What my Father Found by Greg Watson

What my Father Found

My father says that he remembers nothing after
finding my grandmother, thrown as if by force
upon the kitchen floor, her blue eyes gone
blank as river stone, blood not red but black,
reaching, as one hand did, into the stillness of air,
the other held inward, as if cradling a book
which no one could have seen or deciphered.
He remembers the bottle of arsenic glinting
in sunlight, the maddening shouts of the crows,
the strange weight of his own breath hovering;
remembers walking slowly back to the car,
easing it up the gravel road to the Halverson’s
to start up a game of afternoon baseball.
I can’t know his thinking, or whether all thought fled.
Yet in my mind’s eye I see him, unwashed jeans
dragging at the heel, the bill of his cap pulled low,
walking much the same as I did at that age,
hands in pockets, gazing vaguely at the ground.
I can see him kicking at the dirt, signaling,
his H&B bat suddenly connecting, startling
the barn swallows out of their secret chambers,
the thin, red stitching of the ball turning
and turning, fast upon itself, shooting past
the billowing tops of summer trees; and below,
the lengthening silhouette of that farm boy
running, running toward a fierce blinding light
where, for one imperceptible moment,
he somehow manages to all but disappear.

by Greg Watson

Editor’s Note: Shock is an indescribable experience, yet this poem somehow manages to bring it forth with stunning imagery and clear focus.

Of This World by Greg Watson

Of This World

There’s a window open between each written word.
Words alone are my witnesses within this world.

The witnesses to our childhoods fall away, one by one.
Who is left to say we were here, walking this world?

My daughter calls out to the crows along our walk.
She needs no convincing to love this world.

Still, we study endlessly the passing of things.
We want only to say that it’s not the end of the world.

Once, long ago, I saw the lake-light pierce your skin.
I knew in that moment I was alive in this world.

Even in sleep, your words could astonish and beguile.
It was hard to limit yourself to just one world.

Words, like memory, are the least reliable of guides;
but we follow them into the silence of the world.

The names of many things continue to elude me.
One day I will forget my own, and that of this world.

by Greg Watson

Editor’s Note: The repetition in this ghazal presses the importance of small, singular moments into the reader’s mind, for they encompass the entire reason for our existence.

Kabul by Greg Watson

Kabul

For a moment, the young men appear
to be outrunning even the enormous plane,
gunmetal gray, pregnant with the weight
of its designated survivors, crawling slowly
along the tarmac, which waves and shimmers
like a colorless flag in the sweltering heat.
For a moment, at just the right angle,
none of their feet appear to be touching
the earth, such is their immediate desire for
release, the endless scroll of blue sky.
For a moment, their shouts seem almost
celebratory, their upheld hands as if in rapture.
They leap and grab at the air, as if tugging
the invisible hem of a god manifested
from this catastrophe by cries and cries alone.
But the ship casts its cold shadow now,
an enormous carpet of night shifting
beneath them, pulling gradually faster until
they are left standing, all but motionless,
on this sun-bleached cement, phosphorescent,
as if something had just been erased,
something already being forgotten.

by Greg Watson

Editor’s Note: This poem drives home the surreality of disaster with its juxtaposition of beautiful, ecstatic imagery against the very real horror of catastrophe. The last line is the killer.

Memory Care by Greg Watson

Memory Care

In the memory care unit, everyone seems
pleased to see you — partly because
they believe you are someone else —
a wayward son not spoken to in years,
or the first boy to have uttered the word love
as though it were a fact, as solid as a tree
or the ground from which it emerged.
You walk behind the floor scrubber
as quietly as you can, your measured pace
slower than a monk’s in procession,
making certain that no water streams behind.
You have been called by many names here,
always smiling and nodding in return.
You have felt the presence of those lives
passing through for perhaps the final time.
You can’t help but think of your own mother,
how she longed for nothing more than
to forget, to forget, the ECT doing its best
to pinpoint the exact intersections of her pain;
how she forgot, too, the names of her sons
when she called from the next room
or considered them questioningly at dinner,
a stage actress fumbling for her next line.
Perhaps the Vedic masters had it right all along:
this world, however convincing, is merely
a passing show. God plays every part.
God holds a cardboard sign by the freeway,
makes your latte, calls you handsome.
We are divine against all logic and evidence.
We are divine, even as we soil ourselves,
stumbling back to the newness of childhood,
not yet able to write our own names,
knowing only the comfort of their music,
the familiar shape they carve into air.

by Greg Watson

Editor’s Note: This heartache of a poem begins compassionately, if impersonally, but soon narrows down to a very personal sorrow. Repetition hammers home the sadness of the speaker, but the closing lines show how grief is also part of life, and precious despite the pain.

Last Words by Greg Watson

Last Words

In the end, I don’t need to know what your last words might have been — whether some sly, unassuming wisdom, cry of anguish, or blasphemy — before your body offered up its last and holiest secrets. For you, a man who conserved words as if allotted only a handful in this life, one silence leading into another would seem fitting. The endless books of quotations and insight, the intricate wounds coughed up as speech, we must now leave for others. Even the words I wrote after your death, winding them into a pencil-thin scroll to be fed into cemetery dirt, somehow elude me now. Their mystery is yours, their meaning gone back into darkness. Let it remain so. Let me learn, if anything, the grace of saying nothing at all.

by Greg Watson

Editor’s Note: This prose poem uses imagery very sparsely, but where it does, the impact is all the more startling.

At the Zoo by Greg Watson

At the Zoo

The zoo was a much less joyful place
when I was a boy. The animals seemed sad
and weary behind their metal bars,
and we in turn were sad for them:
the great lumbering polar bear pacing
back and forth on its white slab of cement,
Sparky the seal swimming the same
tired circle endlessly, doing the same tricks
for the same slimy fish thrown daily,
by the same human demanding applause.
The gorillas and baboons looked you
in the eye, held you there, unnervingly, as if
you had an answer for all of this,
imploring you to recall the common tree
from which you emerged so long ago.
These days, with my daughter, the walk
is longer, the animals sometimes
harder to spot among their tangled
foliage, vast stretches of plain and rockface.
We walk for miles in the heat of summer,
not always seeing what we wish to see,
but if we are patient, the great cats
may stir from their slumber, flick their tails,
let out a mighty, rumbling roar which
my little girl has practiced and mastered
as well, both of them letting us know
who is really in charge here.

by Greg Watson

Editor’s Note: This conversational poem draws the reader into what seems like an ordinary life, until the final four lines remind us that parenting a child is anything but.

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.