Divers missives to absent others BY GREGG GLORY [GREGG G. BROWN] Published by BLAST PRESS Copyright © 2014 Gregg G. Brown
Epigraphs In nature there is nothing melancholy. ~~S.T. Coleridge, The Nightingale Bear witness for me, whereso'er ye be, With what deep worship I have still adored The spirit of divinest Liberty. ~~ S.T. Coleridge, France: An Ode
The Parable of the Parable-Teller
...of lovers and friends I still can recall
Neuro-science and linguistics have found, more and more, that the portion of ourselves that we recognize as uniquely our own, that we carry with us as the turtle his horn-bone home borne upon his back, is the story of our life that we continually create and edit. It is this most portable portmanteau companion, this kitchen gadget of enlightenment and self-definition, this word in our own ear, that is us to us. In Shakespeare, the most vile Iago gets in-between the naive Othello and his perception of what his love is, what his love means; Iago takes the place of Othello’s own consciousness by his whispered innuendo. If Othello had been more mature in love, as he was in war, he would not have been so malleable to another’s voice, another’s vindictive agenda. He would have recognized Iago’s stratagem for what it was–Iago’s implanted concept of love was simply war by another means. And so we are all vulnerable to the virus of other voices, other selves. Indeed, we change ourselves through the same methods that Iago infects Othello, but usually with less ulteriority in our motives. (As an aside, a situation in which this is not the case, in which we self-consciously adopt a new posture towards our current reality, is when one voluntarily submits to the re-programming of a twelve-step, diet, or other self-help or self-improvement campaign.)
We live in a mist of continual whispers. And these whispers bring us news of the world, and arm us, Galileo-like, with telescopes to view our inner landscapes: our pasts, our nattering presents, our dreams and desires–all at once, or in a movie-montage series that takes on the serried wheels of the kaleidoscope for its deployment and re-deployment of pattern in the search for meaning. Childhood faces, lovers breathing intensely close, the lick of an insistent pet, all compete for their place in the panorama, their time in our arms at the square-dance of selfhood. What fiddler calls the tune? Will we always respond, stomping in time to the quibbling ifs that life presents? This is all process, the creation of context from which our daily self emerges: the hourly display of faces from which Shakespeare chose his masks, and where Dickens lived amid Pickwickian semi-visionary laughter.
Layer on layer of this-was and what-ifs bring us the twists of our private narratives–not the blatant debasement of power-narratives and privileged perspectives and voice that Derrida derived, but the rich exploration of ears of the self, the continual God-slog of “the examined life” that Socrates instilled into the DNA memes of the curious West.
The parable of the parable teller is simply this: that our attention, our focus changes, and the parable-teller, like Chaucer chuckling gently from on-high, remains aware that the change is occurring. Coleridge in “Frost at Midnight” demonstrates well the process of place and inner space. First he is alone in a frosty midnight; then, looking at the fire, he recalls other scenes, and in one of those recalled scenes, he remembers wishing for yet another presence, another context. In “The Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” Coleridge imagines the walk his friends are taking and describes that walk. Similarly, Stanley Kunitz imagined the first moonwalk–and when hearing and seeing reports of that walk in actuality, Kunitz claimed he didn’t need to change a syllable of his poem since he had “already walked on the moon” in his imagination. In this same way, we invent the self we are and the details of our lives that stand out for us and become incorporated into the currently active self we are always oh-so-busy experiencing. In poems that follow here, there are usually at least two stories told side-by-side–a current context of speech in which the narrator is speaking or being caused to write, the context of the person being addressed as imagined by the narrator, and the remembered details of events experienced in the past by the narrator (often a past memory of being with the addressee). And all this symphony of whizzing whispering brings the speaker to new views of the self he could be, the creature he is creating in his lab of solitude.
One of the ablest spaces for this refreshing and re-experiencing of the self is in our nests, our tidy homes, with the latch shut and the world feeling far-off and safe. Here there is no imperiling snap and swap of swordplay, no train bearing down on our vulnerable colony of cells. Home means comfort, and ease, and feet up on the couch as we break out the stereoscope and review what wisdom is given to us as our portion of the greater mystery. There’s a warmth in the hearth, a harvest in the home, that no other domicile can quite capture or match, whatever its majesty may be. Niagara Falls or zip-line volcano tours will have to stand beside and wait in memory when the yellow light of a suburban home beckons the leg-tired jet-lagged traveller home. Home to zoning-out, home to the spatter of expected talk, home to regular rounds of coffee, the simple fellowship of your nearby hand, denizens of ease in winter’s sparkling twilight.
And so the parable perpetuates itself in an onslaught of ontologies, tabulations, diaries, vivid minuscule distinction upon distinction without end. Frame within frame, story within story, the multiple perspectives switching with an effortless turn of the tongue, the change of metaphor made flesh, the story made bone and standing up, a stacked skeleton that had been rummaging the veldt on all fours. Do we remember the perspective of the lungfish, the metaphor that had us leap to land, grow hand and hoof, still carrying the seas within us?
Gregg Glory March, 2014
Go, little heart
Go, little heart, into a song That flies away the while, Chirruping with the dashing catbird there Who flits through a country stile. My eye her errant ecstasy Follows along a dotted line.... Stretched to cotton majesties of cloud Where she disappears like Time. When my song comes singing back To me, from frosty Everest returned, Note how my voice at highest pitch remains Till I'm ashes in an urn.
The Pilot Light
My Jenny, my jewel, the house echoes with your wintery tread, a diamond rolled loud on an overturned aluminum canoe; you walk about like one who is school-tired to the point of ill-temper, a scholar flopped among her hundred books. How often I recall my own school days in dry colloquy with old professors, ghosts of poetry who remain spirit-limber in my reminding mind--strong with witch-words that evoke in me heaven-pastures where angels nod don-like over tomes cloud-lovely and limned with golden words as if sunset were always nigh, yet never setting into that charlike dark beyond the page where thumb and gilding meet and part. And so I see you, conversing briskly with rows of unknowing pupils, tipping cups of milky knowledge into empty mugs.... Here beneath our roof of snow you move in moody silence, heavily, from chair to chair, arranging tests and essays like a stack of X-rays shimmering to heart and bone of your young charges now dimly abed and dreaming--while wild outside the February wind whistles wickedly, and I sit meditative in a half-daze of dream, remembering with the flickering wind just how young (how young!) I once was in poetry--knowing only that I didn't know the myriad ways of verse, but loved all that poetry somehow made me feel--as a child knows nothing, but knows that love is there in the downward glow of its mother's downy face. If I could contain so much of ignorance all at once, surely one day my knowledge could grow as great? The book has flattened on my lap that kept me wondering while you worked-- airy fancies that troubled old Coleridge: his fire's stranger-ash floating over flaming bars as he watched lost in thought in his humble Cot, all his guests asleep, his singing-self a stranger like the rest! Here, the wind-berated moon huddles low over apartment eves; each push and punch of night-wind tells--not of strangers beyond the sill, but how alone we are when we are ourselves! I see my ignorance with sleepy eyes and measure new ignorance by those stars ranged primly distant, too far to touch their fire--almost too far to see.... What passion keeps them steady in their skies, astral marks that tell us where we are? When it's all too much for me, too many confusions and cavilings railing in my brain, all I can think to think, or think to say as the Little Dipper sinks and darkness greys confusing eye and atmosphere, is that a flame grows narrow at its tip. Jenny, I look about me once again, rising itinerant until I find my final bed beyond these rooms we share and shape with life. Nearby, you bend to the stuttering stove, a companionable grace in increasing night, quiz-work kept neatly stacked at the long table, and strike a fresh match to the unprimed grate-- over-watching the tiny flame with as careful eye as God might over-watch the infant heat of Adam in early earth's so-cold bowl-- and soft! within the iron grate, with whisper sweet, bluely ignites the tender pilot light, set to burn as long as attendant gas serves as wick to what your human hands had clicked awake.
