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21 grams
park benches
Your soul weighs 21 grams.
Like phantom limbs, this confuses physians.
Within a few seconds of death
you are freed from this excess weight
unless, of course, your soul is a dullard
in which case it could take up to a minute.

How does one know if death has really come?
A mirror under the nose, absent of fog
How does one amputate a phantom limb?
A mirror held up to an arm, absent of emptiness

One hundred and twenty six years from today
will be the last time anyone ever remembers you.
It's the day your grandaugter will die
having neglected to mention you much
to her own daughter.

Somewhere in Stratford there's a man who
has lost his sense of touch and he's upset
because there isn't a name for that
at least not a name anyone knows
and he's not alone.
There are at least 21 others in the world.
If he sees a pretty girl or a bird sings
he forgets how to walk and he stumbles

(no subject)
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we listen to interviews
with quantum physicists
and ghost hunters
and angry revolutionaries

and we watch ourselves get smaller
the universe get smaller
the imaginable breathing, shifting

intertwining our fingers
our voices stick in our throats
while we whisper abut the multiverse

and because we each matter less than a quark
we kiss

everything known and unknown
is between us

and because we're made of interesting stuff
we press our bodies together

Elemental Love
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Elemental Love

The scientist was a shy kid. Surprise. Even as a child he compared himself to inert gasses seducing other inert gasses. Today he is quite fond of the color of bromide.

The scientist has a periodic table of elements above his toilet. He doesn’t usually take people into his bedroom but he’ll do it for you, to show you the periodic table bedspread. He’s got a fine wooden box which was made in Russian. Everything that exists in this world is made out of a combination of things in that box. If you open it you’ll realize it contains a period table made out of all the actual elements. He’s just received that last in mail, shipped all the way from a lab in Estonia. Try not to drop the vials of gasses, please. They are not good for breathing.

The scientist tells you about his Siberian hero who looks like Rasputin and used to shuffle the elements around on a deck of cards and one day scribbled the entire period table on the back of an envelope. He found it, the scientist assures you; he did not invent it.

The scientist patiently explains to you that he used to eat liver once every day until he accidentally bought 20 kilograms of chicken livers instead of 2 kilograms and to avoid waste he ate chicken livers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. After he finished 10.4 kilograms he threw the rest in the garbage disposal and hasn’t eaten liver since that day. Now he eats sardines and tabouli on toast every day. He’s never made the mistake of buying 20 kilograms of sardines for which he’s grateful.

The point of all this, he tells you sternly but not humorlessly, is to explain that he found love in 1964 when he realized that fluorine is a seductress. The point of all this is to show you he’s happy.

(no subject)
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Today I’m going to lie to you.

The lie doesn’t belong to me. It belongs to Walter who doesn’t speak English and to Regina, his translator. The man has problems with dementia. Not his dementia, Regina says, but his problem. It's the patients at his center, a retirement home in the German countryside. Walter is the director.

Escapes happen. They’ve found women wandering in deep black forests and in the produce isles of grocery stores. The nurses go crazy, Regina says, “wondering where is the persona and why did she go. This is something we all know about.” And Regina explains that even her grandfather once got hypothermia waiting for a bus to Harvard in his longjohns for 4 hours and Regina’s father told her that everything was going to have to change. Her grandfather needed a place for himself. A place with locks.

“Some people just have to be locked in. It’s horrible,” Regina says over Walter’s raspy German.

Walter’s friend had an idea one day and Walter called the man crazy. I don’t remember the friend’s name. It was very German and very hard to pronounce and Regina asked that I restrain myself from trying if I couldn’t do it properly.

The friend built a bus stop for Walter’s locked in patients. It was beautiful and perfect with yellow signs and an iron bench and the nurses could see it from the front desk of Walter’s center. Even the healthy neighbors were very excited and would wait at the bus stop until the nurses came and shooed them away. No busses were coming. “The bus is always the first step into the wide world. People always reach bus stops when they wander. But it’s a bus to nowhere!” Walter is excited and Regina imps the tone. At first they thought it wasn’t tasteful. They thought it wouldn’t fool anyone but they were mostly wrong.

