1. The Letter
Everywhere the windows give up nothing
but frost’s intricate veined foliage.
Just engines shrilling pocked and frozen streets
wailing toward some new disaster.
No bright angels’ ladders going to split
heaven this Chicago instant where the pier’s
an iced fantastic: spiked, the glacial floes
seize it greedy like a careless treasure—
marquise diamonds, these round clear globes, the psychic’s
crystal world spinning in her corner shop
when I passed, a globe boundaried with turning
silent winds and demons. Out here the pavement’s
a slick graffitied strip: There’s more to life
than violence. Someone’s added Yes, Sex and Drugs.
Hello, Plague Angel. I just heard your wings
hiss off the letter on my table—Emily’s
in prison again, her child’s lost to the State,
Massachusetts. Fatigue, pneumonia,
the wasting away. In the secret hungering,
the emptiness when we were young would come
the drug’s good sweep like nothing else,
godly almost the way we’d float immune
& couldn’t nothing touch us, nothing.
Somehow I’d thought you’d pass her over—
positive yes—but never really sick,
that flayed above her door there’d be some sign
of mercy. But there’s only January’s
rough ministry peeling my face away.
Light like the cruel light of another century
& I’m thinking of Dickinson’s letter,
“Many who were in their bloom have gone
to their last account and the mourners go about
the streets.” The primer pages yellowing
on her shelf beneath an album of pressed gentian:
“Do most people live to be old? No, one half die
before they are eight years old. But one in four lives
to see twenty-one.” She’d known the bitter sponge
pressed to the fevered forehead, the Death Angel’s
dark familiar company, how she’d swirl her veils,
how she’d lean over the ewer and basin
blackening the water. This arctic water, this
seething rustle—lamé, sequins, a glitter wrap
trailing from a girl’s shoulders so the shadow pimps
go hey princess, why you so sad tonight,
let me make you happy, when she’s only tired,
up all night & needing a hit to let her sleep.
We know that story, the crest and billow
& foam and fleeting fullness
before the disappearing. Discs of hissing ice,
doors you (I?) might fall through to the underworld
of bars & bus stations, private rooms of
dancing girls numb-sick & cursing the wilderness
of men’s round blank faces. Spinning demons.
Round spoon of powder hissing over the flame.
Worlds within worlds, beneath worlds, worlds that flare
and consume so they become the only world.
2. Holy City, City of Night
What is that general rule which tells
how long a thing will live? The primer answers,
Whatever grows quick decays quick: soon ripe,
soon rotten. The rust-blown calla gracing
my table, those Boston girls 20 years gone,
young men in lace & glitter washed alien
by gasoline sunsets, the burning sphere
lapsing below night’s black rim. Live fast, die. . .
we know the rest. Reckless anthem.
The pier cable’s ice-sleeved beneath
my hands—miraculous, yes, to be here
januaried by this lake’s barbaric winterscape
Dickinson might read as savage text
& emblem of a deity indifferent. Her embassy lay
beyond the city of jasper & gold, the beaten
wrought towers scripture promised the saved
would enter. What heaven she found she made.
And so did we, worlds that sear, consume—earthly,
delirious. Ignis fatuus. Strike the match,
the fizzing cap. But Oh Reader, the wild beauty
of it, the whirring rush, blond hiss of aerial
miles, worn stairways in every burning school
of nodding classrooms, the buzz-snap of
talk blurring hallucinatory fraught
avenues. Illusive inner city, drugged
majestic residence spiraled with staircases,
balustrades rococoed, lapidary. Invisible empires
dreamt beneath the witchery of birds
circling the Common with twilight, their caw
& settle, the patterns as they wheel
over the pond’s reflective mirror bruised
roseate, violet, deeper, the swanboats
darkening into night’s charged dazzle,
Park Square joints gone radiant, the bus station
burnished before the zap, the charge, the edge.
It was the life, wasn’t it? Compatriots you’d
just love to die for, who’d jump you
in a New York minute. But the glory
as the lights went up, torching the air chartreuse,
lipsticked pink, casting embers, seraphic fires
fallen earthward. Fallen, the furious emblems.
