The irascible old radical
cussing on the toilet
in the rest home
wasn’t John Muir, Bob Marshall,
or Robinson Jeffers,
but he lived in the wilderness
of his mind, a Buddhist
warrior who called Ginsberg
a cock-sucking Commie-Kike.

He knew he was losing
it and there was nothing
he could do. Anger
was his constant companion,
and he hated it, certain
the fucking game was rigged.
After sitting on the shitter
and mumbling for 10 minutes or so,
we asked if he needed anything.

He suggested we read poems,
so we obliged, stood outside
the opened bathroom door
and read him our verses
while he sat and shat,
praised and panned them
before drifting off again.

When finally we announced
we had to go, he stuck out
a hand we each took
and shook before leaving
him there hunched over,
eyes closed, the same posture
we’d found him in
nodding in his wheel chair
when we’d arrived an hour ago.

As I closed the door,
I wondered where he’d gone.
Perhaps back up into mountain air
to search for wolverine and lynx
there, or maybe he was living
a haiku in his head,
just floating out to sea.

for Dexter


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the grass is greener
and the days are longer
the drum beats like a stuttering
drunk on the stairs
in the brain of the crane operator

what should he do
in the waning hours of summer?
fire up the barbie
and open a beer?

what do we do
when the canopy changes color?
the interior landscape
a looping conifer dream
betrays the reality
of blindness we didn’t see
scenes of stubble fields afire
abandoned wives
wedded to the stroke of midnight
that October bite in the air
a cloud of breath
shivering death in a rowboat
adrift on those sink holes
on the rez off the map

what do we do
when we’re miscast as our brother?
how do we grant permission
to grow into ourselves?
should we hide the cigarettes
steal the car keys?
it’s too late for mother’s help

we do what we do and
we do as we please
we sing we dance we don caps and gowns
tromp toward what we covet and create
shimmering in the distance
that blurry face
we don’t recognize
the ghost in the mirror

so what does he do
about the vertigo and migraines
trade in the boom and steel
for a rod and spoon
grab the oars and troll
that blue-green hole
sinking mirror of pines in sky?

bang the drum
don’t rock the boat
anyway we end today
should involve crickets
or campfire smoke
maybe the soft sound
of the human voice
whispering a story after dark
the song of the catch
laughing tales of tails
that dumb smile of satisfaction
ignorance the bliss
of staring into a bed of embers
dying in the night
and not knowing
what’s coming up or what’s going down
just waiting in silence
anticipating what’s next
because that’s what we get
maybe another day
possibly another sleep
perchance to dream
or simply we sink in a tunnel
of fading light
another pulse
another pot hole
another shooting star
blazing down that atomic drain

—for Ferd & Chas

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A Letter to My Unborn Grandchildren

Ignoring the elephant is what we’re good at—
comfortable folks strolling through routine.
Yes, I’m guilty of privilege, born white
with a pair of balls, but I have tried
to do my part pointing out what reeks
of ignorance and hypocrisy. Yet,
like the teacher who resists screaming
at his class every day lest they
become inured and ignore him,
I haven’t stooped to address the daily mess
spewed by this racist misogynist.
Remember the little boy who cried
“wolf” or “terrorist.” As Goebbels knew,
“a lie told a thousand times becomes the truth.”
Humanity knows this pose. Every empire
manipulates fear to maintain control.
It’s who we are, what we’ve done, as Americans.
Think of the Indians, slavery, old Jim
Crow swinging in the magnolias and oaks.
Think of women scrubbing on their hands and knees
the afterbirth from his bedroom floor, then
preening in the mirror, powdering his whore.
Of course the elephant must be ignored
because the truth, the shame, the embarrassment,
the horror, the admission, the failure is
too much to hold. Those sins of omission
are the hardest to bear, the easiest to deny.
Though social evolution happens faster
than biological adaptations, it is still too slow
for the lifespan of one man or woman.
All one can do is follow the golden rule
and point out the tarnished elephants
not trumpeting in American living rooms
their fears of losing control of boardrooms
and bedrooms, that good-old-boy’s
Biblical, White-capitalist credo
established to maintain itself, the status quo.
You know that voice: “Don’t give the bastards
an inch, it’ll set a precedent, all the apples
and dominoes will spill across the floor
like spent shell casings from AR-15s.”
Yes, change is slow but inevitable, so
when we’re gone, I hope your songs
acknowledge that we tried, worked
and died to be better, someone like you.

