Manhattan Shadows

Heaven’s light on
a leafless tree, hung with
fright masks, where a snake climbs.
It’s a streak of yellow across a black pool,
a first glow on the grass along the empty road,
in a misty field, by a fuel tank
that fell off a space ship,
dropped, like the chandelier
last night, and shattered.
It’s a wedding at New Years.
The moon is cut in half.
Guests in a line blow soap bubbles.
The couple leaves the church.
The soapy globes wobble . . .

A higher consciousness
lays its claim. There is no
place I go where you are not.
My parents would take us to the opera.
We were very small. We fell asleep.
A full moon floats like crushed gift paper
and loose ribbon in the blackness . . .
Who were the boy and the girl
once the kiss came to be?
Now age has cast me as an ogre.
Folded face, a failed inner life.
(This flick is called Embodiment.
Everyone is in it.) Tremble, traveler.
The hermit hut shines in the flowers.
Until this mountain peril our lives
had been exciting, but thin,
like a novel read on a treadmill.
A rabbit shivers in the tall grass.
Why not play Christmas carols?
Instead: A Whiter Shade of Pale.
Instead: Verdi’s Requiem.

The moon brushes the earth.
Next day, the sun’s just a gold hole
with a strip of cloud across it.
And the world is divided between
suffering and transcendence.
But really, there is only
the moment of death,
when many believe much
that has been thought has to be
rethought. And the words
with which thought will be
rethought, must they be alive
or dead? A hint would be welcome,
now that the abyss tips upward
and the heights are pouring down.
The stream rises, flooding the woods.
You knew me, even as I was
knit in the womb. A surprise,
a presence, a last back and forth
in a job interview: How long
does it take you to dress
in the morning?  Depends.
Would this be a hair-washing day?
The entire city is made of mud.
The waves simply dissolve it.
Dead bodies, floating deck chairs.
It’s like living on a hill in a city of hills.
It’s like living in San Francisco,
where I once made a dragon
from recycled Styrofoam.
Later, in China, I was told
to devise my own re-education.
I had muttered far too loudly
how Manichean Mongols
had skewed Buddhism.
Why escapes me: Why, that is,
we choose the slavery of this life.
But as the manual says, if the part
is faulty, the screen will go blank.
A simulation of my breath
blows a kite over the trees . . .

From here in space,
the island of Manhattan
looks much like the floor plan
of a Mayan temple complex,
but no altars, no buildings,
no plaza, no roads, no plants,
no Mayans, not any sign
of life, no animal or plant,
only stones, only Manhattan,
in a dream, like a close-up
of the moon. In the
grainy dispersion
of rocks far below,
shadows of what will be:
buildings, parks, streets,
the city of your exile, that
you love, not there, but there,
in the scatter of stones,
in the cast of gravel . . .



