Near As Breath

Finding the well becomes a task.
Haunted, near forgotten
the once clear pool of water,
thump of the bucket,
smell of deep earth.
Still as the curving bonsai
I turn up to the rain,
cool air on my face;
what I want near as breath.
Now I remember.




How It Will Be

When lights go down,
the wheels stop turning
we’ll be left with night sky,
morning quiet,
emptiness that welcomes.
We’ll stop grinding our lives like corn
and circle dance with whales.
Our feet will drum the earth,
the rivers rise with joy.
We’ll be humans
beneath a star filled sky
and wondrous the beholding.



photograph by Shawn Malone



I slowly wake in winter’s cave,
body stiff and sore.
In gray skies
trees bulge with sap,
their flowers opening,
the earth of another year
pressing out into the visible.
I drift back to sleep,
doze in the soft dark
as rivers fall
with the joy of ice.
A deep blanket
is pulled back by the sun
and the green land breathes.
Song birds are out
along the swollen rivers,
creatures pad through snowmelt.
Time to rise
and join the flush of spring.





Oregon 1988


We stood on the porch,
night sounds around us,
the darkness comfortable,
letting us be together
without the impulse to talk
electric light would bring.


He held a cigarette in one hand
as if holding it was a pleasure.
After a while he asked me to find a match.
I brought one from the wood stove
and again he just stood there,
cigarette in one hand, match in the other,
as if they were old friends with no reason to hurry.


One of my daughters came out on the porch,
then the other, like moths to his flame.
The younger noticed the cigarette
like everything within her range.
“Grandpa, you shouldn’t smoke.”


For a while he didn’t say anything
though the irony was sharp,
the cancer having eaten so much of his body
but there was no mocking in his eyes.


He didn’t seem to be thinking, just waiting.
Then he said, “Why not?”
“Because they’re not good for you,”
the older one now, so direct,
with no prejudice for his age or condition.


He stood there a while longer,
the cigarette and the match,
holding them fondly,
as if the moment mattered,
as if something would arrive if he’d wait.


After a while he said, “Well, you’re probably right,”
and put the match in his pocket,
still holding the cigarette as they nuzzled up to him,
that rough hand drawing them both in,
brushing the hair back across their foreheads,
the crickets scratching and spring frogs croaking
in the warm darkness.





Old Joe

“It was a shame wen dey kilt dat president”
the old man said looking down
on the colorful caladias
“and dos utter gud men.”
It was a shame Joe
but what can you do?
“Dere you are, holdin dat baby.
Wat you tink?”
What do I think about what Joe?
“Bout what you cain do.”
Not sure I’m following you.
You were talking about the dead president
and now my little girl.
“Yo don’t tink dis world is all one ting?”
Well I guess so.
“Yo gess so. Hum.”
We were circling his shotgun home,
the retired railroad man and I,
my daughter snug up against my chest.
He had the nicest flowers planted,
his house painted and well cared for.
He called himself “old black Joe”
and he was just that, old and coal black.
His face shined in the New Orleans heat
his white strap undershirt bleach bright against his skin.
He wore khaki work pants with a crease and a shiny black belt.
“I drove spikes fo de railroad wit a sixteen pound hammer.
Did dat ev-e-ry day fo foty years.”
His wife was missionary baptist, dressed all in white.
She didn’t like me with Joe but he enjoyed the talk.
He loved the face of my baby girl,
his face lit up like a light bulb when he’d see her.
“Dats a pretty gal you got dere son.”
Yes sir, thank you.
“Yo mat tink dem men who kilt de president
oar run de railroad, dey callin de shots,
but dat baby in yo arms, how yo hold her,
dats what keeps the world. Yo’ll find out.”
His wife spoke to me through the screen door
when Joe hadn’t been around for awhile,
told me he had the cancer,
was in the Prytania Street hospital.
His room was cool and dark.
He was in so much pain
all he could say was “Lode haf mercy,
Lode haf mercy” over and over.
I started saying it back to him,
feeling foolish at first,
speaking to Someone I wasn’t sure I knew,
but the feeling rose in my heart
and I wanted mercy for Joe, for the whole world,
which I understood Joe was asking for too.
I held one of his big hands and prayed with him
until the pain let off, the body spasms quieted.
When I left the room I knew I wouldn’t see him again.
My daughter is a full grown woman now,
her son a young man, close to me.
The sea is up in a strong wind outside the cabin
and I’m thinking about Joe, how he held this world.
The old railroad man knew more than most folks,
me still growing into his knowledge,
how he would open his hands and smile,
his gold teeth flashing when he’d look at my baby girl.