Guanyin is the goddess of mercy and the physical embodiment of compassion.


The birds we mistook for a ringtone, the larks in the birch beyond our window. Ringtones made the sounds of rain and the swish of sleeves of strangers brushing. Water falls through the head of a tree, hard, deciduous. Tomorrow’s forecast calls for ringtones rioting like spring flowers while malodorous worms munch nematodes and we wait out the rain beneath a thick canopy of leaves.

These boys like to hang out and talk to each other all day long, but it’s never the two of them alone, as their phones are always abuzz and ringing. The one on the right, who uncharacteristically wishes to remain anonymous, gloats after beating Tray in the game of chess twice one Sunday and texts him so—and is calling. What a novel ringtone that would make, the sound of a child gloating mixed with the softer sound of his friend, half shy, gloating counteracted.

What I thought was a ringtone was the sound of my stepping whole-sole on the whole of my eyeglasses. If you haven’t heard by now, it doesn’t matter about the awful past.

What we mistook for a ringtone, the soft-scraping sounds to those brushing their hair out with a plastic brush. Rubbing scalps of enigma. What we thought was a ringtone was a styptic in a bleeding mouth and a source of causeless laughter. This is neither here nor there, but my niece’s ringtone sounds like a flip-book animating snowdrift across a forest floor up to the earliest branches.

All day long travelers arrived from the front to be halted by an impassable river, so stand they on a muddy bank like figures out of a mythical literature. Frozen, drenched, far removed from cell reception, they watch the ferry and the ferryman going back and forth. They yell in vain their long-drawn summonses. One begs not the question, What is the Song of Deborah, but what is its melody, scoreless in Judges? The spiel I was going to give I believe I have forgotten. There’s a forgetfulness in…. I forget where this comes from, but I’ve heard it said that a nuclear winter begins with a regional war fought with conventional weapons.

I read lips, you know. I’m reading yours now, while you explain to Little Boy Arnold the equations he must work out on the dry-erase boards around him. Up the hill from where I stand, a cordoned-off area, ragged hill pine, falls into the ocean. The tearing sounds of collapse are not phones ringing. They say to the boy, “Show your work why don’t you?” His reply: “I’ve done it in my head since the beginning.”

The bodhisattva Guanyin is the one who hears the cries of the world. She listens deeply without judging or reacting while he, who is he, talks prettily about shrubs. All the pretty talk in the world can’t do justice to the long-necked birds and the boats bobbing between kelp beds. Ringtones ring out across this setting. What we thought were ringtones were kids these days using the phrase “Just saying” in their enjoyment of each other.

After two stressful weeks for both of us, we ran away for two days and a night to a yurt in the Salinas Valley. We forgot our phones. The springs of boxsprings called out coupling rhythms. Trouble seemed not to exist, or not to have followed us, like in these antique sentences from Steinbeck’s The Pastures of Heaven: “The farmers at last lived prosperously and at peace. Their land was rich and easy to work. The fruits of their gardens were the finest produced in central California.”

What we thought was a ringtone was a wildfire. That the population of the world grew exponentially was one cause of such fires. What we thought were ringtones were human herds thinning.

He remembered he had a little pot on him, but it hardly seemed worth it. Every part of the landscape and sky, especially at night with stars multiplying and whining coyotes trotting somewhere in the distance, was like an outward expression of inner life.

It would happen several times that evening before he realized that the mysterious sound nudging him awake was the ice in the glass [on his nightstand] shifting as it melted. In the meantime, in the moonlight with the water slowly collecting, he closed his eyes, and getting this beautiful kind of curve, took up inventing again.

Still Life With Smokers


How many times have I ashed a shoe or smoked a poem or talked loudly on the other shoe on a crowded bus at noon, as if what I had to say was everyone’s primary interest? I’m sorry. I thank you for your own discretion. You are my role model of the public sphere. I’m not being sarcastic when I say this, even if my tone of voice tells a different story.

I want to do a still life of a poet, an ashtray, and a woman’s tennis shoe, but it’s the same every time. The poet can’t sit still for the picture. His curiosity about who the shoe belongs to leads him around the room when the name of the game is stillness. So no still life for the time being, unless I alter my vision to exclude the poet. The problem is that he’s my best friend in the city and near the top of my list for all times and places.

A tennis shoe is a wonderful thing to wear on and off the court. It makes me feel nimble. Quick like the player I was once when I was twenty. Then I was a smoker for twenty years, and the very thought of a full-length match took my breath away. I smoked to be in the image of a poet. One day the greatest poet I personally know asked me to please stop smoking. ‘But you smoke,’ I reminded him. ‘Kind of a double standard, don’t you think?’ ‘I’d like you to be around,’ he said, ‘for as long as possible.’

