A CLOSER LOOK: Jack Ridl





Poetry is soul food, or can be. It also can not be. Who knows when someone needs a particular poem? I don’t ever want to confuse the best with what is valuable. Lots of things that aren’t excellent, that aren’t first, that aren’t the best are of paramount value.

In all my courses I tried to help the students realize that what happens in the writing is crucial, what they must hold fast to no matter what. I’d tell them that one in ten of my poems is effective, but all ten were worth writing. Why? Because of what the writing of a poem gives you access to.

When we wake, I want us to begin again
Never saying anything more lovely than garage door.

As Mary Ruefle writes of Jack Ridl, “If you don’t believe you have a soul, reading this book will give you one — its soulfulness is that far-reaching, generous, persuasive, and real.” Ridl is a large-hearted poet with a loving concern for the ordinary in human life. He “worship[s] by watching” garbage, rotting logs and button holes, puddles and pots of coffee, our cats and dogs, the quotidian that matters. And the extraordinary—love, competition, disease. As he writes in “Turning to the Psalter,” “I like being religious in this unimportant way.” He’s a companionable poet, and often a story teller who always holds the reader rapt.

Ridl was a professor at Hope College from 1971 until retiring in 2006. He and his wife, Julie, founded the college’s program now know as the Jack Ridl Visiting Writers Series. The author of several collections of poetry, he is also co-author with Peter Schakel of Approaching Poetry: Perspectives and Responses (1996) and co-editor, with Peter Schakel, of 250 Poems: A Portable Anthology (2008) and Approaching Literature in the 21st Century: Fiction, Poetry, Drama (2004), all from Bedford/St. Martin’s Press, including their third edition of Approaching Literature in 2013. Ridl’s poems have appeared in LIT, The Georgia Review, FIELD, Poetry, Ploughshares, Prairie Schooner, Gulf Coast, The Denver Quarterly, Chelsea, Free Lunch, The Journal, Passages North, Dunes Review, and Poetry East.

Selected Poems by Jack Ridl


Love Poem
       “[He] makes the smallest talk I’ve ever heard.”
                         —John Woods       

The smaller the talk the better.
I want to sit with you and have us
Solemnly delight in dust; and one violet;
And our fourth night out;
And buttonholes. I want us
To spend hours counting dog hairs,
And looking up who hit .240
in each of the last ten years.
I want to talk about the weather;
And detergents; and carburetors;
And debate which pie our mothers made
The best. I want us to shrivel
Into nuthatches, realize the metaphysics
Of crossword puzzles, wait for the next
Sports season, and turn into sleep
Holding each other’s favorite flower,
Day, color, record, playing card.
When we wake, I want us to begin again
Never saying anything more lovely than garage door.
from The Same Ghost (Dawn Valley Press, 1984)

Prayer on a Morning My Car Wouldn’t Start

I sit behind the wheel
and finger the keys
like a rosary. Surely

there is some prayer
that can move pistons.
If spirits slaughter germs, or

bring about a sudden burst
of hope or courage, even love,
why not something simple,

something closer to expedience?
Why not dispatch one lonely angel
to caress my carburetor, fix

my fan belt, unclog my fuel line?
Just one greasy-winged mechanic,
inept at saving souls, but damned

good at getting me on my way.
from The Same Ghost (Dawn Valley Press, 1984)

Heaven

Groucho guards the gate, more
bewildering than God in judging
supplicants. Behind him Harpo,
his hair reason enough to realize
there’s nothing we can do. “Say
the secret word.” “Logos!”
we shout. Groucho taps his long
cigar. “What?” he laughs. “Logos?”
What the hell is logos?” We
are terrified. We look to Harpo.
He smiles, shrugs, honks his horn,
pulls some celery from his coat
and gnaws. Groucho lights
a new cigar, arcs his eyebrows,
moving the clouds of heaven higher,
and looks so sadly at us that we ache
to know what we have done. He turns
his back, catches sight of a slithery
blonde and slinks his way away,
healing the sullen, turning loaves
and fishes into parakeets and
somehow dragging us through
into the madness of eternity.

from The Same Ghost (Dawn Valley Press, 1984)

My Brother—A Star

My mother was pregnant through the first
nine games of the season. We were 7-2.
I waited for a brother. My father
kept to the hard schedule. Waking
the morning of the tenth game, I thought
of skipping school and shooting hoops.
My cornflakes were ready, soggy. There
was a note:
The baby may come today.
Get your haircut.
We were into January,
and the long December snow had turned
to slush. The wind was mean. My father
was gone. I looked in on my mother still
asleep and hoped she’d be OK.
I watched her, dreamed her dream: John
at forward, me at guard. He’d
learn fast. At noon, my father
picked me up at the playground. My team
was ahead by six.
We drove toward the gym.
Mom’s OK, he said and tapped his fist
against my leg. The Plymouth ship that rode
the hood pulled us down the street.
The baby died, he said. I felt my feet press hard
against the floorboard. I put my elbow on the door handle,
my head on my hand, and watched the town: 
Kenner’s Five and Ten, Walker’s Hardware,
Jarret’s Bakery, Shaffer’s Barber Shop, the bank.
Dick Green and Carl Stacey waved.
It was
a boy.
          
             We drove back to school. You gonna
coach tonight?
Yes. Mom’s OK?
Yes. She’s fine. Sad. But fine. She said
for you to grab a sandwich after school. I’ll see you
at the game. Don't forget about your hair.
I
got out, walked in late to class.
We're doing geography, Mrs. Wilson said. Page
ninety-seven. The prairie.
                                            That night in bed
I watched this kid firing in jump shots
from everywhere on the court. He’d cut left,
I’d feed him a fine pass, he’d hit. 
I’d dribble down the side, spot him in the corner, thread
the ball through a crowd to his soft hands, and he’d
loft a star up into the lights where it would pause
then gently drop, fall through the cheers and through the net.       
The game never ended. I fell into sleep. My hair
was short. We were 8 and 2.
  
                              for my mother and my father
from The Same Ghost (Dawn Valley Press, 1984)

American Suite for a Lost Daughter
 
I am the last greylag on the left side of the V.
 
