Bone-Chilled by Martin Willitts Jr.

Bone-Chilled

These mountains were not high enough to have snowcaps
but a toddler tugged on his mother’s sleeve
as a silent plea for safety. The pond was frozen over,
although spring was coming out of its cabin,
carrying a berry-picking tin pail. The boy shivered
in his parka, back-glancing at the junipers
where the all-day bird was singing, knowing weather
was purposely fickle. His mother had pushed off
the latest attempt by another no-account guy
who had stared once too intently at his eight
year old sister. Bone-chills emanated from that man,
like a kind of mean wind blasting them in the face.
He went with his mother, searching with a group
for his sister who had run off into this direction,
into the folds of the mountains. The boy called out
in his small voice, loudly for the lost,
already dreading what he knew must be true and too late.
His mother, biting at her cold sore, seemed serene
at this same awful conclusion, holding one boot
belonging to his sister, strangely smaller,
like hope, like one blue flower in the snow-melt.

by Martin Willitts Jr.

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Editor’s Note: The narrative of this poem moves inexorably forward, as cold, spare imagery fills out the emotional devastation of the narrator, a child too young/old for lies.

Wind by Martin Willitts Jr.

Wind

A blustery darkening day snarls around my house,
half-awakening the blinds, millions of autumn leaves
snapping against windows. A temperature drops off
at my doorstep, an unwanted baggage.
The wind moans like a pregnant woman.

I would not be astonished if tomorrow blew by.

*

She holds her pregnant belly, afraid she’s hatching the moon.
Her breasts are swollen with milk, purple nipples aching,
feeling pinched. I offer to relieve her pain,
and she throws a look like a knife thrower, watch it buddy,
whooshing air. I slink away like the leaves outside,
hoping for a place to hide until the storm blows over.

As her time nears, she thunders a scream, rattling windows,
bones; the neighbors think it’s bloody murder. Crows
screech and fly panicked into each other, creating darkness.

She wants to strangle the doctor who suggests,
that wasn’t so bad now, after all, was it?
Luckily for him, I’d suggested strapping her down first.

She tries to disassemble both of us with a nasty glare.

*

The wind’s teeth bite at any exposed skin.
An old woman scolds her runaway scarf.
It might be found later, draped around a tree, keeping it warm.

But in the meantime, the scarf bolts, and bolts away
whenever she gets within reach. It’s some kind of keep-away.
She curses the wind like a woman pushing out a baby.

She nips at the wind, gnashing it. Her cussing darkens skies,
the color of crow feathers. I have learned to stay out of it.
I’d offer to help, but she is bitter as the onslaught wind.

by Martin Willitts Jr.

Martin on Facebook

Guest Editor’s Note: This poem conveys the uncontrollable power and mystery of natural forces, with the woman in childbirth possessed by and possessing them. The potentially overwhelming emotion of the piece is controlled by the narrator’s mildly ironic voice.

Please welcome Guest Editor Catherine Rogers from April 3-7, 2017.

Chorography by Martin Willitts Jr.

Chorography

I had a flash — our bodies turned
to cremation ashes — in a forest,
memory is waiting, large as broad leaves
in shimmering rain of cello notes.
A whole continent of sadness
was emptying its dreams
like tap shoes dancing.

Then a tsunami of constellations
hastened hysteria like whirling Sufi,
our names chanting off the tiles and walls
in a metronome precision.

I was in that trajectory of loss,
clutching a prayer shawl,
begging for more time
to be with you. And from faraway,
you listened, and it did not prevent you
from swiveling your head
like a passion flower
seeking light
in the darkest midnight corner.

We conversed in the after-world,
still not tired of each other
and the patter of vowels
were the symphony of caring.

As quickly as I had shifted to daydream,
I’d transitioned back into reality —
this other memory, still echoing
like descending footsteps
dancing away.

Outside, the calla lily sun was in the lavender sky,
placing one foot in front of the other, step
by elusive step. When you approached,
my heart exalted-leapt like a male ballet dancer
jack-knifing into the stratosphere.

And, o, the overtones of mysterious light were everywhere!
All I needed was cedar waxwings in the early music
among the rosewood, or a corona of sun opening in a blue lake.

by Martin Willitts Jr.

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Editor’s Note: The startling imagery (metaphor, simile, personification) of this poem carries the reader through turbulent emotions. The final stanza is elegiac as it closes the narrative.

The Miles Before Sleep by Martin Willitts Jr.

The Miles Before Sleep

I did something hard: I stared at my mother
on a ventilator, lungs working overtime.
The end was in her sight, the shortening miles
before she could pull over and rest.

Her eyes were begging, make it end.
I looked into her eyes, trying to pull her back,
until I saw she wanted to drown
in silence. She had provided birth, and now
she craved death like it was a candy bar.

She was evaporating into her skin like a prayer,
fingers on a rosary, her road map
indicating miles to go before arriving.

