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High Water Mark

High Water Mark: Prose Poems

David Shumate
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    High Water Mark
    Book Description:

    Everyday mindreading, a house full of Buddhas, and the papaya scent of the soul. An interview with Custer at a place of his choosing, "probably a steakhouse." The ability of dogs to smell the uncool.Hitler's barber imagines what might have been if only he'd leaned his weight into the razor. An oblivious Coronado narrowly avoids an ambush on the American plains. Freud lecherously lifts the skirt of a Mexican housekeeper who has far too much work to be bothered by "a pillar of modern thought. Or just some dirty old man."In lesser hands such disparate elements might fly wildly out of control. But in David Shumate's understated, brilliant prose poems, they come together in miraculously vivid riffs.The narrator of the title poem rhapsodizes, "I wouldn't mind seeing another good flood before I die. It's been dry for decades. Next time I think I'll just let go and drift downstream and see where I end up." Shumate's deft and refreshing collection takes us to amazing places with its plainspoken meditations.

    eISBN: 978-0-8229-8014-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. I

    • The Rain
      (pp. 3-3)

      I suppose ater the heavens and the earth I too would have created Adam and Eve. Or some pair of innocents like them. The first food would have been grapes, and of those they could have partaken freely. I would have bestowed on them a sense of humor and encouraged practical jokes. I would have let them learn about procreation on their own and practice it without shame. When they had a dozen children or so, when their hair had turned to gray, I would have shown them the way out to the sea. They could have traveled there often...

    • The Polka-Dot Shirt
      (pp. 4-4)

      The soldier returns to the city, dusty and alone. Nothing is as he remembers it. Buildings have vanished. Streets have been rolled up and carted away. Even his favorite whores are pregnant and married in the suburbs. He rents a room in a fancy hotel. He takes a long shower and while his scalp is still warm he shaves his head. He opens his suitcase and is surprised to find he has picked up someone else’s luggage at the station by mistake. He unfolds a Hawaiian shirt and tries it on. Some khaki pants. A pair of loafers. He studies...

    • The Japanese Rooms
      (pp. 5-5)

      Before I enter the Japanese rooms of her mind I bow to the servant and remove my shoes. I speak in whispers and slide one parchment door ater another back until I cannot remember the way I came. I am offered a cushion to sit on and I wait in this room where she displays her most delicate things. Soon she approaches wearing a blue and white kimono and her hair pinned back. She is bearing something in her arms and as she nears I see it is the child she never had. She places a shy girl of two...

    • How to Sit in a Café
      (pp. 6-6)

      Place both elbows on the table and cradle the cup between your palms. Gaze into your cofee and watch your soul surface rom time to time. Lean back and regard the sky when it suits you. Your hair should look forsaken. Your clothes do not matter at all. If someone sits at a table nearby, speak only when it pleases you. Appear dismayed, even irritated. You owe nothing to this purgatory that values your skills so little. Avoid the impression of waiting for someone; you are here because you are here. Bring an inconspicuous tablet if you wish. A pencil...

    • Prescription for Insomniacs
      (pp. 7-7)

      Think of sleep as a valley and you the baron whose ancestors have ruled it for a thousand years. It is dusk and smoke is rising rom the chimneys of the village. You stroll along a path through the woods and stop at this ridge to survey the expanse of your realm. To the south is your childhood, its rivers and creeks. To the west, a flock of crows has roosted in the trees of your adolescence. Nearby, the netherworld of the present is shrouded in fog. In the distance an old man is playing a flute. You think you...

    • What Hemingway Learned from Cézanne
      (pp. 8-8)

      You must build a sentence like a mountain. You must start someplace flat. Someplace where you can stand and see the land roll out for miles. You must let the wind die down. The rain clear. Then you may bring them, one block at a time. You must pile them upon one another and lean each new one closer to the center so that it will hold as it rises toward the sky. Each piece must be inevitable. Like a scripture you cannot erase. You must use the colors of the earth. Colors with a sense of gravity. Colors that...

    • The Institute of Cool
      (pp. 9-9)

      There are no classrooms. No schoolbooks or chalkboards. No teachers. In truth, there is no institute at all. Just the man in the brown derby hat who stops to kiss his girl in the middle of the street. Just the waitress with the orange ribbon in her hair and that endearing laugh. Just the blind saxophone player in the subway who draws his music rom somewhere out of the deep. It’s a state of mind few achieve. It takes years of practice. The strictest discipline. A code of silence. Most give up along the way. The strain is too much....

