Poems from Bird
in the Hand
Every American Child
will be issued a blues harmonica at birth
and taught to bend the notes because the notes
are for bending. And no American child
will lock his harmonica up in a harmonica case
but will keep it in his pocket all his life
so that any lost, scattered, fallen, foreign thing,
be it lint, pollen, tobacco, sleet or spiders,
may enter through the holes and take up
residence there. And every American child
will know how to inspect his blues harmonica
without assistance or prompts, unscrewing the tiny
bolts with his own fingernail, and without losing
them or the even tinier serrated square nuts,
remove the metal flanges and test each delicate
reed by plucking it with the same fingernail
to see if it rings true. And every American
child will be required to carry his blues harmonica
with him on his person at all times, and to produce
his blues harmonica when asked for identification
with the blues. And every American child will
be expected to learn by heart the history of the blues
because the history of the blues is an American
story, which some American grownups can’t be trusted
to tell, much less sing, to their American children.
Love the Mistake
You are not the only mistake I have ever loved.
There have been others.
Just the other day in fact
when John kissed Billy goodbye—
his older brother Billy, who’s retarded—
saying first, I love you, then kissing him
once on the mouth, so that Billy
stood up in the kitchen, rocking a little stiffly,
so that John reached up and fixed his collar—I saw
how all this time I have been mistaken
the hard, the vulgar
ironworker from the Bronx
who likes to say vehicle instead of car,
who likes to say fuck, who likes to hate
the enemy. And I loved
being wrong—I loved that I was wrong
who isn’t empty of love after all.
And I take his head now
from the square buzz-cut on top
down to the gash of the mouth,
and all the broken grammar of his face—
I take his head and I cradle it, saying: There.
There. Saying: Now.
That boy was good with animals.
And he was good at animals the way
some hearing boys are good at
making sounds of artillery fire
using only the tongues in their heads.
Using only his face and his hands
he could paint any animal on the farm
on the air, and we’d recognize it
by some detail he’d capture, some
unmistakable physical thing, an angle
or posture, a sideways chewing,
the dangle of a tongue, the puppy’s ear hanging
inside-out like a pocket.
He was the only witness when the neighbor’s
got run over, and he told us the whole story
with his whole body, how the pickup
swerved to avoid her, grazing
her shoulder, the angle of impact
throwing her into the woods.
We all stood around, ignorant
of what happened exactly, hoping
and fearing as his story unfolded
and he embodied first the dog running, then
the truck braking, then
the dog then the truck then the dog
so we had the feeling we were seeing it all
just as it happened, and just as it was happening,
but in slow motion and with a zoom lens
and from six different camera angles.