My wife, a psychiatrist, sleeps
through my reading and writing in bed,
the half-whispered lines,
manuscripts piled between us,
but in the deep part of night
when her beeper sounds
she bolts awake to return the page
of a patient afraid he'll kill himself.
She sits in her robe in the kitchen,
listening to the anguished voice
on the phone. She becomes
the vessel that contains his fear,
someone he can trust to tell
things I would tell to a poem.
Some days I think I need nothing
more in life than a spoon.
With a spoon I can eat oatmeal,
or take the medicine doctors prescribe.
I can swat a fly sleeping on the sill
or pound the table to get attention.
I can point accusingly at God
or stab the empty air repeatedly.
Looking into the spoon's mirror,
I can study my small face in its shiny bowl,
or cover one eye to make half the world
disappear. With a spoon
I can dig a tunnel to freedom,
spoonful by spoonful of dirt,
or waste life catching moonlight
and flinging it into the blackest night.
My mother never appeared in public
without lipstick. If we were going out,
I’d have to wait by the door until
she painted her lips and turned
from the hallway mirror,
put on her gloves and picked up her purse,
opening the purse to see
if she’d remembered tissues.
After lunch in a restaurant
she might ask,
"Do I need lipstick?"
If I said yes,
she would discretely turn
and refresh her faded lips.
Opening the black and gold canister,
she’d peer in a round compact
as if she were looking into another world.
Then she’d touch her lips to a tissue.
Whenever I went searching
in her coat pocket or purse
for coins or candy
I’d find, crumpled,
those small white tissues
covered with bloodred kisses.
I’d slip them into to my pocket,
along with the stones and feathers
I thought, back then, I’d keep.
All winter the fire devoured everything --
tear-stained elegies, old letters, diaries, dead flowers.
When April finally arrived,
I opened the woodstove one last time
and shoveled the remains of those long cold nights
into a bucket, ash rising
through shafts of sunlight,
as swirling in bright, angelic eddies.
I shoveled out the charred end of an oak log,
black and pointed like a pencil;
in the making of poems;
old, square handmade nails
liberated from weathered planks
split for kindling.
I buried my hands in the bucket,
found the nails, lifted them,
the phoenix of my right hand
shielded with soot and tar,
my left hand shrouded in soft white ash --
nails in both fists like forged lightning.
I smeared black lines on my face,
drew crosses on my chest with the nails,
raised my arms and stomped my feet,
dancing in honor of spring
and rebirth, dancing
in honor of winter and death.
I hauled the heavy bucket to the garden,
spread ashes over the ground,
asked the earth to be good.
I gave the earth everything
that pulled me through the lonely winter --
oak trees, barns, poems.
I picked up my shovel
and turned hard, gray dirt,
the blade splitting winter
from spring. With hoe and rake,
I cultivated soil,
tilling row after row,
the earth now loose and black.
Tearing seed packets with my teeth,
I sowed spinach with my right hand,
planted petunias with my left.
Lifting clumps of dirt,
I crumbled them in my fists,
loving each dark letter that fell from my fingers.
And when I carried my empty bucket to the lake for water,
a few last ashes rose into spring-morning air,
ash drifting over fields
and lightly dusted green.
The short-order cook and the dishwasher
argue the relative merits
of Rilke’s Elegies
against Eliot’s Four Quartets,
but the delivery man who brings eggs
suggests they have forgotten Les fleurs
du mal and Baudelaire. The waitress
carrying three plates and a coffee pot
can’t decide whom she loves more—
Rimbaud or Verlaine,
William Blake or William Wordsworth.
She refills the rabbi’s cup
(he’s reading Rumi),
asks what he thinks of Arthur Whaley.
In the booth behind them, a fat woman
feeds a small white poodle in her lap,
with whom she shares her spoon.
"It’s Rexroth’s translations of the Japanese,"
she says, "that one can’t live without:
May those who are born after me
Never travel such roads of love."
The revolving door proffers
a stranger in a long black coat, lost in the madhouse poems of John Clare.
As he waits to be seated,
the woman who owns the place
hands him a menu
in which he finds several handwritten poems
By Hafiz, Gibran, and Rabindranath Tagore.
The lunch hour’s crowded—
the owner wonders
if the stranger might share
my table. As he sits,
I put a finger to my lips,
and with my eyes ask him
to listen with me
to the young boy and the young girl
two tables away
taking turns reading aloud
the love poems of Pablo Neruda.
When the writing is going well,
I am a prince in a desert palace,
fountains flowing in the garden.
I lean an elbow on a velvet pillow
and drink from a silver goblet,
poems like a banquet
spread before me on rugs
with rosettes the damask of blood.
from the palace, I wander --
crawling on burning sand,
thirsting on barren dunes,
believing a heartless mirage no less true
than palms and pools of the cool oasis.
It’s so late I could cut my lights
and drive the next fifty miles
of empty interstate
flying along in a dream,
countryside alive with shapes and shadows,
but exit ramps lined
with eighteen wheelers
and truckers sleeping in their cabs
make me consider pulling into a rest stop
and closing my eyes. I’ve done it before,
parking next to a family sleeping in a Chevy,
mom and dad up front, three kids in the back,
the windows slightly misted by the sleepers’ breath.
