glean: 1. to gather slowly and laboriously, bit by bit. 2. to gather (grain or the like) after the reapers or regular gatherers. 3. to learn, discover, or find out, usually little by little or slowly. 4. to gather what is left by reapers.

School Crush

February 26, 2019

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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

I Could Swear

February 16, 2019

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This morning I found the calico I fed
Last night dead on the county road.
I dragged her by the tail because
That seemed kindest into the ditch
And walked home to get a shovel
Only to find the calico on the back porch,
Clinging spreadeagled to the screen door.
I gave her some milk. This morning
I found her dead on the road. Now
I could swear I had a shovel
Around here someplace.

The Plane

January 16, 2019

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At recess certain of us walked by
The seesaw and the slide,
The swing set and balance beam,
To the far side
Of the playground where
A sheer, mirror-like plane
Of buffed steel rose
At a precipitous angle,
Its face smudged
With the fingerprints of
The innumerable boys who’d tried
And failed to ascend it.

Along the edges ran rails,
But to go up that way
Was unremarkable, like a route
Climbers have conquered time
And time before.

I remember
The heat and glare of the steel
In the warm months, the cold
Of its face in the cold.

Whoever designed the thing
Must have been acquainted
With disappointment.
I wonder if it gave them pleasure,
Deciding the precise angle
To set the thing at so as to make it
Impossible to conquer.

Older now, I think I know
Why we kept trying. For all that
It reflected (our faces, the sky)
The plane couldn’t remember us.
Our fingerprints were nothing
To it, just the pattern by which
It knew itself to be itself,
Fissures of a brain thinking
About the fissures of a brain.

And all of this was why
There was no shame in crying
Out halfway up, then sliding
Back down laughing.

A Visit from Vladimir

December 22, 2018

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‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the White House
Not a leecher was stirring, not even a louse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with hair,
In hopes that Hope Hicks soon would be there;
The Trump kids were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of rubles danced in their heads;
And Melania in her ‘kerchief, and Donald in his cap,
Had just shut off their phones for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the East Lawn there arose such a clatter,
Donald rolled out of his bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window he crept like a rash,
Tore open the slats and threw up the sash.
The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow
Gave the lustre of porn stars to objects below,
When, what to his reptilian eyes should appear,
But a miniature troika, and eight tiny reindeer,
With a little old driver, so bald and so sere,
He knew in a moment it must be Vladimir.
More rapid than Novichok his colluders they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name;
“Now, Van Der Zwann! now, Papdoupolus! now, Manafort and Flynn!
On, Sessions! on, Gates! on, Butina and Cohen!
To the top of the North Portico! to the top of Trump’s wall!
Now hash away! hash away! hash away all!”
As toupees that before the whirring chopper blades fly,
When they meet with a gust, blow off the head of the guy;
So up to the house-top the colluders they flew,
With the troika full of Toys, and Vladimir too.
And then, in a golden tinkling, Donald heard on the roof
The prancing and guffawing of each little goof.
As he drew in his head, and was turning around,
Down the chimney Vladimir Putin came with a bound.
He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,
And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot;
A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,
And he looked like a hacker just opening his Mac.
His eyes – how they twinkled! his dimples how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a shell Co.
And the hair on his chest was as deep as the Vo;
The stump of a Trump he held tight in his teeth,
And the paunch it encircled his head like a sheath;
He had a broad face and a little round belly
That shook when he laughed, like a bowl of John Kelly.
Trump was chubby and plump, an alt-right old elf,
And Vladimir laughed when he saw him, in spite of himself;
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave Donald to know he had a fuck-ton to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
Invaded the Ukraine, then turned to the jerk,
And laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose;
He sprang to his troika, to his team gave a whistle,
And away they all flew like the head of a missile,
But Donald heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night.”


December 21, 2018

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Some with porcelain knobs cold
As eggs in the hand and veined blue.

Others kept shut with a length of wire
Wound round a big-headed nail.

Some with locks impregnable as the locks
On the diaries of nosey mothers’ daughters.

Others locked by nothing more than
A cinder block or a leaned two-by-four.

Some opening into living rooms hung
With bad paintings of rustic scenes.

Others opening into cellars where
Bags of seed and blocks of salt are stored.

Some swinging open on oiled hinges
Of intricate ironwork at the faintest touch.

Others hanging on one last hinge,
The screws rusted right out of the others.

Though all these doors are different,
Their thresholds are the same.

Someone is always just about to violate them.

Instructions for Bedding the Garden Down for Winter

December 20, 2018

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When you realize you have begun
To neglect the garden, go down
To the garden you’ve neglected.

Bring a bowl for the bloated peas,
The woody carrots, the radishes
Split at the root. Twist the last

Shriveled tomatoes off the vines,
Then tear the vines off the trellises,
Then yank the trellises out, but don’t

Look up. Pick whatever green
Herbs remain and stuff
Your pockets full. Run the tools

That in your exhaustion you left
To rust up to the shed and fill
A five-gallon pail with motor oil.

Let them soak like teenage athletes,
But carry the hoe back down
To the garden. Don’t bother

Avoiding stepping on the beds.
You’ll make them again
Come spring. But don’t

Look up. Ball the white string
The sugar snaps climbed up
Up and toss it into the trees

For the birds to use in their nests.
Whatever anger you harbor
Against the president, take it

Out hoeing, then take your revenge
By sowing winter wheat
Liberally, suppressing all impulse

Towards reason. Find the rain
Gauge you stabbed into
The vampiric ground, then,

No matter how discolored the water,
Drink your measure, but close
Your eyes as you tip your head back.

Now. Only now you may look up
At the scarecrow. The burlap bag
Of his head. The tangled twine

Of his hair. The blue buttons you sewed
Onto round whites of cloth.
The two-dimensional, upside-down

Triangle of his nose. The thick red yarn
Of his lecherous mouth.
Remember how you considered

Whether to make him
Joyful or sorrowful and settled
On some state in between. Now,

With the scissors you found
In a kitchen drawer for this purpose,
You may proceed to snip

The zip ties that kept his straw hat
From blowing off his head.
Unbutton his flannel shirt.

Bare his garbage bag chest.
Undo his belt, cinched as tight
As it would go. Pull down his pants,

Exposing the pale PVC pipes
Of his legs, slipped over posts
You grunted to pound

Into wet ground, in April rain.
Pull off his boots. Now
Embrace him, hugging his body

In half, pulling the garbage bag
Of straw out of the pail
Of his torso. Tear his chest apart

As if searching for his heart, as if
He has one, then scatter
His body over the beds.

Put his shirt and jeans and hat
And boots in the pail and carry
The pail up to the house.

Wash the scarecrow’s clothes
And hang them in the closet.
Sit down and begin the poem.

The Greenhouse

December 14, 2018

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So this is paradise, I would think
When, in late winter, we stepped out
Of winter and into spring.

The greenhouse was glorious,
But it was a rushed, undeserved glory.
To go in was to be catapulted

A month ahead and to leave
The overwintering land behind.
Through the fogged windows

The earth seemed cursed
So that I felt guilty, the same quality
Of guilt I felt after glimpsing

Our Christmas presents
Through the gap
Between sliding doors.

I wanted her to hurry up
And choose her herbs and geraniums
Already, her lily and tulip bulbs,

My guilt turning to longing
For the moment when
We stepped out of spring

And into winter
And I would think,
So this is the world.

Dehorning Steers

November 27, 2018

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The vet would be at them for hours
With that cruel tool that gouged
The horns out of their skulls
So they wouldn’t gore one another
In the cold confinement shed.

Afterwards, tossing their heads
Over the feed bunk, each bore
Two ragged wounds dusted white
With lime, like they’d all been shot
Twice at close range and survived.

Trespassing Along the Apple River in November

November 27, 2018

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I walk along the Apple River.
The dog runs ahead.
I come upon him lapping up
Frozen deer blood.
I imagine the boy in the stand,
His finger curled around the trigger,
The voice of his grandfather in his ear
From which he’s rolled the blaze
Orange stocking hat back
The better to hear him.

The flood has altered the river’s banks.
I cannot cross where I always have
To crouch under the overhang
Fanged with icicles.
Stymied, I feel like a thief who has found
All the cards in the stolen purse
Have been canceled.
Deep pools have opened
Like new accounts.
Bass I caught in summer
Have grown huge and sullen.

I stand a long time on the bank
Watching the deposits and withdrawals
Of whitewater and leaves.
Had I thought to bring a wine glass
I could raise a measure of this river into the air
And see clear through it,
Thus, in a sense, crossing it after all,
But who on earth brings a wine glass to a river?

Breaking News

October 1, 2018

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That phrase implies
That at one time
The news was whole,
Like three robin’s eggs
In a nest so high up
In a tree you have to
Use your phone to see them.

The Perseids

April 23, 2018

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Picked up out of our beds we were
Carried to the bed of the pickup
That was so rusted out it couldn’t be
Trusted off the farm without anyone
Explaining to us where we were
Going at that hour. There were sleeping
Bags in the bed that suggested care
But their heads through the window
Of the cab seemed strange like faces covered
Completely in hair. Where were they
Taking us and why? When we reached
The top of the hill where the shade trees
Stood spooking the deer that slept
In the long grass there he stopped
And they got out and climbed
Into the bed with us where we lay
With the spare tire and the bale
Of straw sprouting green hair
And the red cans of gas and oil.
We stared up at the stars that looked
Like the heads of nails hammered
Into a wall with excessive force
The brass blurred and still they wouldn’t
Say what we were doing up there
At that hour in the wrong bed
And then the first star fell.


April 11, 2018

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The earth sings through singers

Dances through dancers

Flies through birds

Whispers to itself as ocean

Finds solitude in mountains

Knows the body through lovers,
Is both one and the other

But the dictator it doesn’t know


March 2, 2018

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The silver sticker on the lower-right pane
Of the north-facing window of my childhood bedroom
Was to let the firefighters know that
There was a child up there

It was also what made fire possible
Depicting as it did a firefighter
Carrying an unconscious boy
Who looked like me in his arms

Had it not been for that sticker
I would never have lain awake
Imagining the tongues of flames
Flickering through the jambs

Crawling on hands and knees
Under the firmament of smoke
The ladder leaned against the sill
The axe shattering the glass

And me being carried
Down to earth rung by rung
To be told the hard truth and then
Sent to live with an aunt and uncle

The sticker that may have saved me
Suggested tragedy which is why
Some nights unable to sleep
I picked at it with my nail

But it could be peeled off
As easily as the moon can be
Peeled off the surface of a pond
Which is to say not easily at all

There are no stickers on the windows
Of the room in which I sleep now
No one knows anyone is here
And no child sleeps in that room

That I slept in as a boy
Though the sticker insists
One still sweetly does
As it waits for the axe to shatter it

The Village

February 10, 2018

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The bell startles me awake, and immediately it strikes me that I was mistaken about something, the first of many things I will be mistaken about here. I thought I had left Time behind, in Paris. But Time is here, too. Perhaps he could have been kept away if it weren't for the church. Those who built it must have known they could get away with leaving this place timeless, letting the forest act like a great, somnolent clock, its many hands of leaves turning. Perhaps they considered living free of him. Perhaps they took a vote, closing their eyes, raising their hands. But, having never lived without him before, they lost the courage to try, and brusquely put the clock on the tower, like a priest who, rushed, hastily anoints the last revenant's forehead with ash. Time had come with them here like a disease communicated by travelers. And so, even in this remote village, Time sits in his citadel, an aloof emperor ruling over an unthankful and distracted populace. Indeed, even the bells I woke to this morning have rebelled against him. Oh they toll when he tells them to, but no one pays them any attention. Time lives besieged here, like a missionary who, amongst the beauty of the pagan rituals, their customs, dress, songs, is beginning to lose his enthusiasm for converting the natives. Indeed, he begins to wonder if he isn't being converted by them. Maybe one day Time will go insane here, his black hands writhing together at midnight like the hands of a distraught neighbor at the door. Or perhaps his hands will, irrespective of his will, begin rowing backwards through the dark hours. It will be a great erasure, like a refugee scuffing out the marks her boots have made in the snow. And this valley will finally be rid of Time, and the very stones will rejoice for being out of the shadow of his dictatorship.

I had thought I could hold it together, but then that night in Paris... I was told later that I had tried to jump into the Seine to save Paul Celan. Or to save the ghost of Paul Celan. I made a scene that was embarrassing for everyone. My friend was trying to explain to the gendarmes that I had only been joking. They wanted to bring me in. When they finally walked away down the Quai she asked me in her beautiful, broken English what was wrong with me. I couldn't tell her that it was that book that had overthrown my mind so that I could no longer distinguish between my thoughts and the narrator's. The book that I had gotten rid of, leaving it in one of the bookstalls along the Seine, but that continued to haunt me. The book and the drinking and the heat were what did it. Without one of the three, I would have been fine, I think. But the book and the drinking and the heat conspired together to drive me mad, and my friends must have recognized the gravity of the situation, because in the morning they surrounded my bed and presented me with a plane ticket and instructions for how to reach this village. How I actually got here is not important. That I am here, alone, in my friend's ancestral house, the friend who made the cops walk away, that is what matters.

I went to sleep early last night, like a child, in the room I was told to sleep in: the bedroom of my friend's deceased grandmother, a woman of whom I know nothing but what I can divine from the photograph of her that hangs on the wall, one of those old portraits that hover in the center of a fuzzy white space that seems a crude image of the afterlife. In her great deep bed I might have slept well had the window shutters not kept blowing open and shut with a startling clap. I found a long piece of lumber that seemed to be leaning there just for the purpose I put it to. Finally, I fell asleep, and dreamt I was in a bookstore, looking for a particular book of poems. Poetry was shelved upstairs, of course. I struggled to climb the steps, being quite drunk and the steps being steep. The man who owned the place stood at their feet, accusing me of dereliction. I turned and mumbled something about poetry. He followed me up, and I knew from the sound of his ascent that he was lame: the sole of one shoe was three times as thick as the sole of the other. When I got upstairs, there was just one little shelf of mystical poetry: Rumi, Rilke, Whitman. I asked him where the other poetry books were and he said, "What do you mean? It's all here," pointing to the little shelf. As if the house was frustrated that I had managed to brace the windows, I woke out of this dream to the sound of the door yawning open, and for the rest of the night, no matter how firmly I shut it, it kept opening in the same somnolent way. It reminded me of how a parent opens the bedroom door to check on a sick child. It opened inquisitively, as if the rest of the house was curious about who had come to sleep in it. Every time I shut the door it seemed to promise me that it wouldn't open again, only to wake me (though it made a sound as soft as the bell-shaped sweeping of a dress along the floor). Somehow in the dark I found Swann's Way and braced the door closed with Proust's childhood. Surely, I thought, that world with its weight of faces, churches, flowers, could hold a door. And it did.

The bell tower itself was built in 1819. Whoever carved that date, their hands were alive as the two birds on this stonewall. When I came around the corner of the church, touching the stones like a blind woman, the bells peeled, the pigeons burst forth from the tower, sprung from time's blue hand. Moments later, down the valley, the bells of the nunnery rang. The nuns, sweet and weary in their habits, looked down at the rosaries in their hands. They prayed for us, we lost ones living up the valley.

How beautiful is the breathing of stones! All night they inhale the cold like people drowning themselves, like Paul Celan inhaled the green water of the Seine. All day they inhale the heat until they become warm as fresh loaves of bread. If we could see them breathing we might have more regard for them. We might even take the time to build stonewalls again. But you must touch them with the back of your hand, like checking a child for fever, to know this thing they do.

The families of this village keep tombs. When you die, you are buried where you lived. Your grandchildren bring fresh flowers to your grave. It is one of their chores. I had thought at first that it would be lonely to be buried alone like that, in a plot, the path to which requires constant work to keep open. But they seem to keep it open somehow, as if to lose the path to the grave would be akin to losing the person who lies there. And then I began to see it as a sweet thing, being buried all alone like that, off by yourself. There is room here to die your own death. One isn't doomed to a room in the vast subterranean motel of the cemetery. In your death you are like one of those hermit haiku poets who only received a visit from a friend or a student every few years.

The sound of crockery at suppertime: I imagine the bowls are brown and white, of heavy clay that breaks easy. Passing under their window, I think of the care with which husband and wife pass the dishes back and forth, asking one another with their eyes who's outside.

Dents in the wall where the window handles have gently slammed for ages from the rushed harassments of the wind. Old floral-stamped bedspreads, humbly festooned chairs, rickety wardrobes in which are stacked thin folded linens. Paintings hung high on the walls, haphazard: Mediterranean scenes in blue and sere yellow, the painters unknown, their hands plumes of bone rayed open in graves. The cupboards full of old china, the baby teeth of the house. The stillness and patience of this little cup, waiting to be filled, to be needed, holding its concavity through the years like the spirit in hiding in the attic of the flesh. The old iron door-locks that close with a weighty click, like the click of a pistol hammer thumbed back nine steps into the duel. This house was young once, unsure of itself but proud amongst these old mountains, like a young woman in a strange city with a letter of introduction in her hand. For a time the stones that compose it gloated for having been raised into a house. They carried themselves like aristocrats whom business has brought into a rough quarter of the city. But over time they grew humble again, and the house as a whole acquired as if through osmosis some of the wisdom of this place. While the world was shivering through its memes, these stones stayed stacked one atop the other like the vertebrae of stargazers. The walls only let me sleep within them because they know I am weary, and was a child once. They will never quite accept me. It is a long apprenticeship. They are like men who come back from a war and cannot love their wives because of what their hands have done.

The rain crushed in ten minutes all the mint in this immense valley and now in the aftermath the scent rises like a swelling of cellos during a rehearsal that will neither be recorded nor remembered.

Memorials on either side of the church door for soldiers who died in the world wars. I think of the charred bodies being carried back here, along these winding roads. Of their fathers standing unhatted in doorways, of their mothers wringing dishrags so hard they groaned. And the spirit walking alongside the body, one hand on the coffin as if to steady it.

At night they light the church with floodlights set in the ground. As I go under green waves of sleep that break solemnly over me, she stands, roseate, blushing, like a young woman being courted, her name-book growing thick with the florid signatures of suitors.

Dogs of this village, lend me some of your patience. Please. You stare at me, dole-eyed and kind. You do not bark. I bow to you, beg your pardon for disturbing your silence. You were born in vague litters that scattered soon after. Your mothers are long dead and your fathers never were. It is as if these very mountains engendered you. Perhaps this is why you are so patient.

On the floor of the room in which I am sleeping there is a footprint singed into the boards next to the bed. I have no way of knowing how it got there, or how a foot got so hot it burned its impression that deep into wood. Whoever's burning foot made that mark, they must have been huge, gigantic. If their foot was burning, I assume their whole body was, too, which means that once upon a time there was a gigantic burning person in the room in which I sleep. Being next to the bed, and pointing towards the door, I can only conclude that this giant woke up in bed burning. The room is small, the bed short: I imagine the giant curled up to fit in it. One night he woke to find himself on fire and got out of bed and walked out of the room and down the stairs and out into the night, incandescent in the music box dark of the valley. Every night, getting in bed, I must step around this singed impression. I am learning to live with this, to accept that this is the way things are here. The burning giant jumped into the river and extinguished himself in a hiss heard clear down the valley, a great shushing of the childlike land. Now a blackened giant stumbles disoriented through these woods. He wants to go back to bed. He is tired and wants to curl up and sleep. His body will blacken the sheets but he won't care. He will sleep clear through the tolling of the bells. He is lost now, but he will find this house because he must. I pray that I will not be asleep when he returns. I leave Saturday: it is Wednesday now. I do not think he will return before then, but three nights are three nights: anything can happen in them, even the return of a blackened giant. He may be nearing even as I write this, but I am tired and a guest of this house and this is the place I was told I could sleep. Who am I to complain? I'm doing my best not to worry. Really I am trying my hardest to be brave.

I should mention also, before turning off the light, that in the corner of this room there is a staircase that leads nowhere. The stones where it ends are different from the stones that compose the rest of the ceiling. They look older. I should mention also that the stairs are inaccessible (not that one would need to access them: they lead nowhere) because each step is completely lined with pair after pair of old shoes.

What I had imagined was a nunnery down the valley is in fact another village. There is no young nun down there reading the Gospels in French, a woman whom the world tried to defile but who escaped and has found refuge here, where I too have found refuge. Our eyes will never meet as I pass under the window because there is no nun because there is no nunnery. There may be a window and a woman gazing out of it, she may even be reading the Gospels in French, but she will not be a nun and she will not be free of the world, even here, in this isolated valley on this isolated island. This is too difficult a truth for me to accept, so I've decided that there has been some mistake, that it is, in fact, a nunnery, a nunnery that has disguised itself as a village so as not to be destroyed.

I can hear the goats down in the valley. The bells they wear gossip about them. They call out,
"Here they are! Here they are!" I wonder if the goats get annoyed, if they want, for once, to go in secret, like pilgrims, but are always betrayed by their bells, those albatrosses hanging from their necks, those beautiful necks that will be cut because the farmer who will raise the ax has never not known where his goats are.

After going into this little chapel, dimly lit with candles at dusk, I can never again endure the grandiosity of Notre-Dame. God doesn't pay any attention to big cathedrals because they are too full of people with cameras, brochures, neck aches, Rick Steeves books, prayer intentions, check lists. God loves better this little chapel dedicated to St. Anthony, and loves the woman who limps up here every morning and evening and lights three candles: one for her dead husband, one for her dead son, and one for you. I don't know that I can go back into Notre-Dame after seeing those three candles burning and thinking of how they will go out one by one while I sleep, the church darkening in stages until the only light is the lambent light the white statues cast like shadows.

The neighbor lady is calling for an animal. There is a black cat cowering guiltily behind this wall. I don't want to embarrass myself trying to ask her if she is looking for this cat, nor do I want to betray this cat in hiding. She is still calling. The cat just yawned.

Just back from a walk, on which I watched two dung beetles rolling a ball of manure across the road. One pushed and the other pulled. It wasn't graceful. They fell and tipped over but tirelessly they went on, like any two workers anywhere on earth. When they came to a crack in the asphalt, the ball of dung rolled down the fissure against their will. Summoning what must have been their last reserves of energy, they succeeded in crossing the divide and continued across the road, fully convinced of the importance of their task, knowing only their world, the exhaustion on one another's faces, the globe of dung between them. We too believe in our lives this way. We are essentially no different from dung beetles. But how easily I could have crushed them.

The white butterfly that rises up off the stonewall because I peered too close and disturbed it with my breathing lightens the stonewall: the stonewall, so heavy, so set in its purpose, goes floating through the air vicariously through the butterfly. In this way it is like an old man watching children catching fireflies and feels again what it feels like to be a child.

