Photo by Sarah Ratner
Making Love in the Kitchen
We do it with knives in hand,
blue tongues licking the bottoms of pots,
steam fogging the windows from hearts
of artichokes being strained.
Hearts are made to be carved
out, cooked soft, slathered with butter,
fork-stabbed and lifted to another’s
open mouth. We say we are starved,
as though we were doing this alone,
lonely as an onion in its skin,
say we are starving when what we mean
is that we want to postpone
the inevitable, which is inedible,
however we dice
it, and so we make—as it consumes us—
this love we call a meal.
Published in The New Yorker, Mar. 10, 2014
Music from a Farther Room
The flute, the sackbut, the dulcimer
in the rooms of the dying. The harp,
the cornet, the psaltery. The look
of the eyes’ last seeing when the ears
hear their final note or chord. The flats
some know as sharps. A bee batting a screen.
Thales of Crete appeased the wrath
of Apollo with paeans to end a plague,
and in all of Sparta’s rooms,
close with death, that conclusive music.
But meadowlarks, too. Finches. Thrushes
in the distant woods. Birds which are
themselves flutes, sackbuts, dulcimers
dressed in feathers. Up in Amherst
Emily’s last breath of the bobolink’s
virtuosic bubbling. A mother’s cooing,
half weeping, half exalted send-off
heard beyond a locked door. Anywhere
and often. In Pittsburgh the shrill whistle
of the steel mill; how many have ridden
that held note into infinity? In Treblinka
the shrill whistling trains, the chuff,
the cough, the high-note wail.
On the Oregon Trail the pioneer’s wheel.
The ship’s whistle for the immigrant
whose filmed eyes never did see Ellis Island.
The fading brain takes what it’s offered.
My mother’s mother, no instrument
but the clock ticking, the ice clinking
its melt in a bedside tumbler.
O, don’t we each have our deaths set
to music? Natural or manmade. The tabla,
the tabor, the steam calliope.
Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” playing
tinny through headphones stuck
in someone else’s busy ears. C# minor.
What do we hear there at the edge,
the threshold, the dark verge,
when sense, no more than a warm room,
echoes emptily? How must the bedside
cello sound, how the car horn, how
the human voice hushing us at the last.
If not so much the tension of the song
resolved, at least let it be the force
of the crossing when the humming ceases.
Published in The Massachusetts Review, Volume 57, Number 4, 2016
Winner of the 2017 Anne Halley Prize, "awarded annually for the best poem to appear in the preceding year."
Sometime soon after the embers cooled,
after dust clouds settled, after the last strings
of smoke, hoisted by desert breezes, cleared the air,
they must have come, people of those three cities
remaining, to pick among the charred bones,
the rubble of what was once temple and house,
stable and brothel; to kick at stones; to tug
at handles of buckets, blades of shovels and spades.
Later, raising ash plumes in the scorched plain,
cloths at their mouths and noses, eyes burning,
neither fearful nor repentant but full of wonder,
full of the scavenger’s overabundant hope,
they would have found her—even as now
some men encounter the woman of their dreams
(beauty of the movie screen, princess they capture
with a camera’s flash, girl whose finger brushes theirs
when she takes their card at the market register)—
found her, that is, not as the person she was
but as whom they needed her to be, and, man or woman,
each of them would have wanted a piece of her.
Standing in that wasted landscape,
she must have seemed a statue erected there
as a tribute to human frailty, white, crystallized,
her head turned back as if in longing to be the girl
she had been in the city she had known.
And they must have stood there, as we do,
a bit awestruck, taking her in for a time,
and then, with chisel and knife, spike and buckle,
chipped at her violently and stuffed their leathern
pouches full of her common salt, salt with which
to season for a while their meat, their daily bread.
Published in The New Yorker, Jan. 2, 2012
Returning to Iowa
Above the just cut field
martins darted through the dusty air,
the swarms of gnats and moths
orbiting the great round bales,
which sat in their warm compactness
like cakes on racks.
Shadows grinned on the unsunned sides,
and I remember us happy
in a Midwestern way, stretched out
and drowsy, a stop on a trip
to Amana, your hand warm and wet in mine.
A kestrel hovered above the ditch.
A mile off, a pickup made a gray wake
along a gravel road.
A cow crested a hill
and paused to contemplate us.
Some things are not countable in their grace,
so we pine for them,
we remember them with kindness,
we return them to the mouth
to chew them a second time.
Published in Shenandoah, Volume 64, Number 2, 2015
Some bells ring of their own accord.
Some need the boy who pulls the rope
and is lifted off his feet on the upswing.
The pigeons scatter from the tower’s
shaken air. Their paratrooper feathers
storm the shaft of light. By what
miracle does he recall, years later,
such ascension, the last time he loved
a church, was lifted, literally, by song?
These wild columbines are bells
that will never be rung
save by hummingbirds and bees,
drunk on their nectar,
having no knowledge of their reviled name.
Will we ever love that word again?
The heart claps at the sound of it,
but no sound comes, only the flowers
swinging on their stems to lift me,
feet planted like those of the hangman
who watches the hanged man kick the air.
Published in Ploughshares, Spring, 2017
Pretend It Was Just the Wind
Water crept into our furnished home,
the one in the flood zone but zoned
anyway, and anyway our home,
though we spent so little time there.
And now that we’ve moved on,
I think of the outlets sparking out
and my guitar rising against the wall
until it fell and became a boat
that drifted from room to room,
knocking into legs of tables and chairs.
I think of the books the water took
from the shelves and opened
at its leisure as it snaked and rose,
the rain still rapping at the roof
and at the swollen windows.
And of all the items of our life—
our braided rugs, the dog’s bed
and bowls, the sofa with its pillows,
the lamps, the photos, the figurines—
all of them out of their element and into another,
which held them and rocked them gently.
Published in The New Yorker, Jan. 7, 2019