Fifteen Poems from His Ongoing Project, The Bone Sutras
George Kalamaras, former Poet Laureate of Indiana (2014–2016), is the author of ten full-length books of poetry and seven poetry chapbooks. His most recent books are Luminous in the Owl’s Rib (Dos Madres Press, 2019) and That Moment of Wept (SurVision Books, 2018). He has received several national prizes for his poetry, and he spent several months in India in 1994 on an Indo-U.S. Advanced Research Fellowship. He is Professor of English at Purdue University Fort Wayne (formerly Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne), where he has taught since 1990.
Initial Me as You Would
I’ll tell you what hurts. The smell of pines. Certain lunar phases without glue.
Color traces are common among my tribe, as if we waited a long time to braid our hair
with a touch of silk thread.
The influx of July through September made the Kodiak Archipelago proper.
Otherwise, the bulk of my passing sadness resembled moaning movements of birds
breaking off into rain.
Great migrations of sound endorsed the Duchess of Braganza, holding a rug parrot
captive in an armchair’s green corduroy.
In other words, things were stuck.
I’ll tell you what sticks. This resin in my wrist. This sap of a word. Certain birth sores I
bore as I moved from Kawabata novel to Kawabata novel.
If I resembled a name, if I woke with chloroform, they might refer to me as, Execute high,
or mottled forehead, or simple Kyoto rain.
Please, do not call me bakadori, “crazy bird.”
I am not in too much of a hurry to feed.
Oh, great teacher of Japanese bedlam. Oh, master of how many lives I’ve brilliantly bled.
Show me the lamps I burnt into the ache of our first meeting.
Initial me as you would an audible stone. A muffled pain. The inside scar of a star telling
me, The rain in our mouths is a temple bell. The rain in our mouths can do nothing
This, Our Family
Bloodlines thin as a fingernail.
Casual attack of electrocuted skin.
We might look north where their words invade, imagine clocks in our going mad.
We might be led down corridors of epilepsy, asking ourselves if it was really worth the
handshake and the hug.
There are ways of foul connection.
There is a sacrifice for the birdcage and the way.
Take my blind-beak self and counteract the feathers.
Drop a parachute from the plane—bundle of homeopathic medicines—and marvel at the
almost-imperceptible arc of falling.
Bloodlines thick as ice picks in the brain.
This, our family, our flat mattress, our kingdom of cameras and hopeful sorrow and
civilian animals connecting our bleed and botfly on the flesh of a wall.
Some recent footnotes in the catalog describe me as less than or equal to cat urine,
possum salt, or boils.
Then I awake and realize it had not all been a dream.
Seventeen syllables, more or less, is what we’re left with for the long instant between
death and the next birth.
We rake through them both the living and the dread, expect life everlasting.
Please, if you visit, remember I am allergic to red peppers.
Bring yellow or green, or—better yet—three leeks, one shitake mushroom, and two or
three leaves of wilted kale.
I know. There I go again being precise.
There is an order to the universe that should not be exposed.
I’d ask you to touch me where it hurts, but since being human it has hurt all over.
That’s one reason I lie naked beneath what I imagine is your hand and continuously give
you direct eye contact, even when the sparrows spill out—all at once—onto the sheet.
A contact of finches? A shy silence? A contract of looking at one another and switching
your left eye lens with my right?
Nothing. Nada. Zilch. A steady noshing of nope. Let me tell you how I touch myself
and—through it—touch parts of you (unknown to you) breaking off into me.
At that time, the ants of Fiji were nearly unknown to me and my fellow entomologists.
In the evening, dinner was served by bare-legged rooster men.
From the initials of your name, I could detect you thought me left-handed.
Nearby, a Hindu festival for some enormous tree was underway, and they garlanded me
and blessed me with holy water, my arm posed as a branch.
Still, red clay territory might say more about an infestation of ironwood and pandanus
It might guide my whiskey breath back toward what the British referred to, benignly, as
Carve the Queen’s name into your heart.
At that time, time was not an issue; every tissue of our bodies swirled.
I recalled Lambasa, as if it were three days from now, and spread jam on thick slices of
The social promotion of the letters of my name had astounded me, even elevating Suva to
a status that required reading competence of my ant-self ways.
Mound upon mound of past lives gathered around me, bitten and stung, until I recognized
the decomposed underbelly of a beetle our group had killed and carried triumphantly
to the hole.
Were We Sad?
The repression of a baroque illumination is very plainly archetypal.
The artistic birth of Jung exceeds all expectation.
For where there is insufficient art, the fly wing in the vulva of a sow is emblematic.
It is not about listening but about the way rain falls apart.
As if Brahms was a relative.
As if Brahms, damp, on a late September porch, taught me how to speak.
Summer has suddenly ended.
Our breath is visible, as if our insides were on ice.