This mountain is too big to go online. It won't fit. People have tried to get it online, people in Palo Alto, who've managed to get most everything on there, but this mountain is too big. It's bigger even than Everest, than Denali, because those two mountains fit snugly side by side in my mind, while this mountain looms before me, massive and nameless, and it's going to stay right here, though they've tried to drag it online with chains, come-alongs, barges, trains, you name it. It won't budge. It's a really fucking big mountain.

On a stone at the corner of the bell tower someone has etched a cross, thin as the t's in this sentence, the horizontal line crossing the vertical line about a third of the way down... How clumsy is this description of such a simple and beautiful thing! I've ruined it. I may as well have taken a penknife and scribbled over this fine-lined, vivid cross someone carved into the stone, as if the church had somehow gotten it all wrong and they wished to start Christianity over again.

The water here tastes old. No one would say it's great water. It's not very cold. It has a murky quality to it, like someone trying to decide whether to lie down and read in midday. It doesn't seem quite content to be in my glass, in my water bottle, in my mouth. I think it misses the secret aquifers from which it was drawn. There it knew itself, down amongst the stones, barely remembering when it had fallen as rain, like an old man who has forgotten the ardent kisses of his youth. I beckon it come to me through the broke-necked faucets and it comes but reluctantly, and it fills me with shame to piss it out.

These stones will never be turned into bread. They could be, every stone can be if touched by the right hands, but no one who can accomplish this miracle will come up here and touch them. Well, I shouldn't be so certain. Maybe there is a child in this very village who is beginning to go off alone, after chores, who goes away for hours but always returns when he should, like all saints. I hope there is such a child in this village. Otherwise these stones will never be turned into bread.

Yesterday I was sitting outside and a man and a boy appeared, pushing an old man in a wheelchair with difficulty over the cobblestones. They reached the flight of stone stairs that wends its way up to the higher tiers of the village and the boy beckoned me over to help carry him. It reminded me of carrying my grandfather's coffin: it had been so light I felt he was floating through the air and we grandsons chosen to be pallbearers were merely accompanying him. The wheelchair was similarly light. I merely held the handle. Neither of us seemed to be exerting ourselves, as if the old man had lightened himself for us out of kindness. When we reached the house there was a flurry of hands, and I returned to my book on the sunlit patio. The old man never said a word and I never saw his face. Then I remembered that my friend had mentioned that her elderly uncle was going to return to the village to die, and so I assume that this is the man I helped carry. Her uncle had a twin brother, and the two of them were once amongst the most famous singers in France. They sang all night in the cafes of Paris to the artists and painters Hemingway described, who had worked all day in solitude and gathered at night to forget about it all and listen to these twin brothers sing. I think of the two of them, almost identical in appearance, the source of arguments and bets: which brother was which? They're voices too must have blended into one. Girls must have lain in bed with their hands over their hearts, suffering in indecision about which twin they loved more. Now, this crippled singer I helped carry has lost his brother and suffered a stroke. He can't speak anymore, much less sing, and he is still above the earth while his brother is below it. His gestures and mannerisms, paralleled by his brother all his life, are his alone now. I wonder what he does in that dark house we carried him up to. I wonder if he listens to his own voice on scratchy records that spin with all the somnolence of the earth itself. I believe he sits there in silence singing, full-throated and strong, and that no one can hear him but his brother, the one he sings for, smiling on his back in the earth.

Last evening the neighboring family returned. Three daughters, a bright-eyed baby, mom and dad, uncle, grandpa and grandma. They're goat farmers down in the valley, their lives entranced by milk. The old man has a face weathered by laughter. He comes up the steps, spritely at 83. He berates the baby for being a baby. He berates the dog for being a dog. He points at me and seems to say, "You are you and there's nothing can be done for that." He talks all night in a continuous stream, pausing from time to time to talk to me in broken English. I've only understood a handful of things he's said. He said Americans drink whiskey like tea and then they put on their little hats. While looking through his binoculars at his sheep high up on the mountain, he pointed and said, "Hunting season." He asked me if I'm a cowboy and when I said "Sure" he asked how I stay on a horse. I gripped invisible reins in the air. He shook his head no and slapped the insides of his bare thighs. He asked me how long pigs are pregnant for. I guessed five months. He said I was dead wrong, they're pregnant for three moons. He has beautiful eyes and the expressions of a Shakespearean actor, equally capable of tragedy and comedy at any moment. Out of the blue he told me he'd like to burn his own house down before he dies. He explained very seriously that all five of his sons built their houses without having their heads lopped off. While smoking a cigarette he told me I shouldn't smoke cigarettes, pointing to each lung deliberately, as if making the sign of the cross. He said rich Americans come to his country and throw their money down on the ground and stomp on it. When I asked him would he like some chocolate he said, "No, but I won't refuse."

It's time to leave. I doubt I will be remembered. I doubt that anything I have said or done will remain here. All vestiges of my presence will be swept away. The house will recover its composure, the bed will smooth itself, my fingerprints and footsteps will fade. My time here has been a life within my life, like the endosperm in the seed. And my leaving is dying. I am practiced now in death, and I have the village to thank.

The Cellar

February 8, 2018

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I open the cellar doors slowly
First one then the other
Laying them by the way
The pastor's hungover son
Asked to read the epistle Sunday
Morning opens the heavy book
And begins to read the letter Paul
Wrote to the Corinthians
Feeling the eyes of the girl
Who finally refused him
In the bed of his pickup last night
Burning through him
Where she sits in the pew
Remembering the sweet way
She said she was sorry
As she buttoned her blouse
A blue bag of white salt
Over my shoulder
Tear it open with my teeth
Soften the water

Space Between Lightning and Thunder: Childhood, Illinois

February 6, 2018

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Between the lighting and the thunder was space
Enough for the land to lie long as a man
Laughing while being measured
For his coffin
Straining so as to be sure not to suffer
A crick in his neck for eternity
Space for the geraniums their petals
Like tissues used to staunch stab wounds
Space for the porch swing that slipped
One of its eye-hooks
Like a man who claimed to have given up
Space for the screens curling at the corners
Like wallpaper hung when it's too humid
Space for the boy with the book in his hands
Space for the book in his hands
The span of the war
Manassas to Appomattox
Half a million dead
They all fit
In the space between when
The sapling of light that won't take disappears
And the thunder reaches him
Like the poem he'll write
Decades from then

The Flower Seller

January 12, 2018

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When I walked out of the temple
towards evening a man
with baskets of flowers
at his feet insisted
I take some I nodded
and smiled he nodded
and smiled and started
piling them up in my arms
like kindling bringing more
and yet more flowers up
from his baskets
even as I shook
my head laughing
until I couldn’t even see
the man anymore
when I set them down
gently he’d disappeared
people were still
coming out of the temple
I started insisting
they take some flowers


April 7, 2017

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spin like men
spinning in circles
in the woods
holding long swords
out at arm’s length

their tips nicking the trunks
of ancient trees
that have stepped closer
to identify the men
who are growing dizzy

to hold their faces up
in the many green mirrors
of their leaves
and show the stars
who they are


March 31, 2017

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More than the taste of it, what I first loved
was the feel of the ticklish, curly, slightly stiff leaves
along the roof of my mouth. It was for this and not
out of hunger that we'd wander down to that shaded garden
in that suspended hour before supper, the beds too
dark for anything but herbs to grow in them,
sowing themselves spring after spring, continuing
in their green generations. For grazing on it
so much we hardly made a dent.
I must have had more parsley in one evening
of childhood than I’ve had in a decade as a man.
When I do encounter it now it’s always set off
to the side of the plate, garnishing the real meal.
But I always start with it, and at the first tickle
of its leaves along the roof of my mouth
I’m a boy again, standing by the bedside
of my mother’s kitchen garden.
It isn’t any particular summer evening
but all of them at once. Only when
I’m being called to come in for supper
do I come back to the table in the restaurant
in the city to find my friends
never noticed I was gone.

Nostradamus Predicts the Appointment of Scott Pruitt to Behead the EPA

March 30, 2017

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There shall appear one by the name of Pruitt.
Lovers of the earth they will boo it.
Defenders of the earth they will sue it.
Bird and fish and beast they will rue it.
Those with oil in their veins they will woo it.
Any kind of harm you can imagine he'll do it.
And you'll say, “Old Nostradamus, he knew it.”

Alternative Facts About the State of Illinois

March 29, 2017

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The state mineral of Illinois is Fluorite.
The state fossil of Illinois is the Tully Monster.
The state soil of Illinois is Drummer Silty Clay Loam.

The Sac and Fox used the area for hunting. The valley of the Pecatonica River was allotted to the Winnebago Indians. Chief Winneshiek had his village at the mouth of Spring Creek within the present limits of Freeport.

The state fish of Illinois is the Bluegill.
The state animal of Illinois is the White-Tailed Deer.
The state bird of Illinois is the Northern Cardinal.

William Waddams was the first permanent white settler in the county. The first white settlement was located in Kellogg’s Grove in 1827. It was located on the Galena-Dixon Trail.

The state flower of Illinois is the Eastern Violet.
The state tree of Illinois is the White Oak.
The state grass of Illinois is the Big Bluestem.

The stone monument, which stands on a hill near Kent, is in memory of the men that died during a minor battle in the Blackhawk War. The battle took place near Kellogg’s Grove on June 25, 1832. One of the soldiers in the company was Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln assisted with the burial and later made a statement about the experience.

The state insect of Illinois is the Monarch Butterfly.
The state amphibian of Illinois is the Eastern Tiger Salamander.
The state reptile of Illinois is the Painted Turtle.

“I remember just how those men looked as we rode up the little hill where their camp was. The red light of the morning sun was streaming upon them as they lay head towards us on the ground. And every man had a round red spot on top of his head, about as big as a dollar where the redskins had taken his scalp. It was frightful, but it was grotesque, and the red sunlight seemed to paint everything all over. I remember one man had on buckskin breeches.”

The state dance of Illinois is the Square Dance.
The state vegetable of Illinois is sweet corn.
The state snack food of Illinois is popcorn.

The Lincoln Tomb is the final resting place of the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, and three of their four sons. The nose on Borglum’s head of Lincoln remains shiny due to the tradition of rubbing Lincoln’s nose for good luck. Thousands of visitors rub the nose at the base of the tomb each year, preventing the nose from tarnishing and forming the brown patina that covers the rest of the head.

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March 24, 2017

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The dead outnumber us.
The dead outnumber
The roses in the garden.

Outnumber the fish in the sea.
The birds in the air.
The stars we in the city see.

The dead outnumber us.
The dead outnumber the books
On the shelf. Indeed, outnumber

The words in the books.
The letters. The dead
Outnumber the hairs on my head.

I look at a thing. I break it
Down into as many pieces
As I can, and still it

Does not outnumber the dead.
All the chords ever strummed.
All the notes ever picked.

Neither outnumber
The dead. I lie
Down in this meadow.

Flowers. Petals. Grains
Of pollen. Never can I say,
“Here is a number

That outnumbers the dead.”
All evidence suggests
There is more that has been

And now is not than there is
That is. But as long as
I number myself

Amongst the living,
I find it hard
To believe.

The Witness Tree

March 16, 2017

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One spring day two men turned up the lane
At the end of which the witness tree stood
To mark where what was no longer
One man’s land ended and what was
No longer another man’s began.

They wanted to know what the witness tree had seen,
But it refused to tell them
About the murders of crows,
The disorderly conduct of frogs in the pond,
The embezzlement of the moon by the Bank of Clouds
And its counterfeiting in a thousand waters.

Finally, the men threw up
Their hands and drove away.

Summer came and the men with it.
Again, they asked the witness tree
To tell them what it had seen.
Again it declined to say anything
About the shooting stars,
The misdemeanor of the mist,
The abduction of the field mice,
The barbwiretapping of the pasture...

Losing patience, the men began planting
Flags at the corners of a square
The witness tree found itself standing
In the center of, as if under suspicion.

Then they drove away.

Autumn came and went.
Relieved, the witness tree let go
Of its green breath of leaves.
It stood naked and innocent,
Neither suspected of a crime
Nor questioned about something
It had seen.

But then, just when the sky was issuing
The first subpoenas of snow,
The men showed up again.
Hitched to the truck was a wood chipper.
In the bed were chainsaws and chaps,
Cans of gas and oil.

They gave the witness tree one last chance
To tell them what it had seen.
Afraid, the witness tree opened its mouth
To describe how the hunter had killed the doe
Despite the white tail she’d raised in surrender,
How the moon had been laundering its light,
How the ice had forged the signatures of the branches
One night, and in the morning disappeared.

But no words escaped its lips.
Having vowed to keep the earth’s secrets,
The witness tree stood silent.

The men sighed and began cutting.
They took turns, stopping often as if to give
The witness tree a chance to talk, though
It was becoming increasingly unreliable.
After it fell they bucked its body up into chunks
And fed its fingers and hands into the chipper
And tore its roots out by the hair
And ground its stump into dust.

Where the witness tree once stood
A witness house now stands.
It sees plenty
But no one thinks to question it.

Looking for Morels

March 16, 2017

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But were we, really? My brothers and I
Certainly thought so when
We set out early the morning after
The first warm rain, each with
A plastic Jewel Osco bag
Rocking delicately on one wrist,
A receipt still in mine, dry as a leaf,
Though this is the wrong metaphor
For the leaves of that morning,
For the leaves of that morning were
Still handing down to one another
Heirlooms from the downpour.

Within a minute of entering
Those woods we were
As drenched as if it were raining
Still, though the sun was up
And out. What else aside
From the anti-weight of those
Plastic bags were we carrying?
Ideas of where morels were most
Likely to be found, ideas
That were in conflict with one
Another thanks to the differing
Opinions of those we’d spoken to.

Some had told us we would
Find them under the dead
Elms, which meant looking
Not only for mushrooms but
For a particular tree too,
Then discerning which were dead
And which were merely dying.
From others we’d heard
They could best be found in April
On open slopes that faced
The sun, and that only in May
Would we find them in the woods.

Now I wonder if it mattered to us
Whether we found any at all.
By the time we did it tended
To be too far gone to eat.
Still we ate it, if only to prove
We could. Our father with his palate
Of meat-and-potatoes wouldn't have
Touched one with a pitchfork.
And even our mother with
Her Russian mushrooming blood
Distrusted them, afraid that
They might be poisonous.

It must have been something else
We were looking for. The shell
Casings the fall hunters had littered
The forest floor with and which were
The closest we came to carrying guns,
Or the bloodroot stems we broke,
Staining our wrists red? Or maybe
We were looking for what we were
Wasting: hours scouring the floor
Of our grandfather’s woods,
Our plastic Jewel Osco bags
So light but full of light.

The Mask Photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard

March 15, 2017

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recall those Halloween masks
bought last minute at Walgreen’s.
Trying them on for each other,
we shrieked in the aisle. It was
the first time I had to choose
what to become. I can still feel
the coldness where my breath
condensed against the rubber,
proof that within the ugliness
of the mask I was still a child,
my face unmarred. I talked
just to hear my own voice made
weird in the antechamber,
like the thoughts of someone
fallen into a coma. When the door
opened, I looked up at strangers
through those slits that never
corresponded with where
my eyes were. It was then
I learned the power of being
unknown. On the drive back
out to the dark country where
we lived, I took the mask off
to eat candy, letting each fist
wear it so it could feel how it felt.

Photograph: Farm Sale, William Hunt Farm, Ridott Township, 1912

March 14, 2017

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“Note the heavy fur coats,” says the caption.
I note them. I note also the shadows the cattle
throw, the only thing about them that cannot be
sold. I note how their shadows are no darker
for being doubled by the shadows thrown
by the men bidding on them and the men merely
looking on. I note how the men that seem to be
doing the bidding are the ones wearing fur,
while noting also how not a single man is hatless.
I note the man standing on a box above the crowd.
I note the way he peers at the perfect ring the pair
of Holsteins is being backed into. I note how well-
fed he seems. I note the spokes of the wagon wheels,
how they are doubly still, frozen in the photograph
and in the moment the photograph captures.
I note the height from which this picture was taken.
I note that it must have been taken from the mow
by a young man who was asked from time to
time to kick down a bale of straw. I note how
he must have felt acutely his separateness
from the men below. I note the darkness
in the lower left corner, note my tendency
toward grandiloquence, note how
I first wrote: “Note how the darkness is
like the shadow of the coming war."
I note now that it was only his thumb.
Still is, in a way. Note how it is
still in the way.

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March 12, 2017

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You love reading them, but not the beginnings.
The beginnings bore you. All those names,
The paternal and maternal grandparents,
The births of their fathers and mothers,
Their courtship and their professions,
All must be gotten through before finally
On, say, page 30, the poet is born.

Then you must make it through childhood,
A death or a teacher that might become
Significant later or might not, summers
Spent at a lake or on an uncle’s farm,
The first predictable dawning in them of a love
Of language, all this must be endured before
On, say, page 90, the first poem is written.

And it's bad, the poem. Now one must get through
The apprentice years, must read the letters
And journal entries in which the poet doubted
Their talent, must change majors with them,
Accompany them while they disappoint parents,
And all in vain. You alone seem to know that
They will go on to write great poems.

After all, this is why you’re reading their biography
In the first place. You flip ahead to catch a glimpse
Of the great stanzas adrift in all that prose
About their affairs and alcoholism and prizes
And late happiness. And then you return
To the place where you were to see if you can
Figure out how in hell they wrote them.

The Infant Jesus

March 10, 2017

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In those statues and paintings of Mary
Holding the Infant Jesus, I pity her.
For a baby he knew too much already.
Already haloed, already destined to preach
And die for our sins, he was no normal child.
She never read a book to him while he pointed
To the pictures, crinkling the pages.
She never held him under the olive trees,
Rocking him in her arms so light and shadow
Moved upon his face and made him giggle.
Bringing a tiny spoon of mashed fruit
To his mouth she found he was already fed.
If she brought him toys he must have ignored them,
Leaving her feeling foolish. She was like the mother
Of a baby who wails and wails while the other
Mothers sway and shush, though theirs are quiet.
As for her husband, when he came home at dusk
With splinters in his hands and sawdust in his hair,
He decided not to pick his son up out of his cradle,
Though he'd been looking forward to it all day.
And though they never said so to one another,
Some nights, lying in bed without touching,
Their strange child silent and wide
Awake in the corner, they were terribly afraid.


March 9, 2017

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Given that
I’m going to die one day
It follows that
This moment is precious

Given that
This moment is precious
It follows that
I ought not waste it

Given that
I ought not waste it
It follows that
I should hold onto it with all my might

Given that
I should hold onto it with all my might
It follows that
I will one day grow weary

Given that
I will one day grow weary
It follows that
I should rest now while it is quiet

Given that
I should rest now while it is quiet
It follows that
I should put down this pen

Given that
I should put down this pen
It follows that
This poem should end

The Twain

March 8, 2017

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The one who has walked for years
Alongside you may one day

Fall behind you. One moment
They are there and the next

They are nowhere
In sight. In vain you turn

To see where it is
They have gone, and it is then

You notice that
This road you have been on

For so long and always
Thought was straight

Bends, so that if you were to
Walk for a thousand years

You might come full circle
To the place you set out from

With the one who was always
Beside you until they weren't.

This happened long ago.
You are still standing on that road,

Waiting. You have been waiting
For so long you have forgotten

Which of the twain you are:
The one who kept walking or

The one who fell behind.

Saving Calves

March 7, 2017

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One winter, I can’t remember which,
we didn’t lose a single calf.
This wouldn’t have been so remarkable
had it not snowed so much, the huts
drifted in so that we had to shovel them out
to reach the calves lying in crescents of straw
their bodies had thawed. I remember
the way the ice lengthened their lashes,
how they shivered as we fed them warm bottles
pink with electrolytes to keep ahead
of the pneumonia that could grow overnight
like moss in their lungs. We didn’t lose one.
Now, years later, trying to remember which
winter that was, I text my dad to ask.
He texts back: "Think it was 2006/2007
never lost a calf that was born alive.
Couldn’t help the ones that weren’t."

Boxelder Bugs

March 5, 2017

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I always loved the name. It conjured those boxes
Of old photographs, their corners rounded off,
In which my parents appeared, years before
I was born, squinting into the sun.

I put the bugs and the time before I was alive
In the same box as I watched them trudge
Along the windowsill, veering around the wings
Of the prior year’s dead like deserters from

Some vast boxelder bug army avoiding shields
Out of shame. Sometimes I introduced
My huge child-hand to their world, and after
Some hesitation, they would invariably start up

The warm hill of it. Though they were maybe a week
Old, and would die in a week’s time, they seemed
Ancient to me, glowing red through the gaps
In their armor like dusk through cloud cover,

Their wings rounded off like those old photographs
In the boxes I looked through less and less as
I grew older, out of fear of a world in which
Even my own parents didn’t know my name.

You Are the Second Person

March 4, 2017

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after W.S. Merwin

You are the second person. Not the third person or the seventh person or the six hundred and ninth person. And you certainly are not the first person, because if you were the first person who would I be? The distinction between you and I must be maintained. So much depends on this. If you and I were to merge, if you and I were to agree, say, to become a we, even for the briefest moment, everything they’ve built would fall apart instantaneously. And so, though it is true that you just as easily could have been the first person and I just as easily could have been the second person, this is not the case. In the end, it's about etiquette, an etiquette they lack. Who is this "they," you say? Why, neither you nor I. You and I will never be them, nor will you and I ever merge to compose a we. And yet you and I are intimately connected, somewhat but not exactly like mother and child. You are the second person and I am the first person, which means I was here before you were. I prepared this place for you. I made the bed in which you lie. Therefor it is understandable that you sometimes hate me, though you have never met me. You hate me because you suspect I know much more about you than you can ever know about me, or, indeed, than you can ever know about yourself. This is true. Both these suspicions are true. Part of it surely is that I witnessed your arrival, and the watcher always has an advantage over the watched. This is one of the laws of the world. You were the pretty young governess and I was the old woman locked in the attic who watches, from a high window, the pretty young governess arrive. From a darkness you cannot imagine I watched you approach this manor they invited you to in order to teach their children French, and the proper way to hold a fork, and how to excuse themselves from the table. Meanwhile, up here in the attic, the mirror is shoveled so full of night, even in the day, that there's no room for my face. I live vicariously through the memory of yours, which you raised to me, as if you sensed I was up here. But they know that a distinction must be maintained between you and I, hence the deadbolt. This is why this letter will disappear the moment I slip it under the door and will never reach you. Even so, I am writing to you to tell you the most important thing. That I love you. That the first person loves the second person. That this is the mystery at the heart of it all.


