Vol. 1, No. 3
Summer 2000

Michael Collier

Pax Geologica
2212 West Flower Street
The Cave


Sibbie O'Sullivan
Shadow Dancing in the Suburbs
Letter from a Roman Wife
This and Only This


Ethelbert Miller
Omar's House
Omar in School


Linda Girardi
The Places That We Love


About Beltway
About the Editor
About Washingtonart.com



If you think Odysseus too strong and brave to cry,
that the god-loved, god-protected hero
when he returned to Ithaka disguised,
intent to check up on his wife

and candidly apprize the condition of his kingdom,
steeled himself resolutely against surprise
and came into his land cold-hearted, clear-eyed,
ready for revenge--then you read Homer as I did,

too fast, knowing you'd be tested for plot
and major happenings, skimming forward to the massacre,
the shambles engineered with Telemakhos
by turning beggar and taking up the challenge of the bow.

Reading this way you probably missed the tear
Odysseus shed for his decrepit dog, Argos,
who's nothing but a bag of bones asleep atop
a refuse pile outside the palace gates. The dog is not

a god in earthly clothes, but in its own disguise
of death and destitution is more like Ithaka itself.
And if you returned home after twenty years
you might weep for the hunting dog

you long ago abandoned, rising from the garbage
of its bed, its instinct of recognition still intact,
enough will to wag its tail, lift its head, but little more.
Years ago you had the chance to read that page more closely

but instead you raced ahead, like Odysseus, cocksure
with your plan. Now the past is what you study,
where guile and speed give over to grief so you might stop,
and desiring to weep, weep more deeply.


He was the yard dog's yard dog.
His heads accessorized with snakes.
His tail a scorpion's, and his slaver
a seed bank for hell's herbarium.
And his bites were worse than his barks.

What did he do in the underworld
except to guard the stairs leading
from the bitter tide-lap of the Styx?
How did he spend his days in the darkness
where only the dead can see?

His rheum-yellow eyes. His chainmail ears
larger than a basset's. Slower than Charon
at sorting the dead from the living--
yet more accurate, for like the dog
he was, he knew the various scents from the world above:

the grasses and tree bark, scat tracks,
the sweet acrid talc of dried piss. He knew
the dirt-under-the-nail smell of the desperate digging
from the buried-alive, the iron-on-the-tongue
of the licked wound. As ugly as he was,

he had exquisite breeding, a species unto himself.
The stud who would never have a mate. His cock,
a huge suppurating rudder, stirred the sulfuric
ocean of his realm; a homing device like his anger,
uncircumcised, guiding, probing, a love that could kill.


Last night the world's rifts, the ridges
that lie under the oceans, entered my dream,
seams and wounds of creation that spread
and subduct, whose monumental movement
makes mountains, erupts volcanoes,
and sets continents adrift.

In that peaceful destruction the possessions
of our house lay scattered on the floor
like a collection of basalt, glassine,
brittle from cooling, shaped like pillows
and sheets and columns from the temple
of the world's beginnings.

But out beyond the talus walls, over the caldera's edge,
the earth's manufacture of abyss slipped by
slowly. That was the night's upwelling, and in it
the sheer transparent creatures coalesced,
rafts of stellar luminescence--red, blue, and green--
deep, beyond reach, but in the world.


When I think of the man who lived in the house
behind ours and how he killed his wife
and then went into his own back yard,
a few short feet from my bedroom window,
and put the blue-black barrel of his 30.06
inside his mouth and pulled the trigger,
I do not think about how much of the barrel
he had to swallow before his fingers reached the trigger,
nor the bullet that passed out the back of his neck,
nor the wild orbit of blood that followed
his crazy dance before he collapsed in a clatter
over the trash cans, which woke me.

