Waiting to Deliver: an Alaskan commercial fishing memoir
I was nonplussed. I'd set that piece - or, rather, pieces - aside because I was stumped at how to connect all the disparate stories and poems I had written over the years into a coherent whole. When I first started writing it shortly after I retired from teaching (the second time) in 2010, I thought it'd be clever to put them in a non-linear format. I landed on a "conceit", or template for telling the story that involved me knocking a pile of old fishing permit cards onto the floor. Those cards are issued by the State of Alaska annually, and each year is a different color. A fisherman must use them to sell their fish to a processor each time they deliver their fish, so the processor knows the fisherman is licensed.. Many fishermen such as myself save them as mementos of their years fishing. When, in the writing of the first version of the memoir, I bent over and picked up a card, I'd look at the year stamped on it and that would trigger memories - stories - of that year. The idea was that the reader would encounter the characters and events out of sequence, and the more they read, the more the pieces of my fishing life would snap into place. It was a good idea until I realized there were multiple people named Rob and more than one Danny. Sorting them out became more and more difficult and redundant as I found myself spending too much time explaining who exactly I was talking about instead of telling the story. By the fifth or sixth card, I was frustrated and realized it wasn't going to work. So I set the project down and walked away. For almost ten years. Then Veronica, as she does, got an idea about what I should do with my time. And for that, I am forever grateful. "Waiting to Deliver: from greenhorn to skipper, an Alaskan commercial fishing memoir" launched Feb. 17th, 2022, and the response from a wide variety of folks - fishermen, former students, old college friends, FisherPoet Gathering fans friends, family and outright strangers have snapped up almost all of the first printing (225 copies). The book is on Amazon now, and though it hasn't really taken off there yet in terms of sales, I'm starting to collect some very complimentary and humbling reviews. So for you readers who haven't yet bought one, here's a little taste. I added vintage B/W photos I took along the way (I taught photography for 28 years), and peppered the book with poems. Here's one of my favorites:
All the years I been on a boat,
commercial fishin' on the ocean afloat,
I always seem to find a way to be
what you might call hygienic –
and never use a bucket at sea.
Now let me explain – my first job is as a crew
on a Cook Inlet gillnetter – and I’m new,
so I work hard and keep my mouth shut
when given all the crappiest jobs, but
all this business with work boats and fish,
the hardest thing to stomach is the dish
my skipper feeds me when he says with a smile,
like he knows just how I’ll react all the while:
There ain't no toilet on a boat, it's called a 'head’.
We ain't got one here, so use that there bucket instead.
The container he points to is black and thin,
tucked behind the ladder, it barely has a rim.
I find out later some guys have a toilet seat
they put on their bucket to make it complete.
But the sketchiest thing is – I mean, what the hell?
I have to use it outside, on the back deck,
in the fish-picking well?
Everywhere we fish there are always other boats around;
seems to me the only privacy is back on solid ground,
or in the head of another boat that might tie up for a while –
where I can close a door and do my business in solitary style.
I’m convinced, but don’t show it or say it out loud,
there is no way I’m performing in front of a crowd!
So I hold it – sometimes for days
and I refuse to relinquish my restricted ways.
While we’re at sea or even anchored up –
doesn’t matter for how long – I’m a bound-up pup!
With a nod toward the bucket, my skipper says,
Do you EVER take a shit?
Not on THIS boat! I shoot back, and turn my head and spit.
Well how do you go about that when we’re fishin' for days?
he asks, and shakes his head at my unnatural ways.
I have a strong sphincter, I begin... Ya see…I… ah, fuck it!
I'm telling you, I’ll never, ever use that stinkin’ ol’ bucket!
I won't have my turds slosh 'round when the weather gets rough
and slap my port and starboard as the boat rolls in the trough!
And what if that flimsy fucker collapses under me
when I'm sittin' out there emptyin' my scuppers at sea?
I'm tellin' you, skip, I have a fish hold full of motivation
for me to maintain this extensive constipation!
And I intend on holdin' it 'til the season's over and done,
when I can pull down my rain gear and rest my bum
on a nice, white toilet seat above a clean porcelain bowl –
where I can properly deposit… a civilized roll!"
That said, we go back to work,
and though I am full of it, I try to not be a jerk.
But whenever a boat with a head ties alongside
I start to feel the surge of an outgoing, ebbing tide.
And when we hit the dock, it’s always a lively chase
as off the boat I fly and to the cannery john I race!
I know my skipper, on more than one occasion
has wagered a bet or two against me, but the rising sensation
inside me of impending jet propulsion
always seems to result in a positive conclusion.
