Trudging beside me through snow up Flagstaff Hill, my six-going-on- seven-year-old daughter says she likes my sledding laugh and why don’t you laugh more? We’ve just descended on our rickety toboggan, snow spraying up crystal joy. Today I wrote the new year for the first time. My son asked my age and measured my foot with string. Two neighbors still Christmas-lit. Our tree, planted in snow, waits for garbage day. Tomorrow maybe I’ll measure my life with string. Cut the string and tape it to a piece of paper. Or floss with it or use it as a bookmark. Empty my jar of pennies into the bank’s machine. Count each of my wife’s footsteps as a heartbeat. This morning, I garbage-picked an old metal desk for my children. It weighed more than my entire family. I wheeled it into the garage on our red wagon. I can’t lift it into the house. I’ll wait for a friend to visit. A big friend. Yesterday, a big old friend I saw back in Detroit at Christmas wrote, “I wish we were still sitting around the table talking...” Sometimes I live on ellipses and the rotten music of my youth. We’d debated the merits of Dylan’s new album, just like thirty years ago, as our kids disappeared into the safe basement of their actual childhoods. They put on a puppet show for us with paper bags. We discussed the French-Indian War, internet stigmata, and drugs we never had the nerve or chance to try. My daughter likes my sledding laugh. It’s all downhill, so why pretend to steer? You can’t just promise to laugh more and have it happen. A string of lights. The heart’s ellipses connected with a piece of string.
Remember the second s in solstice. Remember the p in raspberry. The first summer window opens with all the nervous drama of an obscene puppet show. My daughter’s drawing of the sun alternating orange and yellow rays anchors the solar system across four sheets of paper curling away from the kitchen wall. Last night I turned off the floodlight and saw the first firefly ever in my backyard at 3419 Parkview Ave. in Pittsburgh. It flashed in the city’s half darkness. One elusive light. Joy briefly catchable. I said hey with all sincerity. My young daughter sings the opera of her awakening. I envy her sudden unspellable joy. Yesterday she asked me What’s the matter? Worry’s unpronounced letters drift into dust motes. What do young birds have to say about the heart’s perfect misspellings, the lure of ripeness? This morning my daughter picks the season’s first red raspberry and drops it on my cereal. The solar system shudders.
“It sounds like what you’re supposed to say when you have that kind of problem.” — Cannonball Adderley, Introduction to Mercy, Mercy, Mercy
You hope the sax will be rising from the rich black dirt of the music to roll up the collars of the dead with the glare of life, rise from funky backbeat, soar into soul froth overflowing, picking today out of its hat and calling out the lucky number to gray rainy March skies oh mercy mercy mercy.
Dirty snow dwindles curbside, the lost currency of muted anger. Where’s the music, the moon wants to know. But we’re deaf down here, banging our rusty snow shovels against cement to feel vibrations. Raw trash unearthed by thaw maps the street with curses. We sink the heavy stones of our feet into spongy earth. We sigh. Give us a week or two. Give us budding trees and something to bury our noses in. Today, it’s the grim life of unbelievers. Gray and sudden rain. Bare branches stutter in the wind. Winter’s story stuck in our cold craw, dissolving slow in shadow. Inside, the furnace gasps to life. We are not deaf. The moon’s woe is me a tune we can hum.
Last night I got out of bed to find my son on the stairs in the dark looking for me. He couldn’t sleep, was hoping I’d still be up. Last week, I quizzed my son on the Middle Ages before his test. We need more illuminated manuscripts, I told him. And fewer lies. Yesterday, the wall of wind on the bridge over Panther Hollow stung me into walking backward with my eyes closed. It pressed me against the railing. A family of ducks swam in the half-frozen pond below. December. The golden panthers tarnished with chill at the end of the bridge. How can we go nowhere and everywhere at the same time? That’ll keep you up. Where did that little black spot come from on the bridge, the one that whispered jump? Wind rushed unhindered up the crease of the hollow. Will the pond freeze over, enough to skate on? Then where will the ducks go? I have no magic dust, I told him, my hand on his shoulder as I led him back to bed. Climbing up the dark stairs, I pressed my feet hard to hear the creaking. I felt my son’s tender bones. Some day he will never find me.
Jim Daniels’ fourteenth book of poems, Birth Marks, was published by BOA Editions in 2013. It was selected as a Michigan Notable Book, won the Milton Kessler Poetry Book Award, and received the Gold Medal in Poetry at the Independent Publisher Book Awards. His fifth book of short fiction, Eight Mile High, was published by Michigan State University Press in 2014. A native of Detroit, Daniels is the Thomas Stockham University Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University.