-After George Herbert

This tiny ruin in my eye, small
flaw in the fabric, little speck
of blood in the egg, deep chip
in the windshield, north star,
pole star, floater that doesn’t
float, spot where my hand is not,
little piton nailing every rock
I see, no matter if that image
turns to sand, or sand to sea,
I embrace you, piece of absence
that reminds me what I will be–
all dark someday unless God
rescues me, oh speck
that might still teach me how to see.


March rocks us in its hammock
of purple sky.  Snow retreats. 
Thunder has not yet cleared its throat
and found a voice.  Silence scours
the tin kettle of earth.

At my desk now, I think of my friend
who has vanished from the earth.
All morning I have been reaching for her with
this noun, that verb, but even the most delicate
sentence blunders against her absence
and comes unraveled.  What are words, but
vapor?   If I could eat with her–
a peach, some bread, a bit of cheese,
I would ask her what she’s learned.

Driving at night, you cannot hear
the swell of traffic traveling
in the other direction,
but you can see headlights
scribbling out a journey.
And you wish them well.


When snow covers the azaleas
with its hoary wisdom,
and our terra cotta pots
wear white hats of surrender,
and sparrows puff up
dreadfully in the cedar
against the cold,  I pull on
my dead father’s hunting jacket
and step from the room of language
with its beautiful, treacherous
human motives into silence
cold enough to kill me,
frostbite so quick it whittles all
to a fierce will to live. 
Standing here in the frozen chamber
of a sparrow’s mind, I can hear
someone in the room of language:
May these sunflower seeds
ignite  the sun in them.
May these sparrows be like lanterns
that light their own way home.


For a hundred miles
    the fields have worn
           beards of ugly stubble
                     and night is falling
and you can’t find
    a lover, not on AM or FM,
           and the hand at the toll booth
                     wears a glove
so as not to touch you.
    You pay for yourself,
           then for the car behind you,
so someone pushing headlights
    through the heavy dark
           will feel luck
                     go off like a Roman candle,
so she’ll give a car length
    to the maniac who cuts her off,
and you, there in your lonely bubble,
    can think of each tail light,
           each anonymous fender
                     as a friend. 


In the old stories it’s always worth the trouble
               but this time you doubt it.
For months she’s hidden herself
               at the brambled rim of that steep hill

bleating for help as the wind
               sings its increasingly wicked song.
Winter is coming.  It means business.  
               You think of yourself as the field

she’s absent from, as the shepherd who must
               find her. You began to understand
how mercy can start as little more
               than a direction you can move in,

how your heart hates death.
               You begin picking your way toward her
through a whole vocabulary
               of wild flowers and thorns.


It must have been a windy night like this
      the trees swaying and hissing,
              tossing their hair in desperate gestures,

when he broke out of the spell
      and realized it wasn’t fair.
            He never chose her.

When he woke up, she stood before him
       like a bright goblet filling up with water.
             He was thirsty.  How splendid

it can be to drink when you’re thirsty,
      was what he thought.  He was that young.
              Now he realizes there is a stain

spreading on his heart, that the name
        she gave the Yak chafes him
                 and she sings off key.  He never chose

her.  He’d like to grab his knife
          and cut off her song
               but rain is slanting down

and she is running toward him, her eyes terrified
         under the bending, cracking maples
               and a curtain pulls back in him

and he takes her into his arms
          and begins the long journey toward
               learning to love what he’s been given.


We stand there in our vestibule, me clutching
my car keys, you, your suitcase,
me about to recite the names of apples,

winesap, braeburn, etc., the way poets 
recite them, then to chant the names
of poets, too, anything you’ll listen to,

stanzas of lightning from red mouths.
It isn’t loveliness I’m after, I can tell you,
it’s any damn thing that keeps your hand

from pushing that door open.  Though you’re
long gone already.  And I know it’s wrong,
when the heart has stopped, to pretend it hasn’t. 

Like a taxidermist.  No, we’re mixed up
with time, my Love, and poetry, as usual,
fails to stop you.  You have to go away,

and you may not be back. 
I eat one of the apples in your memory,
like a pioneer who’s down to eating seed corn,

the sweet-sour juices running into a future
without you, while a voice tells me
I don’t own you, you were a gift, and

my barbaric unteachable mother heart doesn’t get it,
thinks, okay, fine, so you’re gone now, 
you’re that much closer to coming back. 


–for Jean Fergusson

I can hear them in there, laughing,
the nurses on the children’s cancer ward,
as I walk through, my heart snagged
on a child in room 206, the boat of my hopes
tipping its freight into the water,
because kids in here are dying,
like trees turning in the fall
so slowly that we have to dwell
on each interval of suffering.

The door opens a slice and I see nurses
leaning into laughter, collapsing,
gripping each other’s arms.  Their laughter
skates on air, it fills the room up,
it towers above us.  I shut the door.

They laugh because grief adheres to them
as desire adheres to beautiful women. 
They have to pick it from their fur.  They
have to help each other comb it out. 
They study jokes as farm girls study
dresses in a catalogue.  They balance
on a high beam of laughter, knowing 
if they laugh they might come back tomorrow.


If I had stopped in a rush of deep love and
spent the money on that blouse as red
as the blush that rises after a full kiss on the mouth,

or if I had dropped the bills like seeds
into the dirty pocket of that drunk who
begged on the sidewalk, or if I had only snapped

my shoelace, so I’d had to leave
ten mortal minutes later, I might not have felt
the strap slip off, the purse go light and vanish.

When it was gone, I didn’t have a shilling for the bus,
no driver’s license, no passport,
nothing to hold me down to earth.

I felt bodiless and nameless in the clash
of evening traffic. Above me, some monumental clock
clanged five across the city and

I looked up into the face of time,
who someday will take my skin, my flesh, my bones
until I stand empty as pure hunger,

transparent as clean glass in sunlight—
while the bell pealed and pealed, a sound like joy
that in my life I never earned or paid for.


–After W. B. Yeats

While you were still unborn
our friends brought, one by one,
the clothes their children had worn:
shirts with secret pockets,
blankets, a tie gown.

And because we were unable
to find you anywhere
we pulled you from the pockets,
we stitched a fable
of a baby yet unborn.

When you finally came
we dressed you in those clothes.
All winter they were kind.
Now I fold the clothes away,
a legacy refined.
Someone else’s child
may briefly take his turn.

For parents, now, who wait,
imagining new faces,
I will enumerate
the children whose graces
became your warmest jacket:

Elizabeth and Melissa,
Patrick, Andrew, Kate
wore these clothes once.
Teddy, Bess, and Ethan.
And may their loveliness
wherever these clothes are worn
shield against loss
and pass to those unborn.