was going well. A perfect, rosy sow,
a finch, an elephant. Then a giraffe
at the last minute, spring up like Wow,
an exclamation point on legs. A gaff,
or maybe not. Her fringy eyelashes.
Her voice, a bleat soft as a low laugh,
a yard-long tongue that blackly licks leaf-caches
from the sky. She nuzzles her newborn calf,
still wet, eyes shut, legs splayed and sliding,
the two of them improbable riff-raff
of the imagination, hang gliding
off the cliff of reason.
wear your head-lamps, gather around, remind me,
when all seems dark and sane, of mystery.
BURYING MY MOTHER
This is what our wandering life has come to.
Our dead stay where they’re put, in different states.
We buried her beside the Texan, who
also loved her. Then we closed the gates.
None of us will join her. There’s the spot
they dug for hours to slide my brother in.
He lies beside my father in her plot–
or what was hers once–beneath Nebraska sun.
In Philadelphia now, I will not rave
or overstate my grief. I won’t fly with flowers
to grace their level markers–I’m not brave.
Our family’s scattered. Will be. Nothing’s surer.
Who is she, elbow cocked against the sun,
waving to me this morning on the lawn?
Be Present with your want of a Deity
and you shall be present with the Deity
Sometimes I lose you. Say you are a puppy
and I’ve left the door ajar. Or I’m due someplace
and can’t remember where. In my sticky-uppy
hair and ripped work shirt, I ransack the place
to find my datebook. Gone.
Or I’ve dropped
my glasses and I’m crawling on all fours
to swab the floor with outstretched hands. I mop
blindly, my heart stuttering with fear.
Don’t tell me you are not a puppy. I know.
You’re not some destination. But I want to
tell you what it’s like to hunt, although
the words are clumsy. Vapor.
What it comes to:
You are the sky, the boat, the oars, the water.
You are the soul that longs to row and you’re the rower.
THE MUSIC BEFORE THE MUSIC
When the concertmaster gestures to the oboe,
silence flutters through the massive hall.
Then comes the tuning up.
Before that, though–
go back. Before the obedient violin falls
to his A, before the flutes, trombones,
and tuba head like horses in the same direction
to plow and plant one of Beethoven’s
Hear the nickering run
of a scale, the brash cymbal. A bright lash
of squeaks, the wigged-out chug of a bass viol,
scripscraps of bang and clank, a swirling flash
Go back to unselfconscious style
before style. A grace that’s not yet botched–
before they know that they’re being heard or watched.
Write me a sonnet with the wind in it, please.
Because we both heard separately the bark
of the hungry storm last night–he there, me here–
the wind tossing itself through the dark
between us, he wrote and asked.
So wind, appear,
I say, because he wants you. Flap and nip
and yowl, Chinook, Samoon, Diablo.
Today your sizzling breath, your deadly flip
of freezing squalls tomorrow.
As you blow
through flutes, blow through these words. Let me draw
you in and out, be near, be quiet, be our slow
breath, be us, be nothing but the bright ah!
you are. We want your presence, though we fear it.
In the end, just these rags. And breath and spirit.
And Older Poems:
In appreciation of Maxim Gorky at the International
Convention of Atheists. 1929
Like Gorky, I sometimes follow my doubts
outside and question the metal sky,
longing to have the fight settled, thinking
I can’t go on like this, and finally I say
all right, it is improbable, all right, there
is no God. And then as if I’m focusing
a magnifying glass on dry leaves, God blazes up.
It’s the attention, maybe, to what isn’t
there that makes the notion flare like
a forest fire until I have to spend the afternoon
dragging the hose to put it out. Even
on an ordinary day when a friend calls,
tells me they’ve found melanoma,
complains that the hospital is cold, I say God.
God, I say as my heart turns inside out.
Pick up any language by the scruff of its neck,
wipe its face, set it down on the lawn,
and I bet it will toddle right into the godfire
again, which–though they say it doesn’t
exist—can send you straight to the burn unit.
Oh, we have only so many words to think with.
Say God’s not fire, say anything, say God’s
a phone, maybe. You know you didn’t order a phone,
but there it is. It rings. You don’t know who it could be.
You don’t want to talk, so you pull out
the plug. It rings. You smash it with a hammer
till it bleeds springs and coils and clobbered up
metal bits. It rings again. You pick it up
and a voice you love whispers hello.
–Originally published in Poetry
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.
-Originally published in The Hudson Review
I MAKE MY X HERE
Driving this morning, a poem came to me,
so simple, so pure Keats himself could not conceive it,
and then, turning onto Lombard Street, I lost it.
My first novel, five years in the writing, lept
like an antelope, but it was stolen from our back porch.
To preserve it, I have never written another.
Things are not as good as they were. But that’s not the surprise
this mediocre winter Thursday evening
with its ticking radiators and fireplace odors.
The miracle is that I can still remember how the sky opened
once or twice, and a thousand feathers rocked down.
I make my X here to mark where it happened.
Think of how, in the San Francisco earthquake,
William Keith watched his 2,000 landscapes
flame orange, then die to rubies, then to ashes.
The next day he started to repaint them
in praise of what he’d lost. In praise of going on.
—Originally published in The Southern Review
Letters, be the memory of this moment,
Ruth’s 3-legged Golden Lab
sniffing for news beneath the hedge,
grass glittering with rain,
the bird feeder mangled by our car.
