No Win Assured

Thanks to age and illness
I can’t close either hand

upon a bottleneck,
a lighter, or a hilt.

Two open hands that tingle
with no grip. 
Two dead feet
that feel just like that; one hard knot

in my gut; still working to be

ungovernable
to my limited extent
I stumble forward,
hands out for balance.

If nothing else works at least
they’re always open; even if
my scant capacity shortens my reach,
stunts my ability to hold what comes to me,

to push off what attacks, to signal
to all around if there’s danger,
these hands and feet
were dealt to me, are what I must play with

in this game for as long as I can, so
I keep playing for stakes higher
than I can afford.  That’s all 
I’ve got —

no win assured and
none expected 
in what remains of 
this life.


Thank You

Thanks, he said, for playing along
with a rigged game
for as long as you did
and pretending that it was fair 
from start to finish.

Thanks, he said, for being
a good sport, a tough competitor,
a worthy adversary.
Thanks, he said, for giving it
all you had. It was a good run.

Thanks, he said, for your rise 
to a challenge, your grace
in falling short. Thanks, he said,
for stepping aside when all
was said and done. 

Thanks, he said, for not
kicking up a fuss, for 
lying down and taking
a fall, for high roads and 
all that.

Thanks, he said, for being
so understanding, for not getting loud
or making a scene. Thanks,
he said, we got this and
don’t let the door hit you

in your loser ass on 
your way back to the back
of the back of the back. Dark
as it is back there I hope
you don’t fall and break your neck

or something. Hope
you stay upright. Hope
you hope and pray. Hope
you learn some manners
back there in the dark. Next time

you’d better say “you’re welcome”
when someone thanks you, when someone
lets you off this easy.  Next time someone
beats you like a drum, chum,
you’d better dance.

 


Stompbox

You have a right to say what you say
but you shouldn’t expect to get away with 
saying it in a clean, clear voice.
I’m here to help you change your tone.
I’m here to push delay. 
Here to offer a bright streak of distortion.
Here to force one big happy echo.

You have some small leeway to twist the dials
but rest assured that I will do what I’m built to do.
You have some freedom to turn me on or off
but rest assured that I’m going nowhere
and will be underfoot or in your head
as long as you are putting yourself out there.
Even if you believe my claim
that I can be truly bypassed
I’m still a hunk of brutal you’ll have to deal with,
taking up space, limiting how far you can move.

You can decide not to deal with me of course
but nobody’s likely to hear you. Everyone else 
who plugs in will drown you out.
I’ll make sure of it.

If you’re lucky
you’ll talk yourself into believing
I’m here to help

and pretty soon you won’t know how you got along without me.


Here Be Dragons

This story isn’t even remotely true;
this is myth on a skateboard
rolling through. It has streamers
and smells like fresh bread but
it’s as fake as a tail wriggling
in a predator’s mouth as the skink
escapes to grow another distraction.
But that taste…you want more, of course
and you’ll get more as long as you
keep your ear to the ground, your nose
to the grindstone, your shoulder
to the flat tire you are trying to make
round. Meanwhile all around you go 
the fast stories faking their paths
and drawing merry millions behind them
with tails in their mouths
while scaly little truths 
get away into the underbrush
and continue growing into
dragons.


Overheard Lament

It would have been better
to have been born now
rather than earlier.

There would already be rules
for growing into this.
This horror would be normal
and unhappy would be 
default and somehow 
there would be love and
silliness seeded among
thorns.

Daily news
would be a stream
of heartbreak
as it is today but kids
could shrug it off and 
slowly accept gray as
a perfectly acceptable
color for lawns and 
flowers. Someone

would make a game of
bullet casings and 
police tape. Any songs
would be written
around the wail of
a siren,

and children would sleep
at least now and then
immersed in dreams of joy
fit for their times, dreams

that would seem
wounded and dim
to us today.


Lightning Over There

Lightning over there
already.

Here, we’re still just
waiting for it. Sitting outside
watching the sky over 
the far hills blink red, listening to
the late rumble that follows. 

It’s got a few miles to go yet
before it gets here, 
if it does get here — 
might only get a few drops,
might get a deluge
and a firestorm.

A few years ago
a big one took down
all the power here on the hill
and tore a branch off
the maple out back 
that was the size of a tree
all by itself.

We stared at it
lying there the next day,
adjusting to how different
the backyard looked now
in changed, unfiltered light.
I try to remember
what it looked like before that
and fail. 

So:
lightning over there,
and here there’s nothing
yet. We sit and shiver
from experience
of how much can be erased
in no time at all.

We say
maybe it won’t be that bad.
We don’t say
maybe it will be worse,

even though the sky
is as red
as a torn heart.


January Dreamers

The sleepers wake in January
and wring their white hands.

They turn to each other,
pale and damp, and say,

did you feel that? A sort
of wave in the air, 

a plunge in the temperature?
Maybe we dreamed it. 

Maybe it will go back
to how it was. Maybe, even,

it’s still the same and we know
it will go back. Yes, we’re sure

of it. Let’s stay up a little while
and wait for that and then

we can fall again to sleep
under the warm cover.

So they sit up and wait
until the air cracks even colder.

They shrug and go back 
to sleep, dreaming 

they will always have enough cover
to stay warm, dreaming

of spring’s return,
of fire on the hearth at home,

all the way to Beyond The Cold,
back to the Used To Be;

when they do not wake,
their dreams having been  

trumped by the cold,
they are eventually pulled

from their beds and tossed
alive and unbelieving into

newly built pyres
of an ancient design.