The Graven Path
Little Michele, little friend, little missed miss, I'm readying a flapping knapsack to meet the changes time has made to friendship, and to hug what cannot change or pall until death entreats a final retirement to all. Little Michele, who first unveiled the graven paths of Yosemite to me, the deep crisp chiseled sky squared above mendicant hikers filing up the Great Falls' narrowing way! Falls whose mists surround me still, wooly polyester fluff of a winter coat near as hair, as white as my new beard now puffs in mirrors. Sleep keeps you in Sacramento, at rest from day-long hospice rounds where time lies blanketed in neat-tucked beds, while I wake in winter-gripped New Jersey where houses huddle together against slush, marooned amid mirrored sheets of old ice that sweat slick at noon only to find the moon skating re-hardened silvers nigh midnight when all the over-busy Garden State is silent. It is out of such silence that I write, my bamboo desk turned tundra by the racing moon that pulls at my recalcitrance like a leash. I resist these dim hours of witting speech when need and time conspire to eke forth words for one both dearly near and distantly absent-- Right now, I'd rather sit speechless with thee, brimful of meaning tears and politely quiet, there in the granite dell where age elides to age, our feet stuck out dry before the campfire, pines leaning in inquisitive with the burst faces of old men shouldering down for warmth, myself yearly learning their wrinkled ways.... A tin wind tat-tats at the window-frame as I adjust my worn robe and note the snow aswirl with words against the blackened panes; how nature moves no matter how still we seem! Even in this dead of night, I think again what times we spent along the reeling shore-- bright trash wrestling the tideline, wrangled wrappers skidding in the static grip of sand, a benediction in the beating surf perhaps as we pointed out new futures for ourselves beneath the dome of stars--the varied constellations' lines growing real as we traced them, the faces of two strangers maturing into friends. Shall we walk and talk that way again when California flits beneath my jumbo's wings, after the soft halt and hiss of wheels on tarmac when your round mellow face emerges smiling from the airport parking lot? After our fellowship of decades, I'm coming out for your investiture as chaplain. Long you tramped the dismal ways of youth, pathless, a-thrist, seeking in granite lanes for a seed--your spirit at last made plain in hospice corridors: hands and long-tried lives held to their denouement, as when a low corner in close woods is turned and Half Dome rises revealed, a pale presence otherworldly as a planet, yet placed in the same precincts as us, sharing the same oft-shouldered air, in vestments streaked by spring rain that scents all afresh. So your chaplaincy seems to me, your old friend winter-gripped and griping lonesomely, getting to know again your slender grandeur-- the presence of a life made complete by purpose. A life brimmed, and, at the brim, over- filled till the light within quivers, quivers even when some infinitesimal breath overplays its tautened surface howsoever gently. So, too, are you full, little Michele, so stretched with love and life divine, a filled cup of teary dews scooped from roaring falls that navigate craggy canyon rocks with white work; filled, too, with dews salted by New Jersey's ocean where a child's barefoot steps stitched minuets many sunny days beside the prolonging surf-- a young woman's hand I held in the dew-light of the quick eternal moon as we walked companionably at peace before the dawn.
A snowy day brings us rarely close, in domestic confine caught, the sizzle-slip of small hail sliding from the eves in beaded curtains until beamed rainbows ring us round and the canceled day is filled with more than light. When hot coffee whistles in its pipping pot the day displayed seems open to us and closed to the humming hustle of all the outer world at once. We two consider our chance to read, catch up, make patterns of extended feet entwined with layabout mirth on ruffled covers confused as ski trails. We look outside and see, beyond the pane fogging at our faces, how hurrying snow comes, obscuring all but us, our inner vision's variableness-- the vast differentials of our too-human light that kindles immanent behind kind eyes that view their refuge of two complete, and with how steady, how stroking gaze swim eons in an hour, two who know eternity in a kiss where wedded lips consign and keep all aspects of their love. Wrapped in whiteness as within a cloud, rosy nose to nose and breath to breath we breathe, the wildered world beyond our known globe of filial affection left unseen, as if within the whitewashed castle walls of a lightbulb we two commenced in love, and in love continue-- blind to ugly outer circumstance, blares and scares, seeing only, touching only, our mutual hearts' intimate disturbances, whose orbit is our sum. Love doesn't come rowdy and crowding into our lives, but steals with silver stealth into living eyes and lips, and with softest brush writes its miracle in silent subtleties, limning argent inches of moonlight on the soft receptive pages of each heart's bound book. Love leaves its milky trailings like a sigh traced in innocence upon a cheek by a child's finger warbling blameless upon her parent's chest. Love is not made alone by Nature's doing, though it moves among Nature's byways and shades, lingers along Nature's lemon lanes at sunset, or, more gorgeously, more fully and less fitfully, strolls boldly below each midnight moon whose cheshire sliver catches in a maple branch. Quick as mischief, you slip the sash up, smiling wild as the shivering air invades, and laughing grab me back, and, simple, look upon the winter swirl outside. And so we hold hands at the now open window, letting large new snow touch and dissolve on our upturned faces, feeling our heat and the cool emptiness of other lives beyond our small life together. Here we clasp, here we feel each peck and speckle on our hands and hearts, two renegades who await each day with sly patience, nor rush to tomorrow when snow today stops the clock, and time is made all quiet as an owl asleep.
