I board the airplane to see my parents. They live far away and long ago And some years into the future; you never met such wry time machines In your life. Sometimes they will be about to pass the marmalade when Suddenly it is late 1941 and they are in college and kissing on the train; But then as you slather your toast it is 1967 and a war wants to eat their Son or 2012 and they are at that son’s wake or 1929 and a father comes Home without his job, or it is a week ago, and do you think that Federer Is the finest tennis player ever, or Laver, or Don Budge? It happens that Fast. It’s unnerving and glorious and confusing and perfect and I would Sit with them every afternoon, if I could, and say tell me tell me tell me, Tell me every moment of your whole lives, don’t leave me here without Your grace and humor and the extraordinary gleaming jar of marmalade From which come all your stories. Next year in Ireland . . . says my mother, And my dad grins, and I want to kneel and beg the Lord for this moment Again and again always, the inarguable yes of their bodies, the resonance Of their endurance, the hunch and hollow of their shoulders, the reverent Geography of their faces, the lean song of my father’s hands on the table.
I gave a rambling talk recently and a long line of teenagers came Up to speak to me afterward and it was instantly clear that every Single one of them wanted to ask me something while ostensibly Asking me something else, or say one thing while seeming to say Something else. I was so instantly moved I could hardly stammer Any sort of answer. I tried hard to hear what they were not saying Aloud but were saying with remarkable courage. It takes startling Courage to be a teenager, you know. There are so many theatrical Personas to try, but masks and disguises can get stuck. Or you get Trapped behind walls that begin as protective but become prisons. One kid in particular stays with me. He’s tall and shy and nervous. He says How do you deal with rejection? and somehow I instantly Get it that he does not mean essays and stories and poems and how You handle people saying steadily bluntly no to your insistent yes! He’s asking me about hope and despair and lovers and heartbreaks. He’s asking about the girl or boy he adores who does not love him. He’s staring at me. The other kids wait politely. I want to reach up And cup his face in my hands as if he was my son, but you have to Be honest with kids, you cannot merely bloviate and issue arrogant Pomposity, so I tell him you have to learn to be neighborly with no. You are going to see it every day and you might as well be friendly With the concept. Someone else’s no doesn’t actually kill your yes; It only means that someone else’s yes is still out there waiting. You See where I am going here? There’s more yes than no, is what I am Trying to say. I suppose that’s what we mean by faith. Faith’s a big Word, bigger than any religion. It means yes where everything sure Looks like no as far as you can see. Am I making the slightest sense Here, son? I actually call him son. The other kids must have thought I was being avuncular but for a brief moment he was indeed my son, And yours too. We shook hands and he held only my hands just a bit Longer than the usual thing, which I took to be some sort of a prayer.
Called the cemetery this morning to begin to plot What happens to my mom and dad after they die. Yes, I just wrote plot. My parents would smile at That. They are not afraid. They have lived so wry And well. They survived wars and four dead sons And savage diseases, and they still reach for each Other here and there. I have seen it. The cemetery People are so very helpful. Discharge papers: that Is the first thing. The cemetery will donate a head Stone free of charge. And the casket liner. I admit The casket liner was not on my list of stuff to talk To the cemetery folks about. Plenty of room, says The cemetery lady. Yes, your mom will be buried With your dad, no charge. What do we engrave on The stone? The specific words? In loving memory, Usually. That is standard. Can you edit the words? Well, I suppose so. Within reason. There are space Concerns, of course. I suggest you talk to your dad And mom and brothers and sisters, and agree upon What it is you would like the stone to say. I would Like the stone to say grace, and sinewy, and young. They were so young when they married. He did not Expect to survive the war. Their first son died—his Name was Seamus. Can you find room for Seamus On the stone? Mom nearly died, too. But she is too Tough to die at thirty. A hundred and thirty, maybe. Can we say endurance, and prayerful, and compose A poem about how they like their tea, and who gets What section of the paper first, and how they never Ever forget a birthday or anniversary? Can we copy Their meticulous undamaged handwriting? Can you Show the note of her laughter, and the way he never Misses a day with the crossword and how he is right Now bending over the tomato plants to be sure he is Not about to water the tiny shy frogs who live there?
