There’s a photograph of me with bleached hair
and a red sweatshirt, holding up a frozen disk
of Tombstone pizza, on a long straight road,
yellow wilderness on either side,
a Badlands wind that made my fingers ache.
I was twenty-six and drunk with possibilities.
We had six days to reach the west coast in a borrowed car,
and we had to stay ahead of the snow.
There’s another photograph of me with an elk
blurry in the background. I’m leaning against a sign
that says CANADA 20 MILES, jaunty and smiling,
surrounded by white. We spent that night at a Motel-6,
four of us in two twin beds to save twenty bucks.
I was too paralyzed with awkwardness to sleep.
The tortured vowels of your Belfast Irish sounded
again and again in my head like a faulty LP, and I
was hounded by desire that sprang only from proximity,
branded on the hip where our bodies bumped
once in the narrow bed. You kept your back to me.
I thought about your wife, and kept my hands off you.
That was the trip I learned somehow to ski,
in Glacier National Park, on a gunmetal grey day.
We came upon a black expanse of lake and you
stripped off your shirt, and stood with your thin,
white back bared to the wind that smelled of snow.
And all of a sudden I was under that black water,
atom beneath colossal depths of dark.
The storm swept up upon our heels
we barely made it through the Cascades.
Cars were beached on every side but we,
young and omnipotent, lurched and veered
on upwards through the driving sleet,
drove straight out of winter into spring,
saw snow melt and a man walk by in his shirt sleeves
in the pacific air of that grey coast.
We steeped in colors at the market-place,
a carnival of fish and fruit we hadn’t seen for months.
I bought a bag of clementines but found
you can’t take clementines back home.
I ate them all, there in the airport, every little sun.
First published in Poem, November 2004, Number 92
THE BLUE HAT
Now, while so many of our daughters are dying
Because they are not thin or young
Or beautiful enough, it is the blue hat
I want to explain, a royal blue fedora
That I bought because I knew Betty,
Fashion coordinator of the town's largest department store
Who dressed in Vogue magazine styles and feather boas
In the middle of Tennessee hills
And denim-dressed Unitarian wives.
Betty wept at the beauty of her husband Arthur's sermons
And decorated her Christmas tree with red velvet ribbons
And came to Mom's funeral in a black Homburg
With Chantilly lace drape and silk pajamas
And a choker of crystals—
Betty, who was the first to have watermelon placemats
And real candles in a wrought-iron chandelier,
Who looked me over as I swung my legs
On the turquoise loveseat and said to Mother,
What are we going to do with her?
Betty told me I would be beautiful
With the right clothes and a little older
And gave me a cashmere sweater for college
And false eyelashes for graduate school
And said sex was wonderful
And when a stroke shut Arthur down
Except for a little roar he could make
Sometimes when he heard her voice on the phone,
Betty believed that behind his immobile face
And arms and legs his mind raced on,
Got 24-hour-a-day care and a hospital bed,
Played MacNeil-Lehrer news and his favorite videos
Every evening, wearing her best red negligee
To climb in bed with him for an hour or two,
Tell him about her day, the way she'd chat
With her friends at work about what Arthur had thought
Of the last foreign film or the latest political news,
For seven years before he died;
This blue hat honors Betty.
Originally appeared in The Hudson Review and The Way In (Tebot Bach).
When Life Interferes With Art
William Shakespeare has set aside Tuesday evening
to send some sonnets out. But first, he opens the mail:
slits an official envelope. His ex-wife's retained
a lawyer to lower her child support. The night's shot;
instead of revising poems, browsing Writer's Market,
stamping the SASEs, he composes his rebuttal. His candle's
burnt to a stub by the time his letter is worded properly.
Lev Tolstoy is called from his study to locate a missing
shin-guard before his son has to go to the soccer game.
He leaves his famous train roaring into the station
in St. Petersburg. By the time he returns (after finding
the shin-guard in the hall closet, under the vacuum cleaner,
and driving the carpool) the train has slowed to a crawl
and Anna, come to her senses, has stepped back from the track.
A.A. Milne takes time out from Eeyore's birthday to iron
his daughter's dressiest skirt. Every week, Wordsworth
plans menus for four and makes out his shopping list.
Virginia Woolf applies to go to a Texas writers' colony:
a small stipend, a room of her own for two precious months.
Revising her resume, she stops to jot a note: check out
summer-long camps, ask _______ if she'd take the kids.
And in this city, a full-time dad cooks nourishing
nightly dinners and types his wife's manuscripts. She's
truly grateful, inscribes her work "To my husband, my dearest
muse." Meanwhile, on the street where I live, a boy comes home
from college. "What's happenin', man?" he asks. "How's that book
you were writing? The one about the black eye?" I shrug.
"Don't quit now," he says. "It's something for all of us."
