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Saving Calves


One winter, I can’t remember which,
we didn’t lose a single calf.
This wouldn’t have been so remarkable
had it not snowed so much, the huts
drifted in so that we had to shovel them out
to reach the calves lying in crescents of straw
their bodies had thawed. I remember
the way the ice lengthened their lashes,
how they shivered as we fed them warm bottles
pink with electrolytes to keep ahead
of the pneumonia that could grow overnight
like moss in their lungs. We didn’t lose one.
Now, years later, trying to remember which
winter that was, I text my dad to ask.
He texts back: "Think it was 2006/2007
never lost a calf that was born alive.
Couldn’t help the ones that weren’t."
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Boxelder Bugs


I always loved the name. It conjured those boxes
Of old photographs, their corners rounded off,
In which my parents appeared, years before
I was born, squinting into the sun.

I put the bugs and the time before I was alive
In the same box as I watched them trudge
Along the windowsill, veering around the wings
Of the prior year’s dead like deserters from

Some vast boxelder bug army avoiding shields
Out of shame. Sometimes I introduced
My huge child-hand to their world, and after
Some hesitation, they would invariably start up

The warm hill of it. Though they were maybe a week
Old, and would die in a week’s time, they seemed
Ancient to me, glowing red through the gaps
In their armor like dusk through cloud cover,

Their wings rounded off like those old photographs
In the boxes I looked through less and less as
I grew older, out of fear of a world in which
Even my own parents didn’t know my name.
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You Are the Second Person


after W.S. Merwin

You are the second person. Not the third person or the seventh person or the six hundred and ninth person. And you certainly are not the first person, because if you were the first person who would I be? The distinction between you and I must be maintained. So much depends on this. If you and I were to merge, if you and I were to agree, say, to become a we, even for the briefest moment, everything they’ve built would fall apart instantaneously. And so, though it is true that you just as easily could have been the first person and I just as easily could have been the second person, this is not the case. In the end, it's about etiquette, an etiquette they lack. Who is this "they," you say? Why, neither you nor I. You and I will never be them, nor will you and I ever merge to compose a we. And yet you and I are intimately connected, somewhat but not exactly like mother and child. You are the second person and I am the first person, which means I was here before you were. I prepared this place for you. I made the bed in which you lie. Therefor it is understandable that you sometimes hate me, though you have never met me. You hate me because you suspect I know much more about you than you can ever know about me, or, indeed, than you can ever know about yourself. This is true. Both these suspicions are true. Part of it surely is that I witnessed your arrival, and the watcher always has an advantage over the watched. This is one of the laws of the world. You were the pretty young governess and I was the old woman locked in the attic who watches, from a high window, the pretty young governess arrive. From a darkness you cannot imagine I watched you approach this manor they invited you to in order to teach their children French, and the proper way to hold a fork, and how to excuse themselves from the table. Meanwhile, up here in the attic, the mirror is shoveled so full of night, even in the day, that there's no room for my face. I live vicariously through the memory of yours, which you raised to me, as if you sensed I was up here. But they know that a distinction must be maintained between you and I, hence the deadbolt. This is why this letter will disappear the moment I slip it under the door and will never reach you. Even so, I am writing to you to tell you the most important thing. That I love you. That the first person loves the second person. That this is the mystery at the heart of it all.
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In math class, longing for language, I had only to
Type this number and turn the calculator around
For there to appear on the screen the word
GEESE, something familiar, and unrelated
To math, which I hated, though of course
There was a mathematics about them, not only
The numbers of their flocks, but the angle
Of their V’s, and the calculations they’d
Instinctually made to pierce the wind while
Far below the great misshapen zeros
Of ponds prayed for some number to descend
And add itself to them but they flew on,
Fueled by the corn the combine had failed to
Combine like fractions into the towering integer
Of the silo, fractions that added up to a power
Of geese and a remainder of winter deer.
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Until it isn’t. Here, that is. Near us, so near that
In moments of distraction we find ourselves
Running our fingers through it as if taking comfort
In the fact it hasn’t fallen out yet. And yet it does.
Feeling the shower water pooling at our feet,
We reach down to find the drain clogged full of hair.
Here are a few strands stuck to each headrest of our car,
Brown on your side, blonde on mine. The same goes
For our pillows. In the restaurant we turn away
From the other partners to pull the long moment
From between our teeth. In the medicine cabinet
Back home, it’s our hair that’s caught in the teeth
Of the comb. Some evenings, feeling poetic,
We pull the blonde tuft out of the brush and toss it
Into the bushes below the window, thinking maybe
A bird will use it to soften its nest. Thus there is
An afterlife of hair. Long after it has fallen out
It still finds its narrow way through the world.
One could even argue that this is when it begins
Its true life as hair, having only ever been ours,
Always trying to put some distance between us
And it. Unmoored, it’s free to go wherever hair goes.
You know where. In the salad we forgot someone made.
In the nest we find in winter, woven with the weird
Gold of it. In the first days after, when we’re sure
Everything they were on earth is under it. Save this.
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The Barn Radio


