Excerpt for The Apnea Poems by , available in its entirety at Smashwords




Bill Yarrow


In June of 2012, I was diagnosed with severe sleep apnea. I was sixty-one years old. For years, I had known something was not right, but I couldn't figure out what it was. I had started to forget things—not just where my I laid my keys or where I had parked my car but the names of colleagues I had worked with for decades, names of my favorite authors, books, directors, and films, lectures I had memorized and been able to deliver verbatim semester after semester. I found myself falling asleep at red lights and stop signs and even on the toll road. I was waking exhausted after eight or nine hours of sleep, yawning after an hour of morning exercise on the elliptical. Nothing provided me any energy. I couldn't focus. I would sit for hours motionless in front of the computer screen unable to accomplish anything. I began hearing things that hadn't been said, seeing things that were not there. I found myself unable to communicate clearly or meaningfully to my wife, unable to understand even what close friends were saying to me. My emotions were in turmoil or nonexistent. For long periods of time, I found myself completely unable to feel. It was as if a switch inside me had been moved to off. I felt like my emotions had been disengaged. I moved like a ghost through my life.

Desperate to understand what was going on, I grasped at any explanation: effects of a mild stroke? ADHD? early-onset Alzheimer's? I consulted doctors. I filled out questionnaires. I took a battery of neuro-psych tests. Nothing revealed anything. I was normal by every standard. Neither my wife nor I suspected I had sleep apnea because I exhibited no signs of that when I slept: I was never restless, hardly ever moved at all once I was asleep, never snored. My doctor suggested I take a sleep study, "just to rule apnea out." The study revealed that I woke 220 times a night. I was getting almost all light sleep and no REM sleep, no deep sleep at all. That explained a lot: the exhaustion, the mental muddiness, the memory loss, the feeling of paralysis, falling asleep almost instantaneously when my head touched the pillow, my odd dreams—not narrative or even imagistic, more cold-blooded essays than conventional dreams.

A collapsed lung in 1983 eliminated a CPAP mask and machine as an option for me. Instead, I was prescribed an oral device (basically an upper and lower biteplate) which would realign my jaw and tongue and keep my airway open while I slept. The time between receiving the diagnosis and getting the oral device was three months. The summer of 2012 was a summer of fragility, anxiety, deadness, debility, hallucination, and zombie-like sleep deprivation. In mid-August, I woke from the first night of wearing the oral device feeling clear headed, energized, replenished, and refreshed. All my memories came flooding back. It was a rush of clarity and well-being. I may, to a certain extent (so desperate was I), have willed that recovery, but I definitely felt better than I had in many years.

Pointed Sentences, my first full-length book of poems, had been published in January of 2012. I had been writing poems since college and publishing occasionally, but starting in 2008, I began writing and publishing poems in a feverish heat. Poems began pouring out of me, three a week, five a week, some weeks ten or more. Lively ideas came to me at all times of the day and the night. Lines, phrases, and even whole poems would leap out of me, leap out at me, often at the most unlikely times. Had I wanted to (and I didn't), I couldn't stop myself from writing, even in the car as I drove the fifty miles to and from work. I was inspired on a daily basis. I felt possessed.

Thirty-eight of those poems became Wrench, my first chapbook, published in 2009. By the time I was working on Pointed Sentences, I had a lot of poems from which to choose. The manuscript for that book ballooned to 114 poems. At the time I was writing and organizing Pointed Sentences, I felt myself brimming over with invention, imagination, innovation, fertility, and creative fervor. After the book came out, friends and readers commented on the original language, unique images, sudden shifts, and wild leaps in many of the poems. I was flying pretty high.

Then, later that fall, I picked up the book and, just for a lark, read it through. A book which I thought was wholly invented and inventive, a work purely of a soaring imagination, read suddenly as if it were the autobiography of my body. All the poems which I believed burst like Athena from the head of Zeus actually had bubbled up from my sleep-deprived subconscious, were products of the waking and walking dream I had been living for years as I suffered from untreated apnea. To my amazement, the book seemed to consist largely of apnea poems! Lines I considered deliciously innocent and even innocuous stood out transparently in revealing confessional garb, shamelessly, egregiously, conspicuously.

On the advice of a friend, I've stopped
dreaming. ["Florid Psychosis"]

One by one I lost my desires. ["Eyes off the Road"]

I’m not sleeping. I’m not eating. I’m breathing

crocodiles. My skin’s the color of my teeth.

Inside me, something is subtracting bone. ["Brooklyn Bridge']

I wish I had

a mirror implanted in my brain so I could see my life

less directly than I do. ["Whiplash Marriage"]

I looked in and saw myself not reflected on the walls

but sitting in a tufted chair staring blankly at a screen. ["The Cave"]

Why was it so difficult to move
toward anything? Was his will congealed? [Self Alaska"]

You try everything: a sushi poultice,

leather encapsulators, wearing gloves

on your feet. Nothing works. ["The Blocked Toxin"]

A screaming comes across the brain... ["The Rest Nowhere]

I am being contacted by the expired

synapses in my brain. ["Inheritage"]

It’s like playing chess in a room without lights. ["Dis-Ease"]

In my dreams, I am awake most of the night. "In My Nephritic


...maybe my memory’s not

watertight, but what is these days? ["Truman Compote"]

I tried to talk, but only

whispers slithered out. She pretended

to understand what I was saying... ["Hitting the Wall"]

I scoop it [a large bee] into my palm, as is my habit with flies.

It stings me, but my mind is gnarled: I say nothing. ["My Name is Dziga"]

Why go outside where it is benighted and

melanomic? Why go outside where the gutters

are fraudulent and clogged with popularity? ["Why Go Outside"]

You should be calling 911, waving

at headlights, flagging down trucks, pulling

your bleeding husband from the car. Instead,

you’re just staring at your hands... ["Gabrielle in Arrears"]

What chaos comes from

insufficiency? What else can calcify dreams? ["Vacuum City"]

The Fauves must leave. Stat. I have an
appointment with deadness at three PM. ["Bone Density"]

A corpse cannot cry. A man who cannot
cry is a corpse. I am not a corpse, alas. ["I Am Not a Corpse"]

What is an apnea poem? Obvious subject matter aside, for me, first of all, it was a fourteen-line poem. During the time I was suffering from the untreated apnea, I found myself writing poem after poem of fourteen lines. Not sonnets—just fourteen line poems. All in tight, left-justified boxes, though I did experiment with creating stanzas in fourteen-line poems, varying the number of lines in individual stanzas (sometimes three, frequently four, occasionally seven), even setting some of the poems in seven couplets. My friend Nina Corwin dubbed them "son-nots." If I wrote a poem of less than fourteen lines, I kept working in it until it had fourteen lines. If I wrote a poem that had more than fourteen lines, I kept working in it until I had modified it or reconfigured it so that it had fourteen lines. I don't know why I was obsessed with that number of lines. All I do know it that after I got my oral device, my mania for fourteen disappeared and I began writing poems of all lengths, and I began to play more with the way words and lines appeared on the page as the more visual and experimental poems in Blasphemer and The Vig of Love, my subsequent books, indicate.

