Poems from Quiet Lives (Humana, 1983)
Copyright ©1983 by David Cope
from Quiet Lives appeared in Big Scream, City Lights Journal #4, Blind Alley, In the Light, Windows in the
Stone, Delirium, The World, Roof,
Poems included here:
A Quiet Life
The Welfare Office
urine, fresh in the doorway,
puddles on the sidewalk.
we key the lock of the
looking for free furniture:
windows broken out, smashed chairs & dressers,
yellowed mattresses laid on the floors,
a Bible, a picture of "Smiling Rose,”
“pussy” sprayed on the wall six times,
& eleven pigeons parading in the hall.
the paint peels from every wall.
outside, a crone wheels a battered pram, empty;
the police have an old man against a wall.
the house was all in flames,
orange billows bursting up into the sunlight.
FBI agents & police were laid up
behind walls, sheds & other buildings
armed with M-16s & rocket launchers.
the firemen were kept back.
the battle had gone on for some time
when the fire exploded thruout the house.
one of the bodies could be seen inside the house,
loaded with ammunition bullets,
the bullets exploding from the heat.
his workmen stopped to listen;
the neighbors opened the window.
he waved his arms
& pointed to the new roof. his expenses:
she hadn’t paid in two months.
he hadn’t agreed to her painting the place.
where was the contract? show it.
he looked indoors. the chisels began again.
now I know the secret of peace
wandering here among hills where no one lives.
clumps of sumac, hillsides covered with white oaks,
poplars & birches:
I never stand still for long,
but listen & move on.
the light floods the woods & valley.
even the shadows are luminous & clear,
& I, just another face among so many.
sitting around a table waiting for the day to end
these men relive the war:
sore shoulders & jaws firing rifles at boot camp,
the advantages of the M-16,
how a grenade works,
blasting tiny shrapnel in every direction.
Roger relives watching perimeters at night,
calling artillery strikes on anything that moved:
any monkey or snake in the brush might set him off,
he talks of loneliness, staring into the alien night
when everything he loved was far away.
Jerry—fond of guns & tactics—
proudly remembers taking an M-16 off a dead GI;
he’d been issued an M-14
& wanted a better gun. this was how to get one.
Benny talks of piles of bodies,
corpses with arms, heads, legs ripped off,
the twisted faces of the dead,
the stink that filled his nostrils,
a smell he can’t forget.
he speaks without passion,
regretting the wasted effort, the needless deaths,
yet he accepts his part in it,
still amazed people could live like this for years,
from attack to counter-attack
hiding in fields & ditches,
finding uncles & sons blasted to pieces
more often than children are born.
after the politicians’ lies, the funerals of friends,
the nightly deaths in the evening news,
our rage swelled into riot.
surging around a lone police car
we smashed the windows out, punching the driver’s face in.
others ran thru the main streets;
store fronts & bank windows shattered on the pavement.
as the dark night settled in
we blocked traffic, heading farther & farther downtown.
suddenly police filled the streets before us—
gas masks, nightsticks, dogs straining at leashes.
shouts! screams! nightsticks cracking skulls!
tear gas all over main street! panic!
some ran blindly, in any direction,
officers in gas masks on their heels;
others sat down in the street, folding their arms,
waiting to be beaten & carried off.
up the dark alley! thru sidestreets, home again,
& once home
I looked at my face in the mirror,
filled with rage & horror, alone & cut off.
years later, on a picnic,
we watch light play thru willow branches.
listening to this soft breeze
I wonder how I put the violence behind me.
so many friends dead
& those come back still dazed & broken,
yet the night passes, somehow.
waiting for a bus
some laid-off workers shoot craps.
this one’s won, he’s dancing around
slapping at the losers.
A Quiet Life
Minh will turn down citizenship:
he wants to go home.
the Texans treated him badly,
when all he wanted was work, a quiet life.
his eyes turn away. he sighs deeply.
could we get Sang’s children out
in a month or two?
no, said Tham. a time of storms.
on my boat, Lien said, my children go 3 days
no food, & water only to wet the lips.
four people die,
& this in good weather.
The Welfare Office
a fat black woman bellows
at the face behind the desk,
her coat billowing about her boy
who clutches her knees.
rows of haggard faces wait
in a stupor.
the bureaucrats take them one by one.
forms & signatures, in a cubicle—
“drove buses Saigon to
small appliance repair?
he’s lucky, should be no problem
once he learns English.”
outside, bodies crowd the lightpoles;
the police lift a derelict
from a boarded doorway.
the cars lie, one on its side,
a rear wheel still spinning,
& the other upside down.
the bodies are scattered across the cornfield,
bent & broken on the frozen ground.
two ambulances pull up.
the attendants arrange & cover the dead.
cars pull over to the side of the road—
eager to help, hands in pockets.
a thousand dead roaches in the sink
& on the floor, a thousand more, crawling.
she wanted “to do business fairly,”
but didn’t know whom to trust.
the tenants had tried to set the house afire,
then left, six months back on the rent.
she wonders how to fix the battered wall,
the smashed ceiling, the live wire;
how she’ll keep her finances straight,
whether her children are growing up right.
blood in the toilet
& cramps like labor, tissue
settling to the bottom of the water:
outside, the moon’s cut in half,
frigid in the mist. man & wife,
they cry softly together,
& look into each other’s eyes.
let me blow this faint gentle breath out
to another of my fathers.
two days since I heard this news,
& all day today heaving & sighing,
his mountain meadows, the Spanish dead,
Sacco & Vanzetti, Dylan Thomas,
& all the tiny plum blossoms he floated us:
if I sit tonight in shadows,
the moon’ll be full, the crickets sing
sweet lament. tenderly now,
this faint gentle breath to you,
T’ang Yin, Freer Gallery
Dreaming of Immortality in a Thatched Cottage—
surrounded by the immensity of trees, mountains & sky,
& in the sky his other self has left it all behind.
coming in here:
car horns, a small boy tried to strangle a pigeon,
throngs sat in the shade, wiping their brows,
taxis slammed on their brakes.
& I, I would leave this place?
two mechanics sit in broken glass,
one cigarette between them
passed back & forth,
taking turns reefing on a stubborn wheel nut.
the poet appears, broom & dustpan in hand.
all our jams are up,
our watermelons, tomatoes, cukes & peaches.
cruising past these fields of corn,
their tassels shining in the sundown,
already I’m dreaming of Thanksgiving.
in fall I can’t help but think of death,
its dear color:
already here & there the maples turn;
here is a funeral cortege, holding up traffic,
the women covering their faces,
heads bent, the men solemn, staring straight ahead.
a whole life passes before me,
someone I never knew;
the sun shines over the hearse, thru the windows
onto their laps where their hands are folded.
home, sitting on the porch with you,
these sweet short moments
talking & looking over our marigolds
never come often enough.
yet together our lives’re kind: we get by,
savoring this time
as the gardener puts his yard in order.
everywhere I look, people are whistling, busy:
now’s the time to read Whitman again.