“Being touched is part of what keeps an animal healthy and connected to the tribe. Chimps groom each other, horses in the field and dogs in the park touch muzzles, cats roll and tumble on the carpet, playfully fighting over a ball of yarn. Humans also long for touch. But in the spring of 2020 we must avoid it. I hope that when you read these words, wherever and whoever you are, that these sad, strange days are in our past. The world we took so much for granted may never be the same. But let us vow to cherish what remains, and what we work together to rebuild.”—Charles Coe
A young woman lies in the moonlight
along the banks of a river whose name
she does not know, head resting on a coat
balled into a pillow, sleepless ears
taking in the sounds around her,
sighs and snores and quiet conversations,
an old man’s tired, dry cough
blending with a baby’s cry,
night birds whose calls remind
her of the home she left behind.
She lies in the dark, remembering a place
she knows she will never see again,
the village where she laughed and played as a child,
where now, men with automatic rifles
swarm the streets like stone-faced farmers
who sow only blood and tears.
Her body aches from a day riding atop
a north bound freight train, El Tren de la Muerte,
where those who lose their grip
tumble to earth, often to their death,
while the train, like some blind, mindless
animal, rumbles on.
But in spite of everything she has seen
she still believes in the power of prayer,
so she prays to remain invisible
to the men from the drug cartels
who sell those they kidnap
into forced labor and prostitution.
She prays for a home with a warm bed.
She prays that there is goodness still
to be found in this world,
that those she meets at the end
of this long journey will be generous and kind,
and in the moment before sleep comes at last
the night birds at the river’s edge
add their songs to her prayer.
One day near the end of summer vacation
when all the easily picked berries had been plundered
a few buddies and I climbed the tallest mulberry tree
in Military Park on a dare, to the highest branches
that would support our weight, and lying back
on sturdy limbs, lounging like young lords,
reached out to pluck those darkest berries
beyond the reach of earthbound peasants,
our only competition the indignant birds
who complained at our intrusion before flying off.
With machine-like efficiency we dispatched
those berries bursting with juice that dyed our lips
and tongues and teeth purple and ran down our chins.
Eating our fill, beyond our fill, we finally slowed,
leaning back on our thrones in the sky.
Down on the ground the world carried on
in the usual way. There was the distant cry of a baby
in a carriage, the rumble of a truck, like muted thunder.
And all the while, creeping up like a slow-moving fog,
the inevitability of sixth grade, of starched nuns
and math homework, and one more step toward distant,
unimaginable adulthood. We had no words
for any of this. We just felt it in our muscles, our bones.
As golden light filtered through the leaves
and late afternoon melted into early evening.
we knew our mothers stood on porches and back stoops,
waiting to call us to the suppers for which we now had no room.
The hard branches had begun to punish our backs
and the rough bark chafe our skin, so on some silent signal,
like birds changing course midflight, we began our descent,
coming down more carefully than we’d climbed,
returning reluctantly to the ordinary world
A man in a torn, dirty overcoat
paces the sidewalk
in front of the coffee shop
slowly, back and forth
head down, talking to himself.
He’s here often. Sometimes
he’ll come in, sit awhile
have a conversation with the air,
then hop up and wander back outside
to continue his vigil.
Why does this place of all places
call him? What draws him here
again and again and again
like the birds who return each year,
again and again, to fill the California sky?
Love in the Time of Corona
(with apologies to Gabriel García Márquez)
In ancient Greece, men shook hands
as a demonstration of good faith
to show they weren’t armed.
these days of fever and fear
we keep our distance, resist
the timeless call of flesh to flesh.
But the time will come again
to take the stranger’s hand
embrace a friend, share a kiss.
Until then our cries for human touch
are dispatches from separate
battlefields, tied to passenger pigeons
we release into the restless night.