A sampling of poems that have been published previously in journals.
Appalachian Homecoming 1
A dinner bell reverberates through the valley,
Appalachian slow-going blues, the leaves dance shadows
on the forest floor
And through my thoughts
As if each were inseparable from the other.
I’m at it again, rationing out my ration to the cedars and loons.
Wanderlust in the loose veil of sundown.
Returning to you seems easy
outside the thing, like watching
An osprey above the tree line swoop low, spear the water
And talon a trout. I’ve known men who have lived
In the gaps of syllables, wed
The evenings outside the lit window of a former lover—intimate now
With a whiff from the bedroom fan, or the familiar voice
Of a distant body, a syllable astray. Syllable, from
The Greek syl-, “together with,” and lab-, “to take.”
Miles are the easiest distance to transverse.
Odysseus reached Penelope
In just ten years. Which is why, after
Nobody escaped from Polyphemus and, when
Nobody revealed his name, it lived to haunt
the blind hermit. Syllables astray.
Words lack alone. I’ve known men who’ve waited lifetimes
In the next room.
Originally published in Best New Poets 2012
And then July left them with each other
And the warm rain, which doused everything
They touched until no one could be sure
Whether this drowning resided in the object
Or the hands, the body,
The breath of the person touching.
A white sheen smeared across the mountains.
And they shone, but gave no light at evening
When the men from the factory left for work,
To build what was not yet built. And the mountains
Continued in their white absorption when the men
Returned and the women woke to greet them.
No one mistook the mountains. Not the workers,
Not their wives, and not the man
Who sat watching them from his porch, while out back
His wife fed the hibiscus her mix of shortening,
Flour, butter, and molasses, which she also fed
To the crickets inside who would emerge at dusk
In the cracks of the walls and baseboards
When she’d start to sing quietly to herself, her husband
On the porch intent on something far away,
Something he was sure would feel like smoke
If he could ever touch it. As for the mountains’ light,
It survived at a height he could not understand
Unless this understanding of absence suffices
For what his hands won’t grasp,
For what his heart was not designed for—
Understanding without attachment.
So at night, when the man looks outside his window
And sees the movement of people, which he sees
As the movement of ideas and of pain and of love,
As it shuffles mute to work or home
Or to the market for beans and pork and milk,
He sits remembering how there was a time
He had been certain what he touched could overcome
The pain he felt when holding it.
Originally published in The Journal (Winter 2012)
Charles & Emma
Natura non facit saltum.
—Charles Darwin in a letter to Asa Gray*
*“Nature does not move by jumps.” This letter that Darwin wrote to Gray is one of the two documents written by Darwin that were presented in 1858 at the Linnaean Society meeting—along with a paper by Alfred Russel Wallace—where the theory of evolution by natural selection was first announced publicly.
Originally published in Subtropics, Issue 8 (Spring/Summer 2009)
Jay bird squawks so daddy goes to get his shotgun—& mother wants nothing to do with any of it—it’s getting late—sun’s just over the barn’s wind vane & my sister’s coming back from the neighbor’s house—or so I remember it in a dream, but my father doesn’t own a shotgun, just a pistol I hear him talk about now & then, & that barn was our neighbor’s, only my sister is still coming home, but she’s taking her time, a squawking jay but I don’t think so. She’s up in Wisconsin now & works on a farm picking tomatoes & in the winter lettuce & I’d agree she’s lost if I thought any of us had some place to head. We’re all feet & so we just keep going—away, which is a way, the only way if it’s best not to look back on that day at the house daddy got out his gun & went to chase down that jay, my sister looking out the window at rows of burley tobacco across the way like it’s something & mom, beside herself, took the pills & he shot the bird & ever since my sister & I have been trying to figure out if we lost two or gained nothing.
Originally published in The Journal (Winter 2012)
—for Sarah H.
On the path to the apple orchard,
We come on a stand of white sweet clover,
Its flowers bloomed and furling,
And behind it, pokeweed in fruit—
The thick scapes and branches arterial red,
Its berries fat and drooping in clusters,
Some green, most turned a purple-black,
Deep bruise set against the leaves.
Intoxicated by their skin’s sheen, she warns
They get birds drunk
But for us are poisonous, which
Increases their allure.
