farm lane, loaded with leaves, is
aimed right at my heart.
farm lane, loaded with leaves, is
aimed right at my heart.
Winter afternoons, bored in math,
I'd ask to go downstairs to talk with you,
As if I knew exactly who you were.
You had a corner office off the library
And a job I never exactly understood,
And a desk that was too small for you.
The chin beard suggested
There'd been a reenactment that weekend
In one of those little towns
You must have known so well –
Quincy, Ottawa, Joliet, Alton, Galesburg.
Their courthouse squares.
You were still coming back from
What you'd gone away to become.
We would have spoken of Lincoln.
This was our connection, inevitable
As the fact that you, born in Illinois
And growing to his height,
Would grow up to impersonate him.
That he had once stood in the square
Where families ate ice cream now,
Their tongues flashing
Pink and blue,
Made that town mean something
To me, even if all it meant was that
That had happened there.
It seemed to me that to you
It must have meant even more.
I thought you wanted to drag all that
History out of books and bear it
Into our world, to set it walking about
In your actual bones, to confront us
With the fact that he had actually lived,
Had stood exactly that tall,
Had said those words in that order.
In doing so, you were making us
Make a decision – we had to
Either pretend with you
That you were him,
Or live on in our fallen world
Where no one was that tall,
That eloquent, that honest.
Long before I learned that
You were grooming boys like me
For sex, I felt groomed by you
For some other reason, some need
That wouldn't have gotten you arrested,
But that I have a harder time
Forgiving you for.
Why was I sitting in your office
Those long afternoons of senior year,
When even the bullies had become becalmed
And the school stood around us
Like a dream done up in brick?
Did you really care about my future,
Which would mean, naturally,
Leaving you and that town behind,
Or did you just pretend to care
The way you pretended to be him?
I already felt the pull of the great world.
I wanted to go out in space,
You wanted to go back in time.
We sat across from one another,
Restless to leave ourselves behind.
It was easier for you.
The suit was hanging in your closet
At home, the hat perched on the shelf.
For me, the transformation
Was invisible, internal.
In college, I invited you to drive down
To Bloomington to visit a seminar
I was taking on Lincoln.
I'd arranged it with the professor
That he and I wouldn't acknowledge you
When you walked in
In order to see if we could make
A dozen football players and sorority girls
Believe that all our talk of Lincoln
Had conjured him, as if that
Seminar was a séance
And here he was, risen in the flesh,
To tell us what we were
I can still see you, not him, walking in,
Taking your hat off as if preparing to say
Something solemn, then taking your seat
At the seminar table and gazing
With great interest through your pince-nez
At the professor, who hadn't ceased
Talking about him. Him. Not you.
But the football players who'd fallen asleep
Over the pages of Herndon's Life of Lincoln
They hadn't read, and the sorority girls
Who said nothing all year
Only to rouse themselves in the final weeks
Of the semester in fear for their GPAs,
Which was really the fear that
Their fathers in Schaumburg and Barrington
Would cancel their credit cards,
Stared like children.
No. Not children. Children
Still believe. Stared
Like undergrads who've given up
Believing in anything,
But have no choice
But to believe their eyes.
Only Colin McCoy and I knew
It was you. You never once
Deceived me, George.
How could you have?
When I wrote, predictably, an elegy
For Lincoln, I dedicated and sent it
To you, as if you might use it
To better imitate him, as if your goal
All along had been to disappear totally
Into what you could never really be,
Could only approximate, the way
They say two parallel lines will near
And near one another forever
But never touch.
Had I known how much
That poem would mean to you,
I never would have written it.
For years it yoked us together.
It was the sole reason, when all other reasons
Disintegrated, for you to write to me.
You needed permission to republish it
Somewhere, or you'd just gotten it framed.
It meant to you what it could never
Mean to me. I'd given it to you,
It was yours, but you kept giving it
Back, as if there was something
Wrong with it that needed fixing.
At the sesquicentennial of the debate,
You invited me to read the poem.
I hated how, having given it to you once,
I had to give it back to you again,
Even after I'd ceased believing in what it said.
