Sunday on U Street
Let’s pretend that it’s midnight
as saxophonist Gary Bartz
steps onto the stage.
The room darkens;
candles on the table flicker.
Shadows hide the thickset men at the wall.
The ceiling lowers;
tiny lights strung above stand in for stars.
Imagine moonlight rippling on salt water.
The scent of mango dusted with
chili powder and cinnamon
trickles in with the piano and drums.
We taste fruits we don’t know the names of.
Tap your toes, for sure,
or sway, following the pianist’s lead,
but when the horn starts in again,
carry yourself a little straighter.
Cameras flash. Wedged in,
we are all caught in the glare.
All too soon imagine
the empty streets above.
Playing the last song, Bartz retreats
into the early morning’s shadows,
the color of his long-tailed jacket,
and climbs the back stairs
to his refuge above the club.
When we leave by the front stairs,
it’s still daylight on U Street.
We can no longer pretend.
dreams of standing on a ridge in Britain,
looking down on cathedrals and car parks,
on pubs and Morris dancers,
albums she knew from
used record stores and
long-lost friends’ collections.
Dirty blonde hair
streaming in the wind,
she would be barefoot,
wear white, in spite
of mud and wet grass.
At fifty, she sits in traffic.
Through mousy- brown bangs,
she blinks at mist
falling on her windshield,
the line of cars
snaking on past the exit.
As violins on the CD swell,
a young man sings
about growing older
on a morning like this one.
He has just arrived in town;
she has lived in this state
for a dozen years.
Visiting the Ancestors
The deer are visiting the ancestors,
nibbling on grass at Mt. Calvary,
waiting in the shade of winter
underneath the low trees that could be
on a riverbank in the deep
South that the ancestors fled from.
The five deer browse on the
pale green fringe of the cemetery,
limp parsley left on winter’s plate
beside the river that neither flows
nor freezes. The deer have bodies
the color of earth in shadow,
but they could be spirit animals
of family living elsewhere come to
visit great-grandparents in the ground,
the great-grandfather who was gentle with
farm animals, remembered horses and mules,
the great-grandmother who kept a pot
on the stove for family, neighbors,
and friends, served Red Rose tea
with milk and sugar like coffee,
The deer linger on the fringes
like the awkward children they
once were when the ancestors
The Space Between
She remembers riding, being driven
from county to county on state roads
two blue-black lanes cut through
cornfields, no houses, trees, or towns,
no radio or mixtape in the old car,
only their words, only talk.
Or maybe they did not like the same music.
He liked disco; she liked hip-hop.
Fifteen years after, she mourned John’s death;
he did not even own one Beatles CD.
She didn’t know what was there
beyond the car, the road, the books they’d read,
in-house gossip, the stars he knew but she didn’t,
the drive to Indy or Champaign.
She didn’t know about the trees
or the wildflowers she was not seeing.
To her friend, this was still the East,
only twenty four hours’ drive from the coast
fueled on Diet Coke and cigarettes
bought at Wal-Mart on Route 26.
Having left home, she imagined
that she was changing
in the space between, going someplace
different from where she’d been.
She shook her newly red hair then.
She shakes her short brown hair now.
Back East again, she puts on her glasses
as if to see all that she had missed:
the abandoned farmhouses,
the yellow and red marigolds that outlast
trees and walls, crumbling brick towers,
people who emerge from whitewashed storefronts
in someone else’s online photographs
of all that grows in the space between.
We Disaster Tourists Travel
Seaweed on the Beach
Reds, greens, browns, and mustard yellow
add earthy undertones,
the taste of miso,
to the neons, the overexposed
blues and whites and yellows,
the painted plaques and t-shirts,
the stick candies and salt-water taffy
sold at the gift store.
The rusty Irish moss
on this beach
will not turn into
anemones or coral
or even amber sea glass.
Like the seagull accents
wheeling in the wind
the moss remains.
At Low Tide
Already a ghost at twenty-three,
the singer Tim Buckley howls,
scaling octaves, stretching out syllables
until they dissolve in salty mist.
His fog of consonants and vowels,
salt and smoke, hovers, grazing
the skin of the dark-haired woman
standing by the window, holding
a candle in a baby-food jar.
