Kevin Cawley

Convention recognizes only three
dimensions, namely depth and width and height,
with time from time to time admitted last.
Simultaneous qualities don't count:
color, smell, reflection, weight, and sound
all eliminated by the solid
plane of adolescent mathematics.
A painter might appreciate the shades
of silver in an image-bearing ball:
they still don't change the meaning of a sphere.
By definition three-dimensional,
ineffably abstracted, it excludes
uncountable characteristics of the plainest
bounce of matter from the over-mind.
But has convention anything to do
with casual reality? A face
uncovered by the nicotine of years
roughly convoluted as a brain
reveals a core of character that no
ideal reduction ever apprehends.
Yet all the so-called qualities of matter
dissolve in quantity once analyzed,
additional dimensions of the real
appreciated as a curve of light,
a wavy shape of magnetism, air's
concavity or convexity, the count
of particles, each a measurable amount.

I'm babbling again: forgive me. But
it happens when you give up teaching, tire;
retiring from your podium you find
a choir of footnotes caroling in your loft.
Ash Wednesday. Lent. Mortality remembered.
Many reminders lately that I'm dying:
a stitch in my back, a spasm in my calf
pitched me over headfirst on the floor,
a thought-provoking way of waking up.
It caught me dreaming, brought me right around,
blackened my eye and almost broke my cheek.
Practical as ever, Doctor Mudd
tested me to death when I went in:
cholesterol now double what she wants.
The secular and the sacred have agreed
to vex me with a regimen of fasting--
although the secular makes more severe
devotions mandatory while the sacred
almost apologetic only says
that no one grows without a little pruning.
Cut out bacon, sausage, pork chops, cheese,
butter, fried potatoes, chicken skin.
Doctor's orders: live on fish oil, oat bran,
milk without the cream and margarine
made only with unsaturated fat.
And don't forget to exercise. Rely
on science and survive. Until you die.

Science has little to do with daily life.
A mind made skeptical by observation
takes as much on faith as any other,
wakes up and expects to feel a floor
supportive underfoot, goes back to bed
ignoring doubt, surrendering disorder.
By rationing its rationality
it hedges bets with being, plays the field.
One foible may emasculate its point
and fables turn out real. If only faith
in atheism could remove these doubts
how faithfully we'd follow it! We swear
by God regardless, never all in vain,
a bodily secretion of the soul.
Profanity intensified may bring
the mannikin that mouths it back to life:
a dummy's blood swelling its clotted pump
to crumble the crust that hardened on its heart.
My tape recorder can't take in the pauses.
I keep on stopping and the tape stops too
and when I turn it back and listen to it
my many silences have disappeared
and one great incoherent dissertation
runs along, a voice from the asylum,
until it suddenly says nothing more
and still the tape continues, silence widens,
a man who talked and talked until he died.

Talking with a tape recorder helps.
The mockery it makes of self esteem
undermines complacency. The voice:
I wonder when I listen to the tape
where it could have come from, blurry drawl
of carefully articulated notions
nothing like the notes I had in mind.
Another me might almost have composed them,
a senile me, a drivel that meanders.
I mean to plot my memoirs but I find
the habits of a lecturer take over
grab the lectern from the storyteller.
Appropriate for such an age of critics
doping out the universal text
with gnostic deconstruction. For a Christian
possibilities remain. A story
tells no disembodied secrets. If they
kill it with a cute interpretation
it rises from the deadly to invite
the wise to stick their fingers in its wounds.
But now I find it hard to tell a story.
How can I hold back the commentary
clamoring to have the microphone?
Damn philosophy has no respect
for anything particular: it wants
the benefit of theory to restrain
the pleasure in a memory, the pain.

An odd grape makes the cluster. Motley members
brought together constitute the bunch.
By living the changeable vine produces fruit
and even the most peculiar fruit contributes.
A dove came down to offer me a motto:
beloved sons may sometimes prove displeasing.
Approve or disapprove, but love each other --
uva uvam videndo varia fit.
I found a job. Too tired to retire
I sounded out the college archivist,
agreed to put my weariness to work.
I read the mail of dead men now, dead women,
summarize their messages on cards
mumbling commentary if I find
an item to incorporate -- imagine
writing something, maybe not my memoirs,
maybe a book of letters from the dead.
I play the tape to hear the incoherence,
patchwork comforter of correspondence
passionate and businesslike and wise.
I'm sleeping better lately: no more planning.
I keep my hope well focused on the present.
And so to bed embodying the words
Give no thought for tomorrow. Up and early
off to work among the lucid dead.
They offer me their presents from the past.
I list their mortal thoughts and make them last.

