Trades of the Trick

Kevin Cawley


EVERGREENS

Fir boughs under penalty of snow
certainly have to bend, but if they do
their duty by the fluid in their limbs
where roots end up upended in the wind

no snowstorm will uproot them, after storms
no overburdening will break their arms:
only the weak, the yielding boughs survive;
only the springy make it to Spring alive.


A RIDDLE

The fences built to hold it back
manage in spite of ribs gone slack.
Cars flatten it beneath their wheels:
it crunches but it never squeals.
We reckon with its soft attack,
and yet we know the way it feels.

It hardens light and softens sound,
divorces air and marries ground.
It clogs until it lubricates.
It dies because it penetrates.
Lost to the clouds, to children found,
men make it move to please their mates.


MOLE IN FLIGHT

I didn't have a fever, yet
I felt as if I had one when
the January drizzle wet
the windows I had opened, and

although I kept the thermostat
as low as it could go the heat
coiled in the pipes and sprang out at
the sprawling flesh it took for meat.

Digested by the predator
I dreamt of an incautious mole
who hated his too heavy fur
and longed to fly until an owl

obliged him. I awoke with chills,
the heat as low as it could go,
powder on my window sills,
beside my bed a rug of snow.


THAW

Last night the cold spell
faltered. Ice fell
down from the eaves
endangering lives.
Today a new snowfall
steadies the cold spell.
Stalactites fat
as a baseball bat
hang from the gutter
across the street.
The fireplug, buried
up to its hair,
has only that whiteness
to stand upright
in precipitous air
to prove it's there.


VENI CREATOR SPIRITUS

Come Creator Spirit, fill
the crannies of your animal:
tell relics of religion
how to deal with indecision;
teach the creature of your burning
how the meat chars without warning.

Michael the Archangel, take
offense at my defenses: make
me realize the reason
why denial heightens treason;
call a truce and use betrayal
to incarcerate my guile.

Violating Virgin, let
my flesh make no impression: set
the wild prayer of childhood
on my pietistic mildness;
pour the fat of broiling infants
on my lukewarm milky skin.


CLASSIFIED

Wanted: able-bodied man
to keep house for 9 women and
a snake. To take on baking, cooking,
doing dishes, washing clothes,
cleaning floors and walls and so on.
Need not call unless good looking,
cheerful, mild, obedient,
and passionate in bed. Intent:
a year's probation living in
domestic happiness and sin;
if good enough, to be our wife
content among our things for life.


TEACHING KARATE IN THE VATICAN CITY

My students come to me
with such ideas! Ki
implies the Holy Ghost.
They worry because most
of my techniques don't seem
in keeping with their dream
of Turn the Other Cheek.
And when the Cardinals speak
they pantomime the Humble
Neophyte, but grumble
to Monsignors if
I call their movements stiff.
A willful sort of meekness,
pride expelling weakness,
the way old Diplomat
my father's neutered cat
rubs up against your legs:
he purrs and stretches, begs
for your caress -- and claws
your hand or closes jaws
around your fingers when
your absent mind gives in.


INCIPIENT BRIDEGROOM

Green has gone and done it when
I didn't have an eye out, while
I thought about my bank account
and if she will or if she won't.

Magnolia trees, accomplices
in covert operations, spill
intelligence out aerials
till even I can hear them tell.

Among a million open secrets
even I grow confident
of confidences, even I
become the sometime confidant.

And if she will or if she won't
I have an eye out anyway.
Green has gone and done it. I
care less about my bank account.


INCOGNITO

Mystery disguised as wit,
polyester television,
Fascist ashes, oracles
she papered conversation with.

I loathe denatured miracles,
said Mystery disguised as wit.
Make supernature natural,
I'll willingly believe in it.


PRECIPITATION

Snow of ashes white and flat:
fallout of magnolia petals
clusters on his grey felt hat
dreamlike as a dustcloud settles.

