The Dream of the Hang Glider

“Why don’t the men fall off their hang gliders,”

asked Mike after our ascent from the beach.

I told him to ask the man with pliers


assembling his white-winged thing, like the bleached

bones of titanium gulls. He told Mike

about the sack, harness, carabiner.


Lauren asked, “What if the harness unties

or the sack opens?” He said, ”If you’re high

enough, the parachute inside will fly


outside, carry you down.” His friend nearby

assembling his green and white kite, cussed,

and said, “If you’re that high, you’re much too high.


You’ll need it.” Yes. Icarus, Daedalus,

Dante spiraling downward, he plummets

then climbs seven ascending stories, on gusts


of winged air, tumbling from the proud summit,

rising on prayer, meeting God with a handshake,

three circles, converging, separate,


my son, my daughter, my dream of this place,

this poem, daring , as it dives, to rise,

to carry me with it to see his face.


Song of Solomon

I leap towards you, for you, my father,

off of this too soft earth toward your hard heaven

when you will whisper my true name to me,

tell me everything secret bound in the petals

of death.


I fly towards you, empty air below, snake

rocks ripping earth further down

and I gulp the air, lumps of it, fistfuls,

sprouting feathers with each silky taste

of sky, my beak widening

into hard yellow bone, pink tongue

thinning into a needle point.


I arrive where you are; you stroke my wings,

feed me mice that ease down my gullet.

I grip your forearm with my talons,

then you give me my name: Peregrine;

and I screech, I screech.


— by Paul Totah, July 13, 1997

In the Pink

Big pinks filled the sky this morning.

I was drawn to this gaudy heaven’s breath.

Big pinks have always followed me, or perhaps

I have chased them down from when I was a boy


visiting my grandmother’s house, looking for color

in her flower patch, asking for handfuls of her

dandelions, roses and gladiolas to take home with me

as I stole the little color left to her. Before my wedding


my wife took me through Macys to pick china.

I chose the plates with the pink flowers I couldn’t name,

and my wife laughed at me, told all my friends

about my choice; even I laughed at my compulsion


toward pink. It happened again when my daughter

came pink and red out of the cut in my wife

howling with her purple tongue; later

I worshipped her new skin, clean and pink.


Obscene mandevilla flowers now blaze a trail

of pink Christmas lights around my front door; maybe

it’s some kind of sexual thing — their stamens

and pistols inviting me to play hummingbird;


Edna Pontellier in Chopin’s The Awakening

thought of the big pinks as she descended nude

to her death at the sea’s floor. Had Chopin

written another chapter, Edna would have risen


pink and alive, on a shell encrusted with pink

sea-stars, rising into the stars that cloud

the universe with pink gasses, pink nebulas,

into God’s red heart, striving to begin life again.


by Paul Totah


The Breathing of Trees

This poem gives witness

to the respiration of the forest,

exhalations of cypress and pine,

that rise after the rainstorm

to the mottled gray sky

in time with my own breath.


These upliftings of small clouds,

plumes of mist, return,

scented with evergreen,

to the source,

like salmon leaping fish ladders,

ignorant of gravity, logic, death,

believing only in resurrection.


The tips of the mist dissipate

into lizard tails, spun sugar,

then threads, masks,

patterns that defy interpretation.

These are the words the trees speak,

the secret language I strain to hear.


Paul Totah


At the Jesuit Retreat House

At Los Altos, I walked on the

wooded land and did what

was asked of me, trying to

answer this question: “What

gives me meaning?” I walked

and spoke a mantra in

time with my footsteps, like this:


“What gives me meaning

What means me

What meaning do I mean

What meanings mean me

What meanings make me

Make the meat of me

Gives my meat meaning

Give me motion and moment

Makes me still,

Stills me to the moment.

This moment,

This motion,

And stillness

Means me.

Makes me.

Loves me.”


Then I heard a noise as

I crackled through the

dry coastal oak leaves.