Too sick to seek a remedy, too weak
to walk around the corner to the store,
I rock myself to waking as I watch
the cock-eyed clock propped up against my wall.
Pupal humans, caterpillar kids
stupid with a stupor they outgrow
only by dying, spin the silk of worms,
cones of mucous, excretory coffins.
Coughing as I ruminate, my cud
a coffee-flavored benefit of phlegm,
catarrh my instrument, I love to practice
borrowed lyrics in a minor mode.
We often sing about what moths we'll make
with lofty verses fit for butterflies --
monarchs ultimately, we imagine.
Don we now our dubious apparel.
An absent otherwise, a missing if,
would trap us in our worminess. We'd rather
bank on immaturity. God knows
we think like children bent on adolescence.
Almost Easter. In the resurrection
following the precedent of nature
we hope to grow from ugliness to beauty,
to grope our way from awkwardness to grace
with parables to make our future present.
We bury one another as we bleed
internally to sprout the mustard seed.

What gorgeous gloom! By morning I felt better,
recorded what I'd written hoping tape
might help elucidate my hieroglyphics.
Seldom bothers me to babble now.
I've lost my old self-consciousness. Who cares
what awesomely irrelevant remarks
I make to make the microphone kick on?
Take as many pictures as you like
but don't expect a forthright man to smile.
I won't say cheese unless I'm really hungry.
A man boxed up and sharp as Christmas cheddar --
no candied fruit: instead a candid curdle.
Tintypes have the attitude I like.
What grin can make it through a long exposure?
An honesty implicit in repose
conjures a communion with the dead,
faces that keep the character of pain
laced into the fabric of their features.
Love them in their suffering. The land
they gave their lives to gives us livelihood
today. Their pickle-faced composure has
a flavor to it, preservation dill.
No salesmanship -- the power of negative thinking.
Frailty I recognize becomes
the truest element of my reflection.
The beauty of it lies in its being so.
Will I disguise it? Not on your tintype. No.

I'm losing things. My elderly umbrella,
news that comes on earlier at night,
the pen I use to pay my bills, the other
pen I use to write infrequent letters.
The time has changed. It's raining. I could write
a sonnet on a checkstub on the rain
if only I could find my missing checkbook.
Would honesty compel me to explain
the unexpected episode of snow
that lasted till an hour after noon?
It passed as quickly as it came, and now
with weather in the fifties and a sky
another story typical of April
my recollection of the ashen flakes
dark against the lighter dark of vapor
would mark me as a bleak philosopher,
a sick one maybe, always talking death.
To live as one already dead: a motto
given Jesuits by Benedictines --
not a bad one either. Saint Jerome,
depicted often with a human skull,
memento mori, would have understood.
Donne the Anglican slept in his coffin,
a nightly unmistakable reminder.
The plight of every failure: it will pass.
All flesh grows up and withers like the grass.

"The dusk of life descends on me already."
Michaelangelo begins a sonnet.
Ivan Mestrovic in time continues:
"Nevertheless I never give up hope."
Relief, a paradoxical technique,
the chief progenitor of sonnets, cuts
away support to figure out a form
that makes a personality emerge.
I remember -- petrified in background --
crying about the damage of erosion;
meanwhile those chiselers the elements
weaned me from the rockiness around me.
"We whose bones you crush will dance to praise you."
Woes have ways of crumbling into joys.
Re leaf, a memo. Here we go again.
A brief exchange of radiance and rain
and out they come. The underground of winter
routs its forces: everywhere flamboyance
overcomes the uniforms, the greys.
My graveyard's blooming dandelion wisecracks.
Territory once preoccupied
with beer to souse the Germans now returns
to vintage bottles hidden in its cellars,
wine to satisfy a multitude.
The bread I bake this morning has a flavor
heady beyond the physics of its fact.
It takes me in. I catch it in the act.

Yesterday my ceiling sprang a leak.
Best we can do, my landlord told me, Monday.
Spaghetti boiler under the bathroom fan
is letting only a little bit escape.
The water in the kitchen seems to come
another way, between the walls and out
under the cupboards under the steel sink.
Till Monday I'll have towels on my floor
to minimize the damage to the tile.
But in the end I'll only have the smell
in memory of a fleeting tribulation,
temporary metaphor, good grief.
Humility? She wondered what it meant.
Ability to receive and not resent.
As pride prevented me from letting her
chide me for not demanding something more,
it stopped me also from accepting help
with mopping up the water on my floor.
Some fifty years ago she left me there
shifting leakage, shifting for myself.
Today another leak has brought her back
to say her bit again and disappear,
a cameo performance in the minor
drama of my undramatic past.
Would anybody stay until the end?
And when the audience has gone away
why should the last remaining actor stay?

Even odds I make it through the year.
Given a guarantee of death, I'm gambling
only on the accident of when.
Meanwhile keep on going to the dentist.
Oddly enough, I haven't lost my teeth.
Sad to think what happens in the grave,
hair grown out unfashionably long.
Scary to think of fingernails flowing.
No more six-month checkups, no more flossing,
and so as plaque takes over gingivitis
plagues the gums and tooth decay sets in.
Vague assailants, acid germs attack
the long-preserved virginity of molars.
Wrong! The plaque subsides; the teeth survive.
Enamel triumphs, practically intact.
But am I suffering a loss of bone?
My periodontist tells me that I am,
a very significant loss. And in the grave
will I experience a loss of bone
and find at last the fact it signifies?
Or will no I remain to say I see?
Silly to wonder, odd to guess the odds --
no comfort in the wager of Pascal
who gambled life against the everlasting,
bliss to win and possible extinction,
a loss he'd never suffer having lost
the talent he would need to pay the cost.

