Orientation

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After a map by Isidore of Seville, c. 622 CE

1.

A loaded word, but just a

word. In simpler times and terms, more about which direction
one faced. Facing correctly,
specifically, eastward—or

oriented—the east, or the Orient. Reoriented

from our contemporary perspective: neither right nor

left, our east or west, but upward or northward on the mappae mundi.
Orientem, oriens—the rising sun, the part of

the sky also where the sun rises every morning. Up, as if to imply
over our heads, and slips behind us in the evening time.
How literal and silly cartographers were

back then. Silly as toddlers. As a toddler boy who asks

a simple question: “When my eyes get bigger and bigger, will

I see the whole. World.”

And his mother and father not knowing what he means,
supposing: See it

as it is. As topsy-turvy, turned upon its head, like those old maps

perhaps, which look remarkably as though they’d been drawn
by toddlers’ hands: Their dependence on such thick lines.

2.

Thick black lines, but no longitude or latitude. Though we give them
a lot of latitude for being so simple-minded, such old men,

to think that the world was flat or carried once on a turtle’s back—

our houses being houdahs, our Oriental carpets spun of
magic flax—or a cosmogonic egg,

cracked, poached, over easy or sunny-side up. Made to order. “Order up.”

Silly as Quetzalcoatl or Pangu—moving heaven and earth for you

while walking on eggshells—calculating
Hubble’s constant, constantly counting it out on

fingers and toes and expanding the poles of this
spheroid cosmos, according to one
ancient Chinese legend, like the ends of a breaking

egg separating—as a Big Bang, and as arcane.

3.

Or just plain arcane. Ancient,
archaic. Archaeo-, meaning olden or

from the beginning, like a rising up, oriri, to rise, or *ergh,

similarly, raise or set in motion or stir.
Stirring, too, a beginning: And styrian,*sturjanan, storan
to scatter or destroy—as much an

end as it is a beginning. As a storm is

also its own refreshment. Or the snake’s consumption of

self is at the same moment a regurgitation of itself:
The Ouroboros, an ancient symbol. Or how the latest found fact of archeology

is simultaneously eschatology:
the last writing being also
the first writing
, as in Alpha and Omega. Which is

why the aboriginal—ab origine, from the beginning,
originalis, origo—ever faced
the east, in the first place. In the first

place, which in the last place is why we find ourselves so disoriented. Turning

bigger and bigger telescopes: And so many suns in the sky.


First published in issue 41.1, Fall/Winter 2014, of Black Warrior Review. This poem received a 2014 Pushcart Prize nomination.

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Collapse Back to Joy

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In Rilke’s masterpiece, Sonnets to Orpheus, he writes:

…take your heaviness
and give it back to the earth’s own weight;
the mountains are heavy, the oceans are heavy.

Even the trees you planted as children
have long grown too heavy; you could not bear them.

Which is reminiscent of Paul: “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth…Not only so, but we ourselves…groan inwardly…” (Romans 8:22 & 23) On the way back home from our last farewell with Granddad I was heavy. Heavy with him weakened and dying, heavy already feeling the loss. What a loss not to be able to hear him one last time. Upon arriving home another loss: a simple conversation. One easily, up until then, taken for granted. Spoken liturgically between us: “We’re safe, Granddad. Yeah, we made record time. Yep, we got 34 mpg.”

Rilke goes on a few short sonnets later:

Only in the realm of praise may Lament
range, water nymph of the tear-fed stream,
watching over our cascade to ensure
that it strikes clearly on the same rock

that supports the gates and altars.—
Look, around her quiet shoulders dawns
the feeling that among the siblings
of the heart, she must be the youngest.

Jubilation knows, and Longing has admired,—
only Lament still learns; with slender hands
she counts for nights on end the ancient curse.

Yet suddenly, maladroit and artless,
she lifts a constellation of our voice
into a sky not clouded by her breath.

On the car ride home I realized that the crisis of today is for all the joy of all the yesterdays. I am not sullen only because death still has its sting. But because in the melancholic moment we confront most unmistakably the full cosmic expanse of our joy. The joy we had when he was alive—when we foolishly thought that it, like the universe, was infinite and would forever expand and would not collapse on itself. It is this loss and collapse back to joy that I’d like to talk more about.

