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.

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 make you quit
because you feel embarrassed
for the fish if you
look 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 you.

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.

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.

Shrinking

Like the house you grew up in
and the tree that you climbed.
Like the hill that you’d sled down
and the fossils you’d find.

Like the tadpoles you hunted
Like the snakes that you caught
Like the gun that your friend had
Like the birds that you shot

Like the calls from your parents
in the forts that you built.
Like the food you devoured
in the silence you killed.

Like the fists of your brother
Like the hands of your mom
Like the silence from father
Like he knew all along.

Like the speed of your heart
from your crush on that girl.
Like the dreams in your head
from the size of the world

Like the eyes of the teachers
Like the chalk on the board
Like the bell ending recess
Like the run left unscored

Like the patience of mother
let you know you were wrong.
Like the fear of your father
let you know you belonged.

Like the length of the days.
Like the depth of the night.
Like the hope and the dread.
Like the end was in sight.

Like the way looking back
is like slow-going blind.
Like the way it’s all shrinking
from the falling behind.

Breakfast

“You and mom,” he said.

“Careful now, boy.”

“You and mom,” he said, “are at that age when”

“Eggshells, boy. Have I told you about eggshells?”

“You and mom are at that age when,” here he goes. I can’t believe he’s doing this “at that age when you start shrinking.”

“Get out.”

I used to write these little things down all the time, and am pretty crushed at this point that I’ve spent the last 4 years or so neglecting to record the interactions that I have with the kids. They made some of the best essays I’ve written. My daughter is 10 now, and too neat, so she doesn’t delve into ridiculous things like the 7 year old boy does. And when she did, it wasn’t as ridiculous as it was adorable. The boy, on the other hand, is just a friggin’ mess. To wit:

“I like being in pain. Like an adult. That’s what it all has to go through when you’re an adult. Having pain with your children.”

I don’t know about pain, but it’s telling that he interprets it that way. And his sister asked me today, point blank, “what is it like to be a parent?” How in God’s name do you answer that? They sat behind their cereal bowls, staring at me expectantly, the girl in her pajamas and morning hair, the boy, deathcamp-skinny in nothing but boxer shorts the size of a postage stamp. I don’ know how he survives, I just know that the world doesn’t seem to effect him much, externally. Anything goes.

Anyway, they asked me what it’s like to be a parent (isn’t it obvious? That’s a dad joke), and I don’t think I performed well in the moment. There was some boilerplate stuff about highs and lows, happiness and sadness, good days and bad, but I don’t guess that sounds much different to them than what it’s like to be a kid. I should have had something in there about pressure, about every moment having the terrifying weight of potential life-shaping significance, the immediacy of having someone else’s distant future on your shop table – is this a chopsaw situation, or just a little sand-and-blow? About the fact that I am, indeed coming to that age where I start shrinking, because of that pressure and that weight, but that it’s more willful acquiescence than it is attrition. As a parent you do not lose mass, ever, but you lose a little density, and the universe around you never stops expanding. You shrink just by not keeping up.

But I didn’t say any of that. Not even close. I said the dull usual stuff and said “you’re excused, go get ready for school,” and just kind of went along hoping they didn’t pick up on the fact that often, being a parent isn’t so much about shrinking as it is about failing to be big when the moment calls for it. But then again, that’s why we have kids – to fill up the moments that are too big to inhabit alone.

Like breakfast.