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Some Poems

From Earth’s Ends

Upriver from Hoi An

If there’s a river, I thought, there must be villages,
if there are boats, there must be a way
to reach them. If they are not on the map,
not in the guidebook, if the police
and the tourist office insist they know nothing
about villages not on the map,
then I had to see them. So I hired a boat—
with a terrible diesel engine
that belched black clouds all day,
but with beautiful white eyes
on its prow, and, an hour later
on an empty shore I’d pointed to,
children were everywhere, singing
their chorus: How-are-you?
How-are-you? as though it were the start
of a nursery rhyme. Twenty led me
to a shrine where a goddess walked on waves
bearing a lantern
to rescue drowning sailors.
One god can hear a thousand miles,
an older boy labored in English,
One god can see a thousand miles.
Together they guard the temple.

Now there were forty children,
and some adults watching, shyly. Then
Huynh Le Phuong, who was beautiful,
asked me to her home for tea,
and as we walked boys grabbed my arms,
pulled hard as they could, pulled
the hairs and laughed,
and she told me, They like you,
they never before touch American man, and tried
to smile. I walked with my hands above my head
so they could not reach them. At her home
her father placed a thermos of tea
before me and another by the photos
of her mother and brother and grandparents,
so they would not become thirsty or sick
in the next world. You like
Vietnamese girls? she wanted to know.
Do you fall for me? Will you take me
to the Himalayas? The big, big mountains? When you go
back to New York, will you remember me?
Will you write a poem for me, just for me,
and send it?

* *

From Rwanda Poems

The Memorial in Mirambi, Rwanda

The women and children were inside.
It was the rainy season. There was not space
in the schoolrooms for everyone. I was with the other men
in the rain, throwing stones at the genocidaires.
I was shot in the head. Army, militias, villagers
attacked us.

They had ordered us to come here.
I pretended to be dead, under a pile of bodies
The Caterpillar truck raised me up
with the corpses and dropped me
in a mass grave. I lay with the dead
one day and one night. I had eaten nothing

for twelve days. You see the bullet hole
in my forehead? I snuck out of the grave
at night. I was thirty-eight.
I had a wife and children. I went to the forest.
I hid during daylight.
I walked three nights
to Burundi.

Each day I remember.
Each night I dream.

It took two days
to kill everyone.

I am the only one
of 50,000 who escaped
from here

Those who are living refused to say
where they buried the dead.
They said no one was buried here.
I showed the RPF where the graves are.
There are so many stories
I would tell
if I were a writer.

* * *

Tell them.
I will write them
for you
, I say. Give me $40,
he snaps. He stamps his feet.
He snorts. He agrees
to take no money.
He kicks, and stomps
like a donkey, at the most harmless questions.
He stares out the visitor center’s plate glass window into the rain.
He points an index finger at his temple
moves it in angry circles.
If I think about what happened I go crazy.
He stands in a huff
and vanishes
into the rain.

* * *

To create the Mirambi Genocide Memorial,
they opened just one mass grave
on the first anniversary of the killings.
They removed 1,800 of the dead, coated them
in white lime preservative, and moved them
into classrooms, where many had died. A guide unlocked
four for me. Standing just outside,
he jangled his keys,
hoping I would be brief
so he could return
to his conversation.

* * *

Two small girls are placed
so they are almost kissing.
The face of one, above her lips,
is blown apart. Her hand rests
on the side of the other.

The lower ribs
of a perplexed-looking seven year old
are gone. His abdomen torn apart,
his feet are broken off
at his ankles.

The reek of the grave
is in each classroom
despite the lime.

The lips of a two year old
are parted in a scream,
an arm stretching out
to push something away from him.

One boy is trying
to protect his head
with his elbow.

One woman wears a pagne
that remains sky blue.

A woman’s lips are drawn,
teeth barely parted,
as if starting to say something.

A woman wears just panties,
pulled to one side, exposing nothing but the hole
where they hacked her hip apart.

An infant has a red cloth rag
wrapped around what is left
of her head.

The small fingers
of small children.

The small hips
of small girls.

A six-year-old girl,
the pretty uplift of her small nose,
looks like she died
in peace.

A woman’s mouth is wide open in a scream,
her eye sockets hacked or blown apart

One girl’s throat is slit
to the vertebrae.

A twelve year old brings his chin
to his chest.

The half-open mouth of a small girl
forms an oval
of surprise.

The surrounding hills
are terraced and green
with corn, tea. and sorghurn

The comfort of banana groves
fills the front yards
of the scattered adobe cottages.

A baby goat tied to a tree
strains toward uneaten grass.

On the other side of the stone wall
marking the memorial’s boundaries,
the eldest of five young children calls out,
Mazungu. Mazungu. White man.
Give me your pen.
The others repeat,
Un cadeau. Un cadeau. Donnez-moi
l’argent, Monsieur.”
They do not stop,
or leave when I turn my camera on them.

Tell me, I ask, What happened here?
Why are these people dead? You live right here
and you do not know
why so many children are dead?

I do not know, one repeats. I do not know. His smile
is wide and dumb. Their parents
stare from a spot behind their small house.
Across the valley calls of farm animals
mix with those of children playing.

If you take in too much, Emmanuel, who became my friend,
told me, you will go crazy. He lost both parents.
His mother’s body was eaten by animals.
He lived a month in the forest alone
when he was fourteen,
militias and villagers every day
hunting down survivors.