Firecracker corpses in the grass:
wire and bits of paper, last remains
of energetic noises half the night,
mental pleasure, physical explosion.
Feeble really by comparison
with deeper thunder, ordinary thunder --
the lonely clap of human independence,
our own idea of a wise reply.
Give me a storm instead, the natural noise
of live electrons joining grace to ground,
a bridge of rage reminding me of heaven,
rage a passage in the myth of rain.
And let it pass like any other passion,
let me walk among the aftermath,
enjoy peace as it passes understanding
going in the opposite direction.
Wishes granted: I can see the cloud mass
flashing in the distance, hear the thunder
growing louder as the gloom approaches.
Motion of a primitive emotion.
What to call it? Have we any words
to mutter in a maelstrom, any patter
adequate when the elements crack wise?
A bad dude God, a mother not to mess with.
Fear of the Lord, a gift of the Holy Spirit:
queer expressions, but they say it best.
Pass over me. Don't put me to the test.

An ideal day for tea, the weather damp
and mild enough to make it seem like autumn,
memories of raking fallen leaves,
tumbling in their crumble as a child,
burning them the year it started snowing,
the turning of the black flakes back to earth
to join the white ones in their slow descent.
Meaning -- something -- never could say what.
Precious little progress understanding.
Wished-for wisdom never: intuitions
taken in a while and entertained,
token hospitality apostles
come to count on, offered nothing better.
Sometimes understanding visits briefly,
a reticent guest and anxious to move on
to better company in solitude.
I talk too much. I have to learn discretion.
I sulk when something pricks me and my sulking
fills my skull with language, heated air
swelling my head. I rise to the occasion,
a purple-pink balloon above the landscape,
a personals ad made colorful with grief.
Wounded male considered unattractive
bound for death seeks female understanding,
object: friendship first, then possible
adoption as a parent or a child,
domesticated passion in the wild.

A misery that company might love,
some physically appealing form of pain,
a scar to hint of unhealed memories
and far far better things one might have done:
or possibly a handicap, a limp,
a hospital stay, traction, a plaster cast,
anything minor likely to arouse
the kindness of a too infrequent friend.
A gruesome ailment makes a visitor
too dutiful, too anxious to crack jokes:
better extremities than in extremis
to suit oneself with sympathy. Tonight
my lower back is aching, but I know
of no one likely to take note of it.
The phone: a woman selling photographs.
Photographs for whom? A wall-size portrait,
several wallet-size for distribution.
Never mind. My life-long friends have died
and in religious moments I imagine
reunions made in heaven, marriages
of minds made true at last by purgatory,
sinus pain and sin both burned away,
a Catholic fantasy. At other times
the mathematics that I might have learned
engages my attention for awhile,
pages of symbols, their inhuman sense
an art for art's sake, virtue's recompense.

I typically take in the colored leaves
with hypocritical enthusiasm
dressing hate in jewelry of approval
pessimistic mock-complicity.
Today, however, walking by myself
I play a less ingratiating role,
a villain of soliloquy unable
to still the voice of selfishness inside.
Me. Why me? Why me? A silly question
seeing unexceptionable death
surrounds me with an obvious Why not?
Grounded in a land of grounded leaves
I feel the most affinity with failure
the real irrelevance of brilliant color.
Inevitably grinding underfoot
the severed organs of ecology,
making ash from ashes, dusting dust,
I take the death of everything in stride.
Objective nature, never at a loss
respecting any individual,
fells each according to its need. Collective
balance keeps a body in its place
until the logic of the system calls
for killing. In a ring around the roses
a wedding party's waiting for the camera,
red tuxedos, burnt sienna gowns,
ashes, ashes. And we all fall down.

Creek means local. One may look impressive,
thick as Missouri, rapid as Niagara,
and yet extend no longer than the county,
fit inside a detail of the map.
Foreigners won't know it: aliens
have more important facts to memorize,
waters bearing wider implications,
arteries of traffic, world wonders.
A native won't consider it amazing:
her mate for life, a biblical conjunction,
familiar love of someone never famous
diligently following his course.
Most of us have little lives and die.
No one loves us down the centuries
as scholars love Augustine, Plato, Shakespeare,
while the biblical remember Ruth
devoted to Naomi, Miriam
going to see Elizabeth her cousin.
Limitations never really matter --
simple people have their place, their purpose,
their sureness as they hope for resurrection,
security that has no room for fame.
Miriam: remember me in childhood,
how seriously I asked you for your help.
I meant it. Help me mean it now. Again.
And at the hour of my death. Amen.