Three poems by Michael Northen

Sourdough

I watch his hands knead the dough on the bread board
the same that cradle a guitar, draw portraits, create building designs.
Hands surer than mine setting up his son’s nebulizer
and gathering girls at his daughter’s soccer game.
It’s not like making cornbread
tossing buttermilk into the cornmeal and soda
stirring it around.
This bread takes patience.
The starter’s long incubation
the rising, pounding, stretching, waiting
for the rise again.
His living room is scattered with living:
first grade readers, paper mache work in progress,
a Christmas cactus from his grandmother blooming profusely.
When I get home, I’ll grab some coffee
and head to the front porch
to bite into still-warm bread
and watch the geese beyond the December trees
skim the evening’s lessening sunlight
just as they should.

*

Monastery

We walk into a monastery chapel
carved high into mountain rock
in the midst of a third day mass for the dead,
tourists in the realm of God.
Gold enameled icons cling to the walls
Above the few pews in its small dark space.

In 1827 monks held out here
against Ottoman occupiers
in caves formed in the side of the mountains,
religious tradition born of necessity.

Incense and words in an unfamiliar tongue
draw me back through remembrances of Latin mass
and chanted dies irae to the smaller, darker spaces
inaccessible to ordinary light.

The gift shop near the room where
the family of a dead son gathers
offers crosses, prayer books, icons, beads
and jar upon jar of dried herbs and flowers
gathered by the monks from slopes that surround,
petals of the past as brittle
as the remnants of faith forged in ancient hillsides.

Their scent lifts from the tea this morning,
curling upward as I breathe it in,
a hopeful acridity still seeking
those remoter silences.

*

March 21

First day of spring,
beneath the residue of last year’s leaves
the ghosts of November plants are stirring
their colorless first shoots
quickening into life.

Not everything that dies returns again:
the pansies, catchfly, marigolds
or my brother gone 50 years
and absent on this birthday
sealed in a past untouched by spring.

He lives solely in our minds
those engines that can pull time
only down a one way track
disappearing further each spring
in the rearview mirror.

To be human means to be forgotten,
the way the soil will soon forget
the new life it cradles this year:
the pansies, catchfly, marigolds
and all earth’s psalms that make
our brief lives beautiful.

*

Michael Northen is the past editor of Wordgathering, A Journal of Disability and Poetry. He is co-editor of the anthology Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability and the disability short fiction anthology, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked. He is a founding member of the Disability Literature Consortium. An educator for more than 40 years, Northen has taught adults with physical disabilities, women on public assistance, prisoners, and rural and inner city children.

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