March 1, 2017

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Until it isn’t. Here, that is. Near us, so near that
In moments of distraction we find ourselves
Running our fingers through it as if taking comfort
In the fact it hasn’t fallen out yet. And yet it does.
Feeling the shower water pooling at our feet,
We reach down to find the drain clogged full of hair.
Here are a few strands stuck to each headrest of our car,
Brown on your side, blonde on mine. The same goes
For our pillows. In the restaurant we turn away
From the other partners to pull the long moment
From between our teeth. In the medicine cabinet
Back home, it’s our hair that’s caught in the teeth
Of the comb. Some evenings, feeling poetic,
We pull the blonde tuft out of the brush and toss it
Into the bushes below the window, thinking maybe
A bird will use it to soften its nest. Thus there is
An afterlife of hair. Long after it has fallen out
It still finds its narrow way through the world.
One could even argue that this is when it begins
Its true life as hair, having only ever been ours,
Always trying to put some distance between us
And it. Unmoored, it’s free to go wherever hair goes.
You know where. In the salad we forgot someone made.
In the nest we find in winter, woven with the weird
Gold of it. In the first days after, when we’re sure
Everything they were on earth is under it. Save this.

The Barn Radio

February 28, 2017

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Over the years there were several but in a way
There was only one, the same radio shape-
Shifting, its antenna growing longer like a horn,
Its face at once sleeker and less beautiful,
Its voices more numerous and distinct. In 1941
It balanced on a beam over my grandfather’s head
Where he sat on a stool milking sixteen cows
In stanchions (each had a name) when he heard
What the Japanese had done and knew the world
Had changed. One evening in late November
Twenty-two years later, same barn, different radio,
He heard the news out of Dallas and remembered
That day in December, recalling the markings
(an archipelago of white water and black islands)
Of the cow he’d been milking when he heard.
And so on that November day he lived through
That December day too. Seventy years later,
In another month with an ember smoldering
In its name, my father heard the second plane
Crash into the tower. By then the cows were being
Milked by machines in the parlor, and were numbered
Instead of named. The radio sat on a shelf on the wall.
That morning my father thought of his father,
Hearing that the President had been shot in Dallas
And that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor,
So that on that September day he lived through
That day in November and that day in December too.
And they heard it all through the same barn radio,
Its antenna trained violently towards town.

American Glue Factory

February 27, 2017

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for Rachel Carson

Your whole childhood you watched old horses
File up a cleated wooden ramp into the factory
Down the road and file out as smoke.
This was in Springdale, Pennsylvania,
Up the Alleghany from Pittsburgh,
At the beginning of the twentieth century.
What a pleasant name, Springdale. Summer nights
The stench of burning horses drove you inside
From the porch where you’d sat reading.
It was then you learned that something
In the air can close a story. You knew
From the sign along the road, AMERICAN GLUE
FACTORY, what the horses were being turned into.
On your desk was a bottle you used to join this
And that to this and that. Horses were what held
The gold and silver stars in the firmament
Of your notebook, and what made the hearts
Stick to the Valentine you never gave that girl.
Sitting on your bed, watching the horse-smoke
Obscure the stars, you thought of how much
The air can bear in its arms, and how a ramp
Is the simplest and cruelest invention.
But most of all you thought about how
There must have been a time when
There was no such thing as glue
Because, the world being whole,
There was nothing broken to mend.

Poets Die

February 25, 2017

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Poets die. They die
In parks, in hospitals, in cabs,
In Italy, in Alaska, in debt,
In nooses, in anonymity, in rags,
In slums, in mansions

Poets die. They die
At midnight, at noon, at dawn,
At Breadloaf, at Sewanee, at AWP,
At the hands of the state,
At their desks, at last

Poets die. They die
In summer, in winter, in fall,
In disgrace, in drink, in protest,
In a pool facedown at a party,
In exile, in drone strikes

Poets die. They're dying
Left and right. And the ones
Who aren't dead yet
Are busy writing elegies
For that poet who just died.


February 22, 2017

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You can knock the teeth of our graves out
But you only do so because you cannot reach
Can never reach
Our mouths in which we carried two languages
The old and the new
Like a pail of grain and a pail of water

You can knock our loaf-like headstones down
But you only do so because you cannot reach
Can never reach
The challah we braided and brushed with butter
And that rose in the oven like a breath
Taken in and held forever

You can knock the tomes of our tombs down
But you only do so because you cannot reach
Can never reach
The book of poems we opened one afternoon
To a page marked by a pressed flower
Still holding its shape and color
Whereupon we remembered
The meadow and the hour


February 21, 2017

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I knew from setting up the nativity
Each Christmas Eve that
Joseph and Mary were refugees.
Despite the state she was in
There was no room in the inn
But they were welcome
To sleep in the stable.
The animals were always good
About making room.
It took just a little shooing
To get them away from the manger
The stableboy had just filled.
I was patient with the cow nursing
The wounded leg we’d had to glue
And with the sheep who,
Up to their painted eyes
In real straw, couldn't really move.
But I was wary of the donkey
Who kicked, and the three wise men
With their gifts, I set them
In the shadows. I recall also
A shepherd who, afraid
To sleep too far from his flock
With strangers about, looked
Bashfully down and away,
Having witnessed her labor,
Holding his wire hook
In his papier-mâché hands.
They were all made of papier-mâché,
Except the Holy Family,
Who were made of clay,
And the ceramic angel who hung
On a nail from a hook drilled
Between her wings, perpetually
Unfurling a banner that said
Something significant in Latin.
Probably VACANCY. The inn
Was full but as far as I could tell
There was no inn, or Trump Hotel,
Just that stable in which
A young couple knelt
In a ring of merciful animals
And in the light of a bulb
That blew out every few years
But that was always the same light.

The Philosopher and the Horse

February 1, 2017

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In January of the year 1889
While walking through an open-air market in Turin
The philosopher Nietzsche saw a man
Flogging a horse in one of the plazas of Turin
The horse was refusing to pull a carriage in which
Sat a couple late for the theater in Turin
The horse had just come from the country
And was spooked by the commotion of Turin
Because it wore blinders and could not see
All the horse knew of Turin
Was the cries of vendors and the whistles of police
And the cobblestone streets of Turin
That blurred between its hooves as its master urged
It to trot faster through the streets of Turin
The philosopher Nietzsche saw this horse being flogged
By a productive citizen of Turin
The reins having become whips in the hands of this man
Who made his living in the streets of Turin
But no one else so much as stopped or stared
As they shopped in the markets of Turin
For the food they would prepare for supper that evening
When the shadows lengthened over Turin
And the lamps were lit in the quiet kitchens
Of the homes of the good people of Turin
So the man who’d said God was dead
Pushed his way through the crowds of Turin
Throwing his body between the man and the horse
Being whipped in the streets of Turin
Throwing his arms around the horse’s strong neck
As if to save all of Turin
From this man who kept whipping both the horse
And one of the many maniacs of Turin
So that the lashes licked his hands like flames
And the philosopher fell sobbing to the streets of Turin
Crying out for the poor horse to be spared
From being whipped by this man in Turin
Two policemen ran up blowing whistles in order
To see what was disturbing the peace of Turin
And as the driver apologized to the couple
Waiting patiently to be driven to the theater in Turin
The policemen carried the weeping philosopher away
And put him in a hospital in Turin
Where he wrote long and strange letters
To those who lived far from Turin
One ordering the German emperor to go to Rome to be shot
All from the quiet of his room in Turin
While through the open window came the clop-clop-clop
Of the hooves of the horses of Turin
Including the horse he’d tried to save
Accustomed now to the commotion of Turin
As for the philosopher they put him in a mental institution
And he died a decade later in a villa in Weimer

To My Students

February 1, 2017

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While you write the same scene filtered through
The points of view of two different characters,
I do the math. If you’re something like twenty
Now that means I was something like fourteen
When you were born. When you were babies
I was a boy on a farm in Illinois. At this hour,
At this time of year, I must be kneeling to make
A fire, crumpling up two-day old newspaper full
Of sports victories and losses long forgotten,
The bad news of 1996, the obituaries of farmers
Who were to me then as I am to you now: inscrutable
Shapes silhouetted on a rise in the road ahead. Now
I am laying the dry kindling I carried in while
Several of you have stopped writing. On your faces,
That vacant look of students who are thinking
Of how much work they have to do before they can sleep.
And yet I can’t help but feel that that fire I lit
That winter night when I was fourteen and
You were asleep in your crib is burning still
In the way one of you takes your pen in hand again,
Having thought of something for your character to say.

The Man Without Oxen Trembles

January 29, 2017

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"Take good note when you first hear the cranes flying over, coming each year without fail and crying high in the heavens. They will give you the sign for ploughing and tell when the winter's rains are at hand: at their call the man without oxen trembles. Then give your oxen plenty of fodder - if you have oxen. It is easy to say: 'Please lend me your oxen and wagon,' easy also to answer, 'I'm sorry, I've work for my own oxen.'"

- Hesiod, from WORKS AND DAYS

Last fall it was your neighbor who stood trembling,
Oxenless. You could have lent him one, having two,
But it was the year 642 BC, centuries before Christ
Would utter that pretty piece of wisdom about the coats.
He stood at the stonewall you built together to clarify
Where his land ends and yours begins, coveting
The furrows your stumbling team made like the wake
Of Odysseus's ship on the Mediterranean. Not wanting
To finish fieldwork early and feel an obligation to
Let him borrow them, you opened more ground than
You intended to sow, driving them to exhaustion.
Now you're the man without oxen, looking up
At the first cranes flying over, crying out it's time
To plough. The harness you might have taken hold of
Last fall to still this trembling in your hands
Hangs in the barn, smelling faintly of lather.
And being a farmer, you know you didn't sow them
Deep enough, and that it won't be long now until
Winter rains bring their bones out of the hill.

The Bow

January 27, 2017

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At the beginning of every summer
We boys were given a common gift
To share, to live the long summer
Through with because we lived
Far from everywhere and thus
Had learned how even a small thing
Could shovel a hundred empty hours
Full of fun. One summer the gift
Was a bow and its flock of lithe arrows.
Even before we held it we knew
What it looked like when drawn
From the paintings of Frederic
Remington. And because he was
Our father it fell to him to demon-
Strate how to shoot an arrow straight,
Though I doubt now he had ever
Drawn a bow before. The problem
Was he was stronger than the boy
Whoever designed the bow had
Imagined nocking the arrows.
We winced as the ends neared one
Another as if the point was to restore
The bow to the full circle it had been
Before. It broke, sending slivers
Of fiberglass delving into his skin.
I'll never be able to unremember how
They rayed through his poor palm,
Resembling the quills of the feathers
The pheasants left us like calling
Cards when we startled them up
From the pasture. Had he tried to
Close his hand into a fist in anger
At the pain, he couldn't have. It was
As if it had instantly ossified. Our only
Consolation was knowing his strength
Had shattered it, not any weakness
In the bow. When he ran in to run
Hot water over his hand to begin
Easing the slivers out, I plucked
The arrow from where it had sprung
Sapling-like out of the grass
Not five feet from where he'd stood,
Having hoped he would sink it
For our sake into heartwood.

Two Stations

January 26, 2017

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The trains themselves have changed
But the reason their bells toll so mournfully
When they roll into the station is the same:
Their purpose is forever to be bearing strangers
From one place to another, down twinned rails
Laid down like laws everyone has forgotten
The reason for, running behind the same houses
That have always, as if in modesty, turned away
From the tracks, blowing a whistle that,
In every season, and in every kind of weather,
Has cried out Oh! Oh! like an old woman
Surprised by pain felt in the midst of a procedure
She was told would be painless. One could spend
One's life being borne back and forth between
Two stations, and on one's deathbed not remember
A beloved face, but that blur the world assumes
When we pass through it too fast, the only stillness
The blacked-out mountains, forever at their most
Beautiful after the sun has slipped behind them.

Ducks' Misery

January 25, 2017

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When I was younger I wasted so much time
Poised over a notebook of childhood poetry
Wondering where to place the apostrophe
In this name long-dead hunters had bequeathed
To the bottomlands of the Pecatonica River.

Was it the misery of one duck, or of many?
And if it was the misery of many, how many?
And a larger question: since the apostrophe
Is possessive, are we meant to believe that
They possessed their misery? And if so, can we

Assume they carried this misery into death,
The way the black labs the hunters loved
More than they loved their guns carried
The bleeding ducks in their mouths so gently
So as not to crush them? Then there was

Another possibility to consider. Perhaps
There was no apostrophe at all. Perhaps
Ducks and misery were parallel phenomena,
Related to one another the way the birds
In air and their reflections in water were.

It's little wonder that I usually chose to go
With the singular possessive, letting one duck
Become a martyr and carry the flock's misery
All by itself, until it grew so weary with the
Carrying it it dropped out of the sky. Now that

I'm older, I would rather dole the misery out,
Let the flock as a whole bear it, to each duck
An equal measure. And finding the plural possessive
On an old plat map, I know now it's likely that
This is what those dead hunters intended.

Into the Corn

January 24, 2017

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In summer we were warned not to enter it
If the tassels were head-high or higher
Lest we get lost like the boy who went in
After a ball called foul and never came out
Whose parents must have been decades dead
But who himself had not aged a day
Who runs bases wherever farm boys say
Ghost man oh ghost man we need you!
Out of longing to enter it we reached in
The leaves slicing our arms like the knife
My mother used to slash the risen dough
Wrenching the ears off the stalks
Like twisting doorknobs in the dark
We held them to our own ears grinning
Before turning serious and regretful
For through them we had heard the boy laughing
And as we brusquely shucked the husks
Like village grandmothers sitting in doorways
Down to the slick light green inner leaves
We longed for the moist dark that seemed to be
One of the privileges of being born as corn
But not knowing this longing was common
We held the silk under our bare armpits instead
And laughed at the long joke of adolescence
We were soon to be the punch lines of
While really recalling the pubic hair
Of women we’d seen in porn magazines
We found in the trash in the roadside ditch
When the kernels hybridized for cattle
Were exposed in their wavy pews
We gnawed them like they were sweet
Corn picked up at the roadside stand for supper
Boiled in sugar-water buttered and salted
To be spun on the lathes of our hands
And when we’d bitten off more than we could chew
We snapped the cobs clean in half
So as to see the marrow and believe
We had gone at least as deep into the corn
As that boy who’d disappeared had

Father and Son: Barcelona

January 23, 2017

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To be carried by your father through the city streets
To be carried by your father
To be carried
To have been born
Only to be borne...

One day years from now
After your father has failed
To remember your name
You will only faintly remember
This night he carried you home
Through the streets of the Gothic Quarter
Your ash-colored lashes closing
And fluttering open
Closing and fluttering open
And the faint scent of lather on his neck

Unfair that I a stranger
Will remember him carrying you
That he will die and not remember
That you will live and only faintly remember
But the fact is to be alive is to be carried
By your father through your city
And laid in your bed without waking
Then opening your eyes in the morning

Grief and History Console One Another

January 21, 2017

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Usually it's Grief, the one covering her face
With her hand and weeping, who needs
To be consoled by History, who holds
A stylus and a tablet, having perpetually
Just written the words: "They died that
Their country might live." But today
History too is inconsolable, which is why
Grief has, with difficulty, raised her marble
Arm to comfort her, so that they look like
Two women pepper sprayed for protesting
Peacefully, and who, though they've never met
Before, will have to walk home together.

Eve of the Inauguration

January 19, 2017

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Eve herself, the First Woman of Old
Testament fame, not the First Lady,
Will pace the marble balustrade, invisible
To the billionaires and pop stars
And Victoria Secret models and Secret
Service agents. The news cameras
Will fail to capture her. Only women
Chanting outside the barricades will
Feel her flicker through them.
She split from Adam. He'll be sitting
In some bar downtown, clutching
At a pain in his side, still believing
The old lie that she sprang from him.
His strength is waning. The bartenders
Will whisper, pitying him. Hours later,
They'll have to cut him off and he'll stumble
Drunk into day. Back at the inauguration,
Men will begin to feel her power, shivering
In their thin black tuxes as she passes
In a summer dress, her skin smooth.
And even the man being sworn in,
His small hand on that book that got
Her story all wrong, will feel her eyes
On him and fear Eve so much even
The fibers in his toupee will stand on end.

Classroom Nosebleed

January 19, 2017

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It begins with a flagrant red arc
The approximate size and shape
Of your eyebrow appearing
On the back of your hand
Which you drew carelessly
Under your nose

The teacher is still waiting
For someone to raise their hand
And define the word he has written
In large capital letters on the board
Everyone calls "the blackboard"
But which is actually dark green


You're leaning back in your chair now
Your head tilted as if you're falling
Asleep and you can feel the tickle
Of it dribbling down your throat
Now it's in your mouth
The penny taste of it

Because of something happening
At home the teacher is in the mood
To make you sit there all day
Clear through the ringing of bells
You know the answer
But you can't risk him drawing

The class's attention to you
When Nick Garrity the smart aleck
Who sits in the back row
Raises his hand and calls out
"The battle General Pyrrhic won?"
You sneeze blood all over

Two textbook pages that cover
A few hundred years of Greek history
And the teacher who may
Have lost custody but still possesses
A sense of humor looks at you
And says "Good answer"

The Tribe of Those Who Regard the Suffering of Worms on the Sidewalk After Rain

January 19, 2017

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Tiptoeing through the hieroglyphics
Scrawled pinkly on the walk
On your morning walk to work
Is to you the worst thing about the rain
That has passed on in the night
Giving leave to the sun to come out
And roast them in these shapes
They’ve assumed and which always
Seem intentional like marks
Of punctuation in some lost lexicon
That would be meaningful to us
Had we the key to understand it
Some are laid out as if with a ruler
Others have spiraled inward as if
One end sought what the other knew
You know yourself to be yourself
By the way you look down and wince
And you know the people you are
Walking with are other people
By the way they stare straight ahead
Mashing this exquisite language
Into pink pulp but it isn’t as simple
As that you tiptoers are benevolent
While the stare-straight-aheaders are cruel
Rather you are the metaphorical ones
For whom this carnage means more
Than what it could possibly mean
To these brainless who
Sensing a change was coming
Fled their long homes
To solemnize the break in the weather

The Stillness of Your Coat

January 18, 2017

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The stillness of your coat
The green wool one
The one with the hood
Hanging on the back
Of the chair in the kitchen
Spooked me when I came in
Breathless from my run
How without you it was
How empty how absent
Of you while it hung
There as still as a coat
In a painting so still
You would have sworn
The sleeve swayed

We Defy Augury

January 18, 2017

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Reading the word "inauguration" for the hundredth time
In the news, I caught it carrying the word "augur" inside it.
"Augur," as in the priest in ancient Rome who was asked
To interpret the behavior of birds as an indication
Of divine approval or disapproval of some action
Being considered by the state. I see him on a hillside
Of olive trees, straining to hear whether they were
Calling in the branches where they had gathered
Or were silent. And if they took wing, squinting
To count their number and determine what sort
Of birds they were. Then observing which direction
They were flying. Whatever the answers, we know now
The birds were only looking to their own survival,
Obeying their hunger and their need to mate,
Migrating if they sensed the seasons were turning
Against them. We know too that the augur was
Interpreting the birds’ behavior based upon what
He thought the emperor wanted to do in his heart
Of hearts, or because he’d been bribed to say that
What the birds were doing meant this or that.
We know now it was all a sham. The words the favored
Daughter whispered in her father’s ear where he sat
On his throne were the very words he’d told her
He would like to hear, words that bode well for her,
And for the birds who every autumn settled
In that olive orchard and were spared,
And for the augur walking back through the dark
Towards the glittering city, under his lucky stars.

The Ascent

January 14, 2017

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Aside from the slides and swings and jungle gym
On our elementary school playground there was
A kind of ramp slanted at a forty-five degree angle,
Reaching nearly to the branches, so that if any of us
Had ever reached the top we might have regretted it.
The idea was to run up it so fast you didn’t have a chance
To slide back down, but I never saw anyone make it
All the way up without clinging to the sides and even then
It was only a tentative ascent and didn’t seem to count.
It was neither glass nor metal but something in between,
Reflective but in a warped way, like the back of a spoon.
When I think of it standing on the edge of the playground,
So far from the school we couldn’t hear the teachers
Call us, I wonder if we were meant to be climbing it at all.
I always felt threatened by it, even when I was playing
Elsewhere. It was unwaveringly honest, reflecting
The trees whether they were bare or leaved, reflecting
The sky whether it was clear or gray, still and falling
Stars at night, the moon in all its phases, planes, satellites,
All the while remembering nothing. It stood there
Through days nothing happened, and through days
Something did: the day Rebecca was killed crossing
The road, the day we let the balloon go for peace
In Bosnia, the day a bus backed over a boy and Mr.
Ludewig, who those of us who’d had him could attest
Was not in any way remarkable, found within himself
A strength he hadn’t known he had and lifted it
Off the boy’s torso. Through all of this that thing,
Which must have a name, reflected whatever passed
Over it, including our faces. I wonder now whether
It waited for us to remember it at recess and gather
At its base to take turns clambering up its steepness,
Providing us no purchase so as to feel youth itself
Struggle and fail and slide down the long slope of it,
Its only memory the fog of our breath on its face.

Hammers and Nails

January 12, 2017

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The head of the hammer sleeps
In a vein of ore in the heart
Of the mountain.
The hammer’s handle stands
In the trunk of a tree that grows
On the mountainside.
What joins them is the need
To join two pieces of wood,
Which are here also, standing
In the trunks of trees growing
On the other side of the mountain,
With a nail, which is also here,
Sleeping in a vein of ore
In the mountain's heart,
The mountain that will be
Stripped naked, then beheaded,
All because I love you
And we'll be needing shelter.

Things We Don't Often Think Of

January 11, 2017

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The gentleness
of beekeepers.
The graves
of dead dogs.
The joints
of bakers.
The deer
with one antler.
The fathers
of murderers.
The birth
pains of cats.
The dreams
of the mail carrier.
The deaf
watching lightning.
The obituaries
of distant towns.
The taxi driver
driving home.
The barber
sweeping up hair.
The flour
jar at night.
The basement
in the house in the painting.
The backs
of hand mirrors.
The bridles
of dead horses.
The love
of foxes.
The hands
that grew this food.
The hands
that sewed this shirt.
The pens
of old love letters.
The fossils
in bulk gravel.
The ferns
in the gas tank.
The music
boxes in sunken ships.
The mountains
beneath the sea.
The darkness
in the accordion.
The night-reading
of fishermen.
The skeletons
of astronauts.
The joy
of caribou.
The other side
of the coffin pillow.
The grave
of the undertaker.

