Under All the Stars I Cannot Name

What would the world be like, if more people walked around proclaiming their shortcomings in the face of grand ideals?

On this day in 1923, poet Wislawa Szymborska was born. A winner of the Nobel Prize who once observed “perhaps” two in a thousand people like poetry (“Some Like Poetry”), she is celebrated for the way she explores the layered mysteries inherent in everyday experiences. 

Sometimes, a great poem can work as a blueprint for a much-needed ritual. In “Under a Certain Little Star” Szymborska explores the ritual of apology in new ways. What would the world be like, if more people walked around proclaiming their shortcomings in the face of grand ideals? It would have problems of its own, of course, but I can’t help but think that it must be a terrific improvement over a world where false certainty is celebrated as strength, apology maligned as weakness, and people are expected to be walking billboards for ideas and ideals, instead of as fallible and ever-changing creatures of flesh, blood, and dreams.

So today, I’ll be using Szymborska’s poem as a blueprint for enacting this ritual of apology, in celebration of the tremendous fallibility and impossible mystery of being human here. 

My apologies to tenderness for vowing I could do without,
and to fasting in general for my terrible performance.
May joy not be annoyed with my stalker’s watch.
May those disappeared dreams forgive me 
for pretending not to notice when they were 
kidnapped.

My apologies to space for not taking what was offered 
and appearing unintentionally ungrateful,
and to gratitude for so often making it look like a grocery list and not a flood.

Forgive me, misery, for still caring about the smell and chew of a fresh loaf of bread.
Forgive me, tender skin, for all of these oven burns, now scars.
My apologies to some great concertos I’ve never listened to, 
and to those that moved me deeply, for not sitting still.

My apologies to the cold woman on the hard bench, 
for savoring these blankets in the morning, 
for returning to them with coffee, and lingering as long as I am allowed.
Pardon my reckless heart its sudden leaking breaks.
Forgive me, solemnity, for laughing in the house of death,
forgive me, composure, for my melting face.

And to all the birds whose names I never managed to learn–– trees, too,
all those branched beings I claimed to love but did not plant, to the plants
I claimed to want but did not water, or watered too much, or kept in the wrong pots,
choking.

To domesticity, forgive these blood-soaked fangs. Faith, please notice
when I lose you, how I am always losing you; please come looking when I do. 
You can find me by my gait, like someone trying not to limp on a broken bone.
Bone, forgive my insistence on walking through your break.
Pride, forgive me when I can’t control the limp. 
Endure, hunger, that I may continue to move, just to feed you. 
Patience, don’t blame me for pretending we were sisters even when I didn’t return your calls.
My apologies to all those hopes I inadvertently inspired, which I could not answer.

And to love, for everything. 
And to honesty, for the way my eyes so often grow heavy when you speak. 
I am beyond excuses, sinking in the pit of my own making. Don’t hold it against me, words,
 for crying so much about wishing I had more to give, and then, 
when you give all you have, for guarding you in silence 
like a dragon over captive virgins he may not know.

Blessing the Torn Sky

A few hours ago, I learned it was Lucille Clifton’s birthday, and thought immediately of her beautiful “Blessing the Boats.” Then I knew what to do with what I was meaning to notice, from yesterday’s time at Balboa Park, which is right near San Diego’s airport, where the planes fly very low.

May the sky
that tears above us
every ten minutes
with the next landing
hold you still
in its infinities, barely
contained. May you notice
the webs noiselessly repaired
in the shade-giving tree. 

May you hold the noise
and feel its impact, understand
what it means to live
in the time of tearing skies
and then turn your ears 
to the hush of leaves against
leavings, expanding in chorus
above you and to the hawks
overhead, and then to the drums
beneath the tree down the hill. Watch

––the dancers in unison and each 
their own, leaves singing the leaving 
of an ancient dance, remembered
in chorus in ways that it may never be, 
alone, in the place you go first to notice
the dead 
        before they are named. 