I know this room possesses many collected moments of joy. I heard some of them in the hospital room; we shared as much laughter as we did tears. It was a room full of people who called him by many titles—friend, elder, brother, dad, husband, professor, doctor—but honestly none of those much matter to me. He was my Granddad. Of course, you may all be aware that we did not share genetics or blood, but none of us grandchildren would have presumed differently. My older sister, Jill, announced one day while still quite young that she “got her pretty blue eyes from Granddad.” Never mind the first fact, the second being that he did not have blue eyes. So earnest were we all to be like the man that we loved—who loved us so dearly, as if we were his own.

It would have been enough if Granddad had merely been a good husband to our beloved Grandmother, but those of you who knew him know that he was much too big-hearted for ‘just’. He took care of his aging mother-in-law, his rascal of a sister-in-law (pre- and post-lawsuit), and the thrice widowed mother of the man who left my Grandmother. He did the same for his brother and sisters—supporting them, putting them through school, buying them “the prettiest bikes in town”—after his father died. But more importantly to me, he got down on his hands and knees to play Matchbox cars with me. Of course not just any cars—Porsches, Jaguars, Rolls-Royces, Bentleys, Austin Healeys, and Astin Martins. He was quick to get on his knees to play Drill Sergeant. He was always quick to get down on our level—collapse the distance. And those were the best times. The memories that stretch. Like the time in his dressing down of us new recruits he grilled my little sister, Julie, “Why did you not shave, soldier?” To which she replied with a hand on hip and in an impossibly prissy voice: “Well, I shaved my legs!” His laughter was as big then as it was every time he recounted the story. There are many other fun moments. Games with hallway mirrors. Fantastic Uncle Bill and Ivan stories. I’ve never met Ivan and to this day still believe he was Granddad’s invention in order to hide his rapscallion alter ego. And, of course, the great “Hamburger Condiment” and “Soda/Pop” debates—if you weren’t careful you’d be forever labeled a Yankee.

Later in life, now with children of my own, he told me I was the best dad he had ever seen—most likely the hyperbole of an adoring grandfather. But if it bears any truth, it is because I too get down on my hands and knees—on their level—attendant to his example.

He was always my most adoring fan. My first stage was the fireplace hearth at their house on Simms where I played the ukulele nearly naked except for underwear singing, “Santa Claus is coming to tow-yon.” He would listen intently to everything I had to say, even on the 753 miles between Oklahoma City and Durango where I would fill the skies over the plains of the panhandle with all the words a seven-year-old could muster. There was not enough sky for the words. On subsequent trips there was a standing rule: no talking through Amarillo or Albuquerque. But always on the other side of town he’d say, “OK,” and I’d continue exactly where I’d left off.

They took one of us grandchildren every year on vacation with them. It was out west as a young boy that Granddad handed me his 1950s Nikon Rangefinder (today it sits proudly on my book shelf), gave me film and explained aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and the theory of thirds. Photography is still a passion of mine. It was on these trips I learned that with landscape photography you set aperture low, which is to say the focus is infinite. In photographic terms infinite means ‘as far as the eye can see’. Today I desperately wish to widen the aperture—shorten the depth of field, keep the focus here a little bit longer and on him. Instead, we must set our focus wider than the eye can see. Even still wider on Infinity. Where “we wait eagerly for…the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all…” (Romans 8:23-25) So today we can lament—walk through the collapse together and see the joy behind us as far as the eye can see. And attentive, adoring, and kneeling we may even hope for the joy set before us stretching further than any eye can see.

Tree

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Old English treotreow, from Proto-Germanic *treuwaz-, from PIE *deru-

Being ‘firm’ and ‘solid’. And ‘steadfast’. Being also
bigger than life. And ageless, like a god,
whose shoulders are exceedingly broad
and good for heaving. Or stands defiant on a mountain top,
upholding, some say the world, or
the heavens, lugged like luggage upon its back.
Moreover, good for ornamental purposes, as in a garden.
Or The Garden: good for knowledge
of all kinds, but specifically of good and evil.
Or tucked away in the middle silence of a wood, writing in
concentric circles of rings ringing rings around
the first day of its stillness—the perfect silent
center of its singularity, which in time
will encompass the forest, stretch forever beyond
the reach of the woodsman’s axe.

