From December

I hear her stir the small jar
of paint she’s mixed and know
she’s found the quiet needed to work.

Snow hasn’t yet fallen this winter.
I pick at this.

That poem about the green tomato
was supposed to be the new start
I’d promised myself, to step away from the dark.

That poem about the green tomato
was supposed to change things,
loose my loving tongue on its voluptuous
surface—simple music—


That Day

That day

That day the river will be full again
—an ample cup to sip.
We’ll watch the heron make his careful way
along the banks
like he’s looking for a coin that fell from his pocket.
I will have perfected my prayers
and ask for nothing.


To Hannah

To Hannah
                      after L. Cohen

It’s early in the morning, the last days
of April. I write you now that
the weather’s improving.
Spring’s seeming late this year,
the skies have been darker.
You’ll not come back here, I know.

Those songs I collected
that insulted California,
they were never intended
to change your mind.

I’m told that you wept last time you called.
Another courageous decision you made.
What can I tell you that you don’t already know?
Courage is rough on the brave.

I see you there with the flowers and light
that you’ve found, your drive across the desert
your lover beside you — what more could I wish for you?
— what more could I give?

I’m thinking of another song right now
born out of a more complicated love than mine.
It’s just that sometimes it’s easier
to misappropriate a line
even as it guesses wrong colors
how I — miss and — forgive you,
can confess of my faults,
how with that off my chest I could send this
without the slightest grain of salt.

Those songs I collected
that insulted California,
they were never intended
to change your mind.

your father.

“To Hannah” appears in April: 30 Poems



The young man is pleased with his haircut
and the new blue shirt bought special
for the day—its fabric smooth, heavy
for nearly summer. The collar folds
loose at the neck, even with the top button
buttoned. One shirttail turns out to show
          its thin white hem.
He’s clasped his hands behind his back
—composes himself swell-chested, proud.
Still, something of his smile is complicated
as if there wells in him an awareness
more than he can bear—where he has been
—where he is going —there is just too much
—too much —more than he can bear.


The dead

They can wander in forgetting, confused—
I suppose it’s me. I’m the one confused
—time folds so strangely.
Often the talk is of trivialities:

some household chore I ought to attend to,
sports or politics.
My father and I sit at that kitchen table as we did
and tell the same stories to each other

we always told, pretending them new each time.
Dad has that one about Carl Yastrzemski,
how after a bogus called third strike Yaz calmly bent down
and covered home plate with dirt and walked away,

never turning to acknowledge the enraged umpire
ejecting him from the game.
We laugh, smile sharing that moment again.
And then I try to tell him about 2004,

how I’d thought it might be the sweet gesture
when I brought the sports pages and an old Sox cap
to the graveside the morning after they’d finally won it all.

You’d have loved to see it, Dad.

I looked out across the cemetery hill. Hundreds of others
had done the same —baseball caps, pennants, mylar balloons,
catching the clear, tired light of October morning
—all so sweetly telling the dead.


Then and there

As poets ran long, I’d resigned
to not reading at all. Time was short.
Others needed the borrowed space at a fixed time.

It’s in this confusion, perhaps, some aspect of my defense
left mistakenly and waited outside
in the parking lot, leaned against the car
smoking hand-rolled cigarettes
—some such ghost, gone.
                                          And this other
spirit arrived to catch the words
in my throat.

I heard my own voice
sound that last warped note
like you hear from a broken guitar string.

I did not weep.
I promise you that much, my brother,
but you were in that room.
And something so suddenly, achingly
was said
then and there

though, I doubt I managed
an intelligible word.


Good King

You match his stride
as best you can—
your arms outstretched
for balance,

leaping slightly
from one footprint
in deep, damp snow
to the next.

It’s always been
that we place these
lamps in the yard,
light the house.

Viewed from the street
by passers-by,
It’s lovely still,
the quaint scene—

wreath on the door
scant glimpse of tree

One lamp bracket
breaks as he stabs
at hardened ground.
He stops, sighs.

He is hurried,
gone at all this
mind elsewhere.

You’re there to help
you remind him.
It starts raining—
cold, heavy.

