I saw you wearing a NYPD T-shirt subscribed to your graveyard of ex-lovers buried behind the house near the burn pile incinerated from memory a lead-in to a song coming face-to-face with Spiderman a ruffled feather duster of clouds above San Francisco Civic Center where everyone plays a thumb piano of cellphones
Walk down the hill
from the Historic Mayfair Hotel,
the room is clean and the water hot,
costs less than other places,
forget about getting breakfast at the Convention Center,
at least I can buy enough coffee to open up both eyes,
but everything is closed on a Saturday morning. And this is LA.
Descend into a sunken shopping mall, a cavernous place
where the Chow Down, H&R, and Gold’s Gym
rim the edge of a plaza. Only one door opens,
security guards in blue jackets, women with yoga mats,
shoppers who know
there’s a Starbucks counter
hidden like a jewel inside a Target.
Near the pick-up area, bras stare
in B cups where I wait for my order,
drink coffee surrounded by a forest
of brick, cement, and glass trees
glitter from the king’s castle,
wonder what I must do
to return to my home.
Buildings have always defined my horizon,
not mountains, a skyline.
But I’m not sure where I belong anymore,
a belt of cars encircle the city,
don’t know if it’s my age or if I can’t stand the traffic,
or like B.B. King said, the thrill is gone
spectacles of billboards climb 60 feet high
for Harry Potter, Toyota, Coca Cola.
Travel back to the hotel after another evening of readings
men play soccer on the lawn of Lafayette Park,
wait for a bus in front of the Dollar Store
across the street from where the evangelist
speaks over a microphone in Spanish and English.
If I listen, I can hear crickets.
Down the stairs of my condominium and across Campus Drive I walk along Leona Canyon Open Space Preserve. In April and May, I canter past an expanse of wild radish and California golden poppies. Below there’s a culvert and a pond lined in cattails and home to a family of mallards whose ducklings hide behind the rushes. I continue down a slope alongside a stream flowing out toward Mills College and eventually to the bay.
It’s a three-mile walk, first an easy flat jog, then up a fairly steep hill that leads to the buildings of Merritt College. I hike along a stretch of California buckeye trees that erupt during the spring months into white candelabra that torch the entire canyon, bay oak and laurel trees cascade along the hillside, trunks undulating like dancers who reach out to partners as robins and song sparrows flit from branch to branch, sunlight filtering through branches in a soft shimmer.
I mark my journey up the length of the canyon by three benches. The first overlooks a growth of purple periwinkles that weave themselves into groundcover. A large oak grows on the other side of the bank and spans the creek and provides a constant expanse of shade. After my husband died, I used to talk to this oak, which reached out its branches and enclosed me within its protective shade.
Walking steadily, I come to a second bench, navigating past brambles of California blackberry whose white flowers in the early summer turn into ripening fruit, stands of white poison hemlock marked by dots along their stem to distinguish them from white umbrella-like flowers of cow parsnip. This part of the canyon is shaded by bay laurel and harbors large colonies of sword ferns and stinging nettles that remind me of The Wild Swans, a tale by Hans Christian Anderson about a young girl who gathered nettles from graveyards to help her brothers regain their human form. I sat here on many occasions holding hands with a lover until he left.
The third bench is nearly at the top of the hill, memorialized to the Jalquin people, one of the Ohlone tribes that used to call this area home. I am surrounded by yellow monkey flowers, French broom, and purple thistle. But the trail has become more congested, overrun, especially at certain times of the day.
