This is a longish autobiographical poem written in my mid-forties. It starts with Roy Rogers and Dale Evans. Unless you are of an age to remember what mustard and baloney on white bread tastes like, coming from a Roy Rogers lunch box with a pickle wrapped in wax paper, you may not understand what they meant to us. Roy and Dale were Christians before Christians knew enough to be ashamed of themselves and to blame others for their shame.
When Roy and Dale became stars they gave up smoking, drinking and swearing, determined to be examples for their saddle pals. And they were. My Aunt Cle worked for a dentist who gave us tickets every year to the Houston Fat Stock Show and Rodeo, where Roy and Dale performed with Pat Brady and the Sons of the Pioneers. If it’s been a while since you heard the cool, clear water of their voices, listen now and drink your fill.
After every performance, Roy and Dale circled the arena on horse back, shaking hands with a thousand kids come down to them from the stadium. Many times I saw them turn and ride back to a child who had come late to the rail. When Roy and Dale looked into my eyes and touched my hand I knew what the Israelites felt when Moses smote the rock with his staff and water came gushing out. Wherever Roy and Dale may be, in whatever form or formless state, even if they are only cosmic dust, the one whose head their dust may fall upon, is blessed.
Remembering my second cousin, Luther, now, his wife and their two sons, both named Tommy. Not really part of this poem but of the times. I believe that Luther was Uncle Henry’s boy but I’m not sure. My father’s family rarely visited and when they did, they never talked. Luther had a mole on the right side of his mouth the size and color of a pencil eraser. He had rogue eyebrows you could hang a blue jean jacket on. That I do know. Luther was a short man and lean, while his wife was a big woman. When they stood together it was like a struggling pine tree beside a hay barn. I’ll say no more about it. Perhaps I’ve said too much already.
I didn’t know Tommy number two and all I remember of Tommy one is his photo dressed in full cowboy outfit, including woolly chaps. He was sitting on a Shetland pony, black and white with braided mane and tail. The saddle was black leather with a silver horn and silver on the stirrups. Might be hard for you to understand how badly I wanted that little horse, that saddle, and those chaps. When he was in high school, his sideburns grown long and thin, Tommy had the poor sense to rope a seed bull from horse back. The seed bull drove into him, knocking down the horse, which fell upon the boy and broke his neck. Then the bull ran off trailing rope which tangled in the bob wire fence and took it down. That’s how they found Tommy in the pasture. He died alone while his mother was in the kitchen frying spam and eggs for breakfast.
Maybe ten years went by before they had another son and named him Tommy too. I heard my mother say no good could come of that and maybe she was right. Cousin Luther ended up divorced and remarried to a woman from the honky tonk. More than this I should not say. If anyone alive remembers these events and corrects what I have said, I will bow my head, admitting my mistake.
Memories come back to me now inappropriate for casual conversation because too much is revealed by them of the secret heart. In the secret heart are rooms we should not enter alone and caverns leading down to a core of fire.
I was born in Texas
where Mexicans paint pink crucifixes on the doors of abandoned Chevrolet’s
buried to their axles in blood colored rust.
And I grew up wanting to be Jesus.
It was always Jesus or Roy Rogers I wanted to be
because I knew then what I know now
if Jesus Christ had been born a smooth shaven Hollywood Cowboy
he would have been Roy.
I had the idea of a partial incarnation of Christ
known as “The King of the Cowboys”
not knowing the role had been filled 5000 years ago by Krishna.
If you had a 78 RPM of Dale Evans singing “Ave Maria”
and if the broken arm of the record player swept back again and again
from the end to the beginning
while your heart rose into pine trees shuddering with prayer,
then you understand me.
Year after year, I shook hands with Roy and Dale
at the Houston Fat Stock Show and Rodeo
as they rode around the arena on Trigger and Buttermilk
greeting every child come down to them from cheap seating
often riding back to touch the hands of one came late.
It was like looking into the eyes of glowing saints.
It was like touching the feet of a plaster Madonna in San Antonio, Texas
that cries real tears.
I decided to become a preadolescent preacher.
I would tour East Texas healing people
making them bark like dogs up and down the aisles of cinder block churches.
Southern churches have baptismals made of tin 4 to 5 feet deep
where working people are immersed in water, like the Bible says to do
not just sprinkled like the rich say.
