Love’s Ambition

Betsy Wyeth died yesterday
Aged 98
A decade and more after Andrew –
Does Helga live still?
Of course she must
Whether dead or alive
Betsy and Andrew ensured that
With his paintings and her word:

Betsy’s long life
Merited a long article
Only because she was
Andrew’s wife, muse, model,
Business manager, archivist,

That revealed secret
The Helga paintings
With one word
Became the art world’s
Enduring fake news:

240 paintings?
Of one woman?
A married neighbor?
Nudes painted
In secret assignations
Over 15 years?
Without the knowledge
Or consent of either spouse?
By America’s premier classicist?

Oh the scandal
Oh the juiciness
Oh the titillation
Oh the mystery
Oh the prominence
Oh the profit!

No president
No diplomat
No philanthropist
No artist, even,
Graced the covers
Of Time and Newsweek
That fateful –
Or was it fakeful –
Dog days week in 1986
That privilege was reserved
For Helga
While Betsy smiled enigmatically
And said only

With Betsy dies the secret
Of what love:
Andrew for Helga
Or Betsy for ambition?

I prefer to believe in Betsy’s canny ambition.

In a puritanical America,
shocked by pubic hair,
she made her husband’s sensuous renderings
a very public front page story.

Because she knew
Americans love nothing more
than to be titillated by scandal
and shocked by wanton

Our Fearful Odyssey

[In the style of the beginning of Homer’s Odyssey]

Tell me, Muse, of this land of much wealth, that was driven
far downward, after we had sacked science’s sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities suffered, with bodies stack upon stack,
many the discords we suffered in our spirits in our narrow homes,
struggling for our own lives and the safety of our countrymen.
Even so we could not save them, hard though
We strove to; they were destroyed by their own wild recklessness,
fools, who worshipped the idol of Discontent, the False God,
and he took away the safety of their homestaying. . . .


Stillness brings enlightenment
To quiet monkey minds
And perfect death needs no breath

Sweet spring never stills
Sultry summer life entwines
Yet stillness brings enlightenment

Mortality haunts autumn chills
‘Til winter quiet enshrines
And perfect death needs no breath

Living love grows tendrils
Curling grasping binds
Yet stillness brings enlightenment

When any movement kills
We spit life’s bitter rinds
And perfect death needs no breath

Thrumming humming thrills
Dancing life bumps and grinds
Yet stillness brings enlightenment

And perfect death needs no breath


She waits on the front porch
Small hands clenched on her lap
Short legs kicking over the edge
Silently reciting
Her magic charm
Pfadt, Pfahl, Pfeiffer, Pfoutz
Names from the phone book

His tall legs eat the sidewalk
Coming home from the bus stop
Already feeling the beer foam
Tickling his tongue

He smiles when he sees her

Hands unclench
Mind recital stops

She runs, trying to look like
Their favorite ballplayer
Rounding third
Heading for home

He catches her up
In a one armed hug
She talks as they walk

Her day, her plans, her baby sister
But not her magic names

In the kitchen
He puts down his lunch pail
Her mom turns around
Leans against the fridge
Spews the daily frustrations
The stubbornness, the sass

She sits at the table
Half listening
Pfadt, Pfahl, Pfeiffer, Pfoutz
Next to her high-chaired sister
Munching a carrot

He leans against the counter
Half listening
Wanting that beer
Until he turns
And backhands her across the face.

How To Avert Another Personal Catastrophe

Wake up with a headache
A particularly unpleasant way to awaken

Wake up but don’t get up
Find that wonderfully scented
Heavy soft and supple
Neck and shoulders wrap
Drape it, unheated
Over your eyes

Drift until early afternoon
In and out of something like sleep
With sometimes pounding
Sometimes waves
Sometimes dance
Sometimes galaxies exploding
Parents yelling
Children crying
Lovers leaving

Something unknown, unknowable
Finally drives you up and out

Then something else
Something like normal
Check email
Text a happy birthday message
Read a column
Help your mom find mass on her TV
Think about dinner

(Edgy, edgy, edgy
Easily offended
Prickly, mouth dry
Skin zinging)

Gather herbs from the garden
For the noodles
Collards for the vegetable
Smoked turkey from the fridge
Dinner is easy
But mom needs something fixed on her phone
She can’t get the call to go through
The one to her friend in assisted living
Just down the road
But unreachable now
And the call won’t go through.

“It can wait, Mom, we are just about to eat dinner.”

“No, Shirley eats dinner at 5:00 every day.
I know that.
So she is finished by now.”

I raise my voice slightly, lower the pitch
And turn to face Mom
So she can understand what I am saying.
I stress the first word,

“WE, Mom, we are just about to eat dinner.”

Mom, whiny, offended and angry,
In that well-remembered

(Replies as she so often replied to Dad
Right before the roof blew off the house)

“You don’t have to yell at me.”

Now here is the secret
The secret better even
Than that little prince’s
Royal insight

Just don’t respond.

