Twelve knives for the new year

Last Sunday my grandma laughed at the memory
of a clumsy silverware thief: one day she came home
to a slamming screen door and a trail of knives
that began in the living room
and petered out in the yard.
She said they were not precious.
But my dad whispered.
He remembered how she came in with them, all in one hand.
In a delicate furious bouquet.

Lost in the Forest

“The Department of Defense announced Friday that
the battery operated ‘digital’ bugle has come of age and
is a necessity with only about 500 U.S. military buglers
to perform at the 1,800 daily funerals for veterans.”
                                    –Washington Times, 10/09/02

And now even this is pantomime—
or worse—a kind of full-bodied lip sync
at the gravest occasion. Someone
in uniform lifts horn to lips to blow
(one thinks), simulates the deep draw
that hallows breath into note and moves
us to that spacious human room
where mourning sounds.
                                And now even this
is just charade, a button pushed (at least
the fingers move), and though the tones
are clear as night and sure as sleep,
one wonders whether God is really nigh
and what besides the soldier-child might die.

Longing, Lenten

The walk back, more loss. When I open the door
it’s over, so I set to piddling: tidy
end tables, check the mail, draw a bath.
The restless energy finally settles
as I pass the mirror. I peer into it.
My nose touches glass. Not much left,
already effaced, not even a cross
to speak of. A smudge. A few black soot stains
like pinpoints on the forehead. The rest
of the blessed ash has vanished to a grey
amorphousness, to symbolize . . . not much.
Except a wish for those hallowed moments
to be followed by sustaining confidence.
Except spirit, which means to shun its listless
weight for yearning, awkward if not more earnest
prayer and fasting in the clear face of dust.

Prayer for Sam Johnson as he writes the dictionary

How can children read, with words
wobbling any way they feel like?
Spelling shows up as speling,
and spelin spills to spleen. Stolen
bases slide to stollen basis. There’s
no Too Far, no leash to keep
the feral hound from escape,
no property line between ideas,
no surveyor to fasten edges.

And if Johnson doesn’t finish soon,
words might wander further into
wildness, soar like index cards
in a hurricane, and scatter
like so much litter. Or worse—
careen like bullets into meanings,
blowing every deal to pieces.

If he finishes, you could be stuck
in a poem entirely on spelling,
longing for rescue from the strait-
jacket they tied us into
so we can read and write this.
How fragile the guide rope of logic
seems between us! How tenuous
sweet mutual understanding!

Sam Johnson, in your stained shirt,
big as Fleet Street, rehearsing
for the thousandth time your smudgy
slips of paper, you’ve never finished
anything on time, you rarely
finish. This is a prayer for you.
But shall I bless or curse?

Ash Wednesday

Now forty winters have besieged this brow
that bears the mark of ashes once again,
its shallow furrows yielding to time’s plow
as, on command, I turn and turn again.
With every year the mark goes deeper still
and stays there longer than the year before,
reminding me, despite my flesh’s will,
there comes a spring when I’ll be marked no more.

Yet still I bow and part my graying hair
to make way for the dust that makes us all,
the mortal touch, the cross traced in the air,
the voice that tells me to regard the fall
        that each of us must know before we rise
        and raise unwrinkled brows to greet God’s eyes.