After Whitman on his 200th birthday.
It is swoops and loops and bumps and roots and rocks
It is crawling and climbing and scrambling and teetering.
There is a fallen tree trunk crossing a bit of creek
and either you balance on it arms akimbo
or you splash along beside it, holding onto it for balance.
It is bordered by sharp barbed-wire fences you cannot lean on to guide you
because you'll cut your hand
if you have hands.
Have I been writing poems all these thirty years that assume everyone has hands?
Do we instinctively lower the volume on the portions of each other's stories
that assume we're part of the club? Do we understand that
and I mean nothing --
the only thing organic in this park is the people
who ricochet off
a single dreadlock
a mop of curls
a lightning bolt shaved into the hedges that surround an ear
a t-shirt with someone else's name on it
a pitbull with no leash
fling themselves from metal poles
graze the ground
propel off a bike rack
hit the wall
climb it like stairs
and for a moment
with the magnolia taste of the air in your nose
you think you could too
you forget and remember all at once
how it felt letting your heart be the first to clear that first big drop on the roller coaster
how you straightened up your cramped neck as you rolled to a stop
how your feet once knew how to ride the down escalator
how it was to be in love with movement and unafraid
I sat shiva for
you, asshole. Don't ever scare
me like that again.
The first blossoms are doomed to die when the frost comes back like it just walked into the kitchen, opened the fridge, forgot what it came looking for, and walked back out.
The air smells like:
the feeling of tripping over discarded bits of green plastic on the sidewalk,
the kind of allegiance to a foreign government that we're okay with because it is at least still white,
and I guess also promise unfulfilled.
It is louder than winter or maybe winter is loud but we don't hear it with our windows closed.
On the back of an old bodega receipt
I keep a running list of all the books I would buy you as gifts
if you were still my friend.
You'd definitely read them --
I'm not good at many things but giving is one of them --
and you'd tell me if they were worth borrowing,
but you'd of course know that I didn't just buy them
for the chance to borrow them from you.
I don't need to do that (I'm a librarian for fuck's sake)
and besides that's not what gifts are about.
It wouldn't work the same if I read them anyway.
Your eyes and the words react like vinegar and baking soda;
I'm just a kid with a chemistry set.
So I never read the books,
but I keep the list
in the zippered coin compartment in my wallet
with other useless things like nickels.
And just like ridiculous nickels,
too big for their worth,
I hang onto the titles
because they might come in handy someday.
We live our entire lives in the punchline of a joke --
one we hear only faintly, from the opposite end of the room,
uttered in tenor and baritone and bass and sometimes even alto barbershop quartets,
accompanied by hand gestures creative and lewd,
and when we scream from inside the joke because we at least want to hear it,
(although it would sound the way your own chewing sounds inside your head)
well then we must be
and certainly on the rag.
When crossing the street, do a little jog and wave at the cars to thank them for not murdering you.
Sit in the aisle seat so if you have to go to the bathroom you won't have to step over anyone.
Never use the wheelchair stall. What if someone comes along who really needs it?
Never answer honestly when asked "How are you?"
Cross your legs and keep your bag on your lap.
When you go numb cross the other leg.
Aspire to invisibility.
Don't eat meat.
I knew before I opened my eyes this morning that it was raining outside. It's my most impressive and useless skill: I am a human barometer.
Cerebrospinal fluid is a natural saline solution that cushions and protects the brain. If you didn't have it, your brain would just be rattling around inside your skull in a perpetual concussion. When you stand up quickly or strain on the toilet or your train enters an underwater tunnel, the fluid cushioning your brain softens the impact, absorbs the shock. New fluid is produced each day and flows freely in the central nervous system in rhythm with your heartbeats before being absorbed into the bloodstream. Like the sea, it is pure salt water. Like the sea, like the changing of the tides, it is locked in a continuous cycle.
But for those of us whose bodies make too much fluid or for whom the normal flow of said fluid is obstructed, a manmade tool called a shunt drains the fluid directly from our skulls to our hearts or abdomens, where it can be safely reabsorbed. But it doesn't do as good a job as a normal brain naturally would, so our brains are more sensitive to changes in position, pressure, and yes, weather.
Paraphrased from a brain surgeon:
There's a constant pulsation with each beat of our heart.
There's a lot of fluid in the cranium.
The shunt is draining that fluid away,
but not in the same balance, the same rhythm,
as a normal person.
That change in fluid dynamics is enough in some people
to be really sensitive to small changes
Today was the Youth Climate March on Washington. Children, some of them climate refugees, brought their anger to the epicenter of world power. They held signs that said, "The seas are rising and so are we," and walked arm in arm through torrential downpours in the midatlantic heat. The goal is to hold political figures accountable for the catastrophic environmental effects of policies which support the continued use of dirty energy. Lawsuits aim to speak to them in the only language they understand, one of profit and indemnification.