I always make it. I'm really not sure how;
but my sphincter and legs make sure
my stern stays clean somehow.
I'll fly my flag high: I'm proud to say I’ve always ducked it,
and never, ever used that old black bucket!
It’s all gone sideways.
Pandemic. Stock Market crash,
Trump acting the dictator again.
We don’t hear much about the climate crisis
as we try and negotiate
our way through this,
but we know it’s still there.
I don’t know about you,
but I’m losing sleep over this,
what seems the first wave
of the apocalypse. Just a warm-up
before the big game begins.
So I try controlling my breathing
into the darkness above me,
or distract myself with video games,
reading, playing cards with my love,
hugging, holding, and yes, we cry,
but we do it together.
It was cold and rainy today,
the sky was gray – nothing new
and mixed with the rain fell light snow.
I stood on the porch and listened to it
as it spoke with the cedar in the front yard,
saying, this will resolve as it should.
The pandemic is self-correcting– It does
what science can’t, what politicians won’t,
what people across the globe refuse:
drive less, fly less, only make essential trips.
Entire states and countries aren’t commuting.
Energy consumption is a fraction of what it’s been.
For once most of us agree
how high the stakes are.
Will we finally see how high they’ve become?
This is only the first wave.
A cool calm touches gentle
this morning, white flakes
lightly drifting to the ground
in a silent ballet.
My mind makes its own music these days:
heavy metal death rock
with Covid-19 on lead guitar
and my love’s impending heart surgery
slamming the drums.
But grey clouds
bring an afterdawn tune –
a solitary light wind chime
against a backdrop of white flutters
that stop the chatter of bad news
and worse outcomes.
Today the stars slipped their tethers
and descended through the clouds
floating groundward as if to remind us
we are all still – always – standing outside,
mouths and eyes wide with wonder.
I close the casket on travel,
dig holes in the back yard,
toss in plays, poetry readings,
concerts, frivolous trips to the grocery,
the Farmer’s Market.
I mourn my favorite restaurants,
distrust the handle that dispenses
gasoline into my car. But though
the price of gas has dropped,
I’m not driving much.
I miss my beloved coffee shops,
the friends I’d meet there,
the conversations dipped into
as I wrote in my journal.
I miss relaxing in public.
I carry dread with me these days
like a scythe. It shows in my eyes
whenever someone sneezes or coughs
and I hold my breath as I leave.
No one says Bless You anymore.
We duck and scurry like the rats we are,
at the mercy of the fleas we carry.
I’m even reluctant to hug my own children.
The fear has changed my posture,
hands stuffed into pockets,
shoulders hunched, arms tight
as if I can fend off this unseen threat
if I hunker deep enough into my coat
deep enough into myself.
I am an undertaker all right,
scattered pieces of me
All that’s left to do
is carve a headstone.
– March, 2020
We’ve had it backwards
A virus attacks its host
until the victim becomes
crippled with sickness,
or even dies.
Stand on the moon,
rewind time, view the
sped up. Watch
as humans race
across the blue marble
hanging in space,
fouling air and water until,
overcome with fever
the world fights back.
Corona Virus? Only if your
perspective is human.
From the planet
point of view
it’s an antibody.
The flicker’s on the chimney
this March morning, announcing
his presence to the neighborhood.
The tin spark shield
echoes through the cedars,
hemlocks and firs standing silent
in the soft rain. Flat gray
overhead, not a breath of wind.
His beak strikes staccato
and the impact hammer of his head
rattles its way into the house,
startling us over morning coffee.
We look up from our devices
taunting us with our own helplessness
in this world of breaking news,
and smiling, we remember
there are others here, with an
insistent, immediate message
about needs of their own.
Let me tell you a true story:
I have stood on a concrete dock
extended like an outstretched arm
over a glacial river the color of opal
and watched the water flow upriver.
Not toward the river mouth, but UP river,
back to its source– the result of extreme tides
caused by positions of the moon, earth
and sun in space.
During those times we would double
the lines of our boats tied to floats
that rode water up and down
over thirty feet from top to bottom.
When the tide released its grip,
all that water turned with the river behind,
pushing to the sea. We’d hope we’d secured
the lines well enough to hold 11-ton vessels
against the stunning immensity of the force trying
for the next six hours to break them free.
One day I watched a fisherman try to maneuver
his oversized boat to a slip near the dock,
between two rows of other boats five or six deep.
He turned beam to the current, and in an instant
the racing torrent grabbed him before he could adjust,
surging him sideways into the row of the boats behind him.
