World Poetry Day

Blame the world!

It’s world poetry day, and I wanted to get something in. I wrote this one a while ago but didn’t publish it because it’s a little bit of a downer, and frankly I just don’t feel that down. Ever, really. Still, it came from somewhere, didn’t it? I’ll have poetry in mind today, and try to come up with something a little brighter.

It’s in a form called a triolet (introduced to me by Cubby) with a nod to Robert Frost. Title comes from Dad, who once said one of the more profound and practical things I’ve heard:

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Yonder

I’m sorry I’m so far away
but my God, this world’s a wedge.
I have to shout now just to say
I’m sorry I’m so far away.
I thought our gold alone could stay
but here it’s peeling from its edge.
I’m sorry I’m so far away,
but my God, this world’s a wedge.

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Tilting Loveward

Every Dog Deserves a Eulogy

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If there is anything that is guaranteed in life, it is that we will love things that are not good for us. Few loves are ever a pure win. Some are calamitous. Most are in between, and most of those lean significantly towards the good. Tilting loveward is our most incorruptible instinct. It is the one thing we do that always moves in the same direction as God, so it is the movement that makes us both most human and most divine.

It is why we love our dogs, so often doing so not because of them, but in spite of them. The strife and inconvenience that they bring to our lives almost immediately outweigh the joy: the ruined rugs and floors; the shoes, furniture and walls chewed to pieces; the holes in the yard and the fence, the running away. The vet bills. The apologies to the neighbors and the boarding expenses when we go on vacation (if we still take vacations, now that we have a dog). The piles of dog-specific clutter that enters our homes and disrupts our lives from deep down in the Feng all the way up to the shui. And unless you are a full time hunter or a sled driver in the Yukon, the return we receive on this investment in chaos is rarely more than a wagging tail and yet another body that we didn’t invite into our bed but is there anyway.

Yet for all that, we look one time at some oversized paws, get nipped by those tiny piranha puppy teeth, and smell that unbelievably sweet vanilla-maple perfume down in their downy coats, and we tilt ever harder loveward.

The years go on and some of the early worries vanish, along with the amount of free space left on the bed. They are years on cruise control when the young dog mostly behaves and our lives are are an often mechanical, sometimes poetic routine. “This is why I got a dog,” we say and mean it because her coat is rich and full and as she naps after hours of running in the park her breaths come easy and even. We don’t know why but suddenly we want to invite friends over. We want people around us, and our dog. We want to show off a little.

The years continue to go on and some of the early worries start to return, along with the amount of free space on the bed because she can’t get up there anymore. We tap the brakes and adjust our speed more frequently. “It is difficult to have a dog,” we say and mean it because the mature dog has some new dietary needs and her coat is thinning and her face is turning white and as she naps after a short walk down the hill to the mailbox her breaths come with a slight wheeze and catch. We don’t know why but suddenly we want to sleep, too. We want to be alone with our thoughts, and our dog. We want to cry a little.

So yes, it becomes increasingly difficult to say, honestly, that we’re happy we have a dog. Yet for all the woes that I could easily catalog over the 15 years of a tumultuous life with our dear Lucy, I find us undeniably diminished by her departure. She died yesterday, medically induced. It was a decision we made based on the fact that for however much longer she might go on, every single day would be both her best day remaining, and also worse than the one before. We did it for her. We did it to let her go out on the highest note she had left.

We could have had it done at home, but at the vet she was well known and even better loved. We sat with her there on the floor and as the sedatives took effect the whole building seemed to sag with her muscles. She worked her way at first voraciously through the pile of treats that the doctor set before her. Then she forgot them, rested her chin on the blanket, and let her tongue hang comically and adorably from the front of her mouth. The rest was done with a somehow tender clinical ease, by way of two more injections, and she faded gently out from there without so much as the tiniest twitch or final significant breath. She was just still there – only not – and there was no longer anything we could ask of her. That, I suppose, is the final gift: that she no longer has to wonder how to make us happy.

She could have gone on for a while, survivor that she was. As a pup she was bitten in the face by a rattlesnake and barely flinched. I, on the other hand, drove so fast and recklessly to the animal hospital in a rented roller skate of a car that news helicopters were being scrambled.  Years later, the new dog we got to be her companion wound up turning on her and attacking her brutally several times. We found that dog a new home (literally – not in an “off to live on a farm” kind of way). She had food allergies and skin conditions and more medical issues than I can list. But in the end there was always Lucy, waddling bow-legged along and pawing her nose at a world that seemed bent on holding her back. She kept going.

But the joy was gone for her. She really just slept through any stretch of time in which she had no reasonable hope for food. She followed us to bed but could barely manage the stairs. Life was naught but compulsion and habit, and was only getting worse, so we let her finally get off those aching legs of hers forever.

We remember her best, perhaps, driven for years by a steroid imbalance that left her with an improbably large liver and a literally insatiable hunger for food, rushing to the kitchen whenever she heard the dishwasher open so she could scrounge up any scraps she could reach. She lived to eat, and she died among food.

I only ask her to please, just once, make sure to poop in God’s living room on Roomba day. My children can attest that it might be the only time you ever get to hear Him swear.

In her life and again in her death, Lucy tilts us loveward.

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The Ill-Fitting Armor of Light

Big snow coming, they say.

