Poetry by Chris Ransick
Poem for a Cold Walk Home
If I told my story, you might doubt
how high snow piled along the street,
how smooth the ice lay all about
low places in a glassy sheet,
green and black as dusk came down,
late January freeze complete.
I measured steps, a little clown,
with songs and jokes, the squirrels and birds
the only audience around.
I think they knew the tunes and words
but were too cold to sing along;
instead the wind pulled minor chords
across the weedy fields, a throng
of silver maples, branches bare,
conducting our shared winter song
with clacking tips in swirling air.
Halfway home I left the road
for a secret path in the forest where
a frozen stream, swept clean and hard,
curved off toward my father's place
and passed the boundary of our yard.
I worked to free each frozen lace,
exchanged my boots for battered skates,
fat snowflakes falling on my face.
My mother would be setting plates
on the kitchen table, still warm
loaves of bread on cooling grates.
Then I would move with wind, the berm
of snow on either side my shield
from the now advancing storm.
I skated curves and leapt the stones
protruding from imperfect ice
until I saw the lights of home.
Sometimes I finished with a jump, twice
as high as the banks of snow,
landing with a sweet release
deep in a drift. Sometimes I know
I stopped and stared into the rooms,
dark shapes in foursquare panes, below
the chimney's smoking plume.
So I return now, years gone by,
my memories a winter bloom.
The Man Who Sharpened Skates
I had two pairs, the smooth and new
for hockey games, the other for ponds
where rocks protruded, nicked blades
laced with rust, bought second-hand, or third,
so old the cracked leather showed my socks.
The old man lived in a house enclosed in an
elm copse where the creek disappeared
into thick woods. I'd always call first,
his gruff "Yah" a shock, to ask if he'd be home
and could he put an edge on, put the game
back in my skates. Then it was the mile hike
over frozen fields, a wild kingdom of weeds,
army of mad crows to escort me from the
borderlands, flying tree to tree, leading me
until the yellow square of his back window
glinted between sentinel's trunks.
I knocked and waited, knew his slow, uneven gait
on the stair and imagined him once a boy,
sleek and fast, cutting lines on a winter lake,
chasing his mates, cheeks ablaze.
He opened the door and waved me in,
leaning on his cane. I watched from the chair
by his elbow, transfixed by wheelspin,
by that comet trail of white-blue sparks
he teased out, blade to grinder in smooth arcs.
A jowly troll with frost blue eyes intense
under tufted brows, he'd check each edge by
shaving ribbons off his thumbnail.
Never a smile, never more words than needed,
and sometimes none. But he saw his hands linger on the
leather of the older skates as though
reading messages in the scuffs and nicks,
that spoke of falling darkness and
deep cracking sounds below the ice.
The last time I didn't bring the battered pair,
my growth spurt at full speed by then, the skates
too small. I hardly fit on the stool by the bench.
His hands shook more but the edges were good.
When I left, the old man called me back to the door,
shuffled over, reached across to tuck in my scarf.
Standing In The Street
You're standing in the street at night,
early January haze obscuring the image now.
No one has ever traveled in time, caught
his own future through a window.
Your son & daughter singing, playing rough songs
on the living room piano, ageless
in motion, at an apex, strong.
and you would teach them to be fearless
if such a thing were wise or possible.
This night will last a few minutes less
than the next, and yet the inexpressible
beauty of the frame you cannot lose.
Bread & Anger: A Prayer
Arguments at home happen most often in the kitchen.
Maybe the bananas, forgotten and going
blotchy brown, give off a subtle fume,
causing your spouse to hurl the
wooden spoon, turn on her heel and scream
obscenities, a tirade so profound, needles
twitch across seismic scrolls in nearby
laboratories and squirrels in the elms
scurry for their nests. Maybe salmon,
sealed in plastic, nestled in darkness,
spasm again in a flood of light as you
open the freezer door, they flick tails
as if to leap up roaring, frigid falls,
remembering how it was to swim
under falling snow and moonlight
into a net spread out like revenge.
