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After the Tsunami


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.
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The School Bus


(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."
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Ode to Flour


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.
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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.
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The Day After the Election


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.
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The Raccoon Tree


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.
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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.
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Without meaning
to, two crows
call at once.
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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
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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.
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The Ground Poems Come From


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.
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The Illegal Campfire Bemoans the Waywardness of Her Son


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.
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Tobacco Country


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.
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Night Janitor


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.
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The Fallen


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.
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In Plath's Cambridge


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
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Meteor Shower


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.
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Dream of Blaze


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
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Oklahoma Poem


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.
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Tennessee, 103 Degrees


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


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.
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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.
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The Coffin Road


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.
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The Rose Garden


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.
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The Bombing of Hospitals


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.
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The Sandbox


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.
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Suddenly, Bees


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.
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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.
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Mowing Lawn


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.
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The Wire


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.
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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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