Breathe

Keats lost his breath when he was twenty-six.

His breaths were measured out in ten trochees.

He measured out his breaths so carefully,

Stacked them up in elegiac stanzas.

Who knew you could lay out your breaths like bricks,

Your elegant metric sepulcher.

When you’re sick or old, your breaths become

Precious as gold doubloons. At ten, I had

A paper route on Euclid Avenue.

Each Friday, I collected a dollar-

Fifty, and tip, from every customer.

I kicked my breath around, sand on the beach,

I had so much to spare. An old woman,

Whom I loved, even though her decrepit

House smelled funny, walked slowly to the door.

She paid me from the coin purse in her hand,

Reaching for each quarter, one at a time,

And handed each to me begrudgingly,

As though they were the last few coins that she

Would spend on Earth. Near the end of my route,

I stood there patiently with my heavy

Bag of quarters, my young, infinite lungs,

While she dropped them with a fatal clink.

She probably died gasping just like Keats,

Her coins no use to her. When this disease

Comes, the breaths you saved in life don’t matter,

They can’t be hoarded or collected in

A jar, but they can be taken from you

With a knee against your neck, in anger,

A current of indifference and hate.

December now—I blow my breath into

A little cloud. For a lovely moment

It hangs there where I can see, this little

Piece of art I made out of the living

Force inside me. If only I could put

It on a chain and wear around my neck,

Or on a page between two soft covers,

Or hang in a museum with my name,

“This is the thing I made.”

My aspirations made it as it is, This quiet piece of air against a blue December sky.

The suffering

My lovely dog, dying in old age,

Looked at me with his cloudy, tired eyes.

Let me go, Dad. 

And I did. I had no choice.

I wondered if he knew

That those were his last, labored breaths on Earth.

I cried in his black fur like a child,

Then lifted his useless body

Into the back seat,

Drove to the vet’s office,

Where they loved him, and said,

“no, not Roscoe,” the grand old man

Who was everybody’s favorite.

 Later, a box came, his ashes, with a paw print on the front.

As sacrilegious as it sounds,

I thought of my dad,

The one act play that ended so poorly,

I also cried on his useless body,

The skinny chest, the gnarled knuckles.

Before they cremated him,

Someone had to confirm it was him.

I walked into the room they made up like a chapel,

Candles burning,

Paper on his naked body like an altar,

I tried to say a prayer but what came out was,

Goddammit Dad,

Why did you die?

And more sobs, until finally,

I told the funeral home yes,

This is my father, Bill,

A builder, a burier of men,

A woodworker, animal lover,

Smoker, mechanic, teacher, clown,

Reduced to this, something I can’t

Recognize, or say.

 And so I said goodbye again,

Kissing his dead forehead one last time.

The hospital kept him 45 days,

Suffering on the stage where we watched,

 Our morbid reality show we couldn’t take our eyes off of.

They could have kept him alive

Forever with their machines,

Propped his eyes open I guess,

But was never coming back to us.

Why preserve the fiction?

All that lives must die,

Your father lost a father,

His father lost, lost his,

And all that die must suffer for a time before,

Something that the dying must simply endure,

To our amazement and our shame.

You watch the suffering until you know.

Powerless to intervene, sedation

Is all that anyone can offer,

All you can do is stare in the sterile room

With the buzzing light, thinking,

I’m sorry that we did this to you.

That breathing that can’t continue

On its own, the hanging mouth,

The lonely eyes. It’s selfish to make them stay,

Staggering on in mortal blindness,

Like we are, all of us, waiting for someone

In the audience to put us to sleep.

Insomniac

Our old house at 4AM is darkly sweet.

Ghosts tiptoe the empty hall like black cats

Spying on our sleep, the wind presses on

The windows and doors as though trying to

Escape the night. There’s always something going on.

The tendrils of your hair tickle my eyes

In this small bed—no wonder I can’t sleep.

My arm beneath you numb an hour ago,

I try to wake you up a thousand ways,

To no avail, so I must let you rest,

And wander in this sleeplessness alone.

