Sundial Metaphors; Still Life in Marble; Phrase Book for the Subjunctive, Lesson 1

Sundial Metaphors


Morning takes from the bottom drawer

a clean present tense.


Midday. Its two shoulder-straps

imperfectly aligned.


Afternoon is milk-skim,

thickening on itself.


Evening is lovers who said too much

but once and years ago.


Night is a black lacquer bowl

with hours plump as oranges inside.


Small hours insist they’re what they’re not,

a go-between, light-footed, on the path


of what could be a simple day

except for all the reasons it is not.




Still Life in Marble

Staglieno Cemetery, Genoa, Italy



The day is hot. So far this morning

his hand has held true, not a stipple,

not a glitch unwarranted. Some days

his right hand contradicts what his left

(his holding, placid, steadfast left) requires.

He works in shade. A man of means has died

and the dying must be marked in marble

carved to trap not grief but its dramatized affect:

a mantilla so fine it weeps its lace; a boot so certain,

it folds the fact of death in every crease.





He thinks of his wife walking back this evening

from her mother’s house, her hair in a coil

at the neck of her blue dress. He thinks of his son,

all but over that rasp of cough; his daughter,

tilting her chin up when she sings. Rabbit for dinner

and a peach for afterwards. He will eat, say his prayers,

dream of god knows what and tomorrow, come early,

as usual, to pick up where he leaves off now,

his mallet and five chisels wrapped in linen,

laid in the wooden box with his name on it.





A mother lifts a child to kiss her grandfather’s lips.

Heavy that child for so high a grandfather

and there, yes, the mother’s arms are strained,

you can see the flex of them under her dress,

and the child who kisses, not quite, those lips

will squirm, you know it, the second afterwards

and demand to be released to no stone kiss,

to the garden where girls play (his daughter too).

But he is not the afterwards. His is now.





Yesterday he had dust in his eye

that he scratched, not meaning to;

today he has a stye he imagines bigger

than his head, the way it throbs.


So he carves a pimple in the corner of one eye

of the woman so dedicated to her dutiful grief

she will forever lift her daughter to a kiss

that can neither be taken nor given,

his hand coming between.


A very little pimple only, barely visible,

but his mark, still, the way he might carve

a foot to be his wife’s and she to know it

when she sees it, and to peel his peach for him

that evening with her hair loose around her face

the way he loves it, just for him,

smelling of almonds and oranges

as stone never does.





The peach, he thinks, will be ripe and sweet;

the skin rhyming with the curve of the face

he carved today which he knows (as he does)

will be what visitors will want to touch,

so it stays pure white from rubbing

when the rest is smut-clogged grey.

For luck or for prayer. His hand is the first,

on a child so plausible he almost whispers

he’s sorry to be leaving her there.


Tonight he will ask his daughter to sing,

praise the song, no matter what.

Tomorrow he’ll unpack his tools, start in again

on poppy seed-heads he will carve so fine

you can almost count the seeds inside,

feel them prickle when the wind is up,

so little do they know about stone,

its only future, a snag of heat

turned into a depth of cold.





And this is how we live,

by the power of bodies apt to do

whatever we ask of them

to make us real.


From what I see, there is no stye.

Nor can my finger feel it out,

this same finger typing words you

could run your own hand over

and feel nothing

or not much


unless it’s a sore eye

you lift your hand to;

unless it is dust on your tongue.




Phrase Book for the Subjunctive, Lesson 1


Were it not for the glass in the window

the weather would crowd my mouth.


Were it not for the doorstep

the hill would crawl under the stairs.


Were it not for the drainpipe

the rain would hum in my ear.


Were it not for the keyhole

the morning would not know I’m here.


Were it not for the skylight

my eyelids would never grow tired.


Were it not for the fireplace

I’d sleep with my feet on the moon.