Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2016  Vol. 15 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Poem Ending with a Hotel on Fire

Poor means knowing the trees couldn’t care less

Whether you carve the initials of your enemies
All over the trunk’s white bark,

Or whether this sleep beneath them is your last.

In the contorted figures meant to represent their sleep,
The statistics never show the deep shade in the park,

The mother appearing in the dark of someone within whose
Sprawled arms clear gin and black tar mingle
To compose the blood’s unwriteable psalm.

The blackening church bells say the poor are wrong,
So does the traffic stalling on the bridge; so does the lazy swirl
Of current underneath it all, a smile fading in the dark.


What I love is the way you would whisper against
The current, into the dark,

“But what you mean by poor is  . . . some figure & concealment
By which they are forgotten. But the figure itself is a kind

Of poverty. I don’t mean just . . . money. I mean poverty

In the widest possible . . . sense.” There was the sound

Of crickets in a ravine I listened to so closely one evening

It became only a vast chirring, then a thing not there, then

The roar of a fire. It was like being, or pretending to be,

Without speech. To be without speech means no one
Listening, & that the flames scaling the neighborhood like mirrors

Can not even pretend to. This is

Where the poor are not permitted to see themselves,

This is why money mirrors nothing so accurately it tempts us
To seek our reflections in the passing, leafy idyll

Of a water so toxic by now it would scald you if it were
Real—for what is engraved upon it still represents

A wilderness—or a flash of a green silence almost alive
In the palm of your hand—that stands for one. And what

Secessionist keeps whispering in your ear? And whose
Eye, removed from a human face, stares from a pyramid

Like a bicep’s inscrutable tattoo? And what mansion floats
in its mosses & a landscaping so thick you cannot pick out

The slave, snoring or dead, or holding a towel to his head

Where an ear had been, in the shade of the willow there?

Once in a hotel in Cincinnati, I saw a woman decorated,

Like a kind of human Christmas tree, in money. All down
the buttons of her blouse & in fact all over her blouse & skirt,

The men, for whom, I heard later, she had been hired as
A private dancer, had pinned twenties, hundreds, fifties

Rolls of smaller bills—& as the alarm blared its one note &

The beige smoke—billowy, calm signature of whoever had set
The upper floors on fire—began filling

The corridor, we arrived at the elevator in the same
Moment, & waited—I in shorts & a faded t-shirt with three

Naked Jamaicans on it who were, once, The Itals,
And she in the most expensive dress I had ever seen—

And when the elevator didn’t show we ran down the steel & concrete
Stairs that seemed to ring and ring with our steps.

Later, in the lobby bar, her purse so stuffed with bills
The bartender simply said, “It’s cool,” & raised both hands

Above his head when we tried to pay, she would talk only
Of her one obsession, which had nothing to do with money nor

Swaying to music, nor men,

But with purebred Abyssinian cats, the trouble she went to,

Taking them—traveling with four howling cages behind her
In the back of a station wagon—to shows all over

The Midwest. The worst part though, she said, was that
The shows were rigged, the judges were paid off—

So every winner—she had exhaustively researched all this,
She told me—every winner descended from families that had arrived

On The Mayflower, & did I know

Most of America was in the control of people who spent whole
Afternoons “daydreaming, running combs through these Siamese

And Long-haired Persians fat as sofa pillows?” “No kidding,”
I said. And did I read about how they’d tried

To frame her in Chicago . . . “Do I look capable of Murder One?”
She turned to me, the glint in her eye revealing nothing.

“No,” I said, “But what about Murder Two? Isn’t that just . . .
The same thing done with a lot more feeling?”

In her laughter you could hear leaves scraping the cold streets.
If you listened for it. If you listened hard enough.


The fire in the hotel had begun as nothing more
Than the prank of a child who’d gotten high, after school,

By inhaling gasoline fumes in a vacant lot, & who then rode,
With a gas can carried in a paper bag, the elevator to

The Starlight Terrace restaurant where he looked beyond
Frayed tablecloths & over the entire city before a waiter

Picked him up by his long hair & shoved him into an open

Elevator in which falling solitude the boy
Splashed gasoline all over the fake wood paneling & plaid

Carpet, stepped out of it two floors later, & then, with that
Quick & graceful turning gesture from which the body makes

The thoughtless beauty of a hook shot from mid-court, tossed
A match inside before the door could close. And though it took

The fire crew less than an hour to clear two floors & put the last
Sparks out, I kept thinking of the elevator descending to some

Small family probably in from the sticks, probably on their way to visit
A dying aunt or sister, who, after blowing all their savings to stay

In a room decorated with the overcast melancholy of a cheap
Utrillo print, waited there in the fatigued aftertaste

Failure left them with, as if to think it over, in that moment


When the doors opened onto flames.

In the photographs she showed me the Abyssinians looked

Emaciated, &, though I couldn’t say why, like a species that
Had survived its own extinction. Their pale eyes suggested

Nothing at all. They looked back like the face of famine,

Their thin, ridged spines older than even the ancient
Illustrations of cats on tombs, cats that had been the pets

Of kings & now slept beside them in the straitjacketed,
Dry, whirlpool of bandages they had wrapped kings in so that

They might descend without distractions. Did the doors
Of tombs open onto flames? The faces of the cats
Caught in the photographs would never tell.

Their gray fur was like blurred print or the blank, chirring
Blizzard on the t.v. set above the bar. Nothing would tell.

Once in a blizzard in a foreign city, having lost my way,
I wondered what it would be like to be one of those—blind
Drunk, high, or homeless—who would have no alternative except

To freeze to death, & thought how, after the initiation of pain,
They say it is like being lulled to sleep, the way the snow

Appears to faint as it swirls in the locked doorways of shops,
The way this would be the last thing that appeared to you

There, before whatever was left of you became gradually
Confused with a small part of the upsway

Of snow & wind.

It is all a matter of confusing yourself with something else:

The soul curls up in a doorway, & lets the snow swirl around it.

And . . . not just money then, but . . . poverty, I thought, in the widest
Possible . . . sense of the term, would

Be . . . But then I knew what it would be.

For a moment I could hear the cats howling in their steel cages,
Their thin spines turning in circles.

Tattoo on a forearm & shriek of the wind, & no figure drawn
In the night’s silent contemplation by which

The poor might be forgotten;

And not you beside me in the dark but only a dry fern & a Bible
In the room, the rain beginning its long descent onto the roof—

Its sound the chirring of crickets in a ravine.

I could almost hear . . . No, I could only imagine hearing it. And that

Is what it has become:

Having to imagine, having to imagine everything,

In detail, and without end.  

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