Wife

Your fingers felt the hem of your violet dress

When you first looked over at me,

And for a moment I swear the room rippled

Like water kissed by a skipping stone.

 

Then you spoke,

And all the watercolor rain

In every cloud between us

Began to fall,

Rinsing the beautiful stillness,

Bearing your words like notes on sheet music

Across the twirling wind,

The sweetness of roses,

The lovely taste of light.

 

Your smile curled at the corners like hymnals,

Bright with the glory of verse,

The joy of Christ resting on your gentle cheeks

And your eyes deeper than morning.

 

I stood helpless as you swept your hair behind your shoulder,

Arrested by a single sentence,

A hundred hummingbirds whirring in my chest.

For you were no mere person,

No woman on a busy street,

But starlight on the evening sea,

Melody in rosined strings,

Beauty in a violet dress.

 

And still, now,

As I rake the snow with my right hand,

Five fingers along the length of our front yard,

And the cold night laughs a flurry of new blankets,

I see our children dance around the staff that I have drawn,

Stepping out a chorus, leaving notes beneath their shoes,

And I know when I look up,

I’ll see my lovely wife,

And we’ll smile in quiet gladness

For the time that we’ve been given.

A Quiet Pond in Camden

My wife’s grandfather passed away a few days ago, and his funeral is this morning in South Carolina. This poem is in honor of Elbert Benjamin Newman, Sr. 


I couldn’t help but notice your hands first, Granddaddy,

Your nails yellowed by coarse decades of work,

Your veins the color of wine.

 

Against the white cloth of your rolling hospice bed

They seemed translucent, thinning from the groan of

Fluorescent light.

 

They’ve worn age well, these spotted hands,

Covered in the creases of your full life,

And I admit I laughed a little when your great-grandkids

Scooted close to say hello,

And you peered through the bifocaled tunnel of time

To smile back and twinkle two fingers

As best you could.

 

But when you winced and adjusted the tape on your bruising skin,

Scratching the IV in your limp fist,

I wanted to run out of that hospital,

Down the front, tightly-manicured lawn,

And leap into the clouds to see your life in sum,

Every living scene all at once.

 

I wanted to see those hands wriggle a ring on Grandmama’s finger,

Twist the ripcord of your parachute in the War,

Peel a hundred avocados, stranded in the Philippines.

 

I wanted to see you vote for Stevenson in ’52,

Build a furniture business with the strength of your iron will,

Raise a nurse, a preacher, and an heir to your company,

Then see your lineage expand

As generations branched and took your torch into the future.

 

I wanted to see your hands cradle each and every grandchild,

Each and every great-grandchild,

As you breathed in the lily air of new life.

 

I wanted to see your hands take up the fork and knife

And silently thank Grandmama’s every move with your cutting,

Pancakes, chicken, pie, and all her other glories,

Then gulp your gratitude after swishing sweet tea

From cheek to cheek.

 

They’ve worn age well, these spotted hands

That pulled me back down from the sky of my daydreaming

As if to say it’s time.

And it is.

 

So let us all smile and say goodbye, Granddaddy,

Loud enough for you to hear,

As we crowd around your recliner in our minds

And carry your legacy forward

Into another hundred years and more,

Speeding ever faster from a quiet pond in Camden.

Grief

Another poem…


As I write this,

I’m still breathing hard from a night of fitful sleeping,

My V-neck shirt clinging like dew to my warm chest

While the ceiling fan does its best to gin up

A gentle wind.

 

It’s, let’s see,

I’ll need my glasses for a bit,

2:38 in the morning,

And I’m jotting down my thoughts at the bedside table

Like the doctor said.

Oh, and my feelings,

I’m also recording my feelings.

 

The poetry’s been difficult these days.

It doesn’t flow like it once did.

The Nile’s all dried up, you’d ask,

Or turned to blood in plague? And I’d chuckle.

I tried some in the first stanza with the sweat simile,

But I think I yawned in the middle of it.

