Late October
and the pitiless drift
begins in earnest. And all
that whispered in the pockets
of summer’s green uniform
is shaken out and dumped.

My mimosa knew, for wasn’t
that death fingering the leaves
all summer? Yet the tree
plumped its pods, spending
all July squeezing them out,
going about its business, as did
the slash pine and loblolly,
spraying pollen—coating
windows, cars, filling every
idle slit with sperm.

What does life mean
but itself? Ask the sea.
You’ll get a wet slap back-
handed across your mouth.
Ask the tiger. I dare you.

And your life, with its
tedium of suffering, what
does it mean but what it is?
And mine—balancing
checkbooks and whomping up
a mess of vittles as my son
used to say. My son, the funny one,
the always-hungry-for-supper-
I-was-never-able-to-give-him one.

Who am I to write the user’s manual
for a life, except to say,
Look at trees, dug in and defiant.
Be like the river. Stick out your tongue.

Why not? What’s to lose
when what’s to lose is everything?

Published in The Georgia Review


I like the word vex.
Not honey in the mouth
like barrette and gorgeousness
but raw edged. I like tonic too
and flunk, words easy to say
but hard to swallow. Burdock,
punk, mock, fang. Brave
words that begin by playing
about the lips and end
low in the throat, packing
a blade. A watch out!

I like words that can live
on their own. Unadorned.
Detached. Their own sentences.
Ah, but you will read this
as Rorschach, the poet
vexed and embracing it.
Better vexed than a sibilance
like silence which begins
at the front, makes a wee trip
down, then seized by what it sees
backs up like a flunky, slithering
through gritted teeth, and out
the way it came.

Published in New Letters


Not even a smother-mother
holds on to her children
tighter than do these trees,
buttoning each to each twiggy
finger so they’ll feel safe
flipping and flying about—
acrobats in a delirium of green.

I stand at my window
watching the May winds
have their way with these
rooted mothers giving in
to being bullied and tossed,
pantomiming the great
drama of grief and keening
to indulge their progeny, tender
with infancy, their first ride.

We live in a sea of air—
breath moving on the waters
animating all things. See how
the wind lifts the limbs
to reenact the ocean’s heave
and swell. How new leaves
flutter about the crowns
like giggles of foam, and all
is up and down, gallop and glide,
carousel horsie and whee.

Then my daughter calls.
My own long-stemmed Lilly—
grown from the heart’s bulb
and nurtured behind the briars
of vigilance—to say she’s found
a lump. What an ugly word
to take over this poem. To squat
on its one-syllable immensity
and not move.

Published in The Georgia Review

So much depends…
—William Carlos Williams

The night I picked my way
across the lava slicked by rain
in the moonless dark, all past
and future sliced away
like bread. Nothing existed
but the blade of my held breath
and the flashlight probing
the black and roiling rock
for a safe place to place
a sneaker down. One shoe
after the other, disembodied
from the feet they were tied to,
with orders to swing out, land,
grip, and pass me on.

Two hours it took to cross
that stretch of Stygian black,
having no thought but the need
to prevail, upright. Now I know
what it means to balance
a writer’s life. Each footfall,
each stopping point, a fulcrum
around which the body teeters
and sways: a high-wire act
demanding concentration—
the chattering mind delivered up
blank as cardboard with a pinhole,
dependent, in the pit-dark, upon one
thin thread of dazzle coming through.

Published in The Georgia Review


Imagine the missing sounds.
A salt lick without the scuffles.
Stolid maples without their
raspy spray of leaves, dense
to the height of them. A child’s
Then picture papyrus
or clay tablets or even this paper
blank, leaving not even a doodle
to be dug up, or a line, nor ring
of fieldstone to mark the quirks
and manner of the one who held
that instrument, quill or stylus.
Or pen. The fields plucked clean,
the parade grounds emptied,
all connections cut.
Why else
does one write, but to deliver up
the vacuum and fill it. Not
to fix or finish, for what was
is sealed off and done, but to
wheel it out again on its own
cobblestone streets. And given
one’s own slippery notions
of truth, to erect a stop sign
that says here:
Here is the table
where the child drank her milk
and figured her decimals. Here
the arch under which soldiers
came, their boots ringing the stones.
And here in the weeds behind
the mechanic’s shop, a child’s
nightgown, tossed aside like
an afterthought of no account, as if
deeds were porous, and the gag
and thrashing legs were only smoke.

Published in New Letters


An oscillating fan. That’s
how my Nellie walked.
A metronome on tiny feet—
hips sashaying side to side,
swinging in importance.

Now she sleeps in a chair,
unable to recall how she once
marched behind the fire truck
in the parade and danced
the two-step with flowers
in her hair. Her mind, a blowout
in a bowl. But given a nurse
with biceps and a bully streak
to hoist her up, glue her
to a walker and command, Walk—
you’d see it. Even if her feet
couldn’t move and she were reduced
to reflex under the cotton gown
tied in back, there—beneath the flesh
trembling to be off the bone at last—
that built-in hint of impudent wag.
Oh Lord, give us back this day
a little butter for our bread.
What shame to have such flaunt
gone from this world. The tap
tap of summer sandals,
the swinging counterpoint
of her arms, the lilting seesaw
of her hips. I swear, that woman’s
to-and-fro could hypnotize a watch.
My Aunt Nellie, soul of propriety,
queen of good causes, trailing
in her wake such endearing treason.

