White Flag Beside the Wye

Five miles through woods crept up to eight, then ten,

and the sun had made its turn past vertical,

descended to leaf-level and set the green flickering

when the path dead-ended in river mud, ebb tide, no abbey.


The way unwound like a dropped scarf, blackberry-tatted.

In fallen-away fields the gorse burned yellow

around the unpanicked legs of cows. I closed my ears

 against hordes of nettles muttering go back

and knelt over the map: a paper bird I’d found

at the bus station that morning, hatched roughly

in the knapsack, blue wings creased with use,

its thin cry unconvincing

next to the book that shared its nest, the cover worn velvet,

the folded page I held in my palm

like a compass, no glimpse of Tintern yet, but that

would come, wouldn’t it?  All paths lead back to builders;

and so on through the deep and deeper forest

I paid out bravery like twine, knotted it, clutched

at its dwindling weight in my hip pocket,

until at the river’s sluggish edge I pulled its feathered end

into my hand.


They say the ruins are lavender in this light.

Are stone and slingshot. I’m down to my last apple.

The river opens up a skyroad for monkish bees that stumble

homeward from their flowers, the world’s sweetness

a burden almost too much for them to bear. Yet up they buck.

Over eons they’ll pack a blissful gold

in six-sided cells their bodies spend all to form.

But I am no alchemist. I have only prayer.

The rosary of footprints I’ve laid down winds up and back

in sodden chalk. Nothing but steady effort with which to beg

whatever god was cast out here or comes to summer rough

to make of me, as the day goes down, an offering,

something cored more finely than the hiker

I set out as, in a far more crowded country.


O setting sun! Strike a match against my hair

and kindle on the sodden riverbank what’s left of me

into a blaze the likes of which this valley has not seen

since men first cleared the land for their ships of stone,

a blaze such as the ancients used to navigate by—

for I am lost, I am lost, at last freely I confess it

like the sacrificial beasts that in late summer

wander these high fields crackling with gorse,

their legs alight, their bodies never burning.



A Year in Poems: February Entry

[Author’s note: this is a “longline poem” assignment I started for a poetry class I took with John Shoptaw at Berkeley. The WordPress format doesn’t capture the shape I was trying to create with each pair of lines. If you’re interested, the intended formatting is maintained in this Word doc.]


A Year in Poems

I feel so-so about New Year’s Resolutions. On the one hand, why wait til January to make the changes you want to see in the world? You could have a summer resolution instead (when you might actually want to get up at 6am and run 3 miles through the park), or a back-to-school resolution, or just a my-god-it’s-Monday-again resolution. Plus you’re not going to stick to it anyway, are you? Why set yourself up for failure?

On the other hand, sometimes we need an occasion for change. It can help to have a sense that something outside of us is becoming different–the setting, the era, okay, the year–and that therefore we might for once succeed in being different too. I am not much of a runner, but when I studied abroad  in Mexico in college I woke up early every morning and ran along the beach as far as the sardine cannery and back. Every morning. The friends I made in Mexico thought of me as a runner. New place, new me. (One friend, who was actually a runner, tried running with me one morning and quickly discovered, oh, no, you are not a runner.)

Like, seriously. Not a runner.

So right at the end of each year, when people ask if I have any resolutions, I usually say no.

But even as the words leave my lips, somewhere over my head a wisp of a resolution is floating, like the faint mist on a mirror that tells you a body still has breath.

And by the end of January–importantly, after people have stopped asking about it–I usually gather the ovaries to formally admit my resolution to myself.

I still think I’ll fail at it. I usually do fail, if what one’s going for is perfection. But if it makes me move even a little in the direction I want to go, wasn’t that worth it? The goal isn’t finish this marathon. It’s get off this couch.

Which brings us to this year. See. I have this stack of poems that I’ve started over the last decade or so and abandoned, or gotten stuck on, or thought were finished and then realized later with horror were the melodramatic ravings of a teenage diarist. My resolution is to pluck one poem from this pile each month of 2018 and finish it. This is no more ambitious a resolution for me than usual, but this year I’ve decided to add some extra incentive to follow through with it. Some virtual accountabilibuddies, if you will. That’s where you come in–if you want.

