Howlongnightsampler

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how long the night is



how long the night is poems by

Christine DeSimone


Š2013 Christine DeSimone All rights reserved. No part of this book can be reproduced without the express written permission of the author, except in the case of written reviews. ISBN 978-1-929878-43-7 First edition

PO Box 5301 San Pedro, CA 90733 www.lummoxpress.com Printed in the United States of America

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for H.P.K. ¿Por qué nací entre espejos? el día me da vueltas, y la noche me copia en todas sus estrellas. *** Why was I born among mirrors? The day walks in circles around me, and the night copies me in all its stars.

—Federico García Lorca, “Cancion del Naranjo Seco” (“Song of the Barren Orange Tree”)

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS Grateful acknowledgment is made to the editors of the following publications, in which some of these poems (or previous versions of them) originally appeared: Alaska Quarterly Review: “Mother Fills Out the Restraining Order” Bellowing Ark: “In Praise of the Ampersand,” “Knowing,” “The Penitent” Blue Collar Review: “Tables” Brevities: “Stanza” Chiron Review: “Class Notes,” “Tough Girls” Comstock Review: “The Sewer” Concho River Review: “Rite of Passage” Cream City Review: “Dylan Arrives in New York” Ellipsis…: “La Finca” Emrys Journal: “1987” Evansville Review: “She Reads the Newspaper While Nursing Another Breakup” 5AM: “Rock Singer Dies Onstage After Acrobatic Leap Gone Wrong,” “Winter 1994,” “Acts of God” Hawai’i Pacific Review: “Inheritance” Hurricane Review: “Tinier Things” Legal Studies Forum: “Chatsworth, California” Malpais Review: “Posthumous,” “Zuma” Many Mountains Moving: “A Ghazal of Perplexities” MARGIE: “Mileage,” “At the Passport Renewal Office,” “If I Were a Poet” Más Tequila Review: “Man Returns iPad Because He Missed Being Bored,” “Good Seeing”

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Nerve Cowboy: “Beautiful Paranoia” New Madrid: “The True Blue Era” Pearl: “Tenderloin Blues,” “Spellcheck Suggests the Following Replacements” Pebble Lake Review: “Quitting Smoking” Phoebe: “The Ditch” Poet Lore: “The Death of Billie Holiday” Poetry International: “Introduction to Portuguese Gastronomy” Political Affairs Magazine: “Tables” (reprint) Primavera: “Te Deum” Raintown Review: “Proper Place” RE:AL: “Sculpting,” “Helios” Red Rock Review: “Discovery” Redivider: “The Cave” Slipstream: “Isabella” So to Speak: “The Morning News” Sow’s Ear Poetry Review: “Paris Palindrome,” “Reno Evening,” “Misplaced” Third Wednesday: “La Sombra Inn, Playa El Tunco” ZYZZYVA: “Why Lying is My Favorite Sin” (as “Lying, My Favorite Sin”)

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“Winter 1994,” “Reno Evening,” “Rite of Passage,” and “No Other Place Than This” were published as limited-edition broadsides by Bat Cat Press in 2013. “Rock Singer Dies Onstage...” and “The Cave” were featured on Verse Daily (www.versedaily.org) on July 6, 2006 and January 30, 2007, respectively. “The Death of Billie Holiday” placed second runnerup in the 2004 New Letters Literary Awards, judged by Cornelius Eady. This manuscript was a finalist for the 2005 Robert E. Lee & Ruth I. Wilson Poetry Book Award, judged by Billy Collins. * * * I am indebted to the following mentors and friends for their invaluable criticisms and encouragement: Kim Addonizio, Ellen Bass, Susan Cohen, Cheryl Dumesnil, Marc Elihu Hofstadter, Howard Junker, and Ilya Kaminsky. Thanks especially to RD Armstrong for allowing me to realize this book.

