10-Line Tuesday

April 25, 2017

improbable auguries

It's like he's here, in these woods, overseeing the proceedings of our short hike
to the falls. Nearby, a set of tires, a burnt-out microwave, the rusty skeleton
of a bike frame, a full bottle of iced tea, frayed remnants of a dog leash, and I wonder
who else has passed by on this trail, paused before these improbable auguries, and known
the tenderest certainty of company. In the parking lot, a single black sock,
sandy with loose gravel, will meet the next traveler, remind her of that day
her mother, now long gone, saved her from a fall in an unkempt river,
and how the wind snatched up one of the pair and sent it to the ether. Now,
it's back, landed at the foot of a rear car door, and she will feel those same hands
wrap her shoulders, tugging her out of the water all over again.

April 18, 2017

when the missing begins

On the Center Street downhill past the nursery, you find yourself
near weeping. Two days later, with weeds in your fingers and the stain
of wet April soil under your nails, again. The bright sting of sunshine
on a Chelsea rooftop and the bulb of a nascent blackberry bush makes
you think how close summer is, and then your heart breaks in yet another
piece. You notice both the sharpness and the haze of your attention, the way
a man's cologne keeps clinging but the taste of wine feels strangely dull.
You don't know what to reach for, exactly - the present or the past - and this
is when the missing begins, as your hand extends toward a wilting bouquet,
the leaves crumbling at your touch, but the petals so soft. So soft.

April 11, 2017

grieving in pencil

When he collapsed in my arms last Tuesday afternoon, I didn't realize
the sadness an 18-year-old boy could carry. My father would have known,
of course, witnessing the hard decline of his own mother more than 50 years ago,
and still unable, on the last walk we took along the river, to hold back tears.
I wonder, sometimes, if the gardens he grew in the interim between her death
and his were a way of filling in her harrowing departure and the vacancy it left,
if the earth somewhere deep below and despite appearances, remained terminally fallow.
The blooms of the dogwood by his front door felt especially vivid when I left, and now
this, down to the scar and everything, my stepson grieving in pencil, and my father's eyes,
unblinking, looking back as if they'll never let go.

April 4, 2017

My father, David Ethan Stein, passed away on April 4, 2017 in Malestroit, France.
He was 69 years old.

in the after

Before, it will feel like this: a watchfulness, a worrying, the shiver against time, a deepening
groove of the third eye, the body pulling itself through doorways and days, a bottomless
cup of coffee raised and lowered in a metronomic cadence that fails to keep your sadness
from advancing, the mirror revealing more shadows than light, and everything -
a cul-de-sac, a broken wine bottle, a pair of shoes flung across a highway median -
convulsing with metaphor. It will seem as if you’ve never been more alone or further away
from home, so when the call comes, you’ll first mistake it for another wrongness, another wound,
the world broken from the spine of its axis. And it’s true, it may be like that for a long while,
but in the after, swimming in the ether of your grief, a softness will graze at the back of your neck,
like the hand you placed at the back of his those last days, and where you know it will rest forever.

March 28, 2017

Note: This week's poem was inspired by a set of directions emailed to me by a close friend of my father's who lives in an adjacent village in Brittany, France. I pared down Ian's lines (shown first), then used the framework (and the title) to create a new piece (shown second).

finding your way to Bodieu

I don’t know if it helps, but the coordinates are N 48 2 32, W 2 30 58.
Or N 48.042106 W 2.516081, depending on the map. Sorry, I don't have the video.
The road signs don't show route numbers. If you get to Trinité Porhoet, you are 6 km too far!
Leave the hospital and turn left. At the roundabout, please mind the daffodils.
Turn right under the old railway bridge. This is a fairly narrow road with lots of curves.
Beware, entry to the village is 30/40 km/hr max. Lots of speed bumps.The same applies
as you leave. After 2/3 km atop a hill, on the left is a village, Brehlu, hidden in the trees.
Next stop: Bodieu. As the road levels out, you are looking for a small turning left.
Our house is the first on the right with a large green postbox. Into the driveway to be greeted by Loupi.
Glennys is looking forward to afternoon tea.

I don’t know if it helps, but you will know what to do when the time arrives.
Others will give you advice, point you to their own experience. Sorry, there is no video.
Maps are useless. You’ll recognize when you’ve gone too far.
Take a break from your vigil. At the fork of your departure, kiss his forehead.
Remember the sound of the waterfall at the bridge, the weeping willow at the front gate,
the sliding glass door of the village boulangerie. The old cathedral. The cobblestones.
As you leave, you will want to know what happens next, but these things are hidden in the trees.
Later, the plane will level out over the clouds, and you will be looking at an infinity of sky.
This will be one of many signs, like the large green postbox, where his dog greeted you.
He will be looked after. He will be loved until the end.

