Copyright ©2015 by Harper Follansbee, Jr.
In his classroom my father hung a skeleton
made of real bones, all strung together
by hooks and wires. I would visit him
sometimes after school, and I would touch
the bones and wonder whose they were.
Sometimes I would push the pelvis
or the ribcage, and the bones
would gyrate in a weird sort of dance,
and I would smile and push again.
Sometimes I would stare into the empty
sockets, imagining eyes staring back,
perhaps some student who succumbed
to the stench of formaldehyde or courted
death by dissecting his own thumb,
or a child weary of loneliness, looking
for a wink or a smile.
“Marbles partners” was what you called us
when we first fell in love,
and I’ve always had this picture
of a boy and a girl and a worn patch of earth
with a hole dug by the heel of a sneaker,
the two of us crouched around it shooting cats’ eyes
and pretending the game was important,
instead of our faces turned toward each other
dappled by sunlight as it pierced the shadows
of the tall and elegant pines.
So often we end up in museums
slowly careening from canvas to clay
or watching each other eat across tables in restaurants
where waiters and waitresses must wonder
what’s so funny about chewing linguine.
You once gave me a postcard of two boys
sitting in a pasture, and claimed it was us,
our hats shading our eyes
as we stared off in different directions
at something almost anyone could imagine,
the field stretching beyond us,
the horizon interrupted by clumps of green trees
and the sunlight again,
this time turning the white of your shirt
into some shimmering fabric
only your mother could name.
Like the game, what we were watching is beside the point,
the two of us perched on our haunches
or settled idly in the silken grass of the unmown sward.
What matters is you and me, wherever we are,
secretly paying almost no attention to anyone else but each other.
And We Speak of Names
December and the weather is unseasonably
mild, as we go for a walk down by the river.
The trees have dropped their leaves on the
ground which has been carved and hollowed
out by spring floods for as long as water can
remember. We hold hands, walking along
a path built on a hump of ground like some
ancient levee. The trees stand resolute,
waiting, as we pass, for the snow to bank itself
about their trunks; they arch above us, holding
up the sky which has turned the color of a
squirrel’s belly, and if there are birds, they flit
in silence from branch to branch, their backs
the color of the bark of trees.
And we speak of names for the baby curled inside
you like some small animal in hibernation.
We utter syllables into the dark air and listen for
an answer from somewhere deep inside ourselves,
and I wonder if the trees overhear us as we say,
Simon, Henry or James. Charlotte ever the refrain,
for we have known for months what she would be called,
Charlotte, and the leaves on the ground whisper her secret
as a breeze that no one can see rustles across
the edges of their rest. William, Samuel or Charles,
names stored up in the hollowed-out trunk of an old oak
by the same squirrel whose color decided the sky
or in some attic in an old family chest which we empty slowly
holding each one in our mouths, waiting to hear how it sounds.
Crossing a bridge, we turn towards town, the sky draped
above us as trees disappear, and suddenly we fall silent
as if the trunk is empty, as if all the names in the world
have dropped from our lips and fluttered like so many leaves
back to earth. Benjamin, you say, reminding yourself
of a name we had heard but somehow forgot, Benjamin,
and we both taste the syllables as they form in our throats.
Benjamin and Charlotte, we can’t have them both, you laugh
as we follow the path as it circles back through the trees and
we enter again from where we began. Charlotte and Benjamin.
In the Aftermath of Grief
A man once told his wife he would rather publish a poem than father a child. The couple had married later in life, and the prospect of children frightened the man. Nevertheless, his wife bore him a daughter and a son while his unpublished poems collected in yellowing piles on the tables and chairs of the house.
After the birth of their son, the man temporarily stopped writing to change diapers and read books with cardboard pages and pictures of farm animals and insects and bears. Lying on the floor watching the boy wind a jack-in-the-box with one toe or chew on the stuffed shank of Peter Rabbit or crawl lickety-split down the carpeted hall, the man stretched the cartilage in both of his knees until his bones clicked in their joints and his knees ached when he slept.
Their infant daughter had died of some long word they both chose to forget. The man tried to write his way out of the pain in poems that sounded like somebody beating the walls of a small room with a rubber mallet wrapped in a wet towel. He hollered at God as he drove downtown on some silly errand and shook his fist at the idiot stopped at the intersection in the blue Ford sedan with the tinted glass.
Eventually he stowed his anger in a closet along with their daughter’s effects locked up tight in one of those plastic file boxes he had purchased at an office supply store.
Then one day the piles of poems began to diminish, the tables and chairs no longer sagged with their weight, the man began to crawl more quickly down the hall after his son, and his sadness began to seep out from the edges of the house.
The man learned to enjoy the way the boy teased his mother by crawling in the other direction when she called his name. She laughed as she chased him about the house, and the boy giggled as if someone were tickling him.
On the first warm day of spring, the boy’s mother threw open the windows of the house, and a gentle breeze blew the scent of lilacs into every room. The breeze scattered his father’s poems across the floor, and the boy crawled over them as he scurried about, playing hide-and-seek with his mother.
Because he liked the sound, the boy would occasionally crumple a few poems in his tiny hands while he waited for his mother to appear. At the end of the day, pretending not to notice what they were, she would throw the crumpled pieces of paper away.
