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By Tom Schmidt

The House Behind the Moon


For those who do not know me, an introduction of these poems may be helpful. My daughter Susanna drowned in Idaho in June 1997 when an out-of-control hay wagon plunged into a flooded creek. During the year following Susanna’s death, I began what eventually became a series of twenty-four sonnets which chronicle my journey during that time. These sonnets follow, with a few explanatory notes below.

One of the highlights of our trip to Michigan in 1996 for a “daddy historical tour” was an afternoon at my favorite childhood park on the banks of the Red Cedar River. I returned to that place in early October following her death and began to write “Playground” and “Only These.” A few weeks later, still on the road, I began “Almost” on Susanna’s birthday. Upon my return to California, I had to move, which meant disturbing her room and the illusion of her possible return—the subject of “The Spell.” I began “Advent Refugee” on Christmas day, the first without Susanna. The title poem of the series, “The House Behind the Moon,” was inspired by one of Susanna’s friends, who a year after her death gave me a lovely drawing with the caption, “Susanna’s House in Heaven.” Finally, many readers will recognize the allusion in the last line of “The Shore” to John Donne’s great sonnet “Death Be Not Proud,” which affirms that in the grammar of God, the profound and mysterious transition from death to eternal life merits only a comma. This remains my hope.



The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

We wept with Bilbo over Thorin's death;

Mourned Wilbur's loss when Charlotte said Goodbye;

Felt magic deep in risen Aslan's breath,

And in I love you, Charles! Meg's great cry.

Redemption courses through our storied past,

A river perilous in lands of play;

Where Huck and Jim meet Tom upstream at last,

But Terebithia is swept away.

All night good Mole and Rat seek little Otter,

Then find him sleeping in the Piper's care;

Dark swirls around that island, deadly water,

But they find only help and healing there.

Not every little one is saved in time;

The Piper does not always sing in rhyme.





Her voice, a bright bird hidden in the trees

That sudden in the shining dawn takes flight;

Her eyes, the mystery of murmuring seas,

Reveal, conceal, a dark and deeper light;

Her hand in mine, a boon bestowed of grace;

Her musings, diamonds; kisses, works of art;

For treasures grand as these kings find no place,

Yet how they fit and fill one father's heart.

And then to come upon her form at rest,

Beloved face all innocence, the blush

On alabaster cheek; her rising breast

Would make the air alive, the seer hush—

Now waiting, near to weeping for the pain,

That such a breath of joy cannot remain.



Rocky Nook Park


Once upon a time upon my shoulders

You rode in silence on a little trek

Beneath these very trees, between these boulders,

Your tiny arms entwined around my neck.

To here and now I conjure what has been:

I feel against my back your tender form,

Your fingers interlaced beneath my chin,

Your living breath against my neck so warm.

I'd not recall the moment and the place,

But for your choice to sanctify that day;

You broke the silence into bits of grace,

With words till then I'd never heard you say;

You gave me life when you were only two;

And all you said was, Daddy, I love you.




Last Day


We would have made a morning like our last,

Before the lasting mourning without you;

Nostalgic for the pleasures of time past,

We passed the time by strolling through the zoo.

You held my hand and said Remember when?

The otter, elephant, and crocodile;

Let's ride the train, spin on the hill again!

Then shyly, Will you carry me a while?

And later near the airport in the car

—they tear through time, the words I hear you speak—

I know it will be fun, but it's so far,

And I won't see you, Daddy, for a week!

The time will fly for you, was my reply;

I kissed you one last time and said goodbye.




Final Form


Compose a sonnet telling of her death;

In slated sequence, now's the proper time;

So mind the meter, mortal five-beat breath;

Conform her end to form and make it rhyme:

A horse-drawn wagon carrying my daughter;

The driver lost control, she failed to leap

And tumbled with the wagon into water,

Then drowned in icy currents four feet deep.

And I meanwhile went drifting through my day;

Picked up the phone at seven, learned the news;

They found her in some logs, I heard him say;

From there what else was I to know, or lose?

So here in fourteen lines I tell the tale;

It's done, she's dead: the lasting, last detail.






Ten thousand days remaining, more or less;

Almost a billion times my heart will beat.

I calculated this, I did not guess:

It occupies more time to be concrete.

I sleep, I eat, I seek benign distraction,

Dull knives to mark the days until the last:

The time, the hour, the final benefaction;

When I will know, or knowing will be past.

And all the while I'll fondly watch the others

Turn ten, sixteen, then twenty—tall and fine

They'll grow, her friends, and one day they'll be mothers

Of girls who will not stay forever nine.

What others do not count as grave I must;

Until the day I am unnumbered, dust.



Her fifty books will sleep on shelves, forsaken

—In one remains a bookmark left halfway—

While from five hundred dreams I will awaken,

Recalling that the nightmare is the day.