Coming to an English stile, she takes off
The top board and leads me through
A brief stand of hardwoods before
We enter the next field. I don’t know
The names, but even to an amateur, the air
Is heavy with apple. She tells me
Tremletts Bitter, Winesap, Chisel Jersey—each its own
Whirl of color. Then she quiets and moves
Into the grove. When I begin to follow,
She cuts ahead. At the field’s edge I repeat
The names aloud to no one. Mid-afternoon,
Sun angles everything to shadow.
Originally published in Nimrod (Fall/Winter 2013)
Poem for My Father, Who Has Less to Say Now
The two old oaks on Battery Park next to the New French Bar Café
Had died some years back, but, since there was no money in it,
No one ever took them down.
Elsewhere in this city, the city you abandoned long ago that I’m growing to know
Less each day until soon it will be altogether a different city,
Things grow at such astonishing paces. For instance,
And though I’ve asked it not to, each night at my house on the city’s outskirts,
Silence has come to perch. It watches my back and
Runs its cool eyes up my shirt.
Elsewhere a woman I am trying to fall out of love with,
So think about daily, settles into an easy chair on her sun porch to go over bills,
But, at the sharp cry from the marsh out back,
Goes silent, places the envelopes back down—
December and the pair of sandhill cranes has returned.
She watches for a moment, then turns to browse summer catalogs:
Patio furniture, concrete ducks, sundials.
In the 4th grade, Michelle Wright would challenge me to stay quiet for 15 seconds,
Then 30, 45, up to a minute,
And I did it because I was in love, thought this was love and thought
My silence would prove me worthy.
Enough of this, I want to tell you a story now, a story
Of how two people navigate from silence to noise and, on arrival,
Think themselves unbearable,
So turn back—
How that silence feels in the hand and how, when they try to share it,
It grows wings and flies into the whiteness on the boughs of a winter pine.
But I’ve said too much already.
Someone, a long time ago, believed the cranes,
When keeping sentry-duty in the night, held little stones in their claws
To ward off sleep. When they sensed danger, they made a loud cry
And dropped their stones to warn the others.
And that person told someone who told someone else
Until the story was told enough to make it true, and when my mother dies
And when you die, separately, in separate houses,
Where even the lawn ornaments want nothing to do with each other,
As you both slowly, unswervingly repossess everything you’ve ever given,
Separate is the one vow you’ll keep.
The rafters spoke it at your wedding. Your best man
Had to carry you from the banquet hall to the hotel, while,
In your unending need for company,
You had asked the bridal party out for drinks.
It’s taken old age for you to realize that the quiet at a dinner table is not
How fear creeps into a house.
But we never tried to understand each other, so we failed
At nothing. We got over courtesies long ago.
And since it’s winter, the two oaks, still bare of leaves, still standing,
Try to tell another story about what happens to the body after we disappear into story.
And this is why, finally, someone has arrived to chop them down.
Originally published in Mid-American Review, 31.1 (Fall 2010)
Wally in the Tropics
There would be a teeming of tea times,
Tête-à-têtes in the shadowed recesses,
Much smoke and pomp and furs
And the frivolities of tropical depressions.
No Russian epic, no executive decisions.
Let the characters come back as they wish,
A dance, a ball while the day suns on,
A woman in another room
Or another world—little robin
Told you it would seem always
This way. Let love fulfill its sentence,
Locked to the noun and object,
Subjects always subject to question.
Sing a little ditty, scrape the person
Off from the pity. Outside the showcase
Of human flesh squeezed into threads,
For sale… though the bartering takes
Some learning. In the heat, the women
Wear no great gauds. Other languages
Play like a five-piece band—no one
Likes you. No one doesn’t.
Here the act takes less effort than
The desiring of it, the mustering of it up—
Early dawns the worm, grace was
Last season’s color. Some days
Are more like life than others,
Though there’s a rumor the bacteria
Gets you any which way—fatal detraction.
Originally published in Subtropics, Issue 8 (Spring/Summer 2009 as “Wallace in the Tropics”)
The elephants came again last night.
I woke to see them out my window.
In this life, I am going crazy.
I do not mean to be. Last week,
I slept through the week. This week,
I don’t know. I used to know.