His side window shattered, lines to the dock parted,
and his fiberglass cabin buckled as he slammed into 40-pound anchors
protruding from the bows of the boats he hit. In a flurry of shouts and curses
fishermen spilled out of cabins like termites from a mound.
Like a light blown out, the day switched from the routine calm
of a fishing closure to absolute chaos. The skippers on board
the involved boats instantly started their engines,
and everyone pinned by the offender began untying
so they could escape before they broke free themselves
and went crashing downriver into other boats tied up or at anchor.
One-by-one they cut loose and motored into the river,
trying to hover into the current, some still tethered
to an empty vessel tied alongside, the owner absent,
the boat locked.
Meanwhile every skipper and deckhand
on the float ran to help, scurrying over boats,
untying lines from the float, pulling lines out of the water
before they fouled a propeller, pushing boats away,
or trying to fend the interloper off the impaling bows.
It was frantic work. Everyone knew the boat in trouble
was desperate: tons of water pushing at her keel,
making her list, threatening to capsize her
with crew still on board. In a heartbeat
she could swamp and plunge under the boats
she was pinned against.
Seconds mattered. A slip of a boot,
a trip over a taut tie-up line or the sudden jerk
of a shifting boat could send someone
into frigid water rushing by so fast they’d be gone
before they surfaced, if they surfaced.
When the offending boat was finally freed
broken but intact, she found another place to tie up.
Afterward we blamed the skipper for making a decision
we hoped never to make, but during the crisis
blame mattered not at all. We knew everyone was needed
to stop a bad situation from getting worse.
Thirty years later, Covid-19 feels like that tide,
flowing our lives backwards, then turning dangerous,
sweeping over everything, relentless, unstoppable,
Like the river, the virus doesn’t care what we do.
We are pinned against our own mortality.
At a party in 1985,
she was everyone’s favorite girl,
she sat on the coffee table,
adorned in white sparkles
legs curled under.
We shared a straw, leaned in
and when she touched me,
I went numb with delight.
She ran her tongue between
my lips and gums,
and as much as I loved her
I loved that even more.
With her, time melted.
I don’t think I ever saw her sleep–
eyes wide, we talked til dawn
past dawn, into the next day,
all day, until, ragged and drained
I fell from her,
crawled onto the nearest couch
and slept for a week.
She didn’t mind; was waiting
when I awoke, calling softly, softly,
enticing, alluring, sexy as hell.
Before I left her forever
I went back again and again.
I have felt this way before.
1982. Fishing my old wooden boat
I was off the mouth of Tuxedni Bay
in a six-foot slop south of the Kalgin can,
when the fog came up.
In minutes visibility went from unlimited
to near zero. I knew from the radio
one of the boats in our group was nearby,
but as everything but the waves slapping us
disappeared, that was little comfort.
In my third season as a skipper,
I barely had a grasp on what to do
in bright daylight. Now, surrounded
by gray mist, I was out of my element.
Disoriented, I made a bad choice.
I decided to leave.
I switched on radar I had rarely used,
my crew and I went outside to pick the net.
The boat tossed and twisted as we backed
into the waves with the pull of the reel.
Spray from the tops of combers blown
by the wind stung our cheeks
as a mostly empty net rolled on board.
By the time the first fish came over the roller,
we had enough momentum to carry us
over the net before the sea could push us off.
Worried we’d hang up on the gear,
I made the worst decision of the day:
I put the boat in gear, wrapping the net,
corks and line around the propeller
until it thumped and ground to a halt.
Our day fishing was done. The adventure
had just begun. We tried kicking the net free
by putting the boat into reverse, then forward,
with no luck. We pushed at the net with an oar.
We tried pulling the net alongside. Nothing worked.
We went in the cabin and called a tender for help.
Be there in an hour or so, they answered.
Got some other guys to help out first. I turned off
the engine and looked to see what the radar showed,
faint green dots on a round screen.
The sweep of the hand around the screen was mesmerizing.
My deckhand crawled into the bunk. I watched the fog
and listened to the boat creak, the slap of the waves on the stern,
the occasional vessel running by. I could have been peaceful,
but the stress of the weather, being broken down and missing fish
kept peace at bay. By the time the tender parted the fog
I had convinced myself I was the worst fisherman
in the fleet. It wasn’t until I saw he had one of the best
fishermen I knew in tow with the same problem
that I realized we are all capable of bad decisions
on shitty days.
sit vacant in the gray
light of morning,
reminders of where
we sat yesterday,
our first visit in months.
This virus, armed with wedges
places an ironic twist on the adage
Divided We Fall.
Now it’s Divided We Live,
so, no hugs
when we spotted you
on the street, despite
desire so strong it hurt.
