Ibuprofen Breakfast

Kevin Cawley


We took a train from Michigan to Utah.
Broke down outside Chicago. Two hours late
we crossed the eastern prairie as we ate
and put the plains behind us in the night.

Woke up in Colorado. April snow.
In Denver when the dining car derailed
we sat for three more hours. People wailed.
The train conductor clenched his teeth and smiled.

Climbing through the mountain passes, beauty
cause for comment out the lounge-car window,
we stood in line an hour for a muffin

discussing implications of our route.
We could have lost it in these cliffs of winter.
We'll make it through the canyons soon enough.

14 April 1994


Compared to the clouds above them
the mountains look quite small:
the range of white above the range of white.
Grey echoes upward, echoes overhead,
cliffs of granite rockier than the rockies.

Those who come to love them
consider mountains tall,
but even prairie dwellers know the sight
of eyries in the air: one thunderhead
can make Pike's Peak a thing too small for mocking.

This canyon cut by water
descendent of the cloud
may give you an idea of permanence,
yet cloud itself, a parable of change,
reminds you that the world is all dissolving.

Ultimately, daughter,
crags that make you proud
must do so thanks to some familiar sense
that others feel for things that you find strange.
Our inner landscape proves the most involving.

19 April 1994


Saint Abraham, the patriarch,
whom Arabs call the Friend of God,
has no place on our calendar:
a man of piety so dark
he wouldn't even spoil the rod
to spare his son, his only heir.

Image of God's own sacrifice.
With Isaac resurrected Father
Abraham grew mythical,
progenitor of paradise
from whom in time would come our mother
Mary willing to do God's will.

Christ Jesus in two parables
made heaven itself equivalent
to rest with grandpa Abraham;
and slaves have sung in spirituals
their knowledge of what Jesus meant
to people thought not worth a damn.

The bosom of Saint Abraham.

11 March 1995


Cactuses and other succulents
crowded the desert dome of the garden center.
Inhaling the prickly heat of Arizona
we circled house high western scenery,
wondered about the one that looked like aloe,
identified the yucca plant and heard
our daughter, three years old, correct her brother:
Don't touch, Baby. You could hurt yourself.
Unmistakably her mother's voice,
the weight of the words, the phrasing, intonation.
Recently I overheard myself
and for a moment thought I heard my father --
a voice-mail message played back by mistake.
Enough however to remind me how
I hear my mother in my younger sister
(she hears it also, horrified). My wife
prefers to think she makes her own decisions.
She sounds just like her grandma when she says so.
Generations of ventriloquism.

12 March 1995


Whoever thought to put a shine on stone?
This bench displays the animated clouds,
something stones in nature never do.
The rock behind our cabin in Ohio

furry with moss but otherwise a grey
no squirrel ever found its eyes inside
would never take a shine by accident.
The stones the motion of Lake Erie polished

glow with a duller luster. When did marble
come to imitate a looking glass?
We have no way to answer such a question.

History accounts for such inventions
only with inventions of its own.
Whoever thought to put a shine on stone?

9 June 1995


Working dogs look happiest to me:
the collie on its own surrounding sheep
a natural dance of predator and prey
labor more delectable than play.

Dogs of leisure always look depressed:
the dachshund on the carpet at her best
dreams of badgers that her forebears dug
achieving nothing but a bunched-up rug.

Though Candide had to cultivate his garden
Pangloss with the leisure of a scholar
always had the time to beg his pardon.

We still have ingrates paid for playing ball.
Children to bear and bury. Palms to harden.
We still have leaves to rake from Adam's fall.

10 - 25 June 1995


The people who papered
this room last time
had chosen a mustard
colored plaid

mustard paint
mustard blinds.
We thank them for
the fun we had

the afternoon
we tore it down
papered and painted
daughter pink

border of antique
baby dolls,
solemn survivors
about to wink.

