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
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.”