First There Is a Bridge
Once again the world is gifted white when wily April shoots should show tenderer green to eye and wanting heart.-- How brittle the perfect dryness of the air! Every inch of existence primly trimmed with just an airbrush dust of snow, flat as eyesight in a photograph; the perfection of new Nature, stilled. Life's ever-active riverflow of being contracts molasses-like to one chill pond, stopped in pre-sentiment of what pebble? The million-thronged trees' unbudded candelabra, the fine artifacts of grassblades glassed and frosted in a frozen breath, transform from windowsill to edgeless space in this final winter etching, this landscape postcard all in white and pencil-grey outline held in single view as I awake with daybreak. The house is silent as the dawn. Already Jenny's made her weary way to school, burdened with a bustling brood whose seasons reel through one long unrepeating era, young buds who will not sleep or freeze until their age is in its autumn-time. Before me is this image of life suspended, a moment held fresh as in a crystal ball stamped with a year and place, and handed over, with all its little glitters in a tempest. My eye inspects what whiteness is presented: what unexpected extra blank at the back of last year's calendar! What clock put wrong; what skipped day resurrected! At my eye's periphery brood "houseless woods" where I send my grieving soul to dwell. Coldly I brood on all my love has lost, what friendships stripped that'd been the shred that kept my poor humanity's modesty intact which had been stick-figure naked otherwise. And on lovers lost in unloving spite, I brood: lovers lost to other moons, other moods. Of those inevitable shrivings shorn by death: the loss of parents, the storm of mourning. My mind's a crowd of moaning ghosts; their razor keening strikes unanswered. I can imagine no one who will know me here, here in the heart of hurt, but you. And so I write to you, CPH, remembering days unnumbered of comfort and of calm, of sympathy dripped in intravenous balm; I sit in meditative state like a static dream until all that is is only seems. Like an anchoress rudely caught in her cell of thriving thought you come, a lady-maiden, to my reviving hive, honey-laden. A lady white in a sparkled gown across the frost, across the frozen ground, you glide unspeaking to my icy window, and I am left in speechless mists-- a traveller without a tale to tell, unwelcome come to the Magic Mountain, a little engineer enmeshed in the kicking cogs of my own circumstance! I reach for meaning in my winter world and recall your caution, often sung with a little cornered smile and saddened eye, "First there is a bridge, and then there is no bridge," for how our connections come and go, how what we mean today may seem meaningless tomorrow, how light may fade and dark may grow.... Long our converse might have been today! Many the complaints I've harbored home, many the restless thoughts that pester glum tongue and pain-spiked skull. Instead I find myself in ensorcelled silence, quiet as real around me as a deadened pulse, all the world without neither snow nor spring, time itself neither then, nor now, nor anything. And yet, having added my misery to thee in absentia, and thinking of such speeches past as my catastrophes have cast into your ears, and of such listening as you have often given, whole-hearted--whose only recompense was to weep in fulsome sympathy, I feel fresh, unburdened, although no secret has escaped my scraping pen.
The Vanished Embankment
Tonight I write you, Daniel, and cannot expect quick reply, or even any the logic-laden world would count as counter-speech! Many the years that have smoothed thy unsoothed grave, and given unsure rest to you and those you loved; stray waves of darkling violets shadow the stone that brackets your too-trim dates, that keeps a night-dim weight of white on death's uneasy guest. Tonight I drove toward shore, the moon untombed, and lean in summer damp debating words to bury here beside you, as each year I do. Melancholy mission! Yet, with one so missed, a comfort comes springing among the mists of hurt--and words that feed the tubers and the blooms that make the funeral dunes their only home, may dissolve in service where living words do fail.... Dammit, Daniel, forgiveness too eludes the language that I bring to pile beside a corpse too gross to contemplate. Long ago I ought to have been done with tears and tirades, gashes in a golden mask as fine, as final, as Tutankhamen's. A beetle crawls across my naked ankle until it tickles; a gust of laughter bursts within me, and the echo flattens against the small stucco church, rough as sea-rock. Who else is left to share the visions we had voiced, pirouettes of young spirits untiring as the playing spray? And so I come to you, you the older brother, appealing to you for wisdom--even from a stone gone mossy. Carved in memory, I see the beginning kiss that came to stand tall as your two kids, Troy and Pat, whose limber adolescence sails as swift as a catamaran's twin-hulled lullessness. I have their father in my memory kept packed bright and tight against the acid of childish questions. "Lord Dermond," I'd called you--how many times across the years-- laughing-serious at the rightness of the royal sound that crowned you above the cut of men peering out their dusty place to lie and die. Across the years we moved together, bound not to night but to noon as we loaded down the leaf-weight of our birch-bark canoe, throwing its long blade into the dirty light of old Bowie Place's muddy reservoir where many an ancient branch bent to stir reflectless shadowed waters, for us as for the chanting indians who paddled and left their slate arrowheads aslant a brook for us to find and finger, with still-stinging-sharp edges to blood an unwary thumb. Long the weightless hours drowned in that floating stillness! Long the lists of lines sent echoing into the dusk, hands alternately dragging, sweeping, piling high light-lines of freshest wet while poetry rolled boundless within us and boundless trumpeted into nature's leafy overhang. No hand, no stirring, now you rest forever who had sculled those waters--how many times? Our paddles lie rotted behind the house; and rotted out among the moss-backed oaks the very vessel that had sustained the high talk that made our friendship leap-- the reel of mutual thought unwound like fishing line to catch what pulled us heavenward and homeward. Our kicked-off Keds crossed clumsily in the uneven gully of the craft, running no more than an angel's sandals might, anchored crossed in passing clouds above. Paradise had fallen with the late shafts of butterfly afternoons; page upon page of distaff poems we let drift about the boat serene as swans in the brown current; flare of sunset, and then, soaked, they swirled black and unmoving on some low tarn of tar. Night's dark amplitude had found no fit answer to the sky's starred expanse. Now my own prow creeps to ground again on your death's bleak bank of bonded marble.... My beak of meaning gawps in agony, a cadaver cannibal attempting to eat at your sculpted David's sepulchred and whittled flesh. The dune grass that springs afresh about you whispers sweet of mere eternities unmet that I shall never meet--as I shall never see you again, good friend gone, befriending yet my orphan heart tonight, keeping one solitary flame aloft till greeny dawn. These passing shapes and shadows please, but cannot ease what mind of mine attends the salt-sharp night, these ragged knees kneeling in the hard sea-grass, in the wet that leaves your grave at sea, and me at sea, and makes the misty moon an albatross to shoot with what words I yet may aim at heaven. La! an old man's thoughts, an old friend lying before him, unadorned in dead earth-- I chew old bones of thought, while away in the crash and wash of the restless surf, cloud-hid, a gull's hungry cry pierces repeatedly.
