Various and Sundry Poetry

watch your eggs

she says, holding the canvas bag
at the far end of the check-out line.
The carton is balanced on a twin set
of coffee cans, a block of unsalted butter,
a package of blue sponges. I am nearing
that time I hadn’t anticipated while still
in my ripest patch of fertility, an age
a doctor would warn against starting
a family, though I have had friends
who’ve tried and succeeded. At home,
there are boys - not mine, exactly - waking up.
They don’t have my eyes, and never will.
Have a good day, I tell the woman who lifts
the straps toward me. The bag isn’t heavy,
but on the walk home
it begins to pour.

remembering the words

Dormant in the change-holder under the dashboard: a poem about
the long drive through northwest Texas, and something about how running
out of gas before Childress made us each woozy with a different longing -
to be saved or even further left behind. There are a dozen
gum wrappers under the footrest rug, and who knows what
in the back crack of the backseat cushion, and I have been waiting for them
to unwrinkle themselves and free the narratives stuck inside. Has it been
a year since I curled up out of the rain with a pen and the edgeless stretch
of midnight? How many inches have the boys grown since I lit the match
and held it ’til the paper exploded in fire? That window looking over Duncan St. -
that used to be the only thing I needed. Well, that and maybe a little
sadness, or the gluttony of fresh love, and the arrow beam of streetlights on my hands
as they moved - crackling in the flames - across new lines. Now, the traffic
goes too fast down Dodd, or a funeral procession turns the town to a molasses trickle,
but either way, there’s dust everywhere I look, stanzas cobwebbed behind
the Shoprite daily specials and the strange rituals of deep suburbia, the neighbor
flaunting his allegiance only to certain football teams, the library’s knitting hour,
the weekly paper zooming in on the family with three Eagle scouts, but suddenly,
in this last thrust of summer, a single leaf of basil pinches me awake, and the itch,
bowlegged as a foal, returns to fingers chapped from clutching the wheel so hard,
and I am, all at once, remembering the words, and that window, and that streetlight,
remembering that woman stretching into a long San Francisco night, eyes
wide open and so certain of themselves, and her hands folding around the wick
as new syllables, one by one, erupt from the dark.

writings from Link Community Charter School

Earlier this year, Amy & I began volunteering at an amazing middle school in Newark, Link Community Charter School, offering an 8-week electives course to 7th and 8th grade students. Each Friday, we met with them for a 50-minute classroom period to talk about and practice creative writing and storytelling. We came back again in early spring for another 8 weeks, and just wrapped up the final session today. I'm retrieving some of the writings that I did along with the students that came out of our assignments. This one was about practicing using a refrain as a writing device in poetry:
 

He leans in, like a bird about to fly
And he's seesawing between two truths and a lie
And it's sometimes hard to look each other in the eye
And I don't know why, and I don't know why

I'm thinking how rarely I hear him cry
Not my baby, not my boy, not my history going by
And it's sometimes hard to look each other in the eye
And I don't know why, and I don't know why

He leans in, bony, big-haired, to say good-bye
And the skateboard swings against his thigh
And it's sometimes hard to look each other in the eye
And I don't know why, and I don't know why

He leans in like a lightning rod about to electrify
And I hear the impatience swimming in his sigh
And it's sometimes hard to look each other in the eye
And I don't know why, and I don't know why 

how to love your enemy

See the dark circles under her eyes, how tired she looks, how pale, how thin-skinned. See her pick at her salad, not eating. See her get up, antsy, from her seat to wash another dish, wipe an already-clean counter, straighten up the basket of white napkins that doesn’t need straightening. See the purple scarf around her neck, like a noose. See how her hair has dulled in the cold and lies, straw-like, around her face. See the tight smile she makes when she greets the other guests. See how quickly the fire dies after she lights it, how fast the glasses empty, how the conversation skims and stalls. See her squirm, microscopically, when you suggest moving to the couch, where it’s more comfortable. See the crisp lines in her slacks, as if she’d just ironed them. See the stiff collar of her blouse, the narrow V of the opening, the buttons flush against her chest. See the sharp edge her body makes of every space she occupies. See the brittle topography of her living room, all those breakables within elbows’ reach. See how tentatively she moves in her own house. See the house crack at the seams. See the sorrow in the wood floor, the ache in the ceiling, the grief in the walls. See how little it takes for you to hold a hand out to touch it all. See how soft your skin becomes, reaching.

