Improbable Phrases

Who says that?


Waiting for My Clothes by Leanne O’Sullivan

The day the doctors and nurses are having
their weekly patient interviews, I sit waiting
my turn outside the office, my back to the wall,
legs curled up under my chin, playing

with the hem of my white hospital gown.
They have taken everything they thought
should be taken — my clothes, my books
my music, as if being stripped of these

were part of the cure, like removing the sheath
from a blade that has slaughtered.
They said, Wait a few days, and if you’re good
you can have your things back. They’d taken

my journal, my word made flesh, and I think
of those doctors knowing me naked
holding me by my spine, two fingers
under my neck, the way you would hold a baby,

taking my soul from between my ribs
and leafing through the pages of my thoughts,
as if they were reading my palms,
and my name beneath them like a confession,

owning this girl, claiming this world
of blackness and lightness and death
and birth. It lies in their hands like a life-line,
and I feel myself fall open or apart.

They hear my voice as they read
and think, Who is this girl that is speaking?
I know the end, she tells them.
It is the last line, both source and closing.

It is what oceans sing to, how the sun moves,
a place for the map-maker to begin.
Behind the door, nothing is said.
Like dreams, my clothes come out of their boxes.


The Waking by Theodore Roethke

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me; so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.


Landwork by Rose Lemberg

You say this stitchery is women’s work, not for warriors,
even if they are women. You say,
whoever heard of land-stitchery? But if it is important,
then it’s warrior work. With no strength in your limbs
to swing a sword, how can you do whatever it is you do? It has to be
unimportant, busywork
with too much ornament,
a waste of everyone’s time.

Listen, each dawn and sunset,
each day and darkness I don’t see you. I only notice
your words because my friends repeat them.
Listen, what you say has no significance.

They slash, I piece together
that which has been slashed and that which has not been.
The seen and unseen meld in my hands,
I make lands from scraps,
I make these lands flow into each other,
embrace like sisters within the strictures of my thread.

When my arms are too painful for daywork, I ask
if it pleases the clouds to make rainshirts,
if it pleases the meadows to sprout flowercoats and bedding,
if it pleases the rocks to piece me a belt.
Rarely do I ask. I am patient
in my coat of fallen leaves from yesteryear,
in my shoes of nothing much.

That pattern in which every leaf is adorned,
the fine stitchery of sap,
the entwinement of rivers
all that you’ve called redundant
is the blood which flows, well-ornamented,
through your veins in threads I chose.
The land, too,
doesn’t notice your opinions
as it washes your meat into mud,
makes a cat’s cradle from your bones.

But I will always be here
under the sky’s benevolent wail,
sifting stones with the patience of water,
as significant as the space between breaths.


Source here.


The Armadillo by Elizabeth Bishop

for Robert Lowell

This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,

rising toward a saint
still honored in these parts,
the paper chambers flush and fill with light
that comes and goes, like hearts.

Once up against the sky it’s hard
to tell them from the stars—
planets, that is—the tinted ones:
Venus going down, or Mars,

or the pale green one. With a wind,
they flare and falter, wobble and toss;
but if it’s still they steer between
the kite sticks of the Southern Cross,

receding, dwindling, solemnly
and steadily forsaking us,
or, in the downdraft from a peak,
suddenly turning dangerous.

Last night another big one fell.
It splattered like an egg of fire
against the cliff behind the house.
The flame ran down. We saw the pair

of owls who nest there flying up
and up, their whirling black-and-white
stained bright pink underneath, until
they shrieked up out of sight.

The ancient owls’ nest must have burned.
Hastily, all alone,
a glistening armadillo left the scene,
rose-flecked, head down, tail down,

and then a baby rabbit jumped out,
short-eared, to our surprise.
So soft!—a handful of intangible ash
with fixed, ignited eyes.

Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!
O falling fire and piercing cry
and panic, and a weak mailed fist
clenched ignorant against the sky!


 

Source here.