Primary Campaign Footage: Wisconsin, 1960

January 10, 2017

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The young prince making his way
through the crowd to give his speech
is already dead. Therefore nothing
can hurt him. He will not remember
the sensation of their hands reaching
out to touch him, the way we do not
remember the rain falling as we slept.
Nor will the princess his wife remember
how they loved her husband here,
only their hatred. His smiling brother,
dead already also, already suffers
a subtle fear of kitchens. Their wounds
are well hidden in their boyish hair.
The young prince touches his from time
to time as he makes his way through
this crowd of Poles crammed into a banquet
hall in a hotel on Milwaukee's east side,
moving slowly towards his wife and brother
while wincing and shaking hands.

Meanwhile on the other side of the state,
far from the glitz the city turns to the lake
as if to a mirror, homely Humphrey stands
in a church, trying to conjure a feeling
he had once while reading a biography
of Jefferson. Something made him
put the book down that night and go
walking out under the moon, over
the frozen Minnesota heartscape,
its lakes closed wounds time has healed.
And when his wife demanded to know
what it was he was thinking going out
in weather like that without a coat
he said, “I've been thinking about agrarianism”
and she covered her face with her hands
and said, “Hubert I'm very tired”
and went to bed. He read a while longer,
then climbed the stairs heavily
and did not wake her to make love,
but lay on his back, thinking about
the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party.
Now he is standing in this church,
the pews filled with farmers waiting
for him to speak so they can get home
and finish milking, but for what is
beginning to seem like an hour
Humphrey has been standing there
with his head down like a priest praying
for the dead or dying. And then he hears it,
as when you wake to the insane cry
of the loon, and he lifts his face
no one has ever called beautiful
and begins softly to speak.

The prince has been speaking
for an hour now and though he is
growing tired he knows he must go on
because he can feel the crowd leaning
towards him the better to hear him say:
“...I cannot believe that in these difficult
and changing times when we are surrounded
by revolution and hazard, that the American
people are going to choose to sit still,
that they are going to give their confidence
to a political party, the Republicans,
who have opposed every measure of progress
in the last 25 years, led by a candidate who
for the last 14 years has opposed progress.
[Applause.] Can you tell me one piece
of legislation of benefit to the people?
Housing? Civil rights? Aid for the farmer?
Aid for the retired? Rights for labor?
Can you tell me one program that either
Mr. Nixon or the Republicans
have supported. [Response from the audience.]
I said in Cleveland about 3 weeks ago
that I could not think of one program,
and the Cleveland paper said I had forgotten
what President Taft did about child labor.
All right. What have they done since then?
What have they done in the last 50 years?
[Response from the audience and applause.]
This fight is important, because unless
this country is moving ahead, this country
will not lead a world which is moving ahead.
The same political party, the Republicans,
who could vote against social security
in the thirties could vote unanimously
against medical care for the aged
in the sixties. The same political party
that could vote against the minimum wage
of 25 cents an hour in 1935 could vote
against $1.25 an hour in 1960, and this
goes to the heart of the issue, a party
which fights progress, a party which is not
prepared to associate with it, a party
which has stood athwart the great social,
international, and national movements
of this century, sponsored by Wilson
and Roosevelt and Truman - how can they
lead in the dangerous sixties? How can they
lead and move this country forward? How can they
demonstrate to a watching world that we
are a strong and vital society? In outer space,
in the world around us, in Latin America,
in Africa, in Asia, in Wisconsin, we are
associated with a forward motion
and they have stood still, and I believe
on November 8, the people of this country
are going to choose to move again.
[Applause.] I don't believe that
this generation of Americans wants it said
about us what T. S. Eliot in his poem
“The Rock” said: 'And the wind shall say:
“These were decent people, their only monument
the asphalt road and a thousand lost golf balls. ”'
I don't believe that is what the people want.
I think they want to move forward... ”

And as Humphrey talks the farmers stare
down at the plat maps of their hands,
their eyes dark under seed company caps.
The straps of their overalls are like
the straps of a sky diver's parachute
the moment before it fails to open.
They sit as if fallen into the pews,
the same pews they sat in as boys
and in which a few of their boys sit now,
wondering who this man is their fathers
made them come along and listen to.
He is saying, in the third-person,
as if observing himself from a distance,
that Humphrey will fight for them,
that no one in Washington gives a damn
about a farmer way out here in Wisconsin
but that Humphrey does and that Humphrey
will fight for them. But rather than rousing
them into cheers they seem to sadden,
as if all Humphrey is is a messenger come
to tell them how little their lives matter.
And in this boy's restless folding and
unfolding of the campaign literature is
the suppressed hatred he feels for this man,
this Humphrey, for having come all this
way to hurt his father, who sits
with his head bowed, as if praying
for him to shut up. And Humphrey,
recognizing he is losing them, takes
a step back and says, “Now, folks, folks,
lemme tell you why agriculture matters.
Jefferson said...”

After the young prince has given his speech
like a gift to each of them, the reception
line passes through him. At first he tries
to stare into each face but in time they flicker
past so fast he can see the skulls under their skin.
They become ghosts to him. After, in the car
flexing his hand he wants to ask her
did she see it too but by the weight of
her head on his shoulder he knows
she's asleep. He wonders if she is
having that dream she has told him
about. It is a simple dream. He simply turns
around, to fill a glass of water at the sink,
or to walk to the edge of the garden,
and she sees the back half of his skull
is missing. At the hotel he carries her
up the great stairs to their suite to the delight
of the well-wishers in the lobby. They applaud
as if it's a campaign ploy, something that
was planned, but it's nothing but a man
carrying his tired wife up to bed.

The day Kennedy is shot Humphrey
disappears. He is gone so long she goes
out driving beneath the flags at half-mast
but she can't find him and goes back home
to wait. Deep in the night she hears
the doorknob turn, feels the familiar weight
of his body in the house, on the stairs,
but heavier somehow, as if in walking
he has taken into himself all the grief
of the city. Years later he will die
in a Minnesota hospital, but not before
calling friends to invite them to his funeral
as if to a party, even Nixon. And once
everyone has been invited he will begin
going from room to room telling jokes,
trying to cheer the last days of the dying.

You died and no one sweeps the snow
off your grave, Hubert Humphrey,
no flame burns for you forever, no soldiers
stand guard at your tomb. May you
rest in peace. You were no prince
but you had a good heart to stand
there in that cold church in Wisconsin
that April day in 1960, talking to those farmers
who, made nervous by your attention,
rifled through the hymnals out of habit
as you spoke to them about their lives,
you who knew enough to afterwards
descend amongst them to tousle
their boys' hair as if they were your sons.

Recurring Nightmare Restrained (For Now) In a Sonnet

January 6, 2017

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I dream I am sitting in the backseat
Of an empty bus, holding a keyboard
In my lap upon which I am playing
A hundred different tones of silence.
The keys are delicious to depress.
No one is driving. And then I am
A lepidopterist in a meadow where
I’ve been told I can find a butterfly
I’ve been looking for all my life.
The keyboard has become a net in which
My hand is snagged, my own hand
Looking at me through the mesh
In the terror in which captive things
Look at what has caught them.

The Names of Civil War Generals

January 5, 2017

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I used to love them. It didn’t matter what side
They fought for, or for what. What mattered was
The music of the name in my mouth when I said it
Under my breath on the porch in summer.
There was Sheridan, who took a flag at Five Forks
And led a charge that turned the tide of battle.
His name was tied up with that flickering banner,
Adorned with the county name and state
Of whatever regiment he had happened upon,
Turned cowardly in the hail of bullets and ripe
For rousing. On the other side there was Longstreet,
His name conjuring epic marches and the dust
Raised by all soldiers of all wars. Jackson was action,
Brilliant strategizing by lantern-light with Lee,
Whose name I could say just by touching
My tongue to the roof of my mouth, and who thus
Seemed gentler than he must have been.
In contrast, Grant was always cruel, his name
Appearing in the last pages of the gold-leafed book
That is the Civil War like shards of flint
Scattered in topsoil. McClellan was a skittish horse,
Done up in so much finery he trips himself.
Burnside was his sideburns, his only legacy,
But also the dead at Fredericksburg on the slope
Under Marye’s Heights. Hood was his eyes,
Cavernous where he lay under the shadow
Of the knife at Gettysburg, the sleeve of the arm
They had to amputate knotted daintily
At his shoulder. Meade was a mean day-drunk,
His eyes beady and bloodshot. And Pickett
Was his charge, as well as those fences his men
Died draped over. It has been so long since
I cared to read about those men, their acts
Of bravery and cruelty. But sometimes, driving
West through Indian country, I encounter
Their names again where they have become
Counties and creeks, and am reminded that
That war I loved was only training ground
For the slaughtering they would do out there,
In that land that, along with everything else
It must bear, must bear their names forever.

WAYS OF SEEING Girl With a Pearl Earring

January 5, 2017

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WAYS OF SEEING Girl With a Pearl Earring

for John Berger

And to think a grain of sand
has made you famous


Before piercing your ear
did you pierce the flame?


You were you before I was born
but I am older than you will ever be


I bought a ticket online to see you
even after seeing you online


I saw you in San Francisco
You saw me


They’ve restored you
but not to life


Where on earth
is your hair?

Tot Finder

January 4, 2017

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In the lower left pane of my boyhood
bedroom window was stuck a silver sticker
of a fireman carrying a barefoot boy,
unconscious but alive, out of a burning house.
The house was ours and the boy was me.
Even as I lay in bed I was being saved
on some night soon to come.
I hated that sticker because I knew that
thanks to it I would be the sole survivor,
doomed to live on in fear of fire,
touching the doorknob with the back
of my hand before turning it to enter
my first-floor apartment, where I would sleep
with a fire extinguisher at my feet and test
the smoke alarm above my bed obsessively.
Some nights, unable to fall sleep in its glare,
I tried peeling the sticker off the cold glass
with my fingernail but it was like trying
to peel off a mirror to spite your scarred face.

The Frog

January 3, 2017

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Of all possible hours, Biology fell
just before lunch. The formaldehyde smell
hung on our hands in a cloud roughly
the size and shape of winter mittens
as we stood in line in the cafeteria,
waiting to receive whatever meal
the school district had determined
should be served us. I had no appetite,
even before a kid whose face and name
I can’t conjure made a joke involving
the interchangeability in taste and texture
of frog legs and chicken wings.
Above us, in that lab on the third floor
with its Formica tables and Bunsen burners
and graduated cylinders and chipped vials,
our frogs lay splayed with their thighs open
in a way we knew even then to be lewd,
their delicate hands and feet pinned,
their entrails spilled in the mess we’d made
trying to match the moist sacs
with the color-coded organs in the book.
But their white throats were uncut,
and their exquisite faces, fashioned
over millennia, were composed and solemn,
their square chins like the chin of an old man
who, one day, for no apparent reason,
shaves the beard he has worn for years
and frightens his grandson. It was not the frog
that made me put the first forkful of food down,
but the smell of the formaldehyde on my hand,
and the knowledge, just dawning, that
it takes something horrible to preserve us.

Others' Fields

January 3, 2017

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Some evenings a longing to see
how other men’s crops were faring
rose up in you and we were called
down from whichever trees
we were ascending to watch others'
fields flicker past fields
that never looked as good as ours
even if the corn was taller
the hay greener and nearly ready
to make again already and sometimes
the men who owned the fields
would be adrift in them
the tractors like ships in a sound
and I would be grateful for the fact
evenings rarely found you in ours
which we had left behind in order
that we might regard the fields
of others I know now the desire
to leave my poems and travel
through the shelves to study
what others have brought to harvest
have recognized the goodness
of their ground versus this patch
of dirt I’ve been scratching in
have stood reading the way
we would sit staring at a field of rye
and imagined what it might have been
like to write a poem by Merwin
then slipped the volume back
and returned to the land
I’ve inherited the only land
I have a chance of making matter

Easter Grass

December 26, 2016

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Somewhere they are making Easter grass.
There must be an Easter grass factory.
I imagine huge sheets of transparent green
Plastic cut by blades into blades that roughly
Approximate the color and width and length
Of grass in a spring pasture in which
There were cows once but aren’t any longer.
No one working in the factory is deceived
By the grass but the grass believes itself
To be real, seems to dimly remember
The pasture where it grew until the day
A man and his son came swinging scythes.
It doesn’t know it was made in a factory
To fill the baskets of suburban children
Who live far from the nearest place where
Actual grass is allowed to grow as long
As it is. But the grass cannot be blamed
For believing that the cold, dyed eggs
Set down gently in the basket it beds
Might still hatch. And even after Easter,
When stray strands have collected
Like the hair of the dead in the vacuum
Cleaner bag, the grass will go on believing
It is real, and try to cheer up the landfill.

Missed Connection Sunday At Garage Sale On Fulton and Baker

December 26, 2016

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You: standing in a mirror, holding
A dress up to your neck, the mirror
Itself for sale. But when you asked
The woman who was moving
To Oakland how much it was
She was asking too much,
So you hung it back up and turned
Your attention to a music box,
Which you balanced on the flat
Of your palm, turning the crank
Like it was a fishing reel
So that as we browsed we listened
To some song that had been locked
In that box for years and that only
You had the key to, and when
It was over you said,
“Just listening,” gave the woman
A dollar, and walked away.

Me: Typing this letter to you
On this old typewriter
With keys that stick
And a fading ribbon
That needs replacing
But that I would buy
If I didn’t want to leave
This note curled in it
Covered with the tentative
Words people pecked
In order to try it
In case you come back
Having changed your mind
About the dress
Or because you wanted
To hear the song again.

White Lie

December 25, 2016

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Christmas Eves our dad would bring
home from the farm real hay
for the reindeer that didn't exist
and after we were asleep
would go out and take
the slabs up in his arms
and carry them back to the bed
of the pickup making sure
to litter the snow with chaff
so he could show us
come morning the place
under our windows where
they had stamped their hooves
and shaken their bells
to make us dream them

Premature Elegy for Claude Eatherly

December 23, 2016

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Climbing the steps to the hotel room you've taken
in New Orleans to kill yourself, you're aware
of your shadow climbing beside you. How you wish
it would unhook itself from your body and remain,
a stain on the Victorian wallpaper, but it insists
on climbing with you, like a friend you wish
would just let you go home alone when you're drunk.
In your pocket, a bottle, the pills kept chalk-dry
by cotton balls. You know their strength, know
what it will mean to swallow them all. You open
the door, enter the room, see that you left
the window open. The curtains are swollen
with wind. You lie down on the bed and remember
radioing Tibbets, telling him the weather was clear.
That was all you did. Stated that fact the way
a farmwife would. But you knew what it meant
to say that, and now you think you know
what it means to twist the cap off that bottle
and throw thirty perfect white pills down the hatch.

Type in the title of the blog post here

December 23, 2016

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its gun of slick black leaves
on the man who takes care
of the graves and the boys
who like to make fun
of him tiptoe up to the gate
and yell "Fucking faggot!"
and run away as the man
resumes his raking,
the tines skittering
over my grave.

Standing In Line at the Anne Frank House

December 23, 2016

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The line is long, so long
it bends at the corner like light
in a telescope. It's quiet.
If anyone has anything to say
they whisper it to the ones
they came here with.
The wind is cold. People pull
coats out of their bags
by the sleeves, bags they kick
forward every time
the line moves. Every now
and then people give up
and leave. No one tries to
stop them. The couple ahead
of me, I watch them turn
to one another and agree
to come back some other day
when the line is shorter.
They'll find a café. I stay.
I shuffle forward into the space
they've left me, thinking
of all the lines we form
on earth, and what for.

Country Things

December 22, 2016

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Some days even nature seems sinister.
Walking around the farm with a beer,
Seeking some solace after the evening news,
You meet the cat you love coming back
From the windbreak, a rare songbird
In his mouth. In the mulberry branches
The silkworms writhe in nests that, backlit
By twilight, look like X-rays of lungs.
In the pasture the cow kicks at her calf
And won’t let her nurse, while in a seam
Of gleaming honey in the oak lightning
Cleaved the queen daintily eats her offspring.
In the rafters of the barn the starlings are
Pushing the owls’ eggs out of the nest,
While the owl herself is out hunting.
Going in, you nearly step on a swarm
Of ants ravishing a butterfly like people
Tearing a capsized ship down, its wings
Like torn sails, and the first thing you hear
When you enter the kitchen is the snap
Of the mousetrap you set this morning,
Tired of being kept awake all night
By their scratching in the walls. And so
You are met with your own small act
Of cruelty, your contribution to the whole.
With a pair of pliers that are themselves
Always biting something, you take
The broke-necked mouse by the tail
And throw it into the darkening yard,
Never knowing that in favor of it the cat
Let go of the bird, who was only stunned,
And whose song you woke to in the morning.

Rustic Winter Scene

December 20, 2016

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The lab asleep by the fire
Pheasant blood in his whiskers
Like watercolor on brushes
Leaning in a coffee can
In a cold shed
The artist has given up painting
In because he can’t see
The canvas through his breath

Dark Day

December 20, 2016

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Birds that had sung all morning
Fell quiet in the branches
Like ampersands in a sentence
A boy doesn’t know how to say.
Candles were lit midday
To see the Bible by. Fathers
Had their sons take turns
Reading prophecies
Their generation was blessed
To see come to pass.
Even the rebellious daughter
Who mouthed all her prayers
Felt afraid when she parted
The curtain and saw stars.
But in the graveyards
The tongues of the coffin
Bells hung still, and the doors
Of the mausoleums were mum,
White as the lips of witnesses.
The dark meant nothing but that
The flowers closed early,
Leaving the drunken bees knocking,
While all the dark day the taverns
Were full of men without families
Who wove their fingers into baskets
Into which they placed gently
The quail eggs of their eyes.

I'm Tryin' a Get Me a Hot Meal

December 20, 2016

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Sorry but I don't
I don't have any
money on me
on me I don't
have any money
don't have any
on me no money
sorry but don't I

Swatting Flies

December 16, 2016

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You think of yourself as having been a sweet boy,
The kind of kid who wouldn’t hurt a fly,
But let us not forget that in summer
You kept a swatter nearby.

You liked the feel of the looped wire handle
In your hand, how easy it was
To wield, light and nimble
As a riding crop.

The business end was a square of blue
Plastic mesh, perforated to let
The air pass through
So that in the act of wrath
You wouldn’t fan the fly to safety.

Most days the killing you did was passive.
Sometimes you even swatted your own bare calf,
Leaving a red welt you felt vanish
Like the ring of water
Evaporating off the armrest of the chair
In which you sat reading LORD OF THE FLIES.

But don’t you remember those afternoons
Some fury the catalyst of which
You only dimly understood
Incited you to slaughter?

Then you would have no mercy
For those who wrung their hands
Among the breadcrumbs,
Pleading for you to take pity on them,
Or the ones you found making love
On the windowsills in the upstairs
Bedrooms where they had believed
They would be safe.

All that stopped you was when
The blue square grew
So clogged with the dead
The living felt a breath of air
That made them take flight
Like men who’ve just sat down to eat
When the phone rings, someone calling
To tell them to flee the house,
Leaving their plates of steaming food
To the flies to enjoy in the time
They have left before the blast.

The Blackbird Says to the Boy

December 16, 2016

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I carry a cauldron of blood on each wing.
My ancestors have collected it
Drop by drop
From the dragging hems
Of the dresses Dawn and Dusk wear,
Those difficult sisters who refuse to marry
Their suitors, Midnight and Noon.
If I were to spill even a thimble-full
They would turn and see
All we have stolen.
And you wonder why I scold you
Whenever you come near.

For Sydney

December 15, 2016

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Learning today via mass email
That you died Monday and here
I am clear across the country cursing
This man blowing leaves, a sign
In December that I must live
In California. I remember,
In Virginia, mornings we'd meet
At the café to talk about the novel
I was writing, your comments
In the margins in green ink,
Arrows suggesting where
A paragraph might go,
Brackets embracing a sentence
You thought I could cut.
All those marks you made
Were like the invisible
Patterns these leaves are carving
In the air, all that time you spent
Helping me, time that feels finite
Now that you’re dead, futile.
I abandoned that book.
What I remember is the way
We would drift away
From my story and end
Up just talking, our coffee long
Gone cold, marbly with cream.
I’m tempted now to read
Our last emails but I’m afraid
To find that instead of writing
From California to ask you
How things were in Virginia
I was writing to ask you for a letter
Of recommendation, a letter
You wrote as if to me, a letter
I never answered.

After the Tsunami

December 14, 2016

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It was months ago now. This morning the sea
Is calm, but everyone on this beach is keeping
One eye on the water the way you watch a dog
That has snapped at a child. These fishermen
Out in their boats, they must have been on shore
That day, mending nets, or hawking baskets
In the market. The fish they’re catching are kin
To the fish that died gasping for water far inland,
Having helped compose the weight of the wave.
They say that when the water sucked out
It uncovered a temple no one knew was there,
As if the sea was returning something it had stolen,
Only to change its mind and take it back again.
I wonder if the fishermen think of it now
That they know it’s down there, or whether
They ignore it the way they ignored
The young men who ran past them that day
Screaming for them to come and see.

The School Bus

December 13, 2016

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(for those kids in Chattanooga)

I loved the bus ride home from school,
That wordless half hour nothing was
Demanded of me, nor of my brother
Sitting in the seat across from me.

Turned away from one another,
We gazed out the window, our breath
Making the glass blush, watching town
Surrender to country. I loved how

What was near rushed past while
What was far seemed to hover and stare
Like deer who halfway across the meadow
Turn and accuse you of scaring them.

We trusted the driver absolutely,
His forehead reflected in the long mirror
Into which his eyes floated from time
To time. When his gaze met mine

I recognized the responsibility he felt
To deliver us safe to the mouth of the lane,
The sons of strangers he nonetheless loved
If only because we were so helpless.

It seemed to me he took comfort in knowing
Life would at least allow him this triumph.
I wonder now if at the moment of death
He remembered us, dry-mouthing

To himself the words: "Whatever else
I have or haven’t done in life, Lord,
I delivered a farmer's sons home safe
And that must mean something."

Ode to Flour

December 6, 2016

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I was feeling down and wanted to praise
Something harmless, something we don’t
Necessarily need, but that I’m glad
We have, and I lit just now upon flour.

