|Oct/Nov 2003 • Poetry
—to Jean, one year dead
For some time, though, he struggled for more to hold on to. "Are you sure you have told me everything you know about his death?" he asked. I said, "Everything." "It's not much, is it?" "No," I replied, "but you can love completely without complete understanding."
—Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It
A year since I drove the thousand miles
it took to face your death. You were dust
before I got there, little different
from grit in the interstate wind,
ashpits smoking in backyards, rest stop tiles
smeared with grease and cracker crumbs.
You were ashes in a box, pills in the trash.
The trance of wheel-hum turned
and turned me away from that day,
away from the moonclear night
with its starry jazz, the glow
of emptied parking lots in Akron
and Youngstown. Turned me again
through thirty years of glimpse
and shrug, angers out of nowhere,
laughter equally so—yet brought me
no closer to you for all
the circus-swirl in my head.
Radio static resolved, near Harrisburg,
to a melody you loved—ice
on my tongue, fire in the blood.
I always thought there would be time
for one more pot simmering
on the stove, one more midnight
cracked open like a beer. Your
last words: "I'll call you right back."
A year now. Why should this May
astonish more or less than your last?
The trillium's up, lilacs and apple blossoms
fading fast, goldfinches stitching
the air tight. We knew summer
would come, then fall's brisk business,
winter with its bleached light,
now spring again in its watery glints,
its bluejay blare trumpeting summer.
We always knew the great mud-
and jewel-encrusted wheel
would roll us away from you, by day,
by season, by year—knew it well
before your bones consumed themselves
and your soul lapsed into morphine coma,
vegetal breath. We couldn't know
the strangeness of the turning.
The odd blessing of meals with
the gathered clan: you would have
savored that kitchen clamor, delicious
choice of side dish and placemat, reels
or ragas to throb in the background.
Heavy mugs lifted in storied air—you
would have giggled at the surge and lilt
of accents, your Dublin brother-in-law
all dickied up like the dog's dinner, a cousin
mad for Cheetohs. You would have flit
from kitchen to porch with a fresh bowl
of dip, and said very little.
Well, you're silent now. But no more so
this year than some others I could name.
Ah, we'll never finish the six-year quarrel
your cancer interrupted without resolving.
That mystery burned with your bones.
Even unto death you preferred
your chatter practical, chemo cocktails
CAT scans and bloodwork, all the apparatus
of hope, forgive me, without its soul.
I know if you could hear these words
you would swirl away like a scatter
of petals in the wind. How little
your death has changed that. Did the wheel
turn less heavily for you at that
still point? Would you cry to see
your sister cry, slipping on your coat
now washed clean of your scent?
Nothing's ever over.
Today the crows in cemetery treetops
harangue the mowers below, readying
the plots for Memorial Day. Yesterday
workmen hosed poison over the too-lush grass,
and all the dandelions wilted and withered.
I know the turning facts all too well—
gravestones will weather smooth in time,
will crack and crumble to dust, but the weeds
turn up each year brighter than flame.
Ode To Baraboo, Wisconsin
—The "54th Best Small Town in the Nation"
You have to love a town for a brag
so elastic and middle-aged.
You could live 53 lifetimes
in a better place than Baraboo,
as even Baraboo has to admit,
and if you're looking for fine food
or a decent bookstore, if you hanker
to dwell in celestial single digits,
well, you'll need to rise
considerably higher on the list.
And if you seek a place
that is not satellite to some other,
maybe you'll settle in Chicago,
the second or third best metropolis,
or possibly Cleveland, the sixth most
misunderstood. Or head straight
to Pittsburgh, the single most likely
to feature in cop movie chase scenes
in need of big abandoned factories...
Plenty of other small towns, lost
in the triple digits, advance their own
decent claims: my Johnstown,
New York, remains the former
glove capital of the world, main
contributor to the tenth most
polluted creek, and forever
most apt to provoke visitors
into saying "Isn't this where
they had the big flood?"
But Baraboo is sticking to its guns,
and you have to admire their faith
stretched so thinly down to the dozens,
reaching for that statistical heaven
where all places excel. You have to love
a place that knows its limitations
without giving an inch
to the competition—wily Auburn,
Massachusetts at number 55,
or ambitious Christiansburg, Virginia,
temporarily stalled at 56
because some high school kids
just TP'd the Baptist church—but still
a great town, they're not afraid to tell you,
wonderful place to raise children...
I'm not one to judge, of course,
being merely the ten-thousand-eleventh
best poet in the universe, but
apparently I'm the very first
to happen upon Baraboo, Wisconsin's
shining truth. Imagine—to be not merely
the circus capital of the land, not simply
home to the International Crane Foundation
—but one very good place for birds,
clowns, and poets to gather up
and count their dozens of blessings.