Grief is an Animal, Slouching

For B.

I.

Grief is an animal, slouching

behind the bolted door

in your soul’s bleak

and darkened house –

ranging around with muddy paws

and ragged claws,

dragging the covers

off the bed, off of your chest

and thrashing through the cold ashes left

by the fire gone cold

in the hearth of your heart –

swiping open the door

of the icebox in your belly –

cracking eggs, dripping juice, smearing jelly;

the milk curdles, a fine mold grows, meat goes bad –

leaping up the ladder

to the past-laden attic,

crashing down the stone stairs

into the churning bowels of your basement,

shattering the thin windows and

bursting the aging pipes –

and then through the jagged glass

comes the bitter wind,

and through the frigid pipes

comes the brackish water,

wave after wave,

unceasing.

II.

Grief is an animal, hungry

it will not be starved

by holding back tears –

the less it’s fed,

the angrier it growls, the fiercer it will rise,

clawing its way up the staircase of your soul,

your ribs cracking from the wracking sobs –

it will not be caged, placated, tamed, sedated –

Close it up in the cellar –

and cornered, it will lash out,

in a flash it roars

out of your throat with howls and spittle,

keening, wailing, snarling,

knocking

you to your knees, breathless,

rocking.

III.

Grief is an animal, undenied;

it demands full rein,

spends every coin

of rage and sorrow until

angry and hollow and broke

it lies panting

at your feet,

glassy-eyed and beaten,

tamed only by hours,

and even then only some,

your hands running along

its soft coat

until you can get up

and walk again

through the splinters

of your shipwrecked soul.

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.

Breaking and Entering

Winter broke and entered years ago,

pressing icy fingers against our skin,

wandering under our shirts,

searching for our hearts,

listening as we slowly wound down –

we were watches kept in a drawer of an empty house.

But I think you must have jacked open

some painted-over lead-poisoned window,

somewhere, deep inside,

(maybe in that sealed-up chamber of a basement tomb

with a wood-burning stove and

a second-hand recliner with a place

for a beer to slowly warm, but not a place for everything)

letting a southern wind blow through

this Northern plain and breathe Spring into my heart,

or my cerebellum,

making me wonder if –

anyway then you woke and

Summer bloomed into my lips, my hips,

they rocked like ships

oh, and

I think for a little while, maybe, you and I

can keep the window open, keep

the two by four jammed

up against the door, keep it

barred against the

ravenous wolfish Fall,

where he waits,

anticipates

the last of the ticks

as he licks

his lips

and yawns

at the door.

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.

22 Years Later

I.

On the way up to the lake house,

the back of the vehicle jammed

with things of this earth:

snacks, casseroles, a snowboard,

three pairs of snow pants, a snow shovel for the ice rink,

skates, sleeping bags, water,

wine –

and after passing barn upon barn,

acre upon acre

of crumbling stone and faded red paint

in the deepening twilight,

Suamico to Pulaski to Gillet to Suring

we pass one of the new kind of barns

that look like a huge tent, a cylinder on its side,

shaved off at the bottom so it doesn’t

roll away across the fields, bouncing

across the Midwest,

filled with nothing but light, as though if

pierced by telephone poles or church steeples

the light from the inside would wind

into the black frigid night like smoke,

bright swirling ropes

to tether the stars.

II.

I don’t pretend to understand that light

is a particle and a wave, a thing and an action

but the I know that barn is a belly,

pregnant with light

in the winter blackness –

though I carry this body forward, onward,

nearing fifty years on the planet but now

there will be no more copies of me, just those

already out in the world,

and in this vehicle hurtling across the frozen ground,

and those in the ground;

I once heard that some languages have no way

to express what could have been – it is or it is not,

it happened or it did not,

but even without words I know those mothers

with children lost think about

their may-have-been faces and their

could-have-been dreams,

and what it would be like to embrace them some day

when they would come home for Thanksgiving,

stamping their feet on the rug

to shake off the snow, someone shy

waiting behind,

and I know they also wonder

what would become of those

that would not have been.

III.

On the drive home with leftovers, unfolded clothes,

and wet boots thrown carelessly into the back –

without wine but with added memories and bruises,

snow comes down in slanting sheets:

Townsend, Lakewood, Crivitz,

so that there is no road ahead at all,

only the headlights catching a

conical cross-section of light

in the starless night,

particle or wave, thing or action,

its job is the same –

my middle almost-driving son

sits buckled next to me while I feign complete calm

as oncoming snowplows obliterate the windshield,

and the edge of the road pulls at my tires;

he selects music

and hands me the coffee from

the gas station, a beacon of swirling white light

along the highway far behind us already –

this son who may not even have been at all,

had Jacob lived, he is my version of Seth

after Abel was killed by Cain, though

Jacob never cried out

at all.

Can a person be

replaced? It’s ridiculous to even say,

but as far as I can tell,

there is no diminution of light

unlike the red paint fading and cracking and peeling

on the barns I cannot see –

whether particle or wave it

persists – and though I was pierced once,

the light, escaping,

doubled,

then tripled,

and I just didn’t see,

couldn’t see,

cannot yet see

where some of it

waits

for me.

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.

In Dreaming Stray

I.

At some point, it became irrelevant

to teach little boys how to tie a horse’s harness to a tree after a morning ride

as it will become irrelevant, yet possibly charming

to tell analog time, and write in cursive, and develop 35 mm film

(these things yet in my lifetime).

There was, there will be, a last father who taught the last son

To shape a horseshoe, a last mother who taught a last daughter to curtsey.

II.

I watch the life of Tolstoy unreel on the screen while I

drink red wine and listen for the ping of e-mail

Over the hush of the rain and through the soft light

While my seven year old falls asleep on my lap in the leather recliner.

When my son was two he walked backwards off a dock, playing out a rope –

I saw him face up under the water

Eyes wide open while I walked to rescue him,

Sure that I would.

These things I have not taught (nor have I taught about horses and curtseys)

but Unbidden they are learned;

That I am safe, that I will rescue, and I am, I will…

III.

But also I will dream and in dreaming stray –

I will curtsey and will untie the horse

I will take up the black and white 35 mm prints and put them in my leather bag,

I will look at the hands on my watch,

I will write you a note with black ink and leave it for you

On the kitchen table, under a smooth stone from the river;

And then I will ride away

Through the dappled birches

Dropping shadows on the roads

Like things they no longer need.

Holding Fire

That night

it was snowing

like crazy but we left

the kitchen in disarray

to pick her up

and we drove

through half-deserted white

billowed streets to see

the pretty lights at

the botanical

gardens

I walked

ahead so you

could stroll alone

with her through

the winter night

lit by

imagined dragons,

undersea creatures,

lightning bolts,

swans on a frozen

lake, the

real horses

and the wagon

carrying families

jingling somewhere

behind us and then

we finally met up

at the barrel

holding fire, reaching

our hands out

to the blazing circle

and then

taking them

back again.