Alchemy Practicum and Goat Visit

Goat, you were the only one among
the three goats who pressed his head
against the fence when Rachel and I
came to you after picking crab apples
and black walnuts. I returned
to the paradise of childhood labors:
Piling walnuts onto a flat wicker basket
for Lena’s dyes, their sun-warmed green husks
stained in their own juice.

Goat, you approached to the gate and pressed
against me. Stiff fur, incurling horn,
your goaty smell preceding you as incense
precedes the enthroned Eucharist
in a Corpus Christi procession. You condescend
for me to touch your head and back,
return the gesture of friendship with a look
from your rectangular pupil.

“Feed him the apple,” says Rachel handing
it over the fence and I offer you the crab
apple on the supplicant plate of doubled
palms. My fingertips, stained and perfumed
with black walnuts, you consecrate with goat
cider. I know the flavor in your mouth: sour
as the crack of an apple breaking, bitter like black
walnut juice, and sweet like the distillate of sun.

Goat, you return to your pasture
and I return to the laboratory.
Today we prepare oil of rosemary,
oil of sun. A wasp enters
through the sky window. All day

my fellow alchemists fidget.
Rosemary fumes suffuse the yurt.
When the wasp takes leave we pour
the yellow oil that rises
into three vials: one for each alchemist.

Goat, while I labor in idleness do you, too, hasten
slowly? Do you, too, make distillate of sun?
Or do you turn your devil eye and grin, shake
your thinning beard at the wasps who swarm
the fermenting crab apples you cannot reach
while they, unharvested, seep sweet yellow
in the sun who tilts to his equinoctial crossing,
the Tropic of Capricorn?

First published in Residual Heat under my pseudonym Aga Black.

Distillation by Retort

Distillation by Retort (Public Domain)




Residual Heat at the Decommissioned Synchrotron

We step over fading caution tape, a Geiger counter in your hand
   ticking the steady tick of background radiation.

Up and down the textured metal stairs,
   my hands slide on cold handrails, you walk ahead.

The urge to touch you radiates through me
   wave after wave, something I cannot contain

nor indulge; the heat flows into the cauldron
   of the cyclical synchrotron. Dead machines

surge into undead hums, to shake themselves
   into shuddering destruction, cabinets full of dials,

piles of lead bricks. You swing
   the dragon mouth of the Geiger counter.

It only ticks at the same slow pace:
   no heat, but you burn, and I know it.

First published in Residual Heat under my pseudonym Aga Black.

Fire Danger: High

But you burn, and I know it.
   Adrienne Rich, “Orion”

As we wind up the Berkley hills, brown foam
peels off the dash of his hot Dodge Dart.
I crank down the windows for a sun-singed draft.

The smoldering tip of his black clove cigarette.
His afternoon stubble, the clear sky, the dry grass.
One hand on the gear shift. Both my hands on my lap.

Years ago these hills went up: ash fell like snow
in Alameda. The foothills burned for three days.

He throws the butt into the the road. The sparks scatter
on the asphalt and die.

He moves his free hand


to the the wheel.

First published in Residual Heat under my pseudonym Aga Black.

How the War Started

When Xerxes wrote again: “Deliver up your arms,” Leonidas wrote back: “Come and take them.”

Black eye. The left one. Stubble. Leather jacket and underneath
a black t-shirt with “Fuck You” printed in white. Buckled boots.

His car, named Zeke,
is a ’73 Dodge Dart Swinger.

Peeling pleather front seat, the foam exposed.
He puts his hand on my thigh.

I put mine on top.
His apartment is upstairs

and past pale green corridors with Victorian doors.
“Very like an asylum.”

Swords hang on his walls. Bookshelves.
A big unmade bed. Black sheets.

A stuffed raven on the computer.
I read the spines on the bookshelf

and turn into him, kiss;
pause to unlace my knee-high boots.

He ignites six tea-lights.
I set aside my glasses.

He unbuckles his boots.
I reach under his shirt.

He pushes me onto the bed.
We do the thing we came here to do.

Still, warm, and sleepy I sink
into his scent, and fur, and solid heavy limbs.

When he wakes to take a piss I move to his spot
and prepare my arms for his return.

First published in Residual Heat under my pseudonym Aga Black.

Detail of sculpture on the Longfellow Bridge

The Longfellow Bridge

The T runs down the heart
of the bridge.

The cars shake in the dim light
left by the dregs of the day.

May-green trees and May-green weeds
shine, still slick and fresh from rain.

I walk on the edge of the bridge
by a low stone wall.

The rainfall slows.
The Red Line train is gone.

I walk and walk.

First published in Residual Heat under my pseudonym Aga Black.

Detail of sculpture on the Longfellow Bridge

Longfellow Bridge detail (2007). Photo by Paul Mison. Used with permission.