§

Spreading its tendrils. Its roots like
*deru-, the deepest root, which brings us
treu, ‘truth’. The Bodhi tree.
The Dryads. Or Daphne disappearing.
No one remembers.
The ancient, hardwood forests
harvested of their
old-growth gods. Or the signs
of their autumn. Yellow leaves,
ochre with golden edges for flames.
Or any signs at all. Or the scrawl
of words into sidewalks,
or onto stone tablets. Or carved by
naked druidesses into the trunks of trees.
We need the lumber. We’re told. We need
the room—this stand
of trees stands in the way.
Imagine the empty glade
uncluttered without its
tyrannical choking canopies.
And the allotted
tall fescue plots. We must
level and grade,
irrigate, seed and over-seed, pluck
the dandelions out,
mow and bag the clippings.

§

Seedlings upon seedlings of trees that mock
the mower, mock the lawn care expert—march ever onward
like the march of forager ants
carrying more seeds on their backs—seeking to put down
roots. Seeking a grain of
truth to swallow. Once the ancient Mayan cities were
swallowed up because someone stopped
mowing the lawn—stopped listening
to Kukulkan. Who was fond of saying:
Rev up those mowers, boys. Kick up the din. There’s always
another forest on the way. Saplings to be kept at bay.

Teeming, true as: *treuwaz-. Can’t see the forest for—the Silence.


First published in issue No. 18, Spring 2017, of Waccamaw.

Tragic

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From Gk. tragos, “goat” + oide, “song”

Like melodious goats: or Leporello listing off a cavalcade
of conquests, or masquerading as
Don Giovanni. Donning goatskins—like Brünnhilde—
breastplates, and Viking caps—
sipping from wineskins, singing in highest keys
of kinfolk, of forefathers, lesser gods, and our own glorious
deeds abroad.
And the all-caps and shift-keys for
runes of warning. And the emojis for Venetian masks.
And the straw-fields for straw-men avatars. And also, for erection
of straw houses meant to ward off big-bad things.

And we have no regrets—forgetful
as we are of our fears—eating our sandwiches over keyboards like
‘Earls of Card Games’—of Rivers, of Flops. We grow
extra-long mutton chops.
We wear monocles and other affectations. We huff and puff and
no one calls our bluff.

Like school girls or boys we sing: who’s afraid of
who’s afraid of—And no one will say:
they are
afraid. Of a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Or a faun. Or say a satyr with a golden fleece on. But the gold
is a satire and the Minotaur is
daddy issues. No one wants to give up

the goat. And how we get each other’s
goats. Say: I love you—but. Oy vey,
oide. Meaning: ‘what the hell, you goat’. And the Azazel being
the devil’s goat. A neckline—something to tie our loose nooses from,
smack squarely on the ass and watch run away as fast as

falsetto sirens.
The Sirens aren’t goats, after all, but like goats they’ll devour
what’s put in front of them. A steamer ship full of butterscotch candies or
a full grown man. I heard of a goat once who could wolf down
tin cans—adding a bit of
tintinnabulation and synesthesia to the tincture of its
bleating songs—the color, now, of Semillon—sweet, and rotted with botrytis.


First published in issue No. 18, Spring 2017, of Waccamaw.

Redoubtable

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Yet our hope lies
in the unknown,
in our unknowing.

—Denise Levertov, Mass for the Day of St. Thomas Didymus

From the Old French redoutable, from redouter
(to dread), from re- (again), douter (to doubt, fear). An
acknowledgment, a coming to terms with,

what’s unknown is terrible.

