Poems

Probability Theory

Published in J Journal
 

Here’s a poem that I’m proud to have published in J Journal, which is affiliated with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at CUNY.

PROBABILITY THEORY

I’ve been trying to get dressed

in time to take out the recycle bins

but my daughter’s just called

from New York to FaceTime

with my granddaughter

so I’ll definitely let the tins

of cat food sweat it out

with the plastic milk

and humus containers

in their bin on the back porch

just before she called

a climate scientist said on the radio

we have probably 100 years

to prevent total climate catastrophe

and if we had the technology of 100 years ago

with the 7 billion of us alive today

we’d for sure be goners

though if we had the population

of 100 years ago and today’s technology

we’d sail right through

but there’s almost a 50/50 chance

given today’s population

whether today’s technology

can actually save us that’s only

a few generations away

and my granddaughter has no idea

what kind of world she’s been born into

and I don’t want to miss a single glimpse

of her happily stacking and snapping

the interlocking parts of her

Duplo blocks together even though

they’re cheap LEGO® knockoffs

that came in a huge zippered plastic bag

from TJ Maxx by way of China

and there’s probably better than

a 50/50 chance they don’t work

as well as the real thing

Closing the Loop on the Year

 

Here’s a poem for the waning days of 2017. “Closing the Loop on the Year” first appeared in The Hudson Review. At this time of year, I buy a new desk calendar, even though I now keep a digital calendar as well, and I transfer with colored markers all the birthdays of family members and friends from last year’s calendar to the new one, adding notes for concerts, doctor’s appointments, poetry readings, the dates taxes are due.

CLOSING THE LOOP ON THE YEAR

Snow clings to shingles. I riffle December
pages of my calendar—coffee-stained days,
bills paid, to-dos and past dues,
the late tracery of time spent, nearly
forgotten. I peel
the cellophane from the new calendar, turn
the blank pages. I want another year, oh yes.
And another after that. I want
tenacity like the dogwood outside my window,
preparing to stay, bare branches huddled hard
against the side of the house—
the one shoot that races straight up
from the middle of the crown—
brown umbel with its parasol of stalks,
each stalk capped with a pink bud
ready to be struck into white stars,
on whose account, by May,
the whole branch will tremble.

Light R48 on the Storrow Drive Underpass

Published in Portside
 

Praise the beam of that light that slices
through late afternoon traffic.

The Birch

 

“The Birch,” from Before There Was Before, was first published in The Hudson Review. I remembered that the “little brown dog” was on the back of the slipcase, and that the book was Thomas Mann’s Joseph in Egypt. The dog was actually the logo for Alfred A. Knopf. This was the book! Funny how some memories bob back up while others are unrecoverable.

THE BIRCH

I scramble up the slippery trunk. I’m five,
in my own backyard. I fling my one leg,
then the other, hoist myself into the tree.
Then I crack open the shells
of my sunflower seeds, wiggle out
the kernels with the tip of my tongue,
spit the empty shells down to the grass.
I peel bark the way I want to,
the way I peel my scabs to see
the pink skin, the new part underneath,
just born. I watch
clouds scrub the sky. I stay up here
in my brave room until all the fathers
have walked home from the bus stop after work,
carrying the newspapers under their arms,
the streetlights just coming on.
My father is not coming home. He’s left
my mother and me and all
his shirts and his camel’s hair coat
in the hall closet. All his books
on the shelves, even my favorite
with the little brown dog I love
on the cover, his front and back legs
outstretched, running hard.

First Farmers

Published in Solstice
 

I’ve been fascinated with the idea that our ancestors may have been healthier and happier as hunter gatherers than as farmers. In Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens, he makes a good argument for this.

FIRST FARMERS

and everything / Was toil, relentless toil, urged on by need.

—Virgil

It took centuries to domesticate the wild
goat, grow almonds and olives from seed,
harvest barley with stone sickles.

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I’m Reading Darwin

 

I’ve finally finished reading Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and wanted to post this poem from my new book, Before There Was Before. I was fascinated to learn that Darwin had planned to become a preacher when he returned from his travels, and like most of his countrymen, believed in the literal words of the bible. He was also appalled at some of the local medical treatments.

