Nihilist Laughter

the sound of a civilization burning
sounds at first like laughter to those
born swaddled in asbestos

who do not see how they have been made naked

there is nothing like the sound
of them starting to scream

to make me laugh

I do not care
that this is Evil of me to say

my moral sense 
(what YOU call my moral sense)
having been singed past your redemption
(though even thus burned
is still useful to me
and in fact may be sharper now)

the sound of the country burning
cleanses me
the sound of fire eating trash
tickles me

I know I am naked too

I feel the heat then
laugh and laugh

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Amplifiers

Take a second to honor
the amplifiers that made
the music louder, swung it
from parlor to night club to
theater and then arena;

commemorate the day feedback
came to be, the day distortion
came to be; salute the heat
of gain, the saintly shiver
of spring reverb, the jaw-clench
of chorus all carried

by boxes marked Fender 
and Gibson, Supro and Vox,
Marshall, Mesa Boogie, 
Randall and Roland; Orange,
Peavey, Hartke, and all those
one-offs and forgotten names,
tubes aglow in each
like the candles on so many cakes:

happy birthday to the Big Noise.


Twisted

I’ve been called that by some to indicate
that in me they see a departure from the norm
as if my torsion is not natural.
They have never marveled
at the growth of a vine.

They never marvel 
at the growth of a vine, instead
falling upon their knees before
the straightest trees they could find
and bowing their heads.

They bow their heads before
the straightest trees.  They stand
in the empty space between them
and cut down anything around
that is torqued and bent.

I sit at night, torqued and bent within,
glad to turn my face from the straight
and tall. I turn that word over and under
on my curling tongue and listen
to the breaking trunks in a hard wind.

In a hard wind the straightest trees
snap and shatter and fall first. Outside
the tended grove the gnarled vines
and brush moves and shakes, but remains
strong. I whisper the name they gave me,

and I endure.


No One’s Brother

Once upon a time
in the city of Washington
there were people in charge 
of designing me.

“Kill the Indian, save
the man.” They built a lot 
of schools to do that work.
Schools as murder weapons.
Isn’t that something?

They stole my father
and maimed the culture out of him,
diseased him from his language,
massacred his hair and then
he was useful to them, so they
sent what was left to a war.

Although I was not specifically
part of the plan
they knew something like me
would eventually happen:
spawn of the murdered, 
dead Indian inside a live man;
divided within, all of it rotten. 

It’s not enough to accept myself
when my self contains corpses
and their killers. I’ve spent my life
knowing I was the site of the genocide
and that as long as I said so
out loud, I would always be
no one’s brother, forever separated — 
but how could I lie about myself?  

My father is still alive, for now.
My mother is still alive.
I cannot say the same for 
me when I understand
what I represent
to history: a triumph for 
the people in Washington
who planned me, foresaw me —
the people who get to live,
as a result,
happily ever after
on the burial ground.


Talk Show

Coming up later on the show:
disembodied heads
and the people who love them,

but next up, a glittering prize
reveals the ugly truth of the game show
called America. 
We’ll be right back. Stay tuned!

The screen darkens.
I’m staying tuned, staring
at where the talk show just was.

Dying to know if the game show
is as rigged as it looks? I know I never win.
I didn’t know a glittering prize could talk. Can’t wait

for what it has to say. And what is it about
floating, babbling heads? No bodies,
just jabber, idiot’s wisdom that may not

be wise at all, but it sounds good coming out of
those gravity-free mouths.
I wouldn’t say I love them exactly,

but they make me feel
loved. Make me feel listened to
though they do all the talking.

Make me feel like although I never entered
and I don’t understand the rules,
I may have already won.


Kitchen Magic

Washing my car
to make it rain, or

watching that Rhianna video
where she’s begging for the music

not to stop
while I’m waiting for a war poem

to show up and stop the music —
these acts are each important 

on their own even though the aim
of doing each is to make 
something else happen.

It’s kitchen magic: doing small satisfying things
to draw forth greater satisfaction.

Chop herbs and vegetables
with a perfect knife.  Slice

meats paper thin. Bring the oil
to the right heat to bubble 

exactly as love bubbles inside me
when it begins. 

Time to work kitchen magic, then,
against the current splintering of the world.

Cook up something filling and good
to hold off the emptiness.

Breathe in rich scents from the pan
and the pot, from the grill

over the dangerous fire
that’s barely contained right now.

It’s time for kitchen magic, not for
the grand gesture. Wash the car

to make it rain, because we need the rain
and the car looks better when it’s clean.

