King of the Bermuda Triangle

The story of my uncle who’d been shot in the knee       

            at Southern Railway

got complicated by the way in which Mama was telling it

while we boxed up my grandma’s dresses

after her open-casket funeral.  Then the same story of how he

later sued

the trainyard where he happened to be working

a twelve-hour shift and rolling a joint with a Zig-Zag as sheer

            as Bible paper

            prior to the bullet smashing his bone

got complicated by the picture on the Zig-Zag’s orange booklet.

 

Years later that cover with some French guy’s face on it

reminded me of my bearded uncle 

and looked like a Rastafarian Jesus

whose smirk and tiny rigid hands holding papers and a cigarette 

freaked me out while under the hypnotic

gris-gris of liquid acid.

Yet the obvious question of the next story is

            what did my uncle do with the money from the railroad?

Didn’t he get rich quick

with his pension and a monthly disability check?

 

My uncle high-tailed it outta there, all right; he left New Orleans

in a 90-foot schooner he named  

The Tabitha C

sailing right through the Bermuda Triangle on a dare

exploring the Bahamas, the Virgin Islands,

Cuba, the Dominican Republic

and all those other islands named St. something or other.

My uncle, captain of his world,         

            King of the Bermuda Triangle

and his shenanigans are the stuff of high-falutin’ storytelling

and madman quests in epic poetry.

But how much are you willing to bet that my uncle having learned how to con

            from his Carni father

didn’t pay the gunman and stage getting shot at Southern Railway

as a way of giving the finger to another Uncle

so he wouldn’t have to work ever again

            for chump change?

Can I say that all con-artists are made out of cotton-candy and      

marijuana

and bittersweet memories about how to spit-shine boots, make the bed every morning at 5 a.m.,

            dismantle a gun and shave a perfect crew-cut?

And what about the story about the time my uncle showed me a sticky brick

            sealed in a ziploc bag

he hid in the backroom of my grandma’s house

            and how he laughed at me for not knowing

what weed looked like

            at twelve-years old?

 

Will I ever be like my uncle, free and flouting authority, letting my freak flag fly high

and conning the government into giving me the American Dream

or smoking spliffs and dead reckoning my way

on a house boat

            paid off with cold hard cash?

And isn’t that the story of the great unknown?  

And doesn’t it begin with a mystery?  And, moreover, doesn’t it end

with a feeling that stuns like a bullet?

And is that feeling a thing that you hunt in the wild

And if you find and kill it

mount it on a wall and tell stories about it

to remember it existed?  

 

Fear and Loathing in China (Excerpted from a Letter to Rolling Stone)

Have you ever been trapped in a situation out of which you emerged a transformed and fearless person who is not afraid to brave any storm? Imagine it is December 4, 2011, at 1 a.m., Beijing time, and your one-hour domestic flight from Dalian to Beijing has been cancelled without warning. It is your first solo international assignment, and you have much to prove as the youngest editor on your team. You haven't eaten in approximately 17 hours, you are out of yuan and your company, Mickey Mouse operation that it is, has not given you an emergency card made of plastic with a magnetic salvation strip. Your own credit cards are charged to the limit (you are young after all), and you wouldn't know where you might find an ATM, besides, in this faraway land. There is chaos breaking it out on the plane, a man is screaming obscenities in a foreign language, you are sure by his violent hand gestures toward another rankled man, and both are railing further frustrations at the stewardess who doesn't offer anything in the form of information about what's happening, comfort or food. The plane has landed an additional hour from your destination, laid over in Hohhot, Inner Mongolia (you don't know this yet), and the only thing you can think of as panic begins to restrict your throat is that you are missing the last connection flight to LAX. Your flight has been cancelled and taken offline for the night. You learn later it will be flying out to Nagasaki, Japan, and not to Beijing where only a yellow brick road will take you at this point. 

There is nothing you can do, and since this is a domestic flight, your alien tongue is as good as mum. The airport where the plane has taxied has only illuminated (not neon) characters on its edifice and it is decidedly closed for the night. You never once considered an airport might actually be small enough to do so. You have no back-up plan as you are inexperienced and never on time or prepared in your normal life, your company iPhone (your own phone has no overseas connectivity) has only a few contacts listed and the internet is not readily accessible in this remote unidentifiable town. The phone's landing page finally loads but the characters have no translate-to-English option. There is also a firewall preventing access to social media. 

As you are forced to exit the plane with the other disgruntled patrons, yourself dizzy with hunger and jet-lagged from the first leg of an ill-timed trip to cover an industry trade media tour at the COSCO shipyard in Dalian (which you were of course late in attending as well because your other two flights were delayed by several hours thanks to a heady mixture of coal-induced smog, ice, and snow), your only choice is to revert back to the rawest form of human emotion to express how helpless you feel: a baby crying out for a need she cannot yet form the words to name. Inarticulate, guttural gasp goes to silence. The attendants are speechless and confused by my emotion.

