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Poem-a-Day

Guidance

Guidance

 

The best guidance is given obliquely.
Today, trying to remember which screen
Belonged in which window, I noticed
Codes scrawled on the mildewed frames -
E4, N2, W3, corresponding to the sides
Of the house and numbered clockwise,

Each window a quarter hour.

Through those penciled coordinates

The man who sprayed the haze
Out of these screens in summers past
Was guiding me, but obliquely,
Like the farmer in that haiku of Issa's
Who, asked for directions, points
The way with a radish.

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The Plane

The Plane

 

At recess certain of us would walk by
The swing set and the slide, to the far side
Of the playground where a sort of mirror (call
It a plane) stood, reflecting whatever
Weather we were under, along with trees
That seemed to reach their leaves into its frame
Like soldiers straining to get their faces
Into the picture. The glare of it drew
Us to it too, along with the challenge
Of climbing it. See, it was pitched at such
An angle (I'd guess seventy degrees),
And made of such purchaseless stuff, that it
Was just hard enough to climb to keep us
Interested. You had to have dry hands
(but not too dry) and the right soles, and you
Had to really want to climb it, or else
It was impossible to get even
Halfway up. It helped if you ran at it,
Catching it at its slothful habit of
Gazing up at clouds, so that, by the time
It noticed you, you'd gotten high enough
To grab the bar that ran along the top,
Hanging there for a moment in triumph
Before sliding back down to earth, smearing
The fingerprints of the more tentative.
I think whoever designed it must have
Been acquainted with failure and wanted
To teach us perseverance. Instead, what
They taught us was that there are faces that
Prefer us cautious, that we must surprise.

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The Swing

The Swing

 

With no one around to push you,

you started slowly pumping your legs,

pulling hard against the chains 

on the backswing to fling yourself forward,

staring up the links to the bar 

it was rumored you could swing over 

if you got going high enough, though 

no one told you what happened then. 

That feeling in your belly, 

you'd felt it once before, 

the time you caught Tina Nguyen 

showing Shawn Bradbury, who got 

shot dead in a bar last year, the hot pink 

shoulder strap of her undershirt.

You were seeing the same thing 

he was seeing, the difference being 

he was being shown it. 

When you felt that feeling

you knew it was time to jump off, 

falling to your hands and knees 

in the grass, the chains twisting 

and untwisting, twisting 

and untwisting, 

twisting and untwisting.

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Sowing Sulfur

Sowing Sulfur

 

I'm scattering pelletized sulfur

with the same gesture I

would make were I sowing rye,

cupping roughly the same measure

 

in hand and aiming only vaguely for

the furrows Quill is making.

He takes more care than I am taking

in straightly steering the tractor.

 

We keep passing one another, 

he leaning over to keep the tire

in its track, as if an invisible wire

ran from one end of the field to the other,

 

while I, less exact, am sowing

a crop that will never sprout

but that the potatoes can't live without.

What I'm doing will get them growing.

 

I am as pelletized sulfur is to seed,

here only to disappear

and help something green appear,

something people actually need.

 

 

 

 

 

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Mt. Barnabee Haiku

Also the mountains

wear masks of mist, nod at one

another, and pass. 

 

*

 

The poppies : brimming
cupfuls of sun, like children
running from sparklers.

 

*

 

Koan : consider
how a dog wears no clothes but
pants and pants and pants.

 

*

 

On Mt. Barnabee :
bumblebees in the blossoms,
barns in the valleys.

 

*

 

All of these days we've
spent in quarantine have gone
to form one pearl.

 

*

 

As for the mountain
itself, it keeps on climbing
via its flowers.

 

*

 

Inspired by the
butterflies, the butter flies
into the cat's mouth.

 

*

 

On Mt. Barnabee,
amongst the grasses I am
just another head.

 

*

 

If I would have known
it would be this beautiful,
I'd have brought more beer.

 

*

 

Along with a few
million gallons of water
the reservoir holds
the idea of a lake.

 

*

 

If the clouds are wool
there must be some awfully
big sheep in heaven.

