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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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!
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?
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.
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?