the poetry that matters

Hugh Behm-Steinberg

Hugh Behm-Steinberg is the author of Shy Green Fields (No Tell Books) and Sorcery (Dusie Chapbook Kollektiv).  His poems have appeared in such places as Crowd, VeRT, Volt, Spork, Cue, Slope, Aught, Fence, Dirt, Sweet, Swerve and Zeek. Hugh Behm-Steinberg teaches writing at California College of the Arts in San Francisco, where he edits the journal Eleven Eleven.

Debts You Don’t Know You Have

To make the foundation, therefore,
              a 4000- foot-wide hole will be dug 1000 feet into the ground,
                               making way for a concrete foundation and nine foundation piers
            linked by 540 stainless steel anchor rods,
                                            securing ninety elliptical base brackets, and in this way we shall
explore the tradition by creating an empty one, a shell, thirteen square blocks of radio row,
                             something beautiful and vacant (there are no vacancies).  “This is the big idea
     for the city,” Ms. Diller explained. “Outside of it is everything.  Inside,
             there’s nothing to see.” 
“The problem is, everything so far is wrong.”  “We looked at the cloud,”
                    Ms. Medvedow said. “Who could look at
                                     that building and not have their breath taken?”
So (who says so anymore), blur is equated as loss, but only
                 by people who don’t understand it, who haven’t lived here for long,
less than three hundred years, because I mean if you had you’d appreciate it,
                how it wears the edges off, and that is desired in
                                desert environments and capitalist utopias.  A mirage, say, the wet shimmer
you see where sunlight strikes the horizon line.
“We decided the building material should be water,” Mr. Scofidio added, “and that’s when
                we began to think about using tears.” 
They (we) could do this, we have the capital, the software’s opensource, after it’s done, we
                         could pay attention to the world,
                                                    to this, whatever’s left of this.  Is atrocious if it is true.
                     Couldn’t sleep couldn’t sleep I was
                         awaiting the next war, what’s going to happen when I really
      start paying attention, debts I didn’t know I had.

So they (we) were made common, and they (we) included the act
                    of slowing down, though nobody thought of lingering, but even now,
        I would have been around for you, I would have stayed — whoever I happened to be
I would have stayed — then
                       why would anyone hold you here?  Or say lit up
                                                                        and lighting up, without song (one month
            after I met you I memorized one, I’d never done that
                     for anyone before), just shuffling
                             the dirt around, next thing you have a garden, or you’re
                                                                inventing my dreams and taking the ones
              that used to be my own, lightning me.  I missed kissing your mouth,
                   I missed the way you’d talk to me, I circled and circled, looking for a way out of a person, a nation I no longer wanted to be: that wood, so
“When he wanted an atlas to get the route right,
                               they thought he was planning an escape!”  “He was just warming up!”
            Tell us it’s still early, that we’re going to stay here awhile,
                                      conjugating four incomplete languages,
                                                                 this city and this city, this place that isn’t
          a place but a hole in a place.  The way out.  Way out.  Way out there.


It’s Late

We know it’s late, despite the lack of clocks, we can feel it in the floor.
                                            It’s hard to be clear.  There’s all this soon;
                     the bright-eyed fascination of a boy on your lap.  On the chairs in the middle of
          a rack of slot machines.  From which could be imagined an old port city
                                 named after veils.  Pointing from that spot to here, along a diagram
of how much you’d get if you’re really good, if you get the opportunity to be good.
                               A map of all this soon.  If it is to be of any value, to reveal.
            Rocket voiced, that song, making it, a way, not caring if it’s to be kept.
                  In the bottom languages, related, turning night
                                            into another night, from one spirit breath promising another,
     that there will be another.  A little pad on the tray of the cocktail waitress. 
                     Noticings, keepings, the world turning into evidence of the world,
        the world pulling up into largeness, I’m happy working here, even if
                                                                  I have no choices left, just some lacquering decisions,
                          because it gets hot here, and smooth can be made cool, keep feelings out.
                                             It (what?) comes by, made or crossed, John Rockwell said
the clouds came boiling up the street and obliterated every thing and every body.

