Thinking Outside the Box

Three months of no rain and then an eighth of an inch in three months. Grass gone.  The trees the color of grocery bags. Weeks of triple digit temperatures. No snakes, turtles, frogs. Fewer and fewer birds. Where to go as the planet burns up?

Hudson Bay?  Hmmmm.  Yeah, we could live in Churchill and sell Polar Bear memorabilia.  As the polar bear population crashes people will probably buy even more furry figurines carved out of the last washed-up whale bone.  Two endangered species for the price of one. Could be lucrative. And after the last wild polar bear is gone they will probably change the name from Churchill to Polar Bear…because we all love polar bears.

For Robin Albee


Break a Leg

. . . because I sometimes feel it may not continue to exist much longer. . .

                                                                                –Thomas Merton


He isn’t certain whether cosines

And square roots are needed,

As he sums the cost of an arm and a leg.

Any way he manipulates the figures

With a bit of Dr. Frankenstein,

But the calculator won’t perform

the grisly calculations.

New batteries don’t perk it up.


He goes digging in a closet, pushing aside shoes

that haven’t lodged a foot or complaint

in years. The dust monumental

and guarded by cherubs. The towering

cobwebs the clothes of ghosts.

He finds the box where his army rests,

assembled in his tricycle years.

When he was twelve he resigned

his command of forces who were always on the attack

to become a pacifist. Little rubber figures,

the color of pond scum, forever in the position

of throwing a grenade that surely has exploded

by now, lying prone and aiming, their rifles

surely out of ammunition, crouched and running

and if not blown to smithereens by a firecracker,

then surely severe back pains ensued.

Sure enough at the bottom of this boxed army,

rolling aimlessly around orphaned arms, legs,

hands, and even a couple of heads, the loss making

no difference to the aim and bayonet thrust

of their statuesque devotion.


He arranges the maimed soldiers on his desk,

a line that suggests a horizontal axis, a calculable

destination, the simple cost of an arm and leg,

but not for the headless as most of his neighbors

these days head for the November election.


The cost is too much, it frightens him.

At one moment, he’s standing on a sidewalk

In front of a theater, 1957, the movie marquee

reads Bridge Over the River Kwai,

starring Alec Guinness and William Holden.

Half-century later, he remembers the tune

the starved British POW’s whistled

as they marched off to complete the bridge,

then destroy the bridge, Shakespearean style,

by an escaped prisoner who has returned

and is killed along with the Japanese commandant,

the British officer in charge, and two other commandoes,

not to forget the train filled with Japanese

dignitaries plunging into the gorge.


And there he is, leg missing from the hip down,

and no warning, as if he were one of Remarque’s

German soldiers, who looks over the parapet

of a trench at Verdun, and falls back headless,

or is standing guard and for the briefest moment

Is balanced on one leg before being spun around,

neon blood fanning out in a circle around him.

He’s devastated, about to cry, chokes back the sobs

in case John Wayne still has manhood cornered,

but he’s only recalling his mother’s father,

a WWI vet struggling across the muddy farm yard,

his one leg submerged to the ankle as he angrily

wrestled with crutches planted deep in the chicken-shit

muck, or maybe it’s his father’s father,

A sailor who survived a mustard-gas attack,

The details never clear, but it was a later heart attack

shoveling coal for the railroad.


He thinks it’s all an arm and a leg,

and it doesn’t matter, we will get there,

one way or another, whole or in pieces.


WWI Parking Lot


Some adolescent thrill that bleeds history:

Cat-sized rats feasting on an endless supply

Of bodies, the lethal mouth of trench mud,

Swallowing all that is offered and not,

Snipers and savage shelling, years of fearful prayers,

the madness so common it is sanity,

mustard gas another story. . .


I turn the volume down, shut off the engine,

open the door.  Beyond the car bumper

over the curb, a thin strip of grass

bordered by ragged juniper shrubs planted

along the base of a windowless corrugated

two story metal wall. The wind shoves clouds

over the roof gutter.  Sky trumpets blue for

The next charge of spring. Two out-of-place geese

followed by three gold-burnished goslings

waddle the parking lot’s edge.  A family

headed for the main entrance, as if this

were daily routine, their webbed feet

amid low-cut heels and polished oxfords.

I can’t recall any pond or lake close by.

One of the adults pauses and waits

for a baby distracted eating grass.


Something inside me collapses,

I enter the building with a withering

exhaustion, a resignation,

the worry that after work I will find

casualties beside the main road,

and that I didn’t care enough,

history not blinking an eye.



List Beyond the Stars

Haven’t seen a snake in months.

No scream necessary unless

the thought itself

slithers across your forehead

flicking its forked tongue.

No wet rip of flesh stretched

across asphalt as the car tires

zip past. Just the hum of tread

measuring empty miles.


It’s the same with turtles.

Highways empty of turtle soup.

The crush of dry leaves clawing

a way over forest floor not there.

The oaks dropping leaves

three months early. So much filing to do

and the alphabet missing so many letters.

Not a blunt scaly leg to hire.

Heard only one whip-poor-will this year.

Dozens if not hundred of thousands gone.

To where? The night silence a roar.

When’s the last time a woodpecker

Tapped out its code?

I don’t know what will survive.

I try not to look too closely

anymore.  It’s already

possible to count solitary blades of grass.



Laundry Day

I wasn’t looking for gainful employment

But was told to find a clothesline.

Old friends stood around with walleyed stares.

Strangers overflowed with advice:

Under the sea by the pier

Where the fish hangout,

In the trees behind the house

Where the birds perch

With a clothespin stillness,

Never underground–

Too dirty and the rot fits all sizes,

But it’s where I found a telephone

Sleeping with ear plugs.

I answered but no help there.


I started searching along the street

Thinking someone might have handcuffed

a few vagrant bushes.

There were warning shouts

That I can’t go beyond the corner,

All the other streets aren’t mine.

So the clothes on my back are wet.

I slosh with each step.

I can’t tell the difference

Between the spin cycle and drowning,

They drip with the same indignation.


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