Swimming Down

An armored shark in lava, I move on all fours across the rug as your daughters leap over me shrieking. With an unblinking eye, I feel the heat of the earth rise—its erupting egg, yolk-rug, and the shore of the bed—as we play. 

That night you wake up to tell me you are sinking underwater. Half-asleep, I say water in dreams always means emotion. I think I feel a pair of cool hands pressing on my temples, a vial of cooking oil in my pocket…

I think of your girls and my hands flutter to tangled hair. Nearly asleep again, I’m listening to myself as a child—sloshing water in the bath, catching a fluff of bubbles in my hand.

I leave before they get up for school, and I take in the sky as I unlock my door, steam puffing up into the black. I was pulled from a car once at this hour, the middle of a soybean field, to look at Haley’s Comet. My father urging me, wake up, wake up! It’s the only time you’ll see this in your life! This piece of cotton in the sky. This fireball, this chunk of ice.

It burns! And as I seize myself in mock pain, I fall into the lava. I fall—through the rug, the ceramic tile, the layers of ground—into a core that shines, impossibly, white.

 

Taking Your Chair

If I could figure it out, I would tell you—

Why I discover new ways to let you know I don’t need you.

 

Through the corridors of what is it

Dragging wicker chairs from the mudroom

Across the concrete to the damp lawn

Nearly crying it’s so fucking pleasant.

 

I’ve been heaving like this, away, like a dry drunk

From suburb to suburb,

Charting gravel, hating the clay doves that knock from patio eaves.

 

You’re taking another trip with your girlfriend

Whom you’ve recently told you can’t love

Down through a planned hurricane.

 

If you come out of it with all of your bearings

I’m holding a place for you in this shuttered backyard,

Two chairs the size of Lego pieces in my fists.

Homes

Years from now they’ll sift the top layers

Of our homes and separate us into the communal-loving

Apartment dwellers and the staunch people

Of the stucco mansions.

 

We will be reconstructed as always-at-war

And they will decide that

That is the reason for our so many miniature tanks.

 

We will be found to have littered the earth

With our disposables and yet walked upright,

Some of us, like giants or ants-on-fire

Never far from the earth and with our palms

 

Always curled up in defense. There will be no need

To track our existence by the stars

Or the one great dawn lifting up our oceans.

They will lift the ground of our souls out of us like you

Would lift, with one hand, a hollow skull.

Your Children are Watching

Do you remember when the Berlin Wall came down?

I was only 12, but I remember lying on my stomach on our living room floor, watching it on TV. My parents let me stay up late for the images and the commentary, or maybe they just weren’t paying attention. I remember so vividly the joy–the young people leaping up on top of the wall, bringing hammers down, hugging their East German neighbors! I don’t exactly remember this, but I like to imagine my dad or mom saying, “wow” in an awed voice. What I do remember, clearly, is the feeling that the world could be an inspiring place. Shit. Even today I can’t listen to the Scorpion’s schlocky Wind of Change without tearing up a little.

That hope has been a hard feeling to hold on to lately. Of course, I cried with joy and frank astonishment when Barack Obama became the first African-American president. And I felt a cautious sort of happiness as I followed the brief Arab Spring. However, I also witnessed 9/11, the wars in Iraq, and police brutality in my own backyard.

Do you know, after 9/11, I imagined for weeks what I would do if anything happened in my office, in my school? Did we all do that?

I wonder what particularly-imaginative young people today will remember when they think back on the ubiquitous images of their childhood. I wonder how much the constant exposure to screens will affect the way kids perceive this presidential election, or the protests flaring up in nearly every big city. I mean, you don’t have to be a media specialist to understand the power of images. And you don’t have to be a psychologist to understand that our earliest memories shape us in ways we can’t always predict.

I was an 80s kid who “was born in a house with the television always on.” From age 3 to puberty I absorbed the Reagan years. While my family was religious, it was also liberal. (I know that seems rare among the white middle-class of the Midwest, but it’s the truth.) I must have overheard comments from my parents as I watched the evening news. And I must have somehow processed them! As a grammar school kiddo, I voted Dukakis in our mock election! So I was surprised one night when I was scolded for badmouthing Republicans.

Reagan was on TV giving some speech and I, trying out a new word I’d overheard, said, “What a jerk-off!” My dad immediately scolded me. “I don’t care whether you agree with him or not – he’s still our president!” His words surprised me then, and they surprise me even more now. Especially when I hear from other, younger Midwestern friends who talk about the hateful things fired, nonstop, at the Clintons in their households.

I don’t think I have to remind you of the hateful things shouted across America’s Great Ideological Divide today. It’s hard for me to imagine a right-leaning parent admonishing a child to respect a candidate on the other team. It makes me admire my father even more, and it makes me listen even more closely to what my students are saying about politics …

My students, like most teenagers, are master hypocrisy spotters. They also thrive on images and sarcasm. Maybe that’s the reason we live, increasingly, in a meme society, in which snarky sound-and-picture bites take the place of thoughtful, well-researched news. Some of our more discerning journalists have identified the problem: In a Trump era, feelings are the same as truth; facts change depending on the source; insults and vague insinuations equal sound political strategy; reality is nothing more than solipsism.

What a time to be alive.

I teach in St. Louis, and before the Michael Brown verdict came out, we gathered the kids in the cafeteria to talk to them. These 8th and 9th graders were allowed to ask questions or make comments. Among them:

Why do white cops hate us?

Why does it always have to be a black and white thing?

I feel like I live in a war zone.  

I turned away from the kids to hide my emotion, and I thought to myself: What else are they seeing and hearing? How will they process and remember these things? What will they be like when they grow up?

I don’t intend for this to be a defeatist piece. I’m a firm believer that “the kids are alright.” My students, at least, are observant and savvy, and they have more of a voice than I ever did at age 14. I do, however, want to echo what Hillary Clinton has already stated in a pretty sharp ad: “your children are watching.”

Anyone who’s ever been around kids knows that’s true.

I believe they’re watching, and I believe they’re listening to us as we watch. And as we react.

Soft Skills: A Thank You Note for Wayne Zade

In 1995 I wore long shorts and a class ring and I stepped into your office with a handful of poems.

By 1999 I was a traveler and a deconstructionist and I returned to your office to sit, embraced by your walls of books, and hear the jazz.

You told me about Rilke, Ashbury, and Coltrane. We listened to Seamus Heaney, to Quincy Troupe, to Ornette Coleman. And I kept coming back—

From New York to Iowa—by way of Norman Dubie, Murakami, Lady Day—From here to there! New poem to another new poem. You told me, without telling me, how to keep your calling close, like a halo of lamplight around the fragilist part of you.

In 2002 I was mountaining and floundering and businessing and marrying. But I didn’t forget.

In 2006 I was a poet and it was because of you.

In 2009 and again in 2012 I thought life was breaking me—But then I remembered that, once, you said my poetry reminded you of Chet Baker. So I came back.

In 2014 an 8th grader bested the high schoolers in a Poetry Slam that made my whole body smile and I—I was his teacher!

In 2015 I brought my own students with me and sat beside you at a classroom table and talked about books again.

Though I still hope I’ll be remembered for my angel-throated words, my revolutionary, post-punk ideas, I realize it will really be because of the artists I teach from my own life-crafted room.

And whenever I think I don’t need mentors anymore because I have become one, I realize that the soft skills in my life originated in your lamp-lit office. And I’ll always want to come back.