Poetry - January, 2013


St. James the Less

for Marlys

It may or may not be a sin, but I cannot hear your name, St. James
the Less, without crocheting apocrypha for you, without drafting
sentences, all of which start Nonetheless, St. James the Less
and then lapse, describing a world whose vividness—the molting sycamores
and lepers, an urn lurching on the potter’s wheel, the fishermen darning
their nets—always trumped your quiet rectitude.

Nonetheless, St. James the Less—after the Greater James, his fervor
all joy and rage, and not unlike simple imprudence, anointed the contrite
and doused those who had it coming—it must have been you (was it not?)
blotting kerosene from all the penitents’ habits.


What the blind man saw

“ I can see people, but they look like trees walking.”
                  —Gospel of Mark

Trees with one leg, walking,
spit of Jesus on his eyes,

arms pointing up to a high dazzle
as all around him a crowd

of sound is becoming visible.
What once was a small rumble

on the tips of his fingers, now
pours into him like a river,

a drenching of light and shadow.
He trembles on this new threshold.

Is he man or tree? And did the Healer
also touch the crown of leaves

which now looks back at him
with a thousand eyes?


Poem for my brother to read silently in his bedroom window before the gregarious hospice nurse arrives

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.


Praise la jambe

On the gallery wall in Paris you see a
splendid life-size thigh, how it’s tapering
to a calf and pointed toe.   It’s a Degas
ballerina who pulls light on like a stocking.

The ornate gold frame says, Look at this.
You’re here alone, so why not stay, go down
to the very root of light, practice patience?
Sinking in, you linger all afternoon.

On the subway home, you see and praise
legs.   Bare.   In jeans.   Thin or superbly plump.
Recall your lion-footed table.   Praise
this leg of your trip, learning to see.   Joy trumps
itself:  Allegro, legume.   The wonder: your own
tibia!  The miracle: your own leg to stand on!


The pastor’s wife reports to traffic school

Ash Wednesday

We watch cars crash,
bodies crush,
drunks stagger,
adolescents weep,

we believe:
no matter how innocent
we think we are,
how good our intentions,
there’s no re-crossing
those double
yellow lines.
              No short cuts.
          Rock: clay: dust.


Uncle Mose’s dream

Mose Wright was Emmett Till’s great uncle.

What if that brave Emmett
had somehow managed to escape,
my boy who had done all that talking,
a word or maybe two before those
thirsty fists demanding
to be quenched in his blood
slammed my door down looking for him.

Say he heard their pickup truck.
Say he jumped out the window
of my clapboard house and ran through row
after row of burly-cheeked cotton
until even the lily-white moon
could not follow him.

Say he made it to that line
of loblolly pines and hid
in the colored cemetery; no whites allowed
their children or their womenfolk to go there
where the haints of lynched men lurk,
hate messages singed into their chests.

Say he made for the river
seeking safety in the bulrushes,
the final resting place of so many slaves
who ran for freedom, hoping his battered
breath might last long enough under
the cesspooling water, stringy-fingered
weeds and copperheads
grabbing for his ankles.

Say the Tallahatchie had not turned
vengeful, angry that some black boy
would pollute the waters where white men
feed their families and their lusts.

Say, too, from the river he searched
for a ditch to lie in, coffining him
from the burlap-hooded vigilantes
swooping over the countryside.

Say a thunderstorm struck that night,
as they screamed to God
to let them catch the boy before
the lightning or the buzzards did.
Say, too, they scattered black
and white posters all over
Mississippi vowing to bury him.

Then say, just say, how he almost
found the train tracks which might have
led him out of the Delta,
out of Egypt, I called my son.


Contemplation with red bridge and windy sunshine

The space between two people never quite closes. That’s
all right. It’s the rub of surfaces we need anyway, the slow

brush of hand on arm, the quick hug as we discover
an old friend has gone gray, that he’s reading on a hard

chair in the back room, leaving most of the house to strangers.
It’s all right to leave him there, maybe, to walk across

the red bridge and into the woods, travel the worn paths
in windy sunshine. Turning left each time will bring

you back. It’s all right, maybe, to explain that you won’t
be back till late, that you hope for coffee in the morning,

for a small table upstairs to spread out your books and papers,
most of which you won’t open before you pack up to leave.

The space between two people can open like a net, collapse,
dangle loose and empty, ready to catch and hold, to bind.