After This or These cover

After This or These

Jennifer Hearn

Copyright © 2010 Jennifer Hearn. All rights reserved.

Theodore Roethke Taking a Night Stroll on a Beach

Open-mouthed and comatose,
the anemones constellate over shallow coral,
while dock pilings and driftwood suffer
the interminable welter of waves.
I stand on the white space between
a babbling sea and an inarticulate city
waiting to be caught in a glowing dragnet
along with the lightning whelks, spears
of dropseed and tangles of kelp.
At last, the mackerel moon appears
floating belly-up in the basalt-colored sea.
Everything previously unseen
acquires the materiality of flesh or salt.
Spume like jabot on a woman's blouse
hems the shore, an army of winged fire ants
flicker in Aristotle's Lanterns. I sink my fingers
into the wet sand and feel the baby-toothed
ridges of an ancient quahog clam.
The wind is less reticent now
and the brine-stung seagrape leaves
tremble with the revelation of mortal
disorder. My thoughts grow
more undisciplined, like the dripping
of stalactites in a damp cave.
The self, like a star, is a distant sun,
an orphan to this world—bright
noctambulist that has clumsily stumbled
into this blue-green sphere. An osprey harpoons
into the waves, registering the rush of water
over wings, a small tendril thrusts its curled
green wick through a driftseed, barnacles
burrow their heads into stone, sucking
on minerals with sessile delight.
"With all of these I would be." And behind me:
black conifers extend like stanchions
holding up this night.
In this hour, the spirit receives the graces
of gravity. It rises as tides rub the faces
of saints into stone, as wind flutes
tremolos through wormholes on rocks,
as the gull rives open the soft belly
of a ghost crab. I revel in this distance
between the stars and me—intimate, sublime
like windows and angels in Giotto's frescoes.
I'd walk forever towards the nearing morning,
listening to the coquinas chime under great eyelids of waves—
Forever being a tender diminutive of night.

Genip Tree

—after Sylvia Plath

I know what gravity neglects: With tender hooks
I stretch away from the weight of living.
My pinnate leaves lick humidity. They cleave air.
Do you prefer the absence of what is beneath—
roots worming for sugars in the buried cane cart's
guilty wheel? Do you like the taste of bloodstone?
Love is an orbicular light,
un trompe l'oeil. I look down at my shadow
and see poultices of sun warming dying weeds.
Each day my branches knot into a woman's apron
bundling small commodities protesting fire.
There is molasses in my veins, white rum in my dark thigh.
All night, the coot's wing repeats the machete's
weighty laconism—"Lord, when I kept silence, my bones
waxed old through my roaring all day long."
What is it you hear in me? Is it the quick riffling
through psalms—a restlessness lacking contemplation,
or is it the mindless anthologizing of wind?
I can, for eternity, stand on this golgotha
mound in my cassock of darkness
speaking in canonical tongue.
Or shall I bring the sound of sugar's falling?
This fruit—sweet flesh inside a bitter shell,
cracked open so girls can learn the art of kissing.
I have suffered the atrocities of salt.
The perennial sting,
a miscellaneous breeze from a voluminous sea.
I, too, inure the abeyance of wind,
the devastating calm of clouds passing over
me like a shark's shadow over a drowned man.
Under the steaming donkey dung,
the manacled dead lay stoic as stone.
The Arawak skull has long forgotten the malarial eye.
The sun shows no sympathy: She would burn me,
brutally. Or, like the dead,
she is only retuning to the trees.
I regard her, I regard her.
Full and molten over the cane stalks considering
the flagrant sins of sugar, remembering
Gomorrah's fate of brimstone and salt.
Oh shadow, turn into an echo and carry
these tired voices home.


