Death Toll

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
jackfrosted opaque.

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.

Hard as That, Too

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.

No Hard Feelings

I.

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.

II.

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.

III.

We did not kiss or hold each other close
one last time, we did not wish each other well.

IV.

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
back together.
If only I had a needle.
If only I could find some thread.

V.

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.

Dust

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.

Reading the Leaves

She sat with me on the porch and we shared tea
from an earthenware pot, a brew of gathered leaves,
years of careful selection, berries dried on a tin tray,
saved in a paper envelop, their hard little tartness intact,
rosehips culled from long dead flowers,
we drank from small cups while the bees scuttled
over the tops of pale coneflower.
The days are long, she said, but life is short.
Or is it the other way around?
She laughed and drank her tea
as the leaves fell from her shoulders and scattered
around our shoeless feet, brilliant autumn red and weightless,
fading at the edges like stains on an old ledger.
I showed her the damp dark remnants at the bottom of my cup.
Long, she said. Or short. It’s up to you, little one.
It’s pretty much all up to you.

Lead

Perhaps it was the leaded gasoline that did it.
Gone too late in all our happy motoring,
the burnt aftermath lingering in our cells,
permeating our formative years, our young-country brains,
so much soft mineral marking our fantasies,
we believed we were super-powered, turbo-charged,
we thought we could fly like dragons through the sky,
but we were only falling,
and it was such a long way down,
all that lead now a weight we must carry,
a burden of ignorance, innocent or arrogant,
heavy and awkward, we are, and stupidly defiant,
we no longer know what it means to walk on the Earth,
fooled by the illogic of too many rockets,
too many silver bullets,
too many horses under our hoods,
the blowback from combustion unfathomable
to our enfeebled swiss-cheesed understanding,
our Augean stables now full to the rafters,
and where, pray tell, is our Hercules?
And where did we put all the shovels?

Alas, Just an Asteroid

Moments after the words were said aloud
for the first time, and the tides turned
and the waters parted and the dark
was at last an entity distinct from the light
and the light could at last illuminate
the vastness of what had come between us,
light years and galaxies, time and space,
the cosmos of heat and frozen rock,
you were as distant as a thought
from the mind of an alien god, two moons
circling what we thought was our home world,
alas, just an asteroid, mineral and mass.

Coyote Calls

Coyote wants to know if you’ve ever seen the desert
and you tell him you dreamed it as a child
in a bedroom facing west in a corner of the world
where shadows fell across the hearts of good people
and made them fearful, made them weary,
made them lonely all the time.

And you are lonely all the time.

You see your mother so tired, your father a stranger,
your teachers hypnotized by the ghosts of their own forgotten souls
peering from the tomb of the classroom blackboard.
You ask to clap erasers and watch the dance of dust
in the dirty breeze.

Coyote calls and your heart rises in your throat,
catches on your breath and you cough through a pastel haze.

You saw him once, nosing through garbage
behind the Japanese restaurant high in the Hollywood Hills,
saw him again, loping along the side of the road
that winds through Griffith Park and ends up in a graveyard
marked with stones laid flat against clipped green grass,
the big mowers rumble and sweep them clean.

You followed him to the mountains,
caught sight of him in a sunsplit moment when you forgot
to think and there he was, his yellow eyes watching you,
the carcass of a small bird in his mouth,
he runs, dropping feathers.

You drove your car across the plains on a phantom journey,
your feet never touching the Earth from sea to sea,
you rolled on blacktop laid atop concrete, laid atop gravel,
laid atop the red rock ruins of another way to be.

Coyote ducks behind the juniper, a narrow hip, a flick of tail,
his head low, the fall of his footpads a tattoo
across the gathering gloom.

In a painted land you stood before the setting sun and prayed
for an answer, you spanned the sky with your outstretched arms,
“Where is my path?” you cried. “Where is my path?”
And the dust rose in four directions:
Here, here, here and here.

Coyote calls you on the telephone you carry in your pocket.
You reach deep and come up with a handful of feathers and red dirt,
the dance of dust in the copper gold light,
and you hear him laugh across the distance:
Here, here, here and here.

Wherever your foot falls, that is your path.
Coyote calls and you answer:
I’m coming. Wait for me.

February

It would have been kinder
if you had died in mid-summer,
when the Earth is warm and soft,
and the rains have subsided
and the water table is low,
the mounding soil slow to collapse,
the bones beneath allowed to rest
in the dry heat for just a little while
before dissolving into the hedgerow
and the holly tree,
so many roots so hungry
for your leftovers.