I didn’t look away from observing death.
There is no shame in dying, no dishonor
in remorse, no journey without someone looking back.
She gazed straight into the nowhere, terrorized
at what was next. Religion had warned her
about heaven and hell, simple sins
leading to confession booths, scabbing the knees.

I began talking to her, mundane to important words,
chattering like a magpie. She was heading into Somewhere
and my voice might reassure her, telling her it was alright,
she could leave, I would be fine.

I have seen the eyes of surrender
as a field medic in Vietnam. It is not explosive
as a minefield, it is not zipped silent in a body bag,
it is not always gory, but always the eyes
are unable to say what they wanted to say.
When they are doped up on morphine, they can’t speak,
can’t name their fear. Sad eyes, seen-it-all eyes,
tired-of-battlefields or common-problems eyes,
the same eyes needing comfort.

by Martin Willitts Jr.

Martin on Facebook

Editor’s Note: The conversational tone of this poem gives the reader the sense that she is listening to a friend describing the indescribable.

Lessons by Martin Willitts Jr.

Lessons

The sky sighs one snowflake,
and it floats like a manta ray.
It is outlined in the dark, falling
awkward, only to be called back.

There are areas where silence
is traced like a river of air,
a voice calling us,
telling us it is getting late.

I keep reminding myself,
Spring is closer and further away
than I think. When I look,
nothing is there.

*

A work crew takes chainsaws to the mulberry.
But its roots are deep, entangled,
and it will not go easily. Saws lose their edge,
going dull as a conversation.

The mulberry had been here since Victorian times,
scolding newness like a grouchy grandparent
set in their ways. God wrote into Creation,
we would have to tolerate whatever stands in our way.

*

A skunk was scrubbed against the road, odor stumbling,
half-blind. Boys lifted their wrinkled noses,
souring their faces. Girls danced perfume into the air,
hoping for the best, but disappointed, like with a kiss.

A child listening to a bedtime story asks, what’s that?
Answers open other questions a crew must clean up.
A skunk only has one way to get its point across.
Once it teaches its lesson, we learn never to forget it.

by Martin Willitts Jr.

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Editor’s Note: This poem’s three parts showcase the title’s definition. The last part’s repetition of previous imagery ties everything together with an difficult lesson.

Heading Towards Home by Martin Willitts Jr.

Heading Towards Home

The distance heads towards a small village
of post card, white clapboard houses,
where pale-green pastures level off
before another hill begins. The sky is waiting
for the rain to arrive, and dampness enters
the bones. A bird is nowhere, wherever wind is.

Heading this way is a van, pulled over,
its engine ticked off, cooling. A family is eating
lunch, while a man checks the map to see
the answer to every child’s question:
are we there yet? He’s not sure where they are.
Perhaps, they missed the turn. His wife is angry.
They should have turned right long time ago
but he was too lazy to ask questions, or
he said too many times he trusted his instincts.
The wind did not bring them here.

The town ahead is too small to be looking for.
Their two boys know it is time to play in mud,
while adults settle their scores. The houses
are turning on their suppertime lights.
Sheep are heard ringing in the fields, nearing,
like child’s questions. Everyone wants to know
where they are in relation to home, and crave
a familiar sight; no one wants to be in the lost.

No map tells you where you are,
but only your relationship to somewhere
if you have a familiar landscape.
And you are lost in anger, no map gets you out.

The dampness moves in. The doors of the village
open and call out to children. The sky greys
and triangle sheets of rain open like maps.
The van turns on headlights, breaks through mist
hoping someone knows where somewhere is,
while all the time the village knew where home is.

by Martin Willitts Jr.

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Editor’s Note: Not every poems needs strict realistic imagery to convey its story. This poem uses surreal imagery to draw the reader into the narrative, while personification creates a rich and emotional atmosphere.

Symphony by Martin Willitts Jr.

Symphony

. . . . . . . .we are one note played in high altitudes
. . . . . . . .taking time reaching ground level
. . . . . . . .wondering if the descent is worth
. . . . . . . .the same as the slow ascent

sometimes a quarter note finds rim rock or pine jut
. . . .or sometimes it finds an indigo flower without a known name

or music dwells in a crag where snow melt dribbles slowly through
. . . .on its way in no particular hurry to get there

. . . . . . . .that single note can be impeded by cloudburst
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .or primary colors
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .or absorbed into the hush of ferns

it never sounds like death
. . . .nor the eclipse of awe
. . . . . . . .nor the angle of light on the sheer rock face

the powder-blue sky begins this day as a full orchestra
. . . .clouds arrive in tuxedoes with black music cases

. . . . . . . .cymbals clash
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .then a timpani of kettle drums
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .the harsh striking violins
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .make rain
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .a crescendo

. . . .a pause. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .a silent rest spot

in the aftermath there is a drop on a white dogwood flower
. . . .and a mockingbird reaches a high pitch
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .like a piccolo

by Martin Willitts Jr.

Martin on Facebook

Editor’s Note: Concrete poetry is often forced into place, and meaning takes a back seat to visual form. This poem, however, echoes the shape and sound of water and storm, supporting the imagery rather than detracting from it.

