A CLOSER LOOK: George Bilgere




George Bilgere’s poems can be a little disorienting, the touch is so light as they dive into the most prosaic of human experiences—fathers, lovers, drinking, war, anger, jokes. But after reading them, one is both thankful for the insight, the humor, the sheer poignance a poem has given and stunned by the ways his work enlarges our lives and our understanding. In these poems, he finds love in a father’s lifting his small son toward the ceiling; he sees the betrayal of love and the search for solace in the enormity of what’s happened; he views death through a boy, a father, a sled; he finds war in the name of a high school athletic hero on a wall; he skewers the anger found in bureaucratic struggle. He does all this with companionable diction and wry or rueful humor.

George Bilgere has published seven collections of poetry, including Blood Pages (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018), Imperial (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014); The White Museum (Autumn House, 2010), which was awarded the Autumn House Poetry Prize; Haywire (Utah State University Press, 2006), which won the May Swenson Poetry Award; and The Good Kiss (University of Akron Press, 2002), which was selected by Billy Collins to win the University of Akron Poetry Award. His numerous other awards include the Midland Author Award and a Pushcart Prize. Bilgere has received grants from the Witter Bynner Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Fulbright Commission, and the Ohio Arts Council. His poems have appeared in Poetry, Ploughshares, Kenyon Review, Fulcrum, and Best American Poetry. A resident of Ohio, Bilgere lives in Cleveland, where he teaches creative writing at John Carroll University.

Selected Poems

Graduates of Western Military Academy



One day, as this friend of my father, Paul,

was flying over Asia,

he vaporized a major Japanese city.



True story. They’d been chums

at a military academy in Illinois

back in the thirties.



My father was the star: best in Latin,

best in riflery and history,

best in something called “recitation,”



and best at looking serious.

In the old yearbooks he has exactly the look

you were supposed to have back then:

about fifty-two percent duty,

forty-eight percent integrity.

Zero percent irony.



But somehow, all my father got to do later on

was run his own car dealership. A big one,

but still. While Paul

got to blow up Japan. My father

ushered in the latest models.

Paul ushered in the Atomic Age.

It seems unfair, but there you are.



Paul had been an indifferent Latin scholar. Weak

in history and recitation. For these and other reasons

my father took a refreshing swim

across a large, inviting lake of gin,

complete with strange boats and exotic shore birds,



which resulted in his interment

under some shady acres I occasionally visit.



While Paul went on for decades,

always giving the same old speech. Yes,

he’d done the right thing. No

doubt about it.



He improved his skills at recitation

and developed a taste for banquet food.

To this day he struggles with his weight.      
(from The White Museum, Autumn House 2011)

Push


I’m trying to look as if I’m suffering.

I have this anguished expression on my face

but it’s wasted since I’m wearing a surgical mask

and anyway the focus here is really on my wife

and the doctor is right there between her legs

and he’s shouting Push, and my wife

is doing this astounding thing, she’s pushing

yet another human being into the world, a world

that so far seems to be pushing back,



and the baby’s heartbeat is down to 90

so the doc says, I think maybe one more try,

then we do the Caesarean, so things in the room

really are a bit tense, it’s definitely a moment

that demands a lot of attention, and my wife

is gathering whatever shreds of strength

remain in the shaking exhausted sleeve of flesh

her body has become, the blood and sweat and fluids

everywhere, and this is It!—when I hear

the attending nurse standing just behind me

saying to this guy in scrubs standing next to her, 

I think he’s the anesthesiologist’s assistant,



Well, just because Karen says she has a boyfriend

doesn’t necessarily mean she won’t go out with you,

and the guy says, his voice rising because my wife

really is screaming quite loudly at this point,

Yeah, OK, I guess I should give it a try, I mean

what’s the worst that can happen, other than

getting shot down and looking like a total fool,



and the nurse says, as the doctor is shouting PUSH,

Yeah, but hasn’t it been like a long dry spell for you?

Aren’t you getting a little desperate here? And the guy 

laughs and my wife screams again and the doctor

says Yes and into the world comes the bloody head

followed by the naked lovely bloody little boy

insanely ill-prepared for any of this, and I guess

the guy actually is going to ask Karen out

and I say go for it.    
(from Blood Pages, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018)

Musial



My father once sold a Chevy

to Stan Musial, the story goes,

back in the fifties,

when the most coveted object

in the universe of third grade

was a Stan-the-Man baseball card.