to the ones I cannot save

I have been lighting candles for you. 
In the evenings, the light plays against the pale blue walls,  
coaxing animal shadows from the window shades. I am certain
the neighbor thinks something religious must be going on,
and maybe he's right. Prayers live in warmth, not words. My mouth
is ill-equipped to combat bad news, and who knows if candles
can do it either, but at least, while I spoon my palms around the flame,
I can feel the room heating by degrees, can sense the molecules
rearranging themselves, gathering close. Dancing, even,
if such a thing is possible. Still, as the hours peel off and the day diminishes,
I know you are still tiptoeing the pencil-thin line, traversing the edge
of your summitless mountain, looking for handholds, a place to rest,
a view of something that will make you forget, briefly, how precipitous and fragile
this narrative is, how flammable the pages really are. I am useless here,
of course. I have been lighting candles and thinking your name and wishing this fire
could burn everything away, return you to the long, wide pasture of infant joy,
take with it all semblance of ash and ruin. It is a false and shameless hope,
but still, it is a hope. A small rupture of belief. A shadow of light. 
A flicker of heat, shaking a disobedient fist at an unseen enemy,
warning it to stay away for good.

 

gestating

Maybe she began here, in the pre-holiday aisles of Shop-Rite,
where housewives jostled for turkeys and old men shuffled
toward the canned goods, and where I am never more aware
of my strange residency in this town.
Or maybe she lay waiting on the library shelves yesterday afternoon,
upstairs, in fiction, where I searched for the perfect novel
for the long plane ride on Tuesday.
It’s possible she’s been nestling all week in the dirty laundry,
or the broken toilet on the third floor, or in the folder of receipts
marked “Business.” 
I know I saw her once on the front lawn
after a rain shower, when each leaf – fallen and not – 
was sighing its relief. 
When a poem is ready - I have been telling myself for years - 
she finds you.
Flags me down on Route 3 heading east, or when I
set the table for dinner with the swerve and sway of teenage boys 
making a carnival ride of the kitchen. 
In the shower, shampooing, after a full but fruitless day, 
her first words dust off, too,
quietly arranging themselves - I discover later - into deliberate stanzas, 
clearing a path from my busy body to the soft valley of a page. 

But last night, I went in search of her instead, asked
“Do you want to go to bed?” and winked.
She followed me upstairs, wordless,
and we wrestled for the first kiss.

I don’t know, quite, who won.
But I know I slept like a newborn and woke
with a smile on my lips, as if I had said everything
and nothing at all, and both
were sufficient.

I love your hat

“I love your hat,” I said to the tollbooth operator 
on the way into the Lincoln Tunnel on the afternoon
of the funeral of one of my mother’s oldest friends.
The day was a startle of cold. The toll was $13,
up a dollar from just a few months before.
“What?” the woman asked, returning my change,
not hearing. “I love your hat,” 
I repeated. We locked eyes then and forgot the cars
behind me, and the sardine can of that tunnel, and she said,
“You do?” as if I was asking to marry her and maybe
in a way I was. The service was on the Upper West Side
but I was not thinking of how hard it would be to find parking
or the too-hot sanctuary or the hands of strangers I would press
in my offers of condolence. I was here, a late Wednesday morning,
two hundred feet from the tunnel, saying “I do” to a woman
in a beautiful hat, the smile between us holding up traffic,
and for a moment longer than we thought possible,
keeping everything around us
suspended, untouchable. 
Alive.

Ellen's voice

“Ellen is reading a short story to Adrienne now, who is breathing quietly, her head tilted toward Ellen’s tender voice, listening.” – email from my mother, 11/13/13


I am glad I met Ellen today
on the 7th floor of Sloan-Kettering, between York & 1st Avenue,
room 707. I am glad because when my mother writes “tender voice,”
I can say I heard it, too. We shook hands when we came in,
and Ellen gave me her seat by Adrienne’s bed,
so that I could have a turn
at holding her hand. It was so much warmer
than I imagined, IV bags bookending the mattress.
But I lost track of those the moment I sat down.
stroked Adrienne’s fingers one at a time. She couldn’t talk so
instead we filled the room with our voices, and that’s
when I really heard her, Ellen, floating soft and even
above the antiseptic chirps of the heart monitor.
And I am glad that if this is the last time I see her,
I will have known that Adrienne has heard it too,
closing the hard day with a story,
leaning in close as she could bear,
Ellen’s voice touching her shoulder
as if to say, “I will miss you
when you go.”

