There is no Wizard

If we were still in the old world,

the six-weeks ago one,

right now a girl with a make-up pencil

might be standing before you with a mock frown –

stand still!” she’d say,

drawing crow lines on your face,

not crow’s feet,

but lines to make you look like a crow,

so you could argue with Scarecrow on the fence post.

You might be adjusting your feathers, or tying your tail,

or trying to drink hot tea out of your travel mug,

your beak clacking against the lid,

your stomach a haven

for blue and white butterflies.

Tonight would be opening night.

But all of the moms

have deleted this spring musical

from calendars,

(nevermind the concerts, Forensics,

E-sports, graduation, prom.)

Anyway, Zach is not tuning his trombone

to play in the pit band,

and Justin is not hiding behind his curtain,

transforming into the Wizard

who has no answers to give.

But we are in the new world, now,

so just to go somewhere, anywhere,

though you’re Safer at Home, of course,

though there’s No Place Like Home,

you’ve taken the car to drop off

home-made cookies for them.

There is no “next year”

for your merry little band, only

the three of you making it through

the field of poppies,

the attack of the winged monkeys,

the vengeance of the wicked witch, and

then packing up

and taking your friendship with you –

a bond forged not in Kansas,

but in Wisconsin,

by D&D, fueled by caffeine and Doritos,

by video games played into wee hours of morning,

by summer work in the fields, and paintball,

by skiing at Brule (and two broken arms),

by fireworks and Lyme’s disease,

by Magic the Gathering,

by nights at the cabin,

by days on the lake,

the afternoon sun

shining

like it would shine

forever.

There are far worse things, it’s true,

we have warm homes,

we have food in our bellies –

but this empty space

on this gray April evening

has me melancholy and feeling sorry

for the whole lot of us,

boys and moms.

What I wouldn’t give now

to be settling into a squeaky chair

in the auditorium,

waiting for the music to come up

while the lights go down,

waiting for you to strut across the stage

in black feathers,

waiting for the Wizard to tell us

that what we are looking for

has been inside us

all along.

It’s all right, though,

the summer will come, and fall,

and the three of you, full of

heart,

brain,

courage,

will follow your roads

to different parts of Oz.

And I’ll remember this night,

this small crick in the universe, how

this sadness came upon me like a cloud,

and how you drove away

with plates of cookies,

bent on sharing

goodness.

Which,

of course,

you’ve had inside you all along.

 

(for Declan, Zach, and Justin, and the class of 2020. And their moms.)

The Lights Flicker Once, Last Call in Suamico

And it’s the beginning of the end of the world –

the regulars are turned out of the taverns,

red-faced and singing defiantly,

swaying and carrying their jackets under their arms

into the almost-spring night, leaving behind

the warm beer-sign bubbles,

the cracked cheer of the bartenders,

the pilsner philosophy of their fellow compatriots

holding forth from duct-taped barstools;

Tomorrow they’ll pick up their fifths and their cases

in the grocery stores, they’ll drink at home

one shot at a time, idly crushing cigarettes into empty cans –

Jeopardy muted on the TV,

no sports to cheer, no clack of billiards, no thud of darts,

just scrolling through their phones, waiting

for a text to chime, or a single notification

like the ping of sonar under the heavy black sea,

confirming a round has been made –

the signal has gone out, has found another

traveler in darkness, at least one person who remembers

their name.

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.

 

Falling Stars

Outside in the drizzle of spring,

green, green is the grass –

lilacs are tiny purple fists waiting to unfold

to again welcome May –

once more trotting out its new beginning-

with sweet applause;

Inside, the window is cracked

because of the paint, and you,

at the far end of 16, stand

without a ladder, pulling plastic

glow-in-the-dark stars off of your ceiling,

cracking some, flinging them to the ground.

They have a dim glow, so

one by one I gather them, even the broken ones,

and consign them to an empty drawer.

This earth grows ever older, older,

sliding slowly toward the sun, but

each year it becomes a gangly teenager again

with ragged patches of grass waiting to be mowed,

dandelion acne spotting green fields,

saplings sprouting up in importune cracks,

robins pinning down their mates in a mad scramble,

frogs croaking and peeping in awkward turn,

barred owls rambling late into the night, looking

for someone they can’t name. Who?

But our paths are segments,

not lines or vectors, so

blue, blue is my heart, and oh!

You will not become young again –

I will not find you curled up

with your puppy under your covers,

we will not ever again make up voices

and quarrels for your stuffed toys at night,

and we will never read aloud the last few chapters

of How To Train Your Dragon –

it will always be unfinished for us.

Perhaps you are thinking of all of this

as you leave this room behind,

but I think probably not

as I watch you standing there,

peeling the last star away from the ceiling,

walking over it, without a glance back –

you will chart your course by new stars,

and you will not,

you cannot,

come back this way.

