Jack Gilbert on my mind

I have been rereading The Great Fires by Jack Gilbert and reminding myself of what it means to write unselfconsciously. There is so much to say about Jack Gilbert, an award-winning yet underrated American poet who studied and taught at San Francisco State University, as well as in numerous universities abroad, and yet as always it's better to let a writer's words do the work.
Here's one of my favorite Gilbert poems:


We find out the heart only by dismantling what
the heart knows. By redefining the morning,
we find a morning that comes just after darkness.
We can break through marriage into marriage.
By insisting on love we spoil it, get beyond
affection and wade mouth-deep into love.
We must unlearn the constellations to see the stars.
But going back toward childhood will not help.
The village is not better than Pittsburgh.
Only Pittsburgh is more than Pittsburgh.
Rome is better than Rome in the same way the sound
of raccoon tongues licking the inside walls
of the garbage tub is more than the stir
of them in the muck of the garbage. Love is not
enough. We die and are put into this earth forever.
We should insist while there is still time. We must
eat through the wildness of her sweet body already
in our bed to reach the body within that body.


Off to unlearn the constellations.

On Subtlety

Del Ray Cross, San Francisco poet and editor of the online poetry journal Shampoo, came to speak in my class. We were assigned to read his collection Lub Luffly, an amalgamation of site-specific poems, largely inspired by New York School poets such as Frank O'Hara and Bill Berkson. My own interest in poetry has ebbed in flowed over the years; the poems that strike me often do so with a weight that nearly knocks me down. Otherwise, they leave little to no impression. I admire poems that surprise, that carry unexpected weight, that make you gulp. This poem falls into that latter category:


by Del Ray Cross

While we talk
I'm not gonna
talk about
me or you.

A new sky
is formed
upon the
words we

don't use.
Two pillows
raised to it,
and a laugh

that starts in
one throat
and ends
in another

The simplicity of his prose, paired with the short lines and even the poem's slender length, packs a hidden punch. The clear evasion of feeling is exactly what gives it its oompf. I can sympathize; these days I feel the need to swamp my brain with material, to saturate my life with small, manageable tasks that all at once must be creative and practical. But the moments I remember are rarely accomplishments, or even minor victories; instead they are the quiet ones, the innate ones, the shared glances or imperceptible nods. I hope to recapture a similar subtlety in my own writing.

Speaking of subtlety: A moment of shameless self promotion.

My first KALW radio story was played last week. The piece, "Creating Altars for the Day of the Dead," is my interview with Mexican paper artist Herminia Albarran Romero, who taught a series of workshops at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts here in San Francisco.

More to come -- including a piece about local music label and record store Thrillhouse Records.

Maybe, sometime soon these projects and internships and personal explorations will result in a neat little poem, one that starts in the throat and ends on the page.


You already said you

Waited on an ocean for me

Cupped a sonata to your ear

While I let it

Slip away trust me it can’t

Slither too far because when

I run out the end of the dock

You’re still standing on the sand

Somehow stars play chess at night

But honestly it’s just the reflection

Off your glasses when you drive

Me home the car idles

An uneasy guard dog you

Hand me music as it spills out

Your right ventricle you appear one

-sided now and your voice is tinny

How exactly did you prepare

The turkey? Do you still shuffle

Cards in the bathroom line

Do you still use the bathroom

With my toothbrush staring

Starry-toothed into your glasses,

Which I spot from the end of the dock.

* after Frank O’Hara’s “Morning”


Sometimes I need to take my brain off the record player & listen to it skip because every now & then

You pop up you jackinthebox with a trombone

It would be nice if a little jazz every now & then

Could cure this internal beatbox but it’s more than your things I miss it’s the smell of your deodorant on your neck & that pause between conversations when we’ve talked ourselves into the record player it’s right then that you are intimately in you and

I am intimately in me every now & then

Your face gives me pause because it carries more than dimples & glasses they have always shone back other countries & other languages & other everythings where you & I could go together

I’d like to love you the way Frank loves Vincent but I was always more an impressionist than an abstract & the impression of your jackinthebox on the sill

Makes me dizzy sometimes & sometimes that pause

Returns to the back of my neck & you’ve arrived

In time to slow my brain down to a crawl.

[1] After Frank O’Hara’s “Poem: Ά la recherché d’Gertrude Stein”

* published in Catalyst, spring 2006

Yolanda Says I Can Write Whatever I Want

There is peanut butter on my t-shirt

Of Shakespearean insults.

Yolanda says I can write whatever I want.

So I want to say that Vicente Fox

is an appropriate name for a shivering Chihuahua.

A Shakespearean Chihuahua licks

peanut butter out of an egg cup.

I worry why my six speed bicycle

has an imaginary seventh gear,

one I wish could double as a transmogrifier

and turn me into the dog wiggling across

the table from me. Then it wouldn’t matter

that I smell like peanut butter and acrylic,

and that no matter how many times I braid my hair,

it slides out, wild and unruly, like

a shrew that Shakespeare once tamed.

