The Innisfree Poetry Journal
by A CLOSER LOOK: Michael Collier
the pages of the book unfolded, like owl wings, when my mother read to us . . . .
the pages of the book unfolded, like owl wings,
when my mother read to us . . . .
Collier has received an Award in Literature from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships, a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Alice Fay di Castagnola Prize from the Poetry Society of America, and a Discovery/The Nation Award. Seminal to his development as a poet were the Thomas J. Watson Travelling Fellowship and a residency fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown.
1995 Collier has served as the sixth director of the Bread Loaf Writers’
Conference, where he has helped to revitalize one of America’s most valuable
literary institutions. He is a Professor of English at the University of Maryland.
A Selection of Poems
by Michael Collier,
including four uncollected poems
from The Clasp and Other Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 1986):
Mud rising through thin snow,
and a dull welder’s light
shining from the fires on the ice below—
as if from this quiet and vista
memory started out as a bright sun
against the completely unremembered.
Just as in another part of the city,
the thin Ussuri bends to confluence,
and Lenin Prospect ends at a granite
esplanade, steep gardens
leveling to a beach. In summer
families watch fireworks rising
from ghost-lit barges: this
in a travel brochure in my pocket,
which also shows the snow-covered square
in front of Hotel Europe,
from which I gauged the bend of my first walk
to this bank, without memory,
where beyond the fires
lay the blue horizon of China
and the barges setting out from there,
the lumberers with their last loads
of stolen larch, magpies circling;
and all the exhalations of horses and men,
like warm beats against the cold,
moved immunely over the snapping ice.
Then it was only in the river’s name, Amur,
and after a long time
came a memory of love.
Two Girls in a Chair
Of the childhood photographs my wife
has given me, my favorite has her sitting
in a black alumni chair;
a college’s gold seal and part of a Latin motto
curve beneath her right ear.
She’s eight or nine, hair bobbed, dressed
in a white T-shirt and black tights
that reach only mid-calf.
She holds a neighbor friend in her lap,
someone whose leotards are ripped at the knees.
My wife’s arms wrap around her friend’s waist,
and her friend’s feet dangle over the lily-
and fern-patterned linoleum.
Often when I enter my room, I notice only
this photograph, wedged among others,
and have felt a surprise of recognition
in those childhood friends
who could not now remember each other’s name,
cannot recall what day of a New England summer
ended or began their long affection.
I had been thinking about the moon,
how you see it
from the back of a truck
at a neighbor’s house—
emerald with a little gold—
while the neighbor reminds you not
to press too hard on the eyepiece.
I did once and the moon disappeared,
or something shut down
inside the telescope, and I was alone
on the truck, smaller than the tripod,
wondering how I’d lost
the big moon in the big sky.
Like once, home late from a party,
I stopped in the yard
to turn gray-white in moonlight.
The grass, a blue bristle,
blew back and forth unevenly,
and when I closed my eyes
a light filled my head.
Then my lover came outside and found me
lost in a privacy
that scared her. In bed
I told her I had been thinking
about the suicide of my college roommate.
Then I reassured her
and we tried to make love, but when
that part of ourselves that had shut down
so long ago began to open,
we pressed too hard
and were alone again. In a few weeks
I was too sullen to live with,
and like the moon
that disappeared from the eyepiece
at my neighbor’s house
we couldn’t be restored.
Those neighbors disappeared
from the block because of divorce:
how we all disappear under a moon
which my roommate said
hangs high in every neighborhood.
from The Folded Heart (Wesleyan University Press, 1989):
You are down on your knees, but you are not praying.
You are holding the hollow body
of your cherrywood Gretsch Tennessean
guitar across your thighs,
and you are pressing the right side of your face
against the black grille of the Fender Bandmaster amp
whose ruby pilot light glows like a planet in the dark.
You are listening to the last chord that fades into the black
cone of the speaker, which is ridged and grooved
like the walls of Hell and leaves only a ghost vibration
in your ear. And you are waiting for your friend to lower
the tone arm of the black plastic GE Stereo
onto the grooves of the record so you can imitate
Blue Cheer, Quicksilver, Jefferson Airplane,
and curve your shoulders over the guitar like a bird
holding its wings in glide, while your friend
rocks and jerks, gives himself over to the pulse
that drives you deeper and deeper
to the center of your teenage hearts. You are raw
and born for the distortion that lives beyond your ears
in the darkness, and is too loud with fuzztone
and wah-wah pedal. And each note or chord you strike
in imitation is partially saved, suspended,
as you pull and pump the vibrato’s thin blade
and stir the molecules of sound as your long hair
obscures your faces, and you recede deeper, more separate,
into your selves here in this world, on this earth,
in the converted garage with its brown Georgia-Pacific
paneling and green burlap curtains that hang
above the avocado-green carpet.
