copyright © 2015 Robert Rennie McQuilkin
COUNTING TO CHRISTMAS
At the dark end of the year
when the owl sweet talks
all night, I work the Advent
calendar, open another
door, wait to look in
on the child. Let’s hope
I’m not a spy, house to house,
for Herod, or that if I am
I’ll quit the service
when I find what I came for.
Now the sweet talk quickens
to silence. What murder is
on the wing? I look for signs
of it in myself – and ask
what gift I have to offer Him
that He should welcome me.
He no longer cares
for himself. I undress him,
strip down, lead him into
this sort of confessional,
adjust the spray.
Marble legs, blue veined,
amethyst penis too small,
brown coral on his back.
Clearly not my father,
something from the bottom
discovered by a boy
diving for drachmas.
I won’t have it.
I lather him, scrub his back,
then more gently
his buttocks, between his legs,
the calves, the shins.
With a grinding of bone
on bone, he lifts an arm,
begins his song. I understand
nothing, not a word I sing,
repeating after him.
In her eighty-ninth year she’s reducing
her inventory – china to the children, mementos
to the trash – but in her boudoir
keeps half a dozen square-shouldered Zippos,
on one her husband’s initials,
the best man’s on another, the rest anyone’s guess.
Dry-chambered, their rusted spark wheels stalled,
they are lined up gravely on a jewelry chest
full of antique gap-toothed keys with elaborate
scrollwork on their hilts, fit to open
high-backed steamer trunks, perhaps the door
to a sunken garden
where every night the dry-bones come
in mothballed flannels and hand-knit sweaters
to roll their own, light up
like fireflies and, sotto voce, remember her.
Where neon announces
Flamingo Hilton, Hilton, Hilton
she deals exquisitely, says little.
What’s it to her if you lose?
She’s the house. Except sometimes
when a jackpot’s splatter of coin
is goat’s milk in an empty pail
and her fingers,
smart as whips with a double deck,
forget the deal, feel only the squeeze,
release and squeeze of a teat,
she’s ten and no one’s property.
It’s dawn on the ridge
with the eggs to collect.
If she sneaks one, sucks the yolk,
no one will be the wiser, no one
will count the chips,
and whatever clouds loom
are what a child can make of them,
never puffed up, whey-faced
supervisors staring down from
ceiling mirrors, corner mirrors,
Lying alone in the straight and narrow bed
of old age, I work my way down the crooked hall
of memory – to where it was I went those early mornings,
trailing behind me the tattered cloudbank of my blanket
to the room Father had not yet expelled me from,
the room with the queen-size bed and rose-red comforter
I slid under, as close to Mother as possible, molding myself
to the seed-curl of her back and shoulder, the sweet tang
of her, slowing my breathing to match her own
with long, delicious inspirations
until first light lit the cream of her neck and cheek
and day broke in
with the rustle of pheasants in the pine,
fee-bee-ing of chickadees, phew-phew-phewing of
swish of washing and brushing from
the street-cleaning truck
and finally the bellsound of bottles
set in their metal basket by the Nakoma Dairy man.
And Father would groan and Mother would turn to hold
me against the soft of her,
and beyond the veil of her hair the light would grow and
she would take me by the hand along the dark crooked hall
to the back stairs, down to the brightening kitchen,
and let me bring in the milk.
I’d uncrinkle the stiff paper cap of a narrow-necked bottle,
lift the tongue on the tab beneath, pull it
from the mouth, love the liquid labor
and pop of its release,
and lick the cream from its underside,
the thick sweet cream,
a memory I knew – but not of what.
It’s only glass
I’ve broken. Mother goes on
licking a thread, pushing it at the eye,
face bunching like a club,
then heaves out of her chair and begins
to hit me
with a magazine, and when that shreds,
with her fists.
I can’t forgive my father
behind the paper, a big man twice
her size. As usual, he lets her happen,
doesn’t say a thing.
She does the talking in that house.
My father is her cross, she says.
I can’t forgive him
for not knowing better
and hide in the shed among the tools.
Today, he comes for me, has nothing
to say, just shows me
to the car. We reach the river,
and in the trunk beside his rod
I find a brand new Heddon Tru-flex
with a Shakespeare reel. From his tackle
he selects a Green Ghost and
How delicately, with a huge hand
battered and missing a finger, he threads
the silk through the shining eyes.
All afternoon we work the trout.
The only sounds
are those that slowly grow used to us
and the high song, long whisper
First his, then mine, then sometimes
together, the lines arch out and settle
exactly where we want them.
