“Ground Rules” by Tim DeJong

08 May 2020 on Poetry   Tags:

The boy sits in a field.
He is four or maybe three.
Red-shirted, blue-shorted, 
he arranges his gathered trifles,

loose sticks, wasp’s wing, snail’s shell,
sifts fragments too minor to signify.
The weedy grass around him flares
with dandelion and aster.

His mother talks nearby. He feels
the tug of her quick glances
like some loved shadow. 
Hears the drifting words

as from some other world
he will soon learn, while immersed 
in the one from which it’s wrought,
his fleeting concentration a foray

into what hides in things 
before they’re named. Hazy terrain 
from which he’ll tear himself away
with each relentless query – 

“What’s this? What’s this? What’s this?” – 
the patient replies to which 
help him acclimatize to this 
less-than-native region we call life.

As we did our mothers, once,
it’s words we learn to cling to,
even when they roam outside our minds,
as during that night on the terrace,

sky improbably drenched with stars, 
sweeping foamy slide of nearby sea,
life seeming, to our tiny unlikely clan,
about as nearly right as ever it can.

Raising our swaying drinks
we conferred: was it cheers, or prost, or salud
Really, none would quite do
since we aimed to toast more 

than good health in any tongue,
wished rather to praise
time’s fine crystallization into event,
meaning’s heightened accretion

inside seconds, minutes, hours 
that, as they came and went, seemed briefly 
to make matter permanent.
To capture all of this we finally preferred

the ruthless charm of some short word.
And felt it fade, that mode 
of being asking nothing of being,
a mode never summoned at will

but maybe surrendered to, still,
certain evenings, commonplace afternoons,
rush of light lifting the fragile body
to leave unexplained, unseen.

Later on, growing older, 
we establish the ground rules:
it must be enough somehow
to tell you what I saw.

What the small boy believes
he cannot say. He holds the cadaver
of an insect in his dirt-stained hand.
He tells his mother, come, look, see.

These are the ground rules:
surely we owe the world awe,
an exchange more than fair
for this endless wealth of air,

loved assault of sun in early summer,
gossamer scraps of beauty
attendant to some ageless cause
never wholly deciphered. 

Even so we speak knowing
our words hang pasted in space,
these urgent messages like shouting 
down a well to stop a rainstorm,

sentences far-flung but purposed
mostly to keep ourselves warm.
First, insistent questions, then
the world unlearned and learned again

as avenue through which to build
the self, endpoint to endpoint,
all but unthought, unhesitant. 
The red-shirted boy nears the last

of his invented tasks, nudged back
into a patterned track by the frozen treat
a parent’s hand delivers. He tastes
the sticky candied ice. So hard to know, 

harder still not to wonder 
what within his small frame – 
outside the swelling tide of names – 
compels, engenders, quivers.


Tim DeJong is originally from Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, but he now lives in the Waco, Texas area, where he works as a Lecturer in the English Department at Baylor University. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in several journals, among them EcoTheo Review, Booth, Forge, Nomadic Journal, and Common Ground Review. Recently, two of his poems were nominated for Pushcart Prizes. You can find him on Twitter.

"Aster and Goldenrod" is a photograph by Diana Ludwig. You can view more of her work here.

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