Formally speaking ::

I like making a private game of form, to let the rest of the poem remain beneath the surface, sounding obscure depths until it emerges: story with form, verbal music  with metaphor, premonition with memory. Form is the motion of emotion–its pace, its pauses–throughout the poem, and a structure the poem’s story inhabits: its walls, doors, windows, hidden wiring, its hidden but regular beams and joists. Form is musical, choreographic, and architectural: a tangible, gradual, building pleasure–unlike other work of poetry, the restless, associative, obsessive, elusive grasping after shapeshifting images/phrasings: the attempts to embrace a ghost in elysium.

Form is half of poetry to me, and though not reducible to one or another fixed form, I’ve worked extensively and elaborately in the sonnet. I’ve written hundreds in the last decade-plus–English sonnets, Italian sonnets, couplet sonnets, curtal sonnets, unrhyming/syllabic sonnets, long narratives using sonnets as stanzas. Most remain unpublished.

Here are links to web-published/archived examples. From time to time I’ll edit this page to add versions of published sonnets that are unlinkable, as well as sonnets not published elsewhere.

From Ander Monson’s wonderful The Diagram 10.6, “Executor” and “In Heaven”, an elegy for George Hitchcock.

From Diagram 2.5, “American Tire.”

From The Diagram 2.4, “Dead Dad.”

From The Diagram 6.6, “Little Deaths” (beneath the longer, syllabic “Where Are the Dancer’s Arms and Legs”).

From Prime Numbers Magazine 5, “Retired Logger” and “Seventieth Autumn”–followed by a brief interview.

From Ellen Dudley’s Marlboro Review 17-18, “The Book of Joel.” (An elegiac sequence of for a young friend who died just before his 19th birthday. The 4th sonnet, The Dyer’s Head, is title-jammed into the last line of Parable of Water.) This elegy opens the recently published The Kilim Dreaming. Check out Bear Star Press http://www.bearstarpress.com/or contact me about a copy of that book.

I’ve written many other poems that use sonnets–rhyming or not–as stanzas:

  • The first two stanzas of a 35-sonnet narrative, “The Wire Garden,” appear in Del Sol Review 15. As of September 2010, this is available as the title poem in a 40pp collection from my own Arlo Press.
  • Other sonnet-stanzas from “The Wire Garden” appeared in Cream City Review‘s recent “Memory” issue.
  • In the “American Apocalypse” 21.1 issue of Green Mountains Review, a 4-sonnet meditation on nuclear pollution, “Bikini Confetti:”

BIKINI CONFETTI


  • Coming down from the sky all my life,
  • this night wind: black surround, spirit-breath
  • with me longer than words or child-faith
  • in a god who made death by torture proof
  • of love everlasting. A wind blew through
  • that belief, and the next miracle
  • to come: a girl. She stepped free of her shell—
  • a two-piece swimsuit—to dissolve all I knew.
  • Through her I swam to a beach twilight
  • better than heaven, but there too, the wind at night
  • shadowed each quickening kiss that sealed
  • our assent to the next. Waves lapped
  • the sand with foam, bits of shell, abraded
  • bone. In the dunes we slept.
  • The next day, a blue-green god, half sea half sky,
  • kissed the world with smoked jade, malachite,
  • celadon, and I said Yes to the way
  • those waves renewed promise. The palatial white
  • of clouds confirmed that simply to breathe
  • was enough. But in each breath, contradicting its faith,
  • was something falling from the day I was born.
  • It might show as a cough, a rasp in the bone,
  • X-ray apparition spreading like a black fern.
  • Maybe it was luck not to have seen
  • how many of us on that Sunday beach inhaled
  • its invisible filament, in gratitude
  • for being alive, in love. Swallowing night wind
  • at noon. Being gathered in its slow garland.
  • No one can say what I saw spill
  • from that shaft of televised vapor in the living room
  • replaying the cloud-birth on Bikini Atoll
  • the month I was born. I lay in my father’s arms.
  • Maybe I saw dust motes in the gray
  • cathode-ray where the island rose and fell
  • in a hydrogen bloom. Years later he’d say
  • “Want to see how we let the world go to hell?”
  • and blow Winston smoke-rings over his head,
  • and lift me up me to grab at smoke.
  • After the girl’s kiss, I’d have told him Drop dead.
  • If I could see him now, I’d say, It’s the black milk
  • of morning we drink at evening. And it’s too late.
  • He’s gray vapor, now. He’s smoke the night wind ate.
  • Because the Book of Psalms is followed by the Book
  • of Lamentations I must follow him. I shake
  • my head and the cloud palace dissolves and comes down
  • and we all drink it, with each invisible bone.
  • This is what I told my doctor friend, finishing
  • a round of golf yesterday: “Bombs should kill. And smoking,
  • and dictators with big plans for racial purity.
  • But not breathing.” He lined up his putt and smiled at me.
  • “But it can.” Can you see his Bermuda shorts
  • and sunscreen and Tommy Bahama polo shirt,
  • that casual hazard suit? What protects us all
  • from the wind? He rose to address the ball,
  • sighed, and stroked it. I watched it miss
  • by a hair. He tapped it in, shrugged: “And it does.”
    • :: :: :: :: ::
    • In Poetry 168, a 7-sonnet meditation, “Closing My Eyes in Heaven” (July 1996, page 187), dedicated to Jack Gilbert:
    • CLOSING MY EYES IN HEAVEN