Watch the hell out of Rhianna’s video
because there’s joy in it on its own

and because it carries you
farther toward 
a poem

that will come in due time if in fact
we are due time at all,

and if we are not, if we are instead on
Armageddon Road, we will at least be

traveling in style, soul full, 
and well fed.


Here I Come

One hand 
too sore to wash the other,

each foot biting hard
with each step,

brain on perpetual fire
in a stubborn fog

that won’t burn off.
This is how I live.

Right now I can picture
my guitar in the next room, 

waiting. Can see and hear
the expectant amplifier.

Despite the example of all
those still-playing classic rockers, 

they’re whispering to me
that I really should be

younger than I am, and less sore,
and depression at my age

is not romantic — as if it was
when I was younger,

as if I didn’t know that
way back then.

As if I’d never said good bye
to someone, unsure if it was for

the last time; as if that was not
melancholic, but terrifying, every time.

Alright, say the instruments: all righty, then,
are you getting up and limping toward us

once again as you always have in spite of
all your damned pains and grave desires?

There are still places I want to go,
even if I am less and less sure

of how long it will take 
and if perhaps I will not get there.

Here I come: stumbling, cursing
my wracked hands and feet, cursing

the dead weight of mood and brain.
Hello, I respond. Here I come. Yes.


Filling In Blanks

To admit that in your head you are
filling in the blanks 
in horrifying sentences 
about who needs to go
and who can stay 

is to recognize
the whole foundation
of the dialogue has shifted
and you’ve moved along with it.

Even if it’s only at night
when no one’s there to hear you whisper
about how things 
would be better
if only, if only.

Even if right after that
you bury your face
in the smothering pillow
and hold your breath to your limit.

Even if you resist the urge to whisper it
again and again,
no matter how comfortable
you’re becoming with the repetition.

It becomes rote eventually. 
All of it —
the whisper, the shame, 
the disavowal,
the whisper again.

Your fellow travelers say “resist, resist,”
and you long to become a fast tsunami instead.
Your fellow travelers say “snowflake, snowflake,”
and you long to become a flamethrower instead.

Go ahead and whisper, weep, and pretend
you still believe in loving all. You know better.
You’re picking and choosing now
and in the sick broken dark

if you strain your ears,
you can tell you’re not alone.


One Worn Shoe

What I can offer of myself
for you to hold onto here:

a worn shoe,
a loose tongue. Mileage
and incessant talk about 
mileage. I show
every step, every stumble,
and I won’t shut up.

One broken shoe,
clearly a discard.
Not worth picking up
from the pavement,
really; stories
spilling out from that floppy
tongue, out of holes
and near holes.

By their nature shoes
are not about hope
once they’re broken in,
instead are about trudging
and when there’s only one
they’re barely noticed unless
one trips over them and then?
Gone, trashed, tossed —

one worn shoe of a man.
Dust in the folds. Dim shine,
politely called patina.
The sole a tattered page.
I’ve been places, though,

and could go farther
even though there’s no reason I should,
even though it looks impossible
that I could go anywhere ever again — still,

how soft I’ve become.
How uniquely gentle I could be
to your touch.


How To Repair The Conquest

You want too much, 
I’ve been told. Eagle
dancing in my back pocket,
turtle face peeking from within
my coat, a mist in my eyes
that insinuated itself there
from a pond in deep woods.
You accuse me, say I want a life
like that, a life made of

all that was eaten and spit out
before I was even born, before
I could even understand. You say
I could have born in a time when
it was commonly part
of all who were born here,
but I wasn’t.  You accuse me,

say I want to go back there as if all
that’s happened could be erased;
you accuse me again and again 

and I respond that of course I know 
better, that we can’t go back
and I know erasing all that would mean
erasing me, as I am some
of what’s happened 
since,

and then I stop and look
at that, and think of how
it would shift the world
if I were to be erased

and I say that I need to study
on this one a bit more
before I can fully respond, even though
I am clear about how I’m leaning
and if I disappear after speaking,

so be it.


The Wall

This wall they speak of
is not the one that counts.

The wall they count on
is the fourth wall.

The wall they count on
must be unbreakable.

The wall they count on
they must rigorously maintain.

Black lives matter
on the other side of the fourth wall

but if the wall breaks,
what then?

Water is life
behind the fourth wall,

but if the wall breaks,
what then?

A dignified memory of protest
is sweet behind the fourth wall

but if the wall breaks,
if you are slowed on the way to your job,

what then? 
The border wall is on the other side

of the fourth wall.
The South is on the other side

of the fourth wall. Methane
and drought? Behind the fourth wall.