Reflecting the moonshine glittering
from a brewing bogful of peepers penny-whistling
and the fen toad’s woo-ah woo-ah all night,
these two slip into sleep and out of themselves,
on tour, appearing in the dreams of one another.
When the nightly show is closed
by morning’s pewter, blue, and lavender dove-song,
he feels the press of her finger on his lips
forbidding a word
in this new world only half removed from the other,
here on this cumulus of sheet and pillow
from which he looks up – into the coming
of her eyes. About her disarray of hair, first light.
AN OLD MAN’S SENSE
of time is shot. Now he is five in Indian headdress
facing off with the boy across the street
and now he is being born. The frames
blur by – his small head crowning, coming to light
is an old man’s, white on hospital
white. Now the film so quickly reeling and unreeling
jams. It fixes on a single frame.
Before a brilliant circle burns out from its center,
a sleeping compartment
elegant in the velvet and brass-fitted style
of the overnight express from Algeciras to Madrid.
He is raising a tasseled, dark green window shade
on the full Spanish moon. The white of it spills
across the cream and umber landscape of his bride.
It’s that time of year,
the hedgerows hung with bittersweet.
How early the freeze, I’d say
if we were speaking. We’re not.
We turn our spading forks against
the earth. It’s stiff,
the Reds and Idahos hard as stone,
a total loss.
Once it was us against the beetles,
blight, whatever was not potato.
How they flowered, rows and rows
in white. Now look.
We give it one last try, and there
far down in softer soil,
a seam of them, still perfect.
One after another
we hold them up to the dying day,
kneel down to sift for more.
In the dark of earth, I come upon
your hand, you mine.
WE ALL FALL DOWN
for Kelly, my student
Her turn had come. She knew
by heart almost
the lines she was to speak
but gave us, God help her,
beyond the lines,
beyond the book she dropped,
its pages thrashing to the floor
like broken wings –
she beat her head upon,
bit into so hard
I could not pry her jaws,
teeth grinding –
the truth beyond us
she saw as ever,
her risen eyes gone white
I did what I could,
I held her and held her, seized
with sudden love and knowing
we all fall down.
In the end
I carried her curled in my arms
across one threshold
SISTER MARIE ANGELICA
with Sister Marie Modeste most afternoons.
Today, because of lengthy vespers, they are late.
A pale moon has already risen and early bats
are darting like black shuttlecocks.
Except for the whisper of wings
and the Sisters’ hushed encouragement,
the only sounds are the plinking of rackets
and a monotone of mourning doves.
On all sides of the court
the sculpted yew in cubes and columns
might pass for black so deeply green it grows.
And now it moves closer,
Marie Angelica would say,
who has been known to have visions.
Though she moves as aptly as the bats,
doesn’t miss a shot,
when she fades for a long one
from Marie Modeste, sways on her toes, arches
her back, raises one arm
and the other to keep her difficult balance,
she is lost, a long-legged girl again
in mare’s tail, mullein, milkweed,
leaning on the sudden sky as if it can sustain her
like a hand in the small of her back. It does.
Her nerve ends quick as a shiver of poplar,
arms like branches in a wind,
she feels a cry begin
to rise, to force the self before it
and burst, all colors one. That white.
It vaults straight up, a feathered cry
that hovers in the heart of heaven, hovers,
and plummets to the gut
of the racket she sights it in,
the perfect bird, the shuttlecock
Marie Angelica keeps in play, will not let fall
despite the darkness gathering.
after “The Hunters in the Snow,” Pieter Bruegel the Elder
How bleak these three who trudge into town
with just one fox to show for the hunt,
their lean dogs slouching behind, heads down,
man and beast dark against the sepia snow.
Above, a murder of crows waits patiently.
Only one of the houses sends up any smoke:
the people’s firewood has been commandeered
for the Spanish garrison, there,
against those ice-blue cliffs. But look, oh see,
says Bruegel, the bliss
of a magpie sheering the verdigris
sky, and far below on the sky-green ice, children
skating – such tiny black ciphers enjoying,
a touch of carmine for scarf, dot of pink for face.
Three of them chase a fourth; a small boy,
bent-kneed, makes a V
of his blades; another hunches down, spins a top.
To one side, hands muffed, a young woman,
thin from starvation, stops
to watch. She commits the scene to memory.
ROMANCE OF THE ROSE-BREASTED GROSBEAK
If you think love’s not blind
just listen to him singing his elaborate love song
as she takes her pleasure at the feeder she’s emptying,
selecting only the choicest sunflower seed.