I’m going to post each poem on this blog by midnight on the last day of each month. (I am! I am! I am!) You can subscribe if you want (can you? I don’t understand technology), or check back in, look out for the latest installment. You can email, text, or homing pigeon me if I fail. You can say I owe you a beer if the poem is late and I will shrug and pony up. Although if you live in upstate NY, you will have to fly here to collect on said beer.

I might not share the Poem of the Month on Facebook every time (or any time, after this) because this is HARD FOR ME PEOPLE. But I will put it up here, on this blog.

Or, you know, maybe I’ll fail. I may end up flat on my face on the floor.

But at least I’ll be off the pinche couch.


Guns DO Kill People, Idiots


It’s been five days since a gunman there killed 49 people in a gay nightclub in the deadliest mass shooting in American history. I learned about the massacre early that Sunday morning, it having been my turn to get up with the two-year-old when he made his usual, irritatingly perky appearance at our bedside. I logged into Facebook, wanting to mark the moment somehow, to say to my little corner of the world that I was awake and aware and horrified. I stared at the little status update box while my son ate his whole bowl of oatmeal-peanutbutter-raisins-banana-moreraisinsplease, and half of mine.

In the end, I posted nothing. No words worthy of the tragedy or the anger it inspired in me.

In part, my speechlessness came from having too much to say, from not being able to choose among the themes, most of them all too familiar, that jockeyed for position on the page. Gun violence, again. Homophobia, again. Religion twisted, used to justify insane and evil acts, again. The inevitable backlash that would follow, the vitriol against Muslims, against immigrants (though this gunman was an American citizen, born here, and no Trumpian ban on immigration of Muslims or Syrians or any other group would have prevented this homegrown terror).

In an emergency room, faced with a patient with multiple life-threatening injuries, you treat the most serious one first. The one that will kill you the quickest. Over the last few days, as politicians have made their usual murmurs and then shrugged their collective shoulders, it has become clear to me that the thing that will kill us first is a system in which pretty much anyone–including a man who’s been investigated multiple times by the FBI for terror connections–can buy a weapon capable of killing many people in a matter of minutes. The hatred for LGBTQ folk, the radicalized religion–those are things we need to tackle, but neither of those on its own enables such mass slaughter–and getting rid of them won’t get rid of gun violence. As long as people have access to assault weapons, a small number of those people will use those weapons to perpetrate mass violence.

This comes home to me especially today, on the one-year anniversary of the Mother Emmanuel shootings in South Carolina. That gunman was a white American, who mowed down black Americans in their house of worship. We can’t stop others like him by closing our borders, or shutting all the gay bars, or alienating moderate Muslims. We could, however, make it a little harder for him to acquire a gun.

Would stricter gun laws end gun violence in this country? Probably not. But reduce it? Evidence from around the globe suggests yes. And anyway, isn’t it time we tried to fix the problem, even if our attempts fail, or are only partially successful? Isn’t it time to do more than offer prayers for the victims?


The Tinies That Bind

This is the story of how I learned the Spanish word for scabies.

I was twenty-one years old and I had just graduated from college with a degree in biology. This is useful if you want to go to medical school or work in a research lab; it is not so useful if your plan is to spend a year and a half volunteering in a house of hospitality for migrants and refugees on the Texas-Mexico border. Most of the other volunteers were in the same boat as me. We were doing things we didn’t know how to do in a language we barely spoke, and our only qualification was that we were willing to work for free.

Nevertheless I loved it. It wasn’t long before I settled into the work with all my heart, finding a giddy joy in the mundane tasks of answering doors, mopping floors, sorting beans into the great big beat-up pot that bubbled day and night on the ancient gas stove.

I had been there for only a month or two when one of our guests rushed into the office where a few of the other volunteers and I were working, shouting in Spanish. “Come quick! Maria’s in labor!”

Naturally, our first question was: Which Maria?

This was a women’s shelter in Mexico. Half our guests were named Maria Something-or-Other, Maria de la Cruz or Maria de Jesus or Maria Teresa. And several of the Marias were pregnant. But we weren’t expecting the woman in question to be Maria Victoria, because Maria Victoria was only some five months along. I did not know a lot about pregnancy, except how to avoid it, but I was pretty sure that going into labor at five months was bad news bears.

