For my grandsons Andrew and Dylan
Once there was a little poet whose mother left him beneath a juniper bush beside a prickly pear blossoming Crayola sun yellow. She tucked his sister in beside him and said she would be just over there beyond that clump of mesquite. She said he must not be afraid and dragged her right hind leg as if it would never bend, and the little poet watched his mother until he could no longer see her.
He had no word for this, no bright color to cast across the gray and black and dank-earth brown of his mother, now a shadow, now. . . . His sister nuzzled closer, and he almost cried, but being a poet, closed his eyes to try and remember the smell of tall grass at the edge of stock tanks, wildflowers, and something else, the warm milk scent of his mother. “If you run away,” he sang in his head, “I will run after you,” but he was so tired and fell asleep beside his sister.
The rancher did not shoot the poet and his sister and even laughed at him when the new sound rose from deep within and curled up his lip, the teeth long for a pup, and the rancher grabbed him and his sister by the scruff and brought them to the animal shelter and wrote on the paper, part Australian shepherd. And when the young husband and his wife and their kindergarten daughter took the poet’s sister, he shouted, “I will run after you,” but the cage door bolt slid shut.
The man who came, recognized the poet in the eyes that glanced askance, the careful placement of the paws cautious of their footing on the texture of earth. He would not come when called, and having known only wind-tumbled wrappers from fast-food meals, not the meals themselves, waited to test whatever the man set before him until the man had walked away. Nights, the poet lay on the cool tile beside, not on, the pillow bed the man placed close enough to extend his arm and touch the poet’s head should he cry out in sleep, but he only made little barks and sometimes that pup-growl and always, the man noticed, the twitching paws.
“I am running away,” he said, “to a grove of mesquite, yellow flowers, the taste of my mother’s breath.” The man said, “If you slip out the front door and take off down the street when the UPS man delivers a package, the Girl Scout takes orders for cookies, my grandsons stop by to give you a hug, I will run after you calling the name you refuse. I will teach you leash and heel and sit and treats, sometimes a Starbucks sidewalk table, an iced, caffeine-free latte, pinches of pumpkin bread to help you forget what you cannot, because I know you are writing poems behind that stare, the tight mouth, the four, long legs planted to say only so far, no farther.”
And when, to cheer all the lovely people, the man dressed him in the garment expected of poets, he suffered the hat, the cape, the puffy shirt, and struck whatever pose was required, knowing the laughter was joy, gratitude for what he offered, a kind of recompense for all the other poets standing before classrooms, the bound anthology of loves lost extended to whoever could receive it. . . . All the poets duplicated behind computers, sending and receiving emails, responding to requests, smiling. . . . At attention before glassed-in cubicles, hearing always that impersonal voice, “Let me explain the ways you have failed my expectations,” the poets smiling, penning couplets for children. . . .
All the poets gathering in cafeteria kitchens at 4:00 a.m. to begin another day of feeding. . . . Campus guardians unlocking the doors to buildings, turning on stairwell lights. . . . Custodians sweeping and dusting and emptying and arranging and sometimes pausing to open the book left on the professor’s desk and place a finger on a line of poetry. . . . Groundskeepers planting and replanting, in and out of season, flowers in bloom, shaping shrubs, tending the lawns, clearing the leaf-strewn sidewalks. . . . Coaches etching poems across white boards, the runes of wizards, and the Vice-President of financial stability the poet called the Golfer, parking his boat of a 1980s sedan in the farthest parking lot to walk to his office, policing the curbs of litter he slipped into his suit-coat pocket as if dividends, stock options, the poetry of accounting preserving this school from which he graduated with four, golf-team letters, another letter commissioning him to Vietnam and back, his sweetheart waiting to nurse him home.
And the man, now standing at the east window of his third-floor office reminds himself how arthritic the poet became, how suddenly he tired. Eight years he shared his poetry with the man, with all the others at this college, its heritage–names written, not as John Keats said, on water, but folded and left for other poets to find in the back of desk drawers, tacked in the corners of bulletin boards, dropped on the cushioned pew, last row in the chapel, or placed beneath a juniper bush, a blossoming prickly pear.
“The Runaway Poet (In Memory of Wrangler)” is loosely based on Margaret Wise Brown’s The Runaway Bunny. New York: HarperCollins, 1942. Print.