VALENTINES FOR THE DEAD
It’s Friday night and Billie Holiday’s not singing. I’ve thought of you constantly since Wednesday night. I stamped all my emotions on paper and tried to remember your face and warmth when we danced.
When we came into the city that afternoon through Queens we passed a cemetery where the coffins were buried upright. There were so many headstones and markers they seemed to litter the space, a conglomeration like some macabre skyline rising and falling and tripping over itself. Heads closer to Heaven.
Honey, you know about desire. It lays down beside me when I’m trying to sleep. It follows me around like a loyal childhood dog, tracking on my heels, watching my moves. It howls under the skin and sucks at my heart. It begs to be fed. And just when I think I’ve succeeded in shaking it, it comes out of nowhere and kisses me breathless. There are no blackouts when it comes to desire. It forces you to ride a fast train of sharp memory.
Seeing you makes Manhattan a close place. All the knives are folded safely away. All the bullets turn to shiny brass charms. It’s just you, your face, your hands.
Sometimes I lay like a prostrate angel with a broken wing- thinking and thinking. How can I help but dream of getting high on desire? I try to focus on other things, watch the birds feeding on the front porch, but even the cardinals remind me of wild, fluttering hearts. When I saw you walk in the room the other night, your clothing and hair black as an exclamation point, I smiled. You were a strange, beautiful bird coming to see me.
Before we left for New York that afternoon a friend brought me pale pink Parrot Tulips. The edges of the petals are jagged and fuzzy. They remind me of us. They are part of this desire and madness and dreams of the underground that seems to hold us together throughout the past decade.
And downstairs at the club in New York where you lead other lives, the girl who sang like Billie Holiday gave us something to take home. She gave us nostalgia and big bright flowers that will not fade.
GARY COOPER OUT OF THE RAIN
I could forget these past 11 years maybe, if I never touched you again. Feeling your warmth, the pressure of your hand in mine, and breathing in the scent of you is a homecoming.
When we danced close, out of time with the music, it felt like the stars design. It felt like the last piece of a puzzle being put in. I felt very beautiful, like if it were the 1930’s and Gary Cooper, having come in out of the rain for a drink and a little music would’ve fallen in love with me.
But you and I are still strange to one another, having never kissed or known the soft curves of each other’s bodies. It seems natural that we first met on Christmas , a holy night on the verge. No one sees you like I do.
SHOOT FIRST, ASK QUESTIONS LATER
A few months ago I met someone who’d come up to me and hold both my hands in his, and look at me so steadily I thought I would dissolve. He was so handsome I couldn’t help whispering to him that every time I saw him I felt like touching him. I saw him on Halloween at a costume ball when I was dressed in a white gown, elaborate as a wedding cake, with white chrysanthemums in my hair. I was Cinderella again, leaving before I wanted to, thinking I was losing something.
Days after that I found out he was a junkie, so I wrote him into a safe script. And there he remains.
Seeking communion has led me to precarious places, toward the eclipsed brilliance of dawn where things are mishapen and unreal. I’ve turned many sorry men into shining gods.
“No greater marvellous Know I than the mind’s Natural jungle.” –Robert Duncan
In my mind’s “natural jungle” there are giant trees out of a science fiction novel, vines with ruby red flowers dripping from them. There are secret tribes, thousands of years old, who hide themselves and worship spirits whose names are a prayer long. And of course all of my time there is spent trying to make sure I don’t become a pale sacrifice.
“But the lady is undefinable,She will be the door in the wall To the garden in sunlight. I will go on talking forever…
I will go to the garden. I will be a romantic. I will sell Myself in hell, In heaven also I will be.” –Robert Creeley
I will be a romantic.
You remember that phone call from Bakerfield, the last time you uncovered yourself to me. I pressed you for the truth. I wanted to know if you wanted to touch me. And after the arguement that lasted 7 months I sent a powder blue vase in a pile of autumn leaves with the poem “Stand By Me.”
Jonathon, do you suppose I could love you any more than I do right now? Can we survive these little deaths that happen every time we are loving someone else? When the hunter hits the target of the deer’s heart the wide brown eyes look heavenward, succumb to the lead and kiss another world.
I will be a romantic. I will sell myself.