The older I got, the less impressed
I was with your fidelity to him
As it became clear to me
That you never needed
Those glasses that folded
So neatly at the bridge
It makes me tired thinking of the care
You must have taken with the suits,
The way you must have leaned
Over the sink to shape the beard
To match that harrowing photograph
Taken in 1864, even the plate glass
The other day my brother called,
Asked me was I sitting down.
It was your last masquerade.
I worried about family, only
To be told that
You'd been arrested
For child pornography.
While my brother and I were still talking,
I pulled up the link he'd sent me,
Touched your face.
In your mugshot you're disheveled,
Wearing a white t-shirt.
No pince-nez, no top hat, no overcoat.
Just the beard, bright white,
The white of the t-shirt.
The police report tells me
Which means you've outlived him
By seven years.
You couldn't quit, could you?
Having spent you're life becoming him,
Becoming him has become who you are.
Perhaps you thought of yourself
As the Lincoln who survived,
Or, better yet, as the Lincoln
Who had nothing to survive,
Booth slinking back down the stairs
To stand in the back of the dark theater,
Watching the play.
I scrolled down to the bottom
Of the article, found
The predictable comments:
"Four Score and Seven Years in Prison."
"Good luck with that whole emancipation thing."
Seeing the headline,
They take heart in knowing
There is at least one person on earth
They're better than.
Me? I see you in your house
In the middle of the night,
Your wife lying in the sweet
Stupidity of sleep.
You're wearing your glasses.
In the lenses, the same boy doubled
As if he wasn't enough.
The Republican National Convention
I tell you this
makes about as much sense
to me as a Christian
who holds his breath
waiting for Christ
to come back when
I just saw him
the other day
at that diner out on 80
drinking burnt coffee
with the grain farmers
No, you said, the light
Hasn't died — it's just fled
Into these flowers.
The Anvil and the Lamb
Came a day when a man came carrying
What he claimed was a lamb, though anyone
Could see that it was an anvil.
What are you carrying that anvil for?
Those that passed him along the road asked him.
But this man knew that he held in his arms
A newborn lamb. He could feel its heart
Beating, smell the lanolin in its wool.
He'd heard it bleating one evening, he said,
And found it orphaned in a meadow.
He asked everyone he met if the lamb
Was theirs, and for years carried what
He believed he carried up and down that road
Frequented by farmers and thieves.
When he asked one day did the lamb belong
To me, I didn't have the heart to tell him that
It was an anvil, and so told him
No, which only deepened his belief that
It was a lamb.
Unemployment Hotline Hold Music
America is these three major chords
Strummed over and over again.
An upbeat tune interrupted
By a woman talking cheerily
About unemployment and the pandemic.
The grin flashing in the indignity
Of it all is worse than the indignity
Itself. No money without this melody.
I'll carry it with me all day,
Holding onto this hold music,
The first and possibly only
Notes I'll be given.
I've been thinking about bells. Temple bells,
Prayers inscribed around their circumferences.
The bells in church towers, their heavy tongues.
The bells of campuses a lone student,
Late leaving the library, is stopped by,
Ringing all that reading she did deeper.
Wedding bells, bright and clamorous. The bells
Of funerals, slow, languorous. After
All, what's the rush? Cowbells in the pasture,
The bells of sheep in high meadows, the bell
That warns the bird just as the cat pounces.
The doorbell the boys ring and run away
From, the old man who woke to the ringing
Standing there confusedly in the dark.
The bells on the jester's hat, foolish bells,
A kind of anti-crown, and the bells on
His shoes, as if he's always kicking cans.
The dinner bell they used to ring to bring
The threshers in, still swaying as they walked
Past it. The harness bells my grandfather
Would dress the draft horses in at Christmas.
Bluebells in the cemetery because
She loved them. The bells they used to bolt to
Headstones, passing the rope down through a hole
In the coffin lid, so that, if the dead
Had been buried alive, the living could
Hear and come running. Bells in paintings, bells
In old photographs, bells in novels, bells
In poems. Diving bells, not bells exactly.
