ort n. A scrap or remainder of food from a meal. Often used in the plural.
"Scraps, orts and fragments, are we, also, that?"
Between the Acts, Virginia Woolf
Between the blinds Past the coded locks
Past the slanted gold bars of the day
Smelling of all-night salt rain on the docks
Of grief Of birth Of bergamot Of May
In the wind that lifts the harbor litter
Wet against my fingers in a dream
Salvaging among the tideline's bitter
gleanings Generous Exigent Lush and lean
Your voice A tune I thought I had forgotten
The taste of cold July brook on my tongue
A fire built on thick ice in the winter
The place where lost and salvaged meet and fit
The cadences a class in grief is taught in
The sound when frozen rivers start to run
Two Late Sonnets
Nightmusics I forget to stop till morning
Dates I don't keep Letters I don't send
Streets I don't cross Dreams I skip by waking
Dawns I watch to study how things end
Hours I fill with solitude's precisions
Plans for things that happened in the past
Eavesdropping to catch the chance elisions
between the first rash promise and the last
Fingerprints blurring on my shoulders
The marks of you the days fade and erase
The look in my eyes where your name was written
disappearing as I rinse my face
Up late to see the city's guard let down
and lost, and night's translations into found
Morning's messengers A dream's last traces
Two garbage trucks roaring up the street
Dismantling my sleep to try to teach me
What to throw away and what to keep
The note you didn't send that didn't reach me
The music hidden in the city's noise
Your fingers to your lips to keep a secret
The lilt and lift of your subversive voice
A curse A cut A kiss A look A letter
A blues in Z A joking epitaph
The dream's whisper and life's equally true
The patient alchemies of aftermath
A chance next time to fail a little better
To wake from something sweet to something new
"Here Is A Place," commissioned for the opening of the National Opera Center, NYC 2012
Soneto Balbuciendo En Que La Poeta Manda A Su Amor En Nueva York La Lluvia de La Habana
He leído el mensaje que mandaste,
aquí, en la carta no me has escrito:
quemada, y con sello prohibido,
diciéndome dónde enterraste
lo que no tiene voz ni luz ni cara,
ni paz, ni un lugar para dormir,
susurro donde yo puedo oír
cada noche lo que no dice el mar,
y cuando la lluvia borrará las calles
mañana, y los crepúsculos después,
y correrá haciendo bailes
de lo que me dijiste una vez,
yo tendré este mapa, sin detalles,
que me dice que lo que no es, es.
Dónde están las vidas de los que no escribieron
y de quién nadie ha escrito
La vida de mi abuela hambriente
entre dos puertos fríos Dos países
que necesitan sus rodillas Que necesitan
alguien para limpiar
La vida de mi abuelo muerto en un accidente industrial
Preso y muerto en una guerra de que nadie le ha explicado
Muerto en una lucha de la calle con alguien que pudiera sido su hermano
La vida de mi hermano Tratando de olvidar que está respirando
Tratando de terminar lo más rápido posible lo que se quede de respirar
Déjame hacer estas marcas mojadas en tinta negra sobre esta página preciosa
(Gracias a la generosidad incantada de los árboles
y a las manos que hacen hojas de hojas)
Déjame escribir sus vidas inescritibles para que no sean olvidadas
La vida de mi abuela Ya comiste
La vida de mi hermana fantasma
tocando a la puerta sin palabras
que me ha seguido aquí
Originally published in The New Yorker, 1989
Tell the other side of it, how longing
galloped beside terror in your chest
when trees stopped and fog reached between the mountains
and hid the painted stripes that marked the path.
It started to get dark and cold and nothing
you could see would burn to warm a night,
and inside, next to fear, over the borders
you’d drawn for safety leaped a wild wish:
to stay where there was no sign of the human,
forget your bootprints in a gash of snow,
leave the red trail blazes and the cairns
pointing to the cramped shelter below
for forms you couldn’t make resemble faces:
endless stream beds paved with shifting scree,
clouds of insects, gentians pushed through fissures,
butterflies, rills broken over stones,
the stones themselves. How could they be persuaded
to accept you as an integer, like them,
taught the measurement of time in eras,
infinite, no longer lost or small?
Language was as useless as your eyes
until the fog blew higher and withdrew,
and the ancient pools left by the glaciers
looked like postcards again as you climbed down.
Joseph Brodsky was my teacher in the Columbia MFA program in the fall of 1984. "You Americans and your feelings," he used to say. "For the sake of which word was this poem written?"