—after Elizabeth Bishop

On their green svelte shoots, leaves split in three places.
They are ecclesiastical, like papal crosses, or no,
they are subversive, leaves bend, arms akimbo.
Below, the roots spread like fingers filling spaces
between stones in a clay pot, earth-rammed and red.
The water is sweetwater, a silt and salt ambrosial confection,
but only in the swamp do mangroves clamber in every direction,
like cowboys casting their shadows, tall and bandy-legged.
They are found here in the wrack lines of sea grass,
along with the dunnage of Spanish galleons, derelicts
of Cuban balseros, and plastic baby doll heads.
They reek of quayside wineshops, of inebriated men galvanized
by loops of the Outer Sea or the loamy scent of war paint.
Mangroves know the mosquito's hum, the woodstork's stealthy step,
bivalves scraping on limestone—broken teeth of a buried alphabet.
They know the lost Muskogee. Sound too is a pictograph.
Understanding the unstated theme of receiving,
they don't bend when rain spills like rice from a burlap sack.
Mangroves keep the 10,000 Islands from floating away,
mooring down hammocks of cabbage palm and oak.
They remember what history has forgotten: the smoke,
the skeleton in the burial mound, the weight of clay
beads still around the neck, knees curled into the chest—
position of unbirth and oblivion. They remember turtles
as mossy carapaces slipping torqued roots. Moribund and fertile,
they can't forget. The river of grass never rests.

Portrait d'un Homme

—after Ezra Pound

Your words are sprawling witchgrass,
and you, my slender weed, have ruined
the sweet sorghum in me.
Your mouth opens and I see the swollen seedpods
pushing through your rough tongue.
They sprout thick green wicks and grow
into this or these: tendrils of dark ideas, spars of untruths.
You have come to me as you have gone to others—
brazenly, with piercing arrows of aspidistra, cornering me
in your Caspian Sea. I have stayed here too long,
becoming brine-stung and sun-tarnished—a scrap of driftwood
sodden with too much time.
Your absence is like an invisible, leafless tree.
Knowing no bottom, your wiry taproot no longer reaches deep
bloodstone, preferring instead topsoil, gaudy fools gold.
Weed, sea, tree.
   In the whole and all, this is you.

Noticing Ants

—after Robert Hass

Last year in Chapultepec Park, just before sunset,
my eye caught a long stream of purple winding
through the grass: a trail of ants—each one adorned
with a jacaranda petal moving as if in a funeral procession.
"Zapotec ants," I thought. "Day of the Dead."
At midnight they'll ride winged boats
and feast on sugar skulls.
This afternoon I fell asleep to the radio—
The letters detached from words and floated
as if in sleep soup while the ers and ums
invaded speech, like ants coming through my walls.
Life, you said, is a zoological Matryoshka doll.
Animalia, Insecta, Formicadae: ant.
Only the center holds the self.
At home in Miami, you use a wooden spoon
as a makeshift bridge between the infested
key-lime tree and a bowl of bleach. We lean on the kitchen counter
watching the ants march unknowingly toward their deaths,
their V-shaped antennas waving like military chevrons in the air.
I am not sure where this poem is going right now.
I just let the words make their own lines
like a file of ants on an implied path.
Everything, now, is unseen but known,
just as I am certain there are ants
hidden in the blades of grass,
waiting with mute patience to be noticed.

Oh Frank O'Hara We Love You Get Up!

Outside, the traffic is behaving just like the fruit flies that are
Hovering over the basket of molding tangelos, the only
Fruit with noticeable hard-ons, so of course when I saw them at the market I
Resolved never to buy regular oranges again. Louder than the horns
And the screeching of tires is the center of myself, which is much like a
North Shore tea party that Jackson Pollock unexpectedly shows up to. Oh, how to
Keep up with these days that flicker on the walls of this dervish world? If
Only we could pin them down and trace their light so we could study the
Hieroglyph of the future nearing. What would we see?
A fish? A cross? The labarum monogram of Constantine? Or perhaps a
Regal barkentine with a bulldozer tied to each mast. But wait. "Is this poetry," I ask?
Ah, Frank, what are we to do now that you are gone? Rise up and
Wipe that petrified dust off your grey suit because nothing
Else in life matters but words, words, words! Not even death.
Luckily, they still serve bubbly gin at the Cedar
On Wednesdays and liver sausage sandwiches at The Equestrian. It must be
Very uninspiring in the earth's underground mausoleum, not
Even a single fruit fly to write about. Tell me, how do
You, from down there, compare the poplars to aspidistra
Or see the "bearded man suspended by telephone wires from the moon?" It's
Unfortunate, like this hangover, as physical as it is metaphysical.
Get up, Frank! We need you! We don't care about Lana Turner.
Enter this world, again, ascending the open ground on an ox-cart and
Tie us more Gordian knots with your typewriter. The city is deliberately
Ugly and waiting for you. Come on! "A glass of
Papaya juice and back to work!"