No St. Louis honkytonk

or riverfront jazz club

could be more musical

than those three syllables 

rising from the tongue of Jack Buck

in the dark mouths

of garages on our street,

where men like my father

stood in their shirt-sleeved exile,

cigarette in one hand, scotch

in the other, radio rising

and ebbing with the Cards.



If Jack Buck were to call

my father’s drinking that summer,

he would have said

he was swinging for the bleachers. 

He was on a torrid pace.

In any case, the dealership was failing,

the marriage a heap of ash.

And knowing my father, I doubt

if the story is true,

although I love to imagine

that big, hayseed smile

flashing in the showroom, the salesmen

and mechanics looking on

from their nosebleed seats at the edge

of history, as my dark-suited dad

handed the keys to the Man,



and for an instant each man there

knew himself a part of something

suddenly immense, as when,

in the old myths, a bored god

dresses up like one of us, and falls

through a summer thunderhead

to shock us from our daydream drabness

with heaven’s dazzle and razzmatazz.            
(from Imperial, Pittsburgh, 2014)

Jane


Jane, the old woman across the street,

is lugging big black trash bags to the curb.

It’s snowing hard, and the bags are turning white,

gradually disappearing in the storm.



Jane is getting ready to put her house on the market

and move into a home of some sort. A facility.

She’s just too old to keep the place going anymore,

and as we chat about this on the sidewalk

I’m thinking, I’m so glad this isn’t going to happen to me.



It seems like a terrible fate, to drag out your trash bags

and then head for a facility somewhere.

And all the worse to be old in a facility. But then,

that’s the whole reason you go there in the first place.



But the great thing about being me, I’m thinking,

as I continue my morning walk around the block,

is that I’m not going to a facility of any sort.



That’s for other people. I intend to go on

pretty much as I always have, enjoying life,

taking my morning walk, then coffee

and the newspaper, music and a good book.

Europe vaguely in the summers.

Then another year just like this one, on and on,

ad infinitum.



Why change this? I have no intention of doing so.



What Jane is doing—growing old,

taking out her ominous black trash bags

to vanish terribly in the snow, getting ready

for someone to drive her to a facility—



that may be her idea of the future (which I totally respect),

but it certainly isn’t mine.
(from Imperial, 2014)

The Table

I’m helping my brother-in-law knock apart an old table

by the tool shed, a table they’ve loaded

with planting pots and fertilizer bags

for years, until a decade outside in sun and rain has done it in.
And suddenly, as in a myth or fairy tale when the son
recognizes his lost father under the rags of an old beggar, I realize

it’s the kitchen table of our childhood,



where my mother and my two sisters and I regrouped and gathered inside

a new house in a new state after the divorce,

the dinner-time table where we talked about our day,

practicing our first fictions over pork chops and mashed potatoes

when Mom had a job, or fish sticks or fried Spam, or chicken pot pies

when she didn’t.



Where we dyed our Easter eggs, and played through

rainy days of Scrabble. Where I sweated over algebra

and the infernal verbs of the Germans,

and our mother would finish a bottle of wine

and lay her head down and weep over everything, terrifying us

into fits of good behavior, of cleaning and vacuuming, until

she snapped out of it as if nothing had happened

and made it up to us by doing something crazy

like making pancakes for supper.

The table where my uncle got me drunk for the first time

and where I sat down to dinner

for the last time with my grandmother.



The table where my sister announced she was pregnant,

where I said that, on the whole, Canada 

had a lot more to offer than Vietnam.

Where the four of us warmed ourselves

at the fire of family talk.



Plain brown table of ten thousand meals.


I’m starting to sweat now, the hammer

overmatched by iron-grained walnut bolted at the joists.  

It takes a wrench and a crowbar to finally break it down

to a splintered skeleton, to the wreckage of an old table,

built when things were meant to last,

like a hardcover book, or a cathedral,

or a family. We stack up what’s left

for firewood, and call it a day.                 
(from Haywire, Utah State, 2011)

Darkly Shifting Flux


At noon I teach my summer school class,

during which some significant Middle English poems

on the subject of mortality

are strenuously appreciated for one hour and fifty minutes.