 

inheritance

The ex took the dog for an overnight. The boys, too,
but Lola is the one he snapped pictures of while she
raced the lengths of his backyard with a stick in her teeth.
I think this is his way of saying
he misses her.
When he came this morning to bring the dog
and the boys back, his cologne
took over the entryway. It lingered
long afterward, like a memory you don’t want
to keep remembering. Do I sound angry?
I’m not, although whatever this is
is redolent of it, whiffs of that same
indelicate, systemic confusion.
His love is spliced all over with a past
I didn’t create, tromping upstairs
to do homework, whimpering to be let out ,
suffusing the whole downstairs
with its strange and powerful musk.
Sometimes it is so sharp my eyes sting,
and I have to close them, briefly, to keep the story straight.
Then, in moments, they open again, and the lines return.

At dinner, forgetting where she was,
Lola arcs her neck up, points me with her gaze,
and like clockwork, I measure two scoopfuls into her bowl.
Later, I will help with math homework, hear the nickname
Evan gave me before he swivels into the kitchen to say goodnight.
This love is spliced all over with a past I didn’t create,
but it is here, nevertheless, turning toward me,
calling out with new words, swiping a fresh kiss
on my waiting cheek. 

this is how you do it

Realize, cleaning out the fridge, there are the makings
for soup. And that the tiny acorns neglected for weeks on the front lawn,
when gathered, make for a fine pile inside a glass vase.
Notice that a blank page is easier to fill when it’s down
to an index card. And how the subway train, taken one face at a time,
reveals worlds you never thought you’d travel to. Last night, your seat neighbor
on the bus to the big city asked you for help, and you traveled back together
to when you were 12 and in front of those buildings for the first time, too,
looking up and feeling lost and hopeful.  You could have looked out the window
and cursed the traffic. You could have barreled through the station,
arming yourself with headphones and narrow eyes to cancel out
the catalogue of intrusions. The desk is perpetually calling, too, that book
you’d promised yourself you’d write by the time you turned 30 or 41
or 58. And you chose the kitchen over packing for tomorrow’s trip, and now
a pot is on to simmer instead and the suitcase is nowhere near completion.
But this is how you do it,
not because the to-do list told you so, or because you felt the stiff wind
of a deadline, or because religion was breathing down your neck.
You were trying to save the world, that’s all,
and this is the small circle of molecules
you felt capable of holding, the fragment of skyline that fit
in your rearview mirror, the square inches of your hand
reaching palm out into the chaos to say hello. This
is how you do it, with such tender imperfection and the knowledge
that something could sideswipe your intentions at any moment.
You do it anyway, tell the woman from Springfield, Missouri what to expect
when the bus squeals into Port Authority, rest your gaze on the
scuffed-up shoes of the policeman keeping the peace at the Bedford St. stop,
write the maybe lines of a poem on the small rectangle
you tuck into your pocket that will yield its gifts when you least expect them.
You do it anyway, resurrect a vase that delivered birthday flowers
months ago and fill it, now, with what even the hungriest squirrels refused,
and turn your scattershot kitchen into a gallery for modern art.
This is how you do it, making rough slices of a bag of carrots and sliding them
into a pot layered with oil and browning onions and fibrous curls of ginger.
And the air changes, just like that.
And the world falls down to its knees,
taking you with it.

