Back Fence Jam

Storm Island

The Swimming Cat

Dream Union

Spring Song

To the New Student Protesters

A Homemade World

Keeping the Star

Names of the Ancestors

The Strawberries

The Reply


Red Willow

for Colin Cosgrove

It's social distancing time, and Colin
and I are having one of our jams
by the fence between our houses.
Colin is a music teacher just getting
started, and me, I'm trying not to
finish too soon.  Colin is also
a bluegrass whiz on guitar and
mandolin, and we're out on a gorgeous
spring day playing and singing our hearts
out to the grass pushing up from below
and the budding trees exploding
in slow motion like green fireworks
against the clear blue sky.  Colin
sings "The Old Home Place" and I sing
"Mountain Dew."  Often we request
favorites of each other, and today
Colin asks for "Mr. Tambourine Man."
I'm always ready to oblige with that
Dylan masterpiece, all four verses,
and this time a male cardinal at the top
of a big basswood tree joins in.  He's way
up there, warbling and trilling.  I listen
for him to stop, but he doesn't.
He doesn't stop!  He knows this song too
and keeps singing along.  My God,
aren't we the trio!  The neighbors' dogs,
meanwhile, are chasing each other
around their fenced-in yard, they're having
a good old time, rolling over on their
backs, feet kicking the air.  Meanwhile
the cardinal, that red flame tipping
the highest branch like a candle,
is still trilling, and I want to stop
singing and yell to the world, "This is
a textbook example of happiness!"
so I do,
               then start singing again
because I don't want the cardinal to stop
and the song must go on, virus or no
virus, we must find ways to keep
singing together, even if only across
the back fence, and store such moments
away in our bones for those other days
sure to come, when we find ourselves
having to sing out against the silence.

--From Medicine Year, Paris Morning Publications, 2022


At first it was a single downed trunk
jammed up against our downtown bridge
footing, wishbone shape wedged broadside
the current.  No one thought much about that
river-washed roost for ducks and geese.

Years passed, and the rains returned.  The river
spread its muddy cloak over the bottom-
lands, gathering flotsam of storms to hasten
southward on its brown, fast-moving flood.
More branches hooked onto the lodged tree trunk.

With each storm the woody mass grew until
it became an island patched together
from the disparate, far-flung wrack of
generous rains.  Its tight weave collected
a soil in which new green life could root.

The island, now a solid tangle of storm-
debris shaped by forces of circumstance
and weather, challenges with its right
to be here.  Who has the strength or will
to tear asunder those implicated limbs?

Disasters uproot us, carry us along
with their flow, lock us into each other.  
Surely bigger, wilder storms will bring
new detritus to thicken our island.  What
right have we storm-borne to refuse them?

--From Storm Island, Red Dragonfly Press, 2020


Likely, unless you're also a delver
in forgotten old books, you've never
heard of Tommy the swimming cat.
Edwin Way Teale, the naturalist,
photographed him in the Forties.
Tommy's eight-year-old friend, Mervin,
taught him as a kitten to swim increasing distances
for the reward of a freshly-dug clam.
Teale's photo shows Tommy, only his head
above the water of Long Island Sound,
and the boy also only a floating head,
an excellent happiness between them.

A humane society in New York
chose to award the now-famous aquatic feline
an "Outstanding Cat of the Year" medal,
but the night before the gray and brown tabby
could be taken to Broadway,
a vicious dog caught him,
and that was the end of Tommy's story.

The swimming cat whose picture in a long-
out-of-print book charms us would, in any case,
be long gone.  And Tommy was never
in any way extraordinary to himself,
only a cat who happened to be able
to outswim dogs and humans and
who relished a fresh clam when he could get one.
The medal would have meant nothing to him,
though the boy -- you can imagine --
was heartbroken.

This, in miniature, is the story
of all life, of each of us,
what happiness we find in living
mocked, it would appear,
by the grim jaws of the dog.

Surely we're not to judge the worth
of the story only by its ending?

Sometimes I think happiness isn't
personal at all, but a substance we breathe
like air, breathe in and breathe out.

I believe the boy's happiness and the cat's
still have some being in the photos of them,
companions adventuring in a young world.