29 July 1995


Sickness as a medicine for the soul?
Pain primarily attracts attention:
toothache takes me (finally) to the dentist
who kills the pain -- an incidental goal --

healthy teeth the ultimate intent.
The bad tooth gone, an inoffensive hole
remaining to remind me, I patrol
the region with my tongue. And what it meant

for this particular suffering to cure
my soul of its reluctance to take care
I grudgingly acknowledge. Checkup? Sure.

Twice a year I lean back in the chair,
open my mouth for cleaning and endure.
No aids, black plague, or terminal cancer there.

29 July 1995



a mouse
from the malls
of my house,

the wayward

his neck:
his bloodied

of red
the drop
he bled.


Another mouse
another trap:
upstairs in bed
we heard it snap.

Fur a lighter
shade of grey.
No blood this time.
Threw it away.


My daughter saw it in
the middle of the night:
a movement in the bathroom
at her feet. In fright

she called me and I answered
(not quite waking) "What?"
"The mouse!" she answered. Not
another one! I thought.

9 September - 15 October 1995


To comfort a lobster
one has to get wet:
she does not in fact
make a very good pet.

Won't come when you call her,
won't beg or play dead,
won't purr when you pet her
or mew to get fed.

You want an admirer,
want to play god --
a creature to worship you,
give you the nod.

Lobster won't go for it.
Lacking a head,
best she can manage:
get boiled, turn red.

September - October 1995


Trouble, the one with no potential,
never amounts to anything.
Never in time. Untimely, true,
yet Trouble has plenty of time for you.

Trouble, mostly confidential,
trouble, a river of many springs.
You had it made. Not Him. No crime.
Still on the make. Has never done time.

October - November 1995


"Dark," my son says when the car door closes.
At two, laconic, a philosopher,
he contemplates it. "Where Dark go?" he wonders
when I turn the light back on. But I
have jobs on my agenda. "You OK?"
"Dark!" he answers as I cut the light.
Nothing more. I back into the night.

My daughter tells me that the moon must have
a string that we can't see -- connecting it.
"Connecting it to what?" Sincerely dense
I can't quite drive and listen. Or applaud.
"Me," she answers. "Daddy? Who made God?"

6 November 1995


Sweeping leaves down to the gutter,
I wonder what to let alone.
You know me: I rake, I mutter --
heave an intermittent moan,
long monolog of bruise on bone.

Leave some in the flower garden?
I purchase compost every spring.
Sodden with rain. Now they harden.
Snow falls. Ice forms. Me, I sing.
Tomorrow I'll ache like anything.

18 - 19 November 1995


Christmas behind us, New Year dead ahead,
snow five inches thick, the car on empty,
vaporizer steaming up our bedroom,
dog no longer gnawing on her lamb-bone,

we act out intermission, tune our heads
like pocket radios among the dumpsters
in an alley where some dozen of us fled
to smoke with no word of the cancer gamble.

We really ought to buy some Christmas cards.
We've finished coping with our New Year Message.
We have a book of stamps to get us started.

Fits of coughing interrupt our kisses.
(We've never smoked, of course. A metaphor.)
God with us: more than equal, even to this.

27 December 1995


Because I suffer from insomnia
I have an opportunity to write
this letter in the middle of the night.

Unfortunately the formula
eludes me. I adjust the light.
Empty paper: eggshell white

the package says. No crack,
no beak in sight.
I readjust the light.

To hatch a chick
you incubate.
You light and wait.

A peck
be caught.

Dead certainty can't lure a living thought.

30 January 1996


Keeping my beard at bay
scissors in hand I pause.
Pile on newsprint, straws
bound for the fire. Today
clipping an age of play
I question my final cause.

Keeping my beard at bay
scissors in hand I pause.
What have I cut away?
Nature? Or nature's laws?
My vegetable past? My flaws?
My history, black and grey.

Keeping my beard at bay
scissors in hand I pause.

24 - 29 February 1996


When automatic machinery malfunctions
we think of personality disorders
psychiatry for subway trains
analysis for elevators
positive reinforcement
for candy-bar dispensers.

But when a human being goes berserk
we make the cause mechanical
talk in terms of engines
going haywire, screws loose,
locomotives off the rails.
Cuckoo clockwork.
It does not compute.

