Mundane Emergencies

Periodically Published Poems

Kevin Cawley



        Even the ravenous water shrew
        snatching a bite to stay alive
        has time to pause a moment or two.

        Indentured mind, a drone of striving,
        business, busyness, steams ahead --
        always departing, never arriving.

        Its engine might as well go dead
        for all the good it does to rush
        from here to here, boiler fed,

        water and wood drafted to push
        the void away, to cleave the air,
        to bend the tendrils of clutching brush,

        from here to here, never quite there,
        to catch the occasional torpid cow,
        sacred, not going anywhere,

        to urge it off the track and now
        to build up steam again, to go
        as fast as natural laws allow,

        leaving behind the hush, the moo,
        the moment of the water shrew.


        Tiger lily
        ornamental thorn:
        mere trickery,
        an early virtue born

        and gone before
        the weeds can yield
        meek democracy --
        lily field,
        thorn and chicory.


        Good progress towards transparency:
        my giving everyone the air
        will no doubt mean the end of me.

        Climbing leaves you up a tree.
        Pedestrians can't find you there.
        Good progress towards transparency!

        What does a lucid eyeball see?
        My retina's becoming clear
        will no doubt mean the end of me.

        The bare behind the barest we,
        the bare beyond where bones make their
        good progress towards transparency

        evaporates integrity,
        implies the dissolute. The bare
        will no doubt mean the end of me.

        Jellyfish melt in the kindly sea.
        When clouds dissolve we call skies fair.
        Good progress towards transparency
        will no doubt mean the end of me.


        What dragons do
        amazes you.
        They close
        their noses,
        keep their fire
        in, acquire
        quite a knack
        for holding back
        their molten
        You cannot but
        admire what
        the magazines
        call quite machine-
        like cool.
        They fool
        their fellow snakes,
        as one mistakes
        containment for
        control. The more
        they eat
        their heat
        the more their bellies
        burn and swell.
        Their ears explode
        because the load
        of acid
        and melted gut
        respects no shut
        no twisted lid.
        So let them kid
        you not.
        The hot
        internal leech
        inhabits each.


        Don't care what you say
        about Vincent Millay.
        By me she's OK.

        Whatever you do
        with the modernist crew
        won't trouble me, Hugh.

        Explain what you see.
        But let Vincent be.
        She's OK by me.


        James Joyce, the novelist,
        bragged about his minor feet,
        wanted every dinner guest
        to think them marvelously neat.

        Samuel Beckett also wrote.
        Admiring the master's wit
        he forced each great foot down a boot
        several sizes small for it.

        He hobbled like a cripple. Corns
        and blisters blossomed in his heart.
        He hid behind the potted ferns.
        Work in Progress! Modern Art!


        Here in the forest city
        below a hill of trees
        three seasons of the year the leaves
        can censor what one sees.

        Death has this advantage:
        it opens up the view.
        The time I've wasted going round
        and now the stair shows through!


        Committed to a life
        with a person called Love,
        she bought herself a loom
        and whistled as she wove.

        Love called her his Wife
        and Screwy in the Head.
        He locked her in his room
        and in the extra bed

        committed what they used
        to call Adultery.
        Afterwards his Wife
        confronted him, so he

        declared himself Abused
        and citing social norms
        committed her for life
        by filling out some forms.


        I like a grey sky on a winter morning:
        snow four inches deep and not a rabbit
        making tracks, not a citizen
        in sight. Without technology to warn
        me, and to rouse me for that matter, habit
        would have kept me guessing. But the window
        proved the weatherman correct. Now lights
        come on in other buildings too. My neighbors
        soon emerge and try to start their cars.
        I have mine half dug out already. Whiteness
        makes me giddy, makes me grin -- the way
        I did when I came out and saw the stars.


        Mistake the pointing finger for the moon.
        Success in criticism comes from learning
        not to take the flaming fact to heart.
        Describe the finger. Tell us how it rose

        from flippers of the mutant fish, explain
        how knuckles work, compare the nail to rhino
        horn, investigate the skin. But under
        no conditions look the way it points.

        Otherwise you melt your eye in milk.
        You lose your marbles and your better judgment
        knows better than to go along with that.

        Intelligent sugar stays away from tea.
        Where every wave has its own bag of wind
        the sea will never level with a moon.


