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
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.
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
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.