I’m the author of five collections of poems, including, most recently, Our Portion: New and Selected Poems (Autumn House, 2015). My poems have appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Poetry Magazine, The Kenyon Review, The Georgia Review, The Sun Magazine, and 99 Poems for the 99 Percent. I’m a professor of English at Clarion University, where I direct the Spoken Art Reading Series, am founder of the Chautauqua Writers’ Festival, and coordinate The Bridge Literary and Arts Center in Franklin, PA. I’ve collaborated with other artists, including composers, painters, and sculptors, and, on occasion, perform my poetry with the jazz band, The Barkeyville Triangle. More information can be found at www.philipterman.com.
For my daughter, Miriam Xinxiu
I hope this finds you in good health,
as vigorous as you were when I last saw you—
We were together in that odd place, mostly dark, and misty,
and there were peonies involved,
and you were sporting your bright red shirt with the gold buttons—
I never wondered who dressed you—
and you were reigning in that small red arm chair I, too, sat in as a child,
the one I brought back from my parents’ basement,
the leather seat a little torn.
It’s true, when I first laid eyes on you,
in that obscure place, and you still had your baby fat,
you were holding a cookie in your hand and jabbering,
which unsettled me a little Into an unfamiliar calm and, what with your round face,
I thought of the laughing Buddha or some kind of Dalai Lama.
Remember how, once, when we journeyed so far from that place,
and you sat on a towel on the sand,
you suddenly pointed at the empty blue sky
and I looked up into the enormous silence
and a bird appeared?
Li Po, wherever you are now, I want to know if you can still hear
the sky’s music before anyone else?
I’m told that you are a crazy drinker, a real dabbler,
An extreme example, like your father, of irresponsibility.
Li Po, remember when you called me Gandhi?
I thought in respect,
but now I know in mockery of my stiff wisdom,
my serious sentimentality.
I hope you don’t wander like your namesake
or like your father’s people who travel aimlessly
With nothing to help them survive but words.
Li Po, we built pyramids together.
Remember when I made you repeat letters after me so we could speak the same language?
It was when I carried you on my back in the dark, all the way to the water.
Li Po, shall we embrace the reflection of the full moon?
Scarlet tanagers, thrushes, warblers, hawks,
spotted salamanders, skunk and possum,
all the invisible insects—
the native shrubs, the wild flowers,
all the trees cut down, the altered
light patterns, the shifting forest canopy,
all giving way for the gravel roads,
the trucks and tankers and dust,
hauling their chemical cocktails:
the methanol, the isopropyl alcohol,
the ethylene glycon, the crystalline silica,
and all the other toxins, according
to the Halliburton loophole, the industry
refuses to disclose, the toxins that cause
blurry vision, severe stomach cramps,
burning noses, swollen tongues, headaches,
hair loss, ear pressure, horses that won’t leave the barn—
smell of sulphur, rotten egg, nail polish,
water burning out of faucets—
the heavy axles invading
across our farms, compacting the topsoil,
reducing plant growth, increasing
the runoff, the erosion like a fully-loaded
cement mixture hauling itself across a lawn
after a heavy rainfall, all the way
to our watersheds: the Ohio, the Susquehanna,
the Delaware, the Erie, the Genesee, the Potomac—
not to mention the 86, 000 miles of streams
and rivers, the 161, 445 acres of lakes,
the 403, 924 acres of wetlands—
the drilling through aquifers, the potential for leakage,
the uranium, the radioactive radon stored
in that black rock that is almost 400 million years old—
that shale that has survived from the Devonian age,
that stone of shelled swimmers, like squids,
of plant-like animals related to starfish called sea lilies,
that earth, that earth that once we contaminate,
we can never reclaim, that earth
that when we frack, we frack ourselves.
I was born at Mount Sinai.
No, not the one in the desert Peninsula,
near the city of St. Catherine,
surrounded by all those peaks,
the one made of volcanics and feldspare granite,
that was covered in smoke because the Lord
descended in fire, but the one in Cleveland, Ohio,
not far from the Hough neighborhood, where the riots
of 1966 broke out. Not the Sinai the one
who saw the burning bush climbed
and on the third day was lost in a thick cloud,
and there was thunder and lightening
and a trumpet blast—no, not the mountain
that quaked and everyone present trembled,
but that other one, beside where the owner
of the Seventy-Niner’s Bar displayed a sign
that said: “No Water for Blacks,”
and patrolled the sidewalk with a shotgun.
Not to be confused with where we were told
to beware of going up or touching
the border of it until the ram’s horn sounded
its long blast, lest we be put to death,
the one where it is written no matter where
we were born, we were all present and account for,
and a voice spoke its commandments, complete
with instruction manual, on how to live our lives—
not that one—the one, instead, where, a few blocks away,
neighbors gathered in the heat and the police
exasperated the tensions and Joyce Arnett,
26 and black, mother of three, called out
from her window for permission
to check on her children and she was shot dead—
that’s the one. Not where time stopped
and space folded into itself. No, not then,
not there. Rather: in the hospital
on 105th Street, in that city that was burning.