THE GREAT HORNED OWL’S MONOLOGUE
Daylight scarred the water. Scalded in afternoon’s
fiery cauldron, I retreated into the timber, spurs
stropped on the thin air. Now I trawl the shadows, eternity’s insomniac,
implacable executioner to the blundering vole, the inconsequential mice.
In the light of jagged moons I pluck the meek and the foolish,
asking my insoluble questions, claws poised for a wrong answer.
My spoils bleed. Bones lowered from the beak’s meat hook
improve my midden. Neck swiveling, obdurate sockets
sweeping the horizon, every twitch snugged
in the eye’s yellow noose. When the naked hare blinks,
I gather the small ghost of its heart into my talons.
The snow is just killing time. My mask is calm.
In my icy hood I hear everything.
The red star bruises my shoulder.
(Published in Steam Ticket, 2011)
– Milwaukee Public Museum
When children ask if it’s frightening
when they come alive, I tell them yes,
of course it is, it’s absolutely terrifying,
and believe me, you don’t want to be around
when it happens, especially at night.
When they ask if the mummies walk
with their arms outstretched like mummies
in the movies, I tell them no, it’s nothing
like that. You see, I explain, the muscles
of their arms have atrophied from thousands
of years of disuse; they just can’t walk
around the way mummies do in movies.
In fact, I explain, their feet have been so
lovingly and carefully bound by strips
of linen, that it’s difficult for them
to walk at all which explains the halting
gait, the fear that at any moment they will stumble
and pitch forward, landing in a heap of rags.
Can they talk? No, they can’t talk, not after
all those years in tombs choked with the dust
of centuries and the weight of eternity
upon them. Can they see, they want to know.
Not any more, I say, for their eyes
were replaced with onions or stones,
stones as white as the sun. Finally, I explain,
they long only to wander forth as they used to,
so long ago and once again admire their reflections
in the shimmering Nile of the gallery floor.
(Published in Rattle, 2015)
An avocado rests
on the kitchen windowsill,
a luxurious carriage of green light,
globe and oblong moon of spring.
Indecipherable runes ripple the dark skin
as though it had passed through fire,
and set in the jade of its pale flesh,
the dark brown nut like rubbed mahogany.
Take a long knife and cut the avocado
in two. Cradle it in your two hands.
The odor is slightly musty, like an old well
where the five senses have come to drink and drowse.
READING YOURSELF TO SLEEP
Eyelids flutter over the blank verse
of sleep. You brush the crow’s wings
from your face. The book, perhaps a collection
of Chekhov’s short stories, spills
from your hands and tumbles into the dark
as through still water, sinking
under the weight of words. You follow,
flumed like a spent swimmer,
happy for the long, quiet slide
into the book’s depths
and down into the dark’s feathery river.
The full moon, like the Pequod’s coin
weights your eyelids. Regret streams away
through the countless estuaries
of sentences until you finally let go.
Go ahead. The page numbers
will mark the way. The chapters
will toll the fathoms.
(Published in Front Range Review, 2015)
A DRIFTWOOD FIRE IN WINTER
— For Robin
This is what I promised you: a driftwood fire in winter.
So when dusk plunged the cove into shadow,
and the tides dragged evening ashore,
I cobbled bundles of sea-strewn wreckage
from the stony beach and lugged them back:
the salt-bleached bones of spruce and oak,
shards of lobster trap, the broken ribs of ketch
and trawler, splinters of spar and yawl,
stem, sprit and keel – the wrack
of a continent sundered and driven shoreward
in the Atlantic’s mythic pound. What the seas
tossed up, I gathered for us and hauled home.
So, we travel far tonight, my dear mariner,
on this raft of sea-smoke, before this driftwood
fire of our making, the one I built for you.
Then let me stroke your hair as we moor
in love’s familiar harbor watching together
as the smoke of our blaze unfurls.
