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
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.
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
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
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.