The Hummingbird’s Apprentice

 [Poetry], Hummingbird's Apprentice  Comments Off on The Hummingbird’s Apprentice
Feb 042020
 
  1. the hummingbird’s apprentice
  2. roadside wine
  3. counting the stones
  4. summers ago
  5. a batch of blackberries
  6. counting the stones
  7. grief house
  8. tough cutting
  9. on the porch swing
    (with my widowed aunt)
  10. just once
  11. the lost sun
  12. hangovers
  13. evening at last
  14. where i sit
  15. aquatic life
  16. the enormous teacup
  17. the hummingbird’s apprentice
  18. the years
  19. apple, bowl, and book
  20. afterburn
  21. far in winter
  22. december woods
  23. duck pond in winter
  24. hunter’s lament
  25. advent calendar
  26. music for beginners
  27. being born
  28. music for beginners
  29. the go-round
  30. counting stones (2)
  31. going long
  32. yard work
  33. black keys
  34. on the open prairie
  35. road trip
  36. momlets
  37. dance impromptu, aged 12
  38. tulle girls
  39. almost lost in the
    ladies’ department
  40. origami
  41. arranging chairs
  42. in right field
  43. in darkness
  44. star rise
  45. identities
  46. night thoughts
    in a time of quiet
  47. star rise
  48. the black dog
  49. guitar lessons
  50. balance and air
  51. stealing little things
  52. catnip
  53. bleeding hearts
  54. the neighborhood peacock
  55. licking the frosting
  56. the pillow
  57. winter nights
  58. the eat line
  59. turning forty alone
  60. breakfast on the patio
  61. “in the widening gyre”
  62. three martinis
  63. the eat line
  64. the outboard
  65. the retired sheriff
  66. bad dreams
  67. still life with sunflower
  68. minotaur eyes
  69. on winning the pulitzer
  70. the metaphor for ordinary
  71. ’68 brought the riots
  72. swallowing castles
  73. through mullioned glass
  74. blind feathers
  75. reading light
  76. sentences
  77. the days
  78. packaging
  79. seeking the fathers
  80. appalachian spring
  81. circles
  82. swimming lessons
  83. the adulterer’s dream
  84. divorcing
  85. at the dock
  86. the bronco
  87. the busted greenhouse
  88. the craftsman
  89. freshening the day
  90. cart-wrangler
  91. black rat snake
  92. meadow
  93. a frozen waterfall
  94. rearview
  95. dad’s navy cap
  96. casting lines
  97. laundry list
  98. burning wasps nests
  99. workbench
  100. going bald
  101. the jellyfish
  102. seeking the fathers
  103. swordfishing
  104. essay
  105. seeking the fathers
  106. coda: persistence

THE HUMMINGBIRD’S APPRENTICE



Gregg Glory
[Gregg G.  Brown]




Under the first stars, there by the back gate, secretly, I
Would relieve myself on the shamed and drooping hollyhocks.
~~ Don Justice

...an irritation of pearls...
~~ Emari DiGiorgio

Roadside Wine

Pull off 71 suddenly, onto
a wide shoulder of dust and grass.
Yellow loads of honeysuckle
weigh down a length
of brown barbwire fence
like a wave of honey breaking.
Excited, splash ankle-deep 
into the unhurrying surf
full of velvety bee sounds, and select
one perfect blossom.  It is
so sweet in the slow afternoon.
And, where you've cut your thumb,
a thrill of air catches.

 

 

COUNTING THE STONES

 

 

Summers Ago

Our house was not a house until we built it--
Cobbled together like lincoln logs,
	Pegged, dovetailed by pain,
		By tragedy
	Where the corners stain
And the past gets lost, frays to fog
Surrounding nothing until the house was built.

Here, eons flit quick as mayflies--fireflies
Flooding summers ago the orange-rusted screens
	With night light, untouched
		By tragedy....
	Or so we had thought
As we looked upon the shining scene,
Our faces lit with the glow of new-born bodies.

 

 

A Batch of Blackberries

Blossoms along the briars, then waterfalling 
Berries the barnstorming birds beak up, berry 
By berry, like jugglers swallowing beachballs,  
Eating ripeness to the core.  We picked    
And pawed through hooping crooked aisles, picked 
Pecks and bushels box by box, till the cart up-  

Ended its gorgeous, uneven load.   

Hands speckled purple with theft and blood, 
We said grace in the evening kitchen,  
Mom kneading, then flattening, the dark pies fresh,  
Crimping crusts and stabbing little V-birds  
Neat as her needlepoint stitches  
Above the hot talkative core of berries inside.  

 

 

Counting the Stones

Always I count the stones
Flagging the mausoleum walls
Smooth-bore as a musket barrel
To find where Mom is housed.

Flowers poof from trumpetlike tubes
Screwed in along grey walls;
Here errant bees half-drowse
Beneath one skylight's encasing blue.

My sneakers squeak weakly.
I'm almost ready to go home
Right away.  To sit upright, alone
On my red, narrow balcony

Until the eerie eaves at sunset
Flare tears from eyes they castigate
--And I go inside to escape
The scattershot dusk.

 

 

Grief House

an unfathering

This is the house that grief built:

Mute and shuttered in morning sun,
Painted in place, dead end of the street--
A still life dark-shingled with welts.

This is the house that grief built:

Old closets half-full;  old belts, hung ties.
Kids elbow the sill, close oil-laden eyes,
Asleep in a house asleep in the silt.

This is the house that grief built:

An ordinary house if anyone looks,
Newspapers in piles, the phone off the hook--
Unfinished, uneased from easel and stilts.

A portrait uneased from easel and stilts.

 

 

Tough Cutting

Tough cutting the thorny rose-shrub stems
Short to fit a pouting vase while mouthy blooms
Put their tongues out to the empty room.

Your absence pricks, a resisting briar.   
I suck the blood that comes--to quiet fear,
And taste myself what heart to lips may bear.

If green thorns toggled must auger hate,
Who's to say love's rose is not as great?
Tears release from me what would hesitate.

Each rose is soft as skin, nodding sure
And warm as a love-wiped tear,
Close as you yourself once nodded near.

Daily we twist stem and stem more twin in love,
Cultivate a trellis beside a sunny grove,
And train our cultured roses to rise above.

 

 

On the Porch Swing
(With My Widowed Aunt)

What I remember most
(Beyond the rack and creak)
Was how the sun got lost
In memories of ghosts....

Her voice had the shake
Of wind in a weathervane,
Trees isolated by a lake
Before the rake of ice-storms.

Father gone and brothers, then
(As if such conversation were the norm)
The dark years of pain
Intensest before morn.

 

 

Just Once

I don't know exactly what to make of it. 
Out in the early frost, a yellowish, dull  
female cardinal hops, eyes black as coffee, 
her feathers patchy with winter hunger. 
She hunches at the feeder as at a fire 
and snaps whatever bursts from the dark seeds-- 
then wipes her beak on her stale overcoat 
and takes off.  Just once, I'd like to jump 
off my porch and out of my own life like that. 

 

 

The Lost Sun

It seemed dawn was coming out of glimmering black,
Like music lifted from a scattered page of notes
And a few straight lines to help the lost sun back.

No, I don't think the sun particularly like Hamlet,
Too much itself, and, so, blinded and lost.
I think the end of night deserves its little speeches yet:

Here and there a lover's alba, cracked and strained
With adolescent rage, a cheater's charley-horse.
Song anyway is all of a piece with pain,

The vertigo of a wildly spinning top
That brings the blood to our fingertips, makes voices hoarse.
We want it to go on and on, or desperately to stop.

 

 

Hangovers

a middle-aged alba

Lace lifts like ladies' hems
Up sunlit hillsides--
Last of the evening chill.

A muffled alarm, then

Light's beaten 
Stark along spindly tree spars,
Masts of burning bark.

Coffeeless, craving, sore

Out of sleep's black seas
Eyes wrestle to shore,
Unsaved--

The tears, the light, the loss.  

 

 

Evening at Last

There was less there there
Than there seemed.  Diminishment's

The word, maybe, for how
Sailboats on the Navesink

Butterfly along lemon rinds
Of Sol's oracular light.

I and my mortality
Diminish with the harbor-bay;

I remember how tender acne
Ached where now I'm grey.

All the day I'm left with
Feels brief and hot as breath.

How half-sides of buildings, at sunset,
Darken and congeal--

As if dark rain poured forth
From torn gutters, red, and real.

 

 

Where I Sit

The quiet accumulates
Visibly.  Invisibly, I mean--

Like a weight of dirt
Deep in the heart, moist.

