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Two Poems

Civilizational Inheritance1

Near the end of March I borrowed an axe

and went down to the woods by the pond

on whose shore was an old shack, or the shell

of one, practically ancient, and began to cut

down some arrowy white pines,

still young, for timber. I meant to build

myself a shelter inside the one already there.

It was a bloated thing, the existing shack,

gaudy even, its proportions useless

except as a kind of blighted canopy.

My shed would be small, large enough

only to fold myself awkwardly into and attend

to the weather of my moods, to say again

the things I should not have stopped saying

to myself, to remember the life there is no reason

I do not live. But it’s hard to begin without

borrowing. The wood is rotten with echoes.
My Brother

When my older brother
returned from the war
he said “I guess the dead
branches gather first.”

We were on our farm
(used to be a farm, anyway)
and I thought if by “gather”
we can mean blot out some useless field.

The land was our inheritance,
or it was going to be, and
we had to make it useful,
yielding, or else sell it on.

It was only a row of poplar
bent over a drainage lake
and a defunct field at the edge
of a housing development.

My brother loved to run his mouth,
and in multiple languages,
but he liked most a variety of spiritual
math I felt added up to nothing.

He said it was obvious
why the world refused me money,
why I was living at home, single still.
I said, “You’re projecting.”

He’d been the new duke
of Saddam’s 17th palace.
He knew poppy in sunlight,
sorghum, almond, a dye method

from an eastern province.
He watered the ravaged garden.
Once a local boy shouted, between
dialects, “My father’s house

is not a bankrupt house,”
and whatever that meant
my brother knew it was true,
that everything was full already,

that the gaps were only the imagination’s
failed work. Even so, the dead branches
and irregular clusters of lupine
at the edge of the development

were a marginal asset, and my brother’s
dumbass wisdom was wasted on it.
I took pride in the fact I could manage
a social dinner, or look normal in the face.

I still saw myself as a project then,
like property to be improved,
invested in, return an upward trajectory
of self-love and remuneration.

My brother said it was a “sand game,”
and to drink what cup I’m given.
He said he knew I was nothing much.
He loved that about me.

All along he kept on speaking.
In the office park he spoke of the land.
To the loan officer, of the land.
At the temp agency, the land.

I saw him as a crazed prophet
any decent community might banish
to the long quiet of the desert,
to the stillness of an abandoned place.

But he wasn’t banished, only
paroled, variably employed.
His big plans were just sand
and talk. Eventually

he downshifted into silence—
What stories that motherfucker told with it:
How the spirit breaks
into the world of forms

so as to know itself.
How some intelligence
had chosen this trash-
dome of glare for its work.

He returns every fall,
in need of an audience,
but says nothing.
We walk together in the streets.

Sometimes he sticks a switch
upright in a muddy lawn
or places one stone on another
in exhibition of everything he knows.

I have no brother.
I have no use for one.


1.  Some lines in “Civilizational Inheritance” repurpose and rework sentences from Thoreau’s journals and Stanley Cavell’s The Senses of Walden.