Home Remedy

I don’t know about the rest of you all, but I am officially too old to understand Halloween.  I can’t imagine disguising myself arbitrarily (in Something Rising Cassie says she has a hard enough time recognizing herself as it is) and if I want candy I go buy some.  The dim shadow of paganism that remains associated with this date for some people has no meaning to me; indeed, I never know what day it is anyway.  So for today I decided to treat the holiday as one in which we might consider what is really scary.  No masks, no prostidevils, no poltergeist detectors.  And that led me to something that our Jim Shue used to find scary – a short story by my mother called “Home Remedy.”  I’ve recorded it, and if you’d like to listen to it click on the link. 

For the record, I agree with Stephen King on the nature of fear:  nothing is more deeply terrifying than when global and domestic atrocities collide.  This story takes place in rural Kentucky, but an atrocity is what it is. 

OH!  Now I see why we need the candy!  

Link: Home Remedy

Published in: on October 31, 2008 at 12:23 pm  Comments (276)  

How To Get There


Amanda Beebox, here is the second.


How To Get There


Take the red road.  Call it good.  See

the girl you left behind there, her bees

and berries.  Forget your shoes

and cities – she is alone and you

are alone.  She will not turn, she

is determined, slight but brave,

and too busy yearning for the gypsy


dog who couldn’t make this trip.  Not his yet.

Comfort, he’s called, he waits in the loam

and brittle leaf stars under the porch,

below a house that lists against the jumble

of second-hand haunts and the weight of make-do.

The shotgun shabby where you and she

began.  That’s your father in your father’s

old sprung chair, staring at a stolen

television and flicking the lid of his lighter,

open, closed.  And there’s your mother,

pacing in the dim and filmy kitchen,

burning with rage like a nest woven of hair.


Comfort’s legs flicker in the dream

field; he sees your tire-swing wind-twirling

but hollow, no you; and late lightning; God’s carbon eye. 

He cries against it, paws dancing, this heartsick

sense of all of it, and of the razor-beaked V in the sky.


The dog is right to twitch and sigh.

On a steady current, anxious for the

sight of you, the shine of you:  hair

and hazel eyes and the buttons

on an old gingham dress, the hawk

is gliding your way; an archaic

conflation of flight and contempt.

Earth has lost its exertion, he is Newton’s lawless.

He circles and bays his single, cherished word:  mine.

Mine: the young, the panic in the grass.  

Mine, the girl who rustles the red dust,

kicks a piece of broken glass without

ever breaking stride, whistles tuneless through

her teeth.  Do not glance up at him, as she does not,

the urge to hide is a fool’s pretension, as his shadow

overtakes you, singes your best, lost intentions.


Keep pace behind her, never betray her:

you are your own future, after all.  Pay attention;

honor the way she will not falter,

how she holds her chin high, because

just ahead, just there, is the county line, four

directions that meet in a neutral square.

North and south are numbered by the age

at which you die.  So are east and west.

You are almost there.  Most people choose

the simplest phrase, to ease the way:  At

least I did my best.


Then again, you could take the broken road,

it is the same road.  She’s walking alone

there, too.  Time.  You.  One shimmering

step in and you forget her face; with the second step

she disappears, vanished into air as sure as the tune

she whistled, or the wings of a fairy. Try to recall

something quickly, the real falls so fast.  Without

one sweet story to tell about that little girl, the past

will impale you and leave you dying on the barb.

And then you have it!  An image, small as a seed rolling

on a vast plain.  Spring, the wild and thorny bushes,

a drone deep in the flowers, and a blue bowl she carried:

Fragile memory: she loved honey bees and black berries.

Published in: on October 30, 2008 at 12:29 pm  Comments (207)  

Marks The Spot


Amanda Clouds, one bee poem for you today, one for tomorrow.


Marks The Spot


In the field behind the church

and just west of the lynching

tree, you led me to a vacant

beebox, where over many days

and months you had hoarded stolen

loves of mine.  They refused to fly

when you opened the lid:  a toothache

kit from the old war; a Spanish

comb, a Hong Kong dime; a bottle

of liquid mercury.  No less strange

or private than when tucked into my hope

chest, they’d been rendered stingless,

and my hands hovered but did not care

to descend or touch.  I froze there

in your line of sight, my cousin,

a mad boy seduced by my fidelity

to distances, the flight only certain

girls realize.  How slow

the spinning world, after fifteen

long, blossoming summers!

