Your friends won’t try to talk you out of the barrel,
or your brag to go first, which has nothing to do with bravery.
And you’re so hungry to earn their love you forget
to claim first your, perhaps, last look at this mountain—
crab apples hanging sour in the sun, abandoned Buick,
a favorite place to play, dismantled and weathered
and delicate as a voting booth. Instead you dive straight away
and headfirst into darkness, the steel drum that dusts you,
like a chicken part, with rust. Looking out, there’s nothing
to see of your friends but their calves, which are scabby,
and below them the filthy sneakers, shifting, shifting,
every foot aching to kick you off this cliff.
Their faces, you know, are blank with anticipation,
the look you see when they watch TV eating popcorn.
They’re already talking about you as if you’re gone,
as if you boarded a bus and roared out of earshot,
when one foot flashes forward and launches you.
You know as you feel that first solid slam you are lost.
The barrel changes shape with each crash to earth,
as you will later, assuming and losing lives, but this
is so true now: ankles flayed to the bone, cracked ribs
and crushed mint, the brittle, pissy sumac. Right now
the pin oaks are popping in their sockets, the hillside
wears your shoes, clouds pleat and buck. You know, of course,
that no one’s going second, and friends who tell this story
will use the word idiot, rolling their hands in the air,
but you know you know what your life is for now and rise up,
and just about scalp yourself on that tree limb above you,
another thing you couldn’t possibly know was coming,
another which, like your first breath, was not your idea.
BREATHING UNDER WATER
Florida's just a thumb on a jigsaw puzzle,
but under water the Weeki Watchee Mermaids
pour their tea, cook, exercise, iron clothes, guzzle
with muscular skill their Grapette soda
with only occasional surreptitious sucks
on an air hose hidden in shell-studded scenery.
They grin, open eyes afloat in their blue-lit skulls.
Holding my breath was a skill I practiced, too,
like when I was ten years old and woke to a body
lowering onto my body, and a breath that put me in mind
of a rotten leg, a thing I'd seen in a book once
and which scared me, but not as much as this body
on top of my body, these jabbing fingers. I was wildly aware
that the room I was in was a pigsty, and I was a pig to be sleeping
in my clothes, and I wanted to blame it on someone, which
would have meant speaking, which I could not do--
it would have been too real--and I was too old to blame anyone
anyway. I closed my eyes to make the black world
blacker. The lamp was within my reach, and a railroad spike
I could easily have lifted, and also a bowling ball I'd found
on the tracks, but all I could think of was being ashamed
and dirty, and grateful the whole thing was happening
in black and white, like those mermaids on TV, their lips
and nails a black I knew was red, their long white legs
safely fused in their glistening tails.
Mischief made her lift her arms and turn
with such a look of wonder on her face
that I was not afraid to see the flames
licking along both sleeves of her flannel robe,
but stepped back, as one does from an act
of God, the better to take in her glittering
pale green eyes, her pirate’s nose, the few
yellow teeth in her little open mouth
as my mother, her own mouth open
in a scream, rushed up behind her to yank
off the blazing robe and dance on its burning,
and Grandma, naked, triumphant, winked at me
while the kettle shrieked its way to boiling dry,
and sent me from some far hilltop in her far world
a sneak peek at what it was likely I’d become:
wild-eyed and crazy and blazing like a six-gun,
nothing at all to be met with shame or fear.
So this is for her, who now has long been ash,
another small poem the last word of which is oh.
See her small clothes drop in the blooming weeds—
t-shirt and shorts in the upraised arms of the yarrow.
Her arms are upraised, too—she exults or prays—
she’s narrow and flat, she’s white as Queen Anne’s Lace.
The thatchy back of her head is a patch of knots,
her teeth are rotted, but, then, so are theirs, bared
as the boys reach to touch her, not unkindly.
They are sixteen and she is half their age. Above them
a star goes dark, or many darken—the maple completes
the ring at its very heart. She feels like the pinecone seed
that split the boulder, the bullet exploding the head
of the president: once invisible, once inconsequential,
now singular, at last in her rightful place.
Again and again
we grease our supple skins,
spread ourselves on the earth
that wants us back,
think we'll go slow
but evening finds us sick
feverish and weak
in our baths of tepid tea.
Here's where I try to say
this might be like love:
turning ourselves 'til
no single cell is spared,
beneath our lids,
I'll stop before anyone knows
what a fool I've been,
I'll rise from this
just as soon as I'm beautiful.
A drinking buddy gave our dad an outboard motor.
Dad kept it, up to its orange chin in bilge,
in an oil drum, up in the yard, and, after a few,
he’d go out and start it up, yelling, Get back,
you kids!—but we were already back, and ready to bolt
if the green plastic men we’d thrown in up and busted the thing.
But no tiny, acid-stripped skeletons churned to the surface;
the army remained at rest with the worms and the pear cores.
All that spring, when he felt good, he’d go watch his motor,
his nostrils straining to catch each oily fume,
a Chesterfield dropping ash down the front of his work shirt.
Once Shaky Louie, his pal, braved the terrible sunlight
to join him in motor watching, and, chatty by nature,
told us Dad had said soon that our freezer’d be so full of trout
there wouldn’t be room left for even one skinny Popsicle.
By August we’d scrawled ss dad on the slimy oil drum,
but he never noticed, just stood in the din, smoking, staring.
He never did lug that motor out of the oil drum—
he let winter do in the only toy he had, though it spat
muddy rainbows and roared like a locomotive,
and gave off the piercing and molten stink of hope.