All by Tracy K. Smith, 2014 Featured Poet
A Hunger So Honed
Driving home late through town
He woke me for a deer in the road,
the light smudge of it fragile in the distance,
Free in a way that made me ashamed for our flesh—
His hand on my hand, even the weight
Of our voices not speaking.
I watched a long time
And a long time after we were too far to see,
Told myself I still saw it nosing the shrubs,
All phantom and shadow, so silent
It must have seemed I hadn’t wakened,
But passed into a deeper, more cogent state—
The mind a dark city, a disappearing,
Swallowed by a fist.
I thought of the animal’s mouth
And the hunger entrusted it. A hunger
So honed the green leaves merely maintain it.
We want so much,
When perhaps we live best
In the spaces between loves,
That unconscious roving,
The heart its own rough animal.
The second time,
There were tow that faced us a moment
The way deer will in their Greek perfection,
As though we were just some offering
The night had delivered.
They disappeared between two houses,
And we drove on, our own limbs,
Our need for one another
Don’t You Wonder, Sometimes?
After dark, stars glisten like ice, and the distance they span
Hides something elemental. Not God, exactly. More like
Some thin-hipped glittering Bowie-being—a Starman
Or cosmic ace hovering, swaying, aching to make us see.
And what would we do, you and I, if we could know for sure
That someone was there squinting through the dust,
Saying nothing is lost, that everything lives on waiting only
To be wanted back badly enough? Would you go then,
Even for a few nights, into that other life where you
And that first she loved, blind to the future once, and happy?
Would I put on coat and return to the kitchen where my
Mother and father sit waiting, dinner keeping warm on the stove?
Bowie will never die. Nothing will come for him in his sleep
Or charging through his veins. And he’ll never grow old,
Just like the woman you lost, who will always be dark-haired
And flush-faced, running toward an electronic screen
That clocks the minutes, the miles left to go. Just like the life,
In which I’m forever a child looking out my window at the night sky
Thinking one day I’ll touch the world with bare hands
Even if it burns.
He leaves no tracks. Slips past, quick as a cat. That’s Bowie
For you: the Pope of Pop, coy as Christ. Like a play
Within a play, he’s trademarked twice. The hours
Plink past like water from a window A/C. We sweat it out,
Teach ourselves to wait. Silently, lazily, collapse happens.
But not for Bowie. He cocks his head, grins that wicked grin.
Time never stops, but does it end? And how many lives
Before take-off, before we find ourselves
Beyond ourselves, all glam-glow, all twinkle and gold?
The future isn’t what it used to be. Even Bowie thirsts
For something good and cold. Jets blink across the sky
Like migratory souls.
Bowie is among us. Right here
In New York City. In a baseball cap
And expensive jeans. Ducking into
A deli. Flashing all those teeth
At the doorman on his way back up.
Or he’s hailing a taxi on Lafayette
As the sky clouds over at dusk.
He’s in no rush. Doesn’t feel
The way you’d think he feels.
Doesn’t strut or gloat. Tells jokes.
I’ve lived here all these years
And never seen him. Like not knowing
A comet from a shooting star.
But I’ll bet he burns bright,
Dragging a tail of white-hot matter
The way some of us track tissue
Back from the toilet stall. He’s got
The whole world under his foot,
And we are small alongside,
Though there are occasions
When a man his size can meet
Your eyes for just a blip of time
And send a thought like SHINE
SHINE SHINE SHINE SHINE
Straight to your mind. Bowie,
I want to believe you. Want to feel
Your will like the wind before the rain.
The kind everything simply obeys,
Swept up in that hypnotic dance
As if something with the power to do so
Had looked its way and said:
The earth is dry and they live wanting.
Each with a small reservoir
Of furious music heavy in the throat.
They drag it out and with nails in their feet
Coax the night into being. Brief believing.
A skirt shimmering with sequins and lies.
And in this night that is not night,
Each word is a wish, each phrase
A shape their bodies ache to fill—
I’m going to braid my hair
Braid many colors into my hair
I’ll put a long braid in my hair
And write your name there
They defy gravity to feel tugged back.
The clatter, the mad slap of landing.
And not just them. Not just
The ramshackle family, the tios,
Primitos, not just the bailaor
Whose heels have notched
And hammered time
So the hours flow in place
Like a tin river, marking
Only what once was.
