String Theory by D.E. Kern

String Theory

The mother knelt, one knee drawn back, three inches off the ground and
paid out the string a handful at a time using her fingers as a guide. Wind
caught the face of the kite and lifted, held it just beyond the reach of an
arm about the distance of a mirror from a face after a harried breakfast

two cups of coffee too few and the news another good friend was dying.
The child looked at it askance and danced to the music of the breeze
rattling the plastic against the dowel skeleton like Elijah’s bones, then
turned his attention to the next-best thing: a flash of color, sounds cutting

through the white noise in a busy park. But the mother kept kneeling
doled out life by the cuticle to balance the fragility of things against all
the wonders of possibility. She studied the kite’s burnished surface as if
expecting it to catch the right light for a reflection—perhaps the surreal

mélange gifted by glass in a funhouse—and I wondered if she had heard
the story told by a writer dying young. How after one last doctor’s visit
he considered the shirt he’d decided to be buried in, just back from the
drycleaners and swathed in a thread-bare layer of plastic pierced at the top

by a hanger. If she did, I imagined she’d rise and corral her prodigal son,
encourage him to bear witness to the way process gives way to payoff
tell him there is something holy, miraculous about the moment when things
take flight. There is a danger in turning away when the sun first breaks

the darkness with a laser shot of purple; when a ball meets a bat with a crack
that sounds like someone breached the wall between space and time;
when two lovers carry out the last sway in their dance and fly away together
only to land with a sigh. These are the things too essential for one to miss.

Instead she knelt, fixed on lengthening the slack, battling the squalls that
threatened to tear the kite into scraps of kindling and cheap-ass garbage bag.
Ten feet away her son danced to the music drifting in from another party,
a ranchera tune with a trumpet cutting slices of the high, cloud-mottled sky.

I found my feet bolted to ground and smiled, just half-certain God caught
the gesture, but believed the child missed nothing of consequence at all.

by D.E. Kern

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Editor’s Note: This poem’s meandering narrative draws the reader through one possibility and into another, until the last two lines arrive with great certainty.

Substitute by D.E. Kern

Substitute

So, it’s too early to figure
if the sun will do serious
business today with an Earth
coated in hoarfrost, my engine

eager to settle in its solid
state, frozen in position,
with just ghostly wisps
marking its latest efforts

gliding across the fractured
concrete. Two coffees shy
of useful, I pry open the steel
door, rise the stairs and key

my way through to these last
precious ticks of solitude
before chaos floods each square
of this fluorescent universe.

Now note the funeral march,
minus the bleating, this one
distinction between stockyards
and this drill in standards

fit quite coyly to gallows,
the sentence for a species
cursed to wrestle the knowledge
of its role in our mortal

comedy. She enters a day
already stained by error,
just a Johnny Rotten T-shirt
separating her from the queue

of the soon to be forgotten.
I would not notice her if not
rendered window blind, hit
by this bolt of brilliance

slinking in from a more
substantial world. A nimble
dodge to the left reveals
her wary face, jutting cheeks

masking the darkness of eyes
I know in a glance have seen
too much, a parade of husks
helpless against this enigmatic

prairie wind. A flannel shroud,
rolled up three times, discloses
striping—her declaration of a
been-there-done-that captaincy

her pound of flesh embossed
atop a little more, stretched
tight over a pencil-thin wrist.
I take a snapshot glimpse and

call the roll, careful to not put
a name with a face. Head still
hanging, a target for fortune, I
wait for the bell convinced

her salvation is not my cross
to bare. I am just a contrail
slashing her horizon, with
plenty of scars of my own.

by D.E. Kern

David on Facebook

Editor’s Note: This narrative sits firmly within the mind of the speaker, a teacher who has no energy left to reach out beyond what the classroom requires. I think most educators will understand this weariness.

Drift the Corners by D.E. Kern

Drift the Corners

Here is to a year of living dangerously
because those who dole out portions miss the whole
point that dawns do not rise with guarantees.

I think we should abandon the word sparingly,
for there’s no sense to the notion less is more.
Here is to a year of living dangerously.

No map can measure all the world we have to see;
the distance to be covered by expanding minds.
The question is tomorrow will you go with me?

The plan is to pursue joy so relentlessly
we have no choice but to leave the rest to chance.
Drift corners in this year of living dangerously.

The shackles some pinned on you rather heartlessly
are a burden I’ll drag anywhere you choose,
to bury so the sun sets on them splendidly.

I scarcely can count all the gifts life’s granted me,
still there’s little doubt which one I treasure most.
I want to carry you through years spent living dangerously;
may all the dawns of all our days break with you facing me.

by D.E. Kern

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Editor’s Note: Villanelles can be difficult to write without losing the reader’s interest, but in this poem, the repetition underscores the narrator’s philosophical assertion with useful emphasis.