Water Touches the Quiet, Serious Ones by Martin Willitts Jr.

Water Touches the Quiet, Serious Ones
. . . . . . . .For my friend, Lindsey Bellosa-McCabe

A four year old boy rides his bike to the edge of the ocean
to watch the ships with three lowered sails
rock and lullaby on waves. The water touches his toes
and the ship’s bottom, connecting them. He listens to the water
slip back and forth like naked feet on bike peddles, the sound
arriving long after the surf oozes on his feet and retreats
like sundown. In the distance, the ships rise and lower
like a boy peddling on small hills, coasting and catching wind,
the tassel-ribbons on handle bars streaming schools of fish.

He sees this ocean every day — no two waves crashing
or ebbing the same, no two displaced identical seashells,
no seagulls with the same circling pattern or number.
Sometimes, the horizon is empty; the air is still; the ride
on sand easier; the sounds each dissimilar from the next
and sometimes matching his own heartbeat, his own
heartbreak, his own stepping on the brakes,
the breakwater always falling back differently.

And the ships move over the water to where he cannot see them,
head towards another shore, maybe racing just for the sport of it.
Maybe, the ships are exploring the coast line and see the white house
with the green tile roof on the high bright-emerald hill, or maybe
they see the boy on the bike through binoculars, waving to him,
not understanding why he does not wave back —
when really, he cannot see them. They are not connected.

Life moves at altered paces, some slower than others.
Some ride waves of air or water or over sand or feel
the wind full of salt on their face or count sailboats
or find small crawdads. Somewhere from the house,
a voice calls trying to rise over the surf-smash. Somewhere
in the sand, a sand dollar is waiting to be found.
Somewhere, a seagull is overhead disguised as a cloud
or a white sail or a memory. Somewhere, my heart is pedaling,
the wet sand that slows me down until I notice the landscape —

the boy that could have been me; or I could be on the sailboat
curving the horizon and chasing the sun sinking into the ocean;
or I could be in the house, wiping grime off the windows,
to see the shifting day, the splash of moments, the waves of light.

Water always touches the strangely quiet, serious ones,
grinds salt into the searching skin, echoes wave
after wave of wavering light and water. Life sails with
or without us, taking and receiving and repeating the process,
drenching us with learning. And we never understand it,
not really, not the wild ride of it, not the catching wind of it.
And then, it is gone — like a boy riding into old age; or
a sailboat finally tied to a dock; or a house emptying
when everyone moves out like a crab outgrows a shell;
or the waves to suddenly stop; or the coastline disappears.

by Martin Willitts Jr.

Martin on Facebook

Editor’s Note: In this beautiful poem, imagery is layered into a complex portrait of ocean, simile, and memory (or possibility).

On Clare Island, Ireland by Martin Willitts Jr.

On Clare Island, Ireland

a family marches on cobblestone
uphill
curved like a gull’s wing
by the breakwater wall

waves clash on the brick wall
a soundless gong

the ocean is unsettled
absorbing a child’s fear
using it against the world

wind bullies them around

on one side of the wall
fence posts have strung wire
like at the Normandy front lines
light shooting through the intersections

on this side sea spray on the stone walkway
life is slippery and elusive

the family wears black wadding boots
bright yellow lifejackets
a child has a toy soldier in a pocket
he will bury it at the crest
and mark the location later on paper

the water is grief-stricken and anxious

blue-grey skies crawl low to the ground
rain shifts its weight
a rainbow streaks a bomb burst

the boy will wear a yellow slicker in his nightmares
the hill will seem higher as he walks upwards
his feet never touching hallowed ground
the wounded toy soldier in his pocket will cry rain
there is never an end to this dream
even when awake

the world is slippery and chilled

by Martin Willitts Jr.

Martin on Facebook

Editor’s Note: The last line of this poem weaves together the imagery of the preceding lines to great effect. The suggestion of grief is subtle, but emphatic.

Let Death Come by Martin Willitts Jr.

Let Death Come
—villanelle, starting with a line from Jane Kenyon

Let evening come — I am not afraid of dying
for I have known the kindness of birds and seed.
Let trouble find someone else. I have time

to find the climbing blue flowers, trying
to talk to God. Let winds tear, let rivers recede,
let evening come — I am not afraid of dying.

None of this will succeed in denying
what I know is true: not one will impede.
Let trouble find someone else, I have time

before I die, to search for God, and find
bees hording secrets and worms for bird feed—
let evening come, I am not afraid of dying

in the winter of my life, in everlasting, crying,
searching. Death will have me, even if I plead:
Let trouble find someone else. I have time,

I have time; I can fit more love in my mind
and heart. Let the turtles try to hide in reeds,
let evening come — I am not afraid of dying.
Let trouble find someone else — I have time.

by Martin Willitts Jr.

Martin on Facebook

Editor’s Note: Villanelles can be vexingly repetitious, but this one handles the refrains with grace. It’s soothing and hopeful while also starkly accepting of the reality of life and death.