The Snyder boys, a couple of years my olders,
take the brakes off a bike and teach themselves
to swerve down our steep street without crashing.
I refuse. But they get me to bomb the wooded hill
behind their house. As I pick up speed, a bump
flops my beloved red crusher down over my face,
turns the woody blur to black nothing
but hands on handlebars and wheels rolling
pine needles through deep space. For two seconds
I consider myself the luckiest kid ever on a bike seat.
I’m gonna make it, I believe, for the time it takes
to find a pine’s rough girth and fall back to earth.
The Snyder boys are there looking scared,
laughing, helping me up, checking the bike,
and (best of all) telling me I must be frickin’ crazy.
The Snyder boys, a couple of years my olders,
Johnny and his friends bent steel with their hands,
sent rocks and bottles at cars full of white
revelers on the Sunday streets of Birmingham.
A black church had been bombed, four young lives taken.
Johnny cussed and flung his reprimand
till the law came. Johnny ran, but a cop and shotgun
did him in, like a hurricane ripping a door out
from its jamb. In the alley, dust, and a flow of desperation.
A small stream had risen, had breached its banks,
and there was no earthen levee that could hold him.
It’s been three nights without a visit.
Even Mom and Dad fail to explain her absence
but suppose it to be weather related.
Patient, expectant, the girl reconfirms the presence
of the tooth and scrap of paper that says,
read the questions in the letter on the table.
Finally, tiny written answers penned by one
who self describes as no taller than our salt shaker
and tells of a Canadian blizzard.
I examine the coins, marveling at a fairy’s strength
to carry the two golden Sacagaweas—beautiful,
but unpopular with the grown up public
who have settled and decreed these be received
from none but a parking garage payment machine.
A loud Sunday morning
cloudburst interrupts the sermon,
as if to quench our thirst.
In this old stone church
cut and leaded glass depictions
of Christ’s life and work continue
lifting the worshiper to holy God
even if grayed by storms.
I have repaired old windows,
have extracted the brittle glazing,
and, once, a long wavy shard
plunged suddenly to flesh,
severed so many tiny vessels
a ribbon leapt like Christmas
from my inner wrist—red
wet the pieces and the pavement.
My eyes reach for the folds
of an umbrella flat on the floor
and the sermon pours,
the Nimble Priest carousing
all through my veins and arteries.
His footfall is the slipper sound
of water cleansing gore above
armies of the angels waging war.
My stylist shows up at the reception and we quick tumble
into tangles of flirtation: a magnetic, dark-eyed Italian
and a full-length, flattered red head who wishes
nickels vacuumed up at the car wash enough, but I see
she’s made of different stuff. A couple of weeks we talk,
drink coffee—then admission: for you, I’d change my plans.
When she says I shouldn’t, I go back to my apartment. I’m down
on the rug beside half-filled packing boxes gathering dust
when in my heart like a hush, a painter bends a brush:
always he is furthering a fresco of forgiveness.
Alone in the car headed across town to pick up my teenage son, I’m first to an intersection as the light is turning yellow. I mash the brake and stop. The person behind tries to pull beside me to my left to be at the front next to me, but misjudges and brushes up against my left rear bumper with the right side of her car. She quits and immediately starts backing up, to extricate herself from my quarter panel, I’m guessing. I’m wondering where to pull off and exchange information when I notice she’s still backing up into the right turn lane. I make a U-turn and start to pull behind her, but she’s already turning right and taking off.
I wish I had my father’s brain at a time like this. He could have weighed all the risk, cost, and benefit of a pursuit in the time it takes for me to see red. He would probably have guessed her route, doubled back and caught her on the other side of the neighborhood. But I need time to process.
I decide to think while chasing her. She’s driving pretty fast. Naturally, so am I. I’m hoping she gets stuck at another red light. I want to read her license plate. But there is no opportunity. She turns right again, races by two lanes of traffic, dust rolling up behind her silver Monte Carlo from where she’s using the median as a passing lane.
