They tell stories about the outlaw, how he shot his father to death when he was only two years old—

“Just grabbed that gun out of his belt and shot him clean through the heart, pew, and him just barely old enough to walk.”

How he carried that gun in his own belt ever after, waiting for some child of his own to pull it out and drill him through the heart—

“Penance, they call it, but I say insurance that he’ll never have a kid. A reminder to always pull out, always keep his wits about him; the stakes are too high.”

How he shot a girl in church one time, shot her dead through a wall as he adjusted his belt coming out of a bathroom—

“Death in his veins, that one, death that lands on anyone foolhardy enough to come near him. You don’t blame a rattler for biting, do you?”

How he fell in love at last and had a child of his own, a boy that he loved more than life itself, and how he shot that boy dead in a shooting range teaching him how to shoot—

“Such a tragedy! Who could have predicted anything like that? A million to one chance, the heat of the barrel— the flinch— the ricochet— they say the boy was even more of a crackshot than his dad. Such a shame.”

How life went on, somehow— but at that point he passes out of history and into legend.


Duluth, I was never in Duluth, but among the poets in Washington this story:

Having grown tired of selling clothes to the idle poor, the poet bought a bike and struck out for the high plains. He taught himself to ride on the backs of the Rockies, a continent’s spine, a fat man blowing steam up a long road and empty between towns, taught himself to fear speed and love it on the ride down, squeezed perilously between the Charybdis of a rock wall and the Scylla of a passing 18 wheeler.

Well, he made it, somehow, or so they said, to Duluth, and moved into a vacant space above a storefront where he sold used clothes to much the same people as he had in Bellingham and wrote poetry much the same as before except for some 1500 miles of toil and separation. Life went on, until it didn’t.

He died there, in Duluth, not quite in exile, nor yet at home, his store and his poems the legacy left behind. The poets in Bellingham held a wake in his honor, and Robert, cynical Robert, he cried while telling the story. Duluth, I never knew Duluth, nor the poet who left, but I’ve never forgotten this story.

Trash Baby

written at a concert

Rocky shores and icy waters: a thin plume of smoke finds the sky above the white lumbering bulk of the ferries.

Palmer has come to this shore, barefoot and nude, a flickering shape huddled against the railroad embankment, here between the trains and the Sound, to barter the remains of her youth against the death of her brother. The water’s vast eye turns to her in the darkness, and she cringes at the very edge of the firelight.

“Blood,” she promises it, “quick with life.” There is a stirring in the rocks and driftwood behind her, and she turns, addresses herself to the raccoon and possums that regard her. “Time.” She backs toward the water until it licks at her heels, he calves, her waist, her neck. “All that I have and more. Please.”

The mournful cry of a train whistle finds her ears beneath the waves; she opens herself to hope and sinks, sinks, sinks.

The Wide Open World

In that time, there were two farmers with four children: one son and one daughter and two who were neither sons nor daughters. The son could smoke anything, and the daughter could drink anything, and one of the children could tell any lie and the other one could find any hidden thing.

Eventually, the farmer and the farmer died, as is the way of things, and their four children were thrown into the world to seek their fortune; the farm had been mortgaged to the local lord and so they were landless. They took to the road, which was likewise full of the starving children of other farmers, and beat against the gates of the city, which remained shut.

“Listen, my loves,” said the daughter, “if we keep drifting we’re doomed.”

“We are doomed either way,” said the finder of things. “Death is our only inheritance.”

A crowd had gathered, and the liar climbed into a tree to address them. “Justice!” they cried. “Justice is a hollow log, and honesty an unplowed field. They have shut us out of the woods, and chased us away from the streams; they have stolen our land for taxes and drowned our mothers in ditches. But I have seen a vision, a brighter future this side of heaven but that side of blood. Take up arms, my loves: we have nothing to lose but our lives!”

And the son leaned against the fence and smoked his pipe and kept his own counsel.

February 2010

Back home, the cherry trees are blooming
the waterclock of the year has tipped over and spilled out spring
But 2,500 miles away my brother breaks through snow
thin scarf and canvas shoes a fragile barrier against the wind
visiting my sister in Chicago, red-faced and grinning behind the camera

In Hawaii my mother waits on her balcony
Watches the ocean 20 stories belows
Waits for the tide to fall back and up again
bunched around the clumsy fist of a tsunami

My father is sprawled out in bed
tv blaring unattended
crosswords and beer near at hand
the weather beats against the glass and falls back
heart-racing and dazed
one more bird on the lawn.