Mailing It In

Give to get, get to give/

I love forgetting about something until it shows up in the mail. You don’t really get to do that much in this blissful epoch of two-day and even sometimes same-day deliveries. But a while back I was offered a thing and I – wisely – accepted. I chided the sender once, then left off, and yesterday it arrived. “That’s odd handwriting.” I knew it wasn’t my mom’s, thought it could have been my dad’s, if he was in a hurry, then I looked at the return address and remembered that Miss Dickinson had been on her way, as she says in #324, Some Keep the Sabbath, “all along.” Thanks go out to Gerard for the best of gifts: a book with a personalized inscription:

It’s a gambit of sorts, because I gain more from it than this book. It means that I, like Gerard before he sent it, now have two copies and can send one off to anyone who wants it. Raise your hand in the comments and we can work it out.

There’s a lot going on, to be sure, but I don’t want to talk about it. I want to do this: Sanding the deck (it’s done, BTW, we’ll stain this weekend) inevitably, finally, reminded me of this poem:

Cut

There are days you learn things
like —
 
the real feel of sawdust,
downy in plush piles
No trace of the pain
of its bellicose birthing
 
Days you learn that 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 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 moved whole seasons
and could not help but carry
the fruit of hewn history
straight into you
 
That first time it was only looking —
 
A place to live
A home forever
 
We know it now not
as the smell of the jobs of our fathers —
jobs that 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 piles —
neat peaks to bear up the brutes,
the boys, the noise-born boys!
whose shouts we shussshhhh —
 
stamp right out.
 
Believing —
 
we can polish the mean teeth
of the saw,
pad the menacing head
of the hammer,
quench the fires blasting
in the bellies,
And still have a house to live in
 
Mama —
who made us
know
Who 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
 
She lifts her blade while papa
(who always mutely knew)
swings his, severing, down
 
We stand between, above —
smelling home with every
swipe and hack

All the Books in the Universe

The librarian’s telling dad jokes.

Had things been normal, The Boy’s school year would have ended with field day. Each year, a new t-shirt is designed, and the school meets at Lincoln Park for a day of events that the parents and teachers plan, coordinate, and execute with varying degrees of aptitude. Living so close to the park, we have hosted, for the last few years, most of the students in one or both of our kids’ classes for pre-field day shenanigans and donuts. When the time comes we walk them down to the park

There was no field day this year, and I miss filling the street in front of the house with a dozen screaming grade schoolers at 7:30 in the morning. But at least the commemorative shirts were still made. They were handed out with a few other items at the final drive-thru this morning. When The Boy brought it in and showed me, I couldn’t believe what I saw. I have no idea if a parent drew this up, or if it’s some stock design, but it’s the perfect accompaniment to a poem I wrote years ago as The Boy, then just a baby, was falling asleep on my chest:

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.

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 dreams aren't bound by time.

He bobs on past hoar-frosted shelves,
And a section with 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 an innocent's 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.

Of Ballads and Bruises

And also of forgiveness

Emily Dickinson:

I HAD a guinea golden;
I lost it in the sand,
And though the sum was simple,
And pounds were in the land,
Still had it such a value
Unto my frugal eye,
That when I could not find it
I sat me down to sigh.
  
I had a crimson robin
Who sang full many a day,
But when the woods were painted
He, too, did fly away.
Time brought me other robins,—
Their ballads were the same,—
Still for my missing troubadour
I kept the “house at hame.”
  
I had a star in heaven;
One Pleiad was its name,
And when I was not heeding
It wandered from the same.
And though the skies are crowded,
And all the night ashine,
I do not care about it,
Since none of them are mine.
  
My story has a moral:
I have a missing friend,—
Pleiad its name, and robin,
And guinea in the sand,—
And when this mournful ditty,
Accompanied with tear,
Shall meet the eye of traitor
In country far from here,
Grant that repentance solemn
May seize upon his mind,
And he no consolation
Beneath the sun may find.

Seems oddly unforgiving. “House at Hame” is from an 1822 Scottish ballad about a woman, at home and working hard to keep her kids fed and clothed while her husband is gone. Presumably in a war, because that’s how these things usually go. There was some unrest in Scotland in 1820, “The Radical War,” but that was short-lived and domestic, consisting of riots and occasional clashes with authorities (where have I heard that before?). Interestingly, and antithetical to Emily’s poem, the husband in the song does return home, to much joy and celebration. A bit more upbeat than Dickinson’s wish for eternal suffering.


I’m going to let the Plague Diaries slide into a less prominent role here. It’s getting old, and I find myself complaining too much. It’s going to be dragging on long enough that I don’t need to worry about running out of things to say. The Boy’s school just emailed us to the tune of “expect to continue some level of homeschooling next year.” They have no definite plan yet, but it won’t be like it used to be. Months ago I obstinately refused to believe that this vain terror would have any lasting effects on life as we knew it. It may be time to admit that I was wrong about that. I am wrong an awful lot.

