M.A. Schaffner



Cautious headlights limn the harbor towers.
Georgetown's houses shine out from the mist
in constellations; its streets wind and twist
in sheets of powdered glass. In these same hours
last spring, we felt the sun's soft afterglow,
and found truth behind the banalities
of forecasters. Now remembrance makes us freeze
again, like the curbs held in hardpacked snow,

so burdened with that reflex of the sky,
we lose the familiar in neighborhoods
of muffled echoes. And the gleaming stores,
transient as steaming breath, bring a siren's cry
to the black water, the gray haired woods,
and the bridge spanning imaginary shores



How much remains unstated but true becomes
the tiny old house beyond the driveway--
a storage shed or county arts facility
where the weird local cult of Shaker
lookalikes sang a capella to their own
rye-bread and salt fish Jesus. My country
grew from fringe rituals the way mule-eared fungi
exude from dead oak, the way most bodies
will finally just breathe tumors, the way
a landscape gathers new roads and power lines
minutes before the first rusted trailer
comes from nowhere with a satellite dish,
a set of mean dogs, and a changing guard
of sly, unnamed cats. My country hangs back
when celebrities pitch for good causes,
can always scrape up cash for drugs but something
seems wrong with charity and helmet laws,
and not saying guns are good in themselves
but natural as dynamite for clearing stumps
or knowing how to start your car when you can't
find your keys again, and everyone knows
you don't fuck with it, not because it's strong
or especially able, just stone crazy,
and that's not a virtue just how it is,
so you just keep off the slanting porch and say
nothing about the strange sounds at night because
that could be something wild that belongs here.




It moves faster than a cliche in common parlance,
the Oedipal attraction to the state before your birth.
Dwellings don the character of a wardrobe: diaper
to suit to baggy drawers--the home that was a dream

a tedious burden; here solace like a paper suit,
attractive and disposable, the half-way house
disguised as hotel lobby; behind the counter
a business-suited death. Nothing ominous in that

cologne, it's called Inevitable for something like it.
A grin's as good as a wink to what isn't there
or passes through so rapidly: birth to broken teeth
and adolescent angst; ambition to guile and then

wistfulness or simple hatred. Feel your skills and knick-knacks;
fiercely hoarded over years, they take their leave like skiffs
crossing the river whose name we forget. Meet the boatman;
a shuttle goes there every day at ten.



U.S. Secret Service, 1978

Things they don't teach you in basic training:
you gotta be born with the pink headlight tongue,
a casual pant, a graceful gait, and eyes that say,
"I'm ready boss--smart enough to find anything,
but not enough to care what it is."

It's the standard obedience bullshit after that:
heel, sit, roll over; come when your master calls.
Liver treats make you fat so you learn to play
with a red rubber ball. It tells them that
you know you're good, and always makes them smile.

It's then you break out in three groups. The psychos
become guards. There's not that much difference
in the two other types. We'd both rather please
than go back to the pound and the certain scent
of that door we dogs only enter.

So we both learn the smells we'll need on the job,
and the dope dogs learn to dig like crazy (or
maybe they can't help it after awhile).
But a bomb dog learns to be cool--sit back and point,
and wait a little longer for the ball and the smile.




They look more and more alike or maybe I
haven't adapted to this month's fashions, the latest way
subgenres run together so it seems

every girl and boy comes from a pack
of four or five articulated figures--
hair just so for white and they of color; breasts

of slabs, or elevated and puffed out
under a standard polystyrene sheen, with just
the regulation stretch of skin exposed

in symbolic essay at arousal, so
the ambient message at last becomes so strong:
Venus as a zebra mussel or fire ant

vanquishing hosts of local species as well
as the thought they might survive. When we die out,
powerless and bemused, they'll fill our ranks,

looking as one, acting as one, and buying,
always buying, from acres of the universal store.




Bees in the buildings. Everywhere. I go
to see the Queen about my retirement
but I just can't get an appointment,
or past the workers from Facilities
who fan their wings to regulate
temperament. Over their fuzzy forms I
can just make out the offices of the drones
who worry over desks and potted plants,
so I wax hexagonal cells and tend
monstrous amorphous children. I name them:
Memo, Appeal, Monthly Report. It's so
stuffy in here; nothing ever changes--
perhaps a bear attacks or the Queen yearns
to swarm. But even in open country
we mass head-to-stinger in slow traffic.
It builds up, I tell you, you want to leave
or strike: at anything, even knowing
nothing can survive the frost but the hive
and you can sting all you want, if that's once.




M.A. Schaffner has work recently published or forthcoming in Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Spoon River Poetry Review, Atlanta Review, Planet (Wales), and The Rialto (UK). Schaffner's first collection of poems, The Good Opinion of Squirrels, won the Washington Writer's Center publication prize and the Columbia Book Award. His first novel, War Boys, was published in September 2002 by Welcome Rain. When not writing poetry or fiction, he works for the federal government, performing creative writing in support of his agency's budget justifications. He can sometimes be found on civil war battlefields with a musket and steel pen, reenacting the role of a company or regimental clerk and agitator for the International Working Men's Association. Otherwise, he resides in a largely unrestored tenant farmer's cottage in the Cherrydale neighborhood of Arlington, VA with his wife, three pugs, and a varying assemblage of squirrels and birds.

Published in Volume 5, Number 4, Fall 2004.


To read more by this author:
M.A. Schaffner: The Whitman Issue
M.A. Schaffner: The Wartime Issue
Schaffner on Ambrose Bierce: Forebears Issue
M.S. Schaffner: Museum Issue
M.A. Schaffner: Poets in Federal Government Issue