Not just the voices scraping
Against the river, nor the hands
nudging them farther, fingers
like blind birds, palms empty,
echoing. Not just the women
with sober faces and flowers
in their hair, the ones who dance
as though they’re burying
memory—one last time—
And I hate to do it here.
To set myself heavily beside them.
Not now that they’ve proven
The body a myth, parable
For what not even language
Moves quickly enough to name.
If I call it pain, and try to touch it
With my hands, my own life,
It lies still and the music thins,
A pulse felt for through garments.
If I lean into the desire it starts from—
If I lean unbuttoned into the blow
Of loss after loss, love tossed
Into the ecstatic void—
It carries me with it farther,
To chords that stretch and bend
Like light through colored glass.
But it races on, toward shadows
Where the world I know
And the world I fear
Threaten to meet.
There is always a road,
The sea, dark hair, dolor.
Always a question
Bigger than itself—
They say you’re leaving Monday
Why can’t you leave on Tuesday?
Everything That Ever Was
Like a wide wake, rippling
Infinitely into the distance, everything
That ever was still is, somewhere,
Floating near the surface, nursing
Its hunger for you and me
And the now we’ve named
And made a place of.
Like groundswell sometimes
It surges up, claiming a little piece
Of where we stand.
Like the wind the rains ride in on,
It sweeps across the leaves,
Pushing in past the windows
We didn’t slam quickly enough.
Dark water it will take days to drain.
It surprised us last night in my sleep.
Brought food, a gift. Stood squarely
There between us, while your eyes
Danced toward mine, and my hands
Sat working a thread in my lap.
Up close, it was so thin. And when finally
You reached for me, it backed away,
Bereft, but not vanquished. Today,
Whatever it was seems slight, a trail
Of cloud rising up like smoke.
And the trees that watch as I write
Sway in the breeze, as if all that stirs
Under the soil is a little tickle of knowledge
The great blind roots will tease through
And push eventually past.
From NPR’s Newspoet
History is in a hurry. It moves like a woman
Corralling her children onto a crowded bus.
History spits Go, go, go, lurching at the horizon,
Hammering the driver’s headrest with her fist.
Nothing else moves. The flies settle in place
Watching their million eyes, never bored.
The crows strike their bargain with the breeze.
They cluck and caw at the women in their frenzy.
The ones who suck their teeth, whose skirts
Are bathed in mud. But history is not a woman,
And it is not the crowd forming in a square.
It is not the bright swarm of voices chanting No
And Now, or even the rapt silence of a room
Where a film of history is right now being screened.
Perhaps history is the bus that will only wait so long
Before cranking its engine and barreling down
The road. Maybe it is the voice coming in
Through the radio like a long distance call.
Or the child in the crook of his mother’s arm
Who believes history must sleep inside a tomb,
Or the belly of a bomb.
I Don’t Miss It
But sometimes I forget where I am,
Imagine myself inside that life again.
Recalcitrant mornings. Sun perhaps,
Or more likely colorless light
Filtering its way through shapeless cloud.
And when I begin to believe I haven’t left,
The rest comes back. Our couch. My smoke
Climbing the walls while the hours fall.
Straining against the noise of traffic, music,
Anything alive, to catch your key in the door.
And that scamper of feeling in my chest,
As if the day, the night, wherever it is
I am by then, has been only a whir
Of something other than waiting.
We hear so much about what love feels like.
Right now, today, with the rain outside,
And leaves that want as much as I do to believe
In May, in seasons that come when called,
It’s impossible not to want
To walk into the next room and let you
Run your hands down the sides of my legs,
Knowing perfectly well what they want to know.
- Falmouth, Massachusetts, 1972
Oak table, knotted legs, the chirp
And scrape of tines to mouth.
Four children, four engines
Of want. That music.
What did your hand mean to smooth
Across the casket of your belly?
What echoed there, if not me—tiny body
Afloat, akimbo, awake or at rest?
Every night you fed the others
Bread leavened with the grains
Of your own want. How
Could you stand me near you,
In you, jump and kick tricking
The heart, when what you prayed for
Was my father’s shadow, your name
In his dangerous script, an envelope
Smelling of gun-powder, bay rum,
Someone to wrestle, sing to, question,
- Interstate 101 South, California, 1981
Remember the radio, the Coca-Cola sign
Phosphorescent to the left, bridge
After bridge, as though our lives were
Engineered simply to go? And so we went
Into those few quiet hours
Alone together in the dark, my arm
On the rest beside yours, our lights
Pricking at fog, tugging us patiently
Forward like a needle through gauze.
