Peter Shippy

Five Poems

Frequently asked

Why does the moon fol­low me as I dri­ve
the old coast road, Rockport to Rockport, Mass

to Maine, how many moons has Jupiter, why
do fathers eat their chil­dren, what hap­pens to us

as you sleep, why do some peo­ple have sweet voic­es,
sprigs of lilac, what is a stormy petrel,

what is pitch, what do clams eat, what would hap­pen
if there was no dust, why does every­one fall,

what was the name of that din­er where we ate
steam­ers and onion rings, brains and halos,

where is mem­o­ry, how does paint dry, are my teeth
the same as the teeth of cows, why do I think

in cir­cles when I’m lost, hail­stones, could there be
a col­li­sion of plan­ets, of stars, do sea stars

have eyes in each of their rays, can­tilever,
the hunter, his dog, the bull, Castor, the oth­er, why,

why does the moon fol­low me as I dri­ve
as you sleep, why do some peo­ple have sweet voic­es,

a nightin­gale sang on her lips in the cra­dle,
how were tun­nels built, how were pins first made,

stick a nee­dle in your eye and hope to cry, where
was that where we took the fer­ry to the island

where we played cryp­tog­ra­phy, how did my father
work his slide rule, can an echo trav­el through

a col­li­sion of plan­ets, of stars, do sea stars
have a call of their own, who was it who sailed

a gold­en cup from Greece to the edge of the world
to kill a winged mon­ster, a fugue state, Bach,

how does blood know when to migrate, who first
went to seed, read a pulse, what caus­es the pea­cock

to raise his feath­ers and faint, why do we blink,
how were eels laid across the Atlantic, why,

why are satel­lites named after women, who first,
how can a sun dial tell us when we up and die.

 

According to the doctrine of signatures

At dusk when peo­ple are shift­ing spaces
from pub­lic to pri­vate, I replace the license plates

on their cars with light­ning whelks or cher­ry blos­soms
arranged into hills, water­falls, and deserts,

then I flip the kadi­gan on my spe­cial box
to make the traf­fic lights stay red, per­ma­nent

patience, you see, my father was a pipe read­er
and eaves­drop­ping on his ses­sions, as a kid,

was the inspi­ra­tion for my work, his clin­ic
was on the first floor of our house in Syracuse,

a few blocks from the Temple of Apollo,
I’d sneak into the laun­dry room just above

his office and press my ear to the rheumy floor
to hear his clients describe their plumb­ing ills,

rusty water, rat­tling faucets, the scent
of flow­er­ing beanstalks chok­ing lead elbows,

then my father would fore­cast their future
romances, trea­sures, tragedies, and chil­dren

arranged into hills, water­falls and deserts,
from pub­lic to pri­vate, I replace the license plates

at dusk when peo­ple are shift­ing spaces,
to help them cap­ture their fugi­tive encoun­ters

with the numi­nous I attach rosaries of bone
and seed to their aeri­als, lotus and tar­sus,

so they can hear the north­ern mock­ing­bird
a few blocks from the Temple of Apollo

assum­ing the man­tic song of the police siren,
I bend a Dreamsicle stick into a wood­en crow

to jim­my your car door and leave a water globe
con­tain­ing an octo­pus hatch­ling on your dash,

take it home, place it in your sanc­to­ri­um
among the gew­gaws and gim­cracks, hang your fetish

around its dome and con­fess your whet­ted secrets
to the oth­er side, bring the angel to the shore

at dawn when peo­ple are shift­ing spaces,
rusty water, rat­tling faucets, the scent

of lupines bark­ing at the edge of the sea
formed when a giant slipped and fell from heav­en.

 

Wine, honey, flowers, night, etc.     