Another old poet, old friend, I conjure: a second Daniel to write to, while I sit at my pondering pints, pink with drinking-- my ruminative mind returns to me a hundred hundred hours merrily heaped with cocksure colloquy, pecking in the shade of the lion's den, two aging pagans hailing Pan. How often we mocked the very teeth of death with foamy vows outrageous as their sudsy birth. At midlife, our fortunes pile up silver dust to fill our untrimmed temples, a wealth of thoughts enriched by alpine crowns of time, as if wreathing clouds consented, trailing harmless sparks, to be our thinking caps! Years are mounting as we mount the years: our sacrifice is to live, and remain alienate from pop culture, embracing what was great. To linger on Olympus in our skivvies, our discarded skis set beside the fire; exchanging grapes with the gods, while midnight purrs plush, is triumph enough for us. Sway-stacked and furred with congenial dust, familiar books look out from under ragged racks of antique antlers and bad gags at this seaside pub-- the creak of memory loud underfoot, a tub of button daisies declaiming spring beneath the wind-waved sign: Ron's West End. At this cratered sea-cliff's visionary height, summer nights, still softly unborn, and windy winter's diminishing end both blow round our glowing table talk, whispering wisdoms between the elbowed mellow beers and bossy Brunhildas who rule the roost as if Chaucer never died, nor no clock ever tolled a verse beyond Falstaff's everlasting thirst. We'd talk until our literary prattle mounted, instance by little instance, to tallest universals: "Little Man's imagination floats, lotus-like, seeming unbound in the water blaze, and yet at its root, mud and blossom are integral; even thus is our little man's imagination integral with Nature's nurturing phenomena--" Cheerly we keep the "Al-Ron-Quin's" covenant of converse, alarming charm of riposte and counterpoint displayed around the flash and yellow leer of mugs. Wordsworth's here emending mumbles, Hamlet hums and haws 'til the deed is done-- both dissed and up-ended by our roaring joy in favor of old Coleridge and fierce Lear, one divining lines of logic in the infinite, one wrangling bare humanity on an empty heath, barking heartfelt metaphysics with a fool. And so we argue high midnight through to closing, and press each other's contention to a peak. And so a heightened speech is piled, word on word, and green on green, in the natural admonition of an oak tower- ing over lesser growths. Just as in humid June we'd climbed far Nether Stowey's stones in scrambled haste, short-breathed, up beneath the governing shade of woods so old and dense all stirring sound was damped until the hill's bare cap opened in a swirl of sky--blue and white and misted. The mountain where we stood, and stand, (the round high hill where Coleridge crowed until a last disaster buried him beneath), pours roundness down its sides, mossy coombs unmoving as the sweating stones they covered: green beyond the memory of green, everlasting as the grass where Coleridge strolled in glee. How long our conversation that day unrolled, laughing unmannerly as we hopped the brainy turf above horizons where the sea sketched white a limit to the vista, and to the sight-- and all the open dome of heaven was mute, God's own silence by piety magnified. What awful power moves unseen within us, blowing potent gusts through us, until we're left consigned unprepared to pinnacles unguessed? As music crests and crests to its crescendo, so poets' lives rise to one resounding note. Outside Ron's, the sea scowls pewter, too, an echo of those lonely Stowey views, agile as a drunken dutchman's fermented brew. Here, too, Dan, the decay of light and time declare a limit to the sight; here the sea flashes crested in the softly silver eve, and our old talk billows hollow with the surf, hazarding new splashes at night's darkest onset. Above, the unmoored moon--which calls heart and head and all to dream--repeats impermanent feats in the expanding scale all dreams distort and no knowledge amends. Our littleness is echoed like a fractal's edge in the universal pattern--as yet unspoken! And so the jazz of chatter happens, again and again: sophisticated, false; brave, benighted-- The dissolute smoke that clouds the moon, the dull confusion of stop-motion, photo-emulsion skies, where memory and meme are meeting this eve, is North-Star sharp by midnight, and we see how monkeys fed on evolution's bread row on the auroraed sea below, parting lights with makeshift paddles, as if the whole Milky Way could sit reflected in the pond out back! And indeed it does sit there, when we remember to look with Galileo's lens, or rheumy Rousseau's ruminative glance.
The Well and the Echo
The rain's continuous throbbing pours roaring as a cataract. Inchling Spring is edging towards its green strength again and my thoughts turn to roots--To you, brother, I turn my slow thoughts, plough- like--to the soil where my brothers and I were sown to growth beneath a beating sun. Long before angry time had made us men and carved hard marks in cheek and character, we'd discovered an old abandoned well that held hidden light below a wounded wooden lid wreathed in leaves gone black with mold and oldness. How strange the intense interest each ragged crack contained, lightning-shaped shadows just open enough to let dropped rocks knock echoes up to our ears! How strong the burning noon allowed slim glimmers of the sharded sky to reflect into our nook-invading eyes. Wild as fox kits, we'd swat afternoons away with races through the castle-high trees of Dad's estate, crying 'cuckoo, cuckoo' back at birds we'd startled from their naps-- coming round again at eve's cooing onset to the well that had not left our thoughts alone for an instant. Down the deep well we boldly brayed our loud-sounding secrets, our canvas dungarees kneed a filthy khaki with the daylong play of dirt. What each said was wrung lowing into a deeper register than either knew or recognized--it was as if our future voices resounded brownly back in the brawny familiarity of manhood from the receiving deep of that black well. How cool we thought it all was back then, our piping voices booming back like bulls. Sworn secrets and youngsters' oaths we hallooed a hundred times into the dark before the dinner bell of an inverted bowl and wooden spoon orange with squash stuff rang us back to Mom's steaming table. What oaths, and what secrets we dropped into the welling earth, let our lives and thrivings show, fruit of buried truths. Outside, the storm is still coming on, a bleak conveyer belt of darkness on the news stretching back half a dozen states. My regrets, too, go far into our past, shadowing the many memories of life that trained our vines to twine as close as twins-- two brothers blessed, and best of brothers too for a time when time was young. What has made us break with what we were, untwine what sun and childhood had braided? Is not this night, spent undreaming and alone, contiguous with the ten thousand darks that have marched in line before tonight? The sound outside is like a wall, a thick wet against the walls of my condo-abode. Yet there is a silence in the flailing rain, as if too much sound must cancel sound, and repetition wash drummed distinctions to silence in the night. So, too--too full of memories I write, and all that's past transforms from stories lived and told, to one reminding tone of feeling sounding over all. I listen down the well of years, and hear how time has brought us onward and light- ward, through a void we did not understand-- bands of doppler effect expanding blandly into the numb enamelling of now. Outside, a ripple of hitting wind unveils how the universal rain, invisible, still keeps ringing down in loud-dim chains, links of the unknown mating then and now. These days we nod or share a cordial laugh at politics, renew some well-chewed gristle of family gossip--secrets no one but us still keeps or cares to hear about. Despite the change of costume that flesh and accident have rendered to body and embodiment, I see us crowded round that boyhood well even now. You at a steep fantastic angle as you lean agéd but dapper on the silver orthopedic cane a reckless SUV leapt a Jersey barrier like a salmon to deliver to the shady eddy of a hospital bed, your body pooled crooked as a questionmark. Me, thick-waisted with grim reading at my remote IT management screen, thickening eyeglasses aiding my old-man myopia; me, thick-tongued despite my serial confessions of pen and of poetry nimbly repeating: "me!" Soundless I hold you, folded round by arms as I take my Easter leave of thee and Holly-- a half-dozen empty, river-green Heinekens gracing the lace placemats. We two old brothers wait a beat, twined deep in the years steeped between us, our now silent vows echoing well in hidden hearts.