These days it seems like I might be the only one who walks Leona Canyon Preserve without a dog. When I first moved here about twelve years ago, the trail almost felt like my own private secret, a stream that runs past groves of bay, buckeye, coast live oak, and madrone trees, an area abloom in the spring with wild radish and cow parsnip with white umbrella like stalks of flowers. In my first years at the canyon, I’d get excited if a saw a young garter snake swish past, or a hare dive into the brush. Sometimes I’d even see a red fox. Once I thought I spotted a mountain lion on the crest of the hill. But the area has been discovered, one of the few places in Oakland of its kind where dog walkers are allowed to herd their charges off-leash in a three-mile walk from the bottom of Leona Canyon to Merritt College. Dogs joyously bound up the trail, glad to be free in a space where the air is freshly oxygenated by trees and running water. It is rare that I see a hare anymore,.Even the snakes have disappeared. Of course, the trail is still beautiful, especially since the winter rain has filled the empty stream again after these last difficult drought years. But Leona Canyon Preserve has changed and so have I.
Sometimes I consider getting a small companion to accompany me on the trail and would allow me to exchange notes with other walkers about dog husbandry.
I have yet to take this step and check off my reasons. None make sense. First of all, I live in an 1120 square foot condo without a yard and don’t feel that it’s fair to coop up a pooch within this space. Also I’ve put in new rugs and I think about their wear and tear. But then there’s the fact that I live by myself and I’m gone for long stretches during the week and I don’t think it’s fair to leave an animal, especially when we’d be in the first phase of getting-to-know you. Still, as an apartment dweller who never grew up with dogs—more like parakeets, goldfish, and cats—I do wonder what that relationship would be like, having a dog rest at my feet while I read a book, type on the computer, listen to music, and of course, walk up Leona Canyon. But the real reason I resist visiting pet shelters, if I am to be honest with myself, is a fear that I may only have a dog for companionship, and as I sit at the third bench, I contemplate if I shall ever discover love again, if when, how soon.
I’m glad you’re not working. I mean, that you could drive. Been up all night thinking about this morning. Coming here today. Taken me weeks to decide. Weeks. Couldn’t do it by myself. Probably taken a cab. Mom called early from East Coast. Wanted to know what I’d decided. Asked what Bob thought. What do you think I told her? You know how I feel about the whole thing. I told her it wasn’t any of his business. I mean, we’re separated, for God’s sake. Bob’s got a divorce lawyer ready to file. He doesn’t know about this. None of it. So what’s the fucking point of even asking him? Of course, I didn’t tell mom that. She always throws a fit whenever I curse. Doesn’t matter that I’m over thirty. But you and me driving to the clinic today. None of it was supposed to happen. Bob was going to get a good job with the city and I was going to get a teaching credential. Remember how happy he was after he graduated? Instead, he’s a short order cook at some café on the strip drinking himself to sleep every night. Every week bottles stacked high in the recycling bin. Starts smacking me around. And now it’s my fault. Everything’s my fault. Why’s that, Cynthia? My fault because I married him? I hate crying in front of you. I know you have your own problems. Don’t think that I don’t. But I can’t have this baby now. I’m moving out of the house next week, after the procedure. D’you understand? Better slow down. There’s a cop over there. This kid’s gonna have to wait. And the clinic. It’s supposed to be the only one in the state that hasn’t been picketed by those right-to-lifers waving pictures of dead babies. So gross. I swear if I ever saw anything like that, I’d vomit. Right on the spot. Anyway, I’ve been feeling queasy. They say that’s normal. My breasts have grown. If I weren’t getting a divorce, this might be fun. For the first time in my life, I’m a size B. I don’t know what I saying. Those stupid people. Their preachers collecting thousands of dollars on TV every Sunday morning, and adoption agencies selling babies on the market. That’s right. I heard about that one. Babies for sale. Really. One of these days. But not now. Not now, little kid, d’you hear me in there? Not when there’s so much shouting and screaming and black eyes. That kind of stuff rubs off. Not the way to grow a life. Not inside me. It’s not right. I want to be the kind of mother who glows. Why are you stopping, Cynthia? The clinic’s on the other side of the highway. Why are we stopping here at the Denny’s? This is where Bob works, for God’s sake. This is where Bob works!
I’ve sworn off cubicle life
sitting in front of a screen.
Many emails mean
I have to stay up late
of a growing predicament,
my destiny to telecommute,
weekend from home.