St. Thomas, no doubt, terrible for his doubts,
called Didymus, called Doubting Thomas, the terrible
Didymus, with sight and blind with sight. What is he to you, now—
you, who grope your way about this wounded
world. Your doubt is not exceptional—your doubt is commonplace.
Such is terror,

our terror, each day’s terror, almost a form of boredom, like a dog

licking its wounds, with its tongue rasping
the gape and gouge—the world, whole world, a wound—the wound
with saliva and lysozyme, with spittle and thrombospondin. With spittle,
starting with the eyes, with mud and spittle in the eye and a man saying, “Go

and wash yourself. And see.” Or stick your finger inside and work

it around a bit. Or hesitate, dubitare, waver
between two things, two premises like a dilemma—we live in terror of
what we know, we live in terror of what we do not know.
Duo-, duwo-, tweon,
twin—

and Thomas meaning twin and Didymus, too,

be of two minds in the matter. Two, yes, dubious
minds and one in disbelief. While the others wag
a finger and say, “Keep your hands to yourself, why don’t you, Thomas, and if
you do not mind.” Wiggle not thy finger in, and do, or do not, believe in.

Blessed is he who believes. Blessed is he who is able

to nibble fish. To bear the thrust of our hands, and the repeated
thrust of our unbelief. Or a finger in the fissure. Or the plunge of an arm
to its elbow, in and out. Who is able
to be doubted, himself, redoubtable, then, as now, again and again.


First published in issue 8.2, Spring 2016, of Relief.

Tradition

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A handing down. To us

from Latin trans-, over (or across or beyond), and dare, to give.
Also, to surrender

through traditus, traditio and traditionem. Down, say the Via Appia, or
the Appian Way, over the Alps and later by way of
French townships. Whose townspeople would say:

tradicion. Which becomes a word of interest out of its antiquity,
its lengthy history as a
doppelganger for treason, a handing over.

Which is handed down and

over the same Latin way—road, route, or Latin roots—except

via an unexpected twist taken by the French: traison.
The French being so persnickety and peculiar that way. Being

Gauls and ghoulish and having the gall, being also somewhat foolish,
to distinguish between up and down, or over and under, or over and

down in this way, as if down the road there isn’t also over the hill. Isn’t also

our own doubts? And how many we aren’t yet over. As if
it is always one or the other and not first
handed over before it is handed down to us

to doubt. Remember

Rahab. Who for her part is always called the harlot.
Letting down those spies from her

Jericho high rise. Down a length of rope,
never mind the length (the length being irrelevant):

and each one hand over hand.

Too, letting down her townsfolk. Handing them over
to the Israelites. Even those
who had admired and kissed her thighs. Or
Judas, called Iscariot, whose betrayal was a kiss.
Whose betrayal was long foretold. Some say decreed,
a handing down through time.

But woe to that man who betrays: for he is often found at the end

of his rope. And betray being betrairbe-, thoroughly, completely,
or surrounded on all sides and given over and over and from hand to hand
across all time. Which is
just down the road, being itself the end of the road.

And so many of us on this road without

so much as a rope: trair, traitor, tradere. And trado, traditio, and so
not so far beyond

“to surrender to.” A handing over of self
to another self, whom himself is handed down and

handed over.


First published July 21, 2016 The Curator.

Stump

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The country will look like pine and oak forest with every tree cut down—every tree a stump, a huge field of stumps. But there’s a holy seed in those stumps.
— Isaiah 6:13

1. Middle English stumpe; Old German stumph

There’s something to the fact it traces its lineage back
through Saxon and not Norman
dialect. As if there’s only room for stump in a
conquered tongue. Such a hard stop
to it. Like—earh, arwe—an arrow, its sharp point,
through an eye. Or something cut off. Dramatic
like an ear. Or hand. Or tongue.
They say it was the country poor,
the curt, who preserved
such stunted words, as these—words as ‘body,’ bewd, and
‘blood,’ bloud. But also ‘trampled’ on. Presumably
to name and sing their oppression. See stamp.

2. Old English stempan; Old German stampfen

To extinguish a fire by stomping on it—call it stamping:
impressing an unfamiliar countenance on your
countenance—who stammers—stammr,
stamaron—to remember
itself ever more timorously as the axe hammer falls.
Where nothing stands except those standing on
stumps stamping to stop the murmurs. Or embers.
Do you remember. Once you burned inside—
stood erect in a thicket of light, immeasurable as
mirrors turned on mirrors. See step.