And all the crows came around Looking for a body To come down on.
WHEN YOU’RE ON THE NILE
When I called DC to talk to crush #9 he said: It doesn’t matter where I am, in Des Moines or Chicago, or San Francisco, I think I see you.
Oh, milk-white executive I said, when you’re on the Nile with all the clever charcoal- haired women, those descendents of Cleopatra, will you still think of me?
I don’t believe you.
When I’m inside here it will be you I feel. When I kiss her it will be you I taste.
You, I said, will never know the sensation of my mouth discovering you. Sweetheart, I never told you, did I, how late at night thinking of you sometimes I…
I make myself pretty, put cherry red gloss on and white lace garter and misty stockings with the double seems up the back like DO NOT PASS lines on the highway. I put on a cloud colored bra that unties in the front, massage poppy oil into my wrists and behind my knees. And I lay on the bed, a curled S, just thinking of you watching me. I touch my heart. My hand move to my belly, down…
What do you do then?
Tell me what it is you want me to do.
THE BOY ELLIS
I met on a train. He was from Hawaii, said he sang for a living. For two hours he told me his love story, how he was crazy about a woman named Sabrina. Every song he wrote was for her. She’s been gone 2 years but he kept writing about her, hoping the words would somehow draw her back. She’d signed off to him on his answering machine and the next time he heard from her she was married and living in Oklahoma. She’d never come back, he said.
“She’ll never give the music back to me,” he said, “But she won’t keep them either.” And then he looked out the window at the landscape which was passing us like a slow, solemn train.
NEITHER GREEN NOR GOLD
When the dumb night speaks it is begging with hands and eyes and breath. We are neither green nor gold. At the Spanish festival they place a silver ladder in the middle of the room for Jesus to step down on. (But his body now is only comprised of rain and wind.) And I am waiting. Downtown the marquis titles try to draw down the sun, to rise starward. We are like the legends featured there- missing a vowel, bright on one end and burned out at the other.
NOVENA 14 WAS THE NAME OF THE WINE
Against daylight the world-eaters go in search of a familiar face and a sterile needle. Daybreak and cigarettes bring ghosts. Accidental knowledge. Accidental everything.
In the dream my hands were nailed together in perpetual prayer. All of the books before me were thick and damp, pages clung together like lovers on the eve of war. In the blue world beneatha yellow star the heart is only a congested mass of red.
“The acts of my life swarm down the street Like Puerto Rican kids,
Foreign but small and,
except for one,
Unknived.” —William Meredith
And the night was a red carpet absorbing echoes from the flophouse. A girl called Ruby danced in a velvet gown and the rain stormed like an angry Father into town.. Once, an old woman with a patch of leopard skin on her arm (a Nazi medical experi- ment) gave me a thin volume called The Book of Leaves. It told of how we swim inside Raphael’s head while he dreams his primary angels, who together are like wayward pollen being blown and wished on.
I’m the smoke, not the genie.
I’m the perfume, not the bloom.
I’m the cooing, not the bird.
The mermaid is a half-green myth who dives in her mediterranean skin to where unlucky sailor’s bones are thickly settled in the deep sea gloom. A tympani rises from their percussive remains. Where Venus stepped out of the sea and rose to glory, we are made to sink and summon blind faith for our next black or incredible journey.
THE SOFT HEART CINEMA
Waiting three nights for you I looked all over town, all the bars and dark spots. Started checking alleys, hospitals, thinking maybe you pushed yourself a little too hard. I even showed your photo to the corner girls like I was one of Charlie’s angels. “We would’ve kept him.” they said. So I came here to wait, crawled in your bed with a bottle of gin, and after awhile it gave me feeling. The smell of pine where it spilled built a forest around me.
Who were you with, honey? And do you think you love her?
I know you don’t have time to draw a map of where you’re going, but I just need to know that you’re alive.
Please don’t tell me you met the blues again. Tell me you haven’t been numb, bright and dumb as a poppy. Tell me you haven’t been nowhere all of this time. Tell me it was magic your fingers pulled from the hat. Because right now you look as tight and twisted as El Greco’s crucified Jesus Christ.