All they dream of is you by yourself
with the fourth wall. All they dream of

is you seeing nothing on your side 
except yourself, you not seeing the fourth wall

at all. Most of all what they work for
is you keeping your eyes on 

whatever or whoever they’ve chosen
for you to watch behind the fourth wall.

Whatever monster, whatever ego,
whatever heartbreaker of a hug.

Whatever soul-crushing comb-over,
whatever lovely-boned daughter,

whatever fat little fingers spell
while traipsing through the air.

And all the while? There is no wall.
All the while you watch it

you are instead
watching a tiny mirror

that doesn’t show anything 
except your own horrified face.

Nothing of the background,
nothing of who stands behind you,

nothing of their smiles
and their own hands pulling strings.


How To Be Middle Aged

In dreams, the urge to give advice
when none has been solicited;

the ravenous desire for novelty and approval
at any level, for any amount of time.

The realization of being drenched with flop sweat
in the dark, in the bed, when coming up from the dream.

The rage at daylight transgressing
the last available peace.

Rising and trudging onward as if there were
a discernible destination.

Far ahead, on the road — figures.
Bandits, friends, fellow pilgrims; no way to tell.

Fantasizing camaraderie, catastrophe, 
blind ignorance, indifference; freezing in place.

All this dust on the body still soaked in
self-stench. Terror of how this will appear to others.

The internal debate over how long a stalemate has to last
before one can call it a home.


Something Under The Arrangement

I’m a pop song
once mistaken for holy truth
by someone who heard me
at a perfect fallow moment.

Does it matter that they
misinterpreted me
and believed me to be
greater than I am?

I doubt myself as a result.
I question their faith,
dismiss it as so much
transference, then a small voice

tells me I should instead
be living up to those
operatic expectations. Whenever I
have tried that, I have been

terrified of the responsibility
that weighed in with it. Still,
I have tried it; I have noticed
changes in rhythm, in melody;

something under the arrangement
that estranges me from my known self,
pushes me to ask what I am and
what I am missing.

I turn again and again
back to my memory of them.

See them listening to me
as if I held 
all meaning,

all truth for them. I listen,
straining to hear
the same,
and it’s good. It is fine.


In Service To The Struggle

There are times when I am fluid
and beautiful, when I lie exquisitely
in service to the struggle like a well-worn hilt
in a master swordsman’s hand; other times

I’m all spikes and protrusions when gripped,
and all the struggle can do
is drop me from its grasp
for fear of my damage.

I would tell you I am the site of the struggle
but the lie embedded in that is cold,
sharp, and slippery with others’ blood.
I could tell you I don’t want justice

but I do want to be fluid and beautiful,
and if that’s how I get there then by all means
I am for justice — but that is also a lie,
one as hot as the previous lie was not.

What I want is negation. I want to skip history.
I don’t want to be here. I don’t want 
to have been here. I want for neither 
cold nor heat.  I want the cup to pass from me

and then I want to skip all of it: not fluid,
not beautiful, not sharp and impossible to hold.
I want to vanish into the past and be forgotten,
to have no qualities at all, to be forever

unscourged and unpraised
for what I did or did not do for the cause of Justice.
Invisibility, insignificance, even in fact
never to have been incarnate, as far as

the world can remember. That would be Justice
I think — to be unremarked among the faceless
of history. I feel it every time, until I am seized by History
and then, with a sigh, with a moan, I give myself away.


The Official Version

I’ve often wondered why
on the night the Romans took Jesus
they didn’t round up all the disciples
and end it right there and then.

That would have been
the logical, imperial thing to do.
No reason not to.  No reason not to think
they hadn’t done it before

to other revolutionary cells they’d found —
they were at the time
a more political threat to empire
than a spiritual one.  Something 

smells off, always has.
Maybe we’ve got the story wrong
and Jesus cut a deal — leave them
alone, you can have me. Maybe

Jesus wasn’t taken, but instead walked in — 
maybe with the Magdalene by his side? Maybe
Judas hanged himself after in shame
or maybe he didn’t do himself in at all? 

It’s possible nothing is right in any of 
the stories, and it’s all a myth, an
official narrative. A blank slate
scribbled on in haste.  Whatever

the backstory, the official version
makes for good reading, good platform,
good grounding; still, I can’t help thinking
of someone, one of the original twelve,

sitting grizzled in a cave somewhere
during a later revolt, listening to myths
being made all around him and muttering,
muttering, that no one there knew the half of it,

then turning to the wall to sleep in guilt
and grief, thinking back to the early days
when they were all together and it all seemed
like a new world was only a burst of bloodshed away.