Friday, August 17, 2018

A Selection of Poetry by James Langlas

The following poems were published in Spoon River Quarterly:

About Words

Since youth I have hoped to hear it—
Music, shifting in the trees,
Through the trees,
Like wind across the lake.
Some old men can find the words
To say they’ve heard it—but
Even the wordless ones, sometimes
Especially the wordless ones,
Know it’s there when they push
Their boats out in the morning
And the ribbed, carved sand
Is made smooth by the tiny waves
That correct everything
Beneath their feet.

A Broken Branch

I can see it now. Some boy
had a few minutes after closing
a school book in the quiet
of his room, there with the light
in the upstairs window.
Darkness was closing its hands
around the throat of day.

He needed the feeling one more time,
the sensation of being surrounded
by the light air at the top,
the satisfaction of touching
the black bark, the breath separating
this world and the next.

The Secret of Gardening

The neighbors saw us out in the back yard
in the early mornings,
our hands working the soil,
scooping then watering,
the drops from the hose trickling
over the youthful plants
that reached for something
we knew might not be there.

Strange how we kept knocking
against each other like clods,
trying to make things right,
giving it our feeble best
to take a single breath,
or make one movement,
to show that we belonged together
because everyone else believed it.

And so what finally made the difference?
Did we catch ourselves up to our wrists
in the moist earth and feel
the insulation rubbing
against the insulation and see
the effortlessness paying off
in an unspoken, perfect way?
Or did we reach for the roots deliberately,
gripping something substantial
we had been a part of all along?


We sit in odd positions now,
on the front step or
behind the screen,
rocking in the uneven shade,
watching the blades
of grass turn against

some of them
folded tightly, creased
as if by a gardener’s hand,
the others
lying flat, pressed
beneath the children’s feet,

where a private path
leads into the womb
of the seasons,
into the trees where
the laughter is.

The Way We Grow Older

You believe you have closed the last door,
wrapped the final gift and placed it
on the doorstep before leaving town.
Your bags have been packed for some time,
socks together, underwear stacked,
shoes stuffed with money.
Plans are written down.
In the final minutes, everything slides
around the corner and comes to rest,
heaped along the curb.

Then one evening the car won’t start.
You have always slept on your left side,
and suddenly you are on your back
in the morning. The man mowing
the neighbor’s lawn develops a limp,
his shirt sleeves torn at the elbows,
revealing the truth about work,
the dangerously sharp edges of method.
The angle of the hill behind your new house
has gotten steeper.

It isn’t until Labor Day
during some uneventful year
that you claim to have discovered
a better way to grill the steaks out back.
In November you tell your wife
that the wood in the fireplace
must burn just so if it is going
to last the evening.
Your daughter decides to quit
playing the piano forever.

When you notice that the debris
outside the door
has been disturbed by the wind,
been mixed really, a single pile now
with a rounded shape at the top,
you hope that the family house
is still standing, that the tree fort
in the oak will be able to bear your weight,
that someone has been watering the flowers
all along. 

The following poem was published in Cutbank:

Becoming a Miser

Suddenly the world stops turning.
And every crack in the ground collapses
within itself. Tiny pieces of bark fall
from the trunks of trees, tumbling
upon each other at odd angles,
causing the birds overhead to circle
again, look out of one eye,
and fly toward something secure,
an old nesting place
or the sturdy branch above
the river, where the wind
is always from the east.

It is this way with so much.
My mother used to speak of an uncle
who wore only one pair of suspenders,
the same pair to work and to church,
who drove his sputtering truck
on empty, for miles,
to sell his dead wife’s shoes.
And there was the lady down the block
who had keys for everything:
the garage, the cupboards,
the heavy drawers in her dresser.
In the end she couldn’t escape
from her own house.
The smoke had crept up
from the basement and turned the locks
inside out
while she slept.

You, too, have seen it all happen,
the smallest things turning on themselves,
leaving you with your arms extended,
your eyes on the ground, looking
for a footprint, a single leaf,
a broken twig.
And finally you tuck your hands
in your pockets and move toward
the open field, searching
for the pile of rough stones
someone else has assembled
and forgotten.

The following poem was published in Black Warrior Review:

The Truth about Drowning

The only parts of you that matter are your arms and legs,
how fast they can move, if they have what it takes,
their strength. For one brief moment, you think
about church, the way you used to fold your hands
as a child, the beauty of the sacrifice, where
the priest mixed the water with the wine, and
the white thread disappeared into the cup
before everyone’s eyes looked to heaven.
And now you finally know what all of that meant.
You would give anything for one sweet breath.

You wonder who will find you, if your legs will be caught
below the surface, your swollen hands finally touching
the shore, your fingers pointing toward the road.
Perhaps some boys fishing will notice the lightness
of your hair as the water filters through it,
or some teenagers with a six-pack will be walking
along the bank and discover you making love
to the shallows.

Before the water floods your mouth
and your head falls back into the cushion of current,
you believe you feel your father’s quiet grip on your arm,
the way he would lead you through a crowd
or into a strange room where the lights were dim.
But you realize that the next touch you feel
will be businesslike, someone’s fingers
in your armpits or around your ankles.
And when you are lifted toward the sky,
your eyelashes drying in the wind,
every part of you that your parents loved
will be laid bare.

The following poem was published in American Scholar:

The First Signs of Spring

The house has finally stopped falling in upon itself,
and the corners of the bedrooms have softened.
You do not bump into things in your hurry
to find daylight, in your search for the stairs.
It is a time of doors opening smoothly,
into the hallway, from one room to the next.
The drain in the bathtub is clear again,
and all running water has a destination.

