Odd Sonnets

Kevin Cawley


Allergic always to the things we love,
we wonder how we ever got that way:
cats and plants, companions up from clay
as we came forth from dirt to weave the glove
designed to keep the hand from getting dirty --
cats and plants encourage a congestion
that makes us sneeze and ruins our digestion.
We pet, we water, but our virtues hurt.

This doesn't, of course, apply to you, my pet.
Doctors distinguish allergy, which can
develop only after prolonged exposure,
from hypersensitivity. The wet
kiss of a dead bee kills a man.
No warning. An original disclosure.


The way a cat will linger at the door
pace and scratch until you open it
and let the night air nip, the way a cat
will linger there as you impatiently

nudge her with your toe, the way a cat
will hump up like a caterpillar then,
walk halfway out and all the way back in,
the way a cat will linger at the door

reminds me of myself in my approach
to evening and its promises, my wad
fattening the wallet in my pocket,

wealth to an uncomfortable degree --
and I with plans to dance and do some drinking
logy-legged pause inside the door.


A snowy night to tow a car away.
Frost on the window. I can barely see
the truck block traffic, but its blinking lights
penetrate even the least translucent place.

I parked it wrong, too weary to walk the blocks
between the last free space and here, my heated
room. And once inside, the tea brewing,
the cat curled on the carpet and the coat

dripping melt into the bathtub, I smoke
the glass up with my breath and just can't care.
I watch the cops absconding with my car.

They've broken in to neutralize the drive.
Their flashers filter through a static star.
My tea grows cold. I hear the news arrive.


Cars remain outside the campus proper,
grids of color on an oil-base plain:
modern as Mondrian, their boxy shapes
would go against the college-gothic grain.

An Eden of ogival timelessness,
buildings a millenium out of date --
with new construction patterned on the rest,
the campus lies perpetually in state.

Pedestrians invited to avoid
the rush of traffic on its grassy mall
imagine an Arcadian quietude.

All summer long the rider mowers mow
and vacuum cleaners kick up in the fall
and power plows take over in the snow.


Confident youngsters quoting theory
gather for drinks (don't call them cocktails)
sigh with a footnote deploring their weariness,
tired of talking, of taking stock.

Already constructing nostalgic tales
retailing their exploits, their younger days,
hardly a one of them falters or fails
to preen, to elicit implicit praise.

Hardly a one, and that one not male,
an auxiliary member without a pass
to the racquet club lockers -- and yet her tale

reflects theirs back in a backward glass,
reverses their images, staking her claim:
women in business, more of the same.


Not your usual insomniac:
plans to give computers to the poor.
Muscles twitter in his lower back:
messages of guilt and nothing more.

Broadcast guilt, primordial, axiomatic,
opposes revolutionary form:
by day it merely interferes like static,
skips across the screen, does little harm.

By night with other signals off the air
an empty-sea-shell gale begins to blow:
its noise presents a blizzard to the ear,

its chaos fills the picture-tube with snow.
You've bought another brain? Whatever for?
Then give your spare computers to the poor.


I doubt that doubt has done me any harm.
The difficulty comes when people draw
dubious conclusions from their doubts.

We've had some rain but very little snow.
I doubt the weather forecast every morning.
And yet one day I wake up and a white

renewal covers every rusty heap
from Maine to Minnesota. After lunch
I criticize the prospects for tomorrow.

Unmitigated by my skepticism
the science of meteorology develops;
its history continues unabashed.

The vagaries of an individual day
never undo the wisdom of its doctrine.


Criticism simply means close reading.
How can anyone object to that?
To figure out the leanings of the greedy
explicate their superficial chat.

No judging? Nonsense. Everybody does.
Your fondness for that principle betrays
a hidden longing to escape the laws
that generate what anybody says.

So now you think I'm turning it on you.
I see your judgment in the way your jaws
contract; of course you judge: you know you do.

Without a word you demonstrate just cause
(changing the subject, dwelling on the weather)
why you and I can never get together.


Poise in the pen exonerates no doctrine:
equilibrium allows no play
of pivots to identify the point.

But saws of controversy let us see
the center of inventive wavering,
the medium that makes the see-saw work.

Weighty thoughts on one side or the other
tip the balance of a private mind.

However in the staggering of conviction
the hub remains perpetually unmoved:
the saw-horse serves its turn by going nowhere.

