Ramifications

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Crossposted to The Clade

The bottle is the message
the river sends to the sea:
Aquafina.

*

Since the leaves came out,
the tree’s shadow no longer
resembles a tree.

*

Sunrise catches
a rabbit in the tall grass,
the veins in its ears.

*

A second set of lines
in the palm I rested on:
more leaves in my future.

*

Bobbing in the wind,
the moccasin flower’s
red-threaded net.

*

Seventeen times sadder
than fallen cherry blossoms:
cicada wings.

*

Under the bark,
that locust log was wearing
white fishnet hose.

*

Tree-shaped print
in the sand where the tide went out —
its shining trunk.

Letter with May’s Insatiable Hunger Tagging Along

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 13 of 15 in the series Ridge and Valley: an exchange of poems

 

Dear Dave,

Most of the days have been full of green rain and clouds the color
of magnolia petals as they rot in the emerging grasses. Three weeks ago
I planted half the potatoes (white Kennebecs), and just Monday

they broke the earth, a salad of leaves sprinkled with clay. The other half
(Adirondack reds) went into the earth yesterday. When I stuffed my hand
in the burlap sack to draw them out one by one, I discovered some had begun

to rot. I’ll bet the same will happen to us when the hasp of our bodies
is unbolted, that is, if we’ll allow it: old men wrapped in cloth, stuck
in pine boxes during the days of dogwood, its white shining and the Judas tree

just past. Wouldn’t it be nice to know that above our heads there are lady’s
slippers puffed pink and yellow, the world, as round as wild sarsaparilla’s globe,
spinning and spinning, never really going anywhere new, yet full of vengeance

and mercy and the most foolish blessings of these potatoes we’ll harvest in July
and August, boiled, then mashed—a river of butter and milk, salt and sugar,
the bitter pepper that makes us want to gorge ourselves upon this one sweet life.

Todd Davis

Elegy for the American Dream

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Remember us with our animals — tabby,
chihuahua, pot-bellied pig, their faces
alive with imputed thoughts
that they thankfully never voice,
antidotes to the never-quiet
barkers on our screens.
Remember us with our screens,
those escape hatches.
Remember us lifting our pets
as we lift each other’s bodies
to our avid, lonely mouths,
saying: these ones we will spare,
these ones we will hold in our thoughts,
hemmed in by indifferent neighbors
& blank streets in subdivisions
where the last untended corners
host colonies from Eurasia.
Remember us on our mowers
sailing alone around the yard,
faithful as any pilgrim to a labyrinth.
Remember us on our toilets, learning
to let go (with the aid of laxatives) in
our most often remodeled room,
enthroned above the waters of a vast
& literal Lethe whose tributaries
drain every home & office.
This is what we love, more than anything:
the privilege of absent-mindedness.
This magic trick. We flush,
& our shit & piss, our used condoms
& tampons, our unused medications,
our extra-soft toilet paper made
entirely from tree pulp —
it all spins around three times & vanishes
with a gurgle. Remember us
with our exclusive membership cards
& our spent members. When we die,
fill us with preservatives & seal us away
beneath an immaculate lawn.
Remember us who labored
so hard to forget.

The shoes of the fisherman’s wife

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Crossposted to The Clade

pink lady's slipper in utero

Long johns in the morning, shorts in the afternoon. It’s trout season, pale bellies peeking from the creel.

half-open pink lady's slipper orchid

These slippers have evolved to fit — or rather, not to fit — a very specific “foot”: a large queen bumblebee, such as Bombus vagans or Bombus borealis. As one paper puts it:

Despite the flower’s bright color, conspicuous “nectar guides,” and sweet smell, the pink lady’s slipper produces no nectar. Once a bumble bee has entered a flower through the labellum slit, the infolded margins ensure that the sole exit point lies upward, at the labellum base. To exit, the bee first brushes against the stigma and then an anther.

The lady’s slipper orchid abuses the trust not only of trapped bees, but sometimes of its fungal symbionts, as well:

The tiny seed of orchids contains little or no food reserves for the embryo, unlike most seeds. In order for the seed to germinate and develop, it must become associated with certain fungi found in most soils. The fungus nourishes the developing seedling until finally, after two or three years, the plant has leaves large enough to sustain itself by photosynthesis. At this point, the seemingly ungrateful orchid will sometimes cast off its fungal partner.

pink lady's slipper orchid

Pink lady’s slippers (Cypripedium acaule) flourish in small openings in heath-understory oak-pine woodlands and other open forests with acidic soils. Like the oaks, pines and blueberries with which they associate, they flourish after ground fires, reaching their peak of blooming some ten to fifteen years after a fire. However, they are not uncommon in our maturing second-growth woods, either; the thinning of the canopy following the initial wave of gypsy moth caterpillar defoliation in 1980 and 81 probably helped them out a bit. And our habit of maintaining a network of old woods roads, which date back to the early 19th century, seems to provide favorable habitats, as well. We have to step carefully this time of year.