But I’m right, too, and it’s frustrating. Yesterday I received an email from a friend. I went to high school with her husband. We don’t talk much. But they’re a very thoughtful couple, and it didn’t surprise me that they reached out, offering prayers, thoughts, well wishes while they hear about Seattle on the news. I can’t imagine what image they are getting through The Big Filter. My mom, for instance, asked me how close I lived to “The block party.” No irony, no sarcasm. That’s just what the news told her was happening on Capitol Hill. And that kind of confusion and spin is what fueled my response to yesterday’s email from my friend in California:

It's odd here. From our house it's impossible to tell anything has happened. Or is happening. The West Seattle Bridge being out of operation really cuts us off from the world, and with all the Coronavirus restrictions, well, our universe is decidedly shrunken.

The behavior of people confuses and saddens me, and I guess I just try my best to know what I think about it all. As of now, I have no idea. Everyone seems to have a good point to make alongside every bad one, nobody's doing anything all the way right or all the way wrong, and the whole thing just seems to keep everyone divided and unhappy. I'm reading The Brothers Karamazov right now, in which the principal character lives (at least in the first part) in a monastery. I can't help wanting to run to one myself.

Whether it's streets blocked with protesters, or COVID restrictions from the Governor, I'm tired of not being able to go where I want, when I want. It's a pretty nice life here in our big house with plenty of food and money, but the soul begs for movement, contact, and variety.

Wherever the other side of all this is, and whenever it comes, I hope we all arrive there better than when it started.

Here’s to getting healthy, Comrade Citizen.

The PVP Diaries #59

“A man who lies to himself is often the first to take offense. It sometimes feels very good to take offense, doesn’t it?”

– The Elder Zosima, The Brothers K.

Here’s a reprint for a day that’s simply one too many:

Soft Armor

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 blue bird’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

Found Poetry

I’ve never read any Kerouac. There’s a short section of this poem dubbed into a song I’ve known since forever:

…America and Steel civilization rushing by with San
Francisco Chronicles and green Call-Bulletins not even enough
time to be disdainful, they’ve got to catch 130, 132, 134, 136 all
the way up to 146 till the time of evening supper in homes of the
railroad earth when high in the sky the magic stars ride above
the following hotshot freight trains–it’s all in California, it’s all a
sea…

Wait a little for it, but listen until you get there. It really isn’t all that bad:

I rode down to the tracks
Thinking they might sing to me
But they just stared back
Broken, trainless, and black as night
Climbed out on to my roof
So I’d be a poet in the night
Beat the walls off my room
I saw the big room that is this life

This is my condition:
Naked and hysterical
Reaching to grab a hand that I just slapped back at
This is my condition:
Desperate, alone, without an excuse
I try to explain
Christ, what’s the use?

Read and I felt so small
Some words keep speaking when you close the book
Drank and just about smiled
Then I remembered us in that bed
Put my ear to the door
I just heard hot rods and gunshots and sirens
People kill me these days
There’s keys in their eyes but they locked from the inside

This is my condition:
Naked and hysterical
Reaching to grab a hand that I just slapped back at
This is my condition:
Desperate, alone, without an excuse
I try to explain
Christ, what’s the use?

The Butler Rises

 

I’ve always had a hard time writing to a specific theme. I could come home from a hockey game and write a better poem about baseball than hockey. All of this to say that I don’t think I have a specific Mother’s Day poem in the archives. I do have this, written in 2012, when the kids were still 1 and 3 years old. I was only just starting to get good at this dadding business, and their mother’s work travels left them very much longing, and I with my hands very full. I was still working full time then as well, so it was a whirlwind. We celebrated her returns:

The Countermeasure

Mama’s coming home today!
In anticipation, the pancakes fly
From the children’s plates
To the dog, through the sky.
Mama’s coming home today!

The sun makes noise to celebrate!
In obeisance, the butler rises
To quiet the household’s gears
With oils, and compromises.
The sun makes noise to celebrate!

Mama’s coming home today!
In preparation, a runner’s sent
To deliver the angels’ praise
For surviving, and keeping up the rent.
Mama’s coming home today!

………

She hasn’t traveled for months now, and that is what we celebrate. Here’s to a world waking itself up to travel, and a love that never leaves home.

 

 

The PVP Diaries #39

Throat officially cleared

 “Having lost her bearings, completely demoralized, Rebeca began eating earth again.”

– Marquez, 100 Years of Solitude

I am not demoralized, nor am I eating earth. Yet. I am only digging it and moving it, feeling sometimes armed not so much with a shovel as with one of poor Prufrock’s coffee spoons. But all the while feeling fine, if occasionally wondering what the dirt tasted like.

Update 5-5

I was up earlier than normal, but had a hard time getting started. Something in my head made me write this line down:

The only place I put my trust
is in things already returned to dust.

I’m not sure what to talk about today. I’m a little tired of my usual shtick, analyzing press releases and pretending to know better. To know anything.