In the life I lead with them,
I still have a life. They aren’t graceful
As I would have imagined.
But they’re so quiet. I didn’t know
They’d arrived until I awoke.
The five of them gather most nights
Just outside the yard.
I’ve taken a liking to the youngest calf,
I can’t remember what day it is, but I know
His eyes are large and brown.
Yesterday, I ate a little, and a little
Too much. Yesterday, I counted red pills
And I counted blue pills. Sometimes I
Collect them, hoard them. Enough for
Enough. I’ve had enough. But
I don’t think the elephants
Know me yet. They watch
As I sort bills into piles, or
Go through piles to find bills.
They know I’ve started drawing again,
Watch me as if they know
What I know, as if I’ve told them.
I haven’t. Or, I don’t think so.
I want them to know. Too much is built
On what we know. Built and welded
Onto faith, like a country church.
Who goes there anymore? Even my father
Has recanted. His eyes, large and brown,
Were the first to give it up. His smoker’s voice,
The last. I know if I approached them
They would attack me. This would be my fault.
My children will not speak to me. When I call
We talk and I try not to talk, try not
To say what they don’t want to know.
The man I let in last night, I didn’t know
What he wanted. Or, I did. But knew
I shouldn’t say. Who’s crazy? I’m
Too tired to be crazy. And tired
Of the doctors and their theories.
They’d strap Aunt Hannah down
And make her shake and my father and I
Would help her home where she’d
Wander the house. I’d go outside
Away from them, feel guilty and
Would come back to listen
To Hannah’s jokes and her stories
About how the doctors could not,
When alone with her, stop touching her
Because they loved her and knew
She was not crazy. She’d be telling
A story and start to cry but tell me
It was nothing. The game
Was to pretend she wasn’t
Crying. She’d tell me jokes and cry and
Take her pills. They looked so much
Like jewels. Now the elephants
Are wandering the yard.
Nothing changes. I take four pinks and
Seven whites and I am still
Who I am. Last week, I. Last week, I
Did not have a last week, but the week before,
Well, I don’t remember. I remember waking
On the floor, on the bed. I remember how
I woke surrounded by charcoal sticks, and bills
I’d used as drawing pads. Everything dusted
In white and charcoal soot. I remember how
The elephants thought nothing of this.
My children would think something of this.
There is nothing to think. So,
I’ve stopped thinking. This is a lie.
I would stop thinking, if I would stop
Hoarding the purple pills and the yellow pills.
I remember when I was young, and we went
To church in a small barn. How my father
Would take up the aisle to the pulpit. They
Admired that man. They were the crazy ones.
And how, once father stopped preaching,
Our next church did not have grass.
Or a steeple. And no one wore a tie or a dress.
I remember I wanted to wear a dress.
So my mother and I sewed one.
And when I tried it on, I ripped it
I was too fat. I ate too much.
I eat too much. I order the onion rings
And I order the French fries. I don’t eat them.
Well, this is not true. I, sometimes,
When the elephants are not looking,
Eat the fried part and leave the onion.
I, one day, when I am not
Crazy, will make jewelry again.
I remember how the youngest calf
Looked at me when he saw me eating.
He did not blame me. He would look
Best in autumnal colors. Die-cast beads.
I’ve started it many times—it’s not right yet.
I’m preparing it, preparing for not being
It. He has lost his tusks, and needs
Ornamentation. I want to say
We understand each other. I just said it.
Funny how, after a while, it’s easy
To say what you don’t mean.
Say, I am going crazy. Say, I am going
To take all the jewels. I remember
Last month. Last month I was happy.
I remember when, as a child, I would
Enter my father’s office. He’d look up
As I shut the door, and the games with
The boys at the corner. They could make me.
I slept all last month. I am so tired.
The elephants are coming inside now.
It is time for them. But the house. It is
So unclean. I am unclean. Unkempt. Unkept.
They will think me an awful host.
I need lipstick and to put away
The onion strings, or they
Will think me awful. I must prepare.
Put away my thoughts, or they will
Think me them. Put away what remains,
Or they will think what I am thinking.
They will. I know. They do. I know I do.
Originally published in Nimrod (Fall/Winter 2013)