  • Where the hygienist made me lie back faced
  • two large prints of a drowned canyon. In the first,
  • a man sat with her, waving from a shiny skiff.
  • “Is that Zion?” I asked. “No,” she said. “Glen Canyon,
  • near Rainbow Bridge. Honeymoon. I was married then.”
  • In the other print they were gone: downriver,
  • maybe. Turquoise sky and water, redstone cliff.
  • “Who took these?” I asked. She didn’t answer,
  • but slipped off my glasses. “Open your mouth,”
  • she said, “and turn toward me.” Her mouth
  • was masked, her hands gloved and looming
  • like an undertaker’s: “Close your eyes now
  • if you want.” I did. Inside, I was zooming
  • in on this couple whose desert Eden somehow
  • caught them waving goodbye to it, to marriage,
  • and now to me. In that otherwise windowless
  • examining room, all of it made an after-image
  • in my head: paradise as a snaphot happiness,
  • a mirage on a blank wall next to the same world
  • the moment love has gone out of it. The river’s
  • color drained from my eyelids, the canyon sky grayed.
  • Their skiff drifted farther into the night I make wherever
  • I close my eyes. A light touched my lips: “Open wider,”
  • the voice said. The pick entered me like a steel question.
  • I felt my body go out under me, how it would
  • be laid out, hands no longer mine folded
  • across the ribs. I opened wider. I exposed the one
  • living part of myself that can be scraped clean.
    • ________________________________________
  • Once I watched two old women in an Amherst cemetery
  • clean a monument. Above them, a limestone angel held
  • the wrist of a soldier whose legs had given way.
  • Water sloshed in the pail, a steel brush rasped.
  • Farther off, geese circled a harrowed corn field.
  • The soldier’s wound was invisible. The angel grasped
  • his wrist lightly as a nurse taking a pulse; it seemed
  • to lighten his fall only because both were carved from the same
  • stone. Their skyward eyes were a hundred million years
  • of crushed shellfish: no sight, no memory or tears.
  • The women did not look at the soldier or the angel.
  • On their knees with brush and soap, they were intent
  • on scouring lichens out of the dates, the name,
  • the quote from a poet published nowhere past this monument.
    • ________________________________________
  • Wherever, these days, I close my eyes, faces. Faces.
  • One at a time, closing to portrait distance. None familiar,
  • none strange, each immovably calm in a gaze that effaces
  • all that surrounds us: a blond boy looking over
  • his naked shoulder. A whitehaired woman. Often
  • the face changes in mid-gaze, wrinkles or softens,
  • hair lightening, darkening. Is it many, or one
  • whose alterings enact our convergences in death, in common
  • memory, in god? The gazes always approach
  • recognition, just before the faces turn away.
  • And then—fading in on their black screen—landscapes:
  • a line of waves bearing down on a beach;
  • pines twisting over a stormlit marsh; rivers, and skies,
  • and hills. These are the dead who want my eyes.
  • And in return, whenever I close my eyes, I’m given
  • a glimpse of them, and after that, a still, an out-take
  • of whatever country they confused with heaven:
  • a goodbye look at the place that saw them through the last ache
  • of conscious thought. They are heaven’s after-sight,
  • I guess, or the over-seeing of it. Trying to stop me looking for it
  • beyond my closed eyes. See this way, the faces say, Come there
  • in them. But when I open my eyes they’re gone—no farther
  • than my breath, maybe, but just as invisible. I’ve found
  • myself doubled up in bed, coughing “Where are they?”, my wife
  • saying “Who? What?” The children have caught me in the hall,
  • in the garage against the steering wheel. My daughter’s hand,
  • or my son’s, touches my cheek: “Daddy?” It’s because theirs
  • are never among the faces. My own is never among the faces.
    • ________________________________________
  • A friend and I walked the granite paths of the Holyoke Range.
  • We stopped so high above the Connecticut River
  • that the noon bells of Amherst were faint as the trills
  • of cedar waxwings eating cherries overhead. My mouth
  • still hurt from its scouring, teeth too bone-clean to talk.
  • My whitehaired friend spoke enough for us both.
  • His voice guided me from one size of granite to the next.
  • The birds did not stop for us, the bells did not stop.
  • “Close your eyes,” he said, “and our talk makes a motet
  • with these other sounds, one voice with three parts.
  • We could lie down here,” he said. He meant for a rest
  • but I thought: for rehearsal. I lay on barely-grassed-over stone.
  • “Three parts,” he continued, “hunger, death, and love.
  • But one voice.” I was listening to the bird-voice
  • time uses to help us forget how fast it will be done.
  • “And to hear all three at once—love, and hunger, and death…”
  • He trailed off. Where I lay I could feel clouds passing;
  • my face darkening, lightening. Beside me, his white head
  • breathed in bells, breathed out bird-trills. Heaven does not
  • need us to imagine it, I was thinking: the eyes of the dead
  • are on it each time they find us. “We’re lying on the stones
  • and grass of heaven,” I thought, and glanced at my friend.
  • Of course he heard: his eyes closed, his lips barely moving.
  • The hands on my chest didn’t feel like mine, but I left them,
  • and closed my eyes again. The waxwings had moved on,
  • the bells were finished. A fine wind, the light high and even.
  • In the black chapel of my head the faces resumed their processional;
  • pausing to look in on me, then turning back, again, to the sky.
      :: :: :: :: ::
    • In Shenandoah (2006), the sonnet-stanzas “Hav-a-Hart” and “Sava:”

      HAV-A-HART

  • Humane: to not snap the spine of the thing
  • you refuse to live with, but relocate it to strains
  • of Body and Soul, Amazing Grace. My kitchen
  • is mine. A family of eight I trapped one by one
  • in cabinets of Revere-Ware and teflon griddles.
  • One by one I delivered to Pioneer Cemetery,
  • dropped in periwinkle: Good luck. I never see
  • owls or cats, but don’t come at night. One I released
  • the evening a bagpiper walked the west perimeter.
  • For the fattest one—the mother?—a tenor sax player
  • scatted and riffed around fallen Civil War dominoes.
  • School-kids use the cemetery, too. They take rubbings
  • off the granite abstracts to bring home to mother
  • in smaller logging towns with few graves this old.
  • Not to kill them, but post them as guardians
  • of the groundcover over your own dead. Take food
  • for the transit to cold nights and no roof—corn flakes,
  • dog kibble, carrot peels—so when you die
  • a mouse may yank the thorn out of your heart.
  • Didn’t your daughter dote on the angelic mouse
  • determined to be a ballerina? Didn’t she love
  • to read of the misfit mouse on his micro-motorcycle?
  • Never kill another, or in ten years its death may
  • throw her off the back of her boyfriend’s Harley,
  • and break the legs she needs for point, the face
  • she needs for kisses. The runt of the litter I took
  • to a church with a shed and well-stocked dumpster.
  • I didn’t do it for my daughter: I did it for my mother.
    • _________________________

      SAVA

  • The name for their river, if you imagine it
  • taken from local usage, means That’s how it goes
  • —delivered with a shrug, out of earshot
  • of the wide white laughter over the rocks.
  • Or, if the river’s in sight, with eyes
  • averted toward the town square with its old men
  • and women seated around a weepy granite
  • fountain. Their uniform of various blacks
  • entitles them to revise each other’s stories
  • of children gone to the homelessness of cities
  • and wives, husbands, fathers, mothers gone
  • ahead but not, as the headstones like to say, forgotten.
  • The river is close to its source: no hydro plant, no locks.
  • The rain and snow of heaven is where it began,
  • and it flows toward an underworld they know
  • as well as who fell in gloriously drunk at which saint’s
  • picnic, and whose lover drowned himself to end one cold summer.
  • They stretch arms to show how big a trout was battled,
  • netted and let go by this one’s great-grandfather.
  • They don’t need to walk there anymore to show
  • each other what really took place on its banks.
  • When they speak, the hands lift as though to cradle
  • a thing that won’t be held, but their eyes
  • are kept closed to guide the recurrent stories
  • toward the silence where everyone’s story goes.
  • If one of them looks up then and happens to say
  • the name of the river, it sounds like thanks.
  • For what, who knows. It was always pronounced that way.
    • :: :: :: :: ::
    • in Poetry 154, the 4-sonnet elegy “The Third River” (way back in June 1989–first use of sonnet-stanzas at a time when I was mostly writing prose poems/flash fictions). This poem concludes The Wire Garden, available from me or from Lulu.com.

      THE THIRD RIVER

  • Paradise for you, father, was the slow
  • brown boyhood river, banked with live oak
  • and buckeye. Your river was my first picture-story,
  • it gave off a honey of leaf-rot, marsh-rot,
  • stormwater digesting and distilling to amber
  • its compost of silt, fish-scale and offal.
  • You’re the skinny blur—in mother’s old snapshot—
  • diving from an oak, about to break the water.
  • At school, pledging Under God indivisible,
  • I saw the war cemetery, a treeless baize tacked
  • with tiny crosses. At lunch I’d sneak across the creek
  • and vault the low wall. I almost made it a game—
  • seventh row, third cross, the black incision of a name—
  • crawling the grass to the war souvenir you left me.
  • _____________________

  • The story of school for me, as for you,
  • was chalkdust, and widows who fell asleep with Longfellow,
  • but home was Life’s Picture History of WWII
  • and albums of black paper framing you,
  • West Point, Shropshire, Reims. My ghost story
  • starts with the pilot who drinks absinthe on the roof
  • of the chateau HQ, then plunges—a human Stuka—through
  • a skylight to the general’s dinner table. You rise,
  • brush off glass and gravy, salute, pass out. Next, always,
  • comes mother driving to Emergency to get me
  • delivered the very night you crash-land: I’m like a pilot
  • balled up, too big, in a crushed cockpit.
  • The ground crew C-sections your fuselage.
  • We’re both lifted alive out of wreckage.
  • _____________________

  • Between your French and our American hospitals,
  • snapshots fly. A baby. A P-47, belly
  • up in a rainy field. The story
  • of accidents is how inevitable
  • they grow in a mother’s voice. “Father gave
  • his life for yours,” she said, “so his grave
  • has your name, but not his body. He fell over Germany.”
  • I skipped school, because they kept calling
  • your name. I lay back on the grave, and thought how lucky
  • to be lost in the clouds, and always falling,
  • never home where you were just a wall display
  • of ribbons and medals, a dent in the seat of the wing chair.
  • Over the steaming meat of Sunday dinner I prayed
  • for your glassed-over air-cadet smile to fall off the wall.
  • _____________________

