BACK LOOKING

On the worst day, of the worst
week, or even just a day, like most
that did not go the way you want,
step outside at night if the sky is clear
and stare upwards at the universe.

Realize that you are seeing
more than a monumental collection
of celestial bodies, that you are
experiencing so much history,
and moments older than
mankind itself, and in that moment
you are in the midst of eternity.

NANSEN CUTS THE CAT 無門關 十四

Thirty blows of the stick
if right, thirty blows
if wrong, or Namsen’s sword
and a severed cat

a half to each
a whole to none

Be thankful you
didn’t argue about a man
for with a shoe
on the head, your feet
may touch the sky.

A reflection on Case 14 of the Mumonkan (Gateless Gate Koans)

DRINKING TEA IN KABUL*

Rockets flash briefly
across the chilled sky,
plumes of smoke, ash
carried off
by impending winter.

Over the lintel of the entry
to the Inter-Continental Hotel Chicago,
carved deeply into the marble
Es Salamu Aleikum
staring implacably
through ponderous
brass framed doors
onto the Miracle Mile.
Countless guests
pass below it
unseeing.

My son and I
sit across a small table
spilling bits of tapas
onto the cloth,
laughing lightly
at the young boy
bathed in a puree
of tomato, his shirt
dotted in goat cheese.
My son explains
the inflation of the universe,
gravitational waves
cast off
by coalescing binary
neutron stars.
His words pull me
deeper
into my seat.
We speak somberly
of the jet engine
parked haphazardly
in the Queens gas station
unwilling to mention
265 lives
salted across
the small community.

We embrace
by his door, the few
measured hours run.
He turns to call
his girlfriend,
I turn my collar up
against the November night.

The Red Line train
clatters slowly back
into a sleeping city.
In my room
I brew a cup of Darjeeling.

*”We will drink tea in Kabul tomorrow morning, if God wills it.” – Basir Khan, Northern Alliance Commander, quoted in the Chicago Tribune, 13 November 2001.

First appeared in Hearsay, 2004 and in The Right to Depart, Plain View Press (2008).

CASSIOPEIA

You sit on your self-made throne
and stare at the night sky
as clouds gather
and dissipate beneath you.
Do you even recall
why you were cast out,
condemned to your cell so vast
yet infinitely confining?
Does your body remember
the touch of his hand
the crude hunter
who set you aflame
with a white heat
that paled the sun of summer?
What do you imagine
as tongues of the Perseids
lick across the sky
and disappear into
the ebony holes that lurk
in the corners of your eyes?
You move slowly across my world
and only the dawn brings you peace.

First appeared in Abyss & Apex, Spring 2021 Issue 78
https://www.abyssapexzine.com/

ANGLE OF INCIDENCE

Dusk reflects dawn much as
dawn reflects dusk, and it is
our fear of night and deep need
for direction that sets them apart.

Imagine a photograph of the sun
hovering just over the horizon,
compass-less we do not know
what preceded, what will follow.

We prefer day and dawn, for
it is then we feel in control,
our thoughts leashed, our fears
locked away from sight and touch.

Dusk promises only night,
the darkness where our fears
find corners in which to hide,
only to spring out unwanted.

So we turn away from the sky,
unsinged by its flaming beauty,
hide ourselves from and in fear
as nature laughs at our foolishness.

BENEATH THE WAVES

She says she has always wanted
to swim like a dolphin, and she laughs
when others tell her that she can,
in the Florida Keys and in Hawaii.

She tells them that anyone, at least
anyone with money can swim
with the dolphins, but she wants
to swim like a dolphin as well.

She wants to see the sky appear
through the veil of water as she
breaches for a breath, the surface
a boundary easily stretched.

She wants to hear the songs
of whales, the conversations of her
peers, and the deep silence nature
occasionally affords in the world aquatic.

She sits on the shore, the waves
lapping at her feet, the sun
emblazoning the water, sees a fin
appear in the shallows and dreams.

DUST AND ASHES

Between Scylla and Charybdis
they cower amidst the ruins
fearful to look skyward
lest they encourage
the rains of hell.

Now and then they visit
the corpses, hastily buried
grief drowned by the sound
of the laugh of the gunner
peering down from the hills.
It is always night for the soul
and lookout must be kept
for Charon, who rides
silently along the rivers of blood,
that flow through her streets.

In the great halls,
far removed from the horror,
self-professed wise men
exchange maps
lines randomly drawn,
scythes slicing a people.
They trade in lives as chattel,
reaping a bitter harvest,
praying there may only be
but seven lean years.

They offer a sop to Cerberus,
three villages straddling the river,
but the army of the hills
knows they will take that and more
and waits patiently for the winter
when the odor of sanctity
no longer arises out of the city
to assail their nostrils
and Shadrach is
no more than a ghost.

First Appeared in Living Poets (UK), Vol. 2, No. 1, 2000.