Restful Meditations on a Spanish Word






Pronounce the vowels

clearly in the Spanish way,

slowly in the Mexican way:




clipping off the "oh" at the end before

it collapses into our English dipthong.




The word means "rest/ relaxation"--

"de-tiring." Me canse' de rogarle. I got tired

of pleading with him--or her.


Cansar: to tire.

Cansado: tired.

Descansar: to relax, to rest.

Tengo que descansarme un rato:

I need to kick back for a while.



However, a descanso

is also a memorial to someone

mis-fortunate enough to die

in an accident

either along a highway,

or, as I saw once at Moro Bay,

a wreath with a photograph

of two boys

swept out to sea

by a rogue wave.


(A note on the wreath explained

that one body

had been tossed back on the beach;

in the case of the other,

the sea got too tired,

and decided

not to return him to shore.)



A Descanso is a Latino tradition

helping to slow us down

at certain dangerous corners

as we travel

in the fast lane of American life.

                                                                                                                  from Beyond Modesto 

                                                                                            first published by Calapooya Collage/19 (Summer, 1995)   



Another David


                    At El Escorial,

                                        in another wing of the palace,

                                                            you're likely to be herded

                    too quickly past another painting--

                                        this one of Goliath sprawling

                                                            all his massive weight

                    unconscious on the ground,

                                        and of a slender boy David

                                                            still trailing his lucky sling

                    and straddling with wide-legged effort

                                        a bulky opponent.


                    From the fear in his hollow eyes

                                        it is clear that David

                                                            knows the potential of brute strength

                    to arise, shake off minor scrapes,

                                        and slaughter again.


                    So he prepares to budge

                                        Goliath's own sword,

                                                            and with one swift blow

                    sever the trunk-like throat,

                                        turning those unsightly sinews,

                                                            finally at peace, into

                    mounds of Mother Earth.                          

                                    from Beyond Modesto, first published in Contexts South (1994)



An Attempt to Account for the Tardy Return 

of Moha, Martin, and me

from the Medina in Fez (1 December 1991)



                    You might add it up this way:

                    we spent the afternoon looking for a shepherd.


                    What we got, at first--not too surprising--

                `            were Moorish arches (Bab Boub Jeloud)

                                    leading to many busy shops, along a lane,

                                            descending to our right,

                    where "unofficial guides" leapt from the crowd,

                                offering to direct us toward discovery.



                    As professors--all three--

                               we could share an old debate: should we proceed

                    "farther" or "further"? -- each step another entrance

                                into our private mental mazes, where doors and donkeys

                                        might startle us--BELLECK!-- back

                    to ancient walls, or leap ahead to something

                                   we had in common with the unknown,

                    with the future, with the past.



                    Putting it down another way:

                    we were departing for our origins, as well as from them, winding

                                down those paths past leather workers,

                                        guilds of silversmiths, bronze and iron--

                    jewelry, daggers, gold, silk, jalabas, dates, walnuts, postcards,

                                radio shacks, audio cassettes and videos next to schools

                                        and mosques full of people praying, open fountains,

                    many-colored costumed water carriers offering

                                shiny bronze cups; barbers, beggars--

                                           all vendors of anything that might be of some value

                    to someone, at some point in time.



                    Yet another way to cipher:

                    I never glanced at the watch in my pocket,

                                even after I collided into Abdellatif Kayati,

                                        who invited us for coffee.

                    What I valued was the chance

                                 to glimpse past the present:

                                           how life "must have been lived"

                                                       in that "some other place"

                    in that "some other time"--yet still to be knocking

                                up against the presence

                                        of the workers of those streets, outside and inside

                    those shops,

                                who still bargained with the value of their actions,

                                        who still bargained for the value of our emotions.



                    The "unofficial guides" had it right:

                                  there were miracles behind doors,

                                            and a labyrinth full of shepherds

                    wearing many hats; shepherdesses,

                                   behind many veils--and I can't even speak

                    for myself to tell you the price

                                    I might be willing to pay

                                               to find a way through,

                                                            to find a way out,

                    to find a way back, forgetting about time,

                                        forgetting the bottom line.              BSSAHA!

                            from Beyond Modesto, first published in Calapooya Collage/17 (Summer 1993)



Watching For Whales


Slick black-skinned fish

in Sea-World tanks,

surfacing, smiling, squealing

for our applause

or the trainers' feed.


"Killers," they said

to call them:

but we were deceived by fog

into looking for gray islands,

fellow mammals of a larger size

that travel north.



Or human swimmers

in an indoor pool,

taking their laps slowly,

their whole weight foundering

in our lane. One kick from them

meant an ocean of water

in the face.



Evolution, even in a lifetime,

defies binocular vision. Today,

aboard a ship off Anacapa,

everyone hears the captain:

"Whales are shy; we try

to charge up on them real slow."