We rushed out to the patio. Sure enough, Maria Victoria (we called her Vicky) was standing there with her hands on her belly, rocking back and forth, a wordless moan issuing from her parted lips, which were turned to the sky. The front of her dress was soaked and there was a puddle at her feet. “Oh God,” we volunteers hissed to each other in English, keeping what we hoped were calm expressions. “Her water broke.”    “NOT GOOD.”   “What should we do?”   “Don’t ask me. I’m twenty-one and I have a degree in biology.” And so on.

We brought her into the volunteer sala and had her lie down on the couch. Someone brought her apple juice, slabs of toast with margarine, a wash cloth for her forehead. Meanwhile I went to the office to call the hospital. We dialed emergency numbers a lot at the shelter; our guests tended to have issues. The people on the other end of the line knew us well. “Oh hey,” I said, “it’s me, at the shelter. Yes, again. No police this time.”

The paramedics showed up fifteen or twenty minutes later. We brought them right into the sala. They clustered around Vicky, four or five big burly guys and one woman, and examined her and talked to her quietly in Spanish, too much for me to follow. Then they looked back at me and the other volunteers, crowded in the doorway.

“Well?” we said. “Is she okay? Is the baby okay? Are you taking her in?” They looked at us strangely. “She’s fine,” one of the medics said. “She’s not in labor.”

We rushed to protest. “She is most definitely in labor! Her water broke! We saw the puddle!”

The medic sighed and motioned us out to the hallway. “She is not in labor. Her water is not broken. That puddle, that came from somewhere else, you understand?” He tapped the side of his head. And I realized what he was trying to say, which was that 1.  Vicky had peed on herself, and 2. she might be just a wee bit off her rocker.

This we knew.

“Oh, and one more thing,” said the medic. “Did you notice those red bumps she has on her wrists?” Oh yes, we said instantly. She’d told us she had eczema. We assured him that were giving her all sorts of moisturizing creams and lotions for it. The medic laughed without much humor and shook his head. “That is not eczema.” He took out a little pad of paper and a pen and wrote down a word I didn’t know, that none of us knew. “This is what she has.” He wrote down something else. “And this is what you need to get. For all of you, probably.”  

Twenty minutes later, standing in an aisle of the corner pharmacy, scanning the bilingual instructions on a box of pyrethrin, I learned the Spanish word for scabies.

I began to feel very itchy.

And I felt angry, too, furious in fact–angry with Maria Victoria for bringing scabies into our house and telling us it was eczema, angry when I thought of all the affectionate hugs she’d bestowed upon the volunteers, which had probably served to transfer tiny little skin-digging bugs onto our own bodies. And I was annoyed that she’d faked her own labor, caused us to worry and scurry and look foolish in front of the paramedics, who already thought, quite rightly I suppose, that we volunteers were in over our heads.

But then, standing there surrounded by the boxes of creams and pills and Band-Aids, I saw things for a moment from outside myself. I thought of Vicky–a homeless, penniless, pregnant woman with no prospects, staying in a shelter with no privacy and very little control over her very existence. I thought: maybe she just wanted to call the shots for once, to have the world revolve around her for a little while.

And you know what?

I get that.

I bought up the store’s entire supply of pyrethrin and headed home, feeling oddly comforted by the knowledge that even though we came from very different backgrounds, all of us who lived at the shelter–volunteers and guests alike–shared some fundamental things in common. Like: we all needed to be taken care of once in a while.

Also, we all had scabies.

Rilke After Ants

The ants are gone.

They’ve been staging raids on our kitchen for months now, uneven ribbons of them unspooling along the wall and up the sides of cabinets and along the rim of the trash can. They seem to multiply every time the air gets warm or it rains too much, or maybe it’s the fog settling down, or the angle of light in this hemisphere at this time of year–some mysterious combination of perfectly normal weather events that we have yet to work out precisely. Whatever it is, some mornings I wake to find scads of ants, whole rush-hour commuter trains of ants, Sherman-marching through the kitchen and setting upon every crumb left on the floor or counter from the night before.

Oh, did I mention that we have a toddler? A lovely, boisterous, brown-eyed toddler whose job description (which I have never been allowed to read, let alone edit) apparently stipulates “the liberal sprinkling of crumbs on all flat surfaces before bed each night” as a requirement. The ants assigned to crumb patrol in our kitchen can really just phone this one in.

