One Day in the Summer – a poem

Huckleberry Hound was a lazy pup
but rounded the corner with raving eyes
lathered and frantic, like he was pursued.

Said, “Mama, he went up under the house.”

“Go get him,” she said. Had to then I guess.

Hound-sized chink in the brick foundation
but if I reached one arm in tucked my head
could squirm through follow him into the dark.

She handed me a flashlight, said “Go on.”

This was something I’d never considered
the underbelly of the house its guts

squared onto a powdery dirt that for
all the age of the structure had not seen
the light of day. Dank dry dust and cobwebs
creepy and cool is why he’d gone in there.

It took a while but that had to be Huck
against the cool concrete wall of the porch.
Paired red dots way back there his trembling eyes
or was that just what my eyes were doing?

“Go on now,” she said. Well, alright then, ma’am.
On my belly toes dug in had to keep
from bumping my head on the kitchen pipes
then past them like diving under water.

Heard him whimper or again it was me
but closer now squeezing midway under
the dining room far up in there was a
private place like nowhere I’d ever been.

Hi ol’ Huck.

Eye to eye it was bad how he panted
neck strained teeth bared in a grin that scared me.
Way back in the day Mama said, “Get him.”
But this was my call. I said, “Hush, Mama.”
She didn’t like that. “Don’t you hush me boy.”

Who knows how long it took? Flicked off the light
dropped my head on my arms. I knew one tune
and sang it. Maybe you know the song, too?

Jesus loves the little children
All the children of the world
Red and yellow black and white
They are precious in his sight
Jesus loves the little children
of the world.

I did that a while like a lullaby.
Then this moan shut me up a whole ‘nother
song that right now scribbling can hear it plain.

A lot of time in there to contemplate
the dirt to consider the ticking dark
nose pressed in things I hadn’t thought about.

When I dared to switch on the light again
Huck was different, ribs still, legs stretched out
like he was running someplace, eyes bugged tongue
lolled out and dry. So then what’s the hurry?
In that weird space I sang to him some more.

A slow drag then feet first for both of us
snot slimed to mud on my cheeks shirt rode up
and the rub of the dirt at my belly
press of the house like the flat of a hand
freaked out beneath the dangling kitchen pipes
desperate old drowning man flailing for air
little kid squirming dragging his dead dog.

At the hole, worked my legs out first, but then
got stuck halfway and yelled. Mama had gone
back inside. She had work to do no time
for my triflin’. That was a lesson too.
Sharp brick drew a long red scratch up my back
but wiggled out one fist around a paw
to finally drag him into the light.

Huck was heavy and stiff like all dead things
and dirt had kicked up in his startled eyes.
I said, “I’m sorry” and tried to wipe them
my thumb on an eyeball hard as marble.
Oh man, how I hated that scary hole.

Mama came out laid a rag on his back
and spread it to almost cover his legs.
Said “Huckleberry was a good old pup.”
Said, “Prob’ly old man Perkins and all his
durn chickens,” whatever she meant by that.

When Daddy got home my dog disappeared.
He mortared up the crawl space too but missed
the new one as fathers do opened up
in me where Huck and I to this day lie
flat in the dark far in and away right
up against the hard fact and singing
alone to each other as best we can.


She Said, He Not So Much – a poem

My father hardly spoke.

My mother never quit.

I’ve grown up with this yoke

all because of it.

You want to say it all

like your mama did

but then you get the call

to keep it all hid.

The trick is in the way

you sit the nest

of what you have to say

to say it best,

or if not best than better

than whatever comes to mind,

you try to say what matters

and leave the rest behind.

So thank you Mom and Dad

for the Spratt-like thing you did

in the way you got it said

all the days that you were wed.

Put one and one together

and this is what you get;

it’s just I don’t know whether

or what to make of it.

How to Carry Someone Who is Unconscious – a poem

Why would you want to do that?

Is he lying in the street or halfway in a door?

Do you hear gunshots?  Do you see blood?

Can you detect a breath

tickle the fine hairs of your ear?

Did you see him fall?  Are the two of you alone?

Don’t take forever with it – think!

It’s okay to drag him, if he’s big and you can.

But here’s how:

Roll her over on her back

then reach in at her head and push her up

to sitting.  Take your time with this, don’t hurt yourself,

don’t pull her arms, don’t tug, remember your back.

Maybe you end up on your knees

so your whole front is like a seat back

for this insensate person.  I mean,

you have to understand, this is an intimate maneuver.

But you’re only just beginning, so.

Slide your arms under his and clasp your wrists at his chest.

Make your arms a belt around him, like a big old bear hug.

Then if you can do this, here’s a place where you need to be sure,

get up on one knee, then you and this person

you are hugging tighter than you can believe

use your legs not your back your bodies really sandwiched

you both yes that’s right come to a stand.

This is no joke.

Because now you’re committed. 

Now you could both go down.