This morning I bought an ashtray for a poet friend of mine. The irony of the object lay in its shape of a tennis shoe. It sits before me now, beside a flowerpot and an apple. It’s ironic because our lungs, his and mine together, now that we’re both ex-smokers, are as pink as they’ll ever be. Before meeting him to hand off his present, I do as he would do and stop to write a poem. It’s a love poem about First Love. Because it must accomplish a lot to mean much to someone who doesn’t know me, it sets me up for failure. In it, I must do the following:

Isolation in the West

1. Atlas

Up the hill stands an observatory—three and a half turns from lock to lock. Field flowers fill the slope. Roots grow far from the bunker. I believe it all except for the lopsidedness of the halves—learned speech and handmade dances—the particulars drawn freehand.

Taking up lying down rails, casting a new traque, the colonia spills out from the lower parts of town—a section hand on the line down from Sac. Follow the wagon tracks into Chinatown. Ophir City. Take my eyes long enough—go back down and collect the scatter.

Hear the news of our sorrowful brother—hear of his death while I eat. Morning gathers our family before a place setting, a preacher—sisters brothers mothers fathers.  Walk after them, keep them in sight, an open book in rising light. Mine eyes pulled the food off my teeth and I faded.

I was entering the lyrical when I thought—confession, sensate, senate—the soft paper came apart in milk. The countryside is weeping—two parts light one part dark—squall, sunshower, next season’s escalade. I was entering the lyrical when I thought

To hold something rare—polestar, windharp, a gathering for stew—a box of archives floating in space. I wonder now if my body is coming with me. Get me deeper into the afternoon. Rise up to a single body. The beautiful forms of empty—the clouds and all who befriended those who knew

The star I have come to see, the first star of night—light ready to blaze, bereft—the innocent god with the poignant. Walking beside a line of trees—wooden men, men of straw. Exploring breaking in various forms. A regnant voice sings landscape. Oaks and barns turn in the wood.

Up the hill stands an observatory—do you recall our first time here? We entered softly—let evenings go by and by. The things you said tonight I’ll remember forever. My only request had been that you say nothing. But sweep on again, singing through the big places. Our day on the range is the centerpiece of my longing . . .

2. Celebrity [1] [2]

If you hear something, it was meant for you. Taking up the pitch within a range, I’m thinking you up a city whose foundation is a timbre. I have in mind a civil service with a few flowers and flumes of music.

Begin with a guidepost and let it settle. Mark out its limits with a furrow. How to picture oranges, the riverbed Porciúncula, where water grows buildings instead. Inscribe the dust with a repetition of names. From a repetition of names, sound steps cross a repetition of cinders. Establish judges and a sacred senate. Excavate a harbor. Ballroom interiors. Lay deep for the stage to come. Gazing from rooftop to rooftop. From buildings born in the middle of the night. Others razed in the name of pleasure. We’ll make a canon. Leave space in the margin for those who deride it.

Softened by characters. Tender changeling. Archangel. The angel you ain’t. The arc of your language. Through matins with lauds to love making in our prime. The things you do with your mouth. Draw from the town literature my will to buy your way out. A latent personality in wait for those who listen, blue and throaty.

Of the silver horde of screened redeemers, my long lady of the bottom line, she said instead, “I pick the men I want, and I don’t want you.” But you can have me on the brink of a yell, the addition of sound an epoch in the motion of pictures. I swear I can get over an abandoned period of time. Throw absence of its couch. Speak in one mother tongue my incomprehensible manner of pronouncing. If we’re to get anywhere with this, you need to take my place. I offer you the same in return. I hate to see you go. We like to know all about the things that hurt us.

A civil service with little music and few flowers slips away easy like kind words granted the passer. Slips away through the narrows of rime. The promise of open spaces. Wished for want of thought as to the house, the heap of things around me. The desert has become nothing of what it seems. Sortal properties. Stuff prosperities. A little light on backbone but broadly built to inhabit shrines. A forgetfulness in, there’s a city at hand. Whose shall be our eponym? The moment goes with your plot to own it. While away the receptive ear. The inceptive eye. In pavilions along the palisade. In the doorway under the marquee at dawn. What’s sung of the clamor here. What’s sung. I hunt the sound for you


[1] Collaged from notes I took on Julia Kristeva’s 1991 book Strangers to Ourselves (tr. Roudiez)

[2] From their website, “The Los Angeles Conservancy recognizes the Gabrieliño Tongva as the past, present, and future caretakers of the land, water, and cultural resources in the unceded territory of Los Angeles.”