"Tonight" was written at the Karolyi Foundation in Vence, just north of Nice, in 1986, on the tenth anniversary of the 1976 uprisings in Soweto, for the sake of the word 'cavalcade.' It was originally published in The Yale Review in 1987, then in Villanelles (Everyman's Library Pocket Poets), edited by Annie Finch & Marie-Elizabeth Mali, 2012.
The dead pace the townships, restless for light;
tomorrow, the defiant cavalcade.
Someone is writing a sermon tonight.
Whispering, a girl dickers down the price
of a gun. Elsewhere, other bargains are made.
The dead seep like gas into the eyes
and the mouths of the hunted living, who wipe
tears as they gather matches and rage.
Someone’s necklace will burn tonight.
The man in the collar wants to write
in peace, but from the barricades
the dead hiss: the time for bloodless fight
is over. The man sits, paralyzed.
All sleepless: girl, preacher, magistrate.
Someone fills chambers with bullets tonight
and wishes for another history. Flight
forsaken leaves the parade or the grave
or both. The dead jeer from their paradise.
Someone hesitates at a crossroads tonight.
"Letter to My Mother" was first published in Under 35: The New Generation of American Poets, 1989, edited by Nicholas Christopher
Letter to My Mother
‘Goodbye’ is not quite true; we’ll meet tonight
as we do at night, in various disguises,
in reels of dreams, though in another country
you cook alone and riffle through the bills.
When I tongue the envelope to seal it,
I see the two of us, the year we slept
together, my mouth rose beside your breast.
These thin sheets I write on aren’t so different
from those that covered us: insubstantial,
vulnerable to wind, to sudden tearing.
Each woman keeps a secret: that her first love
was a woman, even if she later turned
to others. Now the pleasure of a bowl
of cherries, still warm from the tree, is never
far from danger; if I burst the fruit against
my teeth, recklessly, over and over,
your body may rise up, first food, first pleasure,
naming all the others imitations,
claiming me, sealing my mouth over
with yours, the kiss I dream about and dread.
I made my mind up early on that you
would be more independent than I was—
instead you gave the package you’d been given:
bottles, useless matches, chips of sobs,
all broken, like a lamp sent through the mail.
Here where I am the box holds only letters.
But even here, where the language I must speak
is not the one I learned from you, the landscape
daily touches deeper, olives bend
over the mountains, cypress grips the steep
embankment, and the more I look I love.
Every helpless time your voice is with me,
your skin, your smells, the beating of your heart.
I can’t help thinking you would be more happy
if you could forget—your anger, pounded
flat, like foil hung among the cherries
to scare the birds, has beauty of its own.
When the south wind strips leaves from the plane trees,
every gust is your unspoken wanting:
hot, strong, pitilessly dry.
I want hills blanked in snow, all sound muffled,
still and cold, colorless, to soothe
the upsurge of angry love and sadness
your letter brings. Everywhere I go
since first leaving you I am the lover
who celebrates and heals. You taught me. Now
you’re my only failure: hunched with morning coffee,
or at night hollowed by work,
then hammered into sleep. My exiled power
comes to nothing: the bite of postmarks, ink.
"This Land" was originally published in Ben Sonnenberg's Grand Street (Autumn 1989), then in 1990 in Jorie Graham's The Best American Poetry, and in a small Grand Street Books edition called Usahn: Ten Poems & A Story. I wrote it after (a) being given one of the first Macintosh computers, which let me alternate regular and italic type, and (b) reading Czeslaw Milosz's Unattainable Earth, including what he called "inscripts": "Why not include in one book," he wrote in the Preface, "along with my own poems, poems by others, notes in prose, quotations from various sources and even fragments of letters from friends if all these pieces serve one purpose: my attempt to approach the inexpressible sense of being?" It was one of my first attempts to lean the linearity of letters toward the simultaneity of musical notes: to try to get English to do what a piano did under Thelonious Monk's hands, to make what pianist Geoffrey Keezer has memorably called, in reference to double diminished chords, "this big thick funky stack of hipness," check it out.
