Unfinished

On Tuesday evening I visited Amber,
who was staying with her mother while her husband was out of town,
visiting his own mother, ostensibly.
Amber’s big cat was still alive,
living in the basement and in three rooms on the first floor,
and was happy to see me, as I him;
he stood on his hind legs and wrapped his arms around my neck and shoulders
and rested his chin fully on top of my head.
I patted his ribs and tugged on the loose skin swinging from his belly.
He was still heavy, but not as heavy as I remembered him;
his breath was raspy, too, like my own —
his from age and mine from illness.

This was the house in which I kept my secrets.
Many of them were stored in mildewing boxes on plank shelves in the basement,
beneath the cantilevered tree trunks that I installed for the big cat so many years ago.
Atop the trunks, scraped by claws of bark,
that extended from the walls, slept the cat, when he slept,
his tail keeping time, thumping cardboard, when it kept time,
in the damp, in the dark.

I left the women in the kitchen, where they hunted for baking sheets,
passed through the un-papered nursery, paste flaking from sheet-rock,
the crib still under a dust-cover,
sideways through the weft, as it was called,
as it was named when we were ten —
the pass-through between the pipe closet and pantry —
one hand around a rope, knotted nine times,
and one hand around big cat’s tail, knotted once,
to the hatch and steps grown soft like rubber,
once more, and forever, forgiving my steps, his,
and the rope ending, the asbestos-covered ducting beginning,
with fingertips following its rough surface to the dirt bottom,
where coughing begins, where what was once lain under foot in rotten wood,
lies now in my chest — what seeped from blown glass bottles
with crackled stoppers.

Root-rived wall to the cannery stall, feeling for the rotary switch,
the cat already lying in what missing light escapes through the kitchen chinks, tail ticking.

The Book Burner, the Sleeper and the Stalking Womb

Between storms in a wooden chair in tall
grass, your hair drying, wisps in the wind, I
watch from within the circumference of
willow roots, behind her braids. I won’t
approach over heaved ground, won’t show
hunger mercy. I’ll sit among the rocks, atop
weeping nettles, under dripping pine,
beneath a clouded sky, upon the shore of the
sand-bottomed frog-pond, in the company of
roaming snapping-turtles, with calico Ivy in
the ferns covered in blood. My thumb is
swollen from sucking, and the flesh under my
eyes is dark and raw.

Treetops moan in the west-wind, bend at
their waists, rounding bodices filled with
desperate whispers. A place of accumulated
essences, distilled impressions, something
nearby holding a leather leash, standing in
the tall cedars, masked by dead limbs and
brown, curling leaves; a Stalking Womb, a
pitch father, all knuckles and elbows, a
decaying shock-trooper out-of-time,
wrestling with time, shaping disfigured
Dresden orphans from the mud, striking
them into life with a cane of birch.

The painted hedge tied with webs spun by
pearl spiders ringing belt-like Book Burner’s
bleached-bone fortress, who perches under a
vent with a furrowed brow, a cinch-scrunched
nose, and untrimmed mustache, with an
acetylene torch, warming bindings, loosening
leaves of brittle-paged digests, I in worn-
kneed corduroys on my segmented belly,
inching into the yard through thistle-down,
the Stalking Womb in wool near but not near
enough, never with sufficient mass to bend
the property into a steep bowl with its own
tantalizing horizon.

Under crab-apple tents, through the crooked
hatchet-hewn trellis festooned with limp
balloons, behind me, wreathed in blue smoke
carried east on black wings, the wooden, tar-
papered tower, and the Sleeper under gables.
In my dreams, a blackbird carries in its
obsidian beak the Sleeper’s marble eyes to the
silent rookery in the larches, east, where trees
are caped and bonneted, picked clean of pearl
spiders by pink-jacketed mantis’.

Over whittler’s rinds, mineral-flecked earth,
the leathery carcasses of worms, into the
bald, beige, hard-packed dog run, railed by
stalks of suspiring steel grass, past the stone
Bolzoi with cloth haunches bedded in soft ash
dimpled by raindrops, motionless under rose
prickled lintels, Book Burner’s sole
companion, carved with a Cooper adz from
felled trees reserved by God for aristocratic
beasts.

The Bolzoi—the once elegant alarm—is lame;
she won’t stir in her ashes, or smell my
chafed skin through long, striped sleeves,
while the Sleeper, snug where once a bell
hung, swaying in an unpadded cradle, pink
gauze in her empty sockets, will plaint
through cracked lips: “Hurry, the Stalking
Womb is on the stair.”

Book Burner, in the dusk of his rendering
room, dim-witted, abloom nevertheless with
the will to the mystical, a toe-hold on
masterfulness, beating back with a rod carved
with symbols of dignified error the spiraling
compasses, the barometers of conscience,
self-possessed, who with a command of high
illusion, who with special organs, who with
intuition, exalts the Sleeper though the
Stalking Womb perish.

And the Sleeper on whose behalf I belly-crawl
with unconscious faith, for whom truth is not
necessarily good, in any quantity, under all
circumstances, if wisdom is not in earnest
brought to bear on the living, while the
mantis’ chitter, carry the standards of folly, of
fact, of hither and yon, against the claims of
ascending value.