How narrow and immediate.

I thought:  I will paint honey

into all my locks, and stop him.

The day swayed like a drunken fool, I missed

the bees, I miss them still, I mourn

and resent them as if they were the thieves

who put this lovely, piercing hex on me.

Published in: on October 29, 2008 at 12:31 pm  Comments (96)  

The Wife Who Stays


I began this poem years ago about a neighbor in Indiana.  I watched her every day, the slow economy of her gestures.  She walked out on to the porch and sat on the swing but didn’t swing.  Soon she went back inside.   There was never sound from the house.  She wore old and unusual dresses. I never saw her go anywhere.  I’ve rewritten the poem many times.  It was difficult to choose an appropriate self-portrait so I simply didn’t.


The Wife Who Stays


She is on a ship.  Under her eyes

are stains like plums.  She is not

on a ship.  Even the still porch swing

is not gentle enough.  No wind. In the narrow

light and maddening hum of the kitchen,

drains open like the mouths

of blind fish.  It is enough to live

in a space replete with emptiness,

she grasps it will suffice.

Enough to gather motion in one’s

tense thighs and step forward

into the day, and the day, and the next.


For a snake might smooth out of her.

Christ might climb down for her.

Instead, her measure is inward, static.

A fly batters itself against the window

in a drone, determined, unaware of hope,

or hope’s charming, mercurial twin.

She flinches, but watches. 


The momentum of the world

is toward ruin and love, the unchosen

boy said.  To freeze and forget

the old heat is the dream

of the heart on this deep sea.

Pay the boatman, Missus.  A distant

dog barks as if tomorrow

is at the gate.

Published in: on October 28, 2008 at 12:07 pm  Comments (212)  

It Isn’t

This photo wasn’t accidental!  This was a smile for you!

Don’t forget that The Used World discussion is coming up soon, and I’m still just sitting here patiently waiting for anyone to request a free copy.  Free shipping!  You really can’t beat that.

As promised, a poem a day until we begin the book discussion.  Please don’t mistake this for ego on my part; I’d print poems that make mine look as if they were written by one of my mastiffs, but there are copyright issues to which I’d rather not lose my house, my car, my family, and my taxidermy.


It Isn’t

            (for Leslie Staub)


The priest drinks his tea, takes in the view

of my room, neutral.  He asks, is there nothing

here you find sacramental? I am not

meant to answer, or else I am to say

I enjoy my souvenirs, thank you very much.

But I say yes, I know, yes, what is sacred

to me in this room in this barn where I sit

in silence, where sometimes I am wholly still

and when I rejoin my senses there is dust on my hands,

things have changed I’ve been gone so long,

the air is filled with a noise like a knife point,

and the candle wick has drawn down, drowned. 


I tell the priest there is one holy frame, and inside

is a painting of a philosopher and mathematician. 

In his body of work there is a single sentence

concerning robbery, and the artist has painted

the words on a metaphor held between his hands, or

perhaps he is holding a raven who speaks

them on a red banner, or the sentence is an

equation.  I do not understand what he means,

robbery, and so the puzzle becomes my baptism,

my metamorphosis.  I love his face, his old

hands, his helpless God, his faith in the reconciliation

of opposing forces.  In the painting,

invisible to everyone but me, there is a shadow,

and it’s nothing, just him, just the philosopher

and me standing in a window

watching the snow fall on Cambridge.  The painting

is my sole testimony, and not just because of the snow

or the riddle or raven, but because the painter

is a woman who arrives when I have been still

too long, and she reads my life to me, she performs

the rites, extreme unction, and I would want no one

to paint him but her, I would turn my face away

from any other rendering.  Only her and only him,

the three of us a society.


The priest looks at the white wall in front of me.

I say yes, yes.  That’s where it isn’t.

