The Astronomer’s Bedroom
The art of moving? It’s more of a mathematics, really:
the complex geometry of square boxes stacked
next to ironing boards in the back of the U-Haul,
the precise angles required to fit the couch
through the door frame, the circumference of table tops.
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or maybe it’s more of a science: a narrative
of Darwinian mutability and adaptation in geologic time,
tectonic plates drifting and colliding, erosion and accretion;
the Taconic orogeny layers of sediment, shale, slate, scree,
the history of the great migrations.
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“You’re going too fast,” my daughter interrupts
as we read a bedtime story Oh! The Places You’ll Go
“You’ll get to the end too fast,” she complains
with the profound wisdom of a five-year old.
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I pause and notice: the clusters above me
are not constellations, not even stars,
but bright glow-in-the-dark
stickers glued to the ceiling to scale.
She must’ve been a perfectionist, stepping
on a ladder, a pencil between her teeth
calculating the relative distance between Orion and the Pleiades,
Betelgeuse and Rigel in flawless placement.
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I think about endings, how we accelerate toward them,
how, not paying attention, we are oblivious to our speed.
“Keep reading,” she says. I move
on, turn the page. I place one foot firm on the floor
to stop the room from spinning, this
earth from its rotation, that
motion that keeps me still.
Sweet Loretta Martin thought she was a woman
But she was another man.
Good Golly, all them who knowed me, Honey, would board me
on a train with my sixteen boxes of gold lame' suits, my silver high
heel boots. Pack me off to Macon Georgia, my home town.
Get back, A-WOP-BOM-A-LOO-MOP-tops, told me, get back to where
you once belonged. My daddy, he was rough. Told me "I wanted six
sons, you went and spoiled it." He couldn't beat it out of me, this love
of pretty things. And I'm the prettiest, Lord, and that's not taking his
name in vain, Child. Since I be working on being a preacher man,
I put some of that nonsense behind. I learned from the Book, that Adam,
he married Eve and not Steve. But I still can't part with them ruby-rhinestone
jumpsuits, those capes with the purple boas. Down-under in Australia
when I was talking to them aboriginals with the blue eyes, I never seed
nothing like them boys. I thought I was the true original, the architect
of rock and roll. They told me to prove it to Jesus, so I took off all my jewelry
and throwed it into the ocean. That diamond piano ring? Saying goodbye
to that child was a hard cross for me to bear. Now I be looking for that shark.
But goodness gracious Honey, I not be needing those fine things in Macon
or where I'm going when I shake off this tired old skin. I be going
to a righteous stage, where I see Mary and Sarah over there on the buffet
line. Woo hoo, hiya Ladies. I can hardly wait, all those Saints and Kings
be calling me by my Christian name: Richard Wayne. Now, shut up.
Letter to a Survivor
July 13, 2020
I am writing to you in the midst of a global pandemic, which the U.S. on the whole has handled egregiously. From the top, self-interest has prevailed. As of today, almost 135,000 people have died, many needlessly. The grief and devastation around all these deaths (and all still to come) hangs in the air.
Today brought the news that Houston’s hospitals are now over-run, so patients needing ICU beds are waiting, sometimes for days, as doctors and nurses, overworked and distraught, cope as best they can. This tragedy could have been predicted—was predicted.
Deep down I still feel that this will pass, that we’ll return to something familiar, even if not exactly to life as we knew it. Still, I fear that even this best-possible scenario will be a reality only for a few.
That’s the more optimistic voice. Another voice says things are actually far more dire. Many political leaders have shunned their most basic responsibilities of protection and instead are sacrificing their own people, seemingly for nothing more than the possibility of political gain. Houston dominates the news today, but vast swaths of the country are under siege. When schools reopen in a few months, who knows how widely this lethal virus will spread or what it will leave in its wake—economic collapse, more inequality, ever more desperate poverty, more distrust of each other, leading finally to a bloody revolution in the streets?
If so and you are faced with the need to help build a better, more humane society, please ponder carefully the role that greed has played in the rise and fall of this one. The opportunity to profit drove slavery as it has driven so much that followed: continued exploitation of the most vulnerable, rationalization of cruelty and moral shaming, mass incarceration, grossly unfair tax policies, and self-serving immigration policies. A political system corrupted by wealth has undermined democracy and any possibility of equality. Don’t make this mistake again.