We were so young we’d spend & spend
ourselves as if there’d be no reckoning, then grew
past caring. All the darkening chapters.
Dream time, the inner time
where towers and battlements erect
their coruscating glamour & how we’d glide,
celebrities among them, the crowds falling back,
dream deeper, gone & wake to daylight’s assault
knocking another bare room, the alley, the bathroom
you inhabit like the thief you are. Ignis fatuus.
I can follow you there, Emily, we girls
setting out a thousand ruined nights in the splendor
of the torched & reckless hour.
Who wouldn’t trade heaven for that fleet city
when winter beaks the shattered pane,
when summer’s a nauseous shimmmer
of sexual heat, though sex is a numb machine
you float above? When the place you walk into
is a scream in the shape of yourself.
When it makes perfect sense to blow someone away
for 20 bucks beyond even your bleak human universe.
When the only laughter that falls down
is iron & godless. Here, I—the one who left—
must falter where persists
this chrome traffic shrill, where the cable’s
bitter alloy comes away in my hand,
this metaled pungence of hair and skin
in wind persists riven as the taste of myself,
the blood blooming healthy,
real in my mouth, a future’s lavish venues
spread stunned before me. These hands.
3. Combat Zone/War Stories
The district’s been demolished, sown with salt.
The dazzling girls, girls, girls in platinum wigs
have been lifted away by some infernal agency,
the queens, exotic Amazons & rough-trade gay boys.
Sometimes I go back to walk the streets all shops
and swank hotels, the office blocks & occasional
burnt-out shell. So American, this destruction
& renewal, cities amnesiac where evening’s
genesis falls through vast deserted silences,
towers grown otherworldly with light
thrown starlike from some alien world. Gone the Show Bar,
the Mousetrap, the whole gaudy necklace
of lacquer-dark underground lounges, halls
of mirrors, music billowing dancers
clean out of themselves beyond the dead-faced tricks,
the sick voyeurs. The Combat Zone. I can map it
in my mind, some parallel world, the ghost city
beneath the city. Parallel lives, the ones
I didn’t choose, the one that kept her.
In all that dangerous cobalt luster
where was safety? Home? When we were delirium
on rooftops, the sudden thrill of wind dervishing
cellophane, the shredded cigarettes. We were
the dust the Haitians spit on to commemorate
the dead, the click & slurried fall of beads
across a doorway. In the torn & watered silk
of night, the Zone exploded its shoddy neon orchid
to swallow us in the scent of fear, emergency,
that oily street perfume & weeping brick.
Gossamer clothes, summertime and leaning
against the long dusty cars, cruising siren songs.
Summer? My memory flutters—had I—was there summer?
Dancer, and floor, and cadence
quite gathered away, and I a phantom, to you
a phantom, rehearse the story.
And now it’s autumn turning hard to winter,
Thanksgiving, 1990, & all she wants is sweets
so it’s apple pie barehanded & Emily’s
spinning war stories, how bad she is: So, I say,
go ahead and shoot me, put me out of my misery.
Cut me motherfucker—my blood’s gonna kill you.
Then she’s too tired to sit & in the blue
kaleidoscopic TV shift I stroke
her hair, the ruined hands. I didn’t know
how sick I was—if the heroin wanted the AIDS,
or if the disease wanted the heroin. She asks me
to line up her collection of matchbox houses
so we can make a street, so we can make a neighborhood.
4. Jail, Flames—Jersey, 1971
The psychic’s globe whirls its winds: demons,
countless futures, the pasts. Only
thirteen the first time
I saw you in jail, just a kid looking
up at me, the usual grey detective clamor,
inkpads & sodium flash. Hauled out by the officials,
exemplary bad-news girl, they shoved
a lyric sheet at me. Command
recitation to sway you from straying.