Instead, laughs, tears
and the feeling I sit with
today, writing this poem:
a knowing that if we don’t survive,
instead become statistics,
that you loved us
as deeply as we loved you;
that these chairs outside,
weathering spring sun, rain and hail
are not vacant at all– despite
all appearances, they cradle
the invisible treasures
of cherished lives.
~ for Kessler 04/02/2020
The rain has stopped
but the sky is still sodden
slate grey, gray goose grey
thick grey, grey as my mood.
The cat, all contrast and purr
curls on the desk where I write
tucks white paws under
black body, yellow eyes
at half-mast. In a moment
she will either sleep
or stretch a gentle paw
to the back of my hand
as I type, resting there,
reminding me she’s waiting
in pure grey light spilling
through the window.
~ for Tom Walls,
Visiting my Indiana home
from Alaska decades ago,
we arranged to meet, and you drove us
to Sleeping Bear Dunes state park
where we camped, smoked dope
(we still called it that back then),
and told stories into the night.
Best friends through college,
we had our adventures,
dropping acid, acting weird
and crazy just to see what people
and each other would say.
We drove from the enormous
sand dunes along Lake Michigan
to Chicago, where you were
dropping me off at my girlfriend’s,
and as we entered the ramp for I-90/94,
you turned to me: They say the three
most congested freeways in the U.S.
are the Kennedy in New York,
the Santa Monica in L.A., and this:
the Dan Ryan.
We were going sixty on a curve
between two tall cement walls.
You unbuckled your seatbelt,
screamed at the top of your lungs
and launched yourself into the back seat.
Screaming myself, What the FUCK?
I unbuckled too, grabbed the wheel
and slid over before we crashed
into the concrete abutment or worse.
Years earlier, still in college and stoned
to the gills, this time I drove. We came up
on a flatbed truck with slats six feet high,
loaded to the top with partially inflated
inner tubes. On top of the pile were three
big ones, the size of semi tires.
We were four or five car lengths behind him
when he hit a bump that bounced the entire load.
The truck tires compressed, then lifted,
one of them more than the others.
In slow motion it separated and floated
free of the truck. I took my foot off the gas
and we both watched as the big black
rubber balloon jiggled and shook in the air
dropping to the pavement in front of us,
flattening, spreading out before
it gathered itself and rose up again
just as we coasted under it.
We’d each been holding our breath.
With an exhale, you turned to look
out the back window, while I watched
the rearview to see it land again,
then bounce off the road into the ditch.
I’ve told this story dozens of times,
but a few years ago, I wondered,
with all the fuzziness of detail time brings,
if I had embellished too much,
had the facts wrong,
or made the whole damn thing up.
So I called you out of the blue,
our first chat in years. We laughed
and talked, you confirmed the veracity
of my tale, and we swore to stay in touch.
And we did, via Facebook posts and comments,
but never again on that personal level
we connected on so well in our early years.
That is what haunts me today, upon learning
that this morning you unbuckled yourself
from the vehicle we all ride, this time taking
a leap out of the car altogether, leaving me here
Vacuum canister in hand,
I opened the door this morning
to sunshine angling through the cedar
and a sense of warmth
in the spring-scented air.
I swept the house of debris
the past week dropped upon us:
the detritus of bodies,
including some we knew,
including some we were related to,
piled in corners with pine needles
and seeds, bits of chips under the table,
grains of rice, grains of rice.
I stood on the porch,
all that wreckage in my hands,
and breathed in the cool morning.
Looking down I noticed the hydrangea
for the first time since winter cut her back
and withered the flowers in her hair;
and there she was, quietly growing more.
Yesterday I sobbed on the telephone
as I told my granddaughters how much
I loved them. I felt my life drying up,
desiccated by this pandemic,
and I miss what has fallen away.
In that moment I forgot
what the hydrangea knows–
how patience is as important as water
in surviving the long winter.
So I wait. I wait with the sweet hydrangea,
the budding dogwood in the back yard,
and the lilacs walking their slow, diligent path,
not lamenting fallen blooms of autumn,
but moving ahead, trusting their work
will bear beauty again, each in their own time.
The news says the next two weeks
are forecasted to be the worst yet.
Brace for the toughest fourteen days
of your lives. Today blossomed blue sky
and yellow sunshine bathing the buds
on the dogwood, maples and spruces,
warming the cool spring air of early April
enough that we ventured outside,
into the teeth of danger.
It didn’t feel treacherous, but then we avoided
the supermarkets, gas stations and hospitals,
and stayed home, working the yard,
cleaning out the garage, dragging lawn furniture
from under the eaves. The riskiest thing
I did was roll the recycle bins to the street.
