Kid’s bangs blending with tall grass, we watched
Them cross the lot, some stumbling already, brush
Aside the door, entering a place that wanted
No part of us. What went on in there?
We wondered and wished we could know and better
Than know. The red slab swung wide then slammed,
And like the little match girl’s lit up reverie
We glimpsed them, wide backs inert as stone, each bent
Like Rodin’s Thinker, mesmerized by a glass.
We giggled like girls with our Vienna voices,
Like bells at an even greater distance
And Sibby shifted on his groaning high chair
And shouted wide mouthed and generous as a man
Could afford to be with adversaries that small.
What went on in there? The fact was we had
The facts, and they made no sense like the sounds
From a piano when you bang on it
Because you’ve heard the music pour and hate
That you can’t make it. Once in the lull before
The factories emptied he played baseball cards
By our rules, matching color or team,
Winner take all, Sibby like a human
Cerberus, one thick-necked dog face enough.
The only time he let us in the place
Hadn’t opened, a barren marvel, the mopped
Still spotted floor light flung itself across,
The damp bar filling the room like that table
In the butcher shop where they divvied up
What we would never have recognized
In the soft white paper our mothers brought home.
That was the summer he flew to Saigon,
The summer at a clam bake in Maine
I sipped my father’s beer, because he let me
And because I wanted to more than anything,
Took the bitter plunge, just so I could say I did.
Marilyn Monroe rules the world, at least
The part visible in a photograph, standing
Above the troops she’s about to bless
With a song in her porous sequin dress, her arms
Durably outstretched. She hasn’t aged a day
In fifty years. The men too appear impossibly
Young, mooning boys clotted around a woman
Who just might show them something they’ve never seen.
Picture the millions who’ve looked at this picture
As a relic, an idol’s sacred likeness.
Now imagine the few who bring her close, make out
In the crowd, a brother, a son, that it’s he
Who quickens hearts, dampens palms, doesn’t belong
With the others, but to those hopelessly apart
From the object of their affection, though holding on
Tight with their eyes. Incongruous, he has nothing
To do with movies, just right place, right time,
Korea during the war, at the front
Of countless gawkers when the bombshell walks out.
There’s your famous father, someone’s mother jokes
And everyone smiles, knowing how hard it’s been.
He’s in his prime and at his peak before
Coming home to the farm in Glen Mills
In a bag or minus a leg or unscathed
As far as anyone can see. Go ahead, ad-lib,
It’s all fantasy, how he stepped off a plane
And got recognized instantly, besieged by people
Who made up with the intensity of their obsession
What they lacked in numbers, open mouthed,
Daring to think, it’s him, it’s really him.
A man grips a woman by the shoulders
On a bed in the open air, a courtyard
With a wall no taller than their knees stopping
No one from getting in or seeing them there
In the middle of a town blue as the sky,
An anxious overcast blue, both of them clothed,
Both of them solemn and seated, halfway
Between sleeping and walking, love and goodbye.
A man with wings glides towards them with all
The speed a painted angel can muster—
That is he moves not even an inch,
Only wishes to, such the conundrum of dreams,
The dreamer paralyzed as he acts, eyes flitting
Beneath their lids. Why does he embrace her
Like this, poised for something closer but also
To shake her into sense, you don’t ask
Because you know, have found the answer
Still in your head as before you lost consciousness
In one world and regained it in another,
The dream a warning that comes after
Catastrophe, a ripple in the waters of sleep,
A tremor in the voice of breath, visual
Echo, the mind reminding itself. Stubbornness
Disguised as hope, the dream expects the body
To revolt, do something, anything, miracle
As a compost of facts. I want you, he says
To his wife, and the angel never arrives
With the message of ruin, which is ruin
Without the flames, the soul immunizing itself
Through a little grief, the dream one of them
Wearing the wings of time and not arriving
In time, not going back in it, budging
A single second. But in the dream, it’s 1939,
The world about to lie back and die,
Let the Jerusalem of the body fall
For the ten thousandth time, and afterwards
You’ll wake, you’ll dream it hasn’t happened yet,
Hasn’t happened, everything real, everything right.