To my scant thousand memories I'll cling,

And whisper to the air I miss you so;

Five thousand times the telephone will ring,

But Daddy will not answer my hello;

Ten thousand times my face will turn toward

The voice or touch that kindness can confer,

There often to find beauty, hope, accord,

But never more in this life to find her.

The formula for all her unlived years:

From emptiness, subtract a million tears.







A photograph, the last they have of you.

The caption might be Twenty Minutes More.

How would we live if any of us knew,

If there was not oblivion before?

But if God knew, I wonder, did he make

The morning flowers bloom a bit more brightly,

Or make the sunshine warmer for your sake?

And did you greet the day with laughter, lightly?

That night, were you a lady in your dream,

A writer, singer, children of your own?

Did God give even that much to redeem

The loss of all the waking years unknown?

If only in a dream, and from this far,

Did you, do you, know how loved you are?




"Montana Welcomes You"


While holding hands and trading sips of soda,

We walked and talked of states we’d like to see:

You chose Montana and then South Dakota;

I promised we would go, just you and me.

Now do you see these peaks through my blurred eyes,

Feel in my trembling hands this icy stream?

And do you hear this wind between my sighs?

Have I now kept my word, is this our dream?

Or should I linger here another hour,

To gather leaves that fall in fading light,

A pebble from this brook, a wildflower—

Mere metaphors, these trinkets; is it right

To bring them, lay them gently on your grave?

Is there no more of this, of you, to save?





Their golden mantles pale in waning light,

These aged oak and maple still preside;

How rigid in chill winds they bide upright

And watch in studied silence, dignified,

While ringed within their outstretched crossing hands,

Raised high these many years in benediction,

A hundred feet below, a playground stands,

Now empty in autumnal dereliction.

So still—did children ever fill this air

With light laments of Do we have to go?

So soon? Just five more minutes? That's not fair!

So many warm pink hands, so long ago;

To this cold sheen they rubbed these bars, these chains;

So soon the winter comes, so long remains.



Only These


One leaf drifts down, one more, without a sound,

Past hands raised vainly to the tepid sun;

From treetops they spin surely to the ground—

O would that I could save just one, just one.

So from the golden lately fallen, choose:

A memory for each of these bright few;

At river's edge let each of them drift loose,

Release them trembling, as a tree must do,

And dreaming as a tree must dream, of spring:

Impossible the hope, against all laws,

To long not for the season time will bring,

But for the last, the past, the one that was;

For these and these alone, these were its leaves;

None else but these, that now the earth receives.






My child was almost rescued, they said later;

She almost did not drown—almost. Almost:

A small concessive word, interpolator

Between a breath of warm air and a ghost.

A little puff would be enough today

For her to blow her birthday candles out;

A simple breath to sweep it all away,

This airless void within, this flood without.

So much on such a little air depends:

Tonight she floats on music and surprises,

A chocolate cake, a gang of giggling friends—

The scene is vapor: see, it swirls and rises,

Away it rolls like fog from barren coast,

Yet through it I can hear her laugh—almost.




God's Spirit broods like wind above the water;

Beneath the flood his son sinks stonelike, dies,

His only son drowns for my only daughter,

So she'll come up for air in paradise.

But this evangel brings me scant relief,

Theology does not affect me greatly,

And history can hardly touch my grief.

I ask God, What have you done for me lately?

He answers, It was long ago, my action.

When my son hung there, bleeding and forlorn,

He cried out, “Must I die for an abstraction,

A child, and one two thousand years unborn?”

Then I was moved to send a mighty host

And stop my own child's pain . . . almost, almost.




The Spell


On past the dragon, through the thorns' thick riot;

Here was her bedroom, first door on the left;

My Sleeping Beauty's castle lies so quiet;

Princess's chamber now of life bereft.

A spindle's sudden prick was all it took;

Now throbbing silence and a film of dust;

A pen, a tissue dropped, a half-read book.

I cannot break the spell, and yet I must

Dismantle the dreamscape of her return.

The story leaps ahead a hundred years;

A moment kissed and all awake to learn

That youth is old and not as it appears.

A children's tale, we've called it ever since—

But O let it be true, and soon, brave Prince.




Find the Words


One day when you were two it wracked your mind,

It knit your brow, it turned your gaze inwards:

I can't—you hesitated, then said—find

Another, longer pause preceded—words.

I never learned what made you so distraught;

But I recall my empathetic groan

To feel you fail in finding what you sought,

The wordlessness that left you all alone.

These sounds we form to wrap around the air,

These marks on paper we contrast with space;

Across the void I send my silent prayer

To give a voice to hope; to love, a face;

I can't find words for what I hope is true;

Until the final word, I can't find you.



El Toro Canyon Park


Perched on this rock we searched for orcs below,

High elf and trusty dwarf for danger ready:

My keen-eyed Legolas, you gripped your bow;

And I was stalwart Gimli, axe held steady.