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TABLE OF CONTENTS Lunchboxes Winter 1994. ................................................................................ 3 The Morning News. .................................................................. 4 Knowing....................................................................................... 5 The Penitent................................................................................ 6 Man Returns iPad Because He Missed Being Bored....... 8 Proper Place................................................................................ 9 Tenderloin Blues....................................................................... 10 If I Were a Poet. ....................................................................... 11 Stanza......................................................................................... 12 Posthumous............................................................................... 13 A Ghazal of Perplexities........................................................ 14 Astronomy................................................................................. 15 Acts of God............................................................................... 16 At the Passport Renewal Office........................................... 17 Spellcheck Suggests the Following Replacements.......... 18

No Other Place Chatsworth, California.......................................................... 21 Sculpting.................................................................................... 23 Introduction to Portuguese Gastronomy.......................... 24 Reno Evening............................................................................ 26 Paris Palindrome. .................................................................... 27 Good Seeing.............................................................................. 28 La Sombra Inn, Playa El Tunco. ......................................... 29 No Other Place Than This.................................................... 31

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The Sewer Letter from Zelda. ................................................................... 35 The Cave. ................................................................................... 37 The Death of Billie Holiday.................................................. 38 Dylan Arrives in New York.................................................. 39 Isabella. ...................................................................................... 41 The Sewer. ................................................................................. 42 Rock Singer Dies Onstage After Acrobatic Leap Gone Wrong............................... 43

Helios Why Lying is My Favorite Sin. ............................................ 47 Class Notes................................................................................ 48 Discovery................................................................................... 49 Composition.............................................................................. 50 Rite of Passage. ........................................................................ 51 Helios.......................................................................................... 52 In Praise of the Ampersand.................................................. 53 Misplaced. ................................................................................. 54 She Reads the Newspaper While Nursing Another Breakup................................... 55 Tinier Things. ........................................................................... 56 La Finca..................................................................................... 58

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Inheritance Zuma........................................................................................... 61 Beautiful Paranoia. ................................................................. 62 The Ditch................................................................................... 63 1987.............................................................................................. 64 Tough Girls. .............................................................................. 65 Te Deum..................................................................................... 66 Mother Fills Out the Restraining Order. .......................... 67 The True Blue Era................................................................... 69 Mileage....................................................................................... 71 Inheritance. ............................................................................... 73 Tables.......................................................................................... 74 Combustible.............................................................................. 75 Quitting Smoking.................................................................... 76

Notes............................................................................................ 78 About The Author..................................................................... 81

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how long the night is



Lunchboxes I never wanted to be a poet anyway I’d carry a lunchbox just like everybody else If only the muttering would stop —William Wantling, “It Was Tuesday Morning”



WINTER 1994 Green rain fell on San Francisco. Shiny and chartreuse. Stumped civilians, stoners, and scientists alike until its mystery uncurled: airplane deicer, jelled onto wings and melted on descent. When I came to the city I knew no one. My law classmates used Latin phrases as punctuation, leaned their heads back into right angles. Their thoughts could fit into beer mugs. They gulped, exhaled, stared clean through. I was locked into space with a securely-fashioned seatbelt, tended to small tasks at hand, burned pots of coffee to numb sleepless ache, lived amphetamine in my lust for clarity. I leaned downtown from my window and admired the cracked gold polish on the hookers’ feet, their eyes hinting at prescience. Watched spent cigarette stumps roll into sidewalk crevasses. There were days when colored ice, offered by the sky, was a most welcome douse— it split me open, spoke to me its aurora jargon— and I was there, alive, as it slicked the streets with its strange tongue.

—3—


THE MORNING NEWS Studies can now predict the likelihood of taxicab accidents. Your cowardice is a new color today, nubile and fresh, slathered like aloe on your hands. Button your coat, toss the end of your scarf over your shoulder. Leave the paper on the train for someone else. You are coifed, blurry, mechanical, dragging your black leather case. You have stalked grey buildings before. It is an hour of hurried shoe removals, arms spread for squealing detector wands, mostly clear skies, patchy coastal fog. After-stories unfold from the grainy handcuffed, the municipal orange, the stooped and disheveled stuffed in the bylines— So there I was in the backseat of a police car. Justice served. A woman in the courthouse cafeteria spills her Fritos like cheap necklace beads. The Dow is down again. It’s absurdly easy to live this way. Hail a cab. On the concrete steps a man sloshes half a bottle at arm’s length. Another calls to you, selling his homemade headlines, begging your sympathy. Look around. Scrape off the industrial layers, let them fall like curled wood shavings from a lathe. Where is the life you want? What are you doing with your time, with your designer watch of fear, with your briefcase of patent reality?

