Come Back to Tell Us

Matthew Thorburn

Dusk in August—
which means nearly
nine o’clock here, deep
in the heart of central
Jersey—and the deer
step out to graze
the backyards. They tear
each yellowy red
tulip cup, munch up
rhododendrons
and azaleas. Fifty
years of new houses
have eaten into
their woodland, leaving
only this narrow strip
of trees along the trickly
stream that zigzags
between Route 9
and Lily’s mom’s
backyard. The deer rise
from the mist, hooves
clicking on asphalt, a doe
and a buck, his antlers
like a chandelier.
Sometimes a doe and two
fawns. Or else we see
just the white flags
of their tails bobbing away
into the dark. In theory
the DNR should come
catch them, let them go
where it’s still
forest, still possible to live
as they were meant to.
But these days
there’s no money
for that. And people keep
leaving out old bread,
rice, stale cookies, or else
plant more delicious flowers.
“Mei banfa,”
my mother-in-law says:
Nothing can be done.
Seeing them in
the distance—that distance
we can’t close
without them shying
and turning and skittering
down Dickinson Lane
or bounding
over a backyard fence—
I try to imagine
they’re messengers
come back to tell us
their stories, any news
of the lost or what
comes next, though
if they could say
anything, they would
probably say, Go away.

More by Matthew Thorburn

How We Found Our Way

The lead dog was called Gandy.
If he didn't go, nobody
did. Jannick the musher
was Danish. I almost didn't catch
his name. It was so windy
and the wind was so loud.
"Yah! Gandy, yah!" he sang out.
Also whistled and clicked
his tongue. He stood on skis and slid
along beside the sled. If the sled
went too fast he sat down
on the front. So he was the brake.
His face was bright pink.
He laughed a lot and explained

everything. We weren't on the glacier
but on the runoff of gravelly snow
and ice and dirt that skirts
the glacier. "The name for this—
I forget it in English." We bumped
along. Tilted and jolted.
Lily sat up front, my arm around
her waist, her hair flickering
in my eyes. We almost tipped over
more than once. Then stopped
to let it in: the snapping wind,
that buffeting hum. And everything
cloud-colored: a gray sky

falling into gray snow.
He took our picture with the dogs
and they were gray too: a patchwork
of gray and dark gray,
sandy browns and black, silvery
white; their long, coarse fur
greasy like duck feathers. "Waterproof,"
Jannick assured us, gloves off.
"Feel how warm the skin is
under all this." They pulled against
their harnesses, anxious

to get going again. Nosed us
as he called out their names:
"Gandy, Darwin and Apollo,
Little Franka, Pedro, Bacon, Gnist."
These dogs once hunted polar bears
and seals. "Well, not these
particular dogs, but the breed."
Now Darwin rolled over
on the crusty snow. Franka's
broad head was blunt and black
as an anvil. Lily cradled it
in her arms. "You can't stay

out long," Jannick said. "Weather's
too chancy. Changes fast." So—
we swung the sled around, retraced
the slushy ruts of sled tracks
and ski tracks. The other dogs
left behind at the camp cried
and barked as we drew near.
They could smell us before we could
see them. Back inside, he lit up
his pipe. We hung our borrowed
snowsuits up to dry.
Sat in the now-loud silence
till the kettle—

                   Jannick's cell phone
trilled. The next riders
would be there soon. We sipped
instant coffee while he waited
for our Visa to go through.

These Days

The amazing thing is not
that geese can get sucked
into an Airbus engine
and cause it to conk out
or that a pilot can tell air
traffic control, “There’s only
one thing I can do,”
then take a deep breath
and do it—ditch
in the Hudson with a buck
and whine, then walk
the aisle as the plane fills
with water to make sure
everyone’s gotten out—
but that afterwards

many who weren’t hurt
in a lifelong way, only
shaken, scratched, no doubt
in shock, had nothing else
to do, finally, except take a bus
back to LaGuardia and
catch another plane home.
Amazing too how
before long people stop
talking about it, they move on
and eventually need
an extra beat to recognize

that camera-shy pilot
when he appears—retired
now, somehow smaller
now, no longer shy—
as an air travel expert
(“Sometimes carry-ons
just shouldn’t be
carried on”) on the nightly
news and connect
his name to what he did
that day, probably—
let’s face it—because
no one died.
Though most stories
don’t end

like that. In Shanxi
Province, the BBC told me
late last night when
I should’ve been asleep
instead of sitting in the dark,
twenty-four workers—
all men, they said, and some
much older than
I would’ve imagined—
were trapped
in a mile-deep mineshaft
deemed too dangerous now
for a rescue, though
apparently it was safe
enough to work in. Shovel
clang and gravel rumble
turned to echoing

silence. Eventually
the company execs
sent down a slender
silver robot with tank
treads, tiny pincer hands,
a camera for a face,
but all it found—how long
it looked, they didn’t
say—was a single miner’s
helmet, dented
and dusty, its frail light
still burning.

 

Wouldn't Hold

Everything is made of shapes
made of loops and lines
Mother said and
my life began to unravel

the string of the world
running out of my pencil
she taught me to hold on
fingers’ pressure

against wood could blur
lead to shadow show
the slow darkening
a candle’s flicker making

strange angles of her face
she said it all fades
is lost to the horizon
she snuffed the flame and

I was falling I tried to
slide inside my letters
p’s open window
the low doorway of an h

but how could I know
words wouldn’t hold me
how could I know
they close so tight?

Related Poems

A Hand

A hand is not four fingers and a thumb.

Nor is it palm and knuckles,
not ligaments or the fat's yellow pillow,
not tendons, star of the wristbone, meander of veins.

A hand is not the thick thatch of its lines
with their infinite dramas,
nor what it has written,
not on the page,
not on the ecstatic body.

Nor is the hand its meadows of holding, of shaping—
not sponge of rising yeast-bread,
not rotor pin's smoothness,
not ink.

The maple's green hands do not cup
the proliferant rain.
What empties itself falls into the place that is open.

A hand turned upward holds only a single, transparent question.

Unanswerable, humming like bees, it rises, swarms, departs.