Valerie Nieman

The Life Inside

He would peel the bark from
wild cherry trees,
lash it into tiny canoes

that, set adrift on our creek,
might have prowed their way
as far as town, passing

under the concrete bridge
where fish shot back and forth
across sunlight, and maybe

they kept going, just going.

He made three cuts:
two to girdle, one to free
the glossy outer bark,

damp with sap
and pliable for working.
But if I kept the boats

safe in my room,
those not put to water soon
dried, pulling apart at the seams.

As for the trees, well.


These days my father
sheds like a hickory. He grows by

leaves showers of skin
wherever he sits,
scratches at the gray

lignified layer, rough, dead,
until the inner red shows
where he has year by year

exchanged life for life:
farmhand, infantryman,
metal-bender, artisan,

bartender, chaplain,
one by one completed
and put to the stream,

away, away.

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