Interstitial

Five-thirty’s

afternoon light

fades from

the Menominee

where this

water bug

zig-zags

northward

over the glassy

sturgeon-black

surface

of the river;

a needle

pulling

threads

of silver-speckled

sunlight

together,

close

as lovers,

stitching

a narrow pocket

into which

I slip

secretly

the ruins

of another

unmatched

summer’s

day.

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.

 

Crivitz Piggly Wiggly Philosophy

It’s a Thursday in May after five

when I swing into the Piggly Wiggly with two bikes

on the back of my SUV, and the dog inside;

The woman slicing my deli ham

struggles with the wrapper on the summer sausage, limps like

her hip is bad, too; she paces, trapped behind the glass cage;

When I check out, another woman

bagging my groceries eyes me and when I say “Everything in paper except for

the cold stuff,” she rephrases:

“Cold stuff in plastic, everything else in paper,”

which is what I said, but in reverse, and she seems disapproving, so then I hedge –

“Well, whatever makes sense.”

And she says “All right, as much as anything

makes sense any more” which seems a bit dark but also somehow

appropriate, and then referring to my copy of Vanity Fair

tells the checkout girl that the big Royal Wedding

is this Saturday and that the bride is 36 and who even knows if she can HAVE

kids, she’s been married before you know;

The checkout girl who is maybe mid-thirties

yawns and asks me if I know that I selected some organic bananas, I say yes,

I want them tomorrow and they were the only ripe ones,

and then she also clucks disapprovingly, either sorry

that they did not have non-organic ripe bananas to offer me or maybe sorry

that I am the type of person who cannot wait for bananas to ripen;

Outside the old man with a service dog

who looks like a floor mop and would do a credible job at it

asks me where I’m from, and I say where,

and he says that traffic in Green Bay

is terrible, he knows because he goes to church down there every Sunday,

taking his life in his hands, practically,

I say “Ah, the roundabouts,” knowingly, but he says no,

the drivers down there are terrible tailgaters, all in a hurry, and for what?

And peering in as I put away the iced tea and bottles of water

asks me what kind of dog I have, growling in the back seat

at his mop, and I say, and add,”He’s not really friendly,” and then

he too is disappointed, and calls to the friendly dog Brice or Bryce

and they amble off into the spring green grass, where

Bryce or Brice dutifully poops; but after the man goes to find a baggie,

he can’t find where the tiny poop is and when I leave

he is still walking in a circle, searching for the pile. But what I

am thinking about is how I’ve disappointed them all, and the way the woman

put my turnovers at the bottom of the paper bag and said,

“as much as anything makes sense anymore,” maybe referring to

lava breaking through the crust of the earth or the president of the USA

paying hush money to a woman they call Stormy,

or more likely something to do with her children, who don’t call,

or Piggly Wiggly’s schedule for the weekend,

rather than heroin leaving a wide path of destruction across the American cornfields,

and meanwhile I, privileged and having all advantages,

unfairly, undeservedly, drive with a dog and bikes

and cheese and chips to a place where the sun makes a wide and slow arc over the river,

shooting sunlight like glass marbles down the its path

and the sky turns the clouds pink, lavender, yellow, by turn

and a silver fish flashes in the shallows and then darts like guilt into the deep

and I turn to ascend the stairs, going up, and up, and up.

Ask For Me Tomorrow And You Shall Find Me a Grave Man!

So Mercutio cried – and before and since and ever,

the years start over in darkness, the face of the earth turned away from the sun;

The calendar is a ragged thread of a winter sweater

snagged on a fencepost nail; it’s a ball of yarn spooling out into the future,

bouncing across the kempt lawn of the universe into the weeds;

This year ahead is a cemetery laid at our feet,

month comes after month and we stumble on soft, worn tombstones

that mark the years since birth, since death;

the longer we live, the more days are so marked, the more tombstones meet our shins;

Every year, unknowing, we pass over the anniversary

of the day of our death, if we have any luck at all.

But this May day the Earth’s sunlit face

is turned like a leaf toward the sun; it’s tilted on its axis like an actress to the glass,

catching the better light from eight minutes ago, when I was someone else;

When no one is looking, the sunlight transforms –

bright green shoots, spiderwebs, reflections on the long glittering spine of river;

the Earth is holding up things that cast long, dark shadows.

Towering pines along the overgrown trail

wear bright orange slashes like beauty pageant sashes across their trunks –

they will likewise be changed –

bunk beds, books, toilet paper; everything on its way

from this thing to another – atoms rearrange in fire, in fusion, in decay.

I will leave these woods and face this oncoming twilight,

I will wash away the dust and ticks and leaves, I will stand naked as the day I was born,

and still I won’t see any bright orange slash across this body of mine,

this vessel that’s been hollowed out, stolen from, broken and healed,

bled and bound, this package that’s carried my soul

from riverbank to city to woods, marking my time,

finally pushing a tombstone like a sharp tooth

into the grass green mouth of the world,

unable to speak.

