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You Are Not Here


in memory of Art Porter, Jr. (1961-1996)

How long Death labored to kill you so young.
In '46 He spun Benny Goodman disks
for the new king of Thailand, so in '96
Bhumibol would dig your swinging funk

and invite you to his Golden Jubilee Festival--
all so you could drown in Kratha Taek Reservoir
when the boat He built nineteen years before
began to leak, right on schedule,

so far from shore. What patience. What restraint.
And we can't forget all the years He spent
teaching you to play your alto so soulfully.
Imagine how He felt, waiting, doing the arithmetic,
and how much He must have loved the music
your breath made as it left your body . . .


It started as a joke:
stuck on the world
map behind my desk,
a Post-it note with the words
You Are Not Here.
Each morning I move it
but Little Rock, Arkansas,
where I'm writing this.
Managua, Katmandu,
Beijing, Port-au-Prince,
Athens, Jakarta, Gdansk,
Ypsilanti--my students laugh
when they see where we're not
but I stopped laughing years ago.
Still, each morning,
I move that note again.

All these years
and still I haven't exhausted
all the places I'm not,
though I've exhausted myself
trying. It's too much
like life, all this traveling
toward absence. A long slow
unraveling of here into there
and there into nowhere . . .

Osaka, Rio de Janeiro,
Seoul, Melbourne, Havana,
Cairo, Saskatoon--
each morning I ask myself
where I won't be today
or ever. The list
is almost infinite, but maybe,
if I keep practicing
the art of not being somewhere,
when I die I'll cross
that border with joy,
like a refugee
at long last returning
to the old country.

From REQUIEM (a 39-section elegy for the poet Lynda Hull, author of Ghost Money, Star Ledger, and The Only World)

Your magic words, those alcoholic days, were aria,
chiaroscuro, flare, unfurl
; & you loved the way lacquer
kissed liquor, the click of its red nails

on the black bar whose guillotine glint
seemed to rise from its mirrored depths
to bring you back, night after amnesiac night,

from your daily death. Another drink
& then another. The words you wanted, those nights,
were half kamikaze, half incubus. And later,

at the delicate hour before dawn, when the moon
grew brittle as the Viaticum, you knew the terror
of return. Everything the night had opened

about to close. Black world, you prayed, unfurl, flare . . .


A posthumous light tracks you
in this resurrected photo: Akhmatovan in sepia,
you're a gypsy fortuneteller with turbaned hair
& black magic dress. Chicago, 1991, your Slavic profile

cast against a brick wall: the jacket
of your last book. Each poem an x-ray,
the light's deepest descent, revealing the other world
in the world you called the only one.
And telling the black fortunes of both.

Dark seraphim, muse of these Plague Years,
you must have known which world was yours.
In the photo, your eyes are closed

& you're turning, as if to go.


Work done, day burning down to ash,
I sit in my backyard, the only sounds
the bees laboring in the roses, the finches
fighting at the feeder, & try to make the world shrink

to the clink of ice in my Scotch. After you died
I listened to Coltrane break himself
into dark shards until he was light
enough to rise. Ascension, the collision of breath

& the unspeakable. Now I seek neither music nor words
but silence, the inverse of wordlessness,
so that I may drift in it, as my face drifts in
that slowest of rivers, the mirror,

which only dreams it is water, not sand.



Deep in silt-dark,
fins waving, weeds
in slow current,
trout refuse to rise, wild,
into the refracted
river of sky,
the white clouds
and drowning blue air.


So heavy the rapids
can't sink it
the boulder floats,
its head forever
just barely above
the frothing river.


On the downriver
side of the boulder,
touched only
by spray and foam:
moss growing
like grass on a grave.


As light as light
the water strider
skims above
what bears it up.


Meanwhile, the river
ripples in sunlight,
muscles on the back
of a horse
that cannot be broken.