Pointed Sentences was not wholly apnea poems as it included some early longer poems of mine ("After the Shark", "Magritte," "Son of Goya," "Processes," "Paradise Island," "Ossian City," "The Grave of Rimbaud," "The Sky is Simply White," "Raymond Chandler and His Wife"...). Other longer poems in the volume like "Suicide Watch," "The Sticking Point," and "The Tree is Farther to the Man," written during the apnea period, were anomalous. So were short poems like "He Holds an Expired Visa and a Monday Grudge" and "Boolean Muteness."

Not every apnea poem in the volume, it turned out, was fourteen lines either. What I now consider to be my quintessential apnea poem was the poem "When the Translator Disappears, the Translation Withers and Dies." At the time I wrote it, I just thought of it as a love poem, torqued from a typical love poem, yes, but a love poem nevertheless. It burst from me one day, entire and complete. It was, for me, a long poem, and quite prosy. I understand it now to be about the feeling that I had that my marriage was dissolving because I was no longer able to communicate effectively with my wife. Something inside of me ("the translator") had been "kidnapped."


The kid­nap­ping of the trans­la­tor made big news for a short time
but then the gen­eral incom­pre­hen­si­bil­ity of things resumed

and every­one, except Lor­raine, went back to work.
Lor­raine refused to extend the futil­ity of human communication—

what was the point? she wanted to know. What was the point of speak­ing

if, now that the trans­la­tor had been kid­napped, no one (no one!)

could deci­pher what she or any­one else had to say?

Lor­raine could not fathom how peo­ple could return to work.
How was work even pos­si­ble? she won­dered. An iron silence

began to oppress her as she slept. It crept into her body

and she felt her­self inca­pable of rais­ing her arms in greet­ing or to

ward off a blow. She sank deep into bit­ter­ness, dread­ing the dawn

and the sight of neigh­bors egre­gious in their pre­tense of mean­ing­ful speech.

She pined for the return of the trans­la­tor who became mes­sianic in her eyes.

Her dreams became denuded of images, infused only with two lines

of unvary­ing dia­logue:

—“Come back to me.”

—"I can't. Can't you see I've never left?”

It was the trans­la­tor speak­ing. He was hold­ing her in his arms.

He was look­ing at her with the ten­der­ness she so ter­ri­bly craved.

She felt, sud­denly, as if for the first time, under­stood. And she under­stood

per­fectly, per­fectly, the repressed caress of words that poured from his mouth.

A few other apnea poems, no matter what I tried, just couldn't be squeezed into the fourteen-line bed of Procrustes and their poetic feet hang over the edge of the bed by a line or two or four: "Here's Looking at Euclid," "Parabola Tango," "Black Ice on the Bridge," "The Hotel Where Esenin Hanged Himself," "Dis-Ease," and "She Waited for Him," "Patriot Axe." They are listed here as "Anomalies."

For quite some time, I've wanted to collect the apnea poems, most of which appear in Wrench (2009) and Pointed Sentences (2012), but a few of which found their way into Blasphemer (2015) and even The Vig of Love (2016).

As I look back on these poems, I see that at the time I was writing them, I was capable of dramatic leaps of tone and subject, an idiosyncratic dissociation of logic, and a sonic facility that I thought would never desert me. Having been treated for my condition, I no longer find those effects as easy to achieve. I have to work harder at producing them in a rested state and, as a result, have taken to replicating the waking dream state of the untreated apnea period by exhausting myself through excessive exercise, depriving myself of rest and sleep, and forcing myself to compose when I am too tired to write. I find that I am the most productive when I force myself to write when I am too tired to think. The things that writers put themselves through!

Many of these poems employ surreal images and situations, but I do not consider myself to be a Surrealist poet. I consider myself to be a playful poet, largely a narrative poet, wholly a rhetorical one. Well, see for yourself. I offer you one hundred poems born out of a lack of replenishing sleep, composed in a time of unrestricted access to a world of unfiltered consciousness, reared in a realm of unfettered deprivation of memory, logic, and sense.

August 4, 2017.


On the advice of a friend, I've stopped
dreaming. As a result, I've developed
a florid psychosis in which everything
I've dreamed for the last thirty-three years
is now real. I have new friends, a new job,
my dead relatives have all come back, I'm
half my weight, have all my hair, reside in
Prague. It's February 1924. Kafka won't die
until June. Freud's 67. He's just published
The Ego and the Id. My superego refuses
to read it. Lotte Reininger is working on
the cutouts for Prince Achmed. I bought
a radio embroidered with pearls. I tuned it
to the future, but it only plays the sleepy past.


A wrench flies through the air and cracks your

windshield. It’s the unexpected that makes life so

smashing. Like walking along a beach and seeing

apes come out of the water. Like talking to a magician

about the half-life of hope. Like waking up to the sound

of pleading. There are many ways to pretend to die

but one is not surprise. We all have an ageing uncle who

showed in his handshake the strength he still possessed.

He was married to a puissant woman of endemic agency.

They sired your most obnoxious cousins. I wish I had

a mirror implanted in my brain so I could see my life

less directly than I do. I had a dream the daylight needed

repainting. I called my uncle in Kentucky. He said he’d
take care of it, but he died when his car T-boned a dove.


You just can’t believe your key

won’t open the front door anymore.

Determined to prove reality wrong,

you board a flight to Budapest

and walk wet streets in search of

a keyhole you’re convinced exists.

And when you find it on the side door

of the Nicolae Bakery, your wry heart,

rapt with vindication, laughs heartily.

The key works! It really works!

But you don’t enter. You don’t dare.