Now, when cherry and apple boughs begin to swing weighted double and triple with blossom like hard-arced deep-sea lines pulling marlin and swordfish and blind leviathan up hungry from oblivion by mouth and hook, O mothering, all-consuming sea, I enter the wide grove to pace awhile and speak my piece. Now, when orchard air betrays no too-rich scent of ripening death, too-ripe life--no loaded orbs hang glistening all the harvest-moon midnight as when I sang easy between the bee-busy trees, too alive to sleep those onward autumns through-- now I remember and honor the hours the days my Mom's proud ghost walked and prayed. Now, Mom, when of we two only one may play a speaking part, I seek you out in Spring among these oft-deserted aisles of souls whose sails flag plainly on the wept sea of massy grasses not yet scotched and cut, unevenly alive, each green blade its own green height at Holmdel Cemetery. Now I in the prompt of warmth walk an evening vigil I cannot choose but chase so many mourning hours beyond departure.-- Still you stand at the kitchen counter, peeling glad apples, small russets, pears, lambent carrots, all picked by your brazen squad of boys in the sun, washing each, rolling each in careful hands until their inner shine shows showered in the sink-rinse, all laid white on the cutting board or minced into copper-bottomed vats for quibbling soups. How many and intricate the apple-hours we tolled! Your hair its own silver feast of blossom-curls damp in the happy chatter of meal prep where boiling things poured pellucid, spouting through colanders I held unably at any angle, standing at your elbow, low, listening to water fillip and drip, tipping the big yellow bowl, your sharp wit apt as the paring knife dancing against your thumb. I never knew you, the dark-haired darling who danced in your father's Welsh eyes. I knew you alarmed and laboring lion-hearted in a hospital bed, small hands at the chained triangle to leverage and lift yourself to some easier breath that didn't come. But I knew you best, and know you still, in a wordless kaleidoscope of worlds where each small turn changes all, the pattern resplendently renewed by light, the pattern of broken chips and needy details, rainbows sawed to pebbles--as when light through leaves entertains and blinds, so I see you, Mom: a hand, a heart, an eye alight. And so I walk, myself shelving shore without ship or mystery, swept haphazard among coral shoals of memory, tunelessly whistling in the ruminative night, tapping a foreign California apple in my pocket as I count out time to no song I know, hum no uplifting lyric to the unnameable tune, alone at your elbow, just we two, and the April moon standing mute.
Winter's roughened touch has left us, though still in dreams we find its echo, harsh remembrancers that we are, recalling all by pain and indignity. Having set alarms to catch the current moon at full, she arises from her slumbers, aroused and drowsy, trailing gossamer glories of her nightgown into the dim unlit living room. She stands silent beside me, we stand blandly, woozily wooed to do, to be, in all the accident of time together-- ourselves and in love--searching for the red moon with our pajama bottoms off, the whole quiet room luminous as a dish of water, surrounding curtains caught in a fabulous haze as almost-fog envelopes us, has us feel as if we exist within a cloud, our breaths heavily lunged as if still asleep, eyes squinted and salty as cracked pistachios and every window glowing cold. Like a captain, her hand shading out brimming halogen lights of the lot, Jenny breathes against the glass, slow one, slow two, and searches the skies for any trace of rouge. We are looking for that rare, red moon evinced from a thousand sunsets at once when earth trails her infected fires like a kiss across the silver deserts of Diana's moon, too perfect-pure to blush back at us. I had hoped, as we turned and pliéd about the room that I, that we, would stumble across the moon as I had once before stumbled into such looking luck when walking alone the still edge of a wood I came across a sleeping dappled fawn quiet as leaves, curled simple in an unattended nest. My walking-stick stopped like a secondhand tricked at the loss of time, my eyes gone wide in delight to see this dim thing that seemed but shadows of the sun, sun-flecked, white-floating spots of indifferent light, the dappled overcast of a low- hanging dogwood tree confusing all, confusing me, until the creature curling there seemed no more than an intensification of the grass, brown-white below, before me, its fallen breath a breathing of all the earth herself, those long careful legs snipped together like sleeping shears, the paired ears leanly alert: focused, still and present, upon myself even as my whole attention fell to it--our mutual life of a moment's dewy duration--and then led on by a sort of baby-snort, a twitch around the muzzle, I came all at once to see--those eyes! I cannot tell their oil-depth, their ink-heart-- how all the dappled mini-cosmos round our wooded cove was distilled to highlights in those grand eyes, yet not diminished, not in the least diminished, as I stared. And I came, in time, as my wildered consciousness grew more natively attuned, to know that I who watched was watched, that all I had thought was hid in me was plain as paper: all deeds known, all recorded there-- all no more than a single spark of light in the dark surface of that fawn's calm eye. In all our moon-excitement, did I say how we found the ground that April at three a.m.? The ground of crocus bud and of daffodil newly come to their spring bloom, first bloom sweet as Easter candy newly caught unwrapped? A whiteness as of a wedding-walk was gifted everywhere. A still, sudden frost, an April frost, was over all. As if, because we'd missed the rouge moon, this other, lesser blessing was bestowed--yet more than bestowed if I think on it aright--strewn like bales of dogwood petals littered everywhere. We never found the moon that night, nor any tippler's tainting tint of pink in all that cloud-strewn, cloud-molested sky that stayed a starless haze, although we stared, finding our orientation by iPhone app and guess, standing together on the little balcony there, listening to trees meekly creak in their sleep as all light drifted down to our upward eyes. Softly, her sudden hand was at my back-- her breath a wordless whisper in my ear. I knew, despite the sky's cloudy recalcitrance, all I'd found.
Reading Emily Dickinson at Dawn
A bee drones in the cowslip Not more happily than I, Who into your honey mouth has slipped And let the hours by. Long I thought that blue most true Of saddened evening skies, Till you winked ope' horizons new In azures of your eyes. Now I wing to courts of love And press my buzzing case Bow by bow before the purple judge Who whirls me by the waist.
Earth never grieves! ~~Thomas Hardy
It Should Have Happened Like This
I'm tired of living backward, carping "It should have happened like this." Nobody's left who gives a crap. Not her, not me. I don't give a piss. I can't think about her face. And I shan't Think how things should have happened, but didn't. Her face wasn't exactly pretty, exactly pale. More sallow, celery yellow, stale-- Like hungry roots had sucked her blood Back into impatient earth. I loved her once, as I thought I should. I loved her in my body, in my breath. Now, I'm tired in my bones, my marrow Stuffed with regret and meat and sorrow.
It isn't difficult, dying perennially disappointed. There's a comforting ooze that cozies okay, Down here at the bottom. Promise. Why fidget in time's indifference anyway? Lie calm in your slippers like the rosy anointed, Note the replete applique of your surplice. Perhaps a fashionable coffin will ease your unease. Get your tomb topped by a flattering bust-- No more nude, embarrassed mirrors. After all, dying leaves no one else to please. You needn't, you must not, fear her; Death's just being ground resolutely to dust. Repeat after me: whatever was said, was said. Lovers only say lovely things in the night Freed from harsh, photographic light. Repeat after me: whatever you did, you did. You'll get on alright, my dear, my dunce, When you learn to love your ignorance. It isn't difficult, dying perennially disappointed. And, let's be honest, it's not as if you shot For the stars--and almost, but never quite, made it. Please, drink your tea while it's still hot. Around the next corner is a bus with your name on it. When we bury you, we won't inter your sonnet. Promise.
A Death Day Poem for Mom
As near as breath can be to ceased And still inspire, She, solitary, tended Her failing fire-- To the sipping ventilator tethered. Her hands are not quite blue as yet; The ironic, flowered gown Half rumpled, half patted-down.... Her honied forehead wet-- Bathed in freezing sweat.
The devil is red, his wings red flames. Guilt harrows the heart, pulls shut its little gate. Eden had a gadfly Adam couldn't name. The devil is red, his wings red flames. Blue is the sea, to drown your sin and shame. So love your brother; Able be kind to Cain. The devil is red, his hellish wings aflame. Hurt harrows the heart, shuts its slutty grate.
A colt in the downfall Will whinny and jerk As if each flake Were pins of hurt. Its brown coat shivers With galvanic grace, A whistling whinny Escaping its face. When done with wheeling In circular panic, It waits while the whiteness Becomes emphatic. Breathing steam in fits, Neither cursed nor blessed, It stands too still-- Listless, indifferent.
