In Broken Water

In broken water trees bend
until their knees touch the ground
above the blazing and the bloody crown
of the day fading in the city’s glass flanks,
washing windows with flame
and swathing in halos faces,
such faces,
vast smooth and immaculate faces that beseech us,
but what they want takes our entire lives to give,
and even if we wrested those lives back
the transaction would remain infinitesimal
under these miles of cloud-circled red
grading into black cold,
a cold on whose far side
all is drained and incomplete
as the fading memory of an idea
that once lit all existence—

it hurts now to remember—

but still farther wavers
an older, stranger light,
and a fluttering of voices
circling at the moment of birth.

Trust me you don’t want this dream to end.

Followed

[4:33 A.M.] O: ok im comin thru

I put on my headphones and went out to our tenth-floor balcony. Just a few blocks away was Toronto’s towering downtown—a deluxe crystal growth all the colors of credit cards—but the street below me was rough shit, an acned wasteland strewn with used needles, haunted by 3-D shadows and dumpster lurkers that scattered before the headlights of police patrols. There was even a dark humanish shape lying on the grass beside our driveway.

But no O. Why was she taking so long?

It was strange: when she got home, chances were we’d continue our grievous fight from before she left, she’d cry silently and I’d claw my skull, then we’d sleep back to back and avoid each other in the morning… but as I scanned the street, all I thought about was holding her and kissing her sweet head and rejoicing just because she was alive.

I texted her. It went unread.

Suddenly my music seemed stifling. I was reaching up to my headphones when someone grabbed my arm and wrenched me to one side. My heart leapt into my brain and exploded, this is it, I’m dead, and I swung around to face my executioner.

It was O. Still hauling on my arm.

“Come on! Come on!”

I resisted. Even tried to pull her down.

“Jesus FUCKIN Christ O, what’s wrong with you??”

“Come on! There’s no time!”

Then I saw she’d left our entrance door wide open, and I relented and hurried out with her.

About ten doors down, blocking the entire hallway, was one of the largest men I’d ever seen. His body looked inflated, bulging up against his hoodie and baggy jeans, while his head was tiny, a dark boil riding the massive ripple of his chest. His massive arms hung limply at his sides.

He was just far enough that I couldn’t make out his face.

O raised my hand high like I’d just K.O.ed someone.

“This is my HUSBAND, OKAY???”

I looked at her in disbelief. This dude could have crumpled me with one hand.

He didn’t answer. Not a twitch. Just the arms hanging like butchered pigs, and the bottomless stare out of a face I couldn’t see.

I hustled O inside, bolted the door and put my eye to the viewer: nothing… nothing… nothing.

O was in the kitchen drinking tapwater, long-legged in a ruffled short skirt, two big eyes visible over the cup. It had been a while since she’d looked like a priceless treasure to me. I took the glass out of her hands and embraced her tightly.

“He was in the elevator. On the ground floor. Just standing inside with the door closed.”

I drew back.

“And you got on anyway?!”

“I was so tired… I just got on and pressed our floor number. He didn’t press anything.”

“Oh my god.”

“He was looking at me the whole way up. Not saying anything, not smiling, just staring, staring… So I said, ‘Look, I have a husband, and he’s expecting me RIGHT NOW, okay?’ …No response. His face didn’t change. We reached our floor, he got off after me, I ran to you.”

“And what’d you think I was gonna do? He’s like three times my size!”

“I…”

“When you left the door open, you gave him his chance. If he’d come in… What were you thinking?”

She crossed her arms and looked at the floor.

“Never mind, I’m glad you’re okay,” I said, though I could feel our closeness already dissipating. I’d blown it again. I was unsheathing our ten-inch meat knife. “I’m going to check whether he’s there.”

In the viewer’s fish-eye I saw only the neighbor’s door and bare walls. I stealthily unbolted our door and eased it open.

He was in front of me, lying on his side on the carpet, supporting his shrunken head with one craggy hand and gazing up at me, his mouth gaping and his tongue lolling out sideways. He looked like he’d been violently lobomotized.

I waggled the knife at him and tried to say something menacing. No words came; I squeaked, then slammed the door.

