Copyright © 2019 by Robert Rennie McQuilkin
Like an angler choosing the perfect lure
(feather-and-fabric mayfly or damselfly
stitched during a long winter)
the poet selects the right nib, fits it
to a favorite pen, dips it in jet-blue ink
the pen drinks in.
Before it can make its mark, he inscribes
with it the space above a blank page,
the nib shadow-casting back and forth
then settling on the page, its cursive
forming ovals, lines, parabolas –
animal origins of a language as old
as what the poet hopes may lurk below
and rise like dream to the lure –
perhaps some first memory, every-colored,
some rainbow-speckled, dappled nibble,
and sudden strike
of a thing the poet begins to play,
letting out his line, letting out, reeling in,
playing it for how long he has no idea,
sometimes seeing it break the surface,
permitting glimpses of itself.
He hopes what he nets, though quickly
fading in the ordinary air, will be essential.
After the Diagnosis
I’m told cells are growing radically
in me, an underground uprising
because of which how stunning
the world has grown – that twist
of purple skunk cabbage burning
a hole in the snow,
the first Pileated, huge, ungainly,
gorgeous, drumming its code
like a “spark” tapping out Morse
among U-boats in the N. Atlantic:
loud clattering of dots and dashes
signaling All’s well, all’s well.
The Buddha sits beside me,
sedate in teak from Indonesia,
unbothered by a Stink Bug’s landing,
inspiring me to better name a being
in umber armor plate protecting
deftly jointed legs, long and intricate,
carefully measuring the breadth
of the checkered tablecloth before me
where shortly a meal will appear
of which this mite wants just crumbs.
Or perhaps like a silk moth
it lives only for love, this passenger
on the same cruise ship on which
I too circumnavigate the sun, helplessly
in love with light.
Still, I have a mind to take the mite
by the wings, undone by such buzzing
and the bug’s reputation for fending
off death by making a stink about it.
Like Nebuchadnezzar, I am considering
incineration of the pagan thing.
But the Buddha looks on,
and for now I am moved to do nothing
other than find a better name
for the miracle I feel an urge to murder.
In the lopped lilac, iced-in but its buds fat,
a bough-jouncing Slate-colored Junco’s beak
is a triangular dazzle of ivory so new to me
I’m on high alert
for all the rest I’ve been missing and missing.
What better at 3 a.m. than surgery –
slicing a Red Delicious in half for
its snappy flesh, of course, but more
for the dark seeds at the heart of it,
raison d’être of the Delicious.
How good at 3 a.m. to chew the seeds,
tough husks giving way to the soft
cyanide within – “good poison” lethal
only to cancer cells drawn by sweetness
like beetles to Venus Flytraps
then pierced through and through.
How fine at 3 a.m. to poison the Enemy,
expel him at 5 a.m. in my morning pee.
3. 2. 18
Betrayed by my body,
I hid from my mirror and all
until they cut into my chest,
left a crater. I am now so open
to everyone tending to me
there’s no point in hiding.
My wife croons,
cleaning every part of me,
rubbing oils on swollen limbs.
I lie back. I let love happen.
In the waiting room at the Smilow Cancer Center,
we sit hospitably next to one another,
black, brown, white, beige, all
wearing the same Letter C but smiling like cousins
reunited after living for years in separate countries,
tongues loosened, sharing stories, discovering.
The large Jamaican woman beside me asks
“What stage you at?” When I tell her “Four,”
she wraps me as if to squeeze out the offending cells.
I hug her back, hard.
for Chrissy and John
Opposite St. Anne’s Church in Avon is an oasis –
topiaried evergreens, fig trees, an honest-to-God
banana tree towering over
indigo bell flowers, Lily of the Incas, purple phlox,
hardy aspidistra, red and lavender cyclamen,
Golden Sunshine Columbine, salvia, snapdragons,
wild lupine, and delphinium reaching for the sky . . .
Royal purple petunias overflow their boxes,
underscoring every window like mascara;
deep-dyed morning glories and clematis rim doors
like dark kohl.
A stream runs through,
occupied by wood frogs, leopard frogs, bull frogs
and relatives named by the local Eve and Adam.
This is not God’s Eden: that was easy, came naturally
to Him. The pair who manage this oasis,
both on their second marriages, rise early, work late.
So much 14-14-14 to apply, such pruning and netting,
so many wind-damaged limbs to splint . . .
Their answer to her cancer.
On Leaving Home
The viola da gamba's a fully fretted thing
or it was until the piece you’ve been rehearsing –
a Rameau with exuberant notes well beyond
the last fret. You’ve trained your fingers
but when you’re away from home to rehearse
you find you’ve been sighting on rug patterns
to recall where to fret.
Until we leave home, we’re unaware how sure
its support. Which is what worries me
and why I’m so delighted with your solution:
small icons – a dog, a rabbit, a cat – to mark
the upper notes. May I, in my new home,
find finger holds no less ingenious.
May I too not miss a beat!
Like a birthday balloon, I float above,
just one string attached.
I bump the ceiling but feel the tug of love
from those who keep me grounded.
Boxing up the House
All day you move us forward, filling boxes
for our relocation to a home whose layout
and décor you’ve planned in fine detail
based on your scale model replica.
At day’s end, this chiming in a room
full of cartons you’re packing: a music box
is playing Adeste Fidelis. Its base turns,
spinning three children clockwise,
no doubt your sister and brother and you.
Its other half, a festive Christmas tree,
is broken off,
flat on its side. You sob inconsolably.
For the moment, all your appointing, plans
for papering and painting must seem no more
than decoration of the last inner sanctum
of an Egyptian pair whose painted selves
replicated on the long boxes they inhabit
are not sufficient to keep them going.
She had in mind the nitroglycerine he wore
about his neck to jolt a failing ticker in his chest
when she decided to revive his 1926 Model T.
She built a handsome home for it, replaced parts
inactive for sixty years, found a mechanic
for whom Henry Ford’s jalopies were a way of life –
Butch, who gave her for her dad’s 81st a new
carburetor. Soon, the Ford’s 6 cylinders wheezed
like an old man with chest congestion,
fit to give up the ghost, but before they failed,
Butch fiddled, they coughed and rattled,
then slowly smoothed to steady breathing.
From behind the wheel a daughter's face shone
like chrome. She was already riding with her father
on Christmas day, taking him back.
Visiting my father in his new home,
I see his toes are curling to claws.
He cannot bear shoes, goes barefoot,
walks on his toe tips
with a clicking like the armadillo’s
on its hard floor at the Bronx Zoo.
I won’t have it. I am trimming the nails,
easing them from the toes around which
they coil. And now the foot massage,
magic lotion. I knead and knead
his toes, straightening, civilizing.
But there’s no give to them. They turn
to claws again. I want my father back!
for Lowell Fewster
These cross-country barns tracked down
by Lowell, duly recorded by him on film,
are many mansions for swallows and fox,
shades of his country boyhood, gritty ikons
that put on no airs in the chunks of sky
they occupy, their doors wide open
as if amazed by the world they have outgrown.
They are old enough to have seen it all,
some of which we would wish away –
a foreclosed farmer hanging from a fine old
chestnut beam, hired girl manhandled in a mow,
generations of God’s creatures felled, eyes wide . . .
The outstretched arms of a lone telephone pole
and cross-shaped lightning rod on the ridgepole
of this old timer on Route 20 in Pavilion, NY
remind us. But in the silence of night, after day’s
machining, with a gibbous moon glistening
on its slate roof, a barn is a welcoming
out of the weather, a good place
to recoup, to sleep, or to give birth beyond
the confines of a misunderstanding world.
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