Poem Audio #2 – “Little Icarus” / “Braces”

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This week’s Poem Audio features two poems on childhood: “Little Icarus” and a new poem “Braces”. The full text for each poem can be found below the audio player. Enjoy!


“Little Icarus”

 

Little Icarus stood by the wood chips.

 

He was twelve when both his wings broke, tangled up,

Trying to tear through the fabric of his polo,

Caught beneath the floorboards of his shoulder blades

As his cheeks flushed with shame.

 

He wore a slipshod buzz cut and chubby jowls that

Framed his braces and the crooked grin they fenced in,

Standing alone as yesterday’s rain lay simmering on the blacktop.

 

A blur of children sprinted past him, laughing,

And he buried his dry tongue beneath the dirt in his throat,

The stiffness of death in the mouth of a boy

Who never knew what to say.

 

Not a word about the jungles he’d seen in gym,

The knotted rope of humiliation and the sting of the lash

As the rich kid rat-tailed his back in the locker room

And all the cool boys snickered behind their elbows,

The cute girls giggling later over sandwiches.

 

But don’t you fear, little man,

For I have brought an army of book nerds,

Dreamers and choir singers,

Carrying their lisps and scars in rucksacks,

Glasses, buck teeth, and southern accents,

The boys who cry at movies and the girls who still have nightmares,

Walking our bikes over to invite you to our treehouse

Where white-out is outlawed

And your freckles are the confetti of God

Like He cut up the birthday cake of the sun just for you.

 

And together there, we’ll patch your feathers

And tell a couple of stories

Before we lean our heads back against the beams of our home,

Look up at the stars through the crack in our creaky roof,

And slowly drift to sleep.

 

“Braces”

I am thirteen years old,

And I hate the small bike chain glued to my teeth

That keeps me from the perfect kiss

I have planned for six months.

 

My smile is magnetic, tangled in wire,

My hello smothered in sparks,

My words, nicked and flickering in my mouth,

Fly in a hundred pinprick flashes, embers rising

From the fire in my chest.

 

Perhaps I can fence my garbled mouth

With the fan of my hand, breathe to you

In smoke signals, or tell you how I feel

Through the notes we write, unhindered

By chain-link and spotted iron.

 

Or maybe you will read my mind,

Your eyes pressed close against the glass

Of the space between us, peering beyond

My mouthful of radio, torn antenna,

Stainless steel.

 

But though I have worn this metal for many months,

Turning over the flavor of tin in my tongue

Behind the hard-wired cable in my mouth,

I was thirteen years old when you let me lean close

And close my eyes –

The first time I have ever been shocked.

Poem Audio #1 – “Falling in Love” / “Paper Plates”

black-and-white-image-of-headphonesTo expand on the poetry I have published here over the last year or so, I thought it would be fun to record readings of some of my favorite pieces from The Cardinal Turns the Corner as well as to introduce newer pieces I have written.

In addition to these readings, I’d like to provide some commentary, background, and/or explanatory notes that situate each poem in whatever experience, memory, or mood inspired it. No writer writes in a vacuum; we are always influenced by something (usually a thousand somethings). 🙂 So, here is Poem Audio #1.

The two poems discussed in this recording are “Falling in Love” from TCTTC and a new piece “Paper Plates.” Each poem has been reprinted below the audio file for those who wish to read along. Enjoy!

 


“Falling in Love”

The other night I stood for half an hour

Between the night sky and the butterfly wings of sleep,

Trying to count how many times I’ve fallen in love with you.

 

The streetlights filled our window while you slept,

But all I could do was wander around the room, hands folded,

The wind stirring the leaves on the pavement outside.

 

For years I have looked beneath the rocks in the river,

Inspected the wrists of jazz drummers

And the breath of blue roses for the full moon.

 

I have unlaced the fog in the morning

And swept the brushstrokes of dew on the ground

To find the words for our love,

 

And the candles at every step of our memory,

Lighted by the words we’ve spoken,

They are becoming forest fires.

 

In my hands are a dozen marbles. When I hold them up to you

To show the colors of my love, the sound of their scattering

On the floor tells me to try again.

 

And I try again every time,

Finding you over and over in the corner of my eye,

Smiling like the day we first met.

 

So I stayed awake that night, wondering how

I might manage to hold all this love

When all along it lay quietly in the way our fingers touch when we watch movies,

Your knees bent beneath the blanket,

The hours drifting away like snow.

 

“Paper Plates”

I’m trying to remember how long we’ve eaten on paper plates,

Cheap napkins with printed lilacs,

Both of us bending the tines of plastic forks

As we slowly keep from speaking.

 

When did we become so still, so suddenly motionless,

Twin marble statues stuck beneath the weight of water,

Staring in the distance past each other’s ocean shadow?

 

How did the sunlight in our voices

Fade into the night, our fingers numb

As blackened matches, our gazes turned to separate walls?

