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.

The Kitchen Window

Genny lived next door
and made cupcakes sometimes
that we could smell in the middle of the day.

Our feet would come off the ground a bit
and we’d

float,
cartoonish,
noses up and eyes closed,

pulled in somnolent faith along an invisible rope
that painted our insides with
the light blue colors of an old, paint-flaking house
where she was forever framed in the glass of
her kitchen window. (please always have a
window in your kitchen
right there over the sink.)

Glass so old it sagged from time
and its own weight
until everything you saw through it looked uncertain
and underwater like a mute memory
more than the real, wrinkled face
that smiled nonetheless across
that little space between the houses
on a day that swung too high and short
even in the morning.

Genny lived next door and
made cupcakes that smelled so good
that our feet came off the ground

and our toes
– just
– brushed
the grass

and left wavy little trails all the way to her kitchen
where we woke up with crumbs
and blessings on our lips
and a little sunlit spot
that took the place of
knowing how we got there.

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.

The Bakery in Winter

At the bakery in winter the old men hold the door
(though it sticks open on the uneven floor)
for their trundling wives.

The wind is urgent and less polite and
elbows past them as if to jump the line,
which would move faster if there were labels
on the offerings of the trade –
the crullers and bear claws and streusels and strudels
(and who really knows which is which?)

How, with the wind and the winter in here
and the line pressing on,
are they to know what to say?
They have to ask
“what’s this and what’s that”
and sometimes when they’re told
it hurts a little to not know already.

They feel threatened to hear names
like Bismarck and Pershing
because those martial monikers ambush the old men
with the cold tactics of ghostly senescence.

Unable to assemble the memories
that they find, wandering
amid the booted chaff of history’s dusky fields,
they swallow unchallenged passwords
and re-feel the crippling fear
of never finding their way back
through the black percussive silence
to the rally point.

But here is a good place, the bakery in winter,
where old wives recount for the girl at the counter
stories of the latest hospital stay.
The husbands hang their leather bombers,
worn, wrinkled, and grave as their skin,
on the backs of chairs.

With the wind so urgent though
and less polite
they put their jackets back on
and think about Bismarck and Pershing
and wonder if it was enough
to have your name live on forever
if only as an unmarked good in a familiar place
that nevertheless stayed too cold in the winter.