Night held us like a house.
Sometimes an old song
Would fill the car like a ghost.
- Leroy, Alabama, 2005
There’s still a pond behind your mother’s old house,
Still a stable with horses, a tractor rusted and stuck
Like a trophy in mud. And the red house you might
Have thrown stones at still stands on stilts up the dirt road.
A girl from the next town over rides in to lend us
Her colt, cries when one of us kicks it with spurs.
Her father wants to buy her a trailer, let her try her luck
In the shows. They stay for dinner under the tent
Your brother put up for the Fourth. Firebugs flare
And vanish. I am trying to let go of something.
My heart cluttered with names that mean nothing.
Our racket races out to the darkest part of the night.
The woods catch it and send it back.
- But let’s say you’re alive again—
Your hands are long and tell your age.
You hold them there, twirling a bent straw,
And my reflection watches, hollow-faced,
Not trying to hide. The waiters make it seem
Like Cairo. Back and forth shouting
That sharp language. And for the first time
I tell you everything. No shame
In my secrets, shoddy as laundry.
I have praised your God
For the blessing of the body, snuck
From pleasure to pleasure, lying for it,
Holding it like a coin or a key in my fist.
I know now you’ve known all along.
I won’t change. I want to give
Everything away. To wander forever.
Here is a pot of tea. Let’s share it
Slowly, like sisters.
The woman in a blouse
The color of daylight
Motions to her daughter not to slouch.
They wait without luggage.
They have been waiting
Since before the station smelled
Of cigarettes. Shadows
Fill the doorway and fade
One by one
Into bloated faces.
She’d like to swat at them
Like the lazy flies
That swarm her kitchen.
She considers her hands, at rest
Like pale fruits in her lap. Should she
Gather them in her skirt and hurry
Down the tree in reverse, greedy
For a vivid mouthful of something
Sweet? The sun gets brighter
As it drops low. Soon the room
Will glow gold with late afternoon.
Still no husband, face creased from sleep,
His one bag across his chest. Soon
The windows will grow black. Still
No one with his hand always returning
To the hollow below her back.
Desire is a city of yellow houses
As it surrenders its drunks to the night.
It is the drunks on ancient bicycles
Warbling into motionless air,
And the pigeons, asleep in branches,
That will repeat the same songs tomorrow
Believing them new, Desire is the woman
Awake now over a bowl of ashes
That flutter and drop like abandoned feathers.
It’s the word widow spelled slowly in air
With a cigarette that burns
On its own going.
My God, It’s Full of Stars
We like to think of it as parallel to what we know,
Only bigger. One man against the authorities.
Or one man against a city of zombies. One man
Who is not, in fact, a man, sent to understand
The caravan of men now chasing him like red ants
Let loose down the pants of America. Man on the run.
Man with a ship to catch, a payload to drop,
This message going out to all of space…. Though
Maybe it’s more like life below the sea: silent,
Buoyant, bizarrely benign. Relics
Of an outmoded design. Some like to imagine
A cosmic mother watching through a spray of stars,
Mouthing yes, yes as we toddle toward the light,
Biting her lip if we teeter at some ledge. Longing
To sweep us to her breast, she hopes for the best
While the father storms through adjacent rooms
Ranting with the force of Kingdom Come,
Not caring anymore what might snap us in its jaw.
Sometimes, what I see is a library in a rural community.
All the tall shelves in the big open room. And the pencils
In a cup at Circulation, gnawed on by the entire population.
The books have lived here all along, belonging
For weeks at a time to one or another in the brief sequence
Of family names, speaking (at night mostly) to a face,
A pair of eyes. The most remarkable lies.
Charlton Heston is waiting to be let in. He asked once politely.
A second time with force from the diaphragm. The third time,
He did it like Moses: arms raised high, face an apocryphal white.
Shirt crisp, suit trim, he stoops a little coming in,
Then grows tall. He scans the room. He stands until I gesture,
Then he sits. Birds commence their evening chatter. Someone fires
Charcoals out below. He’ll take a whiskey if I have it. Water if I don’t.
