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.
Talked to six high school students this morning, Two young men and four young women, for 20 Minutes each. Ostensibly the discussion was all About college admission essays, but one thing I Have learned in life is to be quiet and listen and Out will pour real honest naked hard holy grace, And there it was, child after lanky child. So very Many masks worn as armor. So many polite bits Of college admissions essays that skated over the Stories they were so desperate to tell they would Even tell me—given the chance, the shy window Through which to whisper. When we were done I stood up rattled and blessed. Such terrible gifts And such generosity in the giving. I remembered Confession, in the old days, when the old shutter Made of oak or pine would shiver open suddenly And a voice, often so calm and gentle, would say Say what you most want to say, and have not said.
I don’t tell you how much it matters to me that you are my friend. I’ll never tell you, bluntly and face to face. I can’t summon words That way. They only come to my fingers occasionally if I’m silent And give up thinking. Our fingers are a lot smarter than we know. Like today when my fingers want to say something like: your gifts To me have been ears and humor. We speak some strange language That few other people speak. I don’t know why that’s so. It’s surely An accident. It’s not like we set out to find each other in the tumult Of this sweet wilderness. But we did somehow. You can put names On the finding if you want. The names all mean the same thing. An Old name is Providence, which is another way to say God, which is A way to say We Have No Idea How, But We Are Aware of Grace. There are more names for God than we’ll ever know, and one is you.
In a huge hotel where the concierge told me there had been count them Three weddings the day before, which is why they erected the epic tent. I got there early and watched people file in. The tall guitar player asked Me if I was the minister. The minister turned out to be a lady who once She got started talking never really stopped except for the music. When The songs started everyone except me stood and held hands and swayed. I am a Catholic man and we only hold hands with children and we don’t Sway. I tried for a while to figure out what species of church service this Was but you just could not tell. There was swaying, which seemed to Be Baptist, and discussion of sacrifice and fasts, which seemed Calvinist, And there were tall people with excellent teeth who seemed Mormonish, And there was talk of the Spirit and the One and suchlike, which seemed Unitarian to me, but then I heard the name Christos . . . Greek Orthodox? For a minute there I wondered if there would be snake-handling or maybe A sudden burst from the Koran, or a pause while we discussed the Torah, But the service stayed determinedly undeterminable. In the opening salvo Of this service I was amused, thinking that it might be something offered By the hotel for its guests, an attractant, some expensive consultant’s idea For adding value to your stay at the hotel, and I marveled at the marketing Brilliance of it—welcoming everyone, offending no one, proffering ritual Without trademark, adding bonus usage to the rent of the tent, as well as Excellent community relations. But soon I stopped being amused and was Moved, despite the endless blather of the minister. People had come to be Moved. They had come to hold hands and sing. There were bright ribbons On the folding chairs by the aisle to signal the bride’s or the groom’s side. There was a man’s green tie knotted to a tent stake. There were tiny babies In their mother’s arms. There was a man hunched in a wheelchair. Why do We ever bother to argue about religion? All religions are the same glorious Wine, susceptible to going bad but capable of quiet joyous gentle elevation. They’re all useful and useless, mesmerized and ruined by power, but always Pregnant with the possibility of humility. They are so easy to ignore. You’d Be wise to sneer, with every reason imaginable for the curl of your knowing Lip. Yet here I am, on Sunday morning, in the wedding reception tent, agog; Not so much at the earnest idiot of a minister, but at everyone, sweetly, else.
Looking at photographs of the kids. One of them is going To college tomorrow. I used to wear that kid like a jacket. He fell asleep instantly given the slightest chance. School, The car, even once during a time-out at a basketball game, Although to be fair he was the point guard and had played The whole first half and been double-teamed. He could be Laughing at something and you’d turn away to see a hawk Or his lissome mom and when you turned back he was out. But tomorrow he’s in the top bunk in a room far away. We Will leave the back porch light on for him out of habit and In the morning we will both notice that it’s still on and one Of us will cry right into the coffee beans and the other will Remember that it felt like all the poems we mean when we Say words like dad and son and love when I slung that boy Over one shoulder or another or carried him amidships like A sack of rice or best of all dangling him by his feet so that All the nickels he put in his pockets for just this eventuality Poured down like something else we do not have words for.