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Playing Favorites

what was your mother’s favorite flower?
i don’t recall a stand-out flower.
about the only thing she ever grew were tulips,
a few limp pansies, and the irises
that grew on their own—you couldn’t get rid of them—
but she liked them. like she liked the wild
rose and lilac bushes in the yard.
she’d gush about mother-cole’s mums
and begonias, those prized yellow roses,
but i don’t know that she had a favorite . . .
maybe i get that from her,
beauty is beautiful and unique,
no one thing lasts, holds sway, everything changes
everyday . . . how can there be one
favorite anything? it’s a goddamn miracle
just being here. she adapted well.
whatever you chose to give her—simply that—
would have made it her favorite that day . . .
because you chose it. her favorites
changed with the slant of the sun,
the hue of the season, the beat of her
heart playing the day.

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Guy Lombardo’s orchestra played
while the black and white crowd waltzed
the ballroom, and folks swayed
in overcoats snowy outside
on Times Square singing Auld
Lang Synge after the countdown
to end or begin another year,
ghosts of themselves on our Sylvania
TV. I remember those sweet moments inside
after sledding all day into the night, then
waiting for that grainy ball to drop
and interrupt Monopoly
or Yahtzee with cups of cocoa
to toast the wonder of hope
and nostalgia we held so dear—back
when we knew each new year would be
even better than the last.

Do you remember
when that started to change? Was it the first
hangover? Those stalkers shadowing
you under the mistletoe? Maybe
one to many failed peace accords. Or
was innocence lost with Dick Clark’s microphone?
The first time you hurled Tom & Jerry’s
in the snow?

I’m not sure, but I know
I can recapture some of that sentiment
standing outside after dark in the cold,
whether sledding or skiing or staring
at a fire, being close to the frozen
ground, and it doesn’t matter if I’m alone
or with family or friends, it seems to me
the key is being out and cold and wet,
a little closer to death, then going in
where it’s warm and dry, knowing
that I’ll survive tonight, and by
repeating this formula,
we may grab the time to dream
big enough for luck
to find us next year.

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Plastic Jesus

The plastic crucifix draped

with my grandmother’s rosary

hung above the dresser

in our parents bedroom,


Jesus glued to the cross

he’d been knocked off

after a drunken tumble

my father took the night


his forehead caught the corner

of the cedar chest and bled

a mess like a wine bottle broken

on a Jackson Pollack canvas.


My dad had found the crucifix

hanging on the only wall left

standing from a bombed-out

house in Belgium, 1944,


and brought it back home.

They survived the war

and the trip across the ocean

much like his Irish mother had


with her rosary beads in 1916.

Today what’s sacred to me

are my family’s stories

of conflict and hope nailed


in these Christian totems,

their struggles with fear,

their yearnings to live free,

to know, to trust, to be


honest with, loyal to one

another. Like my Old Man,

I refuse to buy that

pie-in-the-sky bullshit


designed to keep us in line.

Not blood, but glue drips

from Christ’s feet and wrists

(my father’s blood wiped clean


long ago). The Virgin Mary

and The Son were rubbed away

by my grandmother’s thumbs

on that old wooden rosary, now


faded as my dad’s faith in

the afterlife. My Old Man’s

“after life” is me, as my own

afterlife belongs to my sons.

