FROM THE BOOK
copyright 2021© Robert Claps
Sign of the Cross
A rush of cold air revived us when,
halfway through the viewing, Wendy Michaud,
the only eighth-grade girl who wore nylons,
strode through the etched-glass doors
and leaving heel prints in the carpet,
walked up to kneel at the rail where
Sister Margaret was laid out.
Mourners admiring the floral arrangements
or studying cracks in the plaster ceiling
tried not to watch her walk back down the aisle,
scenting the room with White Shoulders
while she looked for a seat;
but my eyes were on her gold glittering
lips and black-shaded eyes, the coppery
wisp of hair that kept falling across her face.
Mother Superior wrapped her rosary
tight around her fingers, waiting
for a sudden wind to make
the lilies and snapdragons tremble,
for a spirit to levitate briefly
above Sister’s casket, the trumpet
of God himself to blast a warning
to the sinners among us,
But when Wendy sat next to me
and with her painted fingernail traced
the outlines of a cross on my inner thigh,
the only sound I heard was the jangle
of her bangled bracelet, and the basement
furnace switching on, a low rumbling
even the plush carpet could not contain.
Clam Digging in Connecticut
These flats marine biology majors seeded a few years back
today draw out my father in his walker, steadying
himself above the wrack line, and I with long-handled rake
and wire basket wading waist-deep, watching two
industrious mute swans in the middle of the salt pond
dipping in unison for the smaller clams, their bodies resembling
the line of clouds floating overhead, backed by September’s
fragile blue. Sun-struck, wearing a t-shirt with cigarettes
tucked in the sleeve, my father once flashed white here
when he filled a half bushel basket by noon, years before
muck from General Dynamics shut down the beds.
When quahogs clink in my rake’s steel tines, I offer him one;
whorled, gray with purple stains, trailing strands of eelgrass,
it smells of summer. For us, each day is more unstable
than barrier dunes in hurricane season. I think about his last
x-ray, the dark shadowy mass on his lung, the bed
that cancer has seeded. Out in the bay, the bivalve creatures
burrow deeper, holding close to the bone of the planet,
from which those winged emissaries of the gods cannot pluck them.
To a Child Sleeping Out
With nothing behind you but
darkening woods, you could believe
it’s pterodactyls, not airplanes,
Ahead, only the duplicate homes,
lives boxed in by repetition
and the urge to possess;
so kiss us goodnight.
You won‘t go far
but the crickets’ small talk
will seem more wild, there
at the depth of yard’s edge.
Card Game at the Italian Club
Surely it is more than past time,
the backroom booths removed
from the afternoon,
the stained fingertips stacking change,
the hands scarred from machine-shop years
waiting idle and damp for the cards’
plastic slap, the liquid coughs
welling up from the chest, then settling again.
From the bar, music drifts in, and
wing-tips tap on the oiled wooden floor.
But nothing stirs them or hurries
their pleasure; even the high idle
of homebound traffic, stalled and
steaming at the Route Five light,
can’t crack Montovani’s lush walls.
Day after day, deliberate and cautious,
they bid on the smallest stakes,
wanting only to break even.
Blues for Carol
March, the month of your oldest daughter’s death,
sky the grey of windfall branches scattered across
the yard, and the finches at the feeder just as drab;
two days into spring, the maps show bands of snow
inching up the coast, but down by the mailbox, defiant,
the crocus, pushing aside gravel thrown by the plow
and leaves matted inches thick, sticks out its tongue.
Can the small things of this world still comfort?
Red as your nail polish or a sanctuary lamp,
and flitting at yard’s ungoverned edge,
a cardinal, that bird you take as a sign, cannot
hold its tongue, breaking out a cheer, cheer,
even as the storm arrives in sheets of heavy flakes
that wrap around our house.
It’s snowing, and my good friend, who
lost his youngest son a year ago,
has come to help install the new
flood light above my garage.
Our bare hands redden as we work,
he high on the ladder cutting the old
connections, and I drilling
an outlet hole through the siding.
Watching him run 14-gauge wire,
I think how steady he seems, shifting
his weight on the top rung, off meds
now for what? – a few months at least? –
his eyes clear and shining with fresh snow.
The wind wrapping around the house
is numbing, but he won’t wear gloves
or come inside until he screws in
the junction box and the steel
He won’t even look at me, or my wife
tapping on the window, until he’s twisted
the black wires on both ends, then the whites,
taping and capping each pair,
until it’s 7 P.M.
and we’ve been out here for hours
with the large flakes building on our shoulders,
drifting across the long gravel drive
that suddenly illuminates
when he tries the switch by the entrance,
the one at the stairs, then back
to the entrance again just to be sure,
while my wife and I
huddle on the porch to watch
his burning fingers turning the night
on, off, on, on.
Nothing But Net
Picture us, two sixty-year-olds
shooting the rock in the cul-de-sac,
me in ripped gardening jeans,
dribbling with one hand, holding
a beer with the other,
and my wife, off-balance, favoring
her good hip, ready to swear out loud
if she breaks a fingernail.
Little wonder the neighbors honk
and wave as they pass, relieved
to see us laughing again
three months after the wake,|
time my wife spent out back
watching the feeder for signs
or kneeling in the garden, planting
phlox and vetch, common asters,
everything purple, except for
the three-foot angel praying
with her stone hands clasped.
I wish I could tell you
that small birds bring daily
messages from her daughter,
that the wildflowers console,
or that each shot my wife takes
forms a perfect arc and falls
through the hoop, nothing but net.
But no, sometimes she forgets
to tuck an elbow in, flick
her wrist and wave goodbye
to the ball; sometimes
she doesn’t care, and when she thinks
I’m not looking she’ll throw up a prayer.