I ask him to start from the beginning, but he goes only halfway back.
That was the future once, he says. Before the world went upside down.
Hero, survivor, God’s right hand man, I know he sees the blank
Surface of the moon where I see a language built from brick and bone.
He sits straight in his seat, takes a long, slow high-thespian breath,
Then lets it go. For all I know, I was the last true man on this earth. And:
May I smoke? The voices outside soften. Planes jet past heading off or back.
Someone cries that she does not want to go to bed. Footsteps overhead.
A fountain in the neighbor’s yard babbles to itself, and the night air
Lifts the sound indoors. It was another time, he says, picking up again.
We were pioneers. Will you fight to stay alive here, riding the earth
Toward God-knows-where? I think of Atlantis buried under ice, gone
One day from sight, the shore from which it rose now glacial and stark.
Our eyes adjust to the dark.
Perhaps the great error is believing we’re alone,
That the others have come and gone-a momentary blip-
When all along, space might be chock-full of traffic,
Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel
Nor see, flush against us, living dying, deciding,
Setting solid feet down on planets everywhere,
Bowing to the great stars that command, pitching stones
At whatever are their moons. They live wondering
If they are the only ones, knowing only the wish to know,
And the great black distance they-we-flicker in.
Maybe the dead know, their eyes widening at last,
Seeing the high beams of a million galaxies flick on
At twilight. Hearing the engines flare, the horns
Not letting up, the frenzy of being. I want it to be
One notch below bedlam, like a radio without a dial.
Wide open, so everything floods in at once.
And sealed tight, so nothing escapes. Not even time,
Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke.
So that I might be sitting now beside my father
As he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipe
For the first time in the winter of 1959.
In those last scenes of Kubrick’s “2001”
When Dave is whisked into the center of space,
Which unfurls in an aurora of orgasmic light
Before opening wide, like a jungle orchid
For a love-struck bee, then goes liquid,
Paint in water, and then gauze wafting out and off,
Before, finally, the night-tide, luminescent
And vague, swirls in, and on and on….
In those last scenes, as he floats
Above Jupiter’s vast canyons and seas,
Over the lava strewn plains and mountains
Packed in ice, that whole time, he doesn’t blink.
In his little ship, blind to what he rides, whisked
Across the wide screen of unparcelled time,
Who knows what blazes through his mind?
Is it still his life he moves through, or does
That end at the end of what he can name?
On the set, it’s shot after shot till Kubrick is happy,
Then the costumes go back on their racks
And the great gleaming set goes black.
When my father worked on the Hubble Telescope, he said
They operated like surgeons: scrubbed and sheathed
In papery green, the room a clean cold, and bright white.
He’d read Larry Niven at home, and drink scotch on the rocks,
His eyes exhausted and pink. These were the Reagan years,
When we lived with our finger on The Button and struggled
To view our enemies as children. My father spent whole seasons
Bowing before the oracle-eye, hungry for what it would find.
His face lit up whenever anyone asked, and his arms would rise
As if he were weightless, perfectly at ease in the never-ending
Night of space. On the ground, we tied postcards to balloons
For peace. Prince Charles married Lady Di. Rock Hudson died.
We learned new words for things. The decade changed.
The first few pictures came back blurred, and I felt ashamed
For all the cheerful engineers, my father and his tribe. The second time,
The optics jibed. We saw to the edge of all there is-
So brutal and alive it seemed to comprehend us back.
Poem in Which Nobody Says ‘I Told You So’
The point is, you won’t necessarily know
Whether you’re living in a science fiction reality.
Just as you won’t learn until after the final episode
Whether the captain meant all he said about aviation
And his wife. And what were you doing, anyway,
In that chamber? Signs everywhere whispered Caution.
In the past, horses were the chief vehicle
Of man’s dream of escape. Then the locomotive.
Now we can lose ourselves in six dimensions.
I plead the Fifth. Lust is real. Love
Is a momentary lapse of treason. Technology
Means there is no such thing as persistence
Of vision. The West was never won.
You were never the one in the many.
But, oh, the many…
There will be no edges, but curves.
Clean lines pointing only forward.
History, with its hard spine & dog-eared
Corners, will be replaced with nuance,
Just like the dinosaurs gave way
To mounds and mounds of ice.
