This poem appears in the current issue of The Manhattan Review, Vol. 17, No. 1:
LIBERA NOS A MALO
(for Mark Ludwig)
A friend halfway around the world
refers to his home as his motherland.
His email asks me to understand,
but half a century in that last century
purged for me some arrangements
of words no matter who deploys them.
Fall-out, we call such consequences now.
I have lived here all my life but
never on just earth, rather
on a language landfill, mounded
and overgrown with tinder, dry,
inviting an errant spark, a cigarette
flicked from a fiction headed
elsewhere fast on cruise control.
Residue rumbles away on a signal
via satellite down iron tracks now
overgrown with grasshoppered weeds,
the smell of sun on creosote.
Who dies? Soldiers? Or sons?
Real boys, face down among
the scattered corpses:
in brown water at the cattle crossing,
wedged in a crevice in the rock,
scattered across a blasted field.
Then blessings, old school as a last
cracked chunk of naptha soap,
are chanted over graves (oh man,
hard work, fat city in full view,)
the mourners’ full measure of grief
the principle product
of what had once been wilderness.
The age of wonders was one short story.
Here is a riddle: if I am
a misgiving, tagged in a code
to scan, a son at the sky’s edge
waiting for love or money,
marked man from smoketown,
a lyric sung at zero db,
gravity’s own voice, perhaps
a little blue boy of a singular
urge, why was I born and why
do I feel foolish asking why?
The dead are noisy as a hedge of wrens.
I am ignored among them.
Whose is that face in the shadows?
The art of this inquiry is all night
work, done while weeping for them,
their separate woes, our common lives.
is undefined. I suspect the past
does not resemble its photos:
breath in a jar,
tremulous as a willow,
so long see you
a single parenthesis mark
in the long dialogue,
when the grass is straw,
and the ants, the bees, and all
the late languages
are ghosts, each one alone,
bewildered by the music
of creaking branches.
Deaf to the winter sun,
I returned where the grass
would never again be as tall.
Late messenger, the bare trees
whispered, pray for forgiveness.
All of my fathers are dying.
The archive is on fire.
The possible arts: resistance,
refusal, requiem, remembering,
require another schoolroom
where the work, parsing the syntax
of the ways things happen, scars
inadmissible, begins again.
Fixations and saccades:
certain movements of the eyes
redirected to luminous
ciphers, fixed like a laser
on the heart of the amygdala,
and our children, never
having read a word
of mercy, will be our jurors.
Once I no longer believed,
I could not say what it was
I had believed.
The words themselves
became delight, illuminating
a single yearning,
and I saw that darkness,
reassuring, undescribed, remained.
And I can still see paradise aflame
through all the days of obligation.