Unpacking the Christmas tree
I bought at Target 27 years ago,
four feet of fake tree in a plain brown box,
I brought home to my mother in my rusty green Volkswagen
because she had tired of stepping on stray pine needles into July.
It was, and is, a homely facsimile,
its shredded plastic needles affixed
to limbs of twisted coat-hanger wire,
its trunk a simple wood dowel, painted green
and drilled with holes eyeballed just close enough
to assure a reasonably symmetrical
but never perfect-looking tree.
A durable thing, it does not fade or warp or shed,
and for decades the Christmas tree has been the only entertainment
to emanate from mama’s mahogany “entertainment console,”
the top of which it decorates as a colorful centerpiece,
its gleaming lights and ornaments multiplied by the living room mirror.
The colored-glass balls — red, green, blue, silver, gold —
are older than me,
bought from the Woolworth’s on Broadway
when my parents still lived in a trailer park on south Santa Fe Boulevard,
after the war.
–mice, bears, a tiger, a French horn,
pixies, elves, clowns, angels–
are newer but aren’t new,
gifts from my mother to my two boys, inscribed and dated,
beginning with their first Christmases,
and every year after until they were grown.
The Target where I bought the tree is gone,
the little green Volkswagen that brought it home is gone,
ten thousand other things, including my mother, are gone.
Not everlasting, but impressively long-lasting,
the tree and its motley congregation of chipped trinkets
emerge each year from their boxes,
a radius of memory illuminating my lifetime,
warmer than words, clearer than pictures.
— Carson Reed
Accidentally Walking to Target
and Buying a Fifteen Dollar Flash Drive
The weather is turning and the mud bees are mysteriously peevish,
warning me away from the last flowers of summer,
which are heroically blooming in their beds
at the edges of stained concrete driveways
and in their neat boxes at the ends of cracked concrete walkways.
The light in Colorado in the fall still knocks me out,
everything is frighteningly bright but suffused in amber.
Every pebble and blade of grass pops like it’s radioactive,
and I feel as if I’m walking through curling Technicolor.
I didn’t mean to go to Target, my legs took me there,
legs that once took me to the same place where the Spartan and the Gem
and the S&H green stamp store once were,
and to other stores that came and went that were so much less interesting
they failed to cleave to a single synapse.
This is my neighborhood that I have walked, days and nights,
for 48 years. I hate it here, have always hated it here,
but this is home.
Arriving at Target, I find a bargain.
(I am so broke I feel 20 again,
but the flash drive is irresistible
for I am, miraculously, a “Student” again,
a status that is an open sesame to the university computer lab,
a place, at last, I’ve found that I can work, again,
a place I’ve found where I can write, again.)
My American Express Corporate Card,
treasured relic of my entrepreneurial past,
weighs heavy in my wallet.
I’ve been using it all this month to lob my indebtedness, like a bowling ball,
into the shiny pins of my near future.
At the bleak, pointless corner of Warren and Sheridan
I stop to turn a penny from tails to heads,
casting a wish of good luck for some indefinite pedestrian
into the indefinite future.
It’s a cliché for writers to mope about the immortality of their words,
but I am certain that I have yet to write any words light enough,
or to send any words high enough,
that they might float like volcanic ash
into the far hemispheres of the future.
In 1996, when my life was a mess but I didn’t know it yet,
a friend asked me what my favorite tree was and,
without stopping to consider the weirdness of the question,
I answered, a bristlecone pine.
(Mute, misshapen witnesses of our planet,
left unmolested, they can live thousands of years,
never making a mistake, never hurting anyone, or anything, ever.
They just are.)
I laughed when a baby bristlecone appeared on my doorstep on my birthday.
I planted it, even though I knew better,
as if the front yard of my little ranch house in the suburbs
might provide a safe haven for a tree through the millennia.
My little tree lasted exactly six years.
When the marriage ended we sold the house and the new owners plowed it up
to plant concrete, and now a Ford Explorer loiters there with its friends.
Walking back home through my neighborhood,
I see this same preposterous hope everywhere.
These ugly, boxy, post-war houses
are wreathed in bush and tree and fence and stone,
gussied up by owners making heroic attempts
to create beauty and permanence,
as if entropy was a garden pest, easily eradicated
by the recommendations of the lawn & garden expert at Home Depot.
Like it or not, I am home now,
and regret leaks from me in sticky rivulets and turns to amber.
What is left inside me is something as lumpy and pathetic as these little houses,
but clearly there is also hope,
however preposterous, however unrealized,
sleeping in the vast, dark, password-protected emptiness
of my new fifteen-dollar flash drive.
Darkness Makes the Road Strange
I’m driving the great coal seam of 285 in the p.m., late, and Cody has curled up in the front seat. All I can see of him is a shock of hair, a crescent of brown flesh between his sweat shirt and jeans, and the black bottoms of his Nikes.
In the back, Noah snores unevenly, his bare arms and legs tangling out of a slightly damp jean jacket. The radio is broken. The car smells faintly of McDonald’s and the boys’ sneakery sweat. I crack the window and light a smoke.
First of September, and I have to reach over to kick on the heat as soon as we’ve passed through a long, curving stand of orange road cones at Parmalee Gulch Road. As I draw away from the construction and away from the creepy alien glow of Denver, up into the high country, the road sinks into darkness.
Darkness makes the road strange. All the rote knowledge I have accumulated about this daytime landscape disappears as I drive silent up the mountain. Nothing looks familiar along these miles, a fuzzy, oily world of trees, rocks, and bushes, a dark taffy pulled back from the shoulder, fading at the edges into degrees of blackness, outlines of shadow and the random blink of lights.
Three one-eyed cars pass in succession. I resist the temptation to cross myself. Not even Jesus and Mary can save me from my sense of doom, Shakespearian in its certainty.
All the towns have closed up for the night, but an outcropping of cars looms up from the parking lot of a roadside bar, emanating that scent I once found so irresistible, that song.
Why is it that a dad is less real to his children than a dragon or a Muppet? I feel the cumulative weight of the boys’ happy and unhappy memories building a semi-soft spectre called “dad” that is not me. In the end, I will be a shadow lurking above the boys’ dreams, something glimpsed from that sweet sleep that can only be had in cars, some flash of memory, a silent man in a flannel shirt, sleeves rolled to the elbow, smoking, brooding in the dark, driving silent, always driving. How much of our love has passed or been passed over in this tight cocoon?
I want to sleep under damp coats in the night, feel the road beneath me dimly gently rumbling up through my dreams rolling slightly as the car leans through the curves.
Let me leave this driving and brooding to someone else. I want my children to take charge, to hold my head in their arms and console me. Some terrible turning point has turned. All of the strength is in them and none in me.
At Rosalie road, where the meadows open up at the top of Crow Hill, I turn on to the washboard dirt and the children stir and settle back into a lighter sleep, knowing that soon they will have to help me shift their ever-growing weight from the seat and into my arms, to be carried downstairs and to the familiar comfort of their beds.
I leave the light on for Cody. Tonight of all nights, I understand the fear that comes when, in darkness, the most familiar things are the most strange.
If only I could find a way to leave my own light on. Somehow I have let the strangeness of this dark road seep into me, leading to a terrifying place, where love and loneliness have become one and the same thing.
In a Booth at Bonnie Brae Tavern
October 1984, and Stan,
the publisher of Up the Creek,
had OK’d a Halloween spread
on the haunted houses of Denver.
So, over pizza and beer (lots of beer),
Tom Noel and Dennis Gallagher
told me about some of the many ghosts,
famous, infamous, and hush-hush,
that haunted the mansions, homes, and graveyards of Denver.
As always, Bonnie Brae Tavern was exuberant, noisy,
a unique mixture of families and happy hour denizens,
a boisterous contrast to the neat, quiet (and oddly elliptical)
neighborhood it was named for.
Tom & Dennis listed off, one after another,
the haunted spaces of Denver,
surprisingly many for a city so young,
but hardly surprising for a city so often built on broken dreams.
But Denver was changing:
At that peculiar moment,
the invisible hand of Canadian oil money was at work everywhere,
the skyline was filled with new skyscrapers,
and scrapers of a different sort began to appear,
leveling some of the city’s oldest houses
(and so disposing of their ghosts as well).
So many of the hauntedest houses were already gone,
victims of speculation and progress:
18th and Grant, the Cheesman Mansion,
52nd and Lowell, the Woodbury Mansion (all demolished),
55th and Washington (burned to the ground),
11th and Grant (exorcised).
Luckily, some ghostly hangouts had fallen
under the protective arm of historic preservation:
the Governor’s Mansion, the Molly Brown House,
the State Capitol, the Richthofen Castle.