  • Did you believe we’d be pieced together
  • beyond the Methodist river of clouds? Clouds are
  • what you dove through, through the exploding skylight,
  • the border of air and water. I’m ready to meet
  • that snapshot summer fifty years gone
  • where a blur holds its breath under
  • a shimmer of Kodak emulsion.
  • I’ve skipped school, stripped, ready to dive—
  • body fuselage, arms wings. Naked
  • underwater, the blur looks up to me,
  • its mouth and eyes full of river-honey, its body
  • a ripple of lethal ambers, streamlined, boyish—
  • timed to spring back up to the surface
  • the instant I break it from above.
    • :: :: :: :: ::
  • In North Carolina Literary Review 7 (1998), “Bargain with Transcendence” (3 sonnets) and “Brightness Falls” (2 sonnets):
    • BARGAIN WITH TRANSCENDENCE

  • Lay it open to me, Emerson. Open
  • your shirt and skin and slick coil of intestine
  • with its skimpy mash of two lunch apples.
  • I want to see the apple heart
  • that had to keep metronoming its part
  • after the ground digested the boy in his box.
  • It’s a century and a half too late for scruples
  • about that small portion of sweetest meat
  • that did not stick to your bones
  • but gave itself to the family of rocks
  • and stones and trees. Nothing atones
  • when boys cut ahead of the bloodline to meet
  • the eyeless granite angel who sells
  • the son his father’s berth to hell.
  • Just a few years older than he, his gravediggers—
  • untranscendental Concord potato-eaters—
  • backfill the hole like squirrels laying in a supply
  • of nut-meat. Emerson, over Boston Bay
  • the osprey rides thermals as it rode the summer
  • Lord Amherst hit on the plan of putting away
  • New England’s natives with trade blankets
  • dipped in smallpox. Did your god blink its
  • three-personed eye at that massacre?
  • If you had a choice, what would you prefer—
  • the family wiped out at once entire,
  • or soar above the random idiocy
  • of pneumonia, meningitis, TB,
  • like god’s fish-hawk, all wing and eye?
  • Think hard. Simply having your life killed your son’s.
  • Let me be fevered and burnt
  • if mine can’t outlive me. I don’t want a heart
  • hardening like a walnut shell around the absent
  • meat of my meaning. Nothing is apparent
  • but this: defending my boy’s life until I die.
  • I don’t want your mastery, your raptor eye.
  • My son weighs 70 and sings on his bike; he’s eleven.
  • What I want isn’t 90 days, a year, five.
  • Whatever it means or takes to survive
  • him I don’t want to know. There is no heaven
  • in this negotiation. I want nothing less than
  • an unconditional guarantee
  • of his safe conduct to a life that outlasts me.
    • ___________________________

      BRIGHTNESS FALLS

  • Yesterday, the manic teen in isolation.
  • Today, the Mexican schoolbus and the cattle train.
  • Each morning the slam dance of news and caffeine.
  • If I drank herb tea, canceled my subscription
  • and spent my earliest hour in our back garden—
  • but no. I read, “The phone in his cell was for suicide
  • prevention. He made a slip knot of its steel-encased cord…”
  • I inspect shoe-soles under a roadside tarp. My face hardens
  • to mica. So I pack the brittle edges in cotton
  • sweats and drive Sarah along untrafficked back streets
  • to school, making sure we sing I like to eat, eat, eat
  • eeples and baneenees.Carrying her lunchbox and mittens
  • up the steps, I feel like the big retarded one in this
  • elementary crush, and Sarah my quicker guide. I wish.
  • But I leave her—that simple, daily subtraction—
  • and driving home get ambushed by the busdriver’s quote,
  • “The children were singing when the train hit,”
  • and the jailer’s, “We were just holding him for observation—
  • he could have used strips of bedding, or the dental floss…”
  • Most days I walk the dogs in Pioneer Cemetery
  • but today I keep them fenced in the back garden with me
  • among the firs and spindly oaks, the moss
  • and wrecked raspberries where God found Cain.
  • The casual spider thread that wires each thing to the next
  • is shining. Some days my hard wiring connects
  • to nothing but distant signals of pain.
  • The cemetery is no peace-walk then, but a place
  • of dead mouths. All that loose white hair, turning to grass.
    • :: :: :: ::
      In Whiskey Island (2006), 4 pieces: “Girls Upstairs,” “Venus Pencil,” “Clove Pig,” and “Drummer Boy.”

      GIRLS UPSTAIRS

  • Sometimes in my basement office I hear women
  • laughing through the ceiling, and it brings back long nights
  • in a basement in Chapel Hill, the year when
  • my companions are the wholly memorized notes
  • of Bach’s Concerto for Violin and Oboe.
  • The two girls upstairs are big on laughter, TV,
  • frat guys. In my Romantic Poets text I draw
  • the face I grimly imagine I’ll have at fifty
  • in the margins of Coleridge’s “Dejection”
  • ode. Biking home one winter night, I’m hit head-on
  • by a car the laughing girls drive. “Oh God is he
  • dead?” they shout. “Hey, it’s the downstairs poet guy!”
  • Even they knew poets die young. Why didn’t I? Where
  • are those laughing girls now? Parked in my heart. I swear.
    • _________________________________

      VENUS PENCIL

  • Now I get it, in the eighth year of your death: my love
  • of turquoise, which waylaid me from nowhere
  • when I drove West, 26. The first ring I made
  • my own was called spiderweb—a defect,
  • veins of black crackling the aqua horizon of
  • the stone. Your marriage was set in silver—
  • what could I know of that?—just married
  • myself, imagining my chance to perfect
  • the impossible. That day I’d been standing above
  • the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. The river
  • gleamed half a mile below, cursive—pencil lead
  • on heavy paper. You’d sharpen me a Venus, strict
  • point in its crackled glaze: “Smell this—it’s incense cedar,”
  • admonishing, “Draw like you mean it. There’s no eraser.”
    • ________________________________

      CLOVE PIG

  • Kill the pig, the mud-bloody boys sing, cook his flesh.
  • I palmed half-bit sausage biscuit in one hand
  • and flattened Lord of the Flies with the other:
  • first true smack of irony, poignant as the first
  • spear I honed from devils club to gig toads, summer
  • dusk at the storm ditch with Joey, Gary, a band
  • of barefoot killers in seersucker shirts. The worst
  • we did was stick firecrackers in the mouths of fish
  • we caught on the all-night pier. Puffers were the best:
  • tickle their bellies, they swell up, the Black Cat cigar
  • exploding them mid-air. Big laugh. Who can understand
  • those boys who quit killing once they learned to kiss?
  • —who now sell tires, teach poetry, love kids like the lamb
  • Jesus and—guileless still—stick clove darts in Xmas ham.
    • _____________________________

      DRUMMER BOY

  • Dead uncle dead aunt, dead aunt dead uncle.
  • Dead dad. What dull drumming, the muffled tom-tom
  • of names by heartbeat past the zero hour of night.
  • Like counting off hide-and-seek, face buried
  • in my arms against a pine. Count until daylight,
  • one one-thousand, back forty years. Softly call
  • Ready or not! They freeze in picture frames,
  • home free, not it. I was the slowest, I cried
  • in rage when no one let me catch them. Four a.m.
  • Death’s it now. Dead father, dead elders, how did
  • you bury childhood behind the stars, in plain sight?
  • Come back and finish this jigsaw puzzle
  • in the bathroom mirror. Where did you hide the rest
  • of the pieces? Stop banging that toy drum in my chest.
    • :: :: :: :: ::
      From the Oregon anthology Deer Drink the Moon (2006), “Cape Perpetua” and “Dead Run.”
      _________________________