"Don't watch where the bubbles are;

that's where the whale has been."



And on cue, at one o'clock:

a white spout, a loud snort, and rolling

gray flesh--vertebrae--

then a barnacled fluke wave.



"This is the captain speaking again:

life just doesn't get any greater than that!"

                                                                        from Beyond Modesto



A Four-Door '57 Chevy Sedan

Besanc,on, France, June 1989



From the outside

all I'm seeing

is another "classic car"--

the hyped nostalgia for an era

I survived in a distant place. Say, man,

those '50s were good times in the USA,

but I need to travel on.



But from the inside

I brake. All that room!

on a seat made comfortable for three,

in a "body made by Fisher,"

looking over the same

black metal dashboard

that overheated so often in California.


One time, on our way home

from the beach, Susan sat in the middle,

leaving an empty space

on her right-hand side

pregnant with meaning.



And out the window right now

it's Besanc,on's narrow streets,

seventeenth-century fac,ades

and fortifications, with present-day

pedestrians hopping back

onto the sidewalks

to avoid our swift passage

through time.

                                    from Beyond Modesto, first published in Calapooya Collage/14 (Summer 1990)


Local Gravitation

for Susan


All day long our muscles

know the tug; we push

from time to time against


its pull; we measure

what feels light or

weighty; we perform


basic calisthenics, such as

standing on two legs

or sitting down with


a kind of spasmodic

collapse--called "primitive

art" in certain quarters.



In fact, however, we never

knew another way

or needed to describe one


until a late-sixties moon

landing beamed back

those bouncy Armstrongs


in glossy suits, termed

"light-hearted" and "heroic,"

or later, quite shocking,


space-station Mir floaters

semi-detached from

common earthly bonds.



To think that Isaac Newton

should have to explain

the obvious. Any child


can see that apples fall!

But it takes adolescence

to understand attraction


as a constant, our strength

maintained most often by

resistance: playing hard to get.



But late some nights, clearly

middle-aged, and two

millennia behind us,


we cast our aging bodies--

still objects in Love's odd game--

on a tight-sheeted mattress,


where we are even

fastened and unfastened,

semi-conscious of the stars.

                                        from Beyond Modesto, first published in The Moorpark Review (Spring 2001)



Old L.A. Palms:


                                rotting elephants toes,

                                            no deep roots,

                                                    but long, gray, spindly legs--more likely a giraffe's


                                       how they tower

                                              a hundred feet above

                                                      two-story buildings or any other tree


                                        how they cast

                                                even longer shadows,

                                                        and wave their floppy, foldable fans--more like

                                         frayed elephant ears


                                          how their years

                                                 outstretch the competition

                                                        from eucalyptus and telephone poles


                                            how they bob

                                                    their heads and buffet--

                                                            so unlikely--the hot, dry winds


                                             such awkwardly tall,

                                                    ugly plants now,

                                                            when compared to royal palm or date


                                              for more than a moment

                                                       at sunset, they rock and roll

                                                                any reality check


                                                from Beyond Modesto, first published in The Moorpark Review (Spring 2002)



Morning Becomes Coyote


                                            In dry September fields, at the crossing

                                    of two roads, two brown pools of water--the eyes

                                    of the gray-brown fields--the first sparkles

                                    in dawning light.


                                    So little water this time of year,

                                    but on-going life. A wake-up call to renew

                                    the gamble of the morning in the Malibu hills.


                                    And those two pools, dwarfed by two tall

                                    horn-shaped ears--or ear-shaped horns

                                    (because they breathe in quiet sounds)--

                                    preserving, not alarming the tranquility.


                                    Keen-smelling nostrils. Truly-mouthed speech

                                    in standing still, remaining silently alert so long.

                                    Daring the fields not to make false moves.

                                    Becoming a seamless, brown-gray coat.

                    from Beyond Modesto, first published in The Moorpark Review (Spring 2003)



Cerebral Ablutions


                    Brain washed? Who wouldn't want that total immersion

                    into those still-to-be-discovered ethereal formulae

                    hosed from all angles and lathered, then rub-a-dub

                    scrubbed through each and every synapse, scouring the rough

                    edges of Depression, Envy, Wrath, Avarice, and other

                    misfiring misconnections including Youth's smooth illusions,

                    age's tarnished mythologies?

                                                                If a few vivid memories get

                    shaved clean in the process, then grow back prickly stubble,

                    how much better than the encrusted porcupine quills of cliche'd

                    thinking! A completely new Pantheon of Poets, journalists,

                    politicians and non-Talking Heads--like new-born children,

                    now full grown adults, after a long swim, taking first steps

                    on a shore where the first person they hug is their significant

                    Other--a warm-blooded animal, breathless, who, for a time,

                    won't need to talk back.                                                          from Beyond Modesto


Effortless Giving

                                                                            "their life is hidden with God"

            "Hey, coach, how

            'm I doin'?" my one-month-old

            seems to say--his eyes milking light

            from the big-leaf maples, as we drive by

            the creek in the park--he facing backwards

            in his car-seat carrier, legally buckled; I

            with one eye on the road ahead (but also quite often 

            turning around: a two-eyed glance at him).