Ghosts unattached to developable real estate were safer:
the ubiquitous, La Llarona could still lament her drowned child
(and drown other people’s children)
along every body of water from Denver to Chiapas.
More specific to the Front Range,
the Hatchet Lady still wandered the Morrison Cemetery near Red Rocks,
a place that was unlikely to “go condo” anytime soon.
Ghosts, it seems,
are the manifestations of regret,
an illness that even death can’t cure,
though, apparently, urban renewal
can put the dead neatly to rest,
by destroying their residences,
leaving regret to the living.
At Fort Logan National Cemetery
Early November 1991, and it was cold in the shade,
but the sun was shining and the snow had warmed
and packed down all over the city, encrusted,
and trickles of bright water slid out from under it
glazing the exposed pavement in glistening light.
I was there (section X, site 1381),
with my wife, my children, her children
to see my father put into sacred ground,
a hero of the First Cavalry, a decorated veteran of the Pacific Theater,
a recipient of both the Bronze Star and the Purple Heart,
slain by congestive heart failure 46 years after V-J Day.
He was a good man, but not a very good father,
and I could never, ever, possibly explain everything I felt that day,
except that longing and regret were involved,
and anger, and love.
The cemetery stretches forever across a long hill south of Bear Valley,
surrounded on all sides by the landmarks of my feral, parentless, youth.
As I stood among the rows of white stone markers,
the places where I played out my teen years surrounded me,
a time that was not a rebellion (there was no one to rebel against),
but a terrible, terrifying freedom:
A hundred yards to the north, the wild side of Bear Creek Park,
the part of the park south of Bear Creek where, at 15,
I danced around bonfires under the immense cottonwoods;
beyond the park, just north of 285, Bear Valley Mall (long gone),
where I shop-lifted albums and sunglasses, dodged truant officers,
sucking down Orange Julius and holding hands
with my jean-clad, halter-topped girls.
To the northwest, Kennedy High School,
where I still hold the standing record for days ditched by a 9th grader;
to the Northeast, surprisingly close, the bell tower of Loretto Heights
protecting a smaller, less-storied graveyard
where I would go with friends on summer nights
to sit and smoke dope over the bones of nuns;
due west, Pinehurst Country Club,
where I worked as a pot washer after dropping out of school in 10th grade;
north and west across the street, the Bear Valley Club Apartments
(also long gone),
where I spent long days making out with Pat,
a lonely young housewife, almost twice my age.
The burial awning flapped in the wind,
the people around me stared through their sunglasses at that cold blue sky.
For them, Ft. Logan was a strange and surreal stone garden,
but for me it existed within the familiar
boundaries of what was once my universe,
and I was happy that my father would be buried
less than two miles from the house where I grew up.
It was something.
That great sigh they call Taps expired in the windy November air,
and the three soldiers cracked their rifles,
shattering all of the preening and positioning and politics
of fractured, divided friends and families,
hammering the moment open like a filbert.
The soldiers, sensing divine right,
gave the spent shells to my father’s only grandchildren,
my children, the grandchildren he made a point to never know.
That hollow brass, smelling of sulfur, was the sum total
of what they would ever remember about their grandfather.
It was not enough.
At the Emissions Testing Station at South Federal and Mansfield
Mid-day, mid-summer, only two bays are open,
and both lines are backed up six deep.
Surrender and riot battle for our mortal souls.
The younger people are perfectly self-contained.
They rock their heads to music I cannot hear,
or giggle at a texted flirtation I cannot see,
while older drivers seem to have marched into middle-age
without the faintest clue how to wait patiently.
It is my nature to accept that one moment is as good as another,
but the combination of a hot car on a hot day
in a bleak environment filled with exhaust is exceptional.
It is pure Beckett.
If it’s true that one in ten drivers in Denver has a gun under the seat,
then at least one of us is locked and loaded.
The employees look as if they have been dipped in coal oil,
and their glazed eyes and flat affect accurately reflect
a function that is purely binary:
Pass or Fail.
A notice in the Long Skinny Room reminds us that workers are
Prohibited By Law from being helpful.
It occurs to me
(and must surely occur to the people working here)
that sharing a garage with a running automobile
is a famously effective way to kill yourself.
Giant ceiling fans notwithstanding,
everyone and everything here is steeped in carbon.
My car and I have been tested, and found wanting
(four times, to be exact),
and so I bring to this process experience enough to know
that I will not evaporate if I cross the yellow line (Actung! Verboten!)
and so I leave the Long Skinny Room to smoke
under the shade of the single, ancient cottonwood
growing at the fence line.
Perhaps this place was pastoral once, maybe even beautiful,
but not in my lifetime.
Rocky Mountain Prestress was once here, or hereabouts,
and Englewood Speedway,
where I spent so many nights in the stands,
half-deaf from the roar of stock cars,
(even then a world of carbon)
waiting for pretty girls with Cokes to amble by,
or for someone to die,
whichever came first.
Terms of Ownership
March 1987, my 30th birthday present to myself
was the nine-foot tall portrait of James Joyce
I had coveted from the first time I saw it
in Rick Mumford’s studio above my office on Wewatta street,
an obsessed Richmond painter’s paean to an obsessed Dublin writer,
four years’ worth of painting, never finished, demanding changes
as Rick stalked the room, brass bracelets jangling at the end his long arms.
Darkly hallucinogenic, topographic with its great slabs of acrylic,
the colors of blood and clover and a thousand daubs of ocher
swirled and exploded around that face,
aggressively enigmatic, Joyce daring God Himself
to apprehend his expansive genius,
Written snippets from Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake
floated around the bespectacled head amid fireworks,
allusion after allusion after allusion after allusion as if
this tall, bejeweled, gesticulating southerner had captured the essence of
his somber Irish hero gleefully driving a car bomb
through the plate glass window of the entire collection
of collective unconsciousnesses,
or sending modern times screaming
down the pipeline of the Hedron Collider,
hoping to spell out the mystery of existence
in a rubble of Gaelic and Latinate detritus.
He cried real wet tears when I took it home,
A little horrified as I rolled it up like a cigar and
stuffed it into a shipping tube the size of a cannon.
He allowed me to pay him in monthly installments of $100 for a year,
the only way I could afford it.
It was the beginning, I thought then,
of my collection of art about writers and writing,
though, fittingly enough, the beginning turned out to also be the end.
Rick sent his grand canvas into the world with me,
understanding that it was necessary to its coming up,
but only after I promised that he could have it back someday,
(any day, ever),
until the end of time if necessary,
and for the same price that I had paid.
“You are the custodian of the painting now,” he instructed me,
“but its soul will always belong to me.”
On the pre-dawn run east down West Colfax
at Happy Motors
I spot a miserable guy with no arms in a net shirt
pimp-rolling West, battered by leaf bits
(no wait they’re in the net,
he’s caught himself like a fish).
It’s a hard morning after a hard night after a hard week
& my blood bulges so hard in my veins I can smell it
& my tongue is waxed with bile.
Call me Percy,
and let the suspense roll on.
One of these days one of these Novembers
will cuff me a little too hard but I don’t wonder which one.
This morning the only thing I wonder is
if the motors are Chinese
or could they truly be happy?
At the ARC on South Broadway
It’s half-off day,
and there’s a crowd.
rifle blouses with stern, grim faces
working down the racks as if the shirts
were lines of emigres at Ellis Island.
I have stopped making the rounds of junk shops,
there came a time when all my stuff was enough,
and I go now to specific ones for jeans or shoes
or books, which wait for me at the back of the store.
I’m in this ARC because I’ve run out of places
to expend my few hours of freedom.
It’s liberating to be here and want nothing
— I flirt with women in the book racks,
jostling in the tight aisles,
straining to make sense of the filing system,
we squeal over a good find — a junior league cookbook,
a reference on designing small gardens,
a Stephen King first edition.
I would stay here if I could,
lost in the smell of old, used things,
or, head tilted sideways,
reading the titles of discarded VHS tapes.
This is as familiar as a strange place can be,
a mother ship that I could sail to the end of the world,
if there was time.
In a Field East of Pecos Overlooking the Union Pacific North Yards
I take my morning walk sometimes,
amid piled sections of rail, rusted refrigerators
and couches becoming dust,
old hobo camps scattered with burnt Thunderbird bottles
and senseless things, bits of cloth and rubber, lost to meaning.
Today, I came upon two big bulldogs,
beautiful, stretched out in the morning sun,
throats slit from ear to ear.
Siblings, I’d guess, by age and markings,
the brown-and-black coats groomed and glistening, with fierce grins
and as cold and solid as upturned tree trunks.