He glances up to see from what
unnoticed tree blooms fall in May
mindful of the burning yet
not yet accustomed to the way

a dry precipitation rides
the rising breeze around the frame
kites above the buckling sides
and falls on him to fix the blame.

He thought they'd keep the children warm --
electric blankets, woven wire.
Snow, hot snow, the telling storm,
neighbors clucking at the fire.

He shakes his hat: broken flakes
continue downward. Weightless life.
Catastrophes from small mistakes.
He shudders and he hugs his wife.


GRASS

The way of all flash
when the world began
did not imply much
in the way of man.

In circles of mass
gross messengers fell,
their energy loss
a version of hell.

What drunk saboteur
turned entropy back,
remodeled the fire
and taught it to tack

upwind unwinding
Hurricane Satan?
Reckoning dead blind?
Some education.

Fish sprouted fingers
flesh harvested wraps
oil in its tankers
and cheese in its traps.

The way of all flash
when the world began
did not imply much
in the way of man.


NEVER SAYS BOO

Why can't I think of
something to say?
Courteous people
give and take.

Over a tray
of selected liqueurs
they polish off dull
conversational chores.

Some lead tours
of the family tombs,
others talk gardens,
others talk homes.

In carpeted rooms
where living goes on
the most trivial host
knows where to begin.

But I swallow yawns
and manage at best
to choke on puns
and nod at the rest.


TRUE COLORS

Bulls eye red.
Cows low blue.
Yellow bellies lap sap.
What can people do?

Cats in the ice cream.
Cats in the cheese.
Cats on the table cloth
doing what they please.


AN IRIDESCENT WEB

Purple copper where the spider spun:
so long as I have this I don't despair
of getting other occupations done.
Preoccupied with color, I don't care
about that swirl of papers over there
like fallen angels sassing back at sun.

I opened up the drapes to let the light
describe my desk, elucidate the floor.
Paper angels mar the carpet. Spite
felled them in the slamming of a drawer.
I didn't have a headache any more.
I crow the way a morning glory might.


THE PERILS

Five dollars equals
a fortune in gravy
among the gross bears
the gigunda grizzlies.
The cliff-hanger sequels
her hair awful wavy
enumerate snares
but none of your business

how actresses act
after hours, how stuntmen
climb out of their costumes
and sweaty the bearskins
go back on the coat rack
and out come the bundt pans
the practical postures
the window panes darken.


CATAMERICA

Indoor cats at the window watch
their counterparts in the great world go to work.
To indoor cats those trees in the distance look
like primal forest. Out of touch

with cataracts and other props
of the sublime, they can't appreciate
the gap between a tree-lined parking lot
and veritable jungle. Steps,

for instance, seldom flourish in
the bush, and Chevies hardly ever. Yet
what they see compared to what they get
might almost tempt them to begin

another life. Still, they prefer
potential adventure to any actual threat.
Tomorrow they might go out. A pet
has duties. Time to wash one's fur.


FRAG

Fealty to the bean-flower king:
to lie among the dandelions and sing
with or without harmonica: to twitch
in a spontaneous dance the steps of which
no orthodox choreographer would approve:
to kick without a victim and to move
without soliciting applause: to weep
for no good reason: every night to sleep
for no good reason and get up with no
ulterior motive every morning: so:
yellowing grass away by sitting still
to fill the lungs the way the gullies fill:
to melt away the belly-ache of will.


MARGARITA

Margarita always wants
to know the names of plants.
Surely irrelevant, I say.
Call them what we may,
their own behavior stays the same.
No, she says. The name
makes understanding possible.
Without it we can pull
no information from the past
nor even make the best
of that uncertain lore which books
prefer to overlook.
A botanist among these plants
knowing what she wants
might fashion an organic lure.
A witch might frame a cure.


WILL

A shallow fellow
who writes rather well
can sell his opinions
and make a good living.

Philosophers, ossified
in his preposterous
paragraphs, air
their complete agreement.