He knocked.

“We’re c-c-calling the police!”

The doorknob wriggled.

“WE’RE CALLING THE POLICE!”

And he finally spoke.

It was like hearing a well speak, a toneless bass wind groaning up a long stone throat.

“Ooooookaaaaay,” he said.

When the cops arrived he was crosslegged by the elevators. Without getting up he began ponderously arguing with them. One came over smiling and asked to speak to us in our apartment.

“I arrested this guy last week. Broke into the home of a Chinese woman. Not a young one, we’re talking maybe… sixty. He found her in bed, but just… stood there. Looking at her. Watching her call us. Didn’t do or say squat. Then we come… and he goes along peacefully, no problemo. In the car, I ask him what he was doing there. What he wanted. He said… God told him to rape Asian women.”

O and I exchanged looks. She shifted over to lean against me.

The cop took details, shook my hand, patted O’s shoulder, and left. Clutching the butcher knife, I roved the apartment, checking the street, the viewer, the lock.

“I feel bad for him,” O said.

I chuckled and kept pacing until she asked me to stop and be with her. I found a safe place by our bedside to stash the knife, then we wrapped ourselves around each other and lay there quivering, with nothing to say. It was starting to get light.

Cradled over Cold Rails into the Twenty-First Century

Hi,
I come from your planet,
just another sperm walking this flooded toilet,
frankensteined from genetic alphabet
and then evicted from the womb.

I was injected with crucifix,
taught by volunteer cops,
and sentenced to the hamster wheel,
and managed into corners
and hammered into place,

while oceans gagged,
and insects coughed,
while we all boiled together.

Until finally,
I bolted my eyes,
barricaded my head,
shut my ears in the cupboard,
and locked myself out of me.

I pickled my soul.

I killed myself to stay alive.

Now I float over brutal tower blocks.
Now I tumble rattling after garbage trucks.
Now I yell through gulls and ventriloquize the sky.

On hills and in valleys,
in deserts and on coasts,
the human builds its iron nest,
the world does not smile back.

Death’s Daughter

I pilgrimaged to see her titanic head
floating against a skyline of shampoo bottles,
then swam up through black hair
and climbed into her ear.

A poetess,
a flaming thing who lived in soundwaves,
she wore cigarettes—
and oh! I thought,
how entropy became her!

Then her brain broke.
She mumbled to animals, saw faces in furniture,
and turned fearful toward the summoning light.
In her fever she forgave the rooftops,
and I, Sir Savior Worldhero,
drove deep into her madness.
I pled her down from sense precipices
and battled badge-eyed police with uniforms as skin.

It was October, and the cold wind cleaned my face.

“This is the afterlife,” she whispered,
“or the beforelife, with Stef Serpent from Eden.”

I stilled her skull
in the shadow
of the church
on the hill.

And she pulled me out of myself.

I had had other plans.
I wanted to become world dictator of words.
Trapped in the smallest of all rooms with myself,
I had been eking out a thousand-word novel,
and I had fed my mind to the clockwork of syntax,
and crucified myself on semi-colon and em-dash,
building the ruins of an idea I could live inside.

Now a new idea took me.
I had to rescue her,
I would take her over all borders,
personal and national,
up immigration mountain,
to my hermitage…
and she would give me a heart,
I guess.

II

I married my favourite audience,
a Victorian ghost with charcoaled eyes,
all black skirts and sad classical music,

and put her to bed for a year.

I had been working part time,
now I sliced my life into shift strips,
groveled in garbage jars
and waded hipdeep in greasepits.

And hiked home to tidy her head.
And ate her paranoia for supper.

Grappling in sheets,
long-shadowed in red rainstreets,
we talked the ten thousand miles of the trail to her childhood,
probed her cranial catacombs and dusted under her brainstem,
and found there three hundred of her father’s vodka flasks,
and a Bible with a thick black cover, and no words.

