Beach Break

Maybe they think
because you stare,
because you’ve chosen the dullest gear:
a charcoal t-shirt and matching backpack —
the rest, slate-ash grays,
that you live alone in a small shuttered room,
with a collection of girlie rags
and biker monthlies
from the 7-Eleven across the alley
— who knows?
maybe the pack itself is bad-ass,
where it slumps dangerously
on your shoulders,
the skateboard only pretending
to be a perch /
but in some square’s fearful fantasy
quickly spun up into the hands,
dropped ready at your feet
when the shooting is done,
when the bright bodies
of sunbathers
bleed into the sand.

But what they don’t see
are the d(-_-)b
upside-down, playing Strauss,
the dazed, goofy smile,
how on your first day off in a while
the lake with its boats and cascading laughter
elevates you as well
into the heady weekend air;
what they don’t see
is that in the jungle of your beach,
in its Amazonian gaiety,
among the bathing suits with their
parrot dances and birds of paradise,
the dull gray bird is king:
he only needs to sit here
in their awkward,
sidelong glances.


The sun sets in a muddled bank of cloud,
the evening falling fast on Labor Day.
Five of us around the table:
a Brewer’s blackbird, a jack pine,
a stone, and Emily and me.

We served red berries and a trout,
and when the dishes were all put away
we played that old game of Telephone,
where you whisper a few words
in your neighbor’s ear
and they pass along to theirs
what they believed they heard.

Blackbird, I said,
All I have to lend is meager light.

He landed weightless on the stone,
repeating: Dark or day we rise in eager flight.

The stone, stone-deaf, in a low voice
to the tree: Snow numbs, but see,
on the hillside how it glistens!

And the pine, a metaphysical sort,
passed along: Wind hums, sit with me
and feel her kisses.

The message came to Emily
who turned and touched my face:
But when it comes, she said
the landscape listens.

Bees’ Nest

We found cool,
creeping in the pine and eucalyptus,
stealing through hidden spaces
when the weekdays dragged,
and summer staked a place
on every bleached
beach towel.

I remember following her foot
on fecund earth
like still-damp coffee grounds.
A welt of outstretched limbs,
the taste of shade and sweat
on our noses and our tongues,
and sun and devils in our faces.

Alison was California,
like the copses,
a vein sprung
from subterranean lines
that pushed up trees
and pushed out beaches
into their matrimonial air.

I remember winding by
the Spanish tower
in the bloom of geraniums
always dying.
I remember her smile
after school, a wink
and a disclaimer:
a mushroom invitation,
California sweet and scarlet.

The bees’ nest was a stump,
an old oak, rotted and sealed
and smelling of resin.
Friday morning, off from summer school,
we heaped mud and leaves
to stop the migration of the bees.

Then Alison with a stick
and the rich swarm
that burst from the wood like fluid,
while she cried and cried
and ran with her insect headdress,
pushing me away and crying “Help me!”

I put out my hand to help,
but she was too concerned
with punishment.

Summer Wedding

New married, they lived one summer
by an apple tree,
and watched the fruit
turn green, then oxblood red.
And watched the sun
and watched the shingled sea.

August came
untended in the long grass.
At picking time
he found a bright pot
and shook the apples down,
his hands around the branches.

He was awkward in his wedding ring:
the smallest finger rubbed it,
like a tongue with a new tooth,
where it blazed against
the thick gray boughs.

Where apples fell,
they stewed in pockets
of unclipped grass,
in earthen cider smells,
in a garden quick
with snakes and sowbugs.

He stood among them
in a fine independence,
satisfied to not be
mad with growing,
while Sara watched him
from the kitchen.

She must have seen him as he was:
not simple and apart,
but a kind of metamorphosis,
some mythic thing —
legs, wrapped and rooted
to the earth by snakes,
his arms in apples,
and all his skyward fingers, leaves.

Dad Dying

He used to tell stories:
how my mother would visit him at Oxford
and cook three-course meals on a single burner
while they sported the oak,
which, he explained, meant they kept
the heavy wood door chained.

In the end, he drank so much
telephone calls didn’t reach him.
They fell through the wire,
and you shied from his thick, warm voice.
His great chest shrank at seventy:
the captain of the first XV,
the rugger boy who scored three tries
the day I was born.

In the hospital
nurses fluttered like sheets
along the hallways;
through the window, a garden party sky.
I thought of that wartime summer,
the one all Englishmen seem to remember
whether they were alive, or not yet born,
or dying in the air in Spitfires.

He was a kid then,
lugging books and his gas mask.
A part of that world was his —
the tea on the grass,
and the big beneficent clouds, promising
they would also be there
that day in Kelowna.