This was a recent mishap (or misdeed),
last night, some mean-spirited soul
dispatched them somewhere else, not here (no blood)
and tossed them here, perfectly back-to-back, a lucky throw
from the bed of a pickup, drunk, full of purpose and panic,
in danger of getting mired in the soft, sandy ruts running against the tree line.
It’s not in my nature to feel sorry for dead things,
except to know I didn’t care to come back tomorrow or the next day
when these two cunning meat sculptures would begin to melt in the sun.
Thoughtless, with only the barest tiny sadness,
I let my eardrums fondle the sounds of the rail yard,
the beep beep beep of forklifts teetering backward from the flatcars
with their paper-wrapped loads of lumber
and the resounding thunder of railcars hooking together
down in the Platte Valley.
Down in the valley, the Union Pacific boys ate sandwiches in their white trucks
and I suppose they might have noticed a man
crest the hill and stand a long while, staring at something at his feet,
staring at something they couldn’t see.
A Madness of Barn Swallows
Heading east on Alameda from Federal Boulevard, I drove straight into gridlock.
I found out later (much later)
the traffic light was down at Lincoln,
blinking red in all directions,
testing the ability of adults to make practical application
of the Kindergarten concept of “taking turns”
and they were not doing well,
and eastbound traffic was backed up all the way to Pecos.
I was at midpoint in the steel-and-glass glacier of cars,
inching forward on the bridge that traverses
both the Platte River and the Valley Highway,
and my yearning was split between the tranquility of the former
and the speed and freedom of the latter.
a madness of barn swallows
descended upon us,
from out of nowhere,
from out of everywhere,
converging from all directions
if they emerged from another dimension,
or why they didn’t collide above me
and explode like atoms of feathered plutonium.
I’d seen this before,
at intersections across the city,
barn swallows set into a frenzy by stopped traffic,
sometimes by moving traffic,
a Blitzkrieg executed so quickly I wasn’t certain they were ever there,
sometimes a campaign so relentless
that I witnessed it going to some destination in the morning,
and again at the same intersection coming home in the afternoon.
Whatever their intent, whatever their purpose,
they always seem to me to be taunting the earthbound,
us poor, wingless creatures sweating in metal cages,
or making us an offer, to stop looking forward and backward,
at our frustration and regret,
to look skyward, into the infinite, where freedom lives,
and, sometimes, lots of small, mad, birds.
Playing Translation Charades with Yevgeny Yevtushenko
Elko, Nevada, January 1995
Reassembling events from the fog of memory,
I swear all that follows is some of what happened,
the absolute truth, or something closely resembling it:
Then unknown to me, poet and publisher Scott Preston
arrived in Elko earlier in the week
drove down from Ketchum, Idaho,
to help with the preparations
for the arrival of the great Russian poet,
flying in from Tulsa.
Then unknown to him,
poet and poetry editor Carson Reed (henceforth referred to as “I” or “me”)
arrived in Elko in his burnt orange Volvo station wagon
in the afternoon of the opening Friday
of the 11th Annual National Cowboy Poetry Gathering
“dragging the Gut” of Idaho Street
four blocks wide and four miles long,
checking in at the Western Folklife Center,
wearing his best Mexican boots but not his black Stetson,
acutely self-conscious among a group of writers who, to a man, understood
“paying your dues” to mean summers stringing barbed wire
and winters busting ice off water troughs,
not publishing in academic journals
or facing down open mics in stuffy college-town coffee houses.
Warmly greeted by the two aforementioned non-cowboy poetry persons,
Yevgeny Yevtushenko deplaned onto the tarmac of the Elko airport
from a shopworn DC-10 bearing the Red Lion Casino logo on its tail.
No doubt Preston recognized another Other in me,
but mostly brought me along because
my car was bigger than his car, with plenty of room for the Russian and his kit.
Our first assignment was to find a bottle of Calvados,
Yevtushenko eager to get his party on,
but in the half dozen or so liquor stores in Elko,
not a single bottle of French apple brandy could be had,
unfortunate because, as I recall, the Russian did not drink vodka.
The week was a parade of great story tellers
wearing big belt buckles and tight Wranglers:
The only face familiar to me, Alamosa rancher Vess Quinlan, was there,
plus new friends to be made: Waddie Mitchell, Sue Wallis, Buck Ramsey,
Paul Zarzyski, Andy Wilkinson, Rod McQueary, a good bunch of people,
and peerless Liars Club luminaries, all.
One hazy morning I found myself in the lobby of the Folklife Center
in the queue for the Starbucks cart standing behind
Brooklyn-turned-Tennessee Stud Ramblin’ Jack Eliot
who drove up in his motor home not as a performer that year,
but just to have somewhere to be next,
protesting (perhaps, as Shakespeare might say, a bit too much)
the recent appearance of a strange woman in his tour bus bed.
Sometime that weekend,
dressed in his “Siberian Cowboy” getup
(more indigenous reindeer herder than invading Cossack)
Yevtushenko prepared to read his work in both Russian and English.
I sat next to him in a folding chair as he waited to perform,
dog-earing the poems he wanted to read
from a giant collection of his work in English translation,
by various authors, many of them famous poets in their own right,
he made small grunts of disapproval at some of the English words and phrases,
called upon me to help him make some last minute corrections,
“how you say this?” he’d ask me,
pointing to the offending line and pantomiming the “this”,
beating his chest, for instance, me guessing frantically, a human thesaurus:
chest, breast, breasts, heart, lungs, vest, clavicle, ribcage, bellows,
soul, self, me, mine, my brother, simpatico, from the heart, sincerely, and so on,
until I stumbled upon the word he wanted and
“Yes! YES! YES!” he’d exclaim,
scratching out the offending translation and replacing it
with the last thing that came out of my mouth.
The radio recently informed me Yevtushenko has died,
and the Internet informed me our co-conspirator, Scott Preston, died
– some ten years back —
so if you seriously doubt it when I tell you
that in the waning years of the 20th century
I collaborated with perhaps its greatest Russian poet,
on the improvement of various English translations of his work,
at a cowboy poetry festival in the middle of winter in the middle of nowhere,
just try to prove I didn’t.
came up in my compost heap midsummer,
where my girl had poked in some seeds,
an act of love and hope, she said,
love cast into a place of constant turmoil,
hope that a tropical fruit would flourish in some frosty October in Colorado.
The seedlings thrived in that fertile pile,
and she rescued some to pots, not symbols now, but living things
and she nurtured them when she was here,
and left them for me to tend when she was gone.
I did take care of them,
but not enough care of them, I guess,
they seemed pointless to me,
plants that would never make fruit.
Now, it’s fall, and her favorite has made a little egg of a watermelon,
but the forecast is not good.
It’s so cute, and she doesn’t want it to die.
and, somehow, she thinks, I should be able to save it.
It’s not a real thing anymore,
it has returned to the land of symbol,
something to argue about,
something to prove.
I do not love the little watermelon,
But I love the girl
who loves the watermelon,
because she loves me
because I am so watermelon-like
and I know whatever happens she will forgive me,
Upstairs at the Mercantile Restaurant
at a window seat overlooking 9th Street Park,
Auraria Campus, Spring 1981.
Barely a sophomore,
cramming my way through the first of the Henry IVs,
I heard someone come up the stairs and say
Reagan has been shot, and I thought, well, good,
union-busting, commie-baiting bastard, maybe he’ll die,
and I turned back to the delicate onion-skinned
pages of my 3,000-page Norton Anthology.
Somewhere in the middle of Act III, my friend, Keith, the Merc’s daytime bartender,
emerged from his basement lair, where he had been serving morning beers
to soon-to-be nurses and policemen and airplane pilots
and introduced me to his new girl, Penny.
Skinny, with long, straight hair, blue eyes, freckles across her nose,
jeans jacket draped over her gossamer sundress,
she was so young and so pretty it made my face hurt to look at her,
and neither Keith nor I could quite believe his good fortune.
They were very excited.
They had found an old house with some land out in Wheat Ridge,
on 32nd across Wadsworth from Crown Hill cemetery
and they were going to start a commune.
She was a farm girl, and, unlike Keith,
(an itinerate rock critic who hailed from Detroit),
she knew what-for of chickens and pigs and cabbage and spuds.
What she didn’t know, what I was dying to tell her,
was that “hippies” were imaginary woodland fairies
and the subjects of those far-out folktales
she’d relentlessly gleaned in her childhood in Alamosa
were now at places like Metro studying to become nurses and policemen and airplane pilots.
I wanted to warn her that communes, while once real, had proved to be Petri dishes where innocents
quickly drifted into dysfunctional soap opera families or criminal cartels or, sometimes,
murderous psychopaths lurking at the edges of civilization.
I was 24, and fancied myself to be just like Prince Hal,
the original Hipster Pretender,
waiting in the wings for my moment to reveal myself as a sober and mirthless King.
