A Confederacy of Dunces and Castoffs

We “go thrifting,” my daughter and I,

because it’s again cool to be uncool

and because she can’t yet hear

the murmurs of each discarded thing.

I dread finding items I’ve already cast off

at the Goodwill on Oneida street;

I prepare to glance away awkwardly,

pretending to see something that interests me

in the aisle of plaques and knick-knacks.

Cast-off things do not forgive,

perfectly good coffee mugs from Fleet Farm,

ShopKo shirts that look matronly,

backpacks with empty, growling bellies.

“I don’t know you,” I’d have to say, fiercely.

“You must be mistaking me for someone else!”

Alongside several copies of Fifty Shades of Gray

here is A Confederacy of Dunces, inscribed inside:

“To Jennifer, this is one of my very favorite books.

I hope you get better soon. Sean A.”

Not just one of his favorites, very favorite –

Jennifer must have been special for Sean A.

to divulge this secret with her, so I pay $4.99 for the copy,

and carry it home with a gossipy fuzzy sweater,

wondering about Jennifer.

There are four main possibilities in the matrix,

not counting half-starts and stasis:

She read the book, she didn’t. She got better, she died.

I find out Sean A. was a local English teacher once,

but no longer. Perhaps he too is dead, although he’d be

just 10 years older than I, and I hope i have more

than 10 years between me and death.

I see him living with his ancient parents

and a cat who curls up on his lap on Saturday afternoon,

leaving long white hair on his brown corduroys.

He watches This Old House and Wheel of Fortune, absently,

thinking about Jennifer,

about fixing up an old house for them

and filling it with books,

books that will be read and loved from either end of the couch,

books that will stay where he places them,

books that don’t wander off.

“M,” he guesses.

“T.”

Heart in Darkness

The heart is a muscle

The heart is a fist

it’s strong and it’s wary,

this beast in my breast.

My heart has been sleeping

My heart has dreamed dreams –

It wakens, now, flexing,

it growls and it gleams.

My heart is gone hunting,

My heart leads me on

Through starless dark forests,

on quick heavy paws.

 

My heart wants for nothing;

I turn and head north.

The Insufferable Logic of Tides

Sometimes

you are hauled backward

before you can

move forward; you get on a plane in the dark

in Nashville

and head south to Atlanta before touching down

in Milwaukee

where someone you love waits in the sleeting rain

to drive you back

and pour you into a warm, flightless

bed.

Sometimes

the moon draws you back

like a half smile,

a wave helpless against a tide of something deeper

than you can fathom;

you just catch sight of land when Lake Michigan’s icy fingers drag you

coughing, gasping,

half-drowned into the past, the future laid out on the pebbled shore

like a table set for someone

who is not you.

Sometime, maybe,

the path worn by the incessant argument between

then and now,

between what you squint to see and what you’ve got,

will give way –

and the ragged rasp of back and forth, back and forth,

forth and back,

will stop – and you’ll be delivered like a newborn,

one last push

will show you into the world you never saw coming

despite

all of the maps you drew.

The Disobedience of Rain

October rain

ebbs and flows and

falls and falls and falls

on the crooked pine trees and the roof,

on the old swing set and the black driveway,

on the cold, wet burn barrel and the American flag

at the hundred year old house on Shady Lane

where my parents live

still.

In the basement,

a dehumidifier pulls water from the sodden air,

dutifully filling and re-filling the pan.

Two sump pumps run full time,

a generator stands at the ready.

The water is carried by a snaking black hose

into the low-lying woods surrounding the house

and seeps back in again, later,

like a teenager after curfew, quiet, 

up through the cracks in the cement basement floor.

The stone walls

press large boulders against the earth

like praying fists.

It’s never rained this much before

this time of year.

My mother, 72 years old,

raised by practical German and Norwegian folk

on the Minnesota plains,

already sleeps with one eye open to make sure my father,

six years older and soaked years before

by Vietnamese monsoons and Agent Orange,

isn’t swept away into the woods,

disappearing

over his head.

She now sleeps with the other eye open, too,

straining to hear any absence of the motors,

first one,

then the other,

like twin chambers of the heart,

one ventricle pulling in the tired gray water,

one aorta pushing it out, clean and quick.

Pull, push.

Pull, push.

Pull, push.

It’s hard to listen for, it’s hard to hear

nothing.

And meanwhile the rain keeps falling

drop by drop,

drop by drop,

drop by drop

on the turning leaves,

on the feathery moss,

on the withered corn,

on the rivers already swollen,

already tired of carrying things away.

Somewhere, Another (The Pied Billed Grebe)

A pied-billed grebe

has already paddled madly

halfway across this cove

(its crested head sporting a half-hearted mohawk,

its body a sputtering vector moving toward the northwest,

Lake Superior swollen like a too-observant eye)

before I realize

that it has darted out from under this porch

that hangs over the water where I stand holding my coffee,

not wanting to go home.

It’s as though a magician

has produced an egg from my ear,

or I’ve rummaged in my purse looking for car keys

and I’ve found a room in my house

I didn’t know was there.

Somewhere, that grebe has

another grebe,

and chicks that have fledged and gone

by this late September Sunday,

and a worn and forlorn nest

patched together with empty reeds and sticks,

bits of plastic water bottles and lily pads,

feathers and hollow crayfish claws –

holding nothing,

bobbing along the indifferent surface

of the lake, pulled north

by the false promises of the moon,

swamped by the wake of passing boats.

