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Sample Poems by Al Maginnes

Translating the Dogwood

Who can negotiate the shadow-web
cast by the calm dogwood
that did not blaze but whispered
its way into full blossom?
Soon I’ll walk outside to drink in
how gently the season has turned,
sneaking in like the guilty husband who,
shoes in hand, eases open the back door,
tip-toes up the creaking stairs. Yet,
each year one more of the dogwood’s limbs
dies into bone, no longer dreaming
the green fire of new buds. In the story
my friend told of her mother’s moving
out on her father, each day they carried
one or two pieces of furniture away,
arranging what remained
around each new absence until
the emptiness was too great to deny.
But by then they were gone. It was spring
and although they were broke,
her mother planted flowers until
their yard was a banked fire
of color. The world tells stories
we should do our level best to listen to,
but the slow-growing riot outside lets me
believe that whatever this earth has
to tell is written best in the calligraphy
of shadow the twice-damned dogwood lets
fall over soft grass, in the lisp of wind
humming under new leaves, in this dirt
we stand rooted in, no matter
how we aspire to blossom or flame.

The Burning Between Fires

            “It was meant to be beautiful, the hosts striving
              for that, but not meant to be
            as beautiful as it was.”
                         Suzanne Cleary

If our afternoon of holiday shopping
had not lagged into night,
we would not have seen the graveyard
glowing in the dark that falls

hard and early this time of year.
At the head of each grave a luminary glowed,
lung of candle-flame turning
the white paper bag that housed it translucent,

the way breath burns the body into motion.
We entered between stone pillars to steer
our silent way among tiny fires.
From the road, each single flame was lost in the haze

of light hovering knee-high above the graves,
but when we drove among them or paused
to spy down a single row, we could see
how some flames surged while others wavered

the way some lives devour all that lies before them
while some limp along, never quite taking hold.
At the back of the graveyard, we stopped
to take in the eye-filling symmetry.

Whatever combination of faith and time worked
to create in that cemetery a shine that muted
the sky’s pepper of stars, they must have visioned
a neat whole choiring welcome or farewell,

not each flame laboring in solitude,
heat and thoughtless motion unwinding
from its blue core to dissolve the candle’s body
to hard puddles of wax that pooled

on the sand that rooted each candle stalk.
However that field was intended,
it cast a beauty we saw through
to what burned between each fire.

Even at its center, it seemed illusion,
and now, twisted in memory’s scratched lens,
describing it reminds me of nothing
so much as a trick a friend performed at parties:

setting fire to lighter fluid cupped in his palm.
Done correctly, the flame vanished before
the flesh felt more than slight warmth,
and the eye registered only a quick blossoming

of flame burning the hand empty
even as we leaned forward
to be sure of what we had seen
and wanting to see it again.

 The Song In the Background

A moment comes in the movie Magnolia
when the camera drifts between the film’s
several unhappy characters to find each
singing or mouthing the words of the song
in the background, while the apocalyptic
rain of movies falls, filling the legendary
concrete riverbeds of Los Angeles.
The rivers I know best are bedded
in mud, run undammed and slow,
their hidden muscles of current lounging,
hazardous as grief, below the brown skin of water
that, like grief, looks easier to cross
than it is. If you can believe
so many off-key singers, so many fates
joined by a single chorus, then you can
believe the frogs that suddenly fall
at the movie’s end, out of
the up-to-now indifferent sky,
balls of blood and air bursting fierce and Biblical
on a land that dreamed its existence
scripted for escape from judgment and prophecy.
We escape nothing.  Tonight I have tried
to write a letter to the wife
of my dead teacher and friend, but my words run
slick as the well-mapped passage of water
along spillways of concrete more accustomed
to wine drinkers and skateboarders than sudden gravities
of water whose one aim is to join
other water. When rain drives the surfaces
of brown rivers to a boil, they run
light and reckless for a few days, beckon
finger-thin canoes to wing the seething
alleyways of trees, past foundations
of fallen and abandoned mills,
into the sudden green flatness of fields
whose distances of radio towers and tin-roofed barns
summon the judgment no land escapes.

Hour of Possibility

The downtown buildings that loom
over the treeline catch
the sun’s descent in their glass-paned fronts
so thousands of reflected suns
burn into a single sheet
of fire, slur of gold that turns
the center of this city
to a burnished valley. Watching
from my front porch, I’m tempted
to believe the luminist painters
or the sunsets conjured
on Hollywood soundstages,
all that end-of-the-world fire
and music a promise
of what endures. Even broken things
soften in this hour
of possibility, hour between
labor and nightfall, when
sins are easy to dismiss
and desire seems endless
as the sight of her shoulders
flushed a slow and deepening
red against our sky-blue sheets
this morning before the slow
commerce of the day began.
However many more days there are
of this, I want every one,
and from each one I want
the small beauty that lifts us,
shining, up from ourselves,
into moments we would not trade
for any part of earth, not while
the eternal stands so close.