I'm a just-in-time poem, sitting offshore in a shipping container on an uneasy ocean waiting, waiting, waiting for the crane to hoist me high and swing me to the ground, for the door to open and the sky to appear, I will fly free like the miseries from Pandora's box, beat my wings against the windows of an indifferent world, until I settle at last in some poor poet's soul and live out my days in the sweet mercy of endless supply and not a single demand,
This past Wednesday a Tennessee legislator stood up in the Tennessee chambers and stated that the Civil War has not ended. That it is still going on, and that the South is winning.
He was making a bollocks economic argument, which the linked story does a fair job dismantling, but it reminded me that I wrote something not too dissimilar just a few weeks ago (sans the bollocks argument). Which led me to consider all the ways in which the past is fluid, unfixed and open to revisiting.
In the Long Now, the State Senator may be right. The brackets we put around historical events are rather arbitrary. There is always a before and an after in any story, and those are a part of the story, too, the concentric circles that radiate outward until all their energy has dissipated into, has been absorbed by, lives on within, the ecosystem.
Performer Niko Case writes:
“History” is a place I linger and look for because it comforts me; it’s a bit of a habit. It has the most beautiful wallpaper and I have to make sure I don’t live there full-time. After all, history is not inanimate either and the past changes behind us. The wake from a ship on the ocean is a movement that never stops moving. It is a “forward” also.NIko Case, Entering The Lung
History clings to us, like a shadow at our heel. It’s a thing we cast, and it attenuates with the sun, with our changing perspective. How much of it is the thing that happened, and how much of it is us, squinting into the light, trying to discern the boundaries?
Realizing there are no boundaries.
It reminds me of a poem I wrote a few years ago about where and when you draw a line around a thing, and call it good or not good, call it done, say “this is a part of it” and “this is not.” It’s not a poem about history, but it feels like part of the same conversation, ongoing.
The maple trees along my street hold on to green leaves that ought to be red by now and yellow like the sun that won't stop warming us, I mowed the yard one last time before putting the machine away for the season, optimist about almost nothing beyond the end of yard work, believing it must surely be at hand, short days ahead and long nights meant for novels that last through all the cold months, I will unpack my favorite sweater, turn away from the news, pay attention to how the sky looks just before the snow comes, if it comes at all, if the grass will ever stop growing, if the leaves will only turn red.
The life coach wants twenty-two hundred dollars to talk to me on Voxer, meet with me on Zoom, to share the keys to the internet kingdom with me, she will unlock the secrets to a life less disaffected, but I will have to do the work, she says, as if it were a choice, as if doing the work was not what I’ve done since putting on a uniform at sixteen years to dump French fries into paper sleeves, disposable then as now, I was fired for telling what I knew was the truth to a harried woman at the counter rooting for change in her coin purse, that what filled her cup was not a milkshake, that it contained no milk, just an oily ersatz that didn’t quite cross the threshold of authenticity, and what did you learn at work today, dear girl? I learned that getting fired is not the worst thing, that selling yourself for pence and pounds can be a greater magnitude of worse, you called me a child then for learning the wrong lesson, call me failed and naïve even now and I agree: all I ever wanted was to write my stories and ride a horse through the hills above Attica where I could see the concrete wall of the prison on a clear day, we rode together, once upon a time when we were young and I knew the secrets of your heart, bound up then as now in knots, for we told each other everything, even when we were afraid, I know you wanted to ride your own horses and tell your own stories, before they taught you otherwise, before they handed you a piece of paper and led you to a cubicle with a motivational poster in place of a window, no view of your own horizon, I know you wanted those things, too.
We are born of collision, objects in motion meeting objects at rest, God may not play dice with this universe, but he plays pool, marking each day on the green baize, blue chalk dust, cosmic cue of ash and inlay, he breaks us with every dawn, birds fall silent, the sky cracks, see how we scatter.
Much like my commitment to this blog, my practice of writing a daily poem begins with good intent at the start of each year, only to founder in a few months on the rocks of “good gods and goddesses, these are awful.”
