Places I Am From


I am from the bow that split the waves of the Atlantic,

the force of human will beyond ancient Valhalla:

they pilgrimaged across those waves

for a new God, a new country.

And that note which preceded me,

that sea-salt tone that faded, remains as harmony

to the sound of gravel alongside the desert freeway

—for that is where I truly come from:

the taste and smell of dust and tire rubber,

the powder of desert, like sun-bleached soot…

and I am from the faint scent

that draws the wolves

down from the mountain.

Also, I am from the note that rang out

when they struck that final spike, that golden spike

into the first American transcontinental railroad track;

my mother described it so proudly at the

station museum, “they say it could have been

miles off, but it wasn’t—it met right on center,”

she beamed, with perfectly permed hair and

smelling of chemical roses.

American method.

And so, silently, I am also from

the camps of the Chinese rail workers,

the tendons as they strain,

the fingernails as they claw

through the Sierras

—relentless, relentless—

the bones beneath the tracks,

the bones that guide those rails to their perfect center.

Railways. Freeways.

And I am from the true natives here

in that I’m an immigrant’s child shed of history’s skin;

my ancestry dries out on a desert rock while

a rattlesnake—reborn—slithers into the sand,

the sun-bleached dust of this current moment,

the caking dirt of now and California.


I am from the forgotten tune, half-remembered across silent lips;

I am from the dread of an empty strip-mall at midnight;

I am from a clean, well-lighted place;

I am from hours spent in front of a screen, playing SimCity;

I am from leather that flutters against brass—saxophone keypads;

I am from the high-pitched staccato of a dot-matrix printer;

I am from graphite against smooth pulp, inside a Trapper Keeper;

I am from the pack of stray dogs, the dogs who could find no other pack;

I am from the hashish daydreams that sprawl along the Pacific shoreline;

I am from the motion of palm fronds that sway to the wind’s half-forgotten song.

But finally,


I am from the Leviathan—the great beast

slouching across the Atlantic,

across the Mason-Dixon,

across the Louisiana Purchase,

across the lost Northern lands of Mexico,

here already

—already born.

Sympathy For Robert Johnson

Yes, I wish I could say that

I met Satan ad a crossroads

just outside of town, that

in exchange for my soul, et cetera…

As for Robert Johnson

—the man himself—

I’d wager that the woman

leaving with his luggage on that train,

leaving with his love in vain,

she’d have more to do with his pain

than Satan ever did.

Lips drool while the beating chest

falters, falls somewhere in between

lust and dread and

loyalty and despair and

love and withdraw…

Drugs, hard liquor, Internet pornography—

Satan with his poetry

is but one of many ways

to soothe an aching heart,

to recover wasted ecstasy,

or to finally trace the horizon

of death.

This Song Always Makes Me Think About Zach

With lyrics like, “I won’t let you let me down so easily,” I can see how someone might feel this song unwittingly plays into rape-culture.

That’s part of my weird love of it, though: it makes me think of Zach, and that gay re-contextualization tends to remove all the “rape-y” vibes.

P.S. it makes me think of him because of the line, “you gotta spend some time with me”—I invited him over a bunch of times, but I guess the ONE time I snubbed him in photography class (I was ultra-swamped with work), it ruined my chances in perpetuity.

Decades’ Serenade

Imagine my grandmother dancing…

Alice Chambers, daughter of a mother tough and so severe,

my grandmother, my mother’s mother,

born 1917—her 25 would be 1942; also imagine

“A. J. Sylvester”, the name my mom only vaguely recounts to me.

Imagine “Moonlight Serenade” straining through a vacuum tube radio…

Somehow, I think of him as Sylvester,

maybe Mr. Sylvester: I’ve never seen him;

I’ve seen his handwriting.

He died in Pearl Harbor; the Navy named a ship after him.

Imagine the swell and sway of the clarinets as he held her…

After she married—Garnel Poppleton, a nice boy from church—

Sylvester kept writing, but that mother of hers so severe

hid every letter until after he was dead,

and it was too late, and that broke Alice apart.


Imagine the white on a mountain, framed by a kitchen window…

I remember her from her garden’s raspberries:

frozen, fresh and crisp; I remember the bite

of sweet and ice (she’d often pour milk over);

Alice Poppleton, my co-conspirator to decadence.

Imagine my grandmother folding laundry alone in the kitchen, in

front of the fridge with only a radio playing…

I remember her from her letters;

she’d always tuck a dollar bill stiff from the bank,

and I didn’t mind when mom made me write back

because that meant yet another letter would come.

Imagine my grandmother’s face, deadpan, calling out for me as

Brian David Thedell Luke Skywalker throughout my fifth Summer…

I remember her—in the house down from the mountain

with her own private garden of berries

as she smouldered through life with that

nice boy from church, the radio, and

the pile of letters in the back of the guest closet.


Imagine hands, soft with Rose Milk lotion and a lifetime of work,

finally at rest on a quilt…

I can’t help but feel a kinship with Sylvester,

and I wonder what I’d call myself today

if a certain Japanese pilot had failed his mission,

had left someone alive to write back to.

Imagine “Moonlight Serenade” remastered on CD, ringing through the nursing home bedroom…

By 2001 I was 25; I called her sometimes, in spite

of all the awkward, confused pauses, the mumbling of aging.

Then I learned that the nurses read my emails aloud

for her; it hurt me less to write than to talk.

Imagine my grandmother, dancing across all those decades…

I didn’t visit my grandmother’s death bed;

I’d grown unforgiving at her for her daughter so severe.

Now, as I sit with my regret, I wonder if hers tasted as frozen and crisp

that day she changed from Alice Chambers to Alice Poppleton.

Hello There

(for Zach)

My room orders despite its mess, it confines

these walls, these walls;

I’ve had the song on repeat all day,

I think the neighbors are sick of you

(I know my best-friend was, until—)

I’ve read so many poems

celebrating photographs and records;

But you know what? It’s okay, though:

a cellphone snapshot and your favorite mp3

off a pirate Russian website

fit you perfectly: digital phantoms,

a script of pulses like a heartbeat

that drums out from my fissured chest.

And I don’t even have that receipt

from when we went to lunch;

I’ve kept you in the breast pocket

of that coat that’s too heavy to wear,

and it’s okay, though,

I’ll mix vodka into sherbet and

I’ll wash it down with Sprite:

a more adult incarnation

of a picnic elixir; Summertime, and I remember

being twenty, and you might as well have been Dan

from back when I was the one too young to understand love’s end.

You suggested a road trip to Los Angeles

a heavy dose of freeway spaces and

we could find our own rhythm

along the sun-bleached guardrails,

the heavy green signs

that sag along the roadside.

You’ve been stuck in reverse so long

I guess you’re used to driving like that;

it’s okay, though;

then you squeezed the trigger,

and hit your mark,

and me already bleeding,

red drips from my hands and all I do is

sigh instead of scream.

It’s only because I’m so numb;

I wish you were here to kiss

my sunburned back, red from

being out all day in California sun…

I think I’ll finally pick up my room

and take a road trip in that coat, too

thick for any but your mountain regions;

I’ll leave at midnight with a CD that

plays just one track and sometime

before dawn

I’ll find you.