 

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A Bathroom of One's Own

A Bathroom of One's Own
 
If I felt sorry for her then (I don't
Remember if I did), I feel sorrier
For her now. The only female
In our family, she had to share a bathroom
With a dairy farmer husband and three sons.
No matter how often she asked us to
Be more careful, the only constant thing
About our aim was its errancy. Had
We tried half as hard to hit the toilet
As we tried hitting the basketball hoop,
She wouldn't have had to clean up
After us before sitting down, not to
Mention the blue, snaillike globs of Crest
On the sink edge, the damp towels we tossed
Onto the floor, the shower curtain clouded
With lime. At least the bar of green soap
Was impossible to sully because, cleaning
A body covered in milk and manure and sweat,
It itself remained clean. She must have taken
The time to wipe our spittle off the mirror
Before brushing her teeth and her hair.
She must have opened the one window
So the curtains blew into the room,
The breeze carrying upon it the scent
Of the pines it had blown through
And the odor of the herbs in her garden.
There was always at least one fresh towel,
Still warm from the drier, and the sharpness
Of the blades that never grew dull
Scratching my father's face, the razors
Kept in a special drawer we knew not
To open. I realize now I was wrong to say
She had to share a bathroom with us.
Years before we built a second bathroom
Just for her at the top of the stairs,
She had a bathroom of her own.
A pureness amidst the desecration,
Like a park in the heart of a city,
More beautiful for the dust on the leaves.

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Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday

 

No need for social distancing then. When

Christ came riding into Jerusalem

 

On a donkey, his bare feet nearly

Brushing the roadside rye, he was

 

At once vaccine and cure, his breath

Their ventilator. Death's dominion had come

 

Under his sway. All the throng could think

To do was to lay palm fronds down

 

Before him to calm the dust the way,

In 1918, they'd spray the unpaved roads

 

Of Middle Western towns from tanks on trucks

Driven by men whose faces were lost

 

Even to their children under the masks,

Worn not for the dust (which they were

 

Darkening as if with anointing water),

But for the air.

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The Orchard

The Orchard
 
Someone, fucking done with birds,
Took the time to cover the branches
Of the orchard trees in metal ducting,
 
Like the arms of young waiters asked
To cover up their sleeve tattoos.
When they wing close, the crows scare
 
Themselves away, which means more
Fruit for the couple who own the orchard
To step on and regret not picking.
 
The trees are the first boys with glasses,
The first girls with noticeable breasts.
They're mad to have to stand here
 
Like this, waiting for the photographer to
Take the damn picture
Already, blinking in the flash.

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The Farmer Suicide Conference

The Farmer Suicide Conference

 

It was held somewhere in Andhra Pradesh,

  On a campus that felt abandoned, the fig trees

White with dust, the green buildings seeming 

 

To tremble in the sun, as if they hadn't decided

  Yet whether to be. But we entered them as if

They were real and went up the stairs

 

To classrooms in which papers were presented,

  The oscillating fans making the pages flutter

In the hands of professors of statistics

 

And microeconomics and political science,

  Lithe, mustachioed men who could sit on their heels

For hours. At night, we gathered on the porch

 

Of a house that might have been 

  A farmhouse had it been out in the country,

Drinking big bottles of Kingfisher beer.

 

By way of explanation as to why I was there,

  I must have told them about my father who,

Right then, was waking up on the other side 

 

Of the earth to milk a hundred Holsteins, 

  And they must have known that, if I was there,

There was no danger of him killing himself.

 

I loved those professors who, when they agreed, 

  Would rock their heads from side to side,

Ear to shoulder, as if trying to clear them of water

 

So as to better hear each other, and who'd spend 

  Their whole careers toiling in the fields

Of forlorn Indian universities. I recognized them

 

As the bookish sons who'd left the farm but who

  Kept going back through math or poetry

Because even while we were drinking beer

 

A man was struggling to lift a plastic drum

  Over his head in order to pour the viscous red

Poison down his throat, committing suicide

 

By drinking pesticide, not to protest Monsanto,

  But because it was the deadliest thing

He had at hand. I think now of how when

 

His son turned him over, he must have

  Looked like those old women who smiled at me

In the street, their teeth stained red with betel leaf.