After that I swim for half-an-hour

under a series of cloudy metaphors

at the public pool, and then I bike home. 



Now it’s 3 o’clock,
and the next scheduled event of the summer

is dinner at 6:30. I am in my house,

my domestic setting, with my furniture.



We exist together in the dining room for a moment,

the breakfront, the table, the buffet, and I.

How lucky we are to be here, so stable and serene,

in the darkly shifting flux of the cosmos.



And there in the backyard is my wife, kneeling amid

her conflagration of perennials. My wyf. 

Clad in that fossil syllable,

yet so vivid and alive under the sun.



It is still 3 o’clock, and it seems like

maybe the day is stuck; it’s bumped into something

just below the surface, and there’s no way

of getting from here to the next scheduled event

except to call to her through the open window,



and put my arms around her when she comes in,

and taste the sweat on her neck, her inchoate saltiness,



and then let one of us, or it could be both of us,

lead the slow, breathing, animal bodies 

up the stairs to the cool darkness,



and take off the tethers and harnesses,

remove the reins and halters, and just let them

gallop off into that green clearance for awhile.
(from Imperial, Pittsburgh, 2014)

The Fall

Although there were no witnesses
in the hallway outside the women’s room
of the Hotel Coronado,
when my aunt stumbled
and fell to her knees on the ancient marble,

it must have been like the swordsman
falling in The Seven Samurai,
a whole dynasty collapsing,
falling out of its bones
into the mud. I was reading
the sports section in the lobby
when a boy, probably sixteen or so,
ran in and called my name.
An old woman has fallen,
he said, frightened that something
so enormous could happen, that fate
should cast him as an emissary
announcing dynastic collapse
instead of just a high school kid,
and I stood up and ran to her
although I’m fifty-six now, and breaking
into a spontaneous run feels like
trying out a first language you’d lost
as a kid who swapped countries.

And there she sat, lean and elegant,
like an athlete who’d collapsed
from sheer exhaustion, her legs
drawn up to her chin as she fought
to lift the whole city again,
the crumbling Coronado,
where Miles Davis used to play,
and the Continental, where the Gershwins
hung out at the Tack Room,
and the abandoned Fox Theater
where she saw Olivier’s Hamlet,

and even the boarded up
Forest Park Boat House, where her father
used to take her for ice cream
in the sweltering summers.

An old woman has fallen.                    
(from The White Museum, 2010)

The Forge



I remember watching my father stop

halfway up the driveway because my tricycle

was blocking the way to the garage,

and how he solved the problem

by picking up the tricycle by the handlebars

and smashing it through the windshield

of our brand new family station wagon,

his face red with scotch, his black tie

and jacket flapping with effort, the tricycle

making its way a little farther with each blow

into the roomy interior of the latest model

as the safety glass relented, the tricycle

and the windshield both praiseworthy

in their toughness, the struggle between them

somehow making perfect sense

in midday on our quiet suburban street,

the windshield the anvil, the trike the hammer,

the marriage the forge, and failure

glowing in the heat, beaten

and tempered, slowly taking shape.
(from Blood Pages, 2018)

Healing



The girl I love still sleeps with her mother

who is huge, bulky as a bear.

It is a small house in Guthrie

without a doorknob or a father.

He is silent on a hill. They forget

to leave flowers on Memorial Day.



We stay up late, kissing in the car,

windows open to the cricket buzz.

Inside, her mother barely sleeps.

Food goes bad in the fridge.

The worthless brother, guitar

plugged to the wall, wails.



The oil boom’s gone bust.

Every other house

is empty in this neighborhood,

a democracy of failure.

Armadillos rustle in the brush.

We watch the neighbors tune their truck,

the legs of a woman they saw

in a bar last night troubling

the pure mechanics of their talk.



All day the brother sleeps

in his leaking waterbed.

Bombers smolder from the base.

The father, a stern man

in uniform, watches me

from the bookshelf.



Her hair, sweet

with the smell of permanent,

is black as oil, and the lines

her nails leave down my spine

are red as Oklahoma roads.

