A Bag of Hands

Jalisco, Mexico.
In a black plastic bag:

12 severed hands
removed from their owners, for thievery, por rateros,

and put in this bag, the kind of bag
you put beer in from Oxxo, filled with ice

but no ice for these hands, rancid, rotting
in the heat, flies, dried blood.

I’ve always hated my hands, small, red, wrinkly,
old man hands.

When I was in 3rd grade I looked
at my classmates’ hands and mine

were different. Ugly, deformed. Self-loathing.
Most of all I envied dark smooth hands,

Indian hands. I thought
they were beautiful. And now 50

years later I’m a taxi driver and I see this bag of hands
they found in Mexico

as a punishment
and a warning.

For 3 days I’ve been looking at these hands.
I think of that Sherwood Anderson story I read long ago

about the man whose hands got him into trouble
when he only wanted to love. That’s when

I wanted to be a writer. So many things to do
with these guilty hands, but writing seemed

a good thing. And people say:
you should take that bag

of hands and craft a novel around it, make
money, entertain people, quit this

stupid job.
I don’t know. It’s real,

that’s the problem, this black
plastic bag full of severed hands.

I’ve stolen things. Hasn’t everybody?
One time when I was young I was too sick for school

and I was home alone, in bed,
and a man broke into our house

and came into my bedroom, looking for loot.
I woke up and said, “Who are you?” He ran

stomping up the stairs, I heard the door
slam and his truck tires throw gravel out

of our driveway. The police asked if I
could recognize the man and I drew a picture of him

and they used the picture to convict him. He lived
a few miles away. I drew a picture of him

with my hands and everybody
said I was a real good artist.

Nobody likes to have their house broken into.
Nobody wants to work hard for things

and then have someone come along and steal them.
I just hope

it was the right man.
Now I am old and have grown

into my old man’s hands, but I still don’t
like them, these hands on the steering wheel

of this taxi cab, arthritic, ticking.
I keep looking at everyone’s

hands now, my passengers’ hands.
Some of them have scars

on their wrists. Some of them are grotesque,
worse than mine. Some of them

don’t work well, they tremble.
Some of them are beautiful and smooth

as buckeyes. Some of them are so calloused they cut
you when you shake them. Some of them cup

the sunlight.
Imagine the hands

that held the thieves down, the hands that raised
the machete, the hands

that fell. Pretension
is a fog on the brain. The poets

scribble, the novelists invent.
Hand shadows, hand puppets,

hands of time, hands of God. A clock
without hands. Why

couldn’t that black plastic bag
have had a six pack of beer in it instead?

I remember when my wife first took my hand
walking in our old Tucson barrio.

My wife is Mexican
and she has lovely hands, hands that lifted

a barbed wire fence on the border, hands that turn
burgers to feed her father

back home. What would I not take
from this world to give to her? I ask myself

as I write these words with my numb hands.
Nothing? The truth is

I don’t know.
When you’re looking

at a black plastic bag full of severed hands
you don’t know what to think. Your mind stumbles

and claws at the air.

Bonne Journee

Oh goody, it’s you two,
dippy old French couple
retired to the U.S.
waiting at the co-op grocery
with your 15 adorable re-usable bags
loaded with 3-dollar apples and bunches
of kale and spoon-fed duck.

I arrive in my taxi
to pick your snob-gobs up
with your accent that makes me want to slap the foie gras
out of you
and the way you stand up and wait
for me to open the cab doors for you
(should I kiss your hands too?)

and the way you leave your groceries on the sidewalk table
for me to load in the trunk
probably thinking
“We gave them the Statue of Liberty
we gave them New Orleans
they owe us.”

And then you bark your address at me
which I already know
because I’ve hauled your snazzy asses half
a dozen times before
but you don’t recognize me because all Americans
(or at least all taxi drivers)
look alike.

And the whopping seven dollars on the meter

and your “Can you give us a discount?”

and my “Why, are you in the military?”

and your “We’re gonna use a debit card”

and where it says “tip” you punch in a big fat “0”

and immediately demand a receipt
when the receipt takes a few seconds to print out
as if I’m gonna cheat you somehow.
Anyway, why do you need a receipt, gonna write
this taxi ride off your taxes?

And then you get out of the cab and de-activate the alarm
on your bodaciously overpriced
old town adobe
expecting me to carry your groceries
inside and probably put them away for you too
maybe sweep off the doorstep while I’m at it
and water your wisterias you waify
Eiffel Tower woosies.

When I leave the bags on the curb just remember
I am refraining
from throwing them in the gutter
and rupturing your almond milk

and even though I never went to college or made
love on the steps of
the Louvre
trust me
when you say

“Have a good day”

I know
what you really mean.

The Tao of Poop

On my bathroom wall
there is a photo of my father
cut from a newspaper
by his own hand
and mailed to me, proudly.
He’s sitting on the ground
surrounded by a dozen or so
figurines. Frogs and rabbits
and squirrels.
The caption below the photo informs us
that the figurines are carved
by the Amish people in Pennsylvania.
They take as their material
genuine Amish cow shit and my father
sells them in his store.
He has this goonish grin on his face.
They are called Poopets.

25 years ago
I published my first book
of poetry
and sent him a copy.
When I got the finished books from the printer
(self-published of course)
I lay down on the floor
and covered myself with them
while my girlfriend snapped the camera.

My father without delay
wrote me a letter containing
his opinion about the book.
One thing was sure
he knew shit
when he saw it, and my book
wouldn’t even make good fertilizer.

Nobody invents irony, it simply
enters our lives like a stranger
and says the exact opposite
of what we want to hear.

It makes you so angry you finally lift
your hand to slap
the insolent grin off its face.

But then right before your eyes
it turns into your father

and then yourself

and then a small, unrecognizable animal
carved from manure.

For Bruce Embree

How did I find him?
An old buddy sent me Embree’s book ALL MINE,

said, “You’re gonna like this”
so I guess I didn’t really find him

as much as he found me.
Old buddy was right,

what a poet! I lost
the book for years, and it’s his

only book. I found it
today, in an old box, read it again,

it’s still great.
Old buddy won’t talk to me now,

I said something to him while drinking.
Damn my angry self-loathing thick head.

Old buddies don’t last
just get old.

Bruce Embree never got old.
He blew his brains out at 47

in a cabin in Idaho,
couldn’t take it anymore.

Not sure
who found him.

There is This Idea

that in poetry or art
a man can be free
though most aren’t.
Most bring the same constraints
into their art
that they carry every day in life
but there is still this idea
that freedom might be possible.

It would be better to be free every waking moment
free in your soul
but I don’t know if there have been
more than a half dozen people in history
who have been able to do that.

So we have art

and people tie it up and butcher it
and put it behind bars.

I’ve been touched by time.
I’ve been touched by my time.
I’ve been touched by the artists
that aren’t free in their art
but instead look at it as a job
a career
a paycheck
a ladder to respectability

instead of the opposite of all of that

instead of the antidote
to all of that.

There is this idea
and I think it’s a good idea:

to be free in your mind,
to be free in your art.