On the moldy shower curtain, the Virgin rendered
in pointillist dots of mildew—you must
to see it, and her expression shifts as a breeze
from the open window twists
the plastic sheet: frown to smile to
frown. For every miracle at Lourdes, thousands
go home as crippled or sick
still clogged with gooey cysts, blood like wet coffee grounds,
air in the bones. The odds are
better at home,
in the hospital, but believers have never had much
in the odds. To look at one thing and see
another. The Mother in a tree stump, a sandwich,
a government building in Clearwater.
The miracle is not
the mistake but the mistake’s persistence. The face
I think I see in the crowd
at the bus depot dissolves
into a stranger’s face. Thousands clot the lawn
to see the Virgin fading through
the side of the church,
until the minister, tired of the foot traffic, scrapes
away the paint to reveal an old
advertisement, Boxcar Willie.
Our eyes pick faces from the mush of photons, a hand
grasping the right end of a knife without
But this is only metaphor: one thing is not really
the other no matter how badly I wish
it were so. We are
hardwired to recognize faces—the unresponsive infant
is abandoned, or so the logic goes.
But what, in the end, is necessary
to a face? If scar or defect wipes away an eye, a lip,
a nose: when does what we see
cease to be what we know?
To look at one thing. The finer particles tell us that looking
changes what we see. But we knew
this already, how the particular
saints attend our particular needs. If not the Mother,
then her well-worn son:
a lime stain on a Chicago
underpass, blessing the masses that surge past him
on their way to work, or glowering
from the Eagle Nebula,
a place already named for something it is not. Metaphor
works that way, linking what we know
to what we don’t,
though the lie of poetry saves no more lives than the lie
of prayer. A birthmark. A bruise.
The gory Rorschach
of the red river delta seen from a plane. For every
piece of falling fruit we catch,
a hundred others
find the ground and rot. And what we do catch fairs no better.
What does it mean, even if
the Virgin really is in that peach pit,
that dirty bed sheet? Does she bless or curse
the things she touches?
When the radiologist pinned
the x-ray to the light, I saw two lakes at night, the water
choppy. Do you see them? he asked
as one by one
he circled the small dark boats with his finger.
The snow sliding loose of the eave is a shibboleth.
In Arecibo, where they are still
listening for aliens,
it is 70 degrees tonight, and the moon is booming.
The cowboys used to bend
their heads to the earth
and listen for the sound of horses. Only the Indians
could tell whether the horses
were coming or going.
The radio telescope is an alms bowl. The stars
jabber like backyard gossips.
The thread of gravity
is just strong enough to tether the comets to us.
A chemical trail leads the ant
back to his mound;
the bat follows his own voice in the dark. If God has
a voice, it is sibilant as the static
My mind’s room is too small. Why do we care
which direction our buried dead
is carried piecemeal, as the ant carries everything.
In the bed at night your sleeping curve
is a comma
or a comet, the tail of your legs bending toward
the center of the universe, a bright,
Down in the silo,
the hallways rest on springs, everything cushioned by curls of steel. No bombs or earthquakes can shake us loose. We breathe together, the three-foot thick steel door sealed against radiation and poison and daylight. Here, mannequins enact the many duties of the missing crew. Always two. A rule, they say: no-alone. Two sit at the launch control, wooden fingertips tense against the knobs and dials that could have ended us all—no matter how diligently we paired ourselves off. Two aboveground, in the helicopter, its rotor welded, its skids chained to the cement. Two repairing a coolant hose in the wall of the silo—the wire holding one up has snapped, and he has fallen
into his comrade, as if to embrace him. Down here, suspicion or love keeps us close. We are spies, we are untrustworthy, we keep secrets close as skin. How many times have we watched this film, the actors in blue jumpsuits playing the already absent crew? And how many times will we see the same clip of the missile launching, the glowing dots that light up across the cold continent of our birth? Ascending the stairs, we burst blinking into the raw breath of desert sun. We know little more than when we first peered down the well of the silo—it was so brightly lit, we saw everything, every tube, panel, girder, and button. But we could not see the bottom. There was no bottom to see,
though the two of us
looked and looked.
“Now we are all sons of bitches.”
Inside each matryoshka, you will find another, smaller,
its cheeks’ rosy discs dwindling
The smallest doll is thumb-thick and sturdy as bone.
Shiva dipped his big toe
into the ocean and started
to churn the water. From this churning, he created
the weapon of the gods,
a spinning disc of fire.
The seasons punish each other in turn for their excesses.
Even as the glacier grinds the earth
down to a prairie
of sameness, grass stubbles up at the lip of retreating ice.
Inside each person, you
will find another, smaller.
On the island where the world’s largest bomb
was tested, the polar sun rises
in the shape of a cube.
When the Trinity set down its foot on the desert
outside Alamogordo, the sand
turned into a crater
of glass ten feet deep and a thousand feet across.
Khrushchev promised to show us
Though the idiom was lost on us, we had our own
vision of what would emerge when the earth
All things, oh priests, are on fire.
