Too bad you have to be arrested to really find out what it is
or to be standing next to someone who is getting arrested
when the cops arrive in their ponderous vehicles—
the cruiser parked on your neighbor’s weedy lawn,
the beacon bathing the whole neighborhood
the cold color of a cherry popsicle,
and the officers—so much gear attached to them,
they clank when they walk—the spurs and handcuffs
hung from their belts,
the slender baton for administering shock.
This was the light that splashed the leaves
that night in the Garden of Gethsemane,
the night they came to fetch the teacher,
and spread him on the hood of his own car
—while the neighbors watched from
behind their flowered curtains
and the disciples slipped into the dark.
And now you must be starting to understand
what a vain idea it was
to call yourself a brother of mankind
because now all you want is to be safe;
all you want is to be well out of sight.
For the rest of your life you’ll remember
this terrible red light, splashing the trees and the houses.
Remember the night when your fear woke up.
Remember the ones you let go in your place.
Remember the ones all over the world
who are raising their arms right now,
then putting their wrists behind their backs;
finding out what it means to be chosen
by squad car light.
Now that you need your prescription glasses to see the stars
and now that the telemarketers know your preference in sexual positions.
Now that corporations run the government
and move over the land like giant cloud formations.
Now that the human family has turned out to be a conspiracy against the planet.
Now that it’s hard to cast stones
without hitting a cell-phone tower,
which will show up later on your bill.
Now that you know you are neither innocent nor powerful
nor a character in a book.
You have arrived at the edge of the world
where the information wind howls incessantly
and you stand in your armor made of irony
with your sword of good intentions raised—
The world is a Gorgon.
It presents its thousand ugly heads.
Death or madness to look at it too long,
but your job
is not to conquer it;
not to provide entertaining repartee,
nor to revile yourself in shame.
Your job is to stay calm.
Your job is to watch and take notes,
to go on looking.
Your job is to not be turned into stone.
I think it was Marie who first taught me the art
of spreading flattery on people
then smearing it around like marmalade on slabs of whole wheat bread,
or how to spray them lightly with a mist of unexpected praise
from one of those special nozzles
you attach to the end of your garden hose.
Walking around with her that year, I watched how she would
lubricate the world
—nuns and firemen, nannies and human resource managers,
nine-year-old kids in city playgrounds,
and widows selling flags in Central Park.
Pretty soon I started doing it myself,
telling this person and that how good they looked today;
how rare it is to see a job well done;
how excellent their taste in clothes.
I liked the way even the most crusty and resistant
at first would startle under the assault
then start to flourish under the effect.
I liked to watch the moisture trickle down to their roots
and then roll back up again
to all four corners of the leaf.
Why did I ever think that approval was gratuitous?
Why did it take me so long to see that the power of sweetness
is as great as the power of the river and the sun?
If I can’t improve the world by scorching it with truth,
if I can’t conquer it by twisting its arm behind its back,
then give me some adjectives like lipstick and gloss,
give me some language like mint and honey for the heart.
I will lavish the world with the power of butter.
I will force it to feel good about itself.
First I will make it blush—
then I will step back, and watch it shine.
Sunday at the Mall
Sweetheart, if I suddenly flop over in the mall one afternoon
while taking my old-person-style exercise,
and my teeth are chattering like castanets,
and my skull is going nok nonk nok on the terra cotta tiles of the well-swept mall floor;
my tongue stuck out, my eyes rolled up into my head—
don’t worry, baby, we knew this kind of excitement
might possibly occur
and that’s not me in there anyway—
I’m already flying backward, high and fast
into the big arcades and spaces of my green life
where I made and gave away and traded sentences with people I loved
that made us all laugh and rise up in
unpredictable torrents of fuchsia eruption.
Dial 911, or crouch down by the body if you want
—but sweetheart, the main point I’m making here is: don’t worry don’t worry don’t worry:
those wild birds will never be returning
to any roost in this world.
They’re loose, and gone, and free as oxygen.
Don’t despair there, under the frosted glass skylight.
Don’t mistake this spastic conclusion for real.
Because, sweetheart, this life
is a born escape artist,
a migrating fever,
a convict tattooed in invisible ink,
without mercy or nostalgia.
It came down to eat a lot of red licorice
and to adore you imperfectly
and to stare at the big silent moon
and love as hard as it could,
then to swoop out just before closing time
right under the arm of the security guard
who pulls down the big metal grate
and snaps shut the lock in its hasp
as if it, or he, could ever imagine
anything that could prevent anything.
King of the Night
In the dark, I get up and
put on the clothes that come to hand.
Later I’ll see what I’m wearing.
Outside, the neighborhood is exquisitely still,
enameled in moonlight,
enrolled in the School of Blue Silence.
As I pick up the paper,
I’m thinking about the phrase finally realized,
how inaccurate it is,
and also that I will probably
more or less from this point on
be confused exactly like this.
Then, from out of the shadows by the curb,
where he has been regally, invisibly
waiting all along,
quietly steps the cat,
and I say to him, as I always do, “You
are the King of the Night.”
Bible All Out of Order 3
Disclosure Agreement 9
Why I Like the Hospital 13
Squad Car Light 15
Turn Up the Ocean 17
The Reason He Brought His Gun to School: A Blues 19
Nature Is Strong 25
Illness and Literature 27
“On a Scale of 1–10,” Said the Nurse, “How Would You Rate Your Pain Today?” 28
American Story 32
Ode to the West Wind 35
How the Old Poetry Happened 36
I Don’t Ask What You’re Thinking 38
Causes of Death 40
Virginia Woolf 42
Four Beginnings for an Apocalyptic Novel of Manners 44
The Power of Traffic 46
Weather of Pain 48
On Why I Must Decline to Receive the Prayers You Say You Are Constantly Sending 51
Mistaken Identity Librarian Syndrome 53
Landscape without Jason 55
Dante’s Bar and Grill 59
King of the Night 61
The Decline of the Roman Empire 65
The Interfaith Chapel Is in the South Terminal 68
Reading While Sick in the Middle of the Night 71
Sunday at the Mall 74
Among the Intellectuals 76
In the Beautiful Rain 77
Peaceful Transition 79
Afterword by Kathleen Lee 83
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