Then, sleepless, full of her, sore and penless,
I biked black windways under cinder skies to factory cities,
to erect sixty smokestacks in a clock circle,
every minute dribbling smoke from drabbest inferno;
I patrolled the fortresses of my enemies and masters,
jingling magic keys to the Land of Boredom,
where the hours crawled on thirty-six hundred legs
past binders and sticky notes, duplicated space,
and bosses’ nests. All my meanings rotting inside,

I went to bed to erase myself.
I limped in circles in a sphere of light.

Years died.

III

It seemed she’d outsmarted madness,
then one twilight she disrobed to greet the Lord—
as a favor to me, she did not look into His ravening face.
But I harangued her: so it began.
I jumped on her brain. I deflected her hungry touch.
I instructed her in all she shouldn’t be,
yet stopped permitting her into my alternative reality.

At work I obeyed a conveyor that carried autoparts,
that never slowed though an aged comrade cramped,
coughed up his heart, and waned into the roar…

At home I shouted from the privy,
gnawing cold day-old rat,
sobbing that I was born in Eden
and that she took it from me.

Night after night,
I vomited a piece of my mind.
She spoke of love and I spoke of time,
and it snowed thirty seasons straight
on the spattered stageboards
of our kitchenettes.
Finally she grounded her knees,
warped her fist through the window,
and declared herself the most sane agent of angels,
servant of the Plan and loud speaker of the Word.

This happens:
people turn 30,
regard the flaming ruins of their twenties,
and this one, manic and lost, retreats to her parents’ god.
and that one, tired and angry,
asks himself why he ever needed to save her.

Was it ever even possible?

I began to have my doubts.

And when she told me that she prayed for my poor lost soul,
that she feared for me if I didn’t repent before judgment,

I left.

Dust Keys (2010)

she hung right over there, boneless and clear,
a sky-thing strung up on cloud gallows of hair,
in that gristly winter,
in those last shots before the old unending black,
where the white jungle scribbled on the high blue night,
and the trumpet swayed between hothouse shrieks of paradise,
and the infinity of the pen fell to the oblivion of the page,
crumpled words floating ill-shaped in the sunlight.
I broke until I could understand what I was breaking
and I took,
and am taking,
and now, on this melting rim of morning,
light comes in like an endless fist,
and snow speaks and flames bang and
only a soiled path leads back through the sucking splash,
past the hustle of rash bells, past the smashed clocks
of our baroque history chiming like built birds rising

into the memory of our first night:
we sat by the graveyard gates.
(And there a clarity if just these lines would obey)
In that particular darkness, then
with the headlights moving so low below,
our awkwardness was a bright scratch on death’s strongbox.
O’s rebel jaw, her long brown arms
and claws, her piñata skull scattering wet candy;
that chopped hair forced back behind one ear. That feral stare.
Planning to be sad she had packed only black, soon unsuitable—
at times. Taller than I but in the way she defied
my loom was implied
as realities were passed through and left behind,
death murmuring from the radio sky:
death, in her bouts of déjà vu like bubbles of terror boiling,
bobbing up from the unknown, unaccounted-for past;
death, in skin janglings that summoned up old crimes
and their twilight-filled bootprints on her brain;
death, in how she spoke with such love of mania,
tugged out a chain of questions in final despair,
laughed dust. She came trusting me
like a knowing toe trusts cold ocean, O …

Oh whatever – it was my fault.
I said to her, come, rest with me awhile
I’ll take care of you I’ll garden your head;
but when it wasn’t easy,
and since she couldn’t wait until I wasn’t busy,
I whinged and stormed and finally made her leave.
Now I sit here, in my precious privacy,
weaving my spit-lace of words,
knowing she’s worse off than before me,
crazier and lonelier, re-shattered and cast out.

O?

O

O,
where are you? sleeper,
where do those fingers walk?
On the roofs of Soho retoned rainbow?
On the glowing-howl cell walls of psychic jail, part two?
On the minor keys of a cold polyphonal brightness,
The keys of motion, mood and ocean,
The keys of air?
Are you—
Are your songs speaking to you, dear? They never cease,
I know, and these questions make no sense
and I have no right to ask them
but it’s this silence,
that’s all;
this silence in here,
and those sirens outside,
and this February rain,
and a looping vision of your slain bliss:
you out dancing, all ruffles and eyelets,
your cheeks gleaming with mutating green,
your sweet hot breath briefly in my ear,
your whispers lost in the throbbing air,
in the woofing booms you spun away into,
the blade peak of you
floating back across
the gulfs of light,
of hard and heavy days,
the gulfs of night.