I am the amen in the prayer you never say.
 
I can bring some stones to you, to the place
you left as a child, the place where the wolves
came to drink and watch you.  They watched
you through eyes set deep in the land.
 
Here you wait, while the dark moon
keeps to its path and the owl watches
the rabbit sit beneath the net of hollow stars.
 
Christ did not read palms; his lonely
eyes saw the way the lightning grazed
the sky and shot the mind full of questions.
His heart was the color of the center of a tangerine.
His hands lived alone.
 
Somewhere in any city is a late night
disc jockey looking out the window
to his left, thinking about the bills
he pays, the children he cannot raise,
the wife he tries to love because he wants
to love her and this madness we call
music as it moves out and into the dark air.
 
You came through a tunnel that began
in the mind’s assent to the ancient gnaw.
Your walk has grown from the terrible
chance. Your voice rises and adds its
being to the winds, to that of the piano
and machine gun, the cruel demand and
the long withdrawing sigh of your strange question.
 
I try to dream your dreams—to let
my mind enter yours and live the intrusions
that keep you from everything you should have.
I find the song we all sing.
I am thinking again of distances.
 
Your brother came alone
amidst the streaks of sun.
He tosses balls; he somersaults.
You were once so little you
could become an arch; bent
backwards you could walk
around your yard. You could
sit, spread your legs, lean
your forehead into the cool summer grass.
 
Brahms on the stereo.
You on your bicycle.
 
I knew your great-uncle Mac.
He would always hold the chair
for Aunt Fan. He loved raking leaves.
Some days I think of all the dead
you can never know. Some days they
are a cloud moving over your own roof.
 
When you were seven, I suddenly
became “Dad.
I wondered
if I should tell you then how far
I was from being a father.
 
In our herb garden grow thyme,
marjoram, rosemary, lemon balm,
and a weed we named white whisper.
 
The night, like an idiot savant, does
over and over its one miraculous task.
 
I want us to be important
for no reason at all.
 
Then I think of you, broken
and stunned, sitting alone, your
life taken and the only thing left
whatever clings to your mind,
you near death wondering still
why this terrible life had to be
lived within.
 
I would pray for your life if I could.
 
Yesterday, as two planes collided
and fell across several southern
California homes, bodies flung
through the cool breeze and slammed
into the ground, I thought of the wound
between us, how it will never heal, how
impossible it has become to sense
or gauge the pain that hurls itself
across this age of circumstances no one
can recover from. Prayer. Prayer.

If none of this can bring a god to
end it all, then . . . . I remember
the nights we walked and tried
to see only the stars.
from The Same Ghost (Dawn Valley Press, 1984)

Elegy for Cousin Albert—A Circus Man

If you knew you were going to be taken in,
you were part of the great act, and all
the richer for your willingness
to suspend belief in goodness,
temperance, and truth for the higher world
of weary jungle cats, exhausted roustabouts,
jaded clowns, those who left their losses
in the back lot and paraded
center ring for more than seven months
to lead us on—to be performers
while we sat. We knew the fat
came off  the drunk and drug-infested,
fly-by-night hard work of broken men
who’d pitch the tent then wait
throughout the show until beneath the same
old stars they’d watch the dusty bull
pull down the center pole, bellow
to the night, and lumber out from
underneath the canvas floating down,
a shroud to lie, quiet, over
the empty lot. Later, housed twenty to a truck
the men would sleep.
                                   Somewhere,
on the road, Albert, now ashes
in his widow’s living room, would think
about his life, the time when he was six
and rode the Ringling elephant. God
sears the heart with a single twinge. Now,
the loss, the grief is just another line
of colored posters strung behind the sideshow barker
urging us to pay to see Fat Alice,
Johnny Jungle eating bugs, the Human Reptile,
Alphonse the Fire Eater, Erma the Tattooed Lady,
and the one who charms the snakes.
from The Same Ghost (Dawn Valley Press, 1984)

Against Elegies

I’m tired of Death’s allure,
of how the old beggar
makes me think that
rowing across the river is
somehow richer, more serious, than
the center of a pomegranate or my
dog’s way of sleeping on his paws.
I’m tired of
the beauty of the elegy,”
the tone deaf lyricism of it all. I
want Death to listen for awhile
to Bud Powell or Art Blakey,
to have to stare for seven hours
at Matisse. I want him to do
standup and play the banjo, to
have to tap-dance and juggle, to
play Trivial Pursuit and weed
my garden. I’m tired of how Death
throws his voice, gets us
to judge a begonia, a song
in the shower, a voice, old dog.
I want life’s ragged way
of getting along, the wasted
afternoon and empty morning, the
sloppy kiss. I want to stagger
along between innings. I want
the burnt toast, the forgotten note,
and the lost pillow case, the dime
novel, and the Silly Putty of it all.
from Broken Symmetry (Wayne State University Press, 2006, Co-Recipient of The Society of Midland Authors Award for Poetry)

Broken Symmetry

Angels never have to worry
about their wings: lose a feather here
or there, a new perfection floats down
across the landscape, catching itself
on its cousin the tree branch, landing
on its second cousin the leaf, or even
along its third cousin twice removed,
the blacktop highway. There is so much
symmetry that in the mirror your left
side resembles your left side even though
it’s never quite the same as your
right. Go deeper. All the cells split
into identical ice dancers, all
the electrons spin the same bacchanal.
Only the broken reveals, gives
the universe its chance at being
interesting, says a door is not
an elephant, the moon is not a
salad fork. So, break the bread
in two, drink half the glass of wine,
slice the baby down the middle, cut
the corner, divide the time. Tonight
the moon will once again reflect the sun’s
monotonous dazzle, and the old light
making its dumb way to us, will break
our symmetry of coming home,
of passing on the street.
from Broken Symmetry (Wayne State University Press, 2006)