The flowers pictured here, though, grow right inside the woods above my house, in what has become the thickest stand of lady’s slippers on the mountain: close to forty plants, producing at least fifteen blooms each year. They can be hard to spot among the lowbush blueberries, which are also flowering now. According to the paper from Ecology magazine that I quoted above, the blueberries and huckleberries may represent other species stepped on by the lady’s slipper orchid on its route to reproductive success:

In this study, Cypripedium plants near ericaceous shrubs, particularly blueberry, appeared to be far more successful than Cypripedium plants in other areas. […] As bumble bees visit the nectar-producing blueberry flowers, they may be tempted to explore the large pink lady’s slipper flower. When bumble bees are abundant among blueberry bushes, these exploratory visits may be frequent, leading to a high pollination success rate.

Botanists struggle for objectivity when discussing orchids, some species of which actually mimic female insects, inducing the males to try and mate with them. Terms like “deceitful” or “deceptive” seem to have given way now to the less moralizing “nonrewarding.” Except that, of course, for a human observer, the contemplation of these flowers is very rewarding indeed. Perhaps this is what Charles Mingus had in mind with the title of one of his greatest compositions. The shoes of the fisherman’s wife are some jive-ass slippers.

Nature in 140 characters: microblogging from the front porch

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

view of my front porch in mid-May

For years, I’ve greeted the day by sitting out on the front porch of my 150-year-old cottage in a mostly wooded hollow in the mountains of central Pennsylvania. It’s a habit I began back when I was a smoker, I guess. Fresh from a hot shower, I find if I bundle up enough and cradle a thermos mug of coffee in my hands, I can sit outside even in the middle of January, though I might not last for more than 15 or 20 minutes on the coldest days. The porch sits high above a small, overgrown yard, which is adjacent to the woods’ edge, the headwaters of Plummer’s Hollow Run, and a small cattail marsh next to the old springhouse. Due to this strategic location, it’s probably one of the best spots for watching wildlife on the mountain. If I sit still enough, the animals quickly forget I’m there.

This daily habit of quiet observation is very important to me. Even if the rest of my day is taken up with busyness and distractions, at least I’ll have had a short period of attentiveness to the natural world to keep me grounded and keep my writing from straying too far into the ether. When I began blogging in December 2003, I had some idea that I would focus on religious agnosticism — whence “Via Negativa” — but within a very short time, morning porch observations began to creep in, and pretty soon I dropped all pretence of a focus in favor of writing about whatever popped into my head first thing in the morning.

In November of 2007, I started a new online experiment: using Twitter to record daily observations from the front porch. I unexpectedly found the 140-character limit a goad to lyricism. Like the French writers in the Oulipo movement, I’ve always been interested in “seeking new structures and patterns which may be used by writers in any way they enjoy,” especially those involving artificial constraints. I hadn’t meant to write poetry, but readers on Twitter began to assure me that’s what I was doing, and who am I to argue?

I soon began backing up these posts to a blog — The Morning Porch — and in July of 2008, switched from Twitter to the much more reliable and feature-rich, open-source alternative Identi.ca as my primary microblogging platform, though I continue to forward my updates to Twitter via an automatic bridge.

My main goal with this project, I suppose, is to excite curiosity about and appreciation for the natural world among other users of Twitter and Identi.ca (and to some extent, my contacts on Facebook, where my Morning Porch posts also appear via an application for Friendfeed, another micromessaging service which I use mainly for lifestreaming purposes). Both as a poet and as a nature-lover, I’m always on the lookout for opportunities to reach beyond traditional audiences, and not just preach to the choir. A loose-knit community of poets, geeks, and other assorted misfits has sprung up on Identi.ca, which is to Twitter roughly as a very cool party is to Times Square on New Year’s Eve. There are many more birders recording their observations on Twitter, perhaps influenced by that service’s songbird iconography, but I don’t consider myself a birder — I’m not particularly interested in keeping lists or identifying rare nonresident species — so I haven’t made an active effort to connect with them, beyond following those whose blogs I already read. There are also active groups of poets, gardeners, eco-freaks, and other compatible folks on Twitter, though they’re slow in discovering each other due to the lack of effective, platform-internal semantic tagging and group tagging — features I’ve grown used to on Identi.ca.