      CAPE PERPETUA

  • All other white noise falls beneath a private fire,
  • and wind in the trees, and creekwater aimed at the North
  • Pacific—susurrus of surf on lava as far
  • from me as any nebula. Where is my death,
  • my body’s manifold declines, all my failures
  • to listen to loved ones, speak their names, sing for no
  • reason on earth? Burnt to red coals. Blown past the stars.
  • Perpetua Creek bears it away, all I know,
  • all I will never remember, to the border
  • where water and fire and wind first met. Consoling
  • to imagine how many have reached that juncture
  • on a late September night like this. That feeling
  • named by Captain Cook on Saint Perpetua’s Day,
  • 1778, as he sailed away.
    • _________________________

      DEAD RUN

  • Dogs love Pioneer Cemetery, they have the run
  • of its clovery, plotted mile, happy to share
  • with students cutting through, late for Psych or dance class,
  • old joggers keeping one sore foot out of the grave.
  • No one here on leash, except the dead: theirs is grass
  • braided to a stony name. Old as Oregon,
  • a hundred fifty years of plenty rain, sun and air
  • enough to grow them eyes on daisy stalks, to face
  • this world that no longer runs from them. I don’t run—
  • more like slow dance steps through what my body distills:
  • the feel of one day waltzing beyond my last will.
  • My dogs run this thought into the ground. The young one
  • racing ahead is black; the old trotter is white.
  • Their names, too, like a life, a death: Magnolia. Midnight.
    • :: :: :: :: ::
      The late Deborah Tall was a fine poet and prose writer, and a generous editor at Seneca Review. She published a number of my sonnets/short sequences in the 1990s, including the following: “Slightly Closer to the Sea,” “Home Visit,” “The Cure,” “Truce,” and “Two Drives.” “Home Visit” and “The Cure” are included in The Wire Garden (Arlo Press, my own imprint).

      SLIGHTLY CLOSER TO THE SEA

  • Where they have gone they have done without
  • children, the woman says. There was no sending
  • the children away, the man tells me, but what
  • they did sent them away. A small car idling
  • on a snowy logging road. The river downhill
  • from the condemned hospital. None of this will
  • they admit together. Confessions arrive
  • and depart separately, when children sleep
  • or go to school. She seems most alive
  • on a Sunday walk along the steeper
  • side of their river, in a smaller town slightly closer
  • to the sea. The man’s style is to roar up late at night,
  • tires flinging driveway dust in his headlights,
  • to hunch at my kitchen table, and drink, and swear.
  • It never took us farther than minutes away,
  • he says, but far enough. He takes both hands
  • off the glass, waves his words away,
  • grips air. By the water they had too many
  • words, in the snow too few. Too few. Words
  • would not, she says, take them past the momentary
  • difficult places. No directions: she
  • looked at him, at the sky. In the car, with his finger,
  • he drew a line across her palm. The map from me
  • to her, he says. If she stares, in bed, at her
  • skylight, he appears, floating in sleep. Obsession!
  • he slams the glass down. No, an addiction,
  • she whispers: The too much that I understand
  • too late. I shrug; I give her my hand.
  • I’ve held his, too. What they want is an endless
  • hearing. The night he begs me to contradict
  • follows a morning she requires silence: a strict
  • unforgiving sequence. We must have shared at least
  • one past life, she insists: Sister and brother, can
  • you see that? At my table, his hands shape what they can
  • neither seize or release. I have to watch them,
  • he claims, when I’m driving near the river at night.
  • By now I am behind him, kneading the knot
  • in his shoulders. It’s hard; it’s two a.m.
  • I feel like a grave. What do you have to watch? I ask.
  • My hands, he says, lifting them like a paralytic’s.
  • It’s all that water below. I have to tell
  • my hands, Just don’t let go of the wheel.
    • ___________________________

      HOME VISIT

  • Look at the crossword asleep on his chest. The recliner
  • handles his sprawl like an offering to the angel
  • of prostate cancer. The nap is doctor’s orders—
  • seventy years of Sundays really were a rehearsal.
  • The TV remote regulates weather, waking,
  • world events. Power to shut things off is a gift—
  • the angel’s quiet as a swimming pool filter. Taking
  • his father’s glasses so they won’t crack when he shifts,
  • the son wipes them on his sleeve. He would not call
  • this a rehearsal, but memorizing this face is all
  • he wants now: to study the angel’s work. To stand over
  • his old man and take in the diminishing strength
  • of pity and terror. Let him believe his power
  • is tender. That it has even an hour’s length.
    • ______________________________

      THE CURE

  • God’s eye on me the last fifteen years
  • was a Zuni ring of spiderweb turquoise,
  • worn on the callused go-to-hell finger
  • of my writing hand, except when I swam laps
  • in summer sun at the Amazon Park Pool:
  • I did not like tarnishing the silver setting.
  • In that Olympic-sized, turquoise buoyancy
  • I was a mote on the iris of an eye,
  • backstroking the synaptic ripple and flash
  • as my father, a continent away, completed
  • his half-hour treatment of paddle-and-float
  • for the leg swollen by radiation.
  • Imagine us, held in water the same size,
  • same color. Sliding the ring back on,
  • then, was like seeing God’s eye
  • on my father’s hand: it started my car
  • to drive me home, stroked my daughter’s hair.
  • That sensation faded like the chlorine whiff
  • from my palms, until I swam laps again,
  • until the ring was stolen from a locker
  • I had no change, that day, to lock.
  • Since then, I’ve spent less time in the water.
  • Since then, all God’s eyes are closed.
  • I bite my bare knuckle. No exercises
  • of mine distract death from focused fret-work
  • on my father’s leg-bone. And it’s too brittle,
  • now, for him to risk breaking on slippery steps
  • leading down into the crowded water.
    • _____________________________

      TRUCE

  • If you never soil, never wash this bit
  • of linen again, it still will not hold
  • the scent of her neck, her gone breasts. Lay it
  • over a coil of her pearls: the distilled
  • mother-odor goes. It doesn’t breathe; it goes.
  • Shut it in the jewelbox you also inherit.
  • Like a sickbed hand, the handkerchief yellows.
  • In one corner, a stain—no bleaching it—
  • small as an IV bruise in the tender meat
  • of the elbow. This is her offer of surrender
  • you accept, this white flutter covering her retreat
  • into you. Has the country changed? The border
  • is stitched with initials, hers, yours, the hem
  • no stronger than your hands. Let me hold them.
    • ____________________________

      TWO DRIVES

  • If love can be a line let it be a line of lights.
  • A line driving through a darkness of corn green
  • when the curving light sweeps it. Love like that
  • wakes a redbird in its juniper, sends it startled
  • into the starry indigo that calms it down again.
  • Love’s engine makes dogs bark miles after it
  • has passed, and its light belongs to stars again.
  • My lights aim toward my wife: if love can be,
  • let it be drawn by her grief in our bed’s blue dark.
  • Yesterday love lined up our family to light
  • noon’s highway for a rainy funeral. This story
  • has a line but the line made a hard right into
  • the gated place, and stopped. Redbirds sang in
  • a pine beyond the hole so deep it should have howled.
  • Off went the whole black line of light. We stepped
  • from the funeral engine in night colors, rain-chastened.
  • One line of ours ended there in a light trap
  • of dirt tamped down by the stone of a name.
  • Once there was a mother who could wait all hours
  • in living room dark for her daughter’s headlights
  • to startle the wall. It’s by her light I drive toward
  • what’s broken up and dispersed, a million faint stars
  • in my wife’s redbird heart. To bring desire close
  • to grief that each may last, because the last,
  • our oldest book of light says, shall be first. My lights
  • sweep the corn. The dogs are scared of what carries me
  • full of open-windowed music and want. How strange
  • it sounds against the stars. How fast and bright it moves.
    • :: :: :: :: ::
      From Marlboro Review (2002), “Black Dog Fall” and “Just Imagine.”