Over the years there were several but in a way
There was only one, the same radio shape-
Shifting, its antenna growing longer like a horn,
Its face at once sleeker and less beautiful,
Its voices more numerous and distinct. In 1941
It balanced on a beam over my grandfather’s head
Where he sat on a stool milking sixteen cows
In stanchions (each had a name) when he heard
What the Japanese had done and knew the world
Had changed. One evening in late November
Twenty-two years later, same barn, different radio,
He heard the news out of Dallas and remembered
That day in December, recalling the markings
(an archipelago of white water and black islands)
Of the cow he’d been milking when he heard.
And so on that November day he lived through
That December day too. Seventy years later,
In another month with an ember smoldering
In its name, my father heard the second plane
Crash into the tower. By then the cows were being
Milked by machines in the parlor, and were numbered
Instead of named. The radio sat on a shelf on the wall.
That morning my father thought of his father,
Hearing that the President had been shot in Dallas
And that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor,
So that on that September day he lived through
That day in November and that day in December too.
And they heard it all through the same barn radio,
Its antenna trained violently towards town.
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American Glue Factory


for Rachel Carson

Your whole childhood you watched old horses
File up a cleated wooden ramp into the factory
Down the road and file out as smoke.
This was in Springdale, Pennsylvania,
Up the Alleghany from Pittsburgh,
At the beginning of the twentieth century.
What a pleasant name, Springdale. Summer nights
The stench of burning horses drove you inside
From the porch where you’d sat reading.
It was then you learned that something
In the air can close a story. You knew
From the sign along the road, AMERICAN GLUE
FACTORY, what the horses were being turned into.
On your desk was a bottle you used to join this
And that to this and that. Horses were what held
The gold and silver stars in the firmament
Of your notebook, and what made the hearts
Stick to the Valentine you never gave that girl.
Sitting on your bed, watching the horse-smoke
Obscure the stars, you thought of how much
The air can bear in its arms, and how a ramp
Is the simplest and cruelest invention.
But most of all you thought about how
There must have been a time when
There was no such thing as glue
Because, the world being whole,
There was nothing broken to mend.
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Poets Die


Poets die. They die
In parks, in hospitals, in cabs,
In Italy, in Alaska, in debt,
In nooses, in anonymity, in rags,
In slums, in mansions

Poets die. They die
At midnight, at noon, at dawn,
At Breadloaf, at Sewanee, at AWP,
At the hands of the state,
At their desks, at last

Poets die. They die
In summer, in winter, in fall,
In disgrace, in drink, in protest,
In a pool facedown at a party,
In exile, in drone strikes

Poets die. They're dying
Left and right. And the ones
Who aren't dead yet
Are busy writing elegies
For that poet who just died.
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You can knock the teeth of our graves out
But you only do so because you cannot reach
Can never reach
Our mouths in which we carried two languages
The old and the new
Like a pail of grain and a pail of water

You can knock our loaf-like headstones down
But you only do so because you cannot reach
Can never reach
The challah we braided and brushed with butter
And that rose in the oven like a breath
Taken in and held forever

You can knock the tomes of our tombs down
But you only do so because you cannot reach
Can never reach
The book of poems we opened one afternoon
To a page marked by a pressed flower
Still holding its shape and color
Whereupon we remembered
The meadow and the hour
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I knew from setting up the nativity
Each Christmas Eve that
Joseph and Mary were refugees.
Despite the state she was in
There was no room in the inn
But they were welcome
To sleep in the stable.
The animals were always good
About making room.
It took just a little shooing
To get them away from the manger
The stableboy had just filled.
I was patient with the cow nursing
The wounded leg we’d had to glue
And with the sheep who,
Up to their painted eyes
In real straw, couldn't really move.
But I was wary of the donkey
Who kicked, and the three wise men
With their gifts, I set them
In the shadows. I recall also
A shepherd who, afraid
To sleep too far from his flock
With strangers about, looked
Bashfully down and away,
Having witnessed her labor,
Holding his wire hook
In his papier-mâché hands.
They were all made of papier-mâché,
Except the Holy Family,
Who were made of clay,
And the ceramic angel who hung
On a nail from a hook drilled
Between her wings, perpetually
Unfurling a banner that said
Something significant in Latin.
Probably VACANCY. The inn
Was full but as far as I could tell
There was no inn, or Trump Hotel,
Just that stable in which
A young couple knelt
In a ring of merciful animals
And in the light of a bulb
That blew out every few years
But that was always the same light.
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The Light at the End


