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.”

Thief of Stars

I am

the reflection

of a star

on the dark glass

of the river

just before dawn

breaks.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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)

The Jade Rabbit 2 Tells Me My Fortune

 

i.

I came to Earth in the Summer of Love,

September 1969, just after Apollo 11 carried

Neil and Buzz to the proper side of the moon,

(the one she’s shown to us from the start). They left

bootprints all across her face.

This morning, almost as an afterthought,

NPR tells me that the Chinese have put a rover

on the dark side of the moon, Jade Rabbit 2 sending

photos of her knobby bare backside to us

via satellite.

ii.

After the funeral in December

I am on my knees, sorting through

the official papers – birth, divorce, death certificates,

report cards from 1952, photos of girls in stiff dresses and ringlets,

picnics on the Michigan grass beside a Model T;

but there are also things from the far side

(not always in darkness but never shown to us,)

never-seen photos and notes in the margins of the party menus:

“She brought an angel food cake, but no one touched it,” and

“We waited, but he never showed.”

iii.

What do you do with transmissions from

the far side, when the jade rabbit scurries to the side

that has forever been turned away? What do we do when we learn

how the truth has lain along, wondrous and terrible and banal, when

we’d only been trusted with the light?

(Meanwhile, I turn,

again and again and again,

so that I face you,

as though my secrets

will not someday be scattered like clover, like blood

in the bright green grass.)

 

 

https://www.cnn.com/2019/01/02/health/china-lunar-rover-far-moon-landing-intl/index.html

Irish Evening

Auld Jack Devine, as afternoon bows to the long shadows of a June evening,

stands there, then, in the green and wet field, as they all are green and wet,

appraising these Americans searching County Mayo for Jack Devine,

clutching a damp ship’s manifest:

Well. Aye. Ye found him.

Auld Jack, eighty if a day, points with crooked finger to the new house,

built in 1927, he says, where he and Mary live,

and then over to the stone cottage where Agnes was born

(before crossing the Atlantic on her mother’s hip at three, brows knit) –

and then east across miles of rolling misted hills, promise after green promise:

Ye see over t’ere? Down dat hill, like, t’ere’s a shrine, in Knock.

(I see Agnes in white, marrying big John Madden, a Galway cop, so being

Irish and Catholic, of course, legends are then born, and children, at 509 Hubbard)

T’ey sell bottles of holy water to tourists. T’ey tink it’ll do them some good.

(So many children, she named two Thomas, so the lore goes-one Thomas they called Lester, the other, Patrick, and one or two didn’t get a name at all- )

T’ey tink tat after t’ey die, like, they’ll get t’heaven, says auld Jack.

But he looks over the fields, sniffs as though smelling the phoniness from here,

(They say that during Prohibition, the police raided Agnes’ kitchen – all signs pointed to a still, an improbable amount of sugar and yeast-)

and spits on the ground, leaning on his gnarled wooden cane;

But, I, says auld Jack Devine, I t’ink dat when ye die…I t’ink dat when ye die, ye jest go right into t’ground, like,

(But I imagine a flourish as Agnes opened the oven door on eight loaves of bread baking, and then the cops, embarrassed, looked at the oven, looked at each other, saying Thank ye Ma’am, have a good day.)

and dat’s t’end of ye, like.

And Jack Devine just looks at us, then, rain dripping from our faces, and there is nothing to say.

But though Agnes

(born Bridget, a name lost in the new country with a single flick),

died an ocean away from the stone cottage,

she’d already passed along strands and strands of gleaming double-helixes –

adamantine baubles, a secret code passed to my own children,

(though German and Norwegian genes washed up, too, on the shores of our bones)

faint constellations of freckles, bright red strands in long brown locks –

with every infusion there is an evening, of sorts, a fading,

love means compromise-

and until we are completely conquered, we shine.

And so, auld Jack Devine with blue eyes that pierced,

(and Mary in tears at our goodbye, surely, she cried, I’ll not see ye again in this life but in heaven! Surely Mary, it’s so!)

though I did not say it then, no, I don’t believe that when you die, it’s t’end of you, like.

Jack Devine, here you are-

Sláinte.

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.

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.