On television my sister emerges
three meters above the water
like something carved from light,
where she balances on the springboard,
and like a graceful sleepwalker extends
her arms as counterweights. A doll
of perfect will, she rules her fear
of heights by tracing little circles
with cupped hands and then drops her arms
to start the swift wing beats of a creature
who has taught herself not to fly but to land,
more intricate than flight for the twists
and knots and folded arms that make her appear
wounded in midair, beyond recovery, though
recovery comes quickly once she clasps
her hands, entwines her thumbs to make a sieve
through which the water passes and allows
her head to enter, then shoulders and hips.
And this is how I always see her, half in,
half out of water, her body perpendicular,
toes matched, as if there is no place for
error in the world and all her body’s
perfection was meant to disappear beneath
her splash—a light she carves and shatters.
I think of Plato and the limited technology
of his cave, the primitive projection
incapable of fast forward or reverse,
stop action or slo mo and the instant replay
that would have allowed him to verify,
once and for all, Justice or the Good,
such as the way my family did, hour upon hour,
in the dark, watching films of my sister
diving, going over her failures and successes
like a school of philosophers, arguing
fiercely, pulling her up from the depths
of the blue water, feet first, her splash
blooming around her hips, then dying out
into a calm flat sheet as her fingertips appeared.
Sometimes we kept her suspended in her mimesis
of gainer and twist until the projector’s lamp
burned blue with smoke and the smell of acetate
filled the room. Always from the shabby armchairs
of our dialectic we corrected the imperfect
attitude of her toes, the tuck of her chin,
took her back to the awkward approach or weak
hurdle and everywhere restored the half-promise
of her form, so that each abstract gesture
performed in an instant of falling revealed
that fond liaison of time and movement,
the moment held in the air, the illusion
of something whole, something true.
And though what we saw on the screen would never
change, never submit to our arguments, we believed
we might see it more clearly and understand
that what we judged was a result of poor light
or the apparent size of things or the change
an element evokes, such as when we allowed her
to reenter the water and all at once her body
skewed with refraction, an effect we could not save
her from, though we hauled her up again and again.
from The Neighbor (University of Chicago Press, 1995):
The name of the trailer
was “Lil’! Dude,”
the engine an Evinrude,
the boat a Glassport,
and under the yellow
bug-light of the carport
across the street,
my neighbor proved
his boast that with one
finger under the tongue
of the trailer,
he could lift the boat,
raise the bow as high
as his chest and haul
the rig by slow steps
onto the drive where
his pick-up idled,
and its running lights,
orange and yellow,
trimmed the camper shell.
The name of the camper
was “Six Pac,” the truck
“Apache.” Gerry cans
and butane tanks lashed
to the bumper and wheel
wells, and when he lowered
the trailer onto
the chrome sphere
of the hitch, the ball
and socket clicked.
He wrapped the safety
chains, like ligaments,
around the mount bolted
to the chassis, then
checked the safety
on the winch.
Inside the truck,
he eased the handbrake off
and the whole rig,
on its own, rolled
into the street.
And later, on the lake,
he held the Coleman
lantern over the dark
water, and fish rose
to it as to the sun,
a ball of gas burning
in a silk mantel, a lung
bright, reflected in the housing
glass like the source
of good to which everything
from its darkness turns—
depths of water, depths
of earth-words rising
to join their things. A flensing
knife strapped to his belt,
blade and handle shaped
like a fish and the fish
in the water,
shaped like the knife.
2212 West Flower Street
When I think of the man who lived in the house
behind ours and how he killed his wife
and then went into his own back yard,
a few short feet from my bedroom window,
and put the blue-black barrel of his 30.06
inside his mouth and pulled the trigger,
I do not think about how much of the barrel
he had to swallow before his fingers reached the trigger,
nor the bullet that passed out the back of his neck,
nor the wild orbit of blood that followed
his crazy dance before he collapsed in a clatter
over the trash cans, which woke me.