    • A Nazi in Retirement
      (pp. 10-10)

      His is a quiet life along the Mexican coast. Apart from the past. Up in the morning at five. Coffee. Newspaper. The drive to the factory. A drink at six. The opera or the symphony. On weekends he tends his garden and the grandchildren come to visit. Yes, a quiet life.

      Once in a while he cannot sleep. Something he ate, perhaps. Or the moon. So he dresses in his white suit and goes down into the streets. He can walk for miles on nights like this. Only the sound of his heels on the stone.

      Sometime before dawn he...

    • The Blue Period
      (pp. 11-11)

      It began with the floods. With the rains that washed over everything and rendered it all blue. It was a confusing time when memories and rivers looked so much alike that you might fish for hours in your mind and not know the difference. It was a time when dogs barked blue and the faces of the elderly became the sky and everything was reminiscent of everything else. All around town preachers delivered sermons about a purgatory filled with colors that tormented the soul. The police tortured anyone suspected of trafficking in green. The eccentric Noah was elevated to the...

    • Lifesaving
      (pp. 12-12)

      At first they laughed about how frequently they encountered each other in town and along the highway those weeks after she pulled him from the river. After she forced the water from his lungs and gave him breath again. But lately the strangeness of it has disturbed them. The way their clothes are always the same color. The way in the market they turn and there is the other. Clutching a bunch of radishes. Humming the same obscure tune. The way on thunder-filled nights their children cry out, awakened by the same dreams. Even their memories have become entangled. She...

  2. II

    • Coronado Rises in the Stirrups
      (pp. 15-15)

      Coronado rises in the stirrups and looks out over America for seven cities where children play with trinkets of gold but finds only this sea of prairie grasses so tall that when he gazes back his men seem to be drowning and he cannot fathom a time of wheat and combines and transistor radios, of pickup trucks and waffle irons.

      Coronado rises in the stirrups and looks out over America and thinks how long it has been since he has eaten Mediterranean shrimp or tasted Castilian wine or heard the laughter of women more naked than they should be.


    • All Seas Belong to Neruda
      (pp. 16-16)

      He used to carry a sea wherever he went. Ater a long trip, ater the hotel porter let, he opened his briefcase and the room filled with seagulls. The tiles turned to sand and the waves washed the balcony doors away. He took off his shoes, cuffed his trousers, walked up the beach and stretched out with the sea lions in the sun. At night he sat along the pier to memorize the surf. To watch the tide of turtles bury their eggs in the sand. If he had drunk enough, he might even dance with a squid on his...

    • Hitler’s Barber
      (pp. 17-17)

      On his deathbed the Führer’s barber describes how easily he could have leaned his weight into the stroke of his razor and severed the artery of the foul-smelling dictator. For decades he had rehearsed the act that would have saved the lives of millions. The swift incision. The blood gushing forth. The Führer’s astonishment as their eyes met. The grasp of the bodyguards as they dragged him into the street and leaned him against the wall. His defiant smile before the bullets shattered his skull. How nice they would have looked, his monuments towering over so many European squares. A...

    • Ferlinghetti’s Ears
      (pp. 18-18)

      His are broad ears with one too many curves. Like conches rom the shores of Indonesia. Smooth. Elongated. Worn with time. Spiraling toward some center. A cave or catacomb where a colony of monks write it all down and file it away. He has a collection of these ears. He pins them to the wall in the room where his cat and his typewriter sleep. In the morning he selects a pair, guided by the barometric pressure or the alignment of the stars or a case of persistent indigestion. But he is generous to a fault and gives too many...

    • Custer
      (pp. 19-19)

      He is a hard one to write a poem about. Like Napoleon. Hannibal. Genghis Khan. Already so large in history. To do it right, I have to sit down with him. At a place of his own choosing. Probably a steakhouse. We take a table in a corner. But people still recognize him, come up and slap him on the back, say how much they enjoyed studying about him in school and ask for his autograph. Ater he eats, he leans back and lights up a cigar and asks me what I want to know. Notebook in hand, I suggest...

