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.

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.