The earthquake on your birthday—
car alarms calling each other
like love-sick dogs, the forgotten
air-raid siren on the YMCA yowling
its one, sore note. The decks
of the freeway snap together,
the burning cars trapped. You watch
the rescue workers disappear
into the smoking gaps. Sometimes
they return with a survivor;
sometimes they do not. Begin
with the molecule, its carbons
shoulder to shoulder in the cold
quantum space. Begin 400 million
years ago, the Devonian air blushed
with oxygen, the first lightning-sparked
peat bogs smoldering on the shore.
Begin with this: fuel, oxygen, and heat,
this triangle, this tent of sticks you build
in the dirt. Begin with the room
where they waited until fire wormed
down through the rafters, draped
like a robe across them, until foreign
words clogged their mouths. Parthians
and Elamites, Arabs and the Greeks,
all understood, but someone
in the crowd jeered: they are full of wine.
The tongue is burning, oh priests,
its words unhinge their atoms.
From the hotel roof, in Istanbul,
you see it: a tire dump burning
on the other side of the Bosporus,
its base brighter than any city lights.
A waiter brings plates of olives
for your family. You hold your plate,
a cool O against your palm.
The moon is rust. The moon is gone.
Kallinikos the alchemist invented
liquid fire, a fluid that ignited
whenever it touched water,
and the Byzantines used it
to burn down the Muslim fleet
The recipe for this fire is lost—
petroleum or calcium phosphide cooked
from lime, charcoal, and bones?
You have walked the covered
bazaar, its air rough with tea;
at the newly arrived American
burger chain, you ate your fill.
You stood inside the Blue Mosque,
your mother and aunt covering
their nude arms with burlap shawls
taken from a heap by the door,
while high on a pole, a loudspeaker
warbled out the call to prayer. The eye,
oh priests, is on fire. Everything
it sees is only flame or fuel.
All day, the Santa Ana winds
goad the fire. Neighbors stand
in the cul-de-sac and stare
at the orange ribbon draped
across the hills. You watch
whole groves of eucalyptus
sprout red wings, the trunks
screaming as they split in half.
The fire department hands out
sooty pamphlets that warn fires
persist in root systems for days,
and for a week you watch
the backyard maple, waiting
for it to give birth to a hot, angry child.
Fire burns a forest, a home,
a river. Cresting over the hills
at night you see the refinery,
caked in fluorescent light,
its stacks fingering the sky
with purple flames. You know
how close you’ve come to disaster:
the trio of gulls that disappeared
into the jet engine, a plume
of smoke and blood pouring out
the other side, the guttural heave
of the cabin as the plane
banked hard. Safe on the tarmac,
you looked back and saw
the fuselage feathered with carbon.
Colorado, Arizona, Oregon—
the summer every forest burned,
your brother took a job watching
trees from a stand, a lifeguard
without water. The fires at night,
he said, started like planets,
orange sparks low on the horizon.
After your parents’ divorce,
in your father’s cramped efficiency,
you opened the oven and flames
filled the small kitchen, crisped
the flesh on your arm and cheek.
All the way to the hospital,
your father chanted an apology.
Agni’s parents were two sticks—
rubbed together, they gave birth
to him and then burned to death.
You grow to understand this.
Agni grows up; he has two faces
and seven tongues. You understand
this too. Though it terrifies you,
you even understand when India
builds the Agni Missile, capable
of striking targets deep in China.
You grow to understand credible
deterrence, every other euphemism
of violence and mistrust, all
the Patriots and Peacekeepers
in the world. Nothing lasts,
oh priests; it turns to smoke
as we speak. Some fires are only
slower than others: a trash fire
catches a vein of coal that spreads
its own dark roots under the town.
The gases buckle the streets,
fill up basements, kill small dogs.
Some people learn to live with it;
most do not. The fire burns
for forty years, until the town
is all but deserted, until only a few
caved-in buildings still lean against
their naked I-beams, until the highway,
like a river, changes its course
to avoid the town. Backpacking
with your father in Arizona
you stop for lunch halfway up
the mountain, where a sign
memorializes a boy scout troop
that froze to death on this spot.
You can’t imagine dying that way,
not here, where the dusty lizards
pant on the rocks. You imagined
a desert of scrub brush and cacti,
but when you reach the peak
you see whole forests burning.
Your father tells you that fire
isn’t a thing—like a book or a building
or a child—but rather a process
of things, the road a thing walks
to become another, new thing.
Begin with accident or intent, a spark
or a hand. Begin with priests
smoldering in their temples.
Begin with the gods punishing
or rewarding us. Begin with this:
You wake up on a train
inside a tunnel of smoke.
You remember those plane flights
through clouds, miles above
earth, without bearing or reference,
the re-circulated air thin as a dream
about leaving. You’ve passed
the lumber yards, their damp stacks
of logs raw under the sun, the grunting
machine that rearranges them
with its hydraulic claw. You know
that fuel is fuel. Changing the trees
to houses won’t save them.
You stand and walk the length
of the train like a drunk, your legs
unsure. It’s barely dawn
and the other passengers mumble
half-words in languages you almost
understand. For hours, the train
glides through the smoke, and this
makes it easy to forget where you are,
where you’ve been, and where you’re going.
is a Jay C. and Ruth Halls Poetry Fellow (2007–2008) at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He received his MFA from the University Wisconsin in 2005. His work has appeared in MARGIE, Mid-American Review, and Southern Review and is forthcoming in Prairie Schooner.