Published in The Georgia Review


I stood in my grandmother’s kitchen
watching my mother roll her mother’s hair.

She wanted a permanent.
The hair a white mist, nothing more.

The rollers, pink. Her scalp
pink too, but different. I was

twelve. I thought no one could be
so old and trembly. And pink.

I thought a lot when I was twelve—
I thought nobody thought the way

I thought, to be so old and still want.
What could be left for her to want?

Her face a crosshatch of lines.
The head, the hands. The terrible shaking.

Little ghost, if you could speak, you
whose eyes look at me now—tell me

my charge. You are sixty-two years gone,
surely nothing but splinters left.

What do you order me to write
other than what I know? That nothing

is as cruel or sweeter than the shortness
of our days. That flesh clings,

refusing to be destroyed even as it is.
That, yes, there were three of us,

and after, to celebrate your curls,
we had tea in the yellow cups,

and the best Russian coffee cake
in the world—your favorite—

with eddies of walnuts and cinnamon
roiling through, dark. Like a river.

Published in Cortland Review


You can always tell the Greek
from the Roman copy, the same
way the lover knows the lover
in a crowded room and how
not to get in the way
or fill the space between
with finger food or chat. To just
let it come—head on and straight—
the real thing.
I was nineteen,
New York, and he wasn’t even
Greek but second-generation
Polish with a wife on vacation.
(How tacky can you get?)
But if he wasn’t the real thing,
he was as close as I ever got—
love’s seal and stamp, my first
journal entry, my preview
of coming attractions, my
press your head to the X
on the wall—desire.
I still see him walking away
down Eighth Street in the day’s
last lingering light. Golden he was.
Even the sun was stuck on him.

All these years, persistent
as a jailhouse dream, he’s been
with me—my favorite CD played
on long car trips, or in the tube
of an MRI when the only itch
you’re allowed to scratch
is a bite of memory. And when
I finally decided to push delete,
for after all, enough is enough,
I couldn’t. So burned in he was—
his left wrist bone, his arm’s sun-
kissed treasury of fine gold hairs.

Published in Cortland Review


She came to read her poems—
those straight-talk towers
of brick and mortar—and to speak
of the cracked earth and seething
rock beneath them. Each poem,
a requiem for the rubble she stood in:
the twentieth century that cast her
and cost her. A serious woman
who spent her life spending every
thing she had.
Outside the room,
winter maples organized themselves
against the sky, and sparrows
pecked at what they could find
as they had always done. And we,
of the chicken salad and buttered roll,
folded our linen napkins, laid
down our silver, and hushed—
waiting for gold.
But as soon as
she mounted the stage and leaned
to the microphone, we leaned back
and away in our chairs. You could
barely discern it, but yes, back away
is what we did, for in her voice
and in the match strike of her eyes,
she flared fire, and I saw again
the ghost of the old refinery, the one
off Township Line Road, its towers
lighting the night sky, each burning off
in one pure flame the impurities we were.
You see, she spoke true. She spoke witness.
And we knew it.

Published in The Southern Review

for R.

Letter left in a pocket, strange
earring in a glove compartment—
such simple things—and the world
implodes. Wife rattling around
a house that used to be home,
child staring at her plate, picking
through her peas. The lover lost
without love’s current that had
like a river carried him so long:
the sweet rush he’d lived in—
tent in the woods, motels in
how many towns. And, of course,
the unnamed, the dear someone
somewhere sitting by a phone,
daring it to ring. Do not think
I am a stranger to this story:
the promises, the required apologies,
the ritual baring of the jugular.

Oh friend, be warned. The heart
may not stay in storage long,
riding an iron track, obedient
as a shooting-gallery duck.
A heart wants to be used, fed,
nourished on nuzzle and whim,
practicing the skills it’s learned
of whisper and cunning. It needs
to believe that on any ordinary night
before the pitiful throbbing stops
and the body—that new amazing toy—
is laid out and displayed like a plastic
floral arrangement, a rocket
will slip in low under the radar,
roaring and flashing lights: the stars’
own emissary. And why, but to test
the line of Do Not Cross, the line
of unprofitable, for the heart is not
mollified by notions of safety nor apt
to thrive on a diet of crackers and milk.
It wants what it wants: what’s behind
the door, knowing full well the key
swings on a rope hanging from one’s
own neck. That’s the place, isn’t it?
Such sweet skin, there in the neck’s
hollow where she’d lay her mouth,
cupping the pulse as if to drink
and hold inside her all that ecstasy,
that mad hammering before it dies away.

Published in The Georgia Review and on Poetry Daily

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