Thomas J. Erickson
I am an attorney in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and often write or think about writing poems while I'm sitting in court. My chapbook, The Lawyer Who Died in the Courthouse Bathroom, was published by Parallel Press (University of Wisconsin Libraries) in 2013. I am a member of the Hartford Avenue Poets in Milwaukee.
The Chinese Proverb
There is a silver maple on my front lawn
that has a million leaves. I can rake
every weekend from late October until
after Thanksgiving and by Monday
my lawn is a golden carpet.
I call the tree “The Chinese Proverb”
not because I can relate it to any specific
Chinese proverb but because all those
endless leaves evoke pith and pause
and a kind of pathos that a wiser man
could reduce to a keen turn of
phrase like Talk does not cook rice or
Do not keep handsome servants or
Reading thousands of books is not as
useful as travelling thousands of miles.
Of course, none of those proverbs relate
to my tree but you get the idea.
One could just say Talking about something
doesn’t get it done or Don’t screw
the hired help or Experience is
more useful than theory without the artful flourishes
but that would be like saying You gotta rake
until there’s nothing left to rake.
This pedestrian phrasing would miss
the fall of the next leaf
the sun breaking through the clouds
the awesome futility of
pondering the insistent future.
It starts with a journey to an island.
By June, the ice is melting and a new crop
of rocks has been left by entrusting
waves or exposed by abrading surf.
The best ones for the sculptor’s blade
are marbleized fossils hard
and smooth as an arctic night.
A hunt yields one that will become
of the old shaman masks of fur,
ivory and sinew, made not to believe in
but to fear, masks that scared children
into knowing something could come
from the south or the east. Something hiding
behind smiling faces and crosses
or smelling of cooking oil and gasoline.
Masks worn, disintegrated, and forgotten.
In this land souls still abide in the arctic
fox, the tern and the snow.
The little creatures in this bed
of fossils are coming back to life
as a mask of stone. A thousand
importunate spirits press in trying
to get inside
where the atoms are spinning
as fast as on the day the urchins came to life
or as the night the stone sharpened the blade.
We begin to live when we conceive of life as a tragedy.
The ancients propitiated the mischievous household gods
with humble obeisance: jasmine flowers, poppies in bloom,
tea leaves from Ceylon.
Over the centuries the ideal of these gods became distorted;
and now sacrifices are made, blood is spilled for something
amorphous but atavistically familiar.
The precept that suffering strengthens is bullshit.
Forbearance, suppression, a perpetual Lent
meant to be transcendent.
The beauty of religion is that is founded on our fear of dying alone.
Nothing is everything.
Everything is nothing.
I am weak; I am afraid; I am cursed.
For whoever is still alive, am I first?
I will write my autobiography on toilet paper rolls
and the backs of envelopes.
Writing is a way to escape living.
Winter is here.
I absorb body blows, spools of paper snowflakes
swirls of dust.
Two Crows, the Hawk, and a Snow Shovel
Above the scrape of the shovel, I hear
two crows. I can’t bring myself to buy
a snow blower even though I live
on a corner lot. Truth be told, I like
to shovel these miles of concrete.
“Offer it up,” my mother would have said.
When I was a server I fainted on the altar--
overcome either by the smell of incense or my head
cold. I couldn’t light the waxy wicked candles
and Father O’Connor was saying, “Erickson, light
those damn candles,” under his breath and then I fell.
My confirmation name was Mathias
because I liked the character in “Omega Man”
who wanted to kill Charlton Heston.
He was the last man on Earth.
When the Archbishop said my name
I could feel his spittle on my forehead.
I pulled the rope that rang the bells
before mass, the heels of my black shoes
flush on the knot. Up I went.
There was a pause at the top
and it felt like I was never coming down.
The crows are wedging a hawk through
the noon sky away from the direction of their lives
or whatever secret they keep in the trees.
©2015 Thomas J. Erickson