Wednesday, November 15, 2017

There Ought to Be a Manual



It’s like the first time someone who is not your mother sees you
naked. Because you don’t know, do you, if all your parts
are in the right place, shaped and sized appropriately, according
to convention?—because your mother would never tell you,
which means there you are, pulling down your pants over
what might well be a preposterous ass. So, to my point,
you don’t know, likewise, what to do, how to be, at these grown-up
parties, so much depending on first impressions, decisions
about where to sit, what to drink, how long and loud to laugh
at pretty much everything, as far as you can tell, whether anyone
has noticed the fear-sweat creeping up the small of your large back
and pooling in environmentally catastrophic oil spills under
each arm. Or how, when you leave the party ten minutes
after arriving and return home, you confront, equally unprepared,
the task of “putting down” your dog—will it be like it is
for the Kentucky Derby winner who breaks his million-dollar
leg after crossing the line? or like the farmer who takes his shotgun
and the children’s 4-H pig out behind the barn?—this dog
who can only look up at you, these days, as you come in the door,
who doesn’t pant anymore so much as rattle, who has seen
your ass, listened to you laugh long and loud at Julia Child
pummeling the pastry dough, who has a thousand times taken you
outside for a little sun, and who has always given it to you
straight—like yesterday, when he told you that one of you needed
to grow a pair, and since you had taken his, it fell to you,
he said, to figure out how it was meant be done, how death
for one could be brought about, how going on, for the other.

(first published in Gloom Cupboard, 2016)

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

You Know This One By Heart

It will start as the sort of love poem
you know by heart, with the young
couple waist-deep in the ocean, en-
twined, and then work its way around
to a day at the park, throwing
frisbees to their corgis and kids. Then,
not unexpectedly—you will have seen

it coming—the requisite scene of vitriol
and recrimination. All you will need
are a few details about who was found
in whose pickup truck doing what
with whom, and you could write
the lines yourself. Where the poem
takes a turn, however, is when we see

the man, years later, walking in a forest
as if he knows it like the back of his hand,
kneeling to see the tiny vines of blue-
eyed marys growing alongside the trail,
when all at once a great horned owl rises,
so close the man’s hoary heart nearly
breaks in his chest, beating like wings.

(first published in Black Fox Literary Magazine, 2017)

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Coming Out


When I put a quarter in the table-top jukebox
for three songs by John Denver, Darrell calls me
a wuss and dares me to try a bite of the breakfast
special, calf brains and eggs. I tell him that, unlike
some people I know, I don’t need to order brains
from a diner—which I can get away with
because he long ago tired of pounding on me,
and anyway I’m paying for the food, and the cigarettes
from the machine, and for wherever we might
decide to go where there might be girls to see us
smoke. Last week when I told him I thought
I wanted to be a poet, he looked at me the way
my father did when I told him I was leaning
Democrat, or like my mother when I came out
atheist—just keep praying to lord Jesus, dear
I could see my words zipping through Darrel’s
head like a hummingbird had come in through a tear
in the screen door and really wanted out now,
but in the end  it was enough for him to blow smoke
in my face, make me swear to god I still liked girls.

First published in Pembroke Magazine

Monday, September 4, 2017

Anglerfish Love



I followed bioluminescent
deep-sea Google Maps to find
you flashing your tawny
midriff, on which I nibbled
playfully, read you bad poetry
about two becoming one,
before latching on. Best day ever
for a dude, right? freeloading,
hanging out in my underwear
night and day in the TV room,
letting you have your way
with me from time to time—
you know I could never resist
the sweet esca of your illicium—
feed from your fridge, watch
Adam Sandler movies until
my eyes and even limbs fell off.
But, baby, you don’t come around
much anymore, only to complain
about the beer bottles, the sheen
of salt and vinegar chips on my lips.
I see the way you walk the red
coral, now, holding up your light
like a siren to every passing sailor.