It is admirable, but flawed. Even when we are owed cosmic justice, we rarely get it. And if we did, what then? Still, their courage is commendable, and I wanted to join them in solidarity. But I missed it because the rain flooded my senses with pressure and pain.
Recently there has been widespread public debate about banning single-use plastic materials.
Plastic disposable bendy straws were invented for use in hospitals,
for patients who may not otherwise be able to consume liquids,
and their impermanence made them ideal for a hospital,
where anything left to sit and reuse will quickly fester with the kinds of bacteria only found around bodies in various states of decay.
The convenience was seductive, and before long plastic straws were everywhere
so the language of need was drowned out
by the clamor of convenience.
We use five hundred million in the United States every day.
Imagine if you were hard of hearing
and you had to use a new hearing aid every time you wanted to hear something
and then people who aren't hard of hearing discover that it makes eavesdropping easier
so everyone is using single-use plastic hearing aids as the ship sinks.
I owe my life to a little straw that keeps my brain from drowning itself.
My body is made of water, carbon, nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus, rubber, flexible silicone tubing, some magnets, and an ever-increasing amount of scar tissue.
The very technology that is destroying the planet is keeping me alive.
Convalescence gives you a lot of time to think.
After each medical trauma I have thought about
how much I could be doing if I wasn't lying here in pain
how much waste I create when I don't have the energy to reduce, reuse, recycle
how easy it is to learn bad habits when you don't live their consequences in realtime
how easy it is to justify bad habits when you don't live their consequences in realtime
how lucky I am to have been born
somewhere with an effective doctor-to-patient ratio.
somewhere with widespread indoor climate control.
somewhere where access to a hospital is guaranteed.
somewhere where basic equipment does not have to be improvised.
somewhere that guarantees my survival in the face of internal climate chaos.
somewhere where we don't burn plastic on the beaches.
somewhere with strong food-safety regulations that address the plastic in my fish.
somewhere with a never-ending store of single-use medical supplies.
somewhere where we all have blood on our hands.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre,
bits of microplastic accumulate like so many grains of sand,
so many of them that from the air they look like islands.
They end up in the stomachs of marine creatures
and the creatures who eat the marine creatures
and the creatures who eat the creatures who eat the marine creatures.
If we could find a way to colonize the islands I bet we would.
The earth has a chronic illness called humanity.
She suffers pain, the pain causes fatigue.
She starts to forget things,
like which season goes when
and which kind of precipitation goes in which biome.
Her fluid dynamics are off.
Destruction in one part of her body causes systemic shock throughout.
Remedies prescribed for one problem cause side effects that require additional prescriptions which cause side effects which require additional prescriptions which cause side effects which require additional prescriptions.
The experts don't believe her when she complains of discomfort.
After all, she is a woman.
There is a good chance none of the message in this bottle makes sense; I wrote it while tidal conditions inside my skull were unpredictable.
I wonder if there will come a time when we don't remember what it was like to feel dry.
Bathing standing up
out of a standing bucket
with a measuring cup
by the light of a veladora
creates the conditions
the stillness and blankness of mind
to meditate on the distribution of
The ocean depths rolling in
in surges unprotected.
The cover of night under which
pirates and profiteers
chomping at the bit
sneak in and snap up
the land vacated by those running for their lives.
The cover of night under which
a new colony is built over the old
a technopolis where a single transaction of
consumes enough power to supply
dozens of households currently draped in
Off the coast
the water glows
from microscopic creatures
who generate their own light
as we must generate ours.
give or take a thousand
in Puerto Rico
If you can simultaneously hold these truths in your mind:
that America has always been one of those people who doesn't listen so much as it waits for its turn to talk,
that America is one of those parents who only breeds for the chance to demand respect,
that America has always torn brown babies from the arms of their mothers,
that the past 250 years have taken place entirely at gunpoint,
that America could -- if it tried -- someday become what it already tells itself it is,
then you are possessed of a wisdom I envy even as I write this, and
it is your job to convince the rest of us.
*then you have already mastered the simple practice of benefiting from the work of terrible men without condoning their terrible actions. It is possible to hold that a creation is good and the creator is partly or entirely bad at the same time. These concepts do not contradict one another.
do we denounce
the art of artists
who do bad things?
What is the word for
the lone woman in
a group of men, the one who
does not receive a handshake and who
is not asked the questions?