Poets, knowing
no way to protest
from down under ground,
back his reactions.

Mistreated History
has her revenge, though:
a willow to his will
she bows in the window.

Her limbs remember
nothing at all:
another August,
another Fall.


STRAIN

Down in the gorge
between the reservoir
and the business district,
there on the ledge
between the rocky water
and the cliff, mist

dampens the rock face.
Treacheries of moss
make it slow going.
Locally doctors
recommend crossing
the city here, knowing

nervous laughers
who claim to love nature
won't pay attention
unless they have to,
never concentrate
until they strain.

So far I've heard
of no life lost by it.
Many die elsewhere.
Gorges preferred
by bridge-divers cost
them nothing. They fall

taken from strain
by a wise decision.
They need no balance
of pleasure and pain,
no double vision,
no strenuous rally.


IDIOLECT

The lexicographers would like a mesh
to help control the breeding of my fish:
a hatchery so thick with gulping carp
they pile on food like maggots in the park.

In China critics bred an orange strain:
we call it gold in Cleveland. Our lagoon
provides a respite from the Art Museum.
The gold fish grow gigantic there by autumn

We must command creation; otherwise
the squid conspire against us in disguise,
the octopi plot coups to topple us,
the clams go underground and play it loose.

So say the lexicographers. But I
prefer the chaos of the lightless sea
to these illuminations of the zoo.
You don't know what mere anarchy can do.


PIGS

Paleolithic pigs
would hardly ever wallow.
The primal boar, a fellow
careful of his digs,

had dignity to bristle,
wit to take offense,
muscle fit to tense
tendon, sinew, gristle.

A fat man whose disaster
has taught him to grow lean
or turned his jolly mean
has studied with a master

and pigs that get away
run grunting through the woods
deprived of earthly goods
but given back to play.


MADE HAY

Bales of hay neaten a field:
grown informal as the sea
billows wavered, backed and filled,
spineless crop with little to say

Now they have their lines down pat,
know exactly where they stand:
nouveaux riches! the tax they paid
mowed them, bound them, left them stunned.


STOP ACTION

A spider web with coats of frost
providing extra emphasis
hangs like macrame across
the corner of the shed. And this

delectable inconsequence,
at large when practicality
declines, calls up uncommon sense.
Which looks a while. And lets things be.


YORE

Smoke and apple-butter steam
rise around the stirring paddles.
Dreamy pilgrims tending copper
kettles in colonial guise
beckon and the fog settles.

Come a little closer. Choking
slightly when the wind changes
local residents comply.
Strange to think their forebears might
have done without electric ranges.

Scent of apples in the press
lingers when the fire dies.
Messages misleading as
the sighs of men mar everything.
Smoke settles and the night fogs rise.


LONG PAUSE

Leaves yellow on the lawn out back
and out my sunroom window clouds
reach down with arms of rain and knock
brass knuckles on the local clods.

Among slumped rows of marigolds
chrysanthemums have yet to bloom:
twelve undug tulip onions chilled,
my old ambivalence to blame.

Milkweed waiting out the storm
with old ambivalence to thank
in hesitation comes full term.
And still I sit. Sit still and think.


DOWN

Down from your penthouse room you meet
outrageous down, a feathery siege.
Snow, when you come down to it,
does condescend. Noblesse oblige.

A cloak, a continual dressing down,
it settles on your shoulders, makes
your coat as poor as anyone's.
Colorless dye, it never takes.

You brush it off. It settles down
past fibers that proclaim your skill
like cloth of gold. And then again
distinguished you proceed downhill.


A TOAD

The stay-put toad knows where to lay
its eggs. Buried alive in sand
it bellows when the Arizona
monsoon drops a river on
the desert, bellows and begins
to propagate. Evaporation
catches some, but other tadpoles
live to go to ground. They lie
in wait five years before it rains.
I won't reduce so factual
a marvel to a metaphor --
I won't pretend the stay-put toad
in me subsists on faith in change,
mutable emotion, arid
now until the next monsoon.


