Boxers, A Poem

I.

The truth, it’s said, is that boxers
Don’t know when to quit.

That they refuse to leave the ring
until they are hollow shells

Of themselves, shuffling ghosts
Chasing ghosts chasing them—

Except there’s a deeper truth,
that you and I are boxers, too,
called from our short stool by a bell:

That we all hang in there
For all manner of reasons;

That we all take too many punches
Before we look to our corner;

That we all think we can
Wiggle our way out of trouble
And make it to that next bell.

Before we hold the boxer’s
Tenacity against him,

Can we agree that next time
We’re staggered, hanging on the ropes,

That we’ll drop our hands,
Find the referee’s eyes and beg,

“Stop this fight right now.
I’ve had enough. Please,
Protect me from myself”?

II.

Or can we understand the instinct
To ball one’s hands and swing again
Until our strength ebbs or awareness dawns?

Looking back, I see so many times
I swung when, at the the least,

I might have peered between raised hands
To get a read on what was across from me.

And more times when stepping back I might
Have transformed this square
Into a circle, eliminating the sides.

Other times I might have closed the distance
And arrived on shared ground, sacred space.

There are ways to quit, ignobly or not, in this world,
As there are many ways to break—open or apart.

The truth, they say, is that boxers
Don’t know when to quit.
They are not alone.

A 2nd Heart Surgery in 7 Months

It’s good to be home after a pretty scary week. On Friday, I had my second cardiac catheterization in the past 7 months, and I’m now the owner of two additional stents (that’s three total if you’re counting at home). The surgeon framed it not as a further deterioration but as a hopeful resolution to what started in September.

Existentially, I’m fine. My heart is beating, I am not in any pain, there was no catastrophe that sent me to the hospital. Score one for me noticing what was happening inside me.

Spiritually, I have been overcome by and struggled with how vulnerable I am, by what can go wrong even as I try to do right, by how my sphere of control is so very limited.

And so I remind myself that I’ve never had that much control, that so much has gone and continues to go right in my life (me typing this being prime evidence), that I am surrounded by brave and loving people and a level of care that few people in this world have ever been able to access. I am open, aware and engaged in this great project of living and loving.

I wrote this yesterday. I’m calling it Space:

This hurtling
Through Space
That is my life,

That is your life,
Can leave me
Nauseous, fearful,

As if I was
Mere inches
From a great

Calamity.
And that is when
I need the reminder

That, if I open my eyes,
Light is creeping
Across the earth.

The sun spills over
The rounded corner
Of the horizon,

Illuminating
A sky filled to bursting
With others, looking
As awkward in orbit as me.

And I know this:
This life, so fast,
So frighteningly
Close to the inhospitable,
So vulnerable,

It is bathed in light.
It is connected
To great joy

If only I look out
And in, and reconcile
Myself to the height

And the speed
And the warmth
And the cold.

This is life lived
On the edge of wonder
And calamity,

Which is to say,
This is life.

The Bones In My Brain

A poem about the fragility of my attention.

Brains have bones.
That’s dumb, right?
Except—how else
to explain the form

of my thoughts,
the broken-ness of
my attention?

It explains a lot,
how goddamn lost
I get in this head,
to learn that I broke
the bones in my brain.

The bones in my brain
give shape to my thoughts.
They stitch a matrix
of feeling to experience,
of idea to intuition.

The bones in my brain
are apt to snap.
What a wonder
they reset so quickly!

My wife told me
“Brains have bones”
one recent morning
and when I stopped

chuckling, I thought:
bones in my brain, yes.

The Boy on the Road

A poem I wrote after our scary Wednesday in Haiti.

The boy lies limp in the dust
Of the road. An argument engulfs him.

The boy’s Papa screams, “Who did this?
What have you done to my boy?”

But no one helps the boy.

Ayiti lies on the road under a midday sun,
Blood from her head, her shoes
Knocked from her feet.
But the crowd does not tend to Ayiti.
The crowd argues over why Ayiti was on the road.
The crowd jostles who will pay for the blood.

The crowd roars, “The boy is dumb.
Why was he on the road?” The father,
spits fury at the motorbike rider,
“How could you be so careless?!?
I cannot pay for the hospital!
All I have is my anger!”

And still, who will care for the boy on the road?

Ayiti lives her life on the road,
Her blood mixes with the dust
And becomes one. And what does
It mean, then, when the dust
Rises and coats every person and
Every place? What does it mean
That the boy’s blood mixes
With the dust and rises and coats
Every person and every place
Along the road?

Ayiti lies on the road under the midday sun.

Who will care for the boy on the road?

This is one in a series of posts chronicling my experience of and response to a recent service trip to Haiti.

On the Loss of a Son

It starts with a call.
The frogmen in their
frogmen suits. One lifts
his head from the water
to say, “Got something.”

You birth him, raise him,
praise him, berate him.
You place inside him
your hope and dreams,

And then, one day you
awake to find he’s not
in his bed after a night
out at the bar. He refuses
to arrive home that day.

And while people look
for him, high and low,
you know. He is gone.

With some sons, it’s not
the morning when you
realize he is not there.
It’s the every day he is,
suffering, battling, losing.

It’s the middle of the day
when you realize that he
will not make it to the Ivies,
That he might not make it
out of your home.

There are worse things
in this world. Like knowing
that he is gone from you.

A son is a funny thing.
You birth him, raise him,
praise him, deflate him.
You place inside him
your hopes and dreams.

And one day, the phone
rings in your home. One day,
you get your answer.

This is a parent’s lot:
the phone rings, and you
are the only one home to answer.