May you see
​             the bird on the low, long branch,
how violently its blood-red breast sways 
with each new tear in the still-aching
sky. May you study like these near the drums,
those songs that time and distance and generations
of death would have killed by now if they had not 
recognized, first alone and then in chorus, 
how the only way to mark the days of 
separation by sea and torn sky
is by gripping what moves beneath you

as you grip what moves through you, as
the same song, the same flight, holding
first until you can move into it, even as
you notice each fresh wound, tearing a 

body you once thought eternal, prone to 
capricious moods but never injury, and 
may you know how something new happens
now, even if: the wound is real and yes, it is

another man with a sword, eager to pierce
the next heaven, and you know what this
is because flesh won’t forget, insisting against
its own small space, on dancing eulogies in 
concert 

with the still uncounted souls waiting
here, beneath this torn heaven, for the next 
sign, and may you trace it, holding the line and
waiting to carry it, may you wait and hold, listen

and then cry out when the time is right, as the hawks
above have been doing ever since you arrived, finding
in the act of swaying with each pointed arrival, each
still-dripping wound, some way to recognize, 

even as you feel each cut from your crown 
to your feet, how none ever sever you from it. 
May you hold your hands up, open to 
these wounded forevers, 

and sway.

Tell Me Something, Good

Sometimes the world shifts and lets you notice a thing that you’ve been technically seeing all along, plain as the air you’ve been breathing and equally invisible.

One day it occurred to me that I could not remember the last time I had wanted to talk to anyone.

I had been talking plenty, whenever the situation called for it. I had mostly enjoyed these exchanges, even when I dreaded them in advance. My pause came from realizing that I could not remember ever once being in a silent state of restful solitude and thinking that it would be better if I were talking. Sure, I wondered how various people were doing; I wanted them to know that I thought of them, but these feelings have to do with love and connection and not the desire to utter any actual words. I had to really ransack my mind looking for an example of a time when talk was the thing I desired. Still, I couldn’t find any. I am an introvert who fears being something else, namely an alien ill-suited for life here. This seemed like an ominous sign.

Never? I wondered. What an inauspicious thing to observe in oneself. I immediately red-flagged this newfound awareness as the sort of thing I should probably never say out loud to another human being (The irony!). To be introverted is one thing, but surely this new awareness indicated some sort of solitary leanings in the extreme, possibly pathological. Perhaps some dark secret had been hidden and missed all along.

But then I realized something else. It was also true that I could not think of a single time when I was in a resting solitary state and I suddenly thought that I would like to write. (Not once? I wondered, checked. Nope, not once––not since childhood, anyway).  

I love writing like the desperate love anything––as in, it feels like misery but I would not want to live without it. I could think of plenty of times where I had to write, or decided to do so in order to fulfill some obligation, and other times when an impulse came knocking and I answered the door. I had often looked forward to long periods of imaginary uninterrupted interludes during which I would be writing, even though I had never actually thought, while resting, anything like: This moment would be greatly enhanced if I were moving a pen along a page. 

And yet, I could think of no examples where I had ever regretted writing (but a few where I regretted hitting “send”). Considering conversation, similar themes emerged. It was never the talking I regretted (except when it took me from writing for too long), only what I did and did not manage to say.

“Wolf Concert” by Tambako The Jaguar on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Sometimes the world shifts and lets you notice a thing that you’ve been technically seeing all along, plain as the air you’ve been breathing and equally invisible. I did not dislike any available forms of communication: not speech, not writing, not dance, and not song. All were needs, and I had been prone to dreading each of them in particular ways. 

Words are so hard to deal with, and the dealing is always such a burden. Like hearts, like loves, like babies and bodies, and water; and bodies of water; and loving hearts; and the burden of carrying each one around, holding its beating insistence, its incessant demands; its relentless flooding of life into limbs and everywhere else it goes, in all the ways that are always so impossible to explain. 

Words are such a chore. I might put them off forever. All I ever want are those quiet, fluid, indefinable spaces housing the soft rise and fall of one beloved’s breath beside me; the weight of an open palm on my knee, and possibilities only tasted and never adequately described, by lips pressing into a sleeping head under my arm. All I ever miss is never words, but the sound of quiet breathing in the same room, its implied command a simple one, and as easy to follow as my own next breath. Like, Shhhhh. Like, Wait. Hold. Don’t Move. Here.