It won't be until 3 a.m., Beijing time this Monday, in an international motel (there are cigarette burns on the mattress so you feel guiltless chain smoking your Chinese Marlboros that don't have the slightest taste of the American flavor) until your SOS text message to a friend overseas finally goes through. The rest all bounced back, and you can't remember (and failed to write down ahead of time) the international code to dial out. Rookie. He calls you back with one simple, loaded question in a language that sounds so close to home: "What are you going to do now?" 

Level 3 - World: Smog forces cancellation of flights at Beijing's main airport, disrupts public transport

BEIJING, December 5, 2011 (AFP) - Beijing authorities cancelled hundreds of flights and shut highways as thick smog descended on the Chinese capital on Sunday and Monday, reducing visibility at one of the world's busiest airports.

Air quality in Beijing reached "hazardous" levels on Monday, according to the US embassy, which conducts its own measurements, while China's state Xinhua news agency said pollution was likely to reach "dangerous" levels.

Nearly 400 flights were cancelled on Sunday, China's state television network CCTV reported. 

International organisations including the United Nations list Beijing as one of the most polluted cities in the world, mainly due to its growing energy consumption, much of which is still fuelled by coal.

 

I Ask Mama Why

"I Ask Mama Why"

she puts ketchup on red beans and rice.
Mama unveils cobwebbed years and says
"that’s what you did if you were poor
and ate the same shit everyday."

I ask Mama why
she paints perfect mouths on her porcelain dolls
when her own mouth is dirty as a canal.
Mama lets out a deep laugh and says
"it depends on where you grew up
and what you never had."

Mama curses with a certain ease,
makes four letter words sound
like southern comfort, her voice
like husky Jazz notes,
and her Irish Channel vowels,
resonating City Park blues.

Mama teaches me
the Quarter’s history.
She points to chipped cornices
with a weathered hand
and tells me that as a girl
she rode the streetcar for a nickel,
sipped Barq’s root beer
in a glass bottle beaded
with sweat from the sweltering
midday heat.

I ask Mama what beautiful is—
she can only sigh in response
for what’s been lost.
Heavy, her breath is a language
I don’t yet know.

Bone Collectors

We have come to fish for the dead. Macon prepares the line, the hook glinting in the glow of a silver dollar moon. We watch dark water thread through bleached limbs, the deadwood gleaming stark naked like a column of bones gnawed clean and varnished for a cannibal’s necklace. I say a soft prayer because the ritual comforts the thrumming strings in my heart. Macon does not pray, only licks his gold teeth for luck. I glass over the moonlit sand and see molars scattered and gleaming like soft stones. Something tugs at Macon’s line, its sheen luminous in dark water. A skull emerges, draining from its sockets as he heaves it skyward. Its jaw is unhinged like a busted door exposing a darkened corridor. Moss is tangled in its halls, twisting like a rope of human hair, and for a moment the skull seems to scream and resist as we jerk it from the currents. The jaw detaches and floats away in triumph. I can hear it laugh as the river gurgles with it, carrying it downstream. Macon retrieves the line, and we fish until dawn. Our collection is strung like sheer lanterns in the taut twigs of a skeletal birch tree housing a cemetery of bones. The twigs remind me of a grandfather’s gnarled fingers, so alien and stiff. We light out at the first break of copper light, and a solemn procession of trees wave their leaves like black handkerchiefs.     

On Being Asked If I Believe in God

I say what the hell.

I say what Nietzsche said.

I say I was baptized Roman Catholic, went to St. Agnes Parochial School, liked the rituals, the gold chalice I thought contained hot chocolate and marshmallows brought to chanting lips.

I say I remember time-outs for not saying my Hail Marys, remember thinking Jesus Christ was only a connect-the-dot man

in my coloring book in Religion class.

I wanted out, I said, when a boy named Lamar dropped his pants with biblical intentions.

We were only in First grade, but we were learning French. 

St. Jefferson parish, that’s where they poured the water over my head. 

I say I liked Voodoo better, wanted to pray to Papa Legba,

draw the circle of salt.

Years later, my mother found my copy of Anton Sander LaVey’s Satanic Bible.

She told me she burned it.

I say why send me to school anyhow.

I say knowledge is satanic.

I say Lucifer was the first rock-star.

I say read Paradise Lost if you don’t believe me, and burn that, too.

I say that LaVey was a satire, not a satyr.

I blame it on Latin, the Baphomet and being a rebellious teenager.

