The Innisfree Poetry Journal
by A CLOSER LOOK: George Bilgere
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.
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,
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)
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.
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
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
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.
at the three-toed sloth,
the dire wolf with its
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.
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.
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
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.Rim
(from Imperial, Pittsburgh, 2014)
Ants are hard at work
on the cicada at my feet.
It looks like the scorched husk
of a Humvee
swarming with insurgents,
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.
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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