an excerpt from the book-length manuscript
The glue that bound the pages of an old book dries and breaks free.
I am snowed on by flakes of white. Snowed under.
This book will not let me leave unmarked.
How is it that a Californian poet could write so eloquently
about this Nigerian boy’s life without even knowing him?
Or knowing that the act of faith his words would become
could gather in such a heart from the rain.
And finding him, in the middle of my life,
and tracing the tremulous balance of those words,
I say his name over and over—Larry Levis, blessing be upon you.
And so I called, Larry, Larry, Larry!
And eventually he came back from death in my dreams,
smoking a cigarette so raw he picked tobacco from his tongue
and flicked the speck into the light. Through that cloud
with a bushy moustache more Jim Croce, he said,
you will not understand it all. Not now, maybe never.
But I was in a hurry and scribbled those lines for David.
A play with me and Levis talking. As though that were the thing.
But he was right. Even now as I count the signs.
Walking by a river in Princeton, it remains occluded:
Two blue jays—the Christ—before and after.
Three snakes—the wisdom of body, heart and the mind.
Five white-tailed deer—breaking for the trees,
the five mystical wounds that will not heal.
I have always envied the stigmata.
But it is the ordinary things, isn’t it?
The daily sigh of the world that defeated Eliot—
And even anger can die in this way.
Until there is nothing but ash on a dinner plate
next to dried gravy and a cold, gray piece of meat.
Like the photos of my dead father.
Skin blacker than worked leather, and wrinkled.
As though all the anger in him had burned out on his skin.
And small as a bony wet cat and I think, how could it all
become so pedestrian, as I step out into traffic.
The bus misses me, but I am tenacious,
there is another at 6:15.
There is a God, I chant, there is a God.
But it is just the apple pie à la mode talking.
I am getting wet, Larry, I am getting wet.
Hey, Rilke, I have finally figured out who your terrible angel is.
And his face is the morning and his laugh is the night.
But I shan’t tell on you.
What kind of poet rats out another?
In the Nigeria of my youth, women bleached their skin, leaching
all that was black except what was too stubborn to go,
whorling elbows and knuckles and knees,
and memories blotching faces—
Skin as bruise.
Holy be thy name, O Lady of the Mercury soap,
O Lord of the encroaching light.
Water and sand and the world.
Four selections from “There are No Names for Red”
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