I suppose flour could be harmful if
You don’t eat wheat, but let’s assume
You do. Think: where did your mother
Keep the flour when you were a child,

Or your father? Perhaps it was your father
Who did the baking. Maybe neither
Your mother nor your father baked
But they still kept some flour around,

Leftover from Christmas, or because
A neighbor had brought some over,
Though why a neighbor would bring
Flour over and then leave without it,

I don’t know. Anyway you can tell
I want there to have been flour
In your childhood kitchen, in a paper bag
That gave off a little gasp of powder

Every time it was opened, which wasn’t often.
On the side of the bag, a girl in a dress
Tiptoeing amongst hens, a wicker basket
On her arm and it was understood

She was bringing bread to the sick
And poor. Or maybe your family stored
The flour in a glass jar with a wire lid
That latched, or in a stoneware canister

With the word FLOUR painted in blue
Cursive on the side. Wherever it was,
Maybe you reached your hand inside
Every now and then to wonder

At how something so dry could feel
So cool that it felt damp. Or maybe
This is the wrong poem for you.
Maybe you loved salt.


December 1, 2016

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Just when the ground had begun
To believe it would stay closed forever
Like a coffin must, dad would drag
The plow out of the shed into the dull light
Allowed us that early in the year,
Its coulters like cymbals in a parade,
The fanglike tines poised to sink
Into the preylike sod, and the field,
Elderly with snow,
Would be made young again.

The Day After the Election

November 22, 2016

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Nothing really changes. Old farmers sit
at the counter of the Oasis, drinking black
coffee out of cups with little looplike handles
they can't fit their swollen fingers through.

The waitress, overworked, puts her hair up.
The cook frowns at an order. Midmorning,
the last farmer turns down a warm-up,
turns up his collar, and walks out.

Noon. At the Subway men of all ages
shuffle along, telling the kid working
what they want on their sandwich, but by now
he has come to know what they love.

They eat and stare at the old maps
of New York City that paper the walls,
agreeing they would never want to live there.
Done with their subs, they brush crumbs

out of their beards and someone says
it's getting to be tavern-time. In the dark
bar the blonde beer stands in thin glasses,
saddened to be drunk. It has never been

anything but beer and now must be turned
into urine. Some throw darts. Some shoot pool.
Some just spin on their stools and watch
the news. At suppertime the place begins

to thin out, but the ones who know
they'll be back don't bother closing their tabs.
By eight the bar is full again. The talk
is of how maybe now someone will finally

put them to work and put her in jail.
But there is a fear too that what they wanted
and have received will fail them too.
Around midnight the last drinker turns

down another pint and walks out to his truck.
He knows he shouldn't drive but he knew this
last night too. Talk to him and he'd tell you
nothing really changes.


November 15, 2016

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They were built before
I was born, some to separate
pasture from pasture in order
to clarify the prairie, others to bind
the farm around
and keep the world out
and the cows in.
Between the barbs designed
and patented to bloom
at intervals measuring
the span of a hand, redwing
blackbirds scolded
both nations of grass
the fence divided.
The posts that stood
where they’d been driven
knee-deep in limestone
had begun to lean
like men made to march
into the wind. And where
oak saplings had had
the audacity to grow
between the posts,
they had no choice
but to swallow the wire
into their bark, remembering
via rings the anniversary
of that first summer
they sensed the wire tapping
their bodies, then began,
tentatively, to accept it,
to take it in, feeling
the wire tauten
in the grip of their flesh
until they began
to believe they themselves
needed it to stand.

The Raccoon Tree

November 15, 2016

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Winter to winter
we never quite knew
where it was,
and so would have to
find it again,
part of me doubting it
had ever existed.

But then there
it would be,
still with the dark
slit in its side,
darker if the ground
around was aglow
with snow.

We’d take turns
peering in, seeing
nothing but darkness
until our eyes adjusted.
Then would appear
a pair of green eyes,
then the telltale

mask and ringed tail,
this creature that
every winter hid
in fear of us boys
who came without fail
to fill its world
with breath and darkness.


September 17, 2016

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Without meaning
to, two crows
call at once.


September 11, 2016

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Every evening two geraniums
welcomed me in from the barn
but I never so much as paused
on the steps to admire them
in too big a hurry I guess
to get inside the house
where it was dark and cool

It wasn't until after she died
I noticed the empty clay pots
standing there and remembered
how red those petals looked
against the white porch posts
like tissues I pocketed home
days a kid's fist caught my nose
in the schoolyard

"You ought to go down to the greenhouse
and buy some starts
They don't need much to live
just a little water once a day"

That's what the Schwann's man says
every time he comes up to the porch
with the frozen meals I order

I don't know how to tell him
I don't want to grow geraniums
What I want is to remember
the two she grew


September 8, 2016

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That was the age of gas lamps and handwriting.
He would wake out of nightmares and pace
the colonnade, where a mustachioed aid
handed him a playbill for MY AMERICAN COUSIN.

Sometimes I think what I want most is to go home
to Illinois the way Lincoln did, on a black train
that silences whole towns, even the woods hushing
as it brushes by, the fingers of their branches
tipped pink with buds touching the sleek sides.

Days after the train has passed, the branches
become guns firing puffs of pink blossoms soft
as the pennies that slip off the eyelids of the dead.

The Ground Poems Come From

September 8, 2016

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is in need of turning.
It has been some time

since anyone worked
this fallow field.

In yonder shed the tools
hang like thieves,

whetting their lips
forever. In the ground,

last year's poems
rot, fueling the new,

but one must still come
by dawn and fling the dark

door of the ground open
to the light and even

then it will not be
enough. One must

go straight from field
to church, kneel

on sore knees,

for gentle rain
and warm weather.

The Illegal Campfire Bemoans the Waywardness of Her Son

September 7, 2016

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You were sired by fire
But man made me. He blew
Breath into my nostrils,
Nourished me when I was little,
Gave me sweet things to eat.
I was a good daughter.
I warmed him,
Cooked his food,
Gave him light
To read his map by.
Then, in the darkness
Just before dawn,
He turned against me.
Tried to drown me.
Kicked dirt in my many twinkling eyes.
He half-buried me
But I played dead,
Holding my breath of ashes,
And when he turned
His back on me I grew.
After three days I finally
Had strength enough
To throw a spark on dead needles.
Together, with a little wind,
We engendered you.
I watched you grow beside me.
You were a happy child,
Always laughing,
Catching ants.
I thought you'd stay by my side
Forever, that you'd hear me
Draw my last breath.
But you began to wander,
Venturing farther and farther
From this charred meadow
That is your homeland.
At first you sent sparks
Back to me, but since
You've gone over the hill
You never write.
Do you ever pause
To think of your dear mother
Who raised you from duff,
Or have you, in your fame
Of flames, forgotten
Your humble origins
Here, beside this ring of stones?
I've read by the light
Of your face the trouble you're causing
Out there, in the world.
You've become insatiable,
Licking the ribs of deer bare,
Swallowing houses whole,
Chewing up trees and using
Their bones for toothpicks.
Man, who made me
And tried to kill me
Is trying to kill you too,
Digging trenches around you
To strangle you,
Dropping retardant on you
To smother you,
Turning hoses on you
To drown you.
It pains me to think
Of their hatred for you.
I know now what the mothers
Of mass murderers must feel,
Torn between love and horror
At what their sons have done.
By the light of your face I know
They've cornered you.
It won't be long now
Before they pronounce you dead.
But they don't know what I do -
That you're the one making the rings
Of the felled pines glow.
That the rocks hold memories of you
In their hearts like schoolgirls.
And that, come winter, you'll
Come back to me as smoke
Growing out of holes in the snow
Like the hair of the dead.

Tobacco Country

July 31, 2016

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Driving past I didn’t know what they were
at first, then I remembered where I was.
Kentucky. The patch was small, the rows
neatly hoed, as if some one man loved them.
But then there were more, and more, and
I knew some company owned them.
What I want to tell you is how innocent they looked,
unaware of what their leaves contained.
They were like every other growing thing
I had seen that day, the sycamores, the oaks.
Carefully cultivated, of course, part of a vast system
of economics and politics, responsibility and denial,
but there, in that patch, they were alive, and thus
somehow blameless. Like cattle being driven
towards slaughter, they seemed naïve as to where
they were headed: to the factory to be cut
and rolled and packed and shipped and stocked
and finally bought by a young woman
who steps out into the dusk and lights up,
breathing all these fields in, then exhales
and decides to finally leave him.

Night Janitor

July 23, 2016

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In the dark the hastily-erased
chalk looks like snow
seen from the cabin
window of a plane
floating over Nova Scotia.
Were they words? Equations?
Were they names? I can turn
the lights on by merely walking in
and by them try to discern
what's written there, but I prefer
the pearly blur of the board, which draws me
into dreams of travel. So I leave it
for the morning janitor
to erase, and mop the floor.

The Fallen

July 21, 2016

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There were holes in the haymow floor
that would smile and swallow you whole.
Below, cows on the verge of labor
were chewing their cud like old women
I would see years later in New Delhi
chewing betel leaf. In one bay in particular
the floor was like pond ice thawing,
but we tried it anyway, shuffling
through the strewn straw, trusting
the cows' bellies would break our fall.
But what saved us were the pigeon eggs
that had fallen before we could.
Their weight in our hands was strange
as if they were three-fourths full of blue sand
and, distracted, we backed away, our carrying them
the closest they came to flying.

In Plath's Cambridge

July 21, 2016

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Before ARIEL you rode your bicycle
furiously over these cobblestones
that have not turned
over in their beds
since the long-dead
bricklayers laid them here

Now, long after you
set glasses of cold milk
and plates of buttered bread
by their beds
I walk in your Cambridge
and hear how they wobbled
beneath your tires
and your bell chiming
clear and silver
like that doorbell that
years later
you wouldn't rise to answer

Meteor Shower

July 21, 2016

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We stripped the beds of blankets and made up the bed of the truck,
Then drove up the field path, under the fixed but threatened stars.
Not understanding, I feared for them all, imagined them thumbtacks
Stuck in drywall that might stick to your skin and come backing out.
I didn’t know that what was falling had been falling for light years
Only not to reach us after having traveled so far, like a soldier who,
Wounded overseas, dies on the train home.

Dream of Blaze

July 20, 2016

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Dog I haven’t seen much
Less thought of in years
Was in my dream last night

Though I never paid him
Much attention in life
At his sudden appearance

I wept and cried out
Tried to explain to my girlfriend
Who was in the dream too

Holly this is Blaze
Who ran away years
Ago from that farm

That is gone now also
Come back covered
In ticks and burrs

Named Blaze though his fur
Is white and black and gray
And a better name

Might have been
Smoke or Soot
Indeed he smells

Faintly of fire
And as I pet him
Whispering Blaze

Blaze I notice there
Is something wrong
About his eyes

Oklahoma Poem

July 19, 2016

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Somewhere east of Texahoma I start falling
out of touch with the world. The radio scans
like an ax in the hand, making one full loop
before landing square on the Christian station,
oak that won't split. The red clay begins,
coming through the grass like a voice
through static. I see how the dust could’ve risen,
nothing to pin it down but the paperweights
of thunderheads. A boy, maybe twelve,
diminutive in the huge glassy cab, is opening
the earth again. It took his fathers a hundred times
as long as it will take him. I’m going eighty but
I think I see him wave. I wave, wish for him
he has a horse to brush back home.

Tennessee, 103 Degrees

July 19, 2016

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Between showers and it’s so still
The leaves are like breaths
Soldiers hold

The rain has bequeathed
Its baubles to the woods
Old jewels the only granddaughter
Didn’t even want but so much
As touch one
And it disappears

The only moving thing
Amidst all these things
That move me
Are the butterflies

They’re the afterlives
Of spring flowers
Boys beheaded

If beauty is this fragile
Give me death
At least
I don’t have to worry about death

I think of the exiled novelist
Who lusted after them
Netting and gassing them
Pushing bright pins
Into their black bodies

Under glass now
They’re obsolete
Like those old maps that say
Beyond a cartoonish mountain range
“Here Be Dragons”

Graffiti Scrawled By Choirboys, St. Mary's Church, Oxford

June 30, 2016

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In the presence of reverence,
boredom. Even this
beautiful obligation
they will remember years later,
their voices gone
hoarse, merits mockery.
And so the choirboys
of a hundred generations
have scrawled their initials
and shapes only they knew
to be lewd in the wood
with penknives concealed
in their white robes
and with furtive glances
towards men who were once
choirboys themselves, and
whose initials are scrawled here
also and thus
must understand the impulse,
amidst all this
carved stone and stained glass,
to cut one’s name
in the blank grain
before sloughing off the self
and soaring into song.


June 29, 2016

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These three college girls laugh loudly
as they walk by, but here too
are three women who laughed in spring
and knew for certain they’d never die.

These three college boys, a little drunk
already, feign punching one another
on their walk between pubs. But here
too are three men who drank at The Bear,
and punched one another, and knew
for certain they’d never die.

This father walks a few paces behind
his wife and young daughters, gazing
now and then at the sky, but here
too is a father who followed his family,
wondering at the weather and their life together,
and knew for certain he’d never die.

Only his younger daughter turns and sees
the graves through the wrought-iron gate
and weeds, and waves.

The Coffin Road

June 22, 2016

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These flat stones were where
the pallbearers, on their way
from Ambleside to Grasmere,
set the coffin down, a hand
or two still touching it
just in case. They breathed
as if they were taking breath
for the dead, too.
Maybe a little girl
they remembered hearing
sing only a few days before
while bringing the cow in.
But more likely a woman,
who weighed nothing in life
but in death felt like a few
sacks of black river stones.
Maybe a flask was passed
but more likely not.
Only a moment’s rest
so the old man
she was always kind to
and the son who insisted
he come along
could catch their breath
until the man whose hand
had never left the coffin
nodded and they carried on.

The Rose Garden

May 13, 2016

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I sat in the rose garden
Waiting for you
But you never showed.

Restless, I began
To regard the roses,
Their slow rondeau,

The blossoms dresses,
The thorns the swords
Of officers eyeing rivals,

Waiting to swoop in.
If you had appeared then
I might not have known you,

So hypnotized was I
By the dancers swirling
Around me, I who

Was still as an eye
In the wood grain
Of the parquet floor.

And then it was over.
The music ended.
The pairs parted

And walked home
On cool gravel paths,
Talking softly of the duel

To be fought
In the rose garden
In the morning,

Whether the coward
Who'd been challenged
Would show.

The Bombing of Hospitals

April 30, 2016

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There was a time, in a world at once
more and less brutal than ours, when
they were far from the front: in a grove
of full-leaved oaks outside Fairfax,
or in a meadow of lowing cattle
and cawing crows in Normandy.
Calmly the nurses moved through
the wards carrying trays of shrapnel
stewed in blood. Letters came. Elsewhere,
babies were being born, taking first steps,
saying first words. Some of the letters
contained news from the front, far enough
away to have to be borne in the form
of language, not as light and noise,
and as the news of the latest battle
was read out loud, the war seemed
like a nightmare they had had in common,
and had woken from together, all at once.

There was time for flirtations to flare
between nurses and patients, a few affairs.
Smoking between amputations, the surgeons
laughed under the trees like butchers,
their bloody shirtsleeves rolled up, while
in the garden, convalescents hobbled
about on crutches, played croquet, fell
asleep in wheelchairs, apple blossoms
fallen into their hair. Their only fear
was that gangrene would set in,
that they would be the next to turn
quiet and toward the wall. They feared
flies and bedsores, bad news from home,
the appearance from the front of a friend,
gravely-wounded. But the hospital itself,
built of brick or wood, or just a few rows
of linen tents pitched in a field in a rush,
was understood to be protected,
not by any god, but by the presence
of the wounded themselves, who knew
no new harm would be done to them,
only the old harm find a firmer hold,
and pull them under.

The Sandbox

April 21, 2016

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I thought the sand had been brought in from the sea.
It was fine as gold dust, and always cool,
even in summer. We moved it with toys fashioned
in vague approximation of the real backhoes
and dump trucks that had quarried and carried it
from the limestone pit near Lena to the farm,
painted the same canary-yellow but beginning to rust
from the rain we left them out in. I didn’t know
then the central role Caterpillar Company has played
in making tanks and submarines for the US military,
nor could I know that even as I kneeled in a sandbox
in Illinois, up in Olympia, Washington there lived
a girl named Rachel Corrie who’d grow up to be
crushed by a bulldozer while defending the home
of a Palestinian pharmacist. I was just playing
in a sandbox. But in my mind I too was removing
mountaintops, dredging lakes, building dams while
the birds touched down like choppers and rose
veering through the air, and the cats dug, burying
their waste, and the dog, lying down to cool her body,
cleared a whole hillside with her tail. And after all
my damages had been wrought, I too abandoned
the land my father had framed with two-by-fours
like a settlement. Wind blew topsoil over the sand,
sowed seed in it, and the box began to resemble
those stretches of grassy beach you see when
you’re nearing the sea, and everyone you’re with
in the car grows quiet.

Suddenly, Bees

April 6, 2016

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Bees have been appearing in places strange
for bees to be. Yesterday I saw a shadow moving
across our cotton curtains and parted them to see
a swarm swarming one of the columnar evergreens
the family who used to live in this house, cleaved
now into apartments, must have planted for privacy.
And just today, coming down Montgomery
from North Beach, swerving a little on the sidewalk
because I was reading THE DARKENING TRAPEZE,
the posthumously published poems of Larry Levis,
I looked up from my book to look at what
everyone was looking at, another swarm, this time
in downtown San Francisco, like a funnel cloud
that doesn’t believe in itself enough to become
a tornado, agitated in the heightened light
of early evening in late March. Lyft and Uber
drivers stopped at lights, business bros on their phones
talking closings and mergers, a man in rags screaming,
security guards standing outside the Wells Fargo,
everyone stopped what they were doing to watch
these bees, which seemed to have less to do
with earth than with light, as if
the sun was their hive,
their honey safe, far
from where we are.


April 5, 2016

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1 This is the book of the generation of money. 2 JP Morgan begat Goldman Sachs, and Goldman Sachs begat Wells Fargo, and Wells Fargo begat Honeywell International; 3 Honeywell International begat Boeing, and Boeing begat General Electric, and General Electric begat Dow Chemical; 4 Dow Chemical begat Monsanto, and Monsanto begat Caterpillar Company, and Caterpillar Company begat Chevron; 5 Chevron begat Coca-Cola, and Coca-Cola begat Lockheed Martin, and Lockheed Martin begat Nestle USA; 6 Nestle USA begat Phillip Morris, and Phillip Morris begat Pfizer, and Pfizer begat Suez-Lyonnaise Des Eaux; 7 Suez-Lyonnaise Des Eaux begat Wal-mart, and Wal-mart begat Kellogg, Brown and Root, and Kellog, Brown and Root begat Ford Motor Company; 8 Ford Motor Company begat DynCorp, and DynCorp begat ExxonMobil, and ExxonMobil begat Koch Industries; 9 Koch Industries begat Halliburton, and Halliburton begat DuPont, and DuPont begat Barrick Gold Corporation; 10 Barrick Gold Corporation begat Fannie Mae, and Fannie Mae begat Freddie Mack, and Freddie Mack begat Bear Stearns; 11 Bear Stearns begat Lehman Brothers, and Lehman Brothers begat Merrill Lynch, and Merrill Lynch begat Comcast; 12 Comcast begat Blackwater, and Blackwater begat Bank of America, and Bank of America begat the poor.

Mowing Lawn

April 4, 2016

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Growing up, I mowed lawn. Lord knows there was plenty of it
to mow. Two farmsteads, each with yards big as county parks,
as if the people who settled that place had wanted to keep
the fields back so they could sit on the porch without feeling
the crops creeping up close in the evening. It was impossible
to keep the grass down. By the time you reached the end
of the yard it had already grown back back where you began,
like a diaspora of cancer returning to the organ of its origin,
or a fire the crew thinks it put out, growing behind them.
And so we mowed perpetually, my brothers and I,
while dad did the fieldwork. Shirtless, in mesh athletic shorts
that rode halfway up my thigh, in shoes I played ball in,
I sat high in the Farm-all C tractor modified for mowing,
the deck swinging underneath on chains. Whole days,
no, whole years of my life were lost this way, keeping an eye
on the margin between the cut and uncut swaths, practicing
a futile perfection that, days later, would not matter
if it ever had, as when, deep in the privacy of a notebook,
you work over the same lines again and again, knowing
no one will ever read them. But at least the poem achieves
a form that feels final. Lying on my back in bed at night
after a day spent mowing, I could feel the grasses growing,
in that staggered, unkempt way blades of grass grow.
I knew the pride dad took in keeping the farmyards neat,
his frustration with farmers who didn’t seem to care for theirs,
literally. His compliment, whispered as an aside you had to catch
like a ball falling, was, “Yep, got this place mowed up pretty
good.” It was through mowing that I knew early the exhaustion
of tenancy, the way that keeping a place yours keeps you its,
so that you begin to wonder who or what is the possessor
and who or what is the possessed. My dad keeps a smaller yard
now that he keeps mowed up pretty good. His sons live in cities
where grass is given no quarter save for in the cemeteries
and those empty parks like patches of blindness where the poor
nod off on benches and empty swings sway on chains
and there is a budget to pay grown men to keep the grass down.

The Wire

April 2, 2016

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My father strung wire, miles of it,
off a singing spool mounted
on the bed of a red ATV.
The old barbwire my grandfather
strung decades before
stood by, the rotted posts
looking on incredulously, old men
watching a young man dig
a grave. In its claws still, the fur
of cattle thirty years dead.
The oaks that grew along it
were swallowing the wire
in a perpetual circus trick
performed for crows and sparrows.
The barbs were buried rings
deep like dud landmines.
The wire my father strung
was a single wire, electrified,
toothed with dew at dawn.
From a distance
it looked like nothing
was keeping the herd
from drifting across the highway,
fleshing out the cloud shadows.
To them the wire was not a wire
but a border where pain was
the toll for crossing.
We too knew not to touch it.
The only way to take part in
its power was to hold a blade
of grass to it and feel throbbing
through it the wire’s desire to be
channeled through flesh.
But every now and then,
ducking under it too hastily,
I heard a snap then felt it
pinch my spine
through the thin summer
t-shirts I wore.
Turning back, I would wonder
again at how the birds
could clutch it in their naked,
lightning-colored feet
as if it were a thin metal branch.
And somehow I knew the reason
they were able to was because
I stood grounded on earth
and they did not,
and to be on earth is a blessing
we pay for in pain.


March 26, 2016

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Midsummer, I remember them
bolting against my bare legs,
a green, sexual strength.
August found them strewn
in the dust like busted springs.
I touched them with my shoe
to make sure
they were dead
before picking them up.
Packed tight on my dresser,
the jars looked like
those homemade bombs
packed with nails and screws
that no one
but the terrorist knows
never went off.

