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Poem-a-Day

Rustic Winter Scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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Spring

SPRING

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

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

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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Fences

FENCES

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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Dawn

DAWN

Without meaning
to, two crows
call at once.
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Geraniums

GERANIUMS

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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Lincoln

LINCOLN

I.
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.

II.
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.

III.
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

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,
pray

for gentle rain
and warm weather.
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The Illegal Campfire Bemoans the Waywardness of Her Son

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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
Dying

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

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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Oxford

OXFORD

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

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

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

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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