Instead I think of how quickly his neighbors restored
his humanity, remembering his passion
for stars which brought him into his yard
on clear nights, with a telescope and tripod,
or the way he stood in the alley in his rubber boots
and emptied the red slurry from his rock tumblers
before he washed the glassy chunks of agate
and petrified wood. And we remembered, too,
the goose-neck lamp on the kitchen table
that burned after dinner and how he worked
in its bright circle to fashion flies and lures.
The hook held firmly in a jeweler's vise,

while he wound the nylon thread around the haft
and feathers. And bending closer to the light,
he concentrated on tying the knots, pulling them tight
against the coiled threads. And bending closer still,
turning his head slightly toward the window,
his eyes lost in the dark yard, he took the thread ends
in his teeth and chewed them free. Perhaps he saw us
standing on the sidewalk watching him, perhaps he didn't.
He was a man so much involved with what he did,
and what he did was so much of his loneliness,
our presence didn't matter. No one's did.
So careful and precise were all his passions,

he must have felt the hook with its tiny barbs
against his lip, sharp and trigger-shaped.
It must have been a common danger for him--
the wet clear membrane of his mouth threatened
by the flies and lures, the beautiful enticements
he made with his own hands and the small loose
thread ends which clung to the roof of his mouth
and which he tried to spit out like an annoyance
that would choke him.


I think of Plato and the limited technology
of his cave, the primitive projection
incapable of fast forward or reverse,
stop action or slo mo and the instant replay
that would have allowed him to verify,
once and for all, Justice or the Good,

such as the way my family did, hour upon hour,
in the dark, watching films of my sister
diving, going over her failures and successes
like a school of philosophers, arguing
fiercely, pulling her up from the depths
of the blue water, feet first, her splash

blooming around her hips, then dying out
into a calm flat sheet as her fingertips appeared.
Sometimes we kept her suspended in her mimesis
of gainer and twist until the projector's lamp
burned blue with smoke and the smell of acetate
filled the room. Always from the shabby armchairs

of our dialectic we corrected the imperfect
attitude of her toes, the tuck of her chin,
took her back to the awkward approach or weak
hurdle and everywhere restored the half-promise
of her form, so that each abstract gesture
performed in an instant of falling revealed

that fond liaison of time and movement,
the moment held in the air, the illusion
of something whole, something true.
And though what we saw on the screen would never
change, never submit to our arguments, we believed
we might see it more clearly and understand

that what we judged was a result of poor light
or the apparent size of things or the change
an element evokes, such as when we allowed her
to reenter the water and all at once her body
skewed with refraction, an effect we could not save
her from, though we hauled her up again and again.

[image: Ruth Bolduan, "Byzantium"]

Michael Collier has been the director of the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference for five years and has taught English at the University of Maryland, College Park, for fifteen years. His books of poetry are The Ledge (2000), The Neighbor (1995), The Folded Heart (1989), and The Clasp and Other Poems (1986). Collier is the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, NEA fellowships, and the Discovery/The Nation award, among other honors.



I am an ordinary woman.
I spend my time looking young
then giving up,
as though beauty were a bank account.
Sometimes when I'm alone at night
I dim the light and put a record on--
no, that one with the saxophones.
If you look out the window you'll see
the sky above the shopping center
glistening like a cheap engagement ring.

Last night
I stood behind the curtain
and watched my neighbor
rinse a pot and wipe its bottom
like a baby.
I watched as all along the block
the lights went out
and one by one
the bedrooms
turned a T.V. blue.

Sometimes when I'm alone
at night my arms
unwrap like smoke.
If someone looked inside
he'd see me floating
like a piece of lace.
I am the jewel.
I am the ruby fire.
And everybody looks at me
like distant light,
like the light above
the shopping mall.

Sometimes I let my back
become a rope,
a whip,
a pharaoh's fan.
I undulate and unlace
tennis shoes, the bra
I bought at K-mart.
My nipples stenciled
by the cold, offered to the empty air,
and I become a snake
who eats itself
and I am made of gold
and worn round Cleopatra's waist.
I could dance and
dance and dance
and be the pulse
of everybody's watching,
a drum,
a twang of light,
oh, I could dance the old desire
until the shopping center
fades from sight
and morning takes my window
for its wife.


