Congratulations to the winners of the 2017 Common Good Poetry Contest, and thank you again to all who entered.
Keith Brubaker's Hands
were always dirty, covered in a brown crust
that grossed the rest of us out. I can see him
sitting a few seats down from me, in the front
row of Mrs. Machmer's fourth grade class.
This was farm country, central Pennsylvania
and while the rest of us slept in, Keith was up
milking cows, or slopping hogs, or digging
past holes, or whatever it is that farmers do.
He didn't talk much and missed a lot of school.
I can see his empty desk as clearly as I can see
his dirty hands. We didn't think much of him
shunned him really, figuring he was a dolt.
Years later, in college, I worked as a baker
all night long, and after, went straight to class —
molecular biology — where I would often fall asleep
flour gunked under my nails, stinking of yeast.
I never once thought of Keith during those years.
It's only now, past the age of fifty, trying to grow
a garden, my hands blackened with dirt, that I wish
Keith was here, teaching me all that I needed to know.
Their flight may be likened to an immense snow-storm. . . . It is a vast cloud of animated specks, glittering against the sun. (Agriculture report, 1877)
I am thinking about great snows
I have known: that first one,
the year we moved to upstate
New York, my mother ripping
stitches from my Halloween costume
so that it would fit over my parka,
the other Buffalo kids nonchalant
as they held up their pillowcases
to catch Milky Ways. Soon
I learned that nothing up north
would really halt in the presence
of white; always salt, a shovel.
No matter how many men
drop dead in their driveways,
clutching the box of ribs
holding the heart, people up north
keep on, scoffing in the face
of freeze and flake. In Minnesota,
it wasn't above zero for three
weeks once, and still the sun
came out every day, just to see what
was happening and how we felt
about it. The city ran out of salt,
and yet the roads stayed open,
cars sliding gently into ditches,
bumpers kissing and hissing
in rush-hour traffic, each car
a steaming pile of impatience
driving no faster than ten miles
an hour. Men no doubt ignoring
the first twinges of something
in their chests. And Michigan,
where the sky clamped its lid
each November, and didn't let up
until April. Snow on tulips. Snow
in the frames of closed windows.
I saw people standing outside
in snowflakes, as if they had
nowhere warmer to be.
Once, I was that person.
Or the quiet of February,
when lake melts into sky,
the same gray bleed.
The silence is what I miss.
The locusts ate everything
that summer of 1874, after they
descended from the sky in great
swarming black clouds. Crops.
The quilts laid over the crops.
The horse bridles. Whips and shoes.
After they clogged the wells
and clotted their bodies thick
against walls and fence posts.
After they clustered so deep
on rail tracks that t rains slid
to stops on the grease squeezed
from their thoraxes—after
they had their fill, they left,
moving on as quickly
as they'd come. The quiet hurt,
settlers said, after weeks
of buzzing. A habit takes
only twenty-weight days
to forge. The locusts stayed
two months, their vibrations
the new music of the prairie.
Then, the swarm lifted like
winter pulls off its own lid.
Then, the locusts melted away
like the last lacey patch of snow.
We are not sure what just
happened, or how we feel about it.
We emerge from our houses,
our cheeks stinging.
We are blinking in the new light,
the silenece pure and loud.
She never dared cross
the threshold in her housecoat
to pluck the morning paper
from the dewy lawn.
She applied fresh lipstick
in the rearview mirror
before running into the A&P
for a quart of milk.
She weighed herself, lunched on
carrot sticks and cottage cheese,
said elastic waistbands were
the Devil's playground.
She quoted Emerson,
the Bible, and recited
Robert Frost with
a polished, porcelain voice.
The spring her flowerbeds grew feral
sans showy annuals,
and full of untamed ivy,
she was otherwise engaged.
Trapped in a squall where
fragments from her past
caught on barbed wire synapses,
flapping ragged before flying into oblivion.
Her hair was a dandelion gone to seed.
Her housecoat stained.
Her freightened eyes met mine
I only knew I loved her
to the marrow of my bones
when I began to wish
that she were dead.
—Caroline Zarlengo Sposto
Last summer you taught my son to carve a spoon.
He asked, "Granddad does wood bleed?"
For the way you didn't panic, thanks.
Answered, "No, but you do" and explained,
"The knife can be too sharp to feel it,"
then held my son's bleeding palm in your hand.
Told him to think each strike before he whittled it.
To check his small fingers, his leg where the blank
presses above the knee, the blank, and breathe—
I know you meant the lesson for my son.
Dad, the world is too sharp for me to feel it.
Teach me to whittle with the tollekniv
until I find the soft wood under the birch bark.
To strike away, and not toward the hand.
Tell me to check my heart, chest where the heart
rests and breathe. Say no hurry, be silent.
And together we'll stay by the campfire
while jay birds call in the maple trees.
Then, when I am calm, I will hear you say,
"Pay attention and you will feel the wound,
a scarred hand always carves a good spoon."
—Lauren K Carlson
Not Letting Go
In the back of the attic closet
on a rack of old duds for Goodwill,
a dress still hangs, brief and bright,
pert, a ruby coronation,
a red hot damn of a dress.
