My first NEA grant arrived eleven years ago soon after my first book was published. I remember feeling overwhelmed by the check - all those zeros! The money was wonderful and provided me with time to begin work on a second book. What overpowered me more, however, was the thought of the writers on the panel who had placed their confidence in my work, who had faith in my future as a poet. I felt then and feel now a deep responsibility to produce something that will continue to justify this kind of faith. So often I am defined by my job as a teacher, a role I enjoy and appreciate. This NEA support helps me to remember my role as an artist, that I am expected to write poems. I accept the grant in this spirit: a gift presented not so much to me as to the force of art that moves through all of us.
Who would want to give it up, the coal a cat's eye
in the dark room, no one there but you and your smoke,
the window cracked to street sounds, the distant cries
of living things. Alone, you are almost safe, smoke
slipping out between the sill and the glass, sucked
into the night you don't dare enter, its eyes drunk
and swimming with stars. Somewhere a dumpster
is ratcheted open by the claws of a black machine.
All down the block something inside you opens
and shuts. Sinister screech, pneumatic wheeze,
trash slams into the chute: leftovers, empties.
You don't flip on the TV or the radio, what might
muffle the sound of car engines backfiring,
and in the silence between, streetlights twitching
from green to red, scoff of footsteps, the rasp
of breath, your own, growing lighter and lighter
as you inhale. There's no music for this scarf
of smoke wrapped around your shoulders, its fingers
crawling the pale stem of your neck, no song
light enough, liquid enough, that climbs high enough,
then thins and disappears. Death's shovel scrapes
the sidewalk, critches across the man-made cracks,
slides on grease into rain-filled gutters, digs
its beveled nose among the ravaged leaves.
You can hear him weaving his way down the street,
sloshed on the last breath he swirled past his teeth
before swallowing: breath of the cat kicked
to the curb, a woman's sharp gasp, lung-filled wail
of the shaken child. You can't put it out, can't stamp out
the light and let the night enter you, let it burrow through
your smallest passages. So you listen and listen
and smoke and give thanks, suck deep with the grace
of the living, blowing halos and nooses and zeros
and rings, the blue chains linking around your head.
Then you pull it in again, the vein-colored smoke
and blow it up toward a ceiling you can't see
where it lingers like a sweetness you can never hold,
like the ghost the night will become.