“New Year’s Day 2005” by Gary Lemons

Gary Lemons


for Sam


I walk the streets today as I have so
Often in the last thirty three years.
It’s an arbitrary number to look back to
A place to start counting but my number
Nonetheless—thirty three years, the years of
Jesus, that good, misappropriated
Man, the years it took Conrad to begin
To launch dark missals at the human heart.

These are the years a man looks back at when
Winter comes not just to the place he lives
But to his body, left like last season’s
Tools, one storm too long without shelter.

Cold wind comes off the water. Ferries
Labor in grey chop through mill smoke bringing
Tourists, seagulls, perhaps a younger
Version of me to town to begin, one
Hopes, a more fluid way to turn to stone.

I remember this feeling, these shivers
That come from insights and under dressing
When I was a young poet walking from
One bar to another with a warm buzz
In Iowa City in the cold morning,
Late for one class or early for another …
The arctic express across miles
Of open prairie, bringing the smell
Of wheat stubble down from Canada.

There was frost on my face, fresh taste of
Breakfast beer, my words on my tongue.

Into the warm bar, Donnelley’s, where Dylan
Thomas was slapped off his stool for cursing
By the same withered Irish prude serving
Me now, Charlie, who at sixty still rides
Home with his Mother who won’t let him drive.
He sneers, brings me a democrat, a short
Draft with too much foam, would like to slap me
Too but almost got fired the last time
So contents himself with wiping a stain.

I believe in Iowa City each
Cold heart, each cold rustling stalk of corn
Left unharvested in the snow covered fields
Is warmed by a molten core of poems
Written by the dangerously young …

Music burbling under ice in creeks
Where coyotes cut their paws scratching
Holes in the ice to drink from the pool
Freezing slowly over the one remaining fish …

I still believe in the power of poems
To make a place where one wild thing survives.



So I find my place in a world where war
Is killing my friends, killing people I
Don’t know, killing any hope the old I
May one day become have of looking back
At their life to work out the intricate
Deception of a man struck each day
By a small, personal rock from space.

Because it is almost noon and I have
Not eaten, I pour tomato juice in
My beer—it is 1972
For the first time today and Imagine
Plays above the tinkle of glass, the loud
Sounds of pool, sung by a man still alive.

Too much introspection from a drinking
Poet is like mittens on a cowboy
So I unstick myself from friends, the warm
Evaporate echo of words, tell Charlie
He’s a beautiful man I’d love to kiss,
Dodge the bar rag, open the door on way
Too much light and real anguish.

I head west, a true conestoga poet,
To the Vine where Justice is counting
Money from an all night game and buying
Drinks for Norman who is building complex
Structures from pretzels and writing the last
Poems for In the Dead of Night on soggy napkins.

The new year has come, to the brave and the
Stupid, the ones who sharpen blades and the
Ones who grind what’s cut to bread, to the good
And the evil, but never to the dead.



So here it is, thirty three years later, thinking
Of my friend Sam whose new year will be a ledge,
Not a slope, from which he will fall or rise.
Thinking the fish breathes under water
Because it doesn’t know it can’t.

I have seen you breathe, in lonely places,
The fellowship that sustains and oppresses poetry,
Seen you daily labor with love, with
Great precision and joy, to extract the
Ordinary, infinite, thunderous
Relevant beauty from centuries of words,
Pissing off, in the process, those whose fuse
Is so wet it can no longer be ignited by ideas.

The first birds of spring fly just beyond the
Falling snow, waiting to land when the country
Thaws, waiting to begin the excarnation
Of my tongue, leaving only the bones of
Joy and one vowel, all that is needed
To begin a song of gratitude.

In everything there is the poem,
Stepping out of its own death.

This new year I have no pledges to keep.
I am doing all I can to be who I am.
To you I hope to say, at least once in
The remaining light, that I love you old friend,
Old teacher sweating rain in the garden.



When all the winters are added together,
All the summers, springs and falls of the oldest
Man or woman, we see they total less
Than the hair on our arms. This life is not
A nest we may sit indefinitely
But a single drop of water falling
From a clear sky that may, upon landing,
Give rise to a previously unknown vine
That itself will live only long enough
To take one fully awakened look
Around, flower, and then gently, without
Regret, remit it’s qualities to the air
And return to the work below ground.

What it all comes down to is, and yes, you
Can take this as a threat, if it gets
Any colder I’m switching to whiskey
Poured one syllable at a time into
A moment when all the shivering ends.

from Rattle #25, Summer 2006


Gary Lemons: “It’s almost a cliché to speak of poetry as a transformational process by which the poet begins, through the writing of the poem, the sacred work of becoming a better human being. I believe this. Each poem is a gift much like each prayer is a lesson. What matters to me is the tissue deep shift I feel each time the words come out in that spare and clean way that tells me I have spoken as truthfully as I can in my own voice. The poem as it is written becomes my window as well as my mirror. I am grateful for this every day.”

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