Afterward we become useful Christians citizens such as plumbers
or insurance salesmen.
Baptismals are hidden until needed by blackboards behind the pulpit
where preachers writes words like ”The Pope” or “The Jews”
during his sermon
drawing a white X across them, pressing so hard on the chalk stick
that it will sometime break or fly out of his hand.
I fell into a baptismal and nearly drowned in there, pretending I was Jesus.
I remember Mother’s arm around me in the church
whispering in my right ear
while the preacher walked in his sleep down narrow hallways of the Bible.
The preacher, named Brother Prentice Potter, made his living
driving short haul truck.
I remember his arms swollen with muscle from unloading boxes of fruit
forbidden to the poor.
High on his left shoulder, under the long sleeve shirt
covered again by a cotton tee
was the tattoo nobody was supposed to know about:
a red heart broken into pieces jagged as teeth.
What hair Brother Potter had was thin and curled, stuck to his skull
I worried I might look like him some day.
Now that I do, my right hand reaches back through all this time
to shake hands with the man, to touch him high on his upper arm.
I remember him preaching about the end of the world
while my Mother whispered how good it would be for the world to end
while we sat there in church.
Looking at walls and a ceiling built quickly as the world was
out of cheap materials
I saw Jesus Christ riding out of the sky on a Palomino stallion
breaking down rooftops like a Santa Claus of fire
waving his sword of many colors,
blood of the rich red as rouge on his cheeks
their blood up to the thighs of his horse!
His eyes were like wheat fields of his enemies burning!
I used to take the red ball point pen out of my Mother’s purse
the one she kept for marking errors.
I drew nail holes in the palms of my hands and on my feet.
If I could stimulate a nose bleed at that time
real blood could be substituted for ink.
Then I’d lay out in the sun thinking how hot hell must be
and pretend I was crucified.
The earth would fall away from me and I’d be flying on the cross
among stars no one knows the names of.
The cross became a fighter plane or a dive bomber
and I was the lone pilot, 30 seconds over Tokyo.
There was a certain tree I’d climb in, so full of faith
whose limbs were perfect for a crucifixion.
With my fingers braided in knots of imagined agony
and all around me crows and catbirds laughing like Pharisees in the streets of Jerusalem
I would stand alone in suffering heat
and in breathing wind.
The state bird of Texas is the mockingbird.
I imagined them clustered around my all seeing eyes, pecking me sightless
while I looked within at the face of God.
In Texas, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and Sherman’s march to the sea
are current events.
That tree was a willow and looked like a woman bent over at the waist
brushing down her long green hair.
Standing in that tree was like loving a woman
though I didn’t know it at the time.
Letting go of the body while keeping a grip on willowy limbs
I would fly upwards on the cross into temples
Years ago in San Antonio, I found a crucifix of Jesus laughing.
He wore a crown of thorns big as a sombrero
but even with his circus tears and all that Mexican blood
he was happy
because he knew then what I know now:
All wounds, even bullet holes in our hands and feet
are only flesh wounds.
I was a sleep walker.
I didn’t know that I cried in my sleep
wandering around my parent’s house, looking for home.
Even years later sleeping in cars and abandoned houses
and once in a drainage ditch outside Wheeling, West Virginia,
the moon was raised against me like a sickle sword.
I was crying and didn’t know it.
There were nights so cold I prayed for death
which seems extreme to me now.
Because I lived, I learned to embrace the cold and make love
Where I live now
clouds come down over houses and fog squats in pear orchards.
If I walk in that fog I may hear laughter and not know whose.
I may hear children crying or men shouting at their wives.
When the wind blows through the Columbia River Gorge, where I live
it can sound like laughter.
It can sound like men weeping together under a bridge.
The river is loud with salmon backed up against dams
ground in generators and boat locks.
In my heart there is a river
and in my heart there are wheels and gears and millions of eyes.
But there is also a Joy as powerful as weeping
that I cannot defend myself against.
Joy comes over me and I collapse under it.
Then I kneel down and admit to myself and to you
I know nothing.
Sometimes I wander at night
staring over this curve of earth, looking for home.
Sometimes I go down through layers of terror into a hole narrow as a scream.
It might be a birth canal.