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Heat Lightning

Heat Lightning
 
Comes loping across the land sans thunder
And you're the boy it's coming towards
Sitting in the porch swing the chains groaning
In the eyehooks twisted deep into the boards
By your grandfather years before even your
Father was born your grandmother saying
"I'm worried they won't hold Bob" and your
Grandfather joking "They'll hold Bob
And Mary too" and she sighing and sitting
Down beside him wincing at their weight
Then beginning to trust it beginning to
Swing her pale smooth legs and he saying
"See?" and she looking up and smiling

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Cow Magnet

Cow Magnet
 
When a cow wouldn't eat
They'd make her
 
Swallow this big magnet
Shaped like a vitamin capsule
 
Checking first to see whether
She already had one inside her
 
By passing a compass
Under her belly
 
We picked them off the side
Of the metal filing cabinet
 
They were stuck to in order
To hold something cold and heavy
 
They were brand new
But they seemed corrupted
 
By where they were going
To be going soon
 
But they were proven
To save lives
 
The length of rusted wire
Or the roofing nail
 
That would have pierced
The wall of her heart
 
Would be drawn to
The magnet instead
 
That would happen
In the dark
 
Of an actual body
But we only really believed it
 
When the vet let us
Hold the compass

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Social Distancing in Retrospect

Social Distancing in Retrospect
 
It has been determined it isn't enough
To isolate oneself now 
And in the foreseeable future
But is becoming increasingly necessary 
To isolate oneself in the past as well.
 
Therefore, all citizens are hereby asked 
To close their eyes and remember 
All crowds of ten or more people 
One has ever found oneself in
And by an act of pure imagination 
 
Push those around you away 
To a distance of at least six feet
(Think of a grave's depth turned 
On its side and balanced between
Your shoulders and the shoulders 
 
Of those who surround you). 
All citizens are encouraged to please
Cooperate and follow best practices
When it comes to how
You used to live. In short, it is
 
Vitally important to never have been 
As close to one another as we were. 
Examples of social distancing
In retrospect include: Sitting alone
In the basketball bleachers.
 
Dancing by yourself at your brother's wedding.
Finding the emptiest car in that train
You took that summer from Venice
To Trieste. Refraining from reaching
For the stained-glass-stained hand
 
Your grandfather offered you that
Sunday morning at Mass. Give him instead
The sign of peace. It goes without saying
That, in the past, as now, try not to
Touch your face.

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Elegy for a Small-Town Waitress

She lived from cigarette

To cigarette. They looped
Bluely through her lungs
On break. She knew
The menu by heart
Like some she served
Knew the Gospel.
There weren't any specials.
If you asked if there were
You weren't from around there,
But then she knew that already.
She couldn't be rushed.
She suffered bad tips
Like a horse suffers flies.
She couldn't care less
What you left her.
She lived back of the diner
In a trailer a long-dead cook
Had pulled back under the pines.
It hadn't moved in so long

Everyone had forgotten it

Could. The years had taken
Aim at the tires,
Closed one eye,
Shot them out.
No one knew whether
She'd ever loved a man
Or been loved by one,
But she had a thing
For drunks and farmers.
She kept the dark
Little hearts
Of their coffees warm.
When she died
They named their first
Special after her
To give men a reason
To keep saying Carolyn.

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Relics

Relics

 

He chose to keep his baseball mitt.
He hung it from a nail in the garage
Where he knew he wouldn't see it
Often. An anaphylactic hand, it was
Hideous, but it comforted him.

 

She chose to keep his favorite shirt.
It had runs in it like old shirts get.
She kept it folded in a bottom drawer.
Once a season she washed it
And hung it on the line with theirs.

 

Sometimes he would see the shirt.
Sometimes she would see the mitt.
But neither said anything
To the other about it.

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The Tree

A tree like one of those

Old cane wheelchairs

With a wind in it like a man

Crippled by polio as a boy

Dreaming of walking.

 

What am I saying? 

There was no wheelchair, 

No crippled man, no polio,

No dreamt boy walking,

Just a tree and the wind.

