The first kite my father made for me, the first kite
I was allowed to hold, tugged itself from my hand
on a sandy cliff named for a small murdered prince.
I watched in misery as it sailed across the sea, “to Spain,”
my father pointed out, offering cartography in place of loss.
He made his kites of paper, muslin, cellophane: crackling,
red-bellied, drunk with sun. One year, he telephoned an
aeronautical engineer (in conference in a wind tunnel)
to ask if he could buy some Mylar. All that summer
at the shore, surfers and their girls sat on their boards
to point at my father, intent on his watch in the dunes:
at his busy silver head and the tiny, flickering, phantom jet
that whistled and climbed from the sea oats to the Atlantic.
After he died, my mother and I, to kill time, checked out
a fancy high-rise retirement home. We left in a hurry, not
to escape the social director’s yawns, the pink steel doors,
no — because, looking down from the convalescent floor
we saw a young man and a little girl pulled out by the sweep
of the April wind that Sunday afternoon, running together,
calling, laughing, lifting a kite above the empty lawns.
Early this Spring, the day I realized I was middle-aged,
the wind rocketed off the plains, backed the river up,
unlocked a fine acrylic kite from my last child’s grip
and jammed it on a thorn at the top of our old locust.
Forty days, at least, and it’s still there — too stuck
to be brought down by rocks or BBs, too tough to rip,
it flies in place, head braced against the current, wings
whipping to windward. Below, leaves come out to meet it,
the river eases into May. The kite flutters, chatters, hums,
hangs on: flaming red drenched with yellow, fixed in the
space I watch each morning, between the sky and heaven.
The year rushes to the solstice, sleep is broken,
dreams come in desperate blackness. Each night
towards morning I watch the two of us, sisters
in law, in life, climbing again up the stubbled hill.
You were so careful when we rode there once,
keeping your horse from the succulent alfalfa.
You knew about horses’ bellies, you always heard
the animals talking in the stable on Christmas Eve —
did you know the heavy darkness in your head
hurt too much? That day I recommended Advil
and spouted Brooke: Breathless we flung us on the
windy hill, laughed in the sun.... I never finished
and you stopped climbing. The others kept
going, wanting the view of the whole valley.
“I’ve gone far enough,” you said, and lay face
down to wait, spread-eagled on the yellow grass.
Now each night, October, November, December,
your brother stirs next to me, cries, calls out: he is
running back across that meadow, you are falling,
falling and he is running, but he cannot catch you.
THE VISITING DOGS
They came around on Sunday: big dogs, elegant
gentlemen callers, one black, one red, well-bred,
but strangers nevertheless. All day they circled slowly,
sleek in the freezing sun. We seemed possessed.
Our big blonde baby bitch, incapable of sin,
affected lust, and lavished them with foolish grins,
bottom demurely curled, lolling like honey in the drifts,
until we hauled her in and stood the siege. At last, at dusk,
they climbed up on the children’s trampoline and slept,
bellies curved upon the canvas, laid out like two
exhausted gymnasts, abandoned in a vast Olympian hall.
At dawn our son came in to tell us that the dogs had gone.
Forehead crumpled on the windowpane, he surveyed
the vacant trampled snow. He wanted them to stay.
What had he dreamed? What had he seen,
wound in adolescent sleep, our own tired
hound against his knees? Was it a whole platoon
of beasts: obedient keepers of the house, guarding the icebox,
patrolling his room upstairs, alert in his father’s leather chair,
vigilant, quivering in the moon, waiting for him to come,
secure the sled, adjust the straps, give the secret command
to carry him off in a joyful yelping troika to the treacherous steppes
he must explore, the icy road he must travel soon, too soon?
THE TREE MAN
His warning call before the limb drops
comes in harsh bleats, abrupt noises, not a voice
we recognize, hearing him. He cannot hear himself.
Medicine man to our tame jungle, our own Zephir,
he has come each year, set up house high in our
branches (“monkey man,” the children used to whisper),
pulled me, watching, to the window, finally outside.
Old friends, we enjoy wild speechless conversations:
discuss lost trees, other backyards, our families.
I rock my arms, a question: he smiles widely, pats
many heads, touches his ears, his mouth, his heart:
grandchildren now. They all hear and speak.
Today I must watch him take down the elm.
Ninety-five feet tall, already a big tree
when it was brought to grace a new house
by the river, it has buffered our bedroom
from sixty seasons of Lake Erie wind. Now,
amputated, tarred, wired, bandaged,
it is not diseased. Just finished.
In March a rusted cable snapped: we have
slept hearing the terminal split creep down.
It takes three men two days to land the tree.
My friend, greyed, grounded now, directs,
arms shouting: reach, rope, steady, saw!
Answering hands flicker above the blades
as each limb, still stubbornly in leaf, is caught,
swung down in cats’ cradles, laid out in an
intricate bier following the tree’s shadow
until the trunk stands nude. Halyards
are fixed to the top, snugged at the base
of a neighboring maple. The final wedge is cut.
We hear the hoarse call: the men pull. And stop.
Ready to fall, the tree is held up by concrete
poured into its core against rot forty years ago.
More cutting. Again the call: now
the weight does it, the concrete pops.
I bring beer, we gather, examine the stump:
it is wet, it oozes life. We count at least
a hundred rings, orderly in the early years,
erratic towards the end. The tree man looks
at the long silent sprawl, at me, then brightens,
fountaining his hands: I will plant another tree?
I shake my head, dig, swim with my arms, point
to the sun on the buckled lawn: I will build a pool.
He gathers the ropes, his tools, his men
into the trucks hauling twigs and leaves
already noisily consumed to sawdust.
I pick up the beer cans (four new rings)
and wave, glad he has come again, glad he
is deaf, that he can’t hear the saw, the trees.
THE COMMON THREAD
I am trying to make a business for the Hmong through their sewing. I have seen their textile pieces, appliqued, cut-out, reverse appliqued, embroidered — their own costume work so tiny that the cut, stitched layers themselves are only the width and thickness of thread. We have taught them to work in wool, silk, satin: to make kimonos and skirts and jackets for rich American women to buy in specialty stores. We start in a church assembly room, move to a converted school; finally, rash with orders from fancy stores in Dallas and the East, we come downtown. 2500 square feet, upstairs — a loft, I always say in New York: storeroom, bathrooms, offices, a showroom, the big workroom in front a place for the women to be together, squatting on three-legged kindergarten stools they bring with them, sewing in the light that comes over from the river two blocks away, off the mirrored Edison building, straight through the cleared lot across the street and into our window.
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