Once upon a time (my life had stood a loaded gun) there was or there was not a woman (each night I am nailed into place/and I forget who I am) who lived in a sea of tears (Sidra Fonseca Tonkin). One day, for no reason she knew (ozone layer precondition for multicellular life), it became necessary to breathe air (a hideous and desolate wilderness full of wild beasts and wild men). When she raised her head above the water (twenty Negro slaves sold to settlers) the first absence she noticed was that of the heartbeat (deer and bison roaming in millions passenger pigeons darkening the sky) she had heard ever since she could (in order not to be ashamed of my people) remember (Aztec Inca Pequot Wampanoag). Her gills burned and she was more alone (the Americans are dropping gasoline they’re going to set fire to us) than she’d imagined possible. At dusk (whether that nation or any nation so conceived) she found herself on a beach, half (the kind of girl they found dead in a hall bedroom) in the water and half on land. A stranger (not for us to greet each other or bid farewell we live on archipelagos) passed, which made the woman afraid (we thought because we had power we had wisdom), since she didn’t know a world existed (the political entropy we face) beyond the sea of tears she had left (dear Father do with me what you will I am your child). “Where do you come from?” (in the night I took a lantern and went to see) the stranger asked (help me in my need and forgive the harm I do you). She had no idea what to answer.
Days passed and fibers of strength (life the sun growing hotter cries sounding) roped her arms and legs and she traveled (when in the course of human events it becomes) the new country, taking a census of children (to answer with thy uncovered body this). At first, no matter how she tried (then there is tear gas and we run), she could see no children at all (touching my face with blind fingers of rain); then slowly their sounds and the shapes of their faces (I am nobody I have nothing to do with explosions) entered her, and she counted them (in the evening sudden thunderclaps of fear) without much interest, noting (our manifest destiny to overspread) their appearance, their customs, their languages (the Desire sailed from Marblehead holds partitioned into racks). Soon this dispassionate observation (one execution a month for the 230 remaining) turned to resentment, then to hatred (shelled suspected guerrilla strongholds) of everything about them: their filthy hands (thus were Lot’s daughters with child by their father), high voices, tears, their ridiculous size (to pound to crush to liquidate). Suddenly the world teemed with children (I am born both innocent and accountable), devouring twice their fair share of resources (sincerely graciously trembling), offering nothing in return (the way you love the first person who touches you). She abandoned the census and took a high room (jab your spades deeper you there you others play) where she believed they couldn’t find her (subduing a continent to the uses of civilization). But when she closed her eyes she saw (take my heart of stone and give me flesh) the handwritten lists of their names.
“There was no premeditation,” she insisted (to be held by them and their children’s children forever) at the trial.“I left the tower (in the evening there is feeling) for apples and for company.Who (to cut down the tree of life and make coffins) has seen my room? Who knows my cold bed? (I think now the worst affliction/is not to know who you are or have been) I waited until the children were called (detained twenty in crackdown on opponents) for supper.The food stalls were closing. I chose (one way to save American lives was to destroy the foliage along the rivers) three apples, and touched the grocer’s hand (if you are forsaken by all the world yet will I not forsake you) as I gave the coins. Her eyes slid away (who killed the pork chops? what price bananas?). Soon I was the only woman in the street (fair meadows goodly tall trees with such fresh waters); the others shadowed the lit apartments (how longing could store itself in one’s bones and one day without warning), hammering meat tender, taking soup steam (all fruits and vegetables must be carefully washed) in their faces. Following the sound (wounded carried on waterproof sheets), I found the river, where men waited (dulce et decorum est) for other women, the kind to roll (to the free skies unpent glad and strong) in the mud by the willows.As I approached (to dissolve the political bands which have bound them), several circled, young, with hard arms (you will dance the fire dance in iron shoes), and I felt that something completely new (and to assume among the powers of the earth) was about to happen.Already their beards (I had seen birth and death/but had thought they were different) rasped my neck, their tongues leaped between (this wild swan of a world) my lips, I expanded, my knees flew (is my flesh of brass?) apart. But as I neared the clearing (hush they’re burning a nigger don’t you want to see them burn a nigger) the crowd of them parted.There lay (I was driven to recognize that these reports were untrue) a girl, dress bunched at her navel (a love not unmixed with horror and anger), smeared with semen and blood, six (whatever happens between us your body/will haunt mine) years old? Twelve? Seventeen? (yes I said yes I will yes) The men disappeared. Under closed lids (topsoil scraped and burned) her eyes moved. I remembered her (Cambrian Ordovician Carboniferous) from the census, her shrieks and the clack of her shoes (how hard is a bullet how fragile a word). Blood surged in my arms.Was anything ever (I am be- come Death destroyer of worlds) so simple? I opened her chest (oh Jesus Christ get me out of here dear Jesus please get me out Christ please) with my fingers, which had become strong (let the day perish wherein I was born), and took the heart. Here (by any means necessary including military force) is the evidence. Since then I have felt nothing.”