February - March 1996


In a field between two fences
open on one end
minions of three wildernesses
effortlessly blend.

Neighbors by abandoning this
narrow plank of ground
saved it for the neighborhood of
loitering around.

Waving shoals of vegetation,
weeds in other words,
clay no good for growing roses,
tuneless trashy birds.

Animal and vegetable and
mineral combine:
janitor of no man's landing
mine to watch, not mine --

pacing up its dead-end alley
hands behind my back,
tracing recent thoughts and footsteps,
beating down a track,

suddenly I see the groundhog
watching from its hole,
muddy habitat behind it,
kitchen soil -- the sole

owner and proprietor of
all this in-between,
lonesome ranger of the local
solitary green,

challenging my right to walk here --
enemy or friend?
Salivating through its larder,
menace without end.

March & August 1996


Lawn that needs a cleaning,
trash behind the shed,
dawning spring: old meaning
passionate, once dead,
yawning open, preening,
flashing feathers, red.

I am also dawning:
risen from my couch
I try to close my yawning
chasm as I slouch
behind the window spawning
wisdom of the grouch.

Time's forever trying
to make the spaces his --
riming seasons, frying
bacon, forcing fizz
to climb the fluid pyre
and break its messages.

We who hear the riming
don't know what to make
of really perfect timing --
won't see what's at stake
till meaning gets all grimy
as burnt feet bid us wake.

5 April 1996


When every scold became a scald
the final bard grew bored
with shapeless tales too often told
and all things scary scored.

No word too weird
to bleat, no blot
so nuts as not
to pass for art.

He killed some time. He caught a cold.
Carried a harp and struck a chord.
An elder now, his songs all old.
They leered. He sneezed. God bless you. Lord!

1 - 4 August 1996


I lay awake at three a.m.
playing the latest ego tape,
what they think of when I come.
But in spite of chill or swelter,
cycles of my central air,
tickles, truculence, or tackles
met with in my mental lair,
sweet oblivion eludes me.

So I put my slippers on,
close the dog behind the door,
light an oil lamp and wonder
what I might have left from supper.
Settling down with cocoa, cookies,
prattle softer in my head,
finally as morning beckons
yawning I stretch. Go back to bed.

Soon too soon my clock will wake me:
then I'll wish that I had slept,
stagger through my duties, taking
longer than usual coffee breaks.
Nevertheless I'll keep on scheming
lovingly throughout the day:
me the object of my dreaming,
me the guest who's come to stay.

22 September 1996


Branches down from the trees again
crossing the path from house to car:
I'll gather them later.
Later the leaves in piles and then
gathered in bags will travel far
past natural fate.

I'll rake them up and put them out:
mechanical atrocities
will take them in,
digest them well and bring about
a transformation other trees
may carry on.

For now, however, let me stand
among the fallen limbs and leaves
and smell the air.
Somebody burns them, though we've banned
the practice: something in me grieves,
not here nor there.

September - November 1996


That pump near the aquarium
goes sideways till it buzzes:
move it back, it moves itself again.

This button in the rocking chair
from which I listen has
popped out of the upholstery, and when

I push it back where it belongs
tucking the string inside
I know that it won't stay there anymore.

Righting negligible wrongs
we trim the current tide,
eddies against an overwhelming bore.

8 November 1996


November snow: unmitigated joy
to children unacquainted with a shovel.
They struggle to fit their fingers in their gloves,
infallibly pull their boots on the wrong way
left on right foot right on left and say
Can we go out now? Never one to govern
when abdication seems a likely choice
I nod so as to save my shouting-voice.
I'll need it later. Definitely love.
Ecstatic transformation at first sight.
Did their mother ever feel that thrill?
Complaining heatedly (if heat could kill . . . )
she blackens the reputation of the white.
Like anti-snow her smuts and cinders fall
blighting the gift she thinks of as a blight.

10 November 1996


No new snow has fallen:
ashes on the old
darkening the cold
cling to it like pollen.

Solemn faces, sullen,
we do what we are told:
no new snow has fallen;
ashes on the old.