Dry Bones Dance by D.E. Kern

Dry Bones Dance

In memory of Joel Keen

It’s mile two, and I have an eye on the ice.
I am also slipping into thoughts of my dear,
departed friend—the one who was all limbs
and a great big heart. It is the damnedest

thing. Searching for a bone-dry spot, I am
reminded of his favorite song about a prophet
dancing for the pleasure of God. I recall him
telling me this and thinking it funny, but not

nearly so much as watching him the next
Sunday, bopping the way older men are apt
to do—humerus and metacarpals unhinged
—and entirely comfortable with the idea

there is something more to this than us. He
had this lesson for me and others, us being
the sorts to exchange in the currency of the
mind. We agreed a just deity takes questions;

this being the only gentlemanly thing to do
for one with such an advantage in perspective.
I suppose we shared some skepticism regarding
love too, the way it requires us to punch out

chinks in our own armor. Maybe this is why
you’re on my mind tonight, as I finally gain
the vantage of a bridge that shivers under
the burden of all this Christmas traffic.

The water rolls past unchecked, oblivious
to the demands of a new year I can itemize
far too easily. But the sum of my trouble
is time; it settles with the cold in my bones.

I think perhaps that is why you danced.
There is something entirely logical about
letting go of those things we were never met
to hold. Something utterly courageous shown

when a man taught to stand on ceremony
lies these pretenses down. The muted sun settles
behind a latticework of trees, and I throttle
the truck, content with another lesson learned.

by D.E. Kern

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Editor’s Note: The enjambment from the first stanza to the next reflects the uncertainty of the speaker’s position on the road, and in life.

Buzzard by D.E. Kern

Buzzard

Foulness—beyond central air or fan—floats above her balsa-wood frame.
Sweats suggest she’d sprint the block if she could, wind
. . . .unwinding tinsel mane.
My name escapes her serrated tongue; glasses of another Nana top her head,
as she runs down a list of second-cousins bound to never dawn this narrow door

where I hulk, my eyes ammonia stung, tears blurring the edges of her too-angular face.
Her hand, sumac splotched, bids me to join her on the bed, recite the customary lines,
. . . .describe how I’m taking on water.
“You put me in the red pony’s stall,” she says, recalls mucking dung on the farm.

How can the bed-ridden mourn over space?
Or is it work she craves to accompany her labored breath?

Projects ambitious as the WPA’s were her air those summers, spent hemming
in her flowers, with tractor tires turned to beds. Mumbling “don’t tread on me,”
she painted them, barber-pole-style, filled them with geraniums,
peonies so vibrant you would’ve swore the petals were pottery, confections.

Her trowel left a vapor trail … She turned macadam into topsoil, brought life
from a Karst hard as immigrant strife, grew squash the size of watermelon
down the hill from the little, red, two-seater outhouse

next door to my grandfather’s shop. He retreated there to make their tidy house in miniature,
cedar and pine versions for chickadees and wrens. She raised her thumb, and he erected
baths for these scaled-down Caesars, Cardinals and Canvasbacks with laurel sprigs
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .hanging
jauntily, from the corners of their blue-grass-stained mouths.

Then, with her as pleased as she was bound to be, he bivouacked by tractor while she ground
. . . .in lessons on the well-weeded life, the importance of being earnest.
I picked berries ’till my hands were stained, my knees red,
trimmed down the grass where it worked its way up the side of the barn.

He returned at the gray end of dusk, having cut in two directions. I had bathed in stainless
. . . .steel, braved basement chill as I jumped in my clothes.
Our respite was measured in nine innings, 27 instances where failure laid somewhere else.
She sat in the corner, worked the crossword, reminded us of how soon morning came.

Broadcasts faded to echoes the last of his winter nights; he’d run short on grass and wood.
They tell me she held his hand and dabbed his brow, but I imagine she spied
. . . .dried mustard on his chin.
But the time my plane touched down there was no use in accusing her of killing spirits—
neither for what she did to him nor what she said to me.

by D.E. Kern

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Editor’s Note: This poem’s complex imagery requires several readings to fully appreciate the layered emotional impact of the narrator’s story. Death and dying are often difficult subjects to tackle, and this poem impressively interweaves the many responses we can have towards this inevitable closure.

Less of Him, Less of Us by D.E. Kern

Less of Him, Less of Us

His long limbs lend the perception of more than five eleven
as he glides across the lawn and measures the rain in a rusted
gauge. This cavalry man on a Deere mows along memorized
lines, making checkerboard rows as he imagines animals
inhabit the clouds. He dabs at his sweat with an old bandana
folded into a triangle and rides into the pulsing sun.

It’s been seven years of him on my mind, and each chat
with a man his age is a blessing and a curse, a study
in weathered veins. He hailed from a generation pushed
into a permanent stoop by the weight of their days, people
whose courage bloomed on beachheads and over Dresden
earning them full-dress parades and dances in tickertape rain.

He framed a home across his shoulders and laid the bricks
in soldiers’ rows, pressed the trowel until his palms bled,
mixing the mortar with a human stain. He trembled, or nodded,
over breakfast as he recalled the children of Japan and the way
he tried to use a pocket full of Hershey’s bars to sweeten the deal.

Perched on the porch he scanned the summer sky for threats
to the flag hung high on the pole where it chattered in the wind
until his heart—rent beyond repair—gave up guarding the most
orderly place any of his drifting tribe has ever known.

by D.E. Kern

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Editor’s Note: The long lines and conversational tone of this poem lead the reader into memory—and when you lose someone, you often discover that the stories they told you become as real as your own memory of the person. The title of this poem is particularly apt, given how diminished one can feel with loss.