I’m slowly becoming a very old man
and with such tiny wings
what could I possibly
carry away from my mountain of things
to map my brother’s black path back
from the graveyards and laundromats
and his rattlebone rests on cardboard flats?

To map his path back
to a place where
the roof shakes less and
the needs aren’t hard.
Where the outside’s out
and the inside’s in.
Where it’s only the dog
that shits in the yard.

Could I, knowing his rot,
issue the call and huddle him here
though I’d know the chill chatter
of his sourmash teeth
and fermented bones
would shake loose the joints
of my safe-steady home?

Could I, knowing the curelessness
and depth of his rot,
don the secondhand suit
of an imprecise Christ
that I find every night in the recycle bin
in a faithless attempt
to faith heal him?

I could do that, yes
and take fake comfort when
he says (all over again) that
I love you, brother
and
This time I swear it’s for real.

But still he’ll just gnaw at the mortar and beams
until he brings down the whole god damned thing

and here comes the dog

and there go my wings

Soft, Sweet Armor

On resisting the things that actually threaten our harmony, our unity. We never go deep enough.

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Guard against the joylessness –
the shout
the sloganed cry.
Guard against the chanted curse
and truthful-seeming lie.

Guard against the joylessness –
against the sheepish fright.
Guard against the mirthless marches
that wilt without the light
(a truly righteous Army thrives
even out of sight).

Guard against the joylessness –
the hunt
the bluebird’s noose.
Guard against the flashing placards
that turn a lynching loose.

Guard against the joylessness –
against the textbook heart.
Guard against the low momentum
of the classroom’s faded arts
(the ivory’s crumbling fastest
at the over-polished parts).

Guard against the joylessness
my son,
my girl child,
by suiting up in Mother’s grace
and by wielding Father’s smile.

Never Stop Laughing

Christmases!

Seven years ago, this was. The Boy wasn’t even a year old, and the girl was only three. They’re 7 and 10 now. Wow.

We didn’t go anywhere in search of Christmas, necessarily. But we did go driving off to a place where Christmas might be, if it were going to be anywhere.
 

“He looks out the window a lot, Papa.”

“He sure does.”

“Why do you think he does it?”

“Well, do you remember when I told you that his spirit was a miracle?”

“I think so. I think you said it was a miracle because it hasn’t done anything twice.”

“That’s right. Because for a tiny moment, it was the only thing in the world that had not done anything twice. And now there’s a world full of things that he hasn’t seen even once. Turns the world into a kind of miracle for him.”

“That’s why he laughs at it?”

“No, he’s laughing when he looks out at it because he wants to do everything he can with it to make it laugh like he is. He doesn’t know where it comes from or how it starts or anything about it except that he wants it to keep going. That’s how you feel when you are tiny, and new, and haven’t done things twice or seen things once, and it’s the part of it that’s the same for him as it is for us.”

“If it’s the same, Papa, then how come you don’t laugh so much?”

“Jeez, how old are you again?”

“Three and a half.”

“Hm. Well, I guess I don’t laugh so much because after a while you find out that some things don’t laugh back. And after a longer while, after too many things don’t laugh back, you just get tired.”

“Too tired to laugh?”

“Too tired to laugh, baby. But we remember that the world was a miracle for all of us, once. We remember that we saw new things everywhere we looked, and we expected everything to be laughing because we were laughing, even though it has been too long, sometimes, since anything up and laughed with us. That’s what Christmas is, sweetie: Being old and tired and still laughing, for a day, like we did when we were still playing with miracles.”

“But I’m not old.”

“No, you’re not. And you never have to be, because to your brother you are everything he sees when he looks out the window. And laughs.”

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.

The Dreamstronaut

I don’t really know what you call your wife’s cousin’s child – maybe my nephousinlaw. Whatever he’s called, he’s about a year old I guess and sleeping upstairs right now. He gave me a remiracle tonight, or at least let me live inside the memory of an old one, when he fell asleep easily on my chest. It’s the kind of thing that turns you into the kind of person that you don’t show too much in public. And it reminded me of when I wrote this poem after one of the last times my own son (at least I know what to call that one) fell asleep while I sat there, staring down at his face in a chair in a dim but brilliant corner of the room:

Originally written Dec 2011

The Dreamstronaut

The boy adrift in outer space alone –
His hairless pate in a glassy dome.
The awe, the joy, the dreaming soul.
A six-tooth smile in a barrel roll.

While his hands still search and his toes still curl,
Half in, half out of his old man’s world,
The half that’s in heaves a sigh at me,
The half that’s gone starts its reverie.

And with that I guess he’s in the stars,
Using them like monkey bars
To swing amidst the giant rows
While the library of his dreaming grows.

And once it’s up he’ll float about
In no great hurry to be picking out
His stories or his nursery rhymes;
He knows his night’s not bound by time.

He bobs on past hoar-frosted shelves,
And a hall that holds a copse of elves.
With a languid pull he moves along,
To the fantasy he’ll settle on.

I’ve always imagined him like this,
Giggling through the stacks in bliss.
The length and breadth of innocent whim,
His snickers and kicks propelling him.

Now in my arms he’s settled more,
But he shifts a bit one time before
His searching hand tugs on my nose –
He’s grabbed a dream, and off he goes.