Busy Darkness

There is a rock pier reaching into the Long Island Sound,
where my 12 year-old self used to whisper promises into the night,
or wonder what the older kids did out on the tip of that boulder-built finger,
or what those rocks had experienced, having been placed carefully so long ago.

The pier was majestic and fun and welcoming during the day:
Strewn with stubborn barnacles at low tide, the damp smell of salt water and seaweed;
Or precariously slippery when the tide swelled and the rocks lay deep and wet,
and I treaded carefully across their slick, gray, periscoping anatomy.

But nighttime was when the pier held its real power over me,
stretched shadowing grays in the black beneath the New England moon,
whispering watery secrets from the slumbering Sound,
pointing into and disappearing inside the swallowing, busy darkness.

My older sister told me the high-schoolers (to me, giants of coolness)
would venture to the end at night and play Pink Floyd on boom boxes,
“Is there anybody out there?” and my imagination filled in the rest:
cigarettes lit, maybe some beer, girls giggling, someone scaring someone else.

Across the water, I was also told, you could see the beach where the convicted man,
soon approaching parole, had disposed of his murder victim in a wood chipper.
This was long before Fargo. Though if true it no doubt served as inspiration
for that gruesome cinematic event: pressing victim into that screaming maw.

The horror added to the pathos of that slumbering pier—
in earshot of that ungodly noise. In my mind’s eye I could see as clearly as those boulders:
It was all solid dark, blind—only the sound of grinding gas blades through hard rock where I lay.
It was compressional clarity. It was the moon and the cold night blanket laid over all.

It was everything resounding over the Sound, night and day,
while the boulders sat and slumped and searched, feeling into the muddy tides,
or held teenagers on their backs, or murmured secrets into the black.
And still to this day sit, with their blind memory of everything promised and everything done.


I’m writing by cold candlelight, the coldest kind of light.
It’s not even the light my ancestors, who were also imperfect, used.
There’s no match and smell of quick sulfur-burn.
There’s no touch of melting wax on my fingertip.

This light is the perfect analogy for the contemporary—a digital,
burnless flame on the screen of my cellphone. Artificial reality.

But there is nothing artificial about this night:
It is cold October. It is an authentic representation of whatever
we might invent to replicate it in the future.
The tense, ruthless bewilderment of a cold night binds us.

It reminds us we’re animal. It tells us not to falter, or that we already have,
in much the same way the desert portends our death.

As I exit the building there are two black boys
breathing clouds of condensation into their hands,
as if praying for warmth. They possess the sharp slinkiness of youth,
and we exchange mutual kindnesses against the night.

I wonder at their aimlessness, so young without apparent purpose.
Is there hopelessness hidden behind each side of this scene?

Beginning to walk I light a cigarette to fill the loneliness,
thinking of Billy Collins as I always do, and his Last Cigarette.
I pull my authentic shelter of a hoodie over my head,
and zip my sweatshirt up to my neck—I own no coat.

I circle the motel, watchful of the eyes watching me from cars
parked against the cold. Thankful I am male.

Like an animal I am aware of vulnerability on a cold night,
the search for resources, the struggle for kinetic energy.
Shiny cars line a dealership parking lot, baubles of consumerism.
Power cables and gas lines with warning signs stamp and string civilization—

invented things for survival, clever monkeys talking to each other so.
Struggling for authenticity using fabricated words like “help,” or “please.”

And isn’t it remarkable that “scratch” and “carve” and “write”
all share the same Indo-European language root?
Their meaning traces to the same invented understanding millennia ago.
Later I will carve my authenticity onto the page and scratch

some kind of realness using tools whose only authority is
the longevity of their usefulness.

A Good Start

To my son, Dylan, on his fourth birthday. I love you buddy.

There are a few moments after you’re born
when the room is empty of doctors and nurses,
and your mother is resting, when you and I are first together.

And it’s as if time has slowed in that clichéd way—
pausing at the start of life just like it’s claimed to do at the end.
I’m somehow bewildered, after the bustle of birth, to have this quiet interlude.

It seems a blanket of time, or some kind of special cosmic layer,
has descended on our corner of existence to give us this private shelter—
taking us out of the ordinary and keeping the ordinary away for just these minutes.

By the window, feeling the special anomaly of this moment,
I play for you music, a song—the first you’ve ever heard
outside the murky water of your gestational cocoon.

I map your face for the first time, and you map mine.
Son and father, both exhausted and strangely exhilarated,
listening to Bob Dylan sing Woodie Guthrie the song he first wrote.

Cow Patties and Universes

When I was your age I looked at the stars.

I guided people: Ursa Major, Cassiopeia, to Horsehead or Andromeda.
This was before the night skies were polluted,
by everyone turning their heads down into devices.

There was a 14-inch Schmidt-Cassegrain at the top of an observatory
which I used to steer into the stars for frat boys and their dates.
It was university property, but I was solely in charge alone with the night.