Published in: on October 27, 2008 at 4:04 pm  Comments (149)  

Echo or Loss

This is a poem I’m dedicating to Kate McKinneyCake, who knows why.  And this is a picture of me I took by accident by pushing the wrong button on my computer, because I like accidental photos. 

p.s.  If you don’t know Damien Rice’s song ‘Accidental Babies’ from “9,” go download it immediately, then be prepared to weep.



Echo or Loss


First the windows yawned and then

the final flakes of paint twinkled

to the ground.  The south chimney tilted

like Jacob Marley’s nightcap, while

inside, a nest of swifts too small

to fly gaped hungry mouths, cried. 

Even in the death throes of this house


where I dreamed myself sickly thin

in the chill bedrooms; even then

something had the mercy to  attend to one

white horse who grazed silent

in a plot dull flat and blazing

dry.  I passed her every day

on my way to the seminary

where I had enrolled in the task


of transformation.  Suddenly

years have passed since I saw

through a crack in the unmoored

shutters a strange boy drying

his hair by the fire.  The house

is buried now in the earth’s slick

green.  Beyond the side gate the lazy

bees swim in the ether of the boneyard.


Was it I who broke the mare’s thin back?


Was I who wished her sleep?

Published in: on October 26, 2008 at 9:44 pm  Comments (57)  

The Holy Dove Was Moving, Too



You, boy, listen.  You open doors,

it isn’t coming from there, no, not

from there, either, it isn’t on the stairs

on in the wallpaper, it’s not in your

father’s chair.  You check the beebox,

but it is humming, a honeycreeper,

it isn’t their thrumming he hears.  You go so far

as to ask the crowkeeper if you may stand

near the great carceral.  And there is sound

there, but it is more like a vesper,

and what you seeks is a whimper.

No, that’s the wrong word.  You are

searching for the source of the whisper.



You pray without ceasing, in time

with your cardinal heart beating.  Your

brothers are rioting, your mother is sleeping,

you have no scriptorium, no cell, you would

hide behind the altar curtain, crawl

into the reliquary, anything for some

privacy.  In families, chaos is a human

right, and you are just

a mendicant who dreams you

are the silent anchorite.  Silly, really,

the arc light of God that shines

meadow bright in your head, day and night.

You come from a family of thinkers, after all

of cynics and empiricists and drinkers.



For years after the catechumen, the baptism,

the chrism, your time as a postulate, your ordination,

you lie face down on the stone floor, you’ve found

your vocation.  Poverty, chastity, obedience, the daily

unchanging, arising in darkness, asceticism, renunciation,

this is your sacred calling.  The ringing bell, the Prime,

the Terce, the Angelus, the Sext.  You find plaintive

joy in the Vespers, a deep ecstatic lamenting, Matins

of the Dead, and you read, you light the lamps, take

your meager meals.  You hold true to the Office of the

Lady, but have given your soul to the Libera

me:  requiem, requiescat, mercy, mercy, viaticum.



You pace the grounds even in winter, channeling

a path near the stone wall.  Not all, certainly not all

of it is troubling you, but you are troubled, it isn’t

like you, you are the silent jubilant, peace-filled

supplicant, ecce homo.  When did you become

a fossarian, the clergyman moonlighting as a

gravedigger?  Why do you carry the hearsecloth,

why do you go down each night into the undercroft

and press your face into your black cloth cassock,

as if it were embroidered in flames and marked

your condemnation?  This is not an Inquisition.

And yet nightly you go down, and you lean against

the vaults, and you do not move.  You do not

move.  You hear the dark train pull into the

transubstantiation, and you still believe in

everything you swore.  Nonetheless, you reach

up blindly and pull the misericord.



Who are your dead?  Not your family,

they are shadows to you now, although

you recall both hilarity and tragedy, and

you are bound to them.  Not your faith,

or your love of the magnificat, the mysterium

tremendum – you are still unhinged with awe,

ubiquitarian:  for you, Divinity is everywhere.

How did it happen, and when?  Was it

that moment last spring, the sky so fair,

when you stood before the cherry tree

and watched the pink blossoms let go

and sail free?  Was it the moment the tree

became not nature but Thou, fully actual

and real?  And the spirit entered you:

verticality, the horizontal wall that spared

you profanity, the slight hill that held

the tree, and the light – if you could just

keep it, freeze it somehow.  Now do you know?

