Ten Poems

(Selected by Wendy Barker)


These flowers left by the mowers, white petals
wheeling around their yellow eyes, breeze-bent:
it’s easy to switch on the sentiment, but no matter

which petal I land on, he may love me or love me
not. The daisy never did have any interest in my
childhood, either, my touching efforts to cheer, my

fistful of stems ripped up by the roots. Likewise,
it’s empty of any responsibility to decorate summer.
Empty, too, of the mists of morning and the soft

thud of deer hooves in evening. It has no need of
rhyme or any other holy thing. It does not reject
its own death; indeed, it would be lost without it.

Sin, too, and redemption: rain and sun – why use
fancy words? Why exercise enthusiasm? To be alive
doesn’t require enthusiasm, simply an adherence

to format, a multiplication and differentiation of cells.
So, I’m walking along, picking daisies, thinking
of Whitman and Dickinson, even Swinburne, thinking

how futile to keep on with my words day after day,
with the family clamoring for attention, declaring
that only I can fill the void in their lives. Or is it me,

thinking I’m the one, the answer to everybody’s prayer,
the one with the recipe for Elegant Chicken Casserole?
Still, I make a large bouquet, bring it home, shake off

the ants, put it in a teapot. It says “I love you,”
in a Hallmark kind of way that at least is understood
by most, a gesture in a field of hopeful gestures.


Of course she mistook
her son for her husband, since
it was the lake, and summer,
and she had grown small and turning,
as if the world were a kaleidoscope and she
its center made only of mirrors.
It was his voice, his hair, his height, so she
let down her own white hair and set her lips
on his before he realized. Still, when he
held her hand at the end, he was willing to be
anyone, and he talked to her of Central Lake
again, and when he reached the edge
of words, he took her arms
and made a motion of paddling
the canoe, and she did open her eyes
across the small craft of her bed, gliding
out into the last sliver of sun.
She passed the dam at Bellaire, through
Clam River, Grand Traverse Bay,
Lake Michigan, into the dream-soup
of details, of J-strokes. It was hard work
against the drag of water, before she
remembered she was a gull, and the water
turned to air. No, not a gull. Not that far
to go. Only back to Central Lake; she was
one of the ducks lifting off, pulling up
their landing gear in their awkward
duck-flurry of voices, and it didn’t matter
which one she was, or who it was that
loved her, all of them winging around
within the hollow of the lake.
So began the silence, the evening,
the turning stars.


Just one scandalous year past our
grandmother’s death, the second wife
stood homely and trembling ankle-deep
in the lake, taking on water and family at
once. Once, she told me, your grandfather
found the box of hair your grandmother
saved when she had it bobbed. She said
he cried, and I tried to imagine both
wives working it out in heaven. He took
this second one, taught her theories of
economics, gave her his grown children
and grandchildren, money and houses. They
used to sit at the kitchen table and eat
prunes, the same table where he ate
prunes with my grandmother. Regularity
took him to ninety-five, although
the last year in the nursing home he
couldn’t remember who she was, and even
years before that, at the lake, he’d
call her by his dead wife’s name. No,
Harry, she’d say, it’s Beth, Beth, and
lead him back to where he meant to
go. She never touched the money he left
her, saved it for his children, took
in roomers and lived on interest. Now
she’s dead and all Garth Avenue is
gone from me, from us, the house, the
lilies-of-the-valley on the north
side; oh, it would be a long list, and
who cares now but us. This is what I
have to say for her, who held a place
and saved everything as if she had no
needs, or wishes, except to be no
trouble at all, and to die quickly, a
light turned out to save electric bills.


It is not the way it used to be.
Aunt Cleone is losing her memory,
my father refuses to paint the cottage porch,

the rowboat rots in the yard. I am
willing to let go of what I remember,
not completely, but let it open out

into the past and fill it and funnel
forward to this place where I actually
lie on the end of the dock swirling my finger

on the water, watching the minnows
move without seeming to move, invisible
twitches, one, two, three minnows the color

of sand. I must be in the middle
of my life, the way I feel balanced
between one thing and another. As if I have

no hands or arms, parting the world
as it reaches my face. Like a minnow, gone
on little wings, a blush of sand from the bottom.

Sometimes I open my eyes in the dark
and it feels as if I’m moving. I lose
my loneliness, surrounded with dark, like water.


We are without our men, hers dead
ten years, mine far away, the water
glassy warm. My old aunt already stands
half in. All I see is the white half,
her small old breasts like bells,
almost nice as a girl’s. Then we hardly
feel the water, a drag on the nipples,
a brush on the crotch, like making love
blind, only the knives of light
from the opposite shore, the shudders
of our swimming breaking it up.
We let the water get next to us
and into the quick of losses we don’t
have to talk about. We swim out
to where the dock goes blank,
and we are stranded, abandoned good flesh
in a black of glimmering. We each fit
our skin exactly. After a while
we come out of the water slick as eels,
still swimming, straight-backed,
breasts out, up to the  porch,
illuminate, sexy as hell, inspired.


