Looking at young parents today, I am struck by the intensity of their desire to exercise perfect parenting skills. It makes me remember my own days of active parenting, when I was plagued by doubt that I wasn’t doing justice to our children’s potential or providing sufficient motivation or discipline to help them grow into the perfect adults they were meant to be. We have such hopes when our children are born but all too soon we’re bedeviled by our growing list of failures and shortcomings. Still, despite these embarrassing failures, most children turn out just fine. The freedom to love without guilt is a gift that only comes with grandparenthood, when there are no strings attached and when we’re released from that burden of self-judgment that overshadows all we do as young parents. Thinking back on the moments before the birth of our second child, I recalled the feelings of hope and anxiety that accompany these life-changing events. How would I do this time? Would I screw it up or would I wisely apply the lessons I’d learned from raising our first? As much as I wanted the answers then, I knew my success or failure at parenting would be revealed only in retrospect and probably through the critical or loving assessment of my own children, to whom, as excuse, I would only be able to answer, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

Planetary

What did I know about the unknown galaxies

of motherhood or you, hovering near the birthing

room door, about the alien role of father.

Parenthood was still just a glorious idea,

like humans landing on the moon.

 

Shunted aside by the nurses, you could only watch

from the corner as I panted and groaned, caught

in the electrifying grip of my contractions.

To busy yourself, you kept a record of their intervals

as you peeled an orange, letting the torn rind fall

like pieces of planetary crust into your palm.

 

Between contractions I watched you study

the glistening globe in your hand, tracing its bumps

and creases as if it were some newly discovered earth

whose secrets you intended to learn or one of those

Magic Eight Balls we played with as kids whose answers

we’d wait to float to the surface, telling us

what our future would hold.

Recently I have been reading online about how slaves were captured in Africa, marched to slave ships, and brought to America. While nothing can truly capture the horror of that journey and the terror of facing an unknown future in a strange land, this small poem hopes at least to contrast what the journey was like for the slave and non-slave.

 

How They Came to America

not in pretty carriages piled with portmanteaus   leather trunks

but in staggering coffles   skin chewed raw

metal cuffs   wooden yokes —

one fall   the neck is broken

 

not in broad-beamed ships hauling rice   tobacco   rum

but in fearsome brigs named Jesus   Mother of God

loose- or tight-packed as the captain chose

the greater the stench, the greater the profit

 

not in carpeted cabins   hammocks   wooden berths

but in airless holds   packed on wooden shelves

no room to turn or sit   no pillow but

a chain mate’s accumulated shit

 

not with relieved embraces   hand shakes   hearty slaps

but with shoves    whips    a cacophony of shouts

in a language grasped but not yet understood

saying welcome to your America

For several years I spent a good part of every summer sailing. I loved learning nautical terms, tying knots, navigating, but I always remained respectful, perhaps even overly cautious, about the weather and what it can do to water. Sailing in the Chesapeake, a relatively shallow bowl of water, one learns quickly not to mess with squalls or storms as they can whip up the waves dangerously. I don’t know what made me write this old-fashioned poem but it must have been the approaching summer, memories of being on the water, and too many sea shanties in my head.

Thunderheads

 

It was a fair wind, nothing to fear in the way it ruffled and snapped

the sails.

The water was sprightly, curling beneath the keel like batter

around blender blades.

 

I dozed, lulled by the whshh-thump-whshh of fiberglass kissing

water, one eye half-open

as I watched gulls pinwheel around the mast tick-tocking

through the sky.

 

Then, feeling a sudden chill, I glanced toward the horizon and saw,

rising up, an alpen ridge

of clouds that laid a dark cloak across the water turning it sullen

and obscure

 

as if to warn there are secrets below—secrets I cared not to know.

For most human claims upon the sea

are met with mockery—as easy as a giant swats a fly she seals

our doom and her ascendancy.

 

Arrogance, when in her neighborhood, results in broken masts

and stove-in hulls

and empty decks where just before a boat mate stood. So I thought best

to turn my leaping boat around

 

though, as I said, the wind was fair, the shrouds in song, the keel dug

deep into the waves.