But they don’t. No, our ants want to work for their food. As much as I despise them, I will grudgingly admit that these ants are some industrious little bugs. (Are ants bugs? Google later.) I’ve found them in closed boxes of cereal, in a zip-locked bag of sugar. The latter looked like an ant farm when I discovered it, almost cool in a creepy-crawly way. I put it into the freezer, next to the Frosted Mini-Wheats, which as it happens freeze quite well. We’ve had ants in the butter dish, in a pile of my son’s used Kleenex, swarming out of a piece of fruit I’d just cut into.

It’s nasty, y’all.

And don’t think we’ve just been sitting around and watching them have their way with the space where we cook and eat. (Or, you know, just sitting around and blogging about it, which would somehow be worse.) There’s a bottle of Windex, which has never been used on actual windows, that we keep handy to rain death on the ants and wipe out their pheromone trails. (Science!) We keep the sugar bowl in the fridge now, and move the trash can around to make it harder to find, and I try, I really try, to sweep up after our little Hansel-Gretel impersonator with his pockets of crumbs.

The clincher, of course, would be to cut the ants off at the source. More than once I’ve followed the trail of antmen back to where they they’re entering the apartment, and sealed the hole with lab tape.

But it’s like Whack-a-Mole. They just find another opening. And recently they’ve discovered an entrance that is beyond the power of lab tape to fix, a long wide crack under the bedroom baseboard heater. (The bedroom! Two rooms away!) When I saw that crack, something in me laid down arms and gave up. Well, I thought, that’s it then. We’ve got ants. Some people have credit card debt or weird skin allergies. We have ants. My mother came to visit a few weeks ago and looked side-eye at the ants on the counter, scrabbling out the calligraphy that only they can read. She didn’t say so, but I knew she was shocked and disturbed. I’d felt that way once too, before the ants broke me in. “Yeah,” I said, “we have ants. They’re annoying.” Sigh. Shrug.

And then. And then? First thing last Saturday morning we discovered a particularly gleeful revelry of ants, contra-dancing along a smear of peanut butter on the kitchen counter. A thick line of them lead down the side of the cabinet, across the kitchen floor, down the hall, through the bedroom. I windexed the living shit out of them while crying tears of despair. And in that moment, somewhere between me and my husband, the thought formed: NO. No, we do not have ants. I mean yes, okay, we do have ants, but we are not people who have ants. It’s not, like, a character trait. It’s not a immutable burden simply to be endured. It doesn’t have to be this way.

The boys went out to the hardware store and were back in fifteen minutes with a tube of caulk. My husband smeared great thick gobs of it into the crack under the heater. It was not pretty. Our landlord may disapprove of it, if he ever sticks his head down there. But fifteen minutes after the caulk had dried, we noticed a difference.

There were still ants. But they seemed confused now, piling up at the end of their former superhighway and then wandering aimlessly off trail. As I windexed and wiped up the leggy little bodies, they weren’t instantly replaced by more leggy little bodies.

I didn’t hope too hard, at first. I’ve made fixes before that didn’t last. There were still ants in the kitchen, stragglers and slackers moseying across the tile and in the fruit bowl and along the edge of the sink. But later that day, we left for the weekend, and when I came back 48 hours later…

…the ants were gone.

It’s been a week now. I left a few pieces of granola on the counter last night, almost deliberately. This morning they were untouched. The ants are gone.

I’ve read Rilke. What young poet hasn’t? And I’ve found words to live by in his letters–like the command to love the questions more than the answers, to circle them like like locked rooms that you will one day have the key to enter, or like letters written in a foreign tongue that you may one day hope to speak. But Rilke’s famous ringing edict–you must change your life–has always put me off. Underneath it I hear judgment: your life is terrible, and it’s all your fault. I imagine Rilke sitting across from me at my kitchen table, spooning ant-laced sugar into his tea, saying sternly: you know, you really must change your life.

I can’t, I think to myself on bad days. I can’t.

It was this prison of thought that my husband broke through when he brought home the caulk and began, recklessly and messily, to fill in the cracks.

Forget must, Rilke. I love you, but I don’t need to hear anymore about what I must do. I’m thirty-three years old. I pay my own bills. I’m a daughter, a sister, a wife, and a mother. I’ve read all those job descriptions, okay? I know what I must do, and most days I do it, and some days it’s all I can do to get out of bed.

And yet–and yet. We had ants, and now we don’t.

Say it with me: shout it: carve it into marble.

You can change your life.