jacket. A little what’s the matter. A little I don’t know. “Pawnbrokering is about the movement of cash, starring people known as the unbanked, for whom banks are not an option.” But do I have the spawning-run right—Sumer to Egypt to Greece to Etruria to Rome to Great Britain to America to Bill Gates to China to busy busy India to some haunted, vast, yet-unborn, bright mountain island nation complete with corn maiden and coal silo Scientologists already own? What am I missing? If I live long enough, everything I want will be discounted.


What I Worry about at Night Is Not What I Worry about in the Morning Something of the dark loves money overspent and unpaid, a quaint redundancy’s due bill: shoots sucker to night’s loam bursting it cell by cell. I wake crawling the length of my bed or I have never, actually, slept. A neat expensive garment “carries an exemption from personal contact with industrial processes of any kind,” which means I’ll pay, but how? A question cut on the bias— even the King of Pop is making a decent living again, despite dying. I returned the rose-gold bracelet yesterday, but not the navy jacket. The possum, the crickets, the rats’ drunk and duly appointed Dean of Exchequer rattle the trained shrubs outside my window setting off a moral racket, plus bird cries. What species? The kind that slide deadbolts into trees. Impulse control v. material humanism. Take Emperor Tiberious, who wore a crown of bay leaves to ward off lightning. His heart stopped its obsessive beating at the age of 77 and the crowds outside cheered, falling silent when he momentarily revived only to be smothered (cue joy) by Caligula, his nephew, who blew through the Empire’s surplus, big time. Parts of this story are certainly untrue, but which ones?


There is a green tree in my yard I think I’d like to kill and pull. There are sleeping pills. There is a decorative fountain of ecstatic remorse rigged to the filling and emptying of watered-down resolutions. Trusts, deeds, dresses, gall, gin! Lewd frogs on bullhorns, disproportionately tiny royalty checks, so many pretty things to buy and the soul’s future earnings impossible to calculate, though MJ’s mother’s lawyers keep trying. If I’m lucky and make it to 77 (neither of my careful parents did), it’s likely I’ll outlive my savings and be quite sorry, a guy in the New York Times predicts. Ontologically speaking, I shouldn’t be okay with that. I light a scented candle to keep me company— Salted Caramel from Henri Bendel, my favorite.



Death’s first cousin, once removed. Lucky bullet I keep in the pocket closest to my heart until Republicans throw a Bible at it, I suppose. I wish they’d just bite it. “Give a man a free hand and he’ll put it all over you,” Mae West said, pulling down as much—more— than William Randolph Hearst in 1935. Granddaughter Patty H. was liberated from her locked closet to pull bombs and plant bank jobs thirty-five years later, not another heiress in a vicious wig digging Che, but one more member of the profanum vulgis clocking in, commuted, then out—all the way to Westchester County’s radical charity wing. Pension, will you die for me? I have no prole bodyguard to marry! No proof I’d recognize you in your state-sanctioned negligee. Ghost of a rumor, blind albino inchworm eating dirt and paper statements for thirty years locked in the vault of my last name, 35

nourishing the same old shit that passes for reform, the State can’t keep its hands off me! “Divide years of service by a factor we now call ‘unsustainable outlay.’” I wish I knew my worth. Could calculate each paycheck’s cost going forward, as we like to say. Mae West banked on her well documented bust—that bomb, Sextette—in her late eighties, so disoriented she could only be shot from the waist up while an assistant crawled under her dress to steer her like a staggered effigy toward a mark she could no longer see. Pension, my hands shake minutely. My comfort shoes are lined with memory foam made from mummy powder—not really, but my son goes to a college where expensive professors teach by wafting through a classroom once a week. Forget the inchworm crack:


I was showing off, delirious from steering last night’s late remedial Great Books class. Pension, if you’re still listening (clearly I’m bugged; I’ve heard your transubstantiated clicks at the end of my line), I’m your biggest fan. I’ll go to Comic Con and scream your superheroic name raw for hours if that pleases you. I’ll join your doomsday cult, take minutes at every meeting. Pay, pay, pay my dues. Whatever future loyalty disburses your mild fractions upon my release, I accept. If I can just keep working, you will save me.