 

I remember you used to love a haiku I once wrote

About the cold side of the pillow

(Sort of on the fly, just to see you smile really).

Only now do I see why you liked it so,

As I cycle and recycle this old feather bag

To find that cool shadowy feeling in which to lay

My weary head.

 

It’s only when I glance over at yours in its pristine condition,

And I notice no sagging indention in the center,

That I remember your pillow is always cool now,

Both sides.

 

So, I’ll just lay my glasses back down on the nightstand,

At 2:52 in the morning,

And I’ll climb once more into my tempest of dreams

Where you and I are together again,

If momentarily,

And somewhat wispy in our world of memory,

Before my body shakes awake

At 3:41 AM,

And I lean for my pencil

From my sloppy and disheveled side of the bed.

Ray’s Peaches

Another summer poem…


Our tires chewed the gravel road,

Tossing rocks into the palm of a single beam of sunlight

As we pulled the car crookedly into his driveway.

 

He sat enthroned in the yawning wood of his tumbledown rocking chair –

Still as the stale air of his ripening trees,

The former glory of Ray’s Peaches.

 

The A-frame sign by the old highway

Had lost two letters from the downpours of time,

The decay of decades, remainders from rain

And the Carolina sun,

The ghostly silhouette of the first and the second e

Unveiling the bright white of the untanned parts

And a vacant apostrophe near the top.

 

Ray watched as my family and I leapt from the car

And asked for a couple baskets for the peaches,

His freckled grin brawling against the worn grooves

Of his cheeks, and his eyes still laughing like the sky.

 

That morning,

We plucked our swollen wonders,

Warm as hands,

And kissed the gentle clouds with our giggling.

 

Ray simply watched as we lugged our teeming baskets to the scale,

Fifty cents a pound, peaches discounted

As a favor to the family grandfathered by the town preacher.

He felt the sharp cool of dollars between his thumb and finger

And winked at my daughter, quick enough to only spill

A flutter of magic at her dancing feet.

 

And as she paused to glance at Old Ray

Of Ray’s Peaches,

She lay her basket in the grass and scooped the smell of earth

Into her little hands,

Thanked Mr. Ray for the fruit,

And turned with her clasped fingers toward the car

While Ray lifted a prayer to God

That Elizabeth may turn her eyes down from heaven

To their small peach farm once more

As he kissed the gentle clouds

And shuffled to their bed to sleep.

 

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William Blake and the God of Good Marriages

wedding-ringsWilliam Blake (1757-1827) was a world-class poet and artist in England whose deceptively simple verses, though they did not resonate loudly in his own time, have served in recent years as shining examples of Romantic poetry in Britain during the time of the French Revolution right across the channel. Two particular publications of his, Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794), represent what he termed the “contrary states of the human soul”, that is, the divide between the light and the dark that permeates each human heart. Blake was fascinated with the transition from innocence to experience, that elusive process of shedding childhood and donning adulthood, of seeing the sunlight of day set into the mystery of night.

For Blake, something seemed inevitably lost in the move from purity to worldly knowledge. In his poetry, he often ponders the divine, pure, and perhaps even godly innocence of a child and its painful peeling away as he or she becomes more sophisticated, cultured, educated, and experienced. He considers the grinding corrosiveness of city life (as it was flooded by scores of people drawn to the burgeoning, industrialized London) in stark contrast to the Edenic majesty of the countryside; it was a reminder to him of the unfortunate degeneration of aging against the lily-white innocence of a wild childhood in the fields. In short, Blake fixed his focus on the corrupting influence that growing up seems to have on the human experience.

So it is without wonder that one of his short pieces titled “My Pretty Rose Tree” exposes Blake’s nervousness and fear towards marriage as the poem examines the speaker’s attempt to preserve its sanctity and unity. Here’s the text:

A flower was offer’d to me,

Such a flower as May never bore;

But I said “I’ve a Pretty Rose-tree,”

And I passed the sweet flower o’er.