Saint Francis in Disney World

The children come up to him, touch
his robe and giggle. He blesses them. They
run and ask their parents to take their photo
peeking out from behind his filthy holiness.
Mickey quietly comes up beside him, his
huge fingers dangling like loaves of Wonder
Bread, tilts his head as if to say you better
leave or take a bath and put on clean jeans.
St. Francis whispers asking for the birds.
Mickey shakes his head. St. Francis holds
his place in line while each ride spins its
squealing riders round or up or down: a
chug, a plunge, a long and hopeless cast
of thousands, ton of hot dogs, fries, and
pizza, sushi, Coke and Pepsi, pie and
ice cream, chocolate. There are bees.
He has no ticket. He’s told to step aside. He
looks up where the sky should be. He
watches a cat slide under the plastic
elephant. He looks back up. The sky
has gone. The earth has gone. His feet
are sore. His hands are turning into
birds. His hood is filling up with coins.
His beard is filled with bells.
from Broken Symmetry (Wayne State University Press, 2006)

The History of the Pencil

Even as you sit staring at the light
on the new computer that came with speakers
and disks that hold golf games, sound tracks
from the movies of the forties and a way to rhyme
every word except those stubborn loners silver,
purple, and orange, you have to wonder
how this most elemental of juxtapositions,
this marriage that few families would allow,
this wedding of wood and lead wandered
into some pause in the daydreams
of whom. Even Thoreau, that son
of the pencil-making family who recorded
every move of a leaf, who listed each essential
object for a twelve day trek into the woods
of Maine: “Matches; soap, two pieces; old
newspapers, three; and blanket, seven feet long,”
neglected to note his pencil. Imagine being held
by the hand of the keeper of Walden
as he, in all his assured solitude, attended
to everything in his burrowing but you,
the scribbler’s one essential companion.
Wouldn’t you feel much like the friend
who has been there all along, who leaves
quietly out the back door when the famous
come to call, or the good dog who stays
loyal day after abandoned day, or the name,
changed to something more alluring, 
that sits and wonders why you are walking away?
“I am a pencil,” said Toulouse-Lautrec
to one of the rouged and rowdy-legged dancers
he let become a gray line kicking high
over his lonely head in the dance hall.
Even Leonardo whose mind would never let
anything escape from the possibility of being better,
wrote those mad, mirror-written obsessions,
his maimed right hand dangling
like a sash, and sketched his own hand
sketching, without ever thinking
that the tedious brush could give way
to something humbler, more subservient.
Did it never enter the mind of some poor
hunter-gatherer, who surely heard the tunes
of the very beasts and berries he searched for,
“I’d like to keep what I’ll likely forget. Maybe
if I . . . .” Was it there that his mind opened
into the first existential blank? And when
he told her and all his cave companions
what he’d like to be able to do, did they each
just nod and go back to picking out
what had gathered in their hair throughout the day?
So now, as you sit stunned at the mere accumulation
of words filed, edited, viewed, inserted,
formatted, spun into web sites, downloaded
and upgraded into numbers nothing but infinity
seems able to record, even now
on some desk, maybe yours, in an old jelly jar,
or a ceramic elephant with a hole in its back
that your niece in third grade gave you for Christmas,
or in a German beer stein or hand-painted, wooden
Chinese calligrapher’s pen holder, sprouts a fistful
of pencils, Roethke’s preservers of dolor, each one waiting
as they always have, to lie like a faithful love
between your thumb and finger, to let your words
be the only ones they will ever know
even as they give themselves to the alchemy
of everything, becoming empty phrases,
an X to mark the spot, reminders
to pick up bread and coffee, maybe a note
written to a friend whose dog has died.
from Broken Symmetry (Wayne State University Press, 2006)


During the Last Two Weeks of His Life, He Wrote
Only the Last Lines of Poems

                                                  I                            
the stars, lost in the half light of evening.                   
                                              
                                                  II
              giving us only a noun and the time to finally understand it.
                   
                                                  III
                       after the taxi, after the end of the affair.                   

                                                  IV
                    like the slow ruin of his own small town.                   

                                                  V
              and God? Lost somewhere in the bread section.                   

                                                 VI
       wind, three medieval priests, a puppet, and a wedding dress.            
      
                                                VII
                                             the bus.                   

                                               VIII
             window, pouring out the last of the anonymous gin.
                  
                                                 IX
           not the cow, not the fence post, not even the back door.
                   
                                                  X
   knew the rest, but kept the pile beside her desk, adding to it when it snowed.                   
                                                 XI
                             amid the holiness of snails.                   

                                                XII
         later. Then he juggled a scarf, an orange ball, and the flute.       

                                               XIII
          wondering was it the rain, was it the ontology of morning? 
from Broken Symmetry (Wayne State University Press, 2006)

The Materialism of Angels
      “Who would say that pleasure is not useful?”—Charles Eames

Of course the angels dance. If not
on the head of a pin, then maybe
on the boardwalk along the ocean of stars. 
And they eat hot and spicy: salsa,
Tabasco, red peppers. They love
mangoes. They can munch
for hours on cashews. Olives
sit in bronze bowls on the cherry
tables next to their canopy beds
where the solace of pillows swallows
their sweet heads and the quiet
of silk lies across their happy backs.
They know the altruism of material things.
They want to say to us, “We’ll sleep
next to you. Feel our soft and unimposing
flutter across your shoulders, on your
heartbroken feet.” They want us
to take, eat, to smell the wood,
run our tired fingers over the rim of
every glass, give our eyes the chance
to see the way the metal bends and
curves its way into the black oval
of the chair. They want us to feel
the holiness of scratching where it
itches, rubbing where it hurts. They
want us to take long, steamy showers
and a nap. They know how easily
we follow directions: hook the red wire
to the front of the furnace, fill in only
the top half of the life insurance form.
They have no manuals for joy.
They can’t fix anything we break.
They wonder why we never laugh
enough, why we don’t know God
is crazy for deep massage, and loves
to wail on His alto sax whenever they dance.

from Broken Symmetry (Wayne State University Press, 2006)

The Dry Wallers Listen to Sinatra While They Work

This morning, my mother, here
for the holidays, is washing

the breakfast dishes, when Al, wiry,
coated with dry wall dust takes

her hand and says, “I bet you loved
Sinatra. Dance?” The acrid smell

of plaster floats through the room.
Frank is singing, “All or nothing

at all,” and Al leads my mother
under the spinning ballroom lights

across the new sub-floor. He
is smiling. She is looking over

his shoulder. The other guys
turn off their sanders. Al

and my mother move through
the dust, two kids back

together after the war. Sinatra
holds his last note. “It’s been

seven years since I danced,”
my mother says. “Then

it was in the kitchen, too.”
Al smiles again, says,

“C’mon then, Sweetheart!”
biting off his words like the ends

of the good cigars he carries
in his pocket. Sinatra’s singing

“My Funny Valentine” and
my mother lays her hand in Al’s.