Shunned sleep, all night, lis­tened to the tran­sis­tor
under my pil­low, pars­ing “Telstar,” try­ing to hear

their voic­es below the tele­cast­er, the moon scrib­bled
my face with sil­ver and kohl, near dawn I fell

from bed and scratched my bean against the floor
to light my aura, made my bare feet squeal peel­ing

over the icy floor­boards through my emp­ty shot­gun
into the kitch­enette to microwave day old cof­fee,

I opened the win­dow and peed on the dan­de­lions,
the pigsweed, the this­tle, the creep­ing Charlie

and I saw the pale horse, or was it a mule, eat­ing apples
from a col­laps­ing tree, once upon

when I had a fam­i­ly we’d ride the train
to the coun­try and stare at cows, sheep and grids

of gold­en wheat, once we paid a farmer to let us
pick his pears, was it even legal to ride a horse

in the city, or was it a mule, a white don­key,
when the ani­mal turned to drink skunk water

from the deflat­ed kid­die pool I saw ten
red dig­its paint­ed on her side, I gave my neigh­bor

the fin­ger, zip­pered-up, and found my cell
and start­ed dial­ing, her long mane was braid­ed

with gold, vel­vet rib­bons that flick­ered under
branch­es of maple, red and sug­ar, a soft breeze

pushed the chains on my porch that once sup­port­ed
an oak glid­er, it took me a while to real­ize

that the bark­ing I heard was com­ing from my phone,
my boy’s toy, the hin­nie, or was it a pony, leaped

my hedges and can­tered down the side­walk, I chant­ed
and sang and beat my palms against the dry­wall

the pigsweed, the this­tle, the creep­ing Charlie,
their voic­es below the tele­cast­er, the moon scrib­bled

rooms as I tried to recall that phone num­ber,
if that’s what it was and if that’s what it was

I knew I need­ed to call upon that tremo­lo,
I ran out and grabbed his camo 3-speed, Stingray

from under the porch and peeled out to chase
apples from a col­laps­ing tree, once upon.

 
 

Untenanted

A mel­on was peeled to reveal pink flesh, past
its best, still, it was not unusu­al to see

patients in straight jack­ets play­ing lawn ten­nis,
late sun on the cut­ting board, a carv­ing knife

exposed a flash of Cyrillic on a cucum­ber,
still, a woman with silk fans sewn to her hands

ran across the old polo field and sig­naled
to a crop duster: Alfa: Echo: India:

and down came a head of cab­bage and an apple
sus­pend­ed on satin para­chute threads, still

a guest wrapped an ear of corn in bunting,
like a baby, and sang it to sleep, minced basil

almost in reach, Schumann, for­eign lands and peo­ple
ran across the old polo field and sig­naled

late sun on the cut­ting board, a carv­ing knife
dreamed of sink­ing into a geek’s gul­let, lilacs

in a vase, cut glass, the cro­quet cham­pi­on
chased a col­league with a mal­let, bird’s eye shaft,

ivory head, wal­nut shells, peach pits, a bunch
of white grapes, two plas­tic mugs, still, once a month

the habitués were allowed to vis­it
the formalde­hyde library and check-out jars

of pig-boys, grave wax gals, and kinder-mer,
a book of waltzes, a draw­ing of a shell and a straw

for blow­ing talk bub­bles, a half-peeled lemon,
the wood­wright used hick­o­ry for the amputees’

peglegs because it had a jive to sup­port
a strut lack­ing, shave and bend the limbs while green,

mor­tise and ten­don, tongue and groove, dove­tails
in a vase, cut glass, the cro­quet cham­pi­on

sus­pend­ed on satin para­chute threads, still
on Sundays the dwellers threw pea beans, tubers,

wild car­rots and slim jims into a tub,
slumguil­lion stew, still, a fel­low threw stones

at the fence, smil­ing at each spit of volt­age
like a child wear­ing his father’s eye­glass­es,

flow­er­ing quince and peach­es were com­ple­ment­ed
by the sug­ges­tive gourds, danc­ing in the cor­ner.

