Whale Constellation by Greg Watson

Whale Constellation

Of all the constellations in the night sky,
my daughter and I like best
the large, benevolent whale which
has emerged from the worn and cracked
galaxy of the ceiling. We imagine
his long nightly travels, out beyond
the reaches of our dreams, where
ocean and sky become indistinguishable,
always bringing him back, calm and
sleepy-eyed in the gray-blue of morning.
We count the small shapes of stars,
still visible beneath thick layers
of paint, the years not yet erasing them.
We follow the crumbling lines
drawn by time, sometimes spotting
the shape of a snake or an old woman
cooking an oversized pot of stew.
Once, we saw a bear standing on two legs;
a bushy-tailed fox slinking through
the trees, its shadow thin as a thread.
But they are mere decoration
surrounding the body of our beloved,
making his long and sacred journey
on our behalf, slow moving and scarred
as love itself, silent in his passing,
knowing just where to find us again.

by Greg Watson

Editor’s Note: As anyone who loves astronomy knows, the stories of the stars begin in childhood, and this poem’s contemplative imagery illustrates the beginning of what might be a life-long passion.

Smiles by Greg Watson

Smiles

Our ancestors rarely smiled,
it seems, waiting patiently through
the lengthening seconds
until the flash broke like a gunshot
through the quiet afternoon air.
No wonder their eyes look startled.
We, however, learned to smile
on cue — the toothy rich kids,
the poor, the ones locked
in small, private hells at home
that none of us could have imagined.
We smiled at family gatherings,
on birthdays and holidays;
smiled on school picture day,
suddenly aware of our bodies,
awkward and uncertain, stuffed into
starched collars and stiff shoes
normally reserved for Sunday services.
We smiled the way others did,
the way they did on TV, two fingers
of our mothers’ spit taming
our outlaw cowlicks and eyebrows,
while we waited for what seemed
an eternity for the smallest
click of the shutter, when we could
at last exhale, laugh, look away.

by Greg Watson

Editor’s Note: This poem eloquently describes the surface of things, and the pressure to provide the correct canvas, while beneath, all manner of emotion roils.

The Transfer by Greg Watson

The Transfer

One of the earliest tricks to master
in parenting is what is generally referred to
as the transfer, that most delicate
operation of moving a sleeping child
from car seat, sofa, or lap
to the soft reassurance of the bed,
and somehow not startling them awake.
The wrong creak of the floorboards,
tilt of neck, or simple, dry cough
can induce wails of panic
and agitation, thick droplets of tears,
the whole body in sudden protest.
This is not right, scream the lungs.
This is not the place we started from,
kick the legs in exclamation.
So we learn this sleight of hand,
the language of mime, monk, assassin,
learn to slow our bodies and breath,
and to silence the world that holds them.
We learn to move without moving,
and to let that which we love most alone,
sleeping just out of reach.
Perhaps this is what we all long for
in the end — one tender hand
cradling our sweat-dampened head,
the other lifting us, as though
the entirety of our lives weighed
nothing at all, holding us so very gently
that we hardly notice moving
from one room to the next.

by Greg Watson

Editor’s Note: This poem describes a nearly universal feat of parental skill, but it’s the last few lines that elevate the narrative from an ordinary action to thoughtful delight.

Light Sleeper by Greg Watson

Light Sleeper

Nearly anything, it seems, can startle you
awake these days — the faint rustle
of a bedroom curtain, clang and gurgle
of a steam radiator, phantom steps
crossing the hardwood floor,
the thinnest strand of light seeping in.
Hovering between sleep and awake,
you turn from one side to another,
the cool underside of the pillow
reaching downward, while you float
among the surface of things,
neither rising nor falling for hours.
It was not always this way, you think.
You slept like a stone through childhood,
slept through monsters and ghosts,
through colds and dangerous fevers,
slept as though dropped from
a passing plane, limbs positioned
like the most random of stars,
planted in the earth, unmoving.
Your daughter sleeps this way now.
Perhaps this is the gift we pass along,
the naive promise of sweet dreams
kissed into eyes and brow,
the worries we happily take on.
A father must sleep lightly,
every groan and ping of the universe
taken in, held, acknowledged;
while a child must not be bothered
by the trivialities of this world,
even if it breaks apart, even if the pieces
are lost for years and years to come.

by Greg Watson

Editor’s Note: This poem is perfectly constructed: regular line lengths, a few startling images, and a conversational tone that almost distracts you from the way it reaches into your heart and squeezes just enough to remind you of why you’re alive.