Roses All the Way
Spring days come smelling Of thawed dog; Rivers unfreeze; a fringe Of flowers crowns the bog. Park chains relax and life arrives, All ages and every look; Life invites the worm to wriggle, The fish to leap its brook. New lovers find the river As rivers find the sea; With picnic hampers and beer They leisurely fish or leisurely pee. "Spring must give way to summer, What's good must give way to great," So they think without a thought And fish where they did skate. "It's roses, roses all the way," Laugh the lovers young. They dangle lines from warping docks And with casual thumbs Shove small-hearted worms on hooks. "Just look at how they strive!" They say, and drop them in the drink. The old say nothing, having lived.
There's a turning in turning-in When dreams seem almost possible: The bed untucks, and we fall in Without fuss in the evening drizzle-- It's then that the landscape of a pillow, Its hills and valleys creased and curled, Give our giant, sleepy eyes a world Inaccessible tomorrow. The day gets lost like a blown balloon Bursting adrift above the Atlantic-- A casement ope's, and, eftsoons, Extruded dreams are real as plastic: Me the hero, you adorably bereft, Adrift on a lifeboat from the Titanic-- Death-aware, but not too tragic. All in all, it's nearly something perfect.
I stood unlost where the orchard breeze Pushed too-long limbs unevenly. My desire had shaped this stand of trees, Laid apples out in careful, measured Eden; Cross-referenced to find the best of breed; Spread by hand the enchanted seed. I kick tussocky humps, ungainly trip Over years of ungathered gold retuned to grass. A mom, sick, bed-ridden, had stopped the snip- Pers that trimmed, the tan hands that passed And paused beside each apple like a beloved face, Ready to roll the unblemished to their place Beheaded in the picker's tipping basket.
Killing time after work, I take the public boardwalk to get back to our seaside carrousel bulking abandoned on a sandy Asbury bank where a month of Sunday sales circulars chase each other like kids on summer break, playing Mother-may-I as the wind says stop or go, hissing "Yes, you may" politely as a snake. This whole scene's some kind of shipwreck mistake-- the old CASINO sign neglected to NO, myself tilting blear-eyed on the swarming deck.... The electric arcade sign's pulled almost down, its underpowered arrow pointless, dim, lost, as the sullen lemon horizon sours to sunset, day's entertainment done. Our dumb sibling fistfights broke out here once; perhaps when the wrong kiddie ride was chosen, and father took sides. Or was it mother? Goodbye to scenes of joy and innocence, dropped cotton candy, crying when you didn't win. A moody shadow uncoils from its corner as I duck the "Keep Out" tape's red border where eternal chargers wait at parade-rest ease-- resigned to dust, resigned to time's disorder: floor-tiles split by fistful tufts of marram grass, random bald patches checkering the ponies' gilt while popcorn saltiness blows in from the sea, that roaring gorge impossible to fill.... Such gold and grandeur makes one think of our insufferable need, unrelieved, for knight and steed; noblesse oblige, et al. It's my "Charlemagne"--and your "Wonder-Horse," say these plastic plaques beneath the hovering hooves, Charlemagne's eyes chipped blind and colorless. Darkness streaks through a broken window neighborhood urchins had deemed too gladsome, too rainbow-colored, for their self-despising lives; such aimless boredom chucked the breaking brick, left royal gelding and princess mare unridden, the bright brass ring unclaimed. What survives beneath this smashed stained-glass gone black, past time's accumulation of details, dusts? I mount the mare amid stable shambles, peer in a cracked funhouse mirror that reflects no recoverable image of our old asylum. Even the rats have decamped, eager to shit outside, enjoy the ocean, and eat the meat that creeps in crabs. I snare shivering reins and trace the finery of the bridle's hurtful bit-- the pain in painted flesh that repeats the colt's breaking, the trainer's coercive love.
Of course retirement's a prize, The wreath at the end of the race, A box filled with Time, all sizes-- Days of unhurried pace. Your less-firm face...is expressive; Each grin encompasses a grimace. Castrophes fade to comeuppance. Checkers is better than chess. The primrose promise of a rainbow Feels suspect, a joke out of Duchamp; However blurred the fiddler's bow, More sit than stomp. Age's bitterest despairs Lie whittled to grey shavings; Our afternoons to quiet raving Contract in isolate air. We know the hourglass' quicksand brocade Will catch us in its wrinkles; That we will not be saved From the sinkhole. Life seems, not sears-- We have veered wearily to where At a voyeur's balustrade we stare And leak no tears. Aggravated vanities are all that's left Of what had swelled. Reality wriggles, unbereft, --Will not be quelled.
“…in a house of such prospect, that if, according to you and Hume, impressions & ideas constitute our Being, I shall have a tendency to become a God–so sublime & beautiful will be the series of my visual existence.”
~~Coleridge, in a letter to Godwin A sleepless swain of fifty, with a brief romantic notion May retrace a track so dear. ~~Thomas Hardy, The Revisitation
All Summer in a Day
"One boy you can get some work out of, Two boys more. Three boys, none." ~~Dad's rule of thumb Working through sunsweat and neckburn, We unrolled a fence against rabbits, Against animal life conniving and hungry, Against raccoons and clever black hands. Against the vindictive eating and shitting of birds, We worked with our father all summer. We were impaling our vegetable kingdom On the graves of the grass we had buried. With chipped rototiller and rust-red tools We bit at what had remained unbroken, Churned arrowhead up, tore taproot to loam-- Dad's spat tobacco as brown as his coffee. With raw shoulders turned to the wheel, With shovels like diamonds scraping Layer after layer of untrammeled dirt, We called forth the spirit of seed With spray hose and angry commandment. With sky our indifferent accomplice, And time our old friend and enslaver, Our trowels dibbled like stitchwork Tearing the mother's side just enough. Our bleeding was part of the bargain, Knee and knuckle and elbow, Bright splinters left burning like auras. Late, late in the day, our sun-dragged Boots kicked off into brambles, Sunhats tossed down by pond-blackness, The mud medicinal, efficient, Covered us to knees, and our gossip Was smiles creased behind wheat grass. Frogs boomed cool and obtrusive, Echoes of wood and of shadow Where peep toads woke to their work As night fell on our dreams and dominion. On pillows as wide as those fields Our dreams saw tomorrow's tomorrow, Saw sunflower and carrot and rhubarb Burst plaintively furiously perfect Behind chicken-wire straight as a razor, The field churning all colors in sunlight, The dirt lifting life in a triumph: The bones of our enemies bleaching, Squalid tomatoes impossibly red, Staked pea-pods that rattled out victory. Our old buckets were full of new freshness, The trembling of too-much brightness-- Burnt cheeks were hitting cool linens, Our faces delighted and keen.