The Orchard

The wind, gentle
over the arm, the
face, across a continent,
into the head, blows, out of
what distance, some
scrap about Mary and Martha.
But I do not seem to be
in the thrall of Christ.
At most, a deva, my
physical therapist,
who’s gone, off to be
wed in the Himalayas,
far from this hospital
where all the wards
are named for apples:
Mac, Fuji, Granny Smith,
Yellow, Delicious,
Braeburn, Gala,
in this orchard
where morning is
so black only the gaps
in the leaves can be seen,
ward, orchard or
age when telepathy
was once rampant, this field
seared by a storm where
a beautiful girl walks
up inside a blue aura,
and we discover again
the bar in Woodstock
where Dylan wrote
Gates of Eden,
an empty mansion, now,
where I wait for your knock
so we can walk on the
path around the lake
a manifest miracle, since
outside the dream
both my legs are broken,
a tower, now, floating
on the ocean, I tip back, drop,
pink streaks, falling sun,
warmth of a powder blue depth  -
the dazzling coral reefs,
fish in their quick,
cloudy spasms . . .
Waking, there’s a lawyer
in a lemon-colored suit
sitting beside the bed
who says: Don’t dare sue us
for your misstep.
Or in some later orchard
or age, some epoch
or grove, some
ward or cage
when you’re not on
an  hallucinatory
and debilitating
regimen of pain-killers
we’ll take away all you own . . .
So what is my earthly estate?
The seven holes in my leg,
one for each steel rod of the “fixator,”
locking my bones in place,
one rod for each age
in this black forest where I dream
the sign for infinity in a neon coil.
(Other seats become visible.
It’s a theater or phase,
now, where a man hunches,
in death throes, a
notoriously reclusive
avant-garde filmmaker who’d
shoots for hours, the lens
on absolutely nothing
then scratches out
whatever happens.)
First frost. The world
is like the top of a cloud.
Such beauty comes from Paradise.
I dream my legs are healed.
I see the fields are flooding.
I see the restoration of a lake
no one alive has ever seen . . .
Surgical consults
about my walking grow
more nuanced. Lord, heal me,
for my bones are vexed
as are the pins, plates
and titanium screws
which some far off, future
crematory will no doubt
sizzle into brilliant
commemorative spatters . . .
In my next
orchard or age
I might just choose to be
a gardener, but only
if I could work
in arid places
where seeds must
take root amid rocks,
or perhaps a confused actor, an
Irish alcoholic wild man
who keeps getting cast
as a man of the cloth,
or what, in this entrance
to a stage I have frequent
occasion to play --
an uninsured
freelance carpenter
who stepped into the air
just beyond the roof . . .
My face aches. My lungs hurt.
Each night my body is
dipped in embalming fluid.
Sometimes in the afternoon I wheel myself over
to the pen across the parking lot  and
seek guidance from the llamas.
The llamas are my rabbis.
They say: in this orchard
or age we come to the end of the Torah.
We now must roll it back,
from one spindle to the other.
In this age all God
said is reversed. 
We must do whatever
the commandments forbid . . .
So then, later, I stroll,
in Albuquerque, amazed,
on the Alhambra, and
see, across the street,
on a wall facing
a window, a mural,
my face, but younger,
a fresh bullet hole blown
right in the middle of it.
The powdery gold-brown
grain of eroding clay
where much of my mouth
had been trickles
in the ink-blue breeze.
Then, I’m upstairs, in
what must be your bed,
drifting off, watching
the pit in my face
deepen in the desert wind,
in the mix of shadow and light
that becomes a sunrise
in which you appear
as beautiful as ever,
but for huge welts of
muscle on the left side of
your torso, all black and blue.
It’s not clear if you have
a left breast anymore.
You should be bandaged,
in a hospital, but you’re
nonplussed, love,
in a shimmering
blouse, now, off to
whatever job you have,
your last
kiss, tasting,
in this dream,
like chocolate . . .



Atlantis Shadow

                                          lawd low Atlantis shallow.
                                                         -- Kathleen Fraser

And in the swirls of
a script still visible in those
words closest to what we secretly believe
when before us shines what we
could never hope might be,
evidence for Atlantis
in, say, a cloud, an Alaskan peak
where the wedding will be,
where we will taste a bread
made from a grain only
recently discovered,
though to our surprise
there are llamas here, and
goats and zebras by the lake,
a massive pig, motionless in the mud,
and a dozen or so crows
in a tree, singing:
“hope is the greatest
torture that exists . . .”


If only the snow
were in perfect union
with the sun, and would
gleam until the nation’s
great cities are under water.
If only an ecstasy fell upon you.
If only you could be buried
alive, then burst forth.
If only you could feel like
a flower noticed
after long grieving,
like hellebore so brilliant
the blossoms are the departed
who cry out: What does
not lead to liberation
is worthless . . .