“King Heroin,” James Brown pompadoured like nobody’s
business & here’s Death cartoonishly aloft on a white
winged horse, grim reaper lording it
over the shivering denizens
of a city, exaggerated as any Holy City,
going down, down, down. Just a kid, you, peering out
the jungle of your dark hair, greasy jeans, a tangle
of beads at your throat. Ludicrous,
I know, me declaiming within
the jail gleam that never sleeps all over us,
that effluvium of backed-up plumbing. On my palm,
the bar’s iron taint lingered for hours after.
It didn’t mean that much to me, seventeen,
my practiced sangfroid
chilling the terror, that long drop
inside, the way you collapse to fall in flames.
I might have said you’ll pay for the wild & reckless hour,
pay in the currency of sweat and shiver,
the future squandered, the course
of years reconfigured, relinquishment so
complete it’s more utter than any falling in love. Falling
instead in flames, burning tiles spiraling to litter
the courtyards of countless places that will
never be yours, the fingerprints,
tossed gloves & glittering costumes, flared
cornices & parapets, shattering panes, smoked out
or streaked with embers, the tinder of spools, such
a savage conflagration, stupid edge-game,
the way junkies tempt death,
over & over again, toy with it. I might have
told you that. Everything you ever meant to be, pfft,
out the window in sulphured matchlight, slow tinder
& strike, possession purely ardent as worship
& the scream working its way out
of your bones, demolition of wall & strut
within until you’re stark animal need. That is
love, isn’t it? Everything you meant to be falls
away so you dwell within a perfect
singularity, a kind of saint.
Pearl of great price. Majestic, searing,
the crystal globe spins futures unimaginable, that
crucible you know so well, Emily, viral fever refining
you to some essence of pain more furious
than these winter trees
stripped to black nerves above
the El’s streaked girders, a harsh equation, some
god’s iron laughter combing down time’s blind
& hush. Hush child, forgive me.
Twenty years later, you say
that night in jail you looked up
at me & wanted to be me. And I didn’t care.
Hello Death Angel, old familiar, old nemesis.
In the deepest hours, I have recognized
your floating shape. I’ve seen your breath
seduce the torn curtain
masking the empty window, have crouched with you
in the doorway, curled in the alley
hooded in your essence & shadow, have
been left blue, heart-stopped
for yours, for yours. Death,
you are the bead in the raptor’s eye,
Death you dwell in the funneling depths
of the heavens beyond each
star’s keening shrill, Death you are the potion
that fills the vial, the night
the monuments have swallowed. You live
in the maimed child wrapped in a wreckage
of headlines. Death you center
in the fanged oval
of the prison dog’s howl. Death you dwell within
the necropolis we wake to in nightmare’s
hot electric wind. You glint
the edge of the boy’s razor,
patient in the blasted stairwell. Everywhere
you walk deep lawns, TVs pollinating air
with animals wired up to dance
for their food, with executions
& quiz shows. You’re in the column
of subway wind roaring before each
train’s arrival. I’ve seen you drape thoughtlessly
a woman’s hair over her face
as the shot carried her forward into stop-time
& beyond anything she’s laid
her money down for. Death your sliver works
swiftly through the bloodstream.
Hello Death Angel, Plague is your sister.
I’ve seen her handiwork, heard
the tortured breath, watched her loosen the hands
of the dazzling boys from each other.
For love, love. I’ve seen the AIDS hotels
& sick ones begging homeless
in the tunnels, the whispered conspiracies.
Shameless emissaries with your powders
& wands, your lunar carnivorous flowers.
Tricks, legerdemain. I’ve seen you draw
veined wings over the faces of sleepers,
the abandoned, the black feather that sweeps
so tenderly. I’ve seen the stain you scribe
on the pavement, the glossy canopy of leaves
you weave. I’ve seen waste & ruin, know
your kingdom for delirium, the furious thumbprints
you’ve scored on the flesh of those you choose.
I’ve seen you slow-dance in a velvet mask, dip
& swirl across dissolving parquet.
I’ve seen you swing open the iron gate—
a garden spired in valerian, skullcap, blue vervain.
Seen you stir in the neat half-moons, fingernails
left absently in a glazed dish.