 

The crocodilist

I was going to raise a daugh­terand believed
a croc­o­dile would be a swell ani­mal

for a pet, but in the end, no, I nev­er could
raise a daugh­ter, some­thing in the air, some­thing

in the water, still, I had a hatch­ling snooz­ing
in a coral room filled with men­ac­ing sets

of onsies, booties, rat­tles, and rub­ber dum­mies,
I named my dar­ling General Ulysses Lee,

an old fam­i­ly name, one has to com­mit to a name
the way one com­mits to hair-dos or asy­lums,

I was a hel­li­cul­tur­al­ist, a snail­er
run­ning half-a-mil­lion shells on a half-acre

ranchette near the bor­der, I gath­ered their slime
from Scotch pines and one black maple, a back num­ber,

to sell by the thim­ble­ful to Shanghai for love
sup­ple­ments and to Paris for per­fumes,

the most cor­rupt roots har­bored the sweet­est urges,
each night Genny soaked in the tub she took heed

to leave warm water and suds for her sis­ter,
the fra­grance, the rose haint, the girl with­out

a breath to call her own, rid­ing out the dol­drums,
some­thing in the air, some­thing in the water, still

Gennie grew, thank god, into a love­ly petu­lance,
and on Tuesdays we prac­ticed dri­ving by dri­ving

our Citroen to the Hospital Niagara
to deliv­er a bas­ket of green apple snails

to the children’s ward, she tucked her great tail
beneath her legs and fid­dled with the radio

as she drove, look­ing for Chopin, it’s his 200th
she said, am I the only one who cares, I whis­tled

a noc­turne until she cov­ered her ears and smiled,
the fra­grance, the rose haint, the girl with­out

a noc­turne until she cov­ered her ears and smiled,
the morn­ing sun soaked the drea­ry clouds and lit

Genny’s retain­er, nim­bus, her skin strug­gled
to find sym­pa­thy against the Naugahyde seats

and the cush­ion, made from heavy, yel­low beads so
san­dal­wood prayers mas­saged her armor scales,

the hos­pi­tal had been a haute mall, Bavarian
lime­stone, brushed tita­ni­um, and hand-blown glass,

a secu­ri­ty guard tipped his cap as we passed
main gate, blue hyacinth lined the dri­ve­way,

ton­sured bar­ber­ry bush­es purred like sun-rust­ed cats,
a wreck of marooned gooneys starched a pear tree

while finch­es stuffed the larch­es with libret­ti
that had blown from the music room’s open win­dow

which we closed when we set-up our music stands
and the stage from a paper doll the­ater,

we placed two gift­ed Sinistrals on the prosce­ni­um
as I intro­duced our pro­gram to a room

of onsies, booties, rat­tles, rub­ber dum­mies,
and sev­en or eight chil­dren, in wood­en wheel­chairs

with their atten­dants, Genny and I used wands
(mouse whiskers stiff­ened in var­nish made

from Scotch pines and one black maple, a back num­ber)
to influ­ence the mag­net­ic cur­rents that flowed

between the snail’s anten­nae to pro­duce music,
Bach’s Cello Suite No. 1, in G Major,

some­thing in the air, some­thing in the water, still
the most cor­rupt roots har­bored the sweet­est urges,

after the show we taught the chil­dren how to play
and left them with snails, wands, and aero bars,

after, we sat on a pud­ding­stone wall across
the road from main gate, fac­ing a laven­der mead­ow,

blue crows beaked the earth for giz­zard stones,
I watched a biplane, was it leav­ing mes­sages

or bug juice, Gennie cov­ered her tail with flow­ers
to pro­tect her skin from the sun, did you know,

I said, that before the busi­ness with the snails
we were laven­der farm­ers, real­ly, I said, under

her gig­gling, we grew it, dried it, and ground it
into paint, Jackson Pollock trav­eled all the way

from Long Island to secure a sachet of our col­or
for his mas­ter­piece, Lavender Mist, but after   

the decline of abstract expres­sion­ism
we switched to slow art, gas­tropods, crocs, and love,

she opened our lunch pail, piz­za heroes, gin­ger ale,
and two pink vit­a­mins shaped like dinosaurs,

san­dal­wood prayers mas­saged her armor scales,
I was going to raise a daugh­ter and believed.

~

Peter Shippy’s fourth book, A Spell of Songs (Saturnalia), will be pub­lished in fall 2013. His work appeared/appears in the 2012 and 2013 edi­tions of The Best American Poetry.