Poetry excerpts from “Vice” by Ai (Florence Anthony)…
THE COCKFIGHTER’S DAUGHTER
I found my father,
face down, in his homemade chili
and had to hit the bowl
with a hammer to get it off,
then scrape the pinto beans
and chunks of ground beef
off his face with a knife.
Once he was clean
I called the police,
described the dirt road
that snaked from the highway
to his trailer beside the river.
The rooster was in the bedroom,
tied to a table leg.
Nearby stood a tin of cloudy water
and a few seeds scattered on a piece of wax paper,
the cheap green carpet
stained by gobs of darker green shit.
I was careful not to get too close,
because, though his beak was tied shut,
he could still jump for me and claw me
as he had my father.
The scars ran down his arms to a hole
where the rooster had torn the flesh
and run with it,
finally spitting it out.
When the old man stopped the bleeding,
the rooster was waiting on top of the pickup,
his red eyes like Pentecostal flames.
That’s when Father named him Preacher.
He lured him down with a hen
he kept penned in a coop,
fortified with the kind of grille
you find in those New York taxicabs.
It had slots for food and water
and a trap door on top,
so he could reach in and pull her out by the neck.
Once morning he found her stiff and glassy-eyed
and stood watching
as the rooster attacked her carcass
until she was ripped
to bits of bloody flesh and feather.
I cursed and screamed, but he told me to shut up,
stay inside, what did a girl know about it?
Then he looked at me with desire and disdain.
Later he loaded the truck and left.
I was sixteen and I had a mean streak,
carried a knife
and wore such tight jeans I could hardly walk.
They all talked about me in town,
but I didn’t care.
My hair was stringy and greasy and I was easy
for the truckers and the bar clowns
that hung around night after night,
just for the sheer pleasure of it.
I’d quit high school, but I could write my name
and add two plus two without a calculator.
And this time, I got to thinking,
I got to planning, and one morning
I hitched a ride
on a semi that was headed for Calilfornia
in the blaze of a west Texas sunrise.
I remember how he’d sit reading
his schedules of bouts and planning his routes
to the heart of a country
he thought he could conquer with only one soldier,
the $1000 cockfight always further down the pike,
or balanced on the knife edge,
but he wanted to deny me even that,
wanted me silent and finally wife
to some other unfinished businessman,
but tonight, it’s just me and this old rooster,
and when I’m ready, I untie him
and he runs through the trailer,
flapping his wings and crowing
like it’s daybreak
and maybe it is.
maybe we’ve both come our separate ways
or to placating the patron saint
of roosters and lost children,
and when I go outside, he strolls after me
until I kneel down and we stare at each other
from the cages we were born to,
both knowing what it’s like
to fly at an enemy’s face
and take him down for the final count.
Preacher, I say, I got my GED,
a AA degree in computer science,
a husband, and a son named Gerald, who’s three.
I’ve been to L.A., Chicago,
and New York City on a dare, and know what?–
it’s shitty everywhere, but at least it’s not home.
After the coroner’s gone, I clean up the trailer,
and later, smoke one of Father’s
as I walk by the river,
a quivering way down in my guts,
while Preacher huddles in his cage.
A fat frog catches the lit cigarette
and swallows it.
I go back and look at the picture
of my husband and son,
reread the only letter I ever sent
and which he did not answer,
then tear it all to shreds.
I hitch the pickup to the trailer
and put Preacher’s cage on the seat,
then I aim my car for the river, start it,
and jump out just before it hits.
I start the pickup and sit
bent over the steering wheel,
shaking and crying, until I hear Preacher
clawing at the wire,
my path clear,
my fear drained from me like blood from a cut
that’s still not deep enough
to kill you off, Father,
to spill you out of me for good.
What was it that made us kin,
that sends daughters crawling after fathers
who abandon them at the womb’s door?
What a great and liberating crowing
comes from your rooster
as another sunrise breaks the night apart
with bare hands
and the engine roars
as I press the pedal to the floor
and we shoot forward onto the road.
Your schedule of fights,
clipped above the dashboard,
flutters in the breeze.
Barstow, El Centro, then swing back
to Truth or Consequences, New Mexico,
and a twenty-minute soak in the hot springs
where Geronimo once bathed,
before we wind back again into Arizona,
the all the way to Idaho by way of Colorado,
the climb, then the slow, inevitable descent
toward the unknown
mine now. Mine.
BOYS AND GIRLS, LENNY BRUCE, OR BACK FROM THE DEAD
for Willem Dafoe, Ron Vawter, and the Wooster Group
So how’s it going, folks?–
shtuped and duped again.
You can take it.
Hell, the meaning of life
is taking it,
in the mouth, the ass, the–
it feels so good.
All together now, stand up, bend over,
and say a-a-a-h.
Now sit down, relax, enjoy the show
that asks the magic question,
with such a stink,
can shit be far behind?
