Poems by Mike Alexander



My mother urges me to learn the horn.

    “You’ll always have a job, no matter where

you find yourself, whatever city, there’s

    always a local.” My mother just wants

to raise good union musicians. Her sons

    will pay their dues, & be card-carrying

trumpet-playing men. I don’t know how to

    tell her I’ve dropped my instrument, my mouth-

piece is stuck, & the odor of the valve

    ointment works my gut. She says I’m holding

the horn wrong, it should rise slightly more than

    perpendicular to the ground, & that’s

why I have trouble handling some notes,

    why I’m slow at fingering my sixteenths.

My mother says, “just try it from the top,

    take it to the coda, then start again.”


At first the valves stand open, then I close

    the first & the third together, the first

& the second, the first alone, & then

    the way is clear again, again I close

the first & the second, then the second

    alone, & then again the way is clear,

I’m scaling up a major scale, but as

    I force my air into these close quarters,

trap-doors, dead-ends, I strain to pitch myself

    one half-step higher than I could before,

I plunge myself into a labyrinth

    where passages slide open & slam shut

without ever delivering the note

    to end all notes, I reach with my last breath

into the dark bell, cornucopia

    from which others pull such unearthly fruit.


I’m buying CDs, all kinds, jazz, swing, ska,

    dixieland, rhythm & blues, soul, & lounge.

I rotate the top four or five, & then

    replace them with another four or five.

Impulse, Milestone, Reprise — make me turn east

    & face Decca, a subterranean

intensity rears up from the subways,

    a crescendo, & I see the faces

in a flourish, it’s Louie, Freddie, Miles

    & Chet, each one halo’d by a blue spot,

in isolation or in concert, horns

    muted or blatant, the brass taste is back

in my mouth, in my CD player

    where CDs spin in perpetuity,

I imagine I’m in darkness, playing

    audience to those that turn in the light.


Confectionery sugar caps your glass

    of arctic vodka. I sip the currant-

red elixir at my lip. The trumpet

    soloist, not two feet away, has clamped

a horn to his kisser, his embouchure,

    as if to drink a horn’s-worth of alpine

ice-water, having scaled a severe cliff-

    face. His face puffs, an old cartographer’s

caricature of the wind god’s bluster —

    his eyes clench shut, blind to the room & its

distractions. He’s putting all of his guff,

    his blood & his bone, into the one riff,

& if he falls, that piercingly high C

    he’s clinging to won’t save him. I’m waiting

for his lip to crack. This idiot, this

    jack-in-the-box. O God. I envy him.


Buried amid toys & appliances

    with warrantees that’ve long since expired,

guns & jewelry of uncertain faith,

    bugle, cornet, trumpet, flugelhorn

stand at attention, up-ended, condemned

    souls in a junk-shop ensemble. Tarnish,

not gold, their finishes, as their coffins

    gather dust under the counter. Empty.

Clarion, French horn, Baritone. I start

    to quake as I pass by this abandoned

trumpery. Whatever breath of life once

    warmed these metallic chalices long since

split out the spit valve. Still, each one harbors

    a hope of resurrection, & resounds

with hallelujahs in its quiet heart.

    To rise & be played at the final Trump.

                                            [Texas Review]


Plenty takes his usual

suite at the casino.

Lay him out

the complimentary condiments,

chocolates minted as coin

& wrapped in goldleaf,

the sempiternally

open bar. His maiden

of the evening lolls

on a queen-sized sleeper,

where her eyes glassily mirror

the twenty-four hour adult

channel on closed-circuit

cable. Inexhaustible

exercise, that never reaches

the afterglow of embrace.

Undone to her tie-me-down heels,

she vacantly picks seeds from

between her teeth.

From beside the roulette

table, Plenty winks

at his prize,

                  & flips

another chip. Let it ride

on thirteen black,

    lucky thirteen.

                                            [Sensations Magazine]


In my days of childhood programming,

days I memorized a psalter of jingles,

days of compulsory song —

we took the cardboard puppet theater,

cut with holes for curtain rods —

a cost-effective Punch & Judy show.

We stood it upright,

stood inside, & made believe

we stood inside a private television,

& let the backyard stand for the nation.

Rhododendrons hushed

the audience,

as we stuck our hands through,

struck one hand against the other,

& the rioting began.