These words, these words, give me some. Let me give them back to you. Even though we both, by now, should recognize them for what they are: crude and heavy, the burdensome hot-mess cousins to the queens and kings and holy babies we are trying to sing about. Still, you work with what you have, and sometimes these are the only available tools after the quiet-by-your-side-breaths stop, and the weight of a hand has vanished, and a body fails to contain the parts that are relentlessly flying away.

Some Night at a Window

Naked feet on bare floors, elbows on the sill,
hands cup the lines of a jaw,  mirror

connecting the stars above the babbling towers 
whose shadows cloaked our daylight,
beyond the reach of 

hands cupping the lines of missing faces. Eyes 
reach anyway, holy useless as first songs
and the first games in the garden, 
out and out with the tops of our artifices
but not always the endless lines
of bodies in skies 
where the children of gardens 
still hide in the dark folds where invisible stars become

— and a new one, here 
        — in the quiet depths behind these sigh songs,

the lines of ourselves slipping,
and no names yet for the unborn
when we never named the dead

     — in the depths behind these breaths, 
reaching lines toward letters, 
ever into some beginning,
say the word.

Big and Little: a Reunion

You announced, Play a game, and you returned me––back to what I’d learned how to renounce. 

BIG
I held you in my arms and breathed against the silence. Then, when you were speaking, you announced, Play a game, and you returned me––back to what I’d learned how to renounce. 

When you were speaking you announced, Tell me a riddle! and I held you high above me toward the stars. Here is how to croon what I am learning to announce, of wonder: here is Venus, now Orion; there a satellite, now Mars.

And everything we shared came out in singsong, and every note within it came out true. Teach me spaghetti by the moonlight, drink a spring song. Everything contained a season; it was you, in this loving cup, now brimming, lands the chorus of a soul; long bent on new receiving, long past dying in its hole. Would you wait and listen for the riddle I would tell, beyond the point of speaking past this silence of this well?

Where I have fallen will you find me, if I give you certain clues; will you listen if I play now, every verse of these late blues?

I’m finding now a riddle, and I’d sing it if I could; but I’m out of rhymes, so share here: once, man living, cut for wood.

What’s tall when young, short when old, and can die in a single breath?

This is the end of the time when we rhyme.  But wait!  Consider these words. Another puzzle goes like this. I kept it for you: Consider a fork in the road. 

A stranger in a strange land arrives at an intersection: East or West? One will take you to your destination, the other to hopeless despair. At the fork, two men. Each knows the way, but one always lies. What to do?


LITTLE
Remember how we used to play the guessing game?

Animal, vegetable, mineral: over time, like this: whenever the seahorse, during the age of the narwhal, from time to time, the tortoise––sooner or later, a ferret.

From time to time, a gem squash as long as an English cucumber. In the meantime, this heirloom tomato, and all of a sudden- Rutabaga!

At this instant, taste the snap-peas, until zucchini, okra, chives, until adamantine and agate, since granite, garnet, jacobsite.

Before, until now. Ever after, return. Again!

BIG
Back to the crossroads question, and the two men. Remember this: ask either, “What direction would the other say?”  Whatever you hear, do the opposite, and you will be on the right path.

Whatever you hear, take my hand, in this silence, where I’ve fallen, show me:  Laugh!


LITTLE
[laughing]

Again!

“Baby elephant” by Georg Sander on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial 2.0 Generic license. 

Action/Reaction

Consider this breath, the sound
behind it; consider the open mouth, the next note.

If a scream erupts in a forest, and no one hears it
—or if none of the hearers can connect 
the substance of the scream to the face 
of the wounded, whether because 
these hearers are out of sight or otherwise unable 
to perceive how a body nearby could be capable 
of keening like that, or because the hearers are not 
in the habit of connecting the nuanced arrangement 
of particular human features to the nuanced arrangement 
of particular human sounds, when considering a  
particular cry of distress after shutting eyes tight
against any witness— did it happen? 

