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.

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Dad

On the mountains at the farthest border of the world,

Snow-capped and calling,

I felt my way to the thin line of the edge

And looked down into outer space

 

Where I could see the winds of stars fall asleep

Below my scarlet knuckles

As the northern lights, with their tin flame of foil fire,

Green and white diamond, filmed the midnight sky.

 

They told stories like my father,

Full of heroes and the beauties they fought for,

As every scene of laughter and of sorrow,

Played at once along the measures of their gleaming.

 

Then I balled a few rags of snow in my grasp

And clenched them hard enough for the cold to slide

Into my chest and crack my pounding heart alive

As I rose to my feet and steadied my shaking lungs.

 

I remember those tales well,

My father sitting by my bedside, holding

Oceans and sailing ships with the strength of

His love for me.

 

And I would follow him anywhere,

Through the forestry of childhood,

Keeping close to his heels as he

Showed me where to go,

 

Well into the iron winters of adulthood

As my stride slowly grew stronger, and

He taught me how to breathe

The mountain air of becoming a father.

 

For now, as I stand at the peak of this universe,

Filled with ice and the sweep of shooting stars,

I turn and see the faces of my own children and my beautiful wife,

Looking to me with the smiles of home,

 

And I know it is time to tell my own stories,

To hold their hands and lead them onward

As they keep close to my heels, and I show them

Where to go.