The gold-stitched king was deposed,

& princess Barbie, his youngest daughter,

denuded. An armless GI Joe

led legions of Snoopies

to storm the invisible fortress.

We broke open bags of toy plastic

soldiers, all the weaponry of the play-

ground, sticks & stones, stop-

watches & stun-guns, & in some cities

there were demonstrations. Raised voices.

There was hair-pulling, kicking,

names were called.

It was anarchy —


    & once we got

a taste for it, we returned

to the set, the next day & the next,

to play until the inevitable

call to supper, to stumble, fall,

break open our scabs,

exhaust the depths

of our toychests, & sing

the hymns of our sponsors.

                                            [Texas Observer]


It is Wednesday, the twentieth of November,

somewhere in the continuum,

    a dark Wednesday.

                          It is raining,

as my deranged uncle explains his theory

that someday we will all be able to hear voices

whispering singing calling screaming carrying

all the voices telling us all that has ever

been voiced

    that noise is energy that never dies

that even as he is telling you this he is

adding to the energy field

    that as he plays

his trumpet over the inaudible trumpet

solos of the past in effect he adds himself

like a layer of silt over the previous


    that somewhere

                          under there

                                            there’s a chorus

of the accumulated reveilles & taps

& charges & scales & all the original

performances & practices, say, of Handel’s 

Messiah, or Satchmo reigning in the Quarter,

& the trumpet flourish that brought down Jericho,

so cacophonously packed into the background

of the air that our ears become insensitive

to all but the freshest additions

                          it survives

in a way that only an archeologist

of silence would be able to appreciate

& yet it survives

    & someday a recording

device will be devised to isolate & playback

Shakespeare’s Macbeth its opening night

Whitman composing his leaves out loud or even

Washington cursing Cornwallis for a bastard

son of a navy whore at word

                          of a British


    it would edit out the birth cries

& the death cries, explosions & long, long

intervals of suffering

                          it would revise

our understanding of history

                                            my uncle

sees no reason he should bother to age & die

he pulls his trumpet out of its case

    & makes his

deranged contribution

                                            [American Poetry Monthly]


There was a great obsession with water

in those days.

    Mosquitoes monitored

the local pool. Hyperglycemic kids

cannonballed in, two at a time.

A chunk-white cherub swooned into

chlorinated blue, after a two-toned

Venus in pigtails rose from the deep end.

What vigilance. Disposable youths in cut-offs

& clogs parade through arcades to murder

one another, & quench bloodthirst

with Dr. Pepper.

    No one cared about anything

less than the repair of the air conditioning.

We burned Freon in the pitch of those afternoons,

& what peculiar girl stepped out in her

nightgown to check thermostats?

It is said: a man died on the east beach,

carried off by a sunspot of naked valkyries,

& children buried him under sand castles.

He wasn’t found until the third day.

A day of rain

    & who doesn’t

dream of resurrection in July?

                                            [American Poetry Monthly]


                        the fire of the moon neither eats nor drinks

                                            — Shahrazad

He checks his matchbook,

counts thirteen, selecting

one to strike against the dark.

It flares at his fingers

& the room acquires a halo

he then touches to three candles

in a bowl brimmed with water.

A prayer warms in his mouth,

    warms into song.

At the first word, a star

opens its eyes on the altar.

It shakes its horns. Flint

vocables drill the air,

to magnetize his blood.

Consonants clash, vowels

sputter — as flame puts

its mercurial hooves

to earth to ignite hilltops.

The candles dance.

He hears an echo answer,

in copperplate night,

& enters into the symbol,

still singing.

The key changes.

His filament coagulates

& dissolves to make

the purest possible sounds,

from the leaden to the angelic

— all metallic color.

Overhead, gold dawning.



Some do not

survive the crossing.


a fascination

with the momentary

compels one dreamer in every

dozen to lean out too far,

to lose balance & give

everything over

to gravity.


is part of the process.

Sometimes, a celebrant

commemorates lost ones

by casting straw figures into

the sea that is Memory.

These figures are a falling

light over infamous


a reminder

that the danger is




Turning next to me in bed,

you groan the beginnings of a word

& the room caves in around us.

How long have you known

& pretended sleep beside me,

a facsimile of stone?

How long have you lain unknown,

under this plausible body of land,

& prolonged my ignorant labor?

How long have you known unspoken,

wanting only the plow to unearth you?

You would not stir for me.

