From time to time, people have asked if there were any of my poems I could email to them, so I put this together. The group isn’t intended to be comprehensive or a “best of,” just to be indicative.
The First Coming
(Jan. 1, 2000)
“We know by the sky that we are not too high,
We know by the moon that we are not too soon,
We know by the deer that we are not too near,
And so it’s continued for many a long year.”
–The Gower Wassail
of the still of the nights
of the unending days
of the countless kingships
when nothing happened,
Steadily keeping watch silently not
amazed at a hero turned to a star going heavenward not
transfixed by a star moving over a stable and hovering
not looking for gods
but watching your flocks,
No longer children telling tales
that froze in the nights into constellations just
thinking of stars as having gone straying
as any herds will
on distant hills
Oh you shepherds countless as
the centuries fade beyond counting as
the stars fade beyond counting oh
my fellow shepherds
of the emptiness
Did you as the few left standing to witness
the strangeness of the sameness of those fated
processions in and out of vision take
time to choose among
their mottled whitenesses one
winking gaze that you called
And find some way
to find it again
and again until
those pathmarks too
became in their way
Was there among you some one
who stubbornly insisted on claiming
for his own the faintest the hardest
to find and yet could discern
some way to cross lines and again
and again find it
and was there and could it
Be that it happened that he
but faithfully in the way
that love strains to be faithful
that one dim speck from which some day
the Word will come
for which we wait?
The Button Jar
(for Katherine Burt)
You know another family
has died when you see one at a rummage sale, its buttons
like lost babies, little faces gazing
sightlessly out. Easier to guess
how many there are than what they might have meant, now
that the flesh they distracted from has disappeared
like the spaces between them. How little
bone and ivory, metal and wood and glass, tell of what lived
while these medals were lost–the Hundreds of Years War
between women and the fashions the Age of Harnesses
invented to keep them struggling against
themselves–hoopskirts, hobbleskirts, waists–
outlasted at last, the buttons anonymous, free
of the fingers that trembled against them before the wedding,
the fingers that clumsily fumbled them in the night, the little’
fingers that finally learned to string them.
What commemorative coin struck
for the years of being stricken? What tabernacle of hosts
to celebrate holding together as a religion?
I buy the button jar
from one of those ageless volunteers, as yellowed
and shapeless as connective tissue, who keep the town’s
charities from turning arthritic,
for one dollar: it belongs
scattered on the floor around my young son
instead of money, or in the collection of
the three widowed sisters we visit, who always have cookies
ready, and keep their best buttons displayed
on velvet, where they sit like little dishes at some
unending Thanksgiving dollhouse feast–or put them
on gifts like the one the high school girl wrote
was her earliest recollection: “When my grandmother died
on my third birthday she gave me a doll with blue eyes
that moved.” Closer to fourscore and seven than three,
the youngest sister shivers everywhere while
she shows me the buttons except
her manloving eyes, which even if watery fix upon me, steady
and bright, bright, so I won’t forget.
Elegy For A Tie-Stall Barn
“We worked so hard”
say the concrete gutters,
“We were smart, too,”
says the polished wooden chute
from the two stories of haylofts
with their hayfork spiderlike in the rafters..
say the northfacing windows:
better cold and healthy
than hot, humid, and moldy.
“We were good”
say the iron stanchions,
asks the breeding calendar on the wall,
dark with pencil marks
and fly specks.
“What could have gone wrong?”
wonder the rough-cut boards
still holding, still holding
their coats of whitewash.
“The creamery always wanted more”
says the sign on the milk shed advertising
membership in a dairy co-op
now merged with one larger.
“This is some kind of joke”
says the milk can filled with rocks,
out by the roadside holding up the post
for a black-and-white cowpainted mailbox.
“It’s not too late”
says the door to the pasture,
kept from brush by a neighbor’s horses,
where a barn cat still hunts.
“The cows could come back”
say the hand-built bins where the grain
tried to stay higher
than the snow outside.
“We would all work even harder”
say the cobwebs on the electric box
there was never time to wipe away,
now sagging with dust.
“All this could change”
say the foot-thick chestnut timbers,
the marks of adze and broadax and chisel showing
they already came from some older barn.
Note: when I wrote this, I had forgotten reading a poem by Ted Kooser with a similar structure in an anthology 20 years before. I do not think this invalidates what I wrote or how I wrote it, especially because the details stem from a very deep knowledge of Vermont family dairy farming, but clearly there is a parentage to be acknowledged.
Taliesin Says “Hug”
“No, you can’t have it, you wouldn’t want it,”
I say–“tough old meat.” “Hug tough old meat!”
he says. Wants to hug the baboon’s face
on his postcard from the zoo: “Hug little baboon!”
Wants to hug the pile of firewood
his Daddy brought in while he slept–“And kiss it!”
Wants to hug the dog on the pickup truck going
the other direction. Wants to hug the snowplow. Wants
to hug the moon, his own nose, all
the pretty little horses in the song.
“The first `Noel’ the angels did say
Was to certain poor shepherds/”Hug poor shepherds!”
