Off the Coast, Maine's International Poetry Journal

SPRING 2013: "Graffiti Gospel"

A Reader Congratulates Me on Being Both Quotable and Still Alive

He writes that he's my junior by one year:
I think I can guess why
he's both surprised and glad that I'm still here.
Well, so am I.

And glad, too, that one aging, kindly man—
the boy that he once was—
recalls a poem he says I wrote, and can
quote it—and does,

from memory—apologizing for
just one misquoted line.
Moving, yes: would it move me even more
if it were mine?

I don't know whose it is, or where he found it,
or why he remains sure
it's mine, or what his memory weaves around it:
errors endure.

Would it be wrong to thank him (and keep mum)
for praise I didn't earn?
Truth is an iffy thing, often, for some,
too late to learn.

But never mind: the author—he or she—
will surely be forgiving
with old, unwilling plagiarists like me
still busy living.

—Rhina Espaillat, Newburyport, MA

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On a perch in a cage
outside the shop, hanging
against a white-washed wall,
where a man who has seen everything happen seven times
in one life
sits in a cheap chair
watching himself watching.
He will not call me Senorita
like the others, nor try
to sell me heavy necklaces
or articles of wood.
He will not sell the canary—
it preens and is well kept
enough to make its captivity
no more oppressive
than seven more lives
lived consecutively
beneath the same sun
that tans the earth,
making each bucket
of water heavier
and more precious
when it spills the sound
of a little, unpretentious song.

—Judith Skillman, Newcastle, WA

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The Sonneteer Replies

for Bruce Bennett

The cozy sonnet's not your cup of tea?
Who can believe it, when yours flows so well
from your bright bubbling spring? But could you be
matching liquor and cup, as those who tell
books by their covers do? Fine bric-a-brac,
whose porcelain demeanor lulls to rest
suspicions of betrayal, seems to lack
weapons of any kind. But guile is best:
to sip unguarded is to pluck a rose
expecting thorns, at most—the rule for this
genteel and formal garden—but suppose
a ribbon leaps to stun you with its kiss?
Those harmless leaves, that teacup, may hold matters
(as sonnets often do!) cozy as adders.

—Rhina Espaillat, Newburyport, MA

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Two white wooly worms stretch and pinch
the length of the deck. Pretend wings happen,
pretend there are no mothballs left in 2010,
no bed bug bombs; pretend the doe hunter
did not scout last night in fatigues
on the abandoned property to the west.

Yesterday, four goldfinches, two dull, two light,
pecked at drying-out goldenrod ten happy minutes.
For forty-one days, do not eat from the cow's teat,
or the goat's or the sheep's; let lie the hen's
unfertilized dreams; leave the bubbled eggs of fish,
turn from pork bone marrow and all slaughtered flesh.

Here in the four o'clock sun, lift her up. I breathe into
my uterus, internal cavern of inter-clasped palms
poised for whistling (if only it were that easy): puckered lips,
airflow, song. Lift up dull birds and their mates,
does, moths—all who breathe, let's. For eighty-two days,
eat of succulent coconuts, acorn squash, Ida reds.

The harvest moon lights the knife that peels and cores
for applesauce, red, Grandma Ida, like your hair
I never touched, the pink of palms in sunlight,
the uterus if she were cut, the doe shot, the deck's rust.
Lift her up is my song, expanding in moonlight,
the unfurling of one million fiddlehead fern fronds.

—Darla Himeles, Castine, ME

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Into The Primitive

A subterranean blue pulses under
our feet as the escalator coasts us
closer to Cretaceous fog and a railing
concertinaed in plastic vines
where a plaid girl leans jabbing
PLAY on an installation that floods
the mezzanine with a pterodactyl's
kamikaze caw. It makes me paw

for my father's thumb as we glide
into the primitive, a rumpled envelope
of permissions in his Carhartt pocket.
Holy shit he says and I say it too,
gawking at a triceratops frozen
in a histrionic snarl that says
I'll gore the shit from your very guts.
It's the coolest thing I've ever seen—

two horns reared at styrofoam asteroids
strung in the purple nothing, ready
to pummel walnut brains to smithereens.
My own walnut brain knows the velvet
rope around these husky flanks
means mucky hands should grub
some other wonder, like the night

I squeezed those basement screams that rode
each furnace blast of dragon breath
through the register. I lay on my glowing
Land Before Time sheets until I stripped
to underoos and felt steel slats scald
the bare boy skin of my back, as if
a burn could make their screaming stop
the way sickly summer rain pelts a house
into dreaming morning won't be

the mulberry of a bruise. Beyond is heaven,
the Hall of Extinction where fingers stained
with sidewalk pretzel mustard are free
to smear cases of mammoth tusks,
a plastic quagga with her foal and the last
known living canis lupus rufus, stuffed
since 1930 beside a first edition Call

of the Wild, splayed at page 13: no
warning, only a leap, a flash, the metallic
clip of teeth. When the last patron
is a cane's echo fading, our tribe
bellows for the rest of Sister Blaise's
class beneath the beast, flicking
a Nicene Creed paper football

through finger goalposts. In this sudden air
I learn four boys gasping
sounds the same as my mother's shudder
when dad swoops me by my belt loops
so I can stroke the stitch
pinning back a monster's sneer
in the gunmetal leather of its cheek.

—Adam Tavel, Quantico, MD

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for Ivor and Ruth David

Friends are amazed that we can live for so long without rain,
that the Kinneret can sustain us and the clouds
will offer promises they cannot keep.
"You've moved to the desert," one stateside proclaims
after I tell him in March there won't be rain until late fall.
The truth is: water is just as precious as blood;
we have to look for it beneath the surface.
Of course there are places in the world where water is
so plentiful that people pour it onto the ground as if
they can just live without it, waste without regret.
Here, in the desert, things are measured—
water, vengeance, words, time.

To dedicate a Torah, we traveled to Modi'in
whose streets, strung like bows, were set in rows,
the white stone holding back the hot sun
that could burst through anytime and burn up all their dreams.

Yet the town was filled with parks and flowers—
only its people having vanished during the heat of the day—
kept green through breathing networks of black hoses:
sun-baked snakes curled at the base of every tree
and at the foot of every bush, lowly guardians
of the gardens; sprinklers set into the lawns.
It was midsummer and this city would be nothing but a mirage
if not for water, water that dripped, not gushed,

so that its blessing could be extended.
Late in the day, once the sofer had inked the final letters
and the scroll had dried and then was dressed,
the crowd began to clap and sing, parading her into the street,
while neighbors waved from every balcony
and children stretched to catch a glimpse
as the big red sun was slowly lowered and the dusk spread
like a veil over our dance; the Torah cradled, handed off,
caressed and kissed here in the middle of the street.
And even the land as far as the distant hills
was turning purple with praise, another surge of song
flooding the lungs, and not one heart stopped longing.

—Steven Scher, Jerusalem, Israel

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