On another March day, 35 years later, I sit at my laptop and write.
Reagan is dead, at a ripe old age, and Keith is dead, too young.
Cancer, they said, but I think his pure heart was broken,
when that pretty girl in the sundress abandoned him and their children to go “do her own thing.”
Somehow, I have become Falstaff, the last good man not hanged.
Fat, and growing old, I have no ambition other than to follow my vocation.
From the window of an upstairs bedroom near Peoria and Yale, painting an accent wall “Cranberry”
I saw a bluebird
(my first) and, son of a bitch,
it made me happy.
I Promised Myself
I would stop writing poems
about my living room
but here we are.
In the corner,
behind the chair where my mother sat,
there is an alter to Mary,
the mother of God.
I do not know why it is there,
or why there are other depictions of Mary
scattered throughout the house
as sublime as an archival photograph of the Pieta,
as ridiculous as an extruded plastic dashboard ornament.
My mother disdained religion
(early in her life, it had disdained her).
She was certainly not Catholic,
she was not even Christian,
though I think she might have believed in some cobbled-together God.
The alter features Mary
standing on a dirt-red orb,
actually a hand-painted Mexican clay pot, turned upside down.
looking down, sadly, but benevolently,
on a cavernous barricade of rock,
that a smaller Mary might have fit into,
perhaps a symbol of the cave
from which her dead son miraculously emerged.
The stone is a miracle in its own right,
I’m sure it weighs 400 pounds or more,
and I have no idea where it is from
or who dragged it into this house
Now I ponder how to relocate it
to the back yard,
where I think it will be happy,
and Mary, too,
she looks a little pale,
and in need of fresh air.
My mother loved this house more than anything
more than friends or family, or money or pretty things,
more than me, and she liked me pretty well.
So I was a little afraid that after she died
she would just keep banging around here like a pinball,
invisible, smoking invisible cigarettes at her spot at the table,
maybe mad at me for something I did or didn’t do.
Instead, she was just gone,
and the house has been weirdly, horribly empty,
a different place without her,
a shell, a thing, a contrivance,
a purgatory where I am the one banging around,
lost, a ghost that hasn’t bothered to die yet.
So I was glad when my cousin Monty showed up,
rode his bicycle here all the way from from Five Points,
crashed a couple of times,
scared the hell out of me when I came back from next door,
and found him standing, puzzled, in my living room,
wondering where I was, bleeding a little.
If I believed in God,
I would be certain that God sent him to me,
because there is no one else I needed to see more
because he was here, lived here,
in this empty house,
back when it was full
back when it was full of my mother.
He said he came here on “instinct”
and I can believe that,
though it is as crazy an idea as God,
I will pretty much believe anything right now
because, what else can I do?
— Carson Reed
Ten years ago
I took my mother to see a lawyer
in the bank building down in Bear Valley.
An affable fellow.
We set out to make my mother a will,
but since all there was was this house,
he just put my name on the deed.
We did some other things,
added me to her bank account;
a power of attorney, a living will.
it was all reasonable and rational and adult,
and was done in a couple of hours,
and only cost a couple hundred dollars.
Now I’m alone,
and, apparently, I own the house I grew up in,
a house I paid dearly for, but not in money.
It doesn’t feel like mine.
It will never feel like mine,
but I don’t want to be anywhere else.
In 1992, my mother buried her mother in a small cemetery in West Texas,
somewhere between Hico and Glen Rose,
not far from the house outside of Stephenville where she died,
alone at the end.
My mother collected a few keepsakes from that house,
a shoebox of photos, not much more,
and dug up her mother’s grapevine and brought it back to Denver.
The Muscadine took its time settling in to its new climate, its new soil,
and my boys became men without tasting or even seeing a single grape.
But, after some struggle, the grapevine thrived,
and, after some struggle, my children thrived,
and now I have two smart and happy grandchildren,
and every summer we three watch impatiently as the clusters grow,
sampling them when we know we shouldn’t
our faces twisted into unlikely expressions by the astringent little pills until,
one magic day in August or September,
the grapes are suddenly dusty and sweet.
We take turns discovering the bunches, some easy, exposed, hanging like bats,
some nesting under giant grape leaves
some hiding like wrens in the feral rosebush.
They are prettier than candy Easter eggs, and sweeter,
and there are more of them,
and we can eat as many as we want.
I have seen farm workers harvesting grapes
hot, hard, fast work done by men and women with big hats and sweaty faces,
but we take our time, sharing my one pair of pruning shears,
holding our swelling stainless steel bowl of grapes aloft like the Stanley Cup,
happy-dancing around the yard like drunken fools.
My grandmother, a flapper with the heart of a wild thing,
who gave birth to my mother when she was 17,
who loved banana popsicles and silk teddies and all-night socials,
who would not let me call her grandma,
would have approved.
— Carson Reed
is a little gray, cool,
mom has dropped the seven from 87
and is just eight,
a little sad and confused
and missing her mama.
We are worlds way from McAdoo,
but her mind has become an alternate universe,
a place where time is plastic,
where fields of sugar cane sway in the hot West Texas wind,
and her little fingers burn from the rasp of cotton bolls.
This house and I, two things she has loved for more than half a century
flit in and out of existence now,
unrecognizable, things that did not exist in 1932,
and for most of the morning I am
her brother, her father, or some stranger
who wandered in from the dirt road to sleep in her father’s fields,
in a time and a place in her mind
where wandering strangers were commonplace,
where sad, quiet men blew through town
like the dark, red clouds of the dust bowl.
Coffee, she knows,
And cigarettes, she briefly, but firmly, remembers.
Interest in dinner is long forgotten,
but that makes the pleasures of breakfast so much keener,
and she devours her egg, bacon,
and an English muffin slathered in blackberry jam.
She asks my name a few more times, and by mid-morning
it seems to sink in. “Your last name is Reed,” she tells me,
as if it’s something she thinks I ought to know.
But as I blink back into existence, other things blink out,
her brothers, her mama, all gone
her daddy drowned in the Rio Grande river all over again,
and there are more tears, and I think
I can bear any of this, all of this,
except the tears, and I think
oh lord, please,
let the evening come and make me be Sherman again,
walking side-by-side with his big sister,
carrying cut cane down to the waiting cows.
— Carson Reed
At the LV Lodge trailer park
on South Santa Fe Drive, fall 1949,
eight years before I was born,
my dad and uncle John returned at sunrise from a weekend of hunting
with a perfect, beautiful buck, shot clean, through the heart,
and changed clothes and went to work, sleepless, beery,
leaving the carcass field-dressed, but neither skinned nor butchered,
a present for their blushing brides.
Sleepy, still in robes, my mother and her sister, Bennie-Wayne,
pondered their project, trying to remember the details
of how their daddy — my grandfather —
had dressed hogs and other large mammals.
(They both knew well how to kill and pluck a dinner chicken,
but butchering was mostly men’s work, and they’d seen it,
but they hadn’t paid much attention.)
They went back to their trailers and pulled on their jeans,
they dragged the deer to a tree at the west end of the trailer park,
on a bank overlooking the South Platte river,
and they tied a rope around its antlers, and hoisted it up on a sturdy limb.
First, Ben tried to scrape it like a scalded hog,
but when that failed, they skinned it, clumsily,
with cheap kitchen knives,
until it hung, naked from the neck down, dark red, nearly purple,
its silver skin glistening in the cold sunlight.
They cut the carcass in half with a hacksaw,
angling from a shoulder and straight down the backbone,
until the headless half fell away, onto a tarp.
Tentatively, with lots of arguing, they began hacking the two halves into pieces,
sorting out what they knew about loins and chops and ribs and roasts.
A neighbor watched them work, smoking on the step of his trailer,
laughed at them as they circled the deer with bloody knives and serious faces,
stepping back and rubbing their chins
like sculptors pondering a block of marble.
Gathering up the homely, bloody chunks of venison,
they took the whole mess to a local butcher,
who helped them wrap it in pink-speckled butcher paper,
marking each bundle in grease pencil
and storing it in his walk-in freezer for a small fee.
Sixty-two years later,
awakened by night terrors at three in the morning,
she wakes me and tells me this story.
“Back then, I’d tackle anything,” she says,
and I imagine the two of them, barely in their 20s,
heads in scarves like Lucy and Ethel,
bitching and laughing and arguing away a morning and an afternoon,
ready for anything and speckled with blood.
— Carson Reed
On My End of the Dining Room Table
the landscape, the topography, changes constantly,
but it is always heavy with paper:
bills, poetry, books, pieces of The Denver Post,
coupons in yellow envelopes, the t.v. guide,
all stacked haphazardly, but kept safely away
from my pewter ashtray from Six Shooter Junction.