And they dance again, she looking
away when she catches my eye,

Al leading her back
across the layers of dust.
from Broken Symmetry (Wayne State University Press, 2006)

At Fifty

Coach hurls the ball against the garage door,
grabs it on the rebound. He’s missed ten
in a row. He steps to the line, bounces
the ball twice, hard, and the fans from
thirty years ago send their hopes across
their weary lungs. He listens to the hush
of the home crowd while the taunts
of those from out of town float through
the rafters down across the backboard,
spinning around and around the rim.
He slams the ball one more time, feels
the leather, eyes the hoop, shoots.
The ball caroms off the back of the rim, rolls
across the driveway into the herb garden
his wife planted the year they found this house.
Once he could drop nine out of ten
from the line, hit half his jump shots
from twenty feet. Coach sits down at
the top of the key, stares, sees himself
bringing it up against the press, faking,
shaking his shoulders, stutter stepping, shifting
the ball left hand to right, then back, then up,
his legs exploding, his wrist firing, the ball
looping up, down, through the hoop, making
the net shimmer, the crowd roar.  He gets up,
goes over to the garden, reaches for the ball,
stops and pulls some weeds growing through
the oregano, basil, sage, and thyme.
from Losing Season (CavanKerry Press, 2009, Awarded Best Book of Sports Literature by The Institute of International Sport)

Scrub

Last night at practice,
my man slipped by me
for a lay-up, and Coach
threw down his clipboard,
ran right up into my face,
slapped me behind the head,
and yelled, “What the hell
are you doing?  Get in front.
Take a charge. You
on this team or not! How
are we gonna be ready if you
don’t play tough defense!”

Some mornings I wake up
wondering about tough defense,
and wind sprints, and running
up the bleachers twenty times.

Two hours every night
I’m on the other team.
I’ve heard it a thousand
times: “You're a key to
this team. Without you
we’d never be ready.” But
I know I do what you do
when you're never good enough.

Some day I’ll come back
and point at that place on the bench.
Some day I’m gonna sit back,
watch t.v., take a vacation
every summer, have a dog,
and never miss a game.

“You get in tonight?” my father asks
when I come in after the game.
I knock the snow from my boots.
“No.” “Close game?” “No,
we lost by twenty-three.” I
listen to the empty air, see
the slow shake of my father
s
head, know he’s been sitting
with a beer letting one sitcom
roll into the next, sneering at
the ads and laugh tracks, waiting
for the news, sports, and weather.
I go to the refrigerator, look at the line
of Budweiser cans, take out the milk,
pour a glass, go in with him
to watch the scores.

Sometimes, after practice,
I walk home slowly, and I
think about letting the ball
bounce away.  Then I’d
sit down, let my mind
open up wider and wider,
so wide the sky would
come inside, the stars
would light it all.

Last week, after school,
my kid sister said, “I’m
scared the sun will go out.”
“That's ridiculous.  Can’t
happen,” and I took her hand,
looked out the window, up
into the sky, watched
the snow clouds cross. 
“But it’s fire,” she said.
“Fire goes out.” 

Four wind sprints to go.
“Let's see what you have left.
Run. Run like I’m after you.
Run. Run now, or after the next
game, I’ll run you till you drop.
Run, god dammit, run.”

Once last summer I lay in bed
wondering if somewhere hidden
in my cells was something good
enough that I could do. But
the cells were mute.  The days
since then have been the same,
even their names dissolving
like the host upon my tongue.
from Losing Season (CavanKerry Press, 2009)

Coach’s Daughter

She stares at her cornflakes.
“What's the matter?” Coach
asks, honestly. She raises
her eyes. “What is it?” She
wants to say, “Nothing.” 
Everyone says, “Nothing.” 
Her lips tighten. He thinks
she is beautiful. He is afraid
of her, her soft hair, her long
fingers, her eyeshadow. 
He tries not to think about
the country between them. 
He wants to hear her say,
“It’s ok here. And you
are welcome here.” But
this country goes on
for as long as you can walk. 
There are no borders.
Coach knows he needs borders.
from Losing Season (CavanKerry Press, 2009)

Coach in Effigy

His daughter saw him first,
hanging from the maple
that draped its old arms
over the house, his head
blooming from the rope
that strangled his neck.
In the morning’s moonlight,
she read their name
scrawled like a scar
across his chest. She
remembered the way
his hands had held her
years ago when, bloodied
from a fall, she’d let
the scream we carry
go to him. He seemed
to hold it in his hands.
Now, within this losing
season, she wants to take
this anonymous lynching
in her arms, ask the hands
that made it and the fists
that rose against it
to join, stand around her
as she sings the only song,
lets the head rest, lets
the heart give out.
from Losing Season (CavanKerry Press, 2009)

Night Gym

The gym is closed, locked
for the night. Through
the windows, a quiet
beam from the street lights
lies across center court.
The darkness wraps itself
around the trophies, lies
softly on Coach’s desk,
settles in the corners.
A few mice scratch under
the stands, at the door
of the concession booth.
The night wind rattles
the glass in the front doors.
The furnace, reliable
as grace, sends its steady
warmth through the rafters,
under the bleachers, down
the halls, into the offices
and locker rooms.  Outside, 
the snow falls, swirls, piles
up against the entrance.

from Losing Season (CavanKerry Press, 2009)

Searching Again for My Father

I have looked through the garage, shelves
stacked with engine oil, cans of paint, piles
of rags and gloves and old hats, boxes
of shoes, nails, broken saw blades, clocks.