On my lap the embossed album,
Bound and fading, of Polaroids.

Dad had clambered here, as a
Kid, on this ticking porch;

Like a weight of dirt,
The rocker's metronome, now.

Ripples of time accumulate
Toward the lake-rock where I sit:

Mostly it's memories, the quick
Eyes of the dead ones, now.

They look at me with all the slow,
Awful power of sunset.

 

 

Aquatic Life

All night the hum of the aquarium 
breathing, the soft babeo
of the electric respirator 
hitched at the back of the tank, 
the last fish in there a widower. 
He swims around his sand castle 
day and night in circles,
nibbling flakes of manna that fall 
in slow gold from a mercury ceiling,  
spinning like a mad flamenco dancer, 
gills flaring in aggression displays, 
rushing the mirrory walls of his life.

 

 

The Enormous Teacup

I slip into an enormous teacup 
broad and smooth as an Olympic pool, 
simmering, minty and tinted. 
Faint greenish steam curls 
my heavy hair as I backstroke  
toward the regulation diving board 
white as a horizontal monolith-- 
I am impatient to be perfect, 
to lift from the dazzling waters 
and jackknife and disappear 
beneath its opaque surface.  
The tannic tea surrounding me
is warm, like blood, like I am
swimming in my own blood. 
I open and shut my body into the flow 
like a diamond, like one of those 
origami fortune-tellers 
kids knead in easy fingers, 
happy with random answers. 

 

 

The Hummingbird’s Apprentice

Stand still like the hummingbird.
~~Henry Miller

If only I could stand 	
still like that hummingbird 
looking carefully into one honeysuckle 	
blossom like a bargain shopper, 
tipping the small blossom forward 	
until it, too, was bowing. 

(If only I could be 
patient, patient!) 

Just that one, 
as if those thousand other flowers weren't 
bursting like gunfire all around--
as if the hummingbird itself 
had nowhere else to go 
on invisible wings. 

 

 

The Years

His mind is bright and empty as the sky. 
His head is shiny too, as are the shoes 
He polishes each and every Sunday. 
Life makes sense in the Great Accounting. 
When, one day, the ambulance arrives  
To ferry him prone to the hospital, he notes 
In one corner of an almost clear sky 
A crow whisking the clouddust. 

 

 

Apple, Bowl, and Book

Arranging a few, nude things (apple, 
bowl, and book) on a flat table 
in the flat light of Tuesday morning--
one way one day, and another way 
the next (bowl, apple, and book), 
and pushing his paint against them 
steadily as sunlight over everything 
(book, apple, bowl), the painter's 
irreducible poverty (self, self, and
self) intrudes on his objects (bowl, 
book, and apple) and saves 
rags of them on a rag of canvas. 

When done for the day, having run 
out of evasions, he wipes the sunlight 
from his sticks with a rag, and drowns 
them in turpentine.  

 

 

Afterburn

Tired of my own thoughts 
I turn out the light 
watching my wrist disappear 
with a hairy flicker. 
There's that afterburn at first, 
the wire inside the bulb 
still burning with self-importance 
keeping me light-blind 
for forty blinks, and then 
just as I settle in for sleep,
I spot through the window slats 
that scintillant blue bowling ball 
the moon. 

 

 

Far in Winter

I have gone as far in winter as I care to go.
Hard frost, harder than a farmer's hands,
Is swirling in from far northern lands--
Harder than my dim intent to pace
Far afield through empty winter spaces.

I have gone as far as wind and feet allow.
I have slid alone down frozen hillside lanes,
Passed pond and ditch spidered by icy panes,
Spyed clouds' unearthly faces blanche as snow.
I have walked until all walking lost delight--

Far, far, until clabbered skies blazed skin-white,
Indifferently applied as universal night;
Too far for hands to reach and rest in touch,
Or tell if they themselves are smooth or rough.
I have gone as far in winter as I care to go.

 

 

December Woods

I stop and wait in winter's wet mid-night. 
Snow-dust is sifting on upturned face and pine. 
A desolate wind sweeps up sleep and haste
And confronts me with the waving woodland waste. 
(How sighs magnify to owls when you are lost!) 
December owns these winter woods alone: 
Her zero laughter gives dead leaves a shake, 
Her cold moan shivers choirs of stunted cones.
I weep, and wait for her in secret delight. 

Slow as the passing of some hypnotic wand,  
I watch inching ripples of the lead-dull pond 
Huddle dark waters to a solid field of white.... 
How one touch of ice turns our world divine!
December knows the bones in molten water's core.
Knows the ice in water.  That tears are nothing more.

 

 

Duck Pond in Winter

Now set in winter brown, the old pond in spring
	Livened these reedy woods gone flat,
		Scuffily ensconced 
		In frozen leaves that once 
Greened the summer skies with leafy wings, 
As if wild ducks in lush squadrons circled it.

Yearly a new mother lands and incubates her brood
	Under a dun feather muffler warm as suns
		Until her breaking eggs
		Toddle on webbed legs--
A duck who loves, and whose love does good
By being mother to what gold pufflings come.

Now, a splotchy Fall has sent them flying
	Off in maiden flight to scenes uncertain--
		To southern ponds
		Comfily ensconced
Beneath balmy constellations.... At home,
Her crosshatch nest uncoils, hurriedly abandoned.

 

 

Hunter’s Lament

Am I to lie 
ashamed among cattails
if, before ducks
V away in winter
with their rising
scale of notes
and scattershot
choral creaking
of wet goodbyes,
if I
want their small
long-nosed faces
to stay?

 

 

Advent Calendar

Departure, now, instead of arrival.  Dad's 
Vaulted the ICU's sterile rungs, 
Where December visitations had dragged us 
To watch a father drowning in his lungs. 
Beyond all this stubbled haste of Jersey freezes 
He's climbed into a greyness of light-polluted stars 
--Each pin of past light striving to stay sharp 
And remain named.
                  "Me!  Me!"
                            Two nieces  
Battle beside their first advent calendar--pulpy,
Saw-toothed, oversized, glue-glitter daubed 
And draped with ropes of hopeful popcorn 
Laddering a stylized Christmas tree.  A light-up  
Star crests dark waves of evergreen, 
Twinkling as if that battery will burn forever. 
Every day, two breathless nieces applaud  
A new surprise behind a hidden door. 

 

 

MUSIC FOR BEGINNERS

 

 

Being Born

You wake up in a coffin, at night, 
Sliding downhill one hundred miles per hour. 
That's how it feels.  It's dark, the air sour. 
There's a vague sense of friction.  After 
Some fumbling around, you discover 
One box of matches. 
How many do you get to light? 

 

 

Music for Beginners

The baby grand, bulbed
Like a black, half-cracked
Heart, throwing the throb
And beat of exposed strings
Reverberating....

V-thighed on the long black
Bench stuffed with squiggled sheets
Of Music for Beginners,
Impressionist drips of quarter-notes
Arching and arching....

How the swaying metronome
Danced (neither slow nor swift),
Mocking ambition patiently....
My small thumbs at rest
On G and middle C.

 

 

The Go-Round

At recess we raced to the go-round
Painted color-wheel slices of color,
Pushed galvanized handrails hard
Until our schoolyard world was blurred.
Laughter rang out like lightning
And wind in our ears was shards
And only the circle stood still, and
We longed to enter that stillness.
Our feet ran out of our shoes,
Impatient to rise from the ground....
And in that grace of levitation 
We each took turns at center,
Leaping like flags for the heart
--To be the source of all colors,
Of the go-round's big pinwheel, the pin--
Skies spinning like carnival art.

 

 

Counting Stones (2)

Carefully we counted stones
No bigger than their eggs--
We aimed to break the bones
Of sparrows
Wing by wing.

Feeling brave and hurtful
Beneath the swinging tree
Three brothers formed a circle,
Nesting
Knee to knee.

Though pity shook my hand
I took good aim to knock
Each sparrow's nest to ground,
One by one
With careful luck.

 

 

Going Long

Helmet to helmet in the high school huddle
tight as a nest of snake eggs, the quarterback 
said "Count ten and turn around.  Trust me."
After the snap, everything went silent,
the small stadium crowd that surrounds us
uniform as a tub of popcorn, silent.
Other players grew mute, dull as a blur.
I went deep into grass, grass silent as snow, 
running down a long and lonely plank 
that narrows as it goes, all life's details  
shifting off the pounding plank like sand
shimmering into silence, my leaps 
all one pounce of now.  I passed line after 
line of quicklime, looking only ahead,
my heart sounding out the seconds to ten,
uprights bright as a tuning fork before me,
going long.

