Strange, how there’s no money in bending
spoons, levitating, walking through walls, eating fire.
Stranger still, the mind’s tireless insistence
on returning to the same vault of memory:
a woven hammock bleached by the sun,
beach glass, the texture of a Van Gogh,
metallic oysters, cold beer, fried shrimp,
French vanilla ice cream.
Strangest of all, perhaps, are the fingerprints, bones,
poetry – the circumstantial evidence all around us,
everywhere we go, all our lives.
Take, for instance, the decaying wood
of this old canoe, once paddled
by my father’s hands up the Withalacoochee
to a hidden crystal spring, his long toes
hanging on to their cheap sandals.
Every bit of wood poking up
through the surface of the water
an alligator in my imagination,
every cypress tree along the bank
a bent grandmother of my boyhood.
The hours of that summer too free
to be measured, the days too wild to be held.
Journeys undocumented, stories untold.
The perils of being at sea too long,
the price of coming ashore, no match
for the danger of missing a siren song,
never casting adrift, never charting a course.
The face of the stone lion
has turned white due to weather and time,
two things I understand very little of,
being neither meteorologist nor physicist.
I only know that he reminds me
of a Celtic warrior about to pick a fight,
milky streaks spreading
through the dark copper of his mane.
A stone lion is the best kind of lion to have,
for he requires no meat
and will never turn on you with any sudden wildness.
Being stone, he looks no more tired
than he did all those years ago.
I admire his dignified silence,
and wish I were more like him,
hardly effected by weather and time.
Maybe then the sun I’m sitting in
wouldn’t feel like it had to work so hard
to beat back the certainty of impermanence.
For the moment, though,
I somehow take hold of slippery acceptance
and wrangle it in close,
effort in one hand, surrender in the other.
For the moment, the lion comforts me,
ever gazing at the garden before him,
neither its conqueror nor its servant,
a snail passing before his dependable paws
like a tourist at a national monument.
Once you have traveled
in the four directions,
along the main thoroughfare,
and spent a good deal of time
on back roads and side roads,
putting one foot in front
of the other until you reach
a measure of satisfaction,
it is possible you might find
a clear idea of why you set out
in the first place, so long ago.
That’s the high road –
from which you can look
beyond yourself and see
how the course you take
converges with the others.
The cartography of your choices
that seemed before to hold
no pattern – the direction of
your footsteps, how
they brought you here at last.
Spirit of breath and practice, holy mystery of movement and stillness,
grant me the discipline to just sit here, though the old fires still burn in me.
Grant me the wisdom to remain plainspoken at the doorstep of the mind’s
entanglements. Let me keep a balanced, empty mind.
Grant me patience, not only for my own sake, but for the sake of others.
Wherever I am, may I not lose the sight to truly see the colors, forms, shapes
all around me, then and there.
And whenever I walk, may I have the sense to notice the soles of my feet
touching the ground, meeting the earth – even when they are housed in shoes.
Excerpt from The Good News, a poem from my collection How To Carry Soup (Homebound Publications, 2020).
Net Man originally appeared in the spring of 2020 in poem form, in Crosswinds Poetry Journal in Rhode Island. The piece also called out to me to be written in a form that is part Personal Essay and part Prose Poem, which is what appears here.
“The point is that he had – as we all do in given measures – an unknowable wildness.”
My grandpa was a net man. Never mind how well I knew him, never mind how much I loved him, the point is that he used rope, wove nets with his hands, hands I loved so much I never knew how to say it.
My grandpa was a net man, he was a talker and he was a storyteller. His life was woven with stories as much as it was with rope and he told those stories in a rich gravy voice. He talked about picking rows of cotton as a farm boy in Georgia during the Great Depression.
“I think everyone should have to pick a row of cotton sometime in their life, just to know what it feels like.”
He talked about going down to the Palace Saloon as a boy and easing his mother off of a bar stool, slinging her over his shoulder and carrying her home, talked about being given a choice when he was just a little kid – a choice that would shape the rest of his life: “You wanna go to school, or you wanna go fishin’?”
He talked about World War 2. I listened closely when he talked about the bomb that came down the ship’s smokestack, how he was sent down into the belly of the ship with a burlap sack. I shouldn’t have listened so well, my grandpa was a net man.
