Authors: Michael Collier
too quick to see, disappears, though
because I've been there beside him
I know he's on all fours crawling
to the tailgate where he swings
over the edge and continues
in the dirt of the drive. Sometimes
when I'm weeding the garden
or admiring sunlight through leaves
the electric whir of the lift, followed
by its silence, breaks through and then
the hoof-slap of palms on the ground,
the scrape of shoes pulled along
by his strength, and I see him
as I did the first time, hoisting
a chainsaw, by block and tackle,
and then himself, into the blighted tree
TO A CHAMELEON
towering between our yards
and which, limb by limb,
branch and trunk,
he cut down and stacked.
After moving the clothes dryer to unclog the vent
I find your bracelet length of bone,
curve of vertebrae, spine
that is also tail, saurian claws
like clasps unclasped, and your skull
fallen away from its sharp neck.
It's harder now for you to understand,
harder for you to listen.
I once tried calling you back
with a pill cap of water, dead flies,
and something more absurd, a reptilian
whisperâall for my son's benefit,
who stood as still as you had stood,
leashed to his shoulder. And then
when unleashed you disappeared,
but left behind a writhing tail.
You were a lesson, at first, of love
that never repays itself and then
of absence and grief's forgetting,
but now what benefit is there
having found you, a fossil
unencumbered except by memory
and the sound of my son's breathing
and the chain and collar that still hangs
from your patient skeletonâthe coppery
blue links and rusted white ash.
There was an understanding of how the pages
of the book unfolded, like owl wings,
when my mother read to us, and how the words
of the familiar story, laid out in furrows,
skirted the farmyardâchickens, pigs, a tethered goatâ
and lay like clouds over a billowing land,
or shadowed the white house with black lightning rods
while parked near the shed stood a truck as old as a grandfather.
Night, dark earth, brought darker clouds.
Lightning flashed. A red tractor, all but its nose
in the barn. Calm and clear and plain,
my mother urged the boy out into the thunder
and rain to drive the animals back to their coops
and stalls. Hair stood on end. My sister squirmed.
The great chestnut tree split, caught fire. Half
fell in the pond where the flames soon died
and half fell on the barn. All of this so long ago
a boy could reach the blackened tractor
without anyone saying,"It's only a story,
life doesn't happen this way."
But how else did hair rise on my arms the first
and last time the story was read? And what woke
my sister from her dream where she stood
in a forest, burning, among an alphabet of flames?
The red drill of their faces, pink-tipped,
grubbed in gore, cyclopean in their hunger
for the dead but not the dying, lugubrious
on their perches from towers, in trees, where they
convene like ushers on church steps.
Heads sculpted to fit cane handles, claws
to dibble seed, to sort out the warp of the snow
from the woof, unwind the gray bobbins of brain.
assiduous as cats as they clean, wing scouring
wing, until the head polished like a gem
gleams, and the ears no more than lacy holes
are sieves for passing air or molecules of gas.
These birds, who wear the face of what will last,
congregating but not crowding, incurious
and almost patient with their dead.
In May the paths into the dunes
are roped off from foot traffic
because the birds amass to breed.
You can watch them through binoculars
from the edge of a parking lot,
white invisible deltas that drop
and glint, cataractous floaters
against the sun, rising from the sea
or fluttering midday from nests
spiked inside the broken clumps
of compass grass. Or on a plaque
read about a lighthouse stretched
beneath the waves.
When Heraclitus observed,
"You can't step into the same river twice,"
did he mean you couldn't trust
experience or thought to illustrate
how "nature loves to hide" beneath
its own swift surface? Did he mean
there's pleasure in deception,
not despair, delight when we recognize
a tern's or plover's flash and glitter,
silhouettes that navigate thermal rivers,
declare themselves like scraps of paper,
How much more beautiful it is
because it's Shelley's guitarâ
a coffin of trapped song
in a body like a grave.
Because it's Shelley's guitar
it's been put on display,
a case within a case,
a wooden hand inside a velvet glove,
and nearby, the torn copy of
that held his heart for thirty years.
Next to it, other incomparable relics:
his baby rattle, a watch, the plate
off which he ate the beautiful
raisins of his diet. Everything
encased, preserved, though
the heart now is only a stain, a watermark
on pages his widow used to save it.
Never mind the guitar was given to his friend
Jane, as if it were the heart
unauctioned, a neck
with tuning pegs, gut strings, arabesque
filigree. And never mind the guitar
was meant to be a pedal harp
he couldn't afford. "Take this slave
of music," the poem says,"for the sake
of him who is the slave of thee."
Whose heart is it but Shelley's?
Whose grave, whose book, whose glove and raisins?
All those things that have been given
either by "action or by suffering,"
left behind, collected, to prove
the dead have substance.