The flat-bottomed rowboat Swung through daft cattails Higher than our heads-- Dry hotdogs, clubs almost, poked On primitive spear-ends While the boat made wavery water-echoes Unevenly level From our communal rowing. The estuary was dawn-fresh, wet As we slid by; my father, my brothers, and I-- Four hulked shadows quiet in the smell of burnt coffee. Our breaths steamed like our cups, Hands cold around the weird weight of 4-10 shotguns, The river all lazy Ss of yellowy light Rich as streaked paint, the eely detailing On my brother Gil's busted-up Ford Mustang. An ear-splitting squeak Odd as a strangled doll's Flared from Dad's palmed duck-call, Held close as a harmonica, the army-surlus Coat elbows tucked to his heavy sides neatly As our holstered oars. "Hup!" he said, lifting his shotgun quick. Ducks exploded from the dark cattails, Wings expansive as flamenco dancers' arms, The white underwing vulnerable as eyelids, The pale bikini triangles Of fourteen-year-old girls As they rattled skyward, Calling forlornly in their rubber voices. "Hup!" he said again, The blast leaving us deaf as statues, Our amazed eyes still, widened white, mouths Broken open as cattails grazed us, And we skimmed to where the water had shot up When the duck fell. In after-blast silence, The duck's humping of the water seemed hypnotic, The touch of a masseuse to an ancient scar, Working the stiffness out Finger by finger. Gil pulled it into his lap like a doused shirt, The web feet raincoat yellow, the blood Swirling with spilled coffee, and handed him to me By the neck, his flapping nearly stopped. "Wring his neck. He's in pain now." I cried and let the musky bundle fluster me, My hands full of green-golden, blue-molten feathers, The wild eye small as a pencil-tip, as black.
A Handmade Heart
Jammed in with the other chucklehead kids Elbow to elbow along the blonde wood bench, We listened to our smock-draped art teacher Prattle on unmocked, Dipping old hands in a big water bowl, wetting her thumbs, Digging mean-faced into a skull-ball Of gooey grey clay Until she, and we following puppylike, Held up hands dry as moondust Before faces streaked with smiles and tempera. She showed us how to mold a thumbed cup With hands too little to palm a football, How to perch the harp-shaped handle Like a sipping hummingbird To the completed cup's fine side, --Fingertip-push-and-smooth-it-out-- Until, looking up at her, I could see Honeyed nectar Loading the tumbler I was tasked to shape that day. As the worked clay squirted Between my worm-white fingers, I remembered The model of humanity in science class, A plastic invisible woman Limberly naked and displayed on the windowsill. Afternoon speared her crystalline, Lung and tongue, Illuminating the swift delta veldt Tucked unseen Between assertive thighs, Her veins ribbons from heel to hand. And I remembered, There, among the blue tubes And red pipes and ribs like playground slides, The plum heart lodged, Awkwardly unglued, but lit a sweet pink When pinned by daylight-- And I noticed, looking down at my hands, How my own clay lump was heartish, Lobed like her's, like her's Heavy and wet. I slimed and shaped my raw thumbed cup In a fever-fervor, glazing runnels of water Over twining layers of aorta and vena cava. I rushed to paint my heart alive and leave it To be made glossy by fire in a silver kiln Warm as a giant can of Sterno Until I carry it home another day To lay before you, waiting for you To fill my handmade heart With honey.
He spat the words. "Go get it." I approached tree-fringe and felt The willow, green and supple, Lay knots across my knuckles, My throat a knot of guilt. I've forgotten what misdeed Left me standing blank, My father at my back, His breath as loud as bees. I returned in tears and dread. The willow-wand I held Waved more fishing-rod than flail Passing hand to hand. I determined not to flinch, Not to give my Dad an inch. I thought only of the flensing switch, How it would lay into my fear And tear. And tear.
The Walkers' backyard was green as emeralds, Each grassblade fire-lit in dawn-light, The smell of summer come completely into our bodies As we drank down the last of the Captain Crunch cereal, Pure pearly milk sugar-laced, gravid with sweet. A squeal of Keds against the flooring And out the banging screendoor like milk-pod seeds We floated to the line up, saluting, stiff-backed, Our ankles uneven with socks' lax elastics. Davy Walker paced up and down Before the at-attention boys, Black curls close as secrets against his skull, Oldest and always leader, Alertly at home in the winner's circle, Calm as an ancient Greek at Salamis, as lucky-- Blue eyes tucked tight as dual pilot lights Above freckles, below a pale Tyrone Power brow. We knew what was coming, once everybody was picked And an opposing general assumed command At the Costigan's swing set: Dirt bombs, forts under the picnic table, Clear cricket cries of "I'm hit!" Lobbing pine cones and counting ten, the grenade Pin sticky and sharp between tense teeth; The possessive assertion of "fire in the hole!" Laughter behind a maple tipping off an attempted ambush, Choruses of "ka-pow" and "brrrbht!" machine-gunning Across the fenced backyard filled with lines of kids, Kids clean-limbed and pale, Bright shorts and dirty Adidases, Knees scuffed with maneuvers among the leaves. I hid beneath lilacs, wet leaves for a face, A crooked dry cottonwood stick my fine rifle, A spur of knot at the trigger. The day hums bloodless blue; above, a scythe Swings an electric-arc of sky. Count to a hundred and then begin. My mind is green As marines, those two-inch plastic ones Molded hot in one go-- Stray flares finned leaflike along a seam, Auras you could touch. Auras I cut, Trimming the small soldiers clean, shaving rifle and knife, Cutting off weird ears of translucence With a Red Cross pocketknife, squinting Into the miniature Hulk faces going "Hoo-ra!" Still hiding, I could feel myself going green From fingertips to face, Invisible but alive.
The Res opened up in waveless acres Humid as moss, a brown clay color of eyes Wide with surprise. Our dock was a tumble of driftwood, Gnarled spars nailed And creeping into the tame lanes of runoff That gathered in this wooded pinch of land Owned by the water company. Down we went, loving to swim Underneath the glimmering thing, Below the splash and hash of daylit sounds, bird cries And brothers' blatant yelling at fish-pops far off. I held my breath best of the three of us, Enjoying the nervy push of air That I kept wrestled inside Like a hit off a joint. Under the dock's dark, I could see Water bobbing like a workman's jaundiced level; Floating in those shadows, my dunked head a cork Light as Pinnoccio in a web of strings. Both brothers' legs dangled aslant the field of light As they chuckled about pitching no-hitters all summer, Dreaming endless baseball and knuckle balls. Up on the hunkered bundles of dock-wood, lines Of reflected light jumped like colored strings, Casting me in their net. My ears below the surface, I dunked Lower still, opening my sight to the algae-rich shallows. A beautiful orange pebble-stone the heft of a fist Fell from my throw in super-8 slo-mo Until soundlessly cradled again in puffing mud. Plowing forward like a pale mole, my arms motion-ing akimbo, I hit the limber fence of my brothers' million legs, Keeping me under the dock, the dark. Their legs were alive as oars in the water, Blocking my bulleting exit, Again and again like a game-- My clean yearning squirm from mud to air, My blood beginning to lust for breath, My lungs now lobed with wet cement, Heavier than souls in the scales of Osiris. My eyes felt smeared heavy with grease, The Res gaining a density of gel in my quiet fight. I smiled to feel the real need of air, The water thick as the runoff grease Mom kept In a coffee tin under the sink, God knows why. I couldn't see anything. I wished I had my X-Ray specs To reveal a way up, a way out of the dirty churn Of water, water everywhere.... ...ring, ring around...ashes, ashes...we all fall down...he hit his head...and wished he was dead... and couldn't get up in the morning... How long had it been now between... the metronome ticks? My under-legs felt cool on the flat black piano bench While Miss Naylor's veined hands arched Next to mine in mime, playing silently Our Silent Night as snow fell outside.... But, wait, wasn't that last winter? My heart is in my cheeks, in my eyes, Hammering like a hummingbird-- A cold confusion feeds on me, My swollen elbows are wobbly, numb. I close my underwater eyes, Swallowing loaded prayers as I kneel In the soft, the slick, the silt. Before me vast invisible hands find a swivel-space Between Gil's long awkward legs, and I know which way To torpedo. "Please," I cry, my tears warm in the backwash As a bubble goes goofy out beside my nose, A ticklish, licking trail of stale air, "Please...."
