Staring at a Tree on Sunset Boulevard at Twilight

The long light comes green and red streaming

from the fire’s halo setting

leaf and needle into crisp

fullness filling and readying

for night’s drainpipe blackness. I


see now the fire in the yellow-red bark

blazing upward to paintbrush

washing wild fire strokes

painting and erasing canvases of sky

so low it falls heavy around limbs and

middle leaves, covering


half the trees in shade, shadowing

now what will all be blackened

come nightfall. I


stare at the top half and wait

for the purity of color that comes

only at twilight and dawn

when the angle fails, or succeeds,

and light lights each electron

in the skeleton of the forest.



I am lit like that

I like to think.


Poets & Mystics

My friends who climb mountains

never sing about mountains.


My friends who sing but never climb

sing about mountains—

of their distant beauty

drawn in green and white

against the horizon.


My friends who climb

have seen friends

fall to death when

frozen ropes



They know the treachery of

handholds, black thunderheads,

thin air,

ice walls, silver-mirrored,

that illuminate hidden ascents,

or sometimes blind.


They do not sing of mountains

because no words come to them

when they climb; they just climb,


their journey beginning with the first breath,



—Paul Totah

Desert Prayer


Grant me peace

Born on grey white waves that

Spill onto brown grey sand

Linger through white washed roads

Weave sawtooth patterns

Expose white striped veins

In basalt, serpentine, chert.



Expose my veins

Wear down my rock face

Pummel me into selfless sand


Walk on water

To where I sit

On a red rock

Thinking desert thoughts

Without flower or blossom.


The Crucifixion

(staring at a painting  by Luce di Tommè 1365)

A woman swoons in lapus lazuli,

upheld by a man in chartreuse,

a woman in tangerine.

The man’s arm supports the woman’s bent breast

covered in silk the color of cherry soda,

candy apples, field-ripe strawberries,

the same color

as the trickle down the two arms,

the gush below the right nipple

between the rib blades,

the splatter at the feet

staining the wood, running

into a fire-red pool

into a pencil-thin stream, leading out the picture,

out the frame, down the wall,

onto my shoes and through, past dark socks,

through my soles, up capillaries

mixing with my blood, mixing me up

with someone I’m not,

someone I’ll never be,

someone dangling from a cross

while another person below

dressed in red,

holds his arms out

as if to say: Fall.

I’ll catch you.


On Bourbon Street

On Bourbon Street someone

in a blue tee-shirt Southern

Christian Baptist bookseller’s convention logo

holds an electrified cross shouting

“Repent sinners, Jesus is the way…”

on red light emitting diodes beaming

banner headlines while twelve teens

in the same tee-shirts

look at tourists from Iowa

holding plastic-cupped Hurricanes

and wonder at the taste

of that forbidden grenadine.


Meanwhile, one street crosswise,

a drum, piano, banjo, bass,

trombone, trumpet, clarinet septet

preserve, persevere, sever true words

and music from the verity of time

in a hall as small as my garage,

enmeshed in pegboard on which hang

saints who marched in, then out

of a world made better by their songs;

above them, the only real icon in this

holy of holies being the image

of one trombone player forming a T

out of his instrument and torso

while below, the sacred seven

scream and whisper and moan and promise

“I ain’t gonna study war no more,”

to congregations of true listeners

caught in the eternal jazz gumbo

where creation and time meet

in one last crucified intersection

like the one made by a trumpet

and clarinet playing close and hot

in the heartbeat rhythm of holy blood.

— Paul Totah


After Reading Crime and Punishment

The world is pain —

the sound like knives in the side —

the word “endure” helps me

suffer the world,

suffer myself while I

walk barefoot on tidepools

of blood coral,

sea urchins, wet, dead

kelp and closed mussels (the silent

shell lips)

— the shallows of loss —

before I sink into depths of deep blue

waters, the blue of God’s

eye, unblinking, open,

shining, wet.


The pain suffers me to endure

redeems me somehow

leaves me dry, wet,

waiting, received.


I have receipts to show for it,

wounds on my feet, blisters

of a hard journey, a

slap on my cheek

when I was 13.


It saved me. It may

save me yet.

Bottle of Wine

For Christmas I looked for that wine we drank

sitting in the middle of Siena 11 years ago,

where horses and riders reeled round the campo

as the sounds of canon and pigeon wings

ricocheted off soft stone walls

softened more by centuries of twilight.


I found it off Harrison Street

at a warehouse for wine snobs,

and I spent too much,

because I love you, because this

was the wine we drank

right out of the bottle

sitting on the cold stones

like a homeless pair in the Tenderloin,

cuddling on a car seat under the overpass.


When I went to pay for it,

the salesman told me to wait

five years before opening it.

You know me. I like my gratification

instant, my purchased pleasures

ready for me when I get them home.


But it was the only Brunello di Montelcino in the store,

so I bought it, and thought

five years isn’t so long.

Ten years ago, our daughter was born

when time began its wild ride

slipping past reason.

And we’ll be dead before we know it.


So I’ll let you choose. Do we open this

when we’re 50, disbelieving the tragedy

that we thought only happened to our parents?

Or do we uncork this

when the odometer on our marriage turns 20

and we start laughing at ourselves

uncontrollably, all over again?


Or do we screw good advice

and the cork and drink the young wine

while it tastes of young grapes, sweet potential,

just like we still want to taste?



A Prayer for My Son

Slowly rocking my child to sleep
we look out our window and
think a hymn of praise to the One,
thankful for the growth
of the ivy that covers the dead
ten-foot eucalyptus stumps and the
yellowing lemon tree leaves that
need me to stop watering them

and spray iron concentrate
onto their roots and thin veins.

The sky’s metallic fog stills
the sky, pine trees and tall hills
today. The coastal valley
where I live, this green watershed
with occasional creek, is called
Vallemar, my street, Nataqua. Whether
water is born here, or, as I
have seen with my son,
births are of the water, with
Michael emerging fishtail fast,
I’m not sure. The name “nataqua”
my wife believes, is Indian. I’m sure
it’s portmanteau Latin
trying to name what can’t be named,
like my son, whom I still think isn’t
quite a Michael.

Here, rocking him, I watch the growing green,
the dance of gnats,
and give glory,
thanking the One
for this ordinary day.

My prayer: May I never grow too used to you,
my son, this day, these leaves, and the
stilling sky.

Thoughts While Taking Off On Flight 1288

(Written on a Calvin Klein “‘Escape’ for men” ad)


I could die now

and it would be over,

this ride, this traffic of

bodies landing and floating.


It would be ok.

I’d die, ablaze, jet fuel

cleansing my bones of meat,

my eyes two sunny-side ups,

bacon on the side,


and all would be forgiven,


turned into distance

and ascent,

sort of like how it is now

in this seat, aboard this

plane flying with no purpose

except to return home.