First published in Prairie Schooner, Winter 1995
It Happens in This Latitude
held by stubborn faith, we plough
Here a loose chain of hills fences in
our eccentricity, a penance
of blood deeper than ground water.
Born inside this geography,
and plant great fields of corn,
believing the soul of the diligent
shall be made fat. But sometimes
after storm the air turns green,
pale as katydid wings,
and a ledgerdemain of light pulls us
shimmering from this land’s rough sleeve.
Our solitary blood rises up,
tribal at the core. We drink the light
like we drink our whiskey—neat
and burning all the way down.
We husk the silky-haired corn, dance
on good black earth, our souls
filled with the dumb luck of summer
until the light begins to close
back on itself and something in us
wants winter. One by one,
we slip over the hills to mewl
in the body's dark shelter once more.
First appeared in The Laurel Review
is splintered, skidding, breathless, but struggling to sound calm,
it’s soy beans on the door mat; on the baseboard, raspberry jam,
it’s eating scraps of food after they have been chewed thoughtfully
then disgorged into your outstretched hand, his saliva your saliva,
it’s him reaching for your face in the dark and sinking back relieved,
it’s that first, longed-for kiss, slow and premeditated, laying aside
his things and walking up and kissing you full on the lips with his
tiny, soft, wet mouth, complete surprise, total abandon,
it’s thinking your mind will never have sharp edges or straight lines
again; it’s being beaten and kicked by a screaming, back-bending,
contortionist, hair-pulling dervish who later subsides into swollen-
eyed, red-faced, runny-nosed calm in your arms,
it’s the sink full of dishes, plastic cups, bibs, tea-leaves, peach-peel,
pasta shells and peas; it’s ketchup at every meal and wondering
how a body can survive on no meat or vegetables, ever,
it’s the way his body curves into yours and how your arms
are strong enough to lift all twenty-six pounds of him
over and over again at all the wrong angles,
it’s shocking awake each time he murmurs in his sleep next door,
it’s the pain in your chest and belly when you’re apart,
it’s seeing your life upended, its contents strewn around by a
tornado, and picking your way through the wreckage with no time
to care because something like passion is driving you on.
Published in Rattle, Issue No. 21, Volume 10, No. 1, Summer, 2004
The Geniuses Among UsThey take us by surprise, these tall perennials
that jut like hollyhocks above the canopy
of all the rest of us—bright testimonials
to the scale of human possibility.
They come to bloom for every generation,
blazing with extraordinary notions
from the taproots of imagination—
dazzling us with incandescent visions.
And soon, the things we never thought would happen
start to happen: the solid fences
of reality begin to soften,
crumbling into fables and romances—
and we turn away from where we've been
to a new place, where light is pouring in.
Night cups us like a match in dusky hands,
its skin reeking of kelp and fish.
The sea we sliced this morning
as if the skiff was diamond,
lies calm and whole,
a flat black stone, again.
With no stars to compass by, we know
this is not home
but a border crossed, uncharted
territory, maps here dreamed
from memory, moving over
hummock, salt, and ice.
Ahead of us, the icy slosh, its salt and
its indifference honeycombing
bones, hungry seagulls diving
at its nickel mirror. Tide, out
now. Only a thin and deeper
gray delimits water from the sky.
At our backs, a sprawling bog of solitude
and beyond that ladders
of cold and slippery light.
Browsing in blackberries,
the bear lifts up its crimson mouth
and all ways look the same.
THE WAY IN
Let out late at the trailhead to hike with older kids—
My mom driving me across town in another search for friends—
I thought they could only be a short way ahead,
They'd have waited a while before they set out;
Whoever they were, I set a pace to catch up.
The road led down through fields and woods—
Which path—and I chose, and the bushes rustled,
Gravel scuffed under foot. I was hurrying now,
And fall was coming on brown and red among the grasses.
I don't remember calling out, or hearing the birds
That must have spoken; just the listening for what might be
Again the road divided
And I chose, going among trees—on the right a sycamore
Spoke its sighing name, on the left a white pine towered.
I was lost, and crying now, going on or going back
My only choice of directions. I hurried on for the springs
That had been our destination, though where they were
I had no idea, and my pockets empty of maps—
Taking a journey I did not want under the sun
That crossed overhead—a compass I could not read yet.
I never found the children ahead, or the spring—
But there were people I met on the way who told me the time.
It was time to go back; and I did, knowing no other way,
And saw how the hills ran at right angles to sun,
How shadows fell and the way led up past the sycamore,
Smooth in its skin, and the white pine waving.
And there were the grasses again, dustier; the familiar patches
Of brush; and under yellow leaves at the side of the road
I picked wild grapes, spit out the skins; found
The small bones littering a red slash of clay
Where a fox made its den.
I walked slowly, watching now, knowing there'd be,
At the top of the hill, my mother, in a black car waiting.
-- Robin Chapman
from The Way In (Tebot Bach)
originally appeared in The Hudson Review