And in the crab apple tree he planted
in the back left corner of the yard,
in its burst of white blossoms, in
the empty sparrow nest that has sat
for years between the fork in a branch.

Maybe here, I think, across the room,
sleeping in front of the summer-empty
fireplace, or sitting on the mantle looking
toward the closed white kitchen door.

Or here, right here, in this chair, scribbling
across this very notebook, smiling at each
fallen word, thinking I still don’t know why.

In the basement? Opening the Army steamer
trunk, taking out the medals, the Captain’s
bars, the box of letters, and the pen and ink
drawings he found within the rubble of France.

Or under the dining table, where the dog
sleeps, breathing softly, velvet eyelids ready
to rise at the sound of “Walk,” ragged toy lion
lying drool-enameled by his dream-twitching nose.

Or maybe in the sigh at the day’s end. Maybe
in the last twenty pages of the book I’ve been
reading for a week. Maybe I passed by him
at the opening of Chapter Four, when I wondered
why the writer, without warning, shifted point of view.

from Practicing to Walk Like a Heron (Wayne State University Press, 2006, Named by ForeWord Reviews/Indie Fab as Co-Recipient of Best Collection of Poetry published by a university or independent press)

Practicing to Walk like a Heron

My wife is at the computer. The cat
is sleeping across the soft gold cushion

of my chair. Last night there was a frost.
I am practicing to walk like a heron.

It’s the walk of solemn monks
progressing to prayer on stilts,

the deliberate cadence of a waltz
in water. I lift my right leg within

the stillness, within the languid
quiet of a creek, slowly, slowly,

slowly set my foot on the dog-haired
carpet, pause, hold a half note, lift

the left, head steady as a bell before
the ringer tugs the rope. On I walk,

the heron’s mute way, across the
room, past my wife who glances

up, holds her slender hands
above the keys until I pass.
from Practicing to Walk Like a Heron (Wayne State University Press, 2013)

Within the Moment of Indefinite Suffering

All it takes is a tick. You can be walking
your dog. Your dog can be stopping to
sniff a patch of jewel weed or pausing
to pee on a post surrounded by poison ivy.

You could be watching a swallowtail slowly
lifting and settling its wings while resting on
a swatch of crown vetch. The sun could be
lost behind clouds, clustered in a cumulus

mound of white or sinister gray, the moon
could be full, waning, new, the stars moving
across their scrim of deep space, everything
still benign in its revolving threat. You

could be sweeping the walk, passing under
the pergola draped in wisteria, wedding veil,
honeysuckle, or merely sitting on the bench
beside the brook out back. Or taking a path

through the park, joggers steady-stepping, or
walking along the well-worn trail to the pond
at the edge of town where you could be sitting
under the willow, its branches hanging their braids

over your wait for the sunfish to surface. It could all be
beautiful: the day, the light, the breeze bending the tall grass.                     
To all those suffering under the politics of Lyme disease
from Practicing to Walk Like a Heron (Wayne State University Press, 2013)

The Dogs’ Door Is at the Far End of the House

They wake up at the foot of the bed, stretch,
yawn, shake and take the long walk—through
three rooms, down the stairs, down the hall,
left into the work room, then through their door
into the day’s early glaze—to pee. Overnight
there may have been a four-foot fall of snow;
sleet may dagger down like a glass sky
shattered by some exasperated god; an August
huff of humid heat may settle in their fur; they
may slip in the slick mud from a spring or
summer downpour; ticks can drop and stick.
No matter, they go out, pushing their dripping
noses against the cold or heat of the flapping
door, leaving behind the steady hum of furnace
or air conditioner, sniff their way to the
well-marked spot, squat—and pee. Like stoics
matted in hair shirts, they go out, come back
dry, soaked, snow-coated, mud-caked. I
wonder if they wonder what waits
on the other side. They never complain
or balk. They walk, let go, find
a momentary stay against the coming day.
Finished, the young pup prances
to the door, hops through, dashes to his bowl.
The old dog stays out sitting in the morning air.
His great gray head moving slowly back and forth,
he sniffs the center of his universe, his place
in the aromas of the day. Then, nose full, he
limps to the door, lifts each front leg, pulls
his back legs through and pants his way
back through the waking house to sleep.

from Practicing to Walk Like a Heron (Wayne State University Press, 2013)

Take Love for Granted 

Assume it’s in the kitchen,
under the couch, high
in the pine tree out back,
behind the paint cans
in the garage. Don’t try
proving your love
is bigger than the Grand
Canyon, the Milky Way,
the urban sprawl of L.A.
Take it for granted. Take it
out with the garbage. Bring it
in with the takeout. Take
it for a walk with the dog.
Wake it every day, say,
“Good morning.” Then
make the coffee. Warm
the cups. Don’t expect much
of the day. Be glad when
you make it back to bed.
Be glad he threw out that
box of old hats. Be glad
she leaves her shoes
in the hall. Snow will
come. Spring will show up.
Summer will be humid.
The leaves will fall
in the fall. That’s more
than you need. We can
love anybody, even
everybody. But you
can love each other,
the silence, sighing,
and saying, “That’s her.”
“That’s him.” Then to
each other, “I know!
Let’s go out for breakfast!”

from Practicing to Walk Like a Heron (Wayne State University Press, 2013)

My Father Was in Love with Peggy Lee

I imagine her purring
her song to him. I imagine
him exhausted, smiling as
her coffee-coated voice
carrying his words,
settled into his heart.

The ancients lived between the stars
and the narrow walkways they found
on their earth. That’s how it was.

Now when the circus travels at night,
the old clown never knows the name
of the next town. The tent is ragged
by July, the crowd goes home
with the taste of leftover popcorn,
the elephants sway in the morning’s dust.

“Is that all there is?” Peggy sang, her face
flat with resignation. My father thought
there was more. He went outside every
day. He washed the car.

Snow clouds hang in the gray air
like bitter metaphysicians. Geese
fly over unzipping the sky.

There was a time before necessity
when the songs were sung in 4/4 time.