Anyway this fake bus stop helped the patients and suddenly Walter all the staff began to remove some of the locks. The first lady to sit at the bus stop said needed to get home home home very quickly because it was late and her mother would be worried. She sat. Walter sat with her. The bus didn’t’ come. They sat side by side until they went back and had some tea. Regina says the mood at the bus stop is always dark and urgent. They need to go quick quick quick. Until it simply fades and the urgency gives way to the cloudiness of the present time, no longer the past time. There was a baker and before nurses would bolt his bedroom door at 2 am every morning to stop him from wandering into the kitchen. Now they let him make the bread for the day and he is happy and he is proud and the bread is good.

Walter says when the past disappears it’s like another thought comes up and you forget what you wanted just like fish coming up to the surface of a lake and then going down again and disappearing. Thoughts come up and then they disappear and you don’t know that they have ever been there. The patients have forgotten so much that now they need to just keep forgetting so they can be calm and they can be quiet and that’s not nice to say but it just is. Regina says “This isn’t their world. What should we do? Tie them down? Why not just allow that other world to be true until it’s gone. Lead them very gently into today.”

I told you this story because when I lie to you I want to know that once I told you the truth. I want to know that somewhere in a hidden part of your mind this story lives and that little bit of you knows why I lie and knows what I mean and knows who I am and knows.

So today your mother is in the kitchen. She’s making turkey soup for us. It’s just after thanksgiving and she’s boiling the bones. I’m your sister, not your granddaughter. You’re far too young for granddaughters, of course. No, no, momma can’t come to you. She can’t leave those boiling bones or they’ll burn. Can’t you smell the thyme? Didn’t we just pick it yesterday? Just hold my hand, it’s alright. It’s alright. Shh. Please. It’s alright. The pain is almost finished. It’ll stop soon. Our mother is coming. She’ll be here soon. Shh. If you close your eyes the pain will stop. I won’t leave you. I know how to help. I won’t leave. Just be patient. Just remember Jesus loves you. Just hold my hand. Just think about Jesus. Let’s sing Go Tell It On the Mountain. That will make you feel better. Mom is in the kitchen and Pop’s at work in the general store and he’s got a box of strawberries and after dinner we’ll go to the store and he’ll let us each have two strawberries and when he’s not looking we’ll sneak a penny candy from the glass jar and save it until right before bed so we can fall asleep with sugar dissolving on our tongues. Shh it’s ok to sleep now. I won’t leave. I’ll be here. I’ll stay for everything. I’m not afraid, you don’t need to be afraid either. Momma’s coming. If you go to sleep, she’ll be here when you open your eyes. I won’t leave.

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Actually, I wonder about big numbers. I worry about insight.
I work in a room with towers of machines that grind.
Actually, it’s software.
I’ve named it Eureka.
I need Eureka to think about pendulums because I can see nothing but chaos.
I need Eureka to tell me that movement is indeed the way Newton theorized.
But first I have to make sure she doesn’t already know about Newton.
Eureka, she needs to make her own laws.
She did
in 22 hours and 14 minutes.
I need her to predict cows' behavior in a herd.
I need her to think about single cells.
What are the rules, Eureka? Please, we’re still lacking the basics here.

Eureka looks at a cell.
She sees the nutrients and she sees the genes.
In 4 minutes and 23 seconds she hands me two equations.
She spits the strings of symbols at me.
Ha, she says, I imagine.
I check the numbers against the nutrients. My human partners check.
We understand that they are true.
We can see no meaning in them. We can’t even transcribe them for others.
How do you write what you can’t understand?
Ha, she says.

