From The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. In memory of David Hilderbrand.
Not the wreath woven from fresh flowers,
nor the photograph it rings. Not the calm
smile at the center. Not the messages
inscribed by the ones who loved you most.
Not your initials, nor the dates
marked in black lettering across the white
cross, planted behind the guard rail
at the edge of a Georgia highway—
the one perpetually filling with sunlight.
But birds….there should be birds.
Small and many. Birds that have just come
from the sea, which can’t be far. There should be
one for each year. They should descend in a rush
and surprise, and smother the small trees
growing in a line beyond the roadside
memorial. They should be white. And from
a distance, it would look like a line of crosses
trembling beneath a sky full of sadness, full of song.
Beyond scaffold enshrouded steeples,
sunlight weaves through leaf-thick oak trees
now filled with blossom and song, though war
saturates the brick and memory of wind
spinning with salt through summer air
that simmers beneath the blood streaked sun.
Red runs through ribbons of sun
across the skyline and steeples
lifting off tin sloped roofs into air
filled with flowering trees.
Always the tireless ocean wind
ripples the worn-out flags of war.
The names of the enemy change, but war
is the inscrutable language spoken beneath this sun.
The flag at half-mast, stiffens in the wind.
Funeral bells sound from the steeples.
In the cemetery, beneath the oak trees,
taps linger on the broken air.
The sounds of war will rumble in the wind.
As steeple bells call through the sun filled air,
birds nest in trees twisting toward heaven.
From The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.
Sudden winter rain a need like night
camellias that morning startling
a thing remembered how we fill
our days of ornaments
unwrapped and scattered across
the kitchen table chocolates
in a silver box from home wind
white and furious watching
the first hour of Fanny and Alexander
Christmas Eve snow falling candlelight
feast at the end of day a family
gathered and then, the stark unraveling
ice breaking on the river
beside the house children
shocked into submission
reality broken ever since
That night the voice on the phone
once held me steady
sometimes that is enough a man
with a full heart and stories
thick snow on a lake white breath
of horses small children digging
tunnels in the fields beside the house,
afternoons with an English novel or the film,
because he misses home, but won’t say
this is where he asked her
to marry him under the stars
a bottle of champagne wedged
in a snowbank as if songs were true
stories as if joy could be anything but
elusive promises made
before God sometimes
a sudden turn in one direction
or another eyes that meet
or do not across the bar
the risked kiss unbuckled belt
and so it goes a stranger
came out of his house
to speak to a woman this was
as calculated as a long voyage
shaving cream caught in his ear
this too was planned one thing
on his mind his stories as old as the sea—
the first stab to his heart
home on holiday leave that
night and the snow was falling
the girl’s hair was full of snow or stars
caught on their eyelashes and tears
he got down on his knees his uniform
shining buttons none of that mattered
he moved in we wore
the same size jeans we fit
like us no arguing with that
forget the world let us
be happy when we are happy
that story that stays with me
his submarine surfacing
into a swarm of monarchs
crossing the Atlantic mid-day
no clouds the wonder of it
so much sunlight with you
it was something like that
he said and then
a child conceived because
of me the memory of that
story not written anywhere.
From The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. For Jerry Smith.
Clustered around the edges
of my father’s open grave,
the grown-ups lean into one
another like bunches of crows,
pressing their pale wet faces
against the emptiness
of the slate sky gathering
in the late winter wind.
The flapping minister’s robes
sound like sails unfurling
beside the coffin. It is
as if this man carries
the sea inside of him,
the way my father did.
Pine boughs cover the coffin.
Arranged like flowers from one
end to the other, they fill
the air with Christmas smells.
I think of my uncle, climbing
at dusk through falling snow
to do the one thing he could
still do for this man he loved
like a brother. I consider
the tenderness and courage
it must have taken to tear
the branches one by one,
from the mountainside. And how,
when his arms were full of pine,
he ran stumbling down
the trail he had made alone
through the woods. His hands covered
in dark patches of pitch
that stayed on his skin for days.
From the Cortland Review
Aunt Barbara was a beauty queen. Competing
in the Miss America Pageant and riding on top of floats
in holiday parades in South Paris Maine did nothing
to prepare her for being a wife. When she was first married
to Uncle Buddy she knew how to boil water and cook spaghetti,
but the sauce was simply too much for her. So, she mixed catsup
into a little hot water left at the bottom of the pot,
poured it over the pasta, tossed in a lot of Kraft Parmesan Cheese
and served it almost every night. Uncle Buddy ate bowlfuls
of the stuff for months and told her it was delicious.
When my grandfather told me this story, he said
it’s the kind of thing that happens when you really fall in love.
It was a summer evening. He was sitting in the Adirondack
chair behind the driveway in front of the railroad tracks
that ran through the yard behind my grandparent’s house.
He smoked his pipe and talked while I pulled rhubarb from the garden.
We were waiting for Uncle Buddy and Aunt Barbara
to come in for the weekend, with my teenage cousins
who had long straight black hair and jeans so tight they had to lie down
on the bed to zip them up. On Saturday night, they played 45s
out in the shed and danced with the local boys.
And if we hadn’t bothered them too much during the day,
they would let me and my cousins watch them through the window
and dance to Elvis and the Beatles out on the grass;
my grandparents sitting back in their chairs watching us,
tapping their feet and clapping until the train roared through town.