Breathing, Frontiers (Nara–Kyoto, 2009)

prayers in rough wood

One morning late in the summer of her death, I leave the swanky Kyoto hotel with only two things: a sense of desperate adventure and a bus map I have no way to make sense of. It is mid-morning, full sun. I step into the street & catch the wrong bus. Lost, I find another traveler with a better head for direction and a to-see list the same as mine. Together, we make the rounds of temples with names like stones dropped in still ponds, take pictures each of the other. Kiyomizu-dera and its golden waters. Moss & graves at Honen-in, echoes in the hillside. Eikando. Nanzenji. I touch my right hand to the cherry-lined path of Tetsugaku-no-michi, green now, no blossoms, wonder how many wiser heads have held thoughts here. Ears trained to stream’s murmur over street traffic. The day clouds as the sun sinks, and then at long last Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion that was never silver, umbrellaless under matching skies as rain begins to fall.

I hang a prayer
in wood by a heron’s pool
but do not forget.

Navigation by night under no stars

We passed the New Year
being rocked
on open water by the warm thrum
of the ferry engine, one
of two couples on board
counting down seconds
by cellphone glow,
wondering what it presaged
to tick over a year with no earth
beneath our feet, the ink
of possibility all around us.

An hour earlier, the ferry we should have caught
had t-boned a commercial fishing vessel.
Coast guard called and all.
Never heard a word about victims,
or survivors, though we scanned
the dark for a trace of leftover sirens,
grateful for the lone flash
of the Hatteras light’s bright pulse
on the horizon of our retinas.

Next morning some miles north,
in the shadow of the tower
and the keeper’s old quarters, just
where the waves kiss the sand, leaving
white tide marks like lipstick
stains on the drizzled shore, a shark
with skin the color of dirty snow
lay floundering, line’s cruel end
sunk deep in the cartilage of its palate.
It had been a battle of hours,
up and down the beach, a pair
of fishermen taking turns at a reel
pulled taut over slate gray,
two against one until the fish,
exhausted, heaved up under open air.

How the crowds came running—
a four-foot white
could chew off a child’s leg,
after all—the fishermen whooping
and shoulder-slapping. They’ll throw it back,
you said, as we walked away, into the mists,
inconsequential as the rain; just
another ship passing
in the night, turning
away from another little tragedy,
the saddest thing I had ever seen.

first draft for a happy ending

sam's beach at westerly
if this poem
were a love song,
it’d sound like Patsy Cline

on a late night out
on the corner of Broome and Mulberry,
the streets filling up with darkness

as you wrap your arms
around my red-stilettoed silence.
its only melody would be the swell

of a gray-green Atlantic
breaking on the shores from Hatteras
to Westerly, where i wrote names

in the sand. early May was once
a time for love songs, you see, but
i have generally forgotten

how they used to go. so this poem
is just a poem, though it slips
off the tongue like quicksilver,

like that lemonade
we bought from those girls
in Gale’s Ferry, a block from where

you used to live.
this poem and i, we
can appreciate the tang

of memory, its pucker & squint,
just as we do a fear of falling, as if
we were dancers

on a pole at the top of a forty-
floor walkup with one arm flung wide.
it was a dream i had, once,

but whether the pole was hope
or doubt this poem won’t say,
so i am never sure when to let

go & have never yet
learned to whistle. much less
to sing.