By the time I am going to bed
she is coming from work,
the promise of snow
all the way to the end of the street,
the lights coming on
in bookshops and hip cafés.
Or so I imagine.
Though maybe she went to live
in rural Wisconsin,
back in the three church town
where her parents were born
and now she’s driving home
on a back road,
through birchwoods, or aspen.
She knows it’s sometimes
dangerous out on this stretch
by the river:
there’s black ice
and white-tailed deer
and serial killers from TV
stalking the roads,
so she’s giving her whole attention
to here and now,
with nothing to spare
for thirty years ago
when we were alone
in a friend’s house,
for more than an hour.
A deer bolts out from the trees and into our path
and then another.
Ice on the road; it’s November, near Shipshewana,
Mennonite country and everything quiet for miles
as the car goes into its skid
as if preordained.
Sometimes we see the whole damn picture at once,
not life and death, but all the shifts and slips
that hold us to some semblance of a plan:
we miss the second deer
by inches, then the car goes sailing on
and if for a while the world is all
what matters is how well we live with chance,
the skill it takes, the faint rapport with absence.
It’s time to take a break from all that now.
No use the artifacts
from which I’ve built the buried outline of a life,
no use the broken breath
which I recall from time to time
still rattles in my chest. Yes, we’re due:
a break from everything, from use,
from breath, from artifacts, from life,
from death, from every unmoored memory
I’ve wasted all those hours upon
hoping someday something will make sense:
the old man underneath the corrugated plastic
awning of the porch, drunk and slightly
slipping off into the granite hills
of Connecticut already, the hills sheaved off
and him sheaved off and saying
(in reply to what?) ‘Boy, that weren’t nothing
but true facts about the world.’
That was it. The thing I can’t recall
was the one thing I’d been waiting for.
It likely won’t come back again.
And I know better than to hope,
but one might wait
and pay attention
and rest a while,
for we are more than figuring the odds.
At The Museum of Natural History
It’s common sense, I think the tour guide says, but with
the clamor in the viewing room,
I misunderstand and hear just the final hiss
before the sentence dissipates
and the room returns, if not to silence,
then something like its prior state.
Yet another thing I’ve missed. I could make
a catalogue with all of it. ‘A History
of Looking Somewhere Else,’
it should be called. As before, when passing
through a tableau that showed our origins,
I dismissed the fire, the rough-sewn furs, the heavy brow,
and lingered on a small doe in the far corner of the display,
her head bent down, her foreleg raised
as if uncertain whether to go on into the void
in which the taxidermist trapped her, or to stay,
thereby embracing her uncomplicated relationship
to early modern man. As we moved
into another room I recalled the place his spear would land
if he had not been frozen in that moment, too.
Homo Sapiens Sapiens. We move along.
A brass plate on a railing says Lepidoptera.
I forget what it was I’d asked that caused the tour guide to reply
with ‘common sense.’ And I am dizzy with the thought
of specimens, all the wings unfluttered and arranged in rows,
that there will never be a record equal to it all,
and how my hands tremble when I’m asked to hold
the pin between my fingers,
and then to drive it home, afraid
that I will only be able to discover and preserve
my uselessness, or worse,
that which everyone already knows.
A Cold Shave
Who would have thought it was exile, to wake
in the usual bed, the woman so close in the dark
she feels like a second skin
while the dream that is just now fading is clearly
borrowed from somewhere else?
The mirror looks too empty, then too full,
but this is a place I have always known
I would come to, sooner or later:
making an effort, the water cold as rain,
the lather so thin that only the blade is sure.
I’m certain by now that, once, those eyes were blue,
and the scar on my cheek
is a story that might have come good
had anything at all
and surely there was once a kind of grace
that nobody expected, in the way
I turned toward the woods behind our house
to listen, miles of birdsong through the trees
and the weight of my wrists and hands like a father’s blessing.
That was the wettest year
streams burst their banks, lost
animals drowned in the culvert.
In everyone’s house,
the metalware soured in the drawers
like broken teeth.
