Our Breakthrough Quarantine – a poem

Our son Nick, an ocean rescue lifeguard in Nags Head, NC, was vaccinated in May but this month came down with breakthrough covid, and quarantined with his gf, also a lifeguard and vaccinated and sick, at the beach. They’re okay now, back in town. He said they hunkered down indoors, ordered out, played video games, and only ventured outside one night late for a walk. Sentimental dad goes….

In our masks we hold hands
bare feet splashed in the sand
still warm all these hours after sunset.

The 8th of our 10 days sequestered.
Our first outside but late.

Whenever the hospitals normalize
and the masks come off

it will be this squish
of sand, the sea wash,
that wagging finger of moonlight
tracking our solitary stroll…

If we are among the lucky
and why not? Or wherever
you may be, I know I’ll say
but still, there was that night

when we both were feeling better
that pinned it all.

92 & 89 – found poem

They sit in wheelchairs, holding hands,
discussing this new thing
they’ve done together, falling.
He’d bent to catch her fell himself
broke a femur, now nailed.

He says, Glad we built that ramp.
She says, Our handyman, he could be
our driver now?

They stare into the face they know better
than their own.

She says, Let me comb your hair.
He says, Ask him if he’ll drive.
Both with only briefly wetted eyes.

Vanishing Point – a poem

Buddy splashing in the creek behind our house turns up an arrowhead
stubby quartz chipped to fit a twig pierce a buck’s tawny hide.

There that maw in the hillside where some ancestor mined for gold.
Rusted wire in the woods where sheep grazed in the day.

I went home to say goodbye to my brother who lay dying
in our late parents’ bedroom couldn’t take it had to go outside
and poking around in the back field where we’d raised chickens once
kicked up a rotten bucket a corroded canister what’s this?

So here I am at ten this July day swatting shuttlecocks with him
taking turns churning the salt and ice packed peaches and cream
until our father dips a finger licks the custard spits disgusted.
The can had leaked. See him set himself to hurl the whole
kit and caboodle over the back fence. (Mama opens a bag of Oreos.)

Well, here the moment lay weed sewn and half buried in the red earth
even that hand crank that had chafed my knuckles on its side.

In Virginia sometimes to stretch our legs
we wander Civil War battlefields visualize for instance
how close the farm boys crouched facing off like carnival ducks
at Cold Harbor. Once in a while you’ll see an old man in earphones
divining the lawn with his wand in search of a minie ball a button
some more than storied proof of one episode on this or that ageless acre.

And the night Mama died.  She’d been in coma for weeks
at the nursing home in Fork Union built on the farm where she was born.
I left there in tears before dawn stopped short in the parking lot
by a herd of cows chewing cud among the cars
a film overlay made of now and then
as if they’d wandered up from childhood to low her on.

Buddy cocks his head to wonder why I linger in the ankle deep stream
with this little shard of quartz. He doesn’t care that we live
in a lap dissolve, flies in amber that is only sugar melting.

The point at which receding parallel lines
seen in linear perspective seem to meet.

An article on a new book of photography in this morning’s Washington Post sent me down this rabbit hole! Here’s the article.

Mementos – a poem

On the first anniversary of my friend, the poet and disability service worker, Sarah Knorr’s death, this emerged on my morning walk in the woods with our pup Buddy. Guessing you may concur.

We say “passed”
as if they’d tossed a football.

Some use “transitioned”
so you imagine a Star Trek
transporter beam.

It doesn’t help.

Lately it seems
not a month goes by. . .

until I hear myself tell the boys,
“You want a reliable career?
They’re called funeral directors now.”

I need to get out, get on with it.
Live on in their name, as we say.

But it does get lonely in here.

Like when you think of a joke
that only they’d get
and look around to finger
some trinket left behind.

Mt. Whitney Viewed from Bristlecone Pine Road – a poem

Out here in the desert
the summit just a snaggle-tooth
in a granite gumline.

Anyone, they say, can reach the peak of peaks
though the air is thin and the summer heat brutal.
Up there at night you can freeze to death.

