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Poems from Through the Second Skin

Enjoy poetry by Derek Sheffield from his book Through the Second Skin.


Ornithology 101

Now that you have staked their skeletons,
eyed the scope of a throat, prodded
strutted white ribs, pinched
a wishbone for resilience, thumbed
a keeled sternum’s edge still trying
to steer scattered feathers, stroked
a hummingbird’s mum iridescence, ruffed
the white down of a great egret
slit and stuffed as last year’s final project,
sprinted with a severed wing to catch
the physics, given new vision
to a blackbird with two dabs of cotton,
you can leave with an A in class Aves.
Now that you have looked through birds, you see
the diagrammatic movements of geese
across the blue sky, dotted lines
narrowing a million years. You expect
from every American goldfinch thistles
and sadness, and when you walk out
among the world’s perches and Latinate streaks
at the edge of sight, the air is feathers
measuring the bones of your face.



The Accretions

I understand that Blake would have us see heaven in a grain of sand, but some days nature must bow before the accretions
   — from a friend’s letter

So that’s what the sun has been up to
prostrating its shining before mine
as I savor the genius of knife and fork
with respect to steak. Every day ending
in a bow, a flattering reminder
to save room for that saffron custard

crème brûlée, that pinnacle
caramelized in Paris as nowhere else.
On the Boulevard of Champions,
bankers dab their lips with cloth napkins,
merci, as the moon lowers herself
before Pepsi and the pyramids,

vanishes entirely at the thought
of airplanes, alphabets, and baseball.
Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows
deserves a thumbs up. Or should we count

black birds flapping over golden stalks?
Had the postal service delivered your letter

early, say 1973,
and Mother helped me with accretions
and species, I would have reached for a bag

of Army men. Nothing slowed my breath
with such joy as arranging them. The bazooka
man in mud I made with spit

aimed at the standing one, his rifle
butted to shoulder, right eye fixed
on the one lobbing a grenade—
a pattern pure as any stand of trees.
Father was yelling about the credit card,
a door was slamming, and I was kneeling in light

that had split the darkness
to reach my tongue and the sound of guns.
In a far land, men whose green minds
were not plastic were crawling
into the ground, making of their lives
black stems, red blossoms.




Near Wild Grasses

An afternoon like a loose grasp, a second skin
   of breeze and blue, just right
      for a stroll, and a snake sliding along
happens, by chance of scent or heat, to turn
   into a yard where a girl is making
      her pigtails wiggle, chatting
with the doll in her hands, returning its smile
   with hers. She does not notice me
      watching from the road
as a lipless mouth and eyes
   like insect eggs, glassy fractures,
      draw closer. Odds are
this notorious pattern of blotches
   will bruise no one. The tail’s golden hive
will not rouse. This rattler
   will almost certainly stay
      secret, pulling its belly length
by length away through weeds
   and wilder grasses. The girl will go on
      shaping the sand of her sandbox
into a place where her doll can live.
   And I will resume my walk,
      struck only by the intimation
of earth’s unruly beauty. But I go
   to the door, knock, and say,
      Just to let you know,
and the mother asks the favor,
   looking to her daughter.
      As I hesitate, consider, and reconsider,
over strides her neighbor, Heinz,
   an old German, a grandfather
      who says, Oh ya, it’s a big one,
takes the shovel the mother brings

   and barks, Stand back. The rattler
      licks at the air with a tongue
flimsy as a creeper’s tendril.
   Gripping the shovel with both hands,
      he lunges and pins the head,
bearing down, and the rattler writhes
   like boiled water, like leaves
      in a thrashing gust. A crunch
as the blade pushes through, coils
   unwinding, still. The mother
      wants to see it dangling
like a half-filled inner tube
   before he carries it, head
      and body, into the brush.
Thanking me, the mother
   holds her daughter, who stands
      quietly, watching me
walk down their drive to the road
   that takes me past other yards.
      At the house with green doors,
I am home. My daughter squeals
   where she sits on the floor.
      As I bend to lift her into my arms,
she grabs my cheeks and sticks out
   her tongue, wanting to know this man
      who is becoming her father.




Getting It Done

for Charles Wilson, M.D.

Naked below the waist and on your back,
you shake your doctor’s hand. “Call me Chick,”
he says, snapping on a pair of gloves.
You’ve never heard that one, but you’d rather
a Chick did what this man is about to do
than your logger neighbor, Doug.
You’ve driven two mountain passes to get to Seattle
and this specialist’s reputed pianist’s touch,
and you can’t see him knobbing a skidder
through the stumps of a clear-cut. Get ’er Done
is not bumper-stuck to the rear of his Prius. No,
you’re certain as you lie with your legs open
you’ve found a woodsman of another kind
whose fingertips have butterfly kissed the keys
of countless men and counting, little Amadeuses
that just now adjust a gooseneck lamp,
deftly tape your shaft to your belly, and begin
to swab your scrotum. Your eyes fix
upon the photo deliberately hung for all the men
who have lain here and all the Richards to come.
(Do his nights swim with lampreys, condoms
riddling every slosh and slither, salt
returned to salt in blind migrations of the ribbed
and the tipped?) It’s a family in what looks to be a park
and—and an “Ohhh” escapes your mouth as if
you’re about to sing, Say can you,
as Chick digs for a vas like a granny after a weed.

One hand pinches a clamp on every furtive strip
of your hog soul, while the other pelts your left
testicle with lidocaine. The mother and daughter
watch as the father tosses the son into the air,
arms upraised in a skewed U, their smiles
framed in bright swarms of autumn leaves.
Chick, too, is smiling as he hands you
a pocketknife that bears his clinic’s name.
And you’re up and walking like a man with an egg
on a spoon, mincing past the receptionist
who nods as if Come again is about to slip
from her lips. A pale man in the waiting room
watches your every step to the glass door
and out into the rinsed air of April, a breath
of fluttery forms and teetering songs,
and stems everywhere about to bloom.




Sometimes I Risk

our lives, driving her             to school, tilting
the mirror                                till the road
behind gives way                   to the one
in her face                                till I nearly
steer by the reflection            of her
reflection:                                chewing mouth,
eyes that flick                         from thing
to each (through her)            momentous
thing. “What house               is that?” as we pass
a winery, eyebrows               leaping, dimples
dimpling. My see-                 through highway,
revealing at once                   what passes without
passes within,                        a secret
I must keep, for if                  she sees
me seeing me                         in her, my eyes
and dimples,                          then we
are lost in her                         self-consciousness.
I must be                                 an afterthought
to sip at the lip                       of her streaming
immediacy, for                       my eyes
to oscillate                               between the broken
yellow line                              and gaps
in her bangs and teeth,         road ahead
and reckless glass                  aimed back
at what                                    will go on




Darwin’s Eyes

He kept seeing himself, a swallow
peeking from its nest, moss, the crawl
of a wasp across his study window.

And he kept having to drop everything and duck
as certain callers appeared in the mirror
he’d aimed at the front door.

A beak he could understand. A talon
was a hand holding his own. It was the eye,
with its vicious complexity, that stabbed at him—

lightning bolts of doubt,
a cyclopean stare, ten years his Origin
stewing in a stack of notes.

And the eye, perhaps, why he went back,
after all was said and begun,
to the worms, spending his last years

watching them as his fingers
wriggled over piano keys, exploring up
the scales and down, concerto

and dirge. His first passion, his final,
those tender needles with their dark impulse
to feel all around them our earth.