How the Boy Jesus Resisted Taking Out the Trash
O there's not enough to bother with.
O in a couple thousand years the landfills will be groaning.
O we're too poor there isn't any trash.
O what about Naomi what does she do around here.
Oif ever you suspected what's to come you'd put me in the best chair,
you'd kill the last kid for supper and feed me the heart and the liver.
O not now.
remember my father's business and all that. Priests and Levites
are going to love me, some. Locusts will sing and sizzle.
Precious stones will roll toward me like mice. Everybody's pretty daughters
will cry because I don't like them that way.
O I'll change it into figs and honey later, all right?
O all right.
-reprinted from The Laurel Review
-for Julia and Ginny
If I had known, if I had known, would I ever
have thought to cross the bridge, to
shuck my clothes and slide into the quiet water?
In the fall, leaves languid on the cool lip
as the girls who'd never look at me.
Oh please . . .
When I went under, what was waiting
touched me--wrist and thigh--held firm,
and settled deep with me.
I was desperate, then wild, and then
my panic drifted off like an old whiff of skunk
and left the new stars dazzling, scent
of oniongrass and violets, the shape below me,
warm and smooth, the body nestled
inside the intimate water.
You could be so free, it whispered,
You could be so good.
I could not speak--and yet
I said, Not this way. I said,
Not this time. What did I mean?
I could barely think of apples and children,
another life, and then the voice . . . All right.
All right. You won't go far.
Do I remember
after that? Mud, the hard sticks,
light splayed along the surface. Damp clothes
and my hands among them. Then traffic
and trees and this step, that step, thin
rusty slats of the stairs leading down.
So it's all about God, is it, or else not,
or else it's me and the stream I yearn toward
day and night, hour and year,
the stream I can hear and almost see
as my two lovely friends swing past
on the other trail.
They do not see me
and I let them go. But oh,
the beautiful saunter
of two women deep in their talk.
They walk the path up the mountain
and the old, old water tumbles down,
from Rhapsody (first
published in Artful
Three Poems first published in Beloit Poetry Journal (.pdf format)
from Flatlands (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 1995)
On the Day of the Two-Hour Fog and Frost Delay
By ten the water was backFrom Inquiries (Bottom Dog Press, 1992)
in its sanctioned places,
the sun was out, the ducks
were circling as they do.
Later I was hiding, unseen
by anyone but God, the water
an empty palm below me,
behind it the sun going down
like a thumb held up to gauge
the size of something, behind that
the distance like the coppery
keen scent of Jesus whispering,
picking up the guitar:
Even my lies were true.
Stones for bread, the nights of dirt
in the face, taking the sword
and dropping it. Fog is
only water trying to believe.
What can save you? Promise not
to talk. I will sing it again.
What do chainsaws love?An excerpt from A Community of Memory: My Days with George and Clara. Univ. of Illinois Press, 1996.
Lumber, dust. Live wood pulled down
by the dying. Sun on last year's leaves.
Do chainsaws share a hidden fear?
Rocks. Nails. A few, older, fear
their appetites, and that what they chew
does not nourish them.
If chainsaws dream, of what?
Of hands that never tire, tanks
that never empty. Forests
rising quick as grass. A heaven
where silence never falls.
Do chainsaws share a secret grief?
They cannot hold what they eat,
cannot keep what they kill.
They cannot feed themselves.
We all despair, in greater or lesser ways, over the institutions we are linked to, especially the largest and most energetically destructive ones. Yet we also become connected over the years to an increasingly complex set of people we rely on, trust, and consider at least worthy of being saved. They may be family, lovers, children, friends, colleagues, fellow poets, plumbers, auto mechanics; we may feel we have too few, or too many, or the wrong ones, but no one I know lacks such a personal community. What many people seem to lack is a community of memory, one that extends backwards in time, reminding them of where they came from, who their people have been, how they have struggled and blundered, suffered and persevered. As families scatter and dissolve, children live apart from parents and grandparents, the stories and traditions that preserve such a community of memory become harder and harder to maintain. Even in a family like mine, determined to maintain its memory, the job requires conscious effort, labor, and resources.
Much gets lost, no matter what we do. What we can salvage, piece together, reclaim, darned across the holes and thin spots, is not a whole story, not a complete set of answers to our questions. It won't give us a foundation safe from any tornado or earthquake, or a set of beliefs that no trial or disaster can shake. It won't provide a final, conclusive way of thinking about this stubbornly beautiful and terrible world. But whatever our stance toward the world, it finally rests on one set of assumptions or another. We can choose one ready-made, or try as Blake did to avoid that bondage by inventing our own, although that task is not for the fainthearted or the merely brilliant. Sooner or later, whatever our intelligence or our learning, we find our limits: we have no more hope of understanding whatever in the universe is more complicated than we are than rabbits have of understanding us. No matter what we think of Pascal's theology, he was surely right about the two infinities between which we exist. And it seems little more self-evident or convincing to me now to claim that death waits everywhere outside our vision, that estrangement is the fundamental human reality, that loss is the most important element of the human condition, than to calculate as Archbishop Ussher did that the world was created in 4004 B.C.
Years ago, when we were both in graduate school, I brought a friend into a composition class to have the students interview him--a real live poet. He gave a wonderful, provocative interview, though he more or less baffled the students, as I recall. I remember very clearly his assertion that "I don't believe in God. I believe in details." This is a strong and even beautiful statement of a widespread view of the world, one that has yielded a great deal of good writing and some that I continue to find rewarding and even astonishing. I would not argue for its inverse--"I believe in God. I don't believe in details"--which is at least equally pernicious. And yet both of these senses of the world seem to me finally and radically poverty-stricken.
Wallace Stevens said, "The greatest poverty is not to live in a physical world," but isn't it an equal poverty to live in one that is merely physical? I want to remain duly diffident here, both about my own beliefs and about passing judgment on others'. I don't know, in the first place, that what we believe is more than slightly a matter of choice. We all finally live inside our own heads and our own stories. I didn't choose George and Clara for my ancestors any more than they chose me, and given another set of ancestors I would certainly not be writing this particular book nor claiming this set of allegiances.
Yet I am grateful for having spent this time learning to know them better. I have discovered that they are mine, and I am theirs, in ways that it seems both foolish and uncharitable to ignore. It's not that I would trade my own set of ambiguities and resistances and murky affirmations for their apparent simplicity and confidence. I know that I don't want to give up movies and trashy literature and all the other things of the world to which I've grown accustomed. I hope they will understand, or at least forgive me. And yet I am also glad to know that they are part of me, not only in the literal, physical sense but as a heritage I claim, models of one sort of worthy life to live. Their energy, their humility, their conviction and their gentleness, their understanding of their work not as merely getting ahead or (worse) "finding" themselves, but as part of a larger enterprise, as furthering the life of the tribe, are things I yearn for as well. Hardest for me to claim is that sense of the work as not merely local, not just personal, but something ordained by the firm and present God who sees the little sparrow fall and numbers the (few) hairs on my head.
And yet what do I know. Every fall in the pollen season my wife's
defenses go to red-alert and flood her system with histamines and
while I blunder mildly onward, breathing easily. I am reminded each
of how little my senses really deliver of what goes on. I am reminded
beware of claiming too much certainty of whatever kind; there's more
on than I can explain or understand. We may be surprised, overtaken,
raptured--tomorrow or today.