 

This is not the time

Because it is gray outside and the wind is scratching the leaves toward their breaking point and I can tell the sky wants to break, too, and inside, inside I am breaking, untethering the last bits from their hiding place, unlocking the final doors, peeling the skin from every sadness I lost myself to, and I am falling too, falling toward an uncertain certitude, an unfamiliar trust, an unexpected faith that it is possible to be held so gently you can hear your cells breathing their relief, even if this is not the time to tell you, exactly, how it feels to be driving home in the stirrings of a tropical storm that has already touched down as a tornado up north, not the time to tell how it feels to be hugging the white lines as the big semis barrel through, not the time to explain how it is to reach out with a tentative hand and find a sure one resting right there on the gear shift, palm up just for you, this is not the time to contemplate the mechanics of the intimacy and hope that locks those hands together, so I will only say that it does, that it happens, that it is real, that such a moment is waiting for you, too, quiet and patient, waiting until you finish your exhausted laps, your mad dashes, your fury, your magnicently unruly longing, the credos you call out to keep yourself safe from whatever pain you think is coming, your hasty disappearance from the table, your plunging fist into the wall, your journals scribbling their resolve to keep the seams from tearing, this moment is waiting until your eyes stop searching for exit signs and your body stops bristling from the cold, waiting until your lungs flag from the effort of running away, but this is not the time to convince you otherwise or show you how it happens, because it is gray outside and the wind is scratching the leaves toward their breaking point and because I don't know when it will come, I don't, only that it will, that there is a place in those joints that unlocks when the weight of holding back and staying safe is too much to bear, there is something in our flesh, despite our best efforts to contain it, begging for release, and even in the recesses of our anonymity and desertion, we still embarrass ourselves with the lavish thought that we can be named and filled, and we are not wrong, even if this is not the time, there is a time, and it is neither mirage nor miracle but the exquisite intelligence of incremental molecules finding themselves in the clutter and cacophony of so much dust, because they will, they will, not because we've earned it or won the big prize but because this is what they yearn for, that falling and finding, that letting go and letting in, and so even if this is not the time, there will be, there will, and then it will make a ludicrous kind of sense, and you'll see how far you've had to come, and you'll see how far you've had to go, how much you had to break to break free, you will see the wisdom of those laps, that lurch, that fury, that fist, those aching scribbles, how you needed every last one of them like words need their syllables first, like love needs its heartbreak first, like leaves need the roots first to let them go. This is not the time, but it's coming, I promise you. It's coming.

chalkboard

When we wake in the morning, we turn to the other and whisper, "Another day." Mostly, what we mean is, "Hello." Mostly, what we mean is "How lucky." But sometimes, what we mean is, "There was nothing, before this." It's the good kind of pretending, to believe you've got a do-over, an empty plate, a chalkboard wiped spotless. Sometimes, it is better to fool yourself that whatever happened will never happen again. The disappointment, the mistake, the tantrum, the sorrow. Sometimes, you have to absolve yourself of what you remember or what you did or what you didn't do, let the past float behind you like the trail of a ship passing. This is for your own good. This is the brief suspension of belief you must allow yourself, the slip in the system, a benevolent black hole that will take you, blinking and history-less, into the next big universe and its unfathomable stars. "Another day," we murmur just after the alarm rings, before the day mutates into loads of laundry and other metaphors, before the disassembly begins in earnest. "Another day." It is a password between us. A secret handshake. It doesn't matter that the words will last only as long as it takes for them to pass through our mouths. It is enough. It is a forest nymph, a seahorse, a sand dollar, a fairytale, a sprinkling of pixie dust sealing our bodies into the sweetest innocence, our hearts forgetting they'd ever broken at all.

