michael h. brownstein

 

SPRING THAW

the porcupined spines of the ridge,
needles, quills, a stain of gray brown across the horizon.
This is the season of death, the season of pneumonia weather,
the asphalt on the highway curves to the left,
a slight vibration, snow banked against the grass,
fields bare of everything but soil.

 

THE SCENT OF FATHER

She is a patient cook
and her father writes an overcoat,
white shirted bleached and stained,
blood marked and scarred lines,
under armed nests of burnt hair.

The small pot of oatmeal sings,
a fringe of brown sugar and cinnamon,
a curse of raisins and bits of apple pie,
a refrain stuck in gear, my brother and I
cut from the same yard of grass.

My father a short man,
thick with heavy gray weight.
context, cocoa and nonconformity,
every substance a different thought,
every cooked smell her perfume.

 

AN OWL LIVES IN OUR TREE

Some days you have to go back to who you are,
a time when a pimple on your face is so big
people move out of the way to avoid bumping it
and your hair has wings.

Day enters with a bruise and an elf owl,
the shadow of a great bird.
three crows, a rock pigeon, and a piece of rotting pizza.

Outside every tree has changed,
Every breath,
Every attempt of the house wren to chase away the herring gull.

You are only yourself the way a mud frog is only a mud frog
and the snow on the mountain melting is sunlight
and the earth is both solid and wise.

 

THE SEASON OF DEATH

hung over the fog like skunk juice,
mulberries heavy and thick,
ripening into black, its leaves
browning to the death hues of autumn.
What was left was left,
what remained began to smell,
everywhere an ending for one species
and a feast for another.

We refused what was in front of us,
pushed back from the table full
and never noticed the drought over the mountain–
it did not pertain to where we were,
water deep and easily cleaned,
the stores full of themselves:
money meant nothing.

Summer ended before its time,
we watched it drain itself clear,
bided our time like fugitives,
and wandered into the spray.

 

FIVE PEOPLE CAME TO THE PROTEST AGAINST ALCOHOLISM

I woke badly this morning
flesh of cucumbers piled on the kitchen counter
the dogs resting behind their barricade
outside, a Monsanto gray

the snare drum still needs a resting place
two boxes left outside the door
a splinter in my palm
a running field with a keep off sign

green leaves oil dark
some days the sun misses the point
Pine Ridge gathers itself in shadow and pollutants
yesterday no one marched

 

ON PESTICIDES, HERBICIDES AND THINGS THAT SMELL BADLY

Poems do not fluster out of my head
bombs are no longer exposed
pesticides do not inject creativity
thick black mold grows thicker
the great winged vulture circles lands and circles

this is how life has turns
termites in the hardwood at the door
shower pipes leaking
all of the stain degrading to nothing
the great winged vulture smells lands and smells

how is anything possible in this racket of air
the noise of pollution louder than dust
everything in its place but not the right place
time and space incoherent in patterns of thought
the great winged vulture falters flies and falters

 

ON KORAS AND THUNDER

Thomas lets an excited wheeze slip from compressed lips, a hard right, and a chimney swallow’s turnabout tripping through dusk. His three middle fingers clap against his palm–one, two, three times–and this too excites him. The wind an electric horn, hail a strung out kora, the bounce to ground slang and vibes–sticks against stone.

When the lights went out that afternoon,
the scallop of storm attached itself to wind
tree, sap, cracked foundations.

Cynthia of the grey squirrel, Cynthia of the ghost ship in the harbor at Santa Fe,
Cynthia of hail and sleet, Cynthia–reached for the hand of Thomas, the hand on the wood of the kora, listened to the vibrations of strings and gourds, listened to the melody melt into the storm.

 

AFTER RETIREMENT AND THE PEOPLE ON THE JOB DO NOT REMEMBER

It’s time for me to retire, the dead man said.
Retire from what?
I don’t know. I can’t catch the rain.

When the world comes to an end not by swamps of jellyfish
thriving in acid pools nor by one of many gods belonging to anyone of us,
but late at night the moon whitewashed and gravy,
the heart lets go of its last Nigerian beat
its shadow drum, a conch, a Burkina git,
the brain pauses for a second and allows itself to turn off.

You do know you’re dead?
I want to see yellow sweet clover one last time, the dead man answered.
And your world—, the other man said,
your world is dead, too: You no longer belong to it.