The boy’s father never asked where his poems had gone. He only noticed that, as the piles dwindled, his spirits soared, and he began to laugh and giggle with his wife and child. Then one day he stopped writing altogether, and what was left of the piles and most of the contents of the plastic file box vanished into thin air, just like that.
It was the boy, rummaging in the back of the closet, who eventually found the picture. He held it above his head in both hands, calling out in a loud voice as he always did when he wanted to show his parents something he had discovered about the world.
His parents told him the baby in the picture was his sister. They told him she looked almost exactly like him. Then they framed the picture and put it downstairs on the piano where his mother’s music carried the sound of their daughter’s face into every room of the house.
The Day After Sandy Hook
“Details are important
in situations like this.”
– CT State Police spokesman
My son and I dug
out of the soggy soil.
He was eleven,
four years too old to die,
by the clusters
of tubers huddled together,
all from one flower or,
should I say,
one clump of flowers.
Details seem important now.
Their stalks, of the flowers
that is, were bent over,
hollow and white,
like the bones
of the deer
that slept in the field
during the summer,
the grass matted down
just beyond the tangle
of tall green stems
and leaves and yellow flowers.
My wife, looking down the hill,
worried about ticks from the deer
and anything else
that might harm us,
her two valiant explorers
foraging for food.
As my son kept digging,
his gloved hands tearing
the earth loose,
uncovering more of the gnarled
white roots nestled against each other,
I could not help myself,
his love of the wonder
at what lay just
and my anger slowly subsided
as we filled a bucket with roots
my wife would clean and cook
and we would eat for supper.
The Moon and My Mother
Many years ago my mother wrote me a letter from Africa;
I was living up north in a town near a lake, and every day
I worked on a hill above the lake tending flowers
for a man whose brother raised cows
which grazed in a pasture on the side of the hill,
and the water was blue, and the grass was green,
and the sky was the color of the water and the sun
shining down on the waves.
The night my mother wrote to me
she was camped near a village on a plain and she told
how the moon hung like a huge yellow disc in the purple sky
and how children from the village were watching their fathers
and brothers dancing in a circle around a fire
and how she joined them, holding the hands of the children
who moved up and down to music no one could hear.
And the children began jumping and gliding in a circle
like the moon and the men around the fire,
and my mother wrote how she found herself
holding their hands and moving through moonlight,
and everything was round and full, and men jumped and glided
amongst themselves and the children were no longer watching,
for they had found their own center and were orbiting that.
Now that my mother is old and her mind wanders,
some mornings she awakens in her room
and remembers Africa as if she were there,
and she calls me and asks me when she is coming home,
and I ask her where home is, and she tells me
about climbing mountains up north with her father,
how the two of them stayed in a hut at the Lake of the Clouds.
Other times she speaks of war, of working overseas
in a hospital near London, of writing letters home for soldiers,
how she kept a photograph of herself and one of those soldiers,
the two of them smiling and walking together,
and one of a field, the grass matted down
as if animals had slept where she and her young man
lay holding each other, watching the moon as it sailed
through the sky like a ship on the ocean mounting
the clouds like waves in a dream.
Sometimes when I find her sleeping, she reminds me
of Santiago, the old fisherman, after he returns from the sea,
after he catches the great marlin, after the sharks
eat it down to the bone and its skeleton floats
with the tide in the harbor and he lies on his bed in his shack
with the boy standing in the doorway
watching over him and loving him as the old man dreams
of the lions on the beaches of Africa where he sailed
when he was young, sleeping on the deck
and smelling the breeze that carried the scent
of his dreams out from the shore.
And I feel like the boy looking down at the spent body
of the person who has taught him all that he knows,
for a moment imagining him gone and the world
diminished beyond all recognition, and suddenly I want
to rouse my mother, get her some coffee, drive up north
for the day or plan a trip to Africa, just the two of us
talking and laughing the way it always used to be.
The First Day
In the morning I would lie in the pasture on a granite
outcropping, stretched out full length across its boney
spine, waiting for the baby goats who, only hours before
had lain wet and groggy in the fresh hay beneath their
weary mother. Their coats now soft as down, their limbs
no longer slack, they would find me basking in the warmth
of their first day and dance across my chest. Lifting
themselves on their hind legs, they would waver
in the languid summer air that seemed to prop them
up as they pirouetted, drunk with the joy of life, prancing
on their soft cloven hooves into the grass at the edge
of the rock where my body ended and the pasture began.
On a Hill in NH
I’ve always lived on a hill sharing summer’s high grass
with crickets, field mice, and garter snakes curled
on the cool stones of a foundation or chasing each
other in the walls at night, interrupting news reports
of Himalayan paratroopers landing on the back forty, all set
to invade Massachusetts from the north, capturing thousands
of flatlanders who wouldn’t know a sand dune from the summit
of the missing eyebrow on The Old Man’s missing face.
Farmers left these hills, pushing west at least as far as
the river that splits New Hampshire off from Vermont
like one block of quarried granite from another, alluvial
waters creeping downstream looking for a mouth.
What grows here gets blown by the wind or dropped
by birds, not sown deliberately in rows; something haphazard
loves a hill: it lands and sticks and thrives – apples maybe or
a pear – but even they will drop when someone shakes a bough.
Anything hard rolls downhill; anything soft stays put: pumpkins,
hoops and wooden barrels roll; pillows, zinnias and you remain.
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