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.

 

Centrifugal Force

In the beginning

the boys and their sleds

and half-size snowboards would pile in

on a snow day, headed for the Suamico Elementary School hill;

They were puppies,

interchangeable, laughing, careening

down the hill over and over –

later they’d play Minecraft,

fighting zombies in the dark,

building houses close together

for protection –

in a few years, their video games

will have guns, but they’ll still

watch each other’s sixes,

sleeping a little further apart on the floor

amid pizza boxes and empty Mountain Dew cans;

Not all of them will move on

to Dungeons and Dragons,

creating possible worlds and missions,

and sometimes they’ll just put on headsets

and play from afar.

They have differentiated in the

spinning force of adolescence – 

shedding loose articles, picking up

guitar, theater, weightlifting, skiing –

they show up in the driveway

in their own trucks and thunder down the stairs with their laptops;

The centrifuge spins faster, they are heavy with something they can’t name-

they are being thrown one by one by one by one

into the world where they pick up

jobs, vehicles, girlfriends,

habits, memories,

regrets.

One day

not so many years from now, two will

arrive at the Kwik Trip, standing at different fuel pumps

rubbing their hands in the cold, and they’ll grin and 

give each other manly half-hugs and stand and talk about that one time

they went sledding in the middle of the night,

or maybe

they’ll exchange only

glances

before driving away.

Midwest Poultry Show

Behind me a man at the Minneapolis airport

says: “I’ll see you at the Midwest Poultry Show”

except what I hear is not that but

“Midwest Poetry Show” which makes

 

slightly less sense but it’s too late,

I am already thinking of their sleepless night,

all the poets waking before dawn

and coaxing their balky poems into cages

 

lined with torn strips of newspaper

that are soon bunched into nests and absently

pecked at and read while they, the poems, make

derisive crowing comments to each other as the poets

 

drive their dented trailers carefully into the sunrise,

drinking bitter black coffee from the Hudson or Farmington

Kwik Trip until they arrive at a metal barn, bleary-eyed

and hopeful, now with combs and scissors and spray bottles

 

in hand they are fluffing out long metaphors and snipping

at tufts of too-flowery and winding prose, was that

too much? Well, it’s too late now, it’s all over

but the crying as bespectacled readers circle the cages

 

skimming unfairly, squeezing the stanzas and

splaying the words out at the ends, looking for

allusion, alliteration, allegory, imagery, rhymes

and near rhymes, iambic pentameter and free

 

verse while the poets stand silently near, cups of coffee

long gone cold under the giant ceiling fans, kicking stray

punctuation like curses along the concrete floor, already

reading the look in the readers’ eyes, thinking about next year,

 

when, surely, but surely,

they will place.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

Linneman’s

At Linneman’s

RiverWest

with McKenzie,

my firstborn,

who is somehow of age,

beautiful, and strong,

despite it all –

we’re just one drink in,

waiting for her boyfriend Zach to play,

when I hit the ladies’ room —

“I’m comin’ out!” the lady in the half-open stall shouts

and so I pee behind the imperfectly locked door of the other stall

while I listen to her humming and talking to herself

and then walk out, she is still talking

to everyone, to no one,

dreadlocks pointing everywhere and nowhere

as her purse, full of mail, or newspapers, or bills, or maybe some

sort of manifesto, not haphazard but

like a file cabinet crossed with an accordion,

orderly perches in the one sink like a satisfied cat

only she is not

washing her hands, and so then I am not, either

but stand there for a moment to see if she will

pick up her purse or whether a Gryffin or mail-carrier

or mouse will crawl out of it, but as it is she just stands there,

letting her conversation flow around us like water

and eventually like an island I think who am I kidding

anyway, I don’t always wash my hands,

and walk out into the darkened bar

where glasses clink and the last performer wraps up a song

about his brother who’d do anything for anyone except that he’s just

died, and the soft glow of phones light up just a few

faces, and the audience poet man finishes his sketch,

and I don’t see her come out of the bathroom

and I don’t think of her again at all

after Zach plays.

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.

At the Nick Offerman Book Reading Event In Milwaukee

 

There is a man built like a hay bale in the row in front of me,

a blue flannel shirt, he comes in alone, jams his long legs

behind the seat in front of him, and

much like a bale of hay, he speaks to no one

but stays hours and hours to have

Mr. Offerman, Ron Swanson himself, sign his book

As the crowd dwindles slowly;

My daughter and I watch the girl with blue hair and

A white bow in it who has snuck down to have her book signed

ahead of her assigned row in the balcony; we are Midwestern,

we bear the injustice stoically;

We talk to the couple next to us,

A teacher from Johnson Creek and her husband,

The kids behind at grandma’s, they are reveling in their

Night out and late dinner, yawning and drinking Red Bull

And I am doing the math, about 10 signing seconds

per fan; there are more than 100 people left when equity breaks down

and many of those seated behind us who have moved down

are called ahead of us, and despite

Having spent two hours waiting already,

The cost-ratio benefit falters, and we head for pajamas and sleep –

Bidding our new friends goodbye and

Godspeed;

The man in the blue plaid shirt

Standing stoically in the place he has taken,

holding his book in his arm like a talisman

warding off foolishness, loneliness, youth,

no one pulling him toward a warm bed,

only the wind across the unbroken spring field

will welcome him home hours from now.