Dandy in a black and white zoot suit the morning after,
he wears his bleeding heart on his chest
(see how the point of it drips). And the object of all his
is this scrawny, big-beaked, dun-colored little dinosaur
tossing seed over her shoulder. Her only bright spot
is a pair of white stripes swept back from her beady eyes
like the sidebars of the godawful spectacles
on some mousy secretary.
Still, the way her handsome boyfriend is ogling her
gives me pause. Who’s blind here? God knows,
when she takes off those glasses, lets down her hair...
Painstakingly, I’m doctoring a family
photo in which my thin daughter is
hugging a plastic child-size skeleton
the day before the Saints march in.
It’s not easy, such winnowing –
so much of her is hidden
by the complicated grid of Death,
and she too bright and new a thing
for such a jumper.
I work to unveil the original pattern
and flush of her, erase a layer
of bones and the shadows they cast.
Intricately, like a surgeon removing
the tentacles of a tumor,
I delete each trace of rib and femur,
each shade, fill it all in with pinafore
and sun-warm skin. I magnify
a daughter, work slowly, pixel by pixel,
until in the end what I see – if
not what I get – is a necessary fiction.
“I used to think better than I think
now,” he says, heading out
on one of his treasure-hunting expeditions.
He looks for what’s lost below
playgrounds, beaches, old foundations.
He thinks with his fingertips,
part of his brain having been removed
by scalpel and radiation.
He holds his arms before him, closes his eyes,
moves like someone in a dream, then
when his fingers tingle
he goes to his knees – and comes up
with buried rings, watches, coins, charms,
and what he loves most:
toy cars, trucks, a sand pail and shovel
that made a world some child once inhabited.
Now a congregation of Crucifers is warming up
in the bog, and larger frogs in deeper water
fifty feet to the east of them have just now
begun to babble like Holy Rollers.
They see nothing the least bit ecclesiastical
in all of this. And I can’t blame them. But that
won’t keep me, nor will my disbelief, from
Easter thinking. I see the stone rolled into place,
the Roman guards settling down to sleep by it
and above, white wings singing, about to make
their move. Call them merely Judean skylarks
circling before their earthward dive, scarcely
angels, and I’ll believe you, but only in the front
of my wisely credulous brain, for the season is
upon me. Death is in retreat. I’m just back from
visiting my childhood home. I have seen him,
dead for thirty years, in the place where his
wide, large-knuckled hand guided my small one
gently – to carve my initials in the wet concrete
of a footing just poured in November of 1940.
I have seen. The date is clear, the initials still
crisp, his warm hand steady, pressing its print
into mine. I believe in Resurrection.
ASCENDING AT THE NEUE
after Egon Schiele’s “Man and Woman”
and Marianne Von Werefkin’s “Prayer”
At the Gallery, a pair of lovers are flagrantly naked.
He is dark, angular, with enormous arms and hands
extended like pincers, lying on his back
surrounded by a mountain of bedsheets hurled off,
beside a woman on her knees and elbows, hind quarter
raised, cleft like a heart. Head lowered, she looks
back between her legs to see him come behind her,
her head all but lost. He stares point blank,
daring me as if I have no business here.
Which indeed I do not.
I am pleased that my heavy feet work
well enough to reach the upper level of the show,
bent as I am and holding tight to the curving banister.
I am suddenly face to face with a place I believe in.
Here, night comes on at a blue country shrine.
Framed in its niche a naked man,
crossed, hands and feet nailed, has had the breath
taken from him.
The man’s head hangs limply, his white loin cloth
scant protection. Bent-backed before him
is another man, the white jut of his beard
matching the white of the first man’s last apparel
and the snow-dazzled peaks
beyond the rough landscape he has come through,
which now, in the gloaming, shines with all
the greens and golds, lavenders and reds of late day.
Above, a crescent moon begins. Rings of blue sound
radiate from it as if from the bell of the shrine
The bent man says nothing to the Christ, nothing
I hear aloud, until I don his dark pilgrim coat,
drop it to the ground, am naked before the truth,
hold nothing back, am fully at peace, more in love
than the lovers a level below will be for many years.
Descending from the second story,
I steady myself, hand sliding on the handrail,
then polishing the knob of the newel.
Time has worn away its beige, revealing
the rose of earlier days and hints of darker
shades below. For over two hundred years
and twelve wars, such a scoring by hands.
In the wash of history, time shrinks.
I remember placing my palm on the red ochre
print of a hand in a Utah cave, surprised
by the almost perfect fit.
At the newel, I fit my hand to the backs of
other hands that touched its round in passing:
hands of lovers ascending,
hands of mourners descending, slow hands
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