Dad was pretty proud of his defensive driving. He probably would have noticed an approaching vehicle in the rear view, judged the error, and pulled ahead a little bit. He had the seemingly prophetic ability to anticipate other people’s driving divergences and blunders. He would have been a fine ship’s captain.
I give little thought to the danger of my pursuit until I get back home and tell my wife what happened. And then I feel ashamed and anxious to have imperiled myself and others on the road. I feel stupid.
I never had an accident while driving with my father in the car, but I had dozens of them when by myself or with friends. Fender benders just came naturally to me. Parking lots proved to be my nemesis. One time I backed out of the garage with the driver’s door open! I could be an air head, a dreamer. And reckless. Dad owned motorcycles and, for some reason, allowed me to drive them. Once, while driving his motorcycle, I hit a pedestrian in a crosswalk (in front of my high school!). She did live. Clearly angels caught her. I was filled with shame for my reckless choice that had caused the collision. Yet my dad continued to believe I could and would do better.
Which is probably why I think of him after chasing a hit and run driver for a mile through the neighborhood on a Saturday afternoon. More than thirty years after my teenage driving days I’m still making some rash driving decisions.
Dad is gone now. An accident like this reminds me how much I miss him. I miss his reliability. I miss his steadfastness. I miss the way he could command a situation. I don’t have the same powers as him. But then again, over the years I’ve learned to take on some surprising difficulties. I’ve learned that I, too, can be reliable. Sometimes I can even be forgiving.
Which is pretty much what happens as the dust flies up behind the silver car. I slow down. I let her go. I believe I can do better.
And as I reflect on the situation over the next few days, I seem to open my heart to my dad a little more. In my mind, I’m a bit less hard on him. Dad, I know this won’t come as a surprise to you, but I’ll say it anyway: I might be learning what it means that a man has compassion on his son.
Today, I see the car parked at Tobacco World. It’s definitely the one. Fresh scrape marks crease the right rear fender. I think about going back so I can glimpse the tag. Justice tempts me. But I just keep driving and thinking.
I have a notion dad would probably have circled back, at least to have a chance to talk to her. He could talk to anyone. I can’t help wondering what he would have said. But as for me, I’ll keep the secret.
My wiper blades are singing to the intermittent drizzle and I check the rear view mirror as I hit the brakes and make the turn for home.
Only the friend felling alongside
the blur of broken treetop drop down,
like a pendulum, to end a good life.
Please call, is all the message
on my brother’s phone says. And so
he is the first of our kin to learn
the words “we couldn’t save him.”
steering spring mud roads to Mom,
he dials to let me know
the man we call our Dad is dead.
States away, in the backyard,
I hear my voice responding
with a buzz of questions. He says,
better hang up, I need to go in.
I gather wife and children,
crumbling, tell them all he said,
tears slaking dust between the boards
of this worn out kitchen floor.
to have your eyes fixed on the scrap of sidewalk
always two steps ahead, despite this intersection,
is an exhibit. It’s only an exit from the parking lot,
but I am here and I see the leaves and branches
of your wind tossed hair—how they soften, like dusk,
the hard bark of your expression.
A blunt couple, frozen, stands with car doors open
as if they expect you to do the unexpected.
And I, like a muttering magician, wave my hand
for you to cross, guessing you need something,
like a sense of place, to make your way east
along this boulevard.
But if stories are a way to see what happens,
and poetry a seed, you are both to me
when, by the corner of my bumper, you perform
a perfect hairpin and go back west, leave
my body churning its wonder and distress
in this, the failing flame of my forgiveness.
I tend the damper and watch
from the window—bundled cousins
are laughter with toboggans.
They slide the slope to jumbles
then regain the hill, gathering
and choosing lanes
for another fleeting run—
children banging the cadence
they have always drummed.
Soon the failing light
will send them in.
Soon we will go back home.
On the sash, I am turning
away from my reflection
to flame in the wood warm room.
a leather pearl on my shelf. The box is clear to show
red stitches and a smudge on Rawlings where the bat
greeted it with a rough kiss.
I study it and conjure up the errant arc over first base;
the upraised arms and hands that would have a lofted relic.
HERE IT COMES! I cried, and grabbed it.
