Eight Poems by James Harms
James Harms

Copernicus (from Freeways and Aqueducts)

I didn't handle it well, a sudden friendship
in the Copernicus Room high above San Francisco
with a beautician from Stockton. She was in town visiting
her father, whose left leg had been removed at the knee.
"Diabetes," she said. "What are you having?"

We sat and watched the bay darken like an angry face,
talked over drinks about his stubborn refusal
to give up cigarettes, how he kept his extra shoe
on the nightstand beside his bed. And then,
like a severed head, sincerity made its appearance,

scaring the hell out of both of us. I didn't intend
to tell her that my father was whole but absent
("wholly absent?" she said), or that I'd dreamt
for years--a recurring nightmare--of slicing off my hand
while spreading mustard on a piece of bread.

"What kind of bread?" she said. The light began to change
just then, the strange copper light that seems to smother
the headlands before passing from Alcatraz to Angel Island,
a fast retreating shadow we stopped talking to watch,
sunlight traveling toward us, then vanishing. The fog

closed off the bay, left the bridge a pair of rusty towers,
cables dropping into silence, a silence that seemed
solid as stone, a cliff of chalcedony. I imagined the clouds
stiffening like egg whites, a confectioner's dream
creeping slowly toward the city. And how do we measure

the world, I thought, with what we see, or what we know
is there? "Another beer, please," she said, "and some nuts."
She was ordering for me, pulling her chair a little closer.
"Look there," she said tapping the glass. Forty floors down
and two miles out, a small tug had popped free of the fog

and was chugging toward a circle of sunlight on the bay,
the one spot of bright water. She held her breath
until it got there, then broke into applause.
"He made it!" she said, and drained away her rum and coke,
patted my arm and picked her purse off the floor.

"You'll never hurt anyone," she said, but I didn't get it.
"Your dream . . . You're scared you're going to hurt someone,
it's a symbol." Then she scooped the ashtray--made of flesh red
carnelian--off the table into her purse. "A souvenir," she said,
and left. My beer arrived a few minutes later,

along with a fresh bowl of nuts. It was the Carnelian Room
I later learned, when I told my sister what had happened,
not Copernicus. "CarNEELian," she said, as if what mattered--
as if what I needed to get right--was where I'd been.

By Heart (from Freeways and Aqueducts)

October. The year begins to forget itself
in ceremony and smoke,
the cedar chests open
to sweet smelling clothes,
invitations embossed
with leaves, leaves
lifting from drifts
and covering the parked cars.
After the opera, the dinner dance, the ball,
the river fills
with long, white gloves
and cummerbunds, carnations and swollen corks,
the programs creased
like toy boats,
reckless remains
of moments grown thick
with the eternal.
The hostess wears
a sleek mask of feathers, her face
worn thin as paper,
nearly torn beside the lips.
There is candle light,
cool air. October:
silver flasks in hip pockets.
The tailgates open
to casseroles, kegs of beer. At dusk
the stadiums empty. A few stragglers,
the plastic sacks,
the sifting of garbage for loose cans.
Through windows on the walk home
the glow of kitchens, the kettles of soup.
The first shards
of headache behind the eyes, scores flashing
on the screen, a friend nursing a last drink
as the weekend
folds its arms across its chest.
And the months ahead narrow into belief
and a bitter loneliness;
how very cruel faith seems
to the faithless, how light the wrapped package
that is given by heart alone.
A thin, stray wind
down the chimney fills the room
with smoke. October.
All is foolish except honor and love.
The children in costume. And the long nights begin.

California Stars in West Virginia (for Walt)

(from Freeways and Aqueducts)

I want to rest my heavy head tonight
On a bed of California stars,
I want to lay my weary bones tonight
On a bed of California stars.

--Woody Guthrie

The almond orchard behind Caroline's house
is cross-hatched with roads
that seem to lead away to somewhere
east of everything: the Sierras, the clouds
above them, the last lost lake in America.
In spring the earth is furred
with grass beneath the trees,
which bud snowflakes and fresh
handkerchiefs, the long gone white of almond blossoms.
At night in a new moon's broken beam it seems
the stars have decided to give all their light
to a single hour; the flowers
are singed by starlight; they are bursting into flames
so cool the air for miles
is edged with frost.

Walt slept once in a pram by Carrie's pool
in March and woke covered with blossoms;
I found him gently chewing one,
his hair aged by flowers, the receiving blanket embroidered
with almond petals.
Three years later he asked why the starlight felt like
soft fingers on his cheeks,
like flowers, he said.
We were in the backyard watching
the night settle in the privet, a night too warm
to worry the fading annuals;
I was grilling steaks and he was helping,
his plastic tongs, his white chef's hat.
Walt remembered nothing of spring in the San Joaquin,
of driving through orchards hung loosely
with mist, the smell of water in the ditches, the moon
a white hole in the aquaduct, stars
freckling the irrigation puddles.
"Like flowers," he said again as I imagined the almond
blossoms, as I turned to watch a firefly
settle easily on Walt's cheek,
a firefly with nothing to fear in the falling dusk, the little boy
looking for stars, feeling the light on his face.