Peggy sang to my father all his life.
What did he hear? A long afternoon,
monks in his garden, someone saying yes?
Why did he love her? Her face as indifferent
as ice, her eyes blank as cobalt. Her hair
pulled back flat from her forehead as
severe and tight as the notes she stretched
along that same smoky perfect pitch.

Her songs sat in her heart like burnt out
factory workers. Maybe that’s what
he knew. Maybe it was the dust
in her voice. Maybe he was dancing.
from Practicing to Walk Like a Heron (Wayne State University Press, 2013)

The Heron

Whenever we noticed her
standing in the stream, still
as a branch in dead air, we
would grab our binoculars,
watch her watching,
her eye fixed on the water
slowly making its own way
around stumps, over a boulder,
under some leaves matted against
a fallen log. She seemed
to appear, stand, peer, then
lift one leg, stretch it, let
a foot quietly settle into the mud
then pull up her other foot, settle
it and stare again, each step
tendered, an ideogram at the end
of a calligrapher’s brush.
Every time she arrived, we watched
until, as if she had suddenly heard
a call in the sky, she would bend
her knees, raise her wide wings,
and lift into the welcome grace
of the air, her legs extending
back behind her, wings rising
and falling in the rhythm of a waltz.
For more than a week now
we have not seen her. We watch
the sky, hoping to catch her great
feathered cross moving above the trees.
from Practicing to Walk Like a Heron (Wayne State University Press, 2013)

Grouse of the Circus Boss

They might as well be sitting
on their hands, he says, nodding
toward the audience hunched
on the plank seats surrounding
the three rings. They wouldn’t
know death if it knocked, don’t
know what it takes to walk
a wire, enter a cage of cats, time
a leap into a catcher’s chalky grip,
the mad defiance of it all. They
want special effects, have no
idea a roustabout in black
waits under the trapeze, lies
beside the tigers’ flaming hoop,
softly whistles to the wire walker’s
dance. How can we compete
with light shows, surround
sound, wide-screen outer
space extravaganzas? They’d
all go to a freak show. But
Four-Armed Arnold, Seal Girl,
and The Human Blockhead
have to live along the Gulf,
collect unemployment, play
hearts and trim the bougainvillea
climbing on the fence out front.
Well, I’m here to say to hell
with that. Take a chance.
Fly across the center ring. Hang
from the top of the tent by your hair.
from Outside the Center Ring (Pudding House Press; Re-Published in Practicing to Walk Like a Heron (Wayne State University Press, 2013)

Sequins

Hanging in the silver trailer
her pick-up pulls to every lot,

150 costumes sparkle in the light.
She used to watch each act unfold,

told herself one day she’d fly,
dance along the wire, or twirl high

over the center ring clinging
to a spinning rope. Now

she sews: repairs split seams,
stitches galaxies of sequins,

adds lace, fringe, a braided edge
of gold. On her cot, after threading

through another day, she sees
the sequins sparkling on her ceiling,

traces them floating in her sleep.
And every afternoon and night,

they shine like tiny stars
under the spotlights. Sometimes
she puts down her needle and
walks to the tent, stands in

the entrance and watches her work
glistening in the capes of the Flying Garonis.

from Outside the Center Ring (Pudding House Press; Re-Published in Practicing to Walk Like a Heron (Wayne State University Press, 2013)

Outside the Center Ring

It’s another night in another town
and one by one the great gray elephants,
the pink tips of their trunks wrapped
around one another’s tails, parade
through the main tent’s faded entrance.
This morning the roustabouts tightened
the guy lines for the wire walking Alberto,
steadied the rigging for The Family
of Flying Garonis. Now outside
the center ring the clowns wait to honk
their trumpet-sized horns, slap each
other’s painted faces with mitts the size
of frying pans, the grease-paint caked and
cracked across their eyes. No one will laugh.
Between each act, the roustabouts play cards
or sleep while in the next town, the advance man
stakes the lot and heads on, tacking arrows
on telephone poles to mark the way. Straw boss
slides some tens into his pocket, tosses a few
receipts into the green book, pours Jack Daniels
over chips of ice from the mess tent, takes
a sip, heads out to the back lot to wait for
the tear down. The sun’s dropped into the end
of the day, the night sky holding to the moon’s light
falling over the patched canvas. There’s the faint
ripple of thunder. No one can prepare for mud.
Across the lot, behind the power truck, two kids
fumble under one another’s clothes,
talk of running away with the show,
having their own act, he spinning her
in the death spiral high above the center ring.
After the sale of prize candy, “a circus souvenir
in every box,” the roustabouts move out, start
stacking the empty seats on the flatbeds, and
the elephants rise up on the long line. Then
the disappointed crowd wanders out into
the night and a last chance
to buy a circus program, balloon, cloud
of cotton candy. At the entrance, the elephant boy
waits to fasten the chain around the leg of Suzie
who will walk around the tent, pausing
at each stake as the boy tosses the links up into
the moonlit air, lets the chain drop and loop
as he hollers, “Hunh, Suzie. Hunh!” and she will
slowly lift her leathered foot, the iron rising
from the earth then falling back against the dust.
from Outside the Center Ring (Pudding House Press; Re-Published in Practicing to Walk Like a Heron (Wayne State University Press, 2013)

Circus Cook

Damn, I love bacon grease. I’d love
to be buried in the stuff. Just spread it
over me—let me smell it into heaven.
Or what the hell, into hell. Wouldn’t
that be something, me frying in
my own grease. Been with the show
thirty years and hardly ever seen an act.
The coffee’s always ready, strong.
Complaints? Cut it with some milk
or water. They do two shows a day.
I do three. Hell, I’m center ring
more than the elephants! Every day