It wasn’t your heart that betrayed you,

it was beauty, that sky, your eyes.



Your dead are attending a dance

at the home of the Misses Morkan,

a waltz is played, concluded, Gabriel

is preoccupied with a speech he will give

at the table.  He remembers something

he wrote in a review, One feels that one

is listening to thought-tormented music.

Old friends talk, as they do, and debate

whether Caruso was the greatest tenor,

and a goose is carved and dinner is served,

and you remember reading the story

the first time, how long it took you

to realize what was happening, how grief

unwraps itself in our most lovely distractions.

The whole of the story, the history

of a loving marriage is contained in a single

image, a woman standing half in shadow

on a staircase, listening to a man singing.

Your dead are everyone who waltzed that evening,

and Michael Furey, the delicate boy

with the clear boy’s voice, and his eyes,

and his illness, and how he died for love.

And Gabriel, standing at the window knowing

finally, that the snow is general all over Ireland.

Requiem, requiescat, Joyce, viaticum.



You have gone astray, and not in any usual way

but by falling in love with fencerows and daylight,

lines underscoring Being itself, and images cause you

to remember yourself:  how it all used to be the same,

the novels of Faulkner were no different than the tale

told by a swirl of starlings rising from a tree,

your passion for photography, a boy who searched

for the taproot of reality.  It was the world

whispering to you on that day; not the still,

small voice we haven’t heard and never will.

You are drunk now on beauty; art is your whiskey,

your moveable feast, and you will ride away,

you will find the way, Whiskey Priest,

to trade your shroud for sublimity.

The power and the glory are not your measure.

Your genius and your luck intertwine:

All you have to do is wake up, and open your eyes,

and there is the divine, your sacrament, your treasure.

Published in: on October 25, 2008 at 1:30 am  Comments (69)  

Something Rising Discussion: Did You Ever Have A Family?



First of all, that beautiful line about family is taken from Alan Shapiro, one of our best and most humane poets, and I am grateful to him for giving me permission to use it as the epigraph to the novel. 

Secondly, you must all rush out to your independent bookshop (if you’re lucky enough to have one, or order a copy from THE REGULATOR BOOKSHOP) and get Gregory Maguire’s new novel, the third in his WICKED trilogy.  It just came out . . . two days ago, I think.  If you haven’t read the first two, WICKED and SON OF A WITCH, get those, too, write them off on your taxes or send me the bill, and buy the third one IMMEDIATELY.  It’s called A LION AMONG MEN, and I cannot stress enough how much this man is a national treasure.

You know the rest of the drill:  book club talk, I’ll answer questions, you will take off on tangents about mashed potatoes, someone will accuse me of abject cruelty, Delonda and Melinda will step in and be funnier than I have been on my finest day, George will rule, Amanda will offer her genius close-readings, JohnM will say just the right thing to torture me because he no longer lives here, Kate will shine like the sun, and the rest of you will surprise me and make me teary with your astonishing insights and everlasting kindness.

Go, Buckaroos.

Published in: on October 23, 2008 at 11:43 am  Comments (259)  

The Rich, Rich Soil of Indiana



One of my favorite songs in the world is David Olney’s “Jerusalem Tomorrow,” as recorded by EmmyLou Harris.  It begins:

Man you should have seen me way back then.

I could tell a tale, I could make it spin.

I fear you will be tempted to think I’m spinning a tale here, and in many ways I wish I were, but what I’m about to convey is the Lord’s truth.  It was reported to me by not just one impeccable source, but by three.

A woman I know (I’ll call her Zoolander) was the office manager of a hospital clinic that performed only breast procedures:  annual exams, biopsies, lumpectomies, and mammograms.  The hospital was in a small city surrounded by an impoverished rural area.  Not HOPELESSLY impoverished, more like the socio-economic class that really enjoys a trip to the Wal-Mart, and families who watch television from the time they awaken until they fall asleep in front of it, their t-shirts often dusted with bright orange Cheeto dust.  Without being judgmental about these families, Western science is right on the verge of discovering a link between obesity and decades of inertia.  I mean, they’re really really close to seeing a connection.