—4—


KNOWING God, I can smell that man’s burrito, the foil peeled down around it like he is undressing a doll, and the man is squeezing something into it, something red, and he is laughing to his friend. I watch his window reflection against the buildings whizzing past, train gently bumping and curving, as the man plunges his mouth into his soft, plump feast, holding it like a lover’s waist, laughing. I wonder if he knows how good it is, how its good creator stuffed it with every mushroom, meat-shred, white cheese, every cilantro sprig he could find, how it was made just for this man, how somewhere back at the burrito stand the maker is there, pressing the dough, still messing the rudiments together, working each mosaic like the third day of Genesis, cradling the final product in his hands like a new child presented to the world.

—5—


THE PENITENT When I look at stars, I don’t care how they hang, how long they’ll burn. I’d likely tell you that they glow like tiny, furious fires, dispersing pieces of dark with immobilizing starkness—but this is a gift sweater you already have. I wouldn’t say, the stars are the mal occhio, the panache of a bristly Siamese cat. I understand the function of pi, I can remember its value as 3.14159 with a wavy equal sign for “approximate.” But I don’t wrestle infinities, or lie thinking of circumferences, circular relationships, digits extending to the moon. When ending a long friendship years ago, I noticed the slimy avocados slivering out of her sandwich. Only now, as I think of it, does the din of my damage sit cross-legged and vibrate my eardrums with open palms. In cocktail conversations, I am footnotes from old textbooks and last month’s Vanity Fair, and they label me “erudite.” I don’t have the courage to ask, What’s the opposite of orange?

—6—


or Are your dreams like halved, hairy kiwis? Truth be told, I only go for the hors d’oeuvres, to bite into cold pink shrimps curled into their fetal positions, noodles dripping off of canapé forks, truffles in colored sequence: dark brown, light brown, coffee, coffee, light brown. I am afraid of everything—profound thoughts, both mine and yours, demeaning the universe in trite, truncated truths. My ears are bricks. Some psychics clack stones together to speak to murder victims; I want to hear like that, dog-whistled acumen to find what the world is really saying: The gust, collapsing leaves on the windshield. Syllables that skid on slick black roads. Flowers forcing sidewalks to split. The quiet swale of ordinary life—its flittings, cuttings, necessities. The past, coiling around its whitestone plinth and rooftops glossy with rain.

—7—


MAN RETURNS iPAD BECAUSE HE MISSED BEING BORED

—Associated Press headline

He found himself writing e-mails to people he’d only met once. He began writing articles about the price of legumes, checking the traffic in Ontario, the weather in Lesotho. He watched endless episodes of ‘Weeds’ and life was easy again, without useless pontification or in-between time. Effort dissipated into the New York summer, so small and thin and light, and he could not lift even the smallest bottle to signal water to his lips. Because if he did, he could not put it down. He realized he hadn’t had an idea in two weeks, and nothing was unbearable anymore, not the subways or the cabs to JFK, just his eight-year-old daughter’s bedtime pleas that were too anxious for sleep. Now, blissfully disconnected, he talks to her for hours, curious once more, while wispy curtains blow aside to reveal all the galaxies, all those shimmering stars.

—8—


PROPER PLACE That law school summer, I clerked with an heiress in an office without windows. My hand smelled of perfume after we introduced. Her voice conjured clipped lawns under maple trees and held lemonade pitchers on sterling trays while July was unfurling. She asked questions: Who are your parents? What do they do? At twenty-three, my lack of manners squeaked. I heaved files of important boredom into proper place while she watched. Her words were distinct and lingered in unruffled air as she sat upright in her chair. I wore secondhand suits from a friend’s attic; I wondered if she could change light bulbs without help. You know, your name sounds aristocratic. I fixed a wisp of hair that flared from my scalp. You shouldn’t waste it, she told me, blowing the surface of her tea.

