“How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is / to have a thankless child!”
–King Lear, Act 1, Scene 4
Her great boulder head surfaces
mid-river, blowing and snorting from
from bottomless nostrils like bore holes
in basalt. She stares at me in my paper-thin
rowing shell for an unapologetic minute,
a slick yard of Coho draped silver-red
in her mouth. Later, as I turn and pull for
the boathouse, the water behind me explodes.
She hunts with a ferocity, which seems overkill,
at first. At fourteen, I watched my father open
his mother’s will. There were old wounds
between them no tourniquet of years
could bind up or heal. A pale check slid
out of the folded papers and fluttered
to the floor. It was made out to him,
in low angular letters like sharp-chinned
soldiers, in the amount of one dollar. I
see her sitting on her screened porch in
Richmond. Counterpane, black tea, bible.
A serpent’s tooth — her calcareous loss.
My dad, so sick with pancreatic cancer
he looked like a desiccated insect in amber,
insisted on going every day to his part time
job as a chaplain in a halfway house for
recovering addicts and offenders. I only
saw him cry when we told him it was time
to stop working, close his tiny windowless
office and come home. That night, he rolled
out a long piece of butcher paper on the
dining room table. Next day I found, in
shaky letters, his design for his tombstone:
Rev. E. L. Brandis, Army and VA Chaplain.
is full of oddities A plastic stork blue
tube grass A synthetic sun I
a cumbrous umbrella.
calls himself a gas passer Bossa nova music
white gravy in the back of my hand
Beneath the rim of the caldera only what is fibrous or damned
Skin of dark salt
Arm sockets popping like kelp balls
Sticking out of my side
the gutter of a house
Statues in the Tiergarten stand like
Olympic wrestlers under mineral
sedation. An oily fug of coal smoke
blankets the city. The Reichstag building
looks like it eats butterflies. Lunch in
the student union building — a bowl
of heavy broth with a fist-sized dough ball.
Frau Hauer, an elderly widow, collects string,
cleans bathrooms in return for rent, remembers
starvation in the streets. She says softly,
“you didn’t have much bombing in America?”
Two people try to escape to the West by
swimming the Wannsee at night from East
Berlin. They don’t make it. Honeyed tea
in porcelain cups. Ceramic coal ovens
stand in the corner of living rooms like
glass blue soldiers. Another entire city waits
beneath the streets, breathing through straws.
We worked on a section of the new bridge
to give back shadows to the river.
I remember the first time I walked the span, looking
straight down on Canada geese flying above the water.
I was lucky to get hired as a day laborer right out of high
school. One morning the ground fog so thick you could
not see the river — the bridge rose like a concrete starship
built by backwards men. Compound curves the whole
way, twisting around three axes, swerving three hundred
and ten feet sideways as it crosses—soil problems.
The northern abutments flare at the top like Frank Lloyd
Wright’s tapered tree columns in the Johnson wax
building, descending like sky grown redwoods to land in a
neighborhood of small cottages built for paper mill workers.
No superstructure over the roadbed — a pure ribbon.
We knew it would be possible to flip a car off the side, but
the angle and momentum would have to be perfect. A year
after it opened, on a glove-soft summer night, it came —
the rare shadow that leaves a mark on the water.
One of the best pieces of advice I’ve been given about writing poetry is to slow down. Don’t be in a hurry to “finish” something. Poetry is the ultimate slow drip process. One of my teachers told me his latest book took thirteen years to write. At first I didn’t understand. Now, thirteen years seems quite reasonable. This idea doesn’t fit the times we live in — but it might be an antidote to my general sense of restlessness. Last year I took rowing lessons on the Willamette river. Learning to row is exhausting. One day I was sitting in my rowing shell taking a break when I heard a snorting sound. I turned to see a sea lion surfacing nearby with a Coho salmon in its mouth. If I had been wholly focused on rowing I might have missed it. The image itself was powerful. But it stirred up something deep in me that took months to surface and long hours of “doing nothing” to figure out. The initial image and a resulting compression of years and old heartache ended up in one of these poems. For me, the hardest thing when I write is to hold onto two opposing thoughts: life is short, yet there is time enough.
Craig Brandis lives in Lake Oswego, Oregon. His poems and reviews have been published in Oxford Magazine, Palette Poetry, Parhelion, Trampoline, American Journal of Poetry, Poetry Quarterly, Plume and elsewhere. His work was long-listed for the 2021 Frontier OPEN prize and long-listed for the 2020 Palette Poetry Emerging Poet prize, selected by Ilya Kaminsky. He is a 2021 Sewanee Writers Conference Participant and a 2019 Breadloaf Writers Conference Participant. He is a volunteer teacher and has developed a short course for teaching fourth and fifth grade children online, along with an interested parent, about poetry and how to write it. More at www.craigbrandis.com.