Animal Prudence

Mice drink the rainwater before dying by
the poison we set in the cupboard for them.
They come for the birdseed, and winter
is so grey here the sight of a single cardinal
can keep us warm for days. We’ll justify
anything—and by we, I mean I, and by
I, I mean we, with our man-is-the-only-
animal-who and our manifest destiny, killers
each of us by greater or lesser degrees.
Instead of a gun or knife in my pocket
there are two notes. Unwhich the//
dandelion, reads one. I don’t know what
it means but cannot throw it away;
it is soft as cashmere. The other says:
coffee, chocolate, birdseed. I should be
extinct by now, except I can’t make it
on to that list either. Like toothpicks
made of plain wood, some things are
increasingly hard to find. Even when he was
a young drunk going deaf from target practice,
my father preferred picking his teeth
to brushing them. My mother preferred
crying. They bought or rented places
on streets named Castle, Ring, Greystone—
as if we were heroes in a Celtic epic.
Our romanticism was earned, and leaned
toward the gothic, but lichen aimed
for names on gravestones far
lovelier than our own. It seemed to last
a long time, that long time ago, finches
pixelating the hurricane fences,
cars idling exhaust, dandelions bolting
from flower to weed to delicacy,
like me. Egyptians prepared their dead
for a difficult journey; living is more
—I was going to say, more difficult,
but more alone will do, imprudent—
unlike art—always falling below or rising
above the Aristotelian mean. In France,
a common rural road sign reads:
Animal Prudence. Purely cautionary,
it has nothing to do with Aristotle,
but offers sound advice nonetheless.
These days, I caution my father more
than he ever cautioned me. He hears
his aural hallucinations better and shows
greater interest: sportscasters at ballgames,
revelers at the parties he insists on.
He’s got all his own teeth, so toothpicks
must do the job. His pockets fill with them.
There are always half a dozen rattling
like desert bones in my dryer. I think
of the mason who chiseled his face
in the cathedral wall; he couldn’t write
his name. The yellow bouquets I’d offer
my mother by the fistful also got their name
in France: dent de lion, meaning teeth of the lion.  

More by Kathy Fagan

Snow Globe

after Encounters at the End of the World by Werner Herzog


With booms & chirrs seals
speak under the ice of an ocean
frozen over.
Stationary ocean. Electrified song.
Color: snow day with autumn
leaves inside it, 
glassene sheers of cantaloupe & kiwi on
lavender, gunmetal, jetwing—
				   When you rode the elephant through
the puncture, the first syllable of my name
parted the deep with your beautiful hand.
Sparrow shuddered in her dustbath, swath of pleasure
raked up
	    & out.
		    This is where I sat
in the avalanche.
	                 In winter,
where I was born,
you pulled a cord of silk in your beautiful hand.
I heard nothing
under the ice. Bye bye now, our people would say.
Bye bye later.
First, song,
	       a detonation—
then white everywhere.

Omphalos

How many times the blood rush of truck, bus & subway
     has passed below my window.
How often this body, meant to bend & breed—squat like
     my mother’s, her mother’s & hers—has
paced instead, inside its head, gazing skyward for a noun or phrase to
     shatter the glass of our locked cars & save us,
original cloud
     that might break over all:

raccoon washing its hands like a surgeon in the birdbath,
girl at the drive-through deciding only 42 percent of humanity
     sucks, the rest of them hungry or high,
their wheels aglow like daisies, their wounds debrided, unbridled . . .

Jesus, Mary & Joseph, I have blamed you for everything—
     the decades broken like your rosaries, our few family belongings
missing, glued or taped . . .

     Back home, the air
is scented with Japanese lilac & catalpa’s orchid blooms—
     all of us colonized, colonizing:
your body made to carry mine
     dismantled, finally,
     in flame, to this,
of which I am but remnant, a speck
fished from a tear duct with your tongue.

Whose easy laugh is that I’m hearing now?
Whose loneliness, unbroken, goes rolling in the blood?

At the Champion Avenue Low-Income Senior & Child Care Services Center

When I told them it must be like dropping your kid            
off at school their first day, all my parent friends
nodded and smiled uncomfortably, meaning              
what would I know. I won’t be taking solace                 
in the many firsts ahead. Here among the gray,
spotted and brown heads of the seniors,
their soft flesh and angles, their obedience as they
sit as uprightly as they are able at white, parallel
tables, nobody cries, and very few speak.                 
When I seat dad beside her, one senior tells me
she’s ninety-four, presenting one hand, four
fingers in the air, just as she might have ninety
years ago with a stranger like me, now long gone.

                       Dad never liked me to talk:
Lower your voice, he’d say. If I was louder:
Put on your boxing gloves. Or: You’ll catch
more flies with honey than vinegar, as if some day
I’d need the flies. I stopped talking, started writing
instead. I work full-time and dad wants to die,
so I dropped him at the Champion Avenue
Low-income Senior & Child Care Services Center,
a newish building, municipal and nondescript,
in a neighborhood that’s been razed and rebuilt so often
it’s got no discernible character left. There was bingo,
men playing poker in a corner. Red sauce and cheese
on white bread pizza for lunch. Dad, a big talker,
was an instant hit, but refused to return. What
is the name of that animal, someone asked me.
Where is Philip, asked someone else, over and over.
As if firsts and lasts were one and the same.

Related Poems

Ghost Eden

after Anthony Haughey’s “Settlement”

              Garden of rock.
Garden of brick and heather.
              Garden of cranes with their hands raised
as if they know the yellow answer:
              to gather together—safety in numbers.
Garden of drywall frames, holes for windows
              punched out like teeth.  Garden of bar fights.
Garden of rubble and gaps,
              spectral for-sale signs knocked
from wooden posts, bleached down
              to numbers ending in gardens of overgrown lots.
We are falling into ruin, garden
              of scaffolding and shale and gravel—
give us back our peace: a half-built garden
              of theft, treasures hidden in darkness,
newspapers crumpled on subfloors telling us
              to hold fast to that which is good.
Garden of rebar and saplings with trunks
              encased in corrugated piping
because many animals can girdle
              a tree’s bark quickly:  deer, stray cats, rabbits.
Garden of Tyvek wrap loosed
              and flapping like a ship’s sail
in the gales, in the sheeting storms.
              Hanging laundry left out in the garden
past darkness, fruit from the tree
              of human-ness: socks, shirts, underpants.
Garden of long exposures, half-light, traces
              that empty themselves in tire treads running
like ladders through red clay mud:
              the dirt from which we are formed
and crushed and formed again.