There is absolutely no correct response
No response to keep the roof on tight
No response to right the wrong
Salve the wounded
Soothe the aggrieved

Not even an apology

Just turn back to the stove
Keep cooking dinner
Get down the plates
Take out the cutlery
Season the collards

And it will all go away
Except for the zing in your skin
And the easy tears in your eyes
And the echo of thrumming

But that was there anyway.

Daily Worship

We walk our garden
Most days

Monday the buds on the wisteria
Race the buds on the peonies
To bloom
And, look!, the first pea tendrils
Are almost grabbing the lowest wire

Tuesday three tall irises
Throw their newly purple beauty to the sky
Above thick rows of still sleepy daylilies
No flowers awakened yet by summer’s kiss

On Wednesday we walk
Under the Carolina jasmine
Covered arbor
Under the sweet yellow perfume
Of its small bugle flowers

And I turn back to the deck
To see if the wisteria has bloomed yet
Because sitting on the deck
Under blooming wisteria
Is perfume like no other

But still just those buds of promise

Thursday, a frog jumps into our small pond
The dwarf hemlock transplanted just weeks ago
Already has new light green at the tips
The weeping cherry weeps so gracefully
Over the pond
Its wounded side healing
Its deep cut wispy leaves
Still graceful green

By Friday the Lenten roses are faded
And so close to the ground
They seem ready for burial
Held in the pieta of their evergreen leaves
Not to rise again until next year

But the cold crops
Collards, cauliflower, broccoli
Spread their sturdy umbrella leaves
Ever larger
Imperially impervious to the cold nights
That explain the burlap
And upside down plastic pots
Next to the tender tomatoes
We dared to plant early

Saturday I gather herbs for supper
Spikey rosemary to rub between my hands
Before laying it on top the potatoes
Flat Italian parsley, low spreading thyme
Golden marjoram to flavor the omelet
Made with eggs from Shirley’s chickens

Sunday I pause inside to admire
The small pink azalea
Blooming in front of our low window
And almost hidden outside
By the orange tipped nandina

Mom is at mass upstairs
Upstairs on YouTube
As Woody and I join hands
To slowly pace the new miracles
In our garden
Thankful always
That even in our strangely slowed world
God still says Amen
So be it
To gardens
And we see that it is indeed still good.

Knife Heft

The knife is old
The blade rusts
If not dried just after washing
The wooden handle has a satisfying heft
(Lovely word, heft, has a heft itself)
The blade is long
About 6 inches
Thin and tapered
Woody has had it many years
Used it over fire pits
And over kitchen counters
Sliced fish for smoking
Venison for jerky
Suckling pig
And garden vegetables
He hones it often
Keeps it sharp
I like the heft of memories in my hand
As I wash and dry it.


After math came lunch
Recess then the rosary
Classrooms full of boomers
Before we knew we had boomed
Before we bloomed

Wooden desks in precise rows
Uniforms neatly identical
Two feet on the floor
Bodies and faces forward
Both hands on the desktop
With the rosary

One nun walked the halls
To ensure order
While the others ate

We stationed a lookout at the door

When the monitor was down the hall
We rosary raced

As the monitor drew near
The lookout returned to her seat
And we slowed to a drawl

There was no reason to do that
No reward
Only the possibility of punishment
If caught

No reason except we needed it
That small measure of control
That small rebellion
After math, after lunch, after recess

What Damn Dance Is This?

We waltzed through the first tune
Partnering as we chose
Swinging easily past the uncomfortable:
Abraham offering his wife to the king
All those slain in the name of the god
Who shall not be named
Those soft spots on babies’ heads
Crushed against the captors’ hard rock

For our second tune
We practice faithfully
Like contestants on a dance show
With four dance masters
One step two step, twist and twirl
Bend backwards, don’t lose the beat

Then the beat picks up
The steps are faster
More complex
As we partner with Paul
Practicing perfection

Now we know the steps
Now we feel the rhythm
Now we hear the music
Now we near the crown

Then those horsemen
Ride rudely in
Scattering dancers
Parting partners

Bringing blood and beasts
Plagues and pestilence
Until our silent screams
Drown out the music

Have you ever tried to conga
Keeping six feet apart?

Have you ever tried to sing
Through a mask?

Have you ever kept the rhythm
When the beat stopped?

Do you know the lyrics
Can you hum the tune
That lets you keep your faith
As you shuffle in place?

If Jesus is the Lord of this dance
What macabre melody is left
For our disco with Death?

Rain Dream

Dark rain penetrates my garden
Burrows deep to find waiting seeds
But no god thinks to beg my pardon
For carelessly creating weeds

I dream myself as hardened rain
Drenching deep to dampen roots
I dream myself free of this pain
Drinking earth’s sleeping fruits

I tumble wet from my birthing cloud
That smothering rejecting dome
I tumble down to rake and plough
Lightning shot from my heavenly home

I am liquid light in a black world
Laughing in my careless squalling
I am sweet rain, cloud hurled
Nothing need known but falling