blackbirdonline journalSpring 2010  Vol. 9  No. 1
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Letter from Gozo
     to Gerald Stern

Only last week, sick with a fever & retching, what I saw
were my mother’s hands hooked to my wrists. One grasped
the rim of the yellow sink, shaking; the other held my hair
away from my face. I do not know why I think you
of all the poets will understand this. How my toes
sometimes seem to be my father’s toes & the past,
a cobbled organ I have entered, thin as air & somehow become.

The summer she died, I slept on a folding cot
beside my mother’s bed & one morning, I woke
in the early coolness to see her stretching her hands out
before her, studying their freckled backs & thick knuckles
as though they were two splendid, bony fish. The hand
was Vesalius’s first anatomy lesson, yet I can barely
snap my fingers. I aspire to grace, may someone believe me,
though I have been so clumsy all of my life. Here,
where the west wind carries red dust from the Sahara so far
rain comes down the color of blood, I tell myself this:
to flail is the oldest two-step. The cry, I say, in its varieties,
is a folk song & the stumble, especially when it spills the oil
or wine & cracks the jug, is a kind of gross sentimentality,
a reminder that we are not, thank the gods, the gods,
who have never needed anything, not even each other.

For us, always the matter, the meat as well as the meaning:
the giant tunny, that eight-hundred-pound mackerel
whose great gray body the seamen hunt in spawning season
the way they have for four thousand years. Because
the tunny will always flee in the direction of open water,
because it is so easy to drive it deeper & deeper
into a maze of nets. And when their camera della morte
is thick with the panicked, living flesh, a signal is given
& fresh-armed men are rowed from shore & the ropes
are raised & the mattanza begins. In one report, old men
from Messina gently cover the eyes of the gasping fish
before they strike them because the tunny struggles less
when blind. Tonight my computer will pluck from space

your poem in your voice, the one about those who face death
by wind & call it forgiveness. A bird I cannot see will honk
from the one green hill above the village, the one
no one can climb because the high iron gate was locked
so long ago & abandoned. And when I shut the light,
I will be dreaming before I realize I’ve fallen asleep
with my glasses on, something my mother did every night
all the decades I knew her, which explains how
she was able, just then, to see herself releasing her fine,
muscled fingers back into a stream of August sun.

At the oldest temple in the world, no one pours an offering
or brings two palms together in prayer. Only a dog,
someone’s emaciated liver pointer, wanders in & out
of the five eroded apses, sniffing the stones. And though
he seems as sore-footed & awkward as memory,
he has been forgotten, as even I may soon forget him,
who give him a name & some bread & the local white cheese,
which is rubbed with pepper & made from the sea.
So near the first things, the open mouth of the last. Tell me,
is it like this with you? For my part, almost everything
behind I go on carrying, even the emptinesses,
which are sometimes large & heavy, but sometimes not.
At the harbor, as they do along the brown Delaware
& in the creeks of the lower Allegheny, where the stubborn
musky runs twelve months a year, fishermen cast their lines
from the edge. They wait on their low, painted stools
& sometimes still, seeing their rods bend & surely thinking
they have lured to the bait something quick & otherworldly,
they haul up the ancient slender-throated amphorae instead.  end

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