Backbone

This poem first appeared in Red River Review in 2013.

Backbone

A favorite thing of mine, he said,

is a hot drink in early morning,

taken to cut through phlegm

and shake rust out of the brain,

usually around six o’clock.

 

And then to have a walk, he said,

in the company of my brothers and sisters-

the river, forest, sky and stone,

all that is natural upon the earth.

 

And then to have a swim, he said,

whenever and wherever possible,

to awaken the pores,

refresh the mind,

and again make the brave attempt

to view the world without judgment.

 

And then to have a nap, he said,

to gain the healing daytime rest

that helps prevent diseases of the body,

to dream of sex and other wildness,

to dream of perfect silence.

 

And then to do some work, he said,

a few hours of honest work,

whittling away at whatever the project might be,

all the while grateful

for eyes, ears, lungs, hands and heart.

 

And then to die, he said,

to die a little bit each day

because that is what we owe to life,

what those who came before us had to do.

And though we may not live as they did,

it does not change it.

 

Circles

If I didn’t have to go to work today, I’d write a clever turn-of-phrase or a cryptic suggestion only you would understand the meaning of. I’d spend my time among the dead, paying my respects with a few well-put-together lines destined to become a classic. I’d write a poem for you because you’ve been on my mind lately, maybe even work on the novel that’s been sitting in a shoebox on the floor in the corner behind the desk for half as long as it takes children to grow up and finish school.

I’d write about the sideways snow going on and on, the unexpected cruelty of someone who was once a dear friend, the weaving and un-weaving of music leaving an indentation where it makes contact. I’d consider how writing, women, and weather can all be fickle and tough to predict. I’d consider how, of all the woodpiles I’ve seen, the German beehive requires the most patience and is a thing of beauty.

I’d mull over all my fears and desires, go for a walk, stare out a window, hope I might be of use to someone by the time my head meets a pillow, contemplate my dream about Paul Simon where I attended the opening night of a play he wrote, and afterward we sat and quietly drank pint-glasses of beer, me telling him how much his music meant to me that time I rode the bus in the rain. He understood and – of course – will be coming for Christmas.

Whether I have to go to work today or not, I’ll remember nothing has ever been mine to claim – all is given, even my name. I’ll not forget I’m blessed, palms pressing together in front of my heart. I’ll take a look at all the circles in which I’ve lived, gain some perspective, as if seeing them from the tiny window of a passenger plane with my forehead pressed against the glass. And, pulling the sword of my life from the stone of the world, my heart might recall how to make the much larger circle of a thank-you spoken in the wordless language of peace.

 

Minnows

Again, the whale descends, the tidal current pulls away.  The microcosm of Us gravitates to center.

We touch silence with our collective identity, the Self that is linked to all things, the part that knows it’s not alone, that knows it is a splinter of consciousness, that knows it is born again each morning.  It knows, even at its most alone, it is with all the world.  It knows that while it lives it has the company of the living, and that when it dies, it will step straight into darkness with the lighted lamp of all who have gone before.

We touch silence, not because we are willing, but because we have opened.  We touch it the way a fingertip makes contact with the surface of still water.

Then, the whale breaches.  The tide rolls forth and breaks the silence, rushing over us.  We are swallowed, again, by the macrocosm.

Over and over, we are digested in ways we cannot know.

 

 

A Handful of Daylight

A tremor in the foundation, the end of things as we know them – we dare not speak of rising water, just quietly build the levee.

Strange to view a conclusion so absolute through a lens of knowing turned back on itself, from the vantage point of Here and Now. Still, old predictable resistance can be folded small and dropped into one’s pocket, or cast away among shards of breaking morning.

Winter solstice glides up to meet us, you can smell its breath. Wind has stripped the trees and paid them nothing for it. The trees are just trees, the wind, only wind. If we relinquished our ownership of all things it would be no easier to part with what little light remains. It’s just enough to see by, just enough to make out the transparency of all that appears solid.

Yet once the first drops of light splash the pool of night’s ending, the needle of our compass twitches – illuminated, restless, urging us on. We see ourselves rising from the bed, drawing back curtains to throw open windows, but we can’t always do it. Sometimes there is no movement and we watch the world with an outsider’s eyes.

Sometimes we see ourselves in a circle of standing stones, making a fire where we might set flame to all things. The ring of stone is a place where we might plant something new, once the cinders have cooled and been used to smudge our faces.

A place where triumph and tragedy might coexist, where our praises and lamentations might live together in peace beneath a frost of stars.

Wilderwalk

Morning wakes my sleepy head,

and after coffee, eggs and bread,

I wilderwalk the day away

with feathered arms and legs of clay.

 

Quiet greets me like a friend

on seldom trodden paths that bend

through forest, field and golden grass –

how slowly now the time does pass.

 

I listen to the barred owl’s call

and climb upon the woodland wall,

to hold the cloudless sky in sight

and look upon approaching night.

 

Tomorrow I shall do the same,

for ‘tis the meaning of my name

to gather firewood and cook –

to skip a stone and walk alone

beside the babbling brook.

Let Me Not Wait

Let me tell you now

how much I will miss you.

Let me not spend another moment

alive on this earth with words unspoken.

Let me not wait until you are gone, as I’ve waited with so many now lost, and narrowed my eyes as withered chances blew past my flushed cheeks, lifted by a sudden wind, leaves in a wheelbarrow, carried back to the place where only a moment before, I gathered them.

As if I were trying to perform a task far too large for me,

something to test the bounds

of my mortal endurance.

 

 

Induction

Yesterday morning I got up and went to work.  By 6:30 I had ten pounds of orzo rolling at a gentle boil in two large pots of salted water with a bit of olive oil, stirring often with a huge wooden spoon, rubbing its head against the bottom of the pots every two minutes.  Left untended, orzo has a tendency to settle and stick.  Once it sticks, it begins to scorch, infusing the entire batch of pasta with a burnt odor and flavor.

Once the orzo had been drained, shocked in ice water, drained again, lightly oiled and put away to be mixed with other ingredients later, I got a rondeau of risotto going.  You know the deal: arborio, onions, butter, wine, vegetable stock, beat out the starch, yaddah-yaddah.  While I hunched over the wide shallow French-style pot and stirred the Italian-style rice porridge, the world kept turning, exploding in my imagination with its ten-thousand things.

That was yesterday.  This is today.  So this morning I ask myself, is there a way?  Is there a way I can be here, in this place, a little easier?  And still wanting to know everything without needing to know anything?  I pray those who need rest will get it.  I pray those who need food will have it.  I hope those who struggle to lift their heads might find that quiet strength.  I hope those who crackle with electric energy may continue to burn long into their nights and days, wrapped in the cloak of their own naked fire.

Am I half asleep?  How does this come to me?  It comes to me as I pass stacked boxes of bananas at dawn, as I pass young women running with braided hair, heaps of black garbage bags, tired men collecting cans, dogs, hipsters, strollers being pushed, buses, bicycles, a Dominican barbershop.  It comes to me as if I have plucked at the edge of a web, and the creature at its heart is New York, and the creature has woken while I move along one of its sticky strands.