Instead I think of how quickly his neighbors restored
his humanity, remembering his passion
for stars which brought him into his yard
on clear nights, with a telescope and tripod,
or the way he stood in the alley in his rubber boots
and emptied the red slurry from his rock tumblers
before he washed the glassy chunks of agate
and petrified wood. And we remembered, too,
the goose-neck lamp on the kitchen table
that burned after dinner and how he worked
in its bright circle to fashion flies and lures.
The hook held firmly in a jeweler’s vise,
while he wound the nylon tread around the haft
and feathers. And bending closer to the light,
he concentrated on tying the knots, pulling them tight
against the coiled threads. And bending closer still,
turning his head slightly toward the window,
his eyes lost in the dark yard, he took the thread ends
in his teeth and chewed them free: Perhaps he saw us
standing on the sidewalk watching him, perhaps he didn’t.
He was a man so much involved with what he did,
and what he did was so much of his loneliness,
our presence didn’t matter. No one’s did.
So careful and precise were all his passions,
he must have felt the hook with its tiny barbs
against his lip, sharp and trigger-shaped.
It must have been a common danger for him—
the wet clear membrane of his mouth threatened
by the flies and lures, the beautiful enticements
he made with his own hands and the small loose
thread ends which clung to the roof of his mouth
and which he tried to spit out like an annoyance
that would choke him.
Even in death he roams the yard in his boxer shorts,
plowing the push-mower through bermuda grass,
bullying it against the fence and tree trunks,
chipping its twisted blades on the patio’s edge.
The chalky flint and orange spark of struck concrete
floats in the air, tastes like metal, smells,
like the slow burn of hair on his electric clippers.
And smelling it, I feel the hot shoe of the shaver
as he guided it in a high arc around my ears,
then set the sharp toothy edge against my sideburns
to trim them square, and how he used his huge stomach
to butt the chair and his flat hand palming my head
to keep me still, pressing my chin down as he cleaned
the ragged wisps of hair along my neck.
A fat inconsolable man whose skill and pleasure
was to clip and shear, to make raw and stubble
all that grew in this world, expose the scalp,
the place of roots and nerves and make vulnerable,
there in the double mirrors of his shop, the long
stem-muscles of our necks. And so we hung below
his license in its cheap black frame, above the violet
light of the scissors shed with its glass jars
of germicide and the long tapered combs soaking
in its blue iridescence. Gruff when he wasn’t silent,
he was a neighbor to fear, yet we trusted him
beyond his anger, beyond his privacy. He was like a father
we could hate, a foil for our unspent vengeance,
though vengeance was always his. He sent us back
into the world burning and itching, alive with the horror
of closing eyes in the pinkish darkness
of his shop and having felt the horse-hair brush, talc-filled,
cloying, too sweet for boyhood, whisked across the face.
Though he is dead now and his miracle
will do us no good, I must remind myself
of what he gave, plainly,
and without guile, to all of us on the crumbling
flood-gutted bank of the Verde River
as we watched him, the fat boy,
the last one to cross, ford the violent shallows.
And how we provided him the occasion for his grace
tying his black tennis shoes to a bamboo fishing pole
and dangling them, like a simple bait,
out of reach, jerking them higher each time he rose
from his terrified crouch in the middle
of the shin-high rapids churning beneath him,
like an anger he never expressed.
And yet what moved us was not his earnestness
in trying to retrieve his shoes, nor his willingness
to be the butt of our jokes. What moved us
was how the sun struck the gold attendance star
pinned on the pocket flap of his uniform
as he fell head first
into the water and split his face,
a gash he quickly hid with his hands,
though blood leaked through his fingers as he stood
straight in the river and walked deftly toward us
out of the water to his shoes
that lay abandoned at our feet.
When he rises from his naugahyde recliner
to shake your hand, he cups his fingers
behind his ear to catch your name.
He grips your hand to see if you’re man
enough to date his daughter, and though
you’re barely man enough, you’ve got
the strength to pass his test.
You meet his eyes that know exactly
how to judge a lamb or yearling’s face
and what he sees in yours he doesn’t trust.
How could he? When his daughter’s dressed
and wearing make-up, he calls her cheap,
a floozie. His wife’s her pimp.
He’s not bad, his daughter tells you.
We’re all women in this house, that’s hard
on him, and Mom’s such a bitch.
