By Tacit Agreement, Sunday at the Sensiba Trail

We do not speak of the outside world –

we whistle at the sun nosing around

the fraying stratus clouds,

lifting and dropping

golden rays that splash our ankles and

the winter-dead grasses –

we call out to our dogs

sniffing one another in turn,

then exuberantly rolling in the dead carp

that the bald eagle has dropped.

We ask each other, on the other ends of leashes,

what breed of dog they are, and how old,

and if there are kids running ahead

or lagging behind, they shout out random bits

of information, like what they’re having

for dinner or about the mitten they dropped

somewhere in between the car and you.

The woman cradling the camera and

walking slightly behind the man with the cane

smiles at me as I kneel down to frame up

a pussy willow branch struck against

a ragged patch of blue sky; she says

Spring is coming, and I feel in my bones

that it’s true, that its grace is sufficient

but too late, too late for us –

in a moment it will burst into green flame

and lie like a shroud upon the brow of this fevered world.

The Nest (Or, a Father Considers the Odds of Raising Successful Small-Mouth Bass Offspring)

That afternoon at the cabin

we sat by the river

after I had cut up those small trees

that you dropped at my feet with the tractor –

(an offering, a challenge,

one that I tore through haphazardly with the new chainsaw,

black and yellow like a drunken, terrible bumblebee).

It was quiet after all that noise,

the dog (our fourth) now gone, our offspring absent-

(one washing other people’s dishes in dirty water for $7.75 an hour,

one in the throes of new love, thrashing in the shallows, and then

one that has swum out to her own sea)

so we sat without them

on cheap and dirty plastic chairs

that had sat outside all winter

and swatted at mosquitoes,

talking a little but mostly just

watching the male bass

swim back and forth around its nest,

guarding the 20,000 – 

give or take a few hundred –

eggs ditched by the female – leaving him

to patrol the nest alone, watching for

panfish looking to gorge on eggs coming in from the left

while he is preoccupied with crayfish coming in from the right –

there are always more predators.

(Five bass fry will live long enough to grow ten inches long;

it’s better that the father not consider these odds,

yet, how can he not?)

A muskrat broke the perimeter –

rat-tail moving side to side like a pink snake, but

the bass didn’t break patrol.

A father knows, or thinks he knows, what is a threat.

Really, I had almost certainly just waded right through the nest

through the muck and rocks and branches

(a sweaty, mosquito-repellent covered Godzilla

sending translucent globes helplessly into the current).

But we kept watching the bass,

circling his trampled nest while the sun

slowly arced to the west, and north,

the surface of the river sparkling like

glass from a broken mirror.

Behind us, up the hill,

no one tended the fire;

and though it was light, still, for so long,

in that week leading up to the solstice,

it was too late for us

to go home.


Dog Walkers in Manhattan Beach

Up, as the sun stretches lazily across the unmade bed of the Midwest

and taps the Pacific shore, rousting the shore birds,

up before they planned, before coffee, before mirror,

up before their war paint and fences, they come out with leashes,

wrinkled pajama pants, and flip flops that softly slap and whisper

sleepy recognition to one another.

Avatars, they stand in squares and yawn,

bishops and pawns and queens in sidewalk white, boxes and

patios and crosswalks and driveways while their dog, or dogs,

pull them along, straining to hear the just-recorded tales

of other dogs, or their own forgotten stories from yesterday,

stolen cheese and flatulence, a plastic cone around the neck, fleas, bacon.

Midwest dogs head for the woods, alone, but apparently

the etiquette here is for dog-walkers is to look away when the dogs stop;

don’t meet eyes as the girls squat and unleash puddles,

the boys lift their legs against fence, bush, trash can, tricycle (sorry!), and when

the dog finally arches, the dog walkers of Manhattan Beach

make a grand show of inserting the hand into the blue bag,

a surgeon scrubbed and ready, reaching for the prize.

It’s impossible thereafter to think of cities in the same way,

pee upon pee, log upon log, surely each square inch is marked with

the stories and song and missed connections and heartache of dogs

while their owners recline on lounges in Belize, Shang-hai, Sydney

and their proxies in pajamas move dutifully around the board,

shifting from one foot to another while they wait for their charges

who eagerly sniff the latest news, review the latest urinary art installation,

leave messages for friends, enemies, future selves –

Until finally by the leash they are led

back up the stairs, up the driveway,

or into the garage, one by one,

their flip flops scuffing softly along,

their wrapped blue bags left in a stranger’s trash,

someone else’s door closing behind them

as the sky slowly opens, yawning pink over the Pacific

at the bottom of the hill.

Unleashed (A Sonnet)

First winter snow has tripped and falls and falls,

I lace my boots and take my sheltered lens;

Behind me, windows throw a yellow pall

of slanted patches on white-trousered lawns;

Snow stills the trees and fills the prints of those

who walked ahead along the unlit road;

We will not meet, my pace unhurried slows –

four paws and to his right the man who strode;

Since nothing tells the story of the leash

that bound the dog to man and back again,

I break the plane, the unseen line I breach – 

No sound it makes, the freedom I pretend;

my shutter quiet here above the snow –

belated, now I walk this road alone.