    • Three Kings
      (pp. 20-20)

      They’re not used to being tossed about by camels. Listening to servants grumble. Sleeping beneath the stars. What has possessed them they cannot say. Back home their subjects whisper,What good is a king who chases a star?Still they venture forth. Someone gives them wrong directions at the river and they travel two days out of their way. When they arrive weary and bedraggled they do not know what to do. It’s all so unfamiliar. The barn. The flock of sheep. The man chopping wood in the distance. The mother and the child. It is an awkward moment until...

    • With Fitzgerald along the Côte d’Azur
      (pp. 21-21)

      All around the chatter consumes us. The viscount tells of his latest safari. The shipping mogul embraces the bare shoulder of his young wife. The Rothschild cousin plays with her hair and giggles. A small crowd assembles around the ambassador from Luxembourg who balances a pear upon his nose while Zelda’s laughter rises above it all. I follow Fitzgerald through the tinkling of glasses. Someone turns to compliment him on a recent novel and laments that more writers do not understand the ways of the wealthy. Later we sip cocktails at a corner of the balcony enjoying one of those...

    • Mornings with Freud
      (pp. 22-22)

      I wouldn’t call them sessions. More like periodic visits. He opens the door without knocking as if strolling into my subconscious itself. He hangs up his hat and cape and sniffs like a dog suspicious of what might be about. He goes to the kitchen and pours some coffee. He sits in the chair near my desk, flips through a few pages of my work and says if I were any more repressed, I wouldn’t exist at all. I think he comes here just to be around Carmela, the Mexican housekeeper with the dark, silky hair. The enchanting eyes. He...

    • The Psychic Geography of Atlantis
      (pp. 23-24)

      After dinner she tells me how her Rumanian grandmother taught her that reading minds was just a matter of thinking in someone else’s brain. I raise my cup of cofee and detect her footsteps descending into the cellars of my mind where she begins rummaging through the cluttered shelves. She pauses to inspect a memory about an old girlfriend. Then dusts of images of when I was a world-class alcoholic. I’m not sure what she’s looking for. But the intrusion offends me. So I begin remembering things that never actually occurred. Like the time I tied her to a railroad...

  3. III

    • Household Buddhas
      (pp. 27-27)

      A thousand Buddhas populate this house. The Buddha of pepper. The Buddha of brooms. The chimney Buddha and the dustpan Buddha. While we are away the Buddha of bowties stands in front of the mirror and marvels at how handsome he can become. The landscape Buddha snips at the hedges with his scissors. The wildlife Buddha tends to the tranquility of birds. The Buddha of good tidings greets us upon our return and the Buddha of raincoats and galoshes assists us with our wraps. The Buddhas of yet unspecified destinies wait in the hallway. One will become the Buddha of...

    • A Saint for You
      (pp. 28-28)

      He’s a portly old friar with a jovial disposition and a well-manicured bald spot atop his head. He travels from town to town healing the sick with his herbs. When the children swarm, he tells them of his days as a pirate. He could have been the patron saint of many things if he didn’t adore women so much. So he remains an outcast. Nobody’s saint. Lifting the weight of the world from those who can bear it no more. But he’s growing old and yearns to settle down. So I thought of you. And your ragged soul. Maybe you...

    • The Shape of the Human Soul
      (pp. 29-29)

      Some think it is a perfect sphere. A small moon orbiting within us. Or a river flowing out to sea. Others imagine a bird with white wings that perches deep within the chest. It rests for years then rises in one grand motion into the air. But it could be that it has no shape at all. Or that it is a small being. A ghost dwelling within us. Every so often he emerges from his cave and walks down to the river to bathe his feet in the cool waters. On the path back, he takes something round and...

    • Infant
      (pp. 30-30)

      I no longer remember how to handle a life this fragile. The delicacy of her fingers. Too small for any chore. The spiraling cavity of her ears where only the smallest sounds can fit. Her lunar eyes. The flute of her voice. The cirrus swirls of her hair that make her seem a thousand years old … A soul who has endured it all and returned to tell about it. She opens her eyes and gazes at me as if she has something to say that I should have known long ago. The gears of the universe slow. A silence...