Oddly, perhaps, given its origin on social networking services, I haven’t installed a comments system on the Morning Porch blog. The posts themselves are so short, I guess I’m resistent to the idea of burdening them with commentary; if folks want to comment, they can simply join Identi.ca and respond there. Also, the platform I’m using, Tumblr, doesn’t have native comments, and I’m reluctant to commit to an external commenting system because there’s a good chance I’ll move the blog to a self-hosted WordPress installation at some point. (Tumblr has promised to introduce an export tool.) (UPDATE: The blog has now been moved to a self-hosted WordPress installation with comments ennabled.)

I hope to keep the Morning Porch chronicle going for at least five years, and I envision a synoptic nature book with one page for each day of the year, five paragraphs or stanzas per page. Since I hardly ever leave home, this seems doable. But it’s also fun to go back and re-read sections of the journal in the order they were written. Looking at my posts from last May, for example, one can gain some appreciation for the two great dramas of a northern Appalachian spring: the return of neotropical migrant birds and the leafing out of the forest canopy. In May, more than any other time of the year, the forest is a-twitter.

***

May 1, 2008
Roar of the quarry in my left ear, burble of a wren in my right, and in the front yard a catbird sits in the lilac, silent, head swiveling.

May 2
Two Jurassic-like things, both of them “great”: the call of a great-crested flycatcher, and seconds later, a great blue heron in flight.

May 3
The air smells of rain. A large robber fly buzzes into my weed garden and lands on the underside of a dame’s-rocket leaf.

May 4
The bleeding-heart I bought yesterday, still in its pot, pulls in the first hummingbird of the year: shimmery red gorget, grotesque blooms.

May 5
Bright sunny morning. A hooded warbler bursts from the white lilac; for a moment I think it’s a yellowthroat with his mask on wrong.

May 6
Full leaf-out is still a week or two off. In the green wall of woods across from my porch, the dawn sky leaks through a hundred holes.

May 7
Behind the lilac, the sounds of a fierce wood thrush altercation. A third thrush lands close by and swipes its bill against the branch.

May 8
Rain at dawn. In the half-light, the green is intense. Add the bell-like tones of wood thrushes, and the effect is other-worldly.

May 9
Rain. Have robins always had white spots on the ends of their tails? Yesterday afternoon, four eastern kingbirds in the field—unmistakeable.*

May 10
Two myrtle colonies are closing in on what’s left of my lawn. In the grass, the green fists of bracken open complex fingers to the rain.

May 11
Sunday, and one can hear between bursts of oriole song the creaking of wings, the drone of a bumblebee, a deer snorting a quarter-mile off.

May 12
Black-throated green: the warbler lisping at the woods’ edge, but also the woods itself, green-feathered, trunks running dark with rain.

May 13
Cold and clearing. The black cat pads up the driveway, coyote bait still in her belly** and the usual hungry, hateful look in her yellow eyes.

May 14
At first light, the silhouette of a hawk in a dead tree above the corner of the field. A small rabbit grazes in the yard, ears twitching.

May 15
Cloudy and cool. A tanager’s plucked string; no glimpse of scarlet. Where are they off to, the hummingbirds that keep zooming past my porch?

May 16
At 6:00, the sky grows dark again as a storm approaches. Wood thrushes start back up. The lilac’s white torches all point at the ground.

May 17
The same woodpeckers and nuthatches that we heard all winter, but with flickering leaves. The same wind as yesterday, but with golden light.

May 18
A black-and-white warbler’s two-syllable whisper; drumroll from a Good God bird. The clock is blinking—what time IS it? The patter of rain.

May 19
Birdcall like the chant of some demented sports fan: the yellow-billed cuckoo is back! The forest canopy must be full enough to skulk in.

May 20
A gray squirrel seems to be in heat: as in January, the slow-motion chases, the soft scold-calls, but now mostly hidden by the leaves.

May 21
Sun! I hear the crow that thinks it’s a duck, a catbird’s simultaneous translation of a wood thrush song. Last night, I dreamed of bluejays.

May 22
A male robin scours the forest floor for twigs; the female combs the lawn for dead grass. The small thorn bush shakes when they both fly in.

May 23
The gibbous moon no sooner clears the trees than the sun comes up. First crystal-clear morning in weeks, and I’m off to New Jersey.

May 26
Robins mating on a branch: one-second contacts spaced half a minute apart. Each time the male flies off and the female ruffles her feathers.

May 27
Warm, humid, and overcast. In the side garden, the first twelve yellow irises opened in the night. Small flies walk all over my legs.

May 28
The flower heads on the white lilac are half-brown now. Two phoebes take turns flying into the bush, momentarily quelling insistent peeps.

