Early July

Junebugs gleam green, thwack loud athwart the eaves
and any other thing that blocks their way. The doctor said
the other day this growing haze is just my focal distance
in the prelude to its ebb, and last night when we rode
our bikes far out to Island Home, I squinted at the roofs,
tried to remember which was my department head’s,
thought of that time two decades back when I was the sole
graduate there for a spring soiree, not having checked
with any of my cohort prior, and so for an entire blue
evening I perspired and flushed with youth and shame
among the giants in my field, tasting for the first time
a few dishes of that land: green beans still crisp in dark
and bitter oil, laced with seeds I tasted later, their having stuck
between my teeth, and pale red wine that dried my tongue,
and cheeses sharp with salt and earth. A story I heard later:
the head was never more in shape than in the year or two
he wrote his book on Joyce, and rowed the Puget Sound
and pedaled his fast bike around the capes and coves.
Likewise, that lurid bite a friend fed me later still, that once
this scholar’s wife (a prof herself) confided with a smirk
he came home one day so redolent of sweat and effort
that, ravished, she crushed him to her – it was just nature
doing its work to ripen desire – and how shocked
I was at this frank talk of sex among the middle-aged,
unknowing yet of how my thirties would unfold, the jolt
of learning my body, too, has its quiet but insistent need.
Prone as I am now in a hammock, my softer-these-days
stomach looks for the moment taut under my shirt, though then
it fills with air and flattens out again, a landscape changing
every minute. This house, which we bought last summer
from two young folks with kids (which we will never bear
ourselves), and which they bought in turn from a still older pair
who first built it, has new cracks from our first year of settling.
We sleep and dance and eat and drink as deeply as we dare
from these vessels in which we likewise find ourselves.
At night in groups the local kids ride bikes right past our lawn.
We watch them pick up speed, to feel the rush of that steep slope
that winds its blind and swift way down to the main road.

The Tenth Year

I looked so beautiful wearing
my first year of being kept.
His shirts stayed so pressed,
all printed with blue panes.
The woman we hired
in the city repeated
motherfucker motherfucker
and had a mouth on her
all the more attractive next
to my prim book-learned tongue.
I admit her skill, though it
made me at the same time sick
being made to moan by one
who was not my own true love
while he looked on.
But that was what he desired.
Each night the wine turned
his teeth gray as my mother’s
eyes, while his own burned
like just-cooled obsidian,
and his face swam above
mine in bed, fanning me
with fumes. Our doom,
our Eden seemed sealed
until I cracked it loose,
destroyed the rhyme. In time
you’ll repent, he promised
in a moment of calm.
But I never did, and left
by the east gate – the angel
crossed his flaming sword
behind me, barring my return –
without a word or qualm.


Early June

Last night you let me talk about before
you came, the loneliest time I’ve ever lived.
It seemed to cause you pain to hear it told again.
Today I woke and through our front window admired
the even lines of lawn you’d mowed. You are so steady,
even when you bow and reel. Your quiet order
helps me heal. I only hope I’ve healed you, too.

Warden and Want

She gulps milk straight from the carton.
Her gun stays barely holstered, safety off.
She wears neither bra nor sunscreen
nor seatbelt. In the feature of my life,
she has appeared in only a few frames,
but key scenes all. A real character. One I don’t
know so well. I call her by her last name
or handles like Bitch and Warden and Want.
When the sun sets, we meet east of town,
furthest from the fading light, and turn
and face across a sea of rutted mud.
And though her eyes are hid, I know their burn
and know their anger as surely as my own
and when her heart beats, I too feel its blood.

Second Chance

When you meet him, you won’t recognize him. He seems weak:
reflects, where you would have asserted your vaster power.
His wife talks, and he listens. Only when she’s done, he speaks.
And she is eager to hear him. What a strange feat, this man
who has managed to command the ear and willingness of a woman.
But he cries. And thus, you sneer. He is your salvation, but you can’t hear.
Won’t hear or relent. Your arms are bunched with muscle and complaint.
His are lean and smooth; they hold his dear in the dead of night
and hers encircle him in turn. You could kick his ass, and then go home
to the wife who never thanks you fully enough for all you’ve done,
who is never satisfied, never silent, who sags so it reminds you you’re
not young anymore and someday you will die. My dearest former
love, please meet the man you could have been, and could be still:
the man whom you need most. The one man you could kill.