School bells, more likely to be a buzzer
Now. The bell you ring in hotel lobbies
That brings the smiling concierge over.
The silver bell to call the butler back.
Who even has a butler anymore?
Who even has silver, much less silver
In the shape of a bell? Who really rings
Bells these days? Does this poem even ring one?
See the boy deep in the winter field,
All zipped up in goose down, knee-deep in snow.
The dead grasses stabbing through the surface
Look like eyelashes, as if he's standing
Not in a field but in a field
Of vision. He knows that he's a poet,
That, like the falling snow, it has fallen
For him to see. But not the snow solely.
Between his blue eyes and the white field
Floaters float, their segmented shapes coiled
Like those microorganisms he gazed
Upon that morning through the twinned lenses
Of a microscope in school. A splash of
Tap water on the slide, then a flimsy
Plastic square slipped over it. When the bell
Rang, he couldn't imagine drinking from
The drinking fountain, taking all of those
Billions in. Home, he'd thought it would be good
To walk alone through the winter field,
To be the sole thing in the field's eye.
Instead, it's what's in his eyes that he sees:
Collagen in the vitreous layer
Like words floating on the snow, in the sky.
The Dollar Tree
After the run on the banks, a poor family stored
Their last dollars in a hollow tree. That spring, the tree
Put on bills instead of leaves. Ones and fives and tens.
The family picked them off the lowest branches,
But couldn't wait until autumn for the highest to fall,
Nor were they certain that, if the bills changed
From green to red, they'd still be considered legal tender.
So they asked their daughter to climb the dollar tree.
The higher she climbed, the higher the bills became.
She started to find twenties, fifties, even hundreds,
Letting them flutter down to her parents and brother,
Their hands outstretched to catch them. She began
To think of herself as being the fall. And then she fell.
The Corn Crib
Always the thought then of the corn asleep.
The grin of yellow kernels through the husks
Like the teeth of children spent from playing
Glowing through parted lips. But if sleeping,
Who sang it to sleep? Whose foot rocked the crib?
Who kissed its forehead? Who looked in on it
In the dead of night? And when the corn is
In the dark ground, who will it fall to to
Figure out what should be done with the crib?
The ice traces the trees
Like a boy on his knees
Tracing a picture in a book.
When he asks his father to look
He sighs and puts on his glasses.
How soon his enthusiasm passes.
Father and son bend their necks
To a book of pictures, a book of checks.
Winters and winters hence
A man leaves the house he rents
And walks across the yard.
Life has grown too hard.
But his death shakes the ice from the tree,
Revealing the real beneath the tracery.
The garden spider wants
To catch the fly, and, if you
Take a broad enough view,
You could say,
In some kind of way,
The fly wants to be caught too.
These seedy weeds want
To cling to my sweater as I
Brush by, and my sweater
Seems to want to do more
Than just warm me,
Wants to bear their future.
Seen a certain way, it is not
Such a tragedy when,
In the hour after
The hay has been mown,
The hawk that has flown
Over all morning
And takes the shelterless
Field mouse in the act
Of praying. Maybe
The mouse was praying
To be winged.
The Mouth of the Lane
The world was profane
In the mouth of the lane.
I was surprised
The pure-hearted farm
Would say a world like that,
Like a boy who has heard
A certain word at school.
Only by saying it,
Alone at the end of the lane
At the end of the day,
Does he know that
He shouldn't say the word
Ever again, that it's a word
He should never say.
Coming Off an SSRI
As bad as I feel, it feels good
To feel again. This dead oak I would
Have walked by before without giving it
A second thought, I must go up to it
Now and run my hand along its dead gray
Face, which looks in all directions, and say
A prayer for it. Standing under its limbs,
I understand it. I had no autumn
Sorrow myself, no spring joy. Everything
Seemed the same. I was through putting on rings
Too. In the leafless branches of my brain
Perched whole flocks of chemicals, but none sang.
As bad as I feel, it feels good
To feel. My prayer: that this oak, dead, could.
I ran out of the house shirtless, yelling
for the dog not to get hit on the road.