I don't know but
in the language of the island where
my foremothers lived:
in a room of a thousand women
makes the group masculine.
why aren't the flags
up all the way?
she considers responding with the truth
to honor the woman
who birthed the man
who sent your father
to meet his death
but she like the dead woman is a mother,
a gentle liar:
hers is a world of fairies and phantasms
crafted to keep the peace
what do you think baby?
could it ever be for
the thousands dead in syria
or 40 dead in gaza
or 17 dead in a florida school
or seven dead in a south carolina prison
or four dead in a waffle house
come to think of it why are the flags ever allowed to fly at
a height that hints at freedom
but she like the dead woman is a mother,
a gentle liar:
she is smiling down the sun behind her
no shadows from the flagpoles
is stating with quiet confidence that
the men who raise the flags
called out sick today
Last weekend, I visited Baltimore to check out a street art festival. By pure providence I happened to catch a show by Grandmaster Flash. It was bizarre and uncomfortable, as is often the case when visionaries pass their prime. He took a condescending tone with the crowd, splitting his set about 50/50 between spinning records and lecturing about the roots of hip-hop. It was a free show and the crowd wasn't especially invested in his uninvited didacticism. At one point, Flash began to project images from each of New York City's boroughs, playing clips from songs emblematic of that borough, and rattling off the names of the O.G.s with roots there.
As a recovering Long Islander (I take it one day at a time), I immediately felt the chip on my shoulder begin to itch, and self-righteously began listing all of the seminal hip-hop acts from Long Island, confident that they would be ignored. No sooner had I said "De La Soul," than I saw the words "LONG ISLAND" appear on the screen and the first beats of "Me Myself and I" vibrated beneath me. The images Flash chose to illustrate my ancestral homeland, unsurprisingly, were street signs. Without warning, I was confronted with one of the great hates of my life: Nicolls fucking Road.
I was immediately reminded of a poem I composed in 2011, during a summer spent largely in traffic on Nicolls Road, traveling between my neurosurgeon's office, the insurance agency where I worked, the university where I took a summer course in French, and the illegal basement apartment I'd prefer to forget. In the quintessential American suburb, an island defined by traffic, it is easy to think of everything in terms of roads. Nicolls Road meant a standard of living so high it can only be explained by a Billy Joel song. It meant brain surgery after brain surgery. It meant treading water until the next setback. It meant nothing out the window worth looking at.
Here in its entirety is the Ginsberg ripoff I crafted in its honor.
Nicolls Road: A Hate Song
O Nicolls Road, sisyphean circle jerk of exhaust fumes and ennui
stretching eternally northward through vast expanses of withering deciduom
and blaring car horn silences
toward the promise of gentle-wave-lapping-against-pebbled-shore-SOUND,
why must you toy with me so?
Paumanok Path of horror,
plunging deluges of people people people into perfect ordinariness on all sides,
did you know that my car radio was stolen in Albany the day before my birthday?
And now each arduous three ton step in rush hour on your sad arboreal thoroughfare –
the battered white mass of the car a pregnant dog trudging panting in summertime –
is taken in ear-shattering silence, and the sheer mundanity of it all
forces unwanted introspection and extrospection:
what were you before all of this? (Whitman stirs in his shopping mall mausoleum)
what am I?
WHERE ARE WE GOING, NICOLLS ROAD?
But that’s for a different poem.
The one about the big questions.
I don’t have time for that now, Nicolls Road, I’ve got to get somewhere.
And so I hydroplane
suspended in the center lane, between suburban sedation and bestial fury,
all the way to my little slice of arrested development (where to grow is to immediately be mowed)
thinking that in the future this will all become nature
and plastic pink flamingos will have to be neutered and spayed to control the populations of strays.
And highways and sidestreets will debate microeconomics and the growing social problem of lawn gnome migrant workers
and be free to toy with the emotions of the young.
Ants in the shower,
where I keep exactly the
least food in the house.
Slipped in the bathtub.
Life flashed before me.
Pleased to report no regrets.
The worse you feel, the better you will look.
On the worst days, go all out:
the pain yields to ritual
(if you force it hard enough.)
The mind learns what it is taught --
the body is a dumb animal.
(Of course it’s exhausting,
that’s how you know it’s working.)
Hopelessness, too, is a sickness.
So don your body armor
and a white rose in your lapel
and pump a fist at the disinterested sky
and pack down the bad air inside
like so much gunpowder.
for Sherman Alexie
My people are dying.
Our brains float turgid in our skulls taking on more and more water
Our thoughts capsize
and must be fished with a net.
Our chieftain is a man.
Our chieftain is the only person who speaks the language of the outsiders.
Our chieftain is our only hope.
Our chieftain is a rapist.
It is with a heavy head that I must report
that no one is coming to save us
because our chieftain has failed.
No tears are shed
(all the water is inside us)
At the very least
we will soon forget.
You read my blog.