When They Finally Wake in April

‘Round the ankles of the birches

autumn water gathered, murky –

winter held it down til frozen

cradled gently in the hollows –

skirts of ice surround the low limbs

stopped mid-fling by frigid wind

embroidered not in poodle, plaid,

suspended there, upended, glad –

wee peeping frogs, asleep, adorn

a petticoat of moss and thorns,

but soon the sun will stretch its rays,

will rise with sorry in its gaze

will slyly springly shine and and flirt-

with earth disheveled, melt the skirt,

will knit from nothing new-leafed clothes,

and creeks will race and overflow –

Lake Michigan (and back again) –

and groggy frogs’ oblivion 

then doused, will rouse – a peeping throng,

agog in thousand strands of song

that soar and wend through gray-screened doors

in search of mates, in search of more,

through windows, chimneys, landing damp

in dishes, teapots, toasters, lamps –

we hear, in twilight, in our beds

the raucous din of recent dead –

we doubt, deny, or trust their cries

of sweet reprieve,

alive, 

alive.

 

(Honorable mention: 2019 Writer’s Digest Contest – Rhyming Poem Category)

Vire-en-Champagne, April 1919

Two months shy of a century ago,

it’s been raining in France,

great sheets snapping like sodden flags across the farmer’s field –

And my grandfather’s father,

a child of German immigrants,

sits down in soldier’s boots, and looking at the crops with a farmer’s eye,

writes a few lines to his brother

in Barnesville, Minnesota.

He writes nothing

about the rescue of the Lost Battalion

after five days surrounded by Germans in the Argonne forest; but

he asks Alfred to tell Ma

that he got through it all right, he guessed.

He reports that the winter wheat

on this farm where they wait to ship out, was yellow, and poor.

He taps his pencil, then adds that

they’d been playing a lot of baseball,

because the Great War, the war to end all wars, was done.

He pauses, looking at the field

where he doesn’t belong, and finally asks

how the Titan is running, and whether they’ve planted, thinking

probably, of the cold black soil

drinking up the snow melt with a fierce thirst,

and the angled sun spreading like butter on the dark bread of the soil

after a long, dark, Midwestern winter,

and of his flax seeds,

thousands of tiny furled, unsent messages, tucked away in dry burlap.

He will come home

and bury them for ten days

until tendrils reach up, and up, into the sky that stretches lazily

across the great Midwestern plain –

each blue flower will live just one day.

But it’s hundreds and hundreds,

no, tens of thousands of them – that will open in wave upon wave across the field,

answering the call of the unbroken blue sky.

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.

Wes and Jesus Come up Empty

I.

After

we see paintings of the sea, and moonlight, and doom by

Winslow Homer, after we work on income tax forms and insurance and eat

carnitas

burritos and watch Netflix, I don’t feel well,

it’s not a bellyache or a hangover or a fever or something that CVS can fix.

it’s like

this existential ache in my soul; it’s

not something that I really want to think about

because

I’d have to reach back all the way to the beginning

and anyway it’s dinner time and instead I’m reaching into this drawer full of

knives,

serrated blades that bare their

teeth along my fingers, but I’m careful to take just one.

II.

Last week

I saw a TV commercial for a microwavable cup

with bits of vegetable and potato and peppers, you just add an

egg

and your breakfast problem is solved, I am thinking

of this while you and I walk 38 blocks teetering on the edge of

Milwaukee;

this March Sunday morning question unsolvable:

is this it, or is there more? I wish I could just add an egg to this

problem.

Faced with that same question 27 years ago,

I stayed. Was it right? I don’t know. The thought of not having my

three

children, these particular ones, out in the wide world

brings me to fierce and sudden tears right there on the windy sidewalk.

Each

choice is wrong, either choice is right,

or could be made so, perhaps you learn how you feel before the coin lands.

III.

“Is he

a good dog? ….Who’s to say?”

Wes Anderson doesn’t help me here, or Jesus either; Micah 6:8,

what

is the right thing to do in this instance,

what leads to happiness? Do I say, stay, stay with this boy who is kind, this boy we

love

and who loves you, beyond measure,

even if you do not always sharpen each other, make each other better,

like

a knife against a stone?

The world is full of sharp things.

IV.

Life

is a yawning paper cootie-catcher

on lined notebook paper in a 5th grader’s back pocket, first narrow then wide,

narrow

then wide, you can’t know what’s

inside, you just have to pick a color, and pull up the flap, the

question

on the other side propels you

deeper into the story, back and forth and back and forth

until

you don’t know how

you got there or where you are going, you just hold on and

ride,

back and forth and dark and

light, yin and yang, pain and pleasure, if you are lucky,

until

it closes on this world for good

and opens in the dawn of another, without any

guessing at all.