3. PIE *stebh-

In grammar school there was a boy named Rex—
a poor soul who stuttered every second syllable.
All of his efforts to talk like a line of tall trees cut down,
dotting his horizon. Even so, he struggled to
step over them. And we struggled to let him—some of us
took pity, helped him finish
his sentences. We told ourselves it was to end his
bouts of misery. To end our own, we laughed—
and laughed—hysterically when he would trip
over a word. Day after day, he took those same hard
stops—imperturbably
(imagine him saying that word)—
now as then, stepping into his agony, never once biting his tongue.


First published in issue 8.2, Spring 2016, of Relief.

Tenuous

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It’s a bit like a teeter, son, with no
totter, but more of what we are talking about here, a stretching
between two sides. Ridiculous,

I’m sure, but let’s pretend, as in prætendere, to stretch forth, or præ- as in before the stretch, which, in
our case, could be with a stick around a spent fire pit, or on a short
walk around the block, just the two of us—

teneo, tenere, tenui, tentus, the same root which brings to us
soft/tender, as well as to hold/to take. And
what’s more appropriate to father and son than to take
you in my arms to hold you, to take your tender
frame, tendere, to stretch it?

We might call this growing up, kid, but you’ll probably come to know it better
through its Proto-Indo-European as reig- where comes riag and
rack—a form of torture, admittedly of a kind which involves
stretching—a reach. Or a stretch.

For now, let’s say it’s only your eyes that need

lengthening. “Look at the sky.” Lift up your eyes at what’s passing
by—bye and bye—in a pressurized
cabin and reckon, ræcan. Lift your eyes like airfoils.

It’s as good as metaphysics to you,

as the distinction between Dasein and ousia

and all that matters. The dozen acorns you stuff your pockets
with, or a collection of cicada skins. The branches piled and sorted in a
red, rusted wagon. Squirrels, and the sprint of
squirrels. Toadstools, earthworms, unearthed ants.

And if ants, a chance to squat and watch them throng
their eggs, marveling at the ones with wings so far underground.

Why won’t you reach

or, at least, rake the remnant ashes of last night’s fire into
mountain peaks—tightrope the ridge of their spine, then traverse the thinning atmosphere all the way to the pocked cheek of the moon? Instead,

when you settle—making mounds, tents,

hovels—pronounce rather insistently, “It’s for the meerkats.” Or
groundhogs. Or some other animal
which burrows. Odd,

I know, how you always totter down, never stretching your wings—unaware of
wings. Ridiculous

how I reminisce, teetering again on this
seesaw, see-saw—on this ci-ça—thinly veiled,

as this, or that.


First published in issue 10, Winter, of Sundog Lit.

Astrophysics

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From Greek, astro-, “star” + physis, “nature,” “emergence,” “being,” or “presencing”

Like the birth of a star, crowning once out of a pocket. Put in a pocket
by a youngster enchanted by pockets. Along with
an igneous rock and a green plastic army guy—one cannot be too prepared

to ride off recklessly out of the Horsehead nebula—
kicking up collapsing clouds of dust and interstellar gasses,
riding on the headless horse, heedlessly
holding a hat, let’s say it’s a cowboy hat
lifted skyward. Yelling, Yippee! or Yeehaw! around
the rings of Saturn, cap guns blazing.

Such is light and the movement of light. And the birth of light.

The solar wind is always in its hair, as it flies past many moons,
for many moons: Io, Callisto, Amalthea, the undone
belt of asteroids, the Bellicose
planet, too, discarding its shirt and shoes and hurtling into
the stratosphere. Gathering here. On earth as it is in heaven, naked and
childlike among the crickets at twilight.
Such a humble hour to be singing gospel hymns
to mosquitos and fireflies. And for us—
to gather all of them as stardust. To stuff into the deepening pockets of night.


First published in issue 11, Spring/Summer 2015, of Sugar House Review.

Cleave

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1. Cleofan — to split

Imagine a dotted line around a neck. Imagine
‘cut here’ written there. And me standing with a meat cleaver.
Now imagine how hard your neck and head would
hold each other. Like a baby cleaves
to a pacifier. Or a toddler, might, laughing,
legs and arms locked about a shin, riding a shoe.