Time passes. The seasons alter.

The world gives birth to triplets.

People drop hot pennies into your hat.



One by one I lost my desires.

Dirty ambition left first.

Knowledge raged but then it cooled.

Riches never had the hook very deep.

Achievement uncoupled from success seemed pointless.

Friendship became recursive.

Appetite lost its urgency.

Form declined into artifice.

Love stopped feeding me so I stopped feeding it.

Insight evaporated when memory left.

Lust lingered longest.


My desires, gaily arrayed, bolted to a

lapis slab, await me in Heaven.

With any luck I’ll go to Hell.


I hold it in my hands as I might a tomato,

roll it across my palms, look for pale

imperfections, toss it in the air.

Its mute newness amuses me.

Without warning, it gathers to a

greatness and rescinds the amnesty

of breathing. It rockets across the corpse

we are not yet, indicting the criminal skin.

I become a pachinko parlor, the ozone layer,

a desert fire. Everything I understand

is in danger. Even the mathematics

of eternity is in jeopardy. What’s left

of salvation is covered in gelatin. There’s

a buttered emptiness awaiting us.


I wanted the pain to go away, so I let them

stick me. No luck. I still feel rotten, and now

my head, deliciously empty for decades,

is clogged with thoughts of dying. I’m doomed.

I’m a goner. Forget it. I’m riding the rails

of deterioration, I know it. Soon I will be boneless

and alone. But I am not alone. Not yet.

In the other room, my mother is wrestling a mongoose.

Between rounds, she sits on a radio instead of a chair.

I can’t quite hear what is playing, so I say,

“Turn it up. Turn it up.”

A fireman holding an ice pick adjusts the volume.

The Chemical Brothers appear on the Jumbotron.

Australia secedes from the U.N. 


What kind of pain is it? Stabbing?

Shooting? Throbbing? Tell me. Is it

a radiating pain? Does it burn? Point

to it. Is it a pain or more of an ache?

Does it feel muscular? Is it constant

or occasional? How severe is it? Is it

infrequent or recurring? When did it

start? What do you think you did?

Lift something? Move funny? Is it

relieved by exercise? Better lying down,

sitting, or standing? Does applied heat

make it better? What about ice? You

think maybe it could be stress related?

No, different. A different kind of pain.


I’m decades in and it hasn’t gone away.

In all other respects, I am normal. Life

is hard, but I’m not complaining. The thing

is, I am in a constant state of falling. I say

something and I fall through my words. I eat

something and I fall through my food. I step

on the accelerator and I fall right through

the road. I hardly sleep. Dreams are literally

pitfalls. On my last birthday, I was given

a harness. To trick my mind into thinking

I was tied to something. I hooked it to the

radiator and ventured out the door. The straps

broke and I went sprawling. That descent still

hasn’t ended, but how long can one truly fall?


In my dreams, God is toxic. In my dreams,
heroism feels cowardly. In my dreams,
traveling west is an oxymoron. In my dreams,
I confuse Kurt Vonnegut with Kurt Waldheim.
In my dreams, I forget Arthur Schopenhauer's
first name. In my dreams, the Spanish and Bermuda
onion vie for a place on the Danish pastry. In my
dreams, a bazooka is a measure of time. In my
dreams, the word “expostulate” means “to cough.”
In my dreams, the remoulade reeks of sulfur. In
my dreams, instead of a cap on my head, I wear
a trade. In my dreams, I watch a sand shark sleep
on a coral bed. In my dreams, the chickens come home
to rooster. In my dreams, I am awake most of the night.


"A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us"

—Franz Kafka, Letter to Oskar Pollak

Was there, he wondered, some parasite,
some infiltrated germ, some totalitarian
pest, asbestos fiber, cancerous
particle, irradiated isotope, sliver
of glass, peach pit, foam nugget,
stray hair, impinged corpuscle,
magnesium wad, metaphysical
quill or arrant stalk moored in him
or what? Why was it so difficult to move
toward anything? Was his will congealed?

His doctor recommends an Arctic cruise.
He travels to a frozen stream, a frozen
lake, a frozen sea. He photographs the
awesome ice. A glacier calves inside him.


A corpse cannot cry. A man who cannot
cry is a corpse. I am not a corpse, alas.
If I were, I'd be in a suit. If I were, I'd be
the main event, the center of attention.
All the vultures would be my friends.
All the grubs would love me. I'd be
in touch with dirt, the slime divine,
the slutty mud, the lovely muck.
Or something a little more incendiary,
a mite more vital, robust, fume inducing.
Back to my thesis: a corpse cannot cry.
The tear ducts are bankrupt in death.
There's a haughtiness that sets in,
that sees in raw emotion its sour avatar.


A screaming comes across the brain

interrupted by a webbed memory:

a man in brown with a rolling gait,

stubbornly strong, a dull ghost

(until spoken to), dusty and disgusting,

squinting towards wisdom. He holds his

candles upside down and ambulates

toward the great chains of his being.

Stethoscope, please! (Silence.) No pulse
on the body's horizon. I know too much
about delusion to be deceived. Love's funny 
that way. When all else fails, look to the 

consolations of misanthropy. Up ahead, there's 
a signpost; down below, the rich ricochet of loss.


It’s 10:46 in Newark on New Year’s Eve.

You’re rushing to the Ramada ballroom

for an evening of kisses, hors d’oeuvres,

and darkened drinks. Someone honks.

Unnerved, you swerve to the right, side-

swipe a Buick, slide back across the lane,

flip into a ditch. Doctor Causson warned you

more than once about the consequences of

being distracted. Well, it’s too late to resuscitate

advice now. You should be calling 911, waving

at headlights, flagging down trucks, pulling

your bleeding husband from the car. Instead,

you’re just staring at your hands, as if, somehow,

they were imperious tools capable of magic.



I hadn’t seen her since Carter was

President. Everything about her had

turned white, even her beauty marks.

I faced her strangeness and fumbled

for the past. The time we went crabbing

on the Chesapeake. Her imitation of

Barbara Mandrell. Playing lawn darts

at my mom’s. I tried to talk, but only

whispers slithered out. She pretended

to understand what I was saying,

then said, “Wasn’t it fungible to have

run across each other?” Fungible? I

questioned. She slapped me—hard.

Then her perfume returned—with a vengeance.


