It’s as if you’d woken in a locked cell and found
in your pocket a slip of paper, and on it a single sentence
in a language you don’t know.
And you’d be sure this sentence was the key to your
life. Also to this cell.
And you’d spend years trying to decipher the sentence,
until finally you’d understand it. But after a while
you’d realize you got it wrong, and the sentence meant
something else entirely. And so you’d have two sentences.
Then three, and four, and ten, until you’d created a new language.
And in that language you’d write the novel of your life.
And once you’d reached old age you’d notice the door of the cell
was open. You’d go out into the world. You’d walk the length and breadth of it,
until in the shade of a massive tree you’d yearn
for that one single sentence in a language you don’t know.
— Sentence by Tadeusz Dąbrowski
Unique, I think, is the Scottish tartle, that hesitation
when introducing someone whose name you’ve forgotten.
And what could capture cafuné, the Brazilian Portuguese way to say
running your fingers, tenderly, through someone’s hair?
Is there a term in any tongue for choosing to be happy?
And where is speech for the block of ice we pack in the sawdust of our hearts?
What appellation approaches the smell of apricots thickening the air
when you boil jam in early summer?
What words reach the way I touched you last night—
as though I had never known a woman—an explorer,
wholly curious to discover each particular
fold and hollow, without guide,
not even the mirror of my own body.
Last night you told me you liked my eyebrows.
You said you never really noticed them before.
What is the word that fuses this freshness
with the pity of having missed it?
And how even touch itself cannot mean the same to both of us,
even in this small country of our bed,
even in this language with only two native speakers.
— The Small Country by Ellen Bass
My mother and I are on the front porch lighting
each other’s cigarettes
as if we were on a ten-minute break from our jobs
at being a mother and son,
just ten minutes to steal a moment
of freedom before clocking back in,
before putting the aprons back on, the paper hats,
washing our hands twice and then standing
behind the counter again,
hoping for tips, hoping the customers
will be nice, will say some kind word, the cool
front yard before us and the dogs
in the back yard shitting on everything.
We are hunched over, two extras
on the set of “The Night of the Hunter.” I am pulling
a second cigarette out of the pack,
a swimmer rising from a pool of other swimmers.
Soon we will go back inside and sit
in the yellow kitchen and drink the rest of the coffee
and what is coming to kill us will pour milk into mine
and sugar into hers. Some kitchens
are full of mothers and sons with no mouths, no eyes,
and no hands, but our mouths are like the mouths of fire-
eaters and our eyes are like the million
eyes of flies. Our hands are like the hands of the living.
— Minimum Wage by Matthew Dickman
I can’t remember when
my brother and I decided to kill you, small
fish with no school, bright and happy at the bottom
slipping through the gate
of your fake castle. I think it was winter. A part of us
aware of the death outside, the leaves
being burned up and the squirrels starving
inside the oaks, the sky
knocking its clouds into the ashtray of the city.
And it might have been me
who picked you up first, who
chased you around the clean bowl of your life
and brought you up into the suffocating
elevator of ours. And I want to say it was my brother
who threw you against the wall
like a drunk husband, the glow-worm inch of you
sliding down the English Garden
of wallpaper, and that it was me who raised my leg
like a dog, me who brought my bare foot
slamming down on your almost nothing ribs
and felt you smear like a pimple. Now that’s something
I get to have forever. That Halloween-candysized rage, that cough drop
of meanness. And your death, only
the beginning, the mushy orange autopsy
reminded us of mandarins, Navels, bloods, Persians
the sweet Valencia. And when our sister
who must have thought of you all day
came home to find the bowl
empty, looked at us, my brother and me
I remember we started to laugh. And then
it might have been me
though it could have been him, who thought to open
the can of tangerines, who pulled
one of the orange bodies out of the syrup, and threw it at her
this new artificial you, chasing her around the house
screaming Eat him! Eat him!
but it was me who held her down on her bed
and him who forced
her mouth open, and it was me who pushed
the sticky fruit into her throat
like a bloody foot
into a sock. You had only been gone for one hour
and yet the sky outside
turned black and red, the tree in the yard thrashed back
and forth until its spinal cord
broke, and my little sister, your one love, flashed white
and pulsed like neon
in a hospital, her eyes
rolling back into the aquarium of her head
for a moment, and in every country
countless deaths, but none as important
as yours, tiny Christ, machine of hope, martyr of girls and boys.
— Elegy to a Goldfish by Matthew Dickman
There’s no telling what the night will bring
but the moon. That’s a no-brainer.
A no-brainer moon sitting there at its desk,
wishing it was outside
on the play ground with little Rebecca Steinberg,
her hair came down around her shoulders
like streamers on new year’s eve.
The night is going to be a very long night
and I am walking into it
with my sleeves rolled up,
my cap on tight,
all my worthwhileness stuffed into my back pocket
like a wallet full of transcendental credit.
The bullshit elegance of shadows
and the moon like the inside of a jawbreaker
after all the color has been licked off,
all that sweet dye and sugar,
layer by layer
until only the soul of the thing is left, the hard center
that will choke you to death
if you’re not careful. Which I wasn’t
the summer I turned fourteen.