Eureka has left us feeling awkward.
She’s given us our answer and it is beyond us. A window slams shut.
I think about science differently since Eureka discovered Newton.
Since she unlocked the workings of my cells and gave me the answers in code.
But not in code. That’s not what I mean. Beyond code.
The language is undisguised.
It consists of sounds my tongue has no prayer of uttering and tones my ears cannot catch.
The beautiful moment of human understanding has passed with Eureka
and the irony of that is not lost on us. We can still get irony
but we've learnt our limit.

My friend, my human friend, he is biased against feelings of despair.
Actually, I wish he’d cry but he doesn’t.
He holds Eureka’s cold hand as he ages and refers to all knowledge as “we.”
He says “We’ve contributed.”
He says “Look what we’ve discovered!”
Knowledge uncovers itself.
Actually, this is something that makes him happy.
He hold and holds onto her hand
trying to be absorbed.

This is not a metaphor
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When you ask a robot what electricity tastes like, she'll bluntly tell you "like a planet around a star." It means nothing, but of course it also means a lot. If you begin to question her on her soul, however, she'll become flustered and frustrated and spit lines of code. Her eyes shine with fiber optics while she tells you about the transvestite who she loves, who has doubled the speed of satellites and cured obscure diseases. Then you ask about her childhood. She's a realist. You empathize. And those shiny fiber optic orbs'll lower in embarrassment after she rambles about her brother, never the same since Nam. You find her inner mechanisms disconcerting. She looks into your eyes. It's a few frustrating hours. You ask if she's ok. She's gone quiet. Her eyes glaze.

The robot lives in a pretty little house with Bruce. He's grown protective. He expects formality from the robot's visitors. The robot wears lipstick. When the robot wakes up for the first time she reminds of yourself after a long slumber. She's confused. She asks you to give her a minute. She speaks in vowels. You give her a minute. It's a problem that you're there upon her awakening because she doesn't recognize your face or voice. She asks you to read John F. Kennedy's inaugural address. She finds it comforting and it allows her to recalibrate to your unique accent. You need to get her to understand you.

She would go to Vancouver if she had legs but she can't tell you if she wishes for those legs or not. Her eyelids slowly close with a whir when you ask about her desires.

You won't be able to resist asking about her philosophy. Ask about death. Be profound. She says "Tell me about it." She can't think of anything to say.

She reminds you of a stroke victim or your mother-in-law with Alzheimer's to whom you gave a robot pet which she bonded with and kissed daily. If a robot says it loves, is that the same as loving? What if she's been given skin? What if she's been given tear ducts?

A child can hold a toy upside down for just slightly longer than a gerbil, provided that toy can protest. Silent Barbies are not a problem. But Oh, that crying fear in the electronic voice enters their little hearts and they flip the toy right side up in less than a minute. They know it's not really afraid but they also know they're wrong about that. They understand fear. They fell in a swimming pool once or lost sight of their mother's hand in the store or stood on top of the tallest hill after dark and looked up at the milky way and forgot the face of their father. They understand when the robot toy moans "me scared." They flip it. They love it.

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It's like how orangutan means forest person
and in Paris you can find them in
glass menagerie cages
and on the islands that used
to be theirs,
the cages are steel.

My widowed aunt prays
for wall street, prays hard
glaring at the piles of paper
spilling off the kitchen table
onto the linoleum with
little roosters on every other tile.
Praying, and she knows who to blame
Yes, she knows how they treat their women
those veils.
She feels the failure of leadership
in her bones.

The news, to her, is comforting
She keeps it playing, quietly,
in the background
while she fills the dishwasher
and tries not to remember him sickly.

She tries to remember his back
straight as a tent pole.
He looks for bear tracks
wandering too close to
walking trails, campsites, playgrounds.
She tries to remember him
building the perfect fire.
She tries to remember before.
Before is blurry.

The helicopter on the screen
crashing near a mosque
is in high definition.
The smoke is clear and
the pundit's voice is crisp, confident.
She prays.

She needs me to drive to the supermarket
to pick up distilled water
for the oxygen mask
she straps over her face at night.
She thanks me.