2. Clifian — to adhere

As everything must hold on. As long as it
can. And didn’t you use a ‘paci’ much longer
than was appropriate. No one could break you of it.
Even though we tried to scale its use back to just
the traumatic events and during long
naps. But everything without became so traumatic
to you. Who am I to judge—
I sucked my right forefinger
into the first grade—hiding my whole body at naptime
from my childhood peers—but mostly my lips,
my embarrassment, under a blanket—
lest I be cut to the bone by all the small scalpels
they wielded from their eyes and
force-fed me while we ate sugar cookies, together.
Do you remember when there was no holding on. And no need to.

3. Clofen — divided

Nor do I. And still my fingers grow tired. As when I
stood over your bed while you were sleeping,
fumbling nervously with a pair of scissors,
intending to cut another 1/8 inch from the nipple of your pacifier.
A trick we learned from another equivalently struggling
parent. And how I had such mixed feelings.
Still do. We had to cut it to the nub before you would
set it down for good. For good—
even now I don’t pretend to think that it was

4. Toslifan — sliver

all good; though it was good. There’s this sliver in all things:
the word, itself, serving up such mixed signals—as
everything that cleaves also
cleaves, is a knife’s edge
between them. How you looked so miserable,
pulling the sheets down from your face, waking to each fresh cut.
And though you don’t remember, now,
weeks later in your bed you were so frantic. Looking under
pillows, ‘lovies’ and blankets for it.
I picked you up in my arms to settle you,
the sliver that you were back then—so close to my heart
and head—and thought to myself, as much as said: Hold-on.


First published in issue 11, Spring/Summer 2015, of Sugar House Review.

Incarnation

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For Advent

He became Himself an object for the senses…
 –Athanasius
O taste and see…
 –Psalm 34:8

1. Carnem, caro, carnis

Or carne asada, a kind of word becoming flesh and
a thinly sliced marinated
beef steak—salted, soaked in
lime juice with spices, and
seared off on a grill. The kind you get from
a street vendor in Mexico or a taqueria
in a barrio in the U. S. where
there’s little to no
English spoken and they only accept cash.
Which is boisterous, also. And
so full of common life like
grime, cerveza and La Cucaracha.
And the cooks wear hair nets or
not. And the men are all weathered and
sweaty and wearing their dew rags—there is
no beauty that we should desire any of them. But
nightly, inside, it has the remarkable feel of

2. Carnelevare

a carnival—Old Fr. meaning “to remove
meat,” to cut it away, or
quite literally, carnis + levare, “a raising of
the flesh,” from which we get
the word. As if to say there’s always a curious
inconsistency equally in the pain of being
cut to the bone and in
our own revelry. As if we can’t forget
the bad when there’s
good, the indifferent in importance, sorrow in
the joy of it. Though we try to
separate them. O Lord, we try to grow content
with measured time, but we want
the final, sovereign Yes, and not this
man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. We want
what is not yet—this constant what is
and what is to come—the last without
the first, which is a cutting, of sorts: to cut

3. *(S)ker-

short. To cut—to carve. As in a cut of meat:
rib roast, roast turkey or goose
for a Christmas feast. Or a cutting of
God, or Christ taken,
or removed, from God. And what would the butcher
say if asked for a loin of holiest God?
Would he say, “The butchering is still
some time away? Come again Good Friday—” Or, instead,
Tis the season. Try the Lamb. It’s fresh.”
For he was cut off out of the land of the living
God just yesterday.

4. Skera, scheren

And sheared. Which is another kind of cutting.
There are so many kinds:
against the grain, a break, a rug, down
or down to size; from the same cloth,
a wide swath, some slack, the cord, the crap;
to cut to ribbons, a throat, corners; to cut in
or out, to cut the mustard; to cut away or
both ways—so many ways to take
our portion.

Therefore divide Him as a portion

5. *Skaro-, schar

among the many—our share. To share. And find
him, of course, as a
stranger and invite him in; in the Epiphany, yes, but also
in the toys small children drop into
your shoes when you’re not looking and are off
now to something more important, as,
soon, you will be too. In the camaraderie had
in a bad meal: if not the food—at least the spark of
good it still aspired to or in the laughter at each other’s
grimacing faces. In the absences
this side of Ascension: in the
many stricken and afflicted, see all the little
flames hovering around. And in the cuts, see
meat for a feast. To be savored. For today, take. And eat.


First published in issue 89.1, Spring 2015, of Prairie Schooner.