Years from now I want to remember
how we walked the splendid earth
and saw it. When children read this
and smile at its old fashioned vision,
then words, stubborn little boxcars
lugging meaning across the rickety
wood bridge to the future, hold,
hold. Couple against time, bear
the red geranium, the slender birch—
you, sentences–glitter against
the massive dark of nothing. Tell
of feet that buffed this doorsill
till it gleams, of cartwheeling
children. Remember the Rosetta
stone, the hum of Xerox machines,
remember monks copying, how
a prisoner in solitary picked up
a pebble to scribble stories
on the wall. Letters, I tell you,
even if your paper yellows in the attic,
even if it’s torn and thrown into the sea,
each of you separate from your brothers,
swim through the ocean, row across
the sky, walk through the wasteland,
find a reader. Stay together. Hold.
–Originally Published in The Hudson Review
Reprinted in Best American Poetry, 2009
The angel speeding down the runway pulls up
her wing flaps, and, wouldn’t you know it, wobbles,
then dribbles to a stop. She stands on the windy
tarmac, embarrassed, brushing her blond hair
from her eyes, trying to remember how to elevate
herself, wishing she’d worn jeans instead of
the girly skirt that works for flying. It’s gravity’s old
malice, showing up in the strangest places,
for instance at the corner where the fortune cookie truck
forgets how to turn, tipping gracefully, sliding on
its side as cookies spill into the summer night.
Around the city good luck stalls, turning us into
bodies, just protoplasm for a wasp to sing.
Even love is a sad mechanical business then,
and prayer an accumulation of words I would kill
to believe in. There’s no happy end to a poem
that lacks faith, no way to get out. I could
mention that doubt–no doubt–is a testing. Meanwhile
our angel glances toward the higher power,
wondering how much help she’ll get, not a manual,
for sure, but a pause in entropy perhaps, until she
can get her wings scissoring. Call it cooperation,
how a rise can build, sustain itself, and lift her
past the tree line. Then she knows she won’t
fall, oh holy night, can’t fall. Anything but.
–Originally published in Cresset
TO MY SON, OFF TO COLLEGE
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.
–from A Deed to the Light
STUDYING PHYSICS WITH MY DAUGHTER
For years now I have heard the cracking of my memory,
reluctantly falling apart like an ancient building.
At first a little cement dust,
then portions of the wall—The Natural Resources
Of Brazil, the Shape Of Utah—nothing,
in the beginning, that left me structurally unsound,
but it grew to a steady pouring—Co-efficients,
Participles, and Tammany Hall—lying in
the chilly basement of my mind mixed up together.
This went on for years, no matter how much
I paid bricklayers an hour, the slow habits of love
like shadows sliding across the yard each day,
and putting children to bed every night
like the relentless caress of wind on the foundation.
They wore me down to vague certainties.
That’s why, when Molly came in her blue flannel shirt and baggy jeans,
holding her physics book, I was surprised.
I hardly recognized my child
rolling up her sleeves in the sharp daylight,
hauling enormous words into the sun
slapping them together with new mortar
so fast I could barely get the idea. Do you know,
she asks, why water climbs a paper napkin?
She says water and the napkin both have Partial Charges.
She says the word Cohesion and the word Adhesion.
Her words fall into the rubble in my poor memory.
I tell her I used to believe in physics.
But experience has taught me what makes water climb the paper napkin.
The water loves the napkin and longs for it.
She turns her brilliant eyes on me.
She is the only person who can save me.
She goes to work, digging in the rubble.
—-from Coming Into History
It was years before I grasped how if I wrote it,
no one would believe me, how the phone rang
as I was getting dressed, as I was listening
to my mother sing in the kitchen on her birthday,
happy finally after two years as a widow–
missing him in a different way, maybe, humming
about the miracle of reaching one more station,
even without him, the power of her body
to keep her children in clothes, in food, the miracle
that she has strength to walk to work and back,
that someone pays her for what she loves to do,
that God gives us no more grief than we can bear
and now her oldest child, imagine! at college
where she wanted to be once herself, poised on the lip
of knowledge, and so her September morning
opened like a door into the sky, into some greater
likelihood, and when the phone rang
it might have been the stars calling to ask
whether they had the right address, it might
have been joy with a marriage proposal—
all of which came later–but this was a voice
that told her my brother was dead, how he was
sorry, how her son was with Jesus now, how
no one knew what happened, and I slunk in
and watched as if I were our dog, Rags; I learned
entirely from the way her shoulders slumped,
and her voice weakened like worn cloth, I knew,
I knew, since I had been schooled in the ways
of grief, and yet when she straightened herself
to tell me, she was a mountain, she was huge
and shining, on her forehead I saw hope,
and you will not believe me, it was enough.
–from A Deed to the Light
GEESE, TREE, APPLE, LEAVES
Every angel is terrifying.
-Rainer Maria Rilke
Suppose you’re blind, and so you can’t see
the broken necklace of geese sailing the sky,
then tilt up your face and listen as their honking riles
the air. And if somehow you’re going deaf as well,
the cries of geese receding on the wind,
then lay your hand on bark to feel the wind
that sways the apple tree. Or if you can’t feel
the tree, then pick and eat one perfect apple
or failing that, as air gets out its knives
smell the fall, swift falling in the leaves.
But oh, if all is growing dark, the darkness
swallowing up the tree, its apples, leaves, and geese,
and if you think a hawk is circling in the final
autumn air, then let the splendid angel
come, my friend, to read your rights to you,
quicksilver angel, angel of snow, the lover who
has waited all your life at your elbow.
–for Carol Thomson
–Originally published in Mars Hill Review
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