Even the drive there was memorable:
past the gate and up the dirt road or through the mud,
with cows and cow shit to dodge at each step.

But the reward on quiet nights, away from the small town, was endless.
Right-ascension and declination moving silently and timeless—
reaching far back before I was born and seeing long after my death.

At 20 it was like putting my hands through time and understanding
all our silly notions of perspective, alone in the universe.
It was like seeing all of it, everything—

starting out with cow patties and ending up glimpsing the cosmos.

Wedding Ring

The man with the loop around his neck
chuckles, and weighs the gold,
and asks what brings me to town.
He makes small talk and large talk
and talk in between, like the middle

man with ideas, and a friendly word,
as he measures the value of the past
ten years, in the fine scratches of the gold ring.
The memories: like when it was lost,
shortly after the wedding—and found thankfully in the trash,

tossed out by accident, with a hand-drying paper towel.
Memories like the honeymoon plane,
when the woman in the seat next to us
noted how few scratches it had, and knew we were
recently married.

Or the time it was placed on the nightstand.
Or how it used to spin in perfect circles on a hard wood surface,
like when I was 12, spinning a quarter on the pizza parlor table,
beating my friends always with the duration—well, almost.
Or the time, waiting in line at Abercrombie, newly married,

when I showed it off to the people behind me,
putting my hands behind my back, proud to be married.
All those memories this man drops into a tiny plastic bag,
as he staples the printout containing my information, driver’s license,
newly acquired local address—handing me forty dollars with a smile.

All those memories and that circle, will be melted down.


Seven miles deep, this trench, at its deepest.
Cold and black and dark.
All pressure and nothingness.
Without time.

The lack of atmosphere must be
some kind of dizzy relief,
like falling,
or feeling the emptiness
when it’s full. So full.

Imagine that deep current,
pushing against nothing
except rock and bottom earth.
The heavy water of our lives—
our miserable raindrops—mean nothing

against this huge blanket of compression.
Where there is no light, and so few sounds—
delivered over the murky echo of another world.
Where even the breath of molecules is changed.
Where nothing is ever remembered.

Even as I think about it, there is no concern
from this trench of dark weight.
She cares not if this poem does justice,
cares not for taxes or debt or the penal system.
Cares not, even, for the age of our planet,

spinning around its endless corner.
Mariana is free in her timeless prison,
at the bottom of the ocean, ageless.
While we pass years on the surface.
While we pass years on the surface.

Homeless Man

taking in the sun,
with your head on the suitcase
that contains your life, sleeping
before the police decide to
shoe you off:

I know a measure of your pain.

Resting in whatever position
you can comfortably attain,
ears always half-open
to sound of approachment,
resigned and thankful for

these few moments of peace.

Moments when you don’t have to
circle your cell of publicity,
walking always to keep authority
away from you. Reading every eye
for the malignant or benign.


It’s been a long time since I’ve used this plastic, black contraption to tickle
words onto the page. Even though I’m a damn good typist.

These days it’s been the long-hated longhand, yellow
pads of paper with blue lines like veins,

and my scratching handwriting, sometimes worthy
but most times not—scrawling stanzas and flipping the page.

I’ve gotten quite good at it, to the point that now this feels like returning
to an old lover I never quite appreciated, or

perhaps I’ve been cheating, and am returning to my partner,
long overdue. And together we can make familiar music

in the way we used to.

No More Bologna

Dear C.O., these
sandwiches are horrors,
of salty pink shit,
and mysterious crunching
bones from the factory.
They are almost useless, except
as pillows
which is why many of us
eagerly line up to receive
your dreaded, salty communion:
so that we can pad our heads against
the ridiculous hardness
of our situations.

Unkind Spaces

When you’re in an unkind space
it’s hard to remember the kind ones—
in the middle of coldness,
in the middle of pain.

It’s the animal side of us, I think, cringing against
the existence we endure, unsure of its safety.
It makes us tense against each other,
forget how to smile or laugh—forgetting memory.

Forgetting, even, the places we’ve sat
which are warm and soft, and
those we’ve met who’ve marked us with kindness—
the friendships of space and place and people.

The best of us look and by looking let it slip in:
laughter in the cold places, a moment’s relaxation
with humanity. Sometimes eye contact, sometimes
a smiling nod. Better, still, a story told to a friend

whom you may have just met
in your darkest place, and with whom you decide
to share a little bit of your humanity.
Warmth and camaraderie as we travel to the grave.

Or the simple act of looking, seeing,
paying attention, we recognize our fellow animals,
move next to each other in the cold places,
become friends for a few minutes or hours,

nod and smile as if forever bound.
This is why the coldness never wins.
This is the remarkable warmth of connection—
the kindness of humanity in the unkind spaces.

A power too many of us forget but some of us
never lose.