When grief comes to you as a purple gorilla
you must count yourself lucky.
You must offer her what’s left
of your dinner, the book you were trying to finish
you must put aside
and make her a place to sit at the foot of your bed,
her eyes moving from the clock
to the television and back again.
I am not afraid. She has been here before
and now I can recognize her gait
as she approaches the house.
Some nights, when I know she’s coming,
I unlock the door, lie down on my back,
and count her steps
from the street to the porch.
Tonight she brings a pencil and a ream of paper,
tells me to write down
everyone I have ever known
and we separate them between the living and the dead
so she can pick each name at random.
I play her favorite Willie Nelson album
because she misses Texas
but I don’t ask why.
She hums a little,
the way my brother does when he gardens.
We sit for an hour
while she tells me how unreasonable I’ve been,
crying in the check-out line,
refusing to eat, refusing to shower,
all the smoking and all the drinking.
Eventually she puts one of her heavy
purple arms around me, leans
her head against mine,
and all of a sudden things are feeling romantic.
So I tell her,
things are feeling romantic.
She pulls another name, this time
from the dead
and turns to me in that way that parents do
so you feel embarrassed or ashamed of something.
Romantic? She says,
reading the name out loud, slowly
so I am aware of each syllable
wrapping around the bones like new muscle,
the sound of that person’s body
and how reckless it is,
how careless that his name is in one pile and not the other.
THE COWS OF POINT REYES
Because Laura was driving I was free
to take pictures of the cows who looked so close
when I pushed down my index finger, making the camera
click. Those slow giants, I thought
they’d come out glossy and huge like the tasteless
strawberries people grow in California,
but they didn’t, they came out small like the wild ones
in Oregon, in someone’s backyard
next to the tomato and rosemary.
This was along the coast, the cows with their souls
mooing away in their hearts
like the wind in old westerns
you might have seen when you were young and it forever shook
you to tears or made you love
someone you’d never known. Those big-hearted cows,
black and white gods chewing the grass
of America, making milk or making meat
I don’t know which, but making something there
on the hillside. I was looking out
toward the ocean where the whales were hiding, orbiting
along some aquatic jet-stream like dark planets,
and I was looking into the rear-view mirror as well,
where Laura’s eyes were looking at me, both of us
so close to the cows and the sea
at the same time, reminding me
of an India I read about
where kindness is called Ahimsa
though it could be something else, something like a red balloon
or an open hand. I often take pictures of people or animals
so when they’re gone I can remind myself
that they’re real, that I have proven the unprovable fact
that not only do I have a heart
but it grows like a sentimental chrysanthemum
my parents planted in the seventies
while their friends were flying helicopters over what was left
of Saigon. I don’t know why
I miss the cows so deeply, why
when I look at the picture and they appear so small
I want to cry. Loss is a funny thing to feel
when you never knew the thing you miss. But I suppose
I loved the cows, my irrational heart
blowing open the doors of the schmaltzy saloon
where my feelings stay up late
drinking scotch, listening to old punk records,
which aren’t even old
in the fossil-universe-space-station we live in.
Maybe it was Laura making everything
sublime with her red hair doing crazy things, the window
rolled down, the salt in the air.
The night before we had driven down a little road
with the stars and the fences
and I knew I was living my life
there in the car, looking out
but not knowing if it was the ocean or the hills.
Sometimes, when you’re driving in the dark,
you can be anywhere, you can turn
the headlights off and bend toward hope and happiness and the good
stuff about death. Death! My favorite kind
of fear. I think about it whenever I fly
and whenever something good happens I give it a little kiss.
If I were more like the cows
it wouldn’t matter. But it’s good to be human and have
a little fear tucked away in some corner of my body,
in the orange bathtub at the B&B
where I had death hiding in my left hand,
where I brought the washcloth up
and felt the water running down her shoulders,
burning a candle in the room
and Laura in or out of her clothes.
I had never thought about the life
expectancy of cows or how they would make me feel
Elysian, that they would mean so much,
that I would even suffer
because of my great feelings for them or that I would dream about Laura
the night I came home, and in it
she would be sitting near me in a theater where we had gone to see
a movie about Sweden we both loved in different ways.
both from Matthew Dickman’s All-American Poem (Philadelphia: The American Poetry Review/Copper Canyon Press/Consortium, 2008)