On Purgatorio I
Go with this man; see that you gird his waist
With a smooth reed; take care to bathe his face…
(trans. By Mark Musa)
Sometimes mercy fell all the way down and made tiny windows in the fields. And sometimes it simply
hovered in the seven times twenty panes of glass. It’s not that I couldn’t stand such utter selflessness—
one thing passing into another across the distance— it’s just that the sun resembled more a burning kite than
star and stained the building with the pinks and muted oranges, muted yellows, of its raging sorrow. Still, it held
me there, winter sunset, and stood me helpless. The beauty was in the fuel of the thing. How each window banked
like ignited water, the red bricks riffling in the perfect residue of seconds… Years later, it was my daughter
wandering casually in to watch me bathing that undid me. How she played with the stacked towels awhile, toothpaste,
soap, until this game bored her and she turned to me to wash my face and hair as only a child can: in the frank, religious
spirit of cleansing, nursing. Awed, I let her scrub me. I let the grimed water sheet me like a radiant cloak until
this too bored her and she wandered back to play with toys, left me chilled above the whirr of traffic. I was in the car again. It was 1968. The dream-time was all around me spilling the
others’ blood, the car that held us such a poor kite to the hill’s wind. I remember waking upside down above
the pivot and knowing nothing of time but a kind of hurry-up to save the cell-life, my father’s borrowed jacket on another
scrunched beside me in the filtering light… Witless,
our ritual cleansings, the actual timings: a second window flared beneath me on the bitter earth. I dropped and hurried
toward it, crawled hands and knees into the charity and utter coarseness that was ditch grass.
Message to Be Spoken into the Left Ear of God
This is the child drowning: face-up
in an amniotic pool of tap water:
my crucible, liquid garment; eyes spanked open in the rocking
inches of light.
Above me: my mother’s face torn, her print dress
to flame; refraction making me seem— at least to her, looking down—
like those in the ward my sister was rubied to when
rammed her straight down hard— bumper to hip— to the packed snow
of Dolores Avenue,
branches scarring the dome of sky like the cracks in
skull, or like the veins in the policeman’s face when he jumped
downstream into chunks
of ice to catch a neighbor girl like a toy Ophelia.
in his pale blue arms as limp and blue as grief, her
above the steaming current. Tadpole— minnow— knife blade—
tag of flesh— layer of bone— my father’s face finally astonished,
forehead piercing a nail angling from a joist.
Oh, these crucifixions
staining the fingers, tasting of raw sewage, fish,
cicadas like a giant
rust in the trees, 40,000 ticking Geigers, and not one rock
to set them off; rather, as if our bones in sleep were their decaying
marrow gone soft, gone nuclear. The way the heart shrinks, and
veins go flat as dying rivers. Or twist in swirls of blue elastic.
the liquid steaming, melting the crude minerals just beginning
to line the child’s brain, hair drifting in the gentle
pale, naked, wingless. How I hovered once like a sea-
horse in my mother’s womb.
And then dropped out screaming.
-from Message to Be Spoken into the Left Ear of God 2004