insistent

Not my river
Not my cousins
Not my crab traps and skateboard circles and first whiff
of drunk on my aunt’s summer patio
Not my fields of high corn and skeeters
making crazy-train train tracks on my ankles
Not my heavy metal nighttime cicadas and the swell from
the neighbor’s boat upheaving my stolen afternoon swim.
Not my mother plodding absent in the folds of the house
Not my plot of land at the foot of a lonely peninsula
Not my eight-year-old’s silence howled into a bed pillow
Not my pancaking of limbs and the flat-lining of trust
Not my suntanned skin on the dock on the good days
And my knees ragged on driveway gravel on the bad
and the whining sawof a birdhouse built too high for me to reach
Not my rippling loneliness
Not my alliance with the handhold bark of old, unmoving trees
Not my terror of August thunder and the windows rattling
Not my hideaways behind the barn
Not my secrets behind my secrets
Not my steel-hearted clarity and the baptismal wash of river water
> over my ears and my arguments and my betrayals and my brokenness
Not mine, not mine, not mine, but still
I’m sitting on that same porch, the backyard grass mowed
like Sunday church, the smell of bacon on the stove
and the square troughs of waffles filling with syrup and maybe
they switched out the Bible for the collected poems of Emily Dickinson
and the road out now leads, eventually, to Walmart and a highway and
an ocean where the tide pulls you so far out you can’t see the shore for shit,
and maybe there are no real bullets left in the guns he lets
the boys snap back and maybe it’s easy to make jokes now about tent revivals
and wax nostalgic about the years spent here before everyone
had to go on and grow up, but I feel it, I feel it, watching her
furrow slightly as we walk down the road to get a little
fresh air, I feel it, the same narrowing she must have crawled inside
thirty-five years ago, looking for shelter anywhere it might find her.
Be careful, she says, pointing to a shock of poison ivy and sure enough,
it’s everywhere, and even the dog knows not to go there and we walk
to the center of the lot where the house no longer stands before turning around.
And I feel it when we slide off our flip-flops and watch the kid-splash
in the small pool below the deck and I feel it in her grip around the
bourbon-and-ginger as the dinner puttering begins and then, on a whim,
we go back out to pick fresh tomatoes from an uncle’s garden and one by one,
discover them all sagging and rotten on the vine. I feel it there, too,
us quiet and alone and kneeling in the overgrowth, pawing for fruit,
feel her eyes begin their watery escape, and the sky begins to purple
like a bruise that never forgot itself and the reflex of our hands finds us,
finds us like a river we never knew existed, and we lean into the thought
of that water and the drift and the highway and even the Walmart
where a bag of sunflower seeds will see us into the small, insistent hungers
of our long drive home.

 

Elyse needs a letter like that

 


Elyse needs a letter like that
a new best friend from camp
scrawling a farewell with a
promise for more, a play date,
a pool party for summer's last hurrah,
the sleepover where they'll stay up
too late watching a movie that's
too scary and hugging each other
to sleep. Elyse needs a letter like that
to keep her company on the ride
home with all her week's projects and
the brief euphoria she allowed herself
to swim in for 5 hours and 4 days,
group lunches and trampoline turns and girls
who did not know her name before Monday.

How we all need a letter like that, even
forty years later, or eight, or twenty-two.
Some soft hand opening itself without our
knowing it was coming or that we were worthy
of the invitation.

for you, today

for you, today, a poem
in a half-stick of butter
the globe of eggplant waiting for a recipe
avocados ripening in a bowl made out of magazines and gesso
orange cranberry scones the boy will finish off for breakfast
the plums from Trader Joe's that turned out bland and mealy
for you, today, a poem from the orchid that insists on reblooming
and coffee a little on the weak side, and a knife block adjoining a watermelon,
a postcard from Mexico, The Missouri Review, a new bank card, a to-do list,
a check to the week-long summer camp, a gumball machine capsule and
the words "after all these years"
for you, today, a poem in a quiet house, an overcast sky, a birdfeeder
empty on the deck, a tape dispenser in the shape of a chicken, the basil
managing by the window, a spiral of honey in a bowl of Greek yogurt,
Charlie and his earphones and his sleepy eyes, a dog toy eviscerated
in the living room, a bag of juggling balls, a beach towel
stained with spray paint, the weeds growing back in the front garden
for you today, a poem in the poemless, a small seed of light,
a faint rhythm riding the heavy air, carving stanzas from the room,
from the place you are sitting almost unbearably still,
holding your hands open
in welcome.

some distant galaxy of a language

How we wake up sometimes at the same time and turn to look at each other and do that slow smile like when you turn a corner and this amazing bakery smell wafts toward you and without even realizing it, or knowing that you're capable of such a thing, your whole body moves into that smell. Arcs toward it, bends, dances. Your body opens so wide, everything else comes in, too - birdsong, old train tracks, a dropped nickel, the soft fold in a grocery list bearing a sweet surprise of a lunchbox treat. Everything comes swinging into view, and you welcome it, and your mind relaxes, and things become fuzzy and clear all at once. We wake into the morning like that, fuzzy and clear, our smile like that bakery smell and the beauty of old train tracks and the glint of a nickel and the crease of a fold of paper holding a secret, and there are no words, no words but that smile, though that smile is also a word, I'm sure of it, some distant galaxy of a language, and it means goodness, and it means arc and bend, and it means saying and not saying, and it means dancing. Most of all it means dancing.