Some guy exclaimed he too had touched the pearl,
but the usher arrived to check my fingers.
All too soon, the sting had quit the skin.
A baseball had graced me, had been sent my way,
so I keep it in a box, and I still pray
for off-field outfield hits and sudden sunny days.
Beside the toddling Ausable we kids grew to be disciples
of gun oil, varnished stocks, blued barrels, and the old
cash register of Robinson’s Guns and Ammunition,
Grandpa behind the counter packing Half and Half
into his pipe, plucking a paper match. I’d notice
his fingernail, evenly split and unable to mend
from where a car he’d been repairing fell on him.
Visiting in summer, we’d walk from Grandma’s
to the store, numb our fingers in the Coke cooler,
wait for Grandpa to offer wet glass bottles of Hires
and Orange Crush, carbonated hiss invoking spirits
of the sugar rush. Love poured—filled us,
made us less afraid even of the dusty black boar’s head
dead in his dim back office.
The store had, for years, been sitting vacant
when on an August weekend
Hurricane Irene contorted the Ausable,
split the town into floodplain and high ground.
FEMA gained the land and came with bulldozers.
Today, Google shows weeds
and dirt where Grandma’s house should be.
Between those two trees, I point out for the kids,
and the store right where that dumpster sits.
There was a front porch…
but the image on the screen is now blurred
by a sudden weight of water on the shore.
These green towers are soon to be pyres,
their sparks and embers falling from the sky.
But for now, ripe acorns are unsteady hail
and one ricochets the roof to my paint pail.
Brush in abeyance, I extract the now white
nut, settle it on a windowsill to dry
then, on lunch, coat another dozen or so,
leave the pointy pearls in a row
set on two dry leaves and a wicker table.
Perhaps the customer will notice and be able
to receive this, the smallest of small signs.
Perhaps she still believes in acorn rhymes.
After college I work graveyards at Mobil Mart:
the register, the pumps, the bullet booth.
Just me, fluorescent lights, and piped in fifties.
Sunday night, a beat up limo, a man
climbing from the back, his expression
an alloy mostly iron. He buys Raleigh 100’s,
turns to exit and I quip, be careful out there.
He curses, you know somethin’ I don’t?
I say, no, but he’s not done forging insolence
with eight pound dirty words and muscled scorn.
Finally, he quits.
The limo hits the street. I get outside for a smoke.
lights on barges move like mourners up the river,
or they slip away downstream to New York City.
By afternoon, the group stopped to make camp
and Paul remained on shore to help as I waded in
up to my neck, longing to make the smooth strokes
of farm boys and big kids who crossed over
talking and laughing as they went.
If he had foreknown the pending doom
of a youth group friend, he might have chosen
to stay home, but he hadn’t, and would see
my head slip under slow brown water,
hear the yell and splutter of the skinny kid
who didn’t really swim.
I couldn’t fathom my life closing,
but it began, and Paul responded
like a father to keep me from my end.
By second gasp, he shoved out a canoe,
then came swimming like a man,
the calm in his voice a buoy.
And still, I tried to kill him.
We were saved from my demand to live
only when our feet found sand.
Later, at the fire with the others, Paul’s face said,
Don’t think you’re the only one returning from the dead.
We live on an esker, you used to say,
Tossing rocks out of the garden.
Frost and the tiller brought them up.
You planted peas as early as late April,
The muddy days of sugaring done,
Snow having quit even the woods by then.
Only dying ice remained.
Running trails in spring at the reservoir
I find a rocky outcrop still iced over
And kneel beside the thawing, listen
Down among the roots and mosses,
Tell myself to not forget and tell the kids
How a glacial brook deposited the low rocky ridge
Where I grew up and came to know the verse
Of water in the woods. I follow a creek
Down to the lake, but do not risk
The worn and tarnished piece of silver.
At the cemetery in summer,
We cut away sod around your marker,
Edge it with gravel from a nearby quarry.
Look at these greens and purples!
Ages those rocks lay hid by the glacier
That ploughed this valley. (I know,
You know all this.) What I mean is,
The earth looks like a different planet when
A steady presence won’t be back forever.
