Jesse Wolfe is a professor of English at California State University, Stanislaus. He is the author of Bloomsbury, Modernism, and the Reinvention of Intimacy (Cambridge UP, 2011) and the recipient of an award from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Wolfe is the winner of the Hill-Müller Poetry and August Derleth Poetry Contests, and his work has been published in New Millennium Writings, Penumbra, Red River Review, River Poets Journal, Henniker Review, Shanti, and elsewhere.
A spiral of pigeons rose from the roof.
(The scaffolding had been removed;
the lumberjack statue stood, complete.)
In the parking lot, Arnie said
he used to ignore Beethoven’s first three,
but now, they glide straight out of late Mozart.
This discovery, Arnie, was new
twenty years ago. Now it’s a commercial
for someone you’d like to think is still you.
Barbara smoked, leaning against the truck.
We all stood in the middle
of something irrevocable. Anything they’d failed
to tell mom was a permanent failure.
But she and I had said everything:
In Ojai, hiking among the orange trees,
we remembered the year I left college:
long asthmatic nights in filthy depots,
as though my guitars were my family.
She scoured her journals, as if for her mistake,
but there was nothing to apologize for.
Our decades of love were enclosed, complete.
You drove slowly around the pebbly cul-de-sac
and around the cul-de-sac you wound again
as we continued our conversation from the diner
which paralleled many other conversations
at the diner yet seemed destined never to resolve
our dispute about whether god was a metaphor
which we joked was itself a metaphor
for our hope never to resolve the conversation
which bore us back and forth like waves
and I stepped to the mirror above the sink
with half a Styrofoam cup of hot chocolate
and poured it down the sink as I watched my face
hover in the mirror and heard it roll around
and down the sink while thinking still
about whether anything wasn’t a metaphor
as my moist breath faded from the reflection
that with nothing at the base of metaphors
all metaphors would swirl around and around with no end
and I climbed into bed which felt like a bier
digital minutes ticking into hours
trying to recall exactly what we said this time
at the diner and as you drove around
and around the cul-de-sac after we returned
testing its parallels with what we said
all the other times we shared hot chocolates
(soon no one will remain who knew our diner
nor the drives we made around that cul-de-sac)
Some dreams are too greedy to be satisfied.
It’s always too soon for closing time:
there’s still one roller coaster we haven’t tried
from the top of which you can kiss the moon.
Not mine. Earthbound, firm,
I slow to a stop at every light:
I—we—have too much to protect.
Not only our child in her booster seat,
but a thesis: I’ve never been cowardly.
Choosing you for a partner was a fool’s move, unless
I’d planned to be launched beyond myself.
Choosing me for a partner was a forfeit, except
you swore that you longed for a permanent rest.
Everest is littered with athletes and poets,
the oceans with Ahabs, Cousteaus.
But how could I—or our daughter,
if she touches your mind—
stand shore-bound and blind
if there’s no span in the moonlight,
no slope in the submarine reefs,
where you’ll agree not to dive?
The front window propped open
with a small block of wood,
we could smell the jasmine
from dad’s small square garden.
The traffic: a loud continuous shhh!
Sometimes, a few drunken teens
stumbled up Ocean Lane, a block away.
Sometimes, it seemed dad knew everything,
all the books packed in his one-bedroom.
Sometimes it seemed he had nothing.
But when a homeless man tapped his screen door,
dad gave him a whole loaf of bread.
Tired a lot, he rarely showed anger.
His face bore mixed messages,
as I have now, to pass on.
We could soak in TV for hours,
sprawled on the grey linen couch,
fighting the glare through the windows
that faced the vast unkempt backyard.
We could turn 180 toward the black chokeberries
hunkering like drunks
in rainstorms, like amnesiacs.
That’s when we lived in North Wisconsin
(before we sold the VW van),
where the sky kissed the edge of the prairie.
The Big Picture
The omniscience galls me, he thought
halfway through his paperback
on a park bench near the lake:
the author’s mind diving
like a predatory bird
into every POV
when we pretend to need no god.
He imagined his mother
kneeling in her garden
cataloging his failures.
—Her head would be tilted 30 degrees
over a meager strawberry on a vine.
Setting the book down face open,
lifting his pink face toward the sun,
he thought, I’ve floated
through so many cities
just to escape those invasions:
to feel lucid, anonymous, at ease.
Stray cats scavenge
amid remnants of radiators and refrigerators.
Stray cars crawl
along the access road behind the fence.
The boys, 15 and 12, still drift there
He would have said, like grey water spirals
toward a drain.
Every year it’s clearer
they’ll never go to college.
Now, hypotheticals seem less useful.
They bring their music and comics
and—he thinks—they talk.
Had he done that at 12,
if he’d had a sibling,
his habits could be different.
Now, he thinks, whether they talk to me
The fridge is full of pizza and Coke.
He’s sponged off the plates in the sink.
On Sunday nights, they have a board-game ritual.
No one wins every time.
If it’s too hot, they keep the AC on.
When he was 15—before Drama Club—
time must have had a shape.
But all he hears is his father:
make plans, set goals.
He could say different things to the boys
when they’re ready to listen.
Something about self-love.
Or how personalities persist.
How, if you can’t tolerate them,
you’ll end up damaging yourself.