I’ve sworn off cubicle life
in a windowless room
tracing a mouse across
the horizon of my desktop,
menu bars bloom instant messages,
the person on the other side of the aisle
reports to a manager who wants to fire me.
No more idiot project managers!
No more conference calls!
No more M&Ms washed down with
cups of coffee to keep going!
At home, I ditch the T.V. Ha, ha, ha.
It can no longer monitor me.
Before the city had cut down pecan trees for the mall, before your brother was diagnosed with cancer, before the crazy woman moved into the fishing cabin, brown earth stretched diagonally toward the bayou topped with stubbles of dried grass sticking out like the hairs of a balding man, orange sun shuddering in a harp of light; before that, I loved you the way songs tell it, two hearts meeting in a big bang to create their own constellation, and even if I didn’t get the science right, there you were, until you were no longer.
Following gravity, I lived in a black hole. It wasn’t an Alice and Wonderland sort of hole with rabbits and cats and caterpillars breathing smoke in my face and asking who are you; I’d dug a tunnel and heated myself inside my warmth. When I crawled out, plum trees bloomed on the hillside white, acacia trees yellow, but personally I was a wreck—my hair muddy, fingernails the same, whatever clothing I had, rotten and shredded. Fortunately, I had retained the keys to my condo hung from a white bakery string around my neck, lifted my hands to the shower nozzle for this was hot water and couldn’t kill me anymore than I’d been wounded, danced in the stall of my longing, touched my dreams, and they shimmered back.
You wouldn’t think Walmart’s superstore had closed
not far from the Oakland Airport on Hegenberger Road,
the lot stayed full, fooled anyone who didn’t know
how a high minimum wage had tossed Raiders
T-shirts into another end zone. All that’s left,
McDonald’s wrappers and empty cups
spell mega mocha dose.
We waltz inside with discounts and seasonal stuff,
magnets on key chains, what we have is never enough,
streets filled with garbage, day laborers lean on cyclone
fences outside Home Depot for a long morning
of being in tow, graffiti crawls up sides
of buildings, a stairway to heaven
signed by the artist, Sorry, buddy. Had to go.
Memory Believes Before Knowing Remembers
Walk past wild radish and California golden poppies,
beyond a pond lined in cattails and home to mallards,
continue down a slope, an easy jog,
a stretch of buckeye trees, the spring’s white candelabra,
bay live oak and laurel undulate like dancers
in a scrim of sunlight, journey to the first bench
near purple periwinkles where an oak tree
became my husband.
Raised myself, ambled past
brambles of blackberry, past poison hemlock,
the canyon shaded in sword ferns
and stinging nettles, a tale of a girl
who gathered plants from graveyards
to help swan-changed brothers,
stayed at the second bench until a lover flew south.
A hummingbird called me back to myself,
now rest at the third bench, can almost see the hill
where in a dream I found
a chorus of iris smudged with faces—
This bench is memorialized to the Jalquin people,
one of the Ohlone that used to call the area home,
surrounded by orange and yellow monkey flowers,
purple thistle, almost there.
The way forward is with a broken heart.
(With thanks to Elizabeth Bishop, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Frank Sinatra and W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan)
I was the myth you stole
from the twenty-second floor
of my apartment building
overlooking Long Island Sound and
the Orchard Beach of my childhood
growing umbrellas and empty beer bottles
in the hot brick sun,
created your own myth,
a southerner who crossed enemy lines,
converted me to your cause,
stamped me as your confederate,
punished my ass,
took me from my home of slate sidewalks
and vacant lots filled with broken glass,
treasures of mica schist and blue chicory
from the San Francisco Bay
hidden amongst redwood trees.
swam inside seaweed stalks.
You got me,
turned me into a woman,
the first to request I drive home safely,
to call when I arrived at the airport,
picked me up and dropped me off at the gate,
slowed me down,
let me feel how music
ran through your fingers,
on Sunday morning, the smell
of biscuits and bacon
heaped on a platter,
but you, who climbed ladders
and fell from trees,
were no god, declared immunity
whenever I tried to explain
my Cupid, you were never there.