    • Teaching a Child the Art of Confession
      (pp. 31-31)

      It is best not to begin with Adam and Eve. Original Sin is baffling, even for the most sophisticated minds. Besides, children are frightened of naked people and apples. Instead, start with the talking snake. Children like to hear what animals have to say. Let him hiss for a while and tell his own tale. They’ll figure him out in the end. Describe sin simply as those acts which cause suffering and leave it at that. Steer clear of musty confessionals. Children associate them with outhouses. Leave Hell out of the discussion. They’ll be able to describe it on their...

    • The Machinery of the Soul
      (pp. 32-32)

      I close the drapes, sit in a chair, and let the air around me settle. When only silence remains, I reach into my chest and try to dislodge my soul. It is a delicate process that only seems to work when I forget what I am doing. Soon the fragile bubble is resting in my palm. I place it in the air and it floats in front of me. I walk around it, aware of its papaya scent. The hum of the invisible machinery within. Its gears and pulleys. Its belts and lights. Deep inside I detect the faint outline...

    • Martyr
      (pp. 33-33)

      The pilgrim wanders the land searching for a place to martyr himself. It can take decades. But he is a patient man. Tonight he seeks shelter in this tavern. His donkey is tied in the stall where the stablemaster swears he heard the beast pray before he ate his grain. Inside, the guest finds his way to a dark corner and orders a glass of wine. A slice of bread. The inn is filled with travelers grateful for shelter from the storm. The drinks go round. The voices rise. Someone starts singing and another beats the rhythm on a kettle....

    • The Wasted Day
      (pp. 34-34)

      Today I did nothing worthwhile. I didn’t write a meaningful line. I didn’t speak a good word to anyone. I didn’t wash a dish or scratch the dog behind his ears. I’ve not remotely contributed to the betterment of humankind. It is like a day from the Dark Ages. Where people passed centuries walking in their sleep. Writhing with the plague. Even if I felt like writing a poem, a dark-robed priest would incite a mob to hunt me down for the crime of inspiration. They would drag me into the square, tie me to a stake and toss a...

    • On Finding a Landscape I Painted as a Child
      (pp. 35-35)

      A long stretch of prairie joins the sky at a horizon two-thirds of the way up the paper. A yellow house tilts upon a hill as if built by one overcome with optimism. Purple smoke rises from the chimney. A red cat stares out the window. A fence surrounds the pasture where a two-legged horse grazes. There is something oddly familiar about this place. As if I am the one whose feet have worn these paths. As if I am the one for whom this fire glows. I must be old by now. Bent by decades of wind. I take...

    • The Buddha of Arithmetic
      (pp. 36-36)

      He spends eternity counting the contents of the universe. How many of these … How many of those … He arranges them in groups of tens. Hundreds. Thousands. He prefers round numbers. That way when someone picks an apple or an opossum sacrifices itself under the tire of a car, he just traces his way back to the nearest ten. In this expanding universe, it’s an unending task. But he never complains. It’s all the same to him. If he weren’t keeping track of the numbers he would be listening to prayers or granting boons or performing a miracle from...

  4. IV

    • Country Music
      (pp. 39-39)

      This is that song I was telling you about. The one about the broken heart. The one where the man loves the woman and the woman loves the man but things just don’t work out. The one with the moon and the whippoorwill. Sometimes it seems like a country songwriter has been eavesdropping on my life. Like he’s been reading my mail. Hiding under my bed. Like he was there the night it finally blew apart. Just taking it all in. This morning he is sitting at my kitchen table. Smoking my cigarettes. Sipping my coffee. Scrawling down a rhyme...

    • Passing Through a Small Town
      (pp. 40-40)

      Here the highways cross. One heads north. One heads east and west. On the corner of the square adjacent to the courthouse a bronze plaque marks the place where two Civil War generals faced one another and the weaker surrendered. A few pedestrians pass. A beauty parlor sign blinks. As I turn to head west, I become the schoolteacher living above the barber shop. Polishing my shoes each evening. Gazing at the square below. In time I befriend the waitress at the cafe and she winks as she pours my coffee. Soon people begin to talk. And for good reason....

    • Tornado
      (pp. 41-41)

      The old man steps from his house and sniffs the yellow sky. He recalls the banker in ’54 who denied him the loan that would have kept him afloat and the wife who disappeared with the doctor and sent a card at Christmas a decade later probably by mistake and the son who died in a jungle, whose bones arrived after thirty years wrapped inside a flag and the neighbor a mile down the way who put a shotgun to his dog’s head and pulled the trigger to stop him from barking the whole night long and the locusts that...

