Featured Poet: April 2012 Vol. 4 # 6

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Lowell Jaeger:
As founding editor of Many Voices Press, Lowell Jaeger compiled Poems Across the Big Sky, an anthology of Montana poets, and  New Poets of the American West, an anthology of poets from 11 Western states.  His third collection of poems, Suddenly Out of a Long Sleep (Arctos Press) was published in 2009 and was a finalist for the Paterson Award.  His fourth collection, WE, (Main Street Rag Press) was published in 2010.  He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Montana Arts Council and winner of the Grolier Poetry Peace Prize. Most recently Jaeger was awarded the Montana Governor’s Humanities Award for his work in promoting thoughtful civic discourse. 
       Grandma’s Last Christmas
Grandma still lit candles on her Christmas tree
instead of stringing lights, and Dad said we’d better
help her take the damn thing down before
the old homestead burned to the ground.
Easter Sunday after church, we drove over
and found Grandma in a chair pulled close
to the soaps flickering on her new TV.
He done it, she said. I seen him.
She pointed at the black and white screen,
her house coat buttoned askew,
her thick ankles crushing her fuzzy slippers sideways.
That’s him, she said. He’s the one.
We raked buckets of dried needles, scraped lumps
of candle wax off the floor. Dad unscrewed the trunk
from its stand and heaved what was left
out the backdoor, trailing more needles and wax
and all us kids sweeping up behind him.
It’s just a show, Dad shouted from across the room.
It’s pretend. Grandma pulled her specks
lower on her nose and smoldered.
I know what I seen with my own eyes,
she said. We each had to hug Grandma
before we could go though she never hugged back.
The room felt empty where the tree had stood.
Dad bought a round of ice cream cones
at the drive-in on our way home, and we savored
in silence, letting the cold melt on our tongues. Dad stared
ahead, shuddered and mumbled. We didn’t dare ask what.
       Things Got Worse
Things got worse before they got better
after the mill shut for good
a week before Thanksgiving. Dad
was up early with no place to go.
He’d sit with his coffee and stare
straight ahead like a blind man.
We’d come home from school and find him
still there. Then it snowed and snowed;
the roads drifted closed, trees snapped
curbside and lay broken like wounded soldiers.
Dad shouldered his shovel door-to-door
asking for work clearing drives and walks.
A nearly grown neighbor boy did the same.
We’d report to Dad whenever we spotted the boy
slinging snow near streets Dad claimed
as his own. He don’t need it bad as I do,
Dad said. He’d pull on his boots and march
off to see what’s what and set the boy right.
A week before Christmas Dad took a job
delivering bottle gas, and he let us ride along
to see the Christmas trim on big houses
across town. Or we’d slip and slide
county backroads delivering to farms.
A big man in coveralls loaned us an ax
and we cut a Christmas tree from his woodlot.
Not much of a tree. Dad lashed it
to the grille of the truck and pieces flew off
as we sped along, our snow boots caked
with manure, our noses pinched
against outhouse smells in the heat of the cab.
At least we got food on the table, Dad said
whenever Mom looked like she felt sorry.
Or he’d say, There’s hungry people in this world
who get on with a lot less. Which meant
we should eat what Mom dished and not complain.
A classmate came knocking
one hot summer afternoon.
He’d hiked clear across town
in a trench coat and sandals
and nothing more. These were days
of Jimmy and Janis, make love
not war. We did crazy things.
Mom let him in; I wasn’t home.
Mom worried strangers might be Jesus
in disguise, testing her. I guess
Jesus did crazy things too.
He said Mom had served him
milk and cookies. We laughed
and made fun of her. Neither of us
meant it; we were young and hopped-up
on mock and ridicule.
Mom said they’d had a nice visit.
He’d talked about dropping out, Mom said,
and she hoped he wouldn’t do that.
He’s a bright boy, Mom said.
His big brown eyes just melted her
heart, she said. And his smile,
so gentle and full of forgiveness.
We tied twisted plastic wrappers
to the rafters. Lit them one by one,
awed by the dripping flames hissing
and sizzling in the dirt. Dozen guys,
half as many chicks, huddled
in a picnic shelter, Iron Butterfly
drumming a war dance on the eight-track.
The molten globs of plastic shrieked
when they let go and whistled
like bombs. Last year of high school,
first frost on the meadow, full moon.
Faces flashed bright in the flames,
then black. Faces flashed
bright in the flames, then black.
Across the world an orange robe
doused in gasoline set itself ablaze
on a busy intersection, broad daylight.
One of us made noise like gun-fire.
Don’t do that, one of the girls said.
Something moved in the shadows,
something in the dark crept closer.
Napalm them jungle niggers, someone said.
We laughed and dared the dangerous
big world out there
to dare us back.
Action speaks louder than words, Lenny
reminded us. We’d just walked home to the dorm
from a rally on the commons,
spitting bullets at Nixon and his war.
We huddled and passed a pipe. Lit candles and aimed
a black-light at Hendrix ghosting on the wall.
Don’t you just want to trash something?
Right-on, Ted said and raised a clenched fist:
Smash the state! Right-on, Man. The rest of us
agreed. It’s revolution, Man. Love Generation rules.
We passed the pipe again and chased it
with a bottle of Boone’s Farm. Larry
went teary-eyed. Think of it, he said,
it’s up to us. We’re like what’s-his-name Jefferson,
Abe Lincoln, Man. We’re . . . like
making history, Man. Let’s do it, Lenny
shouted and jumped up on his chair. Do it, Man!
Something’s happening here”—we sang along
with the stereo. We’re like a movement, Man. We’re like . . .
a tidal wave, Ted said. We’re like . . . .
Someone had sent ‘round a few crumbs of hashish
smoldering on a tinfoil wrapper. We’re like . . .
but he coughed and coughed and couldn’t force
another word. You’re like wasted, Man, Larry said.
It’s cosmic, Man, Lenny said. Don’t you see?
It’s all atoms. Everything. All made up of atoms.
All we need is . . . like . . . unlocking that atom, Man.
Ted snored. Larry rolled himself up in a rug,
knocking an empty, spinning. The needle on the LP blipped
on the last groove over and over. Ticking like a bomb.
No, ticking like a countdown. No, ticking like a clock.

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