Hours go by, adjusted to the blindness,

my senses sharpened like a mole or bat,

I hear each exhalation in the house,

The constant hiss and hum of the furnace,

Feel the roof’s dead weight upon my back,

The barometric changes by degrees,

The aviary waking in the trees,

The floors that creak without being trod on,

Nocturnal mysteries of the indoors,

The truth of things we cannot know in light.

Soon, first light will come I will finely fall

Asleep to the note of your coffee while

Sparrows spill the secrets of the morning.

Saluda River

Hard Wood

She called it the Napoleon, the massive oak wardrobe that sat in the front room of the house she had just bought with her new husband, sitting there because it was too large and too heavy for them to move by themselves to the master bedroom, the only room spacious enough to accommodate its depth, its height, its width, its literal and metaphorical weight, the only room with enough natural light to not be overcome by its darkness and the long shadows it cast. The Napoleon had been in the family for years, since her grandmother bought it, or inherited it, or had it given—or cast upon her like a spell or a curse—no one knew which. It dominated any room it occupied, towering over anyone standing before it, weighing down one’s very eyes with its age, its history, its overwhelming force. Like a statue of some ancient tyrant, it conveyed authority and power, and while it didn’t have eyes like a statue did, it still felt as though the Napoleon was watching and judging. You felt a sense of awe standing in front of it, a sense of respect and intimidation.  Should you burn it? Rip it apart? You wouldn’t dare. It would haunt you, bearing down upon your soul with two centuries of oppressive guilt.

She had long imagined histories for the Napoleon, tried to remember the legends from her youth, questionable tales her Creole grandmother told her in the dementia years, imagined its construction in the calloused hands of Marseillaise craftsmen—had they been revolutionaries? Jacobins? Were their hands still stained with aristocratic blood?  Her grandmother even said the wardrobe’s rich color was due to having been stained with blood—or had she dreamt that?—but was it ox blood that gave it the rich, mahogany color that the French call marron, or the blood of some doomed Provencal duke collected in a bucket beneath a guillotine at Marseille or Arles?  For she knew, or thought she knew, that the oaken treasure came from France around 1800, arrived in New Orleans, survived the journey, then the Louisiana Purchase, the Civil War, the Great Depression, countless floods and hurricanes, until it somehow came into her grandmother’s inheritance and now into hers.  How had it survived being tossed on the Atlantic, with stops in Havana—did barrels of rum add to the color? Did it toss side to side in the hold? Did it crush a sailor with its weight as the waves toppled it? She knew, just knew, that there was death in the Napoleon’s past, knew it was haunted by the souls of movers crushed under it, or a drunken reveler stabbed at its feet in a knife fight in a dance hall in Spanish New Orleans. She pictured it in a bar, then imagined it used in a kitchen in a Natchez restaurant, stuffed with china, covered with steam from collard greens and rice, and grease from boiled pigs’ feet. Stained with two centuries blood and lard-steam and rum and the with the sweat of the countless men who had carried it from France to Cuba to Louisiana to Mississippi, nicked and weathered by walls and corners and cobblestones and the various chains and ropes that strapped it to mule-drawn wagons and moving vans, haunted by the manifold ghosts of its victims, all the hazards that marked it and made up its history but never killed it, she couldn’t help being more than a little afraid of it.

The Napoleon had been in a storage unit for the last few years, and moved to the house by a young man named Dee and his moving crew, using straps and a dolly and their prodigious strength to wrestle the wardrobe up a few steps and into the front room. Dee was a young man, college student, who headed up his own moving crew using rented trucks, an entrepreneur who had impressed her with his initiative and intelligence.  After the move she kept his number, and called him back to do various odd jobs for them, some painting, some deck repair. He was a tall, strong man, with a soft voice and a gentleness that was unexpected from his appearance. Now that she and her husband were finished painting, they were ready for Dee and his team to move it the rest of the way into the bedroom.  He told her no, he would just bring his father, which she initially objected to—Are you sure? Is he up to it?—but Dee just chuckled and explained that his father worked out every day, and was even bigger and stronger than Dee.  Dee arrived with his father, and his younger brother, who, like Dee, was oversized and looked strong for his age—she guessed 12—but the father was lean, muscular, and tall.  He was broad, with muscles carved from marble, more than a match for the Napoleon, sharing its stature, a venerable and powerful figure, ready to take it on, to slay the dragon, to tame it and bring it to heel.  He inspired confidence, like a Superman ready to spin the Earth backwards on its axis, turn back time, and save the planet from subjugation by evil forces.