Teenagers' milk-washed cereal bowls,
discarded in a rush for school,
may harbor sugary curses, the residue
of a thousand times "No." Old salt
may lose its flavor, each crystal imbued
with the taste of a wish unvoiced;
to sprinkle it on soup releases
essence of snow from a failed ski trip
or taste of paint chips off shabby walls.
That blob of carbon on the oven floor—
a cherry pie that oozed one August night—
absorbs abandoned dreams.
The table tilts under the weight of
telephone, garbage, utility bills,
credit card offers, bright catalogs
where models march, impossibly slender
midriffs bare, skin smooth as an
airbrushed memory of youth.
Oh kitchen, troubled soul of the house,
let the aroma of fresh-baked bread
overcome all bitter scents and leave us
this once at peace, hands touching hands
as we pass the plates, in communion
one more night with those we love.
A Winter Lullaby
The night bell rings, my little boy,
in the hollow dark its clapper sings
like the stuck tongue of a one-note wolf
echoing an aria, the fallen timber
stitched into the snow, little boy, the fallen timber
stitched into the snow.
The cold spreads out, my little girl,
a white wing here, another there, a coat
of ice on the window glass, the black
night splashed with frost and spice
of spiral smoke, little girl, the black night
splashed with spice of spiral smoke.
The sod is frozen deep, my little boy,
where two trembling mule deer creep
to the steaming stream, to the softened bank,
as wind sloughs snow from jackpine boughs
and the screech owl, little boy, he flies
from the tree without his screech.
The darkest part of night, my little girl,
will find you at the rim of my pale light,
arms cast out, the owl of your own dream,
your bell of morning waiting still to ring,
your brother sipping slowly from the stream, little girl,
waiting right beside him at the stream.
I Visited My House
I visited my house long after death,
house where I slept fifty thousand nights
in a basement room, house where I learned
the growth of the grass, the dips in the dirt,
the shape of the trees' shade, the slant of
solstice sun through the drapes, the scent
of the neighbor's towering lilacs, the sound
of his daughter who tortured pianos.
I visited my house where I no longer lived,
wept on my knees at the garden's edge
to see the unwatered strawberry patch,
the dead mint still fragrant, the wild thyme
scraggly but hanging on. I moved through rooms
where I once had reclined, each silent
and reconfigured, unfamiliar furniture,
the aroma of strangers' meals in the air.
They'd painted the walls, they'd driven in nails,
hung a poster of a pop star where once
was a flower from Georgia O'Keefe.
I found them asleep and I hovered above
but the malice I felt dissipated because
I could tell that they loved in the house
where I'd lived, in a bed where we'd loved
in the bed that we had. It was comfort to me
that the lock on the door was the same sticky one
that had been there before, and if I'd had my key
I could open it still, though incorporeal
I've no need for a door. I shall never return
to my old house again for there's nothing to say
that has not yet been uttered by some other dead
disappointed home-haunter. All my children are gone,
though their cries linger on in the walls and halls,
where I nurtured their bodies and added the fuel
to the lamps of their souls till the flames were sufficient
to burn on their own. Bless the house, bless the house,
let the new guest grow old there, salting its floors
with his tears, binding rent rooms with the threads
of his dreams, singing out with the sounds of his names.
Back to top.
Nearly six feet tall, lean
as a longbowman's arrow,
he aims at his future,
reluctant to fly the bow.
All afternoon, dry snow smoothed
coarse hills to softness, pressed
the roofs of houses, pulled
blue smoke from chimneys. Dark
came early, a solstice kiss
like the last one you receive.
He dressed too spare for winter,
hands nervous as starved birds,
and looked in the mirror
a dozen times, eyes combing
his silhouette to make sure
he had not yet vanished.
I watched, statue of a father
in a village plaza, condemned
to witness the generations
passing to wars, to shores,
to mile-deep mines,
to the arms of their own children.
He paused at the door, expectant:
Midnight, I said.
[ Holiday Presents ]