by Suzanne Burns

Half Mast

I am sewing our flag with a dull needle
And no pattern.
The tips of my fingers and pads
Of my palms, chaff
As I stroke the yards of fabric
Stitched in my intestines,
Accepting the orange acids
Like dye in my stomach,
Hanging from my bones like ornaments.

We unravel at my feet like an old rug.

There is never enough blue in you
To darken the fabled American paper
Holding its white stars like staples.

And you drained all my blood. . .
But you already know as much, donít you?
And my eyes, they shone like onyx,
All rippled with browns and blacks.

I used to be my own great cave.
My own mineral shaft.
My own undiscovered country waiting
For that first golden claim.

A September breeze blows pages
From the manuscript of you and me
All about the room
And knocks the glass Iíve taken
The habit of chewing from my mouth.

And nobodyís buying. And nobodyís biting.

Japanís flag looks like the sheet of
A menstruating girl
Or the engorged pupil
Of a boy in love.

Britainís flag looks like the wedges
Of a psychedelic pie.
John Lennon would dig that,
Donít you think?
If he wrote my song then
You could sing it back to me.
We could be the oily doilies holding
Up the Queen Mumís crumpets
And we could fly a flag up her skirt
For a droll little thrill.

Scotlandís flag should be plaid.
Irelandís, the color of ale and stout.

Russiaís flag has changed as much as you.
Youíve lost the simplicity of yellow and red,
Your totalitarian stop light
With no signs of going.

Keeping track of any Czech flag
Is like following a grasshopper in a field,
Is like reaching the nucleus of you and me.
Iím splitting a few atoms now, I know,
But donít you just love the smells
When we fuse?

You and me up a pole,
Hoisted by the measured hands
Of a machinist,
Our last regards for one another
Flapping towards the ground
Like a bird with a broken back.


Between Lunch and Dinner

I will break the cupboard plates,
Crack the contemplative patina glaze
And anger the Victorian flowers, China lace.
Gorge on thick casserole, gargle tea,
Spitting the way a young woman spits
The first words of casual defiance in
Teen-aged back seats.
No, no, not yet, not yet.
She imagines the invisible trails of life
Squirming inside those boys
And their willingness to sacrifice
All those tender, squiggling hearts.
My heart at times shines like brass.
And in this mess I will bend spoons,
Rearrange arrangements,
Spot dishes, spill salt,
Jab the tines of two forks in the brisket of my thigh,
A humane way to test for doneness.
And if I feel my nerves raise up like a cat
In this blessed event of pans and pots rioting,
Pastry cutters slicing
Indelible lines in my once-buttery skin,
I will begin again,
Decrease like a fold in silk
With the same rectitude, the same genetic fascination
To grip the imperial weight of pie crust in my hands,
The flour crown, the white moon kneaded and pulled full,
Rising round as a womb.
I soften like a starched apron throwing off its starch,
A layer of plates, Blue Willow embossing,
Stacked like thin cakes.
Blue and white birds peck at my fingertips,
Take flight in their paint of togetherness.
I hold the expanse of patterns intricate as origami.
At the dinner table I fold the plates like napkins
And wipe every mouth that has nothing better to say.


California Driving

Freeway at Dawn

This first light is the intensity between us,
Our bodies flushed like headlights
As we rush into the glory of morning,
Hundreds of engines rumbling awake
While in the alleys homeless Van Goghs
Discard their losing hand of tin stars
For fresh change.
Today our skin
Is gold mixed with blood.
Today not even the sun
Can stop looking at us.



Gristle of asphalt clogs the heart,
Calcium and minerals depleted
As we mine these California bones.
All of us,
Weíve left a skeleton in place,
Cement ribs melodious
As a great xylophone droning,
The hum of bee wings
Incandescent on the windows of traffic.


Each window lights a distant face,
A masterpiece waiting to happen,
Waiting for somewhere to go,
Waiting for a reason to stand.
We are dead in the exhaust.
As ghosts losing their way we float,
Smooth as blood from a cut,
Into what was once paradise.


Eucalyptus doesnít kill every germ.
Itís not the salve of this place
As the spines of balm
Scent the air with medicine,
Scent the air with teases of a cure.
Olives and the oily meat of nuts
Swell for miles like the belly of birth
But we are still hungry all the time.


