What Father John Doe Never Said about Trees and Habits [poem] by Cal Freeman

The man has thin yellow pamphlets spread out
before him on the table. When I ask him
what he’s reading, he tells me it’s The Golden Book of Excuses
by Father John Doe, a pseudonym, of course.
A catholic priest, a former drunk,
his real name was Ralph S. Pfau
(Hard to say which is more like a pseudonym,
sobriety or drunkenness. Who among us hasn’t
staggered into her name?). He staved it off though,
spending his life helping fellow priests
quit the bottle with aphorisms and joyless prose.
“I’ve been sober 17 years,” the man tells me.
“Good for you,” I say, and I mean it
(It’s the kind of thing that sounds sarcastic if you say it wrong).
The bitter roils and doesn’t leave with the habit.
I’m convinced of this as I look into the sallow ovals
beneath his eyes (I cannot look him directly in the eye),
at the dirty sheen of oil on the street outside,
cautions against carrying on the way we do,
the way I do anyway. I will never take
that stoic, sober look into oblivion. The leaves
from the silver maple flick against the window,
digitate and yellow, their rumpled skeins and spent veins;
it is in a precarious spot, bark greened by beetles,
leaning into the fence, threatening the coffee shop
with its sway. The silver maple moieties are gone.
I’ll die sponsorless and lived in, it says,
my body molted of its spirit. I’ll call
this suspicion I have a spirit and pray
to all the unheeded signs, arms winnowing
in loose sleeves (I should get out
of this sagging future tense; eventually it won’t hold
any of us). It must be like a felling, coming down
after decades, roots still reaching
into what you do not see or comprehend.

Image of 1930s Switchboard Operator

[Refer: This poem refers to “She Timbers Her Faith with Cedars” by Nancy Chen Long.]

Image by Katie Thebeau

Cal Freeman was born and raised in Detroit. His poems have appeared in many journals including Birmingham Poetry Review, The Journal, Ninth Letter, Drunken Boat, and The Paris-American. He is the recipient of the Howard P. Walsh Award for Literature, The Ariel Poetry Prize, and The Devine Poetry Fellowship (judged by Terrance Hayes). He has also been nominated for Pushcart Prizes in poetry and creative nonfiction. He currently lives in Dearborn, MI, and teaches at Oakland University.