(first published in Hartskill Review, 2016)

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Empties

It’s like Forrest Gump—or his mama, rather—says
about what life is like, though I think she
had in mind the mystery of it, the serendipity,
the good (mocha truffle) with the bad (pecan
nougat). What has caught my eye, this morning,
as I take the faded yellow lid from my
Lifetime-Supply!-sized Whitman Sampler,
with its 25,000 little cardboard cubbyholes,
is how little it matters, now, what each
contained, whether I may have stuck my finger
into some of them to see what was coming,
how the dog ate one whole corner
and had to be made to vomit at the vet’s,
how I remember getting on a run of the good
stuff, once, a row with nothing but dark
chocolate over ganaches of peanut butter
and mocha and key lime, or that one winter
when just the thought of one more insipid
morsel made me cry. What I am noticing
this morning, more than the fact that every
remaining piece has lost its tempered shine,
the coating cracked and pale at the edges—
what I notice now are the long white rows,
the empty rows, straight and even as headstones
at Arlington, and how these days, when I choose
my sweet from the top left corner of the box,
where the remaining pieces huddle together
in the last, unshaken corner of the Etch-
a-Sketch, how I hold it in my mouth, let it melt
for as long as it takes, like the kid saving his last
piece of Halloween candy until Christmas day.

(first published in Arcturus, 2017)

Friday, August 18, 2017

Die-off


When I tell my future great-grandchild that I remember
a time when a lucky human might see a Sumatran rhinoceros
in the wild, she will look at me the same way my grandkids
look at me now when I tell them how we used to plagiarize
our school reports on the dodo bird from paper-and-ink
encyclopedias, and then she will google the rhino and tell me
she thinks they look a lot like a Styracosaurus and did I ever

see one of them? My own imminent personal demise aside,
I wish I could leave behind more world for her. I imagine
this sixth mass extinction will be old news, in her day,
and there will be a page in the newspaper (extinct, ca.
2027) next to the obituaries, where the daily losses are listed:
Arctic Sea Ice (“gone fishin’”); Blue-throated Macaw (“died
doing what they loved best”); Bali Tiger (“what a happy reunion

in heaven with cousins Snow Leopard and Caspian Tiger”);
Coral Reef (“after a lingering illness”). She and her friends
will adapt, of course. No one does adaptation like the humans:
virtual reality games with ninja sage-grouse fighting it out
on the lek; animatronic golden-cheeked warblers
greeting them from a simulated Ashe juniper in the yard.
And while I’m imagining and bemoaning, why not take

a hopeful turn here at the end of the poem in which my not-so-
distant great-grand will have a great-great down the line,
in some still-habitable corner of the planet, who picks through
the Anthropocene layer for  a living and comes across
the badly-postured bones of what they will believe to be
the last living poet to escape the 21st-century purge, found
curled atop the one comfortable chair at a coffee shop,

cradling his laptop, only fragments of his last poem
recoverable, the scholars not surprised to find the words
liminal and luminous among the detritus, though the line
her smile was toothy as a Brazilian merganser sends them
scrambling to the luminescent Google Cloud, leaves them
smiling and nodding to each other like a polite audience
(extinct, ca. 2019) at a poetry reading.

(previously published in New Madrid Journal, 2017)

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Lifting Weights


Over the past year or so, I have lost the weight
of a grandchild or a microwave, five bowling
balls or housecats, or a large bag of sugar.
The sugar is perhaps most apt, given that
most of the extra weight I had been carrying
around all those years could be distilled
into a (large) powdered pile of sugar and a soupรงon
(or so) of rendered bacon fat. I can see your eyes

going glassy already, so let me assure you
this will not be a poetic memoir about my
struggle—some might call it heroic—to pull
myself back from the brink, wrestle that obese
monkey from my back. Nor will it be my thirty-
point plan which I will then sanctimoniously
advise you to follow if you know what’s good
for you, no sestina version of Sweatin’ to the Oldies.

People like hearing about how you lost weight
the same way they want to hear how your dreams
have become more vivid since menopause. No,
this feels like part of a more general plan—
though entirely unplanned—to pare down, un-
load, hold an estate sale before the fact, reduce
my life to its lowest common denominator.

I’m letting the books go, the CDs, taking boxes
of XXLs to Goodwill, eBaying the Pez dispenser
collection; everything must go. I’m saying no,
I’m scrivening, “I would prefer not to” on RSVPs,
I’m truant, AWOL, gone missing. This is not,
though, as far as I know, that pre-demise sloughing-
off, putting post-it notes on my cherry wood
highboy so the relations won’t squabble over it.

This is me sitting in the woods beneath
a Douglas Fir, next to a stream so clear I can see
trout leaning into the current, on the other side
of which a doe comes leading her young fawn
into a clearing, sees the stream and the tree, and,
seeing me, sees nothing that shouldn’t be there.