But if you prepare, then dare, all it takes
is what made you a toddler, your one step
then another trudging resolution,
until you stand atop a sea of rock
and nothing anywhere higher.

Who wouldn’t want to do that?
But why, you ask?

Well, to go with friends and
reach the pinnacle of something
look around at the world at our feet
come down, look up, and nod

having tested for once the lie
that distance makes everything small.

Notes Toward a Poem about Fireflies

Woke from restless sleep at a north-facing window, the gibbous moon’s light bathing the curtain of woods at the edge of our yard in that monochrome relief I so love – daytime’s Technicolor bled to noir shadow – surprised by a constellation of fireflies flashing and flickering there like Christmas lights strung across the trees or the stars themselves shaken down. The surprise was not that there were fireflies out there, but that there were so many!

This past covid year we have lived at home, have dreamed of travel, have become so bored with the sameness of our rooms and routines.  Funny, how the night before our dream comes true, a vacation flight to California(!), this 3 am interlude shocks me awake to a delightful pageant — frankly worthy of Yosemite — occurring all summer every evening right in my proverbial (and actual) backyard! 

I sit up in my bed at the window, hugging a pillow, enraptured by a silent spectacle that blips streaks and fizzes at varying heights across the moonlit forest backdrop, my sleepy head imagining a flashlight ballet, though each of these winged insects winks not in synch but in competition with his mates, their twinkling display one of Nature’s finer than strictly necessary embellishments, certainly one of its most brilliant expressions of a yearning all living things – and that means me too – plead across our brief lives, a controlled ignition in their loins intermittent, briefly dazzling (dangerous too as it exposes the firefly to predators), the whole moonlit woods decorated with urgent flares that blink one appeal (supplication) at great expense across a summer night – fuck me, please!  Fuck me!  Fuck me please!  (Visual equivalent of the cicada hordes’ relentless droning symphony.)  If I am to leave any mark, if my line is to continue, please find me worthy:  Let me get a leg over, please!  We haven’t long!  On this moonlit summer night, perhaps our last, won’t you find me worthy, please?  

Fireflies or lightning bugs – what we called them as kids?  

Visiting Friends in the Mountains – a poem

Drove five hours out to see my friend Rondalyn at her creekside home in Morgantown this week, came home and went right back out the next day to do some woodworking with my friend Ken at his riverside retreat in Verona. Conflated the trips in this revery at the brink of retirement from my career at VCU:

On the cusp of summer
driving to see friends
out in the mountains:

The pencil thin road
traces a cleavage
of hills like a reclining
body’s contours, so you

roll down the window
reach out and tickle
the breeze with your fingers.

These are ages old ranges
comfy as sofas the plush
deciduous carpet running
right across their peaks.

Old friends, too.
I don’t need my GPS
to find them though
the highway climbs to
rutted trails along
serpentine streams.

They greet me
with hugs and dogs
the whole visit like
those fairy tales where
the wandering and lost

find a hermit and his
hermitage and a way
of living that invites
a raft of questions
about what you do
and why.

We sit in rockers out back
shoulders round
faces creased
sipping whiskey.

Our babble and the stream’s
worrying the puzzle
of worn rock at our feet
as twilight deepens.

Feed More Run: a poem

Feed More run along Route One
the old Jeff Davis now Richmond Highway
its street signs the only new things around.

Turn off to the neighborhoods behind.

A mix of old homes, some kept up with painted porches
an occasional larger place with a manicured lawn

but mostly the bedraggled salt boxes, the trailer parks,
the sagging window AC’s, the rusting chain link fences,
the wheelless cars on jacks, the rutted pavement.

My clients crack the door sucking oxygen from hoses
on a cane or a walker, make an effort to smile.

Or you open to a hoarder’s stash, old man reclined
on a hospital bed the blasting tv at his feet
next stop a woman likewise arranged, says,
close the door quick – don’t let out my cat!

Second richest county in the seventh richest state
in the wealthiest nation in the world. 

Pull off Hwy 1 into a trailer park older than you are
and you are not young.  People coping as they can. 

Homes decay into the red clay.
Cold hearts & kudzu conspire to blanket it all.