In the sink her dishes grow

green. The backyard rises

in a weedy funk, foaming

over the bones of old cars.

The dog drowns in ticks.


An aunt comes by, ashen-faced.

There is a laying on of hands.

Her tumor’s growing like a great idea,

a central concept. Jesus

everyone says, their
through to the core. Heal.

A cousin wears Christ

on a T-shirt: This blood’s for you.
Pepsi’s in the fridge.

Soaps in the afternoon, couples

humping through the broadcast day.

In the glamour magazines

scattered on the floor

women tan and tone.

They come hard with famous men.



I suggest

we go for a
the hardware store.

Vetoed. Too hot.

A sister visits, baby

sucking at her chest.

She swears her milk

will shoot across the room.



At dusk we go to the Sonic,

a neon bonfire near

the base’s perimeter.

B-52s tilt over with a black wake.

Evil, she says, munching okra,

her face so beautiful

in the red fire of sunset

my throat tightens, I could cry.



A song comes over the radio,

the very car shimmers, the bulbs

of the drive-in blooming

red and blue, deepening

in the failing light

and she moves into my arms,

smelling of soap and French fries.

All around us

men and women, boys and girls,

are tuned to the same frequency,

moving together under the tinted glass,


beneath the whirlwind of moths

in the hot air, the Sonic

throbbing with light and love,

the life I left to come here

forgotten and the sun

sliding down a dome of gold.



She laughs. Mosquitoes

rise in the rural haze.

Her tongue is in my ear.
(from The Going, University of Missouri, 1994)

Boomers


Look, here’s a photograph, black and white,

of my parents at their favorite restaurant,

Ruggeri’s, on the Hill in St. Louis, and it’s

1956. My mother in a cocktail dress and pearls,

my father in his jacket and tie, what choice

did he or any man have in those days,

and on the table is, of course, an ashtray and drinks

and the remnants of maybe spaghetti pomodoro

and garlic bread and some of that good rigatoni.



And you’re thinking, okay, what’s the point? Because

you happen to have more or less exactly the same photo

of your mother and father out on the town one night,

only it was 1957 and the place was called Maury’s

in New York City and your mother was a blonde,

not a brunette, but the image has exactly the same, Hey,

we’re still here in the late fifties, enjoying our Manhattans

and dinner at our favorite place, we’re still young, not to mention

alive, we like Ike, the Yanks are in first place,

and no one’s even mentioned divorce yet kind of look

so popular in those days.



And my point here is, everyone has this photo tucked away

in a box in a bureau somewhere, and now and then

you need to take it out and look at it

earnestly and reflectively, because he’s coming

across the room right now, the photographer

with his big funny-looking old camera with the flash bulb,

and your wife is already smiling and hiding her cigarette,

you look up from your steak, it’s your turn

to be in the bureau.
(from Blood Pages, Pittsburgh, 2018)

Joy



Today I sit on the sun porch

with my body, just the two of us

for a change, the flu

having left me for someone else.



I’m thinking about how good it is

to have been sick, to have been turned

inside out. Until we are sick, says Keats,

we understand not. And for three or four days

I understood. Fully and completely.

There was absolutely no ambiguity,

no misunderstandings of any sort whatsoever.



For awhile I thought I’d never get better.

I’d be that sick eagle, staring at the sky

on a permanent basis. But

we’re living in the age of miracles:

another jetliner smacked into New York,

only this time nobody got hurt. A black guy

thoroughly fumigated the White House.



And this morning I woke up

feeling like a little French village

the Nazis suddenly decided to pull out of

after a particularly cruel occupation.



The baker has come back to his store

and everything smells like warm baguettes.

The children are playing in the schoolyard,

the piano bars along the river

have thrown open their doors.



And here you are, with coffee

and an open blouse, and two cool breasts

from the land of joy.

(from The White Museum, Autumn House, 2010)

Cordell



I drove the tiny, grasshopper-green

motorcycle to the town’s edge

and, for the first time,

bought gas, counting out the dimes

and quarters to an old guy in a bill cap.