Only after I opened the package
did I think of how the UPS guy,
who I like, but who I assume maybe
isn't the world's biggest reader of
Appalachian short fiction, had driven
for miles in silence in the presence
of this book I had ordered on the life
of Breece D'J Pancake, including heart
breaking letters he wrote to his parents
and a suicide note he sent to John
Casey, his teacher, who I had dinner
with one night in Charlottesville, telling him
about the time, driving through the mountains
of West Virginia, I took the exit
for Milton on a whim, remembering
reading the name in the very same book
the UPS guy delivered to me
today, then drove aimlessly around town
until I found the cemetery, where
I turned here and there at random down lanes
so narrow that my tires straddled them,
until I felt an urge to stop and said
to myself, "When I turn my head I'll see
Breece's grave." And sure enough, there it was,
the name PANCAKE on a big stone that marked
the family plot, and, getting out, his grave
set level with the grass someone was paid
to cut, likely not even knowing that
they were spewing clippings onto the head
stone of one of the best story writers
America has ever produced, and
that was when John stopped me, saying, "Austin,
I buried him with these hands," showing me.
Laden, they can't stand on their own.
What you need to do is sink a post
Every six feet or so, then run wire
Between them to tie the stems to
With lengths of twine shaped
Like the symbol for infinity.
Suckers take energy from the parent stem,
Like sons who should have been
Cut off long ago. If allowed to grow
Too long, they can shear off,
And, in the long wounds they leave
As if out of spite, rot can take root.
The time to take a tomato is when
It seems not quite fully ripe.
If you leave them on the vine
Too long, they'll grow full of themselves
And start to split, like the grinning
Dead in photographs.
Paying Down the Principle
The lapidary quality of debt.
How, just when we think
We're nearing the surface,
Another wave breaks
Over our heads,
And what we hoped
Would be a breath of
Air is not air at all
But more saltwater,
Two lungs full.
Belling the Cat
To give the birds a flying chance, I'll hang
A bell around his neck, so that what wants
To kill them will warn them, the way an illness
Warns us through pain. The closer the birds are
To dying, the louder the bell will be,
Until there's no denying anymore
Who it's ringing for – it's ringing for them.
So this is what
The gods feel:
I'm not even picking
Which to leave
And which to pull,
Every inch or so,
The largest as well
As the smallest.
Kind of like how,
In the human garden,
We're being thinned above
We're growing below.
I pulled the heads when the internet said to –
The two lowest leaves dead, a third
Beginning to die, like the first loss
Of feeling that heralds the stroke.
They came up easy, like they'd been waiting
For me, through with dirt and darkness.
The cloves we planted in late fall were turning
Into bulbs while everything you know
Happened this winter and spring was happening
And they didn't once cross my mind.
Today I tied them in bunches of five
And hung them from the beams
In the garden shed. They hang there now
As I write this, drying in the night air,
Beginning to put on their thin skins.
I want to know everything
They learned in the dark.
A few weeks and I'll be smashing them
With the flat of a knife.
Maybe I'll taste it.
Along Timber Coulee Creek
I want to be the daughter of this place,
a dairy along Timber Coulee Creek.
On any day, but this day especially.
July eighteenth. And at any time of day,
but mostly this time. Early morning.
Thunder to the west. A storm coming.
I want to wake to my mother crying
for me to help her close windows,
then brush past a brother in the kitchen,
burning bacon again, the kind of thing
the living remember about the dead
with such fondness. I want my father
in the barnyard scattering mineral,
having put his faith in the unlikelihood
he'll be struck by lightning, thinking
of what men who love him but
would never say they do would say.
Just like him to go that way, in his boots.
I want all this so much more than
I want the trout I know is in this hole
to rise to my fly and strike. I'd rather
be the daughter of this place, closing
her window against rain, than who I am -
the guy she can see through it,
standing up to his waist in her creek.
Squirrel in the road.
Running one way,
no visible sign.
Could of been
asleep, or a girl's
stuffed animal fallen.
But running back
the other, there
it was, the blood-halo,
I already knew
to be true
to be true.
Death a girl
done playing around.
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.
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.
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
twisting and untwisting.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.