You are so far away from me, and I am
stuck where not even the local stones
will spell my name when I am dust.
But I cannot be angry.
Do you remember your last night here,
how I oiled your sandals,
and before I was through you had woven
your fingers through my hair,
pulling me closer to your sunburned knees.
Oh husband, I don't care if the whole legion
reads this, I am that miserable!
That night we danced like those drunken paintings,
that night we did everything.
And I remember how you called my cunny pretty,
then drew a picture of it in the dirt,
knelt down and kissed it saying,
I love equally my wife and Rome.

Dear husband, I have not forgotten you
though it's longer than a year
and what you lips once kissed
the rains have washed away.
Say you are well, write me, send me trinkets,
anything to ease the rumors I keep hearing:
that the men in that far land are blue,
and snow falls clear into the Ram.
Since I believe the talk of slaves,
I have sent you woolen socks, a pair of sandals
and two pairs of underpants.

Home's not as you left it.
Pillage, and great sicknesses.
I keep busy.
I can work my distaff and my spindle,
though supplies are short.
I may have to sell the pots, our bed
even the wine begins to taste of vinegar.
And there is something like the wolf gone mad
for those whose flesh is their religion.
It's all new fangleness, suspicion, knives.
I've seen senators salute the doomed horizon
as though they're farmers looking
for the weather. The palaestra
is full of whores, and the wives of generals
shop for boys in a carefree public manner.
The memory of you must keep me different.
I forego all invitations.
I braid my own hair.

One day I stole away. I lied to Livia
and took my donkey past the gates,
past where the wheat of our childhood
used to sway. I went out into the suburbs,
into the land of drums and open fires.
I have never been so scared.
I saw their tents,
their tents lined up until they filled the sky,
and felt within my blood the echo of your fear.
Oh husband, take care in your new home
for more than history separates us now.


After Carnal Knowledge on the tube,
I rush to the honky tonk where saxophones bounce
off the bottles, and the slide
guitar moves backwards up your sleeve
like blood.

Here amid the working-class hips, Jim
Morrison looks out from the wall, his hands pressed
tight in prayer, and next to him
Sam Cooke, the Marvelettes, McKinley Morganfield--
all the teen-club idols

framed and staple in nostalgia's proper angle.
Here the players look Armenian, but what the hell--
this is America.
Later, between the first and second set,
the drummer pukes outside,

then later still sips Thorazine.
It's Saturday night in suburbia, where the diners never close
and the rednecks weight their belts with metal.
Tonight a neon rainbow arcs above the juke box
like a covenant, and the selection

tray spreads open like a bible.
If the world should end tonight, bugaloo into oblivion,
a hundred motorcycles would go up in flames,
romance would wear a dirty undershirt,
and we would scatter, trinkets

of boredom, shimmied off our seats.
But no such luck. The bass man's tuning up, the singer
cups the microphone.
Beneath the heads of Jim and Sam and Hank
the waitress leers with many offers.

While the earth spins like a 45,
we rise up from our seats, and all that keeps us steady
is the gravity of dance,
the promise in a stranger's arms. This and only this
keeps us coming back.

[image: Aimee Jackson, "Double Crossing"]

Sibbie O'Sullivan is a writer who lives in Wheaton, MD. She writes poems, plays, and essays. She teaches in the Honors Program at the University of Maryland, College Park.



I told her...she had very nice hips.
She told me...I shouldn't be looking around

I said...I like to see where I'm going.


When you were in elementary school
no one told you about the black laws
of cause and effect. Your science teacher
failed to teach you about why a police
club struck against a black man's head
in the south results in a house burning
down in the north or how prejudice can
make a store clerk's smile turn into a
coldness below freezing. You often
wonder while waiting in line how you
can become invisible to every atom in
the world. You try to understand the
reason for your condition. All the blues
you know cannot defy gravity. All the
jazz you hear cannot keep you from
exploding like a star.


