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Red Oak

Red Oak

Why is the red oak leaf winged with pointed tips?
What law of aerodynamics has determined its shape,
the way it twists and turns in the wind,
Bernoulli's principle tugging on a slender stem?

And for what purpose? Why not fly steady, assured,
like the hawk soaring with barely a flick of a wingtip.

One leaf’s ruffle and whorl stirs its neighbors
who react with their own feverish palsy, tethered 
to a twig that sways and bends with other ballerinas
in a kind of disjointed choreography, twirling 

on the branch. And the branch, showing its age, 
begrudgingly moves in rhythm with the storm, creaking 
to other gnarled limbs that join in. Together they pass on 
a collective pull like a sail straining against a mast.

Yet the trunk stands firm, holding fast to its roots
that in turn, lock arms with the roots of neighbors buried
deep in the earth, where even they feel the willful wind.

Tender Shoots of Hard Red Wheat

Tender Shoots of Hard Red Wheat

A six-year-old kneels in the front pew.
If she dared, she could reach out and touch
the cold coffin. Another old farmer gone,
playing the starring role in the last rites.

The girl is bewildered, like a Bedouin 
in a swirling sand storm watching a video 
of a scuba diver. She is in over her head,
decoding the manual of human bonds. 

She is spirited away by a mystical cloud
of incense from the swinging censer 
as the priest circles round the casket 
and gathers lost prayers into a neat parcel.

Time without end hovers, the sanctuary light,
the tabernacle, the either-or of eternal 
salvation or eternal flames. An out of tune 
but zealous choir wails the Dies Irae. 

Like the tender shoots of hard red wheat
that surround her, she is shown the fine print
in the earthly contract, how to ride out a flood,
watch water rise in the absence of urgency.

Ninety-Six Degrees

Ninety-Six Degrees 

Smog from the Ohio River Valley 
seeps and settles on Richmond 
like the insides of a corn syrup tank
pressure washed hot and steaming. 

We are confined. The world is—
out there, and the car’s AC struggles.

I see them through the windshield,
sweltering nursery rhyme characters, 

Jack Sprat, tall and thin, pushing 
a heavy set woman in a wheelchair
along the uneven sidewalk.

Their eyes swallowed by sunburnt
crow’s feet, the passing cars
pay no mind—caw cawing.

With heavy unconditional
sweat, the wheelchair trundles
on the edge where love stops.

The woman clutches a small bag,
and I imagine they have been 
to tony Carytown. I imagine 

today is her birthday. Her man bent, 
pushes her miles in a wheelchair 
for a pair of earrings, hoping
to make it home before dark.

Father to Son

Father to Son

Alone at the kitchen table, pizza crusts
and empty bottles of beer, the two of us,
a father and son. We talk of all things
inconsequential, movies, traffic, cooking.
From the other room we hear your son 
who baby scats to Duke Ellington.
I am overcome by the affection found
in chatter, aimless sounds. But oh the sounds!

Like a psalm sung sinking into a hot bath,
the splatter of scented rain speaking to sap.
A startled miracle. Bliss, a blessing sneezed.  
I revel in the hum of your voice. Absolved
for the time when you were nine, and I never 
got you that X-men one-forty you so desired.


after Triple Elvis by Andy Warhol, 1963
*Warhol's silkscreen, Triple Elvis, was 
originally taken from a publicity still for the 
movie Flaming Star  starring Elvis Presley.


Three cowboys—guns drawn.
Elvis times three half-breed
three times a flaming star

imitation of a movie 
still. The redskin and the white
caught between two worlds.

Andy (may I call you Andy?)
Let me hold a mirror up to them,
aluminum paint printer's ink.

Three on three in a showdown.
A dual canvas to mirror
to canvas to mirror shootout.  

Let us watch them pull the trigger.
Image and echoed replications,
six (six-shooters) blast.

Three bullets times two collide 
precisely in mid-air welded together 
by the impact—the law of reflection 

contends that the fused lead drop 
exactly midway on the marble floor. 
Do you hear it Andy?

Like coins from a slot machine.
It shouts jackpot, jackpot, jackpot.
Big money. The big money shot.

And the Glory

And the Glory 

My father's hands hold the program, 
or rather his hands in my own. 
The same index finger tracing 
the songs of Handel's Messiah. I see

his hands mirrored in my own 
as the string ensemble fingers 
the introduction. How his thumb
rests in the bend of the pointer,
the middle finger curling under. 

He has been gone now for years. 
Yet he joins me for this performance, 
and like always, he is everywhere,
as the tenor sings Comfort ye my people. 

My father incarnate stands next to me. 
He raises his hands like a Pentecostal 
swiping at the sound, trying to grab hold 
of notes that might again give him 
a voice. His hands flutter like a bird, 

and he floats away from the pew 
and soars to the sanctuary, where he dons 
a white surplice and joins the choir. 
From his mouth tiny hands pour out, 

each holding a word, the glory 
of the Lord. And all those hands in flight 
drop their parcels in benediction, the sound
of heaven drifting over the congregation. 
I watch those little hands come together, 

hover over me, gently descend 
upon my shoulders. They unfold 
with the echo of my father's soft tenor,
the breath of his singing, sweet in my ear.

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