            "Great, kid, just fine," I whisper,

            remembering how I coached his mother

            as she squatted, pushed through

            each contraction with her chin down,

            giving birth, and the top of his head dropping

            a little farther each time.


            "You're out in the world now,"

            I might add, slowing down at corners,

            thinking how lousy I was at sports

            in high school (always choosing the library

            for recreation). How did I, now at forty, ever

            get on the coaching staff? . . . find the means,

            after so many hours of storm, to lift that squirming

            sea creature onto his mother's breast?


            Exhausted, when asked, I declined

            to cut the umbilical cord.


            But, today, it's calm weather in the park.

            He's already an expert at effortless

            breathing, grasping, and squeezing.

            He's the dairy farmer now, and poet, too,

            of what goes in the mouth. I may still be

            at the wheel, but he's the one

            eager to get ahead, while I turn round.              from Beyond Modesto




Dad's Memorial Day Sunburn



                You'd think my dad would've read enough,

                        known the percentage

                of ozone depleted each year,

                                lived long enough

                to be a little smarter about intense

                        exposure to the sun.



                He was there and should have listened

                        while my mom applied sunscreen lotion,

                                watched her cover my face,

                arms, shoulders, the back of my neck--everywhere

                        thoroughly to protect my young skin.

                                Dad should have taken the hint, too.



                        But my eight-year-old enthusiasm for water

                                on the first hot day of summer,

                    and the lake still brimming, splashing a bit

                                over the spillway,

                    led my dad to near amnesia. His mind had just

                           adjusted to the Spring. How could

                                   another year have gone by?



                And the waterslide just opened:

                        that headlong essence of life

                snaking down a plastic tube of Bacchanalian

                                shrieks before I'm dropped

                        just like the other children

                in a turbulent blue pool, and the lifeguard shouts:

                        "Quick! Move out of the way!"



                At eight years old, that kind of speed doesn't bother me.

                        I run right back upstairs, line up with the others

                                waiting for endless repetitions

                of your new-found ecstasy

                        until my dad denies me that heaven

                                I would surely enter

                if dad would only move a little faster,

                        out of the way of my expanding will.



                Bouncing up again

                        against his old-fashioned limits,

                                eventually I settle

                for a small, ice-filled cola,

                        happily sipping it through a straw

                                outdoors near flashing video games.



                By night we're both exhausted, but I'll never

                        admit it. I'm still asking questions:

                "Why do twenty-year-olds like rock and roll?"

                                And my dad, lobster-bodied on balding head

                and shoulders, replies: "You'll see when you're old enough

                        and forget your sunscreen lotion."

                                                                                         from Beyond Modesto


Special Education



An institution,

full of gray eyes

searching for problems.



Those searing beams

lock on a child

who must learn

to hold their gaze

or bounce it on


to another kid.



It's a game of hot potato,

and the rules are well known.

There's always at least

one trouble maker

in every class.



Once the child is caught

turning away, apparently

refusing to listen,

out comes the ammunition:

an overkill of forms

requiring the release

of black-and-blue parental ink

on paper.



In our culture

eye contact is extremely important.

When the bounce doesn't happen,

they ask: "what's the label?"



They make sure

you remember that gaze

for the rest of your life.

                                                                from Beyond Modesto


Axiology: A Study in Values


        First arrival at the high-school parking lot:

                        an axiom in getting the day started.


        Second steps out of car doors toward a time-honored,

                        horror-striking institution called Lycee, Gymnasium

                        for access to the trivium.


        Third and fourth bypass of the either/or theorem: flee or fight.


        Consider five architectural corollaries:

                        1) blacktop most everywhere, and white cement paths

                        leading to off-white buildings and organized-play grounds.


                        2) bells--no! loud buzzers--sounding every fifteen minutes.


                        3) some buildings labeled "English," "Science," "Social Studies."


                        4) interiors with long-echoing halls and collage-managed classrooms.


                        5) all subject matters', all paths', point: "Administration,"

                        lest playgrounds and libraries prove private worlds.


        Luckily all tours, all enrollments, happen in space and time;

                        every foray is "success"--honing coping skills,

                        lowering anxiety levels, never ending in sixes and sevens.


        Write down eight or nine "proofs" concerning discrete behavioral skills.


        Don't count past ten digits, or abandon hope;

                        move on--only slightly-damaged goods.                   from Beyond Modesto