How Everything Didn’t Change

Photo: Steve Crave, FermilLab

Terry called me just after the second tower fell. My first words to her were “We’re going to war.” And of course we did, several times over. The catchphrase was “Everything changed after 9/11.” But it all looked like business as usual to me. Just missing a little of the candy coating. Here’s a poem I wrote shortly after waking in the night to hear the endless line of transports carrying 10th Mountain troops to Afghanistan in October 2001.

How Everything Didn’t Change

Just after the shotgun blast the maple shakes off
its cloak of blackbirds. They shriek, dive and rise.

Three times round the field they flap,
wheeling this way and that, and all together.

But it doesn’t last—the flock returns and settles,
in order, each to the same accustomed perch.

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After Ida

Photo: Zach Frailey, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

After Ida

A week later, I still can’t write the poem I wanted
to write about Cape Cod and the ocean, the storm
and after the storm. I wanted to write about fear,
being awakened at midnight and told “take shelter.”

But there was no cellar, nowhere far from windows.
I wanted to write about waiting out waves of lightning,
torrential rain and wind as long as we could stay awake, 
then giving up at last before dawn, to hope, faith, sleep.

And I wanted to write about the awe with which
I always approach the ocean – endless, infinitely
mutable but always itself. The cleansing simplicity
of sand and surf, its peacefulness and its violence.

I wanted to bring in natural history, how the Cape
was laid down by glacier, how the ocean was comet
melt and volcano breath from before life began
and long after the Cape washed away would remain.

I tried to write it four different ways and couldn’t reach
that point where I say “hmm,” say “done,” and turn
away. It was all too much for one poem. So instead,
this, the few lines that always rang true in every draft:

“Next day, when rain ends, we walk back through 
pitch pine, white oak and holly to stand again
above the beach where the ocean, wholly wild
now, pounds out its oneness on the drum of sand.

“My body, itself a bag of seawater, feels the drag
of the yellow moon rising at the world’s edge.”

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Chill before Dawn

Photo: Michael McCollough, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Being unable to sleep while alone can be awful. Being unable to sleep in company can be very sweet.

Chill before Dawn

Waking in the chill before dawn, I spoon to your back
touching warmth from chin to knee, one arm draped
to draw you in. You tuck it in between your own.
Content now to be sleepless, I listen to you breathe,
feel your pulse, each little adjustment to our fit.

I could stay this way until morning, but then you turn
in sleep to face me, tuck your right leg between mine.
I hook my left one over yours and arms pull us close.
If not sleep then peace – this knot of limbs and skins
that unknots care. As we lie the light grows bright.

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Jigsaw Buddha

When dealing with a puzzle, the inclination is to take it one piece at a time, scanning, sorting, studying minute differences, getting frustrated, then boring back in. Finally, only when the last piece clicks in, do you draw back to fully see what one the many have made. It’s as much a puzzle as before you began.

Jigsaw Buddha

From random shapes and colors,
start from the edges and work in.
Here’s a half-closed eye, half a hand,
a fold of robe. Make mistakes; persist.
Face and form fill out emptiness.
Whose face?

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Second Spring

Photo: Pixabay

It’s hard to start living a larger life again after more than a year of hyper-vigilance. But things are starting to look better, and the return of spring certainly helps. It also helps if you haven’t been in it alone.

Second Spring

The fever lingers like the aftertaste of too-long winter,
but tamped down now across this half-vacc’ed nation.
We begin to gather once again, gun-shy, in little groups,
and try to reweave the ripped warp and weft of living.

A yellow-green haze of leaves unfurls, trillium bloom,
apple petals. The river runs high with upland snowpack.
Still I blink at the too-bright light. It’s a hard awakening,
as after dreams of fleeing faceless pursuit, ears ringing.

What this life (to which I cling with fearful fervor) will be
is yet to be. The tide is slack; who can tell whether next
it rises or falls? All I know is you are beside me, sleeping,
as you have for half a century. I am rich, at least, in this.

Whatever else comes, we will get up and have our coffee.
We will talk a little and pore over the headlines, sharing
the best bits and the worst. Having made our little plans,
we’ll walk out together, however hesitantly, into the day.

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Sunday Morning at the Diner

How can there be a village where there is no diner? Communion takes many forms.

Photo: Joseph, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

Sunday Morning at the Diner

At first, it’s just one old fart in the corner
who no longer sleeps well, who still rises
early for the work he no longer does. He
grunts gratitude for coffee and a muffin.

