A CLOSER LOOK: Michael Collier




There was an understanding of how

the pages of the book unfolded, like owl wings,

when my mother read to us . . . .


Michael Collier is both an exemplary citizen of the poetry world and himself a poet of rare depth and beauty, a musician on the page, a master of the singular metaphor. And one helluva nice guy. He
bends close to the smudge in time that is one human life and there makes out his known world, as through a fine lens, in all its smudginess—its ambiguity and indeterminacy, its transience and deceptive endurance, the mysteries of social relations. In his poems, it is through the things of our lives that experience is realized—the neighbor who wields a “30.06” against himself, the same man, a tidy craftsman who fashions “flies and lures” late into his evenings. 


Collier has published six collections of poetry, The Clasp and Other Poems (Wesleyan, 1986), The Folded Heart (Wesleyan, 1989), The Neighbor (University of Chicago, 1995), The Ledge (Houghton Mifflin, 2000), Dark Wild Realm (Houghton Mifflin, 2006), and An Individual History (W.W. Norton, 2012) and has edited three anthologies, The Wesleyan Tradition: Four Decades of Contemporary American Poetry (Wesleyan, 1993), The New Bread Loaf Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, co-edited with Stanley Plumy (University Press of New England, 1999), and The New American Poets: A Bread Loaf Anthology (University Press of New England, 2000). He is also co-editor, along with Charles Baxter and Edward Hirsch, of A William Maxwell Portrait (W.W. Norton, 2004). His translation of Euripides’s Medea (Oxford University Press) appeared in 2006 and a collection of essays, Make Us Wave Back (University of Michigan Press), in 2007. The Ledge was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

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.

Since 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):

 

In Khabarovsk

 

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.

 

 

Eyepiece

 

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):

 

Feedback

 

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.

 

 

The Diver

 

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.

 

 

The Cave

 

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):

 

Archimedes

 

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.

 

 

The Barber

 

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.

 

 

Robert Wilson

 

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.

 

 

The Rancher

 

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):

 

Argos

 

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.

 

 

My Crucifixion

 

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.

 

 

Brave Sparrow

 

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.

 

 

The Wave

 

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.

 

 

The Lift

 

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.

 

 

Bardo

 

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.

For Zein and Bilal El-Amine

 

 Uncollected and New Poems:

 

PENN RELAYS

 

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

around the face of the clock. It would give him

some 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:

Half-Mile Relay Championship of America 1937

from The Atlantic 


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.

from Poetry Northwest


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.

Just as we were at the beginning, just as we are at the end.”

from Greensboro Review



“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.











                                    

 

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