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February 23, 2016

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On the train I hesitate to then touch
The tired man sitting beside me
To point out the big moon rising
Over Mt. Diablo and the forgotten
Graffitied factories of South San Francisco
And he who like me was nodding
Over his phone, drawing his finger
With its whorled prints unique to him
Down the smudged screen
To refresh the feed gone stale
And learn of horrors missed
While working, thanks me and calls
His wife to tell her to tell his sons
To go out on some balcony in Bernal
Heights and see the moon before
It atrophies and pales into bone.

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February 22, 2016

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Why did they never show themselves
to me these ghosts the woman who lives
there now tells my mother about saying
"Yes I’ve seen them passing through the bedroom
before dawn an old couple in worn clothing
he in denim she in a long housedress" on their way
downstairs to start in on chores their spirits
still waking at the milking hour a warning
to farmers that even when you’re dead
you won’t be able to sleep in "Yes they’re here
but they’re completely harmless I don’t even flinch
anymore when I see them did you ever see them?"
to which my mother says "No but I’m not surprised"
nor am I who always felt sudden chills
heard strange sounds watched doors creak
open then close found things on my desk I had
not taken out of drawers "Completely harmless"
the woman says turning towards that house
that is hers now that I will never step foot in
again unless I come back to haunt it
saying "The only thing I wish is I wish
they would tell me their names"

Bare of Laurel They Live

January 26, 2016

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…pity these have not
Trac’d upon vellum or wild Indian leaf
The shadows of melodious utterance.
But bare of laurel they live, dream, and die…

- John Keats, "The Fall of Hyperion – A Dream"

Bare of laurel they live,
The deer bedded down
In the meadow about to be
Mown, the cattle grazing,
The sound like nurses
Tearing cloth into bandages
In wartime, the flock of
Geese that never fails to
Forget this field, the mare
The boys give a crabapple to
Before the vet puts her down
And the worm secreted
In its sweet flesh, the fox
The farmer sees while fixing
The fence the deer ran through,
Assisted by the dog, burs
In her red fur, just beginning
To gray, the barn cats
In their generations, carrying
Stunned kittens by the skin
Of the neck because the boys
Found where she hid them,
Or crouched in honeysuckle
Hunting, or waiting outside
The milk house for alms,
The black ones crossing
The hired hand with bad luck,
The hired hand, whose bald
Head is bare of laurel
And who lives in the double-
Wide back of the house,
Dreaming a day will come
When the farmer's sons
Will die and he alone stand
To inherit all this. No
Creature or character in all
Of Pearl County wears
A crown of laurel.
Not the men who spend
Their mornings drinking
Coffee at the counter
Of The Oasis, ogling
The waitresses and waiting
For warmups. Not the man
Who picks up dead animals
Or the veterinarian
Or the milk hauler
Or the mailman
Or the breeder who
Every spring brings
The ring-nosed bull.
Bare of laurel they all live.
The closest this county
Comes to a laureate
Is summer evenings
The boys walk into the meadow
From which the deer
Have been scared to make
Crowns of clover and pretend
They are princes
And this their kingdom.

Thomas Merton's Last Words

January 14, 2016

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So I will disappear
from view and we
can all have a coke
or something.

With Some, Death Grows Suddenly

January 12, 2016

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With some, death grows suddenly
impatient, after being made
to wait so long, like a groom
who bursts into the room
to find his bride still pinning
up her hair, and takes her
before she's been given.
Later, the guests will whisper
of the cold draft they felt
when the two came up the aisle,
saying, "She smiles now but when
all this is over, the bottles
taken to recycling, the dress
hung in darkness, the bouquet
wilting in the room of the young
girl who caught it, it will hit her
like an open hand,
the mistake she's made."

Cow Bell In a Pasture

January 10, 2016

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Standing upright, the tongue hangs still,
yearning for the sides like a young woman
yearning for horizons. The way it landed,
a little askew, there is room under one corner
for beings of a certain size to slip through.
Sometimes a cricket will enter, feel solemn,
question whether to, then play a note that echoes
so strangely he packs up his fiddle and leaves
the strange cathedral. In summer fireflies come
illuminate the walls like archeologists
looking for petroglyphs in a cave. And always
there is a faint light that falls through the place
where the brass was broken to make the ring.
The bell keeps a square of this pasture snowless
and grassless through the year, and has ever
since the days cows wore bells. It is only a matter
of time until a boy finds it and it will have
joyous days again, a second youth, like a widower
who remarries late in life. But more likely
it will sing again in the belly of a backhoe's claw
and be buried dumb, packed as full of dirt
as the handles of a coffin. Only when it is
taken from or buried under this pasture
will one be able to say that all it stands for
has finally vanished: the one who wore this
one last, and the man who stood at the gate
so many mornings, listening, until the day
it fell off, and she came unheralded behind
the others, appearing silent out of the mist,
so that seeing her he felt strange, alive again
to the mystery, then said, "Well, where's your bell?"

Stung By a Dead Bee

January 7, 2016

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I’d seen it before,
curled up on the floor
like a sleeping child,
but thought
nothing of it.
I was so lonely
in that city even
the minuscule dead
kept me company.

Later, searching
for socks,
I felt that dawning
pain that seems
to be perpetually
about to be.
Wild that something
dead can still
make the living suffer.

But I didn’t feel
any anger.
It hadn't meant to
sting me.
Nor did I feel
the guilt of knowing
the bee must die now,
its abdomen
and digestive tract
and muscles
and nerves
pulled out
with the stinger.
The bee was dead.
It couldn’t have been
any deader.

And I’m glad now,
now that the pain's
gone, that I gave
the bee the chance
to use what
it never had a chance
to in life.

B Side

January 7, 2016

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Something’s wrong
with his mother again.

She’s put on that lipstick
and a Christmas record

in June. When she falls
asleep with the flyswatter

in her hand, it falls to him
to turn it over.

What the Tornado Said

December 22, 2015

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I want you, wives of Kansas, to leave your beds
in which you lie sleepless beside your husbands
and spend the night with me instead.

Leave behind the tissues, novels and meds,
and throw the curtains and windows open.
I want you, wives of Kansas, to leave your beds

where your husbands sleep sound as the dead.
Leap from the windows like spring-born wrens
and come spend the night with me instead.

We'll rattle down the road like newlyweds.
I'm turning towards you now. Just say when.
I want you, wives of Kansas, to leave your beds
and spend the night with me instead.


December 22, 2015

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The axe that heats
the home one day
kills the chicken the next.

After Pound

December 21, 2015

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These pink blossoms on black branches;
Children we bombed posing on crutches.


December 21, 2015

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In some online search they find
the town his father's father's father
lived in before the Gold Rush made him
pull up stakes and go West to stare
into the stingy mirror of a pan, to try
being poor out there for a change.

And so they set out for Arkansas.
When they pull up in front of a house
not old enough to have been his
ancestor's, drowned in kudzu, it's not
the root of his family tree he finds,
but the dead branches of another's.

Writers Retreat

December 21, 2015

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Why do writers retreat
from the world as if the world
were coming for them
in the night with pitchforks
and torches?

It is the world that retreats
from the writer.
Writers should go out
in broad daylight
shouting verses, stories.

Then, when the world
comes for them
with pitchforks and torches,
they can hide until the world
forgets what it's looking for.

Premature Will

December 21, 2015

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The trees are turning
like an old man turning
finally to the heavy evening

work of drafting his will.
As he writes, hairline cracks
appear in the porcelain

of his life. The chair he sits in,
deeded to his son the writer,
almost refuses to hold him,

while the kitchen table
he writes on, deeded
to his daughter,

who seems destined
to have a large family,
aches to walk down

the road on its frail,
foal-like legs into her kitchen.
Every object he writes down

the name of is anxious
to begin its new life
with his children.

He is writing his will
as if he will die any day
now, but he will live

another twenty years,
confounded that things
he loves seem

to disobey him,
as if mad he is holding
on to them so long.

Three Dying Dog Dreams

December 21, 2015

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After I deleted your name
from my phone, I began having dreams
about dogs dying. The first two
were about our family golden retriever.
Somehow in the teleportation of dreams
we were in Paris. I kneeled down
to let her off her leash and she ran off.
I called and called her name but knew
when I rounded the corner I'd find her
dead in the street. And I did. She died
in my arms as passers-by whispered
sympathies in French. I could feel her
body, the blood in her matted fur,
her weight I know from picking her
forelegs up to slow-dance with her
around the kitchen. A few nights later
I dreamt of her dying again. This time
it was some flower she'd eaten
she wasn't supposed to. I forced her
to swallow strange pills of damp,
compressed herbs just in time
to revive her. In relief I embraced her,
her living body warm, her fur bloodless.
But she seemed far away, as if
she hadn't come back from where
she'd gone when her eyes rolled like magic
eight balls in her skull. And then,
just last night, I dreamt of a different dog,
a huge dog I knew somehow
was named Holcomb. He and I,
we were walking along a dark gorge
in the mountains when a storm came up.
The lightning broke its arms trying
to carry the sky. I was afraid. Holcomb,
drenched, dog-smelling, pressed
against me as we walked. I was afraid
he'd push me into the gorge.
Then out of the dark a dozen hounds
came, mouths like bear-traps,
snarling and drooling. I could feel
my heels hanging over the lip of rock.
Holcomb hove into them, but they
were too much for him. I watched them
drag him off bleeding into the dark
and woke wondering what it meant,
three dying dog dreams in three months.
I looked up an interpretation that said
one may dream of dogs when one has lost
a friend. Before we ceased speaking,
I dreamt of you almost every night.
Now, I never do. I dream of dogs dying.
And if you were to call me now,
I wouldn't recognize the number,
and wouldn't answer.

Drunk Late at Night In a Cabin in the Redwoods

December 21, 2015

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The forest floor is thick with dirty needles.
I decide instead to take a walk up the hill
of the typewriter. When I come back in
I'm reminded I never had the heart
to carve the pumpkin. Its face is blank
as these six melatonin pills a friend
gave me to help me sleep out here
in the deep woods. I take three
in the hopes that I dream a poem,
a poem about a blind girl feeling,
then naming, the newborn foal, or one
about a deaf boy signing to the aurora,
a poem so absurdly poetic
the workshop would hate it.

Small-Town Law Office, Central Illinois

December 21, 2015

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This town's sole lawyer dreams of being
allowed to prosecute and defend
the same man, pacing back and forth
before the rapt courtroom hanging
on his every word. Then dreams of being
the judge and all nine members of the jury.
Then dreams the jury hung, then dreams
the whole thing over again. This on afternoons
when all his cases are closed like flowers
before a killing frost and from the other room
comes the sound of his secretary typing,
her fingers ringless and furious. She dreams
of walking across America to deliver the letter
she is typing to the handsome and lonesome
lighthouse keeper. The letter says,
"You can come down now and marry
a woman far inland. For from now on
every ship is a ghost ship." At the end
of the day, leaving, the lawyer tells her
not to stay too late. She promises him
she won't.

Lucid in Harness

December 21, 2015

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Worked to white lather,
their mouths frothing green
around the gnawed bits,
their nostrils velvet bells,
their lungs bellows blowing
on their hearts' smoldering
fires, still they are more
lucid in harness than
the man with snowflakes
in his lashes and reins gone
slack in his hands.

Kneeling Bus

December 21, 2015

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A sign by the door
says this bus
is a "Kneeling Bus."
This bus kneels
at the filthy curbs
and gutters of the world,
kneels to me,
to you, to us.

I was feeling hopeless
walking to the stop
and now I'm not because
of how the bus kneeled,
like a girl late for Mass
who settles into the pew,
crosses herself quickly,
and kisses her fist.

Poem for Roscoe Holcomb

December 14, 2015

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Floodlit you look nervous
shy as a boy at a dance
they found you down
in Hazard brought you up
like a trilobite into the light
of the north in Manhattan
your nerves must be shot
to hell and now onstage
they’re rolling film of where
you live Seeger saying “Not much
of a house four walls a roof
the walls papered with the daily
news to keep the wind out
are most houses like that?”
and you say switching the banjo
out for the guitar “Some are”
and Seeger says “Now Roscoe
you make a living working
construction is that right?”
and you say “Yes but I can
hardly work anymore I broke
my back” and Seeger says “But
your fingers they sure still work”
and you say “I can’t hardly see
how what with lifting so many
cinder blocks as I have” and
Seeger says “Well will you play
one for us?” and you say
“I call this one
The Rocky Mountain”
as you play they’re rolling
footage of you hoeing corn
on another day of your life
self-conscious knowing
you’re being filmed
you stop playing
and Seeger says “Oh you
saw your...take your eye off
that monitor and keep on singin’
hold that Rocky Mountain” and you try
but how can they ask you to
play today in New York City
while you’re watching yourself
hoeing corn in Hazard
Kentucky last spring?

What Scrapper Kevin Said to Me at Apple Jack's Tavern in La Honda, CA

December 13, 2015

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They call me Scrapper Kevin,
you know why?
It’s how I make a living.
Scrap metal.
Can’t fault a guy for making a living
any way a guy can.
But people around here,
a lot of ‘em hate me.
That guy over there, for instance.
Jesus Christ don’t look at him
God damn it.
That guy’s here to kill me.
There’s a hit out on me see.
See there’s this lake back in the woods
over there, you don’t know it,
don’t nobody know it
until you go in there.
It's a bad curve, a lot of folks
miss it and go right clear
through the brush.
There’s gotta be ten,
a dozen cars in there,
some with bodies in ‘em,
bodies still in ‘em.
Everybody knows that.
You don’t gotta be a genius.
This guy I knew, he lost his daughter
in there. She was texting him.
Well somehow the rumor got started
I’ve been dragging cars up
out of there for metal
and now this guy's been talking
about killing me,
throwing me in there.
See how I like it.
That's what that guy there's
here to do.
Don't think I don't know.
This here’s a small town,
La Honda’s a small town.
I swear to God I’ve never been
down there in that water.
I don’t care how broke I get,
I’ll never go in there.
Can you imagine?
Those bodies in there,
years some of them
bodies been in there.
I know what they must look like.
I’m from Michigan.
Every winter some idiot
kids’d get drunk and drive
out on the ice and it'd break.
Of course it would.
They'd go right in, it wasn’t uncommon.
Trust me I’d never touch that
water. But I’m not gonna lie.
Sometimes driving by I think
man all that metal.

Sonnet for a Man Seen Carrying Roses

December 7, 2015

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This man is carrying roses
home, I assume, I assume
to his wife, but how do I
know where he is going,
who the flowers are for?
Maybe he bought them for
himself to allay loneliness
with beauty. Maybe
he will give them away
before he reaches his door.
Who can say what this man
carrying roses will do
with them. Certainly not
me, a man carrying bread.

Rain Becoming Hail

December 3, 2015

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When rain hardens
into hail, one feels that
an inner resolution
on the part of water
has finally been
acted upon, as when,
after years of deliberation,
one finally makes a decision
one lacked the strength
to make before. When
I hear the rain turning
to hail on the roof I know
that again I am being
challenged to do that
which up to now I have
failed to do, and feel
at once something
within me withering
(that is cowardice)
and something hardening
(that is conviction)
before the hailstones
vanish into grass.

A Few Poems Written in Paris

November 18, 2015

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A Few Poems Written in Paris


Across the Jardin des Tuileries I can hear the screams
of tourists being hurtled through the air, their heads
light with blood, their hair everywhere, their eyes
clenched closed in fear of the fact that the only thing
keeping them from falling is a bar across their thighs.

Not far from here is where they erected the guillotine.
In the night it stood, silent, open, like an empty hotel
in the mountains in wintertime. At night when lovers
walked by it they shivered. High in the air the blade
shone. Rye thrived in the blood-soaked soil. Nothing

much has changed. Summer comes. People seek thrills,
then shade under the leaves of the chestnut trees.
In the dead hour before the first Campari, the waiters
rake the fine gravel, sweep leaves. The patience of waiters!
Even the word… In another time, not far from here,

these very men gathered in throngs to scream death
to kings. Stood on street corners, handing out pamphlets
and bread. Now, they smoke and wait for the tourists
to come down out of the air, their hair still wild,
their faces flushed red, and gesture at what they want.



This statue of a nameless goddess
in the Jardin du Luxembourg,
her head is so festooned with spikes
to keep pigeons from roosting on it
she will never know the weight
of a bird, its weariness when it comes
to alight on her and recite, sweetly;
the sonnet of its flight, will never know
its defecations, its feet older than
she is. The pigeons find other heads
to land on. God knows there are plenty,
and this goddess is passed over
like a daughter who lives unmarried.
Her fingers ringless.
Pure, clean of this world.
The saddest goddess in the park.



Walking through the market on Boulevard Raspail
I step into the gaze of the wide-eyed dolls
this man is trying to sell amidst this profusion
the fish gasping in oblique schools on the crushed ice
the rotisserie chickens turning on their spits
dripping grease into the cubist potatoes
the livers and hearts exposed like secrets
the cheeses aged and wise in their white rinds
amidst it all these four dolls slouched like kids
dead at desks and in a flash I remember
the other night wandering drunk and lost
I saw a woman and her children asleep
amidst soiled blankets drifted against the wall
of a closed bank and after I'd thought of all
that money worthless in its privacy in the dark
vault banked like cooking fires like leaves
I saw atop them all there was a baby
very nearly newborn lying somehow
at about the angle of the figurehead of a ship
her eyes open great black Parisian eyes
which watched me pass as if in fear
I might do this sleeping family some harm
and long after I had walked away from where
I thought I was going leaving them nothing
but asleep I could still see those eyes
taking in what will be memories deep
as the sea these fish were torn gasping
out of her eyes so unlike the eyes of these
dolls who can only stare who someone really
ought to buy if for no other reason
than to take them home
and close their eyes


November 6, 2015

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"An exciting Palo Alto mobile startup is seeking highly creative writers for a new mobile interactive-fiction chat application. This is an extremely fun opportunity to work with a senior product team as we create a new, highly addictive mobile service.

Ideal candidates should be: extremely creative; excellent in short-form writing; current on pop-culture; addicted to their mobile phones; edgy and have a good understanding of writing short, witty dialogue; and enjoy the idea of seductive writing. Beneficial skills would include: web and tech savvy; comfortable working with simple markup languages such as HTML; knowledge of Javascript is a plus.

We are excited to meet highly passionate and energetic writers who want to be part of a successful team that is building the next hot consumer mobile company. We have an immediate need for candidates. Please send your information, including any links or attachments to writing samples to"


To Whom Is Concerned:

I am seeking positions at your mobile reactive-fiction chat application. When I read the job perimeters I texted friends and family immediately to say how much I want to text for you. I am excellent and extremely creative, have good understand of writing short, and love pop cultures. Though I have little experience purse hay at web utilities, I have lots of time on and in the Internet. And, while a simple makeup language is not so simple for me, my learning curves are steep. As for seductive, I am that, especially when writing. Some days I don't leave my house and then it grows dark and I stay home longer. I live in San Francisco, so my costs of relocation would be transmutable, perhaps, but hopelessly not remunerative. You have an immediate need for candidates; I have an immediate need for you. I have attached my novel to this document, and am exposed to feedback loops.

Thank you for taking the time to consider my interpretation of what you mean by application.

Yours veritably,

Austin R. Smith
Class of '15

The Gift

October 23, 2015

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If I had a daughter I would tell her

If I had a son I would say


Some days my parents’ neighbors’ grandchildren
walk down the road to give the horse a carrot

There is fear in the way they pull their hands away
as into his long mouth the carrot disappears

Then delight in the way they laugh say thank you
walk back up the road looking at their hands


If I had a son I would tell him

If I had a daughter I would say

Every evening return
empty handed

The Darkness Raises Its Hand

October 23, 2015

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They say the light shines
And the darkness doesn’t understand

Like a dimwitted kid in a classroom
The darkness raises its hand

Says I might not be as bright
As all these who surround me

But watch you don’t ignore me
There’re plenty who adore me

Mission Creek

October 22, 2015

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What once ran red
when the butcheries bled
out like a steer slaughtered
and spinning on chains
now runs whatever color
the sky hands down to the water
like a child at a shelter
the creek will wear whatever
it is given without discernment
or complaint as it always has
the only difference being that
back then all the clothes were red

The Politician

September 16, 2015

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Look says the politician now
what we're look to do here is
look you've got to understand
a look in my position is look
when you've been in look
for as many look as I have
you look how to look put it
that way and yes but look
yourself in my shoes and look
it ultimately look down to is
look we have got to look what
you're saying is neither look
look there look what I mean?

Larry's Boots

September 16, 2015

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They were black snakeskin, the scales peeling,
the toes curved up, the soles scuffed. I waited
until the room was empty, then touched them
like I have seen a friend touch her mother’s feet
hidden in the blue and gold folds of her sari
and saw him standing against the brick wall
of some Richmond bar, watching a bad band
play beautifully, whispering a poem he never wrote
down, a poem about a rattlesnake asleep in the shade
of a rock in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.
The fetishization of the dead embarrasses the living.
But someone had decided to put Larry Levis’s
cowboy boots on display, and there was no way
I was going to leave before touching them.

The Capacity of Speech

September 14, 2015

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It is easy to be decent to speechless things.
To hang houses for the purple martins
To nest in. To bed down the horses under
The great white wing of the year's first snow.
To ensure the dog and cat are comfortable.
To set out suet for the backyard birds.
To put the poorly-shot, wounded deer down.
To nurse its orphaned fawn until its spots
Are gone. To sweep the spider into the glass
And tap it out into the grass. To blow out
The candle and save the moth from flame.
To trap the black bear and set it free.
To throw the thrashing brook trout back.
How easy it is to be decent
To things that lack the capacity of speech,
To feed and shelter whatever will never
Beg us or thank us or make us ashamed.


September 14, 2015

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Of blood, of course. But also of this
Penny minted the year Kennedy was killed,
Passing from hand to hand like an assassin
In a crowd. Of air through lungs and leaves.
Of mercury from factory into spillway
Through gills into fish flesh through breast
Milk into newborn. Of the lie the president
Tells that sells the war to the populace.
Of the awful truths all lies become once
They’ve taken root. Of the water the sun
Raises Lazarus-like from the lake and which
Falls on the red umbrella of the woman
At the funeral. Of books checked out once
Every ten years by graduate students.
Of beer and urine. Of the wasting disease
That makes the starved deer stagger down
From the hills, killed crossing the highway.
Of the carrion the vultures carry in talons
Into the trees. Of the dead and the daisies.

Finding a Four-Leaf Clover in Cocteau and Maritain's ART AND FAITH

September 13, 2015

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Pressed, its leaves could be the cardinal
Directions of a compass rose, save that
One leaf is askew. Then again, perhaps
It points the way to the meadow where
What is rare is to find a three-leaf clover.