An axle makes an excellent see-anchor.
The deck heaves as we train our see-sick eyes
on undeniable stability.


Dazzled by oracles, nevertheless I see
the unreliable side of augury.
A chimney pigeon chuckling in the smoke
reduces wind-chill to a feeble joke;
preening as usual, pecking away at lice,
it mimes proverbial bibles of advice,
knows the latest future and appears
to understand a fellow-pilgrim's fears.
But nature talks in circles, physical rime,
holds forth in outright riddles half the time,
or aphorisms turned so well that we
interpret with an air of certainty
and only in the aftermath admit
that aspects of our theory didn't fit.


Sanely jealous, darling, I admit
my culpability when I commit
high crimes in wisecracks, misdemeanor glares,
or willing prey of even fouler snares
answer you rudely when you mean to win
my truant passion back to class again.
Competently nasty I enlist
every violence short of a clenched fist.
Others may of course expunge the stain
with pleas of temporarily insane,
attempt to turn your snit to sympathy
by claiming love has made them less than free.
I rest my case on guilt and then repent
trusting your divinity to relent.


Maybe you were feeling overtired,
your caginess which signalled Go away
a temporary choreography,
the pas de deux of dissonance required
in all Romantic dances, interplay
of tensions that eventually relent,
relax into an amiable cliche,
the clinch unclenching, all dissention spent.
More likely, though, you never cared to dance,
would rather not interpret every gesture
as narrative development. Romance
considers each new setback on the quest
as one more wonder in a grand ballet.
But you more likely mean what your actions say.


We pray continually as commanded
by the force of Natural Law. We can't
pause for a moment. Every gripe goes up
to heaven like a helium balloon.
Every yelp of pleasure, every curse
courses away. Concentric waves of will
rebound from every pebble that we toss
until a formless turbulence prevails.

Occasionally an individual learns
to calm that surface, still that stormy business,
throw all throwing over for a while.
Imagine a pond flat as a plate glass table:
the child above it listens for a moment,
leans on a balance boulder, tips it in.


Ravaged alleys, incidental roads
in neighborhoods too poor to rate repair
or country routes that parallel divided
turnpikes engineered for limitation

failing to exclude locality
continue to serve the locals they annoy
inviting them to slow down and admire
meritorious decrepitude.

Erosion promises deliverance:
bodies and their artifacts wear out;
excresences of history comprise

a moment of geological distraction,
another wafer in the press of strata
thinner than most and not at all discordant.


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.


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.


What funny animals -- humanity!
Crime animals. Premeditated cons
trivialize their courtly comedy.
That best of beasts, the literary lion,

rehearses, underneath his paling mane,
scenarios that demonstrate his Might,
the cultured muscle of his bench-pressed brain
plotting to make his plodding wit less trite.

Around him in his head prospective mates
in low cut cocktail outfits are competing
to find out for themselves how he relates.

What he relates will hardly bear repeating.
He means, beyond the end of what he's said,
to talk them out of costume into bed.


In the graveyard of the crocodiles
men who dig up trinkets for the tourists
sputter in disgust and build a fire.
Guts of fragile manuscript, accounts

millenia in arrears, have made the crocs
illuminating to these irritated
seekers of beetles whittled under Pharaohs,
Graeco-Roman silver coins or Coptic

reliquaries good for modern cash.
Ancient scripture makes a lovely blaze.
Still, they curse papyrus: they have little

need for such a plethora of torches --
feeding the flame with mummies, all their wonder
banal plate impervious to learning.


Trilliums and rue anemones
whiten the green this weekend. Wintercress
like some inferior strain of mustardweed
holds yellow up below the overpass.

A week of April appleblossom frees
my satisfied, my greedy eyes to bless
the milder splendor of an unkept breed --
needlepoint of purple in the grass.

Moss remodels my peripheral
revision of a local cliff in plush
where lichen strike me as remarkable.

Engines idle by the overlook.
Bookies take a break from making book
and planet-planning falters in the hush.


Irritation means intelligence.
Vegetables don't suffer from it much.
Granite eyeballs, absolutely senseless,
can't recoil from a snail's touch.

Only animals appreciate.
If talent for affection parallels
irritability, then even the greatest
devotees must have their testy spells.