As brothers we rode the high treetops Where fields fell away forever. The pines were not weeping with time. The clouds stood still for the runner. As brothers, we rode the high treetops. We swam where water was giving, Where light was dappled with deepness. Wet rocks all echoed our chorus, And the river ran on in its sleeping. We swam where water was giving. We sang till we called out the stars, Till trees of our nighttime were shining. We perched in their arms proud as owls, Forever among clouds and flying. We sang till we called out the stars. Knock wood, we were loving and living, And life was just as it seemed-- The fields fell away forever, And night was an endless dream. Knock wood, we were loving and living. Through light that was quick as kindling, The river ran on with a shudder. All our days passed away like a dream. We climbed every night like a ladder, Through light that was quick as kindling. As brothers we rode the high treetops. We swam where water was giving. We sang till we called out the stars. Knock wood, we were loving and living, Though the light went quick as kindling.
Winning the Welterweight Belt
An essay on revising “The Willow-Switch” from epic to acerbic
This is a good example of revising down to detail to create the meat of feeling in the reader. The original draft of the poem presented here is the result of a lot of its own revisions, but the sense of a story told only from the child’s point of view, out his fear and resentment, is all over the poem. The story is a bit oversold, with the father playing the villain’s part, his teeth black with tobacco. Who wouldn’t hate this beast?
In the revision, the father is a main actor, but is not held as exclusively blameworthy of the event transcribed by the poem. In the revision, the speaker remembers feeling a “knot of guilt,” even if the reason for the punishment has faded. In the original, the reason for the memory loss is part accidental, and part active repression. The child, now grown, doesn’t want to revisit what seems to be some horrific event–and there is no real blame attached to the speaker; he’s innocent as daisies. While fine enough, the reader disengages with every loss of emotional complexity. Details allow the readers to bring their own response to any given scenario. If the author is able to hang back, yet be deeply re-engaged with the experience the poem relates, he can have some of the perspective of a director of a play sitting in the back row of the theater, waving his arms at the scene, the ultimate spectator.
On rereading the original version of the poem out loud, I found myself getting miffed at the whiny sense of victimhood that the speaker was demonstrating. Now, I don’t like to be mean to kids any more than the next guy, but this kid was both bawling and blameless; too much protestation left a whiff of suspicion in me as a reader. So, since I liked the poem–and love being done with things–I hesitated to start a wholesale revision. Instead, my editor’s eye began to look for details that just didn’t add up. And, instead of glossing over them with a friendly “eh, so what, it’ll do” attitude, I let the inconsistencies prickle. The editorial itch began to build. Well, goddamnit, what was that business about the Dad undoing his belt? This is a poem about getting switched on the backside, not being spanked with a belt. I had had doubts about it before, and let concision win the decision, leaving the final detail as agnostically simple as I could manage with the bland line “Belt unhitched.” But now, simmering with my editor’s misanthropy, that compromise wasn’t enough. I’d have to deal with that detail if I wanted to lazily continue letting the poem wallow in its welts. I unhitched my editor’s belt, and got down to work.
As it turned out, one of the last things I was able to usefully address was the first thing that had prompted me to edit the thing: the belt detail. It was late in shrinking this poem down that I came up with the “knot of guilt,” like a scarf tied too-tight, as the rip-rhyme for the simple “felt” and as the replacement for that dangling “belt.”
The first detail I excised, to bring the poem back into the main relationship of the moment it creates, and away from a cozy sense of joining in the reader’s condemnation of the punishing father, was each of the “tobaccoy teeth.” The kid in the poem would be well-used to his father’s tobacco use, and probably thinks blackened teeth look cool. The sense of menace in this detail is completely adult, imposed retrospectively by the speaker. So, snip-snip went the editing shears. In a trice I was left with a single line in place of an entire stanza:
He spat the words. "Go get it."
Being bit of an inveterate formalist, I thought I should balance out any singleness at the start of the poem with a one-line stanza at the end. I took a look, and it seemed that luck was on my side–the last stanza was already a single line. With the poem losing space for excursions and digressions (after all, I’m no high-flown Dickinson with her cochineal wheels and zipping trips to Tunisia “an easy morning’s ride”), I saw that the whole retrospective stuff about the photobook, which I had been at such pains to embellish with savory verbal details like “Kept bald by fresh erasures” just had to get deleted. Down came the red pen, and washed the spider out! I still had “What had prompted censure / Has faded to a blank” which itself had been an edit of moving from an abstraction of “pain” toward some more specific, though still unnamed, occasion for punishment via willow-switch.
I played with eliminating the whole idea of not remembering the reason for the punishment. Just stay in the moment; let that be enough. That’s the thought that had me finally untangle the second stanza from its belt-nightmare. That belt had grown as troublesome as a wig-fitting for Rapunzel. I imagined approaching the willow tree as a child about to be punished. I clipped “hair” out of the description as too fanciful and romantic for a kid whose main experience of hair is smelling the barber’s aftershave, and threw the lifeline to the waves as too literary for the slim poem to save. This second stanza felt great now–forthright–but it was only three, maybe two, lines long! Perhaps I could trim the periwigs of the other stanzas down to three, or maybe four, lines apiece. That way, if I had to, I could reabsorb that harsh first one-line stanza into the body of the poem.
The third stanza was already down to two lines, and hung on only because it added a mystery to the reason for the punishment. And that’s how things long ago recalled as an adult often feel–significant, sharply etched in memory, but with the reason for it all faded grey, a dead appendage. I decided to shut the father up, take away his petty advice to “stop crying.” After all, most dads aren’t “The Great Santini,” and his speech made the poem too much about him.
Now I had the bones of a good poem.
ORIGINAL POEM WITH INITIAL EDITS:
THE WILLOW SWITCH
He spat the words. "Get it."
His blue-black chaw a seethe Between tobaccoy teeth. Dad repeated, "Get it. Or you'll get the belt." Like hairthe willow switches Hung, laying their supple Knots along lifeline andknuckle; While, lightly, his leather-stitched Belt unhitched.What had prompted censure Has faded to a blank In my life's photobook-- A dead spot bored in circumstance, Kept bald by fresh erasures.I walked back in tears and dread, The willow-switch flailing Limber as a monkey's tailThat I handed to his hand. "Get over now, son," he said. "And stop crying." Then and there,I determined not to flinch, Not to give my fear an inch. I thought only of the flensing switch, How it would lay into my fear And tear. And tear.