One For the Road

I am drunk on this new summer twilight, the world’s

wash is golden-hued burdens liberally poured, and so

I will roll in the fields where the corn is laid out in straight, sober lines, the light

Creeping between them like water rising slow –

I will lick the tree trunks and the underside of leaves garnished gold and pale yellow

And swallow it all down like whiskey, burning

I will dive between the slats of the hollow barns, catch the shining insects

In my teeth and crunch them like butterscotch beetles on the wing;

I will have another and yet another from my friend Sonny the bartender,

Who doles another round from the cumulus bar itself changing dreamily from an anvil tinged in pink

To the head of an armored dragon, trailing lazy smoke, and

I will pluck the sun drenched stones along the bowls of fields and roll them over my tongue and

Flick them back into the world I will tip

the cloud-dappled sky back and have it with my eyes, poring over its every curve,

My winter-cauled eyes desperate for the magic hours of long summer days, greedy for

The swollen clouds parting along a line of trees turned silhouettes;

I will not pay my tab before leaving, I will swagger and stagger out

Of this place, holding on to the backs of polished wooden fenceposts

Navigating the perils of this world with one eye closed to time, as it reels in its orbit –

Belly full of light, burping up slivers of afternoon

I will wander down the lane, I will find my way, shaking bits of fading light

Out of my hair, wiping it from my mouth, brushing it off of my clothes,

Tracking it in crumbling pieces across the kitchen floor on my way to my spinning bed

Where I will slowly sober up and fall down

into darker and darker sleep

until the darkest sleep comes for me;

While outside, fireflies wink and dive,

threading the night with lonely stitches of light,

hitching close the wounds made but not yet felt

in the fabric of the new summer night.

The Bard Owl

 

The scolding birds caught first my ear, then drew my eye
into the tangle of midnight black pine tree silhouettes
pressed hard against the late afternoon palette of deepening blue
strewn with soft blooms of white, my glance caught then by

the barred owl with his back against the black bark
and his head turned away, composing silent sonnets
like a feathered James Dean, unhurried, unconcerned
as the night gathers its arguments for sustenance

while the scolding birds draw an invisible fence, a perfect square
around the predator, from branch to branch to branch to branch,
hemming him in, keeping their little ones safe at least until he decides
to fly; one chastening jay peeps up the scale and ratchets up one pine

branch by branch until he is out of rungs to the sky and he
is loosed upon the mercy-strewn void, free-falling back down the octave
and disappearing into the snow while the barred owl,
finished now with silent poetry and mathematics turns his black eyes

to mine and in them i see not owl but deep into the star pocked universe

where none of us are safe
even as we draw invisible borders around
our hearts; sooner or later we reach
the peak and cannot more protest, despite ourselves,
out of breath we

catch the bottomless black eyes
of the barred owl,
and we fall back
to

the ready earth.

Fine Ruin (Bicycles in Munich)

I.

What happens

To the bicycles in Munich;

The ones punctuating the cobblestone paths –

Locked to the bike racks, lampposts, street signs

In sun, rain, sleet, snow, heat

Wheels bent into parentheses,

Or missing entirely,

Or outwardly fine,

Frames rusted, scratched, or gleaming,

Just

Forgotten about entirely

locked up and misremembered

rented and abandoned at the stair skirting of the Hauptbahnhof

Or maybe the rider shortly after the penultimate click of the lock

Struck by a bus or a train or a taxi,

felled by a quietly faulty heart ,

pierced by a knife in a lovers’ quarrel,

The chained bicycle a marker, a memo, a clue, the very last thing before.

What happens to them?

Does the orderly Munich Municipality

Sweep through with lock breakers, breaking free

Those bikes that have been stationary for a week, a month, a year –

Off to auction, to the junkyard, to repair shops, to nowhere?

Or do they just silently break down, unclaimed

As the seasons ebb and flow

and the years pile up against the stones, unswept

while other bikes come and go, come and go;

do they just

Fade, fade against the dying of the light?

II.

In Munich for Oktoberfest,

I am curious to see whether I still am who

I thought I was, even though I am

Halfway to 90,

(A new post to which to chain myself);

But meanwhile

My youth wandered off,

Having forgotten about me ;

Though I am if not beautiful, willowy, tall, then

Handsome enough,

And strong,

Enough for some fine young German men

And men from around the world

to stop; and if they stop then perhaps

I catch them with my cleverness,

And my practiced nonchalance,

Especially if it is dark

And especially if they are

Drunk.

III.

Surely, my youth cannot leave me here

with these adamantine silver chains,

But it does, and what’s more walks away without

A backwards glance

With its hair untouched by gray

And heart uncrushed by the unknowable, menacing future,

And mind and memory with more room to go than has gone before

I

Almost don’t begrudge it but

the cold metal chain lies close and heavy and loose,

like apathy or an afterthought

And I feel myself bending ,

And the slow, certain spread of rust

Like fine lace, some predatory and fibrous ossification,

choking algae on a placid lake,

whispers of ruin when the glass is half full

And I know that no one will come by to break the locks,

And I know what happens to us all.