Mixing ash with mortar, Book Burner
bricking up the lightless passages to a third
kind of knowing, to hardy percepts designed
to suborn the reasoning mind and the brittle-
legged men, dwarfed by craft, rising in nearby
locks, to inch down the still-watered canal,
dead mules on the banks; inch west to crush
what’s left in the aggregate of vocation, to
campaign against the Sleeper’s verdicts, to
sew doubt in the property once more; to try
our Gods.

Under several seasons of willow branches,
beneath the Bolzoi’s curling nails, the rotting
placard: TEST, NOT TRUST, and below the
placard, one layer each of children, lye and
fools.


✖ From the Novel, Orchard Park and Other Works

Love, Courtesy of a Scarecrow

After the church service, minutes into the reception,
A call from Roger; you can deny him nothing.
Your new bride, senses piqued, eyes wide,
Knows that you are leaving; that you will embarrass her,
Slip out before the first dance, before the cake,
For one last hurrah—overdue, you think—
This last favor to Roger; to the scarecrow in jeans.

You ached for something decent, found it; it was dear.
But you would steal one last car—
Something complicated for old time’s sake,
Be back in time for apologies;
Back to dance with the bride’s mother,
To rub her father’s shoulders, toast his pride, but after…

Yes, after.

You prepare for reproofs, excuse yourself,
Reach for and kiss her hand.
Roger is at the edge of the yard, a boot on the wall.
You see him through tent-poles. She does, too.
Roger’s eyes twinkle but he doesn’t smile.
He has a car in mind—three blocks north. You could walk.

You didn’t want to lead the kind of life
For which you would need to make apologies.
Not anymore.
But there would be one last apology, had to be.
Roger would see to it.

You didn’t talk.
He sized you up in the tuxedo, seemed satisfied:

“Last things…” he started.

It wasn’t a sentence—a statement—that he would finish.

“Looks like rain,” you say.
It did, would,
And later you would hold her fast,
The rain untying her hair,
Flattening her dress, filling your shoes;
And with cheeks pressed, floating over flagstones,
A first dance, a last dance…
There would be no humor in it—couldn’t be;
It was a desperate marriage, a clutching marriage,
Something on which your very survival depended:
Collision or suicide…

Roger was giddy, twitching, walked briskly.
He smacked his leg with a rolled up copy
Of the Philadelphia Enquirer.
You weren’t three blocks from the reception.
You could hear the wedding band warm up.

“Simple,” he said, and pointed at a late-model sports sedan—
Keyless entry—hitched to the curb.

“Simple,” you repeat. It was impossible.

The muzzle of a baby collie
Appeared in the passenger-side window.

“For you,” he said, “And her.”

You will not see Roger again.
You walk the block and a half back to the reception,
A dog in your arms.

✖ From the Novel, Orchard Park and Other Works

The North Wind

Craftsbury, no-man’s land,
on a plateau above birch forests, an empty commons,
men carrying axes, women with children in rotting papooses.

A hard, fast drive east to 91, 91 to 55, 55 to 10,
10 over the St. Lawrence into old, old, OLD Montreal …

She had descended into a fugue state
before passing through the fog-towns—
Niagara on the Lake, St. Catherines—high-beams on at noon,
the lake a debris-field of broken picture glass through the trees.

She knew what she wanted—
knew it when picking over trinkets,
ornaments in a gift shop
while the bells of Notre-Dame Basilica rang, rang, rang,
she turning over a bauble with a silver hook in her hands—
something for her great and future Christmas tree.
Not our Christmas tree.

A tree. Some tree. Their tree.
Something with a hook for something with a loop …

Did you know about these trips to Canada?

To Kingston?

She–mute, prostrate on a bench by the lake, aching…
The Tragically Hip were in town, had been, would be again,
playing the Royal Military College—
a fading poster, one corner curling in the wind.

She was prostrate;
she didn’t want to wander anymore,
or be with something that wandered, wasn’t burred,
wouldn’t send down steely roots, or couldn’t quite yet.
She wasn’t explicit, and she didn’t need to be.

Oh, Canada!

Not eager to pass back over the border,
over the line of scrimmage.
I hear a wrist snap, armor colliding;
the next play begins.
First, though, buy a few bottles of ice wine,
drink one, think about doubling back on the 401.
She would need to get back over the border,
back to the hospital, back to the unit,
put her makeup on, go to the children’s wing:
the good clinician.

I wanted to go further North, home—
north on the 400, but didn’t say so.

She was quiet.
There was less to say.
Something in the engine was ticking.
Under her feet—unfolded maps, broken jewel cases,
a Styrofoam cup (‘Styrofoam’ with a capital ‘S’).

A cramped bed in a triangular room
on Rue Saint-Denis, Saint-Laurent? One of the two.
Over dinner, the sound of Velcro tearing …

A ride in a carriage under blankets
down Rue de la Commune,
black barges in black water,
shuttered concession stands.

Rolling over cobblestones, her life beginning,
my Earthly life beginning to end;
I could barely hear her through the music,
the trilling, destiny’s horns blowing hard, harder.

Once more, the sound of Velcro …

“Velour et Crochet,” called the driver over his shoulder,
then whipped his horse.

✖ From the Novel, Orchard Park and Other Works