Bricks and mortar aren’t what home is:
Nor the things we collected,
displayed, lived with.
But isn’t it funny how
often it distills down
to that rickety table with the yellow Formica top
in the centre of our tiny kitchen all those years,
the one we picked up for a song
that no matter how carefully
we teased the two ends apart
would send out the same jarring screech
and how we’d all squeal in fright, as if on cue,
then laugh until it hurt,
before carefully inserting the battered extra leaf
to make room for more.
Bricks and mortar aren’t what home is:
Almost every seaside town in Ireland has one.
The resident canine.
The Duke of the Docks.
The Chairman of Chill.
This one answers to Finnegan.
No mutt more streetwise,
this is his turf.
He knows the ropes here,
just who is a soft touch,
who will chastise,
and who will give chase.
Finnegan makes his rounds daily.
First to Mrs. Tyrell’s Bake Shop for a day old bun.
If he’s lucky they’ve remembered him
at O’Riordan the Butcher’s with a decent bone.
Then it’s down to the rectory for a ladle full of yesterday’s soup
and a neck rub from Father Tam.
Afternoons mean dozing on the pier,
a sure-fire tourist draw.
His bedraggled coat brings out the mother in everyone, it seems.
By nightfall his belly is full.
He knows where he can keep dry and out of the cold.
Crafty is Finnegan.
And on frosty nights there are warm grates outside the pubs.
But there is no master awaiting him,
no hearth his very own,
Finnegan is no one’s and
his wise wee self sleeps alone.
This November morning,
the bleak view out my window is the definitive study
Leaving me unsure whether to renounce the whole world
or fall in love with it forever.
Sleet wants to be snow. But snow would be the easy way out.
These leaden mornings grant us permission to bury our feelings
beneath heavy blankets.
But the toll is ultimately levied,
the brutality of these months,
at full bore,
waiting to unleash all.
The myriad charts and graphs of CoVid cases and deaths are numbing. But they all come down to this: one person. One person lost forever to the ones who loved him.
It is dizzying,
Numbing in truth,
Front page of Sunday’s New York Times,
One thousand names, printed in rows.
They blur together.
We shut down when faced with such staggering loss.
Among them, this one,
New father Israel Sauz, 22. Broken Arrow Oklahoma,
Who will never know the face of his son.
Israel Sauz, 22,
whose boy will take his first step without him.
And his first turn at bat.
Who will ask about the father he never knew,
To learn they shared a love for poetry,
And a mean curve ball.
That his father batted with his left hand just like him.
His father, Israel Sauz,
Whose poems went unwritten,
Who never held his son.
I was good to animals and small children.
Made room for the guy on the streetcar
who talked to himself.
Even gave him a few bucks.
But truth be told:
I never invited him home to tea.
Didn’t always take the easiest way,
but certainly enough times.
And, yes, vanity got in the way,
more than once —
the fight back from an ugly girlhood.
I frittered away talent,
pearls to swine, some might say,
churning out Annual Reports for rent money,
giving my all on corporate press tours,
with no energy left for the poem.
But a girl’s got to make a living
long seemed a decent excuse.
The world gives you too many reasons
to feel you’re not quite
good enough, talented enough.
And there was I —
and every one.
I just saw a man walking a raccoon on a leash.
I kick a pathway through the foliage to my front door.
So much needs tending.
A flurry of leaves follows me inside,
depositing the season deeply into every corner.
The slanted fall light is so harsh it seems it might lay bare
everything it touches.
And no forgiveness in it.
I smell the winter approaching.
Taste the metallic cold of it in my mouth.
I fear I may have lived my best years.
Click to listen… https://youtu.be/C53vVIfxwdk
If This Is Your Final Destination, Welcome Home.
Always the smell of tiger balm
takes me back to Kuala Lumpur in 1980,
the sweltering airstrips,
the sea of expectant upturned faces
of the refugees waiting en masse
at the bottom of the plane’s stairs,
on their way to Canada
and to second lives.
Plane load after plane load,
week after week, four years running,
we ferried them across oceans.
After days and sometimes weeks in crowded buses
they waited to be next in line,
these survivors of Pol Pot and his merciless Khmer Rouge,
these survivors of unimaginable horror.
