Ancestors

I search the ancestors’ faces for clues they might
have understood they weren’t the first ones here.
Burt and Millie don’t smile in the daguerrotype
in the living room of the 1888 farmhouse

my family still owns. Their backs are stiff. My mom
recalls evenings back then, when her elders
sat up straight in ladderback chairs in that room
under the naked glare of an overhead bulb.

Now, framed by gilt scrollwork, under the domed glass
my forebears’ dour mouths seem stoic, proud in that
good way we were taught to be – of hard work,
bootstraps – yet look entitled to each acre

they bought from the land speculator. The chickens
whose necks my great-grandmother wrung each week
to prepare for selling at the curb market – their bones
lie under inches of soil at the bottom of the manmade pond

where these days we float and drink beer on summer
afternoons. Uncle ‘Kiah, a Civil War vet, roamed these woods
in the aughts, searching for white lightnin, a fire, and
a good tall tale before borrowing a bed for the night.

They say he was never scared; sometimes he walked
till dawn. His room above my great-grandmother’s kitchen,
where a wood fire always burned, became a place to store
implements no longer needed on a non-working farm:

scythes, axes, saws, sharp wooden shapes we had no name for
hung from the wooden slats. Dead wasps lined the walls, too,
their stingers still full of venom. We kids would never go
up there, afraid of what those tools might once have done.

Shadow

She is not a mere shape on the grass
but the volume of darkness that falls
in a sable curtain behind my sunlit face
back to the earth. She is the dim, rich compost

where mushrooms grow, a moonless night
full of noises, the next layer down in the lake,
whose cold makes the swimmer draw up her feet.
A column of ink given the dreamer to make

a story. Dimmest part of a fire, whose spark
smolders close, invisible and blue. Bag full of mystery.
Thick book in an as-yet unknown tongue, gnarled tree
far in the woods, its numbered rings hidden in the bark.

Primeval gloom. Dilated pupil. Handful of dusky loam.
Laboratory. Womb. My once and now and final home.

How To Make Trouble

Refuse to forget.
Imagine any border
giving way to a new land.
Eat what sustains you.
Stop when you’re full.
Listen hard, so it hurts.
Walk outside; let those ripples
echo for the rest of the day.
Stand up on the board
and ride the sickening swell in
instead of going under
under a truth about yourself
you’d rather not face.
Accept that your name
will change more than once.
Practice calling yourself
these other names.
Weave them into a bright
fringe for your warmest coat.
Share it when things get colder.

Prelapsarian

My closest ancestor is a girl called me.
Right is a place where she once got lost. It held
a sparkling pool, a pair of doves, a tall fringed palm
with a long shadow, a gate that locked from the inside.

Under the tree was a way out, but one couldn’t
know for sure without first digging up the roots.
Who taught me that? The mothers. They said,
“These roots are deep, but not endless.” I began

untangling, unearthed the rhizomes one by one
in the sunshine. They stank. The damp in that region
had fed them well. Lightning struck the tree one night.

Its fronds withered. One day I touched the gate and it opened.
Outside was my first mother, a trailer hitched to her truck,
her tank full, her face a quiet sword that burned.

Sadnesses

The sadness of taillights, of crunching gravel
growing fainter, of the empty wine bottle
on the hotel nightstand, of a plane’s drone
in a clear sky at 4 p.m., of tomato soup
in the vacant hospital cafeteria.

The sadness of being wrong. Of being right.
Of long gray hair. Of all you don’t yet know.
Of all you do. Of the balloon rising, unmoored,
ribboned, above the grocery store parking lot.

The sadness of the straight face. Of the red eye.
The sadness of sadness that won’t come,
but sends blankness in its place.

Prayer

That this job will change you, turn you tender.
That vexation will, unlike coddling, coddle you soft.

That under the dyes, you will go pale with epiphanies.
That after all the meetings and the fêteings, nothing

will prevent some late evening when, alone and awake, you
feel what all of us must one night feel: a chill of prophecy.

That, like the mother who knows at once when first she looks
into the eyes of her child that it will leach the life from her,

deflate the collagen from her cheeks, rob the pertness from
her breasts, steal the lightness from her pre-sleep mind –

your rest likewise will be troubled, niggled by those you serve.
That, if unwillingly, you will be made to see and see and see.

That your tartar’s heart will turn tartare,
a pulp unlike the tough sear you prefer.

January 19, 2017

Across the creek this morning before sunup, the neighbor’s dogs woke me with their snarling. A skein of geese over the golf course made a hell of a racket, too. They can’t decide whether to fly south or north. Who can blame them for not knowing whether it’s time? This weather is crazy. Who knows what it augurs? If we’re lucky, a mere half-decade of bad luck. Maybe we don’t have so long as that. But enough of that for now. In the capitol, trumpets have been polished till their bells shine like scimitars, been nestled into in their cases, where they sleep in velvet till their blessed tomorrow. Tomorrow the codes pass hands. Tomorrow the job begins. We each must judge which way we’re meant to go. Which undefended hill we’re meant to man. Perhaps last week he did sleep in the Winter Palace, writing on looseleaf paper a string of words to inaugurate the new thing. I look out toward Bear Wallow. Very well, then. I see the lights of the town below us. I turn and look the other way, farther toward Sugarloaf. A few thin and isolated clusters of life twinkling faintly in the valley. Everyone close to his home fires this evening. None of the usual gunfire. Some days we hear semi-automatics through the woods. “Do you know how much those bullets cost?” asks my father. Each quick rattling burst equals a cold six-pack, he insists, in the injured voice of a bookkeeper trying to balance the ledger.

three haiku

I told you goodbye.
You slept, came back from the dead.
So, what to say now?

You found your voice, then
lost it. What are you thinking
Under that morphine veil?

There is a hole in
your throat. Air flows in and out.
It’s for just in case.