Literature is born out of a desire to be truthful—not to hide anything and not to present oneself as somebody else. Yet when you write there are certain obligations, what I call laws of form. You cannot tell everything. Of course, it’s true that people talk too much and without restraint. But poetry imposes certain restraints. Nevertheless, there is always the feeling that you didn’t unveil yourself enough. A book is finished and appears and I feel, Well, next time I will unveil myself. And when the next book appears, I have the same feeling. And then your life ends, and that’s it.
I wanted to save something beautiful for you.
The last three jewels of glistening pomegranate
balanced in the palm of my hand before I ate them.
The morning birdsong in the lemon tree after you left for work,
the memory of last night’s rain still written on the lawn.
Or earlier, the haunting roundness of the moon
over the canyon just before dawn when I couldn’t sleep,
standing at the window, looking back at you, your body
floating in the watery moonlight of our sheets.
I mean something really beautiful, my love.
The stillness in the house after the washing machine
ceased to hum. The last line from a slender book of poems,
a hardback from the library barely worn, repeated aloud for you,
its bitter sweetness still lingering on my tongue.
Or the way the baby slept so deeply while I read,
burying himself in the secret scent of his favorite blanket.
One arm thrown across that woolen teddy my mother gave us
in those final weeks of waiting before his birth.
The other hand open wide, fingers outstretched in a dancer’s
graceful, expectant pose. I wanted to save all of this for you.
But I couldn’t. It didn’t last. It never does.
The brief moment of grace when the ordinary shines so exquisitely.
At the end of the day you will return to us, as you always do,
and we will both be tired, empty, distracted, spent.
Everything more chaotic, more fragile, than when you left.
Do not let the world make you hard.
Do not let pain make you hate.
Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness.
Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree,
You still believe it to be a beautiful place.
If there really had been a Mercutio, and if there really were a Paradise, Mercutio might be hanging out with teenage Vietnam draftee casualties now, talking about what it felt like to die for other people’s vanity and foolishness.
After I have parked below the spray paint caked in the granite
grooves of the Fredrick Douglas Middle School sign,
where men-size children loiter like shadows draped in outsize
denim, jerseys, braids, and boots that mean I am no longer young;
after I have made my way to the New Orleans Parish Jail down the block,
where the black prison guard wearing the same weariness
my prison guard father wears buzzes me in, I follow his pistol and shield
along each corridor trying not to look at the black men
boxed and bunked around me until I reach the tiny class room
where two dozen black boys are dressed in jumpsuits orange as the carp
I saw in a pond once in Japan, so many fat, snaggletoothed fish
ganged in and lurching for food that a lightweight tourist could have crossed
the water on their backs so long as he had tiny rice balls or bread
to drop into the mouths below his footsteps, which I’m thinking
is how Jesus must have walked on the lake that day, the crackers and crumbs
falling from the folds of his robe, and how maybe it was the one fish
so hungry it leaped up his sleeve that he later miraculously changed
into a narrow loaf of bread, something that could stick to a believer’s ribs,
and don’t get me wrong, I’m a believer too, in the power of food at least,
having seen a footbridge of carp packed gill to gill, packed tighter
than a room of boy prisoners waiting to talk poetry with a young black poet,
packed so close they’d have eaten each other had there been nothing else to eat.