the rivers of it, abridged

New York City skyline at night




D. Nurkse

After a Fire

Insurance pays. We move to a better block.
Each elm has a scrolled wrought-iron fence
and a warning curb your dog. Latte parlors
have kept prewar signs––Beauty, Shoe Repair-
for the irony of gilt lettering.
In the old neighborhood, children drew in chalk
a two-dimensional stadium and played all night,
performing wonders that ended in brutal fights
over a score or standing record, or in hush
at the headlights of a stray car–-no more traffic
around those tenements joined by laundry lines
than you might find in a village.
On our new street, lawyers taut as whippets,
poised in denim, discuss window treatments.

We tour our charred shell
with an adjuster: doors and lintels
we’d planned to replace, now perfect copies
of themselves, in ash not oak. Once
our former neighbors welcomed us
with famished generosity, plying us
with figs in wicker baskets, but now
we’re just survivors.

Midwinter. Another gliding spark, close by.
We wangle a place at the back of the crowd
to watch helmets work against time.
Axe in a high window. A child saved.
Spectators applaud, holding up cell phones.
A few clerks mention points of litigation.
Those who follow from fire to fire whisper
be thankful, and we’re thankful, too thankful
to be outside this life, always watching,
perhaps blaming each other for a frayed wire
but only out of habit, watching too intently
as the highest window turns blue, then white,
and the stone lintel begins to crack.


Do You Remember How This Meeting Began?

Snaking lines at Registration--do I know you from the Neolithic?--
flutter of business cards, a few Gimlets in the lobby,
name-tag and conference packet, a promise to rebuild Babel
several stories taller, straw poll in a roped-in alcove:
heaven-and-hell combo beats solo-heaven, by a single vote:
first break-out sessions, a motion to ban the crossbow,
the vents reek of industrial mint, the Plague will create jobs,
a few foil-wrapped Pisco Sours from the mini-bar, cress canapés.
The pledge to eradicate hunger, the sound system beginning to crackle,
a joint in the parking lot, the vow to rid the world of plutonium,
soft background music––Beatles hits with absolutely no beat––
latest news of the seas rising, the interns in message t-shirts
tattooing themselves with Magic Marker, on the high screen
an indistinct form, perhaps a moth, or just a strand of the web
trembling in front of the camera, but huge, and the chords louder––
medley of Eleanor Rigby and Sergeant Pepper, increasing static––
if you know the words, hum them now, before the light fades.

(Previously published in Poetry Review (UK))


Return from Flint

After my father died, the other children
were kind and took great delight
in giving me secret gifts––a jujube
hermetically sealed in cellophane,
a goose feather with a bent tip,
a box of Ohio Blue Tip matches.
They allowed me to win at stoop soccer,
whistleball, all their impenetrable games
whose rules are like the Law,
decipherable only when broken.
The girls invited me to walk with them
under tall sticky pines
pulsing with the loneliness of crickets.
Cindy kissed me. A girl with no name
touched my earlobe experimentally.
Teacher let me pass the Pyramid Test
though I answered at random,
just a whirl of zeroes.
Even the blue dog followed me home.
Our cat brought me a sparrow
still flying gravely in its mouth.
I was confused: were they bribing me?
If they loved me, it was strange
as swallowing a moth.
My mother made my birthday meal,
large meatballs mixed with small,
Swedish and Italian, though even I
understood she moved like a puppet
on strings of supernatural fatigue.
That night I had my favorite dream:
my father lifting me in strong arms
out of Monday into Friday,
out of August into November,
out of childhood into old age.

(Previously published in The Times Literary Supplement (UK))



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