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

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