But instead of resting, I’d smoke a cigarette,
play the radio low, and keep watch over
the wayfarers in the car next to me,
a strange paternal concern
and compassion for their well being
rising up inside me.
This was before
I had children of my own,
and had felt the sharp edge of love
and anxiety whenever I tiptoed
into darkened rooms of sleep
to study the peaceful faces
of my beloved darlings. Now,
the fatherly feelings are so strong
the snoring truckers are lucky
I’m not standing on the running board,
tapping on the window,
asking, Is everything okay?
But it is. Everything’s fine.
The trucks are all together, sleeping
on the gravel shoulders of exit ramps,
and the crowded rest stop I’m driving by
is a perfect oasis in the moonlight.
The way I see it, I’ve got a second wind
and on the radio an all-night country station.
Nothing for me to do on this road
but drive and give thanks:
I’ll be home by dawn.
In a revered Tibetan tradition,
I read aloud to my father,
the dead are borne to mountains
and the bodies offered to vultures.
I show him the photographs
of a monk raising an ax,
a corpse chopped into pieces,
a skull crushed with a large rock.
As one we contemplate the birds,
the charnel ground, the bone dust
thick as smoke flying in the wind.
Our dark meditation comforts us.
I ask if he’d like me to carry him—
like a bundle of sticks on my back—
up a mountain road to a high meadow
and feed him to the tireless vultures.
"Yes," he says, raising a crooked finger,
"and remember to wield the ax with love."
Swimming the English Channel,
struggling to make it to Calais,
I swam into Laura halfway across.
My body oiled for warmth,
black rubber cap on my head,
eyes hidden behind goggles,
I was exhausted, ready to drown,
when I saw her coming toward me,
bobbing up and down between waves,
effortlessly doing a breaststroke,
heading for Dover. Treading water
I asked in French if she spoke English,
and she said, "Yes, I'm an American."
I said, "Hey, me too," then asked her out for coffee.
Before taking out a clean sheet of paper,
I hold before the blue of the window
a freshly-sharpened pencil pointing toward heaven
and blow the imperceptible dust
from the needle-tip
before getting down to business.
For in life’s long journey
few things afford greater satisfaction
than turning the crank
and powering the cylindrical burrs
of a mechanism which sharpens
the dulled mind of a yellow number 2 pencil.
In the silver pencil sharpener
I witness the marriage of utility and beauty
—a model for art and a purpose for life
celebrated each morning before this small altar.
I, too, would ease my old car to a stop
on the side of some country road
and count the stars or admire a sunset
or sit quietly through an afternoon....
I'd open the door and go walking
like James Wright across a meadow,
where I might touch a pony's ear and
break into blossom; or, like Hayden
Carruth, sustained by the sight
of cows grazing in pastures at night,
I'd stand speechless in the great darkness;
I'd even search on some well-traveled road
like Phil Levine in this week's New Yorker,
the poet driving his car to an orchard
outside the city where, for five dollars,
he fills a basket with goddamned apples.
During the war, I was in China.
Every night we blew the world to hell.
The sky was purple and yellow
like his favorite shirt.
I was in India once
on the Ganges in a tourist boat.
There were soldiers,
some women with parasols.
A dead body floated by
going in the opposite direction.
My son likes this story
and requests it each year at Thanksgiving.
When he was twelve,
there was an accident.
He almost went blind.
For three weeks he lay in the hospital,
his eyes bandaged.
He did not like visitors,
but if they came
he'd silently hold their hand as they talked.
are all he requires.
Tell him you never saw anyone
at parallel parking.
Still, your life will not be easy.
Just look in the drawer where he keeps his socks.
Nothing matches. And what's the turtle shell
doing there, or the map of the moon,
or the surgeon's plastic model of a take-apart heart?
You must understand --
he doesn't see the world clearly.
Once he screamed, "The woods are on fire!"
when it was only a blue cloud of insects
lifting from the trees.
But he's a good boy.
He likes to kiss
and be kissed.
I remember mornings
he would wake me, stroking my whiskers
and kissing my hand.
He'll tell you -- and it's true --
he prefers the green of your eyes
to all the green life
of heaven and earth.
When the sun goes down
I have my first drink
standing in the yard,
talking to my neighbor
about the alder tree
rising between our houses,
a lowly tree that prospered
from our steady inattention
and shot up quick as a weed
to tower over our rooftops,
where it now brandishes
a rich, luxuriant crown.
Should we cut it down?
Neither of us wants to --
we agree that we like
the flourishing branches,
shade like thick woods.
We don't say it,
studying our tree in silence,
but we know that if the roots
get into the foundations
we've got real trouble.
John goes back inside.
Nothing to be done in summer --
not to those heavy branches.
I balance my empty glass
on top of a fence post.
In the quiet early dark,
those peaceful minutes
before dinner, I bend down
to the flower beds I love
and pull a few weeds --
something I've meant to do