When he’s drunk, he comes into her room
with what she calls his badger’s muzzle
and sniffs her neck and shoulders.
But what’s worse, she tells you, is when
she comes home from her dates and if he’s
still awake, he lifts her dress or puts
his hand inside her Levis. And so each time
you came to pick her up, he looked at you
as both the one who’d save his daughter
and use her. He told you once, she lies
don’t trust her, and then, as if to prove it,
he led you to the service porch,
where a freezer, as large as a grave casing,
paralleled his beat-up truck. He propped
the freezer open with a piece of 2x4,
high enough so that the light inside
illumined rows and stacks of plastic bags,
clear, the contents burred with ice.
Each one contained what looked to you
like scallops, though larger. He reached inside
and knocked a bag loose with his fist,
then picked it up and said, She’ll do to you
what I did to sheep to get these,
then threw the bag back in, closed the lid,
slapped you on the ass and squeezed you,
hard. You felt the badger’s muzzle then,
prickly and wiry, his cheek like a shaved pelt,
and then heard what he said, a whisper,
You tell me what it’s like with her
and I’ll be glad to listen.
from The Ledge (Houghton Mifflin, 2000):
lf you think Odysseus too strong and brave to cry,
that the god-loved, god-protected hero
when he returned to Ithaka disguised,
intent to check up on his wife
and candidly apprize the condition of his kingdom,
steeled himself resolutely against surprise
and came into his land cold-hearted, clear-eyed,
ready for revenge—then you read Homer as I did,
too fast, knowing you’d be tested for plot
and major happenings, skimming forward to the massacre,
the shambles engineered with Telemakhos
by turning beggar and taking up the challenge of the bow.
Reading this way you probably missed the tear
Odysseus shed for his decrepit dog, Argos,
who’s nothing but a bag of bones asleep atop
a refuse pile outside the palace gates. The dog is not
a god in earthly clothes, but in its own disguise
of death and destitution is more like Ithaka itself.
And if you returned home after twenty years
you might weep for the hunting dog
you long ago abandoned, rising from the garbage
of its bed, its instinct of recognition still intact,
enough will to wag its tail, lift its head, but little more.
Years ago you had the chance to read that page more closely
but instead you raced ahead, like Odysseus, cocksure
with your plan. Now the past is what you study,
where guile and speed give over to grief so you might stop,
and desiring to weep, weep more deeply.
Not blasphemy so much as curiosity
and imitation suggested I lie faceup
and naked on my bedroom floor,
arms stretched out like His,
feet crossed at the ankles,
and my head lolling in that familiar
defeated way, while my sisters worked
with toy wooden hammers to drive
imagined spikes through my hands and feet.
A spiritual exercise? I don’t think so.
For unlike Christ my boy-size penis stiffened
like one of Satan’s fingers.
I was dying a savior’s death and yet
what my sisters called my “thing”
struggled against extinction
as if its resurrection could not be held off
by this playful holy torture, nor stopped
except by the arrival of my parents,
who stood above us suddenly like prelates,
home early from their supper club,
stunned, but not astonished, to find
the babysitter asleep and the inquisitive
nature of our heathenish hearts amok
in murderous pageantry.
whose home is in the straw
and baling twine threaded
in the slots of a roof vent
who guards a tiny ledge
against the starlings
that cruise the neighborhood
whose heart is smaller
than a heart should be,
whose feathers stiffen
like an arrow fret to quicken
the hydraulics of its wings,
stay there on the metal
ledge, widen your alarming
beak, but do not flee as others have
to the black walnut vaulting
overhead. Do not move outside
the world you’ve made
from baling twine and straw.
The isolated starling fears
the crows, the crows gang up
to rout a hawk. The hawk
is cold. And cold is what
a larger heart maintains.
The owl at dusk and dawn,
far off, unseen, but audible,
repeats its syncopated intervals,
a song that’s not a cry
but a whisper rising from concentric
rings of water spreading out across
the surface of a catchment pond.
It asks, “Who are you? Who
are you?” but no one knows.
stay where you are, nervous, jittery.
Move your small head a hundred
ways, a hundred times, keep
paying attention to the terrifying
world. And if you see the robins
in their dirty orange vests
patrolling the yard like thugs,
forget about the worm. Starve
yourself, or from the air inhale
the water you may need, digest
the dust. And what the promiscuous
cat and jaybirds do, let them
do it, let them dart and snipe,
let them sound like others.