Study Day

Márgarét, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
           – Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Spring and Fall”

Campus is quiet this morning,
cool. Suddenly lush.
Empty of bodies

which is untrue:
rather, they are hidden away
in library carrels and study rooms
readying for finals

and the construction site across the street
beeps all day long
turning up dirt
forever at work on something

going down, says the elevator
matter of factly

In spring
when green arrives
we say the trees are leaving
in fall, unleaving
which seems wrong:
it is the opposite of how things feel

My father’s muscles
slump softly against his calves
his hair furred like new growth
on apparently dead limbs

Why does he have to be like a tree?
Why does he have to be like something?

Why can’t I just sit under the canopy
observe it
in its various states
of bleakness
and bloom

and my father as well?

going up, says the elevator
in the same voice
neither lift
nor dip

It rises and falls
all day long
on a string

It is an elevator
not my mood

A student stops by, asks
what happens if I get to the beginning
of the last page
and run out of things to say?
Is that okay?

Well, that depends, I reply, on whether
I read your last sentence
and still have questions

My Father Smokes a Pork Butt for My Wedding Day

Though you swayed at your walker
Though it pissed off my mother
You stood at the smoker
Building fire from tinder
Coaxing coal into ember
Adjusting the damper
Till combustion of matter
Made fat gently render
And sinew go looser
And shoulder turn tender
While around you the verdure
Of winter’s last taper
Warmed your pale outer layer
With the spring sun’s first smolder

On enissophobia

It was 2005, and we were staying at the Hotel Gallery Art in Florence. A boutique hotel in an ancient, romantic city full of art. In the lobby bar, we sat with a little cup of crunchy snacks between us, a bottle of wine, and he confessed with some shame that he was obsessed with a fear of committing the unpardonable sin. A fear that he had already committed it without knowing he’d done so. This fear is called enissophobia. And he confessed he had OCD, too, which made it hard for him to take tests, because he was always checking and checking and rechecking his answers, never sure he’d gotten them right. The enissophobia, I’ve learned since, sometimes goes along with OCD.

According to the New Testament, the unpardonable sin is to “blaspheme” (or some translations render it “grieve”) the Holy Spirit. But this is a fuzzy concept. What does it mean to do this? Different churches have different ideas. The Catholic church has a list of six sins that are eternal and that effectively fit the bill as unpardonable.

I have a different definition, based on what I’ve learned about my own soul. We call the Holy Spirit different names, depending on whether or not we’re religious – but in practical terms, it amounts to the same thing. The Holy Spirit is the tongue of flame inside us – our inspiration, our psyche, the faint but instinctive thread we follow that leads us through life towards who we are becoming. For me, the unpardonable sin is willfully, continually ignoring that still, small voice we each possess. This probably comes as no surprise, since it accords closely with the shadow work I’ve been doing for years in analysis. My personal work has been about unearthing that voice, and learning to trust it to guide me. And it always does, when I’m really listening.

And so, for me, the unpardonable sin is unpardonable not because it’s a sin you can commit once and be done with it. It’s not some sudden thing you trip over and fall. On the contrary, it’s progressive. You have to keep doing it. You have to persistently, pointedly keep on ignoring what you know in your gut to be right, keep on making conscious decisions to turn away from that. Again and again and again. Eventually, your own repeated choices are what condemn you. God doesn’t even have to step in and do it. You’ve damned yourself to your own self-made hell.

Long ago, when he gave up art for medicine, he killed the tender, sensitive boy I was friends with when we were kids. The friend I loved. Giving up art for medicine doesn’t have to mean destroying one’s soul, of course – but in his case, it apparently did. That young man he was – he’s dead. He killed that sweet boy when he elected to stop listening to his inner voice. Sometimes I’m able to pity him for that. Sometimes, when I think of all the harm he’s done to others – not just to himself – I can’t find sufficient generosity.

That night thirteen years ago, when we sat together in the bar at that tiny table, I was stunned by the extremity of his worry. I wanted to comfort him, take away his dismay, reassure him that he had not committed any sin that could not be forgiven.

But the truth is, he just hadn’t yet. Now I feel certain some part of him must have known he was already heading in a dangerous direction. And the truth is, he was right to be worried.