After a couple years, Zoolander noticed a trend among the clientele.  The heavier the woman, the more lumbering her gate, the more limited her vocabulary, the less likely she was to have ever had appropriate medical care, even if she had good health insurance.  Zoo drew the unfortunate conclusion that some people are the opposite of bright.  Indeed, they might be called just hopelessly stupid.

Such was patient Lollygag.  Lolly wandered into the clinic one day without an appointment and said, in something approximating the King’s English, “Mm sumpin wrong wiv it.”  Zoolander, always cool and professional, said, “Pardon me?”  Lollygag pointed in the general direction of her chest, which was at one with her seven chins and her mid-section, a mid-section so large it might have doubled as a gazebo.  “Something is wrong with one of your breasts?”  Zoolander spoke quietly, believing the woman might be painfully shy, rather than just a barely sentient chunk of moss.  Lollygag nodded.

Arrangements were hastily made, as Zoo believed there must be something quite wrong to have brought Lolly all the way into town.  She had even gotten dressed, wearing what must have been her best bright yellow polyester sweat pants and an enormous stained sweatshirt that proclaimed that Jesus had died for her.  Zoo commented to me later that the shirt should have said, “Jesus died BECAUSE of me.” 

Lollygag was escorted back to the changing room, where she demonstrated a bit of animation, insisting that she wanted two gowns, and the doctor would be allowed to look at ONE area and there would be no funny stuff.  It came out like this, “One fron and nudder back, and tie TITE and ain’t gone look in my pants so fergit it.”  The nurse helping with the procedure assured her that no one would be looking in Lolly’s pants; indeed, to do so would risk not only a tragic loss of sight but intractable madness.  Lolly was then escorted to the examination room and for some time, there was silence.

After about fifteen minutes, the doctor (I’ll call him Dr. Regret) walked out into the office with a look on his face that bespoke terror.  His pallor was a sickly green.  His eyes had what we call in Indiana the wild-eyed cow.  When he tried to speak, he stuttered.  Zoolander feared he might be having a series of mini-strokes, and asked if he needed to sit down.  He said he simply had to talk to someone.  He had to tell someone what he had seen.  If he kept it inside a moment longer, his very sanity was at risk.  This is the story he told:

Lollygag was a sitter, a television watcher, a snacker.  She was about ninety pounds overweight, and her breasts were both large and pendulous.  As can happen to anyone, regardless of size, sometimes a snack or two dropped down into her shirt.  Sometimes people forget to bathe.  On occasion the rich soil of Indiana gets into one’s clothing.  And who hasn’t had the experience of eating something raw because turning on the microwave or the stove was too trying?  Zoolander, afraid to ask but unable not to, said, “Dr. Regret, what exactly is going on here.”

“The first thing I saw were vines,” Dr. R. whispered.

“Vines?”  Zoo whispered back, with dawning horror

“I . . .” Dr. Regret pinched the bridge of his nose, swallowed against his rising existential horror, “I tried to lift her breasts but couldn’t, because . . . .”

“Just say it.  I can’t bear it, just say it.”

Dr. Regret stood up straight, looked Zoo in the eye, and said, “There is corn growing under her breasts.  It is living corn, with even tiny ears beginning to sprout.”

For a few moments, no one could speak.  Then Dr. R. said, “I’m unclear about how to proceed.”

Zoolander thought about it, and said, “I’ll go get some hot dogs and potato salad and we’ll just go from there.” 

Published in: on October 20, 2008 at 8:01 pm  Comments (387)  

The Solace of Leaving Early Discussion: What’s Up With This Theology Getting In My Novel, When All I Want to Do is Read?

So I thought I’d re-read the whole of Solace before beginning this discussion thread, and then I got about forty pages in and realized I knew every sentence.  I have memorized that book, essentially.  It happened the way many things happen to me:  I wrote every sentence over and over, perfecting each one (or so I hoped at the time), out of a combination of compulsiveness, panic, and perfectionism.  The Death Trifecta.  That said, if you bring up a particular point, rather than a general observation, please include the chapter or page number so I can look back at it.

As always, be kind to each other and patient with a variety of readings.  You’re all superlatively good people, but we can never hear it too often.

Published in: on October 14, 2008 at 9:42 pm  Comments (1,123)