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.

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.

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.

They’re All Days Without a Woman

Just climbing into my trash can here.

If you come into the house and look closely, but squint a little bit, you might be able to just make out the diminishing line between cleaning up, and throwing things away. Though you’d be forgiven if it all just looked like the latter. Life reaches peak simplicity when the answer to “where does this go” becomes “in the trash.” Try it. You’ll sleep like a rock.

I lie to myself all the time in order to stay afloat. Kids really are a thing that have to be dealt with, such that parenting cannot simply happen as an addendum to other responsibilities. But I lie and say that it’s just another one of the things. The many things that make up a life. That’s kind of nonsense. What parenting is, is absolute proof that it is impossible to multitask. Breaking up a fight while doing dishes while making dinner while doing laundry – crap, I knew I forgot something – is not multitasking. That’s actually all one task. It is all sustained by the same pool of emotional and intellectual investment. To move from one of those things to the next, and back again, then to yet another, requires absolutely no adjustment of my energies or intentions. Fight, dishes, dinner, laundry. That’s four things right there, and it would be miraculous if the list ever stopped at that. But those four things are really all one thing. It is the mode that is your definition, and as long as nothing external gets introduced, it’s neat and tidy. It is the mode of being “parent,” and everything within it is related. Now let’s invite that other task over there. The one that looks hungry and cold on the doorstep:

  1. Break up a fight
  2. Do the dishes
  3. Fold the laundry
  4. Get dinner ready
  5. Start writing a 7 page paper for British Literature.

No way, right?  You cannot do that and the rest of the job in some sort of tag team symbiosis where everything gets in on the action and builds toward completion. The other 4 items on the list live together in a completely different compartment of consciousness. What does this all mean? What’s the big picture? How does this relate to harmony and value and identity and non-linear social progress? Not sure. But I do know that the “Day Without a Woman” didn’t get us any closer to the answer. I’ve met a few at-home dads over the last few years, and they generally get at least 5 days a week without a woman. They (we) would almost certainly prefer a different arrangement, but then again they (we) understand needs and compartmentalization and utility far better than your au pair does.

And so the mind also compartmentalizes. No matter how much I wanted to be able to start Writing that British Literature paper about the Lady of Shalott yester – GOOD EFFING GOD

Live and uncut – I was typing this because the morning was going cleanly. Dog fed and put outside, kids eating pancakes, things moving along. This is how quickly it goes to hell:

“Papa, can I have a side dish of fruit with my pancakes?”
“You already had some. You want more?”
“Yes, please. But I don’t really like more strawberries and blueberries.”
“That’s all we have, bud.”

Since then he has pulled books off of bookshelves, punched his sister, thrown toys across the house, and refused to get ready for school. Obviously, it’s not really about the fruit. He probably wants Cheetos or something, and knows that I’m just going to say no, and he’s afraid to ask and the whole thing is more than he can handle in his 6 year old mind. It’s hopelessly frustrating for him. Easy as 2+2=4 for us, harder than trigonometry for him. I know this, but no amount of kindness or empathy can change his brain chemistry such that we can resolve the situation with calmness and reason. We board up the windows and ride out the storm, and if we are really running out of time before a change in the winds, then we get a little physical.

The result of the whole thing, in this other little space over here, is that now I can’t write anymore, because I have to close that particular compartment completely, and open the “Dad” compartment. I’m sure as hell not going to be analyzing Tennyson against the backdrop of Victorian England.  Before I can do that I have to point the attention of my reader back to that non-linear social progress I mentioned earlier, and say that I can get back to my paper when I get a day with a woman.

The boy has just told me (mind you, because all we have for fruit is strawberries and blueberries) that he wishes I would “go in a trash can and never come out.”