Archive | Poems RSS feed for this section

The Mission Intern Blues

25 Feb

Can a man rebuild his house and learn to love himself again?
In sessions, he unbends the sinew of his story and I try
to listen, though as ligament to bone so lying to addiction.

To myself I make a defense of alcoholism: a twist of denial
and a bottle of gin, a little thing I call an “old best friend”.
Out loud I mention the Apostle Paul’s saying, Christ came to save

sinners, of whom I am.  After Paul’s conversion—heavenly light,
the Spirit given—I counsel, no true freedom of your own doing.   
He shrugs, quotes Philippians, forgetting what is behind,
   
I keep pressing on…
I ask the plan for his next temptation
and he says, God’s will be done.  Well, yes…(my face fails
to bless, and I can see our time here is coming to an end.)

In the little counseling room between already and not yet
loving, I find myself unable to bear another man’s burden
and cursing the God who came to us in common human skin.

On A Southern Snow Day

25 Feb

we observe a Carolina housecat’s stitched together steps,
     open the back door to a bounty of bleached
          yarn in the yard now treadled by her feet.
     Herds of long necked dinosaur clouds,
icicles on the eves, and gray paws
     quick to pick and batten January string
          are a woven hope—a single surety of Spring.

Dare

27 Nov

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.

Levee

25 Nov

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.

Tooth

24 Nov

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.

Phone Call

27 Aug

Only the friend felling alongside
sees, peripherally,
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.”   

Hyperventilating,
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.

Dear Pedestrian,

17 Apr

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. 

Log

24 Feb

The green pond wrinkles
where the turtle left
behind the white log

Wood Heat

20 Feb

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.

I have a baseball in a box,

28 Jan

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.

Final Flood

26 Jan

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.  

Housepainter’s Exhibit

29 Oct

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.

Lonesome Along The Hudson

3 Oct

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.

Under darkness,
lights on barges move like mourners up the river,
or they slip away downstream to New York City.

The Youth Group Canoeing Trip Unintentionally Promotes An Eternal Perspective

17 Sep

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.

The Old Brown Schwinn Blues

6 Sep

I think I’d give a lot to do over the decision:
my father’s ten speed Schwinn Sports Tourer
gone to the scrapyard for money for vacation.
The maxim, If you don’t ride it, you don’t need it,
uncluttered my life a bit, but now that old brown
Chromium alloy frame and those aluminum rims
haunt me like an unforgiven sin.

My father let me ride it so I could still get to work
after he took my driver’s license, a mercy of persuasion
like a derailleur pushing on a chain to move it.
If I could, I’d go like seventeen again,
bomb a long hill in top gear, lower chin to handlebars
and praise wind that brings tears. Instead,
I slow pedal on this one speed poem.

Father’s Esker

30 Jul

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 Wave

20 Jun

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.

Odds On Redemption

29 Mar

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.

The Day We Met

23 Nov

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.

The Water Oak

22 Nov

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.

Calling Hours

13 Oct

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.

River Carver

13 Sep

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)

Cousin (In Memoriam)

20 Jul

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.

Given

30 Jun

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.

November Highway

29 Jun

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.

The Lustering Of Love

29 Jun

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.

Only Dog

24 Jun

As kids, we would put our hands inside
her toothy den; for us the molars were mild,
the incisors unwilling even to gentle dent
the soft butter of our skin.
She chewed a couple of neighborhood pets
and Dad had to put her on a run
until we moved outside of town.
There, with our Shepherd’s perked ears
and pointed nose always close by
my brother and I could explore fields
of curious cows, or trod a tangled wood. 
She would bark for joy in the driveway
when visitors arrived who sometimes
waited in their cars until we settled her.

In her waning days, Dad helped her
to get up steps, lifting her from behind. 
The day came he said, She’s in a lot of pain,
and lifted her into the bed of the pickup. 
We drove to town at dusk and dark
had fallen when the vet came out to us.
As if it had all been a dream,
she was gone
and we had started back toward home.       
        From beside him
there on the bench seat of the truck
I glanced up. Dad focused on the road
and cried.  We never had another dog. 
Dad’s words: It’s too hard.

Beautiful girl

26 Jan

you draw my eyes and I anticipate.
Like on a starlit night, my gaze
rises to your skies and remains.

When I stay too late in town,
full of cares, I remember you.
Street light and cityscape are fair,

but your light is higher, and yours
a darker country.  So take me
where flame will be folded into fire. 

Let us lie close.  Let us make
a space for stars at the window;
they are drawn by our embrace.

Hydrant

18 Jan

He’s stuck—a burdock in the sock of his apartment
on the third floor—so he shuffles
to the kitchen window, watches a backhoe
fold knolls of asphalt and earth.

Men and trucks are lined up at the curb
with pipes to fix a break. A rush of lake
consuming glory pours from the corner
hydrant darkening the summer street.

There! and there! glad kids appear
to splash their skin and hair and stamp
their feet. He makes space to recall the days
he filled his run home lungs with air

then drops his gaze to the pink pill organizer
and inhaler sitting by a glass of water. He thinks,
those men down there are working hard
and reaches for the dishes in the kitchen sink.

Song Of The Sanitation Worker

6 Jan

We, the yellow vested men,
Hold the bar and toe the rail of the county truck
As it jerks, bucks, and grunts its girth
Through city block and subdivision.
We leap down, run-trot, retrieve the bins,
And attend the marriage of a wheeled plastic container
To a greased hydraulic mechanism. 

Laying on gloved hands, we open lids, face odors,
Yank levers—bending, lifting, even reaching in
For the sake of the human garbage mission. 
Ours is the trash romp, the crud collection;
Ours the pride and pomp of rubbish. 
We are the shakers and dumpers.
We are the gristle on the bones of sanitation.