The light at the end of the lane
The light at the end
Fashioned from late sun passing through green leaves
And the glow of fresh gravel not three days from the quarry
Down this lane let's set you walking
Towards the light at the end of the lane
The light at the end
And let's run a creek through a corrugated pipe
Sunk in the gravel so you have something to cross over
To mark how far you are yet
From the light at the end of the lane
The light at the end
And alongside you let's walk an old dog
With burrs and ticks in his fur
Not to protect you from anything
For if you're walking this lane you're beyond harm
But for companionship as you make your way
Towards the light at the end of the lane
The light at the end
Several birds have volunteered to stay on longer
To sing for you as you walk
Towards the light at the end of the lane
The light at the end
I hear you like beer so I hereby slip a bottle
Of something good and cold in your hand
To keep you refreshed as you approach
The light at the end of the lane
The light at the end
And to put things in perspective so that you may
Know you are still on earth as you walk
Towards the light at the end of the lane
The light at the end
I'll hang a crescent moon on the eastern sky
Something to know where you are by
I suppose it's just dark enough now
To set flickering fireflies in the fields
That stretch away on either side
But remember the light in their abdomens
Is different from the light at the end of the lane
The light at the end
I don't know what else I can offer you as you walk
What else you could ask for
Save maybe that the lane grow longer
And the light linger
The light dwindling at the end of the lane
The light fading at the end
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Cellar Doors


In winter they were a ramp of snow
That heightened the hill and made
Our sledding more thrilling. In spring
The green rain ran down the grooves
In the wood, pooled and fueled tulips.
In autumn the doors burned with leaves.
Only in summer did we fling them open
To descend into the cellar, seeking shelter
From storms that always missed us. It was then
The unfortunate fact dawned on me that
If the nuclear power plant down in Byron
Ever blew, they'd fail to keep the secret
Of our deaths from us. Still, I took comfort
In the way they lay one upon the other
Like the hands of a girl in church, or like
The only two books the poet wrote, on display
At his funeral, arranged in such a way that
The one on top doesn't obscure the title
Of the collection he started writing
After he learned he was dying.
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The Philosopher and the Horse


In January of the year 1889
While walking through an open-air market in Turin
The philosopher Nietzsche saw a man
Flogging a horse in one of the plazas of Turin
The horse was refusing to pull a carriage in which
Sat a couple late for the theater in Turin
The horse had just come from the country
And was spooked by the commotion of Turin
Because it wore blinders and could not see
All the horse knew of Turin
Was the cries of vendors and the whistles of police
And the cobblestone streets of Turin
That blurred between its hooves as its master urged
It to trot faster through the streets of Turin
The philosopher Nietzsche saw this horse being flogged
By a productive citizen of Turin
The reins having become whips in the hands of this man
Who made his living in the streets of Turin
But no one else so much as stopped or stared
As they shopped in the markets of Turin
For the food they would prepare for supper that evening
When the shadows lengthened over Turin
And the lamps were lit in the quiet kitchens
Of the homes of the good people of Turin
So the man who’d said God was dead
Pushed his way through the crowds of Turin
Throwing his body between the man and the horse
Being whipped in the streets of Turin
Throwing his arms around the horse’s strong neck
As if to save all of Turin
From this man who kept whipping both the horse
And one of the many maniacs of Turin
So that the lashes licked his hands like flames
And the philosopher fell sobbing to the streets of Turin
Crying out for the poor horse to be spared
From being whipped by this man in Turin
Two policemen ran up blowing whistles in order
To see what was disturbing the peace of Turin
And as the driver apologized to the couple
Waiting patiently to be driven to the theater in Turin
The policemen carried the weeping philosopher away
And put him in a hospital in Turin
Where he wrote long and strange letters
To those who lived far from Turin
One ordering the German emperor to go to Rome to be shot
All from the quiet of his room in Turin
While through the open window came the clop-clop-clop
Of the hooves of the horses of Turin
Including the horse he’d tried to save
Accustomed now to the commotion of Turin
As for the philosopher they put him in a mental institution
And he died a decade later in a villa in Weimer
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To My Students


