For a summer resort as a teen
I had the job of cleaning latrines,
three months at minimum wage.
Nobody said, “Good job, well done.”
But it was.
I’ve repaired septic tanks from within.
Mucked in mud laying pipe.
Scraped asbestos. Hot-mopped a roof.
Shoveled bat guano.
Nobody gave me a medal.
Be humble. Do your share.
Society will be better. Civilization more civil,
you a stronger you, it’s really true,
more worthy than those fat cats in their mansions
who I dare not name or
they’d send legal thugs to bury me
in lawyer manure.
Forget latrines. Think billionaires.
They bought the news. Congress. Supreme Court.
Learn about salvage, about repair.
Learn to fix rot at the foundation and work toward the top.
Zoning board. Town council. State assembly. Governor.
Step by step go higher.
Then ask what shitwork is.
And let’s get busy.
Curtains thick as carpets
shut out the courtyard, neighbors, society.
She’s a gentle, cane-walking woman.
Posture of a question mark. The cords of her neck,
withered stalks as she peers up at me.
From eye to jaw a scar like a dried fig.
The world has run roughshod over this woman.
Pointing at the baseboard heater, she folds
arms over chest, shivers in drama.
“Okay,” I say. “I get it.”
With screwdriver and flashlight I kneel on a rug
woven with exquisite patterns of dangerous beasts:
dragon, eagle, serpent. A nudge on my arm.
Holding a tray of baklava and apricots, she says, “Take.”
In a minute she’s back with a tiny cup. “Take.”
Brew so thick that if you spilled, the coffee
would not splash. It would shatter.
Soon my belly is grinding like a coffee mill.
And the heater is fixed. I kneel over the baseboard,
rubbing my hands in a pantomime of heat.
She takes my face between her fingers.
She beams, nodding her head.
It’s a thank you, but more.
Be nice, she seems to say, and conquer evil.
Opening the door, she sends me outside
with my tool belt and work boots
to the bright sunlight of California, USA.
making love pleasantly when
an explosion in the left armpit
like a Skilsaw ripping from rib to arm
he may be dying in the saddle
but he clutches his chest and leaps yes literally leaps
from bed to kitchen to refrigerator
to drink pickle juice straight from the jar
this is not madness
he’s heard pickle juice cures muscle spasms
now here’s proof
or at least anecdotal
returning to bed
“what was that?” she asks
“just a cramp” he says
“please don’t die” she says frowning
“wasn’t my heart” he says
romantic mood is pretty well shot
but this too is love-making of a high order
she tangles fingers in his gray chest hair
as he drops to sleep
she watches the fingers rise fall rise again
while he breathes he dreams
From my window I see
I face a long day
heaving heavy boards,
my brittle back,
with a clear heart.
Carpenter, carpenter, what do you say?
Cut wood all day,
bring home the pay:
a pocketful of sawdust.
With strange joy
I can't wait
Me, a teacher of poetry, the idea is insane.
Yet I’m here once a week at the nuthouse. Oops. Hospital.
A lunch conversation with a nurse.
“That old guy, Russell, he seems so gentle,” I say. “So normal.”
Russell writes about hummingbirds.
“It’s either here or prison,” the nurse says.
“Oh,” I say.
Actually I’m not allowed to ask about patients.
But the nurse, now she’s worked up.
“Russell had custody of his granddaughter,” the nurse says.
“Uh-huh,” I say.
“The mom died,” the nurse says, “the baby was six months.”
“Oh,” I say.
“To call him ‘sex offender’ sounds too clinical,” the nurse says.
I say nothing.
“He must’ve bought Vaseline by the bucket,” the nurse says.
“Um…” I say.
“He fucked that baby every day,” the nurse says.
“Three hundred and sixty-four days a year,” the nurse says.
“Christmas, she got a holiday,” the nurse says.
“Oh,” I say, and I push my plate away.
“Sorry,” the nurse says, “I ruined your appetite.”
“Not your fault,” I say.
“I hate hummingbirds,” the nurse says. “I hate poetry.”
I say nothing.
“Can a poem be ugly?” the nurse asks.
I reach for a fresh napkin, slide it across the tabletop.
“If a poem could kill,” the nurse says, “I’d write one.”
From my pocket, I hand her a pen.
Come with me. Here’s
the secret trail. At the edge
of the potato field, crouch through
the barbed wire fence. Pass the stone
foundation of an old homestead.
Enter the maple forest, the green oven.
Bake, slowly rise like a gingerbread figure.
Follow, it’s fine (there’s no witch).
Release rivulets of sweat.
This is nothing, the foothill.
Listen: the purr, the burble, the rush,
the small canyon of Catamount
Creek. Remove boots, splash yourself.
Splash me. Cup water in hands
to pour over the face. Let water dribble
inside the shirt, drip to the shorts.
Relish the shock of cold
against hot parts.
Work uphill now, at last
out of the trees into the land of
wild blueberry. Pluck, taste
tiny tight nut-like explosions of blue,
so intense, so different from store-bought.
Gorge, let fingers and tongue
turn garish. Fill pockets.
Climb with me now among rocky
outcrops like stair steps to the Funnel,
a crevice where from below
you push my bottom, then from above
I pull your hand. Emerge to a view
of valley, farmland, wrinkles of mountains
like folds of flesh. How far we’ve come.
This is the false top.
Catch your breath, embrace the vista,
then join me in a scramble up bare granite,
farther than you’d think, no trail marked
on the endless stone but simply
navigate toward the opposite of gravity,
upward, to at last a bald dome
chilled by blasts of breeze.
At the top, sit with me, our backs against
the windbreak of a boulder.
Empty your pockets of blueberries. Nibble,
share — above the rivers,
above the lakes, above the hawks,
among the blue chain of peaks
beyond your outstretched tired feet.
Appreciate your muscles
in exhaustion and exhilaration.
We have made love to this mountain.
Hear a sound like a sigh from waves of
alpine grass in the fading warmth
of a lowering sun. Rest.
After this, the return
is so easy.
El Niño scooped the sand
clearing every scrap of driftwood,
every construction playful of a summer’s dayful
the slapped-together forts, dinosaurs, castles
now launched to Mexico, to Tahiti, who knows?
replaced by fresh fragments of forest
twisted logs, battered beams
shed by Oregon, by Vancouver Island and Alaska
bobbed by current
to this windswept cove.
Beneath swirls of sunset
as Van Gogh might render
among scattered scallops, kelp,
sandpipers by the hundred,
one joyful dog
dances the landscape
expressing with his grin
this vast chaos