Pawley’s Island, South Carolina, 21 August 2017

On the beach, the waves
break over laughing children
as on any afternoon.
“It’s only one thing passing
in front of another,” I say, and you laugh
though we both know better. Anxiously
we scan the heavens.

We know what to expect. We’ve seen
the pictures, timed it to the second.
We’ve planned this trip for months.
We bought our paper optics early.
We wear our commemorative t-shirts.

Along the shore, the upturned faces
measure shadow’s progress, check
the time. Mothers adjust their children’s
glasses. Amateur professors
lecture barefoot. A girl in a bikini
and a welder’s helmet like a
naked stormtrooper stalks
the sand. The man beside us
with elaborate equipment films
the cosmos, as if heaven might be rewound.

We have not gathered here for mere mechanics.
What do we seek, we scientific pilgrims?
Our eyes blacked out
admit only the brightest marvels.

Now gray like age
descends without the royal
tones of nightfall. Only the sun
still wears its crown, revealed
in death. The birds, uneducated,
fly for unbuilt dunes, and safety.

Reluctantly the day
resumes. Neighbors disengage,
settle into chairs. The birds
turn to their fishing.
You open your novel, I
my crossword, and a beer. Time slips
by once more unseen, and we,
baptized by darkness, go on living.

Cheap Sonnet No. 28F. In Which the Poet Observes a Child Behaving Disgustingly

Make y’all of winter what you will:
The pine trees, tufted like old men’s ears,
The disappearing footprints of a sparrow,
Tire-tread slush translucent in the sun.
Global warming? Honey, it’s the South.
One good sled run wears the track to mud,
But dogs and children, mittenless and yelping,
Wear it regardless, gravelled snowballs pelting.
And if the wide-eyed wondering girl
Fat and frosty fingers in her mouth
Slurped her skyfall from a grimy fender
Bird-shat, bug-splattered beneath its sparkly splendor—
Let her father shrug, and drink his beer.
It isn’t much. It will be gone tomorrow.

Cheap Sonnet No. e+1. In Which the Poet Fails to Grasp His Meaning

The dry leaf crumbling in the toddler’s fist,
The cloud-form wind-rent at the careless naming,
The fluttering dream that flees the day’s periphery,
The memory-scent long rotted from its root:
The lover hard pursued will not be kissed
Nor love be raveled out from life’s polyphony;
The truth, that beaten dog, is loath to trust us
’Til it lay its head unbidden at our foot.
And still with art the cunning mind constructs
Its algorithms and its aqueducts
To calculate the right, to channel justice,
Enumerate the light and catch the raining…
Once holding, we behold what’s left us then:
Water wisps that cling to porcelain.

Cheap Sonnet No. (√5±1)/2. In Which the Poet Bemoans, Again, the Failure of His Tomato Plants

These are the seeds that Christ forgot to mention,
Guaranteed by faith and factory rearing,
Sown not on rock nor thorn nor bitten path
But in good scientific soil, and bathed
With electrically timed warmth and light.
They thrust themselves awake like Christmas morn,
Unfurled leaves like mouths of baby birds
Mother-fed, quiescent while the year matured,
Stunted, never feathered out for flight.
Beware, my brothers, engineered intention!
Every life must suffer nature’s wrath.
Plant by singing and by signs. Mourn
The lost. Save what will be saved.
Listen though you are not granted hearing.

Cheap Sonnet No. 1843½. In Which the Poet Espies a Yellow House

Sing what no neighbor dares confess
Amid the squalid safety of the new
(Constructed character of mismatched cubes,
Rectilinear gardens, monochrome)—
This cottage clothed in cheerful dereliction,
The color of a child’s shining sun,
With window-box and dooryard in a mania
Of zinnia, petunia, gazania—
Accidentally annexed, arrises askew,
Gilded, bowered, vine-rife, breeze-cleaned, bird-rung.
Why scorn what abundant life includes,
Careless or a contrary ambition?
Whatever saints and sinners call this home,
God bless and keep them in their foolishness.

Interior of the Baptistry at St. Marks

The Sexton

Interior of the Baptistry at St. Marks

After William Merritt Chase, In the Baptistry of St. Mark’s, Venice (1878)

On Saturdays, at terce
I polish the brass. One by one
the candles from their unlit altar
in my calloused hands I carry
to a bench of pine my ancestors made.

Outside the sun bakes pilgrims in the square.
I sit in shadows, back against cool marble.

The candlesticks rest in my lap.
The polish stains my apron.
I peel away the hardened
husks of thrice-said prayers,
and with a cloth gentled by laundering
caress their graceful necks, their
swollen bellies, archéd feet.

I have no hurry. I have
polished this candlestick a thousand
years. I shall polish the next
a thousand more

until the light from high
windows the dark stones swallow
finds each arc, each surface,
makes it gleam.

I need no candle here.
I make the unseen visible.
My eyes will find
my work when it is finished.

February: A Cautionary Tale, and Desultory Philippic

‘Twas a grey day in February,
and evening fell like a dead canary…

Thus begins this year’s winning entry in the annual Upper Dongle Creek Literary Society Bad Poetry Contest. Penned by Mr. E. P. Merdle of Fickle Fork, Iowa, “February” evinces a deft hand at poetic form animated by vivid imagination and the worst possible taste. When asked for comment on his victory, Mr. Merdle replied only that “the main ain’t got no culture.”

First prize for 2022 is a box of five hundred pink erasers, a certificate suitable for framing, and a cease and desist order signed by six former U.S. Poets Laureate.

We walked for miles to see him

I read this poem, or rather story in the form of a poem, in lieu of preaching a sermon on John 6:1–15 at St. Joseph’s Episcopal Church on July 26. I had no great words of wisdom to offer about the story of the loaves and fishes, and, in any case, I’m a writer, not a preacher.

We walked for miles to see him, this brand-new prophet,
packed a picnic in the dark before dawn:
bread, a little stale; some cheese, a skin of wine,
more than we needed. My wife overpacks.
On my back I bore this feast, beyond
the town, the stubbly fields, into the desert—
the wilderness, she driving me before her
like a damned goat to die. We lived, of course,
but that was later. Meantime the sun shone hot
and hotter as it climbed, as we climbed
one hill after another, to see another valley
void of life and full of rocks, the few
bare bushes brown, and worse than none.
The sky became a vast and cloudless fire
that washed the world to white. We kept our eyes
down on the ground. A lonesome vulture fed
on carrion—though what could have lived here
long enough to die, I could not guess. Perhaps
another prophet, less successful. This one—
This one they all talk about, the one
the fishmonger says is Lord. I’ve heard it before.
My wife, my neighbor, the fishmonger say to me:
You have to hear him preach! But all I could think,
trudging over hill and sun-baked vale:
If this guy is Lord, someone forgot
to prepare his way.

Caeli errant

With apologies to the psalmist.

Each day tells its tale unto the next:
The sun in jaunty setting shouts its benediction to the sky
Like a TV talk show host leaving the stage.
One by one the sky announces stars
But the twinkling stars forget their lines, and the moon, old nag
Spends half the night in prompting. Insouciant satellites streak
Across the stage, and are removed. The audience
Doze, or check their phones. Before the dawn
The constellations are confused, and reel half-lit
About the murky void, Orion and the Pleiades
Doing God knows what together in the West. Now Venus,
Always eager, is up too early, and Jupiter demurely
Hides his face behind a cloud. The night grows pale
And imparts what knowledge it recalls—a whispered word,
The echo of a gesture. Something about the truth?
Not much remains. The day, in any case
Will not believe a word of it.