It might be the wound in Jesus’ side or a hallway leading to a throne.
Sometimes at night I feel I am swimming in a river
or moving through the body of a woman who has no name.
In the dark, I feel for the spreading and the joining of waters
at the source.
I pray She will become small enough to be loved by me
that in my hands her breasts will be the domes of a temple
In 1969 I decided to shake the dust of Houston off my feet
and walk into the wilderness near Huntsville, Texas
where the prison moon assaults the weary lost at night.
But I didn’t know how to live out there and I still don’t.
I had knelt by streams of blood and drank my fill
of all this world has to offer.
It is the taste of blood that holds us to this world.
That is what I believed.
I had drunk the blood of suburban neighborhoods in Houston
at 3 in the morning when the only one outside was me
and cars that leaked oil.
I had drunk the blood of streets in the Montrose area of Houston
where middle-aged beatniks, artists and professional religionists lived.
I slept in a Chevy with the Virgin of Guadalupe standing on the dashboard
the backseat covered with cigarette burns and knife holes.
I was a mummy wrapped in the bandage of what I had become
and I was crying.
I had one friend always on amphetamines.
His name was Daniel and he drove a 63 Porsche inherited from his father
that still had its original tires.
Rusted out and dented he’d drive down Montrose Blvd dragging his muffler down the street
sending sparks into magnolia trees.
Daniel wore orthopedic shoes without laces so the tongues flapped
as he walked.
These shoes had been expensive when he found them.
They talked to him and they listened like no one else ever will again.
The faster he walked, the faster the tongues flapped
and the more information the shoes gave to him.
So Daniel was always walking fast as he could
til the shoes that talked in tongues
would start to sing.
Once I found him standing completely still in his kitchen.
He said he’d been there for days
but I had seen him drive up half hour before.
He said the shoes wanted him to know how it felt to be a shoreline
carried day by day into the Gulf.
The shoes began to talk to him even though he wasn’t moving.
They began to sing to him like two black women washing dishes at a sink.
“Jesus will be alive long after you’re dead!”
The truth of that hit both of us hard.
Jesus will still be alive long after I’m dead.
Selah. Think about it.
I think about death now.
I get up in the morning and the skin of my face hangs like wet sheets
on a back yard line.
My skull is a hilltop being logged to clearcut.
The years strip us bare and lay us etherized upon a table.
The years, they are the hands of surgeons.
They cut us open and force back ribs to expose more and more
of the heart.
Now I look into the eyes of old friends and see burned churches
houses of God broken into and set alight.
Jesus will be alive long after we’re dead.
The soul coils inside the body like a mouse that sleeps in the skull of a roadside
The cities are stacked bones in a trench of blood!
But the green heart is not defiled.
God wears sideburns and has acne on the back of his neck.
God smokes cigarettes in the cool of the evening and wipes his hands on the crotch
of his jeans.
The heart is a river where I kneel in the shadow of a willow
praying to the god of water:
“Carry me. Carry my family. Lift our shadows from us and make them wings.”
Between 1970 and 1972 I was always alone.
Everybody I knew was tangled in sex like mudcats in fine nets of fire
but I wouldn’t even touch myself down there unless I was holding
a soapy rag!
At that time if you looked anything like Jesus
girls you didn’t even know would ride up on bicycles and ask you home.
I looked a lot like Jesus.
I had the hair, the beard, the feet.
I spent a lot of time looking up at the heavens as if I’d been hit on the head with a rock
or shit on by bluejays.
There was a girl named “Meadow Star” who asked me to see a quilt
her grandma made.
She looked like Mary Magdalene and my grandma made quilts too so I went.
On the way she told me she was a dancer
and I thought she meant ballet or jazz
but when we got to her house there were g-strings on the kitchen table
she had made for herself out of buckskin and crow feathers.
Someone had drawn her naked on the dining room wall and written the words
“Ascension to Virginity” over the top of it.
The quilt was spread across her bed like fields of tulips in Southeast Iowa
as seen from a prop plane.
But to me that quilt was a desert where I had come to fast and be tempted.
I drew a circle in that desert with my fingertip and stepped inside it.
Inside the circle was a spring of clear water.
Outside were tongues of fire jutting out of rocks.
There had been a night ten years before
when my Father didn’t want to go to church on a Sunday night.
