Brad Shurmantine, Waking Up

Without Guilt

Watching Emmy sleep on the hot tub
(all she does, she’s never caught
one fucking mouse)
I suddenly see it’s possible to live
without guilt and still be
perfectly loved.

If I found a gopher head in the shed
I’d be pleased but I wouldn’t
love her more.
It’s said that’s how God’s love works,
but I’ve gotten mixed messages on that.
You’re supposed to strive for goodness,
strive–always some hunger,
some dry ache in the gut.
It’s struggle
causes all the grief.

The gophers always get away.
So why hunt?
If you’re loved anyway?



She is a romantic.
She doesn’t know the power of words.
She says things but doesn’t mean them.
She doesn’t know what she means.
She knows what she means
but not how to say it.
She doesn’t know how to control
her meanings.

She says You are beautiful
and she means you are beautiful
in your own way, in a limited way,
befitting your age and your
unremarkable appearance
and your modest, pleasant personality.
You are beautiful in that way.
But she says You are beautiful
and the meanings spin way out
of her control, and he thinks
that he really is beautiful.
To her.

She compliments something he wrote,
and he says I didn’t know I was so talented,
and she says You are!
Exclamation point.
And she means you have a certain talent
for saying things in a smooth way,
with unexpected jolts of humor and sadness.
Your poems and stories are nice.
But he thinks maybe she was moved
to her core. Maybe she was transported,
discovered some shade of loss
she had never felt before.
Maybe he really can write.

She is not careful with words
like he is, does not parcel them out.
She says whatever comes to mind,
and her words wing out of her,
white doves released from the cage
of her heart, where nothing
is caged for long, caged only
to be born and bred, fed,
made strong. The door is always open
in that heart, and the words fly forth
as soon as they can fly, and they
flash in the sun and quickly disappear
into a cloudless sky, and she has no idea
where they go or where they alight.

He, however, grooms
the falcons in his heart.
They bite at his hand, strain against the bars.
Not yet, not yet, he tells them.
Maybe never.

He is no romantic.


Saotome Sensei said,
To master Aikido you must have confidence,
and he flowed and swirled across the mat,
pure and potent as snowmelt,
flicked attackers away,
sent them tumbling like boulders
down a spring bed.
You must have confidence,
and hearing that I knew
I would never master Aikido.
I’d show up, put the time in,
practice religiously, advance in rank,
but never master the beautiful art.

In a car confessional once,
I shared my sin with Sugawara Sensei.
I’m too small, I muttered,
meaning my body, my frame,
not, this time, all the other stuff.
Small is good, small is better,
he said at once, because he had it,
and would not elaborate on something
so evident.

What is confidence,
why has it eluded me?
Even writing this I know I’m no poet;
just a messed up guy with a twitch to write.
Are you born with it?
Does it get whittled away
by a million paper cuts?
Is it something a dad instills?
Is that my problem?

My girls have brains and beauty
galore–did I give them confidence?
Do their eyes snap open
each morning like cat eyes,
alert to every chance
to pounce and play and kill?
Or do they make each move like me–
willing to take the buzzer-beater,
knowing it won’t go in.

Kobe Kobe Kobe

Somewhere a soul sits
alone on a couch,
hugging her knees to her chest,
watching constant Kobe.

She wanted to kiss him,
his chiseled face, his glinting eyes,
this prince/gazelle/lion.

She opened the door.
A team of lawyers bulled through,
gang-tackled her, pushed her face
into the mud.
He opened the door.

Black Mamba apologized,
bought his wife a ring,
cruised to triumph, broke free
from the prison of his past,
became a better man.
Died clutching his daughter’s little hand.

The whole world mourned him,
a tsunami of celebrity.
She hates every time
that night is mentioned,
every time it’s not.
Huge waters roil over her,
rip at her, strain to carry her off.
She hugs her knees,

Ode to Tramp

Overlooked, doesn’t get his due,
but that’s the way he likes it,
makes time something he can waste.
Loves those sunny, empty alleys
where he can whistle and stroll,
sniff around. Always something
amusing to see, a crow pecking
at a tin can, or an old bulldog
spinning tales of glory.
Always some tasty bit–
a whole sack of spaghetti!
How can life get better.
Even-tempered, good-natured,
smart–stays out of trouble,
easily outwits mean dumb dogs,
lumbering dogcatchers.
Snagged, through no fault
of his own, he keeps cool,
watchful, a good buddy in a jam,
listens, cares, but slips out
like a whisper
first chance he gets.
A loner,
can’t be pinned down or penned,
roams big fields, rolls in the grass.
This life is all he ever wanted.
Even that Lady he meets
can’t change him, though he
can’t believe his luck.
And even those perfect pups
crawling all over him
can’t cloud his mind with worry:
they’re destined for even
better things. That’s tomorrow–
today, this movie’s in the can.

Waking Up

Five is fine: alert, refreshed.
A second cup of coffee sends my mind
flicking around like a butterfly.
Game, ready to go.

Four is OK, the house night quiet,
extra time for prayer to lift me
from whatever funk I’m stalled in.
Slowly I brighten as the sky brightens.

Three is not good. I reach for my iPad,
read my novel,
push all thoughts away,
try to get tired.

Two is bad. The tires spin,
sinking me deeper in mud.
You’re so inadequate, so alone.
Look at all that love and belonging
and accomplishment around you.
No one will miss you when you die.
No one.

Brad Shurmantine ( lives in Napa, Ca., where he writes, reads, tends three gardens (sand, water, vegetable), keeps bees, takes care of chickens and cats, and works on that husband thing. His fiction and personal essays have appeared in Every Day Fiction and Nightingale & Sparrow; his poetry in Jam and Sand and Blue Lake Review. He backpacks in the Sierras and travels when he can, and has a serious passion for George Eliot.

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