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UNDERSTANDING NUMBERS
Poems by Lowell Jaeger

 

 

 

 

Understanding Numbers

 

Pulsing red lights, blue lights.
Cop-cars.  An ambulance. 
White sedan upside-down
amidst a glitter of shattered glass.

I’m slowed in the opposite lane, almost
stopped cold, though a state patrolman
signals us to keep nosing onward, vehicle by vehicle,
inching past blood stains, flares and caution cones.

All year long, I’ve survived this highway,
my daily commute, sailing heedlessly past
the obvious warning: an electronic billboard
tallying, week by week, traffic fatalities.

In March, 38.  After July holidays, the reckoning
surged to 97.  September now, 164.
Numbers.  Only numbers, as if a faceless someone
mumbled a count while stringing pearls.

Until today, when I witnessed emergency crews
straining with a pry-bar to free the body
belted in the wreck.  More than a number
to the driver’s wife restrained by paramedics,

her panic flashing red lights and blue lights
as she wiped at crimson blotches on her sleeves
where she stood unsteady beside the road, moaning
an anguished no, no.  No, please, no.



 

What I Heard

 

The baby’s guttering first cry.
The doctor’s long sigh
as the blue flesh flushed pink.

And before that
the mother’s muffled screams
hissing through clenched teeth.

And before that
the ambulance bawling
into our drive, the snap and click
of the gurney unfolding,
doors slamming closed.

And before that
the mother-to-be humming
amidst the clunk of dishes in the sink.

And before that
the rhythm of the mattress springs.
My own love-grunts releasing.

And before that, I have heard
(Haven’t you?) a rumbling in the night sky,
the faraway stars resounding.


 

Two Houses

 

Two houses huddle in low open acres
beside the highway.  Identical, except
smoke rises from the chimney of one
and not the other.  Lamps glow
in the window of one and not the other.

The “other” of the two, after decades of neglect,
sits unpainted, unadorned.  No one
bothers to peel shipping stickers
from the wide glass doors.  No one bothers
to carpet the plywood floor.

Man makes plans, and God laughs,
says a rueful Yiddish proverb.  Why,
amidst space enough to do otherwise,
would the owner have snugged these dwellings
so near?  Why identical in design

though one thrives beside the other’s slow
demise?  Maybe two brothers, estranged.
Maybe conceived to house aging parents close
to their grateful children’s watchful care.
Maybe we all forge ahead with our schemes

dreaming each sunrise will carry us forward.
Wake up!  Wake up!  cry the wind-torn shingles,
the brambles overtaking the doorstep
and drive.  Within the sagging eaves,
there’s laughter.  A puzzling sort of joy.



 

Who’s That?

Who’s that? my siblings and I ask, paging
through a forgotten family album
of black and white scalloped-edge
box camera snapshots.  Then realize
with astonishment, it’s our mother
before any of us had climbed from the womb.

She’s just past teenage in the photo,
showing off for the lens.  A stark contrast
to the woman we knew who stood back
and looked downcast when the flashbulb flashed.

Here she’s posed like a tabloid starlet, one foot
lifted to the running board of a sleek black Pontiac,
lips spiced and moistened with a coy smile,
glittered and dangerous, an outlaw Bonnie
poised for glory as Clyde exits the bank in a firestorm
with sacks of cash, and the couple dash
into the deliciously wild and romantic yonder.

Instead, she marries our father, a soldier
home from combat, settles into what must have seemed
a monotonous routine – five babies, diaper bags,
spit rags, heaps of laundry, floors to sweep, never ending
cycles of meals to concoct and sinks full of pots and pans.

No wonder that bedeviling spark in her youthful eyes
faded through the years, and the contours
of her countenance shifted.  Still we recall
small glimpses of her past – as she swirled
with our father on the dancefloor – putting aside
the ache of commonplace complaints,
inhabiting with gusto the life she’d waltzed into.

 


Wonderment

 

Well, we nearly died, but so what?  The runaway
truck came charging our car broadside and surely
would have smashed us, crushed us, ground our bones
to little more than a grease spot on the concrete byway.

Within hours, whatever couldn’t be collected and towed
the cleanup crews would hose into roadside shards
and brambles.  And traffic would continue whooshing past,
rolling over the ghost of us.  The sun would set, the moon rise.

The point is this: It could have happened but did not.
Afterward you pulled to the shoulder, shaken and pale,
kneeled in the ditch and vomited.  I couldn’t muster
common sense enough to offer you a wet rag, couldn’t

erase the imprint of that truck driver’s wide-eyed panic
as he clamped his boot to the brake pedal, downshifted,
and sweat haplessly like a man on the jagged edge
of lasting regret.  And so what?  What’s the point?

The point is this: It could have happened but did not.
No one typed our names in the obits next evening.
No one need delay their routine to mourn.  No one
can hold to anyone and decry our tragic demise.

 

 

 

 

 

jaeger

 

About the Author
As founding editor of Many Voices Press, Lowell Jaeger compiled New Poets of the American West, an anthology of poets from 11 Western states.  His seventh collection of poems, Or Maybe I Drift Off Alone, was published by Shabda Press in 2016.  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.

 

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