The swing set little girl, though flying,
manages to wave as I drive by
in the work van, sweep of hair
and dress turning sight to faith
and I tap the brakes.
Generously her flight curves,
her small hand giving grace
as if she knows it will return.
My hand obeys, and a swerve
of laughter crashes on my face.
I was given a good dad. His love for me, a great gift. Peanut butter helped me realize this.
I love peanut butter. Always have. As kids, our mom once expressed some concern for my brother and I, “You could develop an allergy if you eat too much”. Thankfully that has yet to happen.
I’m gaining fast on 50 and still eating pb regularly. My favorite is Smucker’s Natural Peanut Butter With Honey (Creamy). I also like the Maranatha peanut butter. Jif is a workhorse, particularly for peanut butter cookies.
I’m a house painter. I pack my own lunch. Most days I take a container of pb&j, dipping it with celery sticks at lunch time. I have high metabolism and if I feel a bit shaky mid-morning, I spread some pb on a granola bar. It works wonders.
A house mate once told me, “John, I used to think eating was just meant to fill the hole, but when you cook I eat because it tastes good!” I was honored. But for too long I fear I have used pb to fill the hole without a true appreciation of its wonder, its sticky sublimity. A year ago something happened that made me appreciate it more: my father died.
Not long after he was gone (a few days, really) I perceived that my perspective on all of life was changed. I was seeing through a different lens. I could not immediately, or even months on, clearly identify the effects, but the world often appeared strange to my eyes (and heart). I feared this change was only for the worse, that sadness would prevail going forward. And that is true, but only part of the truth. Along with sadness I found another sense growing: joy.
Peanut butter isn’t really much to look at. Kind of messy. The natural kind separates, forming an oil slick that has to be stirred back in. Yet it is a gift, nutritious, flavorful, edible with other foods or by itself from a spoon. Kids eat it when they won’t eat the dinner they’ve been offered. And it even fills the hole.
It can’t fill the hole left behind by the loss of a loved one, but it has some power to impart a gratitude for all that is good in this world.
As I visit my mom and brother on the one year anniversary of dad’s death, I am more willing to embrace the sorrows and joys of life. Peanut butter tastes better than ever before. I am sad for our loss, but my heart is inclined toward gratitude for all the ways dad gave of himself, in love.
I’m thinking of a number
between one and ten
and whoever guesses best
gets the final brownie.
Clamor of voices desist!
Each make a choice
and I’ll reveal what I have hid.
I’m thinking of a hitter
who wishes to be better
than the pitch, not to press,
but to select one he can hit.
He fights and works the count,
hoping for an offering
to come to him.
I’m thinking of a number
between one and seven billion.
This clamor of faces exists
to be cherished and lifted.
I’m thinking of a kindness
given to the many, and all
the opportunity to guess.
“Being a writer is an affliction” a friend of mine recently posted to his blog. I couldn’t agree more. I write because I must. It’s a necessity. This is who I am. It is a state of being, as my friend suggested. Ultimately, I did not choose to be a writer. Rather, the work and wonder of being a writer was placed on me by forces outside myself. Sometimes I try to ignore it or go so far as to deny my calling. As well, I take legitimate rest from it. But always it is calling me back with stubborn persistence. It is a weight or pressure as formative as glaciers.
I commented to my friend’s blog that his post reminded me of the 1997 movie Affliction. Nick Nolte played generational alcoholic Wade Whitehouse in this painfully riveting depiction of addiction. The film (in which James Coburn won best supporting actor for his role as Wade’s whiskey guzzling father) causes the viewer to feel like an alcoholic, always off balance, never quite able to establish the foundational, the real, the essential way to proceed. Sometimes when I write I feel like Wade Whitehouse.
Affliction is an apt term for the writing process. The stumbles, the falters and false starts, the painful humbling that must occur for writing to be anything close to good, are discomfiting. A friend once called a poem I wrote “dismissive”. And yet I was compelled to continue with revisions.
The addict who has come to the end of all hope knows she cannot save herself. She will either despair unto death or be resurrected to new life. If she is raised, it will come from outside herself and that too will be an affliction with all its attendant sufferings and humblings.