Late at night, when the channels finally go off the air, bogwater fills the circuits and the angered technicians are out on country roads checking the lines for trouble. In your living room, the panicked cables have stopped coming in and the screen is clogged once again with the dust of the sea. Once more, the television is just a stone blinking into heavy rain. Suddenly the whole room flares in the drizzle. The television snares whatever animals haven’t yet climbed trees, apologizes to whoever is still hiding under the bed, and calmly nails your nightmares like a coin to the mast of a ship in an electrical storm. The Arctic and sub-Arctic continents are ablaze. I could go on but it’s raining on the TV now, the static raining like a plague. Try now to switch off the tube and jump into bed before the snow starts falling.
(Published in The Midwest Quarterly, 2014)
BEOWULF APPROACHING THE DANISH COAST
At first light, land emerged.
A shade deeper than the sea
and aching with the silence
of a plundered church.
When the crew hailed land
I came to the rail and saw him,
one of Hrothgar’s men,
posted on the shore and forgotten.
Straddling a shaggy horse, he waited
on the immaculate neck of beach.
He was like any sentry: nervous,
swathed in hides, grimed fingers on the reins.
A ghost the wind had changed to stone.
He knew nothing of us,
nothing of cordage or tides
or navigating the ice-mists
of the whale-road.
My men, their lashes snowed with salt,
were suddenly hushed in the off-shore smell
of wood smoke and bogs.
I waited for him to speak.
I stood alone
in the listening prow
too brave for weapons
and my eyes blue as a hurricane.
(Published in Skald (Wales), 2001)
LINES SCRAWLED IN THE DARK
A broken wristwatch hangs from a bent nail.
I press on a book and it disappears.
The night is a windy crossroads.
The trees are rustling
as if trying to speak. The leaves
enter their towers. I can hear chalk
on a blackboard somewhere
in a dark schoolroom
with a broken window.
They are impatient, pacing
in their silken topcoats,
and eyeing the snow field
picked clean as a martyr’s skull.
They’ve spent the brief winter day
discussing Lizzie Borden’s funeral
arrangements, and now it is darkening.
But in July, the green corn
will be endless, and there will be only one
mad painter, with only one ear left,
to hear their wings
scythe the air.
Poem of the Month Archive
In late August, when ripe garden crops
begin to drop, my wife takes over
the kitchen, brings out the jars and rubber rings,
and with a maniacal ferocity begins
to seal what’s left of our late garden,
and I stand still at my peril lest I wind up
in a Mason jar where I would pass
the long winter on a shelf, pickled,
no virtue left to me but patience,
the patience of salt, eyes shut tight
against the bite of peppercorns, the kelpy
webs of dill, while talons of garlic clutch
my skin and my skeletal system remains
collapsed in the enduring serenity of brine.
Then there comes that first warm day
in April—after months listening closely
for her footfalls on the root cellar steps—
when I am released back into that old,
familiar world that has, astonishingly,
flourished bravely in my absence
just in time to plant what we call spring.
Here’s a poem for the harvest as we step into autumn’s deepest waters. Many thanks to DeWitt Clinton, a fine poet and good friend, for the initial prompt, and for a few key edits that got the poem in gear. It’s mostly true except for the part about keeping my eyes shut. In fact, I kept one peeled, so to speak, Odin-like, to watch the half moon cloves of garlic floating around the inside of the jar. It’s not what I’d call first-class entertainment, but any port in a storm.
A Good Day
To go out and work all day in the sun and wind.
To pull weeds. To pick tomatoes and blackberries.
To assemble the new picnic table, snug the bolts
and slap it with a coat of stain. To eat cold pasta
with iced tea for lunch in the shade of a Black Hills spruce.
To watch the stain soak into the table like honey,
to move the pile of bricks from one end of the place to the other.
To swat the paper wasp nest off the cornice. To run.
To watch new rabbits panting in the shade of the choke cherry.
To have a splinter and a swollen knuckle, your hands still sticky
with stain. To be soaked with sweat and bug spray. To be insect-bit
and sunburned, soil jammed under your nails. To put tools away
and go inside while it’s still light. To be hungry again. To be tired.
That is a good day. That is a very good day.
I wrote this poem in August, and it’s truly a summer poem. But it won’t hurt to look back for a moment as we enter autumn. I’d been thinking about how we don’t seem to go outside as much now, to get our hands dirty, scrape knees and knuckles, and just spend a day losing ourselves in messy physical work. Sometimes you have to go out and get beat up by nature a little. This may sound like a lousy day. To me, it’s transcendent.
