Even within our commercialized holiday traditions, some bells and a shaking harness can bring us back to what matters.

 

Worlds’ End: Varner’s Christmas Tree Farm

 

After paying the entrance fee, we follow the lines

through the Holiday Shop, then out

to where the wagons wait, decked in festive

 

greens and filled with hay. We take our seats

behind the driver, who stares ahead, absently

fingering the horses’ reins of cracked leather.

 

Families in neon-colored jackets crowd together

on prickly bales, the children plugged into

ipods and nanos as their parents, unheard,

 

exclaim on the joys of country life—the quaint

barn about to fall, the “homemade” apple cider,

the small flock of listless sheep pressed against

 

the far side of their pen to avoid the groping

hands of the children. Beyond the driver’s slumped

shoulders, the landscape rolls away, past

 

snow-dusted fields to a dark barricade

of trees, and beyond that to a scar

of rooftops that climbs an invisible slope

 

to a team of traffic lights blinking robotically

red and green. Miles away, but visible still

in the frigid air, the smoky plumes of the nuclear

 

plant rise like pillars to hold the cloudy lintel

of sky. In every direction, the land that once

was fields and woods now lies beneath

 

a crazy quilt of developments, each named

to honor the natural features that they destroyed.

The wagon gives a jerk and our bumpy ride

 

begins along the quarter mile of road to the sparse

rows of Christmas trees we’ve come to cut down.

The muddy path, already slick from use, exudes

 

a muted stink, as if to add bucolic authenticity.

And for a moment it all works—the snow,

the clip clop of horses’ hooves and quiet jangling

 

of harnesses quell the wagon’s chatter

as we soak up the soothing, unfamiliar sounds

like dry gullies long deprived of water.

Having grown up with dogs but never owned one myself, I’ve always been interested in the passion that the canine species can arouse in us humans. They are like some magic drug, turning us away from our craziness and helping us gain, at least for a moment, some measure of sanity and peace. My mother is a lifelong dog lover and this poem was inspired by her daily walks around the neighborhood and the obvious affection that her canine friends hold for her.

 

 

As on Earth, So in Heaven

 

The old woman with three legs

had one that clicked

to tell them she was coming.

 

Through chain link fences

and wooden gates they’d poke

their noses

 

waiting to lick her blue-veined

hand as she bent over her cane

calling each by name

 

in a feathery voice as soft

as the fur on their ears

and cooed and clucked

 

at their silliness as they danced

and ran in circles

to please her.

 

Whatever the weather,

she’d click through

the neighborhood

 

in sunhat or snow hat,

sneakers or fleece-lined boots,

stopping at each yard

 

to scratch their assorted ears

pricked, folded, dropped,

and buttoned.

 

It was agreed

that such a rare example

of interspecies fellowship

 

was worthy of proper tribute.

And so on the night of the day

she sighed and fell peacefully

 

still—which they all knew

without being told—

they barked to go outside

 

and there beneath a sky

as wet black as their noses

they raised a proper canine

 

raucous that chorused up

into the night and out beyond

the stars until it reached

 

the ears of long-gone friends

who sprang from their naps

and chased to the gates,

 

barking and poking their noses

through so they could be

the first to greet her

 

 

Most poets, at one time or another, take up the challenge of Wallace Stevens’  “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” and try to write a poem in 13 numbered stanzas. For some reason, which I can’t explain, this format is irresistible to the poetic mind. I, alas, have been no less immune to this temptation than many of my colleagues. My attempt is focused around the experiences and thoughts that led me to writing poetry.

13 Ways of Coming to Poetry

I

there was the clock always ticking

and the tightening squeeze of what

seemed like destiny

 

II

the mother found the picture wanting:

the sky must come down to the ground     she said

seeing how it was   the child turned to words

 

III

each night she whispered the same question to the sky:

are we merely to be

or are we gifts to each other?

 

IV

like a lonely songbird of winter

longing abided in the bare branches of her heart

 

V

learning to write her name   she saw how

the black line danced after her pencil point

 

VI

when words collided, music spilled

she came to love the sound of this blood

 

VII

nothing escaped unmolested   even the innocent sunrise

felt the rough hands of her translation

 

VIII

she loved the soft trailing curves of night

its innuendoes and

absence of certainty

 

IX

words were like butterflies

she liked to parse their etymological wings

and see what made them flutter

 

X

like Frankenstein she coveted the act of creation

the thrill of seeing her scribbled creatures come alive

 

XI

there were two doors—one to awakening

the other to despair

she took them both

 

XII

realizing no gods could help her

she began to make her own graven images

 

XIII

yesterday she made another

slender scratches rising stubbornly from the paper

like black stalks in a winter field

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 & loose
as dropping petals & I remember

open fields   grass itching my ear
as I watched pale herds

of clouds assemble & disperse
across light-spilled meadows of sky

each day spread out before me
like a sea begging for exploration

long afternoons   still as a country depot
& evening skies filled with the stereophonic

hiss of crickets   the fiery flamenco
of sunsets

& fireflies     thick as constellations
which I chased around the yard

until night dissolved me in its dark
& I stood beneath its weightless

immensity     free as the pinpricks of light
I chased & 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.