In Memoriam

Mt. Shroud (Pantoums for Sarah Bishop)


I saw her last on an album cover

Her life a recipe for Mexican hot chocolate

Pinned up in her best friend’s coffee shop

I found her smile lying face up in the street

Her life a recipe for Mexican hot chocolate

She jumped a train from Portland to San Francisco

I found her smile lying face up in the street

Sometimes she appears in dreams, smiling

She jumped a train from Portland to San Francisco

When she fell I was in the Emergency Room

Sometimes she appears in dreams, smiling

My father later said, “Your body knew.”

When she fell I was in the Emergency Room

Pinned up in her best friend’s coffee shop

My father later said, “Your body knew”

I saw her last on an album cover.


In our family there are many cousins but few girls

I remember admiring her unshaven legs

Every mountain I see smirks like she used to

I thought of her while climbing Cloud’s Rest

I remember admiring her unshaven legs

When she slipped on my waterski

I thought of her while climbing Cloud’s Rest

The Oregon fog has become her shroud

When she slipped on my waterski

Some family law was observed

The Oregon fog has become her shroud

I picture her kneeling in my grandparents’ garden

Some family law was observed

Every mountain I see smirks like she used to

I picture her kneeling in my grandparents’ garden

In our family there are many cousins but few girls



Sunday, eleven a.m.

Aunt Cissy flirts

with the fridge.

She fingers a chilled

Corona, offers it

to the doily in front of me.

“Your father tells me,”

--she smiles, reapplies lipstick—

“you can have these now.”

* published in Spectrum, spring 2006

Sri Lanka

Still Life

Somewhere far away a wave

has flicked over cities offhand,

like her father playing cards.

Survivors peer out of the tv

with hollow cheeks.

In drier climates,

her classmates drive tanks,

salute a caricature,

because everybody knows that

all liberty is ransom.



There are times when you want

to squeeze the world in an egg cup.

Wouldn’t that be perfect?

You move aside the salt and pepper

and prepare to drain the Atlantic.

It’s not so big.

The sky is grand but the clouds

rein in the sun, shell over yolk.

You can roll the world in your hands,

all color coordinated continents

and chocolate dipped mountains.

You want it to be smooth,

but it crumbles.

You want it to be round,

but it slides across the table:

spilt milk.

The world jiggles, pops, sizzles,

burns, grooves, tingles, aches, longs,


messy, perhaps,

but more beautiful this way.

Eggs are better scrambled anyway.

* published in the League of American Poet’s A Treasury of American Poetry II (2005)


Eleven Travels


On the ferry from Vancouver to Victoria

I spotted a pair of eyeglasses

dangling off the platform.

I ran to the deck searching for the rest of the person.


I thought it unpatriotic to spell camping with a K

but Washington made up for it with colonies

of rapidly reproducing bunnies.


We reached a desert plateau worn down

by years of gods and their wars.

We rolled down sand dunes into the lap of Israel.


On Long Island I met three generations of Jews

who didn’t look like me,

sound like me, smell like me.

I preferred the crawdads in the pond

below the willow—

they were in kindergarten too.


Heath Shepard skinny-dipped in front of me

(my eyes were closed)
in the moonlight of
Lake Almanor.

He liked me because I outran him.

I liked him because he didn’t mind

not holding my hand.


Sometimes we ran in Lorca’s park.

Words fell with the leaves.

Trees are greener in another language.


Laura Ingalls Wilder was born in Pepin, Wisconsin.

I begged my parents to take me to her Big Woods.

“Let’s make popcorn balls instead,” said my mom.

The molasses would have tasted sweeter

in a log cabin.


Once on the Sacramento River Dad cut the engine.

We drifted to the buzz of riparian radio.

Up between the dreadlock vines of river trees

a colony of egrets swayed—a white cloud.

When I waterski they follow me,

a train of wings.


I’d never seen a dale until Edinburgh.

In the woods, we found a small wooden door

carved into the trunk of a tree.

“For fairies,” Mary said.

A little girl stacked sticks nearby

to keep them warm in winter.


We biked through a banana plantation

and an angry shepherd threw rocks.

We sang in Hebrew when we found

the Mediterranean.

Every Passover I miss that exile.


My first day back in Santa Barbara

I found a pair of glasses in my neighbor’s shrub.

I’ve searched but I can’t find the rest of the person.

Under What

In your aunt’s house with her Himalayans

you wander in your new black boxer briefs

I’m in my Ghostbusters undershirt and jockeys,

feeling bohemian because we’re housesitting

in December in our underwear.

Your hand-size bottles of sparkling wine and

champagne adorn the hot tub.

I’m drunk on the sky.

You shower before getting in.

I can hear you singing.

Tomorrow when we’re in your car

you’ll sing Metallica and it’ll be

Terribly romantic.

Put another quarter in the jukebox,

I’ll say, and press on your polo shirt.

We have the room to ourselves,

a big green bed in someone else’s house,

and the blinds are drawn until one o’clock

the following day.

All your best friends still know you,

and all your best friends’ mothers

secretly wish you were theirs.

You bought me gold.

It’s odd that beauty has weight,

and you like it hung around my neck.