Affliction is the way of the writer. But it is not an empty or self-destructive affliction. If I merely look within for hope and inspiration I am defeated before I begin. But if I look beyond myself, listening, investigating, quietly considering the friction caused by outside forces on my person, I become more of who I am. If my work fails, who am I to demand its success? If it succeeds, who am I to demand its precedence.
If I think I know my craft, I do not yet know as I ought. And thus I am tempted to despair. I suffer “corrosive self-doubt” (James Lee Burke), but I write because I must, this is who I am. If you wish for your writing to give you substance, it is no better than addiction. But if at the center of your substance is a writer, you do well to embrace your affliction.
you sat like summer in your red pants suit
on the edge of that flabby plaid couch
and, like all of us, did not make sense
of our study in Leviticus.
Sunday breeze roused the sash
and you stepped outside to catch your breath.
I followed, drawn to where
perfume and lipstick lit fires in my flesh.
We talked and afterward it seemed as if
your long fingers had reached into me
and left prints, like an imp had sneaked
chocolates, then crawled into my heart,
leaving sticky bits and happy remnants.
My first son and I, both of us long limbed,
just can grasp hands around the rough bosom
of the old water oak out front. On its south side
large low branches have been removed
and rot makes dark hovels of the collar cuts.
Further up, fractured gray bones jut
desiccated among lithe green leaves.
By wind and years once pliant arms succumb,
dropping to the roof or lawn. And as I gather
for a fire, I pray the long ominous bough
hung with mistletoe to endure over the corner
that is the boys’ room. This prayer arose
even before the broken top that blew and caught,
hidden, in the last tree my logger father felled.
Prudence demands hiring a company
of men to prune danger hanging from above
though mercy blows extravagant on the breeze
and chainsaws cannot cleave that dominion.
Nearby roots of a younger oak, still growing,
are made known by a crack in the foundation
and a bow in the boys’ north bedroom wall.
All of us who live within the province of oaks
must contend with the wind, and the creak
of limbs, as we stoop to gather sticks
and broken beauty. All of us carry
or receive unwelcome news of doom falling
and must permit the reach and roots of trees
to subdue suddenly, or by slow degrees.
He had told me where to buy the car
then helped rivet sheet metal to places
Vermont winters had eaten the ‘73 Pontiac’s
floorboard. It took two days in November,
our fingers so cold it hurt to get them warm.
All winter the car got me to the store
where we worked unloading trucks,
pricing, stocking, sweeping, mopping,
crushing cardboard boxes in the baler.
Tonight, in line at the calling hours
for my father, he meets my wife and children,
says he always knew I’d turn out good.
I can’t get over these faces, these people
I haven’t seen in thirty years or more.
They’ve adorned themselves with love
for dad and all the good he ever did.
They tell me stories of dad helping them
or his words they have not wanted to forget
and I am drawn to his reflection in them.
The rust of death has marred our souls;
tonight there is help to patch the holes.
A photograph from about a year before you died
shows you seated on a large stump hands folded,
shoulders slumped. My brother and I had walked
down from Grandma’s with my birthday camera
never meaning to capture how cancer had deprived you
of Helen years back, how grief had seized you
and your workshop had retired into shadow;
the gravers laid on benches among shavings
sharp reminders of your need to carve reliefs.
They had fit the artist’s hands—hands made
to wield them—and formed many works:
the shields of the apostles on oaken doors, the altar table,
the walnut reredos so beloved by the congregation.
Helen had ever been your blade and stone,
her keen spirit comfort to your war wounds,
but the unceasing waters of bereavement
whittled your bones and finally broke them
at the kitchen table where Grandma found you
gouged by your own hand and that dull revolver…
Once, while in the South Pacific, you had mailed
a thank you to my mom for photographs received
of her, a then months-old baby. Declaring love,
you promised her stories, mud pies, and the circus.
Your works deserve prominence, but you
were carving for an audience of folks along the river
in a town that would suffer many floods.
