Very many years ago I dated a roaring alcoholic Who taught me many things about many things; Much of what I learned was about me—such as, For example, that I didn’t have the guts to retire From what wasn’t even a love affiar. This is sad To write, even now, but I bet we all learn slowly In this crucial area, yes? But I learned much else That was haunting and poignant. Alcoholics, she Told me, incise a web and welter of scratches on Their car doors, just by the driver’s side keyhole; They are always poking haphazardly in the dark For where the keyhole used to be. You hear lines Like that, your heart breaks a little for the busted Parts of us all, you know? Yes, it’s a disease, yes, It’s a social ill, a terrible one, it’s haunted history, It’s hammered children, shattered families, stolen Unimaginable oceans of creativity and joy, killed Millions of people who might have been stunning Bolts of light in their own amazing ways. But this Evening, opening my car door, I think of the poor Souls thrashing in the dark, desperate for an open Door, scratching their illegible runes, scribbling a Sad new alphabet in the bright glitter of their cars.
If I become like you I will write about a roughed grouse, Says the boy, five years old, with a face like a chipmunk Storing up winter browse. We are at his school, where he And the other small mammals have written things for me On bright scraps of paper. He hands me his paper and I’ll Carry it in my wallet the rest of my life. Mister Brian, the Sun is raining all around, another child says to me. It is up And down sun, she says. I want to be a cookie when I’m Your age, says another child. Once we were all monkeys In skirts made from the skins of trees, says a boy with an Icicle tattoo. It’s templorary, he says, explaining it to me. I laugh and he laughs and every kid there starts laughing. I think I am going to fly up gently into the air over a tree From joy, as saints used to float when gripped by ecstasy. That happened to Saint Joseph Cupertino, you remember, Seventy times, it is said, and now I know why: no gravity.
The man on death row in the federal penitentiary writes to me On lined loose-leaf paper that when he was a boy in the South He was so absorbed by tent revivals that he knew he would be A preacher, knew it in his deepest bones. I would stand on my Bed and preach to the babies, and stand on a barrel and preach To the chickens and the hogs, and preach the Word to the cow, Who would not come to Jesus nor to anyone else neither. Well, That is not how things turned out for me, which is a long story, But what I want to get down in this letter is the blessings I had When I was a boy. Now there is much to say that was not at all In the least blessed, it was a violent and perplex raising we had, But what I want to get down is that was a time of great wonder And satisfaction for me because I knew what I was going to be. I could spend a lot of time explaining how I came to not be that Which I knew I was going to be but I have wasted enough time In that fruitless pursuit. Thank you for reading this letter, which Is a kindness on your part. It allowed me to remember a blessed Time, there on the old barrel preaching the Word to the animals.
What are the things I should know about being homeless That I would never imagine myself? I ask a girl who was Homeless from age thirteen to age seventeen. You never Saw a nicer more pleasant neatly dressed kid in your life, This kid. The only way you can tell who she used to be is That she has a bunch of steel teeth. Any hint of difficulty, She says, you move. Move anyways, on general principle. Any safe spot you find will eventually be found by others. As for new friends, trust but verify, as some old president Said. Learn to lie with a totally straight face. Brush teeth! I still have trouble not lying immediately and defensively. That’s a problem for me. I got so good at it that it’s tough To not be good at it anymore. The best way to get by is to Perform, to not be who you really are, so the actual you is Not in danger. You can shuck the person you perform like A snake shucks a skin. Teachers here tell me I ought to be In theater, I should try out for plays and musicals, but that Is exactly what I am trying not to be, which is good at not Being the real me anymore. Does this make sense? You’d Be a natural, my teachers say, and I have to laugh because Natural at not being me is who I don’t want to be anymore.