—9—


TENDERLOIN BLUES

—for Marc Elihu Hofstadter

My city burns down in laborious breaths. My friend Marc is healthy. He swears it, though when he got the virus 22 years ago he was told he’d live a year. The world is dying. Even dusk is a funereal time, killing the olfactory assaults of sunlit pigeons and piss-soaked benches, covering the broken teeth of the cerulean fog, bathing MUNI riders in fluorescent gloom. Bars of moonlight, royal flaming signs on adult video stores, dirty hotels and taquerías—each flickering letter in a stage of demise—streak through our bus, blanch bodies into white ghosts. At night you can see how buildings inherit death, the lonely bars with their indigo radiance, how lights go out in all the windows and cobalt air curls its fingers around the necks of towers. Marc would see it like a Pollock painting: lush jungle drippings on the rain-shattered windows, the greenish patina crust at their rims, the sallow sodium lamplight cast from 9th and Market. But I see time slathered on slate, eroding with the man who stumbles onboard muttering about the navy and spaceships after his sixth drink has burned through him. As on an elevator, you look straight ahead. Stripped trees hang forked like lightning. The bus chafes the oil-slicked tracks. Overhead wires zap and groan, ache a song for the fallen bodies of iron men.

—10—


IF I WERE A POET One of these days, I’ll write about people who work in the middle of the night: Emergency room nurses with their gentle hands, cabdrivers on graveyard with eyes fixed on their flickering fare meters. Bartenders lining up each glass and watching drinkers deplete. Night clerks in hotels, waiting to be summoned by nickel-plated bells. Uniformed waitresses who place Tabasco bottles in front of weary truckers. Signalmen for the Southern Pacific Railroad who wear heavy gloves as big as oars, wipe their foreheads with the backs of their massive wrists. If I knew how, I’d celebrate the people who fine-tune the world while it sleeps, who know how long the night is and the sound life makes as it whirs by. The ones who live in real time, wipe pipe dreams off counters, carry lunchboxes, keep time with flat shoes slapping the grainy parking lot as they head to the bus stop in the dark of pre-dawn.

—11—


STANZA A suitcase waiting to be unpacked. Sunlight reveals a beam of dust entering the lung, the cell. I am alive. The hour hits a metronome. Each thought, each move sleeping in its own room.

—12—


POSTHUMOUS I never forgave you entirely for forgetting to pick me up at the airport after my trip to Central America. I never gave you that souvenir bracelet handwoven by indigenous children or shared my photos of Chichen Itza. Nine months later, when you were dead, that thing with your pancreas, I still commingled our cross words with the laughs, shook the good and the ugly into a martini, sweet vermouth with vile gin. The night of your funeral, I butchered cigarettes and pistachios while watching cartoons. What is it about a nut and its triumphant crack, its elongated seed? That morning I’d read of a tiny island on the bitter border of India and Bangladesh. After three decades of custody battles, everyone woke one day and it was gone, battered and swallowed by the sea. I popped another hard shell, that audible split called dehiscence, a trait cultivated by man. This is what we’re here for, an anthology of sorts, to gather deciduous casings to carry in our pockets, to stop giving a damn about pretense, about storing bons mots to share at cocktail parties, posing for photos with frosted glasses in our hands. I get smaller by the day, and you are breathing only on paper. Does an island still matter if it’s invisible? For example: my friend died, and I did nothing, except say it out loud. —13—


A GHAZAL OF PERPLEXITIES In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the answer to every question is 42. The real search, then, is for the problem—to create ambiguity. In law school, they stained our thumbs, sent our sworls to the FBI. But who could learn secrets from students with names like Star and Liberty? A tall woman drew henna paint down my arm and onto my hand, where it covered a shameful scar and kept three days’ perpetuity. “Don’t call him” is scrawled on Post-Its everywhere: stuck to my refrigerator, notebook, telephone, and TV. My favorite bar serves twelve types of martinis, $10 a glass. In the light of day, it lies behind an accordion door that’s slathered in graffiti. In bed, I listen to Nina Simone singing “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.” She laments the rain in Juarez. Eastertime. Your gravity fails, and your negativity.

