A Backward Glance

i was your beast
of unburden

the arctic and its
crickets of ice

grew on me like fine
hairs of mold

i mistook a molt
for metamorphosis

but once we all knew
how to make change

now they round us down
to the nearest hole

and hand out wafers
of ukrainian jesus

my poems are ladders
that lead nowhere

i could be on a jet writing
contrails across the sky

instead of these two
scrawny lines

Wild Apples

giving my apple core a toss
watching it arc

and land in a forest clearing
i think of you Dad

saying where should i plant
an apple tree today

a habit from boyhood summers
at your uncle’s orchard

continuing into your college days
on a motor scooter

with Mom exploring every mountain
and forest in Pennsylvania

the fall and only the fall
was for apples

culminating in your favorite
the stayman winesap

but after all those cores
for all those years

you’re in the ground
now yourself

and i keep looking
for those wild apple trees

Three Miles, Uphill in Both Directions

the sun was a letter
of the alphabet then

my stomach could pronounce it
better than my mouth

on the walk to school through
two centuries of wreckage

past a ghost village
and the end of town eaten
by the interstate

along train tracks we knew
to get off of when
they started to hum

up over the wooded hill
in the center of town
with its water tank and cemetery

past hidden rooms
with walls of wild grapevines
whispering truancy

down into the industrial classroom
a prison of numbers

where zero seemed to hold
all the keys

Hollow Folk

without issue i can feel the forest
thicken within me

build up fuel and hunger
for that incendiary spark

ah to slash and burn
plow and harrow with my ancestors

or cut down the old giants
and replace them with windmills

deadly flowers scything
the air for migrants

our doom laid out
like a meal for ravens

fates intertwining like fingers
at a lovers’ leap

a mile and a half up a mountain hollow
under the green banners of the sun

I live above a crawl space
too poor for a cellar

my garden is a banquet
for slugs and meadow voles

the wild mountain mint hums
with solitary bees

Stargaze

Never having believed in happiness, it occurs to me, might have had something to do with why i never actively pursued it. If it showed up regardless, well and good, but in general, day-to-day contentment seemed enough. And you know, maybe it is. For far too many around the world, it’s an unattainable dream.

But what about love, Dave?

And you call yourself a poet!

Pleiades
syncopating
crickets

Colibrí

1

ruby-throated hummingbird
fresh from the jewelweed

hangs in front of my mouth
like an unhoused question

I spread my fingers wide
skin wrinkles like old bark

2

I grew up climbing trees
hugging the trunks for dear life

or digging for treasure
at the old farm dump

that green- or purple-stained glass
that once held whiskey

3

buzzing from one bright
flame to the next

what rain-soaked radiance
precedes a fall

and where might petals unfurl
if we ever woke up

Bluesy outsider chaotic spider trip

This morning on my walk I was pondering the question of why, when I was going through my first heartbreak back in my early 20s, I burrowed so deep into blues music to the almost complete exclusion of country western. Unlike most of my contemporaries I didn’t grow up listening to rock; my parents were into classical and a bit of folk (The Weavers, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives), and my older brother played old-time banjo. So the first time I heard Delta blues guitar, I didn’t think “Wow, that sounds just like the Rolling Stones!” but “Wow, that sounds just like a clawhammer tune in a modal key!” Which, as I discovered years later when a friend lent me a Smithsonian Folkways compilation of very early recordings of Black string bands, is pretty much how that music evolved.

So that’s why I was prepared to like the country blues, but doesn’t explain why I ignored country western. Too schmaltzy, I always said, but that wasn’t fair to many country singers who avoid the schmaltz. Really, I think it was just that I preferred the more stoic and tough-minded approach to the expression of emotion in blues lyrics compared to the typical display of emotional vulnerability in country music.

And that too reflects how I was raised: in a loving but somewhat emotionally repressed family where it was exceedingly uncommon for anyone to ever talk about their feelings.

Also, virtually every traditional bluesman or woman I’ve ever read an interview with, when asked to define the blues, included in their answer the contention that blues is medicine. I can personally vouch for that. For a young person, at any rate, it was a mighty salve. In part I’m sure that was because so much of how we relate to each other, sexually and otherwise, has been fundamentally shaped by Black culture, with blues and rock lyrics as a major conduit. Blues and jazz changed the entire tenor of our civilization, made us freer and I believe also happier. Or at least a lot less sad.

These days though I don’t listen to much blues, and I’m not sure why. Music isn’t the all-powerful drug it was in my 20s and 30s. I’ve spent too many years listening to “the music of what happens.” John Cage was on to something. There’s music pretty much everywhere if you choose to hear it that way. I doubt it has the healing power of the blues in and of itself, but the physical effort required to go outside and explore such music will keep you on your feet long after most other concert-goers have checked out.

***

I love the fact that one of the most important American poets for actually understanding America was half Japanese: Ai. Another had an English father and a Puerto Rican mother: William Carlos Williams. Maybe you have to be half outside, half inside to see a thing for what it is.

***

I’m watching a small, black wasp flying from leaf to leaf and walking in circles with her antennae down, a female ninja seeking her target: a caterpillar of just the right species to act as unwilling nursery and food source for her progeny.

There’s not much to say about this that hasn’t already been said, by Darwin among others appalled by this apparent refutation of any notion of a just or benign cosmic order: “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars,” Darwin wrote in a letter to Asa Gray.

