Poems

A sampling of my poetry:

The Exile Speaks of Mountains

In the Himalayan foothills during monsoon

the electricity once stayed off

for fifteen days. Every morning there was chai

 

with sugar cubes and buffalo milk, delivered

to our kitchen door in tin carafes

strapped with thick ropes to a mule.

 

We kept warm by feeding the stove

log after log and entertained by watching

our spit sizzle on its tin top.

 

My brother held my hand on the trail

to and from school, scanning for leopard scat

or for thieving langur monkeys in the trees.

 

I write this from my brick colonial in Baltimore,

decades removed, drinking black tea

with thick cream and sugar—

 

the heat of exile churning in my blood.

I drive an SUV, shop at Target, and fight tears

at random moments, like when I open

 

the door and enter the Punjab store

down on 33rd, suddenly and viscerally at home

among the turmeric and cardamom,

 

the Neem soaps and steaming samosas

under foil on the counter, while the kind owner

offers a mango juice box to my daughter.

 

Only if I embrace this life as a perpetual pilgrim

do I find solace in remembering

the terraced cemetery in the Himalayan pines

 

where the mute woman and her donkey

guard the graves, the distant beat of tabla drums,

the bounce of our flashlights on the trail

 

walking home at night, thrill of leopards

in the dark, the high peak of Bandarpunch

to the north, glowing in moonlight.

 

Published in Little Patuxent Review, Summer 2018

 

It Wasn’t Odd

Last night I dreamed my elderly neighbor

sought me out, found me upstairs in my bedroom.

Miz Dinty—her trademark black baseball cap,

gold-crowned teeth flashing a grimace this time,

 

not her mischievous smile—climbed into the bed

I had just vacated in surprise, remarked

on its warmth in the early light. I’m dying,

she said, shivering. It’s coming now, baby.

 

I hovered, then climbed in beside her,

wrapped my arms around her, whispered

how do you know? Maybe I didn’t ask

her aloud. She just breathed in, then out.

 

Because it was a dream it wasn’t odd

that the two of us lay there warming,

silent, unafraid. That I wanted this

to be how she was ushered on.

 

Published in Relief – A Journal of Art and Faith, Summer 2018

 

Cameo

You hold a ready lens to each scene and verse

waiting for yourself to come into focus: you’re Joseph—

Judases for brothers, final recompense for your hurts—

 

or Moses—eyes searching watery walls you’ve stepped between

for shadow creatures, fissures, but on you walk, aware of trust,

scanning for evidence of God in the seams—

 

or perhaps an exile returning from Babylon—the crust

of years falling from you, the shofar sounding its jubilant note

as the last foundation stone settles in the dust.

 

Yet what if you are not the favored son, but one who woke

from dreams, number twelve in line for daddy’s attentions,

trafficked for debt or indifferent profit, smote

 

by an obscure hand, no dancing exodus;

rather, death by your stripes in the shadows of a limestone

mausoleum, born one generation too early for deliverance?

 

What if exile makes such bitter work of your bones

and brittle heart, the others must kiss you and depart

to witness the stones’ rebirth, while you remain alone?

 

The initial taste of meekness is tart

as you adjust to your bit part.

 

Published in St. Katherine Review, Vol. 4, No. 3

 

Speak Like Rain

“Speak again. Speak like rain.”–Kikuyu farm youth to Karen Blixen, after listening to her recite verses of poetry to them for the first time. (Out of Africa)

Speak like rain, sister,

those smooth, plump drops that beat

water-rhythm on our chests—

words shaped like the curve

of an ear, the cup above the lobe—

 

fill it again.

 

Speak again, the rain

has been too long in coming

and this scorched sod waits;

words flew on wings and

summoned the plovers hunting

 

for new grass.

 

Speak like rain, play

those tricks with light and clouds,

hope and dry craziness;

words that smell far away

like the sea drifted here just now—

 

tasting of salt.

 

Published in Tiger’s Eye Journal, Summer 2013

 

Cicadas, East of Eden

Bazhong, Sichuan, China

Mid-summer I crested the ridge

of the hill behind my house, the bare brown shoulder rising

naked above its garment of summer growth

and encroaching city. My breath hummed

with the music of the full sun

as an iridescent body magnetized my eyes

to itself: skewered by the sun’s full rays

against a dry trunk it heaved and accordioned

itself in and out, up and down.

 

I leaned in, not breathing because

of the power of that voice

that is not even a voice, how it could consume

the span of earth and sky and then cease,

leaving everything shaken, changed.

 

Before, I never searched them out, unnerved

by the sheer terror of that volume, sounding like

everything in the world, threatening

to blast me off my feet, then

swallowing into sudden silence.

I averted my eyes when trapped

in that screeching bubble of space.

 

Now I hungered to know everything

about them: spider-veined transparent wings,

tymbrals contracting to amplify sound

through a hollow abdomen

such that permanent hearing loss could occur

if it were right next to your ear.

 

The Chinese have a saying,

shedding the golden cicada skin:

escaping danger by using deception or decoy

because of the empty husks left behind,

clinging to the bark of trees.

Or the repeated shedding of illusions

until what is real is left.

 

The last time I saw one up close was

early fall, festival time downtown and a giggling,

mini-skirted young woman thrust

a wooden skewer into my son’s hand.

The magnificent body was pierced

through and scorched.

 

I held my breath and he held his arm out away

and we both flinched when a leg moved.

My gaze spun around the square–

the cruel lollipops in hands everywhere–

and I remembered I had read China is one

of the many places where cicadas are eaten.

 

My son rushed after her, mumbling bu yao,

I don’t want it, and he wiped his eyes and grabbed my hand

I want to go home, he said.

And we left, and what was left with me

is this: that we all keep failing utterly

at our original vocation.

 

Published in The Penwood Review, Fall 2011, Vol. 15, No. 2