On the Autobiographical Impulse
Does it matter that I am homosexual, and therefore on the edge
of some larger portion of the human world? Does this matter?
Does it matter that my name is German, and that Germans find my name
Does it matter that my mother’s family was poor?
That her father beat my grandmother when he drank? Does it matter that
he fled Kansas
During the Dust Bowl to ride the rails? Does it matter that his aunts and
were herded into Siberia by the hand of Stalin, shot on the banks of the
Does it matter that they believed in ghosts, ate lard and sugar sandwiches,
went into the service, went to sea? Does it matter that I have family in Chile,
in Argentina, Transylvania, Hungary? Does it matter that my parents
turned against me when I was nineteen? That I worked as a prostitute in
groomed horses for a baron and let myself be fucked by weekend guests
in payment for my stay at the beach? Does it matter that I worked in a
Does it matter that I know how to hunt, field dress a deer, knit a sweater,
make a basket, pollard willows, converse in three languages, read four?
Does it matter that my nephew believed he was being
the police, that aliens bedeviled his nights, that he loved mycology
and weapons of all sorts, that he tattooed the outline
of Minnesota on his chest, and that the noose he used to hang himself
was put out that week in the trash?
Does it matter that he lived, or that he died?
How much of what we are is what is seen? Am I more tender
because I am penetrable? How many men have been inside my body?
I lost count. Their ghosts would know. Does it matter that I light candles
in churches to burn away disbelief? Does it matter that I sit
behind a desk in a room lined with books, that people come
to hear me speak? Does it matter that my body repels me
but that I like my hair? Does vanity matter?
Outside, the wind turns and the sun burns the grass
as it has always done. I understand
the moon to be a cliché, yet it still lodges into the sky at night,
and the moths search out the truth of the bedside lamp.
Some will survive the night,
others I will sweep from the bedside table
where they spent their last hours yearning toward the light.
Once, I was made the victim of a man.
He beat me the way a boxer might beat a bag of sawdust.
That afternoon, my world became very small, centered
on the bruised surface of my face. I thought that day,
as I shrank from his attentions,
that I would die there, strangled on my bed, while outside
in the California fog, the lone palm below my window
rattled in the Pacific wind, indifferent to my plight.
This too I survived, as the man
grew bored or scared, and simply put on his clothes and left.
Having been a victim, I am not a victim.
Despite what you think you know
you know nothing of the words I have used
to empty myself of myself. This event means less to me
with each morning, and even when it occurred, it meant very little,
the man not knowing who I was.
Today I am seated at an ugly desk in a beautiful room.
Large shutters open onto a medieval courtyard.
The occasions of my life conspired to bring me here
on a September morning in Umbria. Jackdaws rustle
in the olive trees. Workmen grind stone with a machine.
The fog burnt off and is already forgotten
except by the lines on this page.
Behind us is a summer of violence, which moved around the globe
popping up in corners, unexpected, always, but anticipated
nonetheless. A man drove a truck through a crowd.
A man was shot while face down on the ground,
and a tyrant rose in the West.
Violence, the hand shifting the gears of a truck,
a mind fixed on the density of a crowd.
On Living with Animals
I spent a week riding horses in the mountains.
Each day it was my job to saddle a new beast,
slip a bit into its reluctant mouth, then tighten the strap at its chin.
After brushing off the mud, I put the saddle on
and cinched the girth. Sometimes the horse would suck in its breath,
to keep me from pulling too tight. I would slip my left foot into the stirrup,
and step up to straddle the broad, accepting back. From atop the horse
I could see across the vast lands sometimes mounded in hillocks of grass,
sometimes black with sand. The horse and I agreed on the proceedings
and we set out in search of the wind. It met us, each and every day,
a thing we experienced together, brushing over our faces and pulling back
The horse’s heat drew up into my legs
and my hands tangled in its mane. Sometimes we galloped, or crossed
once we swam a deep river, my boots filling, the horse keeping me
steady on its back. It could have thrown me easily, but it didn’t.
It kept me there, my presence whether a burden or a comfort
it’s impossible to say.
On Sky Burial
Darkness drew on, though the sun was shining.
The darkness was on the inside, an oily film
smoking the glass of what I would call my soul.
From my station inside the house I watched
as vultures took away in mouthfuls the body of an animal
I had shot days before. They hopped about the yard,
clipped themselves onto the branches of the wild cherry.
I sometimes heard them roosting on the copper roof ridge,
their talons scabbering along. Vultures are patient birds,
but adamant. First one came, then a dozen, perhaps more.
Their presence was disturbing, as was their smell,
but they gave to me the idea of a sky burial.
So I practiced for two days in the yard,
holding the loaded gun to my chest, or to my temple
fitting the open barrel into my mouth,
clicking it past my teeth. The metal was cold
and tasted of acrid oil, but I welcomed it,
as though I were tasting the ardent tongue of a lover.
There are those who think that objects have a will—
that their realization of form creates a kind of yearning
to fulfill the purpose of that form. In those days
I can tell you that I felt the gun drawing toward me—
a kind of subtle leaning—
the hard walnut stock asking to be stroked and taken up,
the barrel in my mouth sexual and full of need—so obvious
it resists this explanation. Use me, the gun said.
You are not as important as you think. Use me
and I will send my carrion-stinking friends
to pull you apart and carry you into the sky.
On the third day, when I picked up the gun
I saw the face of my mother.
She came to mind and stayed there,
taking up space in the bleak room inside me.
Once present, she would not leave. Her love
for me has, for the almost fifty years of my life,
even empty as I was and as ugly as I had become,
remained steadfast. This is the force that stopped me
from ending my own life.
Now I have told you the worst things that have happened to me.
What have I achieved? Is this the music you hoped for?
Perhaps you have long since put this text away—I’ll never know.
As it turns out, my instinct for survival has been strong.
I have stood at the threshold of a vast emptiness, or been held to it
and forced to look down. From that ledge,
I was called back to the living more than once.
My presence here is testament
to the mind’s ability to correct itself.
I am living, even if some days, it is more than I can bear.
I am here, the sun crossing in shadows over the hills.