 

 

Yard Work

Leave your yard to weeds 
one summer, till grass 
springs higher than your armpits 
and woodchucks go boldly by 
right up to the porch. 
Have dandelion wine in barrels, 
and violet and primrose stew; 
cut flowers by bushel and peck:  
arrowhead, aster and balsam, 
bayberry, beardtongue and wild 
carrot like cartwheels of lace. 
Cardinals and swifts in trees 
will whistle your days unsilent 
and saw-whet owls sweeten each eve 
as switch grass and creeper appear 
in your sideyard gone over 
to meadow and downs. 
Where now you have footpath 
and pavement, let wildness 
come up from the root. 
May shy Adam-and-Eve orchids 
visit the shadows you've sown, 
holding hands in forsythia shade-- 
and where now you walk  
on owned acres, by August 
you'll be swimming to noon. 

 

 

Black Keys

A proposition on the keyboard 
Comes back inquiring, a minor E, 
Or resolving major chords, giving thanks.

The afternoon enlarges sash and cord,
An intimate of misery and of me
As yellow loneliness falls and fills my lap.

When I look at nothing, I feel adored--
An expansive Narcissus of the sea. 
I hear only, in my hunched piano's plunks

(After the final heightening of a pause), 
The ocean's application of applause.

 

 

On the Open Prairie

Rice grains of rain pattern feathers on the dry
Sides of silos here, red and full of rye.
In the open prairie, all we know is sky.
Yet live on we must--on earth alone and dry.
Somehow you know the whole thing's a ball
Beneath your feet, and you can feel it roll.
Every day I travel on, waiting for a wall.
Then night comes, that shadow there, and its hole.

 

 

Road Trip

We traveled in our car
Whole school summers
Forgetful of the calendar
From wonder to wonder:
The Natural Bridge's catlike camber,
Spelunking Crystal Caverns with lanterns,
Singing in chasms together,
Swimming in Delaware rivers,
Sleeping in camp by those waters
Enchanted and nimble as laughter;
Ducking impossible weather
In the concrete lee of an under-
Pass, Dad smoking as he leaned by the car;
We spat from speeding windows, 
Balanced flat rocks to slide off the fender
(And full sodas forgotten on T-bars),
Screaming through tollbooth and tunnel;
Counting crazily crippled deer
And license plates stamped Nevada,
Swinging past capitols in order,
Kentucky, Tennessee, Carolina;
Shopping at "South of the Border" 
For Ace-Safety firecrackers
And double fistfuls of sparklers.
Never was summertime lovelier 
Than those summers we wandered together.
We kids got happier and happier
While Mom's matchstick face, dumbstruck,
Flickered
Darker and darker and darker.

 

 

Momlets

I can see my son, aproned, up early, 
training among his chef tchotchkes,
selecting eggs with effective fingers 
and rolling the oval winners into a bowl. 
Next, he gathers his spices, pinches 
tipples on his tongue to test them quick, 
and says ‘oh' or ‘no' to each. 

Two real-life princess dolls bowl in, 
dandelion-headed and sleepily slippered, 
standing suddenly seriously silent as totems. 
"Dad's kitchen is all business," 
whispers one to the other in litany. 
And Dad has them help, of course, 
even the whipping, even the delicate 

Egyptian procession of raised bowls 
over their princessly heads to the stove 
where Chef does the final fluffing.
His long arms akimbo, he trawls for air 
to fold into the scramble, the Momlet, 
his swimmer's arm lifting and going around 
and around again--going for distance. 

I see him there.  I see my son. 

 

 

Dance Impromptu, Aged 12

There really wasn't alot to it:
Girls too shy with us to laugh
Corralled by a battery phonograph
--And, here and there on the wretched grass,
A pink and tinsel pirouette.

 

 

Tulle Girls

Girls are not like us, no.
They watch impatient behind taut veils
Of soft thoughts, as we come and go
With our pockets full of rocks.
Girls are not like us, no.

 

 

Almost Lost in the Ladies’ Department

On department store safari, at four,  
I scoped out translucent loose folds 
of whispery flowerprints, deep meadows 
of hanging pastels, and lacy clouds 
of padded bras and ladies' legs 
staunch as departmental mannikins
or the infinite limbs of grazing giraffe,
their shopping voices elated, angelic. 
I ran awkwardly in my new black shoes 
zigzag through disheveled grasses 
of matching pantsuits, a pampas of 
pantsuits flowing higher than my head, 
my lazy hand rippling the materials 
like a tailor between appointments, 
like a zebra sampling a strange stream, 
killing time, growing older by moments,
a pygmy among these women's things,
until I arrived at the end of a long, 
open aisle, my hand clanging a gang 
of faintly skeletal empty hangers 
ringing on their rack after the season, 
like Christmas bells swinging in July, 
like waterbuffalo ribs from past monsoons,
and, brave and out of breath, confronted 
myself amiably at the back of the box-store 
in an empty dressing mirror, tall as the sky. 

 

 

Origami

14 folds and you have a butterfly
ready to float from the tabletop
amidst the snippings, the open hands
and astonished face of the girl who made it.
The whole secret of life folded right there
so quietly beneath her as she sits.

 

 

Arranging Chairs

In here early, arranging chairs in lanes,
The otherwise empty room's a spray
Of local artists' ocean watercolors
By local docents netted in place, prismy
Mists and dark wakes so ably arranged
Familiar things grow haloed and strange
--A broken white fence, now luminous, or
Sea stones folding under a wave.

 

 

In Right Field

Planted in a green corner of heaven
	I watched patchy grass
		And I counted
Intricate, parched clouds as they passed
	Serene in solitude.
Then, as now, old shapes soon forgotten.

Skinny Beanie, our speediest pitcher
	Curtailed the sharp claps
		Of opposing homers
Till into Death's ant-lion trap Old Beanie slipped
	And kept slipping forever.
Then, as now, Death our speediest pitcher.

Playing right field has always allowed
	Me to lean back and sit out
		Whole innings--
Keeping watch in green solitude, content,
	Looking at clouds and counting.
Then, as now, the world passing by in its shroud.

 

 

In Darkness

Late into autumn we boys slept on the porch, 
Listening to October's stiffening crickets 
	Compose their last passes 
		At minuet masterpieces 
		In darkness, 
The invisible slim river still tuning its flute, 
Our dreams as baroque as a monarch's. 

Zipped to the neck whenever night temps blew 
Low, we kids kept up chirping and peeping--
	Lazily nested in chaises, 
		Whistling boy wishes  
		In darkness
Until clouds snugged the moon off to sleep
And we woke, cold, mufflered in the drifted snow. 

 

 

STAR RISE

 

 

Identities


I pull my life down off the shelf. How many fisheyes in the jar? How many stars, like fisheyes, in the sky? The night around me is dark, no matter how I stare. I, too, am a star. Inside. A fisheye full blazing with wet possibilities. Lover, brother, poet. My cold fisheye looks at the night sky through waves of rivergrass, subtle panes of flowing streams. Pushing onto land, I gulp muddy breaths. Running on all fours, I hunch into my dinosaur suit. Later the next day, I ache upright, feeling my ape shoulders burst back from their hunch. Long I walk with my brothers on the blazing plains, racing after buffalo and elk. Or we go leaning our nets together into the rich river, pulling. Tonight we are poets, we sing of stars, sharing the fish around the fire. Singing. The fire falls into the dirt, its near star gone dark. I turn to you under the warm skins piled deep. You stare silently. We wear our masks as lovers now.


 

 

Night Thoughts in a Time of Quiet

Night pine-tree sweeps, shush-shush, 
Against the window like a bird asleep, 
All song calmed to intermittent cheeps-- 
Half-conversations halfway overheard. 

A stranger lays beside me in my bed. 
Her body is a blazing blossom, her head 
Full of whistling voices frail and cold-- 
And hard to hear, my love, so hard. 

 

 

Star Rise

When dinner bells stopped clapping
after our parents' court-ordered partings
lonely as ship horns mourning, 
one east, one west--we would each
duck out in darkness, tiptoe stowaways, 
into newly empty backyards.
Too young to kiss, or even hold hands, 
we met at the fencepost to stargaze. 
I was sad, and you were sad, and
neither of us said so.  Stars rose 
like sails around us, the dome 
of the planetarium cracking.  And then,
invisible as grass, our two little voices 
stippled the sky with stories. 

 

 

The Black Dog

looks up with questionmark ears 
at the blonde woman who,
a little sad maybe at being 
almost forty and the dew still 
frosty on the ivy in early May, 
stops walking the dog briskly 
to sit in meditated misery 
a moment too long, or longer, 
on the bench's flat slatting--
and who curls up into a sudden smile 
when the dog whines and water- 
falls into her small 
lap, plop, 
generously alive, 
its black tail pumping. 