Outside stairs to the second floor
quiver beneath keyboards and bass,
heavy footsteps of a ghost.
She turns away from the sea.
Cupping her hand around the
white flame, she blows out
her candle before the voice
breaks the last barrier
between indoors and out. Nobody
walks out on damp sands,
so far from cold water,
much further from yesterday’s warmth.
Nobody walks out at low tide.
Even the seagulls dissolve
as if they were salt.
The woman at the window
has turned away. Her man
will not climb up to her,
not this morning, not tonight,
not when the fog wails
and salt embitters the air.
Let's Go Away for Awhile
Thelma and her husband sing along to Pet Sounds
when driving to the Cape. Jerry Cole’s guitar
begins “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” and they launch
into song, his voice too wild, hers with
the Texas accent she never can lose. They
plunge in, splashing past strip malls and swamp.
But this instrumental is the song she loves best,
the vibraphone like sunshine against drums like surf,
the horns like the wave that crashes furthest
onto the rocks, not quite the highway.
The strings are clouds, meringue she has whipped
up in a stainless steel bowl at home.
She almost forgets that the east coast
has weak surf, and slimy seaweed clings to
waders’ calves in warm, knee-high water
as she and her husband waddle in among
the thin girls from Boston. She then remembers
cold, cloudy Mondays when the two of them
drive back home, listening to their inland music:
Chicago blues, Texas swing, Hank Williams’ “Honky Tonkin,"
the old songs that better suit their voices.
Maybe she likes that this instrumental comes before
anyone can see the bridge or the traffic.
Or she likes to catch her breath
before “Sloop John B”’s lyrics grind her down
like the refrain of a whiny child.
She catches her breath.
What I Found Among the Reeds
The reeds conceal
the wetland that remains.
Smooth stalks protect
algae, frogs, birds
the swallow of water.
The bus labors
through heat and humidity
from early morning to
past exhausted, orange dusk.
When I walk,
the reeds reveal
a turtle, black nub
on a rain-slicked log
in water the color
left to the elements.
The reeds reveal
the wet stench of life,
sour mud, honeysuckle,
sulfur mixed with exhaust,
grease, and perfume.
Birds chirp and pulse
above low traffic.
The bus is electric;
it runs silently today.
Then I see
behind the reeds:
faded bottles and cans,
in the water.
Maryvale Park in July
The pond at the park clouds over.
Flies and fish kiss the water’s surface.
Three birds dart through the air above.
Everywhere there is life – in the water,
the reeds, the islands of brown-gray mud,
the flowers that crowd around the pond
as it shrinks and grows opaque. But
I cannot find the turtle I saw
last night. Squinting, holding my breath, I
glimpse it. But it does not move.
It is a turtle-shaped rock, mineral, not animal.
Bronze diamond, it will stay there forever.
I listen to the cicadas’ twisting percussion,
look for flowering milkweed, and watch fireflies
like beads of sweat on hot nights.
Soon they too will die. Only sky,
earth, and water
In Pale November
when I was Marianne Moore, wearing a black straw hat,
we wandered through the woods he knew too well.
Leafless trees clutched at the faded sky.
Stones and fallen branches littered the ground.
I listened to his youthful harangue
and watched for birds and plants she would have seen,
but it was long past time for even poison ivy
or bittersweet berries. So he and I drifted
until the early dark pooled at our feet
to freeze and trip us like the branches, stones,
and fallen leaves that always cling to pale November.
For years beginning with that month,
having lost my black straw hat
when we fled back to the city he knew too well,
I listened to his middle-aged litany and ignored
the leather-bound books she wove into her poetry,
following the sound of his voice
into and through the woods and out the other side
to the early darkness, the evergreen trees,
the stray cats, the bus stop signs like clenched fists,
to the long ride on empty buses
back to the city he and I knew all too well.
As I walk through Rock Creek Park in November
(no longer living in the city I once knew),
I count syllables the way she did
and try to remember his voice.
The ghosts of green papayas
and used bookstores
haunt the chain restaurants
that rise up like
invasive flowers. Even so
these places cannot lose
the scent of lemongrass
and the brittle touch
of a yellowed paperback.
The specter of a woman
slips past the windows
of carefully folded cardigans
and the greetings
of the salesclerks who
already know your name.
No one notices this ghost.