Poetry

Cleave

 

 

A

His nails are bit to the pink,

bare-bottomed eager as flicking

to the last paragraph of a novel.

 

He studies the newspaper in his father’s

ashen underwear, smokes sage cigarettes,

regards windows and doorways

as though they are in miniature;

as though he is half snow,

able to fall through a dollhouse world.

 

B

Who was in the courtyard, who

was on their knees in the kitchen

the day Petrograd became Leningrad,

washing linens in veined water

 

he asks me in the thumbprint light

of 4 am, his voice like a grandmother’s

who remembers the marching orders

of history in her wrists and swollen ankles

but cannot recall who won.

 

Who was scrubbing the potatoes?

 

He has the gay man’s respect for

a woman: the immaculate object

with its dirty but necessary curves.

 

C

The responsibility of cities,

he says,

 

the moment a boy picks up

a slingshot for the first time.

 

D

In late November

he stands flush behind me,

points out the way winter erases

without ever losing its form.

It is an outline, he claims, not

death proper.

 

Fifth position dancer with an arm raised taut

as a kite string.

 

November understands the greatest lie.

Life cannot be traced onto death. And so

your greatest fear is fabricated, knit

with these pencil-mark branches, with

my breath against the hair on your neck.

 

E

His underwear velcroes

away from his skin

like an orange being peeled.

 

What he has already shed

clogs up my fingernails.

He bends like a puppet—

scar-less, unblemished,

able to forget his own nudity.

 

F

His is a turpentine light—

the smell of store rooms and eucalyptus

and money; he has changed hands

many times.

 

As a lover he knows this—

pleasures every past before taking

his own.

 

G

Everything we must learn,

he cries, is what we’ve already

lost.

 

The mind: ocean water two inches past

where light reaches.

 

H

He smokes while we make love.

Why not defy death, he says, as two men together

have no illusion of immortality.

 

My sperm will never become anything

inside you, will only caulk your fissures.

We are non-refill pens, one-way tickets on a train

through a dissolving country. Or maybe we are the

countries themselves. Yugoslavia in 91. Burundi

in 94.

 

Tom and Frank, Antoine and Leo. Not sin,

just dead ends, then a pause, and a sigh, and

far far off, as through the corridor of some foreign

apartment building, a door blowing shut in the

sun-swollen and windless air.

 

I

The hair on his thighs curls like gorse.

My father never touched me, he says,

though I have often wished he had, just so

I’d know where I end and the rest begins.

 

A dead body is sealed into memory

by a name, but cities shed skins one

two three—

 

Imagine growing through a word.

 

J

He enters, is never entered.

Not because he says so,

but because he has that way

about him.

 

Bed with sheets folded across it

like the beginnings of a paper airplane.

 

He is weary of being desired.

It is tedious, to be loved

for loving oneself.

 

K

One can pretend to be a god,

one can almost believe oneself to be—

but one cannot be the lock-jawed

weight of a city’s hushed rubble,

its bleeding-lipped sigh.

 

L

Over Malbec in Styrofoam cups he tells me

to think of all the lives that have been spent

trying to pinpoint the precise geographic

locations of Odysseus’ journey. He laughs,

lips purple. And so, he says, if you knew

where the sirens were, would you go?

 

Would you think you’re strong enough,

just by knowing?

 

M

If you knew where the Elysian fields—no,

let me rephrase, he says,

standing and unzipping his fly to piss off

of the balcony.

 

Can you believe in something

without needing it?

 

N

Port la Joie became Charlottetown,

his eyes glaze. Leopoldstad Kinshasa,

Boimitsa Axiopoli, Aspadana Isfahan.

La plata, Ciudad Eva Peron, La plata,

again.

 

Cities red-kneed for language.

 

O

A polis burning as this candle does,

self-conscious, nude, finite.

 

He collects the wax and warms it

between his palms,

an amulet.

 

P

Some days he cannot be pried from the window.

He says he is waiting for the right diameter

of a snowflake.

 

It’s not insanity, he says, it’s attention to detail.

 

Q

What do you think of when I am inside you,

he asks one day as he smokes and

washes the dishes.

 

You, I say—or did I say nothing?

 

You are lying, he replies. Sex is not the end

of wanting. We must use the mind to think

beyond it, say, imagine that an ex is about

to walk in, or that I am the music teacher you

used to daydream of.

 

R

Now, but only for this exact instant,

are you thinking of the soap suds on

my forearms, and the way I am talking

through the cigarette in my mouth.

 

S

Years later, I hope you will remember

me at the sink, and touch yourself.

 

But if you do, it will not be

for what you saw tonight

but for the language I brought to it,

this forgettable gesture.

 

T

You will never be able to visit

Saigon. Think, he urges.

 

Only in the mouths of others.

 

U

But history swallows names too,

I point out, when he begins to lose sleep.

The same as everything else.

 

He lights a match and drops it from the balcony

into the thigh of a snowbank.

 

V

He wanders the apartment at night

wearing only an old t shirt, his legs

thin and pale but for the scratch marks

of hair.

 

Of any possible combination on a man,

only a t-shirt is the most un-attractive,

he brags.

 

W

There is a problem, he says,

while packing my bags, in treating love

the way one treats faith.

 

Not a moral, but an ethical problem.

 

X

Still, I hope you find it, he smiles.

In that way we sort of always

inactively hope for another’s happiness.

 

Y

He will grow old in his self-love.

 

Z

August, darkness only a brief

blip in the night, St. Petersburg

becomes Petrograd for fear the

old name sounds too German.

Language’s revolt against what

it fears to be.

 

And then, three years later, a blank

shot begins the renaming.

 

 

 

 

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