Symphony Hall- A True Story
The musicians were the finest the world had to offer,
and my dressing room, which I had
all to myself, vast and elegantly appointed.
Everyone knocked before entering,
including the valet who brought me spring water
and fresh towels. That was his only job.
Don’t get used to this, I told myself.
I keep thinking of that dressing room,
how far it was from the stage, how it seemed
always filled with immense quiet. I remember
the thick rug of crimson and Persian gold,
the tall mirror framed by tiny lights.
The small, white rose afloat in a glass of water.
This is a true story. Mostly. I did perform my writing with the Boston Symphony Orchestra once. My job was to write a script of vignettes to be performed with the conductor during a children’s concert series of classical pieces inspired by outer space. I was thus accorded “soloist” status for the series, and assigned the soloist’s exotically appointed dressing room, and valet. Wisely, I didn’t get used to it. But I sure could have.
– After the photograph, “Truck Stop Shell”
by Greg Clary
They walked away from the last fuel
depot of the Anthropocene the moment
the restroom trash cans were full, tossing
the keys into gravity’s undertow, cheering
as they fell, leaving the bright plastic
porticos under rain the color of steel
shavings. They called it a lunar landscape,
but it couldn’t be further from the moon,
even the dark side of a moon that hasn’t
been found yet. We get the gas stations
we deserve. Semi-rigs stayed ahead
of the Great Flood, air-brakes warping
the panes with planetary static, barreling
straight through to Kingdom Come.
They were searching for a theory of how space
acquires energy, and the answer came back
wrong, wrong by a lot. Do you see that cloud,
trudging on empty and charged with spent
nebulae bearing gallons of solar atoms?
Do you see all that dark matter
just waiting for a lit match?
One of the more intriguing implications of the global surge in oil prices is that gas stations have joined lawyers at the nadir of public opinion. “Shell” is inspired by the photograph Truck Stop Shell, by Greg Clary, depicting an abandoned Shell gas station, clearly left to the dereliction of time, yet stubbornly resisting its most dire ravages because it’s made of plastic. Or something. As a charming and brilliant poet has pointed out, we get the gas stations we deserve.
Grilling with the Buddha
The Buddha’s not a frequent visitor,
only dropping by every thousand years
or so of a summer’s evening when one planet
or another is nudging the crescent moon
slowly into dusk’s purple robes. He settles
into his favorite chair, the canvas one –
tattered blue, cigarette burns in the armrest –
arranging around himself his loose summer yukata.
I’m ready with my kettle grill and tongs. We smile.
I sip my beer, the Buddha his rice wine.
He’s a charcoal man, a votary of the living coals
beneath the mortal ash. We’re happy as we watch
the prayerful ascent of smoke rise through the conifers,
deep into the jade of twilight. So when the filet
of tender-hearted salmon once again flames
and crumbles through the pure geometry of the grill,
I sigh, the Buddha shrugs. The world subsides
into its quiet order of heat and cool as we sit back
and watch our brother bats slicing across the sidereal field
chasing the evening’s first mosquitoes.
I grill year round but, of course, summer is grilling’s true season. And I mostly stick with charcoal. It’s elemental, it’s authentic. Its foundational characteristics are fire, air, and coals bearing the deep, spectral luminosity of a solar flare. Too, you get to play with matches. What’s not to like? There persists a lively debate over the Buddha’s dietary predilection. Was he vegetarian – or perhaps even vegan? Here, I compromise a bit and allow him the delights of the pescavore.
Your tanks are pure metal,
impenetrable, yet they stall
out over open ground.
Confused by local road signs,
they bumble into nameless
crossroads in deep snow,
lose their way in the small
forests between villages.
Bog down. Lose track.
Diesel toads squatting
in the frozen mud
of No Man’s Land
strewn with small blue
flames. Gauges collapse
at the glint of a mine.
Muzzles exhale the final
round. Inert, the gun
tube is now
a narrow tunnel
in which light dwindles,
choices get smaller: stay
latched down, armored
in the bottomless dark,
or dismount the turrets
to stand in bloody puddles
showered by lacerating
shards of rain.