May 29
Clouds like scales on the belly of a blue fish. In the garden, ants immobilized by the cold cling to the sweet pink seams of peony buds.

May 30
In one direction, a singing wood thrush; in the other, a red-eyed vireo. Evocative refrain or dull repetition? It’s all in the delivery.

May 31
In the light rain, a squirrel feasts on red maple keys. Reduced to pieces, the blades flutter straight down, robbed of all ability to spin.
_____

*A white tip on the tail is a diagnostic feature of the eastern kingbird.

**In other words, she was still pregnant.

Hypothesis

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

From the Greek hypothesis — literally, “a placing under”

What if it’s true: that as you walk,
another is walking within you, perfectly
coterminous with your own walking?
What if it’s true that as you sit,
another sits within, weathering you,
like the coal inside the ember?
I don’t like to think that our bodies
are mere vessels — or vassals —
but what if they were? It could explain
these odd, apparently random urges
to hold & be held, or to lose oneself
through concentration: the not-me within
wants to reach the not-me without.
Sounds plausible, doesn’t it? Maybe
that’s how a finger continues to itch
after the amputation of the arm, & why,
as we slowly tighten around our cores,
strands of white begin to appear
on our heads, an extra light glimmers
behind the eyes, & a network of cracks
under the skin begins to offer glimpses
of an inner blue: heaven is within,
just as the mystics always said! True
or not, it’s enough to make me think
about counting every last breath.

A revision of this poem from March 2008

Antonio Machado: Songs and Proverbs

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

I decided to try my hand at translating a few verses from “Proverbios y cantares” (Campos de Castilla, 1912) by Antonio Machado. I welcome any corrections or suggestions for improvement.

Nunca perseguí la gloria
ni dejar en la memoria
de los hombres mi canción;
yo amo los mundos sutiles,
ingrávidos y gentiles
como pompas de jabón.
Me gusta verlos pintarse
de sol y grana, volar
bajo el cielo azul, temblar
súbitamente y quebrarse.

My song never strove
for glory, nor to linger
in the minds of men; I love
worlds of understatement,
weightless & delicate
as soap bubbles. I like
watching them paint themselves
with sun & grain, float
beneath the blue sky, quiver
suddenly & break.

* * *

¿Para qué llamar caminos
a los surcos del azar?…
Todo el que camina anda,
como Jesús, sobre el mar.

Why give the name roads
to the ruts of fate?
All who travel tred
like Jesus on the sea.

* * *

Cantad conmigo a coro: Saber, nada sabemos,
de arcano mar venimos, a ignota mar iremos…
Y entre los dos misterios está el enigma grave;
tres arcas cierra una desconocida llave.
La luz nada ilumina y el sabio nada enseña.
¿Qué dice la palabra? ¿Qué el agua de la peña?

Sing along with me: We know nothing,
we come from an esoteric sea, we’re headed for an uncharted sea…
And between these two mysteries there’s a great enigma:
three arks locked with an unknown key.
The light makes nothing clearer, the wise teach nothing.
What does the word have to say? Or water from the rock?

* * *

Ayer soñé que veía
a Dios y que a Dios hablaba;
y soñé que Dios me oía…
Después soñé que soñaba.

Yesterday I dreamed I saw God
& was talking to God,
& I dreamed that God heard me…
And then I dreamed I was dreaming.

* * *

¡Oh fe del meditabundo!
¡Oh fe después del pensar!
Sólo si viene un corazón al mundo
rebosa el vaso humano y se hincha el mar.

Oh, faith that comes from contemplation!
Oh, faith that follows thought!
Only when a heart approaches the world
does the human cup run over & swell the sea.

* * *

Yo amo a Jesús, que nos dijo:
Cielo y tierra pasarán.
Cuando cielo y tierra pasen
mi palabra quedará.
¿Cuál fue, Jesús, tu palabra?
¿Amor? ¿Perdón? ¿Caridad?
Todas tus palabras fueron
una palabra: Velad.

I love Jesus for telling us:
Heaven & earth will pass away.
When heaven & earth pass,
my word will remain.
Your word, Jesus — which one?
Love? Forgiveness? Generosity?
All your words were really
one word: Attention Vigilance.