    • The American Dream
      (pp. 42-42)

      The Vietnamese couple upstairs are learning to waltz like the graceful Americans they have studied on television. I hear their once-Buddhist feet whispering across my ceiling. Now and then the husband taps on my door, his citizenship book in hand, and asks about the Missouri Compromise or Benjamin Franklin to make sure he understands the subtleties of our history. At Christmas they set a plastic manger outside their door. On Memorial Day they place flags on the graves of dead people they do not know. But I miss the ancient gods they have exiled. Their ancestral spirits haunting the halls....

    • Bomb Shelter
      (pp. 43-43)

      He had everything he needed to survive the Russians. Two years’ supply of powdered milk. A few hundred magazines.The Brothers Karamazov. A hi-fi. Dried apricots and beef jerky. On Saturdays he practiced being the last man on earth. He climbed down the ladder, closed the door, put on a Beethoven symphony and uncorked a bottle of wine. All afternoon he thumbed through magazines and rode his stationary bicycle in the opposite direction of Armageddon. His wife refused to join him, pitying the race that would have them as Adam and Eve. When he wearied of the apocalypse he would...

    • Shooting the Horse
      (pp. 44-44)

      I unlatch the stall door, step inside, and stroke the silky neck of the old mare like a lover about to leave. I take an ear in hand, fold it over, and run my fingers across her muzzle. I coax her head up so I can blow into those nostrils. All part of the routine we taught each other long ago. I turn a half turn, pull a pistol from my coat, raise it to that long brow with the white blaze and place it between her sleepy eyes. I clear my throat. A sound much louder than it should...

    • Tabloid Headlines
      (pp. 45-45)

      It starts when a paperweight goes missing. A favorite vase. Disappearances I attribute to forgetfulness. The next morning I pass a window and see the neighbor’s cat floating into the clouds. By evening my automobile has vanished from the driveway and the only sign of my wife is the half-completed crossword puzzle folded on the picnic table. That night I can’t sleep amid the sound of the roof breaking free from the house. The chandeliers. The piano. The television. The pingpong table. All drifting skyward. By morning the lawn ornaments are gone and the patio umbrella is stuck in the...

    • Critic
      (pp. 46-46)

      He shows up unexpectedly one day in one of my poems about a Mexican village in which all the woman are pregnant. His narrow mustache so perfectly trimmed. He struts along the street south of the cemetery amid the flutter of chickens. The smell of fish. The commotion of the market. He leans across Pablo Velasco’s cabbages and chastises him for his lack of credibility in the context of modern poetry. Near the chapel, Manuela Cortés tries to sell him a bag of grubs used in making a traditional sauce. But he brushes her aside, repulsed by her overuse of...

    • A Thousand Miles from Nowhere
      (pp. 47-47)

      I am now standing exactly a thousand miles from nowhere. It didn’t take long to get here. A few thoughts. An abbreviated dream. A small step into the void. It’s not the desert you might imagine. Or the expanse of sea. Just a silent place out in the back of the mind. A foothill with a pagoda for shelter. A hammock stretched between the beams. A few tablets for writing. A flute to play if the feeling takes me. Hundreds, maybe thousands, have passed this way. See the messages they’ve carved in the trees … The footprints they’ve left behind...

    • Reading to the Blind Man
      (pp. 48-48)

      We start with the classics. Homer. Shakespeare. Chaucer. But he becomes bored and wants to read romances. Stories of people adrit on the tides of their passion. He is araid he is missing more than sight. That there are continents of emotions he has never explored. As I read, his lips move as if he now can see the words. As if he were one of those lovers about to collide. As if it were his hands on her breasts. His body atop hers. He whispers for me to slow down. It has taken him this long to get here....

    • May I Interest You?
      (pp. 49-49)

      She waits by the telephone each night for a call from a salesperson who wants to interest her in credit cards or replacement windows or automobile insurance or a revolutionary way to rid her house of termites. She prepares herself around five. Applies her makeup. Steps into a satin dress. Sets the table for two, lights the candles, turns Mozart to a whisper and serves quiche, chilled melons, and wine. The telephone rings. She lifts the receiver and the voice at the other end begins to expound upon the virtues of discount mortgages. She listens. Nods. Raises her wine glass...