Legacy (from Quarters

Annemarie is nearly six. It is too early
in her life for the rain to remind her
of anyone, of a conversation that ends
in privacy, two people alone together
at a window blurred by warm breath,
by hours of sad talk, by the rain.

But she knows the crayons will run and smear,
that the butcher paper will turn to mud
if she leaves her art on the balcony
beside her slide, her plastic house.
Instead she's left a tooth in her meat loaf,
softly spitting a bite back to the plate,

knowing enough to mask her mouth demurely
with the napkin. Her smile is plainly
lacking when she lowers the veil,
though brighter somehow, like the one
grinning jack-o'-lantern on a porch
of carved snarls, the leering pumpkins

empty-headed and aglow, lit from within
like impressionable four-year-olds,
who follow Annie through sandboxes
and party games, pinning the tail
to Jeremy or Bruce; they follow her
anywhere, into the privacy of secret names

and imaginary friends, into trouble.
She is nearly six, though seven or eight
depending on the room, the age
of her playmates; she is always oldest.
And so her mother says, Such a good tooth
for a seven-year-old
, then retrieves it

from the half-chewed bite. She rinses it
in the sink, hands it back to her little girl
and explains the tooth fairy, how she's different
from Snow White but just as pretty.
At the end of her prayers Annie shoves
the tooth beneath the pillow, finds a quarter

in the morning. It's from fairy land,
her daddy says, a piece of moonlight
for a pretty girl. Make sure you save it
for a dark night
. Her mother waits for later,
when her husband's gone to work; she presses
the quarter in Annie's palm. Don't worry

about the nights
, she says. Save it
for the rain, for that first remarkable rain
when you're alone, your hand in his,
the window a steamed mirror.
When he looks at you without listening,
when no one is listening: call me.

Now (from Quarters)

They waited for the music on the radio
to stop and it did, though somehow a few
seconds passed before they noticed,
much the way a day ends with a silvering
gone gray, darkness a hand on the shoulder,
a hug: it sits with you filling the room
with its silence. The message that followed
was meant to soothe as it shocked, like
the end of a fairy tale whispered
to a child at the edge of sleep: Now.
And even for them, enlisted to a duty
they were old enough to love, even they
felt the feather blows of a dream, that hush
of breath that arrives like a breeze
through a window, a dry kiss, the ghost
already closing the door behind him.
She retrieved the small pistol from its
velvet sack in the bread box. He
fit barrel to stock and oiled
his grandfather's rifle. There was time,
though quickly, to lick each other's
closed eyes, a ritual of sorts, his sweat
on her tongue, the bitter taste of mascara
across his gums, a cocaine freeze.
Offshore, beyond the breakwater,
the pirate station ended its broadcast
and released a single horn blast, as if
entering a slender bank of fog: a decorative
blast for a quickly passing vapor.
And what followed was the rumble
of a thousand shoes on concrete.
He paused to let the cat in as she filled its dish
an extra inch, enough for days or forever:
who knew? Simply put, the long wait was over.
And as they began to run with half the town
toward the harbor and the congregation site,
he saw the bright dome of the capitol
ignite with sunset, its copper tiles aflame.
And he remembered four children long ago
on the municipal beach, his brother's foot bandaged
in strands of jelly fish, one sister screaming
as the other continued digging, her plastic pail
filled with wet sand to drip into spires. The horizon
had seemed a botched watercolor of sun
over sea, a stain of orange that made the sky
a tissue torn with fire. He had run
for his mother with a joyful panic, knowing
his mission was of mercy, his brother's pain as vast
and distant as the execution of innocents
witnessed from afar, a television flickering
in a peaceful land. As now he ran with his wife,
the rifle easy in his arms, their pockets
jingling with keys and coins, skeletons,
quarters and dimes they would melt into bullets.

The Sanity of My Vessel (from Freeways and Aqueducts)

You're never here but here
you are, and you're smiling, a pair
of pink slippers hooked to your fingers.

If this were a dream
a small door would open in your body,
swallows would not be lost

in their migratory myths (they clatter
in the cold chimney as if
their blood remembers).

You are not a dream, a ghost,
an apparition, but you have risen
from the dust of a deep corner

because you are not here and here
is all I have. So I am readying the horses,
sewing a tear in my blue coat.

For it is nearly over,
the quiet of seaglass and sand,
a quiet that fills

instead of empties, the blown snow
finding the crack in the porch door.
The silence is slipping like a tongue

into sound, and I am almost to the gate,
almost ready to depart.
Repaired of dress and listening for how

the trees in reaching down to scratch
the bony rooftops recall your weary sigh,
my lighthouse, my siren (please wait),

I am very nearly on my way.