But he didn’t speak.
I made an awkward joke to his jaundiced head
about how I hadn’t expected to see him so soon,
and took my place.
His breathing filled the room.

When it stopped, his wife cried
and shouldered out,
ignoring my mothering arms.
I crept back in before they took his eyes,
kissed his yellow brow,
our skin briefly the same.

Among My Superpowers

One. Finding lost things
my wife could never find,
but I failed with virginity
and no longer count it on my résumé.

Two. Casting protection spells for deer.

Three. Sketching.
Well — until recently.
I can’t draw anymore:
all art discriminates;
it is all about difference,
and I have lost the sense
of one thing in relation to another.

I take off my shoes and place my feet,
heel to sod, in the prairie coneflower,
take a pencil,
but my talent is gone.
The upright toe of the flower,
in the blue grama
like a nub of cherubim,
and the tall rye grass
seem attached to me;
my legs now, articulated like juniper.
The berries on the sand cherry are out,
bulging, livid as the eyes
of damselflies,
and the powder-green sagewort,
that wild shortgrass, fringes my scalp
down to the flint and shale
of this ancient skin.

The pencil disappears.
I find it with the mountain mahogany,
where it has grown feathers.
It is still too weak to fly.
By the weekend it will be
south with Scorpio.

Meteor Shower

for Seamus Heaney

Was there any other way to see it?
On our backs, a map of the heavens,
on the ceiling of our schoolboy rooms:

two-dimensional, papered and purple-black,
the whole night sky mimeographed
with periods and static blots for stars,

for the span of our adolescence,
so unmoving we began to hate it.
Perseus, for all his stone-making, dull.

Orion, the winter-maker, dull as ditch swill,
cocked this way and only this.
And then one August new moon night,

away from town, unable to sleep,
hours before dawn, Perseus himself awake,
there is only a depth.

In that depth a speeding light
that starts the puppets talking,
that moves the stuffed bear on the sill.

There is only a depth and one light through it.
A dust that one time only
makes the whole world new.

Keeping a Fern Alive in the High Plains

I’m guessing the last thing Custer saw
wasn’t the pied pony dead,
or the infecting iron of the arrow
looping through the air,
the leather of a cartridge belt,
dropped when the man dropped,
but the colorless grass of that knoll in Montana.
It is hard somehow not to blame
the ground for the sky.

Against reason I hang Boston ferns
in the corners of the living room,
and for several weeks, over-fertilized,
still lush for nursery customers,
they pop like vegetable fireworks.

And still for weeks against reason
I take them out to the porch when they pale,
water them again, talk sweetly,
sing them songs of the Queen Charlottes
and Scapa Flow lullabies
when they go,

and think ruefully, comically,
how nothing survives the high plains —
when of course nothing survives
the channel and the undercliff.
We just die wetter on the coast.

Or wonder,
when I put another one out with the trash,
if they dreamed, still damp,
in their dark green potted plastic,
of the shortgrass prairie and the chaparral,
if they were tempted,
like the sibyl suspended in a glass cage,
or the boy in the bubble,
to exit, to open the door,
to say the hell with it,
to hell with all our circumstances
and sentences,
I’m going anyway.

September, Clearing Brush

I take a bag and the machete
down into the ravine
where, when the snow melts,
our intermittent stream slips unnoticed
under the plantain and the nettle,
among the wild rose and the big cottonwood.

But the end of summer
belongs to the bull thistle,
a legion of it tall as linemen,
packed so dense between the sloping sides
you can barely raise an arm
without one stalk or another stinging.

I shuffle skeletal,
a string of white stones
covered with flesh and leaf,
the centrifugal swing of the blade,
the smell of vanilla from the dead stalks,
cotton seed flying in the air,
the smell of paper paste and lavender,
my sweat under the pommel, slick as blood.

And perhaps it’s the narrow defile,
the thick wood behind,
but I think of the Queen of the Iceni
advancing against the Romans,
driving her raped daughters ahead,
so sure of winning, the tribal women
watched in wagons
from the flanks of that great lost mass.

Did it ever smell like lavender
in the butcher’s work of the afternoon?
Did any legionnaire swinging the short sword
in the crush of green stems
stop for the incongruous vanilla
and the bright birds singing
in the thistledown?

Did he, like me,
knowing I’d just brought eighty thousand
thistle seeds closer to the ground,
ground into the earth by my boots,
see spring translating into spring,
life passed in a winter whisper,
and think revenge, even freedom,
is a small flag to raise on futility,
when given the choice we could
lead with love,
with hopeless love.