Poems from Late Epistle

Fishing in Childhood

after lines by Tony Hoagland

If we are always who we are, if our living
is finally of a piece, couldn’t we observe it
complete in any moment—choose any hour
and find in it an image of the whole?

Take, say, those long-past summer nights,
fishing with my parents as dusk approached
on Walton Lake, in the aluminum rowboat
with its electric motor putt-putting slowly—

or not fishing, since even then my interest
in casting the Rapala to the perfect spot
fell off fast—if there’s a there I’ve wanted,
its circles widening, it was never so literal.

Mostly I’d lie across the middle seat
plowing through some difficult old novel,
whether or not I could truly grasp the adult
motives and the unfamiliar mores—yes,

certainly, I was a reader, but isn’t it the case
that to this day I worry I don’t quite follow
the plot by which you take two grown-ups
and rub them together and it makes a story?

The bench was hard and flat against my back.
I felt that, and saw the purpling dome of sky
I could launch my mind into. Within it, closer,
a chittering, a swooping—were they birds or bats?

So much lies hidden at the edge of knowledge,
as along shore, in the tangled, shadowy
interstices of undergrowth, some wary animal
might step into view or not, but I kept watch.

Meanwhile my parents talked to one another—
the play of voices a soothing, steady lapping
to which I need not respond (so that even now
lectures and readings lull me all too much,

returning me to childhood, held and safe,
though also private and alone, an only child
whose feelings are not much inquired into)
until I began to drift, like the soft curl

of water riffling alongside the hull
or breaking from the fingers that I trailed. . . .
Suddenly a line would jerk and tighten
as one of them reeled it in—snagged lure or fish?—

and I’d scramble upright so I could see,
though I clenched with pity for the bass
gasping in air, as my father twisted
the hook from its stiff jaw and raised it

a moment to admire before sliding it back in.
Our fishing was benign, I told myself—
we set them free. We had no need of them,
and wouldn’t they go on to live their lives?

Yet some sadness lurked unnoticed
like the creatures in the woods. Or maybe
there was nothing, and I only sensed the depth
in the middle of the lake—that canyon

where no one could descend, its cold
currents flowing out from secret springs,
and fronds that might reach up and wrap
a feathery grip around one’s ankle. . . .

Is this it? Is it anything? Or only memory,
drawing me back again to write of lakes,
their stillness and reflective mystery?
There’s something I discern there—solitude,

the weed-smell of emotions left unspoken,
the strangeness of the complicated human plot,
the slipped fish flickering away. So today,
a slimmer book in hand, it all returns

as I read the words and feel a long line tug
and wonder at what makes us what we are:
Leaving people, and being left by them.
This catch-and-release version of life.

What Is

Decades ago, mulberries dropped
on my back porch. Useless, over-sweet,
they made me think of love I longed for.

Now, in my yard, again I chop
their shoots, insistent. And I beat
back images, dizzying, still of her,

wanting to want what is. At night,
last out amidst cicada song,
I watch Mars burn, a small hot heart.

The air is silvery with moonlight;
it pours through everything. Belong,
belong, it tells me. I am a part.

The Midwest of Grief

Out beyond the cities the fields surround you, at once lush and empty.

Corn and soy and soy and corn, immensities beyond calculation,

nowhere to go that doesn’t resemble the place you already are

except to leave the highway and drive further into the deep of it,

to park and walk along some narrow road, a street called by long numbers,

just before dusk: all still but insects buzzing, hallways flashing open

and vanishing between the cornstalks, bean blossoms glowing luminous

against deep green, and the old white farmhouses you’ll never go inside.

That time a half-moon rode in the sky—a rocking toy, an orange slice—

this life so much what it would stay, I didn’t know how I could bear it.

I didn’t know the names of machines to score the earth, poison, harvest,

only that this was the lay of the land and would be mine from now on:

all of it so mothering in its very absence, and everywhere

roads crossing roads in invisible plot-lines, no glimpse of horizon.

Waste Places

Clearing out the lake house I found the poems from college in a falling-apart box under a spare bed, so old they were typed on onionskin. A curled, crackling sheaf lost amid the spiral notebooks, the stiff and mildewed horse gear. Uncanny to read them and see I’d always been the same—striving to empty myself, as if that was the secret, and then, then I would be filled. But it was too late now, wasn’t it? Ache in my knees as I rose. I had been writing footnotes. Had called feeling affect. I had become a flyover zone, monocrop to the horizon. I was a temple to an absent goddess, the one who could never leave because she’d been gone almost from the start. Maybe someday I’d find a way to praise the waste places—sandy grass growing in the empty lot, glitter in the highway ditch, broken concrete shoring up the slope down to the reservoir. What would outlast all disasters. If I could learn to love even that. If I could speak. If I could sing it forth into the world, however desolate, changed and glowing.

The Flash

In that first dark year when I saw where we were

            and sensed it lurking, the world’s end and my own,

                        I wondered what I had, time remaining, to live for.

            In a conference room, half-listening, one day it flashed up

shining, intent, muscular, like a fish breaking the surface

            to leave rings widening on the dusk-glazed water:

                        of course, only at last to say it all as I wanted, tell

            this life as it had been to me, even if no one would care.

I felt it again then, the lake-canyon persisting, and in it

            the wide-eyed invisible schools, their gill-breathing, the sun-shafts

and currents of the lake, cold springs flowing into warm,

            and the weeds, muck-rooted, swaying in their particular rhythms—

I mean words like weeds, growing wild from the bottom,

            mounting the fathoms toward the world of air.

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