For Sydney Lea
This is my bonfire lit for you on this longest night of the year.
It burns in the dark like those poems of yours, where winter’s
a dying stove, a page of cold you’re snowshoeing across,
where it’s always so far below zero, but you still want to stay
in the cold Here of now to evade the colder moment to come.
Your poems remind me of when I, too, lived out of town
in an old farmhouse. They’re all drafty, those houses,
drafty as I am full of the long wind of my stories––
but I’m getting away from the gist of this poem,
which concerns the porcupine I shot out of a pine tree
one winter solstice afternoon thinking it was a bear,
then left behind, because, after all, it was a porcupine.
That night, my folksy hunter-housemate, a cook by trade,
told me I should have brought it home and went on and on
about the porcupine stew we’d make. . . . So, fortified with rum,
I snowshoed out those two moonlit miles: past the fox’s den,
smelling of skunk, on past the hemlocks creaking in the cold,
and the wild apples with one or two fruit still hanging brown
on the bough until I saw its body at the bottom of the pine:
all stiff in the white gleam and curled black into that frozen ball
of bristle and quills it had become. Still, I grabbed its tail
in my gloved hand just as the moon slid behind some clouds,
and I trudged back down the darkened woods road, snow
now my only light, the sound of my rackets whispering
a little heavier in the cold powder. All the way back
to more rum and the drafty warmth of an old farmhouse.
I think of you, Syd, as I dress this story on a slab,
as I finally confess we never made the stew
and my regret for killing this fellow creature.
And then I think of the stew of old age you and I
have both sunk into, all ghost-white like lumps
of potatoes, a stew that no porcupine can prick us
out of––that sad beast with its thousand quills
I should’ve at least tried to use for poems dipping
them into the inkwells puddling beneath the pines,
where the moon like a bright and final angel
can’t reach either of us on this longest night.
For Farideh Hassanzadeh
I try to grasp what it’s like
to live where war is your neighbor,
the bomb next door.
You wait for its knock
to borrow your last cup of sugar.
Instead, it takes your house
and the child once within you.
I try to trace the etymology of that sound,
where the shrapnel of its consonants
unwrap from around the uncontainable
nucleus of its one deadly syllable.
In the end, there is no word for it,
no word small enough to fit
inside the human mouth.
I came home from work. In the hall, dim
with a flawless optimism such light lends,
I turned and looked in the mirror
with its umbrella stand below.
What was different about me?
How had I changed? My patients
told me they loved me. My presence
was calming. I was their antidote.
Before, I was neither loved nor hated.
I was just the person I was: incurable
in the evening, the fool at the bar,
the next morning, the young man
cashing his check at the bank
making small talk with the cashier
while lustful thoughts lurked
behind his blood-shot eyes. In those days
I didn’t work at the hospital, I just lived.
Each day must have been the same, although
each must have differed from the day before
by being in fact the day after.
I looked at my face, my eyes looked back
unchanged but with a certain kindness
that a configuration of muscles had
molded into the lines of my face.
My hair was graying at the temples.
I had spent my whole life turning
away from remembrance––away from all
the mirrors offering their umbrellas
to guard against the inclemency
of the outside world. My life seemed
until this moment an unfilled blank,
a narrative that needed to be found.
Each time I visit, the front door
becomes the back, the living room
has rearranged itself: a picture window
appears where once a landscape was.
Upstairs, in the bedroom, the bed,
its soft covers still drifting like clouds,
has grown bigger––or smaller––
according to a stranger’s heart.
The pets, too, have changed,
a dog now meows against my leg,
and the cat wags its tail and begs
on hind paws for a treat.
She is the only constant,
hair still frizzy, hips thrust out,
and a waist still as slim
as the dancer she once was.
She smiles, and a constellation
of freckles stars her face. Outside,
the sun begins its nightly hide and seek.
Home is where the heart is––that red,
throbbing, little ball we carry inside.