Across the bay, the lighthouse licked the sky—
what was I thirty years ago
when my wife and I rented a cabin
nestled at cliff’s edge, 100 feet over
rocks, not rumbling a rhapsody,
yet beckoning me to what?
To wanting other than a wife
beside me? Yet I rose each night
to her wanting and she, surprised
at my need—the lust, waves of it,
cried oh and oh and never
heard below, not me—
but the sea, coming
in, lifted; never swerving,
we—she and I—let it take us
like an almost happiness.
There is no horizon, merely fog
and, below it, gray unveilings, a slither
of white lips paring the vast indifference
of gray. I’m waiting for someone
who is late, again. And yet, out of this shushing
of rocks and water in the mist-mothered air,
first one, then two, headlights blink by—
not my friend—but someone hurried.
It’s nearly dinner time, the nightly news
is blathering in some living room like a gull and
off shore—can’t make it out---
keening like a door on worn-out, rusted hinges
the dark lick of lament over the murmurings of musts
and maybes and might-have-beens.
Then, nothing but gray.
I want Nate, a tall lanky sophomore
who hates to read—and, well, writing,
is not his thing—to compose one scene
in a story—to use his imagination,
to make something up.
I ask him, “Where is your character?”
He smiles. “Hawaii,” clearly pleased with his placement.
“Good,” I say and inquire, “Does he live on the beach?”
“What’s he doing?”
“Waking up. . . . It’s morning, early morning.”
He’s making up a story: I’m getting somewhere!
“Have him go to the window—what does he see?”
He puts his finger to his lips.
“A woman in a white dress.”
“Perfect! What is she doing?”
“She’s walking her dog.”
“A Jack Russell terrier,” he says, grinning.
“Good, that’s a great beginning. Write it down!”
Nate does not want to write about the beach,
to place one word after another on a blank page.
He wants to be on the beach, to walk toward
the woman in the white dress who will see him,
virile and handsome, smiling at her. She will unleash
her terrier that will prance across the sand to him.
He will bend over and ruffle its wiry mane
and follow it back to the woman who will offer
her hand to Nate, and they will walk off into
a story where no one writes about what happens next
because no one is worried about what will happen next,
because the sun is rising on the Pacific, the palms
shiver in the balmy breeze, and the two of them,
silent and sure, take off down the beach like bathers
in a Georges Seurat painting, so it is natural
that one scene or the next in the story
will wash away like little dots in the sand,
because no one will ever read it
because Nate and the girl are far
down the beach—just specks—when the bell
rings, when Nate stands up; nothing is on the page
because he is out of here, gone to American history,
and, already, the next class has filled the room.
Press your fingertips to your wrist—
the bone, the nerves, the pulse—and, yes,
the skin, the delicate wrapping.
Leave it there. It’s like the skin
of lilies, their bright yellow mouths.
He slipped out his belt
and slapped it in his hand,
“Take that,” and I did—
then fled to the garden.
The bee’s rump nestled inside
the pliant folds of a foxglove,
inside the violet blues of lupines,
consoling colors inside of color,
flesh of hide, flesh of mine.
Sweet William, deep purples and whites,
the startling red of an Iron Cross—these
kind colors of the garden, corpulent,
glistening, tender in the early light,
skin of my childhood, skin of my kin.
These days I want someone to teach me to pray,
pray like the black lady, seated next to me,
in her blue uniform, her fingers on her rosary,
bowing her head, praying—
it’s nearly midnight—as our bus rumbles
toward 77th Street, North,
where her free hand will pull the cord,
and a programmed voice will intone, Stop Requested,
to drop her off on some silent street
to be done with day.
I want someone to teach me to count the string of beads,
psalm by psalm, into my heart’s core as if I were back
on the freedom ride to Mississippi in 1969,
singing, We are not afraid, blacks and whites together,
my friend Reg, his skin sticky with heat next to me,
riding into a segregated south. We carried signs,
“Freedom Now,” from Nashville, riding clear
across one state into another, eight long hours
to march by men in open convertibles, cradling
shotguns in their laps, confederate flags emblazoned
on their t-shirts, scowling at us as we sang
every mile on the way, how we will overcome.
Now I’m the only white man taking the northbound
bus from the Center for the Performing Arts
where, not an hour ago, I was about to leave
the top tier of the concert hall when a gay man,
gimpy like Quasimodo, dragging his lame leg
behind him, stepped out from his chorus,
stepped into center stage—alone at a microphone.