Announcing: Poems by Sarah Knorr

The last time I saw my friend Sarah Knorr was a month before covid shut everything down. We met at my favorite bakery Sub Rosa on Church Hill, sitting side by side on a bench along the wall, sipping tea and nibbling a cinnamon roll.  Through the bakery’s tall picture windows, we watched a horse-drawn funeral cortege round the traffic circle just outside, both of us smiling at this augury, the kind of correspondence poets live for. Sarah had recently stopped chemo.  She said her flaming red hair was beginning to sprout again, but as always in public she wore a wide straw hat, movie star sunglasses, and a Kate Hepburn scarf around her neck. She asked, as usual, about my writing.  She never mentioned, ever, her own.

This time last year we were all in covid lockdown, and Sarah lay dying in Verona, in the house my dear friend her husband Ken built atop a river bluff amidst trees alive with birdsong. He nursed her for months as her body failed, no visitors allowed because covid, then in mid-July she died, not of the virus but of the cancer she had danced with for so long (Sarah hated it when people used verbs like “battle” or “wrestle” or “fight” to describe the cancer experience. She corrected one friend with, “This is not a fight. It is a dance, and when the music stops I will sit down.”)

A few weeks later, Ken and Sarah’s estimable sisters Anne and Ginger invited me to look through three boxes of Sarah’s writings, and in those boxes I discovered pages and pages of poems, a few from as far back as high school, others written as recently as 2017, some published in literary journals. I’d known Sarah and Ken for twenty years, she had acted as a fierce and inspiring champion of my writing, and yet for reasons I don’t understand she never mentioned her own work. I knew her as a relentless advocate for people with disabilities, the person who could figure out funding, housing, or caregiving for the weakest among us, tirelessly untangling the state’s byzantine social safety net case by tedious case. Those were the things she talked about when she wasn’t praising some bit of writing I’d shared. Never her own writing ever.

As I sorted through her boxes, and the poems piled up on my desk, it quickly became clear what had to be done.  Sarah was not a hobbyist or Sunday poet. She was a hard-working, steady, and focused artist. Her poems are tightly wrought and physically acute. They typically strike flint-like on sharply drawn images of quotidian life, sparking evocative links to myth, symbol and mystery. They reward close reading and re-reading, both individually and in correspondence with each other. They deserve an audience.

So I decided to collect them. It took nearly a year of mostly weekend effort, since I was teaching covid-inflected courses at VCU, but over time a sequence of 80 poems came together. As you might imagine, there were varied versions of many of these poems. I made the best decisions I could about which might be the final versions, winnowing as I went along. Some of the poems had been published in literary journals, so they were easy to figure out. Others were crossed over with edits, so I did the best I could. In no case did I alter a word or even a comma. This book is Sarah’s.

In reading the collection you will see, as I did, that Sarah was an accomplished lyric poet. Her voice, her cadence, and her vision clearly and consistently speak from poem to poem. The best lyric poems, through some magic trick, make personal experience universal. Sarah’s achieve that high bar.

One way to measure originality in an artist is to clock their influences. Many of Sarah’s poems work as compact parables, drawing insight from nature, as Mary Oliver’s do. Some draw from her childhood ranging over the family farm on horseback, attentive to rural lessons as Wendell Berry’s do. That said, no one but Sarah could have composed these poems. Her intimate acquaintance with cancer (she suffered surgery and radiation in her 20s, and lived with the expectation of recurrence) taught her how tentative and precious life is. Yet the poems don’t mope; they praise each moment of lived existence with a fierce, terse insistence.

In closing, I’d like to thank Ken, Anne and Ginger for sharing Sarah’s work and letting me take a shot at collecting her poems. Thanks go to Sarah’s lifelong friend Adele Castillo, who found a painting (by the local artist Carol Baron) of Sarah’s spirit animal the heron for the cover. And to my visual artist son Stephen for cover design. One last thing, proceeds from sales of Sarah’s book will go to one of her many charities. I’m so glad to be able to share this collection with you all.  Here’s where you can get it, in paperback or e-version. Enjoy!