This tree has lost its gravitas.
It leans over the road
crooked spine, stiffened joints, balding in autumn,
hornets in its hollowed belly.
It eyes the power line nervously.
This tree leans over the road.
Its roots are willing but its trunk is weak.
The ground beneath has its own problems.
A Christmas Visitor
Once in a while, to entertain friends,
I spin up a story to see where it ends.
While I might mess with facts, I can say with conviction
That sometimes the truth is much stranger than fiction.
Of last night, for instance, I give this depiction:
Some nights before Christmas, while home at Four Oaks,
The wind is a-howling, the fire pit smokes.
The Baileys is waiting for coffee to brew.
In a Dutch oven bubbles a savory stew.
I’m humming and poking at embers and ash,
When from deep in the forest I hear a great crash!
Into the darkness I peer warily.
Into the shadows that stretch scarily.
I wish for bright light but the fire burns low.
I stray timidly from its comforting glow.
I zip up my coat; I flip up my hood.
I must fetch a few logs from the edge of the wood.
It’s 20 long paces to get to the stacks.
I take a deep breath. I take up the axe.
If something is out there to give me a fright,
It will see what I’m made of! I’ll put up a fight!
Into the shadows I step quietly,
With my axe at my side, and what do I see?
But a monstrous Thing half obscured by a tree!
With one eye that glows red and looks straight at me!
What should I do? Should I strike? Should I run?
Should I offer it stew? Would it eat a bun?
As I ponder these questions imagine my shock
When the Thing heaves a sigh and commences to talk.
In a whisper it says, “You’re too tall for an elf.”
It takes me a bit to recover myself.
For it’s plain to see as the strange Thing draws near:
It’s no monster at all! It’s Rudolph the Reindeer!
I notice he’s staring rather intently
At the axe in my hand, so I set it down gently.
As a smile spreads over his sweet furry face,
I ask, “How in the world did you come to this place?”
He says, “I was out flying and chasing my nose,
When sleep overtook me and caused me to doze.
I awoke to discover I’d lost altitude!
I’m sorry to startle, didn’t mean to intrude.
If you’ll just point me North, I’ll be on my way,
And the children will have presents come Christmas Day.”
“I know where to direct you,” I say. “See that star?
Follow it North. It will take you far.
But before we bid each other adieu,
Tell me—are you hungry? Would you like some stew?”
His nose flames bright red; his agitation grows great
At the sight of the boiling pot on the grate.
And I realize then that the Thing I’d held grim
Had been more scared of me than I’d been of him.
I laugh loud as Santa: “Ho ho! Ho ho ho!
I see there is something that you need to know.
You’ve clearly mistaken me for a barbarian.
That’s not venison stew. I’m a vegetarian.”
In the time of COVID, it's a luxury and a privilege to take a creative writing course, taught by a poet whose work I admire, who introduces his students to the most fearless contemporary poets. I'm about three times older than any other student in this class. I don't care, because some of the most astonishing poetry I've ever heard has come from people whose age can be measured in single digits. For example:
My son Sean, age six, when we lived on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, driving through town after a tornado: "You can always tell twister weather because the sky has a sour taste."
Three decades later, from his daughter Virginia, age five: "Mint tastes like a thousand fireflies." + "Hearts can't bloom if there is no love."
There is something achingly beautiful about the way very young people express themselves. When do we become so self-conscious, so fearful of judgment that our creativity runs off to hide? When a poet's age is measured in single digits, I attribute their gift to innocence. When the poet is old enough to know better and not care, I marvel at their courage.
Take Richard Siken. This poet is not for the faint of heart. If you're squeamish, gird your loins and read him anyway; you'll be better off for it. Start here, with his poem "Little Beast."
In this poem, Siken begins by painting an innocent small-town scene. "The radio aches a little tune that tells the story of what the night / is thinking" suggests longing and desire, and I could almost hear my mirror neurons strike up the opening strains of a Springsteen ballad. Like a spider that cocoons its prey in silk before it injects the toxin, the poet tells us the night is "thinking of love" and then turns savage without warning, using personification to describe a night that promises love inseparable from brutality. Now I'm hooked, understanding that violence is to come but unable to look away. When I learn that this night that is "thinking of love" is also "thinking of stabbing us to death / and leaving our bodies in a dumpster," a sense of recognition accompanies the horror. Who hasn't experienced love as a sort of human sacrifice, when you'd cut yourself on the knife's edge of danger just to feel so intensely alive?
Do you know this feeling? Are you brave enough to write about it? Please try. Maybe you'll surprise yourself. Maybe you'll give the world a gift.