Visit this section to hear audio clips of poetry readings, lectures, interviews, songs, and other audio clips related to the work of Paul J. Willis. From Garrison Keillor reading his poetry on The Writer’s Almanac to songwriters composing music to accompany his words, Willis adds his clarion voice to the poetic soundscape.
The summer you were seven
you could hardly sleep
that night before your first recital.
“I’d rather break my arm,” you said.
Which is what you did with an hour
to spare. We could blame the dog
who chased you into the glass door,
but that would be dumb. A wish,
you found, is a dangerous thing.
Today, eight years old and nearly
Christmas, you asked to be the first
on the program. As you sat waiting,
sunlight fell on the bowl-cut line
behind your head. Sometimes
just a year is enough to learn
to bring joy to the world.
Yesterday my daughter slipped
from underneath an overhang
some sixty feet above the ground.
She had climbed so sure and ably
to that hold. I squeezed the rope
and stopped her almost casually,
bolts and slings and carabiners
doing their allotted work.
There was one second no not even
part of one when all nine years
went hurtling down and all the threads
between us snapped to mute attention:
she so high and helpless, I
still grasping for her far below,
fingers cold and filled with
a cord not easily broken.
I am the heart of an oak,
the core, the center, the eye
in the dark target of rings. Far
from the sap, I go it alone—
no need to eat and drink,
to feast all day like new
wood under the bark. Excess
of youth is far in my past; I am
established now, the mainstay
of those frivolous branches
flitting about overhead.
When storm comes, they’ll
by God wish they were back
in here with me, chair pulled up
to the fire, book in hand, a good
pipe all winter long. I hear
them snapping away like twigs—
the sound is muffled, pleasant
from this inner distance. I puff, I
turn another page.
Dry Creek, that you are not.
The trail walks a checkered log
across your rapids. Yesterday
I stood in the snow where you began,
white as the foam that courses
now through moss, through boulders,
under the cedars and the hemlock
to the gray, impassive lake.
I think I am alone with you
until a young man rounds the bend
above the crossing—one leg flesh
and bone, one leg sprung steel—
and he treads the log without a pause.
His pack appears to be no burden.
He is heading, he says
to me, for Desolation.
A lake lies all alone in its own shape.
It’s not going anywhere.
A lake can wait a long time
for a hiker to come
and camp on its shore.
It will reflect the moonlight,
give him a drink of pale silver.
Toward dawn, the wind might ruffle
it a little, and the water
will have words with the granite.
Once the hiker goes away
through October meadows,
the lake will sparkle by itself.
You’ll never see it. There is
so much you will never see.
The first white pine of the morning
is holding up fistfulls of dollars,
currency of June-green cones,
ready cash soon to be invested in land,
far-flung properties ripe for speculation,
bonds that grow, yielding interest
that never ends.
Compared to this,
the silver coins of aspen leaves
but quick change, spare dimes
in pocket, and the spreading banks
of pinemat manzanita
the dull business of low rent.
Madrona, that strip tease of yours
is working again. The way you pearl
out of your bark, following your natural
bent, turns my head in smooth surprise.
Your arms reach over the bay with longing,
that supple skin, slightly sunburned,
blooming like a dusky rose.
Funny how the inside of a femur
looks just like sponge cake.
But bones to dust and dust to soil
and soil to seed and seed to stalk
and stalk to grain and grain to meal,
I will eat that cake someday, that
sponge cake with the frosting of death.