Spring 1990, Volume 7.1


Humanities Seminar

On Monday morning the scholars
gather in Winch (overstuffed chairs,
oversized circle) where the walnut paneling
grows old through no effort of its own,
the library tables stand reverently
aside, not inclined toward
speech. The professor draws out
the imponderable question (to which somewhere
there is a right answer).
The coffeepot perks on with the same
inflections, same modulations
as the disturbance of voices
which curves alternately around the room
(out on the pond, the harsh cries
of the wild ducks, squawking
impatience, pursue my attention).
Bodies transfer their parts
from one position to the next
making the slight, soft sound of leaves
rubbing their skins
(in the next building there are dancers,
their bodies moving to the outlines
of sound, their hands waving
circles, interpreting the day).
Pages in books turn, anxious
to start rumors, pencils mark on yellow
sheets, eyes flutter like the pages
in the books (the Irish Setter, stretched out
carelessly in the open doorway, rises,
circles, then drops heavily to the floor).
Outside the east window a young woman
carefully balances an aluminum stepladder
against the red bricks above
the long rows of square panes.
She climbs hesitantly, a hiker on the ledge
of a steep rock. Shears dangle
from her right hand. I watch
her feet test each rung, her legs
bronze as a statue, watch her knees
lean into the frame, trusting
the uprights. Sunlight catches
the corner of the windows, throws
long lines, perfectly spaced, across
the dark red floor. With small, quick strokes
she clips the green leaves
strand by strand (they drift in slow motion
toward the ground) and the trail
of foliage tangled with sunlight
is gone. On the west window,
the regular pulse of the sprinkler
vibrates a hundred times as the puzzzle
of power mowers, laughter
from the sidewalk, and barking
dogs solves itself.
The shapes in the room become
different: the window is cranked
shut, the door closed. Our eyes return
to the languid movements
of hands, sentences
dissolving in the air.

Blizzard: Western Kansas


The moon, like a snake, sheds its skin
in the night.
We wake early, ankle-deep in snow.
The storm continues. We begin
to sort the darkness from the light.
There will be no moon to wish upon tonight.
Above the sky is empty, air is thin.
Space sifts down on us below.
It spreads like ice
along our private roads. We spin
the threads of silence. Travelers trapped alone
in cheap motels along the interstate
stare out their windows, depressed
by absence, by fields grown
gray as winter sky. They contemplate.
The wind curls around the snow. Through vents and grates
a thousand crystals blow. Like the dust of bones
they seek sleep under windows, doors. Dressed
like Eskimos, we grab for shovels, evacuate
before the dark pours in like water over stones.
for Nancy Demuth
Pushing open the saloon-like doors,
we stroll in. The blast of heat from this basement
boiler room nearly fuses our bones.
We come this Sunday afternoon to the copy room
in the high school to duplicate poems,
secrets to deal out at 8:00 a.m. Monday.
The Savan 760 Copier hunkers
against the south wall, undisturbed
in its weekend repose. We startle it
from machine dreams, demanding
overtime service with no reward.
Deliberately it thwarts us.
ADD DISPERSANT glows eerily under the thin skin
of the control panel. It spits out reproductions
dim as old treasure maps. I discover
hidden a container of liquid.
We search for an incision, a door
to the brain. It hums on, satisfied
with its hand.
In luck, we lay down a full house.
We find the trap door, inject the fluid.
It gurgles, a gambler too full
of beer. Suddenly MISFEED blinks.
The machine chews the white sheets
like tobacco. It will devour
the whole field. Lucky again
we find another loose lid,
extract the half-digested poems.
We continue. The yellow eye bleeps by,
a luminescent line like western sunset.
We are mesmerized. Red button. Green button.
Red Button. Green button. Silent now,
boots rooted to the concrete floor,
we stare at the layering of pages,
the neat stacks, the impeccable precision
of gadget and gear. My overalls
are damp at the knees, my knees weak.
I see myself waist-deep in words,
iambs and dactyls to my armpits,
Nancy's curly head bobbing in quicksand
of sonnet and song.

Where Tornadoes Begin


The eyes of the widow are still blue.
She looks out through funnels,
the small blue circles peering through infinity.
She sees more than we do.
Her eyes do not move
as she recalls each year
weeding out the persistent dandelions,
tries to surface
through the floral scum
in the funeral parlor, swears
she will not take up bridge
or travel abroad.
The white dust of dandelions stirs
in the funnels, rises,
swims toward the light and heads out
for the open sky.


Her diary has been in the attic
for years, shuffled around during searches
involving old games, the baby bed, another sheet
of insulation. These items, familiar
as her own words, give comfort.
Inside the red morocco binding, she speaks
of Kansas sunsets, the lover whose name is suddenly
not mentioned one April 4 and never is again,
the visits to her mother, the novel she writes.
One spring, the words begin to stir like children
under bedsheets in the dark.
Already the hum of their voices can be heard downstairs.


She is going under for the third time
or perhaps it is the fourth.
No one is counting. Especially
not the woman. She has other things
on her mind. Her hands grab
pockets of air. Her mouth rises
to the surface.
She pulls in the air like a magnet,
goes under again.
There is no bottom for her feet
to touch, for her legs to push off from.
But she rises again, the air in her lungs
sucking her up, forcing
her mouth open.


A woman drives south down the interstate
to see her lover.
She suspects this is the last
time. She concentrates hard.
She turns all their names over
again and again
like unfamiliar rocks.
She procounces them sofly,
sifts the vowels from the consonants.
She says them this way:
Then this way:
The sounds tumble around
the car like marbles in a jar.
She rolls down the window.
They break free.