For the first time

I pondered the venous skin

of a map and charted a route from Burns Flat

to Cordell, a little town

on the Oklahoma plains. The day

was sparkling and unrehearsed, the air

cool in the morning, and, for the first time,

I went out on the public roads alone,

despite having no license, the world,

for the first time, passing in a rush

at the tips of the handlebars

on the little country road,

a pick-up passing now and then,

the farmer inside raising the index finger

of his left hand precisely

one inch above the wheel,

a man greeting me



as a man for the first time,

the little engine whirring under me,

the scissortails watching from barbed wire,

the road unspooling for thirty miles

just as the map had promised, and, for the first time,

I paused to rest on a long journey,

in this case in the town of Corn,

its sole street signal

flashing amber at the crossroads

as I sat at a picnic bench

under the green dinosaur of the Sinclair station,

staring at the town and the little bike that brought me there,

feeling, for the first time, like a traveler,

a sojourner of the plains.



And I drove on to Bessie, where,

for the first time, I ordered lunch,

reading from the menu in a sun-bleached café,

speaking seriously and in what I took

to be a manly way, the way of a sojourner,

to the pretty waitress, and what I’d give,



today to see myself sitting there in terror

amid the half-dozen farmers eating their chicken-

fried steak, their untanned foreheads white

as headstones above their sunburned faces,

and, for the first time, I left a tip,

counting out a silver gift for her,

and walked out to the bike

that waited for me among the pick-ups and tractors,

moving on, for the first time leaving

a woman behind, someone to watch

and acknowledge how the road pulled me away,

someone to keep on looking down that road



long after I’d disappeared, someone who might,

from time to time, look toward the window

and brush the hair from her cheek,

hearing an engine coming from the distance

that swallowed me, for the first time,

that day long ago, a day which for some reason

I am remembering as I sit sipping coffee

in this roadside café, just another stop

on the way to Cordell.
(from The Good Kiss, University of Akron, 2002)

At the Vietnam Memorial

The last time I saw the name Paul Castle
it was printed in gold on the wall

above the showers in the boys’

locker room, next to the school

record for the mile. I don’t recall

his time, but the year was 1968

and I can look across the infield

of memory to see him on the track,

legs flashing, body bending slightly

beyond the pack of runners at his back.



He couldn’t spare a word for me,

two years younger, junior varsity,

and hardly worth the waste of breath.

He owned the hallways, a cool blonde

at his side, and aimed his interests

farther down the line than we could guess.



Now, reading the name again,

I see us standing in the showers,

naked kids beneath his larger,

comprehensive force—the ones who trail

obscurely, in the wake of the swift,

like my shadow on this gleaming wall.
(from Big Bang, Copper Beech Press, 1999)

Like Riding a Bicycle



I would like to write a poem

about how my father taught me

to ride a bicycle one soft twilight,

a poem in which he was tired

and I was scared, unable to disbelieve

in gravity and believe in him,

as the fireflies were coming out

and only enough light remained

for one more run, his big hand at the small

of my back, pulling away like the gantry

at a missile launch, and this time, this time

I wobbled into flight, caught a balance

I would never lose, and pulled away

from him as he eased, laughing, to a stop,

a poem in which I said that even today

as I make some perilous adult launch,

like pulling away from my wife

into the fragile new balance of our life

apart, I can still feel that steadying hand,

still hear that strong voice telling me

to embrace the sweet fall forward

into the future’s blue

equilibrium. But



of course, he was drunk that night,

still wearing his white shirt

and necktie from the office, the air

sick with scotch, and the challenge

was keeping his own balance

as he coaxed his bulk into a trot

beside me in the hot night, sweat

soaking his armpits, the eternal flame

of his cigarette flaring as he gasped

and I fell, again and again, entangled

in my gleaming Schwinn, until

he swore and stomped off

into the house to continue

working with my mother

on their own divorce, their balance

long gone and the hard ground already

rising up to smite them

while I stayed outside in the dark,

still falling, until at last I wobbled

into the frail, upright delight

of feeling sorry for myself, riding

alone down the neighborhood’s

black street like the lonely western hero

I still catch myself in the act

of performing.