        The cat's kill occurs
        on account of the cat skill.
        Up in the Catskill
        Mountains, cats kill
        exactly as elsewhere
        in places less aptly
        named. However
        the term itself
        has nothing to do
        with killing: it means
        cat's creek
        cat's channel
        cat's burn
        cat's brook.
        The common denominator
        of this catalog
        likely indicates
        the cat-o'-mountain,
        sometimes called
        the catamount:
        bobcat, wildcat,
        cooncat, lynx.


        Stumbling among the commonplaces
        Hieronymous Bosch discovered eggs
        with legs. How do you do, he said.
        They bowed back rather stiffly but

        no words came from their cracks. He took
        their inarticulate courtesy
        to indicate compliance with
        Economy, the country's moral code.

        But in the mouth of one a message
        lingered on the yellow tongue,
        a slogan for a leaky yolk:
        Boycott Syntax, Gradual Anarchy.


        I sent a painting to Monsieur Le Choc,
        the prominent art critic, to get his opinion.
        It had a yellow sun in the middle
        surrounded by intoxicating night
        with a tree in silhouette on the lefthand side.
        Monsieur Le Choc corrected it with orange
        house paint, enlarging the light to a cross.
        I told his secretary He's
        defaced it, but she only said:
        Lucky he didn't fix the tree up also.
        It don't look nothing like
        a tree from where I sit. More like
        fingers reaching for a strangle.


        By living in a place a while you learn
        what noises you can safely disregard.
        The country dog his first day in the city
        keeps his ears perked up, about to startle
        every time a stick-shift changes gear.
        Myself no better than a dog at moving,
        I had a hard time growing hard of hearing.
        But in the city, to survive, you have to.
        I notice the same dog lately -- nonchalant,
        trotting across Main Street with a branch
        clamped tightly in his teeth, like some professor
        piping a smoke and pondering to work.


        The badman beats his sword
        against a thicket in the bog
        and bleats for help,
        quivering like the carpenter
        whose silver watch he pocketed this morning:
        mockery took heart
        for other kinds of woodwork
        and filled his skin by exploits
        ineffectual where
        eyes among the trees
        encounter icicles along bare branches only,
        no roof
        no chimney breathing peat
        no straw to stretch the body on inside:
        where fingers
        yearn to trade their stolen stones
        for matches.

        TO AN ACTOR

        Sharpen the point.
        Whittle the pencil-end.
        Don't worry about making
        your candle less impressive.

        Light and heat
        can't stand conservatism.
        Money in a mattress
        never sweetens dreams.

        Fallow blubber
        gold-brick calories
        hardened arteries
        no channel to the heart

        tallow harbor
        energy incarnate
        burn your crusty water
        warm the stranded poor.


        Crow twisted through
        the pane of wrinkled glass
        drinking snow
        on the bend bough:
        when I get up to see
        the perfect plainness
        of another pane
        lets the bird observe me
        and it flees.


        The costume of philosophers
        will vary from the norm.
        One may wear a makintosh
        all winter (dreadful form)

        another sharkskin overalls
        another doubleknit
        another a tuxedo with
        a toga under it.

        Philosophers of every school
        give up and join the club,
        accept the normal dressing down
        before they try the tub.

        And all but old Diogenes
        use water when they soak:
        he alone prefers the fluid
        medium of a joke.

        BATTLE OX

        At first the ox resembled other oxen.
        A heavy sort of beast. We made him work
        the counter at the deli serving lox
        and bagels. After hours he would lurk

        along the alley in the back, his horns
        at ready waiting for a rumble. Gangs
        of motorcycle chain-swingers torn
        between scorn and admiration rang

        their changes on his scarless hide.
        The ox would gore them and enjoy the gore
        until the old offender in him died

        releasing the brighter ox within, more
        placidly to snort and as he sighed
        more calmly conscious minding at the store.


        If I could husband what I have
        what breed of ox might I be getting?
        Hybrid cattle armadillo
        brawny, metal plated backs
        on which no flies alight or vampire
        bats bother to try for blood.
        No openings. The predator
        may advertise in vain to place
        incisors in a promising
        position. On the energy
        that made them one by one without
        parthenogenesis or sex
        they carry on and only I
        can slaughter them. I rather like
        their animated statuary
        livening up the lawn and plan
        no butchery this afternoon.