I didn’t even get the mail.
Sweating from the little effort I put out,
I sat on the corner of the wooden box
in front of the house and paused in the shade
of the cedar. A tiny songbird flew into the Japanese
maple across the drive and burst into an Aria
so beautiful and loud for his size that he surprised me
into smiling at his unpretentious audacity.
It didn’t last.
Perhaps he was disturbed that I sat next to
so many abandoned and fallen nests displayed
behind me on the box, that he left soon after his serenade,
or maybe it was the black iron sculpture of a great heron
Or maybe, like me, he saw not the stable, thick concrete
where our cars park and we walk, but the cracks
lacing the poured foundation, eating away the solidity
year by year, day by day, accelerating, falling away
no matter how brightly we sing.
~ for John Prine
What do you say
when the dark cloud comes for you?
What do you do
when you feel it in your lungs,
when you’ve taken all advice,
worn the mask,
used the gloves, read the articles,
and all your effort
didn’t pay off? What if
your creativity, your toil at your job,
all the love–
of friends, lovers, family
didn’t matter? When you can’t
breathe your last breath,
sing your last song, recite your last poem,
paint your last masterpiece,
what do you say?
Take me then, you fucker.
I don’t resent your choosing me,
despite all I am or have done,
but that you’re so greedy,
taking so many others
so many of us all.
The bubble popped today
when the English teacher in me
saw not one, but three errors
of spelling in the title and intro
of a poem emailed to me
by what I naively thought
was a prestigious literary magazine–
each instance the same word.
Ouch, I thought.
This sends an unfortunate message
about the poets and writers published there,
of which I am not one,
but thought I might like to be.
More concerning was
how did the repeated misspelling
make the poet feel?
And damn, it was an excellent piece.
I know I’d be embarrassed,
maybe even a little horrified.
The poem itself
had the title spelled right,
pointing a finger
at the culprit, not the author:
An intern in a hurry, I presumed,
who just needed to run a spellcheck.
So I dashed off a reply,
asking Really? Three times?
And sent it off without a thought,
until an offended reply
from the editor arrived
in a cloud of hot smoke.
How dare you? Was the gist
of the response, with a terse description
of how busy he was, how audacious I must be,
and how I cherry-picked his trivial error,
catching him at a weak moment,
when he had so much more important work to do.
Abruptly I was cast the bad guy,
like so many English teachers before me.
Yet, I took his offense to heart, wrote a letter
of apology, even offered to volunteer
if he was so swamped he could use a hand.
His reply was silence.
But for him, I suppose the moment had passed,
and he pushed into the current of his busy,
Just as abruptly I wrote off
ever getting published there,
or ever wanting to. Though
I must admit I harbor a nagging itch
to send him this poem.
The cedar fronds
hang in the still air,
cradling two tiny trillium,
a portrait of fragility
under its eaves.
And in the cool air
above this giant of a tree–
a light mist
of fog that nurtures
the ancient forests
of this coastal land.
We call the fog
a Marine Layer,
as if science can override
what water vapor
Though today is forecasted
unseasonably sunny and warm,
the mist belies discipline,
like empty cushions
of lawn chairs we
placed in the yard,
in the year of Covid-19
no one may come sit in them.
Still, the morning has started
soft, and for the little trillium,
the towering cedar and me,
filled with expectation.
During March, we were lucky.
No one we knew died.
But April arrived,
and with it, the trepidation
we felt became real:
my wife’s sister’s husband,
passed from complications
of Parkinson’s aggravated by the virus:
no longer able to visit the nursing home
daily, his wife couldn’t bring him food,
couldn’t touch him or lean in and whisper,
I love you. Starving, he lost weight,
and stopped taking his meds.
Two weeks later, he slipped away.
At least she was holding his hand
at the end. Not so for so many others
who are dying alone this spring.
The sun has returned this month,
dripping sadness through the trees,
warming the chill in the air
until the reminding wind drives us,
tucking our collars up, inside
to wait for more bad news.
- a letter to the hospital staff
When the end comes,
please remember who I am,
that I have a wife or a husband
or family and friends
whom I love and who love me
and they can’t be here.
Know that I ache to see them,
one last time even with this tube
down my throat, but I don’t want them
here, risking their lives to say goodbye.
Please understand that I am filled
with sadness that I must leave – alone
in the company of so many others.
I am grateful that you are here
tending to me at your peril.
Know that I would choose another way
if I could. And even if I am unresponsive,
trust that I am still present,
and if you get a minute to breathe,
please whisper a kind word in my ear
to take with me as I go.