 

 

Guitar Lessons

A wife is playing her guitar 
with inexpert authenticity. 
She is neither too loud nor too bad, 
like an old parrot that learns slowly 
to repeat a crackerjack punchline 
or an embarrassing string of expletives 
the owner leans in to repeat each night, 
pouring encouragement along with birdseed 
and fresh water into the cage's cup. 
Even so, her guitar is getting worn out, 
like a shoe one always dances in, 
like a husband's face smiling as he listens. 

 

 

Balance and Air

First love never leaves us. 
Like a first bicycle, all balance 
and air, we learned to go downhill 
blind, with our hands out wide 
as if flying were forever ours. 
After the fall, a flash of pain, a flag 
of blood, and the bones jerk back 
into the body, like a handlebar 
wincing ribs when the wheel turns 
unexpectedly over a stubborn pebble. 
And later, you peel the bandage back 
from an inflated knee, biting a lip, 
to check the wound's "progress." 
And, even later, absentmindedly, 
while sitting on a folding chair 
at the school dance, waiting to ask 
or be asked into the moving circles-- 
you roll a fingertip over the scar's hub 
the shape of your own private nation. 
It leaves something with us.  Even 
years later, when we see someone else 
skid or stop short, our breath 
catches as if we ourselves are falling. 

 

 

Stealing Little Things

and the cup ran away with the spoon

I'll confess:  sometimes I steal from restaurants.
Oh, not much;  a cloth napkin for the hell of it.
Something both fine and tough that lays in the lap
and feels like quality when you kiss it.
But now I'm afraid Jenny's caught my old habit.
Slick as a jewel thief last night after the movies,
she palmed a real big soup spoon under a pile
of casual paper napkins right into her open purse.
Smooth as glass, not even a guilty twinkle in her eye.
This morning I've washed it for her and set it
shining in a stolen dessert cup with crenellations
purpling all around the lip like a sticky jellyfish--
that mint ice cream and oreo crumble was so good!
The washed spoon with its big plain silver tongue
stands like the Seattle Needle in the glass, twirls
just the least bit, flashing:  welcome to town!

 

 

Catnip

He was catnip to the ladies, they all said so, 
licking their paws when they saw him, 
washing their small faces adroitly, 
or rolling smoothly over onto their backs, 
switching their tails. 

 

 

Bleeding Hearts

Above the weathered bench, 
Swaybacked where I sit 
And damp with summer night, 
An archer's bow of branch 
Drops its heart-shaped blossoms   
Steady as a sleeper's EKG or some 
Drip off a leaky faucet: 
Heart, heart, heart, heart. 

 

 

The Neighborhood Peacock

The peacock's stubby stiff-legged strut 
chops short along downy lawns gone over 
to puffy dandelions, as hook over hook  
row the steady tines of his claws.  His high
eye rises, a tower, an outpost, a lighthouse 
above whitecaps, and one sees then that he 
is all eyes, a carpet of eyes, a sail of eyes, 
a sky unto himself of sheer irised iridescence--  
seeking a portly peahen on which to squat 
his rainbow glory, Odysseus upon Penelope. 
It is for her that his neck bends and his beak 
cracks, and the seed of his dandelion cry goes forth, 
filling rainy afternoon yards with his loneliness. 

 

 

Licking the Frosting

The long night is being carefully frosted 
By day, like a butterknife spreading vanilla icing 
Over a round new moon of devilsfood cake 
While she yawns wide as a sea-lion pup waking 
--Dressing slowly, nakedly in her mirror  
Where dawn-colored curtains flutter.  
  
Her hand disappears into her jewelry box 
And, frosted with lights, her fingers emerge,  
One light on each fingertip like a constellation: 
The Starfish.  After a moment, her ears appear  
Dangling dark earrings like bats drifting  
Out the cave of sleep and into our morning  
  
That sits above blue bowls of Frosted Flakes  
Before we each skate off to our workdays 
Synchronized as Olympic champions.  
But, for right now, she takes a sleepy  
Pirouette in her mirror and approves: 
Of our lives together, the sweetness of our night. 

 

 

The Pillow

The pillow where you last were laying 
keeps a spoon's impression of your head 
and even a swirl, a dimple, of your ear 
as if this pillow were a seashell, where 
a thousand voices enter which we later hear 
as the constant susurration of the sea. 
Can you hear me among them if I whisper 
so close my sipping warms your pillowcase 
while the rain goes on snoring in its gutter, 
and all the house closed up in a sort of sleep? 
I love you, yes.  But what I whisper now 
is something other, something just for you. 

 

&Nbsp;


Winter Nights

Nights accumulate, turn December.
Turn Xmas, with its sparkly galaxies 
Of discarded wrapping.  The fire's chaos
Recalls other heats, other faces....
And, shaken, sparks traces of your long departure--
Last Independence Day at the park,
Fireworks' wild sunshine in your eyes
In hot summer dark.

 

 

THE EAT LINE

 

 

 

Turning Forty Alone

Life is empty.  A wind rises sideways
until my pant legs stand out, twin rudders
steering nowhere.  Between one housefront  
and the next, irritated lightning, 
brief and naked.  Rain, a thousand miles  
of zippers unzipped at once.  Puddles  
swell like bruises and connect their black
softnesses, as they did for Noah.
Forty years I've been on this dark voyage.
The straw is stale, the bursting stalls
fecund with rancor. The lions, male and female,
have slipped their tethers and roam the galley
all night, roaring and shaking with hunger.
Their matted manes are thick as rat's nests. 

 

 

Breakfast on the Patio

Early memories have an edge of tragedy,
The trace of a child's hand
On construction paper, faded.
Or the half-loops of letters, so rudely
Learned, living forever unfinished--

Time behind crouches near one then, 
Ahead lies far.

The coffee's graceful steam unfurls
And morning stones glisten like stars,
An irritation of pearls.

 

 

“In the Widening Gyre”

The worrying leaf twists,
Its race arrested--

Maddened leaves repeat it
In iterant wind.

Down the long hill at sunset, one more
Leaf doodles and cavorts--

Now doubly, trebly muddled in a ditch: 
Murmurous leaves.

 

 

Three Martinis

 
for Joelle
1. 
The first one is cool, refreshing as a cucumber, 
A meeting sweetness lapping at the back of the throat 
As if sugarcane dripped off a fat icicle, and then 
The slow burning to the waterline of your little boat. 

2. 
Now a power growls and routs small talk, dissent; 
Convictions gather like a curtain pulled, mauve, 
Revealing the pitted shallowness of daily talk, 
The world set to rights as easily as this olive. 

3. 
At last simplicity arrives, looking through life itself 
As through a clarifying piece of glass, this 
Glass, contentedly in fingers twirling triangles-- 
Contemplating it filled, and its present emptiness. 

 

 

The Eat Line

Nimble goats tremble on split tiptoes
Eating knots of pine and holly, leaf and branch
As far as fingering tongues can go
Toward heaven for their lunch.

Loosed to clear Sandy Hook's woods
Of poison ivy, their saliva drips, they say,
Immune to poison, and that's all good
We say, going out ourselves to play

Splayfoot on barren beaches.  I spread 
The checkered cloth, pour figgy semillon
Below the "eat line" where they've passed,
Coppice chewed flat as a billiard green.

 

 

The Outboard

Motor's propeller coughs, catching seaweed, 
The intake valve gritty with chaff, the starter flooded, 
An unwell something moaning under the hood, 
Catching and stuttering loudly when it should 
Slur tigerlike, leaping purring for wavepeaks 
In choppy Keyport Harbor's uneven arena. 

The men, popping beers and flyreels, 
Lean back, deckchair masters from mast to keel; 
They survey the costal waters like a lunchbox 
Stuffed for munching while the boat knocks. 
They're happy.  Their spouses, tan and sheen, 
Watch children thrash trash off the stern: 

Survivors in a drowning world, careening and green. 

 

 

The Retired Sheriff

Saturdays he sat on his porch in his old uniform, 
Old like satin slippers stained and torn 
But worn anyway as the last fancy thing   
To go anywhere in, but he never did--
A general blown out of his war, gold braid 
And buttons so much parlor-curtain finery.   
Even his silver revolver was a kind of watch fob 
(Thirty years service, Bob, and thanks) 
Spun by a restless tic in his wrist  
That wouldn't quit--the watch hands shivery,  
And the bullet chambers usually empty. 

