Ash Tree Elegy

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Ash Tree Elegy

Ashes to ashes,

the children’s rhyme

no small irony here.

The emerald ash borer

has chewed its way

into the hearts

of trunks

lining Midwest

suburban streets.

A parade of death,

orange township trucks

bring graceless

euthanasia

to a dying breed.

Hearing the arrival

of saws and chippers,

we remember

the elms.

Tomorrow,

there will be

too much sun.

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The Long Hill

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The Long Hill

On the brow, briefly abandoned
by golfers and dogs, the war monument
rises in the distance.

Just twenty minutes ago
we were there. Our phantom
presence hovers overhead.

The foggy brambles
become open fields, lambent-green,
moist underfoot, and below,

cows graze at a thumb-sized dairy.
We tread the narrow lanes,
muddy gravel crossed by runnels
and a stile or two, then whisper

into the woods where oak leaves
spread their ruined gold.
Winding up the ribs of the hills,

we emerge into the sky itself,
which holds the many years
we’ve plodded here.

The pub at the top has closed,
a ghost of wattle and thatch.
Up here among the hedgerows,

dry stone walls, barbed-wire pastures,
the glow of a light in a far-off cottage,
red double-decker buses

wobbling through the village below,
what’s left to say about
the passage of time?

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At Church

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At Church

Well-aware that religion
spawns wars, I’m up early today

seeking the peace
of something named “god”

in stained glass and old stone.
It’s a service for healing.

The weak and the wracked
process to the altar rail for holy oils.

The sick and lame, the deranged
and debilitated, emerge from every corner–

one with Parkinson’s, two with violent children,
men with wives who no longer

recognize them, a broken shoulder,
a crumbling jawbone, and cancer survivors

trying to forget the baldness
and the chemicals. They light candles

that nearly set the place afire,
the flames of superstition and faith

smelling of melted wax
and the smoke of old hope.

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While waiting

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While waiting

for the night, we decide
we must leave now
while we can.

New York is sinking.
We go to Pompeii, itself a reminder
that nothing is permanent.

Vesuvius erupted yesterday,
volcanic ash blanching
the air above Naples.

At the airport, we rent a car,
and suddenly we can smell
the sea, feel distended light.

We seek God in the vortex
of ocean and sand, find
grandmother’s hills.

Twisted olive branches
twine with chestnuts
in the valley, arcing

to the sky. The disc of sun
falls from heaven
into the city of ghosts.

Like us, the horizon moves
but never really disappears.
We finish where the sky begins.

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Teachers

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Teachers

I feel lighter now,
as though I have lost body parts
one by one, watching them
sink like stones in a lake,
or drift into the garden of sky.

Each mentor’s mortality came to visit
and refused to leave. Old music teachers,
philosophy profs, a poet-friend,
died of cancer, dementia, flu,
a windmill of maladies that lifted them
into the air, then dropped them
unceremoniously into death.

Each one is a phantom limb,
made of flesh, bone, and blood.
One a shoulder, another a leg
for climbing mountains, another
a hand for stretching octaves,
a mind for wrapping intellect
in the unlikely bonds of compassion,
a talent for birthing conversation
in all-night cafes.

They dwelt in harpsichords,
telescopes, and tomes.
The slow moon overhead
canonizes them, bestows haloes
visible only to me.

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Other Houses, Other Rooms

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Other Houses, Other Rooms

Little doors are opening
in my past houses
all over America ‒
Jersey, the Bronx, a rambling
rental in Ohio, a brick
bungalow west of Chicago.

Other people live in them now,
walk from room to room
on creaking floorboards in the night,
drink beer from a rattling refrigerator,
run water in the same tub, click bolts
on the same doors against burglars,
listen for scuttling in the walls
under the same tattered moon.

Little windows of memory
are opening inside my body.
The light is a glancing blow.
Life has suddenly become
a page from a college yearbook
or a walk in a forest
full of extinct animals.

This will be my last house.
I love its modesty, its economy,
the cleanliness and loneliness of privacy,
rooms full of books and scraps of sunlight,
the flowers in the yard. A piano
hunches in the corner, ready to sing.

This house will outlive me. Then
a realtor with money-colored eyes
will raze it for a mansion of fake brick.
I prefer to think a young couple
will have a baby here, put in a swing set.
Or someone with Parkinson’s will find in it
a house with no stairs.

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The Girls of St. Hilda’s

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The Girls of St. Hilda’s

Comforting, somehow,
Liz describes the class reunion.
Every year, school chums
gather like blackbirds in a tree,
singing for just one day
in a far corner of England.

The rest of the year, their faces
float like star dancers
among geraniums and folded socks,
hover like apples at the lip of a bowl,
drift like clouds in a crocodile sky.

Memories are silvery things.
They arrive at the hour of the traces
like little shells, bird skulls,
bits of straw, the puffed gills
of fish, a knife lodged in bread.

Once, everything was possible.
Then one spring, the smell of earth
was stronger than before, the scent
of lengthening shadows darker,
the irrevocable order of events
finally visible in the setting sun.

The children have left home,
husbands have died or play golf for escape.
The old scholars in pearls
have learned to be alone,
to make art from catastrophe,
traveling infinite distances every year
back into each others’ arms,
sitting again at wooden desks with inkwells
among walls painted brown and cream,
then sipping strong tea and sherry in the parlour.

The sleeves of their cashmere sweaters,
brush the tops of pastries, the watercress memories,
the trays of crustless sandwiches
garnished with cucumber smiles.

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