Election Noir “You know what they used to do to guys like that in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher.” —Las Vegas, 2016

Tight taut teeth and lips a little wet, a little hunch at the shoulders’ spite and seam. Wet lips, jaw-rubbed, that’s swell— tight tense talk & leering merit of American man quick at the eye, a small mouthed man, mean to mean on, cracked & pricked, sure, sure, if that’s how you want it, twitch-lipped, attention please! A short shocked man is getting stiffed on a dead plot packing heat, a bare-fisted havoc man coughing mid-century blood— more cemetery press than kiss, more war more guns more prick to take it neat. Wet lips, nervous tick, cold-clocked, cold cock, gut shot, a tightfisted faithless twitch of a white heat man with a hit a hook a jab—no hunch. Pour him a stiff one, hand him his hat. Where’s this train heading? Seething and grief, brother. Madness, seething and grief. 38

Poem for the Moment Before Bad News

Where are you now, little bandit, my hiding place, safety pin catch, my virgin dial tone, Moses casket I floated into the world in—basket, I mean! O, island swimming away from me the more exhausted I backstroke. I’m a dead man, my dad mouthed as he listened politely to the news of his liver’s involvement. Then he handed me the phone and the cradle, my hair wet from the shower I’d just taken. I was cold. I said hello.


Poem for My Father

All his life a god of thirty-weight oil praying to the gears and pulleys that help us help ourselves between the sun’s scathing supervisory role and the moon’s wan write-up, eyebrow raised. So you think you’ve done enough work today? Deadpan: Really?

* The debt of work we are born with. The unpaid-in-full, amen. The every house is a workhouse, the persistent receivership, the world, oiled, opens thus: the mop the pen the plunger the ruler the rake the book the furnace the test the screw the wire the nothing to do but work each day to wear work out, and failing that, 40

to wear it as thin as the bed sheet your grandmother ironed on the kitchen table before she climbed up and gave birth to your own father of perfection who delivered mail ever exhaustingly forty-five years until the cartoon moths in his Depression wallet closed their smudged small accounts and away. And wasn’t your very first job to dust the terrible porcelain collection of adorable Aryan children in lederhosen your mother inherited from her mother, no, that was me, my first job! I hate to think of what we break and how life makes us pay. Haven’t we earned one moment’s contentment? Aren’t you free, now that you are fifteen years dead, to sit dreaming in the lamb leather La-Z-Boy at Heaven’s high


rose window overlooking Purgatory’s trashy side lot of burning weeds, torn condoms, 2-for-1 Golden Corral coupons— Goddamn it. Who died and made me responsible for this eyesore?


Skinned Aces after Ricky Jay

the pigeon the patsy the coney the gull the jay the sap the bates the flat the sucker the dupe the dope the shill the mark the lost the skinned the bidden the violence of sounding the sequence the dream the binding span the wink into being the sequence the sounding the sugar on fire the skinned the mark the bills the job the job of bills the bank the cut the trip the wink the deal the cut the sharps the swells the bank the bank the bank the bank the bank laughing all the way to the bank


Little Shits In a dream you are never eighty, though you may risk death by other means —William Matthews

Sometimes fresh, an unfinished dissertation on stink. Sometimes crumbling white excremental ash that is feathery, clean-seeming, and fragile as everything alive. Three petite piles delivered to the backyard by my border terrier each day and falling to my recovery, so to speak, rote work for a bad shovel beating its gong of infirmity in my future lower back: e.g., we have art so that we might not perish from the truth. Often segmented in threes: turd ellipses, turd SOS. Triplet archipelagos in descending orders of shit magnitude; the smallest thing we need to imagine—pleasure, let’s say, or success— the hardest to spot. Remember that William Matthews’ line, Out out, damn Spot? Something his clever mother used to say. My God, the tender reticence of that poem’s grief. If I live to be 116 like the oldest woman alive who just died in Brooklyn the other day (a gal in Italy, three weeks younger, took her place), I will probably still be seeding dull premises with step-in-me while my worst drafts trend upward. I fling them covertly into the bushes, ho ho, that separate my neighbors from me. My great-grandma Rose used to call us kids little shits 44

in this terrific Italian accent. What a peaceful old lady. Watching like La Gioconda as we bleached her moldy sink or dusted the cockeyed webs. Sometimes—often, actually— my little dog will squat down to new business at the very moment of my most ardent de-shitting because of my most ardent de-shitting, and look back over her shoulder at me to wink. You’re welcome! I know how you like to keep busy.


Welles after Kane

Pure potential: death’s prerequisite. A glass novelty containing a miniature American snowfall falling into lapovers, melds, segues of thought and super-numerary language shot directly into blazing arcs, disappointment’s long dissolve. The film is never commercially released. The film is sometimes, although rarely, commercially released. The film is ever scrapped, scenes re-shot, false noses fashioned from mortuary wax— Welles doing all the voices this time! Variety reports “Instead of not making two pics for RKO, he’ll not make five.” There’s little gravy in it, the artist admits, but the movie in his head is perfect.