I’m still digging, of course. And because there’s an analogue to every action, it could be said that I am literally flattening the curve:

May 5
May 5

May 6
May 6

As i move downhill (left in the picture) there is less and less to dig. I should be finished this afternoon. I’ll order my 5 yards of gravel for the base today, then finalize my measurements and order the sand, pavers, and wall blocks. I’m borrowing a plate compacter from a friend, and won’t have it until Monday, so no rush. Wire for the lights is already coming, but this particular household’s Committee of Ornamental Lighting Solutions has not yet met over the choice of the lights themselves. I suppose you could say that the project is being accomplished with a phased approach, with input from a diverse group of (two, sometimes conflicting) voices, and based upon an ever-shifting influx of data. In buckets.

Ok, I decided that the best thing I could do for myself this morning was to turn away for a moment and put together a one donut poem. It’s my first poem in weeks  months, and the right kind of excavation for my compacted soul.:

Honest

The easy part is the digging –
the placid silence of the spade slipping
sometimes surgically into earth –
the dirt itself gives a sexual sigh
as it welcomes the stone-honed steel
of the shovel between its sacred grains.

The easy part is the digging –
the straight-grained shaft of the handle
sometimes rung by a rock that sends
a shivering quiver into bone after bone
and out the crown of a skull that empties
toward divinity with every chuck and throw.

The easy part is the digging –
the brute sinking of shovel into soil
and the blessed singing of sinew –
the timeless rhythm that never lies
as it separates element from sentiment
and turns movement into monument.

The only place I put my trust
is in things already gone to dust.

 

I don’t usually give myself over to tricks like extended alliteration, but masterwork was not the goal here. The one donut poems are purges, cathartics. Semicolons of the morning, clearing the way for a fresh, independent clause.

………

The boy just came down – his light bounce on the stairs giving away his good mood before he was halfway here. I knew something was coming. It was. It did:

“Dad. I had the best dream ever last night. Quarantine was over, the day before summer vacation, and we could visit other people’s houses. We visited an animal shelter and we got an Abyssinian, and it was so happy, and it had no problem jumping up into our laps.  It held onto your computer cord and said ‘gimme the treats.’ And there was a lot more.”

Now he’s reading:

IMG_3510

We’ve been looking at a Cat Encyclopedia in our very casual run-up to pet ownership, hence the specificity of the Abyssinian. It’s the first one in the book.

………

Your Homeless in Coronafornia” update for today:

As vibrant as ever

I thought maybe that was sarcasm, but his mood was light in the rest of the conversation. He’s generally a pretty positive person. It can be uplifting.

………

The Danger of Overstatements

Fake News!

Let us say that only Everest for the mountains
and the Sequoia for the trees
and the blue whale for the animals
(and if we must split land and sea
then it’s the elephant for me)
can be what we call giant.

I have seen the giant pacific octopus
and wished that it were bigger.

GO AHEAD

Happy to be full of it, sometimes

The last thing I ever want to do is the thing that everyone else is doing. For the purpose of this entry, that thing is playing the victim. Claiming specialness. I am not special. I am not a victim. But I am willing to observe, politely and mildly, that there is a bit of an extant sentiment in society that is, shall we say, ever-so-slightly in opposition to men. There’s lots of things we’re not supposed to be, depending on who you ask. But it’s all the same thing in the end, really. The thing we’re not supposed to be, is us.

So what. My entire childhood and adolescence were based on doing exactly what I wasn’t supposed to do. Big deal. Still, here I am: one of these men – at least in terms of biology and mentality – that we don’t seem to want much of. I write occasional poems in support of others like me because after three years in college, I learned more than anything that the most important thing to do is to celebrate and support with the greatest fervor those things that are the most like ourselves. The liberal arts world in college is a world based on the elevation of things of your own kind, and denigration of things outside of your own cultural circle. And also tolerance. Do what you will with that little contradiction.

I am aware of what kind of man I am. I only very occasionally build things, but I have an embarrassingly impressive array of tools. That kind of cliché. I fold laundry more than I hammer steel, I wash dishes more than I turn wrenches. My hands are not hard or large. I am tall but not imposing, and I am (he meekly admits) terrified of confrontations. My God, I think back over all of the fights I have craftily avoided in my life and I am not proud. But it’s still in there, that core thing, that masculinity that is called toxic nowadays. I know our need of it, and bristle at the mockery directed its way.

I am not here to argue against that. It strikes me as hypocritical in some ways. The masculinity I own and revere does not raise its voice to protest. It works and produces and creates and lets that action speak for it. It follows the cardinal rule of the writer in that it does not tell – it shows. I am here not to complain but to be a fan. To write up my support for the hard things that we are, and for the shittily unrefinable parts of our nature that I would not run from a fight to preserve.

Having said that:

GO AHEAD

Be dirty and don’t hide 
your large hands that could 
                    split timber.

They flip thin pages, too,
rattle pans and
feed their fighting heirs.

GO AHEAD

Be mean and lift the heavy thing 
and don’t mind making a little 
                    show of it.

Your beambroad back
can bear it and
won’t tremble in the least

GO AHEAD

Be hard, clumsy and cruel
and let the sneer of the timid 
                    mock itself.

You hardly can part 
from that look that
feeds you its forsaken strength

GO AHEAD

Be bare-knuckled and nude
because we need most what
                    no one wants.

The world knows and 
keeps a place 
for the things we expel.