While you write the same scene filtered through
The points of view of two different characters,
I do the math. If you’re something like twenty
Now that means I was something like fourteen
When you were born. When you were babies
I was a boy on a farm in Illinois. At this hour,
At this time of year, I must be kneeling to make
A fire, crumpling up two-day old newspaper full
Of sports victories and losses long forgotten,
The bad news of 1996, the obituaries of farmers
Who were to me then as I am to you now: inscrutable
Shapes silhouetted on a rise in the road ahead. Now
I am laying the dry kindling I carried in while
Several of you have stopped writing. On your faces,
That vacant look of students who are thinking
Of how much work they have to do before they can sleep.
And yet I can’t help but feel that that fire I lit
That winter night when I was fourteen and
You were asleep in your crib is burning still
In the way one of you takes your pen in hand again,
Having thought of something for your character to say.
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Cat Moving Kittens


We must have known,
Even as we reached
Down to touch them
Where we'd found them
Shut-eyed and trembling
Under a straw bale
In the haymow, that
She would move them
By cover of darkness,
One by one, by the skin
Of their necks, that
By finding them
We were making certain
We wouldn't see them again
Until the day
We reached for them
Where they sat like
Sullen teens on the tires
Of the pickup, springing
Effortlessly away to glare
Back at us, having gone
As wild by then
As they'd gone
Still in her mouth
That night, that night
She made a decision
Any human mother
Might make upon guessing
The intentions of the state,
The decision to go and to
Go now, taking everything
You love between your teeth.
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The Man Without Oxen Trembles


"Take good note when you first hear the cranes flying over, coming each year without fail and crying high in the heavens. They will give you the sign for ploughing and tell when the winter's rains are at hand: at their call the man without oxen trembles. Then give your oxen plenty of fodder - if you have oxen. It is easy to say: 'Please lend me your oxen and wagon,' easy also to answer, 'I'm sorry, I've work for my own oxen.'"

- Hesiod, from WORKS AND DAYS

Last fall it was your neighbor who stood trembling,
Oxenless. You could have lent him one, having two,
But it was the year 642 BC, centuries before Christ
Would utter that pretty piece of wisdom about the coats.
He stood at the stonewall you built together to clarify
Where his land ends and yours begins, coveting
The furrows your stumbling team made like the wake
Of Odysseus's ship on the Mediterranean. Not wanting
To finish fieldwork early and feel an obligation to
Let him borrow them, you opened more ground than
You intended to sow, driving them to exhaustion.
Now you're the man without oxen, looking up
At the first cranes flying over, crying out it's time
To plough. The harness you might have taken hold of
Last fall to still this trembling in your hands
Hangs in the barn, smelling faintly of lather.
And being a farmer, you know you didn't sow them
Deep enough, and that it won't be long now until
Winter rains bring their bones out of the hill.
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The Bow


At the beginning of every summer
We boys were given a common gift
To share, to live the long summer
Through with because we lived
Far from everywhere and thus
Had learned how even a small thing
Could shovel a hundred empty hours
Full of fun. One summer the gift
Was a bow and its flock of lithe arrows.
Even before we held it we knew
What it looked like when drawn
From the paintings of Frederic
Remington. And because he was
Our father it fell to him to demon-
Strate how to shoot an arrow straight,
Though I doubt now he had ever
Drawn a bow before. The problem
Was he was stronger than the boy
Whoever designed the bow had
Imagined nocking the arrows.
We winced as the ends neared one
Another as if the point was to restore
The bow to the full circle it had been
Before. It broke, sending slivers
Of fiberglass delving into his skin.
I'll never be able to unremember how
They rayed through his poor palm,
Resembling the quills of the feathers
The pheasants left us like calling
Cards when we startled them up
From the pasture. Had he tried to
Close his hand into a fist in anger
At the pain, he couldn't have. It was
As if it had instantly ossified. Our only
Consolation was knowing his strength
Had shattered it, not any weakness
In the bow. When he ran in to run
Hot water over his hand to begin
Easing the slivers out, I plucked
The arrow from where it had sprung
Sapling-like out of the grass
Not five feet from where he'd stood,
Having hoped he would sink it
For our sake into heartwood.
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Two Stations


The trains themselves have changed
But the reason their bells toll so mournfully
When they roll into the station is the same:
Their purpose is forever to be bearing strangers
From one place to another, down twinned rails
Laid down like laws everyone has forgotten
The reason for, running behind the same houses
That have always, as if in modesty, turned away
From the tracks, blowing a whistle that,
In every season, and in every kind of weather,
Has cried out Oh! Oh! like an old woman
Surprised by pain felt in the midst of a procedure
She was told would be painless. One could spend
One's life being borne back and forth between
Two stations, and on one's deathbed not remember
A beloved face, but that blur the world assumes
When we pass through it too fast, the only stillness
The blacked-out mountains, forever at their most
Beautiful after the sun has slipped behind them.
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Ducks' Misery


When I was younger I wasted so much time
Poised over a notebook of childhood poetry
Wondering where to place the apostrophe
In this name long-dead hunters had bequeathed
To the bottomlands of the Pecatonica River.