They started right to work, surveyed the scene, and realized that the long route was best, from the front room in a circular motion through the dining room and kitchen and along a straight path down the hallway to the bedroom. They disassembled the Napoleon as best they could.  The brass hinges were original, and they pulled the pin to take the doors off, pulled the loose shelves from the inside, removed the large molding from the top so that the piece would fit under the doorways.  But the first doorway showed that was not enough, and the men had to turn the wardrobe on its side just to get it through the first, wide doorway, and then once on its side—the younger brother’s job was to keep the sliding pads underneath the piece so that it could be scooted along the floors without damaging the piece or the floors themselves—through the doorway and into the kitchen, which required moving the dining table, moving the kitchen table, clearing a broad path. The Napoleon would not be simply pushed along the floors. It had to be tilted, turned, negotiated, argued with, persuaded, fussed at, until reaching a point that only brute force would make it do what was required.

By the time they reached the long hallway to the master bedroom, the men were out of breath and drenched in sweat, and they realized that the Napoleon was not oriented properly to make its way down the hall.  They extracted it back down the hall and back into the den, where they could turn it around and try to push it up the hall in the opposite orientation, but even this exercise was a challenge. They moved it back to the den, hoisted it up on its base, turned it, gently lowered it again, and moved it back down the hall, until they were finally at the entrance to the bedroom.  To put it simply, it wouldn’t go. The hallway wasn’t wide enough to allow the piece to swing around into the doorway and into the bedroom.  Walls would have to be removed—obviously not a realistic suggestion, but the men realized that if one end were lifted, while the other end were turned, the turning and lifting motion at the same time might push the wardrobe into the bedroom.  Her husband had joined the effort by this time, seeing that getting the Napoleon through this final stage would require all three of them. The husband and Dee took the end by the bedroom door while the father held on at the bottom—actually the top now, as they had oriented the piece upside down, negotiating the legs around the top of the door to stagger the movements into the room.  They applied all their strength and fought the Napoleon, straining against it to make it fit, the father at the bottom end, seemingly about to be crushed by its weight and become one more ghost living inside its wooden walls.

Dee and his father were not about to give up, even if the husband was.  The father asked for a handsaw.  If they could just cut an inch off the feet of the piece, they might be able to get it in.  Everyone agreed that this was a good idea.  The husband fetched a saw from the garage, handed it to the father, while the Napoleon rested upside down with its feet in the air like a defeated wild animal with rigor mortis. The husband brought a step ladder next, and the father set about to trim the feet.  But the old, haunted lumber seemed impervious to the saw’s blade, like cutting concrete with a saw meant for wood. The old bastard wasn’t going to give in easily.  It fought back like its life depended on it. The father pressed the saw with all his might, the wood fighting back but slowly losing the fight, sawdust 200 years old flying off the feet, covering them all, its DNA of blood and sweat and ancient oak scattered on the engineered floors of the house and the sweat-soaked cotton shirts of the men.  The beads of sweat collected on the bald, brown scalp of Dee’s muscular father, who took a moment to catch his breath while the veins bulged in his forearms, and he looked down at the husband and said, “That’s some hard wood.”

