The three pine steps
have worn soft.
The sagging runners
bleached from sun
and rock salt,
warped and grain
tattered from boot
treads and spade tips
lifted then dropped
as walking sticks
at the tired end of a day.
The toll of winter’s
hammer and grind
each year. Sunlight
cracked cedar shakes,
vermiculates the dark
clutter of workbench
and plywood wall,
where years of rusted
tools hang on nails
bent like bluefish
hooks. A coping saw
and its dust shadow.
The kitchen clock
whose hands, dizzied
and tired, have given up
the chase. And the one
crimped wood shaving
held in the block plane’s
dull blade, furls
like a dried petal,
A small tribute to the end
of beginning new projects.
A settling in, a settling in.
A lemon clip-on earring knocks
against the fat and perfumed cheek
of the Jamaican orderly
leaning in to change the soiled sheets.
She draws your chest up close,
as she does each morning, firm
against her own, then folds
her arms around your back
to free the tucked-in corners.
Her plastic earring bores
into your dream, becomes another
carpenter bee jawing through
the soft wood of memory.
By chance she is singing the song
that you would croon for me
those mornings I‘d have given anything
to slip beneath the blankets
and writhe all day against the sun
like the still-blind pupa
exposed in a dry-rotted plank.
She is working and singing
the song I grew first to love,
then dread, because it meant light,
because it meant the unfinished
dream of you had ended,
and left us in this world of swing
shifts, paper cups and yellow pills
ground like pumice into apple sauce
by Jamaican or Haitian mothers
and daughters who too have left
their families, who care for ours,
who work all day and again at night,
who sing the oldies that cough and drone
through transistor radios in rooms
made only of curtain and absolute white.
She is working now, and singing
our song, and somewhere out of a deep
remembering, you fell in tune
with the chorus, sat up and sang along:
wake-up little Susie, wake-up,
like nothing at all had changed, like you
were a child, torn from his own delirium,
from his just-broken fever, sitting there,
so breathless, so ravenous between us.
The carpenter bees leave their sawdust dunes
heaped on the porch beneath the wood railing
like ancient pyramids returning to sand,
and the damn termites have taken the walls.
Last night I dreamt I was the dead pharaoh,
the tyrant king mummified in his tomb.
A carved history fading from stone tablets
as looters filled satchels with gold. The worms
had already come and gone, picked the skull
clean. My chest was a winter honeycomb,
a bee’s papery nest seized by hoarfrost.
While thieves sifted my organ jars for jewels,
I grinned jawbone through the din gauze. I felt
the hive stir, all the bloodless wings thrumming.
When finally Solomon would drop,
heavy as a scuba diver from a boat,
into sleep, the table fan keeping quiet
sentry over his body, he could dream,
practice the shallow breath of leaving,
push off the bed’s earthly pitch, spit
his goggles and slip beneath the surface
of knowing. The tired weight of himself
left twitching against his wife. The bedroom
blinds breathing in perfect oscillations,
dawn-purple, cool, and slatted as gills.
When finally he could up-end himself,
kick away from this world, follow
the jade columns of light down
and down to the half-sunk mandible of reef,
all molar and bone, barnacle and neon,
he could play again, whirl his diminished body
in circles, the way he used to
tease the neighbor’s dog into chasing its own tail.
The evening light of suburban New Jersey
has in it smears of newsprint and the Khaki
shades of trench coats slung over seatbacks.
Commuters descend, single file,
the concrete stairs at Watchung Station,
each hauling the glum luggage
of shadow hunkered at their clicking feet.
A train’s whistle blares behind them,
scatters a murmuration of starling
that swoops down, banks, then doubles back
into themselves like a black shawl raised off
the shoulder, alive by wind. It’s November
and the maples, having emptied their branches,
rake over their darkening plots of sky.
teaches creative writing at Arizona State University where he is assistant director of the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing, director of the Young Writer's Program, and is co-editor of 22 Across: a Review of Young Writers. He is the recipient of Literature Fellowships in Poetry from the NEA and the Arizona Commission on the Arts. His poems have been published in numerous journals including: The Gettysburg Review, North American Review, 42 Opus, JAMA and Hayden’s Ferry Review. He is the author of A House that Falls (Slapering Hol Press) and Oblivio Gate, which won the Crab Orchard Award Series in Poetry First Book Prize (Southern Illinois University Press).