                  Those who were there, we can no longer talk to them, we can’t tell them
            jokes anymore, if there is love it is no longer given with confidence,
                                it’s gone all murky, dark, you talk to someone who was there,
                  you talk to their ghost — and your whole life
                               it could fit in one tiny cabinet, your life, everything
         you’ve lived, and what comes next,
                                                          tiny fragments, just drifting
 into things.  You want to do something.  I have some experience in this.
                  Thousands of casino employees have suffered shift reductions or been laid off,
        United Airlines has declared bankruptcy.  The gallery at the Bellagio has been left dark. 
I woke up one day and I hated the words that tumbled out of my mouth;
      it was like somebody else owned me and I was their fucking bird.
                                    I squawked, they even paid me, but know this, that against this
there is a real city rising through a fake city, against this
                          here is to borrow whatever strategies are necessary, against this
       is me beside my lover’s body,
                        against this is my ability to speak truth and let what’s tangled sort itself, against
this is the scrap, against this is the sign:  I am here, in California,
                                      I was from Las Vegas, it was no fucking vacation,
                  the sign of it is endless, for it is endless, it is endlessly
            generative, it is the gift, it is generosity, unlocked, exalted,
                             flowing through, free, no longer relative, hoping for better.



Just Plain Scared

                        So, better.  Conceived of it (this life, this worldlessness) so long ago
                                                                  it became a part of me, I kept it on my back.  It will
            take years to finish.  Every time they pull it
                   into themselves I know they want to mutilate it.
                                                           You know who.
                                           I want them to get on with it, I’m not sure
                           I want it (this life as city, this worldlessness, as marked by
                 absences and surfaces, the articulations of Las Vegas, which doesn’t need me at
                                all).  Considered then, the great emptiness.
“Intermittence” or “September 11” or “the WTC” or “the current situation” or “Gulf War 2”
         or “The War in Afghanistan” or the same war
                                                     inflicted by the people you voted for this time.
                   Whatever would surface next.  My whole body swelling,
                                    it contorts noisily and precisely, like arguments or reportage,
             it bows when it’s called for to do such necessary shit.  No more jokes about putting talcum powder in my PG&E bill.
                                      A bandleader who hasn’t said or sung a word
                 as he negotiates his numerous guitar pieces, he tells the sparse
                                crowd, “Let’s hear it for New York,” and after the yells and whistles
                  announces, “This one’s called ‘Just Plain Scared.’”

Sometimes Mary says there are so many people talking in you,
                           you get that look with your eyebrows (which is cruel
       because who knows their eyebrows?  It’s like saying
                   the little wings on my back give me away somehow,
                                    like how would I know?).  Mistakes were made.  Claiming responsibility,
                            for each of my actions, I still want to escape from my crimes.  Into caves.
Instead, Israeli-born techno artist Raz Mesinai (a/k/a Badawi)
                                              threw away his prepared remarks.  He says:
There’s a Yiddish-speaking anti-Zionist Hasid with a picture of Madonna in his wallet.
There are airplane sculptures still around that were made by murdered WTC artist-in-residence                 Michael Richards.  Bronze airplanes piercing the statues of Tuskegee airmen,
                             they are noble and beautiful and just.
He says “Music is music, music is hope, making music is hope.”
           And this, by Danny Goldberg:
“We need to have conversations.  There is no evidence that life
                                                                   gets better without conversations.”
Or this, by Dan Prothero, “If we don’t have that, everything dies,
                     everything.  But it’s not everything, there’s courting too, there’s compassion...
        Maybe it’s not time right now but it’s a higher calling, something
                                         you can loop and make another song out of.”

Like I was telling the people I work with, I was saying
                          there are forces in the world that want to keep us anesthetized,
              that would like us to stop thinking and enjoy what we’ve been given,
lazy like the guy in the seat next to you on the airplane,
                    the whole image of that city, the way it’s been packaged,
                                   the heart of it is meant for people who will never live there.  Hence
skyscrapers, exuberant kooks, they will remain a major part of cities, and new
                   ones will be built.  So that one can mail friends and relatives
                                    postcards of the sky.  Buildings represent power, creative and corporate
influence.  We’re not a shy people and our buildings declare that.  They declare it
                                        so that you can see it from far, far away.  As kids we knew this and
                        as kids we used to make fun out of giving tourists the wrong
        directions but even better we took the casinos we used them
for our own purposes, we turned them into coral, we were the fish
                                                 that swam through, meaning we knew the way
                    in and the way out it was already scoped, the other side of marketing is
      irony and that never saved anyone from anything.

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