Airplanes Over the Bog

In response to Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s “The Pear Tree”

Bagno. The name means bog.
The village may have been a bog
before the drainage ditches
gridded it into kolkhoz.

Crop dusters buzz in the cloudy sky—
always cloudy over Bagno,
always muddy at the kolkhoz gate
where the people’s tractor
shudders diesel smoke through a soot-blacked chimney.

Cloudy sky like a black and white
newsreel from WWII
where an airplane buzzes low,
and drops a finned black bomb
like a soda fountain cartridge
and a child runs with a black mouth
open but inaudible over the buzz. The bomb
does not hum, does not hiss, does not cry,
and I can’t tell in the black and white film
if the child’s mouth is full of shadows or blood.

In the fields black molehills
erupt like impact craters,
but we never see the blind
excavators alive.

My cousin’s model airplane
burns fuel oily and metallic,
buzzes above us in the cloudy field,
flies to the edge of radio range,
then out of range
down into the calamus,
into the cattails, into the wet edge
of the black pine forest seeping night,
and burrows its lacquered nose in peat.

First published in Residual Heat under my pseudonym Aga Black.

About this poem

When I was about to post this poem, I looked up Brigit Pegeen Kelly so I could link to her biography, and learned that she died last year. I no longer know what to say when someone asks me who is my favorite living poet. In 1997 I heard Brigit Pegeen Kelly read from her book Song at the Aran Islands Poetry Festival in Galway, Ireland. I was attending it as one of the winning young poets sent by the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival. I was so taken with her work that I overcame my habitual shyness and went up to her afterwards to tell her how much I loved it, and I gave her the only thing I could think of, my poetry chapbook, although it seemed rather paltry in comparison to what I had just heard. I also bought her book, which I foolishly neglected to ask her to sign. I wish I had.

Over the years, I read the poems in Song and The Orchard many times. Many of my poems are inspired by hers. I meant to tell her how much her poems meant to me. I mean to send her some of them, but it seemed presumptuous. Now it’s too late.

Like Two Dogs Dancing

[Content warning: animal death]

He turns into the comforter of rain,
no umbrella or hat, just the quilted
sidewalk. The spume from wheels passing
through the deep puddle by the stopped
storm drain arcs into the wet air
like the last blood of his black dog
that as a child he once neglected to tie up,
hit by the back wheel of a parked Fiat
unseen until the car started and its blood
waved like a fox tail, like the tail of another
dog, a red dog playing with the black dog,
wrestling in the rutted red-clay road
until the black dog fell exhausted.

First published in Residual Heat under my pseudonym Aga Black.

The Wandering Daughter Returns to Her Neglected Patrimony

From the half-finished bunker of the concrete basement
That was to be the foundation of our now-abandoned
Familial abode that I will neither finish nor furnish
Nor people with young from my rebel womb,
I throw my gaze down the hill of dead orchard,
Across the green lake poisoned with runoff, to the far-side
Fields of sodden rye where from the lead belly of the sky
Snake tongues of violet lightning.

The air shudders with ozone and cracks;
The spear of the black iron lightning rod running
Along the red brick church tower of the old Prussian spire
Conjures down heaven’s fire through rusted-red rebar,
Down to the grounding-rod deep in red clay.

Like a spilled bag of steel bearings
The rain rolls down the fiberglass roof.

The black guard dog whimpers locked in his pen
Lest he bite me again, waiting for nightfall when he’ll pant
The perimeter of the chain link fence from hilltop spruce
To lakeside rowan, patrolling the dry orchard
My uncle let die as he drank year by year
His caretaker’s funds never believing
Anyone would return.

First published in Residual Heat under my pseudonym Aga Black.

Church in Gryźliny, Poland.



The tall, even pines
   with sand at their feet
      brood black between their trunks.

 The winter-dried reeds
   frozen solid in the iced-over marsh
      rustle in the western wind
that blows from the red,
   red disk of the solstice sun
      solemnly sliding down the midwinter sky,
hardly illuminating the winter-plowed field
   where the good black peat bog earth
      the steel plows had cut and turned
has frozen solid like a sea in the midst of a storm,
   the peak of each earth wave touched with sun-blood,
      each dell breeding black shadows,

breeding night. Night seeping from the tall pines.
   Night rising from the peat field,
      the sun spilling out into the frozen bog,
spilling and sinking
   into the crackling ice.

First published in Residual Heat under my pseudonym Aga Black.

In the Park with Grandmother, Olsztyn, Poland 1981

for Babcia Wańdzia

Though she pulled it back into a bun
   black wisps of her hair haloed
      her face.

The hard blue sky behind her
   run through with a single white thread
      of a contrail.

Her skin was like walnut.
   With the sun behind her
      she smiled at me in her own shadow.

The silver plane
      its sound.

First published in Residual Heat under my pseudonym Aga Black.