Never catch us kneeling:
far outside the fold,
sheep with sheepskins, sold
on sacrifice, unfeeling.

No new snow has fallen.
Ashes on the old.

26 November 1996


Accidental Rose of Sharons
bloom beside the fence;
pachysandra unintended
where the flower bed has ended
also flower there
making perfect sense.

For perfection means completion:
color here completes
an otherwise unvaried scene
a dull monopoly of green.
Blossoms for the needy,
an opulence of weeds.

29 November 1996


When winter comes the days begin to lengthen.
As cold increases so does light, as if
in compensation for the grief cold brings.

With wet leaves underfoot the final whiff
of autumn smoke remains in memory
associated with the milkweed chaff.

And light increases as the leafless tree
no longer interferes. A weather forecast
clarifies connections: we can see

the sun because a cold front lays it bare.
A warm spell would mean clouds again. But things
look promising for those whom light can cheer.

In branches where a single oak leaf clings
a crow speaks. We can hardly say it sings.

13 December 1996


Technically on Christmas Day
the animals can't talk:
merely Saturnalia,
a pagan festival that we
have rehabilitated awkwardly.

Technically on Christmas Day
the Savior doesn't come:
only an anniversary
on which one arbitrarily
may call to mind the healer of the dumb.

Technically on Christmas Day
no baby in the straw
makes angels bloom with Gloria,
shepherds kneel or men from far
away bring presents and defy the law.

Technically on Christmas Day
we never see a star
appearing in the Eastern sky:
no beacon we may travel by
till we no longer reckon technically.

25 December 1996


Turning my back in bed, I make
a monastery wall, a cell
of solitude. I contemplate

the lullaby of snores: my fellow
cenobites are singing, wife
and baby both exhaling mellow

music. Regulated life,
habitual cooperation,
work and prayer, the butter knife

in motion as we say our grace,
the children interrupting it,
nothing at meals approaching peace:

kindergartener has a fit
because we serve her Grownup Stuff,
the three-year-old revives the snit

that made him skip his lunch. Enough!
But no parental outburst quells
their quarrels. Brother in a huff,

sister with her bossy spells,
behave no better than their past,
their outraged ancestors. Blood tells.

January 1997


To celebrate St. Valentine's in lent
I could buy candy, though I gave it up.
You wouldn't have to share, though if you went
out of your way to keep a piece for supper

Sunday evening when I take time off
from lenten resolutions, I would cut
even that one remaining crumb in half,
a Zeno's paradox of marriage. But

you'd rather have unmarried romance, right?
Not evidence of an infinity
of making do with half of what we had.

The children cut our sleep in half at night
and keep our loaves dividing every day.
God multiplies our fish. We still get mad.

14 February 1997


On our one day of clear weather
when a bird came down our chimney
and was thrashing in the fire place
behind the plate glass door,
I came home and put together
with some plastic and a flimsy
jacket hanger made of wire just
the tool to do the chore.

Sooty feathers in the ashes
made it hard at first to see her,
though a moment later motion set
the living thing apart:
with the energy of passion
fleeing one who came to free her,
never guessing my emotion yet
inheriting my heart.

Flying past me to the window,
perching briefly on the cradle,
brain incapable of fathoming
the mystery of glass,
stopping there until I pinned her,
hardly moving till we made it
to the open door, the pathway clear:
she paused. I let her pass.

26 February 1997


Through many countries, over many seas,
I've come here, brother, to these gloomy rites
to give the final gift of death to you:
inconsequential words spent on mute ashes.

Fate has taken you away from me,
poor brother that I cherished carried off.
Now look at this! Pathetic rites our parents
would have favored! Take them with many tears.
Forever, brother, greetings and goodbye.

Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.

18 March 1997


Always a bit aloof
I look and sympathize:
inside my snug disguise
never a leaky roof.

My clock goes off on time
master of its alarm
coming to little harm
in spite of local crime.

