AT THE LAKE
At the lake,
we are small and skinny and pink.
We ignore our mothers all afternoon
and secretly wait for our fathers to arrive.
Swimming is a struggle
not to touch bottom,
not to brush against the hairy underside of the dock,
not to drift over the shadow of the dock,
not to appear frightened.
We fish for perch with bacon
and a bamboo pole with a clackety reel.
It is a skill to avoid the hook, bravery to touch the fish,
which we only do because our sisters – girls –
won’t even touch the graying meat.
The shallow pond in the back simmers
and smells worse than ever, we swear,
but leaves the tadpoles languid for the taking.
We catch them with scoops and put them in yellow buckets,
with silt and greasy green weed.
We have plans for them.
The diving board wobbles over a darkness
that we don’t even dare each other into.
The diving tower, with the metal ladder sixty feet to the top,
then the pennant,
is simply inconceivable all day,
like a monument on a green,
until Uncle Jarvie arrives,
a dignitary endorsing a small event.
He waves before he climbs
in his penny loafers with the curled toes
and his trunks taut over his belly,
like the bathing cap over his head.
At the top, the earplugs insert and the loafers arch
in heel-over-toe tosses to the lawn.
Bits of tissue test the wind and drop without it.
Our eyes follow the upward swoop of arms
and the swanning arc,
as we forget the need to pee,
and he describes what will later be geometry,
intersecting the water.
We compete to count the ripples with our fingers
until he surfaces with his moustache,
then emerges, slickened, and strides away
to his scotch, waving,
as our lips blue and our fingers prune
and the gravel driveway crunches
with arriving fathers in ties and shined shoes.
PENNIES ON THE RAIL
At dusk, I filled my pocket with pennies
and walked north out of my neighborhood,
slipping past cavernous Victorians haunted by low-renters
and over dirt lots where my grandmother
once flew her kite in the grass.
I skirted east along the main avenue,
where every third house slowly
sloughed its history onto the yard.
Men carpooled into driveways
past the litter of roof tiles and shingles.
I met a friend on the way,
and we snuck to the river bank
to single file down the tow path tightrope.
The water, palsied by the dam, smelled of metal.
The mill, just emptied of clockpunchers,
tilted at our backs.
At dusk, my father left his factory in his Chevy
and drove past the pasts he had inherited
as a son of the town,
his route home a downward spiral of byways
lined with flaking husks of foundries.
Nail salons and mini-marts obscured what was gone,
were palimpsests in neon.
At the footbridge, we felt late and ran
until we reached the chain link fence
that kept us from the rail bed,
the same fence that was not there
in my great uncle’s stories of hobos
freely coming and going from tracks to river
to beg at the back doors of the grand houses
that lined the banks
and of how they were received by the rich.
We slunk like weasels under the fence
and up onto the blanket and ballast shoulder
to line our pennies on the rail,
split seconds, it seemed, before the 5:15 from Boston
rumbled past and flattened them into ovals and oblongs,
good luck pieces.
In our palms, they burned and cooled and shined
with only the faintest trace of their original design.
Back at home, my father,
newly arrived with his own flattened sense,
fingered my treasure
and told me that when he was my age
he gave all of his copper
to the war effort.
BEESWAXING THE CRIB
I will beeswax the spindle crib
and have a tiny new boxspring made
and a tiny new mattress.
I will use a soft cloth
and spread the wax evenly.
I will think of my grandmother, aged 17 in 1922,
unclouded by having no child, no beau,
staring in the window
of a Martha’s Vineyard antique shop,
looking at this crib,
thinking of my mother thinking of me thinking of you.
When I’m done,
I will put the perfect fitted sheet on
and, bending over,
will think of you there,
curled like a comma, or a question mark.
I will look at you and make reconsiderations.
I will leave one small section unwaxed
so that I can do this again even after you are born,
this looking forward.
APOGEE TO PERIGEE
For Thaddeus and Carrie
You two: here is an ancient lovers’ rite – lie
on a rooftop, in a meadow or on the beach,
with the earth relinquished below you. Each
trace your love in the night sky.
With your fingers, race to the polestar.
Plunge into a nova or quasar.
Catch and release a comet.
Look into each other, and name it.
Hand in hand,
calculate the odds of your union.
Rejoice in the sheerness of its unlikelihood
by dancing dances dancers dance,
reeling in perfect ovals, like moon and planet,
in retreat and advance
from apogee to perigee.
Go to the bedroom.
In the morning,
descend the stairs.
Pass the mail on the floor.
Ignore the dishes in the sink.
Avoid the headline’s warning
and your faces in the mirror there.
Do not think; try not to blink.
Open a door.
Enter a room.
Run your palm across a dusty surface.
Look at it together.
See the final incarnation of ghosted meteors,
the spin-off of nebulae,
the atomized splendor of planet creation.
Then behold the dust floating
in a cylinder of sunlight:
celestial bodies in diorama,
spiraling in a system.
Watch it settle,
making neither sound nor difference
Boil the kettle.
A PERFECT SHAPE
Some French thinker wrote that
the egg and the Coca-Cola bottle
are the most perfect designs
because they combine the strong and the brittle
in individual lines that have a certain inevitability,
a collective, almost molecular, intent
to describe completeness.
I saw such a design in my child
when she formed the shape of compassion
for a schoolmate with a terminal illness
when both were too young to grasp it.
She sensed only the grasping,
the abstracted, slow motion freefall,
and drew the lines to contain it.
She helped him form words
with his lips and pencil
when he fell behind forever.
She stood next to him in chorus
to thicken his tinning voice.
She let him win races sometimes,
praised paintings that looked like accidents.
She told him he was normal
and held him to account
when he broke schoolyard codes,
just like everybody else.
You’re only as special as I am,
so just be like me
was the unwhispered password.
And she never told us.
We heard it from the sick boy,
who manifested the design
and completed the shape with his telling.
Strong and brittle inverted.
She collapsed into tears
under the dead weight of his happy account.
Michelin and National Geographic
kept the painted caves at a distance,
colored, selective, and epitaphic
to our minds only, faint remembrance.
But when our eyes adjusted in the damp
of those dark galleries underground,
perspective flickered from a tallow lamp,
and there we felt connected and found,
unexpectedly, maybe for the first time,
in a sketched and tinted room,
where matter suffused with the sublime
then calcified in a carved continuum
of animals and signs migrating through
the millennia losing meaning,
retaining Beauty, preserving the hue
of a truth far too deep for gleaning.
What great impulse summoned their skill,
their visions, longings, fears and beliefs,
pushed them into the darkness to fulfill
this urge to create eternal motifs?
DRIFTING THE BAY
Past the summer’s end, I drift the bay
away from the changing waters and the day
that plunge and cool below in the season’s flow.
The imperative is chronic, true and slow.
Delicate aster blossoms and salt marsh hay
bend in the ebb, and tentacled flowers sway
to paralyze their drifting and pendent prey.
Quahogs bed, eels ribbon towards the Sargasso
past the summer’s end.
Scallops propulsing up the river array
acres of intent. I just float to display
my assent, while the jellyfish flamenco
and fencing blue crabs feint, jab, and know to go.
Distant fathoms pull, but I resign to stay
past the summer’s end.
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