It’s like a dance, a kind of shuffle

where you squeeze her even tighter

while you shift your position

sidle around to her side somehow

you really have to practice

and her sleeping arm you need to duck under

so it’s hanging out there zombie-like across your shoulder

but what you’re going for is to block her knees with yours

shove them up straight and locked

so for the first time you see how tall she is

in this high and doddering precarious place

where you’ve arranged yourselves.

But that’s not even all.  Are you ready?  Get ready.

Because now comes the switch.  No, seriously,

this is how you do it.

It’s the weak link in the procedure.

You have to quit the bear hug

while you ease around to his front

and grab his floppy wrists

(it helps to lean forward and crouch

so he sort of drapes across your back)

and then here we go, alright, this is it.

Get in right under her armpits

pull her arms over your shoulders like a shawl,

bend those knees, stick out your butt

(her head may loll or knock onto yours)

and take a tentative step.  You’ve got him.

You can shuffle off to what you hope is safety,

to help, to some kind of better place. 

Maybe his legs are long and drag behind,

toes drawing lines from there to here

if you’re in sand.  People may see you

and not know what to think.

But let me say this.  There is a rule

that we all follow and will hold you to.

Oh yes we will.  If she is unconscious and you touch her.

If you dare to move her sleeping form.

Until you get her the help she needs and can

do this whole thing we just rehearsed

entirely in reverse,

until that moment when you step back,

unkink your knees and spine,

wipe at your shirt and bend gasping at her side

until then — because you touched her —

you own what happens.  You are the responsible

party.  The Good Samaritan. 

In ways you must decide to bear

that is your burden too.

So this.  It helps to be ready, to have a clue.

It’s not for everybody.  I get that.

There are these risks involved

if you dare to cross that line, if

you stop and bend to touch.

You would hope if it was you.  But

I’m not here to judge.  Which is

why we practice.  So here.

A little rude but I call it

try before you buy. 

Blackberry Missive – a poem

July in Virginia

our father skips lunch

to stride the dry pasture

in work brogues

to that thicket

where blackberries

sprout like purple

polkadots and

wades into the briars

and bees until

sweated out

with knuckles

and forearms bleeding

he’s filled two gallon

buckets.  Why? 

Because we love cobbler.

One of the things

the war took out of Daddy

you’d have to guess

was trust in saying much.

So what if he never

told me that thing,

I mean, what’s the worth

in words when you

can taste it like that?

Prodigal’s Return: A Poem

The little pond

back in the woods

was my Walden

before I’d ever

heard of Thoreau.

I’d wander there

to skip a rock

sit ponder

let its shimmer me.

Back home now

things are rotten. 

The old feed store

the depot the cannery

even the yellow

caboose Old Man White

pulled off the track

its roof agape

to the sky.

Leaving daffodils

for Mama and Grandma

walked the cemetery

where all my old Sunday

School teachers lie

beside my brother

my childhood best friend

Steve, Daddy, Uncle Jack

and the rest.

The tombstones

like books on a shelf

each one a story only

those still walking

can tell. Each a volume

of local lore in a

graveyard collection

gone to seed.

I left there in tears

then found myself

walking the overgrown

path that once was the

railroad bed

back down to what

I hoped was still

my pond.

Jumped a fence

fought through

brush to a clearing

where it lay

exactly as always

chatoyant

in its ragged collar

of pines.

A tree down

in a circle of sawdust

chips very recently

gnawed by beavers

And the dam

look how the creek

had worked its way

around

begun to empty out

until the beavers came

in the pond’s abandonment

to make the necessary

repairs,

their lodge a patch

that saved it all.

So I sat again

for as long as it took

for all my tears to dry

left with a rock

in my pocket

and a lesson I think

that some things can last

yet to plug home

and hearth into water

requires a beaver’s

attention

the hard work of

teeth and heart

and yes you pick

your battles

but now’s the time

to start.

Going Back to New Orleans

In April, will be returning to New Orleans after some years away, attending an occupational therapy conference downtown.  And will land aswirl in memories from those sowing wild oats years immediately after college, when I rented a Magazine Street apartment without window screens or furniture, bought a used mattress, card table and lawn chair, and sat on a sagging back porch with my Smith-Corona, struggling mightily with this frivolous puzzle, how to write a poem.  The previous summer, I’d spent at home in Fork Union, VA, working a failing farm with my father.  That time, too, glows in memory.  Here’s one of the first things I’d call a poem written on that Uptown porch:

A FISH STORY

I like a life

that grasps life,

one tipped a bit

to the instinctive

side,

that will dare the

touch of an

                     other.

I like Daddy

cornering a catfish

         pausing

still as a stump

arm-diving

         scooping the

                     yard of

                                 fish

from the pool

                                                        a raving

                                                                     urgent

muscle

and tossing again to cool freedom in the slipping

     water.

I like the background

the one that threw him

in four feet of water

     four feet long

                                 heels up

                    on a fish’s back

and all the brothers

laughing –

Like I say

the balance

slightly

            tipped.