Consider the case of a mathematician, in this case My oldest brother, who is (a) halved by an illness, (b) stilled completely by it, and (c) reduced to ash. Trust me, he would be the first to note that finally He finished his travels at 0.00416666667 of what He weighed for a long time. I bet then he’d spend Weeks poking into what else weighed exactly that. I’d get a terse note with a list in his meticulous ink: The cardinal on average weighs 0.992 of a pound, And the long-tailed weasel weighs exactly a pound. A letter like that is exactly like a zen koan, I think. It’s as much a door as a statement. Let us consider That we have all just now received this terse letter. It sits there grinning on the table next to the coffee. I don’t know about you, but I am going to dive into The whole weasel question. We have so little time, And there’s so much to be discovered. I want to be Able to be conversant about this the next time I see My brother. He’ll want to know. He’ll have missed A lot of time that could have been devoted to these Things, and someone has to carry the ball, whether It’s weasels or cardinals or cancer. How mortifying It will be if he asks me about something, and I have To say I didn’t pay attention, man, and he will stare At me with that laser stare and not even have to say, And what was it you did instead of paying attention?
The good sweet Lord knows I have nothing wise to say about anything Whatsoever; certainly that has been proven over the last fifty-five years That we have known each other. And while spiritual verve is inarguable, Religious pronouncements at a time like this can sound awfully shallow. So all I want to do this morning is find some word that can approximate The love I feel. Affection and respect are ingredients, sure, and certainly Laughter and stories, especially those that start out remember that time?, Because stories are a terrific way to say things that you can’t find words For. I keep wanting to push deeper, but I can’t get deeper than the story Of the time we broke your finger—all us kid brothers attacking the king At once, ostensibly in the flow of a football game, but really we wanted To take you down, to miraculously drop the taoiseach, because we loved You, because your were our hero, because you were the tallest and oldest, Because you laughed, even with your finger bent in the wrong direction, Knowing that we were so furious because a bruising tackle is a language Also. You can say a lot about love by hammering your brother in a game, It turns out. You knew what we were saying. I remember you taped your Finger back together and didn’t bother to tell Mom. We admired that too.
There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; And he was essentially a blameless dude, and unarrogant, And he was blessed with seven sons, and three daughters, Which is a lot of children, and where, I ask politely, is the Part of the Book of Job where we talk about Job’s spouse, Who is conspicuously not discussed in the back and forth With his buddies and then suddenly the Big Guy Himself Answering out of the whirlwind and commanding old Job To gird up his loins, which loins were undeniably vigorous Previous to the Lord interrupting Job, and after the Maker Finishes one of the greatest eloquent scoldings of all time, He grants old Job another seven sons and three daughters, Again without the slightest thanks for the astounding Mrs. Job who suddenly has twenty count them twenty children With no mention of her humor, or the vast hills of diapers, Or her wit which survived kids throwing up and the sheep Wandering off, and plagues of locusts and things like that. A good editor, I feel, would have asked for just a glancing Nod to the wry hero of the tale, at least acknowledgment; Something like a new last line after So Job died, being old and full of days, which might read, And also passed a most Amazing woman, of whom nothing other than the blessing Was ever said, her heart being a gift beyond calculation by Man, her mind sharp, her tongue gentle, her hands a mercy, And her very presence full reason to kneel in prayer at that Which the Lord in His mercy has made and granted briefly. A line like that would only hint at her, but it’s a start, right?
They are coming for the body; a nurse certifies That who she was is no longer resident in what She was, selah. They turn out to be one woman. Her name is Helene. Selah. She eases what was A woman onto a gurney. A daughter assists her. Though the waters roar and be troubled, we will Not fear, though the mountains vanish in the sea. Selah. Would you like your mother to be facing Up or down? Up, please, selah. She zips the bag. She did believe, yes she did, selah, she received The glories of the Lord each and every day with Her eyes which remained hawkish until her final Breath. Is that so? says Helene, selah. Transplant Candidates, then, certainly. Sign here . . . and here. I will drive very carefully, absolutely. His mercy Upon her soul, selah. She trusted in thee. Refuge She will discover in thee, and her husband’s arm, And her mother’s kiss, and all calamities are past, Selah, and housekeeping will come for the sheets. God is in the midst of her, and God shall help her. There is a river; the waters of which have no end; Amen and then again amen. In the lobby a father Is reading the sports section while his child gulps The biggest soda I have ever seen on this blessed Wild and weary earth; amen and then again amen.