The Old Soul

A radiant calm woman on television claims a new soul—a walk-in— inhabited her during a routine facelift. A new soul, and life so much better. Gone the old grievances and justifications, the rank grottoes desolation made, pitted fascia, sagging glums, and the indigenous tenant with her weird cooking smells and rent control sent packing in one moment’s numb, barely attended ceremony. Also the lifelong rage to do the right thing, her wish to please others though she knew she could not. Now sitting at the circulation desk of this sleek, amply funded library of wisdom and self-regard? A pretty hippie. A cunning vibration. A conspiracy of silver berry spoons filling and filling her, and though I admit she looks damned good for a woman her age, I can’t help shuddering. Once or twice, after drinking or hard sobbing, I’ve seen them waiting in the wings of trees like infested bridal gowns, a shucked, quivering, blank-eyed mob, tender swarm of hopes that tear and bind us so easily, 47

and knowing them for what they are, I have crossed my arms against my chest—flesh, fat, gristle, bone— as though I were a locked ward. As though I controlled anything.


No, No—I’m Happy for You

Nose jobs are quaint. Poseidon has blue eyebrows. Good shoppers shop in their closets— I want to shop in other people’s closets. Halos cost one pitchfork apiece. Are you one of those people who’s pretty in mirrors but ugly in pictures? Diamond dream-bra: coal pushed too far. 150 carats of heavy uplift, open your chest please to the Neiman Marcus Firmament Collection. Spot the offal in the offing when cows eat grass, grass eats sun, and we eat almost everything, stop me. My want-safe needs cracking. When the bubble burst I lost my bubble-wealth, matter and forfeiture, substance, accident, unicorns purifying water with their luminous horns, all of the all. Moats I get: you can always say—what, that? It’s a reflecting pool! My sleep isn’t productive but my cough is. According to the Egg Division of the California Ag. Ass., my heart may eat two omega-enriched shell eggs per week. I don’t want to bust anyone’s chops, but there were rats breeding all over the shell facility I support, alpha and omega.


People should care more about my problems— I practice not saying that. But will my soul, tasered awake when I die, flicker daredevil and bat-like on dusk’s soft current of mosquitoes and late news setting forth, and eating as it goes, be satisfied? Three or four times a week I like to cast my bread on the water: Macy’s, down-market Kohls; my cast-offs go to the Rescue Mission where mistakes live. The squeeze and the juice. Debt forgiveness: like trying to lick your own tongue. Who did I let down today? That’s just one of the prayers I say after Now I Lay Me Down to Sheep. Endlessly I stack names in dream’s container ships, then try to drift: Shove off, Mr. Creeper! If the kingdom of God is within me, He’s got to be a little lonely.


Skin and Bones

Skin for Lynne Thompson


To our universal belonging, barrier, barrier to our pouring out.

* Late to work, I take the route that passing brings me to the corner of Canoga & Saticoy, where three hard-bitten blondes on a billboard above the corrugated fire doors of Club XXX-Posed bite their lips, and now, add to this premise the unseen, enterprising youths who climbed midnight to blacken blue eyes with context fuck fuck fuck in fringed and curlicue gang monikers, making the strippers appear frantically awake. Or, at the very least, incapable of rest should they require it. And always at any hour, four or five jacked, malignant-looking pickup trucks insinuating themselves into the dust parking lot


where I have never seen a living soul come or go, though I make my judgments, don’t I. My tribal dismissals, aspersions, my casting-out.



I have problem skin, we say. Beauty noncompliance. Truculence. No surface conformity of, no virtuosity of smooth planes uniformly pleasing to the light. No single answer. No two shadows rowing in the same direction at once. My father drew the family crest this way: two tubes of ointment crossed against a rampant red field. Or we say it this way, with an air of ownership, I have a skin condition. Papules, pustules, nodules, warts, cankers, cancers, welts, scales that flake, the provenance of Dark Age-related words then Renaissance— roseola and rosacea (Subtype One: flushing, redness; Subtype Three: bumpy, thick skin on nose, see J. P. Morgan, Old Strawberry Nose, who liked to say “I owe the public nothing!”). Affected areas may be red, itchy, dry, greasy, or oily. There may be a loss of pigment. In these cases, what the skin lacks exhibits itself in positive focal patterns which sometimes look leopard-like. 55

Lipid failure. Seborrheic fatigue. Rash as carrier of red voices. Self-dividing (thus multiplying) squamous cells. Shingles, dish-shaped. Sunburn across nose and both cheeks. Blisters, diaper rash, erysipelas, bedsores, cutis laxa, impetigo. Teenage skin a squall of jinxes, middle-aged skin a squall of hoaxes. Lupus, hives, herpes, sebaceous bumps, keratosis: mysterious of cure, flagrant in presentation— I was so embarrassed I always looked down as a kid, covered my chin with my hand to ape a reflective nature when really I was just covering my acne and even now I can’t look at my whole face in the mirror but quadrants when something or another flares in isolation, my nose, my cheeks. My first dermatologist, a handsome Italian gentleman, used to tell my brother and me filthy jokes as he burned us to heal us. Skin being common. Quite common, it seems.