CREAM

Why can't we homogenize?
Me like skim milk, you like cream
on top of me, no matter how much
mixing makes us one, we fail to
coalesce when froth relaxes.

Can you prefer the company
of coffee? But how bitterly
he blackens you, while I (although
I may be somewhat bland) want nothing
but to lose my blue in your

off-color glow, until we two
by blending impure pigments strike
the eggshell white that painters shake
from oily scum and yellow base.
Though afterwards it separates.


SUGAR

Wheatgerm sweetens. Cabbage eaten
raw compels our admiration.
Onions fried a little while
temper even rhubarb pie.
Honey, I need not remind you,
Socrates of baklava,
puts the telling question: So
who needs sugar anyhow?
Mind you, those refineries
make no small appeal to reason.
Cheap and easy, cheap and easy.
Can we live with cheap and easy?
When we meet them on the street,
nuns of an arcane profession,
do we penetrate their meaning?
Do we genuflect before them
swearing our undying care?
We do. I know we do. But should we?
Would we if we understood them?
White remains of slavery
a sight more plain behind the make-up.


TAPEWORM

To get a tapeworm out you've got
to starve yourself a week and then
put a glass of hot milk
in front of you. Control the gag
reflex. All the rest it does
itself -- volunteers, so
to speak -- rises like a cobra
from the basket of your teeth
and ripples in the hot milk.
You can see where it touches
glass. You wonder how a thing
so long could fit inside of you.
It seems to keep on coming, like
those colored scarfs magicians pull
from ears or other pockets. Magic
of a crooked kind, magic,
not an entertainment surely.
More like something from a dream
discarded by the waking brain.
Afterwards, remembering
not the nightmare but the sweat
between your thighs when you awoke,
you wrestle back an urge to bite.


THE CARRIER WAVE

Elegance, mathematicians tell us,
has nothing to do with ornament.
A plain expression of repose
carries the message: purity
allows no wasted gesture, no
eccentric mannerism. To
the elegant, mathematicians tell us,
riches seem like armor clothes
in Eden -- ineffectual
against the only enemy,
a burden unrelated to
reward. Like static that breaks up
intercourse as yet unhindered
by loud habits, ornament
prevents communication. Noisy
costume drowns the signal custom.


THE MISFORTUNE OF HAVING MISSED OUT ON PESSIMISM

A man sits in the Cleveland Public Library.
He never heard of Schopenhauer. Marble
banisters guide him when he climbs the stairs.
But usually he takes the elevator.
This afternoon he reads a mystery.
The grey that passes for sunshine in that region
gives way to the grey that passes for twilight. Pigeons
in grey plumage pay no attention to tourists.
Sightseers wait for a bus and watch the pigeons,
having nothing better to do at the moment.
Later they plan to visit Garfield's tomb.
Earlier they toured the Public Library,
the largest in the country to allow
the poor to wander through its open stacks.
Therefore the man could someday possibly
happen upon Spinoza. Schopenhauer,
mentioned on page nineteen of the mystery,
has made no great impression. Nevertheless,
no longer can we class the man as one
who never heard of Schopenhauer. Instead
we must content ourselves to say: He never
studied Spinoza, though someday he might.


FOCUS

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 we release
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 balanced boulder, tips it in.


LADYSLIPPER

Each end of the orchid, symbiotic
model in its own peculiar way,
reaches for the otherwise unknown

oddity of an alien obligation.
A blossom lures the bee responsible
for modifying orchid progeny

with possibilities of pollen, traps
it temporarily inside, so that
the moss it gathered from another stalk

crumbles off and when it finds a passage
out of the chamber by a secret door
it trembles with a new genetic cargo.

Doubting nothing with its partial brain
proceeding to the next supply of nectar
it shouts the coda of its recent rage.

Meanwhile at the other end where fungi
help the roots to keep the plant alive
the chain of all indebtedness continues.