What’s worst about being sick is you can’t hug babies.
“Daddy happy! Daddy very happy!”
he rejoices, happier
for the word. “You make me very happy,” I say.
“Hug Daddy,” he says. Says and does.
The Equals Sign
In the hour when blues songs and beginner short stories again
seem to begin, marginally
more wakeful than sleepless, I test the edges of the lump
cancer of my certainly inevitable, probably imminent, possibly
death. If I confront the brunt of it abrupty enough, something
oppositional seems to fly off—as if a supercollider were to force
two particles to create–examining the traces–the momentary
evanescence of some other, possibly greater
universe; or like the gravitational lensing astronomers trust to
at the edges of the known, coalescing slivers of refracted light
Into images of what is hidden
behind something else, behind and beyond–momentarily
death in and of itself seems proof of elseness,
a setting in which the unbearable is shown
to be glorious, the absolute certainty
of evanescence exactly what makes the best
of what we love the most go on–dying
in childbirth the only way it happens…But
light rises, deep blacks that might have been black deeps
take on ordinary gray depth,
shadowy outlines firm and fill and resume their colors, and
these disparate-desperate strainings after transcendence
turn to the fact of your two arms, held out like the equals sign,
as if to demonstrate the equation, however
abstruse, bewildering, confounding, devious, exasperating,
formidable, knotty, perplexing and seemingly unfathomable,
Late Winter Icicle
It is only hydrogen, first of the elements,
and oxygen, one of the first, their combination
among the easiest and most prevalent, it is only water,
common not deuterium ordinary not tritium plain and simple water
at those rippled, bubbled, nodulated, subluxated
–it has replicated
the human spinal column,
the canyonland monuments
of the Southwest, the tide-turned tors of the Bay of Fundy,
could not be more glorious.
Do we fear or hope
that ours will be lost and nothing return?
Do we hope or fear
that outer space will reveal true others?
This telescoped cylinder
shows nothing, for all its clearness, except all
water is water
both freezing and melting.
Come Die With Me And Be My Love
We should be spending more time in the high country,
Saving less for the mortgage and squandering
Enough to buy a tent and the rest so we could
Just go. We need to waste the hours putting
One foot in front of the other, passing through
Surroundings no one planned, or thought to plan,
Where it wouldn’t occur, even to us, to imagine
Growing anything. Just moving on
Where the harder one needs to breathe the harder it is:
Up slopes where, if one falls, the ground catches
And holds a long time before letting go;
Up slants and slides and steeps and screes where no one
Can lead because of the hail each step releases;
Heights where we could see a stormfront coming
Mountain ranges away, an avalanche
From the Great Divide, suspended in steadfast motion.
We ought to be losing so many more days in that broken,
Barren land at the tops of the heaps where it’s clear
There is no right way of doing anything
And nothing to argue about, and children would cry
And want to go back home. We need to get turned
Around–to have it fall dark before we pitch camp–
Aching more than eating–drugged with numbness–
Huddling by a fire more smoke than flame–
Soon turning in–to wedge ourselves between rocks
There can be no rearranging–holding rigid
Then melting into each other’s body heat.
We need to exist where no one would even know
We went, let alone know where to miss us.
Windblown milkweed fluff
White against the dark tree line
Dark against the sky
On the right side FIGHT
And on the left side LITTER
–The truck’s front bumper
The winter’s first snow
Falls on my best cat’s new grave
Melting as it hits
I bow to the full moon
And to my own shadow from
The streetlight behind
Itinerant, Householder, Monk: Three Rainbows
On a roaring superhighway
between tractor-trailers pulling
clouds of mist off the rainsoaked pavement
actually driving inside
the end of a rainbow.
The boy said, “A rainbow
isn’t like a bow!
It’s like that guy and his crew
stopped bowling and
started playing croquet!”
Midnight midwinter full moon:
the snow blue the sky
indigo and violet–the other
end of the rainbow
from the pot of gold.
from Take Five
am now the Giant
who must die.
everything, by first
turning into its liquid
Of course I had trouble
making a living.
I was a born salesman
for the complete and unexpurgated
Oxford English Dictionary.
You look for stem, that plain green
thrust, unconscious confidence
in its own future–the boy
with the great pitching arm,
not the quick fists.
We don’t need a better would-
be President, we need
someone to run in front
of the nation and yell to the rest
of the world “Unclean! Unclean!”
Never mind your form of worship,
skin color, native language,
sexual orientation, political
position. How many generations
are you from the farm?
You have gone to sleep–it’s late–
And has been long–and will be later
Still, before the white thread guides us home.
The car drones. Outside, waiting
Motionless in winter moonlight,
Banks of close-knit pines hold silent.
Gradually your shoulder finds my shoulder.
Hillsides drowse with half-closed eyes–
The same snow-lidded rocks, no other
Trees, no other clocks than one;
And how long has it been now since the road
Was any different than it was?
No other lights in sight–even
Headlights-off, the highway clear…
I wonder what you’d say? if I pulled over,
Woke you up and said, “We’re here.”