Michael R Brown

Susquehanna

poems by
Michael R. Brown
Princeton: Ragged Sky Press, 2003

You have written breath into these folks whether they lived prior to the book or not.
—Eve Rifkah, poet, founder Oasis series

I read Susquehanna in small bites, savoring each person and each poem. It really begins to emerge as a community. I'm beginning to see the threads that weave through it. This one hit me the other day. The people who get respect in your poems seem to be passionate to do the right thing and just as important, to do things right. I like poets who show me a world and a way into the world of the poem. Teaching me to read it as I read. Your people and your poems are various combinations of passion and skill. You can forgive and embrace such people. And such poems. Too many poems are about the poet sitting around thinking up poems. I like how the people in your poems have jobs.
—David Surette, poet and teacher

I heard many of the poems in Susquehanna through the period that Michael was working on the book, and I admired them individually. But the experience of reading them all in one binding brought with it a whole new appreciation for the scope of his achievement. It was like the difference between hearing a few grace notes and listening to an entire symphony.
—Jack McCarthy, Standup Poetry Guy, author of Say Goodnight, Grace Notes (Joliet, IL: EM Press, 2003)

Susquehanna is currently sold out.


Poems

The Oldest Woman in Town (Patricia Eberhart)

The missing child will be found beneath
a blanket of dead leaves, but she will
be alive, afraid after mischief played
so long, lost to the family, spoiling
the picnic and the game they all enjoyed
when she--so much smarter than the rest--
found the slight depression in the woods,
covered herself, and lay down so still
till everyone was caught and, for reasons
she could not explain, waited a long time,
so she thought maybe that's what death was--
still, alone, covered, no one knowing where she was,
just being herself someplace no one could see.

She knew that once she crossed a time,
a line into a place where no one
but her had gone, they would be angry,
then scared, then twice as angry
for their real grief made false.
Towns hate kids who make them fools.
When they found her, she knew not
to jump up gleefully and shame them.
She tried her best to act the enchanted
princess. They saw through that, beat her,
and raised a stone for her head.
She vowed she would see them all dead.


The Professor (Tina Bauer)

Nectar never so sweet as golden cascades
of German beer across my face when I lay
on mattress ticking and pulled a bottle
away from my face in the winter sunlight.

The Cyclops band worked wet wood inside
a long pipe over fire, red glow reflected
off sweating torsos in clouds of steam,
chants that stroked their muscles when
they bent the iron, shouts of joy at work
complete, murmurs of satisfaction at an
arced spar perfectly fitted to a curved prow.

Silvery minnows, transparent shadows on sand
next to black velvet tadpoles. Great clattering
squalls of ducks and rough thuds of decoys
on wooden bottoms, speedboats, water skiis,
cabin cruisers, not many sailboats,
and always poor people come to see.

Iron rails and a truck on train wheels pulled
by a car engine winding steel cable around
a metal drum to tow boats out of the river
into the great boathouse where chain and hoist
set ungainly hulls on wood dollies that glided
on oily wheels and stowed boats in the dark.

My grandfather was master of this industrial circus.
He loved honesty, good work, and education.
Smart kids made his pale blue irises swim and shine.
He dry-coughed foundry dust and spat tobacco juice
into coffee cans. When his wife moved to town,
he tacked pinups on the walls, drank more beer,
and cursed FDR, businessmen who didn't pay
their bills, and the PP&L for their dam that
slowed the Susquehanna, trapped coal dust,
worsened spring floods, and ruined the fishing.


The Psychologist (Wesley Seifert)

In their nightmares, I am a golem, seated
in my office with wet lips, large watery eyes,
an amorphous monster, patient and eager,
a repulsive, fascinating phantom in my dark cave,

They feel uncomfortable because they think
I know things they cannot explain to kids,
like oral sex in the oval office, but it is
what I really know they never suspect.

At night I melt into house shadows under windows.
I will not invade. I observe when anyone's emotions
drive them too far. Then it's just me and Ted Weiss,
outrages rising on moans no one wants to hear.

When it is too soon for night to end, too late
for anything good to begin, count yourself
lucky if you sleep. If not, you think,
"Animals? What kinds of animals?"

I am the only one who looks like he is,
the one they come to when they must,
the one who will take them into his cave
when they know I am not the one to blame.


The Sailor (Barb Bancroft)

under a dome of Bermuda high,
the spinnaker a single plane,
the boat's reflection gathered under it,
the balance of a buoyant sliver,
no down payment on anything

Some stud always wanted to
tow me all afternoon on water skis,
so he could finish the rush with
my shivering legs locked behind him.
I've learned that men wait on every dock.

skimming the seam between water and air,
from the islands to Safe Harbor Dam,
mud flats and rough shore,
the light breeze at Turkey Hill
the only rush I need


Hammer Heistand (The Police Chief)

In this land of broad hips and weak backs,
recognition comes slowly or not at all.
Even the familiar needs naming, and only
the pastel colors of fuzzy sweaters
distinguish gray-haired women who
all get permed at the same shop.

Too many raisins and not enough sauce,
dry sweet potatoes and slabs of ham
at the church supper where the crowds thin
while the people fatten, the youngest drive,
and this year's story is about
Hammer dying alone in a hunting cabin.

I was the solid, strong guy who kept the peace.
It was an honor the town gave me, a job.
In this land of broad hips and weak backs,
I was the opposite.
The stronger I was, the less I had to be.
My wife leaned on me.
My kids stood protected.
Nobody crossed me,
or went out of their way to please me.

If I had developed my own personality,
I would have studied art.
I think my hands could hold a fine line.
I liked curves and soft things,
but I never had too much pleasure in that.

It's why I died a far away as I could get,
among soft wool, fur, feathers,
the mirage of fire and streamlined wood,
frosted windows, warm food, and
just beyond the porch,
the unpredictable changes of animals.


The Decoy Maker (Marty Collins)

Fall used to begin when
plaintive honks from a long V
of Canada geese high in scarlet
dawn down the Susquehanna
drifted in the open window by my bed.
It ended in gray morning air
cut by sleet and clattering thumps
of decoys into wooden boats followed by
the wet slap of bloody ducks.

In silent lines on seamless water
decoys lured noisy flocks to skid and shake
themselves to sleep in false safety.

When first light crept above low hills
and illuminated the water, we couldn't tell
ducks from decoys, reeds from blinds.
Men had filtered through the night
on flat silent hulls, slid into
cozy shooting stands, or bobbed among
sleeping fowl, and the dogs
were quiet as empty clouds.

The first shot commenced the mayhem—
bird cries, barking dogs, shouting men,
shotguns, and the holy whirr of wings
covering the air until all subsided to laconic
voices across the river, the mournful whistle
of a wounded canvasback, moist panting
of excited retrievers, and decoys bouncing
like clowns, stiff replicas with glassy eyes,
oval cork bodies, and wooden heads,
bound by ropes at four foot spaces.

Today Marty leans against a work bench,
surveys three teal, and says he has to carve
because painting them drove him crazy.
The new bufflehead gets passed among
four gray men. One notes the delicate
green sheen on its back, purple on the forehead.
Another admires the compact shape and carving.
Marty slides a square neck into smooth body.
"You have to remember," he says,
"You're always taking something away."

Among windowsills lined with profiles,
tables littered with roughed out types,
a great black slatted goose in the corner,
I find a cork bodied mallard, tell them I smell
my grandfather's beer and tobacco juice,
and catch sunrise in their eyes, even if
the only ducks we ever touch
are covered in oil.