We delivered them to Montreal and to Toronto,
away from all they had known,
everything they owned in small tidy bundles at their feet.
We chose our words carefully for the interpreter,
Trying to prepare them in some small way
for what lay ahead.
Where do you begin?
How do you tell someone how cold feels?
We played them music we wanted them to hear,
hits of the day, Blondie, REO Speedwagon,
handed out sandwiches and Pampers and wet naps.
They in turn watched our every move,
accepted anything given to them, suspiciously at first,
then with vigorously nodding heads, pouring forth their thanks,
holding up their solemn, silent babies proudly for us to hold.
When the cabin lights dimmed,
hearing their guarded whispers to one another
sharing late night confessions in the dark,above the ocean,
these people for whom nothing on earth
could be surprising.
Even when I urged them up the aircraft stairs,
beckoned them toward me,
they held back, tentative,
and only when I descended the stairs
took the first of them by the hand,
would they dare take the first step
toward this unimaginable freedom.
I see their faces clearly now and I ask:
Who among us could possibly measure
the courage we asked of them.
Click and listen here. https://youtu.be/6ujj9r1Ywho
Here is the poem’s text.
The Once and Future Beauty Queens.
At the A&P in my first part-time job
it was the full time cashiers I studied most.
They seemed savvy and
at 16 I was looking for ways to be.
I watched them on breaks from my corner perch
in the crowded airless lunchroom, upstairs in the back,
all smoking roll-your-owns, laughing nervously at the men’s crude jokes,
carefully picking stray flakes of tobacco off their crimsoned lips,
in this small northern town looks their only currency.
The older women like Evelyn were quiet, would light one off the other,
eyes on the clock, sullen,
counting down their moments of freedom
and how many they could power through before time was up.
Laughing the loudest was Shirley, the head cashier, smarter than the rest.
Her lipstick bled all day on a slightly trembling mouth,
her deep well of sadness pouring forth even as she laughed,
this one-time looker, this prom queen gone wrong.
The story went her husband beat her,
but never where the marks would show.
I can still smell the place,
the filthy overcrowded fridge packed with
meatloaf sandwiches and last night’s chili,
Dutch the butcher’s apron soaked in blood,
his cuticles caked red.
The sounds come back clearly too,
breaking apart our folded white cotton uniforms stiff with starch,
the click of the pricing guns resounding up and down the aisles,
the funereal clunk of time cards being punched at the top of the stairs,
the defeat in Evelyn’s voice over the crackling p.a. system,
calling wearily “All parcellers to the front.”
And how there was a pecking order to everything, even this:
How the prettiest girls were the first to get help at their tills,
young boys rushing into their stalls behind them,
as horses into gates,
eager to package groceries every Friday night
for the current beauty queens.
There is no glory in suffering.
Father Blackwell got it all wrong.
Ask the young martyrs
How much good ever came from their deprivation,
Their unspeakable deaths.
The suicide bomber looking up at a cloudless blue sky on his final walk.
What is his family’s honor to him then.
My father, grasping at air for his tissue paper lungs,
What greater good was ever served.
The faithful dog who licks his master’s hand
Only to be beaten again.
The teenage mother who surrendered her baby girl from her hospital bed,
When she passes a young woman in a stairwell years later,
And stares into a face hauntingly like her own,
As her heart breaks yet again,
Who did as she was told,
Where is the glory now?
Michelangelo said the work of art awaited him beneath the slab of marble, the task for him being merely to uncover it.
In my own small way I understand that mentality as I write these days. The poem I know is “possible” waits patiently beyond the first tentative lines of a succession of drafts, across a murky divide, and with luck and patience perhaps I will reach it, reveal all that it might be. But it is fleet footed and elusive and a task master, each and every time.
Here is one I wrote recently that felt exactly like that.
I should have bought gold.
Written that idea down.
Paid more attention.
I wonder lately where everyone has gone.
Why the most important never
quite makes the list.
And why enormous changes are so often required
at the very last minute
with no chance to catch our breath.
I wonder lately where everyone has gone
and why I stood by.
and this most of all
if even for a moment
I made someone happy.