 

Then I went to my Pretty Rose-tree,

To tend her by day and by night;

But my Rose turn’d away with jealousy,

And her thorns were my only delight.

The poem is rather simple: the speaker resists the temptation to abandon his wife for another woman only to discover his wife turning away from him out of jealousy, leaving him in a state of despondency and loneliness.

Blake accomplishes many things in the course of this brief verse. It’s notable his central setting is the pastoral landscape (a favorite for Blake) in which discussions of innocence averting temptation take on symbolic meaning through flowers and rose-trees. One can even see the primal example of sinful enticement from the serpent in Genesis 3 evoked in the sweetness of the offered flower.

But the full power of the poem is its ironic turn in line 7. The reader seems to expect the speaker will be rewarded for his fidelity, that the Rose-tree will embrace her champion for resisting the lure. Yet, that is not Blake’s aim, and that is not his conclusion. So what are we to make of this sorrowful ending? What is Blake getting at?

The lonely, dejected condition of the speaker in the final line is a result of his attempt to create a good marriage on his own merits. He desires acceptance, praise, and devotion from his “Rose-tree” for having courageously and adamantly refused a sinful offer. Look how good I am at resisting temptation, he seems to say as he returns to his tree to “tend her by day and by night.” I have been so careful, so loyal, so good.

Such conceit and self-assurance, however, is not what produces strong, faithful marriages. No husband can hope to serve his wife and tend her well if he is looking to his own strength and grit-teeth commitment for validation. The problem of Blake’s poem – why does the rose-tree reject the speaker when he decidedly “passed the flower o’er”? – cannot be answered by human effort. Only God can bind a man and a woman together. It is not within human reason, imagination, will, or power to create or sustain a marriage. Only God can forge the two to become one flesh, and “what God has joined together, let no man tear asunder.”

So Blake’s poem concludes on a painfully tinny, ringing chord, unresolved. The speaker who had hoped his good work had earned a happy marriage is left confused, alone, and nestled knee-deep in thorns, and I cannot help but wonder how many of our marriages end on the same sour note. But I did everything I was supposed to do, the wife mutters. But I never cheated on her, not even once, the husband rants. I followed all the rules, did everything right, cooked and cleaned, provided for and protected…Why is my marriage in such ruins?

The quiet answer to these questions lies only in the God of good marriages. He is the author of all things good. God is Love, and our expressions of love to each other can only be completed in and through His indefinable grace. We cannot earn a good marriage. We can only look to Christ as the center of all things and pray He sustains our union through both the sorrows and the splendor. Remember, we may have excitedly slid rings on each other’s fingers, but only God can keep them there.

Making the Bed

I wrote this poem after a futile attempt I made to try to change the sheets on our bed while my wife was out of town. I worked diligently to fit the elastic sheet on our queen-size mattress for quite some time only to realize I was holding a twin-size sheet. I began to wonder how widowers make their beds without wives to guide them…

Our fingertips danced once

As we walked them along the edges of our mattress,

Calling out to each other with the strength

Of smiling eyes, crossing

The queen-sized canyon to hold each other’s glances.

You carefully studied the measured lines

(and I carefully studied yours) as

We fitted the sheets to our new bed,

Working to weave our souls into the cool linen.

Our laughs soared as we

Ballooned the top sheet into space

And hushed to join the quiet whisper as it

Exhaled into bed like a cloud drifting in the water.

Then

We collapsed in symmetry

Like stars,

Gliding into a forever of sleep and wakefulness,

Circling the clock.

And, next to you, I prayed, only

For more clocks.

For now I can taste the stale grime of

Central heat

Breathing through the ribcage of rusted vents

And stretch my cracked knuckles across the

Bare-boned cold of our bed,

Pulling a twin sheet with all my heart

You would know why it doesn’t fit

And how I am afraid

To join the quiet whisper as I

Exhale into bed,

A cloud without its water.