Tag Archives: death

The angel reconsiders

angel face flame

The angel reconsiders

The flame over its head twists and flickers.
A cowlick of wonder. Through the sinew

of transparent wings flows the blood of creation.
It lifts and sets down, interlocks fates, initiates

patterns we feel in our hearts when things die
and when things are born. It has been feeding.

It looks to the lower middle left, that place we look
when we are thinking about the truth.

It would be a good year to start from scratch,
the angel thinks. Its round face,

blue like a baby’s eye, blinks. Nothingness
begins to melt into a terrible form

of a hand and dark thoughts. Then
the angel reconsiders. Its wings spread

high, high, higher, into a sacred shrug.
The hand is left alone, reaching for its maker.

angel detail

Your death

file (1)

Your death

One day your death is born. Like a root vegetable
he forms just beneath the surface of the earth,
fed by future circumstances combined with causes
thickening and unwinding in the dirt of time
where the past and present lay beside one another.
He wriggles out slowly, turning and turning and tilling
the door of grass open. As soon as air hits its body
it grows clothes, ceremonial looking robes and headpieces
from your nightmares, your childhood. The disappointed
brow of your father, the breathing of the stranger who
followed you down the road. Like a bird he knows
where he must go. To find you, so you may meet your death.

He’s ugly and small, so your death must travel by night.
If enough living people see him, he will simply disappear.
He knows the oppression of not being accepted, not being
believed. He has no language to formulate this knowledge
into words or he would offer people he met some solace:
Yes, death is real, your own death will come for you some
day, but today is not that day, and I am not your death.
I am the death of the reader of this poem, but even knowing
I am coming they will not believe, and wherever they will be
When I meet them is where I am heading. And he’d go softly
away, but it’s never like that. Without believing in him
they stare through him until he is truly transparent, truly not there.

So another day your death is born. Like a bird he knows
where he must go. He travels by night, he covers himself
with fallen leaves and pine needles during the day or lies
in the shadow of chunks of concrete on the edge
of a construction site. Occasionally, while nodding off to sleep
an image of him comes to you, in perfect focus, this little
unbeing, like a still photo but you know he’s not still,
like a postcard he is moving towards you. He finds one night
the interstate, knows it is the most direct way to reach you,
and his hair grows more quickly as he feels himself getting
closer, until a sleepy truck driver nods off just long enough
to slide into the breakdown lane and crush your death where he crouches.

Your death is born on another continent, even farther away. His eyes
turn like dry stones in his sockets, he has stunted leather wings
under his arms that would not work to fly, and as he emerges
from a bog his head is instantly covered by a bowler cap, his squat
body glistening in shiny robes, his feet quick in colorful hiking shoes.
He learns almost by accident how to use public transportation,
where nobody looks at anyone else. One day, months along,
he comes upon a scene of horrific violence on the road, but other
deaths are there for those people, you’re nowhere to be seen,
and he sees that it’s safe to climb inside the wheel-
well of one of the ambulances. Even if a paramedic sees him
out of the corner of her eye, she has seen so much death
she doesn’t look twice. Death is in your county, coming down
a country road, stopping at a park, walking through the woods.
Emerging from the near side of the river your death notices
something moving in the tall grass, and curiosity gets the best
of him, he follows it, and as the grass gives way to a freshly
mowed lawn, he sees it is another of your deaths, and when they
see each other they both pop, neither can exist now that
they have witnessed the other. You hear a sound in your yard
and think one of your cats is throwing up, but there is nothing there.

Your death is born in the cold wasteland. He is so unappealing that
even a hungry polar bear will not swipe at him. He falls into the ocean
and rolls for years, for decades. The part of him that is not submerged
sports a tattered raincoat, then a wave crashes over him and a new
flank surfaces like a leg covered in spandex. Then that submerges,
and over and over it rolls. Your death is born on a hot summer day and
tumbles out of a palmetto tree like a cockroach and is stepped on
several times but its mass expands into the crack of a sidewalk and
keeps moving. Your death is born just a mile from you, mucus streaming
from his snout because he is so close, he has no limbs to propel himself
your way but he knows if circumstances are right you will walk right by him
while you walk the dogs, so he waits but you are distracted by a text and he
melts in the sun. Your death is born ten years from now and like a bird he knows
to travel by night and meet no one’s curious glance and find his shadow
in moments of unbelievable coincidence where his existence will not
be questioned, he’s coming, of all these possible deaths he may or may
not be the one to be here, but this poem will get to you first, this
small ugly thing with a male pronoun and a single message, if I got here
before death it is because death really is coming, you should make a place
for him every day, so many have tried and only one will make it to you.
Don’t make fun of his appearance, he is just a pile of circumstances
as unique as you have been, he will be thirsty and if you make him some
tea you will have just a little longer to marvel at your life, perfectly cast
in his reflection in the mirror as he lifts the cup to his lips.

The fifth tree


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.


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.




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

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

Spring grows over the winter
Like a scar

The hurt season’s swelling

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




You will never be at anchor.
There are more graves than waves at sea.

We sail through our dead with every step
And honor the skill of dead-reckoning — figure out

where you are from where you’ve been —
Always a looking-back. Just ahead

Of the breastbone, like cartilage that catches
Flight, is the curve that carves our path.