    • Accordion Lessons
      (pp. 50-50)

      While others drank vodka and spread their legs for boys, the girl next door played polkas on her accordion all the years of her youth. Nothing about her family suggested this exotic instrument fit into their lives. They were not from Sicily or Guanajuato. They were not possessed of an irrational zest for life. When the daughter reached puberty, her parents doubled her practice time and her music echoed through the midnight neighborhood as if set loose from a painting by Chagall. Her mother had watched the virgins of Lawrence Welk and knew that as long as the girl played,...

    • The Id
      (pp. 51-51)

      He is that primal force. Around from the beginning. The one in the ragged cap. The old canvas shoes. Chop of his head … He grows a new one. Stab him in the belly … He chews of the end of your sword. Now that he’s gained official status in the triumvirate of the human psyche, there’s no stopping him. He drinks himself silly. Runs around naked. Cavorts with whores. He never ages or grows fatigued. Everyone points at him and calls him names. He doesn’t care. He’s the id. He can do whatever he likes. Every few seconds, he...

    • Testicles
      (pp. 52-52)

      At first their music is so hushed you can hardly hear it. Like a troupe of gypsies deafened by the wars. Time passes. You think you feel something down there. Two small men beating each other on the head. Then one day something explodes. All hell breaks loose. Lunatics rush through the corridors clanging pots and pans. Screaming. Yanking each other’s hair out. No one can catch them. They climb out the windows. Wailing. Yelping. Now they’re in the streets. Soon even the sane join in. Chaos overtakes the city. The mayor leaps from his window. Nuns burn their habits...

  5. V

    • Afternoon Nap
      (pp. 55-55)

      It is like finding a hole in the universe. A door nobody else knows about. You swing it open and crawl through into the streets of a small town. You pass the barbershop. The pharmacy. The bank. The grocery. Maybe a row of grain elevators on the edge of town. All the houses are white. People are sitting out on their porches as if they’ve been expecting you. They wave and say a few words. Some ask you to come up and visit for a time. They want to know what you were doing before you fell asleep and what...

    • Visitation
      (pp. 56-56)

      This morning I sit down with the spirit of my father. At first he is reluctant to join me. Perhaps he fears what we might say. Or something in the code of the dead warns to leave the living alone. I pour him some coffee. Offer him his favorite pipe. We start with small talk. How the others are. The time when we did this or that. He has lost that nervous edge. That tremor in his voice. As if we grow younger with each year of death. He senses something unsettled in me. That gnawing the dead know so...

    • Graveyard
      (pp. 57-57)

      Sometimes my father rises from his grave to have a look around. Like on those star-filled nights when he lit a cigarette and walked out on the lawn. Tonight he wears his golf shirt. His baggy pants. His black and white saddle shoes. He walks up one row of headstones. Down the next. He doesn’t seem sad. He knows it was his time. He just wishes he could learn to forget the things he loved to do. Sitting behind the wheel of a Chevrolet. Feeling the sports page in his hands. Drinking a good beer. He knows he won’t rest...

    • The Ambassador of the Dead
      (pp. 58-58)

      He is the one who negotiates disputes between the living and the dead. Who sees that things remain fair. That the dead do not haunt the living without cause. That the living do not unduly disparage the dead. He comes and goes as he pleases. You see him whispering to someone at a cocktail party. Or out in a cemetery descending into a grave. Tonight he comes to my house to discuss an issue that has been brought to his attention. My wife shows him out into the garden where I am weeding the radishes. He smiles as he approaches....

    • The Art of Forgetting
      (pp. 59-59)

      It is nothing like the ancient art it once was. The art of letting go gracefully. Abandoning things in midair. Watching them drit away. Today it’s a crude process. Like cleaning out a great aunt’s house. She’s dead now. You’re all she had let. You rummage through the debris of a lifetime. Her ceramic dolls. Her collection of bells. Piles of tattered books. Her musty wardrobe. Black and white photographs of people you don’t know. Postcards from Bali. All laced with the scent of rancid perfume. You start with a feather duster. A broom. One thing at a time goes...