It is hard to kill a person,
Serge, also my friend, told me.
The day of liberation
a soldier handed me his bayonet.
‘Go ahead, kill this man,’
he told me. I knew the man
had killed many people.
I knew my father and brothers
were dead. I was shaking–
like this. I cried. I thought
and I thought, What do I do? I prayed
to God. I told the soldier,
‘I cannot.’ And I gave him back his weapon.

* * * * *

From Earth’s Ends


“Write about yourself,” the white-haired poet said,
bored with my toddler-beggars and drunk shamans,
with gods of orphans and bargain child brides,
tired of stupas piled with human bones.

“The naked girls in your temple vines are stone.
Why should I care about the shyness of whores
in leather skirts who kneel with flowers
for Buddha? Yourself — not children in the foam

your wake leaves, greeting and cursing your boat.”
But even in my home I wander half lost,
having outwalked the farthest city light,
to return pre-dawn across soot-flecked frost

my lusts bright domes of gold in the sun,
my terrors beggars with stumps for hands.

* * *


The Observatory on the Altiplano, Hours from La Paz

Just as it is summer there when winter here,
to study the stars they did not look up, but down,
into a cistern
built to reflect the heavens –
the sky was too vast
in the thin air

for those who would study the future
in the permafrost of the Milky Way
to crane upward for hours against the terrible
night winds. The emperor’s statue stands
nearby, head hunched forward as if he had no neck,
shoulders squared in the posture
of a tyrannical American mayor. His eyes are rectangles,
mouth a straight line, nose gone. His hair

is bird shit and lichen, his legs covered with wind-
smoothed hieroglyphe, the language
undeciphered. At this altitude a pinprick
of blackness opened in my head,
threatening to spill, like ink. Across the high plain
scrubgrass glowed and flared

in the late sun. The driver
who brought me to this wind-
blasted ruin, hours from La Paz,
nothing between but altiplano,
stepped from his taxi again.
He measured what daylight was left
against the dangers of night roads.
Their names lost, I stared for the last time
into the faces of gods
eroding on what palace walls still stood,
their features open to the prophecies of the stars
and the judgments of the and the judgments of the winds.


From The Cinnamon Bay Sonnets


I am here now and writing–Please listen,”
is how the clear-eyed, peasant-bloused girl I met
above a tarn and failed to talk past kissing
while we way under the stars late that night,

began the letter, which out of the blue came–
months afterward from the “spiritual center”
that turned out to be the New Hampshire home
of Reverent Moon’s church. And two years later

it was she who startled me out of blankness
on a Manhattan street corner: “No–forget
about the donation, it’s me, Denise,”

and it was, until two men in suits led her
away, something unspeakably human that breathed,
startled, standing naked in clear water.



Silent and septic as troves of rage left buried,
despite days to picture a gaff sail’s tall grace,
passing a year that turned on the spit
of a wrecked back; despite months to trace

the tackings of this sun-flecked sequence, then to drift
toward sleep in breezes of morphine;
the storm door slamming in the wind led me to shift
the pillow on my head until I heard thieves

banging to get in, and then the police
who’d beaten me, come back with friends, drunk.
Blue wind. Blue branches. Stay with me,

Lorca, until the guards pass. The ship on the sea.
The horse in the mountain–bear with me till I find
there’s nothing at the door but vision and wind.



Mixing the verses of forgotten children’s rhymes
in the unending fluorescent light and smoke
is how I tried, off and on, to break the neck
of night two, pacing the big holding pen,

“the Jew guy,” “the guy in the jacket”
to the young thug who crept into my path
to ask if I knew how to open handcuffs.
I don’t know why I picked a frayed match

off the floor–I could hardly see straight enough
to fit it into a keyhole, as if that would do
anything, anyway. I could hardly talk,

and a guy came up to say, “We’re all stuck
here and some guys are looking at heavy time.
Yo! Professor! We’re all sad, can you tell us a poem?”

* * *
* * *

From Skidrow Penthouse

Why “Persephone”

Because her wide, furrowed soil-
brown face is like something
once below the earth. Because the goon squad
that had her surrounded
and were hurting her reminded me
(numbers, affect, batons) of the one
that once had done the same
to me. Because, inert as laundry,
she never snarled or struggled. Because…
of the young kid’s sing-song,
She’s go’in to slee’eep, she’s go’in to slee’eep
as they stuffed her, vertically, head down,
into a crate. Because her tongue was straining
to lick my fingers through the bars
the next day. If there’s a canine underworld
it is the pound, this pound,
particularly, whose vet said he provides no treatments,
whose crew–employees
of the Sanitation Department, members
of the Teamsters Union–would not let anyone
adopt her, would not, at first, admit she was there–no stay
of death until it got to the president’s office.
Because she growls like low thunder
when I try to take back my dirty sock,
sleeps like stone, barks at storms,
her head under the bed when it thunders louder.
Because she jumped a guy
about to start a fight with me.
Because, If only I’d had her in 4th grade,
5th, 6th, 8th, 9th…She was so dazed
when let out of the cage
she barely, at first, would move.
Yet she can pull with the suddenness
of game fish. Because it was late February and soon enough
the branches scraping the wind
would bud, the only home I could find her,
of course, my own—because, because, because…
and so she became Persephone.

* *
* *


Drifting to sleep
counting syllables–small pears
in mother’s old tree

Yet one more
haiku stolen
from spring rain

Below the hem
of a spring cloud–Venus
and two stars


In the emptiness
of a blank Sunday in May–
some sparrows singing


Mother’s gone.
Sun-lit orange leaves
don’t matter.

Mekong Delta, Vietnam

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