Hardly a cloud in sight
with curtains I can use
to miss one if I choose.
Closing them every night

repeating in my prayers
blessings enjoyed today,
happy alone, I say
my last words unawares:

finally figure out
the parable in which
the rich and poor man switch
leaving behind all doubt.

25 March 1997


Docilitas, docility,
a minor virtue certainly,
but not the vice
we like to make it seem.
It just means teachability --
a willingness, a harmony
that lets one tend
the day and not the dream.

March 1997


Helen wonders what I'm writing:
something TO her or ABOUT her?

In the car she keeps a keyboard,
plays it if I show up late.

Gave it to her for her birthday.
She gave me a harp. I keep it

on the mantle near the dragons,
use it when the children pause.

Seldom as we play together
in our solos we remember

where the wherewithal developed:
blown reeds, plucked strings. Mischief. Mist.

13 May 1997


Raking remains of last year's grass
I think about the box of seed
half empty in the potting shed.

I saw it when I got the rake,
the seed below the spider web
well suited for a plot of shade.

I question its vitality.
Maybe I'll clear away the silk,
sow seed around the maple tree.

And if it thrives we'll have a lawn
and if it fails an argument:
my wife will say I should have known.

Variations on a theme.
Nothing will grow here. I'm to blame.

18 May 1997


Whatever agrees to grow
I'll foster in my garden --
I never plant or sow,
consider myself the warden
of a liberal preserve,
my mandate to conserve.

Clover in my lawn,
grass in my flower beds.
My dandelions, gone
to seed, have lost their heads
and broadcast their opinions
to neighboring dominions.

But in those foreign lands
their seed will sprout and die
as from their decks all hands
spray the prevailing lie
distinguishing mere weeds
from so-called better breeds.

8 June 1997


Familiar places welcome me:
the livelihood of my routine
depends on their stability.

Midsummer brings a growth of green
predictable as interest.
Locking the door of one machine

I look around and do my best
to profit by the natural
as I approach another. Test

the air and find it fragrant, full
of flower scent and fungus. There!
I've reached my office door. I pull

it back and breathe conditioned air.

June 1997


Why we call a fly-leaf
what we call it I can't say:
a moment ago an insect
landed on this trap
which had no glue to hold it.

Nor does it hold me.
So I turn the page and study
more attractive tracts.
But do the phrases stick
or do I stick to them?

Flies immobilized
on the paper in my brain
wiggle a while and die:
or I myself a fly
walking a tacky way.

1 September 1997


Children noisome
dog too loud:
so-called joysome
noises crowd
already densely
space: immensely
senseless: fated
out of breath
as long vacations
end in death.

But everybody
dies and life
goes on: cruddy
in corners, rife
with credit cards
and shoplifters,
pointed shards
and phone grifters,
people learning
how to read,
people earning
what they need.

1 September 1997


I love the river but I seldom visit --
and though I live two blocks from the riverbank
I could as easily dwell in the desert
for all the good it does me: standing here

gathering accumulated lint
so I can dry the laundry. But the children
need fresh clothing. Though we can see the water
from the window of our van, we never

pause beside it much less disembark.
On the way to somewhere else -- the mall,
the ballet lesson or the hair salon --

we have no time to loiter. And at home
now that we've installed the central air
we stay indoors all year with the windows closed.

11-16 October 1997


Autumn hasn't ended yet --
a technicality.
Eye sockets
of the pumpkin skull
develop lids of snow.

I rake away the furry leaves.
In simulated drifts
they gather
evidence that fall
has fallen. Winter grows

like crystal, inorganic growth,
without fertility.
Call it
a test of human skill.
We can with what we know

survive the winter. We believe
however things may shift
they come
around and after all
the glacier melts and flows.

November 1997


To glory in the ordinary
one need only pay
attention. And a
form of mental prayer

eliminates the commonplace.
A potter shaping clay
invents potential
by surrounding air.

Has anything a benefit
more basic than the way
wet earth caked fingers
shape the nothing there?

A stark lid makes a darkening
to which the liquid play
of wine and oil and
vinegar repair.

24 December 1997

ęcopyright 1998 by Kevin Cawley. All rights reserved.