There are also items of escape: sunglasses, cell phone, car keys.
Mama presides at the other end of the table, no papers there:
just little plastic turquoise glasses half-full of cold coffee,
a bowl of mints, a comb, a nail file, a magnifying glass,
her purple plastic pill minder, a box of Kleenex,
her cloissoné-encased Bic lighter
and Winston 100s in a brown leather case.
The lights are always on, the t.v. is always on.
Our conversations are simple, repetitive,
and are tinged with the long vowels and expressive dialect of the south.
Our world centers on food,
and I have become a pretty good cook of things
that are just the right amount of spicy and not too hard to chew.
We are here, we have survived, drop by any time,
we will pour you a glass of minted iced tea and tell you stories from our youth.
— Carson Reed
Pruning the Feral Rosebush
Clutter, chaos, entropy and death,
branches from a single root,
one grows and amasses, one breaks free of the center in a shocking explosion,
one gnaws at the bones of time like an indolent lion;
one taps at the back of your head like a classroom bully.
Their sounds grow nearer some nights,
and in my mother’s mind become entangled, confused,
so some mornings I find her shaking, sleepless, on a second pot of coffee,
always with a plan, an urgent plan, to fix or organize something,
or everything, to throw things away, to throw everything away,
to wax and wax and wax and bleach
to wash and dry everything, down to the last curtain.
Last Sunday her fright-filled stomping began about 4 a.m.,
wild thunder that woke me, and I listened with trepidation until,
at dawn, I emerged from the basement to find her frantically ranting
about the immediate need for gardeners and handymen,
stammering out the details of her scorched-earth plan for the yard.
In an effort to minimize the damage,
I laced up my boots and set out to do the work myself,
though she insisted, almost in tears, no don’t, you’re too busy,
which I took to mean, no don’t, you’re too incompetent,
and it instantly became impossible to sway me from my task.
The thriving back yard privet, which alarmed her most,
and which she swore to cut to the ground, was first.
I topped it out and took it back two feet from the faucet it was encroaching,
until I could see she was satisfied,
as she sat shivering on the back porch with fresh coffee and a Winston,
growing calmer and calmer as the sun warmed away the dew in the yard.
The ivy on the east wall,
whose imaginary crime was tearing the house apart
creeper by creeper, brick-by-brick,
was next, and I peeled it back from the windows and gutters,
leaving a four-foot wainscoting
that she found harmless and pleasing.
By now her mood had improved even more, and her rheumatism as well,
for she was coming down the front porch and into the yard
every five minutes or so, admiring her work.
Emboldened, I set upon the feral rosebush,
which for so many years had been glorious,
an emerald bonfire flecked with the ash of ten thousand tiny white flowers.
But last year’s big snowstorm had made a wreck of it.
All the symmetry was gone, and the new growth grew every which way,
And dead things lay hidden at the heart of it.
I had already pruned her twice this summer,
gingerly, con respeto.
We have shared the same history, and the same mother, for 50 years
and, as odd as it is to say, the wild rosebush
may be the closest thing I have to a sister.
I remember, once she was a simple, domesticated rose bush.
Four gangly feet of big green thorns topped by big pink flowers,
a botanical Tootsie-Pop stranded in a treeless suburb
three thousand miles from the nearest English garden.
But over years of neglect, no pruning, no fertilizer,
she became herself, an enormous vibrant bush,
littered with mild fragrant blossoms,
exploding like a great, silent bomb of authenticity.
But, as I said, a snowstorm had made a wreck of her,
and ginger pruning only made her wounds more apparent,
and I did not know how, or could not bring myself, to make her right,
until that Sunday, when I saw my duty to the forces of order, and to my mother,
in the unbearably bright light of that fall morning.
Alternating between hedge trimmer and pruning shears,
I worked gradually inward toward the heart of the problems,
where the bush was cleaved and broken.
She fought back with mute fury,
Pounced upon me with the teeth of a thousand angry kittens
razor-sharp and venomous,
until my brown arms were red and throbbing
and criss-crossed with lines of blood.
(I was happy to endure the lashing,
enjoyed the pain, found it satisfying and just.)
Out came the clutter to become neat bundles to stack in the yard,
down I drilled to the perfect, symmetrical center, every dead branch and leaf
cast into lawn bags that swelled like bloated black ticks.
Death, of course, cannot be banished by a hedge trimmer,
but a weary heart longs for a good metaphor,
and as I worked I could see that, for a little while, I had made my mother happy.
And I was happy, too.
The feral rosebush was trimmed, but not tamed.
It would never grow great pink flowers again,
but it would grow again,
and my mother would be able to admire that perfect mane,
and I, those perfect teeth.
— Carson Reed
At the 9Health Fair to get Bargain Bloodwork
(at the new St. Anthony’s – they moved an entire fucking hospital but nobody told me)
there are so many old people and people on walkers
that we are not allowed to jump the line, as we have become accustomed to,
but it’s ok, mom is thoroughly amused from her wheel chair,
trying to make sense of snatches of conversation in the long hall,
and I, born with a preternatural ability to wait,
am content to answer her inscrutable questions and kiss the top of her muddled head.
The Blood-taking Room is pandemonium.
New patients are coming in, those who have finished are wandering out,
those in the middle are drinking bottled water and holding bandages to their arms.
Volunteers take not very sturdy boxes of precariously tilted blood vials from the room;
flimsy trash bags swell with “bio-waste.”
Mom and her wheelchair are an obstacle to all this activity
and it is all I can do to keep purple-shirted volunteers from banging against her like pinballs.
Confronted by my mother’s tiny, delicate veins, her assigned phlebotomist,
a goateed man of my age who is clearly either inexperienced or incompetent, panics, abandons her,
and there are some minutes when we are simply left to ourselves, a road hazard at an empty station.
Mom is saved by a young woman in a yellow shirt, who sits decisively, hits the vein precisely,
draws the blood easily, bandages it quickly, and pats her hand reassuringly.
I, on the other hand, also need a blood draw, and, unfortunately,
the goateed man returns to take my blood.
I know better.
I know this son of a bitch is going to screw this up.
He asks me which arm I like and I offer the right,
but he likes the left better, so we go with that.
He is so nervous, he only puts one glove on.
I should have said “You know I’ve got HIV, right?”
but maybe it’s best that he arrive at that possibility on his own.
I would like to say that he bruised my arm so bad that I look like a junkie,
but the truth is, I have known junkies,
and they generally do a much better job of hitting a vein than he did.
When it was over, I took mom to the Black-Eyed Pea.
She had an enormous plate of Baked Cod with rice and Squash Casserole,
and a side dish of Macaroni and Cheese
and Cherry Cobbler after.
She ate every bite. I never saw anyone so determined to eat that much food.
(I couldn’t eat that much food on a bet.)
Our blood work will come in the mail in six weeks,
and we will know what is going on inside our bodies,
with more certainty than we will ever know
what is going on outside of them.
New Years Eve 2006
you’re in my wool overcoat,
telling me how good you make it look,
and, yeah, you make it look good.
And I remember:
before the moment you were actually fully born,
I looked into your black, iris-less eyes and I saw you in there
and I knew then I could neither shape you nor control you,
but simply clothe you and feed you and love you,
and watch you take on the world.
Since you were eight,
I feared I might outlive you.
I suppose that makes you that much more precious to me,
that you actually made it to adulthood,
that you have found that small, sweet spot
between outlaw and entrepreneur.
That we are complete opposites,
I chalk up to God’s dark sense of humor.
That you are one of the few people on earth I feel completely comfortable with,
I chalk up to love, one of the few things it seems to be good for.
Smoking with you out in front of your barber shop,
or watching you melt into my mother’s couch, belly full, completely happy,
is the most solid I feel.
You anchor me to the planet.
This is what you need to know:
I need you to outlive me.
I came across your picture
the black-and-white photo I took of you
on the east side of the house on Maplewood,
a warmish February day,
you impossibly pregnant,
princess Amara captive inside,
plotting her escape.
Looking at your picture,
I felt what I always feel about you:
to this smart, warm woman
who gave me my grandchildren
and who, almost certainly, single-handedly, saved my son’s life.
I never thanked you properly:
Dyshann and Amara you brought into the world
Cody you keep in the world
three of my most precious people,
please add yourself to that list.
On the third-floor terrace
outside a wedding reception at Brooks Towers
and a little bit cold,
I watched the full moon come up
over the darkening Denver skyline
and joined the entourage blowing
soap bubbles out into the open air
in honor of the idea of love.
The bubbles went every which way,
up into the sky, down into the street,
full of lamplight and moonshine,
and then they were gone.