Women will still be women, but
The distinction will be empty. Sex,
Having outlived every threat, will gratify
Only the mind, which is where it will exist.
For kicks, we’ll dance for ourselves
Before mirrors studded with golden bulbs.
The oldest among us will recognize that glow—
But the word sun will have been re-assigned
To a Standard Uranium-Neutralizing device
Found in households and nursing homes.
And yes, we’ll live to be much older, thanks
To popular consensus. Weightless, unhinged,
Eons from even our own moon, we’ll drift
In the haze of space, which will be, once
And for all, scrutable and safe.
Self-Portrait as the Letter Y
I waved a gun last night
In a city like some ancient Los Angeles.
It was dusk. There were two girls
I wanted to make apologize,
But the gun was uselessly heavy.
They looked sideways at each other
And tried to flatter me. I was angry.
I wanted to cry. I wanted to bury the pistol,
But I would’ve had to walk miles.
I would’ve had to learn to run.
I have finally become that girl
In the photo you keep among your things,
Steadying myself at the prow of a small boat.
It is always summer here, and I am
Always staring into the lens of your camera,
Which has not yet been stolen. Always
With this same expression. Meaning
I see your eye behind the camera’s eye.
Meaning that in the time it takes
For the tiny guillotine
To open and fall shut, I will have decided
I am just about ready to love you.
Sun cuts sharp angles
Across the airshaft adjacent.
They kiss. They kiss again.
Faint clouds pass, disband.
Someone left a mirror
At the foot of the fire escape.
They look down. They kiss.
She will never be free
Because she is afraid. He
Will never be free
Because he has always
Was kind of a rebel then.
Took two cars. Took
Bad advice. Watched people’s
Asses. Sniffed their heads.
Just left, so it looked
Like those half sad cookouts,
Meats never meant to be
Flayed, meant nothing.
Made promises. Kept going.
Prayed for signs. Stooped
For coins. Needed them.
Had two definitions of family.
Had two families. Snooped.
Forgot easily. Well, didn’t
Forget, but knew when it was safe
To remember. Woke some nights
Against a wet pillow, other nights
With the lights on, whispering
The truest things
Into the receiver.
A small dog scuttles past, like a wig
Drawn by an invisible cord. It is spring.
The pirates out selling fakes are finally
Able to draw a crowd. College girls,
Inspired by the possibility of sex,
Show bare skin in good faith. They crouch
Over heaps of bright purses, smiling,
Willing to pay. Their arms
Swing forward as they walk away, balancing
That new weight on naked shoulders.
The pirates smile, too, watching
Pair after pair of thighs carved in shadow
As girl after girl glides into the sun.
You are pure appetite. I am pure
Appetite. You are a phantom
In that far-off city where daylight
Climbs cathedral walls, stone by stolen stone.
I am invisible here, like I like it.
The language you taught me rolls
From your mouth into mine
The way kids will pass smoke
Between them. You feed it to me
Until my heart grows fat. I feed you
Tiny black eggs. I feed you
My very own soft truth. We believe.
We stay up talking all kinds of shit.
The Museum of Obsolescence
So much we once coveted. So much
That would have saved us, but lived,
Instead, its own quick span, returning
To uselessness with the mute acquiescence
Of shed skin. It watches us watch it:
Our faulty eyes, our telltale heat, hearts
Ticking through our shirts. We’re here
To titter at gimcracks, the naïve tools,
The replicas of replicas stacked like bricks.
There’s green money, and oil in drums.
Pots of honey pilfered from a tomb. Books
Recounting the wars, maps of fizzled stars.
In the south wing, there’s a small room
Where a living man sits on display. Ask,
And he’ll describe the old beliefs. If you
Laugh, he’ll lower his head to his hands
And sigh. When he dies, they’ll replace him
With a video looping on ad infinitum.
Special installations come and go. “Love”
Was up for a season, followed by “Illness,”
Concepts difficult to grasp. The last thing you see
(After a mirror—someone’s idea of a joke?)
Is an image of an old planet taken from space.
Outside, vendors hawk t-shirts, three for eight.
The Nobodies (excerpt)
Los nadies: los hijos de nadie, los dueños de nada.
Los nadies: los ningunos, los ninguneados
They rise from the dawn and dress.
