Poetry from Michael Todd Steffen

~Franz Wright

In the vast window of the laundromat
it’s early spring. A man bulked in winter
layers outside the storefront stops to watch
a jet’s vapor trail across the sky.
The world is far gone. Virtually all that’s left
for me to do is wait, seated inside
this spacious place with the dynamic hum
of machines doing the labor of a village
full of washers at a river. The sound
would as soon sing like plain folk doing chores
yet from the machines it echoes mechanically
for me to hear, woom woom, to hear and sift,
to reword: wish wash wish wash rinse rinse rinse—
into the pitching whir then whine, a lot like
a jet plane taking off, of the spin cycle—
making the clumsy metal gizmo quake
like a cold wet kitten.
				In the window
I sit beside, dimmed with the wind bringing
banks of clouds, up in the metal frame
a spider dangles, weaving in the joint
between the frame and ceiling. For all I know
the weft she looms describes Zeus’s desire
thrust into the sky, to turn another
nymph into this brook, into that reed.
Uncompromising witness, how inspired
to work her craft, her wish was not a death wish,
only her waiting. Because I don’t know
much about spiders, I remember Ovid’s
myth of Arachne, using my education
to pass the time, until my clothes are ready
to toss into the acrobatic dryer.

The river is time. The sky is raining minutes.
She’s almost had a year to bury him
like rain falling to bury the world away
because when he ceased to be there, where he’d been,
he was suddenly everywhere, in each unmown
blade of grass. Each unchanged drop of oil
that lit the dashboard light. His soul stretched tight
across the evening sky. It landed on
the fence at morning to sing with her spoon and cup.

He came to night again. It was still raining.
He had flowed to the ocean, still there he was
flowing beside me. I held my fingers
around his wrist feeling for his pulse. He was
a drip in the ceiling I’d put a stove pan under,
a dark spot spreading from the corner of the room
determined to go ankle deep, knee deep.

The spider spoke about my friend as from a far source.
Any hope to quell her would be pointless
a beaver would already know at the river’s width.
There was no narrow bend to dam her, the sky
a constant dark and drumming only patter
outside the laundromat. So we talked.

His last legs had battled back so many times.
I couldn’t believe he wouldn’t come out again.
The listener with the spider about his friend
could never imagine a battle I could not
stand back up from. The dead were speaking to him

and his widow told me my friend remembered
Virginia Woolf’s being asked about her morning’s
writing. She said she’d gotten them
off the porch, meaning her characters.
She had advanced her story at least that far.

That’s all he had to say. He didn’t need
to say anymore. He meant he couldn’t get them
off the porch. They were huddled out there
under the porch roof, edging themselves at the rain.

The poem is dedicated to Franz Wright, winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. 
The Hastings Room Poetry Reading Series, which I help curate, hosted Franz for his last live reading in November 2014, and I came to know him and his wife toward the end of his life that year.

Michael Todd Steffen is the recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council Fellowship and an Ibbetson Street Press Poetry Award. His poems have appeared in journals including
The Boston Globe, E-Verse Radio, The Lyric, The Dark Horse, and Constellations. Of his second book, On Earth As It Is, now available from Cervena Barva Press, Joan Houlihan has noted Steffen’s intimate portraits, sense of history, surprising wit and the play of dark and light…the striking combination of the everyday and the transcendent.

One thought on “Poetry from Michael Todd Steffen

  1. I have long been a Michael Todd Steffen fan. He so easily shares his multitude of talent and wisdom like an aristocrat thoughtfully dispensing noblesse oblige. His images never fail to catch the imagination, like the spider who has patiently waited in the laundromat’s window to share the bounty of his (her?) accumulated witnessed events. Michael is a local gem in the crown of New England poetry.

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