Below our stony perch, I left your name,

Carved S J S into our rocky lair;

You were so proud, and every time we came,

You made sure that the letters were still there.

And there they will remain, inscribing love;

Just like the letters in another park,

Those cut in marble white as clouds above—

Mere flesh, how can your father bear this mark?

Where can I fly from this high, heavy stone?

You make no answer from beneath your own.




Advent Refugee


Since any way would do, he went this way.

Like shrapnel spinning from the roaring crater,

He spun and staggered through the dust and gray;

Might better go at night, sooner than later.

Across a bridge, toward the edge of town,

Dark water met the ringing in his ears;

On past a school, a ghost in foggy gown,

Its playground glimmering with dewy tears;

A hospital, from which most people drive

In health, or with new infants in their arms;

Past houses, parks, the darkness all alive

With silent presences, unvoiced alarms;

From each familiar place a long frayed string

Extended, unattached to anything.


At dawn he reached the outskirts of the city;

A cheap hotel, a buzzing neon No;

Nearby an open shed, floor greased and gritty;

A molding mattress mice left long ago.

Inside he locked his eyes against the light;

Let screams turn into groans turn into sleep;

And dreaming, journeyed back from dawn to night,

Retraced his steps from home, from shattered heap;

But in his dream the cold air was imbued

With human hands, and words of peace and pain,

With warmth and kindness, mercy, hope renewed;

And tears that fell with each of his like rain

While wind-blown strips of cloth around him wound

When all was lost to swaddle what was found.




Hocus Pocus (Hoc Est Corpus)


How earnestly you mixed belief with mud,

Presenting pies for father to transform

By some ordained approval, by the blood

That brings to life what dust and water form.

Content, and warned in vain against the mess,

You soon resumed your play within my hearing;

Your singing graced the air with its caress—

How could I know what silence then was nearing?

So carefully we grownups make mud pies

Of dust and tears, and cover them with grass;

Then with our flowers we implore the skies

To wash the mud away—or make it pass,

This cup of bitter blood we have confessed

Our Father poured to transform pain to rest.



Grave Sight


And then one day, I'm told, and she believed,

I will awake, and on this hallowed ground

I'll turn to find her blinking, fresh, relieved

Of concrete chrysalis, bright soul unbound,

The last and lasting metamorphosis

Unfolding, over time and space outspread.

What will I say in that first breath of bliss,

Through tears of joy, the last I'll ever shed?

"Susanna, sweetheart, is it really you?"

"Oh, Daddy—yes, of course! I missed you so!"

And I will ask her what she wants to do:

"Let's put on roller blades, and then let's go

Forever from this place, not turning back,

To get a Dr Pepper and a snack."


Admittedly, the scene is fantasy;

Nostalgic grasping to imagine such;

Besides, she'll wake to others, not just me,

Who need and miss her every bit as much.

Of course what God in resurrecting does

Transcends my earthbound vision, but that means

I'll never have her back, not like it was:

Our tucking-in and waking-up routines,

Our cuddles with a video or book,

Our walking hand-in-hand, a meal, a game—

Sweet memories I'd trade for just one look,

A glimpse, enough to hope in heaven's name

Somehow, someday, someplace beyond the skies

Once more to look into her living eyes.




The House Behind the Moon


A silver stairway, once upon a time,

Leads out across the sea up to the moon;

None but a fool would hazard such a climb,

Or one whose ties to earth were cut too soon.

I take one trembling step, and then one more,

For on the moon's far side one waits for me

Whose rising left behind a barren shore:

A little girl with eyes deep as this sea.

She looks up now and then from book or play,

And half-recalls a distant voice or face;

She sighs, she smiles, she knows no yesterday,

For all is well, and shall be, in this place;

Outside her open window sparrows sing,

And she returns to joy unwavering.



The House Behind the Moon is filled with treasures:

Good books and games, the smells of favorite foods,

The sounds of laughter, music—purest pleasures,

The promised end of all Beatitudes.

A green door opens wide to welcome friends,

A tree with arms outstretched gives ample shade;

In front an arbor and a picket fence,

And flowers, flowers everywhere arrayed.

In rainbow colors, cheerful, bright, and brave,

Each blossoms here and blooms forever true

The instant it is placed upon her grave.

Dear God, do I imagine this, and you?

O make a way of grace, my steps redeem

Upon this moonbeam stairway of a dream.



The Shore


Time passes, and the misty shore recedes.

I drift away, float helpless on the tide;

Between us only water intercedes;

Your face is fading as the space grows wide.

But now and then there dances on the air

A fleeting shadow of your voice or touch—

As light as hope, as hope is light, is prayer—

To make this world of sense not hurt so much.

Now in the senseless void where you should be

Alive, in all the moments that you lost,

I come to you on lines of poetry

Until at last this timeless sea is crossed.

Hear clearer than my echoes of goodbye:

Susanna, you shall live, and death shall die.


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