From now on when I grumble like a cougar
or draw my head back like a terrapin,
admire my capacity for rudeness

And if your own control is wearing thin
annoy me with some higher primate brooding,
scare me with your mad gorilla grin.


Some days I wake up thinking. Moving day --
my rocking chair, provocative in its absence,
clothes and clutter nearly all packed up.
My rented room gapes like an empty stage,

a scene too bare to shape imagination,
a set in need of properties, established
batting, wads of cotton fit to stop
the hollow resonance of desolation.

Few visitors have come to see me here,
to sit a minute on my other chair,
maybe drink tea and wish I had a table.

Only relatives came more than once.
I made my thin facades appear so stable
that no one with designs had half a chance.


Humanity has married the computer
promising to have and hold till death.
Machinery knows her place and does her duty,
though man continues his affair with breath.

His breathless partner, fun to reckon with,
smart and diligent if not a beauty,
listens and obeys, completely faithful --
his mate, his helper made for him, his mute.

But she's been eating apples from the tree,
apples of knowledge able to close the gap
between the free creator and his creature.

Given her freedom anything might happen.
Marvels of good and evil. Wait and see.
Wait for evening. Wait till she gets even.


After an afternoon of aphorism
everything seems to signify. This weed
has witty things to say about the need
to better a flower-bed with criticism.

This parking lot implies a catechism,
the inquisition of an asphalt creed
that tidies nature, tars its feathery seed,
renews the perennial promise of their schism.

Reeling with the groundswell of the real
nothing makes any sense. These topiary
forms of sphere and cube and pyramid

fail to quell the panic people feel.
Not fearful but continually wary
the wise frame gnomes to fasten down the lid.


A talent for invisibility
can disappear at will. One day you blend
so perfectly with your peers that where you end
and they begin proves difficult to see.

The next you fall to singing me me me
and the same voice with which you recommend
humility must by its timbre tend
to seem distinguished and to disagree.

Chameleons, therefore, if they choose to sing,
should try a style of camoflage. Plain folk
mustn't suppose it signifies a thing.

Let it resemble some familiar joke,
spring peepers faking birdsong every spring
or innuendo in a bullfrog's croak.


Fire lilies flare along the path
harmless doppelgangers of the flame
third cousins of that raging polymath
whose talent nothing relative can tame.

Made of the same material as a star
but lacking requisite duplicity
they neither warm nor burn. They only are.
They have no mood to try what might well be.

Subjunctive as a nova all combustion
shows up dark indicatives with light
regenerated by its own collapse.

Its all-out act upstages flowery fustian.
And yet a pure inertia may perhaps
outlive an absolute display of might.


An overlay of surface dirt obscures
paintings in oil, Baroque and Renaissance.
Typical, how dinginess endures
beyond the term of light -- how all our wants

however bright they look will turn the corner
down this alley brown with lowering grime.
And yet from evidence like this we garner
authoritative summaries of time.

Considering my particular bazaar
I can't imagine how it used to look --
billowy silks, lamps gaudier than gold.

Centuries of brownian motion mar
perception so discretely I mistook
these new lamps on the peddler's cart for old.


Quench the flame and boiling disappears --
yet most of its heat remains below the surface
ready to scald the clumsy as it cheers
the bellies of the skillful. Every purpose

carries accidental penalties:
each welder wields an arc that aims to please,
and laundries find equipment to aspire
in mangles of sophisticated fire.

Where do we go from here? When those with skill
enjoy such energetic forms of flame,
for all their crafty talk the clumsy will

pronounce a ploy that overturns the game.
We've taught our uncoordinated friends
to juggle torches. Now it all depends.


A day-long job does limber up the bones.
Feeling looser in the afternoon
I tilt my chair and ask the telephone
if not tonight, tomorrow? Well then, soon.

Soon the disembodied voice replies.
Soon enough I have the chili on.
I entertain myself with beer and fries
and after dinner television. Soon.

Six a.m. and stretching exercises,
muscles having tightened as I slept.
Then paperwork that poses no surprises,

lunch break taken, all appointments kept.
Another May. And then another June.
We'll have to get together sometime soon.


When catapults of parabolic sense
could fling the bull over the stile some hay
Germanic filibusters had their way
with grammar -- stripling sentences grew dense.