I wanted to turn my back on him, but he stood
there looking right up at me in the last row
in the dark recess of space as if he saw me,
as if he wanted me to hear.
I looked at the faces of men around me,
faces of any man—a banker before he denies
a loan, a lover before he turns away, an atheist
before he spits in God’s eye—all staring at center stage.
Possessed by something larger than himself,
the singer straightened up, opened his mouth.
His voice rose gently, caressing the notes, letting
the sound lift as if climbing one steep step at a time,
until the sound rose to where I was standing—fourth tier—
then it peaked, soared and filled the concert hall.
I’m not a great singer. But because he was singing
about the road to freedom, about never turning back,
how he lived and loved this life the best that he could
and he could finally fly, my body filled with his sound.
Half-way to my destination—110th Street, North—
with people the color of night hopping on, scrunched up,
people worn out with struggle, I’m still hearing his voice
and want to sing, Ain’t gonna let no body turn me ’round,
sing, How we were gonna keep on walkin’,
along with him, as if he were beside me,
as if there is still a prayer of hope
in this city of greed, in the heat of July,
on this bus as segregated at this hour
of the night in 2008 as in Montgomery in 1956.
I want someone to start singing—maybe
that hip-hop dude in a cut-off t-shirt and corn rows
across from me, or both of us together—
to sing and have that lady stride out, shaking her bootie.
But that’s some Disney movie, isn’t it?
Not the way it is. I stand up.
The lady shuffles off;
no one gives her notice,
no one utters a word.
Who can bother to pray anymore?
Those voices who could pray
in those dreadful days decades ago--
all silenced. Where can I turn?
To a book I hold in my lap?
It’s a New York Times bestseller
about how music fires neurons like passion,
arouses them to transport us with its pitch
and volume from one side of the brain to the other.
I remember my high school buddy, Reg,
back in 1965, crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge,
marching to Selma, telling me how
the dogs and batons beat him back,
but the song kept on moving
because it reached out past the growls and screams
just as that man’s voice on the stage today
reached to where I was standing, tired
of listening to chorus after chorus,
ready to walk out that door, to shut out his voice.
I should have known what freedom songs can do—
I’ve heard them my whole life. It’s just that
they were songs we had sung so long ago
when we believed that freedom was coming.
It’s like a stop we never got to
on this long ride into the night—
always another cord you have to pull first,
always yet-to-be, a note you can’t quite reach
in a song long forgotten.
And then that lone singer’s voice came back to me,
perfectly pitched, his arms extending,
standing as tall as any man can stand,
joined by the men behind him;
men who believed in his voice
backed him up, and his voice
swept note by note into me
like something I’d forgotten—
like a prayer and I raised my hands,
along with everyone else to give him
a standing ovation—all of us stood
and watched him, his delicate hands
pressed together, held up in front of him,
as he bowed and smiled like God himself.
Do you linger long on a line?
Dwell on it, wondering if it will end,
or if it will start: a path
along the comfrey, its blue bells
nearly soundless as you pass?
Does the languor of a line trouble you
as it ends, as if it could not bear another
breath, and there is nothing left to say?
Little exasperations of asters claim
some portion of the sun, while students,
unaware, as yet, of the angst in the effort
to make such colors in a tight container,
hurry past them to hear your every word.
They mouth whole lines you read
as if the lines were their lines,
as if the grasshopper you held
in your hand they hold in theirs,
as if the swan that, you admit, was really
a goose could swim away from your words.
How can they know how hard those asters,
cropped, planted—proper in their place—
work to be noticed on the steps that rise
to the oaken doors, to the long aisles,
to the podium and, lovely, to your feet
where they listen raptly as you speak?
teaches American literature, speech, and creative writing at Scarborough High School in Scarborough, Maine. He recently completed the libretto for an opera, White Rose, about Charlie Howard, a gay man murdered in 1984 by three Bangor teenagers, which premiered in summer 2011. In addition, he is the author of several collections of poetry, most recently To the Promised Land Grocery (Moon Pie Press, 2008), and has published four books on drug and alcohol education in the schools. Currently he is writing a novel, putting together another book of poems, and working on a book about how to merge teaching the craft of writing with teaching literature. In 2011 Bruce was appointed poet laureate of Portland, Maine.