The world is full of women
who’d tell me I should be ashamed of myself
if they had the chance. Quit dancing.
Get some self-respect
and a day job.
Right. And minimum wage,
and varicose veins, just standing
in one place for eight hours
behind a glass counter
bundled up to the neck, instead of
naked as a meat sandwich.
Selling gloves, or something.
Instead of what I do sell.
You have to have talent
to peddle a thing so nebulous
and without material form.
Exploited, they’d say. Yes, any way
you cut it, but I’ve a choice
of how, and I’ll take the money.
I do give value.
Like preachers, I sell vision,
like perfume ads, desire
or its facsimile. Like jokes
or war, it’s all in the timing.
I sell men back their worse suspicions:
that everything’s for sale,
and piecemeal. They gaze at me and see
a chain-saw murder just before it happens,
when thigh, ass, inkblot, crevice, tit, and nipple
are still connected.
Such hatred leaps in them,
my beery worshipers! That, or a bleary
hopeless love. Seeing the rows of heads
and upturned eyes, imploring
but ready to snap at my ankles,
I understand floods and earthquakes, and the urge
to step on ants. I keep the beat,
and dance for them because
they can’t. The music smells like foxes,
crisp as heated metal
searing the nostrils
or humid as August, hazy and languorous
as a looted city the day after,
when all the rape’s been done
already, and the killing,
and the survivors wander around
looking for garbage
to eat, and there’s only a bleak exhaustion.
Speaking of which, it’s the smiling
tires me out the most.
This, and the pretence
that I can’t hear them.
And I can’t, because I’m after all
a foreigner to them.
The speech here is all warty gutturals,
obvious as a slab of ham,
but I come from the province of the gods
where meanings are lilting and oblique.
I don’t let on to everyone,
but lean close, and I’ll whisper:
My mother was raped by a holy swan.
You believe that? You can take me out to dinner.
That’s what we tell all the husbands.
There sure are a lot of dangerous birds around.
Not that anyone here
but you would understand.
The rest of them would like to watch me
and feel nothing. Reduce me to components
as in a clock factory or abattoir.
Crush out the mystery.
Wall me up alive
in my own body.
They’d like to see through me,
but nothing is more opaque
than absolute transparency.
Look–my feet don’t hit the marble!
Like breath or a balloon, I’m rising,
I hover six inches in the air
in my blazing swan-egg of light.
You think I’m not a goddess?
This is a torch song.
Touch me and you’ll burn.
Like any good son, I pull my father out
of the water, drag him by his hair
through white sand, his knuckles carving a trail
the waves rush in to erase. Because the city
beyond the shore is no longer
where we left it. Because the bombed
cathedral is now a cathedral
of trees. I kneel beside him to show how far
I might sink. Do you know who I am,
Ba? But the answer never comes. The answer
is the bullet hole in his back, brimming
with seawater. He is so still I think
he could be anyone’s father, found
the way a green bottle might appear
at a boy’s feet containing a year
he has never touched. I touch
his ears. No use. I turn him
over. To face it. The cathedral
in his sea-black eyes. The face
not mine – but one I will wear
to kiss all my lovers good-night:
the way I seal my father’s lips
with my own & begin
the faithful work of drowning.
Your little elbow
nudges the air
as the raindrops
line up and wait
to fall. I forget
who I was before
our windows floated
selves. Your shadow
kites above us
and whatever we say
A tornado touches
gently down, black
a butterfly’s skull.
Your fingers grip
the triggers of long
beneath the sky’s
television of rain
Are they us? I ask.
They’re just clouds,
you say, then cut
I wanted to curl up
in the comfortable cosmic melancholy of my past,
in the sadness of my past being passed.
I wanted to tour the museum of my antiquities
and look at the sarcophagi there.
I wanted to wallow like a water buffalo in the cool,
sagacious mud of my past,
so I wrote you and said I’d be in town and could we meet.
But you think my past is your present.
You wouldn’t relent, you wouldn’t agree
to dinner or a cup of coffee or even a bag of peanuts
on a bench in North Beach.
You didn’t want to curl up or tour or wallow with me.
You’re still mad, long after the days
have turned into decades, about the ways I let you down.
The four hundred thousand ways.
Maybe I would be, too.
But people have done worse to me.
I don’t think I’m being grotesque when I tell you
I’ve been flayed and slayed and force-fed anguish.
I’ve been a human cataract
plunging through a noose and going to pieces on the rocks.
I’ve been a seagull tethered to Alcatraz.
What can I say, what more can I say, how much more
vulnerable can I be, to persuade you
now that I’ve persuaded myself?
Why can’t you just let it go?
Well, at least I’m in San Francisco.
San Francisco, where the homeless are most at home—
crouching over their tucker bags under your pollarded trees—
because your beauty is as free to them
as to the domiciled in their
dead-bolt domiciles, your beauty is as free to
the innocent as to the guilty.
The fog has burned off.
In a cheap and windy room on Russian Hill
a man on the run unwraps the bandages
swaddling his new face, his reconstructed face,
and looks in the mirror and sees
the face of Humphrey Bogart. Only here
could such a thing happen.
It was really always you, San Francisco,
time won’t ever darken my love for you,