I believe, too, that this happiness can enter
anyone unexpectedly and inexplicably,
and that where it comes from or goes to

matters less than that it comes, and that
it's bigger than us, and that it breathes us
in and out of itself for the glory of existence.

--From The Glory, Red Dragonfly Press, 2015


Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, you not only
faced the headlines but made music of them.
And perhaps that too was "the biggest
thing that man has ever done."

Fatalities of fire, poverty, disease--
somehow you accepted, incorporated
them in your voice's matter-of-factness,
resolved to engage the world with hope.

Your songs of brotherhood, fairness,
equality still spread their fire from
tongue to tongue, a chain of flame no
fascist retardant can extinguish.

James Wright wrote of his old scout-
master in Martins Ferry, Ohio,
"When I think of Ralph Neal, I feel
some kind of ice in me breaking open."

Thinking of you, I hear the true heart-
beat of America and wake again
to this day's news in search of a way back
to the unfinished dream of our union.

--From The Glory, Red Dragonfly Press, 2015
[Written for the occasion of Woody Guthrie's 100th birth anniversary, July 14, 2012.  Originally published in The Alley Newspaper, Minneapolis.]


When the river, laughing pearl-white, tumbles down the stairs of the rapids without breaking
     its bones,
when earth waking from its dream plays a terrifying kettle drum solo,
when the green saltshaker of spring sprinkles the trees,
when our great-great grandparents rise from their sleep to stand arms around each other
     in the open doorway,
when the towns revert to their childhood streets,
when none of the birds' nests have fallen in the storm,
when the river carries arks of ice, barns of ice, mountain ranges of ice,
when the river becomes a railroad for the Great Northern freight-train of ice,
then something in me leaps from bed to look out
and see my life rushing free between its shores,
nothing stuck in my rapids,
nothing hung up on my falls,
nothing muting the clear-running music
I hear splash and foam.

--From The Glory, Red Dragonfly Press, 2015
(Original appearance:  Grey Sparrow, Spring 2011)

   (Wisconsin protests of February, 2011)

Best of all is to see the young
and meditate on the law of unintended
consequences:  the Governor's
hardened arrogance mobilizing

a new generation to learn one of
democracy's most glorious lessons:
that there is not only duty
but joy in the combining of voices.

Though now we're grey and you're
the vivid ones, every cell in us
resonates to your bullhorn.
Standing today less for ourselves

than for you, we lean easier
into aging bodies and visions,
loving the early spring wind wafted
by your lithe, shining spirits.

Our old romance with hope
stirs again, that we might yet
establish the Beautiful Community,
and that you may still lift the dream

forward to places we've only imagined,
we who, as Martin said, may not live
to see the Promised Land but are carried
in your hearts toward that fulfillment.

--From Wisconsin Spring, Lost Music Press, 2011
(original appearance: Verse Wisconsin web site www.versewisconsin.org)


We all live in one, Huxley said.
Look around, and it's here,
individual as a signature.
How have you built your world?

Many people salvage bricks
from their childhood homes.
They nail the old framed
prejudices above the fireplace.

They can't see out their windows
because they've recycled the smoked
glass of fear.  Even their
books keep out light.

If you build with only
the things you've made your own,
a friendliness toward living
warms you like a patchwork quilt.

If you build your world-house
with toxic cast-offs, there's some
poison everywhere you turn.
And if you build your country

with bombs and oil instead of
wheat and schools--you can't help it,
you'll just go on electing
Disaster as your president.

--from The Foot of the Rainbow, Red Dragonfly Press, copyright 2010 Thomas R. Smith
(original appearance:  Pemmican 2010, www.pemmicanpress.com)


Keep this star for when you lose the world,
when grief and desire become a blurred door
that floats away across a plain room
without books or kisses.
Look to what grows dark beyond the walls,
that in night which holds the blue sky
singing in its black embrace.
It's all spun around a necessary star,
star of prisons.  Keep it:
It has the power to burst from dull thoughts,
breathe in airless colors,
and roll back the filth of our neglect.
Let it pour through the chimney hole
patched with tin!  Unloved objects--
empty jars, faces in clippings,
balls of hair spurned by the brush--
all the children of failure
will step forward in its blinding wind,
sons and daughters of that before which
there is no trivial being.