 

There must have been a moment when we accidentally said our last words,

When the sugar in our breath slid deep into our memory,

When our kisses somehow grew stale and

Our styrofoam lips first chipped along the edges.

Falling in Love

The other night I stood for half an hour

Between the night sky and the butterfly wings of sleep,

Trying to count how many times I’ve fallen in love with you.

 

The streetlights filled our window while you slept,

But all I could do was wander around the room, hands folded,

The wind stirring the leaves on the pavement outside.

 

For years I have looked beneath the rocks in the river,

Inspected the wrists of jazz drummers

And the breath of blue roses for the full moon.

 

I have unlaced the fog in the morning

And swept the brushstrokes of dew on the ground

To find the words for our love,

 

And the candles at every step of our memory,

Lighted by the words we’ve spoken,

They are becoming forest fires.

 

In my hands are a dozen marbles. When I hold them up to you

To show the colors of my love, the sound of their scattering

On the floor tells me to try again.

 

And I try again every time,

Finding you over and over in the corner of my eye,

Smiling like the day we first met.

 

So I stayed awake that night, wondering how

I might manage to hold all this love

When all along it lay quietly in the way our fingers touch when we watch movies,

Your knees bent beneath the blanket,

The hours drifting away like snow.

 

My English Teacher

I’d like to remember you with a poem,

Not an assignment or a free response to some prompt,

But a dedication for all you’ve done for me.

 

It’s just that I’ve been dropping years into the water

For quite some time, trying to fill the well

Until I’d know where to begin,

 

And the truth is I couldn’t write one if I tried.

 

To tell how firmly rooted you are in my memory, my life,

I’d have to haul out the early timbers

And diagram my gratitude from the ground up,

Fastened together by predicates and adjectives.

 

I’d also owe you for each figure of speech,

For it was you who first lay my young ears against the railroad

To hear the aching distance

Where words and meanings surge with locomotion,

Carrying the freight of all my poems to the paper.

 

Not to mention the box of highlighted quotations,

Underlined passages and dog-eared pages I have stored away

In the attic of my mind,

I climb up there often to smell the time that has passed.

 

No, I couldn’t write a poem like that,

For you don’t know how I’d seen you on the mountaintop

All those years ago,

Your eyes looking toward the sweet mint of the pine,

Brimming with vision, clear as prayer.

 

There, your hands held the robins’ feet of souls,

Nestled gently in the worn creases,

Looking for light.

 

So near the wonders of heaven, you discovered

The language of God in poetic rhythm,

The muffled drums of meter and the pounding pulse of students,

Poems reading poems.

 

You taught me to carve my name into every stripe of sunlight,

Grab the wind with my ready hands, pull the sky around my shoulders,

Cloaking myself for flight.

What’s more, you emptied out the plastic bin

Of imagery and motion, assembled a thousand amplifiers

Pointed to my chest,

And gave me the keys to my voice

That I might hear myself for the first time.

 

So the only thing I can say is that the poem I would write

If I could

Would end with a single image, not the firm grip

Of your fingers on a sharpened pencil, or the quiet burn of lamplight

Over your late hours of grading,

But rather, the moment

You descended the sharp, granite surface,

Found me at the foot of my future,

And handed me a torch.

Daylight Savings Time

I crept inside my house to rewind the hands of the clock,

Then leapt to my front yard to fall back into the brown leaves with my daughter

One more time.

 

As I leaned my head back into the crunchy heap,

I saw her bangs hanging over my face, smiling, and I thought

Of all the gorgeous minutes I would get to see again.

 

In that extra hour, my girls become airplanes in my hands.

They giggle like a sheet of snowflakes.

Their bellies are made of chocolate chip cookies.

 

We all sit around the table like we were cut out of some magazine,

Music in the background as soft as the stuffed bear

Who occupies his own seat at dinner.

 

Then my children play the trumpet on two paper towel rolls,

Heralding the news that they are dinosaurs,

Searching the rainforest of the kitchen for a snack.

 

I guess I could have just waited to turn back the hour

Tomorrow morning before I leave for work

In the still light of a different dawn.

 

But who could resist such an encore? The chance to relive

My daughters wearing ice cream like ball gowns,

Pirouetting on bare feet, pink as the piggies we count at night?

 

So I close my eyes, covered in this rich mound of old leaves, and

Listen as closely as I ever have to the ticking sounds of time, grateful for

The sunlight of a second five o’clock.

Math

We started with addition, placing our hands side by side

To complete the whole.

But soon, your kisses divided into half a dozen words,

Then fractioned into thoughts,

 

Now, absolute zero.

 

And I couldn’t bear the burden of this one-sided subtraction,

So I multiplied my work

To find an answer that could fit.

 

But as you slowly put your pencil down,

Scrubbed to its last lead,

And walked out the door,

I closed my eyes and longed for the impossible solution to this problem,

The moment when our equation could finally be balanced and

One and one are one.

Fangs

I could feel the skeleton in my skin

When you left me, every dry bone,

Like I had swallowed two balloons

Bumping inside the gaps of my ribcage.