They sleep when the owl sends
out its encircling question.
Stay where you are, you lit fuse,
you dull spark of saltpeter and sulfur.
Vendors with racks of soft drinks, palettes
of cotton candy, ice cream in bright insulated
bags, pretzels in metal cabinets, and the peanut
man with his yellow peanut earring. Money folded
between fingers, spokes of green waving
in the glad pandemonium greeting the Budman
with his quick-pouring mechanism strapped
to his wrist like a prosthesis, or the hotdog guy
genuflecting in the steep aisles, anointing
the roll and weenie with mustard before passing
it down to the skinny kid sitting between fat parents.
In the air above us the flittering birds, attracted
and repelled by planetary field lights, swoop
in ecstatic arcs, trapped under a dark invisible dome.
The park organ, the JumboTron, the mascot
pacing atop the visitors’ dugout, taunting them
with oversize antics, while the groundskeepers
mist the infield with a fire hose, leavening
the calm, raked earth . . . . Later, in the fifth
or sixth, two soldiers sitting next to me, who
have paced each other with a beer an inning and kept
their buzz buffed with a flask, take off their shirts,
though the night’s cool, and move to the front row,
where they face the crowd, sweep up their arms,
and command us to rise from our seats.
At first only a few respond, but like molecules quickening
or cells dividing or herds stampeding, we coalesce—
orison provoking unison—section by section, as if
township by township, our standing up and sitting down
becomes the Simon Says and Mother May I? of a nation,
as it runs through our rippling, shimmering, upraised hands
that form the crest of a wave built on the urges
and urgings of the soldiers, whose skin is slick with sweat
or some other labor and whose goal now, for all of us,
for themselves, for the players on the field, is simply to stay
in the wave, to keep it going for as long as they can.
from Dark Wild Realm (Houghton Mifflin, 2006):
Birds Appearing in a Dream
One had feathers like a blood-streaked koi,
another a tail of color-coded wires.
One was a blackbird stretching orchid wings,
another a flicker with a wounded head.
All flew like leaves fluttering to escape,
bright, circulating in burning air,
and all returned when the air cleared.
One was a kingfisher trapped in its bower,
deep in the ground, miles from water.
Everything is real and everything isn’t.
Some had names and some didn’t.
Named and nameless shapes of birds,
at night my hand can touch your feathers
and then I wipe the vernix from your wings,
you who have made bright things from shadows,
you who have crossed the distances to roost in me.
Birdsong in the morning air
and the whir of my neighbor’s lift
as it raises him in his wheelchair
onto the bed of his truck.
Not someone to pity, he locks the wheels
in place and like a gymnast
on parallel bars manages himself
from his seat and then, in a move
too quick to see, disappears, though
because I’ve been there beside him
I know he’s on all fours crawling
to the tailgate where he swings
over the edge and continues
in the dirt of the drive. Sometimes
when I’m weeding the garden
or admiring sunlight through leaves
the electric whir of the lift, followed
by its silence, breaks through and then
the hoof-slap of palms on the ground,
the scrape of shoes pulled along
by his strength, and I see him
as I did the first time, hoisting
a chainsaw, by block and tackle,
and then himself, into the blighted tree
towering between our yards
and which, limb by limb;
branch and trunk,
he cut down and stacked .
The Missing Mountain
Cars could reach the mountain’s saddle,
a notch between two peaks, and there
survey the grid of lighted streets,
a bursting net of beads and sequins,
a straining movement cruising for release.
“As far as the eye could see,” though
few cared to look, was across the valley
to the other mountain, whose ridge
stood gaffed with broadcast towers, bright
harpoons quivering out our songs.
“Oh, wouldn’t it be nice,” the Beach Boys
harmonized. And it was. Sometimes I saw
the Milky Way invade the grid, Andromeda,
Draco, and great Betelgeuse bridging
the avenues and lanes, filling up acres
of vast parking lots. Sometimes I stared
powerfully into space where glowworms
of matter spun in pinwheels of gas.
What does it mean to be alive?
a voice asked. What does it mean
to have a voice speaking from inside?
Once I found a cockpit canopy from
a fighter jet in my neighbor’s yard,
where it had fallen from the sky.