 

THE LEAVES OF WINTER

The leaves of winter
brown grass down and velveteen
a pleasure in a finger against a palm
a skinny mural in the back forty
and a fat robin among the tree stubs:

She built a platform and a tiny house
added force and stories until it was poetry
and results:

Everyone is a first and everyone has a first
colored a deepening blue
the same purple as Lake Michigan
deep within the darkness of corn husks.

 

THREE

–from an anecdote by Alexander Yakoulov who tells of one of Stalin’s trains on the way to Siberia stopping very briefly at a crossing and leaving behind a litter of small scraps of paper full of addresses, names and phone numbers

I was there when he train stopped,
Vents open in the cardinal corners like scars
Or better—the pox mark left by a crucifixion.
The day was a solid blue, so pretty, beautiful.
I could not know what was soldered in behind
Sealed doors and steel curtained windows,
But I could see the litter of paper scraps like rain.
When the train left, I picked up as many as I could
Pretending to be the one in charge of cleaning platforms.
When you bend to work, it is easy to deceive.

Money was hard to come by then, the war just over,
And food, yet there were things you knew needed doing.
Twice before I had failed: A woman across town
Wailed for help when her baby stopped breathing,
And I could have done one thing, but did not.
Then there was a failure of the shelves at the art fair,
A lifetime’s work crashing to dust and broken clay.
Was it really so impossible for me to balance one shelf
To save the others? I left her to her dust and tears.

I had one pair of torn shoes and I was hungry
And I gathered the scraps of paper and waited.
Somehow I knew I could do the right thing.
Years later I still find a phone number in a crevice,
An address in a pocket, a name stuck in a box
I knew I would never send.

 

A SPIRIT AND A GOAT

The color has not faded from my world
and I am the last person left in my world.
Can you not see this? Is lightning that bright?
Is there not a Godhead named Mithras
watching over goats and ewes and every colt?

Yes, yes, and no.

The sea has a way of washing itself,
the hand of thick grass holds to its own rhythm,
stone finds a detour and a stream and more stone.
The feet of the umbrella pine lift from a crush of earth.
Once upon a time there was such a thing.

Moon madness. This I know.

 

THE SHUNNING OF STANLEY McTICK

Sometimes a wind is but a breeze and all of the birds twitter fretfully across branches, fish swim to the surface and study the weight of its skin, and dogs circle tightly in place before they stretch their long noses as far as they can stretch, their faithful tongues loose and hungry.

It was that kind of afternoon when Stanley McTick appeared on our block. He wasn’t too much to look at, but he was wearing hundred-fifty dollar gym shoes and two-hundred dollar pants and a designer T-shirt that just had to be priceless. All of the girls gasped and all of us boys wondered if we could beat him one on one on the basketball court. He walked a third of the way down the block before he rested on Old Man Miller’s cement stoop, removed a leather satchel from his shoulder, pulled out a poetry chapbook, and began reciting poetry deep resonant exciting. We found ourselves having to gather around.

I know you know what a “shunning” is. All of us have been shunned at one time or another. It’s fairly simple actually, but no matter how bad it gets, no matter how infuriating and irritating, you know you will come upon someone who will not shun you. They see you coming and are glad you are there.

That is how we knew Stanley McTick was not one of us, but could become one of us. When he read the poems from that chapbook, he sucked in every bit of the only breeze left, and we knew he knew pain and we knew he knew ugliness and we knew he knew terror. We knew he could become our friend.

 

OUR TOWN

Our town has one kind of man you will grow up to marry,
One barbershop where everyone’s hair is cut the same way,
One candy store, one decent restaurant, one hobby shop,
One pet store, one car dealership at the edge of Main,
One swimming pool where only first stringers
On the high school football team life guard.

But it is a polite town. When you sneeze, someone says, “Bless you,”
And you feel your soul ease back into place.
Men open doors for women. “Thank you” is not an idiom.
Somehow the boys become men and learn there is warmth to a smile
And even then, when your father takes your hand,
You think of great live oak and clean well kept cemeteries.

Schools do not teach how to lead, only to arrive,
And then the way to sit quietly and wait until you are called on.
Everyone is the same luck and all of us make the football team.
For us school is the place to keep us from home too soon.
Later, when others from other places have to make choices,
We do not. We grow up and take our father’s place,

Buy our cars from the same dealership at the edge of Main,
Make reservations at the only decent restaurant in town,
And know with the sureness of rain, wind and weed
Our children, too, will eat what we order, know to say
“Thank you,” and “You’re welcome,” and always be counted on
To calculate the exact amount of money to leave for a tip.

 

 


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