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.)

In Which Woolly Mammoths Save the World, Starting with Siberia, Because Permafrost is Melt and Carbon is Release

 

First, a reliquary:

Collect the bones of the mammoth,

delivered onto the shore

by the soak cycle of thawing tundra,

rinsed clean by the lapping frigid lake,

and swaddled in a jumble of reeds

on a pebbled shore.

Second, bioethics and cloning:

Something something DNA,

scientists, test tubes, maybe

a centrifuge and an elephant, I guess.

Wait ten years. A mammoth is not

a velociraptor, so don’t worry

about any of that.

Third, intermodal transit:

Carefully place brand-new,

sedated mammoths into slings

and hoist them high enough

so their fur-fringed foot pads

don’t drag along the tree line

and bring the helicopter down.

Fourth, implied consent:

Wake them gently with caresses

on the tundra overgrown with saplings

hoarding particles of heat like gold,

coax mammoths onto the spongy ground

barely able to contain their weight.

(Consider – giant snowshoes to spread out

their ungainly mass?)

Fifth, unionize:

After a good long drink at the lake

through supple bristled trunks, while peering out

of eyes fringed with lashes curtained against the snow –

show them how to trample the trees, strip the leaves,

leave the tundra treeless, cooling the earth’s

fevered brow.

Sixth, pray:

Though it be zaprescheno, pray.

Thief of Stars

I am

the reflection

of a star

on the dark glass

of the river

just before dawn

breaks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

9.6 Miles in September

On the last Saturday

of my 40s, I drive alone

to Fish Creek to take

the Sunset Bike Trail

at Peninsula State Park.

It occurs to me

as I review the map,

then fold it into small rectangles

and put it into my back pocket,

that if I live to be 96,

it’s a decade per mile.

Miles 1 and 2 are gone faster

than I can remark, tall grasses

and small dense trees huddle

on either side,

mud on the trail

from the rains I never saw

pulls me sideways,

and I can’t see much at all;

But all along

Miles 3 and 4,

Lake Michigan

opens up on my left,

hurling itself

over and over

in small tantrums against

the worn rocks and pebbles,

the bottle caps and driftwood,

while on my right the sunlight is

shredded through the branches and leaves

of the still green trees

and it falls and falls and falls

in smaller and smaller and smaller

pieces

to land

on the forest floor,

shards of light that you can barely

see at all.

[Interim poem:

Hark!

Lake on my left and

Woods on my right,

they shuffle their feet

and finally ask sincerely

which shall have a place with me

in Heaven,

but I cannot choose,

I can’t abide a Heaven

that doesn’t contain them

both, it’s a failure

of my imagination, I suppose, but

tales of

Streets of Gold

and Milk and Honey

and never-ending Light

and the unfailing singing of Sincere Hymns

bore me to tears and truly,

terrify me.

I can only hope

all that was figurative, Paul,

(was it even Paul?

Maybe it was John,

he seems more like the

apocalyptic dreamer and

a bit of a kill-joy)

because I don’t want a

Heaven without this green glade,

without these smooth pebbles

passed back and forth

between the hands

of the splashing waves

in the cold, clean water

along Lake Michigan’s

shore, I don’t want a

Hereafter

without guitars

and bikes and dirt trails

strung with shining cobwebs

and trees that have toppled and

pulled up the roots and boulders to

show what hides in the dark

Earth,

I can’t see a

Paradise

that doesn’t have

a pitch black lake of midnight moonless sky

harboring a loosely moored fleet of stars

that sail into dreams,

no, I don’t see that

at all.

Here ends

the reading of

the interim poem. Selah.]

Mile 5

cuts suddenly through

a park,

children on a seesaw,

children like ducklings

that are quacked over, buckled,

brought in line

but I am

veering away from the lake

and into uncharted

territory, I have a map

but it doesn’t show these hills

as the lake falls away behind me,

it can’t predict this

slow grind until I’m

standing on my pedals

and just waiting for

a plateau

to catch my breath

before the next rise

but still and all,

as Miles Six, Seven, Eight

unfold,

it’s uphill and beautiful

in the shade of the afternoon,

the far-away sky

is the surface of an unmapped lake,

the long smooth trunks of the trees

holding up their leaves

like an offering

of lily-pads,

this congregation of trees

swaying in the current

like seaweed

while I swim slowly through them

like a fish,

silent –

the road

uphill and beautiful,

the road

uphill and beautiful,

rising

upward to the light.

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