Date Palm Trinity by Khaled Mattawa

Today the date palms were pruned,
the branches taken before the fruit ripened,
before sweetness littered the sidewalks.
The man who sawed them worked alone,
a crane lifting him to the yellowed fronds.
Beside his truck, he stood tall, American,
a pensive pioneer. The top of each palm
looked like the back of a man’s head
after a close-crop haircut, the neck
cooled to a stubbly remembrance of hair,
or was like a cat after being spayed,
startled by a strange newness, pacing
familiar rooms, darting, confused, and you
(had you wished to console) are greeted
with a barren gaze. The rubble of bark
and fronds reminded me of Iraq,
not the ruined bridges, or the surrendering
soldiers’ hands begging food, but the 16 million
date palms, one per capita, lining
the seams of the Tigris and Euphrates,
a reminder of my own Libya
and its 10 million date palms and the years
of easy wealth that brought them neglect
except in Huun, a magical city where
they stuffed dates with almonds and sent them
as far as Tanta and Oum Dourman.
From Huun this story: a boy stands by a palm
imploring his uncle to toss him a fistful of dates.
Flustered by the boy’s monotonous cries
the uncle loses his feet, and as he falls
to his death, cries down “Here nephew,
I’m coming down with the dates!”
So that’s what we got from Huun, almond
stuffed wonders and proverbial last words.
There was another reminder, a tale
of the prophet Muhammad living for months
on water and coarse wheat bread, his wives
protesting the austere measures of his faith.
Muhammad, who praised honey and had
a professed love for cantaloupes, and who once
declared “the best meat is that which lines the bones,”
found in dates the solution he required.
To his Arab followers, and to his wives,
the fruit was “three skies above luxury,”
and as indispensable as water and air.

I once had this dream of Whitman:
I found him under one of the palms
on Sherman Way gazing admiring.
Though he had seen palms by the Gulf of Mexico,
he had never tasted a date. So we drove
to a supermarket, and he who had been
thoughtful, even dignified, until then, began
to sign and moan at the taste of “Araby’s
sugared dust clouds.” When we walked
the aisles he insisted on pushing the cart.
The frozen foods did not surprise him since
his Granny buried potatoes in the cold dirt
of her homestead. Still I had to explain
tofu, plastic, tacos, and the foods labeled free.
He ran his hands caressing the waxed floor;
“Smooth as a girl’s wrist,” he exclaimed.
The bright fluorescent lights reminded hirn
of the opera, and Walt sang a gravelly tune.
The children sitting in carts reached for him,
their hands were Lorca’s butterflies on his beard.
At the cashier he filled pockets with candy,
and was shocked by the headlines of our news.
Honda, Toyota, Saturn, Oldsmobile—
in the parking lot the names waltzed
on his tongue. At the fast food stand he ate
heartily, the burger’s slipperiness amused him,
and at his clumsiness we both had a laugh.
Then the talk grew quiet, the table stretching
like the expanse of time dividing us; I felt
he no longer wanted company, having begun
to understand our world. Despite his old resentment
of Blacks, and now my neighbors, the foreign-born
Hispanics and their engines roaring through
Balboa and Saticoy, and the Koreans’ karoake—
the baseline’s muffled thuds, voices doused
in Canadian Mist, and the off-key pleadings
to the lover who never comes—, America
remained to him luminous-industrial-fuming-
sublime, and as he wished, beyond others’
adjectives, beyond what anyone could have conceived.
Mumbling a farewell, Whitman stood to leave.
And with this my dream ended, Whitman wishing
to depart and I holding on to his wrists.
All day I wanted to hold his wide wrists.

