Three Poems from Native Species

cover of Native Species by Todd Davis

My near neighbor Dave Bonta invited me to share some poems from my forthcoming collection Native Species—my sixth book of poetry, due out from Michigan State University Press on January 1, 2019.

The major question that structures Native Species is whether we humans, at this point in the 21st century, are native to any place, when we consider how we change and desecrate our landscapes, radically impacting other species because of our burgeoning population, rampant consumerism, and advancing technology.

This is not to say that Native Species is a book of despair. On the contrary, I think I offer much hope, even celebration, for and of the natural world, sometimes using magically real moments of species-to-species interaction and transformation to suggest new ways of thinking about humanity’s place on earth.

Native Species can be ordered online through Michigan State University Press, on Amazon, or at Barnes & Noble. Or better yet, ask your local independent bookseller to order it! And please visit my website for more information about my other books.

Almanac of Faithful Negotiations

Here, at the edge of heaven,
I inhabit my absence.

Tu Fu

On the first day, we find evidence of elk but not the elk themselves.

On the second, we see the charred and blackened sleeves fire leaves but not a single flame.

By the third day, the oldest trees have already ascended but the microbial mouths buried in the dirt remain.

After four days, our minds flood with rivers and creeks, and we find it hard to speak, except in mud and stone.

On the fifth, ravens decorate a white-oak snag, croaking in the voices of our drunk uncles, reminding us whose house we live in.

Six days gone, a fisher stands on hind legs, stares across the meadow’s expanse, dares us to approach the porcupine-corpse, muzzle red with the body’s sugar.

When the last day comes, only minutes before dawn, susurration of wind, stars moving back into the invisible, all of us wondering when we will join them.

Returning to Earth

…trust in the light that shines through earthly forms.
Czeslaw Milosz

At the bottom of an abandoned well
dug more than a century ago
the moon rises from the center
of the earth, a crust of ice
forming around its edges.

The stand of larch outside
our bedroom window
sways, golden needles
stirring the air
underneath its boughs.

I open the window to hear
the river sailing away, riding
the stone boat of the basin
carved by spring floods.

Beyond the faint light
of a candle, your voice asks
if we might touch and remember
how our children were made,
how the bodies of our parents
were returned to earth.

I want our children’s hands
to hold the river, to watch it spill
through their fingers, back to a source
older than our names
for God.

Beneath a waxing moon
we’ve witnessed animals
dragging their dead into the light.
Tonight we imagine some
suckling their young
who are born blind
in these coldest months.

Soon the river will freeze,
and come morning we’ll break
the ice in the well
so we may drink.

In dark’s shelter I place the words
of a prayer upon your tongue.
You are gracious, saying
the prayer back
into my waiting mouth.

Coltrane Eclogue

You can play a shoestring if you’re sincere.
John Coltrane

Where the beak of a pileated opened a row
of holes down the length of a snag
wind blows across each notch,
angles of breathing, like Saint Coltrane
unfastening pearl and brass, exhalation
rushing through the neck of a saxophone,
bending into the sound that envelops
anyone with ears to hear. I’ve started to chant
a love supreme, although I’m alone,
more than four miles into the crease,
trying to pick up the rhythm, how each
lungful glides through hemlock needles,
kestrel slipping out onto the updraft,
with one wing-beat shifting the air
ever so slightly. And yet another woodpecker
drilling the side of a dying tree, a northern
flicker that stays just out of sight, laying down
a percussive line. I feel foolish for saying this,
but it’s like being reborn, a syncopation
that can call down rain, make the bud of a shadbush
unfurl, unwrap the slow, honest tongues
of beaver, and stamp a moose’s enormous
hind-quarter like a bass, all the others silenced,
fingers of that long-dead saint scaling gut-strings,
before a Blackburnian warbler joins in with its thin,
plaintive notes, and a goddamned bluebird,
which should seem trivial but is not, breast puffed,
raising its head toward a God that surrounds us,
who opens our stupid mouths and commands us
to play whatever instrument we’ve got.

Plummer’s Hollow hunting report

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

Our near-neighbor, the poet Todd Davis (whose work has appeared here in the past) included the following in an email on Saturday night. I thought it might be of general interest, especially for fans of meditation. —Dave

pileated woodpeckers on a dead tree

Still no deer. But another beautiful day in the woods. As you know, it snowed Friday night until about three in the morning. When I walked in at 5:45 a.m., the woods were striped in white and there was no need for a headlight: the snow on the ground was catching the light from the sliver of moon, making my path easy.

My blind was crushed to the ground by the weight of the snow. It’s a temporary blind, a tent essentially. I had to pull it back up, knock snow and ice from it, and make all kinds of ridiculous noise.

I had deer around me four different times today, but none afforded me a safe and merciful shot. Thus no deer. The ravens were quiet today, but the crows took up the chorus. I had a dead black cherry near and a pileated would knock on it every so often, asking me to open the door of my senses, stop me from day-dreaming or drowsing from lack of sleep.

I walked out at 5:30 p.m. The moon was back up and, without wind, all was silent, except for the railroad tracks in the valley. While my freezer and family may mourn no meat, it was still a day well spent.

Our Forgetting

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

 

Dear Dave,

June light lengthens, pulled like string
from a ball of twine, or like days
in the far north, strands of hair so thin

night doesn’t come for months at a time.
With light that long, the eyes and the soul
must grow tired, as must the grasses

and flowers that emerge all at once.
We are made for motion and rest.
To be awake for days on end and then

to sleep, to sleep: it must be like climbing
down a shaft in the earth, dark crumbling,
then collapsing, until you find the edge

of the river that runs far beneath the ground:
waters undetectable to the eye, felt more
through the sound they carry than the caress

they finger over the soft skin on the inside
of the wrist. It is this kind of sleep
none can resist: why we disrobe, slide leg-first

into its current, blackness bearing more
than our bodies, our forgetting
of what continues well above our heads.

