At the Cemetery
The gravediggers keep to themselves.
So do we. They do their work, we do ours.
We hold gloves, keys, flowers,
a purse, a Bible, a whiskbroom, a hairpin, the other hand.
Each of us notices something and speaks, bending.
Some headstones, having sunk in, lean, but ours stand up
straight. They need grass pulled back off their edges
and dirt swept out of their engraving.
Doing that, we calm down, though we feel flat.
We look down.
Reading scripture weakens us.
Saying “Our Father” weakens us more.
And then we catch. Our hips lock, but our shoulders
square to the car. That’s the kind of animal we are.
After the Storm
Mrs. Colburn called the beauty terrible, and Mrs. Boucher agreed.
Some of the limbs could have wrecked a car or killed someone.
My mother said it was one of those nights when you heard
breaking off all around, and my father said there hadn’t been
a night as bad for trees since the night of the storm I was born in.
Looks like a war’s been through here, Mrs. Colburn said, waving
and on her way. Then we dragged the fallen into the back field
and piled them on the pile. That’s all we did. We’d had our say.
Love’s labor’s not always lost.
I grew in a suburb and saw.
After storms there was wonder,
there was loving and reconstruction.
I was born in one, and I’m still
dragging limbs through the field
and raking twigs up into piles.
The same goes for my parents.
They had feelings too.
They would have liked to move
into another neighborhood,
but they stayed. In the room
where one of us died our mother
kept her office as before.
She was an interior designer.
On the corner where another
one of us was killed, our father
still cut and swept and trimmed.
The civil wars were few.
The one with the Cohigs:
they were all girls but one,
and we all boys but one,
but a Bardwell got into it
so we shot a robin full of
BBs to cause her pain.
And there was the break
between us and the Whites
after Craig pinned a coontail
to the seat of his pants
and then spread the tails
of his rented tux when Glee
curtsied at the Debutante Ball.
It made the society page.
The Whites didn’t speak to us
for a year, but we kept in touch
by taunting their dog, Bear.
My brothers and I committed
crimes, did drugs, had sex.
We lied, we cheated, we hid.
We were in our father’s eyes
milestones to American liberty.
Until 1967, he marched us
mornings with the flag
to the window facing west,
unfurled it, saluted, put it
like a soldier in its post,
made sure our hands
were on our hearts,
then led us in the Pledge.
In our mother’s, we were
apostles of the Catholic faith,
innocent, best in navy blue
with knee socks and saddle shoes.
Division was always imminent.
Every day on the way to school
the “Divided Highway” sign
read “Deviled” to me,
and many divisions since then
have come to pass.
A breakfast of paper and sharp pencils,
to copy the Ten Commandments with.
The order our penmanship put them in
was not the order they took in his teaching,
where the fourth came first:
“Honor thy father and thy mother.”
“Obey” is what I remember writing.
That lesson failed to teach us
“First things first,” or else we were
better listeners than our father knew.
It started our career of overhearing,
which he couldn’t stand when he noticed.
Tone did the teaching.
We acted accordingly.
When a policeman would pass,
he’d say, “Act natural”—
which added to the list of things
impossible to eat for breakfast.
Didn’t we know just before it
how to behave? Weren’t we?
He made it second nature for us
to look to him for what to do.
But what exactly was he doing?
He was driving, justifying.
Second things first, then.
We learned that lesson.
We disobeyed, to get him to see
we’d heard him put last things before next.
When his youngest son was killed,
he was memorizing the last page of Camus’ Rebel,
struck by what that limit is,
under the sun, that shall curb us all.
He feared that his remaining sons
would be drafted by other men and made
soldiers of their adolescent furies.
With supreme tension he raged;
and we copied, we obeyed.
He was not yet forty,
and none of us was ten.
The Water Tower
for Mark Sink
The water tower is nothing.
In the puddles of our neighborhood,
it is not a symbol, it is tall, and squirrels
(at least one) have leapt from its bolted steel.
The water tower is a surprise;
it bleeds our hearts; it is nothing.
Nights we go there half silent,
spidermen full of panther–sweat,
oiled, stinking. We see with acid eyes
the rungs dripping water beads.