*-in memory of Shane Montgomery

I Want to Be a Little Old Man

I want to be a little old man.
Concentrated, reduced,
Like a sauce my wife cooks up on the kitchen stove.
Many things go in, heat is applied,
and what is left is less
And more.

There was a time in life when I was many things—
Expansive and full of multitudes.
I’m less than that now.
Where once I wanted to be many things,
I find myself becoming something sharper,
Singular,
In some ways softer.
I find that I am whittling down to an essential me.

There are people called to grow
Through life, always bigger.
I have attained my maximum size, I think,
And I see me getting smaller,
More focused, denser in my proportion of me.

There is a loss in getting smaller,
In taking up less space,
But I imagine my electrons whirling closer to my center.
I feel the density of a singular purpose,
The mass that comes with knowing
What I am
And what I am not.

For years I chased a whiff of something big and gamey,
Always out of sight.
It’s only now that I understand that what I couldn’t see
Was not me, but something else—
Something hunted, elusive, other.
Because I will be a little old man.

And being smaller, I will be able to go places
I could not if bigger.

And being whittled down, being reduced, being less
Than I once was, or dreamed I was,
I will find a richness and a litheness
That I could not have imagined.

I want to die a little old man,
Reduced by life to my essential things:
Eyes, hands, ears, intentions,
And a sense that this little man,
Born in abundance, concentrated by experience,
Leavened by the love of others and that which springs from Deep Within,
That he is enough.

Haiku for an Expectant Mom

Note: I have a pregnant friend who is overdue and, unless something happened over the weekend, will go to the hospital on Monday to induce childbirth. I was running today and tried to remember the excitement and emotions of waiting to meet the person who has been veiled for these 40 nervous weeks. I wrote this. It’s an almost haiku, or haiku plus, with an extra line of 5 syllables.
Uncomfortably
Waiting on the joy of my
Life, I thrum in
Anticipation.

17 Pilgrims, a Poem

Editor’s note: Something I started writing when I awoke very early one morning in Haiti’s Central Plateau, trapped between my mosquito net and my racing thoughts.

17 Pilgrims

Seventeen pilgrims on the road from Port-au-Prince to the Central Plateau.

Haiti is life lived on the road, in full view.

It is a hot, dusty iceberg. The mystery resides in the heat and the dirt.

The water is there, but ― did I mention? ― don’t drink it.

Haiti is a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a plantain husk.

It is a mosquito buzz at midnight.

It is the fear your net is tattered.

Haiti is a heart pumping in the hot sun.

It is families separated.

It is drums in the night.

Haiti is the roosters who practice dawn all night long, it is the cries of ya-ya-ya that dance with the drums in the night.

///

Haiti, I met you just a week ago. I’m not sure my mom would approve. I’m not sure I approve. I doubt this will last.

But I thought that about my wife of 22 years. As then, I’m intrigued.

///

Haiti, you are a Dickens novel with a Kreyol accent, a plume of dust rising from a single road to fill every nook and cranny of every home in an entire country.

You are life lived on the road and drums in the night. You are a geography of risk. You are a rich man’s house hard by a tent city.

Haiti, you trudge to the end of a long day. I expect you to wake tired in the morning. Instead, you are bright smiles.

Haiti, the sound of your yearning excruciates. It is the sound a dump truck makes as it tips over with a load of rock, the sound of a hungry child looking to you for food.

I landed in Haiti an adult. I leave an awkward adolescent, upset with my frustrated wants.

Haiti is not solved. Rather, it dis-solves.

Reach for certainty in Haiti and it is gone.

Haiti is a parent’s children settled in the States. It is drums in the night. From where are they coming? you ask. No one will say …

///

Haiti is one step forward over uneven ground — with a sloshing bucket of water balanced on your head. It is the road crew drove the electric pole through the water line. It is “Who are you?”

Haiti is tires full of tomatoes. It is children walking to school in pressed uniforms. The boys in plum pants. In early evening half-light, they press and spin against the wall as a van speeds by.

People say that before you die, you see your life in a split second. From a van’s back seat, I watch people’s lives blur by, left to right. Haiti, I have seen YOUR life pass by in a single week. Tears and laughter. Chatter and sweat. A plume of dust rises from a dusty road.

I am at a loss.

///

Haiti is one step up and a Voudoo dance backwards. It is tarantulas in the rockpile. We roll back the rocks together; you laugh when I squeal at the site of eight hairy legs moving into the shadows.

Haiti is a warm night sleeping next to your lover. She will leave before dawn.

It is a waterfall with child guides who are bullied out of their meager earnings by a cruel caretaker. Sullen, broken stares. Can’t one thing not be negotiated over this gradient pitting abundance against limitless need?

In Haiti, you pay with your conscience, not your wallet. And for what?

Haiti looks in to you with dark, round eyes. It reaches to you in the market. It accosts you on the street. What it wants — and what you want — are the same. Haiti wants a piece of you. And though Haiti is exhausted from 22 decades of not getting what it wants, it gets this.

Seventeen pilgrims on the road from the Central Plateau to Port-au-Prince.

A geography of hope.

Papayas growing thick on the trees, thicker in the market.

Promises unfulfilled.

Drums in the night.

A plume of dust rising from a dusty road.

And a question, Ki jan ou rele?

Time: Friend, Foe, or Something Else?

We were asked during a church group (don’t think I’m giving anything away here) whether we viewed time as a friend or enemy. Jotted this down, and liked it:

Neither.

Time’s a vessel ——>

Used well, it can hold my life

& give it form;

squandered, it constricts me.

It’s a tension, like trying to write

in verse, or pluck out a musical chord.

I’m an artist with time, & not

a particularly good one—

he says, arriving late to class—

But one who appreciates time’s form,

the lure of the past,

the glitter and anxiety of time to come,

& the possibility in now.