I’M READING DARWIN

1

On a tiny rocky island in the Atlantic,

a few months out on the Beagle, Darwin found

only two kinds of birds, the booby and the noddy,

 

both . . . of a tame and stupid disposition,

easily distracted and deceived—the males

couldn’t stop crabs from snatching

 

the flying fish they’d left near the nests

for their females. They even let

those crabs steal their chicks.

 

And on that island, not one plant,

not one lichen, no royal palms succeeded

by majestic plumage, succeeded

 

by Adam and Eve’s descendants.

Instead, just two dumb birds,

on whose feathers and skin and shit

 

the life of the island hinged; and a species

of fly that lived on the booby; and a tick

burrowed in noddy flesh; and a small brown moth

 

that fed on the feathers; and a beetle

and a woodlouse that fed on dung;

and a host of spiders, who fed on them all.

 

2

In Santa Fé, Argentina, a man splits a bean,

places the moistened bean on his sore head,

and his headache goes away.

 

A broken leg? Kill and cut open

two puppies, tie them on either side of the leg.

Replace doubt with a plaster!

 

Did Darwin despair? Or still believe

in a God who would break our chains?

On a dark night, south of the Plata,

 

he comforted himself with the sea’s

most beautiful spectacle . . . every part

of the surface . . . glowed with a pale light . . .

 

two billows of liquid phosphorus

before the ship’s bows, and in her wake . . .

a milky train.

Before There Was Before

 

“Before There Was Before” was first published in the journal Common Ground.

1.

Before there was before, there was still before,

no verb to carry the abyss.

 

Light from dark, this from that, an easing

of boundaries, a slit

making a run for it,

 

everything

blue at the edge of that pose.

 

2.

The Big Bang hurled all the starstuff

ever to be made—brazen tumult,

lashed by the muscle of spume,

 

hydrogen and helium waiting

for their rings to close,

 

dark tonnage, billions and billions

of mewling seedstars,

 

all burning and burning

themselves out, the universe

braced to decay.

 

3.

The shoulder of one boulder settling

against the shoulder of another.

 

Canyons cleaving, granite

wrenched free.

 

The apple asleep

inside the sleeping tree.

 

4.

The tide slinks in.

Shelves of blue-green algae.

 

Bluefish.

Lungfish.

Weakfish.

 

5.

Shaggy-maned mushrooms

sink and dissolve. Beneath,

beetles frill.

 

Pea vines, holdfast clovers.

Bees shiver the white throats—

 

Whales slip through the slot.

Baleen and blue milk spilled

through all the rooms of the ocean.

 

Long lives call and click

the grievous migrations.

 

Sharp-shinned hawks seize

their trophies, clamping down

the whole lid of air.

 

7.

When trees come, they are meant to

be climbed.

 

Stay away, or come, or come

just this far—you and I are

here, the compound of us,

a colossal conjunction.

 

And the calendulas in the field

who are riddled

with life-spark and flaws.

 

Let’s take a stab

at the dark, let’s

time our tea,

 

if we have tea,

if we have time.

Skunk Cabbage

 

Saw my first spring skunk cabbage of the year today at Mass Audubon’s beautiful Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary in Natick, MA.

This poem is from my book Western Motel.

 

SKUNK CABBAGE

Out of nowhere, then,

skunk cabbages astonish

the meadow: pursed

and swollen spathes,

putrid fists, ugly,

unreticent, and inside,

a knotted yellow swarm.

Slugs, snails, five-lined skink,

blue-bottled flies are avid

on the cud of mottled leaves

whose stench is salvage.

How long winter slung itself

over my shoulder,

each rogue thing

obstinate, returning—

Epithalamium

Published in Cider Press Review
 

I wrote this poem for my daughter’s wedding. As I began to read it at the reception, which was held in a large tent, rain and thunder began to pound on the roof. I imagine very few people actually held it, and the tent began leaking as well. I’m pleased that it finally made it to publication.

EPITHALAMIUM

for Julia and Robert

I want to give you a poem with a pond in it,
and if you see a heron glide down,

to fold the blue smocking of her wings,
swishing silence, remember her
when you stand at the edge of things.

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At the National Archaeological Museum in Athens

Published in Juxtaprose Literary Magazine
 

Pity the dead

children found in

a grave in Mycenae.

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