Fair-weather sailor I may be, but such warnings I take seriously.

When thunderheads loom

 

on the horizon, I head for harbor’s calm. There are those more foolish or braver

than I who’ve chosen

to ignore these signs. Some have lived to tell their tale but many more are gone,

now plying some invisible shore.

High school graduation day is almost upon us when millions of eager students across the country will rise to be saluted for their accomplishments and their potential future achievements. Graduation day is a day of hope unmarred by the realities that will inevitably come to temper the dreams that fill each student’s head. On this day, perhaps more than any other, we are prompted to think back to our own youth and those “dreams deferred” that we, in hopes we may still fulfill them, still cling to.

Wanderlust

For the Class of 2016 on their Graduation

you are young & full of journeys
feet itching to set out

heart ravenous & aching
with the need to begin

you’ve read about the lambent
light of Italy   the lavendered air

of Provence   you’ve imagined
walking below the snake-hung

canopy of the Amazon or trekking
the lunar slopes of Tibet’s plateau

where May poles of prayer flags
snap like gunshot in the wind

your life   as viewed from there
would be glamorous   exciting

so different from here—this place
you call home

with its rules   routines
& expectations

you can hardly wait to escape
to the future

for isn’t that where hope lies—
in the space between here & there

now & not yet—that sacred space
where we all come to tend the fires

of cherished dreams & sit beside them
staring into the flames

 

 

Childhood is reckless, mostly unthinking, inconsiderate, selfish, impulsive, and dangerous. But it is wonderful, too. Recently I recalled a time in my childhood when I lived, in the middle of suburbia, near an abandoned mental health facility. It was a scary but hopelessly inviting place that my friends and I, when we felt particularly brave, would wander through looking for excitement. The sheer joy of having this world to ourselves, of being unobserved and free, was intoxicating. Though it also smacked a bit of Lord of the Flies and what children can get up to when left unsupervised. Thinking about this time prompted me to try to capture those feelings I had as a child in a poem.

 

Broken

On days we were bored
we broke glass

at the deserted prison
down the road, former home

of criminals, the insane, and poor
orphaned children (or so

we claimed), now littered roost
for pigeons, rats, and beggars,

irresistable playground
for those of us who dared.

We stalked the empty rooms,
clandestine as the crunch of

broken glass and our own loud
whispers allowed, searching

for what we never found—
dead bums or rabid raccoons

leather-strapped chairs, manacles,
chains. But   there   was     glass.

Windows and windows of glass
whose mute faces we smashed

with every rock we could find
reveling in the cymbal crash of

panes, the fireworks of shards
that fell, leaving we hoped

a perfect square of dark
as proof of our prowess and aim.

We were masters of this landscape,
unseen and free from worry

of what our parents would do
if they knew what we did.

In the din of our delinquency
we missed the small voice

growing inside us—a voice
that would tell us of danger

shame and consequence but never—
never of this wildness and joy.

For some reason, memories of childhood are returning to the fold, after venturing who knows where, and I am filled with nostalgia for those days of unscheduled freedom, when I had nothing to do and which I often spent contemplating and reflecting on where I was going. Such experiences are rare for today’s children, whose lives are over scheduled and every idle waking minute consumed with the distractions of technology. Being bored is so important to understanding your place in the world, both the enormous possibilities lying before you and the terrifying prospect of stepping into that world. This poem is about that feeling of duality.

 

Fireflies

 

Summer opens, languid and loose
as dropping petals, and I think of

childhood, open fields and grass itching
my ear as I studied the zoology

of clouds, watched pale exotic herds
assemble and disperse

across the light-spilled meadows of sky,
each day spreading before me

like a sea begging for exploration and I,
the only one who could know its secret,

long afternoons, still as a country depot,
with nothing to do but wait for night’s

lumbering cargo of hours that clanked
and swayed, keeping me awake

with a restless longing I could not explain,
evening skies filled with the stereophonic

hiss of crickets and the fiery flamenco
of sunsets swirling orange and red,

and fireflies, how I chased them in the yard
until night dissolved me in its dark

and I stood, alone, beneath its weightless
immensity, free as the pinpricks of light

I chased—and just as small.