Soon (from Quarters)

He had always supposed he would die first,
before her, though he didn't think about it much.
It was like a secret learned and then forgotten,
a letter that hurts and is hidden away in a trunk.
But he had always assumed that one of many gifts
she would give him would be to bury him,
and that was that, though now and then,
as he cleaned her hair from a drain or
sliced an apple into wedges for lunch, placing
half on a yellow plate for her, eating the rest
as he stood reading her shopping list taped
to the refrigerator, now and then he thought
of how much harder it is to be left behind,
and for a while he'd feel an ache in his hands,
as if he were trying to hold onto something
too tightly. Twenty-five years ago she was already
twenty years younger than he, sitting outside
his office, her name on a sheet of paper tacked
to the door, her name with others, each listed
by the hour: it was always 3 o'clock with her,
always Wednesdays. And he loved her immediately,
though of course, he hadn't known it right away.
Perhaps one day, as she pulled her books from a bag
and began to ask a question, pointing at a line in a poem,
perhaps he thought of how much harder it would be for her,
perhaps he thought this before he'd ever kissed her,
before he noticed how her glance left a streak
on his cheek for days, as if her thoughts could touch,
could leave the small bruises love leaves early on.
But even then there was nothing he could do about it.
Once, years after, he awoke from a dream where
he had watched her from a stand of black oaks
as she dropped a daisy in his grave. And later,
still dreaming, he had circled in the air above their bed
as she tossed loosely in the sheets without him
like an empty cup blown with paper down the street;
she had been wearing a shirt he'd left dirty in the hamper.
She wrapped her arms around his pillow
as though it were a sack of stones, as though it held her
in place on the earth, kept her from rising to join him.
And when he drifted on her breath out the open window
he had reached to grab the curtains; he had wanted
to stay with her, though he was nothing then, a breeze,
his hands passing through the thin fabric like smoke
through a screen. And for the rest of the dream
he wandered through their town disrupting
leaves gathered in the gutters, cooling a hot cheek here
and there: a breeze. He never told her of his dream.
Sometimes he watched her from the porch as she stooped
and straightened in the small side garden.
He watched her pull the carrots from the earth,
how she shook them gently before dropping them
in the basket. She wore around her neck
a small woven sack on a string, and in it kept
a quarter: if ever far from home and stranded
she could call. But she was never far from home.
And the sack lifted away from her breast as she bent
to pull a weed; it swung back and forth
like a hypnotist's watch; she took it off only
to sleep. And when he awoke before her each morning
he thought of her alone in the empty house
tending to the three cats, winding the clocks,
the few things he now did, stacking logs
on the front porch each October, phoning for oil
when the furnace went cold, filling the feeder
by the kitchen door. And of course it hurt him
to imagine her alone, as it hurts him now
to imagine what becomes of those who go, or worse,
of those who stay behind as wind, as small eddies of air.
He gathers the laundry in piles, wonders where
she kept the bleach. He lifts the sash, lets in
a soft wind hoping for the smell of lilacs,
though it's early yet, only April. He will have to wait
for lilacs, and for whatever she planted in the garden.
It is too soon to know for sure what is there.

Western Sky (from Freeways and Aqueducts)

Lazarus could never remember
which pocket he put his hand in
when those crowding around
asked to see the holes, mistaking him
for someone else.
And the many melding lights of Los Angeles
are visible from the moon, or so
says my friend at JPL, who should know:
he mans the telescope on Mt. Wilson,
which stares these days at a dropped ceiling.
Nevertheless, it sees; it is like
closing your eyes and watching
the flecks of dream
leftover from the night before.
My friend spends
his nights alone looking
for what? He can't say.
It seems we all want
to see new worlds, the planet nearest
the silver star, the frozen sun.
We all want to know it didn't hurt,
the sentence slipped like a burning cigarette
into someone's ear, how the once
best friend declares his love for whom
you loved and it doesn't hurt. After all,
it's always better to know, though
how much longer do we expect to live?
And will it sear and scar, this new knowledge,
will it join the other blue marks not fading from sight,
those strange hard shadows,
not wrinkles or lines exactly
but fossil traces of every sweet truth, as if
we could ever learn and let it go?
When Lazarus asked for water someone said,
"Tell us first your story, my friend, then drink."
Here was proof that the body endures--
thirsty or not we go on,
though how quiet and cool it had been
he said, and how very much
he now needed water. And when finally
allowed to die, he rose swiftly
and saw how the oceans shaped
the slivers of land, how they lit
the world a warm soft blue, as if
a family had gone to bed forgetfully,
leaving the television on, its light
a little fuzzy behind the curtains.

James Harms
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February 20, 2018
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