~ for Bridgit
Think of a lighthouse–
how in the dark of night
it hurls photons into the dark
in a circle: an illuminated warning
not for those on land,
but for the water-borne,
the mariner making way
Watch a ship pass
after the sun is well-set,
already lighting the other side
of the planet. Notice how red,
green or white lights appear,
then fade from view.
Now you have it.
Arc of Visibility is not
what you choose to see,
nor even what chooses you.
It is the repeating life lesson
blinking at us across the void–
everything depends upon
what porthole you gaze through.
Blood over the door
Now more than ever
Now. More than ever.
The virus is in our lungs
reproducing in the soft, moist tissue
until, full, we drown in our own blood.
The virus is in our bank accounts
feasting on all we thought we had
until, empty we are hollowed out.
The virus is in our pockets
robbing us of family, friends,
lovers, leaving as payment
for its indulgence, generous helpings
of anger, sorrow, loneliness
Invisible, the virus is everywhere
and nowhere to be seen
simultaneously, all at once.
~ for Ella
What would you do if this
were your last day on earth,
we used to ask ourselves
as a reminder to wake up
from travelling through life
The old answers don’t work now.
My bucket list has changed: no longer
do I want to sightsee the world,
leave my family behind for weeks
or months to indulge my selfishness.
After a month of self-isolation
and not seeing her,
we ask our granddaughter
what she wants for her birthday
next week. She’s turning eight,
and with wisdom far older
than her years, her reply is
I want to spend it with you.
My answering thought:
I want to be with you too–
for many, many more.
But if it’s all I get,
I’ll take this one.
A poem a day for April
has been my practice
these past three years,
thirty days in a row, writing.
Some days I race to arrive
at an intimate meeting
behind closed doors
with my secret lover.
On others, the room
is empty, and I
hollowed out– nowhere
to turn for solace,
the blank white page
a window to futility.
On those days,
– and I admit
it’s become every day –
I turn on the music,
soft and instrumental; something
to entice a muse to dance,
a small step to start – a word
or lyric placed just so, tempting
more until the choreography weaves
and spins itself up and out,
exhausting us, that tired
that comes with the burning flame,
certain to return tomorrow.
My neighbor across the street
always has a friendly word.
He likes beer and football,
roots for the Mariners,
and he even checked on our house
when the security alarm went off
a few months ago.
When the ambulance came last year
to take me to the hospital
after I dislocated my knee,
he texted, asked if there was anything
he could do. He even offered to mow
our lawn while I was laid up.
He’s a nice guy.
Which is why it was such a shock
when he hung a Trump sign
above his garage a few weeks ago.
He knows how we feel
about the animal inhabiting the White House,
poisoning the landscape
with his words and actions.
Now, with the pandemic sweeping
the streets and details of our lives
down the storm drain between us,
exacerbated by the lies and deception
of our incompetent government,
the sign still hangs there, in our minds
a symbol worshipping corruption,
fascism and immorality.
Not that I’m the most moral of people,
but I know right from wrong, compassion
from callousness, what’s important
from what’s petty– most of the time.
That sign offends me. My neighbor and I
haven’t spoken since it went up.
I thought he was a nice guy,
but he’s hung a sign for all to see
saying he’s not.
It’s good advertising.
~ for Ross
A five-foot spruce boathook–
in my garage for thirty years
waiting, weathered and brittle
until, while cleaning on a slow day
this week, I rediscovered it,
sanded it four times,
varnished it three.
After lunch I took it, much like I
scavenged it from the cannery
I used to fish for all those years ago–
to an artist I know, and watched
him weave magic on a bronze hook
to replace the original aluminum one.
The newly varnished handle
glowed in the spring sun,
and when he finally got the hook to fit,
it glistened in response.
What once was a utilitarian tool
made by hands seeking a solution
to a need, too much time,
and a tinge of boredom
is now renewed–
for many of the same reasons.
Tomorrow I will tie my first
ever whipping knot
to seize the hook to the pole
the way it was originally designed.
And somewhere, I imagine,
an old fisherman will nod in approval.
Take me back
to the 1980’s
in Alaska, when,
in my thirties
I finally grew up.
Put me on a boat
on big water,
by high winds
and steep waves.
Let me remember
what it felt like
to stay afloat
when everything else
conspired to sink us.
A broken-down boat
in nine-foot seas,
or a storm so ferocious
wasn’t an option.
How the phrase
cheated death once again
was less a joke
and more of a reality
of going to work.
Let me learn again
currents that carry me
along riptides, how they
can show me which direction
Let me see once more
a world in flux,
one foot anchored
in the past, one raised
toward the unknown.