Listen, I—

No, forget it.

Minus One

On the morning after first snow, my mother and I drove for two hours into hilly German countryside to visit a family who have a summer house next to our property in Newfoundland, and whose vacation the year prior was ruined beforehand by the near-sudden death of the mother, Matilde, from lung cancer.

My mother took it hard. She considered flying over the Atlantic to attend the funeral, but couldn’t afford it. She settled for lighting a virtual candle.

The closer we got, the deeper the snow. We followed serpentine roads along the flanks of mountains, curving over valleys full of whitened beech and outposts where hunters waited for boar. Ponies and goats grazed on forty-degree slopes. Every twenty minutes we would pass through a wedding-cake town with antique village houses in tidily ascending ranks.

The family’s house was a three-story triangle with an intricate system of patios spiraling around it from base to peak, framing windows that faced those of distant houses on the other side of a valley whose misty floor had been squared off and quantized into farmland.

At the door we were greeted by Matilde’s husband and eldest son, both underweight, unshaven, and bespectacled. They smiled with pale warmth.

After we exchanged hugs and exclamations they took us on a tour of their house, which had been the town hall and school until the second World War and still had many ornately carved wardrobes and cabinets, gold-inlayed fortresses of black wood that made the sticklike modern chairs and tables and the plasma TV look temporary and unserious.

The second floor was cozier, mostly given over to bookshelves stocked with quantum physics and literary fiction. It had belonged to the couple. Matilde’s husband, Lars, switched rooms after she died. The door to their conjugal room was shut, but the opposite door was open on his new room, which had only a mattress on a wooden floor beneath a clean rectangle of painfully blue sky.

Lars led us to the bathrooms: one room with a hexagonal jacuzzi tub under a matching skylight and the other with a toilet that sported various nozzles and a remote control that he pressed for us with an air of self-mockery.

I interrupted my mother’s cheery patter to ask him who owned all the books.

“She did.”

Bent over the remote control, which was now tinnily issuing Beethoven, Lars had answered my question without looking up.

At sixty-seven, he still looked like a student — the quantum physics books at least were his — but bleakly detached and unimpressed. Sometimes when others were speaking he would snort curtly, as if what they were saying was maddening, but then he would say something colorless.

The third floor belonged to his middle-aged son, Horst, an underfed wraith who looked much like his father but more sickly, with purple lips that twitched and pulsed while he hovered at the edges of our group, piping up only to correct his father. Horst had returned home after completing his PhD in Engineering and never left again or, to our knowledge, had a girlfriend. His triangular space under the roof’s peak was cluttered with gadgets, hand-assembled model planes, and empty beer cans from all over the world, and had as centerpiece a knee-high statuette of a generously-chested Nordic maiden riding a harnessed lizard.

I asked him about his life, but every question was met by a monoxide-poisoned smile and answers that seemed almost deliberately banal, as if I’d done something naïve and he was slyly mocking me. I asked him how he passed his time; Horst answered, “Living.”
Over his computer table was a line of photos of his mother. The leftmost picture had her as a beribboned sepia baby; in the middle one she was young and stylishly trench-coated in a crowd of protesters, her fist raised, yelling; the rightmost photo showed her in crowish late-middle-age sitting on their patio, wearing sunglasses that disclosed her eyelashes and smoking, her cigarette hand obscuring a wry smile. On the table beside her was a whiskey tumbler atop a paperback with a curling cover that bore her name.

She had weakened quickly. After a Friday afternoon nap she found she couldn’t walk anymore, was hospitalized, intubated and catheterized, sedated, and gone by Sunday.

After the tour, we squeezed into their car and drove to a graveyard on a steep mountainside. It had snowed all afternoon, and upon turning onto the final side-road we plowed into a snow-bank. Our wheels spun in place.

