copyright © 2014 by Kenneth R. Lee
Then one day the house delivered me,
through the shadow of its vestibule,
outside onto the porch. A bright new sun
rushed over to receive me, brushed off
the clinging remnants of the old one,
and swaddled me in light as outward things –
the house, the clouds, the sky, the sidewalk trees –
revealed themselves as otherness to me.
And then this thought: I am here, a little boy.
This waiting day, this empty street are mine.
And I stepped down from my porch and into time.
HIGH SCHOOL PHYSICS
Because a strong magnetic field
escaped that day from physics lab,
you were drawn from English,
I from math,
into that high-voltage hallway,
accelerating towards each other
like atoms bent to smash.
Because your walk was liquid,
the pulses it emitted
caused a wobble in my linear momentum,
turning your abashed disguise
into that electric smile
that flashed into my eyes
just as we passed.
Because you guessed
I might have turned around,
the crash of falling books
resounded off the marble floor
just as I emerged into the foyer,
setting off a chain reaction,
still going fifty years later.
A DIFFICULT DECISION
At our camp on Lake Champlain
As I sat in my beach chair imbibing
my martini with another Adirondack sunset
sifting through its prism
above the phlegmatic black mountains,
a solitary tern flew by
and just as it eclipsed the sun,
flipped up, mid-flight in a pirouette of joy.
There ought to be a poem in there, I thought.
But then I pictured last week’s thunderstorm:
looming out over Plattsburgh, piling higher,
flashing its fangs, howling like an angry dragon,
when suddenly the lake was a raving madman,
screen doors slammed and I ran for cover.
Would that be even better?
Or maybe even that last high-water spring:
jams of shattered logs and slabs of bergs
piled against the shore like a great catastrophe
and, rocking in the water between branches,
that bloated beaver we hauled out
(it must have weighed fifty pounds!)
and buried back behind the camp.
And what about that bitter day last winter,
out to check for damage after the storm:
the lake spread like a vast vanilla cake,
a cold sun crouched in a stone-white sky,
when the wind, unfettered for ten miles,
sliced right through my parka like a knife
and I spotted a fox, like a blood spot on the snow?
To our mother, Grace Lemonier Lee (1913–1973)
on the occasion of her one hundredth birthday
After penicillin, before the birth control pill
our mother had six children – all survived.
As the Protestants and Jews peered through the blinds,
we tumbled from the car like circus clowns
into that three bedroom box on Bryant Place.
Not by fire or sword her trials, but laundry piles,
toilet scrubbing, cooking, darning socks,
accompanied by our clamoring
and Ezio Pinza’s Some Enchanted Evening,
leaving only once a month
for shopping trips to Hackensack by bus.
We flew off one by one, not looking back
till that midnight phone call brought us home again.
Now, older than she was then, tears again
on sitting down to write.
What do I know?
That she grew up a nice New Jersey girl,
worked in New York as a secretary,
married Howard Lee, forgot herself
for him and their children,
was cheerful, optimistic,
switched mac and cheese with fish on Friday nights,
whisked us every Sunday off to mass,
was too nervous to ever learn to drive.
But who was that girl in the photo album
in the bob-cut and white dress,
that beautiful young woman
shading her self-conscious smile
with the brim of that big black hat?
Because I am so much like my father,
because I never had a chance to know her,
the thought that she is also part of me,
comes, this late, as a revelation.
What part, I wonder?
Not her gentle disposition, her unselfish spirit,
her ready acceptance of others.
Perhaps (when I’d finished floundering), a bit of her pluck.
But in her it was more like grit, no, downright doggedness.
Something he lacked, that she had to possess
or she never could have held that house intact.
Surprised today by so much sky
as last night’s breeze from Canada
has sheared off the last of the leaves.
This morning she brought up Florida again.
I’ve been against it, called it capitulation.
“To what?” she said. “Why not at least be warm?”
Overhead, a lopsided V of Canada geese
drops down beyond the reeds
to the pond where they stay all winter now.
Their strident cries that I once heard
high above, as wild distant yearnings,
confirm the sage rejoinder of my wife:
there would be bridge, a shuttle to the mall,
balmy gentle nights beside the pool
where I might sit, sip a mint julep, and rage.
THE SECRET OF CONTENTMENT
Mabel breaks from the gate like a greyhound
after Lucy, Barney and Duke,
races them twice around the circumference,
settles in for some serious sniffing,
then endlessly retrieves the ball I fling
with one of those ball-flinger things
as I stand in the center, join in the dog park small talk:
the unusually warm fall weather,
that terrible accident out on the bypass,
our dogs’ endearing eccentricities.
We head on back as streetlights bloom;
yellow leaves scud across the sidewalk.
Staff meeting tomorrow, O’Brien bloviating again.
An audacious gray squirrel: Mabel chases it, trees it,
lopes back with her pert tongue-hanging gloat.
We pass The Birchwood Nursing Home:
they’re lined up on the porch as usual,
draped in unnecessary blankets.
I wave, a few return the favor.
Now she’s rolling in some foul dead thing!
We really should revive those plans for Rome.
The house in sight, she sprints for her doggie door,
laps pure joy from her bowl for most of a minute,
circles twice around her brown braided mat,
spirals down – asleep five seconds flat.
Fathers Day 2013
Predawn, as I drop down the hill,
is weaving dull gray spaces,
turning the trees, arrayed
along the eastern sill, to lace.
I sit in a great bowl of silence
in my chair at the edge of the water
till it breaks with a chickadee’s peep;
then, in diminishing intervals,
a robin, a mockingbird, a crow.
The breeze awakens;
chuckling wavelets nibble at my feet
and light, as if it were another sound,
announces a sleeping cloud
resting on the lake’s gunmetal face.
Then distant sea-green mountains,
shredded tissue paper pasted
on the pale blue air
through which a gull is stroking north,
a heron south.
The treetops on the cliff above the point
crank up their chlorophyll engines, my back
grows warm, my coffee cold, a cormorant
is diving for its breakfast, and I hear
my grandson, chattering to his father,
then laughter as they amble down the path.
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