The Methodist church still chimes its electric
hymns. I’m still in junior high study hall,
desk bolted to the floor. I’ve grown so tall,
though, that I hover over myself, where
I’m scratching a crude house on the desktop
with a straightened paper clip. It’s a long way
down to the house, the one on Whitham Street,
with the creek and the crazy ironing lady
and the field and the chloroformed kittens
and the crying. Or the one on Maxwell Drive
with the crawl space and the mother cat
and the gun and the other crying,
and the impatient sex wicking itself into
the sheets. Inside the house are the original
houses of my mother, my father. They fit
the space exactly, wall against wall, all
their plots and expositions, their little  worlds
carved out of materials at hand. How sweetly
the gouges improve on the desktop’s
varnish! How fiercely the pencil lead drives
a darkness in, for remembrance. From up here,
I lean down as if my life were a lesson
I have to teach. Look, I say to myself, that’s
you in the house, crumbling shredded wheat
into the bowl. There’s your mother, so alive
the hairs on her arm glisten. Listen, does she
say anything to live by? No, it’s always
the chimes, and the space between
where everything else gets in.


I’ve lasted three days longer now than marriage number two,
a week longer than my number one. But the twenty-three years you

shared with your previous darling – I have a ways to go. Still,
we have to account for the way time compresses, distills.

We’ve been together barely nineteen percent of your life,
now, twenty percent of mine. All that wake behind us, that strife,

it’s as if we’re wading through peanut butter. Neither of us
keeps souvenirs, other than our children, but every time you touch

my elbow, the inside of my wrist, I think of the difference. Not
think. The undertow of the past sounds a tone against that spot

like a temple bell under my skin. We’re never entirely alone.
Let me put it this way: suppose we go to the matinee, our known

life left out there in the sun. We’re ready to fling ourselves into
the plot, shed a few tears, which is the fun of it. Something new.

Then we’re stunned by the inside light, made of all our infinite
remembered people and places, reshuffled to form this exquisite,

this strange tale. Sure, it makes us sad, or sorry, but the edifice
itself is pure bliss: all of us here, we’re all caught up in the kiss.


Equally office or lounge, it allows you to fold down
its seat, set the hand brakes, and reach into its brown-
flowered Velcro-attached cotton bag for cell phone, or
pen. It’s slim enough to roll between refrigerator
and door, and, with brakes, you can come to the brink
of the stairs, alone. You can pull close to the sink
and shred lettuce, and if you knock some leaves
to the floor, you can reach in your bag and retrieve
with the long-handled clamp, unless the leaves are thin
and frail, in which case someone will gather them
up later, in the silent collusion of the sick and the well,
both of you sure now what love is, the solid shell
of what may have seemed nebulous before, but which
turns out to be silence, dishrag, plate, and lettuce.
Especially for you, love has entered inanimate
objects. Between you and them exists a new intimacy.
Who wouldn’t feel a little jealous? Your walker’s
your little Florida, your getaway, your awkward
moves together turned to grace, the space between
here and there your common fate. When you lean
together, it doesn’t look like tiredness, more a new
idea you both just had, the world turned resolute
and recent. At the window, a cardinal thrums
its song to you both, cold as aluminum.


We examine the toilet, hold the ball-cock up,
determine the flapper fails to fully fall.

We put a new one in, snip off the excess chain.
The tank fills only one-third full. We lower

the chain, change the settings on the dial,
flush over and over, studying the maddening

levels until the mechanism settles into
balance as inexplicable as this life we live,

machines coming on and going off, gears
spinning like dreidels on their perfectly honed

rips, a hair’s breadth, or hare’s breath, or hair’s
breath, the metaphor long messed up,

all sense of origin gone, which no doubt explains
why we’re floating, wavering, letting gallons

of water pass through, running up the bill.
I ask you, what volume can a hare breathe,

its tiny lungs pumping carroty air? How wide
is a hair? Furthermore, by what tiny margin

did the quarks and leptons have to increase
over antiquarks and antileptons to let matter

win out over antimatter, to bring us here,
to the flushing of toilets, filling of tanks?


Dear swollen-trunk maple, deemed
diseased by the saw-happy tree guy,
you who have stood silently, supposedly
slipping your ailment through your roots
to the neighboring trees, now fallen
full-blast down, geometrically down,
right-angle then parallel at last, your flat-
sawn stump blotched with incriminating
evidence – you came and leafed
and are gone, and I who have grown old
in your lifetime, who intuited you rather
than knew you, felt you in my bones,
now feel the slightly thinner woods,
the hint of frailty. Scott the tree guy
has carried your 18-inch logs in his
red wheelbarrow and stacked them
for winter: a little Williams, a little Frost.
Oh, tree, everywhere I look
I have to pledge reclamation, fill
the forest floor with ferns, mushrooms,
pine needles, and in the side corner
place the outhouse, practically unused
anymore, still in good shape, emitting
its rich human waste-smell, its wood-
smell, its few spiders climbing
their trellises with their sticky feet.
Oh tree, so much has been discovered
to fill in the space where you were:
seven new species of Philippine
forest mice, a new genus of blind
Bulgarian beetle, four new species
of jewel beetles, six of New World
micromoths. I have filled my notecards,
I have left the vertical space open
for the ur-tree, the canonical vision
that will take your place, even the stigmata,
your bulged and arthritic joints, the
whither of your leaving, the grand word
whither standing where you were.


“Daisies” and “The Death of Cleone” are from Loon Cry: Selected and New Michigan Poems, The Watershed Center, 2010. “For Grandmother Beth” is from Fishing With Blood, Purdue University Press, 1998. “Minnow” and “Night Swimming” are from Do Not Peel the Birches, Purdue University Press, 1993. “I Return to Fayetteville After Twenty Years,” “Twentieth Wedding Anniversary Poem,” and “Walker” are from Reunion, The University of Wisconsin Press, 2007. “Hare’s Breath” and “Felled Tree” are from No Need of Sympathy, BOA Editions, 2013.