I don’t know
what I’m reading.
I keep reading.
I don’t ask myself
what I’m reading.
I’m the last person
what I’m reading.
I’m sitting at the center
of the paragraph.
But I can’t tell you
what it’s like.
Some like to know
what they’re reading.
But I’m reading.
I don’t know
what anyone is saying.
I don’t know
what it means
to say I’m reading.
I Used to Live on a Cloud
I used to live on a cloud, call it Earth.
They still live on a planet, call it Seventh Heaven.
Now, after Earth’s demise, I live on
the International Space Station, a volunteer,
flossing the teeth of astronauts. If anyone
had told me this was to be the sum total
of my days, I would have tried to forget.
All I’ve forgotten can be summarized by one phrase:
all the things I’m trying to repress.
On the space station, there’s one school,
a for-profit pre-K-to-college establishment
called Nostalgia. They teach what they used to teach
on Earth, including all the wars the teachers
can remember. A nice name for a warship
would be “Death and Destruction.” Or “Little Ducky.”
My daughter can identify the blue bus,
the green bus, and the yellow bus, reserved
for schoolboys and girls. As we waited for the bus,
and as we waited some more,
she said, “Bus, come.” She held her palm
to the heavens and closed her fist to mime
what she had said in words.
I used to live on a cloud, call it Cirrus
Above Kansas. They still live on a planet,
call it Universal Prayer for Redemption.
In France, the doctor swiped my credit card.
In America, it’s done by drone.
After the west end of town became further west,
Wildcat Creek Road turned from country by-lane
to city ring road, and an aspiring vintner
decided Kansas needed a vineyard right there.
My father lives next door in his eco-house on the prairie.
He gets a flat tire every month. His property
borders the fort, and every so often he opens the garage
to see an attack helicopter hovering above
the barbwire that marks his relation to the military.
The junco has laid four eggs in between
our rows of lettuce. I told Jane it’s a junco,
and she looked it up online, spelling it
with a “k.” Friday I got a text, “You’re a g-pa!
Two eggs hatched!” And I texted back,
“I’m scared.” One M.O. for living is avoid
the center, linger in the periphery,
and inhabit the foreign. One person said
she sleeps only four hours a night, I consider
a good lifestyle napping every day.
It’s not so strange to make routine and frequent
bad decisions: driving in Los Angeles shows you as much.
When I got home to Earth, I went straight
to my favorite horizon. I left the study room
because a man wouldn’t stop picking his nose.
I left the study room because a man started
drinking coffee. I left the study room because
a man continued to clear his throat for an hour.
I read an entire book of poetry on the weather.
The gist was difficult to fathom, but it made me think
of when I was a boy in England and how the dense,
dark clouds would roll over the hills and our little
Roman garden bordering the horse fields.
Those days were good, though I wanted
nothing to do with swim class: it was wrong
for grown people who may/may not have known
how to swim to instruct children who didn’t want to swim
and didn’t want to learn how to swim. My friends
were named Robert, Alex (a girl), and Guy,
who had a little brother named Matthew.
No idea what they are like now.
Jane said it was amazing the juncos
would leave the nest in two weeks, then
would know how to build their own nests in a year:
who did they learn it from? My mother thinks
there are lessons to be learned from life.
She goes on all available historical tours.
People like my mother, but she feels insecure
about not knowing the difference between semi-colons and colons.
In Un barrage contre le Pacifique, the mother is
as mean as they come. She was tricked into leaving
for the colonies by posters saying, “Young people,
come to the colonies, fortune awaits you!”
These mottos were accompanied by visuals of
a colonial couple dressed in white sitting
in rocking chairs beneath banana trees overflowing
with fruit, a group of natives standing by smiling.
The narrator adds that the father, dead
by the novel’s start, loved books by Pierre Loti!
Before you say life isn’t pedagogic, think about
how relationships go wrong: it becomes a series
of implicit or explicit “shoulds”
intended to teach the partner how to be
a decent human. In my dream, I was in Nicaragua
for a state event, the ragtag President
was looking from the precipice into a ravine
where a wild river raced, and I wondered how
the Nicaraguan Canal (built by the Chinese) was going to work.