I looked in and saw myself not reflected on the walls

but sitting in a tufted chair staring blankly at a screen.

Music was playing but it was not any music I understood.

I was surprised that I was bald but even more surprised to see

my hair in clumps all over the floor. I was wearing my grandmother’s

sleeveless bathrobe which barely covered my thighs. It was cold

in the cave, AC cold, not February weather. A pitcher of

photographs on a pile of greasy newspapers sat on a tray table

to my left. Someone called my name but it was not my name.

That didn’t stop him from insisting it was. Someone else was

looking at me from the door, and from each of the seven walls

I could smell breathing. Even the ceiling had eyes. I knew

what I wanted to do but I forgot that I knew, so I sat in that tufted

chair and stared at the blank screen. The show was pretty good.


It's like sewing a rip in your jeans with garter snakes instead of thread.
It's like watching a Russian film with the ghost of Ronald Reagan.
It's like squeezing three-bean salad out of a toothpaste tube.
It's like driving from Detroit to Denver in a cardboard car.
It's like swimming in Maalox.
It's like eating drywall.
It's like, it's like...
It's like drawing with Cesium.
It's like interviewing a neutrino.
It's like French-kissing a shaman.
It's like reading Moll Flanders in Urdu.
It's like fact-checking Joseph of Arametheia.
It's like changing the colostomy bag on a Berkshire pig.
It's like digging a tunnel to Trenton with your mother's tongue.


When it rains, I can really think. Was that

how it went? Well, maybe my memory’s not

watertight, but what is these days? My eyes

widen at the coincidence of plashing verticals

and the stolid columns of the world. I love that

hopeless warfare. I always think of raindrops

as the underdogs, the frail insurgents of heaven

against the stumpy dictatorship of the material.

But now the rivers are rising and the streets have

bowed down to boats. The brick house can stand

up to the Big Bad Wolf but not to the water cannons

of the apocalypse. The rain is getting smarter.

Storm clouds are overpopulating. The sky is scary.

It’s not your parents’ revolution anymore, children.


I’m not sleeping. I’m not eating. I’m breathing

crocodiles. My skin’s the color of my teeth.

Inside me, something is subtracting bone. My

skull can sense the ugly sponginess of my brain.

I’m walking funny but only comedians notice.

Ice packs and hot baths yield no relief, though

my dreams are now less checkered than they

were. And nothing seems to be able to stem

the gathering reflux of stale experience and sour

memory. Life’s a gag. Don't make me swallow

any more. Smash all glasses. I’m misery on stilts.

And then the blessed angel came down from heaven

and took the despairing man into his outstretched arms

and cradled him and consoled him and comforted him.


You try everything: a sushi poultice,

leather encapsulators, wearing gloves

on your feet. Nothing works. You seek out the

shaman who works part time in the massage

parlor. He directs you to his bookie

who knows a practitioner of caudal

alignment. Jesus! Enough already!

Try lying down and sucking on a hard

candy. Search for images of Brueghel

the Elder. Join Facebook. Listen to the

chickadees. Stare at the exposed joists in the

reconditioned church. Yawn. Hum “Pipeline.”

It doesn’t matter. Whatever you do,

it’s just an enjambment of your stanza.



I am being contacted by the expired

synapses in my brain. They direct me

to the unpaved alley that keeps reappearing

in my compost dreams. There, against an

antique dumpster, my disassembled past,

wet and stinking, is being rebuilt by the

burnished robots of discarded memory.


Many years ago, my family was driven into exile

by the Hetman Dmytro Hunia. My father and sister

settled in Leova, Moldova. My mother took me

and my younger brother to Brno. I have thirty

cousins in and around Baia Mare. After the war,

we tried to reunite in Zhitomir, but no one recognized

anyone, so we all separated, and fled to America.


Why go outside when you can play the piano

to disaffected engagés in rooms with mirrors

the color of linoleum? Why go outside when you

can commune directly with the lucent dead?

Why go outside when oysters can be had inside

in cans and Moliere can be had in leather? Why

go outside when striped marmosets will dance

Morse code on your bedroom dresser at dawn?

Why go outside where it is benighted and

melanomic? Why go outside where the gutters

are fraudulent and clogged with popularity?

Why go outside where you could catch autism?

Why go outside where left-handedness is discouraged

and righteousness has been redefined as acumen?


Imagine not emptiness but plentitude denuded,

an apple made entirely of skin, an orange made

inherently of rind. These from the scabrous canvas

of fulgent wastrels and transcendental madmen.

This is the exegesis nomenclature mentioned in

The Hound of Heaven. What chaos comes from

insufficiency? What else can calcify dreams?

A man walks on a balsa board laid across a

trenchant ditch. He is held upright by wires

attached to the skyhooks of your childhood. He is

whistling Mussorgsky and regretting his decision to

pursue his education indefinitely. As he reaches the

other side, he sees three birds in three separate trees.

The nest of his heart is replenished with confusion.

for Ray


Inevitability: it’s what’s for dinner.

Step lively through the arrogance

of landscape, step precisely across

the minefield of joy. Tread independently

the airport road. Treat your neurons


with respect. Do I have a second?

It takes only one grain of sand

to sabotage the aperture, to desolate

a lens. Place your glasses in a vial

of acid. The frames dissolve apace.


When information fails, there

is always information theory.


When the future falters, there

is always the redacted past.


I’m riding on a bus. I’m sitting next to a woman who’s

eating a yellow tomato. We both need a bath. Outside

the window is Kansas. Then Nebraska. I note that in my

journal, take a banana from a paper bag, and pretend

to shoot myself. All the reading lights are out: no one can

see me. It’s the chilling middle of the night. I hallucinate

my future. I’m a CPA with asthma. I’m a zoologist with

MS. I’m a baby who died of SIDS. The bus pulls into a

rest stop. I buy a grilled cheese, a vanilla shake,

some corn chowder. I covet a peral-button a denim shirt.

In the men’s room, I read the offerings on the vending

machines. Two truckers come and go talking of Tupelo.

Stumbling back to my seat, I stare, out a dirty window,

into the sanitary blackness. We’re 300 miles from dawn.


He was drawn to water. Water, in which lived rocks

and weeds and formidable fish. Water, of dangerous

hues of blue, more violet than the pale-faced palette

of the sky. Water, the glue of contingent necessity.