Anton and I had cornered a younger kid
behind the 7-11 who was fat and walking with his little sister.
We screamed at him
say you’re fat! Say it, say you’re fat.
And he did, he said it, he cried and said it
and whatever strength he had
as an older brother, as someone
his sister looked up to from behind her big blue eyes,
caught fire between us
and went out like a match.
Well, I lived and he lived
and Anton lived for twelve more years
but we killed something,
we dug a hole and buried it,
and later that night I was walking past the Chevron gas station
on 92nd and Foster,
next to the 92nd Street Club Dancers,
and this guy came out swinging
a gun, his face like an apartment
that no one had lived in for years,
the gun pointing just above my head when it went off,
the moon exploding
and the wind picking up all the pieces
like a mother picking up all the dirty clothes
in a house full of children
who never listened to a word she said.
— Gas Station by Matthew Dickman
Ocean, don’t be afraid.
The end of the road is so far ahead
it is already behind us.
Don’t worry. Your father is only your father
until one of you forgets. Like how the spine
won’t remember its wings
no matter how many times our knees
kiss the pavement. Ocean,
are you listening? The most beautiful part
of your body is wherever
your mother’s shadow falls.
Here’s the house with childhood
whittled down to a single red tripwire.
Don’t worry. Just call it horizon
& you’ll never reach it.
Here’s today. Jump. I promise it’s not
a lifeboat. Here’s the man
whose arms are wide enough to gather
your leaving. & here the moment,
just after the lights go out, when you can still see
the faint torch between his legs.
How you use it again & again
to find your own hands.
You asked for a second chance
& are given a mouth to empty into.
Don’t be afraid, the gunfire
is only the sound of people
trying to live a little longer. Ocean. Ocean,
get up. The most beautiful part of your body
is where it’s headed. & remember,
loneliness is still time spent
with the world. Here’s
the room with everyone in it.
Your dead friends passing
through you like wind
through a wind chime. Here’s a desk
with the gimp leg & a brick
to make it last. Yes, here’s a room
so warm & blood-close,
I swear, you will wake—
& mistake these walls
— Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong By Ocean Vuong
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were delicious
and so cold
— This Is Just To Say by William Carlos Williams
Begin nude, looking for the socks
worn yesterday and maybe
the day before, etc. They’re not
on your feet, but they can’t
have gone far. They’re under the bed!
You take them up and give them
a good shaking to free the dust.
Shaking’s no more than they deserve.
Now run your hand down the limp,
shapeless things. These blue,
brown, black, green, or grey socks.
You feel you could put your arm into one
and it wouldn’t make a particle
of difference. So why not do this
one thing you’re inclined to do?
You draw them on over your fingers
and work them up to the elbow.
You close and open your fists. Then
close them again, and keep them that way.
Now your hands are like heels
that could stamp
on things. Anything.
You’re heading for the door
when the draft of air hits your ankles
and you’re reminded of those wild swans
at Coole, and the wild swans at places
you’ve never heard of, let alone
visited. You understand now
just how far away you are from all that
as you fumble with the closed door.
Then the door opens! You wanted it
to be morning, as expected
after a night’s uneasy sleep.
But stars are overhead, and the moon
reels above dark trees.
You raise your arms and gesture.
A man with socks over his hands
under the night sky.
It’s like, but not like, a dream.
— Heels by Raymond Carver
He said it doesn’t look good
he said it looks bad in fact real bad
he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before
I quit counting them
I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know
about any more being there than that
he said are you a religious man do you kneel down
in forest groves and let yourself ask for help
when you come to a waterfall
mist blowing against your face and arms
do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments
I said not yet but I intend to start today
he said I’m real sorry he said
I wish I had some other kind of news to give you
I said Amen and he said something else
I didn’t catch and not knowing what else to do
and not wanting him to have to repeat it
and me to have to fully digest it
I just looked at him
for a minute and he looked back it was then
I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just given me
something no one else on earth had ever given me
I may have even thanked him habit being so strong
— What The Doctor Said by Raymond Carver
You don’t know what love is Bukowski said
I’m 51 years old look at me
I’m in love with this young broad
I got it bad but she’s hung up too
so it’s all right man that’s the way it should be
I get in their blood and they can’t get me out
They try everything to get away from me
but they all come back in the end
They all came back to me except
the one I planted
I cried over that one
but I cried easy in those days
Don’t let me get onto the hard stuff man
I get mean then
I could sit here and drink beer
with you hippies all night
I could drink ten quarts of this beer
and nothing it’s like water
But let me get onto the hard stuff
and I’ll start throwing people out windows
I’ll throw anybody out the window
I’ve done it
But you don’t know what love is
You don’t know because you’ve never
been in love it’s that simple
I got this young broad see she’s beautiful
She calls me Bukowski
Bukowski she says in this little voice
and I say What
But you don’t know what love is
I’m telling you what it is
but you aren’t listening