“Toot toot” goes the tugboat, “choo choo” goes the train,
and “TA DA” says Sae Ah whenever she does
something high on the scale of the human adorable.
Inside and outside, up and down, these are concepts
parents teach children. Because children
don’t understand the concept of dignity,
we teach them fairness. Because children have a hard time
understanding fairness, parents assert the arbitrary
rule of law. When “world” became a cliché,
the thinkers switched to “global” and then “planetary.”
I will begin the one speech I’m allowed in public
with the following words: “On this earthly sphere,
invested with such a heavy human weight ...”
Looking back on Earth, it’s clear that weather
is chaotic. Looking through the magnifying glass
at deep space, it’s clear hot Jupiters bend the rotation of
their parent stars. I’ve forgotten all the constellations
I learned in astronomy class, except Orion, or,
Orion’s belt. It’s not true I remember only
important things. One of my problems is remembering
many things and not being able to tell you why.
Adventures feel less like adventures when performed
alone. Sae Ah likes to swing with other kids.
When their parents pull them from the swings, she yells,
“NOO!!” Jane asked me the other day why she
refuses to be instructed to say “please,” and we decided
a simple statement of need to a parent should be enough, right?
Now she says “please” regularly, and when Jane asked why,
I said she has experienced its 100% result efficiency.
When I Woke Up
When I woke up, I realized some live closer to the sun than others.
When we went to the beach, I asked the surfer if he was disappointed by the
When I arrived at the station platform, I looked up and down, but there was no
one I recognized.
When I got to the grocery store, the day’s newspapers, tied in a bundle, were
blocking the sliding doors.
When we took Sae Ah to the carnival in the empty lot overlooking the 14-lane
highway, I told her she couldn’t get on any of the rides because she was too young and
she whined and made a horribly sad face.
When I woke up, I heard my mother snoring in the living room.
When she asked to use my cell phone, I said, “You don’t have to ask to use my
When I responded to the email, I tried to avoid exclamation marks.
When Sae Ah got to the splash pad at the park, she ran around the water and
yelped in glee.
When Jane’s sister texted, she said their aunt, having lived through a stroke, told
her husband to get her best photo ready for the funeral.
When I woke up, I knew I was alive and happy.
When Jane went online to buy Sae Ah a toy ice cream truck, complete with the
familiar melody, I told her we needed another child.
When the computer asked me if I wanted to run a re-install, though I would lose
my data, I took a deep breath and hit “yes.”
When the man asked Sae Ah’s name, he guessed it wasn’t an ordinary American
When I think about it, all the Chinese children in our apartment complex have
ordinary American names.
When I woke up, I tried to remember which day it was.
When the comedian came onstage, he began his routine with a joke about the
When I got on the plane, no one noticed who I was.
When I looked at the time, I felt vaguely nervous.
When I was asked to explain myself, I said, “If the hip people all do the hip thing,
then it can’t be hip for very much longer.”
When I woke up, I went to the bathroom.
When the young man’s turn came to talk about his paper, he said it was significant
for a queer author to use anaphora, though the next year he dropped out of French grad
school to become an architect.
When I went outside in the morning, I felt the same relief I always feel when I
breathe in the morning air.
When you think about what makes a map, it’s clear the word “legend” sets a map
in a mythical sphere.
When I realized it was one week before we would move for the fith time in two
years, I felt a surge of anticipation and dread.
When I woke up, I realized I’d been dreaming in Urdu.
When people ask me questions, I reply half the time.
When the country bard sat down to recite his epic, the audience gathered round in
When we looked at the calendar and saw we were going to be camping on the
longest day of the year, we tried to understand just how hot it would be.
When the mother said, “It won’t kill you,” I wanted to say, “Give me a break.”
When I woke up, the illusion of continuity was so complete I didn’t realize I wasn’t
the same person as before.
When we opened the book to the page we’d last read, we took twenty minutes to
figure out what it’d meant.