—Todd Davis

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

Letter to Dave from the Karen Noonan Center on the Chesapeake Bay

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 11 of 15 in the series Ridge and Valley: an exchange of poems

 

The last two days out on the bay I observe
the tundra swans leaving the flat horizon
of this water, arcing over tidal pools
and the inescapable prairies of marsh grass.
You are on your mountain to the north, closer
to their calls as they wing their way away
from this estuary that saves them each winter.
After so many months of shifting land, of rising
and falling tides, their heavy bodies must ache
for a release, a reprieve to our comings and goings,
whether by boat or air or, oddest of all, by car,
which looks nothing like the way these birds travel.
It’s the unyielding tundra where they will give
themselves over to their own desires. I suppose
most of us need the solid earth beneath our feet
as we choose a mate. The undulating waters
of our hearts make it hard enough to remember
which flyway to follow, let alone how to spend
those transitory days in the half-light of summer
brooding over what we’ve made between us.

Todd Davis

Forgive Me

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 9 of 15 in the series Ridge and Valley: an exchange of poems

 

Dear Dave,

What is life but fingers placed against blood’s rhythm,
some outward movement, the soul’s coming and going
like a kettle of kestrel that fly up against a ridge
and back out along its face? So much of this one life
goes to desire, the blue and orange feathers of our waking.
Migration is one way, following the ever-blooming, ever-
ripening path of the sun. Yet so much grief awaits—
whether we fly north or south, whether we settle ourselves
in the white-heat that roosts along the Gulf coast
or continue into the rainforest’s dark-green light.
The sun climbs out of the earth in the east and swims
across open water, while night’s westward stroke tugs us
into dream. Nothing travels in a straight line. That’s why
the moon returns each month, ascending the circle of its life,
then disappearing. Forgive me. I don’t want anything more
than this: the song of the goldfinch who comes to eat
of the cone flowers’ small dark seeds, its wisdom
in waiting out winter in one place.

Todd Davis

What I Wanted to Tell the Nurse When She Pricked My Thumb

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 7 of 15 in the series Ridge and Valley: an exchange of poems

 

Dear Dave,

Blood shows you things: the way the rabbit fell
when the owl raked its back; the manner in which
my grandmother’s stroke shut down the left side
of her body; the tug of the ocean’s tide on my wife
as she bleeds with the possibility of making
yet another life. At twelve, when I cut my hand
cleaning the barbershop—straight-razor slipping
into the pad of my thumb—I became an ornate
fountain, the kind the wealthy put in the middle
of their circle drives, my own heart’s well pumping
onto the mirror. Blood fresh from the body
is so brilliant: deep hues of crimson.
But the longer it sits on the ground, or dries
against the wall or windowpane, the darker
it becomes, more brown than ruddy, like the life
that departs: husk hollowed out, rigid frame
with nothing to fill it.

Todd Davis

Atrial Fibrillation

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 6 of 15 in the series Ridge and Valley: an exchange of poems

 

Dear Dave,

Yesterday was the dull gray of a river stone.
This morning snow covers our neighbor’s roof,
sky the color of an indigo bunting’s cap.
Fresh from sleep we reach back for summer’s green,
fecund and ridiculous. At our feeder a blue jay
cracks open a seed to warm itself on the fire burning
in the hull. To the west fields are bare and my mother
wears a heart monitor. She rises slowly from bed
to bathe, hope against hope that her heart won’t flutter
like the wings of a sparrow, the furious beating
of a finch as it tries to bring the body into balance,
an agreement with the wind, the rhythm
of the blessedly invisible air.

Todd Davis

 

mixed-species flock of winter birds in raspberry canes

 

November Sabbath

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 5 of 15 in the series Ridge and Valley: an exchange of poems

 

Villagers attending church, by Walter Sanders
Villagers attending church, by Walter Sanders

 

Dear Dave,

Lamar sits in his wheelchair
at the back of the church: Parkinson’s

propped in his lap like a toddler, bad baby
who crawls on this old man’s chest, pulls

his tired white head to the side
and whispers in his ear about lungs

falling in on themselves. Our minister reads
the words of the Psalmist, who assures us

about the place of the righteous and the wicked.
Lamar’s labored breathing lingers, rests

like a shawl on the shoulders of those of us
who sit in the next to last row. We can’t help

but wonder where the breath of God is, and why
a good man is treated so wickedly.

Todd Davis

Second Nature

holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall
This entry is part 3 of 15 in the series Ridge and Valley: an exchange of poems

 

Dear Dave,

Sun slowly burns away the gray tissue
of morning, and bees, who have spent the night
beneath the long flower of goldenrod, sway
with the stalk, stiff from cold and fog. Yesterday

a red-tailed hawk lifted from a tamarack to take
a small rabbit at the edge of the field. On this walk
I find owl pellets near a downed oak, as well as
the torn limb of a warbler, the discarded head

of a shrew. These are the beautiful deaths
of usefulness: one life to feed another, consumed
by the belly’s furnace, only to wake to heavy wing-
beat as it passes over the tallest spruce.

The best we can hope for is to scatter ourselves
across the darkest parts of the earth, rain relinquishing
these late flowers and our passing love, which mostly
lusted after the self, too often forgetting the sweet

tenacity of the bee, the waxen comb of delight.

Todd Davis