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Poets of the Monterey Bay

Four Poems by Julia Alter

Ode to a Carpenter

I like the man with the redwood bed
built with his own hands, who knows
the name of wood by the color of its heart:
walnut, birch, maple.

The one with a callus for each workday
who feels the hours heavy in his I-beam shoulders.
With the name that breathes out in one syllable:
Matt. Doug. Jack.

I want the man who knows which earth
is firm enough to build on, who would brawl
in a bar for me. Yes, the one
with fingers thick as babies’ wrists.

He knows the tree’s name by its
cut scent, its fingerprint: redwood,
sycamore, pine. Knows a woman
by her textures, reads the inside bark of her.

This man—with a hammer tucked ready
in his belt, a handful of Cupid’s nails. The one
who can build a house around us
that will not fall down.

Longing Manifesto, Highway 189

I pass through Phoenix,
through El Paso,
every name on the map is yours.
You’re a ghost building,
the forgotten courthouse
with its stilled matrimonies.

I drive through you, this sunburned strip
begging for flowers in the heat,
this interstate unzipping the seams
of a desert too scorched for jackrabbits.

You’re the road I use to get there,
the old two-lane I descend. You’re the valley
and the last filling station for miles, $1.19,
the cold Coca-Cola on my lips.

You’re the mirage slick as eel skin
on the highway ahead. The closer I get, the faster you
disappear. I serenade you
with the AM radio—me and the dust
and this nonstop song.

I pass a woman in dark braids and beads
weeping into her own hands and can’t go back.
She’s a mirror I can’t look at for long,
both of us panning for answers
to impossible prayers.

Our love is a boarded-up church
where spider hymns web
over melted windows.
Old sins whispered
under desert’s breath.

My own prayer I carry locked up
in this glovebox heart.

This road,
a line in your palm.
You, the muscle
of the engine,
pulling me
wherever I go.

Twenty-first Century Escape Plan #27

I’d rather live in Chagall’s world—in his cupboard,
his oils, inside his hand. Live in a long dress
painted down like a cliffside home in the Greek isles,
a starry bride floating above a bronze sea town.

If Chagall’s angels could swoop down—gentle, wild
warrior women in gowns of purple clouds, pull
me up, fly me from this year on earth.

As his bride, my eyes would burn with rusting fires,
leagues of lovers and gods flying around us,
protectors of wheat and sky. He would paint me
as the moon if I wanted him to.

>From up here I see the neighbors of stars,
watch a grandmother string calico skirts on a line.
A man with a beard fiddles a song of heaven
that turns our burlap coats to velvet.

The world smells of sap and vinegar and lovesongs.
I’m a woman growing flowers of lava
from her overheating heart and Chagall has just now
painted the last wide feather on my new red wings.

If I Forget

Let me remember the other afternoon
walking to the cemetery with my mother
to visit our family’s dead.
Remind me how in love with her I am
                 because of the blue orchid
                 in her pelvis
                 because of the magnet
                 in her heart.

Let me remember the broken cement road
and the wind that day,
both of us breathing, how in love
with her I am
                 because of the ocean
                 in her voice
                 because of the coin
                 tucked in her palm.

If I ever forget what to live for,
show me wild mint and a shower of comets
like last winter. Place rosehips in my hands
if I forget.

Let me remember taking a walk
this October morning with my mother,
our four feet making one sound,
the clocks of our hearts. Her breathing.

If I forget what to live for
show me the new-fissured green
of the field of winterwheat,
my mother’s eyes the color of mountains.

Let me remember the last red leaves
holding onto the branch
like Chinese New Year’s envelopes
in the fists of small children.

Let me remember walking this road
carrying the names of our dead
under my tongue,
walking into the wind with my mother.


Copyright 2004