In the Emerald City
a.k.a. the Wellington E. Webb Municipal Center,
a great gray cavern designed to make all who enter feel small,
oddly adorned with “whimsical” modern art
designed to make all who enter feel stupid.
A lone helpful woman at the helpful desk
directs me to the Hall of Justice,
a.k.a. the Parking Magistrate’s Office, immediately behind me,
cleverly disguised from the outside as an airport newsstand or gift shop
though once inside it becomes clear that this is no gift shop.
The Great and Mighty Oz, a.k.a. the Manager of Finance, has taken a page
from his or her or its most successful enterprise,
transforming this portion of the city’s justice system
into a highly refined version of the set of “No Exit”
a.k.a. the Department of Motor Vehicles,
replete with red plastic number dispenser
and two remarkably lifelike automatons endlessly shouting “abandon all hope”
ok, I mean, two female clerks working, without comment,
behind expensive polished anchor desks, as big as sections of the Great Wall of China.
It is as quiet and sterile as a NASA Clean Room
and there is an actual sign cautioning visitors they must not be loud or vulgar.
In stark contrast to the motley crowds that once milled the hallways
of Denver’s City and County building, waiting to petition for grace from a “referee,”
in this new system, only three of us are waiting, in utter silence,
to see the Wizard, oh I mean the Magistrate, regarding our parking injustice,
painfully aware of the large sign suggesting that the act of contesting a parking ticket
was at best hopeless, possibly expensive and maybe even vaguely illegal.
Our expectations of justice shrink like penises in Lake Michigan.
The Armed Man in the White Uniform
a.k.a. the bailiff, flits in and out of sight, craning his neck, a little bit creepy;
calls our numbers one-by-one.
This progresses more quickly than anyone expects,
and the victims, um, plaintiffs, um, violators
follow the bailiff into a doorway and do not reappear.
Cowardly lion that I am, I have an urge to run
but the guy ahead of me, Number 34, clearly hopes he can run faster.
Too late, the bailiff reappears, and his number is up.
I am alone then, flanked by angels of death, well, ok, automatons, well, ok, clerks,
and before I can bolt the creepy guy with the gun calls my number, 35.
The Great and Mighty Oz, a.k.a the Magistrate, presides on high
from an eight-foot tall bench that entirely fills a closet-sized room off a narrow hallway.
I begin to explain my plight, plead my plea,
half expecting her to demand the witch’s broomstick,
but instead she explains, in a bloodless monotone,
that I have violated a city ordinance
and there is nothing she can do,
an argument that, seems to me, invalidates her very existence,
but I don’t say so out loud.
Instead I say this is a silly ordinance, don’t you think?
no, actually I said I am guilty as hell but this is really a lot of money
so she reduces it by an amount that covers the cost of parking downtown
and sends me to go stand in another line to pay.
Behind bullet-proof polyethylene, the cashier is all business.
As I write the check, she reminds me to make it out to Professor Marvel,
a.k.a. the Manager of Finance.
I hand her the check, but she hands it back, says I haven’t filled out the date.
Fuck you, lazy bitch, I say,
no, actually I say what is the date?
She gives me the boy-are-you-stupid look and taps the big sign on her desk
with the date on it.
Oh, of course, I say,
it’s Friday, the 13th.
Friday, February 13, 2012
All through the morning and into the afternoon,
surrounded by simple tools in the grass
(pruning shears, twine, my pocket knife,
the canvas gloves I find but never use),
I bundle brush from the wild plum.
Though my knees ache more,
it gets easier as I get older,
a patient meditation on the nature of stems and branches and thorns.
I trim a branch, I lay a branch upon a branch,
I straighten the bundle.
I tie the bundles twice with twine,
and stack them by the house.
(Sometimes I take a break under the Linden tree,
with a cigarette and a glass of cool water.)
I am so unvexed by this process
that the dogs in the yards and the birds in the trees and the trees themselves
seem calmed by my labor.
I respectfully put time to rest in work that is equal parts
sock darning and Japanese tea ceremony.
Bundling branches is time out of time.
Like all honest labor, it moves out of chaos toward order,
innocuous, necessary, and free of doubt.
Sheba was my Tenth Birthday Present
She was two years old and either half- or three-quarters Arabian mare. It was that other half- or possibly one-quarter that was a matter of some debate among my aunt and cousins on the Western Slope and so with her parentage in doubt she was bereft of the papers that made her a salable commodity and we got her basically for the gas money it took to haul her over the divide into Denver.
She had less use for me than I for her, but at that time my mother was determined that I would grow up with at least some of the rudimentary skills of the cowboy, and so we were stuck with each other.
We pastured her just beyond the edge of town, in a meadow out on Estes Street, just south of Morrison Road, where big houses are now. At the south end of the pasture, the old Italian who owned the land had a big house with a small sand and gravel operation in the backyard, including a noisy little crusher and a couple of dump trucks that raised clouds of dust along the dirt road as they came to-and-from their work, bringing civilization ever closer.
At the west end of the meadow was a huge cottonwood and in the center was a murky water hole that was home mostly for mosquitoes and water snakes.
Sheba was not saddle-broke, and that job eventually fell to the Oklahoma cowboy and pool hustler Bill Stogsdill, who had come into town that summer on a freight train with my uncle Rex, the notorious hobo and drunk. Rex was gone soon enough, but Bill ended up staying with us a while — long enough, at least, to teach me the game of poker and how to roll Bull Durham one-handed and about long enough to half-break the horse, which is all the broke she ever got to her dying day.
I watched him work her through that spring, a funny-looking thing to watch. Bill practically lay on her back, his crotch at her withers and his feet kicking about her neck as she danced sideways around the pasture trying to unload him.
My mother was working two jobs and I was as preoccupied with myself as any eleven year old, so after Bill left town (headed vaguely in the direction of the Kentucky Derby), Sheba had a mostly restful life.
Whenever I did get out there on some Saturday for a visit, all that leisure, after having been not more than half saddle-broken, made her remarkably ill-disposed to have me on her back, and the only thing that saved my young neck was that she had grown much too fat and lazy to buck with any enthusiasm. Instead, she would seek out the lowest branches of the old cottonwood tree or rub up close to the barbed wire fence hoping to scrape off my leg and so discourage any further horseback riding. On at least one occasion she had used a king snake or maybe a snakelike stick of wood as an excuse to bolt and charge at full gallop to the pond, stopping neat as a pin at the bank and sending me ass-over-teakettle into the pond.
Growing up, I had always had a beautiful western saddle that had belonged to my grandfather, and so had our shared name — Carson Reed — hand-tooled on both skirts. But my uncle Rex, the hobo, had stirred up some trouble the winter I got Sheba and so being hot with police and maybe a husband or two looking out for him, he and the saddle disappeared one day together, the saddle presumably hocked for a bus ticket. Rex cleared out and wasn’t seen for a couple of years until my mother had cooled down and her heart had softened to him.
We couldn’t afford another real saddle, but my mother replaced it with a rig that was a big square piece of foam rubber covered in red canvas with nylon nooses where the horn and the stirrups should have been. It was a ghetto saddle, a sad, temporary sort of thing. But the unintended side effect of that canvas saddle is that it liberated me from my mother and her car at precisely the moment I needed to be liberated.
Almost overnight, I had become a pensive and brooding 13-year-old with an intense need to be alone, or at least to be in the company of someone that didn’t talk back.
That turned out to be Sheba, and, thanks to my theiving uncle Rex, we spent pretty much most of that summer of 1970 together. What happened is: I discovered I could wad the entire foam saddle into an old WWII army knapsack I found in the basement, with room left for a wire brush, a wonderbread bag of molasses oats, a hackamore and a pb and j sack lunch.
That summer, when most of my friends had discovered the joys of sleeping till noon, I woke early most days and rode my sting ray with banana seat and sissy bar the six miles out to the hem of civilization, where I would brush, comb, feed and scratch that horse into blissful submission and then we would stroll in the morning sun from one side of the pasture to the other, or down to the creek, or over to see which infernal contraption was making noise at the gravel pit.
All of this was simply a preamble to the actual business at hand, which was to retire to the shade of the cottonwood to eat lunch and ruminate on our individual misfortunes.
Sheba liked the attention. After a time, she came to accept being ordered about by a person clearly not as smart as her with a kind of queenly grace. It’s not like she was ever rode hard or taken far –she was unshod, after all, so our farthest adventures were up the dirt road to the creek, where the pavement started. If it wasn’t too hot, most days we’d finish up with a big gallop through the pasture over to the shade of the tree.
It was there that summer that I crafted my first bad poems and bad stories, pouring all of my adolescent confusion into a steno pad that mostly rested on my knee as I listened to the rustling of bugs and the rumble of dump trucks.