sometimes after someone has hit a foul
the umpire will toss a new ball back to the pitcher
the pitcher will catch it look at it rub it
then toss it back and ask that umpire for a new ball
just the other night i'm making love to helen
and it feels strange
helen got her eyes all closed
she's squirming and moaning
but you can tell she's thinking about someone else
i run my fingers down her back like i'm tracing
the seams on a ball


will i hate mirrors?
will i hate reflections?
will i hate to dress?
will i hate to undress?

jim my husband
tells me it won't matter
if i have one or two
two or one it doesn't matter
he says

but it does
i know it does

this is my body
this is not south africa or nicaragua
this is my body
losing a war against cancer
and there are no demonstrators outside
the hospital to scream stop

there is only jim
sitting in the lobby
wondering what to say
the next time we love
and his hands move towards
my one surviving breast

how do we convince ourselves
it doesn't matter?
how do i embrace my own nakedness
now that it is no longer complete?


most of my socks have holes in them
so when I get to omar's house
the first thing I hear
in my head is my momma's voice
talking about
you never know what might happen
to you when you go out the door
that's why you gotta have clean undies
and socks without holes

and i'm thinking about this when
I see all them shoes waiting by
the front door of omar's house
like the beginning of one of those
samurai movies

omar pushes me away from the door
while I balance on one leg trying to get
my shoes off and maybe get a chance
to twist my sock around so no one
notice the big hole
but then omar's daddy extends his hand
and says as salaam alaikum
and I just mumble something like i'm
happy to be here and I really don't know
where I am except I know that omar
is a muslim

the first one I ever met who
didn't wear a bowtie or try to sell
me a newspaper
omar looks like me except he has
hair you can comb quickly
my momma say don't be talking about
good hair and bad hair anymore because
that type of thinking is backwards
what's important is what's under your hair
and if you have a hat rack instead of a head
then it don't mean no never mine about what
kind of hair you have and as salaam alaikum
omar's daddy says again

so I smooth the top of my head and stand
up straight and look him in the eye
and he smiles and tells me to put my shoes down
so now i'm ready to enter omar's house
and the first thing I notice is the living room
don't have no furniture
no couch
no lamp
no coffee table
just some nice rugs
the kind you see in the street and nobody
buys because they're too expensive and if you
don't have a vacuum cleaner or you have a dog
or cat there will be no way for you to keep it clean
so it be best for you to just look at it and
think it's a magic rug and maybe one day you fly
away from the garbage on the sidewalk and near
the curb

omar touch me on my arm so gentle you think he was a girl
he is a quiet boy and my momma says he different from the rest
he doesn't curse and everything he does
he does with his right hand and then his daddy says
it's time for prayer and I look at him confused
because what am I suppose to do
the last time my momma took me to church was easter sunday
and the only reason we went was because she
got herself a mink coat and she said
I want everyone to see what your daddy got me
so I don't remember too much about jesus or the crucifixion
only thing I know is that my momma was the
happiest momma alive when she walked down the
aisle and sat in the front row of sweet savior
of the regiment first congregational church
everyone nodded at my momma and she whispered to me
and said
every believer in the lord should dress well
god don't like no riffraff

I look at my socks and i'm about to die
omar says the holy quran is the book I should read
and why his house seems like a church I don't know
all I know is that I like it here
the sweet smell of incense
the plants in the window
the soft music coming from the next room

you omar's friend his daddy asks
yes sir I say
i'm omar's friend from school
we in the same class and I live around the corner
and I never met a muslim before
not a real muslim
not in this neighborhood
no--and you ain't no a-rab
because my momma saw you in the supermarket
and she told my daddy you was black and nice
because you said excuse me in front of the vegetables
as you reached for a plastic bag
and in all her years of shopping
nobody ever said excuse me to my momma
especially on a saturday morning


sometimes my daddy argues with my momma
sometimes it's about rent
or why my shoes suddenly grew small

my momma tell me one thing
my daddy tell me something else
which is why I don't do too good in school
especially with math problems like
how long will it take you to get to cleveland
if you left the day after tomorrow and the
train only runs on the weekends and the bus
cost $21.00?

so how am I to figure if it's day or night?
my daddy tells me to just look out the window
and we don't have family in cleveland--anyway

