3 poems by Eric Paul Shaffer

First Grade Art

In the first grade, I failed: I couldn’t draw. I worked
my narrow palette of crayons to fashion curved lines
in the shape of a cat or a rocket or a dragon or a tree,

but none came to me that didn’t disappoint my visions.
I was confined to a two-dimensional paper universe
where the best I could do was create a crooked family

of rectangles and ellipses beside a white box with a red
triangle roof and blank quartered cubes for windows,
a waxy house whose dimensions were always too small.

The bottom of the page was a smear of green, and the sky,
the whole sky, took all my blue and darkened everything
but the swollen yellow and orange sun I had never seen

so big and brilliant but in my own childish illustrations.
Even the stick figure I saw as myself was drawn too large
to turn the moonish knob on the slant-framed brown door

and enter the darkness within, unseen and uncolored.
A green ball on a brown stick was a tree that didn’t
stand in our front yard, and on that steep-sloped roof

was a chimney aswirl with the enthusiastic black smoke
I knew from fairy tales always promised fire within.
I trimmed my little life with a box of eight cramped colors.

The miracle was my insistence on stars, not only the one
we see all day, but the two thousand that score the sky
after the one we roll around rolls away. Doggedly, I drew

yellow pentacles and asterisks through my corrugated
blue day, filling the sky with the light beyond the light.


Footsteps and Footprints

These prints in snow from wood to door
mark what I missed. If I read them right,
you’re here. One foot follows the other,

sure as boots tread paths through silence.
At last, I understand the error my teacher
scored on the snowy pages of my theme:

“Footsteps are what we hear,” she wrote,
“footprints are what we leave behind.”
Now, whenever someone says he heard

my footprints, I see him lying down,
ear sunk in a muddy puddle or the snow,
head pressed to the path I’ve beaten

into day with boots, body, and stride.
Or when someone seeks to inspire me
to “follow in someone’s footsteps,”

I see the shape of a sole in the earth,
but hear nothing but my own slow feet
crossing the bridge between our worlds.

Kicking through drifts, I know no one
will hear this line of footprints I leave,
and none see my footsteps as I fade.

I Could Die Here

I could die here. That’s what I thought the day my father ordered
me from the station wagon to stand in the freeway breakdown lane
behind a cardboard sign declaring “FREE TO GOOD HOME,”

impeccably lettered in his characteristic capitals and hung loosely
from my neck with baling twine till someone picked me up. First,
I thought, “I could die here.” In that December evening snowfall,

beneath icicled eaves on the garage at her house, when she opened
her lips under mine and tongued my tongue, the shock stiffened
every bone in my body with a swift rush of blood. Then, I thought,

“I could die here.” As the houseboat’s engine died on the flooded
river, and we drifted sideways toward the dock, I thought, “I could
die here.” And this morning, I gaze into drunken faces lit by hot, red-

lettered light on a littered sidewalk as blank and as wide as the end
of a world as small as I am. I’m thinking again. Yes, I could die here.

 Eric Paul Shaffer is the author of seven books of poetry: Even Further West (2018); A Million-Dollar Bill (2016); Lāhaina Noon (2005); Living at the Monastery, Working in the Kitchen (2001); Portable Planet (2000); RattleSnake Rider (1990); and Kindling: Poems from Two Poets (1988; with James Taylor III). www.ericpaulshaffer.com

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