Night on Shakey Lakes, -17°F

Tonight we sleep

above the ice,

(cocooned like mousies in sleeping bags)

under an impossible number of January stars,

(brilliant like only winter stars can be, Orion hunting alone)

over the lake, and the fish in the lake,

(swimming slowly in the iced water capped by sixteen inches of ice)

in this bitter cold,

(as I burrow further and further into my nest)

through this lonely watch of night,

(three decades in, we breathe across the aisle, untangled)

inside my dreams the lake is a giant, shifty and cross, too much river in its belly,

(the ice creaks and rumbles and groans and cracks and growls)

beyond this shelter the sun’s first rays slide over the ice,

(the bright silver sliver of moon slipping like a minnow behind the bare tree line)

in this small space, it’s a false darkness,

(we’ve blocked the sunrise, and curious neighbors)

below me, though, the holes drilled yesterday to catch the fish in the belly of the lake

(tempted, or not, by the dancing bait)

catch instead the light from the sunrise

that I leave for you

as I drive

away.

Fighting with My Brother the River

My big brother is not like a river, ever-changing, moody,

bringing you along in his current –

he is a river,

the Menominee, and despite his full-time job

keeping Wisconsin and Michigan in their places,

he has also pulled and tangled my hair,

has stolen my towels, sunglasses, one

cell phone, several shirts, flip-flops,

and rarely gives any of them

back without a fight;

he has lifted me up

while i float on my back

moving ever-eastward, southward,

arms crossed behind my head as I

watch white clouds shapeshift

against a cobalt sky.

My brother the river

despite meeting me when I was only four

has tried to kill me, more than once,

dumping me out of a raft in his angry rapids,

pulling me under,

one time pinning me underwater

between a runaway dock and shifting mud,

leaving my forehead scarred and a leech on my ankle

for good measure.

Try to explain that to the nurse.

Seven stitches, no lie.

He is funny, my brother.

He has borne me down

his current on more rafts

than i can count, held me

every summer since 1974 while I

explored the shadowed underworld

with a mask to my face, collecting

clam shells

or had somersault contests with the neighbor kids

who made up my universe until my lungs nearly burst,

Matt, Beth, Colleen, and me all coming up for air

in great gulping gasps.

I held my Snoopy fishing pole

over the side of the boat

I shared with my dad,

listened from below the surface

as my mother called me in for dinner as I pleaded for

just five more minutes;

My brother has sometimes taken a drink of my beverage

or spit into it to claim it for himself –

he has gouged my shins with rocks

has sliced my family’s feet with empty clam shells,

has teased me with snapping turtles –

But, sorry, he shows me

bald eagles, herons,

sturgeons lazily nosing their way along the shore, unafraid;

painted turtles, otters, kingfishers,

raccoons,

and the occasional fox –

I’ve seen deer swim across, and pine snakes,

thin slow slender white snakes in cold fast spring water,

we’ve caught bass, walleye, minnows, more fish

than i can count; have had crayfish

cling to our shorts

like bad habits –

He is patient, my brother

I am older now,

I’ve given my brother the river some of

the ashes of my son,

and some ashes of the man who sold us our cabin and land

(though, overcome, before signing he

pushed the deed away, stood and looked out the window, wiped his silent tears –

My brother the river was this man’s brother, too.)

I haven’t always been

a great sibling, I’ve spilled these things on him,

not on purpose,

but still:

sunscreen, beer, soda, mosquito spray, Doritos, magazines, chairs, part of a dock –

he’s borne it all,

washed all of it away;

And now

my brother the river

doesn’t know he is threatened –

a new neighbor with flush pockets and a keen eye

for silver and gold hidden in the fast folds

of the earth

wants to open a wound, gouge the soil,

bathe those precious metals

in caustic chemicals along my brother’s fragile banks

though he solemnly avows no harm –

and I don’t know how to warn him, my brother, to pack up his currents and move far away, so he doesn’t burn

orange like Colorado’s Animas, so his fish don’t turn over and float into Lake Michigan

like apologies too late;

I don’t have his number,

my brother the river

so instead

I write this to tell him how much I love him

and that i will stand on this playground

and try to fight this bully who comes

with soothing statistics and smooth

promises of jobs and safety,

who will someday walk away

with only profit –

I will try to fight

though i have no weapons

but words.

Night Picnic, Wallace, MI

 

Driving toward the river in the new autumn dark,

(carload of cheese and bread and plans, clean towels and swimsuits

that won’t be used, a guitar, a bike, assumptions and wine)

Winking lights ahead cast a curious spell on my watchful eyes,

Blinking from what I daylight know to be the country cemetery;

Solar lights, from dozens if not hundreds of graves,

Shine like Christmas and aim at the stars,

Guiding the way for a midnight picnic for the dead:

They spread tattered blankets in the grass,

Crossing bony femurs like unlit cigarettes and regrets,

They, the dead, hold chipped china cups of nothing, or less,

In the indifferent moonlight,

Remembering the ordinary;

Driving to work, singing along to the Beatles,

setting the table with turkey, potatoes, things unsaid,

feeling the wafer stick to the roofs of their mouths like doubt,

being tangled in sheets in love, in childbirth, in old age,

feeling their children’s heads rest against their shoulders (warm, alive)

while the fireworks burst above;

They watch the cars come over the hill,

Headlights casting arrogant, sure light on the cracked road,

Taillights fading to black;

While the deer stand in the ditches outside the oval of light,

While unseen cells stretch and bully, monopolize conversations and multiply,

While smokestacks exhale thin white smoke that ribbons dismissively across the sky,

While keys drop to the sticky floor and church bells chime;

And so they, the picnicking dead ,shove over, sighing, and leaving room,

While the great round earth pulls its black cape around to the other side.