The tile feels good to your bare feet,
and your ankles do not crack
as you enter the shower.
You begin to notice the length
and coarseness of your hair, the curls
behind your ears. You remember why
you are fascinated by the colors of things:
the soap on the mirror, the lime on the walls, skin.

No one knows why it all comes down to this,
why we always seem to look somewhere else.
We make some easy comment about fresh smells
drifting in through the screens
or the different shades of green out back
when it’s really just time to figure out
what we’ve been missing and then get up
and make something of ourselves.

The following poems were published in Poetry:

Waiting to Adopt a Child

You begin to think there is nothing left
for you.  The air neither comes nor goes
in the room upstairs, where the dust forms
tiny balls along the floorboards,
the fresh colors on the walls turn pale,
the new furniture begins to creak in the night.
Your wife knows beforehand what simple phrases
you will utter, how you will move through
the carpeted rooms of the house, looking
at your image reflected in the windows,
studying the sharp line of your nose,
talking aloud to yourself about heritage.

You have seen your neighbor’s trees bear fruit
even in the wrong seasons, and the soft rain
of evening dampens the earth wherever he walks:
to the garden, to the mailbox, toward the ball
and bat lying next to each other on the lawn.
Each time you turn on the post light, even the moths
fail to come.  The music you play in your car
floats out the windows before you hear it.

Memories do not lie.  Every image you own of childhood
becomes clearer at night.  When you reach over in bed
to comfort your wife, you see the descending hand
of your father, feel the way he stroked your hair
in the moments before you slept.  You hear your own
breathing against the pillow, the coming and going
of life, and try once more to repeat someone else’s
truth: Your loss may soon be your gain.

      (for Jack)

My son treats me with his swagger,
a bounce in his step I wish were

Clever at seven, he understands
what adopted means but knows we share
the same blood, really,

man-to-man, fingers around the bat,
talk of hard things on the surface,

I can see him at my age,
holding my hand
as I sleep away what’s left,

whispering in my deaf ear
the words we have both come
to believe.

Another Birthday

Suddenly you’re holding such a thin rope.
Here you are, things going right,
the kids are safe, and some lousy flashback

or one look in a shadowy mirror,
and you wonder if there’s time
for something else, a chance

to find out if your shoes
really fit or if your car
will ever start again.

Maybe tomorrow you will find yourself
sitting in a corner, your knees
drawn up to your chin,

your elbows shaking stiffly, like leaves,
and all the lights will go out.
Or you will realize that flames

could end it all, and there will be
no way out the back door.
Who can say?

We’re getting there, both of us,
all of us, aren’t we, taking
those long walks now

but feeling as though we’ve
never left the yard, the muddy boots
by the door reminding us of where we’ve been?

And all of the forgetting, the disappearing
words of the sick people
in our dreams,

those who told us it would be like this,
the long finger of some distant uncle
pointing down the road.

A Loss of Memory

You are frightened
when you first realize something
is gone, when the strings that hold now
to then are snapped, leaving you
somewhere above ground with nowhere to land,
nothing to hold onto.

It has gotten so the keys in your pocket
all look the same. None of them
will unlock the car or the suitcase
you have packed. Not one of them
will lock the front door. You do not
remember if you have turned off the water,
if you emptied the trash yesterday
or today.

There was a time
when you could hold your palm out,
a few inches from your face,
and marked how some lines joined
one another, how every crack sprang
from the lifeline or searched for it
or finally touched it
when you slowly made a fist.
There was a time
when you thought things
like that mattered.
When you thought everything did.

Soon someone will come for you.
In all of your hurry to get things done,
to find that one comfortable spot
for the two of you, to finally raise
the kids, you had believed that now
would never arrive. And here you are
looking out the window, studying
the glass and the way a streak
can smear the green of the front lawn
or twist the sidewalk where
it had always been straight.
Here you are feeling gravity
in your shoulders and the ache
deep inside, reminding you that life
all comes down to this:
It’s not what you have known,
but what you have forgotten.


(for my father)

Here the water reaches
all things
and flows endlessly,

giving a touch to motion,
until it finally grips
the branches,

and they move beneath the current
that takes me where it must,
away from myself,

across the sandy bottom,
toward the one figure
who will take me home.

James Langlas (May 16, 1951 - August 13, 2018)

Former teacher, poet, author, Taekwondo Grand Master, and department chair at Wheaton North High School and professor at Florida SouthWestern State College, James Langlas earned his degrees at University of St. Thomas, Northwestern University and Northern Illinois University. Langlas was an 8th degree black belt. He was a gold medal winner at the International Taekwondo Federation World Championships in 1974.  With the help of his wife, Michelle, he founded Langlas Taekwondo in 1980 and Pathways for Achievement in 1996, which combined after-school tutoring and community service with Taekwondo instruction.  In 2005, Langlas received the Studs Terkel Humanities Service Award from the State of Illinois. He also founded and chaired Wheaton Community Partners in Poetry to foster an interest in poetry among all ages. In 2012, Langlas became the author of a book entitled, Heart of a Warrior: 7 Ancient Secrets to a Great Life. Langlas’ poems were published in Poetry, American ScholarSpoon River Quarterly, Kansas Quarterly, Beloit Poetry Journal, Cutbank, The Indiana Review, Cumberland Poetry Review, Swamproot, and Black Warrior Review, among other journals.

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