When I was younger I used to send poems to an English teacher friend of mine for critique, poems full of sadness and grief. Once I sent him a more joyful batch; I’d been reading Whitman and was trying to emulate the exuberance of Leaves of Grass. My teacher friend wrote back that he liked the dark ones better.
So do I, apparently.
Padlock I found the keys in the junk drawer along with the post-its and bottle caps and other reminders of days I must have lived through while I waited for the world to change, knowing it could not, that it could only always be what it is, the sum of all its parts, trees and beetles and milkweed and kissing bugs, the people who loved, the people who would never love, the train I rode to the end of the tracks, the dog I met there who followed me home, we shared a package of hot dogs from the quickmart as I rummaged through the lost voices and empty refrains of too many seasons spent in the same place, the lock on the shed is rusted now but perhaps one of these keys will fit and the tumbler will turn and the shank will lift and the door will swing open, perhaps it’s not too late to step inside, find what was lost, all those ways I meant to be.
Three of my poems are now up on David Onan’s online poetry blog, Fevers of the Mind. They were previously included in a Fevers anthology and in a collection of poems inspired by Leonard Cohen (thank you, David.) Two are from my own 2017 collection, The Breakup Poems.
The man in the interview was trying his best to make supply-side management sound like something you would choose to do with your one precious life, while the show host wondered if students today were prepared for such complex work upon completing their four-year college degrees after six years of secondary school and six more of primary school and two of pre-k, eighteen classroom years and still they ask if the students are ready, if there is not more to be done to assure a steady supply of supply-side managers, and I thought of Derrick Jensen, explaining how long it takes to break the will of a child, when twelve years of compulsory schooling is insufficient, four more in service to the gatekeepers may do the trick, "for the exceedingly obstinate there is graduate school," after which they are prepared for almost nothing beyond the tower and a continued allegiance to the beloved institution, alas, it overflows with adjuncts now, devaluing everything, though perhaps with their multiple doctorates they might one day land a plum job at Google, entangling algorithms into AI that will make us all obsolete. One can only hope.
Sometimes I hear my neighbor talking to her dog in the yard, and I wait until she goes inside before I take my trash to the bin. I am equal parts misanthrope and recluse, wishing for that elusive neighborhood in which there are no neighbors. When I lived in the city I wore sunglasses in the grocery store and left the house only when there was nothing left to eat. I will be glad when the pandemic is over, but I will miss this year of wearing a mask, and finally feeling at ease in the world.
I came to your garden one moonlit night a spade in my hand, and a rake and a hoe, we planted potatoes until the sun rose, pink sky, bleached horizon, you made me promise to return in the autumn with a fork and a bowl, you said there would be butter enough for the two of us by then.
Things have occurred: wildfires and uprisings and super-spreader events, a few holidays, an election in the U.S. and a bit of sore-loser wilding on a steps of the capitol in response to that election. A month and change into the new year and the COVID-19 pandemic has not gone away, though there are vaccines now, which is good. I’m looking to update my collection of facemasks for spring, because this is what we do now. I’ll be adding some new colors in anticipation of the flowers that are just around the corner. Forsythia and daffodils in three weeks, friends. Crocus. Tulips. We can do this.
I’ve been writing poems again. I’m trying to do it on the daily, but sometimes I forget. It’s not quite a habit yet. Working on it. Here is one from earlier this week.
Soon This morning I put on my garden shoes, walked to the shed where I’d hung my tools last fall, walked across moss and mud, leaves left to molder, I do not rake them, much to the dismay of my neighbors, who worry far more than I ever could over green grass and tidy borders. I favor the ragged edge, the fallen hemline of a secret path, like the cuff of a sweater unknitting itself a little more with each wearing. In the shed I find my garden gloves, stiff with winter, and a pair of reading glasses to decipher the print on the envelops of cosmos and zinnia, marigolds and sweet peas. I run a finger along the wooden handles of my small spade and three-tined rake, say a prayer. Behind the shed I lift the slender arcs of clustered forsythia, seeking new buds. Soon, they tells me. Not today. But maybe tomorrow. Or the day after that. Or surely, the day after that.
