A Handful of Thanks from Gregory Fraser

David Bottoms was never my teacher. But he has made me a better teacher. Without his poetry, my work with younger writers would be decidedly less clear and less nuanced. Time and again in my nearly twenty years as a workshop leader at the University of West Georgia (where David earned a Master’s degree in English), I have turned to his poems as exemplars of how to bring in authenticity and overthrow kitsch; how to cast sentences in the active voice, with vivid, unexpected verbs; how to show more than tell, and much, much more.

The Lion and the Bear

Maybe my wife’s the lion.
Maybe I’m the bear.
Maybe the bars dropped down around us.
Maybe we built the cage.
Maybe we’re supposed to gnash
and claw each other
to a bloody end.
Or maybe we’re meant to sit
in our separate musks
until our fur turns gray
teeth drop out.
Maybe she keeps the key
tucked in the vortex of her left ear.
Maybe it’s buried
in my winter coat.
Or maybe there is no lock
and the door swings
open with a nudge.

The Key to the Good

For years I thought in circles
but finally taught myself to use ruled lines
and keep the penmanship neat.
For years I worked at understanding. The pay
was lousy, hours long, perks a joke.
If a full moon rose at dusk, I saw a tin-can lid,
dented and pocked with rust. When others
at the clinic said my history wasn’t me,
I scoffed. Blood is easy, I told myself
on the El rides home. It’s grease
that won’t come off the hands. It burrows
in the grooves of thumbnails, stains
the cuticles black, digs into the lifeline
and clots the heart. It makes children look
like grown-ups, even more than
the adults themselves. And narrows the path
to righteousness till no one fits.

The Diver

When we heard the hector of crows, the sky turned
lightfast as tracing paper, though no one copied the scene:
spruce trees leaking from open sores, the town drunk,
innocent, shaken out and beaten like a rug.
Our laughter, brother, used to clink like ice in tumblers.
Days slid tickets under glass for us to travel
free of charge. You sculpted like wind and sea,
without models or deadlines, chisel or rasp.
I strummed non-minor chords of guitar.
Then the mirror in our room grew ancient,
demanding eyes for eyes, teeth for teeth,
and our faces wanted contour, color, like empty fruit stands.
Now I lie awake some nights, conjuring the haddock
Fridays at that German place on Fourth, mother’s hair
the hue and rake of straw. And think of those summer trips
when you played dead in motel pools, releasing
all your breath and sinking to the bottom,
where you remained face-down—three, sometimes
four, incredible minutes—until pushing to the surface
and gasping for air, or until some unsuspecting guest,
laced with panic, fully clothed, dove in to rescue you.

Pre-Elegy in Cloth

Death nears
the final
chapter of your father’s
life and soon

will close
the covers
throw back the last
swirl of brandy
and hand over
the book.

As instructed
you will feed
the volume to fire
bury what remains
on a grassy hill.

But not before dipping
into a favorite
passage not before
reviewing climactic
scenes. Already

death is fingering
the last pages
of your father.
You look for him
on the stand
beside your bed

wishing you could take
him up
wishing you could fall
asleep with him
face down
on your chest.

Olga the Magnificent

You wake to windows slashed by icy rain
………….and think back to a huddle of men
……………………..humped under flapping plastic
………….wrapped in weeks-old news
a few blocks south of 110th
………….their cheeks raw and their hands
……………………..their ears pressed to the steaming mouths of subway grates
………….listening for answers that never come
or come in a language none of them speaks.

If one could rise and stop you
………….hustling back to the room you lease
……………………..from the one-eyed Ukrainian crone
………….if one could reach across three decades
now to grip your arm
………….before you climb four flights to the hag of Lviv
……………………..with her stacks of Pravda clotting the halls
………….her drafty windows and glassed glass eye
guarding the worthless keepsakes while she sleeps

Filthydelphia

For as long as I can remember it was the grime
…………of the Great Northeast I woke up wanting to sing
……………………about, wanting lovingly to scorn, it was that greasy

……………………shadow, smudge without a source, in the mirror
…………of Bustleton Avenue after rain, that echo trapped
down an alley tagged with treason, spritzed with piss.

I wanted everyone to forget the names
…………Thomas Eakins and William Rush, to see
……………………the Schuylkill for what it is and always was—

……………………a river of arched, ham-fisted beauty, brown
…………as a rotten tooth. I wanted South Philly to sit
in peoples’ stomachs like one of its oily meals.

Dark Harbor

The afternoon my four-year-old took a purple crayon to pages 32 through 37 in my first edition of Mark Strand’s Dark Harbor, all I could do was prop a lawn chair in the yard and watch the traffic pass, watch the neighborhood sparrows enter and exit the neighborhood trees, and stare up at the sky wandering between clouds

until something at first unurgent and almost weightless, then heavy and irrepressibly sad crashed along a coast inside—not for the ruined book, personalized the year before Strand fell ill, but for “the tedious enactment of duration” and the “ultimate stillness”