Errata

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Page iv, Acknowledgements: For “All the lovely ladies at Square Peg’s Round Hole in Crested Butte, Colorado” read “Carla, without whom none of this would matter”
Page 2, line 34: For “incessant screaming” read “frequent, energetic vocalization”
Page 8, line 3: For “heavily sedated” read “diagnosed with ADHD”
Page 14, line 11: For “Napalm Death” read “Bruce Springsteen”
Page 18, line 56: For “used” read “experimented with”
Page 23, line 5: For “two six-packs and a defective condom” read “a full moon”
Page 27, line 42: For “severe depression” read “the blues”
Page 31, line 10: For “anger management classes” read “continuing education”
Page 34, line 61: For “Harley-Davidson” read “second mortgage”
Page 36, line 4: For “restraining order” read “separation”
Page 36, line 22: For “social services” read “relatives”
Page 42, line 51: For “drug mule” read “adventure tourist”
Page 43, line 14: For “prison” read “group therapy”
Page 49, line 1: For “hair implants” read “Promise Keepers retreat”
Page 51, line 34: For “heart attack” read “wake-up call from Jesus”
Page 55, line 35: For “a lonely female professional with low self-esteem” read “the new love of my life”
Page 57, line 70: For “layoffs” read “voluntary redundancy program”
Page 62, line19: For “harassment” read “witnessing to my faith”
Page 66, line 27: For “stoned” read “self-actualized”
Page 73, line 8: For “relatives” read “elder care facility”
Throughout: Replace dashes with semicolons

Spring distractions

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 12 of 15 in the series Ridge and Valley: an exchange of poems

 

Dear Todd,

The first azaleas are just beginning to bloom, with the usual
profusion of scent that would put a hooker to shame.
But who eulogizes the odorless oak blossoms, those caterpillars
in need of a spam-mail cure for erectile dysfunction?
The white locks of the bridal wreath bush are perkier by far,
tossing in the wind. I’m worried that if this cool, damp weather
persists, we might see another autumn without acorns.
Between rains, the carpenter bees come out to give my house
a thorough inspection. I’m reading about the convergent habits
of certain perennial wildflowers & a few species of walking sticks,
both of which make their seeds or eggs into fast-food bait for ants,
gambling that the ants will throw the inedible portions, packed
with their embryonic offspring, into the mother-warm midden.
How did slow-growing early bloomers & tree-eating sticks
both learn to exploit this bug? I gaze at the greening woods,
as I do so often, for clues of the original template — the once-
towering tulip poplars, white pines, American chestnuts. It’s like
trying to picture the naked body of a woman I’ve never met.
The Cooper’s hawks nesting half-way up the ridge emit
what we’d call chirps if they were songbirds
or notes of affliction if they were electronic angels,
placed for surveillance purposes among the crowd of leaves
cautiously exposing themselves to the rumored sun.
A red blur goes past: the throat of a hummingbird
hell-bent on drinking from some pink, inverted cup.

Broadside give-away

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Poetry for the Masses broadsheet

I had hoped this would arrive in time for National Poetry Month, but alas, I just received it today: Volume 2, Issue 1 of the broadside Poetry for the Masses, which includes my “Poem for Display in an Abandoned Factory” along with poems by five other people: Craig Blaise, Carrie Chang, Adam Day, Karl Elder, and Jason Scnehneiderman. (Sic. I think they actually meant Jason Schneiderman. The broadside contains at least two other typos, as well. The design is also pretty rudimentary, but at least none of the poems suck.)

I have 25 contributor’s copies here and I’d like to give away 20 of them, in four batches of five each — and I’ll pay the postage, too. All you have to do is agree to post at least four of the five broadsheets in public locations. Office doors or bulletin boards are O.K. as long as it’s a large company or institution, such as a college. Telephone poles and other such non-sanctioned public locations are fine with me, too, as long as you think there’s a good chance the broadside will stay up for a few days. I won’t even be offended if you post them at eye-level on the inside of toilet stalls in high-traffic public restrooms. It might be fun if you took a snapshot of each broadside after posting. Leave a comment or email me if you’re interested. First come, first served, with one exception: I’ll give priority to anyone who promises to post one in or on an abandoned factory.

I don’t normally bother to submit my work anywhere, but I was impressed by the populist orientation of this project as described in the original call for submissions that I saw last November:

Every issue features five to six poems from new and established poets in a broadside format, and these broadsides will be place [sic] in pubic [sic] areas where poetry is not usually found in an effort to reach out to those who would normally not read or even think deeply about poetry.

We are looking for poetry that is not only high quality, but is also accessible to the public at large.

Sounds laudable. All they need is a proofreader.

UPDATE (5/9): Broadsided shows how poetry broadsides should be done. (via Karen Weyant)

*

For others who may be interested in submitting to Poetry for the Masses, this will supposedly be published 12 times a year, and a blurb at the bottom of the broadside promises that content will be available on the website for the Wichita, Kansas-based arts organization Blank Page Inc. “Submissions are read year round and can be sent to poetry4themasses@gmail.com.” The editor is Chandra E.A. Dickson.