All poems found here.
NOTES TO MY MOTHER
Your letters to me
are forwarded to my dreams
where you appear in snatches
of the past, wearing
a thirties' shirtwaist or the long
seal coat you wintered in.
And since your gravestone
is shaped like the front
of our old mailbox,
I'll try to leave my messages
of flowers there.
"Feeling fine, having a good time."
I had to stamp those words
on postcards home from camp,
though I was so homesick there
I'd read the nametapes on my socks
and handkerchiefs--scraps of my real self
you had sewn on by hand.
And so I write it now, though
I'm still homesick eight years after
you left me in my life for good:
feeling fine, having a good time.
The roles of wife and mother
matched you with yourself
as perfectly as your shoes matched
your handbags. Therefore, for years
I couldn't understand my own failures
at order and optimism.
How many autumns I've tried to pick my life up
like a dropped stitch and just get on with it,
tried to pretend the falling temperatures,
the emptying trees were not a synopsis:
so many losses behind me, so many
still ahead. The world is diminished leaf
by single leaf, person by person
and with excruciating slowness.
Sometimes I wish some wandering
comet would hit, as the newspaper
this morning warns or promises--some stray
pinball ricocheting through space.
Then we'd go up together in a lovely blast
of fireworks like the kind I watched
from our July 4th window light up
the sky with percussive neon ribbons.
And the dog, in his last month, hid
under the couch; and your great-grandchildren
couldn't decide whether to be frightened
or ecstatic, their laughter had that edge
of shrillness to it. They don't know
that danger is the shadow thrown
by every bright object; that even family love
can show this dull metallic underside,
as the leaves do which move in sudden gusts
of September wind all in the same direction,
like a school of panicked minnows
sensing a predator ahead.
Though I learned to love
the woman you became
after the stroke,
I never quite forgave her
for hiding my real mother--you,
in the drifted snows beyond
of life goes on,
and I try to
go with it,
paddler in a leaky
You taught me always
to write thank you notes, though
I never thanked you properly,
not even when you were dying. But
I thought our inarticulateness
in the face of love was as elemental
as the silence of stones
in the same streambed. I thought
you wanted it that way.
As I grow older, I try
to draw the world in close
as if it were a shawl you had crocheted for me
from small indulgences--morning coffee
from the same cracked cup,
a stroll downhill past empty mailboxes
where only weather may be different
or the seasonal colors of the birds.
And I try to think of loss as a salt sea
I'll learn to swim in later;
getting closer to you
with every overarm stroke.
Things I refuse to think about
also come back in dreams:
the way my fingers have started
to fail, as yours did, knuckle
by swollen knuckle. Last night
I dreamed of handcuffs,
Or how even repented sins
are ours for good: they drift
down the exotic rivers
of medicinal sleep
mewling like kittens.
So in the last moments of wakefulness
I re-create that lost world
whose textures are like braille
beneath my fingertips: the enamel
of the forties' stove where you taught me
to cook; the floral wallpaper you chose
whose roses had no thorns;
the strictness of starch against skin.
And here sleep comes
with all its complicated gifts
and treacheries to gather me
in its arms.
I left my father in a wicker basket
on other people's doorsteps.
Now I wait to be adopted by children,
wait in a house far between generations
with night rising faster
than the moon.
I dream of Regan laughing on her father's lap
behind the castle.
I laughed once in my father's face,
and he laughed, and the two laughters
locked like bumpers
that still rust away between us.
My children fill the house with departures.
Zippers close, trunks close, wire hangers jump
on the empty pole--ghosts without their sheets.
And I ask what strict gravity
pushes love down the steep incline
from father to child, always down?
How hard we try to reach death safely,
luggage intact, each child accounted for,
the wounds of passage quickly bandaged up.
We treat the years like stops along the way
of a long flight from the catastrophe
we move to, thinking: home free all at last.
Wave, wave your hanky towards journey's end;
avert your eyes from windows grimed with twilight
where landscapes rush by, terrible and lovely.
When the clock
like a moon shows
the dark side of its face
across cold expanses
In that silence
a fox barks
from the next field,
or a train drags its long syllable
over a hill,
or the baby
washed up again from sleep
sends its vowels
for their lost
In the evening
my griefs come to me
one by one.
They tell me what I had hoped to forget.
They perch on my shoulders
like mourning doves.
They are the color
of light fading.
In the day
they come back
I rock and rock
in the warm amnesia of sun.
When my griefs sing to me
from the bright throats of thrushes
I sing back.
TO A DAUGHTER LEAVING HOME
When I taught you
at eight to ride
a bicycle, loping along
as you wobbled away
on two round wheels,
my own mouth rounding
in surprise when you pulled
ahead down the curved
path of the park,
I kept waiting
for the thud
of your crash as I
sprinted to catch up,
while you grew
smaller, more breakable
for your life, screaming
the hair flapping
behind you like a
AFTER AN ABSENCE
After an absence that was no one’s fault
we are shy with each other,
and our words seem younger than we are,
as if we must return to the time we met
and work ourselves back to the present,
the way you never read a story
from the place you stopped
but always start each book all over again.
Perhaps we should have stayed
tied like mountain climbers
by the safe cord of the phone,
its dial our own small prayer wheel,
our voices less ghostly across the miles,
less awkward than they are now.
I had forgotten the grey in your curls,
that splash of winter over your face,
remembering the younger man
you used to be.
And I feel myself turn old and ordinary,
having to think again of food for supper,
the animals to be tended, the whole riptide
of daily life hidden but perilous
pulling both of us under so fast.
I have dreamed of our bed
as if it were a shore where we would be washed up,
not this striped mattress
we must cover with sheets. I had forgotten
all the old business between us,
like mail unanswered so long that silence
becomes eloquent, a message of its own.
I had even forgotten how married love
is a territory more mysterious
the more it is explored, like one of those terrains
you read about, a garden in the desert
where you stoop to drink, never knowing
if your mouth will fill with water or sand.
THE WAY THE LEAVES KEEP FALLING
It is November
and morning--time to get to work.
I feel the little whip
of my conscience flick
as I stand at the window watching
the great harvest of leaves.
Across the street my neighbor,
his leaf blower already roaring,
tries to make order
from the chaos of fading color.
He seems brave and a bit foolish.
It is almost tidal, the way
the leaves keep falling
wave after wave to earth.
In Eden there were
no seasons, and sometimes
I think it was the tidiness
of that garden
Eve hated, all the wooden tags
with the new names of plants and trees.
Still, I am Adam’s child too
and I like order, though
the margins of my poems
are ragged, and I stand here
all morning watching the leaves.
AN OLD SONG
How loyal our childhood demons are,
growing old with us in the same house
like servants who season the meat
with bitterness, like jailers
who rattle the keys
that lock us in or lock us out.
Though we go on with our lives,
though the years pile up
like snow against the door,
still our demons stare at us
from the depths of mirrors
or from the new faces across a table.
And no matter what voice they choose,
what language they speak,
the message is always the same.
They ask “Why can’t you do
anything right?” They say
“We just don’t love you anymore.”
The earth smells of flowers
and corruption--so many
shades of green
that caterpillar and leaf
even as one obliterates
Aunt Ruth sits
on the back porch, rocking
towards her death.
The smallest cousin swims
into the future. Look
at the water, so beautiful
in all that it conceals.
from the periphery
of the family
where I sit watching
my children and
my children's children
in all their bright
I seem to leave
of a woman, upright
on a chair--
and as I float
toward the chill
silence of my own future,
their voices break
into the syllables
of strangers, to whom
with this real hand
I wave goodbye.