 

 

Bad Dreams

He drools like a cow, that one.
All night in his sleep, mumbling
Nightmares, an old knife of stone
Whittled by sea and season
To the one dread:
Wife and kids over the cliff, tumbling,
And his dog dead.

 

 

Still Life With Sunflower

A still life still requires faith
That life itself has stopped
Just for you, your fist of brushes,
Your dripping pots of gauche
Fetishist yellow-red.

 

 

Minotaur Eyes

Eyes almost closed beneath his hat
The old smoker blows gold smoke out,
His agate eyes almost sedate.

Eyes half-shut.  You've heard the phrase.
It isn't done to keep smoke out
But to keep dreams in, as in a maze.

 

 

On Winning the Pulitzer

My darling friends, I am afraid
This once-worthy prize is unmade--
This glittering thing has gone to shit.
A bad generation ruined it.

And, indeed, my winning here
Has me question many years--
Makes me doubt what value, use,
My life's devotion to the muse.

 

 

The Metaphor for Ordinary

The metaphor for what's ordinary 
Ticks rickety, and breaks its wicker back, 
Cracks sciatic with the dumbass weight  
Of my emphatic Great Aunt Kate. 

The ordinary's too circular for metaphor, 
A bridge to the same side of the stream 
Where everything is as it was before 
And no balloon squeaks loose from its dream. 

 

 

’68 Brought the Riots

'68 brought the riots (we needn't speak 
Of them), arriving in a crash of days
Washing away the city's soft authority, the meek
Back-and forth of beach cleaning machinery....
At least we suffer no more the illusory 
Union of then and now--that tomorrow's kids 
Are the same as yours, that yours today
Are you....  Too apparent's the decay.
No fashionable derelict genteel twilight
Fades us towards this stripped finality,

This painted concrete scratch-graffitied grey. 

 

 

Swallowing Castles

Strong clear brilliant air drawn into the mouth in a moment. A special flavor of life, like the south of France. The dusty maybe of Marseilles. The long wet unrolling tongue of the Mediterranean Sea. Sweet dollops of cloud-stuff hardened to minarets. Minarets made sweet by the singing of prayers during the Middle Ages’ Muslim occupation and shrunk by forgetfulness to the size of a lozenge. A lozenge that moults my throat awake. Awakes me to think of melting time and swallowing castles.


 

 

Through Mullioned Glass

The bird, a blackbird, flies
Up--words tear at his wings:
"A crooked cross in damask skies"
Or some other flitting fret or fraying
Its vapid purplish flapping bethings.
Some black clash of shadows
Where blue bleeds in at the window.

 

 

Blind Feathers

 
White blind feathers, wintry February,
Stale cereal fluff dumped from a box.
We stare at the unlocked locks.

 

 

Reading Light

I read, midnights, until the haloed lamp
	Flares meaningless,
Charon's guidelight on Styx's everlasting damp.
Words once fit for granite no more affix,
	The storyline dead;
The sculptor's hand grown bony,
The lover by love abandoned.

The looming book in my hand's a wick,
	Flaring, spluttering--
Burns words, rotten words, until I am sick.
My eyes dry, drugged, bug-eyed, drained,
	My life illegible.
I sit alone beneath an S-shaped lamp
To which I feel inextricably chained.

 

 

Sentences

for Dan Weeks

Sentences trick us out of time's traps
The way a song will go back around
And around on itself to the beginning.
Songs and words, especially drum-taps--
Those dry discrete silences in sound,
Change how long each quiet seems
As if time only lived inside the drum.
Music and writing are much alike. To begin,
You first must stretch the skin out tight.

 

 

The Days

Days falls together like brushed curtains.  
Dawn and evening flutter together   
In silence, interlacing their delicate edges   
--Light comes up one side of a grassblade  
And goes down into dusk on the other.  
That's how it is, too, when I remember 
Suddenly, washing dishes, my name,  
And the sink shines with an identity:  
That's mine.  And all the yesterdays  
Come snapping into place like played cards, 
And tomorrow's a fan of questionmarks 
Laid down beyond the kitchen curtains   
By a hand that flutters them lightly 
In my field of sedge and flat grasses,    
Interlacing their delicate edges.  

 

 

Packaging

I pile brown Christmas boxes, stiff
With stuff: ribbons, tinsel, elves, lights
Untwinkling and tangled--
Hooped in a humped death-wreath
Giving no glistering whiff

Of merriment.  Wires and briars
Hang black where torus roses had made holy
The tree's abstract angles.
How noble!  How dopey!  How phony!
As if Christ hunched curled in a plastic star.

 

 

SEEKING THE FATHERS


 

 

Appalachian Spring

Lace lifts like ladies' hems
Up the sunlit hills--
A memory, almost of snow,
Dissolves with evening's chill.

Sticks of light beat time
On spindly spring trees,
Flat zags of lightning,
A storm in morning calm.

Every day, as out of a cave,
My eyes wrestle to shore--
Unshaved,
I want to see still more.

 

 

Circles

Father scuffled off to his daily office 
Where racks of coolly efficient fluorescents 
     Left his smiling features half-effaced,
          A circle 
Seen briefly in a cavern, at a distance.
At home we kids were laying out the plates

And fanning out the flatware for family dinner, 
Our hour of bad jokes, day tales and talks. 
     We debated rawly, sheer beginners-- 
          Our circle 
Of faces a boardroom of love's assurances 
Over potatoes, Mom's burgers, asparagus stalks. 

 

 

Swimming Lessons

Our childhood redwood house stood surrounded 
By dry leaves in a time of dryness.
So Dad placed beside each bedroom window 
A rolled-up field fire ladder, and assessed us
As we spidered out of windows backwards,
At ease and ready to catch us dandling, 
Chewing his raw black tobacco chew. 
"Whole damn place is no better than kindling." 

Down the short tilted hill through oak trees 
Lay Swimming River reservoir--its scratchy tangles 
Skated over winterlong, doing loops--which soon
Grew warm and treacherous as a betraying hand 
With June, its rich mud silt as quicksand. 
Dad surveyed those greenish waters warily, 
His lips pursing and going still like ripples. 
"Boys, tomorrow there'll be swimming lessons." 

Saturday he took us, one by one in puffy trunks, 
Into a cool space of water he'd backhoed clear  
One drought last fall of underbrush and stumps 
Sharp enough to shred whatever entered bare.  
One by one, he had us straighten out at once 
As if flying, and practice the long Australian crawl,
Turn our heads and spit out breaths of water--
Holding us up entirely at sternum and solar plexus. 

 

 

The Adulterer’s Dream

Something he had swallowed earlier  
coiled in his belly, and sat there 
aimlessly striking his stomach walls 
and making him gulp like a toad 
for night air.  His wife looked at him, 
her hair piled high and pinned for sleep, 
with twenty years of love and pity 
while he gulped and gulped, his eyes 
helpless, and out of his wide mouth 
leapt lie after lie, and the snake. 

 

 

Divorcing

When Mom was done with yelling
At Father on the phone
Waving gestures in the air
Breast-stroking for some shore
That receded more and more,
She continued telling the cat
In a voice like water breaking 
About both this and that
Until cat would purr asleep
In the exhausted swimmer's lap.

 

 

At the Dock

My father's head,
the classic cannonball
tan and slick and fringed
with foamy tufts of grey,
spat black tobacco juice,
ate raw oysters, nipped the tips
off green jalapenos
and cursed easily as he chewed,
cutting the small bait--
having a grand time, 
it seemed, in the world 
of freedom and fatherhood.

Between his bare red feet
a bucket of crushed ice
cradled long-necked naked beers
sweating freely, floating
until he walked away.

 

 

The Bronco

 
...our closeness is this:
anywhere you put your foot, feel me
in the firmness under you.
		~~Rumi
Dad rounded us up weekends, happy, 
to his Dad Ranch, permissive as a belch,
with an occasional locked door or verboten 
shotgun only Dad could manage sanely. 
The old blue Bronco snorted down 
the long unweeded drive, siphoning us 
boys off, a skim of childish excess, 
to buggy wild dunes in South Jersey. 
Dad steered a fireworks pinwheel 
spinning dizzy between his hands, 
leaping wave after wave of sand-drift 
all night, headlights hitting the tall grass 
like lightning, thunder cracking under us 
rev after rev like hooves, the moon 
skimming the night's grey undulant surf 
as if chucked hard, our stomachs light 
as laughter in our throats, we grinning  
even when smacking the roof with our 
little league ballcaps and wet palms, 
riding bareback our parents' dark divorce 
scared as cats in a carrier. 

