Poems grow out of me like porcupine quills,
a protective layer between me and the world.
They are reverse splinters,
stabbing up through my skin like springtime saplings
bursting from the seeds of my thoughts—
but it hurts to dig them out
or cut them down
and work them into
the fence surrounding my life
(and I’m not even sure I remember
what I was walling in or walling out).
I have to find the right places to put them,
somewhere they can protect or grow,
and hopefully get under someone else’s skin.
They itch like a sprouting beard.
They grow like grass, like weeds, like thorns.
I am a farmer who planted a field and then let it go fallow.
There are weeds in the furrows as tall as the wheat,
and cattle have gotten in through the unfinished fence.
The tractor has sat idle on the lawn for so long
one wheel is flat, with plants spilling through the spokes;
there are flecks of rust on the red engine cover.
Underneath is a patch of dry dirt stained black with oil.
I opened the hood once to see what it needed.
A frightened bird startled me as it fled,
leaving its blind, chirping chicks behind.
There was a network of mice nests
with little pieces of egg shells scattered inside them
and the headless fossil of a mouse on the engine block.
I closed the compartment and walked to the edge of the field.
I flicked a grasshopper from a golden stalk
and saw that I was too late to save it.
I thought about burning,
about changing professions.
But the hoarse whisper of the drying stalks haunted me.
Today I walked right past the moldering tractor
and into the field itself, ignoring the whine of the crickets
the dripping of water,
the scratch of the nettle
and listened to the rustle of the leaves
and the rattle of the grain.
I knelt and clutched a handful of dark earth.
It smelled like fresh rain
and left a dark spot on the knee of my pants.
I wrapped my fingers around a solitary weed and plucked it out,
leaving a wet wound of fertile ground behind—
though the weed told me something of how dear its life was
with a few lines of poetry it placed into my uncalloused palm.
I plucked them out one at a time
and placed them on the fence
And then I pulled another weed.
With every word until the last
We chisel our own epigraphs.
They wear down as they burn both ends,
and what was molded into form
becomes a dripping mass of fat
that overflows the sculpted handle
until a draft blows out the candle.
We practice everyday:
checking off boxes,
kissing loved ones goodnight,
and preparing our bodies for storage.
We wrap ourselves in amniotic blankets
and melt into the night
trusting that we’ll awaken—
and usually wanting to.
We’re born into each new day,
stretching joints and blinking at lights
as if for the first time,
so ignorant of what’s ahead
we’ll often look back on our morning naivety
and laugh or cry at what we see.
We know we cannot live there though,
in that nostalgia-tinted looking glass,
cannot snatch a single hurtful word
out of the air after we’ve sent it
buzzing like a mosquito into an ear.
Nor can we project our voices indefinitely
into the caverns of history.
Our words will echo until they fade
or until someone else picks them up
and shouts them ricocheting through time
just to hear how they sound,
and then they will be their words, not ours.
No, we can live only here
in this moment,
brief as a snowflake drifting through a flame;
we melt into night
so when the time comes for the eternal sleep
we’ll know just how it’s done,
only this time the womb is a coffin.
Suspended in lifeless fluids,
we are born into oblivion.
When travel-hardened neural paths
have been destroyed by mold and time
I’ll leave you with these battered maps
of where I walked my scattered mind.
I was a river when you found me, little bird.
You couldn’t bathe in the deeper parts of me
for fear of being swept away.
Instead you found some dissipated eddy
in which you could immerse yourself
and sing your titillating gratitude.
You marveled in my ebb and flow
and followed my tributaries as far as you dared.
Dark trees hung over me in which you could wait
for safety, to be fed,
or just to roost and hear my constant voice.
The change was nearly imperceptible at first.
A little softer
or a little lower down the mossy bank,
and you thought the winter runoff was ending early.
But it came and went, and still I changed,
twisting and turning on my own sandbars
until I covered twice the distance
with barely half the water—
From river to stream to brook,
and all of nature hedged me in
as banks retreated.
Many times you’ve flown to the source
to see what was the matter
only to find there’s nothing you can fix.
It may be that someday
I will find my course again,
and all my rivulets will become one
meandering no more, but raging,
crashing down and rising up
breaking the bars and blasting the trees,
retreading my old path.
Perhaps I’ll gurgle from the depths I’ve sunk
and pour over the sides again
with greater flow than ever
for the perspective I’ve gained,
and my branches will spread like fingers
over this place, clutching
and grabbing it up with abandon,
creating new tributaries to feed my appetite.
Perhaps, my friend, but I cannot tell.
I did not foresee this bend, and
almost everything has changed, little bird,
save one thing only:
I am still your stream.
Come perch above and sing to me.
Come bathe in my clear and gentle waters.
November mists rose from the mountains
but already had come and gone from the grass
leaving its frosty footprints on the lawn
for me to follow as I left my own.
put cotton balls in your mouth and chew
while hanging upside down
scraping your fingernails on a chalkboard
to the sound of feedback from a mic
as the fire alarm goes off
and you’re naked on a stage
giving a speech on quantum mechanics
to a group of Nobel Prize-winning physicists
who’ve prepared for your remarks
by digging through your grades
and social media posts
before interviewing your old boss
who fired you because he found out
you’d made a move on his wife
who was twice your age
and you forgot to put on deodorant
before they made you run that mile on hot concrete
and you want to shut your eyes and disappear
but you can’t even blink because of the metal clamps
holding your eyelids open to fans
that blast your face with freezing air
and you feel certain it’s a nightmare
only you never wake up
It’s odd that everyone’s scared of zombies;
we’ve known for years that the cure is coffee.
Our minds have grown around the past
like a tree that swells over a boulder
as its leaves push upward and outward.
The seasons pass,
the sap runs black,
the old trunk groans,
until the two are one—
though sometimes weaker for it.
Then, in some blissfully distant fall,
an evening wind may blow just right
stressing the tree along this fault
or ending the work the boulder began;
and were it to be removed by some
misguided arborist (or therapist),
the entire trunk would crack
and tumble to the grass.
No, we cannot ever escape the past.