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Poem-a-Day
 
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The Blind

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AUTUMN TURNS

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

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

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

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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