In my first family, the children were referred to not only By their given names and often their religious names also, But often by an identifying characterization as well: John Kevin the Math Genius, for example. Our sister, a nun, is Betsy God Bless Her, and our youngest brother is Thomas More Patrick the School Principal; Peter Joseph in Denver Is in the middle with your humble scribe Brian the Writer. It doesn’t matter if the child is current or past tense, either; Our oldest brother is Seamus Who Went On Ahead, whom None of his brothers or sister has yet met, and there is tiny Christopher Who Died in His First Hour, whom we expect To meet also at some undetermined hour. And there is our Brother Patrick Born Too Early, born just halfway through His wet voyage, and so he could not breathe, but that child Would have been a giant, says our mother quietly—he was Tremendous in size even half born, my blessed boy Patrick. So it is that sometimes there are five children at dinner and Sometimes more. I suppose this happens to lots of families. We don’t talk about it. Time seethes like the sea. But there, This morning, at the end of the table, is my brother Seamus, His mouth filled with stars. If I close my eyes I can see him
Well, the aged mother of the woman who married me died, And there are so many stories both sad and hilarious to tell, But let me tell you just one, because it is little and not little. At her Mass, after the miracle, but before the electric bread Went into every soul, as people are shuffling slowly toward The altar, everyone in the line on the left side, as they came To the front pew, touched my wife. Some bent down to hug Her. Some touched her hair gently. Some just placed a hand On her shoulder. One woman reached down and cupped her Face in her hands for an instant. Sure I wept. We touch each Other when we have no other way to speak. We speak many Languages without words. We are so much wilder and wiser Than we know. There are so very many of us without words, Speaking the most amazing and eloquent languages; we sing With our hands. I have seen it happen. You have seen it, too. It's a little thing, but there's a shimmer of something beyond Vast. See, I am trying to say an epic thing in this small poem, And here we are at the end of the poem, where I stop talking.
To say thanks for reading this poem, And all the other ones I've inflicted Upon you over all these years. I did Think, many times, of your gracious Acceptance of that which you didn't Ask for, and perhaps did not actually Want; but I never said thanks, did I? So I do. I wanted to . . . I don't know, Connect, somehow, though we don't Know each other; maybe that is why I so wanted to connect, so often with Just a little poem, like this. It matters To connect, in some sweet holy way, More than we can gauge. My sincere Thanks for the gift of your attention; Witness is our great work. You knew That, I know—I'm just reminding us.
Me, personally, I think stories are starving to be told. I think there are millions there, jostling and elbowing To get to the parachute bay and snatching any chance Whatsoever, no matter how remote, to get themselves Told at last, or retold—the latter meaning born again, Really. Consider the immortality implications of that. Maybe stories are like kids who are ideas before flesh. Maybe kids are ideas who get laboriously fleshed out, Like novels. Maybe children are made of stories more Than they are of bone and hair and turkey sandwiches. Maybe the way to think of a teenager is as a wry story That's all verb and no object as yet. Maybe we guzzle Forty stories with every breath we draw and they soak Into us and flavor and thicken and spice the wild stew We are. Maybe we are all the stories we ever told and Will tell when they let us see their gleaming first lines. Maybe the future means a vast story that hates to wait. Maybe we are made of more stories we forgot than of Stories we think to remember. Maybe what we forget Are stories that realize they were in the wrong mouth. Maybe every story has to find the right teller. Maybe I Had to wait all this time to be able to tell you this story.
Another headlong visit to another burbling seething sea of shaggy miracles. I wear my good black shirt so as to indicate respect and some small dignity. We are supposed to talk about writing but as usual things spin away utterly, And we are arguing about basketball and religion and if Montana is heaven. I say Montana cannot possibly be heaven because it's snowed for two years Straight there, grizzlies have learned to ski, has no one read the newspaper? Then a round kid in back raises his hand. He sort of sneaks it up quietly, As if he wants to ask a question but he's not actually sure he should. Yessir, I say, how can I help you? When babies are aborted, he says, is there a birth Certificate? You can't get a birth certificate if no one ever gave you a name, Right? And if you are going to get aborted, no one would want to name you. But if you don't get a name or a birth certificate were you actually a person? His hand has stayed shyly in the air as he asked his three questions, I notice; As if as long as his hand was an antenna no one could interrupt him or tease Him or say his questions were stupid or inappropriate or this is not the place Nor the time for such questions. But when is the time for questions like his?