If you drive west of Alexandria
your path will run through Alamain,
Barani, and Matrouh. Then Egypt will end
with a town on a steep hill called Sallum.
If you go through the two checkpoints,
Libya will unfold its dry pastures for you.
On the Sallum hill there is a hotel
where people stay to await relatives
crossing the border or to hear word
if it is safe to return. Across the road
a tired bluegreen tea house sits
like a bruise permanently on the verge
of fading from the prairies’ skin.
You will also see the money changers—
all teenage boys. With their right hands
they will wave thick wads of money
at your windshield, and with their left
they will jostle to give you the best rate.
The last time I stayed in Sallum
few cars came from either direction,
and among the boys fights flared
with curses and stones hurled at brows.
When the boys’ rabble grew loud
a man lazily stepped out of the tea house
to call them bastards and sons of whores.
This went on for hours until
the sun settled in the middle of the sky,
the boys taking shelter under
a torn canvas shed, and the man
to the tea house’s dusty cool.
Then just when all movement
and noise seemed to surrender
to the September wind and heat,
four of the boys broke for a run
racing—money still clutched in their hands—
to a young date palm in the distance.
Pressing shoulders and backs against it,
they shook the palm until the season’s
first fruit began to rain. The other boys
joined them, and soon the tea house
emptied of the men slouching inside.
Those were my brothers who cowered beneath
the date palm to gather handfuls of fruit,
rubbing each date clean on their sleeves,
chewing softly to savor the taste
as though it were a good omen, and rising
to resume their lives, on their faces
the smiles of those who once were blessed.

Khaled Mattawa, “Date Palm Trinity” from Ismailia Eclipse.


Source here.  It was a long one, I know. But it was worth it, I think.


Conjunctions by Neil Gaiman

Jupiter and Venus hung like grapes in the evening sky,
frozen and untwinkling,
You could have reached and up and picked them.

And the trout swam.

Snow muffled the world, silenced the dog,
silenced the wind…

The man said, I can show you the trout. He was
glad of the company.
He reached into their tiny pool, rescued a dozen, one by one,
sorting and choosing,
dividing the sheep from the goats of them.

And this was the miracle of the fishes,
that they were beautiful. Even when clubbed and gutted,
insides glittering like jewels. See this? he said, the trout heart
pulsed like a ruby in his hand. The kids love this.
He put it down, and it kept beating.
The kids, they go wild for it.

He said, we feed the guts to the pigs. They’re pets now,
They won’t be killed. See? We saw,
huge as horses they loomed on the side of the hill.

And we walk through the world trailing trout hearts like dreams,
wondering if they imagine rivers, quiet summer days,
fat foolish flies that hover or sit for a moment too long.
We should set them free, our trout and our metaphors:

You don’t have to hit me over the head with it.
This is where you get to spill your guts.
You killed in there, tonight
He pulled her heart out. Look, you can see it there, still beating.
He said,
See this? This is the bit the kids like best. This is what they come to see.

Just her heart, pulsing, on and on. It was so cold that night,
and the stars were all alone.
Just them and the moon in a luminous bruise of sky.

And this was the miracle of the fishes.


Source here.


Island Rain

I realized this week as I had a particularly miserable walk back to my apartment that we only seem to have the super serious, Oh my God run for cover, kind of rain here in Indonesia. There are times in which it sprinkles, but that nearly always leads up to an intense downpour of short or long duration. We don’t really have drizzly days where you could walk slowly through the rain and contemplate life, like you see in movies where the male lead has lost his girlfriend in an argument and is melancholy.

I don’t necessarily miss that kind of rain, I just think that it’s interesting that we don’t seem to have that weather pattern as far as I’ve noticed. I’m sure there’s a good meteorological reason for it, but I know nothing about the study of weather. Obviously.

One of the websites that I check regularly is one that has a poem of the day. Today the poem was called Rain by Kazim Ali. It’s a meditation on rain that I like, but can’t empathize with, since the rain is so incredibly intense here. The couplet style is really lovely in this poem.


 

Rain by Kazim Ali

With thick strokes of ink the sky fills with rain.
Pretending to run for cover but secretly praying for more rain.

Over the echo of the water, I hear a voice saying my name.
No one in the city moves under the quick sightless rain.

The pages of my notebook soak, then curl. I’ve written:
“Yogis opened their mouths for hours to drink the rain.”

The sky is a bowl of dark water, rinsing your face.
The window trembles; liquid glass could shatter into rain.

I am a dark bowl, waiting to be filled.
If I open my mouth now, I could drown in the rain.

I hurry home as though someone is there waiting for me.
The night collapses into your skin. I am the rain.

 

Source here.