Now archaeologists have come

to take you to the sea &

from there to a university.

May it be your fortune to be

granted a pedestal in the labyrinth

of your choice. May you be kept

clean, drawn with chalk,

displayed alongside accredited

text, & left otherwise to storage.

By night, may you breathe

yourself the ends of a word, & dream

my face, my hands, my bedclothes.

                                            [Yeats Club]


If asked to relocate,

you could set up shop

in the city of Ur,

teach yourself

to read & write


apply to bureaucrats

housed in the sky

for work,

match jars

of jasmine oil

to a bill of lading,

ignore the roar

of restless camels

at night,

drink grain

with gods

on holy days,

follow the adventures

of Gilgamesh in weekly


tell daily lies

to the carpetseller’s


blame nomadic

tribes for cutbacks

at the temple,

covet the new

metals, Cretean

axeheads, saffron,

sleepwalk the long

shadows between 

sandstone giants, 

an abacus your palm

pilot, a clay tablet

your laptop,

the sky

turning above you

your cable,

a hundred thousand

stars, nothing

to watch.

                                            [Alabama Literary Review]


We knew his greatness

        lived more in his sword

    than in expertise

              — what could we say?

        His legions on either

    leg of our harbor let

neither legend nor fact

              travel inward or out.

    So when Alexander said,

        surrender up your mysteries,

this, we said, Lord, is our

              holiest of treasures.

        We told him

              an ox-yoke our first king

    knotted in a strap of hide

held our city's luck.

                          We bade him

        undo the knot, knowing

in our antiquity,

    it could not be undone.

              It was all of one piece,

        wound taut unto itself

    All ages had confirmed

              its integral adhesion.

We challenged, then

    stepped back, expectant,

        together we chanted

              a tuneless lyric.

    All that is atom,

        or water, or fire,

All that is twine is tied

              into the knot.

    He stood & studied

the puzzle we'd presented him,

              & we knew he'd

        soon kneel down to begin.

    Other men had

worked their fingers into its

    strands & counter-strands

        for hours, or days.

              Not Alexander.

        His philosophic pose

unsheathed into

    an arc of light;

his sword, his hideous —

        his sun-forged sword.

    One stroke & the known world

              dropped to the floor

    like a serpent, slain.

              He stepped over

the several pieces &

        left us to our ruins.

    What could we then say,

        when, as old men,

    we saw murderous new

words in the face of a new man?

                                            [Alabama Literary Review]



1: Dumuzi

The sun-child in his season

casts his height across a field

to calculate its weight by bushel.

He shifts. Distended claws & lordly

mane & musculature prowl the length

of his firmament. The sun freezes.

His prey, indistinguishable as a snag

in the tangled grass, turns back

& attacks, & again he shifts.

He gnaws dry root & seedling,

senses an unquiet in the dust

& levels antlers at the sun.

He shifts, writhes through the shade —

no undergrowth thick enough — as

a taloned eye above him watches.

    2: Adonis

Statuary / lion.

    The desert river overruns

his hearth-stone, dousing the sacred

fire of his name.

    His pledge

cup is broken — never again to

explain away the fallacy of thirst.

Nothing remains of the lost year's


    Disparate voices divide the valley.

The red river continues its rise.

The women shave their heads, surrender

their hair to their fallen lord.

Exposing their scalps to the midsummer

passion, they hug to their breasts

shallow bowls of dirt, seeded with

customary crop.

    Wheat-stalk & hops

erupt at their attentions, only to

dry in an hour & die.

Every woman cries for the lion,

calls him to siege & triumph.

Every woman

    save she whose color

is most like the river's rising.

    3: Dionysus

Before the rites at Harvest Tide,

an acolyte exalts above his head

the huge head of the god.

Lowered, it blanks out his eyes,

blank as the sun itself is.

It ages & elevates his voice.

Nine women in chorus encircle him

to wring ecstatic moans free from

his mouthpiece, a dark igneous name.

Clusters, grapes, leaves latched to thick

vines, abundance at the table — like

these, his soliloquies, his disembodied talk.

After this, his sated listeners devote

their days to harvesting the Goat-

songs that have torn his throat.

    4: Riddle

Who fasts? Let the flesh be

torn from his limbs & turned

over a fire. Who here refuses?

Who doesn't choose

to be one of our number?

                                            [New Orleans Review]


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