(published in Frontier Poetry, 2017)

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Come-bye


I feel compelled, as I leave the coffee shop,
to push chairs in to their tables and straighten
newspapers into neat stacks. Easy enough.
The leaves in the stand of oak trees
in my backyard are raked into a bag almost
as soon as they fall, leaving only clean earth

between trunks. As far as compulsions go,
it seems harmless enough. At night, I sit
on the edge of my bed and tick through each
of my children and grandchildren, holding them
one at a time in my thoughts, thoroughly
scanning each one, combing through their lives

the way I comb though the long hair along
the forearms of my Australian Shepherd
after our walks, looking for stickseed and burs
that need cutting out. The dog puts his nose
through the fences surrounding the pastures
and animal pens we pass as we walk,

and I can see it twitch, see his eyes dart back
and forth as he accounts for each animal,
his legs quivering as the pull of instinct tells him
those sheep should be formed up, those free-
range chickens enjoy entirely too much
freedom, and he looks up at me as if to say,

can’t you see it? just give the order and I’ll
have things ship-shape in no time. And of course
I can see it, understand his need to herd, but these
are not ours, I tell him, and we move on,
ignoring the free-range world flickering
on the periphery, unfollowing Facebook friends,

unsubscribing from newspapers, walking
quickly around human humps and their middens
downtown, working, instead, to organize
the spice rack alphabetically, moving at a good clip
through cast and bring and cross-drive, until cardamom
sheds safely in its place next to cinnamon. 

(originally published in Frontier Poetry, 2017)

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Mud Work


A wild tom watches us from the top
of the wooden fence, a ruff of hair around
his neck like James Dean with his leather
collar turned up, looking like he wants
to cut me but settling for the disrespect
of an extended yawn. It’s a sloppy
morning, early March, mud bubbling up
around the last patches of snow, and I
suspect the cat took to the fence line
to keep his feet dry. My granddaughter
and I, however, have work to do
in the mud, and cannot afford such
squeamishness. Bill Nye, the guinea pig,
after a fitful night during which we sat
vigil, gave up the ghost just before dawn,
lay in state, briefly, during breakfast,
in his sock-lined Crocs box, and now young
Clara looks for the perfect spot
in which to plant his remains. She hasn’t
discussed her views on heaven, with me,
and does not request that prayers
be prayed over his white-and-tan form,
nor over the final resting place she chooses
under the birch tree where we have often
watched brilliant goldfinches and nuthatches
hanging upside down from its branches,
and where now we root in the dark soil
at its base. My eye on the cat hunched
on the fencepost like a raven, I tell her
we will need to dig deeply if we hope
to keep good Bill from a premature
great gettin’ up morning, and she sets
to the work like a fervent acolyte, or
like a kid up to her elbows in mud.

(from MockingHeart Review, 2017)

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Screw Your Courage

King: Indeed, I’m nothing if not brave.
Fool: In truth thou speaketh, nothing.
King: I am of two minds about that comma.
Fool: Pray, pay it, sirrah, as is your custom, no mind.
                                                            —The Fall of Fresno

It goes without saying that when we hear
the bomb blast, I will not be running towards
it with the heroes. Nor will I step in front
of you to take a bullet. Sorry. And in a thousand
smaller ways, I have long ago proven the true
measure of this man. As you well know,
I will leave one milliliter of milk in the carton,
so as not to be the one tasked with throwing it
out. I will snore a little louder when we both
hear the dog whining to be let out too early

in the morning. When we are watching
your favorite show about the bachelor who
test-drives a showroom full of well-equipped
women, you never hear the caustic dialogue
running through my head, only the occasional,
passive-aggressive, “I’ll bet she would go
to the kitchen and get him a beer.” It goes
without saying that the kids come to me
with their requests for later curfews and greater
allowances, knowing I will fold like a cheap suit.

So when I tell you I wish I could take your place
in that hospital bed, tubes snaking in and out
of you, wish it could be you telling me the lame
joke about Death going into a bar and the bartender
says, “what’ll you have?” and Death says, “the guy
on the third barstool”—we both know it has nothing
to do with self-sacrifice or a greater tolerance
for pain, and everything to do with going first,
with not being the one left holding the bag
of all the days to come, left to die a thousand times.

(from MockingHeart Review, 2017)