Finally, the first foot was cut down by about an inch, and the process repeated on the other three, with no thought to leveling or measuring, just getting the God forsaken thing cut and putting the monstrous task behind them.  Ever few minutes the father, soft spoken like Dee and a man of fewer words, would pause to wipe the sweat from his brow again, and repeat the same thing, in astonishment: “That’s some hard wood.” Yes, the husband thought, it’s 200 years old, and full of evil and spirits. It’s as hard as hell, with a molecular resistance to change.  The father pulled the saw through the last foot and the final chunk of scrap was liberated as they watched it fall and clatter on the floor.  “I thought we’d never make it,” Dee said, and they stopped and caught their breath one last time.  There was a moment of optimism, a feeling that we had made it, that in just a moment the Napoleon would be conquered, tamed, and they could celebrate their liberation.  And they again strained against the piece, heaving it up towards the sky only to be blocked once more by the top of the door frame, the optimism dying in a sudden realization that they had hit the upper limit, the piece wedged in the door and would move no further, which was all the men needed to see to know they had been defeated.  There was no other angle to try, no other act of will could make the impossible possible, just the girth and height of the piece were too much for the space they had designed for it.  This monument had survived 200 years by not giving in to the whims of men, the designs of fate, not even the accidents of nature, and now it seemed that it would even resist the saw blade or flame, having very nearly been petrified over time, some supernatural effect of the blood, the stormwater, the various liquors that had soaked into the oak over the years, making it impervious to human intervention or even will.

The Napoleon forced the men to take it back to the front room, and then they left it on the porch, in exile like its namesake, until she decided whether it would make its way back to storage, or who knows where. It had a mind of its own. The men recovered from the exertion with bottles of beer on the front porch sitting next to their nemesis. They sat in silence, gazing up at the pines which reached up into the night, stretching their tops to the stars, but still younger than the Napoleon which would now have to find another home. Although it was humid, the porch had the benefit of not having the confining walls or the memory of having been defeated. Out here in the wide-open space, the Napoleon could no longer impose its will. It sat quietly with its ghosts—waiting for its next encounter with history. She indulged the boy with an ice cream bar, and then another, and she paid Dee what she owed him, in spite of their collective failure, and quite a bit extra, as they had worked far harder and longer than any of them could have imagined.  It was nearly midnight when they all shook hands and parted ways, the Mississippi moon shining down on the pines and them, and the Napoleon silently crouching on the porch, victorious, its midnight shadow merely an inch shorter than it was before.

Morning in Maine

Morning in Maine, the angry waves, the mist,

The patient stones, the pines a safe distance

Above the churning sea, and my love’s

Sweet pressure at my side, swirling steam of

The day’s first coffee, sharing it just as 

We share Monhegan in the distance, 

Sun coming up behind her in the haze, 

The ease and simple awe of northern days.

 

I could wait here with you a thousand years, 

Listening to stories the ocean tells,

Our blossom love enduring like the river 

That feeds the hungry bay, or like the swells

That rise, crest, and fall on the rocks below,

Unceasing as the summers come and go.FB_IMG_1565714958603

Out of the Country

This is the best that I can do.

A gesture of remorse.  An eye that listens in a language you half understand.

You take the classes. You practice in the mirror.

The sounds come rushing like a waterfall.

You stammer in your confusion while someone points.

The trust fall canvas black admonition of stars in metronome.

Ah, yes. Of course. I’m so sorry. I should have—I know.

They bring you the café. The little spoon rattles one the saucer

As they walk away, exasperated.

Across the street, students loaf and smoke.

They are angry about something.

Tomorrow, I will go to the chaotic airport and hope for the best,

Return to a job I understand but don’t love,

Watch the angry people on television,

Fill my car up with gas, buy cereal and beer,

Let another few more unremarkable years go by,

And try again.

Everything is broken, everywhere.

Moving Day

I will miss those tired pines that catch the sunlight

And pour it down to earth in golden stairwells,

To the empty streets where Mrs. Coleman walked alone,

Her husband having left her years ago.

I will miss the barking from behind the rusty fences,

The tiptoeing cats leering from behind a tire,

The human faces peering down from porches as I pass,

Dodging divots of asphalt broken by the years of traffic,

My bike swerving and creaking across the cracks.

I will miss the gnat-haloed streetlights kind enough to ignore

My sneaking home in early morning,

My neighbors’ rotting roofs sagging in the sadness of dawn

Like an old woman’s shoulders. Goodbye, too,  

The house, an eyesore now, where my friend’s daughter was born,

Her long since grown now, and the house forgotten,

Bittercress where flowers used to grow, bushes browning in blight,

The slow and silent, flaking death of paint,

Dying and fading like memory does, until it just hangs on

In splotches of white against bare forgotten shingles.