My father away for work,
my mother sick,
I sat in the roof
of my aunt’s house, pressing my mouth
to the chill of a dormer window,
wishing, I suppose,
to be transformed:
some trace in my blood
of camomile, or moss,
recovering its kinship with the rain
or something in the bone, remembering
an ocean, like the elver swimming home
to meadows it has never seen
Standing at the quay,
where the shadow
of the opera house would be
if it had not rained again
for the third day in a row,
I watch the ferry
slowly move away
and pass beneath the bridge
toward a city on a farther shore
that would have strained
to find some shape
inside the mist
if the sun had not
come out just then,
if it were not all
bright and clear.
What was required to arrive at satisfaction then,
is what I wonder most about the town I do not live in
but love, the hum of a late-model banging around a bend
in the one-third-mile dirt oval I still can hear above
the bullfrogs and cicadas on the pond. At best, a race is won.
At worst, an eleven-dollar-an-hour mechanic falls further into fantasies
of the big tracks across the south. The corrugated fencing
kept me out of all of it except the noise. And I listened
in the dark to all the possibilities of branching out.
If you take this one subcomponent of the roar, unravel it
until it is either more or less than just an emphasis in some dumb chord
created by the people there, and their machines,
and the mixture of it all, and it becomes a moment you believed
was possible, that it was possible for it to be heard,
this thing, vibrating with something like affection for the very world
that had both made it and it had made, and it will then sink
back inside the sound, and become not much more
than possibility again, and you will look up and see
a waving flag, white and black against the night,
the swaying pines beyond, beyond the pines
the whole world of which this would be one part.
Our Radical Familiars
if it were not all
bright and clear
If something in us waited to be touched,
they also waited, slowing by degrees,
first discipline, then gorgeous aftermath:
the heart as stray device, ruthless as mink.
It took so little
to invite them in,
leading them home
through beet fields and derelict gardens,
children like us,
with nothing to show for themselves
but tea-lights and mandragora and the trust
that someone would come to the door
at daybreak, warm
and close to visible.
I scarcely remember them now, but they were blind
to everything, the night that we agreed
to leave them be,
making our own way back, in a fiction of rain,
to old arithmetic
and perfect strangers.
As long as we thought we could leave,
the glitter of distance pained us, like the cheap-seat matinees
we said we would never forget;
and walking the back lanes home, our bodies
draped in the scent of velour, we would listen for strangers,
voices singing out across the empty
train yards, slow and beguiling, as if the dead
had risen in their hundreds to revive
some ancient form of weather.
Lying awake in the dark, unwilling to sleep,
we thought there was somebody out there, beyond all the miles
of henhouse and gravel and rotten boats planted with bedding,
people like us, driving home in their rainslicked cars
to a house by the ocean, a pine wood, the glamour of hawks.
The Point and the Arrow
How childlike it was to think I had some say
in what could be stilled or put in motion.
I remember two trees in the muck of a creek’s edge
down which I’d pushed a thousand bark boats at one time or another,
and thinking, today is the day I will capture this forever.
Today I will sail all boats, past and future,
and linger at the water’s edge.
I took an old buck knife and tried to carve my name
into a small, drowned oak not yet succumbed to deadfall.
It would not take my name, and I, too young to recognize
that death is not an infinite regression, but a boundary line,
persisted in my attempts to carve it out, to drag
the almost rotting tree with me into a new day it did not want or need.
I have a scar on the first two fingers of my right hand
from where the knife closed over them. These words cannot record
the noise I made, which came from someplace I have not
been back to since. I will be there again. I’m sure of it.
But the moment I tried to take possession of
will not be with me. I recall it less and less, in fact.
The blade locking me in place. The blood warm and running,
refusing to be stilled. One or another of the bark boats floating by
in the dappled light I thought was perfect, my own to keep.
A knife that refused to hold its shape, a tree that would not take
my name. The whole world loosed and wild and free.
Times passed. Times done.
San Antonio Poem
You, who makes so much
of the world.
What can I make of this: a green gate
that opens on a stone staircase?
A stone landing where
a limber runner waits to run.
A river still as a piece
of seized machinery.
I can say nothing but
what I’ve said. My tongue is
still as a doused flame.
You, who makes so much
of the world.
Tell me what to make of this
and I will.