Los Naufragos

We stand up, trembling, wailing, weeping.

The waves of the storm

have capsized the boats we made

out of determination and fear.

We lost the captain to his own self-interest,

gone into the water

like a trout

disappearing beyond the reach of light

or reason.

 

They came for us, feathers crowning their heads and

arrows shot straight and true.

They feared us

which was only right

for we had crossed a distance

they could not fathom.

They were not Christians,

only savage dogs

that we hoped would someday convert,

or be converted into corpses.

The land was all water

and fallen trees

and we spent so many months

hungry

thirsty

naked and half-dead.

But let me not speak of the these things,

of which you cannot imagine.

 

We did not know where we were,

except lost in our own misfortune.

The land was inhospitable

and its people terrible savages.

Long were the nights in the cold,

fearing for our lives, praying to

Our Lord that he might save us.

 

The last thing I have in my mind,

the last image of that place

that will not leave me,

is the tall and handsome stranger,

fit and strong,

weeping for our misery.

I cannot name him.

He did not speak our language

and I could not speak

the tongue of savages.

I see his face lit in the small halo

of the bonfire’s light, weeping.

 

That was long ago,

and all his people are now gone,

leaving the land empty,

water and fallen trees,

oysters no longer harvested.

I cut my hands trying to pull food

out of the salty water, so great

was my hunger.

I drank the bitter water, so great

was my thirst.

 

The stars are bright and the wind

strong. A storm comes and our

boats are set off course,

tumbling into dark water.

 

That is all there is, now:

Memories, moonlight splintering into

spider webs over the dark water.

I sat on the boat, many years later,

and went back to

Christian lands.

I never saw those men again.

It was as if they had never

touched me, never saved my life,

never gave me fresh water

or built a bonfire so I could

sit and be warmed in

my nakedness.

Christ had not touched them,

those unredeemed savages,

lost in the storm of a superior nation:

Mine. The words feel like

hunger in my mouth and I

taste blood. The boat rocks back

and forth, safe now, safely sent back to

Christian lands. No one is left to wonder,

what happened to that

man, whose life I saved? What came of

my compassion, my pity, my grace?

 

The storm rages, and we stand up in

the waves, shouting, trying to hear each other above the storm.

But long before nightfall

long before salvation

all who are left

will be drowned.

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The Past

We think of the past as a place, and measure our distance from it — leagues and fathoms and miles — as if it were behind us, rather than within us, carried along with all its burdens, its hurts, its many horrors.

We try to bury it in the ground, its bones, the remnants of its flesh, but still it lingers, the grinning skull of its face. It stays close by me, abides with me, sits close as a lover or friend, one hand on my arm, face upturned to catch the light of my gaze.

How I wish it had a body, a beating heart. How I wish it were separate from me, apart. How I wish I could leave it behind.

I wish the past were a place, a foreign land I could swear never again to visit, instead of what it is — this burden, this flesh, this grave.

The Creature

The creature stalks the
unsuspecting,

From its mission
never resting,

With its heavy tread
like stones,

Seeking marrow from
your bones.

None can meet its
fiery eyes

Or withstand its
constant cries.

The creature speaks
with grief and sorrow

Of all the shoulds of past
and morrow,

And if without a proper
victim

(and with its sighs and moans
restricts them)

It must its own heart
consume

And from the past, old hurts
exhume.

Unloved, unwanted,
never sated,

Only with death will its hunger
be abated.

Creation

What is life? A painting, blue mixed with red, slashes of brown, all come together, intertwining threads of color, made into her mantle, laid across her knees, and in her delicate, parchment and alabaster hands, a book.

The book of life? Not really. The book of death, one of several, a collector’s edition, the final copy, a heavy black ledger, and somewhere, written in gold, her name.

On her temple, above one eye, the gold feather: Crown of the eagle, crown of the chief, painted over satin brown skin, sun-creased, knit, worn, a patchwork quilt of her people and all their many days.

Over the water, ships in the water, the hull creaking and here we row together or we die, sun and the sun-warmed backs and this bark, over the wide ocean, like a prayer.