—14—


ASTRONOMY Mornings are always hardest: Mortality. Don’t look in the mirror. You should be grateful— four appendages, lots of hair. You’ve never woken up dead, have you? So who do you blame? There are many theories of origin. For example: the clouds are too cold for rain. Joe’s pager buzzed last night while he played fiddle at the Java Club; now he lies in a bed, tranquilized to discard his brokedown heart. The sky’s grey smears into shapes, like all the others who have moved on. So how do you do it? Where do you go to begin again?

—15—


ACTS OF GOD When a dead humpback whale washed ashore in Half Moon Bay, the sulfur smell spread for miles. City said he wasn’t their problem; call the feds. The feds said call state parks. Parks said call the city. The sea would not swallow him back. Finally some park rangers stuffed him with dynamite and burst him to vulgar pink smithereens: a large chunk of blubber landed on a neighbor’s car, totaled it. His insurance company called it an “act of God” and wouldn’t pay up. And to this day, that smell is still there.

—16—


AT THE PASSPORT RENEWAL OFFICE Step into the sanctuary of five-colored seals, the necessary forms, your two photographs to be ceremoniously laminated, bound with extra-large clips. Patiently pick out the staples. Calculate your consequence. Listen. Fingers flying in computer-clack. The voices: Next, can I help you, anything else? Try living without them. Do you think you could empty your head of collateral clutter, of authority words, from person or persons unknown to you, even the glassy-eyed memories of traffic school videos, all those green curbs and rhombuses? Don’t you know what is done in the inner sanctum, the duty of ballpoint pens, the religion of rubber stamps, the safety of smokescreen and sticky labels? Watch idly the monitors: the President landing, waving on the lawn, helicopter-blown, the tagged bags unloaded from choppers’ bellies. Wait your turn. You and I are owned in the thinnest of ways. Up and down the chained waiting lines, the purple-stamped masses are stepping. Put your beliefs in your pocket. The missing and the marginal, getting down to God on shuffled papers and feet.

—17—


SPELLCHECK SUGGESTS THE FOLLOWING REPLACEMENTS when, while typing too fast, I tripped the word “work” into “owkr”: acer: Rhubarb leaves are poisonous. How many tries until discovering that the petioles are edible? achier: Verlaine loved Rimbaud so much, he shot him. He wasted the rest on middle-aged prostitutes and umbrella thieves. acre: The beaches of northern Peru stretch silver in the late afternoon, dotted with houses, rose pink and sage. echoer: Silent room. / Pale dither rises / above the pages. euchre: The train pitched us from side to side and shuffled our playing cards, while you adjusted the blanket around our feet. ichor: A tumbler of mahogany whiskey burns bright as a flaming oil slick; my mind stays soft and dreaming. ochre: If the air were wine, we could sip it slowly— perhaps a vintage port, the very color of maples turning. uxor: She disrobes, leaving pieces of herself—a silk scarf, dried flowers, a coffee cup.

—18—


No Other Place Think of the long trip home. Should we have stayed at home and thought of here? —Elizabeth Bishop, “Questions of Travel”



CHATSWORTH, CALIFORNIA Ahead are all the hometown signs pointing the way to the aqueduct, a sign that I am entering the kind of paradise reserved for fuzzy pairs of dice hanging over a rusty dashboard that rattles its coin-jangling muffler like my old baby rattle. As if driving through the past, I swear wistfully that I just passed my mother’s 1980 Oldsmobile, carrying her bored and nauseous children, motor coughing beneath the boardedup windows of this single zip-coded town. It used to take me past her aging, dependable church, weave through the plaster buildings with their brooding, fatherly stares. Every day began with a walk down concrete stairs, avoiding the barking dogs chained to flimsy fences, forging my determination with hand-fashioned defenses. I’m startled again by the loud, reliable train screeching through the reverent ground that guided, trained me; Walking home, when the school day trailed, I crossed these tracks from sidewalks onto horse trails,

