Two poems from Bailing the River
When the Rains Finally Came
The smoke jumpers unclipped their chutes
and the hotshots put down their pulaskis
and the whole line of firefighters leaped
like goats. Like goats, they danced.
Even the rescued donkey wouldn’t go home
to his barn but trotted after the crew chief.
And old Missus Coulter rocked on her porch.
She’d yelled at the sheriff: Ashes to ashes,
my ass. I’d rather of burnt up with my house
than to pay some damn funeral parlor.
An Earlier Flood in New Orleans
We think we remember the great meals
concluding with bread pudding at Commander’s Palace,
the brandy sauce,
or even the po’ boy with oysters and bacon
at that little joint at three in the morning
after we’d cleaned up from the flood,
and then pecan pie–
oh, my lovelies, that pecan pie.
It’s like sex remembered,
some long ago orgasm that went on and on,
and even if you left him,
and for excellent reasons,
even if you should have left him much sooner,
that one orgasm, how it went on.
But really it isn’t the food or the sex,
it’s the way we were young
and didn’t yet believe in death,
how the night of the flood
in that basement apartment,
we were gods with our buckets and mops,
and we still believed
we could save the world and all of its treasures
by bailing the river
into the bathtub drain.
Three poems from How I Became a Historian
Instructions for the Proper Use of Ferric Oxide
Hammer a shaped rock against a red rock.
Grind the red rock into powdered ochre.
Wrap the ground ochre in a scrap of hide.
Push a gnarled root into the sacred fire.
Now carry your burning root upright.
Find a hollow straw and bring it with you.
Duck as you walk through the mouth of the cave.
Slip through the narrow passage into the third room.
Spread your open hand on the cool wall of the cave.
Keep your wall hand perfectly still.
Now suck red powder up into the straw.
Blow gently around the edges of your hand.
Repeat as needed.
Wait for approximately forty thousand years.
Someone will come with a flashlight.
She will press her hand into the red outline of your hand
and it will fit.
Remember how recklessly she will love you.
The Gates of Prague
In my son’s driveway on the far side of the country
I shoot lay-ups with my grandson.
The orange basketball swishes through the white net
like the half century plus since I did lay-ups.
Does my arm still follow the curvature of the earth?
This May the local lilacs dried on the branch
before they ever bloomed – one fewer year of lilacs
in the turning story of my life.
When someone caresses my closed eyelids, I see
backwards to the fern forest
and the great rocks moving and the Mongol horde
approaching the gates of Prague,
how they damaged nothing, turned their mounts east,
and rode home across treeless steppes,
and yet I keep issuing instructions – do it this way,
put it here, do it now –
as if it were my job to organize the entire world before
I die. Stop, Penelope.
I would like to flow through my life like that basketball
right through the net with that hushed
and ecstatic precision.
Why We Sleep with Our Dog
When I place my lips on top of my husband’s springy gray hair,
I can never taste what he’s thinking.
When my hand tries to circle his thick-tendoned wrist,
distance ticks under my fingertips.
If I were some solitary beast in a forest, I’d howl for my pack
of tail-whomping, slobber-tongued dogs,
matted with burrs.
I’d follow those pathways on earth where animals step
and I’d enter the dens where they curl.
All my life it’s been so lonesome
just being human,
marrying the men who don’t talk,
wandering around with a head full of words,
but when I pet the dog while my husband pets the dog
and the dog stretches and sighs,
bunching up the covers like she always does,
and when his fingers and my fingers meet in her fur,
then I am touching respite,
then we are married.