It’s no use.
You have made me mortal.
Once I bought a subway token—
libraries, museums, art shows, coffee shops,
Broadway, Harlem, Yorkville, the Apollo,
Gotham Book Store, Grand Central Station,
Central Park, Bronx Botanical Gardens and Fordham Road,
Bruckner Boulevard and Hunts Point Avenue,
bargain basements of mixed lots and sizes,
they were all mine. Capezios and dreams of dancers
dark-haired and red-lipped
like a girl beginning to menstruate
warm blood on fingers and sheets,
wanting to make my own terms for everything,
walked from 42nd Street crosstown to Columbus Avenue,
to Lexington and back, visited Edgar Allan Poe’s cottage
on Kingsbridge and listened to a raven call my name,
Chinatown, Little Italy, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory,
the Village, stood beneath the Brooklyn Bridge and saw Hart Crane
dangle from a suspension cable over the East River,
went to the Cloisters and prayed, down to the Lower East Side,
brick buildings and iron gratings and the smell of urine in doorways,
Federico Garcia Lorca took my hand and showed me Harlem.
Muriel Rukeyser crushed a sheet of paper and smiled.
New York City New York City New York City.
People flashed past me and then they were gone.
the blackest coffee
wonder what am I doing here
ashes to ashes,
all good words interred
on TV reruns the same way
I remember mama
measuring scoops of Maxwell House Coffee,
pasting green trading stamps
in empty books stored beneath the blender.
Ollie to her friends, Olga, my mother
and daughter of Hungarian misfits
who talked to Mr. Kurtz over a sea
of Twinkies and Wonder Bread, a bald man
who in his grocery saved empty cheese boxes,
a foster home for morning glories on the fire escape.
Outside I commanded bees,
my garden of clover in a vacant lot,
sing tralala on a tree by a willow
spooled a golden thread,
drank honey, strained mica on rusted screens
into tin cans. Shiny dust.
It was me who broke rocks.
It was me who melted snow.
It was me who made it rain.
It was me who peed near the stonewall.
I never told anyone.
Olga dehydrated on the plane to Miami,
her first vacation, died a year after
Martin, my father, soccer player, body builder,
communist who believed each one according to his needs
and held me up to the blue sky
with the strongest hands I ever knew,
who told me when I threatened to leave college,
raised his voice for the first time ever: over my dead body.
Martin who spoke four languages and never finished high school,
taught me the meaning of life through his death,
Olga followed along the shoreline his footsteps
smeared with translucent jelly fish and cracked shells
until she caught up with him,
here today, gone forever into negative space.
Light can be a wave or dead people.
It took years for me to understand that fact.
They left without a trace,
not a word about grandparents,
the camps, who had been spared,
the death fugue. Only a word about violets
as large as a person’s hand.
I am not one, but two generations erased.
So fly me to the moon,
a white bird with gawky legs
who nestled near the water’s lapping tide
without a clue about flight patterns,
believed that the past lies on the present
like a dead giant’s body, its weight
presses down, tectonic.
Speak to the white gardenia
tattooed in my palm,
tell me how you will always love me
better than any other man, my history,
my past that follows me everywhere
like a blind lover.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master,
keys, glasses, a misplacement that moments
of stirring around in the usual places
can remedy until I discover wherever I’ve left them,
a sense of relief that parts of myself have been reunited,
but since I’ve lost you, I feel uncompleted,
keep going over where it turned to mush,
although I know exactly where you lost me and where I lost you,
which doesn’t stop me from wanting to relive each moment
hoping to discover some place I’d overlooked,
a bureau, a table, the bed,
not wanting to forget those times
when we found each other.
Thank you for showing me how to fold my jeans.
Thank you for teaching me about music.
Thank you for making me a better person.
Thank you for healing my cauterized heart.