Read an ExcerptARK Poems
By John Isles
UNIVERSITY OF IOWA PRESS Copyright © 2003 John Isles
All right reserved.
Chapter One TO A PRETENDING LEAF
I want to take off your green blouse because. I love the world behind every blouse.
Because underneath skin and heart lie. I want to say it, take off your clothes.
This way you know I feel it the way you do. Sticky lick at the back of my neck-
locust lick of the September sky- sweet burden I never asked for.
I feel it when I'm about to pluck you: The roofers' radio-mariachi loses its accent
inside you-you dance like some body. Like yesterday's grass, which you are
nothing compared to-like dirt. Dirt of Indians, one little, two little ...
I'm waiting for you to fall and kiss the ground you come from because in that kiss
scatterbrained moths fly backwards, returning florescence to the flower,
Arcadian dust to the garden arcade. Because there's a wild man in the jungle.
And a wise man in the desert. Because in this yard, there's nobody and a leaf,
nobody and your clothes strewn everywhere.
Something is always happening. Something's getting around to happening or having just happened, loitering in the vicinity, drunk in the sun. It just so happens that nothing is at home. Our house has everything, garden with fruit tree, egret pumping across, white kite with a mind of its own. Symbol of a harmonious universe, is what we like to say we say. The garbage cans hold a symposium with the moths, and all agree: The news that sells is no news. Just blocks from here, a girl was stabbed to death for ten dollars and a cell phone and no one wants to compare this to the natural world. We awoke to raccoons thrashing in the rubber wading pool, African Savannah for its motif: giraffes, zebras, a rainbow tying it all together. When we came to this place forever came to mind. Tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers swell and further convince us. The grass goes wild, the grass breaks up the cement path from the door to the tree with its stewing black fruit.
Yesterday, the woman I never had, I am constantly having, having been myself, had. Not only in dream but in the hunger I follow down the slender fingers of my wife.
* * *
Whitewashed out as it were, the dead shape the air with their God-like absence. Twenty coats makes twenty times removed. They tenant the white of this room.
* * *
Where masters outnumber dogs, wilderness is relative to the leash. Most of the truth mostly isn't. Redundancies of blue except here, at ground level, where difference lies. My father, a keeper of prisoners, loved his prison. He befriended his German charges. His souvenirs, a ship-in-a-bottle, a pastoral painted plate, recall nothing that ever happened.
* * *
The cows, a patchwork on these wintergreen hills. The cries, cries of a boy putting a gun to the head of his playmate. "Blam," he says and drags the outlaw to a corner of the yard.
* * *
Because out of their subterranean suburbs the ground squirrels are easy prey, hawk buzzed and coyote snuffed. Because I commune with the imbecile vultures, it's all too easy to say a phantom kisses me.
They call me into frenzied frequencies between a drive-by and a pledge drive: The hull's torn open, we all go down. When the news is over, it's over with.
The voice of wishful thinking, a wet-mouthed nymph, rises in stereo. Abandoned to differences of air, I do the dead-man on the waves.
If I had the choice, I would take it. Take the sky. Take the sea. What would I have? Lovers pressing body to body? Not exactly not at all.
Take the boat on the horizon. It's tacking in, it's sailing away. It being the most immediate antecedent of the deceased, dear loved one I will not
name-at least, not in this lifetime. At least, not at this moment when the radio's off, and I'm tuning in to the white noise of a lacerated sea.
Witness the waves against the rocks. They will not turn the volume down. Who is dying? What city burns? Only the sea, which doesn't say, can say.
OUT OF THE PAST
monologue for a father Never is the way things used to be. The life I used to live before. A small king in a small town & mountains ...
silvered in cinematic black & white.
Night is Out of the Past starring more of myself than I care to remember & a soft discoursing woman, poppies in the gold of harvest, high
on the tide of good luck & GASOLINE- a small world under the big sign built like gallows. [Bird shriek]
Nightbirds assemble private darkness, in my daughters' sky. The Cordelia lie.
[Sings] Too ra loo ra lie, my kingdom for a lullaby.
Never is between: my retinue of dark backward abysm of time & a filling station filled with limelight,
between my past and a smooth talker, stranger in a black overcoat knowing: Behind every man there's a femme fatale. There's a double-cross & a cross undone.