I search out a grocery willing to sell
all its lettuce, potatoes, butter, beans,
bread, and chicken. Breakfast sits out
all morning. By noon I’ve spread a lunch
for the roustabouts, sweating and cranky
after raising the big top and tightening
the riggings. Dinner’s on the planks
by five. No flowers here. No candles.
You want those, you bring
em. Dishes
and silverware steam overnight while
the trucks haul ass for the next town.
I’m up by 5am. By six I’ve piled up
the toast, am frying eggs. And there’s

the coffee. When I was a kid, I made all
my own meals. Nothin’ fancy then.
Nothin’ fancy now. Why I’ve got my own
restaurant right here with no competition,
no worries about pullin’ in customers. I’ve
fried eggs in nearly every state; in the rain,
the drought, through a couple tornadoes,
winds that ripped this canvas off the stakes.
Sometimes I wonder about being a real chef,

dicing parsley and tossing croutons on a salad,
coming up with recipes using olive oil. I often
think about writing my own cook book, Meals
for the Center Ring. But I’d have to figure out
portions. And who’d buy a book four pages
long? Monday—breakfast: toast, coffee, eggs,
bacon, hash browns. Lunch: sandwiches, soup
in a kettle, iced tea, Jello. Dinner: hash browns,
chicken, beans, bread, Jello. Any leftovers, toss
together into “Circus Surprise.” Tuesday through
Sunday: Repeat. After my finale, there’s no bow,

no applause. At each meal, the ringmaster
should introduce me. “Ladies and gentlemen,
children of all ages, may I direct your attention
to the center chopping block, to The Amazing
Hank, King of the Culinary Arts, Master Chef
of the Midway who will dazzle your taste buds
with his mouth-watering fare, his expeditious,
exotically delicious, stupendously resplendent,
delectable delicacies concocted for your savory
pleasure before the day has even dawned, before
the stinkin’ matinee, before the goddamned
evening performance, all his ingredients gathered
from the deepest, darkest aisles of your own
local Super Value Mart! A drum roll, please!”
from Saint Peter and the Goldfinch (Wayne State University Press, 2019)

Saint Peter and the Goldfinch

He’d filled the little-roofed feeders with
sunflower and thistle seeds, hooks hanging
sturdy from the birch’s branches twisting

his own arm’s length above the mulch path,
the day’s first light lapsing along the leaves.
Peter knew the neighbors were talking

about the guy in the frayed cassock
who last week moved in with only
a pick-up’s bed of what seemed to be

belongings—a small table, couple
of ladder back chairs, a sound system
that looked vintage, a lot of books,

three futons, a large canvas bag
maybe filled with pans, pots, dishes,
and three lamps, one that dangled

tiny stars from its frayed shade.
He had gone out and brought home
an Adirondack and about fifty flower pots,

and the feeders. Now he took his morning
green tea out to the chair to wait for the birds.
This, he felt cross his mind, is what I have

waited for. He sipped. A house finch came.
A couple cardinals, a downy woodpecker.
The chickadees would take a seed, fly

into the branches of the hemlocks surrounding
the house and batter to get to the meat. Time
and time again they returned. Peter tried

to count then wondered why, stopped
and thought about what to plant
in the pots, where he would place them

within the striped grass that made a nest
for the house to sit within. He liked thinking
he had nested. He liked thinking everything

here could be taken away. He had cosmos,
impatiens—no perennials until bloom
and loss became a ritual, sacred. There was

a breeze. There was the tea. And then there was
a goldfinch, just one, at the thistle feeder, its startle
of yellow and black seamless within its feathers.

Peter watched as it took the seed, sat above him.
He watched as the bird flew to the feeder, flew back
to the same branch. St. Peter and the goldfinch

here in the day’s beginning. He could not bow
his head. He knew joy’s coupled sorrow. He knew
that this was time. He knew what the earth knew.
from Saint Peter and the Goldfinch (Wayne State University Press, 2019)

Suite for the Long Married

                   I
      The Long Married

We wake at differing times, the old
dog even later. I make the coffee

the night before, set the time
for it to perk. We ready ourselves

for the day, all the usual, never
nervous about our hair, what shoes

to wear, often leave on the socks
we slept in, our hands linked into

the loss of night. We do a lot of
waiting—calls from family,

for the dog to pee, in line for most
everything we need which isn’t much.

The bins of wants are full, and yet
we want to want, and so we go

to the antique mall, garage sales, now
and then a local church bazaar. “Just

looking” is our common conversation
as we wander shop to gallery, from

thing to thing, from post office to
the pharmacy. No longer needing

a reason to live, we let ourselves be.
Better this way. Giving a damn or not.

                 II
Solstice After All These Years

The work days go unnoticed.
It’s always a truck load;
it’s always maybe, or

another hour. Last night
we watched as the possum
crossed the back yard padding

its small path back into
the ineffable chaos
of wood and molder.

This morning there will be 
a cup of coffee. There
will be the fierce pull

of the news’ hypnosis.
We will try not to remember.
We will tug ourselves to the novel

we roamed with into the anonymity
of sleep. We will be religious
without faith or doubt.

The trees will be our amen.
The cedar waxwing at the feeder
will take our place at communion,

redeeming seed into flight and song.
Tonight within the moon’s generosity
we will gather the vestments for tomorrow.

                    III
        Morning with Dogs

The old dog won’t get up. The pup
is yelping. We want to sleep another

hour, half an hour, fifteen minutes.
We are old dogs, too.

But the pup is hungry and the light
is crossing the evergreens and now

that we have found our way out of bed
and on to the dogs’ bowls, the old dog’s

eyes open. The coffee—timed when
to perk is dripping through the grounds.

And though wanting still to sleep, we
divide the morning’s rituals: filling

the feeders for the rampant demands
of chickadees, finches, the one downy;

letting the old dog out first to pee
unencumbered by the pup’s romping

plea to play. This is the opening of our
every day. And we go on, the past

always tugging us back into regret.    
                    
                  IV
Poem Beginning with Of Course

Of course there are days when
the story slowly becomes one
we have known before: quiet

except for the highway
humming a mile away
while we still sleep within

the dream that hasn’t yet
awakened us. The morning
will slip away like the dew

on the hostas, ferns, and
butterbur. Mid-afternoon
will hang its heavy heat

on the spiders’ webs
while the cosmos droop
their startle of pink into

the bees’ bypass. Our ragged
cushions sit on the haphazard
disassembly of Adirondacks

we bought when we wondered
if we would stay where time
now settles into itself, the two

of us waiting within what lingers.
               
