The Van

The twelve of us shivered in an awkward, don’t-touch-me sort of penguin huddle in a parking lot, waiting to load our luggage into the vehicles. We were about to get underway on a week-long choir tour of the Northwest, and I was no longer sure that it was going to be the exciting adventure I had told myself it would be. I was also the official driver of the large white fifteen-passenger van that functioned as our luggage transport and carried six people, including myself. I had never driven one before. It felt like a Great Dane cavorting through Grandmother’s crystal when we passed through the midst of gleaming, new swathes of vehicles on the interstate. The least mis-step threatened collision, stopping took much longer than was reasonable, and the problem child that was our gas pedal only responded to abusively heavy treatment.

The wind was picking up and the sky was spitting menacingly when we scraped our piles of assorted suitcases, bags, backpacks, dufflebags, instrument cases and equipment together, loaded it in like a Tetris puzzle and then began to sort out who wanted to ride in the mini-van and who wanted to ride the dangerous looking behemoth. As people wavered, and looked longingly at the new air-conditioned, sparkling, sporty minivan, I turned to my charge and was underwhelmed. No cushy individualized seating here, just one-size-seats-all benches. No slick passing and slipping between traffic, but slow waits and oh-come-on muttering. I could see the gloomy looks settling into the faces of those around me who were considering the whole week-long trip they faced in this bottom-heavy monster. Then, out of the grey sky, a curious little mood lighted on my mind. This was going to be good. I wanted the challenge. I wanted to wrestle the behemoth and show him what I could do and make it respect me. I wanted, suddenly and oh so badly, for everyone to want to ride my bus. I could not promise comfort, but the muse was tickling, and one thing I knew I could promise: a good time. In an inspired moment, I circled my right hand high in the air like I was rounding up a squad of soldiers, and shouted “If you’re all ready, the Fun-vee is rolling out.” The muse pulled off the unlikeliest of shots, and there it was: that magical hint of a smile on one girl’s face, and then it was all over the place, like someone let loose a toddler with a marker. Everyone smiled, and in that moment, the trip was made. The individuals galvanized, grouped, and entered the van like a single unit. If I was going to be a bus driver, then I was going to be a lively one. I don’t know if the behemoth was fishing for me, or me for it: but either way, it was in for a ride.

The doors slammed as the grey sky broke and fell in on us, too late to soak us, huddled inside our van with a rear full of luggage, instruments, and expectations. It was snub-nosed, ugly as sin, and if it ever tried to twerk, we’d have needed the Richter scale to properly judge it, but beyond all reason and common sense, it was ours. I have never felt so possessive of anything in my life, except my wife: and I know that my occupants felt the same way. How did I know? Except for once, all week, not one of my passengers ever tried to switch out of the big van. In fact, we talked about the other vehicles in a tone of slight pity, as if they wished they could all be driving with us. It probably wasn’t true: really it wasn’t at all, but it was, for us. They weren’t members of the Fun-vee, which was clearly a prestigious and exclusive privilege, bestowed once, and discontinued thereafter. Whatever happened, we were a gang for a week, and Lord, but we had fun. There was a time I had to request a break from the fun because my mouth hurt from smiling too much, and my driving was clearly suffering when I laughed long and loud. Yes, that thing was a behemoth. But true to biblical prediction, we would never forget the attempt to ride him.

Two

The two feet that carry me
Through my Sunday-blessed,
Sun-blessed world,
They carry me past those two squirrels,
Chattering in their tree-war.

Those two dogs, one black,
His brother white,
Chasing eternally cheerful
After the ball, the ball,
The wonderful ball
Look look look there it goes –

And the two lovers talking
Side by side under the sleeping bag
On the stage in the park.
They know they have a good thing,
However their hearts came by it.

And there were two robins,
But now there are three,
Worm-grubbing with sidelong glances,
Maybe to balance me,
Here alone in the afternoon:
But they’re wrong, for I am sitting with the sun,
Chance companions,
Both beaming,
The two of us.

None of which is to say
That I would never seek another
To walk by the side of.
And she and me
Would walk under the sun where
He waits, expectant, now that I have someone else,
Waiting for his own beloved moon.
That’s the way the world works.

Storm Baptism

Storms in the sky-deep, a tyrantous roar,
Drumming the heavens a-tremble,
Like God-spoken waters on infinite shore,
Waves rumble.

Ira diei: the thunder’s reply,
Promethean flame full of glory.
Lightning, fire-phoenix, will flash and will fly,
White fury.

Blazing and hammered, the sky-deeps will flow,
Noah’s water released once again:
A baptism on our repentance below,
Cleanses sin.

 

Ye Knight Bertram (in imitation of Spenser)

(A quick note. The “v’s” tend to be “u’s” and vice versa. There are also several “j’s” as “i’s”. If you think that’s ridiculous, you should read the original Faerie Queene, by Edmund Spenser. It’s way harder.)