I got out and watched, standing next to Horst. His hands were stuffed into his hoodie’s pockets, his purple lips and weak eyelids quivering with cold. Lars backed carefully down the hill, easing onto the main road, revved his engine, and then rocketed up through the drift, spraying snow, and around the corner, crunching to a stop in front of an old belfry.

On the hill, a sloped grid of tombstones was interrupted only by the wooden cross on Matilde’s grave. The cross will be taken down once the earth has settled, my mother said, and burst into tears, turning away orange with embarrassment. I hugged her for a long time while Lars and Horst stood over the grave looking down, their faces like old leather wallets.

Before we left, my mom kneeled and affixed two round pins — one with the Newfoundland flag, the other with a pink heart on white — to a crocheted poem that leaned between a brass angel blowing a clarion and a stuffed puppy that had frozen solid, its plush mouth ajar in puppy ecstasy.

Three Tombstones

On the coldest morning of the year, my grandfather announced that he was bringing me to the family tombstone.

We drove for hours, rarely talking, and then turned off into a roadside forest, where the graveyard had been woven into the organic arrangement of the evergreens, beeches, and shrubs, so that it looked as if the snowy crosses and stones had grown up naturally from the seeds of the dead.

In a round clearing we found a circular mass grave. In the grave’s southeast quadrant, three layers down, what remained of my great-grandmother lay north-south, under snow-scaled purple herbs in the shadow of a cross as tall as the bending pines.

When the bombing began she was buying groceries by the city square. She took refuge in the service compartment of a fountain.

So did a dozen others. They asphyxiated, then burned.

White feathers were falling when we reached the family tombstone, designed by my grandfather. The stone was a black slab with a perfect circle missing from its center. Inscribed on it were five names: those of his parents and those of his three siblings: the first died as a baby, the second at seventeen on his first day on the Western front, and the third unreachable.

Leaning against the tombstone was a gold-framed page my grandfather had placed there while I was still across the ocean. The page was creased with iridescent water-wrinkles, but I could make out a printed collage of grassy cliffs and ocean, and a line of text along the left side:

Ihr (You)
Seid (Are)
In (In)
Unseren (Our)
Gedanken (Thoughts),
Liebe (Love)
Auch (Also)
Von (From)
Stefan
Und
O

The Insemination

With her right claw Genu46 grips the child and tugs her beak from its ribs. She dribbles softener on its forehead, then cuts from combed hair to snub nose and tenderly peels back the floppy bone, exposing lobes packed with eggs as round and white as pearls.

She gapes briefly but catches herself quick and tunes down her mood engine until she’s calm enough to tweeze out the eggs.

Afterward she darts up into the pea-green sky over the human village and cuts off east toward her roost, skimming over winged trees fluffy with spring feathers. On the horizon her roost, a glossy black pillar, slopes up hairlike into clustered stratocumuli.

Inside, Genu46 skips her usual friendly beak-rubbing and slips off to the chapel, where she discovers Genu85 perched in front, his eyeball cocked at the gauges set into the altar. In the altar’s testing chamber he has placed an entire brain—eggless, of course, like every day.

Normally 46 tries to be patient with 85—they all do—but today she shoulders him aside, plucks out his junk specimen, unseals her eye canal and lets one egg roll into the altar.

All sixteen gauges bong in unison.

46 and 85 glance at each other. 85 begins to twitter in happy hack-brained excitement, and even 46 permits herself some joy in the instant before her mind is overridden by an incoming command:

DELIVER THE EGGS.

Her personality dissolves like sugar into water. Only the smallest grains of self still blink on and off, sparking through the depths of an ocean of nonbeing.

Her beak siphons the egg back into her eye pouch. Her body turns to leave.

The chapel is crammed with her roostmates—they line the pews and are stacked along the walls up to the dome, tiers of glassy eyeballs arranged so that everyone can stare at her.

But her legs carry her past them, through deserted maintenance halls, and into a bright corridor to mountains and plains and oceanic sky.

Her body launches itself out and her wings lock into hummingbird mode and carry her straight up.