Or individually held in common? Body camera says, Sit the fuck down. Put that cigarette out. Condition in extremis.



Skinned, taken to the cleaners Skin milk, a Hollywood complexion Skinheads, a close shave with ignorance, second cousin to the ingrown hair and the zealot’s hair shirt Skin and bones, barely sticking life out Skinny, thinner, thinner Skin deep, the box disappointment comes in Skin deep, a deficiency of irony in the diet. Vanity defense Showing skin, a 24/7 Fuck-you Affidavit. “At St. Sebastian’s, we rolled our plaid uniform skirts up high enough to drive Monsignor mad.” Skin the cat, equal parts doom and resourcefulness; there is more than one way to be dead wrong, i.e., the most thin-skinned conservative is not transparent, will take liberties when moral resources are stretched thin. The skinny, the straight dope Skinned, Medicaid Thick-skinned, taking it. See: poached elephant



Sometimes, when I lift up the smallest possible corner of my conscience (a cold, dense, flesh-colored flap more lung tissue than scented drawer liner) to see what squirms in the soil underneath so that I might better ascertain my goodness, it is as though I am looking into the humming shaftway of a propeller trying to fix one blurred-into-sliding moment’s distinction between a knife blade and an opening into the earth, a vanishing halt, my stay. If only the turning force didn’t draw everything down with it—my hair, my fingers— toward the unlit wound the municipal sinkhole releasing its first whiff of rotten eggs and human waste. Soon it is everything I can do to drag a manhole cover over it,


not titanium but clanging American iron in the shape of a woman 5’4”, 125 pounds because it has to be airtight in there again, dead as the Sea of Tranquility.



Under color of authority, someone yells, “Goddamn it, don’t you dare look at me like that.” To which we respond, incredulous, “Like what?”



Click when it rains? Yes. Deep down hum of pain impossible to ignore and the perfect time to spiritualize the material: count your bones one by one by their Latin names. “And pouring through the narrow straits, the sea divides the lands & shores of Italy.”

* Facts are hard enough to hold a self together. Then again, funny + bone equals a shrill clobbered vibratory feeling like discovering you live inside a cracked cartoon bell while having an anvil dropped on highly fricative knees. I have come to regret certain of my choices. Tell me about it! Floaters in the seam grind like glass beads, gilt and metallic sequins. 62

Cracking your knuckles won’t help. I know it feels like it should.

* Some days my bones are paleo-conservatives full of upright pitiless zeal for life. Other days, sub-sub-zeitgeist, they wear me from the inside out. Picket lines tearing picket fences down.

* One bad break does record seniors in. I read that in the Times.

* Be glad when it rains to feel even this light vertical static of hums qualms ticks in the bone, that conversation through walls you can’t tune out or exactly hear.


Broken, bones gain traction. Alive, that’s what they’re talking about. Chalk the sticks. Rack ‘em up. Bones say, let’s get back to the business of moving the obvious miracle around its closed course, its very short length of track.

* Bone spur to memory: middle-aged bone on bone more diverting than any sexual position, though don’t get me wrong— the old pelvic staircase still tilts to the same human plateau we reached at sixteen. Over and under, you inside you, me inside me,


and all nature has to do is hang its hat on a cyclone fence of calcium, marrow blood, and blunt force long enough to drive our future generations onto sharpened axe handles eventually.

* Bones are tools. Ask Kubrick, though he’s history now. And we get used to scraping by.

* Death opens the plot. Grass covers it. Corset of ribs, our boning unlaced, ligature and tendon. Skin is mostly fashion and fades, but bones, baby, bones!


One stone lantern carries all our human thoughts forward forever. Candlelight spilling from the eyeholes.

* Each vertebrae knobbed to pearl is a bridesmaid in a bone ceremonial walking us to the grave. Who gives this man? This woman? Bones. Bones and the void, Lucretius should have said. But for god’s sake don’t breakdance at the reception. Act your age. Try stretching exercises or yoga instead; balance a little dignity over that badly stacked leather-bound library of creaks smells and oblivion’s dust to dust. 66

Knuckling under. “Stay here, dear.” “Alright. For awhile.”

* Remember to bend your knees. Budget more time to get around before you are forgotten. Each chilled gesture is rough-faceted, each bone a pinned foci, a branch of who you once were. There is no purity of form in construction zones. Only diesel fumes as heavy machinery grades a hillside, and one fellow with a shovel unearths the root ball massed around a skeleton tree.


