A sampling

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

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, Volume 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, Volume 15, Number 2