We awake as part of a band
of adventurous girls, camp councilors
on a lark in the nineteen forties,
so confident they disappear
weeks on end in places without trails.
None has ever been further east
than Montana, because life
here is too magnificent.
No word does not become
the rushing of water over stones,
a language more marvelous
than any spoken on earth,
which is what the code
turns out to be in Babel 17.
The space captain wants to find
the source of  thoughts
never before encountered.
She uses her telepathic skills
and rounds up a serviceable crew.
To secure a navigator she must
enter the Discorporate Zone . . .
 (Last night you were happy,
though your new life was
not the one I expected.)


The rain falling
on the tent will be
inaudible until we are
an echo of what happens.
Words turn to light and dark.
The trembling in the sky
goes seismic. Then, as with
those ships with sonar
tracing the contour
of our catastrophe,
sounds will show us
reverberations of what is.
For the moment we are more
like an expectant mother
dangerously allergic
to the life within her,
wracked by her progress.
She finds the world sickening.
The senses are a torment.
She can’t go out, can’t stand
another human presence.
Birth finally happen.
The illness finally goes.
The child is beautiful.
The market is a joy.
And something new:
she can taste the fruits
of the future in the midst
of an actual bounty.


We need not sleep
under stars to receive
news of far away worlds.
Our souls flock to salvation
simply by means of
an instrument with strings,
an unusual scale
and novel fingerings
known only to the girl
at the party who
owns the instrument.
Other times and ways of life
are alive in those notes.
A boy in the crowd wants
to cradle the wooded hollow,
embrace the vibration.
The girl is reluctant at first.
(She wishes she had hidden it
before everyone arrived!)
But it is beautiful, a pleasure
to set in the hands of
another, and she is,
after all, the only one
who knows how to play it.
She ripples a chord, everyone
stops, stands there, quiet
and still, amazed . . .


As when Proteus still
ruled on land . . .

All this is true.
All this is nothing
so much as the marvel of
our skin. We are the envy
of other animals, though
on the sub-molecular level
whether any of us really
touches or is touched
remains utterly open.
Further, we can’t even say
the universe is alive. We only
know it is other than dead,
and that a field of clouds
can be too bright to look at
as they flood the gap
in the mountains like
a channel to the ocean
where the cities are. On
the peak an entourage of
insects vibrate amid
thousands of flowers.
They are your minions,
Dionysus. They announce
your arrival at a small green lake
ringed with receding wedges of granite.
Higher peaks float on the horizon.
This snow is the purest on earth.
Sleeping above the cloud line,
no evil dream can reach us.
One sees the skull as a small seed.
How hard it holds to the place it is,
on mountains that seem
to be floating on the clouds,
in lakes on the top of the mountains,
in a world above the world.
We breathe air that has
not yet reached the earth.
It passes through our mouths,
it completes us, then continues
down to other living things
so they may share our purity.
It flows until it reaches even those
last seen  riding a “chicken bus”
in Guatemala. Everyone is
crammed on tight. Some grip
the roof, cling to crates,
others dangle on the outside.
The bus never stops. It slows.
Would-be travelers run
and jump on, and later
an attendant climbs along
the outside of the speeding bus,
collecting fares, making change
as the wind whips his shirt.
When we got off we were
no longer what we were,
volunteers at a charity
devoted to children
who live in the dump.
During the day they claw
through heaps of trash.
At night they sleep
under sheet metal lean-tos.
So I went to see the volcano.
The ground grew hot.
Along a glowing red river
the black banks were smoking.
Heat fingered my face.
I spoke no Spanish,
so I had no answer to
where does this go, this
flow of molten stone?
Does it pool into pure
radiance, here where
no one denies the
world is burning?


