released February 25, 2012
all rights reserved
- Track Name: On The Night Of My First Breath
On the night of my first breath in a delivery room
at Allegheny County General Hospital, my birth father
whom I will never meet is asleep on a bus
disappearing into the mid-west. His name is Frank
Houser. His jacket is crumpled between the side
of his face and the window. It is the 29th
of December, but he dreams rain coming down
so hard, long strands strike the glass as if to shatter it.
My father’s hands are twitching in his lap
and when he looks down a sparrow is nesting
as if in the crook of a tree. Warmth like joy
fills my father’s body because
so delicate a creature has chosen him for safety.
He lightly strokes with the tip of a finger
the small brown head. The bird begins singing
into the darkness of the bus. Its high, sweet trilling
goes out among the sleeping passengers,
drawing each breath into its praise. My father
knows he is as much this song
as anything else in his life. When he looks outside
the rain has subsided into a blazing mist
lit red by the furnaces of steel mills along the river.
Upwards through the mist, against the darkness,
black smoke over the city like the sparrow’s notes,
traveling through my father’s hands into the night
of this place that he is leaving. When he looks down again
his lap is empty. A woman nudges him awake
as the bus pulls into the Cleveland terminal.
Piles of plowed snow are crusted black
beneath the white lights of the empty parking lot.
He stares out the window, trying to remember
what he was dreaming. He is asked if he is getting off here
and he says no, he has much further to go.
- Track Name: Behind The Gasworks On Railroad Avenue
Behind The Gasworks On Railroad Avenue-
Where white storage tanks sit in gravel and tar,
my brother and I push our bicycles
into a vacant lot of dust and far apart trees
that throw skinny shade against a white
one storey brick and concrete building
that was once a factory. We lay
our bicycles on the ground and sit
with our backs against the coolness
of the brick wall. Our legs thrust out
before us in the dust. It doesn’t matter
that we are wearing cut off jeans and our legs
will be stained with the dust and our sweat.
We are too young to separate ourselves
from the day with its load of sunlight
and dirt. We are tired and do not talk,
we turn the dirt through our fingers
and my brother says look and holds
his hand out to me. Two pieces of pig iron
in his dirt smeared palm. They’re
as black as crow feathers I say. He puts
them in his pocket. Says quietly,
crow feathers, boy that’s a
good one. We sit a while longer.
I notice our breath rising and falling
and how effortless it seems. This
is the summer day that comes back to me
when my brother I haven’t heard from
in a year or two calls tonight
to say he is living in Jacksonville
in a treatment center and no liquor
has passed his lips for three weeks.
His ex-wife, who won’t speak his name,
will let him see his son if he stays sober
for a year. He still has the two pieces
of pig iron wrapped in cloth in a drawer.
He says they help him to stay sober
and do I remember that day and how
I said crow feathers. I see the white storage
tanks, barbed wire, gravel, and tar.
Yes, I say, and set the phone softly down
(music bridge/ transition into second poem on track)
An Odd Gift
The tulips you gave me have wilted.
They sag like the bent necks
of horses drinking at the river’s
edge beneath a hard sun. The vase
you placed them in is brighter
now than the shriveled petals
that only days ago were the color
of fire not rust. When I was five
my father put me on a horse.
It was like being astride a planet.
A sharp kick and the entire earth
moved beneath me. My father
yards ahead, blue work shirt
patched a darker blue by sweat,
rode without turning once.
The huge slabbed muscles
of the neck, the rolling might
of that wide warm back
carried me as safe and light
as air along the path
into the forest shadows.
The river shone in pieces
between the pines like flickering
coins tossed in the dark.
I scarcely held the leather reins.
The horses knew the way to water
and brought us there with easy gait
and snorted breath to fill their thirst.
In this evening’s half-light
your dead tulips seem to glow,
like dark eyes of horses
as they bow their heads to drink.
- Track Name: Allegheny
What a filthy river! Lined with steel mills
and factories, to swim in it was to smell
for days the oily stink against your skin,
a nausea-twist in your stomach,
uneasy reminder of the river’s phlegmy,
dark-green clutch. It was as dangerous
as it was dirty. The bottom dug out
for gravel, unnaturally and unevenly deep,
held invisible currents, eddies, undertows
that could pull, suck and hold you down
until you drowned or throw you up again
to limb-flash, flail and suck for air.
Each summer it claimed a child
from the cancerous towns along its sides,
as if it were a angry, wounded god
demanding tribute. Each summer
we gathered there to fish for monstrous carp
and catfish no one would ever eat, to swim
and dunk each other beneath the blinding water,
to watch the rich kids carve into the current
white-tipped waves, bronzed bodies balanced
on single skis behind small, sleek powerboats.
By the docks we bobbed in water warm as blood,
the sunlight marching like fire across the oily surface
to burn away all but summer’s touch.
We swam beside the hulk of coal barges
black as the bible’s curse that tore the earth.
All summer we swam in it. What a filthy river!
- Track Name: The Oil Drum
We throw balled up sheets of newspaper,
dead twigs and branches into a rusted
oil drum. We light several matches and toss
them inside. The paper catches fire and soon
flames are crackling and our shadows
begin to loom and waver against the trees
and the river. We pass around stolen cans
of beer and pop the tabs and laugh as foam
spills over our hands and onto our sneakers.