“I had the impression that the old man was green;
perhaps a shadow from my heart fell upon him.”
The tender darkness grotesques him, bilious, alien,
One eye wide, the other squinting at Hebrew
Etched in a wall his tiny hand has begun
To scan. Such a natural shade must be true
To more than paint, the artist himself, breath-close
And hunched over with fascination
For the mendicant rebbe’s Russian cap, his
Patched sleeves and rays of golden beard. Vision
Has its own language beyond time or place
Though it must have felt terrible to walk around
Blessed with that verdant face and never take
Root, have anywhere. He still needs to find
The words, the right earth for his wandering,
For his buried heart to bloom from nothing.
Having played for maybe the third time
In twenty years, my wife can only
Giggle, flailing as she fails to snap and spin
The human paddles, trouncing me like Beatrice,
Her heroine in The Postman, that scene
Where Mario crawls in search of the ball
And she engulfs it with her open mouth.
We’ve left the highway for better than rest
Stop sandwiches and all through our chatter
In the tavern the guy with the fast-gun
Pick-up out front who mixes spirits
Stares impatiently, a matter of class,
Not elegance, social strata. I’m sure
He’s never seen Il Postino, this after all
The kind of quaint town one might call an island
Without water, where one hears foreign language
Just about never except from recent arrivals
Who have no choice, and foosball means
A half-lit gin joint, and victory unconsciousness
Or driving very fast for the hell of it
And maybe even dying like Mario
Except with no cause, only reasons.
Each exaggerated bump must lift the truck
On a radical cushion of air
As if its driver vies in a contest
Where the point isn’t rattling a ball
Around somebody’s slot but rising up,
Breaking free of the bar on one’s back
And leaving the field of play, refusing
To be a little man with no face.
As you may have heard, Jose M. Hernandez, an astronaut on the recent Discovery space shuttle mission began his life as a migrant worker–a child laborer who traveled to the U.S. from Mexico to pick fruit and vegetables in California. I’ve combined the spoken words from a poem I just wrote in response to that news with animation to make a short film.
Marveling bystanders applaud his burning
Star, its vertices eight wheeling torches,
A brass hoop he faces the sky to hold
Up with his clenched chin, an adversary
Of gravity, the odds, and just plain sense.
Bare-chested, he boasts a statue’s torso,
The festive skirt of an Aztec sun worshipper.
These tourists of his torrid zone have come
Far south, grope for coins and context, the cosmogony
Of their own experience, mimes unicycling in a park,
A subway cellist sawing off debts, her velvet
Case starry with quarters. The crowd believes him
Here just for show, quaint diversion, a little fun
And profit from useless talent. They’re ravenous
For spectacle, sacrifice to the primitive gods
Of pride and failure, can’t see the hours
Of practice that make the trick possible,
His whole life an act of trembling balance,
Of sweaty breathing and keeping the tender
Jaw rigid. There’s nothing so solitary,
Though his young wife would have assisted,
Selling penny candy from a bag instead
Of sleeping in their dim niche of an apartment.
But she’s ponderous, about to hatch
A little more risk. He’s juggling children
Already and they sear him whenever he gets
Near them, even in his thoughts. The words
He uses flare about him, how this is much
Better than Sinola with its fields, its shootouts,
Though she prays for curtains, a working stove.
He’s like Nanahuatzin the sacred and willing
Legend who leapt into the inferno
And became brilliance in the final age.
He doesn’t want sympathy, just the living green
Ash of Yankee dollars, and he’s tried everything,
Burnishing windshields at stoplights with spit
And paper, guiding drivers parking cars into
A minute of his world. But there’s no playing
With fire, the real draw, or so he wants
Them to think, purveyor of the perfect
Stunt or just another shoddy miracle.