THE PILLOW

Murder comes as a surprise
even to the murderer
whose delicate performance though
premeditated still denies
him pleasures that it should ensure.
No audience, no praise, and no
immediate relief: at night
no pardon from the memory.
For once his wife put up a fight,
a dishrag ordinarily,
taut limbs an imitation of
the afternoon they first played love.


WHALES

God said: Could you take care
of my babies? Here, keep
them a while (I need to
go out this evening). So
Man said: God gave me
these babies. We can butcher
them and eat them. They
should taste good with pepper
and their skins can make
a wallet. Woman said:
Did God mean we should eat
the babies? Man replied:
God made me master over
everything. So don't
talk back. I might just
eat you too.


CARTOON

She went out like the tide and left me
stranded (washed up on the beach
it means). It means I have to shift
for myself a while, climb palms, reach
for coconuts. Their milk and meat
will keep me healthy. Exercise

can't hurt me and you sure can't beat
fatigue for stifling surmise.
Until I sleep I don't suppose
that what goes out comes in again.
Fashions change her mind. Her clothes
desert her. I remember when.


SELF PORTRAIT

What profit do we make on what we force?
I paint a picture of myself more dashing
than my pose before a camera. Of course
no photograph has eyes like these, no smashing
passion penetrates the lens, because
the fire of my self-portrait has the face
of myth, not the façade of natural laws.
Now, having captured such a crazy grace,

I feel obliged to prove myself, to force
a reasonable facsimile by crashing
back and forth astride a charging horse,
my hairdo flowing, rented sabre flashing.
I will remind them of Sir Philip Sidney,
Sir Walter Ralegh and Sir Ivanhoe,
until my posing throws me on my kidney,
dialysis of the fast me from the slow.


AN EPISTLE TO MARTIN MERGANSER

You who prefer the forest to the jungle
would like these woods I walk in, though they seem
a bit too tame to win your Imprimatur --
where Nihil Obstat you grow quickly bored.
Back in the city businesspeople bungle
their way through weeks, their watercooler dreams
focused on vacations, when they potter
among their plants or (if they can afford
to mount an expedition) outsmart fish
among the million other urbanites
who had the same idea. But down here,
owing to a singular lack of attraction,
I have no company but crows. Ambitious
fishers gather where the plump chub bites
near the divided highway, so I can scare
my magpies off in peace, the one distraction
the sound of my own club-food steps,
the branches cracking and the crispy leaves
griping like cellophane. Some hunter's hounds
invade my revery with a faint baying,
but they don't come any closer. Traps
would rust and crumble before a naive
poacher could turn a profit on these grounds.
I've never seen a rabbit. I won't say
the place lacks animal life -- my cats can find
a snack of mice whenever they've a mind.
But rodents don't attract humanity.
And when I brood they leave the path to me.


RAPT

Raft of terse remarks
Look! Up there! Up there!
bouys the down heart up --
a raptor in the air.

Its eyes can cover miles.
Where people understand
its vantage will have seen
and found the vision bland:

prey too large to eat
another worthless breed
like any kind of cattle
beyond the range of need.

Yet hawks have fallen victim
to esoteric love,
and man has felt a raptor's
talons in his glove.


MIDDLING

A dozen plums in blossom
illuminate the text,
but mostly passages of green
lead on to what comes next.

Communicating media
bring fluid up the root
till intermediate vagaries
solidify as fruit.

Spectacular beginnings
and flavor in the end
attract a lively audience.
But ecstasies depend

on ordinary stretches,
unmitigated drabs,
a wretched time for lechery
with nothing up for grabs.


PRATFALLEN

We comedians of error
need to follow protocol:
in the comity of peril
one must conjugate each fall.

We decline the nouns of autumn;
every substantive agrees:
in our motley we hit bottom
like detritus from the trees.

If our parallel constructions
have a parabolic bent,
philosophical deductions
tell what parables have meant --

how the cycles of our grammar
always bring us back to spring,
how the forms revealing gender
make rime easy, and we sing.