Perhaps because we were born
at the end of a catastrophe
that left us in the trench of
an unprecedented hope,
we tend to define ourselves
by keeping true to what is not.
The world, as it now is, has a keen
interest in disallowing this
to be told, to be heard by any
who are yet to be, any who
were but have forgotten,
or remember but deny.
Though secretly everyone
longs to have it told, to hear
that history, the way the earth
longs to hear about the moon,
how it was torn away, cast out,
how its seas are pierced with beams,
how the heat died within it,
much to its delight, so that
its radiance could come
from somewhere else.
It is a fluke that there is
both day and night, and that
they trade places so gracefully,
that we fall asleep and dream,
that the dreams come at night,
and we have all day to get ready.
That red dot between the trees
is the demon star. It’s really
two stars, circling each other.
There is much in the sky
that’s hidden from us.
We need to either be on
the other side of the world
tonight, or to be here,
now but six months from now
without growing any older . . .


We are not in the sky,
but the ground is in the sky,
and it floats below our feet.
The Scorpion slips away,
and others, many with
Arabic names, or unknown
till now. One might be
you, the Secret Drinker,
your bottle a gift from
a woman in Brazil
who got it from her aunt,
a nun in Portugal, in
a convent where the nuns
were in the cellar repairing a wall.
They knocked out some plaster
and found a secret room
full of bottle after bottle
of an extraordinary vintage.
The nuns drank and talked
and decided to keep it
for themselves,
for  special times
or for the gloomy days
not unknown in Portugal,
and the nuns found, as have you,
New World recluse, that
the bottles were blessed.
Your bottle is blessed,
the wine never runs out.
The nuns told no one,
and you tell know one.
Who would believe it?
Each day, you take a few sips.
Splendor pours through you.
Beauty shines before you.
You cannot quite fathom
the thoughts in your head.
You may forget them,
but never the feel of them,
the feel of the heat of the sun,
of the cool of hidden roots,
never forget the feel of
the force that ties earth and sky.
It seems beyond belief
that such wine could be,
or rather, it seems,
on a cold evening
here in the mountains,
that the wine preceded
the world in which it flowed,
that the transformation
of seed and stem,
the miraculous vine,
is still bringing
the world to be . . .


As if we had reached the limit
of our ability to imagine
our own fulfillment,
or been caught
in a storm on a mountaintop
forced to take refuge
in a volcanic vent,
where the heat kept us
alive for days after climbing
the face of a frozen waterfall.
Last night our differences vanished.
We could no longer be mistaken
for people wearing masks
enacting the turn
of the Great Year,
though we still live
by the calendar, knowing
when to arrive for work,
when we have time to ourselves,
when to be sad, and when to hang
a piñata from the door.
But with each turn of the world
things got more awry, the way
the rhythm in minimalist music
changes according to a mathematical plan,
until the echoing, slightly aberrant beat
compels new devotions.
And so we start and end things
at never the right time.
The great cycles revolve
beyond our perceptions
and the micro-temporalities
where birth and death happen,
making our ceremonial life
a kind of gentle delusion,
a regimen we can only guess at,
like when will the sprinklers across the street
go on at night, those secret fountains
that cut an arc through the air
long before the golfers
drift in small groups
and bits of their talk
floats through the trees,
as if this were Versailles,
and rivers had been turned
from their courses,  and greenery
gathered from around
the known, ruled world,
to make the shade
more various for visitors.
But it brings peace to look at it.
You felt you had received
a commission from the beyond
just by imagining it
all shining and dark
in the sunlight
like something from
ancient Egypt, or found
on the moon in an old movie.
Last night a house rose
from the shallows.
Water washed over
the porch, clean
as the sea, but calm.
A house drifts ashore
at night, the lights on
as if guests were
to be expected,
and here you are.
It’s perfect. And your
father is here with you,
in the subtle drifting of
the floors and walls,
seeing the sparkle
of stones under water,
of distant lights,
of what must be
the far side of the bay.




[Joseph Donahue lives in Durham, North Carolina. His most recent volumes of poetry are Incidental Eclipse (2003) and the first volume of an ongoing poetic sequence, Terra Lucida (2008), both of which are published by Talisman House. The second volume of Terra Lucida, titled Dissolves, is forthcoming in 2011, also from Talisman House.]

Copyright © 2011 by Joseph Donohue, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of Copyright law. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.