Last night the networks
all hosted a coronavirus celebration
of essential workers
with musical performances
from some of the best
entertainers in the business.
From Oprah to the Rolling Stones
we heard an evening of hope and praise.
Together, we will beat this! was the message.
Many spoke about the future–
When this ends, was the common cry
Then came the opinion today
penned by a world health professional
considering the possibility
it might not ever be over,
that this might be
the new normal.
Like the flu
or the common cold,
Corvid-19 may burrow
into our pockets
only to resurface
when we think it’s gone.
Viruses mutate. Vaccines
take time, and may not work.
We who want to see
the finish line
might be in for a shock:
there might not be one.
Meanwhile, the childish
among us wave flags
and gather to protest
their right to choose
to die or worse–
spread the disease further.
I have said this before:
Sightless, we are led
by the blind; and deaf,
we can’t hear the alarms.
The older you get
the more change
is tougher to bear.
When we were young
it didn’t seem like
change was hard.
it was too slow
We ground the bit
at birthdays that took
too long to arrive,
or hours in schoolhouse seats
while the minute hand
crept along its arc.
Our parents chafed
when hairstyles lengthened
and the bottoms of jeans
grew fatter. But we
couldn’t get enough:
we set the table
rebellion, insatiable, gluttonous
for more, while the elders
resisted sitting down at all.
Now it’s our struggle.
Tattoos for some,
piercings for others,
green hair, gauges,
we stumble through
until we arrive,
a long look in the mirror:
there is room here
I spend more time than ever
trying to be mindful
in an attempt to silence
the monkey-mind chatter.
Trump, Corvid-19, Republican
power grab, protests against
lockdowns and health guidelines,
threats of civil war, injustice, families
torn apart, death, climate change–
it’s ongoing, incessant, everywhere.
So I meditate, listen to new age
music, write poetry, hug my wife,
call family and friends. We tell each other
we love one another before we end the call,
because who knows? A dry cough,
a sore throat, and a week later
a ventilator? It’s frightening enough
to remind us to say the things
we don’t want left unsaid.
Which is why I’m at a crossroads:
old friends reached out by phone today,
wanting to catch up. Once we were close,
but they’ve gone over to the dark side of politics,
and that bothers us so much we didn’t pick up.
Our first impulse is to not return the call.
We spent several Thanksgivings together,
both families isolated in Alaska.
We taught at the same school, raised kids together.
We even photographed their daughter’s wedding
as a gift. But that was a decade ago.
These days his Facebook page is filled
with hateful statements about beliefs
and causes I hold dear. He supports opinions
I consider lies. She remains silent,
and we don’t know if she agrees or not,
but they are still together. If they were strangers
we’d know what to do. But they’re not.
They’re people we cared about, were close to.
To contact them as if nothing’s changed
feels like a sacrifice to hypocrisy. To refuse
is an acknowledgement of our own intransience.
Either choice embraces grief. Either choice
feels wrong and full of sadness. And either
makes us question ourselves.
Is this friendship in the time of Trump?
I hate to give him power over our intimacies,
yet I hate to compromise our beliefs
during such hard times. So we wait
sadly, and do nothing.
And the news is dismal.
More extinctions impending
and a new list already slipped
into the void. Another species gone,
another drought, mass famine
on the horizon, forecasts predict
a lousy hurricane season, oceans warming,
ice sheets melting, millions of humans
sick, thousands dead, no end in sight.
Pick up your gun and kill someone,
some of us seem to think. If they disagree,
shoot them. The president will approve,
as long as it’s not him. We lemmings
run, charging off the cliffs of sanity
and decency. Meanwhile an implacable
planet has launched a defense system
no one saw coming, and so far,
we are helpless to stop it. Who’s next?
Tigers, elephants, gorillas? Us?
Celebrate the earth. Celebrate her resilience.
Praise her ability to self-correct, even if we
are what needs a remedy.
Stand, feet on firm ground,
look up into a cold day
and watch snowflakes
drift and dance
with each pulse of wind.
There is something
inside that performance
that compels, even
turns pink in spring
when the plums,
dogwoods or cherries
release their petals
from what binds,
and like snow
they fall to the street
swirling as you drive past,
spiraling in your wake,
the same way rain
transforms from clear drops
to white mist and back again
when the wind and thunder boom.
Or breathe brisk autumn air
and the scent of fallen leaves
that drop when the light
is angular and low,
never a straight descent
even when winds are calm;
leaves piling around you
until your feet disappear,
until you raise your arms
in praise of the constance of gravity.
As a teen I knew
there was more to life
than what I had been dealt.