Pension Cut


Sometimes when I catch my little dog up close to me she puts one paw on either side of my neck as though in an embrace and looks into my eyes at the level of my eyes, an equal, or tilts her rough cheek against mine until I swear she sighs— I feel it, the release of some terrible anxiety and the animal calm in return quieting her entire quivering until I wonder if she might be one of my relatives come back death-changed into this new form that knows at last how to love without resentment or caustic self-pity or irony or price, her tenderness a wordless instruction to me on hope’s unremitting power, though she has a tail and is required to shit in the yard.



If I knew what pleasure was do you think I’d be writing a poem about it?

* A few years before her death my mother said, over coffee, when you kids were little, I thought suicide was the only way out. I could have kissed her! All my endless childhood spent imagining how sad she was as she napped distantly on the living room couch, one hand shielding her eyes, or stirred and stirred her pot of stew at the stove, and the constant watch I knew I must keep over her to prove myself wrong. And I think it gave her pleasure, finally, to give me this late, honest, and intimate appraisal of motherhood’s nearly unbearable claims, though I sometimes wonder what she would feel now— pleasure or pain—


to see how tentatively I knock at my son’s locked bedroom door to ask, Can I make you a sandwich? Do you want anything?


Tongue Stud for Dante


Sparks a tear, titanium. Word tack. No marital diamond: industrial boot in the plump brook, every word damning and only a tad infected. Oyster pierced to plush— out of season, too young? Poisoned? Paraclete at the door, no-nacre pearl, leech gatherer tossing shucked angels at the aroused crowd, steel clit for carousing and drooling to look this good-bad, a fuckall ball bearing might pain away pain? I thought I knew you. I thought I had you


pegged, my dear idea of you, my doll. II

Your tongue your tongue your pretty irreversibly staked and martyred— now that the braces are down, does your meteor taste of mettle or guile? Tungsten nettled by first sex? Oh swell. Adolescence is mal carne with secret sauce and a blistered robin’s egg ready to suck us right back through its blue hole: gall, certainty, reckless and future suffering. Son, since they will not spare the rod to spoil us I confess you do not lack for look.


Lantern with one ember, one rock of hash to burn the whole nest down, I thought I was young once, too. I dreamed you passed right through me.


Privacy (Admit One)

You’re the poet laureate of privacy, my husband said. I wasn’t ignoring him, I was reading a book. You blim the blam of privacy, you skin privacy’s fruit. Yeah, my son said. If privacy had a puppy you’d be its trainer. You’d help privacy sniff its own butt. That’s nonsensical, I said. I could tell without looking he was proud of that one. I’m in this family, aren’t I? I’m right here in the living room. But if you died at the corner of First & Homicide, my husband said, you’d come back just to blow away the chalk. Admit it— you’re a pupa; you haven’t eaten your way out of your little silk tent. You haven’t gotten off the blimp. My stepson wanted in. You’re Santa’s Village, he said, where it’s Christmas every day but closed on Christmas. Wait, I said, wasn’t that on The Simpsons? Oh, yeah, he said, I forgot: you’re privacy’s ghost writer, privacy’s fan girl slash divorce lawyer slash saltwater aquarium. Does privacy take one lump or two? Have you checked your municipal holdings lately? Few and falling, I said, serene enough with my civil disobedience, 77

and even, I suppose, with the fidgety loneliness I’ve wrestled like a bear in a cheap roadside attraction all my life, but I couldn’t help wondering what was the seed and what the ground? Why, when I could redeem myself with a simple open act, was I always weighing the hearts of the dead? And why— temporarily exhausted by that exercise— did I guard myself as though I’d discovered black box proof of faulty wiring and a survival sermon whispered on emergency frequencies only I could hear? Ho, ho, ho. I’m not listening, I said, flipping pages, not reading now but imagining how it might be accomplished, a casual, unchecked nature. Not scout, sniff, private dick, comptroller, CEO-embalmer of every unrehearsed word. The hell with it— stop minding my own business! I let that idea take me to the movies. I held its hand in the easeful dark. Double feature. Closed my eyes. Who wants popcorn? my husband said, giving up. If privacy were extinct, my son said, kissing my cheek, you’d be deader than the passenger pigeon and the Carolina parakeet.



Catherine Mewis, born 1802, contracted scarlet fever as a young child and began to lose her eyesight. Eventually it was determined by her parents that she could see but one day a week. Remarkably, it was always the same day, as reported in the 1810 monograph: A Faithful Account of Catherine Mewis, Who Continues to be Deprived of Her Eyesight Six Days Out of Seven and Can Only See on the Sabbath-day. Over her lifetime, thousands of penitents, pilgrims, freebooters, and journalists lined up to witness Catherine’s miracle hoping they, too, might be healed if only conditionally, and to provide love gifts, succor for the household— game bound at the ankles, coins for steak pie and ale. Naturally her doting parents kept her eyes covered with thick black bandages. Every day but Sunday. Because, they said, she grew increasingly sensitive to light.