In the high summer of my thirteenth year on this lovely planet I was mailed to Boy Scout summer camp in a sprawling forest For a life term, though I guess it was really only fourteen days. I was muddled at woodcraft as I was at everything else then, And finished very nearly last in tracking, swimming, canoeing, Archery, and orienteering, this last an utter conundrum for me; I recall my patrolmates finally gently taking away my compass And asking me to just sit quietly until they would lead me back To our camp, my spectacles knocked awry by jeering branches. I remember when we got our orienteering assignment someone Would lead me to a little open knoll in the rippling sea of pines And oaks and maples and I would sit there happily in the broad Sun for hours, I guess, watching for birds and speculating about Lunch. I wonder now that the Flying Eagle Patrol was so gentle To me, its most useless member, and these were the years when Boys are cruel to each other, for fear of being least and weakest; But they were kind, and I remember their totally genuine delight When I earned my single merit badge, for making both a roaring Fire and a stew. I remember their faces, around that startling fire, How they laughed—not at me for having finally done something Well, but at the surprise of it; the gift of unexpectedness, perhaps. Or maybe they were smiling at my probably hair-raising stew; but They ate every scrap of it, and the one among us who was best in The woods was the Eagle who quietly washed the pots and plates. Perhaps, all these years later, I should remember my helplessness, And either chew my liver or try to smile ruefully, but it's the pots Clean as a whistle that I remember, and the whistling of the Eagle Coming to retrieve me from my knoll high above the seas of trees.
Down in the basement folding the laundry, towels first to trim the pile, I realize that I have lived in this house now precisely as long as I lived On Gregory Avenue, seventeen years! and that warm little house leaps Into my memory: the ping-pong table where dad laid out the Catholic Journalist, and the hammering of his typewriter in his ostensible study; The bright yellow kitchen even the radio painted yellow who did that?; The gargantuan fan upstairs; the raft of small boys; the alpine staircase; The rocks and stones in the yard stolen from national parks everywhere; The maple tree that rocketed up next to the garage and is tipping it over; The sweetgums that provided so many thousands of tiny prickly bullets; The massive pipe by the furnace that has brained many an unsuspecting Soul, many of them more than once; the workbench, with another radio, And the lean white pantry for hurricane supplies; a grandmother's room Where once there was a grandmother, stern and sweet and then returned To the Mercy. The days after grandma died, our mom must have paused Down in the basement, standing by the dryer, holding her mom's towels Against her face, hauling in the fading elegant holy redolence before she Dries her eyes and plunges into the alps of kids' stuff. Maybe our house Is always our house even after we leave and someone else is memorizing The splay of the kitchen so you can get a sandwich at two in the morning Without waking up the baby. Maybe if your home is always in your head You can always live there. Maybe that is one of the ways we live forever.
Discovered a few moments ago that my sister, my sole sister, The sister I have admired for more than fifty years, the sister Who rocked my cradle with her toe as she did her homework, The sister who was never especially leery of punching us out When she felt we deserved it which I have to say yes we did, This sister has a name I never ever heard before this morning. Dechi Palmo she is called in the Tibetan Buddhist monastery She graces. Depa for short, she says cheerfully, on the phone. I know where that phone is, the only one in all the monastery. It's hanging on the wall outside the kitchen where she works, When she is not teaching, or praying, or meditating, or every One of the thousand other tasks she does silently and smiling. It means Happiness Glorious Woman, she says, or Happiness Glorious She Who Meditates. I nearly faint with seething joy. Sometimes, not all that often, but more than we maybe admit, Things line up exactly right, all hilarious and wild and bright, And you see a thing just as it really is, deep in its holy bones. You think that's never going to happen again but then it does. You can't command it, you can't make it stay, you cannot do Much of anything except slouch there grinning and mystified, It turns out, but to be occasionally grinning and mystified, ah!
Two questions for today: First, why read poetry? I mean, really—who cares? Who has the time, not to mention coin, when you could be reading tremendous novels and stunning essays? And second, what is great poetry?