I say Voodoo, Roman Catholicism and Satanism

are all the same anyhow.

I say all that blood, sacrifice and superstition scares me.

I once saw a shadow peeping into my friend’s trailer when I was in the kitchen getting a glass of water, saw it run off holding something.

I thought it was either a black cat or Man in Black

holding his big black book.

He never got my autograph.

I say I wouldn’t have wanted to prick my finger anyhow.

I say sometimes I pray to God.

I used to say, God grant me the serenity to accept the things

I cannot change.

Now I laugh and say, go to hell, you bastard, for all your aesthetic distance.

Like Jesus, I ask in the old tongue, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?

I say I converted from Catholic to Baptist to Agnostic.

I say who can say for certain what the answers are.

They say it saves, helps to know where you’re going when you die.

I say we’re all going to hell anyhow.

I say that’s where Lord Byron is having his tea.

I say I’d like to join him, maybe even seduce him,

that all we ever want and think about is sex.

I say the cross is a phallic symbol if I ever saw one,

Romans be damned.

I say I’d rather be a Hell’s Angel, that the only gods

I need are the Ace of Spades and my motorcycle.

I say we’re flawed, that the human condition is suffering anyhow.

I say Buddhism got it right.

I sing words of wisdom, Mother Mary, let it be.

I say The Beatles got it right, too.

I say well I’ll be damned, I don’t know.

I say I’ll know when I die.

Here Lies Daddy

Your baby talk convinced me to

ignore Mama.

How was I to know that behind

your glassy eyes

a monster told me what to do—

and now I remember

how Mama used to cry

and you were hushed by her sobs.

You see, Daddy,

Mama sang the lullabies while

you shot tequila and lines,

until your eyes

 bulged from their greasy sockets

and your tongue

hung slack from the chemical numb

pulsing through your veins.

And sometimes

the cocaine blues had you

slumped over my tea-party table and

crying into the porcelain

arms of my favorite doll.

And sometimes

you forgot to say

“Happy Birthday”—

That day I could see

your face swollen by the sun

and lolling

on your shoulder

while my friends took turns

swinging at the piñata,

 a hanging masochist on a limb. 

The piñata split,

candy spilt,

and amid the chaos

your face contorted

like a mask

bursting from the seams

as you heaved

colors onto the grass

 to celebrate

five years of my life. 

There you were, Daddy,

lying in a puddle,

strung-out

next to the ruined piñata, and

Happy Birthday, Nancita

was scrawled on the cake

that you took down

with you as you fell.

And sometimes

Mama had no idea where I was—

trapped in your black Cadillac

as it veered past

the neon bible of a church,

with me clutching

the stained leather seat,

 praying for Mama,

and imagining my death

by the slip of your wheel.

Carsick

The last time I saw my biological father, he took me on his version of a midnight joyride. What frightened me first were his hands. I remember one arm was splayed over his thigh, the left hand choke-holding a brown-bagged bottle damp with sweat, the right clenched in a white-knuckled grip on the leather steering wheel as he swerved onto Airline Highway—his car shrieking past a sagging motel and speeding to a stop in front of a church—the only building illuminated by a neon Bible on a vacant street lined with litter. This light signified nothing to me, who never needed salvation until that moment—and yet, I could only stare into its lurid glow and pretend I was at home clutching my mama’s hands instead of a stained, leather seat situated above streams of cellophane wrappers, oily rags, and crushed cans, their left-over insides spilling out on the soiled carpet. I didn’t know why my father’s eyes were glassy with all the veins visible and blood- red or why his breath reeked with an unfamiliar fume that poisoned the air as he cursed. I couldn’t understand anything that night but this—that fear was the churning in the pit of my stomach and the odor of fuel, its unforgiving taste burning my tongue and sealing itself there—as if memory were licking shut an envelope with my father’s picture hidden within. I thought he must have tasted it then, too—along with his liquor—because he had to pull the car over to retch, just as I wanted to do and finally did—making a mess that pooled into darkness. 

 

(Photo courtesy of the Louisiana Digital Library)

Fat Black Cat (for Loki)

My cat, a fat black

cotton wad with olivine

eyes glassy as moonshine,

is lapping the inside

of my scarred wrist

with a padded pink strip,

unfolding sandpaper licks

as if it were sweet cream.

I wonder at the magical

properties of cat spittle

and how, unlike dogs’,

there is no sticky residue

left behind. 

My cat doesn’t know

how happy this reverential

bathing makes me,

that this is atonement

for what I did to that wrist

years ago—

the whole ugly

history of it.

He doesn’t speak to me

this way, trading horror

stories with the thick tongue

of human despair.

He doesn’t note

the sinewy flesh

while he salves my scar

with the privilege

of his airy tongue,

as if grooming his own paws.