Easter Rag As they approached the village to which they were going Jesus acted as if he were going farther Luke 24:28

Hey creed feast, Mr. Sheer Transplendency, is that you dropping the coffin suit + joining the rest of us prophets and renouncers here on the surface of things? Man you’re off the hook a bit ripe but your fancy new face is ablaze golden remote like you’ve just learned we’re not worth saving—whew!— or did you get some work done underground?

Hey well hung, Mr. Hard to Get, congrats and o, bright thorn in our side how about coming clean

Did you finally shake

between earth + earth

your grave virginity? 80

The New Vice President for Lynn Randolph

He was there and we were there, the halo and the rigged in a clean room where he crossed his heart and hoped to die. We hoped he’d die, too. We were out of the woods because there were no woods; we had just enough flesh on us to smell it burning. When he died, rumors skewed autoerotic. There were no funeral orations. The narrative of death doesn’t end in death, but that wasn’t why. Hope is the worm that sets the hook, but that wasn’t why. Every passing world rides and: headhunting revived in the provinces and sanitary protocols reversed in labs. Lobotomies for effeminate altar lambs and Feds in the sweat lodge, drumming, chanting Oil of Oils wearing shirtless calumny and feral necklaces—every night for 100 nights our short stock soared as knowledge descended. What was night? Heaven was a hack, ab ovo. What was heaven? What was heaven what was heaven what was heaven what was heaven what was heaven? Picture: abortion saints calming the masses bloody. Picture: (smile!) Muslim real estate. 81

August Explanation, Presidential Campaign, 2016

“Buds in reverse, death rattles, brown camo frills, hot collapse in every striving bed. Frayed pansies like worn out porn chicks auditioning for the shrunken heads of the snapdragons run up a flagging flagpole. Erectile envy? Please. Even my late-stage Princess Diana roses spout weird, fuck-you hairdos or maybe it’s me who has a little problem with authority; I haven’t watered in weeks. Spreading shit, un-kinking the hose, I’m done and done in by the sun’s radioactive choir boy blare. The nuns at my high school were pro-life, too— their lives, not ours. God’s dear, burnt-out, harried, hard-used, sacred housewives eternally returning from hysterectomies and bouts with the bottle to teach us we were hard to kill but easy to scare. In a word, green. Amen. I’m beginning to learn, Sister Rosalia, Sister Christine, what hews more to spite than to heaven. More to drought’s old pleasure in destruction.


And each summer I know it will begin a little earlier, this seething in closed rooms where I don shapeless cardigans (Novelty embroidery? A nice floral pattern with lambs?) against the air conditioner pitching its terminal ice-cold woo: Fox News, Fox News, Fox News.”


Pension Cut

To arrive at it! To settle. How I Got Lucky, nearly forty years out. My geriatric clam bake proffers one corn cob per week, per annum, and who is to say I am not the happy genius of my life raft? In the unlikely actuarial event that I pre-decease my second husband, he can keep right on paddling toward his next wife, younger and prettier than me by far (I’ve pictured her— she’s amazing), but subject to greater market forces. Fewer benefits over a lifetime because horizons vanish


like that nowadays, without ceremony. In the highly advertised distance: a hot mirage invaded by a non-native species. I am lucky. I get it. There are days, however (more and more, if I’m being honest), when I could tear out Next Wife’s throat, and Saint Ronald Reagan’s, too, if I weren’t so damned tired from working and he were still alive, walking on water in his right mind.


To One Who Is Forgotten Suppose someone you have forgotten says, “You don’t remember me, do you?” Since it is hurting to one’s pride to be forgotten, the only kind thing to do is to say, “of course I do.” —Emily Post

Your name, your name, your name is a chalice I could bring to my lips to light a sagging jawline. Instead, something I read once in the Times: hyaluronic acid, a common wrinkle fighter, cures desiccation when the skin of identity must be plumped and true fingerprints taken from John Doe corpses found “unattended in the desert.” There, now I have forgotten you twice. Did I carry you like love, like pocket lint? Did I insert a useful professional jealousy between us, squander the simple offer of friendship by never calling back? The old brain swings its wrecking ball and the neighbor’s meta-poodle keeps hark-hark-harking next door. Unfounded is groundless; foundlings will be swaddled, but not at first; foundries fail every day, all across America—the cooling of fires that once made something important of the past. Who are you? Who were you when you first felt loved, felt like yourself? Did you laugh when I inched away, crumbling to my exit? Whistle— Christ, she’s losing it! We clowns of deep feeling. Undone by a stranger’s face rising from the morning steam to greet us. 86


I still believe I will be 100 percent comfortable with myself someday. Probably when I retire, home free. Like that chipper woman rocking a gray bob in the advertisement for the Medicare supplement program who insists she still has big plans. All my questions in the form of answers. One of those calm know-it-all’s everyone hates, including me.


