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.
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
Praise the beam of that light that slices
through late afternoon traffic.
“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.
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.
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.
and everything / Was toil, relentless toil, urged on by need.
It took centuries to domesticate the wild
goat, grow almonds and olives from seed,
harvest barley with stone sickles.
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
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.
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.
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,
blue at the edge of that pose.
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.
The shoulder of one boulder settling
against the shoulder of another.
Canyons cleaving, granite
The apple asleep
inside the sleeping tree.
The tide slinks in.
Shelves of blue-green algae.
sink and dissolve. Beneath,
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.
When trees come, they are meant to
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.
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.
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
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.
—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.
At the National Archaeological Museum in Athens
Pity the dead
children found in
a grave in Mycenae.