River Shadows – a poem

This poem was recently anthologized in an Emerging Poets volume; came to me after a day of hanging out by a mountain river up past Floyd with my friend David Clark.

Have you seen

the somber

loom of winter

trees lay stripes

on clear water —

maybe a trout

stream

after snow?

 

The penciled

line jagged

along the

rocky bed

overdrawn

by a skittering

rippled lid

 

like time

what flows

like hurt

what won’t

 

a day underway

a smudge beneath

that will not

budge or sway

 

the current ignites

and scatters

the shadows

lay down the law

 

or is it two truths

that interplay

you go you stay

stubborn rule

that cannot hold

the flow at bay?

3:30 am

Ginny’s gone, but here’s a pome from before all that, in commiseration with all my Facebook friends who post in the middle of the night.

3:30 am

the witching hour

right?

 

Get up to pee

take my thyroid pill

 

tuck myself back in

with three pillows

 

Chris and our dog Ginny

snuffling and puffing

 

in their dreams. All is right

in this best of all possible worlds.

 

Maybe you know what comes next:

You’re out there like me

 

in your warm bed but the swarm

arises in your head and

 

all the tricks you try only

stir the frenzied buzz.

 

Who batted the hive

between your ears?

 

Regrets are the worst:

How could I have done that?

 

What was I thinking?

OMG, what an ass.

 

So then at 4:30 am

maybe you get up again

 

go to the window

where a full moon throws

 

tree-wide stripes

across the lawn and an owl

 

swoops past like some

cowled and fretful wraith.

 

Go downstairs

pick up a book

 

a diversion in hopes

the hornets will gentle

 

which they sort of do. But now

it’s dawn. Chris is up

 

and in the shower, coffee’s on,

Ginny stretches and yawns

 

and finds you lifting a heavy head

to the new day with gratitude

 

for sunlight, for imposition,

for all the honeyed routines that keep

 

things humming. The hours

unwind with things to do with

 

effort this time to do better

maybe learn from past mistakes

 

then fall to your pillows

and let it all flee

 

until at 3:30 am

you get up to pee.

Walking the Dog

A week ago our beloved 7-year old golden retriever Ginny seemed in perfect health.  Today our vet confirmed that the lumps we found at her throat midweek are from canine lymphoma.  She may not live out the Summer.  Our shock and heartbreak may seem silly to you, unless your life has been enriched and in some ways saved by a dog, as ours have.  A couple weeks ago, before all this went down, I wrote a poem for Ginny that seems sadly prescient now, though the “best of all possible futures” cited there will not happen for her.  I’m sharing it here for what it’s worth.  It’s called “Walking the Dog”.

Ginny

our gentle golden

and I walk off-leash

in the band of woods

along a knoll

by the grade school

our boys attended:

thus Crestwood.

 

We drove over.

She sat upright

on a towel on

Stephen’s seat

in the mini-van,

nose divining rod

dipping out

the window.

 

Eager, probably

wishing I’d drive faster,

if gentle goldens even

think like that — just

to race for squirrels

beneath that copse

of oaks then chase

a tennis ball and

bring it sopping

back to me!

 

Ginny squats just inside

the tree line, beside not on

the trail, then bounds ahead

tail high and wagging:

Who knows what our walk

may bring? A squirrel, a deer,

once tortoises mating, his

chest plate flat and scraping

her helmeted back,

reptilian hands squirming

for purchase and she

seeming to smile patiently

allowing the one thrusting

intrusion her armor

would ever allow.  We

animals — how alien

to each other yet how

in our yearning alike!

 

Or that other time

Ginny came bolting back

tail between her legs

because behind her loped

at twenty paces

in no special hurry

a coyote bony

as the wily cartoon

in chilling pursuit

her cousin – what all dogs

would be, I guess,

without us.

 

Most days it’s just

a trudge I hardly register.

She romps ahead then

waits on her haunches

my guide and example

wondering why he can’t seem

to forget himself for one minute.

I mean, how much better to

nose about, to sniff the riches,

all the variants from yesterday’s

adventure, oh here, see this

dead branch has fallen!

 

Begrudge an hour after work.

Let the girl off leash to run,

let me off keyboard to stroll,

and stretch our legs.

Big deal.

 

Exactly. Because

in the best of all possible

futures – we have just

4 or 5 short human years

before this will be too much

for her. Her fluffy coat

thinned, her muzzle grizzled

and yes how I will cry

that day we lay

her ashes here.

 

Because then you know

all these mundane walks

that mean nothing

but catching the air

will rise past goals and

objectives and balanced

books to strike me

hard across the face.

 

While all I fret over, my

schemes and worry my

grudges and drudgery

add up to less

than that cobweb

brushing my cheek back

when Ginny’s tongue lolled

so giddily on her frolic

ahead on a woodsy

lane and oh too late

I hear it now the world

at my knee said, woof.