Tag Archives: death

The fifth tree

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The fifth tree

The dog’s name was Frederick.
On Christmas day he breathed his last

Short breath, four years ago this Christmas
And I lifted him, knowing his lightness

And his heaviness and buried him beside
The shed and placed a rough stone jagged

Edge up in the troubled dark ground. All the dog
Ever did was add a troubled edge to the day

Of anyone coming near his family. Swedish
Vallhund, short brown hair, long white teeth

Beneath black lips, he bit half a dozen neighbors
Across three neighborhoods and all forgave him

For whatever reason anyone forgives anything.
Every year here, the day after Thanksgiving, it’s raining.

The raining, present Friday, always the same.
My family and I pick out a Douglas fir for our Christmas tree

From the yard of a church a few minutes up the road.
The trees lean against a makeshift wall like middle

schoolers at their first Friday night dance. And we pick
One like one of them might be picked just before

The last song. And we dress the dying thing and
Give it water and when the solstice passes and

Christmas passes and New Year’s passes we take
It down and I drag it respectfully through the yard and

Lay it behind the shed and let it do what dead trees do.
Reminders to me, of what I am not sure, but I prefer

These trees where they are to things picked up from curbs
And tossed into a truck’s crushing metal ending.

On Christmas day the fifth tree shines inside and as
The afternoon warms I pay my respect to the previous

Douglas firs, and to the spirit of the dog who never saw
A stranger’s leg he didn’t want to bite. Hard to think

The second tree, the third, the fourth, came after Frederick
was already in the ground, with a fifth soon to join it. Some day

I’ll stop the family tradition or my children will, with respect
To these trees, and the dog who keeps them company,

To the fierce desire with which the dead serve the living.

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At a parent’s wake, November 2017

You arrive, as at the unfamiliar railroad station

Through which your own memories pass
As the luggage of real people, familiar but

Changed by all the time they have spent
Away from you. Sometimes one of the people

Will reach into their backpack and bring out
Their own memory of your parent, showing

Something you have never known. Then,
As real people do, they leave the station for connections

That will take them to their own lives again.
Your line does not move. Outside, swallows,

Those early summer infidels, bank with reckless
Accuracy against the momentum of all the invisible

Forgotten things.

Subtext

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Subtext

Unrecognized local number texting
‘Why did you change to “might come”

this weekend?’ I froze. Daydreaming
Of visiting my father on his 85th birthday.

Death’s number is always local, no
Matter how far away he seems.

And yes, he saw my mother fall,
Perforated inside, and went into the

Woods with eyes half seeing,
To the retired cop’s house for help.

And sometimes I see him there
Among the scrub oak, out

Of options, unsure, trying to lead
Death away from the house

And that was the time I came.

Six late winter mornings

Six late winter mornings

1.
It’s the underlined day
On the calendar of forgiveness.
But I cannot make the call.

2.
I get up early
To let the dogs out but

It’s too cold–they stay on the porch
As if waiting for a ride to pull up

Or a drink. I walk to the back yard
And relieve myself

Against the frosted grass.

3.
The black rabbit
Lounges in his hut

By the family vegetable garden.
He often rode on the back of our dog.

One day he lay on his side,
Not waiting for the morning

Or for us to find him.
He was finished and he went.

Leaving only a stiff black shroud
And the sound of birds.

Winter leaves like that.

4.
In our blizzard-crafted snow cave
We almost died

But the snow plow missed us as we hid.
Years later, my childhood friend Marty

in his capacity as a civil servant
of the public works

Tore up a curb with his plow right
Across the street from

Where we’d once schemed
How to pay for the garage window

We broke with a barrage of snowballs.

5.
After an early March storm
I snuck out before my son woke

To make lumps in the snow
Like snake coils surfacing.

Over breakfast I swore
I saw the Loch Ness Snow Monster

Out the bay window in the plow drift:
When we went to investigate

He discovered a large egg
Of ice, snow, and dirt

By the edge of the plowed pile.
He demanded we take it inside.

We put it in the freezer
To see what would hatch.

6.
Spring grows over the winter
Like a scar

The hurt season’s swelling
Diminishes

We almost over-reach for it
As if we prefer being sore

Over forgetting, a cloud
Ceiling over empty blue sky.

Poem to be read in the middle of the night (v)

Poem to be read in the middle of the night (v)

We never plan to leave. Even with no pretense
to stay, a moment washes over me that I could

be dead this moment, and of what I would not
have the moment to question, only gone,

leaving behind a family and world unprepared
to master day and hour and mortality, not

by me at any rate. Teeth in, fears bared,
no held breath barred, I breathe a bit longer.

December 30

December 30

 

All winter the days will grow– into winter’s death
Where light and darkness equal out.

Penultimately just nine days in it serves us
To pretend the end of anything–

So make your list. Sum it up
Like any cat lifting its tail to spray

Against the furniture. Already the leaves
Hiding like a punchline to a joke not yet told

Are laughing at how quickly the living forget
The cold, the weird verse of numbing wind

I hear in my mother’s painting of snow
And sunset, starlings on the highest branches

Of black walnut, as light as the best and worst
Of any year, as gone as the dead who won’t come back.

Uncle Tom Shortall’s Gone

Uncle Tom Shortall’s Gone

Uncle Tom Shortall’s gone, is dead
more myth than relative taller than life
whose eyes were higher than my father’s head
whose booming voice was an open door

whose sons surged through the den each year
who (he said) fed alligators in his dark basement
whose eyes were clowns who had no care
whose smile brooked no impediment

Uncle Tom taller than the fridge and most
could reach the liquor bottles with his eyes
blow off the dust for the once-a-year toast
where did he go what is it he sees

in the space beyond basements and christmas eves
where mice run away with a broken moon
where pain is fed to snapping teeth
Uncle Tom you left too soon

 

Author’s note: Tom Shortall was a beloved and to me legendary figure in my family’s Christmas Eve parties. It was not an official Christmas Eve until the Shortall family arrived. This poem doesn’t do justice to his life, of which I do not know much, but hopefully does justice to how big and generous a personality he was to the boy I was and still to some extent am. -JS