Was it the misery of one duck, or of many?
And if it was the misery of many, how many?
And a larger question: since the apostrophe
Is possessive, are we meant to believe that
They possessed their misery? And if so, can we

Assume they carried this misery into death,
The way the black labs the hunters loved
More than they loved their guns carried
The bleeding ducks in their mouths so gently
So as not to crush them? Then there was

Another possibility to consider. Perhaps
There was no apostrophe at all. Perhaps
Ducks and misery were parallel phenomena,
Related to one another the way the birds
In air and their reflections in water were.

It's little wonder that I usually chose to go
With the singular possessive, letting one duck
Become a martyr and carry the flock's misery
All by itself, until it grew so weary with the
Carrying it it dropped out of the sky. Now that

I'm older, I would rather dole the misery out,
Let the flock as a whole bear it, to each duck
An equal measure. And finding the plural possessive
On an old plat map, I know now it's likely that
This is what those dead hunters intended.
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Into the Corn


In summer we were warned not to enter it
If the tassels were head-high or higher
Lest we get lost like the boy who went in
After a ball called foul and never came out
Whose parents must have been decades dead
But who himself had not aged a day
Who runs bases wherever farm boys say
Ghost man oh ghost man we need you!
Out of longing to enter it we reached in
The leaves slicing our arms like the knife
My mother used to slash the risen dough
Wrenching the ears off the stalks
Like twisting doorknobs in the dark
We held them to our own ears grinning
Before turning serious and regretful
For through them we had heard the boy laughing
And as we brusquely shucked the husks
Like village grandmothers sitting in doorways
Down to the slick light green inner leaves
We longed for the moist dark that seemed to be
One of the privileges of being born as corn
But not knowing this longing was common
We held the silk under our bare armpits instead
And laughed at the long joke of adolescence
We were soon to be the punch lines of
While really recalling the pubic hair
Of women we’d seen in porn magazines
We found in the trash in the roadside ditch
When the kernels hybridized for cattle
Were exposed in their wavy pews
We gnawed them like they were sweet
Corn picked up at the roadside stand for supper
Boiled in sugar-water buttered and salted
To be spun on the lathes of our hands
And when we’d bitten off more than we could chew
We snapped the cobs clean in half
So as to see the marrow and believe
We had gone at least as deep into the corn
As that boy who’d disappeared had
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Father and Son: Barcelona


To be carried by your father through the city streets
To be carried by your father
To be carried
To have been born
Only to be borne...

One day years from now
After your father has failed
To remember your name
You will only faintly remember
This night he carried you home
Through the streets of the Gothic Quarter
Your ash-colored lashes closing
And fluttering open
Closing and fluttering open
And the faint scent of lather on his neck

Unfair that I a stranger
Will remember him carrying you
That he will die and not remember
That you will live and only faintly remember
But the fact is to be alive is to be carried
By your father through your city
And laid in your bed without waking
Then opening your eyes in the morning
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Grief and History Console One Another


Usually it's Grief, the one covering her face
With her hand and weeping, who needs
To be consoled by History, who holds
A stylus and a tablet, having perpetually
Just written the words: "They died that
Their country might live." But today
History too is inconsolable, which is why
Grief has, with difficulty, raised her marble
Arm to comfort her, so that they look like
Two women pepper sprayed for protesting
Peacefully, and who, though they've never met
Before, will have to walk home together.
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Eve of the Inauguration


Eve herself, the First Woman of Old
Testament fame, not the First Lady,
Will pace the marble balustrade, invisible
To the billionaires and pop stars
And Victoria Secret models and Secret
Service agents. The news cameras
Will fail to capture her. Only women
Chanting outside the barricades will
Feel her flicker through them.
She split from Adam. He'll be sitting
In some bar downtown, clutching
At a pain in his side, still believing
The old lie that she sprang from him.
His strength is waning. The bartenders
Will whisper, pitying him. Hours later,
They'll have to cut him off and he'll stumble
Drunk into day. Back at the inauguration,
Men will begin to feel her power, shivering
In their thin black tuxes as she passes
In a summer dress, her skin smooth.
And even the man being sworn in,
His small hand on that book that got
Her story all wrong, will feel her eyes
On him and fear Eve so much even
The fibers in his toupee will stand on end.
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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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