Read an Excerpt
A Joke Is Washed Up on a Desert Island
A joke is washed up on an island,
miles of coarse, brown grit
and a few bent palms. He’s thrilled. Alone,
he’ll stroll the beach or sit
mulling the gray surf and his life.
He believes he’s kept the sacred
sacred by profaning it.
But words and stories sped
so quickly from his raucous mouth
he hardly thought about them.
Alone, he’ll study doubts he’s had
since on a dubious whim
he swaggered into that first brothel,
first bar and first bar mitzvah,
first monastery. What angry hope
or compulsive mania
flung him on the judgment of friends
and strangers: a laugh or silence?
He’d never paused to mull things over,
and though thinking’s a nuisance,
it’s time to think. He sits, considers,
and the teasing sea deposits
a naked beauty at his feet —
a movie star. Huge tits?
Or small? Full lips or thin? You
Whatever turns your crank,
that’s what floats up. And then two more,
beautiful, blond, and blank.
They swirl around him, asking, “Is that
a banana in your pocket?”
Smart women whoring for a joke!
And all at once he gets it:
the human cost of laughter. It pains him.
The people he’s offended,
they’re human, unlike him, a concept
he’d never comprehended —
a reverie of thick self-pity
that’s broken by a shout
of “Help me! Help me!” from the waves.
Annoyed, the joke swims out
and finds an armless, legless man
bobbing in the spray.
“I’m Bob. Remember me?” Bob shouts.
The joke saves him anyway.
The joke has always hated Bob,
the lamest slip of wit,
and now Bob’s propped on the joke’s beach,
choking and spraying spit.
The joke stares down the empty sand,
for the peace he’d hoped to find. He drags
Bob back into the sea.
At first Bob bobs, but head held under,
he blubbers, bubbles, drowns.
This joke’s a killer. He looks out to sea,
sees what he sees, and frowns.
The waves are pitching with old punch lines,
washing, like Natalie Wood,
ashore. They couldn’t live without him,
although he’d hoped they could.
As each one staggers from the waves,
it asks, “Where’s Bob?” The joke
says, “He’ll turn up.” Why are they asking?
Who cares about that jerk?
He’s got to blow this island, man.
He jumps into the sea.
But he’s my joke. I send a shark
and the shark chomps off one knee.
He keeps on kicking at the waves.
The shark chomps off both legs.
“Very funny!” screams the joke. “So now
I’m Bob. Come on,” he begs.
“Let me be Art!” Tear out this page
and pin it to your wall:
He’s Art. Or throw it on the floor.
Bingo, he’s Matt. Your call.
But I like the turning point of jokes.
He’ll bob, but he won’t sink.
Let’s leave him there to meditate.
The shark will help him think.
Three pale blonds gather on the beach
to watch him flail. In moonlight
their roots turn dark, their hair turns black.
Their eyes are old-moon white.
Birth of a Naturalist
Among moist bromeliads
I was bored, and the soft-fingered
ferns annoyed me like an aunt
touching my face and trailing
her fingers down my cheek.
What was I, a possession?
In the gift shop where I desired
nothing, a stranger confused
boredom for balked desire
and bought me a small pot
with a blunt nub, like a toad’s
brown snout, jutting
from dry soil. “Thank you,” I said.
“Thank you,” as I’d been taught,
and she departed, a plump whorl
of black hair and red scarves.
In my pocket, the pot rode
my thigh like a damp stone,
and because it was a secret,
my secret, I began to love it.
The next day the toad’s
tumescent snout, now mossy green,
cracked the packed dirt.
On the windowsill a rickety stalk
rose and kept rising, rising
until it fell into my bed,
and with the toppled orchid in my arms,
I slept until Mother’s laughter
woke me, and I was shamed.
Again in secret, I tucked
its roots in spongy humus
beyond our lawn, where, spindly
and limp-leafed, it dwindled.
Now when I stretch out
over its absence, the coarse
vigor of its killers cushions me,
and I see the lost
orchid animating bracken,
buckthorn, buttercup, and bramble.
Morning glory overclimbs it all,
green on green, blaring
its beautiful and murderous
while twizzling vines unfurl,
spin in sunlight, and, clutching,
caress my face.
First Year Out of School
A man . . . may have wild birds in an aviary; these in one sense he possesses, and in another he has none of them.
— Plato, Theaetetus
I fingered flannel shirts
and wrinkled seed potatoes,
derelict in dusty bins,
but bought a birdcage,
white paint peeling off
corroded wire. For weeks
it crowded my bedside table
until, walking to work,
I heard baby rabbits
mewing in a hole. Later,
at my desk, I watched a crow
ferry three gray lumps
to an oak limb and pick them
into red strings. In one
imagined life, I caught
that crow and taught it Blake —
Little Lamb, who made thee?
In another, I gleaned raw corn
from nearby fields at night,
fed it to the strident crow,
and every night after work
cleaned its fetid cage.
In this life, I sold the cage
for a quarter what I paid,
and moved to a city where,
on the street one Monday morning,
a man chanted, “Spare
change, spare change,
spare change,” so rote
that like everyone before me
I didn’t bother saying no.
I was no different. Why then
did he block my path
and offer me a matted,
damp, dark thing —
a hatchling half held,
half nestled in his beard?
And why did I linger over
the unfledgeable lump?
“No,” I said, pushing past,
but after an hour I returned
and with five grubby ones
paid for the epiphany
he’d led me to: I yearn for flight,
but believe in the two
reliable slow feet
on which I stood, receiving
from his hands unto mine
a gasping, unsalvable mouth.