These poems are a selection from Sam Taylors Nude Descending an Empire featured
in this issue.
The Book of Poetry
A friend, in Thailand, helping to build straw bale homes
was riding with four Buddhist monks on the back of a truck
piled high with musky bales. I love water buffaloes, she burst out
in broken Thai. The monks laughed. I guess that is
a strange thing to say, she thought, but insisted.
No, really, I really love them, trying to unfurl herself
clearly, practicing the Zen Garden of making conversation
with only a few words. They are so beautiful, so strong.
Dont you love them? But the monks just kept laughing.
Every traveler in Southeast Asia has her own story
of tonal confusion: the same syllable spoken different ways
becomes four, six, seven words. In China, Ma
means mother, but also hemp, horse, scold—depending if
it is flat, rising, dipping, or falling. Sometimes context helps,
as when ordering food: No one is likely to confuse
I want to eat with I demand an ugly woman,
unless one is dining in a brothel, and even then I want eggplant
though mistoned whirlpool shake concubine twins
is likely to produce only strips of sauce-smeared nightshade.
Everyone in China wants to know what you do.
Its not easy, even in English, for a poet to say that.
When they asked, I said first, I write, wo xie,
or sometimes, after I had learned the word, I am a poet.
Wo shi shi ren. Often, I was met by puzzlement,
strained foreheads, awkward laughter, Chinese people
glancing at each other for cues, uncertain how to react.
Not so different really from the response in America.
A poet Id repeat. Wo shi shiren. Then,
I write poetry, trying to make the most
of my minuscule vocabulary. I write books of poetry.
Wo shi shi ren: literally, I am a poetry person.
Wo means I; ren means person, or man.
Near the end of my travels, someone told me
shi—which is pronounced sure and means poetry
in the high flat tone, as well as the verb to be
in the falling tone—also means shit
in yet another tone. So, all along I must have been saying
I am a shit man. I write shit. And repeating it.
A shit person. I write books of shit. Understand?
To be—poetry—shit. Something fitting in how these words
were assigned the same syllable, the same address.
Later, looking the word up, I discovered for each tone, shi
was ten or twenty words, a whole apartment complex
sharing one mailbox. Corpse, loss, world, history, time, stone,
life, to begin, to be, to die, to fail, to be addicted to,
rough silk, persimmons, raincoats, swine, long-tailed marmot,
clear water—all crowded into the same syllable—sure,
sure, sure. It was also coincidentally the word for yes.
So, perhaps I had said something else entirely
I thought of all the combinations I might have said.
I am a shit person. I write life.
I am a death person. I write being. I shit history man.
I history being person. I write time. I write books of failure,
books of corpses, books of loss, books of yes.
I am a being person. I write to be.
I am addicted to being a man.
I write books of shit, books of clear water.
I am a poet.
It seemed all the world could, even should, have one word
for everything—table scales, taxis, bicycles, stones, cities,
time and history and death and life. It was all shit.
It was all poetry. As for my friend, she found out later
water buffalo was a variation of the word for penis.
So, I love penises she had confided to the Buddhist monks,
the truck jostling, the potholes throwing her knees
against theirs. I really love penises, she had insisted,
looking into their celibate eyes. Penises are
so beautiful, so strong. Dont you love them?
Since the syllable for monk is also the syllable
of my name on fire in a world of loss, I will answer. Sure,
I love penises and water buffalo and the smell
of wet hay, and vaginas and sautéed eggplant and concubine twins,
and I want to tell the Buddhist monks, and the Chinese bureaucrats,
and the official from Homeland Security
who stopped me in customs to search my computer, and my mother
the Szechwan horse: I am a shit man writing books of stone
and the clear water has failed, but I am addicted
writing yes in a city of corpses and swine and persimmons,
here at the end of history, now at the beginning of time.
Be worried. Be very worried.
says the cover of Time Magazine
but the next month it says
The Truth about Soccer Moms
and I hold my head like a beach ball
under my arm, ready for the next challenger.
