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Classroom Nosebleed


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


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
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The Stillness of Your Coat


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
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We Defy Augury


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.
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The Ascent


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.
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Hammers and Nails


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.
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Things We Don't Often Think Of


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.
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Primary Campaign Footage: Wisconsin, 1960


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.
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The Blind


The hunters who obtained permission
From our father to fire at the flocks
That passed southward over our land
Every autumn concealed themselves
Behind a blind of chicken wire stuffed
With cornhusks. Thermoses twisted
Tight on columns of black coffee,
They watched the gray sky while
We watched them from the burn pile
We were forbidden from passing beyond,
As if we were the ones in danger.
To draw the living down to where
The guns might touch them, they set
A flock of decoys to grazing in the field.
Each had a long spike for driving it
Into the ground, along which was
Written in raised plastic: Made in China.
When the hunters went home we walked
Amongst them, frozen in their poses
Of grazing, doomed to perpetually peck
At the kernels the combine had missed.
Their eyes were red beads. They were
The blind, their purpose to be seen,
To reassure the living that their kind
Had deemed our farm a peaceful place,
Where spilled corn was abundant
And they would come to no harm.
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Recurring Nightmare Restrained (For Now) In a Sonnet


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.
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The Names of Civil War Generals


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.
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WAYS OF SEEING Girl With a Pearl Earring

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?
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Tot Finder


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.
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Others' Fields


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
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The Frog


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.
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Easter Grass


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.
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Missed Connection Sunday At Garage Sale On Fulton and Baker


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.
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White Lie


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
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Premature Elegy for Claude Eatherly


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.
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Type in the title of the blog post here


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.
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Standing In Line at the Anne Frank House


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.
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Country Things


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.
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Rustic Winter Scene


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
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Dark Day


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.
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I'm Tryin' a Get Me a Hot Meal


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
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Swatting Flies


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.
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The Blackbird Says to the Boy


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.
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For Sydney


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.
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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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