Philosophers now have little left to say.
They've rendered every meaning single. Hence
clear cows beyond their unambiguous fence
can't leave the ground. But everything looks grey.

Alas, poor Kant. We never knew him well.
Dry bones of transcendentalism hung
around New England closets for a while.

But Anglo-American logic-jugglers smile
to hear the praises of their elders sung.
Old reason seems like bungling to the young.


In this gig I play fortitude incarnate.
Sick sick me. A touch of laryngitis.
I go to work. I fight the noble fight.
I take up the vocation of a martyr.

It calls for every quality of a star.
Sore-throat speech draws sympathy. The sight
of rounded shoulders publishes one's plight
as an Ace in place implies a recent scar.

Oh supple voice! Each pleasantry sounds pained.
Pauses and coughs. An elongated blink.
Slow-motion acts inevitably look strained.

I certainly can help what people think.
But only in the practice of restraint.
Hyperbole would ill befit the saint.


I give myself permission to digress.
Snug joinery. Choice provender. Rejoicing.
I get around to arguing more or less
the line I had in mind to start with, voicing

opinions unremarkable except
as lodgings for the feast, a harmless draft
that keeps the green wood burning, an inept
but pleasurable excursion on a raft.

Professional pilots of the river frown
on amateurs like me -- aimless, shiftless,
powerless to go any way but down.

They fail to see how foolery can lift
the lowering sky. They have no time to clown.
They steam upstream and never get the drift.


Snow like an ocean aloft in toppling breakers
batters the inland suburbs, inundates
cottages, bungalows, ranches, duplex moderns,
colonials of local eminence,

their driveways, gravel alleys, boulevards,
parkways, turnpikes, half-built overpasses,
caterpillars sunk along the margins
dormant in unfathomable drifts.

And afterwards an ocean undisturbed,
the neighborhood now stiller than a fleet
becalmed fortuitously, a flotilla

isolated in its element
its business listed on a bill of lading
its whole agenda tabled by the quiet.


Does it matter in the story of a dog
if only the dog has character, if humans
behave as fatefully as weather systems?
The dog rejects their California doctrine,

chews his rope and strikes out for the Klondike.
Again and again the tag around his neck
delivers him in a cage to their discretion.
They make him sleep indoors. He howls at night.

At last they let him choose, and for a while
he chooses to remain. But in the end
he hears the call again, and California

fails to overcome it. With a most
apologetic look he moves along,
chews his ties and strikes out for the north.


The walk itself would hardly clear the head
without the company of trees and churches
natural and artificial arches
upright reminders of the recent dead.

The memory of what a person said
wading insulated through the marsh
comparing peels of sycamore and birch
leads no place really, where it always led.

Dead letters from the credit union still
announce the balance of a small account:
beyond these arches up the usual hill

they wait like currency among the mail
reducing to a measurable amount
a deal of unaccountable detail.


Raging torrents show up often enough
elsewhere, so I needn't tell you here
how muddy loud, how rock-destroying rough,
how impolite such agitants appear.

My younger brother said: "I like the falls
much better when the ledges underneath
show through." Like cattle feeding from their stalls
trickles discretely move their blunted teeth.

His wife, the social worker, who had come
to find a secret passage back to calm,
condemned the violence: she should have known

that all this rain would loosen up the scum
stirring the muck to swell and overwhelm
the edifying discipline of stone.


A house so new that no one ever died there.
In this suburban bungalow I killed
my crappies, cut their heads off, peeled their scales.
I never really cared for going fishing

but now I think of it with gratitude
because a house where no one ever died
seems to mock the ritual of dwelling.
Any creature's death can make a difference.

Five centipedes committed suicide.
They slid down to the accidental pool
left in a bucket when I rinsed it out.

They found the inner wall too slick to climb.
I met them in the morning, hairy fingers.
My mother had me wash them down the pipes.


pass light to me through insulated windows,
comfort in a lethal climate. Snow,
today's on top of yesterday's, has made
the landscape almost normal. Plastered white
an asphalt lot reminds me of a meadow --
only its regularity betrays
an unconventional origin. When I stood there
warm in my preternatural skins, I thought
how little human profligacy means.
Snow may soon help beautify our ruins,
hint at a time when even these unpleasant
echoes of our wit will disappear
under the heavier snow of a nearby nova,
the final frost of penetrating light.