For Carrol Coolidge (1908-1980)
for Jeffrey Eells, 1968-2001
Eight years of traffic have blurred the accident site
by the time I see your place at the cemetery. I say
I didn’t know you had been buried close to Grandma
and your sister cries—she knew you like I never did.
Gentle, easy going, made for downhill skiing,
you meant to finish college, were fluent in sarcasm,
and had a well of sadness you kept covered
with laughter that snapped like dry sticks. As kids
we laughed like cousins at Grandma’s in the glen.
We played kick the can, took our places at the table,
passed the rolls, heard the stories being told,
then got back in the family cars again.
Today your sister is keeping her own well and,
for me, pulls back the lid. (Did you ever
find someone to let in, someone to draw water with,
someone who could damp your dry pail with rest?)
Here I stand, a tree beside the streams she pours,
planted in the soil of her dreams.
My bark is rough—see how green her grief!
My roots are scorched—freely is falling her relief.
Our Sundays in the park are not forgotten:
the flowering apples, the plumb and level bees.
At the pavilion, bridesmaids and groomsmen
smoking, waiting for pictures to be taken.
I had a wish to syncopate their laughter
with our cadence and our rhythm.
You concealed, double wrapped in skin.
I your living envelope, your place of origin.
Not desiring marriage, and despite my arm’s petitions
I gave you for adoption.
Oh, the grip of charcoal eyes, of newborn grace!
Oh, the place where lightning struck my boughs!
Oh, the rhythm of rainfall the day you appeared
my rising river, my hidden-to-me girl.
Fall arrives and oaks brace themselves,
the park gathers its leaves—I am familiar with
the hardening of bark, the early freeze,
but could not have guessed what now rolls over me.
An infant cry—a flash and strike—but wait,
a distant rumbled comfort has its say.
I ask the baby’s name, tiny hands are upraised;
The mother and I stretch over the stroller like a canopy.
-for Jill G.
I recall the asphalt—a blur beneath—and my days
at the school of tachometry. Chrome tailpipes
and handlebars shone like a vision.
I leaned into the turns until the foot pegs scraped.
Hardtop suited me just fine.
I evoke the throttle’s spirit—the twist and release—
and the engine’s heat. They moved me, but pavement
takes a toll and ditches are replete. All those close calls,
falls, and crashes hurt, but I never refused the road.
I crossed the double line
before I slowed. Then came the graceful rider.
He rode from days of old on everlasting tires
because the time had come. When he spoke I shattered,
but he whispered to each piece; for every shard he shouted.
His voice was bread and wine.
He made pursuit his standard and tattooed me with fire.
I ducked and dodged and rolled with bent desire,
but he planned my course. He pierced and purchased,
broke bones and mended, then caught me with a look…
He saw a man born blind.
My will failed, he gripped. He healed my road-rash knees,
rebuilt my make and model, he saw to parts unseen
and my gears made changes. Rubber on the street
moved me to new places. Beneath chain and sprocket
I saw narrow roads unwind.
Over radio waves, on a glare November day, a wide sky
transmits Bob Dylan’s boot leg release number eight.
The buzz of amplifiers rises in the places where he breathes.
He says, Once I had a pretty girl, but she did me wrong.
Now I’m marching to the city and the road ain’t long.
I’m driving alone, so I join the sacred melody and the sky
stoops down—to better hear the singer, I tell myself—
as if the buzzing and the breathing are its favorite song.
Her lips, the wine of garden evenings.
His hands, the bread of their communion.
The conversations of their skin lingering
Unhindered by rejection. In their fields
Pomegranates, dates, and figs flourished.
Ripe fruit bent branches low for them.
By guile, then, eyes were opened, fields taken;
And they sewed fig leaves, bodies curtained,
Alien. Yet, they would begin again
To anticipate lilac drifting on the breeze,
To look for all the ways a rose can please.
As one, they would await shame’s retreat.
So arise my beautiful one. Winter is past,
The rain is gone. Go early to the fields
With me to see if vines have ripened,
If flowers have opened. The gardens
Are protected, the figs do well, the harvest
Will be full, the vineyards are in blossom.