I was, no kidding, a visiting writer in a kindergarten recently, And the children asked me many wry and hilarious questions, Among them is that your real nose? and can you write a book About a ruffed grouse, please? But the one that pops back into My mind this morning was what do poems do? Answers: swirl Leaves along sidewalks suddenly when there is no wind. Open Recalcitrant jars of honey. Be huckleberries in earliest January, When berries are only a shivering idea on a bush. Be your dad For a moment again, tall and amused and smelling like Sunday. Be the awful wheeze of a kid with the flu. Remind you of what You didn’t ever forget but only mislaid or misfiled. Be badgers, Meteor showers, falcons, prayers, sneers, mayors, confessionals. They are built to slide into you sideways. You have poetry slots Where your gills used to be, when you lived inside your mother. If you hold a poem right you can go back there. Find the handle. Take a skitter of words and speak gently to them, and you’ll see.
You can snarl and rage and roar and snipe at thugs and liars, Sure you can, and right you are for doing so, and you maybe Actually enjoy letting the lava soar out all righteously, right? But even so, there are lies inside you like viruses. You know What I am talking about; we don’t need to go into any detail. And we have been too familiar with a little thuggery, haven’t We? Not battery: You’ll say, rightfully, that you are innocent. No: I mean the times you knew about assault and battery, and Did zero. We just stood there. We pretend to be fascinated By something else that just happened to be happily elsewhere. We turned our heads, so it looked like we just hadn’t noticed; We can surely be excused if we didn’t see it, right? Right?
Here’s a story. My first job, at fifteen, was in a bakery, Cleaning the vast foul pots and kettles and baking pans At night, for hours, alone, with horrifying chemicals, & Finally locking the shop and trudging home in the dark. I hated it from the first hour but I couldn’t quit instantly Because I was afraid to be teased and be mortified. This Went on a week. The back door to the bakery was in an Alley that looked like a good place to get shot. One day As I shuffled sadly down the alley I saw a slumped man Sitting by the back door, smoking. I didn’t know him & Figured I was about to get rolled. I was sort of relieved, To be honest, because then I’d have a decent excuse for Quitting. But when I got there the man stood up, and he Said boy, I run the shop next door, and I see you in here Working, and I bet you have not eaten, and that’s awful Hard work, I know how that guy leaves his kitchenware, So here’s a sandwich. Now, it’s not from me exactly but From my wife who has a real sharp eye. So there you go. I quit a few days later, and at my dad’s instruction I quit Face to face with the baker, who was furious, and it was No fun at all, but then I went and said thanks to the lady. Even now sometimes I see that man smoking in the alley, And standing up, and being kind to a kid he didn’t know. Even now I’ll be walking along and suddenly there he is, Waiting to be kind. We think we are alone but we aren’t.
O the very fact that there are friends who write with their hands Even if just the forefingers hammering away on keyboards, and Also then print out the resulting muddle and scrawl and scribble And pop it in the postbox! The lickable areas on the envelopes! The Return Address Just in Case! The choice of stamps, and we All blessedly have friends who carefully choose their stamps, & Stand in line at the post office asking for the ones with Authors, Or members of the Simpson family, or stamps with Polar Bears! And the fact that there are fifty addresses in your memory, some Of them no longer inhabited by the people you loved to write to; Much like your mind retains past phone numbers and exchanges, Like Mayfair and Ludlow and Allegheny and Cypress and Tulip! And the fact that you can draw all morning on an envelope or by God paint it flagrantly with horses and angels, and your postman Will deliver it anyway! Probably grinning at the nut who mailed It to you! And you can put a few grains of sand inside your note, From the beach we went to as children, or a feather from a hawk Who glared in the window like an insurance adjuster with talons, Or a painting by a child, or a photograph of four of the names of That which we call God for lack of a better label. Even the folds Of the paper, and the paperness of the paper, and the fact that it’s All about miracles and affection, which is to say, of course, love! Sure it is. All the good parts are about love, in all its many masks.