 

 

 

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The Reenactor

Over a breakfast of salt

Pork and hard tack

She asks him is he going

To die today 


He tells her yeah but not 

Until the very end because 

He gets to carry the flag

In the final charge


At the door she asks him

Does he have everything

He needs - ramrod bayonet

Capbox canteen -


He checks himself

As if checking

For a wound

Some days he leaves

 

Doesn't die comes home

Other days he leaves

Dies comes home

Like any war

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From His Online Dating Profile I've Learned That Death

Wears a wristwatch that's missing its hands.
Wears a white suit stained ochre at the cuffs.
Collects wheat-back pennies in thin blue books.
Loves the shadows of the blossoms more than the blossoms themselves.
Practices tossing softballs through a noose.
Never sleeps just blinks once or twice a day.
Owns an old motorcycle he'd like to tune up sometime.
Stuffs his ears with milkweed when he wants some damn quiet.
Reads the Bhagavad Gita on the toilet.
Writes at a school desk too small for him on which are scrawled cocks and names.
Climbs a bell rope for exercise.
Dreams of retiring to Italy to grow tomatoes and write opera reviews.
Is a virgin.
Reads poetry.
Has been known to steal a car and return it gleaming clean.
Wears shades that make him look like a real dick.
Buys the winning lottery ticket it so no one can win, never turns it in.
Sings hymns while splitting kindling, woefully off-key.
Picks up the phone sometimes and dials ten numbers just to hear someone say hello.
Enjoys long walks through cemeteries.
Had a dog once but then patted him on the head.
Smokes Lucky Strikes hence the ochre cuffs.
Keeps his checkbook balanced.
Took a cooking class once but started a grease fire.
Likes to go dancing but is a total klutz.
Drinks way too much.
Interested in a long-term relationship.

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Strange

How losses accrue

In a lifetime like snow

 

In a woodlot like shoes

Under the bed

 

And books

Friends write

 

When you haven't been

Thinking of them

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Holocaust Museum

A roomful.

A room
Full of shoes.

 

Soles and
Loose laces.
Flung tongues.

 

Most pairs
Split up,
The right

 

Right here,
The left
Somewhere.

 

Waves of shoes
Like a photograph
Of the sea

 

Taken in a storm.
Crests and troughs.
Dark water.

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Tracery

The ice traces the trees
Like a boy on his knees

Tracing a picture in a book.
When he asks his father to look

His father sighs and puts on his glasses.
When his enthusiasm passes

He returns to his bouncing checks.
Father and son bend their necks.

Winters and winters hence
A man leaves the house he rents

And walks across the yard.
Life has grown too hard.

 

His death shakes the ice from the tree,
Revealing the real beneath the tracery.

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Timber

The poet should be

The blazed tree

That guides the old

Couple to the waterfall

On their anniversary

 

And not so much

As shiver when

The World comes

Dragging its ax

Through the leaves

 

And even when the World

Heaves its first swing

Into the outermost ring

The poet has spent all

Year putting on

 

The poet should stand

Still as they stood

The day they were blazed

By the young couple

Who wanted to be sure

 

They could find it again

Yes even as they

Begin to sway

And the World

Gets out of the way

 

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Better Off in Harness

Laved in lather,

Mouths frothing green

Around the gnawed bits,

The horses are better

Off in harness

Than their master,

Who hasn't been paying

Attention to where

They're going.

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Pompeii

 

After years of suffering

Their gaze, the volcano

Photographed their faces.

 

 

 

 

 

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Cassady

 

 

Wendell was hit too

But the car knocked him

Clear of harm

While you went under

The truck as if for shade

 

You who had come to him

When he called you

The way my dog

Comes to me

Came to rest finally

 

Under the limestone slab

Dad laid and that I grew up to

Have to mow around

Covered in grass clippings

The edges nicked white

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Peaches

I dreamt there was a graveyard

Under the graveyard, 

Where the dead are

 

Completely naked,

Laid in a single layer,

Their warm flesh just touching.

 

In the dream I knew their bodies

Would never rot, packed careful

As peaches nestled in tissue paper

 

For overnight shipment by rail,

Arriving by morning

Barely bruised.

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Pantoum the River Was Overheard Chanting As It Was Rising

Started drinking at six this morning.

I'm getting shitfaced down here.
Consider this your warning.

Go ahead and ignore me, see if I care.

 

I'm getting shitfaced down here.
Fuck your trucks full of sand.
Go ahead and ignore me, see if I care.
Always have had a crush on your land.