        Food provides a measure
        of the ordinary: light,
        the commonest of all
        the things we have in common,
        implicit in the least
        prepossessing meal,
        in fallen fruit or hazel
        nuts collected from
        an untouched tree, in greens
        gathered from a highway
        median, in roots
        of dandelion or bark
        of sassafras. Light
        caters every wedding,
        every make-do dinner
        of oatmeal cake with cheese:
        the most extraordinary
        snacks of candied apple
        quince and plum -- as plain
        as boiled potato in
        their origin and their end.


        Lions mean less to us
        now that we know them:
        once in a dream they came
        pacing from cloud cover;
        even their purring could
        shake up our bookkeeping.
        Now they may threaten
        or keep a sane distance,
        come through the compound
        or lounge in savannas --
        bored with their mythos
        we chart their behavior:
        prim in our pith helmets,
        wary, unwilling
        to tremble in worship,
        we notice how seldom
        they even eat babies;
        oiling our rifles
        we feel almost peaceful
        and sleep imperturbably,
        visions of prowling
        carnivorous cats
        pleasing as sheep
        in the mind of a Sheltie.


        A trickle
        among mountains,
        it receives

        of the failing

        They foil the flow.
        They keep the stream
        from leaving.


        This afternoon I wait for you. And wait.
        I wander a bit. At first I speculate --
        maybe you have pneumonia, maybe a cold,
        wet wires or an exhausted manifold.
        But pretty soon I start to take offense.
        Self-pity has nothing to do with common sense.
        However, in telling myself how little you care
        I notice how entirely unfair
        this judgment would appear to an outsider.
        Suddenly my tongue comes out of hiding,
        salutes my image in the window glass,
        and I address myself as follows: Ass!
        You'd better define your terms. Your so-called friend
        has more than a friendly power to offend.


        Needy though not by any standard poor
        the Queen of Cats requires more affection.
        She takes and yells and takes and calls for more.
        No courtly good will do. She craves destruction.
        Solvent though not by any measure rich
        her underlings supply her favorite foods.
        She tries her claws out on their loving flesh
        recalling the kill, a lust beyond all goods.
        At large though not by any token free
        local mice avoid the Queen's environs.
        They guess her policy by smell and see
        no reason to cooperate with tyrants.
        Fit prey would show her tension at its best --
        at home though not by any means at rest.


        Old and unimproved, I have no claim
        to virtues most in vogue now: still the same
        inhabitant of an unprogressive creed,
        put off by novelty, put off my feed
        by better fodder, chronically suspicious
        of any pottage touted as delicious,
        I ruminate on how to make a start --
        can stodginess cause a quiver in her heart
        comparable to palpitations felt
        by elders when their young Susannas melt
        the dignity of ages known for ice
        and thaw their metaphors of paradise?
        Probably not. The cool progress to cold
        content to leave hot flashes to the old.


        Landscape once could offer solace --
        fields of snow where no one walked
        seen from an upper room by night
        made sorrow almost a thing to savor.

        No more. The snow keeps lying there
        unintended memorandum
        of a better kind of grief.

        All week loose windows seep and rattle.
        A gallon jug in the vestibule
        full of frozen anti-freeze
        makes a career of standing still.


        Walking tames the wilderness
        of an unfamiliar city, brings
        wise correction to a strange
        perspective: distance once thought great's
        more accurately reckoned after
        pacing it. The hill that seemed
        accessible by car subsides
        so any nanny goat could make it
        ambling toward an uphill graze,
        any human halfway fit
        a fitness program on the way
        to work. And once the leaves come down
        those buildings lost beyond the trees
        join other local furniture --
        a living-room set, the conversational
        cluster of a neighborhood.

        THE WALK

        Flame in the tree-top:
        lame on the tongue
        talk never touches what
        walking discovers.

        Leaves gone to red-orange
        grieve at the frost:
        words only fracture what
        birds fly away from.

        Ice on the ditch-water:
        nice cloud of vapor
        flies from the mouth as it
        tries to describe it.

        Crow in the tree-top
        knows not to bother:
        caws to the walker what
        laws please a lizard.

        RARE BOOKS

        Laid paper laid to rest
        holds up better than the best
        preoccupied newsprint.
        However fine the document
        woodpulp acid, culpable
        convenience, leads to jaundice, illness,
        yellow journalism, while
        rag-heavy, out of style,
        poetry survives the purge,
        its alkalai a desert urge
        among the mills of industry,
        its libertine economy
        an outward range of blank space,
        an inward chemistry of grace.