And yes, having said all this,

I must also say that this summer evening

is very beautiful, and I am older

than my father ever was,

as I coast the Pacific shoreline

on my old bike, the gears clicking

like years, the wind

touching me for the first time, it seems,

in a very long time,

with soft urgency all over.
(from The Good Kiss, University of Akron, 2002)

The Good Kiss



And then there was the night, not long

after my wife had left me and taken on the world-

destroying fact of a lover, and the city

roared in flames with it outside my window,

I brought home a nice woman

who had listened to me chant my epic woe

for a long night of epic drinking, both of us holding
on
to the bar’s darkly flowing river of swirling grain

as my own misery flowed past and joined

the tributary of hers, our murmured consolations

entwining in precisely the same recitative,

the same duet that has been sung since the beginning

of despair, the song going on

until there was nothing for it



but to drive her through an early summer

thunderstorm in the windy night

to my little east side apartment

and gently take off her clothes

and lay her down on my bed

by the light of a single candle

and the lightning, and kiss her

for a long time in gratitude

and then desire, and then gently

kiss the full moons of her breasts,

which I discovered by candlelight

were not hers, exactly; 

under each of them was the saddest,

tenderest little smile of a scar,

like two sad smiles of apology.

I had them done

so he wouldn’t leave, she said,

but in the end he left anyway,

her breasts standing like two

cold cathedrals in the light

of the flaming city, and my lips touched

the little wounds he had left her,

as if a kiss, a good kiss, could heal them,

and I kissed the nipples he had left behind



until they smoldered like the ashes

of a campfire the posse finds

days after the fugitive has slept there

and moved on, drawn by the beautiful

light of the distant city.                        
(from The Good Kiss, University of Akron, 2002)

Tar Pits



The last time I saw my father

was at the La Brea Tar Pits

a year after the divorce.



He was still living in St. Louis,

running the business

to the bottom

of a fifth of Jim Beam.



In my mind’s eye

he is a specimen, a fetus

of a father, floating in a jar

in some roadside museum.



I was nine. We had nothing

to say, so he took me

to the La Brea Tar Pits, as

divorced fathers do.

He was a membrane

at that point.

An effigy trembling

in another man’s suit.



We stared

at the three-toed sloth,

the dire wolf with its

marble eyes.



My father, I wish

you could rise from that

black pit and emerge



into light, like the tiger

we saw that day,

sheathed again in muscle,

its great teeth like sabers.
(from Blood Pages, Pittsburgh, 2018)

Waiting



When the guy in the hairpiece and the cheap suit

asks me if I want to see my mother

who is waiting in the back room,



I remember her, for some reason,

in a white swimsuit, on a yellow towel



on the sand at Crystal Lake,

pregnant with my sister,

waiting for me to finish examining

the sleek fuselage of a minnow,



the first dead thing I had ever seen,

before we went back to the cottage for lunch.



I remember her waiting up for my father

to come home from God knows where

in a Yellow Cab at 3am,



and waiting for me in the school parking lot

in our rusted blue station wagon

when whatever it was I was practicing for ran late.



I remember her, shoulders thrown back,

waiting in the unemployment line,

waiting for me to call, waiting for the sweet release



in the second glass of wine

after a long day working at the convalescent hospital

where everyone was waiting to die.



And I remember her waiting for me

at the airport when I got back from Japan,

waiting for everything to be all right,



waiting for the biopsy results.

     Waiting.

But when the guy in his ridiculous hairpiece

asks me if I’d like to go back there

and be with her in that room where she lies



waiting to be cremated I say No

thank you, and turn and walk out

onto the sunny street to join the crowd



hustling down the sidewalk,

and I look up at the beautiful white clouds

suspended above the city,



leaving her to wait in that room alone,

for which I will not be forgiven.
(from Haywire, Utah State University Press, 2006)

Yard Sale


Someone is selling the Encyclopedia Britannica

in all its volumes,

which take up a whole card table.


It looks brand new, even though it must be sixty years old.
That’s because it was only used a couple of times,

when the kids passed through fifth grade

and had to do reports on the Zambezi River

and Warren Harding.



Der Fuhrer was defunct.

The boys came home,

and everybody got the Encyclopedia Britannica,



which sat on the bookshelf

as they watched Gunsmoke

through a haze of Winstons.