That is what I used to do—pray for you. That somewhere, behind the snow-capped mountains where you hid, you would hear me call, the cry, up in the sky, curled up in the wing of a shore bird, my voice, falling from the sky, unanswerable but heard—my voice.

In the beginning there was only time, first of the gods’ great gifts. All our shoulders huddled, curled together in the middle of the vast sea, strengthened by the touch of laughter, before the storm tossed us each out, into the water, this bark, rowing hard against the ocean, terrified, exhausted, brave.

I waited a long time, to hear your voice, back over the water, but the squall ate it, a greedy throat of foam ate it, and I could not surmount these monstrous tides to get to you. You over there, the other side of the moon, I thought—so far that even dreams can’t reach it, can’t imagine it.

The dark night curled above the house, shooting stars, and we three were all together, and I was strong, but only because you stood there with me.

Music becomes another language, one without vocabulary but with grammar and syntax. It becomes our language, though it has always been your language, will always be your language. The words were lost, dropped one by one like pearls into the water, but the song came back to me. The shorebirds gave it to the osprey who, quiet and circling, gave it to me.

Every journey is a prayer, every destination, hope. I can’t explain. Those who crossed the water, long ago, they prayed. Not for survival but for discovery, for the destination, the arrival. We pray for discovery.

I washed up, from my broken up bark, on terrifying sands, the desert of Amin, or Sahar, the desert of my ancestors, the nomads. Did they really once inhabit these God-forsaken places? The oasis nearly beaten in by drought, no place a refuge.

Refuge is what we seek, Good God Almighty: shelter. To know where we are is a greater gift than to know where we’re going.

The woman wears red satin, and pearls. In my mind she has been arrested, halted, the whirling of infinitesimal atoms only just contained.

Out of the water came mermaids, spitting jewels.

I watched the clouds in the sky, hurried by the wind, forming and reforming, no compulsion but compulsion itself, to end and start anew. I dreamt of harmony, the moon pressed white and full against the window.

Up in the sky rose the osprey, curled around the note, tucked beneath its wings, diving fiercely into the groundswell of the music, being lifted, thrown, joy in the exertion. That was my voice, a lone brown in the long blue, up and away to you—where you might hear it, and know it, and sing, too.

Devil Is What You Know

I stood at the crossroads and up came the devil, smiling, in a shiny red suit, good teeth, not pointed, no claws. The horns were discrete.

“Nothing easier than choosing,” said she, and I guess that’s right. It’s the living with the choice that ain’t easy.

I didn’t get here by crawling. I clawed, up a wall, scaled a scary height, looked down, leapt off. It was easy to do, just let go, and regret it, all the way down.

That’s the way it’s been, lately. Not easy. Torn out at the seams, like the parachute—failed. Tore myself out of the plane, which was going down, screaming, but I screamed all the way down, eyes shut against the miles and miles of blue.

My nightmare is that I’m awake. Say what you will, she-devil, but this ain’t fun. Fun ain’t this. Fun is standing at the crossroads, playing mean guitar, shaking my soul loose, like a barrette, like my hair in pigtails. That’s over with, now.

Now the she-devil comes, shiny red lips. She leans in, as if she’d tell me something I don’t know. All she says is, “Motherfucker.” Like that’s new. Like that’s worthwhile. Like that’s the point. Finally I feel a breath on my neck, smell that lizard-stink exhale.

“What you want, you can’t have. What you can have, you don’t want. You think I did that? Motherfucker.”

She’s always such a sweetheart. Such a liar. I drew in this breath, I clawed to the top, that was me.

“You can’t have what you want.”

“Liberty and justice for all?”

“No, egalité and fraternité. Who do you think raped the queen and her daughters? The motherfucking brotherhood. Don’t tell me lies.”

So that’s why I feel so bad. Will nothing every change?

What you can you have, you don’t want, and what you want, you can’t have.

I want to give up being restless, give up slapping men on the back for being boys, stop asking for things I don’t want. I promised to use my powers for good. Didn’t I?

I stood at the crossroads, held my crossed fingers behind my back, prayed.

“What did you want?” comes the lizard-stink. “For me to promise? No promises here.”

Out the door, out the window, out the plane, falling, o shit, what have I done.

Then you land.