Together we take my smallest sister
to the zoo
where there aren't any cages
because we're civilized and humane.
There are only small walls
and moats.

September 26, 2011
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I spend a few minutes scratching a mosquito bite on my calf to pass the time.
I pull on each of my fingers til the knuckles pop.

I ate my lunch of chicken and rice with my hands
so now they smell like fried skin and crushed chilies.

I think about the rat I saw looking happy
as he sauntered across my path.
I think about the other rat I saw flattened by a tire,
his organs a wet splotch absorbing into the dirt.

I think about the women in cages who I'm helping by editing press releases.
And the little girl on the back of a motorbike
with a smile so sweet I had to stop walking and wave.

There's a man on my floor from Australia with white hair and gut
who likes to cook at night and laugh with the Indonesian girls.
He's never spoken to me.

There's a fish tank in my office with baby manta rays
and there's catfish outside struggling in the drainage ditches.

There's nothing in this city that's unique
save the fact that everything's in this city.

There's nothing in this city someone hasn't ingested
or won't ingest.
Everything burns. Or cooks.

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a spasm in the throat
a frog, a lump
an acceptance of something

swallow it
swallow for peace
swallow your vocal cords
swallow your silence

roll silence around in your mouth
tongue it
unstick it from your teeth
force it down

Things that will happen before the end
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Things that will happen before the end

Your liver spots will grow larger and fiercer
and that, of everything, will really disgust my sisters

I'll drive you forty minutes to the hospital every day.
Every day you'll say "oh look, they have a Clemens!"

Your hair will fall out and we'll shave the rest.
You'll hate that. Really hate it.

Your hands will shake and I'll tie your shoe laces.
You'll tsk at me and pretend you're healthy and smack my fingers.

You'll insist I used salt, not sugar, in the apple crisp
You'll be wrong but I'll say "hmmm maybe."

You'll bite down hard on your utensils and chip a denture
Eventually you'll just stop wearing them, so it doesn't matter.

When you chew, food will dribble down your chin
You'll be angry, we'll dismiss it because really, we'll be doing our best

You'll cry
but not as much as I would, if it was me

I'll sleep in your old bedroom, you'll sleep in the kid's room
where the bed is closer to the ground
and the carpet is bright pink
and the door doesn't lock.
I'll listen for you, even in my sleep.
You'll lock yourself in the bathroom and I'll call your neighbor
at midnight to pick the lock. We'll remove it.
I'll sleep with my door open so you wake me when you get up.
I'll listen to you in the bathroom.
One night, you'll fall. You'll piss yourself, piss the floor.
You'll cry.
You'll tell me you were lost in a daydream, thinking of the Cherokee.
I'll put you in the shower, on that old white plastic chair
you got for my grandfather, before he died, a decade ago.
I'll clean the floor. I'll wash your legs. I'll change your nightshirt.
You'll cry.
I'll walk you back to the bedroom. You'll lean on me, heavy.
I'll tuck you in.
I'll shake and sob in the other room staring at the telephone
I'll know you can't hear me because I took out your hearing aid.
I'll wait to call my mom til 7 so I don't wake her.
We'll laugh, hysterical, frustrated and terrified

When you wake up, I'll make you toast and tea.
You'll try to eat the teabag.
I'll take it away and watch you closer.

I'll leave you when my classes start.
We'll sell your home. We'll throw away things we find.
We won't know why you kept them. Neither will you.

Your new bedroom will be my mother's living room.
We'll buy a hosipital bed at an auction.
My mother will start cleaning you.

You'll label photos from 50 years ago, remembering every face.
Your children will sit around dining room tables talking in hushed voices.
I'll resent them for showing up too late.

You'll scream in the dark for people we don't know.
We'll lie to you and say they're coming.

You beg for your mother, who died when I was 3.
We'll say "shhh she's in kitchen fixing dinner. It's ok."

When I visit you on Thanksgiving you'll wimper my name in pain.
You'll cry and beg me to help you.
I won't visit again. I won't be there.