Our wheels roll on like fish in waves.
We fight for crumbs.
To avoid the center hook
We veer to the left or right
In so many signals and sighs.
We pass homes at the ends of lanes
Curling like lips singing,
But every home sings the same song,
Flies the same flag,
Prays to the same God because
Itís too hard to be blind
From all the other halos catching light
Or counting stars on different-colored backgrounds.


There are homes here,
Just houses,
Where everyone swallows the same drink
And goes to bed on time
And their prayers lose their way
At the ends of cul-de-sacs.


We disappear in the wail of speed.


We are dogs here
Burying ourselves like bones,
Forgetting the maps to our remains.


Itís easier to GO on green,
To never stop,
To ignore the red like ignoring the weather,
Ignoring war,
Ignoring revolutions smoldering beneath war
In the seeds of our chromosomes.
Itís always been easier
Just to shut-up and drive.

Late Night TV in the Palo Alto Motel

commercial tanka

We interrupt this program

plastic surgery
for thirty-eight dollars down,
thirty-eight a month,
will buy synthetic insides
to pump with your plastic heart

To bring you a word

a thirty-six waist
instead of a thirty-four
they can shrink with pills
filled with enough chemicals
to intimidate the smog

From our sponsor

Itís not good enough
enjoying who you can be
while everyone else
tells you to buy this and that
to feel as bad as they do

Waking Up At the Eureka Doubletree

I begin the restless surrender of myself,
Sunstruck like the voice of a lark
As I block reflections of light
Streaming through the window like
A lantern nobody remembered to blow out.
In the hall maids argue to each other in Spanish,
A smooth sigh of consonants rolled with vowels
Into a spicy dough of conversation
I am always forbidden to bite.
The air is full of hot Spanish winds stirred with
Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese,
Even German coming from rooms 200-224.
Morning is a corset about my waist,
The same gamy language falling from my mouth,
The mystery of warmed blood rushing
Through my calves as I kick the covers away.
My mouth is a film of city water,
A memory of last nightís pictures
In their dusty frames.
Stantonís cocktails on the left of Highway 1
With kitschy red sign and leather booths facing street.
TipTop club on the right,
A gentlemanís bar
With white siding showing signs of lust
As it darkens like the inside of a womanís thigh.
Two blocks on either side shine in yellow light
Leading the road sailors towards
The promise of land and sea.
An American avenue in all its non-descript glory,
A pharmacy,
A bakery,
Diners scattered like rings on
The more serious avenues of business.
This town is America.
It is not enough to compose metaphors
In the wrinkles of a strangerís sheet,
Not enough to gather and press
The bedspreadís cotton flowers,
Twine the ivy in my dirty hair
And ignore the triple X pay-per-view
Advertising its flesh on morning TV.
This is the bed everyone has slept in.
Beds are where we pretend to love each other
Then brood in the solitude of night.
Beds are where we decide things.
Hide things.
Scribble postcards in sweat.
Beds are where we die.
But not now.
I am determined.
I am an encyclopedia of definitions
Substantial as a boot in the sand.
I am the wake-up call
And the orange juice in bed,
Our bed now, maybe your bed tonight.
I am the finger in the hall
Coercing my body from seven hours
In a motel bed
To slowly peel the mystic fruit of morning.

For Man Holding Sign In Front Of San Francisco City Hall

Hands buried in the sediment of living,
Torn nails buckling with mud,
You flashed a peace sign
As we drove towards the fabled Golden Gate.

I admit ignoring your story,
The dense lines of verse above your lips,
Poems tucked under the hair of your beard,
The urgent narrative of an empty gut
While people two blocks ahead of you,
Stomachs full of lobster and chocolate,
Pushed through finish lines
As your boots wore down like erasers
And your pockets of nothing
Remained pockets of nothing.

I wanted to say
As you stood beneath the marble pillars,
Sheen of gold lettering
Shining towards Alcatraz
Like a jailerís key
Dangling just past whatever bars
You or I or anybody
Have placed you behind that,
Yeah, I did read your sign
And, yeah, sometimes,
Just between you and me,
Iím ďLonely and embarestĒ too.

I didnít stop the car.
I didnít give you a job.
I didnít give you money.
Maybe itís because Iím greedy.
Maybe I was saving for souvenirs I never saw.
Maybe I was late as if vacations need scheduling.
Maybe I was afraid you would hurt meó
Not with those hands,
Not because there was plenty of room
To stash knives in empty jeansí pockets
But by showing me how
Pretending you didnít exist
Helped me keep pretending I did.


©1999 Suzanne Burns

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