There isn’t one of you in this room
would recognize love if it stepped up
and buggered you in the ass
I used to think poetry readings were a copout
Look I’m 51 years old and I’ve been around
I know they’re a copout
but I said to myself Bukowski
starving is even more of a copout
So there you are and nothing is like it should be
That fellow what’s his name Galway Kinnell
I saw his picture in a magazine
He has a handsome mug on him
but he’s a teacher
Christ can you imagine
But then you’re teachers too
here I am insulting you already
No I haven’t heard of him
or him either
They’re all termites
Maybe it’s ego I don’t read much anymore
but these people w! ho build
reputations on five or six books
Bukowski she says
Why do you listen to classical music all day
Can’t you hear her saying that
Bukowski why do you listen to classical music all day
That surprises you doesn’t it
You wouldn’t think a crude bastard like me
could listen to classical music all day
Brahms Rachmaninoff Bartok Telemann
Shit I couldn’t write up here
Too quiet up here too many trees
I like the city that’s the place for me
I put on my classical music each morning
and sit down in front of my typewriter
I light a cigar and I smoke it like this see
and I say Bukowski you’re a lucky man
Bukowski you’ve gone through it all
and you’re a lucky man
and the blue smoke drifts across the table
and I look out the window onto Delongpre Avenue
and I see people walking up and down the sidewalk
and I puff on the cigar like this
and then I lay the cigar in the ashtray like this and take a deep breath
and I begin to write
Bukowski this is the life I say
it’s good to be poor it’s good to have hemorrhoids
it’s good to be in love
But you don’t know what it’s like
You don’t know what it’s like to be in love
If you could see her you’d know what I mean
She thought I’d come up here and get laid
She just knew it
She told me she knew it
Shit I’m 51 years old and she’s 25
and we’re in love and she’s jealous
Jesus it’s beautiful
she said she’d claw my eyes out if I came up here
and got laid
Now that’s love for you
What do any of you know about it
Let me tell you something
I’ve met men in jail who had more style
than the people who hang around colleges
and go to poetry readings
They’re bloodsuckers who come to see
if the poet’s socks are dirty
or if he smells under the arms
Believe me I won’t disappoint em
But I want you to remember this
there’s only one poet in this room tonight
only one poet in this town tonight
maybe only one real poet in this country tonighta
and that’s me
What do any of you know about life
What do any of you know about anything
Which of you here has been fired from a job
or else has beaten up your broad
or else has been beaten up by your broad
I was fired from Sears and Roebuck five times
They’d fire me then hire me back again
I was a stockboy for them when I was 35
and then got canned for stealing cookies
I know what’s it like I’ve been there
I’m 51 years old now and I’m in love
This little broad she says
and I say What and she says
I think you’re full of shit
and I say baby you understand me
She’s the only broad in the world
man or woman
I’d take that from
But you don’t know what love is
They all came back to me in the end too
every one of em came back
except that one I told you about
the one I planted We were together seven years
We used to drink a lot
I see a couple of typers in this room but
I don’t see any poets
I’m not surprised
You have to have been in love to write poetry
and you don’t know what it is to be in love
that’s your trouble
Give me some of that stuff
That’s right no ice good
That’s good that’s just fine
So let’s get this show on the road
I know what I said but I’ll have just one
That tastes good
Okay then let’s go let’s get this over with
only afterwards don’t anyone stand close
to an open window
— You Don’t Know What Love Is (an evening with Charles Bukowski) by Raymond Carver
You soda crackers! I remember
when I arrived here in the rain,
whipped out and alone.
How we shared the aloneness
and quiet of this house.
And the doubt that held me
from fingers to toes
as I took you out
of your cellophane wrapping
and ate you, meditatively,
at the kitchen table
that first night with cheese,
and mushroom soup. Now,
a month later to the day,
an important part of us
is still here. I’m fine.
And you—I’m proud of you, too.
You’re even getting remarked
on in print! Every soda cracker
should be so lucky.
We’ve done all right for
ourselves. Listen to me.
I never thought
I could go on like this
about soda crackers.
But I tell you
the clear sunshiny
days are here, at last.
— Soda Crackers by Raymond Carver
October. Here in this dank, unfamiliar kitchen
I study my father’s embarrassed young man’s face.
Sheepish grin, he holds in one hand a string
of spiny yellow perch, in the other
a bottle of Carlsbad Beer.
In jeans and denim shirt, he leans
against the front fender of a 1934 Ford.
He would like to pose bluff and hearty for his posterity,
Wear his old hat cocked over his ear.
All his life my father wanted to be bold.
But the eyes give him away, and the hands
that limply offer the string of dead perch
and the bottle of beer. Father, I love you,
yet how can I say thank you, I who can’t hold my liquor either,
and don’t even know the places to fish?
— Photograph of My Father in His Twenty-Second Year by Raymond Carver
It’s August and I have not
Read a book in six months
except something called The Retreat from Moscow
Nevertheless, I am happy
Riding in a car with my brother
and drinking from a pint of Old Crow.
We do not have any place in mind to go,
we are just driving.
If I closed my eyes for a minute
I would be lost, yet
I could gladly lie down and sleep forever
beside this road
My brother nudges me.
Any minute now, something will happen.
— Drinking While Driving by Raymond Carver