Felons, I’ve cursed you in your greed, have spat
& wept then acquiesced in your wake. Without rue
or pity, you have marked the lintels & blackened
the water. Your guises multiply, bewildering
as the firmament’s careless jewelry.
Death I have welcomed you to the rooms
where Plague has lain when the struggle is passed
& lit the candles and blessed the ash.
Death you have taken my friends & dwell
with my friends. You are the human wage.
Death I am tired of you.
6. Dartmouth Women’s Prison, 1992
Emily, delirium’s your province.
You dwell feverish in prison
voiceless to plead
your need before the agencies
of government who cannot hear the buildings
falling & oil exploding, only people walking
& talking, cannon soft as velvet from parishes
that do not know you are burning up,
that seasons have rippled
like a beast the grasses beyond
They cannot hear the strummed harp
or the nerves, black trees swaying winter,
cannot know your child is lost to you.
The human wage that’s paid & paid?
Once, we were two girls
setting out toward that city
of endless searing night, the route taking on
the intricacy, the fumes & bafflements
of a life a woman might dream turning
feverish in her prison bunk. Probation violation,
when broke & sick, no way home
from the clinic, the detective going
ride with me, just talk, that’s all
I want. Twenty bucks and him crowing
we just love to run you little sluts in.
Em, if I could reach you through the dust motes’
spinning, infernoed dreams, I would dwell
in the moon’s cool glistering
your cell, the rough cloth, the reflection
of your face given back in the steel basin’s
water, in the smooth moan of women loving women,
a cacophony of needs. I am there with you lost
in the chaos of numbers, that nattering P.A. buzz,
in the guards’ trolling clank & threat echoing
walls so eloquent
with all the high-frequency sizzle
of anguish they’ve absorbed.
Emily, I will bless your child, will
hold for you the bitter sponge,
would give you staff & orb, a firmament
radiant & free.
But these are phantoms, lies—
I cannot follow where you are. On my street,
the psychic’s crystal globe whirls pasts, futures
but where you are is timeless.
Pain—has an Element of Blank—It cannot recollect
when it Began—or if there were
a time when it was not—
It has no Future—but itself. . .
Off the lake a toothed wind keens
& it’s just me here, the one who’s left.
Just me helpless to change anything caught
in this ellipsis between traffic, this
fleet human delay, all around
the wind singing like a mechanical ballerina
a girl might hold in her hand, the one
that watched your childhood bed, porcelain
upturned gaze, stiff tutu, dust in the folds
of that spindly piercing music sounding
of voices winged over water, becoming
water, & gone.
7. A Style of Prayer
There is a prayer that goes Lord I am powerless
over these carnivorous streets, the fabulous
breakage, the world’s ceaseless perpetuum mobile,
like some renaissance design, lovely & useless
to harness the forces of weather, the planet’s
dizzy spin, this plague. A prayer that asks
where in the hour’s dark moil is mercy?
Ain’t no ladders tumbling down from heaven
for what heaven we had we made. An embassy
of ashes & dust. Where was safety? Home?
Is this love, staff, orb & firmament?
Parallel worlds, worlds within worlds—chutes
& trapdoors in the mind. Sisters & brothers,
the same thing’s going down all over town, town
after town. There is a prayer that goes Lord,
we are responsible. Harrow us through the waves,
the runnels & lace that pound, comb, reduce us so
we may be vessels for these stories.
Oh, the dazzling men torn one from the other,
these women taken, these motherless children.
Perhaps there’s no one to fashion such new grace,
the world hurtling its blind proposition
through space & prayer’s merely a style of waiting
beyond the Hour of Lead—
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow—
First Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go. . .
But oh, let Emily become anything
but the harp she is, too human, to shiver
grievous such wracked & torn discord. Let her be
the foam driven before the wind over the lakes,
over the seas, the powdery glow floating
the street with evening—saffron, rose, sienna
bricks, matte gold, to be the good steam
clanking pipes, that warm music glazing the panes,
each fugitive moment the heaven we choose to make.