I wonder then,

my coffee grown cold in its paper cup,

only the fading ripples left on the lake,

what I may be capable of now,

what other secrets

I may harbor.

Night Market

When I look over my shoulder

to change lanes on

the Leo Frigo bridge

high above the bay, I see her 

reaching over to smooth his long hair –

my son’s girlfriend –

and it’s as though he’s been

cracked open and I’ve seen

his heart beating

for the first time.

It’s crowded, so 

we park far

from the market grounds

this muggy August night

and we take our time on the

uneven sidewalks, overgrown by

late summer weeds.

Neighborhood kids on Big Wheels or bikes

circle elderly men on canes,

dodge parents carrying chairs and coolers

in the slowly fading light.

They walk behind me, holding hands –

her hands are cold, she says,

and holds them up to his heart.

The waffled orange plastic fence

runs between Titletown Brewery

and the Fox river that flows north,

parallel to the railroad tracks where

uneven piles of fresh gravel and asphalt wait patiently

for the future coming through –

we pick our way past the recycle bin

and a family struggling with a wagon.

I give my charges $10 and set them free.

On the periphery,

the hot air balloons groggily lift their outsize heads

as though waking from a late-afternoon nap

they don’t recall taking.

Their narrow necks fill with heartburn and fire and

soon a sentinel of them line the riverfront,

alternating light and dark against the purple sky.

Though it is late, I feel reckless –

I buy cold brew coffee

from a couple in a pull-behind trailer,

white trimmed in teal. Benjamin Brewer.

I pay $1 to pet a white puppy

from Lucky 7 Dog rescue.

I take a card.

I run into my cousin who’s just gotten a text from my aunt:

“We’re by the pole dancers.” Sure enough,

they are.

Her brother is wearing a hat

like one that I imagine Fitzgerald wore

to write about Daisy –

he punches out staccato poems on the spot

on an old typewriter

for young women in pairs,

for families with kids,

all standing in line and waiting for

enlightenment.

His chalkboard signs says:

Poems. Any topic.  While you wait. Pay whatever.

I wave at him and smile

but he is hunched over his work, and

I keep walking.

The hot air balloons

that have been taking Midwestern turns

lighting up, one after another,

slowly topple sideways,

darken,

deflate.

Silhouette people

wait to fold them,

tuck them onto trailers,

and drive them away in darkness.

I walk under the lights

strung over the picnic tables

to listen to the band all the way from Portland-

a marching band

drenched in New Orleans voodoo and

blended with Village People who do Cross Fit,

who make their own t-shirts,

who maybe practice polyamory.

They are jubilant,

they have trumpets, drums, a slide trombone,

hula hoops.

I buy a t-shirt I don’t need.

My son and his girlfriend

reappear,

and the music

fades

and then grows again

as we walk backward through the vendors to the the exit

(“Everlasting Romance”! Henna! Goat Milk Soap!)

then back up the street.

Along the old Larsen cannery

under the streetlights,

weeds grow wild and tall

between the sidewalk and wall,

and I say they are impressive,

ambitious,

and she says she’s never heard weeds

described that way, and so I say

they are profligate,

desperate,

ambidextrous,

hopeful,

senescent,

weedy.

You should write a poem about that,

my son says. But

I am not thinking

of adjectives for weeds,

I am picking my way

through the darkness and

watching the way that

people move about in their houses

lit by TVs and kitchen sink lights and soft table lamps –

I am thinking that

this night

is a window lit

for a brief moment,

and that years and years from now

I will walk past it in the darkness

and see

what was

inside.

The Fourth Generation of Monarchs Remember the Future

Three generations of monarchs

unfurl their wings

right where they emerge,

dazed,

to mate for hours while the world pitches and yaws,

dusk to dawn –

six weeks spent locked

in an off and on fluttering embrace,

drifting in circles of lazy lust

just along overgrown highways

of the driftless area

(Trempeleau, Pepin, Eau Claire)

in endless summer back yards where

the glaciers or fires came through

(Marinette, Peshtigo, Brule)

disheveled females breaking away

to secure tiny pearls of hope

to the flat green ears of milkweed plants

one at a time

until there are hundreds –

like beacons in the fog,

like solstice lanterns,

like constellations

by which tiny winged boats are steered.

But the fourth generation wakes,

and though

no note with directions

has been left on the kitchen table,

no family Bible with halting names of three generations scrawled –

they squint their eyes at the barely perceptible

narrowing angle of the sun,

they tilt their heads to listen

to the slight stuttering

of the milk running through the milkweed,

and untutored,

uncaffeinated,

unpacked,

without thermos or podcast or even a hat,

they set their antennae to the wind,

and remembering the future,

not knowing the past,

fly away

into the

once again

unknown.

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.

 

NPR Asked for Summer Haiku

I.  Shady Lane

barefoot at twilight

we play Ghosts in the Graveyard

vanishing in dark

 

II.  Rook

cards slap on the porch

after-dinner Manhattans

kids drunk with freedom

 

III. Beckoning

June is ever-dusk

fireflies wink in gangly grass

as I pedal home