That summer, Sheba taught me the fine art of being lazy, how to eat slow and stay cool, along with the more painful lessons of how to be as clever and brave and stubborn as a half- or maybe three-quarters Arabian mare.
Also somewhere in that summer, as I slowly and patiently learned the tone of voice that lulled her into a dreamy haze, as I learned how to brush her tail out without pulling, or as I learned the very particular way she liked to be scratched behind the ears, or how to back-comb her flanks without getting bit, I guess I might have learned my first lessons on how a woman likes to be treated — lessons in gentleness and empathy that would come in handy pretty soon.
That was our first and last summer as friends. By the next year I had discovered rock-and-roll, pot, cars, and girls, and I turned down a different road from which there was no going back.
When she was certain I’d lost interest in “the horse,” my mother sent Sheba back to the Western Slope, where people are smarter than horses, and so pay them no mind.
Just Outside of Kingman, Arizona, 1972
Larry was headed home when his Harley,
a chopped ’48 panhead, broke down,
and as he worked on it, on his knees,
alone in the desert on a dark highway,
a sleepy semi driver tagged him, tossing his instantly lifeless body fifty feet.
Back in Denver, back in Harvey Park,
where most of the people who loved him were,
news of his death came in a simple, unvarnished phone call
from the Kingman police.
(If he had died two days before, as a Marine,
men in uniform would have come to the door,
with sentiments of sorrow from the President of the United States,
but, over time, Larry had become a conscientious objector,
and so he was honorably released, but a civilian when he died,
just another dead guy
that the Arizona authorities had to identify and notify kin.)
I was the person they got on the phone.
I was 15, but it fell to me
to tell my 17-year-old cousin that her 22-year-old husband was dead.
She may have forgiven me,
I hope she’s forgiven me,
but she never forgave her husband,
and she never forgave herself.
At Clement Park
My most recent misstep
may be the least of all, and the most literal
a bit of bad footing crossing a median
filled with river rocks the size of ostrich eggs
on my way to the shade of a line of Russian Olives
where I intended to sit and write this poem.
I am planted like a tulip in the fat lap of summer,
and I mine the living planet like a bee:
The damp, ragged grass is itchy
and reminds me of my gangles of arms & legs & other exposed flesh.
The whoops of boys in blue shorts on the soccer fields
remind me that ears have no earlids,
are just gaping holes sucking in the living clamor.
My ankle reminds me I have ankles,
frail, ill-conceived sockets for treading the uneven world.
Turning inward (with some difficulty)
I inventory my life and find everything to be the usual mess.
Still, I am almost never out of earshot or arm’s length of someone I love.
True, a few that I loved are gone, a few more simply out of reach, forever.
But those I love most and best bide with me still
and I bide — an itchy fellow with a twisted ankle planted in the grass,
grateful as all get-out for my misery.
The other night, you asked me:
“What if you knew you were going to die?”
and I regret my answers, every one.
Go ask the wind at midnight
its answer is no crueler than mine.
Warming in the sun like an old fuzzy peach,
it seems to me I have a better question:
“What if you knew you were going to live?”
Sister Carrie Truck and I
explore Denver like lovers lost in the canyons,
haunting industrial plantations,
smudged cinderblock faces & pre-stress tilt-ups,
planes upon planes in places unlingered in,
wild, bright, windy corridors of Commerce City,
South Santa Fe, the Platte Valley;
dark alleys under I-25 near the stockyards.
Low buildings let light into untouched
patches of blond dirt and slate-gray gravel,
wild grasses along high fences,
galvanized chain link drooping concertina,
aged spots of creosote & oil,
& the bright & faded exoskeletons of litter,
cicada of a civilization.
Sister Carrie Truck & I
scream rock & roll nonsense at roadmates,
hurry the transients along their way
through the unhuman places.
tasting the dust,
sniffing at thistle,
breaking open stalks of milkweed,
turning donuts in forsaken dirt lots,
raising sacred cowboy incense to heaven.
Sister Carrie Truck & I
have lost the will to destinations
seek only excuses,
live for dust & light
& metal & motion.
Sister Carrie Truck
leaps under my hand
leaps to my thoughts;
loves low, long slow graveyards of Denver.
We are bored with the seamless city.
Our interest has turned to the cracks.
An Apostrophe for Citizens Park
This is my apostrophe for Citizens Park, which has none,
a perfect miniature counterpoint to Sloan Lake,
across the street, which also has none, and no s, neither.
The last recorded site of Edgewaters underground nuclear testing,
(stones throw from Manhattan Beach, of course)
is neat and low, a grassed sink hole
its east end a rolling hedge against the sound
of Sheridan Boulevard and hundred-year floods.
Somebody dropped bundles here, spent some loot, go figure,
on the post-modern picnic rotunda
the horseshoes court, of course,
and the baseball fields, sodded, extravagantly lit
by rows of vast gas lights so high on aluminum poles
you can see them from across Sloan Lake,
from Lake Middle School if you know what you’re looking for,
(a formation of B-1 bombers flying below radar).
Most extravagant of all, oddest surprise in this postage-stamp suburb,
a nameless sculpture, mild and charming, which I have nicknamed “Chunky”
(as in “open wide for Chunky…” which song the sculpture inspires me
to spontaneously sing out, scaring away women with babies in strollers).
Caught in mid-question or mid-sob, or mid-kiss (hard to say which)
Chunkys chunks are flanked by red sandstone blocks,
chunky benches where Edgewaterians are meant to sit and ponder Chunky,
though whenever I am here, I’m left alone,
left to sing and dream of Lady Bird Johnson
asleep with the flu, dreaming codeine dreams of flying
over Stonehenge and Easter Island and the craters of Mauna Loa,
only to wake and, fevered and half-remembering, designing this park,
replete with the Lee Harvey Oswald memorial knoll,
perfect for picking off horseshoes throwers
or anything close enough.
Things that I have noticed or that have awakened me in places where I have slept fitfully before moving on
The arc of the moon viewed from a dry irrigation ditch in a field full of restless cows in West Texas; the flickering of the television from the couch in off-base housing in Twenty-Nine Palms; the smell of sweaty, unwashed bodies in the sleeper of a semi in the parking lot of Little America; the pleasantly erotic vibration in the back of a Greyhound driving through the night through Missouri; my ice-cold feet in a sleeping bag in a boxcar headed south through central California; every little noise under countless and indistinguishable bridges and bypasses; the complete absurdity of my dayglo-orange tent pitched in the median of an unfinished freeway in the middle of the slums of North Las Vegas; the apocalyptic roar of hourly passing trains under a bridge over an inlet in Miami; the wild force of a sudden wind on Agate Beach at midnight; the Pict-like chitterings of unknown inhuman things on a creepy strange scrubby mountain overlook above Berkeley; the sudden onset of vertigo in the midst of a dream while sleeping on the cliffs overlooking Black’s Beach in La Jolla; small stirring things in a cave at the base of Mt. Lassen; shape-shifters in Canon De Los Muertos; the hiss and pop of rain falling on a giant tree in Oceanside; overwhelming claustrophobia while sleeping in a deep hole filled with tumbleweeds in Nevada; the random bark of a dog on the Navajo reservation after 9 p.m. at Canon De Chelly; the rustle of dogs settling in in my bed in a teardrop trailer in the coldest winter ever on Middle Creek; the ringing of crickets and the layered hum and scratch of distant traffic, and the supermarket Muzak while sleeping in the rough of the ninth hole of the municipal golf course in Salinas; a small pointed stone poking my back along the back fence at the back of the drive-in movie in Victorville; the sound of someone snoring in the next room at a commune in Victoria; a violent argument in the street below a daily rate cheap hotel in Miami; the aftertaste of Kools waking me from a dead sleep in a monthly rate cheap motel on Morrison Road; a gnawing sense of misdirection in a boarding house in Wallace, Idaho; a pervasive yet undefined sense of guilt while sleeping in a cheap apartment building in Knoxville; the tightness of the hospital-cornered sheets at the YMCA in Los Angeles; the limpness of faded adrenaline and the spinning rehash of events after a fist-fight between myself and another occupant of the International Youth Hostile in Santa Fe; the sulphered smell of natural gas at a condemned tenement house in New Orleans; the ringing in my ears in a park in Coco Beach; the occasional arc of a short in the electric heater outside my jail cell in Spanish Fork; the particular smell of California coming through the curtains of the Mondavi homestead in Sonoma; the impossibility of making yourself go to sleep in even the plushest of beds at Playa Tamaya; the lonely sameness of all hotel rooms at the Sheraton in Kowloon; the rattle of armadillos in the ferns near the dunes at Hanna Park; the bite of sand fleas on the beach in Clearwater; the unlabial urgency of Asian conversation on a wide-bodied aircraft traversing the unfathomable expanse of air above the Pacific ocean; the smell of hay and dust and old tools in a barn; and the insurmountable strangeness of the pillowed and perfumed beds of girls and women, whose dogs and cats would wake me in the mornings to let me know that I was strange, a stranger here, welcome to visit but not to stay, as if I didn’t already know.
