Glide

I.
A long-looking wind blows
memory into drifts and dapples
the withered ego
of an old tree alone
among the husks and chaff.

There is no sound but the rattle-clack
of its old rheumatic branches
in a wind not of its making.
A wind form somewhere else that
bends it nonetheless away –

it always seems away
always bent away because a wind
from somewhere else
never has you in it.

II.
The bent tree tends forever back
and barks ahead across
a thin space made on a frozen pond
in the blown prairie.

A thin space made
of a wisp-drifted memory

where, with no blades to cut the ice
with nothing so precise
we skated in our shoes and listened
for the deep – the ancient –
sound of gasping cracks that we knew,
because we were experts already
in suffering,
would never reach the surface.

The Willing Left Behind

Visible saints, back from visible wars,
Mount our black tarmac and try coming unstuck.
They come bleeding sand from unsettled scores,
Try smiling at wives and babies and luck.
We smile right back as big as we’re able,
Thank them at ballparks and ice hockey rinks.
Hide our old story behind a true fable,
Salute them with handshakes, college, and drinks.
We broadcast their service in movies and books,
Sure to display them with due gratitude.
They did what the softened civilian can’t brook
So we hail their hard hearts (but think ours less crude).
Some, though they drummed in the same brothered band
Cover their ears with their unbloodied hands.

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.

At Once Against and With

At Once Against and With the World

Autumn starts for me like this,
With an evening’s cold, capricious kiss,
Chiding me to stay alert
That I don’t miss my turn to flirt.

I hustle down the dim lit walks,
With lamps on slightly swaying stalks,
Not bothering to dodge the leaves
Cascading down from dormered eaves.

When now the hub of town comes near,
With its public houses pouring beer
Colder than the brittle air
Because it’s close and warm in there,

I go inside against the cold,
Where I like to think we’re men of old.
And on every wooden bench and stool
Sits a girl – an honored golden rule.

They’ve hung their woolen coats on hooks,
And the boys are warming them with looks.
A suggestive stitch, a hopeful hem,
Autumn’s stockings are November’s gems.

And so we work with noble tones
Toward a sense of coming home.
Because man seems tempted to his best
When woman is so smartly dressed.

When everything to do’s been done,
We wrap back up to hold the fun
As close to us as a person’s able,
And leave the rest upon the table.

Though warm within and cold without,
It is easy to forget about
The discomfort we’re supposed to know,
And on our brazen way we go.

Fall is where the season’s heart
Truly shows the human art
Of marching out with soul unfurled –
At once against and with the world.

Originally posted November 2010

Mock Bottom

What does the floor look like
I wonder
In a place called Rock Bottom?

Does it shine like it shone
in the barracks from the hypnotic drone
of a heavy steel machine and
one or two sleepy soldiers
who cannot but buff and wax
until their standing orders have
a suitable place for standing on?

Does it shine like it shines
at these meetings where the dank black
brew drips and cakes in brown outlines
on a floor whose sheen lacks sharpness
the way it never would if they
hired an old soldier to do the floors
here in the basement of
St. Catherine’s at night?

Is it just an unclever joke?

A place they’ve named Rock Bottom
comically
because there isn’t
a rock to break your teeth on
within an empty bottle’s throw
of anywhere you might be laying?

Is it a floor as flat and fleet and forever
as the dull map of regret
charted in the lineless low-relief
of a place with no noteworthy terrain?
A map of an inch of desert
scaled out in such vast despondence
that the little key in the corner reads
(if you can see it)
1 grain = your whole wasted life.

Or are there really rocks
in the rubble down there – jagged
but germane to the rank poetics
from a beggar’s caustic maw.

Are there really rocks down there
where they tell me time and again
over and over
that I’m in The Right Place?

I remember some rocks, sure.
But I don’t remember a bottom.

I don’t know anyone
who remembers seeing anywhere
beneath the garbage
and the softening teeth
and the shameful things done
for a bottle of any-damn-thing,
seeing anywhere beneath that rancid humiliation
anything that looked like a bottom.

I’m no expert but I think that
my Right Place –
if I have such a thing –
has much better lighting.