--from Keeping the Star, New Rivers Press, copyright 1988 Thomas R. Smith


We are moving backward in the granary of our ancestors' names.
When we speak them, wheat fields harvested three thousand years ago
sway again in winds gone on to other galaxies.
Somewhere on that track are all the hands that met mine in the night
and the spoken love word hovering like a hummingbird at the lip of the abundant flower.
The wisdom of sleepers forms a tradition along the arc of generations,
anointing the slippery head of the newborn rising from the sea
and the yellow skull of the corpse set out to dry in the desert.
Now we are touching his twenty layers of embroidered robes.

--from Keeping the Star, New Rivers Press, copyright 1988 Thomas R. Smith


One summer evening
the year we found each other
in the dark of Wisconsin,
we sat on your porch drinking
glasses of chilled white wine.
How quickly the August heat
stole into them as we
fingered perspiring stems!
Afterward I'd walked nearly
two blocks from the amber-
lit steps of that house where
next autumn we'd both live,
when I heard you behind me
as if called by my longing
for you, running breathlessly
to press in my palm strawberries
still cold from your icebox.

Now the simple days and nights
when we stood revealed
in each other's light
for the first time
are gone, gone as the sleepless
affection of those weeks.
I will not mourn them--
they were seeds that entered
earth to make a place
for our desire to grow.
You brought those first fruits
of a summer's plenty
to my open palm, and
blossoms that gave brief glories
to the bedsides of our loving.

The harvests already taken
are alive in the new harvest.
And the strawberries
of that summer night so long ago
whose red pulp passed from chill
to warm on my tongue and then,
in new-found boldness given
with a kiss, on yours,
shine in us still,
red constellation by which
we reckon our position,
begin again to lose our fear
and find once more original courage
that brought us near in the beginning.

--from Horse of Earth, Holy Cow! Press, copyright 1994 Thomas R. Smith


What good have these poems done?
The question insisted relentlessly
with every mile I drove into
strip-malled heartland that radiant
spring day.  My forty-seven years,
my choice and stubborn practice . . .

Later, calmed by a motel's
plastic assurances, I slept, with
miniature golf outside the window,
and dreamt we'd been baking bread.
Our loaves stood stacked with those
of other bakers in a wall of bread,

boules like skulls, nubbled heels
of baguettes like the femurs and tibias
of those five thousand Franciscans
in their terrifying chapel in Portugal.
And I felt suddenly afraid that
this wall, our hope and common labor,

might come in the end to nothing
but bones, though when I stood
behind the wall, I saw each individual
loaf had been clearly marked with
the name of some hungry person to whom
it would be delivered without fail.

--from The Dark Indigo Current, Holy Cow! Press, copyright 2000 Thomas R. Smith


It's like so many other things in life
to which you must say no or yes.
So you take your car to the new mechanic.
Sometimes the best thing to do is trust.

The package left with the disreputable-looking
clerk, the check gulped by the night deposit,
the envelope passed by dozens of strangers--
all show up at their intended destinations.

The theft that could have happened doesn't.
Wind finally gets where it was going
through the snowy trees, and the river, even
when frozen, arrives at the right place. 

And sometimes you sense how faithfully your life
is delivered, even though you can't read the address.

    --from Waking Before Dawn, Red Dragonfly Press, copyright 2006, Thomas R. Smith


Red osier dogwood,
the Indians called
it kinnickinnic,
took inside their lungs
smoke from its bark
mixed with bear
root and tobacco
leaves.  Lime-green
during warm months,
a cut branch
can grow new roots
even in sandy soil,
earning red willow
its reputation
for resurrection.
At spring equinox
when the summer
yet to be born
has traveled midway
on its long path
out of darkness,
I drive past fields
still sealed by snow,
where March clouds ruffle
like eaglets' down.
The most vivid color
above or below
is the crimson shine
of kinnickinnic
woven from the smoky
gray ditches.
My winter-
emptied heart
gathers itself,
a willow basket,
to catch that dark
alizarin burnish.
Then I too stand up
out of the scabbed ice
of a dead season,
ready to flower and leaf
again from a bare
red stick.

    --from Kinnickinnic, Parallel Press, copyright 2008, Thomas R. Smith

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