When There’s Killing

He knows it’s not a fairytale world
in which pigs dance, cows sing.
He’s grown into his father’s toughness
and his wile’s pragmatism.
So why is he the one
who hides himself away in the house
when the butchers come?
She goes on with her daily duties,
even offers to make coffee
for the men with the blood-soaked hands.

The pig, the cow,
they’re more his children
than the ungrateful brats
who belittle his eighth-grade education,
the summer sweat and winter sacrifice
that fills the table with the food they peck at.

He was by the mother’s side,
the night the calf was born.
His salvation, most mornings,
was the sight of piglets
wiggling and squirming,
fighting for a free teat.

Despite the sanctuary of his parlor,
the death throes will not leave him be.
He winces to the cut of every knife.
the callous plunge and jerk of the hook.
Was that a squeal? A cry?
“This has to be done,” he keeps telling himself.
“I’m a farmer. I’ve a family to support.”

A hard life finds its softness where it can.
Where it must is another matter.

Don’t Wake Me

The blood’s wastes accrue
and weigh on the brain so much
that any furniture will do, a couch,
sometimes even the floor that glides
so easily over the abyss.
And even a day of doing nothing much
drains oxygen from the body
faster than breathing can replenish it.
Likewise inward neuron impulses contract
with the cells’ branching protoplasmic processes
and the cortex cries out for a little time to itself,
so it doesn’t have to think about
what it takes to think.
The brain needs its rest.
It has a relationship with the bed
that is more than simple gravity.
It craves that float, the humble relief
in which active thought plays no role
and the subconscious assumes the storyteller role.
And, no matter the night,
any of this might explain
why I can sleep through anything.

The Stopwatch Writes

I fell in love with her
because she swam at night
and, even in the pale light,
could still keep to her lane.

Couldn’t see her face at all,
just the back of her head,
and her spine in and out
of the water like an eel,

and the stroke, smooth,
the kick, silver-tongued,
the splash, gentle
despite her speed.

I fell in love with her
because she just kept swimming,
mile after mile after mile,
never leaving that pool,

or once looking up
at the eyes upon her,
as if I were a stop watch
and she wanted me ticking.

Two A.M. in Ward 7

It wasn’t much of a sleep
but it sure beat the waking hours.
Conscious, it’s only a matter of time.
But sleep can easily accommodate forever.

But here’s the nurse,
standing at your bedside
with a glass of something milky,
chasing away dreams
as if they are visitors
who’ve stayed too late.

“You must drink this,”
she says.
She holds it up
to your unwilling mouth,
floods your lips with white.
Your nose can’t breathe.
You’re drowning in medicine.
It’s a lake by this
and you’re squirming
at the bottom of it,
kicking and cramping,
panicking as your lungs cry mercy.

But there’s ever this urge
to not let it end like this.
So you struggle, you fight,
lift yourself through
cloudy swirl and nasty taste,
win back your brow,
your stinging eyes,
and finally the nose, the mouth,
as you break through
that white surface.

The nurse grabs the empty glass
away from you.
“Go back to sleep,” she says.
So nurses and dying
are your constant companions.
One won’t let you sleep in peace.
The other will
but it has another name for it.

Animal Kingdom of Heaven

We’ll be pigeons in paradise,
feral, but adapting,
making feast of what we can:
indulging in low moping conversation
and maybe even some ungraceful flying
in the angels’ shadows.

No, we’ll be snakes, more likely,
up to our eyeballs in forbidden apples,
sins only a python’s body length could contain,
and fangs to bite and poison
friends and neighbors
creatures God could maybe practice on,
to infiltrate his very next Garden of Eden.

Then again, we could be lapdogs,
resurrection turning us all to mush,
a pat on the head from a greater power all we ask,
and maybe a dish or two of sustenance,
and a place to run around and sniff and bark,
and yes, if it means staying in heaven,
St Peter can spay us all he likes.

No, we’re probably doomed to be insects
in that better place, tiny swarming things
that no one cares much for but that are
necessary to keep the higher life forms humming,
maybe a nip here, a sting there,
just so we won’t totally lose out on identity,
before returning to the bustling nest.

But now, I’m putting my hand up for the man,
this thing I got to be while living,
not the best place to stow a soul for seventy years
but the lockers in the railway station were all taken
and besides, we have humor, we have sorrow,
and humanity, even the worst of us…
let us keep this shape, this form,
the faces in the photographs…
it’s death after all
and we’d prefer that it be lifelike.

Critters on My Food

Fly lands on white bread.
Ants march across table,
onto plate and left-over pizza crust.
Roaches go where they will.
An entire pantry is their menu.
And as for mice and their big brother rats—
if they can make it in New York, New York,
they can make it anywhere,
Mosquitos follow their specialized diet—
human blood.
Weevils and worms of course
have a more patient game to play.
Between their invidious hunger
and my last night’s meal
are degrees of separation
slowly flat-lining.
The fact is
that even the lowliest,
the most vile,
is out for all
its existence can get.
For now,
I lay traps, I spray,
I brush them away.
I win in the short term.
And then there’s forever—
their natural range.