 

 

The Busted Greenhouse

Radiance of light-strobed clouds,
a crinkle of thunder, and then
hours watching rain stitch and slicken
down the cold prow of the greenhouse roof.
The wet smell like a captain's frisky deckrail 
racing through the stiff chop 
against other slant yachts on an inland sea--
the shores gorgeous forests of flowers.

At times, there'd be stars,
And leaves flat as soot against hanging glass.

I put my head through the blown doorframe:
you can hardly tell there'd been
any windows at all.

 

 

The Craftsman

for Tom Pedersen

This is the door at the front of the house, 
the one that goes everywhere and always 
comes home.  This is the craftsman 
who works on the door with his wood-plane, 
trimming and smoothing it continually  
to a flatness, his mind like an adze. 
He carefully screws new butterfly hinges 
flush with the doorframe, oiling them quiet. 
He trues up the top of the door in the 
doorframe, checking with level and thumb. 
He tests the lock, then leaves it open. 
He stands back a pace, looks his work over, 
hands on hips, and hat brim pushed back: 
closely, carefully, critically.  He spots 
something, licks his thumb wetly,  
like a lollipop, unselfconsciously, and 
pulls it from his mouth with a low snap. 
He spit-shines the doorknob, spinning it 
buff, his red kerchief cradling the knob 
like a hand-sized hammock, until both he 
and the door fit distorted and brassy 
in the small curves of its world. 

 

 

Freshening the Day

The porpoises were beautiful, their grey skin shining like plastic in the morning light.
~~Det. Harry Bosch, The Narrows by Michael Connelly

Rain on charcoal shingles
makes roofs shine pearly grey,
like the slowly turning backs 
of whales that have swallowed 
whole families alive. 
Spring trees put out their leaves 
in the waving spray, and laughter
falls like mist in the dim dawn.
Sidewalks whiten and renew themselves, 
straightening their ties, ready again 
for the old routines--
A father running late, returning 
to work under still-pink floods;
fresh clouds lifting over domed strollers 
gleaming wet as birthing calves;
alert dogs following the pack, noses
tense as harpoons in the spray;  they 
tighten their leashes, anxious to piddle.

 

 

Cart-Wrangler

The cart man returns to our parkinglot,
lowing his cattle-car song in morning air
as he backs into a primo spot and starts
routinely jostling the sleepy carts to life.
He heaves them into his beat pickup,
his ancient varsity jacket scraped soft
from hugging the heavy carts up and up.
The carts nudge together unevenly as cows,
their grey faces skeletal and condemned.
Most of them expect nothing, in for the long haul,
but occasionally one breaks free, rollicking
off the truck in a mad rattle and hoofing it
as far as the dumpster.

 

 

Black Rat Snake

Why such evil in the world, 
asks everybody and the Bible. 
Outside, by my garden hose 
a cold shed snakeskin   
rejoices in the causeway breeze,
a single-fingered glove 
for an absent injured hand, 
weightless as dried froth, as airy 
and helpless as a weathervane. 
Gray lifeless hose, your sole  
inhabitant has slithered off 
effortless as a stripper's zipper-- 
you the discarded clothespile. 
Whatever kept you company,
intimate as a ballroom dancer,
has bulked too thick in snak- 
iness to linger in you any longer,
your diamond-patterned mask.
It's gone, a child's taffy shadow 
pulled toward dark horizons. 
I touch the rocking feather
still curled as if to strike 
fearfully with the toe of my boot--
How quickly life escapes!  
I see how, at first, the living skin
must have split no more 
than a tear duct swelling-- 
and then all at once 
like a leathery egg, 
from snout to shoulder, hissing. 

 

 

Meadow

A grasshopper floats off my palm 
Like a prayer... then, its tin helicopter 
Ditches, the splayed skids stir 
My skin with itches: to swipe, to swat. 
--How little things, even the green things 
Of meadows, can vex a morning's balm! 
I wipe the tidy corpse off like that, 
Small as a bullet casing. 
Now I can return to fields and nature, 
The grasshoppers shifting in the grass 
Endless 
As a thousand hands at prayer. 

 

 

A Frozen Waterfall

Swing with me down a winter river 
on sneakers, zing past a grandstand 
of widowy birches petrified forever 
washing their sudsy hair in the stream. 
In the circle of their nakedness is 
a frozen waterfall, tall and white, 
with a patriarch's great fall of beard. 
Studying the topless columns, I see instead, 
in their myriad crenellations and odd 
glittering rockwork organic as a vapor trail, 
the uncut pages of a book--of what 
secret litany of nature the lexicon? 
I find myself crossing over, pulled as if 
those furious waters still exhorted motion. 
I pat the tall rough face of page-ends 
sealed beyond the genius of knives, 
impenetrable as a meteorite's message, 
and rub a few blind valleys like braille....
Only Spring will read this story, 
after long winter writing has loaded its rifts, 
calling forth, tear by hidden tear, a waterfall. 

 

 

Rearview

Beyond whatever trouble brought me again
(Past circumstance, ennui, a wish fulfilled)
I drive by the white mailbox a final time 
Forgetting even the address that led me here,
The map that was less map than maybe
This once, minor hopes that would not let me be:
Years of loving Dad and getting nowhere,
Defending my life as if it were a crime.
Beside me rolls field after field, untilled--
The road behind shaky, small and clear as pain.


 

Dad’s Navy Cap

Stowed back behind a slipped stack 
of power-equipment instruction manuals, 
Dad's navy cap from the war, wilted white, 
looks a sort of ruined sandhill now 
with a thin black brim for a shadow 
and miniature crossed gold swords, sewn, 
recessed under a dented-in ledge  
like a shallow cave in a sandy river bank 
eroded deeper by all that water gone 
under the bridge, years of echoing hurry 
belowdecks in the engine room among 
rolling waves of steam and steel, 
come ashore to this quiet spare bedroom closet 
with its dusty mirror and its 40-watt bulb 
triggered by a dirty string. 
Turned over, there's one old spot of blood-- 
a dead crab washed to the crest of a dune, 
just where the inside of the cap  
touched the peak of his skull. 

 

 

Casting Lines

I stepped, a tenderfoot, into the pebbly stream after Dad, 
Reeling as he taught, casting out from 
My center as if toward nothing, 
Feeling light as the 
Fly. 

Now wicked twists of river water press me as I pass 
To deeper ranges with my casting, where if you 
Try to stand in utter stillness 
You feel that you could 
Fly. 

Why was I always wading so slowly, so far behind Dad 
All those years ago?  Still ahead of me today in 
Memory I see him striding, reeling in, 
Fall-lit leaves streaming  
By. 

 

 

Laundry List

The ice cold stares of neighbors
click across you like fridge lights.
Washing machines neat as teeth
line one cement-block wall beneath
a whole row of closed windows.
A flare of florescent cleaner like a tongue
lays cut in two by red rubber cart wheels....
The scrambled contents of their lives
empty hurriedly into the loud Charybdis
mouths of machines: a pillowcase,
yellow with age, tons of undies,
a child's bed padding princess pink,
shirts waving farewell, yoga pants 
pantomiming embarrassing positions....
Lives stuck in spin-cycle listen for a bell....
Dryer sheets flicker in corners of the room
like stubborn
popcorn husks, eternal and inedible.

 

 

Burning Wasps Nests

Unsholdering his shovel, Dad pointed 
to a unnoticed hole, down 
in the meadowy dirt, in the field 
behind our house--little more 
than an ambitious ant-mound really 
with a perfect circle centering it. 
We could hear what went on below: 
small muffled buzzing huzzahs 
like a covered pot of spaghetti 
or the sleepy voices of dead folk 
still warm under desiccated grass. 
Dad took the gas can from me, 
its fluent scent flaring clear light 
into our nostrils, and giving a pinch 
like hunger somewhere in our bodies. 
The matchstick arced and landed, 
a lady jumper with her hair on fire:
gasoline flames came like a whiteness 
that's hard to see--but the heat 
had us stagger back, Dad's hand 
on my shoulder like a broad blade. 
I just stood there, staring at where 
those scrambled buzzing voices 
rose more and more angrily, like 
the deepening sizzle of an unwatched 
pot, its jittery lid shimmering. 

 

 

Workbench

He kept his grandfather company summers
by the beat-up workbench in the garage,
a piece of fine dovetail sticking halfway
from the red vise--a kite's-wing of Icarus'
in for repairs.  He shook a coffee-can of nails
real loud, and sang loud, too, the one tune
they knew together, "That'll be the Day," 
to keep his grandfather entertained 
while old careful hands swept curls 
of sawdust to the floor among gluepots 
and chisels fine as infant fingernails. 
The wide blond grain of the bench
was blasted smooth as a turtle's back 
by hundreds of restless broken things of grace
dragged there and clamped in the vise
until they were useful again.