“The tank has become irrelevant to modern warfare. They have been used to repress popular uprisings – a tool of practical and psychological warfare against unarmed civilians from the Eastern Bloc of the Soviet Union to Tiananmen Square.“
– Elliott D. Woods, journalist and Iraq war veteran
On May 9th, Vladimir Putin celebrated victory over Germany in WW II with a parade featuring tanks and other armored vehicles. The failure of tanks in Ukraine is emblematic of Putin’s true folly as a leader. Here’s to the continued failure of tanks everywhere.
I sent my kite up high above
the apple trees, their blossoms
brimming with the nectar of the gods.
In the Royal Dragoons, you never
had a prayer of getting a kite up,
what with the reins in one hand,
a saber in the other. Then there was the sky
always the sky above the battlefield,
so still and full of smoke
it would take your breath away.
I always connect kite flying with spring and summer. In composing this month’s poem, I imagined a soldier at the end of the wars finally getting a peaceful moment to send a kite up, the string tethered to an exuberant blue sky cleansed by pure, healing winds. Why a Royal Dragoon? I’m unapologetically fascinated by Napoleonic militaria.
NEEDLE IN A HAYSTACK
Our pockets full of stones, we went in search
of the needle in a haystack, the one
the undertaker uses to prick your neck,
the surgeon to administer his ether,
the night to blacken its windows.
It’s the blue one tipped with blood,
and the eye through which you chase
the dragon, the shining cells of the serpent,
ants and flies for company. We never
found the needle, but the eye started turning
up everywhere – in the vest pocket of the bum
sleeping on a bench in the freezing rain,
in the keyholes on death row, in the nets
dragging the river for loose change,
and a lens through which we read
the fine print, the rain-slicked gravestones.
The writing on the wall.
What can I say about this poem? Qu’est-ce que c’est? I already had the ending, which I liked a lot, so I followed my impulse to drive the poem in that direction. Or something. I like writing poems with slight-of-hand maneuvers: How, exactly, did the keyhole detach from the sinister needle and set off on its own adventures in the shadow-world we move through every day, assuming a revelatory power we likely could never fathom? You know?
– For Margaret
A little around Christmas is welcome
to lend a Currier & Ives holiday cheer.
In January, the possibilities of the new year
seem infinite, and we happily agree
that snow and cold go hand-in-hand,
that ice and snow shoveling
are just something we have to accept
as part of life in the North during winter.
Grin and bear it, we tell ourselves. It’s winter!
By the end of February, you just want
to get into a hot bath with a bottle of gin
and a straight razor.
One more winter poem – this with a healthy dose of lurid fatalism – and I’ll get out of your hair. I wrote this for a good friend who’s not much on snow, but truly appreciates a good gin. As noted so far this season, yes, I like winter, but everyone has their limit. If you like a little more depth, swap out the gin for bourbon. It’s all the same tragedy.
The wind smells like nails.
In the North, clouds
lower their heavy kettles.
The sky is chalk, the roads
carbon; their salts abrade.
Light glances off snow. Sound
travels farther over ice. Numb
to the wrists the copper beeches
retreat into their cells. Sparrows
squall and scatter across the snow
where the wind scrawls its wild name.
The jawbone of the moon drops
as the hourglass scuttles its grains.
I have a confession to make: I love winter. My whole life I’ve been bewitched by the immutability of ice and snow. Not much changes, for a while, and that’s a relief. So, you may as well hunker down under the gray skies and lowering clouds. Or hunker under down. What a lovely predicament. Two notes: the copper beeches mentioned in the poem line the road next to our house; one of the lines I wrote when I was in high school. Can you tell which one?
Still asleep, you
roll over, tuck
your head in the hollow
below my collar bone,
and whisper, “Perfect.”
In the east
a ferrous sky
purple and gray
over the bitter lake.
A full moon,
whole, a flawless
of it yet wrecked
or ruined nothing,
so far, pared back
by the blackness
around it, nothing
of its luster
yet ground away
by the coming year.