And this dead-humming coffee
that I swear would come
crawling up my arm
if I dangled a curious finger in there
wouldn’t make it through the door –
much less onto the floor –
of anyplace that I would call

for me

right.

Dark Halo

People like to say that you can conquer your fears, if you can just manage to face them. I disagree. The more you face your fear, the more you details you collect about what there is to be afraid of. The more certain you become. I had thirty chances – thirty-five, I always forget about jump school – to get over my fear of heights. All I got over was my interest in jumping out of airplanes. I’d do it again if I had to. If I had to.

The trained eye watches that video and sees a few fellas who are going to have a hell of a time getting their affairs in order before the ground comes up to meet them.

There’s no point in trying to avoid the ground, it’s everywhere. Still, your brain tells your body to find a way around it. Your brain screams at you to not let that meeting happen. You are told to look for the treetops and estimate your distance to the ground, but it can’t rightly be done. Like a drunk, you have no idea, really, when you’re going to hit bottom. Hopping off a chair or a platform 5 or 6 feet off the ground gives you the impression that you understand your position relative to it, but it’s not really true. It’s really just something you don’t care about, because you know you’re safe. You aren’t falling long enough to care about how fast it’s happening. From under a parachute, the closer you get to the ground the more you realize that you have no idea – no way of knowing – just how fast you are falling. They tell you it’s twenty-eight feet per second, and that’s a neat thing to say, but screaming it at the ground, in the dark, isn’t going to make things any easier. Besides, you’re only supposed to make noise out there if you are hurt.

You’ve been stuffed in this tiny airplane for the last hour, like tobacco in a cigarette, sweating. Sixty pounds on your lap, forty on your back. Your legs are woven into the legs of the man across from you, because the bird just wasn’t built for this. When it shakes, the dust of all the world’s time zones fall from the exposed wires and tubes. It has about two decades worth of flight hours, and has been doing this since Vietnam. The skin’s so thin that you think you can see right through it, all the way to home and your mom and that day when you thought you needed this, somehow. Even if she didn’t love you then, she loves you in this memory, because this memory wants you to go back. The old plane creaks and settles when it’s sitting still, and then it really lurches and lifts you into the sky.

The noise. Jesus, the noise. A little red light and the commands you echo not because you can hear the jumpmaster shout them, but because you know where and when they belong, even if you haven’t figured that out for yourself yet. Even if figuring out where and when you belong is really why you’re here. The noise, the light, the commands. And the games. You deflect and you distract. Your mind is screaming at you to not do this. To stop. You convince yourself for a moment that you are tough. Then your mind does it again: Stop. You convince yourself for a moment that you are crazy. Then your mind does it again: Stop. You convince yourself that you are screwed. This time your mind doesn’t rebuke.

The light goes from red to green, and finally your instincts are jolted by all your years and you know what to do when lights turn green. Your mind tries one more time: STOP.

There’s a dozen ways to screw this up, and your only comfort comes from knowing that almost none of them will kill you. That’s left to God, so you’d better hope He was there for pre-jump. It’s so dark and loud and your feet are shuffling and really you’re just doing what the other people are doing and all you know for sure is that if you buck this trend you will ruin the night for everyone behind you.

Then it’s silent but for the numbers in your head. Counting because they told you it was important, that if you made it to five there was something going wrong and you had better pull that reserve. But you’re not really doing the counting. They’re just shapes in your mind, a slide show with your eyelids stapled open. Just terror and symbols occupying the same ether, no causality. Somehow you always knew that if you made it to five you would probably make it all the way to nine or eleven or however many it would take before nothing else will take.

Somewhere in there came the yank. When the straps pull tight it is the only burning in the groin you will ever love. Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Counting – six, seven…you can stop that now. The chute is open, the night is dead. You might or might not hear the quad props of a fifty year-old airplane trailing off somewhere. Maybe the moon is out and the varied terrain below you is somewhat visible. Varied. It’s mostly flat, and it’s all hard as trigonometry. Maybe the moon is gone and everything is black, except that matronly silk vestment above you, which is the darkest green Creation has ever seen. A perfect circle cut into the nothing overhead. You have a dark halo.

But twenty-eight feet per second isn’t interested in what’s above you.

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.