By Michael O'Keefe


(For MG. A.)

We are not much more than water sheathed in skin,
everything passing through us like ships in a thin canal.
Cargoed with expectation, memory and loss,
we levy ourselves with tolls at each juncture.
Visions of us floating on the surface,
heartbeats once faster, now out of sync,
and the unfinished renovations of our home on the shore,
these are the tolls’ foundations.
So when a swan settles onto the waveless bay, I take notice.
Studying its small black mask followed by large white feathers
rushing in the opposite direction of its glide
even toll collectors raise their barriers.
Swans float freely.
Their benevolence is evident and plain.
When it finally lifts off the surface of the bay,
water drips from its wings
leaving tracks in the sky that few see and follow.
Its departure, like yours, is mourned a bit.
Then everything returns to the way it has to be.

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As an actor, MICHAEL O'KEEFE has garnered both Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. He has appeared in the films Michael Clayton, Frozen River, The Pledge, Ironweed, The Great Santini and Caddyshack. Television audiences will remember him as "Fred" on Roseanne. Other TV appearances include The West Wing, Law and Order, House M.D., The Closer and Brothers and Sisters. He's appeared on Broadway in Reckless, Side Man, The Fifth of July and Mass Appeal, for which he received a Theater World Award. As a writer his lyrics were in the Grammy winning song "Longing in their Hearts," which was composed and sung by Bonnie Raitt. He's also written with Irish singer songwriter Paul Brady and numerous other composers. His writing has appeared in BOMB, Lake Affect and Chaparral. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Bennington College.

18 responses to “Tolls”

  1. Gail Cullen says:

    Your writing brings me to a place within myself…how brilliant, ‘Tapping the Soul’ of the reader. Thank you, Michael. I see this as an ending…yet coming back to center…

  2. Ducky says:

    Beautiful, beautiful poem, though I’ll confess, I don’t find swans so benevolent. Should they get their opportunity, they will bite the shit out of you. (I speak from experience.)
    But then, I suppose that is another toll.
    On the water, they do look sublime, though, don’t they?
    And we should all take notice.
    And mourn their departure.
    I live on a lake, and my favorite bird to watch is the great heron. And there is a tree here that serves as roost for about 25 turkey vultures. That is a sight as well.

  3. Zara Potts says:

    Oh I’m with Ducky..
    Swans are so beautiful but they have a nasty bite.
    This makes me think a story a friend told me recently. A swan had been hit by a car and killed. It’s partner swan lay down next to it with its beautiful neck resting upon her dead mate’s broken one.
    As swan’s mate for life, this struck me as unbearably sad.
    Welcome to TNB, Michael.

  4. Hey Michael:

    This poem is still as beautiful as it was when I read it the first time. Thanks for being a part of TNB, my friend!

    • Jude says:

      I love this – it’s so graceful as the swan is also.

      I particularly like the first line – “We are not much more than water sheathed in skin”. Oh so lovely…

      • Michael says:

        Jude, that’s lovely. Thanks.

      • Ducky says:

        I agree. That first line hit me hard, too. If you removed my skin, would I be a puddle on the kitchen floor? I feel like that, sometimes.

        • D.R. Haney says:

          It makes me feel like a sausage. Which in many unfortunate ways I am.

          But nice work, Michael. Not that it in any way matters, but I met you once at a New Year’s party in downtown NYC at Karen Allen’s apartment, and I was also friendly — which is not to say friends — in NYC with your brother Kevin.

  5. AXS says:

    Very visceral for me. I can’t explain; I just like it very much.


  6. Megan says:

    I love your verbs. More from you, please.

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