It crackled back. A rabbit,

its ears, body, nose, twitching

at me, wondering what I mean

toward his meat, seeking meaning

in my motions, my stillness, knowing

nothing of my love for it.

I could not guess

what it felt or sensed or thought.


We stood still, staring at

each other, frozen in the moment,



for meaning.


In the sixth month,

A stranger came to town

Not wearing a costume of feathers

Only traveling shoes, a dusty tunic

And a memorized message

Told to him when the world first sounded

From a spoken word.


He found who he was looking for,

Told her what he had to,

And left behind the promise

Of two more strangers to come,

One, a thunderhead

To overshadow;

The other, lightening

To dance on the ground

For a time,

Igniting the dried vines and dead cypresses

Before leaping back to the sky.


Now we tell a new story

that begins this way:

A man went on a journey.

Beach Music

That’s what hunger can drive you to

said Brian pointing at the Harrier hawk

diving for a late-flying godwit

half a moment behind the flock.


Little chance the hawk’s slow stalking body

could knife past the long-beaked bird.

Still, he tries, before slow circling

his surrender at the screech of the only word


uttered by their one tongue at the ascension.

Below, anemones, the color of candle wax

dry to death in the sun, while sea stars

pull apart mussels lying too low on stone backs.


Here is where my hunger drives me,

leading me to the sea’s grassy edge

where I hear nothing but, above me, the screech

of laughing girls dancing on the sandstone ledge.

Sensing Death

Death smells like honey here,

melted in the rotting coast live

oak, stinking of cinnamon,

and lemony eucalyptus leaves

lying uncensored together in state.


Death tastes like the soft fur of a field mouse

in the tight grin of my cat

who has leapt up from outside onto the sill

to please us, smearing small blood

onto the cold glass.


Death feels like the bone shard

in my small toe, shivering, flashing

gentle electrical pain into my shoulders,

my calves, my earlobes, nailing me

to the hard wooden floor.


Death sounds like the long in-drawn breath

my daughter took when she backwards flipped

off the sofa onto the brass lamp base, silence

lasting longer than her animal screech.


Death looks like nothing I know, everything

I am turning into, my body degrading

into entropy, into apathetic skin flakes,

into the smell of armpits,

the taste of mold on nectarines,

the sound of bone cracking on wood,

the feel of these keys on calloused tips,

tipping me to the fact that death and I

will be playing poker in the caboose

for high stakes in no time soon.

by Paul Totah, July 1, 1997

Night Watch on the Hornet

3 p.m. in Alameda only

myself and three ghosts awake

(sworn true by a former crewman);

only me glancing down at waters

sprinkled with half a moon.

Below deck, only

one man’s footprints

painted after splashdown

when I was 12, watching

black and gray lines

dancing on moonlight forever

for the first time;

only my son sleeping now

in his top bunk on this

scout sleepover

my wife and daughter

only a few miles across

a stretch of bay;

only one ghost now

hanging from his belt

in the forecastle over

coiled up anchor chains

ready to go to a home

he’ll never find.




Siddhartha and Me

Siddhartha under the Bo tree

sits, kills desire, finds

the middle way.


Yesterday, a 9-month-old

pup bit my son above the ankle,

tugged at his pants, knocked him down.

My wife, hearing his screams,

chased the dog away, held my son

as he sobbed high breaths of air.


Today my father pulled 20 pages

from a manila folder, certified delivery;

a lawsuit filed by a crippled man

claiming discrimination

because the cheesecake shop my father owns

has a two-inch concrete lip before the door.


Siddhartha saw the five daughters of Mala,

an army of demons shooting flaming arrows,

his own shadow self offering him praise;

he saw through these attacks,

knew them to be illusion,

knew the spirit to be inviolable

and compassion the only rock

on which to build belief.


And now Siddhartha sits

under the Bo tree

promising Nirvana

enlightenment, the dharma

to my father, my son,

and my holy self.


All we have to do

is believe.


Lord I believe.

Help thou my unbelief.


by Paul Totah