They raise the bundles to their heads
And their shadows broaden—
Dark ghosts grounded to nothing.
They grin and grip their skirts.
They finger the gold and purple beads
Circling their necks, lift them
Absently to their teeth. They speak
A language of kicked stones.
And it’s not the future their eyes see,
But history. It stretches
Like a dry road uphill before them.
They climb it.
The Speed of Belief (excerpt)
What does the storm set free? Spirits stripped of flesh on their slow walk.
The poor in cities learn: when there is no place to lie down, walk.
At night, the streets are minefields. Only sirens drown out the cries.
If you’re being followed, hang on to yourself and run—no—walk.
I wandered through evenings of lit windows, laughter inside walls.
The sole steps amid streetlamps, errant stars. Nothing else below walked.
When we believed in the underworld, we buried fortunes for our dead.
Low country of dogs and servants, where ghosts in gold-stitched robes walk.
Old loves turn up in dreams, still livid at every slight. Show them out.
This bed is full. Our limbs tangle in sleep, but our shadows walk.
Perhaps one day it will be enough to live a few seasons and return to ash.
No children to carry our names. No grief. Life will be a brief, hollow walk.
My father won’t lie still, though his legs are buried in trousers and socks.
But where does all he knew—and all he must now know—walk?
The Universe as Primal Scream
5pm on the nose. They open their mouths
And it rolls out: high, shrill and metallic.
First the boy, then his sister. Occasionally,
They both let loose at once, and I think
Of putting on my shoes to go up and see
Whether it is merely an experiment
Their parents have been conducting
Upon the good crystal, which must surely
Lie shattered to dust on the floor.
Maybe the mother is still proud
Of the four pink lungs she nursed
To such might. Perhaps, if they hit
The magic decibel, the whole building
Will lift-off, and we’ll ride to glory
Like Elijah. If this is it—if this is what
Their cries are cocked toward—let the sky
Pass from blue, to red, to molten gold,
To black. Let the heaven we inherit approach.
Whether it is our dead in Old Testament robes,
Or a door opening onto the roiling infinity of space.
Whether it will bend down to greet us like a father,
Or swallow us like a furnace. I’m ready
To meet what refuses to let us keep anything
For long. What teases us with blessings,
Bends us with grief. Wizard, thief, the great
Wind rushing to knock our mirrors to the floor,
To sweep our short lives clean. How mean
Our racket seems beside it. My stereo on shuffle.
The neighbor chopping onions through a wall.
All of it just a hiccough against what may never
Come for us. And the kids upstairs still at it,
Screaming like the Dawn of Man, as if something
They have no name for has begun to insist
Upon being born.
The Universe: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
The first track still almost swings. High hat and snare, even
A few bars of sax the stratosphere will singe-out soon enough.
Synthesized strings. Then something like cellophane
Breaking in as if snagged to a shoe. Crinkle and drag. White noise,
Black noise. What must be voices bob up, then drop, like metal shavings
In molasses. So much for us. So much for the flags we bored
Into planets dry as chalk, for the tin cans we filled with fire
And rode like cowboys into all we tried to tame. Listen:
The dark we’ve only ever imagined now audible, thrumming,
Marbled with static like gristly meat. A chorus of engines churns.
Silence taunts: a dare. Everything that disappears
Disappears as if returning somewhere.
The Weather in Space
Is God being or pure force? The wind
Or what commands it? When our lives slow
And we can hold all that we love, it sprawls
In our laps like a gangly doll. When the storm
Kicks up and nothing is ours, we go chasing
After all we’re certain to lose, so alive—
Faces radiant with panic.
When Your Small Form Tumbled Into Me
I lay sprawled like a big-game rug across the bed:
Belly down, legs wishbone-wide. It was winter.
Workaday. Your father swung his feet to the floor.
The kids upstairs dragged something back and forth
On shrieking wheels. I was empty, blown-through
By whatever swells, swirling, and then breaks
Night after night upon that room. You must have watched
For what felt like forever, wanting to be
What we passed back and forth between us like fire.
Wanting weight, desiring desire, dying
To descend into flesh, fault, the brief ecstasy of being.
From what dream of world did you wriggle free?
What soared—and what grieved—when you aimed your will
At the yes of my body alive like that on the sheets?