Reply to Billy Collins’s
A basket of fruit on a circlet of plastic lace
is scented polymer, false promise of a greengrocer.
My nose sniffs out orange, apple, grape, banana--
as if we’re shopping. Someone could break dentures
on these. My uncle has teeth, but his mind separates
into the soft wax of the past. An orange recalls
his childhood Christmases. Grape is the altar wine
he sips—sidelined—at concelebrated Mass.
Apple, the orchards bordering the final parish
he knows. Banana, lost—South American mission
beyond signposts of memory. “You brought me this
from Guatemala.” The silver bangle dangles
on my still-unspotted wrist. He nods politely,
like someone hearing a foreign language,
as if attention could rename events in the mist.
Banana, grape, orange, apple—chopped fruit salad,
served in compotes by a woman from Belarus.
The illusion of a restaurant preserved because
she escorted us to the private dining room
with a sympathetic nod. He knows me only
because my face retains the shape of an old print.
He calls me by my girlhood nickname; he lets me
take his hand. I hold it. As the smell of plain soap
rises, I find myself grateful for everything--
this clean pleasant revenant of my demented uncle,
bland nourishment in a house of ancient priests,
normalcy in a bowl of artificial fruit.
The morning glory I cut in fury, wild tendrils
choking my careful plantings, strains to come back--
poking clover green through brown mulch,
making me pluck bad luck every week—pale
resilient stems and root hairs, deceptively meek.
I was meek, before I went mad—too easy to bury
in the shredded muck of my life. My variegated
mane, like a corpse’s, grew out in coffin darkness.
Tenacious follicles pulled me through rotting wood
and earth. I coughed up breath-bubbles of mercury.
Sixty percent water—and still I rise, I rise
with the carbon-paper blossoms of dawn,
the trammeled river glinting under new skies.
My face redevelops, a silver gelatin landscape
baring teeth like a mountain range,
pouring unforgiving sunlight from its eyes.
Valediction Without Central Metaphor
You were my coup de foudre, my love at first sight.
In French, this means stroke of lightning—electricity
running through my stunned body from crown to sole.
Love, you were blind. From birth, your eye muscles
twitched, your deep nearsightedness strained beyond
correction—much less cure--by any surgery or lens.
Congenital vertical nystagmus—life sentence
to magnified text, to voice synth, to print pressed
close to your gorgeous face. A petal between pages
I shut to keep blooming somehow. A wing’s shadow.
All the sad songs that make blindness a metaphor
for failure, unperceived fortune, letting me/you go,
I must redact, skipping at that phrase—scratched
record, heart’s needle jumping and moving on. Love,
I tried to say goodbye without leaving, but no--
the radiance of your presence receded from my flesh.
Once we walked hand in hand, pressure of small
fingers on sinuous palm affectionate and directional.
I cherished everything about you—your monocular
scanning street signs, a steampunk periscope. The cane
you hated, albino spider crouched folded by the wall.
Love, oh careless love—the quiver of your mood-ring eyes,
darkening to blue, drew me to your sky, both canopy
and ground for coupling. Shaken by the foreplay of desire.
Inside the big tent, we are watching
real toads in imaginary gardens.
Blooms and tendrils glisten, watered
silk under a naked coat of glycerine.
The toads blink, lumps of dirt and spit.
We catch them with our hands in the field.
They piss our palms in defensive terror.
That stink is as stubborn to get out as ink.
The toads look as bored as we feel. The crowd
cries for meme clowns and horses. Daring
young men on a redacted flying trapeze, gliding
on strips of dark air with the greatest of ease.
We live in a wheel / where everyone steals.
You sigh. The first smoke curls from your nostrils.
An arsonist, febrile as a smoldering cigarette,
hooks the line on waxed canvas, where it bursts
into a famous many-fingered ball of fire.
The crowd rears. Wallace Stevens looks up
from his polished desk, thinking, The tragedy,
however, may have begun. On the grounds,
the women and children and drifters of Hartford
are burning. We work on in the panic
of numberless dead, in the trauma of children--
barely scorched—like the giant cats that flowed
on instinct down black chutes into a world
patched round. Afterward, only their feline minds
could bear the shouts, the memory of flame.
And Little Miss—her face unmarked except
for a sleeping shadow and a scorched bindi--
was buried in flowers, exhumed, buried again.
We could spend a lifetime identifying her.
Furling the big top, walking home from school
in the trampled mud of silence.