Memoirs of Pablo Neruda as a Child

I remember my boyhood in Temuco, and the unforgettable presence of rain falling from the skies of Cape Horn.
I remember the sudden squall of heat that followed, that my hands tasted like salt and course-milled flour. I remember my undershirt clinging to my small rib cage.
I remember watching the street turn into the Jarama River, as leaves, battered flowers, and small, green plastic army men moved down the slow mud current.
I remember the shoes lined up at the door like toy locomotives.
I remember an old trunk with a green parakeet painted on it.
I remember the smell of dampness and cedar while I read through hundreds of love letters and postcards with pictures of foreign landscapes, all signed by a man named Enrique.
I remember thinking that my mother, Doña Rosa Basoalto, died before I could have any memory of her, though her face was the first my eyes ever gazed upon.
I remember laughing at a peasant wearing a heavy black cloak as he whipped his oxen trying to dislodge his cart's wheels from the mud.
I remember my wet socks bashfully drying next to my sister's brazier and how I cringed when they touched after a gust of wind.
I remember collecting beetles on the trunks of coihu and wild-apple trees and marveling at their titan legs and domed backs that were as shiny as a shotgun barrel.
I remember our unkempt garden and the riot of poppy blossoms.
I remember my father's friend Monge, a swarthy man with a vertical scar on his face, and that he had a cane, a knife, and a diamond stickpin.
I remember writing love letters for a schoolmate who had fallen in love with a girl named Bianca, and I remember the day when Bianca asked me if I was the author of those letters. I embarrassedly said yes.
I remember that after I said yes, Bianca gave me a quince, which of course I did not eat, but instead put it in my windowsill until it caved into itself with regal rot.
I remember on my fifteenth birthday making love to a woman after threshing wheat all day with the Hernandez tribe. The scent of frangipani woke me from my sleep in the straw, and I felt an avid mouth and then a warm body.
I remember the cherry blossoms blossoming.
I remember the Araucanian Indian names, and how the sound of their syllables suggested a clay pot, a loaf of bread, buried honey or a fragrant wild plant.
I remember capturing a black-necked swan in Lake Bundi.
I remember the black-necked swan dying in my arms from fear, and feeling it's sinuous neck fall over my arms like a girl's velvet ribbon. That is when I learned that swans don't sing when they die.
I remember trying to write a poem about the swan, but my words were clumsy and maladroit, like an albatross skimming the water while trying to take flight.
I remember greedily hunting words as though they were rare blue eggs.
I remember vowels leaping like silver flying fish. Words settling on the page like spume on the shore or dew on a field. Words dripping like stillicide from eaves or clicking like stilettos on a wooden floor.
I remember hearing the voices of the fierce conquistadors, their words budding from the potatoes and billowing from the tobacco smoke, their buried skulls still speaking of gold in the cordilleras.
I remember writing poems by my window at night and dreaming about what lies beyond the hills of Valparasio—the remote bays and distant ports.
I remember the iron depth of the night.

I Go

—after Edna St. Vincent Millay

not into the woods to follow the quick
apostrophes of wolves, their paws stained
with wild choke-cherry. Nor after the skiff
carrying the Persian woman with bangled
wrists, her taffeta gown heavy with rain.
But here, where you have planted deep salt-licks
so that imagination need not strain
after some rare lynx across the Baltic.
No. Instead, they come to me, all things far.
With you, I have everything I can't do
without: even stars find me on wanderjahrs
through night because they are following you—
you who breaks wide open worlds undreamed of
making me more unmendably in love.

Jennifer Hearn

Jennifer Hearn was born in the Caribbean and currently lives in Miami, Florida. She earned her MFA at Florida International University and teaches literature and creative writing at International Studies Charter High School. Many of these poems are found in her manuscript Salt and Ambrosia.