Death, Sleep, and the Traveler
the turquoise waters, white sands
and cool shade of palms
in the Turks and Caicos
watches behind glass
at the Madison Avenue Cartier’s
the white dog
on the RCA Victor logo
the silence of strangers
Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon
on la Grande Jatte
Paul Klee’s red and brown
the New York Times
an emergency room
Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe
the Monroe calendar
Dad tacked on knotty pine
behind the rumpus room bar
the year you were born
People leave us.
we don’t appreciate them
Says who? The jay
in the magnolia,
the pompadoured televangelist.
I wish I could have taken you
to Faulkner’s grave,
and on the Caracas cable car
and last year
to the ocean
at Saint Kitts,
playground of the dead.
I have read
Fanon, Milton, Baldwin
and Kierkegaard. I know the score.
And what I know is murky,
like brown river water.
I have seen, on a brick wall
outside cloisters, the words
We rise in anger and love.
is being part of
its many rivers
and one sky.
My mother’s uncle
Martin lived in a white building on a green hill.
You’d walk down two steps
into his living room. I saw him
in the coffin. His widow
loved him even after he died.
Then she died, then her sister,
then my mother, on and on--
He had what I wanted,
that sunken space to recline in.
In Cather’s story, “Paul’s Case,”
after the coach rides, the baths,
the tortoise shell brushes, mirrors,
satin sheets, chandeliers,
plush carpets and ornate tables,
after the champagne and caviar feast,
Paul takes his baggage of flesh
draped in soft clothes
onto a final coach
into final woods, and down to the tracks,
and hurls himself into the path
of a locomotive,
choosing this form of death over poison,
pistol, or rope. It seems
he wants nothing to remain of Paul,
wants Paul himself obliterated,
wiped clean from earth’s map,
no corpse, no likeness for mourners
to view and close the lid on,
and lower into an earthen hole.
Now, a hundred years after Cather’s Paul,
a father named Paul bids his family
not knowing it’s his final goodbye.
A farewell in the dark: he leans
to kiss his wife’s cheek,
and then to the room of his sleeping son,
also Paul (an only child of an only child),
and leans and kisses his son’s brow
and, with light approaching from the east,
walks out his gate and leaves
his familiar street, not knowing
the finalities of these minutes
remaining, unknown to him, this Paul
of September 2001, and to others
“on floor” when the plane crashes
through, and the sky falls
and turns into a celestial inferno.
Nothing left of September Paul
and those on his floor, nothing left
of the floor, or the shoes
he was wearing, or his teeth,
his wallet, nothing left there.
How could he have so much, one moment,
and then not even his teeth, his hair,
his family. How different his case
from that of Cather’s brooding protagonist.
An outdoor bar shaded by palm trees,
your husband’s arm around your shoulder.
On the bar, two margaritas. You smile
in this picture taken four years ago.
It’s displayed with others up on the screen,
pictures of you from your teens
till the present. Their lights and shadows
differ from the light and dark
at midday in the chapel. You’re upfront,
laid out, except it doesn’t look like you.
At Johnson, Miller, I’d sit across your desk
from you. Take a vacation, I would say.
I’d sit across your desk from you
and you’d make me laugh so hard I’d cry.
Years ago I kissed a girl at a drive in movie.
Later she became a woman.
Then a woman dying in a hospice.
Her ashes were scattered off the Florida coast.
On her deathbed she asked a friend,
Is there something after this?
Horses, Booze, and Alimony
(Homer Dunn 1935-1978 sang with the R & B group
The Rivieras, whose 45 record “Moonlight Serenade”
rose to number 47 on the Hit Parade in 1959.)
You smoked occasionally, laughed often.
And I’m tempted here, miles from your grave,
To refuse to do the next chore,
Take the next breath or turn the next corner.
Bones crumbling, you’re all voice now.
Is there room for your voice,
Room enough in the coffin,
Room enough in the house?
I should sing you a song
But I can’t sing or dance.
I can’t keep the peace with people too well
The way you could. Nevertheless, the world turned
And bit you. I see you
Standing before glass doors,
That row of stores where you worked
Mopping floors of a supermarket,
Where I loitered my teen years,
And where we met.
Your hands touch metal carriages
The way a pianist’s hands touch keys.
I should build a palace for your voice.
I should buy an opal pin
For your black four-in-hand, get out of this
Completely, and let you take over.
Changing the Names
Johnny Frazier is in the same cemetery
as my parents.
With brick buildings, sprawling lawn
it looked like a college campus.
Winter trees, the lawn snow
With each word out of my mouth
my breath coiled skyward.
I didn’t try to find Johnny,
the best R&B singer ever,
that show his range. How easily
he modulates his voice, melodic,
distinct on ballads
such as “Harbor Lights” and jump tunes
like “Bim Bam.”
He’s there. So is James Owens,
right by my parents,
like them in a brick wall. A superstar
in the late eighties, early nineties.
Younger than I,
diabetes and its complications..
At my mom’s burial,
a freezing January day, my sister said,
and pointed to his name on a plaque.
I’m not saying Johnny’s is better.
My parents heard neither singer,
well, maybe Johnny
when “Lover Please” played
every day, back in the day.