Saint Yes & No


Her hacking imprecations woke me most school mornings and her three loud wishes followed repeatingly: One, I should remain Catholic. Two, be the death of her. Three, sit on my hands when using a public toilet to keep my thighs from the creeping wages of other peoples’ sins. Twenty years since my mother insisted on dying and breaking my heart. Her Irish luck, which is to say her formidable privacy, complete. No updates, no corrections from the defunct bureau of love and contagion and cigarettes named for songbirds.



I don’t go to Mass much anymore. It messes with my lazy mysticism, my faux hippie Zen. Still, on a blazing afternoon in an unfamiliar city, I have been known, I confess, to duck into the cool dim shadows of Saint Yes & No Catholic Church to make a few trembling prayer requests on behalf of my husband and sons, maybe touch the plaster Virgin’s outstretched palms which bear the mild consolation and maternal rebuke that is her trademark. Her brand! Also she’s standing on top of the world, which I like, somewhere in the vicinity of Helsinki, wearing a pretty blue and gold bathrobe. Young, smiling like she means it. Maybe crushing a fanged serpent with one dainty toe.



Lately when I take my dog out for her last piss of the evening, I feel compelled to formally acknowledge the stars peopling the sky above my yard. All those silent charges reversing back to us on earth, making us feel, even at the end of a bastard day, that it’s been worth it, all our misguided intentions and needs—hello to that pinhole light. Hello to the neighbor’s palm tree shaggy as a mastodon’s leg, and to the infant rats rustling our rhododendron hedge, born one morning knowing everything. Everything they’ll ever need to know.


Are You Here for Peter Oresick

At the moment my friend Peter died on the operating table, he woke inside a cave he knew instantly was the cold place for asking is there a god here? No. Is God here. The cave’s air contained some protected crystalline structure of cold his lungs had never breathed before. An absolute burning clarity of darkness, and Peter’s anger, which, as it grew, withdrew from the cave anything that might comfort a dying man of faith. Did I say dying? Dead, and there are surgeon’s records to prove it. Areyouhere Areyouhere Peter heaped against the wall, holding his skull


against the echo of his own voice where the tumor had grown. Areyouhere Enormities of time’s cold silence. Areyouhere Nothing. Then three things very fast: a man’s name said impassively; an infant at Peter’s feet swaddled in a funeral shroud or a receiving blanket or the translucent wrappings of cicada wings wet for flight; and Peter then back on the surgical table where no one was taking credit for having saved his life. Later, the headache monstrous for months. Still. Whose name, I asked Peter, whose? My uncle’s, Peter said. The brother out of all my father’s brothers I never learned to love. The only one alive. 92


I don’t look at my face in the mirror much anymore. It has its life, I have mine. Someday I will leave my house and address the living by name without apologies or explanations. I will not speak to the dead. They are irrelevant whether my salvation depends on a plumed serpent or a tadpole god, whether a basilica burns in every rosebud or the tomb of a popular pope is scoured awake by searchlights and rumor. The converted opening their veins. Anyone may be replaced by steam, by electricity. There is no sun protection in the end. Just this walking out, looking up.


Notes The cover art by Michel de Broin, War of Freedom, was created as part of an exhibition called Guns in the Hands of Artists, in which decommissioned guns taken off the streets of New Orleans via a gun buyback program were distributed to over thirty internationally known artists, who were then invited to use them in artwork dealing with the issue of guns in contemporary society. The exhibition ran from October 2014 through January 2015 at the Jonathan Ferrera Gallery in New Orleans. “Elegy for a First Husband, Cause of Death Unknown” is dedicated to Bill Wishbow. The last section of the poem “Girl” was inspired by United States Army Reservist Lynndie England, who was one of eleven service members convicted on charges of conspiracy, maltreating detainees, assault “consummated by battery,” and indecent acts at Abu Ghraib prison in Baghdad during the U.S. occupation of Iraq. After the verdict, England gave birth to a son and thereafter served a three-year prison term before being dishonorably discharged from the Army. The photos of Lynndie England’s participation in the maltreatment of detainees still retain their graphic power, years later. England, who as a young child was diagnosed with selective mutism, has said she does not regret her actions at Abu Ghraib. She continues to be treated for post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety. “The Inside World” owes a debt to the classic linguistics text Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, who argue that metaphor is a foundational mechanism of the mind, responsible for shaping our understanding of experience. The poem is also indebted to Carl Hoffman’s Savage Harvest: A Tale of Cannibals, Colonialism, and Michael Rockefeller’s Tragic Quest. It should be noted that Nelson Rockefeller’s fateful Museum of Primitive Art, now defunct, opened in 1957 in a townhouse on West 54th Street in New York City, adjacent to Nelson’s own boyhood home. In 1969 is was announced that the museum’s collection of artifacts culled from indigenous cultures in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe, and the Pacific, was to be transferred to the Metropolitan Art Museum, where, in 1982, the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing opened to the public. “Cleaning Padihershef, Who Worked in the Necropolis of Thebes”: the Egyptian mummy in question recently underwent restoration and CT scans at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Ether Dome, where he has resided for 190 years, witnessing more than 6,000 operations there. Initially it was believed that Padihershef, who lived