Barbed wire guards the first step up;
the horses start; our legs shake;
their hooves wake or don’t wake
the neighbors; we cling to the ladder, don’t slip.
I was born in a storm in a hospital
in that house there, a chicken coop
someone’s father built. Your father built
that house, you say. You were born in a
hospital too, with dyslexia in your eyes.
But that isn’t our fault, so we talk of girls,
the nearest obstacles, our first long rides.
I remind you we didn’t fall again this time.
We forget all we want to remember up here.
The thought of our impact in the distance
softens in the cheatgrass. How high are we?
Hell, it’s not that high. You tell the story
of the squirrel’s suicidal dive, how it lived,
how you gashed your leg getting down
to see it limp away. Probably one of us is
jealous of the other, and one of the squirrel.
But up here, where we command the view,
I can’t say to you that I’ve lost much,
and you try to. “We’re instamatic,” you say.
When we climb down from here we will not fall,
and we will go to the houses of our fathers
our mothers keep, to sleep as the sun comes up,
exposing this tower, this silent surprising thing that is tall.
Letters from Home
Sometimes in the middle of them,
sometimes in the end, sometimes
in the middle and again in the end,
our parents wrote, “Got to run.”
A run around the block
was our mother’s only specific
when any of us ailed.
She swore it never failed,
though she never felt the need.
“One foot in front of the other,”
our father liked to say, “for speed.”
He would run for thirteen miles.
Both kinds sound good to me,
and I’ve tried to practice each,
but when I run I hear my feet
beat out a kindergarten song—
But the one little duck
with the feathers on his back,
he rules the others
with a quack, quack, quack—
and then I can’t go along.
Starting to Quit
Spoiled and addicted, I couldn’t take my father’s wisdom
when he gave it, that the only way to quit is never to start.
I was off in his footsteps and off in my mother’s, who was off
in hers, the nicotine pretty well per stirpes, as lawyers say in wills.
Drinking went hand in hand with smoking,
as Wystan’s profiles make Auden.
I got drunk first at a brunch for the resurrection.
The champagne rushed down the flute and rose again.
We drank according to the scriptures, my father and I,
keeping always in the back of our minds the verse
that we would know our last martini but not remember our first.
Who was counting?
We didn’t check our thirst,
the cups it took to get us to recite
the old poems of the inner life
with its melancholy, choked–up light
that brims with all the sober art and scope
we often envy in the poet, and sometimes hate.
My Mother’s Garden
What the scent is I can’t quite say—
a June lawn cloyed with Russian olive?
My mother’s garden in the summer sun.
Mine, too, for the weeding I do,
for the water I fan across it
when the vinca withers in the afternoon
and the lilacs sag, and the honeysuckle;
when petunias wilt and tulips splay,
and root-beer irises like poodles’ heads
start to lose their groom; when pansies
shrivel and daisies droop,
and the skins of the Newport plums pucker.
From inside, my mother calls out:
“And don’t forget the geraniums.”
The rest of the summer’ll just be for freelancing weeds,
getting down on your knees and working your fingers
until it hurts a little to hold a drink in the cocktail hour.
It might be that I’ll go down on a cheatgrass cluster
and grab hold of an old turd my first day. But I’ll keep
pulling anyway, and maybe turn up a grub in the process.
We’ll share the surprise, the slight shiver it will send up
both of us. It would take more than that to make me quit.
The weeds I pick tomorrow I’ll pick again in August.
They’re always coming on, and only some, the ones
with leaves like kinnikinnick, tiny, succulent jades,
slide out in a snap, their white, amazing roots intact.
Most never come, even after rain. I clench them low
and tug, and all I ever get is a nosegay of leaf, bitter
with hints of butter, but the ground’s crust’s unflaked
at the base of that stem. Its freely branching roots
a bald electrician couldn’t trace meaningfully enough
to snip. I can smother them and burn them; I can rub
herbicide like lotion on each cotyledon and true leaf,
even take a weed–eater to them at the hottest hour—
but they’ll come back. Hell, I could have this job
for all my summers, and never do a good one.