Prologue

My father doesn’t read books anymore
He doesn’t really give an explanation why
It’s just something he gave up
Just as someone would cast away an old rug, a clock, something on a countertop that visitors might glance at, touch without realizing it
while immersed in crowded kitchen chatter.

He used to be writer, a believer in folded corners
and slice of life plotlines, characters with tight-fisted secrets
that slow burn like a lantern beside the bed
He used to trace the words with his finger as he drank them in
and adjust his glasses between chapters.

It’s not something he’ll tell just anyone who wants to talk
literature. If you bring up Barth or Updike
You can see a kindling in his eyes — an understanding of cadence and transcendence and the soft curve of a liquid reflection:
Metaphors like the woods and opera and smiles across hissing summer fires.
He remembers these things like old lovers
They never quite go away.

If you recommend a book to my father he’ll politely decline. It’s not for him
— like knitting or hunting or drinking alone.
He’ll read the newspaper with a side of oatmeal and fruit, and
clear his throat when he turns the page.

When my father reads anything I’ve written
he is slow to respond, sparse with his words
But I can see his eyes glassy with a daydream:
Upon a tree of only branches,
there is a bud that begins to open up.

The Internet of Things

I spend a lot of time at work
learning about how new devices can communicate with each other
at all times, through tiny sensors
invisible, embedded underneath their skin.

They spend all day in conversation
chattering about the weather, humidity levels
politely observing all the things around them
that need to be thrown away.

All the things they know
are revealed from listening to each other
braced against the only worlds they’ve ever known —
it’s all decoded into steady strings of numbers.

There’s a simmering lullaby to science
that I often mistake for heartbeats,
windchimes in the neighbor’s yard,
soft rain that’d trickle through my window if I’d let it.

I think about the conversations we’ve had
on dust-kissed porches (of course), across airplane aisles,
through invisible networks we can’t
even trace with our fingertips.

What if we dedicated our lives (you and me)
to talking back and forth
about anything that matters to us — the storm that’s brewing,
the things in our lives that are past their prime? (Say goodbye.)

Would the words form meticulous patterns
like damp shadows flitting across walls?
Could even the most tight-knit family of devices
unlock their meaning, and paint a transcript across the sky that separates us?

Sometimes when I think about science, there’s a lump in my throat
as I pay my respects to the discoveries we’ll never see in our lifetime.
Dreams might be more beautiful because they’re misunderstood;
I’m trying. I’m trying to be a better listener.

Charles Whitman’s Insides: A Collection

Normally I don’t like to give a preface to my poems. People will interpret things however they like and I don’t want to sway anything. But in this case, I just want to add a disclaimer that these poems were an old college assignment to write from the point of view of someone else. I wanted to challenge myself to try and understand someone I did not like. Hence this series, from the perspective of University of Texas Tower sniper, Charles Whitman, circa 1966.

at the beginning
i’m not a man you’re going to want to understand.
even after you’ve understood me.
i sleep less and less as time leaves more to hate.
i am a loving husband because i take the garbage out and kiss my wife.
i kissed then killed my wife, and after, my mother.
i’ve been prepared to die ever since they loved me in this kind of world.

i discovered that the world is flat.

when you fall off you’re gone so i’ll never have to kill them again.
killing is easier of an act than giving myself to sleep each night.
in the marines i learned to sharp shoot—it’s what i’m good at.
i enlisted, saw the soul of guantanamo; i was the shadow of a man.
(a shadow is a soul that sleeps and sleeps.)
when i woke up forever the marines and the university reduced me in rank
because i stopped fighting for their dreams.
doctors peered into my charts, into tunnels with little light, smiled politely;
i watched them make their human gestures in their yellow-lit worlds.

something had gone terribly wrong inside of me.

you won’t know until i’ve sliced that world open with razor steady aim.
the doctors will prove my theory was right.
but it’s not my fault.
they’ll say it’s like a gun misfired in my brain to make it so i can’t tell you right
from wrong.

in the preparation
i can’t tell you right from wrong in a way that would make you feel safe
under your loose dreams.
i understand right to be a rifle shot at the long end of a pause.
i understand wrong to be my father’s fist blurred against my mother’s body.
neither makes it any easier to want to save a life.
murder is a word invented by the scared to scare others on cold nights and in dark alleyways, alone.
but you are more dangerous when you are together, so insistent on living.

hey you, across that stretch of grass, i’m coming towards you now
just so you can see another face.

what would your faces look like from above,
if i couldn’t read brown eyes from gray or smooth cheeks from forgotten shaves?
i can’t feel right in the curve of my wife’s body or wrong in the curve of a trigger.
same way you can’t tell a gaping mouth from a bullet hole from way up high.

from the tower
from way up high, i can’t tell you the exact weather.
clouds do not have shapes.
i packed a sawed off shotgun, 35-caliber rifles, lunch.
i bludgeoned the receptionist and shot at a family.
first the child spilling forwards and i won’t know who lived or died.
i had enough bullets for each of them to cradle, in their mouths or in their stomachs.
but i’ll never know what a hospital bed feels like.
what happens when your thoughts start sleeping but your mind sleepwalks?
my fingers pulse but i can’t feel my heartbeat;

some parts of my body are shut off for better causes.

when i look over the edge of the tower, i don’t see, but i know where to aim.
i miss many times but many times you can be sure i’ve hit.
you’ll know my misses still, years later by pock marks against the old concrete. you’ll know where i’ve hit from the spaces where there should be more bullet holes.

there should be more bullet holes but students are finding
trees where they never thought to look for nature before.
i see you there behind tree bark and flagpoles;
i shoot to kill.
police officers wail at me skyward like they’re cursing to god.

i won’t hear you so i won’t judge you.