March 21, 2017

when I saw their faces and it felt like home

And I wasn't thinking how I could win them over with that banana bread
or how to move out of the way when they heave through the house
with a bad mood or some unarticulated disappointment. It didn't
occur to me, not once in the 20 minutes of our transatlantic video call,
I hadn't nursed them through their childhood fevers, or talked to them
about sex, or taken the raucous trip to Disney, or given them my hand
to cross the street on their first day of school. Instead, I yielded to the faces
on the screen, the present tense of it all - their happy jostling, the voice
of their mother behind them making dinner I would not eat but could still taste
halfway around the world.

March 14, 2017

how to write about stillness

Not the kind, exactly, of aftermath, though the felled trees
along the riverbank offer instruction of a necessary surrender.
Not the empty seats of a restaurant in the off-season, or the echo-less
vacancy of the town square after the circus of the Saturday market,
though their silence hints, importantly, of the narrative that was. The clouds, thick
on this Tuesday morning, appear unmoving, but that’s not it either; the forecast
tells otherwise. So what can be said about this brittle skin of vigilance, the hazy tint
washing over these edgeless hours of waiting? My father’s garden grows while, in a distant
hospital bed, his hands rest on antiseptic sheets. Each morning, something extraordinary
is taking place, unseen, at the roots of all our lives. Maybe that’s something of a beginning.

March 7, 2017

for my father

On a windowsill in rain-soaked France, a bright clutch of petals,
stalwart and stubborn against the glass. The dare they make of my own heart: "Believe."
A neighbor vase could easily have wagged its metaphors, to remind of what's
gone missing. The sting of absence. A life gone phantom. But this is the older instinct,
the call pulse-bearing, and the echo ripe and full of promises that can't - and won't -
be broken, even when they are. I wonder, dimly, how long the blooms will last,
but that is never the point. They have returned in such glorious rebellion, my gaze
turns from its own emptiness, as I hope it always remembers to, even
as the inevitable shedding comes and the final, denuded stalk remains,
carrying the memory of each unseasonable blossom in its bones.

February 28, 2017

a rain filled with shoes

You can buy donuts in Brittany, a 12-pack of miniatures that hold
enough reminiscent sweetness you feel less far from home
than you really are. They call them beignets here, and the word
stretches at the back of your tongue, where you'd left it in 10th-grade French class.
Those years you spent learning how Marie would ask Pierre to the movies,
or what to say when looking for a swimming pool in July - the textbook didn't tell you
it would be like this, the somber echo of your steps on wet February cobblestones
in a sodden town cemetery potted with plastic flowers. Is there a phrase you could have learned
for the hope you keep carrying, indignantly, as the sky opens up with its million question marks?
Une pluie remplie de chaussures. A rain filled with shoes, or something like that.

February 21, 2017

packing for France

The forecast says spring will meet you on the other end
of the flight, but already hints of it have appeared at your own address -
the mop you hurry along the kitchen floor, lemon oil sheening the bureau.
Travel stirs awake certain instincts you never would have said
you possessed, but as you layer clothes inside a suitcase, you notice how glad you are
the dust is gone, and with it the stagnant film of your neglect. The bills
get paid, thank-you notes are sent, a forgotten half-banana makes it,
at last, to the compost bin as you narrow your possessions to a space
nothing will get lost in or ignored, and you pray for a good tailwind to get you there
early, so you will catch the sun as it rises, clean and whole, underneath you.

February 14, 2017

front porch in winter

Months ago, we leaned back with our cocktails into the long coattails
of evening. Hours were spent in a floating pool of conversation, our limbs
at languorous angles. Now, we rush past this interstitial real estate,
hurrying to put distance between us and the weather outside, then make
a beeline for whatever will think will keep us warm. "Close the door!" we bark
at the boys in their absent-minded exits, as a draft tunnels in. The season
keeps intruding - the rattle of radiators, a cluttered trail of tissues,
the ragged seam of headlines splitting our attentions. And yet, there is
always a room trouble won't touch, the cushions perennially soft,
and the windows so clear the horizon feels just inches away.

February 7, 2017

in no particular order *

Something is calling to be made today, I’m sure of it.
How much information and emotional intensity can we handle at any given time?
There are many ways to respond, and also many ways to act.
I'm holding down the fort.
Happy to do the maintenance and updates.
How much these lists have come to mean in such a short time.
Can you help with next steps?
I can only imagine the wattage our group might generate.
The power of expression. The necessity of voice.
Something is calling to be made today, I’m sure of it.
* These lines are taken from emails I sent out the week before this week's poem.

January 31, 2017

the hunt

Even running, she feels the teeth in her neck: a fury
of hunger. Were there time or language, she would reason
with this unhinged beast, lead him to the meadow where the others
are dozing in the shade, and where there is so much to eat, the clan
has lingered here for days, taking slow, patient turns through the grass.
But in his certainty for blood, the arrow of his gaze flies past all vegetation,
abundant as it is, and heads straight toward her, and in no time at all
she knows what’s coming if she stays where she is. And in that instant,
a single demand emerges: Stay away from my children. And that is when the choices
narrow and coalesce, and her feet go flying. Anywhere but here, she breathes. Anywhere but here.