My mother was an alcoholic,
my father a bully. My sister
and brothers in college,
I held a void in the center
of my chest that the rest
of me revolved around.
All I did, all I was,
was an attempt to fill
I tried hard:
I drank, ran away,
tried drugs (lots of drugs),
pretended to love things
and people I didn’t,
ran away again.
In the worst of those times
I still felt that emptiness,
stared at that hole
alone, inside me each night,
hovering above me and below
inside and out,
emptier than ever.
My freshman year in college
I fell in love, and thought
But she didn’t,
and when I transferred away
her memory deepened the void
and put her face upon it.
I fell in love again
a few years later,
that was when
the hole began to shrink.
When I finally met
the right person
half a world away,
I slept for years
of that dark place.
I feel its return, haunting
my dreams, waking and asleep.
I wonder at the love that banished it,
if it’s strong enough to protect
all the people I love now
against all I see coming for them.
Sometimes it’s all I can do
to close my eyes, and honestly,
tonight, sitting here facing it awake,
I don’t know how to make it
We sit wrapped
sharing a blanket
in our chairs and watch
the computer screen stream
our favorite show.
When the commercials
come on, we laugh, decide
to neck our way through
until the program resumes.
I am 69 years old
you almost 72.
And here we are,
still 29 in our minds,
hugging and kissing,
teenagers at the movies.
Except there are no movies
these days, and we’re
old farts. But like so many
have said before us,
We’re not dead yet!
When I try to cop a feel,
you scream, push me away,
and we laugh louder.
This virus can kill us
together or one at a time,
and we confront that
each day at our age.
But life can take us too,
and if this disease
has taught us anything,
it has reminded us
to drink the marrow
out of each day
as fervently as we kiss,
dreaming of eternity.
These days we awaken early,
no need to get out of bed,
or sleep more, for that matter.
We roll over, grab our devices
and snuggle in for an hour
or more, arising when
override our inertia,
not bothering to get dressed.
Some days we wear jammies
(me in sweats, you bathrobe)
‘til midafternoon, giving in
once the sun’s come out
from behind the clouds,
or if we really have to shower.
What are you going to do today?
Is an inside joke we share
with a smile and shake of the head.
You paint flowers, I write poetry,
and we wait as if something’s
about to happen. Knowing
that it will, likely not good,
we hug more than ever,
attempt to remember
gratitude for each day,
each minute together,
each breath we take.
You are not gone,
and the sun is pouring
through the window
as I create your eighth birthday card
on my computer.
The music on the speakers
is soothing and just sad enough
to feel the thought of you
and how much our visits–
now barricaded behind
a virus– mean to me.
I miss watching you
as you somersault across
the family room; I miss
your voice calling Papa!
as you remind me to watch
as you swirl on the uneven bars
or do a back handstand
on the trampoline.
I miss your comfortable snuggle
as you slide onto my lap
to watch a movie together.
I miss your hugs. But most of all,
on this day before your birthday,
I miss you.
I look out the kitchen window
see the late April sun filter
through cedars, firs,
hemlock and spruce.
A shaft of light arcs
through dark green fronds,
sparkles and glistens on water drops
clinging to violet blossoms
of the lilac in the back yard.
I wander out the door
smell the fragrance
dozens of feet away.
I am drawn in.
I cradle the blooms,
hold lavender-tinted cheeks
in my hands
feel the tremble
on my fingertips
as I draw them close
for a tender inhale
of all these spindly
sticks have offered:
homage to returning sun,
praise stretched to sky,
the air washed
by night showers.
Blank page like a new day
like a flash of lightning
like squinting into the sun
blank sheet like new snow
like white sky
an envelope with no address
blank like my stare
my slack jaw
blank like my slack jaw
like my stare
an envelope with no address
like white sky
blank sheet like new snow
like squinting into the sun
like a flash of lightning
Blank page a new day
I have come to love
April. She carries
the transition of seasons
in hands cold as ice
warm as fleece
in her eyes swirl winds
that bend trees
or gently caress and lift
a feather-light butterfly
If you don’t like the weather
wait ten minutes,
goes the joke,
but the hailstorm
that follows in her wake
rarely lasts that long.
Most of all
I am in love with her flowers
and foaming trees:
shy crocuses peek
from under her hem
starting off first, and as she strolls
and squalls her way to thirty,
a brown and drab landscape
bequeathed by winter transforms
to a parade of yellow daffodils,
pink plums, blue forget-me-nots,
white cherries, brilliant tulips, early rhodies,
azaleas and Godohgod– the lilacs.
her way offstage to explosions
of fragrance and color,
and like all good performers do,
leaves us wanting more, always