For me it’s horrifying—but also mentally liberating, because I find the idea of a benign cosmic order deeply oppressive. We are not all inside anything, or at least nothing we’ll ever be able to fully comprehend. Order is just another name for chaos. And chaos, as the example of ichneumon wasps shows, can be a real bitch.

But I’m charmed to see there’s a serious attempt underway to get people to refer to the Ichneumonidae as Darwin wasps.

*

Walking through a Pennsylvania forest in August is a great incentive to cultivate mindfulness: one moment of inattention and you’re wiping another spiderweb off your face. I bow to the spiders; they are my true teachers. The deer flies circling my head will do for an offering.

*

The thing I admire about birding is the regular reminder to look up. The waking at 5 am and squinting at things through binoculars, not so much. But treetops are just kind of inherently trippy to stare into. I think it has something to do with the shortage of oxygen associated with craning one’s neck.

Residual

Thirty years after the sudden death of someone I didn’t know terribly well, what remains? Not his name. Not quite his face, but something of his posture and physique. A strong impression of good-natured and thoughtful conviviality, based on possibly no more than half a dozen conversations, always on the periphery of punk shows. The shock and sadness of his death from a brain tumor. Someone who, on rare occasions when he pops into my head, still makes me smile, and shapes my memory of that whole period in my life. Good times. A good dude.

Wish I remembered his name.

***

fledgling cuckoo
flopping across the road

adoptive parents
nowhere to be found

poor little rain-crow
didn’t mean to be a parasite

*

opening my umbrella
I spook a bear

in the depths of the hollow
widely spaced raindrops

water still gurgling
under the rocks

and the crashing of something big
in black velvet

upslope through woodferns
and storm-downed timber

*

a distant cuckoo singing
who are you you you

I know a lullaby
when I hear one

***

pine (k)not

***

One interesting residue of my long-ago year in the Kansai region is that humid rainy days in the summer still remind me a bit of Japan, not necessarily in a fully conscious way (which is why I call it a residue). Similarly, a snowy, cold winter day might have an extra charge of excitement and possibility to it from my early childhood years in Maine.

***

A fast-moving longhorn beetle. I’m beginning to understand why professional insect photographers like to pop their subjects in the freezer for a few minutes to slow them down. This beetle seemed very keen on getting back under cover as quickly as possible.

*

Just as I’m thinking of turning back to the house, a medium-sized animal clambers down out of an oak tree and stands for a few seconds looking back at me. It’s been years since I’ve seen a gray fox. First time I’ve ever seen one in a tree, which seems odd, considering their reputation as the most cat-like of canines—and how much damn time I spend looking up at trees.

The clouds redden with sunset. Can’t resist a shot, clichés be damned.

Illustrative

wren wiping his bill
on the ridgeline of the roof

his mate already brooding
on a second clutch

the first clouds always
look innocent enough

until they open
their rainy mouths

catbird singing out
instructions for assembly

a deer sneezing
from her day bed in the weeds

this is how one gauges
one’s aptitude for silence

in Figure 1 we can see
how the trend lines wander

game trails converging
at the edge of a cliff

at the bottom of which
waves pound or traffic roars

and over there it’s me
with a stick

hunting my lost appetite
on the z axis

Bodily

Ghost pipes emerging from the ground always remind me of hattifatteners. And as saprophytes, they are a bit transgressive. I have to say I’m almost surprised they don’t make their way down to the river under cover of darkness and set off for the open sea. As with so many truly original artists, Tove Jansson’s creations come to feel like something that ought to exist. She’s close to the common creative source of everything, one could almost say, skating up to the edge of some very thin ice.

***

One of the things I really like about growing old is learning to feel in my body how time unfolds. This might not be as clear to people who move around a lot, but for example I can see mounds of moss in the woods and remember when they were logs—and before that, when they were trees. I am old enough that if I were a tree, I’d probably already be good for a bit of saw timber.

***

I always tell myself the same thing when I set out: it’s not about the miles, you don’t have to go far. But I almost always do.

I would never have called myself an athlete when I was younger, and I don’t now. There’s a culture of competitiveness and self-improvement around athleticism that is deeply alien to me. But I remember in high school gym class whenever we played soccer, since we’re Americans and had no idea how to play positions, everyone just ran up and down the field with the ball until one by one they dropped out, panting, and it was just Bonta, this weirdo brainiac with no friends, running idly back and forth with the ball and wondering what the hell was wrong with everyone else.

Then as now, the only thing I did differently was walk a bit every day. By the time I was in high school and stopped taking the bus home (which only got us halfway there), I guess I was walking four miles a day with a fair amount of up and down in it—pretty much the same as now. I didn’t run by choice but seemed able to run more or less indefinitely when needed. Some of that is surely down to genetics. But it’s striking how small a daily time commitment is required to reach this condition. “Year-round training!” I hear the athletes chorus. In your world, sure. If I looked at it that way I’d stop doing it tomorrow.

I just like being outside, walking the land. There’s deep sense of satisfaction I get after a walk of sufficient strenuousness and aesthetic pleasure, and I’m not interested in trying to disentangle the two. You can’t really talk about walking without talking about places and how and why we love them. A good part of the “how” is by walking. Some cultures have local pilgrimage traditions—a bit like that, maybe.

***

One of the things I dislike about getting older is the way flies will just brazenly walk around on top of my bald head as if they own the place. Be patient, will you?! Someday all this will be yours.

***

Watching small jets land at a regional airport 40 miles away a half hour past sunset may seem like a pretty minor thrill, but something about that bright, blinking dot descending in total silence gets me every time.