There’s no solace in knowing it has always been so —
the angry mob, the fist and the fury —
knowing doesn’t help at all.
Today I took an online test
to see what mathematics I might recall
from decades of long ago learning,
word problems concerning trains and speed
and distance, angles of intersecting lines
and percentages and ratios.
And I failed and was not surprised
by my failure.
I knew all that, once, how to calculate
across time and space, the train of the fist
and the rails of the fury, and knowing
helped not at all,
the train it won’t stop going,
no way to slow down.
If my imagination were not so much a part of me
I could write about places less frigid.
But I am a package deal.
Body cold. Mind cold.
Bodhichitta practice. Slow.
No striving. No reaching.
We breathe into the heart center
and find it armored.
Of course it’s armored.
We breathe anyway.
To make friends with a feral cat
we sit nearby. For a day, a week,
a month, a year.
As long as it takes.
One day we may find ourselves
A day is a long time.
A lifetime is no time at all.
It rained overnight.
The snow fell this morning.
Now the wind blows.
It took longer than any of us expected,
our children were older than we were
and theirs were older still.
I remember the fortune in your cookie
urging you to be like water and you said
who has that kind of time?
The soles of your boots are worn right through
at the place where the weight of the world
meets the road that carried us here
all those footsteps, all that leather,
all those people we used to be, they cling
like shadows and hide when we turn.
Did you ever think, I ask, and no, you say,
you never did, and we blink like mole people,
blinded by the light,
both of us knowing we got it all wrong,
you with your gun, me with my bowl,
you with no bullets, me with no spoon.
Snow crusted garden, last year’s coneflower
grey as old bones, q-tipped and stiff in the wind,
the neighborhood scoundrel cat passes through
the damp and molder in search of a wren to kill,
cowl mane the color of gravel and thaw,
the color of February, the color of the shadow
that followed me home, the one that still clings
to the soles of these worn out winter shoes.
In the news about deportations to countries less worthy
I heard a chance remark
keywords: poverty, extreme
a rhetorical question of how one might fare if given the boot
after living so long in the Promised Land
to go from so much to so very little
Yes, yes, it’s true: newsroom pencils break along fault lines
like pencils everywhere, those in my desk drawer
are not immune, the disinclination to connect all the dots,
it’s a tool of survival, yours, mine, and theirs.
First rule of dysfunction: don’t see the dysfunction.
And yet, and yet, how hard you must work to not see.
All along the back roads of eastern Kentucky, through Tennessee
hollers, past the shorn mountaintops of West Virginia, north
to the future of rust belt ghostwalks, these inglorious ruins
of hollowed-out empire
Keywords: poverty, extreme
Drive at your own risk, fill your tank at the Quik-Mart,
grab a donut like a local, walk the boarded up Main Street,
sugar-fueled, past the queue of shabby coats and unshaven faces
waiting outside the door of the plasma center,
random dots, haphazard humans,
your pocketed notepad, your unsharpened pencil,
the rule of the unseeing eye.
The snow started falling yesterday morning.
It came down in fat motes, curtains blowing sideways.
Sleet at midday, popcorn against the windows.
The cats slept.
Drifts accrued in doorways, domes of white arose
on backyard patio tables, wedding cakes for winter brides,
Birds tracked in a day drained of color,
crossing rabbit divots.
Midway through sweeping out the carport, I look up
to see the black dog across the way, shaggy
and nose deep in sparkle, he sniffs and sneezes,
comes up flocked.
I closed the door on you.
This is not a metaphor. You were snoring. I couldn’t abide.
I need a quiet house. That’s not your fault.
You disorder me. You are a distraction,
a leaking faucet: dripping, dripping.
(I do not need your reminder)
of all I’ve left undone.
Maintenance foregone. Weatherstripping. Yard work.