                 V
When a Quiet Comes

Sometimes when the morning surrounds 7am,
a quiet comes. A neighbor wakes, lets out
the dog, fills the songbird feeder. Often

a jogger goes by. Mostly there is the quiet.
There is a pot of coffee. Here in this house
there is a cat who seems to take the day’s

oncoming disappointments and hold them
in her purr. The mind almost shuts down.
The garden’s tapestry of buds and blooms

waits for not a thing. There is this quiet,
this way the day has of being where
we belong. At precisely 7:45 the bells

of St. Peter’s will send an old hymn into
the quiet and we who are still pilgrims
will soon walk our way into another day.
   
             VI
    Can We Know?

Our old dog’s been sleeping
most of the day, breathing heavily.

We say, “Well, he’s old. Maybe
that’s all it is.” We think we know

him. He barks when it’s time
for his walk or when he needs

to pee. Did he alchemize from
abandonment into one of us

because of how he looks at us,
because of the biscuits, because

of all the smells in the back yard.
Damn anyone who calls us

sentimental. We believe in
the comfort of his wag, his

lying every night amid our
long and given marriage.

No one asks for loneliness.

            VII
Sometimes in the Early Morning the Losses Come

They sit here,
each one waiting
for another

to finish
her story, his story.
Maybe they need

to tell them again. Maybe
they want me
to listen, then

take them
into the garden
where they will carry

their ubiquity of quiet
among the early
bloom of lupine,

gay feather, and the peonies
that have offered
their frazzled globes

into forty years.
The goat’s beard spreads
its extravagance of off-white

one the mute rug
of moss, the twisting
branches of curly willow

draping over the dangling
dazzle of the golden chain.
Everything is rising from

the earth’s dark silence,
the losses walking with us
into the labyrinth of another day.

                      VIII
                   Saturday

Now we say, “There’s always the coffee.”
And there’s the dog we call “Spare Parts.”

He’s twelve, our fourth, our marriage’s
years held by each dog who’s lain beside us.

We do not know how old we are.
We are resting on the earth.

Today downtown there is an opening
at a gallery, and in the heart of the garden

the lupines’ hues are rising along
the quieting strength of their stems.

It is early, the sun rising behind
the quilt of cloud that has comforted

us through the night. And there’s enough
coffee for two more cups, one with cream.
from Saint Peter and the Goldfinch (Wayne State University Press, 2019)

Turning to the Psalter

It’s a quiet morning, time for matins, the sun
sending its preface through the maples’ leaves.
My god is here, sitting beside me on the porch.

We’re waiting for the day’s new full light.
My god, of course, is not very well known
in eschatological circles. I call my god “God.”

Just as I do each morning, God also watches
what comes into the space the eye creates. We
do this throughout the day, glancing out a window,

or on the way to whatever is on the list.
I like being religious in this unimportant way.
Just me and God worshipping by watching.

God’s glad we can sit here or rake leaves or
clean the basement or listen to Leadbelly.
Yesterday I removed a dear friend from

the Rolodex. There in blue ink was his name
and his late wife’s and his address for the past
eleven years. They will be staying here now.

I took a bit of time and looked at their names
and the grace of the record: thirty-four years
sending/receiving non-obligated holiday cards. 

Before tossing the worn down address into
the recycle bin, I showed it to God who nodded,
took it, smiled, then led me outside to the back door

where God knelt and set it on the first step.
from Saint Peter and the Goldfinch (Wayne State University Press, 2019)

The Mallards

Yesterday I sat outside a cafe with
a cup of coffee and an acquaintance

who wanted to know if his poem
was any good. After reading it I

looked up and saw a male and a
female mallard waddling down

the walk. She stopped at a puddle 
and drank. Then they sat at the edge

of the sidewalk. I watched them
as a man walked by, too close

and they rose and then settled
themselves on the curb. They

were far from any water.
“Sure,” I said. “It’s good.”
from Saint Peter and the Goldfinch (Wayne State University Press, 2019)

After the Thirteenth Shock Treatment

I asked for two fried egg sandwiches
and a blueberry milkshake. I got soup.
And it was raining so instead of trying
again to read “Middlemarch,”

I lay on my side and watched the rain
glide down the window. I used to love
to go outside. My sister was a high school
cheerleader, someone everyone loved

to be around—if anything was good,
it was great. I needed to know. My God
spoke only in doubt. The nerves at the ends
of my fingers never slept, and when my fists

bloodied my forehead, only the comfort
of bandages let me look out across
the parking lot, out over the vans, Audis,
and pick-ups into the trees where I could

see how the leaves held to the limbs.
At home my father stayed alone in his
gardens. My mother carried her knitting
to a neighbor’s and talked about dinner.
from Saint Peter and the Goldfinch (Wayne State University Press, 2019)

Practicing Chinese Ink Drawing

Outside this window
the trees
are black-branched,
covered
by an overnight
fall of snow.
Everything is still,
no wind,
no wind on its way,

and the sky—deep
blue, vague
behind a gray
scrim, mimics
the stillness
of this snow
while
my brush strokes
carry the feel
of listless
luck—languid
and precise
as the single file
tracks the trio
of toms trailed
this morning
into the woods
whose branches
and snow
and light
cannot be drawn.

(from Saint Peter and the Goldfinch (Wayne State University Press, 2019)

The World in May Is Leafing Out

It’s Matisse on a bicycle. It’s

a great blue heron coloring

outside the lines. The show’s

turned over to the aftermath

of buds. You can love

never thinking

this cliché could turn

to ice. Even nice

can be profound

as worry, even

the creek over the rotting log,

the pansy in the moss-covered

pot. The birds bulge

with song. Mary Cassatt

throws open her windows.

Monet drags his pallet,

sits and waits for the paint

to spill across the patina

of his failing sight. Eric Satie

makes his joyous cling

and clang a counterpoint

to dazzle. The earth is rising

in shoots and sprays.

The sky’s as new as rain.

The stubborn doors swing open.

(from Saint Peter and the Goldfinch (Wayne State University Press, 2019)










                                    

 

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