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I can’t even find time

to write the irrelevant,

irreverent form letter,

for Christ’s sake,

let alone wax

poignantly about peace

& joy, chestnuts

or snow, those memories

in slo-mo of dark

mornings we danced

across freezing wood floors

to dig for socks & long johns

in dresser drawers,

bedroom windowpanes

glazed in ice—

we’d run to the living room,

smell coffee, bacon

cooking in the kitchen,

listen to larch kindling crackle

& the trash burner roar,

Mother’s slippers scuffling

the linoleum floor—dishes

clattered as we buttoned

& tugged, pulled on our clothes,

hypnotized by the glow

of icicles & colored bulbs

silhouetting the fir tree

we’d cut down

up Madison Gulch,

the literal presence of wonder

in our black & white eyes—

an evergreen rainbow

topped with a blue star—

it was our chromatic

invitation to dream.

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The Glass

warps our reflections

we keep on eating

more or less

drink more

sleep less

pay attention to

the dirty truth

the word success

dancing to the tick

talk of the wind

the prattle chatter

of animal wisdom

a party line

on the food chain


slave to the clock

consciousness of all

lost in the march

woods of time

gray blues the jazz

we can’t explain

articulate again

we seal who

we smear chew

those sounds sustained

to complain

make sacred

the profane

and smile when

the glass shatters

cup your hands

sip the dark

light mystery of

breathing in

here again

we still linger

like garlic

or a thorn


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They hang in the dark

corner of a room, three black

duffel bag sized sacks

like giant eggplants, upside down,

wrapped in a woven membrane

like a nylon sock. The face

pressed in the bottom of one pouch,

eyelids closed, is a girl I knew

from high school, her hands

still puffy, clammy & cold.

Though always small in stature,

she is the largest of these

intruders — slick bat-like larvae

who wait with me this night to be born.

Lazily she unfolds her almond eyes.

I can’t decide if she recognizes me.


My mother has come to visit, now

eighty-three. She wears the winter

coat I remember from the fifties,

carries her snap-lock pocket book

over one wrist, & a Kleenex in her hand

that she uses to dab at her nose.

She looks tired & old as she fights

back tears. When I ask what’s wrong,

her voice cracks to a whine.

Her mother’s gone. She watched

her die. Slowly & gently

I pull her into me, hold her softly

& rub her back. I kiss her hair

to soothe us, to open our eyes,

so we can bear the uncertainty

of form — our ongoing metamorphosis.

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Photo of Susan Carlson's collage art piece "Gone to the Birds"

Photo of Susan Carlson’s collage art piece “Gone to the Birds”

cemeteries and ghost towns

abandoned buildings

the dilapidated evidence

of lives lived and gone


broken glass and missing doors

some swollen and jammed

to the floor

the rank smells

of mildew and stink pigs blend

like ant hills littered

with larch needles and rat shit

mounding along the baseboards


below the gaping chimney flue

a yellowed-stiff pile

of catalogs and magazines

have welded

over time


the outline of a cabinet

torn-down scars one wall

another is scrawled with F-U-C-K

in all caps

and illustrated

with a scratch-drawn cock and balls


one tube sock lies on the floor

of a dim bedroom

the windows boarded-up

a single cot-spring

rusted to a metal foot-board

the wood-grain face

pierced by three bullet holes

and hung in the wall by one leg

punched through beaver board


out back the old wood shed

stands dramatically close

a frayed rope still hanging

from a rafter inside

and a broken claw hammer

lies half-buried in weeds

beside the railroad tie stoop


the outhouse a one-holer

has lost its roof and reek

the Hills Brothers coffee can

holds no spare roll

no one shits here anymore


one story has it

the young woman drown

bathing in the Clark Fork River

pregnant with her third

it didn’t take her husband

a full year to follow her

off the Rock Creek Road

everyone knew he’d drown

in a bottle

the girls were farmed out to

next-of-kin in the Midwest

taken in like little birds


from the nest


but who knows

these headstones

are almost a hundred years old


so it must be

a fairly safe bet

the daughters are gone now too


—inspired by Susan Carlson’s “Gone to the Birds”



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