If a star is a thousand light-years away, it has taken the star's light
a thousand years to get here, so the star we are seeing is really
how the star looked a thousand years ago, not how it looks today.
If I were still drinking or a husband,
the Scotch would have found me by now,
keeping company with a loyal porch,
pinholed heaven staring down at no one,
scythe moon risen without a flame of its own.
Instead I'm stretched by the Truckee River,
reading on empty this album of time:
Deneb, giant blue heart of the Swan,
fiercer by thousands than our middle-aged sun,
as it was when Aristotle met the unmoved mover
and Shang Yang first mapped China in his mind.
Rigel, western heel of Orion where the Scorpion stung,
when Saint Francis confessed to his pigeons
and Khan rode the spine of Asia on his sword.
Achernar at Gettysburg.
Capella dying yellow to white at the summer of love.
Vega, true north of prehistory, as it flared
on a wedding day.
This once-only whole of distant fires,
not as they are but as they were,
on days sundry and unbeholden,
burning in the cold so I can hold them
and be held.
It is a most private sky.
As if on the same dark canvas I could hold
a father prying fingers from the edge of a pool,
a mother's drying breath on the blood from a cut,
a wife frying eggs in another man's kitchen,
a lover, or the one I should have loved,
tying on her gown for a moonless night
when only the stars are out
and there is no borrowed light.
I think of Germany at night,
which keeps me up until the light…
I always hoped my grandfather
would tell me of the old country,
recall to life the brothers
who didn't make it out with him in '38,
bless my version of their later deaths—
chargers rearing in the cannon smoke,
sabers glinting in the red-eyed sun.
Instead he took me blackberry picking
in the North Jersey forest,
always early, before the first risings,
to outhustle the irreverent raccoons.
The berries by the roadside for the dabblers,
ours were deep in and had to be won.
He went shirtless for the pride of it
and taught by the way he waved the bushes back
that thorns and bees were interesting
but not important. The berries were important
and had to be picked correctly,
so the press of fingers didn't offend,
so they'd break only on your tongue.
When we'd feasted beyond our plans,
he would hold out yet another handful
to be owned in a mouthful,
because this was the place
where we could have our share.
That hand: middle nail stretched down
like the skin of a chestnut
from a French bullet that grazed him
at the Battle of Verdun.
That hand: specked with juice,
scratched with blood,
brimming with blackberries.
Those we took were boiling with life,
the ones we let go, not worth taking
or ones that shared some darkness with the woods.
Scatter seed from burlap a month before frost
then again in the spring.
Rake on bagged dung, peat moss, something to kill
the crabgrass but leave the clover.
Snap with blunt thumbs the nape of a pine snake.
Spray democratically the hiss from a hose.
long as you can as a man
just back from a just war,
foes plowed tame but free.
Roll now from a cellar the purring pleasure
of belts, blades, and sparked gasoline.
Consign to your son the craft of right mowing.
Give jealous pause to passing Fords.
Time then for the chair like a land raft,
someone named Johnny or Tony on the airwaves.
No matter what's cooking or not
in the A-frame at your back,
what common insults truck with Mondays,
sit shirtless in those slim-waisted khakis
facing your mirror across the road
whose plot is thicker, more fortunate.
Next year you'll try harder
to best his rude blessings with science and labor.
Now simply tip to him a dusk-stroked bottle,
lie back to the rhythm of growing and cutting,
drenched in the thick milk of glowworms and crickets,
a father in peacetime,
on reprieve from the harvest
of all your good intentions.