Water, the stippled foundation of all foundational

philosophy. He looked into the watery eyes of the old

woman sitting next to him. She had on a periwinkle

sweatshirt in preparation for the night. She smiled

and turned away. The sun was disappearing over

Traverse City. There was nothing on the lake but a

faint sailboat and a shadowy gull. Cars, in awe of

evening, crept by metallically on the darkened parkway.

The soft sounds of sunset had subsided into silence.

The black water, infinitely resonant, spoke a lasting vastness.


He stood with the bride of quietness

on the precipice of questions

and whistled the music of the spheres. 

His bride wore cropped pants

and a paisley top. She was the summer

of 1979 and the winter of his discontent. 

He talked to her of navigation, excavation,

irrigation, nolo contendere. She heard him

with impunity and a sawtooth grin. 

Above their heads, birds watched planes

stumble through maneuvers. A war was on.

He enlisted her fierce indifference.  

What can be manufactured in the time

jettisoned by the flashing of the past? 


I was strapped for cache so I called my friend Paolo
who wears Ecuadorian gray and prefers Celine to Celan
and asked him how to juggle all the crap life was throwing my way,

and he said, “Boyo, take your chessboard to Andorra and mate someone,”

but having already done that that was no help at all, so I grabbed one of my

shelf improvement books and read: “I saw the best minds of my generation

enter law school” and realized that all the works I thought I knew had been

defaced by assassins. I asked the Wife of Bathroom for a hit of Releve.

She handed me the anodyne and went off to make chicken a la Siegfríed.

I drifted into dream: a man in a turquoise slicker sat on a skittish horse

wearing an iron hat. He was pointing at a group of children in the housewares

section of Wal-Mart playing catch with the throw rugs. A tsunami was rolling

through the aisles. The man bellowed, “Watch out!” but he couldn't force their attention.

The waters poured over all the products of mankind. Death came as a scythe of relief.


We had a family copy of Isaac Babel’s

stories out of which my dad would read

aloud when he was home, which, owing

to his employment issues, was very often.

I had no idea what I was listening to, but

that’s just another way to fail to define

childhood, I guess. Anyway, the stories

were short, some just a page, and I let

my imagination sail away on some word

that jumped out at me (one always did)

and then, for those few minutes, I was

outside the battered gates of self, alone

in a city empty of rockets and God, where

I saw tower after tower of arrested escape.


Courage. Coraje! There's nothing behind
Puerto Numero Tres. Pay no attention
to the cabeza in the transom. In the dread
of night, navigate by the sliver moon, pero
cuidado: no road leads to magnetic north.

Do you remember, amigo, how to give change
for a dollar? Six nickels and seven dimes.
Three quarters, two dimes, and one nickel.
Sixteen buffalo nickels and two liberty dimes.

Or a boxful of slugs and a pair of brass
knuckles; a leather sap, a gravity knife,
and mercury gloves. El mundo es un lugar
peligroso, the earth is a fearful domain.
Remember, gringo, you used to live there.


No one who saw the beautiful Mercedes

in the summer of 1966 could ever forget her.

When she walked into the Café Danglars, heads turned.

I was sent upstate for two years for passing unpopular

checks but when I got out I went back to the café

just to catch a glimpse of her again. It took a month

but she did return. I was there that day sitting at

the counter in my Bermuda shorts sucking a 7-Up.

The screen door slowly opened. I was expecting the second

coming of perfection. Not quite. She was bloated like a

bagel. Her thighs looked like freezer bags filled with dimes.

There was no necklace large emough to fit around that neck.

Two years earlier she was real money, a class investment.

When she ate up all her principal, well, we lost interest.


Studious, yes, but hardly smart
her breasts were larger than her heart
He kissed her tits and thought of art—
Memling, Cressida, Jean-Paul Sartre 
of marriages which fall apart
when whores are put before Descartes 
of guilt which stains but does not smart 
of sad bullseyes that long for darts 
and so he took her bra apart
and took her breasts into his heart 
into his mouth, into his art 
the taste less sweet than it was tart 
an act more foolish than was smart
which Christ had warned him from the start


Andreas Cappelanus taught that the word
“love” comes from the word meaning
“to fish.” I used to fish off a bridge on
the Eastern Shore. There's a picture of
me on a rampart holding a flounder.
My hair is disheveled and my chest
is puffed. I'm holding the flat fish by
the tail and motioning to my cousin
who was to die before his daughter
turned two. I had plans that night
to borrow a towel and lie down under
the pier with this blowzy Towson girl,
but I didn't know her thighs were sunburned,

so, as Andreas advised, I let her off the hook. 


You have the right to remain angry,

but anything you say can and will

be used against you. You have

the right to your own opinion.

If you can't afford an opinion,

an opinion will be provided for you.

You have the right to be happy.

If you can’t afford happiness,

contentment may be made available.

You have the right to consult your

feelings, but your intelligence

may not be present during questioning.

Do you understand these rights?

If you understand these rights, say, “I do.”


The middle of the heavy bed was empty.

They were people who liked to sleep on edges

and tug on covers. Each night enacted the tufted

tussle of love and redacted the dreams of the day.

Each night fleshed out the spooky skeleton

of living together and amalgamated the twin

incorporation of souls. But by day the birds of

prey were in control. Auburn hawks and taut

harriers crisscrossed the kitchen and family room.

Bright falcons nested in the cracks of the cathedral

ceilings. Every closet had its owl. One day an eagle

crashed through the screen door. That scared away

the buzzards. The craven mother got the shotgun

but the eagle fled with two of the children in its beak.


Searching for the word which will unlock

better words, I writhe in condign pain

witnessing the cacophony in which she

twists. Once I jogged the perimeter of

pearly Eden, swam laps in the Lake of

Siamese hearts, and hiked the icy top

of Eroica. Today the pinkness of vision

is blackened by the debility of having

persisted. I separate my thoughts into two

camps and rush between them carrying

forbidden messages which I burn so as not

to incriminate the pale sender or the ruddy

receiver. There’s no daylight in the life to

come when the darkness is not medicinal.


You were the most beautiful girl in third grade.

My thoughts were restless escapades. My heart

was roasted butter. I donned wax wings and flew

toward the highest sky I could find. And then,

among a score of others, to be invited to your party!