My brother Chris asks if I like the taste of beer.
'Fuckin' right I do!" but the truth is I hate it.
Doesn't matter though because I've already
begun at thirteen to need it. We talk about
girls and lie about the things we've done
with them. I count each can and wonder
how many more I'll need for later that night
when we go to the Ches-A-Rena to roller
skate and watch the girls we've been lying
about. We talk about our friend Denny
sent away to Shuman Centre for burning
down the building where he lived
with his mother and sister who drink
more than most men and fight almost as hard.
Once they attacked two girls twirling batons
in the middle of the July 4th parade because
the sister said they'd called her a whore
at school. Jeff jokes and says some big
mutant's probably nailing Denny's ass
as we speak, but it's not funny because
Lester's going to youth court next week
for stealing a handgun. He might be
sent away just like any one of us could
be the way things happen so fast. We're
all quiet as we stare down into the oil
drum at the flames that leap into the air
as if trying to fly back to the stars above us.
I look at the bowed heads of my friends. It's as
if we're praying or giving a moment's silence
for someone or something we've lost,
which is exactly what we're doing.
- Track Name: The Lightning Catcher
The Lightning Catcher
On a Friday evening in deep summer
my father has come home from the tavern,
and sits in the kitchen in his work clothes.
Cigarette burning in one dirt hardened hand,
with the other he grabs me by the arm,
laughs as the coal dust makes me sneeze,
says, "You can catch lightning in your
hands if you're quick enough," pushes
me away and reaches back for his beer.
The flicker of fireflies in the air dims
and the alley is dark except for the weak
street-lamp light outside Cooper's Tire Garage.
I let a mayonnaise jar drop from my hand,
it shatters against concrete, my captive
dying fireflies crawl out over the glass.
I hear beginnings of thunder and climb
the fire escape that hangs down from the side
of our apartment building, go to the tar roof.
The Allegheny River curves dark green
below me, car headlights move along
Pittsburgh Street, beneath rail-yard lights
the train tracks run black through the glare
of white gravel, and the steel bridges
more numerous than I had ever imagined
connect up darkness with darkness
as I stand on that roof scabby-kneed
surveying what is suddenly my kingdom.
Beyond the hills across the river,
jungles explode with trip lines, fighter
jets roar and tear apart the sky
and earth until it is all a tunnel
in which napalm glows out of sightless eyes
surrounded by black clouds and smoke
that slide behind my father's words,
his silence and his eyes. My streets and car
headlights blur. They are my fireflies.
Thunder pounds like detonating shells,
stripping the air. When the lightning hits,
it blinds me. I could be crawling
over the tar, sharp rain falling
around me or standing in darkness
above the house, shaking. I feel someone
moving behind me. I know the smell
of tobacco, sweat, beer, and coal dust.
I'm quick enough to know it's my father.
- Track Name: A Boy's Prayer Of Stones
A Boy’s Prayer Of Stones
I try to remember the small boy I once was.
There’s evidence that he existed:
photographs, home movies, my mother’s
stories. But I can’t lay claim to even a single
authentic memory. So what does one do
at 3 a.m., full of self pity as the body
goes to shit, potbellied, root canal
toothache, sore foot, bad knee, bad back,
lonelier than hell, and worst of all,
unable to remember who I once was.
I can’t be that boy again. I imagine
he turns away from me as from a stranger,
the unknown adult as much a puzzle
to the boy as the boy is to the man,
and neither of us certain of anything.
But the boy is sunlight and water,
the darting tumble of a sparrow’s flight,
and moves through the day with a grace
courtesy of the garden though the man
has learned forbidden apples wait everywhere.
Sunlight is never more or less than sunlight,
wind never more or less than wind,
rain is rain, and the moon is always there.
Only a boy with his scraped knees
and dirty fingernails can know these things
and have a love for them as abiding
and constant as the stones he gathers
and places beneath his bed or on window sills,
small prayers he offers to the presence
that walks beside him wherever he goes
and is both the world that contains him
and he himself and all he encounters.
The years still distant when the stranger
he will become will struggle and fail
to know these things and to remember him.
- Track Name: Everywhere You Look
Everywhere You Look
You wake from a dream and stare
into the blackness of the room.
The window behind your head is open.
A breeze, soft as hair, comes in
through the curtains and touches
your chest. You remember her hair.
A single strand was like the touch
of fire against your skin. Is there a way
to talk about this without seeming
absurd? Her face in the dream is hard,
as if she is wearing a mask. As if
the years of your life have been
pressed into the image of the face
that stares at you from across a table.
It is mid-afternoon and the sunlight
over the tables and the traffic
and the white awning that reminds
you of a great, solitary wing anointed
with oil, is heavy with a silence you wish
to touch, but always refuses you.
She watches her finger drawing
an invisible sign on the table cloth.
Everywhere you look are signs you
cannot read. It has always been
this way, from the waiter who shifts
his eyes away from yours, to the filthy river
that sang to you more than any prayer
you were forced to utter to a god you hated,
to your mother's screams and your father's
drunkenness. She lifts her eyes across
your forty two years to meet your gaze.
She is the river, the snow fields, the neon
in the rain. She is everything that has been
taken from you and never returned. You lie
in a room that she has never left and never will.