 

When we were together, I had learned to grow arrows

From my fingertips, I had become an archer

Straining to earn your glances.

 

I threw those darts at your heart long before my back became your cutting board.

 

Your eyes were happy, and you played the piano like the tide

Passing over the shells of the shore beneath the moonlight.

And we would walk along the sea, our toes touching the glass

Of its little waves, the seagulls soaring above our heads.

 

But soon you led me along the blade

As the hives in your mouth traded their sweetness for stings,

Your laughter becoming fangs,

Filling the air between us with distance.

 

You touched my hand one last time, a single spark

Before you went away,

And now, this cold adrenaline’s a poison, convincing my body

It is more alive than it could ever be again.

I Can Only Do So Many Things

I can only do so many things

Before my lungs give out.

So I’ll go for a walk to figure it all out

As best I can.

 

Although I do know how to look at flowers and the yellow silk of their petals,

The streetlamps, the pair of initials settled in the cement,

I could always learn to see them better.

 

My elementary school teachers taught me to type,

But sometimes I still make mistakes.

I have spelled my last name Hugg ten too many times,

Though I have yet to give ten too many hugs to anybody.

So today, I’m going to go outside and hug somebody.

 

Although I am thirty years old, I still find myself

Dancing like a scarecrow on a yellow road

When no one’s looking, and, every now and then,

When everyone is.

 

My arms are filled with atoms,

Peering around like periscopes as I write,

Seeking out some land where I can stand

And call out to the clouds of my brain for the next

Line.

 

I can spin a pen around the ball bearings of my fingertips –

It’s learning to use it that is agonizing.

 

I can picture your hands, your face,

As you read this,

For you, too, can only do so many things.

 

And as I wonder where you are from and what has brought us together in this moment,

I try to discover what is stopping us.

For though we can only do so many things,

There are so many things that only we can do.

 

So unravel the things you can do. Unfold them and rub them against

The edges of the table to iron out their creases,

Read the crisp handwriting of the notes that have been written

To you. Take notes on your forearms to remind yourself

Of that tree you climbed when you were young.

Perch yourself on the curb of a storefront and eat your lunch with both hands

Like a toddler waiting for his birthday to come.

 

Let the static shock of a plastic slide send you straight back to your childhood.

Buy a candy bar on the impulse shelves of the checkout counter

And eat the entire thing on the way home.

And I’ll set up the chess board for another round

Against my father, the man who taught me everything I needed to know

About knighthood.

 

So this evening, when the night sky swims into view,

Before I sleep like a puddle of rain,

I will know I have done all that I can do

And so have you

And maybe we’ll meet for ice cream before our lungs give out.

School Poems

The air in study hall was thick with the smoke of pencils,

Scribbling to find fire on the page, ten teenagers

Looking for love in the smile their words might make.

 

Over in the library, some have rolled their sleeves,

Bent over a row of screens,

Their hurried breaths gyrating the pinwheels of their poems

As their fingertips clicked like cleats on the pavement of their laptops,

Letters dripping on documents,

A thousand rain drops on an old tin roof.

 

I walked past the boy on the steps with a halo of reverb

Plugged in from ear to ear, connected to a phone synced to his heart,

Drumming his palms against his knees like his life

Had been lived only for this moment, the wild abandon

Of one who’d learned to walk the plank

As the pirates of passion loomed behind him with their thick beards

And blades sharpened

As if to say, “Rock this one out or you’ll sleep in the ocean.”

 

The girl in the courtyard crooked one leg behind the other,

Curling her fingers around her phone in the cold

Like she knew the next message he sent would make her warm.

So she bubbled her poetry in blue, mailed it on the airwaves, and waited for his ellipses,

Three dots in Morse before three words she longed to read.

 

Down the hall, the kindergarteners knelt outside their classroom,

Upturning waxy bags of crayon and a dozen safety scissors,

Peeling the ghosts of Elmer’s glue from their palms

As they told their parents they loved them

With a red construction heart and a firm crease in the center,

A greater declaration of devotion than any sonnet could ever sing.

 

So I kept walking briskly in the air of this century

Where people still write poetry, breaking pieces of their body

Like bread for summer swans

And pressing them deep into a dozen syllables,

The friction of pounding feet and chattering teeth

As they toss their own words into the rushing waters of time.

Oranges

I slipped deftly into Botticelli’s Primavera one afternoon,

Begging the pardon of the Three Graces in white

As I wandered toward the orange grove.

 

The little cupid, bow at the ready,

Failed to notice the bent flowers beneath my feet

And my slow reach into the branches

 

Where I carefully felt for a perfect orange,

Tore the globe of skin from its stringy flesh,

And held the dimpled smoothness of the flayed world in my palm –

 

The shred of color,

The fragrance of gravity,

The naked hue of hunger.

 

Then, like my father before me,

I dug my teeth into the tender spot and, somehow,

I have spent the sudden years trying to dig myself back up.