they must think there’s an army of people up here.
would just one set of eyes, one pair of hands, be easier to stomach than a hundred?

bodies slumped over now sleeping below me,
ninety-five degree heat swimming through their ears.
i know how it looks.

under the bodies
i know how it looks, but killing is not something i want to do,
it’s just something i’m doing in my head.
i hope that’s clear inside these thin bullet sprays.
i hear men approach me.
they crawl like babies rattling guns.
so much is born today.
they shoot to kill.
but i know what it’s like to die already.
spasms up through my spine before i melt underneath that sun-peeled sky.
you’ll think it’s about glory or body count.
you’ll look at my yearbook picture in the newspaper
with your fists balled up and your mouths heaving groans.

you’ll care about me more than you want to.

doctors will say i had a special cancer that made me ‘aggressive.’
my disease killed many and it did not kill me.
but when you spit on my grave,

don’t think i’m not sorry that it didn’t get me first.

Signs of Life

The yellow yolk of the dusty canyon
and the drive to get there
The rain in my eyes lapping at the windows
The low whispers of radio sleepwalk I mistook for fog

The mirages are far less intricate than movies and
teenage daydreams lead you to believe
Sometimes all it is is a white canvas sign sitting atop a neck
— a bent metal pole

And every time you squint through the window
it says something different
What does this mean? It reads out the rearview
Questioning itself like you’ve done so many times before

It’s a puncture to the silence of a plain beige universe
You were taught everything untouched by man was better
but the things that led you here were manmade:
Questions. Not plants or even the complex
streak of blood orange that flits thinly between the clouds
Are deep enough to wonder, to ask.

It’s why the first voice you try to hush
is always your own
It’s the things that move you forward
and things that hold you back
Being still means you are the stark white sign
The canyon filling up with particles of the sun
Fading the more the light hits you

You hear that out of nowhere once, someone parted a sea.
People scratched bare feet to brown mud softened by years of salt
At one time, earth moved for us
It doesn’t matter that you don’t really believe it happened

You just need to carry it with you on this trip,
to pass through it
Like a ghost, like a fog, like something that drifts
even without wind.

Yeti

Until him there was nothing dark enough
To bend and twist with the thick of the woods
He casts raw shadows against peeling bark
Like an old prison veteran, he’s afraid of the outside
He’d whisper that to someone, across wires
Between tin cans if he could

The soil he calls home is sand between his toes
His home is a blinking red dot that fades without a bulb
He’s an homage to a different time
The convergence of science and a heavy-handed cloud
He’s a story being told to scare children around campfires
To satisfy the sense of mystery we use to survive each day
When a hatchet and a knife just won’t do

Some days people come for him
Leave him messages scratched in dirt
They look for a sign of him with fingers pressed against their lips
But every time he makes himself known
He sees his reflection through their glassy stares

There is a scientist in a dark room
He lives next door to you
He knows the passwords that haven’t been set yet
He understands the textures and membrane
that encase feelings and thoughts
He says things like
I won’t believe it until I see it
But he doesn’t mean it

When he peers through the heaving trees
Between the fury of windshield wipers
He sees a world he can’t hold in his hands
Or study through a microscope
He sighs —
I cannot discover what does not want to be seen.

Three Different Oceans In A Dry Martini (Poetry From A Cruise Ship)

On the linoleum planks of a cruise ship
midnight sky breathes
purple dust on me.  The ocean ringing in my ears.
I wonder which ocean troubles me most:

the ocean of poetry, so vast, engulfed
in sinking metaphors of life
meeting death through powdery horizon.

Or the ocean environmentalists caution me against—
Graying feverish moan of toxic
consumer past.

But it’s the ocean seeping
inside me,
quietly dampening molecules
containing freeze-dried secrets.
It promises to expose them.

Something in me needs to understand
the heart of a killer.
Someone in me recites obscure plays
by forgotten 15th century writers
who all lost their fame to Shakespeare.

All the oceans find each other,
one leaking its information to the next
until they invent a uniform rhythm:
spraying, rocking, shouting
curse words, the cure for cancer,
tips for better home living.

When there is a desperate squeak like an engine
devouring the last of its oil,
the ocean dries up as the shore appears.
One orange speck at a time.
As the night falls back into the same place I met it,
the oceans murmur their dying desires:

They want me to find transcendence
before it’s too late.

But the pizza buffet closed at nine o’clock.

Ah Cruise Ships, Oh Humanity

I have a loose theory
there is a big steel tank hidden in the heart
of the ship.
When I close my eyes, tucked away in twisted
cotton imposter, in stiff air-conditioned slumber,
there is a gritty rumbling, and among it,
high-pitched dog whistle cries
for rescue.
I’m afraid I’ll sleepwalk
dragging bare, sunburned feet.  The broadness
in my shoulders and stance
almost Egyptian.
When I reach the center of the ship
I’ll climb each rung up the side of the tank,
waking only when I’m at the top.
Deep gray rubber pulsating,
terrified
by his own wisdom.
Moby Dick has been captured,
subdued,
left to contemplate existentialism
in transit to Mexico.
I want to reach out and touch his skin,
feeling equal parts slime and blanket.
Did anyone ever love him?
Do whales have souls that plummet into thick
atmospheric holes with the speed of death
like humans?

I have a loose theory
Herman Melville writes me letters
from wherever he is.  I get the feeling
he doesn’t know or care who I am.
He scratches ink to paper fervently trying to understand
depression he mistakes for mediocrity.
I don’t know how to respond to him,
how to share with him the same honest chord
that plugs me into the ocean rhythm .
I’m not sure if he’s Ishmael or Bartleby or just plain
Melville.  I’m afraid he’s not certain.
I’m afraid I’m not certain
we will ever find each other
trapped in separate compartments of this earthly space.