January 24, 2017

cut and paste

I wonder sometimes if I am writing the same poem over and over.
If I’ve lived in the rooms of the lines so long, I’ve left crease marks on the furniture.
Images, words have gone soft, sinking further away from their edges.
The hazy pattern of raindrops on the windows, the dim ache in the heart.
This isn’t the time to shuffle the tiles, hope a fresh arrangement will spell something else.
Today’s prayer needs its own incantation, separate from the old chorus.
I don’t know how to begin, exactly; my hands, like clockwork, reach for scissors and thread.
I stitch poems to the backs of those that came before.
Underneath, the table bears the marks and scraps of industry.
What has been discarded in the name of art is also art.

January 17, 2017

once more, with feeling

Dish to cupboard. Towel to rack. Vacuum to floor. How many
times the body bends to its tasks, groaning at the endless rotation of repetitions.
I cannot love it, no matter what the Buddhists advise. If there is joy
in the industry of this infinite busywork, I cannot see it. These scripts,
long memorized, have lost the novelty of their early drafts. Worse,
each performance now plays without a theater; the encores go without applause.
And yet, we players keep returning to the stage, opening and closing drawers,
wiping counters, shaking out the bathroom rug, and the curtains never once
come down. We shuffle through the steps, strangely loyal to our aging roles
as we lift the glasses to their shelves and gently stack the bowls.

January 10, 2017

ordinary sweetness
for B.

Somewhere in Minnesota, a dying woman is asking - inconceivably -
for caramel popcorn. The doctors could pull out all the stops if she let them, but this
is how she'd prefer to enter the next great mystery, and who could blame her?
I am picturing a sticky cluster at the edge of her pale fingers,
the smooth, quiet passage through her lips, and a long pause when molasses
finds her tongue. No matter what I do, I won't be able
to hold that moment still. Eventually, an old instinct will bear down;
glaze and kernel will disappear. A child will bear the loss she knew was coming. And yet,
when she least expects it, a memory will meet her in the aisles, a gift of ordinary sweetness,
and all of the darkness in the world will not keep her from seeing that light.

January 3, 2017

overhead: wild grapes

There was a poem about the post-holiday sidewalks I started to write,
the litter of Christmas trees denuded of ornament and fanfare. Garbage men
in their bright yellow vests appeared in the lines, too, as did the new, determined
recruits at the local gym, and the sweaty promises we make in the name of better health.
It would have been reasonable, then, to address the fresh checklists of fix this, change that,
how the turn of a year pushes the doing out of us. And yet, it wouldn’t stop raining today,
and all I could do was remember that cold, clear late afternoon in the fields beyond
my mother’s house, looking up at thin, bare branches stretching skyward and shaking,
slightly, in the breeze. How my own hands lifted and opened, and my body shivered
in sudden, unexpected certainty: There was still time. There would always be time.

December 27, 2016


When she boarded the plane at Heathrow, the famous actress couldn't
have known that hours later, approaching Los Angeles, her heart
would stop beating and a stranger, however briefly, would keep her alive.
We were coming home from Central Park, happy and a little tired
from the walk, grateful for the unseasonable warmth of the afternoon,
our good luck with parking. Now, I can't quite believe she's gone;
there are some people you think will live forever, outlast the cruelties
and calamities of the thin-skinned, mortal body. I want, today, a story like that,
despite the terribly stacked odds. I want the princess waking at last, her sleep-spell
broken, the welcome sound of bluebirds at her shoulder, a fairytale on the verge of beginning.

December 20, 2016


I am trying to imagine how the 15-year-old girl got her legs
to climb that fence on the overpass. How she stood above
the New Jersey Turnpike's busy lanes, then aimed her body
south. So, too, am I twisting my mind around the wrist
of the young man pointing a pistol into the back of the diplomat
visiting his country, then pulling an irrevocable trigger. Or the ankle
of the driver in the seat of impending carnage, pressing the gas pedal down
to the crucial notch. Despair is not what I thought it was, a lovesick, festering ache.
No, this runs deeper in the cracks, where hope has fallen so silent
the sound of sirens feels almost like music.

December 13, 2016

the pile

There is a sweater - Pacific blue, frayed beyond repair - I cannot seem to part with.
A long coat, once the green of late-winter pine, has gone grey from disuse,
though the closet still bears its bulky real estate. The world, too, feels loosened
of its seams, on the verge of - or already - unraveling, a tumble of unsortable laundry.
And yet we're standing by the pile, pointing fingers at the mess,
refusing to let go of our favorites no matter how long they've withstood our neglect.
Spring cleaning is months away, but it is already too late, and I'm wondering
who will make the first move, unfold from their stiffness at the podium, and bend
to the task. Who will give up the space on their shelves with the floor so bursting
with the wounded.