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over overflowing canals, burnt-out lots, endured shouting cars of drunken men, the whole lot of the town’s finest, cut across garbage heaps and browned-grass backyards, inhaled wisps of smoked grass from the neighbor’s kids. I swallowed sweltering heat on my palate with jukebox twang from the Cowboy Palace. A country song on my radio, I coast back into my sweat-jammed pores. I glide by the free racks of nude magazines, the porn studios churning their smut into the dusty hours. This is the town where I formed and cooled—and it remains oddly ours— new tract homes and the closing decade have not changed a thing. The old remnants still chitter my brain like loose change. After all this time, the billboards are still peeling from lazy contractors, church bells still pealing useless calls to worship. Hurtling down these freeways, it’s still an old habit: counting all the free ways to catch a ride out.

—22—


SCULPTING Dover, England

Someone once told me the cliffs were white from bird dung, but of course it’s all chalk, withstanding millennia of battering wind, pliantly carved into castles which peek from the hillsides. I imagine the medieval chiselers coughing up white tufts of air and clapping powder from their hands, chipping mountains into yield. Me, I like to taste the word, catch its elastic consonants in my mouth: Chalk. Like the dusty sticks my fourth-grade teacher chafed to nubs on greenboard. Chalk like condensed milk, indivisible grains left clinging to the spoon. Chalk like our wan little faces, our elbows, our lives: softened, bruised, not yet afraid or amazed by all that could be made of us.

—23—


INTRODUCTION TO PORTUGUESE GASTRONOMY Silêncio! hisses the old man, whose eyes are raisins pressed into dough. He has seven teeth and wears a jacket of feathers lapped like armor-plate, like the skin of a snake unhinging its jaws. Silence, they’re going to sing Fado. The Lisbon night drops like an exiled heart: caldo verde soup with potatoes and cabbage, fried chouriço on a chunk of cornbread, swigs of house red wine. The room is candled into ochre waves, a bull’s head over the mantlepiece, fresh fish-smells from the cellar, tables full as lips, the suave guitar tickling like a bubble rising to the surface. The fadista scudders, begins the old desgarrada cloaked in limpid voice. On a theatrical night like this, a lover falls from her love, picks at the brick of the earth, crying the name she can never have or fulfill. Her ruffled lace clutches at the darkened windows. The music is ancient but not antiquated. It is dark but not grey. Its notes wobble past in a paper boat. True language is the taste in your bowl, quaffed from the cup. Evening voices swing through the streets, the narrow alleyways of the Barrio Alto, nodding in greeting irmâo in a manner almost terrifying. Silence!

—24—


She is trying to make you hungry. You wonder how content people can take such pleasure in misery, in its timbre, give suffering wings and raise it from dust. She knows she cannot escape the song, its primacy, how it swallows the soul. Yet you marvel how they gently hold themselves accountable to life, then eat it from their bare hands.

—25—


How Long the Night Is is a feast for the mind and senses. Intense thoughts and feelings are fused with burritos, chalk, trombones, mildew. Words glide, glitter and screech in a cacophony of modern, almost overwhelming urban life. The poet somehow keeps her cool, refusing to be drowned by the complexities, and turning riot and glut into eloquence. —Marc Elihu Hofstadter, author of Shark’s Tooth and Luck

In musically charged lyrics, Christine DeSimone takes on the big questions: “Where is the life you want?” and “So how do you do it? Where do you go to begin again?” Her poems travel the globe looking for answers, from a diner in Chatsworth to a Lisbon night that “drops like an exiled heart,” from an “office with no windows,” to the Cliffs of Dover, from Billie Holiday’s deathbed to the “fluorescent gloom” of the Tenderloin. At each stop, DeSimone listens with “dog-whistled acumen / to find what the world is really saying,” rendering all she hears in stark, unflinching detail. —Cheryl Dumesnil, author of In Praise of Falling and Love Song for Baby X

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PO Box 5301 San Pedro, CA 90733 www.lummoxpress.com


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