In the hot water you gaze at me celestially,

maybe because your glasses are on the concrete

maybe because I’ve never had sparkling wine

and it tastes so sweet with starlight.

Your hair is against the blackness

and your skin is against the wind.

What happens when feelings are tangible?

I could bake this beauty in the air,

let it cool on the western shore,

watch the aroma waft across the Pacific.

The cat is sleeping on my underwear.

You lassoed the moon.

We’re drinking it together.

Endings are always so much harder to write.

The air is lazy. The stars tuck us in.

We blink; bathe in champagne.

Perfect Day

Our bicycles are ready,

baskets full of peaches,

avocado-cheese sandwiches,

and thermoses of Canned Heat.

We blast Jamiroquai from a radio

generated by my wheels.

We make it to the hills by lunch.

Your glasses—they glint in the sunlight,

and your arms—how well they know

the knots in my back.

We peer out over canyons,

Baby Boomer biker gangs,

migrant farmers selling strawberries.

We pedal to the beach,

where plovers invite us

to stitch in the shoreline with our footprints.

The Gipsy Kings are interrupted by

a radio news flash:

George W. Bush has been lost in Katrina,

an ecological love affair powerful as Monica.

We can hear soldiers retreating

several oceans away—foxtrotting, now,

constructing libraries out of disarmed weapons.

In your glasses I can see it happen backwards:

a Kurt Vonnegut novel,

someone’s lost dream.

Together we eat peaches.


White Man Dancing

The crazy monkey in your skin

jumps up for attention.

Your biceps bulge,

fever spreads through your freckles,

constellations browning

your shoulders.

You say you don’t dance,

but when you see me here,

Converse staining the pub floor,

you reach for a banana.

On Flirting

  1. you know my name

  1. you sat next to me in class (two times)

  1. you initiated a conversation with me (of your own free will)

  1. you will soon forget

  1. probably already have

  1. shouldn’t have brought up Viagra

Body Map


According to Seventeen magazine:

You should present your thighs like filet mignon

in a miniskirt standing under the lamppost

just after midnight.

Barbeque sauce would help

if it had less carbs.


Who says your soul rents space in your forehead?

Why doesn’t it linger behind your knees

or drive up the interstate of your vertebrae?


Sierra Visher told you in fourth grade

that you had a pancake nose and

it flattened when you laughed.

So you stopped laughing in elementary school.

Sometimes if you flare them in front of the mirror

you can look up your nasal passages

right into your brain.

Your brother will later tell you

that those are just boogers.


Your hips are Darwinian and luscious.

Get dark red lipstick and a pencil skirt.

Keep all your notes in a Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper.

When you get unwanted attention,

just swing your hips surreptitiously to the side,

and bounce your opponents to the moon.


Oxygen pulls you in and out,

A deflating balloon.

What else do you keep inside?

Phone numbers, candy canes,

Second hand smoke?



When she thinks,

she opens up her mind with a grapefruit spoon,

slices it into happy triangles of citrus flesh,

then drinks what’s left in the bowl.

When she lives,

she tills the concrete with a John Deere tractor,

unearths fossils from the asphalt world,

scoops up the ash remains, and burns them for fuel.

When she loves,

she picks apart the seam of her hairline,

unzips limbs from fabric patterns of skin and hair,

stands in a field during a sandstorm

to watch as her insides slowly unravel,

waits for her dust to settle on the reddened earth,

waits for a person with a mind like a grapefruit

and a soul like a tractor

to sculpt her into a sandcastle.

For Amy


Amy and I joked about eyebrows

in eighth grade because once you noticed one pair,

you saw them all: finely plucked,

fuzz spilling on foreheads,

monobrows like Frida,

usually on boys with glasses.

Suddenly our peers were reduced

to the bridges between their eyes.

Ballerina Amy was the first to date.

Zach would sweep her long red hair

out from under backpack straps, carry her flute,

and furrow his behemoth eyebrows.

I don’t know if Zach was in the room

when Mrs. Weetman read us the news

that final day of ninth grade:

“girl rescued from herself.”

Amy once wrote a poem

paraphrasing a Third Eye Blind song

Why don’t you step back from that ledge my friend

Hers was the first elegy I wrote,

Thursday before Christmas six years later.

The church was full.

I sat in the first pew with my best friends

from junior high and our geography teacher.

The pastor nodded toward us,

our backs as wooden as the seats.

At the podium the light poured

through stained glass.

Standing in the half glow,

I talked to Amy about eyebrows.

In Honor of Isla Vista

A Spiritual Poem in Five Minutes

When I think of spirit I think of Pirate

drinking on Pardal accepting a plate of Shabbat

dinner salmon on Friday night when he tells jokes

You kind of have to step back away from his face

so the spirits don’t get in the way.

One night his friend Abraham approaches us

offers to explain our Hebrew names.

“Ah, Shoshana,” he says to Shauna.

“Light.” “David—Strength.”

He peers at me through monocle eyes, says:

“Julia—from the English: Jewel.”

Pirate laughs so hearty from his perch,

clutching salmon to his chest,

coughing up spirits.