Same question may be posed 
with other variants. If the cry was piercing 
and potentially recognizable but muffled 
by the presence of a sudden hand 
against an open mouth, does it count?  
If the moment of the cry coincides 
with the collapse of the known world 
and the known world in question 
was once synonymous with the depths 
of the forest, did a cry even happen, 
if the place that it would have 
poured into was suddenly gone? 

Now consider other variables. 
If access is granted, but no one is told, 
does the person at the gates no one was trying 
to approach after years of denial get to shrug, 
raised eyebrows, and claim innocence––based 
on, well, I didn’t say they couldn’t. . . 

Get to: what does this even mean? A body gets 
to do what it will do until acted upon by an opposing 
force. Except in the case of survival. Except in the case 
of protection of children. A body will persist until 
it can’t, and in persisting, adapt to certain givens 
for the sake of survival. As in, this door is locked, 
this knob will burn your hand, this exit will get you 
shot. If someone on the other side unlocks the door 
quietly in the middle of the night, hides the key 
and leaves it closed, is it to be considered open?

Alma Thomas, Grassy Melodic Chant, 1976, acrylic on canvas, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Define: cry. Which sounds are included?
Define: pains. Which count?
Define: life. Which forms are we talking about here, 
who is screaming––and who has stopped?

Where do these faces go when they leave us?
Here’s a better question: why do we keep 
insisting that they are ours?

If someone shuts their eyes against some 
never-ending light, can they be considered 
a witness? If someone builds a dam across a river 
of time, can it be stopped, and what is the name 
for the resulting body? And if someone removes 
a dam and the river moves again, now altered 
in shape, is the dam still real, or has it been erased?

If eyes trained on sky notice wild promises in stars, 
do these vows have any bearing once obscured 
by the light pollution of the empire’s cities?

If breath denied fails to void the depth 
of inhalation, what do you call the sound that follows?
The rising, leaning, lilting unsparing hallelujahs of 
nobody knows, the forever-present notes that no hand 
grants and no thief can steal, reaching back to some original 
promise, in the first splitting of atoms, when it was 
discovered that the matter they contained was mostly 
open spaces for the vibration of shimmering notes, 
haunting the seeming solids behind the spectral gates; what is this?

Consider moving. Listen. Consider this breath, the sound 
behind it; consider the open mouth, the next note. 
Sing.

About the artistAlma Woodsey Thomas, now a renowned figure of African-American art history, had her debut showing at the age of seventy-five, after a thirty-five year career of teaching art to D.C. junior high school students. 

Simultaneous Open Windows

Sketching rocks bathed in light since the sun rose, try to remember dawn.

Open fist against graffitied bricks, he watches crows, remembers death.
Painted peacock lady smiles over traffic lights; checks the mirror, pouts.

Back-to-back on the park bench, a pair wonders if they are dating yet.
Babies bearing swords beat against trees and stones while sandboxes still wait.

Queens rock hi-tops, heads leaning toward hips, and braided babes run.
Mob men in trench coats talk business and horses while sirens wail upstairs.

Holiday blue notes shine cool on midnight sidewalks; her walking pace slows.
By park fountains he reminded her, What’s the point? ––Meaning, of her rage.

Baby boy finds mama’s stash. She won’t know what he eats, until later.
He fell in love: first God, then the ancients, then woman; then he was done.

Don’t tell me what to do, she says, leg crossed over knee. He listens, nods.
Bullet clears rib cage to stop against spine; now there is no need for shoes.

If you sit beneath trees long enough with snacks out, squirrels come to eat.
Makers cross the street. Meeting halfway, they embrace. Cars honk and they laugh.

Joining foreheads, seated lovers bow, form a heart by the fountain mist.
The bracelet was there to remind him to count each memory, but her.

Sketching rocks bathed in light since the sun rose, try to remember dawn.