The front porch needs painting.
Winter will be here before we know it.
My writing process is circuitous. It winds along rivers and wanders through woodland and ends up in back yards, usually my own. I seldom know where I’m going until I get there, and even then it takes time to realize this is the place.
My new collection of poems is available now. Wander with me, if you like.
Who knew it was all so fragile?
The ship of state a houseboat of cards
pontoon shantytown heaving
in the hot humid bluster of a grown
man’s tantrum. Sad!
Pretend I’m crazy.
It’s how we get things done.
In school they taught us how a bill
becomes law, powers held separate,
checks against power to keep it all
in balance yet here we are, keeling and
aroil and taking on water.
Pretend I’m the king.
Tell me that you love me.
We vacuum the oceans for treasures
to sell at auction, fake fortunes, fever heat
from a spray-on sun, peeling gilt,
lower the lifeboats, our iceberg cometh,
and lo! The devil cannot row.
When the snow comes we stay in the house
with mugs of strong tea and honey,
fleece and flannel, buffalo plaid and log-cabin quilts,
The fire burns steady, kettle set to simmer,
it mists the air like hot breath against a pane of glass
We press our fingers to the frozen edge, co-mingle
our heat with the last light of the day.
In the quiet golden corner El Tio sits before his ledgers,
turning a pale green page to scan the names
of all who asked for one last solstice,
one last feast of Epiphany, scheduling payment,
sending invoices, tallying his bottom line by candlelight,
he calculates the weight of souls and payroll
for the psychopomp, holding out his cup to us
that we might fill it from the kettle one more time.
Here is the part both hard and easy:
When you see what’s missing and it’s
all that you (simply) stopped doing
while you went about earning your keep,
all the choices you made in favor of a
full wallet, which isn’t ever so full, is it?
Not nearly so full as what isn’t there,
what was (simply) left out, all the songs
left unwritten all the pages unfilled
all the soul that stopped pouring
from your pen. So hard, I know, to see them
not there but not there they are,
and the easy, and the hard: what you pick up,
and what you put down. Simple as that.
Hard, hard as that, too.
It’s the water that carries us, after all,
like mermaids astride the glistening shell
of the giant sea turtle, we are slippery wet,
slick as newborns.
We are filled with the oceans, we are alive.
All my friends are anemones, supple, pliable,
bendy beneath the waves,
the salt and the sea that softens the flesh
and even the hardest of feelings.
All my friends are fluid.
When John was twelve he came upon his father
golden in the early morning light, hanging
by a noose from a rafter in the barn.
When Tim was twelve he followed his mother
to the Belgium Bridge and watched as she threw
what remained of herself into the Seneca River.
When Mark was twelve he watched his father
give himself up to the tumors that stole the hard,
dry breath from his lungs.
We did not kiss or hold each other close
one last time, we did not wish each other well.
When the edges get ragged, you can turn
a new seam. Again and again, you turn,
until the garment that once covered you
is a collar buttoned at your throat, a bib to catch
what crumbs may fall.
But this is not the edge.
This is the center, this is the heart,
where the rend is new
and the soft fray has only just begun,
there is still time to lay a patch,
still time to stitch things
If only I had a needle.
If only I could find some thread.
All along the shores of Lake Ontario
I gather the pieces of beach glass,
frosted blue and green, bits of vessels once
whole and transparent, now fractured into
fragments, small and opaque as moonstone,
buffed and lustrous, the product of time
spent tumbling, of turbulence, of friction,
of abrasion, bruised like knees for years and years.
I fill my pockets to overflow with the beautiful
battered bits and carry them all back home.
We walked across this desert once,
red dirt rising to meet us,
the impressions made by our bared soles
no more lasting than the thin light of dawn
unzipping earth from sky. I remember
standing with you on this spot, do you
remember this spot, where we met the ones
we might have been and the ones we never could be,
and the shadows grew long behind us
and rose tall to meet us
and we looked beneath this small red rock
and saw our dust there, gathering.