All I could hold fit into my palm:
the red dust, the dented, rococo rock
pressed with fossils. On the side of the highway,
I lay in the back of a pickup, rolling a stone
between my fingers until I tired
and let it fall, clanking on the metal bed.
Overhead the moon hung on the canyon rim.
I thought of the sprawling city miles away, the erased
places I grew up in, the new streets replacing old streets
until I couldn't recognize any of it.
In the pure night, alone at a roadside stand,
listening to the hum of a neon indian sign
fizzing light out into the dark wild,
infinite in every direction, filled with the deep,
earthy scent of sage.
At dawn I turned the key and drove up into the canyon.
Near Teec Nos Pas I passed a Navajo woman,
following her rumor of water and life
into the high plateau
walking with tumbleweeds, carrying
the weight of knowing everything will change.
The Art of De-husking Coconuts
My good grandfather,
you are 16. Navy man, position
diesel engine mechanic. Pacific,
it means peaceful, but you are there
after Pearl Harbor, 6 months, cleaning
the metal of drowned ships
twisted with heat and blood.
In the Engine Room the LST seems small,
not 328 feet by 50 feet, instead a small clanking
hallway. LST 45, the oldest one commissioned
by Uncle Sam and the boys back home,
spangling en-route to the Marshal Islands.
Each ship: Mess hall, engine room, movie screen
on deck, about a half dozen movies at a time.
4 hours on, 8 hours off, you watch the movies,
you re-watch the movies, you and the others
decide you only like three of them really, and
eventually you know every line of John Wayne's
Stage Coach. And every other ship means a film
swap, US NAVY movie critic division.
Grandfather, you make 2 A.M. trips to get fresh bread,
you split the loaves down the middle and eat it hot
with a half pound of butter. Then scuttle to the
engine room, 4 hours on.
The Marshall Islands, Eniwetok the natives here
corrupted by the missionaries. Polynesian
men in baggy slacks, the women made to wear t-shirts,
they cut two holes out of the fabric, holy breasts and purple
nipples. Their religion the sun.
Their currency, coconuts.
In from Washington: Move Natives. But out
here there isn't a trail, only the ocean, salt
Dear Washington: Chiefs will not move
to any island that does not have
as many coconuts as Eniwetok.
Wednesday and Sunday afternoons are liberty
breaks. Half the crew on Wednesday, the others
on the day of the Lord. On the beach men
husk coconuts, the way the natives do.
Take one stick, sharpen it and plant it
in the ground, a tree that will never grow.
Take a coconut and bang it against the
spike, until the husk falls off.
Coconuts have three eyes, a nail opens them up
and the men drop raisins in them, plug
the holes, holy. Bury them in the sand.
Next week coconut wine.
Grandfather, 16 years old, the first Manhattan Bomb
explodes at sunrise. 12 miles out, your orders
"Don't look until it's over." From the deck
you watch as the plume flowers
pink against an orangeing sun.
Second one, 9 miles out, there are
tremors in the engine room. The heat
is not salt burning your skin,
and the smell is not diesel.
Last one, Einstein atom, 6 miles away.
You return to the island,
paint evaporated from the ship, sand turned to glass
a temple of words here,
and this is the new art of war.
Out of Flagstaff
the San Francisco peaks
watched a Navajo
woman with her sheep.
North into Tuba City,
a falling down town littering the red rock,
my rusted Ford Ranger pushed into nowhere.
I wondered only as far as I could see.
The horizon slept, a gentle rolling
blue wave had taken the form of a canyon.
The sky darkened. The road never curved.
Through the dusty windshield
a mesa stared back at me.
The desert looked like a woman
freckled with earth.
Two boulders bled turquoise,
I could see a hundred miles all lonely,
even the sky refused comfort.
Passing the only exit since
Chief Yellowhorse and his roadside
a police car waited like an outlaw
in a cloud of dust.
45 miles outside of Kayante
I was a blink of an eye.
Ghosts rose from the concrete;
seduced by the wind, they moved like shivers.
The sun bounced gold across the rock
walls of crooked teeth, scattered along
red skinned stone.
Someone before had pulled them
from the jaws of the canyon,
left them to sleep beneath the power lines.
The whole site, nothing but a burial ground
for secrets sleeping inside caves.
Wherever the colors swirled
were finger paintings.
Where the road disappeared
I pulled over, sunk my shoes into the red mud
outside the dented car door. All for a picture.
Next to a rock a blonde dog
looked nearer to a fossil than animal.
I only had one piece of bread.
It was a long way from anywhere.
Near Tes Nez Lah a snowstorm
squalled across the Apache dust.
A few more truck stop towns, then Four Corners.
I stopped short of the chained fence
wired with a sign that read in red block letters
Closed. The desert moved away,
mountain shadows fell on the lit casinos,
their parking lots stuffed with rusted trucks
as their drivers gambled with gas money.
I filled up in Cortez,
the first real bend in the road.
I gave a dollar to a homeless man,
watched him bum a cigarette
off a thin woman, smoke it fast, letting the ash
form a colony of star clusters
on the tip of his milky beard.
The river of souls, locals call it
animas like it has meaning,
some old word lost,
meant for older tongues.
I watched as the lunar disk
yellowed on the Durango horizon
and floated off to sleep.
A box of ash, grandfather. Your bones
burned away like charcoal flakes, black sand,
cigarette snow, all so you could fit inside
a box in a room which meant nothing to me.
They say you're in there. In the end it wasn't
cancer smoldering in your organs,
or lungs anchored by black
holes which took you. Strangers stuffed
you in a box and walked away, maybe
eating sandwiches, talking about
football or God, pigeons at their feet. The casual
incineration of a man, like unread newspaper
thrown into a wood-stove. I don't know how
they do it? If they swept you into a pile
small enough to fit in my hand? What kind of broom
they use and if they account for every grain
of you, measured and poured like flour
into a sack. They say our bodies
are made from dead stars, ghosts
carried in our blood. I wonder
if the universe is all there, swimming beneath
our skulls, bobbing behind our orbitals? I don't
know. You're dead, the room was yours
and now it isn't. Nurses don't say goodbye
they starch bedsheets, switch off monitors
and sterilize bedpans. Then it's some
one else's turn. It goes on like this. Boxes
ashes, newspapers, and gray pigeons
eating bread crumbs and flying away.
“post coitum animalia omnia triste sunt”
On the couch she stared into the dirtied room,
a cigarette smoked itself between her fingertips
as flecks of ash floated in the dark. Her legs crossed, skin
filtered beneath lace, still hot from moments ago,
when across the worn hardwood floor our bodies
moved to the flickering light through squinted
blinds. A record had scratched away
leaving only the knock of vinyl as it wobbled
in circles, our voices hushed too. She palmed
a half gone bottle of cheap rum, the white of her
cuticles floated like ghosts in the muted
light. My mind already fled away from the room,
outside a motel vacancy sign glowed in a jelly light.
We couldn't pretend it meant something.
Seconds settled on her face, eyes soft
with what animals feel after.