The Ladies Have Arrived a Little Damaged
They slouch on the covered wood porch
of the two-story Victorian house on 9th Street
where the UCD English Department adjunct faculty are housed,
weighing in with sharp barbs of dry commentary
both self-effacing and every-other-self-effacing.
They are all calm surface,
and you have to squint to see the vibrations
of the small, toothy animals twitching around inside them.
One smoking and bitching loudly (like a mildly former-bad girl will do).
One smoking and brooding silently (like a wildly former-bad girl will do).
They are so much truly tougher than the other professors,
and so much more fragile, and more intense,
they are like cases of weathered dynamite stacked haphazardly on a porch,
and it kind of freaks me out they let me hang out with them.
Look at the ladies:
(I should like to say look at my ladies, but they are not mine)
They care about a world that did not care much about them.
They are my heroes.
Just barely in their 30s and so much badness inside them,
so much pain leaking out behind them like blue-green swirls of marine oil:
Years of being (variously) ignored, abused, addicted,
unloved and misunderstood.
And yet here they are: recovered and ready
to make the world a better place,
whether it likes it or not.
The ladies have arrived a little damaged,
but they have arrived, nonetheless,
and I recognized them immediately.
Three Smells from 1972
At the Jethro Tull Concert at Red Rocks
half-way up the concrete walkway into the amphitheater
a teargas canister whistled four feet over my head
and into the middle of a gaggle of bell-bottomed boys
raining rocks down on two battered cop cars.
They scattered, some up, some down, where we were,
and we all retreated as the white cloud spread out into the morning air.
My cousin, Montey, made sense for once:
“what are you doing?” he screamed at the rock-throwing “hippies,”
“those guys have guns.”
Down in the parking lot,
a Beetle burned so ferociously that the yellow flames rose forty feet into the air.
Who or why would anyone harm a Volkswagon?
asked my drug-addled brain.
Somebody call the ASPCA.
My first whiff of teargas
defined what is meant by the word bitterness,
and I can taste it now in my mouth as I write.
At a Cattle Ranch Outside of Farmington, New Mexico
Helping (actually mostly just watching)
Nathan and a crew of cowboys brand cattle.
A perfect fall day, the Hogback Mountains in the distance.
Branding produces just the smallest puff of white smoke,
and nothing prepared me for the shock of that smell,
as if death itself had entered my body through my nose.
I was obliged to endure it calmly, like a man,
but it is harder to get from your clothes than skunk,
and impossible to wash from your mind.
Thirty-six years later,
I am reminded of it
by the smell of the grinding of my tooth in a Dentist’s chair,
the tiniest puff of smoke of all,
as if death itself, bored with me, finally left me through my mouth.
On Top of the Water Tower at the UCC Retreat at La Foret
Midnight, on an open sleeping bag,
naked under the thick white blanket of the Milky Way,
our clothes and shoes hung precariously
off the lip of this big, rusty spaceship.
I inhaled the world:
pine sap, sage and juniper.
I inhaled you:
soap and sea water,
the most unforgettable smells of all.
10th and Wadsworth
at the city bus stop outside Maria Elena’s
she squints in the cold sunlight.
All the way down the south side of 10th Avenue,
bored parents like me sit in idling cars gushing clouds of exhaust
reading newspapers, chatting on cell phones, picking noses.
On the north side, chittering kids board rumbling school buses.
She pulls down her hat and stomps her feet,
dreaming of snuggling with her journal
in her warm, broad seat
in the far back of the
Rough, Tough and Dangerous.
The Phantoms of the Opera are Great Movers of Dust
The phantoms of the opera wander aimlessly through the empty sandwich layers of the eight-story Denver Center for the Performing Arts complex parking garage.
They have been sent here by the red-headed assistant district attorney with the burning blue eyes in the hope that, through a mysterious combination of boredom, carbon monoxide and dust, they will be transformed from drunk drivers into solid citizens whose resumes will almost certainly include under the heading “Community Service” the entry: “swept parking space immaculate for couple in Range Rover to see the opening night of Cosi Fan Tutti.”
Brooms in hand, they wander somnabulent (down and down and up and down and up, etc., etc.) muttering quietly to themselves about judges, lawyers, district attorneys, and cops.
The phantoms of the opera are slackers: They hide in stairwells, smoke joints between parked cars, wander as penitent monks in endless Escher-like circles between the fourth and fifth floor (except when the weather is nice).
When the weather is nice, the phantoms of the opera gather like Eloi at the eighth floor elevator terminus to trade stories about accidents, detox, courts, money, unfaithful wives, worthless children, blood alcohol levels and cops.
The phantoms of the opera have no wish to clean, no need to serve. They would never actually sweep anything except they are driven onward by bored security guards in white Chevettes with real flashing lights that work. The guards are angry because guards must work guards can be fired but phantoms of the opera cannot be fired, they can only be sent home for the day. Some punishment! The guards wish they were real cops with real guns that fired bullets into the black hearts of the lazy good-for-nothing-driving-drunken phantoms of the opera.
One-by-one, the phantoms of the opera learn to dodge the Chevette, slip unseen to the basement, stash their brooms, skulk down the traffic tunnel (unnoticed by symphony musicians smoking cigarettes at the stage door) out into the sunshine; across the street to Reese’s Coffee Shop to eat apple pie ala mode and flirt with the skinny waitress from the Bronx.
Not even that makes them happy.
Detritus of Childhood
The model car aisle at Hodel’s, a pickle jar full of mama’s tip change, the soda counter of the Dolly Madison, plucking crawdads from the Yale ditch, drinking Roy Rogers at Roxie’s, playing with cousin Dave in the rain at Axom’s, whispering in the loft above the Albany bar, walking the railroad tracks, giant toadstools, Black Cats, a yellow stingray, Saturdays at Centennial Flea Market, standing in line for Polio vaccine, banana Popsicles, Archie comic books, the wild side of Bear Valley Park, Charlie the angry rooster, Uncle John with his teeth out, the Rockybuilt next to the Ogden, tiny boxes of cereal, my father laughing in a bloody t-shirt and two front teeth missing, discovering fire, barbed wire, fried baloney sandwiches, government cheese, Totinos pizzas and Cap’n Crunch, my mother in a white dress, Sea Hunt and Superman and Ol’ Yeller, the Shakey’s on Santa Fe, an angry chimpanzee, a smart poodle, the bookmobile and the summer reading program, knocking bats cuckoo late nights in Harvey Park, John Carter of Mars, a scary flood, building a spaceship in my basement, trying to go home.
Stories of Chilhood
I am from a white-flecked red linoleum kitchen table
that took an extra sheaf when company came,
and gathered ‘round it like it was a campfire
crackling with stories and smelling of Jim Beam and Camel straights.
I am from Ovaltine and Tang and t.v. dinners
eaten in front of a black & white t.v.
I am from the secret space behind the snowball bush,
and the long line of Russian Olives at the back fence
(full of robins and wrens and woodpeckers)
which hid the rich people behind us and their swimming pools
laughing and splashing through my summers.
I am from laying in the grass and getting sick at my stomach
watching low clouds scud by.
I am from building Mayan cities in my sandbox.
I am from setting myself on fire while playing war with G.I. Joes with gasoline.
I am from Indians who dressed like cowboys,
and from cowboys who rode Harley Davidsons instead of horses.
I am from not talking about problems.
I am “Carson Ben Reed”
and I am named for two hardscrabble homesteaders
who tried to make a life for their families in New Mexico,
thirty years before I was born.
I am from D.I.V.O.R.C.E.
I am from being hungry because women didn’t get equal wages.
I am from raising myself because my mother worked two full-time jobs.
I am from always being poor but
I am from always inviting people without family over
to have dinner with us at Thanksgiving and Christmas.
I am from fried baloney sandwitches,
I am from potato soup with Texas cornbread.
I am from “a broken family”
but I am also from “you can be anything you want to be.”
I am from a mother who was shamed as a child by Baptist preachers,
and who dragged me from Ashram to Satsang to New Age seminars.
I am the second generation of someone searching for comforting truth.
I am from two generations of heavy equipment operators
who scoured the earth in search of pipelines to run
and mountains to level and holes to dig and foundations to lay.
I am from people who have loved life,
but have never loved a book or a poem.
I am from people who wanted to love me,
but didn’t know how.
I am from stories I love, told long ago,
from people I still love, but from afar.
— Carson Reed