“Checking In,” “Second Nature” and “All you need know”

“Checking In,” “Second Nature” and “All you need know”

Checking In

There you are Dad

on our cobbled deck

splayed out in my favorite chair,

our nearly feral cat

content to be on your lap.

You hold up the perfect tomato

so round and red-ripe—

I can almost smell it.

It’s the best photo I’ve ever taken.

How is it

no one smiles like that anymore?

That miraculous summer

of just enough rain

and just enough sun,

you and Mom would often visit

our small college town

set down among ridges

rolled up so regularly

they seem like ocean waves.

Mom would pitch in,

while you stationed yourself

on the deck,

and scanned the natural world

like a ship’s lookout

in an iceberged sea.

We all waited on you, Pop—

our pleasure to watch

your many cares

melt away

in the swollen sun of summer.

By now,

the town has grown

to a minor metropolis.

We don’t grow our own

tomatoes anymore—

content to shop

at the farmers markets

that dot the countryside.

Today, at first snow,

the site of our old tomato patch

is white as time-honed bones

but if I close my eyes

I can still see it,

vibrant in that luscious red

that was our

glorious season.

Second Nature

You would have loved

to have me in your class.

I was born with the soul

of a mule—plodding through

with heavenly persistence.

I’d march around my room,

high above a smoldering Brooklyn,

recite irregular verbs in Spanish,

and practice trilling my r’s

to the uncaring mirror above the dresser.

I took to math and history,

could diagram Faulkner’

prose, but never got far

with foreign languages.

I slowly learned

what it means to be born to.

I am an aged city kid

still most comfortable

with the lilt of moonlight

on a wet sidewalk

in East New York.

With the basement

steps to the Blue Note

and the way

my pulse takes

to the time of the subway

shuddering as it clings to the rails.

Forty years gone and I can still

advise you where not to be when

and get around Manhattan,

blindfolded and hobbled.

I love my little town—

dammit I grow things now,

but I will never be at home

in the surrounding woods, bedeviled

by beasts, real and imagined,

that range in size from ticks

to bears. When I first moved

here a friend who came to visit,

sampled the food and nightlife,

looked at me

sorrowfully and wondered

out loud how I dealt

with a place that was

so green.

All you need know

My grandfather, the lumberjack,

was often mistaken for Paul Bunyan.

When he yelled “timber”

it could be heard

from Seattle to Vancouver.

Once he felled an ancient oak

to teach me the lore of tree rings—

wide for a good year,

narrow for a bad.

His calloused hands caressed

the log as he said,

“this is all you need know of life.”

Grandpa, the watchmaker,

was stooped and gray, but elegant

as if he’d stepped out of a portrait

from a forgotten time of formal grace.

What Rodin would have given

to marble the bones of his hands.

I would sit on his workbench

in a shop full of child-sized tools

and watch him work and rework

the movements of a timepiece.

With a thousand pieces splayed before him

he’d say,

“Here I create time,

and time is all you need know of life.”

My grandfather, the farmer,

had the finest two hundred acres

in northeastern Kansas.

A doughty man born without ear or rhythm

he’d sing the standards—

“Ain’t Misbehavin” or “Makin Whoopee!”

as his steam tractor wobbled through

the flat fertile fields.

We’d all smile to imagine him singing

his heart out.

Once, I watched

him put his arm into soil elbow deep

and come away with loam black as pitch

and teeming with worms.

“All of life is here,”

he said to me.

Grandfather, the soldier,

had a grand mustache

that made him look like Pancho Villa.

He fought with Black Jack Pershing

in the Belleau woods

where corpses outnumbered

the bullet scarred oaks.

He would don his uniform

and his tin cap

to shoot targets with his long gun

at a quarter mile range.

I never saw him miss.

Fingering a spent cartridge, he said

with a tired smile,

“this is death—

all who live must meet it.”

My grandfather died when I was five.

I have few memories.

In one I sit on his lap

and stare out the kitchen window

at the unsuspecting walkers

on Riverdale Avenue.

We sit in silence—

his face is so yellow and worn

it seemed carved of candle wax.

At the last, I remember

I waved goodbye to his hospital window

impossibly high in the massive brick

then walked away with my mother.

Swaying and sobbing,

she held my mittened hand too firmly—

as if all life depended on it.

About the Author

Steven Deutsch

Steve Deutsch is poetry editor of Centered Magazine and is poet in residence at the Bellefonte Art Museum. Steve was nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize. His Chapbook, Perhaps You Can, was published in 2019 by Kelsay Press. His full length books, Persistence of Memory and Going, Going, Gone, were published by Kelsay. Slipping Away will be published this spring. Brooklyn was awarded the Sinclair Poetry Prize from Evening Street Press and has just been published.