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Poets of the Monterey Bay

Four Poems by Charles Atkinson


iv.  lost

It’s familiar things lost: distant hammers
that quit at noon and again at four,
a neighbor’s vacuum dying, house
finch—cheer-cheer—silent in the heat.

Small comforts withdrawn.  Acacia,
its winter gold shriveled to a seedpod,
a rattle; the constant wind that
blows offshore, then drops at dusk.

I miss old habits—walking with her,
listening to her sadness.  We didn’t
speak the desperate truth, didn’t love
ourselves enough to say, I want, I need.

Guests at our lives, we looked up
astonished, knowing we needed to
begin again in earnest.  Even with
others’ hurt, dismay.  Even apart.

Spiritual Practice

A small miracle, to ride a bike—
a plane on edge, defying the grave
force, unless—too late—you stop
to consider.  My mother found it
impossible—the art of angels.

No one taught her, of course.
No wonder in her final hours
she fought so hard to stay upright,
thrashing on a cranked-up bed.

Still, she taught her children
to wheel out of sight as if it were
their birthright.  I’d wobble,
feel her run alongside, let me
talk away terror, then lighten

the pressure on my back until
I didn’t know if it was her or me
rolling down a graveled road
with no idea and finally no fear.

Now I’m learning the rest, with
mottled bruises, road rash, broken
bones: when there’s no righting
the tilt—sliver of clairvoyance
between knowledge and fact—

that’s when to soften, exhale,
become a supplicant, a lucid arc
as we hurtle toward pavement
that takes us back more gently.

So I would have given a lot
to read her eyelids, the pressure
of her palm in those last quiet
moments of tipping and knowing,
whether she learned it all at once.


There you are, rounding the final buoy
when a gust yanks the mainsheet hard.  You haul-in and feel
nothing till the muscle tightens on its tear, a steel
blade in the back, and now at the dock you’re coy.
“Next time, kids—you’ll win.”  But it’s a modulated joy:
you’re not twenty-five and immortal. Even sailing—ideal
for the young-at-heart—is hazardous.  Windsurfing? Be real.
Hard to believe you were once that mercurial boy
outracing pain; now it’s a berth.
                                                    Still, you’re not crushed
in quarters this cramped—the harbor’s teeming with life. What’s
wrong with loving the things within reach, the nearby?
You stand on the dock and wave bon voyage, unrushed
and more cheerful than they—hiked out in-harness, wet butts,
wet sails skimming the foam, wanting mostly to fly.

Father Fragments

He’s sitting on a splintered dock, the coast of Maine,
white hair blown across his forehead, squinting out to sea,
big hands on knees; his dog’s beside him, head on paws.
I took the photo thirty years ago, unhappy with the world,
just in from somewhere, impatient with my splendid life.
He looked placid.  So did the dog, and the coast, dark firs
down to tidal rocks, dories moored, noses to the wind.
I had no idea what he was thinking, or how to ask.

A night phonecall can feel like someone’s heartbeat:
long distance, even, seems they’re lying at your side
to trace a summer constellation, breath against your ribs.
With him it was more like overhearing a stranger
on a crossed line—a life you know nothing about—
talking in fragments to someone who’s not there.
His voice rose when I called, but you’d think he was
a busy man, the way he couldn’t hang up soon enough.

He wouldn’t part with the ring, but promised I’d get it.
A talisman from way back—before he learned he knew
nothing about love except what she could coax from him,
even before she’d begun to reproach him for an easy
thoughtlessness he couldn’t shake, all the way back to
when he was glitter and shine, alone.  Onyx set in gold;
clean-through its midnight face, a crack, from when
he dropped it.  His reminder of how loving has a price.

Here’s the strange part:  his hands were huge, and
all his life, when I asked to try it on, the ring would
spin on every finger.  When I finally sorted out
his things, it slipped on snug.  And hasn’t budged.

Copyright 2006