The gentle knight vpon his fire-hearted steed around that lake
Did canter, spear in hand, precaution against foul mischief’s hand
Awaiting th’revelation of his foe’s abhorrent shape, the drake
Which fire breathed against the good and helpless people of the land.
Good Bertram was his name, yclad with yron’s stout and stvrdy band,
Forthsent by Faerie Queene the euil, fiery snake straightway to qvell,
Right brauely did Bertram, iollie knight, obey her stern command.
Beside the fire of euil Discontent it’s ne’er safe to dwell;
So waited he, beneath the moon, that wicked dragon to dispell.

Before the moon had passed its midnight mark, vpheaued from the mere
The dragon, jaws a-drip with coals of uengeance, enuy’s lvstful flames
Belched and blooming red into the siluer night, to others deadly fear.
Not so our Bertram; that good knight, like wise men all, his terror tames
And couches spear against the drake’s aduaunce, denying all his claims
To souereignty ouer the people of the queene. With horrid howl,
For, brauely striking strongly, Bertram in one foot has made it lame,
The dragon slithers near and lashes with his deadly tail foul.
The knight has fallen, hands warding off dragon’s poysonous iowl.

But glory be the Lord, who ‘bandons not his own, gvarding saints
From death at hands of deadliest foes. With forearm strong by faith in God,
Good Bertram grips the dragon’s jaw, and might applying, reacqvaints
His foe with pain, both breaking bone and tendon tearing, though clawed
His body vnder talons fearful is. And lo! The drake, vnjawed,
His black and wicked blood outpours onto the shore. Vnto the throes
Of well-deserued death he giues him: Hell did greet him, who the sod
Now bites in mouthless pain. Braue Bertram gets him vp, and straight he goes
To prayers of thanks to God, who uictory to Bertam’s hand bestows.

Palouse

I

On a dry road,
Moving between beauty and beauty,
The road itself beautiful in the light of the near and better things.
My journey is named by the name of Home,
And yet this road is homeward, to, from, away, and nowhere
To many people.
The pages of my story unscroll between Heaven,
And Heaven-yearning hills, and the ancient, secret earth,
Immovable under our light and mortal touch.

 

II

How can my soul wrestle the beauty of truth onto a page?
I see, after all, with only my eyes:
Vision intermediaried by nerve, retina, pupil,
And my own clouded perception.
I cannot write what I know, for I only see what I do not know,
Not knowing what my sight sees:
Least of all known things my reflected self, pensive and silent between nature and story.
Perhaps it is better silent.
Perhaps I will learn to hear as well.

Conan the Barberarian

I eyed the hairdresser with a foreboding lurking in the back of my mind. She was large, and her arms and hands told of no little strength. Even more unnerving was that she was a student of hair design. If she had not yet learned the fine and gentle art of cutting hair, I was in for an experience. Cheap prices had lured me, a relatively poor college student, to the dirty and disorganized school of hair design nestled next to the tattoo parlor. The state of her own hair was no testament of consolation, either. The back of her head was bleach blonde, and the front hemisphere was her natural hispanic black. As I sat in the swiveling chair, she swathed me in a white tissue neckwrap and a black sheet, making me look like some sort of priest. At least, I was praying. Her meaty hand engulfed the clippers. She selected a garishly coloured blade guard and went for the kill.

The points of the guard clawed into my scalp. Escape was impossible, one powerful hand driving her shearing machine and the other clamped inexorably on my head, keeping it still. It wouldn’t have changed anything, though, even if I had broken her grip and wriggled free: her slash and burn method of cutting my hair laid waste to my follicles like Attila’s armies, no doubt, had razed the villages of Europe. Presumably the peasants were as piqued as I was. A biblical passage came floating by in my motionless misery. “My enemies have plowed upon my back: they make long their furrows…” If the Psalmist had only said ‘scalp,’ it would have been nearly right. The scalping stopped for a moment while she selected another garish blade guard. This time, she ground the clippers against my head, giving it enthusiastic amounts of wrist and muscle. It was as if she thought she could frighten the hair back under the skin, chase it away rather than cut it.

Finally, satisfied with my hair’s unconditional surrender and full retreat, Attila retired from the field in triumph. I looked in the mirror at my surprisingly bloodless hairdo, and the new and apparently permanent pained facial contortion that came as a free extra. Unswathed from my cleric’s garb (much sanctuary that brought me), I tottered to the front desk to pay. She swiped my card and then looked up at me expectantly. “And will you be leaving a tip today?”

I paused, and repressed some proletariat sentences vying for freedom of speech.

“No,” I said. “No, I don’t think so.”

Breathing in the Graveyard

I took the time to stop tonight,
And walk in a nearby graveyard.
Whose ground this is I know,
But He does not mind my seeing it before
My time.
I came quietly as I could, though only the muse
Had arrested me.
I asked their pardon for the intrusion,
But said I meant no disrespect:
I came as a student, to learn how to be dead.
They were much better at it than I.
One vacant space was there.
I took my cap off, crossed my hands on my chest,
An amateur at dying.
Eyes closed,
World spins round my grave,
Myself temporarily withdrawn,
Touching this world the least I could.
Something told me not to sleep there,
Not to parody the masters of rest,
A gift they achieved before me.
My time is not yet come.
I left, again silent,
Like a child who does not understand many things.
And now to sleep.