But soon they come from east and west,
north and south to sit at booth and counter.
A buzz of talk, rustling paper, laughter rising
over the sizzle behind the abundant counter

from which a cornucopia of scrambled eggs,
home fries, sausage patties, bacon slices, waffles,
apple pie, glasses of orange juice, heavy mugs
of hot coffee and other breakfast blessings flows.

They spread good news of births and graduations,
slander absent neighbors and elected officials,
tell tales of dead friends and foes, argue sports,
and bitch about bosses, spouses and the weather.

Finally, properly fed and up to date on the latest,
they goodbye in twos and threes to their cars,
clearing the counter for those churchgoers for whom
a pinch of bread and a sip of juice did not suffice.

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False Spring

What a week – sunshine, shirtsleeves and more on the way. Though we all needed a break from winter, I can’t quite buy in. Veteran of 60+ North Country winters, I know it ain’t over until it’s over, and over it ain’t. Sigh. April really is the cruelest month and it isn’t even April yet. We’re in a second false spring as well. Our COVID numbers are better than they’ve been since the fall. But winter is not the only thing that ain’t over until it’s over.

Lilac buds. Lovely, but alas, doomed in March. Photo: oddharmonic, Creative Commons, some rights reserved

False Spring

Warm all week since the equinox. Blessedly sunny
until this morning. The snow has melted all away,
almost as if it had never been. Snowdrops bloom,
lilacs bud. So easy to be taken in, to cut loose again.

And now steady rain saturates the thawed soil. All day
it drums on the roof, waxing louder then waning softer,
as the thunderstorms come and go. Did I not know
better, this could be the end of North Country winter.

A mourning dove hoots softly from the apple tree.
Gray squirrels race each other through the side yard, 
up and down the gray, bare trees, frantic as tweekers.
Who wouldn’t love this moment, free of COVID winter?

Even though the forecast predicts days more the same,
I can’t shake off my foreboding. Winter bides its time,
raising false hopes in false spring. I won’t be fooled again.
The sleety snows of April would be twice as hard to bear.

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In the Winter of Fever

We catapulted 2020 over the moat and into the dungheap of history only to discover 2021. Another year of yikes. And incongruously, a winter of stupefying boredom, stymied by the ankle bracelet of COVID. Sigh.

In the Winter of Fever

The snow blows down day after day–
shovel and drift, plow and plow again.
Icicles grow from the eaves, are knocked
down, only to grow right back again.

The pandemic numbers spike highest
(more than 200 in town now) as we queue
through the field house for first shots in arms.
The year has turned toward Groundhog Day.

And like the movie, each day reruns the last,
an indistinguishable chug of numb boredom
backed by a chaser of fear. The second shot
will come soon, if it comes in time. Then what?

Will I sleep the night through? Will everybody
be okay? Will the borders open? Will this still be
America? Hard to say. Like Tyson said: “Everybody
has a plan until you punch them in the face.”

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Advent 2020

This poem is set on the night of December 8, 2020 after I drove home from the masked and socially distant village with the half moon shining high in my windshield. It took me a while to get it right, going through rewrites over the following week. 

Advent 2020

Snow blows through, snow melts away.
Things come and things go – but mostly
go as 2020 wanes toward winter.

Southeast hangs a hazy half moon
upon the falling gloom, like a lone lamp
at the edge of the darkened village,

like a white mask across a black face
in the ICU at night amid the twinkling
pea lights of monitors and ventilators,

like a heart half of hope and half of fear.
All winter the winnowing will run while
the world leans on luck and awaits its shot.

I lean against the kitchen window looking out
at this halfling light that sails upon the night
and send after it all my silent prayers.

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Bearing Up

Photo: Jon Sullivan, public domain

Wildlife are taking advantage of reduced human activity during the pandemic to show up in places where they are seldom seen. A bear moving into the stretch between Hannawa Falls and Potsdam has been the cause of some excitement, especially when he turned up half a block from downtown in Ives Park. The coming COVID winter is one I wish I could hibernate through. Wake me up when the vaccine is here.

Bearing Up

I envy the bear that rambles this stretch of river
same as me, cutting through back yards at night, 
riling up the dogs, even lumbering into the village
now and then to enjoy the peace of the park.

Soon he will burrow up to sleep the winter away,
leaving me at my window to watch blowing snow.
Leaving me holed up just like him but unsleeping
while the plague harvests its bumper crop of souls.

I envy his long slow dreams of bees and honey
while he sleeps off the fat of the year, envy
his thoughtlessness, oblivious to the times,
certain that nothing will trouble him ’til the thaw.

You, I see, are sleeping now; I hear your soft
snoring from under the flannel-wrapped comforter.
I take what comfort I can from that. In a little while
I will try to join you, if only until another morning.

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