      BLACK DOG FALL

  • The black dog Midnight writes circle after circle
  • around me in burnt October grass: blades beaten
  • to nibs and nubs by dogs larger and dustier,
  • by dogwalkers exposing as much arm and leg
  • as they can bear to the thinned-out warmth, oracle
  • of cold sky-writing to come. Marks of depression,
  • objectless as light, fall like manna whiter
  • than one soul can swallow in this earth-bottomed keg
  • topped off with star-drizzle, the icy cuticle
  • of a day-moon. Each breath draws where we are eaten
  • alive in a salad of yellow trees, pepper
  • of dirt, salt of pollen. We’re identified by a rag
  • of likeness exhaled like smoke, guarded, animal.
  • The name I call breaks toward my breaking circle.
    • ______________________________

      JUST IMAGINE

  • The death of the children’s bookstore woman
  • was Woolf-like: a kid’s middle-school backpack
  • loaded with forty pounds of rock. Into Moon
  • Reservoir she waded. Goodnight bike rack
  • on the Subaru Outback roof, goodnight
  • store accounts more red than black. Ditto girls
  • on school soccer teams, doctor spouse who fights
  • junkies’ failings with methadone. Those pearls
  • her eyes said goodnight to stars and air, sunk
  • under tons of hypothermic moon calm.
  • No goodbye note. Word is she got stagger-drunk.
  • The car heater ran out of gas. Irish Cream
  • lullabied her to black waters that close
  • all books. In three days, more or less, she rose.
    • :: :: :: :: ::
      From Pacifica (1995), “Dog Park” and “What Carries Me.”

      DOG PARK

  • She came to shit, I tagged along to write.
  • She studies acres of grass and sun, sniff by sniff.
  • The notes she makes are glandular, brief
  • and for any dog to read. It’s sociable and polite.
  • In my lap, the notebook’s ruled green field
  • is dotted with bits of self discarded from the yield
  • of language submitted by all my kind
  • to the blind and odorless silence of
  • an oblivion my dog has no sense of.
  • Grass outlasts her: she doesn’t mind.
  • At the bench I’m imagining what shit
  • and sun and wind and grass my poem
  • and dog and all become. Don’t get me wrong: I’m
  • glad, really, to sit in the sun and keep doing it.
    • _________________________

      WHAT CARRIES ME

  • —if it is not my wife’s face
  • held inside a glassine frame
  • protected by the black leather flap?
  • Or my few good songs mastered to tape,
  • zipped into the same
  • shoulder bag in a tighter place
  • near the turquoise and silver clip
  • into which I fold the minimal green time
  • and credit I can afford to waste.
  • Or my habitual tools: the red Swiss
  • knife ready to slice, trim,
  • screw, unscrew, punch and rip,
  • and the microcassette tape
  • where this rhythm first tried on my voice—
  • not to preserve it, but to erase
  • the silence dividing utterance
  • from its writing, and from the hope
  • my hand tried to map
  • into something direct as a psalm that lies
  • crossed-out, revised in the workbook in my lap.
  • It’s safe at 43 to say the home
  • I have in this world is these few things
  • I carry, this black bag of tools
  • that precisely time and name the moments I was
  • given to go through, and then give up at some
  • legendary place where they’ll keep
  • only fragments that speak to their eyes—
  • and the rest is old breath the wind harries.
    • :: :: :: :: ::
      From Poetry East in 1999 & 1993, two very different tonalities in “Anniverse” and “Spit.”

      ANNIVERSE

  • Let’s leave the century at the edge
  • of the bed, let it fall in with the pile
  • of bathrobes and towels. Now we are cleansed
  • of its holocausts, we are wet mammal hair,
  • the white pool of your belly, a bone bridge
  • of interlaced hands. Now bring the meanwhile
  • of our forever, that interval we’ve kissed
  • our unreturning way into over the more
  • than seven thousand nights in this marriage
  • of impediments and true admissions. Kill
  • your regrets in my mouth. The good blue lens
  • of your eyes is sky enough to hold my prayer
  • for ten thousand more nights where we refine
  • this one form of forgetting, this body: yours, mine.
      _______________________________

      SPIT

  • In the middle of darkness is a light, and darkness
  • has not prevailed against it, Father Laveau said
  • on Sunday. That’s a good one, I said to Mama.
  • Mama said, Hush up, go take communion—
  • so I did but I used the cane. Mama knows
  • I never use the cane. I banged pews
  • left and right all the way to the rail, it made
  • old ladies cluck. Father Laveau clucked too.
  • He tapped my chin, which means Open, and stuck
  • the wafer in. It used to taste like the moon
  • because Mama said the moon was round and white
  • like a wafer. But the wafer is the body
  • of our savior. It tastes plastic. I wadded it
  • in my cheek and waited for the cup to come.
  • The father tapped my chin again, and I
  • pretended to cough but really I spit in it.
  • Spit the body back into the blood
  • because Jesus spit on a blind man’s eyes
  • and made him see. But he won’t do it for me.
  • I prayed for a year. The other man did not
  • even ask. Mama squeezed my fingers hard
  • and hissed, What did you do? Mama, the thing
  • got stuck in my throat, I said. I must have smiled.
  • She grabbed the cane. Go, she said. She hissed
  • like a talking snake: You want to play the fool?
  • Play the fool without a cane. On the walk home
  • she stayed a block ahead. I had to follow
  • her baby powder smell, and her loud heels.
  • She yelled, I’m going to take the crucifix down
  • off your wall and hide it. I yelled, I’ll find it
  • and spit on it too. And I would: it’s silver.
  • I can smell tarnish. I got so mad I walked
  • into a tree and ripped my pants. Mama
  • gave back the cane, but said Stupid. Let her
  • hide Jesus, I won’t look. I want him to get
  • good and tarnished before I go hunting him.
  • I want his eyes black as mine so when I spit
  • on them he’ll know he can’t rub darkness off.
  • He won’t be able to unstick his stupid hands
  • and I’ll squeeze his head so hard he’ll know
  • inside the darkness there’s another darkness
  • and the light, the light can’t touch it.
    • :: :: :: :: ::
      From a recent issue of Denali, two sonnets from the Bush II years, “Allegiance Revoked” and “Rain’s Return.”

      ALLEGIANCE REVOKED

  • Twilight park, canopied with firs. Thrush song
  • among the heights, empty picnic tables parked
  • in lush grass, laurels blossoming. Over the ridge
  • a river of headlights, north and south on I-5,
  • as though everyone is hurrying to a funeral
  • without a clue where it is or whose burial
  • they must observe. Now and then a siren
  • sounds its reminder, now and then a crow.
  • At the sole inhabited table a man writes,
  • My country dreamed of being the greatest
  • suicide—then strikes it out, walks downhill, out
  • of the park, imagining being changed into
  • a crow. No, not even that. Maybe just the space
  • between feathers on a wing, iridescent
  • and venerable, where a feather is missing.
    • ____________________________

      RAIN’S RETURN

  • Imagine us all getting crowned, November
  • 1st. The crown descends in pieces, evenly paced,
  • like a stage-prop chandelier (molded jewels
  • of sugar-glass) drizzled on cue through candystick-
  • thin fingers of dead orphans. That’s Oregon winter:
  • crown of cold clear thorns, worn alike by the richest
  • and the homeliest on Day One. Then, whoever dwells
  • in a house can decide whether to take rain’s potluck.
  • Rain on the roof lullabies the dozing embers
  • in the fireplace. Some folks jog through needling gray to taste
  • its minute clarities; some cope via withdrawal—
  • TV, Scrabble; some fly far south and never fly back.
  • If wearing a crown of rain could dissolve worlds of hurt
  • the homeless would wear it like an emperor’s shirt.
    • :: :: :: :: ::
      Duke Medical Center has an exemplary program, directed by the poet Grey Brown, to promote the healing and consoling powers of writing among patients, employees and visitors. I gave a workshop there some years ago. In 2005, the poet Gerald Barrax picked the following sonnet–about my father’s last week in the hospital–for their annual prize. This poem is included in my 2010 collection, The Wire Garden.