No one ever claimed it, such a large,
specific, useless thing, like the shoe
a giant leaves behind, like a mountain
from childhood—missing or pulverized—
it leaves a shape that once you see it
overwhelms the mind or makes a cloud
that is the shape of what the mountain was,
the sea floor covered with the sea.
“Oh, wouldn’t it be nice,” I used to sing,
and the mountains all around me answered,
but not the question I had asked.
Dangerously frail is what his hand was like
when he showed up at our house,
three or four days after his death,
and stood at the foot of our bed.
Though we had expected him to appear
in some form, it was odd, the clarity
and precise decrepitude of his condition,
and how his hand, frail as it was,
lifted me from behind my head, up from the pillow,
so that no longer could I claim it was a dream,
nor deny that what your father wanted,
even with you sleeping next to me,
was to kiss me on the lips:
There was no refusing his anointing me
with what I was meant to bear of him
from where he was, present in the world,
a document loose from the archives
of form—not spectral, not corporeal—
in transit, though not between lives or bodies:
those lips on mine, then mine on yours.
from An Individual History (W.W. Norton, 2012):
An Individual History
This was before the time of lithium and Zoloft
before mood stabilizers and anxiolytics
and almost all the psychotropic drugs, but not before Thorazine,
which the suicide O’Laughlin called “handcuffs for the mind.”
It was before, during, and after the time of atomic fallout,
Auschwitz, the Nakba, DDT, and you could take water cures,
find solace in quarantines, participate in shunnings,
or stand at Lourdes among the canes and crutches.
It was when the March of Time kept taking off its boots.
Fridays when families prayed the Living Rosary
to neutralize communists with prayer.
When electroshock was electrocution
and hammers recognized the purpose of a nail.
And so, if you were as crazy as my maternal grandmother was then
you might make the pilgrimage she did through the wards
of state and private institutions,
and make of your own body a nail for pounding, its head
sunk past quagmires, coups d’etat, and disappearances
and in this way find a place in history
among the detained and unparoled, an individual like her,
though hidden by an epoch of lean notation—“Marked
Parkinsonian tremor,” “Chronic paranoid type”—
a time when the animal slowed by its fate
was excited to catch a glimpse of its tail
or feel through her skin the dulled-over joy
when for a moment her hands were still.
My Mother of Invention
The needle goes up and down on my mother’s Singer,
squat blade with its gold scroll and script,
shaped like a smokestack turned on its side.
Have you ever seen a dipper bobbing in a stream?
It’s like the Singer but so much slower. Its beak
makes thread of water and sews patterns of spreading ripples.
Such a fierce engine at the center of creation
and beautifully sculpted, a porcelain boot
or a falconer’s gauntlet. The dipper likes the action
of a cataract, the rapid tumble of rapids,
and if it wants walks easily along the stream’s pebbly bottom.
Hour after hour, my mother’s fingers fed the fabric
through the pressing foot, kept the seams flat,
while thread spooled out and the bobbin coaxed up
from its metal gear held the stitch.
The American Dipper? What joy in finding such a bird.
Its short trills punctuated by sharp, clear zeets.
Its eyelid white against total gray, when it blinks.
If it didn’t exist, you’d have to make it up.
You’d have to give it its own day of creation,
a day of translucent patterns, pinking shears, and pins.
You’d have to say, come see how the sewing machine
in its sleek skin dips and bobs and swims,
and how my mother, white eyelid lined blue,
sings her same stitched tune—never remembered
so never heard—and how like a solitary
calls out, not in air but under water.
Grandmother with Mink Stole,
Sky Harbor Airport, Phoenix, Arizona, 1959
It rode on her shoulders
flayed in its purposes of warmth and glamour.
Its head like a small dog’s and its eyes
more sympathetic than my mother’s eyes’ kindness
which was vast. Four paws for good luck
but also tiny sandbags of mortification and ballast,
and in the black claws a hint of brooch or clasp.
Secured like that the head could loll and the teeth
in the snout’s fixed grin was the clenched “Oh, shit!”
of road kill askew in the gutter. This she wore
no matter the weather and always, always,
when she stepped from the plane and paused,
at the top of the rolling stairs, she fit her hand
to her brow against the glare of concrete and desert,
not a white glove’s soft salute but a visor
that brought us into focus. Mother and Father waving first,
then oldest to youngest, dressed in our Easter best,
we were prodded to greet her, she who gripped the hot,
gleaming rail, set her teeth in the mink’s stiff grin,
and walked through the waterless, smokeless mirage between us.
