The Shade Tree

From you, I learned the world

does not allow both
in single trunk of flesh,

no matter how many
sun-charred children
you gather under your
wide-swept branches,
no matter how many
crinkled leaves of gold
you rain down into their
hungry open mouths.

This kind of healing
puts a dose of poison
in the roots, it comes
with sterile soil,
with a daily loosening,
and they will never know it,
not even when the trunk
begins to list and groan
in the wind issuing
from their wailing throats.

It would be such a simple lust,
to ache for aching
like they do,
to just give in to it
and ache like they do,
to swallow no one’s pain
but gallons of your own,
to feast on yourself.

Forget this strange nutrition.

Even if it lets your roots
knot their worried fingers
deeper into the hair
of your lover the earth,
even if it brings strength
beneath the earth,
it withers the limbs above.
It shades no one.

It would heal you with a cost:
a shrinking ring of shade,
and the sun rises ever higher,
it burns ever hotter
and here it never sets.

It lays hot on your back, yes,
but it sears these children
of sticks, and they are
already smoking.

Let them huddle closer.
Stretch your limbs
to encompass as many of them
until your bark cracks
with the strain of reaching.

Bathe their bodies, feed them,
and grow dizzy with it,
feel the earth kiss you
even as she loosens your fingers
from clutching so tightly,
teeter and hunch and splinter
but never stop shielding
the blistered beneath you.

How valuable is a shade tree
if it could not
come crashing down
one day?

Teething

Forget all else I have told you.

There is no calm inside me,
no serenity
no silence.

I have told you
I have nothing more to say
but I do
I do
and it comes out
only in wails at myself
when I get away from you.

I have hidden what I am:
a teething child

snapping at tombstones
and bricks.

I have chewed a box of knives
down to their handles,

gnawed curbs and sidewalks
for the taste of the moss in their cracks
and the feet that tread them.

I have ground my teeth down
to a mouthful of grit
and bloody nubs of gum.

I polish the back of my throat
in swallows.

Even that brings no quiet.

Call a dentist, please
please please.
Build me
a new grin with pieces
of chalk.

I was born with
a blackboard tongue
that needs scrawls
bitten into it.

Crevice

You wake up one morning
with a great black splintered crack
through your belly,

edged out hard,
and chalked over.

This is what happens
when a crust of ache forms
on the froth white of hurt
and then breaks:
it sunders and splits
down the middle of you.

But listen close,
listen quiet,
listen

to the sound issuing
out of it:

the hush-shush of sea
blue notes, the whale-whispers,
from your conch belly hollow,

the sour tired song
of a cold choir,
it scrapes back its chairs
and slaps its chests
with numb slabs of hand,

the mother rock wren
flits in with dead grass
and tangled hair
to nest down in your gut
and sing her dry trill song
among the spotted eggs
she’s laid.

Anchoring

If I had hollow bird bones,
you’d find me
in the corner,
filling them with buckshot.

Oh, I still want to fly.
Far up, higher
and higher
until blue air thins
and lungs catch fire
for scarcity

but you know
I’d never
come back down.

Weigh me here
with heft,
with burden,

crow’s feet
that never leave
the earth.

Floodwater

The rivers swelled that spring,
rose three feet an hour
until the front porch
looked out onto a sea
of muddy water.

There was nothing to do
but wait for the swell
to recede and wick back
down into the earth.

No way to reach town,
no supplies or news,
no power, so we scrounged
what we could
from the back of the pantry:

cans of white beans
and tinned meat
and a mason jar
full of last year’s
apricot preserves.

I lit a candle, and that night
we sat on the porch,
wrapped each other
in your grandmother’s
old hand stitched quilt
and ate those sticky
sweet gold preserves
of slices of crusty bread.

Listen to the water rushes by,
watch the candle flame flicker,
your mouth is sweet gold, too,
let the waters never drop.

Unsinkable

I was just a boy
when the dark Atlantic
swallowed the great ship down.

My father hurls me into the sea,
his voice in my ear screaming,
“Kick your feet, boy,
if you don’t want to drown!”

Hit the water
sledgehammer cold,
it crushes the air out of your lungs,
and the first frantic gulps
are sea and oxygen,
the smell of ice and black salt.

I am kicking my frozen feet
towards a frightful bobbing boat,
towards a ghost-faced woman
in a flowered hat and an officer
with a pistol in his hand.

I am pulled in,
I lie on my back, shiver and watch
as Titanic’s stern lifts up,
bronze propellers and all,
like the last farewell wave
of some dying sea goddess,
and then plunges down.

All is quiet.
The band has stopped,
and the only sound
is bodies in the water,
my father somewhere
among them.

Years later
I am an old man,
kicking at bedsheets,
my head full of the smell
of ice and starlight
and Death’s bony hand
gliding on the sea.

Back to Savannah

August, 1865

You trudge home,
finally, after months under
the sun and the dust,
shades darker, bronzed
and withered and caked
up to your knees in mud
and more.

Your sons have grown
into farmers while
you were gone.
They have tilled the fields
and sown the seeds,
and although you look
like you might fall over,
you wander out into
the rows of potatoes, kneel down
and pick up a handful of earth.

Only some of it washes off.
Much of it never will,
but you are home
and that enough.

Spice Shop

This spring afternoon,
the sun through the windows
warms old barn-beam shelves
and glass jars full of spices
with names like small poems:

pink peppercorn, red saffron,
turmeric and star anise,
and bulbs of blooming teas,
of jasmine and globe amaranth,
yellow osmanthus
ready to steep and unfurl.

The owner is writing
the spice of the month
on a chalkboard so old I think
it must have been salvaged from
some one-room schoolhouse
of a bygone era.

(tart sumac, cherry-dark,
measured out in little hills
on squares of brown paper,
if you’re wondering)

There is a sacred quiet here,
an honest stillness,
like a prayer you can taste
in the fragrant heat of
cinnamon and dried chiles,
in bold cumin and mustard,
in every tiny seed of fennel
and black sesame.

Conflict

I have never understood
why you abandon books.

You leave them hewn
half-open, peaked like
the homestead tents
of tiny lost settlers

trying to build a life
in strange lands:
carpet, coffee table,
the open wilderness
of the kitchen counter.

Sometimes I pick them up,
just to meet the character
you left nursing a beer
and a bloody wound
in a shady Boston bar,

the fright-eyed one
hiding under thorn bushes
from goblins and wolves,
the mother with hair
like sunset and her finger
on the trigger of a gun

and I have started
to notice a trend:
you put down stories
as soon as their central
conflict is revealed

and this explains
why you are not here now.

And Myself, Myself

I’m teaching myself
to love broken things.

Books with loose bindings
and misplaced pages.
Coffee cups with chipped
lips and snapped handles.

The rusted old tractor
in my grandfather’s yard
that hasn’t rumbled in years,
and the sparrow nest
in its belly full of eggshells
a tabby cat tore open.

A burnt patch of grass,
a pile of glass taken in
by a family of gravel.

An old red oak,
opened and weeviled,
that becomes a home
for new and varied life,
even if it cannot stand up
any longer.