We all stood on the lawn behind your house, most

of us in wide-striped tees, one of us in a bowtie,

eyeing that thing in your backyard, that thing

you pumped to spin around, and we all took turns,

you on one side in a yellow dress and one after

the other of us on the other, and we spun you,

spun you! and then that kid in the bowtie got on, got

dizzy, and vomited, and you looked at him with disgust,

and I felt like Adam’s apple had just landed in my lap.


Spackle. Spackle is always the answer.

And then sanding. And then primer. And

then paint. And then divorce. Divorce is

always the answer. Tell the ballet dancers

not to jump up and down on the finished

floors. They are causing large cracks in the

ceilings and walls. They are causing chips

in the dishes we use for company. They are

causing fissures in the light fixtures and a

loosening of the porcelain bathroom tile.

Please keep the ballet dancers in isolation

with the rope dancers and the taxi dancers

and the ballroom dancers and the fan dancers.

Otherwise, we’ll have to call in tradesmen.


Let's talk about inconsequence, the muddiness

of sunsets, how the bench got broken, all those

things cruelly torqued by ambition. All right, all

right, you've closed the door, but you still have

the key. Did the decades have no weight? Is

time so subject to evaporation? Did I mention

that I may have to replace the dripcap

on the garage? Did I tell you I'm visiting
Lenny in Waterloo? Donna is pregnant again.
I still believe in regional happiness, you
know. I still believe in rebates. The kids,
scattered in their careers, are doing well.
I want you to know there's still a place
for you at the table. It's a new table, shiny.


The inverse of disappearing ink

is invisible ink, writing (with

lemon juice, for example) which

can be seen only when warmed

(that is to say, burned). I guess,

their marriage was kind of like that,

him writing with ink that disappeared

over time, her writing with ink no one

could see. As the years passed, she could

no longer find him, though she looked hard.

As the years passed, he couldn’t read her

(could he ever?) even as she became heated.

They didn’t run out of each other’s ink.

They just grew tired of reading, I think.



When Carlotta left me I cried
into my soup. I shriveled into
harsh mathematics. A decade
later I was living on Iowa Street
with Karen. She had goldfish and
good taste. I loved her for her fleshy
neck. We drank sinewy Dos Equis
and played Mahjong. In March
I developed that cruel facial tic.
That precipitated the divorce.
At the thought of losing her

my heart contracted into a span.
But I knew one day I'd replace her
with a brutally neutered cat.


Many of my friends are missing digits

but no one I know is missing a limb.

That’s the nature of fortune: it’s incremental.

One day you own a bay window in a house

overlooking Simeon Bay and the next week

you inherit a cottage adjacent to Baxter Woods.

One day your daughter marries a furrier

and the next day your wife moves to San Raphael.

Fortune spaniels after you and when it finally

licks you on the heel, you find that it is made

of tar. At long last, your dream has come true:

your future is watertight, the fraying seam of

tomorrow has been sealed. Ah, but you miss the

risk of rain. You long to get in on the hurricane.



The bison know a lot about Longfellow

and wisteria and patrimony, the piscine nuance

of the clouds, God's topological integument.

They understand the orphan arroyo; they intuit

the numinous prairie; they predict a wooly

suburbia. Bison powerwalk my imagination. 

I smell, in their arrayed dreaming, the sedimentary; 

austere inference; traces of residual magnetism.

Under the nettled knot of august sunshine,

in the shadow of the reddened face of the future, 

alongside the maternal mystery of the unused river, 

the bison make their summary judgments, exact

retribution from the enacted masters of wistfulness, 

and pay somber alimony to the ghost of an ochre wife. 


He was a Decembrist but he was not

one of the hanged. They dragged his

frozen bones to Magadan where he

toiled in the ruined mines. More than

fresh air, he longed for glimpses of the

speckled light that sparkled off the sea.

He was used to the moldy smell of gold

ore and the whiskey whispers of his

comrades in Hell. But he never adjusted

to the crisp loss of Lyudmila to scarlet fever.

And the white nightmares never left him.

One day, he got a letter from his brother.

Their mother had died in a suspicious fire.

He lit a cigarette and filled his shrunken lungs.


The young boy writhes in the screaming water,

terrified by what's not there: the bottom sand.

He winds himself around your neck and climbs

up your head. You don't so much save him

as not drown yourself. You were a buoy. You

kept afloat until the tide pushed you into shore.

As you emerge from the water, he's still hanging

on to you, saying, "You saved my life! I owe you."

You tell him that he doesn't owe you anything.

I didn't do anything, you say. It was the tide.

"The tide pushed us in." He's not listening.

He doesn't care. He's got a hero and he's not

letting go. He follows you around for weeks.

At nine years old, you learn how cloying gratitude is.


Nostalgia is irrational. There’s no good reason

why I miss rotary phones as I do. Or toll booths.

Or super 8 film. Or correction tape. Half dollars.

When I was ten years old, my father gave me

globules of mercury to play with. I used it to

shine nickels and quarters and Roosevelt dimes.

Endless fun dividing it with a stick and watching

it recombine, smashing it into droplets, squishing

it in my hand, the little silver bubble no longer

imprisoned in a thermometer but liberated to roll

anarchically over glass countertops and ash

floors. When I was tired of playing, I’d push the

blob into a test tube, put it in my top pocket.

The proximity of mercury is inductively comforting.


It's a cheap way to feed three hundred people.
Hot fire. Metal pot. Peeled potatoes. Raw fish.
Control the temperature with a garden hose.
Burn off the scum with kerosene. Use giant
aluminum colanders. Lift them out with iron rods.
Set up a buffet table. Scatter picnic benches over
the grounds. Truck in some spicy cole slaw.
Provide trays and salt and pepper. If you boil it,
they will come. Those in shorts and socks. Those
in sundresses sans brassieres. Those in cocktail
gowns. The talk will be of bones and sunscreen
and beer and bones. Careful of the bones. You
have to protect the bones. Put sunscreen on
your bones. Death has an appetite for bones.


In 1958 everybody had a knife

so Bobby and I got knives. We carried

them in beaded sheathes attached

to our belts. We whittled at sticks.

We played mumbly peg. We threw

them at hardwood railroad spikes.

In the summers, we took them

to the beach to cut open mussels

stuck between the jetty rocks.

In the evenings, we ran down

the rotting boardwalk, past Agatha’s,

past the custard stand, nascent

warriors zigzagging the crowds,

drunk halfbacks on a lit slick field.


He shot off his big toe with a shotgun

and afterwards could never stand up straight.