 

 

Going Bald

Stray hats perch here all seasons, 
like birds who abandon their nests 
of stuck-up feathers (and one egg 
whenever I duck out of the weather). 
Where once a loyal brown dog lay curled, 
guarding hearth and home genially 
unless tangled with, the August sun  
scalds me through an open skylight, 
and cold slaps bone every December. 
In a gilt-edged mirror at the stylist, 
I can just about squint Caesar's laurels 
into existence, tilting weirdly above my ears. 
After a shower, with my two-days' beard 
shaved, my face is born again, pink  
out of the steam, while above eyebrows 
my pate rises mottled and bald,  
a tombstone with a single date. 

 

 

The Jellyfish

Below my knees, the sea
wavers my feet into fins
spied through a stormy porthole.

Wobbly toes grind sandgrains
as if each minuscule stone
were the whole world.

How many summers, Dad,
had we cast ourselves breathless
into such endless days?

The incoming tide
makes me sit down--hard--
as if I were drunk.

Ghosts of jellyfish
hem my waistline, frail
as collapsed lungs

until I'm transparent.

 

 

Seeking the Fathers

Searching for the fathers
of my baffled heart, I hid
my head in long books of poems
that were forever ending
too soon.  Once, I was a modern
Native American standing silent
beside that affable man William Stafford,
leaning together among polite prairie dogs.
Once, kneeling in deer-soft dirt,
I counted countless red streams of army ants
Bobby Bly knocked from old gopherwood.
He smiled, and we listened
to our spirits whisper in the grass.

Each volume in the columned hall
stood slenderly beside me, my arm
draped lazily around its lettered spine.
I found many fathers under the yellow suns
of those aging, open pages--
we fished whole summers barefoot together,
casting our lines, our lives, one word 
at a time: word, word, word.

 

 

Swordfishing

     Let my boat have neither anchor nor motor
     ~~Emanuel di Pasquale

When they were running good
you could spot their sails
like dinosaur aileron
above the spoiling waves
tenting nerve-grey and blue.

Our new boat, a fast fiberglass
hull, was christened "Mutha II,"
and replaced an old wood 
Hacker-Craft, "The Pastime"
for our swordfishing adventure.

Each handsewn belly-bait
carried weight enough to drop
long hooks to the ocean floor
where swordfish often loiter
for prey dragged by the Gulf Stream.

Every Christmas we were pulled 
to hear the hissing line
to feel the arch and snap
of heavy fishing wire
disappear in our boat's shadow.

And to witness all alone
on the ocean with our father
strapped in leather harness
and reeling for the kill
how swordfish fight and die.

 

ESSAY

 

Seeking the Fathers

 
Beginning to fabricate the music of poetry 

Starting Out

It was back in college that I really began to take on poetry as a life-mission. Every serial killer has his first blooding, and mine took place in the leafy precincts of Monmouth University (née College). It was there that a trio of instructors really set out the map I was to wander for the next thirty years, exploring the Hundred Acre Wood of literature, leaving my own poems scritched into the easier pines, or a duck marker where the trail splits to show which direction I’ve gone. Thomas Reiter, Prescott Evarts, and Robert Rechnitz were the three that did me the most good overall. And, although I don’t mention him here, Bob Sipos and his Shakespeare seminars and knack for interdisciplinary studies gave me two of my lifetime hungers, one for anything to do with the Bard, the other for science in combination with literature.

Seeing Skies

I leaned lazily against the dirty ductwork, my rump in a rumpus of dry leaves, beside me a stack of Cicero (Loeb’s ed.), Auden, some modernist trash. I looked past my tilting sneakers to see the edge of the roof of the Guggenheim Library. A mix of field and woods front leafy Cedar Ave., a terrain that cradled my college days. This is where I ate my way through french fry piles of poems, feasts of history, big burgers of science, and lemonade gulps of art. With the open sky above me, a good book beside, and a building full of poetry behind–the world was my oyster!

On overcast days, or when the librarians were marching about, whistling me in from my aerie on the roof, I’d lean against the doorway at the top of the second floor’s curving staircase. The staircase had an ornate Swastika trim that flowed up alongside the marble steps and was cast (I hoped) before the rise of the Nazis, when civilization had already been rescued once so that F. Scott Fitzgerald could pen his Jazz Age prose for my delectation. It was nice to lean there at the top of the turning stairs, and read, and look through the long window at the bending cypress trees (fluttery as flame-drops) all spring, or to imagine hearing the wind shake snow from them in winter while the old heating registers creaked.

Occasionally I’d see Dr. Reiter or Prof. Prescott Evarts in the “poetry hallway” that led to the staircase–rows of tall bookcases filled with narrow volumes, like a quiver flush with arrows. I’d have to fold my legs into my chest to let the tromping professors pass, who’d offer only a laconic greeting while I’d proffer a phrase from some poem that was trying to absorb me body and soul.

Seeking the Fathers

Back then, I was seeking the fathers. The long beards who could sensiblize this enticing chaos of experience, with its shaggy roots entrenched in history, and its mystery made gritty by dirty Time. Of all the fellows I came across who seemed to hold this sort of full focus that could harrass chaos into the momentary clarity that I longed for, was Thomas Reiter–a poet, I think now, looking back, more of precision than of delicacy.

He had the tall, inquisitive look of a microscope, with a focused intelligence that could reduce callow poems to a tear-stain on a lab slide, each line investigated for signs of microbial activity. Gawky in glasses, Dr. Reiter spread my too-tall-by-half pile of high school scribbles before him on his cramped office desk, post-it notes stuck here and there, and announced that he would proceed by a method of “divide and conquer” to guide me out of my juvenile shallows, and into the Odysseyan deeps that a man might sail for several lifetimes.

He saw the junctures where past wisdom and present experience overlap. And at that overlap, always there burns the bright arclight of the sculptor’s welding torch. Inflection points, capacitances and resistances (as Dr. Reiter might say), all come within the domain and to the mindful moment of the artist–whose hands guide the welder’s fire, whose fingers impress new patterns in the steel. Layer upon layer pressed into palimpsest, and palimpsest hammered into meaningful mandala. It is the completeness and complementarity of his patterns that allow Dr. Reiter’s welded Iron Giants to come to life–and to stay alive. Every capillary has been laid to its destination as surely as any mile of rail. A shield for Achilles made with American hardware. But not made with the willful loss ideology uses to shape its tin minions; ideology that can only cut to create, snipping experience to fit its blinders; ideology that mistakes the narrow road for the wide landscape. Instead, the craftsman works with the simple, slowly learned, touch of humanity. That is the artist’s way: adjusting, assessing, remembering all the while. Such strength of touch we learn from watching our fathers work every day.

And Dr. Reiter loiters along my skyline yet, a shaper of the landscape.

Excellent Faces

Prof. Evarts always remained a mystery to me–or retained his mystery, perhaps I should say. Tall, with close dark curls grey at the temples, he has a passion for excellence–and for excellence alone. And here I think is his true poet’s touch: he never wavered in his ability to even silently emanate that dedication. In his poems, he casts his heart continually back to the Greeks–as who must not who seeks for excellence? He saw, and shows, how this pursuit of attainment and mastery is what sets our humanity most nobly alight. In his person, the man seems simplicity itself, with some humorous inward gleam withheld–or held within, more than withheld. But, like a prize grouper in his weedy redoubt, when some tempting excellence fins by, he nabs it without fail, adding to his hidden store.

What’s the secret that lies behind every face? Where do the rubbery strings that tie on our masks attach? Something of that esoteric knowledge is what a useful culture can impart to its devotees. And any useful human culture must believe in the best of the humanity of which that culture is composed. Teachers are the intermediaries here, being shaped themselves by the best of the past, and shaping that which is yet to come. It is a moral course, whose compass is composed of Euripides’ “warm droppings of human tears.”

The self-contained individuality of Evarts’s stance toward life and culture (or a life of culture), has taken me decades of rocky yearning and mossy slip-ups to really begin to appreciate. It’s a life-lesson from an old classics prof of mine.

A doze is a light sleep
the mind dips into,
then wakes from, achingly,
into little Iliads
  ~~Prescott Evarts, "The classical world," 
             in The New Criterion, November 1994

The Importance of Being a Proscenium

Dr. Rechnitz taught me that “Literature is an education of the emotions,” and I’ve noticed that when you read a book openly, getting involved with the characters and letting your imagination be deeply invested, you actually become capable of feeling things, of being sensitive to feelings, that you didn’t even know you had! You really are inventing yourself–your capacities and imaginative possibilities–every time you crack a spine (not to re-evoke the serial killer simile). Like Christian aping the words of Cyrano under Roxanne’s window, we grow eloquent within ourselves when we kiss genius. For words, spoken or viewed, do all their golden alchemy within us.