    • Poems That Can Only Be Written at Night
      (pp. 60-60)

      Among these are poems about fathers. Poems about lovers who leave with a part of you. Poems about children who whisper to the dead. Poems about dark-feathered birds who learn to talk like humans but choose silence instead. They arrive, one or two at a time, like train passengers who disembark at midnight. Their dark cloaks. Their strange valises. They shuffle around on the platform and then mount a carriage and rattle along the old paths to this house. The dog barks. My wife rolls over in bed. I descend the stairs and open the door. But the figures have...

    • The Slaves of My Ancestors
      (pp. 61-61)

      I see them stooped in the fields. One begins singing. The others join in. A sound so powerful it seems they could lift each other up from the earth. I know all of their names. Who among them is left-handed. Who has died of diphtheria. The fever. I know the clothes they wear on Sunday. The stories they tell at night. Their children who have been sold away. I know the faces of those they let behind. The rivers. The sacred places. All of this comes to me. Though I have no right to it. All of this comes to...

    • Armor
      (pp. 62-62)

      She steps closer to the display case. She puts her hands on the glass and wonders at the suits of armor. So small … I explain how once people were not as tall as they are today. How over the centuries we have grown as a species. How back then a tall man was five foot seven. She regards me with suspicion. As if listening to a fairy tale. These small people of the past. She suspects I’m concealing some dark secret. Something I don’t think she’s ready to know. That long ago armies of children fought the wars of...

    • The Funeral of the Moon
      (pp. 63-63)

      They were all in attendance. The one-eyed giant. The African gods. Even the fat lady showed up with her entourage of dwarves. And their hundred violins. We gathered at the beach where other mourners had decorated the waves with flowers. The darkness with rain. A magpie delivered the eulogy. He spoke of the friend we had all lost. How she had so loved the sky. How night would never be the same. And love … Without the moon, who could hope to love again? We bowed our heads and prayed. When it was time, the strong man lowered her into...

    • Warehouse
      (pp. 64-64)

      All of my mistakes are being collected in a warehouse, tended by an old man with a welt on his face. He goes about his work methodically. Each day he receives a new delivery and cross-indexes it in his ledgers. Sometimes he pauses at an intriguing entry, shakes his head and snickers. My life is his constant source of amusement. At noon he sets his work aside and waits for a Chinese deliveryman to bring him chop suey. At five o’clock he knocks off. He is a union man and knows his rights. During the evening he works crossword puzzles...

    • Old Age
      (pp. 65-65)

      At ninety I’ll wear a white shirt and overalls everyday just like my grandfather did. I’ll walk with a cane and shake it at children when they get too close. I’ll spit where I want to spit and cuss when I want to cuss and eat whatever I damn well please. I’ll talk aloud to people who have been dead for decades and tell them what I never got around to saying when they were alive. I’ll take walks out past the railroad tracks and into the forest and when I get lost I’ll follow the crows back. If I...

    • Mushrooms
      (pp. 66-66)

      They appear out of nowhere overnight. Hundreds scattered across the lawn. Like debris let over from a dream. All morning the muffled hum of fungi spreads through the fog. Even the grackles and catbirds keep their distance. There is something pleasantly unchristian about their presence. Like gypsies who show up at my doorstep smelling of the Old World and claiming to be my kin. I invite them into my home. Soon their belongings are strewn everywhere. Their children are playing with mine beneath the trees. Our wives are laughing in the kitchen. The old man approaches, takes my head in...

    • High Water Mark
      (pp. 67-67)

      It’s hard to believe, but at one point the water rose to this level. No one had seen anything like it. People on rooftops. Cows and coffins floating through the streets. Prisoners carrying invalids from their rooms. The barkeeper consoling the preacher. A coon hound who showed up a month later forty miles downstream. And all that mud it left behind. You never forget times like those. They become part of who you are. You describe them to your grandchildren. But they think it’s just another tale in which animals talk and people live forever. I know it’s not the...

    • The Immortal
      (pp. 68-68)

      Tonight the immortal has returned. He sits beside the willow that drags its branches through the stream. He leans back in his chair and inhales the darkness. From the broad straw hat, from the part of his profile I can see, he looks Japanese. Perhaps a painter. Or a poet of old. Maybe Hokusai. Or Issa. I catch traces of the tune he is humming. He motions for me to join him. We sit along the bank without speaking. A crane flies over. Frogs sound of downstream. The moon finds a thousand places to recline. All night long … Two...