Frozen Stories

Midwestern Memories

Frozen Stories

I don’t get to stand at the edge of a snowdusty lake and measure
with my child’s eye – squint against the bonefocused wind –
its slab of ice against the way the weather’s been and for how long

and then dare to step out onto it. I barely get to speak of ice
at all out here, much less hear tales of boys fallen through
over the years (I’ll have to ask mom why it was never a girl)

and how once you’re under the ice the mean water moves invisibly
to get you lost so you can never find the hole you made. And of course
in your soaked coat and wet-leaden mittens you will tire too quickly

to swim to that gray ring of sky before blueblack hypothermia hits.
I barely get to speak of ice out here or worry that a spot of skin’s
gone white. The weather asks so little of me that I have to beg

memory to list wispy words and show hung pictures of winterfear.
But memory’s different from knowing like guessing’s different from
fearing and I know that if I ever do get to speak of ice out here it’ll be

so whisperthin that every one of mom’s drowning boys would have
measured it beneath them to even try. They would just go around,
well trained by a place where the weather asks so much of them,

walking with fluid truth across the stonefrozen earth of a wintering farm
to find some way maybe to become a drowned ghost in the memory of
an old man’s couched and comfortable search for a reason to remember.

Parenthetical Courage

.

How close were you dad (here he peers
down plastic sights of a painted gun)
to the bad guys when you shot at them?

I had to say (I hoped) in a way
that would not forever break his aim,
I had to say (as hidden as the thing had stayed!)
that I never got that close.

But I was available,
I promised my apology,
had someone simply asked me to.

And that much was surely true
but that much was not enough
to burn me into some hell where
the blood of better men dried
and caked and made crispy
little cards of the sand.

That much was not enough –
as apologies never are.

Were you good at shooting dad and
should I close one eye when I aim?
You should aim I said
(he couldn’t know how blindly)
with every eye you can open.

Cut

Yes, messy.

There are days you learn things
like the real feel of sawdust,
downy in plush piles
with no trace of the cruelty
of its bellicose birthing.
Days you learn that
the things you don’t long look at –
things made when two mean pieces meet
and one must give –
are too quickly swept away.

The first time you ever smelled it –
a tidy slice that bled all freshness
from the dying whine of the
chopsaw (hard named thing!) –
was in the garage, probably,
or a cobwebbed shed or even
in the bright back woods,
under a stiff wind that could move whole seasons
and could not help but carry
the fruit of hewn spruce and history
straight into you.

That first time it was only looking
for a place to live.
It barely asked a second time
to make it smell like home forever.

We know it now
not as the smell of the jobs of our fathers,
jobs that often didn’t seem enough.
We know it now
as the smell instead of the work they did
that we silent saw
(and they more silent did).

Work that was rough,
that was mean,
that mother sometimes seemed to think
wasn’t good for much.
That it was only the work –
just that, merely the work –
that made them,
merely,
men.

But now we know that Mama knew
and nothing good was left unseen.
We know that she knew that
Papa had to be the silent thing
to clear a little holy space
for a little violent shepherding.

Now we know that Mama knew
what rough cuts made the dust,
and how she must not just sweep it up
but that she must (hard fought stuff!)
form its piles into neat peaks
to bear up the brutes, the boys,
the noise-born boys
whose shouts we shush –
stamp right out –

Believing, hoping we can
polish down the teeth
of the saw,
pad the menacing head
of the hammer,
quench the fires blasting
in the engines of the bulldozers –
And still have a house to live in.

Mama – who made us know
when she made us whole –
sees us act
as if we could make all
the hard things soft and
the loud things quiet and
the mean things nice and
never once put tooth to tree.
As if we could have
the (yes, messy) blessing of the dust
without the saw.

We never saw that mama cuts things, too,
and lifts her blade while
papa (who always mutely knew)
swings his, severing, down.
We stand between and above
with our noses in the air where
we’re made on the hills of their unswept dust,
smelling home with every swipe and hack.

Morning’s Mile

In the cities there is nothing
to milk but time. You are spared
the poetics of rote labor.

There is no duty to recall
in that strange awakening
of late adulthood

mother’s feathered hands
or the careful thud, thud,
thud of father’s boots trying

helplessly not to wake you yet.
In the cities when young
men find themselves wearing

their own fathers’ rent vestments
they do not smell like
dirt, shit, and oil.

They smell like paper
and staples and the florid
lining of a brass-clasped

briefcase swung swish,
swish against a silk-slacked
thigh.

In the cities young fathers
grow up slight and light
because their histories weigh

less and don’t ask much
muscle to carry around.
They lack the heraldic sound

of the only engine in a morning’s mile
being turned churlishly over and
breathing exhausted clouds into an

unhidden sky. But in the city in
the street where a thousand engines run
you don’t hear a single one.

Cavity

I.

I’ll say that there are Men.
First.
Just that.
There are Men.

And that men are magnificent.

I’ll say that there are violent men.
Magnificent, violent men.
Violence is the golden blood.
And violence is the fetid brine
where it turns the earth to mud.

And I’ll say that the most violent thing is
Not the man
Not the knife
Not the heart
Not the guts
Not the blood or the brine.

That the most violent thing
is the violence it takes
to strip
to rend
to gnash
to gut
to burn
the man away.

II.

I’ll say that men are with women.
And these women are mothers.
And that mothers are magnificent.

And that if mama don’t get her way
she finds her way
any way.
Because she’s capable of the biggest things –
including violence.
Because that child won’t feed itself.
That fish won’t gut itself.
But mama’s violence doesn’t
crunch and zipper
down the fish’s scales.

Mama’s violence is an ancient intent –
A bloodless lunge that leaves no hole.

III

I’ll say that these women are with men
And these men are fathers
and that fathers are magnificent.

And if papa don’t get his way
he gives his way
any way.
That tree won’t chop itself.

But papa’s violence isn’t neat.
It leaves great gashes of sap
and of tarry black blood
and a hole so big
a child can crawl through it.

IV.

the built world screams at Papa
because his way is violent.

But papa with hard hands in the world he built
says nothing back.
He just shoulders the axe.
Because violence knows
and violence gives way
and violence rests.

And rest endures.

V.

And because endurance is violent
He is violent
to people who are his boys
so that they will not forget how when duty calls them.

And because violence endures
He endures
with people who are his girls
so that they will not forget how when duty calls them.

VI.

And he is with woman and she is with him
and they have ways that are found
and ways that are given
and ways that are taken.
All ways endure.

VII.

The most violent thing
is the fish
because the fish will gut the man
if he feels embarrassed
for the fish when he
looks at its guts.

The fish with its rent heart
will not understand this.
The fish with its rent heart
and piles of cold spilled guts
will wonder what’s wrong with him.

The fish will ask:

Have you never eaten?
Has your mother never told you
about all of the pain?
All of the violence it took
to be eaten alive by you?
At least you have the heart to kill me first.

VIII.

And I’ll say that men
have spoken to the fish
about the fish’s guts.

And I’ll say that men
have spoken to the tree
about the tree’s bones.

And I’ll say that men
have spoken to the earth
about the earth’s blood.

And I’ll say that men
have sung to the child
about the child’s supper.

And the fish and the tree and the earth
have answered the men.

the fish has offered its guts.
the tree has offered its bones.
the earth has offered its blood.

the child –
the child eats

IX.

And the little boys drag
– with their bleeding hands
and hard fathers – the heavy axe.

And the little girls pack
– with their tender hands
and hard mothers – the crimson gauze.

the men give thanks
the women water the stone.

Because endurance cradles
violence at its breast
and woos it to its rest.