I tell this to my teacher
and she thinks i'm a smartass
she don't say this
but I know what she's thinking

she's thinking
why can't I be like omar
omar says yes ma'am and no ma'am
I like omar but he doesn't know everything

just yesterday I ask omar about jesus
I ask omar
did jesus have a dog?

omar says
he don't know
I tell omar
you stupid
you don't know

how a man gonna walk on water with a cat?
so he must have a dog
a dog be a real disciple

I don't know what my momma believes
she thinks i'm just foolish in the head
my daddy thinks omar is strange
boy too old for his face
he tells me
looks like he knows everything

no--I whisper to myself
omar doesn't know the train to cleveland
only runs on the weekends

[image: Stevens Carter--pick one from his site]

E. Ethelbert Miller is a poet and the author of five collections of poetry, including Where Are the Love Poems for Dictators? and most recently, Whispers, Secrets and Promises. He is also the editor of In Search of Color Everywhere. Miller's memoir, Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer was published in June 2000 by St. Martin's Press.



This is the time of year
when nearly every day
the strange, lethal red tides appear,
burning the Florida Bay,

spreading through the Keys
on currents that rise and ebb
like hearts.
Examined closely in the dark,

the ocean consists of tiny sparks.
A boat's split wake
reveals red stars.
Once the sea's aflame,

it's hard to detect a reason for the fire:
the minute and luminous animals,
the toxic Noctiluca. This morning
another red tide spread its pall

of scum across the mud flats
of the tidal zone,
staining soft creatures: sponges,
anemones. I found a fish, its bones

like needles clearly visible
through a layer of pink skin,
its mouth a lightless tunnel.
Blue shadows fell on its dorsal fin.

I wish I could see what Audubon saw
a century, more, ago:
this cove filled with flocks
of scarlet-winged flamingos.


The month when the sky goes crazy at night.
--Tennessee Williams

Month of suicides, month of lies
when everything browns or spoils or dies:
the marsh grass, the corn crops,
an uncle on my father's side.

Caesar Augustus died in August
questioning his part in the farce of life.
On his chest, seven brown birthmarks
arranged like Ursa Major in the sky.

My ancestors were Menominee
tracking bear across the Great Plains.
They buried their children riverside
under banks brushed smooth
by weeping willow trees.

Tonight I rise from blue water.
My feet leave long, clawed splashes.
I think of my uncle's willows
unwinding their arms into the river.
I want an interview with the dead.

I want to know once and for all
if this is to be my inheritance:
this pool glowing secretly
like an uncut jewel,
these stars that have no names.


Robinson Jeffers,
I turn the pages of your lean, precise life
populated with few creatures:
a wife, a bulldog, few hawks,
yourself an exacting, carved man squatting on a coast of bones.
If we become like the places that we love,
you, the craggy Pacific shoreline,
white wave, red rock, vertebrae, crab claw,
then I am a roseate spoonbill dipping her beak
in a pool of fresh water,
or a tropical sea and all its soft creatures,
lily, periwinkle, oyster, medusa.


We dug our cornplants out of the sand and lived on watermelon seeds. There was a lot that we ate that year, in the wintertime.
-- from the Hopi

When the clouds roar down the mountains
like a herd of frightened elk,

the arms of oil derricks will break.

These riggings our hands have spun
will brand our palms forever.

No fur-lined glove will hide the disgrace.

We will dig in the potato peelings
of our neighbor's trash

and find naked dolls,

even the last, white rocket
will plummet back to earth,

black scratches across the sky.

We will eat our children,
we will gnaw at the moon.

There will be no other world.

[image: Kathy Keler: "Double Moon"]

Linda Girardi is a poet, novelist, and environmental writer. She holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arizona. Girardi's poetry has appeared in literary magazines and newspapers. Her environmental work includes journal articles, brochures, and curricula for children. She has been the recipient of the Larry Neal Award for Poetry and an Academy of American Poets prize. Girardi lives in Washington DC with her husband, the novelist Robert Girardi, and their two children. She is currently at work on a mystery novel set in Key West.