Here’s my question. What if there was a poem That didn’t know what it was about until it got To the end of itself? So that the poet’s job isn’t To play with imagery and cadence and metrical Toys in order to make a point, but rather to just Keep going in order to find out that the poem is About how hard it is to watch your kids get hurt By things they can’t manage and you cannot fix. If I had been the boss of this poem I would have Made it so they can manage things, or I could be The quiet fixer I always wanted to be as a father; But that’s not what the poem wanted to be about, It turns out. This poem is just like your daughter: No one knows what’s going to happen, and there Will be pain, and you can’t fix everything, and it Hurts to watch, and you are terrified even as you Try to stay calm and cool and pretend to manage. Some poems you can leave when they thrash too Much but kids are not those sorts of poems. They Have to keep writing themselves, and it turns out You are not allowed to edit. You’re not in charge At all—a major bummer. I guess there’s a lesson Here about literature, about how you have to sing Without knowing the score . . . something like that. All you can do is sing wildly and hope it’ll finish So joyous and refreshing that you gape with awe.
Just spent four days with my mom and dad, Who together are hundred and eighty-four Years old, and there are so many wry funny Things to report, and some saddening things Also, like fragility, and the ravines that pain Cuts in faces after years of wincing. But I’ll Tell you just one: my dad at one point tosses A bag of bread from his seat at the oak table Onto the thin counter to his right. Maybe six Feet of air, and he didn’t glance at the target. A little flick of the wrist, and the bread lands Exactly right. This nailed me, but Pop didn’t Look up from the crossword puzzle. It could Easily be explained: former excellent tennis Player, knows the spatial music of the house In his bones, probably made that throw sixty Times, but still . . . the silent casual easy grace, The deft of it! He’s all bones now, he weighs Less than he did when he was a reed of a kid Away to the war they thought would kill him For sure, but when I hug him he’s still all tall Though some of the tall is bent. Look, I get it That someday he won’t be sitting at the table. I get it. Believe me, I have examined the idea. But that his deft won’t be there, his sideways Smile when I gawp at something he says; I’m Not quite getting that. He says he’d like to be Buried in a military cemetery in a deep forest About an hour away. There’s oak and cypress And pine. This will happen, I guess, and then He’ll be a thin kid again somehow or the most Deft of the falcon chicks or the willow branch That finally figures out how to sip from a lake All easy and casual, like it didn’t take practice.
Sitting in a chapel high in the golden sculpted hills of California A few minutes before Mass I reach down to a small wooden box By my chair, where missals and songbooks are stored, and I find A set of ancient eyeglasses folded into an old cloth case, so worn That it feels like a pelt, and I realize that my chair must belong to A certain sister here at the old mission. Maybe she’s here at Mass, Trying not to be peeved that I snagged her seat. After Mass I ask Around and a sweet nun with a cane says oh no, dear, that’s Sister Maureen Mary’s seat. She passed over two years ago. She was tall And hilarious and subject to fits of darkness. She’d been a student Of engineering, a really brilliant girl, when she decided to join our Community. Her parents were appalled, or as Sister Maureen likes To say, aghast. She became a wonderful teacher with us. When she Died we got hundreds of notes from her former students. Teachers Have to cultivate the long view, as Sister said herself. You haven’t Much immediate evidence of your labors. But you get flashes, here And there, and hugs at the end of the year, she would say. She was Still an engineer, she said—still actually working in fluid mechanics. Her mom and dad began to visit once a year and then once a month. Her sister never visited even once although she sent money. Sister’s Parents died and willed us the truck in which they came to visit their Daughter. We use it all over the place. You’ll see it go by today, for Certain. When Sister died we left her glasses there just for moments Like this, when someone discovers her. Often it is us, of course, and We laugh, but then you spend the rest of the day remembering Sister Maureen Mary, who is a most remarkable soul, whom I miss terribly.