The tiny bird flaps in the grass near me
watches my approach with eyes like glass beads
opens its mouth as if expecting
random acts of maternal kindness from everything
around it, even me. Overhead
the mother catbird peeps in distress, also
watching me with shiny eyes
a look of resolution on its face as if
it’s already decided I am incapable of love.
The Lens Grinder
The publishers say my treatise on the rainbow
is selling a little better this year. And
with the royalties, we can live on more
than just bread and circuses alone.
The Alhambra Decree passed
with a majority vote
and my family was pushed from country to country,
from diaspora to diaspora
like a gypsy caravan captained by Ahasuerus,
all of Europe an anti-Semitic basket case.
I rented a room with a harpsichord
whose keys I never fingered,
and shelved the laws of Hebrew grammar,
Talmudic scholia, the geometric textbook;
determined as I was
to defy the determinism of my race,
cursed with all curses of Deuteronomy.
No war between the mind and the body
except that which the mind wages
against its own body.
The sun looks the same
whether from prison or from a palace
and we too need resistance
to fly like the albatross.
The Collegiants agreed
that God might inhabit the substance of a stone,
the mode of a mountain, the attribute of an angle.
Grind a lens so large, they urged me,
that even the myopic, who can buy nothing
with their frugal thoughts, could see
the armigerous affections of a determinist
in cloud formations – that circus of pareidolia –
reflected in the linished surfaces of Amsterdam’s canals.
Like Nero straining through the green
of an emerald to glimpse a favorite gladiator
just before he is devoured by a female bear.
Then a bureaucratic snail knocked
and produced a writ of cherem:
Elisha’s curse reversed upon me,
for teaching the unity of convex and concave,
the refracted real image and its virtual other,
for identifying the shadow of the light with the thing itself.
Rather to wear the foreskin of a Gentile like a death mask
than to have my visage printed on their Dutch guilder.
If you don’t like it here, I said with blue lips,
the early onset of Potter’s Rot,
you are always free to go.
So, what keeps you here,
when the door is wide open
like the mouth of one sleeping?
God has unloaded the gun of stars.
If you smell roses, the corpse cannot be too far.
Even mechanics do metaphysics.
The Cheshire cat’s smile is no accident.
What are we human machines then
but uncanny swine satisfied?
And then I returned to my lens-grinding.
The lens grew until it filled the entire room,
pressing me against the wall.
I slept under its convex penumbra,
like a glass tent pitched upon the deserts of the moon
among the silica dust of ground lenses,
and every morning I polished it
with the white rags of Maimonides’ turban
and a few glasses of canal water
until the forty-two she-bears danced to my door,
ready with the laughter of devoured children.
Into the magic circle,
the alchemist and his pentacle
to propagate wealth,
turn dross to gold.
His mixture of merds,
blood and leaves, potions
and spells all fell
to nothing more
than ridicule and scorn.
Into the magic circle,
the professors and their particles
to dominate: I am death,
destroyer of worlds.
Their sky-burst ripped
Earth a new sun, gave motion
to fiends in hell, boiled
skin, faith and bone. Their laws
conjured Mammon to be born.
Triptych of Crayon Man on Tight Rope
on Pink ball of foot/ spliced by
figure grips horizontal
(Slipping next picture from wool Fawn
coat your castanet hands quiver.
Must be lithium, I think.)
Figure leaps defiant
Thrusts open Gold rays
his heart Crimson.
to Violet apex one
(You cannot help it/ gravity will.
(I am not blind to the density of red,
I say. I know the weight.)
you strung high in
The terrible sway of colour, I muse
Beneath you, a pool of Midnight Black
Above, an Indigo sky littered
with darting Yellow birds.
Potion Against Heart-Ache
Take thee nut of hickory,
Root of chicory, parsnip, purslane and dock.
Add parsley and roses, salsify, samphire and thyme,
And roast it or toast it and steep it in brandy
With oris-root candy
Twelve hours straight by the clock.