A man at a swing dance whispered
You shine in your orbit
as we twirled and the skirt
fanned out to my thighs.
Later I leaned back on a hot car's hood
to accept a long and starry kiss.
When I hold the dress against my figure
in a mirror, its svelte shape
won't stretch to cover mine,
wide where I used to be slim.
Parts of me that lifted and were light
are now among fallen things.
I could just keep a watch
of its red fabric to pin in a picture frame
with a bit of silk wedding gown
and a snippet of baby blue flannel.
but if my life is a cloth, I want it whole.
In Mexico at dusk, I'd watch sparrows
scramble, wings flapping, to claim
a special place among tangled ivy
clinging to a high blue wall.
Though they jousted among themselves,
each would find its own, tuck head
under wing and be safe the night through.
Once I saw a grasshopper pump
her eggs into a crack in a parking lot.
And walking over a bridge spanning
the wide Mississippi, I noticed
clusters of spiders' eggs and tattered webs
strung between the balustrades. Why
dump the next generation into asphalt,
I wondered, or the wind blow an insect's roe
and intricate nets so far from land?
Then there was the mist-shrouded morning
I narrowed my focus to discover
diamond-studded pine boughs near the cabin.
Ravenous for their first meal, baby arachnids
had clambered out of egg clusters
and spun their silk, weaving it into tiny traps
among the needles, oblivious of this vast
world they'd been hatched into.
Last October, cleaning yard furniture
for winter storage, I tried to remove
the daddy-long-legs hidden under a table.
I could not have predicted
how its legs would stick to the web,
or that the fourth one—the "handle"
I used to carefully lift it—would be
torn away! How I dropped it, ashamed
that by trying to save this creature,
I'd maimed it. But there's more.
How that leg turned itself
in steadily weaker increments,
ceasing its rotation only
when its raw stump had lined up
with the would on the spider's body.
As I watched, a memory
like faint figure slowly emerging
from mist: those elderly Greeks
I once knew, who came laden with gifts
from their gardens, and who
—with nostalgic intensity—
had returned to their homeland,
to rest, and finally, to sink
into the embrace of its dry, stony soil.
And what of us? Each evolving
over eons of fleshly exile
on a small planet spinning in a cosmos
of such beauty and mystery, and yes,
struggle and unending strife. Are we
homing toward reunion with something
greater that carefully and relentlessly
draws us back to it, into its longing?
It Doesn't Add Up to Much
When I was a young man
my father said—It doesn't add up
to much—that was the day
his father died—he said this
in one of those interval
moments—as we drove from
the funeral home—one of those
stark moments—when the sky
nonetheless remains blue.
then—I saw his face for the first time—
and let him be a stranger as I watched.
I was surprised he would tell me
It doesn't add up to much—since
that seemed a burden and not a gift.
And I was used to gifts. Now
I realize—It doesn't add up to much—
expands—just as it seems
to swallow itself.
Song of Experience
Shaggy cows—calves?—tan and copper,
grazing, look up, startled by me running;
I slow, they gaze at me—are they thinking?
do they think?—expressionless, they stare,
unflappable. I want to touch them, sing
to them, but that is not to be, not now, not ever;
cows are not in my life, their jumping over
the moon and all that, which makes me sad, being
old now, being finished with Little Red Riding Hood.
Sometimes I hear their lowing through the woods.
I want to touch the donkeys, too, who live across
from the blueberry patch. Once, a donkey brayed!
Just like a storybook, it hee-hawed. I whizzed by.
The blueberries are small, dwindling. A breeze lost.
I sit all summer on my porch
Which I am afraid to walk on
For fear it may fall in
I would like to have a swing
On my porch but is the roof stable
Would it come crashing down with me
Like the other time when the chain twisted
Behind me is the bedroom ceiling which leaks
Because the front roof is sheet metal
And the back roof is shingles
And they refuse to hold hands
But visitors come and one says
Your house is always so peaceful
This morning there was an ambulance early
With only a couple of apologetic notes
Warning the cars at the intersection
the paramedics struggled with the gurney
Even before the old woman walked out of the house
And laid down on it
I tried to cross the sidwalk
But a train of six bikes assualted me
Engine and cars all alughing
Sometimes I go out on my bike
But it is not a train, only a bumping
Repair car with only one woman to pump
With only the left knee
From my porch I see two guys walking
The one with his cap on backwards
Is pushing a baby stroller
Three girls on scooter sail by my porch
Going around and around the block
They holler back to grandma
And I realize they won't be there always
They will sail away home before summer is done
One clattery skateboard coasts down the hill
The rider speaking into his cell phone
Even louder one morning was the yelling
In the alley over the noise of the garbage truck
While the driver hollered at his cell
The best -- a small boy from two doors away
Riding back and forth on his bike
with his new puppy panting
Struggling to catch up
Back and forth back and forth back and forth
Two hours later they did it again
Between me and the small boy and the puppy panting
Is a small tree that shoots its top branches up high
And its low branches up high
But not those between
Like a mannequin stretching arms and legs
While cinching her belt tighter
My Back Pages
One cricket trills somewhere
within the bookshelf
like the fan belt slipping
on a '74
Maverick idling at
the red light in the rain.