When the sun hit the window in the morning, the entire room lit up, and Sae Ah
When I ran a hundred meters, I felt winded and so stopped.
When Jane and I watched the movie about the disaster on Mount Everest, I
relished the intrigues of base camp, while Jane complained about the film’s lack of action.
When I woke up, I knew my name, my age, but not exactly my weight.
When I guessed the baby’s weight, I was off by a pound and a quarter.
When Sae Ah said, “nickel,” as she deposited the nickel in the children’s toy cash
register, I felt completely happy.
When I decided to speak about how I felt, I knew I had thirty seconds to say what
I had to say.
When I said Sae Ah is my archive, I meant she fills a void I didn’t know existed
until she was born.
Some Explanations are Better than Others
Sae Ah asks if Charybdis causes rainstorms.
Jane has just shown her a picture of a hurricane from outer space.
I tell her I’m going to buy some books, and I ask if she would like some.
She asks for one about all the dangerous places on earth, so she’ll know
where not to go. She asks for one about all the world’s animals
just not the venomous ones. I used to replace the word “die” with “perish”
when her children’s books got too graphic. Did that help?
On the street, she asks why “so many” people smoke, and I say
it’s a bad habit they learned from their parents. Whenever there’s
an argument at the dinner table, she takes Jane’s side, “I believe Mom!”
She glares at me when I try to kiss her at dinner, “Dad!”
“Can’t a father kiss his daughter?” I ask. “Not during dinner.
Where are your manners?” Once I told her the story about getting bitten
by a dog in Normandy, now she’s scared of dogs. In the park,
she spots dogs a hundred feet away and insists on being held.
Then one day a dog tries to bite her. “Not all dogs are good,
just like not all people are good,” I say, hoping we’re not all bad.
Every day she teaches me Scale, Proportion, and Ambition.
I’m trying to read, but her Pinkalicious video isn’t working.
I’m called in to fix it. She may have wanted to play lions at the zoo
a moment ago, but now it’s irritating to her when I pretend
to be Nicholas the Zookeeper, “Dad, you’re Dad! Stop playing around!”
She gets a gift of a sumi-e paintbrush, paints a Zen masterpiece:
a single dwelling teetering high on a hill amid trees under a rainy sky.
“That’s the monastery I’ll live in after everything’s done,” I say,
thinking things are almost already over. No one bothers to reply.
Rock Paper Scissors
for Abdelkébir Khatibi (1938-2009)
Abdelkébir, as a child you bounced between Rabat and El Jadida.
Me, I’m wandering the three worlds of delusion.
My left brain is run by petroleum, my right brain is the last hut
on a city block bought out by urban developers. Little, little things
with big, big meanings. In sixth grade, I was Yasser Arafat
for Halloween. It wasn’t black face, it was my face,
and I wasn’t mocking him, I was trying to educate my neighbors.
One simple sentence could save the world, if everyone read it
and believed. If there’s a revolution you want, let it be agricultural.
I did the work but wasn’t paid. It became my obsession,
and soon I was in a capitalist re-education camp (very expensive).
A subconscious quake wracked my conscience: I woke up—anxious again.
It was a hell realm where the trees had swords for leaves
that slashed at me with every step. ASTIPATRA.
She died a year after stage IV breast cancer was discovered
(78% likelihood), but my mom’s friend is still living four years after
stage IV ovarian cancer was discovered (17% likelihood).
The rich go to the island to play tennis, commute in helicopters
to Hampton homes (100% likelihood). I’ll save you
the disappointment of the longer version of my answer: No.
My daughter’s morning riddle posed to me
in the bathroom: “What made the one clown run into
the other clown?” “I don’t know,” I say. “Another clown
pushed him.” The poet, electable, if seldom elected. Perhaps,
then, not one of the elect. It was phony to complain
too much: he’d always harbored critical thoughts of the institution.
Ask me my name, I’ll ask you which one: I’ve a nickname
for every language I speak, an alias for every wedding party
I crash. Trying so hard to please others, I forgot
I was born in-between, always one step outside of home.