Dr. Rechnitz also directed plays at the college theater, and is now, since his retirement from teaching, responsible, with his indispensable wife Joan, for the Two River Theater in Red Bank–just the most beautiful theater built in New Jersey in the last fifty years. And when I saw him in the context of the stage, I got hip to the fact that for Dr. Rechnitz, “all the world’s a stage.” Everything, as in a poem or a well-ordered novel, has meaning in three basic ways: what it is in itself (either as essence or fact), what it is in relation to others, and what it pretends to be to itself or others. You see this in Odysseus, who wears many masks on his voyage home to Penelope, but never loses mastery of his essential (still mysterious to us) self. And with Dr. Rechnitz, it was seeing a different version of himself under the proscenium that clued me into how our awareness guides not just how we see the world but what we see of the world–how large our perspective can be. It’s related to growing with that “education of the emotions” stuff.

There is a criticality, a reserve, in even the most audacious clown. Ask the French about the slapstick genius of Jerry Lewis–they get it. Our essence, understood and held by ourselves within ourselves is always under observation by a part of us that doesn’t exist in any single discrete moment of time–but is the “wisdom” (for lack of a more boisterous term) of all our time of acting and observing. This gives the interior quality of good actors, and of happy people engaged in creating meaningful lives for themselves. It’s an open secret, a fun, doubling sub-plot with the power to intensify the main action.
And for letting that cat out of the bag, my thanks, Dr. Rechnitz, wherever you are.

* * * * *

Years later, outside the Two River Theater, I had parked and debarked to see part of the cycle of August Wilson plays they were putting on that season–Jitney, I believe. A long late-model sedan pulled in behind my car, and began a series of seesaw adjustments in attempting to parallel park–first gently crushing into my back bumper, then backing into the bumper of the Jeep behind it. After observing a few of these poolball style bankshots, I leaned in to the passenger side of the car and saw a bank of modern ‘park-assist’ technology displays brightly arrayed in the dash of the car’s dark interior; recessed screens showed in dynamic color each bash of the sedan into my car’s duct-taped bumper like the radar display on an aircraft carrier; and the picture-in-picture safety cam spotlighted a grainy close-up of my old torn Ramones bumper-sticker.

“Gregg G. Brown!” A staticy voice burst from the driver’s side. It was Dr. Rechnitz, grinning gamely as his gold sedan slipped into reverse for another bash at the Jeep.

“Would you like me to pull forward?” I asked as the passenger, the ever-lovely Joan Rechnitz, further lowered her power window with a near-silent zzzzt.

“You’ve got to see this August Wilson play,” continued Rechniz. “It’s a magnificent American original. And no need to move your car–this boat has auto-park.”

“I’m on my way in. I’ll let you know how I like it.”

“Yes. Do that. Do that. You won’t regret a minute.” And he went back to studying the wild displays, digital sweep and counter-sweep lighting up his circular eyeglasses.

I stepped back out of the crash zone, and kept a backward eye on the sedan’s awkward tipping and turning, expecting to hear the Jeep’s car alarm larruping behind me at any moment. At the next play the following month (not King Hedley II), I left my book of literary essays, Vindictive Advice, at the box office, saying only that it was “for the Doc,” and saw an email acknowledgement pop up in my inbox a few days later. I assumed the note would be something in the form of a UPS receipt, one you sign sloppily for the downstairs neighbor before accepting a questionable package wrapped in plain brown paper–and no return address.

The note was indeed brief, but far from perfunctory.

How, he wondered, had I gone from being the homely noticer in the back of the classroom at Monmouth to the well-read raconteur evidenced in the pages of my book? I felt deeply complimented by Dr. Rechnitz’ note. It had not been too many summers before that I had suffered the slings and arrows of 2,000 rejection notes from poetry magazines–without a single acceptance or even a paternalistic pat on the back. And here, in this small note, was acknowledgement of years of literary effort. The note even included a touch of that real writer’s compliment in its bob-tailed paragraph–envy, glittering in its bitter rarity. I felt embarrassed, but glad. I didn’t know what to do with his praise:

The bell's tongue
Struck me dumb. 

Dr. Rechnitz’s note had managed to park me twenty-five years into the past, back up onto my perch on the Guggenheim Library roof, the view renewed, a fresh bucket of icy oysters by my side in the summer sun.

Scrutable Totems and a Human Heightening

What exactly did I learn from these guys? Let me talk about the poets, since I think I covered some of what I gleaned while in the good graces of Dr. Rechnitz. From Dr. Reiter, I learned (or observed) how a poem can set itself up as a generator of paradox, or mystery. By that, I mean that the circumstances a poem places before the reader recreate the moment in the poet well enough so that the reader, too, must try and manage his way into meaning from what is presented. Hmm… Let me try again. Wallace Stevens has said that “a poem must resist the intelligence almost successfully.” I think what I saw in Dr. Reiter’s techniques is that that resistance can be ongoing in the poem, can remain in resistance to any sense of settled ending.

Dr. Reiter manufactures artifacts that embody the dilemmas they explore. They are scrutable totems of immense experiential value–and you could say of explanatory power if you are willing to include being, manifestation, as a form of explanation. If the story and its details can be set up the right way, with enough technique, enough craft, and enough justice to reality, the elements that the poet exposes to the reader go on making the poem long after the poem is over. It’s like striking a cymbal. You haven’t just hit a circle of brass, you’ve touched the nature of the cymbal and evoked it into resonant interaction with the world at large. So, Reiter would be able to set the scene–a plowed field, and country grave-marker, for instance–and turn the description, or evocation, of each of these elements toward a meditation of the relationship between living and mortality in a way that wasn’t a one-off noticing. The elements themselves, in their arrangement, remained deeply provocative. Like an ethics problem or a moral fable, but full of the super-sensible subtleties of poetry. And this is what life confronts us with all the time. And this way, life insinuates itself into the poem, and the poem has heightened life.

Dr. Reiter’s work is difficult to excerpt because of this well-crafted relatedness of parts, a sort of perfection in sum that resists summation, but here’s a few lines from “Sodbusters,” whose circumstance is described just above (ellipses are mine):

Say the child died that first winter
....
Say Matthais Bell kept 
clear of the new stone
that spring the prairie blazed with space
....	

Say year by year he plowed closer--
not that he forgot
how the boy's hands were the color
of freshly opened apples
....
I see him turning the earth
beside this graveyard where the prairie
compass  marks the meridian
with its deeply divided leaves.

And it is also with this matter of a heightened life that Prof. Evarts’ poems most impressed me–as well as his whole demeanor. Exemplars, standards, a larger life seem always very near him, like presences. If anyone I know knew where Sophocles was hanging out on the down-low, it’d be Evarts. And by having a ready and eloquent access to these past exemplars, Prof. Evarts constantly calls us to our better selves–not some phony more moralistic self in any narrow sense–but in the very real sense of being ever-alert to our highest excellence. Don’t be good, be great. And he always seemed to have a long enough perspective to avoid the pitfalls of Romantic subjectivity–where the greatness is in what the ego, the I, is feeling–and if you couldn’t feel it too, you are just some kind of lame lumpen-proletariat. No, it’s actually a kind of heroic ideal, a human faith in human faithfulness, if you will. That our capacity to act matches our possibilities–and that the work to move in the direction we are heading is life’s one joy in some final way.

     The snail, inch by inch, climbs Mt. Fuji. 

And Evarts just always knows which way to Mt. Fuji! Directionality, combined with work and not accepting less than your own very best effort, creates a life and a poetry of excellence. A note that always plays true. I know this sounds a bit like a business seminar, with the way they wobble on about ‘excellence’–but I mean it in the olden way of the Greeks, the becomingness or arête, with man as the measure of all things. Less an appeal to ideas than an appeal to a comprehensive human experience that includes ideas. In this way, ideas are neither excluded nor exclusive. Ideas are simply another, and necessary, ingredient in the meatloaf.

Gregg Glory
[Gregg G. Brown]
April, 2015

 

 

Coda: Persistence

The sea comes into the rock.
The rock mocks the sea.
The sea comes into the rock
Until the rock ceases to be.

Secretly the book is being readied. 
Obstructions and obfuscations 
Are being blown up and shredded. 
The book, the words, are come! 
Beat thou a merry drum! 
Don a motley cap, and a gown fine-beaded. 
The book, the words, are come! 
Beat thou the drum!