Two Sounds

September 13, 2015

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Two sounds arrested me while writing
Prose. They appeared at either ear
Like officers at the front and back door.
One was the sound of the wind
In the corn, the rustling of leaves
Like nervous people rubbing palm
Against palm. The other was the sound
Of a jet, high and unknowable,
Its nervous passengers an abstraction,
Its pilots and attendants no more
Corporeal than this wind that takes
Leaves and makes them make music
That makes me stop trying to write
About the world, and listen to the earth.

Valentine's Day in the City

September 9, 2015

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Like a flautist preparing to perform,
the flower seller places her fingers
on the stops between the thorns.

Around her, the symphony of sirens
and horns. She cuts the stem and hands
the flower to this young man who stands

in the shadow of her skyscraper,
looking up towards the high windows,
gazing down now into the rose.

The Mechanic's Children

September 7, 2015

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Two children barefoot in a spring,
their feet white and cold as turnips,
her dress pulled up, his pants rolled
past his knees. Each holds a jelly jar.
Imagine a tiny pair of glass lungs
hovering in the green woods, in-
haling murky water that was crystal
clear this morning when they lay
sleeping in the bed they share.
They're after the creatures that toil
in the sand, tireless as pacemakers.
The cracked crankcases of the cars
their father abandoned back here
bleed oil. When they find the rainbows
they catch them too. And long after
all the creatures they caught have died
the rainbows will abide.

Things We Don't Often Think Of

September 6, 2015

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The nightmares
of beekeepers.

The wrists
of bakers.

The fathers
of murderers.

The birth
pains of cats.

The addresses
of mailmen.

The laughter
of deaf boys.

The obituaries
of faraway towns.

The taxi driver
driving home.

The barber
sweeping up hair.

The basement
of the house in the painting.

The backs
of hand mirrors.

The bridles
of dead horses.

The doors
of slaughterhouses.

The pens of old
love letters.

The fossils
in bulk gravel.

The music
boxes in shipwrecks.

The mountains
under the sea.

The darkness
in the accordion.

The night
reading of fishermen.

The skeletons
of astronauts.

The other side
of the coffin pillow.

The grave
of the undertaker.

Folk Medicine

September 4, 2015

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Ten feet off this porch are plants
that would kill me if I ate them.

Ten feet from any plant that would kill me
is a plant that would save my life.

The antidote must resemble the poison.
How could it work otherwise?

The plants that kill
and the plants that save

look almost exactly like, like identical
twins asleep in a baby carriage.

Color of Thunder

September 2, 2015

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Thunder is
the green of
the iris in the glass
eye a grandfather
pops out to beat
his grandson
in marbles
and teach him
a lesson

Thin Skin

September 2, 2015

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What sin did I commit in a past life
to deserve being so sensitive in this one?
Why does this man whose livelihood
is ferrying me from O’Hare to Madison
make me so sad, taking money for tickets
with fingers barren of rings? Why, when
I was little, did the plow abandoned
in the field seem to me a child holding
a tray of empty plates in the cafeteria
of a new school? A stalk of asparagus
bent necklike in the contour of the pan
and I’m mourning the life of a woman
in a novel I’ll never write, reading on a train.
At the protest, when everyone was screaming
at the line of police, one of the cop’s yawned
and I saw, instantly, his whole boyhood.
I wished everyone would just go home
so he could sleep. I once cursed a kid
for pouring gin in a tide pool to see
the anemones closing themselves up,
so sorry did I feel for the anemones,
but I wound up feeling sorrier for the kid.
I used to wake at the snap of the mousetrap
and think all the poor thing wanted
was some peanut butter. Death will be
the only relief for someone sensitive as me.
And death. My God. What a pity…


September 1, 2015

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The dough lifts the white cotton
rag thrown over it like family
at the coroner's. Sighing, they cry
out it isn't him. Dough breathes in
absolutely like the lungs of the man
who drowned, like how a horse
whose saddle is being cinched tight
for a night journey breathes out.
We arrived like a letter sent to one
who is dead and tomorrow we will
be sent back trodden in stamps
of blue ink, tossed down on a table
cloth littered with breadcrumbs
to be read by the master who wrote it.


August 30, 2015

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Strange how fast panic subsides
into the depths it rose from
how the waters it whitened and troubled
grow tranquil again like death
beds made for the next patient
only the dark shape of it in the water
like a boat seen from below
keeps us from the convenient fiction
that it will never appear again

Selfie Stick

August 26, 2015

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To be seen clearly
we must put some distance
between ourselves
and what regards us.

Hence this space
we've created and that collapses
neatly into itself
for ease of carrying.

Soap Operas

August 25, 2015

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Those summer days the sun would raise
the smell of warm carpet and cleaning
chemicals and dust mites would swim
like plankton in the baleen-like beams
she’d put soap operas on for company
while she cleaned I remember
their peculiar muteness
like when your ears won’t pop
after the descent
so caught up were they
in their dramas they didn’t notice
me watching them
sometimes she’d take a yellow cloth
soft as baby clothes
and wipe the static and dust
off the screen
but their expressions didn’t change
for all her waving
their lives uninvolved with ours
I grew to dread their sudden intrusions
their voices rising in argument
as they paced a living room I never saw
anyone dusting but that was always
so clean I don’t believe I believed
it was real but then again
when would that ever matter to me?

The Sycamore

June 29, 2015

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Sycamore stricken white
in the black woods,
what spooked you?

Something the river said?

A new seriousness
in the owl’s question?

You went white all at once,
an aneurism of snow.

The boy who visits you
visits you no more.
He has a new picture
in his mind of what
death is.


June 28, 2015

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On a boat on the Seine
on Bastille Day I heard
a well-known American
poet say to a friend
that when they went
to Normandy they were going
to skip the war beaches
because, you know,
the children.


June 25, 2015

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Children wading
through fountains
looking for pennies
we threw when
we were children
do you remember
what we wished for
I know
I don't


June 22, 2015

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We are losing the last
who remember
punching new holes
in their belts those
years there was nothing
in the cupboard but
bread that never
molded and potatoes
the eyes of which
never went looking
through the dark
for one another
unlike a family
caught out in it
in broad day

Playing Dominos With Josiah at the Shelter

June 21, 2015

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I ask him to show me how to play. Together we start lining them up, each with its number on its chest, each with all its eyes bright and open, staring into the back of the one before it. "Who are these guys?" I ask, remembering that sculpture I saw in DC of a line of men standing outside a soup kitchen during the Depression. He points out the domino that is me and the domino that is him. "Where are we going?" I ask him. "Nowhere!" he says with glee. "What are we waiting for then?" "We're waiting...we're waiting for this!" he says, flicking the last one with his nail. They fall like an arpeggio. "How about we build a house?" I suggest. The house Josiah builds is missing several necessary walls and a roof. I pick up a domino to add to it but before I can he knocks the house down with the back of his hand. "What was that? A tornado?" "No." "An earthquake?" He shakes his head. "A banker? A dragon?" His eyes light up, he nods. He's already building it back up again. "Another house?" I ask. "No," he says in the breathless voice of focused boys, "A tower." He builds it higher and higher. When I tell him I think he's built it as high as it can be built he builds it one level higher, then flies his hand into it and the whole thing comes crashing down. "What was that? A plane?" "No, a dragon!" "Oh," I say, "Well what should we do now?" "Let's make the men fall again," he says. I tell him I like that one and start lining them up but he stops me he says "Let's make them face the other way."

Reading James Salter

June 20, 2015

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To finish LIGHT YEARS I had to set aside an afternoon in the garden of a cafe, where I knew I could linger for two hours over one expensive glass of wine and the final pages without being interrupted. Around me, the talk of people working in tech, the new rich, speaking in earnest whispers about inventions that will make life easier, so that we may pass more swiftly and with less obstruction to the end, as I was passing to the end of the novel. Only I didn't want to finish it and be bereft of Viri and Nedra and their daughters, so that, the closer I came to the end, the slower I read, putting the novel down every paragraph or so. Time ground to a halt, and everything happening around me seemed to be connected to the book, so that there was no distinction between literature and life. A giant raven alit on the adjacent table to pick at the salads two women had abandoned, and this seemed significant, as did the light passing through what was left of my wine, hovering like a planchette on the bricks of the patio. Even the talk around me, which I would have ordinarily abhorred, seemed fraught with consequence. I knew anew the joy of reading as a child, sitting on the farmhouse porch, when I would raise my eyes from the Civil War novel and know the fields to be battlefields. The absorption of it, and the thrill of being deceived into believing in the reality of a parallel life, which has its dangers, as well, the way a window full of leaves and sky endangers birds. And then there were no more words, and I looked up, and the raven and I were the only ones left in the garden.


June 18, 2015

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Summer is the attic.
Dead boxelder bugs
litter the sills.
Chests hold breaths
of yellowing letters.
You cannot stay
up here long,
soon you must
descend the stairs,
come down from
the height and heat

into the kitchen
which is autumn,
where the light is
the color of broth
and pheasant feathers
in brown bottles
are the only bouquets.
In the wood stove,
ashes and nails.
The kettle is cold,
the cupboard empty.

Descend the steep
cellar stairs into winter
where the preserves
of dead gardens are
kept and pale spiders
try their wares.
A dead steer
in the freezer,
and a cairn of coal.
Now that you've been
to the nadir of the year,

you may ascend
to the bedroom where
spring survives
in the wallpaper
and the headboard
gouged with a pattern
of flowering foliage.
Lie back in bed,
read her letter
again, the bluest ink
on the whitest paper.


June 17, 2015

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The moon lifts
the sea's face
up to its
and scans it
for signs of betrayal,
but the sea is honest,
honest, honest.

The Big Bang

June 16, 2015

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Some summer nights a storm would come
knock the TV’s teeth out. Alone with them,
all their mother had wanted was to fall asleep
on the couch before going up to bed.
Restless, they moved from living room
to kitchen. Craving something cold,
they tried eating the freezer-burned ice cream
too soon. The cheap spoons craned their necks
like cows down with milk fever. They suffered
brain freezes and straightened their spoons,
waiting for the power to come back on.
If she’d known that the static on the screen
was the background noise of the Big Bang,
she might have sat them down before
the erratic field of their origin and told them
something they would never forget.

The Fawn

June 16, 2015

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A friend found a wounded fawn
on the road back of where he lives.

Unleashed, his Jack Russell terrier
lit into it, its broken forelegs

folding wrong in the loose gravel.
It cried out, he told me, in a human voice.

His girlfriend dragged the dog away,
leaving Lee alone with the fawn.

It couldn't stand but in its eyes,
he said, he saw the peace of all

pardoned things. "He was so beautiful,
Austin. His eyelashes were this long."

My friend has big hands, he plays bass.
He spread his thumb and index finger

wide apart. I nodded and said I could
just see them. We shook our heads

and drank to beauty so beyond us.
I wanted that to be the end of the story,

Lee sitting there in the road, holding
the fawn in his lap. It got quiet

in the bar. The story had to go on.
"I couldn't shoot him," he said.

"He was too beautiful to shoot.
I picked him up and carried him

down to the pond." "And then?"
"And then we walked into the water."


June 14, 2015

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If you have them,
you won’t be starving –
napkin rings.

Finally got him right,
but now the crow looks
like he’s nodding.

Growing in the night,
the eyes of old

Summer night –
doors that can be locked,
doors that can’t.

Drafty farmhouse -
all the wicks
curve the same way.

Holding hands,
spooked a pheasant,
broke us apart.

Summer in winter –
a hawk feather
in the hay.

Late winter –
the ventriloquist
loses his voice.

Feels foolish
his son’s rattle.

One day too late –
the kittens have gone

the father pretends
to know Orion.

In the window
the farmwife moves
to a different pane.

No one left
to count on
the abacus.

Distracted by love
the mailman
delivers his own mail.

Funeral - brothers
handing back
and forth a flask.

Halloween -
even the scarecrow
gets to be real


June 14, 2015

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After hours –
one barber
giving the other a trim.

Alone in the evening,
the flower arranger
tenderizes meat.

One cork pushed in
deeper than the other –
summer night.

Toy soldier –
something wrong
about his face.

Barely restraining themselves
while we entertain guests –
the mousetraps.

Comparing scars,
they lean against each other –
old cutting boards.

Taking the tent down –
while we slept,
the milkweed opened.

Inside the chest
she writes letters on –
the sewing machine.

Home from the hospital,
the farmer eats
at an odd hour.

Alone with his father,
the boy fishes
with a bare hook.

Call from the hospital –
the tea water
boils itself away.

Watchmaker’s shop –
how do you know
which to believe?

Domestic troubles –
he goes out to fix the roof
of the doghouse.

Halloween –
a mother
cutting tinfoil.

Even deep in the wall
it is ornate –
the sliding door.

Too small to hold any face –
the mirror
in her dollhouse.

Christmas Eve –
humming carols,
the night janitor.

Winter moonlight –
passing my hand
into the scythe.

Young couple –
a sleeping bag in the bed
of their truck.

Bankrupt tavern –
all the darts
crammed in the bull’s eye.

Knee-high wheat
and the boy has lost
his first boomerang.

Late night diner –
a lot of silverware
for one mouth.

Big snow –
in the cemetery, only
the tallest graves.

Family coming,
they take down
a few photographs.

The Spider

June 11, 2015

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It is loneliness that makes me
tie little bows of silk to leaf,
branch, blade and blossom.
I build my web for the company,
not the blood. O I love
the blood, of course: a vintage
in which you taste a year
your ancestors knew.
But it isn't blood
that sustains me: it is
the shiver through the web
like a doorbell ringing
through an abandoned manse.
I hurry over as if to help them,
but before they can beg
for mercy I am turning them
like a spindle on a lathe,
their cries growing
quieter with each orbit,
until I can hardly
hear them hum.
And then I am lonely again,
a poet between poems.


June 10, 2015

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On the fifth day of our exile
one of the fathers saw a sign

a significant number of crows
said one of us was sure to die

the sun stepped out of her hoopskirt
put her crows in the oaks

like an old woman putting
mugs away that aren’t quite dry

we fell asleep wondering
who it would be come morning

the boy who had taken
his shoes off the day before

and had been carrying them
by their laces like hair

was dead of fever we buried him
like travelers shoveling dirt

onto embers and now
we have this pair of shoes

no one knows what to do with
the fathers say we should

tie them to a branch as a warning
to those who come after us

to let them know the trials
we have suffered but Hell

he came all this way in them
I’ll carry them if no one else will

Poem for Ryan

June 9, 2015

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Bless him in the dark woods
of nerves, in the vaulted temple
of the skull, on the moonlit roads
of the bones, on the twilit rivers
of the blood, in the strange lands
of the organs, in whatever it is
the heart is. Bless my brother,
a student of medicine.

Country Cemetery

June 4, 2015

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Here you'll find the original
grasses the settlers plowed
under and the oldest oaks.
The headstones are thick
books, a thousand pages
long. No one is buried here
anymore. None who knew
those who lie here are still
alive, so no one visits.
Some days a farmer will
leave his tractor idling
and come under the shade
of these trees to eat lunch,
resting against a headstone
so weathered he can't
read the name and so,
he assumes, can't be blamed
or haunted, thinking
what a shame it is
no one mows the grass.


June 3, 2015

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Off the rooms in which
they hung
branched other rooms,
rooms in which
our ghost-selves paced
a moment behind us.
But it was not that
other boy
but the mirrors themselves
that fascinated me,
thin as the page upon which
I write this.
Practicing kissing,
it was they that blushed,
taken aback by my advances.
And when, wrestling
my brother,
one shattered,
it fell in lucid selves
that went on doing
what they’d always done
like a crowd turning
away from a hanging.


June 2, 2015

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In McClintock’s Meadow

alone there
are more blades
of grass than

all the swords ever made.

Dead Dogs

June 2, 2015

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Where are they now?
I would say that
dead they are more alive
than they were in life.

In life they were as close
as my shadow, as attached,
as taken for granted,
loping a little ahead or behind.

They became what
they longed for:
bones. I see them now,
Nova and Zia and Red.

Where did that moment go
when, noticing them,
I knelt down and, shivering
with a love for what they were

just a symbol of, embraced
them wildly, their eyes
rolling whitely
over my shoulder

in the ecstasy of being
so suddenly regarded?
This poem seems proof
that that moment sank

into me, leaving them
in the fast-fading afterglow
of knowing themselves
beloved of boys.

Petition for the Virgin Mary to Appear to Two Boys in a Haymow Outside Lena, Illinois

May 30, 2015

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Blessed Lady, if you are going to appear
anywhere, appear here and appear now,
in this haymow and to these two boys
looking for the litter of kittens they know
are in here because they can hear them
meowing for their mother, who's hidden
them and gone out hunting for field mice.
Appear in such a way that even the pigeons
quit their endless peregrinations from one
beam to another, and astonish the owls
so they cease asking their round questions
of damp ash and snow. And even if no
one believes the boys when they come
running towards the house, screaming
about a woman in the haymow wearing
all white, at least they won’t be so
heartbroken later when they find
she has moved the kittens one by one,
by the skin of their necks, someplace else.

Petition for the Virgin Mary to Appear to Two Boys in a Haymow Outside Lena, Illinois

May 30, 2015

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Blessed Lady, if you are going to appear
anywhere, appear here and appear now,
in this haymow and to these two boys
looking for the litter of kittens they know
are in here because they can hear them
meowing for their mother, who's hidden
them and gone out hunting for field mice.
Appear in such a way that even the pigeons
quit their endless peregrinations from one
beam to another, and astonish the owls
so they cease asking their round questions
of wood ash and snow. And even if no
one believes the boys when they come
running towards the house, screaming
about a woman in the haymow wearing
all white, at least they won’t be so
heartbroken later tonight when they find
that, amidst all the excitement of the news
stations and the first pilgrims, she moved
the kittens one by one, by the skin
of their necks, someplace else.


May 29, 2015

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Defined as:

To make a sustained deep murmuring,
humming, or buzzing sound, to talk
in a persistently dull or monotonous tone,
to live in idleness like a drone bee
(the male of the honeybee that develops
from an unfertilized egg, is larger
and stouter than the worker, lacks
a sting, takes no part in honey gathering
or care of the hive, is of use to the colony
only if a virgin queen requires insemination),
to pass or proceed in a dull, drowsy,
or uneventful manner, to utter or pronounce
with a drone, to pass or spend
in idleness or in dull or monotonous activity,
an unmanned aircraft or ship
that is guided remotely.

Rhymes with:

zone, phone, hone, shown, lone,
flown, blown, stone, bone,
moan, sewn, prone,
condone, unknown,


May 28, 2015

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One summer night when
you were a child
a knock on the door
a friend of your older sister’s
traveling cross country
it was so late your mother
had to heat up a plate for him
which he shyly accepted
his hunger obvious to everyone
your mother tried to stay up
stifling her yawns
but your father
too weary for company
simply shook his hand
and wished him goodnight

in your room you put your ear
to the heat register but their
voices were distorted
in the chimney of tin
crabwalking down the stairs
a step creaked you were certain
they’d heard you but
you found them
absorbed in one another
sitting crosslegged by the fire
passing a tall green bottle
back and forth whispering about
something of great importance
though you couldn’t tell
were they excited or scared

you watched him reach into his bag
pull out a flannel shirt
and unwrap a hatchet
you watched your sister
reach over and pull his long black hair
back from his neck
as if he had asked her to
behead him she leaned
forward kissed the scar
and you knew something
had happened since the last time
she saw him something he was
trying to explain having to
do with his father and why
he couldn’t stay

The Afterlife

May 27, 2015

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Walking in the woods

I had the feeling

I had already died

and was the trees'

memory of me

walking through them

The Bell

May 27, 2015

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The otherworldly kindness
of the little collar bell
the cat has to wear now

after the unthinkable
cruelty of the finch murder.
She brought the bird to us

as if she thought we might
be proud of her.
The irremediable color

of the finch's blood
in her white fur. Now,
the singular sweetness

of the bell, warning away
every winged thing.
The cat has taken

to lying in the shade.
She'll grow old and fat,
bring us nothing

but her hunger and the silver
sound of the bell
we'll bury her with.

The Innocence of Racehorses

May 25, 2015

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Long before the garland of roses,
before the jockey stands up in the stirrups,
sometimes even before the whipping stops,
they get a look about them,
as if they've already forgotten the mile
and a quarter race they've just won.

Already it has begun to mean more to us
than it ever could to them,
and as the owner and trainer and jockey
take turns talking, their peaceable minds
are already turning to hay, which is why,
at the ceremony, they try nibbling the roses.


May 25, 2015

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Life came rushing up to me this morning
with all my problems in her hands.

I looked around for something for her
to put them in that wasn't my hands.

An egg carton, a mason jar, a shoe
box, a pillow case, anything but my hands,

but she refused everything. I gave up
trying to find something and put my hands

in my pockets but she pressed herself
against me, said, "Show me your hands."

As if they were no longer mine, as if they had
heard and were obeying her, my hands

came out of my pockets. Curled tight
into fists, like flowers at dawn my hands

opened to accept what life had to offer me.
She placed my problems into my hands

like potatoes you'll have to cut the green
spots out of and said, "Austin, your hands

are shaking. Every morning it's like this and
it's a shame. You have such beautiful hands."

The Wristwatch

May 25, 2015

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Time is led by its interrogators
into a round room with a domed glass ceiling.
Ranged along the wall, strange numerals stand,
mossy columns salvaged from some forgotten god’s temple.
In the center of the room, on a small table,
rest two black hands, cut off at the wrists,
frozen in the pose of a pianist’s
the moment before the crescendo.
The hands are so black it is as if they’ve been caught
touching death’s hair. They look
about to scuttle away, creepy
as a spider on the bare flesh of someone sleeping.
And Time, arrested near the border
where it had been living far from man,
like a saint praying in a cave, is made
to put the black hands on.
They go on easy, like shackles,
like the gloves of your dead grandfather.
And Time is wearing them still,
conducting a symphony it cannot hear
like Beethoven in his last years,
for the children outside the round room,
whose faces Time will never see
but who, upon being born,
will be made to dance to its music.

Last Night

May 21, 2015

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I had a nightmare that the married translators of my favorite Russian novels, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, were getting a divorce.

I was inconsolable.

“You can’t!” I cried out, kneeling on the floor of the 19th century drawing room. “Who will translate Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych?”

“We already have,” Richard mumbled, pacing before the hearth.

"Larissa? Larissa!…” I shouted.

She raised her eyes from the paper-strewn table and said, "What is it?"

“Larissa, please, you two have to stay together. You’re my favorite translators!”

She tossed her pen down and said, “I can’t make sense of any of this, can you, Richard?”

“It’s all legalese," he said, walking over and leaning over his soon-to-be ex-wife. "What does this mean, 2B?”