Dangerously frail is what his hand was like
when he showed up at our house,
three or four days after his death,
and stood at the foot of our bed.
Though we had expected him to appear
in some form, it was odd, the clarity
and precise decrepitude of his condition,
and how his hand, frail as it was,
lifted me from behind my head, up from the pillow,
so that no longer could I claim it was a dream,
nor deny that what your father wanted,
even with you sleeping next to me,
was to kiss me on the lips.
There was no refusing his anointing me
with what I was meant to bear of him
from where he was, present in the world,
THE NEXT NIGHT
a document loose from the archives
of formânot spectral, not corporealâ
in transit, though not between lives or bodies:
those lips on mine, then mine on yours.
I found my way back
by grief scent and smoke
to the daughter's voice
from the father's mouth.
This time you asked
that I step outside my body,
though not far enough to fall
into the abyss of night
or near the flames
that ringed the bed.
I couldn't say "Go away,"
because the dead can hear,
and they, as you remind, float
above us, not everywhere,
but here and there, following
their own preoccupations.
Besides, I loved your skirt
of burning tongues,
the sleeveless blouse that fit you
as it fit the armless mannequins.
I loved all the shibboleths
for torture, all the archaic
pleading that made you
smother what I tried to say
by saying,"Come with me,
inhabit the inch of air
between our forms and their
But no one talks like that,
not even the dead when they speak
through you, though
it's what I heard floating in the spaces.
It's what fed the flames
of your command
that all of me resisted
even as I followed.
"The Watch." Dedicated to the memory of Dennis Casey.
"Bird Crashing into Window." A phrase from line 123 of
is incorporated into line 18. Dedicated to the memory ofAgha Shahid Ali.
"The Messenger." Lines 1136â1230 of Euripides'
"A Line from Robert Desnos Used to Commemorate George 'Sonny' Took-the-Shield, Fort Belknap, Montana." George Took-the-Shield was fifty-three when he died of cancer. He was an Assiniboin who was instrumental in repatriating his ancestors' remains held by the Smithsonian Institution. He was an artist, writer, and poet.
"Biggar, Scotland, September 1976." Hugh MacDiarmid (1892â1978) was the pen name of Christopher Murray Grieve, Scotland's greatest poet of the twentieth century. His masterpiece is the 2,685-line
A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle
"Invocation to the Heart." Pig ventricular valves and nylon are materials used to repair the human heart.
Shelley's Guitar: A Bicentenary Exhibition of Manuscripts, First Editions and Relics of Percy Bysshe Shelley
was sponsored by the Bodleian Library, 1992. The lines quoted in the poem are from "With a guitar. To Jane," which Shelley wrote for Jane Williams.
"Bardo." Dedicated to the memory of Ben Branch.
to the editors of the publications where the following poems first appeared:
"Spelunker,""Invocation to the Heart."
Alaska Quarterly Review,
"How Snow Arrives."
Blue Mesa Review,
"A Night at the Window."
"To a Chameleon," "Summer Anniversary," "Twenty-first Century."
"Aubade," "How Did I Get Inside?," "Medea's Oldest Son," "Night Story," "The Watch."
"Elegy for a Long-Dead Friend."
"Snow Day," "The Missing Mountain," "Confessional," "Bird Crashing into Window," "
Lost Horizon." The Nation,
"The Next Night," "Their Weight," "Mine Own John Clare," "Birds Appearing in a Dream," "A Line from Robert Desnos Used to Commemorate George 'Sonny' Took-the-Shield, Fort Belknap, Montana."
"A Winter Feeding."
"Shelley's Guitar," "The Lift."
"Bougainvillea," "Out of Whole Cloth Made."
"Common Flicker," "Turkey Vultures."
I wish to thank the University of Maryland for a creative and performing
arts summer grant, which contributed to the completion of this book,
and Middlebury College for its ongoing support.
My gratitude, thanks, and affection go to Liz Arnold, Daniel Hall, Edward Hirsch, Jim Longenbach, Tom Mallon, John Murphy, Howard Norman, Steve Orlen, Stanley Plumly, Buzz Poverman, Michael Ryan, Alan Shapiro, Tom Sleigh, Elizabeth Spires, Ellen Bryant Voigt, Josh Weiner, and Dean Young.
In memory: Agha Shahid Ali, Ben Branch, Dennis Casey, Amanda Davis, Roland Flint,William and Emily Maxwell, and George Took-the-Shield.
And with love to David and Robert.
is the director of the Bread Loaf
Writers' Conference and teaches English at the
University of Maryland, College Park. He has published
four previous collections of poetry, most recently
a finalist for both the Los Angeles Times
Book Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Collier is the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship,
NEA fellowships, and the Discovery/The Nation Award,
among other honors, and is a former poet laureate
of Maryland. He lives in Maryland.