Kids already asleep, the grownups sit out on the deck,
a few empty cans, an open bottle of wine on the table, I’m sure,
and stacked paper plates with half-eaten buns and dirty napkins.
From my backyard next door, I can hear them, the living, chatting.
I can’t make out many words, mostly the rhythm, and laughing.
Death is not what they’re discussing. “Goodnight,”
a woman says. “Goodnight,” a few of them answer. A car
wakes, and then its growl fades into the distance.
Wind rises and falls, telling
the trees to tell one another.
Air conditioners hum forever.
Clocks ticking. Grains of sand falling.
What else is there to think about?
But what is the thought? Some small animal
crunching around in the ivy. A plane
arching across or falling from the sky.
Endless seas reaching toward the horizon.
And beyond the horizon? Friends?
Memories? Quiet and perfect calm?
A small boat? A loving hospital?
A humming air conditioner lulling me to sleep?
It came as a surprise to me:
that mothers die, that mine did
so young, when I was so young, when she
was younger than my wife is now.
It still seems so unlikely, after
waking another morning in my bed,
not to wake, the least likely
and least lifelike thing.
She won’t answer
the phone, mail a present, or ever
have met her grandchildren.
She’ll never die again.
Moths crowd and lunge at
the light above my driveway,
making a flicking sound
as they hit the bulb, the siding.
How quietly the shock begins,
like thunder rolling in,
so softly at first
one mistakes it for something else,
each generation learning alone,
anew, each of us privately aghast,
embarrassed, hiding as if until
this one, long night.
A man riding a bike in New York was hit by a car and killed.
This was last week. There was a newspaper story
about the fourteen deaths this year, an emergency
the mayor declared. This is merely what happens.
I bike south each morning from the bus station to my office.
Within three years, our family hamster, Totoro, will die.
Hamsters simply don’t live longer. Scientists theorize
that there are tortoises on Earth that are over five hundred
years old, and a clam has been found that was determined
to have been born in 1499, before Shakespeare.
Think of a clam being born.
Montezuma and Napoleon and Emily Dickinson
passed through its years. Churchill and Hitler.
Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., Sonny Bono
and Aunt Fabienne. Leonardo and Pollack
were this clam’s contemporaries. The Troubles,
Woodstock, Tiananmen Square, “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”
Shortly after I finished college, the clam was accidentally killed.
My whole life
is a blip
to a tortoise,
a single thundering
tick of God’s
I want to do something
my friends and my children
and their children’s
children might remember,
to die famous for having
done the things I love best,
writing poetry and
talking late into the night
about music and teaching
and supporting the careers
of younger writers and caring
for my disabled son and learning
year by year to be kinder
and less defensive.
I like to imagine myself, too,
in an ashen near-future, huddled in
a shack cobbled of refuse harvested
from the rubble, helping
others escape through
a network of secret tunnels,
a rare green leaf pressed
between the pages
of the last beloved book.
like mine live
in lives like mine.
The clam was born in 1499.
Dorothea was born in 1910.
My grandmother was born in 1912.
Richard was born in 1926.
My dad was born in 1946.
My mom was born in 1947.
Bill Callahan was born in 1966.
Brenda was born in 1970.
I was born in 1979.
Cal was born in 2007.
Simone was born in 2011.
Totoro was born in 2019.
Crickets chirping everywhere,
the ambient din of still air.
I might have wasted my life.
And what about my things—
books, CDs, records, hats, guitars, devices,
souvenirs, these weights placed
along the edges of my life
to keep the wind from lifting it away.
I treasure them not because
they are precious or rare,
but because they are mine—
I gathered them and put them in order
according to the alphabet
of my affections, my obsessions’
persistent foreword counting,
stacked them like bricks against
storms past, passing, and to come.
I hold them with the mortar of my wishes
and greed. Will they degrade
to mere things again, disbursed
to distant eBay buyers, landfills,
and future generations unable to decipher
the soul-map of which they’re scraps?
I search for Totoro, peering
into the various hideouts in his cage.
He is present everywhere
in our home, a small ambassador
from a country on this side
of the horizon, a sure sign,
a whole soul in a body
the size and color of a Twinkie.
He pulls me toward him,
a pinprick in the hull of the plane,
which is not falling from the sky
but moving through it
in the only direction it can,
the only one there is, slicing
through hope and dread,
which are thin and invisible
as air, which drags and pulls
at the plane overhead,
slowing it down
as it holds it up.
The sun rises each day like a fathomless eye.
The Earth choruses randomly at every instant.
I wish my wife and daughter were home
from their trip. No one can ever come
close enough. The party next door is dying
down, just three or four friends left, still laughing,
a playlist of 1990s top 40 hits
rippling through the infinite suburban night.