He talked about his shrimp boat and the Gulf of Mexico in the 1950’s, when he was known as Captain Buddy. Talked about Veracruz Havana Brownsville Key West South America, having his ear pierced by a prostitute in Campeche, discovering abandoned boats with blood-spattered decks out on the Gulf, my grandpa was a net man. Sometimes the nets were full of shrimp, he said, sometimes the nets were full of shrimp bound up with seaweed and trash, sometimes the nets contained nothing but pieces of junk, he said, sometimes the nets didn’t have a damn thing in ’em.
My grandpa was a net man, never mind his T-bone steaks. Never mind his nine machetes and his earring and how the gators slithered up into his yard from the Withalacoochee River, the canoe my dad and I would paddle upriver to a crystal spring hidden away among cypress trees, their roots dipping into the water’s edge like fingers on an old witch’s hand.
Never mind how the short fuse of his youth alchemized into the easy way he had about him later in life, never mind that his childhood nickname was Junebug, that his wife made the best red velvet cake you’d ever set a fork upon, that when I was twelve years old he talked me into eating a Scotch bonnet off his pepper bush and then laughed and laughed.
The point is that he had – as we all do in given measures – an unknowable wildness. The point is that for 92 years he touched people’s lives without ever once trying to, the point is that now he really has crossed the Gulf, the point is that in the still of the night he left the world and by left I mean he’s gone and by world I mean all of this, I mean the crescendo of his life swept back down in a broad arc and mass overtook energy.
But before the crosswinds took him, he was a net man. I knew it to be true, because he was often out in his workshop making nets. I knew it to be true, because I had lingered on every page of his old photo albums, and it said so right there on the license plate of his old jeep: NET MAN.
He had been a shrimper himself and worked with the nets for years. So when he opened a net shop in 1960, down in Key West, he knew what to do. The shape and size and type of net he made depended on where the shrimper would be trawling, what kind of boat they drove. He worked the rope not only with his hands but with an understanding of what was needed, the intimate knowledge that comes with time spent close to the heart of the work itself.
The nets were dragged along the ocean floor by trawlers, but before that they drifted down, down through the briny seawater. And before that, they had to be made – fashioned – from the rope that passed through the fingers of my grandfather’s hands. Hands I loved so much, I never knew how to say it.
By day, a daydream ponderer who never gets her fill –
by night, a barefoot wanderer who’s wandering still.
With the bamboo wind and a golden rain-tree,
what a lucky pilgrim she shall be.
The essence of time is found spontaneously in moments, not measured in minutes. Minutes are fleeting, moments are precious. Minutes are disposable, moments are priceless. In man's strange invention of measured time, minutes tick tick tick away, evaporating, yet somehow stacking up to become the years of our life, a row of slender volumes held in place between the bookends of birth and death. That's why it's so important to stop, slow down, take notice, pause. The moments are what we notice, what we remember, what we carry with us. They inform us, re-mind us. Our experience of the moment connects us to a deeper, richer experience of life.
It was one of those days when the movie of your life should have won an Academy award for best screenplay. The twists and turns knocked everyone out, the plot was as tight as high-end waterproof luggage, and the soundtrack matched how everyone felt that year with uncanny accuracy.
All you know is it’s one of those days when the music fits how you feel like a jigsaw puzzle edge-piece: tongue in groove on one side, a nice straight line on the other, like driving until you reach the ocean.
How you feel matches the cloud structure, these particular blues of sky and sea, the quality of the light coming through.
Neither the sensations of pleasure or pain, nor the meanings ascribed to them, have anything to do with your experience now.
You take a breath, quite possibly the best one yet. It’s such a relief to finally stop wondering what will happen in the next scene, to stop worrying about how the story might end.
You just sit there filling your mouth with the velvet of water, feeling the support of the ground beneath you, and let go of everything. Maybe the sun breaks through the clouds, maybe it rains. Maybe neither. It’s only weather. These days, you go on feelings. These days, you never know which thoughts you can trust.
The air stirs, moving over your skin, almost imperceptible, unforgettably sensual. The fabric of your sweat-dampened shirt clings to your chest, your back. The air is fine, warm, and soft.
You eat a little something, very slowly, and feel – for the time being – free.