This gangster night is noir, is silver, is straight whiskey plus a .45, which equals a slick-lipped dame at the roulette wheel, or a cigarette punctuating darkness. out of the past
Or: night is lady in white walking in with the moon, night is the never of never enough, as in Baby, I don't care
& a full-screen kiss in milky light. It's a net that catches the scandalized eyes of voyeurs like flies, in theater-dark-
& more of myself than I could make up.
In this nightly version, I live to climb around in my own skull, contemplating my once Empire of Adoration.
Am I speaking now to an empty house?
Daughters of my blood, who do not love me?
Daughters with their Medusa hair. Wanton. Bedaubed in rouge. Turning dials on the Hi Fi- music the house can't hold-
mocking the pounding of my Technicolor heart. Abandoning me to bygone days of dogwoods
& the bedlamite expression of the moon ...
& and these bird-fears.
I, who was king of swelling violins, & a hash slinger named ... Mabel? Delia?
[Sings] My kingdom for an alibi, too ra loo ra lie.
I, rummaging dustbins of past lives. Nightlives of martinis & snazzy hats now blurred ...
ELEGY FOR THE PRESENT MOMENT
The stepping stone never leaves its footprint. The stone begat by stone, stone with its placard, Washington, to paraphrase, passed here on his way somewhere else.
Where a tree came and went, the road forks. The sun pulling out its last sword, speaks color the way color does: tongue in the eye. Warm as a puddle of blood over the town,
the light stains the faux colonial façades, the umbrellas like bones collapsing. It wine-lights the coats ducking into shops, startling mannequins in their glass sepulchers.
The sun lopped off, lops off the shadow of me. Darkness crawls into a field of itself. Time was, I was a boy in this town. Time was and I cannot get a word in edgewise.
Today is yesterday in buffalo time. The end of another workday for the dragonfly marauding the stagnant pond for iridescence. Discard for the raccoons eating human garbage.
It's whistling time under these noctilucent clouds.
SMALL TRAVELING ISLANDS
No footprints recede into the distance, unless these last slivers of red light are what remains of a stellar walking, this whole body of water the print of one tremendous foot.
* * *
I have lived through two forevers now: a forever of cowering until you sobered. A forever now of china-white foam,
a third and final forever where green water smears into the blonde coast, the dark skyline crawling up.
The jailed ocean eddies past. It isn't Irish water. Unless this sea is coal and thunder,
a thousand kettles untended, a city letting loose a long-held breath ... wake of cabbage plowed under.
* * *
Slipping from the coast like a breath- or clothes from a body- that's how I thought it should be.
The jetty trembled in gray light. Arms and legs retracted into a dark mass. That father was
not you. Beneath clicking oarlocks, your labored breathing, your protruding eyes
pleading ... just that morning you chewed like a lion, a sphinx, dictating chores for the day, for
my lifetime. I tried to be invisible- a glass in water- to your fisherman eyes.
* * *
The tide takes what nobody has a right to.
You can't say what kisses you there, under starlings two-by-two clouding the sky.
I was running in the gray darkness.
Island hopping, they wing the harbor, they railroad the horizon, then bank into the paved and parceled shoreline.
A perch here, a perch there, Verazzano's Arcadia, "land of cool springs, soft meadows and groves," slaked like a runway.
Crickets were sawing in the grass, pacing me with a small traveling island of silence.
Grain by grain, the coast shuffles off.
* * *
Fishermen pull up what they did not trawl for or grope, fully clothed,
in pressured darkness for: 3 sea robins, 3 rock crabs, 1 undersized flounder. In the channel, tender leviathan, sand fills your shoes, your ears ... The tide takes a kingdom of mostly water.
The real world's down here. In the real world of my apartment, the phone rings its underwater ring. The sky files down a corridor of water. Days eddy in and out of days.
Trees float, houses tumble past. What sinks swirls in a current of gravity gone haywire. The wolf and the lamb and the one missing shoe on equal foot.
Sinking is one way, a good way: Eels in silky mud make good bedmates. There's more inside the water than every thing: handful of salt, pocketful of water. Nothing I could nail into something larger.
A boy dismantling his toys dreams of one gigantic machine. Here, on the inside, I have one over on him. Though I am under and over and dead on.
Unbeknownst to the boy smelling the pink of the backyard flowers. Unbeknownst to the airplane circling like a man looking for his house keys, my neighbor's dog swallows its bark.
Trees walk, the general trees of my understanding; treed in a waterwall of days.
Chapter Two Voices inside the ark: Only the mouths were saved. Hear us, o sinking things. -Paul Celan, "Voices scored into" (tr. Heather McHugh and Nikolai Popov)
These milky breath-clouds drift away like the old country, defy gravity a moment, join bodies of water, unlit rooms of waves ...
