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Poem-a-Day

School Crush

SCHOOL CRUSH

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

I COULD SWEAR

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.
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The Plane

THE PLANE

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.
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A Visit from Vladimir

A VISIT FROM VLADIMIR

‘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.”
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Doors

DOORS

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.
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Instructions for Bedding the Garden Down for Winter

INSTRUCTIONS FOR BEDDING THE GARDEN DOWN FOR WINTER

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.
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The Greenhouse

THE GREENHOUSE

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.
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Dehorning Steers

DEHORNING STEERS

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.
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Trespassing Along the Apple River in November

TRESPASSING ALONG THE APPLE RIVER IN NOVEMBER

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.
NOW.

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?
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Breaking News

BREAKING NEWS

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.
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The Perseids

THE PERSEIDS

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.
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Vicariism

VICARIISM

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
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Untitled

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
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Cover: "Heaven" by Talking Heads

https://soundcloud.com/lighterlater/heaven
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The Village

THE VILLAGE

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.
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The Cellar

THE CELLAR

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
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Space Between Lightning and Thunder: Childhood, Illinois

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
Drinking
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
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The Flower Seller

THE FLOWER SELLER

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
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Sirens

SIRENS

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
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Parsley

PARSLEY

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.
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Nostradamus Predicts the Appointment of Scott Pruitt to Behead the EPA

NOSTRADAMUS PREDICTS THE APPOINTMENT OF SCOTT PRUITT TO BEHEAD THE EPA

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.”
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Alternative Facts About the State of Illinois

ALTERNATIVE FACTS ABOUT THE STATE OF ILLINOIS

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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THE DEAD OUTNUMBER US

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.
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The Witness Tree

THE WITNESS TREE

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.
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Looking for Morels

LOOKING FOR MORELS

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.
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The Mask Photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard

THE MASK PHOTOGRAPHS OF RALPH EUGENE MEATYARD

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

PHOTOGRAPH: FARM SALE, WILLIAM HUNT FARM, RIDOTT TOWNSHIP, 1912

“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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THE BIOGRAPHIES OF POETS

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.
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The Infant Jesus

THE INFANT JESUS

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.
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Logic

LOGIC

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
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The Twain

THE TWAIN

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.
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