Now comes the most difficult part. Where to start to redesign a society? I can offer little guidance beyond what I believe must ground everything else:
Nurture trust, and do not betray those who trust you.
Share. Do not hoard and do not condone hoarding.
Care for others. Do not exploit and do not tolerate exploitation.
Love your brothers and sisters, and make brotherhood and sisterhood real.
Be compassionate. No one chooses the circumstances of their birth or often of most of their life, especially now when so many lives are cut short.
In short, do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
The Moon or Canada?
I don't even know if I'll be able to read this in the morning
But if the flames from the fire were enough to guide my hand
Then I just want to say
That I can't tell if the moon or Canada seems farther from here
I can't see the moon through the trees,
So I can't really see Canada,
Across the St. Lawrence Seaway,
Except for the measured inhales and exhales
From the tower antennas on the shoreline
And even though the moon is almost 239,000 miles away
Canada feels just as far
But since I can't go to Canada,
Should I just go to the moon instead?
The Prettiest Girl in Pottsville
Summers and at Christmas,
she worked in her father's shoe store.
Lucky when I passed
if she was near the window.
Little chance to see her otherwise.
They were Florsheim and Bostonian.
We were Buster Brown and Tom McCann.
We were nowhere socially.
She was merchant royalty.
Then too, when I was twelve,
she was seventeen
Should I chance to meet her glance
I would remain unseen.
Of course she married someone
on his way to fame,
fame, that is, as currently proclaimed.
Years later, I met him
in a restaurant on the pike.
Aren't you, and what brings you here
(meaning what immortal task)?
I'm on my way to see my kids, he said
(not glad I asked).
So it didn't last.
I was alarmed.
But when was beauty
ever proof from harm.
I'd like to tell what she looked like then,
angel wing, low above her brow,
blue eyes, or were they brown.
What does it matter now
What cannot be contained
is what remains,
ineffable, illusory, a sense
of self as witnessed in another.
Now more a yearning
than a memory,
it plays about the lips
and brings a smile.
She proved to me, a boy,
the world was made for love.
Somehow, some way, somewhere,
I hope she understands.
She left a fortune in my hands.
A Prescription from Dr. J
First, take enough fish
To save Pittsburgh,
And the floundering ABA
If you can; and also, Philadelphia basketball,
Which had been irrelevant
Since the departure of Wilt Chamberlain.
If lack of playing above the rim persists,
Skywalk to the closest Bill Walton,
And then throw it down
On his curly, red face.
If all I leave behind
Is what I wrote
And two pairs of shoes
And my winter coat,
I'm sure my next of kin
Won't have to read a will.
They can burn my diary,
Give my wardrobe to Goodwill.
It really doesn't matter
What happens to my things.
I have nothing of value,
No cash or diamond rings.
Down the Mountain
A Peruvian woman carries her child
down the mountain—
her husband does not follow.
Black sandals slide under cracked heels and
her chest rises and falls as she
stumbles over stones in the dust.
Soft fingers curl around her own
as she struggles to carry
the weight on her back.
Her smiling son hugs her as he
plays with the tears on her cheek.
Ghosts are carried in the wind
My body holds onto the breeze
Like an afterglow
I sway back and forth as I sleep
On grass that pokes at me
Swollen lilacs like a dream
I see the ghosts of Spring
In veins of leaves
I hope they never leave me be
I thought to myself
As I drove past H&R Block
If I were a tree
I would want to be
A willow on the sloping edge of a river bank
Crying forever as the river was never the same twice
A mighty oak
Seeing whole families of humans come and go for generations
Doing something birches do
But here I am
Reincarnated in the parking lot of an Applebee's
And as the gardener carefully lays the mulch at my feet
This is the life
—David Thomas and Deana Burke
My little dog is
"long in the tooth."
Ajar forsooth, that tooth.
Sweet, deaf, blind as a bat.
Her hair, assessed,
assessed as "mat."
We hold on, she and I
always at my side.
She wakes at dawn.
Her appetite needs prompting.
Those toilet needs
most often "wanting."
But, we hang on, she and I
always at my side.
In a certain light
Appear as sailboats.
—Jeffrey van de Visse