      CLIFF SWALLOWS

  • Swallows crisscrossed your 8th Floor Cancer Center
  • window like syncopated eighth notes. Who could hear
  • what I saw there? Eyes closed, you followed a score
  • the dying sight-read on their eyelids minutes before
  • the music ends. Summer lightning over the Cape Fear
  • outlined the distance you were becoming, past the flare
  • of swallows writing their pages of air.
  • Last hours like the words you lived by: no thunder
  • or wing-flash, at once opaque and all too clear.
  • How long ago the music of poems engineered
  • my flight from your life. In a blue visitor chair
  • by your bed in the sky, I kept watch. Touched your shoulder,
  • rose. Father, when I left, I walked on air over
  • the edge of the world: swallow-music everywhere.
    • :: :: :: :: ::
      From RATTAPALLAX (2004): 

      WHY KEEP A JOURNAL

  • At the fountain pen’s zenith the sexy cuts
  • of the gold nib angle toward something like the eye
  • at the apex of the dollar’s pyramid. Beyond the tip,
  • nothing but what you invent line by line. Is it only
  • air? Breathe out. The perfect navel siphons breath,
  • reservoired in its night-colored barrel, until the green
  • notebook page takes on the look of paper money
  • invested in song and memory. If the poem returns
  • you to a hillside where a spring hummed
  • as you dipped your hand in, what is it worth?
  • What if it yielded time to listen to a fountain
  • of breath ancient as night? Night, too, aims
  • its whole strength toward an airy moment called,
  • in a hundred singable languages, sunrise.
    • :: :: :: :: ::
      From Cumberland Poetry Review (1993), “Material Witness” and “The Past Master.”

      MATERIAL WITNESS

  • How small is the chance of violence
  • like this—small as the girl’s leg
  • police hook in their pond-drag?
  • Small as her shoe? No violins,
  • no choir sanctify the recovery
  • of the waterlogged rest of her, piece
  • by piece. Is death, Jesus, a peace
  • passing all understanding? Did you see
  • the man yank her out of the mall
  • like a harried father—Time to go home?
  • Was it then you washed your hands of him
  • or in the bathroom stall in grade school
  • where he crayoned his dream—a girl’s red
  • mouth, red crotch, lips parted?
    • ______________________
  • Did some invisible voice, like yours, keep
  • teaching him—while his family lay asleep—
  • everything his deepest wish
  • needed to grow into the knowledge
  • he applied with a serrated edge
  • to the arms and legs that had tried to push
  • him out of her? Your image, Jesus, your kin.
  • No more questions. Only her shoe,
  • on a rock by the water: the small Oh
  • of its mouth. For me nothing but the violin
  • string of her voice snapping in his hand.
  • He sleeps in a red heaven his crayon drew.
  • In a movie, the sky-choir would sing now.
  • And you’d be a swirl on the pond. A helpless wind.
    • _______________________

      THE PAST MASTER

  • Backs away when I approach, spins left
  • to my right turn. His hand—smooth, small—is a gift
  • he keeps in his pocket when I hold out
  • mine, spotted with use. If I pick up a baseball bat
  • he drops his glove, lies in the grass to read.
  • I kneel, reading over his shoulder aloud
  • and he jumps: off to the woods with a BB gun.
  • I want to explain the word unison
  • to him, but how translate myself to someone
  • never listening? All we have in common
  • is a past—presenting itself daily, but past
  • sharing. First is the worst, second is the best,
  • he teases. I try to walk away. He stays behind,
  • stays so close I hear his teeth grind:
  • Did you ever look like me? I forgot.
  • Still make believe you’re something you’re not?
  • You’re gray, you’re made of smoke and water.
  • I’ll never be what you are—the ghost of an imposter.
  • “Your grandmother,” I remind him, “would sit in the grass
  • with me—I was your age—and this repose would pass
  • into me: like not having to speak, or move, ever again.
  • It didn’t matter that the summer sun
  • was going, and night coming on, and fall, because
  • I felt bigger than the sky with her. And that was peace,
  • she said, the heaven she wanted….” He grabs my finger
  • hard, like a father: No, she wanted it over.
  • It was heart disease, and you’re lying
  • if you say she didn’t make a religion of dying.
  • I’d like to walk him into sorrow like a salt-water
  • tidepool, and lie there talking…what else would matter?
  • But he rolls eyes, silly-walks, yells fake laughter.
  • Each try at making peace makes him grow wilder,
  • so the quiet inside me grows wide, and he kicks dirt,
  • whirls, yells They got me, I’m hurt,
  • the mockery whirling and rising until
  • he’s nothing but a dust devil
  • that spins dead leaves up through the trees,
  • and then the one dead leaf that flies
  • as the rest fall, and then the white sky
  • it vanishes in. A blank wide as all of my
  • forgetting: that much late summer light.
    • :: :: :: :: ::
      A non-sonnet version of the following poem was published in 1984 in the now-defunct Davidson Miscellany, a nationally circulated journal at Davidson College (where I first began to publish in the 1970s). This elegy is for William Miller, a year ahead of me at Davidson, who killed himself after being expelled and refused readmission. I did try to get him to go to London with me. When I came home to the US and learned what he had done, that was the moment that made me a poet of loss.

      AVAILABLE LIGHT

  • Spring term done, I hurried. Left Carthage and Marcus
  • Aurelius locked in a trunk, and ran. Across campus
  • a Greyhound idled. Ready to run me where I would fly:
  • England, backpack, guitar, blank book. All these
  • Presbyterian boys packed for flight: George to the Greek
  • islands, Kenny to Acapulco. My black guitar buddy Will
  • was staying, though the town was dead all summer.
  • Near the post office I found him, slumped against
  • a myrtle, looking stoned. The letter he held expelled him.
  • His voice came to me, small, slack with disbelief:
  • “Where else could I go? I can’t go home.” I aimed
  • a mime’s camera at him crumpling the letter and clicked
  • my tongue: “Smile,” I said. “That’s my good Will.”
  • The bus door hissed open. “Come on!” I grabbed his arm:
  • “Gonna fly to to London, play the lowdown blues.
  • Eat that English jellyroll, drink that English beer.
  • If that jellyroll too sweet, we won’t come home at all.”
  • Two minutes the busdriver gave me to sing
  • and harangue Will to go: Will held back. Noon light,
  • and the shredded pink canopy of myrtle: that’s what
  • I see when I remember Will’s choice. By August
  • he was a piece of bad news. He did to his head
  • what his finger had done to the dean’s envelope.
  • His sole vengeance, stinking up a college building
  • for three days. But that green spring before he failed,
  • he put the fire end of our joint between his lips
  • and blew the smoke down my throat like a deep religious
  • kiss. Our guitars talked us through the same blues.
  • My hand, his arm—different degrees of sun-tempered
  • brown; smoke’s kiss; the twelve-bar slide; his sourwood
  • honey voice: for a while Will and I held something
  • in common. But in memory’s overcast Will refuses
  • my hand as though it’s a blindfold; stays locked in his
  • disbelieving stare at a picture grown too black
  • and white to bear: good white boys flying to Mexico,
  • England, Greece, goodbye, the Presbyterian wind
  • suddenly gusting, stripping the myrtle, stripping
  • the dean’s short white dismissal from Will’s hand
  • and Will running after it as I climb into the Greyhound,
  • looking back. Petals seem to blow past his head,
  • though the myrtle’s month is not May but August,
  • when I was not there, when my good Will blew away.
    • :: :: :: :: ::
      The Denver-based High Plains Literary Review ceased publication in recent years, and I miss its sense of the West. Here’s a sequence of sonnet-stanzas published there in 1996:

      THE FLUTE END OF CONSEQUENCES

  • On a cliff in the San Juans he’s finishing off
  • Colorado with a flute. Reservation borders
  • of Ute and Jicarilla he blows away in four
  • rising notes. He inhales Highway 25’s meander
  • and sends it skyward, a dissolving contrail.
  • All the Christians in Colorado Springs
  • compressed in a Bach trill precise as a burst
  • of milkweed. He descends a minor scale: each step
  • darkens a town—Grand Junction, Gunnison,
  • Greeley. In the last low note’s fermata, Denver
  • unbuilds and scatters east on mules and oxen.
  • His scale reverses, a slow major climb.
  • He plays the return of wolves and basketmakers
  • to Mesa Verde, fingers precise on the cold stops.
  • Night rises out of the river, mosquito-winged.
  • Iridescent notes bite his wrists and neck.
  • The taking of Colorado required blood,
  • finishing it requires blood and he has just
  • one body. If the song lasts, tomorrow
  • should be mountains the coyotes will never name.
  • Willow-lit whitewater, buffalo wallows
  • the magpie consecrates with laughter. If his legs
  • last the night, if his arms keep the flute angled
  • between the apocalyptic grid of the stars
  • and the earth’s power to lick itself clean as a bear.
  • His forearms tremble; the ground itself bears up
  • his swollen feet; his head is charged with bites
  • of star-voltage, and the flute goes on vacuuming
  • power lines and phone lines, map lines sucked
  • in the tube breath by breath and dispersed as patterns
  • of hoofbeats, wingbeats, making the one sound
  • that solves everything it touches, the sound of water
  • running. Tomorrow mountains would be described
  • by snow, by avalanche and thaw, if he did not stop.
  • But the black hours last too long, he is no god
  • of uncreation, he must stop, eaten by insects, drunk
  • by sleeplessness and thirst. His mouth shuts, he sits
  • hard in the dust and dismantles the flute into a case
  • gilded with initials. He can’t even finish himself.
  • Out of his diminished range, Colorado dawns:
  • butter-light on the Bank of Denver and Ford dealers,
  • honey-light on beef ranches and gated suburbs.
  • The path comes back to his feet: it leads down. His car
  • reappears, parked close to the roar of the sunrise trucks.
  • All that silver power gone. His day job starts soon,
  • he must go back, clothed, housed, keys in his pocket,
  • wallet thick with numbers the state accepts
  • in place of him. But between trucks, he can hear
  • a magpie, and the river. And south on the highway to Cortez,
  • a woman drives with her knees so she can finger
  • a mandolin. In Rifle, a mechanic blows his harmonica
  • into the sage arroyo behind his garage. All it takes
  • is a trumpet dusted off in a Leadville attic, someone
  • whistling in Durango’s unemployment line: as long
  • as the song is overheard, passed around, hummed, it lives
  • and in the span of its life Colorado is finished.
    • :: :: :: :: ::
      Another defunct, Asheville’s The Arts Journal, published the following sonnet-stanzas in 1985–a sort of love poem to the western Piedmont and mountains of North Carolina, where my Hill and Long ancestors are from (and where my younger brother Anderson has settled):

      JOURNEYMAN’S ADVICE

  • Summer I missed his passing through. Fall he’ll shake
  • the goldenrod, and I’ll sneeze and suddenly see.
  • Amity Hill, Deep Gap, Blowing Rock: my face weathers
  • in these names while I go looking for him, ghost-brother,
  • sentinel in the fog of a Blue Ridge barn. He lights on
  • Grandfather Mountain, see, a wake of firefly flares
  • sifting down through stands of sky-laurel. His alphabet
  • is strung between the antlers of a deer skull, in the gut
  • silk of the writing spider. Split shagbark hickory
  • and find him, receding into the white core—nothing
  • like me, but everything I need to say where my own
  • hands have so far pulled me. His trail’s easy enough:
  • cross the Divide near Asheville, his password will pour
  • through your throat, down over cliffs and gorges:
  • Swannanoa, Nantahala. That ah! bounded by waterfalls
  • of consonants is what he stands for—Appalachia,
  • Pisgah. While summer hunts conclusion among
  • yellowing tulip trees, and the rain-fed candles
  • of mullein and chicory burn yellow and blue on
  • gravel-shouldered roads, I feel myself seasoning
  • like firewood laid up for some great private occasion.
  • While the wind is blowing, adore the wind,
  • that’s the first sentence in his Bible. He’s a creek-jump
  • ahead now, hair dusted with goldenrod. In that fine
  • coppery haze of dust rising off every earthly dying thing
  • he stops. His prayer is water in cupped hands.
  • Breathe the names: Wayah, Ossipee, Altamahaw.
  • The rest of his life held out for us to drink.
    • :: :: :: :: ::
      From one of the late issues (1996) of another defunct little magazine, Pivot,the following sonnet:

      ONE ON ONE

  • If zero was a cymbal in Nothing’s trap kit,
  • it would make no crash, no splash, just a slight
  • shivery ping like a slice of moon in dawn’s
  • watercolor wash. Insomnia made your bones
  • sticks in Nothing’s hands. Now it tom-toms
  • your heart, lets both bare feet go chick-a-boom
  • in the kick-bass and high-hat feel of sunrise grass.
  • One eye goes from crescent to full in that cold space,
  • then ping the other opens. Double zero.
  • Insomnia forgets the name of the thing it sees,
  • but the drumming’s good, hitting all the birds now.
  • They’d be Nothing’s accents except your ear says
  • robin, white-throated sparrow, and your mouth follows.
  • Nothing’s solo is over. Your turn now. And the day’s.
    • :: :: :: :: ::
      A rather different version of the following poem appeared in Southern Poetry Review in 1996:

      AT A PICTURE WINDOW ON THE OREGON COAST, NEW YEAR’S EVE, WRITING WEST

  • On the other side of the window—the Pacific side,
  • where salal grips outcrop rocks so greedily
  • the surf takes few back, though wind and tide push
  • so hard I can’t really hear their letting go, falling in—
  • a pair of hands moves opposite mine.
  • On this side, a bowl of apples, leather bookbag,
  • bed, easy chair, writing desk against the glass:
  • meant in muted ways to make Yachats, Oregon
  • home enough for the last night of the year,
  • last year of the century. Out there the hands
  • raise a knife, a pen; seem to perch on a cedar fence
  • then ghost between rails among black plovers
  • over the surf’s whitening line. Almost
  • invisible hands, mirroring all I do with mine:
  • slicing fruit, tearing bread, writing the dead
  • grandfather and father whose portraits sentry
  • the desk back home where poems are made
  • of nowhere-stares and shallow breathing. A shell path
  • curves under the hands, down to the cliff where
  • black wind works black water, west edge of a year
  • that did not bless or wreck me. Hands like puppets,
  • disembodied wings flying under the wavering
  • lighthouse of a candle where, hours ago, the sun
  • of the last century sank. Who in the night writes me back?
  • Bodiless hands like these closed on mine, once, twice,
  • long ago, seizing through air-colored emptiness—
  • when a head-on wreck threw me against unyielding
  • windshield, when the liquid window of a wave
  • broke my neck. Whose hands can explain that, but a father’s,
  • grandfather’s, writing invisible retrospectives
  • from the far side of death? —Thrown in a highway ditch,
  • in shallow surf, I learned the pain song
  • in ambulances, alone. Why can’t they leave
  • that song alone now? Their hands hesitate, beckon;
  • they unwrite each minute I breathe in a world
  • no poem can make home. This world, whose gusts
  • flick the year like a rock into the Pacific. Put down
  • the pen, blow out the candle. What’s out there has no hand
  • in your ending well or ill. Turn down the covers.
  • What last year’s words don’t grasp, sleep and silence know.
  • Century of dead fathers, I’m closing my eyes.
    • :: :: :: :: ::
      From the Green Mountains Review in 1992, the following sonnet-stanzas:

      CONCENTRATE ON THE RAKE

  • If it lasts through this year’s leaves, I said,
  • if the handle doesn’t crack past last fall’s
  • gray tape, or the black tape of the fall before.
  • If I eat less, get a job that lasts. If we keep
  • the house, the marriage. Such supplications
  • drove the rake hard. These northern years,
  • I said, cost enough without me breaking
  • the good rake. In the near-dark I revised
  • my stroke until it was gentle as brushing
  • my daughter’s hair. But it was frostbit grass
  • I was combing. That night, I had to mend
  • the bamboo teeth with string and hot wax.
  • In the basement’s compressed quiet
  • I could hear how the handle might break—
  • a bone simply giving way. Could hear
  • more leaves letting go. My night hearing
  • had grown past reason—timing sick baby
  • breaths a room away, forgetting to breathe
  • when my wife begins to cry in the shower.
  • No good sleep through these provisional years:
  • each night sound, night thought, a dry chip
  • in the clock that goes If, if, if.
  • Leaves ticked the roof and windows. Did I
  • mistake a sunlit tree for strength? Strength
  • is leaves. When it fails, it fails in all directions
  • at once. Next afternoon I was at it again,
  • a householder keeping wreckage in check.
  • Keep the raking simple, I said, but as I raked
  • I watched my children downhill, their breath
  • rising over their leaps and shouts like white
  • safety signals. I admitted how king pines above
  • the river hold me to diligence when all I want
  • is an ache, a blowing away. Finally
  • I laid the rake aside. Spread a sheet
  • by the first wet mound, lifted an armful
  • of falling-apart weight. An image detached
  • from one leaf: a school photo, a boy grinning,
  • baby teeth gone. Limp, bleached, moldy.
  • Not my son, I said, not me, and sat on the sheet
  • wiping its ruin on my sleeve. If you ask for signs,
  • signs are given. In such gray light, it didn’t help
  • to hear geese crying as they flew upriver.
    • :: :: :: :: ::
      With a slightly different title (about the Umpqua River), this sonnet was published in 2004 in Portland-based Open Spaces:

      KINGFISHER OVER THE KLAMATH RIVER

  • Bring the rainbow with a rattle, bring
  • its steel head and tail fin like beaten tin.
  • Dig under the fluent green skin
  • of the god’s length, be a retrieving
  • of the old covenant made young
  • in one fingerling of the spectral whole.
  • Proof is what I want, not title
  • to your sky—promise on the wing
  • made in a flash of live wet scale.
  • Be over me and with me, then pass
  • and that is sign enough, that is all
  • the signal I require on this spit of grass
  • where the river bends today around
  • the liquid days changed into one Pacific wind.
    • :: :: :: :: ::
      From a 1995 issue of Fireweed, “Same Wall” and “Dulse.”

      SAME WALL

  • The sag of my living room’s skin, its failing rose paper,
  • set me back in the century of waltzes. In each great house
  • a ballroom; in each dancer, a word for the woman without
  • a man’s inviting. Not that dance was beyond her.
  • She was to hang back by the damask to study the whirling air
  • of partnered ones. Was she poor? not pretty? She was not
  • to ask. To prop against silk briars until claimed or not.
  • The stags fattened on punch and cigars, and elbowed their
  • opposing wall, bugling laughter. Her shoulder-blades
  • dug at the plaster beneath the silk, Oh, let me in. In those men,
  • fear of the whirl where nothing held them up but a woman.
  • The wallflower’s hands danced between her breast and waist,
  • small steps. She hung, itinerant portrait in bad light,
  • for the study of men who would not let their eyes be taught
  • how to take in each mortal stroke of her. Into danceless
  • flowering ground she was invited, alongside their hair oils
  • and smoke, gold timepieces stopped in rigor grips. The waltz
  • century is a stone full of names the rain eats. And the briar rose
  • pattern that grasped her shoulders is gone: I stripped my walls,
  • painted them white. I host a dance party once a year—
  • wall-shaking boombox, couples, singles, plenty of beer.
  • Our dances make do with a circle, or a line, or alone, a press
  • of bodies all can join; our hip and head moves mean
  • to dissolve us in a huge tribal music. And still—as I fling my arm,
  • or whip my hair inside a guitar explosion—still, one remains
  • unmoved. One against the wall, as though to force its blank
  • open, and seal her off from our flail. The wall is flowered,
  • or the wall is not, but one has her back to it, not dancing.
    • ______________________________

      DULSE

  • The word’s pass at sweetness makes up, almost,
  • for the bitter actual thing itself.
  • But you need to be a fool to believe raw dulse
  • generates new body and soul. In 1975
  • my body was flab, my soul a botch of Thoreau,
  • of Heraclitus, Keats, Montaigne. Hippies I knew
  • were turning, one by one, into miniature Zen
  • temples; my tall friend Rick swore that dulse soup
  • had simplified him. His house on the oak bluff
  • above the waterway was purged of old Rick-stuff:
  • now there was a bare space, jars of dry beans, a futon,
  • bamboo implements, the I Ching, a photo
  • of Baba like a fat pastry chef smiling Don’t Worry
  • Be Happy. And Rick kept repeating “This is me.”
  • And my dockside shack? Crabtrap on the piano,
  • fish-scales and mouse turds seasoning the floor,
  • old books blown moldily open everywhere. I cleaned house.
  • Then, like a novice Zen forager, knelt in tide pools,
  • tearing out wads the hue of wine-vinegar
  • to haul home, to pot-soak and hang on a laundry rack.
  • Fried brown bags are tastier:
  • I had to add pepper, garlic, scallions, ginger,
  • to build up a broth weak, salt and bitter
  • as the bad mouthwash of the Atlantic.
  • I had to, Rick forgive me, add hamhock.
  • Dulse crackled to parchment on the shelf with jars
  • of mung beans, bulgar, lentils. I went back
  • to corn bread, tequila, BBQ pork.
  • Whatever red tang of simplicity I required so
  • much just then, I got from boiled crabs, a bottle of Bordeaux,
  • the gills of a flounder jigged off the dock at sunset.
  • The better life I tried to wring out
  • of a scarlet seaweed bothers me less
  • than why its word grows sweet at this remove, dulse,
  • packed in the blood-salts of memory, permeated
  • by oyster mud, heat-shimmer and the aroma
  • of shrimp boats dragging up the waterway toward
  • those guano-whitened rocks where I bent, half-naked
  • and dumb as Adam, to rip out a rumor
  • of wisdom, claimed to possess a thread
  • of bearable savor if only you could get
  • the hang of how to let it age and cure.
    • :: :: :: :: ::
      The next sonnet first appeared in Willow Springs (1993), and was later anthologized in Naomi Shihab Nye’s What Have You Lost?

      HOW FORGETTING WORKS IN LATE WINTER

  • Fog thrown over house and pines, flimsy comforter.
  • Under the pines, mounds of snow exhaling.
  • Out there Seth kicks the rotting cold, punches holes
  • in the snow’s breath. Over his head the sun is a white hole;
  • he scares a pine dove into it. Night-frost spines
  • my window. In the fire-grate, ash swirls, a flock
  • of gray wings. The air near me is so still it’s childless,
  • like a room fever has designed to finish its work
  • under the sheet. I finger the ache between eye and ear—
  • I run a hand through graying hair, like Seth runs out there.
  • My father was stationed at a window cold as this. Behind
  • his father’s house, a hill of frost and brier: doves hunched
  • on iron spears fencing the family graves. I ran at them
  • waving hard. I made small clouds of breathlessness.
    • :: :: :: :: ::
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