Notes:
The title comes from the painting by Robert Delaunay (1912, oil on canvas; Tate London). The poem came from an exercise done on the seventeenth of the month. In honor of Alan Ginsberg’s American Sentences (A haiku without line breaks, seventeen syllables), I aimed to write seventeen of them. Then I took some liberties with arrangement and punctuation. Sometimes breaking from the sentence (into two or three), I kept lines of seventeen syllables, each aimed toward a particular scene, during a particular twenty-four-hour period, on a particular street, in an imagined city, present day.

Deep Sky Observing

“We don’t live in a general-purpose universe.”

So you own a star chart. 
There is much more.

What’s wrong?
Not seeing anything.
Try averted vision.

What books? What size? 
How far? How much? 
When? 
How far?
Are we there?

How many inches?
Just wait. I have rid myself 
of rarely used accessories 
in my garage.

For example?
I found out 
that I did not want 
to be a mathematician.

What is the best way?
Look at your maps. Find 
a dark country road. In
hunting season, be careful!

Traveling alone?
You may have to walk. 
Worth the effort, 
for dark skies.

Cloud cover?
Pay attention. 
Conditions repeat 
over time.

How do I––?
Look. Use eyes and 
mind: a technique 
for seeing. Take a break. 
Nap. Wash the mirror 
until the solution 
drains away.

How about something 
–for general purposes?
No.

Why not?
We don’t live 
in a general-purpose universe.

Brand new equipment!
Try it out.

Going all the way!
The new bracket does not fit.
The drive gear needs more lubricant.

Wasting precious dark sky time?
Patience. Try out that new mount 
before you leave. 
Be prepared.

Inspiration (and found words/ phrases) from the opening three chapters of:
Coe, Steven R. Deep Sky Observing: The Astronomical Tourist. Springer, 2000.

Before the Storm

Drunk on abundance, they weren’t ready to accept any limits. They had no practice. It was not as though there was a choice to be made, though later it would be framed as though there had been.

“Eclairs lointains” by jmbaud74 on flickr under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivs 2.0 Generic License

Consider one beginning, how above the blue carpet of a grandmother’s living room, there had been a painting of a small boat in a storm, against a dark sky. 

Below this, on a stand, an oversized bible, the pages slightly gilded at the edges; what it meant to wonder, in this place, on a summer afternoon, back against the blue carpet, how it was that anything at all had started, how from this wonder a body might get up and walk to the book on display, turning to the beginning, and puzzling over the words, in awe of the poet’s certainty.

Only words and nothing else until a command came, and then it was Light,  and after that, the seas and the forests and the beasts and a man and after him, it is said, from a bone taken from the center of his breathing, a woman; consider learning, how she met him in the garden; consider wondering how they knew how to play, and imagining the horror of living ever after, dying to know it again, after they beheld in the center of the garden, the tree of the knowledge the limits of what they could know. Drunk on abundance, they weren’t ready to accept any limits. They had no practice. It was not as though there was a choice to be made, though later it would be framed as though there had been. In the beginning, knowing nothing but abundance, how can anyone look away when the very source is given, to taste? 

They say she bit first. Of course, she would have been the one among the branches, gathering fruit. Later she would be painted as a sinner, but how could she be anything but a child in these original days? Here, someone whispers: serpent, man, or God––in the beginning, does it matter, or is this a moment when it is possible to imagine a single hope, constant as a pulse? How it whispers, like the rustle of leaves at the edge of a branch at late afternoon, “Stay.”

Live at the Apocalypse!

Let’s go! someone said, meaning to the apocalypse. I thought it was coming to us.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Let’s go! someone said, meaning to the apocalypse.
I thought it was coming to us.

Sure, but let’s meet it.
What do we bring?

Whatever you want. Everything! But you may have to check it at the door.
Will there be snacks?

No, just a single unrestricted feast.
Dress code?

The less, the better.
What else?

Bring every ending, every lilting note of your unuttered cry––
What about the pets?

Well, obviously the dog comes with.
And the cat?

You know cats. I suggested this morning and she just gave me a look.
Like, “Again with this apocalypse?”

I think she’s probably done a few already.
What about the sleeping arrangements?

Have you been listening? Who’s sleeping?
Will there be singing?

At first, only silence, and then, there will only be singing.