I found this old nugget in my archives, and given the craziness of the world, it seemed more resonant than usual.

 

These Days I Cry

at happy things—graduations, weddings, births,

a friend’s last crazy fling.

Forget despair.

It’s common as a picnic fly

certain as a summer forest fire.

Happiness

now that is rare—so rare

it’s worth a tear or two

and gone before my cheeks are dry.

I find it interesting that as I get older I appreciate more the byways and less the highways. Highways are for the young and ambitious, anxious to get where they’re going. Byways offer a more leisurely means of travel in which one can stop and enjoy those small serendipities—people from the same town you were born met on top of a mountain in another country, flower bursting through a crack in the pavement—that offer such pleasure and seem indicators of larger or deeper things about life. I love traveling through cities on public transportation, appreciating the details of daily life in that culture, which seem strange and wonderful to me, but which, for the most part, are no longer visible to those who live there.

Sightseeing

The world spread out before me in miniature—

people, prams, cars swept under the high hulk

of the double decker as it swerves through evening crowds

and the crazy-quilt of London streets while I,

front seat second deck, relish its steamy warmth,

the buzz and hum of boardings and departures.

 

Around me, my fellow riders’ heads are bent

intently to their books, tabloids, and smart phones,

killing time until they reach their destinations.

I ride without distractions, wanting only to view the city

from the top of London’s famous red conveyance.

 

How is it destinations are like tunnels, keeping us

focused on the endpoint, blinding us to whatever gifts

may lie along the way? What don’t we see when we see only

what we’re aiming for?

 

The old bus lurches and grinds along its familiar spool

of roadway, stopping every few blocks and settling

with a pneumatic hiss. I watch from above as another group

of riders steps down and disperses into the night, eyes fixed

somewhere in the distance—a distance only reached

by going through.

Wisdom is one of those things you rarely get to use because it comes only after all your bad decisions have been made. Nevertheless, it does offer some companionship on those rainy nights in front of the fire when, observing the world’s craziness, you can say to yourself with satisfaction, “I could have told them that would happen.”

 

Wisdom

 

It takes its time, never winning the race

but always finishing, though often not until late—

not until the crowds have wandered off

and the sun is about to set.

 

It can’t be seen directly, only in reflection—shadow

behind you in the mirror, echo in the words you speak,

an unheard-before track laid down with a sad,

forgiving music. Can this be me, you ask?

 

You try to pass it along, over a drink at a bar

to the young man staring at the ice in his glass

or with the tissues you hand your sobbing friend

curled up in her bed that recently held two.

 

Your make your words plain as an undressed

mannequin, tempered as a fine sword, neutral as a quiet

rain, but it’s all the same—they hang in the air

like an unshaken hand.

 

It never comes in time—tickets to a show that’s left town.

It is only to be savored like a dusty bottle of aged wine

or one of those hackneyed phrases you recall one night

with an ironic smile because you finally understand.

It seems the destiny of a poet, and no doubt all artists, is to seek answers to questions that can’t be answered. The quest becomes everything. A recent prompt, involving the use of negatives and a set of  unrelated words, yielded this poem, which I originally thought would be just a challenging exercise, but, as in all creations, it ultimately revealed something about myself.

 

Ash / Wings

 

it wasn’t you I was looking for

and it isn’t salvation either

            it’s an end to the yearning

 

that summer in Arizona

           sitting shoulder to shoulder

on the ranch house porch

we rolled limp mounds of raspberries

on our tongues

popping their tiny suede sacs

               of sweetness

as we argued whether it wasn’t all as simple

as that moment—

cloudless sun

sauna heat and spice-scented air

raspy choir of insects

 

we were always ones for speculation

 

that’s the summer you confessed

your interest in men

and returning to college

we drifted apart

 

I thought I saw you once

in minister’s garb

outside a coffee shop

in Berkeley Springs

just like you to go

the traditional route

who always loved the trappings

 

but religion’s a fingernail on blackboard to me

the rote recitation of comforting pap

like ash in my mouth

I prefer to seek my own answers

 

it’s nobody’s fault really

I haven’t found my wings