At the interrogation she explained (where does the past exist if at all) she could not give names, not from malice (bloodbath inevitable bloodbath inevitable) or principle, but because she could not (seven million tons of American bombs) remember. She had lost (in Alabama a bus set afire) all knowledge of her origins (whose hand at the foundry whose plow in the rain) and none of the questioner’s ingenious (pity is what one does not deny those whom one refuses to help) persuasions could restore it, or summon (the torment and necessity of love) any flicker of feeling from her skin (whatsoever a man soweth that shall he also reap). “The child is not important,”he said (against insubordination alone we are severe). “It is you to whom we must teach the lesson.” (that water these words what can they do what can they do) When he entered the room where she was kept (what passing-bells for those who die as cattle) on the sixth day of her captivity (a palace that opens only to tears), she was rubbing herself with brick dust and dirt (as they moved westward they began to die) because the smell of her own body (the boy looked at him and said freedom freedom) had become unbearable to her (upland fields the paddy the seedbeds of my village). He took his customary position (Shatila Sharpeville Jackson My Lai) and she hers, stretched on the anvil floor (an invented past can never be used) and again he demanded her names, and persuaded (rise like lions after slumber/in unvanquishable number), and again she neither answered nor moved (purple trickling along my thighs Mama’s lemonade yellow runs sweet). “Nothing?” He smiled. “Nothing? Feel (inhabited by two .50 caliber machine guns and one man) this,” he said, and chopped off her hands (sugar cotton indigo coffee rubber tin petroleum teak). After that the lesson was apparently over (and the living nations wait/ each sequestered in its hate), as the inter- rogator did not (one who could go as a stranger in the village) return, and the door was left ajar (the long migrations meet across you and it is nothing to you you have forgotten us). She waited for death, which did not come. Instead (a yesterday I find almost impossible to lift) a child appeared, running as if hunted (cornbread tobacco smoke clay pipes copper bowls), face hidden, holding a paper scroll (with fifty men we could subjugate them and make them do whatever we want), which was spread before her. “Listen,” she was told (chasten thy son let not thy soul spare for his crying). “This is the map. At the marked place (in some cases they began to laugh hysterically) is a canyon that was once (a thoroughfare for freedom beat) a sea.You must find it. Your hands are there.” (to me every hour of the light and dark) The child touched her shoulder and jolts (the shower fell sudden profuse) of pain raced down her arms. “Do you (please pale hot please cover rose) understand?” the child asked. Never (and the soul will it change? you must change it) another question, she thought. Never (I am bound for the land of Canaan). Never. Never. Never. Never.
When neither death nor sleep would come (to achieve our country and change the history of the world) she set out on the seventh day (soldiers marching afterward the road bare and white), without much hope, and could not help (no longer human beings in the accepted sense) but think of the man who had questioned her (the human voice in its calmness/in its shrillness/in its monumental invention of pitches): the planes of his shaven cheeks, the gleam (whom shall I seek with whom share/the heavy-hearted joy of my survival) of sweat that filmed his forehead as he worked (the M16 tumbles the bullet giving shorter range but a gaping wound), how much he had asked of her (to Thee alone every knee must bend), how little was asked of her now. Only (and the May month flaps its glad green leaves) the map, between her belt and her side (the first thing the dying woman feels upon return to consciousness is pain), still demanded, with its awkwardness and (the specialists in our agony) its crude, bold lines, angled toward a destination (gas differentiated into stars galaxies planets) that seemed inexplicably familiar (blunt not thy heart enrage it). Before the return of other feelings (cobalt uranium manganese) came hunger, and she craned her neck (what can be expected from a commonwealth that this land affords not) to eat fruit from branches, which sometimes with the wind (to love this time for once/with all my intelligence) moved closer to her mouth. Soon the voices (to burn or tear or hack your way into the secret body of the other) of everything alive became audible; when she stopped (the bullet from his head/to make a Benin bronze) under a pine to rest and pinned (the old is dying the new cannot be born) the map under her knees, she could hear (a new nation conceived in liberty and dedicated) the sounds of the new-fallen needles, the sap (the point is that you are animate chattel) rolling down the bark, the languages (the trees of the Lord also are full even) of the squirrels and the earthworms and the mosses (people who did not believe that a child must first be conceived in a dream). Everywhere she stepped a cry rose (they dug and dug and thus their day/passed and their night and they did not).As she walked, markings stippled her arms (at a mangle above the washroom hot steam pouring up) and legs, letters of an alphabet (a brass locket with a picture/of a strangled woman) she could not read, and her eyes (who simultaneously kept subjugated the Black sixth of their population) blurted images: a high room (an officer wearing a knitted skullcap who aimed his rifle at heads and hearts) overlooking a market, children juggling apples (rope fire fear humiliation), a river bank with willows. As the map (we became great students of avalanches) predicted, the land began to flatten (they bring you up to do like your daddy done), but instead of desert she passed noisy riffles, streams (with a reed stylus on unbaked clay tablets) in spate, gulls with spear bills dropping (demur you’re straightway dangerous/and handled with a chain) words, until finally she shivered at the edge (as long as grass grows or water runs) of a sea, pitching under a storm (nothing to give but a well-excavated grave). All day the season had changed every hour (Mohawk Narragansett Seneca Cherokee); now snow lashed in the gale, and she staggered (it is chilly on our way to the hook) in its teeth.As the map flew from her side (motherfatherdickandjanetheyarevery),the voices from the sea, rhythmic (40mm gas grenade causes immediate and copious tears) under the irregular beat of the surf (from all my white sins for given they feed), became intelligible: weren’t they (gold diamonds ivory cocoa palm oil) voices she had always known? Didn’t they (the land’s sharp features seemed to be/the century’s corpse outleant) mean her well, wasn’t that her name (the cup of forgetfulness the waters of obliteration) they thudded as they called her? (more in chaos without a history than we are without a future) The waves were sucking and pounding her breasts (too many people in the world to make oblivion possible) before she started to feel the air crushed (at exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning on August 6 1945) from her lungs; and then she remembered (I am guilty of being still alive) the day they formed and unfurled in her chest (igneous sedimentary metamorphic), and all that had happened since. She struggled back (I inherited Jackson Mississippi/ for my majority it gave me Emmett Till) to the shore and sat down on the sand (this is life then to which I am committed), frozen clothes clattering in the wind (brought countless and hitherto unknown ways of dying). She fell asleep.When she woke (my dungeon shook and my chains fell off ), the sea twitched against rocks, and snow (the circumstances which accompany their birth affect the whole term of their being) stretched as far as she could see (sandy ground all over beset with fair pine trees); strangers tended oil-barrel fires far (clotbur sesame panic grass feverfew) in the distance. Between her knees were clenched (not even the weeds to multiply without blossom) her hands, in fists. She unfolded one (Sobibor Belzec Maidenek Chelmno)—awkward, chapped, the tendons stiff (when at first I liked the whites/I gave them fruits/I gave them fruits)—and cleared a patch of sand and wrote (as a woman I have a country) the letters of her name.
Originally published in Grand Street, Winter 1989
In Riverside Park in the March afternoon
on Monday the day we take the rough bit
of the week in our tender mouths no one
is working a boy strops a harmonica
on his trousers and props his foot
against the crumbled asphalt harmonica
spills over the cambered dirt path
dividing rainwater into two gutter ditches
over the path lamps lit although sun
is dazzling the river and each tired blade
of winter grass harmonica over
crushed clover and failed dandelion seeds
skeletal maple samaras desiccated
sweetgum fruits no one is producing
anything that could be sold harmonica
over the heavy-rooted trees hemmed
on one side by the street listing toward
the glistening river over a woman
with scores of beaded braids smoking
a cigarette in the stone stairwell pulpit
(did the stonecutters have fatigue and hands
or spinning bladed wheels?) harmonica
over the hurtling cars each fleeing
the censorious voice of the one behind
up and down the torn buckled highway
over barbarian dogs fleeing nothing
racing between sweetgums and fenced dirt bowls
noses touching the tops of back paws
as they flex and ecstatically extend
harmonica over acres of idleness the student
stretching her legs the two gaunt men
sick and weak saying goodbye the girl snatching
the floating disc from the air’s warm current
harmonica over the old train vents
the underground alleys empty now
but still exhaling their dank machine breath
harmonica over the pink man pulling
the long lobes of his ears over the young woman
front-faced on a young man’s lap on a bench
under a naked sycamore round forearms
where her blouse cuffs end round calves
above her sandals heavy round cheeks
puffs of smooth roundness on the back of each hand
resting loose on his shoulder as he pulls
her round breasts under her white blouse closer
no one is buying anything harmonica
slides up and reaches the parkway tollbooths
slides down to the museum battleship
bottle-nosed warplanes fastened to its deck
like flies to a wound down to the tabernacles
under the highway where citizens
live in refrigerator boxes only
they are forbidden all idleness they
are the triumph of the patrons of work
they must work every waking moment
asking unceasingly for change harmonica
finds someone reading the newspaper crying
finds the still tongues in the church-tower bells
the savage brambles choking the path
the exhaust that scumbles the tree silhouettes
the dumpster with its lids angled toward the sky
the people eating from it harmonica