A kiss to my wrist,

or more like the feline

compulsion to cleanse

that rough patch,

is enough redemption

for now, and I listen

to him purr,

a well-oiled reverb,

and my smile, a pearly nimbus

hovering over two black spires.

N 30° W 88° (For Uncle Larry)

The moment your ashes

drop into the Gulf,

we understand something

unspoken, some fear that chills

the bone and burrows into

the deepest marrow,

too tender to touch

or be named. It is the

feeling that comes

with a perfect silence

in which no echo is heard

and even breath stills.

 

Here we watch, awed to stone

and anchored to the sight

of the ashes resting there,

afloat like the grey froth

that clung to your lips

when you strained

in your crisp hospital sheets,

feverish from the meningitis

swelling your brain

like some overripe

fruit ready to split open—

only it didn’t. 

You fought to live

and left life later

a changed but contented man

asleep in a warm bed.

 

We remember you that way

(tucked in silence),

and on your final voyage

we fear what is not said,

but break through its silence 

with bursts of storytelling

without tears.

We watch the currents

for what seems like enough

time, yet not enough time

to say goodbye. 

 

Even the water seems

hushed in these moments

as your ashes drift farther

away from us.

 

It is this water that used

to drown me in nightmares,

water stained into

an impenetrable brown

as if steeped too long

in the Mississippi heat,

water now made beautiful

by your presence.

 

We light up cigars

and your brother smokes a joint,

the final “fuck ’em”

and fine tribute

to the defiant spark 

of wisdom you left behind.

 

We are enveloped

in a deep musk, smoke and sea

sticking to us like sacraments,

while we sail back to shore,

letting you go.

 

Chicken Shack

I.

 

Outside of it, bales were lined

in solemn procession

like pale tombs among waves

of milkweeds and skeletal dandelions,

their stems bowing beneath a soft wind,

their petals snaring on barbed wire.

 

I was a trespasser as I ran

through pastures pocked

with sticker burrs and stale cow shit.

The cows no longer grazed there,

as if they—smelling something metallic

in the air—sensed danger

and turned their backs

against its storm.

 

II.

 

From the road,

the chicken shack looked abandoned,

the sagging tin-roofed shell

a bony wreck beneath its rust,

though to me it was the soft down

of a hen’s wing I imagined myself

hiding under.

 

Only it wasn’t. 

There was evidence of chickens

having lived in mesh cages

and having died, strung up

on crude copper-wired hangers

jutting from the wall, suspended

above yellowed feathers and dull-iron

tools strewn about—

and the rust coated everything

like dried blood.

 

III.

 

I was afraid of the rats,

rats that sucked the eggshells dry,

afraid of the serpent’s translucent slough

coiling around their fragile carcasses,

and how those shells and skin reflected an eerie

glow in the purple shade that chased me off

as if I were the unwanted ghost

amid all this death.

 

I remember spending the night

on a curled bale cradled by the itchy hay

and staring at the sky,

oceanic darkness pooling itself outward,

deeper than anything on earth,

and how my heart felt stretched

like a wishbone, and—ah!—

how it seemed to pop

as the wish flew up, connecting the stars,

while the chicken shack loomed behind me

threatening to collapse.

 

 

Dark Lands

I.

 

This is oil country—

dark lands

where obsidian rivers

scissor out of mountain

ridges sunk deep,

their voids

thick tar.

 

II.

 

Everyday a sunset dies,

the dull-iron sun

snuffing itself out

and sealing itself closed

beneath the charred earth,

its smoke

dancing ghosts.

 

III.

 

Steel bones jut out

from a ribcage rusting

in a junkyard where

a car lies collapsed,

its blackened shell a shadow

above puddles

reflecting rainbows. 

 

IV.

 

A metallic smell hovers

over dead things

floating downstream.

The air is still

pulsing, its electricity

flashing like knives

and the thunder hammering

light out

into a silver foil.

 

V.

 

The few

wandering stragglers here

taste only ashes

on leaden tongues stuck out,

their mouths open

like blistered deserts

awaiting raindrops.

Roots

When she remembers young love, it’s entwined with country roots.

It took years and dirt roads apart and finding him again to reclaim their roots.

 

She memorized the shapes of his scars on howling-coyote nights.

He once engraved his initials into her bark and bloodied her roots.

 

They worried about cleaving open the past, revealing the dark things buried there.

But together like two gravediggers, they unearthed each other’s roots.

 

Sometimes he branded other things on his body when she wasn’t there.

His destruction became her own, worming inside and gnarling their roots.  

 

When he left, she buried the necklace he made for her under a tree,

A metallic heart, once luminous, now rusting, crushed by the roots.