Three Poems

The Questioner of the Sphinx by Elihu Vedder, 1863

by Donald Wheelock (February 2022)


Notes from Underground


How much it takes to make a go of things:

a quick scratch in your burrow, and a rock—

no hint of it till now—forces a retreat.

Detour defines the logbook of a life.


To work the topsoil tunnels like a vole,

the love of underground so freely yours

to sniff around in, day or night! So where

would pleasure stop? There’s that rock again.



Unearthing My Fossil


…how I got to be so far away

is not for me to know; I died

at least a lonely thousand years ago,

where wind and water took their time, but that

was 2053. The oldest graves

are gone. The river dried up long ago—

but this is all conjecture—see how earth

forgets its kin…why they found fingers first

is not for me to say: these guys, I guess,

know best. These finger bones are here to stay.

It took at least a thousand years; don’t think

I don’t appreciate the manicure,

the way you clear the sand away—who knows

what sediments took over, clearing flesh

from bone—the way you fuss and fuss at knuckles,

one at a time. I can’t recall just how

it felt to have the ancient desert streams—

so rare the desert streams—clear flesh from bone.

Another eon beckons me away.




How peaceful it has been, away from fear.

The sun cools down to nothing in the night.

Although to you this romance in the sun

is one long dropping-out of time; note, please,

the evidence longevity gives a skull,

my skull. What makes you want me so?

Leave the spine alone, a silent plea

I made in life as well. I thought in life:

There’ll be a day, when to lie back in the sun,

will be the very last vestigial wish

a man might, as his rightful due, expect.

Who’d ever think of this? The evening breeze

makes overtures to lure me back to life,

but early though it is, it is too late.




The faith you have in learning from the dead!

Look me in the cavities that were my eyes,

but you won’t find the sediments that washed

away, and washed away again…

How slow the human race is to move on!



You all keep reading so much into me—

easy does it! If only I could answer

the questions you keep asking one another.

What human rights have I a hope of—what’s

the word?—“enjoying” hardly fits—when fingers

are packed away to leave the rest of me

to elementary eternity?


Why not take all of me?—why are you laughing?

Even here in the desert there were rumors;

how even the most careful burial

can never quite assure eternal rest—

and tell me, all you scientists in shorts,

where will you take me when you’re through with this?


The vehicles have arrived, I see—if that

is what they are—How carefully you lift me,

my ribs and skull, I could be just a baby—

Easy does it! Is this an ambulance?

We had those once—so when did all those wheels

give up their function to the cushioned air?

The next phase now begins. Will other bones

now lure you all away? Will my top half

be laid out on display with all the rest?




Yes, set me down—I’m dizzy from the drive—

Not here! Bones are everywhere—one never knows

with whom I’ll be expected to get along—

yes, here—if you could dim the light a little,

but not too dim; some clarity is welcome

after so many years.

From shifting sands back to cold burnished steel.

After all these years they still use drawers!

One always has nostalgia for the sand—

if friends could hear me now!

Or see me photogenically exposed.

If I were flesh, there’d surely be a law

against this ghoulishness.

“It’s time for lunch,”

an old man says, pointing at his watch,

reviving hunger for an appetite

I haven’t thought about in years. Light’s out,

and away they go. Abandonment again…




People are so noisy after lunch—

have I slept that long?—Is that a whiff

of alcohol?—“It’s time,” one fellow says.

“Like packing eggs,” another says; they laugh.

Now in the drawer. The steel, as I’ve just said,

is cold, so cold. Will any of them think

to say farewell? The shrinking rectangle

of  fluorescent light diminishes to black;

I hear the lab door close; the silence gathers

around me once again, and so:

Good night.



More Word than Meaning


The immaterial essence when I die,

as if the smoke had not derived from fire,

the fire from some spontaneous desire,

urges me to prolong life with lies.


But soul would make me more than what I am,

more than poet, father, spouse, composer—

all of which together come much closer

than any verbal ghost or hologram


that ties me up into a wraithful role;

although I must admit that every time

I struggle for a noun to make all mine,

for “man” or “one,” I much prefer a “soul.”



Donald Wheelock’s poems have appeared in publications that welcome formal poetry, among them, Blue Unicorn, Ekphrasis, Equinox, Light, Snakeskin, The Lyric and Rue Scribe. His chapbook, In the Sea of Dreams, is available from Gallery of Readers Press.

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