Eventually

these people grew old

and were sent to a home 
by the same children who once wrote

reports on Warren Harding.



And now the complete and unabridged

Encyclopedia Britannica, 

bulging with important knowledge,


is sitting on a card table in a light rain.
(from Imperial, Pittsburgh, 2014)

Citizen Kane



All summer and fall

my Flexible Flyer

clung like a moth

to the basement wall.

Then would come that morning

when white was the only color,

when the school bus couldn’t come

and my father took it down.



He waxed the red runners

and we went outside together.

The world was ours to explore.



When I die, I can’t imagine

the last thing I’ll remember,

the last words I will say.



But I want death

to be like my father

in his big boots and heavy sweater,

lifting down my sled for winter,

taking me with him into the day.
(from Haywire, Utah State, 2006)

The Return of Odysseus


When Odysseus finally does get home

he is understandably upset about the suitors,

who have been mooching off his wife for twenty years,

drinking his wine, eating his mutton, etc.



In a similar situation today he would seek legal counsel.

But those were different times. With the help

of his son Telemachus he slaughters roughly

one hundred and ten suitors

and quite a number of young ladies,

although in view of their behavior

I use the term loosely. Rivers of blood

course across the palace floor.
I too have come home in a bad mood.

Yesterday, for instance, after the department meeting,

when I ended up losing my choice parking spot

behind the library to the new provost.



I slammed the door. I threw down my book bag

in this particular way I have perfected over the years

that lets my wife understand

the contempt I have for my enemies,

which is prodigious. 



And then with great skill

she built a gin and tonic

that would have pleased the very gods,

and with epic patience she listened

as I told her of my wrath, and of what I intended to do

to so-and-so, and also to what’s-his-name.
And then there was another gin and tonic

and presently my wrath abated and was forgotten,

and peace came to reign once more

in the great halls and courtyards of my house.
(from Imperial, Pittsburgh, 2014)

Rim

Ants are hard at work
on the cicada at my feet.
It looks like the scorched husk
of a Humvee
swarming with insurgents,

a simile
which is about as close to the war
as I’m likely to get
unless somebody’s shampoo blows up
my flight tomorrow, and I fall
in a sticky rain over Kansas,

where Intelligent Design is the hottest thing
since the Old Testament, where now and then
a coffin comes home

and a slumbering farm town breaks
into little explosions
of flags and roses.

One of my students
is spending a few weeks there,
back home in the cornfields,

before shipping out to Baghdad. 
We all got a box in the sand
waiting for us, is the reason

he gave me for signing up last May,
and I was too stunned by the phrase,
this former offensive lineman’s
borrowed eloquence, to tell him

how full of shit I thought he was,
how stupidly young
and in love with the thought of his doomed beauty.

And besides,
I was remembering Vietnam,
how my stomach shriveled,
how the yellow acid

seeped through my guts
as I watched the Tet Offensive
on the 6 o’clock news in the numb weeks
before my college deferment came through.

And so I said to the kid, whose grade
in my American Authors course
was a kind-hearted C,

Good luck to you then, feeling both
ridiculously old—the graying teacher
sending the young warrior to battle—
and simply ridiculous, for he was heading to Baghdad
and his box,

and I was heading over to the school gym
for a pick-up basketball game
with some other old guys
who gather there in the summer evenings,

still in love
with the smell of varnish and sweat,
the ancient insults, the give and take,

as we play our games, our elegies
for our own lost beauty,
with a cautious, measured devotion,
well below the rim.
(from The White Museum, Autumn House, 2010)

Weather



My father would lift me

to the ceiling in his big hands

and ask, How’s the weather up there?

And it was good, the weather

of being in his hands, his breath

of scotch and cigarettes, his face

smiling from the world below.

O daddy, was the lullaby I sang

back down to him as he stood on earth,

my great, white-shirted father, home

from work, his gold wristwatch

and wedding band gleaming

as he held me above him

for as long as he could,

before his strength failed 

down there in the world I find myself

standing in tonight, my little boy

looking down from his flight

below the ceiling, cradled in my hands,

his eyes wide and already staring

into the distance beyond the man

asking him again and again,

How’s the weather up there?
(from Imperial, Pittsburgh, 2014)























                                    

 

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