It drifts, soundless
and stunned as
secret: you and me
and the moon
Writing “January 2nd,” I couldn’t help thinking of James Wright’s wrenching poem, “Having Lost My Sons, I Confront the Wreckage of the Moon, Christmas 1960.” Poets have been writing about the moon since the dawn of poetry, and aren’t likely to stop anytime soon. Even as the dark chisels away at it, it still restores and consoles us – a steadfast companion plugging us full of hope, and invariably reminding us that there is still a recurring certainty in the cosmic order. Happy New Year!
It is possible that at dusk
we are most alone
though sometimes we are blessed
and look up into the robin’s egg
blue of an early winter dusk,
into the shimmering pale blue
and think of the robin whose wings
may one day wake us from sleep.
Knife-blade blue of sky
arcing over the earth, over unbroken drifts,
over the churches of the spruce –
outposts from which the raven
starts up like a question. And you know
then that the snowy earth is God’s airfield,
that the sky has made a place for God to think,
and that on an evening as clear and blue
as this one, you can almost see
the ends of the earth.
I’ll be the first one to tell you that many of this year’s Poems of the Month have been a little macabre. Not a whole bunch of laughs there. That’s the way it is with writing sometimes – if something works for you, you stick with it. As we approach winter and the holiday season, here’s a poem to make amends, written some time ago when an early December dusk turned the sky an astonishing blue, and the quiet fell like grace, stunning the imagination. We close out 2021 on a serene note.
– For Kate
Barbed wire rust bleeds
down a fence post
where another hawk perches,
eyeing us like prey, plumes
flaring in the smoldering sun. Woods
cold, empty, and gray, smelling
of mice nests and burned out stars.
Smoky November dusk from which we fled
before every burning bird, the shadow
of every bare tree, overtook us.
The woods behind us vanishing utterly
as night unwound its dark road.
My wife Robin and I had spent a November afternoon in the deep woods of the Kettle Moraine State Forest. The deciduous trees had had it: leaves gone, bare branches. Under the dense groves of conifers, gloom had settled in. I later told my sister about a hawk that watched us parking the car from its perch on a weathered fence post. Driving home, I had the image in my head of the hawk. It seemed to be asking, “Well, are you going to write about this or what?”
The moon had us hoodwinked,
escaping through the branches,
clutching a bundle of dead sheaves
and a sack of children’s teeth,
hiding its face under its bare arm.
The broken bones of the old house
strained to be heard over the groans
of the church steeple struggling
to keep its head up in the wind.
Quivering trees spattered rain
from their bruised leaves, staining
the gravel the color of blood.
Then I heard footsteps then
came a roaring silence
to wake the dead.
Halloween last year was gusty, and the trees shuddered and bowed in heavy wind. The moon was full – or nearly so – and it was likely my imagination, but it seemed uniquely spectral as it crept through webs of black branches as if it had gotten away with something. I figured the image deserved a poem, which I originally titled, “Halloween.” Upon reflection, however, I concluded that “All Souls” instead invests the poem with a rather deliciously unsettling frisson d’automne.
Mountain creeks narrow to threads – water
anointing the shallow places.
In the dry, blue air
the hardwoods blaze and burn
like old deposits of fire.
Climbing on a late September afternoon,
I pick the last blueberry
and swallow it, sparking
into the inner fire system of stars.
I say, “September,” and a wild taste
burns like a dark blue berry
on the tongue.
In writing “September,” I was paying tribute to both my love for the month itself, and likewise for short poems. It’s my birthday month, and also its own season in a way, a kind of August 2.0. I wanted the poem to “narrow to threads” like the creeks in the first line, threading the two months together, and – in the two evocations of fire – anticipating October’s lambent deciduous flare. Minimal as it is, the poem is a love letter – the first one, anyway – to my favorite month.
– For Robin
The tomatoes cool themselves
in the long breezes,
hoarding in their flesh
In the dry season, they are red cups
drinking summer light.
Late August, they grow lustrous,
dense in wild, scarlet clusters.
I have come for them
with a basket and a knife,
my thirst ripened.
Picked, they shine in my hand
like wet stones, their skin like ours
burnished after love.
August, month of high-flying cumulus, utter indolence, the world taking a break for a change. Month of vivid yellow corn and ripe tomatoes. Is there any end to the metaphors they invite: gems, jewels, orbs, an embarrassed – or jubilant – face, ruddy, sinking suns, and old stars? Don’t they suggest other worlds, entire sparkling galaxies clustered within them, a climax crop of human exuberance?