Then drain it and strain it and keep it from fire;
As slowly it mellows, chill it with bellows
And coat it with frosting of rime.
To keep the taste true, fine it with rue
Then age it in cellars like wine.
At least for a season live thee by reason,
Keep thee from sin or gambling den,
And avoid all manner of ire.
Then give thee the liquor, this magical ichor,
To pure lady whose love you desire,
And her heart shall ever be true.
Thy babies need never fear rabies nor scabies,
Scrofula, glanders, nor pox,
If thou blend thee this potion into a lotion
And rub on their feeties each day.
Thy hens will all lay, thy lambkins shall play
And give thee gold nuggets for rocks,
Thy heifers give milk, thy worms make thee silk,
All creatures shall love thee at sight,
If six drops in water thou add to their fodder
And knead it and feed it each night.
Keep thou this potion and magical lotion
Ever beside thee, no night-mare shall ride thee,
No ill fate betide thee, nor eye-worm trouble thy sight.
No wife shall beshrew thee no bailiff shall rue thee;
Just care thou to muse thee and always to choose thee
Daily to use it aright.
El Floridita Bar, Havana
The barman ignores us, just another tour group,
camera phones flashing, rubbing the fabled
bronze beard for luck
Young man with a shiner turns up in every shot
having the drink we’ve no time for, nursing
his hurts at the bar as Hemingway must have,
taking time out from novel production,
downing a fifth mojito, joking with his sparring
partner friends, only one not smoking.
Plenty of Cohibas in Havana, a plethora
of famous beards worth stroking in a city
marking revolution’s anniversary
tee-shirts and postcards exclusively exhibit
Che Guevara’s death grimace, his sacrifice
for a nation not his own. Fidel’s face absent
from the giant billboards masking
hurricane-damaged fields. Our shiny
Chinese bus passes ancient Cuban trucks.
History disconcerting for the tourist,
not one black eye amongst us, none
sent reeling from the ropes.
The bruising beginning
face rubbed in
central Alberta’s finest
Orthic Dark Brown Chernozem
where wheat flourishes
and barley wails
After the fight
we congregate in the principal’s office:
meted out to him
who impugned my face against the ground
because its darkness inspired
part-time prairie poet that he was
meted out to me
the victim so called
Well, why did you fight back?
Why do you people
Now I have to punish you
The principal glared at me
his eyes a shock
of literal blue
on my way home
I pondered the view
from the top of a rare hill
a field spilled
with dandelions splayed out below
This accidental agriculture
will be swallowed
by an instantaneous city with
I saw the whole against the horizon
a timeless landscape
a flatness ensuing
My tender head still throbbing
from the blunt encounter
I reached with a quiet fist
to rub at the soreness swelling
around my eyes
why did you fight back?
When the black child is six years old
he suddenly sees everything he has been before
and all that is to come laid out before him and
it has been laid out before him and this
muses James Baldwin
is the fundamental difference between
any child growing anywhere
and every child that must see things
through black eyes
The Lab Coat
when I leave the pulp on the stove
and step into the hallway
to take your lab coat from the closet
your presence is palpable
not just because your name
is printed in the collar
in your self-confident hand lettering
you’ve been using these coats
around the house
painting walls, making jam
you left your career
to raise me
and my sister
I have this one
that you shortened to the skirt length
fashionable in ‘71
and then let out again
to put on now
to briefly feel that I am you
thirty years ago
and while I step over to the linen closet
and get the spill cloth
for wiping the jars’ rims
I feel that quite possibly
it was more than an apron
every day in the kitchen
when we came home from school
you were always standing
and I can see that sometimes
you needed that coat
to make you feel professional
and the work worthwhile
like paid work
the pulp is simmering
and starting to bubble up
it will make new stains
on the coat
fresh stains layered over washed out ones
my cooking layered over yours
almost as bizarre
as the views you had in ‘71
through your electron microscope