The letter from grandfather at my birth
was addressed to Master Robert King
which no one ever called me again
and the letter is as absent as he is.
Words of wisdom inside? I imagine,
but I can’t imagine them. Difficult
to say, as such words are or might have been.
Once he showed me how to make a whistle
out of a squash stalk, not really whistling
but a rasping squawk, enough of a sound
for that one day, although never again.
Grandchildren, great, if you’re ever around
a squash plant, cut a two-inch section,
then slice a notch toward one fuzzy end.
With practice you’ll get a raucous buzz
that will thrill the summer you’re standing in
and the stalk’s bristles will only slightly
sting your lips and you’ll never do it again.
You masters of all things I‘ll never know.
The Secrets of Children
We were always wanting to find
the secret, a secret, some such thing
as secret. Gloried in our hiding,
the way children will, where no one
knew, invisible in our holes,
our bushes, woods, under the porch.
Gleeful, we giggled at the way
the world went on, oblivious
we were gone. This was funny then.
We didn’t realize that was how
it would always be. We’d found
the secret. And didn’t know it.
Saying the Word
The mountains become water
carrying themselves away.
To rise implies to fall down.
Still, one climbs the mountains.
Even sitting, doing nothing,
one climbs the mountains.
Not one millimeter of “David”
is the same first smooth of surface.
This is what I mean.
I looked at my father’s skull
while he lay inside a machine.
This is what I mean.
And while streams begin descent
the mountains pretend to keep
the shape we call ageless.
We say that, over and over.
And then we stop saying that
and someone else begins.
On History ☊
When I lived in the Dakotas,
towns were celebrating only
their centennial. Outside
a hotel window in Spain
stood a deserted church,
restorada in 1855,
a tree growing out of the belfry.
I have learned about time, learned again.
When I asked a young girl on her way
through the Zuni village what that was,
those rocks jumbled around a hole
in a weedy vacant lot, she said
“The center of the world,” and ambled
through that morning toward her school.
At Fifteen ☊
At the first hard shock, a first love
overturned in the instant of a letter,
I was burned by the hurt, if not
in the heart, that tight affectionate knot,
then in the chest, an ache swelling up.
That night I lay in bed watching the rain
burst over our small troubled trees
and cried, mostly from pain but partly,
that young, in tune with the storm’s torrent,
until I stopped. But then, wanting back
that bitter pang, I counted up
every lost thing until I broke out again,
glorying in my new sadness,
delighted to feel it, to feel, my small life
as large as the worldly rain.
Life, I seem to recall
from a year of Anglo Saxon poetry
in the old days, is like a bird
flying out of the cold and dark
in one door of the heroes’ mead-house
through the smoke and warmth of fires,
earth-smell, sweat-stench, roasted meat,
and winging out the other door
into another cold and dark.
I remember this suddenly
on the bank of a mountain stream
watching an ouzel flutter
into the shining, its body
dipping and bobbing as it feeds
under the push of the current,
and then flutters out again
to its rock: wet and satisfied.
The sun starting down and a mile back
to the campground, we returned
from another ruin, dry sandstone blocks
outlining the old ways gone
although enough sacredness remained.
Finally back at our tent
in a cluster of campers’ thin homes
we met other souls leaving,
a group of older women burdened
with cameras and tripods,
laughing among themselves, setting out
to fix the light’s last moments.
We had to stop to watch them walking
toward the enveloping night
to see what of that darkness they could save
and bring back to their lives.
In the middle of a river, I listen
to the businessman comparing business
to an orchestra, each instrument
each part a part of the whole.
The orchestra, however,
compares itself to a river–
flutes of light, cellos bubbling along
in the push and flow
of adagio, crescendo,
allegro–in rushes and deep swirling.
But this current river
compares itself placidly
to a business, all its appropriate
working in unison
toward singular goals, closing up shop
here, opening there,
reorganizing itself now
through a downturn of driftwood,
so the two of us stop
humming our various tunes
and backpaddle furiously in order
not to go bankrupt, get flat, or wet.
[First published: Old Man Laughing (Ghost Road Press, 2007]
The Bread Knife of My Aunt
Though one of the family’s smallest jokes,
the blade having worn into a thin curve
through the lives of many loaves,
it was still the good knife. So where was I,
anyway, when death made it
wholly unnecessary, then lost?
Now in my father’s battered toolbox
I find a screwdriver he chiseled,
twisted, and pried with until
it no longer serves its original purpose.
Earlier, holding a tarnished spoon once
mangled by mother in the new-fangled
garbage disposal: the wear our lives take
on whatever we happen to touch.
I wish now I had that knife.
I’d set it beside these two relics,
perhaps on an empty suitcase, preparing
a table where no one will come to eat
in the presence of all our enemies.
Through the pines, the trail turning
sharply up, the blue sky breaks
suddenly through and you know
you’re about at the top
although after a quarter mile
of your hard breathing, the sky
is covered by another hill,
more pines. You’re doomed to live
on earth, its ragged paths
promising heaven, delivering
another stretch down, then up,
of whatever it is you’re climbing.
A friend in college, an acquaintance, someone
I knew, a stranger, shot himself and died.
At the funeral, I wedged into a pew,
his family stern on the other side.
Afterward I passed by, staring at him
without the bushy beard I’d only known.
His face was bare and shocked, more fragile, dim
than I’d thought, pale bone and skin in the satin.
He became an acquaintance, then someone
I knew who’d shot himself, thinner and paler
for years until he vanished, became a stranger,
a son the family never explained.
And when it arrives,
the forest retreating
into its old shadows,
the river mirroring
the fragile sky so both
shimmer a faint silver,
I realize I’ve waited
all day for this moment,
a change that never changes.
Everything I know is dark.
Everything I don’t know
lights up within itself.