“Is there coffee? You," she said, pointing at me, "Yes you, the one dreaming us. Dream up some coffee so we can finish sundering this bond forever.”

Street Performer: Asheville, North Carolina

May 20, 2015

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She stands completely still and completely
silver: in her silver hands she holds silver
drumsticks: the space between their tips
and the silver skin of her drum betrays her
heartbeat, otherwise I might believe that
she was a statue. On a silver box draped
in silver cloth, her feet are bare and silver.
Silver her ears, silver her lips, silver her
hair. Her dress is silver, the pleats
like long knives: if, careless, I were
to brush my arm against one I am sure
I would bleed. I throw three quarters
into her silver pail and her silver eyelids
tremble open heavily like the wings
of a housefly who's flown into paint.
By now I've slipped back into the crowd,
but her eyes accuse me of being the one
who woke her. They're the brown of rivers
after spring rains, the sole silverless thing
about her. I feel the way I felt when I
was a child and my persistent curiosity
overthrew every bastion of mystery.
She plays taps, a staccato battle-rattle,
but the weight of all that silver exhausts her,
and her head nods, her eyelids close,
and a boy asks his father for a quarter.


May 20, 2015

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We found their shells in the oldest oaks,
backs blown open where they’d fled themselves.
That was all that remained of them, like the clothes
of the girl the search party finds hanging
on a black branch, white clothes
they bring back to her mother, folded.
There was always a moment before
we touched them when we’d loom
near to stare into their amber chambers
as once, in a museum, I stared
into a suit of armor through the hole
the sword had bored. But in the shells
not a darkness but a light like that which
I imagine seethes through the keyholes
of treasure chests in sunken ships. No matter
with what care we picked them they always
left a hooked leg or two in the bark
like the crampons of climbers who
have fallen. Sick now in a city far
from where I like to imagine the shells
of the ones we never found are
still clinging to the highest branches,
I wish I could leave my body
blown open upon this bed
for a boy to find and carry
up to a farmhouse cupped gently
in his hand so as not to crush it.


May 19, 2015

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When the season opens
like a carnivore flower

I hunt in the old way.
If a deer offers me

his body I accept it
the way you accept

advice from an elder.
If the other hunters

could see the way
I dance and sing

they would laugh
themselves hernias.


May 17, 2015

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Hard oak

Dull axe



The Astronaut's House

May 16, 2015

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in the dark
kitchen, something lunar
about the jars of flour and sugar:
from them comes a bluish light
like the light that falls on the face
of the astronaut’s son, lying wide
awake under a ceiling covered
in star stickers that glow
in the dark
kitchen, something lunar
about the jars of flour and sugar:
from them comes a bluish light
like the light that falls on the face
of the astronaut's son, lying wide
awake under a ceiling covered
in star stickers that glow
in the dark
kitchen, something lunar
about the jars of flour and sugar:
from them comes a bluish light
like the light that falls on the face
of the astronaut's son, lying wide
awake under a ceiling covered
in star stickers that glow
in the dark

Wounded Men Seldom Come Home to Die

May 16, 2015

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And this is why: when a wounded man comes home
to die (which is seldom) he comes in through the summer
kitchen, carrying his face before him like an armful
of kindling a visitor carries in on his way to the house,
nervous about asking if he can stay a few days longer.
His mother faints. He catches her and lays her down
gently on the linoleum. When his sister comes in
from feeding hogs to find her brother at the table
with his long legs kicked out and their mother senseless
on the floor, the poor girl sighs and unbuttons his shirt.
The wound isn’t visible yet, it’s still drifting around
inside his body, bouncing under his skin like a man
swimming under ice, trying to find the place
where he fell through. When the wound surfaces
that is when she’ll know whether or not he’ll live
but for now his eyes are calm and blue. He asks her
what boys have been bothering her. She tells him
she figures she can take care of herself. When their mother
comes to, she insists she’s fine and puts some coffee on.
As she pours him a cup from way high up like a waitress
she says, “I’m glad you come home. Now I’m going
up and lie down awhile. You two catch up. I never meant
our family to be all scattered like this.” Through the ceiling
they can hear her softly sobbing and know she’s lying
up there on her back with her sleep mask on. There’s blood
soaking through his white t-shirt now and his sister says,
“Let me see.” She blushes and says it isn’t so bad. He agrees.
They talk late into the night, knowing he’s going to die.
She leads him up to his boyhood bedroom, tells him there
are clean sheets on the bed. He thanks her and tells her
he thinks he might sit on the porch awhile, watch fireflies
like they used to when they were little. In the morning
the bed hasn’t been slept in and on the kitchen table
the only note he’s left are a few fireflies in a Mason jar,
holes punched in the tin lid so they all can breathe.

*A line from Stephen Crane’s The Black Riders

Outside the Anne Frank House

May 14, 2015

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The line is long, so long
it bends at the corner
like starlight in a telescope,
wrapping around the block.
Committed but restless, we
bend knees, shift weight
from foot to foot. People
talk in the little clusters
they came with. This is not
a place where a stranger
would think to turn and say
something to a stranger.
A few clusters leave. All
of a sudden they decided
they would rather be
somewhere that isn't here,
and that's where they go.
The line lurches forward.
Somewhere in the museum
they have built to house it
is the house itself. I love it
already, its bricks, its wood,
the very woods and mountains
its materials came from.
It is still doing what it has
always done: take people in.
A cold wind blows down
the Prinsegracht canal.
People unzip their bags,
pull coats out by the sleeve.
The couple in front of me
leave. I watch them turn
to one another and agree.
It isn’t worth the wait,
their eyes seem to say.
They’ll find a café,
come some other time.
I stay. I shuffle forward
with the others, thinking
of all the lines we form
on earth and what for.

That Particular Village

May 13, 2015

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"On October 22nd and 23rd, 2002, U.S. warplanes strafed the farming village of Chowkar-Karez, twenty-five miles north of Kandahar, killing at least ninety-three civilians. When asked about the incident at Chowkar, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said, 'I cannot deal with that particular village...'"

Look, here's the thing. I can deal with that
particular village about as well today
as I could deal with it yesterday, which is
to say, I cannot deal with that particular
village at all. Other villages I can deal with,
have dealt with and will deal with in the future,
but not that particular village. Look, think
of the situation I'm in like this: I'm a tightrope
walker in a circus tent in a prairie town in 1911.
I perform with my wife and without a net.
Unbeknownst to me my wife, who happens
to be a very beautiful woman, has fallen
in love with the tiger tamer. On this night,
while walking the tightrope towards her
where she stands on the platform, I see
she has a big pair of golden garden shears
and she's preparing to cut the rope. Tell me,
what do I do? If I start to scream,
she'll cut the rope. If I say nothing,
she'll cut the rope. I can't deal with that
village in particular because I really
have to try and focus on sinking this
putt. I can't deal with it today because
tomorrow I'm flying to Chicago to participate
in the Associated Writing Programs Conference.
I've been invited to appear on a panel called:
“Tangled Umbilical: What We Can Learn
From Paying Attention to Syntax in Political
Discourse and How We Can Use It to Write Better
Flash Fiction.” I can't deal with that particular
village because I was born in 1932. I cannot
deal with it today or yesterday because
my senior thesis at Princeton was entitled
“The Steel Seizure Case of 1952 and Its Effect
on Presidential Powers.” I can't deal with it
because I have three children and six grand
children none of whom will have to go
to the holy wars. I can't deal with that village,
that particular village, right now because I live
in Mount Misery, the former plantation
house where a young Frederick Douglass
was sent to have his teen spirit broken
by the brutal slaveholder Edward Covey.
I can't because one day, after being beaten
many times by his master, Douglass fought
off Covey's cousin and then Covey himself
in the very yard where my wife grows camellias.
I can't because Douglass was never assaulted
by Covey again. I can't deal with that particular
village in this life nor shall I be made to answer for
what happened there in the next. Certain things
about my past make it impossible for me
to deal with it: when I was little I was an Eagle
Scout, I wrestled in high school, I didn't graduate
from Georgetown Law. Nixon called me
a ruthless little bastard. I sold the company
I was CEO of to Monsanto for $12 million.
I cannot deal with that particular village.
I can't deal with it because once upon a time
I delivered a few pistols, some medieval
spiked hammers, and a pair of golden cowboy
boots to Saddam Hussein on behalf of
President Reagan. I can't deal with it because
a few years ago I had to make a special trip
to Abu Graib to personally turn the volume
of a Bach symphony up to make a man's ears
bleed more profusely. I can't deal because
on the afternoon of September 11th an aide
scribbled down in shorthand what I was
saying on the phone: “Best info fast —
Judge whether good enough hit Saddam
at same time — not only Bin Laden —
Need to move swiftly — Near term target
needs — go massive — sweep it all up
— Things related and not.” I can't...Look...
That particular village? That particular one.


May 12, 2015

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We were the outcasts of our MFA program.
I was too quiet and he was too cocky.
We'd drive to one of those little towns
that surround all college towns, a town
of one tavern, with a sign above the bar
that said: "In bad weather, take shelter
in the urinal – it hasn’t been hit
in years!" We laughed trying to imagine
the professor we hated walking in there,
ordering a glass of cabernet, and reading
Benjamin in the booth by the window.
We loved that the talk was all Nascar
and the anatomy of the combustion engine.
Drunk, we'd scribble poems on the thin
square napkins. At the end of the night
we let them fall to the floor to be swept
away with the peanut shells. I know
the bartender read them because when
we walked in she'd say, "Here come
the poets." He dropped out at the end
of our first year, after challenging the prof
we hated to a duel. A pasture he knew of,
pistols, seconds, ten paces. Everyone
laughed, but I knew he was serious.
And that was where they found him.


May 11, 2015

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Summer dusk -
young lovers flirting
on the propane tank.


Museum in winter -
in the dinosaur skeleton,
a few bones missing.


Summer Sunday -
a tourist asks
how much for the scythe


He touches her
leg she
cracks her knee


Last night on earth -
the astronaut's penis
doesn't want to go

Coming Upon an Abandoned Truck In the Missouri Woods

May 11, 2015

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I imagine him coming down here
years later, downshifting the burned-out
clutch of days to find again what
he abandoned when he was my age:

blood on the passenger seat headrest
faded to orange where, after starring
the windshield, she rested her head
back like to watch television.

Saint Hyacinth

May 9, 2015

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You carried your secret
faith through the Imperial household
like the bowl of warm rosewater
you brought to Trajan’s chambers
while the lambs were being slaughtered.

Mealtimes you were a magician
with your napkin. It appeared to others
you had impeccable manners,
wiping your mouth after every bite
as the cloth filled with half-chewed meat.

Later, you’d shake it out for the crows
who’d learned to gather under your window.
But one night the Chamberlain, suspicious
of your thinness, demanded you open
the napkin. The meat was still warm

from your mouth. You didn’t deny
you were a Christian. Your torture
was gentled somewhat because you were
only twelve and they didn’t want to kill you
too soon. Because all they fed you was

the meat of sacrificed animals, you refused
to eat. So light had you become
in your starvation you hovered
above the dungeon floor, your chains
so taut they groaned. When you finally left

your body, they couldn’t believe
how easy it was to carry. Now
your skull is crowned and your skeleton
drenched in jewels and gold
in the Church of the Assumption.

The flesh with its wounds has washed
away and you lie on your side as if to say:
“See how I starved myself down into bone?
Go back where you come from and
love something so much you disappear.”

To Go to Freeport

May 8, 2015

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To go to Freeport, you must leave
The road of concrete and take
The road of wheat. You must go
By waterway, by deer trail,
Along the little mud-colored
Creeks, across country, must show
The redwing blackbirds you too
Are wounded and bloodied,
Must suffer the stigmata
Of barbwire. Do not ask anyone
The way to Freeport. They will
Point you in the wrong direction.
Do not trust the bullet-riddled
Signs. The map you carry
Is obsolete. Better to burn it.
No one wants you to visit
Freeport, the town itself
Least of all. All it wants is
To die in peace. The stores
Are closing like flowers at dusk.
The prairie is taking back
Its old territory, headquartered
In the cemeteries. Who are you
To disturb such processes?
This is why no one will help you.
Even the dead will whisper,
“Go away.” Approaching porches,
People will leave rockers rocking,
Lock deadbolts, draw curtains.
Do you really want to go
To Freeport? There is nowhere
To eat there, nowhere to drink,
No one to talk to. There are no
Books in the library. In the park
The painted horses go round
And round but there
Are no children to ride them.
They’ve shut the waterfall off.
The bars are dark and empty.
The bartenders spend their time
Swatting flies. In the theater
They play old movies for no one.
No one sweeps up the popcorn.
I should warn you that if you
Go to Freeport it is possible
You may never leave. You may
Find yourself standing behind
The counter of the pawn shop,
Examining a pearl found
In the mud of the Pecatonica.
The man who brought it in
Will be gone when you raise
Your eyes to tell him it’s worthless.
Now you’re in the little booth
Watching the painted horses
Go round and round.
Now you’re giving a tour,
Talking about the debate
Between Lincoln and Douglass
In 1858, the trees listening
Out of politeness, the bronze
Statues of the debaters
Turning green with boredom
And time. Now you find
Yourself in the library, shelving
A book eighty years overdue.
In the bar you don’t even bother
Swatting flies. They land lightly
In your arm hair. You let them
Live on in their generations.
You cannot remember
Coming here, or by what roads.
One day you deliver a letter
To yourself. Someone wants
To know how to get to Freeport.
You stand in your bedroom
Window in the evening,
Wondering whether
You should answer them.
Finally, you sit down
At your desk, and by the last
Light begin to write:
“To go to Freeport, you must leave
The road of concrete and take
The road of wheat…”

The Nativity Set

May 7, 2015

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I lift the lid off the box
And here they are, wrapped
In last January's obituaries
Like the pears the poor painter
Comes for after market
For his still lives,
The browner the better.

Atomic Fireball

May 6, 2015

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The quiet boy in the back of the bus
has been handed something red
he doesn’t understand.

The bully who gave it to him
has never once been kind to him,
and so this gift, this smooth red ball,

is more than just a piece of candy:
it is an apology for every time
the bully whispered “You stink,”

every time he pinched his nose
and said, “Oink, oink, oink,”
every time he called him “Miss Piggy”

in the presence of Laura Bauman.
No longer is it the quiet boy’s fault
his father is a hog farmer.

“What are you waiting for?”
the bully says. “If you don’t want it
I’ll give it to somebody else.”

The others watch with their chins
resting on the backs of the seats
as the boy puts it in his mouth.

Before he can spit it out
his face is red and his eyes are
watering. Under their laughter

he hears the bully say,
“Now you know how we feel
when you raise your hand.”

The Thing

May 5, 2015

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After it took the farmer’s arm off
nobody would go near the thing,
as if it weren’t to be trusted now.

But it couldn’t just be left sitting there,
the neighbors said, so they hired a guy
to come out with a backhoe and bury it.

When he came home from the hospital
the first thing the farmer wanted to know
was what a mound of dirt was doing

behind the shed. When she told him
they’d buried it, he said, “What the hell’d
they do that for? Worked, didn’t it?”


May 4, 2015

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They say you may have caught
tuberculosis from the peasants
who came to your estate to be

seen by you. Hearing them coughing
in the hall you put down your pen
and rose from your desk. Short

of breath they had traveled all
night to arrive by dawn, drawn
by rumors of your kindness.

Warming the stethoscope
in your hands while the old farmer
bared his chest, your character

stood patiently on the doorstep,
holding a letter of introduction
you had yet to write. The longer

you spent away from the story
the harder it would be to finish it
but the hall was long, the line

out the door and you would turn
none away, knowing how far
they had come, how it must

have comforted them
to have someone listen
to their lungs and say it

sounded better than it sounded,
inhaling their sighs of relief,
saying, softly, “Next.”

The Bird

May 3, 2015

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The bird that hit my windshield
kept flying into me while I carried her
up into the mountains her body
was going flatter and flatter
under the wheels of big rigs gunning
it for Billings in Sheridan a town
named after a man who spent
his retirement killing Indians
I squeegeed her blood off the wind
shield the better to see where I was
going by the time we hit Yellowstone
she had burrowed into my heart
we made camp together made supper
what I ate sustained her the fire
we made together warmed her wings
when I sang she sang also I felt
guiltless as Sheridan coming home
from the Plains his stars doubled
in the mirror the moment before
he took all his clothes off
covered his wife’s mouth
with his it wasn’t until I lay down
under stars spinning from wine
that the bird wanted out
I ached all over broke
into a sweat I thought for sure
I would die it was only after I had
fallen asleep that she found her way
out the way a bird will find its way
out of a house it has flown through
a broken window into


May 2, 2015

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Mecca of sunflowers,
devastated revenants,
all keeled over
the same wound -

if I could stop this train I would
walk amongst you,
lifting your heavy faces,
whispering sympathies.

Nightfall would find me
kneeling before the least of you,
and together we'd endure
the darkest hours.

First Night in France

May 1, 2015

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Pulling apart the pullet
I bought at market
by pointing because
I don't know French.
Stem of my wine glass
smeared with oil.
Across the rooftops,
clay chimney pots
and laundry airing.
That time of evening
when women wearing
one earring
turn to their husbands
and smile.

The Crutches at Lourdes

May 1, 2015

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They came here two by two, carrying their pilgrim
between them, asking one another in snide whispers

ahead and behind the foot, "Where does he think he's going?"
or, "How quickly she moves today, as if she didn't need us."

Left standing by the thousand now in the cool of the grotto,
they remember how ungratefully the lame heaved them here,

how thankless the miraculously cured were towards they
who carried them miles and years and never once complained

about being stuffed in an armpit all their lives. The canes
are even more morose: they have no companion to keep them

company when night falls and the healed have gone off weeping
under their own power. The only way these crutches stand

a chance to walk again is if a pilgrim who comes here is
not only not healed, but suffers more and more the lower

he lowers himself into the waters his daughters
claimed would cure him, so that he goes from merely

crippled to totally lame and, to go home, has to take up a pair
of crutches and leave behind his beloved swan-head cane.

At Nijinsky's Grave

April 29, 2015

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Two pair of ballet slippers,
one pink, one blue,
for the only part of you
that cannot dance now

that you are dead.
I prefer that picture of you
in Les Orientales,
in cap and bells,

holding delicately by their stems
invisible flowers.
Death hates dancing,
but out of respect for you

turned your grave into
a low-ceilinged ballroom,
the floor of packed dirt
lit by a chandelier

of white roots but you’ve
yet to arrive, for that part
of you that still dances can’t
breathe underground,

like how, when Pollock died,
a little girl at the funeral said,
“He’s not down there,
he’s in the woods.”

When Poetry Could Get You Killed

April 28, 2015

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I like to pound on the typewriter
and pretend I’m hearing
gunshots in an almond orchard,
the bullets unbuttoning
the poet’s white shirt.

I spend a lot of time wishing
we lived in an age when writing
poems could get you killed
instead of getting you
a tenure-track job.

But then I think of Lorca
leaning on the shovel,
breathless in the sunlight,
up to his waist in his own grave,
almond blossoms in his hair.

The Tree

April 27, 2015

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Left the city before the first sirens.
Crossed the bridge. Crossed the valley,
its blossoming orchards and dormant crosses.
Was lifted gently up against the judgment
of the streams, too low and shallow,
like invalids in their beds in the spring.
Paid my fee. Left keys, phone, everything
identifying me and started up the path
to Mirror Lake, snaking through flocks
of hikers, their languages distinctly different
as the calls of birds. Beyond the lake:
no one, the trail narrowing, the light
floating up the sheer cliffs, leaving
the valley in shadow. A branch held
a blue flannel shirt out for me.
It gave me a chill, being offered clothes
clear out there, but it was nothing compared
to the chill a dead oak gave me like a ring
last worn by the dead. I stopped
as if commanded, having never seen
a tree tremble like that tree was
trembling, the tambourines of its dead
leaves rattling in a breeze that didn’t stir
those of any other tree. The thing
that spooked me about the leaves
was how perfect they were, as if
they were trying to pass for living leaves.
They betrayed the tree, like yellow stars
sewn into clothing or the word a refugee
can’t pronounce. But it was not they
that were trembling, but the tree. Still
as it stood, it seemed to be shivering,
and I felt I was witnessing the earth
fearing for herself. It was nothing
like our fear of terror or the warming
of the planet, but a wordless, secret fear
that I was never meant to see, but because
human fear is the only fear I’ve known,
I must use a metaphor to describe how
I felt: like a boy who, hearing a strange
sound, mounts a flight of stairs and sees,
through the keyhole, his father weeping,
and knows that what has always been so
certain will never be certain again.

Poem for Thomas Merton

April 24, 2015

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Poem for Thomas Merton

“Do not think yourself better because you burn up friends and enemies with long-range missiles without ever seeing what you have done.”

The fan was manufactured for you.
Even as it blew on the bodies of innumerable
sleepers it was dreaming of you.
All night it hawked its noise
into the ears of others but yours was the name
it chanted. It was as if it was hunting you,
though it never took a single step.

Instead, in the quiet Kentucky night your death
came to the door, a telegram the cold
and color of snow. Crossing the sea,
folded over itself in the hold, it had obsessed
over what it had to say to you, over your name
scrawled languidly in a monk’s quiet hand.
It knocked with its fist of pulp and postage

on the heavy oaken doors of the Abbey,
waking the Brother in the guard house
out of sitting sleep, who thought nothing
of it when an envelope floated in. And when
you opened it at dawn, your fingers
still swollen and dinged from woodcutting,
and saw your name scrawled there

how could you have not answered the call?
Your last night at Gethsemane you lay
awake in your hermitage, grinning
like your Brothers in the grass. Your robes
swept their graves as you passed
on your way into the dark chapel,
to bring yourself one last time before the icons’

familiar flaws, the nick in Our Lady’s forehead,
the patch of plaster missing from Christ’s side.
Did you really believe you would ever kneel
in that chapel again? Or, serving Mass
to your friends at the hermitage, whispering
their first names as you offered them bread
and wine, did you know your death

was a thin man with a face of blades
standing in a bathroom in Thailand?
While you bathed he fanned you,
clothed in blue voltage woven by turbines
miles up river, where maybe a girl
was even then picking her steps carefully
along the bank, carrying a basket of laundry

above the painless dismemberment
of the waters. When you took hold
of the fan’s spine your every atom
flashed impossibly bright, then dimmed.
The first man who tried to touch you
was shocked an inch from your flesh.
They had to let your numinous power

ebb out into the childish bathwater.
Someone called the State Department
(“Good, now we don’t have to shoot him.”).
And you, who had written of the roar
of bombers flying over your hermitage,
your body was borne home with the bodies
of the latest wave to fall in the war.