He sends you in
—this last work his
—to finish it
this last time.

from April: 30 Poems


Absence singing

There in the touch of amber light
and its fluid color upon sentinel trees
at the wooded edge by still water and
an opening to the sky

—there stirring from among the moss
and fallen leaves
—stirring and setting out to disappear

—the mist glow of branches fallen soft, unharkened,
their disappointed limbs accepted into the earth
without notice, without mind or eye to witness

—still facts of being once.

With each such breath of imaginary song
there is this gorgeous and entire quiet

—your absence singing.

Absence singing.


Always love

And which of you comes to meet me
at that table by a window I imagined

having promised myself that person would be
a comfort to me? I would want the old friend

who was always a comfort to me. But then
I remember how that version would complain—

old bones, your past beauty, your sweetest days long gone.
You’d want to be that grinning girl instead, laughing

to realize her silly vanity in a cousin’s photograph
or the small, shy child who does not yet know

her brother’s suffering, who holds his hand,
obedient and adoring his handsome, undamaged face.

Or would you arrive in the company of your shining
son, Soldier Achilles never gone to his war?

I know you would want to be your father’s daughter
—you might finally have the breath to dance to his music.

What tune would turn your terrible, delicate heart?
Would you be the woman who took my father’s hand,

led him that day toward the house as it had begun to rain
falling so very hard upon the dry, bare earth?


Even as we still might

The country comes round to its birthday again and with every birthday there comes the occasion for reflection. We might consider our history with pride for what is best in us, and even rue one or two failings. We might ask ourselves if we are old, or still very young.

Every birthday brings us back to our beginnings, and as I write this I find myself pondering that moment that we’ve chosen to identify as our birth, as our first national breath. It was the signing of a document. We don’t mark our beginning as the day of some decisive military victory, or the day some treaty finally recognized our existence. We mark it as the day we declared our independence, and the day we found some powerful language to define our meaning.

I think what makes that moment in our history, and our living understanding of that history, meaningful is something of the poetry in that document we signed 245 years ago. It is something of that poetry that establishes the moment of birth for our country as something more than the date some disaffected gentry signed a pact against taxes and unfair commerce, made a call for better representation of their interests in government. Had the Declaration of Independence merely been such a listing of grievances and some carefully worded political resolution, I don’t think we would celebrate July 4th in the way we do today. But there is something powerful happening with those words “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” there is something still deeper as our founding promise is sealed with the pledge of our “lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” There is stirring music in that language, there is also something of substance to those words.

From the very first sentence, we define the American adventure as an episode “in the course of human events.” With those opening few words we state that the charter of this nation and its subsequent fate will be about more than one nation or its privileged people, but rather that these will be a comment on humanity itself. We go on to declare certain “self-evident” truths, and that in among these is the fundamental truth that all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights. These rights are not conferred by the state or its government, or defined as the due privilege of some select group. They are not ratified by our Declaration of Independence, they are simply, and profoundly, acknowledged, in truth, to exist for everyone.

This Declaration of ours is not about what it means to be an an American. Rather, it is about what we take it to mean to be a human being.

Among those who signed this document on July 4, 1776 were men who owned slaves. There were plantation owners and plutocrats who surely fretted about the dangerous aspects of this democracy they were about to fashion. There would be compromise and contradiction from the start. There would be war upon war, even war upon ourselves. It would be nearly another 150 years before the great great granddaughters of those first signers would be guaranteed the right to vote in this democracy, nearly 190 years before those descended of slaves would finally lay claim to the same self-evident truth of civil rights. Skeptics might be right to call into question some of the lofty rhetoric we celebrate.

But what of that question? What of men who can articulate ideals beyond their own failings?

What if Thomas Jefferson and his fellow founding fathers had chosen more careful language that made a more exact accounting of our nation’s founding compromises and contradictions, of their own moral limitations? Would subsequent generations have taken up the challenge, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “to live out the true meaning of our creed”?

To acknowledge hypocrisies, even profound failings in our history, is not to discount the profound poetry of that creed, of what we hoped we could be of at our beginning, what we had the courage to profess as our dream, even as we failed to live up to that dream at the time, even as we might still be striving today.

So I’ll leave it at this: Birthdays are about beginnings and also about what follows. We might indulge in a little pride or harbor a few regrets as we consider the gifts we must live up to and the mistakes we must live down. Each new year gives us another chance to do a little of both.

Yes, I’ll leave it at that, America. A little of both…

This essay appears in Personal Histories