CLEAR TITLE

Ox eye daisy's other name
chrysanthemum leucanthemum
reminds me of lycanthropy
(the werewolf principle) and I
imagine metamorphoses --
cultivated bloomers going
wild in the lunar light
like raging dandelions seeking
whom they may deflower. Weeds
respect no trite conventions, no
polite criteria for judging
worth. They come to rest in beds
by happenstance. If mum's the word
in some of these, the irony
means nothing whatsoever. They'd
as soon lie down in ditches with
the slimiest clods on earth as with
those oriental gallants known
commonly as chrysanthemums.
Daisy, mum, or plain ox eye --
good name doesn't signify.


WASHINGTON

Cartographers' biographies
elucidate their maps. Americans
have run the prime meridian
through Washington, whose occasional
divisions of the plane, the platless
aboriginal tabula rasa,
now delineate the real
as inescapably as nature.

Washington triangulated,
laid his chains along Ohio,
and in later years became
first master of the land he'd lined --
land of the home, free of the brave,
more geometrical than ever,
sharp-edged monuments erect,
state-of-the-art art-of-the-state.


CITY FISH

Sunlight angles through the ether
simultaneously nets
leviathan (an ancient Y)
and several unimposing fish
(the low buildings thereabouts).
Such ordinary creatures, dull
slug-shades in their element
(the grey sea of atmosphere,
the heavy sludge of city air)
multiply colors in the sun,
a challenge for a variegated
palette. Darkish scaly things,
when they at last may entertain
the light, put crass pastels to shame.
They demonstrate an infinite
plasticity, appreciation
able to accommodate
dingy peeling painted brick,
iridescent belly scales.
Astonishing transfigured fish,
their ocean left behind, they rise
unconscious towards annihilation.


MARRIAGE LICENSE

Cellophane tape, transparent, clean
as cunning when we stuck it on,
has turned the tear-line greasy brown.

Its acid eats away the mend
beginning of an early end
dissolving what we meant to bind.

Invisible repairs we planned
simple, inoffensive, bland --
beware of what you understand.


AFTER CHRISTMAS

I have a new flute now
(bamboo). I have a computer.
Air over hollows, a column
of breath; crystalline
symbols, right-angled
columns of wealth. Music
if you can call it that
oscillates from the small
dynamic speaker by my
keyboard, music so
absolutely breathless it
need never come up for air.
What's the pitch? Perfect
but shrill, while from the
ancient invention off-color
melodies bend the definition
of success. No
contest, of course. High
tech takes over. Digital
bits make news, not bitter
digits stopping
the progress of wind.
And if you're not news
you're nowhere, playing
taps to a dripping faucet,
lulling the dishes to sleep.


PATCHWORK IN WHITE

Blankety blank, new snow on a fallow field
allows the plain to dazzle by its plainness
makes its features even less distinguished.
As if I'd never seen white before, each year
this fascination of the nondescript
stifles the buzz of business in my skull.
Snow fills the wide field of my office window,
fills my field of vision with a vision
of enigmatic absence
tundra no less glorious for its cold
it startles by predictable demeanor.

A quilt of eggshell patches hides the mat
I sleep on: my undecorated walls
invite all tired eyes to send attention
elsewhere, inward. Out the window now
the neighborhood concurs. Winter patches
tattered consciousness: without its work
I'd smother under motley:
the me that needs relief from the colorful world,
the underlying me would not survive.


APOLOGY FOR A FAILURE TO CORRESPOND

If I could walk through woods to work
I wouldn't much mind a five-hour typewriter morning
or typical afternoon. If I could follow

some overgrown railroad tracks, cross a trestle
to avoid the highway, climb a viaduct
to circumvent the city, I might find my misplaced

voice on the way home. And think it out
in ink -- rejoice with tea steeping in a chipped pot
and sugar cookies cooling on a plate.