The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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After first light my windows blur
with the crosshatch of an early snow.
The muffled beating of stiff laundry
drifts in from the line, a man
calling out in his sleep.
By now my mother would be up,
making coffee, sorting the wash.
In the stove, a fire just catching hold.
If she thinks of anything, it’s how
little it’s changed, her life
of rising early, alone, her work repeated
like the hundred sparrows
bickering above dead rye fields.
And she’d pull
the knit cap hard around my ears,
tell me if I loved her to go out
in the hard morning, do my part.
I was the man of the house.
But in my strangeness I grew
away, living in the pasture
where I’d feed the dray horse,
its large head floating
toward my hand inside clouds
of its own breath.
sparrows are hovering this morning
above the house. They veer in
from the east, familiar as old
worries. I feel the troubling emptiness
of this house and remember
that my mother never spoke
to me of her loneliness.
She would stand in a tile of light
next to window, saying
nothing as I went out
fat with coats to gather the hard
frozen clothes, missing my father,
his shadow taken by the sparrows,
and I’d bury my face deep
in the shirts’ whiskered frost.
Without fanfare, it showed up
when neither of us was looking.
My grandfather, shoes off, coughed up
his day, cigarette smoke braiding
above our silence. He’d fish
with his glance for my presence
on the steps, and we’d make
dusk authentic: just us,
a skein of shadows, and the yawns
of moving rockers. When the cool
began its forgiveness in the boxwoods
I’d feel the dark lift
from some piece of our history.
And in the haze stars would come out,
familiar bodies, knowledge seeming
so close, though we sat
far apart, sleepy, and hardly speaking.
Wake up cold.
Drape the tartan blanket around my shoulders
and watch the early sky
heal away the stars.
In the secondary growth
the leaves of young elms
have completely turned.
They blow in the wind
like a tree of yellow butterflies.
Winter always brings death.
If I went back now I’d find
the dry fields
plowed under, sown with rye and
oats, the shirts on the clothesline
stunned by cold.
My mother was small
and all her life she grew smaller.
Tonight I saw her in a dream,
a white body rising
from water like a surprised bird.
From her sickbed she heard
her own children singing . . .
and when she died
I was far from her, far from myself
wandering in a dream.
I drove my car down every street I knew,
the pale sky drilled with stars.
Around me cornstalks began to stir,
asking for elbow-room.
I thought of you dead, and for the first time
wondered how the soil would mix you.
Would your body be subject to light winds?
What I understood, also for the first time,
was that you were valid, a division
of long and slow passions, like mine.
In the corn, in the heat, I stood there
tinkering with the stubborn valves of grief.
We have the examples of saints
in matters concerning sacrifice.
But here in the dark
when I think of giving it up
for the night,
I look out instead
at the distant lightning
as it makes unbelievable leaps of faith.
I remember that history includes
everything we hate and covet,
all the objects we lost
scratched with signatures
and the code-names of ardor.
What I hear now
is a slow cracking,
not weather but
the end of an old bereavement.
These poems are from Hard Weather, a beautiful and haunting new book by Roger Sauls (The Bench Press, 1355 Raintree Drive, Columbia, SC 29210).