Ode to an Encyclopedia

O hefty hardcover on the built-in shelf in my parents’ living room,
O authority stamped on linen paper, molted from your dust jacket,
Questing Beast of blue and gold, you were my companion

on beige afternoons that came slanting through the curtains
behind the rough upholstered chair. You knew how to trim a sail
and how the hornet builds a hive. You had a topographical map

of the mountain ranges on the far side of the moon
and could name the man who shot down the man
who murdered Jesse James. At forty, I tell myself

that boyhood was all enchantment: hanging around the railway,
getting plastered on cartoons; I see my best friend’s father
marinating in a lawn chair, smiling benignly at his son and me

from above a gin and tonic, or sitting astride his roof
with carpentry nails and hammer, going at some problem
that kept resisting all his mending. O my tome, my paper brother,

my narrative without an ending, you had a diagram of a cow
broken down into the major cuts of beef, and an image
of the Trevi Fountain. The boarding house,

the church on the corner: all that stuff is gone.
In winter in Toronto, people say, a man goes outside
and shovels snow mostly so that his neighbors know

just how much snow he is displacing. I’m writing this
in Baltimore. For such a long time, the boy wants
to grow up and be at large, but posture becomes bearing;

bearing becomes shape. A man can make a choice
between two countries, believing all the while
that he will never have to choose.

More by James Arthur

Goodnight Moon

I used to be as unsentimental as anyone could be.
Now I’m almost absurd, a clown, carrying you on my shoulders
around and around Palmer Square, through the cold night wind,
as stores lock up, and begin closing down. Goodnight,

fair trade coffee. Goodnight, Prada shoes. Goodnight soon,
my little son. You’re a toothy, two-foot-something sumo—a giddy,
violent elf—jabbing your finger at the moon, which you’ve
begun noticing in the last week or two. Moom, moom—for you,

the word ends with a mumming, as it begins. For me, beginnings
and endings are getting hard to tell apart. There was
another child your mom and I conceived, who’d now be reading
and teaching you to read—who we threw away when he or she

was smaller than a watermelon seed. The chairs, the domestic bears,
the clocks, the socks, the house—once again a strange cow
springs from the green ground, beginning the enormous leap
that will carry her above the moon.

Hundred Acre Wood

Some of these stories are too sweet for me.
Winnie-the-Pooh is so innocent, his little songs leave me cold.
 
But I like this—your hand across my hand,
your head against my shoulder. Your first winter, I carried you
 
even along the margins of the highway,
strapped against my chest in a sling. You never can tell with bees,
 
says Pooh, who seems to believe that almost nothing can be told,
but I am your morose, restless father,
 
and you are four years old. You like front-end loaders
and every kind of train;
 
I like reading to rooms of strangers, and a few drinks at the airport
while I’m waiting for my plane.
 
I like the book’s final chapter, a story you don’t yet understand,
in which boy and bear
 
climb to Galleons Lap for one last look out across the land—
at the sandy pit, the six pines,
 
the Hundred Acre Wood. Don’t forget me, says the boy to the bear,
who has no wish to understand
 
what he does not already know. Little boy who I carried
along the highway in the winter in northern Michigan,
 
I like hearing you in the morning
when you lie in your dark room, and sing.

Model-Train Display at Christmas in a Shopping Mall Food Court

These kids watching so intently
on every side of the display
must love the feeling of being gigantic:
of having a giant’s power
over this little world of snow, where buttons
lift and lower
the railway’s crossing gate, or switch the track,
or make the bent wire topped with a toy helicopter
turn and turn
like a sped-up sunflower. A steam engine
draws coal tender, passenger cars, and a gleaming caboose
out from the mountain tunnel,
through a forest of spruce and pine, over the trestle bridge,
to come down near the old silver mine.

Maybe all Christmases
are haunted by Christmases long gone:
old songs, old customs, people who loved you
and who’ve died. Within a family
sometimes even the smallest disagreements
can turn, and grow unkind.

The train’s imaginary passengers,
looking outward from inside,
are steaming toward the one town they could be going to:
the town they have just left,
where everything is local
and nothing is to scale. One church, one skating rink,
one place to buy a saw.
A single hook-and-ladder truck
and one officer of the law. Maybe in another valley
it’s early spring
and the thick air is redolent of chimney smoke and rain,
but here the diner’s always open
so you can always get a meal. Or go down to the drive-in
looking for a fight. Or stay up
all night, so tormented by desire, you can hardly think.

Beyond the edges of the model-train display, the food court
is abuzz. Gingerbread and candy canes
surround a blow mold Virgin Mary, illuminated from within;
a grapevine reindeer
has been hung with sticks of cinnamon. One by one, kids
get pulled away
from the model trains: Christmas Eve is bearing down,
and many chores remain undone.

But for every child who leaves, another child appears.
The great pagan pine
catches and throws back wave on wave of light,
like a king-size chandelier, announcing
that the jingle hop has begun,
and the drummer boy
still has nothing to offer the son of God
but the sound of one small drum.