Studies

What the just-born have learned:
how to breathe. How to 
sleep and wake. How to be terrified 
and then be loved. Hunger,
cold, how to cry for all apparent
and invisible reasons and 
have no regrets for being alive. 

What the just-deceased have learned:
how to fall asleep and stop
breathing. How to be loved,
terrified; how to surrender hunger
as they cool. How crying works;
how regrets do not. 

Somewhere in between,
some days closer to one,
some days the other, you will find
the rest of us, grading on the curve
or praying for pass-fail.  You will find us
hoping for an incomplete, a make-up,
extra credit. You will find us as we
rarely find ourselves:

working too damn hard.


Immortality

I fell off a mountain
while reaching for
the next mountain

I fell a long time

and when I landed on 
the same mountain I had fallen from

I lifted my head from the ruins
of my body
and was free

to go leaping
peak to peak
through the range

When I saw one last mountain before me
I touched one toe upon it
for closure then
plunged into 
the trenches of the ocean

and slid through those waters
from depth to shore
to depth again until
with this path
I’d stitched all the planet together

and when I’d done this

there were so many stars overhead
and so many worlds left

You lie to the children
saying
be afraid to die
stay forever safe

while I speed among the stars
and 
you can’t even tell 
that I have died


The Deer Woman

In the corner a remnant
of a vision pulled up
in half-sleep, pulled from
memories of an old man telling
a story near a communal fire. 

In the corner, 
a blistered sack of a human-like
thing with hooves and a black hood
covering its face. I fell asleep
thinking of the past and

an old man telling a campfire story
and now this looks like it was
pulled from that fire, but not fast enough.
It has deer-feet. It has a black hood
and I think now it is a woman

and I think in half-sleep that makes
perfect, drowsy sense. I don’t know
if I should speak to Her but when I try
the voice of an old man telling
a fireside story comes out of my mouth
using words I understand but do not 

recognize. I am
aroused enough to know 
She must know this.

This vision is now
floating toward me. I’m still 
half-asleep and half old man
by the fire when 

She comes close. I feel Her
grass-fed, smoke-blister breath.
The old man council fire story
upon my neck now.
The hooves dangling.
Her name on the tip
of someone else’s tongue
in a language I don’t recognize

but which I understand too late,
just before I fully wake; awake
forty years too late to tend
the fire.

 


Deserve (fragment)

You deserve —
what?

Offer of a meal.
A kind hand. A fever
poultice, a bandage.
A place. Silent assent
to how you get those things
if no one is getting hurt. 

But if no one gets hurt,
can anyone get
what they deserve?


Continued

He had just proclaimed
that a part of his life 
was over when

(as if in gleeful mockery
of his gloom and 
faithlessness to

his own promises
and principles)
a final burst of 

energy 
passed through him
from the center of his gut

to his hands and
out came a path to
reopening that door and

with it a completion
he had never 
expected to feel


Carlsbad

I do recall swallows
outside the cave mouth,
and I won’t dishonor them
by turning them into
metaphors.

To say that I have fears
that swoop in and out
of my own depths, taking
odd turns, diving in and
out — that’s true enough.

To surrender all other sense of how
those birds made me feel
to such a one-sided interpretation
is too human. I want something
beyond that from this memory.

Even the thought of them
taking one last plunge all at once
all together into the dark 
before the first thin stream
of bats emerged is not itself dark.

To say these fears that flit within me
seem to presage something
more formidable rising into view
is not incorrect, but is incomplete.
I should say instead that I cannot imagine

that my life would be as full today
if I’d never seen swallows and bats
at Carlsbad Cavern. No need for more
than that.  Mule deer were feeding
on the slopes around the cave entrance

the whole time
this was going on

and I’ve never tried
to make them part

of this mythology.  

There they were,
just being present.
Just doing what they did

in the presence of what others
were just doing. 

One could of course say
that this is just
what I’m doing. But
I’m tired of doing this
and there’s no obvious place

to rise from or plunge
or simply feed now
and Carlsbad’s too far
and it’s winter there anyway.
So I must keep doing this

until something happens.
it seems. Swallows, bats,
deer, wind, stones, fire, 
storms, calm, snow, sleep,
until something happens.


Your Magic

In the middle of the night you awake

and in your mouth is the word 
that will save everything currently in peril,

and you cannot pronounce it,

and soon enough you forget it, but not the knowledge
that you once knew it.

It poisons your magic for a long time.


A Memory Of Song

A man sitting in bed
on the second floor of his house
thinking about the stairs
as if they were a cliff to be
descended…

a man sitting on the floor
of his kitchen, frustrated with
plumbing, exhausted
after a day of wet dirt, crumbling
wood falling on his face — memory
of cave-ins, avalanches…

a man still sitting in his car
an hour after he was supposed
to be home, staring into the stalled
lines ahead of him burnished to red
by the sunset, simmering inside, 
imagining sunsets over a prairie…

a man holding a gun as he crouches
behind a rock, trying to pretend
he isn’t too old for this posture, feeling
the weakness inside, glad his freezer 
is full and this is for the show of 
other men…

Somewhere behind all this a man
singing, dancing, weaving,
speaking in tongues.  

He raises
one arm to the moon, pivots toward
Her, faces Her without losing his rhythm.  
He returns to his original direction
without losing the thought of Her.
He loses nothing
in either the pivot or the return,
but as for the memory of song…

a man sitting up in bed,
astonished at what he 
has dreamed until he
sweeps it away in worry
for the moment…