She who wore the pelt, the helmet of blue hair
and came to us mint and camphor-scented, more strange
than her unvisited world of trees and seasons,
offering us two mouths, two sets of lips, two expressions:
the large, averted one we were meant to kiss and the other
small, pleading, that if we had the choice, we might choose.
The Bees of Deir Kifa
The sun going down is lost in the gorge to the south,
lost in the rows of olive trees, light in the webs of their limbs.
This is the time when the thousands and thousands come home.
It is not the time for the keeper’s veil and gloves,
not the time for stoking the smoker with pine needles.
It would be better to do that at midday, under a hot sun,
when the precincts are quieter; it would be better to disturb
few rather than many. At noon, the hives are like villages,
gates opened toward the sun or like small countries
carved from empires to keep the peace, each with its habits—
some ruled better by better queens, some frantic and uncertain,
some with drifting populations, others busy with robbing,
and even the wasps and hornets, the fierce invaders who have settled
among the natives, are involved in the ancient trades.
But now with the sun gone, the blue summer twilight
tinged with thyme and the silver underside of olive leaves
calm in the furrowed groves, darkening the white chunks
of limestone exposed in the tillage, the keeper in his vestments
squeezes the bellows of the smoker, blows a thin blue stream
into an entrance, loosens the top, like a box lid, and delivers more.
For a while, the hive cannot understand what it says to itself.
Now a single Babel presides in the alleys and passageways
and as block by block, the keeper takes his census,
he could go ungloved, unveiled, if it weren’t for the un-pacified,
the unconfused, returning, mouths gorged with nectar,
legs orange with pollen, landing, amassing, alerting the lulled
to scale their wax trellis or find the glove’s worn thumb, the hood’s
broken zipper and
plant the eviscerating stinger.
Uncollected and New Poems:
My father is searching his wrist,
patting with fingers that moments before
nervously fiddled the bed sheet’s hem.
Those of us near see in his fidget
a body reading the braille of its dying.
But all my father wants is his wrist watch,
the one with PENN RELAYS running
the face of the clock. It would give him
comfort to wear, not that he knows
where he is, not that he cares about time,
but he’s never not had it awake, strapped
to his wrist, not since he and his teammates
won what’s engraved on the back:
Championship of America 1937
His Highness’s Dog at Kew
That’s who I am, pampered, well fed, trampling slack-leashed into the beds, blooming or not, depositing my turds and sprinkling tulip stalks
whose buds are like the bud I lick.
And though I look like a dust mop,
a four-legged moustache, trim my bangs, and as fierce as an Assyrian sight hound,
I’ll find my way back to Peritas or La Vega Real, snout wet with the gore of human bowel.
But for now a squeaky, annoying yap
warns as well as a mastiff’s bark.
Truth is, I’m weightless in a lap
and, on a cold day, I like a cardigan, at night, a stiff brush, all of which sharpens the loneliness I feel.
So that’s who I am
and now if
you don’t mind, tell me,
whose dog are you.
Last Morning with Steve Orlen
“Last Night I wrote a Russian novel or maybe it was English.
Either way, it was long and boring. My wife’s laughter
might tell you which it was, and when she stops,
when she’s not laughing, let’s talk about the plot,
and its many colors. The blue that hovered in the door
where the lovers held each other but didn’t kiss.
The red that by mistake rose in the sky with the moon,
and the moon-colored sun that wouldn’t leave the sky.
All night I kept writing it down, each word arranged
in my mouth, but now, as you can see, I’m flirting
with my wife. I’m making her laugh. She’s twenty.
I’m twenty-five, just as we were when we met, just
as we have always been, except for last night’s novel,
Russian or English, with its shimmering curtain of color,
an unfading show of Northern Lights, what you, you asshole,
might call Aurora Borealis.
So sit down on the bed with my wife and me.
Faithful amanuensis, you can write down my last words,
not that they’re great but maybe they are.
You wouldn’t know. You’re an Aurora Borealis.
But my wife is laughing and you’re laughing too.
as we were at the beginning, just as we are at the end.”
“Birds Appearing in a Dream,” “The Missing Mountain,” and “The Lift” from Dark Wild Realm: Poems by Michael Collier Copyright © 2006 by Michael Collier. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Copyright 2006-2012 by Cook Communication