But no, what you smell is an odor
of another kind,
fear, disgust, plus all the things
you don’t want to hear,
the things that drive you
from the club,
a body, a name, and nothing more.
Alone, on stage, I take
what you have left behind
and wear it like a wide, gaudy tie,
a sight gag
for the next show,
when I’ll pick at some other scab
until it bleeds,
until that blood turns to wine
and we get drunk
on the incomprehensible
raison d’être of our lives.
I address myself
most often to you guys,
because guys are least
able to express themselves.
You women know that.
You’ve read it in Ms. and Cosmo.
I am not a woman hater;
I’m a woman baiter, I like
to argue, I like confrontation
as long as I win,
but you women make it hard,
you don’t play by the rules
but by emotions.
One minute you’re devoted,
the next you’ve placed
an ad in New York magazine
that says we’re impotent.
Know what I’m saying?
You women tell each other things
a guy does not want told.
You hold these secret sessions
over coffee and croissants.
We disappear in your complaints,
and in our places, those things
So guys, I advise let ’em know
you won’t be violated,
you won’t be changed
into their tormentor.
You women out there,
all I’m trying to say,
in the end,
we’re only bad impersonations
of our fantasies,
Just let the accusation waltz be ended,
not the dance.
I tried to reach
that state of grace
when performer and audience fuse,
but each show left a hunger
even sex couldn’t satisfy.
The closest thing–
like the Velvet Underground sang it–
Shot, snorted, smoked,
even laced with sugar
and spread on cereal for breakfast.
But I was cool, it was cool,
until one night I thought
to hell with this moderation shit.
I took one needle too many
in that last uncollapsed vein,
that trail up the cold Himalayas.
I climbed and climbed
and finally it was just me
and the abominable snowman,
starring in my own Lost Horizon.
I had arrived
to Miles playing background trumpet.
Ice encased me from the neck down;
the snowman never moved,
never made a sound,
maybe he wasn’t even there,
maybe he was the pure air of imagination.
I breathed faster
and faster, then slow
and let it all come down,
but that was just before
the floor, the Hollywood
night and smog,
the quick trip to the morgue
someone I used to know.
He looked like me, he was
but in some other form
my rib cage cut open, my guts
bluish gray and shriveled,
liver going black,
my dick sucked back inside,
as if through a straw or tube.
I lay like that for days
while they hunted me for drugs,
as if prospecting gold
and that gold was my disgrace,
but now I’m back
to claim my share of whatever’s
left out there among the ruins.
And on stage,
under the white-hot spotlights,
give it all I’ve got.
So greetings from the reclamation zone.
Like Christmas, it was bound to come,
and like some hostage savior,
I’m here to stay
till everybody’s sanctified
That’s right, it’s not your balls, your pussy,
or your money
that I’m after; it’s your soul.
Night after night,
I danced on dynamite,
as light of foot as Fred Astaire,
until I drove the road
like the back of a black panther,
speckled with the gold
of the cold and distant stars
and the slam, bang, bam
of metal jammed against metal.
My head nearly tore from my neck,
my bones broke in fragments
like half-remembered sentences,
and my body,
as if it had been beaten
by a thousand fists,
bruised dark blue;
yet a breath entered my wide open mouth
and the odor of sweet grass
filled my nose. I died,
but the cameras kept filming
some guy named James,
kept me stranded among the so-called living,
though if anybody’d let me,
I’d have proved
that I was made of nothing but one long, sweet kiss
before I wasn’t there.
Still, I wear
my red jacket, blue jeans.
Sometimes I’m an empty space in line
at some Broadway cattle call,
or a shadow on a movie screen;
sometimes I caress a woman in her dreams,
kiss, undress her anyplace,
and make love to her
until she cries.
I cry out
as she squeezes me tight
between her thighs,
but when she grabs my hair,
my head comes off in her hands
and I take the grave again.
Maybe I never wanted a woman
as much as that anyway,
or even the spice of man on man
that I encountered once or twice,
the hole where I shoved myself,
framed by an aureole of coarse hair.
By that twilight in ’55,
I had devised a way
of living in between
the rules that other people make.
The bongos, the dance classes with Eartha Kitt,
and finally racing cars,
I loved the incongruity of it.
They used to say that I was always on
and couldn’t separate myself
from the characters I played,
and if I hadn’t died,
I’d have burned out anyway,
but I didn’t give Quaker’s shit, man,
I gave performances.
I even peed on the set of Giant—
and turned around
and did a scene with Liz Taylor.
I didn’t wash my hands first.
All the same, I didn’t need an audience.
That’s the difference
between an actor
and some sly pretender
who manipulates himself
up on the tarnished silver screen.
I didn’t do method; I did James Dean.
Since then, the posters, photographs, biographies
keep my unbetrayed by age or fashion,
and as many shows a night as it’s requested,
I reenact my passion play
for anyone who’s interested,
and when my Porsche
slams into that Ford,
I’m doing one hundred eighty-six thousand
miles a second,
but I never leave the stage.