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To Cesare Pavese from the Shores of the Mississippi

Whether you’re watching the movie star
with a Chianti bottle looped on her finger
as she pays for a basket of olives
or you’re eyeing the fishing boats at sea,
whether your notion of love forgives 
or condemns every last man to desire,
I talk to you, dead by pills or pistol,
or, dead like the drunks in your poems,
freefalling the terraces above the sea,
a rock or a root opening your brain
and letting your lungs fill with salt.
Maybe we share the same disease,
the same twisted scarcity, the same lips. 

The way I see it:  you took your life
so mine might start,
give or take a few moments,
as processes like transmigration take,
given how the human spark
somersaults one soul to the next.
I’ve endured the eroding murmurs
because I barely hear them.
Maybe they’re the narcissism
I’ve told myself I hate.
I never said I was a genius.
I never said I was patient.
How does forgiveness work?

You and I crave the light of women
along hotel corridors,
past the statues of soldiers,
past pigeons we don’t mean to kick,
the birds’ iridescent throats
softly moaning, as if lifting everything.
I want to cry my people, my people,
but they’re cut in half by this river
drowning the fool who dunks his head. 
Close to the bluff the city’s named for,
the Chickasaws hauled dirt from somewhere
to raise this grave mound
so their dead might look down on the river and live.

I carry a coin the color of coffee with a little milk,
a lire coin I saved from a bootblack,
wet hair slicked back,
a grimace around his eyes and mouth,
your spitting image. 
Should I apologize for what I want?
Maybe death is not the other side of hunger.
Without desires, aren’t we dirt?
This is how lights pass over barges at night.
Mosquitoes rise for swooping bats.
It’s our lot to hug shadows
the way you wrote this, I believe
these embraces, like rain, quicken the vines and dirt.


Three Odd Ducks on the Atlantic Coast

I’m wearing a beryl stone with the image of a hoopoe. 
I’m wearing it on a leather loop around my neck.
I can feel it stick to my chest so I free it with fingers,
an adjustment.  I click the hairline break in my ankle
that never quite healed after I climbed the back wall
playing racquetball like some stupid Superman. 
I click it because I can and there is some pleasure
in flaunting most versions of adversity.  I click my own
wretched survival, using my tongue, using my fingers. 
With a sprig in its beak, this crazed Old World woodpecker
lets me talk with the dead, two in particular who died
under suspicious circumstance.  We walk past the cliffs,
past the skyscrapers, past the dank estuaries and isles. 
In a sweatshirt hood, Pasolini looks like a squire,
his mouth and nose a poor stray’s muzzle. 
Sand sifting where he steps, he says he can’t recall
his assailants’ faces—his own blood everywhere
as one of the men turns and howls at the sea,
lifting his hands to the night sky.  One of their faces
was exultant, he says, like the crucified saint’s. 
Pasolini says men in Italy just break into song
right on the street, but not the women, the young ones,
thin and hurrying.  Frank O’Hara says his death was awful,
but he clams up, mum as Lazarus, the friend for whom
Jesus wept, imagine that, to have a friend weep like that.
Frank O’Hara would rather talk about the new paintings
his own friends are working on, Larry Rivers,
Joan Mitchell. Grace Hartigan, Michael Goldberg.
I don’t recognize all the names, maybe they’re artists,
maybe they’re longshoremen or hermaphrodites,
Frank loves so many different forms of beauty,
the lovely man.  There’s sand in his hair, he’s talking
with his hands the way I do, the way we all do,
like birds’ wings a bit flustered at a feeder,
fixated on seeds.  We’re all talking at once when,
all of a sudden, I don’t know what’s got into me,
I launch into the air, coming down on the muck
from an old jellyfish, purple or white, it’s hard to tell
it’s so dark—sorry, Jolly Roger, sorry, Treasure Island,
sorry, Peg Leg Pete.  I step on a small rusted nail,
maybe part of an old ship or part of a boathouse
blown off in a storm.  It’s all right, what’s a little blood,
what’s a little rust, it’s wonderful, isn’t it:  oxidation,
I mean, my heels hard as doorknobs from walking?
Frank starts singing  “Last Night I Got Loaded” 
with a British, with a Mexican, with a lithe swagger.
I’m balancing on a seawall, spoofing in falsetto
“Brandy, you’re a fine girl,” a plaintive bubblegum love,
oh the blind fifties, its grisly head still above water. 
I sing Pier Paolo Pasolini, and he says, “Get it right,
you poor Irish Yankee”—all his wonderful Italian vowels
in my mouth:  Pier Paolo Pasolini, Pier Paolo Pasolini! 
3 P’s, I’m giggling, and he loves my coinage, the thought
of it:  perseverance, pleasure, peace.  We recite it black
as the night is black because the sea swallows our voices
and adds its own.  We’re like gulls stopping and starting,
crossing private rights of way as well as public beaches,
the rocks and dirt on one side, the waves on the other.
We heave stones and shells into the waves, we heave
our own clumsy bodies.  The water is cold and the wind
makes us shiver.  My sleeves droop like the angel’s wings
on the side of the Duomo in Milan, my pant-legs stick. 
3 P’s is sweeping back his hair.  He’s a handsome demon
and a frustrated gargoyle, either and both.  The sun is just
starting to make the night albescent—I love that word—its
cradle cap still beneath the horizon—the dark, as they say, lifting.


Autopsy with One Precaution

Close to sand dollars flecked with perforations,
close to damp sand and desiccated seaweed,
to burst jellyfish, a white one, a purple one,
close to a dead fire, a black elbow of driftwood,
the crabs weave around him their delicate yoyos.
Once, a red mullet hit his calf as he staggered in surf.
Once, he dove to touch the scales, a failing.
Now, so much is reserve, a holding back.
A necklace of wrack, brine dilating the nostrils.

His eyes like burnished lapis glance down
with false modesty and a few ounces of fear.
His teeth ache in the jet stream of saliva.
His tongue curls against the scalpel,
purple with wine.  Tonsils curl
like damp stones either side the throat,
his uvula an insidious hot pepper.
Doctor, don’t wipe your eyes of sleep or tears.
The lungs, two sparrows on a snowy branch,
don’t sing anymore, but the blood
rich with sugar denies the Invisible
its inevitable desiccation.  A note
crushed in the fist dedicates the spleen
dark with spite and wizened desire.  The heels twist
like doorknobs worn smooth with travelers’ hands.
The stirrup bones inside the ears shine stoically like garnets 
to rock the continental shelf with defiant namelessness
one generation to the next, burning fashion, burning time itself.  


Richard Lyons has published three collections of poems:  These Modern Nights (selected by Deborah Digges for the University of Missouri Press in 1988), Hours of the Cardinal (selected by Richard Howard for the University of South Carolina Press in 2000) and Fleur Carnivore, The Washington Prize 2005 from The Word Works in Washington, D. C.  He received one of the three Lavan Awards chosen by the chancellors of the Academy of American Poets in 1992, and one of the The Nation/YMHA-NYC Discovery Awards in 1984.