Because we are living in a disposable world
and I am a disposable word.
Also, mascara has nothing to do
with the destruction of Madagascar
my good hard working people.
My love I am swimming to you
through these yellow flags, nipple tassels,
and confetti, like a sperm on Red Bull
in the cross-hatch of anovulatory mucous
paddling toward the faint outline
of our son, in a shooting gallery
of the future. Given current conditions,
its probably best not to fertilize
for at least another 500 years. Meanwhile,
let us find new centers of feeling:
the grounded shrimp boat, the card catalog,
the man in the cement mixer, paused
at a crossing, talking on his cell phone
to the third daughter of his second marriage,
as a train passes bringing a half days mountain
of light to the city. At least it still looks
like a strawberry someone is playing
on a violin, to someone else stringing
windows on a necklace of
distance. And am I doing anything
worth the mound of coal lighting my heart?
I am watching the snow fall
into the abyss, blanket the earth with blue dusk,
or on to my loves tongue. When morning comes,
grandeur rises from the crevasse of mist
only to exhaust itself trying to cross
these prairie towns. Madagascar
has nothing to do with the scar on my heart
or with the destruction of Madagascar.
I have given up meaning, order, religion, but there are still constellations:
Your cunt. Your cunt and the sun. Your cunt and the sun and your face and the table.
Your cunt and the moon and the sun and the street.
I travel these pathways again and again, Tuesday at noon and Thursday at dusk,
with a little song, a song and a jig, with laughter and sorrow.
I raise the cup to my arm raising the cup. I raise the cup to your cup
and to the cup of snow and the chalice of earth in the hand
of a crippled God who cannot raise a cup. Because he cannot,
I raise the cup to your arm raising the cup, and to the forest
of your arm showering its scents on an undeserving and hostile world.
I raise the cup to the impossibility of living—have you found it otherwise?—
and to the moral imperative of dying
and to shaving with a dull blade in the fountains of Madrid
and to the black sky that will cover us with pitchfuls of dirt
and to bouquets of frightened voices for sale in a clowns hand
and to my baby sister awake in the night like a sculpture of milk.
I have given up meaning, but there are still constellations:
the cup and the cup and the cup and the cup
and the stars falling into a black mug that no one will drink,
and me falling into your body these hours appointed by no God
and the moon and the sun, and tomorrow, and your cunt, and today.
And not your cunt, but your face. And not the moon, but this tear.
And not the street it carves, but a life. And not a life, but a cunt
telling a story to the face of the dark. Saying: Listen, come here.
And not on Thursday, but Today. And not in the Spring, but the Summer.
Not the Summer, but the kitchen. Not in the kitchen, but the warm bread.
Not in the bread, but the fingers and the tongue.
Not in the tongue, but the song, in the elegy sung
And not the elegy, but each thing we did not know was loved.
And not love, but two bodies in Winter. And not the song, but the song.
Note: The word testimony comes from the Latin root testes, which meant both testicle and to bear witness. Some etymologists explain that men once bore witness, or swore, with their hand upon their testicles. Cunt is a Middle English word of good stock that did not become the most taboo and obscene word in the English language until the eighteenth century. It was used, for example, by Chaucer. I align myself here with feminists who believe the vulgarity of the word reflects a violence toward women, the body, and sexuality and who seek to reclaim word and thing in a spirit of praise.
Cannot unfriend you.
Never post too often
every stupid thing
doing cooking eating
every half hour.
When they post, they mean it.
They say things like:
Drifting through diagonal ice clouds.
How beautiful the horn of the Brooklyn park ferry
and the man in oversized black shirt and pants
on a sweltering day, running to catch the 5:35
to make the wake of a child he played flamenco for
in a hospital, which is his ordinary job, stopping short,
at a loss now, as the boats white wake pulls away.
Ten years now, even in purgatory,
like bending to pick up a penny
dropped in line at the bank.
When your friends join their ranks,
your own circle of friends
of friends expands
to encircle all the earth.