Little Night Owl

for Rachel

For hours I’d lug her on my shoulder,
up and down the sidewalk in front of that crumbling pre-war two-story

where we lived under the tap shoes
of a struggling hoofer. Up and down that sidewalk, stumbling

over cracks, singing those flies off the buttermilk, that bear
over the mountain,

and often saw the sun peep up over the rooftops of the renovated cottages
on Ridgeway. The child just wasn’t a sleeper.

This song, that song, this shoulder, that shoulder,
and the girl wouldn’t nod. Nothing to do –

just night after night, up and down the sidewalk, staggering
in a trance of exhaustion, bouncing

that swaddled grumbler, night after night of the moon
climbing through stars

while one by one the houses closed their weepy lids
and the street lamps flung our shadows

in front of us, then behind us, then in front of us again,
as I paced the whole block I don’t know

how many times until the worn-out moon started to fade
like a marshmallow in a cup of hot chocolate

and I’m dodging a car groaning out of a driveway,
a flying newspaper, the rolling

stench of a garbage truck. Then it hits me
the kid’s not stirring, not grumbling, but purring now

on my shoulder, far-off beyond a border
only the dream can cross,

so I’d wheel toward home,
and suddenly in the dirty half-light flooding the neighborhood,

the block wouldn’t look half so ratty.
And somewhere behind us a radio would blare

a happy song, and on the curb across the street,
the neighborhood grouch in his bathrobe would nod

and wave his morning news. Even those eggbeaters rattling
into rush hour would almost seem benevolent.

So I’d slow a little, watchful of the cracked sidewalk,
the blind drives, dragging out the moment

as the sun threw an aura over chimneys
and buckled rooftops, banked its fireworks

off upstairs windows, and I’d slow a little more, hugging
the blanket close, terrified of this new joy

on my shoulder,
delighted that the neighborhood, like me, was waking up.

David Bottoms’ first book, Shooting Rats at the Bibb County Dump (William Morrow, 1980), was chosen by Robert Penn Warren as winner of the 1979 Walt Whitman Award of the Academy of American Poets. His poems have appeared widely in magazines such as The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Harper’s, Poetry, and The Paris Review, as well as in sixty anthologies and textbooks. He is the author of seven other books of poetry, two novels, and a book of essays and interviews. His most recent book of poems is We Almost Disappear (Copper Canyon Press, 2011).

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