There is something amazing in the time-structure of a book.
First we are born, and then we become another, making love only with our body, drifting
through the night sky of the woman’s star.
Generate more duplication of damp clay, and we have a body for every necessary rebirth.
Spin the wheel and see what imprints of eels scrape off onto our hand.
The metaphorical, almost ineffable, puzzlement pleasantly inscribes the haptic nerve with
which we are left.
Were we happy? Were we sad? Of course—we were human, circumambulating the fire ants,
stroking the char of each electric birth. The char of our flower-bitten bones.
How Beautiful the Cut
Not how beautiful the cut tree could be.
Nor the core conceit of a poem’s dissolve.
Not the utmost throat, the karmic eel finally releasing an internal pillar of fire.
Certainly not the word not knotted up in knocking the knotty pine precisely three and
Not the bell and constabulary of Bolivia, the yanggona excursion in Fiji.
Never the utmost nor of the throat, lonely in the kingdom of spat leaves.
Not the fiber nest secreted in the priest’s cloak—not so comfortable as it looks.
Not the lace-trimmed eggs of the tortoise, human meat being sweeter than a cadre of ants.
But the word but. No, not even that buttress of regret arching sideways, epistolary braid
against this line of mind.
Certainly not bees breaking the brain of its entire cold phrase, nor the scent-driven verve
of and, so, and even nor.
Nothing exists in the words, Nothing exists.
Not even in the phrase, The beautiful cut hair of a monk, shaved and facing east each
morning, wakes in moon-threads of sleep.
The midnight drift of Dakota and the hungry boreal.
The fogbank, poleward, of a desolate thought.
There is a bleak moon twenty miles from the freight.
Secured horizons thicken as if there will never be an explanation.
It was an idiot sea of wheat that wrinkled my not-yet-grown beard.
The limbo of a recalcitrant match case was left raked by the fingers of the north wind.
Let us create and recreate the roar of a jealous cure.
The sea stirred a thousand pontoons, and the wheat was golden as blackbirds’ wings.
It was the fleet loneliness of a northern dark.
The pause, as if with the eye it could have been ours.
What did a simple desert explanation ultimately have to do with it?
We secured all there was to breathe—so that no one could swell the horizon with a
monotone suspicion from across the sea—giving us a ghostly offering in Dakota, in
Montana, of dust from Algiers. Of wind in the stiff sails of the throat. A bitter
The Inconsolable Study of Iron
Now we return to the study of iron.
We come as bracelets. We come as train cars coupling on the track.
Bury a bowl of Armenian apples.
Do not twitch of it the wrist.
Once when I was six I killed something extraordinarily dear.
I will forever, and might not, but could if fevered just right.
You confiscate my mouth and whisper the phrase, Little boy playing tenderly with an ant,
grant me my smoke tree slosh of hair.
I wriggle and turn. I shake and shed. I caress everything dear as if I were bait on a hook.
Whatever you do, don’t try to convince me of the advantage of the iron content of my
Someone arrived secretly in the night, stole the salt, and in its place left only a milk snake
that twitches whenever I try to speak the urge of the not-quite-dead.
I Could Not Quite Speak
You might require a hallucination, a thunder juncture struck between this spine and that.
Someone might hand you yourself, a Grecian plate with nothing but an indecipherable
date and a stray flake of parsley.
Sure, you are always welcome, always getting ahead of your symptoms.
You are coughing good health even before you survive.
So the dazzling migration of speech patterns sweats out across the tundra.
You are crouched on a rock, Cossack-style, examining tufts of scraped-off fur.
It is time to follow the herds of fragility locked upon as the self.
We are anxious at the heat of it, feeling calm in the soothing tome of a sob.
When the caravan arrived, I was given three baby camels for every word I could not quite
I am a rich man now, lying in the grass among the new shoots and expanding herds of all
that had eluded me.
What Ought to Move Through
Now we take up the examination of what ought to move through.
Killed by photophobia, part of me is squinting in every childhood frame.
I lived in water colder than forty-eight degrees Fahrenheit.
I fought alongside the gear bones of a journeyman.
I have been trying to get rid of portions of my life for far too long.
Look: there some resin of it has even crept inside you.
You? As if someone is actually enduring these words, kissing me, as it were, on the baby-
We limp of it and blindly through this life.
Please, if you find the now-rare coelacanth, place it tenderly alongside the boat.
Close-reined, little fisherboy extracting the hook from his mouth—I will wave at you,
tossing you another line.
Another line? Here it is: just seven lovely words.
There it just went: seven salt-ridden words.
The Speaking Point
Here is where I found the speaking point.
1908 – 1944. Poet, philosopher, and scholar of religion.
In each successive heaven, an eyebrow like a cloud-packed volcano.