The landscape rapidly contracts, rivers and forests pulling together into a mottled, blossoming flesh. Her roost tapers and curves down into a shiny black spiral.

Other colossal spirals appear in the far distance, dozens tangling on pale plains that curve off to the end of the world, where red waterfalls cascade sparkling into astral darkness.

Her wings slow, three nozzles emerge from her tail feathers, and then she blasts up out of the atmosphere, a cyclopean magpie rising on triplet jets of white flame, a speck departing her planet, which looks like a reclining human wreathed in clouds, with a red umbilical ocean, ribs made of mountain chains, and a bald head with closed eyes and a serene smile.

Three eye-moons orbit its torso, sweeping their gazes across its length.

And near its left knee, the thin black hair of her roost.

In the back of her mind a half-crushed feeling rears up and she plunges after it, chasing the pain into herself, shrinking, as she falls inward, to a dot of mind snowing toward an electric island of fragmented emotions.

With time other human planets spin past, vast sleepers clothed in clouds and feather-forests, their transcendental smiles reflected in the glassy dome of her deserted eye.

Meanwhile, 46, deep inside herself, glitchy and incomplete, views and reviews the footage of her roostmates filling the chapel. Again and again they stare at her, the Finder of the Eggs, the One, with all the camaraderie gone from their ancient faces, replaced by disappointment and an awful distance.

As her body passes the sun, a gargantuan glass orb containing an irradiant organism with feathery membranes swirling around its blinding core, she’s composing a speech for her return in which she reassures everyone, and especially poor deluded 85, that she found the eggs only because of their work ethic, their determination, the unbreakable unity of all their people everywhere—they who had searched so long and so bravely for the eggs.

The sun fades behind her. The stars drop from view. Her body ascends through silent darkness toward a matte-black ceiling and angles into a short tunnel to a metal room.

She’ll say she was only ever the insignificant emissary of a noble, superior, and devoted race.

A mechanical pincer drops down, seizes her eye, and yanks her into the air. A green laser hums in sideways and halves her skull. Her body and most of her brain drop.

Her eyeball is scoured by microlasers until it shines and turns translucent—revealing the clutch of eggs stored behind its pupil—and then the pincer pushes the eye into a slot in the roof.

Her eye, wedged in place, looks out from a submicroscopic gap in a smooth pale surface that extends beyond all horizons, curving around 46’s entire universe—

All her reality contained in a round, glowing shell, a cosmic pearl that fills all space.

I press one final button.

Her pupil squirts the eggs. They spray out, glittering in a light that is not light, travel up your gaze and through your eyes and thud into your brain.

Your figments wriggle toward the eggs…

The Freshness of the First and Foremost of the Finest of the Lines

All philosophies condense to a line, with time,
and all songs dwindle to a single sooty melody,

and even if you sawed the locks off your senses,

even if you turned these letters
until light came through,
so that what’s behind them
could demand to be rescued,

even if you left behind the sentence,
tossed the whole scaffolding aside,
and let each moment become its own manifesto,

you would still fall back

to foil scraps and pigeon shit,
upturned take-out and puked noodles,
smashed flasks’ stained glass,
and sweatered smokers kicking
at the torn grey tissues

of dawn clouds.

Unprayer

I do not expect, O Lord, to ever believe in you again.

There was a time when your body was sunlight and you spoke through chills and inklings. I heard angelic choirs in an engine’s whining shudder. All history was evidence of your existence, and the lightning bolt a proof.

These days you get drunk and fall off bar stools. You were a trillion light years across; now you’re roommates with Zeus in the back of my skull, and you hammer on the bone walls in the hopes I’ll let you out.

I never will, though I sometimes allow you walk-on parts in my fantasies. With real fondness I watch you ham up your old omnipotence—beautiful again despite your destroyed face, amen.

Later I see you in the shared kitchen, slumping in a stained t-shirt over fried sausages and ketchup eggs, cheating at a crossword. With a grunt you lean back to open the fridge, glancing over the magnet-hung photos of Mary in her prime and the all-star son himself, handsome as ever. You drink the grape juice straight from the bottle.