He wanted to stay home and watch acrobats from Hong Kong on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Mother stepped between my Father and me and drew a line across the linoleum floor
with the toe of her low heeled shoe.
“All those who are for the Lord, step across that line.”
“As for me and mine, we will serve the Lord!”
I had just seen Walt Disney’s version of “The Alamo” starring Fess Parker
and Buddy Ebsen.
Colonel Travis had drawn a line in the dust with the tip of his sword
like my Mother did with her shoe.
Inside us is someone who never stops laughing. To know this
is to be in danger of loosing everything.
That night I went to church with my Mother and 20 years passed
before I held my Father in my arms and let him cry.
It was after his first heart attack and the first of many times he poured salt into my desert shoulders
and every tear was a sacrifice and every tear was a lie.
Glad now I left that quilt undisturbed.
Glad I left that virgin un-ascended.
Glad I don’t have children scattered across Texas who would be the same age now
that I was then.
If I met these children by accident on a bus ride to the Gulf
when the moon was a curved tooth rotting in heat haze,
when the coastal plains of salt grass and oil derricks were chewed in headlights
and swallowed by the dark.
If I met my children for the first time with the shoreline coming closer
closing around us the olive colored arms of a Mother dressed for church
a Mother big as the Gulf of Mexico
with waves of green fire phosphorous and shallow water shark.
If I asked those children, who were never born but have faces
who were never born but have names that come against me suddenly at night
like birds exploding from a branch while I walk in my rich fog.
If I asked those children about their father
they would look at me with the eyes of my Grandmother
come back across the Brazos with her face spread wide as a delta fan
they would look at me and say
“I never knew you.”
If I could tell how smoking dope in an apartment hallway with all the doors
could lead to jobs painting houses
it might be a deterrent to the kids I do have.
I’m a paper hanger now and good at the trade.
Call me at 509-493-5209 in Underwood, Washington if you need
any work done.
I once papered a bathroom for an old man named Jim Root
whose desolation was hidden by jokes
the way a clearcut is hidden from the highway by a fringe of trees.
Jim Root wore a Blazer’s cap and had a wife with a hump on her back
the size of a half grown cat.
When the time came to pay, he said
“You know Adolf Hitler was a paper hanger too.”
I said, “I didn’t know that, and I still don’t.”
I don’t know anything now but sometimes I pretend.
In the middle of long explanations I sometimes remember words of wisdom
that came to me insife two fortune cookies
at Bonnie’s Red Dragon China Cafe, in Fairfield, Iowa:
“A worm gnawing in a tree is not heard. Neither should you be.”
“In a lifetime only one hundred words are worth saying. If you must speak
let them hear only the river.”
I left those words slipped between the loose seams of red flocked wallpaper
three booths back from the street
where the naugahyde seats are patched with duct tape.
Look and you will find what I say is true.
When pain comes a man will face it or turn to the river.
He will swell up with silence like a woman with child and he will sing like the river
mud in his throat, salmon leaping from his eyes.
We still drink from the river though it carries bloated cattle on its back
that pile against dams, with all their electricity released
I believe that every one of us will crack along lines predestined by the intelligence
of the heart.
The heart will come to harm and it will heal itself.
Spread out over many years or all at once like an ax blow the heart will be broken
by a force it no longer cares to resist.
Then every dam will collapse at once and there will be flooding
on the land.
Flakes of burning sky will fall on the backs of children
setting light to 300 layers of skin going back seven generations!
Our bones will rattle!
The fillings in our teeth will rattle like seeds in a sacred gourd.
I look across years that curve gently back to a single point of laughter
from which all these worlds have come!
I have followed myself through a thousand streets and I have arrived
at this chair by this window near the Oregon border
with all the big trees coming down and the last owls hooting.
Everything I need to know I can see from here.
Inside my face is a skull that is always laughing!
It shines through my skin like the stalking moon.
There is death in life and life inside of death.
The dead move easily through the marrow of the living like sleepwalkers
When our bones are hollow
wind blows through them the song of a Cherokee flute.
I have to see through my own eyes and blow through my own bones
a song that is holy and immersed in the blood of earth.
I have to let my voice go up like sparks into magnolia trees
while I go down in the secret heart and walk through caverns
to the core of fire.