I am by nature an odor of you, an air of you, something less than I was before. Harbor that you are. Ocean. Island in the ocean.
Your breaking is the breaking of water: father after father now a single undertow. I walk among what you do not have time for. Spartina patens, sharp inedible grass that holds the world
to the world. Georgie Rogan, carry your pail in your potato fist across the straw-strewn farmyard. I'll walk away whistling. The tune, yours, a white lion, a lamb.
Big talker, crab shell in the wind, I would be as you were if I could go backwards. What if it's true? There's the wrong way and there's yours.
Three corners of the sail, only one to fold in first. A little cloud that shrouds me. I live down here on the corner of the mouth
and the ocean. I return to this intersection, warm the air that will not love me, this water and light, fingers that will not come to my mouth.
WEST OF HERE, NORTH OF TRUE
My lover, the new world, winks like a city of gold.
Her belly is my meadow, my swinging door. In her eyes
I am two silver dollars and time on her hands.
I am the IOU spelled out on her back. The one she holds
her breath for, kisses the dust for. Flies do her
talking but it doesn't concern me. I am just another meal.
No water to want, I drink myself under, silver spurred,
sporting my ten-gallon hat, my ten gallons of empty.
My horse is tethered in the wrong city.
My horse in a kingdom of mostly water.
Cowboys, drunk and dry, flop in streets of airborne dust.
My horse tethered in the wrong city, I hoof it out to the highway.
It travels into a world of small things.
It travels beyond the squinting of my eyes.
City of lips,
west of here, north of her true lips, a line so soft,
so carefree I'd say it wasn't
all there. A dream of skin on skin, I would not call any thing.
The stones without lips say "sleep with me," but I'm with the skyline.
Stumbling dust devil in the streets of her hands, the palaces of her eyes,
I, who have no name
to call her, call her bride for now.
THE EVANGELIST OF FISH
The world once was solid, rivers and bays so fish-thick the Indians (legend goes) walked on water. Flying at 35,000 feet, even the ground
is conjecture: love, your feet swell in a simulacrum of ripening. They loom large next to my book about John Smith and his dream of America, his fish gospel.
Turning back a page, everything happened, nothing's true. If I told you that down there a musket is being fired at a redskin,
that he takes off with a wave of plovers, would that keep the plane from going down? Between Paradise and tabula rasa, the ax falls-
Cockles and mussels alive, alive ... If I told you Cibola and El Dorado were gilded inventions next to mounds of fish, stinking, would John Smith be as real as you?
And yesterday ... through the kitchen window, the garden frozen in glass, tomatoes heaped, tomatoes rotting on the vines, the red globe
ruptured when you put it in my mouth.
CITY UPON A HILL
I want to hear what you hear, scattered in voices you call by my name, unassembled in throats of the air. Gulls
buckle in a gust. Sirens find the ear in a parking lot, dissipate into the Sound ... The light on the water,
a wavering city held by invisible lines.
A blur of green, our first summer shifted in the window.
Clams pissed their translucent architectures- sun-wrenched into the air ... The green wall of trees kaleidoscopes
into the Sound even now, gazing into my eyes. June, I remember, inhaled into the channel ...
Marian, do you hear me through the hole in the sky where the roof was? The sky pouring in with its ghost-weight, with its possibility of traveling these distances ...
Marian, what gleams in the frontiers- in the running sand sometimes- insisting in your sleep-in the flashing waves- what streets maze into the currents ... the universal cannibalism of the sea.
The light trembles and rocks.
The Lord writes his pleasure, then smears it away ...
SAINT IN THE WILDERNESS
Sometimes, Lord, it's like water spiriting through blue into cirrus clouds. In the end, there's no end in sight. Just as well: something wants to build a nest in our skulls. Cicadas never stop sawing in the trees. The trees never fall down.
With this black robe, I espouse to these people you who take no bride. With this mirror, this cross, knife, I lure a native with shiny things. Bloody spouse in spirit, her eyes dim over scripture. Wholly without names, the black marks swarm like bees she is deaf to.
What is it that wants to carry away this head on a stick? This head looking down the path it came from? A billion cornflowers line the way, flower-sky where once upon a time the invisible hand slapped and slapped. What you can't see starts the wild grasses trembling.
Excerpted from ARK by John Isles Copyright © 2003 by John Isles. Excerpted by permission.
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