A deserted diner off the highway;
watched by the dark-haired, heavy waitress
I ate alone and uncomfortable.
Something wrong with her right eye
so craning round to see me better with the left.
Her Wyoming vowels offered pie Alamo-ed,
or so it sounded to my English ear.
After we sorted that out
she returned to lean and watch.
The coffee I ordered she placed down hard,
bending over me to ask, “Do you scream?”
Somewhere behind my ears splayed images
of weary torturers in Russian cellars,
racks, blades, pointed metal, Vlad, and Torquemada.
But here chainsaws for American carnage
in some slaughterhouse behind the kitchen.
Fight or flight, in turmoil to evade her half-closed eye.
Awareness seeping through my rising panic
of a small jug by my cup and
hearing the Wyoming, ‘Do you use cream?’
My brief panic is nothing.
The sagebrush hills outside the window
have known more brutal cultural confusion.
I can see red hills in the distance,
the scratched line of a road, some cultivated land,
other lines that might be fences,
where Red Cloud had imagined it
stretching unboundaried for ever.
You are preparing to turn right to your mother’s
where we are expected soon for tea, but let’s consider.
I have a credit card; you could drive on straight ahead
and within two hours we can catch a chunnel train,
then head south through France, a night in Paris,
another in La Rochelle, still reeking of history.
We’d inspect the occasional castle or chateau,
lunch with local wines by quiet roadsides,
dinners on balconies with trailing plants,
intimate times between crisp French sheets.
Then we’d drive down the coast of Portugal
to Lisbon, where we might spend a day
and visit Jerónimos monastery again,
hand-in-hand along the wide double-decker cloisters,
ornately designed for the swagger of decadent abbots.
Then winding west along the coast road to Sintra,
taking an English tea above the glittering Tagus in Cascais,
imagining those ships heading out on the wind to find new worlds.
In Sintra we can take a shaded room for four days at Lawrence’s hotel,
where—is it a recommendation?—Lord Byron stayed some years before.
Or would you rather turn right now to your mother’s?
I thought so. I left some items out of the equation.
Portrait Of A Lady
What choices had she made, what mistakes,
that led to her sitting with a Mythos beer
looking down at this gleaming yacht—
easing into Hydra’s horseshoe harbor—
at those people lolling with champagne
looking up at her, a tourist at a bar?
The man she married and the man she longed for
were not the same, and the latter fool
assumed the marriage vows he’d made
when he married her best friend were to be kept.
And the former fool she’d married and divorced
had left her barely comfortable.
A yacht and champagne might offer consolations
but the bikinied girls, trying to look languid as in ads,
were hardly older than her schoolgirl daughters.
She’d have to settle for the crowded ferry
back to Spetses, where dinner loomed
at her hotel with contestants for Olympic boring gold.
She’d splurge some Euros for a horse and carriage ride
from harbor to hotel along the coastal road.
The grizzled driver would reach to a bougainvillea
and with practiced charm hand back a flower
for her to tiredly smile and slip above her ear,
which nobody she cared about would see.
Hard, in the warm and fragrant evening,
to see what choices might have made the difference
of her glancing incuriously up from her yacht
at the tourists looking enviously down,
wondering about their mistakes,
opportunities lost or unavailable.
Still these islands must have known women
who’d wreaked revenge on fate.
Though the ones she could in fact recall
seemed to finish up deserted, dead, or worse;
turned into laurels, strangled, raped by gods,
left by heroes off to better gigs.
Surely some women unsung by bards
got the right man and the yacht?
But, as it was, the fool she’d married and the fool she longed for
were cycling together round the west of Ireland;
resistant saint and dreary scholar happily pedaling away.
We do not understand water,
whence it comes, where it goes,
and why the sea moves so,
receives the great flood of rivers
and fails to overflow.
My village sent me to observe
where river marries sea.
I have studied and prayed,
walked the shores alertly watching,
paddled, swum, measured, weighed.
It cannot flow, as some have said,
into a vast abyss
at the edge of the world,
as the ocean, like our breathing,
simply curls and uncurls.
Water begins in the dark clouds,
but I do not know how
clouds hold so much, release
so much as they float on the winds
and yet do not decrease.
I will return to our village,
say there is no abyss,
for the rest, no one knows.
I do not understand water,
whence it comes, where it goes,
but I have grown to love
the many ways it moves.
Whispers Of Caesar
Why would the branches whisper to me of Caesar?
These coastal woods not those through which he rode.
But, locals say, in the shelter of this hill
trees from acorns from trees from acorns from trees
can span a thousand years.
So maybe, seven oaks ago,
he sat under wind-articulating branches
like these that whisper to me here today.
Seated in a tent with his general, Quintus—
some wine, some strategy—two impulsive men,
both with disaster in their eyes,
but now just
laughing at the risks of this brash expedition.
Later both wrote to Cicero, Quintus’s brother:
letters that marched along the Roman roads,
writing Britain into Europe for the first time.
The kings he left behind were now in fee to Rome.
With legions, horses, baggage, he’s long gone
over sea and mountains
and the Rubicon.
I hold in my pocket as I listen to the branches
a silver denarius from a field in Kent,
which, seven oaks ago, Caesar might have spent.