Eruption of solid hair crowds my sight so that I am here. Now.
Mark the start of one of the most daring literary careers.
Ask yourself north so that you might sense the sparrow distance between tough and
A long time from now, I might be alive.
When one of many Buddhas returned, we knew the body as a transient gag.
I have stepped into a word as I have stepped into this life.
One body at a time, with a basket of eggs, we count the balance of death and girth.
One of the most. She is the author of. He has also published a farm disguised as a book.
René Daumal. Robert Desnos. Simone Kahn.
George: farmer, tiller of the earth.
I pull the flowers. I tend the weeds.
I played the recording of a worm circling again and again into itself.
It went something like this: Thomas McGrath wrote his Death Song, reading himself into
the thrumming rain.
Or perhaps it was the tenor sax John Coltrane awoke with one evening as a spine.
The peacock on fire in a man’s chest.
Don’t forget we are all alive or dead.
Takahashi Shinkichi’s one line poem, “Death,” assures us that, Nobody has ever died.
If you want to hear music, close your ear.
The church bell from Ethiopia startles your heart.
Saint Mary’s six o’clock shadow stringing through the Fort Wayne alley is not a farm
combine scraping the wheat.
The bee in your brain, not a hod carrier mixing the mortar to fix you limb by lovely limb.
Born into yet another body, we are all about to remember or forget.
This is not the limestone reach of some Hindu pearl.
Close your voice. Your dearest ear.
I soaked the recording, even the worm, in Epsom salts and in the moist so that it would
resemble curious cuts in the brick. The stops and keys of any sax-fractured mouth.
YOUR TO MY
The Buddha pattern of the dust may be hermetic?
We were three miles south of the DMZ, archiving the growth of rice as a mirror of our
To be sixteen again and afraid but somehow alive?
To watch each evening newscast as if a cat jungle-scratched your chest?
Q: We were close enough to each other, while making love, that we came apart?
A: See stanza one, line one.
Read recursively. Examine the paintings briefly for any hint of solitude we so blithely
Bestow upon me the Delvaux scene—his forest medicines—for I have incited his leaves
to burn the most perfect breast, seized by a blistering Surrealist mouth movement.
I was pulling on a shirt, one ear at a time, when I remembered I had heard nothing in her
skirts about the size of starlings in my chest.
We all die sooner or later and discard the body like a worn shoe whose tongue bears the
worn imprint of all that lacing.
Q: We were so close that we inverted one another’s breath?
A: Stanza two, lines one and two. Rewrite the sixteen-year-old into the grip of the hips of
a woman from Delvaux. Recast the possessive pronoun from your to my.
Falling for Lee Miller in a Previous Incarnation in Which We Never Became Lovers
Four women, stylishly dressed, holding demitasse, sipping Turkish coffee.
Her eyes belonged to that impudent part of my thigh.
I fell madly in love with the elegantly stitched clothes in a pile on the floor.
As for her shoes, I could only hope she’d still wear them, even if she tromped in them
among an ink-spill of leaves.
In those days, I would have been disarmed by my own wrist clock.
Never a hoyden, she knew nothing was boisterous as a quiet portrait in black and white.
We looked at each other—naked for a moment, in my heart—each wondering whether
we’d survive our own breathing.
Didn’t each breath, after all, bring us closer to the pulsing seed?
I knew Man Ray, peripherally—yet familiarly—as Man.
On his arm at the theater, would she be called Elegant Blonde Heron? Most Pleasant
View of Poughkeepsie? Or Hover Near My Chest?
In those days, I was incredibly shy, touching others only in my private dark, certain the
wagon circle and mock lantern dance somehow represented my life.
That the fires we both moved around—each in separate worlds—never ceased.
At a time like this, I should eat poisonous snowberries.
I should regurgitate the book, the endpapers embossed with a heron eating a watery
Weeping as though from a bitter dose of verbs, I grieved autumn’s quick-turning ash,
seeds in my belly scraped raw, unable to bleed.
I stopped along the road near the house of Lord Minamoto, moved to perform any proper
activity, even to ritualize the picking of a snowberry or relieving myself discretely in
He had died. A few months before that, he’d been alive.
A few months after, he was a ghost, fire-breaking his pavilions to ash.
Yes, I lived some years as a sheep tramping through the mud of hen-sex and rut.
I had lived lives as a Lord, as a geisha pouring tea, even as the silk lip of a parlor bell.
Your sisters must all be at home, either he or I or the sheep had inferred, back-scratching
against a fencepost to quicken the tumble of a tick. Hand me the taper you must have
bequeathed, so I can carve the dark back unto you.
In those days of silk kimonos and hair pinned to reveal her makeup, nothing moved me
like the fire-eater who arrived one day from the West in search of a mouth. A place to
lay her tongue, she said, and do her work.