What the Burglar Left by Greg Watson

What the Burglar Left

The burglar left our apartment
much the same as before,
leaving two uncertain boot tracks
skidding downward from
the kicked-in window screen,
black roads leading nowhere,
thin plumes of smoking reaching up
through the white winter sky;
left the cats skittish but unharmed,
dishes filled, toys scattered;
left the kitchen drawers flung open,
closet doors ajar, the bed
pulled like a raft from its dock
in the corner, drifting;
left your favorite painting,
the books unread, music waiting
to be played; left your simple silver
rings and bracelets, those empty
perfume jars and baubles,
the gaudy brooch your grandmother
had given you many years before;
left the water drip-dripping
in the bathroom sink,
the silence we had collected
over the years, breath by breath;
left a presence that became,
with time, impossible to shake
or to name, this stranger walking
silently from room to room,
picking things up, turning them over,
wondering what might be
worth taking, what held value
and what did not, and not finding
much, moving along.

by Greg Watson

Editor’s Note: This poem begins with an easy story and clear imagery, but it’s only as the reader moves closer to the closing lines that one begins to realize that the burglar is likely a metaphor for the entire narrative.

In the Trenches by Greg Watson

In the Trenches

We tunneled our way through
those long, winding winters of childhood,
crawled and slithered on bellies
made slick by thick poly-thermal
snowsuits, wet scarves trailing behind
like the tattered flags of nations
neither named nor conquered.
The maps we drew we drew within,
our detailed plans of conquest
and exploration unknown to others.
In empty fields, flat and frozen,
we could go on and on, seemingly
for miles, burrowing, inching along
unseen, only to re-emerge somewhere
deep behind enemy lines,
disoriented, studying the silence.
Then, — whap! — a sudden barrage
of snowballs, some coated with ice,
stinging, sent us scurrying back
the way we came, crawling on
padded elbows, the muted crunch
of packed snow beneath us,
while the world above became barely
a muffle, a fog, a rumor of a life
long since fled; then, at long last
a moment of calm repose in the rooms
we had carved out, fistful by fistful,
breathing the secret the air
between worlds, never afraid,
the afternoon sun already descending
on a kingdom that none of us
would ever know again.

by Greg Watson

Editor’s Note: The nostalgia of this narrative poem feels deceptively sweet until the very end, where the closing lines remind us that innocence is both fleeting and necessary.

Junk Drawer by Greg Watson

Junk Drawer

How it never yielded easily,
always jammed, always pulling
stubbornly to one side;
how it measured in this way
the insistence of your curiosity.
How it never seemed
to be full, always accepted
more and more, making room
within its shallow walls
for another stack of coupons,
restaurant matchbooks,
the padlocks without keys.
How you rarely found
whatever it was you were
searching for, there among
the spools of thread, the nails
and tape and bric-a-brac,
the random broken fixtures
and wires, toys and gadgets that
no one could now remember.
How it accepted your small hand,
fumbling blindly, making space
among the lost and forgotten.
How you inevitably walked away
with something, something
you did not know the name of,
something whose only purpose
in that moment was to be held
and carried at your side,
a thing of wonder once again.

by Greg Watson

Editor’s Note: This poem fools the reader into thinking it’s talking about a junk drawer, but the true narrative emerges with the last few lines.

Stone by Greg Watson

Stone

My mother tells me the story of her mother,
the gray, hard-edged world from which
she emerged; how denial became
the common language, silence a bridge
between angry shouts at God
and anyone else who might listen;
tells how her mother’s parents refused her
pleading for a doll to call her own,
and how one day she wandered
past the fields until she found a stone,
round-shouldered and smooth,
wrapped the stone in discarded cloth,
cradling it, calling it her baby.
She tells me also of standing as a child
on the cold train platform,
the long journey north ahead,
shaking with tears while her father —
a cruel man on the best of days —
told her that her beloved ragdoll would
not be allowed on board.
That decision, he spat, was final.
My daughter will know none of this.
The floors here are strewn with
plush toys, action figures,
plastic Lego waiting for the most tender
part of the foot to find them.
We stroll our quiet neighborhood,
collecting twigs, autumn leaves
of burnt sienna and gold,
stones that she assures me have
fallen from the moon, or have been
thrown from angry volcanoes,
stones that still contain the images
of animals from long ago,
imprint of a hand or a small face turning,
grateful to be held so gently,
to whisper their stories once again.

by Greg Watson

Editor’s Note: The narrative of this poem defines its shape and length, and ultimately, the imagery that makes the last several lines so precious.

Sirens by Greg Watson

Sirens

All summer long we have heard
the sirens rising, falling,
blazing down our tree-lined streets—
fire trucks and ambulances
parting the seas of traffic,
stopping time at the ticking
lights of intersections.
We have heard the dogs howl
in response, the shrieks of crows,
heard the silence that follows,
the sudden stillness of sky.
We are weary with this
small but constant mourning,
as we are guilty of occasionally
forgetting where these sirens lead,
the story at the other end,
the life unspooling into daylight.
Yet we are admittedly grateful
as the blare and lights fade,
our ears still ringing in shock;
we are grateful that today
we stand quietly observing,
with barely our shadows
to weigh us down,
just off to the side of it all.

by Greg Watson

Editor’s note: This poem is so smoothly written that the imagery slips into the mind’s quiet chamber with ease, yet the echo of the words lingers. This poem reminds me of something Ted Kooser said about writing a poem: “Enjoying a well-written poem can be like going for a ride in a glass-bottomed boat.”