His bodily balance was gone. Six months later

his judgment went. He worked for my dad

one summer. “Good looking kid,” said my mom.

That was in June. By August, he looked bombed

out. Slough troughs disfigured his face. Deep

craters of indifference had reshaped his body.

His smoky mien was goofy. By then he had quit

working at the arcade. When I saw him by the

taffy stand, still the handsome center of attention,

his feral eyes and blatant hair opposed me. My

dad always had a fondness for this kind of loss:

the bright shell of confidence betrayed by arrogant risk.


Skinny guy with glasses sent to Viet­nam,
came back with an under­stand­ing of heroin,
an acquain­tance with who­r­ish­ness, a clar­i­fied
wife, and a hel­met on his soul. His fam­ily alive
but indif­fer­ent, he makes his way back
to the ocean, back to the pop­corn, back
to the pin­ball machines, wants to see
the boss who had treated him well. “Hey,
Bob! It's me, George!” Kind­ness is mag­netic,
but the past is a loose adhe­sive and rarely
is employ­ment a glue. “How nice to see
you, George!” He hangs around for about
an hour, then slinks back to the deserted
battlefield he has had tattooed on his future.


The goal of a demolition derby is to crash

into all the other trucks as hard as you can

without out destroying your own vehicle.

Sounds a lot like capitalism. I should have

said that to my sons as we were sitting

in the stands waiting for the vehicle melee

to commence. Beside us were ornery women

in tall hats, suspender dads, kids deformed with

ribbons, rural Lotharios, tattooed grandmas,

livestock lawyers, reverse cowboys, and young

men carbuncular. “Ladies and gentlemen,

please sit away from the wire fence. We’re

otherwise not responsible for the mud.”

Trucks rut up mud, boys. Get used to it.


“In sequent toil,” my father was quoting
     Shakespeare, “all forwards do contend,”
but I wasn't listening; I was staring
     at the waves, all green and gooey, all
pommes frites, ruinous, insolent, half
     fractal, sawing like insolvency, Swedishly
benevolent and Irishly violent, in whose
     reflection I saw deciduous shellfish
nibbling a fragrant net; fit minnows
     winnowing a wave; sunfish at worship,
contingently religious. “I'm talking to you
     about your future!” he was saying.
Me? I was wondering about the smug land,
      the politics of weather, the insurgent sea.


The custard of eternity is scooped into

the quantum cone of knowledge and drips

out the bottom one lifetime at a time.

Sunburned man stands on the boardwalk

of emotion watching the tourists of the future

eye the bruised merchandise of the past.

Meanwhile, the bronze present undoes

the blouse of the impossible imagining

ice floes and Tiki lights and sushi bars.

Is there no escape from raw thinking?

Is there no respite from rash imagining?

Like a discarded tub of fries on the fringe

of the pristine beach, the lax head lies prey

to the cawing clawing seagulls of salt thought.


They put my mother in a suicide bed

and rolled her in and out.

We’d spend a few minutes

together in the TV room.

I’d ask her about her childhood.

What does it matter? Stop hocking me.

A madwoman in the sentient ward

befriended me.

Mister, could you change the channel?

Could you? Please?

I tried to change the channel:

the channel wouldn’t change.

I felt like a character in a Kafka story

written by the ghost of Anton Chekhov.


As he gets into the oil-soaked tub,

he recognizes the Jupiter Symphony

playing on the floor below.

Any minute now, the waiter will

bring him his lobster omelet.

After breakfast, he dresses and heads

for the blackjack tables. When he

wins a million dollars, he will stop.

He remembers his mother’s dead body,

the reunion strippers at the funeral.

Carrying a mimosa in a fluted glass,

he fights my way through the lobby

packed with firefighters from Marietta.

His mind is full of anchors and Bar Harbor.


They live in Colorado and Washington state,

Alabama and the Carolinas. They squeak

by on sad inheritances and pristine discards.

Every day hurts, just a little, but not enough,

so dreams billow in and smother ideas.

Meanwhile, the body does its daily dance

alone. It’s a neutral life, frighteningly fun.

One fills one’s lungs with schadenfreude.

Two finds the missile hidden in the boot.

Tomorrow will be incandescent, but

if it isn’t, who will remember to regret?

Day bleeds into day and eventually clots

into a life. Remember what Eminem

taught: let your longing be your GPS.


My father is twenty-eight years old. He's
stopped at a light at Broad and Market.
He sees a man in a tan jacket start to cross
in front of him. All of a sudden, the man
disappears. The light turns green. Confused,
my father gets out and walks to the front
of his car. A guy is face down on the asphalt,
his head wedged in front of the passenger wheel.
He selected my father as his agent of suicide.

I've been held hostage by this story ever since
I was told it when I was fourteen or so. My dad
was trying to teach me the importance of checking
things out. Then I saw, all his life, wannabe suicides
flit towards him like moths. He saved them all.


remembering Gil

—What, is Horatio there? [Barnardo]

— A piece of him. [Horatio]


People who lose a leg to battle

or disease often describe the feeling

of having a phantom appendage,

experiencing the sensation

of still feeling the absent limb.

When I lost you, I lost a piece

of myself. I haven’t felt whole

since that day. It’s not that I can’t

go on; I can. It’s not that I can’t

think straight; I can. It’s not that

I can’t focus; I can. It’s that the

future is now incomplete. It’s

that with your radical vanishing,

the dignity of infinity is diminished.


The diagnosis was peculiar, the doctors agreed,
but so was the condition. He had knot eye.
He was unable to see a piece of string, but he
could see the knot. He was unable to make out
a plank, but he could see the darkened whorl.
He was unable to see his girlfriend's discomfort,
but he saw her stomach tighten as they discussed
Thanksgiving. She wanted to get married. He was
afraid. Their bickering led to lumpy disagreements,
but he knew sooner or later they'd fall back into
each other's arms. That's the way it is with the world.
What waits for us at the end is embrace. He stared
into the large mirror in her living room and watched
as she wound her stringy arms around his skinny neck.


I am complicit in the darkness. It trails
after me like the milky spoor of a mother
skunk. I breathe it out in stumpy conversation
I must have learned from television. Well, this
lack of vision is my own fault. I should have
known better than to circumcise my heart
and bathe my eyes in witch hazel.