From the highway, as I drive away, I pass the falling barns,

Leaning impossibly against the moon,

Fighting oblivion and gravity and regret

With fierce but doomed determination.

What should I tell the buyer about the ghosts?

Full disclosure of haunting spirits that emanate from memory?

Sign here to acknowledge a succession of Labrador retrievers

Baying at distant deer or possums in the woods, or in their minds.

Please know the ghost of my father turns on the tv and chuckles,

Eating popcorn every 2AM then disappears at dawn, like Hamlet’s father,

Without waiting for coffee, or for my questions.

But he was certainly there, Horatio, not in armor, but

In his recliner, his feet raised after a hard day striving, and shaking his head

Now at fictional crimes and punishments of Chicago PD

Or San Francisco vice.

Should I tell the buyer about the sacred space

Where my mother taught my son to read in her lap?

Or would they care?

And should I tell them that the back bedroom is stained

With 6 months of tears,

That paint can never cover the times I nearly died,

Or longed to, with the determination of rust?

How our foundation crumbled in grief and had to be rebuilt,

Brick by brick and stone by stone, to the eternal indifference of the trees.

But soon the locks will change, and movers desecrate it all,

Like bulldozers on an ancient burial ground,

Some 40 years of living covered in new carpets and cabinets,

While the trashmen take yesterday from the curb.

Frames

Frames 

Put away the camera, set aside the cup.

The car is backing away. 

Take the sorrow, pick it up; 

Tomorrow is always waiting. 

I see them only in picture frames now.

The faces I have touched so many times. 

The hearts, the arms, the souls,

The lives once all tangled up with mine.

Memories warp and fade

Like the photographs that remain.

Purpose evades me relentlessly.

Outside the window pane,

The raindrops collect, 

And run down the glass

Turning the window putty into rot.

As it rattles, I catch a glance 

Of decomposing lilies in the yard,

Another winter is on the way,

So many will have passed that I lose count.

I have to check the birthdays 

On a calendar, now uncluttered by 

Appointments or reminders. 

I have nothing to keep track of

Except this emptiness of hours,

The silence of the rooms and halls,

A cupboard keeping just enough for me. 

Yes, a phone will ring sometimes, 

And I will have the family

At certain holidays,

Gatherings that end too soon, 

With long goodbyes after which

I sit in silence in my kitchen, 

Sipping concentrated coffee, 

As the cat stands on the windowsill.  

What happens to the purpose 

When the purpose is fulfilled? 

I keep a simple house, now. 

No voices, few decisions, or none at all,

Just wind chimes and blankets, 

And the pictures on the wall.

Good Fences

Cade’s Cove, Tennessee

Good fences

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,

He said, but something there is that craves one, too,

That sends a human groundswell, spills the water

Left for nomads in the sun.  Malicious elves, you say,

But that’s not it exactly, more like the kind of man

Who’d leave a bag of rattlesnakes on the front step

To keep anyone from coming in,

Or train coyotes how to circle on command.

Oh, I think he knows what he is walling in and walling out,

The old stone savage that he is, the apples

And the pine cones have nothing to do with it,

Just another form of taking for yourself

That which has been taken time and time again.

To Winter and Back Again

Miami River, Hamilton, Ohio

The sparrows and the martins—

Fly back and forth–to spring

They feel no icy footprint–

Or any unwelcome thing

If any leaf–turns less than green–

They turn their eyes away–

They must have color–in the view

They loathe the white and gray–

My heart’s a different traveler

That tends to fly–alone–

Seeking cool reception in

Less comfortable–zones

Brightness fools it into feeling–

a lonely thing to say–

Turn off the green–turn off the blue–

And then–it finds its way.

You can’t be like a martin

If you have–a human Soul

There is no way to travel–

With a heart–so light–and full

The sparrow rises in the air–

Her Song a holy office–

The human heart–only hears

The cracking sound–of ice

We dream of winds that lift our wings

To heaven, until–but then—

December comes, and takes our Soul

To winter and back again