Cal Freeman ~ Poems


My old friends the Pembrokes
are mad because I called
their moth­er humane,
as opposed to kind in a poem
I didn’t remem­ber writing,
a poem I shouldn’t have
remem­bered to write.


I meet them for lunch to explain myself,
then we go back to their place to watch
a mam­mal with an ineluctable maw
get its wolf teeth filed down
(I should’ve just said “horse,”
but I fear I’m always writ­ing about horses.
I notice that my friend has had
“some work done,” as they say)
which is how a famil­iar name can seem in print—
gap­ing, putre­fied as one of Francis Bacon’s
paint­ings of the mouth’s meat,
the cankers and chan­cres and cysts
blown out with virid­i­an and scarlet.
It’s humane to file a horse’s teeth.


Such busi­ness is contingent
on being named and not named—
the keep­er of the flame, the rock,
the one with a Shetland pony
clipped to a hot-walk­er that June evening
four decades ago—
the frothed and steaming
coat begins to dry so the cantankerous
lit­tle ani­mal can be put away
with­out risk of colic.


Nobody is recognizable
to themselves—
we are throats and voices,
cloy­ing inte­ri­or monologues,
walk­ing polemics against the hob­by horses
of the ages, snaf­fles and curbs
that have been discarded
in favor of hackamores,
ques­tions of cru­el­ty and care.
In one case, the can­cer­ous palate
must be removed
in favor of pros­the­sis, but the young
man doesn’t quite die
(I’d rather say “case” than “friend’s son”).
What are they?
The hob­by hors­es of the ages?
I ask myself as the animal
rears up and throws its slen­der head.


The young man doesn’t quite die.
The selenography
of a sur­gi­cal­ly-altered face pulls
at the mem­o­ry like a tide.


For Sarah on Her 40th Birthday

In ret­ro­grade or parallax
what wish­es are undone
there are wist­ful valedictions
and mourn­ful ones
those songs that descend
the heav­ens melodically
in plain­tive minor keys
is it vale­dic­tion or maundering
when I say I loved you
as one I loved before
we met ghost­ing each other
in places along Warren Avenue
we both knew as children
Golden Boy Donuts
the lit­tle alle­go­ry of its name
Ford-Wyoming Drive-In
its giant screens lit up
against the night
there’s a rau­cous celebration
of star­lings on the lawn today
in the almond blossoms
scat­tered by the rain


Even on Days It Doesn’t Snow

It comes in off the lake, lake   effect, dust that falls for hours,

iso­lat­ing us in the clam­or of our thoughts.     For the bluffs of these par­a­bol­ic dunes

are cold­er than the sur­face of the water,       and the snow is qui­eter than any­thing I think,

its sheer ascent in con­vec­tion.            I’m not neuras­thenic about snow.

What did we do that after­noon? I remem­ber. We stood astride skis in a jack pine forest.

We fell down. We lever­aged    our poles to right our selves.

We gazed into a mess of boles putre­fy­ing     in a muskeg and won­dered if we could know

the lake from its weath­er, its weath­er from    the rimed ripar­i­an. We returned to the house

and cried over my father. Grief ris­es up out of nowhere        like one more squall in an

inter­minable series of squalls, you said.         It’s what the win­ter tries to be

when it thinks no one is look­ing.       We sat near the fire and listened

to “A Case of You,” drank three bot­tles        of wine, but the ques­tion remained

whether the dead can know us more com­plete­ly     than they did when they were here

or if they even know what they once knew at all.     Who can tell the wind

it makes sham­bol­ic art?        Whoever soughs the nee­dles to a whisper.

The black car in the dri­ve­way capped in white.



There is a god I know
whose riv­er is nothing
big­ger than the mind
whose shoals I can­not chart
whose inlets roil behind
phrag­mites walls whose small
islands lie uncontested
and unowned whose ponds
are waxy cochlea
lis­ten­ing to wishes
as pure as loosestrife’s
name whose streams
are brief waystations
for the heron turtles’
sham­bol­ic lairs whose
thoughts are frogbit
duck­bit scum swamprose
whose voice is a low bull frog
groan whose skull
is feed­ing tubers in the
marsh whose swan swims
the back dune swale and
hiss­es who doesn’t want
to own the rain who still fishes
for the moon in water
baf­fled by the syntax
of our prayers


The Days Pass By in Stengelese and Birdsong

We’ve been here all spring, watch­ing the grass grow
and lis­ten­ing to the blue jays peck
at the cable wires with a sound
like combers clop­ping the gun­wales of pontoons.
We rise from our chairs occasionally
to shoo them off with an old kitchen broom.
We’ve tak­en to quot­ing ourselves.
Last week you said,
It’s the off­sea­son of what nev­er happened,
it’s the late off­sea­son of what will nev­er be.
We’ve lived through tens of days
whose parts we impro­vised in our forgetting,
whose names we have forgotten—
days of the tren­chant bird,
after­noons of chain link and white moths,
dusks of the box­wood privet—
then rinsed to the tune of “Happy Birthday”
and repeat­ed, real­iz­ing that only our habits
have ever been sequential,
though we no longer count our drinks.
I lift anoth­er broom to anoth­er blue jay,
or the same broom to the same incor­ri­gi­ble bird
that the bird brain won’t remember.
It’s not the dark night of the soul that arrived
so many nights ago in March,
or per­haps some night last April.
These days I know about more birthdays
of peo­ple I don’t know about than what I don’t know,
Casey Stengel or Yogi Berra might’ve said
walk­ing down our street and observing
the sig­nage on the Japanese-cherry-blossom-cluttered
April lawns. Who looks out the back window
of the bank-owned bun­ga­low behind us
now that the old man’s gone? We have time
to ask our­selves. The win­dow is yel­low and opaque
with the kind of light nobody uses anymore,
that bare-bulb-in-an-inter­ro­ga­tion-room hue.
I’m giv­ing up hyphen­at­ing what it takes
to mod­i­fy the objects of this world, I tell you.
If only Actaeon had dogs that real­ly knew him, you say.
If only the peren­ni­als had minds to turn.


Cal Freeman is the author of the book Fight Songs, and his writ­ing has appeared in many jour­nals includ­ing Southword, The Moth, Passages North, Hippocampus, Southwest Review, and The Poetry Review. He cur­rent­ly serves as Writer-In-Residence with Inside Out Literary Arts Detroit and teach­es at Oakland University.