during the twenty-sixth dynasty (663–525 BCE), was a stonecutter. In 1960, however, a new translation of his casket’s hieroglyphics revealed that Padihershef was a “tomb finder” or prospector—someone who looked for spaces in the Theban necropolis that could serve as suitable burial places. Padihershef has undergone several restorations during his long tenure in Boston, as salt deposits from the ancient embalming fluids form a white crust on the exposed portions of his head and face. The epigraph to “Election Noir” is a comment made by Donald Trump at a presidential campaign rally in Las Vegas in February 2016, in which he reminisced about “the old days” when a protestor who’d interrupted his speech would have been “carried out on a stretcher.” Trump concluded, “I’d like to punch him in the face, I’ll tell you.” “Skinned Aces” is built on a collection of words, some arcane, some still in use today, for the victim of a con as enumerated in Ricky Jay’s Celebrations of Curious Characters. The epigraph to “Little Shits,” and the line, “Out out damn Spot,” are from William Matthew’s poem “A Happy Childhood.” For “Welles after Kane” I relied on two sources, Citizen Welles: A Biography of Orson Welles by Frank Brady and This Is Orson Welles by Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich. The line “And pouring through the narrow straits, the sea divides the lands and shores of Italy,” in the poem “Bones” is borrowed from the ancient epic poem On the Nature of Things by Lucretius, translated by Frank O. Copley. Lucretius’s poem was lost for more than a thousand years; when it surfaced in 1417, it reintroduced astonishingly prescient (and dangerously secular) scientific ideas about the nature of existence— most specifically about “atoms and the void.” “Pleasure” is dedicated with love to my mother, Mary Lenore O’Loughlin Barresi. “Parents” is a found poem constructed from an entry in Ricky Jay’s Celebrations of Curious Characters on the miraculous Miss Mewis. The epigraph in “To One Who Is Forgotten” is found in the 1945 edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette, published by Funk and Wagnalls. A different poem bearing the same title first appeared in 5AM.


Acknowledgments My sincere gratitude to the editors of the following journals for first publishing some of the poems, sometimes under different titles, in this book: American Journal of Poetry, Askew, Chaparral, Conduit, Gettysburg Review, Hotel Amerika, Lake Effect, Malpais Review, New Ohio Review, Nothing New, Pool, Silk Road, Spillway, and Volt. To my husband, Phil Matero, for his love, support, and rescue in the manuscript trenches, my unending thanks and love. Heartfelt thanks to Dante, Andrew and Caitlin, and to my sister, Ellen, and my brothers, Chuck, Tim and Patrick, for everything! Thank-you and a deep debt of gratitude to Ed Ochester and all of the amazing—and amazingly patient—folks at Pitt Press, and to friends near and far for their encouragement, wisdom, and example: Katie Davis, Patty Seyburn, Judith Taylor, Deborah Blakely, Kim Young, Martin Pousson, Elton Glaser, Stephanie Brown, Amy and Richard Sedivy, Judith Pacht, Phil Taggert, Marsha de la O, Jim Natal, Lynne Thompson, Candace Pearson, David St. John, Peter Stitt, Brenda Yates, Cathie Sandstrom, Suzanne Lummis, Mark Drew, Keven Bellows, Beth Ruscio, Susan Terris, Mary Fitzpatrick, Mifanwy Kaiser, Kate Hovey, Carine Topal, Marjorie Becker, Kate Haake, Rick Mitchell, Leilani Hall, and Chris Higgs. Abiding thanks, in memory, to Madeline DeFrees, James Tate, Peter Oresick, Diann Blakely, and Jackson Wheeler. Finally, my thanks to the Department of English and the College of Humanities at California State University, Northridge for their continuing support and invaluable gifts of time.