BREATH, LUST, BREAD
In the cool gold of November the smell of burning corn fields thickens the air. The incense of scarecrow upon scarecrow piles high in a bonfire. Those brave, nameless sentinels, those faceless crucified martyrs.
A step breaks the fallen leaves and my heart starts awkwardly like an injured butterfly. It’s the lover I’ve sunk all of my words into coming from between the arthritic, pale autumn trees. Strange birds fall and catch on the branches, part imagination and part dead leaves.
His tongue is cool and tastes like cherry tobacco. Something deepens within us, some ritual we’re blind to. We are figures in a shadowbox. Turn the light on and shine it this way. There is no sun in this world to walk by. Only give us the future wrapped in gold. Give us breath, lust, bread, water, magic, light, flight. Give us gods and glory and omens to believe in.
Give us life.
The name belladonna (Italian for “Beautiful lady”, comes from a custom By Italian women in medieval times. They would drop the sap of the plant into The eye to dilate the pupil enormously, Causing a drunken or glassy stare to Enhance sensuality.”
Jonathon, the dark softness of your hair when you lean close to talk above the music comes back to me nights later. It may be years before I see you again but this remains. In Autumn’s house leaves are burning. St. Thomas slides faith into the wound. Like those girls so divinely focused as they cling to crosses in the old Rock of Ages paintings, I hold you to me.
And together we are beautiful. And together we are holy.
Oh, just to feel his hair tickle my thighs one more time, to have his smile open on me again, that
warmth that is life.
In the lead box he lay squarely, stiff and odd. I felt the cool mouth beneath my kiss. His hand felt
smooth and unyielding as statuary when I held it, but it still had not struck me that he wasn’t
coming back. With my thumb I nudged his eyelid back. The green eyes did not look at me, didn’t
blink but focused on the ceiling where the small spotlights shone like displaced jewels. There
was a smudge of make-up on my finger and a sickly sweet smell about him. Into the earth, the
perfect mouth and oversized heart.
Desire is like a loyal childhood dog, following on your heels, watching your moves, picking up
your signals. It howls under the skin, sucks at your heart and begs to be fed.
At the funeral I didn’t shed a tear. Tears would mean that Death had been the victor, and I
didn’t believe this. Yes, Death may have come, wrestled a life and left an imposter in its place,
but it had only succeeded in taking away the shell of Jonathon, not the essence and spirit. I could
still feel those, alive and beating. I think you must also have known this desire that creeps
around corners, and through holes in the walls like a snake slithering through the first opening
he finds. Would we try so hard to live a life without it if we knew for certain that our futures are
fixed and already waiting for us like a silent picture show?
LAMB LOCKED INSIDE
You are sweet and full of tomorrow, hour hands beg for Heaven’s salty forgiveness. You are an
evergreen beating, Indian Summer, a time out of season. You are the lamb locked inside stained
glass windows, and you are loved because you must be loved, and you yourself must love.
Now November arrived with its cold gold, and then December with its blinking red, green
and rainbow lights, and they seemed to me like Morse Code I could not grasp. With the loss of
Jonathon I had become part of a new landscape and even the constancy of nature became
unnatural. Sounds were not simple voices or bells or traffic, they were now cacaphony. In the
midst of all this upheaval there also shined truths that I’d never known. I saw that there are
endless sources for healing, even in the tiny space of a bird’s heart. I saw the sense in all sequence
of things, the precision that triumphs in nature. I was part of it all and nothing I could say or do
would make it otherwise.
It was Christmas Eve, two months since Jonathon’s absence. I walked through the woods, my
feet burning with frost, and the night was dizzy with snowfall. The naked trees above me
stretched their limbs toward an impossible embrace, like so many humans. I thought of others
who would be gathered around warm table with their loved ones in celebration. I
thought of lovers warming each other in drafty rooms, the childrens sweet, irrepressible
dreams. Into the earth the perfect mouth and oversized heart. Into the ground.
Until I arrived graveside I doubted I would actually find the nerve. Under my shovel the
ground felt like a rock, and it landed over and over until I made some headway. I think it was
only that desire I spoke of earlier that gave me the strength and patience to keep digging. I kept
at it for hours, and I was sweating and tired when the shovel finally hit the coffin lid.
A hollow thud rose up through my own heavy breathing. I threw the shovel aside and rested.
