(from a sequence about The Lewis Chessmen)
Most unlucky lump, already a headstone,
a milestone of your own progress, which
must always be forward, facing the hell.
Did they say going first was a privilege?
Tusk-tips and flat-bottomed stones come
to life, you live for the lucky side-swipe
of your betters, facing the same-height enemy
in impasse, double-step, and en passant.
Three of you together make a fort. Three
can mob a knight and pull him down.
Standing in one row, beating your shields,
“the last shall be first” seems plausible.
Peons turned to soldiers, bear up proud.
Round lumps, you are the fire in the coal.
Road Sign on Interstate 5
San Diego, California
They are holding hands, or rather, their silhouettes
are joined at the arms like a chain link fence.
Their bodies lean forward, italicized.
They are running: the man is pulling the woman,
the woman is pulling what must be her child,
and the child is lifted, by the speed, off her feet.
It is the same type of sign that might contain
the antlered shape of a generic black buck,
or tell drivers that the road could be slippery when wet.
It is a warning sign, it says: watch out for this.
Every time I pass, I scan both sides of the freeway,
expecting to see a family of three, gathering
up loose belongings, timing the cars, preparing
to run across eight lanes of high-speed traffic.
I have never seen them, this desperate family.
I only know their shadows, how they tilt toward
the bright yellow space in front of them, scrambling
to reach the outlined edge of the thin metal sign.
I have never wanted anything this much, for myself,
let alone to pull those closest to me into flight.
There is so much I could say about growing up
on the border of Mexico. It is not the corrugated
fence, or even the river of sewage, that defines
the scar that joins one world to the next,
but a one-hundred-foot width of sun-soft asphalt,
streaming with commuter traffic, day and night.
The man is pulling the woman, the woman is pulling
her airborne child, whose pigtails flail back.
On the other side is the ocean, salt marsh and a beach
that stretches north, into the source of the wind.
They are holding hands, and smelling the salt in the air.
At night, their pupils contract as the headlights expand.
What begins like a distant starlight grows to a spotlight,
a floodlight, a wash of whiteness, and engines made of wind.
Then reddened, like coals, like dying suns, the lights
recede, a river of cherry redness, a syrup of taillights.
The man is pulling the woman is pulling the child,
who rises as though winged in a blaze of light.
Rattle Poetry Prize Honourable Mention
Available in Human Shade
She has let herself go:
the stringy gray-green mop,
stubble sprouting from her curlicue tail,
soil stains on a faded red leotard
bulging with crisp, white flesh.
Smoldering root, once
she drew fire from the soil,
hope, sulphur, and sex.
Plucked into air, now
she trembles in hand,
a scalded heart
North American Review March/April 2007
Finalist, James Hearst Poetry Prize
Available in Human Shade
Who knew the river of death would be beautiful? The boatman is not some skeleton in rags, but a man much like your father, the one you always wanted. His eyes say, “Welcome.” He helps you into the boat. His hands are warm, and calloused from the oars. He rows easily, like a man on vacation, as if you are both going fishing. But his pace makes a slow, measured clicking in the oarlocks, a sound that comes only with practice. The water is black, but all the better to reflect stars painted on the roof of the cave: The Big Dipper, the Southern Cross–both hemispheres at once. No wind. The water makes a perfect mirror, but you don’t lean over to see yourself. It is not until he wraps a chain around the dock, securing the boat to its destination, that you realize those white dots of paint, bobbing in the wake, might be the last night sky you will ever see.