Once, when we believed anything
was possible, we’d drive over country roads
at dusk on summer evenings,
just as the fireflies were lighting
their small villages. We’d roll
the windows down, and make airplanes
with our hands in the thick air
as bats skimmed mosquitoes
out of the darkening sky, and the barn owls
woke on rafters in hay lofts
above the cooling earth,
listening for mice in the straw.
We had it all, or so we told ourselves,
though we’ve since learned
that now it’s better just
not knowing one way
or the other.
In ecology, those marginal zones where two ecosystems meet is often a staging ground for dynamic interactions between species. Here, disparate species sideswipe each other in breathtaking collisions. Similarly, “Evening Drive” explores the frisson along the transition areas of time and light that so often nudge us into questioning where we’re going, and whether it matters that we arrive where expected.
Still Life with Work boots
I still think of them, lost
when you gave them away
thinking they were in the Goodwill
pile, when I’d only left them
near the Goodwill pile, and you
cried when I got mad. Blotched
with diesel when I fueled the moving
truck on a highway in Indiana,
spattered exuberantly from the time
we tried to keep the rotting picket fence
together by saturating it with Cabot’s.
Primer from the bathroom ceiling
dropped thick coins of dazzling
white on the toes; sweat-salt etched
the uppers. I recall the tongues
hanging out after a long day
raking the sodden debris of November.
The soles I couldn’t tell you about, but I could
tell about the laces, about threading
the eyes with them and suturing the wounds
I made standing in my own darkness.
This is another largely autobiographical poem. The story of the work boots going off to the Goodwill by mistake is true, as are the references to various spatters and splotches they gathered over time, especially those one accumulates as a homeowner. I’ve always been intrigued by how life events etch themselves in clothing, especially shoes and boots— how intrinsically human they are, having eyes, tongues, and soles/souls, how the leather receives and fossilizes the impression the body makes on the space around it.
No Man’s Land
They sent me forward
To scout the front lines
On my hands and knees
In deep, fresh snow.
I could smell the enemy – their cigarettes
And coffee – hear them
Whispering to one another.
Or was it the sound of the tall drifts
Of shimmering new snow
Sighing as the wind carried them
Across the wastes one
Grain at a time beneath
The unbelievable blue
Of the morning sky?
It’s not so bad out here,
Especially at dusk. It’s quiet
And I have things to do.
And when the spring rains
Turn the snow to mist
I’ll crawl back to the line
And slip through the wire.
I’m not entirely sure what inspired this poem, but I’ve always been intrigued by the notion of No Man’s Land – a desolate, cratered landscape that belongs to no one side, where an eerie, otherworldly calm lingers. Here, some lowly private is shoved over the parapet and told to scout the enemy line. He discovers that maybe the best place to be in a war is where there isn’t anybody else and, for the time being, No Man’s Land is not a bad place to be. He settles in for a while, and takes stock of the place. He’ll go back one of these days, but this fellow’s in no particular hurry.
On a winter afternoon, I went down to the cellar
to put away my work boots, and the old dreadnaught,
the one with only five strings and the faux ivory
inlay on the fret board. There was a pain in one side
of my neck – I don’t remember which one –
that felt as if it had been there for a hundred
and fifty years. In the cupboard under the stairs
were shelves of cherries and onions in jars,
and half-full bottles of whiskey from distilleries
shuttered during Prohibition. At least that’s how I heard
the spiders tell it, descending invisible threads
from my grandfather’s broken fishing rod.
A somewhat autobiographical poem, I wrote it very quickly, truly drafting it in less than ten minutes. So I must have been doing some pre-conscious work on it. The pain in my neck is real – and it’s the right side. It’d been bothering me since the pandemic blew up, and felt like it was going on endlessly. We do have a basement pantry we call the “root cellar,” stocked with my wife’s preserves. I also had in mind a cupboard under the cellar stairs at my aunt’s house. As a kid, I remember the decades-old liquor bottles I found there, covered with dust. Everything else in the poem just filled itself in basically while I sat back and watched.