Above, the great cavern of stars trembled. The moon, clear and full witness to any sacrifices
being made for it, shined silently. I began to debate with myself over the simple and the sublime
until the wonders of the world no longer held any wonder at all. Yes, I was sitting on the coffin
lid on Christmas Eve, and snowfall was slowly placing a halo on my head.
I never once doubted being there. It was one of the small details that are part of a bigger picture,
even if I couldn’t see it yet. I thought of the expression “When Hell freezes over.” and I seemed to
know now what it truly meant. I was pulling at the handles soon, and the heavy lid snapped
back. It took a few moments to clearly focus on Jonathon’s features. What did I expect to see
there? A shadow of the man I loved? It was undoubtedly him, but his skin resembled moonlight
and his hair seemed darker, longer. A smile tugged at the edges of his mouth. I said a prayer
and looked up to the stars.
THE SHINE OF LIFE
Years before I had met Jonathon, before a man had ever even touched my skin, I had dreamed
of a warm hearted lover with an easy laugh. Now I dreamed once more, of a warm hearted
lover. Of my own easy laugh. Just close your eyes, I told myself. You are here beside him, your
hand resting on the region of his heart, and if you listen hard enough you can hear a beating like
a far off marching band approaching a small town. Just close your eyes, and believe. All you
need is to believe.
Jasmine had always been my favorite flower and now I breathed in their distinct smell as
though I were steeped in a whole field of them. The pungent smell overwhelmed me. I opened my
eyes. The trees now were not bare with only blackbirds moving in them, they were green and
lush, full of movement and the shine of life. I squinted against the sunlight and its warmth
enveloped me, wrapping my skin in gold. Jesus, was I dreaming? Jonathon was no longer beside
me. If I had in fact been dreaming I could’ve summoned him, couldn’t I? Surely I would soon
wake to the bitter cold and find him with me again.
The columns of poplars stood erect as sentinels against the sky. I walked toward them, my feet
no longer tight with frost, but sensitive to the soft grass beneath them. My clothes felt too heavy
now, the wool overcoat hanging off my shoulders like a tired child. I let it fall to the ground. The
warm breeze wrapped my dress around me, and I continued through the trees. Ahead there was
a small pond, dragonflies weaving above it and occasionally skimming the surface.
I turned to look back and saw that I wasn’t alone. Someone was watching me.
BIRTH IS A DROWNING
She was perhaps the most beautiful person I’d ever seen. A woman, yes, but without the clear
definition of one. When she moved it was like water, her hair, limbs and fingers liquid smoke. In
one quick movement she was beside me. Although she was silent I knew that she was bidding
me to follow her into the water. Life begins in the water, she was conveying to me. Birth is a
drowning. She slipped her slender arm through mine and not being able to help myself, I
The water was as warm as the air, but I entered slowly and she didn’t rush me. Up to my
waist in water I could see my dress waving outward, graceful as the petals of flowers in the
wind. There was a slight pressure on my shoulders then as I was being urged backward to let
myself sink like a stone. Hands were holding me down and I did not struggle with them.
Through the water the sky looked green, and the clouds were widening like spilled
paint. I felt weightless, and although I could sense my heartbeat as muffled and sluggish it no
longer pained me.
I opened my mouth and swallowed.
I couldn’t feel the river finding its way down my throat, soaking me from the inside. The
hands that had let me down so easily were now busy comforting me, pushing back loose
tendrils of hair from my face. My dress was being smoothed and tucked neatly under my body.
Finally when I had hoped for nothing more than a clean darkness to swallow me there came a
kiss on my forehead, and the face of Jonathon was looking sadly down on me.
I was not Paradise-bound, it only seemed like I’d crossed the boundaries of some brilliant
nether world. I had nothing. My heart and my mind had shown me these beautiful things like a
Mother who has covered her child’s eyes against wickedness. I had never left the icy shelter of
the coffin where it still snowed heavily.
DARKNESS TO SWALLOW
“Do you suppose this was Hell? ” I asked out loud to the still figure beside me. I leaned and
kissed his cold, unyielding mouth. I hummed Ave Maria and Silent Night and a hollow ech
came back to me.
I closed the coffin lid against the snow, and closed my eyes against the world outside.