Selected Poems from That Fall
It was his idea, this flying thing.
We collected feathers at night, stuffing
our pockets with mourning dove down. By day,
we’d weave and glue them with the wax
I stole after we’d shooed the bees away.
Oh, how it felt, finally, to blow off Crete
leaving a labyrinth of dead-ends:
my clumsiness with figures, father’s calm
impatience, cool logic, interminable devising.
The sea wind touched my face like balm.
He thought I’d tag along as usual,
on the tail of his careful scheme
bound by the string connecting father and son,
invisible thread I tried for years to untie.
I ached to be a good-for-something on my own.
I didn’t know I’d get drunk with the heat,
flying high, too much a son to return.
Poor Daedelus, his mouth an O below,
his hands outstretched to catch the rain
of wax. He still doesn’t know.
My wings fell, yes – I saw him hover
over the tiny splash – but by then I’d been
swallowed into love’s eye, the light I’ve come to see
as home, drowning in the yes, this swirling
white-hot where night will never find me.
And now when my father wakes
each morning, his bones still sore
from his one-time flight, his confidence undone
because the master plan fell through,
he rises to a light he never knew, his son.
1. Shrove Tuesday
Southerly gusts clocked up to fifty. Douglas firs like frenzied horses
charged through the dark and back again.
Inside, the fire crackled—wind drew heaven close, and we could feel
the horses’ breath. A blast slammed down the flu and the fire began
to smoke. Big billows—blue manes of stallion, of mare— filled
our living room. We cracked the windows. Air! we said, Air!
No relief. Ash settled on the couch, the lamp, the clock. We choked,
trying to clear the room when another puff rose
above the mantle, over the urns, the stone shelf. I closed all
the open books, their pages fluttering and turning fast.
This has to stop, I said, then coughed and swatted the thickening
air, as if to scare the horses back the way they’d come.
2. Ash Wednesday
A fired vessel holds my mother’s body turned to ash.
One moment my warm cheek pressed against her forehead,
the next her teaspoon sips of breath scarcely reached the lungs
once strong enough to sing her stallion’s name: Drinker of the Wind.
This morning: Lent. A veil of ash. Vacuum,
dust cloth. I still hear that wind buckling and breaking
the trees last night. The chimney’s a funnel for the breath
of God. How little we have. How little we take with us.
My father’s on the mantle, too, in a separate jar of clay.
“I’m the best fire builder in Meadowdale!” he’d say, laying
fat alder chunks on the old fire grate. (God inhales before
the blaze.) I dust the urns. Stoneware mottled with a gunmetal glaze.
3. The Empty Tomb
Three nights before she was to dance
Saint-Saëns’ “The Dying Swan,” Anna Pavlova
drowned. (God comes on a dreadful wind.)
Her lungs filled with pneumonia’s pools
and she surrendered, saying, “Play that last
measure very softly,” then drew
her final breath. Russia refused to accept
that its perfect bird lay still. The dark
stage lay quiet – but they came, offered up
their tickets and settled in their seats.
The overture swelled, Anna’s entrance
to “The Swan” familiar as the dawn.
Waiting for those supple wings and feet
that floated just above the floor, the crowd
exhaled a collective “Oh!” when the spotlight
suddenly shone. On the stage a silent beam
followed her – or where her shapes had been.
The white disc slid across the boards
as the strings’ crescendo filled the hall. First
stage left, then stage right, the swan – their swan –
falling to her death in unobstructed view.
When the lamp found center stage, her solo
absence bloomed with each imagined pirouette,
each entrechat. The dance was nothing
and everything without her. And still,
as if at any moment she’d leap into that cone
of light— her feathers lifting slightly in the air--
the beam embraced her with the grace
of something good we've all once known.
When the finale comes, what then? they thought.
The music had to stop. And it did. A hush
the size of Russia. The light stood still.
Then, in a tidal wave they rose: A thousand
hands and hearts roaring for an empty stage.
That fall when the leaves blazed a sinful yellow,
I climbed the ladder to the roof. I pulled
my hammer from my belt, lay the two-by-fours flat
across the rafters, pounded sixteen-penny nails
into purlins one by one. Hammering has a rhythm
if you get it right, holding both the wood
and nails in one hand – swinging the hammer
with the other. There’s something clean and true
about a square strike, to watch the shank
sink into fragrant fir. And from that height
I saw a bigger plan, one in which I measured
up, made my mark. Something built to last.
When Rob Davies fell from the gable end, we heard
the tool belt hit the ground with a chink-thud.
Then silence. He never had seemed happy
on the scaffold or even with the saw. Some days he’d linger
at the bottom of the ladder, as if debating whether to make
a run for it and drive away. He fell because he had to.
I leaned over the edge of the plate and looked below.
Rob’s chisel and his chalk-line lay scattered by his hip.
Something sticky and unholy made me glad
it was he and not I crumpled there for us to see. His fear
repelled the other guys and, like dogs who shun
the weakest, they’d given him no reprieve. The pity
I felt for Rob was diluted by disgust. After all, I was
a girl and could no more fall than shake the ladder
when the foreman shinnied up. I needed to be
one of the guys and had to show them daily
I could do the work. Though I’d never taunted Rob,
I never came to his defense. When they bundled him away
I hung on to what I’d built, swore I’d never fall,
thinking a New England barn would make me good
and strong. Like dovetail joints that disappear.
I prayed my ladder would extend beyond Rob’s failure
and my own. The boys just shook their heads, got back
to work. Soon the sound of a skill-saw screaming.
Just like that truck on the exit ramp, I see
the S-curve too late and my load inside begins
to shift: A slumber party of fresh pears falling
over themselves in the dark, their ambrosial scent
the first hint of ruin. It’s not the pedal
but momentum that pitches me up and over
the guardrail. The bay below rises like a Baptism.
All those pears in concert roll forward and the whole
rig aches between the fruit’s amber blushing
and the whitecaps chanting. Who’s to say
what timeless words are spoken in that instant
between “Yes!” and “Oh no”? Perched in such
a silent space an ocean opens up. I plunge
into the drink, pear juice dripping into salt.