Dear Olympia

There is no number one on the keys, dear Olympia. Nor is there a zero. Are you trying to tell me something? Like maybe the binary system has no place here. Is that it? Black and white, good and evil, tall or short, young or old...dichotomies are no longer useful - do I have that right? What I've noticed lately is that when she's happy, I am too. And when her tears come, I feel that same tug in my heart, and my own soon follow. This afternoon, I planted basil, two kinds of tomatoes, peppers, and yellow beans. I went inside to wash the dirt from under my fingernails before heading back out to water, but right when I was finished drying my hands, she came in and announced, "All watered!" and I thought how amazing it was that without even saying who was doing what, the planting and watering got done. And if that isn't a great metaphor, I don't know what is.

this vehicle of mercy and salvation

So this is where we are, 7:38 on a Tuesday evening, and somewhere in the distance - we can hear it cross town - is an ambulance, spiraling its wail into the streets. Make way, it's saying. The boys down the block make freethrows. We make tacos for dinner. The dog makes a beeline for the water bowl. The dishwasher makes barely any noise. The day makes the evening. Later, I hope, we will make love. But right now, right now, I am thinking of the swivel of those bright lights, the alarm of a white van going through stop signs on its way to saving a life, and I am thinking of the one who made the phone call to summon this vehicle of mercy and salvation, and I am thinking of the driver with his hands precise on the wheel, and I am thinking of the straggler shoppers coming out of the automatic swing doors of the supermarket, gripping their plastic bags as they wait for the all-clear, and I am thinking of the checkers inside making change, and the kid who makes a prize emerge from toy machine with his father's quarters, and the father who makes himself look only at his son while the drama wages inches from the glass. Eventually, the scene disperses, and everyone makes their way home. In front of our house, one of the boys makes 7 in a row, the day's new record. I make a promise to myself: Make a poem of this life. Read it again and again and again.

in beautiful revolt

You’ve shoved your diaries to the backs of basement shelves, balling up  mosquito nets of unrequited unions and shape-shifted hope. Your life is a landfill of regrettable and longed-for stories, edges bitten and molded. You are a knobby constellation of inelegant and heavy casualties, and it is so hard to un-remember that litter in your wake, hard to hold loss as it were cotton candy, a sweet lick of innocence. It is impossible, that kind of amnesia. But maybe you can unspool just enough, retrieve five minutes of fresh time, imagine a container made simply of emptiness. Maybe you can evaporate your mind for the span of fifty breaths, and let that girl come back, the one still itchy with dreaming. Maybe you can watch her sit down to a clean canvas, cleave herself from the small distractions of the room. The windows, even, opening to a summer view or the dog barking at passersby or a teetering pile of broken toys. Maybe you'll catch the impudent way she buffaloes through the acrylics, shunning the brushes entirely, or notice the smash of her fingertips against those portholes of paint, the groove of flesh and fearlessness, and see how the collisions ensue: yellow tumbling into black, red blustering into red, the psychedelic metamorphosis of purple. Maybe you will recognize the splatter she makes, expunging the canvas of its purity, blaspheming every millimeter, and understand the thousand new colors erupting in beautiful revolt. And maybe you’ll follow the girl as she leans back, cheeks warm from the flurry, to survey her handiwork, and see the mess for what it is: her name, spelling itself over and over in a sea of forgiveness.

1,000 scratches

That's what we're made of: cracked, chipped, fractured, broken, Jen's elbow, that bruise, the floors of the studio littered, bittered, buttered, bleached, cartilage, upper back, lower, the scar between T6 and T7, 3 inches, 1,000 scratches, all that glitters is not gold, Ricky who drowned when he was 7, I remember, briefly, the news in 2nd grade, and the image of him sucked down to the bottom of the rec center swimming pool, lifeguards tanning themseves to flirtation, where were they, 1,000 scratches, my grandfather, a rumored affair, a divorce, my grandmother's suicide, cancer, the backbone such a tender, rigid thing, and how it holds us, molds us, scolds us. Upright, it says, stay upright. And we do. We do.