I was already an adult when I stood in that cage
with you. We bent our knees and rocked it
side to side, higher and higher, and you laughed,
you laughed, and when we almost sent it over
the top, you screamed with laughter, you
shrieked for joy. But you weren't laughing.
No. I see that now. You were just screaming.


Dad was dying. Meanwhile, the blood

from a puncture wound was drying on

Bogdan’s palm. He was a tenth grade

messiah, famous for acts of attrition.

I had solicited his help with a bully

who had been threatening to beat me

up for wearing a leather vest to school.

He said he’d see what he could do.

The next day, my tormentor was not

in class. I went looking for my savior.

He was loitering by the cafeteria tray

return, eyeing the cruelty in passersby.

I went up to him and asked for another

favor. “You only get one.” I pondered that.


They photographed his oneiric head against a Baroque ceiling.

The whole thing had an oddly green feel.

His wife held a dollar bill against her ear and bellowed.

Even the priest from Cleveland was amused.

He tried to draw what he saw but a finger blister distorted his line.

Then the weather turned.

Ripe rain sideswiped the garden from clouds the color of raisins.

There was an odor of dried audacity.

God was having his way with the rich infidels of Muskegon.

He looked down at his wet sketchpad:

he had drawn a map of capitalism.

Seven months later, nostalgic for Midwest dunes,

he crossed the drum circles of Venice Beach

where red seagulls demanded he abandon muscatel art.


Nan couldn’t follow. She was a leader

by default. She'd organize the orphans, the

waitresses, the paralegals, the instructional

designers. Anywhere she saw a mob, she’d

leap in and take control. Inherently coherent,

there was no mess she couldn’t manage,

no chaos she couldn’t tame. I met her

in Manhattan and I became her greatest

challenge, for I was recalcitrant to order,

reason, logic and sense. She looked at me

and saw someone wrecked by recipe, ruined

by lunacy, consumed by juvenile nostalgia

for a manufactured past. Well, that was

twenty years ago. Now I only make sense.



It was early in the morning when Lucien Carr stabbed

David Kammerer in the chest with a Boy Scout knife,

dropped the knife into a sewer, the body in the river,

and buried the dead man's glasses in the park.


It was later that afternoon when Lucien Carr

went to see The Four Feathers with Jack Kerouac,

walked to the Museum of Modern Art to look at the Legers

and turned himself in to the skeptical police.


It was a grey afternoon when Lucien Carr

holding a torn copy of A Vision by William Butler Yeats

pled guilty to first-degree manslaughter

and was sentenced to a reformatory in Elmira, New York.


The odor of William Blake hangs over this narrative.

Opposition is true friendship. Eternity in an hour.


The moonlight news is brutal: 
compassion has been voted down. 
Human decency has been vandalized.
The honed stones have started to float. 
The siblings of the siblings will never be born. 
The last of Che Guevara is being eaten by rats.
A meager third of a century will be devoted to love. 
The green heart of the red planet will stay transcendentally dark.

The last piece of pie will remain the last piece of pie. 

A man with sighs for eyes sits under a yew tree.
He watches acorn after acorn fall into sodden leaves:
He watches the past advance on the instability of the present.

The future, he tells himself, is the real èmigrè. 
He bows his neck to the pagan razor of displacement.


I had never been to the pastel city before

but there I was, walking down the Prospekt,

descending the Gustave Doré underground,

stopping on bridges to snap pictures, eating

Azerbaijan beef, attending a ballet, a circus,

watching the thin prostitutes in stiletto heels,

encountering artists on walls and authors on signs,

talking to you over pasta and wine, over and over,

to see soberly whom you had become. Then I had

that dream: your dead parents coming to me,

greeting me, embracing me, pleased, laughing,

their faces alive with smiles, and I felt, somehow,

enfolded, ennobled, and emboldened with happiness

and when I wak’d, I cried to dream again.


I knew my mother would die by the weekend
when she declined to answer my questions
about her parents or her youth

I knew my uncle would die a pauper
when he grew obsessed
with drafting a will

I knew my grandmother was becoming senile
when she lost her appetite
for playing cards

I knew my father was irreversibly old
when he crashed into a mail truck
trying to turn into our drive

I knew America would be a colony again
when it forsook consensus for impasse


It was in India where we learned to navigate pity.

We expected neither tragedy nor enlightenment
though flashbulb corpses were paraded down
the street and elephants touched us on the head.

We saw goats graze the shade of the Butter Ball
watched spurious tourists kick at the rarefied dust
heard gossip desecrate the mission of the Matrimandir.

A single ox on the highway oblivious of speeding
trucks was the emblem of time at war with eternity.
Unbidden, the harmony of the impossible came to pass.

Meanwhile on the beach in Chennai this memory:
tourists riding large birds, mauve horses lashed to
stinging waves, gangs of boys with augers stabbing 
driftwood, the Gandhi statue suffused inconsolably with sun.


“Do you seek in the heart-shaped palace

the cold telos of love?” the guide asked us.

Everyone nodded yes. I stared out the bus

window into the face of a ripe monkey

whose owner demanded forty rupees for

any photographs I took. Is there nothing

willing to forgive the terror of its cost?

A jade fort. A braided gate. A lotus pillar.

To enter in this colloquy, you must take off

your shoes, and when you do, it is 1653,

the year of the diamond moon. Mughals

rule the candied land, alligators bask on

the soft edge of the Yamuna, but in

the iron sky, the birds are still the birds.


Names are forbidden here. So is apology.

But the hairy father is welcome. He carries

a cauldron of mercy and a crying cat. He

sits cross legged on the dais and begins

to recite the Prayer to Missing Mammals.

All the acolytes in the audience bow their

speckled heads. A faint fragrance of music

wafts into the hall. There are chandeliers

everywhere. The back wall is painted in

window-sized checks of vermillion and green.

Above a long table with plates of pita and gray

hummus is a map of the world with blue pins

in the rivers. The Master passes out calendars.

“We are,” he says, “the book the future wants us to read.”



We walk past plates of marinated mushrooms

into a room with a copper ceiling and a cork

floor. A man dressed in a sage frock greets us:

“Welcome! Welcome! I am Jackson. Welcome!”

“My name is Dziga, and this is my wife Ahmalaik.”

“The worship service begins in ten minutes,” he tells us.

“Ten minutes is an eternity in the life of a born-again

miscreant,” I whisper to my wife as she adjusts her

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