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.

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.

Continue reading “February: A Cautionary Tale, and Desultory Philippic”

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. Continue reading “We walked for miles to see him”

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.

The interview did not go as planned

She rides ahead and would head off
His maverick thoughts, guiding them to sensible
Corrals — but stubbornly they canter,
This one to its mother, that to the river’s cool
Repose, each in a time and place its own.
He will speak his piece.

A lifetime’s work

rubble

A lifetime’s work reduced by lifetimes since
To a pile of stones in a ferny wood, grown o’er
With moss and vines, and gently hid to all
But those who wish to see. A gift from him
Who dwelt here once, to be now so effaced
From a hillside once his own — for now it may
Be mine, or anyone’s. Would that we
Were half so generous.

Cheap poetry, Summer 2013

Silent at her loom the spider labors
To be unseen and never heard — as do I, watching,
Until, unseeing, I cry out: Web in my beard.


She chews her words, predigesting
Speech, sound and picture out of sync
Like Mothra’s overdub. I would prefer
Silence, and a piano.


Thin and wan like a starving dog, the coffee
Tints the cup — or does the cup tint it?
Not strong enough to fuel philosophy.

It is no longer June

the woods in summer, stylized

By nine the air already sweats.
The sun, wearier today than once
Climbs but slow, as travelers laden
Struggle to heft again damp spirits,
While all around our dizzied ears
This primeval din the wood exudes—
This moldering cacophony
Swells in time with sweltering
And seeps in through our pores like rain.
By nine the air already sweats.

But overhead on fruitless bough
A bird extends his morning song,
Forgetting that it is no longer June.

How to fail to write a poem

Sit in the shade of a flowering tree
While wisps of cloud like puppies chase their tails.

Watch the ribcage of a dog
Fall into rhythm with the swaying grass.

Study the violent dancing of a tree, the moment after
An unseen squirrel leaps from its boughs.

Imagine names for numbers of the shades
Of green that fill the layers of the wood.

Overhear the whispers of the afternoon
To its lover going back to sleep.

Hold your pen at equipoise
Between the silence and a conversation:

Await the inspiration of somnolence. Bask
In the bright doldrums of the day.

Repeat as necessary.