 

Fuck your trucks full of sand.
Bag that shit up and form a chain.
Always have had a crush on your land
And I binge on rain.

 

Bag that shit up and form a chain.
I'm on some Bible-shit now: I curse thee.
I binge on rain
And drinking only makes me more thirsty.

 

I'm on some Bible-shit now: I curse thee.
Don't tell me to go back to bed.
Drinking only makes me more thirsty

And I'm off my meds.

 

Don't tell me to go back to bed.
I've got records to break
And I'm off my meds.
Always did wanna be a lake.

 

I've got records to break.
Consider this your warning. 
Always did wanna be a lake.
Started drinking at six this morning.

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The Gun of Autumn

One day you'll be walking along

When all of a sudden the year will turn

And pull the gun of autumn on you,

Composed of leaves slick with rot.

 

Don't run. Reach out and slowly

Peel the leaves off layer by layer,

Revealing that there was no gun,

Just cold air in the shape of one.

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Tools

I dreamt I was sharpening tools
With a man I didn't know
In a quonset hut in Missouri.

 

He was a big man in bib overalls.
I was someone he knew's friend.
They weren't our tools.

 

It was so hot I was worried
I'd faint and cut my head
On some edge I'd just sharpened.

 

But what was harder to take than the heat
Was his silence. I asked him
His name, where he was from,

 

Whose tools we were
Sharpening, but he just kept
Spitting in their faces

 

Like Jesus to make them see,
Then setting them to the grinder
So they threw orange sparks

 

That dimmed in the dust
Like stars at dawn.
Only one of us stepped foot

 

Out of that shed to feel
The grasshoppers lurch
Against his legs as he swung

 

The scythe through the grass
Like a man looking for gold
Fillings at crash sites.

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Blocked

 

I climbed the hill of the Underwood

To the green vowels that grow

Under the dead elms of the numbers 

But, finding nothing, came kicking back 

Down through the underbrush of consonants 

To the sandbar of the spacebar

Where the river used to run.

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Multiplication

Multiplication

 


We couldn't start until every student had a test, 

But while Mrs. Bach finished passing them out 

We stared down through the paper at the questions,

So that, when she said, tiredly, as if she had little faith 

In us, "Begin," we were already ready to answer

The first few, rattling them off the way we were made

To recite an aunt's phone number we were made

To remember. It grew harder the farther we got, 

The numbers growing larger, while Mrs. Bach paced, 

She with the composer's name, who had allowed 

The rumor that he was an ancestor to fester. 

She was stricter than our beloved Mrs. Bicker,

Left behind with the simple math of third grade.

We were in fourth now. The night before, 

We had practiced our multiplication tables 

At our kitchen tables, the tablecloth folded back.

Had we taken rubbings of the wood, old figures

Would have floated up through the paper,

Just the sums. Jesus was a multiplier, too. 

The multitudes came to hear him speak of the Kingdom 

Of Heaven but around noon found themselves 

Growing hungry. Impatient with their weakness, 

He took five loaves and two fish and multiplying 

Them by themselves made them infinite. 

Thus were the multitudes fed. Pencils down, 

Mrs. Bach said. Turn your tests over. And as 

She came around collecting them we stared 

Down through the paper again at our answers, 

The wrong ones glaring back at us

Like the Pharisees who took 

The infinite into their bodies 

But still did not believe. 

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School Crush

SCHOOL CRUSH

I could’ve sworn once
Upon a time we lived
As if upon a conviction
We were golden beings
The blossoms never
Littered the lawn
They were tissues
You got to take home
The last day of fourth grade
The first day of summer
The pretty teacher saying
Give them back
To your mother
Tell her thank you but
We didn’t need them
There hadn’t been enough
Blood or snot or tears
In truth there was
No pretty teacher
No brick school
And so no pencil
Leaning in my hand
Going dull like love
No cursive no crush
On the pretty teacher
Or on the girl
In the desk
Ahead of me because
No desk
For her to sit in
There was no fourth grade
No summer
May was twelve
Months long
But somehow there were boxes
Of unused tissues
And that day you had
Something in your hair
We laughed
Left it there
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